The Making Of: Regurgitator's'Unit'
Mon 17th Sep, 2012 in Features
Regurgitator look back on the making of their 1997 classic Unit; an album recorded in a ramshackle studio that still sounds ahead of its time.
In July 1997 Quan Yeomans, Ben Ely, Martin Lee and and Lachlan Goold (aka ‘90s uber producer Magoo) entered “The Dirty Room” – a condemned warehouse in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley – to start recording the follow-up to Regurgitator’s debut album Tu-Plang.
“It was a very humble studio” Ely recalls, “basically falling down around us. Two days after we left I drove by the site and the entire building was torn down save a concrete slab with a lone Coca Cola machine standing in the middle of the rubble. I thought that was an apt image that went with the music we made.”
Exhausted from touring the US with the Melvins and Helmet, Yeomans says the band was determined to simply create “a finished second album that wasn’t utter shit”. And over the course of six weeks they went about doing just that. Holed up in their “crappy little cubby house” the band took the testosterone fuelled rock of Tu-Plang and flipped it on its head, introducing synth, hip-hop and keytar to their sound. The result was Unit, an album which even 15 years after its release sounds ahead of its time.
Before embarking on this month’s “Retrotech tour”, which will see them play their first two albums in full, Quan, Ben and Magoo look back on the making of Unit.
I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff
Ben: We had the very bare bones of this song when we went into the studio – I basically just had the chorus. We tried writing and recording it in many different ways: punk rock, pop; but due to our newly acquired synths and the amount of ‘80s music we were listening to at the time, we decided to go with the ‘80s version. We also were terrified that people wouldn’t like our new material so we decided to make it obviously unlikable.
Quan: ‘Everyday Formula’ was the first song written for the album. The classic story is of Warner panicking and deciding to send Rob Cavallo (Green Day, Dookie) in to add some international producer glitter to the process. That or he was down in Australia for a golf holiday. There was some weird pathogen trapped in the fibres of the second-hand carpet underlay that [sound guy] Nat Martin had nailed to the walls. Years of dreary office dust maybe. It had a soporific effect on anyone who entered the room. We’d all developed a mild resistance to it over the weeks spent in there. Anyway, Rob came in, said his awkward hello then immediately passed out on the piss-stained “listening mattress” we’d set up behind Magoo. It was a funny sight. Then in the middle of putting the final touches on the ‘Everyday…’ mix he suddenly woke up, rubbed his chin thoughtfully and told Magoo that he liked it but he thought he could give the guitars about “10 per cent more”. He then left, and we all breathed a sigh of relief.
h2. ! (The Song Formerly Known As)
Magoo: ‘The Song Formerly Know As’ was finished off right near the end of the record. They [the band] had run out of songs and didn’t know what to do. Quan had just bought a Nord keyboard and played everyone the first thing he was mucking around with – the baseline from ‘!’. He didn’t think much of it, but regardless everyone started to jam on this idea, all the time trying to sound like Prince. They eventually arranged and recorded the first version of the song, full live band. Quan wrote the lyrics to the music, then we recorded them by slowing down the ADATs (an early digital recording system we were using). When they were played back at normal speed they had a slight chipmunk feel.
“Whenever I do listen to it again I simply can’t believe how fucking crap it sounds.”
After two days we had finished the song. The next day Quan comes in a says he hates it but he does love the vocals. I have to admit, it wasn’t really up to scratch. We had a good little studio, but it wasn’t Paisley Park. I think I ran the vocals off onto a DAT tape, so Quan could sample them at home, a painstaking process. He also proceeded to redo all of the music with samples etc. The drum loop used in the song was taken from a Groove Box running through a Boss CS3 guitar pedal. An awesome sound. Then he could place all the vocals, line by line, over the new music. Very time consuming. He brought all the bits back into the studio and we kind of just started mixing it. I refined Quan’s sequence, we used both our samplers and that was about it. I think I convinced Quan to use a little bit of funky guitar from the original version, but that was it. The rest of the song was coming out of the samplers.
Ben: This song actually came to me while I was playing Turok Dinosaur Hunter video game. Black Bugs really did eat me in the game hence the lyrics. I took the guitar riff and vocal line over to Quan’s mum’s basement [where he was staying at the time] and demoed the idea. He like it and we played around with it adding synth lines. This was the first song we demoed for the album that I remember, and the first time we decided to lean into the ’80s. The original version was lost due to hard drive failure and not backing up the files.
The World of Sleaze
Quan: The Beatles, which Magoo had been forcing us to listen to, obviously started to rub off on me. That and Brit-pop being all over the radio at the time. This song caused quite a bit of grief with the staunch conservatives looking for something to bitch about, apparently. Anything with the word “cunt” in it was fair game no doubt. The irony is relatively thick on the ground here: A. because ‘World Of Sleaze’ is an example of me at my most puritanical and moralistic; and B. just because these right wing douche-bags seemed to have no grip on the concept of metaphor and were plainly blinded by my “dirty” mouth, they inadvertently aided record sales by drawing more attention to us than we actually warranted.
