Elvis Costello is a mighty resilient artist. Next time you find yourself sweating the small stuff, think about this: The song Costello and his co-producers mixed at the end of the sessions for his latest release, When I Was Cruel (Island), is titled “The Imposter vs. the Water Tide,” because, he says, “The weekend that we recorded it, seven feet of water came into our storage space and destroyed all my guitars. Hopefully, some of them will be salvageable. We did lose a lot of instruments and amplifiers, and sadly, the little 15-watt Sears Roebuck amplifier, which was the sound of this record, will probably not survive, but I think I got my money’s worth out of it. It was an impulse buy in Red Bank, New Jersey. I just saw it in a shop window, and it lasted till the last day of the session. It was starting to complain that day. Little did it know that its days were numbered.” He displays a surprising sense of humor under the circumstances, but maybe that’s because, for Elvis Costello, the spirit of his work has always been at least as important as the tools.
In fact, pre-production for When I Was Cruel began as much with the pursuit of a feeling as with firm ideas about sounds. “I decided I wanted to make something like a rock ‘n’ roll record, but I didn’t want it to go like one that I’d made in the past,” Costello explains. “In other words, you go into a room, and you teach people rhythmically what you think it goes like, and they interpret that, and, obviously, they feed back to you a lot of ideas of their own. That’s been very productive, and, obviously, when I had a band of my own [The Attractions] and we toured all the time, we worked the different permutations of three chords or nine chords or however many chords we were using, and different rhythms, pretty well. We made a lot of records, and many of them pretty good, I think, but I don’t have that setup anymore. I don’t have a regular band, so I was trying to find something that gave that propulsion to the music.
“So, I started messing around with some really simple machines, kind of kids’ drum machines, really. I described it as having a thing with big, orange buttons on it — if it had big, orange buttons, I’d probably like it — and a really cheap little sampler that runs on batteries, so that means you can take it anywhere and record anything.
“I pretty much had the blueprint of certainly a good half of the record, either having just written in the way I’ve always written — just with a guitar or a piano, though in this case, it was all on the guitar — or the ones that were particularly rhythmically propelled, they were really integrated with these kind of big, stupid machines. They’re big, bold strokes machines, incapable of any sort of subtlety. So, I had demos of me sort of bashing the songs out, and it was thrilling, because it was like rebounding off of a band the way you do at the very beginning.”
As you can guess from Costello’s description of his working method, the sounds he was working toward during the writing process were much more rhythm-driven and somewhat more electronic than the type of music he’s normally associated with. When he was ready to dig deeper into the actual sounds and arrangements that would end up on the album, Costello reassembled a production team that he had worked with recently on some film music. Costello and the three members of the technical team — engineer Ciaran Cahill, assistant engineer/editor Kieran Lynch and engineer/programmer Leo Pearson — are collectively referred to as The Impostor, and each is credited with co-producing the album.
“We tried to work as a team, and nobody was the boss particularly,” Costello says. “Obviously, I’m governing the thing, from the point of view I’m writing the songs and I know what I want to hear, but I allowed them responsibilities for different areas. Ciaran Cahill took care of the engineering, and Kiaran Lynch of the editing and housekeeping, and Leo Pearson more of the rhythm processing. If we created a sound and we wanted it twisted a little bit to give it a little more character or a little more grit, Leo usually had that job.”
“Elvis liked what we were doing,” says Pearson, who has done programming for Irish groups The Corrs and U2. “He hadn’t worked a lot, or maybe ever, with MIDI stuff and digital, and he got a bullet out of some of the sounds we were getting together.”
The team went to work in Dublin, Ireland’s, premier facility, Windmill Lane, to develop their ideas and track with a band: Pete Thomas on drums, Cracker’s Davey Faragher on bass and Steve Naive (who joined the sessions close to the end) on piano/keyboards.
