My talk with Arlen Thompson – 10 Year Anniversary of Apologies to the Queen Mary

I spoke to Arlen as well, with more of the technical side of the recording process of Apologies:

We were kind of thrown into this process of making a record. I don’t think, at the time, anyone in the band had really made a full record. It was all really new and and we didn’t really know what we were doing. We were working with Isaac, and he had really specific ideas of how he wanted to do this, but there was zero pre production. Which is usually something that you at least do a little bit of before. So we were trying to do this pretty high production value sound so we had click tracks that we did a bunch of the drums to. It was actually kind of a struggle technically to get things going because we hadn’t planned too much on tempos and that kind of thing. We just were a band just playing in a jam room and we had made those EP’s which were all kinda like 4 track style basically Throw some mics in a room and press record. Now we were getting into the sphere of a more contemporary recording. We did do it on tape, we used 2” tape on a Studer machine. We had a console; I think it was a Broadcast Neve from the 80’s. Chris Chandler he was kind of the unsung hero of that whole record. He was like the glue that held all that total madness together. Isaac was doing his best but he was super busy with Modest Mouse and we had no idea what we were doing and we were totally broke. Chris helped keep everything moving along.
For myself, recording my tracks with a click track, I struggled a lot with it and it was really tough because with Wolf Parade, I find that the song dynamics are really dependent on tempo and we do have lotts of little small tempo variations within a song. Like we realized with ‘This Heart’s On Fire’ that we were trying to record that with a flat tempo, so just one tempo one bpm setting and we just couldn’t get the song to pop like it usually does. So we actually had to make a tempo map on a click track. Count out all the bars, and basically design it so that the song is basically continuously ramping up in tempo and doing it actually very precisely. We had to actually draw it out to be able to do it. It was really crazy because we never had to sit down and break our songs down bar by bar and count things out and figure out ‘ok this is where we have the little lift in the song’, the tempo lift, so we have to use Digital Performer that Hadji had. We had to draw out all these tempo maps basically. It was pretty intense. That’s something that you usually not doing in the studio, we would have done it in pre production. We had no idea. We just thought, ‘oh I’ll just play the click track’. We didn’t realize the way our songs were that we really actually had to figure this kind of stuff out. That was an interesting struggle with that record.

For the most part I kind of got my stuff done because the way we were doing it was recording all the drums basically first, with Spencer and Dan doing some scratch stuff, then everyone kinda of over dubbing, then doing vocals. So I was basically finished by day 5. Then I sat in the back room that they had. The studio was kind of 2/3rds finished so there was this unfinished room that had like an old seat out of a 70’s ford van or something. Isaac gave me his playstation 2 so I had playstation 2 and no money. The crazy thing about making this record was how broke we all were. We were so fucking broke. We’d eat like one meal a day usually at like 2am. I was stuck in the studio with nothing to do. With what money I did have, I could eat a piece of pizza or I could buy a 12 pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. So I would basically walk to the store buy a 12 pack of Pabst for like $3.99, it’s like America and that’s how cheap it is. It was amazing. I was just like, wow I can drink a 12 pack of this a day! I did that for like a week or something and I then I basically gave myself an ulcer from drinking 12 beers a day without eating anything, and playing play station.

Here’s what I can recollect from Apologies on the technical side:
There was two sessions to the Apologies record, one at the studio in Portland and the other in our jam space at the Hundred Sided Die in Montreal.

Things are a bit foggy, but this is what I remember as the set-up for the Portland session –

All the instruments were recorded to a Studer 827 2? tape machine, vocals and some overdubs were done to a RADAR 24 machine sync’d to the 2? machine. The console was an 80’s Neve broadcast console that was for television. I can’t remember any of the module names, but it didn’t have any of the famous modules Neve is known for like the 1073. It did have a bunch of esoteric panning and monitoring stuff, probably due to it being designed for a TV studio.

