Features Interviews

Song Premier: Knife The Glitter’s “The Snake Charmer’s Anthem”

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Knife The Glitter may not be a widely known band in the global metal community, but those of us in the New Jersey progressive metal scene know them as one of the best bands to tear through our putrid humid air over the last decade. I had the pleasure if seeing them at several shows over the years as they broke ground with cutting-edge instrumental dementia that probably would have caught if they’d just waited a few years.

That’s not to say that the band was unknown. For a while there, especially when they still had a vocalist, it seemed like every local metal and hardcore show in north Jersey had Knife The Glitter on the bill. The band toured briefly with Dillinger Escape Plan among others. But eventually guitarist Kevin Antreassian’s recording work at Backroom Studios and guitar tech gigs with The Deftones, Dillinger Escape Plan, and Todd Rundgren, and drummer Eli Litwin moved on to numerous other projects (most notably his solo band Intensus, which released an album on Metal Blade recently).

I was always bummed out that Knife The Glitter never recorded a full-length album, but it turns out all those years that they were just tracking at the slowest speed possible. Seriously, if they recorded any slower they’d be moving backwards and just deleting other records. But I guess you have that luxury when you own your own recording studio.

Finally, it’s done. There’s no official release date yet, as the band is still working out the nitty-gritty of distribution, but for the moment we at Gear Gods are thrilled to be able to premier the first new song from the forthcoming self-titled album, “The Snake Charmer’s Anthem.”

Kevin Antreassian and I go way back, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to ask him about the long, strange tracking process for Knife The Glitter’s album. After all, it’s not often that a band spends three years piecing together an LP. Plus, Kevin has become a prolific recording engineer as of late, and I always jump at an opportunity to talk to musicians who record their own projects. Nerding out on instruments and audio production simultaneously can lead to bloodshot eyes and nosebleads, but it’s immensely satisfying in the moment.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Kevin, and his bandmates Eli Litwin and Ryan Newchok for years. My bands have played the same shows as them. I’ve recorded at Kevin’s studio. I even lent a vocal to that aforementioned Intensus record that Eli masterminded. So take any praise here with a grain of salt, because I fully admit bias. But I think the quality of the above song speaks for itself.

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You’ve been recording this record for years, right? Was in done in phases, like drums two years ago, bass a year ago, guitars last week? Or were you randomly recording bits of everything over time?

YES! We started tracking drums in 2010 after we got back from our tour with The Dillinger Escape Plan and just finished tracking late 2013!  It’s hard to find time to work on your own material when you have other people projects to complete on a deadline.  If it’s one thing Knife The Glitter never had, it was deadlines.

How did you remember the parts to the songs after all that time?

Well…who’s to say we did! After not playing these songs for years, and picking up the 7-string to attempt to track, I had no clue.  Nothing about these songs is easy or typical so there’s no logical way of figuring it out.  After about a minute or so of attempting to play them the muscle memory would kick in and my hands would just go to the right spots. That’s what I told the other guys anyway.

Your recording facility, Backroom Studios, has been growing and increasing its gear arsenal over this time, and I’m sure your skills as an engineer have improved as well. Were you tempted to go back and redo a lot of parts?

Totally.  Since I’ve been engineering/producing everyday for the last 6 or so years I’ve become extremely sensitive to tempo fluctuations for better or worse. With metal, almost all players push the tempo.  It’s really hard to play extreme music from a relaxed standpoint and I see it daily.  Sometimes it benefits the section making it seem more urgent, but other times it just comes across as sloppy.  Listening back when mixing with my assistant Scot, I sometimes cringe when hearing a section that’s a little rushed, but that’s the nature of the beast and it shouldn’t be perfect.

You were one of the first people I knew to use digital amps and modelers, but lately you’ve added a lot of tube amps to your studio. What did you use for the main guitar tones?

I’ve always been a big fan of being able to completely change the guitar tone in a live environment by just clicking a button. Like having a full studio at your feet.  The only way to really achieve that was through digital modeling technology so I naturally gravitated towards those amps.  The early Line 6 stuff was pretty awful, but it served its purpose, and was a good starting point for me. As the technology improved, though, it was starting to really blur the lines between a killer tube amp, and a modeler. My live rig was really, really complex, maybe excessively so. Well, no, it was just stupid but that’s all that was available at the time.  I was running two Line 6 Vettas with four cabs, two on each side of the kit.  Each side had a 4×12 which was split for stereo effects coming from one Vetta, and on top each side had a 2×12 which i sent all my midi sounds through from my Roland midi pickup (custom installed into my 7-string), also split stereo.  The pedalboard was so obnoxious that we made a custom box that folded out into three pieces and was about five feet wide when extended.  Chris, I still blame you for not asking me what the fuck I was thinking.  When the Axe-FX came out, it really put my rig in the stone age.  It did ALL of that in a 2U space, and sounded better to boot. For this record we used the Axe-FX II for all the parts and it really shows.  I changed the guitar tone constantly throughout the record to keep things interesting.  I never want the listener to feel safe, and the amount of dynamic change we implement with automation is pretty unsettling.

