depresleys’ Topanga Trilogy

The whole thing began in Krokstadelva, Norway, and Topanga Canyon, California, a long time ago and “on a planet far away,” as they say.

In previous notes I related how the depresleys had come to stay and record at my home post-production film-mixing studio, Apparatus, in Topanga Canyon.

The depresleys had settled into my studio overlooking Will Rogers State Park. We were literally camping out and doing round-the-clock recording sessions in shifts, occupying both studio A (upstairs) and studio B (downstairs) in between catnaps. We spent our meager spare time catching sun and the magnificent view, and hanging out with the eccentric locals and Blue, the official Apparatus studio dawg.

We had committed to producing an ambitious body of work, encompassing literally hundreds of songs. Obviously we had to start somewhere, so I was assigned the task of picking the tunes for the first 30-song batch.

The ensuing collections came eventually to be viewed as three stylistically distinct “albums,” comprising a trilogy that bore the distinct depresleys musical style and our unique collective sonic stamp, flavored by that time in Topanga.

The three albums were eventually completed pretty much in reverse order in terms of  production chronology:

Starting with collection 1: A 12-song collection named Leaking Blue that represented years of development and that we considered to be our “masterwork” at the time.

Next was collection 2: The six-track Cosmic People, which was a more danceable, techno-rock project that allowed us to put together, in a coherent grouping, songs that did not fit the aesthetic flow of Leaking Blue.

Collection 3 of the Topanga Trilogy: The 12-song collection, Topanga, which turned out to be leaner and a bit more muscular, in a sci-fi Western, depresleys-storytelling way.

Additionally during this period, a fourth significant collection emerged, based on a complete “concept-album” story line created by Jon Ravneng and Geir Weggersen, known as The Pearl. That will be the fourth and final Topanga album, and it will see release in the near future.

The depresleys Story: The Studio Chronicles, Rev 1.0

As told by Paul D. Carlsen

I was driving back to Apparatus, my home studio in Topanga Canyon, California, when I was struck with an impulse to pray. It went something like this: “Please send me a project worthy of my abilities.” I continued my drive home to Topanga, up the post-card perfect coastline, contemplating my 30-plus years of studio work and what it had all amounted to.

In spring 1997, I was just finishing up a consulting job, designing a mix stage and networked audio-video system for a film post-production company in Pacific Palisades, a six-month consulting job that also entailed mixing yet one more “turd” movie to train the staff.

The next Monday I received a call from a producer friend named Bruce Fanta, who hired me to master a compilation of Scandinavian artists called Hot Tracks from Scandinavia. I was impressed with the general quality of the writing and performances, but when I put a track by depresleys up in my trusty Spectral Audio Engine, I was blown away by what I heard. The depresleys’ composition and arrangement skills just floored me. The music was at once familiar, but utterly fresh and original; the vocals and lyrics were unforgettable.

I was able to talk Bruce (a very kind and dedicated producer) into giving me the number of depresleys’ keyboardist-composer, Geir Weggersen. I immediately called and said, “You guys are incredible. Do you ever come to L.A.?”

Geir replied, “We are coming to L.A. in three weeks to work with [producer] John Boylan [Aerosmith, Boston and so on] and Tom Whitlock” [Berlin].

I replied, “Cool! Do you have a place to stay?”

Geir said, in his inimitable deadpan, “No, we don’t.”

I invited Geir and depresleys’ vocalist, Jon Ravneng, along with former guitarist Johannes Bjerga, to stay at my Topanga home post-production studio.

I picked up the boys at LAX three weeks later. The first stop was at the supermarket ice cream case, for four half-gallons of various flavors of Breyers ice cream, including chocolate chip-mint, Jon’s favorite. Over the next two weeks, we jammed at my studio and ate ice cream, when depresleys weren’t working at John Boylan’s studio in the Hollywood Hills.

After a while, the boys confided that they were under pressure to change lyrics and that the production style was not exactly what they were looking for. Jon and Geir asked me to take over production, since they liked what we were coming up with at my studio; they felt that my production style was well suited to depresleys’ music.

