From the cutting-edge electronic sounds of Kaskade and John Hancock to the sultry vocals of Becky Jean Williams, Late Night Alumni blend a wide variety of influences and styles in their music. Their latest album, Eclipse, is about to hit the streets next week—and it's got a number of instant well-produced hits such as "Runaway", perfect for the summer and beyond.
We caught up with the uber talented and down to earth John Hancock in his studio over Skype to discuss the album, his studio production gear ad tech and how Late Night Alumni have been transitioning towards live performance.
Ask: I believe you have a classical musical background?
John: Somewhat. My dad sang opera and my mom taught voice and piano. I grew up around music in every way: orchestral and film score music actually. My first record was the Star Wars record on vinyl. I didn't hear rock and roll until I was about 10 or 11 because my parents didn't have it in the house at all.
I played violin through junior high and high school so I always loved classical and orchestral as it was my rock n roll as a Kid. I can't say I had a lot of formal training in classical, but it was my first love.
Ask: What was the first instrument you began expressing music with?
John: Piano. I learned small classical arrangements as a kid probably from when I was 3. I stuck with it until I was 10 and started playing violin. When I heard pop music I got an acoustic guitar and started going down that path.
Ask: Was there a particular band or artists that turned your head?
John: It was the 80s and I just loved everything that was coming through. This is when Queen were still doing big stuff. Then I'd jump to AC/DC and Billy Joel. It was a golden age of eclectic, crazy radio, where you'd hear lots of different music on the same station.
"The 80s were a golden age of eclectic, crazy radio."
Ask: It's funny how now we've got more genres than ever, yet they're all split off.
John: Exactly. It's more compartmentalized than ever. Back then you didn't think anything of liking a Billy Joel song and an AC/DC song. There was no weird categorization, at least not for me.
I've been through music production through the 1990s and the 2000s. So, my tastes have really evolved and changed over time. I've loved lots of singer songwriters like Fiona Apple, Radiohead and then Portishead was a huge one when I got back into programming. I have a hard time finding direct single heroes. I love a lot of different things at the same time and don't feel too intense loyalties to any one genre.
Ask: Is having that ability to get inspiration from a lot of different sources without getting too embedded in one helpful for you with your production path?
John: Absolutely. In my early days when I was trying to make a living doing anything, I'd take any gig I could which included covering a karaoke track of a Disney score by Elton John and picking out the piano parts note for note by ear and learning how to play them. They were both terrible hard work times and also completely invaluable education.
Ask: Did you formalize your training or focus solely on music as your career?
John: Music is all I've ever done. I had some bad part-time telemarketing jobs in my early 20s, but by about 25 I was able to quit and do this full-time. I've never had any other plan or aspiration in my life at all. All I've ever wanted to do since I was a kid was make music. That's what my parents did, so to me it was viable. I didn't have the typical parents telling me to have something else to fall back on, for better or worse.
As far as formalizing, while I played in orchestras the biggest thing for me was to team up with mentors. I teamed up with the local jazz musicians who were 10-15 years older than me and started producing music with them. Just being with them 8 hours a day I learned so much by talking and asking questions and recording them. That was the best education I could've had.
hmmm... guitar, Prophet, Juno 106... what to pick first?
Ask: How did Late Night Alumni start?
John: It was formed as a side project with Kaskade. He and Finn Bjarnson, the other member, were writing other more mellow songs and they brought Becky in as the singer and they brought me in to help flesh things out. After we had a few tracks we decided to call it a band, even though we weren't performing and we were three producers and a girl with a really pretty voice.
Our first album was in 2004, Empty Streets. It was always a fun side project once a year to make a record. It started organically as four friends making music.
Ask: Was it always focused as being studio based and not live?
John: Yes. We never thought of live as Becky's voice is very soft and delicate and we didn't know how it would work in a live situation. We never thought about it until two or three years ago. Our first show was January 2012.
Ask: How was that? Must've been a really interesting experience?
John: We decided to go big for our first show. We had a string quartet, 11 people on stage. A huge production just to kick it off in a way we probably haven't been able to duplicate since. I love to perform and just working with Becky and having her sing louder on stage than she does in the studio we were able to pull it off.
Ask: I've been listening to the new album and your latest single, “Runaway” is lovely. I love the way you introduce the bass line into the track, and I also love “Good Measure”. I was really happy to find your album as electronic dance music fused with songwriting.
John: It's interesting. Becky and I come from bands and song-based music, where Ryan and Kaskade help keep it in the electronic world. That's the fun of having four people who don't come from the exact same background. Becky and I approach it as songs first. A lot of the songs are written with a guitar. Then we'll have enough of a boundary to keep it within that house-style vein. We wouldn't claim it was any specific exact genre. We just write what we write.
Ask: So this makes sense why on many tracks the guitar is still a very prominent part of the sound.
John: Yes, they're not always that way as piano is lead instrument on a lot too. But, yes, some are totally based on an electric guitar like “The This This”.
