“I just want to ooze creativity, all the time.”
Beck Wood, vocalist of the new British garage-psychedelic heroes Coves is outlining her goals in a second-floor dressing room in Brooklyn, while a nearby table is rattling uncontrollably thanks to the low-end buzz being generated by the evening’s headliners, The Raveonettes. Coves are a great fit to open for the Danish sound dervishes, as their debut album, Soft Friday, is one of the year’s top releases. It marries Wood’s reverb-drenched, chanteuse-style vocals with guitarist/producer John Ridgard’s gritty, trip-inducing soundscapes. Songs like the ethereally seething relationship kiss-off “Beatings,” the hypnotically driving “Let the Sun Go,” and the sensual pleading caress of “Wake Up” ensure the Coves are at the forefront of the modern bliss-out movement. Top-drawer mixing by Brendan Lynch (Primal Scream, Paul Weller, 22-20s) and Max Heyes (Doves, Ocean Colour Scene, The Rakes) only serves to seal the sonic deal.
Wood and Ridgard sat down with Digital Trends to discuss the literal shapes and shaping of their sound, their views on high-resolution digital audio versus the comforts of vinyl, and a special holiday wish (of sorts). You want one more piece of visceral shorthand to describe their stellar sound? Put Coves music in a Cuisinart, and you could call the ensuing sonic wash The Velvet Jesus and Mary Underground Chain.
“We both grew up with that ’90s sound.”
John Ridgard: That studio was in a building that had really high ceilings in parts of it, and it had also been home to the first pool hall in the U.K. that had been turned into an office with these little unused rooms, so it worked really well for recording. I loved the sounds I got in this one corridor where all the bedrooms were, where six of my mates all moved into. A lot of the drums were recorded just by sticking a mike at the end of the corridor and playing the drums right there in the studio.
That drum sound you got is cavernous, like John Bonham updated for the new millennium.
John: Yeah! I would sample kick drums, and then I’d play the toms on top so I could capture that room sound, just to have the subby kick drums on there.
You’re the producer, but tell me about working with Brendan Lynch and Max Heyes.
We both grew up with that ’90s sound, so to have Brendan and Max mix Soft Friday was great. They’ve got this big old BBC desk, and all these different amps and trigger pedals in their library. When they mix, they take half the desk each. Brendan did all the bass and drums and Max did all the vocals and guitars. They’d just sit there and Max would go, “Hey, put that delay in!” and Brendan would just stamp on a pedal. It would come in on one speaker and they’d go, “Whoa! Pan it!” And that’s how cool things happen. It was like a happy accident.
Did you have an influence or idea in your head as to “this is how I want us to sound”?
John: It all came from messing about, not, “Oh, I want to make an album that sounds like X.” A lot of it came from the ’60s garagey vibe. Me and my old flat mate went to a record fair one day, and we met a guy dressed in this really fucking cool suit who had racks and racks of vinyls. We went and looked through all his vinyls, and I didn’t recognize half of them. It was a lot of ’60s garage and prog and psych. I had a bit of cash and said, “Can you pick me out 10 albums?” I just went home and listened to them loads at a time.
There’s a lot of echo, reverb, and effects on your vocals, Beck. How come?
“I’d never sung for a band before this one, not out loud.”
Yeah, you’re a bit like Hope Sandoval, only with a lot more energy. Your voice has that special ethereal quality, and you use reverb as a creative tool, especially in your live mix.
Beck: That’s great, thanks. I used to work in a pub, and I’d go down in the cellars to sing, as the cellars had some sort of natural reverb. And I’d go, “Oh, yeah!” I love reverb. It’s got that floatiness, and that effect — I mean, me sounding dry, it doesn’t work. (laughs) So reverb to me is just great. I’m like, “Yeah! Give me more!”
John, you access a lot of different kinds of sounds on the record.
John: We found this really cool effect on eBay called the Great British Spring, which is a piece of black drainpipe. It was only about 50 quid [around $80 U.S.].
Beck: And how many times has it broken?
John: It broke every week, we had to keep taking it back. We just kicked it slightly and it would go [makes exploding noise].
Beck: We like that sort of weird sound. I really like it when John puts backwards noises on our stuff. To me, it’s all about reverb and backwards-sounding stuff. Even when we make our own videos, I really like using backwards images; nothing that’s familiar to the eye. I like doing videos that are animated, really dark, and eerie. Anything a bit weird, I like that.
John: I like using toys and stuff lying around, toy harps and things like that. I get something out of them, and then reverse it.
Is there a Beatles influence I hear in there too?
John: Yeah. I grew up loving every bit of them. I love the way they sound. No one has ever recorded drums as cool as they did, especially what they did on Magical Mystery Tour. I read the stories about how they were close-miking the drums and how you couldn’t do that in the studio back then, so they secretly wrapped [sweaters] around them. It was mental.
Tell me how you got that great distortion.
John: It’s all recorded on this little Soundtracs mixing desk that I found on eBay; it’s from the early ’80s, I think. It had an advert with Pete Townshend on it, going, “I’d recommend this mixer to anyone!” Yeah, I just cranked the gains on it, and got some really lovely distortion, especially on Beck’s voice. I’d put the gain on four and get her back to do a take, and then redo the take with just whispered words to feel like someone is just whispering in your ear.
“When you get the best of anything, I think it sucks the fun out of it.”
Sometimes you sing through a megaphone onstage. Where did that come from?
Beck: The megaphone came because we can’t afford any nice pedals for me (all laugh). When we were in the studio, I was like, “Ahh, we should get one!” So I bought it, didn’t I?
