posted: 06-10-04
interview : adrian schraeder
photo : (c) coup de grace
Stetsasonic was the first Hip Hop Band. And for many years the only one worth to know (if you agree that whenever the Beastie Boys used instruments, the resulting songs were rather far away from 'proper' rap). Then of course came the Roots, and Infectious Organisms and a million of other groups trying to go beyond turntables and samples.
And now comes Automato (Rapper Jesse Levine, Keyboardist Alex Frankel, Singer Ben Fries, Drummer Nick Millhiser, Bassist Andrew Raposo und Guitarrist Morgan Wiley), who do play and record their songs with instruments; you know, drums, guitar, bass, keyboards. Add to that a truckload of nifty Moogs, electronics, microphones, processors and the odd toy. Add the production pioneers, New York dance punk revolutionists and DFA-ists James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy twiddling the buttons and twiddles, and you got a self described 'solid amount of indie rock, 70's funk and soul, and organic hip hop' and self titled album "Automato".
So all in all you got a whole lot to talk about. So they did.
How do you make a normal drum set up sound as fat as a sampled beat? I know that it's not that easy to record a live drum or a guitar for hip hop purposes. Like, I like the drum sounds in "How To Read A Person Like A Book". Maybe you could explain it by using this beat as an example.
Nick: These are some of the most fun questions to get as these seem like the sort of details that only we would care about.
It was very important to us that the record feel like the hip hop records we listen to. As such, it was important that the sounds on each song be treated differently as on most hip hop records the individual sounds and instruments are coming from completely unrelated sources.
"How To Read A Person Like A Book" is probably my favorite sounding song on the record and was the first we did with James and Tim. And while I shouldn't reveal the exact secrets of the specific sounds, most songs started with recording drums fairly normally. Granted, James and Tim have a pretty nice mic collection, it's a close mic-ed kit made up of a combination of both mine and James' drums. We then spent another day making them sound dirty by a very simple, though secret DFA technique which was used throughout the record. Basically just mixing the drums down very quickly and sloppily. Down to two tracks and then dumping them to some very narrow tape to get that real hard and gritty compression. The drums and bass were usually tracked together with Andrew and I face to face. On some songs it was really important that the two be locked very tight. However, with that song we were going for a more sloppy SP-1200 feel, so the drums and bass are all pretty much a straight take, played to a click.
To achieve the choppy and scattered feel of the other instruments Alex, the keyboard player would do multiple takes on different instruments. On that song, the three different sounds you hear are an out-of-tune upright piano (recorded in an elevator shaft), a clav, and a Commodore 64. We would then delegate specific parts of the different piano lines to single instruments in order to make the different parts feel like different samples.
Although every song was treated differently, every song began in a similar fashion with Alex doing dozens of different takes of the same parts on different keyboards and synths. Certain sounds would get everybody real excited and then dictate the sonic direction of the rest of the song. Some sounds were accidental as James and Tim are big fans of the 'Eno Mix' for which you bring a new track up on the board without changing the console settings from the previous song that had been up. Most of the sounds on "Focus" for example, were the result of leaving the mixer in place from working on "My Casio." Of course the various instruments were not on the same specific tracks as they had been on "My Casio" so the clap and vocal EQs/effects from "My Casio" were randomly applied to the guitar and drum tracks - respectively - on "Focus."
I could go on like this for hours, but I hope that answers your question. Probably a bit too much information actually.
"My Casio never told me there be times like these" to quote from "My Casio": Does that mean, that nobody told you that life can be hard as f... when you were a kid?
Jesse: You can't know what shit is like until you experience it. The word 'Casio' can either mean the watch or the keyboard but neither can tell you what's really going on. The same is true for the news, and school. They all present the world like this; the way it is they never do justice to the real experience. Its not just 11:00.
I'm just goin' off on how much more is going on for me than a coolly presented number. Yeah that and we're having fun despite all the bullshit, through the bullshit. The song is serious but you should also be able to move to it.
Let's stick with the Casio for a minute: Does that also mean, that all you guys have been making music for all of your life?
