Anecdotes #2: August 11, 2020 – Wheel in Rain

Was gonna record the vocals for the track I recorded last week, ‘Reversal’, but decided instead to lay down another song in a similar vein, ‘Wheel in Rain’.

Written around the same time, I figured if the mix I’ve got for ‘Reversal’ works, it would too for this one! So used the same drum mix and acoustic guitar mix, and in place of the electric guitar I added to the right channel last week, instead threw in a tambourine loop.

The melody for this one’s a little more complex than ‘Reversal’, so to beef up whatever weak vocals I lay down, added a simple Moog synth line doubling the melody.

As for the bass, while I like the McCartney-style palm-mute sound, I needed a bit more sustain on this one – so ran it through the Big Muff Deluxe on a light distortion setting. Gave it a slightly more muffled sound, but filled the bottom end out nicely.

I decided the piano sound I got last week wasn’t cutting through, so replaced it with a sharper upright piano. Then for ‘Wheel in Rain’, found a more experimental preset which added a nice subtle psychedelic feel to the tune.

While the piano ran right through ‘Reversal’, it doesn’t in ‘Wheel in Rain’ – so I added a little Polymoog synth hit with a lot of reverb at certain points.

Just when I thought I was finished, I noticed a particularly clumsy chord change from F to Dm7 – so went to re-record it, but my headphones were playing up! Recorded it with the rest of the track playing through the monitors… so if the track ever gets released and you have the kind of ears to hear that kind of stuff…

Songs vs albums

Been thinking recently I might not bother with albums for a bit. You do all these songs, make sure they work as a set, put in so much effort – and no one cares. It sometimes feels like you’ve just thrown 13 great songs to the wolves, on the fire, into a black hole. Wouldn’t it be better to lose just one at a time?

Might just do singles. I have a few hundred songs yet to see the light of day, dozens of others I’ve put out in the past before I really knew how to mix things properly that could do with being redone entirely. Seriously, I could almost do one song a week for the next decade without running out.

I keep spreadsheets of my songs. One is all of them ranked by quality – of the top 10, I’ve only ever released two, and neither in forms I’d consider satisfactory. Perhaps that’s an album. Amongst the rest are about three dozen allocated to a concept triple album.

The rest are grouped according to style/genre, but who really cares about that anymore?


Anecdotes #1: August 4, 2020 – Reversal

This is gonna sound real pretentious, especially considering no one’s likely to read it, but I’ve decided to document what I’m writing and recording in real-time, on this here part of the website.

Background: I’ve got this spreadsheet with every song I’ve ever written (at least those I have documentation for), and a folder of demos dating back to the 1990s. I can’t always remember what I was thinking when I wrote and recorded them, which kind of sucks. Firstly, it’s easier to reproduce a song where you know what the bloody chords are, or how it was done… Secondly, lyrics can become impenetrable with the passage of time removing your state of mind from the context they were written.

I’ve got this new bunch of songs coming out in a couple of days, and it might surprise you I have little memory of how most of them were written – even though the majority were penned in the last few years. I tend to write in bursts – usually in late summer – and haven’t used pen and paper for a few years now.

I like looking at the old songs I wrote the old way, seeing lyrics and chord progressions crossed out and replaced with (usually) better parts. But for a few years now I’ve written pretty much exclusively on the computer – so bad (well, even worse) lyrics are purged forever, and all the chords and melodies are written down in MIDI rather than paper.

It’s certainly much more efficient, but makes it hard to piece together exactly what was going through my mind when it happened! This writing is as much for me as it anyone else – probably even more so!

So with that in mind, here goes. I’ll start with what I did today – August 4, 2020.

Recording ‘Reversal’

After spending the first few months of the year – pre-lockdown – working on the 99 percent electronic Battle Thru Time, and the post-lockdown months on the heavy grunge Bunkerland, I decided to restring my acoustic guitars and chill out a bit.

I’ve got two – one is a steel-string axe I bought in about 2001, covered in nearly two decades of stickers in a layer probably half an inch thick; the other a cheap nylon string guitar I think we bought to let the kids play with.

I went through my spreadsheet and pulled out a song called ‘Reversal’ I wrote in 2013. Around that time I had started writing more using the keyboard to figure out chords and melodies, having written pretty much exclusively on the guitar until 2010 or so. This is a strumalong acoustic song, but with a piano lead part and a tricky melody obviously written on the keyboard, rather than vocally.

I kept the song’s brisk structure largely intact, changing the opening chord to whatever it is when you play an F, but leave the G string open – matching the opening bass note, before hitting the F.

The chords used in the song – F, Am, G, C and Em – frustrated my guitar, which refused to play them all in tune at the same time. I had to do two different takes for each track – one where the guitar was tuned to C, G and Em, and the other to F and Am – then carefully join them together so each sounded like a single take. Worked out quite well. I’ve set up my condenser mic on a kind of extendable mechanical arm thing which can be whipped out when it’s needed and hidden when it’s not. I bet this is just how the Beatles did it…

The nylon guitar had no such tuning issues but didn’t sound as nice, so I ran it through a fuzz pedal VST and panned it hard right (I’m trying to do an L-C-R mixing type thing with acoustic tracks in particular – simplifies things a lot, and definitely adds to the Beatles feel!)

Reversal - Anecdata

The two main acoustic tracks were run through a bit of a Harmonizer, one panned left and the other centred. In the right channel I added a clean electric guitar (the Grungemaster) doing a fingerpicking thing – very rare for me, since I suck at it! But it worked here, kind of murky and buried.

On the past few Anecdata albums the bass parts have been largely programmed – both synth and bass guitar – but wanting a looser feel on this, I played the bass part this time. Good old palm-muting to get that extra McCartney feel of course.

