MARK SEYMOUR & THE UNDERTOW
The making of an album
June 2011. By The Undertow’s drummer Peter ‘Maz’ Maslen
Plus Producer/guitarist Cameron McKenzie & producer Damian Young
In the mid 80s, our social network was somewhat localised. In bustling, smoke filled breakfast cafes, musicians shared their mid morning ‘touring’ anecdotes and as the coffee kicked in, so did Tarago diaries of the Hume Highway and bandroom antics. It was here during one of these warm and fuzzy encounters, I met Mark Seymour.
Sitting at the same table and somewhat iconic, Seymour cast a rather athletic and intimidating figure as he tucked into his breakfast de jour.
“So you go running for exercise do ya?” I asked Seymour. “Yeah, you live around the corner from me don’t cha? Wanna go for a run sometime?” he proposed. And so it was, he had accepted my ‘friend request’.
Over 20 years on, a Seymour solo career can account for five outstanding albums, but the latest release Undertow, offers a more band-orientated enterprise.
The Seymour band (AKA “The Undertow”), has enjoyed a solid line up consisting of ex- Horsehead guitar player and producer Cameron McKenzie, ex-Badloves bass player John Favaro and myself, but while the guise may seem a band effort, it is still Seymour at the songwriting and fiscal helm.
Given both Mark and “The Undertow” were all members of previous successful bands and understanding the machinations and difficulties of being in a band, I thought it pertinent to ask Mark, why even after a solid solo career, he thought a “united” effort would be a good idea … again?
Maz: Why a band this time instead of a box of musicians?
MS: I’d reached a stale-mate with my own writing. About a year ago, I went into the studio to record a bunch of songs and was dissatisfied with the results. I also got sick of my own company … just being alone all the time while I was writing and I decided it was worth experimenting bringing songs to a group of people before I had recorded to see how they would interpret them.
Maz: Is their input any better or relevant?
MS: Yes, because what we would do in the rehearsal room, would end up happening in the studio, whereas when you’re working on your own, that connection between what happens when you’re alone and when you’re in the studio are worlds apart.
Maz: Is there any difference to the approach to recording now than in the Hunters and Collectors days?
MS: Only to the extent that with the Hunters, my songs would be half formed or minimally shaped. I might just have one idea and actually push the writing along with the guys, whereas with this album, the songs were more fully resolved. This process was more about getting their physical impact and their playing to influence the way the song would ultimately sound.
Maz: Were the songs, or was the song writing process different because of the “style” the band played?
MS: Well, I think the bands approach and feel ended up influencing the way I wrote, but the general approach to where my ideas come from and where I stumble, is no different than it ever was.
Maz: You write narratives, much like story telling. Is your inspiration for words and story only based in real life or do you have a vivid imagination?
MS: It based in real life, but only up to a point, then beyond that I just let my imagination run away and I tend to exaggerate a lot, or I bring events together that happen at separate times and creates pictures. I like the idea of the songs having a visual presence so that the words are there to create pictures and music serves to embellish that picture.
When people listen to those songs, they can be taken somewhere and I think the song needs to have that affect on people.
Maz: Can you suggest a song on Undertow that really defines (more than any other) the story, or point you’ve set out to achieve?
MS: I think the song about my mother “Classrooms and Kitchens’, is lyrically strongly visual and it’s also a good example of the impact that band input can have. I like describing the physical world around me and having reference to basic things in front of me.
Maz: Albums can sometimes be like kids, you never know what you’re going to get. Did you have a clear vision of the musical and lyrical style of the album?
MS: I think there is definitely an episodic process in my writing. There’s an emotional journey that I’m on throughout my life and I think albums arrive at the right times. They do tend to indicate a particular experience I’ve been through, but its very general.
Maz: ‘Snowmen’ has a real acoustic blues vibe until dirty guitars kick in. Were there many variations before arriving at finished track?
MS: ‘Snowmen’ was the only song and recording that survived from the session I did a year ago. The songwriting wasn’t strong in that first session, but this stood out and we just lived with that recording. In previous recordings we would have recorded then overdubbed. We just wanted to make it as skanky and loose and it just ended up on this record as is.
