The Making of Mother Mother’s The Sticks

I have always wanted to track the creation of an album. Begin with the first glimmer of song ideas, and follow it throughout the entire process. What is the timeline of an album? How much prep goes into it even before hitting the studio? And how much input does a label have during the course of this work of art?

The opportunity to chat with Mother Mother leader Ryan Guldemond seemed like the perfect chance to try out this interview template. The Canadian indie rockers, who will be in Sioux Falls next Tuesday (4/9) as part of the Awolnation show at The Vault, hit the Top 10 of the Canadian album charts with their third album, 2011’s Eureka. Having earned a bit of commercial and critical clout, Guldemond set his sights on creating an old-school concept album that their wikipedia page claims “deals with the notions of isolation, escapism, and withdrawal from society”.

I’ve included the transcript of the entire conversation. Yes, it’s long, but it should be fascinating to anybody who is infatuated with modern day music making.

Q: How long after an album’s release, in this case Eureka, do you begin thinking about the next album, which turned out to be The Sticks?

A: For me, personally, it’s directly after the last album. Sometimes it’s even during the recording of the prior album. But I bet that’s the case for most bands, or recording artists. It doesn’t seem like there is ever enough time to get it together. I guess it’s the classic thing that making a record is just a crash course in how you want to make your next one.

Q: In this era of individual song downloading, do you even still think in terms of albums?

A: We definitely did on this one, but I totally embrace the singularity of modern times. And I kind of like it, in certain aspects. I think there’s a lot of power in a lone entity in the case of a song, so I don’t like to discriminate against the approach. The Sticks, however, was definitely an album we wanted to make in the classic sense - very lyrically thematic and long, with an introduction and a reiteration of the introduction in the last song. Stuff like that. That’s what we wanted to do because it felt right, organic, and inspiring.

I guess that’s really the question - what’s inspiring. Is it doing a bunch of singles and staggering their releases? Does that get your blood flowing? If yes, then do that. If you want to make a record in the old way, then that’s what you do. I think people get too caught up in weighing the modern approach to the classical approach. They just need to remember that it doesn’t matter as long as they’re people are fueling their presentation with inspiration.

Q: Do you set aside some time to come up with material?

A: I try not to do that because it can stump you a little bit. I think the creative process is a very liquid, abstract, perpetual thing. I like it best when it knocks on my door uninvited.

Q: So you’re not like Nick Cave who goes into an office every day and writes from nine to five?

A: I would love to do that if my life was structured that way. That would be fun. But when I have “punched out” it’s not like that antenna would shut down.

Q: Did you record demos of these new songs? When do you present them to the band?

A: Yeah, I record demos and I present them as soon as possible. Usually, it’s as soon as they’re complete, at least in the structural sense. Sometimes the vision is vast, and sometimes it’s murky. “I don’t know how the song should take shape” versus “oh, I have an idea for the finishing touch”. I try to leave it open, and at the same time nurture a sense of collaboration with the band in bringing the songs to life, because that’s important as well. I think the most important thing is that when an idea is born and it comes from a good place, it should always be seen and regarded and chased after.

Q: So you have an album or so of material. Is this where the label steps in? How much input did you have when it comes to picking a studio, producer, or even the time frame of when you record?

A: It varies. Certain records are really pinnacle, like your sophomore record. That’s a record you might want to take some time on, unless, of course, you break and you reach critical mass. It seems like then the model is to always follow up as soon as possible, to keep that wave of momentum going. For bands that aren’t that lucky, there are certain records that have more strategy behind it, like the sophomore record. The third record might also be a record you take more time on.

With this record, we wanted to make it as soon as possible because the fire was there. The interest in the band’s camp was there, and the management nurtured that idea, too. The label was kind of indifferent to that timing. They sort of went along with it, and they didn’t even interject too much on the creative side of things. Not that they ever had too much success on that front. (laughs) They’ve said things like “you don’t have a single. Maybe you should write more”. We would always kind of say, “we have plenty of singles, and the writing is over. Let’s do this.” Which is a nice place to be, as there is no better way to snuff out the creative spark than putting parameters based on commercial viability.

I kind of get a sense that with the next record it will be nice to take a minute and think about stuff because it will be our fifth record. There’s something nice about each mark of a discography having its own flavor and importance. When bands have like ten or twelve records, it becomes a murky soup of wandering sounds. I definitely don’t want that to happen.

Q: How much prep time did you do with the band before recording?

A: I would say two months is about the time we give ourselves to really get in there and be in the mindset of making a record. Even if we’re not playing the tunes, we’re talking about it. We’re thinking about it, and it all feels very imminent. I think that just helps a lot. Sometimes you can do the most effective rehearsing by embodying the essence of the thing coming up. Not necessarily playing or working out the kinks.

So two months early is when the discourse starts to come up, but then a month prior is when you have the rigid rehearsals. It all becomes very compartmentalized with us. I’ll work with the guys, and we’ll figure out the grooves and foundation. Then I’ll work with the girls to figure out the three-part harmonies, which is an elaborate of options and best to do in a quiet place with just the three of us. Then there’s other elements like keyboards, and how that bounces off the rhythm section. So there’s lots of different pockets of synergy, and interaction, and variables. The rehearsing can branch out into all of these different configurations. It can get a bit complex, until finally we get into a room and see what kind of a mess we made.

