The Art of Lo-Fi

Producer Monte Vallier helped pioneer the lo-fi sound with his band Swell. Now he's helping local bands capture its spirit, but still sound professional.

Lo-fi, i.e. low-fidelity — that hiss and crackle found in songs bluesman Robert Johnson recorded in a hotel room — is now a desirable aesthetic. In the early Nineties, indie rock bands like Sebadoh and Yo La Tengo made low-quality recordings sound cool. Around the same time, Monte Vallier was unknowingly producing lo-fi albums. Twenty years later, his San Francisco studio Ruminator Audio has produced some of the best albums in the post-punk and noise rock genres, including The Soft Moon’s dark, noisy album Zeros, Terry Malts’ Killing Time, and everything noise-rock band Weekend has ever released. It turns out creating the lo-fi sound — and making it a pleasure to listen to — is an art.

Vallier spent ten years as the bassist and producer of Swell, a San Francisco band that’s widely regarded as “the godfathers of lo-fi.” Funny enough, Vallier explained as we sat in his studio, Swell wanted its first album to sound professional.

“Our goal was to make the most hi-fi record possible,” Vallier said. “It was purely the fact that we couldn’t afford any other equipment.”

Swell began as a project led by guitarist/songwriter David Freel, who wanted to make an album in the vein of Pink Floyd and The Pixies. Though no one knew it then, Swell’s cerebral perspective, sparse arrangements, and what Vallier called “naiveté” on its self-titled 1990 debut would shape early indie rock. “We sucked,” Vallier said. They got better, turning out 47 releases in the span of 10 years, with Vallier as producer.

With Swell, Vallier learned how to make a record on any budget. Mid-career, Swell’s major label, one-album budget exceeded $200,000 (which the band used to buy equipment, some of which is still used in Vallier’s studio). These days, albums on major indie labels have a recording budget of anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000, Vallier said. For many new bands, there is no budget, and most projects begin as Swell did self-recorded and -released. It’s when those first albums become popular that sophomore releases become tricky to produce.

“People love naive, bedroom pop records,” Vallier said. “Then as soon as the band knows what they’re doing, no one likes them anymore. They can actually play their instruments.”

When producing artists that started as bedroom projects, like in the case of The Soft Moon, Vallier is calculated in his approach. The project of Luis Vasquez (who used to live in Oakland, but is now located in Berlin), The Soft Moon is goth-rock with electronic leanings, in the spirit of The Cure. Vasquez recorded his 2010 self-titled debut alone in his home, a lonely psychological exploration expressed in the dark — and at times inaccessible — album. For Zeros, Vasquez did his demos at home, then re-recorded the songs in the studio with Vallier.

“I wanted to take it up a level, where all the same anger and darkness was present, but just make it sound better,” Vallier said. Since Vasquez could play louder in the studio than at home, guitars turned out harsher, and his screamed vocals more extreme. Synthesizers were given a more textural, analog sound. From there, Vallier worked to build space around the noise in order to match the hollow, lo-fi sound of The Soft Moon’s first album.

With Weekend, Vallier influenced the sound from the beginning. Vallier had been in post-punk band Half Church with the father of Weekend frontman Shaun Durkan. When Durkan came to Vallier with a few pop songs he had written, they started recording what would become the band’s first ten-inch release, All American/Youth Haunts.

“We were making it for the fun of it,” Vallier said. “Then they kind of blew up.”

By the time Oakland label Slumberland signed Weekend, Vallier said the band had evolved as musicians and songwriters, and recording its debut album Sports was an exercise in “not letting it get ahead of itself, production-wise.”

The wall-of-sound, guitar-heavy assault of Sports, which earned Weekend comparisons to The Jesus and Mary Chain, actually took a lot of work. Tracks were “re-amped” — a production trick that entails taking one element, like the guitar, and sending it through an amp to gain a different sound — in this case, to sound more noisy and distorted. The final version of Sports was recorded from a cassette being played through a speaker in Vallier’s kitchen. “We did a lot to fuck it up,” Vallier said. “But there’s a catchiness under the noise.”

Weekend and Vallier just finished recording the band’s sophomore album, set for release this year. Judging by one track, Vallier’s obsession with making a band sound good, but not too good, seems to have paid off: Durkan’s voice is stronger, and a distinct bass line aches and moans above atmospheric background melodies. It’s still Weekend, crackling and dark, but some of the haze has cleared.

“Good bands have a thing — as a producer you can’t take that away,” Vallier said “You just have to capture the band’s essence in the best possible way.”

There’s a lot more that goes into the music we love than what we hear, which is why we’re devoting a column to the people who work behind the scenes. Producers, sound engineers, record labels, booking agents, tour managers — we want your stories: [email protected]


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