Studio Diary - Day 1
To get from Archway, North London, to Mile End, East London, should rightfully only take two trains, but this Saturday morning's tube service seemed so woefully shite that when I finally arrived there I had taken no less than five. One phase of my journey involved taking the Hammersmith and City line between Liverpool Street and Aldate East, where one of the July 7th bombs had been detonated. I hadn't passed through any of the bombed sections of the underground since the bombing, and, looking out the window as we passed through, I saw a slightly indented part of the tunnel wall, lined with noticeably new electrical wires, marking the grisly spot where the East-most bomb had blown. It was eerie journeying through a spot where so many lives had just been suddenly snuffed out, without warning. Never to reach the next station.
At Mile End, Matt and Shane were standing outside drinking coffee from cardboard cups, and paging through a newspaper Matt had picked up on the way in. I think it was the Guardian. Matt found it spooky that in the entertainment section, a large feature article carried a headline proclaiming "The genesis of gonzo". Today was the day for the genesis of Handbags at Dawn's own "Gonzo" - arguably the band's defining song, which we'd carried live for over a year, and now were finally about to commit to tape.
When Matty arrived, we set off down Bow Road, toward the studio. Matt and I hadn't been to the studio before, but we ended up walking in front. Ten minutes in, a voice behind us said "Are you sure this is the right way?". It was Matty.
"We were following you," I protested, somewhat implausibly.
After a further ten minutes of hilarious blind-leading-the-blind japes, Matty decided to call Mark, the producer, and get directions.
"Hello? Hi Mark, it's Matty. We're on the way to the studio now, but we're a bit clueless for directions ..."
"It's Matty... ?"
"Oh my god, you know what I've done, this is a totally different Mark to the one I was trying to call! Hey! How're you doing honey? Long time no see!"
Matt shot me one of his withering "this is a fucking shambles" looks.
Several minutes of banter later, Matty tried again and got in touch with the correct Mark (confusingly saved into his phone as "Mark Studio"), and directions were duly provided.
The studio appeared to be built into the side of a residential complex, and its interior more resembled a batchelor pad than a recording studio. I liked it already. Stacks of records - LPs, CDs - instruments, and hi-fi equipment lined the shelves of the 'lounge' area, the central focus of which was a large cluttered table and a bouncy comfortable sofa. There was lots of stuff everywhere - not junk, interesting stuff. Shane was fascinated by a little tiny piano on top of a filing cabinet, and then took great delight in dressing up in a black cape, and ferociously wielding a staff. Matt played with a little Spanish guitar.
Before we started doing anything, producer-man Mark, a through-and-through east-end geezer with an air of command, sat us all down in the lounge and asked us to describe what we were trying to do with this record.
Shane: "I want it to go from a kind of melancholy sounding mood, to a happy sound, and then back to melancholy again."
Mark: "What? Within one song, or across different songs?"
Shane: "Well, er.. everything really."
As the conversation trailed into incomprehensible whimsy, I decided to chip in and talk about what the different songs sounded like. We decided we'd try and put down Gonzo first, it being the most complex. Mark suggested different kind of sound motifs we could try and apply (Mark: "Are you after a big stadium U2 kind of sound?" Me: "Oh yes!" Everyone else: "NO!"), and then we all unanimously decided we should just do a run through of all the songs to kick things off properly.
The actual studio area was down in the basement, which was reached via an impossibly tiny staircase. At one point, Matt banged his head hard while ascending. I laughed cruelly... and then proceeded to do the exact same thing. Ouch. The studio was wonderful. Banks and racks of compressors and filters and oscillators and defribulators or whatever, a solid professional mixing desk, and two bright flat screen monitors. Everything was draped in fairy lights and the room exuded a comfortable eclectic decor. The lights were kept low and the room felt cosy. Beyond the glass, the actual recording room was equally pleasant. All kinds of amps and effects banks lined the walls, with boxes of tambourines and other miscellany were stacked in a corner. I knew instantly this was somewhere where you could be really creative.
Mark set up the recording room and we did a rough run through of all three songs. We sounded really good, and I could feel that everyone was comfortable and got the same vibe I was getting. Mark seemed to be pleasantly surprised. He really liked the songs and complimented accordingly: "You can all play - that's a start."
The drums and bass for Gonzo were completed in about three takes. Matty's final drum take (which we used) was amazing. I ended up trying three different bass guitars for it, settling on an heavy (and expensive looking) Yamaha, and this made me feel like a real muso. Matty and I recorded our parts at the same time, in the room together, while Shane and Matt played along next door, providing guide vocal and guitar. I much preferred this way of working. For the first EP, I'd had to record my parts on my own to a backing track while everyone else buggered off, and I had found the experience intimidating and nerve-wracking. Recording with all of us playing together was a lot more familiar and comfortable and I'm a lot happier with my takes.
The hardest song to nail for the rhythm section was Playing the Gay Guitar, which is odd seeing as we only come in for the latter half of the song. I switched back to my own bass for this one, and turned it right up to get the sound nice and thick and dirty. We turned in some good takes, but we both wanted to do it better, so we went back in and did it all again. Slower songs can actually be harder to record than faster thrashy ones, because every detail is a lot more noticeable. One thing I liked about Mark is he had an incredible ear for detail, and picked out things that I'd never have thought to notice. I also appreciated his direct no-nonsense way of working (Mark: "Play me that end bit." Me: *plays* Mark: "Yeah, that's right, why didn't you fucking play that the first time?").
At the end of day 1, we were ahead of schedule, with all the bass and drum parts completed. And then it was time for the Cava, strippers and cocaine.
Day 2 >>