Jari, your latest album, Phantom Cabinet Vol. 1 is an amazing, unique release, congrats! How long have you worked on the album and what’s the message behind it?
Thank You! We ended up spending almost ten years on the album, mainly because we simply didn’t want to end the various fun recording adventures. A message? The world is full of incredible instruments and sounds that are waiting to be discovered and rediscovered – and they can be used for all kinds of music.
How do you find all these unique and strange instruments?
I’ve always been interested in strange sounds and unusual instruments – it goes at least partially back to crate-digging and sampling culture, my original way of making music. But it was really the work on The Great Stalacpipe Organ that gave us the idea: “If no-one had discovered and composed music for this majestic instrument – what other musical treasures might be out there?”
I have a university background and much of the “hunt” was like normal research work: I read articles and books about unusual instruments, did plenty of online searching, and got in touch with museums and other institutions. Also, because people knew about our hunt, we got many tips via Facebook.
With Paul living in New York, and you in Helsinki, who did what on that record? What was the creative journey along that way?
Paul and I are indeed the captains, but Pepe Deluxé is really an international fellowship of extraordinary gentlefolk on a quest for quests. We collaborate with friends and other people from all over the world. Music is the perfect excuse for us for all sorts of projects and ventures. Paul is the main Pepe composer, and I work a bit more on on-location recording sessions. Then again, it was Paul who both performed on and recorded the Great Stalacpipe Organ. Our roles are flexible.
What is The Great Stalacpipe Organ? How did you guys actually record and compose on it?
The Great Stalacpipe Organ is the largest (and most awesome!) musical instrument in the world – when measured by the area it covers. It’s basically a custom organ keyboard that controls solenoids with rubber hammers, that are in turn hitting stalactites tuned to musical notes. It was invented and built deep down underground in Luray, Virginia in the early ‘50s by a Pentagon scientist named Leland W. Sprinkle. Although it’s been seen by close to half a million people every year since it was built, no-one one had composed a single piece of music for it before we did that. It’s by far the most Vernian instrument ever built, and it’s literally been ”hidden in plain sight” for all these decades!
This particular recording adventure took over six years as the organ was being restored - very, very slowly. Paul, being the Deluxé of Pepe Deluxé, recorded his performance on a stereo Nagra reel-to-reel. Plus, he did some ambiance recordings there in the caverns too.
Did you use Sound Radix plug-ins on Phantom Cabinet Vol 1?
If Cody Chesnutt was in “The Seed” ready to name his would-be baby girl “Rock-N-Roll”, then mine could be “Drum Leveler”, hehee! That’s one of my top five plugins, especially for drums that need modern solid power. With main drums with a good beat, you can basically “normalize” the drum hits before other processing, and still retain most of the illusion of dynamics, thanks to the variation in sound and playing.
I’ve always loved to use several mics on almost everything; for example, most of the Phantom Cabinet vocals were recorded with no less than four very different types of microphones simultaneously. So, it’s probably easy to guess that Auto-Align is another Sound Radix fave of mine. I also do plenty of re-amping and external processing, and the plugin is really helpful with that stuff too. You can hear both of those on all Phantom Cabinet songs.
22nd Century Dandy, especially the intro with the juggernaut of bass, is a good Pi “demo”. That bass sound is actually a combination of half a dozen bass sounds from Paul’s various vintage and modular synths. The stack of basses sounded big but a bit floppy and lazy before I tightened it with Pi. I also filtered the very bottom away from all but one bass sound. At the bottom, you need to remember the Highlander Rule: “There Can Be Only One!”
Do you use Drum Leveler on any other instruments than Drums?
Oh yeah, I’m very used to using it for many things, ranging from “normalizing” various multi-samples of some strange old instruments to adding supporting low/zero dynamics layers sounds that need power. I also do stuff like create drum tracks that have only the attack portion of the drums, again zero dynamics, and mix that in parallel with “normal” drum tracks.
The Virtual Phantom Cabinet is a virtual art gallery of your album. Tell us more about it.
This is again something that goes wayyy back in time. I had spoken about the incredible instruments album-idea several times over the years with my friend Otso Kähönen, who a few years ago became the co-founder and creative director of Arilyn. Arilyn is an XR design studio and in addition to big companies, they’ve worked with various institutions like museums and even artists including Ozzy Osbourne and Lil Nas X.
There’s just an insane amount of material that goes with Phantom Cabinet, including all the history and stories of the album’s dozens of unusual instruments, some of them hundreds of years old! So, when Otso suggested that we’d build together a Virtual Phantom Cabinet that would support and expand the album, I had but one word for him: “HELLYEAH!”.
