Kurt Ballou of Converge Airs Out 'Grievances' to Scott Evans of Kowloon Walled City
The pair talk tone, evolution, technique, space, and get really, really, really deep. Stream the LP too.
Get ready to get deep- real deep, and nerd the fuck out. We had Kurt Ballou speak to Scott Evans of the sludge greats Kowloon Walled City about their new LP Grievances, due via Neurot Recordings (order yours). Stream the LP in full below for the first time and read as the pair talk about personnel changes, tone, recording, and even fucking microphones. So stream the LP in full and dive in with the pair below.
KURT BALLOU: I wanted to start off by congratulating you on the new record. I think it's awesome. Congrats on making it happen, and on working with Neurot. They're a fantastic label.
SCOTT EVANS: Thanks very much. We feel pretty lucky and I think we're all proud of this record.
I'm sure that if people haven't noticed already, they will notice that the new album, Grievances, while it's not a total curveball, songwriting-wise I think it's more intimate and somber than Container Ships. I know that your life has changed a bit since you were working on Ships—you moved your studio into a space in the Sharkbite building so you have a little more room to breathe there, and you've also moved your house out of the city. During Container Ships you were in a claustrophobic living and working environment, and now with a little more elbow room I'm curious if the feeling of actual physical space around you in your daily life has contributed to the fact that the record feels less claustrophobic than your previous output.
That sense of being packed into a city definitely had an influence on me personally. I don't dislike that feeling, but I was aware of it and I know it seeped into our lyrics. And lyrically things are a little different this time around, so maybe that's partly why. As for the space in the music, the more that we've explored that, the more it's spoken to us. It feels like we are figuring out the band that we're supposed to be. I can definitely hear that happening on Container Ships, especially compared to our previous record, Gambling on the Richter Scale, which was super blown out and aggressive and dense. I can totally draw a line from our first EP to this record as far as slowly firing ourselves into orbit.
Speaking of that line, is it important to you to maintain a sense of continuity from record to record? Do you want an audible progression, both musically and production-wise, or would you be okay with a total curve ball?
I care about that line. I like continuity. But it happens in this band without explicit effort. I usually work by making a set of rules for myself, and for long-running projects I'll modify some of the rules over time. So for this band, each record is built on top of the previous one and that provides natural consistency, even as we branch out or try new things. That's not what I expected years ago. When this band started, I literally said I wanted us to never evolve.
Manowar was not the first example that I cited.
They specifically talk about how they don't want to evolve because they would be cheating their fans.
I hadn't considered the profound philosophical effect that Manowar may have had on me. But I admire bands like Meshuggah or Unsane—bands who continue to make interesting, worthwhile records but basically do one thing well.
There's something to be said for that. You put on a new Unsane record and it's new, but it's instantly recognizable. There's something to establishing an identity that only comes from a group of people playing for a while and growing together.
It's a personal identity too: when I walk into this room, this is what I do. And I was totally fine with that. Then Jon joined the band and man, I don't know, over the course of writing Container Ships, that no-evolution thing just dissolved.
That brings me to the production equivalent of the first question, about having more personal room. I'm interested in the same question, but from a production standpoint. Container Ships was your first record tracking in Sharkbite A, correct?
Our first proper record, yes. We did two songs for a split [Lose Lose Lose, with Fight Amp and Ladder Devils] there beforehand.
Sharkbite A is a fairly large, and quite ambient-sounding room. After recording Container Ships in that space, as you were writing new songs, were you consciously or unconsciously thinking about, you know, are these songs going to sound good in that room? Because when you're writing songs, you obviously respond to harmonic content and whatnot, but you also respond to sonic impact. Do you feel like working in the same space as Container Ships affected the writing of Grievances?
Yes, definitely. For starters, the Sharkbite space definitely affected the writing of Container Ships. Our practice space was in a basement in the Tenderloin. The walls were covered with carpet. It sounded very dead. But as we were writing parts like the beginning of that record's first song, where it's largely drums, I can remember us saying to each other, "This will sound awesome in that big drum room. It's really going to work." And it totally did. So when we were working on this new batch of songs, yes, we all knew that we were going to record in the same space again. I'd say that we almost wrote the space into the songs.
