Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Music story: The Hours pt1 (repost)


The Hours part one

I was inspired by a blog I wrote on the Pure site the other day. In that one I'd written the story behind our song Anna is a Speed Freak. It was a bit long winded but I've always felt it to be one of the most interesting recordings I'd ever made. The process of how we came up with The Hours isn't exactly as convoluted, but it still seemed a bit interesting so I thought I'd write about that song this week.

Born originally on Christmas Eve 2005 and titled very clevery "Good at the End", The Hours was a very long jam, something around 8:30 minutes. It started weakly, went on forever and got kind of intersting at the 5 minute mark. We were using the "write way too much, for too long" formula to get our songs off the ground at that point. I confess that I still use this approach today, I figure it's better to play a song for obviously too long and hope to get a new idea somewhere later in the track, reduce the form down to the good bits and rearrange everything into a proper song once it's all laid out. So that's what we did. The original rough demo is rather ghastly, only a cheezy drum machine pattern playing and some incredibly dodgy loose vocal ramblings. However, you will be spared hearing that crap, because I've erased most of those feeder tracks and replaced them with things closer to the final version.

After that initial rough idea night we re-approached the song with more of a determined goal, knocked it down to about 6 minutes and starting giving it structure. In a moment of inspiration I realized that my friend Jonas had given me a link to a website that contained John Bonham mp3's. These were the outtakes from some early 70's sessions, though to be honest I couldn't tell you when as I'm nowhere near a big enough Led Zepplin fan to know their songs just from the drum tracks. Anyway, I converted them to 16 bit files and chopped them up to fit the tempo of our song. It was at this point that I realised exactly how amazing John Bonham was as a drummer. Even though I'd gridded out his performance to match the tempo, I could still feel his groove. I mean I bastardized his original feeling entirely yet his pocket was still there somehow. Bonham is truly one of the greatest Rock drummers of all time: really.

Now we had a song with verses playing along to loops and the chorus kicked in with Mr. Bonham slamming away. It started sounding huge. I bashed down some guitars, wrote the lyrics, got Isabelle to sing her parts and I thought, "Man, how can this get better?" Ha!

When we went into Mushroom Studio I had Jonas Fairly come in on the first day to track drums on five songs. The Hours was the second one we approached. Jonas has a completely easy style, very natural and not overly thought out, just instinctive. Shawn Penner (great engineer at Mushroom) and I sought to recreate that When the Levy Breaks type of sound, so I was running around moving SM57's to the back walls, compressing the hell out of everything and basically telling Jonas to beat the bejeezus out of the classic Ludwig drum kit. It sounded good but not exactly the way I thought it should: I mean I wanted Bonham drums (which is impossible by the way: only Bonhan can give you Bonham style drumming). Anyway, we got a good take and I was content.

The next day, when Jesse came in to do the remaining drum beds, we finished really quickly. With hours to spare I thought why not get Jesse to replace the drum loops in the verses and have Jonas play the bigger sounding drums in the chorus. Jesse was keen, so we stripped all the ambient mics away and left only the close mics on the kick, snare, and hihats with a stereo overhead set up for perspective. Then we baffled the kit really closely. Mushroom is an awesome drum room as it's so live, but I wanted dead, so we walled the kit in all the way around. Two takes and it sounded really cool: very tight, very funky.

Afterwards, when I got the tracks at home I started with just listening to the takes and was impressed at how well Jonas and Jesse played together without ever seeing each other or truly hearing each other's performances. It was cool. The "Who Paid for this" section was amazing, there are no edits in there at all. Just the two of them playing together and with such inspiration. However, after months of listening to the Bonham takes in the chorus I wasn't feeling what Jonas had played. So I wasted hours and hours editing his drumming to match exactly the patterns that I'd been hearing from the Bonham loops. And I stress here I wasted hours. It was a disaster. Personally I've been harping on to anyone who would listen my discontent with modern recording techniques, specifically this penchant for grid rock. By that I mean the technique of editing every single hit on the drum to a quantized grid. It really destroys the feel and removes the identity from any musician's performance. So, there I was moving every hit, changing the kick drum pattern etc and feeling the song disappear before me. Time to rethink it.

I took a break, went for a walk, and then remembered I had about five takes to choose from, why the hell not listen to some other takes instead of trying to force my ideas on another muso. And voila, the second take had a fantastic feel, so much simpler than Jonas' later takes, and the fills were brilliant. Suddenly I didn't have to edit the parts, I was just choosing between certain drum fills and patterns for each section. Much easier and much more musical. Yeah.

Jesse's verse pattern drumming was so on the money I barely touched it at all. However, my initial intension was to have him replace the programmed drum loop from the demo, leaving only real drummer playing alongside real drummer. But Jesse had his own ideas I guess: this guy is a fantastic groove drummer and understands polyrhythms very well. He's written his pattern AROUND the existing loop, so when I removed that part his part felt bare. Put it back in and the whole song locked up and propelled itself forward. Wow.

Now I realized I had a song with not only Jesse on the small sounding kit and Jonas on the Big Roomy kit but a two measure drum loop as well as several tracks of hand percussion AND a conga loop all playing at the same time! I mean if you mute all the other instruments it still sounds like the song! That's why I mixed the drums so loudly in that track, they were just so awesome.

Anyway, this is getting long, so I'll leave this as a part one of two kind of story. The rest isn't as crazy anyway, but I've got to go to the studio now. I'll finish up later.

Until then,

Mark      

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