Thursday, 18 May 2017

Thoughts on tuning, double tracking & contrast of style on an LP

Here's a reply I wrote to Grilly about his post here. I thought I'd repost my thoughts here for my own reference, as they felt substantial enough to warrant it.

Image result for double tracking images

I've never listened to Soundgarden, but now that I've read this - and listened to 'Fell On Black Days' - I might investigate further. Some thoughts on your post: - the "tuning of the guitar should suit the performer" is such an important realisation. It encourages the player from the get-go to abandon the normal constraints of received wisdom and how to do things "properly"... and understand music as a flexible and expressive medium that can adapt to any ability, taste or company. There are no right or wrong ways in its implementation. I felt I discovered this with the piano. I couldn't play it, but if I banged the bass notes really frantically with the pedal on, it made a fantastic sound that seemed to chime with how I was feeling when I did it. This seemed to me as valid as any dextrous part played in a Grade 9 piano exam. However, this point only really hit home when playing in my duo in London, where I was required (as the only one not playing drums) to play guitar and sing at the same time. Not being able to play guitar, nor able to do two things at once, in desperation I tuned the guitar to an open tuning and then just slid my finger along the fretboard in a big line to make different sounds. Later, I tuned most of the strings to the same note, to create a really thick, chorussy sound. It may not have sounded like much, but there I was, playing guitar - something I would never have thought possible, and all because these moveable pegs on the headstock had been utilised a little further than I had seen done in the past. It may not have sounded that good, but it felt incredible! - I agree with what you say about double tracking. It has always been a weakness of mine, so much so that in recent productions I have attempted to limit its use because I feel I am repeating past production methods... but it is a revelation the first time one does it. There is a depth and a richness, a quality, that is impossible to achieve in the live performance. It is something special for the recording rendition of the song alone. I also love how the depth is achieved not through any great artistry, but the tiny imperfections in the takes, and their respective differences between one another, that force the ear to pay attention. For this reason I find The Beatles' use of ADT (Automatic Double Tracking) really brittle and flat: there's none of the good stuff in there, reacting with a take that's slightly different. - having contrast between the styles of the songs throughout an album seems groundbreaking as an idea now, doesn't it? Yet back in the day when one actually sat and listened to the whole CD from start to finish, variation in tone was essential. One of my chief complaints of the cool, aloof and hopelessly affected touring bands that would pass through the proto-hipster venues of Newcastle's underground music scene in the late Noughties, was that all their songs, and all their records, sounded EXACTLY THE SAME throughout. They just fixed their aim on one particular sound, and then beat it out over countless tracks, albums and live sets. It was exhausting and boring to witness. Their repetition paid dividends, however: it made them easy to pigeon hole, and therefore easier to sell to a gig-going market. By the time you left the show, you were in no doubt what they were about, having been hammered with the same motif twelve times in 40 minutes; essential if you had spent the last half hour talking loudly at the bar and ordering fizzy beer in plastic cups, or were already too inebriated to realise that one song had ended and another identical piece had begun in its place. It did my head in, partly because it seemed like a prerequisite for "success" in the music industry world. As soon as anybody from these groups did anything remotely different or interesting, it was siphoned off into a side project, whereupon the repetition of this new particular style was done once more, under a new name. When I listen to an album (yes, some of us still do this!) I want to be taken on a journey, and end up somewhere different from where I began. This can't happen if the drums sound as though they've been mixed for the opening track and then all the settings have been copied and pasted en masse across the whole album mix, or the guitarist takes a solo after EVERY second chorus.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Future Loss release Extraction album 'The Empire Never Ended'.

During my work as a producer, I frequently experimented with the arrangements by muting the central parts of the song (vocals, guitars, bass and so on), to reveal the extra instrumentation that had been added during the studio process.  

Originally, these brief blips of obscure texture and ambience were designed to illustrate certain production techniques I was employing, without compromising the artist by revealing their work wholesale before it was finished.

I found these pieces of work beautiful, and loved how a new piece of music in its own right emerged from an existing arrangement.  I called these 'extractions', and set about applying the technique to as many of the recordings I had worked on as producer.

In 2013, I approached a Newcastle-based digital radio station about a programme documenting my extraction work.  Although only three episodes were broadcast, the concept remained with me as a powerful way of viewing a piece of work from a fresh angle.

