Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Backing tracks and studio backstories

Rob makes final adjustments
When you're a kid starting out in a band, going into the studio is a dream come true: it's the very culmination of why you do it (except for those who do it because they love playing live). For my first sessions I was filled with a mixture of trepidation yet excitement, full of uncertainty.. how will the songs come out? Will they be any good?  Will my bass sound good the way that engineer has miked it up?
Even after the first couple of times I still found myself getting nervous going to the studio. Each time the sound seemed different, the engineers worked in a different way, the pressure was different. For our first A Witness session for John Peel we went into Maida Vale after staying with a friend who had a houseboat on the Grand Union Canal near Rickmansworth: we got absolutely slaughtered in the pub the night before. Perhaps this wasn't the best preparation for an eight-hour slog at 11am the next day with Dale Griffin producing.
This bass means business
 No-one ever got tapes of the Peel sessions afterwards so I didn't hear it again until one night a few months later when I was driving through Heald Green and Peel announced he was playing the session... it's weird to hear songs you've written and played on for that recording coming over the radio into your car .. and then a God-like figure like Peel says he thinks your band's good! That's quite a high at the age of 23. It's a shame no-one's ever really taken over Peel's role as a champion of the strange and the avant garde in the same way.. but now the guitar-driven 'independent' scene has become the mainstream.

Having done all the things you do when you're younger, like getting smashed the night before a session, then feeling like death all the way through it... turning up without food, drinks, milk or teabags and having to survive on crisps and tea with dried milk, or (perhaps worse) camomile or nettle tea or revolting chicory coffee or whatever's been left in the cupboard by the previous band .. well, having done all that, I've always tried to prepare myself for a studio session. I rehearse the songs.. practice the hard bits... make sure I have a tuner, some butties, some tea bags, spare strings and all the essentials a musician needs.
Harry gets a guide vocal and guitar down

Having got my provisions in before the Blackpool gig on the Friday, I slept in a bit on Saturday morning having not gone to bed until 3am, and on Saturday afternoon I joined Rob and Harry at Courtyard in Stockport to set up the bass. Rob got there earlier to check his drums so we'd be on course to be ready to record a batch of songs on Sunday.

When we were set up we ran through a couple of songs and it sounded good enough to get a track down on tape so we rolled on it ... then another, and then another. Within the space of an hour we'd laid backing tracks of bass and drums for four songs, so went home well ahead of ourselves.

Don't forget the words...
Sunday we'd booked a long-ish session to get more bass and drums down, having left everything set up and channels open etc.. and we just got our heads down and worked at it. Suddenly all those Monday nights of rehearsal through the spring and summer paid off as we clicked through the gears and got all the songs down sounding really good.

Some bits were tough - concentrating in such depth for so long can be exhausting - but then all of a sudden the songs were down and I was free to go... my input was no longer needed. That's quite an odd situation when you've been shaping these songs and getting the feel of them in your head, working your part out so it feels right and fits, or trying to work out how to change something so it does fit .. and then there's just free time and you don't have to remember the number of verses before a chorus, or whether this song has a double chorus.

And the notebook that you've worked out the song structures and modifications along the way can be heaved into the box under the bed along with all those updates the singer's given you of the lyrics, and that old H+H bass amp can go back into the cupboard under the stairs (for another week, at least) and maybe I can start doing other things on a Monday night now for a bit. Like.. er.. watching the match. Or going for a pint. Or...I dunno.. I'll think of something.

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