Elyse Sewell (elysesewell) wrote,
Elyse Sewell

Turn on Me

(Edit: I first posted this entry about a song called "Circus Walk," which has hence been renamed "Turn on Me."

Praise the lord! Even though last year he solemnly, sweatily swore he would never again set foot in Hong Kong during the excruciatingly hot and muggy month of August, my boyfriend is coming to visit me next week! We planned to meet up when I was still in France, but our plans fell through when his band, The Shins, decided to hire a professional record producer and spend the summer locked in a studio, recording their third album. They've been talking about and planning the album for months and months, but in July they bore down and started working on it twelve hours a day, every day. It was such a privilege and a pleasure to get calls from Marty each day and hear about the Shins' recording process, and I hope I can share some of the interesting shit with you without veering into boring-ass music journalism territory.

First of all, a professional record producer? When I think "record producer," I think of Timbaland. A "producer"'s job is to stride into the studio, wink at Cee-Lo through the glass, whip out his dick and bust a nut all over the sound board, and suddenly a nascent booty jam such as "I'll Be Around" will begin pumping through the speakers. According to Marty, this is not entirely correct. Well, hell, how was I supposed to know? Carla Bruni I emphatically ain't.

The first advantage of working with a record producer is the work ethic he creates: it's the same advantage a college student gets when she goes to study in the library instead of her apartment. Sitting at her kitchen table with a textbook, the student might get frustrated, bored, or distracted by the phone or the siren song of the cold mac'n'cheese sitting in the refrigerator. The first Shins album, Oh, Inverted World, was recorded under these exact conditions: in lead singer/songwriter James Mercer's basement. Now that they're working in a studio with a producer, the Shins can't go get some mac'n'cheese out of the fridge even if they want to, because they're in an room empty of all distractions except musical equipment, and the smartest nerd in class is sitting in front of a Pro Tools computer, fingers poised over the soundboard, gazing at them expectantly, waiting to record whatever they want to play.

Producer Joe Chiccarelli, we all know that "nerd" is a high compliment, and your technical expertise is the second huge advantage of the Shins' being able to work with you. Recording their first and second albums, muddling through without an enabling producer, the band (and songwriter James Mercer recording on his own) discovered the limits of their capability with their instruments and recording equipment. Marty described a moment of befuddlement he and James Mercer experienced while trying to record a keyboard part on "Those To Come," the last track on Chutes Too Narrow, the Shins' second album.

James: "OK, I think the keyboards should sound really...warpy."
Marty: "Yeah, I agree. It should be like, 'how did they make that sound?'"
James: "Yeah, yeah, exactly! It should be as weirdly distorted as we can make it."

They both stared down into the mess of recording equipment sitting on the floor.

James: "Well, what effects pedals do you have with you? Just plug as many of them in to each other as you can, and try playing your keyboard. We'll see if it sounds weird."

They experimented with a bunch of different pedal combinations, and through trial and error they found a keyboard sound that was weird enough to be recorded for the album. The sound that you hear in "Those To Come" was made by piggybacking four effects pedals: distortion, phase, delay, and one that Marty couldn't even identify. And lo! It was warpy. But now that Joe Chiccarelli is in the house, James is able to utter a statement like, "The keyboard should sound weird; people should think, 'how did they make that sound?'" The producer can instantly translate James' hieroglyphics and make several expert suggestions for how to manipulate the keyboard sound by computer. Working together, Chiccarelli and the band can manipulate the sound further and further until they achieve the exact sound that James heard in his head but could not describe in words more exact than, "You know, warpy."

Another interesting thing about this recording process is that James originally intended to record the album by himself, without a producer to motivate him and enable him technically, and he's been getting distracted by the mac'n'cheese for months. A great advantage to this is that many songs that James meant to record back in January have instead been sloshing around in his head, and the band has been playing them live every time they perform. Marty says that all the songs have evolved drastically from the way the band first learned how to play them six months ago.

Example: I went on tour with the Shins in Australia in January 2006. Their set list on that tour always included "Turn on Me," a song that James intended eventually to record for the new album. The song was relatively rockin'; it had a guitar solo; and the Shins' guitarist Dave Hernandez would amuse himself and floss his technical prowess by improvising a different solo at every show on the tour. Some nights, the solo would be simple and repetitive, barely distinguishable from the rest of the song; some nights, Dave would clench his teeth, put his foot up on the speaker, and make the ladies' panties wet with an extended feat of axe-mastery. Marty and I talked about Dave's latest solo after every show: I thought that the song sounded cooler when Dave turned up his amp and totally shredded; Marty thought the solo should blend into the song as much as possible. One night, we got into an actual, mutually-huffy argument over our preferred style:

Marty: "The solo you like is too busy!"
Me: "The solo you like is too boring!"
"Whatever! I can tell you it's NOT going to sound like that on the album!"

So, six months later I was in Portland, sitting on Marty's front porch listening to the Shins having practice in the living room. They played their whole set, including several songs that were unfamiliar to me, and when they were finished I told Marty, "I really liked the second song."

"Ha!" he crowed. "You didn't even recognize it! That song was "Turn on Me"! So, was I right about the guitar solo or what?!"

He was right. The new "Turn on Me," the one that will be on the new album, is stripped of all its booty-movin' ass-shakeability. It has simple, uniform percussion and Dave's guitar is totally restrained: there's no room for the sweet Hernandez guit-strangling that I loved to hear in Australia. It's a totally new song, it sounds entirely different from its larval form that the Shins were playing in Australia in January, and it never would have gotten that way if James hadn't had months to perfect it mentally before starting to record the album.

And girls, if you go to see the Shins live, fling your bras at the drummer in my honor when they play "Turn on Me," for the live version of the song features the jingle-bell stick that I gave Marty for Christmas five years ago!

So, as I write this (August 20th), the band is finishing up their very last day of recording in the studio with Joe Chiccarelli. The next step will be mixing and arranging all the recorded tracks, then mastering the songs into their final album form, then probably releasing it around December. Despite all Marty's excitement and pride and weird tales of banjo solos, French horns, and harmoniums, I haven't heard a single shred of the new album yet, and that is one of a thousand reasons I CAN'T WAIT FOR HIM TO GET TO HONG KONG! Marty C, get on that plane!

Edit: I asked Marty to fact-check this Livejournal entry in case I did something dumb like confuse a mellotron with a harmonium. In fact, I DID confuse a mellotron with a harmonium, but instead of correcting my error, I'm including Marty's emailed editorial notes:

"That last passage about banjos, french horns and harmoniums...should be mellotron solos, banjos and hammered dulcimers, as those are the most awesomely interesting instruments on the record (I feel). There is minimal french horn and NO harmonium on the record. Chris Funk of The Decemberists is the one responsible for the hammered dulcimer action, too, if you think that is relevant. The banjo part I played is more of a strummy, shuffley rhythm part than a solo. I know I'm getting WAY too picky about this, but I just want it all to be as close to the truth as possible. Journalistic integrity, boo. Very important. Post that fucker and love me forever. I must now go to bed and try and get some of these songs out of my head."

PS I love you, boo.
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