Gilla Band’s new album is one of the least normal things you’ll hear this year...
“Our unplugged set isn’t very good!” laughs Daniel Fox. And that will come as no surprise to anyone who’s heard Gilla Band’s new album Most Normal. Building on their previous work as Girl Band whilst also leaving it far behind, it’s a whirlwind of sonic experiment. In fact, although the Dublin group nominally have a conventional line‑up of drums, bass, guitar and vocals, there’s almost nothing on the album that is identifiable as a guitar sound at all.
“Sometimes even when we try to do things that are normal, it doesn’t really pan out that way!” admits Daniel. “We’re always trying to get a few chords into songs these days, but sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
So how does a band evolve a sound like this, and compose material that would be impossible to sketch out on an acoustic guitar in front of the fire?
“In terms of the songwriting, it’s totally collaborative,” explains Daniel. “It isn’t like one person goes and sits down and writes the song, and then the song is there. Sometimes it’s from playing together, jamming and feeling out sounds, or sometimes we might have a rhythm idea and just put that down and then just go fishing for interesting sounds, and go back and forth and with each other and build up the track that way.
“A lot of the tunes were composed through recording them. They would have started off as demos, and then we would replace our rehearsal space drums and so on. Some of them we would have just tracked the live demo and then started again when we went into the studio, just with some guide bass and guitar. And then there’s a couple of them that we built upon the demo. More so the more abstract tunes, I suppose. There’s a tune called ‘Pratfall’, and I think ‘Post Ryan’ is like that, as well. We basically just had that drum beat, and we hadn’t really written most of the song when we tracked the drums. We just knew that we wanted this one drum beat to go pretty much throughout the whole thing, and then wrote the song around that.
“So it really did vary, because we were recording it over such a long period of time. We didn’t write all the songs and then go into the studio and record it. We were more just chipping away at it. We’d get some demos together, have an idea of what we’re doing and maybe book a day or two up in the studio where I work, just do the drums for maybe three or four songs, and then go back to our rehearsal room and work away. When we were recording all the bass and guitar and everything, we just did that in our rehearsal room, because I own mics and we just bought some preamps and stuff like that.
“The backing track of ‘Capgras’ is just a rehearsal recording. We basically made that rehearsal demo recording, fed it back out into Al [Duggan]’s guitar effects, and blew it out with a bunch of guitar pedals. And then while we were recording it back in, you’ll notice, it only happens once or twice, but the whole track will go out of phase with itself. It was split into two preamps, and we flicked on and off the phase switch of one. So if you listen to it on a phone or something, the whole track will just disappear for a second.”
Daniel Fox: The whole track will go out of phase with itself. It was split into two preamps, and we flicked on and off the phase switch of one. So if you listen to it on a phone or something, the whole track will just disappear for a second.
Many of the extreme sounds were created by feeding guitar effects pedals straight into the recording rig, and sometimes by overloading mic preamps on the way. “There’s lots of DI guitar on it. I think if I’d suggested that to myself when I was younger, I would have thought it would be a terrible idea, but it really, really works on this. I think we’d taken some influence from St Vincent, whose guitar sounds I think are all DI guitar. You just get this inhumanly ‘close’ kind of sound.”
Using a DI box to record extreme guitar sounds also means losing the safety net of a loudspeaker or other filter to roll off the resulting jagged highs. “That inhuman amount of top on it was part of the appeal of the sound to us. If we wanted it to be a bit more regular, we did it through the amps. But most of the time when it goes too far, everyone’s like, ‘Oh, yeah! Can you do that more?’ So I think a lot of what we were going for was being heavy handed on the effects, like filth.”
Daniel’s own instrument is bass, and again, this is usually processed to the point where its origins are not obvious. “There is a small amount of synth stuff,” he admits, “but most of it is bass guitar through pedals again. We’d just mic up the cab and then get a good bit of use out of those Radial JDX things, because a lot of it is about pushing the amp pretty hard. I’ve got this pedal made by WMD, and it’s just like a parametric EQ. I’m just boosting the low end loads and loads, and taking out all the mid and top. And when that hits a bunch of 10‑inch speakers, it will blow them out, obviously, and you get this low subby thing with a little kind of kernel on top of it.
“On a regular DI, you have to compress it into next week, and it doesn’t sound very good. So the Radial thing really, really helps with that, because the amp head is just going to level a lot of that out, anyway.”
As regards studio gear, meanwhile, Daniel says: “We, I think, owe a lot of thanks to the people at Thermionic Culture regarding doing this record. When we were recording, I’d just take parallels while we were recording through the Culture Vulture, and just being able to use the really extreme setting, like pentode two or whatever, with the overdrive it sounds like a mad gate kind of thing. A little really does go a long way so you can kind of get this, like the feeling of it being really distorted and heavy, while still maintaining its danceability, I suppose.”
Talking of danceability, one of the reasons why Most Normal sounds as it does is that Gilla Band look outside their own genre for influence. “A lot of it came down from contemporary hip‑hop records and stuff. There’s this Earl Sweatshirt record called Some Rap Songs where the whole track will just be phased for a couple of seconds, or things will filter down. And it just has this really kind of psychedelic effect to it, where it’s a whole head trip. Obviously, we like guitar music, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it. But it isn’t like we all just listen to rock music all the time, and I guess a lot more of the adventurous production things at the moment would be coming from hip‑hop, especially. A lot of the time, it isn’t like you’d hear something and try to do exactly what the thing was. More trying to do something like it and probably failing in that respect and coming out with your own kind of thing.”
