Are We Nearly There Yet

Part II. Job done

Here I am, a week later than promised, but this blog never beat any records for punctuality and reliability – a bit like its writer! Still working on that. However, if you can have a reasonable excuse, here it is. The album is finished! Over the past two weeks, Tom Hughes, our brilliant producer and I have been killing ourselves to add the final touches and last Thursday, finally, he sent me the last track. The past couple of days have been a flurry of uploading to our aggregator, Tunecore, and to the CD manufacturer. Release date for the album is 30 November and the single is the 24th. Recently Rob said it felt like giving birth and I advised him never to say that to a mother! But certainly it’s been long, excruciatingly frustrating and really tough. And painful, not in a physical way although sometimes my fingertips were shredded and my vocal chords raw. Choosing which songs to leave off the final running order was really difficult. But it’s not as if this is anything new. Hundreds of thousands of musicians go through this process every year. We’ve done it on our own and we’ve had to learn a lot of new skills, some musical, some administrative. I’ve given up on PhotoShop but luckily with my mate Alex Horwood, probably the best photographer, videographer and editor ever to have walked on this earth (admittedly I’m just a little biased!) I have a fantastic collaborator who can produce the most brilliant result with the sparsest of resources.

But if we are at the end we couldn’t have done it without our friends. Dom Harvey, the unimaginably talented guitarist of Dead Before Mourning who has been coaching and teaching me on and off for the past five years, who gave me the idea for ‘What Did You Do?’ one of the songs on the album, gave me the intro to start it off, and then in September sat down with me at Barnstorm Studios to record the most spine-tingling, mesmerising solo – a flawless diamond of guitar playing that leaves me awe-struck every time I hear it. Dom introduced us to Chantelle Bartlett, who has the voice of an angel yet she can rap with menace. She really has transformed three of the songs on the album. If anyone wonders how important a backing vocalist can be, listen to a track called ‘Electra’. She sings just one word and illuminates it in a way I can’t explain. Sometimes it’s better to just accept miracles and not waste any more time wondering how it’s done. And let’s not forget Jan’s backing vocals on ‘Dancing in Silence’, She’s there for the album version. And most important, Tom Hughes, our producer. He has just been the integral part of this whole project. I always think, what’s the point of hiring a producer if you’re just going to give them instructions? You might as well just get an engineer to to run the board and do the rest yourself. With a producer you get an objective view. Sometimes they tell you things that are hard to accept but they’re not doing it because they like the sound of their own voice. They want the album to be as good as it can be and they have far more experience in getting it that way than a band who are only going into the studio once a year at the most. We’re the exception, with plans to record our follow-up starting February next year.

If I ever thought recording an album consisted solely of going into the studio, recording 15 songs or so then sitting back and waiting for critical acclaim and hourly airplay I was sadly disabused. Although most of us have thrown our CDs away you still have to produce one. For promotional purposes, for potential collectors, and for us, a tangible record. Lucky for us, we have two very talented photographers. Not only Alex (see above) but also my own long-suffering Jan. She has a great voice but she is also a fantastic photographer. On several of the photographs she and Alex collaborated to produce some really special images. As an example, here is the front cover.

Lavender Hill album cover

Wouldn’t it be good to say that’s the end of the story? All we need to do now is sit back and wait for the royalties. Not in this life. Now for promotion . That’s OK. We have a great album. How to go about it is another story. If there is a book on publicising your album I’d be delighted to have one. You can Google to your heart’s content and pull out some do’s and don’ts from bands and artists who have done it with varying degrees of success but you’re on your own. You have to compile a list of media – music critics and radio stations who might want to listen to an unknown band’s offering. One big stumbling block is a question all online A&R websites ask? “What band are you like?” If you think about it, how banal a question can that be? The reason we play originals is so we can be unique. Not wanting to be pigeon-holed we write our own material and play it our own way. I guess the answer has to be; wait until the album is released then you can make your own mind up. It is an uphill struggle as we found out when we released ‘Dancing in Silence’. We learned from that and over the next month we will produce a couple of videos. Unknown, unsigned bands have to work really hard, not just on their music but on those tasks you could never imagine like writing to music journalists and bloggers, to radio stations and any other influencers who might persuade just a few more people to play our songs, try to get playlisted, really looking for marginal gains to increase our profile. Still, we signed up for this….didn’t we?

ARE WE NEARLY THERE YET?

Part 1. No Peace for the wicked

Hi. Silver here, after a long absence. When was it? June, just after we released Dancing in Silence. How have you been? Are you keeping safe? I always have these aspirations to release a blog every Monday if only to stay in touch. Keep the faith, readers. I’m doing my best, and with the current state of play in Lavender Hill Land, there’s a lot to report. Who knows, I might even manage to write regularly.