I can’t remember all the outboard we used to track… Chris Chandler brought some stuff with him. I remember he has the drum overheads (or maybe the room mics) running into a pair of Telefunken U72 mic pres and then into a pair of Tubetech CL-1B. We were also using Chandler LTD-1 preamps, I think on guitar.

For mics – on the drums the close kick mic was a Beyer 380 and I think a Sondelux U195 as a distance mic, though I could be wrong on that. The snare has three mics on it – two on top, a AKG 451 and Beyer 201, on the bottom I think it was a Sennheiser 441.

The overheads were AKG 451s. I can’t remember the tom mics for the life of me, I’m guessing a Sennheiser 421 on the floor, maybe a SM57 on the rack. There was also what was called the “trash mic”, which was a EV 635 aka “The Buchanan Hammer” left in the corner, or maybe even in a metal trashcan. I believe it was crushed by a compressor before going to tape to give it a blown-out, lo-fi vibe.

There was a hi-hat mic, I think it was some model of AKG small-diaphragm pencil mic.
The room mics were one of my favorite parts of that session – they were a pair of Sondelux 251s in M/S stereo (an early stereo technique where you have a mic in cardioid and the other mic in figure-of-8 perpendicular to the cardioid mic) . That mid-side room sound was the drum sound for “You Are a Runner…”. It creates a super wide & deep room sound, it almost feels like it’s wrapping around your head.

My drums were a Premiere kit with an 18? kick, 12? rack and 14? floor. I had an Ayotte 5? steel snare drum. Cymbals were all Zildjian A’s.

On guitar there was two mics, a Royer 121 ribbon and an AKG 421. Dan used Issac’s 1950s Fender Deluxe. I think Dan used a Mosrite of Issac’s and my old Jay Turser Gibson rip-off.

I think all the synths/keys were DI’d or maybe through some sort of vintage Fender amp. Spencer played a Roland Jupiter 4, the Yamaha PSS-480 portasound, Fender Rhodes & a Yamaha piano.

Hadji went all DI too. He was using soft synths in a laptop. There was a bunch of synth stuff at the studio, like various filters, echoplexs ambien buy cheap that he was running stuff through.

I remember there was a pretty big mic shootout for the vocals, I think for Dan the decision was the Sondelux 251 and for Spencer is was the EV 666. Pretty big contrast in prices between those two mics! The vocals were split and two preamps captured the take – the U72 and LTD-1. I think there might have been some compression to tape.

Now for the Montreal session….

That was for Shine a Light, Fancy Claps & We Built Another World. Shine a Light and Fancy Claps never made it to us to mix and We Built Another World was originally recorded at too high a tempo for Dan to sing.

We recorded these in the Hundred Sided Die, which was where we jammed. We recorded it to a laptop using a first generation Motu 828 and my Mackie 1202 for pres. We basically beg/borrowed/stole what we could to scrape together enough stuff to make the recording. We had two mics on the drums – an Audio-Technica 4050 as an overhead and a Shure 545 on the kick. The guitar was an SM57 with Dan’s janky Fender Super Reverb
Spencer was using a borrowed bass amp mic’d with an Oktava MC012. Hadji was maybe overdubbed later through a DI.

Tim Kingsbury was going DI for bass and I think I had another Shure 545 on his amp when he played guitar.
Vocals were done with a Beyer 201. Monitors were a pair of boombox speakers.

That Rocket Bar show in St Louis that Spencer and Dan talked about was probably thee worst show we ever played. The place had a really weird set up to it and it had a bunch of the regulars, and they really didn’t give a shit. We played with two really bad openers and everyone was in a bad mood. We were just all super burnt out at that point. Burnt out with each other, burnt out on everything. You know playing a show that there’s no crowd; I don’t think there was any promotion or whatever. We were just super burned out. I remember we got in the van after that show and drove straight home to Montreal. Then we were in Montreal for a long time, basically waiting around for something to happen and that was pretty frustrating for us that we didn’t have any mixes and didn’t know what was really going on. There were songs that were unfinished which now I finally got the full master reels. I just got the reels last week actually.

