“You go into this business knowing that you’re going to get burned — but at least you can leave a great product behind.”
Capturing raw power on record isn’t easy. Filter too much of it into a mix and songs end up distorted, jumbled, and downright messy. Harness too little and the intended sonic effect is diluted to the point where both band and music are rendered … well, limp.
Good thing we have Big Wreck to show us how to do it right.
The hard-charging Canadian quartet have long mastered the art of the pummel, and on their new album, Grace Street, available now in various formats from Ole/Zoe/Rounder — their headbanging harmonic blends are out in full force, from the layered, off-kilter Jimmy Page-like riffs on Tomorrow Down to the stereo ping-pong challenge of A Speedy Recovery to the seven-minute instrumental tour de force Skybunk Marché.
In other words, Big Wreck has extrapolated the best of Led Zeppelin, Foo Fighters, and Soundgarden and puréed those ingredients into a balls-out aural bouillabaisse all its own. Some of that kickass flavor is admittedly thanks to Grace Street producer Garth Richardson, a.k.a. GGGarth, who’s also worked with the likes of Rage Against the Machine, Mudvayne, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Melvins.
But as gigantic as Big Wreck comes across on record, the Toronto foursome know they also have to deliver the goods live, and in the proper balance. “We know a lot of people come to our shows because they want to hear classics like The Oaf, That Song, Albatross, and Ghost,” frontman/guitarist Ian Thornley admitted to Digital Trends. “And I’m a firm believer that, if somebody buys a ticket, you can’t play too much stuff they’re not that familiar with.
“I’ve seen artists do that before, and it kind of pisses me off when they just come out and play what they want.” Thornley continued. “Wait a second! All of the people who paid the money to get you there — they want to hear the hits, so play the hits! Then, like Tom Petty does, you can have a set in the middle of the show where it’s, ‘OK, now we’re going to play the new record.’ And then, all around it, it’s just hits!”
Digital Trends called Thornley while he was on a short tour break in his native Toronto to discuss how to “perform” a mix in the studio, wrestling with the idea of streaming, and revisiting the lost art of the long song fadeout.
Digital Trends: I totally love the full-on sonic assault that happens whenever I’m listening to Grace Street. Did you and GGGarth have a set game plan for what you wanted it to sound like?
Ian Thornley: We knew we wanted it to basically have a live off-the-floor kind of feel, as far as the basic tracks were concerned. And then sonically, we wanted to dress up each song completely differently. Each song has its own journey, if you will, and they don’t sound like they have the same drum sound or even the same bass sound. Everything’s completely different.
There’s definitely a different texture on each song. In some cases, you have a riff that starts in the left channel and then the counter comes in the right, and sometimes, you’re coming at us right down the middle.
When we first decided to work together on the record, it was basically a sit-down over a coffee sort of thing — like, “Well, what are you thinking?” The live off-the-floor idea came from those discussions.
One of the other things GGGarth wanted to do was mix it manually, which people don’t do anymore. We actually mixed it with all hands on the desk — and that also gives you a different feel, because every single path is going to be different, right? It’s not automated, which is a common thing these days. So, you’re essentially “performing” a mix.
And there is an art to that, because things could get super-distorted if they’re not mixed very well.
Sonically, we wanted to dress up each song completely differently.
Yeah. Randy Staub [Grace Street’s mixer, who’s also worked with the likes of Metallica, Our Lady Peace, and Alice in Chains] is a master at that, and we really did throw a lot of stuff at him with some of these songs. For It Comes as No Surprise, there were four or five of us in the control room at the same time, each of us with a snare drum and low tom going, “ba-da-da-dap-BOOM.” We did that a bunch of times so we could stack it all together. It was a pretty massive sound.
But we’ve also got all of the guitars and drums in there too, and it’s a lot of stuff to try and fit together. There’s nobody better to put it together than Randy Staub, for sure, and the way GGGarth organizes things sonically — he’ll always find room for it.
Obviously, people are going to stream this record, though I do like having a physical copy of it myself as well. As an artist, how do you feel about streaming right now?
Well, how do you think?
I can guess…
I… (pauses) I don’t think about it. I try not to, anyway, because it sort of sucks the life out of the reason why we do it, you know what I mean?
