Coverage of previous releases of Glass Vaults in NZ Musician have noted the band members’ propensity for change, AV designer Rowan Pierce saying back in 2015 that he needs a bit of instability to hold his interest. Two years later the Wellington band’s sophomore album finds their music not just changing but mutating. Aabir Mazumdar talked with guitarist/singer Richard Larsen, as well as Pierce and production collaborator Bevan Smith, about ‘The New Happy’, ASMR, harmonizers of choice and manning the Mutronics Mutator.
The core of Wellington indie pop band Glass Vaults is close friends Richard Larsen and Rowan Pierce. The two met while studying performance design at Massey University, starting the Glass Vaults project in 2010.
Richard says that not only did his uni study help with how they aesthetically portray Glass Vaults and how they approach making music videos, but also with how it has informed his storytelling ability.
“I think that any experience is building upon your skill set and your world view.”
He is keen to point out that Glass Vaults is about more than just Rowan and himself.
“Bevan Smith does a lot of the production and plays live with us, he’s definitely a key member as well.
Throughout the years, in different projects, videos and albums, we would pull in different collaborators where we saw fit. So in a way we sort of curate a wider picture of it.”
Other contributors to their forthcoming 2nd album include Daniel Whitaker (synths, vocals and percussion), Ben Bro (aka Benny’s Videos – vocals) and drummers Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa and Cory Champion.
Released through independent UK label Melodic, ‘The New Happy’ was recorded in 2015 – just before the previous Glass Vaults album ‘Sojourn’ was released.
“It’s ages isn’t it?’ says Richard about the two years in-between. “It seems like such a long time but it just flies by so quickly.”
Contrastingly the songs from ‘The New Happy’ were recorded over just three days, at Blue Barn Studio in Wellington with engineer Adam Ladley presiding. Guitarist/singer Richard wrote most of the compositions, with other elements such as synth parts and electric percussion written by Rowan, all three taking producer roles as well.
“Some aspects of it are collaborative and need to be collaborative. We played live all together in the studio – the guitars, the drums, the vocals and the bass – then we did most of the synths later in the home studio.
“Once we got the core track then Rowan would have it for however long it takes to put his parts in, and then Bevan put his bass lines in. We did another vocal session at some stage too.”
In addition to the composition and recording processes the band brought a particularly meticulous approach to the mixing process.
“Mixing takes us ages. I get really jealous of these folk musicians who seem to be able to just strum out their song and it can be mixed in a week. Ours always takes ages. There’s a lot of back and forth with the production and the production’s an important part for us.”
The album was mixed with the intention of achieving an ASMR inducing sound, an idea spearheaded by Bevan, who Richard says had some really clear ideas about the record production from the get go.
Bevan proposed the idea of working as dry as possible, without reverbs or extensive delays, in response to the music Richard and Rowan were getting into at the time – ’80s New York vibe acts like Tom Tom Club and Grace Jones.
“I just wanted something that was psychedelic and euphoric without using time mod effects, phasers/flangers,” Bevan explains. “I started messing with transients of sound quite a bit and found that the audio would make me feel prickly when I accentuated certain transients and frequencies. Then I used a lot of tremolo, panning, just being specific with frequencies and which part of the dynamic of the sound was being effected. I messed with room sounds, gated and delayed and mixed low. Most stuff on the album went through an Eventide H3500 [Ultra Harmonizer] or Eventide Orville [Harmonizer] at some point.”
Bevan confirms he spent more than 1,000 hours on the mix process – and loved it.
“I really enjoyed spending time with each element, a week or two with the kicks, then a week with the snare.
The vocals were mixed syllable by syllable. I probably spent a month on the basslines. I didn’t want to use any compression – I spent a lot of time trying not to use any plugins at all. There was no reverb on the album for a year until I finally caved in and used some!”
ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, is the experience of euphoric sensations that begin at the scalp and travel across the skin and down the back of the neck and spine. It is commonly triggered by acoustic or auditory stimuli.
The resulting production is extremely colourful, the production giving as much to the album as the compositions themselves. There was a conscious shift in what the band was trying to achieve sonically. The large, lush, extremely shoegazey sound of ‘Sojourn’ has been replaced with a tighter, dryer sound that focuses less on atmosphere and more on groove.
As Rowan explains it, having a totally dry sound as a base creates its own personal character, and a certain intimacy where all elements have their own weight and signature in the mix. By pulling out the normal atmospherics, like reverbs, he could play with the perceived proximity of things like vocals and percussion.
“One of the pieces of equipment I used most on the album was the Mutronics Mutator. It’s a super smooth and creamy stereo filter that is really simply and efficiently designed with two in-built envelope followers. I had it set up in the recording room while we were recording the album with the full band and had it hooked up to Richard’s guitar. As we recorded each song I was processing the output of his guitar amp through the Mutator then back out into another Peavey Classic amp I had in front of me. The result gives his guitar track a creamy pulsing vibe along with the groove of the songs. You can hear it all over the record really. I also used it on most of the synths!”
“With this record groove became really important and I started to get really interested in the pop structure as a form,” articulates Richard. “There’s been this fear with us about this change that’s been happening.
People who like Glass Vaults’ first EP might not like this album.”
Having said that, he gives no indication of preferring compromise.
“Basically, this is a passion project. We’ve got other jobs so this is just fun for us, and we’re just going to do whatever we want really. I feel like I did one thing and did it pretty well and why would I want to do that again?”
With ‘The New Happy’ released in May the band is in the process of scheduling an Australia/NZ tour for later in the year. Dependent on just how the album is received in the UK, they are also considering a tour of Europe.