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Destroying Expensive Gear & DIY Surgery - 10 Years In The Studio With Shihad’s Tom Larkin

12 January 2018 | 2:26 pm | Staff Writer

"Gear will always be there, amazing performances won’t."

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Melbourne’s iconic The Studio’s In The City has produced classic records from the likes of The Getaway Plan, Northeast Party House, High Tension and more, so when its 10-year anniversary rolled around and it was gifted a new name, Homesurgery Recordings, waves of nostalgia washed over Shihad’s Tom Larkin, who has spent the past decade at the helm of the operation.

Larkin and some fellow producers take a trip down memory lane to celebrate.

Performance = Magic

Tom Larkin

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Over the years, there have been various acts that have been impressive in their playing and songwriting, however, there is something really special about an artist that can deliver that magic take live off the floor. 

When you talk about magic in recording, it’s a combination of skill, emotional connection to the music and the artist having the psychic freedom to go into a place that is for all intents and purposes - pure.

Two bands come to mind as the ones who could really deliver the goods - Bodyjar and Cairo Knife Fight. Incredible artists who have a collective telepathy when playing together. But the performance that was most memorable was Karina from High Tension. 

Karina often found the concept of a standing in front of a microphone, headphones on, singing directly into it a disconnected and awkward proposition. It showed up clearly when trying to get vocal takes - there was something missing.

The solution was to set Karina up to perform like she does on stage - clearing the room out, giving her a simple handheld vocal mic and standing back as she cut loose, punching the walls, dropping to her knees screaming and delivering vocal takes that were brutal, unrepeatable and amazing to behold.

Literal Homesurgery with Bodyjar

Samuel K 

A few weeks prior to working with Bodyjar, I went in for dental surgery and had five wisdom teeth removed. I was one of the lucky ones that develops an 'auxiliary wisdom tooth', a bonus tooth to keep you up at night in pain.

This did a fair bit of damage to my jaw. However, I was feeling a hell of a lot better with them out, especially a few weeks later as everything began to heal.

While we were recording vocals with Cam Baines, I noticed something sharp poking out of my gums.

I ignored it for a few hours in the interest of not grossing out our client, but after a while it got sharper and more uncomfortable. Something was definitely wrong. As politely as I could, I nipped out the back to take a look. and inspected my mouth. I noticed bone sticking out from my gums. It seemed to be pretty loose so I gave it a bit of a tug. It wasn't working with fingers, so I grabbed the pliers.

The guys came out to see if I was okay and caught me literally red handed, pliers in mouth, pulling bone shards out from my jaw. There was blood spewing everywhere and the pieces of bone just didn't stop coming, There was blood in the sink, down my shirt and all over the pliers. I mumble through metal and bone that it's probably a good time for them to go get dinner.

Fortunately, by the time they had gotten back from Tiba’s (highly recommended place to eat), the bleeding stopped and we continued tracking as if nothing had happened, couldn’t manage the kebab they bought back though.

High Tea

Samuel K

Karina from High Tension has a reputation for being an explosive frontwoman, who delivers chaos and carnage in spades - usually on stage. However, one evening while tracking High Tension's album, she made herself a cup of tea. Standing idly by, discussing the takes, as if by magic - she drops her cup of tea square on top of our Chandler Zener Limiter. A beautiful, $7,000 recreation of the incredible EMI TG limiters.

Like lightning, Tom jumps out of his chair and switches off the power. I burn into the kitchen for towels and await Tom's wrath upon Karina, but instead we're all taught a valuable lesson.

It doesn't matter.

We dried off the Zener and sent Karina straight back into the live room. If anything, the shock of the situation fueled even better takes. What really mattered was making the best record with the greatest performances. Gear will always be there, amazing performances won’t.

The Getaway Plan Suck?

Samuel K

The Getaway Plan booked a really big session for Dark Horses. It was my first 'big production' as a producer, and I was very eager to dig in and make something great.

On the first day, once some basic mics for pre pro were up, I was introduced to the tone of the session going forward - psy trance, '90s funk and nu-metal.

For a majority of the session, the guys would jam endlessly on silly ideas. Ridiculous ideas. All sort of brilliant in their own way (Dan, the drummer, is a master of pretending he can't play drums), it was never boring, and always hilarious. The guys went down some really, really deep rabbit holes of horrific jingles, riffs and songs written on the spot.

What I learned quickly is it was their own form of a palette cleanse. Dark Horses is an epic, brooding, journey of an album with a lot of emotionally heavy content. Most days turned into 90% joking around, with 10% absolute delivery on incredible takes. If I tried to push the band away from the silly jams, their takes would suffer. It had to happen.

A number of those pre-production takes made the final cut too. Swinging from silly to heavy really worked, and still works now with other artists. I think it's an ice breaker - to work with each other at your silliest, you can then tap into the language of the band and deliver your best.

Jaz Coleman ( Killing Joke ) / Shihad Vocals

Samuel K

Working with Jaz Coleman on vocals for Shihad's FVEY was a real eye opener for me. I had never been exposed to such a high intensity workflow, and I loved it. Jaz prefers to go short and sharp. Shorter days with a higher output.

But in reality what this meant for me as the engineer, was holding on for dear life.

I considered myself highly proficient with Pro Tools, fast and organised but Jaz was the first person to ever test that. He was explosive - he wants things by the split second, no time for delays or second guessing. He wants it before he's said it, and if he has to say it, you feel like you have a target on your back.

But the pressure was amazing - I was sweating uncontrollably for most of the session, trying to keep up as best I could. The only way to keep my accuracy with the keyboard and mouse was to wear a towel during takes, and wipe my hands, face and the desk whenever I had a spare second. I never knew this gig could be so physically demanding, even when sitting in a chair for most of it.

Closure In Moscow and the Shred Jar

Samuel K 

Over the years, we started to run thin on ways to keep artists in check while we're on talkback. Trying to communicate ideas whilst someone is noodling on their instrument is like trying to take a drink from an open fire hydrant - impossible - no one hears what was said.

Closure In Moscow, bless their hearts, are incredible musicians and as such - love to shred. A lot. And I don't blame them, gotta keep those fingers nimble! What it came to however, was the concept of the Shred Jar.

It's simple. If you make noise while anyone is talking, your name goes in the shred jar. At the end of the week, whoever's name is in there the most, buys everyone lunch!

We don’t always need it but communication has improved ten-fold in the studio now. All it takes is one shred.

Studio Punking – Getting Punked back….

Jon Grace

Prior to production, we tasked punk band As A Rival with what we call the 50 Song Challenge.

It’s very literal - write 50 songs before we enter the studio, collectively vote on the best 10-12, and then enter pre-production on these shortlisted tracks.

It was arduous for the band, so the moment when their drummer Nathan played the final drum take was a relief for him. Not only was it the finish line for a long road, it was also a difficult track to nail due to its BPM of around 280. (For those that don’t know that’s faaaaaaast.)

We decided this was a perfect opportunity to fuck with Nathan, passing on the bad news that “word has come from Tom" that the track in question needed to be faster, with the two lining up a 500bpm click track.

It’s also worth mentioning that Nathan had eaten a very large Halal Snack Pack for lunch and was also wearing heavy steel capped boots…..

Instead of complaining, Nathan put his cans back on and fucking nailed it at the sped up tempo. We thought it was impossible – the guy is a monster.

Check out the Homesurgery Recordings website for more info.