Brooklyn band Violens talks up 'speedgaze,' praises freestyle karaoke, and explains '3-D' music-making
You can tell Jorge Elbrecht was an art student, and not just because of his wedge haircut.
“The frame that an album is in [needs] to be consistent.”
He sat in the backyard of a Williamsburg bar on a pleasant early evening in late April, discussing the drum sounds on True, the second album by his band, the lustrous Brooklyn shoegazers Violens, released yesterday by Slumberland. (The release party is held tonight at Le Poisson Rouge.)
In Violens, Elbrecht, Iddo Arad, and Myles Matheny split guitar and keyboard duties, with various drummers, but Elbrecht runs the show. He was also a mainstay of the mysterious Lansing-Dreiden, which Elbrecht began in 2000 as an art student.
“We referred to it as a company, or a brand,” he said. “It revolved around fictional narratives, and we would extend that via music. We published a newspaper and we'd do albums.” (They released two: The Incomplete Triangle in 2003 and The Dividing Island in 2006.) “We'd try to have it based on a show at a gallery. And at a gallery, we'd display all these things and have a band to play the songs live, stuff like that.”
Elbrecht met Arad in Miami, their mutual hometown. Elbrecht moved to New York in 1996 for school; a year later, Arad trekked up for a law degree from Benjamin N. Cardozo law school. “It was completely independent,” said Arad, who sat with Elbrecht in Williamsburg.
“I had a lot of ideas that didn't really fit into plans that were for Dreiden at the time and decided to start this band,” said Elbrecht. “I asked Iddo to help me perform it live, and it sort of turned into this more joint effort. The newest record is probably the best example of joint song and lyric writing and stuff like that. We've been doing it for so long that the flow has become easy.
Was Elbrecht maybe trying to get away from what Lansing-Dreiden was doing and make something more song-focused?
“It's not really like that,” he said. “It's more that the pace of the music industry doesn't fit with the pace of the art world. And we at Lansing-Dreiden, the way we were working was more along the way that artists would have a show in two years, all their work and investigation of what they're doing, and come up with this show. In the music industry, it's all ‘remix this’ and ‘B-side here’ and ‘7-inch there.’ I love all that stuff because I love writing music, but for the rest of that group it was just a lot of pressure to operate under. So we decided as a group to slow down a little bit, but I had all these song ideas that I just kept wanting to move on with. And they didn't even fit in the ideas within the world we were constructing at the time.”
“There was also never a main agenda when we went into perform music,” added Arad.
“This idea was to perform whatever we wanted,” said Elbrecht.
Is Elbrecht always writing music? Specifically, is it always music geared toward Violens?
“Pretty much every songwriter I’ve read about, with their process, [does] a pretty similar thing,” he said. “It’s a melody that pops into your head and you think it’s a song that was on the radio or something like that, but you realize that it’s just a made-up thing. You put it down, and maybe that‘ll get stuck in your head. Then words will get attached to it.”
Here he switches to first person.
“I won’t even know what the guitar progression is for it or anything like that. Then I’ll go figure it out. What would be the chords under that melody on the guitar? Then from there I figure out how fast I want it to be, how aggressive, whether it should be a ballad, whatever it is. So that’s what is continually happening. I’m always humming melodies.”
It’s easy to tell. True is highly hummable. It’s also very rich sounding; the guitars have a streaky, charcoal quality to them. When Elbrecht comes up with the songs, is he also coming up with sounds—thinking, “I’m going to use this effect to make it sound like this”?
“The sounds are what you dress the song up in, in a way,” he said. “I love karaoke versions of songs. Those are all midi files and you can change the instruments to whatever you want. You can also version songs in different genres. You can do country versions and salsa versions or whatever. It’s nice that you can choose to dress it up in whatever way makes sense. I just tend to like guitars and distorted guitars and loud music and aggressive playing and stuff like that. That’s the way I prefer to execute those songs.”
Elbrecht nominated his song “When to Let Go,” from the new album, for a karaoke makeover.
“That’s a good one,” said Arad. “It’s kind of a hard one to sing but it’s very melodic.”
“It’s a weird one to sing,” said Elbrecht. “We did a Muzak version of it, actually, on our website.”
How about the reverse—the band’s karaoke standbys?
“‘Careless Whisper,’ probably,” said Elbrecht. “Or ‘Silent Morning’ by Noel.”
