Always Start a Record Wearing Soft-Soled Shoes

Ellevator get some tricks of the trade from their producer Chris Walla (Death Cab For Cutie).

Tyler Bersche, Nabi Sue Bersche, and Elliott Gwynne are the Hamilton, Ontario-based band Ellevator; Chris Walla a musician and producer, who has worked with artists like Tegan and Sara and Braids, was formerly a guitarist and songwriter for Death Cab For Cutie. Chris produced Ellevator’s debut record, The Words You Spoke Still Move Me — out now on Arts & Crafts — so to celebrate its release, the four sat down to catch up about creating it. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music 

Tyler Bersche: Just in terms of financial obligation and the kind of stress of it, it’s always been super meticulous for us being in the studio. Like, we’re going to fucking play the same song a thousand times before we go in, because we have five hours. There was not even really historically room for that, so I think finding those moments on this record was a big lesson and super important.

Nabi Sue Bersche: And also a bit of a treat.

Chris Walla: Yeah. I mean, it’s so funny — it’s music and it’s supposed to be fun and inspired, and you get a month into making a record and you’re trying to do something that’s maybe not just live performances off the floor. You’re kind of trying to invent a wheel when it’s like, “Why are we inventing a wheel? There’s already a wheel.” [Laughs.] Elliott, I kind of want to talk about Cliff. Cliff is your — I mean, maybe you have many alter egos, I don’t really know.

Elliott Gwynne: Potentially, yeah. I don’t know if it was accidentally, or like a gift from the bomb shelter that was our rehearsal space. But, yeah, we were stuck on “STAR” for a full day, like a ten hour rehearsal, and I think we were about to scrap it. 

Tyler: I do remember going out for Indian food, and I personally remember advocating to scrap it. I was like, “I don’t think we’re gonna fucking get this.”

Nabi: So we went back. 

Elliott: I don’t remember what the previous reiteration of that song was at all, but I think the birth of Cliff, I guess, was that we needed it to be cooler or something.

Nabi: [Laughs.] And Cliff is just pure cool.

Elliott: So Cliff has the denim jacket and the aviators, and he plays his bass real down low. So he showed up and something happened. 

Nabi: He got us there.

Tyler: What did you think when you first met Cliff?

Chris: I was a little concerned that Cliff was going to sort of derail us and take us away from the thing that maybe we should should be focusing on. But Cliff was the thing that we should be focusing on. Cliff’s contribution to that song was, he allowed the room to get a lot larger, and he allowed for a kind of imagination and inspiration that just wasn’t there before.

Elliott: He kind of broke down a little barrier, I guess.

Nabi: I think he was fun, if I may be so bold. Fun might be the, dare I say, biggest last minute inspiration that was needed. The spirit of fun can change a room and the atmosphere for everyone a lot quicker than other emotions can. It’s easier to have fun, and maybe force that upon ourselves, and to share that with each other, than it is to focus on other things that we maybe view as more sentimental or artistic feeling — like, “Just channel this feeling really deeply.” You can get there as an individual sometimes, but as a whole group that can feel more forced than fun.

Tyler: Yeah, I think that a lot of our best ideas and best moments, honestly, were jokes. Kind of trying to get each other’s goat and make each other laugh with music in some way. Especially some of those huge piano moments on this record — trying to remember back to first writing them, I think a lot of those were trying to be like, “How do we make this hilarious?”

Chris: Yeah. And I mean, there were so many moments where you could just throw something at Tom [Hammerton] — obviously his musical language is incredible, but then it was really fun to try and speak to Tom in terms of, you know, neon dolphins and stuff.

Tyler: When was the neon dolphins? Because I remember that happening.

Chris: I think at some point, I pulled up some Lisa Frank notebook. Are you familiar with Lisa Frank?

Tyler: No.

Chris: Yeah, you’re probably just a little too young for that. But if you just Google Lisa Frank, what you end up with are, like, neon jumping dolphin sunsets that are all pink and magenta, and they’re done in this sort of photorealistic Drive-by-way-of Tron aesthetic. All of the girls in my sixth and seventh grade classes, just all their notebooks were Lisa Frank notebooks, and it’s just a really particular aesthetic. 

