by Jordan Green
The Greensboro punk band Totally Slow laid down an instrumental track at the Greensboro recording studio Legitimate Business for their new album on an overcast Saturday afternoon earlier this month.
The instrumental is purposefully laid back, a kind of wild card that will act as a tonic for an album that is overall much more aggressive than anything else the band has done before.
The song is buoyant and danceable, melodic with a warm churn underneath. Towards the end it unexpectedly goes into a gallop.
“I can’t figure out what that sounds like,” producer and studio owner producer Kris Hilbert mused after the first take, with the band gathered in the control room.
“Lungfish,” said Scott Hicks, the band’s guitarist and vocalist. “It’s the only non-DC band to be on Dischord.”
“Lungfish,” Hilbert said. “I love it.”
Despite 14 years of difference in age, Hilbert and Hicks share a similar sensibility and set of sonic preferences.
“I don’t know if it’s because we have the same birthdate, but we just get each other,” Hilbert said after the band had returned to the big room to record another take. He added that he feels that he and Hicks are part of the same “karass,” the term for “a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner” in the fictitious religion created by Kurt Vonnegut for his novel Cat’s Cradle.
Hicks feels similarly.
“I feel like Kris is a fourth member of this band,” he said. “He gets what we’re trying to do. It couldn’t be more comfortable. If I don’t do something well, he’ll say, ‘That wasn’t good. Do it over.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’”
The two tend to appreciate the same kinds of music and for the same reasons, and also hate the same kinds of music.
“This is an authentic punk band,” Hicks said. “I want it to sound honest and I want it to sound real. He helps me get there. It’s hard to be objective when you’re in it.”
Since Hilbert started recording at Legitimate Business over the past five years, he’s amassed an impressive portfolio of projects, working with everyone from hardcore-metal standard-bearers Torch Runner to Anne-Claire Niver, a vocalist with classical training from UNCG. Throw in the prog-metal of Between the Buried and Me, the jazz-metal fusion experiment Trioscapes, the acid-pop-inclined Zack Mexico, noise purveyors Late Bloomer, emo-post rockers Ivadell, righteous indie emoters Junior Astronomers and the defunct surf-punk band Daddy Issues, and Hilbert has made a compelling case that he’s up for most any production or engineering job.
“I do anything left of center,” he said. “‘Alternative’ is probably too specific a term. I record anything you won’t hear on the radio. I don’t record Taylor Swift. It’s not that I’m against it. I just don’t do that kind of thing. Nobody’s asked me to.”
Hilbert didn’t set out to become a producer when he came from Raleigh to Greensboro to study sociology in 2006.
Making professional records evolved out of putting on shows with about a dozen friends, and making demos for his band and his friends’ starting in 2009.
“Sociology is tied to criminal justice — something about being in class with people who wanted to be cops turned me off,” Hilbert said. “Someone would say something really f***ed up in class, and I said to myself: ‘Oh, this is where this is headed.’ When we did shows here I got wrapped up in it. I was here from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. three or four times a week. I wasn’t really interested in school. I never liked school. Making records is way more fun than looking at charts of sad statistics that you wish were different.”
The name Legitimate Business dates back to when the enterprise was a collective of punks practicing their music and holding unsanctioned concerts. The transition from underground show space to professional recording studio happened over a three-month period in 2011 after the fire marshal shut down the venue and Hilbert got the opportunity to buy the building when the landlord went into foreclosure. He brought in Andy Ware, the bass player for Hobex, to build the studio, and Eddie Walker, a local musician who plays in Big Bang Boom, finished the job. The studio walls are equipped with acoustic treatment — insulation covered with fire-retardant fabric — the three rooms are completely sound-proofed, and the studio is built with no parallel walls so that the sound is diffused.
The joke now is that the studio very much lives up to it’s billing; Hilbert recalled with relish how the clerk at the Secretary of State in Raleigh reacted with confusion when he informed them that the business name was “Legitimate Business.”
He was delighted when someone posted a picture of his building, replete with chipping paint, bars over the windows and weeds poking up between the sidewalk and street on the Fail Blog under the headline “Business Name Fail.” The item was captioned: “I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably not.”
In the studio during Totally Slow’s recent session, Andy Foster was having some trouble with a drum fill at the point where the tempo of the instrumental song moves from a gentle surf to a gallop.
“That was good up to that point,” Hilbert told the band over the intercom from the control room. He instructed them to play along with the recording and finish the botched part. Then he would go back and stitch the two parts together. After another take, they wound up with a solid track for the song’s finale, but the band concluded abruptly with a string of stray notes that seemed to hang tentatively in the air.
“We don’t have an ending,” Hicks said. “Can you fade us out?”
Hilbert got up from his seat and joined them in the big room.
“Just curious,” he said. “Is that song going to be on the end of side A or the beginning of side B?”
Hicks told him they planned to track the song at the beginning of side B. Hilbert thought it would be weird for it to fade out before the start of another song.
“When you go into the fast part, with the dika-dika-dika-dika, I thought you were going into a new song,” Hilbert said. “Do you have another song that can come out of that?”
Hicks thought a song called “Drug Mask” might work.
Back in the control room, as the band worked out the intro to the new song, Hilbert said, “Totally Slow is a great example of how a band should be in the studio: They know all their s***, but they’re not inflexible.”
As Hicks throttled into a monster riff, Hilbert grinned and said, “F*** yeah!” sliding the volume control forward.
After a couple takes, the band assembled in the control room for the playback.
“Turn it up, dude!” Hicks said. “This is where the magic happens.”
The rollicking tidal surge of the instrumental gave way, and with Hicks’ input, Hilbert cued the drum fill at the beginning of “Drug Mask” after an almost imperceptible pause, setting the stage for Hicks’ guitar riff to slam into place.
Hicks leaned back on the couch, squinting his eyes shut and smiling slightly as the music washed over him.
Then there was silence and Hicks and Hilbert looked at each other.
“Boom!” Hilbert said. “We did something unplanned and magic in the studio.”