As for the drums, used the ‘tea towel’ setting on Toontrack’s ‘UK Pop’ sample set – for obvious reasons – with some better cymbals from another set. Put the overheads in mono to keep the soundstage clear, lots of tape and compression too.

Later in the afternoon I came back to the mix and decided it needed something else in the middle eight, so turned down the piano in that bit to make way for a bit of fuzz guitar – a lead part mostly following the piano melody, but with a few flourishes. Nice and direct sound, nothing fancy.

Haven’t done the vocals yet. Gotta go over the melody from the demo and simplify it a bit – it has some rather ambitious leaps I know I used software to fix in that recording, and I’d rather not do that anymore! Also, might see if I can jazz up the lyric a bit.

So, that’s today – August 4, 2020. I have no idea if I’ll persist with this nonsense, but I hope I do – even if no one else reads it, I might be interested in it myself one day?

Behind the songs: Until the End

Another old one, at least musically. 

I first uploaded a (very bad) version of it to the internet in 2006 or so. That one was more space-rock – it had acoustic guitars, vocals, the works. Funnily enough, you could also hear crickets in the background – it was the height of summer when I recorded it, I had no soundproofing at all, and I was terrible at mixing. 

Another version a few years later took that template and improved the arrangement, but this one’s all electronic and has so many new parts it’s almost unrecognisable from its early forms.

And it has no words, ’cause I couldn’t get them to fit this time. Standards have risen and all that.

Behind the songs: Phantom Time

No, this is not a song about being ready for the Phantom. It’s inspired by one of the wildest and grandest conspiracy theories I think I’ve ever come across – that HUNDREDS of years of history are missing.

Yep, the middle ages literally never happened. Supposedly. 

This is an old song too. I wrote it in 2012, and only just got around to polishing it off. Seriously, it’s almost unchanged from the original demo! Just improved the mix, got better at singing, added an intro part so it could merge into the song before it. 

Most of the instruments are literally from the original demo! So in a way, this album’s literally been in the recording phase for eight years… IF THEY ACTUALLY HAPPENED! 

Behind the songs: You’re Not Alone

I’m not the kind of guy who writes ‘love’ songs. This is about as close as it gets… and it’s all of about six lines long. 

There was a second verse, but I decided in mixing it didn’t fit sonically, so chucked in a synth. Love them synths. 

I was gonna chuck in more of a solo part before the last chorus, but isn’t that tambourine enough? I thought so after about the 500th listen. 

The huge drums are a bit lo-fi – I liked the sound of them on the demo, but lost the original programming/stems, so just took them as they were, beefed ’em up and there they are.

Behind the songs: Hardly Angels

Each year, I seem to end up writing at least one darkly humorous pseudo-disco song. 

This one was originally penned in 2017, and it’s about how everyone here thinks Asians are bad drivers – when seriously, as a guy who’s spent decades on two wheels (pedal and motor), I know for a fact it’s your basic white dudes who are the country’ biggest menace.

The original title was ‘Death Disco’, but I decided that was a little too on-the-nose, even for me. 

Musically, it relies heavily on the old LM-1 drum machine made famous by Prince. I bought this ridiculously detailed emulation that’s not just a sample set, but replicates the original ’70s hardware in great detail.

Behind the songs: Super VHS

This little musical interlude has its roots in a seven-minute electronic instrumental I recorded almost 20 fucking years ago called ‘Advice Like This’. 

Believe it or not, the original demo was programmed on a PlayStation (an original, not a PS2 or PS1 – the original bulky PlayStation), and I still have the recording. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to the whole thing since the day I finished it.

There were some words to the song, they weren’t very good and the melody was dull, so cutting it back to its bare essentials – the chords and bass, essentially – and using it as a musical bridge was a no-brainer.

Behind the songs: Ephemeral

Wrote this one in 2015. It hasn’t changed a lot since the original demo, just got bigger production, better synths and a crazier vocal mix. 

What’s it about? Um, I think it might be about imposter syndrome? It was written very quickly, so whatever exactly was on my mind that day has been lost to time. 

Thoughts are ephemeral, you might say…

Musically, I guess it might be as close as I’ve ever gotten to hip-hop. And probably will ever get, as a middle-aged white dude who doesn’t know much, but knows that would be a bad musical road to go down.

Behind the songs: Superelevator

This one was first written in 2015 or ’16 – I’ve lost the original demo so I’m not sure. It had words and everything, but no amount of my tweaking of the melody could make it work for my voice, so it joined a long list of songs I wrote which initially had words, and ended up just a tune.

It was about the rich getting off the planet, but not the poor, Elysium-style. It was also originally called ‘Superhabitable’ but somewhere along the way I realised that didn’t quite roll off the tongue as well as ‘Superelevator’. Ironic it ended up without any words at all.

Behind the songs: Richard III

I wrote this tune the day they confirmed a skeleton found beneath an English carpark belonged to the English king, Richard III. I woke up planning to write something a bit odd, but needed a topic. Opening up the news that morning, boom – there it was.

Before that day, all I really knew about Richard III was that he had a bad back, was the subject of a song by Supergrass and really wanted a horse. (Honestly, I actually thought he was angry he had already swapped his kingdom for a horse – I never read the play. Turns out it was quite the opposite…)

I really like the weird music I wrote for this one. I’ve heard it more than a thousand times now so it sounds like a straight-up pop song to me, but I’m sure it’s all over the place. I’d love a musicologist to tell me if it fits any conventional melodic/harmonic rules at all, ’cause I wouldn’t have a clue. 

I released a version of this last year which wasn’t quite as well-mixed as the version on the album. If you got that version before it was purged from the internet, replace it with these new mixes, please.