The first thing you notice about The Matthew Good band’s The Audio Of Being is that the album is a heavier affair. We’re talking big time guitar riffage here. The lead-off track, “Man Of Action” comes at you like a sonic avalanche, tumbling down guitar necks and crashing off of drums. Listening to the opening chugging riffs of the first single “Carmelina” makes you wonder if Matt and the boys have been buying up stock in vintage ’80s hair spray, trolling the Sally Anne for spandex pants and practising their devil-sign hand gestures. [We already know bassist Rich Priske admits to owning a closet full of spandex.]
That’s not to say that the band has morphed into a new millennial Motley Crue. You’ll still find evocative and spacey Matt Good ballads like “Advertising On Police Cars”, a likely candidate for the next single. But the band did try to transform itself during the recording of the new album. And that effort proved to be something of a torturous one for the band, as we shall see as the story unfolds.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to talk to Good this time around – I suspect he was off somewhere promoting his book — but I did get to talk with the other members of the band, guitarist Dave Genn, drummer Ian Browne and bassist Rich “Rock” Priske. It was they who told me the real story about The Audio Of Being.
But first, what’s the story behind that title?
“I think he had the title before he had any of the songs, actually,” says guitarist Genn, “in typical Matthew Good fashion.”
But while he is cautious when it comes to saying too much about Good’s lyrics, Genn does have his own theory about the title.
“I think it’s reflective of the fact that, lyrically, this is his most personal record.” he explains. “It’s most about him in the present; whereas Beautiful Midnight was a record that was more about his past, and Underdogs [MGB's 1997 major-label debut] was more of a record of him observing other people.”
For a project that would ultimately result in a certain degree of conflict and turmoil, its beginnings were decidedly idyllic enough, as Genn explained with respect to the writing process.
“Matt had the songs written, and he and I got together in a hotel room in Whistler, BC for a week before the pre-production process,” says Genn. “He basically showed the songs to me and I worked out most of my initial parts up there in Whistler in between golf games.”
Not a bad way to go about business. But from there on in, the band changed its methods of operation in several key ways.
“This record was sort of a double-sided sword,” says Genn. “Matthew presented us with songs that he had written that were quite a bit simpler and stripped down than in the past. I mean, musically simpler in that there were less chords and less sections, generally, than Beautiful Midnight. So, as a result, the songs that Matt came in with on this album were a little bit more of his vision, initially, than the collective. Once we got in the practice space, however, I think that we were much more experimental. We were much more interested in finding absolutely the right parts for these sort of simple chord progressions. As a result, I think all four of us had much more input on the whole level on this record.”
Usually, a band will record demo versions of their new songs, and then use those as a reference point — to a greater or lesser degree — when beginning the job of recording the songs proper. However, because they were making their third record with the same producer, Warne Livesey, and because the band had been doing things pretty much the same way over the six-and-a-half years they’ve been together, they decided to shake things up a little bit this time.
“We were really trying to make a conscious effort to do things differently,” says Genn. “So as a result, we didn’t demo the album before we recorded it. Basically, Matt came to us with 12 songs and we learned them very, very quickly over a period of two weeks, and then went into the studio and recorded them right away. We kept things very fresh and we were very open to new ideas and different ways of doing things.”
Because they didn’t demo the songs or play any of them live before going into the studio, none of the band members was overly attached to his parts.
“So basically we were just throwing caution to the wind,” Genn explains. “And although it can be somewhat of a scary process, at the same time, because you’re not too attached to your parts, you’re very open to quick changes or maybe even throwing a part out entirely and starting fresh.”
The band took full advantage of having time on their side, and the luxury of exploring in the studio, trying different things, experimenting. But for his part, drummer Browne has some doubts about this method of recording.
“These days, you can record very cheaply, and I don’t think people get the experience of actually spending weeks doing guitars, or weeks doing drums,” Browne says. “It was a good experience that way, spending that much time labouring over parts. I’m not convinced that it actually yields better stuff than when you just set up a mic in the room and everybody’s playing and you have a vibe or whatever. It’s definitely more polished, but whether or not it’s better, I don’t know.”
