Tag Archives: Midlake

Some more thoughts on Tennis’s Ritual in Repeat/Where Dreams Go to Die – John Grant

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Tennis’s new album Ritual in Repeat. I was a little disappointed by the album at first, and I still think that a couple of tracks (Timothy and Never Work for Free) could have had better, more dynamic and less cluttered, mixes. I mentioned how surprised I was by this, given that the mixes were by the normally reliable Michael Brauer.

But if the record isn’t quite the straight-up indie pop classic I wanted it to be when I first heard it – a sort of 21st-century Reading, Writing & Arithmetic – and ordered it from the US, further listening has convinced me that Needle and a Knife and I’m Callin’ are more or less perfect in their studio-recording incarnations, that Bad Girls (engineered and produced by Jim Eno and powered by his inimitable drumming) isn’t the kitsch throwaway it seemed to be at first, that James Barone (who drums on all other tracks) grooves like a dream, and that this band are maybe one album away from doing something truly great.

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I bought Uncut this week, for the first time in years. Ten years probably. Really this was because the new Yo Zushi record, It Never Entered My Mind – which I mixed, played a bunch of stuff on, and co-produced and engineered – has been reviewed in the current issue. This is the first time a record I did engineering work on has got a review in the national press so it’s a bit of a milestone for me, and I wanted the magazine as a keepsake.

Uncut comes with a CD. Early in the magazine’s history, these used to be rather good. The new one isn’t awful, but there’s some dreck on there for sure. I’m not sure why Uncut are going for Matthew E White in such a big way, but for those of us who remember how much they got behind Ryan Adams and everyone who associated with him in the early noughties (“Not since Husker Du opened for Black Flag in the mid-’80s has London witnessed such a stupendous double bill,” said Uncut when Jesse Malin supported Adams), their championing of White’s protégée Natalie Prass looks unwise. Guys, Van made Moondance in 1970. Go listen to that if you want to hear white people singing soul music with country chord changes and horns. It’s better.

But there is one treat on the CD: John Grant’s live version of Where Dreams Go to Die from his new live album, recorded with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra at MediaCityUK. I bought that record for Mel, a Grant fan, for Christmas and heard half of it at low volume last weekend. It sounded good, and I found myself enjoying it more than I did the live set I saw in Oxford when he was touring with Midlake about five years ago. A lot more.

I’ve never been too sure about Grant, but this is a bit of a revelation. Firstly, he turns in a superb vocal performance (deeper and richer than on his studio version – he sounds like Nick Cave, if Cave could actually sing) on one of his best songs. But that’s not all. Fiona Brice’s orchestral arrangement is grander than on record but still sympathetic and humane, and the sound of the thing is astonishingly good. The BBC has long had a reputation for giving its audio technicians a thorough training; this still seems to be the case, thankfully. The drum sound is glorious – big in a tasteful, large-room kind of way – and the strings have both clarity and woody richness.

A word, too, about drummer Kristinn Snær Agnarsson. If you can judge a drummer by how well they play a straight 4/4 rock beat on a moderately slow ballad (around 70bpm, say) – by the timing of their backbeat placement, by the dynamic and timbral consistency of those snare shots, and by how good it feels – then Agnarsson is top class. Earl Young or Jim Keltner couldn’t have played it better.

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John Grant, intense sidelong stare

A recent one-man-band recording of one of my songs

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Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 1 – What Makes You Think You’re the One? – Fleetwood Mac

Lindsey Buckingham did not want the follow-up to Rumours to sound like Rumours. That much we can say for sure. He infuriated the band’s engineer and co-producer Ken Caillat by asking for sounds completely alien to his sensibilities (literally so: whenever Caillat dialled in a sound on a piece of equipment, Buckingham would insist the knobs be turned 180 degrees from wherever they were set before he’d start recording a take) and bemused his bandmates by playing them the Clash’s first record and trying to convince them that this is what they now needed to sound like. If his bandmates were unconvinced by Buckingham’s insistence that they change with the times, history has proved him right – their generation of artists either had to come to terms with the new music and changed fashions or wait a few years to start playing the nostalgia circuits. The majority of the band’s peers at the top of the industry accordingly updated their haircuts and wardrobes, bought synthesisers and drum machines, pushed up the sleeves of their pastel sports jackets and tried their best to make post-new wave pop hits.

