Monday, February 26, 2007

Play One More for My Radio Sweetheart.

 I’ve been abroad the airwaves quite a bit recently. The first few times this happens it’s tremendously exciting, and there is a palpable air of hushed reverence as you are guided down labyrinthine corridors by a welcoming PA, gifted with coffee and asked to wait in The Green Room before being summoned through to the studio, issued with headphones and asked to comment for posterity’s sake on whatever it is you were invited in for in the first place. After a while, especially in a town the size of ours, you tend to get buzzed in at reception by the DJ currently working in the studio on his own, make your way to the water cooler and hang out there for a bit until he’s had a chance to set off the prerecorded interview from earlier on and nip out to ask if you’ve brought in copies of the CDs you want to play. It’s not all ordering stuff up from the library and flirting with the girl doing the traffic in the world of radio, you know. 

We in Songs From The Blue House have been grateful recipients of a number of interviews and sessions during our short but productive time together, mainly based on years of hard work beforehand in a number of bands and projects where individually and collectively we garnered a reputation for ourselves of being able to turn up on time, being broadly capable of stringing three or more sentences together in a row and being able to be relied upon not to say ‘fuck’ live on air. Hence the three main prerequisites of being interviewees are fulfilled and we get put on the roster of people to call in on a periodic basis. 

The last time I was in was to talk about my role as an “influential local musician”, which I believe broadly translated as maintaining the above mentioned requirements whilst in addition not being so bitter about my palpable lack of chart success as to spend half an hour laying waste to the talents of every other musician I can recall from the nineties. I believe the official term for this sort of behaviour is “A safe pair of hands”. 

As I say, demonstrating these sorts of characteristics can be terribly handy as before we’d even played live or hit the recording studio it meant that we were in the live lounge at Radio Suffolk performing the only three songs we had at the time, and Drivetime’s Stephen Foster was introducing us with the moniker we bear to this day (purely on the basis that we’d described the process of songwriting at James’s house, mentioning in passing that he’d painted it Ipswich Town blue) as Foz had nothing else to call us after he’d already invested in the phrase “…and now, performing live….”. Tragically, the best and most interesting vignette of the afternoon – the apocryphal story of how one Charlie Simpson used to come to our gigs and stand at the back comparing notes with his drummer friend and hence how I was therefore directly responsible for the career of Busted – passed off-mic in the middle of the roadworks update, and somehow the subject didn’t come up again during the remaining ten minutes of the interview. 

We were also on a community station which verged on the boundaries of piracy during our early days – I believe it was the first time I met our mandolin player incidentally - which was not such an enervating experience, as one of the enduring tenets of the live radio experience is not to say “Um” before every answer. To say it before every question betrayed the fracturing of concentration that can occur in a DJ when they’ve trapped their trouser leg in their bike chain on the way to the studio and are ten minutes late opening up as a result. The poor bloke had to put on a twenty minute psychedelic wig-out on first up just to give him time to get his breath back, and there was a growing realization that we’d been invited on to a show where research was perhaps not top of the “to do” list when our answers to questions like “How many in the band?” and “What do you play?” were greeted not so much with seamless links to the next subject but genuine surprise. “Really!? A flute, you say!?” I don’t think the engineer was expecting a six piece acoustic band to turn up either, but did a manful job, and one of the songs from the resulting session was released as on a free CD by the station, complete with the DJ describing what we looked like on the station’s internal CCTV cameras on the outro.
Not great radio, but endearing. 

Hence James and I approach our next venture with the all propriety as we have been deemed such a safe pair of hands that we have been invited to compile our own twenty minutes of recorded history to be, ahem, Podcast to the world. We’ve got twenty minutes of ‘air’ time to fill with three songs and our reflections upon them, which is a marvelous opportunity to plug our own forthcoming album. Being the altruistic old bears we are, we are of course digging out a couple of forthcoming things that we’ve heard in the studio while we’ve been working on, or taking a break from, banjo overdubs and we’re going to enthuse about them instead. Well, what goes around and all that. 

Hopefully we’ll be able to call on the expertise of Simon Talbot, out of The Urban Sofa Beat Collective, with whom I recently shared an interesting couple of on-air hours reflecting on the role of seventeenth century optometry in the folk ballad tradition, and whose professional experience extends as far as being ‘Producer Simon’ on the short-lived Picturehouse ICR radio show “Your New Favourite Record”, as well as ‘Doctor Pop’ on Oman Airways’ in-flight entertainment package, where he also rejoiced in the rather distressing sobriquet ‘Gaz Bender’, renowned presenter of “What’s Up Kids?”.Under his guidance and tutelage we feel sure that we can present an egg-suckingly good show, and with his bespoke editing software we can certainly rid ourselves of the occasional “Um” and repetitive “err…” we’re bound to drop in to the first draft. 

To “Er” is, after all, human.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

"Okay, Songs From The Blue House, I'm afraid I'm going to have to hurry you..."