I can hear that. There's a similar ambient vibe to Container Ships but when I listen to that record I feel like I'm hearing the band, but I'm also hearing a recording. On Grievances, I'm not sure if you did less from a production standpoint or if it just sounds like you did less, but I'm not really hearing the technique. I'm just hearing the band. "That's guitar, that's drums," not "that's a 57 on this and an omni mic in the back of the room with a bunch of compression smash on it" or something like that. I feel more direct connection to the tone of the instruments themselves on this record, more intimacy. Do you think that's a change in your chops or is that a deliberate attempt to convey a certain feeling?
I think some of the intimacy you're describing is in the parts and tones themselves. Jon and I specifically talked about letting notes audibly die out, about using less gain to avoid infinite sustain. So that alone sounds less synthetic and maybe more "real." Technique-wise, I wasn't intentionally trying to be more minimal, but my approach was a little different. I tried to use less compression, to ride faders more. Maybe my chops have improved. Hopefully!
I find it challenging—the more records a band has, the harder it is to make sure that the next one is better. [laughs] Both from a songwriting perspective, and a production perspective.
I think you achieved that.
That would be very gratifying. We tried not to think along those lines while we were working because it's so counterproductive. I always joke about this old Trent Reznor interview where he was talking about writing the second or third NIN record and he'd sit down with a guitar and think "okay, will this chord save rock? How about this one?" I love that. I'm sure anybody who's made a second or third record in one band can relate. I try to turn off that voice and just do our thing, hold ourselves to our own standards and try to make forward progress. And fortunately, we really are still learning how to be this band, which gives us new things to try.
One commonality I hear on all your records is the bass. Ian's contribution seems fairly consistent. The guitar tones and the vocal style have evolved but Ian has this angry tractor bass that is always there. It seems to have a similar sound on every record, and a similar treatment and placement in the mix. As the guitars have cleaned up a bit over the years, it's opened up space for his contribution to be the focus of the aggression in a lot of the heavier moments, but it seems like sonically it's been pretty constant from record to record.
Well, tone is in the fingers.
[laughs] is that it? How has his gear evolved over the course of the band?
Completely different rigs on each record, actually. Ian's funny because he enjoys changing out gear and trying things, and he cares about his sound, but he also doesn't really give a fuck what he's playing through at any point in time. "Oh, we're recording tomorrow? Okay."
I'm the same way. I think I always sound like me, but I'm always playing different guitars and amps.
Yeah. In the end he always sounds like him. He's been playing bass forever and he is really good at it. His time is great and his parts are very melodic and distinctive. And we all love super gnarly bass tones. What you said about the guitars cleaning up is true—I like the way his bass tone works even better when it's next to guitars that don't take up the entire audible spectrum.
You can have super gnarly bass that still has girth. Whereas when there's a full wall of guitars, that girth masks the bass. So what was his rig on this record?
He played a Washburn Vulture bass. It's a doublecut neck-through from the '80s. You don't see those very often. There's a '90s math rock band...
I think Fred [Erskine] played that bass pretty consistently, also in Crownhate Ruin and June of 44. And I believe Neil [Keener] from Planes Mistaken For Stars has one too.
He does. I remember geeking out on it when we played with Git Some a few years ago. Anyway, they're rad basses. They sound like a mutant P-bass. Lots of character. Ian played that, into a Rusty Box, into an SVT II Pro and an Ampeg 6x10.
So nothing fancy amp-wise.
The Rusty Box never works for me for midrangey bass. It works much better for me for scooped-out bass. But that tone is super midrangey.
That's funny, I love it for midrangey bass. A couple months ago I was mixing a record for a band called Throes. They tracked bass with a Sansamp Bass Driver pedal and it was too scooped out for me. I wanted midrange snarl, so I reamped the DI through the Rusty, specifically for midrange.
How did you mic Ian's bass?
It's a 50/50 blend of RE20 and an old Shure 546. The RE20 does smooth low end and the 546 does nasty mids.
