gimme noise!

A few months ago, my friend John Sharples drew my attention to a Kickstarter project featuring a band he was producing, Out of Order, a trio of young women. He included a link to a demo track—and I was intrigued enough to donate. The band easily met its Kickstarter goal—two of them, in fact—and now the album, Hey Pussycat!, is out.

Hey Pussycat! cover

And hey: it doth rock, and for a straightforward punk recording, there’s also a good amount of variety and sonic detail. (Here’s a video for an alternate mix of “Impossible to Please.”) Since John produced, I thought I’d ask him about his role in getting Out of Order’s sound from stage to studio.

Jeff Norman: So how did you discover Out of Order?

John Sharples: I first saw the band several years ago, when they were still quite young—fourteen or fifteen? The singer Lydia’s father, Sal Weex, is a musician friend of mine, and he would bring them around to clubs who were OK with underage performers, and have them open for bands we knew. I was highly intrigued. For one, they had a striking look, the hardcore punk thing, back then. They were actually a little intimidating. But also, adorable. Anyway, even though they were just starting out, I could tell they really had something. Through all the thrash and noise—and they love the noise, no doubt!—you could hear hooks, melodies, and very inventive arrangements. And they could sing, really sing. So, I was hooked. I wanted to produce them.

Out of Order, 2004

Out of Order, 2004

The only problem was…they already had a producer! Sal had been their mentor. He’s a great musician and songwriter in his own right. I respected Sal, and so I never introduced myself to the girls. And occasionally I would say to Sal, “Hey, if you ever need a producer, or co-producer, I hope you’ll think of me!” And he always said the same thing back—”Thanks.” And nothing. Not no, not yes, just “thanks.” So I would wait…another six months, another year. “Hey, Sal, don’t forget me!”…”Thanks.” And nothing. This went on, literally, for years.

Finally, last summer, they asked me to produce them! I guess Sal felt he’d been mentoring them for so long, maybe introducing a new personality and new set of ears would shake things up. I couldn’t believe it, I was so happy.

JN: Was this their first time in a recording studio?

JS: No, they’d recorded an EP, around 2008, I guess. Sal produced and it was very good—but it was a bit of a rush job, and Gilliey, the bassist, wasn’t on it. She was temporarily unavailable. Sal played bass and Lydia overdubbed the harmonies, it was all quite good, but it wasn’t Out of Order. For me, the magic ingredient of the band is the combination of Lydia’s and Gilliey’s voices, and the way Gil’s bass plays off of Lyd’s guitar parts.

JN: I noticed the vocal thing, actually—Lydia’s got that real snotty punk-rock voice going on, but Gilliey’s voice is a little less petulant but just a bit more wounded rather than defiant. It gives the band a bit more dimension—sorta similar to the way Townshend’s vulnerability played off Daltrey’s macho in The Who.

JS: Hmm, that’s a good comparison. All of the harmonies and backing vocals on the album are Gilliey, as opposed to having Lydia double herself. That is something I always insist on. I like backing vocals to have a different personality and sound from the leads.

JN: Although Lydia can do that herself pretty well in a sense—in “Rosy” she sings nearly the same lyrics in the verses, but she ratchets up the intensity each time…even though she begins pretty intense. That track has a good set of backing vocals too – is that Lydia and Gilliey doing both backing parts?”

JS: No, I’m pretty sure all the backing vocals on Hey Pussycat! are Gilliey. There may be a little bit of Lyd in the backing vocals on “Secret.” But you mention the vocals on “Rosy”…I think that is a stupendous vocal performance, like the sound of someone having an emotional breakdown. And it’s the first take. When it was over, I remember everyone just sitting in the control booth in stunned silence. In pre-production rehearsals, Lydia had been holding back, but she knew exactly what she wanted to do for the recording.

JN: That’s really impressive! And I love that sort of story…where the singer’s sorta laying back, conserving her (or his) energies, and then it’s time to record, and…wham! 

