When it comes to production, DC artist Roger Poulin, aka Binding Spell, is a proponent of making do with what you have. Though his new album English Basement makes him sound like an interstellar voyager moving at time-dilating speeds, voice echoing off space capsule walls, it gets its name from the underground apartment he’s been confined to since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic–a modest setup, but with everything he needed to construct a pocket post-punk universe.
Speaking over Zoom, Poulin shows me around the basement recording space: the corner desk where he set up guitars for direct injection, the $99 practice amp he sometimes played through, and the rack compressor nestled between pillows and blankets on the shelf of his closet vocal booth. “I did a lot of DI stuff for this album because I didn’t really have a choice,” he laughs. “My neighbors are right up there, so I didn’t want to turn up a tube amp all the way during the middle of a pandemic when they couldn’t even leave.”
Afterwards, he shelled out for a better direct box (the Torpedo Captor X, to be precise) allowing him to record his Vox AC15 silently. But what he already had in abundance on English Basement was time–time to process his recent divorce and to make his home recordings sound as good as the classics, perfecting spiraling guitar jams for spiraling states of mind. And then, ultimately, time to reach out to the friends and collaborators who could help bring everything in for a landing.
English Basement is available to stream and download now, with vinyl copies on preorder. Before the release, Poulin spoke to The All Scene Eye about the process of dialing in a sound he could be proud of.
Well over a year from the start of the pandemic, how are you holding up?
It’s better than it was. That was a whole trip of a thing, but you know, it’s also kinda weird getting back into society. Have you found that too? It’s like a whole new set of anxieties that I forgot that I had about being out in public and seeing people.
I’m way more exhausted by it than I feel like I used to be. My first weekend of being fully vaccinated and having waited two weeks, you know, my partner and I went out and saw both our sets of parents, and then the next two weeks, we just couldn’t find the energy to do anything.
Yeah, I just was in Boston visiting family and friends and stuff like that, and I saw what felt like everyone I’ve ever known from my childhood through now, and I’m ready to just be back in my apartment again for, I dunno, maybe a month or so? [laughs]
This album, English Basement, had a very distinct starting point in your telling, which is that you started working the very first day of lockdown.
Yeah, definitely. That was also my–well, the day after my birthday. I’d had a whole party planned and stuff like that, with lots of people who were supposed to come from out of town, and as it gradually got more and more apocalyptic-feeling leading up to that date, I was like, “Oh, shoot, I have to tell people, ‘don’t come.’ This is gonna be bad.” Then lockdown day happened, and I was like, “Alright, you know what? This could be long, and I better start working on something so that I don’t lose my shit.” [laughs]
What do you remember about that first time sitting down to work?
I remember feeling a little jittery and kind of panicky, but also the energy behind it made it so that I had–I think I worked for, like, 12 hours in that first go, just being like, “Alright, we’re gonna make this happen and really kick this off.” It was already so eerily quiet outside every time I opened my front door. Like, no cars were moving, people not moving around. I live on a pretty busy street in Capitol Hill, Eighth Street, and that’s kind of a main corridor between Eastern Market and H Street, so to look outside and there’s, like, no one there? I was like, “Alright, I’m not gonna look out there.” [laughs] “I’m gonna just get back to recording.” That was back when we still didn’t know how bad it was gonna be, you know? Like, how deadly it was gonna be, or contagious, so people were afraid. I don’t know if you remember–on the sidewalk, if someone was coming towards you, the right thing to do was cross the street.
And then just listening to records that I had been listening to and being like, “Okay, these are some of the sounds I’ll choose,” and almost choosing the sound palette for the record itself. I feel like when I record stuff, I have to limit myself because it’s so easy to get lost in sounds these days. You gotta do that self-limitation to decide what the record’s gonna sound like, so I think I did that that day too. Otherwise you’ll get lost in all these plugins, or like, infinite synth sounds if you want to, you know?
Tell me more about that. What were you listening to and what were the parameters you started to choose?
I mean, it’s stuff that everyone–not everyone, but tons of people. I was listening to a lot of New Order at the time. I was really into that, but also some stuff that’s on–do you know Trouble In Mind Records?
No, I’ll look that up.
I think you might really like it if you like my sort of stuff, but specifically Ultimate Painting was a big one, so I was like, “Alright, I’m gonna get a cool, clean-ish guitar sound.” I feel like I was listening to a lot of Kurt Vile around that same time too, so I tried to smash all those things together to some degree. I don’t know if that turned out that way [laughs] but that was at least the thought process.
