|Laura’s Gear: Fender Roc Pro Amp|
With the new album “Wheel”, just fresh out of the oven, NYC songwriter Laura Stevenson decided to up the production value, steering away from the lo-fi approach of her previous two albums. She enlisted producer Kevin McMahon, someone whose work she respected immensely and who would, as she put it, “be the perfect set of ears for these songs.” She also brought in Rob Moose on violin and Kelly Pratt to play brass, adding their own layers of depth to the band’s full arrangements. Despite the move to sleeker production, the album retains its organic nature, relying primarily on the resonance of acoustic instruments and the electricity of simply over-driven amplifiers, with its most synthetic moment coming from a Roland organ, an unconscious decision explained as Laura Stevenson and the Cans’ way of “being real, relying on each other’s energy to keep time and just playing the songs like human beings, flaws and all.”
“Wheel” is driven by Stevenson’s repetition of existential questions such as the effect of melting icecaps on the beaches of her native Long Island. The album is brimming with life and death in the desperate search for what keeps us turning in the face of doubt, an exercise in coming to terms with the overwhelming beauty that can be found in the lack of an answer.
– How much of your recording is done at home versus in the studio?
Some of the stuff on “A Record” (our first record) was recorded by me, on my laptop… but I’m not too savvy so, everything else is studio. It would be nice to do it alone, I just can’t operate anything more complex than an 8-track.
We usually start with drums and scratch guitar and build from there, but this new record has all been done live, with drums, bass, and 2 guitars. That has definitely been harder but it feels much more natural… we can move with each other and the temp just goes where it needs to go. Otherwise, everyone gets a little restrained by the drum track and it all gets forced in one direction. I’d like to record vocals privately, it’s really hard to sing intimately when it feels super sterile in a studio… tracking vocals always feels really uncomfortable, but some people have no problem. I have problems.
– What are the pieces of equipment that you guys find particularly inspiring when recording?
At the studio we’ve been using a lot of really old, custom, ribbon mics and custom amps. However, even though we had all of this beautiful equipment, I brought this terrible Fender Rock Pro amp with me to the studio. It sounds like a beast… it’s our accordion player’s first amp, like, from middle school or high school. I don’t know why, but it’s my favorite thing to play out of. It sounds terrible to most people but I really love it. It breaks into distortion at this really distinct spot that works really well with the way I naturally play.
– Do you guys use rack effects or guitar pedals to forge your own sound?
I use no pedals. Only that ridiculous amp. Our guitar player, Peter has a whole suitcase full of pedals. Volume pedals, tremolos, delay, etc. I have a tuning pedal and that’s as far as I’ll go… something will go horribly wrong if there is more than that.
– Do you have a particular recording style that you aim for? What techniques do you employ to recreate it?
I like lo-fi sounding records. I think its necessary for us to have some dirt to temper my voice and the band’s playing, and the prettiness of a lot of the songs. It’s nice to make it a little bit ugly… it’s totally necessary. With our first record, it wasn’t technique it was just like, we used what we had and it sounded lo-fi because it was all pretty low-budget. With “Sit Resist” (our second record) we were coming out of a long year of touring, playing a lot of house shows and stuff, and we wanted it to sound natural and cohesive and warm. I brought in a Built to Spill song as a reference mix and was like, “make it like this”… but we put some more low-end in there… it was like, the reble-y-est song on the planet.
– Who determines the direction and style of your recordings?
The band has really been giving a lot of input… which is nice because sometimes I don’t know how things should sound once they are arranged. With the record we are making, the producer has been getting a lot of the sounds for us, which has resulted in a very polished sound… which is making me feel kind of crazy. I’m not used to things being clean. It’s not the aesthetic that I’m drawn to. But we are also not done mixing so, that’s all working itself out right now.
– Is there a person outside the band that’s been important in perfecting your recorded or live sound?
Our buddy, Jeff from Bomb the Music Industry has done a lot of stuff for us. He’s great and he knows me really well so he knows what I like.
– Would you say that your live show informs your recording process or that your recording process informs your live show? Both? Neither?
I’d say neither. Our live shows sound nothing like our records. We play a lot faster and a lot louder. All of us come from punk backgrounds and… that’s just the kinds of live shows we are used to seeing so, I think that’s just naturally what we want to do. Then, we’ll slow it down and play some doomy, pretty song about dying or something. It’s a weird time for everybody.
– Is there a piece of equipment that you find particularly useful on stage?
On stage I use a new-ish Fender DeVille and a ‘72 American Telecaster. I haven’t found the sweet-spot on that amp yet… it’s temperamental with my guitar and it’s always different depending on the room and the electricity in the building. Sometimes it’s great though. I also RARELY change my strings. Like, pretty much never. And I don’t bring my own mic… which I know is bad but… that’s just another thing I will lose.
– With bands doing more of everything themselves these days (recording, performing, self-promoting, etc.) and the evermore multimedia nature of the world, how much effort do you put into the visual component of your band – fashion, styling, photography, graphic/web design, etc.? Do you do these things yourself or is there someone that the band works with?
I am terrible at self-promotion and I pretty much wear the same sweatshirt (a black hoody with holes in it that my drummer found in his van one time) at most shows we play. It’s bad. I wore it during our ENTIRE European tour last year. Sometimes, if I know my mom is coming to a show, I will buy a dress. So, I have like, 4 dresses now that I may wear. Right now, true story, my pants ripped so I’ve been wearing the same dress for about a week, so I’m pretty fancy as of right now but only out of necessity. My bandmates dress nice though. They always have like, a nice thing on… making me look more like a shlub. As for our web stuff- our drummer is a graphic designer so he does all of that, and he designs our t-shirts, which is really nice. Oh, I also got my picture taken yesterday actually by a very nice gentleman named Shervin Lainez. Those’ll be our press photos for the new record, whenever that comes out.