“We were just talking about this,” said Arad. “We had an email exchange about one of them today. I would say ‘Point of No Return’ by Exposé.”
“We love Miami freestyle,” said Elbrecht. “Lansing-Dreiden was pretty heavily influenced by freestyle. The last third of ‘The Incomplete Triangle’ was pretty freestyle-influenced. A lot of people thought that it was a New Order influence, but it was really Miami shit.”
“Or even the last song on this current record,” said Arad, referring to “So Hard to See.”
“It’s got a little bit of Freestyle in it,” Elbrecht allowed. “I’d love to go extreme with it. It has to be lo-fi, the beats and stuff. It has to be off-key a little bit, poorly sung. The classic freestyle stuff sounds like someone’s cousin came in and got on the mike and sang the shit okay, and then they just used it and it became a hit.”
A couple days before the interview, I’d gone to see a friend in Queens. He’d gone to a record-store clearance sale and bought a hundred 12-inches, three-for-a-dollar and sound unheard. Many were freestyle records, and several were rather good. One was Loose Touch’s “Bad of the Heart” (Ligosa, 1988). On the run-out groove were scratched these words: “Not just another Puerto Rican from the Bronx.”
“That’s awesome,” said Elbrecht. “That’s how they did it.”
“There’s definitely a back-and-forth between New York and Miami,” said Arad.
“I first encountered freestyle riding the bus to school,” said Elbrecht. “I hated it at that time. I appreciated it more later. [Iddo was] into breakdancing and stuff like that, and freestyle was like early hip hop in a way. It was more melodic.”
Are Elbrecht and Iddo obsessive music fans? Do they have the collector gene? Or are they more interested in creating something?
“I’ve spent a lot of time working, especially now, on other people’s records and our stuff, figuring out how things should live, and that takes a lot of my time,” said Elbrecht.
“I can download a bunch of albums; I just don't have time to listen to them. You think you're going to get into a career in music because you like listening, but you don't get to listen to anything you like for pleasure. Now when I listen, it's like a puzzle, figuring out how it'll work together. It's not like [exhales], ‘Ahhhh.’ It's not like having a nice drive and listening to whole albums all the way through. I miss it.
“The music I listen to and dick around with most is certain kinds of metal, usually subtle melodic mid-range black metal. I like the Burzum record Belus that came out pretty recently. I've been listening a lot to a band called Bethlehem—it's a lot older. Right now that's the stuff I search online for more than anything else.”
Actually, while listening to True to prepare for the interview, during the song “All Night Low,” I’d written down the phrase “ambient shoegaze hardcore.”
“Someone had “speedgaze,’” said Elbrecht.
“It's like a double entendre,” said Arad.
It’s fast. Did the drums come first there?
“That was a quick one that came late,” said Elbrecht. “I don't know where that came from. We were releasing a song a month, and four of them ended up on the record.”
Was it to challenge themselves?
“We knew we weren't going to have a record out for another year,” Elbrecht explains. “We were communicating with a few people online about our music and wanted to continue that dialogue. We had a lot of demos and ideas and thought we should flesh them out and feel out a record with that, or a direction for album two. I think we learned a lot from it. [We] took cues from different songs and didn't do certain things we thought didn't work out as well. We went through and redid drums for all of them, basically just to get the room sound.”
“True” came together far more quickly than Violens’ debut, Amoral (2010), with Elbrecht and Arad comparing notes on mixes while on the road.
“We redid a lot of songs [on Amoral] a million times. We didn’t really do that with this record. We sent it to one another, gave comments, and stuck with it.”
“Iddo takes his laptop on the road,” said Elbrecht. “Sometimes we are working on nitty[-gritty] stuff in the headphones. So we passed the laptop. I’ll try something on the mix and send it to them, and maybe Iddo or Miles will sing a background vocal idea over it, that kind of thing. That happened for a few songs this time around.”
Violens’ long, narrow Greenpoint studio doubles as Elbrecht’s railroad apartment. He’s lived there for two years. “It’s pretty small,” he said. “Just speakers and an iMac and some outboard gear and mikes.”
“And a bedroom,” Arad threw in.
“It’s the room at the end of the part that faces the street,” said Elbrecht.
“It is basically a living room,” said Arad. “It’s a mess. It’s full of gear.”