Often I ended up enjoying the extracted piece more than the original - it seemed to chime with my increasingly esoteric taste in music.  As well as exposing the many layers of my production, it also gave an opportunity to hear the virtuoso performances by the many musicians I had been lucky to work with and record.  Suddenly violins, backing vocals, rinky dink percussion and massive delayed feedback could be brought to the fore, creating a new and exciting take on the original piece. 

Future Loss would, as one of the bands I recorded most, take centre stage when it came to the extraction process, and here is a selection of the best pieces from their back catalogue.  

The listener can hear at close quarters the cavernous beats of Stuart Stone in the upstairs room at The Cumberland Arms, playing Daisy Chained Pianos (before they snap to a dry feed once the ambient mics are turned off), or James Emsell's thunderous bass on Last Year's Fashions in complete isolation, or Brian's haunting, drifting ambient guitar on Disinterest Club (something I believe flat out to be one of the best things the band has ever put its name to).  

Audiophiles will also be interested to note that small details not normally heard in the finished mix can now be identified:  the headphone bleed from overdub takes, fast noise gates closing on rattling snare hits, automation programming at work.  

In some pieces the extraction takes a more left-field approach and, rather than merely exposing what already exists, goes one step further and distorts, delays or tampers with the extracted layers, which brings the lister as close to a "remix" as they're ever going to get.

I'm as proud of the sounds we captured on our records as I am of our songwriting - and I'm very proud to release this and shine a light on some of the cool stuff we were up to under the bonnet of our recordings.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Thought process while compiling solo albums

1.   No one's going to listen to it anyway.

2.   The current tracklisting keeps sending me to sleep.  It's because there are very specific requirements for listening to this stuff.  It has to be dark, and you have to be staring into an open fire.  At 2 o'clock in the morning, when everyone else is in bed.

3.   How does one deal with the variety of genres and songs?  There are remixes, extractions, laptronica, straight singer/songwriter recordings with the microphone balanced atop the piano, ambient recordings of trains and half finished blips that sputter into existence, then immediately die a death before they properly get started.

4.   Try to embrace the unfinished, abandoned nature of it all.  See it as an opportunity to work in a different way, free of the perfectionism that has often interfered with previous work.

5.   It seems the best way to sequence the material is chronologically.  I found that there is just enough shared airspace between the various tracks composed while in London to bind them together, despite the radicals shifts in genre.  In earlier pieces, it's the access to the equipment that provides cohesion between the songs:  certain spaces, microphones and instruments available to me at the time act as the centre point, rather than a common musical theme.

6.   It's looking like there's going to be about four - maybe five - albums.  The reason why there are so many is because...

7.   I honestly can't stand listening to more than about 25 minutes of this stuff at a time.  After that, I start to feel tired.  I think it's because the material is quite dense:  there's a lot going on sonically in a short space of time.  So things have to be broken up into lots of installments.  This approach seems to dovetail well with presenting things chronologically, as there was never more than half an hour of material with each location I worked in.

8.   No one's going to listen to it anyway.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

An album commentary for the Grilly record 'On Benefit'

Grilly and I had the opportunity last week to meet in a noisy Camden park, and geek out over his seminal 2006 release 'On Benefit'.  

It is an album that I cannot overstate the importance of in my own path to becoming a producer.  The bold and inventive sound design was matched by brilliant melodies, which twisted and turned throughout the record to create a record of true dynamism and diversity.  

In short, it is one of my all-time favourite records, ever, and was a major motivation for starting Ex Libris Records.

You can hear Grilly talking about his inspirations and processes behind making this very special record.

Unfortunately, my dictaphone didn't pick up Grilly's speech at a particularly audible level - partly because I was balancing the mic on a park bench along with my (rather loud) bluetooth speaker / iPhone combo; so you will have to strain in parts to hear what he's saying.  Bear with it, however, as it does get better as the recording progresses.  Perhaps it's fitting that a commentary track should be as lo-fi as its subject matter?

Don't forget that the record itself is available for download at Grilly's Bandcamp.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

My Attorney publish an album commentary to their fourth studio release, 'Tech Support'

An album often has as much of a story behind it, as the music it finally presents to the world.

