by Tony Ware
Kevin Barnes and producer Jon Brion build organic textures by layering soft synths with vintage instruments on the band’s 10th album, False Priest
On stage, Athens, GA-based octet of Montreal is a kaleidoscopic menagerie, a polymorphous vaudeville performance set to an avant ADD electro-disco-glamfunk beat. In the studio, of Montreal is historically the project of songwriter Kevin Barnes, a Beatles enthusiast who has indulged some inner Camille-era Prince through a series of psychosexual lysergic mood shifts. Like Os Mutantes, Eno-era David Bowie, Sly Stone and P-Funk cavorting around in Todd Rundgren’s I/Os, Barnes’ songs exhibit prog-sleaze and rhythmic moxie.
Recording since 1997, Barnes transitioned his influences from the straightforward, prismatic retro-pop of bands like The Kinks to a far more coltish, just-plain-kinky R&B synth-pop. Along the way, he progressed from oldschool, 8-track, 1/4-inch tape-based recording to programming synths and mixing “in the box” in Apple Logic. Now, with False Priest, of Montreal’s 10th album, Barnes collaborated with producer Jon Brion on a hybrid production approach that resulted in the most accessible and most theatrical of Montreal work to date.
Sessions for False Priest, like those of the past four of Montreal albums, began in Barnes’ Apollinaire Rave home studio in Athens. Barnes recorded the majority of the album parts as he composed them: “I ran pretty much everything through Logic Pro 9.1.1, an Apogee Rosetta 800 A/D interface, an Apogee Big Ben master clock, a Tube-Tech MP 1A two-channel tube mic preamp, a Tube-Tech CL 1B compressor, a Lawson L251 tube mic, and a Toft Audio ATB24 mixing console,” Barnes recounts of the preliminary recordings. “For the most part, I only use one channel and just build things up an instrument at a time.”
Despite having a wealth of multi-instrumentalists in his live ensemble, Barnes has been programming drums and soft synths since 2004’s Satanic Panic in the Attic. Initially, he worked in Propellerheads Reason slaved to Steinberg’s Cubase, but around 2007 Barnes abandoned both and made the move to Logic to facilitate making his own percussion maps and sampler instruments (augmented by a drum library from Atlanta-based Ben H. Allen, engineer for Gnarls Barkley, among other projects). While Barnes praises Logic’s EXS24 sampler, Ultrabeat drum synthesizer, and Delay Designer and Space Designer effects, he especially appreciates Logic’s composition features such as drag-and-drop patterns and arrangements, as well as efficient workflow features such as the marquee tools. (A crash course in integrating Logic’s editing shortcuts would become a theme for False Priest; Barnes credits the SFLogicNinja’s YouTube channel as invaluable for shortening his learning curve.)
of Montreal (top, left to right)—Nicolas Dobbratz, Thayer Sarrano, Matt Wheeler, Dan Korn, Paul Nunn, Nick Gould, Clayton Rychlik, and Jerrod Porter. Seated—Bryan Poole and Kevin Barnes. Front—Michael Wheeler, Davey Pierce, Dottie Alexander, and Nikki Martin.
When he played a show with songwriter/ producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Kanye West, Spoon), Brion asked to hear some tracks, and then suggested Barnes come out to Los Angeles for a few weeks to use his vintage gear trove to supplement virtually modeled instruments.
The pair convened in Studio B at Ocean Way Recording in Hollywood. Brion, engineer Greg Koller, and crew are Pro Tools-based, and making mix stems to swap from Logic was proving too timeconsuming and sound-compromising, so Apogee provided a Symphony I/O and Mac rig, which allowed Koller to integrate newly-recorded tracks as he quickly came up to speed within Logic. “I feel [Logic isn’t] built for an engineer; it’s built for people who write,” says Koller. “When I started looking at it like that, I really grasped it.”