Do you ever use a Subkick or NS10 driver or anything like that on bass?
I've never done that for bass. To me, you don't actually need much sub-bass on bass guitar. I can get plenty out of a regular dynamic. I always start with an RE20 on bass and there's plenty of low end right there. On this record I sidechained the RE20 off the kick drum, you know, ducking the bass with a compressor to leave room in the low end even with just the normal large diaphragm dynamic. So I've never understood the Subkick thing. I have tried kick drum mics on bass, like D112's. I know people are into that but I think it sounds shitty.
Lately for the sidechain trick I've been using FabFilter Pro-MB.
Yes! Sidechaining the kick to just a low-frequency band? I've been into that too. I think FabFilter are making some of the best utility plugins on the market right now.
Absolutely. And obviously the best interfaces in the business.
No doubt. They embrace digital in a way that other companies don't. Their sonics are excellent too, but they do all this shit that you can't do if you're just emulating an 1176.
It seems like the plugin world, and people's preferences, are moving towards that—using digital for what digital is good at.
Yeah. It's like they figured out how to make stuff sound good by emulating old gear, and now they're taking those lessons and leveraging digital's strengths. That multiband transient designer you were telling me about seems like a perfect example. An analog version of that would be very complicated.
That's JST Transify. It's really awesome. One of the real nice advantages of plugins like that is that you can automate them. I mostly use Transify so I can avoid doing sample replacement on drums. Bass drums and toms tend to get hit inconsistently it sounds different if somebody's sticking the beater into the head or bouncing the beater off the head, if they play double kick it has a different sound. By automating the parameters on a transient designer, I can do things to even out the tone without taking the life out of it.
I've done a lot of that with the SPL Transient Designer plug, but I'm going to try Transify on your recommendation.
The other thing I notice as being sonically consistent from record to record is the treatment of your vocal. Not so much the tone of your vocal—I actually feel like you've sounded younger and younger with each passing record [laughs]—but the distortion and placement in the mix of the vocal has felt consistent. Have you been recording yourself in the same way each time, or has it just come out that way because it's being filtered through your brain and ears and intuition?
It's both. I've used the same mic to record vocals since day one in this band. SM7, both switches on, the end. And like the bass distortion, dirty vocals just fit the material well. The vocal dirt did back off between Richter Scale and Ships, and I started doing a lot more doubles. They're definitely still distorted but it's sort of that Steve Brodsky vibe where his vocals are sung but still dirty. He's obviously ten times the vocalist I am but you get what I'm talking about.
You know Steve did that because he was always recording himself on a 4-track and he didn't have a compressor. So running his vocals through distortion was his way of leveling their volume.
I didn't know that! Distortion is kind of the ultimate compressor but that's not my reason. I love the crazy highlights that distortion brings out in vocals. And I'm not super confident as a vocalist so I may like hiding behind distortion too. I actually tried a lot of new vocal treatments on this record—I tried a bunch of pedals, I tried reamping through a couple of amps and amp simulators, I tried those DIYRE Colour modules—but in the end I ended up with a similar chain to previous records, which is a couple of distortion plugins in parallel with a clean vocal.
Are there any new pieces of gear that you discovered in making this record that you feel had a major impact on the sound of the record? Things where it would be a dramatically different feeling or sounding record if you didn't have access to that piece of gear?
One important one is that, inspired by you, I bought an AEA R88 stereo ribbon. It seemed like the perfect mic for me. I've been doing Blumlein front-of-kit techniques for years. I really like that. On Container Ships I used Sharkbite's Lucas CS-1 pair in Blumlein, a few feet out from the kit. That's a huge part of the Ships drum sound. Those mics are real hi-fi and have nice brightness, and they represent the kit in the room really well. But the R88 did something very different, and I built the drum sounds around that. That mic is very dark, and softens transients, and made me leverage other mics in ways that I might not have, had I built my drum sounds on a different foundation. So that ended up shaping the record a lot.
