On DIY Values, Punishing Guitars & Pushing Hardcore Into Double-Album Territory
CHEECH has been a fixture on the New England hardcore scene for over 15 years, remaining true to their DIY roots each step of the way. The band is set to release its most ambitious album to date this spring, and we recently sat down with guitarist Joshua Bottomley to talk about the group’s songwriting process, how to track hardcore guitars, and what distribution means to independent bands in a post-label world.
So we were just talking about the recording process for the new CHEECH release. New full-length or EP?
It’s going to be a full length. It was actually going to be a double LP. When we did our last record, it was a six-song EP. I had the idea to, instead of writing ten songs and putting them out as a record, write 15 songs or 20 songs and then pick the best ones. And then as we got close to that, we were like, ‘Well how far can we push this?’ Once we got to around 28, we were like, ‘Alright, we can record this and do the double album.’ And then after recording the drum tracks for all those songs we realized what a project that was going to be!
It’s a bit of an undertaking, to say the least. Especially for a hardcore band. ‘Shorter is better’ is usually the motto.
That’s kind of the thing, not that we are trying to branch out of being a hardcore band. Because I think CHEECH will always be a hardcore band.
But once we started to write the songs, we started to branch out on what we were defining as hardcore.
What differentiates Boston hardcore from standard punk rock or standard hardcore music?
I don’t know if it really does so much anymore. Back in the day you had bands like Slapshot – they had a Boston sound. But now everything is mixed so much. I guess New York still has a New York sound, with bands like Madball. But then you have bands like H2O and Sick Of It All who are hardcore bands that don’t sound anything like Madball. Like we played with Sworn Enemy, the other day, and Sworn Enemy is almost like a thrash metal band now. But they are still considered a NYHC band. The title doesn’t differentiate the sound so much; it’s just to let people know where you’re from.
You had mentioned to me that you were having some guitar issues. How do you go about doing the guitar tracks for something like CHEECH?
For this we used four mics. Each of us used our head and our rack system, and ran it through two cabs. Because now we are playing out of stacks, which people say seems pretentious, but you actually get a different sound from each one. Different wood, different sizes, different speakers. So I find that it creates a more well-rounded sound. When you have a slant cab, it naturally has a more treble-y sound because it has less wood. So when we were tracking, I said that we should use both cabs because that way we can mic both individually. Then we can put a mic right above the cabs, so we caught room that way and were able to get some of the reflections. Then we actually put a PZM mic about six feet away that we taped to a baffle. So we had each cab close mic’d on speakers off axis on the cone. One was a [Shure] KSM44 I think, because it was in a figure eight pattern that we put right above it, maybe 18”-2’ above the cabs, but close still, to catch some of the sound coming up and around the room. And then the PZM came back off of it to catch the distance.
So you had a bunch of different tones that you could work with in the mixing process…
Yeah, and we double tracked them, too.
You double tracked both guitars?
Yeah, so we had four guitar tracks with four mics each.
Do you track both at once or do them individually?
We do them individually because we don’t want to worry about mic bleed. We’ve done stuff where we tracked in the same room, and it’s cool for demos, but when you are doing the record…especially now with this record, it’s technically a lot more challenging than anything else that we’ve done. We had done some stuff where we were pushing our envelope, but, just naturally, over the past three and a half years all of us got exponentially better at our instruments. As cool as that is, it’s a lot harder to try and pull it off live in one take.
So lets talk guitars. I’ve seen you live, rocking a Gibson SG. Are you still sticking with the SG?
Yeah, I still got that. I’m trying to find something that I like that can compare, but between the sound, the feel, the weight…the weight is probably the most important thing for me.
You mean it being lighter than most guitars?
Definitely. I played a Les Paul for so long…I mean it hurt. Especially if you’ve seen us live, I jump around a lot.
You can get a pretty sparkly sound out of an SG, too. A lot of people think humbucker equals crunch, equals gain, but not all the time. Anything special about your SG? Any mods, custom pickups or anything like that?
No. It’s all stock. Gibson makes good stuff, man, I can’t complain. But part of writing this record, was stepping out of our box a little bit, with a little cleaner stuff. Like I said, I’ve been looking for a new guitar to play on stage, because I have been playing my SG for eight years now. I started buying cheaper guitars just to play at home. I got a Squier Tele for like $180, and I’ll never play that on stage, because its noisy and doesn’t stay in tune, but you can sit at home and get that Tele twang. And when you’re playing that guitar, you’re going to play it differently than you would play an SG. So I found myself writing stuff that I would never write if I was sitting at home playing my SG. So I come up with these ideas, and then I record them and bring them to the guys. But at practice with the SG, turn up the volume and you take that idea and it changes.
It’s been incredibly helpful. Instead of buying a guitar for $1,000, buy six guitars for $1000 and see what you can come up with. It’s more of a songwriting tool than anything.
Can you break down how the band works as a songwriting unit?
I think in essence, any band is going to end up being collaborative. Unless you go in and play all the instruments yourself, each one is always going to have somebody’s tag on it. I would say a majority of this record, the main ideas or riffs, came from me and my other guitar player Kevin. But it all just becomes something completely different once you start playing it.
