Malachi DeLorenzo
Photo by Derek Brad

In the January 2018 issue of MD, the drummer and producer talked about the subtle, refined, and contemplated figures and tones that bedeck indie/folk singer-songwriter’s Langhorne Slim’s latest effort, Lost at Last (Vol. 1). In this extended interview, we learn more about the making of that album, and about DeLorenzo’s career.

Story by Willie Rose

Released this past November 10, Lost at Last, Vol. 1 sees Pennsylvania native Langhorne Slim, a.k.a. Sean Scolnick, refine his distinct brand of reverb-laden Americana. The songwriter’s drummer and producer, Malachi DeLorenzo, whose father is Violent Femmes’ founding sticksman, Victor DeLorenzo, gracefully dresses the album’s serene odes with inventive, tasteful parts. And by adjusting the technique and approach he usually employs with Slim, he places a unique foundation under the group’s indie-folk vibes. Modern Drummer recently dove into Slim’s latest effort with Malachi.

MD: From a technical standpoint, how’d you approach getting the soft, distinct drum sounds on this album?

Malachi: Based on my initial conversations with Langhorne about how he wanted the album to feel, I’d decided to keep the drums feeling muted and subdued on most of the songs. I wanted as little edge as possible to them without them feeling boring, which is a fine line to walk. Since we tracked most of the material live together in the room—lead vocal and all—I knew that keeping my performances as subdued as possible was going to have a big impact on the way we were able to mix the record after tracking. Had I been bashing away, we would’ve had a ton of bleed in all the mics, which would’ve presented a lot of problems for us later in the process.

Jeremy Black engineered Lost at Last, and he’s an incredible drummer in his own right. I trusted his ear implicitly in terms of miking and sonic palette, and I think he knew what I was going for. My only real request was to keep the overhead mic on the drums mono. I’m not a big fan of wide drum perspectives, and I like to have them localized in the listener’s ear. So many of the records I love have drums that are focused in a certain area of the stereo field rather than spread across its entirety.

Another important technical aspect I had in mind was to use a stereo pair of Coles 4038s positioned in the middle of the room as the foundation for almost all the tracks on the record. With that as a foundational concept, I knew that if my playing was too aggressive it’d be difficult to use those room mics as a bed in the way I’d wanted.

MD: Were there any changes to your setup on this album that differed from what you’ve used in the past?

Malachi: I’m not much of a drum and cymbal collector. For some reason I’ve never really had much desire to collect them. Maybe it’s because I’ve had very little money to spend on them. I’ve used the same ’80s Gretsch 20″ bass drum since I started playing with Langhorne in 2004. Until late last year, it was the only bass drum I’ve ever had, and it’s not even mine. My dad let me “borrow” it when I moved to New York City in the fall of 2001. As far as I know, he used it on the first few Violent Femmes records, and he’d love to have me give it back to him. But I’m not letting it go.

For cymbals, I use one of the newer Zildjian Kerope rides and a Zildjian Beautiful Baby riveted ride. No crashes ever. Besides my Paiste hi-hats, those are actually the only cymbals I own. I love the Kerope because of the way that it doesn’t build up too much. I like to avoid using the cymbals if at all possible. Maybe it’s because of my experience from mixing and producing, but I’ve found that cymbals cover so much high-end space that you end up masking all of the other elements in that range. I like having that space open and clear of the cymbal decay if possible.

As far as I remember, on this record I used an old Ludwig bass drum that they had at Panoramic House Studio in addition to the ’60s Ludwig Supraphonic snare that I’ve always used on records and live. It’s the only snare drum I’ve ever owned. I’m not sure what floor tom I ended up using. On a few songs I used a handmade tambourine that my mom gave me as a gift a few years ago. The track for “House of My Soul (You Light the Rooms)” was solely played on that tambourine—no other drums for the basic take. And I also used it on top of the snare when we tracked “Zombie.” The drums were set up facing out to the main windows in the tracking room that overlook the Pacific. It’s a pretty remarkable studio in terms of the tracking environment.

MD: The album’s drum parts are also somewhat spaced out but really tasty. Was there any concept that you wanted to take in to this record?

