The Hold Steady studio diary - Stay Positive - #2

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I’ll start again. The Hold Steady  tours a ton. They supported Boys And Girls In America with a gusto that few bands could. Craig had said in interviews that he’s been approached by fans that thank them for being one of the very few who actually enjoy playing for the crowd. Kids just wanna have fun and what better way than to see a band that is having fun?


But man, what dividends that many shows bring a band. Through the years, they have been followed by a rabid fanbase. They call themselves “The Unified Scene.” Their ranks have grown by every show, tour and record. It is a symbiotic relationship, where both parties feed off each other. While making Staying Positive, Tad posted weekly picture updates on the website to let the fans know how the record was progressing. The Scene was always posting messages and feeding off the clues that Tad would leave them. Even little clues like writing on the console tape would lead to speculation who was guesting on the record or what instruments were being used. These kids really love their band and devote much time to them. And vice versa.


The first day of tracking couldn’t have come too soon. After rehearsing most of December, everybody took the holidays off. At least I did. Tad and the boys made sure to get a few more rehearsals in before the big day, January 3rd. We really felt good about being prepared for this record. Even though we had a remarkable 19 songs we were discussing recording, we felt that we had fleshed out the 13-15 contenders enough to get the job done while leaving some room for spontaneity. With these boys though, spontaneity is never really an issue!


focusing on 12 songs. But here’s what happens at The Hold Steady  rehearsals:


(John enters rehearsal room)


“Hey guys, how’s it going today?”


Tad: “Great, I’ve got this new riff I’m working on!


(Plays enormous rock riff)


“Wow, that’s great! Let’s work on that a little bit.”


It was pretty clear that starting the record before Christmas was going to be a pipe dream.


It is the morning of January 3rd and things are all in place to start tracking. Demon Drums are ready to go with fresh heads on Bobby’s kit in the big room at Water Music. Scott Norton, my tracking engineer, was at the studio super early setting up microphones and plugging in all the extra equipment. The beautiful Studer A800 24 track analogue tape machine was aligned and ready to go. I had bought a bunch of 2” tape when my favorite tape company prepared to stop production. I had saved a large batch for this record.


Bobby Drake is hitting the drums and I am getting sounds. I generally get a good starting sound on the entire kit and Bobby comes in to listen back. The drum sound will be affected by the inclusion of the rest of the band playing, but you’ve got to start somewhere. After discussing the tones of the drums and agreeing with Tad that the bass drum should have more depth, we tweak that drum and we send Bobby back out to play some more.


Bobby, on this record, is showing what playing 200 shows does to most players. His playing and feel are so much more solid right off the bat on this record. He is way more comfortable, with me, with the studio and the task at hand on Stay Positive. Don’t get me wrong, he was no slouch on the last record. There was just some adjustment time for him to get “in the zone.”


on arrangements and different tweaks that we do. He’s the steady in The Hold Steady. We go between two basses to see which one sounds best and then we hook up an additional amp to add more of a brighter sound and then we threw Bobby out there so they could jam together.


They are playing for only about 20 seconds when I turn to Scott and say, “Dude, these guys are gonna play their asses off on this record!” I am very excited.


We get sounds with Tad Kubler, “Gibson Master Extraordinaire.” Tad is great at dialing in awesome sounds on many amps and has been actually playing through each amp all morning, getting a mental picture of which amps suit which songs. He makes my life waaaaaaay easier. And that’s why I love him. Not in the biblical sense, obviously. I meant, “love working with him.”


Next up, Franz Nicolay. With Franz, we set up all beautiful, vintage, analogue, authentic, etc. keyboards. A beautiful Grand Piano, a Hammond Organ with Leslie and a Wurlitzer Electric Piano.

Lest you think I’m a vintage snob, we also have his shitty digital keyboard for any other sounds we need to replicate. That’s sarcasm. We actually will use the digital keys on the record.


Franz is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Or vice versa. He is a school trained musician with a great ear who can also rock out with the best of them. And he does. He is in The Hold Steady. A few weeks later he will chart great string arrangements and play a mean harpsichord.


All that’s left is reference vocals. At least I’m calling them reference vocals. I really felt strongly about putting Craig in a situation where he was actually thinking of the real vocal takes while the band was playing live. For a few reasons. I wanted to capture a live vocal that would be great for the record. I wanted him to start getting comfortable singing the songs now, so he wouldn’t have to do that when we started the vocal session later on. Also, I wanted him to give him a vehicle that would help him finish his lyrics. And I wanted to audition different microphones for different songs.


So we set up the vocal sound that could be the keeper sound with a bit of tweaking.


And now we were ready to cut our first track, “Adderall.”

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