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Wild Beasts

Wild Beasts, Lexxx & Leo Abrahams: Recording Present Tense By Tom Doyle
Published April 2014

From their gear choices to their recording techniques, everything about Wild Beasts' approach to production is unconventional.

Over the course of eight years and four albums, Kendal's Wild Beasts have proven themselves a highly intriguing and characterful musical outfit. Having developed from the frenetic, falsetto‑voiced indie of their first two records (2008's Limbo, Panto and 2009's Two Dancers) through to the slow‑burning and atmospheric Smother in 2011, with its moody echoes of key 1980s bands such as Japan, the Associates and the Blue Nile, they have just released their latest long‑player Present Tense, which adds more synthesizers to their sonic mix.

For the instrument‑swapping foursome — Hayden Thorpe (vocals, bass, guitar, keyboards), Tom Fleming (vocals, guitar, keys), Ben Little (guitar, keys) and Chris Talbot (drums, vocals) — the move away from guitars was very much an intentional one. "Guitars were definitely a secondary thought,” says Thorpe. "We wanted to take a step away from that, mostly because we've now got a few synths: the [Roland] Juno 6 and a [DSI] Prophet 08 and a Roland D50.

"Really, when you're writing songs, you're telling stories,” he adds. "You're trying to putWild Beasts: from left, Tom Fleming, Chris Talbot, Ben Little and Hayden Thorpe.Wild Beasts: from left, Tom Fleming, Chris Talbot, Ben Little and Hayden Thorpe.Photo: Klaus Thymann ideas across, and if you play an A minor on a guitar, it carries with it the legacy of a guitar. When you play it on a synth, you're getting this kind of glacial landscape and you can tell the story a lot more vividly and a lot more widescreen. So all of a sudden it felt like we were working in CGI rather than 8mm.”

Always Moving On

For the recording of their debut Limbo, Panto, Wild Beasts put themselves wholly in the hands of producer Tore Johansson, who had successfully produced the first album by their Domino Records labelmates Franz Ferdinand. Travelling to Johansson's Gula Studio in Malmo, Sweden, to make the record was an eye‑opening experience for the band. "I actually think it was the making of us,” says Thorpe. "The label put their money where their mouth was and sent us to Sweden for six weeks to work in a beautiful wooden studio with world‑class people, and we had very leftfield, quite audacious ideas. Just the process of being able to see through those ideas I think was a huge education for us. That Swedish way of working is incredible. It's all about process and technique and old‑fashioned craftsmanship. And I think that still really shines in our work.”

From its Two Dancers successor on, Wild Beasts have co‑produced their albums, working on that record and its follow‑up, Smother, with engineer/producer Richard Formby. "The first person to ever put us to tape was Richard,” says Talbot. "He's an incredibly gentle presence in the studio — just encourages and lets you get on with it and makes suggestions that seem like they've been picked out of thin air, but then they just make sense completely when you get them onto tape.”

"Producers for the most part are put in place for the label to feel reassured that they're gonna get something sellable,” Thorpe argues. "Whereas Richard's parameters are very left of that, which really was perfect for us, because we go into the studio thinking we're putting together these hugely crafted and orchestrated pop songs, but to the wider ear it's far more alternative than that.”

Fleming laughs and adds, "What Richard said about us as a band was, 'You guys think that what you do is normal… it's not, but you think it is.'”

Despite their close partnership with Formby, Wild Beasts decided to work with a different team for Present Tense, namely Lexxx (aka Alex Dromgoole, who was originally trained by Mark 'Spike' Stent and who mixed both Two Dancers and Smother) and Leo Abrahams, whose The band's fourth album Present Tense is much more keyboard‑based than its predecessors.The band's fourth album Present Tense is much more keyboard‑based than its predecessors.production/arranging credits include Brian Eno and Carl Barat. "We just wanted to make a record that sounded different this time, and it was a kind of spiritual leap not to be with Richard,” says Thorpe. "But he was missed at certain points. He was always the fifth vote, the decisive vote, so which way Richard went we would go. And with Lexxx and Leo, it's a hung parliament. But they definitely took on a lot of the sonic responsibility; we'd point them in a direction and they'd go in it, so we were able to think a bit less. Leo was like the emotional director. He'd have an emotion graph and say, 'This is where it needs to get to,' and plot how we were gonna get there.”

