Thursday, September 22, 2011

Weasel Walter and Jim Magas Reflect on Recording the LAKE OF DRACULA LP


This morning, I awoke to a note from Weasel, via Facebook, sharing recollections about the recording of the 1997 Lake Of Dracula LP on Skin Graft Records. Weasel's stories got me thinking about it, so I followed with recollections of my own, both of which are reprinted here, for those who want a little less Facebook in their lives.

Weasel's comments are in red text. My comments are orange.

WEASEL WALTER:

At this moment, I am listening to the remastered edition of the 1997 Lake Of Dracula album and a few recollections are coming to mind . . .

- This album was recorded in a very cold loft in Humboldt Park, Chicago roughly at the same time as The Flying Luttenbachers' "Gods of Chaos" album. I had a minor nervous breakdown at one of the "Gods" sessions and had to leave town for a few days to recover. it was a tough time for me emotionally and financially. I was young, ambitious, lacking in resources and a bit crazed. Things were hard, but I was trying my best to do as much as i could. In retrospect I might have been biting off more than I could chew. I was also in Hatewave at the time and playing with Bobby Conn and others sporadically.

-People generally assume the album was "produced" by Jim O'Rourke. This is partially true. After an aborted initial session at Tortoise/Gastr Del Sol honcho John McEntire's apartment (yes, there is an entire unmixed original version of the whole album!), Jim engineered the rough tracks for what would become the final album at the King Size Annex loft, but he and I had major disagreements about how to proceed with the mixing. At the time Jim was approaching things from a dogmatic, Albini-esqe "no eq, no effects, just throw up the faders" sort of documentarian approach, but I had different plans. I am more of a "mix it until it's awesome" kind of guy. I love and respect Mr. O'Rourke - he has always been extremely gracious towards me - but it wasn't going to work, so I wound up mixing most of the album alone or with some of the band members present. Luckily, Jim's engineering was truly great and we had lots of material to sculpt the mixes out of.

-Jim used the raw element to a PZM microphone to record the snare drum. I've never seen anybody else do that before or since. It sounds excellent. Marlon did his live vocals spitting over the top of an sm57 with no wind-screen, which accounts for the grimy plosives spattering his performance on about half the tracks. Some of it was so gnarly and obtrusive, that we chose to redo some of the vocals just because they were too fucked-up sounding. When we did those new vocal tracks, I begged Marlon to sing INTO the mic as opposed to ACROSS it. We were younger then. Give us a break. We were playing tennis with no net back then. It was very primitive.

-On the album, and for the entire career of the band, I was still playing my '66 Fender Mustang, now owned by one Steve Kozlowski. it was hot-rodded with a Seymour Duncan Hot-Rails pick-up in the bridge position. I don't know if i had yet bypassed the tone knob or not. I used a Boss Digital Delay pedal for the signature Robert Quine "Waves of Fear" slapback and a DeArmond Square Wave Generator through some weird loop configuration where I would punch in the distortion with a Boss volume pedal so that I got a mix of the dirty tone with the original "clean" signal. My low E string was replaced with a thick gauge string tuned down to A below that, which is how I got the bass sound on the guitar. i usually played through Marlon's Roland Jazz Chorus amp with one broken speaker. I usually had the bass on 10 and the treble on 2 or lower. That model of Roland is so trebley, even I can't handle it!

-One must remember, this was back in the times before Pro-Tools production freak-outs. This album was recorded on Ampex half-inch tape. The guitar, drums and vocals were done live in the same room together in complete takes. Probably half of the scratch vocals were used on the final album and the other half were redubbed later. There are a few guitar doublings, but other than that, the guitar tracks are what I played live during the tracking. All the mix effects were executed in real time through hardware units during the mix sessions, including all the reverbs, weird delays, modulations, etc. Almost all of the mixes were committed to DAT in single passes, with several of us punching wildly at mute buttons, effect sends, etc. while the multitrack tape rolled. All that weird crap was done in choreographed, repeated tries until we finally got it right. the sound of that album could never, ever be repeated for this reason alone. there are no "presets" to recall. None of those effects were printed to the multitrack tape.

-The original edition of the record was essentially unmastered. The final mixes were normalized and there were a few structural edits (i.e. "Piss II", where the sonic gestalt changes radically in the middle section), but no other digital trickery was done back in the day. I was more than happy to properly master it when Skin Graft reissued it a few years ago. It sounds the way it should have in the first place, but back then we didn't completely understand the concept of "mastering" and why the hell we should have paid so much more money for it to be done. Ooops.