Ask: When the songwriting process starts, is that a riff or melody on guitar or could it be Becky that comes in with a vocal idea?
John: I don't want to misrepresent that I start everything with guitar, a lot of times it can be piano. Finn and Ryan (Kaskade) are still very much involved with the making of a record, so we all just start throwing MP3s at each other of tracks we're making. I usually start with chord changes regardless of the instrument. Then I'll hum a melody which Becky can completely ignore if she wants. She generally adds 90% of the lyrics and at least half the melodies. So, I'll send her something with me humming and without me. Then she sends something back, many times just recorded into her phone.
You'll find one track on the album called 'In the Middle' where we kept her iPhone vocal recording. It just had a cool, crusty vibe to it. So, we're used to working in our own corners and then bringing it together.
"On 'In the Middle' we kept Vecky's iPhone vocal recording. It just had a cool, crusty vibe to it."
Ask: When it comes together, is that a physical coming together, recording in the same space?
John: When it comes times to cut vocals it's physical. Everything else can be done remotely. This is our fifth album, so we've gotten good at getting good at getting on the phone and throwing files back and forth until it's time to record vocals. Then Becky comes to my house.
Becky and John seems happy to see each other and you!
Ask: Are you planning on touring with the new album?
John: Absolutely! We've been talking about what that means to tour for this album. We've been doing club sets which is just Becky and I. I try to get upfront with the keyboard and I play guitar and violin live to try and shake it up… so that we don't look like—and I don't mean it in a derogatory way—just a DJ with a pretty girl at the front. We're trying to do it more live and we'll produce some shows where we have a drummer and hopefully another guitar or violin player and try and do a truly live show in live environments like the Roxy in LA.
We're just trying to navigate the worlds right now. We like the club worlds, but we'd also love to be on a band stage too. If we can bridge that gap and feel comfortable in both areas that'd be good for us.
Ask: What gear do you use for live shows?
John: When it's me and Becky we use the Novation Launchkey 49. I've got two laptops both running Ableton Live. One runs the main song and then as I have them stemmed out I can mute what I like and then play that part live. I have them stemmed out so I can pick the piano part, mute it and then play it live. Becky's voice is automated via Ableton Live as I have a lot of effects on her.
The second laptop is where I have all my virtual synths that I'm playing as well as Guitar Rig. I then have software running video outputs so I can play out to club screens and have a synchronised video show. So, I'm able to do all that using two MacBook Air! I wanted two as I didn't want to tax any one computer too much for a show as it's too scary.
Ask: I'm surprised and impressed that you're able to get high-quality video and play synths from a MacBook Air live.
John: Well, I don't have any live video effects. It's simple clip playback. It's literally just MIDI triggered clip playback. For me I wanted to be so self-contained. When you walk into any environment it's always going to be so different. So, we have everything. Becky has her own in-ear monitor system. I have my own setup. I literally hand the FOH engineers a stereo left and right for the music and a stereo vocal for Becky.
Ask: So you're confident that the live mix will maintain the integrity to your production?
John: Certainly for ourselves we get the same show in our ears every night which is comforting. I do have to trust that someone will ride the level between her voice and the music properly. I can do it myself but it's hard to do it when playing guitar. Becky isn't a loud singer so fighting feedback is something I'd like to have another set of ear constantly riding and listening to.
Ask: Which interfaces do you use?
John: I have two MOTU UltraLite interfaces. One per laptop and they're both synced with MIDI. I have a four space rack that I carry on the plane with me. It has Becky's monitoring system, the two UltraLites and a power supply single rack.
"I start in Ableton and produce a lot there. I still like tracking lots of instruments and vocals in Pro Tools."
Ask: What about your studio production setup? Is Ableton your DAW of choice in the studio?
John: I spent many years with Digital Performer. I was doing a lot of commercial music work for video. It's still one of the best pieces of software for scoring for film. But, I've been using Pro Tools for years and I picked up Ableton about four years ago and now I'm 50/50. I start in Ableton and produce a lot. But, I still like tracking lots of instruments and vocals in Pro Tools, just because you can't do playlists in Ableton which for me is what tracking multiple takes is all about.
Ask: And for mixing? Pro Tools?
John: It depends. If I'm doing a quick thing I'm fine in Ableton. I'm basically using the same plug-ins in both DAWs. As long as a plug-in has RTAS and VST or AU that's good as I'm still running Pro Tools 10.
Ask: Any reason for not jumping up to 11 or 12?
John: Pro Tools 10 works. I fully believe if you have a system that's working you don't have to jump on every upgrade the second they have it. I'm happy with 10 and I know I'll make the jump eventually.
Ask: Have you ever been tempted by other DAWs?
John: I downloaded the Bitwig BETA though I haven't messed with it much. I really want to learn Logic just because I know people love it. To me, knowing more than one DAW is good, it's like knowing more than one language. It makes your brain approach things differently.
I never have too many dogmatic templates or approaches. I love to reinvent the wheel every time pretty much. It takes longer but I feel I can stay fresh that way.
