Tag Archives: Butch Vig

Whatever happened to the distorted guitar?

I never hear really layered distorted guitar sounds on modern indie records – it’s completely out of style. If you want to hear that kind of thing, you’d have to go back to older records, or to bands that began in that era and haven’t shed all vestiges of that sound, and few of them are nowadays operating at an artistic peak.

Like a good recorded drum sound, the pleasures of a well engineered distorted guitar sound lie in the physical response it creates through texture.

Distorted guitar is an incredibly textural sound source. Distorted chord-based rhythm parts occupy an enormous amount of sonic real estate across a huge frequency range, partly due to the fact that their heavily compressed nature make them essentially a steady-state presence within a mix.

The combination of extreme sustain, low transient quality and huge frequency range makes distorted guitar extremely malleable within a mix. You can essentially manipulate a heavy guitar signal with downstream EQ the way a Hammond organ player can manipulate her sound with the drawbars.* The best practitioners of the fine art of layering distorted guitars (for me, that’s people like Kevin Shields, Jerry Cantrell, Billy Corgan and J Mascis – I was never a fan of the scooped, no-mid-range sound of ’80s and ’90s metal), along with engineers and producers like Dave Jerden and Butch Vig, used this knowledge to create an almost orchestral richness to their guitar sounds.

They could craft sounds to be hard or soft, aggressive or comforting, sharp or ambient, through the combination of different guitars, amps and processing when layering duplicate or complementary voicings over several tracks. Those who took it furthest would split one guitar performance over two or three amps (selected for their characteristics in different frequency ranges), then switch guitars and repeat, then play a complementary part and repeat again. All in the analogue realm, too, meaning that bouncing of tracks would be required in order to keep going once real estate on the 2-inch tape was used up.

Outside of metal (which if I’m totally honest I don’t listen to all that much), this is kind of a lost art now, which makes me a little sad. The tools have changed, too: digital modelling amps, reamp boxes and amp simulation plug-ins are as common if not more common among the musicians who are still grappling with the beast that is distorted guitar as valve amps and analogue effects pedals. Modern mix topologies aren’t hugely kind to bands that deal a lot in distorted guitars, either. It’s enough to make me a bit wistful, thinking back to the days when a rock band wasn’t a rock band unless their guitars were just blasting out a sea of white noise. Ah me. The years go by so fast.

 

*Much of what I know about the science and art of recording distorted guitars, I owe to a recording engineer and producer called Tim Gilles, who was known online as Slipperman. Slipperman’s guide to recording distorted guitars, which consisted of a series of forum posts and podcasts, was a hugely informative, frequently digressive and entertainingly foul-mouthed bible for me 10 years ago when I was trying to learn the basics of recording and devouring every source of knowledge that was cheap or free. Wherever Slippy is now, I wish him well.

Foo Fighters at 20

Gee, I got old. Twentieth anniversaries of records I bought as a teenage will start coming thick and fast now. Some I’ll write about fondly; others I might listen to and wonder what the hell I saw in this music. But, and this I can guarantee, it’ll be with a where-did-the-time-go bewilderment.

So Foo Fighters, then. Nowadays the acceptable face of mainstream rock and professional nice guy, albeit one with enough self-regard to deem the fact that he’s making a new record worthy of an 8-part HBO series full of slo-mo shots of the band walking purposefully, Dave Grohl didn’t always have quite such an assured position in the world.

In 1995, still processing Kurt Cobain’s death, Grohl didn’t know how to proceed (I assume anyone reading this knows Grohl played drums in Nirvana, right? OK, sorry. Of course). Like many musicians who go through a trauma, for a while he didn’t want to hear music, let alone play it. It reminded him of everything that had happened. And while he’d made good money from Nirvana and could afford to live quietly, take his time and see what came his way, he was still only 26, had a lot of working years ahead of him and not much idea of how to fill them.

