Making the Apocalypse Lullaby EP: Part Two

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.

https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/track/this-countrys-in-its-death-throes

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.

breathing_recording_scarf

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.

https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/track/the-apocalypse-lullaby

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.

https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/track/wisdom-of-monkeys

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.

https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/track/dont-believe-a-word-of-this

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.

https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/track/living-in-a-world-that-is-a-shadow-of-itself

 


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.

 

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Making the Apocalypse Lullaby EP: Part Two

A Tale of Two EPs

Cairo_Kinshasa_Music
Cairo and Kinshasa – their skylines overlain, two great cities with mighty rivers surging through, and surging with the music which will inspire my work. 

A month ago I mentioned a musical reset, and the importance of goal setting. My big musical goal for the next year is to try and write, record and produce two new EPs of original songs. This is the start of the journey, and here I want to set out my vision of the form these two works will take. At this point, they are quite unsullied by the inevitable compromises, upsets and detours that lie ahead. By blogging their development from an intangible dream to a finished piece of art I hope to motivate myself to push on with their creation, shed some light on the creative process, and record their evolution.

What follows is a brief outline of my vision for each EP. They share some qualities:

  • Both already have working titles. Giving a title to something that doesn’t yet exist is a powerful act. It tries to will it into being.
  • Both will have overarching themes, in one case lyrical, the other musical.
  • I envisage both EPs as being about six tracks in length. Today’s mode of music delivery makes the labels of EP/LP irrelevant in technical terms, but I find them useful in packaging a musical idea. Six songs to me feels like a good goal – enough content to properly explore a theme, while not being as intimidating as saying to oneself “I’m going to record an album”.

Manmade Canyons EP

This recording will be, for want of a better term, the more professional sounding of the pair. I intend to record it in a studio, with a small cadre of professional musicians, and basically try and create the best work possible on a limited budget. The central theme of the album will be exploring how beings of wild places, be they human or animal, survive in the unnatural confines of the city … and particularly a city as overwhelming as Cairo. Musically I hope to touch upon some features of Egyptian music. Some characteristics might be:

  • I already have a lot of songs written or half-written for this, such as;
    • When The City Is Home
    • Bold Little Weasel
    • A Tree of Heathens
    • Pass Without Trace
    • Possibly Five Legged Holy Cow
  • Make a trio of my guitar/guitalele, plus bass and Arabic percussion the core of the album. If things are going well, perhaps add some other Egyptian instruments, such as oud.
  • Try and find some good gear, or a good studio, to record in, without breaking the bank.

Confide in Me EP

This is the lo-fi record. For far too long I’ve been resolving I would start learning the craft of getting my songs down on tape. With this project I want to finally start taking steps in that direction. With that in mind it will necessarily be a simpler, shoddier affair, as I learn on the job. What I’m hoping though is for a finished product good enough to have some wonky charm. Its characteristics might be;

  • Recorded at home using simple equipment – free recording software (probably either Audacity or Garageband), a Zoom H5, though I might get one higher end mic for recording vocals later in the process. I’ll probably still seek a wiser hand for tweak and mix what I’ve got after the fact.
  • Writing the songs as part of the recording process (on the whole). By doing this simultaneously, I hope something different will emerge than would if I followed my usual method of completing a song before committing it to tape. For example, I intend to create some rhythm tracks first, and see how these influence the lyrics and guitar parts layered on top of them.
  • Kitchen-sink percussion – I abhor the drum machine, but I’m no drummer myself. I’m going to try and create my own densely-woven rhythm parts by crudely playing all kind of mundane objects and layering the results.
  • One of the questions I haven’t answered yet concerns the arrangement of the songs. Do I want to the write fingerstyle compositions, which would also exist happily as stand alone pieces? This is more challenging, and will probably take more time to compose and master. Or do I instead consider this a two-guitar record? The benefit of this is a lot more freedom regarding what’s happening on the strings, and a chance to dive into lead playing, which hasn’t really been part of my guitar journey in the past.
  • The musical inspiration will be the early guitar music of the Congo, the acoustic precursors of modern soukous, the music played by artists such as Bosco Mwenda and Losta Abelo.