John: Beck has weird ways of describing the things that she wants. I think nobody else would understand it. She’d be like, “I want something that sounds scratchy and goes kkkkkk-kkkkkttt!” (Beck laughs) And sometimes she’ll be like, “That sounds a little bit square. Can I have it be a bit more circular?” And I’ll be like, “Fuck, how do I make it sound circular?”
You’re just playing with the waveform, is all.
Beck: Yeah. Sometimes after dinner I’d be sitting there while John was mixing, and I’d say, “Maybe that bit could be more of a triangle. More triangle-y, but a bit more spiky.”
Is that how you’d describe the sound of “Beatings”?
Beck: “Beatings” is a bit more of a cylinder shape, and then it explodes into a bubbly sort of shape, yeah. It’s not just shapes, but colors too: “More brown. More gray.” As many as there are, we want them all.
Eddie Van Halen goes for the “Brown Sound,” you know. That’s how he’s described his “big” guitar and amp/effects tone for years.
Beck (to John): See? I’m not just weird. It’s from my special brain. (smiles)
You know who would do a really cool cover of the first song you ever recorded, “Honeybee”? Nancy Sinatra.
Beck: Shut up! Wow, yeah. That’s nice.
John: That would be amazing.
Beck: Just thinking of her singing it, it already sounds better.
John: We never play that song live.
Beck: We used to sing it live when we first started out, and then we haven’t since. We don’t want to sing it again.
John: There’s too much going on in it. It’s not ideal to play it with a backing track, because I’d like to have a full band.
Beck: Once we get some money, we’ll do it with a full band.
John: In the U.K., we’ve got a bass player, and we have a drummer too, who’s with us here in the States. But for “Honeybee,” there’s so much going on with backing tracks, it would be like karaoke. (laughs)
Beck: We’d need a full orchestra.
“I really like using backwards images; nothing that’s familiar to the eye.”
Maybe that’s your next video. (All laugh) I think this is the perfect time to ask about sound quality. What do you think about hi-res digital recording?
John: I’m ok with 16-bit for now, I think. I’ve got a lot of higher-end equipment and gear now. Before I got it, I thought the best thing I had recorded was on a 4-track tape. But those recordings were rubbish, and after I got good at the digital audio workstation thing and learned how to use it, I thought they were rubbish too. Once I start to know what I’m doing, that’s when I jump ahead.
Beck: When you get the best of anything, I think it sucks the fun out of it. When you change it up, you get those quirky, different sounds. When you’re learning, the sound is learning too, you know?
So are hi-res digital files “too good” to your ears? What do you like better, vinyl?
Beck: Digital is too clear to me! I like the vinyl better because you can take it home and smell it, and and you get involved in it, open it up and look at the booklet, and when you put the needle down, you hear that sound. Digital files and digital discs, pffffft.
John: I always had vinyl growing up from the age of 5. I had a Technics deck and a Trio amp, which was like a Kenwood, and some [EAW] KF speakers. I got some new amps a few weeks ago, but nothing ever sounds as good as it did when you were a kid, does it? The best amps were around in the late ’70s, so I bought myself some old KF930 speakers, and a 930, [Sony] 3021 amp, and a Technics stack again. That’s when they knew how to make hi-fi.
Do you like Spotify?
Beck: It’s a good idea if you want “easy music,” but the way the industry is these days, it’s easy come, easy go, and then it’s all gone. But if you buy a vinyl, you can keep it, and go back to it.
John: I listen to Spotify and find new bands all the time, but it’s like throwaway, isn’t it? You hear a new band, you put it into your Favorite Albums folder, you listen to it three or four times. And then a new band comes along and you drop that into the Favorite Albums folder, and you’ve forgotten about the other band. With vinyl, you buy it for the rest of your life. I’m still flicking through the albums I bought as a kid.
If we have to go with only a full-on all-digital future, are you OK with it?
John: I like having the best of both worlds when it comes to music. I love vintage vinyl and analog gear, but I also love Logic and the plug-ins that I use to record. At home, I can listen to my vinyl, and it sounds great. But to sit in the office —
Beck: — or on the train —
John: — yeah, and be able to hear things in high quality, yeah. Get some good hi-fi headphones and walk around the city, and the music still needs to sound good. Some people only like listening to FLAC files, which is great, but how good are your speakers? If you listen to them on earbuds or computer speakers, what’s the point? You might as well listen to MP3s.
You painted the album cover, didn’t you?
“I want something that sounds scratchy and goes kkkkkk-kkkkkttt!”
John: That would have been really cool if it had a tear down the side.
Beck: I would have cried! It took me 3 solid days of 8 hours apiece.
You could create a fake one for use in your next video.
Beck: Yes! I’ll be walking down the hill and have it disintegrate: “But noooo!”
John: You could film while you’re drawing it and carrying it down the mountain.
Beck: Like a time-lapse? Well, maybe for the second album. The next album cover will be this big white square with me crying down in the corner. “Whyyy??? I spent 46 hours on doing this! And hundreds of pounds on the ink!” (all laugh) But, yeah, that would be awesome.
So the holidays are around the corner, and it’s time for you to cut a Christmas song. Which one would you do?
Beck: We tried, but we ruined it! We played a Christmas gig —
John: — but we didn’t rehearse.
Beck: We did “White Christmas.” I got too drunk and forgot the words, and I said, “Oh no, I’ve ruined Christmas for everybody!” (all laugh)