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Classic Tracks: ‘Supernova,’ Liz Phair

Chicago was a pretty happenin’ rock town in the late ’80s and early ’90s, with a thriving club scene and a whole bunch of recording studios that catered to the many post-punk, alternative and industrial groups that sprang up in the area. One of the most popular studios to emerge in that era was Idful Music, in the affordable and ethnically diverse Wicker Park neighborhood (home to many a struggling musician).

Chicago was a pretty happenin’ rock town in the late ’80s and early ’90s, with a thriving club scene and a whole bunch of recording studios that catered to the many post-punk, alternative and industrial groups that sprang up in the area. One of the most popular studios to emerge in that era was Idful Music, in the affordable and ethnically diverse Wicker Park neighborhood (home to many a struggling musician). Idful was the brainchild of a pair of young local engineers, Brad Wood and Brian Deck, both of whom had studied music and recording at Northern Illinois University (in DeKalb, west of Chicago), and cut their teeth at various downtown studios, including the vaunted commercial facility, Chicago Recording Company. A third partner was bassist Dan Sonis, who played in a band with Deck and had a bit of money to put into the project.

“The three of us built the place for about $40,000, which included money for equipment,” Wood says, “so we had a Tascam M520 console, which I still have, and a [Tascam] MS16 1-inch 16-track, with dbx and a bare minimum of outboard. Then, through our good fortune and dumb luck, we met James Bond, who is a film projectionist in Chicago and also a collector of amazing vintage microphones, and we started a relationship that lasted years—through the Engine Music Studios days [a bigger and more glamorous successor to Idful]. So, 20-plus years of allowing us to keep and maintain his microphones. We had these incredible mics that completely overwhelmed the mic preamps and outboard gear we had at the time—matched pairs of M50s, M49s, Fet47s, Beyer 160s, Altec 29s, Neumann 367s, 67s, U 47s, RCA 44s and 77s. That’s what we cut our teeth on. It was a robust collection that kept growing.” John Peluso, of the current microphone that bears his name, was chief tech at Idful for a while.

The trio built the studio from scratch “in the far end of a Jewel grocery store that had been vacated years ago, and the landlord had subdivided the space. Before we met him, he thought it was an un-rentable space because it had no daylight and poor access; it was way at the back of the parking lot with a little door to the foyer; no windows, no light at all. It had an entryway lounge/office area, with concrete gray floors and white walls; we put band artwork and fliers on the walls. We had a little kitchen area that we could never get it together to have hot running water, but we had cold running water. The lounge had some scrounge couches, which might have been a donation from the band Red Red Meat [Deck’s band], a couple of throwaway chairs from CRC, a bad TV with no cable—just rabbit ears—and a VCR, and that space was both not heated and not air-conditioned for a long time.

“Then you opened the door to the control room and you had a live-end dead-end kind of room—very narrow and tight at the front—designed with help from my physics teacher at the time, and also some begrudging assistance from an acoustical designer in Evanston, who basically told us what not to do. We built our own diffusors for the back wall and did all the construction ourselves. The live room was a pretty vast L-shaped room with concrete floors and big windows looking into the control room. We had lots of rugs and curtains on the walls, but it was still a very live room. We also had a storage area for tapes and a shop.”

Before she ever worked at Idful, singer-songwriter Liz Phair, who had gained a local reputation from a highly regarded 4-track cassette of a bunch of her idiosyncratic songs, dubbed Girly-Sound, “went in there socially because it was a small neighborhood and a lot of the music people hung out together, and Idful was just a snowy walk away,” Phair says by phone from Huntington Beach, Calif., where she lives these days. “I think I first went there with John Henderson,” of the Chicago indie label Feel Good All Over, who was the first person to express interest in making an album with her.

“It had a really great live room, with all the guitars on the wall and a small control room, and then the outer room; it was really comfortable. A lot of people would stop by. It was funky, I guess, but it had good feng shui.”

