In an expanded edition of Man & Machine, we talk to James Curd of Greenskeepers fame. Formerly of Chicago, James takes us into his new studio in Australia, walks us through a collaboration with Morgan Phalen, shares some of his vintage synth porn & his techniques for recording live bass. James is playing Chicago for the first time since his move abroad on April 26 at SmartBar.
I interviewed Sonny Fodera recently and he was pretty awestruck about your studio there. Do you ever “finish” building it or is it a constant work in progress?
I’m always going to be adding things because there are so many keyboards and pieces that I want. As they come up, I’ll keep adding to it. As far as location and soundproofing and what not, this is the closest to a “done” studio I’ve ever had.
[quote align=”right” color=”#999999″] On some of the first recordings with live instruments put in, I did it Chicago ghetto style: put it right into the MPC and sampled it as the dude was playing. [/quote]
With my studio now, I’m in a kind of old heritage building. There’s this really great little bar on the ground floor; I have a unit on the second floor that’s like a three bedroom apartment with a kitchen and all of that stuff. My studio is a really big open space, like 30 by 30 feet, big windows, 20 foot ceilings and all of that. It’s a really great space. I loved my studio in Chicago, but it had like 8 foot ceilings or something like that, with glass brick windows so light came in but you really couldn’t see out. So it’s night and day between the two.
A vintage Greenskeepers bassline. And cameos by Derrick Carter, DJ Deeon, DJ Slugo, Ziggy Franklin, DZINE, Crazy Legs, Jack Sondag, Mike Dixon, Nick Maurer, Daniel Spencer, Malik Bader, Justin Long, Rees Urban, Brion Hickey and more.
You’ve always had live instruments on your records, particularly that distinctive guitar and bass sound from the Greenskeepers days. What techniques do you use to make them sound so good? Have you ever experimented with pedals and the like to dirty them up?
I’ve always loved having live elements in stuff. I’ve just being doing it for so long. On some of the first recordings with live instruments put in, I did it Chicago ghetto style: put it right into the MPC and sampled it as the dude was playing. I’m not using that technique anymore. You just think of what sounds good and send it through a nice piece of equipment. With most everything I do, I record really clean and let the instrument sound as natural as it can.
Do you know the most important thing about recording a bassline, though? It’s a good bass player. You know what I’m saying? You can put on as much distortion or other effects as you want but if it’s not a fun bassline, it just doesn’t matter. It’s just a matter of quality – getting it not too loud, not too quiet, and then being able to work with it in Logic. If something calls for distortion I’ll try to figure it out – in fact, I’ll record it by sending it through a little Valve Jr. amp, turn it up a little too loud and mic it so it has a little bit of a natural thing happening, not extra pedal distortion. But I don’t really do too much distortion stuff.
The most important thing about recording in general is just to own what you’re doing. If you think about it, so many people are trying to re-create what was happening in Chicago House Music in the ’80s. People are sitting in their studio, trying to emulate what was happening in 1988. But the kid making that music in 1988 wasn’t trying to emulate anything. He didn’t give a shit and he was just trying to make a song. That error that’s in the kick drum sample, the record pop in the other sample that they used, the shitty reverb that they’re using – it’s not because they went out and had a million dollars to spend and bought some cheap reverb because they liked the sound of it. It’s all they could afford, you know?
It’s interesting that people are trying to recreate things that the original artist didn’t intend to do on purpose. You can buy plug-ins that add tape noise so it sounds like it’s recorded to metal tape or a DAT machine or whatever. I appreciate all that stuff, I really do. But at the end of the day what stands the test of time is a good song. A good song is a good song whether it was made in 1988 or 2015 or whatever; it doesn’t matter so much how you made it.
People have mentioned that you’re a collector of vintage keyboards. What was the last piece you added?
The last piece is back in Chicago – when I come there I’m going to carry it back. It’s a Yamaha CS-50. The latest piece I’m using and my favorite one at the moment is a Korg 700S.
There are a lot of ways I get started making music. One of them is going record shopping and looking for samples or ideas or chord progressions to use. But another way is just buying a new keyboard and having no idea how it works. If I get a new keyboard, I’ve got two weeks of making new songs just learning it, pressing buttons and seeing what it does and trying to make a song out of it.
I wanted to talk about your release with Morgan Phalen, “Out of the Cage”. My guy Dustin really liked that track. How did you meet Morgan? Can you walk us through that release?
