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Sunday, 28 February 2016

Making an album, part 8: Taking the scenic route

Like many music lovers of my vintage, I've spent the last six weeks or so listening to David Bowie CDs and trawling youtube for clips, interviews and rarities. There is plenty I could say about how important Bowie was to me, but plenty of other folk have pontificated on that topic and I’m not in the mood to add to it. All I will say -for now- is that Bowie, an inspirational figure in life, has become an even more inspirational figure in death. The fact that he could produce interesting work as his life was ebbing away seems to be entirely in keeping with his status for my generation. If he can do all of the things that he did while knowing what he knew, then perhaps those of us who undertake artistic pursuits purely for pleasure should get our fingers out and get on with writing that book, painting that picture, making that film, or –in my case- recording that album.


A few months ago, having pulled together more than enough material for an album and having pretty much decided which tracks were going to make the final cut, I started to labour a bit over the lyrics for the four final songs. It was not so much a case of writer’s block, more a demonstration of the power of laziness to facilitate an extended pause for reflection. I had most of the instrumentation recorded for these tracks and had even put down some guide vocals, but I just felt that somehow I wasn’t in the right place to write the words or, indeed, finish the album. Needing to take a break from the task I had set myself, I embarked upon what I thought was a little detour. As a way of avoiding (or postponing) finishing off those last few songs, I started to record some instrumental pieces and, before too long, found myself absorbed in the process. This diversion into the instrumental domain extended to my listening habits and I wallowed once more in the beautiful lush soundscapes of artists like Jean-Michel Jarre, Kraftwerk, John Barry and Angelo Badalamenti. The touchstone, as ever, was Bowie’s ‘Low’ which –even 40 years on- still sounds like a work of art.

Compared with writing a song, working on an instrumental can be quite liberating. As I’ve stated previously, the songs on my album are all quite tastefully arranged and have all the building blocks of what a certain kind of music bore might call ‘proper’ song-writing. The instrumental, however, pays no mind to many of the rules that apply to the song and will often rely almost entirely on atmosphere and ambience. One piece, for instance, started with me finding a weird sound on a synthesiser and playing a constant distorted drone in A flat minor. No rhythm was involved and I didn’t move from the chord, because I had no sense that it had to go anywhere; the sheer noise of it just felt good. I added a simple string melody and saved it as ‘Not The Thing’, because the feel of the basic demo reminded me of Ennio Morricone’s superb, eerie, minimalist soundtrack for John Carpenter’s classic movie. A couple of months down the line, that piece, based on little more than a crunchy, distorted tone, has turned into something quite powerful and evocative, a really fun piece of music to work on. Over several sessions with producer and engineer extraordinaire Eddie Macarthur, I’ve added various layers, melodies, synth parts and bits of treated electric guitar which, if you asked me to play again, would have me utterly flummoxed. I’d be unable to reproduce any of it, because I had no idea what I was playing and have no intention of ever trying to perform these pieces live. Morphing and squeezing the guitar through a variety of effects, I played by ear, riding the effect –as opposed to playing the part and adding effects later in the mix- and trying to respond instinctively to what the mood of the piece required.  

This is not something I normally do when I’m writing a song. Aware that the vocal is king and that a solid foundation must be in place, I will already have worked out the chords on acoustic guitar or piano. In ‘song-writing’ mode, I’ll avoid jarring or clunky chord transitions, because I’m always thinking about what the vocal melody is going to be doing and what the lyrics is going to say; I’ll usually want to tell a story or make some observation on the human condition. When I’m recording an instrumental, all I want to do is make something that sounds good; this may seem like a banal observation, but I would regard it as a liberating statement of intent. The instrumental makes no statement other than: I’m here, I exist, I’m making this noise, while a song always has to have something to say, even if it’s just "I love you, baby" or "I’ve got a brand new combine harvester". My album of ‘proper’ songs requires a degree of personal exposition, but these mute atmospheric pieces allowed me to revel in the lack of any requirement to write lyrics. It is, I believe, this absence of ‘self’ that has made the instrumental music so liberating to work on; in that sense, it feels like a purer art form. 

As I developed more and more of these new pieces, unencumbered by any obligation to tell a story or make any particular statement, I soon found that I had accumulated enough material to produce at least another album. So successful and fulfilling has been this detour (although you may disagree if you listen to the tunes) that I now intend to complete an instrumental album at more or less the same time as the album of 'proper' songs. The name for this project is Jügomagnat and the working title for the album is ‘An accumulation of detail’. This is because, on several of the pieces, I have started with a relatively simple theme and added layer upon layer, counterpoint upon counterpoint, until the piece has swollen, wandered and (hopefully) soared. By the time five or six minutes have passed, the listener may have lost trace of the original riff, but it will still be there, a modest little motif still somehow carrying the accumulated weight of its melodic cousins.

The track I’m linking to below (Relentless) is fairly typical of the Jügomagnat body of work. As usual, it started with me playing around at home, doodling on the keyboard. Something about the simplicity of the riff and the insistent rhythm set me off and, thereafter, the piece pretty much wrote itself; all I had to do was keep driving it in the same direction. I know that repetitive pieces aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but nothing is everyone’s cup of tea.
The point of this kind of music is to create a mood and to sit in that mood for a longer period than one might expect from a normal pop song. Working on these tracks has given me license to mess around a lot more with effects and treatments and to indulge a love for warm analogue synth sounds and atmospheric textures. Listen out for the ‘cut-up’ vocals layered across the landscape of this piece, sitting somewhere in the background like a not-so-distant memory. Later in the track, a lead vocal kicks in. The observant listener will notice that I’m not singing any particular words, but rather making sounds that -to me- felt like they would sit comfortably with the mood of the piece.  

A bit, in fact, like Bowie, on side two of ‘Low’.

Well … I can dream, can’t I?

2 comments:

  1. Raymond, just listened to all tracks on Soundcloud. Loved 'Relentless' and thought 'The View From Her Garden' was beautiful. 'Cityscape' had more than a hint of Kraftwerk. Found 'The Long March....' exactly that! 'You Can Never Go Back' I could see myself sitting on a beach in Ibiza chilling to as the sun goes down.
    I'm not a huge fan of instrumental tracks but enjoyed most the tracks. Well done, I am impressed.

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  2. Thanks for the kind comments. Be warned ... there are more instrumentals on the way!

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