With all systems patched in, tracking commenced. In the live room, Brion and Barnes set about tracking enhancements to the primary, mid-fi home recordings. For example, where Barnes had recorded with emulations of the LinnDrum or the Yamaha CS-80 polyphonic synthesizer, Brion would draw from vintage units to lead him through reseating the parts while preserving the original arrangements. “I really like the idea of this foreign . . . weird, ‘wrong’ element being there,” says Barnes of layering sequences with the analog synths’ sometimes unpredictable harmonic signatures. “It makes it seem more exciting to me . . . when it’s not just this homogeneous landscape.” With the overdub process proceeding quickly, editor Eric Caudieux performed pitch correction when needed.
Brion used a Moog Modular synth to add subsonics to Barnes’ Rickenbacker bass parts (many of which he re-recorded for consistency). “My bass lines are really more baritone guitar parts,” says Barnes. “It’s not just low, it’s more noodle-ly and almost percussive . . . I’m usually doing a lot of stuff on the G string, way up by the 12th fret. It really worked well having the synthesizers filling in the gaps.”
The weight of some tracks, such as “Like a Tourist” and “Our Riotous Defects,” was augmented by recordings of a Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ, miked in surround sound (it was also being tracked for a film project) with Shure SM50s and Neumann KM53s through an Inward Connections 820 sidecar.
Standout session drummer Matt Chamberlain contributed on many tracks, such as False Priest lead single “Coquet Coquette”; for drum sessions, Koller would typically set up an AKG D12 on the kick, Neumann U67s on snares, plus an overhead mono (either a Neumann U47, AKG Elam or D19), with Neumann M50s and sometimes RCA 44 ribbon mics in the room for ambiance. However, for the song “Black Lion Massacre” (on the upcoming Controller’s Sphere, an EP of additional songs written during the False Priest period), the team created a tight, ringing, highly effected groove by placing contact mics on each piece of the drum kit, having Brion and Barnes mute parts as Chamberlain played, and running the result through guitar amps, which he then miked and recorded.
On the same track, as well as ones such as “Sex Karma” (a duet with Solange Knowles), Brion applied what Barnes jokingly calls “the most expensive fuzz pedal in the world”—an EMI TG 12345 portable console that served as the Abbey Road mobile unit in the ’70s. “You can overdrive it in a specific way, because John has a special relationship with the gain structure,” says Koller. “We’d push channels in the group master at different levels for effect, and even for parts we didn’t re-track, I’d run them out of Logic through the EMI to open them up, drive them with that sonic character.”
When recording, the team used the EMI board and/or what they dubbed “the God chain”—the best-sounding outboard modules for each application, pulled from tube preamps, a rare pair of Pultec shelving EQs, a Fairchild limiter, Altec RS124 compressors, a boutique Overstayer stereo compressor, and Sontec parametric mastering EQs.
The same outboard gear was used to detail out and fatten up pre-recorded material in the mix, as Koller dealt with a lot of “mid-range build-up . . . I find a lot of modern gear and recording compounds [frequencies] in the 3–5kHz range.” Other processors included the Sonnox Oxford SuprEsser, the SofTube FET Compressor, and Trident A-Range EQ.
“I used a lot of synth filters to take off nasty high end, make mids more aggressive, and add low end,” says Koller. “Some were plug-ins, such as the UAD Moog Multimode Filter, and others were outboard filters like the Schippmann EBBE und Flut and the Moogerfooger pedals.” Koller, however, avoided using main bus compression before mastering, which gave him more opportunities to preserve dynamics in the complex mixes. (By the time the sessions were completed, each of the 13 songs contained 30–50 tracks.)
Reflecting on what was the most technically complex recording process of his career to date, Barnes has nothing but glowing things to say about what Brion and his team brought to the punchy soul-punk of False Priest. “Jon’s a beautiful person, an amazing musician; he has a great ear, he has soul, and he has technical proficiency to top it all,” he says. “Next to him, I felt almost like how Brian Eno describes himself, like a ‘non-musician.’ I’m more about quickly getting the ideas out and having the excitement come through in the texture, rather than playing or engineering with perfect tone. He really helped bring out all the body I’d heard before and imagined and wondered how to fully incorporate, but I’d never seen the real gear. And no one ever did anything generic through any of it.”