Trying not to sound too much like a proud mother as she sends her son off on his first day of school, I think Warring is a great sounding record. We had access to some really special gear, new and vintage, we had our man Tom Mcfall behind the board, and we had each other, pushing our own boundaries as musicians and songwriters. No one got much sleep, we lost weight, and at points we tested our sanity. But once the record was finished, we had another task. How do we take a record that is so dense sonically, and as four people translate it into a live performance that both lives up to the quality of the record, and also allows us to move around on stage and perform it. On the record, songs like “The River” and “Close To Me” have drums that have been distorted, tweaked, layered and massaged in certain ways; ways that are impossible to do to a live drum set on a stage. Same idea for guitars, keys, and vocals. What do we do?
First things first. Let’s eliminate the roads we don’t want to travel on. The obvious first one was having a laptop on stage, with backing tracks being played over the PA, and us playing our simplified parts to a click track. This idea was immediately dismissed, because although sonically it would probably sound the best, it doesn’t seem like an honest route. They key word we thought of when discussing the live show was performance. We wanted to perform, and having backing tracks (which I should mention is pretty commonplace these days) didn’t seem like actually performing. We challenged ourselves to make the record, and now we wanted to challenge ourselves to play it.
Secondly we thought of potentially adding a member for the live show, but that brings up many other issues that have to be dealt with, and in the end we thought it’s just more interesting to watch four people being pushed to their limits during a performance. Having an additional member would have made things too comfortable on stage, something we weren’t willing to do.
Another thing we had to consider is how to tour practically, with the least amount of gear possible, and everything had to be reliable. Touring can be very hard on equipment, and we had to find gear that we wouldn’t have to think about. “Set it and forget it,” right?
Hip Hop and Soul were huge influences on the record, so it only made sense that they influenced us in the live world as well. We entered the world of samplers. In Hip Hop, samplers are used to cut up sounds, add beats, and make a new track for someone to rap or sing over. In our world, we could make sounds, manipulate them, and treat them as we see fit.
The Boss SP-404SX and drummer version SPD-SX have become staples of our live show. We can load them up with unworldly sounds and perform them live while still knowing we’re actually playing real instruments. For example, I can now play a Rhodes line while triggering a synthesizer drone with my SP-404SX while Wes plays drums using a distorted snare sound. Yes we are using already created sounds, but we still have to hit them and play them perfectly, just like an instrument, or else everything falls apart. We’re also triggering these samples while doing other things. In most songs we go from playing guitar, to playing keys, to hitting a sample and live-effecting that sample– sometimes doing all of that simultaneously while also singing. For anyone not sold on the idea of sampler being a “real instrument,” I recommend you search MPC routines on Youtube. Of course it’s not exactly the same, but it requires a different set of skills, concentration, talent, and hours of practice.
We also had to figure out how to get sounds from live pianos, electric pianos, vintage synthesizers, and others into the live show. A sampling keyboard, such as the Nord Electro series, allowed us to do just that. We couldn’t logistically bring 4 keyboards each on tour, so with some creativity I could find a keyboard sound on the record, isolate it, create a sample and stretch it across a key bed, and then play it live just like you would play a piano. This became a great tool for us.
We also like guitar pedals. Obviously, right? Companies like Empress Effects, Earthquaker Devices, and others build funny little boxes that let us get whatever sounds we want out of a guitar. For example, we’re not going to bring a guitar amp with reverb on tour so that we can nail that bass sound in a couple songs, we’re going to get an EQ pedal and a reverb pedal and make the sound with those. We can’t logistically bring a 12 string electric guitar on tour for a couple songs, so a pitch shifting pedal works. For songs like The River, in the studio there’s layers of real bass playing, and a wall of dense bass synthesizers, so for the live show we made Dave’s bass be able to play all of that, with some creative use of filters, fuzz, and pitch shifting. Finally, getting looping pedals let us create live loops and soundscapes that we can then manipulate and/or play other parts over top of.
Our philosophy was simple. We wanted to be true to our record without sacrificing sounds, and we wanted to be able to actually play it live. With some creative thinking and some cool tools, both modern and vintage, we are now able to do so.