Kurt Vile: Sonic Byways
Kurt Vile hops between studios up the West Coast to avoid the ticking clock and winds up recording the next Loser with Rob Schnapf.
Artist: Kurt Vile
Album: B’lieve I’m Goin Down
“It wasn’t trying to be like the Foo Fighters record.” Kurt Vile’s bandmate Rob Laakso assured me no cable TV money and syndication rights prompted their 12-stop nomadic recording trek for his latest album B’lieve I’m Goin Down; just a journeyman trying to reassess his creative process.
It’s not uncommon for Kurt to drop in at multiple studios over the course of making an album. The record before last, Smoke Ring for My Halo, started out in a couple, he said, and blossomed from there. But this time there was a bit more purpose behind his choices. Halo was more of an East Coast record; this time, he wanted to stick mostly to the West Coast so he could play with Stella Mozgawa, the drummer for Warpaint, and Farmer Dave, slide guitar player and roaster of hot nuts. “You can tap into other worlds and atmospheres as opposed to flying everyone to you,” explained Vile. “Which feels more contrived.”
Those feelings surrounding the process are important for Vile, whose music is largely introspective. There was another he’d carried for a while, but peculiarly for a songwriter, never been able to fully articulate. During the making of the five records before B’lieve I’m Goin Down there were occasions he felt the process had robbed him of the time to do particular songs justice. He wanted to see if he could correct that imbalance.
“One example I have is my song Peeping Tomboy,” offered Vile. “I was really feeling it when I wrote that. My wife was away and I knew I was just about to be fired from my job, like psychic or something. I had just signed to Matador, so it didn’t matter, but life was so uncertain; my wife was so uncertain.
“I would play the song live and really get into it. My idea was to try to sound like I’d just written the song all alone in my house in the middle of the night. Just wait to capture that certain vibe. But when it was finally time to lay it down, I don’t think my performance was that good but it’s the best one there was at the time. I think part of it was just being in this big studio and I was nervous with all these nice mics around and it really moved fast.”
His last two records, Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze and Smoke Ring for My Halo, were recorded with John Agnello, who Vile says was “totally on the team, but you still had to talk about schedules and pick the studio far in advance.” This time, Vile wanted to follow that hunch, that maybe he could evade the symptoms of being pressed for time. “I just wanted to not worry that I’m sitting around in the studio jamming until 5am, not necessarily knowing what I’m doing,” said Vile, feeling like he’s frustrated people in that way before. “I knew I’d grown as a musician so maybe I could tap into it easier. That was my theory. I just wanted to stay completely by myself, unguarded, for as long as possible.”
Without someone like Agnello pulling the pieces together, Vile needed someone to step into that role. Luckily, he’d been surrounding himself with talented engineers and producers for years. Rob Laakso had been working as an engineer and producer until — after a couple of cameos throughout the years — he joined The Violators (Vile’s band) full-time in 2011. In fact, recalled Laakso, Vile was the first person to ever pay him to record. Back in 2001 he recorded some tracks for Vile on his 8-track reel-to-reel that serendipitously ended up soundtracking the video intro for lead single Pretty Pimpin’. “Rob is a really good multi-instrumentalist but he’s also a gear and synth nerd,” described Vile. “He can sit there and f**k with tones for a long time, whereas I’m way too ADD for that.” Laakso was installed as the de facto co-producer/head engineer for the record. “I wasn’t the sole producer, like Phil Spector or something,” he made clear.
“We just happen to work well together, he’s a good engineer and he’s in my band,” reasoned Vile. “I had these songs I didn’t necessarily want somebody else to play on right away but he’d be there, so I’d be comfortable. There wasn’t any outside person looking at the clock.”
Kyle Spence, the Violator’s drummer, also has a home studio called Ronnie Jones Sound where Spence recorded some of the early sessions. Vile also thought it was time he got in on the act, roping in FOH engineer Tommy Joy between tours to help convert his practise space into a recording studio.