Silver composing

Resolution made, here is the first instalment. You’re aware, if you’ve read the last few blogs, we’re working on an album. I guess you could say it began a long time ago when I started writing songs for it. I actually didn’t stop after the EP, and we have gradually introduced new numbers into our live gigs over the last three years. Having learned the basics of Music Production and Sound Engineering with Nikos Argallas at Soundflow Music Academy in Guildford, – I should say the rudiments – I started recording demo projects in February of 2019. To begin with they were a little agricultural, and the other guys threw them back at me when I took them into the studio, with instructions to get the timing and quantizing (synchronising two or more instruments). But the serious date was 15 September when I met with Tom Hughes, producer and founder of Dragonfly Studios in Reigate. I’d been speaking with him about working together but this was the first detailed discussion. I sent him guide tracks. A basic drum track, bass, acoustic guitar and scratch vocals, which he then ripped apart and made me start again – again. So much for my dreams of being a great producer.

First time we had met in 3 months

Tom and I spoke about the kind of sound we wanted. With the songs we were bringing in we were aiming for as big a sound as possible. I was very influenced by Phil Spector, who used a lot of brass and drums in all those hits like ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ and ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’. We wanted drums to be loud and aggressive, not a problem when Ray is operating the sticks. We wanted bass right up at the front of the mix. And plenty of wide coverage from guitars and keys. I’d selected a midi plug-in that sounded so much like a Hammond B3 organ. A few months ago pre-pandemic I went to Ronnie Scott’s to see Booker T Jones, legendary leader of the MG’s, the Stax house band of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The sound of a master on his favourite instrument was a thing of great beauty, and the sound of that instrument works right across the music spectrum from Stevie Winwood to Jon Lord. It’s there, rumbling, growling and squealing away on several tracks. A couple of synth sounds went well with some of the songs. There is a beautifully sustained, warm, grand piano and a bar room honky-tonk. I also became infatuated with cello stabs, and while I would have loved to hire a couple of cellists, the cost would have been just a little prohibitive. So the midi emulation will have to do. I also spent a lot of time working on my guitar sounds. The rhythm is medium overdrive; the power chords you will hear, more live than on the album is very much driven by a chorus pedal, a little distortion and a bit of reverb. But, you may say, how is a three-piece going to replicate that live? I’m coming to that. Let me go back a few months.

Ray going for it on drums

In October, Ray came into the studio and over three days he recorded 15 drum tracks. It’s not his first rodeo but even he was pretty bushed by the time we got to the last song. Then Rob came over to my place and we laid down all his bass tracks over three weeks. It’s all going so well, isn’t it? I know what you’re going to say. If you had all the bass and drums down by November why has it taken you a year and still no release date? Fair question. Three reasons and one, inevitably is Covid-19. Tom was in the process of lining up the bass and drum tracks when the lockdown hit us. He closed the studio and everything had to change. We were all using dropbox, Royal Mail and sometimes getting in the car to drive hard disks up to the studio where we dropped them in the mail box so nobody met face to face. Then I decided to record ‘Dancing in Silence’. Check out my previous blogs for more information on that month. The other is, and I hold my hands up, I really didn’t get cracking on final vocals, guitars and pianos for a while. May, June really. While the studio was closed I converted a bedroom into a studio. I bought a couple of really good vocal recording microphones. For those of you interested in these things it’s a Shure SMB-7 and a WARM-WA47jr. Not top of the range but really good quality. I laid down most of the vocal tracks in the space of a couple of weeks. A lot of water and honey-laced green tea was drunk over the space of those 14 days. To ensure Tom had plenty of choice I would lay down 10 tracks of vocals and fifteen guitar tracks. I had to record in the evenings because although this home studio is quite good acoustically, some sound seeps in from the road outside and, now very occasionally, the airport.

Photo shoot for the album at Mayfield Lavender Farm, Banstead, Surrey

If I felt any relief when I dropped what I thought were the last tracks up to Dragonfly I was to be dis-abused fairly swiftly. Tom is a hard taskmaster. I imagine all producers need to be perfectionists. It’s a fundamental requirement of the job. After a truncated vacation in France (I came back to avoid being quarantined) there were a lot of overdubs to do, on vocals, guitars and keys. I wasn’t the only one. Rob had to re-record a couple of his tracks. No peace for the wicked.

RELEASE – A SINGLE NOT SIMPLE

Here is the video of our latest single, Dancing in Silence. It took a few weeks which is not too shabby considering we wrote it, recorded it and filmed the video before the British Government unlocked us from our cages.

First question is why? Last time we were met, the band was hard at work on the album. What caused us to temporarily drop that project and switch our attention to a totally new song, one we’d never played together? Come to think of it, we never have. The answer is – lockdown. There I was one Thursday evening, outside my house like most inhabitants of this island, clapping for the doctors and nurses, the paramedics and all those other courageous medical professional of the NHS who are putting their health – and 23 of them have given their lives – to care for those who have contracted Covid-19 so badly they are hospitalised. By the way, for those reading this outside the UK, NHS stands for National Health Service, a universal system for which we are all eternally grateful, and especially so during this pandemic.

