Liner Notes is a close up look at a great new album you may have missed. This week, prolific Toronto musician, producer, and engineer Josh Korody talks about his experimental project Nailbiter, its debut Formats, and the agonies and ecstasies of setting out alone.
You probably know Josh Korody's work. He plays guitar in the Toronto psych act WISH. He makes up one half of Beliefs. He's recorded and produced albums for Fucked Up and Dilly Dally and Greys at his own Candle Recording, the studio he co-owns with Leon Taheny. But you've never heard him like this.
Nailbiter, Korody's new experimental solo project, is the sound of an artist out on a wire. Paranoid and tense, Korody and his modular synth light out out from the studio's calculated comforts into the shadowier lands of first takes and live improv and "leave the tapes running." Hoping that risk will relinquish reward. Hoping that the holiest moments happen by chance.
We met Korody for coffee for a deep dive conversation about the heartening support of Toronto's music community, what most bands get wrong and the anxiety of total control.
Nailbiter's Formats is available now through Heretical Objects Cooperative and Hand Drawn Dracula.
Chart Attack: Is there a concept behind Nailbiter?
Josh Korody: I guess the biggest thing is the project is moving really quickly. When a lot of people start new projects, especially the people I record, what I see is that people will go in and record one or two songs from the new project, just put out a feeler, and if it gets any sort of attention, they’ll be like okay, “Let’s take this to another level. Maybe we’ll put more money and energy and time into this. Maybe we’ll make a full-length.” I find that’s kind of a weird thing: your creative idea is just based on the reception you might get.
When you’re sharing a project with three to five people, it’s such a slow process. This raw idea you had, by the time you show it and work it out and rehearse it and record it and then wait for the album to come out, you’re not even in that headspace anymore.
I wanted to do the opposite: if there was any potential of it going anywhere, I wanted to know that I’ve already made the record. It’s kind of the best scenario, because nobody gives a shit. You can just do whatever you want. I can only imagine a band that gets really big and then has to deliver another good record.
Now that that’s out — even though it’s a small release — people can look back at it as a cool early record or they can be like, “the early stuff is shitty,” but at least it’s there. I’ve worked with a lot of people that spend like two years developing their sound or band before they release anything and I think that’s really crazy. If there are ever any people in the world who want to find it, I want it to be exposed. I don’t want to work on a track and have it sitting, thinking “it’s the worst thing I’ve ever done or the best thing I’ve ever done,” when you don’t even know what people are going to like. I almost want everything I do to be documented, to be out there, to be visible. Which I know can be dangerous, but it seems insane to me to spend two or three years perfecting this thing when, by the end of it, you don’t know if it might work live, you don’t know if you’ll like it after that time.
And you don't have anyone else you need to appease, so you can release whatever you want.
Right, you’re going to shit your way through it.
And that’s the worst to me. So when I made Formats, it happened really quickly. I already had a label that wanted to work with me (Hand Drawn) and we agreed that as much as I wanted to do a record, I would rather it come out very quickly than to wait eight months. The record came out a couple weeks ago, the release show [was] Thursday, and I don’t play any of the songs. I’m already doing something different. And that’s the whole point: constant, exciting, motivating things.
You’re trying to capture the first sparks that happens when you’re creating something?
Exactly. A lot of times in a band, you’re at home with your guitar and you record a riff or chord progression or a vocal melody and that sits on your brain or on your phone for a little bit, you flesh it out a little more, then you show it to people, and it gets redone and changed and reworked. With this, because it was just me and because of the type of music it is and how accessible the resources are, instead of rerecording things or rewriting things, I would record raw idea and sit on them for a little bit and go back and be like, “this was a cool idea.”
And you’d use it?
Yeah, I’d just use it. It’s not “we’re gonna put a million things on it,” more “I’ll cut this out here and that out there; maybe I’ll throw a weird vocal on top.”
You’re recognizing what happens in those first takes as good ideas and recordings in themselves, like they weren’t placeholders or scratch tracks?
No, not scratch tracks.
Like, you weren’t going to go back and rerecord the parts, especially when you were using a modular synth.
And that’s a part of it. It’s scary, but if an idea isn’t working, it isn’t working, but if it’s cool, you just live with it. There’s definitely some flexibility, but especially because I was new to using that gear, I recorded everything in a really final and not easily movable way.
When I finished the record, I thought about how I might play it live and I’d go back to the sessions and open up a song and I’d be like, “okay, maybe I could take this part from this… oh right, it’s all just one track.” I’d go into Pro Tools — and for someone that records bands for a living, I usually set myself up so I have a lot of flexibility. Even if I record a three-piece rock band, I’ll end up with 50 tracks on Pro Tools — a bunch of mics on the drums, different mics on the amps, different amps, different vocal sounds. But I’d go back to the session, “cool — vocals, music.” Two tracks, that’s it. That’s part of why the record sounds how it does: it’s all condensed and compressed on this one track.
I think, too, recording other people, it’s a really sensitive job, like as if you’re a therapist sometimes. You can’t just be like, “get over your daddy issues.” You have to be, “okay, you don’t like how your vocal sounds today, we’ll figure something out, let’s try this.”
Yeah, you’re trying to prod people along and make compromises happen.
There are very few people that I’ve worked with that don’t find what they do precious, like they can’t live unless that one vocal comes up a decibel. And it’s made me feel a lot less precious about my stuff. I don’t want to sound like I don’t give a shit. I listen back and make sure I’m happy with things. But when people get so calculated and precious, you lose so much human vibe. The whole record was based on pure late-night vibe.
Recording other people, it’s a really sensitive job, like as if you’re a therapist sometimes. You can’t just be like, “get over your daddy issues.” You have to be, “okay, you don’t like how your vocal sounds today, we’ll figure something out, let’s try this.”
