WAUL returns with “7 Cedars”
article originally published in Star News, more Q&A below
April 2, 2018
By Brian Tucker
For their second album instrumental band WAUL eschewed recording in a studio, instead taking 7 Cedars to a Winnabow area cabin with engineer Ian Millard, recording the songs live. A tense experience, the album’s recording was done over a weekend.
“The brevity, that it was one day recording and the next day meeting Ian at his Dogwood Lane studio to listen, we enjoyed that,” said Jarrod Drobot. “But it was nerve-racking getting the take right because you couldn’t mess up. There was no good way to edit since the microphones were bleeding into one another.”
WAUL – Jarrod Drobot (guitars), Abram Young (bass, piano) and Brandon Lamm (drums), sprang from a 2013 show of disbanded mid-2000s instrumental band The Title Ceremony, reuniting because local venue The Soapbox was closing. Drobot, a high school senior when The Title Ceremony’s album came out, sat in for rehearsals because band member Rhory True was living in New York.
“I had jammed with Brandon when that reunion idea was talked about,” Drobot said. “I was a huge fan of that album. I told him I learned a lot of Rhory’s parts from it, as a means of trying to be better at guitar.”
WAUL delivered a powerful 2015 debut with Esmerelda and began crafting follow-up material. Well before recording 7 Cedars Lamm said they decided on the approach – sounds of nature, playing live in a room, and each member writing a track in addition to four songs they would record. At Young’s property in Brunswick County recording natural sounds they noticed its rustic cabin. After taking a look inside they had their recording space.
“We brought the idea to Ian and were surprised how excited he was,” Lamm said last year following the April recording. “He put together a portable recording rack and joined us. The layout (inside) was much like a live stage with us facing across the room.”
The musicians and Millard set up on Friday and returned at noon on Saturday, playing three takes of songs in sweltering temperatures, super sweaty, and anxious. Millard has experience with location recording, but was intent on capturing the feel of the room, placing mics in much the same way as a studio.
“I love location gigs, they always have their own character and it’s just a cool experience. The engineer in me is always skeptical, but the art of capturing the sound of a really cool location is just too alluring and supersedes any need for “perfect” or “ideal” acoustics,” Millard said. “What we got still amazes me. When Abram started playing the piano song at the end of the session (the last song of the record), Brandon, Jarrod and I were just awestruck, I knew we had a damn good record, it was so peaceful and beautiful, a perfect end to the session.”
Drobot jokes that if WAUL had more time (they have family and work commitments) they’d probably be on album four. Perhaps brevity is best suited for their recording. Millard aptly describes WAUL’s sound as brutal, yet articulate and beautiful. The albums are soaked in atmosphere, textures, and emotionally driven rhythms. If music was like sculpting, then WAUL’s songs are illustrative. Buy two albums in, they feel very grounded.
“I guess we’ve learned to be better songwriters since the first album,” Drobot said. “We completed the songs without any studio trickery. We have better instincts as songwriters now to complete a song and think about what a song needs before we call it done.”
More with WAUL’s Jarrod Drobot and engineer Ian Millard
The 7 Cedars album has been planned for a while?
Drobot: 7 Cedars is the actual address of this old cabin that’s on Abrams property in Winnabow, used to belong to his late uncle. I think Abram was fond of him when he was younger and in a way the album is kind of dedicated to him. Its been really drawn out, yeah, we put our first album out in fall 2015 but started working on songs for this album in 2015, its been gestating since summer 2015.
Do you remember discussing the new album, how to approach it?
Drobot: I recall the way we talked about it as a band, doing it differently than the way we did the first album. In a more stripped down approach, where we recorded in a live style. We actually set all of our stuff up out in the cabin, it’s a small cabin, so we recorded in a live style with Ian Millard, with no separation. There were mics set up and lots of bleed in the recording process.
Generally when you record you isolate the components, musicians with headphones, amps in another room, but everyone can hear on headphones. That allows the engineer to have separate tracks of drums, bass, etc. so you can go back, edit, overdub and fix the guitar track, etc., or add, without messing anything up.
So, for the new album, we’re all going to play in one room together, rehearse as best as we can, so we get a good take. It’s like, hope this works. We did multiple takes of each song out there, three total for each of the four big songs, and from there we’d pick the take we liked the best. We would use this method to do a cross fade into another take if we had things we couldn’t fix.
Basically put on a concert for Ian.
Drobot: Yeah, pretty much. He was sitting in a corner minding his console. We played the song, I don’t know if we went straight through the set but it was bam, bam, bam, and on to the next one. We were trying to make it have a better feel, if there’s any tempo fluctuations, any mistakes, they’re all in there. It’s kind of a hairier record.
What did you learn between the first album and this one?
Drobot: We tracked together (on the first one) and that allowed for us to play together and get a feel for each other. When all was said and done Ian could look at it and all those parts were separate. But we still kept it natural for the first one, we didn’t use a metronome or click track. We were all following each other.
When writing and conceiving, do you jam together essentially and build from certain parts?
