In 1993, Prince was already 14 albums deep into his career and was extremely well known all over the world. Tool was up-and-coming and only had their 1991 demo 72826 and 1992 EP Opiate under their belt. Despite the disparity in popularity, producer Sylvia Massy tells Grammy she turned down working with Prince on new music in favor of Tool because "I knew Tool was an important band, and the album Undertow would be their big breakthrough."
Massy says some of her suggestions like using a Leslie speaker for the guitar on "4 Degrees" and destroying pianos for "Disgustipated" made the album, but tips like making "Intolerance" shorter quite literally made the band tell her to fuck off. Her recounting of the album sessions is also really interesting because some of the recording techniques she used, such as the drum mic situation, were pretty unique!
"Tool was a fantastic live band, and my biggest challenge was to capture the live energy in a studio setting, so generally during the first recordings I was just letting them do their thing.
"However, on Undertow as we started pre-production in rehearsals, I could see them getting stuck with some songwriting challenges so I stepped in as a tie-breaker. They knew I was not there to change their music, just enhance it. Some of my suggestions were accepted and some were rejected, and I am always OK with that.
"I suggested using a Leslie speaker for the guitar on the song '4 Degrees' – they went for that. I suggested we record a transient Peruvian flute band and hide it subliminally in a song, they went for that.
I suggested we keep and use all of Maynard's heavy breathing. They went for that. I even suggested we buy two old upright pianos and record them while they were being destroyed with sledgehammers and a shotgun. They went for that [in a song called 'Disgustipated']. But when I suggested they trim some excess time off the front of [opening song] 'Intolerance,' they told me to fuck off. [Laughs]
"The drums were set up in a small but very tall drum room. Two guitar amps were set up with a splitter in the wood room and the bass speaker was isolated on the back stage of the studio. We dug in there for two solid months, recording several live takes of each song, then taking pieces of songs and editing the best parts together. It was tedious work on analog tape.
"The drums were recorded with mics on the top and bottom of each tom, and there were 5 toms, two snares and an assortment of roto toms – a heavy load for that little Neve console, but we made it work. I had the toms tuned to the key for each song, and we changed tom heads after every take!"
Massey also likened vocalist Maynard James Keenan's recording technique and guest vocalist Henry Rollins' (Black Flag) to one another, saying they both sand "bending over and facing the floor, basically spewing words into the microphone." She also concludes by saying the album sounded nothing like what anyone else was doing at the time, but everyone involved really dug the end result.
"At the time the album was finished and mixed, we listened back and thought, 'Well, it doesn't sound like anything else, but we like it.' Undertow was made without trying to follow anyone else's lead. That is why it endures to this day. And for me it was a milestone in my career. It was when people started knocking on my door, instead of the other way around. It's been 25 years since Tool's Undertow was released, yet I still get messages from Tool fans about it. It made an impact on a lot of people."
Here's hoping Joe Barresi has some good stories about the band's current studio sessions once it's all done.