That mic is more of a traditional sounding ribbon, and certainly not nearly as hyped as most condensers, but it does take EQ really nicely. I usually approach using it with the understanding that it's going to be heavily EQ'd. Though, used without much EQ, that darkness is nice because it frees up space for cymbals to mostly come from the overheads.
That's exactly what I did. On Container Ships I barely used overheads. They were only there for a little air and sizzle. But this time I had to use a lot of overheads. They were most of my high frequencies on the drums.
Did you just use 2 overheads? Were there spot mics on any cymbals?
Just 2 overheads. A pair of AT4041's in ORTF, above the kit. I had a 441 on the hi-hat but I probably never used that, or barely used it in one or two sections. This music is big and slow. You don't need crazy detail. You can paint the drums with broad brush.
That's nice, to have enough space between the notes that you can really let the tones bloom without worrying about them interfering with one another.
It's the polar opposite of a lot of the music you work on.
It's unfortunate because I really like hearing sonic detail and just the pleasure you get from a nice sound. But the songwriting dictates the production style. I have to do things that are more about making everything be clear and poke through more than I get to do things that are really flattering for particular instruments.
Right. That fast dense shit is super hard. I can do things with this band that wouldn't work for most of your records. Like, on this record there is a shit-ton of room mic on the drums. I re-listened to my tracks to prepare for our talk, and if you mute the room mics it's hilarious. The drums just vanish. The distant mics are a huge part of the drum sound.
Do you do any tricks with your room mics? Do you slide them around in time at all, or gate them keyed off the snare, anything like that?
I've done lots of dumb stuff to room mics on other records. On this one mostly what I did was push up the "room mic" fader really far. And that Albini thing where you delay the room mics like 30ms. I like that a lot. It gets them out of the way of the direct signal.
That is terrible on fast music.
It just makes it sound like everything's flamming, right?
Yeah. In my room, a snare in the room mic is about 17ms delayed from the close mic, and that seems to naturally be about the right offset for the kind of music that I record. So I don't tend to do that.
Yeah, totally different thing. But mostly I just used a ton of room mic. When the kick drum's reverberation is completely audible in the mix, you know you're really digging in to the far mics.
Were the guitars recorded in the same space?
No. We tracked everything live, so the guitars were recorded in the iso booths.
How much bleed is there into the drum room mics?
Almost none, because we played with the iso doors closed. If a specific guitar part wanted some nice ambience, we'd open the iso door and retrack the part, and I would also record the drum room mics to get some nice room sound that matched the drums. I did that on the bass in a few places too. In some of the bass-only parts, you can hear the bass lighting up the big room, which I love.
I picked up on that. That's cool. I assumed it was overdubs in the same room, but you tracked everything live. I enjoy live tracking because it gives me a more complete vision of the songs and the mix than if I were tracking them one person at a time. But it can be hard to manage the technical minutia. And in this case you're performing as well. How do you deal with trying to play the songs and emote while also worrying if the bottom snare mic preamp is clipping or the floor tom has fallen out of tune? Did you have Ryan [Massey, Sharkbite owner] in the control room watching that shit? I'd probably need some help if I were to do that.
No, nobody else there. I put a laptop in the live room and drive Pro Tools using Remote Desktop. And yeah, sometimes stuff fucks up. On this record, I spent hours with Izotope RX4, removing patchbay crackles from a keeper bass track. So working this way has technical drawbacks, but it has benefits too. One, it lets us create and think about songs as a whole instead of as individual components whose flaws need fixing. If the floor tom drops out of tune midway through a great take, fuck it, we'll leave it. Second, it lets the session be very private and personal. It's like a band practice, just us and nobody watching. Having someone else there would totally change that.
Here's a related topic that is close to my heart. We both play guitar in our bands, we both write songs for our bands, we both function as producers and engineers in our bands. I'm curious how you feel about that role. Is it something you really enjoy or something you do out of necessity?
I can hardly tell when I enjoy things at this point. [laughing]
But you're at the point where you could certainly have a budget and go record with somebody else. You don't have to wear all those hats.