Our kind and munificent record company have finally started looking at their watches, tapping them meaningfully and making raised eyebrow gestures toward the clock whenever we turn up to add another cello, bass trombone, vocal or mandolin to the masterwork in progress, and have faced us down with the sort of offer that James is increasingly negotiating with his children - "Okay, one more, and then we really have to go to bed". In our case it's not "one more" story, rotation of Thomas The Tank Engine on his track or YouTube viewing of monster tractor racing, but one more day of easy-going studio work before they start asking us for money every time we turn up. Which is fair enough - at market rates we've already spent about twelve grand's worth of their money (or, as we like to think of it, they've invested that much faith in our ability to produce a half-decent album while not bumping into the furniture) and we are over our agreed deadline. Four weeks may seem like a long time to put together sixteen songs, but we've not had the luxury of gathering everyone together for a couple of weeks pre-work and rehearsals and then decamping to the studio en masse for the duration of the sessions and then calling people in from the chill-out lounge when we need them to do a bit more work on their bit. A keyboard part has been put down btween prog-rock tours of Scandinavia and The Netherlands, a pedal steel solo between moving house and working on the new McFly album, a cello part because Liz was in the studio working on one of the other albums being recorded there, and a fairly integral acoustic guitar part after our protagonist managed to wrap up a training course in double quick time and scoot off to see us in the afternoon. We are moving air here, and so merely plugging things into a home PC isn't going to cut it once the thing is mixed, mastered, laser etched and delivered (or downloaded) - hence the airy studio and expansive (and expensive) selection of studio gadgetry involved, however now the pressure is on to not compromise all the hard work we've done (and cajoled people into doing on our behalf) so far just because the meter's very audibly running. The album itself is a medley of an affair. Some folky, some country, some acoustic pop and some confessional singer-songwriter, and so how it all hangs together is a peculiarly irksome nut that we're still no nearer to cracking than we were when we arranged all the songs in alphabetical order after the very first rough mix. There are a multiplicity of singers (and a dearth of the second album's big selling point - our female vocalist) and so the murky water of the stylistic content is further muddied by the changes in who you're listening to delivering it. Nevertheless, the material is strong, and so once everyone's downloaded it onto their computer and hence to their iPod where they'll listen to it on shuffle, that's really not going to matter too much. I think I may be the last man in England who listens to albums all the way through. The clue's in the title though - these are songs from The Blue House, and so whatever's best for their delivery is what makes the cut.
And so, heads down, ears open and let's get ready with those pursed lips and thoughful, furrowed expressions as we attempt to guide these steers into the corrall and brand 'em with the SftBH iron. It's tempting to try and rush this part of the process, but in the same way that you can't hurry love, in our game we long ago discovered that it's not over until The Fat Controller sings....

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Snow Came Down on This Ol’ Town

Another day in the studio, and another chance to sit in a comfy swivel chair and stare at lines on a screen. Back in the old days, you see, folks got together and played a song over and over in a recording studio until at least two of the band got it pretty much right, and then a young person who’d expressed an interest in getting into music would sit poised over a rewind button for the next three days while everyone else watched the tape rewinding over and over again as the guitarist tried to nail ‘the one’ take that would be committed for posterity and the singer fretted that there wouldn’t be enough time left at the end of the sessions to do more than three takes on the harmonies.

Occasionally the Tape Op would be despatched for coffees, sandwiches or to wake up the singer to see what he thought of the latest solo, or to drag him away from the pool table/Spinal Tap video/ pub, depending on the salubriousness of the facilities. Once, I came back from a refreshing lunch to find that the engineer had locked the rest of the band out of the studio while his Mum cooked tea for him (we were working on decidedly different timescales). I think it’s fair to say that this studio was at the lower end of the range facilities-wise. 

George Harrison once notably responded to George Martin’s “Tell me if there’s anything you don’t like” with the legendary riposte “Well, I don’t like that tie”. On this occasion the singer responded to a similar enquiry from our bass player simply, “I don’t like him. Or his collection of porn which he insists we go and watch while we’re trying to do those guitar overdubs”. They were simpler times. The studio was in a converted stable. After the sessions were over we made a bolt for the door. These days, we stare intently at a screen on which our notes are displayed and endlessly analyse whether things are in time, in tune and of the correct amplitude. I’m not entirely sure what that means, which is probably why our engineer turned the displays off at one point and insisted that we simply listen to the track. And we had to go and get our own coffees. 

The luxury of digital editing is that no-one is too concerned about having to rewind the tape to the right point as “…that bit just before the middle eight” is clearly visible onscreen, as are the bits where the horns come in and that section where we put down a vocal just in case we’d need it later. The bits of paper with “gtr – left” written on have been replaced with drop-down menus and digital interfaces which mean that the spectres of the tape becoming see-through, stretched, stuck together or simply dropped have gone with the wind. Imagine though, the first Boston album with even more overdubs… 

As it turns out, the instant rewind is as much of a curse as a blessing, as I listen to the twenty-fourth take on the simple phrase “When I look back!” I am intent on making sure that this, the first line of the song, is as intense, visceral and moving as I remember it from the demo. The Singer is having trouble getting a reservation to ‘that place’, let alone a ticket, and The Engineer is laying his head restfully on the recording console, from which there emanates a slight thudding noise. 

My production technique is starting to look decidedly flaky. The phrase “Concentrate on the N” is received with blank looks from both, and justifiable mild irritation from the man wearing the rather fetching headphone ensemble. We decide to “get back to that one” and to play with Pro Tools instead. As any fule kno, Pro Tools is a system whereby you can pick up bits of digital information (recorded sound in this case) and move them. Back, forward, up, down – whether or not there’s something going on here and we’d like to keep it hidden, we’ll try almost anything once, and no move is forbidden. Naturally we rely on the integrity of our performance, and so there is absolutely, and I want to get this straight, no manipulation of harmonies going on at all. Oh no. At one point I drift off and am woken by a conversation involving E flat (it’s not all glamour in the music biz you know). 

There are manipulations of red lines on the screen, mouse clicks, and a cutting and pasting frenzy to put all but the most active of pre-school playgroups to shame. In the end though, as in the days of tape, the result will be the same. A small boy holds out his work and says “Look. Look what I did today!”

As an adjunct, this is one of the tracks we were working on that day