-"The Manhattanite"'s contribution to the band and album was probably the funniest part of the story. As Al Johnson's possessed, "interstellar demon" alter-ego, "The Manhattanite" (which i tagged him, alluding to a psuedonymous letter writer in the columns of the cult '50s fetish mag "Bizarre") was sent to essentially interfere and destroy the superhero team LOD with impish maneuvers and bouts of random chaos. He did not attend one single LOD rehearsal in his time with the band. He would appear at our shows at random intervals and we could never really predict when he would appear. Although he was present at the all-time WORST LOD performance in Madison, wisconsin, he might show up for only the last 10 minutes of a local gig, might skip two in a row completely, show up and play only on one song in the middle of the next before walking off stage, etc. He always wore this increasingly dirty black suit and hat which seemed to be covered in clumps of bird shit.

-During his overdub sessions - done completely after the rest of the band finished tracking - he approached each arrangment in a completely different manner. You have to understand that Al didn't really know the songs, but he had an intuitive feeling for the major elements of each one, picked up only from what he could remember from coming to various gigs and being on stage amongst the fracas . . . On one song, he got the bright idea that he would accompany us by pounding away atonally at an out of tune piano while muttering along like a manic street bum. On another, he had us lock him in a utility closet with a microphone. We cued him to begin and recorded him scrambling up a pipe, falling down, then spraying said mic with a can of WD-40. On "Dracula Killed Frankenstein" he made some weird phone call to someone which was mic'ed in an obtuse way off the reflection of a glass sliding door and mixed so it would be out of phase and illegible. Etcetera. You get the gist. This was all done in less than an hour with no second takes. Ha ha ha.

JIM MARLON MAGAS:

I awoke this morning to a note from Weasel Walter, describing the recording of the Lake Of Dracula self-titled debut album. Since I've never really spoken much publicly about the band, I thought I'd take this opportunity to share my perspective on this album and the band:

In 1996, Lake Of Dracula had written enough songs to record an album. After leaving Ann Arbor and Bulb Records behind, I wanted to start a new label in Chicago and release music by the newly-formed Lake Of Dracula, using money that I'd invested in Bulb that was to be reimbursed. I even put an ad in Bananafish, saying "Coming Soon...the Lake Of Dracula LP". While hatching these plans, Weasel had been talking to Skin Graft, with whom the Flying Luttenbachers already had a relationship. It was rumored that they might ask us to do a 7". I was intrigued, but was intent on releasing a whole album, although I was starting to doubt my ability to finance it myself. Eventually, Skin Graft head Mark Fischer asked, at the Fireside Bowl, "Do you guys wanna do a 7"?" "I want to do a whole album.", I replied. At the time, because we were a new band, this was viewed as a headstrong move, but I felt confident in the band's ability to make a great album. Before long, Skin Graft agreed to do it. Everybody was excited.

Upon hearing that we were going to record an album, Jim O'Rourke said "I want to produce it!" I was excited about this and discussed the idea with Weasel and Heather. We all agreed that this was a great opportunity, as we all admired Jim's technical abilities. He is also very funny, possessing a wicked sense of humor and a lot of fun to be around--quite the opposite of what many people assume him to be like. Jim asked us if we wanted to record for free at Soma, John McEntire's new studio housed in the Tortoise loft, which was adjacent to the loft I was sharing with then-Scissor Girl Azita Yousseffi and drummer/soundman-about-town, Elliot Dicks. LOD had an intense tracking session at Soma. I had difficulty singing into a stationary mic, because I was accustomed to thrashing around and keeping rhythm to the music with my body. At one point, Jim rigged up a mic to my eyeglasses, but it didn't sound good, so we scrapped that idea. I also had a crushing headache and sore throat from screaming all day and each new take compounded the discomfort. I was very happy when we had the album in the can--that recording hurt. I took home a cassette of a very rough mix. The next day, I called Weasel to see about mixing it. "We have to re-record it. These takes are garbage.", he flatly stated. I wasn't sure, as I hadn't really given it a good listen yet, but he was absolutely convinced, without a doubt, that we had to re-record the album. He also said that he had done this with at least one of his other bands, so I thought, "Either he's crazy, really knows what he's doing, or both", so I agreed to re-record the album. Jim later told us that Bundy Brown, who had something to do with Soma (we didn't really know), wants $100 from us, for using the studio. After Jim left, we all agreed that since it was supposed to be free, we would ignore the request. A dozen or so years later, Bundy and I had a laugh about this, as we watched our kids play together in the park.