“We bought Pro Tools and all these things, but I had to say ‘f**k Pro Tools’ for myself. You just have all this I/O popping up and next thing you know you have all these virtual tracks and I don’t know what’s going on any more.
“I said, ‘I want to get a tape machine’. Tommy discouraged it but we ended up getting one. Our first experiment was I’m An Outlaw [the second song on the album] and it turned out awesome.” That was before Vile had set foot inside another studio; he knew he was onto something.
FEEL NO SAME
While Vile felt good about the process, Laakso had to make a few accommodating adjustments. “At Rancho [De La Luna] I was definitely doing more engineering than playing,” he said. “Which wasn’t how I envisioned it at first. It just seemed like the best way to do it. It would have been fun to be in the room with them.” On the other hand, he prefers “doing guitar parts while I’m driving the computer.”
As for Vile’s wont to wile away the hours into the night, Laakso wishes he “could have pushed a little harder sometimes. I can stay up all night if I have to, but it’s not my choice. There was a lot of that on this record, but I don’t think I ever ‘called it’ because I was too pooped. It was a pretty self-motivated record, Kurt wasn’t lacking for songs or material to work on. He was excited to do it; we all were.”
The other back-of-brain mental note was sonic consistency across studio hops. “It definitely was something we were conscious of and concerned with going into the recordings,” said Laakso. “Other albums that had been recorded in various locations with different people involved turned out quite well. Whether or not we were always using the same vocal mic, we had faith that it would work out in the end, in part because of the mixers and mastering engineer, Greg Calbi. I like it when albums sound somewhat varied, so long as there’s still a cohesion to them. Some albums sound too ‘samey’ to me. As much as I might love the songs, I can find them a bit fatiguing.
“There were a lot of engineers involved. Usually I wouldn’t meddle, but I would respectfully not be shy about calling out bad ideas. I’d bring certain pieces for continuity. But it wasn’t really something that formed any decisions. We wouldn’t refuse to do something because we didn’t have a particular mic that was used on other songs.
“There were a ton of mics used on Kurt. I got an original brass capsule AKG C414 towards the beginning of the sessions that everyone agreed sounded awesome on him, but it ended up self-destructing. I thought the capsule was toast, but that ended up not being the case.”
A large portion of the tracking ended up happening at Rancho De La Luna. Vile was scheduled to jam with Malian group Tinariwen, who were recording at Rancho. So it made sense to book some recording time for the weeks after.
Every song was recorded in a different way, but always with the intention of at least capturing a live performance of Vile’s guitar and vocal to build on. Kidding Around on the other hand, started with a MIDI map, but it was the exception. “Sometimes it’s isolated, sometimes it’s not,” said Laakso. “He was in the room live with everybody during Wheelhouse and there was a fair amount of bleed into the vocal mic. I’d rather capture him being excited in the room, then in an iso booth in his own sequestered corner. The performance would be better. Sometimes we tried doing acoustic tracks in the rooms with the drums at Rancho, which has a fairly small live room. It was a little too ridiculous. Every drum was louder than the acoustic guitar in the acoustic guitar mic. There’s actually a lot of bleed in Lost my Head there, which is part of the drum sound.”
To help control the bleed between Vile’s acoustic and vocal, Laakso usually used a figure eight polar pattern. “But sometimes the vocal will still end up crazy loud in the mic,” said Laakso. “I try to isolate electrics when I can, but not always. Usually it’s just a dynamic mic straight on it. Nothing too out of the ordinary.
“He has a bunch of guitars; there was some banjo on this record which was the first time in a while, the Goldtone Dobro on the cover, an old Fender Fender Jaguar. It’s nice that he mostly stuck to the guitars that stay in tune. I remember trying to punch in the bass and keyboard on Wild Imagination. That was a bit of a challenge; it wasn’t dead-on A440 concert pitch. It started off that way but a couple of takes later, not so much.