That’s cool–I love that you said New Order because that was my obsession last year. I don’t know why, but I was almost exclusively listening to New Order when I wasn’t doing blog-related things.
I love them so much. I come back to them every three or four years, I feel like, and then just listen to them a ton. They never get old. If anything, I feel like they continue to age well, you know what I mean?
Yeah, it’s very timeless. Continues to be influential.
Definitely, so that was kind of where I was at. And then it was also weirdly listening to a lot of 90s pop, but I don’t think I incorporated that. That was more like a comfort thing. [laughs]
What kind of stuff?
I weirdly have a lot of love for the Backstreet Boys, but also Timbaland, his hip-hop productions, that sort of stuff, which in my head I guess I lump into 90s pop. That all kind of blended together in the 90s for me when I was a kid.
So you start working on these sounds, you start bringing things together. What was the first song that started to solidify from that process?
It was that song “Sounds Like This,” the very driving–the bass is a synth, rather than an actual bass. That was the one that I started working on day one, and that was the one that came together the fastest and made me be like, “Okay, I can make a whole thing out of this, I think.” Like, “It can be a whole record.”
Something I’ve read about these songs is that they’re more focused on personal subjects than what was going on in the world. But it is kind of encompassing all of that too. You know, that song opens, “It’s apocalypse on your lips.” It works on multiple levels.
Yeah, I mean, I’m sure you read that I was going through a pretty bad separation at the time, and when I was initially going through that, there was all that catastrophic thinking, you know? It’s an apocalypse in your life, but then also, “Oh, shit, like, literally.” [laughs] “It’s getting bad out there too.” So, thank you for picking up on that. That was definitely what I was going for there.
You’ve been part of a lot of other bands in the past and made music different ways. Was this a new paradigm for you, just sitting in your corner with your DI guitar?
[laughs] I’d done it before a little bit. I released a Binding Spell EP a few years ago that I’m less happy with than this album. Still not totally embarrassed by it, though, so I’ll leave it up there, but that was not quite as exactly this way as this was. I still had a rehearsal space that I could go into and had a little more flexibility in terms of what I could do, so yeah, this was pretty much the first time that it was just me and just my room trying to make it happen as well as I could.
Tell me about getting into this process, learning how to make it work.
It sure was helpful to have all the time. It felt like all the time in the world to just tweak knobs and make tiny changes until I was like, “Okay, that’s the sound I want.” Not close, but exactly on, you know what I mean? It was like, “Alright, yeah, now I’m dialed in.” Whereas before, I’d be almost impatient and in a rush to get a take that would be acceptable, and figure I can make sure when it gets mixed that it’s good enough. For this one, I really was a lot more patient with how things were sounding, and now I’m even more nitpicky on the stuff that I’m working on again. I’ll probably look back on this one and be like, “Oh yeah, but that one, that wasn’t good enough. This one, now I really have it dialed in.” But yeah, that first EP, some of it just felt a little bit rushed, and like I was ok enough with things rather than focusing on really being stoked about it.
Is there a track on this album that stands out to you as being really emblematic of that feeling that you got things exactly how you wanted them?
I feel like the title track, “English Basement.” I remember really specifically the guitar tones on that one. I think I spent, like, hours not recording anything and just trying to get that guitar sound correct even though I was going direct in with it. Then I worked with the mix engineer who made it even better, so it was like, “Oh, okay, cool, I thought I was doing great, but man, whatever you did was really rad.” Probably EQ and stuff.
Yeah, if you’re going direct in, are you just working with plugins and things to try and make it sound how you want it?
Yeah, and I’m a proponent of, like, work with what you have, you know? Cheap gear is kind of my thing as much as I can. I was using mostly stock plugins and stuff like that in Logic, including for the guitar amps, and just spending a lot of time tweaking them, putting compression on them, getting the EQ as close as possible to what I thought sounded really good. But I did show you that little $99 amp over there that I would sometimes go into and then line out into the interface, and those were some cool sounds that I got from that. But it’s actually a lot better now that I have that [Torpedo Captor X] I was showing you, so [laughs] that’s what I mean. I’m going to be chasing that sound for the rest of my life, probably.
That track is interesting too, though, because I read that you used lyrics from past projects you’d been part of.
I was definitely feeling very nostalgic. The whole thing gave you a lot of time, or at least me a lot of time, to think about people and things that had happened in my past, and those specific three lines were from three specific past band members who had written those lines. They were each from my favorite song that I recall them writing that we then did not finish–like, that we never got to record, or that never came out that I really wish sort of had. Except for then one of those dudes blew that whole concept up by recording and releasing one of those songs, so [laughs] now–
[laughs] Everybody had time.
