Contributor’s Note: I met Oliver Ignatius when he worked on my band’s EP a few months ago and knew within a couple hours that he was one of the most involved and creative producers I’ve ever worked with. Needless to say, the bar for his new single ‘City’s a Hell’ was set pretty high. The song is funky, fun, unhinged, catchy, and fan-fucking-tastic. Oliver and I got together to talk about his new single after he pulled an all nighter mixing the late great Dan McLane’s Mister Dirty record.
The song seems to criticize the big city capitalistic lifestyle, can you talk a little bit about what you mean when you sing “All the city’s a hell, find somebody to sell, sell them down the line.”
Honestly most of the lyric just spilled out of me at a party when I was 21, in a fairly bad mood. At the time I was thinking on a more micro level but as time went by I came to find the lyrics were about more than I originally thought. The problem with a culture like this one, is nobody’s blameless. I think that’s a little bit about what “City’s a Hell” is about.
Did these ideas gestate inside of you for a long time, or were the lyrics more of a spur of the moment kind of thing?
I tend to have musical themes percolating for a while, they come to me most when I’m going about my business, walking somewhere, doing a chore, whatever – then I’ll just have a melody kicking around my head, honestly disturbing the crap out of me – eventually I’ll find a lyric to go to it. The lyrics tend to spill out less carefully because I find I write more expressively and naturally that way.
I feel that sonically, ‘City’s a Hell’ is a collage of some of your favorite musicians. I hear Sly and the Family Stone all over the drums and the bass, John Lennon in your guitar leads, and the vocals have this Tame Impala distorted feel to them. Where you trying to emulate anyone specifically on this? When you listen to ‘City’s a Hell’ now what do you hear in the song?
Well that’s cool! I have no shame about admitting that “City’s a Hell” is very much my stylistic homage to Sly Stone’s sound ca. 1970/1971, between the epochal and harrowing LP “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” (probably my favorite record ever made), and his efforts writing and producing for his short lived Stone Flower label. I had an LSD trip a few years ago, some friends and I were on the ground inhaling nitrous oxide cause we heard it was an experience and it was – “Riot” was on the turntable, I believe we were somewhere in the apocalyptic “Africa Talks to You (The Asphalt Jungle)” and something clicked for me; I realized that, there I was freaking out on the floor, and there was Sly freaking out on the turntable right with me. That, I decided should be my aim. To make music for the cats freaking out on the floor with me. I think I tried to bring some of that tense, yet somnambulant and lurching feeling to “City’s a Hell.”
Most of the lead guitar was played by my long time friend, collaborator and inspiration Jacob Sunshine. Interesting that you noted John Lennon! I’ll have to listen to it again. While Lennon is one of my absolute favorites (so much so I named my daughter after him), I think Jacob would tell you he was copping straight Sly licks himself. We were on the groove. As for Tame Impala, I’ve been compared to them (him?) many times over the years but haven’t listened to them much at all. I think it’s one of those cases where maybe we have similar influences or something.
Talk to me a little about what equipment you used? Was any piece of equipment integral to the sound of this song? Did you use anything outside of its intended purpose?
Believe it or not, I’m actually not exaggerating when I say the production of this song spanned 5 years of experimentation and recording. My band at the time Ghost Pal was playing the song live, and we had tentative plans to record it, but what really made the track come to life for me was when I started dinking around with this funny little drum machine Pro Tools comes with. It’s quite low-fi and you can only print a bar at a time, but you can do a lot to the decay and pitch of the sounds, and the results can actually be pretty great. So that ended up being the bedrock of the track, on top of which I quickly layered bass, and additional hi-hats both programmed and played live, for that little bit of flam which is just the funkiest sound. At one point there was an organ on the track but it was cluttering, and replacing it with the crisply utilitarian piano helped a lot. I also enjoyed putting my megaphone to use, as I was disturbed and inspired by the music I heard coming out of Balinese temples on a visit in 2015. They were, I believe, using the megaphones for vocal amplification and the singing style was guttural and blown out, almost monstrous. I was transfixed by it. I would also be remiss not to again mention Jacob Sunshine, the best guitarist I know, who shredded such ridiculously nasty funk leads on a little Mexican Stratocaster plugged right into the board.
How did you get the warm, fuzzy feeling on your vocals? It sounds so textural and is really unique.
It took a while to figure out the approach to the vocals! I had several passes over time that I was not really satisfied with, and at one point experimented with doing kind of a big group gang vocal lead which wound up being too boisterous and disorganized, although they fade up a little bit in the final “Sunday Driver” segment. The breakthrough was deciding to call on some really talented women singers I know and have worked with, namely Lilah Larson from Sons of an Illustrious Father, Paige Johnson Brown from Irrevery, Mary Knapp from Toot Sweet, and the I believe as-of-yet unaffiliated Maria Lina. With them moving in tandem delivering this almost militant group lead vocal, I got to be the murmuring deep voice in the murk, which suited me fine – and then there are a couple moments where my vocal rises up and starts tearing up on a real lead line, and that usually coincides with the big cracking surge of emotion and energy in the song. It seemed to work out. On the end section I was just riffing and improvising and ended up liking a surprising amount of it. The “Sunday driver” line is taken from a song called “Judy” by my dear friend Henry Kandel, and all the other call and response stuff (“Oh help me father,” “Oh what am I…”) were things I had pinging around my head when I was 19 walking around Berkeley, where I was living, in a lonely psychedelicized state.
The song feels that it goes through several different movements and feels like there’s always something new is being layered into the song. Did you write most of the parts before you started recording or were you constantly writing it as you recorded it?
The recording process was long! The track gained and shed many layers over those years. When it comes to arrangement, it’s usually a combination of premeditation and improvisation for me. If i’m walking around and I get a melodic or arrangement motif pop into my head and refuse to leave, then I’m ready to accept it as part of the arrangement of the song. It seems only fair, right? On the bass, for instance, I went in with a basic idea of what I was going to do but there are really free moments in there that I’m not sure I could even reproduce. Jacob recorded several layers of improvised guitar, which were mercilessly cut up in the mixing stage. I would again be remiss not to mention Henry Kandel, who has been adding beautiful saxophone lines to my music for years, and you can hear him loud and clear on the outro!
And there you have it! Thank you to Oliver Ignatius for taking the time for Madness To Creation for this unique interview!