The Topanga Sessions, Rev. 1.0

The first batch of recordings for what came to be known as Leaking Blue were recorded at Apparatus, my Topanga Canyon home studio, on a pioneering DAW (digital audio workstation), the Spectral Synthesis Audio Engine. The Spectral Synthesis Audio Engine had a uniquely warm tone and awesome features, compared to other digital recording and mixing solutions from 1989 to 1997. The tracks we recorded on that system in the late 90s still hold up to anything.

The rig we used for the early recordings had three Spectral Synthesis Audio Engines with native dsp plug-ins, routed through a YAMAHA 02R, with Apogee AP8-AD converters and three light-pipe buckets, through two Spectral Translators with an additional three Spectral ADDAX eight-channel ADDA boxes in digital side chains, and a Spectral Synthesis Synclock clocking the whole network. The system was also packed with cool old-school outboard processing, MS, Eventide, T.C. Systems, Lexicon, Sony, and Studio Technologies Ltd. and some cool

Team Nerd, Rev. 1.0

The ADAP II’s Last Stand

As fate would have it, my old Hybrid Arts ADAP II prototype laptop workstation (the very same one I had used when Butch Vig had hired me to fix Kurt Cobain’s acoustic guitar, do some vocal tuning, and fix the cello part on Nevermind!) was used for the very last time to rescue depresleys midi tracks from digital oblivion, forming the musical framework that Leaking Blue was built on.

The midi tracks that formed the basic arrangements for Leaking Blue had gotten corrupted in Geir’s EMU sampler, the backups had failed, and production was at a standstill.

The ancient laptop-based workstation, a prototype and arguably the first of its kind, based on an Atari Stacy II laptop, no longer passed audio, but it was able, using the ancient Hybrid Arts SMPTE Track Software and its rock-solid SMPTE time-code hardware, to re-quantize and break out the midi tracks by voice/channel, magically locking the groove back into the tracks while quantizing to some strange micro-decimal BPM values, which altered very slightly the tempos of the project. At any rate, it was kind of miraculous.

Just after we finished the rescue project, the screen went blank, as if the old warhorse had given its last breath for the cause, after pulling off a heroic save. Geir, Jon, and I were all very moved by the experience, as only true music nerds and die-hard Nirvana fans could be.

Having rescued the midi tracks from oblivion, Geir and I went to work. We only had ten days to do the basic session for the whole album, including futzing with machines and outtakes.

Fortunately, Geir and I instantly were in synch. We worked at a pace that could be described as blistering. We have a rare synchronicity in our work habits and technical approaches, and we both find it unusual to meet others who can keep up with us in the studio. Basically, Geir works up the samples and voices, then creates the database, tweaks the tones, and records contiguous tracks. Geir and I have become a quick, sure-footed production team and close friends. We tracked all Geir’s keyboard parts and Johannes’s guitar parts in batches of three or four tunes per day, working in shifts almost around the clock.

The Guitar, Rev. 1.0

The electric-guitar rig Johannes used was a pair of Red Acoustic 150w bi-amped A-2 powered cabinets, a fat rack of tube and digital processors, and a Valley People Dynamite limiter-expander, plus a Rocktron Hush II to keep it all under control. The “wah” was a VOX/Dunlop cry baby.

Into this beastly rack, Johannes plugged my classic 1979 Moonstone Vulcan II with Bortolini “The Beast II” hand-built discreet FET Preamp and hand-wound prototype pickups.

Thunderous, but deceptively small, this 300w stereo guitar rig was miked with an AKG CK452 at 1m on one side and the Octava mk209 at 1m on the other, using the Yamaha 02-R mic pre.

The acoustic guitars Johannes used were primarily my Guild D114-12 string with Baggs pickup and preamp, and a loaner carbon-fiber six-string prototype (whose name I am afraid I have forgotten). Both were recorded using an AKG CK452 condenser mic through the Symmetrix 601, in a tile bathroom with the Baggs DI on a separate track, through the 02-R’s add-on Apogee AP8AD converter mod.

