The Modern Sage: Gordon Raphael on recording The Strokes
Gordon Raphael is the producer behind The Strokes’ iconic debut album Is This It. Now based in Berlin, he’s gearing up for the release of his solo album, Sleep On The Radio, out on London-based Zero Hours Records in February 2018. Here, Raphael tells Murray Stassen about his Seattle grunge days, recording The Strokes and what he’s up to now...
"After Is This It came out, it got really good reactions, but it also got a lot of press saying, Whoever produced this didn’t know what the hell they were doing,” says Gordon Raphael, over the phone from his studio in Berlin.
"This is really poorly recorded, why is this music getting any attention at all. It just sounds like garbage,” he continues, recalling things he read about The Strokes’ seminal album, which he produced in his New York City studio, Transporteraum.
“There was a lot of press about the quality of the sound,” he concludes. “But I had a great sense of joy about this, because something that I had worked on was being discussed and I could feel more love than hate. People were going crazy for it all over the world and the tours were successful and the press was everywhere.”
Released in July 2001, Is This It was made at a time that has now been lauded as New York’s rock and roll renaissance, with The Strokes at the forefront of a rock revival following a period of stagnation in the genre in the late ‘90s.
Raphael was the man behind the console for what is arguably one of the most important albums of the 2000s (No.2 on Rolling Stone’s 100 best albums of the 2000s, conceding the No.1 spot to Radiohead’s Kid A) and its follow up, Room On Fire.
The band’s low-fi aesthetic, distinctive driven vocal sound (achieved with an Avalon preamp) and astute observational lyrics about modern life in a sprawling urban environment reverberated with a generation on the cusp of the internet age.
“Bands that played guitar were looked upon like relics,” says Raphael. “The least popular form of music and the form of music that was going out of style the fastest both in London and in New York in 1998-2000 was rock music.
“It was becoming antique. People were tired of it. “When I saw these young guys playing guitars, I had two thoughts. Why would kids nowadays be thinking about this kind of music? The second thought was, These poor guys were just born in the wrong era. Everybody knows that if you have an electric guitar and a leather jacket, no record label is going to take you seriously.”
In this interview, Gordon Raphael tells AMI about releasing his new album, how he came to be one of the most influential figures from the 2000s New York music scene and what equipment he used to record The Strokes...
Can you tell me about when you were just starting to play music in Seattle and learning how to record?
I had a really close affinity with rock music from the time I was a young teenager. I worked at it for at least a decade in the Seattle scene when there was nothing going on. There were a lot of really cool bands but there was no infrastructure. There were maybe two clubs in the whole city where you could play original music one night a week and there were like 60 people interested .They would come to every gig and it was really fun. You couldn’t make a record and you couldn’t tour, but there were a lot of incredible bands and I met a lot of really great musicians. I then got to be part of the Seattle scene in the glory days when everybody who had an electric guitar was offered a record deal. I was in a band and we got signed and got a publishing deal and got to tour around the US a lot and even to Japan and Canada.
What made you move to New York after that?
I moved to New York twice. I moved there when there was nothing much going on in Seattle. I actually had a recording studio in a church, but it burned down one day under mysterious circumstances in 1986. I had an opportunity after some friends said, Oh, you lost all your equipment, why don’t you come out to New York and we’ll let you use our studios. I moved to NY with my girlfriend. At that time, everybody knew that if you wanted to get something done as a professional in the United States , you needed to be in either New York or Los Angeles. I moved to New York in 1986 and I thought, Ok I’m getting closer to the music industry and when they hear my crazy songs that I’ve been developing for all these years in Seattle, they are going to love me and I’m going to be really popular and get a record deal.
That did not work out and eventually I had to go back to Seattle. When I went back there, luckily it was just in time for the grunge period so I actually got a record deal. But when Kurt [Cobain] killed himself and Sound Garden broke up, it really felt like, Ok this thing is over. I didn’t want to go back to just a sleepy fishing village so I was in a band with a really amazing singer called Anna Mercedes and our band was called Absinthee. We decided to move to NY to try take advantage of the momentum we had. I got a really cool studio called Chataeu Relaxo and started accidentally becoming a producer for other bands.
People were asking you to record them?
I got the studio in New York specifically to work on my songs and my music with Absinthee. I was hitting a financial [slump] and all the money made during the grunge era from publishing deals and touring and record deals was now gone. My expenses in Seattle were $150 for renting a whole basement of a house and where I had my studio and that was all. When I went to New York, I paid $900 a month to sleep on a lady’s couch in her office in the village and then another $700 a month to rent the day shift at a recording studio. I went from $150 outgoing to $1,600 outgoing just by flying across the country one day. Within a year I was like, I’m kind of at zero and I don’t know what to do. Maybe my music run is over and just at that time a really cool musician named Pamela Laws had heard about me through a mutual friend and said, I hear you know how to record stuff. I want you to record my band, and then her band told another band and pretty soon I had a job recording bands and producing music.
