Recording the Backyard Animals EP

I’ve been recording songs for close to a decade, and almost all of them have been with my friend Phill Ward. I was lucky enough to meet Phill when he was fresh out of uni, armed with mics, a laptop, some good ears, a quick brain (after enough tea at least) and a desire to make music. He helped my old band The Lazy Lizards make their first EP Kingdom, plus all our subsequent EPs and many of my ‘solo’ songs. Initial attempts sounded good, and only got better as Phill’s skills grew with experience.

This has proved something of a double edged sword. Lucky enough to have high-quality recordings of my songs from early in my musical journey, I’ve haven’t been able to accept less. Brief experiments in other studios saw me paying more for poorer results. Yet since I’ve abandoned UK shores, calling on Phill’s abilities is not so easy. Last year I was writing songs with the view to recording them on my next visit home when I read an interview with Teddy Thompson. The son of Richard and Linda Thompson, he’d gathered together his musical clan to create the Thompson Family Band. Except there’d been no physical gathering – the songs on the album had been put together bit by bit, emailed back and forth between family members living in different countries and different continents. Of course, this is fairly standard practice in 21st century music making. I realised I could do the same; record some songs at home in Borneo and then send them to Phill to be spruced up and embellished upon. How hard could it be?

ram-studio-kk

Rather than launch straight into a full-on project I decided to test my plan with a single song called The Beat of a Babbling Heart. Leaving my little seaside village, I headed to Kota Kinabalu, the state capital of Sabah, to look for a recording studio. There I had a stroke of luck; I found RAM studios run by Roger Wang, one of Malaysia’s leading fingerstyle guitarists. At the very least, I had someone who knew how to get a good sound out of my six string, and as it happened, the rates and the chocolate chip cookies were also good. I cut my song, sent it to Phill, who a couple of weeks later sent me an initial version with added bass and percussion. This is gonna work, I thought to myself.

I pressed on with the plan to create a whole EP of new materials; taking fresh compositions to RAM studios as I completed them and then sending them on to Phill. Most of these songs became videos and entries in the blog as well. The initial success of The Beat of a Babbling Heart engendered a questionable surfeit of ambition, so I also started thinking about incorporating other musicians on the project. Ultimately, this proved easier to dream of than to actually make a reality. In the end, I only succeeded in capturing my friend Alex on the Borneo side. Alex is a folk musician in the truest sense, in a way being steadily lost, particularly in the West. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, a raconteur, a library of different tunes and stories, a mainstay of different band and groups in church, at school and at village events. He contributed to the song 10, 000 Years, playing an ancient borrowed accordion and layering melodic lines on a violin hand carved in Kuala Penyu – a weighty thing heavy enough to feel like it could drop a man if you clubbed them over the head with it.

alex-in-borneo
Jamming on our porch in Borneo, with Alex playing violin, and Yusepe Sukmana and Mzung on ukuleles.

Sadly my efforts to get a sape player onto the record didn’t pan out, but I was pleased to have Alex’s contributions linking the music umbilically to rustic Borneo were the songs had been born. Meanwhile Phill had put the finishing touches to The Beat of a Babbling Heart – recutting his fretless bass part, adding a grooving bit of kit drum to the outro, and even adding some deft playing of his radiator to the percussion mix.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Sape

I wrapped up recording at RAM, and not long after wrapped up life in Borneo, moving on to Egypt. For several months work on the EP stalled. I’d more or less finished my side of things, but Phill was busy touring. By the time he was back in the UK, summer was fast approaching, and as I planned to spend most of June in England our modern musical postcards no longer made sense. We could finish the record face to face.

So this summer, between crisscrossing the country seeing friends and family, I put a few days aside to stay with Phill at his flat in Moseley, Birmingham. Together we picked through the recordings I’d made almost a year before in Borneo, first tweaking and editing, then with Phill adding some extra instruments to flesh out the songs. We made quick progress with Backyard Animals and Where the Loot is Buried. To the former we added two restless electric guitar lines to propel forward the original loping rhythm and link in with the other guitar parts I’d already added. I’d left spaces in the original track for some soloing, too which Phill obliged with his laud, a medieval ancestor of the guitar. In Borneo I’d hoped to fill those holes with some sape or gambus (Malaysia’s version of the oud), so the laud satisfied my urge to decorate the song with a stringed instrument which wasn’t another guitar. To the latter Phill added some typically tasteful bass playing and a manic percussion part on a tatty mini drum kit which had been sitting in his studio, waiting for its moment of glory.