So, back to the guitar/bass interplay comment you made before: with a trio, it’s crucial that the bass player do more than just bash out roots and fifths—there’s some real nice interplay between the bass and guitar parts.

JS: That was the first thing I noticed about their music. The guitar and bass are usually doing completely different things and yet it sounds right all together. Same with the drums, really, no one instrument is preeminent, they each take turns going a bit flashy! It’s a very democratic sound. But the bass was very  important to me. As you may have noticed, Gilliey is quite a good bassist. Very fast, very nimble, usually she’s using all four fingers and thumb…fairly dazzling to watch, reminds me of Entwistle. Anyway,  I wanted people to really be able to hear the bass and appreciate it. Did you know there are four bass tracks on every song?

JN: Four? (And yet, it sounds nothing like Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom”…)

JS: Yes, but it’s all one performance. It was just processed four different ways: as she was tracking, she was recorded onto two tracks: direct, and direct through a distortion pedal. Then, we re-amped the direct signal twice: through a traditional Ampeg bass rig, and through an old, distorted blues guitar amp, creating two additional tracks. That way we had a lot of flexibility in mixing as to what kind of bass sound we wanted for each song. Oddly enough, I think the only track we never used was the direct!

JN: When you were recording, were there any records in particular you had in mind as models for the kind of sound or impact you wanted the Out of Order record to have?

JS: Well, I met with the band initially, and they asked me what I had in mind for them. And I said, well you already have a lot of fans and I assume you got them through your live shows. Why don’t we just make an album that is basically your live show, with a minimum amount of overdubs. And they thought that was a good idea. I was thinking about my two favorite debut albums: Cheap Trick’s first, and AC/DC’s High Voltage. Those are basically the bands’ live shows captured with studio clarity, with subtle, strategic overdubs placed here and there to put the icing on the cake.

JN: So were the basic tracks done live, all three of them playing together, old-school rock-style?

JS: Yes, they were all playing together for the basics, although of course guitars, bass, and vocals, those usually get a lot more work after the drums are captured. The drummer, Erin – I’m just so proud of her work. She’s a monster.

When you are working with a power trio, it seems the first major question is always how to approach the guitar. Just one guitar? Or multi-tracked? Early on, it was decided to double track Lydia’s guitar on every song. But I did not ask her to break up her parts, like, into rhythm and lead parts. The first thing I learned about Out of Order is the only way to screw them up is to try to change them. What seemed to work best was to have her play her basic live-show guitar part, and just…do it twice! But with two very different set-ups. Two very different guitars, two different amp configurations. That’s why the feedback qualities are so completely different between the two guitar tracks. That’s one of my favorite things about the record, how the feedbacks play off each other. Like on the verses of “Secret” for example. The lead vocals are subtly double-tracked in a couple of places, and almost all of the backing vocals are double-tracked. But apart from those things, the album is a pretty faithful re-creation of their live set.

JN: So with both the guitars and the bass, you essentially allowed for multiple parts without having to mess around with actual, multiple parts – cool! About the guitars: I hadn’t consciously noticed that – but I think that’s one of the things that made the record sound interesting to me – there’s a depth to the sonic texture, and having two very different guitars playing the same part would be part of that.

JS: It’s a good headphones record!

JN:  Let’s talk about some specific moments on the record. I notice a lot of the tracks bleed over into the next by way of feedback—is that an idea you borrowed from the band’s live shows?

JS: I guess you could say that. That just came about naturally. There was always a ton of feedback at the starts and the ends of their tracks…it’s impossible to avoid, Lydia’s amp settings are so hot. I had to cut a lot out. I didn’t want to—I would have gone crazy with it, but…saner minds prevailed!

JN: Shades of Neil Young & Crazy Horse…I think it’s Weld, where the songs all seem to end in at least a minute of feedback! 