Collecting together the surviving members of the band - Andrew Gardiner (vocals, production), Andy Warmington (guitars, brass) and Stuart Stone (drums, high hats) - this intimate recording takes the listener through the band's reflections on their fourth studio album, 'Tech Support'.


Where have all the high hats gone?  Which invasive backing vocals were sensationally edited out at the last minute?  What about that big fire that happened?  All these questions, and more, are covered in this in-depth commentary.

The album itself can be downloaded in full at the following address:

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Future Loss Soundcloud account now ready to meet its public & unreleased b-side

As part of this slow climb to the summit of 'Archival Status', I've given the Future Loss Soundcloud account a bit of an overhaul.

Before, it had been a depository of demos, works in progress, live recordings and extractions.  Most of those pieces have now been catalogued in proper albums, either in the form of the live album King Yeah Man, or the extractions album The Empire Never Endedavailable from the band's Bandcamp page.

The unreleased curios record Keep The Commission will collect together the remaining outtakes and alternative versions, to ensure maximum documentation of all things ever done. 

With this in mind, it felt like a better use of the Soundcloud space to present a general overview of the band's work.

I want the band to put its best foot forward when it comes to having an online profile.  So that when people stumble across the group online, they're met with a coherent summary of what the group was - and is - about.  And when they want to download something, or stream in greater detail, they can do so at the Bandcamp page.  It's something I hope to have for My Attorney and Ex Libris as a whole, too.

Housekeeping, basically.

To celebrate me staying up until 3am uploading and tagging audio while watching Building Alaska on ITV3 and eating muesli with chopped banana, and then having to reupload audio because the files began or ended with a hard edit that needed to be faded in or out, and then having to purchase a Pro plan to enable me to replace the existing files on the profile, causing me to question my very existence on a profoundly spiritual level... the Soundcloud account now features an unreleased song, taken from the Pattern Magic / Summoner sessions.  It will be available to download in due course on the Keep The Commission b-sides/unreleased material album, but in the meantime can be streamed below.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Future Loss release their sixth LP: I, Realia

From the liner notes on Bandcamp:

Sitting as a companion piece to Kept Alive, Future Loss' sixth album sees the band settling into the "live production" approach established by its predecessor, taking it deeper into the murky undergrowth.

The greater cohesion between the players is evident after a year of working together, as is the desire to experiment within the stark lines of the three piece setup.  Two songs now feature bass, while vocals often take a back seat in favour of wild manipulation of samples and loops from the guitars and keys, all of which were conjured up live and spontaneously in the room as recording took place.

Recorded once more in a disused bank in Belfast, the band abandoned preconceived song ideas, and instead followed their noses through long improvised sections, which were later edited down and blended together.  We didn't plan it to sound so whacked out and semi-lucid; it just turned out that way.

Future Loss release their fifth LP: Kept Alive

The album notes read as follows:

Coming off the back of the studio sessions for Pattern Magic and Summoner, Future Loss was ready for a change in approach once more. 

The band had undergone considerable life changes since the last record, with Andrew and Brian leaving Newcastle for London and Belfast respectively. Brian's recording experiments with his Over Sea solo work, and collaboration with drummer Michael Farrelly on the Privileged Idiot: King For A Day recording, pointed the band in a new direction. Gone were the lush, dense arrangements using all the luxuries afforded by the studio environment, replaced by a raw and uncompromising sound captured live in the room. 

At the core of this stylistic shift was the addition of Michael to drums. A long-time friend of the band, Michael was still learning his craft when the Kept Alive sessions began. He proved a natural behind the kit, and quickly brought his stripped down and pacey delivery to bear on the new material. 

The band convened in a disused bank in Belfast, throughout the summer, autumn and winter of 2014. Recordings were made on the Roland R-05 stereo audio recorder, placed strategically between the amps, PA and drum kit. With the exception of Sleep Deprive Your Soul, all textures and ambiences were created live in the room. 

Lyrically, the record draws upon the emotionally lean times of that period; the loss of lovers and friends, amid the dull exhaustion of a foreign city. 

Kept Alive is not for the faint hearted: it is ragged and imperfect in places. But it's also heartfelt, true to a fault, and shows a band reaching for something beyond the gloss of studio recording.