So there I am, clapping away and a line comes into my head: “When I’m dancing in silence, I am not alone.” I went indoors and started to write. It took me a while to get the lyrics to feel right, and I was still changing them until we recorded the vocals two weeks ago. The music came next. Although I wrote the melody on guitar it took me a while to get the arrangement. Then it was a matter of getting a demo together. Tom Hughes, our producer, agreed to listen to it. Following social distancing rules I dropped it in his mailbox. He rejected it because the timing was so bad. I hate that! For me, getting a demo down is just like an initial sketch of a painting. I’m learning that to convey my ideas better to producers and bandmates it has to be a coherent track, and even if it’s just an acoustic guitar with a click, it has to be in time. So, taking a lot more care, a second attempt, this time accepted. Then it was a matter of exchanging tracks of the individual instruments by e-mail, WeShare, DropBox and sometimes by mail.

Finally, thanks to spare rooms reconfigured as makeshift recording studios, we had an instrumental track that sounded brilliant, thanks to super-producer Tom. Only problem was, his studio, Dragonfly Studios and pretty much every other one we tried was locked and we had to find a way to record the vocals. My studio mic wasn’t good enough. I knew that but having only used it for scratch vocals on demos, only ever intending to record the final tracks in the studio, I now had a problem. Online shopping to the rescue; I obtained authorisation from the LSP and ordered 2; a Shure SM7b and a WARM WA-47. Some difference. If you want your vocals to sound great, get a great mic.

Let’s take a break here. I want to show you a short clip about the making of the video.

It’s a bit out of sync but we’re about halfway through the written stuff so I though you might want a rest from reading. Welcome back. Here’s the challenge. How do you record vocals in the spare room? Those microphones are so sensitive you literally can hear a pin drop, of which more later, or Saturday Night Disaster. Advice from Tom the producer. Get as much soft furnishings, duvets, cushions, blankets, pillows as you can. It deadens the sound. If you clap your hands and there’s an echo, get more. Pull the curtains. Glass reflects sound – at least window glass does. Then get your mic’s plugged in, roll instrumental track and start singing. Which I did. I recorded with both microphones because I wanted to see which one was better for my vocals. We started late on a Saturday, around 10 because I didn’t want any noise from vehicles on the road, not that there is much. The LSP put down some excellent backing vocals. It was all going so well.

Four hours later, at 2:30 in the morning, I listened to the tracks we had just recorded. What was that sound. Almost like an echo. I turned the volume right up and listened again. The headphones were torn off and would have been thrown against the wall. I didn’t believe the schoolroom error I had made. When I had been recording vocals I had the instrument backing track playing in my headphones. One problem. The volume was up so high, the sound coming from the cans was being picked up by the microphones. Result – a whole night’s work wasted. The next night, lesson learned, we completed the vocals.

That week, Tom worked his magic. He mixed the track beautifully, giving the guitar a brilliant tone, re-inserting a piano track on the third verse I didn’t have the courage to use but in the mix it sounded absolutely fantastic. He was still mixing until Monday, three days from the date I’m writing this. The result was just so good.

Meanwhile, last week I was free to work on the video. Every song needs a video now. There is no money in streaming unless you’re a top line artist. Certainly not Lavender Hill. But videos cost a lot of money, My solution was to ask a big favour from my friend, Alex Horwood of globalglimpses.com. He’s good, and if you watch the video you’ll agree. He also did the video for a solo song called ‘Pilgrims’ that will be released, lockdown permitting, at the end of August. But he’s very busy so I had to do all the research and putting together a storyboard that would work for the song.

What’s the song about? It’s about us. How we deal with being locked down in our own homes, how we worry about Covid-19. I’ll leave you with the lyrics. See you next Monday…

DANCING IN SILENCE

There’s a cloud across the nation

As we live in isolation

Feels like we’re floating

An in a sea of not knowing

We stand far apart

With our frozen hearts

Connected by our phone

Yet living all alone

We search for salvation

In this fog of desolation

Like we’re treading water

This sickness makes us falter

No-one hears our cry

No voiceless reply

Just echoes in the sky

Where only angels fly

CHORUS

Alone in the darkness

I hear the music swell

I’m dancing in silence

I do it so well

The sound fills my senses   

Tear down my defences

Music like bright colours

Fills my lonely soul

While I’m dancing in silence

I am not alone

We feel a dislocation

Yet hear a faint vibration

Under the empty floor

Behind the sealed door

Nothing we can hear

But there is something near

Songs of hope in the air

Reaching in from somewhere

MUSIC PRODUCTION: SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

The harsh reality of life as a part-time, unknown band is that where big bands have plenty of people around them to do all the non-creative, non-musical stuff, we have to do everything from humping equipment to…. well, to writing blogs and updating the world on social media. We’d love to spend all our time concentrating on writing songs and playing them. To be honest, I like writing this blog, which is a good thing. I have written a book, so the process of writing isn’t a hardship and as I told you in last week’s post, ‘The Artist’s Way’ course I followed might have been a life-changer, not just because it allows me to compose music but also because I don’t procrastinate about posting these pages.

