What was your first piece of equipment and how old were you?
Fender, Squier Stratocaster + Bullet amplifier. I think I was sixteen. Distortion makes any teenager feel like a god.
What do you take on the road?
We use 2 speakers, 2 mic stands, 2 small pedal boards, a trigger module and drums that are all connected to one small rack. Inside that is our MIDI I/O, interfaces, my KEMPER PROFILING AMP, a bass guitar chain and our in-ears boxes. A Macbook Pro runs our digital mixer and ABLETON LIVE. LIVE is our clock and source for all programming: MIDI control changes / program changes, samplers and all of our audio effects (vocal, bass, guitar, drums).
How do you use digital gear to bring consistency and quality control to your live show?
The palette is determined by each song, and we use MIDI programming to call that palette up exactly and only when needed. Having a thousand effects available at any given time doesn’t help me while playing a song that uses only two. So, instead of being everything at all times, we’re only what we need to be. The songs go on, but our sounds are constantly changing and evolving. So, it’’s not a behemoth pedal board and rack full of everything you are ever going to need. It’s a curation that updates by the moment.
Because we don’t use traditional amps and cabs, we don’t require mic’ing cabs. We mix ourselves for the stage, and give the sound engineer (front of house) the same signals. We line-check minutes before our set starts, we don’t use on-stage monitors. All of this is designed so we can be anywhere, consistently sound like the band we are, and be simple to work with. Like anything, a constant work in progress.
How do you go about recreating the sounds on the record in your live performances?
I think a lot of time gets lost trying to recreate sounds that you’ve recorded. You’re trying to represent the songs, tones correctly – but you’re often chasing after the tone of an amp you don’t own – or a moment that’s truly not able to be repeated. KEMPER allowed me to capture the recorded guitar sounds during the recording process. Fast forward to rehearsing songs from the record and I’ve already got the sounds I need to support the songs – the exact sounds that we captured during recording with J. Hall.
I build samplers out of the other sounds from the record (drums, synths, etc) and we call on those with MIDI messages. Those can come from drum triggers, the SPD-SX drum pad, our voices, my guitar, the bass guitar – any incoming signal can be manipulated or used to do something else. With that, I think we paint a bigger picture than what’s expected from a guitarist, bassist and drummer.
What is your relationship with your producer when creating new music?
Friendly, productive, and trusting. J. Hall and I have pretty long personal history and have been making records together since Hidden Hospitals started. We both embrace the strange and often uncomfortable areas of production. We’ll go pretty far off track in order to explore an idea. The funny thing about sound is that it’s a lot like taste. The only way to describe what it is that you’re hearing (or tasting) is to reference something else that’s kinda like it. Flavor profiles, for example – no, your coffee doesn’t taste like strawberry jam – but there’s a nuance in the back end of the flavor that matches the sensations relatable to eating strawberry jam. So you might say “notes of strawberry jam” or “tart like jam”. Same with sound – overused words like “bright / warm / crunchy / heavy / dark” – they’re pretty limited, and you’re really just chasing after a feeling – how you felt when you heard a certain part of a song. Some emotional response that is triggered and makes you both say “Yes, that’s it!”. That’s the nature of creation, I think. The ideas don’t speak for themselves on their own when they’re still forming in your head – so you either need be a master of communicating with eloquence what it is that you’re thinking, or you need to find it and show it. I value J’s willingness to chase down what it is that we’re not able to relay with words. He’s always been in-tune with how I’m feeling about progress (of whatever we’re working on) – whether I’m vocal about it or not. Above all, knowing that whatever we’re working on won’t be “finished” until we’re both stoked on it – that’s rare and priceless.
How has technology and new innovations influenced the way you produce music?
I used to be really stuck on guitar / bass guitar / drums – the rock band formula. Stay true to it, prove it live. When I got my own ego out of my way I started embracing all the choices I was ignoring. We’re absolutely a rock band – but I think that Hidden Hospitals uses guitars, bass guitars and drums as springboards to bigger ideas. I don’t feel stuck writing only on an electric guitar anymore in order to be a service to my rock band. I know that I can write on a piano and that because of the technology we have I can tailor it back to fit what we do.
I’ve been forcing myself to write on Ableton PUSH too. I’m traditionally trained on piano – that’s my analog for all things music. Even with guitar, I’m still to this day translating it by seeing a keyboard in my head. PUSH is rad because the layout is a grid, and you can change the grid to be whatever you want: Any key signature, any scale (from a large list of worldly scales). Without knowing anything at all about music, you can intuitively move your fingers across the pads and get melodies that you’d never be able to dream up. Any songwriter knows the value in being able to get out of your own box – and PUSH has been that for me lately.
Describe your relationship with your gear?
It’s a hate/hate relationship. I hate weight, cables, things that take up space. I hate falling victim to nostalgia, and keeping something for that reason. I don’t like interfacing with machines, twisting knobs, punching buttons..”dialing it in” – it’s not musical – though the end result is. I think I’ll always be a bit tormented by that too. I want the least amount of things to yield the maximum amount of possibilities – which is what we have – but it always requires an endless amount of work, which is my own choice. Gone are the days of my JCM800, 4×12, tuner and guitar being enough to keep me in it. I’ll always be a bit sad about that, but we only live for so long. “Had A Lot of Rad Gear” is not how I want epitaph to read.
One piece of equipment you can’t live without?
I can live without all of it. That’s the point, really. You fill a void with something that’s fulfilling – something that enables you. Use that as a tool until something better comes along – and something better will always come along. I think that’s why there’s so much nostalgia in playing music though. We’re still choosing to play Stratocasters, Les Pauls, and drum kits that are pretty much identical to the time they were invented. They’re still selling, we’re still buying…but most importantly, we’re still watching what people choose to do with them. In 2016 (to me) it’s not about who is the best on an instrument. That’s a honed skill. What I’m most interested in is how people actualize all of these new tools that are so available to all of us – and make something special from them. A computer, a synth, a guitar – just tools – just paints to paint with. Don’t be afraid to make a mess.
Listen to Hidden Hospitals:
Photo credit: Erin Drewitz