Converge Guitarist/Producer Kurt Ballou Explains Why He Remixed 'You Fail Me'
We got the story behind the hardcore legends' upcoming 'You Fail Me Redux' release.
In 2004, Converge sawed off You Fail Me, the hotly anticipated follow-up to their already undisputed hardcore classic Jane Doe. With the pressure looming, You Fail Me did not disappoint: It received almost unanimously rave reviews and became an instant fan favorite. Nearly 12 years on, some of its most memorable songs—“Eagles Become Vultures,” “Last Light” and the title track—remain staples of the band’s live set, and many consider the album a close second to its mighty predecessor. On June 17th, Converge will unveil You Fail Me Redux, a newly remixed, re-mastered and re-packaged version of the album.
As with all remix/re-master releases of popular albums, one has to ask: Why risk altering an already beloved record? And considering that You Fail Me Redux is almost entirely bereft of bonus material, why should Converge fans buy this record again?
We recently spoke with Converge guitarist and producer Kurt Ballou—who personally remixed this version of the album—to find out.
Noisey: How long have you been thinking about giving You Fail Me the remix/re-master treatment?
Kurt Ballou: Probably since we did No Heroes [in 2006]. You Fail Me was the last time Converge did a record where I wasn’t involved in the entire engineering process. The record that followed You Fail Me, which was No Heroes, was the first time that I both recorded and mixed a Converge record, with the exception of The Poacher Diaries, which was an EP or a split. Upon completing No Heroes and managing to make my bandmates happy with the work I did on that record, I thought that I’d really like to go back and remix You Fail Me. I recorded that one, but Matt Ellard, who did most of the engineering work on Jane Doe, was the one who mixed it. But it was also mixed under less than ideal circumstances.
What were those circumstances?
Jane Doe was mixed at Fort Apache on a console that Matt was familiar with, and we had sufficient time to do those mixes. With You Fail Me, he came up and mixed in my studio, which he’d never worked in before, and it was an unfamiliar console. He’s a very malleable engineer and can work anywhere, but it probably wasn’t his top choice to mix at my place. We also kept having power outages during the mixes. I can’t remember the exact details, but I think we booked six days of mixing with him, but he ended up having to do it in about three because he’d come in, work for half an hour, and the power would go out. It was mixed in the summer under brownout conditions, so we’d have electricity in the morning while it was still relatively cool but then as things heated up in the afternoon we’d lose power. So he spent a lot of time lying on the couch waiting for the power to come back on. I still think it turned out great, but there was something about the lack of consistency from song to song and a few other details that made me want to remix it. Sonically, I wanted to make it fit more logically between Jane Doe and No Heroes.
You Fail Me is a favorite among Converge fans. Why alter a record that people already love?
Well, I didn’t do it for them. I did it for me. Honestly, I’ll probably remix Jane Doe one day just for myself. [Laughs] But some people enjoy listening to remixes because they might hear something they didn’t hear before or hear it presented in a way that is different than what they remember. Maybe they’ll get something new out of it. But I’m keenly aware that many people will say, “Oh, the original’s better.” I’m one of those people who says that sort of thing when people revisit records. I’m one of those people who accuse bands of doing it as a cash grab. So I can certainly relate to those sentiments. But I feel as though the work I did on this does not lose any of the essence of what was good about the original and reveals some stuff that wasn’t there before—as well as present it in a more flattering and cohesive light.
In layman’s terms, what were some of the specific changes you made?
The idea of making changes to a record implies that I was able to call up the original mix, which I was not. Both the original mix and the remix were done in the analog domain with analog equipment. So my starting point was not the original mix. I had to recreate that by ear. So it’s not a modern type of production where people are mixing inside of a computer and can pull up a file that is the original mix. What I started with was the raw tracks. I had to keep referring back to my recreation of the original mix to make sure that the new mix had the same sort of feeling and the same sort of sonic impact but was done in a way that felt more full and natural to my ear than the original did.
How difficult was it recreating the original mix?
Iwas certainly challenging in that each engineer has an ear and a style. Matt Ellard tends to mix stuff for radio, so he’s really looking for loud, maximum-impact, really direct and cutting sounds. Whereas Converge is not a band that gets a lot of radio play. We’re a band that people listen to on vinyl or on their headphones or whatever. They’re not listening through a broadcast system. So I thought there was room for a lot more nuance in the sound. It’s kind of like Nirvana’s In Utero, where there’s the Steve Albini mixes and then… I forget who did the singles; maybe Andy Wallace? [Author’s note: It was R.E.M. producer Scott Litt.] The singles are much more direct sounding and bright and cutting because it’s mixed for radio. The Steve Albini mixes aren’t as in your face, but they envelop you. You can feel the presence of the instruments. It’s more like a blanket that draws you in, so long as you’re able to listen to it in a good environment.