However, when I read Keith Richards’ autobiography I was struck by the discovery that he and Mick Jagger wrote in the studio. Studio time is expensive, but I guess the theory… and for me it’s just that, a theory…that you write and record at the same time saves time. You’re compressing the creative process into one place and hopefully the environment will get you writing quickly and successfully. It definitely works for the Stones. How many Number One albums have they had? And it’s pretty common practice. On the other hand, we can’t afford to go open-ended into a studio in the hope of giving birth to fifteen or twenty songs, so I write on my own, or much too occasionally with Ray. As I was saying in last week’s blog, I wanted to put down demos that would give the guys a much better idea of the finished song but using an analog recorder was difficult and didn’t give me the finished product I was hoping for, and absent a shiny, well-equipped studio with recording engineer ready to commit my musings to posterity, I needed to find an alternative.

So I decided to learn how to produce music. Every week through the autumn of 2018 I went to Soundflow Music Academy in Guildford. Nikos Argallas, better known as Lektrix, his stage name, teaches other DJs, and people like me, how to produce and engineer. It was, and is, difficult. It’s that left side/right side of the brain thing. All of a sudden the musician in you has to learn about the physics of sound transmission, attenuation, microphone set-up, EQs, compression, delay, and all the million things an engineer can do in his sleep. But it gave me the first building blocks of recording techniques and enough knowledge of Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software. I told you it seemed complicated when I watched our engineer, Rob, using it when we were cutting our EP. If anything it became even more incomprehensible but I persevered. It does get easier, slowly. The other day I managed to record, on my own, a pretty comprehensible track. This after two terms with Nikos. But the insights he gave me were enough to get started and together we worked on a song called ‘Pilgrims’. It will be out later this year, coronavirus lockdown permitting, and the proceeds will go to Cancer Research. In a later post I’ll tell you about how I wrote it, the recording and the video which will be released at the same time. And if you’re interested why I wrote it, please do go to www.justgiving.com/fundraising/thousandkilometrewalk to read about my walk through Northern Spain. And if you’re wondering who Graham Knight is…. have a guess.

Back to recording: when I watch Nikos, or Tom Hughes, from Dragonfly Studios who is producing our album, their fingers fly over the keyboard like a virtuoso pianist. Currently I have 11 thumbs and what they do almost intuitively takes me minutes to work out. However, in my defence, it’s their job and they’ve been doing it day in, day out, for years. And although my time seems to be spent more and more in front of a monitor, I know my limitations. For one, and any fellow musicians reading this will know what I’m talking about when I describe how difficult it is to play an instrument and record yourself at the same time. You get the track lined up, you’re ready to go. You hit ‘record’ and the 2 bar count-in starts. Plenty of time. You know this song inside out. Hang on, where’s the pick? You put it down to hit the key and now you can’t find it. Meanwhile the track is being recorded, or rather the silence while you locate that pick. And while other people are great at concentrating on more than one task at a time, it’s not my forte and I’ll be so busy concentrating on the guitar or keyboard part I’m trying to record I will have forgotten about checking my levels so I play a blinding track only to find it’s unusable. Nevertheless it’s worth persevering…. I think. I’ve just written and recorded a song about coronavirus, or rather the effect it has on us. Given the logistics, I had to record it then send the project to Tom. He quite rightly threw it straight back at me because I got the timing wrong, so I had to start again. The second attempt hasn’t been flung contemptuously in my direction yet so I can only hope this one has been accepted.

There are so many advantages to having a great producer. I’ll talk about several individual flashes of genius from the ones I’ve had the pleasure to work with in later posts, but most of all you get a very professional eye looking at your work. I’ve long gone past the notion that everything I write is brilliant. That version running my head might be a masterpiece but the lesson I’ve taken is that you can write it, you can lay down the tracks, you can sing it from the bottom of your soul but you need a great producer with a trained ear to give a detailed critique of your work. Sometimes it’s hard to hear.

NEXT WEEK: A FLASH OF UNEXPECTED INSPIRATION

New Beginnings

What can you expect if you read these posts?  Hopefully there will be a new one every Monday but don’t quote me on that.  I’m the one who has been promising a new single since January, and an album for Easter.  Neither went to plan but I’ll get to that in further instalments.  There will be a mixture of words, music, photos and video that illustrates the band’s progress, adventures, misadventures, rare triumphs and regular disasters. 

