BARENAKED LADIES: SHOWING GROWTH WITH "STUNT" - Mixonline

BARENAKED LADIES: SHOWING GROWTH WITH "STUNT"

"The thing about this record is that it was their fourth studio album. I can't emphasize enough how marvelous it was to work with guys who had reached
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"The thing about this record is that it was their fourth studio album. I can't emphasize enough how marvelous it was to work with guys who had reached that level of feeling so comfortable in the studio that it becomes a playground to them. It was a lot of fun."

Producer/engineer Susan Rogers is heaping praise on Canada's Barenaked Ladies, and the album she's discussing is Stunt, the band's U.S. breakthrough release that she co-produced last year with colleague David Leonard. The album has so far notched triple-Platinum sales and counting, mostly on the strength of its irresistible first single, "One Week," a song with rapid-fire rap lyrics that mention everyone from LeAnn Rimes to Akira Kurosawa, as well as many of the favorite foods of its singer and songwriter, Ed Robertson. (Ed likes vanilla, "it's the finest of the flavors," apparently.)

Since their debut album, Gordon, was released back in 1992, the five-man Canadian band-which, in addition to vocalist/guitarist Robertson, includes vocalist/guitarist Steven Page, keyboardist/guitarist Kevin Hearn, drummer Tyler Stewart and bassist Jim Creeggan-had been steadily building a small but vocal cult following in America, largely as a result of endless touring. Although they made the occasional dent on radio playlists with songs such as "Brian Wilson" and "The Old Apartment," the band's fortunes turned in 1996 when, like Cheap Trick, Kiss and Peter Frampton before them, they recorded and released a live album, Rock Spectacle, which was essentially a live "greatest hits" package. When it became their first Gold album (it recently went Platinum), Rock Spectacle broadened Barenaked Ladies' U.S. fan base while "warming the bed," as record executives like to say, for their next release. So, upon entering Arlyn Studios in Austin, Texas, early last year, the sharp-dressed men-who-would-be-Ladies were well aware of the high expectations placed on their first studio album in four years.

Although Rogers and Leonard co-produced the album, they didn't actually work together, side by side, during the process. Like so many inventions, their tag-team arrangement was born out of necessity. Approached by the band in December 1997, Rogers had been eager to accept the job but, reluctantly, had to pass on it because of a prior commitment to the group Rusted Root. A full production was not likely, but if they needed any help, she had a three-week window of availability to offer them. A plan was drawn up wherein Rogers would attempt to complete basic tracking, lead vocals and whatever overdubs they could muster in 21 action-packed days. At that point Rogers' associate, David Leonard (the two share management), would finish the job, including the final mix. The team was set.

As 1998 began, Rogers flew to the band's Toronto base for four days of pre-production, during which she made a number of suggestions about rhythms, tempos, arrangements and instrumentation changes. From Toronto, band and producer flew to Austin to begin tracking. Rogers used a mere 24 tracks to record the album on Arlyn Studios' API console, using her favorite tape, Ampex 499 2-inch.

For the most part, Rogers captured the basic tracks "live-off-the-floor" with all the musicians out in the room together. To ensure that sight lines were unobstructed, the team made good use of Arlyn's three iso booths, employing one for Hearn's grand piano and one each for the band's two lead vocalists.

"But if it was kind of a loud song," Rogers recalls, "we'd go ahead and have the singer out in the room with the drums and just give him a talkback mic to sing into. Tyler's such a loud drummer that we didn't worry about the guide vocal bleeding into the drums."

The fluid and funky bass work of Jim Creeggan is at the core of Barenaked Ladies' sound-an impressive feat considering the lanky redhead's main axe is an electrified double bass, an instrument not associated with precise articulation. "Jim's double-bass sound is so full, with none of the usual clacky characteristics that you find in a lot of double-bass players," Leonard says.

"Jim is something else," seconds Rogers. "He knows the bass so well, but, perhaps more importantly, he also knows what the song needs for bass. He's one of those guys who is great in a supporting role; he can hear the track and know right where he fits in. That's invaluable in the studio and in a band. We needed some string bass on 'When You Dream' and 'Call and Answer,' and Jim would take a cassette of the songs into the next room then come back with four or five parts written. We just set him up and he'd lay down track after track after track of these things."

In addition to the pickups in Creeggan's double-bass, Rogers employed a variety of microphones to record his parts. "I used a U47 FET," she reports, "which is always good on bass of any kind, and sometimes a 421. I'd vary the position of them depending on what part of the instrument we needed to pick up, and we would try blending that sound with the pickup signal until we got the right tone."

Because the group's pre-production window was so small, a couple of songs came together once the studio sessions had begun, including "When You Dream," Steven Page's paean to his young son's slumber. The dreamy soundscape that adorns the song began in the studio with a series of loops made from Hearn's samples of air conditioners and motor noises. Page then added some of his own samples of vintage music boxes. Page then sang and played the song on acoustic guitar against the looped backdrop.

