Warn Defever, the man behind dream-rock-cum-experimental-blues project His Name Is Alive, has been manipulating all manner of sounds from what he calls "an ethical and moral perspective" for over 15 years. His early records, self-recorded projects that bear names like Livonia (after his suburban Detroit hometown) and Mouth by Mouth, helped to define the gauzy, ethereal sound of British indie label 4AD. But Defever has made so many unique twists and turns in his career (with an electro stint as Control Panel and solo work in the style of John Fahey's Americana) that it's near impossible to pin him to a single "sound." Following HNIA's exquisite Detrola, Defever has also taken on the task of recording new demos with the remaining Stooges. Here, he walks us through his studio and the production of Ann Arbor-based Afrobeat octet Nomo's New Tones.
XLR8R: The NOMO record was produced all over the Detroit, right?
Warn Defever: Yeah, it's a pretty put-together record. We started at United Sound. It's a historic studio. It had the deadest rooms you've ever seen and everything you did in there sounded good. We ended up having to bring a lot of our own stuff in, so it was almost like a field recording at that point. And when we started this, we were already recording all the NOMO shows... Sometimes when you've got a nine- or 10-piece band, and everyone's doing solos, you don't always get the right vibe. So, by recording the live shows, I thought we could mix and match, and take a solo from a live part and have it be a little less of a document of an event that really happened.
Is it difficult to record a brass band? Any tips?
The thing about any jazz or funk band, or any sort of improvised music, is you should have a room that sounds good. You shouldn't try to do it in your basement. The way I record, I don't have a technical background. I engineer from a moral and ethical perspective–that's my motto. It's about trying to figure out what's right. Recording is a series of choices, and I always try to be on the side of good.
How does that ethos apply to your early His Name Is Alive days, when you were recording in your house?
At that point, HNIA is at the opposite end of the spectrum from NOMO. It's me by myself, and I'm recording the most private, personal music that I could do. So, in that respect, if you're a solo artist and you're writing songs by yourself, and it's personal music, don't go to a studio. Don't pay a stranger $50 an hour to mess up your songs.
So how does your Brown Rice studio stack up against your basement in Livonia?
It's the best of both worlds. It's my private space. I've opened it just so I can be recording in a bigger room. Plus I kinda needed to get out of the house a little bit [laughs]. Having worked primarily at home for 15 years, I started having a growing aversion to recording and I found myself seeking out new locations to do field recordings. I went to Japan and did a really nice recording at a 500-year-old Buddhist temple and I did some recordings in the Everglades...
What kind of setup did you use?
Sometimes a portable DAT. Sometimes a portable Pro Tools rig. Sometimes just a MiniDisc recorder.
What does the portable Pro Tools rig consist of?
I use the Digidesign 002 rack mount [unit] running through a Mac laptop. Is that a technical question? C'mon, I work from a moral and ethical perspective [laughs].
What did you first start recording on?
His Name Is Alive covered every base. The first album was done on a [Tascam-type] cassette four-track, which grew to an eight-track reel-to-reel to 24 tracks of ADAT. I've been using Pro Tools now for almost 13 years. I can edit faster than anyone else [laughs].
What are the most important pieces of gear in your studio?
Well, the Electro Harmonix Micro Synth. Everything goes through that at some point or another. Any kind of bass drum or bass, and any time there's a guitar or synthesizer.
An Altec 436C–a tube preamp. During the NOMO process, one thing that I noticed is that they're all really good players, and sometimes I wanted to bring it down a notch; I thought it was too good... We had to process it and give it just a little bit more character, where you can hear the struggle between what the person's playing and their ability to record it. A lot of times [I'll use] an old tube preamp, just to take the edge off.