Photo: Judson Baker
Five-piece rock 'n' roll band the Hold Steady have probably been compared to Bruce Springsteen more often than they'd like, but the reason is clear: Fronted by songwriter/
vocalist Craig Finn, they create a huge, complex full-band sound — complete with multiple keyboards and horns, in addition to rocking guitars, bass and drums — to back Finn's cinematic story-songs.
“I hate using this comparison,” apologizes Hold Steady producer/engineer John Agnello, “but I grew up following the stories Springsteen told, and they meant something to me, and I think that's the similarity. Craig's story in ‘One for the Cutters’ is fascinating to me. That line — ‘Her father's lawyers do most of the talking’ — is so intense. You just have to follow the story.”
Agnello has been a fan of the band since a friend suggested he catch their set at South by Southwest in 2004, the year the Hold Steady's first album, Almost Killed Me, was released. Agnello and the band became sort of a mutual admiration society, as the bandmembers appreciated Agnello's work with Dinosaur Jr., Patti Smith, Drive By Truckers and others. Talks about a collaboration finally bore fruit when Agnello and the band made Boys and Girls in America (2006). That album reached Number 124 on the Billboard 200 album chart, and it was at or near the top of numerous critics' lists.
“It went really well, but we were also still feeling each other out, working through any quirky struggles when we made Boys and Girls in America,” Agnello says. “That made working on Stay Positive an even more fruitful experience.”
Before recording Stay Positive, Agnello and the band spent more than a month on pre-production in the musicians' rehearsal space in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. Then they moved into Water Music, a residential studio in Hoboken, N.J., with a large live room, a history of great rock recordings and the analog gear Agnello prefers. They recorded to Studer 24-track, using the studio's Neve 8088 board.
“Before tracking,” Agnello explains, “we had to talk about how to make Stay Positive a better and different record [from Boys and Girls in America]. There was a definite focus on increasing the scope of sounds. For example, we used harpsichord on one song. We did more extreme horn arrangements and more string arrangements, and we invited guests to play on different songs so they would have a different flavor.”
During the sessions at Water Music, Agnello and tracking engineer Scott Norton worked together, getting sounds that would realize the band's vision of taking Boys and Girls to the next sonic level. Basic tracks included guitar, bass, drums and the main keyboard on the track. Then other keyboards would be tracked, as well as keeper vocals if needed, guitar solos, etc.
“Tracking is pretty severe with these guys,” Agnello says. “Franz [Nicolay] plays piano or organ or Wurlitzer, so we had a bank of keyboards set up so that he can go from song to song without resetting too much. Tad [Kubler] has a huge guitar rig with different amps, so he has his own room, and with Craig we tried to do something that I specifically had in mind to do on this record — to try to get him to sing more live on basic tracks and get some keeper vocals live.”
Norton, who owns his own Headgear Studio in Brooklyn, has worked with Agnello frequently during the past several years, and says that the producer's sessions always stand out for him because of the drum sounds Agnello gets. “The drums and toms are unbelievable,” Norton says. “He's got a good balance between tight and distant miking, and he'll use both to make one solid sound. This is a matter of personal preference, and it depends on the artist and the song, but I love drums that sound like one instrument. John accomplishes that.”
“We kept things pretty consistent as far as mics on the drums,” Agnello recalls. “But we changed snare drums for almost every song. We also changed guitars every song. We went back and forth between the keyboard rigs.”
One mic choice Angello notes in particular is the pair of B&K 4011s he uses on Nicolay's piano. “They have a really great low end, but they also have great attack, and they make the piano just shine and shimmer and cut through the mix.”
For the mix, Agnello took the recordings to Steve Rosenthal's Magic Shop in Manhattan; Agnello appreciates the studio's comfortable vibe, its unique broadcast-model Neve board and the help of assistant engineer Ted Young.
Agnello says the mixing process was largely about “taking things out that didn't fit. For example, on the song ‘Both Crosses,’ J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. put banjo on from top to bottom, as I'd asked him to do, but it ended up making sense in just a few spots. Space is important; there's a sonic threshold where, if you go over that line, things do not sound bigger anymore.”
Stay Positive does sound “bigger” than Boys and Girls, and listeners apparently think it also sounds better; peaking at Number 30, it is the band's highest-charting album to date.
“I'm happy about that because I love them,” Agnello says. “There's nothing better than working with guys you genuinely like on records you would have bought as a kid.”