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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Making an album part 4: I’m not with the band

Although I’m working with several different people on my album, I’ve chosen not to go down the route of forming a band to record it. Instead, I’m bringing in musicians as and when required. I’ve been in plenty of bands over the years and I’ve always been the main songwriter, but being a ‘one-person-does-most-of-the-writing’ kind of band is not necessarily the greatest formula for longevity.  When the songwriting is a truly collaborative process, with everyone having a more or less equal say in the composition, you’ve probably got a better chance of keeping everyone in the band happy.  But that’s not usually how I prefer to work, for reasons I’ve been exploring with a psychotherapist for the past decade or so (another three or four years, she says, and I should be almost out of the woods).    

Assuming that talent and hard work are already in place, one of the things that can keep a band going is momentum; you not only have to recognise when you have it, you need to be able to capitalise on it.  From a songwriter’s point of view, momentum –or even the illusion of momentum- can only be maintained as long as the musicians believe that the songs might be able to take them places.  With the benefit of hindsight, I can recognise the point at which various bands I’ve been in have lost momentum and belief, but failed to notice it.  When that happens, it’s possible to trundle along for months and months, a bit like that Bruce Willis character in The Sixth Sense, not knowing that he’s actually dead. 

Up until sometime around your mid-to-late twenties, it’s relatively easy to maintain the enthusiasm, energy and belief required to maintain a band.  At that stage, you are pretty resilient because, essentially, you believe that a big break might be just around the corner; but keeping a band together gets harder as you get older, particularly if the gigs you are playing aren’t bringing in much money.  As the years pass and you start to realise that you are still quite some distance from earning a crust from music, you’ll sometimes wonder why the hell you are still doing it. And, as band members start to accumulate significant life baggage, the option of suffering for their art seems somehow less attractive. 

If you’re lucky, the business side of your operation will be looked after by a manager, leaving the sensitive artists to concentrate on playing music, drinking and showing off.  I’ve had several managers over the years; most of them were nice enough people, but were often largely ineffective when it came to the main item on their job description: helping the band become much more successful.  The management continuum has ‘autocrat’ at one end and ‘best friend’ at the other, with lots of variations in between; each style has its advantages and disadvantages.  I once had a particularly autocratic manager who terminated our contract over an argument about the clothes that were to be worn in a promotional shoot.  The manager wanted me, as the vocalist, to dress in a certain way.  What he called -with a straight face- ‘his people’ had carried out some research into ‘winning’ colours and styles and had come up with what they believed was the perfect formula.  This appeared to involve me dressing as what a Victorian novelist would have described as a popinjay.   I thought that what I was being asked to wear would make me feel even more stupid than usual, so I politely demurred.  We couldn’t find a sartorial middle ground, so the manager, rather less politely, ripped up our contract.  Sometimes it isn’t just about the music.           

Autocrats can be tricky to work with, but having a friend as your manager is also not without its pitfalls.  Someone who is very close to the musicians might be unable to bring the necessary hard-headed objectivity to what should be a business relationship.   

I was once in a band that was booked to play a big student rally in a park on the south side of Glasgow.  The placard-wielding students were marching from the centre of town to the event, which was to include a number of guest speakers and some live entertainment (namely us).  As the park started to fill up, we sat backstage slugging warm beer and nibbling at the corporate hospitality crisps.  Our manager, god bless him, said: “This is it, lads!  This is going to be the turning point.  Having slogged for some time around various pubs and clubs in the West of Scotland, slowly but surely building a reputation as we clawed our way from the depths of nonentity to the giddy heights of relative obscurity, we felt that yes, indeed, we might well have been on the cusp of a breakthrough to a bigger audience.  The organisers had very kindly given us the choice of either playing our set as the students were arriving at the park (i.e. warming the audience up for the speakers) or going on after the various student leaders and politicians had worked the crowd up into an indignant frenzy.   