JS: Yeah, I really love that kind of thing. Anyway, I thought cross-fading the tracks was kind of an obvious idea, and I like how it suggests a live show, it keeps the energy up, really keeps things moving along. The tricky part of that, these days of the dreaded mp3, is you have to deal with discrete tracks. But I think we did well enough.

JN: Well, if you actually broke the tracks in musically logical places, you’re ahead of a lot of label-funded releases—I don’t know how often I end up going into Audities or whatever and moving a second from the end of one track to the beginning of the next…. Frankly, I don’t think most mp3 listeners care much about finished beginnings or endings (said the guy who nowadays listens to music mostly on mp3s…).

JS: Yes, Scott Anthony, the mixing and mastering engineer, and I took a lot of care to place the track breaks in the place that made the most musical sense.

JN: You mentioned Cheap Trick and AC/DC—while both predate punk, both bands’ high-energy take on melodic rock was clearly a strong influence on a lot of early punk bands. So even though at first I was surprised you were producing this – given the sort of Beatle-y, kinda psychedelic pop sound of your own work (I Can Explain Everything) and the Circus Guy record (The Lovely Luna)—they’re not that far apart, really. And my favorite track on I Can Explain Everything (“That’s Just Part of My Charm”) is more or less punk rock too. And of course, the Clash were just a hell of a melodic band—so were the Ramones.

JS: Right! That’s why I was dying to work with Out of Order. To me, they are the model of the great punk band from my day, just like the ones you mention: hardcore impact, but with melodies, singing. Musical mayhem! But, as to what you were saying, I know that some people didn’t think I was the right person to produce this record. This one guy I know, Tom, a real hardcore punk fan I’ve known since the late ‘70s D.C. punk scene, he loves Out of Order, he like cornered me at one of their shows, just before we started recording. He said “Look, Sharples, don’t be screwing them up with all your fruity production ideas!” And I said “Hey, all I’m going to do is point the mikes at them and make sure they’re in tune, and hit record!” Tom just glares at me for a second and says “They sound good when they’re OUT of tune!” But the thing is, the last band I was in, The Spunk Lads—who, by the way, backed me up on “That’s Just Part of My Charm”—was a punk band. So was my first band, actually. So there!

JN: Plus which, speaking of Beatle-y: point mikes, hit record is how their first few records were done anyway. But even so, there are parts of your background—aside from the punk thing—that suggest you’d be a good fit: your work on Mary Lorson’s early demos, with Paula Carino, and Erica Smith—you seem to have a knack for working with female songwriters. So that suggests you’d do a decent job.

JS: I mean, it’s up to others to judge how I did, but I think I was a pretty good choice. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of super-talented female artists in my life, and I really like the female voice in rock music.

JN: And even though a couple of tracks leap into some old-school super-fast hardcore tempos, there are also some nice pop touches—for example, on “Don’t Do That,” the handclaps and tambourine. Is that the hand of the producer we’re hearing there, or was that the band’s arrangement idea?

JS: I added very little to the arrangements. The percussion, handclaps, bass-piano on “Don’t Do That” and a couple of other touches—yeah, that’s a me thing, but that’s about it. The crazy thing, Jeff, is this album arrived fully formed, pretty much. It’s the band, and some influence from Sal, of course. Look, I believe in a lot of pre-production. Weeks before we started recording, I started going out to the band’s rehearsal space weekly to work on things. But to be honest, there wasn’t much for me to do, especially compared to some other projects I’ve worked on. They had it together. I just helped tighten it up.

I’d say my contribution ended up being mostly in the recording stage. If something wasn’t working right, if we got stuck, if we needed to drastically change direction, if somebody got upset…I seemed to have a good sense of where to go. I was very happy I was able to contribute that to the proceedings. I felt like a coach, like Bela Karolyi! [Jeff realizes he has to Google this – John’s way more of a sports fan] But to be very clear, this is Out of Order’s record, big time. All three of them are highly opinionated and strong-willed when it comes to their music. They know exactly what they want and don’t want. As a producer, that can be a pain in the ass when you disagree, but we rarely did. I find it’s actually preferable to work with an artist like that, rather than someone who doesn’t know what they want, or doesn’t care.

