At the time of my last journal entry I was on the edge of decision, the brink of a leap forward into a new technological set-up. I dare say you can’t wait to hear if I jumped or not and, if so, how.
I suppose the fact that I went public (in so far as this journal is any kind of blaring from the rooftops) meant that I was in effect pushing myself into it in any case. Yes, I made the jump.
In itself this might not look like such a massive turnaround: I’ve changed my mixing desk, I’ve got a new computer, I’ve upgraded some software. In reality these are big shifts in the tectonic plates upon which my recording efforts float.
A word of warning: things might get a tad geeky here…
My previous system had been with me, more or less, since way back in the days when Terra Incognita had its home at the top of Walcot Street in Bath. It was built around a Yamaha 02R desk which at the time it came out was a completely groundbreaking piece of kit. It had ADAT lightpipe inputs and outputs, automated mixing with moving faders and in general was exactly what I needed. It’s still been working fine right up to the present day, in fact.
Over the years I’d gradually changed Macs to run the recording end of things and had ended up with the very last generation of laptops which had G4, rather than Intel, chips. They were also the last to have a cardbus slot, which was crucial in my set-up as the communication from Mac to desk was via and RME interface which used precisely this channel to get things in and out.
I’m not generally in the habit of chasing the very latest thing, the very latest upgrade. I use the computer fundamentally as a straight recording and editing machine (for both audio and MIDI) and effectively it’s just the same kind of thing to me as old-style tape. I don’t need to do any shuffle-quantising and I don’t need any particular extra bells and whistles. I *know* that things get “better” but I’ve mostly been prepared to work with the ancient stuff I have in – hopefully – new ways…as opposed to applying ancient techniques to “new” things.
A few months back – aware that, obviously, any computer or hard drive is mortal and will fail sooner rather than later – I sourced an identical G4 laptop to the (then) current one, so that I’d be able to move seamlessly onto that machine in the event of system failure. (The version of Cubase which I’ve been running, naturally, is also pretty ancient, as is the Mac OS I’ve been using. Neither would run on a newer Mac, so I had to find something vintage….) This was evidence of my contentment with the rig and my belief that, actually, I’d probably carry on working with it for the foreseeable future.
So, here we are about to start the latest VdGG tour and one decision we’ve made is to take our own monitor desk out on the road with us. It’s the new Behringer X32, tres moderne. I bought this last month and immediately thought that it had the potential to be a studio desk just as much as a live monitoring one.
The only way to find out if it would do the job, though (and here’s the position I found myself in at the end of last month), would be to plumb it in and start working with it.
In fact that meant ripping out everything else completely (not without *very* carefully noting down all the routings and connections which had been built up in the rat’s nest of cables over the years). Most of this stuff hadn’t been touched or changed in any way for nine years or so, and was based on original set-ups going all the way back to Terra-in-Bath.
The X32’s digital input and output is via Firewire. The old Macs were, it quickly transpired, quite capable of handling multitrack audio in and out using this interface but I realised that, actually, it really was time to get a more modern, faster machine. Not your ultimate all-singing, all-dancing chap, but at least something with the latest OS. And in turn of course (see above) that meant getting a more modern version of Cubase as well.
There I was, then, earlier this month, everything plumbed in, ready to roll and embarking on the learning curve.
“It’s all logical stuff, it all must be logical stuff”, I’d mutter to myself as I ham-fistedly attempted one simple task after another. Those tasks which had been second nature to me in the old system but which now didn’t seem quite so simple in the new. I’d got the manuals available onscreen of course but everyone knows that manuals are only helpful once you’ve actually found out where to look for the answers…which means you’re on the verge of knowing the answers anyway.
In the old days (back in Bath) there’d always be people around who were going through the same – or equivalent – learning curves and so there was something of a shared pool of knowledge and enquiry. These days (ah, the modern world!) I find myself pretty much alone in my explorations.
Thank goodness for the internet and the wisdom (or not) of the Forum. It kept me fit, as well – I (deliberately) don’t have internet access in the studio, so I had to keep zipping back into the house for my online research.
It probably took me a whole week to get my head round the new system, much of which I spent in a fog of slow panic and with the nagging feeling that I *might* have to put the old stuff back together again. But eventually I surfaced, breathing easy.
