Bang Gang's Bardi Johannsson - The Gearwire Interview
December 21, 2006
Iceland is still a land of unknown musical pleasures. Knowledge of this country's musical offerings is often limited to The Sugarcubes and Björk, but Icelandic indie music has a wonderful life of its own apart from Björk Gudmundsdottir, Einar Örn, and the rest of the 'Cubes. Sigur Ros and GusGus are the runners up for "Best Known Icelandic Bands In America", but the list of top-notch Icelandic performers is quite long.
Icelandic groups worth looking into include HÖH, Kukl, and Bubbi Morthens & Das Kapital, from the same era as the Sugarcubes. A list of newer groups equally deserving of serious attention would be incomplete without the excellent Bang Gang, whose 2003 Something's Wrong far outpaces better known USA-based acts such as Death Cab For Cutie and the utterly-insufferable-yet-somehow-famous Coldplay.
I caught a few words with Bardi Johannsson about recording; his refreshing, devil-may-care attitude about the studio is a bit surprising considering the careful, brooding nature of his songs. Something's Wrong is a beautifully structured album, with rich textures, excellent melodies, and a complete lack of the kind of po-faced caterwauling foisted onto the public by Coldplay. There really is no comparison, the only reason to mention both groups in the same breath is because they occupy the roughly same musical zip code. Beyond that, the differences are night and day. . .
Joe Wallace/Gearwire: Tell me a bit of Bang Gang history, how did you get started and how long did it take you to become technically savvy in the studio?
Bardi Johannsson: Bang Gang started as a duo with me and my friend Henrik (now in Singapre Sling). We did a self released 7" vinyl called Listen Baby. After that release and a couple of concerts we decided to take a long break. In the mean time I was working on some electronic music and got a female singer to sing on it, Esther. Our first two songs were signed to an Icelandic label and then licensed to East/West Warner in France. I needed a name for that project, so I called my friend Henrik and asked if it was OK to use the name, Bang Gang as I didn't think of any good name. He agreed.
This contract put a pressure to make a full album, this was in 1998. I finished a full album with 3 vocalists. The record was released in Iceland, France and Korea in 2000 and did quite well. After that I took a break and worked on production for other artists, film and TV music, had a everyday radio show, made some TV shows, etc... I have been involved with many various thing in my life. I like to mix work, not only do music.
Then I stared working on Something Wrong. While doing that I have released a side project under my name with a Symphony Orchestra, made short films, designed clothes for an exhibition in Italy, more producing, etc, etc. I got my studio built up by always picking up one object on my travels. One guitar or keyboard.
Bang Gang has a very lush, seamless sound on CD. What kinds of studio gear (plugins, hardware compressors and limiters, etc) do you use to get that sound?
When I record there are no rules. I have a good mic, good compressor/EQ, and good instruments. Thats all you need. Reverb and delay I use from the computer, except when I want to use Space Echo, then I use the analog one. Mostly when I record I think more about capturing the moment rather than work on the sound. I just put the mic in front of the amp or guitar... listen. If it doesn't distort, I record. If you spent too much time working on the sound the moment is gone and you have bad performance. If you have a bad performance, it doens't matter how it sounds.... it sucks anyway. Also, you can get great mistakes and new sound by accident.
Any examples of how that's happened to you?
On the song Look At The Sun on my record, I had an idea of an acoustic guitar riff. I wanted to record it quickly, just to remember it. Then I worked the whole song on the "demo" guitar. When I recorded the guitar I had the window open and my fan blowing air randomly on the mic. Then when I wanted to record the "real" guitar with the clean sound, there was no character. I kept the "demo" guitar.
How would you rate the quality of studios in Iceland compared to those in London or elsewhere?
Studios are getting better. We have some very talented engineers. I think we are missing some of the "retro" stuff. But my generation is making up for that and bringing it in.
Can you tell me your favorite studio techniques when recording vocals to get them sounding as perfect as you'd like? What do you do once the material is recorded to polish the vocal sounds and make the track work well?
You just need a good mic, a good compressor and a good voice. Then you push the performer to do his best. I do a lot of editing work and comping.
What are your feelings on pitch correction and these electronic tuners that fix out-of-tune vocals? Some artists say they are crap and make everything sound bland. What do you recommend for singers to warm up their voices, stay in tune, and avoid the machinery to fix the vocals in post production?
I think pitch correction is OK as long as you don't hear it. Some band would suck without pitch correction, most R&B bands, and others would lose their character, (like) Sonic Youth. I would recommend to singer to smoke a lot and drink a lot - not when singing, though. Also it can be helpful to play the melody on a piano and sing with it to get the notes right in the head. I am not a good singer and sometimes on stage I can be very "shaky". Mostly because of stress. . . getting better though.
What are your favorite plug-ins or hardware processors for instruments and vocals? More importantly, how do you specifically use them to technically correct problems or enhance what's already there?
My favorite function are; Nudge, Timestretch & copy/paste. In Pro Tools, the most used plugins are Filterbank, TC Master X5, Echo Farm, D-Verb & Fairchild 660.
Some American producers refuse to allow computers into the recording process at some stages, citing their unpredictability and potential for data loss. What are your feelings here?
The final product is a CD, DVD, or MP3. None of those formats are analog. I like using old instruments and amps, but it will always end up digital in the end. If there is frequent data loss and errors. . . drink less or learn more.
Explain for our American readers what it is like trying to get a foothold in America for an Icelandic band and how you have grown your audience. What are your challenges?
If you want to make things happen, you have to work. If they don't happen when you work, then work more. Sleeping is for the dead.