I’ve been making albums, solo and band, on a regular basis all of my adult life and I’ve always felt it important to approach each new project in a way which has the potential to produce a few unexpected results. This can involve changing working methods, restricting instrumentation or having some other overarching theme which differentiates one set of recordings from another.
It’s often a case of tricking myself into finding something new, by using an unfamiliar guitar tuning, for instance, so that my conscious mind is not really aware of the chord structures I’m stumbling upon. Or by using slabs of sound to shape a structure entirely on its own terms, only later beginning to think about words, tunes, subject. On the one hand I have to bore myself into action, so to speak; on the other I love to become so engaged in the minutiae of a piece that time starts to stretch.
The concentration involved in recording – especially when it’s in the one man alone in studio mode – is intense, all-absorbing and, really, a justification in itself for doing the work, well before it becomes a question of presenting it for public approval or rejection. Doing music like this is a driven career in which it’s important to know one’s limitations even if it’s only to attempt to overcome them.
So, for instance, when I began solo recording back in the Seventies I was a barely competent instrumentalist, an even less competent recording engineer. And in those days with physical tape and limited track counts whatever was going to go on the record had to be played right, recorded right, as a one-off. Or even, the decision had to be taken that a given take was the best that it was going to get…to do another take meant losing the one already down on tape.
The kind of absolute decision making which I learnt in those days has, I think, stood me in good stead as the technology has grown and shifted, first through an increase in the number of tracks, then into the quasi-controlled world of sequencing and now finally into entirely computer based recording. In my view it’s never a good thing to arrive at the end stage of a project with too many options left open – which is to say too many decisions postponed. “Undo” is, of course, always available, but I really prefer not to reach for that button….
Whatever structure or system is going to be in place for a given album is not usually there at the outset but, like the material itself, is gradually revealed as work gets under way.
I *do* usually start with a fair amount of material which has been built up in writing/assembling terms over the years. Some of this is always pure sonicry, which may or may not ever finally see the light of day – or be warped into a form which approximates to song, more likely. In this strange double-career period in which I find myself there’ll probably be something which I presented as a possible idea to my VdGG compadres and which for one reason or another we didn’t push forward in the group environment. (Conversely, when working up a VdGG disc I’ll probably bring things which I began working on for a solo project but then began to feel might be better suited to the trio….)
The most usual way of working would be to consider that I’d officially “started recording” with something like five or six recognisable pieces, a couple of which would probably have lyrics and top lines in place. And I’d expect – it’s always been the case in the past – that other stuff would come along as the work progressed. (Incidentally, it’s still important to me to have the strong feeling of “I have started recording an album now”, even though I’m actually always recording and writing things on a casual basis.)
For the latest album, “Consequences”, I’d originally had the rather batty idea that I’d attempt to do it on 8 tracks alone, mirroring the early tape days. That would, perhaps, have been a tad arch, given the endless possibilities of modern recording, and I didn’t go for it in the end. But something of the philosophy behind this thought carried through into the recordings and particularly into the two main areas of definition which ended up being the bedrock of the album’s, er, ethos.
For the first time in many years (certainly going right back to the 70s) I decided that I’d go to the start line of recording the album only when I had all the songs, including lyrics, completely written. Since the process of writing is a much more considered and slower one than that of recording – much staring into space is called for, *waiting* for the idea to gel – this meant that I spent a good six weeks or so in preparation.
Doing things in this way led on to the second innovation on this album: obviously, since all the songs were finished and finalised, it fell to me to do a lead vocal on each one. Instead of – as is the norm – dashing off a quick guide without over much attention to performance and intensity I decided that I should aim for the initial vocal to be the final, lead,version. This proved to be the case for all but a couple of lines.
I had, then, a vocal around which to build the tracks, behind which would be a fairly basic guitar or piano part. I kept these at centre stage throughout the ensuing recordings. This was quite different to my normal working method, in which I’d assemble some kind of “band” (however minimal, concrete or sloppy) which would provide an architecture, into the centre of which, eventually, I’d position the voice. Here I was adding ornamentation *around* the voice.
Starting with such dominant central performances meant that my approach to arrangement and overdubbing was quite away from my norm – if, indeed, such a thing exists. Every addition was intended to support that central voice. In practical terms this meant many supporting vocals – harmony, backing, choral – provided the principal colour, while the pianos and guitars (nearly all of them, for once, electric) were added in layers. Percussion and other instrumentation is sparsely used – a dash of organ, backwards effects, synthesiser washes and spikes. Underpinning everything in most cases is a linear bass part.
Effectively this put the sound world very much into that (archaic)8-track area, albeit with rather more tracks and certainly more intensity than would have been the case back in the day. In particular it was interesting to add Backing Vocals at a very early stage in proceedings , exactly as I would have done back then.
However minimal or subtle the overdubs (and in many cases they’re a long, long way away from that) the fact that there’s been a Main Vox from the outset does mean that all the tracks, even in downbeat moments, are fully in-your-face.
So, there we are, that’s how it’s been done this time.
Maybe next month, when the album’s actually released, I’ll write something about *what’s* been done in these songs….
“Consequences” is out on April 16th and, hint, hint we’re taking pre-orders over at http://www.sofasound.com
Ramble over, for now.