It seems that when I ask anyone what will be remembered amongst the strongest releases of 2013 lately, they immediately elect the new letlive. album The Blackest Beautiful [Epitaph]. Out July 5 here in Australia and July 9 elsewhere, it’s a passionate, powerful, energetic burst of post-Rage-Against-The-Machine angst and ferocity, with a huge organic sound and a world-class approach to subtle but crucial vocal harmony. It’s also brain-grabbingly memorable, despite its complexity. Guitarist Jeff Sahyoun – who also engineered the album – has developed an idiosyncratic style which blends traditional riff-rock with post-hardcore adrenaline and a sound-designer’s appreciation of using found objects for weird noises and textures. Currently on the Warped tour throughout the US, I caught up with Sahyoun while he kicked back in a carpark in the middle of nowhere.
The first thing that really hits me about the album is the massive low end, and as the engineer I guess that comes down to you. How did you approach the overall sound of the album?
Ooh, a lot of tricks, I guess. No, I’m just kidding. With this record I wanted to do it differently. I didn’t want it to be the same cliche’d style. Let’s start with the drums, for example. The studio I had a residency in back in LA has a massively large live room, and I was wondering why a lot of bands these days will spend so much time on the drum mic placement and arrangements to capture the dynamics and sonic energy in a musician’s performance, and then they go to the computers and they sound-replace stuff, and it’s like putting together a puzzle on a computer. And with all due respect – I respect all engineers and producers and everybody who does that, because everybody has different styles and methods – but with us, I’m sure you know what we’re about. We’re pretty messy, and it’s about capturing the dynamics and the live feel, and what we’re feeling at the time. Maybe we were sad. Maybe we were happy. Maybe we were pissed off. I mean, there are parts of this album where the guitar might be out of tunes sometimes because we might be angry at something that’s going on. But the drums are the backbone of the album, and we wanted to go about it as organically as possible. We’re human, and in truth we were like, ‘Let it sound like a human is playing the drums, not a program.’ So we used 16 inputs on that, five room miss up to the 20-foot ceiling that I had, and let it as is, to be honest with you. And the same thing with the guitars and bass: using a lot of microphones and also using room microphones in the studio to capture the sonic energy and translating it into the analog realm. We experimented with different tones for an entire day or two, moving mics here and there until we got that sound we wanted. It was more relying on ourselves and human nature in making music, and not relying so much on technology. That’s also why it took us so long to complete the album! We spent about eight months or so recording the damn thing! There are some parts where people are like ‘You’re not gonna leave it like that, right?’ and I’m like ‘Fuck yeah I’m gonna leave it like that.’ There are specific moments in the recording process, magic moments. You get a whole room full of candles and it’s that energy, that vibe. It may not be perfect but it’s perfect for that time and place, and that expression. That’s how the record came to life.
Well it sounds like it’s more of a recording rather than a construction.
Yeah. If we went about it relying on the digital technology I would find it kinda easy to sound-replace, and then it just becomes sitting at a screen putting squares together. We could have probably knocked out a record in a month and a half and it would have been fine. But I think we’re kind of a different kind of band. And if you see us live, we’re raising hell and going off, and it’s all about that soul and energy. And when you rely heavily on the digital realm you lose some of that. So we let it be.
Well my big realisation lately is that it’s not ProTools itself that’s the problem – it’s the screen.
Oh big time! Exactly! And that’s the thing with mixing: when you’re face-down to the floor and you’ve got your hands on the board to control the automation and you think ‘yeah, that feels good,’ and then you look up at the screen, sometimes the dB is not where you think it is. You surprise the shit out of yourself, like ‘Whoa. No way!’ But y’know, some people have their formulas, and when they sit behind the screen they’re so used to seeing numbers and velocity levels and whatnot, and it becomes a formula. And we don’t like going about stuff like that. Not that we don’t respect people that do that.
I usually think of you as a Tele guy but I’ve seen you with the EVH Wolfgang a lot lately.
