Wednesday, November 17, 2010

To inform, educate and entertain…

My heart’s beating like a steam hammer, the pounding in my head is growing stronger all the time and the cold sweat envelops my body like a damp, chilled carapace. My fingers fumbling, I reach for the packet of white powder and arrange it in the familiar manner, my body screaming for the relief it will provide, my throat already dry with anticipation. Pour into a cup, add hot but not boiling water and stir thoroughly. When you’ve got a bad head cold and you’re feeling a bit fluey, there’s nothing like a Lemsip to perk you up.
We are due at the British Broadcasting Corporation’s outpost in deepest Ipswich to record a few songs to be broadcast ‘as live’ (i.e. there’s not really much scope for going back and redoing your individual mistakes, but if everyone buggers it up, you’re in with a chance of a retake) on their early evening show. Having a wealth of new material in the locker we’ve decided to do mostly them, and have included one cover version - an old soul and country classic which we will later suggest might work on one of the other shows in the BBC Suffolk stable. While warming up we have naturally decided to do none of these and are instead working around a lengthy improvisation of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer”.
Today we are six – Me, Gibbon, James, Helen, Turny Winn and Fiddly, and the room in which we have been billeted is as a result quite cosy in terms of elbow and/or knee room. Our Glorious Leader is rocking backward and forwards on a chair not designed for someone with legs as long as his, and our host and studio engineer, the similarly enlengthened Dave, expresses sympathy whilst telling tales of times perched on a primary school chair in governor’s meetings, chatting knowledgably about the SM58 Beta with OGL and setting up a plethora of mics, stands, and a weaveworld of cables and leads. There are two microphones on each guitar (“Due to the unique way in which the BBC is funded…”) and once he is satisfied that everybody will be adequately heard he retreats to the Outside Broadcast truck parked in the bowels of the building, which is to serve as the mobile control room and nerve centre.
Dave issues edicts and encouragements from this underground lair and we respond in kind, talking to a small speaker in the room which acts as our conduit to the otherword which he inhabits, not unlike Charlie’s Angels in Bosley’s office. “Are you very far away?” someone asks. “Not quite far enough” he responds drily, before interjecting to spark a brief discussion on whether we will be allowed to include the word ‘pissing’ in a song which is due to be broadcast during the drive time hour. Apparently there are any number of ways around this, including simply denying that the word had occurred, as they had previously successfully done when a surreptitious ‘fuck’ made it’s way onto the airwaves and a caller whose “Did I just hear what I thought I heard?” enquiry was gently but firmly patted away with a reassuring “No”. La Mulley asks for a set of headphones. “I’m doing the folky thing with one finger in my ear and I’m concerned it looks a bit wanky” she avers. “I’m down here with fingers in both ears, to be honest” responds Dave agreeably, before Turny Winn points out that we’re on radio, and so the wankiness or other of her aspect is a point moot at best.
A couple of hours, several takes of five different songs and a few coughing fits later, we have finished up for the evening to everyone’s satisfaction and are thanking Dave for his time, consideration and general all-round good humour and sunny demeanour. He, in turn, is pretty much doing the same for us. "Don't forget the PRS form..." exclaims OGL in a moment of clarity "...this could be worth up to a fiver for us!"

Monday, November 15, 2010

“Well I don’t like that tie, for a start…”

We have enjoyed another enormously productive weekend at Pig Pen Recording Studio, and the skeletons of the songs are starting to flesh out, put on muscle and wearing their jeans in an inappropriate fashion likely to upset their parents. 
Our Glorious Leader, resplendent in sandals and socks for reasons of comfort, has entered very much into active service after being an interested bystander for much of the time up until now while husbanding the work of Gibbon and me and generally overseeing the process with a benign but schoolmasterly air.

