(Photo cred: David Tosti)
Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas' contributions to the alt-rock-meets-blues outfit known as Mutemath have been a defining part of the bands success. Although he's recently signed out from his role as bass and guitar player, he's still keeping active in the world of music by releasing guitar and bass sample packs from his own company, Sample Fuzz Audio. As a Mutemath fan with a history of interviewing the band members, I was happy to talk to Roy about his time in the band and his sample company.
Hi Roy. How did you get your start in music? Did you have a church background like some of the other Mutemath members?
No, unlike Paul and Darren, I didn't have a church background. I started in music because my dad was a Texas-blues and 60s rock musician. So I'd jam with him to things like The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and The Kinks. In addition to that, there was a lot of Latin music played in my house, since my mom is from Mexico and my dad lived there for a while. Since I was 12, I was in bands in the indie-punk scene where I'm from. There's actually a great documentary about that scene called "As I Walk Through The Valley", which tells the story of the South-Texas music scene. It's worth checking out.
Is it true that the first intersection of you, Darren and Paul playing together was in Earthsuit?
Yes. I had moved to New Orleans to attend Loyola University, and I met Darren around that time. He joined Earthsuit as we were on our way out on the last tour. I went back to law school after that, and about 3 years later Darren and Paul started what became Mutemath.
By the way, me and Paul always had a connection because of Earthsuit, but when Darren joined us he wasn't the drummer people know now. He became that later.
So following Earthsuit, what was it like to play with Darren again as a part of the Ill Harmonics tour?
Those guys were my friends and needed some help, so I did it. But Darren always said it was a pivotal time for him to grow as a drummer. Thinking back, I'd say that was were we started clicking as a rhythm section. But I never thought about it much until later.
So when you later joined Mutemath, was the "Reset EP" and record deal with Warner Music already done?
Before the "Reset EP" was done, I'd already played 2 shows with them as part of a showcase, so I was kind of involved in the early stages. But that was only for gigs, because my intention was still to finish law school and become an attorney. When I did join the band full-time they were having some issues with Warner, so we decided to just go on the road and play shows as if we were an indie band.
What was the issue with Warner? I heard they wanted to market Mutemath as a Christian band, which is why Teleprompt Records to release the band's music instead?
That stuff happened before I really joined the band. By the time I joined, they had left the deal to be whatever it would be, and continued as an indie band. That's why Teleprompt was set up to press records and create the merchandise. Then we went on the road to create our own thing, and Warner only started paying attention after that.
So once things took a favorable turn with Warner, what advantages did you feel being on a major label afforded you? Did they do anything tangible?
There was some promo stuff. They offered us contacts with regards to things like licensing and film, and we got a little more capital to work with. Warner brought a certain clout that helped us in the long run. However, I was happy when we went back to being independent on "Vitals" and set up our own label and distribution deal. There was so much red tape with the major labels that I didn't care for.
Was it Warner that helped you guys get on late night shows like Conan and David Letterman?
Probably. But we had hired our own publicists, and already had our own agents. The labels don't do as much concerning such things as people think.
Whether listening to Darren's sample pack or your work with bands like Mirza Zaza, I can hear trademark characteristics of Mutemath's sounds in these other projects, so it's clear that each person brought a unique dynamic to the band. The first 3 Mutemath albums showcased a sound and style that isn't as audible on "Play Dead", and even in "Vitals". Particularly the sound of Darren's drum kit, which was replaced by samples on "Vitals". Do you think that the reality of what you and Darren contributed was ignored on later albums to the eventual demise of the original lineup of the band?
I think we all contributed a lot to the sound. We obviously went through different evolutions, and Paul was a huge part of seeing and focusing on the big picture of the band. Even when I would switch from bass to guitars, he would work with me to hone in on a sound in a way that helped the final result. So you can't undermine his contribution. I wouldn't say "ignored", although I have heard people say that the band was over when we left, since the rhythm section was a huge section of the band. But it can be reinterpreted in a new way, and I think the players Paul got for the latest tour are exceptional. But again, I would´t say we were "ignored". I've heard people say the band won't be the same, and that's true because there's different people playing in it. Darren's role was huge for the aesthetic of the band, as you can hear with what he's done in his solo projects. But even Paul played a big role in helping to create Darren's drum sound. So we were all involved in different ways. There are synth parts I worked on that no-one knows about and guitar parts I did even when Greg was there. So sometimes people minimize your role and say "He's just a bassist", when all of us are multi-instrumentalists. Paul even played some drums on "Play Dead". So everything we did was collaborative through-out the years.