“I didn’t really intend for there to be any other musicians on this record,” Costello jokes. “I thought I’ll only call anybody else when I run out of fingers myself. And then, by coincidence, I suppose, the other person I have to thank for bringing the other arm into the music — apart from the fact that I would have run out of technique as an instrumentalist — was Bob Dylan. He came and did a show outside of Dublin, and I was asked to open for him. If that hadn’t happened, I might not have put the band together to play that show. And because coincidence brought Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher to Europe at that time, and I was able to ask them to do that show with Steve Naive, who lives in Paris, we found ourselves in the situation of having a rock ‘n’ roll combo in Dublin at exactly the same time as I was going to go in and record the proper versions of these songs I’d been working on at home.”
The recording sessions were fast and furious, by design, because Costello believes strongly in the importance of immediacy and momentum in making a rock ‘n’ roll record. The group were after quite a variety of sounds, however, so a number of approaches were used.
“Elvis would have a kind of a seed or an idea — a demo he’d recorded in his kitchen — and the song was taken from there,” explains Ciaran Cahill, who has known Costello since Cahill was the assistant engineer on All This Useless Beauty six years ago. “Then Leo would start off getting a groove together, picking out some sounds, and we just kept layering. On the album, there are many different approaches to recording, from putting the band in a room and letting them go at it full-tilt, to looping up something that Pete Thomas was playing.”
Recording was through the facility’s 72-input Neve VRP Legend console, using Amek mic pre’s as well as the pre’s in the board. “We recorded to 2-inch on a Studer A827,” Cahill says. “We used lots of very nice, posh microphones on the drum kit: Neumann U47s and [AKG] C12s as overheads, and then standard [Shure] B58 on the snare drum, 87s on the toms and one U47 being heavily compressed by an 1176 UREI compressor. Guitars and everything after that we used basically Shure Beta 58s, and for vocals. Especially for vocals. A lot of the vocals were done in the control room.”
“The setup in the live room pretty much just stayed the same, and the setup in the control room, as well,” says Lynch, who, in his three years as a staff engineer at Windmill Lane, has worked with artists including U2, The Cranberries and R.E.M. “We had the drummer right down at the dead end of the room with loads of screens around him,” says Cahill. “We had the bass player next to him with his amps screened off from the room, and then we had Elvis in a kind of booth of screens with a vocal mic and whatever DI he needed for guitar, and sometimes they’d all play in the room together. Then he’d come in and lay down the guide vocal in the control room with us.”
There are songs on the album like “45,” “Alibi” and “Tear off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution)” that are vintage-rocking Costello: stuttering, slamming distorted guitar, jungle drums and the almost tongue-in-cheek bounce of Steve Naive’s keyboards. But as Costello intended, When I Was Cruel also takes him into some new territory, such as on the album’s sultry, complex title track, which even contains a sample(!).
“It started with a ’60s Italian pop record by Mina,” Costello explains, “and it’s a two-bar loop that’s just put through this little kind of kids’ sampler, and there’s a little bit of backward bass that’s also on that, and me sort of humming a little Serpentine melody, which, again, is sort of switched backward, and then I play my Ferrington baritone guitar through a couple of distortion effects, and a Fender bass direct in across that, which is kind of playing the timpani line. And to that we added a little clip of Steve playing a little French Impressionist kind of piano, and Bill Ware of the Jazz Passengers playing vibraphone.”
The vibes were recorded at a separate session that took place in New York at Avatar Studios last September. Engineer/producer Kevin Killen, a longtime friend of Costello’s, was recruited to record the vibes and a horn section that included Roy Nathanson on alto sax, Jay Rodriguez on tenor sax, Curtis Foulkes, on trombone, and Frank Lacy on trumpet and trombone.
