In the Studio with The Loom and Kevin McMahon

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The Loom

Photographer Carly Sioux was invited to New Paltz, home of Marcata Recording, to hang out with The Loom while they recorded their upcoming record with engineer Kevin McMahon. The once Harlem-based studio and recording home of The Walkmen, is now a secluded refuge for bands in need of McMahon's expertise. Business is good in New Paltz. McMahon's decorated discography is a testament to its allure with albums like Swans' The Seer, all three Titus Andronicus records, Real Estate's Days, and Cult of Youth's self-titled debut born of his private compound.

After a chance meeting, The Loom secured McMahon's services for a May session to record a follow up to its 2011 debut, Teeth, on Crossbill Records. Sioux tagged along to capture the rustic haven of vintage equipment, collected keepsakes, and decorative rugs that give Marcata its charm.

For more from Carly Sioux visit her website.

Kevin McMahon of Marcata Recordings

First off, why the move from the original Marcata in Harlem to the Upstate New York property?

Kevin: The lease was up in the Harlem location. I lived up here already. Walkmen were pretty out of the studio thing. Made sense. Also the barn, the property, and particularly the live room is just an amazing space. Luckily I was able to maintain a uniquely reflective and reverberant space which was always the hallmark of the studio and reflective in the name Marcata- which is the female tense of the Italian musical term marcato which is to “play stressed, or pronounced.”

These two ideas run thematically through many of the records I seem to work on which is apparently some great cosmic coincidence in that I seem to thrive in that dynamic atmosphere. While The Walkmen professed to not know why the studio was ever called that, it was not til an Irish band The Minutes asked and did some research and found that out that it was anything other than a cool name.

Is the process any different when you're semi-removed from the rest of the world? Does it feel any easier or more organic?

The isolation or “retreat” from city hubbub is really key. The focus bands have when they are up here with nowhere to go – really great. Definitely makes for an organic feel to the process which is always a pretty individual thing once you get past the idea of electrons flowing and gear being used that everybody uses. People living together and traveling together is a part of the process, setting up specialized systems to capture people's performances.

What is the process like changing from a live sound engineer to a recording engineer?

Coming from a live background I was very informed by the kind of live energy that you can often miss in the studio. And I learned about the “sound” of the band being so tied to how they actually play, drum tuning and proper ratios for the kit and the metal actually being played where it is supposed to be… the part itself often being the thing making people think they are appreciating a “sound”. Also having no time to deal with shit when things stop working is great training. having no time to always get individual sounds together and realizing the balance of things played together often need to be looked at as one sound more than a bunch of mics. The way bleed is essential. When it works and how to think about it if it doesn't, phase is everything. Live sound is great to do.

In the past year you've recorded Titus Andronicus and Diarrhea Planet, but you've also done records for Laura Stevenson and Andrew Cedermark, which would be closer to what we traditionally think of with The Loom. What are the immediate challenges, since it seems as though your specialty is more towards capturing the energy of loud bands?

If you do this stuff long enough you probably figure out that having “your sound” is kind obsolete. Of course there are attributes you can and do bring into the picture. A style I guess, but there is a lot of music out there. You will probably work with a lot of it and it is probably better, to my mind anyway, to understand as much of it as you can. I def have a lot of louder dense records associated with me in the last 5-7 years but probably as many things that are not that. Certainly Real Estate's Days, Widowspeak's Almanac, at least 40 minutes of the 2 hour The Seer by Swans… going back way further in my career. things like the Walkmen covering Lennon/Nillson's The Pussycats, particularly “Many Rivers To Cross.” A band called Pablo's “Half The Time” or further back by a long way a band called Staring Contest made up of Joan Wasser of Joan as Policewoman, Michael Tighe, Parker Kindred and Eric Eikel – the latter three from Jeff Buckley's band. Downright quiet spacious. The Silent League.

I have always worked more with what I would say are dynamic than loud bands and I focus on bringing the emotional dynamic range out in the music. How loud can you get without quiet anyway. So the challenge is more about the vision.

Do you aim to record everything as a live band? What do you think about that experience versus individual tracking?