Now I have to say I don’t regret the decision at all. This system should see me through the next few years, the next few albums, with both clarity and precision.
Oh yes, the albums, better get back on *that* track….
Oh, now, here comes that VdGG tour, better get my muscle memory back into action for *that*….
On, into June.
I haven’t done much by way of painting and decorating in the last few years, much preferring – and it being a much better idea – to get professionals in. But in my time I’ve done a bit and after some pretty slapdash early efforts I gradually learned that preparation is the key to getting such jobs done well.
You’ve got to make sure that the knots in wood are sealed, the holes in walls are filled; that lining paper’s properly put up, undercoat and/or sealer applied; that everything’s properly in place before you get to that final coat, that unrolling of the wallpaper. It’s not just that it makes things easier; in the end it’s the only way that makes sense and the only way that’ll produce a decent result.
Of course the same thing applies to anything you want to do properly. So for the past month or so I’ve been very much involved in Prepping Things. The VdGG tour will very soon be upon us and anything that can be sorted out in advance, both from my personal point of view and from the group’s, will help to make the upcoming work simpler, better and (hopefully) surprising only in a good way. If I/we go into it unprepared then any surprises might be a tad unpleasant….
Some of this is the paddling away below the water which we hope will produce a serene passage across the surface. Some, as always, involves looking at technical challenges as well as musical ones and searching for decent solutions to any problems raised. A lot of it is, as ever, is just to do with visualising what may be about to come.
In turn, the fact that I’ve been engaged in this pre-VdGG stuff has somewhat taken me away from the album that I’m meant to be making! (Well actually I’m making a couple simultaneously as it happens but of that there’ll be more, later, when things are further advanced.) Additionally, my mind’s been rather turned towards the technical end of recording, for the first time in a long while. All will doubtless work out in due course but put simply I’m considering doing something which I’ve always cautioned against, guarded against, in the past – changing hardware in mid-project.
I’ve been running fundamentally the same system for more than a decade now and sooner or later I’ll have to make a shift, particularly with a view to downsizing things at some point in the relatively near future. Suddenly it seems that this *might* be the moment to take the plunge into some new kit.
It’s a big decision though, so a degree of chin-stroking and spreadsheet bashing is going on. Interesting times.
And all, as I say, in preparation: once I’ve made my decisions I hope to blast through the actual work of writing/recording/finishing with ease, speed and precision…on a well-prepped foundation.
First of all, just to be clear, I have to say that the opinions and observations herer are my personal ones, rather than any kind of VdGG policy statement!
Those of you who follow http://www.sofasound.com (or indeed, any of the other information portals relating to VdGG) will by now be aware that we’ll be touring again in June, in Europe, and that a feature of these shows will be performances of “A Plague of Lighthouse-Keepers”, the side-long piece from the 1971 album “Pawn Hearts”. This has only been played live a couple of times in the past; our early efforts to include it in our then set were fairly swiftly abandoned (as being, frankly, too difficult to pull off) but a version was captured for posterity by a Belgian TV show which more or less insisted we play it. We managed it, by recording the piece in two halves.
For every tour of the modern band, including the 2005 reunion version, we’ve been keen to put together sets which balance obvious choices with unexpected additions as well as brand new material. This was, we felt and feel, one way in which we could avoid falling into the trap of becoming in some way our own tribute band.
This particular ante was very much upped once we found ourselves as a trio in 2006. We established pretty quickly that we were capable of performing anything from the previous setlists, if in particularly wonky trio ways; also that our new identity would be best served by pressing forward at an increased rate. Paradoxically some of this onward motion was served by going back to, for example, “Meurglys III” and “Gog”. In my view the trio versions of these pieces have been as definitive as things get. We also immediately began the process of bedding in new material – at that time still unrecorded – and dropping old songs. So far, so VdGG.
The tours which followed the release of “Trisector” and “A Grounding in Numbers” saw the introduction of several pieces from these albums, as the composition of sets swung more and more towards present day work, though stuff from the past continued to prove challenging and satisfying to play as well.