From his point of view, Abrahams understood that Wild Beasts wanted to move their sound on without becoming overly polished or commercial. "I think they wanted to shake up their process a little bit,” he says, "and that's why they wanted to bring in somebody like me who comes from a slightly different background, I suppose.”

"It was really interesting actually,” says Lexxx, "'cause Leo came on at quite a late stage, in terms of the relationship we have. I guess over the course of those two previous records, we discovered that we sort of have this shared aesthetic for how they sound as a band. It's an unspoken thing. We just do it and it works. I never have to kind of second‑guess what I'm doing because I know that we have shared taste.”

Making Arrangements

Abrahams admits, though, that he felt like the new boy on the sessions, and initially had to work out exactly what his role was, since he wasn't manning the desk. "It was quite strange,” he says. "Lexxx is such a stupendous engineer, I didn't do any engineering. With engineers their natural sound is like a fingerprint. It's a really delicate and unquantifiable thing that cumulatively, as more and more things get recorded, leads to a sound. It was clear to me really early on that that was going to be a very important part of the record and I should just stay out of the way a bit.”

Instead Abrahams concentrated on working with the band on a more musical level, helping with arrangements and parts, even down to changing chord inversions. "Usually with bands I'm incredibly reticent to play anything because it interferes with the natural balance of the band. But it turned out quite quickly that they were really up for me playing stuff.”

"Well, although I'm a musician, I'm nowhere near the level of musician that Leo is,” says Lexxx. "I can play, come up with ideas, structure things and arrange. But Leo can reimagine the melodic form of an entire song, which I can do to maybe a crass stage. But he can do it in almost any way you want, with his background as an arranger.”

Very early on in the life of Present Tense, Hayden Thorpe went to Lexxx's house to sketch out song ideas on the producer's home Pro Tools setup. "We just threw a lot of stuff down,” says Lexxx. "Almost completely unrecognisable versions of the songs you now hear on the record, like Palace and Mecca.”

In the wake of this, the group got together in their writing studio in the basement of a block of flats in Homerton, East London, before they were forced to vacate the space and moved into a railwayThe Distillery is unusual in having enormous picture windows, and hence lots of natural light. This is the main live area.The Distillery is unusual in having enormous picture windows, and hence lots of natural light. This is the main live area. arch in Deptford, South East London. Here they began working up songs written by Thorpe and co‑frontman Tom Fleming, playing through them as a band and using in‑the‑box Logic instruments for basic drum and synth programming.

"What was done in‑box was only trying to do what we couldn't do in the room,” says Thorpe. "I think it's very easy to let the box guide you and the computer out‑perfect you. Although we used in‑box a lot more, it was always what we could do in the room that tended to win. I think we're very much collaborators in the old‑fashioned sense of the word, in that we make a mess, and it's dysfunctional and it's fraught sometimes, but at other times it's absolutely thrilling.”

New Rooms

From Deptford, pre‑production moved to Lexxx's room at Konk Studios which houses an SSL 6048 E console and an overdub room large enough to set up Chris Talbot's drum kit and begin recording. "Pre‑production was our safe word,” Thorpe laughs. "You say it's pre‑production and if nothing comes out of it, there's nothing lost.”

"When we started in Lexxx's studio,” Abrahams remembers, "some of the songs were still in quite a fluid state. We did more than one version of lots of songs. It's funny, recording is such a fluid process, isn't it? One day you'll put one sound on a track and suddenly it's like turning a light on and discovering a whole part of the room that you never knew was there, and you can just follow that new direction. Also, you can do that all day, and then come in the next day and decide it sounds like shit [laughs]. We had loads of fun experimenting with different ways the songs could go.”

