Blackstars and Ballou: the Recording of Skeletonwitch’s Serpents Unleashed

It’s kind of becoming a rite of passage now: a band’s first Kurt Ballou-recorded record. I mean, why wouldn’t you once you have the clout and the budget for it? Skeletonwitch went for it for the tracking of their new album, Serpents Unleashed, and what a surprise, it’s their best sounding, most powerful album. And they documented it too, in this making of series filmed at Kurt’s God City studio.

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I had a chance to talk to Skeletonwitch’s guitarist Nate Garnette (and got a quick bass rig response from Evan “Loosh” Linger) about the recording of Serpents Unleashed, their switch to Blackstar amplifiers, and more.

You have quite a few albums under your belt by this point. Are you a well oiled machine when writing your material now or did you try to change anything in your approach to keep it fresh?

Nate Garnette – I’d say we are a pretty well oiled machine by now.  We do things basically the same way we always have, with the exception of more updated recording equipment that is still pretty outdated, the process has remained the same.  This time around the only difference was that Scunt, Loosh, and Dustin contributed more material than in the past.  Scunt wrote three or four complete songs this time which was a first.  I guess I’d call this one more of a complete “team” effort.

How was working with Kurt Ballou? Is he the type to ride you hard to coax a good performance or does he step back and let you do your thing?

Nate Garnette – I had a great time working with Kurt!  Every producer has a different way of doing things, so there is always a butt sniffing period you have to go through, but I feel like we got along quite well.  He certainly isn’t a person to let crap slide, but he didn’t come off like he was riding you.  You could say “I nailed it” and he would say ‘let’s try it again’.  He basically wants what everybody is working for, which is the best record you can make.

Was there something different that you were looking to get out of your sound by going to Kurt, and if so, did you get it?

Nate Garnette – Yes there was.  Throughout the years the only major complaint, other than basement dweller bullshit, is that our records have never captured the live feel, how we sound live.  When listening to Kurt’s recordings you get that live feeling of energy and balls.  I think he absolutely nailed it!  Everyone we’ve talked to agrees, even sound engineers we’ve had in the past have said things like “I have mixed and seen you guys a ton of times and this is the first recording that does your live sound justice”.  It’s a great feeling to know you’ve achieved what you set out to do.

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Is it important, with several albums to your discography, to change producers for sonic variety?

Nate Garnette – I don’t know if sonic variety is the reason.  I think it just keeps you on your toes.  You don’t become complacent.  If you record every record with same guy it seems to me that it would take away from the experience and excitement.  Not to say I wouldn’t work with the same producer twice, (cough, cough….Kurt?) but it’s just something we’ve done along the way with artists and producers alike.

Is this the first album you used Blackstar amps on? In the studio videos you said you still used Marshalls in the studio, right? What about live?

Nate Garnette – This is the first album we’ve used the Blackstars on.  We used a mix of Blackstar, Marshall, and Peavey practice amps.  The tone is heavily Blackstar on the record.  The other two just sort of subtly shaped the sound.  Live we are 100% Blackstar now.  After hearing the recording, Scunt and I had a long talk and said fuck it, let’s give it a shot!!

Whose idea was it to mix in a bit of the Peavey Bandit into the guitar tone? Did you think they were crazy at first?

Nate Garnette – That was Kurt’s idea.  I think he might have been joking at first but we definitely mic’d it up and recorded the fucker.  I didn’t think he was crazy.  I’ll entertain most ideas until it proves to be too ridiculous or just plain ol’ shitty.  It actually sounded pretty cool!!

A lot of bands have moved to amp modelers lately, for more consistent sound during their live shows. Have you tried any of it, or is something that digital incongruous with the Skeletonwitch vibe?

Nate Garnette – I have not tried any of that stuff live.  I am more of a plug it in and go kinda guy.  Neither Scunt, nor I are trying to pull off anything crazy like The Edge from U2.  If it sounds weird one night, we’ll try and figure out why and correct it the next night.

Were the same amps used for leads or did you mix it up there?

Nate Garnette – We used the same amps, but Kurt brought out a hundred weird pedals, one which was called the crimson cock and had a red dick and balls drawn on it, and developed the lead tones from there.

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I feel like the bass is bigger and louder than previous releases. Was that just Kurt’s mix or were different amps or basses used?

Evan “Loosh” Linger – Kurt seems to come from a real Rock ‘n’ Roll head space. In my experience those types of guys see the important element bass can play on a record. It’s no secret that on 98% of so called ‘slick and modern’ metal records they basically mix out the bass guitar. Jack Endino, whom we worked with on Breathing the Fire, is a Rock guy just like Kurt. They both seemed to be advocates of a bass- heavy mix opposed to a modern “just mix the damn thing out” attitude. I’m a big fan of Rock style production with audible and driving bass lines so it worked well for me. I also spent a good deal of time before recording my parts on this record writing complimenting parts to the songs Nate and Scott wrote. It’s important to give the listener something extra to latch on to but not completely overplay. Bass is like a good steak, it kinda sucks if you under-do it and it really, really, really sucks if you over-do it.

On this album I basically just plugged in my live rig, made a few EQ adjustments and let it rip. My live set up is super simple. I have a 1992 Rickenbacker 4001 bass with a Seymour Duncan SRB-1b in it into a Boss ODB-3 into an Ampeg SVT Classic into a standard Ampeg 8X10. In the chain we also put a boutique pedal called a Rusty Box for some extra gnash. We did record some additional channels with clean DIs and a Sans Amp just in case we needed some clean tones to thicken it up. We may have added a drop of clean to the overall mix for low end.

Thanks guys. Anything to say in closing?

Nate Garnette – Just a big thanks to anyone and everyone who has ever come out and had a rock n’ roll party with us.  We appreciate the fuck out of it and couldn’t do it without y’all!

Skeletonwitch’s Serpents Unleashed is out now on Prosthetic Records.

Written by

Chris Alfano has written about music and toured in bands since print magazines and mp3.com were popular. Once in high-school he hacked a friend's QBasic stick figure fighting game to add a chiptune metal soundtrack. Random attractive people still give him high-fives about that.