On this blog I’ll be jumping between the two projects, aiming for at least a post on each every month, documenting each important chapter in this tale of two EPs.

A Tale of Two EPs

Musical Reset

It’s been twenty months in the gargantuan* bosom of the Mother of the World. I’m far better at dreaming of making music than actually creating it; when I first arrived here I made a naïve post about all I’d achieve in Cairo. Few of those musical ambitions have been realised, but buried beneath the frenetic pace of the city, or work, or simply the insistent dust that weighs down anything or anyone who holds still for a moment. It hasn’t been time wasted, but as the wheel turns towards professional and academic achievements, other matters of import, be they music or love, find themselves on the wrong side of those revolutions.

Luckily, the wheel keeps turning and renewing, and I find myself now at a point of new beginnings; new job, new flat, new routine, a chance to find a better sense of balance. It probably won’t be easy, but I’m hoping to give some things neglected a chance to sing.

Dawn in Zamalek

One of those important things is a renewed sense of purpose in music-making. I want to try and find two hours a day to play, compose and practise. I’ve been thinking a lot about routines lately, and trying to get a better rein of an often treacherous mind. I couldn’t quite say I’m a morning person, but if I can force my eyes awake I love the promise and peace of the dawn, and do good work at this time. Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up early, and get two hours of playing music under one’s belt before all the other noise of day has started?

So, turning over a new leaf – but to what end? It’s likely I’ll be in Cairo for at least another year, and I’d like to direct my free time during this period towards writing and recording two new EPs. One of these I hope to make a semi-professional effort (as far as my budget will extend); using a recording studio and with luck a couple of local musicians to provide a taste of Egypt. The other will be a low-fi experiment; to see what I can come up with recording at home with simple equipment.

But first, allow me to subvert and undermine these plans! Before I throw myself into this new project, I want to do a bit of songwriting just for fun. I’ve got a few seeds and semi-complete ideas I’d like to play around with, one or two of which I hope to transform into songs fairly quickly. Let’s see what transpires . . .

 

*Hey, Cairo’s a big city!

Musical Reset

Recording Monsoon

In the previous post, I talked about the inception and creation of my song Monsoon. Here I want to talk about how the recorded version came into being. The track can be heard and downloaded for free at https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/releases

Monsoon clouds head towards our house in Sabah
Monsoon clouds head towards our house in Sabah

There are some songwriters who deplore being in the studio. They get in, get out as fast as they can, and get back to the purer arts of performing and composing.

I’m not one of them. For me, being in the studio* is one of the most exciting parts of being a songwriter. If you’ll forgive the rather grandiose turn of phrase, it’s your chance to finally capture a song, to immortalize it. Apocalypses notwithstanding, if you’ve got it down on tape, then your song will outlive you. And if no-one wants to listen to it today, maybe someone will come across it, and like it, some day in the future.

It can be difficult. Against the unmerciful beat of the click track your musical shortcomings are laid bare.

<CLICK> You <CLICK>  didn’t <CLICK>  practice <CLICK>  this <CLICK>  part <CLICK>  enough!

But with the indulgence and skill of a producer, or the luxury of hundred takes if you’ve got the right gear at home, you get your part done and the real fun begins. Here’s where you get your talented friends in to add the colours and the flavours that bring your song to life. Freed from the constraints of what you can play and sing, the talents of others give your song new life – or at least they do if you know the right people!

I took my first stab at recording Monsoon in Vietnam. A friend of a friend kindly gave me some free session time in his studio. We cut Monsoon, a song called Ghosts (which drifted away from me and was eventually forgotten) and perhaps a couple of others. The results were underwhelming; the engineer wasn’t really sure how to record a real instrument, and I didn’t have enough skill with the gear (or fluency in Vietnamese) to get what I wanted.

