Q&A: Merriweather Post Pavillion Behind-The-Scenes With Ben H. Allen
| Image by Courtesy Ben H. Allen
Record production work has ping ponged Ben Allen all over the world–from his native New Mexico to New York to the Bahamas to Georgia, where he now resides and runs a label, Make Records Not Bombs. Along the way, he has had a behind-the-decks hand in recordings by everyone from Christina Augilera to Cee-Lo to Kelis. Recently he added Animal Collective to his resume, helming the group’s hotly anticipated new album, Merriweather Post Pavilion. In a telephone interview a few days prior to the album’s release, Allen talked with City Paper about its creation.
City Paper: Where are you right now?
Ben H. Allen: Right now, I’m in the city of Atlanta.
CP: I read somewhere that you’re a longtime friends of the members of Animal Collective. How long have you known them, and how did you meet?
BHA: That’s actually not the truth–I’ve read that a few places, too. I don’t know where that came from. We had a few conversations, but we literally met the day we got to the studio to record the album.
CP: How did you come to work on Merriweather Post Pavilion?
BHA: Well, I guess the guys were having some meetings with their management and they were throwing out names for producers, and mine came up. They were interested in me because of my work with Gnarls Barkley, and wanted my low-end expertise. I did an on-the-spot conference call with the band in January 2008, and they wanted to start working on February 1st. So it all happened pretty quickly.
CP: The two names that pop up most often in terms of your previous productions are P.Diddy and Gnarls Barkley. Of the lesser known acts, which ones do you have the fondest memories of?
BHA: That’s a good question. That’s a great question. I produced an album from a psychedelic rock band from Atlanta called All The Saints in 2007. I really loved that album–that was a real pleasure to work on. More recently, I also produced a record by a band called Gringo Star–really amazing. We recorded it live. Those two are the big highlights, outside of Merriweather Post Pavilion. Over the last two years I’ve been working on a big pet project called the Constellations with local artists–it’s on my label, Make Records Not Bombs. It’s really cool.
CP: Was there anything in particular that Animal Collective wanted you to bring to its sound?
BHA: I think the low-end was the big thing. They wanted an album that would sound heavy but also an album that would sound as live as possible. They use samples and synchronizers–they play their samples the way a guitarist plays his guitar. They wanted it to be very mechanical the way dance music is, but they also wanted it to be human with room for mistakes. I don’t know that we knew that we were going to go in the exact direction that we went, going in.
CP: Do you think you were able to accomplish your objectives for the record?
BHA: For me personally, it’s a really great integration of music I love and my skills. I think ultimately we did succeed in what we set out to do. It was a really pleasant working experience–no one was really in charge, and that helped. I think the push and the pull of our two aesthetics really made it great.
CP: Where and when was Merriweather Post Pavilion recorded?
BHA: It was recorded in a studio in Oxford, Mississippi, called Sweet Tea, pretty much the entirety of February 2008, and we mixed the record at [Athens, Georgia studio] Chase Park Transduction, and that was in July. That took about two weeks.
CP: How does the finished album differ from the demos?
BHA: There really weren’t traditional demos. Animal Collective is a bit unusual; they get together once a year–though they do talk and e-mail–then they go on tour. They write the songs on tour, then make an album, then write more songs. (Laughs) The basic structures were there when we started recording.
CP: What was the vibe in the studio like? Are Animal Collective the kind of band who like to bring stuff–you know, candles, wall hangings, stuff like that–along to adorn recording spaces?
BHA: I think Sweet Tea has an exceptional vibe–probably the most creative vibe of any building I’ve ever been in to make music. But Animal Collective’s big thing is privacy. During the whole month we worked on the album, the only people there were me, my assistant, and the band. No phones or computers. For a month. It’s a small town, we were in the South, no one knew who they were. It was nonstop [work]. Privacy–and a lack of distractions–made a big difference for all of us.
CP: Were you and the band listening to any particular albums during the recording process?
BHA: No, we never listened to other music in the studio that entire month, ever. When we went out to eat, we would. I got a lot of different music from Geologist–he’d burn me CDs of weird stuff–and I came away from this with 10 or 12 new favorite artists. These weren’t references for Merriweather Post Pavilion, though.
CP: What sort of recording set-up was there in the studio? Was everybody playing their parts in the same room, or in separate booths, or was there another kind of configuration?
BHA: Actually, because everything was coming out of a machine–there were some acoustic instruments, but not many–we were all in the control room together. If you can imagine me sitting behind the console, the band were set up nearby behind two PAs so they could hear what they were doing.
CP: What do you make of the massive online anticipation for this album?
BHA: I think it says more about the band and their position in the world than anything else; they’re a great band who wrote great songs. The label did a really good job protecting the album, and that’s really important. I got the sense that for critics, Animal Collective working with someone like me–someone on the mainstream side–made a good story.