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Cruise Control: Gossip on Writing Fast and Exercising Restraint in a High-End Studio

November 1, 2009
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“You know how some people can sleep sitting up? I think in terms of songwriting, we’re the kind of people that can sleep sitting up,” says Gossip front woman, Beth Ditto.

After meeting in Arkansas at age 15, Ditto and Brace Paine (a.k.a. Nathan Howdeshell) started writing songs. Since then, Paine is always at the ready with his bass, as Ditto’s melodies materialize without warning.

Such was the case for “Dimestore Diamond,” the first track from Gossip’s fourth studio album, Music For Men [Columbia]. “She was walking around my hotel room humming a melody she liked, and I started playing bass to it,” Paine says. “We just recorded it there, and I don’t think it changed at all.”

Ditto can’t stop her melody factory from working overtime. “Even as a kid, my sister would be like, ‘Oh my God, if you don’t stop singing, I’m going to kill you!’ There’s always something going on in my head, like, always,” she says.

The band, which also includes drummer Hanna Billie, recorded Music For Men with producers Rick Rubin and Greg Fidelman at Shangri La Studios in Malibu, California. But before the studio’s rig—including Pro Tools|HD 3, Digidesign 192 I/Os, Aardvark Aardsync master clock, and API console—started humming, Paine and Ditto parked themselves inside Bob Dylan’s ’70s tour bus outside and demoed in GarageBand.

While guitar figures prominently into Gossip’s dance-y rock sound (“There’s dance music, and then there’s music that makes you want to dance,” Ditto says), everything starts with vocals and bass. “I play bass first because that’s a way to get the drums cemented,” Paine says. “It’s just a thought of melody and rhythm that can hover above the drums.”

As he builds tracks, Paine is conscious of how they’ll translate to the stage—he’s plays both guitar and synth parts on tour. “You could be like My Bloody Valentine and lay down tons of guitars, but for us it’s like, ‘How can we do this live?’”

But Paine and the producers make each part count. They’ll amp synths— Roland Juno-106, Moog Little Phatty, Clavia Nord Lead, ARP Solina String Ensemble, and Arturia soft synths— through Ampeg 8x10 or Orange 4x12 cabs.

Meanwhile, Paine played Gibson SG and Gibson Firebird guitars through Ampeg V4, Hiwatt Custom 50, and Fender Twin and Deluxe amps. “We reamped with a Little Labs PCP when we liked the feel of the live tracking guitar but the sound wasn’t right for how the song had developed,” Fidelman says.

For the superfast, palm-muted riff in “Vertical Rhythm,” Paine tuned his SG to E, D, D, D, B, E. “That song was about trying to make the guitar sound creepy, sort of a Michael Jackson “Thriller”/Joy Division thing,” Paine says. “I’m really into palm muting, and I do a lot of detuning. There’s a lot of interesting bass sounds you can get out of a guitar when you pick a string down a whole octave.” To tune down, he’ll use heavier strings, such as a .52 on the A and a .58 on the E. Or he’ll use regular strings and play sensitively with thin picks.

Paine also played guitar with a quarter (on “8th Wonder”). “The metal hits the string, and it leaves these weird sounds that would jet out, like tiny slices of feedback,” he says. Or he’ll play his Fender Precision or Jazzmaster bass palm-muted (“I don’t really like the big, open bass sound,” he says) with slapback while Billie plays drums. “It forces you to swim up the stream, to be naturally funkier.”

Billie played a Ludwig kit with a Black Beauty snare. Fidelman miked the kick with a Neumann U 47 fet and AKG D30, the snare and hat with a Neumann KM 84 (sometimes an SM57), and the toms and overheads with U 87s (sometimes an AKG D19 as a mono overhead). “For a close room, we used Sony C37As, and for a far room, two Coles ribbons,” Fidelman says. “We also did a few songs where we played the tom fills as an overdub so that the groove never let up. For that, we put thin cloth over the toms to get a quick thud-y sound.”

Outboard gear included Neve 1073 and API preamps; UA LA-3A, Chandler TG-1, Retro 176, and Lucas limiter/compressors; and Pultec EQP-1A and API 550A EQs.

Vocals were recorded with Telefunken ELA M 251 and Sony C65 mics through a Neve 1073 preamp, Retro Sta-Level compressor, UA 1176 limiter, with Roland RE-150 Space Echo, a spring reverb, or Eventide H910s for effects.

Ditto’s got a powerful, old-soul voice and writes lyrics with depth, but despite her talent, she had moments of self-doubt. “I felt like my heart was being ripped out of my chest,” she confesses. Ditto’s referring to Rubin asking her for a lyric sheet, something she’d never delivered before because she was too self-conscious. “I was like, ‘Over my dead f**king body.’”

But Rubin coaxed her out of her anxious state. “He was like, ‘Ninetyeight percent of this is written,’” Ditto says. “‘You need some words and melody here and there, but it’s written. There’s nothing wrong with this.’ I was like, ‘Phew!’ I was really ready for the worst.”

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