What seems to be on this missing reel that Dan and Spencer talked about already, which was reel 4, it was tied in with ‘You are a Runner…’. When we wrote that song, Spencer, and me then everyone came in the session and we played it for them and people were people were stoked on it. Then Dan came up with a guitar part. Later on in the night, if this serves my memory right since some of it just feels like a weird dream at this point, like did this actually happen? Or is this just some weird imprint. This kind of fog of my memory was that time that Isaac decided it was margarita night. There was some bar that was just down the street from the recording studio and he started ordering pitchers of margaritas with like all the fixings and bringing them to the studio and drinking them. And then he decided that, you know, he was feeling pretty good. That’s when we did a take of ‘You Are A Runner…’ basically he told Spencer and me ‘get in the room and do that jam’ and that he was going to do his thing over top. That’s when Isaac did this dub style toasting like King Tubby and it was like a 20 minute long dub reggae session. That happened, and I don’t know if there was a mix made of it or anything like that. So sadly that reel that had that 20 minute long Isaac jam on it disappeared. Never to be seen again.

We recorded a version of ‘Shine A Light’ in Portland and that was actually our favorite take of any of the songs in that session. It was the only one we didn’t do to a click track, we just got to do it as we are. So that track never made it when we went to go mix the album, it was never transferred from the tapes digitally. So that’s why we had to re-record that song. I always though that version of ‘Shine A Light’ was on that missing reel and that’s why it never got transferred because that reel got deep sixed. We got 4 of the reels transferred. The reels are actually labeled and I got 1,2,3 and 5. There’s no 4. That song called ‘the bus song’ is actually on one of the 4 reels I recently got. But I think the Isaac version of ‘You Are A Runner…’ is really the only thing on that missing reel. We ended up getting, for stuff that got unfinished, a version of Killing Armies, the Bus song, Shine A Light, and Fancy Claps. Killing Armies never ended up getting finished, ‘Bus Song’ never got finished, and Fancy Claps we re-recorded in Montreal in the 100 Sided Die, our old jam space. Shine a Light we did the same, and We Built Another World. Which ended up being that the tempo was too fast for Dan to sing. He wasn’t happy with the vocal take and we brought it to where we were mixing and listening back and tried to rerecord the vocals and realized it was recorded probably 25% too fast. So we re-recorded it so Dan could sing over it. We were kind of finishing stuff a little in the studio when we were mixing Apologies. I think Spencer did something with the keyboards to ‘I’ll Believe in Anything’, possibly rerecording them.

The funny thing about the rerecording is that we did most of the record in this really nice studio with nice gear, recording on a 2” tape deck. And then Shine a Light, Fancy Claps, and We Built Another World were recorded in the cheapest way, in a jam space on a laptop with like an 8 channel cheap sound card, with whatever mics we could beg, borrow, and steal at the time. I think the drums had maybe 2 mics. A kick drum mic and overhead. Shine A Light, which ends up being like whatever, like used on TV and stuff like that. The version of Shine A Light that I recently got back is an unfinished version with no vocals. It’s just an orphaned version, which is kinda sad. Same with Killing Armies, the only version that ever got made is the original EP one. There is no studio version of that. There is one finished song on the real we just got back which is ‘Snakes on a Ladder’, that has vocals and everything cause it didn’t have many tracks on it. We actually have that which is kind of cool. That’s got Spencer doing piano and me playing like percussion, like timpani. It’s a little short song, only a minute.

I’m really amazing that people still enjoy listening to Apologies and still enjoy our band. It’s really touching that people have put so much effort into the project you’re doing. Appreciating the record. Again the most amazing thing about Apologies is that it actually ended up getting made. I’ve made a few records since and been involved in a few records, and that one was the most chaotic I’ve ever been involved with. From the very beginning, getting in the van and driving 3000 km to the West coast, it was a crazy process and I’m just amazed we got it made and people enjoyed it. It’s a testament to the songs; they’re great songs, and it just worked.