For all his good intentions, though, he couldn’t really make Fleetwood Mac into the Clash. But what the band came up with in the attempt was much more interesting than if they’d have succeeded. The appeal of Tusk lies in the tension between his aims for the record and the band’s failure to quite get there, between his own nervous, fractured songs and the material given to him by Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie. Lacking the woody warmth of Rumours (partly perhaps due to being recorded on an early digital system called Soundstream, rather than to analogue tape), Tusk’s Buckingham-penned songs turn away from mainstream LA rock, only for those written by Nicks and McVie to attempt to return to it. The attempted fusion of slick, albeit heartfelt, West Coast AOR with this raw and ragged new music resulted in a record that was uncategorisable: Fleetwood Mac gone askew, covert punk rock on a superstar budget.

Buckingham had recorded demos for his own songs in his house and, enamoured with the sounds he got by recording in his bathroom, had a replica of his bathroom built in the studio. Some songs (for example, the beautiful, woozy Save Me a Place) saw him playing all the instruments himself, painstakingly Xeroxing his lo-fi demos in a hi-fi studio. What Makes You Think You’re the One?, fortunately, was one song that he let Fleetwood and John McVie play on.

Buckingham has remarked that something about hearing the goofy drum sound in his headphones, with its clangy slapback delay, turned Mick Fleetwood into an animal, and Fleetwood’s unhinged performance is hilarious, the highlight of the track. He beats his snare drum brutally, mercilessly, switching his patterns seemingly at random, sometimes playing two and four, sometimes crotchets, switching to double time for two and a half bars and then switching back unannounced – there’s a childlike glee to his performance. It’s a joy to hear such a tasteful musician play so uninhibitedly, throwing away all restraint, while Buckingham bashes out incongruously chirpy piano quavers and cackles maniacally.

Critics seemingly didn’t know quite what to make of all this, and neither did the public: Tusk sold ‘only’ four million copies in the US, less than a quarter of Rumours’ figures. Yet Tusk’s critical reputation has soared in recent years, in tandem with the band’s own – overtly West Coast-influenced artists (Midlake, Best Coast, Jonathan Wilson et al.) have resurrected the old FM sound and made them a ubiquitous reference point again, while hipster kids are content just to blast Everywhere at any opportunity. All this was hard to envisage fifteen years ago, but it’s nonetheless welcome and deserved for a group whose work was never less than sincere.

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Mick Fleetwood, punk rock monster

 

For the curious, some of my music:

Live music, part one

Since I was able to get my hands on a 4-track recorder as an 18-year-old, I’ve preferred recording to playing live, and I’m sure I always will do. I like playing live when it goes well, but there are so many factors you can’t control that make it stressful, from the size of the audience that will show up to technical problems striking right at the moment when you’re on stage and can’t do anything to solve them. At one gig I played once, at 93 Feet East in London, the power went out on Brick Lane from Whitechapel High Street up to Shoreditch, about half an hour before doors. We had little choice but to play the whole gig completely unamplified, in a big room, lit only by emergency lights and candles.

Recording sessions can be stressful, but things seldom absolutely need to be got right in this one particular moment. You can always do another take, you can always come back another day. Being a recording musician is less stressful than being a performing musician; being a recording engineer is less stressful than being a front of house engineer. And I’ve been all these things at one time or another.

As my love of recording grew, my enthusiasm for live music waned. Partly this was a matter of simple economics. I was not well off at the time (as in, didn’t know from week to week if I was going to earn any money, or get paid for the work I had been already completed), so what spare money I could amass had to go on recording equipment and instruments worth recording. But it was also a matter of not being enthused by the idea of live music any more. I was so passionate about the possibilities offered by recording that there wasn’t much room left in my life for any other interest. My devotion to learning the craft bordered on the pathological. When I wasn’t actively engaged in a recording project, I was thinking about it. Theorising. Reading. Studying. Listening. Especially listening.

