For the final days we move into the more familiarly cluttered claustrophobia of Tim’s own Top Cat studio. Sofas compete with boxes, compete with cables, competing with guitars, competing with light. And all the time we were indoors over and over-dubbing, the snow-sparkling sun shone outside glistening like a toothpaste ad. From time to time we all had to get out there just to stay grounded and involved.
Fascinating to watch Tim and Justin attend to details of pitch, groove and legibility with a forensic certainty. As the last hours of the last day approach I have an idea for a guitar overdub on Samboo. I can only just about play it. As I struggle to get it right Justin asks me to change it a little. I could do what he wants if I were locked in a room on my own for a few hours. Instead they record me practising it - all the right notes, not quite in the right order. Ten minutes of keyhole surgery later Tim and Justin have spun it into the guitar riff I one day hope to emulate!
Then I’m watching them listening to my Lila vocal. The syllable by syllable taking apart is painful but instructive. I’d said I didn’t want to be around when they did this but here I am. Thinking for the umpteenth time over these Real World days: I don’t like recording. I’m a performer. I perform with conviction and presence. Recording that performance shows it’s also a cover that allows the flaws to come and go too easily. Pitch, timing - lazy. That unwillingness to commmit to a phrasing because I’m an improviser. Yes I can make it up on the fly but that doesn’t mean it’s any good ......etc...etc.
Finally, farewells and Ben is driving me and Matt home, playing the first rough mixes Tim’s just given us on the car’s CD player. As the sun sets over Somerset plains and dusk falls over the Bristol Channel we begin to hear what our record mght sound like. And it sounds like it will be something really rather wonderful......
The second morning is the morning of the deep snow when Tim walked 4 miles in the snow to get here, Jayson slithered down the last hill and Justin arrived seemingly unperturbed with a bags of North African percussion. Only 4 other people came into Real World that day.
Lila got sorted. Reality got a bit stuck. Took takes. Drums got re-worked. Listening back helped me realise I’d never really liked the bass line but suddenly had a new idea. Even as I sang it to Maja, and she learnt it others were saying we needed to move on to the next piece. How long indeed was I willing to invest in an idea that might not work that or even be that important? But sometimes you know you’re right. I persisted Maja got it. Justin listened to it and suggested missing out the 2nd of its 6 notes. Perfect.
Over lunch we had to make a crucial decision. Stick with the original plan and budget and properly finish 3-4 songs in the rest of the time we’d allocated or simply use the time we had to record as much as possible in the Wood Room. We immediately and unanimously chose the latter. Committing ourselves to the concomitant 2-3 extra days of mixing and mastering.
So it was that in the afternoon of our last day in the big studio Blue, Samboo and Dronegeese fell sweetly into place. Maja, Jayson and Paul did a judicious sequence of stirring overdubs and where we’d hoped we might get four songs done max suddenly we had the prospect of seven and the chance of a ‘proper’ 40-minute album!
- Steve Lewis
The first day is about setting up, setting up, setting up. Justin and Tim have decided they want us to play as live and as together as possible. Very much what we want but it means lots of trouble has to be taken to keep our sounds as separate as possible in the room. The light, spacious studio becomes boxed off with sound screen walls and polystyrene ceilings like some giant 3D board game. They create a completely sealed off box in one corner of the room for me. Ben is in a separate space with thick glass doors. His own private conservatory where we can see him but not really hear him.
Whilst each of us in turn gets careful attention from Tim and Katy the rest of us practise our parts or wander. The ‘Wood Room’ is very much what it says on the tin. Wood floor and walls. High ceilings with a grilled mezzanine where room mics are carefully placed to pick all the instrumental and overtoning harmonics that all that wood will set resonating. I visit Ben’s space. Sliding the thick glass door open. I have to count them a few times but, yes, in its corner of Ben’s corner his bass drum, not his kit but just the bass drum on its own, has not one, not two, not even three, but four different mics on it!!!
We all have headphones with controls for us to create individual mixes. I’m used to saying, “I need to hear more of this and less of that” and the engineer sorts it. Suddenly it’s my responsibility! It’s a very sophisticated idea that causes me deep consternation. I hear a digital approximation of a sound that is slowly tweaked closer to something acceptable. I don’t have my pedals. We’re all in the same room but everything I hear is right in my ear. So little air or space in the sound. But it’s the best compromise between playing live and making the best record we can.
After lunch we do our first take. It goes well. Two takes later and Wedding Wish is ready for overdubs. Matchless even quicker. Two down so quickly fills us with confidence.
We start in on Lila - Justin’s choice. I am slowly giving up control to him, letting go of preciousness; my songs, my sound. And it feels good actually. The second take of the second part is as good as it could possibly be. Everybody thinks so.
“Great piece” says Justin and suggests another take. And another. Ben gets a drum clinic. My headphones slip off mid song. I need water, a tuner. They are fetched. I break a string. I never break strings! Justin offers to fix it. He doesn’t realise it’s a Gretsch with a bigsby. It takes four of us to finish the job.
I begin to feel like I’ve had enough. We do another take of Lila. No-one wants to hear it. We call it the end of the first day.