What I find both funny and also very cool is that several museums curators that we had collaborated with on the album, have REALLY liked the virtual cabinet; apparently, we managed to solve quite a few of the problems that often make places like virtual museums … well, quite boring.
Besides your own album, what else have you been working on lately?
I’m occasionally producing and mixing music for other artists too. Both Mike Bell Cartel’s “The Cartel & I” (garage rock-pop) and Von Hertzen Brother’s “Red Alert in the Blue Forest” (classic/prog-rock) are both released this month (March 2022). I mixed two songs for Mike Bell and produced plus mixed most of the new VHB album. Plenty of Sound Radix action there too – especially with VHB songs that sometimes had closer to 200 tracks. Then again material like Mike Bell, all tracked live to tape, is super interesting too as with digital tools you can “zoom into” those tracks that contain, for example, the full drum kit, and separate and isolate material for more precise processing. Retaining the vintage vibe but adding some modern power. I love mixing all kinds of music – as long as there’s at least some dynamics!
How did you utilize Drum Leveler in the Von Hertzen Brothers' productions?
We recorded the VHB drums at E-Studio in Sipoo, a municipality that is right next to Helsinki. E-Studio has a nice, closer to 10 meters high main room. We were using both traditional, high-quality drums and mics, and also some more experimental stuff like my strange mics and Zildjian low volume practice cymbals that sound like fairy dust. You can hear the latter in the second chorus of “All of a Sudden, You’re Gone”.
The end of that song has these cool drums that were first played live by drummer Sami Kuoppamäki, and then chopped up and re-arranged by Kie von Hertzen. Because Kie had combined several drum tracks of several takes and then processed them all together, the levels – especially the kick drum – were quite jumpy here and there. I isolated the bottom end of the drums and used Drum Leveler plus some manual editing to make it more steady and solid.
Another example: the song “Northern Lights” - which actually features the real sounds of northern lights!!! - I came up with the idea that as the song was long and there was plenty of growth, the drums should have as much dynamics as possible. The illusion of dynamics to be precise. So, in the song, we have both real volume growth and then, after a certain point when the drum peaks don’t get higher, just more compression and saturation. So again, plenty of Drum Leveler work where drum hits are first “solidified”, and then processed further – usually with parallel processing.
How is your role as the producer different when working with an artist and not on your own projects?
Oh, it’s very different, and even more difficult when you’re both producing AND mixing. What I’ve tried to learn over the years in producing is these two things: It’s not my music, it’s the artist’s music.
If it is possible to step back and not get in the way, it’s always best to step back. Again, it’s their music.
I’ve compared the job of a producer to the job of a captain that’s steering a ship – without a super clear idea of where she is heading. When needed, and only when needed, you need to be able to say “THIS WAY!”
With mixing, I often fail. Because there I’m not the servant of the artist but of the music. I usually post-process a lot and let the music tell me where it wants to go. Of course, I accept wishes and suggestions from the artist. But I’m not a balance engineer, working in the hands of the artist(s) and creating the mix for them. In fact, if I don’t get any sort of WTF!?!? as the first reaction, I often feel that I have failed to be bold enough. In short: I mix as James Spectrum, never as Jari Salo. Spectrum was born to be nice, except when he’s recording and mixing. It’s a Bruce Wayne – Batman thing.
What does a typical studio day for you look like?
The only “Studio Habit” I have is that I spend too much time here at Sanctum Sanctorum Musæum Studio, heh hee! I’ve always said that if we ever really know what we gonna do next in Pepe, then it’s time to call it quits.
I believe that the key things, the four cornerstones of all creative work, are the following: good food, good sleep, exercise, and good friends and family. Miss even one, and sooner or later your imagination engine will slow down.
Most of my artist friends noticed this during COVID isolation: those who had savings were first super happy because they FINALLY had time to work on all those projects they had been thinking about it. But after a year or so … almost everyone slowed down and became like foxes hiding in their holes - not just having the fire anymore. They were missing the crucial “hanging out with good friends” -element. We all need that support, inspiration, and also friendly competition.
What can your fans expect from you in the future? Are you already working on Phantom Cabinet Vol. 2?
Yes indeed: a large part of Vol. 2 is actually ready as we worked on Vol 1. and 2. simultaneously. What we are still missing is a few more little less crazy compositions!
One of the many things I’d like to spend time on is various metaphysical studio processing instruments. I feel that we already have enough engineer tools created for engineers: it’s not just the performing artists but also studio wizards who would benefit from magical equipment that would take them somehow “further”.
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You can find our previous interview with Jari here.