BERNARD FANNING: DOUBLES OUTPUT FROM NEW STUDIO

Published On March 22, 2018 | Features

Producer Nick Didia, and studio co-owner, has been slowly influencing Bernard Fanning’s appreciation of prog rock, so when Fanning was ready to make a solo record, they decided to make two ‘awesomely wanky’ concept albums.

Story: Mark Davie

Artist: Bernard Fanning
Album: Civil Dusk & Brutal Dawn

“Pretty awesomely wanky,” is how ex-Powderfinger frontman, Bernard Fanning, affectionately describes concept albums. Funny, because he just released a consecutive pair of his own — Civil Dusk and Brutal Dawn.

Where did this wanky concept idea come from? While Fanning was responsible for the material, you could easily pin the largesse on two more culprits — prog-loving producer Nick Didia, and manager and Dew Process label boss Paul Pittico.

“He’s really into prog; Genesis, Yes and all that pretty complicated, mid-to-late ’70s music,” Fanning said of Didia. “I’m pretty new to that. I like the absurdity of it; the pure indulgence and ridiculousness. To be honest, I think I prefer prog now! It’s funnier if you don’t take it too seriously. That’s part of why punk came along I guess because it was being taken so seriously.”

It’s rare for a label to suggest that an artist release two albums in under six months. Over saturation, lack of marketing build up, slotting it in with other releases, all the reasons why — King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard aside — the minimum gap between releases is typically a year. Plus, what if the first one’s no good? It’s too late to pull back the horses; they’ve already bolted. When Fanning flew the idea of a new solo album past Pittico, and Pittico said, ‘why not do two?’ There was no way he was going to turn that down. “When the head of the label says that, you just jump on that chance,” said Didia.

To be clear, there’s not much prog rock on either of these albums. Still, considering both have similarly dystopian, planet-laden covers with sun cycle-related titles, they’re ‘pretty awesomely wanky’ in exactly that prog kind of way.

DADDY’S NEW STUDIO

Fanning doesn’t take himself too seriously these days, anyway. Since returning to Byron Bay after a year in Madrid, he’s essentially a house husband who’s day job is writing and recording songs. “I just go all day until the kids get home from school,” said Fanning, who loves his routine. “I’m just going to write as many songs as I f**king can. That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. I would be more than happy to never go on tour again if the gods all smiled on me. I love either being by myself or with a couple of other people making music. It’s the thing that makes me feel best in the world.”

When he’s not at home, he’s working out of his own studio, La Cueva Recording built inside the pool house on a property Fanning rents in Tyagarah, just outside Byron Bay. It’s 500 metres from the beach and takes in the whole of Cape Byron, all the way back to the lighthouse. The pool house was a large weekender, one-bedroom apartment. Bright, live and a killer view, it’s perfect for an open-plan recording studio. “Real World divided by 1000,” quipped Fanning. “There’s a kitchen that’s right next to the keyboard station. In the second verse of L.O.L.A. [off Civil Dusk and probably the most prog song on either record] there’s all this industrial percussion going on. I was doing a vocal take and the coffee machine’s automatic switch went off, so we grabbed it, cut it up and recorded more of its sounds with a 57, then chopped it all up and it ended up on the song.”

Fanning co-owns the studio with Didia, and with the approval of an accomodating landlord they’ve built an additional, isolated drum room. “It’s hard to say there’ll be a better drum room anywhere in the world in terms of the view,” said Fanning. The owner had offered to purpose-build them a studio, but they were happy with the results from the pool room, and decided to add the drum room instead. “I didn’t want to press my luck,” explained Didia. “Everybody who comes in says it’s a great place to make music. It’s vital for a studio to have that feel.” The building itself isn’t soundproof, and there’s no real division between control room and live room, so Didia wanted somewhere he could isolate drums from their neighbours, or a quiet place to record vocals without feeling isolated.

They built the room on a pad roughly four by five metres (about a third the size of the existing live room) with a ceiling that slopes from three metres at one end to four at the other. Large windows connect the drummer to the view, while a huge three metre sliding door lets the drummer and band members interact. “It’s all one big line of sight from where I’m sitting at the board. The band is facing each other with their backs to me,” said Didia. “Everybody can see each other.”

The drum room was finished post-Civil Dusk, but parts of Brutal Dawn were tracked in the room. “It ended up sounding like a pretty bright rock drum room, so it’s worked out good,” said Didia. Occasionally, the ’70s-era Yamaha C7 grand, originally from Festival Records, is wheeled in to isolate it a little more. Didia also has a storage room he’s turned into an iso booth for a Leslie cabinet, and a similar setup for the bass cabinet. He doesn’t put guitar cabs in an iso booth because he feels like it effectively changes the dimensions of the cabinet and therefore the sound. Instead, he uses a Suhr reactive load to bring down the guitar level when tracking.