A few weeks later, we re-recorded the album at the King Size Annex loft. The session began with tension in the air. Weasel and Jim were already arguing about how the album should be recorded. Weasel felt it should be recorded dry, for later addition of EQing and effects. Jim argued in favor of getting a good room sound and capturing the band's natural sound through microphone placement. As we set up, they went back and forth: "EQing." "Mic placement." EQING! MIC PLACEMENT! EQ! PLACEMENT! It went on. It was comical and a little tense. We ended up with what we all agreed was a better recording than the first time around. As soon as the tracking was over, Jim sat down at the mixing board. Weasel said something akin to "Oh no you don't!" and edged Jim out of the chair in front of the mixing board. Jim, who thought he would be producing the album, felt ill and left abruptly. Having no experience with EQing or mic placement at the time, I didn't insert myself into the argument, but felt bad for Jim. I thought both of them were very good at what they did. I was focusing most of my energy on getting good vocal takes. Heather rarely involved herself in band squabbles.

Weasel's account of the mixing has him "mixing it alone or with some members of the band". I feel obliged to add that I was present and providing input at all sessions, with one exception--when Weasel couldn't wait for me to finish some personal obligation before starting without me. Heather also attended a few sessions, but eventually stopped coming, trusting Weasel and I to make the decisions. Although I contributed ideas to the mix, it was Weasel's hand on the board and his technical skills that made it what it is. He is an amazing technician. A few years ago, I was trying find the right person to master the MAGAS album, May I Meet My Accuser, when I put on Glenn Branca's Ascension at work one day and had to go scrambling for the volume knob, because it was much louder than everything else. "Who mastered this?!", I wondered. I flipped the disc over and saw "Mastered by Weasel Walter". I've since sought him out to do this for every recording thereafter. I wish we had mastered this album the first time around (as well as my first MAGAS 12"), but as Weasel said, we were young and naive, thinking this was a complete waste of money that bands would get "gouged" for.

I have some thoughts on "The Manhattanite". Al Johnson, the singer of U.S. Maple, as many of us know, had a very strange and intriguing stage presence. The night before a Lake Of Dracula rehearsal, I had a dream that Al joined us onstage for the song, "Henry Clay", and woke up thinking this would be a good idea. I proposed the idea to Weasel, who gleefully responded that we should have him sing on ALL our songs. "Maybe for this one gig...", I replied. We had so much fun at the gig, we thought we should do it again sometime. Al was busy with U.S. Maple and would join us occasionally when he could. I eventually grew to resent Weasel's incessant talk of "The Manhattanite". Whenever we'd play a show that wasn't quite up to snuff, Weasel would say "It's because the Manhattanite wasn't there.", adding to the discomfort of having just played a sub-par show. Everything was Manhattanitemanhattanitemanhattanite. My thought was "Get a room, already." Al was great, inventively chaotic--it was really fun, but I began to see The Manhattanite as the focal point for Weasel's desire to dominate many facets of the band, a feeling akin to how the other members of the 13th Floor Elevators must've eventually felt about svangali Tommy Hall's jug playing. To me, the Manhattanite was the candy sprinkles on the cake and not the cake itself. I enjoy Al's performance on the album, but privately grew annoyed at seeing Lake Of Dracula referred to as a U.S. Maple side-project or "Weasel's side-project". Certainly not Al's fault--he performed his role admirably. I was also uncomfortable with Weasel using the band to forward his own "Chicago No Wave" agenda, but I went along with it, because it was better than Skin Graft's dreadful "Now Wave" sloganeering. I suppose I should have said something at the time.

Jessica Ruffins later joined the band, on bass, improving the sound dramatically. The band sounded fuller and more unified, giving the songs more life. There is a reason bands use bass. We essentially re-recorded the album with her, while on tour, at KFJC. The recordings ended up becoming the Kill Rock Stars 7" and the Savage Land CD/Roccco LP. The mixes are done on the fly, so there are some flaws, but these recordings give another refracted perspective on the self-titled LP and the band. An "alternate version" of sorts, with Jessica and no Manhattanite.