I Piss Alone
Quan: This is my favorite track on the album and possibly of all of my tunes. I love it because it’s so weird and so brutally honest about such an awkward subject that I’m sure touches a lot of males in a sensitive spot at sometime in their lives. Sonically it barely makes sense, too. Soaring keyboard pads over trashy punk with incoherently distorted screaming? Who knows what the fuck we were thinking at the time but if that is what I consider the high point of my career it tells you something about me right?
Magoo: ‘Unit’ was kind of intentional. I remember everyone mucking around with album titles and ‘Unit’, just felt like what it was. I think it was Ben who programmed the Groove Box, I plugged it in and it was 180 degrees out of phase. I guess it was just our dodgy wiring in the studio, but I didn’t try and fix it be cause it sounded perfect. Everyone had a mic, and it is just a live performance of them mucking around. I guess it only took two minutes to record. They never had a good work ethic that band!
I Will Lick Your Arsehole
Magoo: Again this one was done late in the picture. I think Quan had been playing around with the sequence the whole time we were recording, just at home by himself. Towards the end there was nothing left so he brought it in. There were no lyrics. I suggested that it needed a hook and we should try sampling something. I won’t mention where the sample came from, but I threw something in the sampler and was trying to find the right start point. As the loop was going round and round Quan yelled out “Stop!” I wasn’t really even listening. When I did listen, we both burst out laughing as the sample said “Arsehole, I will lick your Arsehole.” It was a total random event, and all down to Quan leaving his ears on. I think the lyrics came soon after that and we finished the song as we were mixing it. I think they do a better arrangement of the song live now. I don’t think we ever really finished it.
Ben: I came up with the idea for this song while talking to Quan’s mum in her garden. We were having a DM about the perils of the modern world and how hard it is for people to get by. As far as the recording process goes I actually cannot remember any of it. Oh, hang on! I remember finding a lump of metal in an abandoned car park and recording myself bashing it on the staircase during the middle-eight.
Quan: Thinking about this song and its popularity without actually having heard the tune for a long time makes me re-assume that the recording might possibly have some merit. The truth of the matter is that whenever I do listen to it again I simply can’t believe how fucking crap it sounds. This song is such a great pop song in that sense, as well as these reasons. It has almost no artistic value whatsoever; it’s catchy as shit because it seems (I noticed much, much later) to be an un-swung version of ‘Heart and Soul’ (the song Tom Hanks plays on that giant toy store keyboard in Big); and it has the word “girl” in the chorus, which invariably helps in these matters. I do like the fact that it’s about the horrors of plastic surgery though, and I’m also comforted by the idea that quite a few little girls across the nation were singing along to it at some point.
Magoo: Much Like ‘Unit’ this song was live in the control room. Martin was playing an MPC with his fingers, I think Quan on guitar and Ben on vox, I can’t really remember.
“I was utterly devastated when I heard that the Whitlams had covered it.”
Ben: I wrote this song while jamming with a friend of mine in her house. Her name is Hazel Dooney, she was DJ-ing at the time and I was mucking around on an old pump organ. That’s where the main riffs in the song came from. I think it came about from listening to a lot of Money Mark’s Keyboard Repair Shop album. It sounds basically like a song off that record. On the recording I used an old Farfisa Super Bravo [organ] I bought through the local paper for 15 bucks. I ran the keyboard through five distortion pedals: an old Russian Big Muff pedal and a heavy metal pedal among them.
Just Another Beautiful Story
Quan: I do think this tune is reasonably well produced. It’s the kind of orchestral-nonsense festooned track expected of a band bloated by the excesses of rampant commercial fortune, that we all felt the sophomore record needed to have on it. The flugelhorn solo is of particular merit. I pity Seja [Vogel] who now has to play it live on a keyboard. I do quite like the tone of this tune sonically and lyrically. It’s wistful and pensive which puts it at odds with any of my other tracks on the album. I was utterly devastated when I heard that the Whitlams had covered it live a few times. After crafting a piece too complex for my own band to be even bothered trying to execute live, I felt like I had abandoned it to the piano wolves.
Regurgitator’s Retrotech Tu plang and Unit tour:
Wednesday 26 September – Great Northern, Byron Bay
Friday 28th September – The HiFi , Brisbane
Saturday 29th September – The HiFi, Sydney
Sunday 30th September – Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle
Thursday 4th October – Uni of Canberra,
Friday 5th October – Unibar, Wollongong
Saturday 6th October – The Gov, Adelaide
Sunday 7th October – The Astor, Perth
Friday 12th October – The HiFi, Melbourne
Saturday 13th October – Brisbane Hotel, Hobart
Sunday 14th October – Brisbane Hotel, Hobart