In some ways, my stock answer is, “It’s a double-edged sword.” There are some great aspects to what’s going on, for sure, but it just seems with all the moves being made in streaming right now, the person being forgotten about is the artist.
But the music business has been that way since Day 1. It can be a dirty, awful business, and it’s designed around screwing the artist out of what they’re doing. Those [label] guys all got burned by the kids with computers, and they didn’t jump on it when they had a chance to do it.
I just know you don’t make any money off of your art. Everybody has the music essentially for free. They’ve figured out loopholes in the business and how it’s designed, and now both the big record companies and the artists are getting screwed. But it’s OK for them, because the big record companies have something to fall back on, whereas the artist is like, “What do you mean — I just spent how many years trying to hone my craft, and now this?” But, whatever. That’s what I think about that stuff. (chuckles)
To me, Grace Street is the kind of record you want to hear in the best resolution possible, and I’m encouraged that there are now hi-res streaming options. People can pay for the best versions of this material as possible, if they want to.
That’s great and all, but at the end of the day, it’s not like the artist is going to see anything from it. You go into this business knowing that you’re going to get burned — but at least you can leave a great product behind.
For you, what’s the best way to listen to Grace Street?
Obviously, for me, the best way is straight from the source — in a studio, with the volume cranked. That’s the best listening environment for me.
“A lot of time with vocals, the music usually tells you what it wants.”
But the album does open up quite differently on vinyl than it does any other way. There’s a warmth and an air that’s different — especially listening to it with headphones.
Yeah, I’m still a headphone junkie. I have in-ear monitors that I use live, and I have a spare set that I use as headphones when I’m listening to stuff. I hate to admit it, but sometimes, I do anything just to make it louder.
Gotta love it loud! There are a lot of layered vocal choices here, sometimes with reverb or echo added to your leads. How do you make those decisions?
A lot of times with vocals, the music usually tells you what it wants. And if it’s not quite right, you try something else. Like in A Speedy Recovery, some of the vocals are panned hard left and hard right. They’re pretty dry during the verse, and then in the chorus, it comes right down the middle.
And that’s how I did it on the demo for that song. That was done by design; it wasn’t something we stumbled upon. I love doing that kind of thing. Sometimes, you just can’t beat a really sweet delay or a really sweet reverb. A lot of that is GGGarth messing around with some long tape-delay kind of things. He’ll trap a phrase, and then throw it to the left or throw it to the right, and then we’ll record that “performance” of him messing with the delay. That’s what he did at the end of Motionless. And then Randy, during mixing, just tucked that back in.
A lot of that stuff is a Randy Staub thing. He’ll do a mix and then send it to me, and I’ll spend some time with it and go, “OK, I love what you’re doing here, but maybe the vocal could be a little wetter” — things like that. But you’ve gotta trust guys who’ve made the kind of records Garth Richardson and Randy Staub have made. Their suggestions carry a lot of weight, you know?
A couple of songs fade out at the end here like A Speedy Recovery and Motionless both do, which is a classic album kind of thing you don’t hear a lot of anymore.
We wanted to do fadeouts as much as we could. We went, “On this record, every song is going to have a fadeout, just like the old days!” (both laugh)
Well, we couldn’t actually make it all work like that, but on the ones that we could have a fadeout, we do. I think it’s cool, and it hearkens back to when you’d go, “Ahh, I remember this!” Long-ass fadeouts are just great.
Do you have a favorite album from those days, your benchmarks?
Ohhh, yeah, we could be here all day talking about those! There are hundreds of them, like Who’s Next, Led Zeppelin III, and Kind of Blue — so many records I’m madly in love with from years gone by. And I still go back to them, maybe because of what they meant to me and still mean to me, but also because I think they’re better than everything else! (chuckles)
There’s great stuff going on now, but it simply doesn’t have the same heart and soul. I don’t hear the person and the personality and the heart behind it. I don’t hear it anymore as much as I did back then.
Listening to an album was an activity, and it was the only thing you did, as opposed to being something that’s on while you’re doing something else, or something to listen to while you’re driving home or when you’re cooking dinner.
I mean, I do think that kind of music has its place as well to set a vibe, or set a tone. If you’re spending time with your beloved and want to have something on in the background, then that’s great!