Keeping It Honest

When the red light is on and tape is rolling (or more accurately, when the playhead is moving), it should go without saying that you have to be able to trust your engineer and your producer. To record and mix the entirety of b’lieve I’m goin down..., Kurt Vile worked with eight different people, and yet there’s a seamlessness to the overall sound of the album. Airy and ethereal in some places, blown-out and hard-hitting in others—the record has an identity all its own.

“That’s the world I’m trying to get in,” Vile says. “All these things happen to get the sound just right for you—but what happens to me, maybe because I’m sort of a paranoid individual at times, is that once all the official stuff is set up and the light goes on, that’s when I don’t deliver [laughs]. So I’ve got to break down the barriers all the time: ‘Okay, I’m gonna play this song and I’m nervous anyway, so here it goes.’ And then you hear it back, and it’s like, am I singing too soft? I have no idea, but when you have a competent engineer who’s also your bandmate, ultimately it turns out right.”

In this case, he’s referring to Rob Laakso, who became a full-time member of the Violators in 2011, but has known and worked with Vile since his earliest sessions for 2009’s God Is Saying This to You... . Laakso refers to his no-nonsense approach to recording as “honest,” in that the only goal is to capture a performance that’s true-to-life.

“I think a lot of it is probably in what you don’t do,” Laakso explains. “I don’t have any crazy, esoteric miking techniques that I’ve invented, or any secrets that I don’t share. There’s no sound replacement, no Auto-Tune or anything like that. We’ll edit between takes sometimes, but that’s it.”

He takes the recording of Vile’s resonator on “All in a Daze Work” as an example. “We used a Neumann U 67 on it, and there was another condenser on his vocal—maybe a [Neumann] 47 or a 48. I was just going through the instrumentals for the record, and it’s kind of funny. There’s a lot of bleed in my so-called microphone mix on that song, but those two mics give it that sound.

“Sometimes one guitar can seem louder than five guitars.”

I had them both backed off just to breathe a little bit, but it was a pretty dead room we had set up at Thump in Brooklyn. For the resonator, the 67 was pointed at around where the body joins the neck. We would occasionally adjust that based on the vocal bleed, but if they played nicely together, that’s where we left it.”

On other occasions, Laakso had to rely on instinct—and a travel bag of just-in-case essentials. “One thing was definitely handy for the pitch vibrato that Kurt wanted on the clean guitars,” he recalls. “We weren’t hauling our own amps around, so I was able to cobble together a pretty decent one out of the Eventide ModFactor. I remember at one studio, there was a Watkins Tremolo amp that we were all excited to use, but it made a horrible humming sound and wasn’t working right. Then across the room they had a Gibson stereo tube amp and that wasn’t working right either, so I busted out the Eventide and had a pitch vibrato that made everyone happy. That definitely appears on the record—almost any pitch vibrato you hear on the album, it’s probably that.”

Laakso did the bulk of his engineering and recording at Rancho de la Luna in Joshua Tree, where four of the album’s 12 songs were tracked. “Kurt really liked the atmosphere and the head space of being in Joshua Tree. He knew that before he went out there. He’s never said this explicitly to me, but I’ve noticed he likes to capture a vibe. I don’t like using the word, but that’s what it is, so that’s what I went for. Maybe I’m biased, but when I listen to those songs, I’m definitely taken back to being in that room and that desert air.”