The White Building with the Gold Stars
Recording studios usually have a degree of reverence to them, but EastWest Studios feels more like Mecca when compared to your average mosque.
On November 14th, the band and I rolled up to the unassuming building on Sunset Blvd, checked in at the gated entrance, and began unloading. We had rehearsed the night before in a dingy, one-lightbulb attic, and it's safe to say our surroundings were about to improve. I had taken a tour of the place about a month ago, but the feeling of standing somewhere sacred hadn't gone away. The air crackled.
Matt, my faithful drummer and friend, was a self-professed Beach Boys fanatic. As we made our way through the building, I gestured to a small door on our left. "This is where they recorded Pet Sounds," I whispered. All of our eyes widened.
The previous weeks had been a frenzy of planning and logistical hurdling. Somehow, Matt and Dylan (guitar) both made their way from the East Coast last minute, and Chris (bass) was more than willing to step in, having only met most of us the night before. But none of that mattered now. All of the work had led up to today, and today, music was going to be made. We paraded in, careful where we stepped but confident in our stride.
Studio 2 was gorgeous. High ceilings, wood finish, it looked almost like a luxury warehouse. EastWest has four main studios, but this was the one with a reputation for killer drum sounds, and that's what I was pursuing. Our theme for the week was 'go big or go home', and thus, we had rented a kit from a local drum rental company used by Dave Grohl on a Foo Fighters record. While this quickly devolved into a joke delivered between each take, as we unloaded that kit into that room, the sense of wonder (and potentially some impostor syndrome) was palpable.
Bo was our tracking engineer, and Bo fucking rocks. If you know the guy, you love him, and if you don't, you're about to (when you hear these mixes). Helping him out was Chaz, whose first name was only bested by his last, which was Sexton. Both of these guys were incredibly professional, knowledgeable and funny. Most of all, I think they understood that we were a group of 20-somethings, potentially in over our heads, but they still treated us with the respect and thoughtfulness I'd imagine they give everyone.
After the tedium of getting sounds for everything, checking mics, replacing cables and hearing a snare hit 400 times, we were ready to track. Live recording has always been my preference. While there's been a few times in my life I've tracked things at different times (several of the tracks on North From Here), I've always enjoyed being in a room with the band, making the song in real-time. There are tradeoffs to the technique, for sure, but beyond saving time and money, it feels more pure.
It's hard to communicate exactly how a recording session feels. Most of the work, for me, is in the composition of the song, the rehearsing, the craft of it all. It's like being an architect, and finding most of the joy in designing the building, and that sense of joy won't return until the building is finished and standing. Comparably, most of the excitement in recording sessions is found in the control room, listening back to takes, searching for (and finding) that sound of the intangible being realized. In between, however, is lots of silent glances, held breath, and intense self-scrutiny. The construction of the building isn't a space for platitudes about creativity or togetherness, it's a time to weld steel beams together with absolute precision. And you weld so many steel beams, you get into a specific mindset of focusing on each mark. It's probably the most present I can get.
As such, I have very few clear memories of the session, at least until most of the tracking was finished. I remember starting with Jury Duty and finishing with Young/Lovely, and I remember some brilliant flashes of light as far as parts being nailed. And I remember the Dave Grohl Drum Kit jokes. Oh, and a particularly funny exchange with Chaz, as he adjusted one of my piano mics. What was said, I don't know, but all-in-all, the session felt warm, the way playing a really great game does. Purely instinct, but everything firing in the right way, and every mistake completely teachable. Completely in-the-moment and focused.
However, I think the memory I, along with everyone else, will cherish most is the gang vocal takes at the end of the session. Young/Lovely ends with this massive call and response, more of a chorus than anything else in the song, and I wanted to get every voice possible involved. We cleared the drums from the room, and packed up most of our stuff, and then we formed a semi-circle around a group of mics. Spoove, Chris' roommate, came to join us, and so there were five of us. Tired from tracking, but ready to unleash our smiling exhaustion in some punk-worthy screams. And scream we did, leaving nothing but a croak for tomorrow's morning voice. This was us standing on top of the building with every beam welded, shouting our victory to the world. If there was one memory that had to represent that session, I'd choose this one.
The fidelity of the recordings was indisputable. I've never heard my songs realized in such a vibrant and lively way. Bo sent us some rough board mixes that night, and we were amazed
-- they practically sounded releasable in that form. You could hear the energy in the room, like the band way playing right in front of you. The whole week had been full of extensive debit card swiping, but these sounds were priceless.
That night, after saying our goodbyes to Bo and Chaz, Dylan, Matt and I went to a pizza bar and discussed the session while drunkly professing our love for one another. A few gin and tonics in, I said to them, "These are the songs I've always wanted to write, and they're sounding the way I've always dreamed. Thank you so much for being involved." ^1
Like I said, recording sessions are strange things, but between the sacred building, the implausibility of it all and the joy of hearing songs in a completely realized form, I'm filled with so much gratitude for what we managed to make in there. It's likely not something we'll be able to do again, due to financial obstacles, but we felt like we were walking on the moon for a day. And that's something we won't soon forget.
As a musician, it's hard to receive any kind of validation in your own capabilities. Talent is subjective in a lot of ways, and there are different benchmarks for different people. However, being in one of the top studios with terrific friends and feeling like we absolutely deserved to be there was a giant leap in self-evaluation. And while the Friday night bar show that following day was a sobering and more realistic circumstance for us, we played it like the rock stars we felt we were.
Jury Duty + Young/Lovely emerges June 19th. You can presave it on Spotify here: http://smarturl.it/d4ttx8
Thank you so much for your support everyone. We're just getting started.
^1 - The more realistic, less Hallmark version likely involved some profanity and a bit of flirting, but let's keep it PG-13 for the kids.