The sessions with Henderson did not ultimately work out, but Phair had a found a recording home at Idful, and in early 1992 started working on songs there with producer Wood and Idful engineer (and guitarist) Casey Rice, whom Phair says “had a raw, Detroit, guitar, punk-rock vibe.” After Phair signed with indie label Matador Records, work began in earnest on what became a stunning 18-song opus called Exile in Guyville, which was Phair’s deeply personal female “response” to the Rolling Stones’ classic, macho Exile on Main Street. Like that Stones opus, Phair’s was stylistically diverse, from unadorned lo-fi rock to early indie-folk numbers, to hook-filled pop. Besides Phair’s dominant lead vocals and rhythm guitar lines, the other instruments were played by Wood and Rice, layered after Phair had laid down her basic scratch vocal-and-guitar track.

Wood says, “It was classic singer-songwriter in the sense that the person arrives with their songs and a guitar—and a piano—and then whatever arrangements you hang on those songs happens then and there. I hadn’t done a lot of that up to that point, but I was a trained musician, and I played bass pretty well at that time and I was getting better at playing drums from the other bands I had been in, and Liz wasn’t really looking for a rock band and a full drum kit, per se. Some of it is just her voice and guitar or piano with minimal arrangements.”

Phair recording vocals (and swigging rum!) at Compass Point.

“I felt totally comfortable with Brad,” Phair adds. “He gave me space to be myself, which was good because I was new to this and didn’t really know what I was doing. He was very respectful, and I let him do what he wanted to do audio-wise, while I’d focus on my performances. All three of us came up with different arrangement ideas and we’d try them out.”

Exile in Guyville was an unexpected sensation when it came out in 1993—a critical smash that was also controversial because of the frank sexuality expressed in a few songs (the leadoff track is titled “F— and Run”) and the hint of nipple shown on the cover. It also had a radio single called “Never Said” that enjoyed a bit of mainstream popularity. To help promote the album, Wood put together a little quartet with himself on drums, Rice on guitar and Leroy Bach on bass behind Phair, who had no previous performing experience. “I didn’t like being in a band,” she says today. “I didn’t like feeling inadequately prepared for live concerts. People were writing about me, and it was the first time I’d experienced that. A lot of people were kind of hostile, pointing out how inexperienced I was and how it totally showed.”

Still, the band vibe carried over into the first sessions for Phair’s second Matador album, Whip-Smart, which began in August 1993. In fact, this month’s Classic Track, the catchy rocker “Supernova”—an ode to Phair’s then-boyfriend—was a song that the band started to play live during the limited touring behind the first album. “That song was really fun to play,” Wood says, “because it’s got a nice big chorus where you stand on the guitar pedals and really rock out. It’s a pretty standard song in terms of its structure, and it didn’t have an elaborate arrangement, so that also allowed us to record it fairly quickly.”

By this time, Idful had upgraded its control room with a 32-input Neotek Elan console and, Wood says, “a Studer A80 MKIII wide-body from Steve Albini, who had purchased it from Phil Ramone’s studio, I believe. It was one of the machines that was around for a lot of the Billy Joel discography and John Lennon’s solo stuff.” Wood and Rice also built an iso booth in front of the control room.

Typically, Phair would play guitar and sing a scratch vocal to a combination of a click generated from a Yamaha RX-15 drum machine and some sort of hand percussion played by Wood or Rice “so it would have some feel to it,” Wood says. “Her main guitar was the red [Fender] Mustang, and we always tracked her through at least two guitar amps with a delay pedal to give it a stereo effect, which was a huge part of her sound.” One of the amps was usually a Peavey Backstage model she loved, in conjunction with another. For Rice’s guitar part on “Supernova,” added secondarily, he played a 1981 Les Paul Standard with a ’70s Rat pedal and a DOD FX25B envelope filter pedal, through a Hiwatt SA112 /50 Bulldog amp, captured with a Beyer M160 mic.

“As soon as the guitars were happening,” Wood says, “then we’d do the drums and bass. I remember setting up the drums in the newly built iso booth, which was really kind of too small for a full-size drum kit; it was really better suited as a vocal booth. But I was tired of that big drum sound that was so popular. I wanted something drier. So I close-miked everything—no ambience, no room mics; just dry, dry, dry. I was playing my little 1961 Leedy jazz kit, which had an 18-inch kick drum, which was probably too small for that kind of song.” Wood’s Fender Jazz bass copy was DI’d.

