In Contra, Vampire Weekend have made one of the more unlikely US hit albums of recent years. Guitarist Rostam Batmanglij and engineer Justin Gerrish explain how they wowed American audiences with African influences.
Despite the success of Paul Simon's 1986 album Graceland, music with a strong African influence has rarely filled the hit parades here or in the US. Vampire Weekend have bucked the trend: their second album, Contra, stormed to the top of the American and Canadian charts on its release early this year, as well as hitting number three in the UK, in both cases feeding off the popularity of its lead single, 'Cousin'.
The band have described their direct, in‑your‑face sound as "Upper West Side Soweto”. One of the main men responsible for this musical direction is Rostam Batmanglij: as well as being the band's keyboardist, drum programmer, second guitarist, string arranger, engineer, mixer and producer, he also co‑writes most of their material with singer Ezra Koenig.
"It's great,” he says of their unprecedented success. "Ed O'Brien from Radiohead was at the show last night [the band are touring at the time of writing], and he mentioned that we were penetrating the mainstream in the same way as they had done. At the same time, we are not ignoring pop music. We love all kinds of music: African, classical, pop. You can make anything part of a pop song if you hide it enough. And certainly what we have done is fundamentally different from what Paul Simon did. We haven't gone to Africa to work with African musicians. We don't use existing traditional African chord progressions or structures. Our inspirations are more abstract.”
Elaborating on how Vampire Weekend give form to their inspirations, Batmanglij explains that "There is often no set labour division. We feed off each other. On many songs this is true for the whole band writing together, with drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio contributing throughout the process. A big part of Vampire Weekend is the four of us working together in the rehearsal room playing our respective instruments, and working off of one another. Another part is Ezra and I working together. In some cases Ezra will start with something and it will inspire me to write another part and then he will come up with something on top of that. Ezra wrote all of the lyrics on Contra, though for 'Horchata' and 'Diplomat's Son', he and I wrote the lyrics together. Ezra may come in with a melody or a chord progression, and he and I will work together in front of an upright piano, and at other times, like with the songs 'White Sky' or 'Taxi Cab', the songwriting and production were very much integrated. I visualised the chord progressions, the instrumentation, even the drum sounds in my head, and then worked them out in Reason and Pro Tools. I immediately try to go for the finished article as far as possible, because I don't believe in demos and re‑recording. Not in this day and age. You will always try to recapture the magic of that first recording, so I don't do it.”
Because bands have often had years to work on their first album without any interference or expectations from the outside world, follow‑up albums are synonymous with stress and pressure. Apparently, Contra was no exception. Batmanglij: "With this record, psychologically it was very hard for me to let go of it, because I had literally spent years working on the two records before it, the Discovery record [his side project with Ra Ra Riot's Wes Miles] and the first Vampire Weekend album. Whereas, with Contra, we started recording in January and we finished it by September. It was really important with this record for us that we satisfied our impulses to make complex, intricate music, but also to make pop music, to make catchy music, to make what we think of as hits. We were trying to reconcile those things, and that meant a lot of pressure. I never worked harder in my life.”
Vampire Weekend's debut album had been recorded by Batmanglij in different places — his apartment, a friend's basement — on Pro Tools LE, often using an M Box interface. For Contra, he wanted to work on Pro Tools HD and, as he didn't then have the money to buy a system (he finally acquired one early this year), much of the hard work for the new album was done at Treefort Studios in New York, which is owned by engineer Shane Stoneback. Before and during the writing and recording sessions at Treefort, the band occasionally dropped in at nearby Avatar Studios — famed for its large, wood‑panelled recording areas and vintage equipment — for rhythm-section tracking and, eventually, mixing. They were helped out at Avatar by young staff engineer Justin Gerrish, who has worked at the studio since 2005, and trained with studio luminaries Rich Costey and Russel Elevado, among others.
"For the new album, about half of the songs were played by the band before we started recording,” recalled Batmanglij, "and the other half we wrote and constructed in the studio. My method for recording is always to record the drums first, so we began by recording the drums for four of the songs at Avatar. Then we went to Treefort, which was a great place to be, because I could spend as much time there as I wanted. Ezra and I spent a lot of time there working on songwriting and production, while Shane would come in as an engineer, as and when we needed him. It was crucial to have our own recording space.”
"We didn't use a desk at Treefort, everything went straight to Pro Tools. I had bought a Neumann M149 when we started recording, and we also had a Neumann TLM103. These were our two main vocal mics. We also used the Shure SM57 on tons of stuff, especially guitar amps. There was a great old Silvertone amp at the studio that Ezra and I used for our guitars. The guitar tones on the first album were all Fender Deluxe; the new album is a combination of Deluxe and Silvertone sounds.
