Interview: Production Techniques and Tools with Marian Hill

Marian Hill. Photo by Timothy Saccenti. Used with permission from the artist.

The Brooklyn–based duo of Jeremy Lloyd and Samantha Gongol (better known as Marian Hill) have carved out a unique niche in the contemporary music landscape.

Combining elements of hip–hop and blues with a modern atmospheric production approach has helped set their work apart from the field, and even landed their music a major placement in a recent Apple commercial.

We had a chance to catch up with Marian Hill at the close of their third major tour to reflect on their creative process, production techniques, must–have creation tools, and what makes their sound resonate with the culture at large.

How did your most recent tour go?

Sam: I loved it. It was our biggest tour yet. The rooms were mostly sold out, and if not, very full. It was cool because we toured with these songs in the fall, but this time around, we were really comfortable with them and could just sit back and enjoy the moment. It’s definitely my favorite, by far.

Were there any dates or particular performances that stood out to you over others?

Jeremy: Playing in New York was really special because we started the tour at a brand new venue in Brooklyn called Brooklyn Steel. It was sold out. It was this new venue with a brand new production, so I think just because it was all starting, that was definitely a real rush there.

Sam: We did get to play two nights at The Fonda, which was awesome. It was our first time playing two nights in a row at a venue. Kansas City was our biggest crowd, which was really cool. Yeah, it was awesome.

How many tours have you done together?

Sam: It’s our third proper tour.

Jeremy: We’ve done a lot of scattered one–offs and a lot of festivals. We did one tour around Sway, one tour when Act One came out, and then the "Down" tour, which is what just happened.

You guys have referred to your style as a “classic bass sway." Is that still a good descriptor? How do you think that that style kind of came together?

Jeremy: In a very practical sense, our sound really came from our song "Whiskey." We were both working on lots of projects at that time, which all sounded cool and different, just kind of trying see what worked and what felt good.

Marian Hill - "Whisky" (Audio)

The components that make up that song are big drums with a hip–hop pattern, heavy bass tones with smaller atmospheric elements creating space and ambience, contrasted by very middle–of–the–mix, underproduced bluesy vocals.

That became our template moving forward, along with the addition of Steve Davit, who plays sax with us when we go live. From there, it was just building outward from that blueprint.

I know you two are originally from Philadelphia, so are there any particular Philadelphia groups, people, or musical acts that were a direct influence to your progression?

Sam: Before Marian Hill, I was dabbling with singer–songwriter projects, and I had performed at a lot of open mic nights and local venues in the city. It was actually at one of those [open mics] that I was encouraged to write my own music because at that time, I was still in high school and was just playing covers.

[The Philadelphia scene] was a community in that way, and I would say that it definitely gave me a foundation in terms of confidence in performing and learning to play out.

Jeremy: For me, a lot of my songwriting background was in studying musical theater songwriting at school. I had a lot of great teachers in small classes where it would be like five of us, and we’d have to write a song and notate it and bring it in and perform it every week.

That really got me in the mindset of finishing things, which is the really hard thing as an early songwriter and producer — not just letting something kind of dangle at an incomplete state, but really finishing something and knowing how rewarding that is when you’re forced to do it.

I was fortunate enough to have a few lessons with Adam Guettel, who’s a musical theater hero of mine. Other than that, as far as the scene we came up in and other bands we looked to for inspiration came from the internet.

I learned production in my bedroom. I didn’t have any teacher, really. I was just looking up demos and finding YouTube videos explaining how to do things, and Googling what I didn’t know. I was on Hype Machine every day seeing what was happening, seeing what new acts were coming up.

I remember Sam and I were listening to "Your Drums, Your Love" by AlunaGeorge when that had just come out and was making a buzz, and we were both like, “Whoa, this is cool! Maybe we could do something like this."

What’s the best creative situation for you guys, be it environmental factors, writing situations, locations, or vibe?

Jeremy: It seems obvious, but I think just the two of us in a room with good speakers, a good mic, and my computer. Sometimes, I like to have a MIDI keyboard, but in general, we just want to be in a room together where we feel comfortable.

We ideally get in a month–long zone where we’re just thinking about what we’re doing, writing, and being in that world. It’s super collaborative for us, so really just the two of us being a room together alone.

Marian Hill - "One Time"

Sam: Some people are inspired by having other people in the room, but we sort of get distracted.

What’s your favorite, must–have software or hardware creation tool?

