Archive for March, 2009

A wish comes true

Sunday, March 29th, 2009

Back in October, I posted some notes on a new song for a pedal steel guitarist in the US, Bruce Kaphan, that was about to play on a song of mine called 17 Hills. I mentioned to him that in addition to adding touches all through the song, he could take a crack at the solo section; but I warned him that I was trying to locate Mark Knopfler, who I thought would be perfect for a lead guitar part for that solo. Well, six months later my wish came true: I was invited to Mark’s studio in London where he took some time out of mixing his own album to play on my song.

I’ve been lucky to work with some of the world’s most iconic guitarists—including Jerry Garcia and Eddie Van Halen, two guys that were possibly past their sell-by date… but Mark’s playing is a gorgeous as ever, and he’s matured as a storyteller and songwriter, which made him the perfect choice for 17 Hills. He really grokked to the fact that his guitar helps propel my story. The song is nearly eight minutes long and has an epic, road movie type feel; it’s very dreamy at times, but his guitar brings it sharply into focus. I think very cinematically, and Mark’s entrance is like a jump-cut. One minute we’re in a wide shot of a car kicking up the dust on a distant desert road; suddenly we cut to a closeup of to the radio in the car’s dashboard.

British Grove studios ars a perfect blend of old and new. He has a couple of EMI desks with levers instead of faders; an ATC board beloved of guitarists (Steve Vai also has one, and swears by the mic preamps); a more modern Neve board, and of course a ton of Avalons, Fairchilds and LA1076s, all going to classic 1″ and 2″ analog machines or state of the art hard drive recorders, as the project requires. Presumably has has more guitars than God lurking behind closed doors, though only two or three emerged for our session, and the chosen one was a custom Don Grosch. Its tone was somewhere between a Strat and a Les Paul, though of course in Mark’s hands it could sound however he wanted. At one point while transitioning between sections I asked him if he’d changed his tone–no, of course not, it was all in the fingertips!

I was relieved that my song sounded pretty accurate on the big monitors, as it was the first set of tracks I’ve worked on in the Nutmeg and brought elsewhere. It was a pleasant, relaxed session. I always skirt the line between letting a musician like that just do his thing, versus giving too much direction and cramping his style. And I’m a keyboard player after all so I don’t really have the vocabulary to explain what I’m looking for. But our communication was good, and I think we got something great. Mark gave me upwards of 12 takes, and we did a fairly hasty comp while I was there, though such is my reluctance to let anything great slip away, I think I’ll give the rest of his takes a good going over tomorrow and make sure no sweetness slips through the cracks.

my new headgear?

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

Status bass guitars have come up with a good piece of kit for my next live shows (experiments in time travel? thought-powered lifeboats?)

Thanks to them for letting me borrow their ad, and to Darren for alerting me to it.


view from the bridge

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

The wide beveled glass window of my wheelhouse is a constantly changing canvas. The sea and sky have endless combinations of colours, sometimes contrasting, often so similar it’s hard to make out the horizon. One day recently the clouds looked remarkably like islands, reminding me very much of the view across to Catalina from San Pedro, in southern Los Angeles, with its hugh cliffs and narrow ithsmus. And the procession of container ships headed to or from the Continent sometimes make me think of the distant Manhattan skyline.


new song feedback

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

I took the advice of a few blog readers and tweeters, and sent my new song to a handful of people to see what they thought. My friends are always supportive, but they tell it like it is, and don’t gush unless they really mean it. Here are some of the responses:


Ohhh myyy!

Thomas, I’m still dreaming. Seriously this song is more than WONDERFUL, is one of the best things I ever heard in all my life.
You’re dangerous, it’s so beautiful that I have cried a bit, your voice is more beautiful than ever. Even the sounds are really cool.
Thanks for sharing it, I promise I’ll never play it to anyone.
You music touches me in the very deep of my heart.

oh God Thomas that is really beautiful! SO lovely. I love stuff like that. It soars and takes you with it. It made my cry actually.

Well what a lovely song to wake up to.

Wow. That is masterful, haunting, and the tag line is piercing.

I have just listened to ****** about 10 times in a row. This is, in my opinion, the lushest, most beautifully melodic thing I think you’ve done….ever. No joke, no exaggeration. Perhaps I’m biased towards those chord and melody choices and the lush haunting timeless vibe, but…this is just EPIC. As in “tears-worthy”… I’d go on, but I have to go listen to it again.

This may be THE, or at least one of, my favorite things you have done.

Thank you again for sending (and surely embedded this track indelibly into my skull)…

I initially listened to this briefly and the melody really stuck in my head for hours thereafter. Wow, really lovely.