Drobot: If we all had more time maybe we’d be on album number four by now. It’s a really slow, democratic process. None of us does too much on our own. No one completes a song and walks in with it and tells other people to try to come up for something from this. At most, one of us will bring in a new bit to the next practice and we’re slowing adding piece by piece and trying to fit it all together. We’re bringing them into the practice piece and if it works we agree that this is worth adding to what we’ve done so far on this song, or we veto something that’s working. It’s democratic but it takes a long time.
It’s really about starting from a part and attaching more parts. When you have a part you have to try to imagine where it would fit in a song. Is this a breakdown, or a pause, does this feels more like the climax of something that’s building up before? We might have a part that’s going to be at the end of a build-up but then we’ll have to reverse engineer, what would the build-up sound like beforehand? It’s like trying to piece together a song that hasn’t been written yet from context clues.”
It’s akin to scoring, like sculpting perhaps?
Drobot: I know what you’re saying. Often we don’t break it down in terms that actually quantify it to the point of being this measure, it’s this many beats long. We have to feel it out. If it ends up being weird in a music theory sense we find out about it later. We follow our instincts and grooves and maybe drop or add a beat here and there. Everything we’ve written has been felt out on the spot in our rehearsal space together.
It just comes out. we’ve been playing music long enough in our lives that we’re closer to that point, that we’re following impulses on the spot and trying to decide how to best represent that a guitar line or drum line. You put out a rough version, rough shape, a lot of times we’ll jam in a loop, a few bars over and over of a very rough idea – I’m constantly hitting wrong notes, Abram on the bass trying to zero in to get a better feel or effect. Slowly you chip away at it like an ice sculpture by making a lot of bold mistakes and sounding pretty awful until you zero in on something that you trust. You just trust the tail of it.
I can think of a lot of guitar parts I came up with in earlier versions of songs before we called them done that were a lot more busy, had a lot more going on. At the same time, all those extra notes, there was no clear kind of melody to extract, so that constantly got refined as we jammed more and more on ideas until the boldest, most stand-out notes became the melody and a lot of the rest of the stuff fell away in the process.
Before WAUL, you were involved with The Title Ceremony reunion a few years back?
Drobot: When that show happened I played one song with them. For the show it was the original line up. What I did was I helped facilitate their rehearsal before the show because one member Rhory True was in New York. Before he could get down here, which was only a few days before the show, I pretended to be him in the rehearsal space and learned his parts, and stood in for him.
Brandon had played with Abram in Study of the Sirens (the post Title Ceremony band). It had Brandon, Jeff Bridgers, Steve Hart, and Abram. I knew Brandon from going to see The Title Ceremony back in 2005 at The Soapbox and so on. I was best friends with Rhory and through Rhory I met the rest of the band. I was in a very short lived band in 2008 called Victor and Victoria and we played two shows, like a Modest Mouse group where our singer did borderline spoken word vocals. It was a fun little punk band. That singer went on to be a pretty well known hip hop producer that puts stuff on Adult Swim. He moved to Nashville and became a hip hop producer named L’Orange.
How did Waul come together?
Drobot: It grew out of that Title Ceremony reunion. Before the other guys got in on it, on the rehearsal process for that show, I had gone out to jam with Brandon once or twice when that reunion idea was just being talked about. I told him I had learned a lot of Rhory’s parts from their (only) album, I was a huge fan of that album. I was just finishing up senior year at high school when that album came out.
It was May 2005, my final month of high school. They played this awesome release show at the Soapbox downstairs. I had learned a lot on my own time, kind of as a means of trying to be a better at guitar. I loved that album and wanted to reverse engineer it myself and what’s funny is I learned a lot of guitar parts from it to find out I was playing Rhory’s and Jeff’s parts at the same time, which ended helping a lot during the rehearsal phase for that show.
Was recording in the cabin, freeing, maybe better than a studio?
Drobot: I think we enjoyed the finished product. I think we enjoyed that it was done in a weekend. We did a weekend and maybe an additional weekend for mixing and getting levels right. It was done very quickly, we enjoyed that, but the actual process of being in that cabin and the sweltering heat. Being in that super sweaty, sweltering hot cabin, and being anxious not messing up was really awful. It was a really long day but it was nice to get it done in a weekend. We had set up on a Friday night and got all the equipment there and he set up his mics. We showed up at noon on Saturday and went at it.
You put together a specific guitar set-up for this?
Drobot: I switched to doing a stereo set-up using two guitar cabinets, that’s where you get delay effects that are common in post rock music and a lot of guitar music now. A guitarist plays a note and then you hear that note ring out a few more times. With my new set-up the delay would hit one speaker and then the other, go back and forth, and give the effect of the guitar surrounding you. Because that was inherent to my new set-up when we recorded in that fashion, the guitar, without having to anything additional in post production, was like double tracking, my guitar already sounded like two or three guitars around you.
A lot of the delay pedals have the option to do two chords out of them, to do stereo. I was wondering how I could utilize that and it was simple, I had to shell out for another cabinet. And so I did. It wasn’t cheap but it was worth it. It adds a lot of space to just being a three piece. Don’t necessarily need another guitarist to get that space.
The piano on the album is an interesting addition.