On a purely personal note, this record holds a great deal of darkness in its vaults.  Something about the instinctive, almost reflex way it was recorded seemed to bring that out, without any opportunity to filter some of the feelings in the lyrics.  

It also has some of the melodies I 'm proudest of.  Maybe that was because I was back in a very pure role of just singing, and not getting distracted by other things.  

It's not a record that will appeal to everybody, especially if you were drawn to the more high fidelity offerings of the band's back catalogue, but that doesn't mean to say it doesn't have its own lo-fi, scuzzy merits.

Monday, 16 May 2016

December 2015 / January 2016

Prior to the trip home for Christmas, I managed to steal a weekend up in Newcastle, seeing Stuart and Andy - and saying a farewell to Luke before his emigration.  

My Attorney recorded a webcast documentary commentary to Tech Support, which I still need to edit.  It was great fun, and has inspired me to record similar commentaries for other important Libris releases.  Next up will be Grilly, talking about On Benefit, ten years after it was made available. 

The festive period saw another opportunity to record with Loss, this time with the multitrack equipment from Colerabbey Studios. 

I can tell you, it felt strange and ghastly exhuming those old mic stands and dusty XLR leads out of their boxes in my parents’ garage:  like disturbing an old pharaoh in his tomb, the shadows of those final Newcastle days.

The results were mixed:  a lot of faffing around setting all the stuff up as usual, and then Core Audio dropouts, no doubt because my MacBook Pro has difficulties running the Mavericks OS.  I felt really upset by it, it brought back all those bad memories of stressful sessions of yesteryear and all the reasons why I had left the whole process behind. 

Subsequent playbacks with the lads confirmed that most of the songs “sounded quite good with that massive bleep at the end and then total silence”, which made me feel a little better.

The end of the year also provided an opportunity to start cutting together two more Loss records from the bank sessions in Belfast that we had been conducting over the last year and a half.  They’re the antithesis of the stuff contained within Pattern Magic, Summoner and Tech Support.  Everything is recorded live in the room on the audio handset; and the results are thin, scratchy and raw.  But they have a certain quality to them that is very true, very satisfying.  Everything sits, pre-mixed, in this honest reflection of what was happening at that very moment.  Nothing is fabricated or contrived.  Nothing can sound out of place, unless it also sounded out of place in the room when it happened.  The psychology of mixing has always fascinated me…  it’s interesting to think that I have somehow gone backwards in terms of fidelity through my ten years as a producer, and yet ended up somewhere that at times sounds far better than anything that took up thirty tracks and half a terabyte of hard disk space.  The complete discography of The Fall that sat on my iPod for a year or so has clearly counted for something.

November 2015

Capitalising on the work done on the previous four visits home, I was finally in a position to master and release two Future Loss records, and one My Attorney LP.  That was a delicate process.  Not very interesting to write about, but delicate.  One doesn’t want to screw up several on-off years of work at the last hurdle my over-compressing a mix, or rushing a cross fade.  

I was also able to get a live album by Future Loss up online too.  

More music was done in the disused bank in Belfast with Future Loss.

August 2015

The summer of 2015 saw the beginning of a new project for me; a two-piece experiment called Sham, with me playing guitar and shouting, and Mark Warmington (whom I had formed my childhood band Pond with back in 1996) on drums and backing vocals. 

The idea was just to do some music, despite us both being aware of our considerable limitations as players.  To date, it has been a lot of fun, as well as cathartic, a welcome date in the diary each week when the two of us can let off some steam and bask in the racket we both make. 

The more we do it, the more we feel we might be able to produce something we’re proud of.  We’re not particularly proficient, but we won’t let that get in our way of having a good time and making music.  One should never let being able to play your instruments get in the way of groundbreaking music.

A momentness of seriousnessness

Is it worth stating at this point my ideas on production, writing and creativity within music as a whole?  Is that something I really want to try to articulate, when the last ten years of talking hasn’t been enough to truly nail my feelings on the matter? 

In a nutshell, I got too close.  Music is part of me.  And to try to turn that into a way of making a living just doesn’t work for me.  It does for others, but not for me.  And that isn’t meant to sound like some principled, Dischord-spouting rhetoric.  Because it isn’t.  It’s just a belated acceptance of the laws by which my nature as a person is governed; and something I failed to realise, or take heed of, as each endeavour to carve a career out in the field of music only seemed to repeat bilious feeling after bilious feeling upon me over and over again.

