Recording and producing your own music is always a challenge — especially if, like Faith No More, your previous albums have been done by the best in the business!
Fans of genre-twisting cult rock five-piece Faith No More could have been forgiven for thinking that 1997’s Album Of The Year would be the last long player the band would ever cut. Less than a year after that record hit the shops, the group split acrimoniously.
Eventually, however, Faith No More returned as a live band in 2009, and they spent parts of the next three years touring the globe. Then, last year, the band debuted two new songs during their Black Sabbath support slot at Hyde Park, and in September, bassist and producer Bill Gould confirmed that they were working on a new album.
After more than two years of off-and-on writing, recording and mixing, Sol Invictus finally hit the shops last month to a flurry of critical acclaim. Although Bill Gould is a successful record label owner and producer in his own right, and co-produced Album Of The Year alongside Roli Mosimann, Sol Invictus was the first Faith No More album to be entirely produced by him. What’s more, Bill also engineered the album, which was largely recorded at the group’s rehearsal space-cum-studio, Estudios Koolarrow, in California. Singer Mike Patton’s vocals were overdubbed at his own home studio, echoing the way he’s favoured operating on all musical projects over the last decade, while Matt Wallace was called in to mix the record.
When Faith No More first got together for what would be the album sessions at Estudios Koolarrow, they didn’t even know whether any of the material would ever see the light of day. “We just started working, and nobody talked about albums,” explains Bill. “It was just kind of a way of being creative and just trying to see what we came up with, but it flowed very easily and very quickly. I mean, we didn’t really want to make this thing a big obligation where it was like, ‘We’re making an album now, we need your commitment!’ We just spent a while working amongst ourselves, and we tried to keep it fun rather than a career thing, more like, ‘Let’s just see what happens. We know each other really well so let’s make some sounds. If we don’t like what we do, the world will never know!’ I think the whole way it came together was really the best way it could have happened.”
The decision for Gould to engineer, and to record in the rehearsal facility, followed naturally from this mindset. Bill already had a load of studio gear set up at Estudios Koolarrow, and he’d also cut one album there for experimental Chilean collective Como Asesinar a Felipes.
“At the beginning, I remember saying, ‘I’ve got all this stuff here so, since we’ve got this resource, let’s just start miking the drums and let’s just start having some fun and making some sounds,’” recalls Gould. “And it sounded pretty good! That kind of kick-started a process and we just decided to continue in the rehearsal room. Initially, I just thought we were miking things up to help with ideas and to help us be creative, but it came to the point where nobody was really in any hurry to bring any outside people in. We were comfortable with each other already and the performance is always a really good one when it’s just amongst ourselves. Everyone said, ‘Well, why don’t we just produce it ourselves? Why don’t you produce it?’ and I was just like, ‘Oh god, man, that’s a responsibility! I mean, my stuff’s going to get stacked up next to Andy Wallace’s stuff and Matt Wallace’s stuff! [Andy Wallace produced 1995’s King For A Day Fool For A Lifetime, while Matt Wallace co-produced Faith No More’s first four albums] I don’t know if I can handle that kind of pressure!’ but, you know, it was really cool actually. It was a real vote of confidence by them and it really motivated me to really work hard on it. I have no problem producing other bands but I didn’t ever expect to be producing this band!”
When it comes to writing songs, Faith No More have never kept to a single tried-and-tested formula. “This is a unique band,” says Bill. “There’s all kinds of processes and we try to keep our processes open to basically anything, just like we try to keep our styles open in just about any way. I think the thing that we try to do is keep ourselves out of boxes so that we’re not always using the same formula to approach songs. We get things from old ideas and new ideas. Sometimes, somebody starts something and that starts the process, and sometimes somebody’s written a whole song. It comes from wherever we can get it, really. The most important point is that it all fits together at the end as a whole, and that actually takes more doing than the writing. Coming up with the material is a lot easier than making it all fit together.
