AND YET SO FAR

How’s your Christmas been in this strange year? We had our final rehearsal a couple of weeks ago. LSP brought mulled wine and mince pies to Barnstorm for the band, we exchanged presents then we went our separate ways into forcible isolation. We miss playing, especially because all the new songs were coming together so well. Unfortunately, having found a (legal) way to record an album and shoot a video during lockdown number 1, having practised religiously every week since we were allowed out, Tier 4 has slammed the door on our development as a band until further notice. It’s not the end. No way. We haven’t come this far to let a little old global pandemic derail our plans. If anything, life is getting more exciting. The album is coming out on 1 February. One of the tracks, ‘The Fire’ is released as a single on 10 January. We’re in business; and we’ve been writing new songs, probably enough to record another album in 2021. And if that’s not enough, we’re re-releasing our original EP on Ditto Music, also out in early January. And in a few weeks time we will be announcing our two new members, a keyboard player and another guitarist. They’ve been practising with us for a few months. We’re looking forward to announcing them.

I may have said before, but the past few weeks have just emphasised how difficult being an unsigned, manager-less band can be. Any ambitious would-be Peter Grants or John Reids out there wanting to take us on, apply here. In all seriousness we’re not looking to be the next Led Zeppelin or Queen, but certainly the administration and operations of the tiniest, most unknown band is complicated and, I’d have to say, unwelcome. We want to be in the studio, rehearsing, recording, writing. If I can persuade Razz to work on a video that will be a miracle! Let’s say the man hates photo- and video-shoots much more than, I don’t know, going to the dentist. I guess if I’d wanted to arrange and promote an album release or book a gig, I’d have become a manager and even then I’d probably have been fired after 10 minutes. You need very different specialist skills for it, and if you don’t have them, navigating your way through a music distributor’s registration and uploading process is not easy. Plus, we…I took a decision to switch distributor and take down our existing releases from our previous partner. I don’t think you can call an EP and a single a back catalogue without sounding like a complete w***er but we took the decision to move to Ditto Music, principally because they have a really good promotion package, they’re not so big as to be monolithic and cumbersome, and you get responses from real people in a time frame you can work with.

When someone says in a radio interview, “we’ve got an album coming out,” there’s one of two possibilities: 1. They’re signed to a record label, they’ve recorded the album, and their involvement in promotion is personal appearances, interviews etc; 2. They’re not signed to a record label (and in this case they don’t have a manager, see previous paragraph), so they have to do all the above, plus get their music on to playlists, write personal letters to reviewers and radio stations, boost their tracks on online A&R sites, all the while keeping up a constant stream of social media posts. How great is that? Fun, no? No. Trust me, there are people who are really good at social media. They enjoy it. While we love to interact with our friends on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and this blog, in normal times we may not be so assiduous or prolific. Same with promotion. If you have enough financial resources you can shell out the money for a ‘plugger’, someone who knows which radio stations will play the kind of music you make. I mean, we’re not going to be on Classic FM any time soon. But it’s really very expensive and our budget for the album went on recording and production. We want to make music. That’s why we’re in a band. But getting the music heard is all about getting it out there, increasing reach, as the term goes. And for the moment this is what we’re all about. It’s never too late to learn new skills, and as we look towards another month…two months….three months in lockdown what else have we got to do? So if a Facebook ad for Lavender Hill appears unannounced and unexpected on your news feed, be kind and say something nice.

If you want to get your music heard, one of the best ways is to get playlisted and over the past few days I’ve been trying to understand how it works. A lot of unknown artists have managed to increase their profiles by getting their songs on lists, predominantly on Spotify and Apple Music. It isn’t easy and you need a degree in the subject to figure out where algorithms and influencers come in. If you have an opportunity to get on one, you need to jump all over it because it increases the chances of getting on others. There are people and sites who do nothing except get their clients on playlists and trying to do it part-time is enough to try the patience of a …saint? But along with all these other skills, once you’re in the loop it can only be an asset.

As we close in on the release of the single this Sunday, and in spite of trying to be a jack-of-all-trades and emphatically a master of none, we can’t help but feel satisfied at having produced and released our music, in a lockdown under the most difficult of circumstances. The wonder of it all is, we’re getting ready to work on a follow-up album. Don’t they say madness is repeating the same mistake! I’ll take that definition. You have to be more than a little crazy to be in this business.

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!