Q: You’re now in the studio. Were the songs recorded piece by piece, or does the band put down a basic track that you then add parts?

A: We had the luxury on this record of being in one big room the whole time, which is something that we have not typically done. That was a really beautiful platform for spontaneity, and also for irrational approaches to recording music. You’re not pressured to get all of the meat and potatoes done in a week because you have to move to a smaller studio. We kind of just bounced around and just felt what the song was asking for from one to the next. If a song needed more of a live feel, we’d do that track together. If it was easier or more focused to do a multi-tracking thing, starting with drums, we’d do that. The whole idea was to not put a stamp on how we’d do stuff, and just let the songs dictate.

Q: Do you ever find yourself with songs that you initially thought should go in one direction, but being in the studio brings a different feel or direction?

A: Yeah, the title track, “The Sticks”, got pretty bombastic, ambient, and dirty. There was always a hint of that in the first demo, but I didn’t think it would get so hairy. I’m not disappointed. It kind of serves the track quite well. But that’s probably the most pronounced example of such a thing.

Q: Is recording enjoyable for you? I know some people find it painstakingly boring, and would rather just be on the road, but others thrive in the environment. Which camp are you in?

A: I think they really are connected. I try to embrace both camps because they are very important. The thing with studios, and this applies to both realms, is that you’re never going to get as good as you want to get inside that world. Maybe recording is the place where you most feel that, as there are so many different ways at capturing sounds, stacking them up, and producing stuff. I produce music for other people, and try to get inside the microphonic landscape as much as I can. Truly, the more you know, the less you know. Hearing the way someone else captures their music just turns your methodology on its ear  I like the studio for that, as I’m really driven to be better at it.

It’s an isolated world, and you’re giving spark of an ideal, as opposed to presenting the idea, which is the live format. Which is so fun as well, as you kind of understand it at that point. It’s like you birth a child and you’re figuring out the core of its personality, but it is only until it has a personality that you can really repartee and banter. That applies to the live format. With a lot of our songs, we know them so well that they’re good buddies and we can joke around and flirt with things in the moment. It’s a really beautiful thing.

Q: Many artists have a hard time acknowledging the recording is finished. When do you know the album is completed, and that any more tinkering is a waste of time?

A: I’m definitely getting better at that. The tinkering can go on forever, especially in the mixing world. I’ve ran into tracks where it can get a bit counter-productive in that cyclical sense. You create your sonic structure with the right ingredients, and then you give it to the “chef”, and how he chooses to bring it to fruition is so subjective. It is a real catalyst for nitpicking.

Q: In this entire process, is the label still in touch? Are you sending them rough mixes? Do they come back with suggestions, or is it a hands-off situation with them?

A: People, and (ironically) label people especially, are not going to see it when you give them the drums, bass, and scratch guitar and vocals. They’re going to say it’s all wrong. Well, of course it’s all wrong. It’s unfinished, but it’s pointing in a direction. It seems like only the people making the record, or astute producers and artists who are savvy in the studio, can look at a rough sketch and see where it’s pointing. You don’t need that kind of confused energy when you’re in the thick of it. So we try not to bring external forces into that fertile ground of exploration.

Q: Once you have a completed album, how do you coordinate the release date? Do you have input?

A: That’s definitely more the label’s thing, but having done so much we understand what will take place. Generally, four months of setup is about right. We sort of start taste-making it, and planting seeds by talking to radio and picking a single, which can invariably come out before it is released so there is a bit of steam and buzz. You talk to your agent to map out your tours, and try to be as international as possible when you do that. You look ahead and make sure that Europe, America, and Canada can work together in harmony. It’s the kind of thing where you don’t know enough about it as an artist, because you don’t care enough about it. You’re too busy doing what you need to do, which is make the music, perform the music, buy new guitar pedals, and making sure the band is all on the same page.

Q: Besides touring, you have to find ways to get the word out on the record. Videos, radio appearances, placements in commercials and TV shows, social media. What appears to be the best way these days to let people know about the album?

A: I guess social media. Being active on those fronts helps. That world is a world for everybody. The whole world is looking at cyberspace, so if you’re on there rampantly you never know who is going to stumble across it. That’s how a lot of stuff has gotten out and broken through. It doesn’t just have to be cyberspace, though. It’s just the unrelenting intention of furthering your thing in whatever possible way you can. It’s kind of more like an attitude than it is necessarily one medium to the next being better. I get more fuel with that ravenous appetite to spread the word and help this thing grow, and just constantly projecting positivity into becoming a success really helps. The rest is pixie dust and cosmic intervention.

Q: It’s now approximately six months past the album’s release. Are you already looking ahead to the next record?

A: Yeah, creatively for sure. I’m not sure exactly how it  is going to come out, or when it is going to come out, but creatively it has already been on my mind a lot.