When you said you had another Screen Kiss you obviously generated a lot of expectations. This is going to floor people when it’s released.

It seems like it’s half a thing without an amazing visual element to
complete it. I’m sure you must be seeing visions.

(Ok, so I can’t please all the people all the time!)

a bolt from the blue

Friday, March 13th, 2009

Songs come from the most curious places. If I knew where mine came from, I could write one every day. Paddy McAloon composes about twenty songs for every one I write. Prince has made about 12 albums in the 18 year gap since I put out my last one ‘Astronauts And Heretics’—and that’s despite his major label disputes! Yet even before I finished my lifeboat recording studio the Nutmeg, and started to write and record a new album, I’d somehow accrued a backlog of about a dozen new songs that existed only in my head. They take shape while I’m driving, or out for a walk, or in shower. They have words, chords, melodies, sounds. They have full arrangements and even a production style. Yet I’d be hard pressed to even play them to you on the piano, because I’ve never played or sung a note of them.

Then there’s another kind, that come from something very specific. In the case of a song I have been writing over the last three days, it all started when I was checking out a new piece of software called Omnisphere. I was running through the preset sounds, weeding out the ones I don’t like, trimming 1700 so-so sounds down to a personal library of a couple of hundred. Very often when I’m auditioning sounds like that, I play a few notes or chords to see how they work in context. One particularly evocative Omnisphere sound caught my ear, with roughly the tonal quality of a pedal steel guitar. Before I knew it my fingers had found their way to a set of notes and chords that showed the sound of in its best light. I recorded a little bit just so I wouldn’t forget it, along with half a dozen other snippets. Next day I came back to the boat and replayed those snippets, with the unfamiliarity you get after spending a night away from a new idea. All the bits sounded interesting, but this one in particular was really special. as I listened to it, a vocal melody came to mind, phrased kind of opposite to the keyboard part, so I was singing in the gaps. I mumbled the first words that came to mind, and that fit the melody. I have a mic on a boom stand permanently set up over my computer, and I whacked down a vocal so I’d remember the melody. There was no intro or preamble, the vocal came in right from the first beat. I didn’t bother to set a level on the preamp (a Millennia STT-1), and in fact it was a bit hot so the compressor was pegging over. The opening line, which meant nothing to me at the time, was “Canonballs ricochet around the room.”

I had some lunch, did some laundry, returned some emails. I needed to rewire my patchbay to add a second set of speakers, so I spent some time on my back with a flashlight, and while I did that I listened to KCRW’s ‘Morning Becomes Eclectic’ program on iTunes radio. Then I put on my headphones and listened back to my song snippet. And it startled me. I’d actually forgotten that the vocal came right in at the start (which was only because I’d been too lazy to arrange an intro.) It was almost as if I was listening to someone else altogether. And it was fantastic! A bit like those songs you hear in dreams, but are never able to properly recapture after you awake.

Forty-eight hours in and out of the studio in short bursts like that, and I have a finished song. Not fully fleshed out mind you, but complete as a concept. A lot of it is the 95% perspiration not the 5% inspiration, and I struggled and deliberated over some of the lyrics and the vocal choices.

But I have to say, it’s gorgeous. Right up there with my best, very ‘me’, but oddly contemporary, post-modern even. It’s a complete reflection of the landscape and colour and atmosphere of this amazing location, and touched by the mood of a novel I read recently by J.G.Ballard. Yet it also carries a lot of history with it, of my mother’s side of my family who were from around here. It’s a lament, though it’s uplifting, not melancholy or depressing.

It will likely take a few more twists and turns, so I can’t tell you the title or post a rough mix. To do that would be to spoil the secrecy of the moment. Why then even bother to blog about it? Only because I feel great right now, a tremendous sense of awe and satisfaction, grateful that the muse favoured me with a visit.

In the author Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful talk at TED this year, she tells of a poet friend who described the moment of creation as a rolling thunder that came for her across the fields, like a bolt from the blue. She had to be ready the instant it arrived, pen and paper in hand, mind fully open and porous, in case the thunder rolled right over her head and disappeared in search of another poet.

Out of the dumpster and into the fire

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

I’ve moved the pic of my tapes baking to the previous post, as it was screwing up the home page of my web site!

Urban Tribal found!

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

I freaked a lot of people out a few days ago by saying that I thought I may have accidentally consigned the master for my song ‘Urban Tribal’ to the dumpster. The update is, it’s found. At least I think so. The box and label look correct. I recorded it at Battery Studios on 12th March 1981. Of course, until you get it out of the box you never know if it’s correctly labelled. And to do that, you have to bake it. So get ready to freak out all over again… right now I’m about to pop the tape into the oven at 135 degrees F for about two hours, flipping every half hour.