Fair enough. But if you look at the first 3 albums, we see a mixture of alt-rock meets blues-rock, whilst "Vitals" starts to feature 4-on-the-floor drums, quarter-note synth stabs and that sort of thing. Darren's usually frenetic playing feels dialed back, and the blues-rock guitars are replaced by the Juno synth. You've said in past interviews, "The process of making Odd Soul ourselves was ideal. I didn't like having a lot of outside input on 'Vitals' ". Was that outside input a factor in the sound for "Vitals" being different from previous Mutemath albums?
A little bit. "Vitals" was a very conscious effort to do something different, and that effort was led by Paul. He wanted to make a synth-based, minimalist record that we hadn't made before. To be honest, I really wanted to make "Odd Soul 2", but it didn't happen. You all have to be on the same page to make that type of album, and we weren't, so "Vitals" is what happened, which was different. I was cool to change it up.
Regarding the outside help, we did go around doing things with different producers, but ultimately we finished the record ourselves. You can't blame anyone else for how it sounds. It's not my favorite Mutemath record, but there are some good songs on there. And for the live show, I feel like we took it to another place, and even Darren brought his usual energy to that.
Can you tell us why the band fell apart from it's initial incarnation?
For my part, I needed to get off the road for family reasons. I'd been touring as a father for 8 years, and couldn't make that type of commitment anymore. It was similar for Darren. He had to get off the road to save his family. It's easy to forget, as a fan, how taxing the road can be when trying to raise kids. I did it for a long time and it's not easy. There's also what comes along with being a band for a long time. You want to try other things, and people change and grow apart. Also, touring was a big part of the band, and when you don't tour, you don't make money to sustain what you have, and the touring market is getting very saturated, so it's hard to maintain that when you choose to put your family first.
Would it have been different if, hypothetically, you guys had made an "Odd Soul 2"? Would the touring outcome having been different?
I have no idea, but I don't think so. However, in terms of band success, I think an "Odd Soul 2" would have helped. "Vitals" didn't do as well in the places that "Odd Soul" did. I think we lost a lot of fans with that one. They were expecting something more rocking, and we didn't give it to them. But "Vitals" opened up doors for us in other places, so I don't know. But even bands that are very successful have to tour. So without that we would have been in a difficult spot either way.
Let's talk some gear. Tell me about the thought process for your guitar and bass chain. Why do you have the Mini Foot Fuzz, followed by the JHS Overdrive, the Twin 12 and so on?
Ultimately it's because of the sound I want. The player is the one who creates the most tone with their style of play. My chain is set up to bring in the effects when I need them through my looper pedal. So you want a distorted tone up front that goes into your delays and then reverbs, before it hits the amp. I've messed around with putting a Electro Harmonix Micro Synth pedal at the end of everything so the filter acts as a gate and distorts the whole sound.
But you have 2 overdrives, The JHS Overdrive and the Twin 12?
Yes, but they're not both on at the same time. I have a looper which acts as a mixer by allowing me to mute pedals I don't need. The Mini Foot Fuzz and Morning Glory are the only ones I turn on and off, which affect the whole chain. The Twin 12 is the first loop channel on my switcher. So it's only engaged when I want to use it. The same with all the delays. This way I can use all 3 delays with the touch of a button. I got into using this because I was always bouncing between bass and guitar in a show, so it was the easiest way to keep a pure bass signal by bypassing the guitar effects, but then switch back to guitar.
I see. So is the JHS ColorBox also a loop option, or is it a global component?
That one is global. I'm using it as an overall EQ and pre-amp, which I adjust accordingly through-out the show. It has a high-pass filter, which I use when playing guitar, but turn off when I switch to bass. I also gives me flexibility when I'm doing something like a radio show that has terrible in-house gear or PA. So I'd take my pedal board and guitar to the radio station, and my sound would be half-way decent because of that.