To a band accustomed to performing in grotty, sparsely-populated bars, the crowd that day looked to be of Woodstockian proportions and we were buzzing at the possibility of performing for them.  As bodies continued to flood into the park, the manager announced that we would go on after the speeches; this, he suggested, would give us ‘maximum impact’.  We all agreed.  Why –so our thinking went- should our unique brand of rock and roll play second fiddle to a bunch of boring old speakers?  No way, man!  Let the politicians do their bit and then we’ll rock this place!  Hell, yeah! This is the turning point!  With the benefit of hindsight, our manager’s statement was probably correct, but only if by ‘turning point’ he meant ‘career-defining clusterfuck’.  It was certainly the point at which I realised that our plans for world domination were sadly unsupported by anything approaching a coherent strategy. 

Not knowing our collective arse from a hole in the ground, we had chosen to ‘top’ the bill, having given no thought as to why hundreds of students had bothered to walk all the way from the city centre to the south side.  They were there to protest, to listen to speeches, to vent some spleen, to stamp their feet and shout ‘Tories Out!’ (although it was such a cold afternoon that I’m pretty sure that some of them must have felt like shouting ‘What do we want? Some hot chocolate, please!’)  

By the time those speeches had ended (and there were more than one or two), that Woodstockian throng had already started to dwindle; by halfway through our opening number, the crowd had shrunk in size by about 50%.  Once we were three or four songs into our blistering set, the remaining punters could comfortably have been accommodated behind the goal at a Ramsden’s Cup preliminary round tie between East Stirling and Stenhousemuir.  During our last number, what was left of what I’m now embarrassed to call the ‘crowd’ could have gathered in the average student bedsit and each of them would have had more than enough room to swing a cat.  It’s not that we were that bad a band (honest), but we were certainly stupid enough to deserve everything we got that day.  Had our manager been more than just a supportive buddy, had he been capable of strategic thought, he would surely have advised us, in the strongest possible terms, to go on before the speakers. 

So if you ever get invited to play at a political rally, kids … just remember exactly where you are in the food chain.                                 

But I digress; back to the album.  I’m playing bass on a couple of the tracks, but the majority of the songs require something a bit more sophisticated than the root note simplicity I can just about get way with. I had a great session a couple of weeks ago with the very talented Fraser Sneddon (pictured above).  I’ve played with Fraser before and know that he can be relied upon to nail some really wonderful bass lines.  Hearing the bottom end of my tracks start to take on a bit of heft and groove was a joyful experience.  I enjoy the experience of sitting face-to-face with musicians and talking about what you want to achieve with an individual piece of music.  A good player will usually give you options when it comes to specific parts.  I like to give talented people their head and let them interpret the part as they will.  I will then make one or two suggestions, with perhaps a point or two about emphasis or rhythm here or there.  I might suggest that the part needs to be more or less aggressive, or perhaps requires more or fewer passing notes.  Little alterations can sometimes really alter the feel of a piece. 

The best recording sessions occur when folk are relaxed and feel confident enough to experiment a little.  My co-producer on the album, Eddie McArthur at Stealth, has a much better ear than me for spotting little tuning fluctuations or deviations in timing.  Our preferred method is to get the player to run through the parts a couple of times to loosen up and then get a version which is more or less the part we imagined.  Then we’ll pursue the ‘what if?’ strategy, which involves letting the player wander off-piste to see what kind of unusual or interesting stuff gets thrown up.  The wonders of digital editing will often allow us to construct a part which might be a mixture of the basic idea, the loose ‘off-piste’ take and maybe a dollop of additional studio surgery.        

Another way of collaborating on recording projects is to have musician friends send you stuff through the miracle of electronic mail.  For this album, Alan Robertson –a former colleague in the band ‘Gum’- has been recording material at home and firing it off into the ether; somehow, it ends up on my laptop.  Alan’s one of those chaps who can knock out a tune on a variety of instruments, a great ideas man with a good ear for hooks and textures which can help add flavour to a piece.  Fraser and Alan both make excellent contributions to the song I've linked to here.  Since I posted the original demo (featuring just a vocal, an acoustic guitar and some rudimentary piano), they have helped me flesh it out a bit.

I said at the time that I was hoping that it would one day inhabit a lusher soundscape and, thanks to Alan’s electronic noodlings and nurdlings (and what I hope is the judicious use of some backing vocals) I think the track is now close to being complete.  Another tweak or two and it’ll almost be there.