To say Gordon Raphael is the man behind the album you probably listened to over and over in 2003 is to say the least. The New Yorker now based in Berlin produced some of the greatest records of the early decade, including the first two Strokes albums and Regina Spektor’s well-loved Soviet Kitsch. He’s mixed and worked with several bands in his East Village basement studio Transporterraum where many legends have passed through, as well as where Is This It by The Strokes came to life.
The reaction to The Strokes Is This It in 2001 New York City was explosive. It was the Big Bang heard around the world, and Raphael’s role in it was essential. At the call of Julian Casablancas, their sound was meant to resonate as both parts nostalgic and futuristic, and it was a vision up to Raphael by how much – and how little – he did to it. A sound that, even to this day, garage bands still try to mimic, it’s iconic status has endured time and time again.
Now he’s focused on a new project – his own album, several years in the making. Raphael’s sound is radically different from those he helped envision and create, but no less intriguing. “Substitute Music” is a track off of his upcoming release that he recorded with two bands in Argentina. The music video is an invitation into Raphael’s own headspace and world of his making. As he told Noisey, “”There were two concepts I had in my mind when I invented this particular piece. The first was to try to create a song that would be very difficult (if not impossible) to talk over by audience members or listeners while it was being played. I tried to accomplish this by having one loud abrasive note playing on repeat through the whole song from beginning to end! I named it ‘Substitute Music’ because I wanted it to be something that was played when normal music was not appropriate.” Watch the video below:
As a longtime Strokes fan, it was an honor to be able to chat with Gordon about his experiences. We discussed the process behind “Modern Girls & Old-Fashioned Men”, the magic behind The Strokes fifteen years on, and almost being a member of Nirvana (so many people can say that, right?)
VANESSA (HIGHLARK): Thank you for taking the time to chat. I write for Highlark as well as an online magazine I co-founded called Modern Girls, which is actually based off of The Strokes song of the same name. To say you have had an impact on my world is to say the least.
GORDON RAPHAEL: Oh wow. I love that song too.
VANESSA: So, I am obliged to ask this first and foremost… given the intensity of the lyrics and raw emotions of ‘Modern Girls & Old-Fashioned Men’, I am interested to know what the behind-the-scenes process of getting to that headspace was?
GORDON: A lot of the best part of that question I’m not qualified to answer, because I only recorded the song. I have some interesting perspectives on the recording because it was a very unusual event for many reasons. I will say that I come from Seattle even though I’m a New Yorker – I had a big career there as a musician before I moved to New York as a producer and met The Strokes. So, at one point I had a fantasy that I wanted The Strokes to go to Seattle and record there at a friends studio called Bear Creek, which is an awesome studio in the middle of the wilderness. It turned out that they were going to play in Seattle on their “Room on Fire” tour with the Kings of Leon and Regina Spektor. I conspired with the owners of that studio and said, “hey, The Strokes have two days off while they’re in Seattle. What if we give them free time to record a song for fun just to find out how great it is to record here?” The band agreed and everything was set up. The band arrives, I go “Ok, Julian, what are we doing?” He says, “I’ve written a song for me and Regina to sing together.” That was not at all what I expected. A duet was not something The Strokes had ever done before. So we were on a farm in the middle of Seattle and then he sprung that on me before recording the song. I’d also add that they wanted to do their vocals outside on the grass by a bunch of trees instead of in the studio, I’m sure you’ve seen it on the internet, the picture of Julian and Regina singing on the lawn.
VANESSA: Yes! So that was their decision, to record outside?
GORDON: Yeah, they just said “hey, can we go outside?” So I asked the studio owner, “can we take these incredible vintage mics of yours outside?” And the owner, really cool guy named Joe Hadlock, said yeah, sure, they’ve done it before, so it was cool.
VANESSA: With both Strokes albums, you managed to capture the feeling of what its like to be young and living in New York, amongst many other things. What was the process behind capturing that?
GORDON: I guess it was a feeling at the time and I guess I was intelligent enough and had enough of a manifesto to not get in the way of that process. I think I produced it to just the amount that was necessary but I didn’t try to do extra things, or make it anything more than it was. I think there’s something golden about that.
VANESSA: Definitely. You recently said, “The Strokes are one of many that make me committed, every day, to the powerful sacred majesty contained in song and lyrics.” It hit me because myself and many others feel the same way – why do you think this is? How do you think they have kept this magic that still enchants crowds the same way it did fifteen years ago?
GORDON: I’d like to think that in a world that’s full of really cheap and cheesy stuff – things that are touted as having value but don’t have much value – I think good songwriting, good lyrics, and something innovative and original had a chance to shine and people still respond to that. It’s the same thing as to why people like me are still listening to Sgt. Pepper, or Beethoven, or Led Zeppelin – things like that. There’s something incredibly powerful and important. It’s rare that something so good with such quality actually connects with the masses and they value it. I’ve met many musicians who are brilliant songwriters but they never get the chance for their music to go out the front door or down the street, let alone around the world. It’s the odd combination of something high quality that really does connect to people’s hearts around the world. I’m very happy, of course, to be a part of that particular one.
VANESSA: Another band that it’s kind of in that same world is The Libertines. What can you tell me about your experience with almost producing their first record?