Once the instrumental tracks for the songs for the Whip-Smart album had been completed, Wood says, “I remember Liz coming in one day and saying, ‘We have all these vocals to record, and it’s February and it’s really cold. Is there any way we can go someplace warm?’” Or, in Phair’s telling, “There was crappy weather and everyone was grumpy, so I wanted to get out of Chicago, get us out of our funk and change it up.” So, about a week later, Phair, Wood and Rice found themselves at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, drinking a lot of rum, hanging out at the beach and, oh, yes, recording vocals for the album in a lovely seaside studio equipped with a Neve VR console. “It was awesome, it was luxurious, it was the height of indulgence,” Wood says.

“My recollection of the vocals,” Rice writes from Melbourne, Australia, where he has lived since 2002, “is we tried a few different things, but generally always ended up using a Sony C-37P, as it really suited her voice.” Wood also recalls bringing one of James Bond’s Neumann M367s to the Bahamas and using it on Phair. “There were two vibes going on that record,” Phair says. “One is that sort of angular, Chicago, lightly punkish feeling, and then you’ve got this island breeze on some songs, like ‘Nashville.’”

The band in England, 1994. (L-R) Brad Wood, Casey Rice, Liz Phair, LeRoy Bach

Although there was originally some talk about mixing at Compass Point, after two weeks the sun-baked trio returned to frigid Chicago. “I mixed it at Idful on the Elan to my then-new Telefunken M21 half-inch, which I still have,” Wood says. “I also mixed to DAT.

“I know for ‘Supernova’ we cut six lead vocals, and then I was going to comp them down to make a lead vocal and a double. But when it came time to mix, I put up all six, I lined them up, and ran the full takes for the entire song. It sounded so cool, we kept that.” The primary reverb was an EMT plate “we got from a Universal Audio auction a few years earlier. I also liked the [Yamaha] SPX-90, the Boss SE-70 multi-effects unit, [Roland] RE-201 Space Echo and PCM 60s for drums, short room setting.”

Whip-Smart came out in September 1994, just 14 months after Exile in Guyville, and whereas the first album had caught critics and fans alike pleasantly off-guard, this time there was considerable anticipation leading up to its release. Phair landed on the cover of Rolling Stone’s October 6 issue (“A Rock & Roll Star Is Born”) and the album was widely reviewed—favorably for the most part, though certainly not with the rabid praise Guyville elicited from so many critics; that was a classic “tough act to follow.”

But radio jumped all over “Supernova”—which required a brief edit to clean up the immortal line “And you f— like a volcano.” It jumped into the Top 10 of Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart, and pushed its way up to Number 78 on the singles chart—quite a feat for an indie/alternative artist. Phair herself directed the popular video for the song, which showed her and her band mates playing and comically dealing with some supernatural goings-on. The song earned a Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Performance at the 1995 Grammy Awards. The Whip-Smart album sold more than 500,000 copies, also impressive.

Whip-Smart might have done even better had Phair toured behind the album. Instead, she broke up her quartet after an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman (where they performed “Supernova” and the title cut). “It was a cool band; cooler than I knew at the time,” she reflects. “I was restless. I was sort of self-sabotaging in a funny way, but I can’t tell you why. I remember Casey was getting kind of intense with me, because he knew what an opportunity had come my way, and I did not. I did not appreciate what was going on; I mostly just felt overwhelmed.”

Whip-Smart was one of several albums by Chicago acts Wood worked on during this period that gained national traction. He also engineered Veruca Salt’s first album, American Thighs, which was released a week after Whip-Smart (and went Gold), and Tortoise’s all-instrumental self-titled debut. Idful closed in 1997, and two years later Wood moved to Los Angeles, while continuing to work in Chicago occasionally. Phair has recorded sporadically since her mid-’90s peak, and says she hopes to get into the studio again soon. When Wood and I spoke in early May, he was working with the reunited Veruca Salt for the first time in 20 years.