Eventually, as the pain subsided into an ache, Grohl decided to treat himself to a week in a 24-track studio, Robert Lang’s, not far from where he lived in Seattle. If Lang’s isn’t the biggest name in studioland, with a Studer A827 tape machine and an SSL E series desk, it was still a major facility, so it was no small present Grohl was giving himself. Nonetheless, essentially he was just doing a more hi-fi version of something he’d done a few years before in 1992, when he recorded a collection of songs by himself and gave them to some friends in Virginia to release on their cassette label, Simple Machines. Pocketwatch, which has since been endlessly bootlegged, came out under the pseudonym Late! (Groh’s exclamation mark). He was planning to do the same thing again: release it under a band name, keep his own name off the sleeve and let the album find whatever audience it could.

Working with him as co-producer was Barrett Jones, his former drum tech in Nirvana. He and Grohl made the record in six days, with Grohl switching from one instrument to the next for each song, before moving on to the next one, burning through four songs a day. Jones has said since that he felt the album he and Grohl were making could be a big deal, but both were perhaps still naïve about the industry at that point and didn’t foresee the reaction his work would get among the big LA labels when they got wind of it (a process accelerated by Eddie Vedder playing a couple of songs on a radio show he hosted). Grohl was effectively able to name his own price (his own price being that he be allowed to start out small), with the labels confident that any release by a former member of Nirvana would pay for itself many times over. Grohl conceded to having the album remixed by Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock (who would later work on another old favourite of mine, Elliott Smith’s XO)

Somewhere over the next 10 years, the group slowly became one of the biggest in the world, and even now Grohl can turn out a strong single or two on each record, but I checked out a long time back.I find the sound of his albums, with the exceptions of the debut and 1999’s vintagey There is Nothing Left to Lose, extremely sonically fatiguing. The worst offenders, The Colour & the Shape and One by One, are essentially unlistenable, with the massed overdubs of guitars forcing the drums to occupy ever smaller real estate, until they no longer retain any of the shape of a real-life drum performance. This is crucial to a good-sounding, good-feeling, rock record (the Butch Vig-produced Wasting Light is a partial exception to this trend; it sounds, well, OK). And Grohl’s grandiosity and general unwillingness to challenge his audience has resulted in a lot of play-it-safe soundalike songs.

But I remain hugely fond of his debut, so distinct from the rest of the group’s music that it’s really the work of a different artist. The medium-fi recording, noticeably lacking in low end and bass guitar, is hugely charming, Grohl’s drum performances have room to breathe, and the material whether goofy (Weenie Beenie, Wattershed, This is a Call) or otherwise (Exhausted, I’ll Stick Around) is strong, and benefits from the low-key vibe. Each song sounds better in the context of all the others. It’s a great collection of songs; later Grohl records have striven to be a collection of great songs. Much harder to do the latter well. You couldn’t make this record better by adding or subtracting anything.

I should admit, too, that at 13 I found the idea that one man did all this by himself (playing the drums! and the bass! and the guitars! and singing it! and writing all the songs!) to be hugely inspiring.

Foo Fighters 02/50. Phoenix, Arizona, 1995 by Steve Double (UK)
Foo Fighters, 1995

My own one-man-band stuff (not recorded in a 24-track studio):

Give some to the bass player, part 2 – In Bloom by Nirvana

When discussing Krist Novoselic’s role in Nirvana, it’s tempting to fall back on the bass-player cliches: he was the steady one, he was the logistics guy, he kept the band grounded, and so on. All of which is true up to a point. He was a steadying influence, and his playing is probably the least crucial element of the band’s sound, by virtue of the fact that Cobain’s guitar took up a lot of sonic real estate and that the band had a virtuouso drummer. Yet Novoselic was a huge personality – a loudmouth who would say and do outrageous things behind a bottle of hard liquor or a case of beer – and it was Cobain who wrote all the band’s bios and cover letters and sent endless tapes off to radio and record labels.

But ultimately almost any musician’s main contribution to their band is musical, and Novoselic is by no means the one-dimensional player he’s sometimes perceived as. Sure within Nirvana, he mainly played root notes in eights, a technique we discussed in the previous post, or he doubled the guitar riff, but when he did he ever do so inappropriately? And when he took a different approach, he did so with a good ear and a sure touch. His lines on Love Buzz are the key to the song. He’s at the heart of Been a Son. His part in the verses of Lithium is a classic.