phill-studio-laud
Phill adding a laud part to Backyard Animals in his studio (mini drum kit hiding behind)

I’d always planned to leave A Dance for Sharks as a solely guitar/voice piece, so a quick dab of some nice reverb was all that was needed.

am-drums-farmOne of the other benefits of finishing the Backyard Animals EP on home turf was the chance to call on the abilities of another old friend – Amjid, the drummer of The Lazy Lizards. As we’ve done on several occasions in the last decade, Phill and I headed over to Am’s farm with some recording gear and set up the cow shed for an afternoon of bashing things. We swiftly added some tom heavy rhythms to Backyard Animals, before moving on to 10, 000 Years. There we ran into difficulties, typically of my own creation. Although I’d recorded the original tracks to a metronome in the studio, my timing was as usual lax. On a spare song like 10, 000 Years and with a narrow window of recording time, this caused Am no end of grief as he tried to play in time to my drifting performance. Disappointed in myself and feeling the song slipping away, it cast a bit of a cloud over the end of the recording session.

 

phill-bowed-cymbalHowever, there were plenty of rays of sunlight cutting through the grey. We had fun getting eerie sounds out of Am’s beloved cymbal collection by playing their edges with a violin bow, sounds we used to bolster Alex’s accordion drone across the opening bars of the album. And it was great being together again – Am’s recent musical endeavours have been in a rockier direction and I kept asking for certain sounds from his box of tricks. Odds and ends of percussion gear he hadn’t touched since the last time we’d played together were being dug out of his drum shed.

I went home to Somerset, leaving Phill to sort out the mess we’d left of 10, 000 Years. A week later I was back in his studio, listening to his heroic salvaging of the song. Digital nudging of the different elements had helped guitar and drums lie together more happily. We added some acoustic bass and barely there slide, took a turn around the park to be chased by the black swans and rest our ears, then returned to the studio for a final listen. At long last, the Backyard Animals EP was complete.

The whole business of making this modest collection of songs has been an enlightening one. The production by email proved less convenient than I imagined, and the process underlined how you can’t beat sitting in the same room together for getting the kind of results you want from a track. I don’t think it will be an approach I’ll be in a hurry to embrace again. I think Phill may thank me for that.

I came back to Cairo with a Zoom H5, a sophisticated portable recorder. This bit of kit at the very least should make future video performances sound a little crisper, but it will also give me the opportunity to be more autonomous in producing my own recordings. Of course, there’s a massive learning gap still to bridge, and any results will no doubt come out a lot more low-fi than my previous releases, but I’m hoping with a lot of hard work I might be able to come up with something fit for the world at large. It’s been sitting in a drawer since I returning to Egypt, I guess now’s a good time to go and unbox it . . .


Listen and download Backyard Animals for any price you like (including nothing at all!) here: https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/album/backyard-animals-ep

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Recording the Backyard Animals EP

A Dance for Sharks

Bajau Laut (Sea Bajou) fishing from a jetty on Pulau Mabul.

For me, a new song often starts with a title. In fact, I keep a list of song titles – titles that sound good, but for now have no music and no lyrics per se. There might be a solitary couplet, or a vague sense this song might be fast whilst another slow, but no more than that. Some of these titles have been waiting on me for years; I have a couple which I like so much I’ve never been able to find any music worthy of them.

A Dance for Sharks was on my list of cool song titles. My guitar teacher Derek Gripper turned me on to the Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti, whose compositions often use a ‘dance’ as a naming convention (for example Dança das Cabeças, Dança Solitária and Dança Dos Escravos). I liked this approach. Being obsessed with animals I began casting around to find some poor creature which could be part of my dance. Thus the title A Dance of Sharks. After a little thought, I concluded that sharks probably aren’t very good dancers. So the title changed to A Dance for Sharks. Sharks evoke fear, and people do some fairly strange things to appease their fears. Perhaps even a little hip-shaking. I had read about how sharks were worshipped in places such as the Solomon Islands; the idea didn’t seem so far-fetched.

