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Published: 2013/05/31
by David Steinberg

Featured Column: Defending the Album: A Night in the studio with Shook Twins and The Shook Twins

Washington State Route 522 starts pretty inauspiciously at its terminus at Interstate 5. Winding through northeastern Seattle, it’s an endless series of strip clubs and used car lots, bikini baristas [1] and medical marijuana [2]. The road leaves town, descending towards Lake Washington and the seven figure homes that overlook it, crosses the spur route to the suburbs, and suddenly becomes a freeway. Instead of urban sprawl, it’s an express route to the glory that is White Pass.

The first town after the changeover is Woodinville, WA. Known for wineries and a restaurant that serves nine course meals off of a menu that changes daily, it’s the kind of town that can make urban dwellers look at their lives and wonder how they went wrong. It’s close enough to the software mills of the Eastside to be commutable but the houses are deep within the woods. One of those properties is Bear Creek Studio where Shook Twins were having a three-week recording residency.

Bear Creek is one of the treasures of the Seattle music scene. Artists from local club favorites like Living Daylights and Zony Mash’s Wayne Horvitz to Foo Fighters and Soundgarden have recorded there. An innocent question like asking if a room has good acoustics to record stomping, could lead to the response, Ever heard of a song called ’Ho Hey?’ Even if you ignore the history, the setting is just ridiculously stunning. While waiting to be let in – the first rule of visiting the studio was to not knock on the door lest that sound ruin a track – I just watched a rabbit chilling out and posing for pictures. Deer regularly swing by (perhaps to update their Cervidae music blogs [3]) and there’s a pond that’s a popular frog hangout. It was enough to make me want to pick up an instrument and start writing a song [4].

While I had a chance to pick the Shooks’ brains over topics as important as why the band is called Shook Twins instead of The Shook Twins [5] and who they would have cover one of their songs if they could have a choice [6], but what I was most curious about was what they were doing with their three full weeks immersed constantly in the studio. Would they be recording tons of songs and deciding which would be the best for the album or would it be about perfecting a smaller number? While the question was immediately answered, the better reaction was when we left the lounge and went into the studio area.

If you’ve never been in a professional recording studio, you need to somehow find a way to do it just once in your life. It doesn’t even matter if anyone is recording there or not. Just get them to play anything that had actually been created there so they still might have the master files. Normally, I’d be quite excited just to hear the vocals from a song I’d never heard before – “Demons,” which just might be about a procrastinating werewolf. This time it wasn’t just my ears that were affected. The music took over the whole room with a terrifying power that made my reasonably expensive home setup sound like listing to 78s through a Victrola. Listening to the stunning harmonies through that system reminded just how potent music can be. You could imagine this being played over a battlefield and having the soldiers drop their weapons because the noise was distracting them from total immersion.

The speaker quality doesn’t exist just to shock naïve reporters over just how good reproduced music can sound [7]. This is a working session after all. Once the tracks are separated, the band can listen to them in isolation and together and argue over how they are working. Why were they in the studio for three weeks? The goal was to perfect a small group of songs, and that’s exactly what they were going to do. There was a long debate over whether a subtle melodic riff in “Shake” was worth keeping or not. The conversation went back and forth, discussed in great detail, when the fact is that when the song was actually going to be played with all of the tracks, the vast majority of the attention of the listener would be on the vocals – removed from what we were listening at the time – warning us that the Earth is gonna shake. Proper fear of an apocalyptic earthquake might distract us from correct appreciation of a well-placed fill. It was the argument though, that showed why the album still must exist, even if it’s the suboptimal way to monetize music in the 21st century.