Recording was to the Spectral Audio Engine, at 364 times oversampling; 16-bit, 48k resolution; clocked by the Spectral Synclock through a Sigma VDA100, and it sounded phenomenal! (The Synclock and the Sigma VDA100 are the only parts of the Spectral rig that we still use today.)

The Vocals, Rev. 1.0

The first round of vocals were tracked using an inexpensive Russian Octava MK 209 condenser mic I had picked up used (Jon lovingly called it “Boris”); this was put through the underrated but totally bitchin’-sounding Symmetrix 601 mic pre-amp/converter/dsp channel strip.

This unusual combo proved magical on Jon’s voice, sounding warm, clear, dimensional, and bright, with a hint of roughness, which worked perfectly with his unique, smooth, resonant baritone.

The way we worked the vocals the first time around was for me to set up the mic channel and put together a nice cue mix, then go to my room downstairs and nap while Jon and Geir recorded the vocals upstairs in studio A. Geir and Jon have a comfort level in the studio that can only come from years of working together.

As they finished one track, I would get up and put together another mix; then they went at it again and I went back to sleep; this happened around the clock. It really was amazing to record multiple takes on more than an album’s worth of vocals, plus backgrounds, in three days.

We pumped out (I think) 16 songs in 10 days the first time around, recording midi tracks, guitar, and voice. Then the boys went back to Norway. Quite a few tracks from those first recordings made it to the final mix. However, the depresleys saga was just beginning.

The Drums, Rev. 1.0

After the boys went home, I went to work, first bringing in the live drum elements with the addition of Rick Shlosser, a legendary session drummer (Rod Stewart, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Boz Skaggs, Lionel Ritchie, Edgar Winter, Full Moon, and others), and one of the top touring drummers in the business.

Rick joined the group as a member, because he was also knocked out by the great songs we were recording. Rick added a fluidity and the great drum tones I was looking for. Rick also was fascinated by the intricate looped and programmed drum parts that Geir came up with, and he started to incorporate some of these ideas into his own drum arrangements.

At first, we tried a “triggered sample with acoustic elements” approach, but it wasn’t long before Rick had a sweet Gretsch kit, with a 22-inch kick and a Black Beauty snare parked in Apparatus, where we recorded drums initially. The mic setup was a pair of AKG CK-452s on overheads, a Shure Beta 52 on kick, a Shure Beta 57 on snare, Octava 209s on the racks, and a Sennheiser 421 on the floor tom. I used a Sony ECM23F on the high hat.

The exception to this setup was when Rick brought in his Ludwig big-band kit, with the 26-inch kick and the “pawn shop” snare. For this kit, I went to a five-mic setup. I miked the 26-inch Ludwig Big Band Kick with the Sennheiser 412, about 14 inches in front of the hole in the rear head.

I used a Sony f121 on Rick’s “pawn shop” snare, the AKG CK-452 on the high hat, and a pair of Octava MK-209s in a stereo co-incident pair about 24 inches overhead. This setup just sounded wonderful and is the setup we used on “Horizons,” as well as some tracks from the follow-up to Leaking Blue, which is well underway.

We used the Yamaha mic pre’s from the Yamaha 02-R, through Apogee AP8AD converters, in soft-limit mode for both setups. I also used a CAD MC-8 compressor to do some light compression and expansion on the way in, along with the 02R 56-bit EQ and dynamics, which I found to be great for tracking.

The Bass, Rev. 1.0

At this time we recorded a number of great bassists from around the Topanga Canyon music scene. Jaime Scher, Francis DiCosmo, and Bobby Tsukimoto all contributed great bass tracks during this period (1998 to 1999), but some of these tracks did not make it onto the new CD, Leaking Blue. The notable exception is Bobby Tsukimoto, John Trudell’s “bad dog band” bassist and a studio pro, who is heard on “Streets Like a River” and “Salvation Army Sam.”

We recorded both direct through the BBE 441 sonic maximizer, which makes a great bass DI, and through a Fender Bassman, with a Shure Beta 52 on it, through the Symetrix 601.

