'Who’s Steely Dan?': In The Studio With Oh Mercy
DARREN LEVIN ventures behind the scenes in Portland, Oregon, where Melbourne’s Oh Mercy are discovering their swagger.
It’s a Monday night in Portland and I’m riding shotgun in a rented Dodge hatchback that smells like cigarettes smoked eight lessees ago. My driver is Alexander Gow, 24, non-smoker, lead singer of Melbourne five-piece Oh Mercy. He’s navigating these wet roads like a guy who’s driven 13,450 kilometres to get here. "It’s like driving from Melbourne to Brisbane,” he says of the commute between Los Angeles (where I just flew in from) and Portland, where the band’s North American tour ended and the recording of their new album began.
It’s still raining as we hurtle past the CBD; the illuminated “White Stag Sign”, a local landmark erected in the 1940s, is about the only touristy thing visible. “How cool is that sign,” remarks Gow, who’s spent the better part of two months here working on Oh Mercy’s third album Deep Heat. The GPS barks out another instruction, as he fumbles with an iPod. He’s about to play me what only a handful of people outside the band have heard.
As we continue on I-205 towards Family Farm Studio, Gow’s voice bellows out of the stereo followed by a deep groove. He’s almost unrecognisable from the vulnerable crooner that left his heart all over the place on last year’s Great Barrier Grief. The song is called ‘Drums’, and its chorus is sung entirely in falsetto. It’s an obvious single.
Gow plays four more songs on the way to the studio: ‘Europa’, a sex-charged romp called with clavinet and vocals that remind me of Loaded-era Lou Reed; the dub-influenced ‘Still Making Me Pay’, the most atypical Oh Mercy song yet; ‘My Man’, the first song written for the record, featuring horns and a Roxy Music-like swagger; and the title track, which producer Burke Reid is slavishly working on when we arrive at the studio around 11pm.
Family Farm is a converted homestead in Lake Oswego, an affluent suburb just outside Portland. It has the look and feel of a quaint ski lodge: Wood-panelling, a towering stone fireplace, a vintage grandfather clock and a wraparound deck that looks out over the area’s lush greenery. It was lovingly refurbished by co-owner Beau Raymond, a Portland native who spent several years in Los Angeles, working with everyone from the late Bert Jansch to Devendra Banhart and The Jayhawks. When I meet Raymond the next day, he’s affable and laconic in that LA surfer sort of way. "I wanted a place that was super comfy but also a professional studio,” he says of the extensive renovations that took him almost two years to complete, “so I gutted the place.”
Raymond – of Italian and Cajun descent – is one of few Portland natives I’ll encounter over the next couple days. Lured by low living costs, a flourishing arts scene and the chance to maybe collaborate with Spoon’s Britt Daniels, it seems every hipster musician in America has been drawn to the place. The next night at a great bar called Dig A Pony with $2 draught beers, I’ll meet a sound guy called Milliken from Atlanta. “I’m one of the five percent who's actually from Portland,” Raymond jokes.
Gow says he’s in Portland because he wanted time to “investigate”. It’s something he didn’t get a chance to do in the two weeks spent recording Great Barrier Grief in Los Angeles with Crowded House producer Mitchell Froom. Hang on – to investigate? “Without the privilege or leisure of time, your first thought has to be your first thought,” he explains, “You don’t have the time to look into alternatives. You kinda have to live with what came first. A lot of the stuff that’s on the album has literally been the first thought, but there’s heaps of stuff that we had to labour over, audio-wise. It was a process of investigation.”
Gow and producer Burke Reid are the last two left in the house – drummer Rohan Sforcina and bassist Eliza Lam returned to Melbourne a few weeks back – and they’re into the home stretch. Only some mixing and revisions remain, before each returns to their respective cities: Gow to Melbourne, and former Gerling member Reid to Toronto, where he grew up before shifting to Australia aged 14. You can tell they’ve been here for a while. There are dishes stacked high in the sink and empty bottles of hazelnut beer from a local brewery and Pabst Blue Ribbon cans all over the place. Each Tuesday a guy called Kyle comes in and cleans the studio from top to toe, putting all the scattered guitar pedals in order. (I make a note about whether he’s supposed to do this.)
Reid is staying in an upstairs bedroom, while Gow occupies the ground-floor master. There are two more rooms downstairs and a rumpus room with weights, a big TV and another huge porch overlooking the forest. When he’s not watching Law & Order SUV on cable or playing Mario Kart on Super NES, Gow says he likes to go for runs through the forest while listening to the unfinished tracks. When Sforcina was in town they’d run six kilometres a day.
Sforcina and Lam’s role on the record cannot be underestimated. Where the band’s 2009 debut Privileged Woes was home-recorded and Great Barrier Grief was created with session musicians in Froom’s LA studio, Deep Heat is the first record featuring the line-up that’s coalesced around Gow since the departure of founding guitarist Thomas Savage in 2010. (Given the lack of guitars on the record, newest member Simon Okely, formerly of Perth’s The Preytells, wasn’t required for the sessions.)
Gow describes Lam, who he met in a supermarket in 2007, as the star of the record. She worked tirelessly on perfecting her bass parts, at one stage spending six hours on a single take. Her playing is nimble and charismatic, anchoring the deep groove of ‘Fever’ and providing some low-end character to ‘Rebel Beats’. There’s an economy to Sforcina’s playing that belies his years playing in Melbourne punk bands. He doesn’t use a single cymbal on the record.
“We didn’t want to bring any over, because we liked the idea of making a record with no cymbals on it,” says Gow. “We decided to just bring the ride over, and then FedEx lost it. It made the decision easier.”