“Going back to us in the early days when we worked with some great producers and we were on a major label, we always still had this do-it-yourself thing. We always tried to have all arrangements done before we went in the studio so that the producer always kind of acted more like an engineer, and didn’t get much involved with sounds and arrangements. We did all that on our own. We’ve always operated that way, and that process goes a long way towards how things sound at the end and how things fit together. All that probably takes the most amount of time. You can have a musical idea but how the actual instruments fit together like Lego blocks is really the core of the whole thing. It’s one thing for people to have abstract ideas, but then you have to actually make that idea fit with everybody in the way they approach things, and that idea also has to sound right and feel right. That takes quite a bit of back and forth and experimenting and listening and stuff like that.”
Even though the band collaborate on these decisions, balancing the roles of bass player, co-songwriter, recording engineer and producer was still a challenge for Bill Gould. “The production part’s not so bad. Like I said, we were always into arranging our music before we went in the studio so I was kind of always doing that. I think the production and the writing come hand in hand for how the songs are going to be put together from their very core, but it was real challenging because, you know, I also like to be part of this band as a bass player, just working on my part rather than thinking about the big picture all the time. That is a bit of a challenge and that’s one of the things that maybe takes a little more time, digesting everything but then also being able to walk away from it. Taking off one hat and putting on another hat. You know, it’s not just a matter of putting the hat on, you do have to live in each hat a little bit.”
While Faith No More’s approach to arranging their material is unpredictable, Bill Gould’s chosen order for tracking at Estudios Koolarrow followed a more regular pattern. On Sol Invictus, drums and bass were laid down first, followed by guitar and piano overdubs. The last things to be completed were singer Mike Patton’s lyrics and the recording of his vocals, which were cut at his own home studio where he has his own unique gear setup.
“It all started with drums and bass, as far as physical tracking goes,” explains Gould. “We were in a room that was kind of like a corrugated shed, and it’s not a sterile recording room. It has a lot of instruments stacked in it so there’s a lot of diffusion there, and it kind of has its own vibe and sound. The first thing we did was we got the overheads up and [the whole process] really started with the overhead mics. They really kind of captured the vibe, which helped us get creative in the first place. That’s the way I look at it. It just sounded really good in that room and so I started supplementing the overheads with kick mics and snare mics and everything else. Once we were recording, we always got the drums down first and sometimes I played bass with Mike [Bordin, drummer] or we’d have Jon [Hudson] playing guitar with him just to the point where it was feeling really solid.
“It was our space, so I had time to fool around, and I did a lot of stuff on my own when the other guys weren’t there. I thought it was really important to have everything together before we started recording. I don’t want, say, Mike the drummer sitting around waiting for me to try a bunch of different drum mics out and try all these different things out, so I do stuff on my own and, that way, when he is there, he can just start playing and we can just talk about the music, not about different microphones.
“Starting with the kick drum, I used an AKG D30, but then I sometimes used the Shure Beta 52A and I used a [Yamaha SKRM-100] Subkick too at times. On the snare drum, I had a [Shure] SM57 or sometimes the Telefunken M80. It’s a little more of an open kind of mic. With the toms, I used a [Shure] Beta 52A on the floor tom, which I really liked. It’s really got a lot of bottom and some top but it’s got a thing where it kind of glues things together with the rest of the kit when you bring it in. It worked really well with the overhead mics. I also used a [Shure] SM7 on one tom. For overhead mics, of all things, I used these [MXA] MCA SP1s. They’re these $39 microphones, and I had them modified by Jim Williams from Audio Upgrades. I changed the capsules on them to these [AKG] C12 capsules that I got from this company called Microphone Parts, and they just sounded really good.There’s just something about them and they didn’t sound like overheads that I was familiar with. They gave Mike’s kit a kind of dirty, grainy darkish sound that gave it a real vibe. I honestly think that the predominant part of Mike’s drum sound is those overheads. It’s not a typical drum sound. It’s not a sterile scientific, surgical sound. There’s almost a visual to them. I used the U67 head on a Korby KAT microphone for a mono drum mic, and then I used these JZ Microphones Vintage V11s as stereo room mics. They were really cool.”
