Do you remember that guy who formed the one-man-band Atom And His Package? He got up on stage and sang along to songs he had constructed using synthesizers, occasionally armed with a guitar or a guest musician. He clicked the ‘play’ button on his equipment and, well, sang away. A few of you are probably wondering, isn’t that just karaoke without the sing-along ball? It’s not that unjustly a question. I don’t mean to start this article by contemplating the derision that may come with prerecorded music, and I confess that as a youth I loved Atom And His Package because his lyrics were funny. Perhaps I am all too aware that I night be venturing into controversial territory here. However, what I hope to achieve by the end of this piece is to convince you to look at a band like France’s Quadrupède and perhaps reconsider the dynamics involved with prerecorded sequences.
Indeed, listening to their latest release, T O G O B A N, it’s difficult to think of Quadrupède as a two-piece. Several lines of melodic guitar are placed over synths, electronic drones and other weird and wonderful samples, altogether lead by pounding polyrhythmic percussion. Until recently, drummer Joseph Smalley had been the main composer of Quadrupède’s various prerecorded sequences, however for their latest material guitarist Damien Lecoq has also been part of the process. “Most of the time songs start off with Damien bringing a couple of guitar riffs on the table, I’d then add in some drum patterns and synth lines, to sort of get the arrangement work going,” says Joseph, “from there on, we go back and forth with either Damien’s or my own ideas and start putting the different parts together to form something just about coherent to become a song“. For the pre-recordings alone, the band use a Korg MS-2000, a Korg MS-20, a Waldorf Blofeld, a Microkorg XL, a Roland SH-09, a Roland Juno-106, and various software samplers such as EXS-24 and Kontakt to add in various audio samples. Everything is then recorded through Logic Pro.
T O G O B A N has turned out to be a awe-inspiring experience with impeccable quality. Mixing was completed by Matt Calvert of Three Trapped Tigers. “We contacted him with no expectation of him replying back to be honest,” says Joseph, “but thankfully he did and was very much willing to work on our record. It was such a pleasure to work with him… he knew very naturally where we wanted to go with the songs, and managed to extract the best out of all the recordings“. In its entirety, T O G O B A N is indeed quite similar to Matt Calvert’s Three Trapped Tigers; it is an album rich in content, more than ready to wander off into wonderfully eccentric musical realms but, overall, each piece retains a powerful melodic undertone. When I wrote about Three Trapped Tigers’ Route One Or Die, I talked of the exciting uncertainty I felt as a listener in not knowing where each song would take me. The same applies here, and perhaps Matt’s involvement came from a sense of solidarity.
“The backing tracks in our songs are all the stuff we can’t actually play live,” says Joseph, “Damien is already super busy looping most of his guitar riffs and I’m continually playing the drums. When we first started the band we did try with a third person, but we ended up realizing there wasn’t that much ‘live playing’ that person could do. There’s quite a lot of stuff going on in these backing tracks. There are often multiple synth lines playing along at the same time, and are sometimes quite heavily modulated in diverse ways.” In the live setting, the insertion of these prerecorded sequences is entirely at the discretion of Joseph. “The only solution we’ve found (to play pre-recordings live) is to use a click track that is sent to me via in-ear monitors. I send all the backing tracks plus the guitar to the in-ears. I just use a little mixer to balance the levels of all the stuff I receive correctly. I only use the right hand side ear plug, and leave my left ear free to hear the drums correctly… all the songs are loaded in one project, and delimited by ‘markers’. I have some drum pads connected to the computer via midi cables, which I use to control the sequencer by triggering the sequences thanks to the markers. Damien obviously follows the rhythm I play, so it’s my job to stay as accurate as possible!” So, while Joseph is busy coordinating both percussion and prerecordings, Damien is managing the several lines of guitar loops that are wedged in between the various sound layers. Understandably, it’s a serious juggle.
At face value the reliance on prerecorded sequences might appear ‘lazy’, but there are, in some cases, under-appreciated challenges associated with their craft. On a creative level, their utility must bear considerable overburden. When a musician decides to throw prerecordings, samples and electronics into the musical cauldron, the possibilities of sounds are endless, perhaps even overwhelming. A musician is, in effect, attempting to make music from every sound known to man! How does one make their music lush and diverse but also keep it neatly packaged and coherent? It is also fair for one to argue on a logistical level that combining a myriad of hardware components together, like Quadrupède inevitably have to, may justify the use of prerecorded sequences during live performances. But even this is discounting the skill and precision required to keep everything balanced on stage, the drums, the backing tracks and several lines of guitar looping. “Yes, it would be nice to be able to really play the backing tracks live,” says Joseph, “but that would mean finding at least two extra musicians, having to tour with a lot more gear… And globally re-think our live set, whereas we are only starting to feel just about comfortable with the way we play it now.”
Pre-recorded sequences and backing tracks are nothing new. They are not only the common staple of DJ sets, but are also typical in bands like Battles, Nightwish, and alleged to occur in Coldplay and Muse. Hell, most of Death Grips‘ live sets were played over the top of the pre-recorded tracks. But all of this is beside the point: musicians should not be judged on their use of prerecorded tracks, but how they choose to use them. For a band like Quadrupède, so many layers are being managed by the mere two members and a lot is on the line. Indeed, much of these risks echo what we explored in our article on one-man-bands playing live. When it comes to handling prerecordings, Quadrupède should be acknowledged not just for their creativity, but also for their exemplary management of these sequences in the live arena.
You can purchase T O G O B A N on CD, vinyl or digital via Quadrupede’s bandcamp site here