Dude, it’s beautiful and it’s small like me. My representative over at Fender, he brought me into the Fender showcase room in Burbank, California, to try out some Charvels. I’d been rocking some Fender Telecasters because I’d built them from scratch. I’ll use a Fender body and I’ll nerd out on it. So I went in there to try out some Charvels and I’m not like an insane metal guy at all, so when I went in, ignorantly enough, I guess, when I was looking on the wall I saw the EVH Wolfgang and I picked it up and he said ‘Well, it’s not a Charvel, but if you want to try it out, go for it.’ I sat down and started jamming with it and I loved it. It was so easy on my hands. I love the fretboard. Like I said, I’m tiny, and the fretboard is small and I have small fingers, and I could get around the body and neck really quick. So I loved it. So my rep Mike said ‘Cool. Now let’s try some Charvels again, see if you like something.’ So I put the Wolfgang down, picked up a guitar, jammed on it and couldn’t stop thinking about the Wolfgang. There was something about that guitar and the connection I had, the vibe I felt when I played it, that I loved. The pickups sound amazing. I disconnected my neck pickup, so my pickup switcher is actually a killswitch now, which gives me another toy to play with on stage. So between the Floyd Rose, the killswitch, my pedals and my feet – not to mention I scratch my guitars all over my microphone, chairs, the floor, anything I can get my hands on – it sounds great. I’m in love with it. This tour, the EVH became my backup. I started using a Telecaster that I had built myself, but I still rock the EVH every single set every day. I go half and half.
I saw on your Tumblr recently a pic of an EVH that didn’t make it… what happened there?
Haha. We were on the Deftones run, and on the last day of the tour in London it was a sold-out show with about 5,000 people there. And this lady I love so much, Helen, she’s a representative over at Fender as well, she came over into our dressing room with a black EVH Wolfgang and I thought she was giving it to me as a gift, and my eyes almost watered. I was like, ‘What are you doin’?’ And she’s like ‘No no no, this is not for you to keep. You’re going to smash this on stage tonight.’ And I’m like ‘I’m not fuckin’ gonna break this guitar! Are you crazy? I’m taking it home!’ So we went on stage and on the last song, Casino Columbus, I do this little microphone scratch, Tom Morello style, and after doing that I took the guitar and smashed the shit out of it. But I have it hanging up on my wall in a little frame my sister and my mother put together for me. It broke my heart, but it was a moment I’ll never forget.
And amps, you’re an Egnater guy, yeah?
Yeah. I’ve been a part of the Egnater family for six or seven years, when they were making the amps out of a garage. A buddy of mine introduced me to them. They brought me over the Renegade. I love it! It’s been a part of my rig for the past six years. I actually just had a conversation with a producer/engineer buddy in Chicago and he said ‘You’ve never let go of that head.’ I don’t know if it’s just that I’m so used to it, but I love it. I’m full Egnater up and down, all over the place. And they’re really good to me. It sounds good for my style.
That’s what’s cool about the Renegade: whatever you set it up to do, it becomes that amp.
Oh yeah. I love it. Also, I do some session work and I can bring that head into any session. Metal, jazz, pop, funk, soul, punk, everything. I love the tube mixing too. It’s a nice tool.
What about favourite players? Who are your guys?
I definitely look up to John Mayer. I’ve been on a John Mayer run for the last few months, actually. I like his finger technique. Jack White, Matt Bellamy from Muse, Tom Morello of course. And oddly enough, Lindsey Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac.
Oh totally! I was listening to his solo album Out of the Cradle recently, and I read that on the tour for that album he had something like four other guitarists on stage, in order to play all the overdubs live.
Yep! I love it! My dad introduced me to him when I was younger. And Jack White, I have a similar style of making an instrument out of anything I can build. Y’know, I get my influences from nerding out my guitar and building things here and there from Tom Morello and Matt Bellamy. Putting pedals and whatever I can into the body of my guitar to take the weight off my feet. Those are my main guys.
What kind of pedals?
Right now what I’ve got going on is, I took a Telecaster body and I only have one bridge pickup in there – a Seymour Duncan JB – JB is my shit! I have JBs in every instrument I have apart from the Wolfgang! I always put a JB in there, since I was a kid. On this particular guitar I did a push-button coil tap on my volume to switch from single coil to humbucker. And then I have a momentary killswitch, and then I have a three-way killswitch and an on/off killswitch. And then that’s going down to the mother of my rig, the Line 6 M13, which I use on everything pretty much. And to control that, I just bought a pedal switcher. I have a Red Witch Fuzz God II – lots of noises in that. It’s awesome. It’s pretty much related to the Z.Vex Fuzz Factory. And then I have a Boss Super Shifter that I use for drops and whatnot. And I’m controlling my M13 with an Ernie Ball 25k volume pedal as an expression pedal, and I have another Ernie Ball Jr regular volume. Then I have a regular Dunlop Crybaby wah pedal but I took it apart and changed all the inductors on the inside, so it’s fatter when it’s closed. I nerd out, man. I sit there with my solder machine, take shit a part and put it back together til I like what I hear. So that’s what I’ve got. And other than that, a lot of my effects are whatever I can grab, whether it’s glass bottles, air conditioner systems on stages, or whatever Jason breaks I’ll take pieces of it off the floor and start drilling it into my guitar.
The Blackest Beautiful is out July 5 in Australia and July 9 in the rest of the world, via Epitaph.