Was the Colorbox featured on records or is it just a live component?
I've used it on a lot of records. All the time.
What are some of the more creative ways that you've used your pedals?
I just love pedals in general. I've put them on keyboards, for example. In the studio, I've run soft synths through pedals and amps and recorded that, which adds a layer of depths to the sound. I've done it with the MiniMoog Voyager live as well. I use to run my synth basses out of Logic into a Roland Space Echo and back into a bass amp. We've put distortion pedals on snare drums and overheads also. Even vocals.
What kinds of pedals lend themselves to vocal processing?
We've tried overdrive pedals. Paul uses a Boss DD-5 during live shows. He also runs his Rhodes through a distortion pedal and delay pedal. I think he was using a Walrus Audio Voyager overdrive on the last tour.
When I look at both Mutemath's live and studio setup, there's a heavy feature of analog equipment. However, in today's age, hardly anyone gets away with not using digital software. But it's hard to hear the influence of digital tools on Mutemath's albums. What is the balance between analog and digital for you guys?
I think there's a healthy balance between both, where we benefit both sonically and functionality. We always had a tape machine available, but not necessarily for the tape itself, though on some early records we would record drums to tape and transfer it into a digital format. But most of the time we would just run the signal through the machine itself and record it into Logic. Paul had a Roland 2480 that he'd use to mix stuff on. For guitars and bass a lot of stuff was captured using analog amps. We also had Distressors, vintage pre-amps, the Roland Space Echo, Roland Junos, samplers, etc. So we never got to the point of someone like Jack White, where it's all done to tape.
We mixed our records in a variety of ways. Early on, Paul used his Roland 2480 to mix and later used Logic 9 on "Vitals" and "Play Dead". Lots of "Armistice" was mixed in Logic 9 by Tedd T, but Michael Brauer also mixed part of it. For "Odd Soul", we used Tchad Blake and Doug McKean. For "Vitals", we used Mark Needham and Eric Palmquist, but lots was done by Paul and Darren in Logic 9 also.
How did you integrate samplers into what's finally heard on the records?
Samplers have always been a big part of our music-making process. Paul was the first guy I met that had an Ensoniq ASR-10 back in the 90s. So when I bought an MPC, we'd make tracks together, and then Darren bought an ASR-10 also, and he's amazing with it. A lot of tracks started with Darren sampling a record into an ASR-10 and creating a sequence. We even sampled ourselves a few times. I would run my guitar rig into the ASR-10 and Darren would sample it. Then we'd put it into Logic and go from there.
But how would you clear the samples?
We did clear a few things, but for the most part we would recreate the sequence ourselves if we couldn't clear it.
I've listened to the Mirza Zaza "Atlas EP", which you produced. Was that recorded in Orlando?
We recorded it in Orlando, Florida. The studio was called Red Lion, but at the time it was just my friend's studio. He has an in-ear minor company called Clear Tune Monitors. So we borrowed that. It was a fun project. Those guys are really talented, and are Mutemath and Incubus fans too, which you can hear in their music.
Did you and Mirza Zaza record the upcoming debut in the same studio? And is there a release date?
No, we went to Madrid for that. There currently isn't the release date, even though it's done.
(Note: Mirza Zaza have now changed their name to "Superlaser")
Let's talk about your sample pack. We're obviously in an environment were we have millions of sample packs, and even the sub-standard ones have a significant fan-base. What made you want to create Sample Fuzz Audio packs in a world where most people are reluctant to even pay for such things?
It was just another way to be creative. You're right about there being a lot of them, but there's only one me. So it was a way to put my sound out there to be used on things. I felt like there was a vacancy in the sample pack world for the sounds I like to hear. There's very few ones that I would use or write too. So I decided to make one myself. I started with bass guitar, and I've done a guitar one too. My intention is to continue to do more. Maybe a synth pack or a collaboration with Darren.
As far as making money off of it, I'm aware there's a lot of piracy in this business, but there are also enough honest people paying for it to make it worth my while.
What kinds of sales numbers would you like to see to justify the effort you put into making these sample packs?
I'd like to sell as many as possible, but I guess 10-15 for each pack is a good place for me.
