| Roland RE-20|
Space Echo Delay Stompbox
Minneapolis transplants Strange Names have brought to NYC a swagger and confidence most of the local hipsters cannot emanate even if they tried. Their style flirts with the clean, stylized sounds and imagery of the pop of the ’80s – heck, their singers kinda looks like a young Simon Le Bon! – but their music, uptempo in a catchy but edgy way, is by no means simple: layers of electric, percussive and electronic sounds intersect with each other (and with the vocals) creating intriguing and often rather complex sonic webs, which must have required a certain amount of production in the studio. We had the opportunity to ask guitarist Francis Ximenez where all these sounds – and the band’s inspiration – come from.
What was your initial motivation to form a band, when you initially started playing?
(FRANCIS) Liam and I had played in other bands and were both looking to do something else. We approached each other and found that we had really good chemistry. For a few years, Strange Names was just a recording project that we only shared with our close friends. After we self-released an EP, we were caught off guard by the response it got. We assembled a band, rehearsed like crazy, and played our first gig about 4 months after that initial release (about halfway into our final semester of college).
What’s been inspiring your music lately?
Readjustment. Old stories coming to an end capped with uncertain new beginnings. Ever-changing perspectives on politics, conspiracy, love, sex, peace, and violence.
Is inspiration some kind of random blessing, or is it possible to set it in motion?
Inspiration is constantly surrounding me. I either choose to ignore it, or embrace it. I can always “set it in motion” by deciding to tune in. When I need to be inspired, I pay close attention to my life as I live it, and I take time to put myself in uncomfortable or challenging situations.
Do chemical substances of any kind have a role in your band’s creativity?
Sure, probably. I don’t believe in originality. I find that every creative thought already exists in the ether. In order to access it, I have to go there mentally. Drugs can be a useful shortcut, but serve no purpose for me creatively unless I give them a purpose. I need to be focused on a work in progress. If I’m using something just for recreational purposes, I’m usually not creating.
? WRITING PROCESS
What’s the songwriting/arranging process in the band? To what extent is each band member’s role defined?
We collaborate on songs in all sorts of ways. Sometimes I bring an instrumental to Liam and he writes the words and arrangement. Other times, it’s the opposite. We often take lots of bits and pieces of songs that we’ve made on our own and throw them on the creative table. Most of our songs have a lead songwriter in the beginning, but we all come together at the halfway point and work until each song matures.
We all constantly give and accept criticism from each other, so all of us have a say in a little of everything, but we do have specialties. I handle most of the guitar and bass, Liam handles most of the vocal arrangements and synthesizers, and Fletcher holds down the drum set. We split duties on programming, effects, sampling, songwriting and arranging pretty evenly.
Who deals with electronic sounds and programming in the band? We all constantly give and accept criticism from each other, so all of us have a say in a little of everything, but we do have specialties.
We all constantly give and accept criticism from each other, so all of us have a say in a little of everything, but we do have specialties.
Up until now it has been mostly Liam and I, and Fletcher’s job was to either mimic or find ways to integrate his drum playing within the programming; however, that process is becoming more collaborative lately. Expect to hear more of Fletcher’s distinct character in the programming on the next record.
Do you ever feel like electronic instruments open way too many possibilities and become distracting and/or a waste of time? If so, how do you prevent that from happening?
Absolutely, it’s horribly wonderful. Everything is at your fingertips. We always end up with way too much going on and then simplify as necessary. If you have the right perspective on these things, nothing is ever a waste of time. It’s all part of the process.
Assuming you do some home recording, what’s your DAW of choice and does it play a role when you write?
Right now, I have my laptop and interface set up on a makeshift desk composed of a keyboard stand and a large sketchpad. If something is working for me, I don’t often try to upgrade. Most of what we make in our bedrooms won’t make it to your Spotify playlist. We usually give our home-recorded tracks the studio treatment before we release them. Still, I think we all prefer to work at home in a cluttered mess. It’s a safe and relaxing space to just get all your ideas out without anybody looking over your shoulder.
? MUSICAL TOYS AND RECORDING
What are the plug in effects and “in the box” tools you abuse of?
I have a running joke about my abuse of the Guitar Amp Pro simulator in Logic on absolutely every type of instrument imaginable. I got really good at it. In the past it felt like I was running the whole master track through that simulator. I’m happy to report, however, that the habit is broken and Guitar Amp Pro was never even mentioned during the production of ‘USE YOUR TIME WISELY.’
Are there any instruments, pieces of equipment or musical toys that lately made you rediscover the playful side of creating?
When we needed distorted vocals on the last record, we ran them through a tiny amp our producer had that was made out of an old parliament light cigarette box. It’s called the Little Smokey Amp, and they make a ton of different kinds. We love how unnecessarily kitsch it is. It barely makes a difference, and you’d absolutely never be able to hear if we hadn’t told you.
A friend recently showed me her Otamatone and I almost lost it. I’d never seen one before, and it was just so wacky, yet so cool. All I wanted to do is use it for everything. I’m going to order a fancy one online, and I can guarantee that there will be at least one awkward Otamatone solo on the next album.
Has a piece of gear alone ever inspired a song? If so which one? [you can mention more than one example if you wish]
In some of our earliest jams we would just trade bars, and create these crazy polyphonic rhythms with the loop setting on a Boss DD-6 Digital Delay pedal. A few of those rhythms made it into several songs from the earlier days. One of our tracks “Luxury Child” was born from an instrumental I made entirely from fooling around with the preset sounds and rhythms on an old Casio keyboard.