These sessions proved productive, with the foundations of two key tracks being laid down at Konk, namely Present Tense's propulsive, synth‑driven opener 'Wanderlust' and atmospheric ballad 'A Dog's Life', with its inventive patchwork drum part, which sounds collaged but was in fact recorded more or less live in one pass. "That was off‑the‑cuff,” says Talbot. "Leo and Lexxx said, 'Just go in and have a play around.' It was kind of still being thought about as it was being done. I just dropped a stick on the snare and it sounded right.”

"There's an [Akai] MPC [2000XL] beat in that which was added to it,” says Fleming, "but the drums were pretty much one take. I think the ride is overdubbed or something. We were all in the control room listening to it and Lexxx just went, 'Yeah, come through.' And it was done.”

"The drums on 'A Dog's Life' were done with just four mics on the kit,” says Lexxx. "An original [Neumann] valve 47, a FET 47 outside the kick and two [Shure] 57s on the snare. I used Neve 1272 preamps and a little bit of EQ on the main 47 with an original API 550. The 1272s are the ones for me. You hear so many people obsessing over gear, but it's important to find something that you like and trust and not worry about it.”

Brewing Up

For the main block of tracking for Present Tense, Wild Beasts wanted to relocate to a residential studio and chose Distillery in Wiltshire, designed by Harris Grant Associates (also responsible forThe Distillery control room. To the left is the Roland Jupiter 8 synth which played such an important role in the production.The Distillery control room. To the left is the Roland Jupiter 8 synth which played such an important role in the production. Peter Gabriel's Real World and Hit Factory in New York), with an emphasis on space and natural light. "We were recording in Spring,” says Thorpe, "and the studio has a big glass front, so we were having daylight from seven 'til nine and that's kind of rare. You noticed the greenery and the blue skies and I think that did absorb into the consciousness of what we were doing.”

At Distillery, the team recorded to tape using an Otari MTR90, simultaneously dumping the results to Pro Tools via Endless Analog's CLASP 24 system. They worked mainly on the studio's SSL console, but for vocal chains and some drum mics, also used the facility's vintage eight‑channel Universal Audio desk, which they were thrilled to discover had formerly been owned by Frank Sinatra. "I think you're always searching when you're in a studio for a kind of legacy to attach yourself to,” says Thorpe, "to kind of convince yourself that this is legitimate. You're trying to find the mythology within the equipment to kind of feel like, 'Well, if Frank pulled it off with this, we're gonna pull it off through this.' And you can find reassurance in that.”

For his part, it was Lexxx's first experience of working at Distillery and he admits he was slightly anxious about the prospect. "It's a pretty amazing studio,” he says, "but I was a bit apprehensive because it's this big glass box and that's not really my thing, that kind of bright, aggressive tone. For me it's all about warmth and detail and space and contrast. I was worried that it was going to be really brash and difficult.”

The first task was to find a place in the live room to position the drum kit. "We moved the kit around for a few hours with Chris,” says Lexxx. "We hired two kits: a '60s Slingerland and a '60s Ludwig. And [laughs] basically we ended up in the corner of the room by the door that goes between the control room and the live room, so you couldn't even get through. It was the only place in the room that I thought the kit sounded good, because it was this corner that was all fabric. We stuck it in there and the kit was just singing.”

"Chris is so interesting,” says Abrahams. "He almost reminds me of a classical percussionist, but with all the groove and attitude of a drummer in a rock band. He really thinks about his parts and comes up with things which seem like they would be awkward or unintuitive to play, and yet with his natural feel it ends up being such a big part of the Wild Beasts sound.”

Human Bass

For bass, Thorpe mainly played Lexxx's '70s short‑scale Fender Mustang bass through an Ampeg B15 amp, blended with a DI through a Tech 21 Sansamp. "Bass is such a meat‑and‑two‑veg instrument,” says Thorpe, "and I love that about it. If it gives a thump then it's ready.” Often, the bass parts would be replaced or duplicated with a synth, using a kick drum pulse to trigger Lexxx's Roland Jupiter 4. "It's a bit of a pop trick,” says Fleming. "But we wanted something that sounded more human.”