Right, right. No, recording this band is as important to me as the songs themselves. I really love recording. You know that about me. It's one of the reasons I get out of bed in the morning. That said, all three of the full-lengths that we've done have been pretty miserable for me mentally. I consider myself pretty together but when I look back at those periods of my life, I was kind of flipping out from the stress. That was definitely the case with this record. I put a lot of pressure on myself.
Well, you're presenting a lot of yourself to be judged in a lot of different ways. Lyrics are your thoughts and emotions. The voice as an instrument is a lot more personal than a stringed instrument or drums. And obviously the recording is another reflection of you, your set of choices and your abilities. Plus there's three other people in your band who are trusting you to appropriately capture what they've poured their hearts and souls into. So there are a lot of sources of pressure
The weird part is, with most of those things I can shrug it off. If someone doesn't like my voice, or they want to critique my lyrics, I don't care. You hate my guitar playing, fine. But if someone says "the snare sounds stupid on this record you mixed", that will eat at me for weeks. I take the recording part really personally.
Do you think that's due to the competitive nature that recording engineers have with each other, like this dick-measuring contest of "oh dude my drum sounds are so huge?"
I mostly feel like I'm in a competition with myself. And recording is merciless. When I play guitar, I play to my strengths. There's lots of stuff I can't do on guitar, so I just don't do that and it's fine. With recording, if I'm not great at vocal production, or if I can't build a sense of depth in a mix, it's immediately obvious when you put my mix next to somebody else's who can do those things. And you work so goddamn hard on building these skills. Recording is like the most frustrating golf game in the world, yet you keep showing up each morning to tee off again. I don't know if you go through this, but it just beats the shit out of my ego.
It's like constantly reminding yourself that you're bad at your job. Every time I put on a reference mix, or don't listen to a record for a week or two and then hear the master back, I just think I'm terrible.
Well, I'm glad it's not just me. When we made this record I was questioning myself and our choices a lot, even as I was trying to be in the moment and fall back on the things we've always done—to trust our ears and our instincts and our years of work. I'm pretty surprised at what a mindfuck this record was. I don't know if you've gone through that with any Converge records, where midway through the recording process you're like "oh fuck, what are we doing?"
Jane Doe was totally like that.
That was done in a very fragmented way. We were bouncing around between different studios, and it was the first group of songs we did with Ben on drums, and it was kind of a new direction for the band. It was mixed in two completely different sessions. I knew that we liked the songs but it was tough to know whether or not it would be a cohesive album. We didn't know that until we were done mastering.
That sounds similar. In this case, it was like... I got masters back from Carl Saff and I said "hey Jon, these masters sound pretty good and I might want to re-record all the guitars." [laughs]
And Jon's like "...what. What? What are you talking about?" But it was like that. Nagging self doubt. Especially about the guitars, maybe because we were taking some risks with the sounds. Before we got to the studio Jon and I spent a bunch of time on our guitar tones, chasing this sound we had in our heads. When we set up at the studio, we again put time into getting our pedals and amps and mics all dialed. Like I said, we were taking some risks with our tones, but we knew that and we were ready to do it. Then when Jeff showed up later that day we tracked a quick test song, and as we're listening back Jeff says "those aren't your real guitar sounds, are they?"
Oh man, I hate when that happens.
It shouldn't have been a big deal. It was an honest, harmless question. We've been friends for years, and he didn't mean anything. But it tapped into the doubts I was already wrestling with. And over time, I let that seed of uncertainty bloom into a tree. It really highlights this crucially important thing about recording sessions that people don't always appreciate—how important confidence is, and how delicate it is.
It's too bad that comment created a certain amount of doubt. And I don't think it needed to, because the guitars sound fantastic.
The funny part is, like I said, I went back and listened to the tracks the other night. And when I solo'd up the guitars, I said out loud "what was I worried about?" They sounded perfect to me. They did the things I had hoped for. But doubt combined with stress can make your brain play tricks on you.