Exactly. And that’s why I’m not that concerned with playing the album live. The whole idea was about fresh moments. It’s scary, but it’s fun. If somebody comes to see me live, the way I’m doing things now, the sets are me preparing and creating a track from scratch.
Yeah, and the album sounds a bit like that, like you’re trying to catch a good idea in the wild, as you find it.
For sure. I think for recording, even doing that, because I come from the guitar world, a different world than electronic music, I was still a little scared to, like, let something loop eight times. “Maybe I need a synth on this or a vocal or it needs a guitar.” So I feel like it’s a blend of me really pushing myself and then pulling back and throwing some of my older inclinations into it.
In some of the writing about the album, you called it a “transitional” piece of work. What did you mean by that?
Well, personally, I guess. I’ve been in bands for a decade. It’s been about five years where I haven’t had to have any other job but music, whether it’s recording other people or playing. I know a lot of people don’t know who I am, but in this community, in this bubble, I’m more active in other types of music and working with other types of people, and doing something away from that feels like a big deal to me.
Even thinking about “what shows do I play?” or “who do I play with?” I don’t know anything about the electronic scene in Toronto. I don’t necessarily need to be a part of anything, but I got so used to being a part of this community, and it was scary to think I might have to step away from it depending on the response. But I’m pretty blessed and lucky, I’ve only played four times so far, but I’m still playing with the same people and lot of sweet friends who are doing completely different things musically are coming out and enjoying it.
I think the scene here is…
It’s a supportive scene.
Yes, but I think it’s pretty porous too.And I don’t know why I keep thinking that. I always forget that it’s really open. When I first moved here, that was the bit that I couldn’t believe. The first two bands I recorded here were Burning Love and the Great Bloomers — a heavy band, then a country band. And as soon as that happened, I knew I was in the right place. And those people are going to each other’s shows. They’re going to support each other.
So the “transitional” thing was personal, it was about being vocal about how unsure of myself I am. I’m not going to pretend like I’m a protégé in this music. I’m really just exploring. I’ve promised myself that it could be anything. The next thing I release could be hip-hop. I didn’t want any rules or boundaries.
What interested you on this album about those early industrial sounds?
I guess it was just the free form, getting away from structure, from hooks. In the headspace of producing people and making sure songs and sounds will appeal to a lot of people, I was interested in being a bit more into the moment. A friend from New York plays in Psychic TV and they’re a band that’s done a lot of different stuff. And the one member of Psychic TV was in Throbbing Gristle…
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge.Yeah, and I don’t know how many people would really listen to a Throbbing Gristle record, because it’s pretty in the moment. The whole idea was you have to go see it to see what happens. That’s the live thing. And it could be fucking terrible, it could be a mess. My show in New York was well received, I had a big crowd, a bunch of Toronto people came, which was awesome, but for me personally, my first set was sloppy, a bunch of stuff went wrong. But people still dug it. And that’s the thrill of it: this could be really cool or…
Does it feel like you're out there on a wire?
Yeah, it’s so terrifying. But the best outcome is, literally, a good moment happens. Every show so far, at least a couple cool moments have happened that weren’t planned and I wasn’t really sure what made them happen. But they happen. People watching you get in on that. And once that happens, it takes the nerves away, and you just want to keep that going.
When you’re used to collaborating with a bunch of people, what was the experience like to be totally alone in the project?
The one negative thing is that you get a bit in your own head. I had to force myself to remember i don’t need to spend eight months on this.
Like you could just sit there perfecting it forever?
And I don’t want to do that. The thing with electronic artists is that a lot of them produce everything themselves. A lot of solo artists are usually working with a producer or an engineer — there’s somebody else collaborating. If you’re Adele or even like Thurston Moore, they need somebody to take these raw ideas and help them figure out what the songs should sound like. But as for electronic artists, coming from the band world, I feel there’s a stigma that they don’t work as hard, but they do literally everything. They not only create the ideas, they record them, they produce them, they probably mix them, and they might even be mastering them.
To answer your question, when you don’t have bandmates around, it will drive you nuts. You wonder, “is this good?” and the only person you can ask is yourself. I watched an interview with Oneohtrix Point Never and even he was talking about how whenever he finishes a track he has to send it to his buddies and his label, because he doesn’t really know.
For electronic artists, coming from the band world, I feel there’s a stigma that they don’t work as hard, but they do literally everything. They not only create the ideas, but they record them, they produce them, they probably mix them, and they might even be mastering them.
And for this record, once the tracks were developed to 70 or 80% I started sending it to a couple people who I thought might dig it — James [Mejia] who runs Hand Drawn Dracula and Trevor [Blumas] from DOOMSQUAD. I figured if they didn’t get it, it was a good way of measuring how far off the map I was. A lot of artists want to say, I just do my thing and that’s it. And that’s mostly it. But there’s going to be a point where you wonder, “is this good?”
Do you think working like that adds to the tone of the record? It has this anxious, tense quality throughout.
Of course. A lot of the homework around this record happened after I’d recorded these rough ideas. I’d throw them in a Dropbox, and I’d go about my day, work with another band, and late at night, after the session, if I had any brain-ear power left, I’d throw on my earbuds and listen to some of the stuff I was working on as I walked home.
It was like when you’re finishing a record and a producer sends you mixes and you listen to them for notes. I was listening to these songs for notes, thinking about how I might make them sound like finished tracks. Every time I was making critical notes about the songs I was walking home alone really late at night around, like, Bloor and Lansdowne and the only people that are out are maybe a couple drug addicts. And, at two in the morning, after I’ve been mixing someone all day, I’m just walking down the street like a zombie. It was a big part of the vibe.