Where the band did turn to guitars, they wanted to make sure that they were used for emphasis rather than as part of a layered sound, as with their previous records. "When the guitars are in on this record, they're definitely in,” says Fleming. "There's not much texturing going on.”

As Wild Beasts' main guitarist, Ben Little tended to use his trusty Burns Marquee. "It's a real cheap model which I've had since I was 14,” he says, "and it always soun .”

"Only Ben can play it,” Thorpe laughs. "Any time I've picked it up, it's told me to fuck off very quickly.”

"A lot of the guitar parts are just a Telecaster DI'd into the desk,” adds Fleming, "often through a compressor pedal, like a Nile Rodgers pop thing.”

When other guitar effects were used, they tended to be chorus‑based, mainly originating with Abrahams' Roland Chorus Echo or his Earthquaker Rainbow Machine pedal. Neatly bridging the guitar/synth divideThe Universal Audio tube console at the Distillery was reportedly once used by Frank Sinatra.The Universal Audio tube console at the Distillery was reportedly once used by Frank Sinatra. during the sessions meanwhile was Abrahams' Korg X911 guitar synth. "It's from the late '70s, and the sounds in it are basically MS20 sounds controlled by pitch to voltage from the guitar,” he says. "It's pretty bad in the way it follows, and also the filtering is a bit more primitive than the MS20. But you can treat the guitar signal with all the envelopes in the synth, so a lot of the kind of percussive guitar sounds which sound ambiguously like synth or guitar, that's the Korg guitar synth with the synth turned off, but the envelope set to really short release.”

One other synthesizer that ended up much used was Distillery's Roland Jupiter 8. "Just the best thing I've ever played with,” Fleming enthuses, "in terms of both sound and what you could get out of it just by messing around with it slightly. That's all over the record.”

The Jupiter 8 was to provide the solution to what was proving to be the most difficult track to nail: the rolling‑grooved pop of 'Mecca'. "It went through Krautrock to soft R&B,” says Thorpe, "and eventually the compass kind of landed on a direction. But it was only right at the very last minute.”

"I remember that one being the hardest,” says Abrahams. "It's always difficult with songs that have two extremely strong sections where either could be the chorus. You just end up in this massive war of escalation between the verse and the chorus. I think with that song it just got too big and the hard thing was to rein it in. In the end there was a particular sound that they found on the Jupiter 8, this kind of whooshing, very slow‑attack big pad. That suddenly pointed the direction to a new approach. When that sound came out, it was like everyone knew at the same time, 'Ah, OK, we've cracked it.'”

After two weeks at Distillery, the team decamped back to Konk, moving between Lexxx's SSL room and the studio's Neve 8040 main room, where additional vocals were recorded and the band added the choir voices effects to 'Wanderlust' using a Mellotron M400. "It's kind of a blend of real Mellotron and then a programmed one that I ran through the MS20,” says Lexxx. "I do a lot of half‑speed stuff, so I'll record it to tape double speed and then pitch it down. Or I'll record it an octave up at normal speed, half‑speed the tape, print it back into Pro Tools then recut it, just to get a different tone.”

In The Balance

Mixing for Present Tense took place over the summer of 2013 in Lexxx's SSL room at Konk. While the band attended the sessions, at this point Abrahams stepped away. "I was off doing something else,” he says, "and so I was getting sent mixes. I felt like my contributions to the songs had been made. It was pretty much obvious by the end of the tracking what sort of shape the tracks were in because myself and Lexxx had been there the whole time and been pretty fastidious about what got recorded. The mix was never going to be like an interpretation of lots of tracks. It was just improving what was already there.”

For Lexxx, because of his particularly decisive method of recording, mixing the album wasn't an overly complicated process. "With this record, mixing was basically balancing,” he says. "I don't really do much, 'cause I record everything how I want it to sound. Literally everything is EQ'd and compressed to tape how I want it. What I really like about the SSL is the automation. I don't like riding stuff in Pro Tools.”