It’s been a feature of these new recordings that the songs have been pretty snappy – only “Over the Hill” comes in around the ten minute mark. When we came to consider what to play in our North American tour of 2012 – and we wanted to have *some* difference in repertoire from our previous visit – we decided that a version of the old PH/K group piece “Flight” would be an interesting prospect. As a long-form, with some fairly fiendish passages, it seemed a natural fit for the trio line-up, as well as a proper challenge. Once again, I feel we’ve come up with some kind of benchmark performance here, to stand alongside the original recording, the K group efforts and, indeed, one somewhat bizarre duo performance which Brain and I rendered as a grand piano/percussion duo at an early WOMAD. Crucially, we did not announce in advance that we’d be doing “Flight”, although naturally the word went out almost as soon as the first notes had gone out in public. The rest of the sets continued in the usual random rotation, but it’s important to note that having a long piece at the heart of a show does produce a somewhat different architecture.
I don’t recall who first broached the idea of “Lighthouse-keepers” being in the frame for future work, but at some point during our touring in 2012 it became clear that the germ of the idea of attempting another -this – long-form was with us. At the tail end of last year, when we met to discuss what might be our future, in both broad and specific terms, we agreed that this would probably be the best way to go forward.
And so we find ourselves committed to the piece. Significantly, half of all the shows will be taken up by “Lighthouse-keepers” and “Flight” (the latter, of course, will be being played for the first time to European audiences.) This will certainly produce a different dynamic to any previous shows, which have always hadsomething of the same spiky shape whatever material we chose to play. It’s as well that audiences should know this in advance. It’s also, of course, a matter of some interest (we imagine) to the bulk of the audience that we should be attempting such an important and rarely performed piece from our past.
Of course, the fact that we’ve announced it means that we now *have* to give it a go….
We haven’t yet worked out exactly how we’re going to deal with the various speed bumps and chicanes which await us; but we’re confident that one way or another we’ll come through with a genuine, new, trio version.
It’s important to stress that we will *not* be attempting to emulate or recreate the exact sonics from the record; that would be both a fruitless and an impossible task. But there are some cracking tunes in there and I’m really looking forward to getting to grips with them.
Roll on June….
Back when I was a keen record buyer I was also an avid reader of liner notes, always keen to know who’d produced or engineered a disc, when and where it was recorded, what guest musicians were involved and so on. (Incidentally, of course, this aspect of music scanning is something that’s fast disappearing in the download age.)
It didn’t mean, though, that I was always on top of things enough to make some crucial connections. I’m therefore grateful to Richard Williams, who pointed out something I hadn’t realised in his obituary of the producer Shadow Morton – his work on two sixties records which, while not particularly celebrated these days, were deeply influential back then…and do echo on into today.
Morton’s first ever production and by all accounts first ever song (though I suspect there might have been a bit of myth manufacture going on there) was “Remember (walking in the sand)” by the Shangri-las. When this came out in ’63 it was a revelation, a fully-formed piece of (for those of us so inclined) pop art/drama. It had something of Spector’s widescreen sonics but more importantly had loads of semi-visible, not quite explained story going on. The girls’ delivery was astounding – they were teenagers at the time – and the stop/starts were unprecedented for the then world of the three minute single. It really did hit that Spector desire for “opera for the kids”.
The follow up was “Leader of the pack”. Need I say more?
Well, the more I need to say is that these records made a great impression on this particular teenager back in the day and that while some of that was on an entirely visceral level another way in which they hit me was in exactly how sound and music could be put together, of how one could build up a story by small inferences.
I suppose most people don’t see much of John Lee Hoooker or Howling Wolf in my riff constructions, still less the Shangri-las in the shaping of pieces of music. They’re there, nonetheless…
(And, of course, excellent use of brackets in the song title to boot!)
Spool on a couple of years…. (or lifetimes, actually, things happened so very fast between ’63 and ’68).
Shadow Morton produced bands by this time. One particular record really changed things up and, I’m sure, had a great effect on everything that followed thereafter, particularly from British bands.
It was “You keep me hanging on” by Vanilla Fudge. They were virtuoso musicians and the production and concept was equally startling. They took an out and out pop hit and made it into something which was emphatically rock…before such a categorisation really existed.