“Pretty much all his acoustics go through an amp. Whether or not it makes the mix is another question. It’s done live, not reamped with a DI. Usually it would go through a bunch of pedals and not sound like a natural acoustic at all — a lot of vibrato and delay.”
DRIVEN TO DESPAIR
After five studio stops, Vile and co. had a bag full of hard drives and they could feel the pressure of trying to assemble an album from their memory. “Together, Rob and I were responsible for all this music and it was turning into a swamp,” said Vile. After a break at home, Vile got inspired and headed up to Brooklyn thinking they were ready to go through everything. “But all of a sudden it was really hard to do,” he said. “It just seemed a crazy job to finalise it ourselves. It was pretty discouraging.”
After that, there were a few more excursions to distract them from the main task; recording in Athens again, playing a gig on the West Coast and recording a little more in LA. Vile: “By then everyone’s looking to me for the answer and it was getting pretty misdirected. We needed somebody from the outside to sift through it.
“Rob Schnapf literally reached out at the right point. He’s friends with Chris Lombardi at my label and by chance contacted him while I was in town. He dropped his whole schedule, so there was a real vibe. We thought he’d just mix the record but then I got inspired and wrote Pretty Pimpin’. We had Stella’s solid backbeat from the beginning, the harmony came quick and he and Rob built it up pretty fast. Rob [Schnapf] also brought in this really cool girl, Genevieve for some backing vocals at the end, and it turned into this still raw, but kind of catchy polished pop song. He did Loser [by Beck], he might as well have a slacker anthem for 2015. My turn!”
Schnapf actually had a miscue with Vile early on, so the serendipitous timing of his cold call wasn’t lost on him: “I was working on this Ducktails record a long time ago, and Chris asked me, ‘Do you like Kurt Vile?’
‘Well he just finished a record.’
‘Cool. Thanks for that…’
“It just popped into my head one day, so I texted Chris asking, ‘Hey what’s Kurt up to?’ He texted me back, ‘that’s really weird, he’s in town right now and looking for somebody to work with.’”
Vile’s dad, a “bluegrass freak”, bought Vile a banjo as his first instrument. Naturally he acclimated to a picking style, but even when he got his first guitar, Jon Fahey inspired him to continue picking and it’s become a defining part of Vile’s repertoire. Pretty Pimpin’ is the most ‘constructed’ production on the album, and that started with Rob getting Vile to try out his “great collection of guitars,” said Vile. “He suggested I play a ’50s Telecaster, which I don’t usually play, and the acoustic was a Gibson 1954 or ’57 J50. That thing just played itself. I have old Martins which have a bright sound, but this was warmer.
“I remember overdubbing the guitar and he’s like, ‘Wow that’s so awesome. Do it again!’ He’d quickly put one on each side, not unlike stuff John would do. He had this vision for it. Pretty Pimpin’ definitely had the most help from a producer. He’s just a really good listener.”
Schnapf: “Because they’d been working on it for a while, I was just being sensitive to what they already had going on; trying to enhance the process and help it move along. A lot of things aren’t necessarily communicated. Rob knows what Kurt likes, they’ve developed their musical language. That’s why it’s sensitive; you don’t want to turn it verbal because then it becomes intellectual.
“It started with Stella, Rob and Kurt jamming it out a bunch of times until we got the arc of the song and the right take.” From there some finger-picking layers were added, electric and acoustic, a solo, and some Moog synth. “It’s orchestrated but there’s a precision to the arrangement. It’s groomed, that’s why it all works together. It’s not just a pile.”
When you’re playing an acoustic guitar, you’re listening with your ears. So I just take that distance and move the mic that far away
ARRANGING PIECES IN 3D
Schnapf breaks his process down to three ways you can think about an arrangement: “the musical way, the stereo spectrum way and there’s the sonic way — and they all interact. It’s like playing 3D chess.
“From a music perspective you might ask, ’what register are you playing in?’ If you have something on the right hand of the piano, so it’s up higher, and you put another guitar part in that same range on the other side, they start talking back and forth to one another.