That leads me to part two of this question. I'm curious to hear your take on how your bandmates interact with you when you're wearing your recording/producing hat. As a band member you're an equal part of the democracy that being in a band is, or should be, whereas when it comes time to record you're in the driver's seat. It's not to say that your word goes but you need to make a lot of decisions, and you need to manage your bandmates' opinions differently. Do you feel like you've been able to do this well? Is the rest of the band accepting and appreciative or does it lead to conflict?
At this point I've probably made 20 records with this group of people. We've done side projects, I recorded a couple records for Jon's old band and a couple of Ian's old bands. So we've built up a good amount of trust about sonics. Which is great. Well, it's mostly great. There's some degree of "it's cool Scott, I totally trust you" when I'm like "no, I actually need an opinion from you. You don't get to just look at your phone right now." But overall, everyone knows that I come in with a sonic idea that I'm going to chase, and we get along great in that regard. When it comes to critiquing performances, that is trickier. It's like being married, and there are certain things your therapist could say to your partner that you can't say. If a neutral third party gives feedback about your playing—you're consistently late here, or this part you've been playing for the last year conflicts with what the song is doing—you'd say thanks, I'll fix that. But if one of the other jackoffs in your band says that, it's the usual marital bickering. We definitely have had some of that. I'm not great at dealing with it. I assume you go through this too.
I used to be a lot more of a dictator than I am now. Part of that is because the group of people in Converge for its first ten years weren't driving forces in the way that the current group of people are. It took me a little while to let go of the role that I previously was required to play. But generally I try to be quick to admit when I'm wrong and when somebody else is right. I think people are more accepting of criticism if you can demonstrate that you're also accepting of criticism from them, and that even if you disagree you genuinely value their opinion.
I'm not great at being strategic in interpersonal relations. I know it's a really important producer skill, and I've worked on it for a long time, but it always feels fake, and the real me always comes through. And of course when you're working with people you're very close with, they can see right through that stuff. There's a lot of subtext.
Is your band a democracy? Is it all for one? If one person's not into something, do you not do it?
Our band is a benevolent dictatorship. That's what we've always said. [laughing]
In most cases, if one person in our band is way against something, it gets vetoed. There are cases where we'll say dude, please just try this even if you're not into it. I can tell how this is going to come out, just trust me. And over time, we've developed enough mutual trust to go along for those rides.
So say you fight for an idea and you get your way, and then a week later you realize that idea sucks. Will you admit it? And will everybody gang up on you and be like "yeah, told you so!" Because that's what happens in my band.
I am modest to a fault in this band. I spend most of my time reminding everyone that I'm the worst musician in the room. To the point where by now everyone believes it a little too much. [laughs] So I don't have a problem admitting I'm wrong.
Last topic. You're changing drummers as this record is released. I'm curious about Jeff's departure and the addition of Julia, and how that will affect your direction, if you even know yet. How are you thinking about the next year or two of the band? Are you focused on supporting this record and having her play the songs faithfully to the album, or are you going to get some of these new songs and a few of the back catalog up to speed for shows, but focus on the next chapter in the band?
The latter. That's exactly where we're at. Our songs have a lot of detail and getting up to speed playing them is time-consuming and hard. So right now we're working on, as you said, playing this record and some back catalog. But the idea of spending the next six months woodshedding four-plus records worth of songs is not appealing. I would much rather see where Julia's energy and new influence takes us. I would love to find us recording an EP or LP or something next summer.
That's a great idea. With Converge, we did a split LP with Ben [Deeper The Wound, with Hellchild] less than a year after he joined. I don't want to say that was part of his audition, but as part of the rebuilding of the band, him having the opportunity to play on a recording was important. It made him feel like he was really part of the band and not just a hired gun or a replacement.
Right. I definitely feel for Julia right now, watching her learn all these intricate songs that were played by a drummer with a different style. That's a necessary challenge but like you say, it's healthy and good to write some songs, to record, to start learning what this band is now.
Do you even care if the songs feel different live?
I can't care too much, because they're going to feel different. Anybody who joins your band, you have to embrace their presence. The old songs will be a little different, writing will be different, van rides will be different. Everything will change a little. And that's fine. It's good. Our band is a living breathing thing. It's not a franchise. So yeah, let's get going and see where we end up.