Pottering around his apartment, surrounded by monitors and sundry keyboards, Ryan Rabin looks as if he entered this world with the glow of LED against his skin. Nestled as he is in the heart of Silver Lake, California, where the Los Angeles neighborhood’s hipster-fueled renaissance has rubbed off on many creative types, the locale seems especially suited for the 25-year-old musician. Rabin has a bit of an advantage, of course, with a home studio stuffed with vintage gear where he can tinker to his heart’s content. Just don’t ask him play triplet ruffs.
Not that Rabin doesn’t know his stuff. You only need to hear the compact groove on “Borderlines And Aliens,” a sublime combo of Krameresque funk and studio-sculpted tone from the band’s new album, Spreading Rumours, to know that beats are the prime mover of Grouplove. If Never Trust A Happy Song, the band’s hit-spawning debut from 2011, was anchored by mouth-watering pocket, Spreading Rumours celebrates the drums as dominant voice.
What has Rabin juiced at the moment is bass drums. Not only are the new songs’ kick sonics crisp and meaty, its the bionic execution of the right-foot strokes – as heard on the last 30 seconds of “News To Me,” for example – that lend the tunes arena-sized heft with enough propulsion for the club. “I used to play with a double kick pedal when I was a little younger,” he says. “I don’t know why I stopped. But on the album it’s all single kick drum. I feel like in alternative music, that has become a faux pas of drummers, like, it’s not cool anymore except for metal,” he continues. “I enjoy my set, I cherish them, actually …”
Allowing himself to savor this moment of nostalgia, you can feel him mentally nixing the idea of a twin-kick experiment. “I don’t know. Maybe my right foot would get slow again.”
Ryan Rabin knows his way around an SSL board. As the producer of both of Grouplove’s full-length records and an EP, he produces all the band’s music at home and at a separate studio in North Hollywood. His preferred setup is Logic, but he’s a quick enough study to handle any DAW you throw at him. For Spreading Rumours, Rabin did all the mixing and engineering at Planet Sound in the Hollywood Hills, where a vintage Neve board was at his disposal (except for one song that had Jack Donahy assisting). “I can work on Pro Tools,” he says. “I’m just not as quick.”
And really, what good is a comfort zone unless you step outside of it? “It’s generally pretty easy to slide into a different setup,” he continues. “If it’s a major studio and we’re going to be using a comprehensive amount of gear, usually there’s an in-house engineer that can at least give me a rundown of the patch bay and where everything’s set up. And it’s kind of nice to brush up on stuff you don’t do as often.”
Recording live was another major difference from the tracking for the debut. The majority of the new songs were honed during performances over the last year and thus the band members had the confidence to play together and let tape roll. “I think that was sort of essential to do that this time,” Rabin says. “Particularly because we’ve been playing together for so long at this point and I think just as a group our cohesiveness [was there]. There’s definitely enough experimentation and enough variety of songs that we didn’t do everything live but I’d say a good 80 percent of it was played together as a band. It’s nice to record a little bit old school if you have that ability.”
Back in 2009, on his maiden run as the band’s engineer, Rabin had to do all the heavy lifting out of necessity. Nowadays it’s out of a desire to become a better producer. “My manager told me, ’There’s a little more of a budget this time around. Do you want an assistant in there, an engineer to run stuff?’
“I was like, ’No, I need to be in front of the computer doing it myself, because that’s the fun part. I wouldn’t want to miss out on that stuff.”
If you like wide-open, earthy-sounding drums with lots of overtone and stray resonance, then Rabin may not be the drummer for you. If you like punchy, super-consistent drums, then this guy is manna from heaven. For Grouplove’s two-and-a-half-album discography, the drummer has achieved the golden mean between acoustic and electric sounds. That is, except for Spreading Rumours tracks like “Didn’t Have To Go” and “Bitin’ The Bullet,” in which he is deliberately going for a programmed feel. “The first album I ever bought was Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, so electronic drums have always been a big part of my musical influences. If the song calls for that kind of vibe, it’s nice to mix sampled drums with the acoustic kit or even, you know, cut up my role as a player all together if it’s better for the song.”
Then there’s stuff like the marching band—style outro of “Sit Still,” which is maybe the first all-band drum solo in pop history. The song got its percussive flavor by everyone in the band playing a different drum – bassist Sean Gadd has an African shaker; guitarist Andrew Wessen was on the floor tom and floor tom hoop; Rabin played an old jazz bass drum loosely tuned so it sounded like a timpani. “We sort of rehearsed the beat and then did several takes of it and blended the sounds afterwards.”
With a mind as creatively fertile as Rabin’s – not to mention tech savvy – you would think the temptation to change up the parts from the album when playing live would be overwhelming. “It depends on the song,” he says. “A song like ’Borderlines And Aliens,’ that’s a pretty balls-out rock song already, so we kind of stick pretty close to that live. And also, some of these songs we actually sort of wrote on the road and worked out live first. We liked the way that they sounded when we played them live so we wanted to sort of preserve that in the studio, sort of reverse-engineer them. But then there’s songs like ’Shark Attack,’ which is a lot of programmed drums – well, the middle section is all live drums – but for the live show I’m playing kit the whole time so it’s almost the opposite. Instead of the electronic drums on the album being the main body of the percussion and live drums sprinkled on top of it, it’s the other way around: The live drums do what the electronic drums do on the album and the electronic [gear is] just ear candy for playing live.”
On first single “Ways To Go” the main snare and bass drum beat are supplied by a pair of ’80s hexagonal Simmons pads. They bring them out on a cymbal stand so they’re chest height and Wessen, the guitar player, plays the kick and snare effects on the pads. Like the images of shagging in yurts that the band’s name evokes, swapping roles and sharing everything – right down to each other’s instruments – is the whole point of Grouplove. “We like to switch it up. I mean on that song, too, when Andrew’s doing that, I’m not on the drums at all; I’m just on keyboard.”
The synthesizer, which is next to Rabin’s kit, is used to trigger samples and assorted “ear candy” between songs. When the mix starts to get dense with instrumentation, timing can suffer. Sometimes the electronic drum sequences work as a metronome, other times he’ll use a proper click track. “I can trigger a click track for when there are electronic drums on top of my main drum kit. And so that’s all controlled through Main Stage, which is a Logic program.”
Using the exact same setup on stage as he does for recording, the overtone-free consistency of the kit’s acrylic shells ironically suit the uptempo pop of for many of Spreading Rumours’ songs. (Ironic because it’s usually hard-rock drummers that use acrylics.) That and some well placed Moongel contribute to the quick-decaying phthunk that Rabin – and soundmen – so love. “I remember the first day that I used it on the road, we were at a gig in Vegas and our front of house guy has all these saved settings for each drum channel and he came on the loudspeaker after the sound check and he goes, ’Dude, it’s the weirdest thing, I literally haven’t had to make one adjustment on the boards.’
“I like a pretty dead, ’70s sort of quick sound on everything,” he adds. “It’s just a pretty simple miking technique: some compression on overhead, some EQ’ing from the Neve board, and things like that, but there’s no real trick to it. My preference live is the generally the same as in the studio: The skins are all the same, tuning is the same … it’s pretty seamless from live into the studio and vice versa.”