Lexxx admits that he owes much to MarkThe band's own Roland Juno 6 and DSI Prophet 08 were also well used.The band's own Roland Juno 6 and DSI Prophet 08 were also well used. 'Spike' Stent in terms of his approach to mixing. "The way Spike runs the automation is something that I kind of took on,” he says. "It's a really simple way of balancing that means that you're not thinking too much about what you're doing. The SSL I use doesn't have moving faders, so you can't see where your balances are, you just have to listen. You find balances for different sections and keep rehearsing them, and then just drop in.

"There wasn't really much in terms of EQ or compression or effects — maybe a bit of plate [reverb] because they've got some really nice [EMT 140] plates at Konk that can be patched in. When I track, I print the reverbs and tape echoes. I use the Echoplex and the Echolette, the old valve one, and use my Revox as well for tape delay.”

The band all agree that they had every confidence in Lexxx mixing the tracks. "We could hear that the roughs sounded good,” Little points out. At the 11th hour, though, Chris Talbot admits he had an issue with his hi‑hat pattern on closing track 'Palace'. "Just with it being the same pattern all the way through,” he says. "No‑one else did. But it was to the point where I made us try some other stuff out at the last minute. And no, it hasn't made the record. The record says I'm wrong, but in my head, I'm right [laughs].”

Ultimately, though, all are clearly very happy with Present Tense. "When you have people involved who care about the record regardless of anything, and you always know you're gonna get that extra element of heart put in it, that's crucial,” Thorpe concludes. "That part of caring about it I think shows in the final product.”  

One Drum At A Time

When the main recording sessions commenced at Distillery, engineer and producer Lexxx had Chris Talbot play his parts separately, drum by drum. "We kind of split the whole kit up,” says Talbot. "We'd get a groove pattern and fix that up and then basically layer the drums one by one. We've never done that before, everything was just normally live takes, but this time Lexxx was pretty insistent and we're not ones to argue, 'cause he's the mixer and he knows exactly how he makes drums sound like he does. It sounds fantastic, having the separation, but still not sounding disjointed because it's fixed to the groove pattern.”

"It's a complex way of working,” Lexxx admits, "but I'd get a take of him playing the whole kit together and I'd create a tempo map from that. Then we'd use that as a timing reference and get him to play the individual parts to his complete performance that was the right feel for the track. I like to use drum mics for accents. So I'll track them all to tape, and then for certain elements — especially 'cause Chris's beats are quite sparse — I'll use an arrangement of room mics to create different accents on different beats. So the kick might have a pair of room mics on it that the snare won't have, to create different tones for the kit. But also maybe the first kick of the bar will have a different room mic on it to the second one, so you create different accent patterns. You do it in Pro Tools, and create an arrangement.”

Undeniable Vocals

When it came to recording the vocals for Present Tense, both of Wild Beasts' singers ended up using Lexxx's valve Neumann U47, despite their very different vocal characteristics — Hayden Thorpe's voice being sweeter and given to octave‑leaping, while Tom Fleming's is generally lower in tone and grainier. "We tried a load of mics out on their voices,” says Lexxx, "but my 47 sounded great on both of them. So it was the 47 through the Neve 1272. We used the Manley Massive Passive EQ, which I'd never used before on vocals, but it sounded incredible. I couldn't believe how good it sounded actually.”

For Thorpe, the album's opening track 'Wanderlust' turned out to be the toughest for him to sing. "Just because it had to sound angry but composed,” he explains. "It's not all right just to be angry and sound angry, it has to be angry and deliver on an emotional level.”

After the sessions moved to Konk and while the remaining vocals were being recorded by Lexxx and the band in the main studio, Leo Abrahams was in the other room comping the existing vocal takes. He admits thatWild Beasts he found the experience strangely moving, due to the singers' highly emotive delivery. "It was really affecting me,” he says. "It was hard to comp some songs, 'cause it was making me really emotional. They're not heavily comped, but obviously the point of the comp is to help tell the story of the song. Actually that was one of the other areas where I feel I did get involved to the point where they hadn't maybe worked on vocals that hard before. They're great singers anyway, but I just wanted all the vocals to have that absolute undeniable quality when something suddenly locks into perfect focus.”