Malachi: I wanted to basically avoid playing the drums as much as possible. Even though it didn’t exactly work out that way, I really wanted to avoid some of the more straight-ahead feels and sounds that I’ve used on most of our records. My idea from the start was that if I tone down the amount of power coming from the drums, the rest of the band will have no choice but to give more power and rhythm in their own individual performances and parts. When the drummer is laying out a clear feel, the other members of the group just fall in line if the feel is good. This is normally a good thing, but I wanted to see what would happen to everyone’s parts if I scaled back how much energy I provided to the band. Since we tracked most of the record live, the effect of toning down my parts was immediately evident.

The other concept I had for the drums on this record was to—if possible—not use the snare with the snare wires on. We recorded about twenty-five songs at Panoramic, and some of them surely called for the snares on. But to my surprise when we settled on the final sequence for this record, I don’t think there’s a song on it where I have the snare wires on. That concept is a little ridiculous—but that was my thinking.

MD: What was the writing process like for this album?

Malachi: I’m rarely involved in Langhorne’s writing process on a song-by-song level. A handful of the songs being considered were tunes that we’d been playing live here and there for a few years, and some of them I hadn’t heard. Once he had a big batch of songs, he put them together in a folder and sent them to [producer] Kenny Siegal and me. From that point we all weighed in and discussed what songs were feeling like they fit together. Sean has spent a lot of time since The Way We Move writing up at Kenny’s studio, Old Soul, in Catskill, New York. Kenny stretches Langhorne’s sensibilities and ideas to places that he wouldn’t normally get to on his own. Their creative relationship has been a big part of the last three records we’ve done on a writing level.

My main contribution to the writing of this album was in the arrangements, whether during pre-production, while tracking, or while working with the tracks back in Los Angeles at my studio. Most of the songs are relatively simple on a musical level, so it becomes that much more important to have the arrangements be unique to whatever degree possible. Thankfully the batch of songs were great on their own. Without good material, all of the arrangement decisions obviously become irrelevant.

MD: How did you get the tone on “Ocean City (For May, Jack & Brother Jon)”? Were you playing on a snare with mallets? And the drums sit really well in the mix here as a soft foundation. Was there any production concept you took into this song in particular?

Malachi: The drumming on “Ocean City” was actually Kenny. I’d wanted to avoid having drums be part of the bed for that song, but as we were running through the song and getting mics set up, Kenny sat down at the drums and started playing along. He was playing mallets on a muffled floor tom. I liked how the beat he played felt distant, like music coming from the boardwalk or a faraway carnival. I’d already settled on playing shaker and tambourine for the basic track of “Ocean City,” so I stuck to that.

In terms of production concept, I think we all implicitly understood that it was important for the listeners’ focus to never waver from Langhorne’s lyrics and performance, and we all built our parts around that idea. If the drums continued in a similar fashion throughout the song with very little dynamic range, I figured it would help keep the focus on the vocal, and I think in that regard we were successful. As far as I recall, the only real overdubs on that song were the horns and a bass drum played with a mallet to punctuate the upright bass arrangement. Everything else was live in the same room.

MD: What type of feedback does Sean Scolnick have on the drums in the studio or during the writing process? And did Kenny have any specific feedback from a drumming perspective?

Malachi: Through the years Sean has had very little feedback about the parts I choose, and I’m guessing that’s mainly because of our similar sensibilities about music in general. I play relatively minimally—I try not to play the cymbals too much, and I rarely use toms. So if my part isn’t working, then it’s simply not working on the most basic level. The only time we really discuss drums—be it live or in the studio—is when something isn’t working. For the most part we spend very little time talking about the specific parts played on any instrument unless the part feels wrong. It mainly boils down to feel rather than specifics. We’ve all been playing with each other long enough to know what ballpark to start in for an arrangement.

In terms of Kenny’s feedback, I’m pretty sure that my concept for the drums and percussion on this record was a bit of a pain in the ass. For songs that called for more straight-ahead drum parts, Kenny spent a fair amount of time simply trying to convince me to turn the snare on at all, let alone play it in a straight-ahead manner. I badly wanted to find a way to get the power of a track to shine through without enforcing it from a drumming perspective. In the end, I think the push and pull of our sensibilities probably led to a more interesting result.

MD: As both a producer and drummer, is there anything you’ve learned from a production standpoint that you could apply to the drums?