But he’s at his best on In Bloom, a song I’ve looked at before for its drum track. Now, I’m not going to condone piracy, but the multitracks for this song were leaked some years ago and are online if you’re interested in hearing just the rhythm section. Grohl and Novoselic cook up quite a groove in the choruses, and it’s a huge part of the song’s success (along with the instantly memorable chorus and the all-time-great drum arrangement created by Chad Channing and played by his replacement, Grohl).

The key to it is a change in feel, which occurs in both the bass and the drums. In the verses, the hats are played in 16th notes, the kick mirrors it with its stuttering 2-beat pattern at the start of each bar of the verse, and the snare is in quarters. In effect, the right hand and right foot are continually pushing the song forward, while the left hand pulls it back. Novoselic also plays in 16ths, tight little groups of them that follow the guitar part played by Cobain. In the choruses, though, the band loosens its grip. Grohl plays a really cool syncopated kick drum pattern but, cannily, Novoselic doesn’t lock in with it; he swings off it instead.That little jump up the octave when Grohl plays his triplet fills are another lovely touch – very playful.

It’s little details like this that turn a good track into a great one. I’d not call In Bloom my favourite track off Nevermind or anything like that, but when I listen to it, I do think it brought out the best in all of its creators.

Krist
In the 1990s, we wore our basses down by our ankles.

Chad Channing, honorary Hall of Famer; on Nirvana’s other drummer not being inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

I’ve avoided talking about Nirvana on this blog this week. Every other site on the internet was running deep-and-meaningful Kurt Cobain retrospectives, and I didn’t want to seem like I was doing it just to get clicks. It’s hard for me to write sensibly about Nirvana, anyhow – more than any other band, it was Nirvana that made me pick up the guitar, play music, write songs. It’s because I heard Nirvana when I was, what, 12 or 13 that I’ve spent twenty years playing music, thinking about music and studying music. I can’t condense all of that into 500 or 1000 words. Every time I try it defeats me No, they’re not the best band that’s ever been, but their music was the catalyst for me. I don’t know where I might have channelled my energies if I hadn’t have been blown away by Smells Like Teen Spirit in high school. Possibly I’d be more employable.

The only way I can write about them is to go small, stick to one little issue. So here’s a post on Chad Channing, who wasn’t inducted with Nirvana to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Of course the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is unnecessary. Music fans create their own pantheons, and that’s absolutely as it should be. A surprising (to me) number of my favourite artists are in it, but an important minority are not, never will be. It’s nice when they recognise people I think are really important, and it doesn’t bother me when they don’t. The R&RHoF was founded by Ahmet Ertegun. He may have been a singularly smart businessman, but he also never stopped being a music fan, and so on the whole the HoF does a reasonable job of spotlighting the greats, even the less well-known, less commercially successful ones, and they’re pretty canny about who they pick as representative of ‘Rock and Roll’ (Popular Music Hall of Fame would have been an apter choice of name), revealing Gene Simmons as the unimaginative, dunderheaded bigot he obviously always has been. It’d have been nice to see him and his lame-ass band permanently excluded, just for Simmons’ reaction.

Inductions of band with multiple line-ups, though, is a genuinely tricky issue. Very awkward with Blondie a few years ago. No induction, too, for the Bobs – Welch and Weston – from Fleetwood Mac in 1998 (although gratifyingly the late sixties guitar trio of of Green, Kirwan and Spencer were all inducted). Inductions for vocal groups such as the Drifters, for whom Wikipedia lists 27 past or present members, are even more difficult for the Hall of Fame to cope with. The last few weeks saw a lot of back and forth over whether Chad Channing would be inducted with Nirvana. Channing was, by many counts, Nirvana’s fourth drummer. But let’s keep it simple. Dave Foster and Aaron Burckhard never recorded with the group. They’re out. Dan Peters (on loan from the then-on-hiatus Mudhoney) cut one song with them. The same as Andy White did with the Beatles. Anyone want to see Andy White added to the list of Beatles members? No? OK, Dan Peters is out too, then. Which leaves Dale Crover, Chad Channing and Dave Grohl. Crover toured with Nirvana, recorded with them too, but always on the understanding that it was a side gig; his day job was with the Melvins. Others would make a case for him. Being more hard-headed, I wouldn’t.

