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Sound & Recording OCTOBER 21, 2014 - by Staff Writers
BRIAN ENO AND KARL HYDE: RECORDING SOMEDAY WORLD
The first album collaboration between ambient composer Brian Eno and Underworld front-man Karl Hyde, is a joyfully experiment to find out what you get when you mix the musical styles of Fela Kuti and Steve Reich.
"It's completely crucial for me," insists Brian Eno, when asked if the technology he is currently using affects the way he makes music. "I couldn't be a musician otherwise because I can't really play anything! Everything I do is worked around electronic technology.
"All musicians use technology unless they are just singers; a violin is technology, for example, but the kind of stuff we are using here enables us to have so many possibilities. Mostly when we are doing this I am providing the rhythm track, which I am doing with loops or loops I make, like the last one that you heard, I made that on the fly by slowing down the other one and re-looping it!"
The enabling technology Brian is talking about played a massive role in the production of his new album, Someday World, which he wrote together with Underworld vocalist and founding member, Karl Hyde. Making the nine track album, which was inspired by the work of Steve Reich and the godfather of afrobeat, Fela Kuti, involved a great deal of improvisation and experimentation and the process has forced Brian to reconsider his extremely hostile feelings about performing live.
"I'd sooner have somebody drive nails through my scrotum, generally, that play a live show," Brian jokes, "but what we are doing here is exciting! It is much more dangerous because it can go badly wrong or just become very boring. If some of this feeling can go into a live show, where there is a real sense of discovery, where it is not just a routine that you do every night..."
"We took that risk with Pure Scenius," adds Karl Hyde referring to a trilogy of live concerts that he, Brian, keyboardist Jon Hopkins, guitarist and sound designer Leo Abrahams, and the three-piece improvisation specialists The Necks, performed to audiences of up to 2500 people in 2009. The shows, which took place in Sydney, Australia, were so successful that Eno and company repeated the format in England at the 2010 Brighton Festival.
"There were moments during the shows," continues Karl, "where I thought 'We are going somewhere really bad any minute now and I don't think we are coming back from the edge of this one,' and that's when you need Brian to go, 'Right, we are going to change now!'
"But that's important. We were all having to be attentive to each other. There was lots of looking and hand signals and reading each other's temperaments and the mood of the audience. That was a thrill. Sometimes it wasn't very good and sometimes it was amazing.
"You get higher highs, and lower lows," confirms Brian. "The performances can be absolutely amazingly unexpected, or really shit. So it is about what level of risk you are prepared to take, really. I'd rather be in the broader band, but it does mean that some people are going to get a much better concert than others!
"If you are making a piece of music and you don't know where it is going, you really have to pay attention and be alert as to where you are at that moment. Alertness is the thing that makes for excitement in art because it means you are really in the present and no other moment. You are right there with it.
"Think of any piece of art you really love and you have that sense of somebody being fully alive at the moment of doing it. Look at any square inch of a Cezanne painting and you can see the guy was really there when he was doing it. He wasn't just filling in the colour. And I think audiences pick up on it. It is not the only thing audiences like but when they hear that they are thrilled. And nowadays it is harder to get that because most big bands are playing to a sequencer, basically. The drummer has a click in his ears, and the song is laid out because the lights are following the song and the backing vocals are keyed in at the chorus. So it is very hard for a big machine like that to change direction."
REICKUTI AND ONWARDS
After the Brighton shows, Brian and Karl continued working together in Brian's studio, although at first there was no plans to make an album. The process proved to be very productive, however, and in 2013 the decision was made to set aside four weeks in which a project would be recorded.
"We started off with a concept Brian called Reickuti, that had the music of Fela Kuti and Steve Reich coming together," explains Karl. "It is music we are both really fascinated by; this cyclical, repetitive journey. When Brian played his ideas to me I started to play some guitar along with it and it just felt a really good place to be.
"That was the starting point," adds Brian, "but we hoped it would go beyond that combination, and it has moved into something else. They are both old styles of music now but neither of them has been updated. You hear afrobeat now and it sounds exactly the same as it did in the Early 1970s when Fela started it. And it seems to me that this is one of the most potent forms of music on the planet."
Many of the Someday World songs were built on top of rhythmic loops which Brian made over a period of years and stored away for future use. As it turns out, his methods of creating the rhythms were similar to those he used when collaborating with Talking Heads front man David Byrne on their album My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.
"The rhythms were homemade in the same way," he confirms. "I'm not a drummer or percussionist so I construct them with modern tools, so they are probably not the kind of rhythms that drummers would usually come up with, and that was also true of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. David and I made those rhythm tracks. It was just the two of us working on that for a long time. Similarly, Someday World comes from two people, neither of whom are drummers. But both David [Byrne] and Karl are very good rhythm guitar players and I think that gives the music a personality that doesn't come from the normal place that rhythmic music comes from."