“An unusual thing that happened,” Costello says, “was that I had invited Frank Lacy to play trombone on ‘Spooky Girlfriend,’ and his agent said when I made the booking, ‘You know, Frank plays trumpet,’ which I didn’t know. I said, ‘Well, maybe he could bring the trumpet,’ because I really hadn’t thought of having trumpet in this section, but that turned out to be the wild card. It brought some kind of raw sound to it that I’d never heard before on the trumpet, and I love the way it sounds. It’s exactly the sound I had in mind, and I didn’t know I was missing the trumpet line till it was there…Some of those lines, particularly on the song ‘15 Petals,’ have a little East African, Arabic kind of feel to them. It’s sort of slurred; rude is the only word I can think of to accurately describe it.”
Killen miked the horns with Neumann U87s and 67s. He recorded to a Studer A800 MkIV 2-inch machine, locked to a Pro Tools session of the tracks that Costello and his bandmates had recorded back in Dublin. For longer projects, Killen usually brings along quite a lot of his own outboard gear, and his own ProAc monitors, but in this case, time and vibe were of the essence. “I brought four Hardy M1s,” he says, “and I used the [SSL 9000 J] console mic pre’s and those. This was such a fun-filled session — and we literally only had the horn section for about three hours — that I thought I should probably just make sure everything is working, and Avatar is a really good studio; they’ve got great maintenance there, and I know the rooms sound really good, too.”
One factor that definitely affected the vibe of these sessions was the strong emotions in the studio not two weeks after September 11. “It was an odd atmosphere in the town,” Costello says. “In fact, Bill Ware had to go inside the disaster zone to retrieve his vibes from The Knitting Factory, and we very nearly didn’t make the session, because the police originally weren’t going to let him take the van in there. I was really delighted to see everybody. Some other musician friends of ours came, too, and it was a fabulous session.”
“We had discussed at length as to whether the session would even happen in New York,” Killen recalls. “He had planned it prior to September 11, and when that happened, he obviously had some second thoughts as to whether to come over and whether the musicians would be available or anybody would be up for playing a session. But we talked it out and came to the same conclusion that it would be great for everybody to immerse ourselves back into music again. When people showed up that day, everybody was really happy to play and to do something constructive.”
Costello brought the horn and vibe tracks back to Dublin to mix with his co-producers on the Neve at Windmill Lane. “We had gone digital to sort out arrangements and whatnot, but we didn’t do a lot of mixing in the digital domain,” Pearson says. “We came straight back [from Pro Tools] out to the Neve console. When you’re using keyboards in certain places, and atmospherics, it’s really easy for it to sound crappy through digital, you know?”
“Most of the distortion came from Leo’s guitar pedals,” Lynch adds.
During the mix, varying amounts of reverb was added with one of the studio’s EMT plates. The engineers also employed some AMS delay, the Line 6 DL4 and one of their favorite pieces of gear, the SPL Transient Designer.
“We occasionally put [the Transient Designer] across the vocal,” Cahill says. “It sounds really interesting. It will add or subtract 15 dBs of attack to the sound, or add or subtract 24 dBs of sustain, so you can make a rock drum kit sound like a hip hop drum machine.”
“All hail the Transient Designer!” Pearson exclaims.
Also during the mix, one of the album’s longest songs was split into two separate tracks. “The two ‘Dust’ songs started off as one song,” Lynch says, “and the band jammed on a basic groove, and then when we listened to that, Pete had been drumming a swing pattern over a straight pattern and decided to do a swing version of the song as well. Both versions were used as one song, but then, eventually, it was split up into two separate versions of the song.”
The last song to be mixed was a hybrid of the two versions of “Dust”; that’s the song that became the memorial to Costello’s dearly departed guitar collection. It will be used as a B-side to the single version of “45,” which is actually a single about singles (among other things).
“The other important thing [about the mixing process],” Lynch points out, “was not worrying about spill. If something was going down that was passionate and had a vibe and had emotion and carried the message or idea of the music, that’s more important.”
“Definitely, in the mixing phase,” Pearson says, “there were other mixes of tracks that were more sonically correct but that just didn’t have the same vibe to them. And we want to tip our hat to Elvis for hammering that home.”
Barbara Schultz is Mix’s senior associate editor.