Malachi: Respect the cymbals and their dominance over the high-end spectrum of a recording. If I’m mixing a song with cymbals washing throughout the track, it becomes such an uphill battle. I’d rather not fight that battle at all on my own projects. I’m also wary of framing every change in a song with a cymbal hit. I’m always consciously trying to avoid marking a chorus or bridge with a cymbal crash. Sometimes I feel like we don’t give listeners enough credit to be able to understand that a change is occurring in a piece of music unless we mark it with a cymbal crash.

Beyond my issues with cymbals, I guess my main takeaway from a production standpoint is that less is more. Obviously that’s a cliché, but it’s definitely true. Unless of course “more is more,” which is also the case sometimes. In general, I feel that if I get drums sounding and feeling how I want them to, then I’m able to just play simply and relax while recording. I try not to write parts that stress me out. I’ll always explore different options for keeping the song and arrangements fresh, but I’m not a very technical drummer by any stretch. If I’m thinking about playing, then I’m most likely not playing—at least not in a way that’s as musical as it could be. A lot of thinking should go into the writing and imagining of music, but my belief is that there shouldn’t be too much thought put into actually playing music. I believe that the listener can hear—and more importantly feel—the lack of freedom in a performance.

I can also get really distracted if I’m producing and playing simultaneously, because I have a hard time shutting off the part of my brain that’s constantly listening to the parts that everyone else is playing. The simpler my parts are, the more effective I’ll be in all aspects of the process.

MD: Likewise, is there any concept or lesson you’ve learned from drumming that you take into your production?

Malachi: One thing I’ve learned from drumming that translates to production is rooted in my distaste for riding on the hi-hat. I have no idea where this issue came from, but I really dislike riding on the hats unless it’s a slower feel. I guess in a lot of ways I also feel the same way about riding on the ride, unless the sound fits perfectly. The way that I’ve “learned” from this issue is that I’m always interested in finding new ways of getting that movement that the hi-hats or ride would normally be providing by accomplishing it with percussion in addition to the drums—not having a shaker playing the same feel as the hi-hat, but having the shaker be the hi-hat inside the beat.

The way this idea translates to production in general is mainly just keeping my eye on ways in which to streamline arrangements and parts and eliminate redundant elements. I gravitate toward simpler recordings whenever possible. Do I really need to triple track these background vocals, double the acoustic guitar, or quadruple the shaker? It’s a full time job as a modern engineer and producer to simply keep yourself from using all of the options open to you.

Whenever possible, I like to track at home to my Tascam 388 1/4″ reel-to-reel, because it allows me to have a finite end. In this day and age we almost never have anything other than a self-imposed end point for a recording. I recorded, produced, and played drums on a record last year almost completely on a Tascam 244 cassette four track. The album is called Mariachi Static, and it’s by Izaak Opatz. We recorded it in my living room with all the windows open—with dogs barking, birds chirping, sirens, and planes constantly overhead—sculpting the arrangements as we went. With the simple limitation of four tracks on a cassette, when the tape was filled, the song was done. I bounced a lot of tracks together to escape the track count, but in the end there’s only so much one can do. The feeling of being “done” with a recording is becoming harder and harder to attain.

MD: How did you first come to start playing with Langhorne Slim?

Malachi: If I remember correctly, I first met Langhorne in early 2014. My friends were in a sketch comedy group called the Whitest Kids U’ Know, and I think they had a weekly show at Pianos on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. They would have musicians play occasionally, and one week Langhorne was on the bill with them. I was totally blown away by the show—there was a lot of standing on tables and knocking over peoples’ drinks. But I just had a feeling that I needed to try to weasel my way into working with him somehow. I went to see him a few more times around the city and eventually we became friends. I couldn’t have imagined at the time that I’d still be playing with him thirteen years later, but I guess that’s how it goes.

Initially I wasn’t the drummer. Our mutual friend Chris Taylor [Grizzly Bear] was producing The Electric Love Letter EP for Sean, and I came in at the end of the sessions to help mix. Soon after that, it came time to do the first Langhorne full-length, When the Sun’s Gone Down, which Chris and I engineered and produced together out of his loft in Williamsburg. We cobbled together what gear we had, turned a bedroom into the control room, and did most of the record live in the big living room. We mixed the record at my studio/apartment in South Williamsburg. The drummer on the record was a friend of ours named Lane Brown. After that record was finished, Sean needed a band for some upcoming shows, and I said that I was down to play a few shows. A few shows turned into a few thousand shows and some version of a career. Sometimes it feels like the biggest decisions in our lives are the ones that we don’t even really know we’re making.