Is a long narrow room like that ideal?
“It’s not about the sound of the room,” said Elbrecht. “I don’t do any room recording. If we need to do something that requires a room we would go to a studio.”
“But we do record vocals there,” said Arad.
“We record close-miked sources,” said Elbrecht. “It’s not really about the room.”
The song “Every Melting Degree” has an especially pronounced vocal-effect array.
“Oh, absolutely, yeah,” said Elbrecht. “Vocals are always going through something. There’s always delays and reverbs and stuff—we just kind of love that sound. If you think of how an orchestra works, and how they spend so much money constructing this space where they play, it is just something that happens, and even just the way the instruments are arranged from front to back with the decay times, with the reverbs in the room and all that stuff it gels it all together in this beautiful way. We like to do that with the vocal harmonies, for example—add a lot of chamber reverb to it.”
I’m no gear-head, but I wondered if he remembered what, specifically, was on “Every Melting Degree.”
“It’s tremendous amounts of automation, depending on the line,” said Elbrecht. “There are so many rapid-fire changes during mixing: EQ changes, adding a chorus over it, then trying to delay before reverb, trying to delay after a reverb. You can ride a fader that will send the vocal tune into effect in real time. That is probably the most fun way to do it. It’s like playing an instrument the old school way, where the whole band, the producer, and the engineer would all be on the board with a finger on each fader and be playing the mix. That is how they did it. So now I do that one fader at a time and it just gets saved as an automated move. I tend to draw it in. I’ll just draw in curves when I want the effect on the grader in ProTools.”
He went on, “The only instance where we record a vocal that is a wet vocal is if we had a brick room or cement room or chamber that sounded good. But then when you do that you are stuck with that sound, and if that flavor doesn’t fit with the song, it is hard to EQ out.”
A similar set-up applies to the guitars. There only seems like a lot of different ones on True. There are, in fact, only “a couple,” according to Elbrecht.
“On the first record we had so many guitars and we tried them all,” he said. “It ended up not mattering that much. Electric guitars are really hard to make sound pleasant. You really have to have the right room, the right mike, the right guitar, the right amp. There are just so many different variables. You know how people do it in really expensive studio productions? They have 10 amps—boutiques, amazing 1950s and ’60s amps—and they all have baffles in between them, they all have mikes set up on them, and they play the song, the guitarist playing in the control room and they just play A, B, C, D, E, F, G, whatever, till they find the one that fits the track. That’s a huge luxury.”
Elbrecht has been a busy producer for others as well as Violens—in fact producing is how he’s made his living for the last seven years. Did he always want to produce other musicians?
“No, it just happened, with one recommendation. I was helping a friend of mine record her stuff. We were trying to do a couple hours every other day—this was around the time of the second Lansing-Dreiden record. It was suggested that this other guy record with me. Then my time became harder to figure out. Then they started offering me money for it and it just went from there.”
Do the neighbors complain when he’s recording?
“I’ve had really serious neighbor complaints,” said Elbrecht.
“He somehow manages to get them evicted or kicked out,” said Arad.
“No,” said Elbrecht. “These people moved, and the new people that are there are very nice and haven’t said anything yet.”
“They’re too scared,” said Arad.
“They know about me,” said Elbrecht.
What do they know about him?
“Nah,” he said with a smile. “I haven’t told them anything. I think the other people moved cause they had pets and they weren’t allowed to have pets—something unrelated to me.”
One thing that isn’t noisy is True. Many rock records are mastered so loudly they distort—the topic of the “loudness wars” that have flared up among rock fans over the past few years. (Greg Milner’s book Perfecting Sound Forever is a superb chronicle of this, as well as audio recording history generally.) But even on MP3, “True” sounds bright and undistorted. Was it mastered more quietly than other rock albums?
“It’s not that it’s quiet,” said Elbrecht. “It’s kind of mid-fi. We actually got a test master back from another mastering engineer and decided not to go with it. It was pushed all the way to the edge. It didn’t sound distorted or anything but it was a brick, it was clipped. We decided not to go with that, because I hoped that once it when onto final [mixing] that it would be a more open listening experience. The test presses sound so great to me, sounds so much better. I’ve been listening to MP3’s this whole time. Just walking around to test mixes. When I heard it, it was finally a 3D thing.”