I got into music because I’m a singer.  Not because I wanted to be a producer, record label owner, events organiser, manager, A&R man, live engineer, studio owner, college teacher, mediator, publicist or company director – though in my journey through music I have been all of those things too.  I lacked the confidence to just stick to what I felt closest to – singing.  That didn't seem enough on its own, somehow.  So I felt I had to do all of these other things, to bolster my idea of myself, other things that just distracted and took away from the raw pleasure and vitality of being a singer in a band.

It feels good now to admit that, and tell you hand on heart, instead of producing all those records by other people, I should’ve been concentrating on my own stuff.  I didn't know it at the time, but I know it now.  Because no one else was going to do that for me; and tragic delays such as the one for My Attorney LP4 was proof of how skewed the priorities had become.  Of putting off personally important work in favour of paid work and flyposting shows for bands in a city I had long grown tired of.

In the last days of Newcastle, I was slowly beginning to realise this.  I had pulled up the drawbridge on promoting live shows and producing other people’s work.  The bands I was in just rehearsed, wrote and hung out together.  It was by far the most creative time, disengaging from a closed-shop music scene that had no time for blow-ins like us.  And why exhaust oneself trying to appeal to an audience one didn’t respect?  Why try to hawk for work in a profession that was two steps removed from the heartfelt reason you got into it in the first place?  By 2013, I had run out of patience and energy trying to engage with an alternative music scene in Newcastle that had become bogged down in the hipster aesthetic and which was cliquey beyond belief.  It’s a small place; and if your face doesn’t fit then don’t expect to get any shows without having to put them on yourself.  And that takes time and energy that could be better spent working on your own endeavours. 

I got so angry with it all.  I didn’t really know why at the time, but I understand more of it now.  It doesn’t stop me being angry – mainly at myself – for pandering to all that scenster nonsense, when I should have been way, way ahead of all that, making my own stuff and having a life worth living, rather than grubbing around in the constrictive world of the Ouseburn.

And that's not to invalidate the successes Ex Libris did have while it was operating.  I achieved a lot through it, though I'm not sure if it was all in exactly the direction I had originally intended.  Things got blown off course as time went by.  And the work I did for others gave me knowledge and experience beyond my wildest dreams, compared to when I started out on the little MiniDisc 8-track in Portrush.   So I'm fighting to use this mixed bag of experiences to map out a better way forward for the future.

Any attempt at engaging with the professional “industry” was the same.  There was this innate incompatibility that ran through me when I tried to work with such things.  I found that lots of people can be good at many things, but few involved in music are there for creative reasons.  They may say they are.  They may talk as though they are, wear the clothes as though they are and make the friends that suggest that they are.  But when push comes to shove, they’re invited to the party on reasons other than merit; and all the artistic integrity in the world isn’t enough to hammer through the thick skin of artifice and clique-iness that exists in a scene that distrusts anything it doesn’t already know or feel familiar with.  The only way in, is via people – and that takes a certain talent that isn’t necessarily related to making good music.  The same can be said of business as a whole:  it’s not what you know, but who you know that grants you the exposure you need to make a living.

At one point during my final furlong in Newcastle, I was in talks with a business that pairedproducer-songwriters with emerging artists.  I thought it might be a good idea to turn what talents and experience I had in the field to good, commercial use.  It ended up with these two middle-aged business men talking a lot about X Factor finalists in Serbia, and criticising the vocals on an old My Attorney track.  I felt violated; I knew in my heart that the work I’d done was – for the most part – good.  Inviting these clowns into my life to grope me and leave without so much as a follow up phone call was humiliating.  Again, it was Life’s way of saying that I was going about things the wrong way.  Something as precious as singing is not designed to be grafted onto the mechanics of a business that is just looking for the next corporate consultancy payday, masquerading as some "workshop" or "enterprise programme".

Make the sign of the cross, and walk away.  Which was difficult, because I never wanted to be a hobbyist.  For me it was a life thing.  So you have to step back, and reappraise it all.  Work out how you are going to do what it is you want to do, outside of anyone else’s system.  Because once you start playing by someone else’s rules, you’re fucked.

