Creating the sound of The Strokes w/ Is This It and Room on Fire producer Gordon Raphael
Can we talk about The Strokes? Who? Oh wait, I have a sticker. So this was something that a lot of people were interested in hearing about. I can see why. They're very good! But I mean let's start with how you first became involved with them. How I first became involved. Well… So I had my first studio where I learnt Logic Pro and then we got evicted out of that studio because they wanted to make a store out of it - a shop out of it - and so I made a second studio called Transporterraum and it was in a very awesome area in the East Village in New York where all the clubs were in restaurants every artist and young people loved that area. It was so exciting and so I would go see
bands play in the bars and the clubs around and I had a little blue business card and I'd say, "Hey you guys are good. Come to my studio I can make a really cheap demo and you'll like it." And so on just such a night as this I went to the Luna Lounge and two bands played the first band was called Come On and they were incredible. I loved that band. They seemed like the new Beatles, they had like all these harmonies and British Invasion if you know what that is like that's the term we use in America. It had this kind of a British Invasion guitar sound and these harmonies and I just loved this band I went to them and I said, "Hey I've got a studio down the street. I can make
good demos cheap," and they said, "Thanks a lot," then this other band came on they're called The Strokes. And I didn't like them as much as Come On like I thought they seemed very proud of themselves they were playing for 40 people in this very small club in a room about this size, half full, but I saw them afterwards going to get their guitar pedals on the stage so I went up to and said "Hey you know I do demos if you want to do a demo," and they came. They sent Albert to check out my studio and he really liked the way it was decorated and some of the music I played so they wound up coming in for a three-day three-song demo deal and that's how we started. Just like that? Yeah. So did that just sparked things then after that demo, they started to gain more traction and then the debut came to you? Well, it's a very unusual story. I mean I've been in the music business as I said for a very long time and I've never heard a story where a band makes a demo and then a record label loves the demo so much that they don't put the band in the studio to make a professional version they put the demo out as a record and the record blows up. So it's like they took this demo that was just supposed to
get them into the clubs where instead of losing 50 dollars on taxi money they might get paid a hundred dollars and some free beer so their idea is to make a demo and go to the next level from the bottom level of clubs to play in New York. They had only played in this certain area in New York. They never played even above 14th Street and now suddenly they're jetting off to England and UK for a tour because Rough Trade put their demo out and they called it the Modern Age EP and everybody loved it. So crazy. So after that point they were like, "We had such great success with the EP, let's do the debut with you"? Well funny you mentioned it, this is one of the best stories in my book I go into micro detail about this.
So I'm at my studio in New York while they're like doing great stuff over here touring and NME is writing about them even the American Rolling Stone magazine was writing about this unsigned band just because there was such a reaction to them in the UK. So I'm like in my studio going like whoa maybe I'm going to be famous. Hmm this could be great what kind of car do I want? Where should I live? I was already like going way down you know because I'd never seen anything I'd ever recorded be talked about in a magazine or people listening to it it's like wow this was new. I knew something was happening. So I'm anxious to see what's going to happen next and I get a call from Julian when he comes back from this tour and he says Hey Gordon can we go out to dinner? I go sure! Sure! Love to. So go out to dinner with Julian to a place called 7A in the neighbourhood where my studio is and we sit down and we order dinner and this tattooed waitress really cool rock and roll cafe I really liked it and as soon as she leaves with our order Julian says, "So Gordon, Rough Trade wants us to use a different producer for our album. They want us to make an album but they want to use this
other guy." I'm really shocked you know, "What! Who is it?" and he says, "His name's Gil Norton," and I go, "Oh shit, he's really good." I knew who he was because he recorded the Foo Fighters The Color and The Shape album and he did the Pixies. Like every record he sold since the 80s sold like 5 million copies. Okay. And so then so my heart is just sinking, "Oh my God. He's like one of those really big producers," And so Julian says, "Gordon, if you tell me that you're a better producer than him, we'll use you for the album because our band has one shot you know we got to do the best so you know are you a better producer than him? I'm thinking, "Dude." I'm thinking to myself, "Dude, this guy sells five million of everything he's done for the past 10 years and I've never sold a single CD. I've never sold a record. How am I going to tell Julian I'm a better producer?
