Sunday, 29 November 2009

snowbird the snow

wales and winter, the two are intrinsically linked for me. like sun and sea, fish and chips.
I seem to be recording in wales most wintertimes which is not a planned annual event, it just seems to work out that way, like arsenal's apparently sublime football usually leading to another year of nothing at all.
this week, while my loved one celebrated thanksgiving in the equally frosty tundra that is wisconsin, with family and friends numbering close to 30, i was holed up in the northern part of the welsh valleys, on the edges of a slate grey village called Bethesda, at Bryn Derwen Studios in the shadow of a mountain on one side and a massive quarry on the other.
As this studio is really the only place in the world where i like to record and produce, the long journey to get there from my near-london home, doesn't really bother me. The 5 hour drive however was not something i fancied this time around and instead i packed a small bag for my four-day stint and decided to try the train from Euston to Bangor. It seemed like a good idea at the time.......

As i arrived at 10am at Euston, the packed concourse seemed a little odd for a Tuesday morning, and before long i twigged that i could be on for a long day, much longer than the 3 hour train journey had promised! something about 'lines down' and 'hemel hempstead' were the mutterings among the hundreds upon hundreds of us poor fools who stood staring up at a big board with orange electronic lights informing us that our trains were very sorry but were unable to take us where we wanted today. My first day of recording was now looking like becoming a very short day, and so it was as i finally, wearily rolled into Bangor station at something close to 8pm.

Laurie, the distinguished looking studio owner, (reminiscent of a handsome christoper lee), and engineer Dave Wrench (more of Dave later) had driven to the station and welcomed me warmly, which was in stark contrast to the freezing wind and rain which greeted me as i stepped down from the train. The drive to the studio from Bangor is only 15 minutes and as the narrow winding roads wet from the teeming rain, look like soft black curling licquorice, i start to feel hungry , for supper and for work.

Ever the hospitable host, Laurie ushered Dave and i into his kitchen where he served up a lush stew which after the junk i had been nibbling on all day from station cafe to station car, tasted wonderful. i love that kitchen. Its not faux rustic, not even faintly inspired by the Victorian Kitchen programmes on the telly, its 100% authentic and somehow, that makes the food taste even better. Laurie and his family are the real deal. Interesting, thoughtful, eccentric but not in that way we English like to think we're oh-so-eccentric cos we have an open top car or a bow tie. Eccentric in the old-fashioned entrepreneurial sense, in doing things the way YOU want and bugger the rest, and in the way the studio is, and in the way they bring up their children. With morals but relaxed and not remotely uptight. It will soon be eccentric to have morals i guess...hmmm

anyhow sorry for that brief irrelevancy ...

The studio is in the grounds of Laurie's house, in fact it is really part of Laurie's house, which he shares with his lovely wife Gabriel. With their sons now moved away, the house must seem eerily quiet at times, and as it is quite remote, and like an old lovely lived-in country manor that is still very much in its original state, there are of course many stories of ghostly encounters which have been coming out of there ever since i first recorded here with the Duke Spirit many years ago. James Yorkston certainly had a 'visitation' during the night, and i think i heard that the archie bronson outfit boys all ended up in one bed one night after a scare but maybe thats just a myth. But in all my time going there, i have yet to feel anything but love and creativity within the boundaries of this wonderful place. With waterfalls and woody retreats, secret caves and magical forest trails all within 5 minutes of the studio confines, i find this the perfect place for writing and recording. Molly the dog agrees! Our morning walks are the perfect way to start any day.
I tell people about the studio but only people i like! i dont want it ruined!