I’m guessing not many of you who have chanced across this page, or perhaps followed the link from one of our social media channels in this year of lockdowns and social distancing 2020 will have read the previous, occasional, rare posts I made in 2017, so let’s call this a new start.  Silver here, guitarist, singer and songwriter with Lavender Hill.  I hope you’re all keeping well in this time of isolation.  In a strange way, I don’t mind it.  Don’t get me wrong, I would love to get out on the road, play gigs, meet up with my fellow band members, travel….. but while I’ve been stuck here, I’ve been writing new songs, recording in my home studio, doing all the things I should have been doing over IMG_0011

the last three years, including the resurrection of these pages.  So for those of you I haven’t met, here are the bare bones of the band.  We’ve been together for five years.  there have been personnel changes but the current line-up is myself, Razz Betts on drums – he’s an original member; and Robin Gwynn, our Canadian bass guitarist.  He isn’t on the photo above, and we will get around to doing a photo shoot very soon.  We have to, but more of that later.

What can you expect if you read these posts?  Hopefully there will be a new one every Monday but don’t quote me on that.  I’m the one who has been promising a new single since January, and an album for Easter.  Neither went to plan but I’ll get to that in further instalments.  There will be a mixture of words, music, photos and video that illustrates the band’s progress, adventures, misadventures, rare triumphs and regular disasters.  Hopefully it will never descend into the depths of serious discussion and debate on weighty issues.  Definitely the subject will always be music and the band.  I’m not going to segue into politics.  I might talk about travel from time to time whether with the band or on my own.  The world is a serious place.  Let’s have some fun.

In 2017 we released an EP called Lavender Hill.  It had four songs on it.  Feel free to give it a listen on Apple Play, Spotify, etc.  Look up one of songs “Tucson to LA in 5 Hours”.  It took about eight months to record.  Our original bassist left us, the producer had other projects to work on, and having failed to recruit another bass guitarist I had to learn how to play an instrument I hadn’t picked up since I was 17.  At the time we played a mix of original songs and covers onstage.  For most of 2018 and 2019 we were joined on stage by Rod Ashford, a fabulous guitarist.  We did some great gigs.

Then we decided to release our own album.  Why?  Life is difficult enough without making problems for yourself.  Writing and performing your own material immediately slots you into another booking profile.  If you’re playing some genres, like heavy metal, it’s not so difficult.  Audiences are used to bands playing their own stuff.  Although I’m reluctant to classify us as a mainstream rock band we did play U2, Bruce Springsteen and Stones covers, so that was the expectation from people coming to see our gigs.  Generally, outside of London and the bigger cities they like to hear music they know.  So to jump into an all-original repertoire is a big leap.

But we talked about it.  It’s very problematic to record covers.  You get into all kinds of issues around copyright, royalties, permission from the songwriter….. the list goes on.  But if you want to play live you need material for promoters, and listeners.  I had been writing for quite some time.  Well, all my life really.  So it seemed a good idea.  No-one in the band told me my songs were rubbish, and we don’t pull punches.  But I was to learn by hard experience that getting lyrics and melody down is one thing.  Writing songs is one of those activities that can be either hellishly difficult or blindingly easy.  It depends if you’re having one of those days when the inspiration hits you or not.  I read a book written by a lady called Julia Cameron.  It’s called ‘The Artist’s Way’ and if you are a writer, performer, visual artist… well, anyone who wants to create, you should follow the twelve-week course she has devised.  She knows what she’s talking about, having written plays, musicals and movies.  I discovered it through Pete Townshend’s book, ‘Who I Am’.  It may not work for everybody and it can come across as very spiritual which may not appeal to everybody, but it had a brilliant effect for me.  The minute writing stops being an erratic, irregular flash of inspiration followed by months, even years of inactivity and starts being a daily activity as automatic as brushing your teeth or eating breakfast, it gets easier.  So there I was with 25 songs ready to go.

Writing down the melody and lyrics is important, but the journey from there to recording, mixing and releasing an album is a long, hard one.  When we recorded the EP it was really old-school, right from the moment I came into the rehearsal room with a few bits of paper and an idea with chord tabs and lyrics on.  But although the guys really helped to make functioning songs out of those scraps it was tough to get my ideas across to people without a point of reference.  And rightly so.  They can’t get into my head and hear the masterpiece I was listening to.  So I determined to make a demo.  The technology has moved on since I first dipped my toe into the water with a BOSS BR-600 analog recorder.  While we made the EP I watched Rob Barry, our producer, work with a digital software.  He had it down, but I could see it was a pretty complicated bit of kit.  I decided I wanted to find out how to use it…..

NEXT TIME: Music Production: Something Completely Different

 

IN THE STUDIO

…It was good inspiration for what is basically an old-fashioned 5-chord rock and roll number. We’d been playing it live and in rehearsals so I knew it pretty well, but putting down bass, lead and rhythm guitar along with a ‘chugging’ track, vocals and keyboards took me some time…

 

IMG_0011So I left you in the studio.  There I am.  Me re-learning how to play bass.  Andrew Baird who has something like 30 stringed instruments from banjos to upright double basses lent me a five-string.  I hadn’t picked up a bass in anger since I was about 17 so it was a steep learning curve.  I knew this wasn’t going to be a John Entwistle, walking bass line.  I just needed to underpin the drums Razz had laid down.  Actually, listening to the four tracks, I was pleasantly surprised.