Yeah, but that’s what that was, and the rest of that song relates to a lot of other people in my life. It was just very nostalgic, thinking about people who were really important to me who maybe I’ve lost touch with, or, you know, hadn’t talked to as much in many years.
Have you shared that with them and gotten to reconnect over that?
I’ve tried to. I haven’t really been able to get a hold of them as well as I would’ve liked to, so, kinda no, but maybe they’ll hear the song and then be like, “Yo man, what the fuck? You took my line!” And then I can talk to them about it. [laughs]
There were some collaborations on this record, though. What was it like bringing other people onto this project that was so insular?
So for those people who collaborated and kinda ended up on it, two of those people I’ve never even actually met in person. My buddy Eric [Schneider] who lives down the street, he’s a neighbor, and we’ve been friends since we were in a band together a few years ago–he started collaborating remotely, but then we also formed a COVID pod, so he was one of the few people that I would actually see in person. He would come over and start layering stuff. He makes his guitar sound so much like a synth–it’s really cool, and I can’t do that, so I was like, “You gotta be on here.” And then these are some of his friends that he was also in bands with back in the day. He lived in Little Rock and Boone and stuff like that, but now these guys live, I think, in Portland, Oregon. I’m not sure whereabouts they all are, but we started talking about how it would be cool to have a recording collective where we can all contribute to each other’s stuff, which we have now sort of set up. This was one of the first instances of, “Alright, these people are just kinda out there, and they’re gonna be able to play on the record.”
We used Pibox. It works really well for what we’re doing, and everyone who’s collaborating seems to be doing some pretty cool stuff with it, so I’m excited to see what comes out of that. It was awesome to just kind of put the songs on there and be like, “Here’s the parts. I want it to kinda go like, braaaang!” And they would just come back, and it’d be like, “Yep, that’s perfect.” Like, “You did it right.” [laughs] And then I had my good friend Sara [Philips] do vocals on a couple of the tracks.
You mentioned the guitars that Eric was doing, the synth-sounding things. Where did those end up on the record?
At the end of “Sounds Like This,” there’s these big, distorted-sounding parts, but then there’s this little run down riff that kinda goes like [singing riff]. I don’t wanna–okay. You know what I’m talking about, maybe. [laughs]
Yeah, so that’s him, and he might be on “Negative Instinct” also, kind of drone-y sounding parts that build and expand.
There’s such a sense of isolation in this record. “Living is Just Dreaming” is about this feeling like you don’t even exist, and that comes up on “Sunrise Get You Down” also. “Do you perceive me? / I’m just a ghost floating across the ceiling.” When did that start to set in and become a theme of this album?
Well, it’s interesting because I feel like those are similar concepts, but those are about two different things. The “Living Is Just Dreaming” stuff has a lot to do with that sense of isolation, and I didn’t form that COVID pod until maybe June or July 2020, so for that whole period I didn’t see friends or family or anything like that in person, it started getting very–I don’t know, I wanna say dissociative. I was like, “What’s going on here? What’s the date? Where am I? What am I doing? Am I even a person?” I would call my brother and be like, “I feel weird. Like, I don’t know if I’m a person.” And he’d have to be like, “You’re a person, dude.” [laughs]
So it was about six months in or so, and it really did have this surreal strangeness to it that it’s kinda hard to articulate. It really felt a lot of the time just very dreamlike being in this apartment so often, not really going anywhere or doing anything, and having the time to just think, but also I was getting weird with it. The “do you perceive me” ghost part is more reflecting on when I was still living with my ex-partner, and I felt very much so that I had just become like a fixture. Like something that’s sometimes there, but maybe you don’t even see it.
Something that I’ve also read from you is that you set out to this album knowing that you wanted there to be an arc to it. When you look at it now, how does it compare to your vision?
It’s definitely not as much of a chronological arc as I originally thought it would be because when it then became time to sequence the album, they’re not in that sort of sequence. But I do still think that it bends and twists back on itself, you know? Like, the last song on the album relates to something that happened way earlier than the first or second song, but they still have that thematic arc. I feel like you picked up on it a little bit with “Living Is Just Dreaming” having those similar themes, but from different places, and “Living Is Just Dreaming” is later than “Sunrise Get You Down.”
I did notice the way it’s divided–you have four songs, “Intermission,” four more songs. It’s sort of split down the middle. Was that an intentional setup?