I persevered with Monsoon – first trying and failing to find a player of one of Vietnam’s fascinating traditional instruments such as the đàn bầu or đàn tam thập lục, then enlisting the help of a talented local violinist. That didn’t work out either. The violinist – whose musicianship was miles ahead of my own fumblings – simply had no idea what to play without direction. It’s a challenge I’ve often encountered whilst living in Asia – many extremely skilled players, but little tradition of ‘jamming’ or confidence in just playing until something fits. We gave up, and plans to record Monsoon were temporarily shelved.

Two years ago I was back in the UK for a wedding (well, my wedding to be truthful) and a few weeks holiday. I took the opportunity to spend a weekend in the company of my good friends Amjid (who had been the drummer in my old band) and Phill (a fantastic producer who also plays just about anything that can be plucked or struck). One of the two songs recorded was Monsoon.

I want to talk about some of the interesting sounds and instruments we used in the recording.

The toy guitar in question
The toy guitar in question

Some lucky alignment of the fates came along during the recording process. Having got the basic guitar and vocal down in Phill’s spare room, we decamped to Amjid’s farmhouse on the outskirts of Birmingham – principally to record some drums on another track. As we were setting up, Am’s young son Moosa requested our help replacing the rusting strings of his toy guitar. Although the guitar was made out of plastic, everything was more or less in the right place, and it could be played. However, it was designed for steel strings, and we only had nylons to hand. As we restrung and tuned up the guitar we found (in the words of the great poet Meatloaf) we could play notes we hadn’t even heard before. Okay, that’s perhaps something of an exaggeration, but we discovered we could bend notes far further than you’d normally be able to on a normal guitar.

Late into the night, Phill played a solo on that toy guitar that just floored Am and I. A spirit was moving through him. And those acutely bent notes immediately brought to my mind some of Vietnam’s ethnic instruments – after my unsuccessful efforts in Vietnam, I would finally find the echo of South-East Asia in a farmhouse in Balsall Common. It is due east of Birmingham if nothing else!

A European nightjar.
A European nightjar.

Whilst listening to that solo, you will hear a whirring noise drifting into the arrangement. A more accurate description would be churring. That’s how you refer to the call of the European nightjar. When I was a young lad growing up in the Quantock Hills, I have very happy memories of my dad taking me up to Aisholt Common in the hopes of seeing this elusive nocturnal bird. We rarely had any luck, but sometimes we would hear its mechanical song.

Modern technology allows us to manipulate sounds with such ease. With a little pitch correction, we were able fit a churring nightjar into the song, and even convince it to change notes to follow the chord progression. I love using unusual sounds like this in songs, especially noises from nature. More recently, the folk band Stornoway incorporated bird calls into their album, but we got there first. Though of course, we weren’t the first. Musicians have always drawn inspiration from birdsong.

You’ll hear another odd sound listening to Monsoon – a deep woody ‘plop’. This is the sound of an udu, a pot drum from Nigeria. This lovely piece of ceramic percussion has a hole in it. By slapping your palm over the hole you sound the ‘plopping’ noise, whilst you can play rhythms by tapping your fingers against the surface of the udu. It’s one of my favourites of Amjid’s many curious percussive instruments. When we played together as the Lazy Lizards we’d occasionally make use of it, but it was rather tricky to MIC up in a live band situation. I’d always fretted that we’d never had the chance to use the udu in a recording, but eventually I got my wish.

Recording the udu drum in Amjid's kitchen
Recording the udu drum in Amjid’s kitchen

*When I say studio, more often than not I actually it’s a bedroom (or, as above, kitchen!) with some MICs set up and hanging duvets creating a makeshift vocal booth. It’s a state of mind more than anything!

Sabah, Borneo

September 2015

Recording Monsoon