Don’t worry! This is what you do with old master tapes. The oxide likes to detach itself from the backing, and if you don’t bake it back on, big clumps fall off on the tape heads the moment you try to play it. This restoration process was only discovered a few years ago. Up until then I had pay a large annual rental fee to store my tapes in the basement at Abbey Rd, at what was thought to be the ideal temperature and moisture.

That basement has served over the years as a bomb shelter, butchers’ repository, and storage place for the Sgt Pepper’s 4-tracks and mellotron. Once EMI discovered that tapes stored down there were actually falling apart, and needed to be baked to be playable, they offered a ‘restoration service’ to artists and producers, charged at a high hourly rate. So they got a bit more cash out of me for that. But when I found out that the recipe was quite simple and could be easily done in a domestic oven, I switched to doing it myself.

I shall now head out to the Nutmeg to carry on with my vocals, bringing with me a small oven timer, to remind me to flip the tapes every half hour! I uncovered a few other promising ones as well, so we’ll see what’s on those too, in an effort to pick out some good bonus tracks the the GAOW and TFE re-releases.

There’s some good info about baking tapes here.

Out of the dumpster and into the fire

My own writing!

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

Over the years from time to time I’ve started writing a song intended for someone else. Then a funny thing happens. The closer I get it to actually being presentable, the more it becomes a ‘me’ song, and in the end I don’t have the heart to give it away.

I wrote a song called ‘Interference’ for Michael Jackson. Initially I just had the bass and drum groove. I sent him a demo and he said he liked it and would try to add a melody. Then I didn’t hear any more, and next thing I knew, a Jacksons album called Victory came out, and there was my groove. (I guess MJ suffers from the same malady—he can’t bear to give things away!) So like a sucker I started writing another one for him, inspired by memories of him as a kid. You know, back when he was really cute and actually had a fabulous voice. The song was called ‘Hyperactive.’ But I didn’t get far into it before I realised it was really all about me. So I kept it for myself, and it became my only substantial UK singles chart hit.

One day circa 1980 I went to see The Thompson Twins play live at a college refectory gig in central London. This was in the days when they were a nine-piece, including my friend Matthew Seligman on bass. I recall they had this kind of flag onstage, a bit like a Roman Legion standard. They would pass it around from person to person while they played, backlit with lots of smoke. I suppose it was symbolic of them being a tribe or whatever, it was visually very effective. Shortly after that the ‘tribe’ shrunk to two guys and a gal, and they became megastars overnight. I was taken with the ‘shape’ of some of their songs… not sure how to describe it, there was a kind of epic cadence to the phrasing, enhanced by some long stereo delayed reverb on the vocals. I went straight home and started writing a song for them. At first it had no lyrics, but as soon as they began to form they were clearly very personal. That song turned out to be ‘One Of Our Submarines’, IMO one of my very best.

I worked briefly with Belinda Carlisle many years back, playing the keyboards on ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth’ (I know, I know…. but cut me some slack, I was trying to get into her pants! for the record, she found me completely resistable. ) I later wrote a song for her called ‘The Road to Reno’, but it fell on deaf ears. However the song is a bit of a cracker and I’ve recently recorded it with Matthew and Kevin, and it’s going on my new album.

So an odd thing happened over this weekend. I was approached last week to contribute something to a large scale, long-term musical project involving several world-class musicians bouncing tracks back and forth via FTP. I had this germ of an idea for a song a couple of years back, and it never really felt like a ‘me’ song, because the lyrics such as they were didn’t seem to apply to me. The title was ‘I’m Not Your Dog.’ It was just a groove and a hook. But I decided to try to whip it into shape, as it were, and send it off to them.

48 hours later, a familiar pattern is emerging! It’s sounding pretty interesting, and I think I’ve found a slant to the lyrics that makes it work as a solo effort. Not sure now whether it’s destined to ever leave the Nutmeg until it’s fully parceled up as a TD song. So what’s up with that? Well, I reckon there must be something very healthy about getting out of one’s own skin for a while. It takes away the pressure to live up to the prescribed vision of oneself that can be such a burden. It loosens up the imagination, allowing new ideas to flow.

It’s early days, but perhaps ‘I’m Not Your Dog’ will end up on the new album too. It’s got a meaty mid-tempo groove, extremely grungey uncompromising Virus and Omnisphere synths, a ’60s style falsetto bit to the hookline, even a harmonica riff and a pseudo-Southern Rock slide guitar!