Channing, though, he should have gone in. It was very tough on him not to include him. He played on the majority of Bleach and a bunch of non-album tracks that ended up on Incesticide and on the With the Lights Out box set, 21 in total by my count (although I’m no completist and there may well be a bunch more I don’t know of). That’s a greater number than any drummer barring Dave Grohl. So in the absence of a proper induction for Channing, it was cool of Grohl to spend a minute of his speech talking about Chad, drawing people’s attention to the fact that a lot of the drum parts he gets most credit for are actually performances of parts that Channing devised. He handled a difficult situation gracefully, and I find it kind of hard to believe that he or Novoselic had a hand in Channing’s exclusion.

So, Chad Channing, honorary Hall of Famer, then. Let’s get a handle on him by taking a look at some of his parts.

In Bloom
I’ve been telling people for years that In Bloom was a Chad Channing drum part played by Dave Grohl. OK, Grohl might have played it tighter and more powerfully, but credit where it’s due. Bootlegged versions of the Smart session (also known as the Sheep session, recorded in Madison, Wisconsin, with Butch Vig, before Grohl joined the band) are out there if you want to hear them. Channing plays very well.

It’s an intriguing part. The hats are played in 16th notes, the kick mirrors it with its stuttering two-beat pattern at the start of each bar of the verse, while the snare is in quarters. In effect, the right hand and right foot are continually pushing the song forward, while the left hand pulls it back. Channing’s also responsible for the mighty tom fills in the intro (16th notes again) and for the inspired 8th-note triplet snare rolls in the choruses. Grohl brought the mighty snare roll (a full bar of 16th-notes) that takes the song into the chorus to the party – in Channing’s version, it’s only half the length, so the part is somewhat collaborative, but basically it’s Chad’s.

It’s a truly iconic part among drummers. The song would be immediately identifiable to most listeners from the drums alone. That’s a really hard trick to pull off while also playing for the song and refraining from showboating. But everything about the drums on this track is integral to the overall effect. For this alone, I’d have seen Channing inducted with the rest of the band.

School
There’s already bootleg footage of J Mascis sitting in with the surviving members of the band on this one the other night. It’s great.

School is typical of Channing’s playing on Bleach: loose, swinging and full of little details. He had a behind-the-beat style, sometimes at odds with the playing of Krist Novoselic, who’s more likely to ahead of the beat than behind it, but it’s all part of the signature feel of the album, which is claustrophobic and heavy in an oddly precarious way, like it might come apart at any moment.

School is not a simple part. After a 16th-note verse, with two kick patterns that alternate, bar by bar (and which Channing played with a double pedal, I think, although Grohl used to play it with a single pedal), the savage switch to a half-time feel would defeat many drummers. Channing switches to it via a triplet snare roll – a good choice for such a big change. His Bonham-esque whole-kit roll halfway through each chorus is a highlight, as is his increasingly frantic playing in the song’s middle section, before and during Cobain’s guitar solo. Not coincidentally, the tempo begins to speed up wildly here. It’s not particularly controlled, but it’s hugely exciting.

Negative Creep
More double-kick fun in this one. In truth, I’m not a big fan of double kick playing generally. Too often it tends to lead a sort of martial stiffness, leaving the music very straight and rigid. Negative Creep is not rigid. Channing didn’t base his whole style on double kick. He used it for little touches in grooves that otherwise could have been played with a single pedal (Grohl adapted the part, missing out the mini rolls on the kick). It’s cool and quietly inventive.

Between Channing’s galloping kick drum, and Cobain’s increasingly hysterical vocal, it once again sounds like it’s about to fly off your turntable at any moment. But that’s part of its charm. The abandon was a key part of what attracted a lot of people to this band.

 

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Nirvana, 1989, l-r Kurt Cobain, Jason Everman, Chad Channing, Krist Novoselic