Interview: Mitski and Patrick Hyland on Recording "Puberty 2"

"I wanna see the whole world / I don’t know how I’m gonna pay rent / I wanna see the whole world."

If you’ve never heard Mitski Miyawaki’s work, this refrain from "My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars" offers a glimpse into one of her favorite themes: reconciling the enormity of youth with the banality of adulthood. Dreams are whittled down, people leave, and landlords knock on doors, but there’s still joy to be found.

Puberty 2, Mitski’s fourth album, distills years of DIY recording knowhow into a 40–minute exploration of what it means to be an adult for the people who recently became one. Failed relationships, daily tedium, and learning to appreciate littler things come into sharp focus through whispers, howls, and guitar riffs big enough to make you forget about that utility bill, at least for a couple of minutes.

We talked to Mitski and producer Patrick Hyland about recording in a studio, finding a favorite piece of gear when you’re not a gearhead, and when fan art makes you want to switch up your rig.

I’ve been meaning to find out more about the production for Puberty 2. I wanted to start with the recording process and setup for those first two albums at SUNY. What were you guys using, and how did you cross paths and decide to start working together?

Mitski: I’ll let Patrick talk about the production, but we were both in the same studio program at SUNY Purchase. It’s a quite small program, so you get to know everybody, and that’s how we crossed paths.

Patrick Hyland: I didn’t work on the first record, and I sort of came in in the middle of the second record. But as with pretty much everything we’ve done, it was all done on a lot of borrowed equipment and improvised recording setups — often on a laptop running Pro Tools versions 10 and 11. That’s been the case with all of our records.

Mitski: Yeah, and then we did Puberty 2 at a studio called Acme Studios that was in the Mamaroneck in Westchester, New York, but it’s no longer. I don’t remember any of the equipment there.

Mitski - Your Best American Girl (Official Video)

Puberty 2 was the first album you did on Dead Oceans. Did you find that having the backing of a label was liberating or daunting in regard to the freedom of choice when it came to what to do and who to work with?

Mitski: Well, Dead Oceans is a very small label, so actually it didn’t really change my circumstances much. But I did get to record in a recording studio as opposed to, as Patrick said, creating makeshift studios with borrowed equipment. So again, we got this recorded in Acme Studios and used the resources in that studio.

And from what I understand, you guys recorded this album over the course of two weeks, just between the two of you, which is an absurd schedule and amount of work. Run me through what those two weeks were like. Was it just hectic every day?

Patrick: Yeah, I mean, it was closer to a month I think, and it was just wake up, do the thing until you’re too tired to keep doing it.

Also, I tend to do a lot of production while mixing. I think I tend to do a lot of creative moves while I’m technically in post production. So even though the bulk of the tracking was done in that time, it feels like the album continued to evolve a lot as I mixed it.

In reading a bit about the process, I heard that it was a lot easier in that Mitski would be focusing intently on one thing while Patrick was handling something else. Hearing about all of this tandem mixing and processing and recording, it almost sounds like a conveyer belt with just two people.

Mitski: Well, we have worked together before, and so I think we understand each other’s rhythms. There was an element of not even needing to do discuss certain things. We just knew our strengths and weaknesses and knew what the other person would cover.

Patrick: Yeah, when you’re working with someone that you’ve worked with a lot previously, you can sort of start — not even consciously — moving two moves ahead kind of.

Working in a studio and having those resources available to you, did you forgo that primarily rogue school recording experience and start taking advantage of some of the studio equipment that was available to you?

Patrick: Well the studio was running Pro Tools HD, so that’s what I was using. I also happened to work at that studio, so it felt (while we were in more of a proper recording environment than we had been previously) very much like home for me. It was kind of my home base at that time.

We used a Neve Melbourne console that a lot of the drums were tracked through — about half the drums. We also used some old SSL pres that had had been modded to have a lot more minimalist clean signal pass that were super transparent–sounding. All of that was through Avid HDIO converters into Pro Tools HD 11 — that was sort of the front end.

I can say an interesting thing is that the vocals are like 50/50 between a vintage C12 and an SM7, which is about as different as you can get. I honestly don’t know which is which when I listen to the record.

Another thing I noticed was that for Puberty and in the evolution of the way you approach and record, you were going for a more minimalist approach, which struck me in that Puberty feels huge throughout.

I think there is a lot more dynamic, just this huge presence on some of the tracks. On "American Girl," you have those huge wave choruses, and "I Bet on Losing Dogs." There was also more synth there. Did you guys have any particular synths you were consistently using, or were you just kind of grabbing what was available?

