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.

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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

Recording the Backyard Animals EP

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