I Remixed Grimes into the Pop Star of My Coronavirus Dreams
“What’s Grimes?” My boyfriend looked at me with utter confusion — and a warranted tinge of fear — when I, a person with no audio mixing skills whatsoever, told him I wanted to spend a good chunk of our weekend remaking the futuristic songstress’ latest single. He knew what this meant. But what’s a quarantined girl who’s already watched every episode of both Tiger King and Little Fires Everywhere to do?
As a way to promote fan engagement during this shelter-at-home period, Grimes recently released the stems (a.k.a. individual audio files) for her new track “You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around.” She’s not the first artist to make stems available to the public, but she did so at the perfect cultural moment. Given our endless time at home, and my partner Ilan’s musical abilities and access to an in-home studio, I wondered what we could do with the track. Ilan’s lack of knowledge when it comes to the apocalypse’s musical war nymph should not be taken as an insult to Grimes: His time is usually split between listening to Led Zeppelin’s House of the Holy for the 897th time, becoming proficient at playing an annoyingly wide variety of instruments for his music gigs, and watching lectures on Bach. I thought his objectivity would make the challenge even sweeter. He was coming in blind, which is the best way to start any creative project.
“You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around” — Grimes x Samantha Hissong
When it came to our remix — the final product embedded above — he let me steer the ship as much as I could. I wanted to take something by Grimes, who’s known for her hyper-modern production and almost-metallic sounds, and give it a more organic feel. I wanted to close my eyes and be able to imagine a band jamming at a summertime festival. Normally, I hear a Grimes song and I imagine some sort of visual show that draws heavily on Blade Runner and The Fifth Element and is presented to a pulsating crowd in a dark, underground club. In my mind, her music is only played after midnight in Berlin — or some other city that extols the industrial. To make things interesting, I wanted to throw some sunshine on the thing.
Unfortunately for Ilan, I have no sense of technical terminology, so he had to deal with a lot of the following: “I want this part to sound livelier.” “Can we make that thing on the end there brighter, and can it sound like it’s going up — not down?” “More snaps! More snaps!” “How can we subtly incorporate horns and strings?” “I hear a synth in my head but I don’t know what kind of synth. Let’s scroll through some plug-ins!” “How can we make everything fuller without mushing it all together?” I learned a lot about Pro Tools this Sunday. I now understand “attack, decay, sustain, and release.” And I owe Ilan a lot of Jameson.
I started by highlighting the elements I loved the most, as well as what I strongly disliked. The melody was pleasant, but I wanted it to stand out more. I thought we could do that by breaking the structure up a bit through differentiation. On Grimes’ original track, there’s a very indie-rock guitar part that discretely arrives around one minute and eight seconds. If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to miss. However, in the session file, when we muted everything except for the guitar row, it shined like a lucky penny, so we made it more integral.
The drums sounded too one-dimensional and programmed for my liking, so we found a digital kit that was supposed to be reminiscent of the late sixties. The shaker sound that drives our version of the track is that of “eggaracas” — you know, egg-shaped maracas. The snaps aren’t just plain, ol’ snaps. We used two kinds: snaps that were recorded in a small space, and snaps that were recorded in a large space (and also distorted).
We took out the crunchy bass. Ilan played with his fingers instead, coming up with a more soulful bass line from her chord progression. This brought some funk to the mix. There’s upright piano and a Rhodes electric piano. We also replaced the non-lyrical hook that kicks off the track and appears throughout. We both found that synthetic vocal effect to be jarring, so we made the same point with a Melotron brass sample. And during the song’s climactic finish, we brought in Melotron strings to fill out the sound.
As we continued, I found myself in awe of even more minutia. (As I was also stoned, that’s not incredibly surprising.) Thrilled with the whole experience, I suggested that I could do this kind of thing more often. It definitely made the quarantine hours fly by. “Maybe when you’re busy elsewhere, I can just come in here and play around with your setup,” I said.
His smile said he loved me, but his eyes said he’d consider going to prison for murder if I pressed any buttons without supervision. “Or maybe I’ll just set you up with GarageBand on your laptop,” he replied. Fair.