It’s Fanning’s happy place. “I understand why people like Prince would spend weeks at a time in the studio alone,” he said. “Because the pursuit of writing is so rewarding and never-ending. Everything else is a byproduct of the writing. Without it, none of it exists. Unless you’re on The Voice, where it’s more caught up with your performance and status in society, which I honestly could not give a f**k about.

“Saying that from the point of view of somebody who has been known publicly, it’s just so uninteresting. You would not believe having to deal with that side of stuff, because it’s so meaningless. Anyway, it’s not like I get stopped in the street or anything very often, especially in Byron Bay! Too many hipsters in Byron Bay. They’re like, ‘Oh is that Angus Stone?’ Nope.”

DROPPING IN DRUM LOOPS

Fanning is a minimalist when it comes to writing. He owns a lot of world-class gear, including the 24-channel SSL AWS 900+ console at La Cueva. However, these days he prefers to write his demos in Garageband. “I was on my Mac that didn’t have Pro Tools and I couldn’t be bothered buying it,” he explained. “Garageband is also much better than people think; it’s super-quick, really simple and stops you from going into really complicated processes.”

He’s also been keeping his writing process simple by buying pre-recorded drum loops from Drum Drops. “You can buy just drum loops or whole multi-tracks,” said Fanning. “They’re played by good drummers and recorded at Abbey Road, Olympic, Air — all those good studios — through vintage desks using vintage drums and mics, with good producers.

“They have all genres. A lot of the time I might choose folk rock, then go to the BPM and see if they’ve got the right groove. It’s a few bucks for a loop, or for not much more, you can buy the multi-track which will have an intro, a first verse, fills into the chorus, then variation in the second verse, and a bridge.”

Fanning says he could easily program those parts in, but says Drum Drops is far quicker. “That’s the problem with computers, there’s just so many things that appear to be convenient but actually suck the life out of my writing process. If you’re f**king around making a beat all day, that’s a whole day you could have been writing to a beat that’s close enough and has got the vibe you’re looking for.”

The quality of the loops can make them hard to let go of. “Wasting Time [the first single off Civil Dusk] has a little bit of it sitting in behind the actual drums, but it’s much better than some shitty Garageband loop,” said Fanning. “They’re decent sounds and not all perfectly on the click. The push and pull makes it feel more like playing with a real drummer.”

Sometimes the stock Garageband sounds work perfectly fine, said Fanning. “I’m only ever intending to use the sounds for demos, but Change of Pace is all Garageband, except for the drums and bass. Even the guitar takes use Garageband’s amp models. It sounded shitty enough to use instead of it sounding good enough to use.”

Whether it was pre-recorded loops or Garageband amp sims, Fanning said there was “heaps of cheating in this recording and we did it intentionally because it’s very much a Frankenstein approach. You might talk to a singer/songwriter who would be like, ‘Yeah we went into Sunset and did it all to two-inch with live takes of the whole band at once.’ Well okay, cool man, so what? Just do it your way. Whatever worked best is what we used. The purist approach, like Jack White only using 16 tracks of whatever has some merit. But ultimately, why does everything have to stop at 1966? Why was it better?”

The Frankenstein approach meant the recording order was flipped too. “We kind of made this record all backwards,” said Fanning. “We overdubbed the band, which you can do if you’ve got the right players that can push and pull with what’s already there.” The beds of Isn’t It A Pity were re-cut around the vocals and acoustic guitar takes, which kept the original tempo intact. “He doesn’t over analyse the Drum Drops,” said Didia. “The tempo he chose for that beat was slower than a band would typically play it, but the held back nature really makes the record work.”

Occasionally Fanning would also play live drums to keep a certain groove. “When singer-songwriters play drums to their own stuff, it has a swing that often isn’t there when other people play on it,” explained Fanning. “I’m not trying to insult the drummers of the world, there’s just particular cases where it really works to have the person that’s playing the guitar, piano or main rhythm part of the song playing the drums. I can only really do it on a Neil Young-style ballad. Even if I only get it right for four bars and just use bits of it.”

GUITAR INSPIRATION

During his Powderfinger days, Fanning always felt like a passenger when it came to guitar. With Ian Haug and Darren Middleton pulling the strings, he never had to do much to keep the train rolling. When Fanning decided to record his first solo record, Tea & Sympathy, he bought a couple of Collings acoustic guitars as an incentive to improve. Based on pre-war Martin designs, they have “the same bracing and same timbers,” explained Fanning. “Having guitars that sound amazing has made me play and practice a lot more.”

