Hot Water Music's George Rebelo On Recording Exister
Gainesville At 8:00 P.M.
As I dialed George Rebelo's number on a Friday night, I accidentally interrupted him while practicing in his garage--a space that he converted into a drum room years ago. It's five P.M. on the West Coast where I'm calling from, so that makes it eight in his hometown of Gainesville, Florida. "It's not quite soundproof" he admits of the space, "but it muffles it a little bit. I can practice till about ten without pissing anybody off."
Although Rebelo is a member of one of the most respected punk bands of the past twenty years, a group Alternative Press once said had "the tightest rhythm section in punk rock," he's far from complacent with his drumming abilities. He often practices by picking random tunes on his I-Pod and playing along to the music however he might be feeling at that particular moment. Sometimes he playing along to a Barry White track, other times it's Charlie Parker immediately followed by Coheed and Cambria.
As Rebelo exits his garage and enters his home, there's a great deal of noise in the background as his door swings opens. What I'm hearing is the drummer being greeted by his two dogs, "John Bonham" and "John Paul Jonsey." About a year ago he and his friends had been out walking around they saw a homeless man dragging Jonsey behind his bike--a rope having been tied around her neck. Rebelo's friend ran up to the man and offered him fifty bucks for the dog. Jonsey has been living with Rebelo ever since.
So as Bonham and Jonsey quite down, Rebelo and I begin discussing his experience recording Hot Water Music's latest release, Exister, and what it was like having the drummer of All, The Descendents, and Black Flag produce the album.
Rebelo recalled a bit of nervousness entering The Blasting Room to record with punk drumming legend Bill Stevenson. "I remember walking in, and the first thing he said to me was 'Dude, I'm not arrogant enough to think that my ideas are always correct, so I want to listen to everybody's ideas."
This was the first of three days Hot Water Music would spend with Stevenson narrowing down twenty songs into the fourteen they would record. Hot Water Music had flown to Fort Collins three days prior to go over their new material one last time before meeting up with Stevenson. In recent years the members of HWM have spread out across the country--therefore new songs require demos, and rehearsals are all but out of the question. On two separate occasions parts of the group managed to fly to the same town and jam for a few days. This was a big departure from how the band wrote their first five records (everything but The New What Next) when they were all living in Gainesville.
"It used to be practice five days a weeks" Rebelo explained, "You'd write a bunch of songs, you'd beat a few songs into the ground and end up hating them, then something would click. You'd be practicing working on them everyday and getting on each other’s nerves. Doing what bands do." Passing demos around instead of collectively jamming out new material had a positive effect on the group. Rebelo said "this way we didn't even have time to get on each others' nerves. When we were all together in the same room, we all wanted to be there, and we were all being creative."
So as Hot Water Music presented their new songs to Stevenson, he helped them sift through the material. "He wasn't a writing kind of producer" Rebelo explained, "it was more a 'my ears are bored' kind of thing, 'I'm gonna walk away till you guys come up with something cooler.'" Stevenson's advice proved invaluable in propelling the songwriting process forward. "It was fly by the seat of our pants sort of thing. We weren't sitting on parts and rethinking them over and over again--we were working with that we had, and trying to make the best out of it."
On day four day at The Blasting Room when the songs were decided upon, Stevenson worked alone Tempo Mapping the tunes. Using metronomic software, he programmed a click track that fluctuated in tempo according to how the band naturally felt the song. For instance, maybe a chorus had to be programmed slightly faster than the verses--just to give it a little extra punch. As soon as Stevenson had the tempo framework set, he had the guitarists and bassist come in and recorded their parts over the Tempo map, thus creating a scratch track that Rebelo could play along with while recording his final drum takes. The beauty of this method is that there isn't just a click track in the drummer's headphones while he's trying to breathe life into a tune--because he's accompanying actual music he can play more organically. Butch Vig recorded Rebelo in the exact same way while producing Against Me!'s White Crosses album, and it's a method that Rebelo has found effective.
