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