The 1980s were a fantastic time for many and varied styles of music—pop deities Michael Jackson and Madonna were crowned and traditional guitar rock shared the charts with of-the-moment synth acts. It is from this wealth of material that Canadian band Marianas Trench found inspiration for their fourth album, Astoria, an epic production that would require three studios, the Vancouver Film Orchestra, a 10-person drum circle, and an abundance of guitars and synths all made before 1989.
Marianas Trench is made up of lead singer/guitarist Josh Ramsay, lead guitarist Matt Webb, bassist Mike Ayley and drummer Ian Casselman. The band is well-known in the Great White North for its multilayered themed albums, including Masterpiece Theatre (2010) and Ever After (2011), now joined by their 1980s/The Goonies-themed Astoria. The album was produced by Ramsay, who is best known in the States for producing and co-writing Carly Rae Jepsen’s ubiquitous 2012 hit, “Call Me Maybe,” earning him a Grammy nomination.
“I had thought of doing an ’80s concept album, and I really liked the idea of an ’80s coming-of-age adventure movie as the world the album takes place in,” says Ramsay, who is also the band’s songwriter. “So we looked for a title that would best describe that genre.” Turns out The Goonies ‘R’ good enough (“Astoria” itself is a reference to the town The Goonies takes place in, and the album artwork is filled with references to the movie).
To be clear, Astoria doesn’t remake or borrow from ’80s songs, though the productions would sound at home in the time of Max Headroom and New Coke, and also elicit those tickle-the-base-of-your-brain audio recognitions that will have you searching for verification on Spotify and the like.
For example, the guitar tone on the upbeat “Burning Up” is identical to the one used by INXS back in the day. “That guitar sound was so much more complicated than you’d think,” says Ramsay. “We spent three days getting that sound because it was so important for the song. Re-amping, chorus pedals, vintage Roland Jazz Chorus amp, a Marshall amp, a Vox AC30 amp—there is so much going on to make that sound what it is.”
That kind of attention to detail led the band to three different locations for recording—The Umbrella Factory, The Benhouse (both owned by Ramsay), and The Warehouse Studio in Vancouver, owned by Bryan Adams. Most of it was done at The Benhouse, a temporary studio that came to be after Ramsay moved from his penthouse apartment, but still held the lease. He had gone through some “dark times” while living there, and, in a very Goonies “never-say-die “attitude, decided to use the now-empty apartment for something positive—turning the entire place into a temporary recording studio.
Ramsay brought in his Neve Sidecar and a rack with five Wunder Audio mic pre’s and an Empirical Labs Distressor and Fatso Jr.—all running into Pro Tools—along with plenty of vintage guitars and amps. “We didn’t use any guitars or amps that were made after the ’80s,” he explains. “All the guitars were my old ones, and then we used practical synths. I used an old MiniMoog, old Yamaha stuff; all the analog synths are practical and real. The only problem was that you couldn’t really recall a sound, so you have to go with it as you have it. The output sounds different an hour later.”
Cue Recording Montage
Ramsay’s mother is a vocal coach, and between his impressive range and an abundance of band-provided backing vocals throughout, you can hear his passion in each tune. Using a closet for a booth at The Benhouse, all the vocals went though a vintage Neumann U 87 into a Wunder Audio pre, through the Distressor, and, finally, into Universal Audio plug-ins. “I had been talking to Bob Rock and Dave ‘Rave’ Ogilvie,” says Ramsay, “and they said I should check out all the Universal Audio stuff, so I chatted with UA and they sent me their plug-ins, and they are so good. They are amazing, and if guys like Bob and Dave are telling you to check it out, you should probably check it out.”
For the guitars, Ramsay relied on a Radial Headload guitar amp load box. “You put the out for the amps into the Headload, and you don’t need a speaker cabinet,” he says. “It ends up functioning like a DI, but actually sounds good. We did all the guitars that way. You go out of the Headload, but through your normal chain, so it was amps, Headload, Neve, Fatso Jr., then into Pro Tools.”
Executive producer Bennie and the Jets Ramsay listens to a mix in The Benhouse, one of three studios used in the production of ‘Astoria.’
The drums were primarily recorded at The Umbrella Factory, and a different setup was used for each song. “Because we record the songs as I am writing them, and I don’t do demos, I generally program the drums and then write to it, so I can change the part around as I want,” says Ramsay. “Once I know what the part is, we do the drums last. It is also more fun for the drummer because he is not just playing to a click track; he is playing to a whole song. Plus, once the whole song is there, I find the sound of drums really change the character of the song, so it is kind of nice to do it last so you can build the drum sound to what suits that song.
“I always record cymbals separately,” he continues. “That way you can use condenser mics on the snare and the toms, which sound huge, but you can’t do that if you record cymbals at the same time. My secret weapons on snares are a vintage Neumann KM 84 and a Sony C-48 condenser that wasn’t made for doing snares, but it has a lot of headroom, so you can stick it right on a snare drum.”
10 Drummers or More
You can’t mention drums without diving into the anthemic song “Who Do You Love?” which featured 10 drummers—including Ramsay and Casselman—set up in a circle with a Decca tree in the middle. “That was really fun,” says Ramsay. “Everything was just live. We did the beat, but then we did a whole bunch of passes where we were improvising percussion loops, and some really neat, weird things ended up happening there. And almost all of it made it into the track.
“I wanted to do a song that felt like Toto, which was a cool ’80s influence that I hadn’t heard other people doing—especially ‘Africa,’ where they had all of that percussion,” he continues. “And then I saw a behind-the-scenes feature of Hans Zimmer doing the score to Man of Steel, and he brought in a whole bunch of drummers and he had them improvising together. I thought that would be cool to try in a pop song.”
The drum circle was recorded at the expansive Warehouse Studio, as were the album’s interludes—orchestral pieces placed between songs that were written by Ramsay and performed by the Vancouver Film Orchestra to give the album a cinematic feel.
Time to Get Loose
With some songs, Ramsay wasn’t looking for the sounds of a specific song, but more the feel. He meant for the catchy song “Yesterday” to be “a quintessential ’80s up-tempo, feel-good jam. We get the Huey Lewis-style horn section in there and some Kenny Loggins surf guitars, and it ended up being this eclectic nonstop trip through the ’80s.
“That one was the most fun to record. When I was doing the synths, I remember just being by myself sitting there and just laughing so hard.”
With the end of Astoria came the end of The Benhouse (the name is a combination of “penthouse” and “Bennie and the Jets,” Ramsay’s beloved dog and credited executive producer of the album), but not before Ramsay and his bandmates turned the place once known for dark things into a feel-good creative factory. There is no doubt that Chunk, Data and the gang would approve.
Anthony Savona is currently VP/Group Publishing Director for NewBay Media, the publisher of Mix, but he really misses the days when he covered the pro audio industry for EQ Magazine and Surround Professional.