… or Less
[UPDATE: We need YOUR voices to sing on our album. in Leeds on the 20th October!]
We’re roughly half way through the writing and recording our 4th album. Every year it seems like we get less time for actual making of new music and it’s such an important part of what a band should do. This year was meant to be a bit of a year off for us…. When we look back at the Cotton Wool and Knotted Wood acoustic album and tour, The Grassington Run, the seeming endless number of festivals, the Skipton Rocks project, Crypt Covers, the music and audio we did for Sea of Voices and our involvement in Bring the Happy with Invisible Flock it feels like we have a bit of a problem with understanding the phrase “time off”… And not forgetting wedding, birthday, corporate and house gigs, a new van and so many different kinds of fast food. And definitely not forgetting everything else that we do… Me and my photography and recording, all the different teaching and playing that Gary, Rich, James and Si Goff do, Si travelling the world with his theatre company, Si Goff finishing off his degree, James touring his Big Band etc etc etc and still trying to find time for family, partners and friends. Sometime we have to have a meeting together about something and have to book it 2 months in advance. Generally we have to book in the blocks of time for things like touring and recording nearly 12 months in advance nowadays or else the time just gets swallowed by everything else we do…
So with this record we simply didn’t have the time to do it in the spring (which is kind of our preference) so late last year we booked in September and October. And then October got stolen by the pesky time bears… From 2 months as a band we were down to just over one month to write and record the whole band parts of at least 10 new songs. That’s actually less than 20 working days to get from no music whatsoever to the final album recording of most of the instruments for 10 “proper songs”. Extra’s like brass and vocals are generally done after. Vocals are dependant on when lyrics get done but much like David Bowie they’re often last minute… You can’t really do backing vocals till the main vocals is done and big fun extras like choirs and ensembles are generally done even after that!
It’s kinda impossible. We don’t work stupid long days as much as we used to when we young. It’s pretty much all 8-10 hour days now and people still have to slot other work around it. So how do we do it?
1) Usually we’ll have a pint. Or 7. And have a big chat about what the album should be… What we want it to feel like, scratch musical itches that people have and want to scratch, vague meanings… I’m a big believer how useful having a manifesto is for making art. These plans and reference points often don’t all make it to the end product but it makes the start easier, it makes the points when you’re stuck easier. “This album is about the failure of public transport in the year 2012”. “This album is about it being the end of the world and all that you have left is Pop Music, 4 cans of bitter and some friends”. “What would Prince do?” is an ace decision making tool. “Would Bruce do that?” “Hold on… that’s not very New York 1982! They’d just stick on the groove and make it FEEL like a chorus…” Finding a bunch of touch points that everyone understands really helps in creating a language for the whole process.
This time we kinda missed out on this bit due to lack of time and fast forwarded to….
2) We get in a room and start making noise. Because we’re lucky enough to have our own studio space at the crypt so we can set up as a band and leave it all there. From the very first point we set up as if we’re going to record live… This does 2 things. It means that we can record nice sounding multi-tracked demos instantly which is super useful and it means that at this early point in the process we’re tweaking sounds and microphones and mic placements as we go on so that when we start to record “properly” it means that everything’s setup and ready and we don’t have to do that boring 30 minutes of kick drum, followed by snare drum etc for half a day… We can pretty much ram straight into it. This part of the process is so important. We try and jam music that makes us excited. It’s often informed by instrument choice… We got a new Hammond Organ which is loads of fun and that’s all over this album.
