Hush Now: In The Studio With Balmorhea

A journey through their creative process...

“Could we make it sound a little more, I dunno, vintage-y?” asks Rob Lowe, one half of instrumental Americana band Balmorhea, of the delicate, sparse piano piece they’re trying to record.

“Make it sound less good you mean?” shoots back producer Jon Low from the control room, a cheeky grin spreading across his face.

“Yeah, something like that,” says Lowe as bandmate Michael A. Muller, sat on a low slung vintage arm chair, chuckles quietly.

Low duly runs the playback through various filters before trying the reverb chamber, a sealed concrete room where music is piped in at one end and re-recorded from the other, an effect that gives music – particularly raw piano – a haunting, ghostly feel, the aural equivalent of a dusty, sepia-tinged 19th Century photograph.

“Ah, that’s nice,” says Lowe. “Real nice.”

Muller and Low nod in agreement; Lowe gets ready for another take. 

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Saal 3 at Berlin’s Funkhaus is a glorious throwback, an old school recording space from the 1950s that’s been filled with some seriously high spec equipment. The whole complex, nestled next to the River Spree in a gritty, industrial wedge in the city’s east, was the former GDR broadcast centre, designed by architects and acousticians to be world-class in every way; at the time of its completion, it was the largest and most sophisticated recording facility anywhere on the planet.

Nowadays it’s a multi-purpose venue housing club events, recording spaces, live performances, and art installations, but Saal 3 remains a dedicated – and iconic – studio. Since 2016 it’s been in the care of acclaimed pianist, composer, and producer Nils Frahm, who fell in love with the space while recording the soundtrack for Victoria in 2014 and spent 12 months lovingly overhauling what he called a “beautiful ruin”.

“Truly one of a kind, and nothing short of spectacular”, says Muller. “Just hearing your footsteps is enough to know the room is something special,” adds Low. An audiophiles dream, custom details abound; hand-made wooden casings and drawer units, woven horse hair in the walls, specially built baffles filled with Caruso Isobond. Even the floor is unique, the blocks of rare, old-growth Russian timber laid vertically instead of horizontally to eliminate lateral vibrations.

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It is a room, notes Lowe, “made to capture acoustic instruments beautifully”, and perfectly suited to Balmorhea’s soft, hushed minimalism. The duo have been friends with Frahm since they toured with him in 2010, and when their last European tour ended with an April 2018 show in Funkhaus’ main hall, Frahm hosted an informal after-party in Saal 3.

Awed at the space, they hatched a plan to come back and record here; after more than a year spent writing and rehearsing in their native Austin, Texas, dates were pencilled in and schedules aligned. And so, here they are; six days alongside Low and studio manager/engineer Antonio Pulli, turning a number of ideas and demos into album number eight. 

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There’s a quiet reverence to Balmorhea’s music that lends it an air of grandeur; strings glide in and out of their songs, while gentle piano lines float around hazy, widescreen atmospheres. Dusty, unhurried guitar is another trope, finger-picked notes lingering a split second longer than you think they will, and often coated in a deep, rich reverb.

Heavily influenced by the wide, wild plains of Texas, the general feeling they conjure is one of awe – at the power and majesty of Mother Nature, and our insignificance before it. Previous records were themed around water ('Rivers Arms'), land ('All Is Wild, All Is Silent'), and the cosmos ('Constellations'), but while they were all somewhat celebratory, their new material concerns, in part, the degradation of our planet and the fast approaching climate crisis.

It will also tackle, in a loose way, what Muller describes as “the idea that one’s perceived reality is their only truth.” Inspired by his wife’s ongoing interview series and book The Moon Lists, they thought it an “interesting concept, with the audio supplying the backdrop of this narrative – the score to being lost in a parallel reality.”

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The pair long ago abandoned loudness and drama in favour of restraint, but while 2017’s 'Clear Language' was by no means a maximalist blast, it was still, says Muller, “technically complex in terms of performance.” The new material is pared down even further, allowing more space for each element, and a few new instruments they’ve never used before, to breathe.

“We wanted to make music that could stand on its own in a room,” says Lowe. “Music that can transmit simply, without a lot of layering or additional ornamentation.” The songs they put down here certainly do that. There’s a wonderfully contemplative, cloistered piano song – working title U5 – that Lowe plays on Frahm’s Yamaha CFX grand piano, another played on the vintage Mannborg harmonium (it is, says Pulli, over 80 years old), and one that sees both Lowe and Muller sit facing each other, delicately picking at acoustic guitars and a 12-string.

