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An Interview with Saint Marie shoegaze faves, Echodrone

Members of the band Echodrone.
12 March 2015

San Francisco band Echodrone has been primarily a two person operation until recently. Three new members came aboard to create this band’s great new album, Five. Founding members Eugene Suh (ES) and Brandon Dudley (BD) are joined by new members Mike Funk (MF), Jim Hrabak (JH), and Rachel Lopez (RL) to discuss how they came together and produced this excellent melange of shoegaze and dream pop.

Describe the recording process for Five. How is it different from previous albums, and what benefits have new members brought to the table?

BD: Five was recorded “virtually”, with tracks being passed between us via Dropbox. For the most part, songs were constructed “assembly line” style, with each member in turn tracking their parts and sending them onto the next. We had recorded Mixtape For Duckie in much the same way, so it wasn’t entirely new to Eugene and I, although everything else was. The difference between Mixtape and Five was that we had an outside engineer mix our materials, whereas in the past, it had been Mark Tarlton (our former drummer and a talented music engineer). Jim, Mike and Rachel brought new energy, a ton of new influences, and together really widened our sonic palette and capabilities.

Album cover for Five by Echodrone.

ES: Brandon pretty much covered it! Also, Mark Tarlton used to be our producer/“project manager”, providing quick feedback on parts while collecting and organizing all the tracks for each song. Brandon assumed a lot of producer responsibilities this time around and I assumed “project manager” responsibilities, gathering everyone’s contributions into one large project file and making sure they all aligned appropriately.

The new members brought additional expertise which helped immensely during the creation of Five! Jim is a gifted sound engineer (listen to his solo project Slack Armada for examples of his work), and his guidance during the mixing process was extremely helpful. Mike has played in a ton of bands and his expertise helped shape the fantastic drum sounds/tones (Mike tracked all the drums himself). Rachel’s awesomely creative vocal ideas basically redefined many of the songs.

RL: The thing that was tricky about recording for me was not having a person physically there to hear what was going on, so I had to be my own set of ears and rely on feedback with my vocals on some demos. Luckily, I already had some good sounds to work with before I added my vocal parts, along with supportive band mates!

JH: I was usually third in the chain after Eugene and Mike. My role is really more of a utility player, adding elements that the song may need at the time. Eugene already added a lot of great keys and synth work to many of the songs on Five, so for those I added atmospherics and maybe helped out a bit more rhythmically. Some songs, like “When Two Ends”, were fully formed, so I didn’t add anything out of fear of over complicating an already great track.

MF: I love our recording method. Sure, nothing would beat playing in the same room with my bandmates, but in terms of tracking this album, this has been such a comfortable, no-stress experience compared to some other recording sessions I’ve been in. This leaves you with so much more room to just focus on the music and not worry about having to lay down your part because you have to meet a deadline.

Who does most of the songwriting? What inspires your writing?

BD: Echodrone songs these days always start with a structure and chord progression from Eugene (and typically melody). Everybody then adds their part and shares it with the rest of the band for feedback.

ES: I’m influenced by a lot of things when I start writing a song structure. Oftentimes, a movie like Tenebre will really get my creativity flowing! But a lot of the ideas on Five were actually influenced by other bands. For example, “Disparate Numbers” used to be called “Boards of Canada”. So, for months, we passed around a file called “Boards of Canada”, constantly adding/deconstructing layers to achieve that Echodrone-meets-Boards-of-Canada kind of sound. The most fascinating thing was that, no matter what our starting point, all songs ended up sounding like, well, Echodrone! I think it’s really cool to start with an inspiration and end up with something that’s uniquely ours.

RL: I wrote lyrics to a few of the songs, which were inspired by a mix of real life feelings/events from different times. I’m usually inspired to write late at night when I feel the most creative. There’s something comforting about writing songs at night.

How did you hook up with Saint Marie Records?

BD: I’m a member of the SMR Club because I have loved everything Saint Marie has ever put out! I emailed Wyatt (Parkins) one day to tell him how much I enjoyed the club’s latest releases and mentioned that I was in a band. He replied that he had heard of us and said that he’d give our stuff a listen. I sent him our previous output and mentioned that we were working on a new album, to which he said that he’d like to hear it when it was complete. Fast forward several months, I sent him the finished masters which he liked and said that he’d put out, and here we are!

How difficult is it to replicate your studio sound in a live setting?

BD: It’s been several years since we’ve played live, sadly. But when we did, the hardest part was replicating the layered guitars that Eugene laid down on our recordings. Live, he used loopers heavily and rearranged his parts to include the important guitar lines from the recordings. We used to record live so it was easier then, no idea what it’d take now to replicate the sound!

ES: At one point, I had 2 loopers (an AKAI Headrush and a Gibson Echoplex Digital Pro) and 2 pedalboards. Brandon also lugged around a huge pedalboard to achieve all the sonic textures off our earlier albums. But now, it just makes my head spin thinking about playing Five live. Some of the songs on _Five had up to 7 guitar parts, 5 synth parts, several bass parts, triple-tracked vocals, electronics, and drum loops.

Does it bother you being labeled shoegaze? Because I think that is rather limiting, and your sound veers off in other stylistic directions.

BD: Personally, I embrace the term “shoegaze”. People strive to label everything in order to categorize and understand them better, and I prefer to supply the label rather than leave it up to the listener. I find (and have always found) shoegaze to be an incredibly vital and diverse genre, one that is much more inclusive than typically given credit for. That said, we haven’t allowed the term to govern our sound – we really just do what we like!