We don’t filter too much at this point and rapidly the smallest idea can turn into a song… Sometimes it’s a groove that’s exciting, sometimes it’s the way we hit a chord sequence. Sometimes it’s just that an individual’s line is awesome and hints at what the song could be. Half way through this period we noticed that a good portion of this particular batch of ideas had [sharp intake of breath], a souly feel to them. Mainly we’re trying sketch ideas, and the demos that come out of this week are kinda odd sometimes, and certainly half formed. Quite often it’s like ending up with the equivalent of a rough scratchy pencil sketch on the back of napkin that WE can look at say “Man… that is going to be the most amazing cathedral” and we can imagine it in pretty exacting detail. If we showed these sketches to someone else they would sound like nonsense though. They are, in the main, pretty awful… Sometimes a whole song pops out almost fully formed though, and it’s a pretty exciting experience. Mostly though, it’s 5 minutes of bad soul/prog/country that hopefully has a spark in them somewhere…. Very much not suitable for public consumption. Very much. We did 8 days of this this time and were kicking out 2 usable ideas per day which became the demos which everyone took away for a week. We then reconvened for…
3) Finishing writing and recording the band performances. For this album we’ve had less than 15 days for this. On the first day we had a listen to the demos we took home and chatted though them. What we like, what we can envisage for the ideas, what doesn’t work. The most commonly used words at this point are “It’s too stock” and repeatedly, almost to the point of being incessant… “It needs another bit”. We dumped 3 ideas at this point as they didn’t seem to fit and then ploughed on. Essentially we have to take at least one of those sketches per day and format it into something that has the shape of a song, write any new sections that are needed and everyone has to finish writing their parts. We tend to do all this as a band in the room… Quite often Si will be singing in the room as well as we’re formatting so that a) it gives everyone a sense of the shape of the song and b) so that he gets chance to work on vocal ideas with the band. It’s really important for all of us that we get to work together on this. It’s such a different feeling playing together than working on ideas alone.
After about 4 hours off to-ing and fro-ing and the “occasional” argument we’re generally ready to start tracking properly and we’ll get those who need to be on a click track and start going for it. The structure of the song and people’s parts are continually maturing during this bit. It’s very organic. We’re working to a point where it feels formed and complete and we generally get 4 good takes when everyone is on it before it starts to fall off again. The emphasis here is getting a good feeling solid drum take but really we’re after great takes from everybody. When he says he’s done we’ll check it sometimes stealing better bits from other takes or fixing tiny bits of timing. Then quickly work through everyone else’s parts with same process… Quite often the takes that make it are from the same take as the drums, sometimes they’re built up by editing from the last 4 or 5 takes, occasionally we’ll re-record parts. Often people will have a feeling that “the last but 1 take I was better on the chorus but the verses are better from the take before that” or something similar…
There’s a number of reasons why we track live in the main… Firstly, when it works it’s fun, it’s quick and it’s exciting. It’s quick because in the space of 4 hours work you can get parts from all 6 musicians. It’s also quick in that when we’re playing together we “move” together, we can all respond to each other’s playing which means that pretty often parts recorded that way mesh better. I’ve had numerous occurrences where we’ve gone to replace a part and it’s taken longer to get a something that feels and sounds right for just one person’s part than it took to record the whole band from scratch; even though you get the luxury of being able to work on one sound in isolation. It’s exciting because all 6 of us have to be working to the same point together. We have to try and peak at the same time to get “the take” together. It feels like very much what “a real band would do” and we’re all for pretending to be a real band. One of the risks of tracking like this in such limited time include not getting enough time to develop each instrument’s part and you end up with band members playing their first idea (which is sometimes, though not always the best thing), and that as a band you may not all peak together to make one awesome Master Take. You can easily also make recording mistakes; technical stuff like phase relationships (between all 16 live mics!), setting recording levels a little too loud or even (as has happened more than once) not recording anything at all on some channels… [grins] “er, I’ve no guitar. But, I have recorded the hi tom-tom three times” [facepalm].
I’m a massive fan of great 80’s pop and so often when you look into some of the most “produced” sounding records they’re based on awesome live group performances… Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel? A single live take of bass, drums and guitar. Let’s Dance by David Bowie? That’s a live band take at the heart of that… That extra bit of “human” is what can help to make something magic and we’re always scrabbling away to find little bits of magic. It would be a lot easier if we were as good as the players on those records though… We’re careful that even though we’re tracking live and there is spill, it’s usually possible to replace parts without too many side effects. Not always though… Sometimes it’s a nightmare.
5) Editing, cleaning up, overdubs. We’re in this stage now. We’ve got the vast majority of the record tracked (bass drums, percussion. guitars, piano, organ, keys, strings). Me and Rich are in the crypt every day fixing all the little bits of timing issues (send all treats, food and gifts to PO Box H&S, The Crypt, Yorkshire) and the tiny pops and clicks which break the spell of a record, making sure that every bit will withstand scrutiny and fits cos successful records are all about casting spells and the smallest thing can break that. Si is desperately trying to make time to write lyrics on trains, planes, motorways and rooms across the country. James is trying to find the time to write the brass parts and find the players. We’re hoping we can find the time to do a really fun big involvement thing as well (plans are afoot).
What’s coming up… (not necessarily in this order)
6) Record vocals. One of the pleasures. We don’t use headphones for lead vocals, we turn the studio monitors up to full and Si sings handheld in front of them. By this point the songs are sounding pretty mixed and it’s often the first time we’ve actually heard the lyrics. We actually get to hear the songs coming alive turning in front of us and it’s often magical… Especially after having gone through all the grunt work in editing stage. And especially because the speakers in our studio sound chuffing amazing loud…
7) Backing vocals, choirs, brass, STUFF. All to come…. [UPDATE: Come be in our choir! We need your help!
8) Mixing and mastering. I sometimes wish I could fast forward to the mixing stage. It’s the really fun bit for me… Often during recording it’s quite stressful trying to balance being an engineer, a producer, writer and player. A lot of the later tidy up work is plain grunt work and takes ages, we (Rich and I in the main) have to put the time in at the cliff face chipping away at the problems, making the foundations solid… The mix part is free time… Clear the mind and try and be as reactive as possible. Mixing a record is a crazy mix of science and art, craft and inspiration. I do love it… It’s about making something that’s both incredibly real (no other art form can move me like music can) but at the same time totally ephemeral (I can’t touch it, I can’t hold it, it only exists on demand in *air* for christsakes!) It’s a weird old thing… It is just a bit like doing magic though. Just a little bit like being a wizard…. [grin]
So, in order to get the cd’s back in time for the first date of the tour the album has to be with the pressing plant on the 29th October. We still have to record all the brass, vocals, backing vocals and any other extra bits. And then we’ve still got to mix the album as well. Our perception of the songs may well keep changing through this process which will necessitate new parts, more recording etc etc. It’s tiring working like this. Exciting but tiring. We’ll be pushed right to the wire again… No time to get any perspective as the work just doesn’t stop until it’s finished but that’s part of the excitement and challenge for us making a record nowadays. It really is not until we’ve released the record that we get enough distance on it to really know if it’s really any good – which does make *releasing* each album a simultaneously nervy and exciting experience. I guess one question which I can’t answer yet is what it’s gonna sound like? Well, we don’t really know at the moment. I spent some time this week pulling together some references… Stax, The Jam, Chic, some early 80’s Bowie, Sticky Fingers. We keep mentioning 1982, we keep mentioning New York, we keep mentioning old soul tunes. I just want to be Bob Clearmountain in the Power Station around the turn of the 80’s I guess… but then when I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut and that didn’t turn out so good. It’s keeping us excited though. I genuinely can’t wait to hear it. Working as fast as we do it really is a bit of surprise for us how it all turns out… [CROSSES FINGERS AND TOUCHES WOOD. PLEASE TURN OUT GOOD FOR US ALBUM!]
PS Who is Gimli the Magic Bear? We don’t really know but we know he’s everywhere… Hopefully he can lead us through. He’s definitely a bear and he’s definitely magic though…
PPS Album may not actually turn out to be called “Gimli the Magic Bear”. Just as the songs currently entitled Talking Heads Gimli, Bo-Gimli, Soul Gimlii, Original Gimle, Shave Your Gimli, Seaside Gimli may well end having different titles. Sorry…