I’ve been paying a lot of attention to amp modelers since I started running this site, so I’m curious of something. A lot of people who use digital amps tend to go for solid state power amps, sometimes for weight but also because they don’t want to color the tone with tubes. Personally I feel like there’s a certain presence and cut that only a tube power section has. I know you’ve used both: an Axe-FX into powered monitors with solid state power and a VHT 2:90 tube power amp. Which did you prefer?

For me it all depends on what the end goal is.  Like you said, I’ve been down a few roads with these things and through a lot of experimentation and money I eventually ended up with a tube power amp running through a few large full range PA speakers.  The solid state power amps I was running at first just weren’t cutting it volume wise.  You need a lot of juice to push four 15″ speakers and I just felt like i was never loud enough even in a rehearsal setting.  When I jumped to the VHT I had WAY more volume than I ever needed.  I goes as far to say it was overkill and could’ve probably been fine with a 2/50/2.  To sum it up, If you like modelers (be it the Kemper, Fractal, etc) and you want a really good single tone, go with the tube power amp and a great cab. Something like the Fractal really shines when you have a full range setup.  The typical guitar cab rolls off heavily under 100hz and above 4khz!  That’s a TON of frequencies that you’ll never get to hear from a standard 4×12. When you hear the difference with the right patch, its a game changer.  I’ve done this exercise with tons of clients and even the most die hard tube purists get a boner.

You’ve also done a lot of guitar tech work, right? Especially with Axe-FX users? At what level do you think it’s possible to go the all-direct route, with no cabs on the stage? I see a lot of lesser-known bands who want to do the Periphery thing, but in these small clubs that don’t have the diesel PA systems you need to pull that off, so they tend to sound really anemic.

I’ve been lucky enough to do guitar tech work for a lot of amazing artists such as Dillinger, Deftones and even Todd Rundgren. It’s a tough call, and unless you’re constantly playing big theaters or large clubs it a real challenge to get enough stage volume to compete with the other members.  I never liked trusting small clubs’ sound guys and their half-destroyed state monitors, so I always brought my own rig.  If your band’s doing VFWs, bars, and small clubs don’t trust the house PA.  There’s almost nothing worse than trying to perform on stage and not being able to hear yourself.  If you’re lucky enough to be playing big rooms, chances are you have your own front-of-house and monitor guy and you can totally get away with doing it all direct.  When I was on the road with Stephen from the Deftones he would always run one Marshall 4×12 powered in a stereo fashion by two Electro Harmonix .22 caliber power amps just so he could feel the cab at his back.  They had MASSIVE line-arrays and great monitors at their disposal but having something familiar as a backup is always a nice option too.

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I know that Knife The Glitter isn’t really playing shows anymore, but if you were to do so, what amp setup would you go for?

The heart of it all would be the Axe-Fx II.  My sound is sort of tele-ish so that all the voicing of the chords cut through as much as possible.  I love using high gain amps with really low gain settings and even mixing them with cleaner fenders with a little drive.  The Fractal just has such flexible routing I/O that it’s a no brainer for this sort of thing.  I was using a lot of Roland and Axiom synth modules as well such as the VG-88, GR-30, GR-09, and the ancient GR-01 and ran all my those sounds simultaneously along side the effected guitar tone.  I feel like you and I were some of the only weirdos in the scene attempting to go that route.  As far as monitoring is concerned I’d love to try getting a nice large powered monitor setup split in stereo for what we do.  With the wattage that Class D amps put out and the benefit of weight saving over the VHT with massive KT88 tubes in it, I think I’d be enough juice to be heard over a really loud band.  Maybe something like two QSC KW153s, certainly not the cheapest option, but I can’t go back to standard 12″ Celestions for what our band was trying to do.

I think it’s interesting to look at what instrument a mixing engineer plays. The Knife The Glitter record, and the El Drugstore album you just mixed, both had pretty loud guitars in the overall balance of things. As a guitarist, do you sometimes have to be cognizant of any biases, and check yourself to make sure you’re not favoring one instrument over the other?

