Feet Don't Fail Me Now... a Sonic Teardown.

Updated: Aug 13, 2018



Track: Feet Don't Fail Me

Artist: Queens of the Stone Age

Album: Villains

Label: Matador

Producer: Mark Ronson

Engineer: Mark Rankin

Recorded at: United Studios, LA

Released: 27th of August, 2017

Tempo: 109BPM

Key: D Major

Signature: 4/4

Song Length: 5:41

Genre: Alternative Rock

Sub-Genre: Boogie Rock/Stoner Rock





Background


Queens of the Stone Age are...

Joshua Homme | Troy Van Leeuwen | Michael Shuman | Dean Fertita | Jon Theodore


The infectious boogie-rock sounds on Queen of the Stone Age’s most recent album, Villains, paved a clear path to where frontman Joshua Homme was sonically heading. Homme has had his heavy finger on both Lady Gaga’s album, Joanne (Where he first worked alongside Mark Ronson), and Iggy Pop’s modern marvel, Post Pop Depression, the latter of which highlighted its brooding guitar-rock crunch with some catchy pop contributions.


Villains’ pseudo-boogie moments add a welcoming experimental style, that QOTSA have made their own. Especially over their last two albums. Some critics were labelling QOTSA’s last few musical involvements as monotonous or uninspiring. Eat your words critic scum! The new album is epic! Feet Don’t Fail Me features the album’s most potent and seamless balance of hard-rock power and danceable jocularity, allowing the band to indulge in both stoned psychedelia and disco without weakening their guitar like assault.


Arrangement


Song arrangements, like most of the QOTSA tracks, we’re put together in the studio. Homme had the ideas down, but piecing all the driving grooves together whilst keep viable space in the mix was the challenge. “Anything goes, as long as it serves the song” stated Troy Van Leeuwen (A Perfect Circle, Gone Is Gone, Sweethead). QOTSA have never really been known to shimmy, let alone stream roll, but on the album's opening track, Feet Don’t Fail Me, does both.


The song opens with a gradual crescendo of chants, broken bottles, and scratching guitar noise. Then, Jon Theodore (The Mars Volta, One Day As A Lion) hits us with the freight-train, four-on-the-floor beat. The groove is as infectious as the crushing riffage from all three guitarists. Homme’s lyrics are tongue in cheek, “Feel like a fool, like i’m a dancing fool. Footloose and fancy free!”... Homme delivers. But whether it makes the listener want to dance or head-bang, it’s impossible not to feel that rhythmic punch.


So basically, the song form looks like this...


Intro | Verse 1 | Chorus | Bridge | Verse 2 | Chorus | Interlude (Key change/Solos/Build Up) | Verse 3 | Chorus x2 | End



The song takes on a form of its own. Having structured the track in the studio, it has given the song its own story line. QOTSA flex their musicianship, progressively changing the structure throughout the 5 minutes and 41 seconds. Through the interlude, a key change kicks in a new gear. Riff's are flung left and right, vocal growls creep under you skin, and back and forth the band goes between Homme's demonic vocal and the bad-boy guitar slugs they call riffs. Until the pace slows like booted heroin in a vein. Then the real creepiness emerges. Slow, eerie, thumping. Homme sings...


"Me and my gang come to bust you loose. We move with an urgency, between pleasure and agony on a runaway line... That's the sound what's calling me."

A build up occurs, salvaged by Fertita's astral sawtooth Synth, and, once again, our favourite groove busts its way back in to accompany the final verse. Two more scorching chorus' and Homme's last words...

"I just gotta move on!"


Sonic Techniques


Usually when recording an album, the band would sit comfortably in the production chair, and argue, "constructively", over various production techniques. But for Villains, they wanted to be band and do what bands do. Write, compose, and experiment.


Mark Rankin (Adele, Foster the People, Florence and the Machine, Bloc Party) , QOTSA’s go to engineer, once again, took on the role. He had worked with the band on their previous record, ...Like Clockwork and was no stranger to the bands hell bound musical habits. Rankin served the band with purpose. The Grammy award winner took their on their ideas and gave them a sonic push they needed.

Drums Sound: Rankin toyed with drum micing techniques, limiting any room ambience that bled on through. The idea was to create a vacuous gated back beat, almost 90s Hip-Hop like drum sound, with little to no room sound. “We wanted the Snare to say cock!”. The reference point was set, and the snare was tuned. They were aiming for a 70s styles dryish sound, still with a slight “ping”. The snare was tuned first, then the rest of the kit was gradually tuned down as much as it could be.