Jesse: Nah, I'm not really talking about that. But, its true, and it might come across through the song. One of the keyboards on the album was Nick's dusty six year old birthday present. We've all been at it for a while, and were babies of the eighties.
"Hope" - the last track - has this Drum'n'Bass-Beat. It's a kind of a Dance-Rap-D'n'B-Journey played with traditional instruments. Whose idea was this rhythmical experiment and how do you perform it? I mean, because the drums have been digitally reworked.
Nick: That was one of the hardest songs on the record to do. It was a really important part of our live set and it just didn't seem to translate into the studio. At one point of frustration, Tim and I decided the live drums were too much like the drums on "Hollywood And Vine" so we copied my drum part with their 808 and DMX and Alex re-tracked Andrew's bass with a 202 and the song instantly figured itself out. Alex then went back and re-tracked his piano with a Yamaha CS-60 using the ribbon which is what all those weird pitch bends are. Ben then tracked the guitar solo which, though despite some sour notes, sounded perfect on the first take.
At one point, we decided the end wasn't building enough around the guitar so James and Tim sent me back to re-record some acoustic drums for which their only guidance was to "play like Bernard Purdie" which is easier said then done. I did a few takes of just fucking around and Tim pulled a few loops and through them over the end, however I don't think I achieved Bernard Purdie status.
Live, the instrumentation is more or less the same minus a few big and expensive synths we didn't want to take to shows. The arrangement is definitely rooted in the recorded version. However, like all of our songs, it is slightly different every time we play it. As much as we try to sound like robots, our human side makes it impossible for songs to be the same every time. I guess the end of that song is where we embrace our human side most.
I really like the stomping beat of "Walk Into The Light" and its bassline, which reminds me a little bit of "Woo Hah" by Busta. Can you tell me how you came up with the idea for this song?
Nick: I had never made the "Woo Hah" connection, but that's totally true. That song had been around in different forms for about a year. That was one of the few songs where the music and lyrics came together somewhat simultaneously. Most of time a song will start with one or the other. But the bass, drums, piano and vocals all came about within the same practice on this one. However, the music for the chorus changed about three times and was not until we were in the studio that we settled on the music that's there now.
Alex just played the piano part while the tape was rolling and Tim lopped it up and put it under Jesse and it worked much better than any of the ideas we had been toying with previously. We had all been fucking around with this thumb piano that was sitting around in the control room trying to find a song to put it on, so we tuned it up and it sent the beat off in an unexpected Pete Rock direction. The guitar here was also done in one take and, if I recall, no one but James and Ben really liked it. It was turning into this really dark and pretty beat and then Ben played this really abrasive guitar over it and just didn't seem to fit. However, they stood their ground and eventually the rest of us came around.
Jesse: Someone said it was a mix between sexual frustration and dream imagery. That description is pretty on point.
Is it possible to record an album as a rap group with traditional instruments without knowing the records by The Roots? And do you often get compared to them?
Nick: Who are the Roots? Of course we knew who they were and we were big fans of their records when we started. At which time we were certainly compared to them often, but I have been surprised by how few questions we have gotten about them actually.
Presently, I think our strongest connection to them is ?uestlove's obsession with NOT sounding live. The first three records are great and "Things Fall Apart" is one of the most impressive sounding records of the past decade. "Phrenology" was a bit of let down, but that track "Water" with the Flying Lizards is sample!!!???!! Musically speaking, as far as hip hop goes, we were listening to a lot more Nas, MF Doom, Public Enemy, Cannibal Ox, Latyrx, all things Wu Tang, Jay Z, Biggie and too many Neptunes beats while making this record. However, "Things Fall a Part" was definitely one of many records we played for the DFA to give them an idea of how we wanted certain instruments to sound. I remember Tim really digging the drum sounds on "Double Trouble."
How big was the influence of Tim Goldsworthy and James Murphy on your album?
Nick: Definitely big. We became fast friends with James and Tim. And given their amazing taste in music, brilliant ideas and great collection of gear, it would have been hard for them to not have had big impact on this record. They really pushed us to take risks and do some things we were afraid to try. But most importantly they allowed us to hear our songs through a new and unbiased/unattached set of ears.