I stumbled back into Lisa Frank as an adult when I was mixing Plans, the Death Cab record in Madison. It was at Butch Vig’s studio, and at some point or another, we were searching for some piece of equipment in the basement. We were just going through a bunch of stuff and stumbled across a Lisa Frank notebook — just like an eight and a half by 11 notebook, and there’s a dolphin on the cover. It was like, “What in the hell is this?” And we started opening it up, and there’s a bunch of notes in it. It’s full front-to-back with notes, and it turns out that it was Billy Corgan’s notebook, and it was all his notes for Siamese Dream.

Nabi: What!

Chris: Yeah. It was fascinating. I just really loved that all of his detailed notes about dynamics and like, “this should definitely be one guitar, and then this should be as big as possible,” and there’s scribbles and drawings, and there’s some really meticulous notes, and then there’s some stuff that’s just scrawled in there — and it’s all in a Lisa Frank notebook. It’s something he bought at Rite Aid for $0.79. But I was just so into having the visual language of that record that I know so well kind of expanded by this found object.

Nabi: That’s pretty cool.

Tyler: I had no idea that that aesthetic went so far back.

Chris: Yeah, I just kind of love stuff that’s like, that’s a little forgotten and a little under the radar, and maybe not super cool or whatever. 

Tyler: How much of record making, in your time doing it, is just being an agent of chaos? Because I feel an energy that you brought to making this record was kind of injecting that in moments, and saying fuck you to the checklist. That was very helpful.

Chris: It has everything to do with the group of people. One of the things about Ellevator and about you guys as people: you’re all really excellent at what you’re doing and you know how to play your instruments and you know how to sing and you have a clear idea of where you’re headed and what it is that you want to do. And in that, I’m always an agent of chaos. Yes.

But the thing is, I’m an agent of chaos whether or not that’s true. When the band are also agents of chaos, then it’s just all chaos. Because I can barely make a punch list to save my life. But the thing is, it takes so much trust and so much time for for bands to get comfortable with the idea that it’s OK to be uncomfortable, and that actually it’s OK to be in the woods, and that it’s OK to not know where you are. Eventually you’re going to get out of the woods, and maybe I’m not sure how we’re going to get out of the woods — maybe you’re not sure how we’re going to get out of the woods, and then Cliff shows up and Cliff knows exactly how to get out of the woods. And you didn’t even realize you were in the woods until Cliff showed up. I mean, the whole thing is like a video game. So I like to create chaos in part so that a different kind of order can then present itself, and show you a different way to get out of the woods. Because the clearest way to get out of the woods is just to keep going straight. Or you just chop a bunch of trees down and then you’re out of the woods — and then there’s no trees and it’s boring and it’s not beautiful.

Tyler: As cliche and tacky as it is talking about how the journey is the important part, I feel like in the tangible recorded music — I know you’ve made a lot of records, we’ve made this one record, and I can say from that one record I’m already like bored of, like, good drum sounds.

Like, I’m already so bored with the notion of like, are we just going to capture this well? Obviously there’s a plan that we need to do that, but those moments of seeking something and really destroying something and, like you said, just kind of letting it reorder itself is I think where every great sonic moment [happens].

Nabi: It’s the burning of the fields to get the soil rich for the next [crop]… I gotta go write a song! [Laughs.] So we’ve talked a whole bunch about visuals that help pull you out or push you further in, seek last minute inspiration. I have an example, but I want to hear some other examples, if anyone has them, of physical positions, or even dress up or something that can get you into a different mindset to create what you want to create. I think Cliff is sort of an embodiment of that without changing clothes necessarily. 

I found you really helped me when we were making this album — I was feeling super lethargic after singing for a couple of days, and rather than you telling me to push the opposite of that and get hyped and do some jumping jacks or something, which is where I would normally go, you just told me to embrace it. You got me a pillow and set up a microphone, and I just lay down on the ground and sang with my head on a pillow, and basically had a rest. I really appreciated that, and I remember that benefiting me too, to realize that capturing the appropriate sound and emotion and vibe isn’t always from giving your all — sometimes maybe restraint too. 

That’s a small example for me, but I feel like there was a lot of that in our experience working with you. You were in a room — I don’t know if I’m describing this right, but it felt like all of the amps in the room were on and you were just getting feedback to just have it be as physically loud as possible, like a scream. 

