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.
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.
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.