The Shins have spent much of the past six years standing near the top of the indie music mountain. Gallons of ink have been spilled extolling the band's sonic virtues, their tie-in to the film Garden State and the anticipation surrounding the release of the band's latest, Wincing the Night Away.
As with the band's previous releases, frontman James Mercer got the ball rolling by working up songs by himself in a home studio and then bringing a handful of Pro Tools sessions into a proper studio. This time, Mercer and his bandmates — drummer Jesse Sandoval, keyboardist Marty Crandall and bassist Dave Hernandez — headed into Supernatural Sound (Oregon City, Ore.) with producer Joe Chiccarelli and engineer Sean Flora to supplement those home recordings.
The Shins, from left: James Mercer, Marty Crandall, Dave Hernandez and Jesse Sandoval
Mercer had originally reached out to Chiccarelli for advice on what kind of gear to put in his home studio. Eventually, the singer/guitarist asked for some guidance on songs. “If I were up in Portland, I would stop in and hear some things and give him some feedback,” Chiccarelli says. “He really worked on it on his own for quite some time, and I think at some point you kind of get cabin fever and you lose objectivity. Ultimately, most great artists need some kind of feedback, some kind of objective perspective on things, and I think he had just worked on this for a long time and really needed an outside opinion.”
The two sifted through Mercer's catalog of ideas, fleshed out some and reworked others during the first dates of the recording sessions at Supernatural.
According to Chiccarelli, Mercer's attention to lyrical quality over quantity drove the song choices. “The thing I love about him is he's so particular about his lyrics and he really takes time with them,” Chiccarelli says. “He could have the greatest track in the world, but if he was not feeling great about the lyrics, he doesn't even want to finish the song. It's really important to him that every word, every rhyme really have some meaning; it's not just a word thrown in there. So there were things that didn't get completed, didn't make the album just because he really didn't feel like he had all the lyrics intact.”
There were a handful of songs, he adds, where the band demoed a couple of different styles. For instance, “Spilt Needles” was originally recorded with an English Beat vibe. “We ended up feeling that it was kind of too retro,” the producer admits, “kind of Cure-sounding, and we redid the whole thing from scratch with a different drum beat.”
Much of the early buzz surrounding Wincing has revolved around its different sound and use of subtle effects. The song “Sealegs,” for example, features a rhythm track built on bottle caps that Mercer recorded. “He did a loop at home that was bottle caps and some other homemade noises that are the basis of the song,” Chiccarelli reports. “Then we added to it in the studio.” There was also a Farfisa organ that the team borrowed from Los Lobos' Steve Berlin, and Chris Funk from The Decemberists added bouzouki, lap steel and hammer dulcimer to a few tracks.
Mercer's drive, Chiccarelli believes, was to make an album that didn't sound like its immediate predecessor, Chutes Too Narrow. “That's one of my favorite records, but James just isn't fond of it,” he says. “He feels like Oh, Inverted World [the band's 2001 Sub Pop debut] is much more where he wanted to be. He felt like he didn't want to do Chutes Too Narrow, Part II, which I think the world was expecting of him.
“I think that was part of his bind when he got into working at home,” Chiccarelli continues. “He had all these ideas to try things and do different arrangements, but he couldn't quite execute them. I think he kind of felt a little stuck and really wanted to experiment. It's pretty much a dream of a project for me when the artist is really open to trying things and has no preconceived ideas or restrictions or fears about going down a certain road. You can try something and everyone knows in 15 minutes if it's working or not. When you are in a place where there's a lot of trust and people are open to at least experimenting, that's a real positive place and great things come from that.”
The opportunities for experimentation were many, Chiccarelli points out, including the day when Mercer's guitar part for “Spilt Needles” was tracked. “We put a cheap lapel microphone carefully inside of his vintage Epiphone f-hole acoustic guitar,” he says. “It helped give the sound a strong feeling of coming from another decade, sonically.” Then there was the time they put a guitar amp in an iso booth and miked it from the outside. On another day, they used the ceiling fans in the studio while recording overdubs to capture an odd tremolo effect.
Chiccarelli and Flora tried to be creative when it came to recording the drums, too. In addition to the standard complement of mics across the kit, the duo set up Neumann TLM 170s across the room and a mono Lawson L251 in front of the kick drum. “It's a nice, big, wood room with a high ceiling,” Flora reports. “The 170s were across the room set on omni, so it was possible to get a lot of the room sound in there. Once it was compressed, it wasn't so washy as it was the midrange ‘oomph’ that you get from room mics.” As for the 251, Chiccarelli says, “It provided the best leakage and that tone became most of the drum sound.”
Chiccarelli also points out that songs such as “Australia” and “Phantom Limb” featured additional drum samples. “In some of the more pop songs, samples were added to give the tracks a bit more intensity,” he says. “It's something I try to shy away from unless I'm dealing with very heavy rock that needs to compete on the radio. Usually, with a band like The Shins, who have so much character in their playing and their tones, I would shy away from this, but I felt like the more insistent songs needed a bit of underpinning. It's simply more sound, and who can complain about that?”
“Sleeping Lessons” is a number that took some experimentation before it was right. “James always knew that he wanted that to be the opening song,” Chiccarelli notes, “so initially it started with a kind of keyboard loop that he had done at home. The home version of it was very delicate and it was great; I really loved it. His feeling was that it was really good, but he wondered if there was a way to make a better transition into the rest of the record. It sounds like it's a good first song, but it sounds like it doesn't set you up for the rest of the record, so the trick was to build this and go from this delicate, weird little thing into a full band number at the end. It was tricky in terms of getting the right drum feel and getting it to be raw enough without it sounding like a trick that we're going from delicate to raw.”
The vocal tracks that ended up on the final mixes were a combination of originals recorded at Mercer's home studio with an Audio-Technica 4050 and those that were cut at Supernatural through the 4050 or a BLUE Bottle microphone. The vocal chain also included a Neve 1073, a Summit EQ and an 1176.
The entire record was tracked to Pro Tools and mixed through Supernatural's API Legacy Plus console down to a Mike Spitz-modified Ampex ATR-102 half-inch 2-track recorder. A handful of plug-ins were used across the sessions, as well as an assortment of outboard gear, but Chiccarelli reports that the big secret weapon during the tracking dates was the Echoplate made by Jim Cunningham. “It's basically an EMT 140 copy with quieter electronics,” he says. “We got some interesting feedback and resonances since it was in the studio with the band.”
In addition to his production work, Chiccarelli was responsible for the mix. That job was made slightly easier because he started the project having some idea where it would end up. “Of course, it changes every day and if you have something too rigid in your mind, you end up battling it the whole time,” he says. “That's a good way to go about making a record. It was easy for us to tell when stuff sounded too pop and too glossy or too contrived to the point where you really felt like you were deliberately playing with the listener and wanting them to pay attention to some device. I don't mean an outboard device, I mean an aesthetic device.”
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