Self-production has been in the works forever, though I don't think we were ready for it until this latest session. We learned a great deal working with Don Smith, Chris Tsangarides and Mark Howard, as did our sound engineer, Mark Vreeken. He's been with us at every session since Road Apples and is ultimately responsible for the way the new record sounds.
The first month and a half was spent collecting our various ideas that we had come up with at home and on the road, stitching them together into songs... the same collective song writing approach we've used for years. We usually start from riffs, bouncing different ideas off each other and building on them from there. Once Gord starts fitting in the words, that's when they really get rolling. From there it's just a matter of refinement, paring the ideas down to manageable arrangements and getting things down on tape.
After we finished touring at the end of October we took some time off to set up the studio. By mid November we had it together enough to start. We would come in every day and play, working mostly afternoons and evenings, just jamming really, with no schedules or constraints, slowly stitching songs together. At the same time Mark would be experimenting; moving mikes and amps and people around, getting a sound we were all satisfied with. We need to all play together in the same room, so we spent a lot of time trying to minimise bleed. It was just before Christmas when we started laying stuff down for real.
It was really no rules session. Because we had are own space, our own gear and no time constraints we could explore all the possibilities. We could work on a song that was near completion, break for awhile and come back on something new. That way it never got stale. Working on new ideas always seems to push the older ones and often yield great results. 700 Ft. Ceiling and Let's Stay Engaged came along mid way through the recording. They weren't even around in December but because we had the time to keep jamming, exploring new ideas, we were able to bring them along from ideas to arrangements to finished songs.
We had played Gift Shop and Springtime In Vienna quite a bit on tour this past summer, so we knew how they should sound. The arrangements were tight, so we just kept playing until we had versions we liked. When we listen back to the tracks they really have to capture that certain spirit, the live essence. We could always immediately tell if a version was worth keeping or not. That's why Mark Vreeken was such an important part of this record. He knows how to get the sound we're after from mixing us live night after night.
Ahead By A Century we started writing quite a while ago. We had been working off a bass melody, but it really wasn't going too far in the shape that it was in. Late in the session, Johnny and Robbie re-approached the song in a different way, working on the arrangement with a drum machine and an acoustic guitar. We quickly axed what we had, added Paul's backing vocals and recorded the new and improved version. Throughout the recording of Henhouse we never had to settle for 'good enough' because we had time to try things differently. This was something we learned from Mark Howard; sometimes you have to step back and try a different approach to a song, even if you think you're there already.
Every song has its own story. Sherpa started from a riff that Paul introduced one night in South Carolina. We always travel with a small backstage set-up to loosen up before we go on. We kept working on that idea and by the time we got to Atlanta a few nights later we tried it out on stage. Flamenco and Put It Off were written and recorded during a weekend session with Mark Howard in San Francisco. Whenever we have a couple of days off on the road we try to find studios to work on new ideas. But the stage is always the best testing ground for these ideas, you find out quickly what's going to work and what isn't.
We wanted to make record with no regrets, with no untried or unexplored ideas at the end of the session. That is the beauty of being in the producer's chair. We didn't have to content ourselves with 'good enough,' we had the time and the energy to make it the best we possibly could.
We brought Steve Drake from Odds, a good friend of ours, to mix the record. We felt it was important to get someone objective, who was not there for the beginning and who did not necessarily know the material. Fresh ears. He's a great musician and a really talented, creative mixing engineer who would spend hours and hours getting everything just right.
We worked when we wanted to and knew how to stop when it wasn't going anywhere. Sometimes not playing is just as important to the creative process. There were times when we could play all day and night, while there were other days we would do nothing at all. We were all very conscious of the burnout factor. In the end, we were there pretty much all the time, no one more so than Mark though. He was there to plug in the first machine and to wind up the last cable.
Self production is something we have worked towards for years, though it involves a lot of stuff we're not normally used to. Things outside the realm of music, like budgets and deadlines; things an outside producer might have an easier time dealing with. But in the end, no one knows the band or our music better than Mark and us. this was our session, done on our schedules and, ultimately, it's our record.