“Or sometimes you stick them on top of one and other, it really depends on what the part is. Is the part supposed to be a texture? Is it a hook? Is it dominant? Is it supportive? Sometimes a part is more of a colour; it’s like the base of the soup, but it’s not the main flavour.
“If you were to record a piano in stereo, the right hand is on the right, so if you have another part that is complementary to that, say a harmony, you want it to be over the right hand. If it’s counter-melody you might want it to be on the left side so they’re dancing off one another. Those can be ways to think about it.”
Schnapf never records an acoustic in stereo though. “If you’re working on a dense track, the stereo just ends up feeling like mono. There’s not the space for you to feel the stereo of it. Stereo’s okay if the track is simple and open, but I still usually do mono.
“One’s got more bottom, the other’s brighter and the guitar doesn’t feel like that. Yuck, f**k that, mono! That’s how you think about a guitar anyway. If I want stereo, I’d rather double it. That’s a better feeling because then you get the bounce of the two takes.
“Panning also depends on the song. Sometimes you want it to be way on the outside if it’s percussive and the meat of the song. It depends on what else is going on: where you’ve got to stick them in; which register; is it capo’d or not; all first position open chords?”
“To get the vibe when we were cutting it, he was singing and playing,” said Schnapf. “But we circled back around and did vocals late at night when the mood struck, and he re-cut the guitars.
“We’d usually be in the control room recording electrics, except for the guitar solo; he was out in front of the amp with his Jaguar. I use Beyer M160s, on the guitar amps. I also use a modd’ed 57 a lot that’s got a different output transformer and actually does sound cooler. It’s a little more SM7-ey. Just a small variety of amps; the Vox AC30 and an Ampeg Gemini. We used the AKG C414 on acoustic, but then the mic blew up. It was running really hot for some reason and it smoked.
“There’s the theory of large diaphragm microphones for finger-picking and smaller diaphragm for strumming. But that’s just a theory, not necessarily a law.
“I place it around where the neck meets the body, and as far away as your ear is, but out in front. That’s my theory. When you’re playing an acoustic guitar, you’re listening with your ears. So I just take that distance and move the mic that far away.”
Similarly, when it comes to mixing, it’s all about layers. Schnapf: “I always use a compression combination; it might be a Crane Song Trakker and a UA LA3A, or a Distressor and Tube-Tech. It’s not like you hammer either one of them, you just try and get them to do different things. One can be a little faster and grabs the spiky stuff so the other one can stay parked and take off just 3dB to keep things in check. It just sounds natural.
“I keep double tracks EQ’d the same. If I want it to sound different, instead of an EQ I just grab a different guitar. You dial in the zone where the music’s happening and roll out the bottom that’s not really musical information so you can get the guitar to occupy a space without sucking it all up.”
IMAGINATION PAYS OFF
Vile also laid down a second song, Wild Imagination at Schnapf’s MANT Sound. Just a ’70s Maestro organ drum machine — “like a giant shoebox with buttons; here’s the samba, here’s the waltz” — Vile’s guitar and vocals, a simple arrangement and backing vocals. That is, it was exactly the kind of track Vile had been worried about; Peeping Tomboy all over again.
He says Schnapf, the unplanned producer who called out of the blue, was the difference between a nightmare recurrence and getting the song on the record. “I was pretty paranoid when I laid it down,” he remembered. “Because it was kind of raw. They all sounded lame to me, so I thought we’d just go from the first take and build from there. He’s like, ‘No man, take two is vibey as hell.’ I listened back and it was paranoia basically.
“Even though it’s really stripped down, he really listened and found the right parts. Parts you think would be simple; like the bass outro in Wheelhouse, which is my favourite song. Sometimes the less you play, the louder it’s going to sound. One note is always way better than some fancy extra little flourish that rings. I was always really grateful having him around.” Wild Imagination’s soulful simplicity is a fitting final track. Going on the journey was what Vile hoped it would be. In the end, he had all the time he needed, and just the right people came together in just the right places…