The Von BondiesDETROIT ROCKERS KEEP IT RAW 7/01/2004 8:00 AM Eastern
If we transported Detroit-based rock quartet the Von Bondies to 1977, they might be found opening for such groundbreaking acts as Blondie, Television or, quite possibly, the Talking Heads at Manhattan's legendary CBGB. Fast-forward to 2004, where we find the young group working with former Talking Head Jerry Harrison not in a Bleecker Street punk club, but in three Sausalito, Calif., studios — Studio D, The Plant and Harrison's Sausalito Sound — where he produced their Sire Records debut, Pawn Shoppe Heart.
Struck by the group's early rock 'n' roll aesthetics and unbridled live energy, Harrison produced 10 of the album's 12 tracks, the remaining two culled from earlier demos recorded by Jim Diamond at Ghetto Recorders in Detroit. “They have a lot of energy onstage and yet Marcie [Bolen, guitarist] and Carrie [Smith, bassist] have this sort of bored, ho-hum attitude, whereas Jason [Stollsteimer, guitarist/lead vocalist] is really intensely singing,” says Harrison. “It's just a wonderful contrast. It's music that I play for my kids and their friends and they love it, but I'll play it for someone in their 50s and they really like it, too.”
As key players in the much-hyped Detroit rock scene, the Von Bondies have two indie releases to their credit, including Lack of Communication, co-produced by Diamond and White Stripes frontman Jack White (who later beat up Stollsteimer in a well-publicized bar episode). However, the foursome treated Pawn Shoppe Heart as their first record, “because to most people, it is our first record,” Stollsteimer says matter-of-factly.
Though inexperienced in recording at top-notch commercial studios, the group had very specific ideas about the record's direction. The only question was whom should they hire to produce? “All the producers we knew of were dead or not doing much,” says Stollsteimer. “Phil Spector was somebody that seemed interesting and Mickie Most, who did The Animals. Those are people that we had heard of.”
Stollsteimer, who formed the group in 1998 as the Baby Killers, knew little of Harrison's background as a member of the Modern Lovers and Talking Heads, or his production work with acts such as Rusted Root, Live, Foo Fighters and the Juliana Theory. “All we knew was he was a very honest guy that came from a punk rock background like we did — and that he wasn't just out to get a Platinum record.”
Adding another punk and rock scholar to the team, Harrison called upon longtime friend/studio partner Eric “E.T.” Thorngren to record and mix the album. “He mixed [Talking Heads'] Stop Making Sense and Little Creatures,” Harrison says. “We just re-hooked up and started working together again.” Additional Thorngren credits include albums for Bob Marley, Squeeze, Robert Palmer and Debbie Harry, among others.
The group may not have known many living or unconvicted producers before meeting Harrison, but they knew exactly what they wanted to accomplish in the studio. “We had already written the songs [for the record] a year-and-a-half before we even got signed,” Stollsteimer says. “What we wanted was to just capture the vibe we have, so we really needed someone who would be open to having us just play our songs and try to capture the sound we wanted.”
“Jason had very distinct views,” Harrison adds. “He wanted to keep the music raw. So the challenge was, how do you make the music more powerful without making it seem slick? We wrestled with competing ideas, and I think we got just the right balance.”
To maintain equilibrium between youthful live energy and in-studio craft, Harrison used a balance of new and vintage equipment. The four-piece tracked on large-format consoles such as Studio D's AMEK 9098i and The Plant's SSL 4000 G and overdubbed and mixed with Sausalito Sound's Pro Tools|HD 6.2.3 workstation, which comes equipped with a full load of plug-ins and is controlled by a 32-fader ProControl. The “vintage” element comes from outboard gear such as Neve 1073s, 1079s and 1084s; Telefunken V76s; and Daking mic pre's. Compression is handled by Universal Audio 1176s and LA-4s, a Neve 2254 and Empirical Labs Distressors. The project was recorded onto a Studer A800 2-inch 24-track and mixed on an Ampex ATR-100 ½-inch. “We recorded clearly, but with the warmth of analog tape,” Harrison says. “Because they play well, we weren't afraid of leakage. They were all set up in one room, and we employed room mics — the setup could be called ‘classic recording.’”