In the case of "Some Fantastic," "Ed had an idea for wanting to do it with a Brazilian rhythm," Rogers recalls. "We started by sending Ed and Tyler out in the parking lot with these snare drums around their necks. It goes without saying that a snare drum is a really loud instrument, but you notice it even more when it's outdoors because the sound really travels. So we had to put a couple of towels over each snare, which actually made them sound better. They played the whole song, five minutes or something, until the neighbors complained. Then we brought them back into the studio and added the other instrumentation."

Speaking of disturbing the peace, the boisterous choruses, crunchy guitars and crashing drums of "One Week" surprised many of the Barenaked Ladies' longtime fans-and the bandmembers themselves: It was cast as a small acoustic number on their original demo.

"It was played on acoustic guitar with a small drum sound, and it was really appealing that way," Rogers says. "After we had cut the basic track and started treating it, we wanted to have just a bit of electric guitar here and there. Kevin and Ed both came up with some great electric guitar hooks, and we put on a few different tracks just to incorporate all of that. Then I had an idea that I wanted a very big sound coming from a very small sound source. Tim Blunt, one of their guitar techs, had one of those tiny Marshall amps, about four or five inches high, so we set that on a chair, put an SM57 in front of it and Ed plugged in his guitar and just played. The idea was to sound as if it was a guy in his room-it could be a guy who couldn't actually play, playing along with the record. We had a few of those little licks-very tiny but very, very distorted-on there. Mainly, they were just decorative."

After completing all the band tracks for that song and most of the lead vocals, Rogers handed off the tapes to co-producer David Leonard, who beefed up the tracks during a whirlwind two-week period at Phase One in Toronto. Rogers points to Leonard's layering expertise, in particular his knowledge of what she refers to as "heavy, distorted, electric guitar" sounds, for the song's final heaviosity.

"My main contribution," Leonard says, "was to put more noise and grit into the tracks and to mix it with that edge. There's a lot of levity in their music, so I thought to put a bit of angst into the tones would be a good combination to give it some bite."

Making extensive use of Phase One's customized Neve 8060 console, Leonard overdubbed what he calls the "colors and sprinkles." He added backing vocals, lots of percussion and assorted synthesizers and, of course, all of those big electric guitars.

The final stage in the album's evolution began when Leonard took the tapes to mix at East Iris Studios in Nashville, a studio Leonard favors for many reasons, but mainly because of its SSL J 9000 console. "I'm addicted to the J Series," Leonard says. "The greatest thing about East Iris is that when you're in the control room mixing and then take it to your car or your home, there are absolutely no surprises. It never changes; it sounds exactly like what you're hearing at the mix."

For processing on the mixes, Leonard used a few of his preferred pieces of equipment, including his current favorite, the SansAmp. "On 'One Week,' I ran Ed's voice through it to give it more edge and bite, and I love them on percussion, too. I'll often re-amp the bass guitar using the clean setting of the SansAmp. It makes a nice amp simulator that doesn't have any phase shift like a real amp would. And on the drums I always go for that boinky snare, probably left over from the Mellencamp days with Kenny Aronoff. I'll put the snare through an API 525 compressor; it really just grabs that sound and pulls it out."

During a mix, Leonard often employs sidechains to handle what he refers to as "frequency dependent" compression demands. "I probably have a dozen sidechains on every mix, which I think is more than a lot of other people," he says. "I'll take a mult of the sound source that has the aggravated characteristics that I want to compress and then drive that into the detector on the compressor. That way, the compressor is only reacting to the part of the sound that you least like without robbing the fullness of the other sounds that you do like. As I plug up the sounds in a mix, I will mult a number of the sounds over to the little faders on the right hand side of the board and use those equalizers. I'll typically run the whole right side of the board as mults of guitars and overheads and voices."

With their first Number One hit single, first Platinum album and their first Grammy nomination, it's been a year of firsts for the Barenaked Ladies. Coincidentally, Stunt is also the first Barenaked Ladies studio album to feature the prolific input of Kevin Hearn, who had replaced original member Andy Creeggan after the sessions for the third BNL album, Born on a Pirate Ship, and had previously only appeared on the live album. "Kevin is just phenomenal," says Leonard. "He has a lot of clever little sparkles and ear candy and things that really make a mix fun. He did some wonderful work on sounds with keyboards, but also with guitars. He's got a whole sampler full of crazy little homemade things."

And Robertson, who co-founded Barenaked Ladies with Page while the pair were at summer music camp over a decade ago, is the first to credit Hearn as a "major influence," not only on the album but on the band as a whole. "For the first time," he says, "it was Kevin's chance to really put his fingerprint on the band, and we couldn't be happier with the way it all turned out." More than 2 million BNL fans would probably agree.