Both Underdogs and Beautiful Midnight had been recorded at Greenhouse studios in Vancouver and then mixed with Warne Livesey at his preferred studio, BJG in London, England. But when it came time to begin recording The Audio Of Being, the band decided a change of scenery was called for. The album was actually recorded in two sessions. First, they went into the Armoury in Vancouver for an eight-week period last year, from the beginning of October to early December, during which time they laid down tracks for about 14 songs. After a winter hiatus, they moved things over to the city’s other prestigious recording facility, the Warehouse, for two weeks in the spring of 2001, where they recorded two more songs, “Anti-Pop” and “Truffle Pigs”. They remained at the Warehouse for the mixing of the album. The band found the new venues to be a welcome change.
“We just figured that we needed a change of scenery,” says Genn. “Although we wanted to stay in Vancouver so we could be close to our families and our friends and our girlfriends and the comforts of our own beds at night, we did make a conscious effort to change the scenery around us and see if we could come up with a record that was a little different”
“It was a vast improvement,” agrees Browne on the change of studios. “These rooms were extremely well equipped. They’re really nice rooms. So it was kind of nice to feel like we were one of these very lucky select group of bands that get to go in there and spend the big money and entrench ourselves for months on end to make an album. It’s so rare that you get to do it that way.”
The new studios also provided the band with access to some pretty nifty gear. The Armoury was the late Bruce Fairbairn’s studio, and it seems he was quite a collector.
“He collected cars and guitars and amplifiers and fine wines,” explains Genn. “They didn’t let us drink the wine and they didn’t let us drive the cars, but they let us at most of the guitars and amps, which we were very grateful for.”
“It’s an absolutely incredible collection,” Genn says with discernible awe. “And it’s not just great guitars, it’s the fact that you’ve got the finest example of the best year of a particular make, and then it’s signed by the guy who made it famous. There’s a ’59 [Gretsch] Duo Jet signed by Malcolm Young, a ’67 Rickenbacker 330 signed by Pete Townshend, there’s a ’63 SG signed by Angus Young, an original ’59 tweed Bassman — I mean the list goes on. I think the best guitar amp I’ve ever heard in my entire life is at the Armoury. It’s a 1971 Hiwatt Custom 50 head and cab. It’s just an absolutely amazing amplifier — it sounded so good. I think Matt may have used it on every single one of his tracks, actually, and I think I used on about half of mine. So that is the real perk to working in a studio like that where you have access to basically unlimited amounts of guitars and amps. We were like kids in candy shops.”
And having access to all that “candy” proved to be beneficial when it came time to fatten up Good’s sonic aspirations.
“We were really trying to go for a much bigger, fatter sound for Matt, and I think we achieved that,” Genn says. “In the past, he’s been using a lot of Fender guitars through Fender amplifiers, which was doing the trick. On this album we were really looking for something that really took up a lot of space for Matt. We did that with Matt playing a lot more [Gibson] 335s and SGs through not only his Fender Pro Sonic rig that he plays live, but also through the Hiwatt Custom 50 that I was telling you about earlier.”
Although bassman Priske can lay claim to a whole arsenal of Thunderbirds, he also found some vintage axes to wield. “They had a couple of really nice, old basses there,” he says. “A ’61 Fender Precision that I used on a couple of tracks, then an old ’66 or ’67 Jazz bass that basically looked like it just came from the store, it was in just amazing shape. I don’t think we ended up using it, but it was fun to play.”
Browne, on the other hand, stuck with what was familiar. “They had a nice Ayotte kit there, but there’s something about having your own instrument there that’s pretty important. You develop a connection to instruments: you know what they can do, you know how they sound, and you know how they’re going to react. I always use the Ayotte bass drums and pretty much always use Gretsch toms, so that’s kind of where it’s at for me.”
Unlike the last two albums that were mixed in London, with Good and Genn flying over to work with producer Warne Livesey, this record was mixed with all four of the band members present at the Warehouse.
“I really had a good time with this one actually, just because we were there for the mix,” says Browne, “so we were able to contribute ideas and actually change the way the thing actually ends up sounding.”
