First, I just have to say this is an honor and I’ve written vastly too much after having been inspired by the amazing artists who’ve come before us on this blog takeover thing!
Second, this is actually the last post I’m writing in this process and I’m realizing that “the studio” is the most boring place in which we exist as a band. I mean, I think the most interesting product came out of it, but when I saw the opportunity to write three posts, I thought “hey, there are three metaphysical places that occupy equal importance in our lives, I’ll divvy this up equally!” Well… bad idea. The studio may be the most important of all three in the grand scheme of things, but the vast majority of the time it’s a dark and brooding place filled with waveforms, wall-punching, and logarithmic math. So I’ll take this opportunity to talk about music and production in a more general (and more specific) sense, and leave the gripping narratives to the latter posts.
Accompanying each post I’ve assembled a 10-song Spotify playlist. All the songs are important, but the later posts include songs I don’t specifically address in the accompanying write-up and the music itself is mostly there for context. So to keep some of this takeover about music itself, here’s a thorough analysis of all 10 songs on the “Studio” playlist.
Milk & Honey by Beck
For my money, this is probably the best-produced song of all time. Simultaneously retro and futuristic, digital and analog, organic and artificial… punk, rock, funk, folk, electronic. The final 2 or so minutes are almost insulting in their seemingly off-handed brilliance — who comes up with a chord progression like that and doesn’t even bother to base a whole song about it?
99 Problems by Jay-Z
The opposite of “Milk & Honey”, this song does one thing and it DOES IT WELL. If you think the drums on our song “Gates” are too loud you can blame this record entirely (one mix of Gates had the suffix “nigelmixspoonjayz”). A masterclass on how minimalism can create an enormous sense of scale, a lesson I hope we can properly put into practice on the next album.
Of Moons, Birds & Monsters by MGMT
Dave Fridmann was a huge influence on my mixing approach, and I think this song exemplifies his fearlessness when it comes to bizarre EQ and stereo placement. It hasn’t earned him a great reputation on Gearslutz or other circles concerned with doing things the “right” way, but it has certainly resulted in one of the most glorious and mysterious musical journeys this side of The Beatles.
Do You… by Miguel
We had the privilege as a band to collaborate once with the production team who worked on this song, including mix engineer Serge Tsai. I think I love this song so much because I can imagine him sitting down at the mixing desk at 3:30am, the rest of the team murmuring behind him about how they might have a hit on their hands. After 10 or 15 minutes he turns up the studio monitors to outrageous volumes and blasts the track. Everyone in the studio goes absolutely NUTS when they hear how hard the drums and bass slam — now they’re positive the track will be a hit, and they’re correct. Also, for something so truly soulful, this song is hilarious.
Gene by Gene by Blur
I got heavily into Blur about halfway through the process of recording our album, and while their early songwriting is killer, they didn’t come into their own as exciting producers until the tail end of their career. Their final album Think Tank in particular is a wonky and unstable thing, full of missing frequencies and gaping sonic holes. This song is possibly the wonkiest of them all, but when the backing vocals enter at 1:20 you know it’s glued together with potent musicality.
Nuclear Seasons by Charli XCX
One of the best pop songs of the modern era (so good I was compelled to pay tribute on my a cappella cover EP). The melody and lyric are flawless, the sound is a look into an alternate dimension where even pure gold can grow tarnished and rusted. Between Charli and Kimbra pop music has an incredible and prismatic future ahead.
Always Something by Cage the Elephant
As far as Cage the Elephant songs go this one is harmonically dark for my tastes, but somehow I find myself enjoying it immensely. This song kicks off their second album, and given the drum loops and industrial atmospherics you wouldn’t be remiss for thinking they’d gone full Kid A… until the bridge rip-roars into existence and reminds you that this is the quintessential rock band of the past decade. If “99 Problems” is a masterclass on minimalism, “Always Something” is a study in contrast.
Crack Music by Kanye West
Once again, not my favorite song by the artist. This one doesn’t even rank in my top 50 Kanye songs probably. But the mix… my GOD the mix. Perfectly balanced low and high end, crisp drums and pristine group vocals, yet somehow the song is aggressive beyond reckoning. The horns are warped, the drums drop in and out, samples are bitcrushed and pitched. Good mixing communicates a song’s message clearly… great mixing communicates its own message, and no mix has expressed rage and frustration so poignantly as this one.
Giving Up The Gun by Vampire Weekend
I tend to stay away from mix references that are too similar to our own work — I find it’s a lot more interesting to appropriate elements of wildly different genres than to merely lift best practices from indie rock. But wow this is a hell of an indie rock mix. The way the outro guitar line is foreshadowed by the copy-pasted snippets in the verse, the bizarre vocal reverb effects darting in and out like the first tinglings of a migraine — this is the work of master craftsmen.
Believe E.S.P. by Deerhoof
Listening to great music usually fills me with inspiration and ambition, and I don’t consider myself a jealous person, but I am just straight up PISSED OFF that this album was recorded in a bedroom and mixed on a laptop on the road. Even now when I listen to our album after this one I’m simply embarrassed. I don’t care how highly rated Deerhoof is: they’re the most underrated band of all time. Perfect in every way.
Now that we have the music talk out of the way, stay tuned for some tales from the road!