Shortly afterwards, I stumbled across James Morgan’s startling series of photographs of a young Bajau Laut boy playing with a shark. This struck an immediate chord (pardon the pun). Whilst living in Borneo I have worked with the Bajau Laut (Sea Bajau), an ocean-faring people whose traditional way of life does not really interface with how the modern world works.

James Morgan's striking picture of a Bajau Laut boy playing with a shark.
James Morgan’s striking picture of a Bajau Laut boy playing with a shark.

Born upon the water

Like each and every one

Of the dozen laughing children

My father called his sons

Into the turquoise ocean

My mother’s blood ran dark

Awakening a dance for sharks

The Bajau Laut are a nomadic people; their home is the sea, the Coral Triange framed by the Phillipines, Indonesia and Malaysian Borneo. But the sea has no flag, and can’t offer any legal protection from the likes of nations seeking to exploit it. As such, the stateless Bajau have been increasingly marginalised by countries seeking to take advantage of the sea’s bountiful resources.

When the ships coming flying flags

And claiming the very shifting waves

Making maps of a wide blank ocean

That almighty God he gave

To my people of the sea

I know the sharks have come for me

I know the sharks will come for we

Sharks get a bad press. I’m pretty fond of them, although Jaws frightened the bejezus out of me as a kid (I have a distinct memory of insisting my Dad swim on the seaward side whilst going for a dip off a beach in Cornwall one summer holiday. My reasoning was that any passing shark would chomp him first, allowing me time to escape). As the song took shape around the situation faced by the Bajau, the identity of the sharks took a more metaphorical turn – more closely representing the greed of outside forces taking crippling bites out of a traditional livelihood. For a while I even toyed with the following closing lyric.

I left this world with but one remark

That nothing stills the dance of sharks

The pitiful, bleeding, finless sharks

The final line being a reference to the Chinese demand for shark fin soup which is pushing many shark populations to the brink. Ultimately that line was to much of an about face against the overall direction of the song, and I cut it.

Musically the song is a composite of several different ideas – and I’m still surprised at how well it turned out when all the parts were bolted together. I wrote the lyrics to a straightforward, all minor chord progression (using Am, Dm and Em). However, I struggled to find a way to make these chords interesting when I started trying out different fingerstyle arrangements. Eventually I lit upon the ascending/descending bass runs from Am to C – a pretty common trick, but when I also started echoing the vocal line on the treble strings I found I had something I was happy with. I retained the original chord progression for the third verse.

The opening riff, perhaps rather improbably, stems from an attempt to transcribe some horn parts from a tune by Seun Kuti. It’s a persistent musical ambition to try and discover a way to convincingly reproduce the awesome polyrhythmic pleasures of afrobeat on fingerstyle guitar. It’s also a challenge that’s probably far beyond my current skills as a guitarist. However, as is often the case, I lit upon something of my own in my failed effort to impersonate another. Slowing down the afrobeat horn line, letting the guitar play it the way it wanted and giving it a folky roll led me to my intro.

Bajau-Mabul-Sotong
Bajau Laut children catching squid on Pulau Mabul, Borneo.

I also added a ‘lead’ instrumental part – something I’m trying to do more and more in order to extend my own abilities as a fingerstyle guitarist.

The final part of the puzzle is in fact the oldest part of the song. The bridge was something my fingers came across last year. Alone it didn’t seem substantial enough to build a song around, I kept trying it out in different contexts, until it finally found a fit with A Dance for Sharks.

Oh, and it also gave me an opportunity to do a bit of bellowing! My singing voice has its limits, but it doesn’t lack for oomph. I decided to give myself a lyric I could throw all of my strength behind on the bridge. My inspiration here was again from African music, particularly the extraordinary vocal power of praise singers such as Salif Keita and Kassy Mady Diabate.

What they can do is spine-tingling. My attempt was more like a foghorn.

The video clip was created by my wife, filmmaker Nguyen Mzung. It was made on the beach outside our home in Sabah, Borneo. Our dog Bolontos also gets a walk-on part. He normally sings along, but politely kept quiet this time around.

It was a pretty busy week, but we snatched an opportunity one afternoon. Apparently there wasn’t time for me to shave or put on a presentable shirt. I apologise to my mother. We only had one working camera, so the finished video is actually an edit of several different takes. I was surprised at how consistent my playing was – so much so that we could fit bits of video from a different performance to the master version without things appearing too out of sync. Unfortunately, because of the noise of the waves and our reliance on the camera’s in-built microphone, we had no choice but to use the ‘close-up’ cut as the master. As a result, interested fingerstyle guitarists will struggle to see what my hands are doing.