I made a playlist of songs culled from every significant rock record I could think of from the late eighties to the present day and I listened to them all over and again. Listening for sounds, for trends, for techniques. For months, I didn’t listen to songs; I listened to drum sounds. For weeks within those months, I didn’t listen to drum sounds; I listened to snare sounds. I listened to how much close mic was being used as opposed to overheads, or whole-kit stereo mics or room mics. I listened to how quick the compressor’s attack was set, and how long its release was. After a while, where a normal person would hear a drum, which they may or may not be able to identify as a snare, I could hear a snare that went ‘blap’ or ‘wap’ depending how much the attack had been blunted by compression. I could hear how whether it was tight and dry, or big and ambient. I could hear how long the echo was, and make a decent guess at whether it was real room ambience or a digital simulation. I could sometimes hear a shift in snare sound in the midst of a quick whole-kit fill, suggesting the use of noise gating on the tom-toms. I got hung up on whether panning drums from the audience’s perspective was more satisfying than panning from the drummer’s.

Recording engineers care about this stuff. It became my life for a couple of years.

The dedication required to learn all this – the stuff you’ll need to learn if you’re searching for timeless, emotional perfection in the studio – automatically led to less interest in live performance, as a player and a fan. For years, I hardly went to gigs unless I or a good friend was playing one.

But in the last year or so I’ve started to go to more. I’ve got enough disposable income that I can, for one thing, but also I had an experience at a gig coming up for a year ago that was something of a revelation. Early on in my relationship with Mel, we went to see Hem play at the Union Chapel, which we’d both been to a couple of times before and both loved. It’s a gothic-revival church in Islington, North London: stone, marble, high ceilings, wooden pews – it sounds great for the right kind of show, for sit-down, acoustic music-type gigs, and of course the fact that it’s so beautiful just adds to the atmosphere.

Hem are a band whose music I care rather deeply about. I’ve written about them here, in a post that to my regret is one of least visited on my blog. Hem’s music has been well described by Scott Elingburg in a popmatters.com review of Departure and Farewell:

They’re a Brooklyn band dreaming of other, more pastoral locales: the folkist regions of Appalachia, the countrypolitan halls of Nashville, the brass band marches of New Orleans, and anywhere along the East Coast where an acoustic guitar and songwriter might have met.

Swap East Coast for West Coast and that’s them exactly.

This Union Chapel show, as I said in the post linked to above, was one of the best experiences of my life: an incredible performance in a beautiful space of a group of wonderful songs. Just witnessing it with each other brought Mel and me closer together; I could feel it happening during the show. And it reawakened me to the power of live music. Since then I’ve seen several more gigs, some good, some great; some with Mel, some with friends. Midlake at Shepherd’s Bush with Mel, where we ran into Kit Joliffe with whom I play in various people’s bands. Jon Auer at the Islington with Kristina (aka Sumner, whose band I play drums in). Jonny Greenwood and the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Roundhouse in Camden with my friend (and boss) Sara. I’ve seen Mel play her first open mics. She’s seen me sing my songs on stage, and play bass, drums and guitar with other people, too. Before the year’s out, I’ll see Spoon, Throwing Muses and Sebadoh; new favourites and old favourites. Live music is, rather to my surprise at this point, quite a big part of my life again. Once again it feels like a powerful, potentially transformative force.

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Hem, live at the Union Chapel, October 2013
Photo by Christina at All About Hem

Head Home – Midlake

The world of indie rock is a very beardy place right now. It’s most noticeable in London. Guys playing rock and metal have always done facial hair, but London is bigger on indie than heavy rock. As recently as 2004, two months after Take Me Out was released, every young male musician in London (and they did all seem to be male) had Franz Ferdinanded themselves: clean shaven, short, neat hair in a side parting, clean Telecasters. It lasted until after the Arctic Monkeys hype died down.