Jeremy: Since the beginning of all of this, I’ve been producing and mixing in Propellerhead Reason. Sway was actually mixed entirely in Reason. For Act One, I did about half the mixing in Reason and then went out to Pro Tools for Tony Maserati to finish the mixes up.

What do you think about Reason 9.5 now with VST support?

Jeremy: Oh my God, it’s so exciting!

Sam: He’s so excited!

Jeremy: It’s been monumental. Let’s see, I mean I’ve been playing with a bunch of Soundtoys plugins, which are just so cool.

The Decapitator is an amazing tool to have and manage from Tremolator. I love the way it sounds.

Soundtoys Decapitator Analog Saturation Modeler

Soundtoys Tremolator

AlterBoy is also incredible. Sylenth1 is a great–sounding synth I’m very excited to have added to my repertoire. I also just got Omnisphere 2. I had a plugin field day, it was very exciting.

Soundtoys Little AlterBoy Monophonic Voice Manipulator

FabFilter Pro-Q 2 Equalizer

The FabFilter Pro–Q 2 EQ has been just incredible. As someone who was kind of a latecomer as to what EQ is and still doesn’t have the finest understanding of it, something like FabFilter is incredible with a really accessible interface.

I saw in an interview with you, Jeremy, which was a breakdown of “Down" where you had mentioned that you were sampling a piece of sandpaper from an ASMR video (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response). Can you tell me more about that? Do you leverage that technique a lot? Are there other types of psychoacoustic tricks that you’re employing for production?

Jeremy: It’s interesting. In that particular instance, I really was just looking for a good sandpaper sound. There are well–recorded ASMR videos of people dedicated to just sanding wood, so that worked out.

I definitely love finding things like that. There’s a cheap pen from a bank that I clicked on and off once and that has become a sample that I love to use. It’s a crispy kind of a high–hat type of percussion thing.

In the early days of our time recording at Republic, there were Snapples in the fridge, and I just hit the cap against the back of the bottle and got two samples that I love from that. You can hear that a lot in “Good" and “Talk to Me."

Marian Hill - "Down"

What are some production techniques that you’ve learned over time that are now very routine?

Jeremy: This seems obvious to me, but it’s something that I clearly do quite a lot. There’s two components. The first step when I’m playing with a vocal chop type thing that you hear in a lot of our songs is that I’ll take the part of Sam’s vocal that I want to play with and chop it up in Recycle. Then, I’ll open it up in the Dr.Rex sample player in Reason, and play with it on the keyboard.

I do this with other samples, too. It’s nice to have a mode where I’m just playing and hitting different parts of sample with different keys and finding something that feels good and exciting.

Another thing I do is take one of the slices that I got from chopping it up, put it into the NN–XT Advanced Sampler, and map it out to every key so it becomes a keyboard instrument that can totally be unrecognizable and lead to really cool sounds.

In "Got It", the main synth came from a sample of Sam's voice. In "Mistaken", all of the big brass hits are from a sample of a sax that Steve played that I turned into a keyboard instrument. There are lots of instances throughout my process where I do that and play a sample like a keyboard.

What types of stories or questions are you attempting to tell or answer about the human experience with the artwork that you create?

Jeremy: With Act One, it’s a lot about just exploring all the different places you can find yourself and the dynamic between two people. We play a lot with moments of excitement and confidence, but also moments of doubt and the specific ways you question things. It’s always really cool to hear different parts of the human experience articulated in a new way that feels very authentic.

Sam: I want to leave people empowered in some way after listening to our music.

What does the perfect version of Marian Hill look or sound like to you?

Sam: That’s always hard to answer. I would just like for as many people to hear our music as possible and love it. I’d love to get into as big of a room as we can and perform, Jeremy disagrees with me on this a little bit, but I would play arenas if we could.

Jeremy: The core of it, for me, is making music that I love and that I hope will inspire others, specifically musicians, songwriters, and producers. I’m really captivated by how songwriting and music–making is so collaborative with the internet these days. In some ways, what we make is a direct result of a ton of artists that inspire and excite us, and I'm honored to be a part of that conversation.

In terms of the ideal Marian Hill, I think that it changes project to project. When we finished Act One, that was it. Now, it's wondering what the next project going to look like. We’re writing towards that and we’re writing lots of things we’re excited about. When it’s done, it will be at a place where we feel it's the best version of Marian Hill.

For more information about Marian Hill, check out their website.

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