Like how could I?" So I said, "Hey Julian you know we did this EP together and everybody likes that sound and I can't say I'm better than this guy who sells 5 million records you know I can't tell you that." He just stands up before the food even comes and he says, "Fuck you. Now I gotta go use that guy," and he grabs his coat and he leaves me as two burger meals come his and mine are put down in front of me and he's gone and I'm thinking, "Shit," you know, "Why did I… why couldn't I lie? Why couldn't I… Jesus I could have been famous," you know, "There goes my future just walking out the door and I just let it happen." I was really upset about it and spent the next few weeks working with other bands trying to not think about that situation. Thanks for asking me! How did it come back around then? Well I was at my house having breakfast one day apartment rather - New York City - and the phone rings and my phone rarely rang. It was a landline and I pick it up, "Hello?" and, "Hey Gordon it's Julian." "Julian, what's up?" He goes, "Do you still have that studio?" I go, "Yeah…" This is like only about three weeks later. I go, "Yeah, why?" He said, "Well we recorded with
Gil Norton and we don't want anybody to hear that sound like that's not our sound. I go "What happened!? Let's go to coffee!" You know, "Let's meet right now!" He said, "No sorry we're on tour in Chicago with The Doves," you know, "But when we get back we'll have a meeting about it," and he said, "By the way the band doesn't think you could get our sound again. We think it was a one-off," you know, "That you got lucky and we kind of don't really think you can get the sound but we need to try," and so that was that. And
I was like jumping I was literally jumping up and down like, "Oh my God!" you know, "I got it back!" Didn't that feel like a twisted complement though? I think after working with him already for the three days of the thing and having… I've had a few experiences… Like one of them I talk about in the book where they were playing these residency shows before they took off or after they came back before we made the album before I was even supposed to work on the album and like Julian was really drunk one night and he like saw me and he gave me a giant hug and he like God, he wouldn't let go. I'm thinking like, "Okay…" and he goes, "Gordon aren't you happy for us? How much success we're having and how things are going?" like, "Yes Julian. I'm really pleased." He goes, "Don't you wish you'd made a contract with us for that record because you're not getting anything!" I'm like, "Fuck you!" I like pushed him away. So I was used to kind of hearing unusual things from
him. I really respected him for his music and I actually loved part of his personality but I was used to kind of stings and weird twists and turns from him already by the time we were working on the album. Okay, well I suppose that's good that you'd learnt to kind deflect it a bit. So I mean talking about that sound, that's what a lot of these questions are about. So let's
stick with Julian, could you talk us through the process of producing his vocals for that? Well, we have to go back a couple steps. Maybe this is going to cover something. Again, I get this band The Strokes I'd seen them one time I didn't really dig their sound. I didn't know what they were trying to do but I didn't know if it was the club or what so I didn't know what I was dealing with and I bring them in the control room after they put their equipment up and I said, "So what are we doing here? What do you want to do?" and like Fab goes, "Hey well you know what everybody else is doing in New York?" I go, "Yeah…" "That's what we don't want to do." I go, "Okay," actually that gave me an idea. What everybody else in New York was doing in the year 2000 was Pro Tools was now coming into every studio for the first time. Like basically this was the time in the world where tape decks were kind of being broken or moved out and Pro Tools computers were being put in. So everybody was making the biggest productions they possibly could. You'd record a kick drum with three microphones
and then you'd put an 808 sample under that and a Bob Clear Mountain sample under that. So everything was complicated and huge. So I said, "Hmm, what people aren't doing is…" I have eight microphones in my capability. I had one 888 interface that took eight mics, I put them around the room, "Go play your song in that room and we'll record it like that and that will be what people aren't doing." So they thought, "Okay that sounds good," so they did that and they loved the sound they said, "Yeah that's it. That's it dude," you know, "We love…" So that didn't take anything just like eight microphones, they play the song and that was the sound of those first records right there. Then it came time for the vocals
and I said, "Julian, what do you want to do for the vocals?" "I don't know. You know, just use your best judgment," so I thought, "Okay, I'm gonna do something really interesting." Throughout the 90s, while everyone else was listening to the Grunge music, I was involved in Industrial Music. It was a genre with heavy synthesizers, heavy drum machines and everything was distorted. The drum machines were distorted, the synthesizers were distorted and the vocals were shredded like into nuclear oblivion. So I thought, "Hey Julian, check this out," and I took his voice and I gave it the most distortion I possibly could from the preamp like on 10. Everything on 10. Just
the most aggressive, annoying, destructive sound I possibly could and I said, "Get out there and sing your song," so he sang the song and he came in. I said, "Check this out…" and I press play and I said, "How do you like that?" He goes, "That's ugly man. I hate it. I hate it." I go, "Oh, okay…" So then he said, "But you know how your favourite jeans like they don't have holes in them but they're not new?" I go, "What? What the fuck are you talking? What? Dude, tell me more more treble? Less overdrive? Like what do you want?" but then it dawned on me, "Wait a second. It's kind of like,
they're worn but they're not destroyed. Okay so instead of like 10, 10, 10, what if I do like six, four and three?" So it's I kind of used my original idea but I dialed it back significantly. I said, "Okay, go try this," and he went out and he sang the song and he came in and I pressed play and him and the band were like jumping up and down. They go, "Dude that's it! That's it! That's exactly right! All right! So that became the sound of the EP and the first two albums and he took that same preamp that I was using, the Avalon, and he had his sound engineer using it for all the live shows on their first tours and that's the technical story of how the sound of those particular records came to be. Do you think if you had started at that six four and three he would have just been like, "Nah we're not doing it?" and then you've got nowhere to go.
