With a look at their influences and the gear they used on the record
Hobart-born four-piece group Bitumen’s sophomore album ‘Cleareye Shining’ is out November 26 and we got the chance to chat with them about all things recording, equipment, and production in light of Melbourne’s lockdowns.
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They will continue churning out their industrial, electronic, metallic-edged music, combining guitars with synths, samples, electronic drums, and alternatively confrontational and melancholic vocals. Bitumen is known for its expansive sound, with the result of 80s maximalism meeting 90s industrial-electro.
Read our full chat below.
First off, how are you doing at the moment?
Thanks for asking, and for showing interest in our record!
As I’m writing this we’re a couple of weeks out of lockdown in Melbourne, and I’m surprised how quickly I’ve gotten used to getting out and about. Pretty happy to now be at a stage where we can release a record and play a launch alongside it to hopefully a standing crowd, so very much looking forward to that.
Did your recording process change in light of the lockdowns?
I think COVID really just allowed us to reassess what we wanted from the album, it forced us to take many steps back from it… many extended breaks. At no point were we working on stuff remotely, we weren’t interested in going that route – we all needed to be in the same room.
Lockdowns always seemed to come right as we were about to get onto the next stage… we’d finished demos by the start of 2020, so we then started recording in a little space we set up in a storage shed. I distinctly remember that we had just finished tracking out our kicks, individually treated samples recorded through a Drawmer valve EQ, and had just moved onto hi-hats, you know, pedantic stuff, and then mid-March rolled around.
We were lucky to be commissioned for the record by Flash Forward, so we were able to keep the studio throughout 2020 and this year, with locks on the door and dust gathering, and at various points between lockdowns we got through our drums, bass, guitars, and a few synths.
Once we finished our bed tracks we had Alex Akers work on our drum tracks further giving a bit of extra percussive variation and giving some extra impact where needed.
We booked a few dates at The Aviary for vocals, piano, various other bits and pieces just to be in a nice, well equipped space to polish off tracking and force ourselves to work on it for a condensed period of time.
We passed our finished sessions off to Mike Deslandes, a fantastic engineer, and at this point we had sessions with sometimes upwards of 100 tracks in each… ridiculous. This was after a bunch of session management and cleanup too. Coming back to the record at various points with fresh ears just meant that we were able to push more and more into each track. I don’t think this would have been the case if we were putting this record together without COVID floating around.
Mike did a wild job pulling some clarity and sharpness from our excess, and it was great to pass off the record to someone else after more than two years of working on it and driving ourselves a little mad.
Where do you and the band draw your influences from?
Ooof, that’s a hard one… we were all listening to a bunch of different stuff at the time, but definitely with some commonalities in there.
Myself, I’m a huge Justin Broderick fan: Godflesh, JK Flesh, Curse of the Golden Vampire. That’s maybe a bit of inspiration in my bass, but this also fed into listening to a bunch of older breakbeat, jungle, techno and acid: 808 State, Aphrodite, LFO, Goldie – a fair bit of the Metalheadz stuff.
Before COVID we were still going in a more electronic direction but perhaps it was darker, and more in line with industrial electronic stuff, or more ethereal post-whatever: Clock DVA, The Invincible Spirit, Pink Industry. COVID brought a bit more light into what we were listening to strangely… maybe it was craving going to a club.
East & West by Anna Domino was also pretty important, I remember listening to that a lot when we were writing a bunch of the tracks. Dead Can Dance is another big one for me personally.
We are still very much a rock band though. There’s a bit of Primal Scream in there, maybe some Oasis, a bunch of metal. We aren’t intentionally trying to reference any eras or genres really, but if it comes out we’re not going to shy away from it.
What pieces of gear used in recording your new album helped craft your sound?
We wanted to take our time a little more, produce something more shiny, bright and direct, a bit more of a 90’s aesthetic. We set up a small studio space in a storage shed where we could spend a bunch of time not just rehearsing but demoing tracks properly, refining ourselves a little more, and then begin recording. We barely scratched the surface with expanding into synths and looking at the depth of our production last time, acoustic guitars, pianos, synth orchestras, that type of thing, so we could just have it all there and ready to go this time around.
