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Tracer: The Lone Gunman

Mexican gun slinging is cool. So cool in fact that Tracer decided to use it as the main theme for their new album El Pistolero which, needless to say, is pretty damn cool. Although the three-piece call Adelaide home, they’ve never embarked on a national tour of Australia. In fact, Europe got to enjoy them before we did! Fortunately that’s about to change, so we took some time out with frontman Michael Brown on the eve of the tour to chat about the new album, what it was like to work with legendary producer Kevin Shirley, and why he kept bringing up Susan Boyle while they were recording.

First and foremost, how are things in the Tracer camp at the moment?
Great. We’ve just come off tour in the UK and Europe; literally last week we landed back here. That was the first time we’ve toured with our new bass player Jet and it’s sounding fucking awesome, and we’re now playing our first tour here in Australia as well.

What was the UK and European tour like?
Fantastic because we’ve got a really good fan base over in the UK that stems from a lot of radio airplay and that sort of thing. We’ve been there I think four or five times now, and the whole UK tour was nearly sold out. The crowds there really go nuts for us which is really cool. This time we did a few shows in Germany, a show in Paris and a show in Tilburg in the Netherlands, and Germany’s a place that’s a bit hit and miss but this time it was absolutely packed and pumping. The gig in Paris was a bit interesting because we played with a screamo band called Escape The Fate and the place was full of screaming girls and scenesters. When we saw that we were on the bill we thought that we were going to get fucking lynched when we came onstage, but it turns out that those scenester girls just want to scream at you [laughs], so it worked out pretty good.

I can’t see anything wrong with a bunch of girls screaming at you, it sounds like a pretty good situation to be in.
Yeah, yeah it turned out okay.

You’ve kind of hinted at this, a lot of Aussie rock bands like yourselves have a lot more exposure and a larger fan base overseas than they do in their own country. Do you have an opinion on that?
I do, but I don’t know if I’d be shooting myself in the foot by exposing it [laughs]. Unfortunately I don’t think we’ve got radio stations like they do overseas that are dedicated to rock’n’roll or metal music. Triple J does their thing, but they’ve got a lot of genres to cater to and it’s very hard to get your foot in the door if you’re a rock band because they seem to only take on one, two or maybe three a year. So that’s a bit difficult, plus the touring situation is difficult in Australia because it’s so huge but the people are so few. You can travel for eight hours overseas and pass through three countries with four times the population with rock radio stations in each country. It kind of makes sense to tour over there, the only problem is getting over there which costs a fucking arm and a leg! But, as far as logistics and the support of rock music, it’s a bit greater than here in Australia unfortunately. I think here in Australia there’s a great sort of underground scene that has a bit of an uprising against the shitty music that gets played on radio, but unfortunately that’s still underground. Bands are just sort of waiting for something like the grunge era to come back around so they can make a bit of headway.

Being from Adelaide, what’s the local scene like down there?
It’s pretty good, there’s an underground metal scene here where all the bands support each other and it’s a really cool place to hang. As far as the rock people go, I think it’s something that we’re just sort of starting to develop. I think a lot of bands have been going over to Melbourne, seeing what they’ve got over there with the way bands support each other, and seeing a scene without it being corny. Adelaide’s catching up, as it does, always being the second state to find out about everything. Yeah it’s a cool place, but at the end of the day there’s not very many people here and it’s very sprawled out. But I think we’re struggling by with what we’ve got.

With the new album, you’ve mentioned that you wanted to do something different, what did you mean by that?
The album’s sort of based on a movie, basically when we were writing it we were told, ‘Okay, you’re going into the studio with Kevin Shirley, get ready’ and we thought, ‘Shit, we’ve got to write some songs.’ So we’re in the rehearsal room writing away and playing a few guitar parts, one of which ended up being “Santa Cecilia” on the album. I thought, how far can we push this angle? Can we sort of have this south-of-the-border theme running through the whole album? Can we incorporate the storyline from the movie Desperado all the way through it? That was the new angle and the challenge we set for ourselves with the album instead of just writing a whole bunch of songs and putting them on there. Sort of like a concept album, but not too in depth, just trying to push the boundaries of what we were comfortable with as far as storyline and everything, but also musically. We’ve got strings in there for the first time, we’ve got weird Indian percussion, different tuning, different key signatures, there’s a ballad on there that could belong on a spaghetti western, we really pushed the boundaries of what people think Tracer is.

