Nikolai Fraiture, bassist for legendary rock band The Strokes and frontman for Summer Moon shares some of his favorite synths, favorite memories in the studio and more below.
Synth History: What got you into synths and what are some of your favorites?
Nikolai: I was exposed to synths early on while making music in different studios in NYC. That’s how I discovered the Juno and the Prophet. But the funny thing is that The Strokes were such punk purists in the beginning. If we couldn’t play it live together, we wouldn’t record it. So a lot of the synths were fun to play around with but we never put them to tape, or hard drive, back then.
When we were looking for a synth sound, I tapped it out on Evening Sun. I was listening to Victor Wooten’s A Show of Hands where the whole album is him playing the fretboard like a synth. Or we turned the EQ all the way down on the guitar amp to emulate the classic Cars synth sound on 12:51. Our first two albums were all grit and grime, my bass strings rarely got changed. Sweat and dirt from small club shows filled the grooves of my round wounds.
Then for our third album, we recorded with David Kahne who introduced us to the concept of a sound field: a kind of 3-D vision of what comes out of your speakers. Left to Right, Front to Back and everything in between. My mind was blown. This idea of depth and balance had never occurred to me when writing or recording. On our first two albums, we had some basic mic set ups and were more or less panned like we were onstage. We would blast our mixes through NS-10s until they felt good.
David had a more polished approach. Both have their place, of course. Killing Lies in particular was a bit of an ideological front. He wanted to use soft synths on the bass while I was trying everything from putting foam under the bridge, to using a hard felt ukulele pick, playing palm muted, to bowing an upright. I so wanted the un-quantized human feel, especially for such a driving, repetitive bassline. I think we ended up blending the two.
French filmmaker Robert Bresson is quoted as saying: “It’s not what you take, it’s where you take it.” This can be applied to many aspects of music: instruments, synths, melodies, etc. Every synthesizer does something different. I have favorites for different reasons. In no particular order, here are some I’ve enjoyed playing over the years:
A Juno 6 or 106 is always around when making demos.
The Moog Matriarch is a wild beast that I can spend hours a day trying to tame into a musical idea. It can feel like bull riding sometimes. However, the music can also call for letting things run unfettered and seeing where it ends up. I use it a lot in Arts Elektra, an art project I do with my brother. Musically, my aim is to experiment and have as little recognizable form as possible. The Matriarch, a sampler and some loop effects make for a captivating journey.
My little microKORG XL gets an honorable mention. It’s small but versatile. I used it a lot on the first Summer Moon album. The vocals on the intro to Chemical Solution run through the vocoder setting.
Synth History: Do you prefer analog synths, digital, or both?
Nikolai: There’s a very sensual video online of Angelo Badalamenti playing a Rhodes and describing how he wrote the theme song to Twin Peaks with David Lynch sitting beside him, eyes closed directing Badalamenti where to go. There’s so much feeling in how he describes what Lynch was looking for and how it was translated through his body, fingers and into the keyboard. I think analog is very conducive to bringing about more emotive performances. For a while, my favorite instrument was the violin. I never wanted to learn it. I just love all those microtonal intervals that pull at your heartstrings. When digital hardware attempts that it can sometimes end up sounding like a clumsy robot stumbling into a room.
I almost prefer a soft synth to a digital hardware synthesizer. Plug-ins have really come a long way. It’s obviously a matter of taste and I am by no means a connoisseur. Whatever works for one person may not for another. Technology evolves. Our ears get used to what we’re repeatedly exposed to and on the whole, we eventually accept the most convenient way to make and listen to music.
Having analog synths set up in the studio, though, always leads to interesting ideas, even if they become a guitar riff or a bassline played on an electric bass. I prefer the tactile feel of experimenting with parameters to dragging a mouse on a screen. The ever-so-slight effects that temperature and voltage have on your gear will statistically never happen again. Sometimes the tone and feel of a take is worth keeping even if the playing wasn’t perfect. In terms of efficiency though, a soft synth is much more malleable and when it comes to editing is a hundred times less time-consuming.
Mostly, I like to experiment in analog. It’s easy to lose yourself in the moment. I can run with an idea and play with parameters, presets and effects for hours. It lends itself to spontaneity, the uniqueness of a sound that can’t be replicated. But it can also be interesting to sample those unique sounds and manipulate them even further, turning a vocal syllable into its own note for example, or an overlooked frequency into a hi hat.
A while back, I went to Schneidersladen in Berlin where they were having a tutorial on how to use all the modules they carried. I instantly fell in love but when I did the Maths for my ideal set up, it was prohibitively expensive and insanely complicated to operate and maintain. Recently, Moog got in touch and sent me the Studio 3 and Matriarch. The bridge from modular to semi-modular synths is more approachable and practical. Especially living in NYC where walls are thin and space is limited.
For the first Summer Moon album, I was mainly using Absynth. The sounds were already crazy and I went down the rabbit hole of tweaking them even more. One rule I have now is to never rule anything out. A world in which analog and digital can live together is ideal.
Synth History: What are three albums that you recommend everyone listen to at least once?
Nikolai: This feels like the three questions from the Bridge Keeper in Monty Python’s Holy Grail! “What’s your favorite color? Blue. No red. I don’t know… Ahhh!” But here goes anyway:
Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi. If you’re landing in any city at night and have a window seat, I recommend Vessels in your headphones. It’s an otherworldly experience. The visuals of the film by the same name take you there as well.
I’m Your Man by Leonard Cohen. I remember hearing Everybody Knows during the opening credits of Pump Up the Volume when I worked at Film Fest Video. I would blast it in the morning and just repeat that scene over and over during my morning shift. This led me to the album which was weird at first because I was so used to the beautiful ballads of Songs of Leonard Cohen; it felt like when Dylan went electric. In this case, it was Cohen going synthetic. Then again, I think I could listen to Leonard Cohen’s singing and lyrics over just about any arrangement.
The Edward Scissorhands Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. Danny Elfman manages to combine the playful, melancholic and eerie so effortlessly. The sound textures are so out there. He blends orchestral instrumentation and modern synths in completely strange and original ways.
Synth History: What is one of your favorite memories recording in the studio?
Nikolai: The first time I sat with Rick Rubin at Shangri-La studios in Malibu, he sat on a couch cross-legged stroking his beard and just watched me find the bassline for the chorus on Eternal Summer. I definitely put him on a pedestal in mind before meeting him. But when it got down to business, there was a calm that seemed designed to create or discover the magic in the moment. It forced me to dig deep within and elicited one of my favorite sections on the album.
Synth History: And on stage?
Nikolai: Crowd surfing at the Troubadour with Summer Moon. I had meant to walk into the crowd and part the sea of people which I would often do at Summer Moon shows. This time though the room was wall-to-wall bodies and I was quickly pulled up and airlifted onto my back. The sheer look of silly joy on my face is one of the most unabashed smiles I’ve ever given.
Synth History: What do you think the best synth is for bass sounds?
Nikolai: By far the biggest, fattest and loudest bass synth I’ve played is the Multivox Basky II, a single oscillator sine wave foot-controlled synth. It has a depth and power that I’ve never heard anywhere else. I’ve tried to replicate it with an EHX Bass Micro Synth pedal which gets close but still can’t compare.
Moog’s Little Phatty (which I used on the upcoming Summer Moon EP) and the Matriarch each have their own idiosyncratic bass characteristics and are more user-friendly than a giant keyboard foot pedal.
Synth History Exclusive. Photos provided by Nikolai.