CRUCIAL AUDIO GEAR
Led by Brooklyn chanteuse Lily Cato, Parlour Tricks (previously known as Lily & the Parlour Tricks) play a sophisticated brand of indie pop centered around Lily’s magnetic presence and sultry vocals, and enriched by tasteful atmospheric arrangements. The band recently signed with Bar None, which will release their upcoming album “Broken Hearts/Bones.” Since they were in the mood for an interview we asked them a few questions about their creative and recording process.
What comes first: music or lyrics?
LILY CATO: Neither. Either. Lyrics come to me all the time and I write them down. Sometimes a bass line, or a chord progression, or a melody – I sing those into my phone, if I’m not near a computer or instrument . The luckiest and rarest is when something comes together all at once, a melody and lyrics and bass line, etc. I seem to get a lot of good ideas in the shower, which requires jumping out and running, dripping, to find my phone before I forget them. One would think I would’ve learned by now to at least bring the phone into the bathroom.
What’s been inspiring you (or your band’s) music lately?
LILY: There’s been a lot of upheaval in my family in the last two years. My father died. My nephew was born. My mom had cancer and survived. My boyfriend quit his job of 7 years. Big things, one right after another. It felt medicinal to be able to put the strange thoughts I was having to work, to be able to call them “inspiration”. It gave me a way to keep from drowning. Ironically most of the music I wrote ended up being super cheerful. Positive. Pop music. Maybe I was writing what I wanted to hear in order to escape a little. I don’t know. But those songs now make up the bulk of the album.
Is inspiration some kind of random blessing, or is it possible to set it in motion?
LILY: Random. Every time I write a song, I wonder if it’s the last song I’ll ever write. I can’t imagine doing it again. Not because it was draining or something, just because I find myself to be very inspired until I’m not. I try not to read too much into it; somehow I seem to keep writing. But I’m in awe of people who are able to set it in motion. I haven’t learned that trick yet.
Where do you look for lyrical inspiration?
LILY: Everywhere. I write down phrases, rhymes, things I hear people say on the street, sentences from books or newspapers all the time. You never know.
Is there something you look for when writing lyrics, like, say, catharsis, personal expression, topicality, or positivity?
LILY: Nope. I wish. Sometimes I’ll write something and not actually realize what it’s about til I’ve finished it. Any profundity is more or less accidental. I won’t take conscious credit for it.
? BEING A BAND
What’s the songwriting/arranging process in the band? To what extent is each band member’s role defined?
LILY: I write everything at home alone with Garageband and a Snowball microphone. I’ve never been a comfortable instrumentalist, but I put on a very loud metronome, bang out bass lines on the piano and fill in with Omnichord or ukulele – instruments that are not and have never been in Parlour Tricks. The three part vocal harmony is always the crux of every song. No matter how sparse the rest of the ideas might be, the harmonies are concrete. After I send the shitty little recording over to everyone and Morgane and DeeDee have a chance to learn their parts, we all begin work on the arrangement together.
ANGELO: There have been a few occasions where that very particular sound of her demos has crept into the sound of our finished recordings.
Are bands ever true democracies? What about yours?
LILY: Sure. Sort of. Any business relationship or family dynamic will have a kind of hierarchy to establish structure. But the approach is key. I’ve always been the leader of this band, that’s never been an issue. My respect for my bandmates is immense. As Morgane says, we’ve created an ecosystem. It doesn’t exist without all six of us filling crucial roles. Every decision gets a conversation and a democratic vote and majority rules. If for some reason we really can’t decide, I make the final call. But that rarely happens. I think it’s pretty close to a true democracy.
How do you guys deal with the inevitable conflict of egos?
LILY: Knock on wood: we don’t really see any conflict. If anyone’s ego makes an appearance we make fun of them until it goes away. We’re all too comfortable with each other; too honest. We joke about how the day we ever get into a real fight will be the day we break up. That’s how little we see ego in this band. Everyone speaks their mind, and everyone is listened to. We disagree about things, but we take pains to make sure an understanding is ultimately reached. We like each other a lot and we don’t take it for granted.
? MUSICAL TOYS AND RECORDING
Are there any instruments, pieces of equipment or musical toys that lately made you rediscover the playful side of creating?
LILY: The Omnichord!
ANGELO SPAGNOLO: I’ve been using the same guitar and pedal set up for years but recently I’ve started using a cream 1987 Charvette with a Floyd-Rose type system. It’s allowed me to tap into the hair metal that’s deep, deep down inside me. I also typically use a lot of different tools on the strings of the guitar for various sounds, but I recently started using different tools on the body and hardware itself to indirectly vibrate the strings. One of the tools is a 4 inch brass pretzel.
BRIAN KESLEY: Making sounds in MainStage to specifically cater to each song has been my most recent endeavor.TERRY MOORE: I have a great little drum machine app called DM1that wasn’t more than a few bucks, and helps me remember little ideas that pop into my head. Worth every penny.
How much of your recording is done at home versus in the studio?
LILY: Only the original bare-bones demos are done at home, by myself. Every ‘real’ recording we make together has been in the studio.
BRIAN: And we recorded Broken Hearts / Bones in Nashville at Black River Studios.
