Gabby Bianco and Jason Rosen were in other bands when they first met — she was the lead singer of electronic trio TEMP3ST, and he played guitar and keyboards in the pop-rock group Honor Society. The two bands shared a rehearsal space and “when we would overlap, we started jamming together,” Bianco recalls. “It was a happy accident,” Rosen agrees.
Now, as Smoke Season, the Los Angeles-based pair make music that defies easy categorization. While their 2014 debut EP, ‘Hot Coals Cold Souls’, flirted with folk ethereality and desert-rock twang, their forthcoming debut album, Sensudentity, is a more hook-laden affair, with interwoven male/female vocal loops and grooves that nod to the reggae and rocksteady rhythms of the biracial Rosen’s Jamaican roots.
At Bedrock.LA Studios in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles, where they’re finishing up work on Sensudentity with producer/bassist Andrew Furze and mixing engineer Todd Bergman (who was also on hand for the interview), Bianco and Rosen previewed samples from their new Sounds.com pack. They also discussed some of the ways software like GUITAR RIG and RETRO MACHINES has freed up their creative process, and how Bianco found her voice as a female producer in the still male-dominated world of pro recording studios.
When you started making music together, was there any conversation about what sound you were going for? Or was it more organic and just seeing what happens?
Jason: Very organic.
Gabby: Yeah, there was literally no conversation.
Jason: When we write even now, we communicate through the music. I’ll start playing something, she’ll play some chords on top of it. We don’t even talk: “Oh, what chord is that?” We’re just using our ears and from there we just find the tonalities.
When you’re just beginning a song, is it usually Jason on guitar and Gabby, you on a keyboard?
Gabby: It really varies. This album in particular, songs have been inspired by samples or patches. On the past EPs, it was riffs or lines that would inspire songs. But I’ve started to become more adept at production, and also I got a Dave Smith Instruments endorsement, so I have a Prophet-6 now, so I make a lot of my patches analog.
Yeah, I saw a Jam in the Van video you guys did where I noticed one of your synths was a Prophet. That’s a pretty awesome toy to have.
Gabby: It’s so awesome. I’m in love. I feel like I’ve tapped into 10 percent of its capabilities.
Based on the singles you’ve released so far — “Sweetest Thing,” “Wolves” and “Good Days” — to me, they sound more melody-driven than your earlier stuff. Would you agree with that?
Gabby: I had vocal cord surgery in 2016. So for about a year, I was really struggling vocally. It was like driving a car in the sand. Since getting surgery and having to go silent for like a month, I had to relearn how to sing and I feel like I’m so much more powerful — not in terms of loudness, but control. So vocally, I just feel like I have the full flexibility now to write more advanced melodies — top-lines that I can execute.
Jason: And I think we’re definitely more groove-oriented. We’ve moved into really loving grooves and rhythms. I’ve tapped into my Jamaican background and this rocksteady, kind of reggae feel came about naturally through that process. So you’ll hear a lot of that in the music. It has almost like an island, palm trees kind of feel to it.
Gabby, you mentioned that you use your Prophet-6 now a lot in the studio. At what point in the process does software come into play?
Gabby: From the start of songs, sometimes. For example, one of the songs on the new album, “Drenched,” has this departure from the main melody.
Jason: Yeah, this whole outro thing, that’s a totally different part.
Gabby: The whole song is about sex, so that part is symbolic of like leading up to a climax. But the patch came from Retro Machines MK II. That is the spine of that whole part. It’s deep. When we were mixing, it was eating all the frequencies. It was like, “I am the biggest thing!” But it creates this really beautiful warmth, almost like a bed or a womb, or this heartbeat throbbing.
Jason: Yeah, it surrounds you.
Gabby: In the past, we used to write in our rehearsal space. He was glued to his guitar, I was glued to my keyboards. It was almost like we were writing through performance. And now we have shifted the way that we write and it’s actually way more enjoyable for us. We conceptualize, we rely on software a little bit more. We can have my Prophet or whatever, but that’s a tool amongst lots of tools.
There’s two places Native Instruments will touch, or software in general — either when we’re building out the synths, because I’m not glued to only using the Prophet. Or when we’re mixing. Like we pretty much always use Guitar Rig — we could use hardware and Jason’s amp and stuff like that, but sometimes it’s like —
Jason: It’s nice to have the flexibility to adapt it, as opposed to recording it with pedals. Then you’re pretty much locked in.
Gabby: And then Todd, our mixing engineer, wants to kill us.
Jason: “Aw man — that reverb’s like, a lot.” [Laughs]
Todd: Typically in the process, they’ll usually bring us a Logic session they’ve cooked up at home and then we’ll kind of build around that. Maybe we’ll tweak some of their parameters a little bit in Guitar Rig and bring the reverb from like 10 to 7, and maybe time out the delay, and then we’ll print everything down and it winds up in Pro Tools.
Gabby: When he says we bring him a Logic session, pretty much everything we write, we have produced as a demo. And we come in with stems. A lot of musicians I talk to have been doing this lately — especially the women. Because a lot of times — and not because you guys aren’t amazing — in the past, working with male producers, we feel like our ideas are not being heard, or we don’t know how to communicate them confidently. So a lot of women now have started producing their own demos.
I have a story that is quintessential to this. When we were in London, we went into this gorgeous studio. It has all these analog synths, everything from an analog spring reverb to all these Moogs —
Jason: A Linn drum machine.
Gabby: It’s beautiful. And the engineers who work there have been working there for years. They know how to use each of the synths to get a certain sound. And they were so quick that I realized they were doing parts of the writing. Because I was like, “I think it needs a soft pad kind of thing.” And then the engineers would go, “What about this sound?” Or, “This is the sound we used for James Blake.” And all of a sudden, the pad was written. And I started getting quieter and quieter until at some point, like an hour or two into it, I was like, “No, sit.”
But it was really interesting, because I think now we’re in a time in the industry, which I’m really grateful for, where women are encouraging each other to use their voices in technical realms. So even though my knee-jerk reaction from years of experience was a bad habit of “get quieter, get quieter” until you’re not heard, I was like, “No, wait, we’re not doing that anymore.” And it wasn’t borne out of misogyny or anything like that. That engineer was literally just trying to be super-helpful. But I realized, “Oh, wait, I gotta use my voice.”
Can you talk a little bit about what you’re putting together for your Sounds.com sample pack?
Jason: Yeah, we took a lot of the elements from “Sweetest Thing.” Everything from the kick, snare, hi-hat — some of the loops, too. The vocal chops, all the vocal samples.
Gabby: “Sweetest Thing” has basically an entire solo of me playing vocal samples like that. And all those will be in that Sounds.com pack. And the way we do them, we try to keep them messy. We want it to feel more like a Beck thing, like that Guero album, than to have it be super precise. [She plays a vocal “chop” sample from a song called “Hot Damn”] I probably did that with my built-in microphone. I want it to sound like shit, sort of, and be all clipping and stuff. It gives it a dirtier feel.
Anything you want to tell people about the album you’re working on?
Gabby: The new album is called Sensudentity — it’s a mixture of sensuality and identity. Jay went on his identity journey, I went on my sensuality journey.
Jason: There’s definitely some different shades on it.
Gabby: We wanted to make people move, and we wanted to make people want to make love.
Get the new Smoke Season Sounds.com pack now.
main and sub images: Derek Bremner
studio shots: Shane Lopes