February 2015

I had been asked to compose another soundtrack for the same director of the previous short film I had worked on.  But after hearing my sketches, they decided to go with someone else.  

To be honest, I was relieved.  Working to a brief had been a fun challenge the first time, but I was becoming more clear about how I needed to continue with music in the future, and this wasn't really compatible with it.

The film in question was about Frankenstein’s monster who lives above a kebab shop, and eats an American tourist played by the large captain from the first episode of Red Dwarf.  It had a long section where the large man walked about an empty attic, then he was attacked by a Boris Karloff-lookalike.  In the end he was turned into kebab meat.

I later tracked down the Facebook profile of the chap who they preferred over me, and it was the usual thing:  a man with a beard and an unpronounceable surname, hitting exotic African percussion in a meaningful way and maintaining an intimidating social media presence.

But the demos from this aborted brief still remain; and they'll see the light of day in some form or other.

December 2014 / 2015

This saw the concluding part of the My Attorney LP4 mixing work; a lot of snags to fix, and last remaining high hats to delete.  

By this point I felt a little more ease at the fact I was mixing the music posthumously; perhaps because it was starting to sound good and I think Ian would have been pleased with the finished result.  

Mixes were sent to Andy and Stuart for their input and complaints about missing high hat parts, the latter of which were duly duly ignored.  Another year gone, stood around the bonfire.

April 2015

It was common practice for me by this time to escape my box room in East Sheen and retire to coffee shops in central London – anywhere with a free plug socket.  I would end up wandering the city, working on the laptop, making abortive fragments that at time of writing have yet to find a home. 

I definitely feel there is a solo project forming, however.  
  • A disc of piano songs with voice and nothing else.  
  • A disc of tense, boxed-in laptop pieces.  
  • A disc of old stuff found on old hard disks that should have been cleared from the decks years ago.  
  • A series of extractions albums highlighting my production treatments on third-party records (not to mention shedding light on some of the virtuoso performances from the musicians I’ve been lucky to record with).
  • A disc of free-floating, found-sound, druggy ambience.  
  • And then disc of stuff from the here and now, using all that I have learned, summated into one true album of coherence, that draws together all the disciplines and lessons I have learned from my journeys with other people’s work over the last ten years.  Old plastic boxes plugged into pianos plugged into hallways plugged into the person I am now, rather than the one I was then, with guest cameos by guitarists I've worked with in the past.  Served on vinyl with a book of photos and handmade sleeve by Brian.

In mid-April, Future Loss reconvened for an even more successful session than last time; capturing a hypnotic, weird vibe that seemed to introduce a fresh idea to the group:  that the production treatments should take place live and in real time within the room…  with Brian and me taking care to fade in, modulate and then remove each texture with the same care as one might automate or mix the faders on a console when bouncing down the final mix.

October 2014

After 84 consecutive days at work – working two jobs at the same time – I came home for two weeks to quietly collapse in the arms of the East Strand.  During this time at home, I was required to sift through the remains of my immediate past in Newcastle, since much of it was still in boxes in various rooms in my parents’ house.  There was welcome respite from this in the form of another session with Future Loss in Belfast.

The band had evolved once more.  The last time Brian and I had been in Future Loss land, it had been a place of lusciously recorded guitars, and multi-layered synthesisers, which acted as the icing on the cake to hypnotic rhythm sections that were muscular and mighty in their presence. 

Now we had Michael on board, who was significant in being a friend and fan of our music long before he sat in the drum stool.  It was also significant because he was still learning to play, though his natural talent had been evident right from the first time I’m heard him behind a kit at Ex Fest back in 2006.  His style was stripped back and fast.  I remember thinking that if he developed steady rhythm-keeping, he’d be dangerous.  It only took him a couple of sessions in Belfast to get up to speed.  Brian and I have always been blessed when it comes to drummer talent.

During the October session, we cranked out scuzzy, white noise punk in a disused bank in Belfast.  Things were a bit ropey in places, but I don’t think that mattered.  It wasn’t the point.  The point was finally having like-minded individuals who all wanted to be there as much as each other, together in a room, letting off steam.  

So much of the band history up to this point had involved sharing musicians from other projects, who had commitments and priorities other than Loss. 

Now we had a gang, a shared starting point of listening to Idlewild b-sides back in 1999, in student flats off the Ormeau Road and dreaming of guitar tone so white it made your teeth rattle.