John Sharples and Gilliey de Silva, 2012

John Sharples & Gilliey de Silva, 2012

JN: I like the sequencing of the record: within what’s clearly a punk-rock framework, the sequencing keeps it from being at all monotonous—of course, the fact that the band gets in, says its bit, and gets out in under a half hour helps! Anyway, how much work went into sequencing the record?

JS: Ha! Well, I guess that’s another area where I contributed! I’m really into sequencing, always have been. I felt strongly that the sequence had to be the way it is. You need to break up the two-beat and the four-beat numbers, and “Don’t Do That,” the one slower number, has to be track number four. I mean, it just has to be, you know what I mean? You need a breather after the 1-2-3 attack of the first three, they’re so manic. Also, I still sequence for vinyl. Like, I think of the first five songs as side 1, the rest is side 2. “Rosy” has to be track five, has to end side one, because it’s so devastating, right? It’s funny, but I think that’s the way all rock records need to be sequenced still, even though we don’t have sides anymore. Does that make any sense?

JN: Absolutely—I mean, regardless of format, if you’re listening to a whole album, it should flow in a coherent manner…and there’s no reason to throw out 40, 50 years of practice just because now you don’t have to get up in the middle of a CD or an MP3 playlist to turn anything over. You still want that give and take, ebb and flow—fast and slow, loud and soft, etc. And sequencing’s crucial: I have some records that drag terribly because they’re poorly sequenced (c’mon: five songs in a row in E minor?)—that’s true even with a record that lasts only half an hour.

JS: Yes, Hey Pussycat! is only 30 minutes long! Isn’t that incredible? Who else can do ten songs so full and rich in a half hour? Costello? The early Beatles? That’s about it. Not Guided by Voices, they have a lot of song fragments. And you know what’s crazy about the musical economy of the record? Did you notice that a lot of songs have not only a verse and a chorus, but also a nice long instrumental section? One that is often musically different than the rest of the song? Now, that’s value for your dollar! How were they able to pull that off, and still have ten songs clock in at under 30 minutes? I actually don’t know.

JN: Any last thoughts on working on this record?

JS: Yes, I want everybody to buy it!! Heh…I thought the recording engineer, Ross Bonadonna of Wombat, and the mixing-mastering engineer, Scott Anthony of the Viewing Room, both did amazing jobs. I don’t think either of them had much experience with thrash and metal, which Out of Order sometimes aspires to. Ross tends to do a lot of jazz and avant stuff, and I think Scott’s great work is with his wife, Rebecca Turner, which is kind of country-folk-rock. So I liked the fact that they don’t trade in some of those thrash/metal recording clichés.

JN: That’s probably why I like it…as you know, I’m pretty much allergic to metal. Well, post-seventies metal—on occasion I get nostalgic and throw on an old Black Sabbath song…

JS: I’m with you there, Jeff, though I’m a Blue Öyster Cult man myself…. [Jeff would interject that he likes BÖC just fine but doesn’t think of them as metal…] But I chose Ross and Scott mostly because I know them very well, and with such a young band it was important to me to work with people I trust. But you know what? For young musicians having their first or second time in a recording studio, they were surprisingly pro. First, second, sometimes third takes, and then they’d nail it. I’ve worked with session guys who can’t nail it that fast!

JN: Probably made easier by the decision to treat the record as a sort of studio take of their live shows.

JS: Well, sure, because the arrangements were already honed. Look, I don’t know if the band will “make it” in the music business, whatever that means anymore, but they have as good a chance as anybody. There’s no reason they can’t. Their songs are smart, but accessible, they are great singers, they can all play the hell out of their instruments, and they look good. Other than luck, what else do you need?

Out of Order

Out of Order, 2012

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2012/07/19 · 2:03 pm

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