Alex Marrero of Topaz & Mudphonic
I am truly honored that I was asked to participate in anything having to do with Modern Drummer. I’m also not too sure what to say here. I guess I should write about the band that I’m playing with, Topaz & Mudphonic. Our debut album, Music For Dorothy, is just out now in stores and on iTunes.
We recorded the album in a barn-like space called The Resident Circus Tent Theater on the banks of the Colorado River in Austin, Texas. It’s a large, wooden, egg-shaped space with very tall ceilings and great acoustics. The drums sounded HUGE. We decided to take an old-fashioned approach to recording: everyone in the same room playing music together live. (Wow, what a concept!) We hired a seasoned and talented engineer/producer with whom I’d worked in a similar scenario a couple of years back, on a record for a world music group I lead called Ghandaia. It’s important when entering the world of guerrilla recording that you have someone capable, experienced, with great gear to match their great ears, and who you trust and get along with.
So we set up shop and aimed at creating an album with a live, organic feel. Bleed from mics was not something we were terribly concerned about. Most of our favorite records were recorded that way, and those sound just fine, right? It was all about capturing the moment of four guys making music, literally sweating it out in a barn, getting the best takes possible. There was the luxury of not needing headphones (except for vocals) and being in a very comfortable location where we weren’t worried about how we were going to pay for the next three hours. (Refreshing, huh!?) The entire experience was a joy.
I also learned a lot. This was only my second experience in the studio as a drummer (I’m used to playing guitar and singing on records), and my first in such a stripped-down scenario. I had to come to terms very quickly with the fact that there was a ton of responsibility on my shoulders as the backbone of a four-piece band recording live (drums, bass, slide guitar, and sax/harp/vox). If I sucked, so would the entire record. I didn’t like that prospect. So I had to come in every day focused, prepared, and ready to give my very best at every turn. I had to make sure the songs grooved and felt good, and I had to make things interesting in my interaction with soloists.
I kept my setup really simple, and I took the groove-is-everything approach. I think that feel is more important than fancy “look at me” playing (which I can’t do anyway!) in the kind of music we are creating, which is funky, swampy, and bluesy. I used a ’60s-era 22″ Slingerland kick drum, a couple of different snares–steel, wood with a wood hoop, and wood with a steel hoop–a 16″ floor tom, and an assortment of good-sounding cymbals.
Another thing I realized very early on is that my usual “producer’s objectivity” was not quite as present in the tracking phase as I am used to. I was way too close to and critical of my performances to really separate myself from the drummer role. That took a bit of getting used to, but I kind of enjoyed it after that. Overall it was a very rewarding five days of tracking. The whole band came together nicely, and we captured some good moments. We then did some minor overdubs to give it more of a produced feel, in order to create an album, not just a live performance sans audience. We then mixed the album on a great analog board in an amazing space here in Austin. It’s an old church turned into a home and recording studio, very open and very cool. The house Hammond was used for an overdub or two, with that great natural reverb of the location lending its unique flavor.
The band is about to hit the road and get the music out there. We’ll be out in the South, Northeast, and Midwest, culminating in The Rockies by October. Feel free to check out our calendar page, listen to some songs, and check out some pics of the recording process on our page at www.myspace.com/mudphonic
Alex A. Marrero