Sofa Sound  Newsletter

33/May 2008


Past Newsletters


This time the newsletter is taken up with an account of the recording of "Trisector" which, as I'm sure you'll know, marks the latest stage in the VdGG recording story.

The first phase of live playing is now complete and we'll be in Japan in June. (I'll also be doing solo shows before and after this, including North America.)

I'm afraid that at present there's no further news on a "corrected" "And Close..."; and DVD stuff *still* may or may not emerge soon.

I'll catch up with all the above next time; for now, it's all about the record!

In the meantime and until later, as ever, thanks for listening.


Trisected Angles

By this time last year we had finished our first bout of touring as a trio and felt empowered and invigorated by the performances. Already, though, our attention had turned towards the next stage in our development: new recordings.

From the outset we were reluctant to go down the conventional studio route. Our budget was limited and we didn't fancy piling on financial pressure on ourselves in addition to the creative pressure which a hot-house studio atmosphere imposes. "Present" had fallen into our - admittedly well-prepared - hands and we hoped to achieve something of the same sort of spontaneity this time, albeit with much more of a conscious sense of what we were about. In any event, we weren't sure of what exactly we might come up with nor, indeed, of how much we might manage to get done in any given time period.

At some point the Gaia Centre in Cornwall once more came under discussion and we quickly agreed that there'd be a logic in going back there, both in terms of the linearity of our story and in the continuance of the DIY ethic which usually characterises our rehearsals and recordings.

The Gaia Centre was originally intended as an alternative energy museum/resource centre. It's a large building situated in the middle of a wind farm (the first commercial one in the UK) near the village of Delabole and quite close to Tintagel Castle and other Arthurian tourist spots. Unfortunately visitor numbers were never enough to give it a commercial viability and it closed some time in 2003.

When we first went there in 2006 it was in something of a mothballed state and we set up in one of the smaller rooms. It was here, of course, that we made our first exploratory steps towards trio-dom, working our way through past repertoire and beginning to shape new material and new approaches; probing to see if we had a future as Three, in fact. In the intervening period this room had been taken over by Cornwall Council as a schoolroom for children who had been excluded from mainstream schools. We therefore moved into a large space originally designated as a lecture theatre.

We had more than enough room to set up in stage format, with HB's Leslie speakers some way off and baffled in by noise screens. More of these also provided some separation for drums from organ and piano/guitar. The desk (a modest Soundcraft), outboard, interfaces, computers and drives were then placed on tables in the centre of the room. I had a separate laptop set-up at the side for editing. Both for acoustic and aesthetic reasons we flew blankets from the roof girders. Moving a sofa from elsewhere in the building finally gave us the semblance of a control room in the middle of the space.

For "Present" the bulk of the recording responsibility had fallen to me, with HB also pitching in. This time Guy got the main engineering role, though all of us contributed various bits of hard- and software to the mix. Since we were recording to computer the main initial thing (apart from getting a decent sound, obviously!) was to ensure that we weren't putting things down too hot and Brain did a fantastic job in setting up original settings which only had to be slightly tweaked for each piece as we went along. Although the organs and my instruments were played (quietly) through amps in the room we actually recorded them direct, so that the drums were the acoustic element of each take.

It took us the best part of the first day to get ourselves set up, ready and running - pretty fast work! Quickly we were ready to get down to business.

In the intervening period between our Spring touring and the July sessions we'd exchanged many CDs and files of material through the post as we attempted to establish what kind of record we were going to make. Some of the ideas we swapped were mere sketches, others much more developed; some were more or less completed ideas. By the time we arrived we had a couple of CDs with the main contenders tracked up and so had an inkling, at least, of what we were heading into.

We began by working on "Over the Hill", even though it only had gestures towards lyrics at this stage. This was a piece which had grown organically from a couple of tunes HB had originally sent me, which I had added to and sent back to him for further work...and so on. We were fairly clear and determined that this one should be in the mix from the is, of course, the closest to a "traditional" VdGG piece in the collection. Saying that, our arrangement and playing heads had to be bolted on pretty rapidly and firmly in order to get the job started, let alone done.

We worked on it in four sections. (Shades of sessions from the era of "Pawn Hearts"....) Very, very speedy work: once we'd established what we were meant to be doing, we immediately went into record mode and simply did take after take until we felt we'd got The One. Generally, we'd have the same feeling about the takes but of course we then had to listen through for confirmation or perhaps, to discover that actually we needed to go through it again, for musical or, rarely, technical reasons. Files were then copied over from one hard disc to another for safety and we pressed on to the next passage.