Is there an instrument that has become some sort of signature sound in your latest record?
Not really. I think we aim to keep it that way.
What other stompboxes do you guys use?.
I use a Boss RE-20 Space Echo Delay to create atmosphere and complexity. I like it because I can tap with my foot to adjust the tempo, so I never have to worry about my echo being out of sync when we’re performing. Other than my tuner, it’s the most important tool on my board.
My “clean” or basic sound relies on a combination of the following
MXR M234 Analog Chorus – For that necessary wobble. You just got to have a chorus pedal.
Zvex Box of Rock – Light, crisp distortion with a built-in boost when I need the extra volume
Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Reverb Nano – Not quite as cool as the classic Holy Grail, but does the job perfectly and saves space on my board.
What synths/samplers (real or virtual) do you use in your music and why do you love them?
We love the Yamaha DX-7 and the Roland Juno. There’s just something about those sounds that immediately takes you back, even if you’ve only been alive for 15 years. On stage we use the Roland Gaia. It’s a digital synth, but it’s got nice options that make it feel analog. I often use a patch in Logic called Sculpture to make really percussive and organic sounding synth bass lines.
Do you have a particular recording style that you aim for?
Our style is very controlled, calculated, and malleable. That’s what’s been working for us. We like to record very clean sounds and perfect them digitally. Too much control can make a track sound sterile, so we make sure to experiment outside of the computer and usually include a handful of sonic accidents on each track.
What’s your mic/preamp/audio interface when recording at home?
For simple demoing at home, we either use the Apogee One or the PreSonus Audiobox USB as interfaces with our Apple computers. We love and use the Snowball microphone by Blue to record anything from vocals to radio IDs to interviews. Honestly though, sometimes the perfect mic for the job is the one built into your laptop.
Is there a person outside the band that’s been important in perfecting your recorded and/or live sound?
Andrew Maury, the producer on our latest album, has been invaluable to us. He heard the earliest version of the album and immediately grasped our vision. We knew what we wanted and how we wanted it to sound, and he was the one who finally provided us with the right set of tools, expertise, style, and motivation to take it there.
What do you find to be the most challenging aspects of the recording process? On the flipside, what aspects are the most rewarding?
The recording process can be a long, tedious, expensive, exercise in time management. You’re trying to sort out all the advice and criticism of everyone around you. You’re making decisions to please the label, you’re making decisions to please the fans, and you’re making decisions to please yourself. The whole time you know that you’re not going to see a dime for all your effort, and if you do, it’ll be years down the road. Still, I often rediscover myself in the studio, and build unforgettable memories because it never truly feels wrong to create. For me, there’s nothing better than leaving the studio at night and cranking the newest mix from the day. Such instant gratification. It’s like walking up a staircase for the first time after you just finished building it.
- THE LIVE SHOW
It’s often challenging to translate programmed music to a live setting, what’s your approach to it? The recording process can be a long, tedious, expensive, exercise in time management. You’re trying to sort out all the advice and criticism of everyone around you. You’re making decisions to please the label, you’re making decisions to please the fans, and you’re making decisions to please yourself.
The recording process can be a long, tedious, expensive, exercise in time management. You’re trying to sort out all the advice and criticism of everyone around you. You’re making decisions to please the label, you’re making decisions to please the fans, and you’re making decisions to please yourself.
Preparing our songs to be performed live is a challenging process that took us several years to hone and lots of trial and error with different equipment. At some point, we found it more important to be able to freely express ourselves on stage than to have each of us trapped behind a wall of electronic instruments, so we streamlined the process. Before we ever get to the rehearsal room, we’ll go through each song and decide which elements to take with us on stage and the program our sampling equipment with all of the electronic sounds we’ll need. We play most songs to a metronome and it’s up to Fletcher (on drums) or Liam (on vocals/keyboard) to make sure all the samples and loops sync up. Some musicians feel trapped by this sort of rigid system, but it’s very liberating for us. Still, all the practice in the world won’t prepare you for equipment malfunctions on stage. It’s something you have to experience and learn to overcome. We’re always prepared to improvise.
Do you consider the live show as a faithful translation of your recorded material or simply an opportunity to let your songs free to follow new directions?
We’ve found a large portion of our audience appreciates a faithful translation and we’re happy to deliver it. We still take liberties when we get a chance, just because – well – because we’re artists and we have to satisfy our own hunger for chaos. Our main focus whenever we play is that everyone is having a good time. There’s already a lot of positive energy in our recordings, but we bring a lot more when we perform.
What pieces of equipment do you find particularly useful on stage? (Please mention the brand and model name and say why you like it)
- BEYOND MUSIC
Are there any vintage formats that you’re interested in pursuing for the band, like, say, vinyl or cassette? If so, why?
We’ve always had plans to do so. For us, there are just so many reasons to love and embrace physicality in music. Working with a label can be frustrating when it comes to releasing material in vintage formats. Often it seems like a smarter decision to direct label funds toward digital marketing – which is not unwise considering the way we’ve come to consume music these days. For now, we’re ready and waiting to release our album on vinyl and tape when we see a rising demand for our music on these formats.
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.?
Our image is something we’re protective over, so we stay involved with the visual aspects of the band in every way. We used to do everything ourselves, and that was fine because we’re all really savvy, but eventually we needed to bring in other perspectives. There is a level of trust involved. We personally seek out the people we want to work with, they have to fit our style, and it’s typically a collaborative process. Individually, we spend just as much time working on the image as we do writing the music.