He’s now very much an accomplished guitarist, playing in session for a number of La Cueva clientele. It didn’t mean he played everything. Ian Haug dropped in to contribute, and Matt Engelbrecht played bass on every song except one. “It really pissed him off because I played it and he couldn’t beat it!” said Fanning. Engelbrecht also laid down lead guitar on What a Man Wants using a Kramer-like pointy headstock guitar through a little Supro amp to hit the break up point quickly. Declan Kelly played most of the drums, Hamish Rosser (ex-Vines) also lives up the road and ended up on a couple of tracks. They would ask him down to play something just to get the song moving, “then the stuff that he played on was just f**king awesome!” said Fanning. “We weren’t going to beat it so we just used it.” Andrew Morris played guitar on Reckless, Ian Peres, who plays bass and keys in Wolfmother, played the piano on quite a few songs, and Salianna Campbell played strings. “I just played the rest,” said Fanning. “A little bit of drums at a ‘get away with it’ level. Not like, ‘F**k who played that!’ No-one will ever, ever say that about anything I play.”

For synths, Fanning has a Korg Stage Vintage 1 keyboard which he likes for its limited choices when he’s recording demos. At La Cueva, he uses it as a controller to trigger a Nord Electro, then a Kurzweil, and occasionally running through the tremolo loop of a Wurly. “It’s a really fun way to do it with dials instead of getting presets up on a screen,” said Fanning. “It’s like when you’re mixing on a desk. It’s completely different to doing it in the box. That was the whole concept sound-wise for the record. Capturing sounds with a microphone, there’s air in it, you feel that vibration as opposed to a big resy synth recorded through Ableton on some guy’s Mac and then brickwalled. There’s such an absence of character in so much music that’s around at the moment. There’s people like Flume who are really good at it, and then there’s really bad bedroom versions.”

MIKING THE AIR

Didia is partial to recording a slice of real air. His philosophy is that mic choice and technique should make whatever is being recorded sound like the actual instrument. “Sometimes they have to be hyped up a little, depending on the track,” said Didia. “But anything acoustic should sound like it sounds in the room. Which is why the room is important, especially for drums.”

The self-described ‘lazy’ engineer also chooses performance over sound every time. When Fanning was showing Didia the tune for Shed My Skin, he was sitting on the couch in the control room playing a high-strung Maton. Didia stuck a mic up and ended up using the track on the final recording.

“Sound is a funny thing,” commented Didia. “It’s very subjective. You can have the greatest guitar sound in the world. Fullest, best expression, blah blah blah, but if it’s not fitting the spirit of the song it’s gonna sound like shit.”

Didia’s approach to recording acoustic guitar is roughly the same every time. “I’ll use one mic, a Neumann KM86 small diaphragm,” he explained. “I think they’re KM84 capsules inside the body, with slightly different electronics and two capsules so you get different patterns. That goes into a UA 1176. It’s really about having good guitars, the miking and compression isn’t as important as the source. I have an older Martin 00-17 small body mahogany guitar. We call it the ‘porch sound’, and it’s the opposite to the high-end wide guitar sound of Bernie’s Collings. We’ll change five guitars before I’ll change the mic.”

The old Festival piano sounds like it was ripped straight off an Elton John record from the ’70s. “It’s like a really responsive guitar and amp combination,” said Didia. “If you want to dig in it sounds tough and if you don’t, it sounds light. I set up Earthworks omni mics in a traditional low and high string configuration. For Sooner or Later I may have jacked up the compression because I’ll typically run the two mics through a UREI 1178 and just bury it.”

For bass Didia uses “an old Fearn DW2 DI and an old monster 200W Ampeg V6B solid state head that sounds really awesome.” Keeping with the theme of whatever is easiest, most of the vocals were recorded through a Shure SM7 dynamic. “There’s a song called Somewhere Along The Way, which was actually an old recording we did at 301 with a Neumann U47,” recalled Didia. “I’ve got a Soundelux U195, it’s got a sound and I just bought an AKG 414 for some reason, one of the ULS ones. We probably used that one too.”

Fanning’s voice is one of the most recognisable on the Australian music scene, but he says it didn’t really hit its peak until right near the end of Powderfinger’s catalogue. “There’s an EP called Transfusion which was made in 1993,” he said. “I sound like a weasel with a peg on its nose. I got older, and my voice changed for the better around about Vulture Street. I had to do heaps of yelling to get out over the band and it made me sing a lot louder in general. I used to sing much more quietly in earlier Powderfinger, which is probably a bit more melodic.