Recording wasn’t a straightforward enterprise.  First of all, we live busy lives and aside from this obsession with making music we have jobs to do.  Second, Rob, our engineer, had other projects.  So it was down to me preparing as well as I could, then when a call came I would go up to the studio and try to put down a track.  Usually we would only get one down in a 4-hour session.  I know there are professional musicians who could probably lay down 6 or 7, usually in one or two takes.  I’ve seen it.  But not me.  Before Rob, Razz or I were satisfied with a bass or rhythm track it would take a lot of painstaking work, and countless overdubs.  It really stretched Rob’s patience, and I thank him from the bottom of my heart for leading me through the process.  The only part that ran smoothly was the vocals.  When recording you usually put down something called scratch vocals as a guide.   Then, when all instruments are in the can you do the finished version.  But fortunately we used the scratch vocals, no auto-tune, and just a few effects.

‘Tucson to LA’ was the first one.  This was a photo we took when we were in Arizona on Interstate 10 which illustrates the line ‘Moon big and low in the desert night…”IMG_1750It was good inspiration for what is basically an old-fashioned 5-chord rock and roll number.  We’d been playing it live and in rehearsals so I knew it pretty well, but putting down bass, lead and rhythm guitar along with a ‘chugging’ track, vocals and keyboards took me some time.   What, those of you who aren’t guitarists, is ‘chugging’?  Glad you asked.  What you’re doing is playing chords with your pick hand up on the bridge that gives you something between melody and scratching.  It sits behind the rhythm guitar and fills out a track really well.

The other three tracks came together slowly.  One that meant a lot to me was ‘Somewhere In The Desert’.  Andrew had put down an acoustic guitar picking track but we had to fill it out and nothing seemed to work.  I was voted down when I wanted to put an electric guitar solo in.  Eventually, the last thing we did in the studio was to try a nylon string classical guitar, and that’s what we kept.

The process stretched on.  I’d hoped we’d be finished by July when I went off to France but Bob and Razz were still mixing.  It was still painstaking, using a lot of tracks to overdub and get a clean take.  The guys sent me updated tracks.  Finally only ‘Somewhere In The Desert” was left and we went back in the studio on my return.  Then, with the final mix in the can, off they went to Metropolis Studios in Chiswick to be mastered.

Ten years ago, we’d have only two options of getting our music released.  First, send the tracks to a record company and pray that one of them would pick it up.  Over the summer I read a lot of books about rock and roll and the music business – Keith Richards’ autobiography and a biography, one about Led Zeppelin and another about Freddie Mercury.  I had thought it was easy to get a contract in those days and I was amazed to read about the tribulations Queen and Zep had to go through.  The other way was to pay for a record to be released and then try to sell it.  Neither were good options.  Today, thanks to digital music and the web, everybody can get access.  I love Tunecore.  They are an aggregator.  Basically, you can only release directly on iTunes and the other download/streaming platforms if you have 40 tracks.  There we were with 4.  With Tunecore, no problem.  Sign up, download the songs to them and there is our music out there.

Then Razz and I had to sign up to the Performing Rights Society so we can be paid royalties for writing as well as performing.  And when I look back at those days before Christmas last year I guess I should have taken the time to enjoy those milestones.  Now, writing about it, I feel a real sense of achievement.  It was a big step on our journey.

We learned a lot from our experience, and when we record a full-length album at the end of this year we can apply those lessons.  We need to be much better prepared, which is why I’m investing in recording software to lay down demo tracks we can take to the band and rehearse them fully before we go into the studio.  I know bands like the Stones write and record in the studio but that’s because they can afford unlimited time.  In common with most bands we need to spend as little time as possible in one.  It also will allow us to road test them live.

Next time I’ll tell you about our winter of discontent!

 

THE STORY SO FAR (Part 2)

Yeah, sorry the title is less than original.  But we’re catching up, aren’t we?  I left you in Barnstorm Studios, shivering in the cold, guitars going out of tune after every song, and me, still in the early stages of learning to play lead guitar.  It was Bob who said we had to find a rhythm guitarist.  He was right.  Cream could do it with one guitar, but that was Eric Clapton.  We needed a bigger sound, someone to cover my inadequacies.  So we started looking around.  One or two guys came and gave it a go but it didn’t work out.  I needed to get better.  My guitar playing was the weak link.  So it was that I asked my mate Andrew Baird if he’d like to step in.  He agreed, I practised my fingers off and our songs started to sound recognisable.