I love recording live music. But it really only matters if the band are a great live band and if the details you capture are going to show favorably the relationship of the players – who again are the sound – and they are communicating while playing. If there is some thing related to that language that can be captured in the picture you are taking it is usually solid gold. if you are able to capture that extra info it makes the difference between something being good or being magical, which is way more interesting than sounding good. So it is worth chasing. Like a lot of things, superstition often prevails and someone thinks one is “better” for some reason when maybe live isn't more suited to the band more than being able to have the attention to detail in both sonics and performance to overdub parts… You often have to try something in order to know why it doesn't work.

John Fanning of The Loom

How did recording with Kevin McMahon come about?

John: I actually met Kevin a couple of years ago at a friend’s show at Market Market up in Rosendale, NY. Having talked with him briefly that night and already been aware of his work, he was definitely at the top of the list of people we were interested in working with on our second record, so when the time came to find a producer for the album we got back in touch and were very glad when it worked out.

Was there a specific record that made you want to bring your next record to him?

Yes, definitely. Swans’ The Seer. That album is absolutely unbelievable and has been a huge inspiration for all of us, and just recording in the same space where that album was made has kind of blown my mind. Obviously we’re quite a bit less heavy than that, but a lot of the things that make that album so amazing – repetition, dissonance, extended song length, groove – are things that we’ve been exploring quite a bit as well, albeit in a relatively pared back way.

Also, despite all of the heaviness, there a lot of incredibly beautiful passages on that record, so that mixture was something that really appealed to us as well. And Kevin’s work in general – the Titus Andronicus and Swans albums being great examples – tends to have a really great visceral energy, which was something we were definitely hoping to capture in this record as well, to reflect the energy of our live show more. So, when combined with the fact that Kevin is only about two hours from where most of us live, it really just seemed like the perfect fit.

How were the sessions in the Upstate hideaway different than experiences with previous albums?

The two studios where we recorded our first album Teeth were in Brooklyn and Manhattan, which is just a totally different experience, and in my opinion a less ideal one than you can have when you’re more secluded. Something about riding the subway and then navigating through crowded sidewalks on your way to record makes it very difficult to get into and stay in the right state of mind. So recording somewhere more remote was definitely a priority for us this time around as well, and being able to hole up at Marcata for days at a time has been really amazing. It just allows you to be so much more focused and in the moment while you’re recording, which I think really translates to the record.

Given Kevin's past notable records, Titus Andronicus and Diarrhea Planet, can we expect a louder more abrasive The Loom?

I think we’re definitely taking things in a somewhat louder and more dissonant direction in a general sense, and also digging into groove and repetition a lot more as well. We’ve done a lot of touring since our first record came out, and that time has really allowed us to improvise and stretch the songs out more, which is definitely making its way into the new album. Also, while we’ve had decent stretches of time between sessions with Kevin, when we’re in the studio with him he likes to work at a pretty brisk pace, and he’s pushed us to do much more of this record live than we did the last time around, which has also included improvised sections and not getting too bogged down in endlessly redoing things, but rather trying to capture the right energy in fewer takes. In other words, there’s been a sort of intensity to the recording process that has been both challenging and sort of thrilling, and that I think is really going to benefit the sound of the record.

Has something changed within the band that called for Kevin's sound?

I think more than anything we’re hoping to capture a more visceral energy this time around. To me, our first record sounds really beautiful, but this time we want more live energy to seep into things. We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback about our live show in the time since we made our first record, and we really want that more kinetic element to be present in this album. And again, capturing that kind of energy has definitely been a common thread in Kevin’s work, and I think we’re definitely getting it with him, which is exciting. Also, Kevin really just seems to get what we’re trying to do sonically and in a broader sense, which is amazing, and which means that when it comes time for mixing I just know we’re going to get to where we want to be incredibly quickly because he really understands where that is. I think that having worked on hugely expansive records like The Seer has really refined his ability to get inside a larger vision and create a pretty broad and unique sonic universe, and we feel lucky to be experiencing the benefits of his abilities in that regard. It’s been a really great experience working together.