More Guitar, Rev. 1.0

We also tracked guitar parts with a couple of great guitarists. Ritchie Ayres and J. R. Getches both put down memorable guitar parts for us. None of these parts made it onto the final product, even though they were great performances.

The Critics, Rev. 1.0

At this point, the songs were starting to sound a bit more like a compilation than a band. We were really struggling to come up with a consistent vision and were trying many things during this period. Most of the criticisms that were coming our way from the industry centered on our apparent lack of direction and musical cohesion.

At the end of the day, we had to agree with the critics. So began the monumental task of forging a coherent musical vision, which, for a bunch of eclectic studio rats, was no small task.

The Adventures of Ricardo Reeds, Rev. 1.0

It was during this period, while Jon and Geir were back in Norway, that we started our ongoing

association with Richard Hardy. Richard was in a Topanga Canyon trance-dance band with Aziz Paige and Jaime Scher, called The Shape Shifters. I had mixed a couple of songs on their CD, and Richard and I, along with Jaime and Aziz, had become close pals.

Richard was over for a pasta dinner one night, when I was fiddling around with “Streets Like a River.” (He always has his instruments with him and never leaves them in his car.) Therefore, upon hearing “Streets,” he whipped out his soprano sax and just started blowing. Richard is an incredible musician, and one does not want to miss anything he’s doing, so I immediately went into “record” mode.

I grabbed the trusty Octava MK-209 and stuck it about 14 inches out from the “bell” of the instrument; he just improvised through the whole track and then went back over it with a beautiful old tenor sax of his, recorded with a Sennheiser 421 (both through the Symmetrix 601), which turned into the duet horn part that is woven in with Terry Haggarty’s guitar part on the final version of “Streets Like a River,” from Leaking Blue. This was just the beginning of a great friendship and the start of a new sound for depresleys, one that neither Jon nor Geir had anticipated when they originally wrote these tunes.

depresleys in Norway, Rev. 2.0

By now, I was sending depresleys some rough mixes. Much to my surprise, Jon and Geir were pleased with the new direction and excited about the new players, sounds, and newly altered arrangements. Usually folks resent it if you get under the hood and monkey with their tunes, but not these guys; they welcomed my input, which was unusual in my experience.

Soon depresleys would return to Topanga for a fresh round of recordings, with a new batch of tunes. We planned to record, rehearse the new band, do some gigs, shoot some video, do some interviews, meet with some potential management, and so on; it was an ambitious agenda.

The Topanga Sessions, Rev. 2.0

Once Upon a Time

by Jon K. Ravneng

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far away--called the 1980s–-Geir approached me, asking if I would add some piano tracks to an album he was about to finish with his band MX5. Having recently returned from the US, where I had spent a couple of months in a recording studio finishing an LP with songs written with a former bandmate who had tragically drowned just a few months before, I was more than ready for new challenges.

A while after Geir had finished this project, he moved to Oslo (where I lived at the time) to study law. We hooked up again, this time in his home studio (a four-track Tascam cassette recording device in his and his wife’s bedroom), to write songs together. Although Geir and I were not in total sync in regards to musical taste, we shared a background as fans of early British punk (The Clash, The Jam, The Sex Pistols), ska (The Specials, Madness), reggae (African Mombasa, Black Uhuru, The Police), and Pink Floyd. This was more than enough to build on, and we went along.

We called ourselves The Lawyers (kind of an obvious choice, I guess), and after a couple of months as a duo, we were arrogant enough to enter a national contest for unsigned bands. As we expected (yes, we were arrogant!), we were picked to perform on Norwegian National Radio (NRK) as one of ten finalist bands. Thinking back, it is interesting to note that we shared the stage with Lars Lillo-Stenberg and his band, which has since had an enormously successful career in Scandinavia. (I believe we beat them, though I’m not sure. What I do know is that the band that won the contest had a couple of hits before they forever disappeared.) Anyway, our song, “Shout Out,” was released on a compilation record, and we were on our way to stardom.