Bob Lefsetz loves to argue that the era of the album is over [8]. What bands need to do is just produce a lot of songs quickly, saturate the market with constant songs, and hope that a few of them would become viral. He thinks our short attention spans need constant stimulation lest we get bored and forget about an artist. Seeing Shook Twins work ridiculously hard in the studio to perfect their songs, made me see just how wrong that idea is. He’s right about a different point of his: in an era where music is omnipresent, where we can listen to the vast majority of the songs ever recorded at any moment via Spotify or You Tube, where no one ever feels compelled to listen to an album fifteen times in a row in order to get it because that’s the only album they can afford to buy for the week and so they better keep giving it chances, the problem isn’t finding music to listen to, it’s being able to filter out the dross and focus limited attention on the best songs out there. That’s exactly what this studio time is doing for Shook Twins.

Their goal wasn’t to decide between songs, but to tighten up the material they had. Reference speakers don’t lie. If there were problems with songs, they would become stunningly apparent. By the end of the session, they would know this material incredibly well. They would know where parts can be added and where it’s best to leave it sparse. They would go down wrong paths and then discover approaches that would be better. It’s not just about producing and perfecting this album; it’s about improving their live versions of these songs and finding a way of reaching their full potential. Ever since I saw them playing at the Peacock Radio Station backstage at the String Summit, I knew that Shook Twins really had the chance to be something special. They have the talent, they have songwriting ability – and adding Anna Tivel to the roster just makes that even stronger – and incredibly fun personalities that make you want to just watch the band and see their shows. This video of Niko dancing in the studio is a great example but it’s not an act. This is who they are and it comes off in their shows. Having the time to perfect their material gives them an almost unfair advantage. I don’t know if they’ll ever become rich or even that famous in this era of stratification but these weeks in the studio gave them their best chance to create something that will inspire repeat listens. It’s that potential that will keep the idea of the album alive.

[1] When I first moved to Seattle in 1995, there were espresso carts on many street corners. The omnipresence of Starbucks, Tully’s, and SBC destroyed that business model and only the neighborhood coffee shop stood between the Emerald City caffeine connoisseur and monoculture. Then the computer revolution had a most unexpected side effect. As film was replaced by digital, the Fotomat film development kiosks had no real purpose. Those spaces got converted to java joints. As these multiplied, there became a need for market differentiation. And thus was born the scantily clad coffee quick stop. It seemed like a good idea but then everyone moved to create these. For a while there were no service industry jobs available other than bikini baristas. It since has died out some thankfully.

[2] Seattle’s alternative magazine had an article about an unfortunate side effect of the legalization law. The zoning requirements leave very few areas where the stores can be located. One noticeable exception was the four-mile stretch of 522 within city limits. It had multiple sections that would be perfectly legal. It is indeed the Highway to Hell!

[3] Titled, “Herbavores Play Well Cause the Notes Didn’t Ever Run,” it focuses largely on Crazy Horse recordings along with covers of “Dear Prudence.” It also gives bad reviews to all Fleet Foxes recordings.

[4] At one point, I did examine a one handed triangle. While I was successful at getting it to make a sound of some sort, you’d have to be massively grasping at straws to call it music.

[5] Was there any chance you weren’t going to check this out to find the answer? The difference is that the Shook twins are Katelyn and Laurie Shook but Shook Twins are the band that also currently has Anna Tivel, Kyle Volkman, Niko Daoussi, Russ Kleiner. Niko is a Shook Twin but he is most definitely not one of the Shook twins. It’s a logical distinction but it is next to impossible to leave out the “the” when writing “Shook Twins” in a sentence.

[6] Bjork playing “Demons” (or any of their songs), “Time to Swim” arranged by Mozart, or Dylan performing “Hooks.”

[7] Note: the music played through the speakers was digital by the way. I know that people love to talk about how records are superior to all other recording possibilities, but I’ve now heard what digital music can deliver given the right bandwidth. As soon as Apple makes a 10-terabyte iPod, I’m all about switching my music collection to 24 bit wav files. They’d sound amazing in those free ear buds, right?

[8] In his defense, he frequently talks about how bands can make money, not how they can create artistic masterpieces. If given a choice between becoming rich or creating a lasting work, I wonder how many would prefer the former. Perhaps more than I’d like.

*****

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

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