Maz: I need to ask about the track Bridges, you wrote and duet with Angie Hart.
MS: It was a song from those first sessions and after I had written it with Angie, I started playing it with open tuning and that totally changed it. Songs with no minor chords is a big shift for me and with this song, it (ironically) made it more sad than it already was. Angie is a very intelligent woman and an amazing lyric writer. She’s got this melancholic view on life which I totally get. We really had empathy on this track and the planets seemed to line up.
Maz: Does the responsibility of family play a role in song fodder or career?
MS: Well .. only to a limited extent. Practically, I want songs to work and I want my live shows to entertain people, so there’s an imperative there because I want my career to keep going and I suppose that connects with the fact that I have a family and responsibility, but beyond that I don’t think there is any real artistic joining point. I actually think that songwriting is a personal one and it’s whatever is going on in my head.
Maz: What albums or artists have been in your iPod lately?
MS: I’ve been listening to the latest ‘Fleet Foxes’ album nonstop. It’s a sensational record and a beautiful sound!
Maz: Thanks Mark and thanks for accepting my friend request!
Maz also asked producer and guitar player Cameron McKenzie about his role in the making of Undertow.
Cam: Well I’m a bit of a jack of all trades as far as Seymour recordings go. I play guitars in the band and I produce and mix his records.
Maz: How did recording Undertow differ from the other Seymour records you have made?
Cam: Well in the past Mark has basically formed a band of session people expressly for recording records, but in the last couple of years “The Undertow” (band) has evolved and this record was very much made with the input of each band member over quite a long period of time in rehearsals and throughout writing periods etc. The initial album tracking (done at Pony Studios in Hallam with Damien Young) was just a matter of getting good takes of the songs we already knew sounded great, then it was over to me back at my studio where we worked on edits, vocals and extra bits and pieces and then mixing.
Maz: Did you do much editing?
Cam: Very little compared to most records made these days. ‘The Undertow’ make a ripping sound and we tended to say “well that’s what we played, why question it” as long as the vibe and energy was good… which it was! Vocals and guitar solos etc sometimes got us bogged down but still not too much … fast is good.
Maz: What guitar setup did you employ?
Cam: I used mostly a Paul Reed Smith single cut and a Fender Telecaster (with Jim Dyson pickups) into my Trace Elliot Velocette Class A 30 watt combo and a couple of different speaker cabs. I’ve been refining that sound for years.
Maz: Tell me about your vocal chain for Seymour?
Cam: A Neumann M149 into a Neve DPD mic pre (1073) into a Cranesong Trakker into a Ueri 1178 then into the Neve DPD converters. yes ma’am ..
Maz: How’s the mixing?
Cam: I love mixing. I have an array of cool mix gadgets topped off by my most recent purchase which is a valve summing mixer that sounds amazing built by a local Ross Giles. he’s a very clever man and I have actually started a little online business for young bands who want to get some mixing done without breaking the bank. It’s at http://www.mixheadstudios.com/ … OK, I got my plug in!!!
Mark Seymour’s record producer Damian Young offers his perspective on creating the album
The band wanted to play as live as possible. They had previously rehearsed in our studio (which we recorded) and loved the live sound. So we came up with a novel idea. Why not play in the same room, at the same time and record like they did in the good old days, when recordings had feel and vibe. So this was the idea.
We designed this studio from the ground up to do exactly this style of recording. We have a large live room which is about 10m x 8.5m and 5.5m high …its high. We also have 3 other spaces that we record in when separation is required. We have lots of baffles, a large umbrella and other “keep this sound out of that” stuff around here and if you intend on recording in the same space and think about it, it’s not too hard to get really good separation (both physical and acoustic/bleed).