"After about a month of working at Treefort, we went on tour, and when we were in Mexico City we had some time off and decided to record some songs there. We ended up in the studio called Topetitud, owned by Tito Fuentes of the band Molotov. The studio also has Pro Tools HD, and Tito, who acted as engineer, had a bunch of API preamps and some outboard gear, like [Empirical Labs] Distressors, which he used on some of the snare tracks.
"One of the songs for which we recorded the backing tracks in Mexico was 'Cousins'. We recorded vocals, guitars, bass and drums to a click track. The drums were isolated in a pretty small, reflective room with lots of hardwood. The bass was in the control room and the guitars and vocals were done in another room. We recorded everything live and then re‑recorded on top of a comp of the best drum takes. Because the snare is such an important part of that song, I remember putting a couple of microphones on it, so we could pan it later on and make it as wide as it could be. We did the drums on the first day, and the next day we recorded bass and guitar. Tito had this awesome white double‑necked [Gibson] SG, and we used the 12‑string neck to record some of the guitars. That initial guitar that you hear on the track is played by Ezra through a Roland Jazz Chorus JC120, and I am using the chorus on the amplifier and miking the amp in stereo, one microphone for each speaker.
"The track is very fast, and Chris and Chris wrote some of their most challenging parts as a rhythm section. Although almost everything is played, we did one real studio trick. We wanted some of the guitar parts to sound robotic and mechanical and plasticky, in the way that a lot of Mexican and Puerto Rican guitar tones are. So one riff was played at half speed, and using Pro Tools, we squeezed it in time exactly by half. Most of the guitars in this track were played by Ezra, but the bells part that comes in at the end was something I initially wrote on guitar, and was trying to put it on top of one of the verses. It was supposed to be like a Bob Dylan kind of guitar lick, but then I had a vision that it could sound like church bells at the end — coming in over what Chris and Chris called 'the Rage part', their tribute to Rage Against the Machine. So in one speaker there are tubular bells, and in the other speaker a celesta, and in the middle you have my distorted guitar line. This was all done in Mexico.
"After we came back to New York, we continued work on 'Cousins', and the last thing we recorded was Ezra's voice, using the M149, and I had that going into a Distressor. I'd heard Justin use it in Avatar and liked the way it affected the drums. I maxed out all the buttons on the Distressor to get a lot of natural distortion. Everything on our first record was recorded very cleanly, with any distortion happening in the box. On Contra, I broke out into using analogue gear for the first time, and on Ezra's vocals there are some moments where you can hear the overtones more than the fundamental. I'm really happy with that sound.”
Batmanglij: "The way I work is that I am slowly mixing while recording, because I want the track to sound good. So for all the mixes on Contra it was a matter of Justin and I completing what I had already started. 'Cousins' was the one exception. We had a lot of distortion happening when we did rehearsal recordings of the song, and I realised that it would need tons of distortion in the mix as well. I'd done my best to achieve that in the box, but I was not happy with it. We'd already started mixing some of the songs and Justin clearly had a sense of what we liked, so I asked him to have a shot at mixing 'Cousins' alone. As a result, he was not starting from where I had left off, and instead did his own thing — which was nice, because he was able to use a lot of outboard gear. We then worked together on the track from there.”
Justin Gerrish takes up the story: "Rostam wanted to do all the mixing himself, but after the first day of mixing here at Avatar, he asked me to help him out. While recording, he'd already been building his mixes the way he wanted, and only a few of the songs changed drastically in the last stage. 'Cousins' was one of them. I think it was the second song we worked on, and he said that he didn't really know what to do with the mix, but that the other band members liked it and so could I have a go while he went out for a bit. When I heard the track, I felt that it had a very raw vibe, and that it would be nice to take it more into that direction, doing it almost like a punk song, very minimal, not very glossy or pristine‑sounding, but rather vibey and edgy. When Rostam came back later, he said it was the first time that he really enjoyed listening to the track.”
"'Cousins' is a raw track, and I added more distortion to some of the vocals and other instruments, but you can't distort plug‑ins in the same way as you can distort a piece of analogue gear. There are saturation plug‑ins that get close to the real thing, but if I'd tried to do all the distortion with plug‑ins, it would have sounded thin and I'd have had some popping and clicking. However, the band wanted to mix primarily in the box, so we could pull up any song at any time and work on it. Sometimes we'd work on one song for a couple of hours and then we'd open up another one. I therefore had to use hardware inserts for the outboard, and setting up routings for that obviously takes more time than just dialling up a plug‑in.