When you decided on the theme, what was the overall attitude or atmosphere that you were trying to create?
We wanted it to be a bit cinematic and a bit simpler as well, because I think with our previous album, Spaces In Between, we did a lot of it [production] ourselves and while we had some experience in that, we didn’t have as much as Kevin. So when we finished recording we thought it was kind of missing that live three-piece thing that we’ve got going, so on the next album we wanted to go more simple and Kevin was completely into that. Even though it’s got the strings and percussion, in the bulk of the music there’s very little overdubbing, just guitar, bass, drums and vocals.

Aside from the Desperado influences, is there anything else on there like life experiences? Are you all actually gunslingers?
[Laughs] I think the thing that appealed to me about the Desperado thing was the Mariachi, he’s a guitar playing superhero and I thought that was pretty fucking cool. As far as things to do with ourselves, yeah, a lot of it is about life experiences and even the songs that are part of the Desperado story are kind of metaphorical, about things I see going on. But I never actually tell people what the songs are about for me because I think people can think for themselves, and if you’re getting something out of one of our songs that isn’t necessarily what I wrote about, then that’s what makes that song special to you and I wouldn’t like to take that away from anybody. So I don’t tell anyone what the songs are about, even though I think some are pretty self-explanatory.

Did you guys seek Kevin Shirley out, or did someone suggest that you should go and work with him?
Kevin’s worked with our label, they pretty much exclusively use Kevin for their recordings, so I think in some way one of our albums got put across Kevin’s desk and he started talking with our label about working with us. We basically got an email that said, ‘Hey I think Kevin might be interested’ and we said, ‘Cool!’ The next day they called us and said, ‘Yep, Kevin’s in, be in LA at the end of October and make sure you’ve got some songs ready.’ So that was our preparation for working with Kevin [laughs].

What did he bring to the album?
Well we’d never met him before and to be honest we’re not big Iron Maiden fans, we’re more into the Led Zeppelin stuff that he’s done. But to be honest, we were a bit skeptical about working with anyone that we hadn’t done our homework on, but as soon as we got there he was really cool. He’s an ex-Aussie who lived in Australia for a while so he had the same sense of humour that we had and he was just really simple to work with. Each day we’d get into the studio, we’d run through a song, he’d make some suggestions, we’d work something out and then we’d track it, that was about two hours’ worth. We’d get about four songs done a day and at the end of day six most of the album was recorded. The speed that he works at is just unbelievable, we’d never done it like that. We had to trust in our abilities and in his ability to get the parts, but what he’s done is he’s captured this live sort of energy that we’ve been missing from previous recordings and I think that’s where his strength lies.

What was the atmosphere and environment like while you were working?
Because we’ve produced ourselves in the past, we’re really into minute details, double-checking the guitar sound every five minutes, checking it then going back in and recording. With Kevin it was like, ‘Get your guitar sound, yep that sounds great, get your bass, yep that sounds great, get a drum sound, yep that sounds great, let’s track the fucker.’ And that was basically it. We’d track it three or four times until Kevin was satisfied, and then he’d say, ‘Do you guys want to have a listen to it?’ and it’s like, ‘Of course we do, we don’t trust this new guy.’ But when we went in there it sounded awesome straight from the get go, so we trusted him from that point on.

It sounds like going from self-production to working with a producer was a really positive move.
Absolutely. I don’t know if we’ll self produce the next album now for instance, because there are people out there with so much more experience and they know how to get the most out of an artist. That’s also what Kevin’s good at, pushing us to our limits then pushing us over them, really getting the most out of the musicianship, getting the most out of the songs, and being that fourth ear in the band that we really needed.