Weasel's mastering on the reissued version of the self-titled album sounds incredible, but I feel the reissue went unnoticed, due to confusing packaging and marketing. Even I can't tell the difference between the new version and the old version.

I certainly have some unresolved feelings about this band and it was Weasel's original notes on this album that got the ball rolling.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Magas Talks Beer in the Chicago Reader


In the latest issue of the Chicago Reader, Kate Schmidt asked me to talk about 3 beers that I find inspiring. Also joining me were Chicago beer legends John Laffler, who runs Goose Island's barreling program, and Jess Straka, General Manager at Metropolitan Brewing Company.

READ IT HERE

Friday, June 17, 2011

MAGAS - Recorded Live in Chicago 5/30/11

This live MAGAS performance was recorded on Monday, May 30th at the Abbey Pub in Chicago. All music was improvised on ARP Odyssey 2800 Mk1, Roland Juno 60, Roland TR-808, Casio RZ-1 and Electroharmonix Memory Man.No computers, vocals, MIDI or edits were used. This performance was mixed by Steven Moore and recorded by Bob Konow. Also playing on the bill were Richard & Duncan Pinhas, Scum Ra and Mark Solotroff. (Photo: Matt Jencik)

This recording will be soon be released in cassette form on Freedom From.

MAGAS - Live in Chicago 5/30/11 by MAGAS

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Monday: RICHARD PINHAS / MAGAS / SCUM RA / MARK SOLOTROFF

Monday, May 30th (Memorial Day) at the Abbey Pub.

RICHARD PINHAS
MAGAS
SCUM RA
BLOODYMINDED

Tickets available HERE.

I'm very honored and excited to open for the legendary Richard Pinhas. Pinhas has been a singular force in psychedelic music since his days in Schizo and Heldon dating back to the early '70s. Pinhas will be accompanied by his son, Duncan. As to what we will see musically, I await with bated breath.

For this show, I, Magas, will be improvising one long instrumental piece, using synthesizers and drum machines. If you saw my show with Black Dice a few years back, it will be something like that--the raw sound of Magas before the lava hardens. This unpredictable style of playing has been very exciting and refreshing for me, so there will be more of this to come. This will be my first solo show since 2009.

Also playing are Scum Ra (feat. Plastic Crimewave and Kathy of Spires That In the Sunset Rise) and Mark Solotroff, who also designed the flier depicted above.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

RICHARD PINHAS / MAGAS / SCUM RA / MARK SOLOTROFF at ABBEY PUB 5/30

Join us for a night of chaos!

Monday, May 30th (Memorial Day) at the Abbey Pub (3420 W. Grace, Chicago)

RICHARD PINHAS (Heldon, Schizo, etc)
MAGAS (Violent ARP Band, etc.)
SCUM RA (Plastic Crimewave, Spires That in the Sunset Rise)
MARK SOLOTROFF (Bloodyminded, etc.)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

MAGAS Returns



For the past year, I've kept MAGAS on the back burner, turning my attention toward the hard-rocking sounds of the Violent ARP Band. Playing with such excellent like-minded musicians has been very satisfying. The time away from MAGAS has given me a fresh perspective and new enthusiasm, as well as a new way that I want to approach the concept. Now that the Violent ARP Band has achieved a smooth work-flow, I'm able to turn my attention back to the abstract electronic sounds of MAGAS.

This time out, the concept will be different. Each performance, whether alone or in front of an audience, will be a spontaneous experience, with no pre-composed songs. Although certain patterns, habits or themes may repeat, the goal will not be to entertain, but to evoke new sounds and feelings, letting the instruments breathe. The conventional notion of "good" won't apply. I will strive to bore, and out of this boredom, a feeling of transcendence will grow, anchored by the hypnotic thud of the TR-808 kick drum. "Mistakes" don't exist in this new world. All sounds are permitted. The slow, fumbling search for nirvana will be as important as our arrival. Development may occur at the pace of a Jess Franco film. Bad timing is encouraged.

Lest ye faithful fear I've set myself adrift, take comfort in the knowledge that certain restrictions will apply: MAGAS will be primarily instrumental, consisting of synthesizers and drum machines. Computers, if used at all, will only be for the purpose of timing or synchronization. No playback is allowed.

Also, I'll be working with a dancer: you.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Violent ARP Band live at the Hideout, Chicago

The Violent ARP Band play 'Walk Through the Dark' live at the Hideout, Chicago on January 8th, 2011.