Drobot: That was kind of my idea. I came up with this structure in my head. I went through this phase of rediscovering old Pink Floyd albums I used to like as a teenager, like Meddle and Animals. It’s almost like they had this very deliberate thought about the structure of the album as a whole. Meddle is kind of like one long song, then a few short songs, and then one long. You can almost draw the shape with your finger. Then Animals is one short song, three long songs, and then another short song.
So I have this idea, we had these four songs that are just about completed, I don’t think we’re going to get around to doing a fifth song. So what if we all contributed one acoustic piece and then set it up so it’s like acoustic number, two big songs, another acoustic number in the middle, two more big songs and then the final acoustic number. Each of the acoustic numbers is contributed separately, Brandon, Jarrod, and then Abram playing the piano, the one that’s in that cabin.
You’ve lived with the record a long time. Does it feel different now?
Drobot: Initially I heard every little mistake. Because of the nature of how it was recorded we knew we would have to live with the best takes, even with imperfections you can’t fix. Then I didn’t listen to it for a few months and came back to it. I started to appreciate it. I thought we have something pretty cool here; I’m starting to enjoy it and listen to it objectively. I’m happy that I’m happy with it, because I’m usually never happy with any music I make.
What did you learn from first album and now?
Drobot: Esmerelda was more seat of the pants. Half the songs on that album, we had gone into record but there were still sections of the songs that weren’t ironed out. We were able to finish writing the songs in the studio because of the way we recorded that album. For “Unofficial Ghost” I didn’t have this whole guitar part for the last section that song.
How long you’ve been recording in Wilmington?
Millard: My studio’s name is Dogwood Lane. Hardly anyone says “studio” when referring to the most notable studios (Abbey Road, Blackbird or Ocean Way), and I wanted to capture that kind of vibe even though I am not even remotely close to the stature of those places, at least in size and clout. I’ve been recording in Wilmington since 2006, though I did have some very amateur efforts before going to school. Dogwood Lane has existed for six of my twelve years in recording.
Was this the most atypical recording you’ve done, maybe besides how Mountain Thrower recorded in that warehouse?
Millard: I’ve done quite a few location records and they all were really awesome and incredibly challenging at the same time. I recorded the Beard of Antlers CD live at Reggies on a Saturday morning. We cut the bass and drums for Virgin Lung’s second record in their garage. The first and last song of White Tiger’s Pharaohs and Sombreros was recorded in our practice room at Pyramid Rehearsal Space.
We recorded bass and guitars for a Church of Zann record at Kenny Daniel’s house in Durham. We tracked some songs on the first A Bottle Volcanic record in the upstairs of The Soapbox with the band on the floor. For the BOA, Virgin lung and Zann records I took the whole studio with me and setup in the house or Reggie’s by the bar. Now I have a location rig that is far less cumbersome, and the test run was the new Waul record.
You’ve recorded a long time, did you know how you’d mic this or did it evolve?
Millard: I only knew that it was a small space so I needed good isolation so I would have some wiggle room in mixing. I also knew I needed to capture the feel of the cabin and its old and cool historical vibe. We setup pretty much like a live show with the amps a little in front of the drums and the band just went for it until we got the take we liked. There were some mid-setup adjustments, and in the end a few minor edits, but it was hot, really hot, that day, so time was of the essence.
For the most part I did the same mic placement and choices as I would have in any studio, the piano track at the end of the record was probably the most unorthodox with all the indirect room mics pointed away from the piano itself, which was pretty weathered itself; the ivories missing from the keys, out of tune and the strings exposed and resonating during the session. If I had more channels I would’ve mic’d the piano during the session as well.
What we got still amazes me, I love this band so much and this session is something I’ll never forget. It was incredibly hot, I was just getting over a terrible cold from the previous week. It was the height of spring and humid as hell, but it all fell together so well, I wouldn’t have changed it if I could. When Abram started playing the piano song at the end of the session Brandon, Jared and I were just awestruck, I knew we had a damn good record, it was so peaceful and beautiful, a perfect end to the session.
What about the band did you think was important to capture , or not overlook?
Millard: I wanted it to sound like a band in a room performing their songs, and so did the band. It was challenging at the outset trying to capture a good sound from what would seem to be an awful place to record a band, especially live with bleed everywhere. But I think this is what makes the record that much more amazing, it really shouldn’t sound as good as it does, given the attributes of the session. I find comfort in this though, like I don’t need to worry about the box I am in so much as what is inside the box itself, physically and metaphorically.
Waul is brutal, yet articulate and beautiful. Abram’s bass is the moody part of their persona, murky and complex, yet precise and gripping. Brandon’s drums are always spot on and intricate, but never cluttered, or overplayed, this is where the dynamics and energy of the band reside for me. Jared’s guitars are even moodier on this new material, so much depth coming from a single guitar, rich harmonies and incredibly mesmerizing melodies. He used a stereo guitar rig for this record so we had an amp on either side of the cabin.
I really think the depth of the record is mostly due to this setup, as it provides a lush landscape of textures and echoes for the machine that is Brandon and Abram to plow ahead in their relentless rhythms. The biggest trick with a band like this is making every part sound massive, but yet still retain clarity and not have one sound drown out another.