To list out a bunch of stuff we used throughout: Soyuz 017 on booth vocals, SM7b on handheld, TC Mic Mechanic; Fender and Fernandez Strats, Gibson S1; Rickenbacker 4001 bass; Waldorf Microwave XT, Korg TR-Rack, Juno, MicroKorg, Rare Waves Hydronium; Synthstrom Deluge, MPC 2000XL, Polyend Tracker.
At The Aviary we had a great time with the RE-201 space echo too. We spent a lot of time riding it live while Kate was tracking vocals.
Any interesting recording techniques you used on the new record you’d like to share?
We really didn’t try anything too crazy this time around.
Our last record, Discipline Reaction, was recorded in four days in a great space called Magnet in Coburg North. We wanted to try just slamming ourselves (figuratively) into the huge concrete walls, and put it together live, no headphones, fold-back monitors blasting.
I was pretty interested at the time in how much rejection we could achieve through clever placement of microphones in relation to monitor wedges, and not using any artificial reverb and purely relying on the space. It was a chance to experiment with a really unique recording environment, and to see how nasty we could get it.
I think upon reflection and these newer songs, we were happy to leave that as its own thing. This time around it was more-so an exercise in excess, and going down a more standard pop production route.
We did a bunch of reamping into the larger room at The Aviary, particularly of synths – you can hear that pretty strongly on the track ‘Envelopes Full’. We obsessively recorded a DI track of all the guitars throughout the process to give us further options down the track, so there were some times when we were reamping a take from a year ago.
With drums, the first demo we used an Alesis SR-16; Discipline Reaction an MPC 2000XL with drum samples recorded in the space played by our great friend Al Anglais; and this time we had so much more at our disposal and just used it all. We did a bit of break chopping here too, performing on the MPC. Most of the sequencing was done with the Deluge, and any pitch variation stuff, like with Hi-Hats we did with the Polyend Tracker.
How do you go about translating your studio recordings to the stage?
When we first started performing many years ago we would use the drum machine on the record live. Initially that was the SR-16, and then the MPC 2000XL. I always felt a bit hesitant to have the MPC on stage, but particularly tour with it, because of how fragile it is. It also took a while to navigate and load different tracks, and we were limited with introducing other samples and playing with our post-produced tracks.
I use these devices for exhibition sound installations, a ‘WavePlayer8’ made by Erik Schieweck in Germany. They’re super compact, very simple and allow you to play eight-channel interleaved WAV files. We had a friend, Rob from Cat Full of Ghosts Electronics, rehouse and modify one of these devices for us into a more stage-friendly device with balanced XLR outs, start stop footswitch, volume knobs for each track. We call it AL-X.
As a sound engineer myself, I was under the impression that mixers would be ecstatic that we could give them discrete channels for kick, snare, hats, other overdubs, etc – but more often than not this would just fill them with frustration that we were requesting eight XLRs at the front of the stage on our stage plot and run pink noise through it to balance our lines. Of course there are some fantastic sound mixers in Melbourne that got what we were trying to do also.
Now though, we still use AL-X for our “backing tracks” but just pump out a stereo signal. This also cuts out a bunch of work and makes it easier for us to mix our backings knowing they’ll come out how we intend.
If you could own any single piece of gear, what would it be and why?
That’s a wild question and I have many answers. To pick one, I’d love a Fairlight CMI Series III. Maybe an EMT 250 as well. I did see someone selling off an EMT 140 a while back really cheap, but I guess it’s worth thinking of practicalities too.
Which track on the record are you particularly proud of?
The closing track, ‘Luxury Auto’, we’re pretty proud of, I think I can speak for all of us with that.
That’s the most recent track on the record, and we were able to spend a bit of time just playing around with it in the studio. We Metallica’d it by shifting and looping different sections in Tools to come up with a structure that worked, whereas we structured the other songs while writing them.
The Crescendo of the track has a bunch of different breaks and sequenced drums we put together, it’s probably the most complex beat-wise. We have synth-cello (using the Korg TR-Rack) that comes in halfway thru, it’s a big lean into 90’s production, so it’s perhaps a hint to what we might do next time around.
Finally, which song are you most looking forward to performing live?
Before being able to rehearse again I would have said one of the heavier tracks, but since being able to be in the same room together again I always really enjoy ‘Colosseum’, so probably that one. Maybe it’s because I’ve softened a bit, or maybe because I sing on that one too.
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‘Cleareye Shining’ is out November 26 and is available for preorder here.