We’ll go in one way, change it once everybody throws their two cents in, and it becomes something totally different.
Do you guys prefer to write before you record? Or is there still writing going on once you hit the studio?
I don’t think we ever did before, but this time we definitely did. We always had things ready to go into studio. This time, it was all done, but there were things that hadn’t been finalized. There was one part where the guitar line and the drum lines weren’t mixing together, so when I was playing the scratch tracks, and the drummer was doing his, the other guitarist was like, ‘This doesn’t really fit.’ So when we overdubbed the guitars, we ended up changing the riff to match the rhythm that he had laid down.
So how’d you got a thicker sound on the vocals – did you double track everything?
Yeah, I mean we’ll end up riding one over the other. You sort of naturally end up with a chorus effect even if you have the timing right; the tone is a little bit different. We also found that you can use a little Pro Tools magic [to help], because you’ll smoke your voice if you do it over and over again.
The bass sound on the new recordings is pretty thick, as well. Are you recording direct, or is he placing a mic on the cab?
Both. He ran the signal directly into Pro Tools, but then we split the signal and mic’d a combo amp. And that gave us a lot of growl. We mic’d it up, and it sounded really cool, and now we are starting to do it live, too. The bass amp was having some issues, and we had an old Marshall JCM 2000 head that we weren’t really using. So we plugged that into his bass cab one day and it sounded really good. And you know, Lemmy does it.
Hey, if it’s good enough for Lemmy…
The band has been together for 15 years now, and has been DIY for most of that time. Do you wish that you had support from a label, or big time firm, or do you enjoy being DIY because it’s part of the CHEECH mentality?
We’ve always wanted the help. This album we actually are getting help on, it’s going to come out on a label based out of the Netherlands. I think the label help now is maybe different than it was eight years ago. Our first full-length came out in 2003. And that we put out ourselves, and did the whole 1,000 CD deal. For any band, once you get those packages and see what 1,000 CDs actually looks like, you realize that it’s a bad idea. You have no idea until you have to carry them up a flight of stairs.
When we did our second record, we did that ourselves, because we couldn’t get anyone to put that one out. I thought it was going to be kind of easy, because the first record had done pretty well and we had gotten some interest. But in the end it took forever to put out because we didn’t have a deadline or anyone else pushing it. When you write an album, and are rehearsing an album, and are booking your own shows, and going out and playing the shows and doing the leg work that way, and you’re doing all your own artwork, trying to get everything together, it’s really, really hard on the back end to promote a record. Once you finish [it] you just want to put the whole thing to bed, and work towards the next thing.
Where do you see the future of the band going?
I don’t know, man. We’ve been getting really good reception from this album, and like I said, with this album I think we definitely stepped out of our comfort zone and took some chances. And they might not be audible chances to everybody. But to us, artistically, there were definitely some ‘Can we do this?’ moments on there. So far, we haven’t been playing all the songs live yet, but the stuff that we have brought out, people really like. And the people that have heard the tracks now really like it. We have the label, we have distribution with them that will be predominantly in Europe, but you’ll be able to get it pretty much everywhere.
That’s the other thing – does distribution really even matter anymore?
We’ll find out. I don’t know, like we try to track Bandcamp and stuff like that, but most of the material that we have up there is pretty old. More or less it’s going to be an experiment. We tracked 25-28 songs, and I think we’re going to finish 18. Maybe all 18 will make it, but I think it’s going to be closer to around 15-16. We’re trying to just make it tighter, do some self-editing.
Is the new record coming out on vinyl? Or is that to be determined?
It’s to be determined. I think that’s the other thing with labels these days, people in the hardcore and punk communities love that vinyl. But vinyl is expensive. [Our record deal] is strictly CD and digital, but we have the option to go elsewhere with vinyl. We are trying to make a splash with this record, and I think it’s going to happen based on a lot of people’s reactions. So we are hoping that based on the initial reaction that someone will come along and be interested [in releasing a vinyl version].
Any last words?
I don’t know if we’ll ever go the double album route again, because that was a lofty goal. We wrote 25 songs, and went in and recorded them all. Maybe we could have gone in and self-edited, but at the same time, a lot of the songs that we wrote towards the tail end didn’t have lyrics yet. We sort of knew the direction that we wanted to go…or we had lyrics written and hadn’t gotten around to practicing them yet. And those are the songs that are going to end up being the best ones. So you never know what’s going to happen, but just writing a lot of music is the best way. And to challenge yourself physically, to play the best you can play, and play a lot. Because I found that when you’re doing a lot of stuff and playing in a band, sometimes you only play when you’re at band practice. Everybody gets in a funk where they don’t play their instrument a lot. But buy cheap instruments, because then you’ll be inspired to play. I have them hung on my wall so I can just walk by and say, ‘What do I feel like playing today?’ If you play a lot, you are going to write a lot of songs, and the ones you end up picking are going to be the best ones. And you’re going to get a better reaction from it.
We have some one-minute long punk songs, but they’re not going to make the record because the three-minute long, more grandiose songs are just better tunes.
photos by Aaron Pepelis