How did you end up meeting and producing The Strokes?
On January 1, 2000 I opened my second studio, which was called Transporterraum. My band Abinsthee was still going strong. We were having a rehearsal and I told our bass player that I really wish that we could meet a booking agent, because I wanted to play better shows than we were playing at the time. He brought a young woman who was a booking agent named Kerri Black down into our practice room and she listened to our music and said, I can book your band, I’m hosting a little club night at the Luna Lounge on Ludlow Street. We are having two bands and one of them might need a producer. I wanted to see what she did and I wanted to check out the scene. I always went to Luna Lounge anyway. It was free shows seven nights a week and you would see three bands a night. The Strokes were the second band on the bill and I didn’t think they were great, but at the same time I thought they were interesting.
I wanted to keep my studio going so I gave them my business card and told them I had a studio three blocks from there. They gave me a call and a couple of days later they came by and we did an EP. Actually we did a three-song demo. That was my deal. Three songs in three days, start to finish with a mix and it was supposed to be a demo to get them into the next level clubs - the ones that weren’t free admission. That demo became The Modern Age EP and it got signed by Rough Trade. They didn’t remix it and they didn’t do any changes. It was just the way it was after the three days.
The Strokes were in my studio and Julian [Casablancas] said, You know what everybody is doing these days? Whatever that is, that’s what we don’t want to do
What were you hoping to achieve with the sound of Is This It and how did you record it?
A lot of the sound for the first album was largely based on the sound of the EP. Even though I had a fairly good studio, I still only had eight inputs. I had a digital interface that Pro Tools made. So at any given time, I could only use eight microphones. So the first EP we did was done with only eight microphones going at the same time when I recorded the whole band. And that was something I got used to and it sounded fine to me. I liked that sound and they liked that sound. Even before we got together to record the EP, I went Ok, I’m a producer, I’m actually interested. What do you guys want to do here? What kind of sound are you looking for? That’s the first question I ask anybody I want to work with.
The Strokes were in my studio and Julian [Casablancas] said, You know what everybody is doing these days? Whatever that is, that’s what we don’t want to do. When I heard those words it created an instant artistic direction for me. In 2000, Pro Tools was really coming into its own and tape recorder studios were going out of business. Pro Tools was just taking over and the producers loved it because you could put 64 tracks of audio on a song instead of just 24. When they said that, I thought, Ok, I’ll tell you what people aren’t doing these days. Just go in that room and play your music. I’ll set up eight microphones and that’s the song.
What mics did you use and how did you place them?
I had a few good microphones. I think the best microphone was an Audio Technica. I might have had a Neumann KM 84 that someone gave me and I had a couple of ribbon mics, Beyerdynamic stuff and some Sennheiser MD 421s and some Shure SM57s. I would just stick two microphones pointed at a speaker, like an SM57 or a 421. By the time I finished micing up all the guitars and the bass, I think there were three mics left over for drums. One thing I always insisted on, even if I only had seven mics on their instruments, was a room mic, because I loved the way that the room mic would just pic up general unusable chaos.
The big advancement on the album was that I borrowed another eight-input interface, but I only used two inputs on it. I wanted to have one more drum mic and I wanted to have something else. I just wanted to have a little bit more power, so we went from eight microphones to say nine and then we would add another one for the live vocal. And the vocal wasn’t done at the same time as the music in those recordings.
I read that Julian’s vocals were recorded through a Peavey practice amp, is that correct?
I had a little Peavey keyboard amp that I used and I put Julian through that and hoped that it would go into the room mic somehow. But after one or two takes of that he said, Nah, this is no fun for me, I don’t want to sing this way. I can barely hear myself. This isn’t how I want to do my vocals. To be honest, I think on the EP version of the Modern Age, there’s probably one line that’s coming from the Peavey practice amp that made the cut. But every song after that and every song on the album was done with a Audio-Technica AT4033A condenser microphone and an Avalon VT-737 SP preamp and that’s all. There are hardly any plugins or EQ [on the vocals after that. What you hear is the sound that we actually got.
It sounds a little distorted, is that just from the gain on the preamp?
