German-Chilean techno vet Uwe Schmidt surprised many a decade ago when he stepped into the spotlight shaking his maracas as Señor Coconut. On Coconut’s debut 2000 album, El Baile Alemán, he revised German electro-pop godfathers Kraftwerk as a very un-robotic Latin dance band, stitching together samples of Latin dance records to unleash merengue, cumbia, and cha-cha-cha covers of “Trans Europe Express,” “Autobahn,” and other classics. The Señor is back with his second album, Around the World, on which he leads live musicians through rumba and mambo renditions of tunes by Daft Punk, Prince, and Eurythmics. XLR8R spoke to the Santiago resident about the Coconut touch.
XLR8R: I’ve read that your studio motto is “decoration instead of gear.”
Uwe Schmidt: [Laughs] During the last 20 years of making music, I’ve always found that it’s more important for me to focus on musical ideas. The tools are important, of course; it’s like any craft or art, and with the tools you build whatever you build. I wanted to reduce [my set-up] to a very specific tool and try to solve as much as possible with that tool. The pressure or limitation that comes from it, I’ve always found very inspiring. It’s always been a great source of inspiration to have almost no instruments or no tools at all, just one very powerful main tool. So, maybe it was like seven years ago when machines got smaller and smaller and more powerful, all of sudden I was sitting in a very big, empty room with just a pair of speakers. I had the idea of just making the [room] more comfortable–instead of buying more equipment, I’d buy more decorations.
What piece of studio gear is essential for the Señor Coconut sound?
Mainly Pro Tools. That’s the biggest portion of the sound. Also, I have reduced to using a set of two or three plug-ins and it’s nothing fancy either. It’s very good sound for a digital environment. I basically mixed the entire album with three plug-ins. The idea was to achieve a good recording in the studio so the mix wouldn’t need [to be] drastic or complicated. It’s like in the past, a little bit. I’m very impressed by the recordings from the ’50s and even before, where [studio] technology was really reduced… The idea was to not interfere too much with the recording; just obtain a good recording and try to treat the material as little as possible. It’s more about volume and very little frequency adjustment, and that was basically it.
When it comes to recording Latin instruments, were there any production techniques that you learned from studying Latin records or local musicians in Santiago?
We actually recorded German musicians in Cologne, so the recording process is very untypical; it’s not the way that one would expect it to be as a listener. You’d think, “Ah, it’s a band recording with Latinos playing or session musicians playing together.” It’s the opposite. After I laid out the basic idea of the songs, we wrote the scores and arrangements. And so we had sheets of notes and scores. Then we brought in one musician and just recorded notes. We never recorded the whole horn section and the bass player never played with the percussion player. They all played on top of a template I built. Afterwards, when I’m back with my material in my studio in Santiago, I cut it up and bring it into one template or have it sound as if they had really played together. I can say that I have really touched manually every single note on this album–every hit, every note. Everything which was played, I have at some stage moved or replaced or copied and pasted it to something else.
Many of the Señor Coconut recordings gave me the impression they were recorded live in a large music hall since there’s a bit of an echo in the sounds.
It’s not at all [laughs]. It’s really the opposite. It’s like slices and layers of musicians, some of them not knowing each other. Even sometimes the bass player is playing a different groove than the percussion player because they’re playing on a different template. So, very often, the whole recording sounds quite not together. To me, making music is a big puzzle or a patchwork of all kinds of elements, only audio files. That’s the fun part.
MP3: "Around the World"