After our first gig at The Airfield Tavern we were offered 30 minutes at Horley Carnival.  Razz was immediately wary.  His experience was more topical than mine.  I’d done open air gigs in Africa and they seemed to work OK but that was then.  Anyway, we turned up. We were informed that SUSY Radio would be broadcasting us live.  I still was more excited than nervous.  Then reality kicked in.  The sound was beyond a nightmare.  The stage monitors didn’t work.  I couldn’t hear what anyone else was playing.  It might work like a dream at Glastonbury, but Razz’s pessimistic forecast was absolutely spot on.  Lessons learned.  Luckily, again, listeners were friends and, generally, kind.  Or drunk.

12 July 2016 is a day that I’ll always remember because everything seemed to come right.  We were back at the Airfield Tavern.  We weren’t perfect.  Our timing was way off.  But the audience was brilliant.  They even applauded our sound check.  Any muso will tell you that if you get positive energy from the crowd it enhances your playing.  My left forearm cramped from the tension, I must have lost 2 kilos, but it just worked.  On YouTubeLAVENDER HILL-LIVE@THETAVERN there is a rough video of us playing ‘Back In The USSR’.  Sound is awful but it gives you an idea of the energy.

Next job was to record.  We decided to put down 4 tracks and do a limited CD print for live music venues to get more gigs.  Only problem is the nightmare of recording someone else’s material.  You need to get permission, it takes forever, you’re subject to all kinds of issues.  So I had introduced 2 songs: we played ‘Tucson to L.A. in 5 Hours’ and ‘Rock and Roll Life’ at the Tavern gig.  Then I wrote ‘Somewhere In The Desert’.  It’s a slow, Southern Rock song very evocative of Arizona where my daughters live.  It’s also very personal.  Maybe in a later post I might talk about it some more.  The fourth one is called ‘Pop Star’.  Razz wrote the lyrics and e-mailed them to me in France.  It took me five minutes to write the music.  That happens sometimes.  The words speak to you, and tell you the melody you need to add to them.  They told me about the riff that goes with it.  Listen for yourself on the EP due out on 1 October.

So after a lot of rehearsal during the autumn we went into Barnstorm Studios in Outwood, near Redhill.  Razz was to produce, Rob Barry to engineer.  I learned a lot of lessons, beginning with a major blow to the ego.  Rob is a serious engineer who has worked with some big names in the music business and he doesn’t pull his punches.  After we recorded guide tracks for the songs and listened to them, I understood his frustration.  Even though these tracks are discarded when individual instruments are recorded onto them, we fell in and out of time.

Nevertheless, Razz laid down 3 drum tracks in a few hours.  The guy is a consummate professional, he knew what he was doing and he did it.  Then it was Bob’s turn.  Bob is a great bassist but it just didn’t work for him.  I don’t think he felt comfortable with the material – he prefers putting his own individual stamp on covers; my fault.  I have written 12-bar blues numbers but some of the songs we do are unconventional.

So we parted ways.  And you know how it is when you’re looking for a taxi in the pouring rain.  No bass guitarist in sight.  So there we were in February and I decided to bite the bullet and learn how to play bass.  I borrowed Andrew’s 5-string and practised.  It’s really different to a guitar and the last time I played I was 16.  It wasn’t easy.  I downloaded an app, but in the end the most effective way to do it was to play the songs and feel my way into it.  So there I was, learning on the job.  I went back into the studio having lost 3 months and laid dow the tracks.  Oh well, it’s another string to my guitar….sorry, bad joke.

Then in April, just after I’d finished laying down the bass tracks, that joker who plans the universe found us a… yes, you guessed it.  A bass guitarist.  Robin is a calm, serene Canadian, a biker like me (or how I used to be) and a real addition to the band.  He works hard, practising assiduously.  He works on every song intensely and every time we rehearse, he’s improved.  Razz is a fantastic mentor for him, explaining how a drummer and a bassist work together to provide a solid foundation for the song.

Next delay was when a VERY BIG BAND came to Barnstorm to record.  I can’t say who it was, but yes, they’re a household name.  And while they were there we had to find somewhere else to rehearse.  We found The Tomb, just down the road from us and waited to get back into the recording studio.

Next time I’ll tell you how we finally managed to finish the record.

THE STORY SO FAR (PART 1)

On my return to the UK I spent hours rhapsodising about it to my long-suffering partner (LSP for the purposes of this blog).  After a shrug, and pointing out that the acoustic guitar she had given me 5 years before had only been used once in anger when we wrote and performed a song to celebrate my parents’ wedding anniversary, she suggested I get some lessons.  I think this was a ploy to distract me from my passion for off-road motor-biking and get me involved in something less dangerous.  In any case, she paid for my first ten lessons and off I went to Horley Guitars in the town’s High Street.

Hello and welcome.  I’m Silver – guitarist and singer with Lavender Hill, a British rock band made up of, er, veterans, I guess you could call us.  That’s us above.  And at the top of the page.  The other original members are drummer extraordinaire Razz B and our rhythm guitarist Andrew Baird.   You don’t have to be a mathematician to work out there has been some going and coming in terms of personnel but that’s for later.

