Young Widows Talk About Recording in a Funeral Home, and Why Experimentation is Necessary
Nick Thieneman Young Widows perform Friday at Thee Parkside
An unusual recording environment helps add mystique and character to a record. Nine Inch Nails made The Downward Spiral in the Beverly Hills house where the Sharon Tate murders happened. Bon Iver fans have that great visual of Justin Vernon recording For Emma, Forever Ago in a Wisconsin cabin. In a move that's similarly striking, Young Widows recorded the recent In and Out of Youth and Lightness, their third full-length, at The Funeral Home in the group's hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. That name wasn't picked just because it sounds cool, it's a studio run by Wax Fang's Kevin Ratterman and located on the second level of Ratterman Funeral Home -- an actual, active mortuary. During the making of the record, Widows' members were given quizzical looks by funeral-goers who were outside smoking. Any temporary awkwardness was certainly worth it, though, as In and Out is a hell of a record, driven by a gloriously raw sound. On Friday, Widows bring that album's abyss-gazing noise rock to Thee Parkside for a date with My Disco, Hides, and Name, so we pinned singer Evan Patterson down for a quick chat.
You've talked a lot about how much you enjoyed the comfort of recording In and Out in The Funeral Home. Are there any other environments you'd really like to record in?
A long time ago, we [referring to Breather Resist, Patterson's old band] played a college in Madison, Wisconsin, and there was a room [in which we] were setting up our gear before we played. That room was one of the best sounding rooms for drums I've ever heard and it always sticks out in my mind so well. It was all brick walls and behind where we were set up [were] glass windows. The sound reflection almost had a V shape. It wouldn't be practical for a whole band to play in that room but just [the sound of the] drums alone was unreal.
There are things like that where you're in a certain room or maybe even onstage and you think about how great it sounds. I always love finding [places] like that and possibly documenting it from there. It's kind of what we did with [2008's] Old Wounds.
A room for recording drums is the most important thing. Beyond that, it's all about being comfortable and being able to get into your own headspace. There's an awesome church [St. John in Louisville] I've been wanting to record drums in or do something with [its] huge hall. I've recorded in studio environments that are leather couches and top of the line gear and soundproofing -- futuristic shit that's completely useless. But when you're in a place like The Funeral Home and there's a blanket on the wall behind the drums and a couch half fallen apart in one room and two old empty couches and broken furniture in another room, it's a little more relaxed and settling. That's what I really loved about that place: there's plenty of options for places to go within the studio rather than just being trapped in one or two rooms.
What makes all that futuristic equipment useless?
Well, it's all a matter of taste, but if you're in a loud rock band, you don't need massive sound reduction. You don't need all these things. I think the better-sounding rooms are rooms that are just hollow and empty or [have] solid brick walls for more sound reflection. It's more about finding the sweet spot than just, 'Oh, let's make this room only sound one way where there's only one sweet spot.' It kind of defeats the purpose. Maybe I'm more of a fan of the older style of recording bands.
You've mentioned before that it was around the time of recording Old Wounds that you really got into the blues--specifically, Skip James and John Lee Hooker -- which in turn influenced In and Out. What attracted you to those artists, and was there anything special about listening to them at that point in your life versus any other?
It feels more [like I] appreciate other music that I wasn't that familiar with [and] hadn't been exposed to. When you're young, especially [when you're] into punk rock and hardcore and anything that's loud, aggressive rock music, you get to this place in your head where you think all blues is just bar rock, or blues rock, or a little more cheesy, [or] it doesn't have much personality. At a certain point, I was getting more exposed to those things. Around [the recording of Old Wounds], I got obsessed with the minimalism and stories behind these guys and where they all went. It's beautiful to think of Skip James, who was the son of a preacher. His father gave a guitar to his son and he started playing guitar. Then, he started hopping trains. He worked at saloons and whorehouses, learning how to play piano. He adapted this folk style of playing piano, very similar to playing guitar, and all these things that really influenced music forever. Robert Johnson was supposedly his protégé. The whole education side of the blues and what these guys went through is pretty amazing.
How'd you get into them at this point? Did you go searching for them or what?
Y'know, it's funny, because what exposed me to Skip James is that movie Ghost World. When that came out, that song in the movie ["Devil Got My Woman"] spoke to me for some reason. "Man, this is a great song. This is real song. This guy's singing about something he's really into." Through that, I wanted to find the vinyl. I guess that stuff just got recently reissued on actual vinyl. I found a CD collection of all his earlier recordings. Even that sounds great because it's direct from 78 [rpm records]. Through that, I started checking more of those artists, but he's still one of my favorites, and definitely John Lee Hooker as well. It's more about their stripped-down, minimal approach to playing guitar and singing. It doesn't seem like they're trying to impress anyone or do something for any other reason than to please themselves.
Is that an approach you've adopted in Young Widows?
For me, that's the whole idea behind playing music in general. I've never been the kind of person who just wants to write songs for someone else. I've been doing the interviews for this record: "So, how many people do you think are going to come out to the show tonight?'" or "What do you think the response is going to be to the show?" Those are the things I just do not worry about at all. [If] there's 300 people or there's 20 people, we're going to play the show. Some nights, it's better than others, but we're going to play and enjoy ourselves [no matter what].
You've noted an interest in writing more eight-minute songs with a couple of parts versus a short song with more parts. Do you see this approach turning into a focal point for Young Widows in the future?
I don't think it's necessarily going to be a focal point. Every focal point is a temporary focal point. You can't overdo any idea. With [2006's] Settle Down City or Old Wounds, we made those songs, and I'm not going to make a song that sounds like those songs again. We're not writing hit records and we're not trying to write the same record over and over again, so it's not important to stick to one idea. It's all about exploring. There's a world of heavy music -- not metal music [but] just heavier, darker rock music -- that hasn't been touched yet. I feel like we're getting somewhere with that with songs like "Muted Man." We were against the idea of palm muting for a while because it was what I was doing when I was younger and playing hardcore music. I got a point where I was like, "I'm going to try not to palm mute as much." Now, I'm back to the point where I'm like, "I think I can really embrace the sound."
Have you ever defined boundaries as to what you don't want Young Widows to do?
You know, there are things that are hard to do. Our general volume of our amps and tone and these things, they're always an obstacle, but it doesn't mean to say that in the future those things couldn't mellow out. That's the great thing about getting older in life and art: You feel the need to experiment more, whether because something will sound great and be fun to do or [because you're] experimenting [to see] what you can do.