We chat to Robert John Lee, bassist and vocalist with British post-hardcore band, Pulled Apart By Horses, about music culture, vinyl, streaming issues, and a new album.
The industry has changed drastically since the band formed [in 2008]; how has your local scene evolved?
When we first started, we had no ambition to do this as a living, we were just playing music for the pure enjoyment of it. We were inspired by bands in our local music scene [in Leeds, England], and we wanted to be part of that. Somewhere along the line, we saw people were connecting with what we were doing, and we had the opportunity to go for it. So we did!
It’s hard to do something important with music now, but there are still bands emerging in Leeds. Also, most of the bands who inspired us are still going. With the music industry in its current state, it’s even more important for bands to have that independent, DIY spirit. You don’t need investors to record your own material and put your own shows on. I still see that attitude driving the Leeds music scene.
You released a vinyl single on Record Store Day. How important is vinyl as a medium, considering in the UK alone last year, there were 2.2 million vinyl record sales, as opposed to just 75,000 in 2007?
I think putting a piece of vinyl on a turntable, putting the needle on there, and hearing what comes through the speakers, is a beautiful experience. Simple as that! It’s what addicted me to music. It’s also a physical thing: if you go to a live show and feel drums, bass, and guitar blazing at you, it’s a vibration; and that translates directly to the grooves in vinyl. Also, there’s kind of a ritual involved; it’s more time consuming, but you’re paying more attention, and consideration to what you’re hearing, rather than just having a load of mp3s on random. You can delete a load of mp3s ‘like that’, once you think they’re not cool anymore, but a vinyl collection is harder to get rid of. You have to live with your mistakes and learn from them! I think vinyl is here to stay.
Your third album was your first to enter the UK Top 40. How relevant do you think the charts are now, considering the power of social media, and other digital channels?
Probably fairly irrelevant. When you look at the history of music, who cares about the charts? Some of the worst music ever made has stayed in the charts forever, while other incredible artists have gone under the radar. However, I’m not ungrateful. In a world where most people seem to listen to music through YouTube or Spotify, it’s good to know that some people are buying your record, and we thank them for that. But getting in the charts isn’t why we are making music, and will continue to do so.
What are your views on streaming, and the global issue of providing fair remuneration for artists?
I wish we still lived in a world where if you wanted to hear your favourite band, you had to go to your local record store, buy their album, then wait to go to their gig. We don’t live in that beautiful world anymore, but maybe we should pretend that we do!
You produce your own records. What is your recording setup, and how involved are the whole band in the process?
Well, we produce them as far as pre-production and demoing. We like to be as prepared as possible before going into a proper studio. We’ve worked with some great producers over the years in some great studios and we’ve learned a lot from them; every time, we take something new away with us, so I think it’s important to get an outside perspective when you’re recording an album. We have our own studio/ rehearsal space in Leeds where I keep all the backline fully miked up. I have a couple of interfaces running 16 channels, and I record everything straight into Pro Tools, then mix everything on a Mac. I do all the technical stuff because I’m a geek, but we all get involved in listening, and making comments on mixing or sonics.
How would you describe the band’s sound?
When we first started out, there was definitely more of a hardcore punk feel to it, but we’re currently working on our fourth album, and there’s definitely a garage-rock, psychedelic element in there. There’s more range in dynamics and tempo to allow the heavier parts to shine through; and vocally, there’s more melody and harmonies involved, but that comes from learning to use our voices and instruments over time, rather than everything being full-on constantly. Don’t get me wrong, there are still some nasty moments in there!
You guys use a lot of Audio-Technica kit: the System 10 Stompbox, microphones, and headphones...
That [System 10] thing is great. If you’ve ever been to one of our shows, you’ll have seen that it’s quite hard to keep track of James, our guitarist. He often spends more time in the crowd, hanging from the lighting rig, or jumping off speaker stacks. He used to use really long leads, but they break, or you have to have a tech making sure he’s not strangling himself or anyone in the crowd. This way, he can do whatever he wants and not have to worry about it.
As far as the [Audio-Technica] mics, they’re perfect for our band. We started using them live, and had great results. The build quality is awesome, they’re rugged and roadworthy;
and they just suit our backline.
The dynamic mics are great for stage use; I first started out using the AE6100 for my vocals, and was really impressed with it. The EQ seems to suit our vocal style really well, and the other important feature is the noise/feedback rejection; you get very little bleed from other instruments, which is essential when you play as loud as we do. This feature seems to run across the board with all the A-T mics we use. We moved on to using the AE2500 and ATM250DE on guitars; these are actually dual element mics designed for kick drum, but we found that a blend of both a condenser and dynamic works wonders on our guitar sounds. Both mics are perfectly aligned in one unit, so you don’t have to worry about phase issues; that’s perfect for live.
And on the recording side?
I wanted to make it sound as honest, raw, and live as possible – just capture the sound of us playing together as a band. If I want to experiment a little more, particularly with James’ guitar tone, I use a combination of mics: I love the AE3000 condenser for guitar cabs, and the ATM650, which is A-T’s super-rugged, all-round work horse dynamic mic. It also sounds great on snare, and I even use it as a vocal mic in the practice room, because again, the isolation and rejection of bleed from other loud instruments is impeccable. On drums, I use the ATM350CW clip-on condenser mics for the toms; they’re really practical, because you don’t have to mess around with mic stands, and because they’re condensers, I can get a thunderous tom sound from them. For overheads, I use a pair of large diaphragm condenser mics, which was a little daunting at first, because I was used to aiming pencil mics. So I’ve been using a pair of AT4033s, and there’s so much more detail with them; you can either get the sound of the whole kit with great, tight, punchy, clear lows, or EQ them to concentrate on the cymbals. Changed my life, man!
You’ve also been using the AT4050SM for several applications...
Yes. If you just want to throw one mic up and get an awesome sounding room recording, I would definitely recommend this. It’s multi-pattern, so you can experiment depending on your room/setup. Plus, A-T condensers come with a shock mount, which is essential; it’s a really simple design, which kind of utilises a rubber band! I know that sounds weird, but again, they’re really sturdy and practical, which is great when you want to work quickly. It’s also the go-to mic for Tom’s vocals. We overdub all the vocals last, and this mic is ace for Tom’s vocal style. It has killer upper mids which have been lacking or coloured with other mics I’ve used.
And you’re now taking all this with you into the studio to record album four?
Yep, along with my ATH-M50x headphones, which I use to monitor and mix! Again, in my experience, the best headphones I’ve ever used. So I’ll be giving all this to the producer we work with to try out, which may offend him to start with, but I’m sure we’ll all get over it..!