That said, they didn't follow the old-school philosophy verbatim. “We didn't deliberately set up like you would [in the '70s],” Harrison notes, “and we certainly did do overdubs. It wasn't played all in one pass, but there were times where we kept what was played in one pass. We wanted to make sure that we could keep a track if we wanted, but if it needed to be improved, that was fine. We also tried not to have too much doubling of instruments. We didn't want it to feel like we'd doubled and tripled parts and did things you can only do in the studio. We wanted it to feel like it was two guitarists, a bass and drums playing. You can still make it seem big and powerful without doing the layering that's sometimes very appropriate but wasn't this time.”
Complementing Harrison's straightforward approach, Thorngren kept the band together in the main tracking room while isolating guitar and bass amps. “The drums had their own room, but everybody was in it with them and we sort of gobo'ed off Jason singing to keep most of [the vocals] out of the drums. There were so many years, for me, of processed drums that I'm really into getting a nice-sounding room and [recording drums] that way.”
For Don Blum's one floor tom, Thorngren used an AKG 414. “[Don] wanted to get some really good presence from it because it was his only tom and he plays it a lot,” Thorngren explains of the stripped-down kit. He used a Shure SM57 for the top of the snare and another 414 for the bottom. Two Neumann U67s were used for the cymbal. (Blum only uses one of those, too.) One mic was placed over the cymbal and another positioned where an additional cymbal would be to maintain the width of the kit. Two mics were also used to get the proper bass drum sound. “We used an [AKG] D-112, but then placed another bass drum right onto the front of the first one. Then you stop the air from leaking out of the sides and the next head vibrates sympathetically,” says Thorngren. “Then we mike that with a FET 47 and mike the room with a pair of 87s — high on the wall.”
For guitars — both fuzzed-out and reverb-drenched — Thorngren placed an SM57 on Stollsteimer and Bolen's old Vox, Fender and Rivera amps, using AKG 414s and Sennheiser 421s as alternates. “I take a direct from every guitar — just to start off with — and record that along with the amps,” Thorngren says. “If you're going for one type of tone and later it's not working, you can take that pure signal from the guitar, re-amp it into another amp and come back with the same performance with a different sound.” Vocals were much less complicated to record, as Thorngren miked Stollsteimer's guttural howl and Bolen and Smith's nonchalant harmonies with U67s.
While tracking, Thorngren bounced between the Studer machine and Pro Tools to maintain the sessions' integrity. “A lot of times, we'll run the mics through the 24-track and then go to Pro Tools,” Thorngren recalls. “But we'll set the analog machine on repro, so we're actually recording on it but we're bouncing right off of it like 30 milliseconds later into Pro Tools. And the band monitors the input so they don't get that delay, but we get that analog sound immediately. It works great.”
Thorngren also shies away from mixing completely “inside the box.” “Jerry and I really like the way Pro Tools|HD sounds through the Dangerous Audio 2Bus into an analog stereo compressor,” he says. “It's like having a 16-channel console with no faders, no EQs, no nothing. I will come out of Pro Tools and go into, say, 1 and 2 of the Dangerous with the drum package, and then 3 and 4 with one guitar package and then 5 and 6 with another one, and 7 and 8 with the vocals. I'll have any effect returns coming back on 15 and 16. I think it sounds bigger this way.
“We also have classic gear that we love, particularly compressors, on inserts prewired into the Pro Tools session,” Thorngren continues. “That way, it's easy to blend the virtual plug-ins with sounds we've come to love over the years.”
The end result, which was mastered by Ted Jensen at Sterling Sound in New York City, not only sounds “big,” but raw, primal and in-your-face loud — just as a rock 'n' roll record should, and just the way Stollsteimer wanted. As Harrison notes, “It's short and to the point, and when it's over, you just smile and want to hear it again.”