And it was done by, well, addition to/bigging up of riffs, of course… But also, most importantly, by slowing the whole thing down. And that in turn actually made it heavier. In a way it started that whole idea of heaviness (as opposed to excitement) as a component of music.
And believe me, a lot of UK bands of that time paid a lot of attention, learnt a lot of lessons, from that disc.
Morton also produced In-a-gada-da-vida. Personally I didn’t go for that so much but of course it *was* highly influential in a “we’re going to take this riff and beat it to death” way. Which obviously continues to this day.
After this Shadow Morton then drifted away from music completely. But what a legacy he left….
And how many inspirational people there have been in those liner notes down the years!
There’s really only one thing I can write about this month: the sad passing, a couple of weeks ago, of Nic Mozart.
Nic had been in the grip of the degenerative brain disease, Pick’s, for the last couple years. (Oddly, the same rare condition was the one which did for Pat Moran.) The prognosis was not good for Nic and as I understand it his condition was steadily worsening – though thankfully he was not fully aware of this himself. In the end a bout of pneumonia and following complications led to his death at the age of 61.
Nic was astonishingly young when he began playing professionally in the Misunderstood and then, of course, with VdGG. His bass playing, though, was mature, authoritative and direct from the outset.
This was all the more so when he rejoined the band in its VdG incarnation.At this point he threw himself into a world of flange and distortion which, not for the last time, propelled his bass into a lead role.
The VdG period was a particularly headlong and helter-skelter one, with the playing powerfully reflecting the nature of the lives we were living. Later, the same kind of thing obtained in the K group era and it’s not mere accident that Nic should have been so deeply involved in these schemes. It goes without saying that I loved playing with him: he was ever reliable and intuitive and also capable of pulling off a surprise move.
Memories of so many moments with Nic have come back to me in the last few days, vivid and bright. Often the best communications with him were wordless and those gestures of a raised eyebrow, an affirmative thumbs up, still stick with me. However, I don’t intend to get into telling stories of Mo-ness and of my times with him, though there are many, most with some element of his wry and sometimes dry approach to the strangenesses of life, particularly on the road.
He was always in the Now, but simultaneously always looking out for what might be Next, Elsewhere. A tapping foot, a drumming finger, a quick gasp on the cigarette and he’d be out of the door before you knew it. Always, though, with a bit of deduction one could trace a line of logic back into what was driving his current search.
Dear, dear Mo.
We’d had our fallings out over the years, of course. For what it’s worth, it’s a matter of some relief to me that none of these were outstanding the last time we saw each other, some time before the onset of the Pick’s.
I couldn’t be there for his funeral but at the time it was happening was able to raise a glass to him, looking out on a cloudless sky and a deep blue sea. At this moment I felt very close to his flown soul.
So adieu Nic, who coined as good a definition of touring life as I’ve ever heard: “consuming and being consumed.” Now all the hours and times are eaten up
My final and enduring image of Nic will be not one of the nods, winks, smiles of the social life…but his eyes fixed in tense concentration, head thrust slightly forward, steady at stage left. And here come those blasted out opening bass chords of “Last Frame”.
He was often complicated, enigmatic, mysterious.
But above all Nic was ever, wonderfully, Pretty Keen.
So I’ve been working away on the latest set of recordings for a while now and – gradually – things are beginning to shape up.
Most of the work so far has been editing. I’ve loved doing this from the earliest days. It’s one of the areas in which I try to maintain the lessons I learned back in the Seventies right through to the present, for all that – maybe especially because – things are now computer- rather than tape-based.
The great and scary thing about tape editing with a razor blade was that it was always a final act. You only had the one piece of tape and if you messed things up they were permanently messed and whatever performance you were working on was lost. You had to be very, very confident of where you were cutting from and where to before slashing that tape. And, once confident, had to go through with the act in full intent. All this was made more complicated by the fact that, naturally, you wouldn’t actually know how the edit would sound until it had actually been done.
In the world of computer recording things are potentially different. There are a number of ways of editing and it’s possible to make safe copies to work on. It’s also possible to undo as many actions as you want. So the process is rather less heart in the mouth than it used to be.
