Studio Diary: Part 1
Back in the windowless room
Studio sessions tend to be the stuff of secret — plans being hatched, methods being devised. You might ruin the surprise should you give away too much. Well, that’s mostly how we’ve operated in the past BUT NOT TODAY. The Decemberists are in the studio, folks, and we’re recording music. Rather than steep these sessions in secrecy, I’m going to just ramble on about the process and maybe that will be of interest to you, dear Machinist. Maybe it will even be of interest to me! It’s an experiment. So without further ado:
Day 1: Monday, February 13th
Today’s the first day of recording. We’ve had these sessions on the books since October-Novemberish, when we had a band meeting/tour debriefing after the summer tour. I didn’t have, like, a full record of songs to get down, but I did have a few and there were some other ideas kicking around, so I thought it’d be a good idea to just get the process going. We haven’t recorded together in a studio, aside from streaming shows and maybe a radio session, since — what — 2017? If anything, it would be fun just to hang out in the rarefied atmosphere of a recording studio for a bit, just to soak in the vibes.
The Decemberists keep bankers’ hours in the studio, 10 am to 6 pm. We have since the recording of Crane Wife. I want to say that the decision was based on our suddenly having kids in the mix, but that’s not true — I think even back then, we were too boring and uncool to keep late night hours. I got sleepy; alcohol didn’t help much. I know that people believe that good music can only be made in the wee dark hours of the night, but you’d be surprised what you can get down at 2 pm on a day when you are working on a full 8 hours of sleep and are ready to knock off before dinner. It’s very practical and we are nothing if not a practical band.
We’re recording at Flora, Tucker Martine’s studio. We made a bunch of music at the previous locations of Flora, but this our first time in its new iteration in NE Portland. Tucker’s there to greet us. Nice to see an old friend. We’re not using him as a producer right now because it feels like we’re still exploring and seeing what takes shape. For now, The Decemberists are producing these sessions. Cole, the house engineer, is setting up mics and running the board. Andy McCulla, our esteemed local guitar tech, is around to help with instrument maintenance and whatnot; co-manager Eric is there to check his email in the lounge.
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The first day in the studio is often an amorphous one. It’s mostly given over to setup, getting drum sounds and whatnot. We spend a lot of time sitting in the lounge, catching up while Cole sets up the room. Finally, it’s time to track. Instead of digging into one of the three songs we know from the summer tour (“Burial Ground,” “William Fitzwilliam,” and “Black Mariah”) the band invites me to just start tossing out half-finished ideas. We spend the rest of the day doing this — I mill through pages of my notebook and we play every sorta decent thing that’s in there. These are all the ideas — sketches, really — that I’ve put down on the page since our last recording in 2017ish. It’s cool to hear them played by the whole band.
By the end of the day we have nine fragments recorded, some of them more promising than others. We resolve to listen to them the next day, to see which still hold water.
Day 2: Tuesday, February 14
There’s snow on the ground when I get up; Hank comes into our room at 7 am, wondering if school will be cancelled. Even by Portland schools’ very low standards for snow days, this doesn’t even come close. School will happen. Carson and I hustle downstairs and begin the morning rituals: making breakfasts and lunches, hectoring distracted, neurodivergent kids to get their shit together lest they be late for school. By the time I’m home from dropping my one charge, Hank, I have about 45 minutes before I have to go. I do the dishes and chat with Carson; she’s working on an illustration for the New Yorker and it is consuming her life right now. I’m out the door at 9:30; I listen to songs from my phone on shuffle on the drive. “Hang Down Your Head” by Tom Waits comes on and I’m suddenly zeroing in on how spare the mix sounds, despite it being pretty full: vox, upright bass, drums, pump organ (?) and guitar. I want to channel that kind of spirit into these sessions: keep it simple, keep it spare, even with everyone chipping in. It’s doable.
Nate’s there when I arrive; he’s sitting in the lounge, looking at his laptop. One by one, the rest of the gang filters in. I grab my notepad and we all gather in the control room to listen to the tracks from the day before. Some of them glimmer afresh in this new, 360 degree view; some of them feel a little underbaked. I mean, they are all underbaked, having been taught on the fly to the band, but the songwriting feels underbaked here and there. I make notes. Nine songs. Nine songs feels impressive by my standards, though I am aware, having just wikipedia’d the shit out of him over the weekend, that Bruce Springsteen had 80 songs written for the Born in the USA sessions. I must remind myself, on occasion, that everyone has a different output and workflow. I remind myself, also, that I am not Bruce Springsteen. I’ve also given over the last four years of my creative life to writing a book, starting another book, writing songs for a musical, and writing songs for a movie — on top of raising children and dealing with a global pandemic. I’m at peace with my output. Suck it, Springsteen.
After a deflating attempt to try more “frags,” as we’re calling them — fragments of songs — I plead to the band that we start focusing on the ones we have. We pick one of the songs, one called “Tell Me What’s On Your Mind,” and get to work. But first, it’s lunch. We order Mediterranean from the place up the street; Cole runs to get it. After we’ve sufficiently bloated ourselves, we get to work.
For these sessions, Chris, Nate and I are all set up in the main room, with Jenny and John isolated in their own chambers. We decided on Monday that we wanted to have John live in his own little zone in an effort to separate sounds better and to get the drum sounds we wanted. I’ve got a decent eyeline with everyone — I can see everyone okay — and that is all we need. I start out playing electric guitar, which I had played all day on Monday, and then switch over to acoustic 6 string as the day progresses and as the song demands.
There’s some strong 60s-70s vibe to this one, and we talk a lot about Todd Rundgren and Keith Richards as the song takes shape. I’m not sure about how other bands do it, but we are constantly name dropping bands and musicians as a kind of shorthand to getting to a place where we want to go. I think in some session — maybe it was for The Crane Wife — someone kept a running tally of every band or musician that was mentioned during the recording. It ran to several pages. Once we’re up and running, though, we are focused on the song. It’s not a Todd Rundgren song that we’re doing, after all, it’s a DECEMBERISTS song. And not one that was written by AI.
We spend the rest of the day tracking the song over and over. I lose track of the takes. We stop occasionally to gather in the control room and listen, to analyze and discuss. A lot of the focus in the early hours of tracking a song is on the drums and the bass — particularly the drums. Funk, Jenny and I are all recording scratch tracks — our final takes will be overdubbed later. It’s really Nate and John who are in the hotseat here; whatever take we decide on, that’s the final performance for them on this song. It’s 5:15 when we decide that the drum part needs more tom fills; John elects to try a new ride cymbal. We get in a few more takes before we decide we’ll be better off if we leave it till tomorrow, to come at it with fresh ears. Good night, then, Decemberists.