Michigan-based band I Love Lightning Bugs just released a new album that’s got listeners all aglow. The album, “Kensington,” was masterfully produced by the trio’s singer/guitarist Reid Mclellan and bassist Rob Shelby, all in Shelby’s basement. Ron Vensko is the band’s live drummer. Read on as Shelby, also a producer and studio engineer with serious credits under his belt, discusses the sound of the new album and all that went into putting it together.
Without using the words “rock,” “alternative,” or “pop,” describe your sound.
Well, the bass is played more like a guitar, the guitar more like a bass, and it’s all very melodic. That said, if you like Pixies, Modest Mouse, Built To Spill or The Cure, you’ll probably like I Love Lightning Bugs. There is a big 90s feel about it!
Your album Kensington hit stores early this month. Was this album a long time coming? Or did it come together pretty quickly?
The songs came together quickly, but the recording took months. It seemed the flu, shows, and life in general kept getting in the way of recording. I also built an isolation room in my basement to mix Kensington in, which took a lot longer than expected!
What’s your songwriting process like? Do you, Reid, and Ron collaborate? Or write more individually?
Reid and I have a great dynamic. I’ll write a bass line; usually a verse and chorus. I’ll record it for Reid and 2 days later he’ll come back with an almost finished song! Since we are a three piece, the drums are a big part of our sound. Angie Kaiser is actually the drummer on this album. We wouldn’t waste her time writing in front of her. That’s not fun for any drummer. We’d wait until we had an idea of what the song should be like and bring it to her. Often she would write a drum beat that was so great, that we would completely rewrite the song around it!
Tell me about your instrumentation process. Do you write all of the parts before hitting the studio? Or do some things just come together organically during recording?
The basic parts would be planned. But we have a lot of guest musicians on this. Dave Challinor, an old friend of mine in Sydney Australia from the band Sounds Like Sunset has a few guitar tracks on Kensington. I sent Dave a few songs via email and said “Dave, please send me some feedback parts for this”.
We also have Dave Feeny of American Mars on Pedal Steal and members of the Juliets on Cello and Violin. If we recorded this in a professional studio, there is no way we could have afforded all this. Luckily we recorded this in my basement.
What did you use to record the album?
Over the past 12 years I’ve acquired a lot of recording equipment. We used my Pro Tools HD system with a Lynx interface. I used FiveFish mk500 preamps for overheads, bass, strings and background vocals. The mk500 is very clean and can be driven pretty hard. On the snare and vocals I used the Pre73. For all other tracks, we used my friend David Krofchok’s home made preamps. He is a genius and his preamps are the best I’ve ever used! I bet if he sold them, he could get $3000 or more per channel!
Unlike many digital engineers, I compress and EQ between the preamp and the hard drive. I love Aphex compressors and EQs. They are pretty damn transparent and inexpensive.
If you do plan on recording your own album, make do with what you already own. Don’t purchase everything at once! I would buy one or two things every time you record a new album. Before you know it, you’ll have a studio worth of equipment. Don’t upgrade your digital recording software unless there is something in the new version of that software that you need. I mean, is it going to make your album sound any different? Probably not.
What do you do if you’re trying to record and it’s just not working for you?
The best thing to do is to a break or come back to it another day. It can’t be forced. We do have a rule of trying every idea any band member has. I have to admit, most the ideas I thought would be a waste of time end up being my favorite parts of the album. I actually rewrote the bridge of “Stars” while recording just because it was just not working.
You’ve got some pretty serious production credits under your belt- working with artists like Aretha Franklin, The Four Tops and Otis Williams (just to name a few!). How have those experiences played into producing and engineering your own music?
Oh yes! Roquel Payton (of the Four Tops) really took me under his wing and forged my production style. At that time in my life I was recording a lot of indie and punk. So I think I have a pretty unique style of production. I’ve also learned to RECORD EVERYTHING! Sometimes a musician’s warm up take ends up being the best take.
My advice to anyone that wants to record their own album is: Track your drums in real studio. Track all your overdubs and vocals at home. Roll the low-end off almost every track. Listen to a lot of other albums while you are mixing.
I know you’re the guy behind kNerd, the online music tool/space for fans, artists, producers, and more. Can you tell me a little about what inspired it and what you sought to create?
I’ve always been in a lot of bands. I know many people with more than one band. I wanted a site that lets a musician manage all their projects at once. Also, I never thought producers and engineer ever got enough recognition. I mean, how many people actually know who Nigel Godrich or Brian Deck are? kNERD is like a musician or engineer’s online resume.
So what’s next for I Love Lightning Bugs?
We are almost done with a music video for “Stars.” We’ll be booking a lot of midwest shows to support the album! We should be ready to record a few more singles too!