I don't know, I don't know, I don't know. It would never have dawned on me to make a sound that wasn't completely destroyed, you know? I didn't want partial destruction, that seemed too nice. Yeah the guitars in Is This It, especially, have a really… The word that someone used was "Edgy" A very edgy guitar sound. Like how did you create that sound? What kind of like amps were you using? What kind of distortion you're running through and things like that? Well first of all, I recorded lots of bands at that time but nobody before The Strokes asked me to please put me on that side completely and put me on that side completely. So I was like, "What like that? Like it's so far apart, don't
you want them to blend?" So it was this extreme panning, that's one thing, and then when anybody talks about the sound of the guitars or the guitars I say like, "Let's look at the composition." At that time, I learnt during the first album, that Julian wrote all the parts. He wrote the hi-hat rhythm, he wrote the kick drum, he wrote the guitar solos, he wrote the guitar parts, okay? And so, let's go back six years before Nirvana, something like that. Hugely popular and… Nirvana's more typical of rock and roll. You take a guitar, some big amps and you're playing these giant chords. [vocalising guitar chords] This kind of thing and then there's some melodies on another guitar that are doing some riffs in between the vocals but it's this giant rhythm. So what are The
Strokes doing? Like one guy's going like [vocalises guitar melody] like one little string melodies, while another guy's playing like chords on two strings really lightly but very insistently. So this compositional technique, it's a counterpoint. It's not rock and roll, typical like chord with a melody. It's actually two melodies going against each other, yet complementing the vocal which is a center melody and a composer like Bach, he wrote that way. That was the popular style. Nobody thought about chords, nobody thought about stacking up sounds, they thought about, "You take a beautiful melody and then you come up with another melody that works against it. It can't be the same, it can't even be parallel, it just has to work mathematically with it," and then Bach would do three. He would have three parts being played by the hand and then one part being played by the foot. So four
different parts moving was already a historically amazing sound back in the 1600s or something. And now here it is in rock and roll. The bass line is a melody, two guitars are playing independent melody and the vocal is doing doing a fourth melody. There's none of that big rock and roll chords, at least in those early records. So part of the sound of what you're hearing is just the naked aggression of single strings and small amounts of strings being plucked and then they wanted to hear every note. Like no note could be louder than the other one. Like, "Hey I hit the second time softer." "Nope," every note had to be under control for how loud it was and how clear you could hear it against the vocal and the bass. So they worked very hard on the tone, okay?
And if you want to know what instruments they used, I think it's widely known, you know that Nick had this Epiphone semi-hollow body guitar, Albert used a strat, they both use the same amps which were Fender Hot Rod Deville and they both had Jekyll & Hyde distortion pedal and that's all. And in that album, I had one microphone - Sennheiser 421 - pointed at each guitar cabinet. Now I use two microphones when I record guitars but back then I only used one. Very nice. Before I move on, any questions in the room about this record or about The Strokes in general? When you're talking about recording The Strokes with eight mics, what kind of mic setup would you use? I have some good mics. I didn't have the best mics in the world but
some friends had given me some good mics to start with. I had some beyerdynamic microphones. I think had a ribbon and probably on the EP, I used three mics on the drums. Like an overhead, a kick drum and a snare or something like that. And I had those 421 Sennheisers which I still will talk about forever these days. It's such a useful mic. You know, if you don't have a kick drum mic you love, like I like BETA 52 I think. Yeah Shure BETA 52 kick drum mic, but if a studio
doesn't have that, I don't like those D12 like those classic egg mics that everybody jumps up and down about or Audix microphones. I think those sound like shit on kick drums. So if they don't have the BETA 52, I'll take a Sennheiser 421, stick it in the kick drum and it will do perfect every single time. And it's also good for acoustic guitar - one of the mics on acoustic guitar, electric guitar cabinet, every time, tomtoms every time. So that microphone was in my arsenal and I had one
condenser mic which was an Audio Technica which, you know, got Julian's vocal sound for those albums. So I like it. Now I use Neumann's whenever possible, you know, but in those days, that's what I had. And a couple 57s.
Do you still like to work fairly minimal with those kind of arrangements? No I like to put a mic on each drum and a mic on the ride symbol. I have an unusual technique for room mics. Like I don't need to have a matched pair of microphones and when you listen to the room sound it sounds like the band is in a room. I don't use it that way. I use it as a 3D machine and I only use one. I don't use two. I use one that's a room mic for the drums,even though the drums, for me, drums and the band and the amps are set up in a room this big. Like they're set up there's not one in a closet, there's not… I want everybody to hear their amps and not wear headphones and just jam, okay? So I put the mics in front and I have a little condenser mic in front of the drum set that's really blowing up. That's like a room
mic just for the drums. It's just supposed to be a distorter that's very quiet in the mix and then I put another condenser mic through a compressor anywhere I want that doesn't feature just one instrument and it's again just so that when the snare mic is hit and you get that close sound, you also have a far sound that you can blend in which makes you think like, "Where's that sound coming from?" It's a little bit like a reverb or a bit like a delay but it's so subtle but if you take it away, it just sounds kind of boring and crispy and just like normal and if you put it in a little bit, it sounds like, "Whoa!" something just came to life. It's vital.