After the first couple of days we'd completed the backing track for "Over the Hill". Although it was still in separate pieces and of course absent of vocal it was immensely strong in itself and had laid down one angle of marker at least for the nature of the work we'd undertaken. Significantly, for a "big" number, we felt comfortable bringing things down to a gentle level both in the middle of the song and at the end.

We had also established our system of working. We'd get to the centre at 10 or 11 and work consistently to 6 or 7 in the evening, with a brief pause for lunch. Then back to our holiday home in Camelford, where we'd have our (self-catered, boys on holiday style) evening meal, a glass of wine or three, a bit of editing/comping/analysing what we'd done during the day (oh, the joy of laptops and firewire drives!) and then to bed ready for an early start.

So we pressed on. "Interference Patterns" was next and this *did* have a set of lyrics already prepared. This piece had a direct connection to Gaia: it originated in an improvisation during our first visit in which we'd flipped around the discovered riff from one time signature to another in something of an unconscious manner. When I began preparing it for further work I discovered that colliding the two versions and time signatures produced a third, phantom, riff. Eureka!

Once we'd locked into playing this we really knew that we were getting somewhere and also that we were stretching ourselves, while gritting the teeth in dogged concentration. It was one thing to have set up a sequence in which the contraflow worked, quite a challenge to play it live once we'd apportioned the parts. In places I think the three of us are playing completely independent of each other, sustained only by the internal count which *in theory* means we'll meet up together in x bars time. Good fun.

One piece followed another, day by day. We waited to record "All that Before" and "Lifetime" until at least half-way through the sessions, feeling slightly intimidated by both of them. When you know that you've done at least a couple of pretty decent live performances of songs it's a bit daunting to attempt the Definitive Versions. "Before" really had to have some weight and "Lifetime" a great delicacy in order to succeed. In the end neither proved too painful; and both had benefited from the live outings. They'd also served the purpose, in that context, of staking out some of the territorial limits of our musical map.

We made a few sonic detours along the way but fundamentally stuck to the plan of recording discrete songs. It was only later that we realised that several of these came in at around the five minute mark. Some things which might appear a tad throwaway - I'm thinking particularly of "The Hurlyburly" and "Drop Dead" - seemed, even at the time, to have an important contribution to make in counterbalancing some of the other, more dense material. Equally, it was a great pleasure to put down a recording of bare simplicity like "Only in a Whisper"; undoubtedly the DNA of a piece like this had been established, again, in our initial visit to Gaia.

Some of this music required intense work, some came very naturally, albeit strangely: the main riff for "Not Here", for instance, was one which came to me in a dream (in which I struggled to master it). In any event, all seemed correct, fresh and exciting.

After a fortnight, we were done and drove away (cars laden down to the axles with the weight of our equipment) with CDs of rough mixes to listen to on our long drives home, knowing that we definitely had the basis of The Album. It had been an extraordinarily intense period of work which exceeded all our expectations, while challenging us to come through with post-prod work of equal vitality.

There was much more to do, of course: the next phase of private study/overdub took place in our respective home studios. Some extra parts had always been envisaged - a couple of bass parts for HB, some guitar for me, some percussion extras. All of us quickly came to the conclusion, though, that we already had prime examples of the three of us playing together as a unit in real time and that it would be a great shame to compromise the force of this by getting into over-dub-itis. The essence of the recording, as of the group, is live playing and interaction, often by the skin of the teeth. It's probably this approach which has made it comparatively simple for us to translate this - often quite difficult - music into performance on stage.

Once all the files had been assembled, lyrics written and vocals dubbed I began the mixing job. This ended up being quite an extended process, with work-so-far often being sent out to HB and Brain for comment and reaction (which they were neither slow nor too bashful to proffer, naturally!). Gradually it moved towards completion. In the final stages both HB and Brain came to Terra Incognita to work through final wrinkles, final nudges; in some cases to port across whole chunks of drumkit processing. Finally, cooked to our satisfaction, the album was ready to enter the world....

An addendum: the giant wind turbine structures which surround Gaia had been a constant, near-animate, presence for us on both visits. It was only on the penultimate day that we realised we hadn't recorded the whoosh of the blades. Hikers of a nervous disposition might, then, have been shocked by the sight of Brain and myself manouvering a one-man tent (which had served as chill-out room in the studio space) under the pylons to create a makeshift studio from which to record the beating blades, as evening wind and rain began to close in. This is the sound which opens and closes the album; one which has special and continuing resonance for each of the three of us.




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