This is the second of two blog posts talking about the creation of my latest EP release The Apocalypse Lullaby. In the previous post, I wrote in general about the recording process. Here I’ll talk about how we approached the individual songs in the order they were recorded (rather than the order they appear on the EP).
This Country’s In Its Death Throes
Relatively straightforward, this felt like an easy song to tackle first. First we created a loop from congas and me thumping the body of the guitar – this can be heard in the drop-out section. We then played to this loop, and worked up an arrangement fairly swiftly. I wanted an earthy sound so encouraged Am to work mainly on the toms (although I love the timely cymbal chime on the lyric “kings”), while the song also left plenty of space for knotty fretless bass runs from Phill. The song had a lot of low-end energy, so in Manchester we were able to offset this with the ringing strings of an old bowl-backed mandolin.
The Apocalypse Lullaby
Having nailed This Country’s In Its Death Throes in fairly short order, we turned our attentions The Apocalypse Lullaby, which with its varying sections we’d quickly identified as one of the most challenging songs. We effectively split the song in two, dealing with the quieter, more contemplative part first; once again creating loops to play against using congas and some computerised beats (although this time we had to account for some shifting time signatures). The wide open spaces between the fingerstyle parts at the beginning of the song also raised an interesting issue when I rerecorded them – some rather heavy respiration was getting picked up on the mics as I ‘felt’ the music – eventually leading to me wrap a scarf around my face to muffle the breathing.
The second ‘apocalyptic’ section was played live, and presented two different challenges. The first was aesthetic – how exactly to arrange the change up from one part to the next. I’m often hesitant to give too much direction to musical collaborators, as I’m eager to hear their own take on the source material, but this doesn’t always work. In this instance I was throwing out flowery, unhelpful suggestions like “make it cataclysmic”, while Am and Phill looked at me blankly, while asking me pertinent suggestions like “how many bars do we play?”, “when do the drums come back in?” and “how are we going to get up to tempo after the break?” Eventually we managed to get onto the same page, but it took a little while.
The other challenge was more technical – following the “all Hell breaks loose” bridge, we had to get back to a slower, softer tempo for the final verse. Getting that change right as a unit took several takes, but was incredibly satisfying when it came, and for me was one of the highlights of the recording session. Furthermore, as the author of songs which are often soft and acoustic, it was fun to make it loud and heavy, especially for Am’s sake – he’s a bit of a metal nut. In Manchester we were able to accentuate that squall of noise by Phill adding some distorted electric guitar.
I must admit at this point I get a little hazy about the order of recording, but I think it went like this:
Wisdom of Monkeys
While I had some firm ideas of what the other songs would sound like going into the recording, Wisdom of Monkeys was a bit of an undiscovered country. It’s fair to say that on its own, played solo on the guitar, it didn’t amount to much – a simple chord progression with the faintest whiff of a Latin swing. Again, I was hoping this less developed idea might blossom with the input of my friends. Initially, Phill was having none of it – he wasn’t too convinced by the quality of the song and wasn’t feeling inspired concerning what to contribute on the bass. I wasn’t too sure of the direction myself, but I was sure I wanted to fill the blank slate with percussion. It might not have been the most efficient, or sensible approach, but it was fun just directing Am to play different percussion instruments and parts of the kit, and build up some grooves. We even had Am’s eleven-year old son Moosa contribute a shaker part; a loop of which is the first thing you hear when you hit play.
The percussion was promising, but it still wasn’t flowing as a cohesive piece. The rather long, complex choruses didn’t really distinguish themselves, which we solved by finding the right jumble of cowbells for Am to hit, some warm backing vocals from Phill, and by eventually deploying the pedal steel weeps of our secret weapon, Eric. A spiky electric guitar solo from Eric rounded off the song proper, but we weren’t finished there.
For the extended outro, we were on far happier territory. It was based around a field recording I’d carried about for years – the sound of a poorly old tractor labouring through a field in Vietnam. Its struggling two-stroke engine made me think of a novice drummer trying to play afrobeat. I taped it with my phone, and this became the basis of a two chord groove that we all fell happily into, and then let Eric blast all over with electric guitar and pedal steel.
Despite the initial struggles, I’m really glad we persevered on Wisdom of Monkeys. While it might not be the strongest song on the EP melodically, the final track has a lot of musical ideas I really like. I also feel it sits slightly outside my typical ‘sound’, if such a thing exists.
Don’t Believe A Word Of This
Having mastered the changes of The Apocalypse Lullaby and solved the conundrum presented by Wisdom of Monkeys, we moved relatively swiftly through the final two songs. Don’t Believe A Word Of This was done without a click track, and with fairly simple and minimal accompaniment from Phill and Am. The troublesome bit was the not so simple bit of accompaniment I’d put together for myself on guitar; a number of tricky little runs and lines played concurrently with the alternating bass drone (the song is in dropped D tuning). I failed at articulating these well and keeping tight with the others, eventually settling on simplified interpretations of the fiddly bits to ensure the others could respond to the right dynamics. That evening I overdubbed the guitar parts as they should have been, with Phill doing many an edit to make sure they locked together exactly how I imagined them (if not how I played them).
Eric also brought his talents to this song – in fact a little more than expected. A miscommunication meant that Eric initially played pedal steel over the choruses of this song rather Wisdom of Monkeys – a happy accident that sounded lovely. But for me the real cherry was the solo played before the outro – Eric’s only direction was ‘joyous’, and he nailed it.
Living In A World That Is A Shadow Of Itself
Another tune that was done without a click, this was probably the easiest of the lot, and heaps of fun to play. The only addition was the electric guitar played by Phill, including a lead part of his own which we recorded in Manchester the weekend after the main sessions. Over a decade recording with Phill – it’s one of my favourite things to sit in his tiny spare-room studio and listen to him tear through solo after glorious solo on one of my songs until we finally hit on something that sounds just right.
Or in this case, the first half of one take sounded just right when paired with the back half of another.
That perhaps sums it up. I’m very pleased with how the EP turned out, but I can’t really take credit for that. The quality of the music is proof of Phill’s production nous, and the strengths of Am, Eric and Phill’s skills as players.