I’ve also recorded A Dance for Sharks in the studio for a forthcoming EP which will hopefully be released before the year is out.

The full lyrics are presented below.

A Dance for Sharks

 

Born upon the water, like each and everyone

Of the dozen laughing children

My father called his sons

Into the turquoise ocean

My mother’s blood ran dark

Awakening a dance for sharks

 

Born above the sunken stones of places that came and went

Outlasted outcast fisherfolk

Who lives without lament

Old blood it does still linger

Where the water’s running dark

Remembering a dance for sharks

 

Born beyond the sight of land, a paddle in my brother’s hand

Beyond the claims of nations, armadas, kings or clans

When the storms they rise up

And the watching skies turn dark

Heralding a dance for sharks

 

When the ships come flying flags

And claiming the very shifting waves

Making maps of a wide blank ocean

That almighty God he gave

To my people of the sea

I know the sharks have come for me

I know the sharks will come for we

 

Born upon the water, this child I call my own

And the ocean that has birthed her

One day may claim her bones

I left this world with one remark

That nothing stills the dance of sharks

Nothing stills the dance of sharks

Nothing stills the dance of sharks

 

A Dance for Sharks

10, 000 Years

In the previous post I talked about Monsoon, a song I wrote some four or five years ago. 10, 000 Years is a much more recent composition, written about three or four months ago. It’s one of a set of five songs I’m currently recording for a new EP of songs here in Borneo.

The tuning used for this song is DGDGBE (taking both of the lowest strings down a step). Whilst composing the song, I was also attempting to transpose some of the music of the master balafon player Aly Keita onto guitar. The balafon is a type of wooden xylophone played in West Africa. I’m utterly obsessed with all kinds of music from across Africa, and I’m always trying to infuse some of the magic that music has into my own songs. I hope some of the gentling swinging rhythm I found in Aly’s balafon playing has made it into the arrangement for 10,000 Years.

The song itself is a reaction in part to the horrific rise of the Islamic State (or Isil, Isis, Daesh, ignorant bunch of barbarians or whatever you want to call them). It’s something that touches me personally because many years ago (before 9/11 and the world deciding Islam and the West had to be mortal enemies) I travelled through Syria.

I’ve been to many countries renowned for being ‘friendly’, but have never experienced hospitality like I did in Syria*. It’s hard to think about what must have become of all the strangers who showed kindness to a young, clueless archaeology student as he blundered across the country.

Some dicks blow up the Temple of Bel in Palmyra
Some dicks blow up the Temple of Bel in Palmyra

Alongside all the atrocities committed against humanity, Islamic State has also declared war on history in a land where the earliest roots of modern civilization can be found. The Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, where the states of Syria and Iraq now hurtle towards collapse, claims some of the first settlements known to man. Jericho in the West Bank has been inhabited for 10, 000 years.

Long ago we stepped off the road and laid our burdens low

Found this perfect peaceful valley and the fertile soil to sow

It struck me as a powerful observation on the state of our humanity that such barbarity is taking place over the same stones that marked the beginning of our supposed journey towards ‘civilization’. It doesn’t look like we’ve made much progress. Therein lay the central conceit of the song – we’re still living the same way we always have, just on an ever-increasing scale. Considering technology, culture, population, mankind’s come a mighty long way. But in the simple terms of how we treat one another, we’ve gone nowhere at all.

I'm fourth from the right, fifth row down
I’m fourth from the right, fifth row down

With reference to the situation in Syria, it’s my personal opinion that the West paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State with our reckless and acquisitive invasion of Iraq. I was one of the millions to join the futile march against the war over a decade ago. There’s no pleasure in saying “We told you so” now, but that’s why the imagery of the song’s second verse looks more to our own high-tech war machines over the medieval techniques of the terrorists.

Death still makes his bed

In the cradle of life

Listening to the kill lists bouncing down from a satellite

Drones in the sky, never ask why

Make murder of video games

Cast the world into ruin with not a soul to bear the blame

A previous incarnation of the song went into more detail about our complicity in the misery overtaking the Middle East:

This morning I woke up to the radio

And the ravenous reporter

Reading from the book of death

A feast for the beleaguered vultures

Enough bloodshed to leave the commentators short of breath

Well she can’t be blamed for her excitement

Who hasn’t admired a building burning down?