For Karl, Brian's rhythm programming was an inspiration. "I think Brian's drumming is fantastic," he insists. "It makes sense to me in a way that a lot of drumming doesn't make sense. The drumming which connects with me the most is drumming from Africa, the Mediterranean, and Eastern countries. It stays the same and yet it moves around a lot, and Brian understands that, and that is part of the connect that we have on this project."
Although Brian's rhythms were a good starting point, the duo were still worried that they might result in rather conventional songs unless drastic measures were taken to shake things up, so they began introducing random edits to create unusual base structures on which the rest of the songs were built.
"If you want to end up somewhere different it is a good idea to start somewhere different!" insists Brian. "So we started in a different way. We'd start with a five minute rhythm track, which was maybe something that I'd done in the computer, then we found a way of making arbitrary divisions in it, often by throwing dice and things like that. We'd divide this period of time into sections and then decide that there is an A section and B section and every second section is going to be an A section, but the As and Bs are all going to be different lengths! So it means that you are forced to make complicated constructions because nothing simple will fit on top.
"It comes from a cities-on-hills idea. I have always liked cities that are built on hills because the architecture has to shift around to embrace the landscape in some way. You can't have that kind of Mies van der Rohe, Bauhaus design because you don't have the base to start with so it forces interesting architecture to happen. So we decided we would force it to be interesting by making the base complicated and unusual. So don't assume a clean sheet, start with a dirty sheet of paper."
Although Brian's idea is a little obscure, it is shared by Karl, who provides his own example of the concept.
"Just before starting the project I spent a while in Santiago in Chile, at Pablo Neruda house," he explains. "It is built into the side of a hill and the rooms are all like little houses, so there's this bit of a house, then he built another room over there, then a little walkway, and a rope way and some stairs go to another room over there. And we got into this conversation about it and that developed into this fascination for cities on hills."
STARTING TO RECORD
Almost all of the recording of Someday World was done in a small room in Brian's Notting Hill studio, although when Karl's guitar proved to be a little loud, his amp was moved out into the large room next door.
Co-producing the album was twenty-year-old Fred Gibson, who was virtually unknown in the world of music production. It was during a chance meeting that Fred managed to impress Brian with his advanced knowledge of computer audio software.
"One of Fred's best friends, Ed, is the son of a friend of mine who belongs to the a capella singing group that I have here," explains Brian. "One day she asked me if Ed, could come over to look at my music stuff, because Ed is a scientist. He was about sixteen at the time. He came round and brought Fred with him. I was showing them how you can do this and that with Logic, assuming they knew nothing about it at all, and I said, 'Actually you can really probably do anything,' and then I named something and said, 'you can probably do that too but I wouldn't know how to do it,' and Fred very politely leaned over and said, 'Well, actually it is quite easy, if you take a Sys Ex message...', and I realised that he knew that program with a depth that I had never even dreamed of! But he is a very good musician and writer as well and he'll be a big name. He joined the A capella group and I let him use the studio a few times to work on his own music with friends when I wasn't using it. And then I asked him to help us out and he proved to be very important to the whole thing."
One thing Brian was particularly keen to do was work fast. He did not want the production to become too methodical and laboured, as that would cancel out the excitement he and Karl were trying to create by using improvisation and spontaneity. In all, the project took just five-and-a-half weeks, thereby overrunning the initial four-week plan a little (although relative to many projects it was still very quick!).
"I am sick of albums that take two years," insists Brian, "so we just decided on a deadline. I have a theory that deadlines are responsible for most good art. Deadlines are good because they stop you overcooking something. Albums that take years to make are like bad French food, where it has been so long in the preparation that everything is dead by the time it reaches you, whereas my dream of how to make music is like they make food in a busy Italian restaurant. They have fantastic ingredients and they do as little to them as possible. They just get them hot, put them together and give it to you.
"I once took a band that I was about to produce, after they had made a laboured and complicated album, for dinner in a very good Italian restaurant, and I arranged with the restaurant manager to take them into the kitchen. So I sat them down to dinner and said 'Now I want to show you how we are going to make your next record', and I took them all into the kitchen and it was just chaos with flames, and cooks and waiters doing things really quickly. It was exciting."
Another important choice the pair made was to record and mix simultaneously, rather than having a period of recording followed by a block of mixing. Once again, the idea was to maintain the vibe of the music and not let the material become overworked.
