|June 2002 - Driven by a desire to create honest and influential music, Midtown formed in the fall of '98 while freshmen at Rutgers University, and has since enjoyed an unexpected and exceptionally fast ascent. January '99: Midtown plays its first show in a New Brunswick, NJ basement in front of 40 people. Summer '01: Midtown is on tour with Blink 182 playing for 15,000 people a night. This whirlwind rise may have sent a weaker band off course, but Midtown's strong foundation in DIY ethics helped keep them grounded every step of the way. Their eclectic musical style, political consciousness, and ahead-of-the curve aesthetic sensibility has put them at the forefront of the underground rock movement and earned them a worldwide fanbase. With a highly-regarded indie album behind them, Midtown is more than ready to take the next step with the release of their new Drive-Thru/MCA album, "Living Well is the Best Revenge."
Guitar Center caught up with Gabe Saporta (bass, vocals) and Heath Saraceno (guitar, vocals) to talk about gear, writing, and their new album, "Living Well is the Best Revenge."
See Midtown live this summer on the Warped Tour.
GC: Tell me about the basses that you used in the studio to record "Living Well is the Best Revenge."
Gabe: On our last album we rented this really amazing Salmon-colored '67 Fender P-Bass. It really sounded awesome--rosewood fingerboard and everything! It was just so good. And at the time, I was playing Ernie Ball Stingrays. I had just played Ernie Ball Stingrays, so it was great to play a Fender P-Bass. It was my first time playing a P-Bass when recording. I loved it. I got a deal with Fender and they hooked me up with a P-Bass and I also bought a used P-Bass, like an '82 P-Bass. When we went to the studio this time, we rented the same bass we rented last time, the Salmon-colored one. It turned out that the ones I got from Fender sounded better, so we used those.
GC: What is it about the Fender P-Basses that you like so much?
Gabe: It's just a real natural sound. I used to play Ernie Balls a lot and then I changed up. Ernie Balls were active and I could raise the bass on them and make them really boomy and stuff, but the problem with the Ernie Balls is that I play so hard and rock out--they're really sensitive to how you play, the response is really good on them. For the Fender ones, it's more of a rock n' roll bass. You can play it straight up and it gives you what you've given to it. The P-Bass is classic raw bass sound. And with the Ampeg head that I have, I can give it that bass boost that I was looking for in active basses and it still sounds awesome.
GC: What did you use amp wise?
Gabe: I started off using an old SWR SM400 head. I got a deal with SWR and they gave me a new SM900 and a Megoliath cabinet. Then I came across an old Ampeg SVT classic and I picked that up. The Ampeg SVT classic along with the SWR Megoliath, an 8x10 with a horn, just sounds amazing--it's just huge. You can feel it in your chest. It's really good. The Ampeg SVT classic head with the SWR Megoliath cabinet sounds better than when I use that same Ampeg SVT classic with an Ampeg cabinet.
GC: Did one end up being your favorite as opposed to another?
Gabe: The Megoliath is my favorite cabinet. The Ampeg SVT classic is my favorite head. I was using the SWR head, but again, too many knobs and s--t was too much stuff--just a little thing can f--k it up. I like the simplicity of three knobs.
GC: Besides your amps and your bass, did you use any pedals or effects to get the sound on the album?
Gabe: We used a little bit of overdrive, I think we used a Rat pedal. I think we also did some effects straight from the board, to get some bass overdrive. We also did some synthesis on one song, but that was from the keyboard--I think we programmed that.
GC: What do you think a good producer does? What do they bring to the project?
Gabe: I think a good producer should be like a fifth member of the band and have a fifth brain, but he should also come from a different standpoint. I think there are two really crucial things a producer needs to do. One, he needs to be able to manipulate sounds to get the best sound and to understand what kind of sounds you're looking for and what sounds are the best for the song. And two, he needs to have a songwriter stand point and understand the song structures in the best way to make the song dynamic, build it up and make it original. A good producer should be able to come up with parts of a song or an arrangement and he should be able to say, "Let's try this here or let's do this different here." That's what a good producer should do.
Mark Trombino is very good at getting sounds. He has a great engineer background. I think that one thing that we learned is we'd like to work with someone who has more of a songwriting background. It was great working with Mark because he is also a programmer. He loves computers and he's amazing with making beats and stuff like that. He just plays all this original stuff that no other producer really does and the way he brings it up to us is just awesome.
GC: Do you have a home studio?
Gabe: No, I wish I did. Recently at Guitar Center, I bought a BOSS SP505 Groove Sampling Workstation, it's a sequencer, sampler, and synthesizer all in one. It can make beats on it and do everything. It's cool. I just started playing around with that stuff. In terms of home stuff, I have small Fender amps. I also have a moog board and a sh--ty four track.