"Personally, I prefer working on a desk, because I can get sounds a lot quicker, and also, I find it harder to get the same spatial depth when working in the box. A certain distance between the instruments is a lot easier to achieve when working on a console. I don't know why. Perhaps it's to do with the physical act of holding a fader or pan pot and moving it ever so slightly until it feels right. When you're mixing in the box it's also hard to ignore the visual aspect of it, because you're staring at a screen the whole time, instead of paying attention to what you're hearing. While I was mixing 'Cousins', I started working with the Mackie Universal Control, but it ended up frustrating me more than anything, because the faders didn't respond right away and it never reacted like an SSL or a Flying Faders system. In the end I used it only for the transport buttons.
"When I start mixing a song, I normally listen to the rough mix first to get an idea of what the band has been listening to, and I then push up all the faders and get a quick balance, without doing any EQ or processing, just to hear what's there and how it all sounds together. Next, I work on the drums for a while, and then the bass, and after that I'll throw the vocals in to hear how they'll sit with the bass and drums. Then I'll mute the vocals again and add the guitars and keyboards. Once those are sitting nicely, I'll throw in the vocals again to check how they fit, and so on. In the case of 'Cousins', the first thing I focused on was how to get the bass and the drums to gel together. The tracks from Mexico were a little different from those that had been recorded at Avatar and Treefort, and it took a little longer to get them to sound punchy and present. There were a couple of stereo mics that had different levels between left and right, perhaps because of a bad cable or something, and I ended up splitting these and putting them on separate tracks. 'Cousins' is a very fast song, with the bass and drums being very active throughout, so I wanted to make sure that there was a lot of clarity between them and that they locked together, so that other elements would not be obliterated by a mass of low end. After that I brought the guitars in, which are also doing a lot of fast lines, and then I worked on marrying the vocals with the foundation I had built. It was sounding a lot rawer and edgier than 'Holiday', the first song we had mixed, so I really was not sure whether they would be into this sound or not.”
Drums: NI Battery, Waves Renaissance EQ & Q4, Bomb Factory BF76 & Fairchild 660, Digidesign EQ III & Expander/Gate III, PSP Vintage Warmer, Neve 33609, URS 610.
Gerrish: "On the far left of the Mix window screenshot for 'Cousins', you can see the 'SnrTr' track, which was a snare-roll sample I loaded to help the song going into the choruses. I used the [NI] Battery sampler, which is on the track next to it, and the track next to that, 'Mstr1', is my stereo mix. To the right of that are all the main drum tracks. 'BD09' is the main bass drum track, which has quite a few plug‑ins, including the Renaissance 4‑band EQ, Digidesign EQ3, Waves Q4, and the Bomb Factory BF76 compressor. I find that I'm never really satisfied when I try to get the entire sound from one EQ, so I tend to use different EQs, each doing one thing. The '4409' track is another bass-drum mic with two EQ plug‑ins (I didn't use the greyed‑out plug‑ins). Then there are five snare tracks: 'SN09', 'BPRI' (the printed snare sample), '4210' (another snare mic), and 'snr05' (a pair of clean sidekick sounds), with Renaissance, Waves, and Digidesign EQ plug‑ins and the PSP Vintage Warmer, Expander/Gate III and a Fairchild 660 plug‑in.
"To the right of the snare tracks are two tom tracks, with the Expander/Gate and a Renaissance EQ, and then 'SF09' and 'SFPRI' are the result of a stereo track that I got in the Session, which was called SF and which I assumed to be a Royer SF12 stereo ribbon mic. I wasn't sure if it was supposed to be a room mic or an overhead, because the two sides of the mic were not even — the left side was 12dB lower than the right and closer‑sounding. I split the track into two mono tracks and treated them differently, turning one into an overhead and the other into a room mic. I ran the 'SF09' track through my [Standard Audio] Level‑Or 500‑series outboard compressor, which is pretty noisy. I tend to use it as a distortion box. The '4211' next to that is the snare top mic, which I had duplicated to be able to treat it a little bit differently, using, again, EQ and PSP Vintage Warmer.