ES: I agree with Brandon on a lot of points…but I think the hardest thing being labeled “shoegaze” is that people come in with a defined set of expectations. Loud guitars, whispery vocals, steady dynamics, the “MBV effect”. Some shoegaze fans essentially want to relive the moment when they first heard Loveless with every new band in the genre. This doesn’t leave much room to maneuver creatively. When you do stretch out and try different things, your music instantly becomes a divisive statement in the shoegaze community. So it’s been hard pleasing some shoegaze fans with our music because, in a lot of ways, we stray from their expectations. I mean, I still enjoy playing ridiculously loud guitar parts, but I also enjoy dynamics and non-traditional layering of musical parts. Ultimately, Brandon is spot-on, we really just do what we think sounds best for each song!

RL: Honestly, I didn’t initially think of the project as shoegaze. I knew it had some shoegaze influences and elements, but there was already so much else going on with the electronic and guitar sounds. There is definitely an interesting mix of synth pop and “space rock” going on.

JH: It doesn’t bother me at all. There are thousands of bands releasing music on dozens of platforms, so I think the average listener likes to have familiar categories that they can gravitate to. As Eugene mentioned, the hardcore shoegaze fan may think that we have strayed too far from the formula, but I think most listeners have more diverse tastes. I think there is plenty of room for bands like ours that are labeled shoegaze, yet have other elements woven into the mix.

MF: With the Internet and having access to so much more music than ever before (and this is a good thing btw), it’s beneficial to have a sense of focus by gravitating towards certain genres and subgenres. I love that “sound” people call shoegaze and dream pop. It’s a sound that feels natural to who I am as a person, BUT…I listen to everything – all kinds of music! I love the new Bjork record and the latest D’Angelo album is pure genius. I was actually pretty upset that The Replacements booked their San Francisco show the same night as Ride! LOL! Life is too short to limit yourself to one style of music. That’s why I love this band – our influences and inspiration come from all kinds of places. I think it’s very forward thinking to integrate the wall of guitar sound with electronics. A Japanese music site in their review of Five called our sound,”Shugetoronika.” The band loves that tag so much that we’ve adopted it. It’s perfect.

What equipment does the band prefer to use?

BD: I recorded Five on a Kubicki Ex-Factor, Fender Rascal, and Reverend Dub King bass (I pretty much just play shorter scale basses as my hands are very small) direct to my Macbook through a Focusrite interface. I use a ton of effects, both pedals and multi-effects. No bass amp this time.

ES: I use Reverend guitars (Avenger, Slingshot) and record line-out from a Vox amp or ZT lunchbox into an Apogee Duet. As far as effects, I’ve basically relied on my Red Witch phaser and Skreddy Mayo since the first Echodrone recording. I bring in other pieces of equipment as needed on each song. I have to say, Colin (our sound engineer on Five) helped my guitar sounds tremendously through judicious use of reamping/EQing!

JH: My rig is entirely in-the-box, a Dell laptop with Ableton Live 9. I control with Ableton Push and a Novation Launchkey. For plug-ins, I use Native Instruments Komplete 10 as well as plugs from Sugar Bytes, Izotope, and Rob Pappen.

MF: I’ve had the same drum kit, a 70s blue oyster shell Ludwig, for twenty years now. It’s the same kit that I played when I was in Rodriguez – a mid-90s trio I was in with Matt Ward aka M. Ward and Kyle Field aka Little Wings. I tracked the drums with my Mackie Onyx 1220 going Firewire into a 10-year-old Dell Optiplex (no joke) running Tracktion. A lot of people swear by the Onyx preamps – they’re great for drums.

Do you count Smashing Pumpkins as one of your influences, because “Glacial Place” sounds a bit like them.

ES: I was a big fan of Smashing Pumpkins when I was younger. I had Siamese Dream and Gish on repeat for years. But I honestly haven’t listened to Smashing Pumpkins in a long, long time, so I was quite surprised by the comparisons! I can kind of hear it. Hmmm, maybe my formative years still seep through in the way I play guitar and sing!

RL: I was also a fan of the 1st two Pumpkins albums, but I had other 90s influences for this project. I really dig harmonies in bands like Alice in Chains and Depeche Mode, as well as female fronted bands like Lush and Veruca Salt.

What are your tour plans to support Five?

BD: We live all over the country and have day jobs so a tour would be difficult to mount. Our goal for 2015 is simply to meet each other in person!

ES: Well, I have been saving all my vacation time at work.

RL: Yes, just looking forward to meeting first and then going from there!

JH: I’m with Brandon on this one. A full-time career, wife, and two small kids make it nearly impossible for me to get away to tour. I feel very fortunate at this point in my life that I was able to meet and collaborate with these wonderful people. It would certainly be an experience to play live shows, but recording and releasing music is as much as I can hope for at this point.

MF: Like Jim, I’m also happily-married with two kids. I would love LOVE for us to play live somehow. My boys have never seen me perform with a band before, and nothing would make me happier than to have them see Echodrone live.

Do you have any plans to record more music in 2015?

BD: We have started work on the next release, so maybe towards the end of the year!

ES: Yes, really excited about the new stuff we’re creating! Our next release is a fun experiment we’re trying out – can’t wait to share it!

JH: As soon as I get word from Eugene that there is new music in the Dropbox, I’ll get to work! Until then, I have about 30 or so Slack Armada tracks that I have been working on since last September. I’m hoping to get something out for that project sometime this summer.

Check out the band over at Saint Marie Records and on their Facebook page.