Damian Taylor Brings "The Weirdness" to The Killers' Latest Album
The Killers’ latest album, Battle Born, brought the Las Vegas band together with no less than five world-class producers — Steve Lillywhite, Stuart Price, Brendan O’Brien, Daniel Lanois, and Damian Taylor. Amidst such illustrious company, Taylor modestly describes his role on the upcoming release with a laugh, “The band wanted to ensure that there would be a good strain of weirdness in there.”
The Grammy-nominated Canadian producer has well earned his reputation as an immensely skilled and wildly creative electronic music explorer, having worked on remixes for Arcade Fire, UNKLE, Kylie Minogue, Metallica, and Gotye, among others. Taylor has also collaborated extensively with the likes of The Prodigy and Björk, the latter of whom invited him to bring his unique electronic signature on tour with her for 18 months.
Here’s what Taylor had to say about working with the Killers, playing experimental instruments on the road, and using UAD Powered Plug-Ins to get Battle Born battle-ready.
What was your role on Battle Born?
I was one of the five producers working on it at various stages for various songs and different pieces. But out of everyone I was involved the longest and on the most tracks. I was there during the mastering and for the home stretch. I got involved in November of last year and we just handed it in a few days ago. I can’t believe it’s done! We went right down to the wire on this one.
How did you start working with the band?
They originally thought they’d make an album that was rockier and more raw, but a lot of why the pulled me in was to insure that it would have that electronic “weirdness” as well, or just a different point of view to mix it up. So even though they started originally wanting to go quite rock with it, we all ended up wanting to spice it up quite a bit.
How did you meet them?
I met them in 2007 when I was on tour playing with Björk — we were on the same bill at a festival in Brazil. The Killers had been working with [Madonna producer] Stuart Price, so [Killers singer] Brandon Flowers came up to me and said, “You must be for Björk what Stuart Price is for Madonna.”
“If I’m mixing, I’m thinking about how I can use tools to create space, definition, or different types of depth and texture, and the Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder Plug-In was the first tape plug-in that I’ve consistently used and felt had a very positive effect.”
Can you explain a bit more about the “strain of weirdness”?
When the Killers and I met, I was playing a new electronic instrument called the Reactable with Björk and doing lots of other interesting electronic stuff in her show. Historically, as a band, the Killers have always had an interest in some of the slightly weirder — from an American point of view — British acts, both live bands and electronic music. They like working with someone who speaks that language, which I think is why they’ve worked with people like me, and Stuart Price as well. They use a lot of synths on their albums and they encouraged me to push the songs quite far out and then we’d pull them back in to a point where they felt more like a Killers record again, rather than crazy remixes.
They basically wanted to work with somebody who had a different sensibility, which I was very happy about. I have a lot of experience working with electronic music, but I’ve always wanted to do more things with live bands, so this was a great project. Working with four live musicians is actually an exotic opportunity for me. Much of my work has been with artists like Björk and The Prodigy, where a lot of my production is programming-based.
What’s it like playing the Reactable?
It has this element of chaos, but in a controllable way. It’s like if you go surfing, you get on a wave and it has its own energy and movement, and you steer yourself on top of that. It’s not like you go to play C major and you know that you’re going to get the same thing every time. Something starts happening, you react to it and shape it, it’s never predictable and boring. I tended to use it for the big, noisy songs. It was a chaos machine — it would do the effects of UFOs taking off and landing.
Towards the end of the year-and-a-half tour with Björk, I started realizing that I wouldn’t have a Reactable after the tour ended, and that made me sad, because I’d become quite attached to it! The developers have done a great job of making it into a finished commercial version, though. It’s much slicker than the prototype that we had on tour. But even that was great. Playing it made me feel like Scotty on Star Trek.
What UAD plug-ins did you use with The Killers?
I started working with a whole lot of UAD plug-ins halfway through my work on The Killers’ record. I’d heard so many good things about them that I wanted to check the tools out. I ended up using UAD tape emulations quite a bit. If I’m mixing, I’m thinking about how I can use tools to create space, definition, or different types of depth and texture, and the Studer® A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder Plug-In was the first tape plug-in that I’ve consistently used and felt had a very positive effect — pretty much every other one I've tried winds up being taken off at some point. I love that you can jump back and forth between different models and setups and find combinations and settings which intrinsically bring something positive to the sound of a track. We’re entering a very interesting era where tone shaping is starting to happen with plug-ins, where a track can come in flat and a plug-in has an inherent character that it can give it. That’s really exciting for me.