The percentage of distortion was an interesting topic, which came about during the very first vocal recording I did. Julian said, I hope you can get me a good vocal sound. I was very sure of myself, and said, Oh I will get you a really cool sound. What I had been working on for the past ten years was this form of music I lovingly called industrial music and the bands I was listening to, like Skinny Puppy from Vancouver Canada had vocals that were distorted in a nuclear blast way. I got this nuclear devastation sound that I wanted to show him. He did a few lines, and then came in to talk to me and said, That sounds like shit. I hate that sound. He said, You know how your favourite jeans aren’t new and they don’t have holes in it? Imagine that scenario. So I was thinking, your favourite jeans; they’re not new, that means it’s not clean and it means they’re not ripped to shreds. They’re somewhere in the middle. So I turned my knob from like 10 to four-and-a-half and he tested the mic and he said, Yeah, just like that. And that is the sound that stayed on the EP and the first two albums to the T. I think they even bought an Avalon VT-737 SP preamp and took it on tour and they might still do.
What was it like around that time from your perspective once you and The Strokes started to get so much attention? Were you hoping to pursue a career as a producer off the back of the success of that album?
I think I knew and the band knew that something was happening while we were making that album. Not while we were making the EP, certainly not. It was just a band making a demo in lonely New York trying to get ahead. They didn’t know if the demo was going to turn out any good. I didn’t know if I would ever hear from them again. That was the spirit of the demo. They started getting press and had huge things going on in the media even without being signed in the US.
By the time they were in my studio, even by the time they started the album without a US deal, we had this feeling that the whole world was listening and they were waiting for this record. There were journalists and record label people from the UK and in New York in my basement studio. I had never recorded a band with a guy from the NME standing by taking notes, or the guys from Rough Trade sitting there watching me. So yeah, I thought that with the success of the album, I was probably going to get a lot of requests to work and also I could get attention for my own music. I thought that I would get money and fame and popularity and friends. Those things were definitely on my mind.
How different was the recording of the second album?
There were a lot of differences. The first album was made in a basement studio that had a modicum of good gear and it had a few good preamps, a few good microphones and some normal microphones. By the time the second album was made I was living in London and I didn’t have a studio in New York anymore, but I had recorded a wonderful artist called Regina Spektor at TMF Studio. I remember it being a really fun place to work, so I told The Strokes, Hey, I don’t have a studio, but this studio sounds good. They said, Ok, We’ll go there, but would you decorate it to make it look like your old studio please? Because we really like your style of environment. So I actually hired the same people that did design work in my studio.
It’s a place called Bear Creek Studio in Seattle. They flew out to New York and made purple velvet curtains and all kinds of decorations so that it had the same feeling as my studio. But TMF was a multi-million dollar studio, with a giant SSL board and many good microphones and a huge room. So there were some technical differences about that record and there was also a huge difference in the psychology and the musicianship of the band. By the time I got them at TMF Studio they had been touring for two years solid around the world. They played me Room On Fire from beginning to end as a live band in the studio, I went, Oh my god, when did you get so good? And specifically Fab’s (Fabrizio Moretti) drumming had stepped up and also Nick Valensi just became off the charts as a lead guitarist on that record, in terms of the solos, the rhythm of it and the dexterity involved in that. My jaw just dropped. They were like this basement group last time I saw them and now they are like Led Zeppelin junior.
Could you talk to me about the music you are making at the moment? You’re writing and producing it yourself, but would you ever consider working with another producer?
I certainly would not be opposed to working with another producer. I don’t know if any other producers would be interested in my music. I’ve had a very strange musical career, because even though I have been going my whole life, I have very little contacts in the music industry. No famous musician in the whole world or record label has ever called me to record an album. I’ve only worked with kids who were unsigned. Even The Strokes and Regina Spektor were that way. No one has really called me up. It’s not like Brian Eno or any great producer is going to go, Ah man, I really want to work with Gordon Raphael, he makes the coolest music. I’m in like a little island of my own.
Are you planning on releasing anything else this year or next year?
I’ve been slowly releasing singles from my album. It is supposed to come out in its entirety on February 9, 2018. I’m hoping to do some European tours and play some shows around that. That’s as far as my planning goes. Right now I have a number of bands in different cities that want me to do everything from mixing to recording to production, so I’m balancing my own music and the production side so that things can keep going harmoniously on both levels.
Are you self-releasing your album?
I am fortunate that I have a friend of mine who has a small label in London. He’s releasing it. The label is called Zero Hours. He’s so far gotten me onto the BBC 6 Music with Tom Robinson for an hour, playing my music and playing a bunch of other productions. Three different DJs on 6 Music have played my song a couple of times and so the label is actually doing a good job for me right now and I am very happy to have the outside help.
Listen to Raphael's latest single Superstrong:
Watch the video for Gordon Raphael's Sleep On The Radio, taken from his debut album Sleep On The Radio: