13th February, 2011

hello stranger

It’s been a while. Cyber-recluse that I am, there have been a few projects that I’ve been involved in over the past months that I’d like to draw attention to.

SPARROW AND THE WORKSHOP

One of the finest bands I’ve ever worked with, a 3-piece who together are even more than the sum of their potent parts. I produced their album in the countryside outside Bath – recorded and mixed in ten days. Thrilling, scary, charmed, and only one moment when we all got on each others nerves. This music is so rich in imagery and passion that producing it was really just a case of capturing the energy and then enhancing what each instrument and voice was striving for – mostly by double tracking unexpected parts of the percussion or the vocal, or opening up different room mics and effects in different sections to give the illusion of more instrumental parts than there actually were. They said the record ended up sounding just like it had been in their heads, which was the most satisfying thing I could have imagined. and they even cooked dinner every night too.

PAOLO NUTINI

I got asked to produce a track he’s contributing to a John Martyn tribute record. Many people warned me that he might not show up on time, but he did. The song was extremely odd melodically, necessitating more of a rewrite than a reinterpretation. Having already made the backing track the vocal process was: do a few takes, have a chat about something else; do a few more, have a drink; do some more, feel reassured it’s starting to come together, have another chat and a drink; do another one, relaxed by now. Then, after consistently improving over the course of a few hours, he suddenly hit stratospheric form and nailed the whole thing on one take. Sometimes you never really know how good even very successful people are until you get to watch them close up.

BRETT ANDERSON

The album that started last January as a 3-day session of improvisation has now been finished. I would defy anyone listening cold to guess that it started life the way it did, but every track is founded on the performances and ideas from those 3 days. I must admit I’m surprised therefore that it took this long to finish, but the work has been quite stop-start and Brett and I are still in no way bored of it, so that’s a good sign. Because I had a hand in writing the music I became quite proprietorial by the end, and sort of forgot that I wasn’t actually part of a band. It can be a fine line between caring deeply about a project and fighting your corner as a producer, and losing sight of the fact that you’ve been hired to deliver another artist’s vision. But no dramas in the end, and the record’s great.

CARL BARAT

There’s a new EP coming out so I remixed a few of the tracks that didn’t get quite finished during the main album sessions, and we did a new song from scratch. I tried playing guitar on it but it sounded better with Carl singing and playing on his own. I’ve actually hardly played an instrument in the last 3 months because most of the people I’ve been working haven’t needed me to, which is a new situation. It’s fun plugging other guitarists into my effects and hearing how they interpret the sounds differently, and brings back warm memories of when I was starting out as a session guitarist. Once I was on a session with a producer called Gil Norton who was a bit of a hero to me as he’d done The Pixies. I got set up but the guitar wouldn’t work. We checked everything from microphones to compressor to patch bay until finally he leaned over and turned the volume knob on my guitar up. I felt incredibly small and at the end of the day he said “You could be really good one day, if you remember to turn your fucking guitar on”.

KILL IT KID

The first fruits of my involvement with this band are already up on their site, although we’re only half way through the record. They make splendid use of very old field recordings of American bluesmen and play with an astonishing intensity. Considering the way they attack their instruments, I was surprised they didn’t batter the mixing desk in the studio which was so knackered that we had to stick paper clips into it to get the EQs to work. However, we did drive my poor 1961 Selmer amp so hard that the head fell off the cabinet, crashing into a vintage Neumann microphone on its way to the floor. Surprisingly, nothing broke.

THE MAGIC LANTERN

Beautiful, fragile, complex music that I was lucky enough to mix. They gave me almost comically meticulous mix notes that at times I didn’t even understand, but it all helped to frame the message of the music. Somehow they seemed to be after a certain anonymity to the instrumental performances which struck me as almost the opposite of what I would normally be trying to achieve, but I interpreted it to mean they wanted a sort of ‘egolessness’. This is much less about the mix than the performances of course, but I did discover some ways to make the sound flat and controlled without being clinical.

A FAMOUS BAND THAT I’M NOT ALLOWED TO NAME YET

Because of the utter shafted-ness of the music industry, even acts that have sold hundreds of thousands of records have to tread carefully when choosing a producer or presenting songs to their label. I have had to effectively ‘audition’ quite a bit recently, trying out tracks with bands or artists before they decide whether or not they want to go with me. It sounds potentially horrible, and sometimes when the stakes are high it can be, but I try and cultivate attitudes that take the edge off and make everyone more relaxed. The only way to do this is to focus on the only thing that really matters, which is the music. That way everyone in the room is pulling in the same direction, instead of wasting time analyzing everything.

KASIA KLIMKIEWICZ

Kasia is a fascinating new director who has asked me to score her new project. Early days, but I’ve been recording the sound of close-up circuitry from various kinds of machinery, editing it, and experimenting with very quiet, intimate improvisations over the top. The overall effect is like eavesdropping on something that is at once human and tactile, but also completely impersonal. It’s a compelling combination, but there aren’t many tunes.

There’s been a bunch of other stuff too, from the completion of a record for Real World’s Iarla O’Lionaird to a new artist on Universal called Luna Belle. As usual, what I’m really loving is all the variety, and helping such different artists bring their visions to fruition.

Lastly some videos – about 3 years ago Brian Eno and I spent a few minutes putting a soundtrack to a short video I made in Brisbane zoo of a koala scratching its arse. It was ignored but in the last week has amassed 110,000 views. I’m glad the little fellow is finally getting his moment in the spotlight.

Koala Punk

And here is some footage of Brian, Jon Hopkins and I improvising in the manner in which ‘Small Craft’ was made. Hope you enjoy.

Seven Sessions On A Milk Sea

2nd November, 2010

Small Craft On A Milk Sea

Exciting day! This record, a collaboration between Brian Eno, myself and my old friend Jon Hopkins is out today in America! Lots of exciting related things to follow… but for now:

Brian’s Site
Interviews with Brian, Jon and I

Buy it on Amazon

3rd September, 2010

atheist tambourine

I’m on the Eurostar traveling back from Paris, after a session with Brigitte Fontaine. she’s in her mid-70s and still raising hell. Despite being a number 1 selling artist in France she was recently banned from French radio for saying Sarkozy wasn’t fit to eat her shit. Anyway, she was incredibly sweet and after I’d played she kissed me on the cheek with a dainty little farting sound that was grandmotherly and childlike at the same time.

A couple of days ago I was in Poland playing at a concert in a shipyard in fromt of 100,000 people celebrating 30 years of the Solidarity movement. Walesa was there, along with a load of different artists from Macy Gray to Philip Glass. A young Polish boy played a fiendishly difficult Chopin piece, with rain flitting across the keys and techinical walkie-talkie crap crackling through the speakers around him. He didn’t even flinch. And I watched a woman from a Brooklyn gospel choir play a tambourine with such wonderful commitment and passion that, atheist as I am, I knew you could only play a tambourine that way if it was for God.

8th August, 2010

sampler-induced reverie

I’m moving house soon so I decided to have a clear-out and put some stuff on eBay, including a couple of old samplers from before the time when it seemed ok to take laptops onto a beery stage. Before boxing them up I turned them on for the first time in years and played through the samples – stuff from my old band The Miggs, and bits from Ed Harcourt’s records that I used to fly in during his gigs. It felt like the audio equivalent of seeing an old photograph – the way just one image can set off a flood of memories.

The way I used to feel in The Miggs – like I didn’t really belong in my own band, and certainly not in some strange pub off the M1 in clothes that were too tight. It all came to a head when I got asked to go to LA for 2 months to do Oceans 12. The singer gave me an ulitmatum and I knew which side my bread was buttered. We’re still friends though. Or the time I accidentally set off a massively loud sample in the middle of a pin-drop quiet section of and Ed gig, prompting one audience member to say sarcastically, “oh, THANKS”. Ed left the stage in an icy fury and I thought I’d really, really screwed up. But he returned moments later having raided the props room of the theatre we were in, carrying two fencing swords. We did battle at the front of the stage, I let him kill me, the crowd cheered and all was forgiven.

I’m producing a record for Astrid Williamson at the moment, a lovely songwriter and singer on One Little Indian. Here’s my ‘to-do’ list for one of the songs:

blurry fax machine in V2

reverse rabbit in big sect

low mid out of minky?
rubber guitar only on the one
bounce downstairs breathing

4th August, 2010

apology

When I started this blog about 5 and a half years ago, it was with the vague intention of shedding some light on what it is like to do the job that I do. I wanted to avoid the kind of willfully starry-eyed and oblique accounts that I imagined other people might be guilty of writing; it’s a lazy way to define oneself – conjuring up something to be against.

Although I have always been very grateful for the kind comments of my modest readership, I must admit that maintaining the diary became somewhat self-serving – more a way to keep track of my scattered life than a contribution to anyone else’s understanding. A trail of breadcrumbs for those dark nights of the soul when I feel lost and need a way of tracing my journey. And a good way to keep my parents up to date with what I’ve been doing without actually having to tell them.

But last week I ran into a bit of bother. I wrote here that a new Brian Eno record was coming out on Warp – and I shouldn’t have done because the label hadn’t announced it yet. By tomorrow all this will be yesterday’s news, but unfortunately today’s news included a large feature in the Guardian quoting extensively from this blog – including information that, whilst not secret, I nevertheless feel very embarrassed about having been made so public. They even included bits that I’d hastily deleted (and the fact that I’d hastily deleted them).

Various words spring to mind re-reading that last paragraph, such as ‘naivete’, ‘confusion’, and ‘bugger’.

Warp have taken it all in very good humor, but I would like to apologise to them and to Brian’s managers for being careless, and for blithely underestimating the widely-known potential of the internet to disseminate information.

One of the consequences is that from now on, this diary is going to change a bit. No longer will it be a blow-by-blow account of what I’ve been doing each month. I hope that in the future it will be more reflective and honest, more open and revealing – but not in the wrong way.

Thanks for reading.