Thunderball “Enter the Brahmin” (Influenza)
Published in Blog Archive, Culture Bully. Tags: Influenza, Music.
Smooth tempos, sitars, retro-future samples? It must be the return of Thunderball, the stylish kids from DC all grown up after half a decade spent tuning their forks as members of Fort Knox Five.” While succinct and to the point, Urb‘s introduction to the DC-based trio glazes over the near decade-long process of experimenting which went into the group’s latest creation. Thunderball’s new release, 12 Mile High, is a largely instrumental record which is both “stylish, exotic opus” (Snob’s Music) and “capable of surprising even the most world weary music fan” (Alt Sounds). But again, a written description alone only goes so far in helping shed light on the imaginative combination of sounds that makes the album so intensely compelling. One piece of the puzzle is a simple sitar–an instrument which is used heavily in the album’s opening tracks: “12 Mile High” and “Enter the Brahmin.” In this edition of Influenza, Rob Myers–the talent behind said sitar–explains the epiphanic moment that sparked the creation of “Brahmin,” also offering a detailed recollection of the production behind the track and insight into the difficulties of recording a sitar.
It’s no secret that there’s no real formula to writing a track. Sometimes they start off complex and shake down to something simple, sometimes they start simple and get overloaded with miles of exuberant studio tracking only to find their true shape after weeks of bloodletting. And sometimes they just write themselves with almost no coercion needed from the humans at the helm. But between all of our different Thunderball connected projects–Fort Knox Five, Speedy Consuela, International Velvet, See-I and DJ mashups–we thought we’d seen it all. That is until we started “Enter the Brahmin.”
Going back the better part of a decade, Thunderball was touring as an eight-piece live band in support of the album Scorpio Rising. Steve Raskin, Sid Barcelona and myself were joined by our friends Rex Riddem on percussion, Bert Quieroz on bass, Steven Albert on drums and Mustafa Akbar & Miss Johnna M on vocals. Steve and Sid were on keyboard duties, Steve playing the funky & dubby stuff and Sid keeping it smooth & cinematic. I was on guitar & sitar. All this was played on top of a backing track of light percussion (for the drums to follow via headphone), sub bass frequencies and special effects.
Since we were just dropping the sitar in on various tracks we felt there needed to be a showcase piece for it, simply because: why not? We’re dragging a sitar all over the place, might as well make a song for it. So we did… In less than an hour! Steve scrambled thru a bunch of old sketches, added some tablas to a wubbly bass track that had some ethereal strings ghosting thru it and “poof” a backing track was born. We called it “Intro Sitar” and it turned into a song the instant we all started playing on it. From the first basement rehearsals in Washington, DC to live on-stage in St. Petersburg, Russia. We jammed on it, banged on it, tried percussion breakdowns, sang on it, did pretty much everything we could to it for years and years… except: record it.
Flash forward to earlier this year when we were flushing out the vibes of the new album, 12 Mile High, and we realized it was time to attempt it in the studio. Naturally, we thought to ourselves, having played it so much, this is gonna be easy! But recording a sitar is seldom easy. Especially when the sitar take is not just being used as “riff fodder” but needs to weave the song together from section to section, playing through the entire track. It needs to maintain sonic presence and not change tone during takes so that it will cut and paste seamlessly into a final comp. We used two inputs, one from a microphone (Trion 8000) and the other from flat little piezo pickups (K&K Sound) on the sitar that I stuck on years ago for live performances. The two tracks come out with two completely different EQ curves that can be used to bring out the best in each other. Punch from the pickup and tone from the mic.
Tracking to the same “Intro Sitar” backing track we’d used for so long we kept the sitar recording to a minimum, two–maybe three–takes. The first sober and the second, um, un-sober. Again, two different curves that bring out the best in each other. Then, since the song always had a trippy, ethereal nature we piled on take after take of highly effected guitars using delay pedals (TC Nova Delay & T-Rex Replica) in-line so that we could vibe the performance and tons of modulation from the fantastic Line 6 “Purple Pedal” with myself on the guitar (Gibson Les Paul Classic) and Steve on the knobs tweaking thru the possibilities creating a whole library of “spacey” sounds to work with.
After getting the sitar line to make sense and reigning in the guitar effects we had the track sounding very close to what we’d remembered thinking it should kinda sound like. Only it just didn’t have any “magic” to it. So we had to confront our biggest hurdle: the backing track wasn’t cutting it. It was too hard to mix with just a stereo file that was carrying so much weight, and the original file was lost to the hard drives of eternity! We would have to rebuild from scratch the percussion and bass and strings, the things that had always cemented the “feel” of the track to us. Face it, we’d gotten used to the way it had always sounded and now we had to find new sounds that would make us feel the same way. An impossible task. Oh, we found a few things that worked: tablas that bubbled and MIDI strings that sounded just as good as the original, but no perfect low-end wobble.
So we let the track languish and continued working on the other 12 tracks from 12 Mile High. As those tracks started growing and making their way to their final mixing stages, something creepy started happening. “Sitar Intro,” which was always going to be the first song on the album, was no longer holding its own in the pole position. Actually, it was sounding pretty weak next to the other tracks. We needed a miracle. And since miracles only happen when you wait long enough to need them, ours came in the form of a random search for a tabla sound, which led to the discovery of the original tabla loop which led to the long hidden hard drive that housed the original build file! We now had all the components we’d grown used to and all the new stuff we’d found to replace them. Together they made an excellent team and it was quick work to get the track to mix.
Wanting something more cinematic out of the first opening moments of the album Steve started doing a Bollywood vocal scat over the intro. “Might have something for that,” I said and went to my buried bin of cassettes and found the lessons I’d recorded with my sitar Guru, Raj Bahn Singh, in Benares, India back in the late ’90s. We grab the perfect moment of him starting a lesson with the Eastern sentiment “Are you going to listen?” and then going into the rhythm count in Hindi. Titling it with some Bruce Lee-inspired cheek, “Enter the Brahmin” was born.
[This post was first published by Culture Bully.]