Around 2006 or 2007, certain records were coming out that felt more rootsy. Acoustic guitars started making a comeback. Soon there were banjos being openly played on stages up and down the country. Not to ascribe cynical reasons to this, but I observed it in the appearance and sound of the bands I saw, and played with, around London. I don’t know if they were conscious of it at all, but a lot of musicians were heading in the same direction at the same time. Now, a few years later, every guitar-playing dude has a beard, a hat, and a waistcoat, except the ones who’ll tell you that beards are over. There are many more co-ed bands than I saw 10 years ago, too, which (unlike the waistcoats) is an unambiguously good thing. Singer-songwriters are no longer confined to a sort of ghetto. The end point of this is a lot of bands playing a hideous Mumford-style acoustic stadium indie. But on the plus side, I know, like, half a dozen double bassists now; where were they ten years ago?

There are three records I’d nominate as being responsible for starting all this: Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut, For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver and The Trials of Van Occupanther by Midlake.

They all share common elements: a pastoral, back-to-the-country vibe, predominantly acoustic instrumentation, and a lack of interest in engaging with the world as it is today (and a resulting nostalgia for the past, an imagined past). All three records were stronger at mood and atmosphere than melody and lyrics. All three had a good sound more than they had great songs.

The partial exception was Midlake, who had evolved to that sound rather than arriving at it first time out. They began as a jazz quintet at the University of Texas, before saxophonist turned singer/guitarist Tim Smith discovered Radiohead and Grandaddy; his vocal style recalls Thom Yorke so much I thought it was a joke the first time I heard Van Occupanther (after a while I stopped noticing). Their first album Bamnan and Silvercork went nowhere, and they abandoned the lo-fi synths for a clean, semi-acoustic 1970s West Coast sound; essentially a more rustic Fleetwood Mac, with Thom Yorke on vocals. It was released to little immediate notice (its reputation is now such that some might be surprised to read the mixed reviews it received at the time) but slowly built a following in Britain and the US and is now one of the most beloved and influential albums of the last ten years. Wherever you go in London, you’ll run into young musicians with a Midlake influence. Furthermore, their blatant imitation of Fleetwood Mac has led to that band being re-evaluated by the indie press: last year a tribute album came out of twenty-something indie bands playing Fleetwood Mac songs (and showing how good the originals were by comparison).

Tim Smith has now left the band, and the remains of Midlake are following a more democratic vision, with a bigger, louder, rhythm-section led sound, albeit with some remaining 1970s prog influences. Their last album, Antiphon, was a step back in songwriting and vocal quality, but a leap forward in originality. Nevertheless, if they were to stop now, they’d be remembered as essentially a minor, derivative band. They haven’t yet improved on the work of their influences.. But both Van Occupanther and follow-up The Courage of Others, which is more imitative of British folk-rock acts like Fairport Convention, contain half a dozen excellent songs each, and if you’re interested in any of the beardy, folky West Coast-style indie rock that’s so prevalent at the moment, those two Midlake records are the place to start, the best of the bunch.

Midlake @ the Shepherd’s Bush Empire – review

Yesterday I took a break from playing music to go with Mel and watch some music: Midlake at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, supported by Horse Thief and Charlie Bowdery.

Bowdery was on first and, while impressive for a performer and writer of his age (he’s 15), he did not strike me as being ready for national exposure of the kind he must be getting, and one wonders whether his needs (as an artist or a young man) are really being best served by his being asked to play in front of large, uninterested, basically empty rooms. Would he not be better advised to work as hard as he can on his writing for the next two or three years while playing in smaller, intimate venue, and come back to the big stage when he’s learned his craft a little bit? If he were ready as a writer, maybe it’d be fine to throw him in there. But as it is, best of luck to him.

Oklahoma’s Horse Thief were the main support act. A psychedelic folk band (my goodness, there’s a lot of those around now) formed in Midlake’s home town of Denton, Texas, but currently based in Oklahoma City, Horse Thief are, like Midlake, signed to Bella Union. Again, the surprise…

They clearly had a few fans in the crowd last night, but Mel and I were not among them. They have a sound worked out, for sure, but song after song passed without a single snippet of melody you could take away with you afterwards. While they would no doubt offer as a counter to this that their music is about feel, offering them platforms on which they can get on with the business of just being Horse Thief, none of them are interesting enough players to justify distending the songs and jamming on them. The singer’s voice too, is an acquired taste. Close your eyes and you could be listening to Billy Corgan. Full marks to the guitarist for his Wilko Johnson-style head movements, though (forward and back, as opposed to the Thom Yorke/Kristin Hersh side to side). Very cool and I was rather jealous.

