Pete Townshend gets musical on the recordings
NOTE: A month ago we started recording our new album with Pete Townshend from The Who. This blog is the third in a series and starts at the point where we've just laid down the first recordings.
The next stage of the recording process is for us all to sit and listen to what’s been recorded and think, feel and imagine how we want to take the track further into the realms of it’s recorded potential. That could mean anything from recording it again in a completely different way, to throwing everything including the kitchen sink at it, or to leaving it just as it is. Some things we can do there and then, some things might require getting other musicians in further down the line. But in the time we have, and with the instruments and players we have to hand we begin to make in-roads into this process with a few of the tracks.
When you work with a producer, no matter who it is or how objectively good (or bad) they are, you never really know what will come out. It’s about the collaboration, who they respond to the music, to you, to them. It’s a dynamic, unpredictable process. We started off this year desperately wanting to work with producers for that very reason. We’ve recorded 13 albums now under our own steam, producing ourselves, recording ourselves, mixing ourselves. We like what comes out, but we also know what comes out, and we felt it was time to try and find ways of working with other people to inject chance and diversity into what we make and release - as we feel that the source of inspiration we receive in the books is incredibly diverse and comes from that author / musician collaboration. We love collaboration, and so we feel we’d love working with producers in the way we record things too. So for Pete to offer to produce a whole album was not only a quite unique singular opportunity, it’s also exactly what Beth and I wanted to do and could not have come along at a more perfect time.
The track we started off with was a song we’d written inspired by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The song is called Dirty Word, and that dirty word is “mother”. It’s a pretty dark song, as you might expect, but it’s also quite driving. I play a weird little scratchy guitar riff, which bounces with Beth’s cello line while Beth’s vocals glide over the top, occasionally joined by myself where we feel it mattered to do so, but no more. Pete wrote a list of things to try, and his eye glided round to the room to one of the less intimidating organs - unlike the mega-big Moog wall next to it - that lined the studio. A Lowery Lincolnshire, complete with organ pedals and a Lesley speaker. Talk of oscillating conflicting rhythms, bass entries, and “let’s just give it a try”. Pete sidled up onto the organ’s inbuilt pew, the tracks get played over the speakers, and Pete explores the sound, tones, tremolos, hindered slightly by our inability to give him a chord map of the song, but just having fun. Beth and I sit and listen, each note has a different tremolo rhythm with the effect like 20 different musical metronomes cascading, ebbing this way or that with his changing chords. And then he tries the pedals, the bass fills the room. He’s still exploring, not everything works, he is still finding his way on the track, but in that first moment Beth and I get a glimpse of Pete as the musician, his desire to play and explore, to find little moments of beauty, of hooks and textures that propel the track into somewhere no one expected it to go, and we know that this is going to be great thing. Percussion stations get set up in the back room. We hand Pete a lovely small Native Indian drum we bought in Taos Pueblo, where much of Brave New Work was set.
Different songs require different organs. My favourite was one built in the image of how they expected the future to look in the 70s - multilayered, silver, flashing lights, curved starship console like around the player. Huge oscillating chords and arpeggios sweeping through the middle section of Sanctuary, one of two songs we wrote inspired by Philip Pullman’s The Book Of Dust, followed by Pete on bass guitar, his body language immediately changing and loosening the moment something guitar-like in his hands. Hammond goes onto one of the Oz-inspired songs, double tracking vocals on the chorus, cymbals glistening through. Plans to record brass, perhaps strings. All loose, all subject to change and development, but there and being made.
It wasn’t all work - if you can call something so fun work, which was our entire plan. Mornings were spent wandering the estate, wondering what the place would have looked like 200 hundred years ago (exactly the same I guess). Herds of deer leaping the low fences like a scatter of unleashed bouncy balls. Evenings were punctuated with meals. On the Saturday night Pete’s wife Rachel Fuller ordered in a curry and we all sat round chatting, with Myles and Brian, and the lovely Bexs, who makes everything run seamlessly on the estate. And not forgetting Peanut, Rachel’s beautiful little new puppy, about the size of a big peanut. Pete is full of amazing stories, which is of no surprise and strikes us of a life if nothing but well spent. Musical references and recommendations permute the conversations. Rachel gave us a copy of her Animal Requiem, a huge work written by her in memory and celebration of all the animals we’ve loved and lost. It’s a beautiful idea, something Rachel is very passionate about, and she done it brilliantly. We didn’t really know what to expect but we grabbed a chance once we got home to listen on our nice speakers and it was stunning - very much honouring the requiem form but also quite cinematic in the sense that in the same way that Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals seems to impel you to manifest the bodies and characters of the animals in each movement, so the Animal Requiem has a similar story-like narrative to it, impelling you to do what Rachel intended this work to, to put you into a space where you can’t help but celebrate in your own way the animals you have know and cared for in your own life. It’s not a sad piece, but quite uplifting and a joy to listen to. Find out more about Rachel here and her Animal Requiem here, which is out now here.
Our mini band van re-appeared under it’s own steam outside, miraculously fixed while we were in the studio and returned to the house. Amazingly, given the severity of its grinding to a halt, it didn’t cost a fortune to fix. Or maybe the guy was angling for more work. Either way, we were back on the road, grateful to have our wheels back and also for the quite wonderful way in which our year had started. We don’t normally get out of the house until March, but 2019 had seen us tour America and record a new live album out there, Beth had written and recorded a new album with the nicest and most talented bunch of musicians, authors and artists you could imagine in the form of the Spell Songs project, and toured that to huge sell out venues. And we’d started work in earnest with Pete, recording a new album we already know we are going to love and are going to have a lot of fun making. We just had our first brainstorming meeting with Nic Bottomley at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights to set the wheels in motion for the return trip to the US in 2020.
Pete’s on tour with The Who over the Spring in the US with their new album - I jokingly emailed him to say that The Bookshop Band’s recent tour had more dates than The Who’s - so we’re on a little hiatus while he gets that out of the way, and then of course the major priority for all is to get back into that studio, hopefully in the summer. Do go and see The Who if you get the chance. Say hi from us. We’ll try and get to the Wembley date in July.
But for now our attention turns to Beth’s new album, When The Lights Are Bright, from the new-incarnation of her band, Marshes. It’s dark, it’s poppy, it’s brilliant - recorded with some of her closest musician friends who she has worked with for many years. I’m really proud of her. We’re all on tour this April trying to ease it gently out into the world.