This week, it was reported that Kanye West is recording his next album atop a mountain in Wyoming. The mercurial pop star’s remarkable turn follows in a decades-long tradition of acts going out of their comfort zone to seek creative inspiration and sonic texture in novel settings.
Classic albums from almost every genre have been recorded in churches, prisons, crime scenes, nature, historic monuments, and some have even taken the notion of a recording studio to extreme lengths. Take, for example, Canadian breakcore artist Venetian Snares, who placed small microphones inside his girlfriend, industrial vocalist Hecate, during sex. They used samples from the recording to create the 2003 album Nymphomatriarch, most of which sounds more like robots malfunctioning than humans having sex. Thankfully, other attempts at recording music in weird locations over time have been more listenable and less disconcerting. Here are some of the most notable.
Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral – Tate mansion
10050 Cielo Drive: The address is notorious in Los Angeles as the location of the grisly Tate murders. Late one August night in 1969, members of Charles Manson’s posse of brainwashed acolytes invaded the home of actress Sharon Tate and slaughtered the pregnant actress alongside four others in a brutal ritual. Ever one for the macabre, industrial rock iconoclast Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails rented the house to record the classic The Downward Spiral album in 1992. The home’s dark history proved a fertile creative resource for Reznor in writing charming classics about nihilism and self-loathing, but after a chance encounter with Tate’s sister, Reznor had a change of heart. After allegedly bawling his eyes out in regret over exploiting the murders, he promptly moved out. The house was demolished in 1994.
Sigur Ros, ( ) – a swimming pool
The effect of Sigur Ros’ captivating, swirling opus of orchestral ambient post-rock ( ) often feels like swimming in some ethereal haze, and that has much to do with where the album was recorded. The Icelandic trio originally planned to track their third LP at an abandoned Nato facility on a mountain in northernmost Iceland, but instead decided on the more practical route of converting a drained pool in rural Mosfellsbær into a studio. After lowering a mixing console down into the pool and outfitting the space with mellotrons and crates of delay pedals, the band began to slowly renovate the site and have recorded most of their albums there since. It is now one of the most well-regarded recording studios in all of Iceland – Sundlaugin.
Sunn O))), Báthory Erzsébet – a casket
Drone metal deities Sunn O))) took inspiration for their 16-minute album closer Báthory Erzsébet from 2005 LP Black One from the legend of Elizabeth Báthory, a Hungarian noblewoman from the 1500s who – with a body count of approximately 650 – is one of the most prolific and twisted serial killers in history. To capture the ghastly mood of the track’s inspiration, the band locked claustrophobic lead singer Malefic inside of a casket to record the vocals, which include delightful lyrics like “Here / Decompose forever / Aware and unholy”. It is considered a masterpiece in black metal circles because his tortured screams are genuine manifestation of fear – so metal.
Paul Horn, Inside – the Taj Mahal
While galavanting around India with the Beatles in 1968, jazz flautist and new-age progenitor Paul Horn took a break from taking acid and meditating to record a live album inside the Taj Mahal. Clocking in at just over a half-hour, the album features nothing but flute, an occasional gong and devotional chanting. It sold over a million copies and is credited with kicking off not just new age, but also the world fusion genre. Horn went on to record in The Great Pyramid of Giza (1978), The Kazimieras Cathedral in Lithuania (1983), the Canyon De Chelly in Arizona (1997), and recorded live with an orca whale on his 2012 piece Haida.
Diamanda Galás, Plague Mass – Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York City
From Black Sabbath to the Beach Boys and Radiohead, many acts have recorded in the echoic halls of churches to great effect, but nobody has done it quite like American avant-garde provocateur Diamanda Galás. The limber-lunged soprano’s 1991 live album Plague Mass was recorded at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City, and the event resembled a satanic ritual more than a sermon. Doused in blood and topless, Galas wailed and shrieked for 72 minutes in an abstract musical performance art retelling the story of the Aids crisis. It is terrifying and captivating in equal measure, but probably not a good shout for your next party playlist.
Aphex Twin, Come To Daddy – a bank vault
The legend of Richard D James, better known as experimental electronic icon Aphex Twin, is laden with unverifiable claims: that he lives in a bank vault under the Elephant & Castle railway station in London, drives a tank, writes songs in his dreams. It does appear to be truth, though, that James owned a disused bank somewhere in London in the 1990s. Inside was a vault where he kept most of his musical equipment and recorded portions of his 1997 EP Come to Daddy. James himself has propagated much of the confusion, offering wildly differing accounts of his life story, but the bank vault recording studio rumor seems to be worth the money.
Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago – a log cabin in Wisconsin
Ailing with illness and ennui, heartbroken and bored, Justin Vernon packed up his life on a whim in 2006 and drove 18 hours through the night to his father’s hunting cabin. For three months in the harsh Wisconsin winter, Vernon lived in isolation, hunted his own food and pieced together recordings of his debut album For Emma, Forever Ago. The lonely quietude of the woods served the mood of the album’s lo-fi arrangements, and the result was a modern indie-folk classic and a star-making turn for bearded crooner. Bon Iver has gone on to win two Grammys, and collaborate with Kanye West, who presumably took Vernon’s inspiration up to the Wyoming woods with him this week.
Johnny Cash, Bad Brains, Gucci Mane – prison
The long history of music being recorded in jail transcends genre and subculture. When Johnny Cash performed Live from Folsom Prison in 1968, it only added to the country singer’s hard-boiled ramblin’ man persona. Everyone from BB King to The Sex Pistols followed suit with similar live albums recorded in jails. But in 1979, HR Hudson of reggae-punk iconoclasts Bad Brains took things one step further when he tracked vocals for Sacred Love over the phone while actually serving time in jail for marijuana possession. Almost two decades later, prison recordings became a fad in hip-hop, and everyone from Gucci Mane to Mac Dre has now dropped bars while behind bars.