May 2014

I was tasked with writing a soundtrack for a short film, for people in the media industry of London.  The film was shot by a cameraman friend of mine, who managed to get me the gig.  I was grateful for the distraction.  I needed something to take my mind off my studies and endless night shifts.

It also granted me a brief insight into the world of East End media; which appears to be very similar to what I’ve witnessed in fashion and advertising.  Lots of talking.  Not a lot of specifics.  A lot of people who are good at making contacts, and doing things technically well, but the industry as a whole lacks the creative spark to do anything interesting or soulful.  You wonder how people make their real money, since everything seems to be done for free.  We got taken to a strip club one night, as part of the wrap party.  And there was also the opportunity to see some of the submissions for the London Short Film Festival.  I had to buy my own ticket to see our entry.  That’s how the Biz works when you’re down near the bottom.

The experience of working to a brief, and editing the arrangement to the cuts of the film was really refreshing.  I enjoyed the process a lot, and it was interesting to see how short films get made, and speak with the directors, producers and technicians who work behind the scenes.  I don't think anything really became of it, though.  Everyone was working for free, hoping it might look good on their showreels when they hawked for future work.

Despite everybody being very complimentary about my soundtrack, I wasn't so sure.  I think what they were looking for was more of a Cliff Martinez-vibe, and my submission was rather dour.  But perhaps that was because I composed it while sleeping on a floor above a pub, with a fungal skin infection by being exposed to too much bleach.

April 2014

The small musical community that I was part of lost Ian Leaf very unexpectedly at the beginning of 2014.  It was a tragedy that still lingers in my heart, like a black ghost. 

With the grim benefit of hindsight, his friendship and musical companionship always felt like something I took for granted while he was alive, and tragically could only fully appreciate the extent of his good nature and artistic presence with his passing. 

It leant the April 2014 mixing sessions of the My Attorney record a very peculiar feeling indeed.  I retired to my parents cottage, in remote County Down, for a week.  Save for the barman at Daft Eddy’s bar, I neither spoke to nor interacted with anyone for a week, spending the whole time mixing tracks from the LP4 sessions. 

They had been sitting on the shelf for a criminal length of time – recorded in February of 2011 in a residential session lasting a week at a house in Haydon Bridge, back when we were still a five-piece.

That had been a tricky seven days:  equipment failed, there wasn’t a lot of living space for the band to relax in, and we all put ourselves under immense pressure to make the endeavour work. 

From a personal point of view, it had been extremely difficult juggling the detached role of producer/task master with the creative, playful space of lead singer that I so desperately wanted to dive into.  Anytime I felt the energy surge in the room and sensed my own desire to leap into the fray singing, I had to check myself and open a fresh pack of 9 volt batteries for a malfunctioning guitar pedal.  Or have Andy use a tenuous GPRS internet connection on his phone to search for solutions to the latency problems I was experiencing in Logic.  Or unplug the bass amp so people could use the bathroom (it had been placed there for separation purposes). 

It meant that my own headspace was highly compromised by all the niggling details that one normally leaves to a producer, while you get on with the job of delivering a great performance.  It wasn’t particularly easy for the others either, but we got through it and became much closer as a musical – and personal – unit as a result.  After Sophie left the band, the remaining four-piece became fused together, hewn out of those shared experiences, something that we were later able to pour into our music.  Ironically, the best stuff we did remains unfinished – material for LP5 was tracked only months before Ian’s death – and was a product of the times after that recording session, when we just focussed on writing and playing and hanging out.  Whether the LP5 stuff will ever see the light of day is uncertain; all of the rhythm parts were done, but there would still have to be a considerable amount of work done to it before it would sound coherent.

While Andy and I would revisit many of the LP4 overdubs in the summer and autumn of 2013, the rhythm material gleaned from that isolated spot in rural Northumbria was golden.  Ian got to hear rough mixes of some of the songs, but there remains a nagging guilt in my heart that he never got to hear the finished version before he died.  I fear that he felt I didn’t care about the record, or neglected it in favour of more pressing projects.  In fact the opposite was true; it felt like such an important task that it was continually put back until enough uninterrupted time was available to set to work on the considerable mixing work required.  There were a lot of overdubs to sift through, and many gaps in the arrangements that needed filling with parts that hadn’t been recorded during the original session.  I was trying to balance a full time job with extracurricular paid work for various third-party clients.  I was embarking on a serious relationship with my then-girlfriend.  Life continued to intervene, and it just kept getting pushed back. 