“The harmonium just sounds so good,” says Lowe of the depth and richness that it creates. “Sumptuous” is another adjective aired frequently, and the pair – and Low – exhibit a wide-eyed glee as they try out various instruments and microphone configurations. It’s no surprise; for anyone remotely invested in quality sound reproduction, Saal 3 is truly a treasure trove of wonder.

There are around 40 vintage synths and keyboards here, numerous pre-amps and EMT reverbs, vintage Neumann microphones (some of which date to the 1950s), and Frahm’s custom built, modular pipe organ (an absolute marvel in itself, and one that has its own dedicated room). All of this is ran through a custom Danner control board and can of course, if an artist so wishes, be recorded to tape.

“You can’t beat this thing,” says Low tapping the refurbished Studer A80 tape machine that stands in one corner. A standard in 70s studios, it’s a hulking great slab of silver that operates with a heavy, industrial clunk; during one break, Low demonstrates how to properly wind tape around its various spindles. It’s decided that several songs warrant the tape treatment, not least one of the guitar tracks that sounds a little José González, only richer and deeper.

“Do you think we should do a take while staring into each other’s eyes?” jokes Lowe of the song. “No,” replies Muller laughing, as Pulli buzzes around, setting up some RCA 77-A ribbon microphones (an extremely rare beast known for its huge, immersive sound). They go again, a half beat slower and more relaxed, opening up the song. The ribbons add a warmer tone, bathing the guitars in a golden hue; “Yeah, that’s the one,” says Low. “Let’s keep that”.

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The duo have been friends with Low for several years; Muller first met him in Philadelphia in 2015, introduced by a mutual friend. Working together had long been muted, and both felt he’d be the ideal person for the new material they were writing. Initially, he was due to jump in at the overdubbing and mixing stage, in NYC, but at the last minute he found himself in Paris working on another record just a few days before the Saal 3 sessions. Extending his transatlantic trip for a few days made perfect sense.

“We wanted someone with deep technical knowledge, but also a creative input that wasn’t exactly in our artistic wheelhouse,” says Muller. “The diversity in his palette and variation of approach from our own distinct intuition will really help broaden the spectrum of this new work.” Besides, adds Lowe, it’s just great having a “third voice in the room, someone who can help us think outside the confines of the music as it is written.”

Low may be better known for his work with big hitting indie stalwarts like The National and Bon Iver, but he’s no stranger to more experimental fare. Caroline Shaw, Nico Muhly, and Mr. Twin Sister have all tapped his expertise, and watching him work, it’s easy to see why he’s in such demand.

Endlessly tweaking and tinkering, he has an instinctive sense of precisely what’s required for each passage of music, and how to get the nuance of each instrument on tape. Aside from being friends with Muller and Lowe, he says he’s always been “intrigued” by their music and vision. “For something so sparse, its effect is quite sprawling,” he says. “The way they write and play feels classic too, and that isn’t easy to do – I want to make sure that timelessness comes through.”

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He talks of wanting to accentuate their personalities, and presenting them in a way that’s surreal or grand, yet intimate. To that end, the duo record as many passages as possible while playing together, often facing each other (although not staring into each other’s eyes). “There’s a special sort of magic in the timing when you do that,” says Muller. “That’s easily lost if you record separately.”

Vocals, in one form of another, have appeared on all their records thus far, even though the duo have purposefully shied away from writing actual lyrics. For the new material, they decided they needed some “otherworldly female vocals”, and so reached out to two distinctive voices; Lisa Morgenstern, and Tiny Vipers’ Jesy Fortino.

The former – “We’re in awe of her voice” says Muller – just happens to be in Berlin at the right time, and spends a day laying down parts; “Perfect” says Lowe of the results. Fortino, an old friend of theirs, will be recorded later, in New York. Collaboration comes naturally to both, and they seem at ease together and with Low; there’s an efficiency to their approach that means the essence of a song – the tempo, the mood – is located quickly and intuitively.

Lowe credits this to the hundreds of hours the pair spent writing and rehearsing over the last year or so, and the clear vision of what they want this album to be. “A new way of seeing or experiencing the world we live in,” says Lowe; “to say something in a fresh, unique way, yet have it feel approachable,” adds Muller. “Our greatest hope is that it may entwine itself in a deep and meaningful way with whomever gives it a chance to do so.”

As I make to leave, another piano song is taking shape – a sombre, plaintive track, full of yearning. Lowe sits at the grand, running through takes; Low and Muller listen intently. It’s late, and the notes echo quietly in the dark, deserted corridor outside. It sounds real nice.

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Words: Derek Robertson
Photography: Francesco Lusa

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