The plan was clear for Neon Trees’ new album: big sounds, big ideas, and big performances.
Neon Trees’ Pop Psychology is what happens when a successful pop-rock band pursues a hip-hop recording approach using Peter Gabriel’s So and Kanye West’s Yeezus as its twin guiding lights. A joyous album complete with such feel-good songs as “Love in the 21st Century” and “Teenager in Love,” the set is also a feast for drummer Elaine Bradley.
Recording an album like Pop Psychology is a drummer’s dream. Bradley makes the most of multiple drumsets, some innovative miking techniques, and the demand for white-knuckle performances. Stacking parts and finding new ways to play one drum at a time, Bradley ups her game from the band’s previous Picture Show (2012) and Habits (2010) albums, proving that benefits can be reaped from pushing beyond your comfort zone.
“This is the biggest-sounding record we have ever made—on purpose,” Neon Trees singer Tyler Glenn says. One listen to Pop Psychology confirms his sentiments.
MD: The new record really highlights the drum production.
Elaine: That’s true. It’s very beat heavy. We’ve always been rhythm heavy, but I think the drums are even more pronounced and clear, and the differences between the effected drums and the natural drums are pretty obvious.
MD: The drums sound treated, though I understand that’s largely a case of compression, close and far miking, and sampling. What was the challenge for you?
Elaine: This has been my favorite process so far. I went into the studio with the engineers for a week and played through each song at least three times—good, clean takes with vintage Slingerland and Ludwig setups and different miking approaches. We really experimented and had fun. We even had the small 18″ bass drum from my Gretsch cocktail kit as a third bass drum, which I struck with a mallet. We approached this like a hip-hop record, using different kick drum samples to enrich the sound of the beats. There were no rules.
MD: The drum sounds recall the first Phil Collins album and So by Peter Gabriel.
Elaine: We definitely referenced those records for special fills or ideas or effects we wanted to apply. We’d use one kit for the chorus and then change out snare drums for different sections of a song. We’d also change mics for different effects. It depended on what fit. You don’t often get to do that with the drums in the studio. It’s usually, “Let the drummer do his part so we can get on with it.” So it was fun to be this involved from the ground up.
MD: Did you record complete drum takes, or were you sampled and a beat was created from the different elements?
Elaine: Sometimes it’s a complete take from start to finish; other times we chopped up my drums and fit them into the song. It really was different from song to song. “Living in Another World” is my drums in one complete take. Just good drum sounds. “Love in the 21st Century” I probably played five times. The toms are natural but then super-treated in the verse, and the snare is very compressed. In the chorus you hear both the effected and the natural drums.
MD: And you tracked drums and cymbals separately for some songs?
Elaine: Yes, and it’s so much harder than you think! As a drummer you’re used to using all of your limbs at the same time. So when you take an arm away [to record without a ride pattern], it’s so physically confusing. We even tracked toms and the snare separately a couple times. Eventually we put a pillow on the hi-hat, so I could hit it but it wouldn’t go through the mics. Otherwise I would try to air drum, but the part wouldn’t work. Without using my right hand the beat would almost fall apart.
MD: “Sleeping With a Friend” has a huge drum sound; it turns tribal in the breakdown, and then we hear Phil Collins–style tom fills.
Elaine: The Phil Collins fills are so obvious. The drum sound had to be huge. We did that one fill separately and miked the toms differently. We punched in the verse toms, and they’re also delayed. Then we did that Collins-type tom fill separately to make it sound like another huge drumkit was entering. I’m sure the verse snare sound is different from the chorus. It all helps move the song forward.
MD: In the breakdown to “Teenager in Love,” the snare sounds like rockets exploding.
Elaine: That’s me striking the side of an empty metal filing cabinet with a mallet. That has two or three different kick drums as well.
MD: Which song has the most intense drum production?
Elaine: You notice it the most in “Teenager in Love,” but “First Things First” was more of a constructed beat. We built the beat up from authentic drum sounds. We recorded single drum hits to create the beat. We wanted exact sounds.
MD: What was the biggest lesson you learned from this process?
Elaine: By not really adhering to the rules, we freed ourselves up to be more creative and get more unique drum passes, while not distracting from the melodies. If anything, it made me realize that within my job as a drummer there is a certain amount of creativity that can happen in the studio that can’t happen if you’re just rehearsing or playing live. Studio time can be well spent if you put in the effort to record a few different passes with different ideas so you’re not tied down. Being flexible and doing the extra work and trying a lot of different sounds really reaped rewards. You never know what will work when all the different drum parts are added.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Bradley plays a Gretsch USA Custom kit in champagne sparkle finish. It features a 6.5×14 chrome-over-brass snare, a 9×12 rack tom, 14×14 and 16×16 floor toms, and an 18×22 bass drum. Her Zildjian cymbals include 13″ K Custom Dark hi-hats, a 17″ A Medium Thin crash, a 20″ A Medium ride, and a 19″ K Custom Hybrid crash. Her Evans heads include EC2 tom batters, an HD Dry snare batter, and a GMAD kick batter. She uses Vic Firth 5A sticks, Rute 505 multirods, and T3 mallets, plus a Roland SPD-SX sample pad and BT-1 Bar Trigger Pad and an LP Rock cowbell and Soft Shake shakers.