And so it came to April of 2014, when I sat alone in front of the monitors in my parents cottage, mixing the material and feeling as though Ian himself was being momentarily conjured up from the speakers, his bass coiling and pulsing and steadfastly picking its way through the music… until it genuinely felt as though he was in the room with me.  It was unsettling.  The fact that the document of his playing remained seemed to underline my views on the importance of recording, but at the same time, his absence seemed to make my completion of this project – long after had left us – seem macabre and absurd.  And far, far too late.


My routine was thus:  I would mix until 8am, drinking weak lager, coffee, elderflower cordial, Coca-Cola and water simultaneously.  Sleep until 2pm, rise, shower, and begin again.  Have dinner at Daft Eddy’s at 8pm, then return and continue through the night, eating a steady diet of apple pie with cream and pesto.  Keep two different radios on at once, tuned to different stations, to keep me company.  John Peel sessions by Jacob’s Mouse and Thin Lizzy play over the top of The Shipping Forecast.  I remember smoking cigarettes, just for an excuse to step outside and look at the stars and not have to listen to music that came from a time when Ian was still alive.  And then to go back inside and continue mixing, the stove stoked up to a great heat beside me, thinking how great these bass lines are.  In the studio environment his parts are able to reveal themselves as majestic:  authoritative presence in the bottom end, melodic counterpoints to Andy’s lead lines and unwavering accuracy throughout when the rest of us strayed.  Why didn’t I tell him that when he was alive? 

At one point, around 2am while mixing Nervous Heart, I became very scared.  The dead were present, and I felt very small, living my nervous little heartbeats one at a time in quick succession, while They watched over, awesome in their vast eternity.  I scurried onwards, deleting high hats and boosting 60Hz on the bass channel for all I was worth.  Hopefully Ian could forgive my tardiness, I thought to myself, and not stand so closely over my shoulder.

I managed to get 8 of the songs done that week; the ball finally and inexorably moving.  I packed up my stuff, left the Cottage, and headed to Belfast to blow off some steam with Brian and Michael Farrelly – the latest drummer to join the Future Loss continuum.  That was the start of another story, but we’ll look at that later.

December 2013

Sleeping under blankets above a pub and spending Christmas Day serving roast dinners by accident.  A bad reality.  I had even started smoking, unheard of. 

During this time, I worked almost exclusively on Become A Flood, by Future Loss.  Programming the multiple kick drums and trawling through the many keyboard parts that had been laid down during September of 2013. 

The sound achieved from those overdub sessions remain seminal for me:  they seemed to nudge towards the experimentalism and ambience that I wasn’t sure I could achieve using the primitive equipment at my disposal – especially the outro.  Brian also managed to get many different colours into his guitar palette.  I remember hanging microphones from porch ceilings and using aggressive low-pass filter roll off settings, in order to warm everything up.

We didn’t feel so attached to the song as some of the others.  I felt that gave me a little more licence to mess with it.  To stretch it and use it as a framework on which to express the atmosphere I had been plunged into:  nocturnal London, a lean place with little warmth to it.  Trapped inside the laptop.

This track would undergo repeated re-edits throughout the next year or so; on account of its length and monotonous nature.  In the end, it’s a miracle it ever made it under the nine minute mark.

Simultaneously during this time, I was walking the streets of the capital with a camera and an audio recorder, paying witness to whatever was around me.  The samples from these treks made their way into a number of solo pieces that included some fragments of old piano demos from the Bensham church era, buried underneath the hooting of busking saxophones put through bespoke delay patterns and trains rumbling around.  Without any access to studio equipment, it was the only way I could make music.  Which suited me, since at the time I was quietly defiant in not wanting to go down that well-worn path again.  I was instead able to occasionally distract myself – as one might with a crossword – with these chunks of found sounds, cutting them together into collages.  None of it ever felt too precious.  

They sum up the feeling of that time rather accurately:  planes overhead, night shifts, getting thin, standing on a roof listening to trees of Richmond Park sway and the air conditioning click on and off.