LILY: We were lucky. We were able to take our time recording this album. Over the course of a year we were in and out of the studio building arrangements, finding sounds we liked, stripping away things that didn’t fit. It was a lot of work that we otherwise would have probably attempted to just do in our rehearsal space, or sort out during live shows. But I can’t imagine the intimate preliminary writing/recording process taking place in a studio setting. Maybe one day. But that at-home setup feels very private still, even though I immediately send the recordings to five people.
What one piece of hardware/software would you most like to add to your recording setup?
ANGELO: I’d say we could use a basic portable multi-track recording setup for when we’re traveling. We often find ourselves rehearsing in hotels with acoustic instruments and it would be really nice to take advantage of those situations because they can be really nice.
? GUITAR PEDALS!
ANGELO: They’re all pedals:
BOSS Distortion – This pedal gives me the heat I need. Shred City.
BOSS Blues Driver– This pedal can really sweeten up a lot of different amps (and can make some sound worse)
BOSS DD5 – great for looping
BOSS DD7 – diverse delays
BOSS Digital Reverb– great gated reverb and modulation effectsElecto Harmonix Holy Grail– basic great reverb
Electro Harmonix HOG – this thing does so many things and I’m still getting to know it a few years into being with her.
(Dear BOSS, I’d like to have a relationship with you.)
Do you have a particular recording style that you aim for?
Brian: Nope. When recording BH/B we really didn’t know what we were going for when we started. We recorded about 15 songs before we found the 10 that defined “the sound”. It was a really long journey. We just wanted to attempt something new and push ourselves while still maintaining a sense of ourselves.
What do you find to be the most challenging aspects of the recording process? On the flip side, what aspects are the most rewarding?
BRIAN: I think maintaining perspective can be difficult, especially in long sessions. It’s easy to forget to take breaks and give your ears and brain a rest. Trusting your instincts and the instincts of everyone in the band always got me through those moments where I couldn’t tell if what we were doing was the coolest thing ever or the worst. We really wanted to stretch into new territory and it sometimes got confusing. Easy to get lost. But we did a great job of keeping each other grounded while still moving forward.
Is there a person outside the band that’s been important in perfecting your recorded and/or live sound?
LILY: Our producer, Emery Dobyns. We knew where we wanted to go but we didn’t know how to get there, and he guided us patiently.
? THE LIVE SHOW
Would you say that your live show informs your recording process? Or that your recording process informs your live show?
TERRY: Recording has helped flesh out our live sound tremendously. Even though there are just three instrumentalists, we all have multiple responsibilities and play everything live. So the goal is not to replicate the recorded songs note for note, but to hopefully present the listener with a tweaked version live of the recorded song with which they are (hopefully?) familiar. But at the same time, the vocals are always driving the songs, so we have worked quite a bit to ensure that there’s enough instrumental richness without overpowering the vocals. Brian has the hardest job because he’s gone from playing electric bass only to playing three instruments – at least two always simultaneously, and frequently all three within the same song.
BRIAN: When recording the album we didn’t want to worry about our live show informing the sound of the record, or vice versa. We wanted to make choices that were the best for the song with the tools we had. Terry is a great piano player, for example. We wanted to put him to work a little even though live we may have trouble incorporating some of the parts he played. So live I actually started playing synth pads with my feet to approximate the layers and tones we got with piano and keyboards in the studio.
What equipment do you find particularly useful on stage?
Also MainStage – it is perfect for live use, you can really build the sound around what you need and not be constrained by the application. Hand tailoring the tones by eq-ing and layering was essential and it makes it so easy!Then the Tal U-NO-LX synth plug in– closest thing to the real thing I have found.
KMI 12 Step – This has really allowed me to play chords while playing electric bass. You can make presets for each song with specific voicings for each note. You can really be very musical with it.
TERRY: The one addition to my setup over the past year (when we really embraced electronic drum sounds for recording) is a Roland SPD-SX Sampling Pad. I know I know, not very original, but it has made a huge difference in broadening our live sound!
? BEYOND MUSIC
Are there any vintage formats that you’re interested in pursuing for the band, like, say, vinyl or cassette? If so, why?
LILY: I guess I could make a nerdy speech about the sonic benefits of vinyl, but honestly the thing I love the most is the ritual of it. Lift the lid, take the record out of its sleeve, put the needle down, hear the pop and the hiss, flip it over. There’s no other listening format that requires the same amount of effort. I guess it could be argued that it’s a pain in the ass. But it’s valuable, to me. The act of listening to music should have a little fanfare, you know? We’re so excited to be releasing the album on vinyl. I just listened to the test pressing yesterday, actually. It was surreal.
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.?
LILY: We take visual stuff very seriously. We’ve always focused on “putting on a show” in our live set, and for us that means symmetry: matching clothes, colors, shoes, synchronized movements. We don’t go overboard; it’s not the Rockettes or anything. But it’s important to us. It’s a fundamental part of who we are as a band. And it extends naturally beyond the live show to how we exhibit ourselves on social media, etc. Lots of black and white, metallics, primary colors. Symmetry. And people seem to respond strongly, which at the end of the day is what matters most.