The contrast with Midlake was stark. Midlake formed at university as a jazz band, and more than in the past those roots are evident, both on their new album, Antiphon, and particularly on stage. When I saw them a few years ago in Oxford, they were stunningly good, but there was a reined-in quality to their performance, which judging from last night may have been the influence of now-departed singer-songwriter Tim Smith, who didn’t crack a smile at all that night and seemed a rather joyless presence, for all that he was key to their sound then.

Antiphon is the most honest representation of the band as a whole, as opposed to one person’s vision that we were trying to facilitate” – Eric Pulido

In interviews since his departure, co-guitarist and former harmony singer Eric Pulido (who’s taken over from Smith as frontman) has suggested that Midlake weren’t a hugely happy crew during that tour. That’s only one guy’s side of the story – and as I said, they played wonderfully regardless – but last night they were clearly off the leash. Drummer McKenzie Smith was in fine form, his enthusiastic fills betraying his jazz roots – there were hints of Harvey Mason in his fills (now much more frequent), and the tom-heavy beats of the Antiphon tracks suggest a possible influence from Can’s Jaki Liebezeit.

The old songs naturally enough drew most of the loudest appreciation of the evening, and Van Occupanther was revisited more frequently than The Courage of Others (Small Mountain and Children of the Grounds getting an airing and nothing else, unless I missed it). Which makes sense – in retrospect, Courage sounds like one road they could have gone down after Van Occupanther, and Antiphon another. But the crowd seemed to enjoy the newer songs too, which the band attacked far harder than in the past.

Pulido sung well, but his voice was unfortunately buried in a very murky mix, which foregrounded the low end of the bass guitar and drums at the expense of the vocals and snare, which lacked punch and, surprisingly, volume – McKenzie Smith is a light-hitting, unmatched-grip player, and brute volume of the backbeat isn’t a hallmark of his playing, but neither is a thunderous kick drum, and he certainly had that yesterday, so the drum balance that we heard was not coming from his playing. Perhaps it was a democratic decision by the band to sound this way live – ‘We’re a band now, not a singer-songwriter with backing musicians, so the vocals are just part of the sound.’ But the voices were notably lower in the mix than on the new record, and there didn’t seem much need for it to be that way.* The mix did gain a little in clarity and focus as the songs rolled by, but it did somewhat mar my enjoyment of the gig (yeah, I’m one of those people now apparently).

Still, they remain a great live band and I was happy to see them. And happy for them that the biggest cheers of the night came after a stomping performance of The Old and the Young, rather than from an older song like Roscoe or Head Home. It got the crowd moving and singing along way more than any other song last night, which is nice for Midlake 2.0. When you think about it, some of the biggest bands in the world (Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac) have survived the departures of key singing/aongwriting members. There seems no reason why Midlake can’t carry on in this line-up for as long as they choose.

 

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*I’ve done enough live sound to know it’s a thankless task, and a difficult one, so I don’t want to pile in on the crew last night. I get it. All kinds of things can be going on that are totally not your fault – but everyone and their brother will have an opinion on what you’re doing wrong and hold you responsible.

Favourite anecdote/worst scenario from my CV: very busy one-day festival in Southend a few years back. 5-minute changeovers between sets. No house drum kit. A lot of acoustic instruments to mike up. The kind of day that runs you to exhaustion and makes you hate everyone. One of the bands’ lead guitarist (playing a DI’d acoustic for a certain song) is saying over the mike that his guitar’s not working, leading everyone to look in my direction and start muttering. Once I made it through the crowd to the stage, I found that the clumsy clod had stood on his cable and pulled it out of the DI box. Yeah, it’s the things you can’t control that’ll kill you.