I also used the Cooper® Time Cube Mk II Delay Plug-In. I’m still getting to know it, but it does some very interesting things. Most recently, I’ve been using the Precision EQ Plug-In. It’s been pretty insane, discovering what adding just half a decibel to the top end can do. It adds an amazing, huge effect that I’m still quantifying. The Manley Massive Passive is another EQ that I’ve started using, but haven’t gotten as deep into quite yet.
Have the tape plug-ins affected how you mix?
Using them has had a big impact on me. On the mixing front, I now have a few fundamentally different approaches that I can take. If I approach a mix in an old school way by using a tape and 1176 Limiter plug-in on every single track, that unifies the sounds and pushes the mix in a different direction than if I’m taking a more tweaky, juxtaposed digital approach. Overall, working with UAD plug-ins has raised the quality of my game when it comes to what I can do mix-wise, which is fantastic. Also, the fact that you have access to DSP card-based processing helps a lot. I can draw from a much broader palette and not have to constantly worry about my computer dying.
What about reverbs?
Digital reverbs never sat quite right for me and I used them as little as possible — but the Lexicon 224 Digital Reverb and EMT 140 Plate Reverb have worked great for me. Also, the Roland Space Echo has been very useful. Interestingly enough, I have a real, vintage Space Echo sitting next to me in the studio, but I’ve started using the RE-201 Space Echo Plug-In a ton. If you just dial it in with a tiny bit of wet signal it gives a track a nice bit of depth or grit without it being too over the top. Part of the benefit is that you can do things like that so quickly and just experiment. In the big picture, it can be more flexible than outboard analog hardware, just because it’s so much faster to implement different possibilities.
Do you use any UA hardware?
Garth Richardson, a producer who worked with Rage Against the Machine back in the day, first told me about using an LA-3A Audio Leveler into an LA-2A Leveling Amplifier and setting them both to limit and just nudging up to 2dB of gain reduction on each. That blew my mind when I finally got to try it. I had no idea that something that subtle could have such a profound effect.
“Working with UAD plug-ins has raised the quality of my game when it comes to what I can do mix-wise, which is fantastic.”
These days, I use original LA-3As that I bought ten years ago and love, and I am a great fan of the LA-2A as well. Any time I’m in a studio with both of those, they’re absolutely in my vocal chain — and if I’m in a studio that has two, even better! I have one chain set up for loud vocals and one for quiet vocals then ride between them. We used two 1176s on Björk’s traveling rig, but I ended up using them very subtly. We recorded and monitored on location, so maybe I allow only a couple dB of peak reduction on an 1176 and otherwise ride the input gain quite a lot. I like the 1176s for that because the knobs are nice and big, which gives you a lot of resolution during takes. Riding between the 12 and 18 marks on the output gain of the 1176 tended to work quite well. Depending on what was happening I would ride either the input or output gains to keep a good gain structure for whatever she was singing.
How do you approach tracking and mixing synths?
It’s pretty instinctive, and a lot of it depends on the artist and the type of songs. With the Killers, Brandon’s synth parts tend to be chordal, so we used a lot of polysynths. Personally, I’m really into analog monosynths because of their rawness and directness, and if I’m doing remixes, I quite like to make them sound more raucous and guitar-y by putting them through pedals and trying to induce a bit more chaos. With the Killers, though, their songs are quite cleverly composed with lots of chord changes, lots of instruments and different musical sections, so we wanted the synth parts to be more precise. We mostly used a rack-mounted Jupiter MKS-80 for warm and nostalgic sounds alongside an M-Audio Venom for more atmospheric parts, and that combination worked really well in defining the sonic world of the album.
Overall, for the Killers’ record, I tried to apply similar noises in different tracks to tie the album together. In other projects, I often tried to come up with the craziest noises possible, experimenting form a synth nerd’s point of view to really get attention-grabbing stuff, rather than thinking, “what’s going to make this song feel the best?” The latter was very much the approach on this project.
What advice could you offer to aspiring producers and engineers?
Network and meet people. If there’s a place where the music that excites you is being made, go there. When I was 19, I moved from New Zealand to London and that’s where I made the relationships that made everything happen for me. Also, the access we have to tools now is incredible. Don’t get hung up on any one thing. Just make as much music as you possibly can.
What exciting things do you have coming up?
Catching up on sleep! Beyond that, working with a singer from New Zealand named Kimbra. A track that we did together went on a Tim Burton soundtrack. She’s at my studio now and we’re messing around with some new ideas. After that, I’m looking forward to doing a bunch of remixes which are fun because you can be very experimental. You're just doing a one-off track rather than working to tie 10 or 12 or more tracks together. It's a nice refresher for me before I get sucked into another album. Mostly though, I’m excited for this Killers album to come out. I don’t think I’m going to believe it’s done until I see it for sale in the shop!
Photos by Richmond Lam.
— Michael Gallant