- Steve Lewis
I’ve never really liked recording. Most of the studio sessions I’ve done have been to make demos to present to promoters to try and get them to book bands I’ve been in. I’ve been fiercely realistic. We need a documentation of our live work. If we can’t do it live we don’t put it on the record.
Once the current Deep Cabaret line-up came together I began to think again. The sound we make is so special. As one of our fans posted after a recent gig “sounds merged, collided and found voice with depth, simplicity & beauty.” What might happen if we made a recording with someone who really got that sound and knew how to use a studio as an instrument to enhance it?
We produced a short-list of dream producers. Not that we really knew them. But we knew people who might know people who knew them. They were all names working several levels above where we were. Premiership to our National League. I doubted any would even respond. But most of them did. Two were actually keen to work with us. We wound up having to choose between them! They had very different backgrounds, but both had so much to offer. Unbearable, but once we knew we’d get Arts Council England funding it was all suddenly very real. We chose.
I’d met Justin Adams years ago when he ran a guitar workshop I attended at WOMAD. The riff that underpins ‘Matchless’ is pretty much taken directly from that. The first time the band met him was when he came up to More Music in Morecambe to do a pre-studio session with us.
“You’re a live band. You know about performing” he said after we’d played him some of the songs, “I see my job as helping to produce a version of what you do that people will be happy to listen to at home, in the car, over and over” (Or words to that effect, don’t quote me quoting him!). Which precisely expressed what we all wanted. I felt in safe hands, even allowing myself to think I might be able to enjoy the process.
He liked most of what we played him but not The Blue. Probably my own favourite. We deferred. “Play it again and let’s see what I can suggest then”. He stopped us after the intro which was a chance for me to go into my sub-operatic, chazan-enhanced, ‘big’ voice.
“Why are you doing that?”
He’d warned me his approach to the vocals would be to back off, draw the listener in.
“It doesn’t seem to fit with what happens next”.
Hmm. He was right. I was doing it because I enjoyed doing it. Indulging myself. It didn’t have much to do with the feel or meaning of the rest of the song. We tried leaving it out. Immediate improvement.
Then he turned his attention to the rest of the band.........
- Steve Lewis
Over the winter we’ve been busy making a serious album with Arts Council England support. If you don’t ask etc........And what a glorious adventure recording our album has been!
Why Real World? Mostly because it’s the go-to place for our producer Justin Adams. And Tim Oliver, Justin’s go-to sound engineer is the main man there. But also part of its raison d’etre is that its a residential studio and we wanted the ‘away from home’ reorienting intensity that offered.
The site of Real World Studios is like a WOMAD campus housed in an old mill site in the tiny village of Box, close to Bath. It takes a little finding, back lanes off back lanes, especially if you arrive in the dark as we did.
Straightaway I knew we’d made a good decision. The accommodation was five star. I’d known we were sharing and wondered what that might be like. Just how close were we all willing to get? In fact Ben and I shared a whole house, with a floor each. The others were equally well provided for in the main house. Lush and luxurious. And we hadn’t even seen the studio yet.
Then there was the snow. That first morning, as we settled into the studio, got down to work with Justin, Tim and Katy the studio assistant, it began. Delicately and delightfully at first. Then insistent and settling, fashioning a disconcerting cover-up so by the end of the day everyone who had a home to go to got off as fast as they could.
The day finished for us with dinner especially cooked by Jerome the French cook and an unexpected pub Olympics (table tennis, pool, table football and darts) in a customised shed we found whilst exploring the the array of spectacular and dilapidated buildings on site.
We woke to a depth of virgin snow I’ve not seen for a generation in Lancaster. Beautiful. But we were in a remote Somerset valley - would anyone get in? Justin’s arrival seemed relaxed enough but Jay’s car slid down the final hill and Tim walked 4 miles in a blizzard!
Snowing stopped but the snow remained. Paths were swept, roads cleared, frozen plumbing mended. It lay there unmelting, sparkling in the sunshine, becoming a companionable Xmas card landscape accompanied by pervasive crunching underfoot. Until our last day when it began to slush, flow and disappear. As we drove away to start the journey home the paths, the roads, the hills were all clear. It arrived with us and left with us.
I can’t finish this scene-setting blog without mentioning the heart-warming story of the little egrets. I saw two of them that first morning sitting in the willow tree outside my room. I asked Tim the engineer about them. Because not only is Tim a magnificent engineer but he’s also an artist, a geologist, a bird-spotter and pretty much manages the whole Real World site including the lake and the sluice gates that control the surrounding water levels. He told us there had been been two little egrets nesting here for years but one had died and the other had been solitary and miserable for some time. Mine was the first sighting of a the grieving egret with a potential mate.
For some time now one of my chief aims for Deep Cabaret has been to give us all memorable experiences. From that point of view just being in place like Real World felt like an achievement. Enjoying being immersed in music even when we weren’t making it. Even when we were in the ‘no dogs please, we have cats’ pub. It hardly seemed to matter what we actually recorded and what happens to it.
It does of course though and I’ll give you the inside track on what happened in the studio next time.
- Steve Lewis