The influence of dance music is apparent in the drum sounds, which owe less to contemporary rock and metal, and more to jungle, drum & bass and even jazz. “When Covid hit, we’d just put in for the advance for the record, so we’d nothing to do except sit on Reverb for like three months, going, ‘Let’s buy some gear!’ So Adam, our drummer, bought an old Buddy Rich Signature Slingerland kit, which is of more of a jazz kit really than an out‑and‑out rock kit. We knew that we wanted it to be different from our other records, which have a meatier drum sound in general, so it just seemed like a natural way to achieve that. Sometimes, if you just paint yourself into a corner, it can be a good thing. It’s like, ‘Well, this is the thing we have, and that’s the style.’”
The kit was tracked by Daniel at Sonic Studios in Dublin. “It was pretty standard, in a way,” he says of the recording. “The room that we recorded them in isn’t particularly big, so we just wanted it dry and punchy with a few options for different kinds of sounds. More so using mutes of the parallels than trying to fit it all in into one big thing.
“I wanted to just get a fairly malleable drum sound, so I used ribbons and condensers on basically everything. It’s just trying to minimise trashiness in the spill, a lot of the time, because a lot of the other instruments are pretty blown out and can be a bit harsh. Minimising that on the drums as much as possible really helps, so you can manipulate the drum sounds without having to do lots of corrective EQ and using gates and stuff like that.
“And then while we were tracking I would send the mono overhead, or the room mic, or the overheads through various compressors, to have some different flavours to be able to blend in, to give us an idea of where we were going, as opposed to recording a totally clean drum sound, and then trying to manipulate it later. So you have a few exciting things to throw into the mix from stage one.
“And then Adam uses lots of little stacks of broken cymbals and stuff like that, so a lot of the weirder things that might sound like eight claps or something, are just stacks of broken cymbals. So I just used pencil condensers for those. We’ve got a pair of those sE Rupert Neve RN17s. And they’re nice. You can get a good bit of detail on them, and they’re pretty neutral.”
The influence of other genres is also apparent in the mix, where the technique of side‑chained compression across the master bus is taken to new and strange places. “I mix hybrid, and pretty much all the compression would be outboard compressors, except for the side‑chain stuff. There’s some pretty heavy‑handed side‑chaining in the mix on a lot of the tracks — pretty much the whole track will be getting side‑chained off the kick drum or whatever — but you can’t apply the side‑chain until you have all the levels set. I’ve got a pair of the Kush Audio Tweakers, and you can give them an external side‑chain signal, but with the latency coming out of Cubase and back in, I couldn’t really get it to work without it being unreliable. So I did all the side‑chain compression in the box. You don’t really need a character compressor for a side‑chain.
“We’ve also figured out how to do the side‑chain thing live, which is nice. Empress make a compressor pedal which you can put a side‑chain input into. So we had to go and buy four of them. One for guitar, bass, a sampler and the vocal. And then we just trigger it off the kick. So if you set it on that setting, it will be side‑chaining coming out through the amps. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do that before in a rock band.
“They’re not the cheapest pedals, so we bought two, and we were just like, ‘Right. Well, we’re already 600 quid in the hole on this effect. It better work.’ And it did, and it’s really effective. So it’s been fun. It’s been challenging, because I guess previously, on our other records, we’d written the songs, recorded the songs, put the record out. So the reverse‑engineering aspect of it is a fun challenge.”
Whereas the guitar and bass on Most Normal are often unrecognisable as such, Dara Kiely’s vocals walk a finer line, being obviously processed in extreme ways, yet retaining their intelligibility. “To start off, we just try to get a nice vocal sound and then go from there,” says Daniel Fox. “A lot of it, once again, is effects processing, and just turning things on and off. We track most of the vocals on a [Gefell] CMV 563. It’s funny to go use a really nice vocal mic and then just ram it to shite afterwards, but it works. We tracked it, and then we’d sit and re‑amp it through, and have a few different passes, and just try different things, and then just go out and maybe pick words or little phrases where we’d want something and just see what we got from the different passes or the different effects we would have used.
“A lot of the effects would be off a [Roland] RE‑501 Chorus Echo, for a lot of the little delay effects. And then, a lot of that kind of pitch‑shifty, warbly thing is off a guitar pedal called Count To 5. You can loop into it, and it will scramble the loop. We were basically trying to get a formant‑shifting effect. There was this tune by a hip‑hop group called Standing On The Corner, called ‘Angel’. It’s this nice slow tune, but the vocal is just doing this slow, quite heavy formant‑shifting thing going up and down. So we were basically trying to do something like that. We tried with the [Soundtoys] Little AlterBoy, but it was kind of too good at doing it. It is doing what it says on the tin, but it just felt a little maybe too clean of a version. But that pedal kind of does it, but doesn’t do exactly it, so it was maybe a bit more interesting.
“I guess some of those pitch‑shift effects would be pulling down from Joe Meek, that varispeed kind of thing. And you get sometimes in isolation, if you cut the vocals and solo with the effect on it, it sounds really stupid. But once again, it has this kind of inhuman quality where it’s like, you know what it is, but it kind of just skews the picture of it, which once again, kind of psychedelic, basically. So you get all these little constantly shifting sounds.
“The reason for doing it with guitar pedals is, they’re cheap, for one, and we already own them, so it was kind of nice just doing re‑amp passes like that. We just go out of the patchbay, through a passive DI, into the pedal and back in through a preamp. You can just play into it, and then at the end of it, you have a lucky dip of nice unexpected things you can get. And even if you go through it and you don’t get what you want, you probably have a better idea of what you want through the process of doing it.”