C-Ducer mics were used on the kick and snare. The kick mic was aimed at the front head and the snare mic on the hard shell around the side of the snare casing, pointed down towards the kick drum. They added some drive to the line signal, and gated down the sound to get a vacuous snap, again with no ambience. The kick was layered with a similar “big kick” sound, and blended behind. An RCA Ribbon mic was positioned over John Theodore’s shoulder, facing down toward the kick and snare, with some added compression and drive, allowing the frequency to sit around 800Hz.


Rankin tried two Neumann M50 Tube Condensers for a bit of room sound, but it added too much ambience for what they were trying to achieve. Rankin also experimented with placing two condensers close to the floor, in front of the kick facing away from the drum head, to capture the fast slap ambience up close. They insisted on using small Toms. One 12 inch and one 13 inch. With a AKG C414 mounted over each, and heavily gated. The drum sound has become somewhat of a trademark to the QOTSA sound. So time was taken to get it right. After the set up, Rankin had 12 channels just for drums. "Within that there should be a good drum sound" Rankin laughs.


Guitars: Having three guitarists can be a mixing engineers nightmare. Especially when each guitar is doing something different. The band agreed to either Harmonize, Double or Counter-Melody their guitars. Or, when in doubt, pick up a synth, as Dean Fertita (The Dead Weather, The Raconteurs) does throughout this particular track. With his astral synth keys, he emphasises the freaky feel and allows viable space for his axe dwelling band mates. All guitars were DI’d, then later re-amped and refined. The JHS ColourBox pedal often served as the front end for each DI. With an added pedal EQ (Bandpass) leaving space for everything else in the mix.


Guitar Pedals: Van Leeuwen religiously used his signature pedal the TVL Raven. A sweepable filter/booster effect similar to a wah sound, but switchable as opposed to your more popular Cry Baby Wah pedal style. For fuzziness, they used the TVL Octavier, and the Fuzzrocious Oh See Demon Octave Fuzz, gated to the nines with zero feedback. Homme utilised the Electro-Harmonix Mellotron, a modulator for the later added string sounds. And the Eventide H9 harmoniser, for that extra bit of harmony in the rhythm.


Once recorded, all guitar DI tracks were then re-amped and recorded with two Neumann M50s, in a 30 square foot room. This allowed for realness, whilst still maintaining space in the mix. They used a Peavy solid state head, for anything that had a fast attack, and a Echopark Vibramatic 4T5 (Made by Gabrielle Curry), which is a combination of a 1960s Fender Bassman, a 1960s Fender Super Reverb, with a touch of Vox for added voice.


Distortion: the Ambient/Room mics we’re driven with Overstayers Saturator, as well as Overstayers VCA Compressor. Old faithful, JHS ColourBox was used in the RCA Ribbons single chain to dirty up the drum sound.

No plugins were used in the recording process. The band wanted to make all their tonal choices on the way in. Once all arrangements were down, the band performed everything live, sometimes to a click track. But often it threw the feel off. Homme’s Vocals were recorded through a Shure SM58. A heap of experimentation with different mics for Homme’s Vocal was undertaken, testing out the Sankin CU51 Ribbon, to add character. The RCA 44 was tested, as well as the Electro-Voice Dynamic mic for added harshness. An Eventide 949 was used in the vocal chain for a slight delay and pitch shift, creating a fake room sound around Homme's already haunting voice.

Note: an almost even frequency range. Screenshot taken during the Chorus


The Secret Weapon


Well it's no secret. Mark Ronson stepped in as producer for the album. Mr "Uptown Funk" himself knew Homme from working together on the Lady Gaga stuff. Homme said in an NME interview:


“I’ve known Mark casually for a couple of years – we’ve both been up late in the same places. My kids were listening to ‘Uptown Funk’, and I thought ‘this sounds amazing, it’s really tight and dry’ and that was the direction I wanted to take this record in. Then Ronson called me up to work on this [Lady] Gaga stuff and within half an hour I was like ‘I think I’ll ask Ronson to do this’ – it will confuse and dismay people. I think one of the true joys of being in a rock’n’roll band is to define expectations just so you can defy them.”


