Guest Blogger, Sam Morrison talks about his inspiration for creating the remix of Tenek‘s, “Imitation Of Life – Pale Imitation Mix“.
“Remixing as a bad pun
When part of your MO for doing a remix is what kind of terrible pun you can make in the title, it can sometimes be hard to remember which came first. Did I call it the “Pale Imitation Mix” because I’d decided to do a remix inspired by the minimalist electro/industrial of Nine Inch Nail’s ‘Hesitation Marks’, or did I decide to do a minimalist electro/industrial remix because “Pale Imitation mix” was just way too good a play on the title for me to ignore?
(And for those of you assuming it’s the first option because it’s really not that good a play on words, please keep in mind that I’m very easily amused.)
Whichever it was, there’s no question that elements of that Hesitation Marks-esque sound are baked deep into the DNA of every track on ‘Smoke and Mirrors’, and that this remix was a great opportunity for me to take those elements and tease them out to their logical conclusion to see what happened to the track. It was also a chance for me, as the bass player on album version of “Imitation of Life”, to quietly stick it to Pete and Geoff. But more on that in a second…
When you decide you want to remix a track into a particular style, it’s always a good idea to sit down and really get your head around what musical elements make up that style. Since I already knew NIN’s Hesitation Marks was going to be a starting point, I spent an afternoon listening to that album a few times over and seeing what made it tick. The first thing that was very obvious was that multi-layered percussion played a big role – songs on that record regularly include two or more drum machines running over each other playing complementary, but very different rhythms. The bass is also crucial, with Pino Palladino’s smooth, lively and subtle riffs lifting every track he contributes to. Synths, though important throughout, aren’t especially dominant or harsh, instead being largely restricted to atmospheric bleeps, chirps and drones. Lastly, guitar is pretty minimal across the entire record. That especially suited me just fine, since my guitar technique has never really risen past a kind of carefully studied mediocrity.
After perusing a few other favourite albums of minimalist electronic music (most notably ‘AM:PM’ by Endorphin and Gary Numan’s absolutely phenomenal ‘Pure’) I knew the stylistic beats I wanted to hit and went to work.
Putting it together
A lot of bands, when they want a remix, will give you almost everything – vocals, drums, guitars, the works, and let you slap bits together as you see fit. Not Tenek. All I had to work from were the vocal tracks, leaving me to build the new track entirely from the ground up. That was amazing from a creative freedom perspective, but starting a project with only a collection of isolated vocals is also incredibly daunting.
Drums are at the heart of the sound I wanted, so the first thing to be written was the thundering, rolling beat that continues through almost the entire track. Since many electronic records are written with drum machines it’s not uncommon for a single beat to feature all the way through a song, so that’s the sound I went for. To get the layered percussion sound, I used four other percussion loops across the remix, including some dance-inspired drum machines, a Brazilian Berimbau and some literal junk being hit with sticks. All of these were cut up, rearranged and put through a huge array of delays, distortions, bit crushers and audio transformers to create uniquely glitchy sounds. This was also where a lot of the arrangement happened, with interplay between the main drums and different sets of loops defining the verse/chorus feels underpinning the song.
Next up was the bass, and this was where I got to have my small revenge on Pete and Geoff. See, when you play on an album for a band as creative and talented as Tenek they usually have a fair idea what sort of thing they want from you even before the recording starts. While this means you’re sure of getting a great album, it also meant a lot of my takes (including some I thought were really terrific) ended up on the cutting room floor because they didn’t fit with what Pete and Geoff had in mind. I think half the reason I agreed to do the remix for them was because I thought those parts were far too cool to waste, and now I’ve gone and tricked the guys into sticking them on a Tenek record anyway.
With the drums and bass laid down the remix was largely there. A relatively small handful of synths and a piano helped nail down the ebb and flow of the verses and choruses, with short synth stabs counterpointing the vocals in the verses, which then transitioned to soaring pads that opened out the choruses. The guitar solo that caps off the first chorus took direct inspiration from “Satellite,” my favourite track from Hesitation Marks, and the squalling, dirty guitar solo that comes out of nowhere mid-song and really brings a new feel to the song.