"There were no mixing days," reveals Karl, "the mixing was going on all the time so there was no separation between recording and mixing and we recorded up to the day that it was handed in.
"We have both experienced one of the negative sides of making records where you spend all that time recording and getting everything balanced and sounding exciting and you are really thrilled by it, then the place gets tidied up, everyone changes their shirt and you go into mixing mode. All the faders get pulled down and you are completely disconnected from the vibe of the music. The first record I ever made was like that. After a few days in a little studio in London it was sounding fantastic, and the engineer did that and we never got it back. But the great thin about working in-the-box with a computer, is the mix is there so you don't need a great SSL with total recall to bring back the mix.
So there wasn't a mixing day, there was just a delivery day, which was a few hours after we finished recording."
In their five-and-half weeks together, Brian and Karl also recorded material which wasn't included on the final album. Brian explains what has become of the rest of it. "There's quite a lot of it, but not much that we actually finished! The album takes its title from a song that we finished but didn't put on the album, which is actually a very nice song, and there was another one that had Benjamin Zephaniah on which was pretty well finished.
"Then there were several others that we abandoned along the way. They got to a point where we though they were probably not going to make it so we stopped working on them."
"Some sounded great and you think they are fantastic but they don't seem to fit the sonic picture," adds Karl, "so we've put those to one side and we'll revisit them."
LIVE IN THE STUDIO
Brian is not a fan of press interviews, so instead of sitting down with a continuous stream of journalists and describing the recording process in great detail over and over, he and Karl decided to have a series of open house sessions where members of the press could visit during set times and witness first-hand the creative process used to make Someday World.
The sessions also gave Brian and Karl the chance to revisit their Reickuti concept, develop new material for a possible follow up album, and prepare for any live appearances they eventually decide to do.
"We were just following a journey, so although we started off with an idea we didn't end up at the place we originally intended to end up, which is why we are doing this," says Karl. "We remained open and followed the route of the things that were happening, it just took it off in another direction. We've now gone back up the other road that we first intended to go up!
"We've assembled a nine-piece band and played some of the music and we may do some small appearances, but we want to develop the sound of a band further than the album. You either take a band on tour to find your voice or signature sound, or you spend more time developing that sound so that you can pass it on to the people you work with, so we decided to do the latter.
"In a lot of live shows audiences get played the album. I remember as a kid hearing on radio someone saying that it is fantastic that you can go and see the band 10cc and the show sounds just like the record, but why would you want to go and see somebody when it's just like the record? I want to see something else.
"We both felt that there wasn't enough material to justify live performances," adds Brian. "Anyway, we didn't want to go out and play the songs just as they are on the record. Festivals are so successful now because there is the possibility of something unscripted happening. It often doesn't, but there is the possibility that the band is going to go slightly off-piste and do something surprising, even to themselves."
On the day Sound & Recording visited Brian's Notting Hill studio, Brian and Karl were joined by guitarist Leo Abrahams, and Someday World co-producer Fred Gibson. The visiting time was late afternoon, so by the time we arrived, the musicians were in full swing and sounded like a very tight unit.
Apparently there had been a total of nine musician's present the day before, but this time the four were joined by poet Rick Holland who had previously collaborated with Brian on the 2011 album Drums Between The Bells
Also present was pianist, composer and software designer Peter Chilvers, who created the generative iOS app Bloom together with Brian in 2008. On this day, however, Peter was acting as the engineer, saving every session in Logic Audio and patching various signal feeds into the monitor mix using a Makie CR1604 desk, whenever he was required to do so. Although Someday World had been recorded in a side room of Brian's studio, the jam sessions took place in the much larger central open-plan area, where there was enough space for musicians, engineers and journalists to move about freely.
From the perspective of a spectator entering the studio, Fred Gibson was stationed on far right, operating a Native Instruments Maschine hardware controller with its software running on a Mac Book Pro laptop. Occasionally Fred sat down to work from an M-Audio Axiom 49 MIDI keyboard, which was connected to Apple's MainStage live performance software, accessed via the same laptop he used for NI's Maschine. On this day Fred was mostly playing bass sounds on the Axiom and providing drums with Maschine.
Brian's setup was to the left of Fred's, and included a vintage electric guitar laying across a plinth and being fed into a Behringer V-tone DI GDI21 amp modeller/preamp. Brian played the guitar while it was lying down using a metal slide, rather like a pedal steel guitar. Brian also had Ampeg bass guitar on a stand, but did not put it to use during our visit, and an M-Audio Oxygen 61 controller keyboard, which was used for triggering samples on an Apple laptop. At one point in the session an extra pair of hands were needed, so Peter Chilvers was called across to hold notes on Brian's Oxygen 61 controller.