It sounds very simple, but the best advice and direction they gave us was to do what sounded best as opposed to the things that musicians think are bold, clever or complicated, but end up taking away from the song as a whole. As a result, we ended up taking far more challenges as we are far more inclined to over think things.
I heard that especially James Murphy is a real genius in terms of recording guitars, picking up the sound in special built rooms through old amps and stuff. Tell me more about it!
Nick: They are both pretty amazing to watch. Because we wanted every song to sound different, every song was a completely different set up, different amps, mics, guitars, rooms, etc. Their studio, Plantain, is pretty basic, with 2 small vocal/amp rooms and a small live room. The studio itself was nothing special, but it is in the same building as the Plantain film company and the DFA label, so it's a really pleasant environment to work in.
As for specific recording techniques, once again I don't want to blow up DFA's spot. I will say that all of their tricks are surprisingly simple, what I think to be the product of their individual backgrounds working on records in way more scaled down studio settings which forced them to be creative. All the ideas that they came up with for achieving certain sounds were the type of shit that takes hit your head and wonder why you didn't think about it years ago. I guess that what makes them so talented: they are able to come up with all these new ways of doing shit that people latch onto as though it were the obvious thing to do.
They have also amassed a wonderful collection of goodies over the years, which helps. I'll say that the Yamaha CS-60 and lots of casiotones were used throughout the record. Here's a juicy tidbit: for the Axelrod/Carol Kaye bass sound on "The Single," "Life Is A Cabaret, But Not In This Town" and "Cool Boots," we put a t-shirt under the strings in front of the bridge and then tracked it super hot with Andrew playing his Fender Jazz with a pick. That's all you're going to get from me.
James is more of an engineer and Tim is more of a programmer, and both are equally as important to the, er, dare I say, 'DFA sound' that we have all come to know and love. Though you see James' face everywhere, Tim is the secret weapon, all quite and stealth like. They are both equally genius, mad and lovable.
By the way: How do you met those guys?
Nick: Mutual friends. We had been looking for a producer who understood the hip hop aesthetic but also knew how to work with and record a live band. And they were looking for an interesting way to do a hip hop record. After meeting with many dickheads and working with a couple nice people who were simply not right for us, we met them and it all came together.
And how long have you been working in the studio with them?
Andrew: We initially went in for a three week long session in May of 2002 and it was so much fun that we all, for the sake on not wanting the party to end, quickly made plans to make the LP together. And so, off and on from August of that year to early 2003 we locked ourselves in their basement with a world of toys and collectively lost our minds.
Would you name the Beastie's as a big influence?
Andrew: Absolutely. What that band has done since they've formed is something we can only hope to aspire towards. They, like us, have benefited from growing up in New York where the only divide between punk rock and hip hop, let's say, is the yellow line in the middle of the street. They don't seem to worry all that much about what makes a great hip hop record, and thanks to them, neither do we.
What kind of music runs at a perfect club night?
Andrew: All DJ's around the world must understand that what never fails is hip hop. Sure, you can play that rare ______ remix and some dude will ask you where you got it, but if you want to see people freak out: Kelis "Milkshake", et al.
What kind of music runs backstage after a Automato show?
Andrew: The brilliant work by those subtle masters: Silence.
How often do you guys play live?
Andrew: Not as often as we should like, but that is changing as your read this. That might be us at your door.
Where do you got your stage practice from?
Andrew: From studying the art of blowing minds from those before us.
What's your favorite venue to play? I mean: Size, audience, atmosphere, lights, etc… Paint the picture.
Andrew: Large venues don't provide the experience everyone should want from a night out. You want to see the band, and the band wants to see you. A show is only as good as the dialogue of energy between the people on stage and those on the floor. Give us a five hundred to a thousand person venue, a good sound system, and a bar with good beer on tap and just maybe everyone will walk away feeling a whole lot better about the world around them.

The Album "Automato" is in stores everywhere.

interview: Adrian Schraeder
» back to top | last changed : 10.06.04
2000 - 2012.08 by urban smarts | contact