We recently had the chance to talk with Chris Holmes, the co-producer and engineer behind Blink-182's new album Neighborhoods. One of the goals of the interview was to look behind the scenes at how the album itself was recorded. I know a lot of people are interested in the techniques used and what the recording process itself was like for the first new blink songs in years. Huge thank you to Chris for doing this with us - make sure to follow him on twitter and check out his official website.
Could you outline what your role in recording Neighborhoods was?
I served as a co-producer and engineer on the whole record (along with Critter), and as a mixer on "Heart's All Gone Interlude", "Heart's All Gone" (album version), "Kaleidoscope", "Fighting the Gravity", and "Love is Dangerous".
How did you first meet the band and start working with them? What's your background professionally, and with the band?
I met Mark and Travis when they were just starting demos in Travis's basement for what would become +44.
Before working with them I'd been fortunate enough to work with The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Audioslave, AFI, and Alkaline Trio amongst others. I also play piano and guitar and have a background programming and writing music of my own.
We worked on demos for a month or so, and it was super fun and a smooth session, and that led into doing "When Your Heart Stops Beating" along with doing a lot of Travis's remixes and beats.
Once we wrapped WYHSB I went out on the road with +44 doing some audio trickery type things for the live shows. Mark and I worked with a whole bunch of bands (MCS and NFG most notably), did some super awesome remixes during that time, and did the "Hi, My Name is Mark" podcast. We also did the song "In Transit" together with Pete Wentz for the Alice in Wonderland soundtrack.
I went out on the blink reunion tour doing the same type of thing as I did with +44. and then as Neighborhoods really got going I was a part of that. I'm not out on the Honda Civic Tour due to previous obligations, but it actually worked out better since the mixing/mastering ended up overlapping with the live show preparations. I was able to attend the mastering sessions and help coordinate getting this thing all the way across the finish line.
How often were you in the studio with one or more members recording during the process?
I was in the studio from the end of 2010 up until basically August of this year working on getting the record done. Sometimes with all 3, sometimes 1, sometimes just myself. Between Critter and myself the ball was moving in some fashion at all times.
What was the process like for the band? There's been a lot of online talk about how some of the songs weren't written with the band in the studio together, but things being sent back and forth. How did this work? How many of the songs were recorded this way?
Typically when you work with a band you go into pre-production before you start recording anything for real. In my experience in pre-pro each band member has a set of ideas that they individually bring to the table, and then the band as a whole works on a demo version to see if it fits their vision and then go from there. With blink-182 the pre-production phase and the actual recording for real (production) phase blended together since everybody had access to a professional studio.
So for example one way we worked was, if Mark had an idea and we had a tempo and key we liked, rather than send a quick demo we could get the keeper bass or guitar sounds and really nail down the part we wanted before sending it to Tom. From there Tom would listen, if he heard something he wanted to change or play differently he would record it, send it back to us, ask us what we thought ... from there Travis would play drums, and then the song would make the rounds again. This wasn't always the exact sequence of events with who did what first, but that's typically how it would flow. "Snake Charmer" and "MH 4.18.2011" were two that came from this way of working.
Along with that, we worked on 4 or 5 ideas that started with everybody in the same room together. Those days were really fast paced, and the energy was crazy. We'd get a song structure, tempo, and key pretty much set, and then do a good demo version. At the end of the day we'd make notes on what to tweak, and then everybody would re-record their parts with the keeper sounds they wanted the next week at their own studio. To me this was more of what a normal pre-production would have been like. "After Midnight" and "Natives" came from this way of working.
Towards the end of the process everybody would meet once every few weeks, listen down to everything, make notes on changes and new things to try, and we'd carry on up until the tracks were ready for mix.
I think what made the situation unique, and thus talked about, was that we were in two different cities working on the same material, often at the same time. The physical distance gave the impression of a gap in the work that didn't exist to me. Work was getting done fast and songs were getting updated quickly.