Having said that I do my best to retain an element of no-way-back in my editing work. Once I’ve done an edit and am happy with it I don’t go back and look at alternate versions and, specifically, I abandon what I’d been using before and press onward. Often, also, I don’t drill down the highest magnification in order to have a sample accurate cut – and so (very) minor timing inaccuracies will sometimes creep in to the work. For me that’s like a little bit of modern world wow and flutter that can humanise the “perfection” of computer recording.
And all of this is to say that I’ve been at work on pieces as though they’re clay, as though I’m stretching and prepping the canvas, as though I’m laying down a background wash, establishing what are the best guide sketch lines and which go together best.
At this stage I’ve currently got 19 pieces on the go at a running total of around ninety minutes even after all the editing work I’ve done so far.
As yet there are NO vocals and actually there’s barely a “normal” song structure around in any of them yet. So I don’t know, at all, how they’re going to turn out, individually or collectively. Some, doubtless, will fall by the wayside. Meanwhile there are other possible candidates for inclusion waiting in the wings to take their places….
I have, therefore, no idea how long this process is going to take nor, indeed, precisely where it’s leading.
Basically I’m waiting to find out what I’m doing, for it to reveal itself as I do it.
Even after so many albums, in so many different styles I still find that exciting and, actually, somewhat magical.
Best wishes to all. 2013 should be…interesting!
Of course, not everything can or should be in push-push-push mode, even within the field of creative endeavour.
The last two albums – “A Grounding” and “Consequences” – pretty much exhausted my supply of ongoing song ideas. Normally there’s a rolling stock of these from which, in each ongoing project, one or two at least will seem appropriate to fit into whatever the current frame may be. All of them will have had a degree of work done on them at some time or another – and will, therefore, have seemed – to me at least – to have some level of intrinsic merit.
I’ve known that I’ve been heading towards another period of solo recording since the summer. As always, I’ve been looking to find another different wrinkle in the approach to this work.
So in September I began the process of building up the ideas bank once more. As ever, this meant improvisation. I’ve never been (and, after all these years, am still not) a writer who plans ahead or even has the capacity to do so. I don’t have any musical theory at my disposal except my own instincts. So writing has always started with experiment by way of improv for me. If I have a skill (he bigs himself up here) it’s that I can recognise the germ of a decent idea as it drifts by on top of a flood of….less promising strokes.
In my normal working mod, though – if such a thing actually exists, a matter for debate – I’d improvise for a while and then immediately start filleting, carving, wrapping whatever resultant stuff may have fallen in my hands. So that, in fact, I would not end up with too much disparate material on my hard drives….
This time, with the “potentially useful” folders pretty empty, I decided to take a different approach. Day by day I played in musical streams of consciousness *without* then doing any work on, editing or analysis of them. I moved from sound to sound, instrument to instrument, strange tuning to even stranger (oh, yes, I try to trip/free myself up with these on a regular basis) and then moved on. (Naturally, I only actually began to record (midi or audio) ideas which seemed at least modestly interesting…but my studio is currently set up so that one punch will put me instantly into record mode, whatever instrument I’m playing.)
I ended up with many, many ideas, from the coherent to the purely sonic. I didn’t look back at any of them in evaluation for a moment, but simply pressed on with others.
When October’s touring came along I took stereo mixes of the ideas (some of which were overlayed multitracks in fact, I’ve oversimplified things a little bit in the previous spiel) with the thought that in the course of a couple of days off I’d manage to start sorting them into some kind of coherent classification. Fat chance. The oncoming show is always such a locus on tour that “free” time is to be treasured…not pressured. I didn’t listen to a single track during the tour. I did, mind, add to the idea pool by recording another two or three improvs….it’s in the nature of these things that when I actively start chasing after/being aware of new things more and more will present themselves.
I reached November, then, with a large amount of material. The weekend before last I finally took myself off to a different location where I could go through the pieces in a conscientious, even-paced, unprejudiced manner, in neutral and unchanging listening conditions and without any outside distractions. This was a passive, note-taking exercise, without any attempt to begin work on editing or adapting the pieces. A reacquaintance with the stuff without any preconceptions.
I’ve ended up with lists of probables/possibles. I may even have ended up with an initial working theory for this set of recordings.
And of course that’s to say that, now I’m back, I have, however slowly, begun making the next record.