GORDON: I went and did their live sound on their first tour of the UK, which was interesting because they opened some shows for The Strokes. I guess the first time I heard The Libertines they sent me some demos that sounded like old-fashioned English music, before rock and roll even. I didn’t really get it and I didn’t really care for it – they asked me to produce it and I said I didn’t think so because I didn’t know what I could do with that kind of music. Then about eight months later, I went to visit London and they asked me to produce their album and I went to their rehearsals and I was completely blown away by how they had changed and how great they were. I thought they were one of the coolest bands I’d seen at the time.
VANESSA: So you mentioned you’re originally from Seattle, you then made a name for yourself in New York and then moved to London and now Berlin. What about the Berlin music scene appealed to you the most?
GORDON: I actually didn’t come here for the music scene. I came here because the two cities I was really caning it in, New York and London, were getting really expensive to live in and I also wasn’t hearing very interesting music coming out. By the mid-2000s, that spark of genuine indie sound was getting all high-produced and glossy and major-label and a little bit of what we’re trying to escape to begin with – corporate rock. It was happening in New York and it was happening in London and it wasn’t a place for me. Right at that time, someone said “hey, prices are low to rent an apartment in Berlin.” So I just came for a little space to get myself together and set up all my music equipment and have some fun.
VANESSA: Sick. You’ve given some classes there from time to time as well, right?
GORDON: Yeah, I sometimes give some master classes, but I’ve done that in Mexico and Argentina and, you know, sometimes England as well.
VANESSA: I remember reading somewhere that in 1989, you were invited to be a part of Nirvana but you turned it down. Can you tell me more about this?
GORDON: Being from Seattle and having come up through the Seattle scenes, one of my friends there who was a fellow musician turned out to be the president of Sub PopRecords later in his life, Jonathan Poneman. John told me when I was living in New York in 1989, “hey, we just signed a band called Nirvana and they’re kind of cool and they’re doing their first show in New York at a small club, Pyramid. I’ll give you some free passes, go check them out, you’ll probably like them.” So I saw them and it was a really great show, I really liked them. It wasn’t my favorite show I’ve ever seen in my life by any means but I thought it was cool.
Then, around that time in my life, let’s just say I had a very bad drug problem – which was something that happened to everyone who moved from Seattle to New York. Everyone who moved from Seattle to New York wound up with a bad drug problem in the East Village. So on the way every day for one week to get my drugs I had to pass the corner of 7th and Avenue A and there on these steps were sitting the members of Nirvana, every single time. They were just sitting there smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. I recognized them from the show but I didn’t know them from Seattle and they didn’t know me. I also felt bad because I looked really terrible at the time – I looked ‘worse for the wear’, shall we say. About the fifth time I passed them, Kurt yelled to me and said, “hey, are you from Seattle?” I looked at him and said yes. He asked me if I play guitar and I told him I played keyboard and guitar. He asked what kind of guitar and I said I used a lot of effects and pedals and echos. He said, “that’s cool, because we’re getting rid of one of our guitar players and we’re going to Europe and we need someone to fill in. Would you want to come with us?” I thought for a minute, I thought “well, my drugs are on this block and if I leave this city I’m going to be in very bad shape and I won’t be able to do anything.” So that was my first thought. My second thought was, “you know, I’m working on my own music and as cool as Nirvana was (and this was well before they were famous), I didn’t really want to be in someone else’s band playing someone else’s songs.” Mostly relying on the first case, I said no thanks but thanks anyway.
Of course, I moved back to Seattle during the grunge revolution and I had a band there that was signed called Sky Cries Mary. About six months or so before Kurt died they played a thank-you show to their Seattle friends and family in a really small bar – this was at their height of their fame and In Utero was already out, I think. They were already the number one band in the world. They played at a small bar called the Crocodile. My band was part of the Seattle scene so we got invited. I went there and saw Kurt all alone at the bar, drinking a beer. I worked up my nerve and I went over there and tapped him on the shoulder and said, “hey, Kurt, I got a question. Do you remember in 1989 on the corner of 7th and Avenue A when you asked me to be in your band?” and he looked sad and said “no, I don’t remember”. But I remember.
VANESSA: I’m assuming you don’t have any regrets about this?
GORDON: No, no. I like Nirvana very much but they’re not my favorite Seattle band. I like Alice in Chains, Soundgarden just as much. I certainly respect them and I’m a fan.
VANESSA: What projects are you currently working on that you’re excited about? I know you just recorded with Hinds, when will we get to hear that?
GORDON: I just did an audition with them. I recorded two songs in Madrid this week. So if things go well, and I’m crossing my fingers, I’m going to do their album and I’ll find out sometime soon and that’s all I can tell you right now. It was really fun – they’re an amazing group of young people.
My big project is that I made my own album. I had two bands in Argentina and I recorded both of them and put the songs together on this album and I’ve been working on it for about a year and half. Sometime in early 2017 I’m going to release the first single and I made a video for it, so that’s one of the main things I’m excited about right now. I’m working with a cool band from Leipzig, Germany, called JUNE COCO, and that’s a very interesting project. I’ve been mixing a lot for certain bands this year, like TheBritanys. That’s pretty much all that’s going on at the moment.