In an Alternative Press article they mention there were a variety of sound engineers working on the album - one for each band member. Is this different than normal, and how do you think it influenced the final product?
Yeah, I read that too. In print it sounds more disjointed than it was ... and I wouldn't say "each member had their own engineer" either.
The majority of the stuff Tom recorded he did with Critter, and the majority of the stuff Mark and Travis did I recorded..That sounds simple if you're assuming Tom= Guitar and Vocals, Mark= Bass, Vocals, Travis= Drums.
On Neighborhoods there are guitars that Mark played, drums that Tom programmed, and Synths that Travis played...and in fact some of the best vocal direction on the record came from Travis...so, the lines of who does what are not as cut and dry as what I think the perception is.
In regards to "Is this the norm"....I don't think there is a "norm" for how many engineers work on a record. I've done records by myself, and ones where I'm part of a team of 5 or 6, so it wasn't a big deal to have a few guys on it. The major hurdle with multiple engineers is being on the same page with keeping notes and naming files in the same system so it's not confusing to find the newest versions of things ... super-nerdy type stuff.
When it came time for mixing, much like the last record, the guys actually wanted different mixers to do different songs. I think that decision has a greater effect on songs sounding different than having multiple engineers recording on a project.
What was the mood while recording the album? Did it take a while for the camaraderie to return to the band members?
This is another thing where I think the perception and the reality are a little different.
Was everybody holding hands and chasing butterflies in a field ... no, but that's never the case with any band -- at least I've never seen that case.
There are always moments of tension at certain points making an album. It's a creative difference though, not the kind of thing where people smash their instruments and leave.
That's what makes the bands you love great. With blink-182, you have 3 guys coming at an idea from 3 different angles, with 3 strong opinions, with 3 different end results in mind, and it's that blend of the 3 that makes it special. The thing that binds everybody together, no matter the difference of opinion is the common goal of making a great song and album.
Was there a lot of pressure to get an album done and sent to the label?
Anytime there is a solid deadline to do anything the pressure gradually builds up, especially as the date draws closer. My take from the get go was: the only way this record was going to go down was with it getting turned in at the last possible moment. It's kinda the nature of the beast, and way more common than you'd think. Besides, what would we have done with an extra months time and everything turned in and set in stone?
A lot of people have commented on this being the first album in a long while without Jerry Finn. Do you think his presence as a producer was missed, and if so, in what way?
Yeah, this was a big one for me personally. For sure one of the reasons the previous blink-182 records were so strong was due to his ear and guidance.
I'd worked with Jerry on +44 (When Your Heart Stops Beating), AFI (Sing the Sorrow), and Alkaline Trio (Good Mourning), so I was super familiar with what he brings to the table as a producer, a mixer, and just a guy to hang with in the studio. He was and is absolutely missed.
To that end, for me in the co-producer role, one of the tests of if a part or lyric was acceptable, or if a sound was sonically good was, "What would Jerry say about this?" In my experience he never had a problem calling bulls!*@ on a part if it wasn't up to snuff, so in a way I'd listen to things with my own taste, and also consider what he might do.
Also, Mark, Tom, and Travis are all great producers in their own right, and I think they learned a lot from Jerry when they worked with him. So we kinda pooled all of our experiences with him together for this record.
Do you think we'll see another Blink album in our lifetimes?
You'd have to ask the guys, but I hope so. I'm curious to see what their next progression will be.
What was the biggest hurdle, in your opinion, for the band to overcome when it came to recording the new album?
Putting all of the massive life events that happened aside (which is a component I don't want to get into), I think just getting familiar with how everybody works again -- it was what? 8 years since the last record.
Even the task of making a record now versus 8 years ago is totally different. So, the process of record making is different, you haven't written music together in a long long time, and your fans know you're working on a new album, so there are big expectations before anything is written.
That alone was a decent hurdle that I think they handled really well.
What was the biggest "experimental" or non-conventional technique used when recording the album?