Have you had your samples in any commercials and campaigns?
I know of a producer in town who used one of my upright samples for a fairly big pop-country record.
What kind of effort does it take to make one of these sample packs, with regards to man-hours, level of precision, etc?
It takes a lot of patience with regards to editing and making the sound right, but the creative part of me doesn't require much. It only took 2 weeks to record all the samples for the upright pack. Then I'll go into the editing phase, which takes another 2 weeks. But it's not a workload of 7 days a week and 8 hour days. I'll spend one hour here and 3 hours there. Editing takes up most of the effort though, as far as organizing everything into a usable format. The first pack took the longest time, since I had to redo things a few times to get it right, but the last 2 packs took about a month each.
Where did your record the instruments?
I did most of the recording at my house, but I also used a studio here in town.
What were the techniques you used on the engineering side to capture the recordings? Did you have any help with that?
I did have some help with the editing of the first pack. But essentially I used the same techniques as on the Mutemath albums, as far as amps, mic placements, gear, etc, which is part of the whole point of making these. I'm selling a part of the Mutemath sound for the public to make their own things. All of the samples have blends of clean and dirty signals, as well as more effect-heavy versions. I'm not trying to be give people the "best bass sound" that fits perfectly with a drum loop. It's about giving people an inspiring sound that they can write to themselves. That's how I use sample packs, and it's how Tyler from 21 Pilots uses them too, which was part of the reason why I decided to create Sample Fuzz Audio.
Do you feel like anything is lost in terms of fidelity when it comes to sampling an instrument, since most virtual instruments are unable to replicate what their acoustic or electric counterparts sound like on a record?
With these samples, I come from the same point of view as when I made Mutemath records, only this time I'm making loops. So the sample rate and bit rate are 48Khz and 24 bit respectively. Most people can't tell the difference beyond that, and I know the sounds will work for what I made them for. Are you going to make an entire alt-rock record with just a sample pack? No. But can you write music for an alt record using a sample pack? Yes. That's where I'm coming from.
You've said that you would consider making additional packs. Any chance we'll be getting any releases in the near future?
I do intend to make a rock guitar using my Galanti guitar, as well as a jazz-oriented one with a clean tone. I'd like to do a keyboard/synth heavy one, but I'm still trying to figure that one out.
My last questions are about specific sounds on Mutemath albums. Can you talk about how you got that big guitar sound on "Typical"?
It was a combination of a lot of guitars, and we had help from a guy called Lynn Nichols, who's a guitar guy here in Nashville. It's hard to remember the exact amp/guitar combo, but I think it was a Gibson 335 going into Vox AC100 that was cranked really high.
We also used my dad's vintage cab that has two 15-inch Jensen speakers in it.
The drum sound on "Break the Same" is pretty acclaimed. How did you guys achieve that?
Honestly, I couldn't tell you, because we recorded those drums in 3 different locations and I don't know which one got used in the final version.
The intro to "Armistice" features a lot of percussion and claps. How did you guys achieve that?
I know Darren recorded a lot of stuff using drum skin heads in a bathroom that had a lot of reverb. We also recorded a lot of the claps in that bathroom. I had just dived into learning flamenco music at that time, so I was heavy on making everybody clap on the records like "Armistice" and "Spotlight".
What went into building the studio you recorded in, as seen in the "Armistice" documentary? Where did you get all that gear?
We didn’t really “build a studio”. We just rented a house and just brought in our gear that had accumulated over the years, and bought some stuff we needed.
How was the bassline on "Nerve" achieved?
Just me on a P-Bass, playing around with delay pedals. I used a 70s Fender Bassman.
What's the synth that's heard in the beginning of "Clipping"?
That's the Juno 106 run through an old Yamaha delay rack unit.
What guitars and amps were used for the main riff on the Odd Soul title track?
For most of the record, I used a 70s Princeton amp, a Silvertone 1454, a 70s Fender Tele Deluxe, a ‘67 Gretsch Tennessean and ‘60s 3003 Galanti. But later some Chorus overdubs were done with a Gibson 335 through a Fender Twin.
Many thanks Roy for talking to me. It's been a pleasure.