Reflecting on the experience back home in Melbourne, Sforcina says Deep Heat sounds like the time they had in the house. “We’d work through until we’d felt like we’ve gotten enough work done, or everyone was stating to get a bit tired, and we’d sit at the control room, drink another 35 beers and listen to a whole bunch of music really loud, maybe play some Mario Kart. It was definitely a party in the house for the few of us that were there, and I hope it sounds like it.”
Burke Reid is telling a story about some visa woes as we work our way though another six pack of hazelnut beer. He forgot to apply for a US work visa and “half-concocted a really shit story” about taking a seven-week road-trip with friends. When it didn’t work, he fessed up to the customs agent that he was here to record an album with a band called Oh Mercy. The first thing that came up in Google was that they toured with Steve Winwood and Steely Dan.
“The customs officer Googled my name, but she didn’t know anything about music,” he says. “She was like [in an authoritative voice], ‘Who is Steely Dan?!’ I started laughing: ‘Um, they’re a big band that I’m not working with.’ ‘Well then, who’s Steve Winwood?’”
This is a rare moment of downtime for Reid, who spends most days behind the mixing console. Gow describes him as a trojan, and he more than lives up to it over the couple days I’m there. He says he approached Reid to record Deep Heat after hearing his work on Jack Ladder’s Hurtsville and The Drones’ Havilah. Before the pair went into the studio, Gow sent him a manifesto of sorts, detailing how he wanted the record to sound. Here’s an overview:
The groove will make or break the album.
The album will have more to do with hip-hop-inspired beats than Neil Young. (I love Neil Young).
When the guitar plays it should only add to the feel and expression of the track. Playing standard rhythm guitar though songs only takes up space.
The vocal delivery won’t be complex. It will have personality and be direct. Like Leonard Cohen with a bit of adolescent zeal.
Who says you can’t have a sexy, dangerous, foot-tapping song with great words?
Every sound should have a considered and effective intro.
There was a detailed inventory of instruments too, including: drums (a mixture of programmed and acoustic), bass guitar (with effects like flanger and delay), upright piano (played in an R&B fashion a la The Clash’s ‘Rock The Casbah’); congas and general percussion; one electric guitar per song; saxophone and flute.
The manifesto ends with a pep talk: “I want to challenge myself, and then push a little further. I want to challenge the musicians and then push a little further, I want push the envelope with the listener and then take it a little further. It’s time for me to be bold, embrace being young and the shit young people can get away with.”
An average day at Family Farm begins at 1pm, usually winding up anywhere between midnight and 2am. Over the past two months Gow and Reid have built a solid friendship built on trust and mutual respect. It was Reid that introduced Gow to Tapper Zukie’s Man Ah Warrior (ever-present in the studio, along with Jorge Ben’s Forca Bruta, Lost Animal’s Ex Tropical and The Clash’s Sandinista!).
Sometimes Gow leaves Reid to his own devices while he mucks around downstairs; other times he’s listening intently and making suggestions on a couch behind the mixing desk. Underlying the unorthodox vibe in the studio, the pair would sometimes listen to takes with the windows and doors open. “If you open up the front and back sliding doors, there’s a really nice breeze that comes through,” Gow says.
It’s my final full day at Family Farm, and Reid spends most of it on a effected kick drum part for ‘Deep Heat’. It reminds me of ‘Rock and Roll’ by Gary Glitter.
“What'd you do to the drums?” says Gow when we return from lunch in the city.
"I tweaked ‘em,” says Reid. “They sounded a bit slappy.”
Gow gives him a nod. “They sound great.”
As Gow checks his email downstairs, Reid and I discuss how it’s somehow become uncool to spend a lot of time in the studio – “It’s bullshit,” he says – and how mixing an album as colourful as Deep Heat is a constant process of “zooming in and zooming out”. He likens the process to a seafood buffet. “There's all this food but you can't eat everything,” he explains.
Steve Berlin is standing directly in front of the two monitors. He’s wearing a wallet chain and a baseball hat, and is here to collect his collection of vintage gear including a rare Boss pedal (a Spectrum SP-1 for the gear nerds) and a beat-up old Fender combo that I’m told is “priceless”. For now though he’s listening to a completed mix of ‘Pilgrim’s Blues’, an urgent shuffle that Gow penned in the studio. He plays a Hammond solo in the middle-eight. “I forgot it was even on there,” he says, laughing.
Philly-born, Portland-based Berlin is best known as a member of the eclectic Californian outfit Los Lobos, but has done session work for the likes of the Replacements (on Don’t Tell A Soul), Faith No More (he co-produced Introduce Yourself) and Portland natives the Dandy Warhols.
Berlin has just returned from Prince Albert in the Western Cape province of South Africa, where he’s been working with a group called Freshlyground. He’s friends with the studio owner and was one of the main reasons Oh Mercy came to Oregon. Berlin’s sax is all over the record: on the heavy rumble of ‘Fever’ and the Roxy Music-ish ‘My Man’. The latter, which sees Gow take on the persona of a crazed female lover, was the first song written for the record. Inspired by Paul Kelly’s memoir How To Make Gravy, he decided to write all 10 songs as a different character. “It opened up my eyes to a whole new way of writing songs,” he explains.
Berlin sticks around for two more listens as I pack for the airport: the dub-influenced ‘Still Making Me Pay’ (“I like the falsetto at the end,” he says. “Didn't see that coming!”) and ‘Deep Heat’, which Reid jokes he’s heard about 400 times. "It's a colourful album with lots of shit going on,” Reid says to Berlin. “Sounds like I missed all the fun,” he replies.
M+N PRESENTS OH MERCY’S ‘DEEP HEAT’ NATIONAL TOUR
Fri, Oct 19 - Bended Elbow, Geelong, VIC
Thurs, Oct 25 - The Hi Fi, Melbourne, VIC
Sat, Oct 27 - The Railway Club, Darwin, NT