With all those elements in place, the only thing left to do was the bridge/solo section. As any songwriter will tell you, this is almost always the last thing to be added to a track, and it’s an important element. Verses and choruses will generally repeat throughout a song with a just slight variation, the bridge is a chance to really change things up.
Initially, I found myself a bit stuck. The track had the minimalist feel I really wanted, but when I took that approach to the bridge everything ended up feeling a bit flat. Ultimately, I drew inspiration from another Nine Inch Nails favourite: “Ruiner” from ‘The Downward Spiral’. That song spends its first three minutes as a hyperkinetic mess of percussion and synthesizers before trailing unexpectedly into a minute long guitar solo that’s equal part meandering blues and industrial harshness before smashing back into thudding percussion and searing keyboards. With those ideas tweaked to fit what I was doing, I had my approach. A few (a lot) of guitar takes later, I had my solo, the remix had its variation and the final chorus was able to return in a suitably explosive way.
For most of you reading, that’s probably the end of the story – a bad pun, a new approach to “Imitation of Life” that was still had its roots in what Pete and Geoff did with the original and a sneaky opportunity to put back in one of my favourite bass takes from the original Imitation of Life sessions. Now go and listen to it really loud, because that’s where it sounds best. You probably won’t care too much about the next bit.
However, I wouldn’t be a musician if I didn’t also include…
The inevitable bit about gear
When you’re a collector of cool and unusual equipment, you inevitably end up with some stuff that sounds fantastic if you use it in exactly the right context, but never works anywhere else. As a result, you have all this great stuff that spends most of its life sitting in the case or on display and never really getting played.
So it is with my beloved Rickenbacker 4003, which I picked up in 2009 for a tour with Voices of Masada and, honestly, because I really wanted one in my collection. The Rick is one of the all-time classic basses, used by everyone from Paul McCartney to Lemmy, but it’s got a particular “growl-snap-thump” to the sound that means it doesn’t often work in a mix. When I tracked the album version of Imitation of Life I did a version on it largely because it had been in storage for a couple of years and I wanted to play with it, but assumed the guys would end up using the version played on my Fender (the most neutral, easy-to-mix basses on the planet). To my surprise, however, it was the Rickenbacker that made the final cut and whose sound ended up really setting the whole tone of the track. As a result, it was a no-brainer that I’d get the Rickenbacker out again for this remix, and once again, that unique sound pins down the entire song.
Sadly, my love of guitars has so limited both my bank account and the usable space in my studio that I don’t have a collection of analogue synths to complement my collection of guitars. As a result, all the synths and drums I used were software modules in Reason, my DAW of choice They include the Subtractor, Malström and Thor synths, NN-XT sampler, Kong drum machine and Dr. Octo Rex loop editor.
For the last four or five years I’ve been a big fan of Hagström guitars, both live and in the studio. They’re real workhorses, delivering great sound and fantastic playability whilst being far kinder to my bank account than some of the bigger brands. My two go-to models are the Swede (a Les Paul-style guitar with a couple of extra twists) and the F200P (an guitar that resembles nothing so muc as the bastard child of a Strat and an SG, loaded with P90 pickups). These were the only guitars I ended up using on the remix, with the Swede doing most of the heavy lifting and giving the guitar the bright, cutting tone it needed to punch through the mix. After playing around with a different effect setups, I finally settled on a kind of “Robert Smith-heavy” approach to the sound, using a very Cure-inspired layering of choruses and delays before pumping it all through a mess or industrial-inspired distortions.
The mix was finished using Reason in my small home studio, much to the chagrin of my housemates who are now intimately familiar with my remix in ten second increments having heard me play bits and pieces over, and over, and over, and over, and… ”
Sam Morrison is an Australian multi-instrumentalist, producer and composer, best known in the UK for Ghostlights and as a guitarist for Last July. He played bass on “Imitation of Life” on Tenek’s ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ and joined them on stage at Alt-Fest in the parallel universe where that festival didn’t collapse in a screaming heap of its own hubris.