Priske’s take on the mixing is a little bit different. “Mixing is probably the most boring and laborious task of making a record,” he laughs. “The way I approach it is to just be the objective third party. I’m sort of the one who steps in when his opinion is needed in order to maintain freshness. I see my role as being able to come in and go ‘hey guys, you’re worrying too much about the little things. Just worry about whether it rocks or not.’”
“There’s definitely a time when you have to know that there are enough cooks in the Kitchen,” adds Browne. “I wasn’t trying to get in the way when they were doing guitars or keyboards or anything like that. Once in a while I definitely felt like I could make a suggestion, but I’m pretty happy to just do my part and also just to try and create a bed track that’s exciting and that parts can be added to and it’s going to enhance it.”
“That’s one of the good things about our band” says Browne, “is that we have departments, and we know our department.”
Each of the band members also has his own preferred way of recording his parts, according to Priske.
“Matt likes to set up all the atmospheric stuff with the mood lighting and that kind of thing, the smoke machine and all that,” he recounts, “and he generally kicks everyone out of the studio except for Warne, especially when he’s singing. Ian obviously has no choice,” the bass player says, laughing. “We all have to be there to play along. And I think for Dave and myself, it’s the more, the merrier. It almost ends up turning into a bit of a party, with friends dropping by, just sort of keeping the vibe light and the mood up.”
“Making a record can be really a lot of fun,” continues Priske, “the experimenting and the exploring, and that sort of thing; but it can also be very painful. Trying to get a point across, and if it’s not quite coming across right, it can lead to a bit of frustration. Every individual has their own little way of finding that happy space where they can lay down a good track.”
What becomes evident in hearing the story of how The Audio Of Being was recorded, is that the band decided to purposefully knock themselves off-balance, by trying different recording approaches, new scenery and altered procedures, to see if they could come up with something new and different from their previous recordings. The band seems more or less unanimously pleased with the results. But it also seems clear Chat the process of recording the album was a painful one. How painful? So painful that it almost destroyed the band.
In late August, in a message posted on the band’s official Web site, www.matthewgoodband.com, and on the fan site www.runningforhome.com, Good announced that guitarist Dave Genn and the band had parted ways. A few days later, however, it was announced that Genn was back onboard, And as if that hadn’t raised enough eyebrows among music biz observers, in late September, Good was saying it hadn’t been simply a matter of Genn leaving the band. What had occurred was a complete dissolution of the group — at least for the space of a few days, until cooler heads prevailed.
Maybe we’ll never know exactly what happened. But this project has obviously 1eft its mark on the band, in one way or another.
Ian Browne simply chalks up Genn’s temporary departure to “the usual band strife.”
“It’s an unfortunate turn of events, and it doesn’t really feel that resolved,” Browne admits, “but it’s just what happens when you get to know somebody so well. When you spend six years in a band with a guy, it’s a closer bond than just being co-workers where you just work nine-to-five and then you can go home and you have your family and your friends or whatever. This is like, you’re all wrapped into one; it’s your family and your friends and all that stuff. It’s a really odd relationship for men to behaving in this day a and age, so it’s only natural that there should be some conflict. It’s too bad that it has to be so cliche, that all bands have to have these kind of problems, but it just goes to show you that everybody’s the same.”
“A band is almost like a family after a point” adds Priske. “You end up being each other’s brothers and sisters after a while, and anyone who’s got kids or brothers and sisters knows that they’re gonna fight once in a while. I don’t think it’s anything more or less than that. Dave’s one of the finest guitar players in the land, and I we’re just happy to have him along.”
As for his part, Genn didn’t have anything to say directly about his fleeting exit from the “band, except to say that the group was moving forward.
“This record, in a lot of ways, was our most difficult to make,” he offers. “The band is growing, and as the band grows we also realized that we have a certain M.O. that we do things. There’s a certain M.O. that makes us sound like we do, but at the same time we always want to try and stretch the boundaries. So this record, for us, was an attempt to do things differently, to sort of examine our processes and see if there are different directions that we can take it in, and I think for the most part we succeeded.” However, he pulled up short of saying that the strife within the band was as a result of changing the way they do things. “The experience of making this record was a difficult one for all of us,” says the guitarist, “and I think once we all realized that, we felt much more united.”