Patrick: Yeah, there’s some interesting synths on there. One that kind of dominates is a really cheap Technics keyboard that I snagged off of Craigslist. I have a big affinity for cheap Casio keyboards, so I found a Technics that sounded a bit different than those same FK1 sounds you’ve heard a million times. That ended up on there a lot. We also used a Roland SH1000 and FabFilter Twin a lot.

Roland SH-1000 Analog Monophonic Synthesizer

On "I Bet on Losing Dogs," how did you get that warbly sound on that lead? I couldn’t tell if that was guitar or synth. It had this really nice, almost Mellotron kind of warble.

Patrick: Oh yeah, that’s an Elka Panther transistor organ going through the Waldorf 2–pole filter, which is a really fun and I think kind of criminally underutilized filter.

Mitski, what were some of your go–to gear staples that you used throughout the album?

Mitski: Well, the thing is, what I record with and what I tour with is very different. I’m much more familiar with what I tour with, which is my Reverend Justice bass and then a tuner pedal, obviously, and then a little pedal our friend John made that’s basically like a fuzz/distortion. I also use a SansAmp as my bass DI and then I’ve come to prefer the Ampeg B–15, which was also used quite a bit on the album.

The Fliptop?

Patrick: Yeah. We used a mid–’70s one for the album, from like the second or third time they changed the logo. But we usually tour with a Heritage series.

Mitski: I’m not really picky about gear. I’m not much of a gearhead, I’m so sorry. [Laughs] This is why I have Patrick on the line. I basically go into the studio, see what’s available, and use what’s there. On tour, I have to be more conscious about what I bring, so that’s when I get a little more specific.

How did you make the switch to the Reverend [Justice Bass]? Seeing your stuff prior, I’ve seen you with everything from a Jazz bass to that Dean Custom Zone.

Mitski: So, here’s the thing: the infamous hot pink bass was actually a gift. One of my professors was goofing around with his son at a guitar store and then just dropped this bass and had to buy it, but he didn’t actually need the bass, so he just kind of gave it to me. I’ve been using that, but it was just so pink, and I wanted a new guitar.

I was shown the Reverend Justice bass and immediately loved it. I’ve never really felt emotion toward an instrument before owning this Reverend Justice. I just really enjoy the tone. No matter how much I travel with it and fuck it up and treat it badly, it still basically stays in tune. I haven’t had to tune up yet.

Yeah, it’s got that six–bolt neck, right?

Mitski: Yeah.

Oh yeah, I love that Dean Custom zone. It’s such an objectively silly instrument, but you got really good sound out of it.

Patrick: Yeah, I mean, it sounds good, it’s just so aesthetically over the top.

Mitski: It’s just that I started to receive fan art, where the biggest thing was that I was holding a pink bass, and it wasn’t about my face. That’s when I was like, "Oh, okay, I have to change guitars." [Laughs]

Mitski - Happy (Official Video)

So it has been over a year since Puberty 2 came out, and I’m operating under the assumption that you guys have spent a large swath of that out on the road. Have you managed to be recording any ideas, getting any sketches down while you tour?

Mitski: I don’t record on the road. I can’t speak for Patrick, but I don’t think he does either. I can’t really write on the road, it’s just too distracting of an environment.

There’s this sense of like "hurry up and wait," where you can’t really do anything, but you also have to sit around, but you can’t start an activity because you don’t know when you have to get up and go. So no, I haven’t really been doing anything while on the road.

But there’s always new music. It’s just that even if I recorded it or worked on it, I wouldn’t be able to put it out for a long time.

Patrick: Yeah, it seems just like the scheduling is just too rigorous to be doing a ton of recording.

Yeah, and I see there is even still a lot coming up in the way of days out on the road. When is the next time that you guys are going to get a chance to kind of sit down, relax, take a breather ,and then start looking forward?

Mitski: Well, the thing is, I don’t do well chilling.

Zero chill.

Mitski: [Laughs] I don’t chill, so I have a break from tours actually coming up in August and September, but I have another project lined up for that, which I can’t really talk about.

Then, in October, we go on tour with the Pixies, so I don’t know. I guess the first breather we’ll really get is the holidays when no one is working anyway. We recorded Puberty 2 over the holidays, too. I think the holidays when everyone is off and not working is prime time for us to finally get to recording and working on our stuff.

To find out more about Mitski, her music, and her touring schedule, you can check out her website here.

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