Now, brought to the fore of the fray, he chooses a guitar like a batsman selecting his willow, and discards plectrums much as a disgruntled golfer would despatch a club shortly before cuffing his caddy for providing him with the wrong iron. As is de rigueur in these situations, the introductions for many of the songs have long since outgrown their initial humorous intent, and have largely been replaced with anonymous click tracks and bip-bip-bip sounding electronic on-your-marks count ins, with the exception of one particularly notable introduction wherein Our Glorious Leader seems to have channeled the very essence of 1970’s Bruce Forsyth and counted off “one, two, three, fower”, which necessarily had to be temporarily excised before I could continue fluffing up the guitar part on ‘Rolling and Tumbling’ in my own good time.

There is a spectacularly good-sounding mystery cover version (to be revealed at a later date) in the works for which OGL decided to redo the guide vocal as he had initially extended the extemporisory theme of the count-ins to the point where the second verse consisted of a series of squawks and exclamations which wouldn’t necessarily have been out of place in the hubbub of Billingsgate in its prime. 

That Nice David Booth and I were in the studio Control Room – me trying to angle my reflection in the glass so that it looked as if OGL’s body had my head on it and TNDB lining up the monitor mix to be fed through into the headphones in the vocal booth. “Are you alright in there?” enquired TNDB solicitously. “I’m really not getting enough bottom” replied Our Glorious Leader. 

We turned to each other in the control room, nodded an unspoken acknowledgement, and moved on.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Dedication, perspiration, eradication...

Another evening session at The Pig Pen for the Songs from The Blue House Steering Committee and Artists and Repertoire Liaison Working Party - or Me, Gibbon, Our Glorious Leader and That Nice David Booth as we are otherwise known. We are loaded with exotic bottled beers from the far corners of the off license, biscuits, and a still touching faith in the redemptive power of music. 

After a couple of days of familiarizing ourselves both with our surroundings and with each other, the atmosphere is relaxed, yet workmanlike. There’s a palpable sense of needing to get things achieved, and yet still enough room to make light of the process. At one point I comment that I see one of my guitar parts as probably being quite low in the final mix. “Low in the final mix” ponders OGL, savouring the phrase as it hangs in the air like a fine Old Holborn. “What a curious way of expressing the phrase ‘deleted as soon as your back’s turned…’” 

We are here mainly to get some more of Gibbon’s remarkable bass playing down, but since he’s being plugged straight into the desk we take the opportunity to record some more acoustic guitar parts at the same time, thus helping to maintain the organic feel of the thing and also to give Gib something to look at while he’s being creative. OGL, being temporarily surplus to actual performing requirements, quietly sets up a laptop in the corner and updates an anxious waiting world with our progress in real time. As he uploads a picture of TNDB slaving over a hot digital mixing program interface we learn that friend of the group Mr. Wendell is at a gig in Norwich and that the man standing next to him is reading a book. 

Such are the wonders of technology, where no-one needs to splice in the correct edit of a take with a razor blade and some tape, and we know that it’s the interval in a gig eighty miles away. After a few hours’ work we have made a great deal of headway, and Gibbon is surprised to learn how much he’s already got under his belt in terms of 'keepers'. Many of these have been first takes, with the odd fret rattle or snatched note subtly fixed almost immediately, Booth’s brisk work rate helping to move things along in terms of keeping things fresh and ‘live’, without unnecessarily compromising on the quality of the actual performance. 

The technology is used as a tool, not a pre-requisite. At one point he expresses a healthy disdain for all things auto tune - which certainly won’t help his application to be one of the judges on the next series of X-Factor - and at another he subtly fades out the click track we’re playing along to, the better to bring an organic feel to the end of the song. On the play back I can hear OGL in the control room, playing along on piano, sniffing inspiration in the air like a caged animal, then leaping from his creative keening to pace the control room, his hands weaving an elaborate tapestry of interpretive gestures in the air. I open the door from the studio to see what subtleties his inspiration could be about to engender.

Turns out there was a fly in the control room driving him mad and he was trying to swat it.