A few months after all this took place, Johannes Bjerga arrived in Oslo to attend college. He’d brought with him his collection of guitars, and soon The Lawyers morphed into Crosstalk, a trio. So, as is the case with any “real" rock band, we got together, thanks to a higher educational institution. And, not unlike other bands, we experienced a high ratio of “dropping out” in order to follow the Muse.

Crosstalk released one single, “All in the Family/Dreamer,” which got some airplay on local commercial radio. National radio (NRK), however, decided to ban “All in the Family” and played the B-side instead. We assume they either didn’t “get” the irony or underestimated their audience, assuming that people would think we promoted domestic violence. (Actually, we thought being banned so early in our career was kind of cool!)

One more thing regarding “All in the Family”: as the song was played on the radio, we were approached by an acquaintance of ours whom we thought we knew rather well. He was not very happy and expressed his feelings quite clearly: “That was a nasty thing you guys did.”

“Uh, what thing?” we asked in all honesty.

“Writing that song about me!” he answered.

Both Geir and I were flabbergasted; neither of us had any idea he had a problem of that sort. We had actually “outed” the guy without knowing or trying! Years later, we were approached by several women who thanked us for writing the song. There have been hugs mixed with tears, proving to us that touching on certain socially important issues, even if our pulpit is nothing more than a pop-rock song, might affect people on a very personal level. And, if there’s anything we hope to be able to do, that’s it.

As Crosstalk, we had high ambitions. We signed with a management company in Los Angeles, and our songs were placed in made-for-TV movies and TV shows, both in Europe and the US. While in Norway, our recording studio (now an eight-track, half-inch, 20-channel setup) was crammed into a 6-by-9-foot cabin with little heat. Geir, Johannes, and I named it “The Shed,” which is what it actually was.

Nevertheless, sweet music was made there, and due to the size of the place, we had no choice but to stay friends. Our eight-track analog studio was enhanced by Geir’s wizardry on the computer; we spent long hours recording and even longer hours "commuting" to L.A. It didn’t take long before each of us was responsible for his own “department.” Geir did the programming of synth pads, drums, and occasional bass guitar. Thus, he was usually responsible for setting the mood of the songs; the chords were often a bit jazzy, and he would decide on tempo and rhythm. Johannes was in charge of all the guitars, while I created most of the melody lines, harmonies, and lyrics. For us, it was a great way to work, and Geir and I still use that same model today.

In L.A., we recorded an alternative version of “All in the Family” with Bob Marlette, who at the time came straight from a successful collaboration with Wilson-Philips. Tom Whitlock, in whose studio we worked and who had been the lyricist for Giorgio Moroder, demanded that we change part of the lyric from “Little lady, close your eyes and take what comes” to “Little lady, you don’t have to take what comes,” which totally messed up the song, removing any trace of irony. Anyway, it ended up as a typical 80s mid-tempo dance tune and has remained “archived” ever since.

After a while, Johannes got tired of the long commute and decided to concentrate on a career in marketing. So Geir and I were back to being a songwriting duo. Responsible family men as we were, the only sensible choice was to pull our kids out of school and spend a year and a half in the United States (on six-month tourist visas), in order to be close to our manager and publishing company.

We borrowed a friend’s recording studio from midnight to 6:00 a.m., recording demos. During the day, we were husbands and fathers, in a perpetual stage of sleep deprivation. This might be why Geir and I, on one of our road trips through the Nevada desert, had our, now classic, UFO experience. We had stopped for a short break in the middle of nowhere. The sky was dark and covered with stars, and we were quite in awe of the sight. As we searched the dome above us for satellites–-little points of light moving slowly across the sky--we observed one and began following its track. Suddenly the thing began zigzagging across the firmament in a way that defies all physical laws. I actually had to ask Geir if he saw it too, and he just nodded, gaping in amazement. To this day, none of us can explain what we saw that night in the Nevada desert, but it was cool and exciting, and if nothing else, it has given us something to talk about at parties (there are enough nerds out there to make such an account an instant success). In addition, the experience may be a subconscious source of our song “Cosmic People.” Of this, however, I am not sure.

