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Taking Advantage of Studio Limitations
Seattle’s Sandrider is a gnarly, loud and ferocious trio of veteran musicians, hell-bent on destroying eardrums and bass drums in equal numbers. The band is about to re-release their self-titled LP on 180 gram wax, courtesy of Good To Die Records, and we had a chance to catch up with frontman Jon Weisnewski about the group’s back story, their favorite gear, and their creative process both in and out of the studio.
Can you give us a brief rundown of how the band formed and where you’re at today?
I’d been playing in the band Akimbo with Nat, our drummer, for about 15 years. I originally learned to play music on the guitar, but switched to bass in Akimbo. And I had a real desire to play guitar again, and to play with other musicians. So I asked Nat if he wanted to start playing some songs, and we wrote some music and had some other bass players come in and fool around. Never really got a serious bass player for a while, until I was getting tattooed by Jesse, Sandrider’s bass player, and we started shooting the shit. He played in a band I liked a lot, and they were in the middle of a hiatus at the time. So I told him he should come down and play bass with us.
That first practice was just out of this world. It was great; we had an amazing chemistry together.
Did you know Jesse before that, or did you meet at the tattoo parlor?
We had known him from his band, The Ruby Doe, before. But yeah, I’d known him pretty well on my own, too. He’d done a number of tattoos for me, so we’d sat together in that chair for some time…[laughs]
Sandrider, for me, is interesting because you’re forging a really cool scene in the Pacific Northwest with bands like Dog Shredder, Deadkill, and White Orange. I don’t know the best term to describe what you’re doing. Some have called it ‘sludge rock,’ but I’m not sure if that’s a term you find amusing or not. How do you describe the sound, and is there a real scene emerging out there, or am I just reading too much into it?
As far as what the sound is called, I just call it rock and roll. We’re just all bands who like to play rock songs at the loudest volume possible. It’s really easy to throw all sorts of terms at the music right now, because it’s got a lot of influences – like sludge rock and classic rock, but it borrows from so many familiar genres that are so well-defined that it’s easy for people to pick out what they hear and say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s sludge rock.’ Or, ‘It’s grunge.’
People like labels.
How did you hook up with Good To Die Records?
I believe the album is going to get a [vinyl] re-press; they actually released it for the first time last year. We hooked up with Good To Die right when Nik [Christofferson] started the label. But we recorded the album in…2009? It had been sitting for two years – Sandrider has never been a band where we’re busy and trying to network or make things happen. From the outset it’s always been about us getting together and playing music we like. Or playing a show because someone wants us to play a show. Or recording because we like the songs and we want a recording. That’s always been the spirit of the band.
So we had this recording that was just sitting there, with none of us motivated to find a label to put it out…
Did you have any intentions of putting it out yourselves, as a DIY release?
[laughs] No. We’ve all been involved in the music industry for a long time now, and we’re trying to do it just for fun. That’s a lot of work, and I have nothing but respect for the bands that do that, and I understand why people do that to take control of their releases. But that’s a level of work I just don’t have the energy for, and I’d rather just enjoy playing the music for the sake of playing music. So no, we never really planned on doing that.
But Nik started up his label, and we knew him from his blog, Seattle Rock Guy, so we knew he was a good person. It’s funny. I said months and months before he even started the label, that if anyone in Seattle should start one, it was Nik from Seattle Rock Guy. Because he’s just one of those guys who’s so passionate about music. He goes to all of his bands’ shows when he can. He does it purely for the love of the music.
We’ve known Nik for some time, and if there’s one thing we can say about him, it’s that he’s super passionate about the records he puts out.
At the outset, we didn’t know where it would go. It was all kind of flattering to have someone into the band, though. We’re really, really happy with him.
You have a really loud, abrasive sound. How do you approach the studio to capture something like that on tape?
A lot of that is working with an engineer who you trust, who most importantly knows how to record a loud band right.
We went with Matt Bayles – he was really drunk at one of our shows and offered to record it for us [laughs].
Well, that’s usually how you find the best engineers…
I think he went in intending it to be a demo, but when we heard the rough mixes, we said, ‘This is incredible. We’re releasing this fucker right now!’ Sorry, Matt.
Were there any adjustments you had to make in performing these songs in the studio to accommodate the recording process?
Not really. Nat and I have always approached the recording as, ‘This is what we do live, on tape.’ So we always try to write songs that will be played the same both in the studio and on stage. And we always try to record it in that spirit; so we try not to do a lot of fancy overdubs or too many vocal harmonies.
And also, we always had really small budgets and tight schedules for recording. So we’d go in, work hard and get a good record. We recorded our first [Akimbo] album in like three days.
I think having those deadlines and discipline in the studio makes for a better record. Honestly, even if we had a huge budget, we’d intentionally reduce the tracking time to keep ourselves in that creative frenzy.
Now, how do you approach the songwriting process?
I’ve written most of the songs; Jesse has written a couple as well. I prefer…again, to talk about efficiency and not farting around, I prefer to fully flesh it out at home by myself before I present it to the band. So I have the blueprint ready to go, but that’s where I stop. Once we get in the practice space, I’ve always preferred to picture that you’re playing with musicians you trust. So no matter what they do, you know it’s gonna be good because they’re a badass at their instrument.
Usually it stays pretty close to what the original concept was. Sometimes we stumble across something pretty cool, and will change it up, though. The one thing that we don’t do, and need to get better at, is the lyrics and vocals are always an afterthought. I’m actually really happy with how they came out on the first Sandrider record; I tried to push myself out of my comfort zone. And now I proactively work on lyrics and vocal harmonies with Jesse at rehearsals, so that’s new for us.
Why do you think that is, that the music has taken such precedence over the lyrics?
It’s probably based on my process with Akimbo, where vocals were kind of a texture thing. I was more focused on writing a riff that would blow your balls away.
Do your rigs change at all between the studio and the stage?
For the most part, it’s pretty consistent. I know Jesse used a different bass on the recordings. Live, he plays a Music Man StingRay, and in the studio he used a Jazz Bass. And that’s something that I totally agree with; I think a Jazz Bass sounds better recorded. When you’re in the room, a StingRay has so much more presence, but it just doesn’t carry across to the recording.
Yeah, a Jazz Bass cuts through the mix well. Tougher to get that live, but on tape it really comes through.
It’s got a great presence. And a lot of bands we like have that same tone – Unsane, The Melvins, Jesus Lizard – all those bass tones are ones we love. I use pretty much the same stuff for recording that I do live. I have two amps that I normally use; one is a Sunn Beta Lead. At the time, that was having some problems; it had a really loud his, so I used a Marshall JCM that Nat had in the studio.
What guitars are you using?
I have a shitty, Mexican Fender Strat that was a birthday present from when I was 14. It’s my favorite guitar; it plays so good. It’s been my best friend for years. I love playing it and it’s the only guitar I want to play.
So maybe it’s time to stop calling it shitty? What kind of pickups are in it?
Just the stock single-coil Fender pickups. I recently took it to a guitar shop out here and had it tuned up, and now it plays like a god.
Being that you’ve been doing this for quite some time, is there any advice you can pass on to the bands reading the magazine?
Make sure you’re having fun. Make sure that it’s worth it. If it stops being fun and fulfilling, it’s time to hit the reset button.
b&w photos by Matt Koroulis / main photo by Victoria Holt for KEXP