We formed in early 2016 and this post will  cover the band’s first year.  Maybe.  And by the way, if anyone’s interested, I’m called Silver because of my hair colour rather than my bank balance.  It was a chance remark that seems to have stuck!

Anyway, as I’m the one doing the writing, this story comes from my perspective.  If I can actually coax one of the others to write something they can tell it their way.  In any case I can’t bend the truth too far as Razz would have something to say about it and he’s bigger than me.

The story begins a little earlier, on a cold night in January 2015.  I was in Moscow at the country house of a friend and associate, Vadim.  As well as work and sailing, Vadim and I have another interest in common.  Blues.  Since my early teens I’ve been listening to John Mayall, the original Fleetwood Mac (the Peter Green version), John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters…. the real stuff.  Vadim introduced me to Joe Bonamassa and we would spend hours in a store in the Garbushka shopping mall listening to brilliant guitar work and open-heart vocals.  So on this evening, after an al fresco barbecue in sub-zero temperatures (this being Russia that’s not unusual) Vadim and I headed for his music room.  Well this room is the size of a basketball court and the walls were covered with musical instruments, many of them seriously beautiful…. and expensive.

“Choose your instrument”, Vadim invited me and I reached for a gorgeous sea green 1992 Gibson Les Paul Custom.  Vadim had been taking lessons and was seriously good.  All I could do was follow, but we kept jamming until the early hours.

On my return to the UK I spent hours rhapsodising about it to my long-suffering partner (LSP for the purposes of this blog).  After a shrug, and pointing out that the acoustic guitar she had given me 5 years before had only been used once in anger when we wrote and performed a song to celebrate my parents’ wedding anniversary, she suggested I get some lessons.  I think this was a ploy to distract me from my passion for off-road motor-biking and get me involved in something less dangerous.  In any case, she paid for my first ten lessons and off I went to Horley Guitars in the town’s High Street.

Dom, my teacher, was 21 years old – a lot younger than me.  He plays lead guitar in a metal band called Dead Before Mourning.  They are seriously good and very professional.  But he is also one of those inspirational teachers who can communicate a love for a subject, or in his case an instrument.  His first question was, “What do you want to get out of this?”  That wasn’t the easiest of questions and I hadn’t really thought about it so my answer surprised me.  “I want to play lead guitar”.  I was hooked again before the end of the first hour and every week for the next year I sat down with Dom.  Eventually he became a coach, helping me with lead breaks and advising me on riffs and chords for the songs I was writing.

Why did I want to play lead?  Well after a lifetime of being a pretty adequate rhythm guitarist, which is ideal when you’re singing, I guess I was up for a challenge.  And also, while I’ve fronted as a singer in a few bands, when I was prancing around at the front of a stage I always felt slightly disconnected.  That’s down to me.  Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury obviously never had that sense of isolation – maybe if they did it worked for them.  I just decided I’d like to step up.

My good friend Andrew Baird owns a lot of stringed instruments.  Maybe 30.  His background is mostly in folk music but he’s one of those infuriating people who can play in any style.  In any case, he suggested we get together on Saturday afternoons to jam.  So we did.  No pressure, no thoughts of forming a band.  But then in late summer, Andrew decided to set in motion ‘Horley Unplugged’ , an open mic evening for acoustic performers.  At the same time I asked the guys at Horley Guitars if they knew any bass players looking for a band.  As a result I met Bob Kemp and he came and sat in with Andrew and I as we prepared for the opening evening of “…Unplugged.”  We played 3 songs – ‘Fields of Gold’, ‘Maggie May’ and ‘Galway Girl’.  Bob was marvellous.  And we weren’t too shabby.  I certainly wasn’t dispirited enough to give up.

So I asked Bob if he knew of any drummers, and a few weeks later as the nights started to get cold again, we first met Razz B at Barnstorm Studios in Outwood.  To begin with, we rehearsed as a 3-piece, but then Andrew joined us.   It took quite a few rehearsals for us to be good enough to play a 1-hour set but in May we made it to a band night at the Airfield Tavern in Horley.  The audience was mostly made up of friends and family but we weren’t booed off the stage so I’ll take that as a plus.

I also started writing again.  Apart from the one song I co-wrote in 2009 for my Mum and Dad’s anniversary with the LSP, I must have suffered from the longest bout of writers’ block in history.  Before that I went through a period where inspiration came almost every waking moment.  If you go on iTunes you’ll find a song from 1993 called “Moving Pictures” which is a duet with the late Tom Yom’s, a great Cameroonian musician.  In any case, the songs started to come again.

How we played the most difficult open-air gig and made a triumphant return to the Airfield Tavern will have to wait for Part 2.  Sorry to have gone on.  Reading back, this seems to be all about me.  I’ll rectify that in the next instalment.  Thanks for sticking with it up to now.  We do get better!