“It’s also your age and physiological shape. I developed really late. I was 17 when I reached puberty. I was really small until grade 12. When Powderfinger made the first record in 1991 I would have been 23, but I was probably more like a 19 year-old physically. Then I got nodules from screaming in the early days and changed the way I sang, not singing out of my range. When we started Powderfinger we were doing covers of Led Zeppelin songs and it’s just not in my range. The very bottom of Robert Plant’s range is the very top of my range.”

TOM DOUBLE MIC METHOD

Didia rarely uses more than eight or nine mics on drums, and depending on the song he’s cutting, it could be just two or four. “I don’t call them overheads, I call them drum mics because it should sound like the kit and not just something that picks cymbals up,” he said. “I might use the Glyn Johns setup with one over the top, one over by the tom-tom and maybe one on the kick drum. Otherwise I use a more traditional setup wth a stereo drum setup, one on the kick, one on the snare, one on the hat and one on each tom. Technically the toms have two mics — top and bottom — on them, but I run them through the same cable. I think it was at A&M when I was testing out the idea, because you always flip one out of phase anyway, so I tried running them through a phase cable that flips the hot on the bottom to neutral. Then it just depends on the combination of mics. That way you can just use one pre for the two mics, which balances the level depending on the different internal impedances of the mics. If you use the same mic top and bottom, you get way too much of the bottom head, because they’re equal. I go for about 70/30 as far as volume of the top head to the bottom. I use Sennheiser MD421s on the top with these other little Sennheiser clip-ons on the bottom. I used to use SM57s but these other ones sound a little better.”

RECORD THE MIX

Didia comes from the school of mixing as you go, printing parts as close to the final mix levels as he can so “when you’re mixing there’s not that much to do other than make it sound good,” Didia explained. “That was another thing about Brutal Dawn, the whole time we were listening to it like it was an eight-track record. I have a bunch of outboard preamps, but discovered that I really like the preamps in the SSL, so I split the console where I have 16 mic inputs and eight returns to listen back. The drums were pre-mixed in Pro Tools and came out on two tracks, then I had mono bass and each guitarist had a mono output. I always tell the guys, the mix isn’t going to be that drastically different to this. You make it sound really good right away and then mixing is not a big deal.”

It means Didia is always searching for the song that will sonically anchor the record. In the case of Brutal Dawn it was the first song on the record, Shed My Skin; a rolling acoustic number with blustery tom rolls, diving fiddle lines, and a more mid-centric vocal sound. “We had cut some other things before, but that was the first song that stood out as the direction we needed to go with this record,” said Didia. “The sparseness of it, and the storyline lent itself to a darker tone which carried on through the record. Overall, Brutal Dawn is a bit more sparse than Civil Dusk was.

“I don’t know why I started doing it but we were listening to everything in mono on this record. I remember working with Stone Temple Pilots at Southern Tracks which was a proper 24-track 2-inch studio, then we cut a song in a house with an eight-track machine. Because we only had eight tracks, it made for a really interesting but sparse arrangement. You’ve got to make those decisions on the fly. Similarly, doing things in mono helps pare things down.

“It’s a good lesson, because you become way more aware of what’s taking up the same space. If you have a guitar and piano that sound similar, you’d usually be okay if you pan them left and right, but if they’re both in the centre, one of them’s got to move. It makes you sonically fit things in in a different way because you’ve got less room. When we ended up spreading it back out, it retained that feeling, even though it’s tempting to fill those spots in again. All those things played a part in how the record ended up sounding.”

“The record has that ’70s singer-songwriter kind of feeling to it,” said Fanning. “It’s not some sad retro thing where that’s the best time in music and no-one will ever improve on it. It’s more like that’s what these songs are asking for. The songs were written on acoustic guitars and pianos and the way Declan plays drums just lent itself to that.”

“Speaking of the ’70s,” continued Didia. “I was listening to Pink Floyd’s Animals today and that has a distinct sound that doesn’t sound like their other records. There’s similarities because it’s the same writers and same players. But I think that was the first time they worked in their own studio, whereas the other two were done at Abbey Road. I’m intrigued by that idea of capturing a moment in time and try to bring it into what I’m working on.”

“It’s the best way I’ve ever recorded,” said Fanning about working out of his new studio. “That’s how I did all the demos, just sitting in front of the computer with a mic, a keyboard and an acoustic guitar on a stand. Nick has really complementary ideas, so having another me throwing things out there was really good. His ideas and mine line up really well and if they don’t then one or the other of us can make a convincing argument as to why theirs is better. It’s usually by getting a reference to some other band and then we go get on YouTube and watch that band for an hour! ‘F**k Emerson, Lake and Palmer, look at that bassist play, incredible!’ Scouring YouTube for prog bands is a surefire way to subconsciously steer yourself towards making a pair of concept albums. How awesomely wanky.

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