Photo: Meg Sheff-Atteberry
Under Mics with the Oranges Band
PopMatters has had plenty of nice things to say about Baltimore’s The Oranges Band (specifically here and here. When the band announced that they were headed into the studio to begin work on their new record, having soldiered through personnel changes and struggles at their label, Lookout Records, it seemed like an excellent time to catch up and to allow them to speak for themselves by cataloging the happenings. Over the next several weeks, Oranges Band frontman Roman Kuebler will write in with updates from the sessions for the band’s third full-length. Here’s part three…
I feel like when we play live or rehearse, the songs we are playing are always subject to the performance and the instruments and the room and the energy. That is, clearly, what makes a live performance unique. It is also sometimes why the song itself must take a back seat to that energy and performance. Over the years, we’ve all heard about those incredible live bands that can’t seem to translate their talents into a recording, right? I always heard that about the Poster Children… maybe Jesus Lizard, too. I never much agreed with it because I was a huge fan of both band’s records and maybe, because I came across the albums before I saw them live, I had an appreciation for both the recorded and live dynamic. Their records are so great.
Anyways, this is just to say that in conceiving this album we approached the tracking as a live band in order to get a, sort of, natural feel. But the idea was never to make a “live” album because we still want to be able to highlight the songs so the next step was to begin the overdubbing process. It’s, ideally, a best-of-both-worlds scenario that will hopefully allow the songs to develop and focus outside of the mayhem of the practice room… but not too much. Get it?
Roman and Adam setting up for the overdub.
Dave, the Oranges Band’s all-time drummer, has both the easiest and the hardest job in the band. He has to put up with me in the practice room trying to describe how I think a song should feel in this sort of broken drummer language that consists of me trying to mimic bass and snare drums with my mouth and by beating on my chest and stuff. We should get Doug E. Fresh to be a translator. The other part of his job that is really difficult is tracking. Drums, in my opinion, can not really be overdubbed… not without sounding like it at least.
So in going for the live takes, Dave pretty much had to nail each one. Not easy. Guitars and basses, even when meant to be live can be “fixed” without too much evidence but the drums have got to be there. BUT… once Dave gets through the songs, his work is mostly done, that’s the easy part. He gets to soak in a job well done while we try so earnestly not to ruin his hard work. And there has been more than one occasion when we’ve had some really awesome basic tracks that didn’t make it through the rest of the process. I guess that’s a lame part of his job, too.
Doug lighting it up, pt. 1.
OK, so Dave is done and Pat, the youthful bass player of the group, comes in to “dial in” his parts. There are a lot of recording terms for the process that describe fixing up the things you screwed up while tracking like “dial in” and “tweak” and “tighten up” and maybe, more so in Pat’s case, “caress”. Anyways, it was funny because we made a big production of getting Pat into the studio at a certain time that worked for everyone involved and having the equipment available only to realize that his parts were all tight as is. The stuff we thought needed the fixes were other people’s mistakes… mostly mine, of course. Well, we had fun listening to the tracks at least!
This is an interesting stage in the recording because you pretty much have your basics covered. Bass and drums are good to go. The guitars are present and accounted for, at least in their “live” state. So now you have to determine what to add to make the song better. Problem is, the world is available to you at this stage but, as is the real challenge of making an album, you must restrict yourself in some way. Luckily for us, we have budget restrictions and really no access to an orchestra so the process, at least, begins to come into focus. Rule #1-There will be NO orchestra on this record. Rule #2- This will not be “Chinese Democracy II”.
Doug lighting it up, pt 2.
OK, so without an orchestra, or a string section, or a grand (or even baby grand or even upright) piano we begin the overdubs with what else… MORE GUITARS! My personal approach to overdubbing guitars has always been a bit of a shotgun styled attack. Plug the guitar in, turn the tape on start playing and see what sticks. In some cases this has yielded some pretty cool lead lines. They have been sort of one note melody lines that just kind of boost up the chord structure… at least that is how I think of them. The approach to my guitar overdubs on this album, though, is rather different. I have to say that while overdubbing lead guitars is fun and I think I have had reasonable success, I am NO lead guitar player. See when our previous lead guitar player left the group, he did so… mysteriously. I mean, it wasn’t clear that it was happening and we had shows scheduled. Now I am too proud and altogether too stubborn to cancel shows so the show goes on, right?
Well, we did go on as a three-piece for a little while. And then as a three piece with an occasional fourth guitar and backing vocalist and then kind of back to the three piece. We struggled with line-up fluctuations for most of the year last year. We were trying to figure out how to present ourselves live while we were putting together our next group of songs and figuring out how they would be recorded. It was a pain the ass and I learned a very important lesson… that I am NO lead guitar player and that I needed help!
Doug checking the goods, pt. 1
The other thing that I was reasonably sure of, in the context of the recording, was that I was really looking for another player who could influence how these songs sounded and affect their outcome as recorded pieces. So, what does this have to do with my guitar overdubs? It means that I didn’t really want to do any… or very little at least. I wanted to crank out my rhythm guitars, add to them in the context of the rhythm only and let Doug open up on the leads and second guitar. So my guitar overdubs took about a day, I think, and consisted of me just peppering in a little rhythmic addition here or there, an acoustic guitar that mimics my electric and oh yeah, the “guitar takeover”.
Wha? Listen, I will let you in on a secret technique that I have devised called the “guitar takeover”. I am perfecting the style and approach but, what you need to know is that while the band is playing a microphone marches across the room focusing on a guitar and as it gets closer to the speaker, that particular guitar engulfs the entire song like an avalanche. That’s all I can say for now… be prepared.
Doug checking the goods, pt. 2
When Doug Gillard came down from New York to join us for our first practice back in January, we had a show scheduled for the next night. It was cutting it a bit close but I certainly wasn’t worried about it not working out. See, we had traded some tapes and I got a sense of what kind of ideas he had and also, he and I had practiced in New York the week before. There I got a sense, not that he was completely ready and decided about what he wanted to do, but that could learn the songs without problem and that he definitely had ideas and could execute them. You know, I’d also seen him play with Guided By Voices on no less than 30 occasions and in those 30 shows I must have seen him play 100 different GBV songs.
As far as job interviews go, those shows were pretty convincing. So we are gathering to practice and the other guys in the band must have been a little apprehensive… I mean to play a show with someone they’d practiced with one time? It’s a little nerve racking. Well, about one minute into our first song at practice, everyone is all smiles and it’s pretty much like, “Yes, I am the genius that I suspected I might be!” A very smart person will come up with a way to do something themselves, but a genius will be smart enough to get someone who is better at it to do it for them.
This is all to say that in doing guitar overdubs, Doug was the man and had everything in place. I will admit to you that I actually slept through at least some of his takes. It was so awesome because I think I was working hard at my day job at the time and would be tired when we were in the studio… so I’d kind of doze off and when I woke up there would be this great guitar part that wasn’t there before. Pennies from Heaven! This is why I can only claim CO-producer credit on this album… it’s because I slept through part of the recording. This is also why I don’t have a lot of details about his overdubbing. I was sleeping or getting coffee or something while Adam (engineer) and Doug turned it out. Two days later and Doug had polished off all nine songs.
Now with pretty much all the instruments in place, I really have to concentrate on writing a few lyrics and we’ll start tracking vocals… next episode.
Doug working out the parts for “When Your Mask Is Your Revealing Feature”