"The three yellow tracks to the right of that are for parallel compression. When I'm mixing drums, I like to use parallel compression so that I can get attack and punchiness but not lose the body of the sound by over-compressing the individual tracks. For the parallel compression in 'Cousins', I created a separate set of sends in Pro Tools, sent that to an outboard Neve 33609, and then had that return on a stereo track, called 'DComp'. Once I was happy with the sound, I printed the compression track so that I wouldn't have to recall the settings and we could keep the workflow going. I also had some plug‑ins on the parallel compression tracks, including the Bomb Factory 1176 and the URS 610, which works like an API 560 EQ.”
Bass: Bomb Factory BF76, Neve EQ, Empirical Labs Distressor.
"There are five bass tracks. The first three are the original recorded tracks, which include a DI and an amp track. Chris Baio's bass line in 'Cousins' is constantly moving. He's not just playing roots, so I needed to make sure that you could hear the articulation in his playing, otherwise the song would have lost some of its momentum. I ended up compressing his bass DI quite a bit with the BF76 to keep all the notes even, but left the amp untouched. I then bussed those two tracks together so that I could EQ and compress them as one bass, which I then sent out to a hardware insert on which I had a Neve EQ and a Distressor. The two other tracks are just the bass for the bridge section.”
Guitars: Waves Q4, Digidesign EQ III, Bomb Factory SansAmp PSA1 & BF76, Digidesign Pitch.
"There are 15 guitar tracks. You can see on the screenshot that I colour‑coded them. This was to group and show the guitars that worked together, such as intro guitars, verse guitars, and so on, and therefore should be treated in a similar way. 'RG' are Rostam's guitars, the rest were played by Ezra. Most of the guitars were recorded with a close mic and a room mic, which allowed me to create an ambience in the track without using any reverb. In fact, the only reverb used on the whole track was a live chamber on the 'ooh ah' backing vocals in the first half of the bridge. In the same section, there are two guitars doing 16th‑note picking, and when I first put them up, it reminded me of a sonar ping that you hear in the movies. So I tried to get them to sound like they were in a submarine or underwater, something in that realm. For the rest of the guitars, I wanted it to sound like it was a garage band playing with the front door wide open, pissing off all the neighbours on the block. The plug‑ins I used were for the most part EQs, although the SA1 on 'GT11' is a SansAmp plug‑in, to give it some more bite and edge. To the right of these 15 guitar tracks are two tracks called 'rsnbl' and 'rsnb1', which are Rostam's tubular bells and celesta towards the end of the song.”
Batmanglij: "For one of my guitar tracks, I used the Digidesign Pitch plug‑in to double my part an octave higher. This made it sound like a horn, and it comes in right before the drums drop in. The track also comes in right before the 'Rage part' begins and where it sounds like an Appalachian fiddle.”
Vocals: Universal Audio LA3A & 1176, Standard Audio Level‑Or, Digidesign Pitch, Bomb Factory BF76.
Gerrish: "'LV' is the lead vocal track, of course, and the only thing that seemed fitting for Ezra's vocals was to get them to sound more crunchy. To achieve this, I had two EQs on the track, and then 'VoCh' is the bus towards an LA3A and an 1176. I printed that on the adjacent track, bussed that to a Neve mic pre, then compressed it with a Level‑Or, and then returned that to Pro Tools. I ended up blending this distorted signal with the clean vocal to give it more bite. 'Awawy' are the high‑pitched vocals at the beginning that sound like a monkey, and 'Voc FX' are the bridge vocals, with effects being the Pitch plug-in and the BF76 compressor. 'CPRIN' is the print of the live chamber for the 'ooh ah' background vocals.”
Master bus: Universal Audio 1176, GML EQ, Massey L2007.
"I printed the final mix back into the 96/24 Session and used some outboard on the master fader, such as an 1176 and GML EQ, and I also used a Massey L2007 [limiter] plug‑in on the track.”
Batmanglij: "What's interesting about the way we worked is that when we took Contra to mastering, with Emily Lazar at The Lodge in New York, we worked with stems and did even more stuff to it. So we'd print the stereo mix, and then stems of the drums, bass, vocals, guitars, and so on. Things got very hectic towards the end, and we'd already started mastering songs when not all the mixes were finished, and used the mastering process to finalise a lot of songs. For some songs, I simply gave Emily the stereo mixdown but, for instance, with 'Cousins' I felt that we could bring out the guitars even more, so we brought up the guitar stem and put a Waves S1 imager on it. Emily also had a Dangerous Sum & Minus unit, which allows you to change the stereo image. It basically widens everything up and clears up the bottom end. I became addicted to it [laughs], but it also changes your mix, so in using it we had to go back and revise the balance on a number of songs.”