Ronson's attitude toward this out-of-the-box rock album was second to none. He did what any good producer would and kept the band moving forward. Whatever sonic ideas the band had, Ronson was there to show them how to achieve it. Throughout the recording process, Ronson would chop up bits and pieces of different vocal takes, piecing together creepy backing tracks to underly within the mix. Something the band hadn't tried before.


Ronson's vast musical mind was an important tool for pulling sonic ideas. He helped the band shape most of it ideas, and referenced them with actual songs. Whilst Rankin recorded, Ronson sat in his little side room programming, processing and reimagining different sounds. Ideas were tossed around like a basketball in an NBA game. From vocal harmonies to drum machine claps, Ronson keep the juices flowing. And furthermore, he was there till the end. Mastering and all.


Tried and Tested


A few things caught my ear in the production of this track. The overall sound that these guys have achieved was far beyond the load of critical expectations that had been thrown their way. Though in particular, I absolutely loved the tonal decisions the band made prior to tape. Especially for their guitar sounds. It can be quite difficult juggling numerous guitars in the mix, especially guitar players that love to riff, solo and improvise. Their use of the JHS Colour Box pedal on nearly every direct input, gave them the tonal colour foundation that they built their tonal choices from.


JHS’s all-analog Colour Box is fashioned after perhaps the most beloved preamp ever, the Neve 1073. It also includes four EQ bands and both 1/4" and balanced XLR connectors. You can record direct with it, or place it in front of a conventional amp. Recording direct, Colour Box provides a convincing Neve preamp sound with brilliant highs and portly lows. There’s great dynamic range and acres of headroom. Notes feel grounded, with rock-solid fundamentals. With the right EQ settings, you can get attractive and surprisingly amp-like clean tones. - Joe Gore's Review for Premier Guitar.

This kind of blew my mind. The ability to utilise a simple guitar effect for pre-interpret all tonal choices for the album. So I tired this myself. I fitted a Tone Burst pedal by Mesa Boogie into my signal chain, and toyed with a few different instruments to see if I could simple colour my signal before tape. Obviously, I have already tested this pedal in my guitar chain, but when I added it to my room/ambient mics for my drum sound, it coloured the room to a unique, natural, reverb ambience. I love this idea. You can give you tracks a subtle common denominator over the your whole album, without having to dig deep into your pockets.


Also, the fact that Rankin insisted that all guitar tracks would be DI'd to create more space in the mix, was a thought that would have never entered my mind. By doing this, it allowed for viable mixing and processing control, that would later save the mixing engineer the frustration of trying to mix three very profound and egotistical guitarists. Luckily for the Rankin and Ronson, QOTSA's guitar agreement came forth prior to even stepping into the studio.


So for many future projects, especially guitar strong music, the DI technique will be taken on board quite heavily. Some bands and artists iv'e worked with, favour their tonal choices, and almost become attached to that sound, and most of the time, they'll will want to capture that on the record. Though, by utilising Direct Inputs, the same tonal choices can be within the signal chain. It's just a matter of later re-amping the recorded signal, and sending it into a reverberant space, thus creating an already, mix-worthy, organic sound.


I love this idea! Now I just need to build a suitable reverberant room...


Conclusion


Feet Don't Fail Me is the opening track, and the band could have ended there. In one song, the band showed their new, and old colours. Deriving their sound in the first 2 mins. They defied critics and worked with one of Pop musics greatest modern producers, Mark Ronson. Keeping interest and the bad-boy flair prominent. In the release of Villains, a viral overkill bombarded our socials with the amazing album artworks produced by long time collaborator, Boneface. Art of which has truly painted the picture for Homme, and his men's, sadistic minds. Its almost been one year since its release... and I feel like then next one will be even more of a boogie.



Works Cited:

Winograd, J., Staff, H., Staff, H., Camp, A., Camp, A., & Camp, A. (2018). Queens of the Stone Age: Villains | Album Review | Slant Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.slantmagazine.com/music/review/queens-of-the-stone-age-villains

Cooper, L. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/queens-of-the-stone-age-josh-homme-new-album-interview-2017-2090631

Davi, M. Too Close For Comfort. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.audiotechnology.com.au/wp/index.php/too-close-for-comfort-in-the-studio-with-queens-of-the-stone-age/

Gore, J. JHS Colour Box Review. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.premierguitar.com/articles/21512-jhs-colour-box-review

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