Michael Finn has assisted producer Tucker Martine on more than 35 albums, by artists including Neko Case, the Decemberists and My Morning Jacket. After working together so closely, it seemed only natural that they’d team up to make a record by the Domestics, Finn’s band with Leo London. Finn and London enlisted Martine to produce Little Darkness, their second LP, a process that found them exploring the full range of possibilities at Martine’s Flora Recording & Playback in Portland, Oregon, with no limitations other than time. Finn, London and Martine talk here about how they came to work together, and why they’re so proud of the results:
Michael: It was about five years ago, I hit Tucker up about an internship, and I think it was one of those right-place, right-time situations. I ended up working on that Warp & Weft record with you and Laura Veirs.
Tucker: In the beginning, Michael didn’t know his way around so much, because I don’t think he’d spent any time in a studio like that, but over time, he picked things up so quickly, had a real sensibility for absorbing the way studios work, and an incredibly musical intuition on top of it. By the time he asked me to come help out on the Domestics record, Michael and I had a shorthand vocabulary developed for things that we both shared a love for, and we were able to just hit the ground running.
Michael: One thing that I pitched to Tucker when we were talking about doing this record was that we could just go to town sound-wise. Anything that Tucker wanted to try, and anything we wanted to look into, there would never be any limitation on that. We wanted to leave no stone unturned in that way. It felt like a true collaboration. There didn’t feel like much of a barrier between Leo and I and Tucker.
Tucker: Leo just had the most incredible batch of songs. His demos were always really compelling in their own right: incredibly lo-fi, often in a way where we had to be really careful that we carried over everything that was already working about the demos. They weren’t just a guy and an acoustic guitar singing the skeleton of the song. In a lot of cases, he went for it, with plenty of layers and cool ideas. It all starts with good songs.
Michael: On “Good, Not Great,” I remember that we listened to the demo and had tracked out a bunch of the basics of the song, and were talking about trying to bring in the demo vocals. We were like, “There’s something about it, there’s probably no way that we could beat it,” and Leo was like, “Why don’t you let me sing it once or twice?”
Tucker: I did love that moment when Leo was like, “Hey, you guys. I’m the one who sang that on the demo, so if you like that, and you want that kind of thing, I know a guy who can do that.” [Laughter] It runs deep sometimes how emotionally attached we get to something the first way we’ve heard it.
Leo: I was glad you guys were into them, because part of the sound of the demos came out of living in an apartment. I’d have to go and record the drums at somebody else’s place on a tape deck, and it would be totally blown out. I’d just put them on a machine and adjust the speed to make loops, because I didn’t have space for anything, so it made this drum-loopy sound the way that it was.
Tucker: That was another thing that made this project special. Michael and I had a long history at that point, and Michael and Leo had a long history, and I had a ton of admiration for Leo and felt like he totally trusted me coming into it. The successful collaborations that I’ve been part of, the key ingredient is mutual trust. When you genuinely have that, there’s no fear about trying anything.
Leo: It was really exciting to work with Tuck, because I had never worked with anybody who let me do all the stupid shit I wanted to try. I was really excited that I would be able to go home and make weird tape loops and stuff and bring them in in the morning and we’d plug them in and pick stuff we liked and laugh about how stupid it was to go as far as I did.
Tucker: Sometimes when were stuck, we would turn to Leo and say, “Got any more of those stupid ideas?” [Laughter]
Michael: One of my favorites of the stupid ideas was bringing in the text-speak app. For “Synthetic Girl,” we tried different things, and one of them was the opening lines of our first record, in this robot voice, and we were able to tuck that into some muted moment. It went from being a pretty good song that definitely had a place on the record to in some ways my favorite song sonically.
Tucker: I just felt the trust was palpable in the room. You can just sense when the first person thinks that maybe it’s done, and often that moment would arrive for all of us at the same time. But as soon as someone is starting to think that way, it’s worth considering, is it done? And if you don’t think it’s done, you need to clearly state a case for why it’s worth spending more time on it. We didn’t have an abundance of time, but also, it’s just kind of poisonous to overwork something, to overly dress something up.
Michael: Once that process started, we were able to very quickly build on it. A lot of that is to Leo’s credit, too, for being very open. Leo’s and my relationship has been based on that mutual trust that Tucker is talking about. Leo gives me an unbelievable amount of room on the songs he writes to throw around ideas and almost adopt them, and almost get obsessed with them. It was almost as if Tuck and I were working on something that was, in my view, the record of my dreams. It was the best-case scenario. I didn’t want to leave.
Leo: We didn’t want to leave the studio for a lot of reasons. [Laughter] It was always fun to have the best musicians that you get to hang out with. Like, Mike and Tucker’s ability to drum, and sensibility about drums, was a huge turn-on.
Tucker: I look for situations where I feel like I have the most to contribute. That’s the most valuable use of my time. And this was clearly one where my hands weren’t going to be tied and the music was going to be the most important thing, but the studio was also going to be a playground. Michael knew all the deep, dark corners of the studio and all the weird little things hiding out there that rarely got used because people maybe thought they were too weird or something. Those were all things I got at some point because I wanted to use them. Michael and I would be in the control room obsessing over some detail and Leo would be off in the corner dusting off some pedal I forgot I had and scheming about how cool it would be if he could make his Rhodes sound like an Atari 2600.
Leo: That thing was so tight.
Michael: It was really cool to be in that studio. As a musician, it felt like an experience I hadn’t had in a long time, and I had the best version of it. Knowing there was that quality control, knowing that Tucker doesn’t work on records he doesn’t believe in. There was no way it was going to be a disaster. He wouldn’t let the songs be done until they were as good as they could be, and that’s such a comfortable feeling, knowing that you’re in good hands that way.
Leo: I feel like I got to learn so much more about the process. I’ve been doing this for a lot of years, but never in the freedom of a studio like that, where you can do what you want and the quality was always there.