I was working out in LA as music supervisor for a film at the time. We were out seeing a band called Jamaica – not together, I met Morgan there and we had some mutual friends. He told me he was a singer and I’m always looking for interesting people to work with. We worked a bit in LA and then he came out to Australia. He’s got such a great voice – he sang on all the stuff for Justice, and he’s got that really kind of ’70s classic voice. I sat down and really wanted to make some my favorite personal music – stuff like Alan Parsons and Steely Dan and America.
Is that how you’d characterize the sound? Or would you classify it as EDM?
I wouldn’t call it EDM, I wouldn’t call it anything new, really. I’d just call it 2013 version of Classic Rock, or maybe Disco. Disco Rock? I don’t know what you’d call it. What would you call Steely Dan? That was my inspiration.
But anyway, after that I worked on it with my friend Sid, who plays bass and guitar for Empire of the Sun and is a really great musician. We sat down with that palette and used a lot of bass, a lot of acoustic guitar and a few keyboards I really love, an old Six-Trak and my Rhodes. We had a bed of sounds and Morgan on top of everything really brought it together. And then finally I had it about 90% done and gave it to my friend Joey who does some drums and production for Radiohead and a few other bands. He did the final 10% of finishing up, adding percussion and doing a little bit of production. And then we had this crazy dude master it and it was done.
The first EP which will be released under the name Favored Nations is coming out in about six weeks. That’s something I’m really excited about and that’s what I’ve been working on for a lot of the last year.
It’s a cliche but when I get a James Curd record, I really have no idea what it’s going to sound like. Someone like Kevin Saunderson, by way of example – it could be a new record and it could be great but I’ve got a ballpark idea of what it’s gonna sound like. Do you think that unpredictably has ever hurt you?
That’s good, I think. It may have hurt me because people don’t know what to expect and have their own tastes and they aren’t necessarily on the same trip I’m on. But at the same time – just like how you said it, if you see one of my records on the shelf, you’re going to pick it up because you don’t know if it’s something you’re going to be in love with or if you’re going to take a pass on it. But at least you’ll listen to it. If you’ve outgrown Kevin Saunderson, you’d probably skip that record altogether. I guess I feel thankful that I can keep people guessing, but at the same time I hope people keep an open mind.
Yeah I think you’ve got the open minded people wrapped up. The first time I heard “indie dance”, I just thought it was a cheap rip-off of the Greenskeepers sound. I didn’t see what the big deal was. Those records you released on Classic, especially, were a solid decade ahead of their time. And even then your records were pretty eclectic from release to release.
The funny thing is that we had a lot of die-hard fans that could talk to each other and not know they were talking about the same band. We had fans that loved “Lotion” or this or that but didn’t know “Should I Sing Like This?” and some of the more dancey stuff. So they could both totally like different parts of our band but didn’t know the other side of the music.
Speaking of “Lotion”, there’s another example of being ahead of your time. You had a “viral video” before YouTube even existed!
Yeah, we were just a little too early. What happened with “Lotion” was we had a website, greenskeepersmusic.com. I edited that video – I stole it off of VHS and edited it in Final Cut Pro or something. We put it up on greenskeepersmusic.com where you could download it. We had a hosting plan where it was like $25 a month to download like 2 gigabytes of shit or something. We sent the link to a few people and it spread so fast that three weeks later we got a bill for like $2500 because it became so popular. We had to take it down and put it back up on weird sites like iFilm.com. Remember that? That was way before YouTube. It was before anyone was doing that too, chopping up movies for music and that kind of thing.
I actually had such an old computer and such a slow connection that I first heard about it when Om Records sent it to me – on CD in the mail. An internet sensation on CD. There was no other way to distribute it.
I had people from London emailing me, saying like, “Oh my God, that was such a great video. What was your budget for that? How much did you make it for? Can you do something like that for us?” And I was like… “It’s Silence of the Lambs. What do you mean? It cost me about four hours in the studio screwing around.”
You always have a ton of different projects going on, and now that you’re no longer in Chicago I feel like I’m out of the loop. What else do you have going on?
I’ve been producing a band out here called Holy Models. I signed the first two songs for a label called Eskimo in Belgium. It’s kind of like Poolside with a touch more – I don’t want to say “pop”, but more song stuff, full verses and choruses and stuff like that. It has that kind of summer beach feel. It’s dance but definitely chilled out. So there’s my solo stuff, Holy Models stuff, and Favored Nations stuff.
You’ll be here in April, is this your first time back in Chicago?
I’ve been back a couple of times, but I think this is will be the first time I’ve played in Chicago since I left. I’ll be playing a bunch of different places in the States, I’m looking forward to it.