Byrn Derwen and Dave Wrench are intrinsically linked, like Tim and Eric, or Spurs and Style. Apart from being one of the sweetest men around, Dave is also a brilliant engineer and producer (check out his Race Horses production and Kathryn Williams newie too!), and a master of his studio and all the wonderful equipment within it.
Bryn Derwen did try getting another engineer once to cover for Dave when he needed a break, but it didnt work out. Like it didnt work when Jacques Santini managed Spurs and then later on Ramos tried. They just couldnt hack it.

i am in Bryn Derwen to record the music for the snowbird album i am making with Stephanie and my target is to record as much as i can in the four days i now have left. With Dave at the controls, it really is a breeze. He knows what i like and how i work and by midnight on that first night, we'd already recorded three piano tracks. They have an old upright piano and a lovely old grand, both with bags of character. Apparently the upright was the one favoured by natasha from bat for lashes on their recent visit but i found it a bit too noisy when i used the pedal. The grand makes noises too but they are more 'musical'.

We sleep nights in this quaint little coach-house that is across the courtyard from the studio with a lovely old farmhouse style kitchen warmed by the permanent heat from the Aga where we sit till the wee small hours chatting about norwegian death metal (dave is an officianado) and how crap florence in the machine are. I'd heard earlier in the evening from a good friend who was managing a new artist that he'd been sacked and i am deeply saddened by this as i know just how much heart and soul he put into this artist's career to date. Good people bounce back though and if i know him, he will be ok soon.

I send some good vibes his way before falling fast asleep.

the next 4 days just passed so fast, in a flurry of vibraphones, pianos, bass and guitars and i even managed to drum on 3 songs. That was excellent fun and sounds wicked. So much more fun than the last time i did recording 'by myself'. (1996 for my solo record and i didnt enjoy the experience at all!) I also managed to write and record two new songs while i was here that i am excited for Stephanie to hear. Alot of the pieces that we performed as snowbird on our dates with Loney Dear in the summer have been transformed from sketches into fully fleshed songs and it is exciting to see the possibilities when recording with so much lovely old gear around. Lovely Coles ribbon mics on the piano, an old Selmer amp for guitar, bass and the Rhodes, and a look at the old Altec mic (has a ribbon mic and a dynamic mic all in the one housing) the same one that Bing Crosby used! A set of lovely old electric vibes added a touch of class to the lullaby song, and the gretsch snare was a proper treat. The little back room is actually amazing for drums. If you want a good ole rock sound, then the big live room is perfect, lots of wood, stone and glass, but the little back room is perfect for the softer kind of 60s/70s sound i wanted on the drums.

Yesterday as i sat at the kitchen table battling with the dodgy free online football sites in a desperate attempt to see spurs v villa, dave belied his welsh roots and cooked up a totally authentic italian pasta dish out of the not very much stuff we had left in the fridge. delicious it was but something spooky happened during dinner. We had been sat down for about 15 minutes when suddenly two plates flew across the kitchen and smashed dramatically on the tiled floor. They had been on a shelf and not disturbed in days. It was downright weird cos we tried to vainly find a plausible scientific reason and dave's best was the wood on the shelf expanding with the heat and moving the plate. Possible but then why wouldnt that happen every time the kitchen got a bit warm? anyway, that was a bit 'ghostly' and i took thinking how the greeks used to smash plates at their weddings so that they would be able to recognize each other by matching the two halves even if many years passed before they met again. Quite why they wouldnt meet again when they were just about to get married i am not entirely sure about but it's a thought...There is also the belief that by smashing the plates they forget the past and look forward to the future. So i am thinking that dave's plate smashed cos he's looking forward to doing more production and finishing his wonderful solo stuff, and my plate smashed cos in coming here i am opening a new chapter for myself by recording and writing more. It's been 12 long years since i felt confident enough to do this again, and making music with Stephanie is a real treat and inspiring to me.

the following morning after a fitful sleep only oddly aided by watching Dirty Harry at 4am, i got up to see the whole house and ground covered with thick white snow! it was a sign ..SNOWBIRD..

Thanks to dave, laurie, gabriel and north wales for giving me a week to remember....

ps sorry for not posting for ages, i have had a tedious flu thing that wouldnt go away....nearly better now!