Your remix of the title track was posted to SoundCloud, and some of the commenters felt the new mix has more bass. Did you boost the low end?
Yes. In general I thought the original mix was a little thin when compared to both Jane Doe and No Heroes, so I tried to have a low end content that was more similar to those two records so that if you were to listen to the Converge catalogue sequentially it wouldn’t feel out of place. I’d say that and more natural ambience around the drums were my two primary goals.
Did revisiting the album bring back any specific memories from that time period?
It did, yeah. Not that many years ago, I did some remixing of older Converge material for Rock Band Network. We put the song “Dark Horse” on Rock Band Network and in preparation of possibly doing more songs I went back to the Jane Doe stuff and the You Fail Me stuff and did a bit of quick mixing. But the market kinda fell out of Rock Band, and we didn’t pursue it any further. However, I got to hear some of the old performances and the way in which we play on Jane Doe is so much different than the way that we play now—tempos, feel, the way Ben [Koller] sets up his drums—it’s like night and day. It’s not better or worse, but it’s been a long time since we made that record. I was sort of expecting the same from You Fail Me, because there was only three years between Jane Doe and You Fail Me. Yet I feel like the way we play our instruments on You Fail Me is very true to how we still play.
I didn’t have any issues with any of the performances, and I know I definitely would if I had been remixing Jane Doe. On You Fail Me, I wasn’t even tempted to fix anything performance-wise. It felt like what the band feels like now, so it reminded me of how much we played between those two records and how much we developed and became a much more cohesive unit in that time period. We went from a band that conceptually was good and played pretty well to being a band that was really, really tight and cohesive on You Fail Me.
After remixing the album, do you have a different opinion about any of the songs on You Fail Me than you did when it was originally released?
Yeah, for sure. The standout for me in what you’re talking about is “In Her Blood.” That was thrown together really quickly when we recorded it and we didn’t spend a lot of time mixing it because of the power outages. Instead, we focused on the songs we knew we’d be playing live, like “Eagles Become Vultures,” “You Fail Me,” and “Black Cloud.” When I remixed it, I was like, “Wow, this song is really heavy,” but the full depth of that song wasn’t realized in the original mixes and I think it is now. I remember spending a lot of time on that one trying to get it to breathe in a way that it had never breathed before.
Do you have a favorite song on You Fail Me?
Probably “In Her Shadow.” That song has the kind of music that I’ve always wanted to create but have not always been successful in doing so and have not always had the right group of people in order to create. Whenever I’m working with and producing bands, I always have to tailor my musical ideas to the other people in the room, and that’s true with all that Converge does. The music that we play together is the music that’s our common musical ground but it’s not indicative of our entire taste in music. So “In Her Shadow” was kind of an experiment that came together beautifully on that album, and I just found that really pleasing. And it’s another song that was super interesting to remix because it’s so sonically dense—there’s a bazillion different overdubs going on, and I had a chance to hear those individually again for the first time since recording them. It was neat to find all those Easter eggs that I’d forgotten about. All the songs have elements of that. Like, I forgot there was glockenspiel in “Last Light.” And the guitar parts that I play live are kind of an amalgam of all the guitar parts on the record, and I’ve certainly played those songs live more than I’ve listened to the record, so the way the songs are in my head is a lot different than the record. Hearing all that stuff again was super fun for me.
Will the You Fail Me Redux include any bonus material?
There’s a song called “Wolves At My Door” that was recorded in the original session but not on the original CD. I think it was a bonus track for iTunes and maybe on the Japanese version of the CD—and possibly the vinyl? I actually don’t remember, but I don’t think it was available in all of the original US versions. So now that song is included. Aside from that, there’s no bonus material. But the artwork is all redone, and it looks great.
Last but not least, why should Converge fans buy this album again?
In my opinion, this is a better version of the record and—without participating in revisionist history—it’s the record presented as it was always intended to be presented. But I should stress that if somebody doesn’t like the new version, they can always listen to the old one. [Laughs] We’re not taking the original away from you.
J. Bennett lives in Los Angeles and took several hundred photographs of Converge in the months before You Fail Me was originally released.