“I think we’re definitely moving forward,” says Browne confidently. “The material’s getting better, more interesting. I think it was a good experience overall. There were definitely some tense moments, as there are in any kind of album situation; people fighting and that kind of thing, but it’s all just part of being in a band. I don’t know any band that gets along in the studio. It’s one of the most tense things, but it’s for the record.”
“It was somewhat painful,” Genn allows, pausing briefly, “because change is always painful. But I would say that making a record with the Matthew Good Band is a lot like taking a painful shit; it kind of hurts when it’s coming out, but you feel a lot better when it’s done. And it’s only a matter of time until you have to do it again.”
Jim Kelly is a Toronto-based freelance writer.
RELATED ARTICLE: PRODUCER’S PERSPECTIVE
Warne Livesey, Matthew Good Band’s producer [for three albums now] was tracked down in England for a quick e-mail interview. Here’s his take on the making of The Audio Of Being:
How do you see the sound of the band changing, from Beautiful Midnight to the new album?
The new album, The Audio Of Being, is a rawer record. More edgy and aggressive, at least in places, but its greater dynamic also affords some very spacious atmospheric moments too. If Beautiful Midnight used a dynamic range from 1-10, then this album goes to 11 … and probably down to 0.5 too.
What new musical direction does this album represent for the band?
Matthew’s songwriting has obviously progressed. This new album is, in fact, simpler than Beautiful Midnight. Matt is able to say more with less. The chord structures are simpler, more straight down the line’ rock changes, so the interest and dynamic is created by what happens over the top of that. Instrumentally, this album is more evenly balanced too, giving room for the whole band to shine. The bass has particularly moved on. Beautiful Midnight was recorded when Rich had just joined the band. Now he has been in the band for a few years, the dynamic has changed and the bass has a more assertive, driving role on this album.
The band went for a heavier sound on the new record, a) Was that something they came to you with, or did you develop that direction together? And, b) what did that entail from a production standpoint?
Matt certainly came to this album with songs that already demanded a heavier approach and he also wanted to use big rhythm guitar parts in places. We worked extensively on developing a wall-of-sound guitar tone for some of the bigger moments and this also entailed the other instruments being more sonically precise to be able to cut through and work with that.
Sonically, we went for a different approach than Beautiful Midnight. The drums are spikier and less roomy and the bass more grindy. This leaves more room for the big saturated guitars, but that is really only part of the story. A large part of this album is very atmospheric with lots of space. There are places where the drum sound is just one ribbon mic going through a few guitar pedals, and other places where it is full on multi-miked sound. We use a full-on wall of guitars one minute, and then quietly play acoustic guitar the next. I tried to create a sonic roller-coaster rather than stick with the same sounds all the way through.
Did you use any interesting or new techniques or approaches in the studio?
I can’t really draw attention to anything specifically. I don’t think it really works like that, Most of the time it is context that makes something interesting … not the specific recording technique. I used a lot of weird processing. I had some weird shit going on the drums and vocals sometimes and we had the guitars going through every box under the sun at one stage or another. Let’s face it, if I say we used a wah-wah or a whammy pedal, that ain’t going to be something new. Using weird combinations of things and using stuff in the wrong way is what makes it interesting. Not unlike sex!
Many of the songs have a little sonic prelude of some sort. How did that come about?
When I was mixing Loser Anthems with Matt, we did this little piano interlude thing really quickly, which we really liked. We wanted to do some similarly cinematic pieces for the album. Some were planned, like the start of the album. Matt wanted the airplane announcement to start the record and the atmosphere and the strings were written to work around the picking guitar part, which runs through most of the first song, “Man of Action”. It’s kind of “Baba O’Riley” meets [world-class, soft-orchestral classical guitarist Luiz] Mantovani on an in-flight audio channel. But some of the other intros and outros developed organically. We pulled in this Optigon keyboard, which plays flexi disks with sounds on them, and it demanded to be used. I think, with songs as intense as this record, it was a natural tendency to create some interludes which introduce you into that intensity, and perhaps give light to the shade. We also wanted the album to be a piece of work in its entirety. All the songs hang together lyrically an d the interludes help to bind the whole thing together musically. It’s a concept album, but no one wore cheesecloth smocks … except Ian!