Stepping Out of the Sub-genre: RVLVR and Ben O’Neill talk about synthesizing a spectrum of influences on Stiff Upper Lip
RVLVR is the nom de guerre of composer / producer James Sauppe. His latest project is a collaboration with another Philadelphian — the Grammy-nominated singer / songwriter / guitarist, Ben O’ Neil. The EP, Stiff Upper Lip is a sonically dense, emotionally layered set of mutant pop-songs. It’s gripping from the opening title track, which melds “Bohemian Rhapsody” style vocal harmonies with the dystopian ambience of Another Green World-era Eno, to “Whole Pieces Whole,” the sprawling, ambitious closer that conjures up the spirit of Electric Light Orchestra and The Beatles “Within Without You.”
We met with Sauppe, O’Neil and producer Paul “Starkey” Geissinger (whose experimental label No Remixes released Stiff Upper Lip) at Community College of Philadelphia campus, where Geissinger and Sauppe both teach in the school’s music department. Over the course of our talk, we discussed the songwriting and production process behind this set of rich, heart-wrenching songs.
The Key: Listening to this record, a lot of stuff is coming at me. I’m hearing a lot of music, some Brian Eno Another Green World but with “Amen” breaks, a mixture of old school and new school. Could you walk me through the process of writing these songs and how you get from an idea to a fully fleshed out thing?
James Sauppe: Well basically, I would start the idea. Something simple: a chord progression, a beat, a harmonic idea. I’d send it to Ben and if he liked it, he’d just write lyrics and a melody to it, send me back the vocals stems, guitar stems and I’d finish it from there. The interesting thing is that we weren’t in the same room one single time during the whole making of the record because he’s always on the road and I’m busy with everything. So it just worked out that way.
Ben O’Neill: For me, this was a really interesting and different songwriting process because I would get the tracks from James and intentionally not listen to them until I knew I was going to be able to write and record to it. So before I’d listen to the songs I would set up the microphone, make sure I knew there were going to be no issues with the recording process and then I’d import the song and hear it for the first time. And just write and sing spontaneously so a lot of what’s on the record are just kinda first passes. Because most of the time, I’m writing on my own, being given these templates is a luxury that I don’t usually enjoy. So it was a very spontaneous process for me, maybe I’d cut some guitar stuff on it and send it back and James would mold it into the finished process that you hear.
TK: James, after you’d get the idea back from Ben, how much elaboration/arrangement would you do?
JS: A LOT. [laughs] I would do all the vocal processing at home at my studio, run the vocal through vocoders or whatever. I ended up taking the whole record to Kawari Sound and utilizing all of their sick, outboard gear and instruments. I had it mixed there, Zach Goldstein is the manager there and a friend of mine, he mixed it…and I have to give a shout out to Zach because he had a lot of creative input into this record…
Paul Geissinger: …and he just put an album out on the label as well.
JS: Yeah, so it was a long process (making the album) but it was worth it. Ben and I have been friends for a long time and we both have really eclectic tastes in music, drawing influences from a lot of different genres. I guess, I just wanted it to be music that appeals to all different kinds of people.
BO: I think it does successfully step outside of this or that sub-genre of electronic music, you know? I think it’s pretty effective in synthesizing a variety of music into accessible and interesting musical experience.
TK: Yeah, listening to this record, it does seem to perform….I don’t want to say above, but it seems to perform outside of the mixture of the influences. Usually, you can listen to music and parse out the influences. This record sounds like a whole other thing. I take it that was intentional?
JS: Yeah, definitely, I try not to be limited by any genre. I just love good songs.
PG: I think “Stardust” is one of the best songs of the year, hands down.
TK: I love how you just threw that out on the table! [everyone laughs]
PG: Honestly, it’s one of the best songs I’ve heard this year. I think it’s awesome…I know all of these people who are involved in the label and you THINK you know what they’re capable of and then someone will send you something…..not to get off topic, but I remember when Oh! Pears sent me his album and I starting playing it and it was haunting, I had a jaw dropping moment. When I got the mixes for this record, I was like “Whoa…this is SICK”
TK: There’s definitely a late 60’s / early 70’s heart in these songs. Listening, I kept getting hit with Beatle-esque feels…
JS: A little David Bowie and Pink Floyd….
TK: Definitely some David Bowie and Eno in Berlin vibe
JS: Well, one of the main pieces of gears we used on every song is the Lexicon Prime Time, which is Brian Eno’s favorite delay [effect]. They have one at Kawari and it’s ALL OVER the record, we used it on every song. We used a real Mellotron, a real Rhodes on “Red Nail Polish”, a Juno, a Moog little Phatty for the bass on a lot of songs.
PG: It’s got such an organic feel, you mix the guitar and the vocals with an “Amen” Break and some electronic drums, but then you record a real Mellotron and it gives it a different attitude.
TK: How much of the record is old school / analog gear and how much is newer, plug-ins and software synths and all that?
PG: There is actually a lot of live, almost avant-garde Jazz influenced guitar on the record too.
JS: Yeah, and we also used a lot of outboard gear, like plate reverb, Kawari has an actual plate, it’s SO COOL. Vintage tape delay….I’d say it’s about 50/50, analog to digital. It was a lot of fun making this record.
TK: Anything else ya’ll want to share? Last thoughts, feelings, insights?
PG: I would just say, I want to hear more music from these two. I’m excited about the next collab and I just want people to check out this record.
RVLVR’s Stiff Upper Lip drops this Friday, December 1st, via NoRemixes.