On this weekend’s Local Show, Chris Besinger of STNNNG (pronounced “stunning”) stopped by The Current studios to tell the story of their recent jaunt across the Atlantic to London. After a few quiet years, we’ll finally see a new release from the quintet with Empire Inward, out February 23 on local label Modern Radio. David Campbell sat down with Besinger to get the full scoop on the recording process including a chance to work with Steve Albini and mastering at Abbey Road.
David Campbell: You guys went down to work with Steve Albini in Chicago at Electrical Audio. Why there? What records were done there that really sealed the deal for you?
Chris Besinger: Well, specifically Steve did a bunch of records for this band called Silkworm that I really love the sound of. Obviously he’s made the Shellac records there. But it’s mostly just Steve’s aesthetic, his working style and really capturing what a band sounds like. We really wanted to make a record like those Peel sessions from the early ’80s where bands would just kind of go in and bang out their songs. Some of those Joy Division Peel sessions almost sound better than their records in a way. We kind of wanted to make a record that was sort of like that. We knew Steve would be able to capture that.
David: You wanted to capture almost like a live recording. Obviously there’s some overdubs —
Chris: Almost like a live recording, yeah. Mostly just a record that captured what we sounded like when we play in the practice space.
David: What do you think would happen if you were sort of left to your own devices and you could really add as much as you wanted to after the fact? Like it wasn’t a live situation.
Chris: We could have added a ton to the record but the kind of music that we play and what we’re trying to accomplish —
David: You’re talking about bummer Van Halen music.
Chris: Yeah, I’m talking about trying to be bummer Van Halen. We’re an energetic, outgoing, expressive band, but at the same time, we’re playing songs about depressing stuff.
David: You’re a little bit of a bummer.
Chris: Yeah. Like Van Halen always wanted people to have a good time, and I guess if people want to have a good time at our show, that’s fine. But we’re also trying to express kind of heavy art stuff.
David: Yeah. It’s OK if you’re sad too.
Chris: Well, that’s actually preferable.
David: But David Lee Roth would not stand for that. But you as bummer David Lee Roth —
Chris: Yeah, we’re like bummer David Lee Roth.
David: You wanted to do like a real live thing. So you get down there, and what is it like? Have you done anything with Steve before?
Chris: I met Steve a few times. We played a show with Shellac in the past. We’re friendly with Bob Weston and Todd Trainer from Shellac, so we kind of know those guys a little bit. All the staff at Electrical are really nice. There’s a nice kitchen area upstairs. You can just go hang out. There’s dorm rooms where you can stay at up there. We just set up shop. Once we got there, I didn’t leave the studio for 36 straight hours because everything was there. Just making a record and watching TV. Once we went to the grocery store, we didn’t need to go anywhere. Steve’s pretty — for all of his reputation, he’s incredibly laid back and mellow.
David: That’s not what I would expect. Steve Albini is like J Mascis but angrier.
Chris: No, he’s super mellow and chill. We just talked about baseball. The thing that was great about working with Steve was that whenever you had a ridiculous request — there’s a part of this record where I wanted it to sound like fake Ken Nordine — kind of spoken word. And I said that to Steve: “I want to do this fake Ken Nordine thing.” And he was like, “Oh yeah, we’ll just use the mics that Ken uses when he’s here.” Steve knew right away what I was talking about.
David: No digital on this record at all. No computers. And you went all the way to London to master this thing at Abbey Road studios.
Chris: Correct. Like a bunch of lunatics we were.
David: How did this happen?
Chris: Well, after we got done making the record with Steve, he mixed it. We were talking to him about where we should master the record, and he gave us some options. We said, “Steve. Where would you master your record?” And he said, “Abbey Road,” without even pausing. So it was like, well — we’ve come this far. Let’s go ahead and do it. So we decided to go to Abbey Road. Initially, we decided to just send the tapes over but we got asked to play the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England so we figured it was a perfect opportunity. So we took the tapes ourselves, went to Abbey Road and mastered it there. It was insane.
David: Isn’t that true about band stuff though? You don’t make a lot of money, you meet a lot of nice people and you get to take a lot of great work vacations.
Chris: Yeah. It was definitely a working vacation. All of my family over the holidays were like, “How was London?” And I had no idea. I was at the studio for nine hours. I ate at the Abbey Road cafeteria. I didn’t go out and do anything. I didn’t go see Big Ben. But I got to hang out at the greatest recording studio in the world.
David: Was there like a real heavy juju in that place? Like the sort of weight of — the console that you were mastering this record on was perhaps the same console that Dark Side Of The Moon was mastered on.
Chris: Honestly, there wasn’t really a vibe like that. It was when I had my hands on the board and I was looking at it, and all of a sudden it dawned on me, oh hey, by the way, half the music you’ve listened to in your life got played through this desk. Every so often you would kind of stop and be like, “Oh, wait a second.” I kept waiting for someone to come in the room and say, “We checked on Google. Nobody knows who you guys are. You gotta go.”
David: You were waiting to get kicked out of the clubhouse?
Chris: Yeah. Turns out, you guys are a band from Minneapolis so go on and head out.
David: Most of the time when you master a record — many people don’t even know what that means — it’s sort of the final process that makes sure that the sounds you are putting on your album are up to the snuff that you want them to be. You usually send the digital files off to some guy in another place, you send them a check for $500 or whatever it is and then you get back the final version. But yours was really different.
Chris: Yeah, this was really involved. Because we’re all big record collecting nerds, we wanted to make a record that was true to how they made records in the ’60s and ’70s which meant that there was no computer involved. So we took the mix down on quarter-inch tape to Abbey Road and that’s the only place where they can master it directly from the tape to the copper plate — the direct to metal mastering. So that’s how we did it.
David: On the fly. With a two second break between each song.
Chris: It took five of us in the room working the knobs because it was all happening in real-time. There’s no, “Let’s listen to it back.” We’re doing it now. This is how your record is going to sound, so don’t turn the bass up really loud at this one part or it’s going to sound crazy.
David: What was the anxiety level around something like that?
Chris: By about hour six, I was really watching the clock because we had to get to the other side of London to play a show, so I was starting to melt down.
David: There were some sweat spots on the shirt.
Chris: Plus, the sun goes down at like 3:30 there so at 4 o’clock, it’s already dark. And I’m like, we gotta get to the show.
David: It’s dark. We don’t know where we are.
David: Final question: was it worth it?
Chris: It was totally worth it. Adventure of a lifetime. Like you said, we’re not going to make any money, so you might as well go for it.