Some of your stoner elements have that retro sound, which kind of come from the era that Kevin was working back in the day. Did his firsthand knowledge bring anything to the retro elements of your music?
Kevin’s mixing has always been pretty punchy and that’s what we wanted. At the end of the day we were trying to get the biggest sound out of our instruments as possible, we wanted all four elements to sound massive. He used those classic techniques but by the same token it was hyped up by modern production as well.

It’s not just the person but also the place you recorded at, Revolver Studios in LA. What was the studio itself like?
It was kind of cool, we weren’t expecting it to be a pristine, hospital grade studio, we were expecting it to be a bit sort of dark and grungy [laughs]. As far as the studio goes, it was great. It had a big room that sounded great, it had a lot of gear in it like old school stuff and new fancy shit, but the vibe of the studio was really cool, it didn’t seem to feel like it was anything too spectacular, kind of like going home and recording an album there. At the end of the day we were only working in there six or seven hours a day, it didn’t need a lot of effort to get a great sound.

Did the studio have any classic or unusual gear that you got to use?
Yeah, there were a lot of pre-amps, EQs and that sort of thing, a lot of the stuff went through those. At Caveman Studios where it was mixed, Kevin’s got a brand new SSL desk that sounds awesome. As far as the mics and that go, I’ve got no idea what the hell we used, it was pretty standard stuff as far as I remember except for the guitar. We got a mic that was especially made for Kevin, which I think was a cross between an SM57 and maybe a 441 or 442. We sort of placed all that techno stuff in Kevin’s hands this time and his engineer Jared [Kvitka] who caught an awesome drum sound the first day we were there. It was one of those things where we were skeptical about going in, but these guys had a sound that they wanted to hear and it was very much on a parallel with what we wanted to hear.

In the studio update video you walked into an awesome guitar storage room. What was in there? Were they all owned by the studio?
Yeah they were, there’s a lot of cool stuff in there but I’m not sure if it’s been well looked after. I picked up one to use and it sounded like absolute rubbish [laughs] but I’ve got a pretty good guitar collection that’s all modded and kitted out to get the sound that I get, so I didn’t need to use those in the studio. I’ve got my Flying-V, a Fender Coronado, a customised baritone Telecaster that my dad made, and a White Falcon as well, that kind of added something else because you know, it just rocks!

You’ve satisfied the gear nuts there.
Man, I could talk about gear until the cows come home.

It looked like you guys were getting up to some antics while you were recording. Did any good stories come out of your trip?
It was all fun. I’ve never met anyone that swears as much as Kevin, I mean we swear a little bit, but he just went nuts [laughs]. We’d get a lot of hashtags going on, like the one, you know, Susan Boyle’s album party that’s #susanalbumparty, there was a lot of that going on. Every time we did a take, Kevin would say over the mic [in a deep voice] “sus anal bum party” like every fucking day! [Laughs]. And there was a lot of The Hobbit jokes because Kevin thought we were from New Zealand [laughs].

Catch Mike and the Tracer boys at one of their upcoming shows!

Tracer Tour Dates

Fri Jul 12th – The Governor Hindmarsh, Hindmarsh (18+)

Sat Jul 13th – The Governor Hindmarsh, Hindmarsh (18+)

Fri Jul 19th – Souths Juniors, Kingsford (18+)

Sat Jul 20th – Wenty Leagues, Wentworthville (18+)

Fri Jul 26th – Canterbury Hurlstone Park RSL, Hurlstone Park (18+)

Sat Jul 27th – Mounties, Mt Pritchard (18+)

Sat Aug 3rd – The Espy (Gershwin Room), St Kilda (18+)

Fri Aug 23rd – Victoria Point Sharks Club, Victoria Point (18+)

Sat Aug 24th – Racehorse Hotel, Booval (18+)

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