IDLES finds room to explore in the real world part 1
When Kenny Beats traveled to England in February 2021 to work with reigning punk rock kings, IDLES, at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Bath for their latest album, he had one of the 10 day quarantine the most productive ever recorded.
Two key things happened during this quarantine time for the producer, who is known for his work with Vince Staples, Denzel Curry, Rico Nasty and many more. First, IDLES sent Beats a 27-hour reference music playlist of favorite artists, songs they’re inspired by or sound like, and songs they’ve loved. they don’t like but they like the sound. Beats hasn’t listened to anything else for the duration of the quarantine, and he credits the playlist for allowing him and the band to succeed.
Secondly, before the follow-up, Beats spent a lot of time at Real World exploring the facilities and their capabilities with two extremely knowledgeable engineers – Real World alumnus Oli Middleton and IDLES front-end engineer Chris Fullard – discussing a action plan.
“Through what the band gave me as examples, I had a pretty clear game plan for diversity, variety, and versatility,” says Beats. “I knew we weren’t going to be able to sit down like they had on all their other albums, with everyone in the room playing together. We had to find many different pockets and subgenres in different styles for a band that, until now, people have tried to put in a box. We had to make sure we weren’t in that box from a recording perspective so they could get even more creative from a songwriting perspective.
Beats’ relationship with IDLES started with him sneaking into their DMs on Instagram. This led to producing their cover of Gang of Four’s “Damaged Goods”, with additional production on their previous album, Ultramono. The band later revealed to Beats that it was their vetting process that led to the collaboration on CATERPILLAR.
IDLES guitarist and co-producer Mark Bowen says:[Beats] was able to keep everything under control and head where we planned, rather than getting lost in impractical production ideas. He constantly asked us questions, which led us to ask ourselves questions about where we wanted the album to go and how we wanted to present it.
“We wanted to push the boundaries of the group’s expectations from the perspective of our listeners,” he continues, “but also from our perspective. Can we write an electronic song, a slow acoustic number, something without drums, a caustic hip hop song, and still retain that sense of IDLES?
Bowen refers to Portishead’s album The third as a touchstone for CATERPILLAR, with production in the foreground. As Bowen points out, Portishead have released three albums in their 30-year career while IDLES have released four albums in four years. Writing, recording and releasing music at breakneck speed, the band didn’t necessarily have time to evolve much, which makes CATERPILLARits sonic evolution all the more impressive.
ENTER THE REAL WORLD
CRAWLER turned out to be Beats’ first experience working completely outside the box. He thanked Middleton and Fullard for their willingness to demonstrate the ease of use of Real World’s vast selection of outboard equipment, and he noted the superior quality of the resulting recording.
“I’ve never had a more capable experience,” says Beats. “Anything I would ask of Soundtoys or Waves or Universal Audio, the real thing is right there at Real World. When you have the gear and the team of engineers that can set up 20 mics in 10 minutes with all the vintage gear going through amazing preamps in an amazing office the idea of using a fake distortion reverb is dumb they have a plate and a spring in a chamber it really educated me as a producer i have so much learned during the registration process.
“Real World has a lot of options when it comes to physical speedboats and gear that people are so used to using plug-in versions of,” Middleton confirms. “It’s a real luxury to be able to access these tools to get the sounds the band was looking for without compromising.”
The follow-up took place in The Big Room at Real World, with most of the mics plugged into the original Neve 1073s and other vintage preamps, then into the famous 72-channel SSL 9000K console. A range of compressors and effects also came into play, including Distressors, vintage Pultecs, LA-2As, 1176s, AMS RMX16s, Lexicon 480Ls, Space Echos, EMT140s and BX25s.
For Beats, every sound on CATERPILLAR, from the extremes of “Car Crash” to tambourine and piano on “The Beachland Ballroom”, it was all about getting the best version of it, no matter how many takes or how many different instruments it took to find it. It used to be the writing, creativity and ideas that separated the songs, not the sounds, says Beats. At CATERPILLARthe songs sound completely different from each other.
To record such disparate tracks but make them fit together sonically, Beats and IDLES compartmentalized the songs. They had a bunch of songs that had a vintage, old soul Motown band feel due to singular characteristics. They had a “heavy” band of intense, gnarly songs like “The Wheel” and “Car Crash”. They had a bunch of songs that are ethereal and rhythmless and don’t sound like a rock band at all, like “MTT 420 RR”, and another bunch of proto-IDLES songs, including “King Snake” and “Meds .”
“We decided that for three days we were going to record the heavy band’s songs,” says Beats. “We are going to configure the drums with the most microphones, extremely HD. We will use new guitars. If we’re doing the Motown band, we’re going to use 50s drums and use six microphones. We will only use guitars from before 1970. We will only use pedals and amps that existed before the 1970s. We will use recording techniques that they would have at the time. That was my whole game plan for this album, to give the band that variety.