GC: What about gear on the road?
Gabe: We wrote "Living Well is the Best Revenge" while we were on tour because we've been on tour basically non-stop since our first album came out several years ago and we wrote all the songs on an acoustic guitar in the back of our van. I have two acoustic guitars: I have one really sh--ty no-name brand and I have a really nice Guild Madara.
GC: What's the typical process writing a song from beginning to end?
Gabe: For me personally, when I'm writing a song, I'll come up with usually melodies and chord changes at the same time. The chord changes help build the foundation of the song and the melodies help direct it to where it's going. So I'll come up with a part, not the final melody, but the basic melody and rhythm patterns and vocal lines and that will help me decide where I want the song to go next. Maybe I'll bring it down or push it up. Once I have those parts, basically I come up with three or four basic parts, I have to start thinking about arrangements and lyrics at the same time. Lyrics help me come up with arrangements and vice versa. I have to know which part is going to repeat and which lyrics will be strong for the song. Once I have a basic arrangement or whatever I'll come together with the band and we'll all work on it together and maybe change a whole bunch of stuff or maybe add parts.
GC: How do you guys choose which songs end up on your albums?
Gabe: For this last album, we demo'ed about twenty songs. Some of the songs that we initially thought were good, we ended up not liking when they came out so we just axed them. Some songs that we didn't even consider just came out awesome. So that's basically what we did, we demo'ed some songs, choose thirteen of them to record and eleven went on the album.
GC: You guys have had pretty good success in the past with your independent CDs and now success with your major label release. What are the pros and cons of making and releasing a record independently vs. on a major label?
Gabe: Unfortunately for us, we had a really negative experience being on an independent label. I can only speak in terms of things that I've observed about independent labels. Unfortunately, our independent label really operated like a major label. We got all the bad stuff that comes with being on a major label, but none of the good stuff. Some of the good stuff that normal people would have on an independent label is that you have, for example, freedom to do whatever you want creatively and artistically. Also, things happen faster because it doesn't have to get approved too many times and it's more of a close-knit family. Your publicist is also your marketing person and you get to be part of this whole community--that doesn't really exist on major labels.
GC: How did the success of your previous work affect how you guys approached "Living Well is the Best Revenge" in regard to music and lyrics? Did you feel an unspoken pressure?
Gabe: Well, a little bit. You feel pressure because of the way that major labels work sometimes. For example, another good thing about being on an independent label is (and again this wasn't true for us, but is true for other independent labels) if you can sell 10,000 or 20,000 records, you can make some money off of it. With a major label, there's so much money going into stuff, it's a whole different ball game--everything is being recouped all of the time. You never really see money from record sales because there are always more expenses. Major labels spend a lot of money promoting. Independent labels promote to a small audience without pushing a lot of money, but they have that audience niche and you just tap into that whole scene. You can make a living on an independent label without having to be huge. On a major label, you have to sell tons of records before you even see a dime. The unspoken pressure is that there is always talk about a "radio hit." With our experiences we were totally left alone to do what we wanted to do creatively and that is what I think is good about MCA. They respect the artists and they allow them to do what they need. We didn't feel that pressure because we felt like we had something good about our songs that could be on the radio. The radio is so fickle. It's going to be on the radio because there's already a fan base for the radio. We build our fan base from the ground up by touring--that's the most important thing. So there's a little bit of that unspoken pressure, but we try to ignore it. But again, the good thing about being on a major label that's good is that once you get your record out, it soars. And they do have this machine to promote you, which is something that doesn't exist on an independent label.
GC: Your music and your lyrics come across with a lot of integrity, which makes it easy for young musicians to want to start their own bands and do what you guys are doing. What words of wisdom can you pass on to these young musicians?
Gabe: The one thing that you need to know is that nothing comes easy, we really had to work hard. When we started, we were sleeping in our van, couldn't afford to get hotels to sleep in, and lost money all the time. It's not easy, it's hard, but you've got to do it. If you put your heart and mind into something, you can accomplish anything. But, you really have to have your heart behind it because if you don't love it, if you're not passionate about it, you're not going to want to put in the work that is necessary. It's all about putting in that work and the people who have that passion, are the people that love playing in and of itself. If you see playing in a band as a means to make money or get girls or something like that, it's not going to happen because those people aren't doing it for the right reasons--they won't have the passion to really make it happen. It's all about having the passion and having the motivation.
GC: What have your shopping experiences been like with Guitar Center?
Gabe: We go in there and we are treated like royalty. They know us, but even before we were in a band, people were always helpful there. Everyone is really knowledgeable in their department. Sometimes it's so popular with so many people in there it's hard to move around. Sometimes it's so packed, but it's awesome. Guitar Center is great. Play anything you want. Try something out. I'm totally psyched!
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