So long as you stand well back

So the silent explosion precedes the sound

Eventually I excised this part as the song developed. Our shared history is not solely death and destruction. Take a look at the British Museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects. Alongside the artefacts of war and violence, there’re plenty of objects that exemplify our capacity to love one another. As I talked about when discussing the composition of Monsoon, I wanted to offer something to balance the darker reflections that had inspired 10,000 Years.

Some communication can still be found

These songs leave our tongues unbound

Our love keeps finding new ways to proclaim

10,000 Years

Cast your raiment to the ground

Dance together to the sound

Let the world cast off its chains

10,000 Years

I don’t think this part of the song is as strong; but then it’s always easier writing about doom and gloom than flowers and puppies!

As perhaps can be told from the earlier part of the song I chose to leave out, 10, 000 Years wasn’t written to any clear structure. I don’t think many songs are – invariably an idea generates a flood of imagery and fractured stanzas, which are then shaped into some semblance of order. With this song I wanted to ensure I broke out of following any subconscious habits when it came to the song’s structure and rhyming pattern, so I grabbed a random song on a completely different topic and began to ‘overwrite’ the lyrics with those of 10,000 Years.

Using other songs as foils for your own songwriting is a common device – a technique you’ll often see suggested if you investigate songwriting approaches online. You can approach them in different ways – as well as doing what I did with 10,000 Years you might also write an extra verse for an existing song, then use your verse as the basis of a new, original work. I’d argue it’s a perfectly legitimate approach – it’s something that’s happened again and again within the folk song tradition. For example, Bob Dylan’s earliest (and most recent) songs are often reworkings of existing folk songs**.

“Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.”

Igor Stravinsky (and some other people)

Of course, a bit of caution is needed when using this approach – finding inspiration without baldly ripping someone off. In the case of 10,000 Years, the mistake I made was using the other song to arrange my words before I had a clear idea of the guitar accompaniment and melody. When I started honing these, I found my song kept drifting back towards the other song in sound, even though I was using completely different chords. Normally when I’m composing a melody I just follow my instinct. Frustratingly in this case I had to forcibly guide my instinct around the trap I’d set myself of mimicking the other song.

I believe that in the end I succeeded, but you’ll note I haven’t mentioned what that other song was. If you think you have an idea, feel free to leave a suggestion in the comment box, but I’m hoping you’ll be wrong and that I can say 10,000 Years is mine alone.

The full lyrics are presented below. I got the last chorus wrong in the live session posted above!

VERSE 1

Long ago we stepped off the road and laid our burdens low

Found this perfect peaceful valley, and the fertile soil to sow

Beneath the loam, the sheltering stone, let the sweet-water rise

Through our toes, up our bones, then to trickle back out of our eyes

It’s been 10,000 years but the well has not run dry

In ways to say ‘I love you’, the ways in which to describe

The mysteries … that hold us tight

CHORUS

Civilization takes its time

Still far short of the finishing line

But for all the ills, one thing remains

10, 000

In a cave painting make your sign

A celebration that my heart is thine

And thus the barbarian is tamed

10, 000, 10, 000, 10, 000 years

VERSE 2

Now Death still makes his bed, in the cradle of life

Listening to kill lists bouncing down from a satellite

Drones in the sky, never ask why, make murder of video games

Cast the world into ruin with not a soul to bear the blame

It’s been 10,000 years but the well has not run dry

In ways to kill your neighbour, the ways in which to describe

The mysteries … that hold us apart

CHORUS

Civilization takes its time

Still far short of the finishing line

Centuries ‘til the armistice is claimed

10,000 years

Gild your words, make ‘em shine

Decide yourself what they define

When tomorrow comes we won’t speak the same

10,000 years

The message, it can still be found

These songs leave our tongues unbound

Our love keeps finding new ways to proclaim

10, 000 years

Cast your raiment to the ground

Dance together to the sound

Let the world cast off its chains

10,000 years

*One caveat that should be mentioned – I was accompanied by some young blonde ladies, who may have had some influence to the eager hospitality displayed by many a Syrian gentleman.

** Did I say Dylan again?

10, 000 Years