Friday, September 22, 2017

Another Happy Day

I’m occasionally of the opinion that if I were to write an autobiography, and simply stop at the point at which we started getting gigs in London, it would be a rip-roaring success with an unholy clamour for the sequel – of course in reality wouldn’t even be worth the tax Amazon would dodge on it. I’ve very much lived my career so far in a sort of parallel universe to those who have made it though, and who have retired to a life of speaking tours, and the occasional showcase gig in (say) Pompeii. Nevertheless we share many of the fundamental aspects of our life and experiences. I’ve got sleeping in the van stories, sleeping in someone’s kitchen, sleeping in a dormitory at a community centre in Denmark…in fact upon reflection, very many of these rip-roaring anecdotes involve either finding, or being overly concerned with securing, places to sleep. There more I consider it though, the more I tend toward the school of thought which holds that I may have misjudged the mood of the memoir-buying public in this respect.
Neil Young has a great (now confirmed) urban legend about him listening to mixes of his new album whilst sitting in a boat on the lake outside his home in California with the house serving as one half of a stereo speaker system while his rehearsal PA, set up in the adjacent barn, served as the other. My equivalent story involves listening to Magical Mystery Tour whilst leaning against one wardrobe - which had the left-hand speaker atop it - while the other side of the harshly split stereo was being channelled via a chest of drawers on the other side of the room. Admittedly I didn’t have Graham Nash in the boat with me while I shouted “More barn!” at my road manager, but we were stoned and looking through kaleidoscopes at the time, and if anything’s going to convince you of the genius of Paul McCartney’s bass playing, that’ll be it.

You see what I mean though – it’s hardly doing our second gig at Woodstock, is it?

I do have my own little moments though – like this morning, when the SftBH song ‘Another Happy Day’ came on in the car through the magic algorithm of random play. I see by reference to the electric internet that it came out over twelve years ago. Twelve years before that I was covering Gram Parsons songs in gods kitchen, which had a nice sort of synchronicity when we put a GP in-joke on the credits for our next album. Back in 2005 though, we were in the middle of a hugely creative and collaborative patch. I think we were still making up the set list as we went along whenever we played live, which certainly kept things interesting for the rest of the band, whilst at home the creative nucleus of the band swooped and dived around each other like two starlings hatching a plot. Helen and I were chipping in on songs with each other remotely, but I think this was one of the first times we sat in a room and decided we were going to write a song together. She wrote the words, I came up with most of the progressions and Mr Wendell, along for the ride for the evening, provided a vital intervention with the odd passing chord in the bridge (he described it as either a “Paul Weller chord or a Beatle one…”) which forever after I had to check the fingering of before we played it live, and without ever quite getting it quite right.

The whole thing was intended as a sub-Bible tribute song (certainly on my part) - an intent further magnified when everybody else declined to sing it and I had to adopt my best Boo Hewerdine croon in order to perform the vocal. It was never going to win me first place on an obscure singer-songwriter edition of Stars in their Eyes, but given that my usual party trick up to this point was a note-imperfect rendition of Tonight’s the Night I reckon I got away with that one. Occasional auteur Pete ‘Radar’ Pawsey – a man who had (and I strongly believe still has) the uncanny ability of being able to tinker seemingly pointlessly for hours on end before coming up with a moment of inexplicable genius which puts the cherry on top of whichever Bakewell you’re currently involved in icing – put on a Skywriting dobro part to counterpoint Russ Barnes' lovely answering mandolin. As evidence of both our creative and collaborative instincts we then decided that what the outro really needed was a sung/spoken rapid and rhythmic vocal at the end, which we duly adjured from our friend Matt* who accepted both the commission of writing a short essay on the theme of Another Happy Day and the lack of attention afforded him when he actually came to record his part with impressive equanimity. To be fair, his wife was wearing an astonishingly short skirt when she accompanied him to the studio, and the sofa in the control room was not a forgiving place to sit and think, or even to just sits, so at this remove perhaps you’ll forgive us our temporary distraction from the job in hand.  
We also overdubbed and timecoded the sound of James’s camera, which we’d noticed made a sound in the same key as our song when he switched it on, and which he was duly credited with playing in the sleeve notes. Studio engineer and unflappable sound guru Steve Tsoi arranged the stereo microphones with an impressively straight face for that session, I seem to remember.

Upon reflection, I guess this isn’t the sort of anecdotery by which rock memoirs are judged after all. “We wrote a song, we recorded a song, we hung out with our friends and ate rotisserie chicken from the Tesco’s in Tiptree” it pretty much runs. Still, whenever he hears Harvest on the radio while out cruising in his LincVolt, I wonder if Neil Young chuckles to himself and thinks “That day with Nash on the lake. Man that was fun…”?   

*In the same way that Matt came up with the rap part on this song, our friends Wendell and Kilbey did some guitar parts, a friend of Helen’s Dad played the accordion and the mandolin player’s girlfriend came in and did a lead vocal for us. At times it was a bit like the von Trapp family in there, with us going “Adjure, adjure, to you and you and you…”.**

**Do it in the accent.

Friday, September 08, 2017

The Kindness of Strangers

 We - Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs - are not, it should be stressed, a band of independent means. Our fragmented touring schedule (we are not the most hawkish of gig-mongers) means that since we don’t play much* our concert-related income stream does not stretch to budgeting for a week’s recording in the country, two days’ mixing and a subsequent mastering session with a devoted engineer, even at mate’s rates. Hence we are pleased and grateful that our munificent benefactors Sam Inglis and Fenton Steve are the sort of chaps who enjoy nothing more than spending a bucolic Saturday looking concernedly at a whirring laptop, making sure we don’t knock over absurdly expensive microphones, marking out soundtastic sweet spots with masking tape, and making endless cups of tea for us (see blogs passim).
Our latest foray into standing in a big room and playing a song from start to finish, all at the same time, and hoping no-one lets off fireworks in the car park has been lovingly curated once again by our benevolent uncles from darkest Cambridgeshire, and we think it’s the best one so far. Three songs – one of which I distinctly remember demoing with The World Service in the function room of a pub that Google informs me was decommissioned in 1997 – wherein everybody gets a bit of a play, most of us have a sing, and the majority of folk are happy with their arrangements. Fiddly likes to prepare meticulously and has his own form of impenetrable musical notation which future etymologists are more than welcome to try to deconstruct whereas by contrast Gibbon (on bass) is far more of an improviser and a wing-it kind of guy, and so to get a take with which both are happy can be quite the calendar event.

As I say, we recorded these songs live - mainly around one magnificent Soundfield, with additional booster microphones for those elements which were getting slightly lost when fighting against the sound of Mr. Wendell’s mighty room-swamping Gibson acoustic. Meticulous attention to detail was then applied to the soundscapes by Steve (a considerable step or two beyond my contribution of “Could you tweak the banjo a bit?”) who passed on his thoughts to Sam, who then curated the finished objets. Our continued thanks for outside audio perspective, chapel wrangling, and biscuit provision are once again well overdue.

Please have a listen, enjoy if you can, and share at will. We truly appreciate it.

*After the last recording session we did we immediately started looking to the next one. The first date that all six band members were available on the same day was five months hence.