Montreal’s TOPS, new album Picture You Staring is winning over critics and fans the world over. We caught up with song writer and guitarist David Carrier to get advice for aspiring DIYers, and tips on believing in your music.
TOPS have been playing music together for years and Picture You Staring definitely feels like a culmination of all that experience. The songs are super strong, and the recording is beautiful. What did you envision for this record before starting it?
The vision would change as the recordings continued, but my main goal for the album was for each song to have a life of its own. (The idea was) to make the arrangements and instrumentation right within each song, but also from one to the next.
On the first album [Tender Opposites] we were just trying to recreate what we had going on in rehearsal in the most straight up way possible. I think the idea of closeness remained, but instead of capturing a moment in time, it was more about being close with the ideas behind the songs.
Recording Picture You Staring
You recorded in a corner room at the Arbutus Records office. Was it mostly you behind the board, setting up mics and cracking the whip?
I was always there, but Riley [Fleck, Drums] and Jane [Penny, Vocals] both got real close with the setting up and getting sounds to do the right thing. We recorded each song very separately and differently so it required lots of attention, and it really helped to have their input at this level.
Riley and Jane both had specific sounds they wanted to achieve with the instruments and if they hadn’t been able to tweak things just how they wanted, it probably would have ended up a lot different. I think I have the most long-term focus when it comes to recordings, like making sure songs get finished. That’s when my whip cracks.
I love the closeness of the recordings, the presence of Jane’s voice and the drums. What were the recording techniques you used to get this sound?
We recorded everything in the same room and through the same mixing board, so it all has the same current and soul. We used office panels to deaden the room, but not to an unnatural clinically dead state. I discovered that having the sound source more in the middle, away from the baffles, was much better for having a lively but close sound.
With the drums, the main thing was tuning the kit so it matched the feel and key of the song. I think keeping the amount of mics to a minimum is important and more dynamic when you don’t want to use much room sound. We found a big wooden box that magically fit over the kick and isolated it from the rest of the mics. Oh yeah, I created this device for tracking Riley which I call a RiBud which is just an individual earbud that lets the drummer play the kit without headphone bleed or an annoying dangler.
The voice is harder to get down. It changes from song to song and day to day. For some songs, we just played the track out of the monitors and Jane sang at the back of the room. Pretty much every time we recorded vocals we ended up cycling through all the possibilities and landing on something that seemed cool.
“If you don’t love it, let it go. You gotta believe in yourself. Don’t be discouraged by haters, and don’t hate on yourself.”
Did you take and retake parts until it felt perfect? Or mess with sounds after tracking?
Mostly just lots of takes, but yeah, both. Riley would practise the drum part until the feel was really tight, which sometimes meant waiting a week or more to start recording the song. Usually we would do around 8 takes for the drum part, Jane would sing along and I would play guitar just for reference.
A lot of the guitar, keyboard and bass was done section by section because I like to have the sounds change along the way, so that often required a ton of tries. Some parts happened right away, but there were a few that I got kinda crazy on and did, like, hundreds of takes, some of which didn’t even make the record.
On “Outside”, Jane recorded all the chords on a patch she made with no decay or release and then patched it all together on the computer. She was able to control the way each change happened in a really cool and dynamic way. I like adding an octave or a 5th to keyboard parts, or having a soft synth supplement existing stuff.
I had to write all the bass parts after the drums were recorded because we wrote and rehearsed the record without bass. On some songs, I would record an idea and then edit it, move around and eliminate notes until it felt effective, and then I would re-record that. I’m not really into having to digitally fix bad or out-of-time playing, so I tried pretty hard to make sure the parts were played well.
I know you have an old Studio Master mixing board. How much of the recording is analogue? Did you record from the board into software?
Yeah, we tracked on to Pro Tools through an old Studio Master board. Almost 100% of everything [recorded] went through it. I bought the computer we used in 2007 and it is still alive. Picture You Staring is the 7th or 8th record I’ve done on it. I think the weakest link in our recording chain was the Digi 002 interface, but the sound of the board helped cancel out the junky sound of the interface.
You have a strong view on self-producing, from your early works as Silly Kissers to your solo project, Paula, and with TOPS. You’ve always been at the production wheel. Do you have any tips for DIY-type producers who are just starting out?
My tips: if you don’t love it, let it go. You gotta believe in yourself. Don’t be discouraged by haters, and don’t hate on yourself. If you got some friends who are making good tunes, let it inspire you. This one is really hard: listen to what whoever you are working with wants, and really try to make it happen. I find partying too hard and relaxing for too long pretty helpful as well.
Thanks for the interview, what have you been listening to on tour? Can you take us out with a song?
Banks – Goddess
Amanda McBroom – Dreaming
Tsegue-Mariam Gebrou – Ethiopian piano music
Mo’Wax Royalties Overdue compilation
DJ Quik – The Midnight Life