With New York-based band We Are Scientists currently in the middle of making their latest album, frontman Keith Murray has vowed to give Q readers an insight into recording process by writing us a series of missives straight from the studio. Kicking us off in the first part, Murray discusses the art of demoing…
A few days ago, during a brief break from recording our forthcoming album, our producer, Chris Coady, took the opportunity to handle a backlog of email correspondence that his manager was riding him to address. His recent success on a bunch of great albums (that last Beach House record, for example, is just killing it) has drawn solicitous bands out of the woodwork, and he’d been slacking on listening to a landslide of incoming demos. As he proceeded to pump them through the studio’s punishing sound system, my response was pretty simple. “Holy crap,” I thought. “We’re doing our demos wrong.”
I mean, these recordings sounded good. Most of them sounded like they’d already been produced and professionally mixed. Some of them sounded mastered. They had the sort of ancillary flourishes and post-production touches normally reserved for radio-aiming pop songs: tubular bells, timbale, auto-tuned gang harmonies, penny whistles, all that junk. They were, to say the least, thorough.
For better or worse, we’ve never really been tremendously invested in how our demos sound. Because, really, who cares? We use them mainly as exercises in learning our new songs, as means of figuring out what’s working and what’s not before we drop a bunch of cash on studio time and professional engineers and daily margarita binges, a staple of We Are Scientists‘ recording sessions. There’s no real part of us that’s worried about getting the sweetest tones or delivering the most bitching takes or crafting perfect comps or worrying about maybe doubling the guitar part with some Hammond organs and then tucking some Farfisa under that bassline for maximum texture.
Not, at least, in the demo stage, when we’re still trying to figure out whether the song in question is actually worth pursuing; whether it’s even worthy of that precious, tucked Farfisa. As a result of our rather rudimentary approach to demo-making, we’re generally not terribly enthusiastic about sharing those recordings with managers, A&R-types, radio-pluggers, etc. We prefer, if possible, to wait until we’ve produced the final studio version of the song, which, presumably, will be a manifestation of our musical genius that leaves nothing to the listener’s potentially anaemic imagination. It’s a proclivity which, I’m sure, makes our manager want to dose our margaritas with arsenic.
Anyway, when Coady’d finished going through maybe a half-dozen of the demos he had on deck, I asked him if, as a professional sound-master and lover of sonic fidelity, he’d almost barfed when he’d heard the demos we’d sent him. Sure, a couple of them had been tracked in legitimate recording spaces (the generous men of Vampire Weekend lent us their studio for a day, and their capacious, vibey room and lurid views of lower Manhattan left us pretty disenchanted with our basement rehearsal space, a purely functional spot that, depending on which member of We Are Scientists you ask, smells either like garlic, bologna, or decomposing, garlicky bologna). For the most part, though, the tracks we sent Coady were mere sketches, captured in our writing studio by the world’s most incompetent sound engineer (me), usually in one take, moments after having written the parts.
He assured me that our demos were fine, that they’d functionally communicated the excellent songs submerged within an admittedly murky sonic soup. Part of me suspected that he was just being nice so that I wouldn’t fire him immediately out of pique. On the other hand, he did agree to make our album, and, in a way, our methodology afforded him the chance to get in on the producorial ground floor, calling the shots on precisely where and when that Farfisa it going to find itself tucked.
Look out for the next exciting instalment of Track Marks next month, but get your fix in the meantime at Wearescientists.com.