The Next "What Next"
In 2008 I interviewed Rebelo in Pomona, right after Hot Water Music ended their four year hiatus. When I asked about how it felt to be playing together again, he responded "you never forget your first love." Over the last five years it would appear that the group has carefully chosen their moments in regard to both touring and recording.
It appears to be working out well for the quartet, because in every article I've read on the recording of Exister, the band has had nothing but positive things to say about the experience. "This record, in particular, was a blast" Rebelo said. "We hadn't done a record in many years, and it was great. There have been records in the past where we're all fighting. We've been a band twenty years come October so we've gone through everything. [Laughs] I mean every one of us has quit the band once at some point in time."
Bill Stevenson & Jason Livermore
Bill Stevenson runs The Blasting Room with Jason Livermore, who also happens to be an amazing drummer. Between the two of them, they utilize their two primary sound rooms, allowing them to work separately, but simultaneously, on any given day. Thus, neither producer, nor anyone in the band is ever sitting around at their studio. And surprisingly, when tracking begins Bill Stevenson doesn't even touch the drums--he oversees everything from a bird's eye view, but primarily focuses on recording the bass and vocals. Jason Livermore records the drums and guitars. Apparently the two of them have a great time doing it, and even derive a degree of satisfaction from stumping each other in the recording process.
For example, Rebelo often found Livermore's input invaluable whenever he got stuck in a rhythmic rut. When a drum track was finished, it was, of course, sent right over to Stevenson and bassist Jason Black to begin working on it. However, if Rebelo and Livermore changed a groove or fill in a particular tune, and the new part was more challenging than the original, Livermore would laugh and say "let's see what they do with that!" before sending the drum file over.
It took three weeks total to record Exister. Every morning they'd begin recording at 8 or 9, and call it around 9 at night. Since The Blasting Room supplies their clients with accommodations, the band didn't have to go far when the day was done. This was fortunate since they entered the studio in the middle of winter--there was snow everywhere, and deer were running around. Often Hot Water Music spent their evenings drinking wine and refining the vocal melodies that Ragan and Wollard brought to the table.
By the time the three weeks were up, they left Fort Collins with a mixed and mastered full length in their hands.
Exhausting All Possibilities
While Stevenson rarely touched the drums throughout the recording process, there was one exception. "Pledge Wore Thin" was a track with a strong downstroke quarter note pulse--a rhythm that both Hot Water Music and The Draft use a lot (think of HWM's track "Swinger," or The Drafts "Hard To Be Around It"). Rebelo often feels locked into certain rhythms whenever the guitarists play these riffs. Since "Pledge Wore Thin" was Stevenson's favorite track on the record, the producer spent a little extra time working with Rebelo exploring groove possibilities. Rebelo understood Stevenson's concern with an oversimplified groove, and was equally enthusiastic about finding a new rhythmic approach to these types of tunes. After many attempts, Rebelo finally turned to Stevenson and said "Bill, I've been playing with this band for eighteen years, I promise you there's nothing we can do to this song without just doing this drumbeat. It sucks, I've been trying to re-write this kind of thing forever, I can't quite do it." Rebelo even asked Stevenson to get behind the kit. "Please try and play this!" he pleaded. Stevenson refused. "I'm not going to try and play drums" he said.
Rebelo woke the next day and walked in the studio to find Stevenson behind the drum set, playing along to the track with bassist Jason Black. Rebelo recalled that as he walked through the door Stevenson "stood up, and gave me the sticks, and said 'you're right, I can't write anything else besides what you already wrote to it.'"
Let's face it, the unexamined groove is not worth drumming.
From A Distance
It's been two years now since Exister was released. A couple months ago I asked Rebelo off the top of his head what his favorite Hot Water Music record was. He immediately responded "Caution for the songs, and Exister is my favorite."
Not bad for a handful of demos, and three weeks in Fort Collins.Purchase Exister