The weirdest one for me was on "Fighting the Gravity." At the beginning of the song there is something that sounds like a shaker, but it isn't. When Mark was recording the bass for that track it rattled the control room so much that one of the lighting fixtures was shaking behind me. I put some tape on it to get it to stop, but then I missed it when he was playing ... so, I mic'd up the rattling fixture while Mark was playing and recorded it at the same time as the bass.
Also on that song between the instruments and vocal effects there are as many things going backwards as forwards. Put on headphones and go in a dark room and get your freak on.
The way the album was recorded, with members not always being in the same place, did that have any impact on how many songs featured both vocalists?
You'd think so, but going through it I can tell you it didn't. It's not just as simple as slap Mark and Tom's vocals across everything together and we're all good. We weren't making a Simon and Garfunkel record (respectfully). There was more than one occasion where I'd push to have one or the other sing a part just so they were on a track together, and when it came back it sounded like we were forcing the part in (which we were).
At the end of the day, you have to serve the song. That' s the biggest thing in my mind when making a record. If you're adding stuff just for the sake of it because there is space, or you feel there is an obligation to do so, then you're blowing it.
You worked with Mark as an engineer on the +44 record, correct? How would you compare the two projects? I've read comments of some people saying the new Blink album shares a lot from the band member's other projects. With some +44 influences and Angels and Airwaves influences. What do you think?
Yes, I did. I engineered, and did a bunch of programming on the +44 record.
I think the people saying they hear +44 and AVA in the new blink-182 record are right ... and I think it's great that people have strong opinions about it too. To me, it's a pretty natural thing that you'd hear pieces of both projects. It's what happened in between the last two blink records, so it makes sense to me.
I'd say this too, after multiple listens to Neighborhoods, I hear a lot of the different eras of blink. For example, the guitar parts on "Natives" remind me a lot of the Dude Ranch era which I love (and was the first thing I said when I heard them), but they're packaged in this bombastic drum beat that encapsulates an urgency that I feel now. The tempo of "Heart's All Gone" reminds me a lot of "Josie", but the song has a more mature tone to it.
I don't think we set out to touch on all of the different eras of blink-182, but in a lot of ways, as this record ages, I think we did.
What other projects do you have coming up?
Lots of stuff!
I've got a few engineer/mixing projects towards the end of the year that I can't name yet. I'm keeping my ear out for a project or two to produce in the new year. I'd love to just take on that role and really focus on that end. If you're a band that you think is super-radical send me some tunes through holmeswashere.com. I'm always listening to new stuff to see what I can sink my teeth into.
I'm also writing music for what's probably going to be two separate EPs since they're so different. One is a straight up electronic record that you can shake your tushy to, and one is more of a traditional song structured type thing with vocals.
Along with all of that I think Mark and I are hopefully going to get back into some scoring for soundtracks. We started doing that a few years ago, and I think we kick butt at it. He's a great musician, and collaborator.
I also started digging into a couple of ultra-metal songs for Rob Aston ... so yeah, more everything always everywhere.
What advice would you have for someone looking to get into this part of the industry?
My best advice, and this goes for more than just making music ... is simply work hard. Word harder than your competitors. Know that when you're fighting for the same position you are the better choice. While I do believe in luck, I also believe in putting yourself in a position to be lucky.
For music specifically, give yourself lots of options. There's so many different avenues doing music production that I think it's worth being prepared to do it all. Learn the right way to record. The technology now is so widespread, which is great, but understanding signal flow and how to deal with different techniques and different microphones and environments seems to be of less importance.
Do you have a favorite song from Neighborhoods?
It changes for me. Lately it's been Kaleidoscope. That song went through a few different variations with who sang what where, and I'm really happy with where it landed. It has an endearing quality to it for me.
Now that it's here ... how do you feel about the album, as a whole, and the entire recording process?
I'm excited for everybody to hear it and live with it like I have, and I'm honored to have been a part of it.