The single-room space at Estudios Koolarrow did present Gould with certain issues during the recording process, especially when it came to tracking the drums. “It is a real big challenge that there’s no control room,” he admits. “All the gear and everything was all in the same room and Mike [Bordin] is a very loud hard-hitting drummer. When I was listening on the monitors, things sounded really good and I thought everything was fine. It wasn’t until a day or two later sometimes that I’d hear some snare honks or some distortion on the floor tom that I hadn’t actually heard at the time, so we’d have to come back and do a couple of things again. Not having any isolation there was a real challenge but there was a good side to it in that I was just sitting in the room with him when we were recording. There was absolutely great energy in the way the performances always came out really natural with that setup.”
As Faith No More’s bassist since their inception back in 1981, Bill Gould knows exactly what he needs to nail his bass sound in the studio. “My live amp is an Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 — or a pair of them, I should say — into two [Ampeg] SVT cabinets. But, for the recording, I used a Fender Bassman Pro 300, which has great tone but is very unreliable, travel-wise. I’ve done recordings where I’ve done a single pass but then when it’s been time to do overdubs or fixes five minutes later the tone has already changed dramatically! I sometimes used a Royer R121 ribbon and I would sometimes use a [Shure] Beta 52. I actually also used [Yamaha SKRM-100] Subkick on all the bass, which was sometimes used in the mixing, but I always like to have bottom end because it’s always good to capture it. You can always not use it, but if you don’t have it and you need it, it’s very hard to bring in later. It never quite sounds the same if you have to approximate that sub stuff.”
For Jon Hudson’s guitar tones, meanwhile, “We basically used Jon’s [Marshall] JCM800 and a Royer R121 and [Shure SM]57 combination for the most part. I also had a Kemper [Profiling Amp] that we used so we would capture Jon’s tones, and then Jon would take the Kemper home and work on things further. For the most part, we used [the Kemper] for blending with Jon’s original tones later when it came to mix time. You know, there’s always one character that an amp is missing that you can complement with another sound, and the Kemper was really good for that.”
One of the most characteristic stand-out sounds on Sol Invictus is that of Roddy Bottum’s piano, despite the fact that the Steinway they’d acquired was not completely in tune. “Roddy came over from New York to record his keyboard parts and we had an old Steinway piano in the studio, which was actually Mike Borden’s grandmother’s!” laughs Bill. “It was a small Steinway, smaller than an upright. We tuned it as best we could before we started but it just wasn’t quite completely in tune. It did seem to fit with the character of the room, though, sharing that kind of imperfect personality and it seemed to work. We spent a couple of weeks with Roddy just with piano parts and miking the pianos and getting everything where it sonically fitted with what we were getting with the drums and bass and guitars. That was the key. We used those JZ [Microphones] Vintage 11s for the most part because they have a lot of bottom end in them, which I think added to the kind of creepiness of the piano. We did move the mics around too. We used them behind the soundboard and in front of the soundboard. It varied from song to song.”
The final overdubs on the album were Mike Patton’s vocals, which were laid down at his own home studio. “We made super-rough demo versions of some songs and sent them to Mike to work on, which is the way we’ve always worked in the past, but generally speaking, vocals were always the last thing to track. The big arrangements and the musical parts go first, and Mike kind of fits himself into that. He’s got a studio at his house and he’s got this little system that he likes to record with. He’s been doing things that way for the past 12 or 13 years, and it’s kind of interesting actually, but it’s very unorthodox. He’s just found a way where it works for him. He has an old Orban spring reverb that he really likes that he can drive, which he almost uses like a guitar pedal. And he has these compression settings where he just knows where it feels good for him. He gets a good performance but then he also knows where the sweet spots are and how he can drive it. He also has some kind of funky old delay which he distorts and he brings that in too and records it on a separate track. You can blend that to taste, if you want it. I don’t even know what it is but it’s really funky. Mike has a [Neumann] U87. That’s his mic but we actually did use a [JZ Microphones] Vintage 11 on a couple of things. On some songs, it was great for his voice but on others not so great. It did kind of complement his U87 that he’s always used in the past and that he knows really well. Between those two, we had it covered.”