By the mid-90s, our songs had been placed in an episode of Melrose Place, a made-for-TV movie titled A Matter of Justice, and a number of minor TV programs all over Europe. This was enough to catch the interest of “super-producer” John Boylan, who had been behind Boston’s greatest albums, among other projects. He invited us to his home in the Hollywood Hills to record a handful of songs in his studio. We were quite excited and prepared for the Big Time! However, just before we were about to leave for L.A., we received a phone call from another producer, Paul D. Carlsen, who had heard two of our songs on a

Hot Tracks from Scandinavia

compilation (the songs were early versions of “Streets of Napalm” and “Operator”). He, too, invited us up to his studio in Topanga Canyon, and we all felt a little whiff of “fate” that day, since our duffel bags were already packed and we were about to head for SoCal in just a couple of days.

For about a week, we lived with Paul while recording with John Boylan. However, Boylan was not happy with the fact that we hung out with a “rival” producer, and he gave us an ultimatum: either we break with Paul Carlsen, or he’d drop our collaboration. We stayed with Paul.

Actually, depresleys truly came to life the day we stepped into Paul’s recording studio in Topanga. With him at the board, our sound became locked in, and our songs began to reach their true potential. He met us with a “my home is your home” reception, handed us the keys to his house, and let us do our thing. Geir was especially impressed by Paul’s high-tech digital equipment, while I got sold on what I saw hanging on his studio wall: a multi-million platinum album of Nirvana’s Nevermind, to which Paul had contributed his digital-editing skills. As a big Nirvana fan, I was in recording heaven!

Paul soon introduced us to Rick Shlosser, a guy who has recorded and toured with the “greatest of the great.” He was willing to lay down some drum tracks on our new songs; I have a suspicion that he didn’t know that there was no money in it. He is used to working with the stars: people who hire the best and who pay what they’re worth. And Rick is worth a lot. Oh well, whether he knew or not, he played on a few of our songs. Then he came back and played on some more. Finally, we didn’t have to ask him to come; he showed up, and by one morning in May (or maybe it was in July or November), he had become one of the depresleys, a member of the band.

Personally, I found it somewhat intimidating to work with Rick and Paul. They had rubbed shoulders with people like Van Morrison, James Taylor, Rod Stewart, and Kurt Cobain, and there I was, pretending to be on their level. Luckily for us, they treated us with such respect that we overcame our self-consciousness. Rather than making us feel inferior, these great and experienced guys made sure we reached beyond our comfort zone, and the quality of our performance grew.

Not long after we were introduced to Rick, another musical “giant” entered our studio: Richard Hardy. Having spent years on the road with stars such as Carole King and Dave Mathews, he fit right in with our sound, and he is now an “associated” member of depresleys; one will find his saxes, flutes, and whatnot all over our tracks.

Topanga became our home away from home. The main studio was on the upper floor, while Paul had a smaller, but totally compatible, 16-track room downstairs. Although we could freely use both rooms, Geir and I usually worked out our ideas and demos downstairs before presenting them to Paul in the main room. It was a perfect arrangement. What was not as perfect was the sewer! Without our noticing (I assume it happened very gradually), it began to leak, filling the whole house with a stench that, after a while, was beyond description. The funny thing is that we had invited people from the local press to come over for interviews and a taste of our new songs. And, there we were, a bunch of guys in a typical Topanga pad (for the uninitiated: Topanga Canyon is where the hippies live--or, at least lived; now the big bucks rule there as well, and a house will cost you, uh, more than you can afford!), big smiles on our faces, draped in a cloud of ammonia and whatever else escaped from the deep, dark below. Nobody cared to tell us until a fellow musician happened to drop by. He refused to step inside and almost hurled into the flowerbed, which, I guess, would have been appropriate, all things considered.

The last image I’ve brought with me from Topanga is the rat’s nest we discovered as we disassembled the studio. How many rodents there were, nobody knows (there were plenty!), but they had obviously lived there for a while and had partied on Paul’s cables. Only a miracle had stopped them from making his recording facilities totally useless.