Naming the record is just about the hardest link in the chain. In one sentence, you want the title to reflect something about the music and the band. In reality there is too much riding on the album title. With Road Apples and Day for Night the title was the last thing we did., even after the artwork. We had long lists of names for both albums. We have been in situation where we had some great titles but they didn't match the final artwork. Luckily, this time, having found a great picture/title combination and we escaped having to vote on the title of the record.
We took what we liked most about other recording sessions and brought them along for this one. It made for a relaxing time. Musically I'm pleased with the record. Each of the earlier recording sessions for this record yielded solid ideas or complete songs. Flamenco started to come together in Holland. I worked off of this one sort of silly guitar riff and everyone else seemed to like it.
It is never really easier to record the next album. Recording becomes more complex each time but you tend go into the next session better equipped, and have more tools each time. You are musically a little ahead of the game as far as your understanding goes, you know more about the gear, you know more about how you want to accomplish what you are attempting to do and you know what environment is best to do the recording in.
We have this cool song Win Win Win Situation which has never made the final hurdle to a place on one of our records. Everyone liked the tune and it hung around for a long, long time. Once you realize a song may not ever get on a record you have to decide what to do about it. What we tend to do is start exploding it. You stick a bomb in it and you look for the most interesting pieces. You twist them around, try to reassemble it, change the rhythm of it or change the chords a bit here and there. Fooling around with the song may inspire someone to play a different lick and re-energize the tune. 700 Ft. Ceiling came out of mucking around with Win Win Win Situation even though they don't sound alike at all.
I'm sure some of the songs will sound different on the road. Lately we have been rehearsing the new songs for the road. I have always thought making records and playing live are related but different. A record freezes songs at a stage of development, but if the songs are good they continue to improve and get better live. For us if songs don't continue to improve and get better live then in three months they are jettisoned from the set. They go overboard. If we can't find a way to keep songs living, breathing and growing, they won't last in the set.
If we have been playing a song live for four months and the best version we ever did is on the record, then it is time to stop playing that song. The song has to be better live. I think a song has to continue to improve or there is no point in playing them live. Play something else or write a new song to play.
We got the equipment that was crucial to making the record, stuff like a 24 track analog recorder with two inch tape. We built the studio as we went along. In the first stages in earlier December we would record straight to DAT for song ideas, sort of a pre-production time. We were getting a feel for the space. We added Dolby SR in mid-December, which is a great tool for their dynamic style of music. When the guys go into quieter passages you need that air and that really low noise floor to clearly hear these sections.
Their favourite recording sessions in the past have been at Kingsway in New Orleans because it isn't a typical studio layout where the mixing room is a goldfish bowl and so is the players room and everyone is sitting behind plexiglass. The studio we put together had the same kind of feel. They like to slam off mini-sets of three or four songs and recording live off the floor. This approach seems to yield the best results. Eye contact is very important for them. Billy Ray was there for everything. He's the jack of all trades, he can tech all the instruments and tune the drums and fix guitars and guitar amps. He helped me out a lot. I couldn't have done my job without him there.
Every song needs to its own approach. More often than not the first take of any particular recording is that one that turns out to be best. Johnny is one of the big instigators for moving on and recognizing when an approach is getting a little bit stale and trying something new.
At the end of every week I made a compilation tape of all the songs we recorded that week. There would a bunch of different versions and they would pick the ones they liked best. In the week that followed they would refine those versions until the band was completely happy with them. A song like Coconut Cream was like that. They had played that song quite a bit and had plenty of different arrangements. When they did the version that's on the record the power went out at the very end of the take, that's why it doesn't have the usual cadence ending. What ends the song now is Johnny's recording of the Blue Angel's flying over San Francisco.
Produced by The Tragically Hip and Mark Vreeken
Butts Wigglin' recorded by Mark Vreeken in Bath and New Orleans
Flamenco and Put it Off recorded by Mark Howard in San Francisco
Mixed by Steve Drake, with Mark Vreeken and The Tragically Hip
Mastered by Bob Ludwig at Gateway Mastering Studios, Portland Maine
Peter Tuepah - Hammond organ
Greg Runions - vibes
All songs written by The Tragically Hip
Photos by Avery Crounse
Art Design by Andrew McLachlan