Absolutely.  I generally do a lot of metal and rock records and the guitar is a major factor and making those songs sound in-your-face.  If you play it safe with the guitars you risk the chance of song not coming across hard enough, too much and everything else is fighting to be heard.  Generally speaking I like to push the guitars out as far as possible almost to the point were its annoying, and then pull them back a hair.  Since they are panned hard a lot of the time, they don’t usually step on the kick, snare, bass or vocal much, so there a lot of room to push them.  As I said earlier, doing lots of automation with them can also make an otherwise stale record have dynamics.  By nature, distorted guitar doesn’t really have a ton, so I like to work the song and give it life if it needs it.

I’ve done a few articles on summing boxes recently. What’s your take on in-the-box vs outside? Is the appeal of leaving the computer simply in using some killer outboard compressors and eq, or do you feel that there’s any intrinsic tonal advantage to analog summing?

Its a tough call.  Part of me thinks that a lot of it is a marketing scheme.  Pro Tools and other DAWs got a lot of flack for lackluster summing in earlier versions and I think a lot of that stigma left a bad taste in peoples mouths for a long time.  Some genius came around and said, “how can I make these people who cant afford an analog desk but still want the benefits of summing,” and came up with a small rack box that is supposed to do magic.  Hell I bought one and use it on every mix!  Honestly though, I try not to buy into snake oil, and like to put things through A/B tests if possible. If I hear that it truly does make an improvement then I’ll sign off on it. The trouble with the Dangerous unit that I have is its almost impossible to get a matched mix from ITB vs OTB so a true test just isn’t possible.  A lot of my friends who have been doing records for longer than I have, such as Steve Evetts, swear by them though so that counts in my book.  At the same time though, I know lots of great engineers who can make killer mixes on just a 002 mixing completely ITB.  It’s one of those things that’s pretty cool if you have the money for it, but if not by no means is it necessary.  Learning how to use the tools you have at your disposal is a much better use of time/money in my opinion.

What’s your perspective on building up a studio? Which gear did you invest in first?

When I first started at Backroom Studios, I was recording bands with 57s running into a Crate PA using the mic pres through inserts, going into a borrowed 002 connected to my home gaming PC which was propped up on a piece of plywood sitting on two wobbly stools that I found lying around.  We made some really fun records like that.  Just get the bare essentials you need to record and hone your craft.  Granted the first few songs/records are bound to sound less than stellar, but don’t let that discourage you.  I learned on a Boss BR-8 with fucking ZIP disks!  Use your pc/laptop, get a decent interface like a 8 channel Focusrite, some working mics and a good DAW and just keep trying.  I think it’s actually crucial to start with shitty gear because it makes you work harder for the sound you want forcing you to actually use your ears and experiment with basic tools such as EQ, Compression, Delay etc.  Later on down the line if you start making some money from your work, put it back into the studio.  I find that the biggest improvement will always be the talent, but from a gear standpoint its mic choice and your monitors.  Don’t get caught up in the preamp game, or what cables you’re using, or $3000 outboard compressors.

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Do you enjoy recording your own band or would you rather have an outside perspective?

I don’t really like recording my own band per say, but I’ve always been from the school of thought that no one knows what the band should sound like more than the guys in the band.  An outside perspective is great for a lot of bands and can help them realize a songs full potential that they wouldn’t otherwise imagined.  But if you’re doing engineering/producing for a career it’s hard to justify the cost to hire someone else to do it for you.  Not to mention there’s also only a handful of guys I’d trust with this sort of a project.  I’d be like a mechanic going to STS to get work done on his specialized sports car.  The right guy behind the board makes all the difference.

Any future Knife The Glitter plans? Reunion shows? What current musical projects does everyone have?

We talking with a few labels about maybe doing something with this record, but we’re not sure at this point.  In the near future we’ll be remixing the older material for an instrumental release as well, and I have a few songs that I recorded in 5.1 surround sound that I’ll mix down to stereo as well.  Money has never been a driving factor with this band.  When you play this kind of music, you can’t really expect it to be super popular so we just want people to hear what we did during the 8 year course of this band.  No reunion will happen. It’d just take way too much time to try and attempt this material again at this stage, but some of us are still playing in other projects.  I am in a band called Mothership, which sounds like an odd blend of Rush, King Crimson, and The Beatles.  Eli is constantly doing crazy weird awesome projects with Philly based musicians as well.

Thanks for your time Kevin. Anything else to add?

Anytime! I hope everyone has some sort of reaction to the song/album, whether they think its awesome or just obnoxious.  When we were playing these songs back in 2007 I felt like a lot of people weren’t totally into what we were doing but now the progressive community is a lot larger and more open minded.

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