Houston rock band Crimson Arrow is an exemplification of contrasts, blending the passionate emotions of post-hardcore with the visceral rawness of indie rock, to create a sound that feels fresh yet intimate. In advance of the release of their album Living In Still Frames, out May 13th, I caught up with lead singer Rocky Nelson and guitarist Jon Januhowski to discuss the new album, the band’s recording process, artistic inspiration, and more. You can also check out the song “Kings”, off of Living In Still Frames, below.
Alex: The recording process for the album wasn’t straightforward. You actually recorded extensively with an outside producer, Garron DuPree, then scrapped most of those recordings and re-recorded on your own. Can you describe some of that process?
Rocky Nelson: So what happened is, we decided to track in Tyler at Max Bemis’ home studio with Garron DuPree, who’s the bass player for Say Anything and Eisley. He actually lives in Sugar Land, a little further south from where we live outside of Houston. He found us online one day and we got talking, and we decided he’d be a good option. So we booked two weeks of recording time, and actually ended up only recording one week, got everything done pretty quickly actually. I sang in Max Bemis’ daughter’s closet, it was pretty interesting. The house is a little creepy, but with a really old-time feel… very artistic, lots of crazy art all over the walls and dolls in the house… it was a really interesting experience.
R: We did that in August 2014, and then Jon and Erick ended up upgrading their rigs, so they re-did some guitar parts; Levi got a new bass so he redid his parts; and Michael ended up re-recording drums with one of my friends here in Austin.
A: So at what point did you guys decide to move from recording with an outsider producer to essentially self-producing most of the record?
Jon Januhowski: Most of the self-producing was just because it’s really easy to record guitar and bass. You can’t really mess up on those if you know at all what you’re doing. But drums are really difficult to do well, and for vocals we didn’t really need to re-do anything. There are a couple lines now that Rocky sings differently or where one word is changed… but it didn’t seem worth it to re-record. So it was really just easier than going back up to Tyler or booking studio time to re-record.
A: So a lot of that probably came from you guys making changes as you went and being perfectionists about the tracks?
J: Yeah, that or really different ideas. Like Rocky was saying, we had updated our rigs, so I had a different amp, we had a bunch of different pedals… and as we started playing the songs live more often, we started hearing them differently, if that makes sense. For example, maybe we would accidentally leave a pedal on for a certain part and decide we actually liked how it sounded, or I’d play something cleaner, or Erick and I would just change a part entirely by one note. So over time it became that we’d rather have the newer versions on the record.
R: We’ve kind of always operated like that. We’re always a work in progress until we put everything out.
A: Two of the band members, including you Jon, are audio engineers. How does that additional experience affect the recording process?
J: Mostly negatively in terms of time. [laughs] Because it was really easy on any given day for Levi to come over and be like, “Hey, I was playing through the record and I want to change this note on “Kings”, and I’d be like “Sure, I get out of class at 10, come over.”
R: “Is that a C or a B?”
J: Yeah, exactly. [laughs] It was so easy to keep changing things. And in a way that’s really nice, because I know a lot of bands that will get their records back — professional, local, whatever — and the first thing that they decide is “Well, I guess that’s just how it is”, and even if there’s something you want to change, you kind of just hold to it and “Stockholm Syndrome” yourself into liking it, or thinking it’s fine. So with us, we got to just keep doing it over and over again. If you count my rough mixes of the record, there are probably, like, 30 mixes of every song. [laughs] It’s really stupid.
A: So since you have that audio engineering experience, Jon, what advice would you give to other bands in your situation that are maybe up-and-coming… would you recommend self-producing, or working with an outside producer if that’s an option?
J: I think it comes down to the band dynamic, as well as whether the members themselves have audio or production experience. Some people never really think about why a record is placed in the track order that it is, or don’t critically listen to full albums — this is just from the production standpoint, not the engineering side. And it’s hard to have that inside the band if it’s not the person controlling everything — or if the whole band isn’t really in agreement about how that’s going to work. Everyone’s gotta be on the same page, whatever that page is.
A: So on that note, are there any specific examples of the band’s background in audio engineering and perfectionism causing delays or disagreements?
J: Rocky double-tracked all of his singing, and there were multiple microphones — between all the transfers, sometimes there were little audio blips, so we had to piece together the tracks where there weren’t any little blips, or microphone pops, and those sorts of things. On guitar, there was a little bit of disagreement about certain parts, and every now and then there would be a third guitar part — there would always be disagreements about whether it was too loud, whether it should even be there, that sort of thing. Erick is a master of hearing… apparent mistakes that no one else has ever heard. [laughs]
R: And the thing is… it would be like the slightest… absolute little ticks, but he’s just so in tune with himself and his guitar and is like, “That’s like a sixteenth note off”, and the rest of us are like “I guess”… and then you go and compare it line for line against the version he played earlier and realize he’s right, it’s a sixteenth off, don’t know how that happened, but it did! [laughs]
J: That happened on the choruses of the song “Autumn Leigh”… he re-recorded that and I think that was the last update of the record before it was finalized.
R: Besides the drum thing in “Antiquate”.
J: Oh yeah, so what happened with “Antiquate” was… We had gotten three or four mixes deep — we were just about done with it. Our drummer had finally gotten the chance to sit down and listen to everything critically, and starts freaking out in the group chat. He’s like “These are edited wrong!” — also for the record, every album you’ve ever heard that’s not a lo-fi record is edited to death. There’s vocal tuning on Thrice records, drum editing on Death Cab for Cutie and DGD records… just to defend our name. [laughs]
J: So yeah, apparently the drums had been time-edited wrong, and once again everyone else was like “What are you talking about?”. And then he said some crazy drummer thing — he was like “Top sixteenth notes, those triplets aren’t supposed to line up on the snare.”
R: It was a swing section, where the rest of the band’s playing really ambient-ly, and he actually switches from playing straight eighth notes into a swing feel, which is more of a triplet inside of the four.
J: Where you get the “one-two-three, one-two-three”… that kind of feel.
R: Yeah, the hop-and-skip kind of feel you get with jazz. So the editing had come down where it was straight on the sixteenth notes, and it was crushing the swing feel into being straight four-four. So once again, Micheal was totally right, but it was something I hadn’t even thought about even though I watched him record the majority of the drums again.
J: And the rest of us had been listening to four different versions of the record over time, and no one else had caught it. So we had to get the engineer who recorded drums, and have him re-send this passage of the song unedited just to not have to go through the trouble of re-recording, and then send that back to the mixing engineer, and then put that in the song.
R: But on that note, we’ve kind of always been a slow-burning band. I’d rather we get things done well and take our sweet time than rush and be unhappy with the product. In retrospect, on our last two records, there were a few things where after we put it out we were like, “I guess that’s just how it is”. We don’t have the liberty of being Kanye West and editing an album after we release it. There’s so much time, money, effort, and emotional stress that goes into a record — so if you aren’t happy with the way it is you should change it.
Stay tuned for part two of my conversation with Rocky and Jon… where we discuss the themes of the record, Rocky’s lyrical inspirations, and the album’s guest vocalists.