Ask: Well you'll have to check out the video courses on Logic Pro X at macProVideo and AskVideo then.
John: Yes, I've come across those. One of the greatest changes we've had in the past few years in production has to be being able to find tutorial videos. It's the most valuable tool I think we have now: instant online education!
"There's no one plug-in I feel is the magic bullet for everything."
Ask: What about plug-ins you use?
John: These days I don't treat anything as too precious. There's no one plug-in I feel is the magic bullet for everything. When I pull up a template it's as simple as can be. My audio routing, a click track and a piano. But by the end of a session I find I use iZotope Alloy and Ozone throughout. Alloy is one of my go-to EQs. For synths, I recently got into Serum. I've been using Sylenth for years. I also picked up Synth Master recently and I'm enjoying that. I like not knowing exactly how something works, hitting buttons and finding happy accidents. When I know something too well I end up doing the same thing every time…
John Hancock: " love having to struggle sometimes to find the ADSR in a plug-in, or figure out what the hairy knob on an interface does."
Ask: So you find your workflow becomes predictable?
John: Yes, I love having to struggle sometimes to find the ADSR in a plug-in, or figure out what the hairy knob on an interface does. If I'm in a hurry I hate that, but mostly I enjoy stumbling around. Anything that pulls you out of a comfort thing is good. At the same time I know people with a rigid workflow and they're very successful with it, and they're happy with it. There's no one way to do it but I like happy accidents and fumbling around as much as I can?
"I love having to struggle sometimes to find the ADSR in a plug-in, or figure out what the hairy knob on an interface does."
Ask: What about Finn and Ryan? Are they the same?
John: No. Finn and Ryan have a very good workflow within Pro Tools. Everything's set up in advance and they like to work that way.
Ask: What about hardware?
John: I track a lot of vocals so in the studio now my main vocal microphone is a Brauner VM1. It's at least 15 years old. It's a large diaphragm microphone. I have a Shadow Hills preamp which is really nice. I have a couple of vintage APIs and I hit everything with a Purple Audio 1176 style compressors.
I used to have commercial studio with a big mixing board and lots of channels. But the way it is now as long as I've got one or two really good signal paths in and out that's all I care about. I convert everything with a Crane Song HEDD 192 as my AD/DA. From there I hit a MOTU box via S/PIDF which acts more as my digital I/O. I don't use it for any converting.
For monitors I've got some nice ATC nearfields. I've had them for 6–7 years. I trust them which I think is all that really matters. I've had NS-10s in the past for that smaller sound, but I'm happy with the ATCs. I don't even use a sub anymore. I don't do final mixes on most of my stuff. I still prefer to have a second set of ears to sit with and get a second opinion. That's changed over the past few years.
"I'm the proud owner of an original Roland Juno 106. I bought it when I was 14, my dad co-signed a loan with me!"
Ask: Yes, producers are now expected to do practically everything!
John: I don't mind it, but I still love specialists. I have friends who are absolute mixing and mastering specialists. I love to go to them and get their take.
As far as other hardware, I'm the proud owner of an original Roland Juno 106. I bought it when I was 14, my dad co-signed a loan with me! Even back then it was $1,200 which was a lot of money. I have a Moog Voyager, an original Prophet 5. I also have a Sequential Drum Tracks drum machine. That was my first sequencing machine and then playing the Juno live over it.
As a MIDI controller in the studio I have an AKAI MP88 for the piano feel. Then I've picked up toys too. I have an APC40, APC20, an Ableton Push, and lots of other controllers to have fun with.
Ask: Do you find Push fun to play with?
John: A little bit. It's one of those tools that since I've played keyboard for many years I can't find reasons to play chords on buttons. I totally get why it works. I've had fun using the different scales and then improvising using that. I'm definitely not exploiting its capabilities. I still think in a linear fashion, left to right. Even in Ableton I don't use Session view, just Arrangement view.
Ask: Are there any tips you'd like to share with emerging artists producers?
John: Well, for anyone just getting into it now, what a great time it is to sit and make music. The tools now are so incredible. Just sit and have fun with it. Don't feel obligated to chase what your friends are telling you is cool. You'll find more inspiration in strange territories. Have fun, enjoy it and be fearless. Don't be dogmatic anything in music production (or any sort of art for that matter). It's strange when I see artists becoming dogmatic, which for me is the opposite of what art is.
Ask: Maybe dogmatism comes from wanting to create a sense of hierarchy or one correct way of being?
John: I think it's a sense of safety. You know if I use this kick and this synth I'll have “success”! So knowing something works means you just save the template and use the same recipe in 20 productions because that's the winning kick! Sure, it might work but that's not fun.
Ask: What are your touring plans for the new album?
John: We'd love to make it to Europe sometime. We went to Asia last year and Taiwan twice which is one of our biggest fan markets. We're hoping to get back and spend more time there and then we'll tour America. We'd love to branch out to South America and Europe.
Ask: Thanks John. Looking forward to the new album and wish you best of success with it and the tour.