Making Of: The Dirty Three's ‘Toward The Low Sun’
In his second ‘M+N’ interview, American-born Melbourne engineer Casey Rice weighs in on The Dirty Three’s new album ‘Toward The Low Sun’ from its “more direct and lean-sounding” nature to an intensive, Skype-assisted mixing process trying to capture “that elusive Dirty Three feel”. Words by DOUG WALLEN.
How different was this album to making [2005’s] Cinder?
I think once you’ve gone through one, they’re probably a bit more assured that it’s all gonna happen the way they want, to everyone’s satisfaction. I knew [guitarist] Mick [Turner] in Chicago, so we were pretty well acquainted before I did a Dirty Three record. I didn’t know the other guys, but now I know them. There’s probably more trust there: they know what they’re gonna get and they know it’s gonna sound good. That sounds really simplistic, but that’s not always a given. You’re always a little bit unsure what’s going to happen.
Were you surprised by this record in any way?
The way it sounds a bit more aggressive and lean? Actually, no. Because I randomly tuned in to Triple R one day before we did that record and it turns out it was the Laneway set they played [in 2010]. I didn’t know what it was. It was far more aggressive than I had heard Dirty Three in a while. It might even have been ‘Furnace Skies’, that first song, which is quite free and noisy in a way. Dizzy.
I thought, “Holy shit, what is this? This sounds amazing.” After a couple minutes I realised, “Oh Christ, it’s the Dirty Three. Jesus Christ, it’s pretty fuckin’ aggressive.” [Laughs] And then when they asked me [to make the record], I thought, “Oh, that’s great, because I really liked what they were playing at that show that was new.” I’m not sure if any of it even was new, to be honest. I can’t remember. But it seemed to me like they were quite on fire as a band.
When I interviewed Warren, he said they tried to make it just the three of them without a lot of overdubs. He said, “That kind of happened and it kind of didn’t.”
I don’t think there’s any master plan. They’ll have some ideas about certain songs, what they might want to do. Nothing’s hardly improvised, really. Maybe a little bit of solo violin. The feel is always different and the way in which they might approach a tune is always different. But in terms of the overdubs, there was a lot of spontaneous “Let’s try this.” We did a few overdubs and then Adam Rhodes did some more at Sing Sing later. They sat on it for ages – a year or something – and then got together again when they were all here. I’d say it’s less overdubbed than Cinder for sure. A bit more direct and lean-sounding as well.
What first struck me, besides ‘Furnace Skies’ as an opener, was the different instrumentation.
Yeah, but there’s a bit of that on Cinder too. Definitely. They had been kind of going that way. The acoustic guitar … Mick’s bringing different stuff in, branching out. I think like any band, they don’t want to just keep doing the same thing. So they’re trying to do things that still fit in the Dirty Three paradigm. I think it’s just keeping themselves interested.
Can you say anything about the mixing process? Like what the challenges were?
Well, the main challenge is nobody agreed on what we wanted to do. So we did a lot of mixes. Trying to capture sound and feelings that people wanted to get that they couldn’t necessarily verbalise exactly. So we were kind of chasing a feeling. The whole Dirty Three thing has got to feel right, and it isn’t always something you can state really plainly. I also did rough mixes when we did the initial sessions at Headgap, really quickly. At the end of the last night, I pulled rough mixes of everything. I tried to make them a little nicer [than usual], because I knew they would listen to them. And they ended up using some of those, because they thought that feel was there.
We did two different mixing sessions at Sing Sing over two different weekends on two different consoles. Then I did a mix at my studio too. To be honest, I don’t know what mixes they used. Because we did about 57 mixes. I think we did 12 or 13 songs, so there were quite a few left off that we actually mixed multiple times.
That seems like an unusual mixing process, for it to be that piecemeal.
Well, I was with Mick at Sing Sing, and we had Mick and Warren on Skype. So when we were done with the mix, we would upload it so they could grab it and have a chat about it. Then go on to the next one. Maybe Mick would like one mix but Warren would prefer another, so we just did them all and put them into a big pool of mixes. They went through them all later and had a big committee meeting about what ones to use and what ones not to use.
A lot of people that have the time and the money do that, actually. Lots of alternate mixes. But in this case I don’t think it was the typical major-label, “Let’s do a million mixes.” It’s more “Find that elusive Dirty Three feel that’s right.” No one can ever really say exactly what it is. [Laughs]
But all three guys finally agreed on it?
In the end, obviously, they must have, because there’s a record there. But I think there was definitely a lot of back and forth. Like every other band in the world, they don’t agree on everything. Just musically speaking. I’m looking at my list of mixes here, and there’s some songs that have six versions and some that have three.
“I think like any band, they don’t want to just keep doing the same thing. So they’re trying to do things that still fit in the Dirty Three paradigm.”
What do you do with the mixes that never get used?
I archive everything that I do.
Is that for your benefit, or for the artists?
It’s just for the benefit of the artist. Everything that I work on, I archive. Most people don’t, but I feel like it’s an old-fashioned engineering thing. I’ve got it all. I’ve got the [Dirty Three] demos too. They did sessions with Adam Rhodes too at Sing Sing South [in South Yarra], I think, that they didn’t end up using any of. I have all the multi-tracks for that. Anything I mix or master or work on, I archive it. Because, y’know, hard drives fail. I do it all on optical disc if it’s digital. You go to plug in a hard drive three years later to get something off and there’s nothing. It’s gone. You’re fucked. That happened to me a long time ago with a record I worked on and then put away. So since then, I’ve been archiving everything. Which is kind of cool, when you think about it.
[Cinder] is all analogue, so that’s all on tape. This one was all computer. But not for the benefit of sound or being able to edit stuff. I think there might be one edit: one song might be two takes edited together. More for just the speed. That’s the thing I guess I could say, the lasting impression: they work really quickly. You have to really be on your toes and be ready to tape something all the time. They might try it one way with the drums all loud, and then do it again [drumming] with brushes. When they’re ready to go, they’re ready to go. They don’t want to wait for you to plug some shit in or muck around with something. But I think part of the digital thing was we could do lots of takes, instead of having to commit. Because you don’t want to use like forty reels of tape.
Those archives will be great if the albums are reissued someday.
Yeah. I think so. I don’t know if we’ll be around, but they’ll be there. Yeah, I wonder. I mean, they’re pretty close. A lot of the alternate mixes, I could put them on and you’d listen to them and go, “What’s different?”
What about the demos? How different are they?
They’re rough as fucking guts. They’re like a Zoom [handheld] recorder or something. Like an iPhone in a room with them practising. So they’re just brutally rough. And different. Just the performances are different. I’ve got demos of Cinder as well. [Pause] Don’t come and steal them from my studio, readers. No, they’re offsite, don’t worry.
‘Toward the Low Sun’ is out on February 24 on Anchor & Hope/Remote Control. Dirty Three are touring nationally in March. Dates here.