Tyler: Yeah, I haven’t had an experience [like that] before or since. I felt like I was going into a submarine or something — I put the headphones on and went in there, and I had the muffs on so I couldn’t I couldn’t hear it as loud as it was in the room, but the way it hit my body actually triggered a fear response. It’s like something deep and biological that’s going on — like if there’s a sound this loud, you’re going to die. [Laughs.] 

Chris: I do really enjoy that stuff. I mean, we’re physical beings, and hearing and listening to music is a physical process, and playing music is a physical process, and it’s also an emotional process. We are in a moment where everybody’s just hyped, but then everybody’s also really self-aware about how hyped they are and going to therapy and talking about how they don’t feel like they want to be hyped all the time, and then and how everybody else is hyped and why am I not as hyped as these people? What’s wrong with me?

If you’re trying to get a bunch of feelings through a microphone and out a pair of speakers, then what better environment to try and just break through all of that. Like, it’s OK if you’re not hyped every day. And when you have all the energy in the world, fucking cool, let’s get it. But if you’re feeling sad or you’re despairing about something or you’re just really fucking mad about something, you kind of try and steer the ship to make room for whatever that thing is.

Nabi: And that’s art, too, right? It’s not any one state.

Chris: Yeah, exactly. It’s the whole ithing. I feel like this record, the emotional and sonic language of it is pretty broad, and it feels pretty whole to me. It feels like real, actual people. It’s really fussy and meticulous sometimes, and it’s just a big sprawling mess sometimes. And the sad parts are just really sad and the hyped parts are pretty hyped. I love that. I love that stuff. And to me, that’s how you get there, leaning into those physical experiences. It’s like, “Yeah, why don’t you lay on the floor and have a nap and maybe sing some vocals while you’re asleep?”

Tyler: Yeah. That means so much to me because I feel that way about the record, that there’s all these little corners that you can go to. I mentioned this earlier in the convo about how, until making this record, we never really had a studio experience that was without the clock. Obviously, there was a clock, but it was very free. When you started making your first records, what was the relationship to recording? Were you recording yourself out of the gate? Did that lend to studio inspiration beyond being prepared and going in and tracking your five hours or whatever?

Chris: I was kind of always recording myself, I guess. I’m thinking about myself as an agent of chaos again, and how being an agent of chaos is so different on a computer than it is when you’re making records on tape. You don’t have an undo button. So I guess when I started, my sense of order and when to push the chaos button was a little different… It’s actually kind of an interesting question. I don’t know why, but I’m thinking about shoes and which shoes I choose to wear to the studio. Did I talk to you guys about shoes in the studio, like which shoes, when and why, at any point?

Tyler: Because I remember a short conversation that we had. I think there was a guitar take that I was not doing well and I needed to put my boots on.

Chris: Oh, yeah, so that’s basically the idea. It’s like, if I’m at a point in a record where I feel like I need to change the mood of the record — like just the day to day operating procedure is not serving the record anymore — I’ll change my shoes. I will put on whatever pair of boots has the hardest, loudest soles on them, and I’ll just clack around in the studio for a day. You always start a record with a pair of soft-soled shoes or sneakers or something. But if you get to a point in a record where you do need a particular kind of discipline, putting on a pair of hard-soled dress shoes or boots or something is really good for that.

Nabi: Sometimes I’ll change clothes midday if I have the opportunity to come home, because I need to shift my mindset. So I’ll put something on that makes me a little more powerful, a little more together, then I’ll go try my best to own it. So I feel like the shoes is the traveler’s way of achieving that, because you can’t necessarily fit a whole wardrobe in your suitcase.

Elliott: Do you running shoes make you play faster?

Chris: [Laughs.] Yeah.

Elliott: I’ll keep that in mind.

Tyler: If you need to get up to speed, you can just get out your Nikes.

Chris: [Laughs.] This stuff is actually so important, at least to me in terms of making records.

Making a record is just such an exercise in being who you are, or pretending to be somebody else, or engaging in a particular type of social behavior, or trying on a different type of social behavior in the interest of making something emotionally resonant and durable for the ages. And if there’s anything that I learned from Bowie, it’s that. All of those records and all of those environments and all of those characters and outfits and different modes of expression absolutely matter and absolutely change the outcome of a record. 

(Photo Credit: left, Dianna Walla)

Ellevator is an indie rock band from Hamilton, Ontario. Their debut record, The Words You Spoke Still Move Me, is out now on Arts & Crafts.