Although Bill Gould was initially planning to mix Sol Invictus himself at Estudios Koolarrow, he eventually chose to get old pal Matt Wallace in to provide some outside assistance. “We did mix the first single ‘Motherfucker’ in our spot, and I was going to mix the whole record there,” Bill tells us. “But the touring was looming and, also, it was the kind of thing where you’re so close to material, you can just end up over-analysing everything. I just really felt I needed to have somebody with me who could tell me it was OK, because I was hearing every flaw. I’ve known Matt since I was 18 years old and he knows us backwards so, at the last minute, I just called him up to ask him, and he was totally into it. It’s actually ended up being fantastic, and it’s the best thing we could have done, because he knows the band and he knew what he wanted to do. I was kind of involved in it too, but only to the point where we’d just check in with each other. If he was feeling good about something then I could relax and vice versa!”
“It was originally the rehearsal space of a local Bay Area band called MIRV,” says Bill Gould of Estudios Koolarrow. “When Faith No More reunited in 2009, they told us that they had a vacancy. Later, they themselves moved out, and I decided to take the other half of the space myself, to use as a production spot. This meant that I had all of my gear available in the same place where Faith No More rehearsed, so miking things up was a very convenient thing to do.
“[In terms of acoustic treatment] I have an ASC Attack Wall that goes around my console, and I put that around the drums sometimes. I also have a lot of those 2x4 RealTraps that I put behind the drums, especially if the drums are against the wall and I don’t want the wall bouncing back into the microphone and to different parts of the room. The good thing about the place is that the ceilings are really high. They’re about 18 feet high and it’s about an 1800 square-foot room, so it’s kind of like an airplane hangar. For bass frequencies, that’s really good — we don’t get a lot of those standing waves coming back, because it’s big enough and we also have trappings in the corners. That part’s pretty solid.
“I have an SSL Matrix console, which I got about three or four years ago, and I’ve really been happy with it. It’s really cool for monitoring with the drums. I had all my preamps hard-patched in already. It actually sounds really good for mixing, and I like it better than mixing in the box. We mixed the ‘Motherfucker’ single there and we used the Matrix for that and it was great. It’s also not too big and it’s just a really great usable thing that actually does what I need.
“I’ve got a mish-mash of outboard. I have a Pendulum MDP1, which is really cool and is my go-to pre. I use it for most things. I’ve also got a Thermionic [Culture] Rooster, which is fucking amazing, and I’ve got a pair of Telefunken V76s. I’ve also got some of those Classic API VP26s and I used a few of those for drums. Then, I have a pair of Neve 1272s, the Vintech ones with the old blue box. I used those for drum overheads and for room mics.
“There is one cool thing that actually had a lot to do with the vibe, and I would have never expected that. I have eight channels of JCS A-D/D-A converters. They’re very, very, very pricey but I heard them and I agonised over it for two months before I got them. After about a month of not sleeping, my wife just told me to go for it! And I’ve never looked back. There’s a quality that these have which is just amazing. They just make everything feel like a record and pull everything together.
“There was also a plug-in that I really liked: the Zynaptiq Unfilter. That was really awesome for me with the overhead mics where there was room resonance-type stuff that was really hard to get rid of. It’s an unusual room where you just get a little bit of concentration on certain things but the Unfilter kind of shows you where they are, so you can just pull a little bit of that off and, again, it just helps everything fit together. It was a cool little resource.”
Sol Invictus was recorded to Pro Tools and Bill Gould uses Focal Twin monitors.