For sure, and maybe it kind of is reverse chronological order. Like, it starts at the present and then travels through the past. Yeah, actually, that sorta tracks, now that I think about it. [laughs]
There’s a lyric on that “Intermission” I love where you say, “Don’t you ever say we’ve hit rock bottom / there’s no goddamn bottom / it’s perpetual freefall.”
Yeah, Eric wrote that one, actually. I was like, “Aw, man, should this song be an instrumental?” And he was messing around with it, and then he came up with that line, and I was like, “Well, that super fits on the album.” Like, “That’s really good.” It really encapsulates both that outer experience of, “Things are kind of messy and the world is falling apart a little bit,” along with that inner experience of, “Well, things have gone to shit personally as well.”
When did you ultimately end up finishing this album and getting it how you wanted it to be sequence-wise?
It was probably around August of last year, and I was done with the songs. Like, I knew that they were finished, I didn’t need to record anything more, and then it was just endlessly tweaking them and not being–I’m not really a mix engineer, you know? I’ve discovered that especially with my own stuff, I just need to have another person do it because I will futz with it forever, and I was never happy with it until I contacted that guy Ben Etter, and I was like, “Hey man, are you interested in working on this?”
He agreed to, and then once he started sending back initial mixes, I was like, “Oh, okay, now I can finally start to sequence this, finally start to know how the record is gonna be front to back and as a whole.” I had Sara come over too, and we listened through and decided maybe where the songs should sit. It was really helpful to have her perspective on it. I think the final sequencing of it came together in November 2020, and then I sat on them for a while, not really sure what I wanted to do until maybe February, and I was like, “Alright, I like this album, and I think it’s good. I’m gonna press it to vinyl.”
I got the test pressings at the beginning of June, I think. Right now, I’m sure you’re aware, but vinyl is taking forever to produce–like, super backed up, so even though I decided I wanted to do it back in February or March, I contacted the people who I wanted to work with, and they were like, “Cool, we can have you test pressings by June.” And I was like, “Oh, okay.”
June it is. [laughs]
[laughs] Yeah, I was like, “Alright, that’s when I’m gonna start getting ready to release this.” It’ll come in September, but I’ve now had other people listen to it too on the test pressings, and it sounds pretty awesome. I’m really happy about it.
I realize I’ve never asked anybody this. What is it like getting a test pressing of your album and sitting down to listen to it that way?
I was super excited, but there’s always that anxiety–I think every artist has some ego stuff, and I was like, “Aw, man, this better be good, or otherwise, what have I done?” [laughs] So I was very nervous, but also pretty excited, and like, had listened to it myself once, and I was like, “Oh yeah, this is cool,” and then I had, like, four people where we sat down and checked it out, who all were like, “Alright, this sounds good. It’s a good move.”
Seeing as this is an album that comes from such a difficult separation and something that happened last year, what has it been like sitting with those songs? Has your relationship to this project changed over time?
Yeah, now that I’m done with it and the physical copies are gonna be available pretty soon, I’m like, “How did I even do that?” I feel like I barely remember. It’s like a thing unto itself now. Like, I put so much work into it and so much time, but also, sometimes I feel like I barely remember making it, so it’s kinda cool for it to be a piece of work or an object that I feel almost separated from at this point. Especially ’cause I feel so personally different than I did when I was making it.
Oh, I mean, I’m definitely not feeling upset about that separation anymore. Society’s opening back up again, the pandemic hopefully–fingers crossed, given the variants–is maybe winding down, so now there’s just the future to look at and figure out what happens there.
Have you been able to play any of these songs live at any point over the last year?
[laughs] No, not really. I did a little live acoustic performance a few weeks ago and I have some other stuff that’s solo coming up. I just finally recruited a drummer, and we’re gonna practice for the first time in, like, a week or so. These particular songs I don’t think are super conducive to playing acoustic, aside from maybe a handful of them, but I’m hoping in the fall, get a decent group together and we can play some stuff out around that time.
What does the future hold for Binding Spell?
The good news is I think I have about four songs for a new album in the works that are pretty advanced stages of recording, so maybe start getting those mixed, and I hope to release another album in early 2022 if possible, then get a band together, start playing shows, probably in this area, at least at first. Maybe play some shows further afield at some point. I don’t know, but definitely keep releasing music, keep recording, and take it from there. Especially with everything I’ve learned from that experience, I think I’ll be able to really start–I don’t want to say cranking it out because that makes it sound like I don’t care, but producing faster, you know?