I set the drums up in our preferred ‘drum corner’ and had the room set to live. We have reversible panels that either absorb or diffuse/reflect. The kit was miked with the usual candidates, Audix D6, SM91, Fet47 all on the kick, SM57, Mojave M100 and Audix I5 on snare. The I5 is fantastic on snare bottom, it gives a great crack. Hats were either AKG 451B’s or KM-69 from Mercenary audio depending on if I wanted crunch or sizzle. Toms were Sennheiser 604s. Overheads were either DPAs or Majave M200s. The M200s are big and fat … they’re huge. Then I put up a couple of room mics (yep even though I had amps in the same room, I had room mics.) There was a legacy ribbon (these are bloody fantastic, cheap as chips ribbons. No one has any excuse not to own at least one of these things) and an AEA R84. Percussion was played after each live take was selected so Maz sat at the kit and I used the over heads/room mics for this as needed.
The pres I used on the kit included UA Solo 110’s, 2108, some Neve modules Rob Squire racked up for us, V72’s and V76’s, API and AEA TRP on the room mics.
We didn’t have time to repatch for overdubs so the studio was set with “areas” to do everything that was needed.
The guitar/bass amp areas changed a few times over the course of recording. We started with total isolation with the guitar amp in one of our remote rooms and Cam in the live room next to the kit on cans. He just didn’t get the same vibe as when we recorded the rehearsals, as his amp wasn’t next to him (making his ears bleed). The bass started in another remote room that had some baffles in it and Mark’s acoustic amp (a Vox AC30 screaming its head off.) Again John had issues with vibe playing in the same room as the kit and his amp in another room and working off cans.
We tried cans on, cans off, one ear on/off. We even opened the doors to the isolation rooms to let the bleed in. John also played in the control room for a while. We ended up going back to the start. The vibe was found when everyone AND their amps were in the live room making noise and using the cans for a little of Mark’s vocals and guitar (like the good old days…BT. Before Tools!)
I DI’d the bass into a UA LA610 and miked the cab with a 441. We used my old Fender Bassman 10 for a bunch of the songs. It’s really nasty and distorts easily. I just love it. It’s also really good for the Neil Young style of broken up full chord style of guitar playing.
On electric guitar we had a AEA R92 and a Sennheiser 604. We tried a bunch of other guitar mics at one stage but settled on these two. I also DI’d the electric in case any reamping was needed. We have Rob Squire’s black and red reamp boxes. All of Rob’s stuff is great. We had two amps for a few songs. On the second amp was another legacy ribbon and an SM57.
Mark played and sang in the control room as a guide. You never know if any of this is going to make it to the final cut of the song, so I always use good stuff here. The “Guides” had a U47 long body into a V76 for the vocals, the acoustic was miked with an old Neumann KM54 and a DI and the amp was probably an SM57 into a UA610 preamp.
We spent a lot of time getting the gear set up and sounding as good as we could. We worked on the communications. Everyone had mics to “talk” even if they didn’t sing. We created a few “rooms” in the live room with baffles and bits n bobs so the guitars and bass didn’t leak into the drums and vice versa. There ended up being very little bleed into anything. We designed the control room with dead spots in front of the monitors (like a vocal booth with no walls) so you can monitor with speakers while a vocalist is singing if you want.
I still used cans most of the time.
After the setup and communications balancing it was really a matter of hitting record. As the band were after a live vibe I just kept Pro Tools running. We were sometimes in record for 40 minutes or more. I just put markers on each new take and marked the ones that were favourably comment on as they went down.
The band would come in every now and then to confirm what they had felt and “discuss” the take. The winning take was marked and we moved on.
I didn’t delete anything. Hard drives are so cheap now you don’t need to save space.. Sometimes during the “discussion” we went over early takes that may have been deleted in previous years and found some gold dust. A riff, a fill, something that had the vibe and was bought back into play. Some of the songs ended up being the first or second take. We had all 40 takes to prove we got it on the first one!
There was a click to establish tempo but this wasn’t used on all songs. The band played live with NO click, together, in the same room, at the same time …go figure where is music heading these days. It’s heading back to a good place with real musicians, playing real instruments together at the same time, with no autotune…
I had a great time and I hope the vibe can be heard on the finished product. We worked on vibe, not EDITING!