"I wasn't really doing anything musically," he explains, "other than acting as a glorified sustain pedal! Brian wanted a chord to carry on playing, but needed hands free to play with the Air FX, so asked me to carry on holding the chord he was playing."
The rest of Brian's setup sat on top of two Samson Resolve 80a monitors. Straddling both speakers was a Numark M101 two-channel DJ scratch mixer, and to its right sat a Numark Axis 9 CD player with loop, stutter and speed controls. The stutter effect in particular was something Brian used quite a lot during the session. To the left of the M101, Brian had an Alesis Air FX multi-effects processor feeding into a Korg Kaoss Pad and he used the two for various audio modulation duties.
Karl's work area was in the centre, where he had his own table supporting a Roland Cube 15x amp, Eventide Harmoniser PitchFactor, MXR EQ and Pioneer CDJ-1000MK3 CD player. Also on his table were two Ebows and a pile of note books that he used as lyric resources.
The DAW system, represented by two large monitor screens, was between Karl and Brian, where there was just enough room for Peter Chilvers to work.
Leo Abrahams was seated on the right of Karl, and had his own table supporting a Mac Book Pro from which he could access his sound library. On the floor in front was an array of guitar pedals wired into one another. An Electro-Harmonix Ring Thing modulator was feeding a Earthquake Devices Rainbow Machine pitch shifter/modulator, which in turn fed the input of a Boss PS3 digital pitch shifter. The out from the PS3 fed into a Pigtronix Echolution 2 multitap modulation delay, and the rig also included an expression pedal.
"Leo really understand those boxes, as well as that guitar," says Brian. "It's not like he plays guitar and sticks a few funny noises on, he works with those sounds and spends a long time developing them so they are really part of the instrument."
The poet, Rick Holland, took up a position on the far right, just in front of a long work desk and tool rack, so as not to interfere with the movements of the musicians.
"He was writing down lyrics and phrases as the session progressed, and leaving them on Brian's plinth," explains Peter Chilvers. "Usually short phrases, a line or two at a time in large letters, and Brian picked the ones that he felt like singing or speaking. Brian was keen that the voice was an early presence in these recordings rather than something bolted on later over an instrumental. Having lyrics to hand made that process far more immediate. Karl was also providing lyrics, and sometimes he and Rick were responding to each other. In some cases, Karl was also playing recorded voices from his CD player."
One of the main requirements of the session was that a large number of instruments and microphones had to be permanently connected so that they could be used at anytime. This was so that the musicians could freely follow whatever idea came to them in the moment. It was also necessary to be able to adjust the monitoring levels without going near a software control panel or affecting the recording, and the monitoring needed to have zero latency.
A further complication was that it had to be possible to send any of the instruments off to a physical effects chain, such as that of Brian's Alesis Air Fx and Korg Kaoss pad, without passing through the software, so that the output of the effects chain could be captured separately.
To make all this possible, Peter installed two Focusrite Octopre preamps, and a Liquid Saffire 56 multichannel Firewire interface. The Liquid Saffire acted as the computer interface for the audio, but also passed the raw signals on to a Mackie CR-1604, which provided sixteen channels that could be added to the monitoring mix at any time. The setup also enabled Peter to send the monitoring mix back into the computer, which provided the team with a valuable mix reference.
Strips of masking tape stuck across the top and bottom of the CR-1604 had been labelled so that Peter could see at a glance which inputs were routed to each channel. Brian's vocal mic, a Shure SM58, was on channel one and Karl's was on three, but input two was a spare mic channel reserved for another source. Brian's Numark CD player, and Karl's Pioneer were given stereo channels each. During the session both musicians were feeding samples into the mix from these and using effects like stutter to process them. According to Peter, the female vocals that were being mixed in during our visit had been recorded to CD earlier that very day by Karl.
Another input was marked Karl Radio and was reserved for a radio which Karl would randomly tune in and out from time to time.
The remaining inputs included a spare channel, plus ones for Karl's guitar, the stereo feed from a Mackie Micro Series 1202 sub mixer, and Brian's laptop computer from which he fed a number of pre-prepared loops. The mixer's two send channels were assigned to the Kaoss Pad's left and right inputs respectively so any combination of the main mixer inputs could be fed into it (and the Air FX), and an auxiliary channel was used for the return.
Although no click track was used to keep the musicians in time during the sessions, usually there was some kind of loop providing a rhythmical base or regular pattern. One the occasions when a loop was not used, however, the musician's simply kept in time with each other in the old-fashioned way.
"When we had a nine-piece band in here there wasn't even a loop," insists Karl. "There was drums, percussion, three keyboards, three guitars, bass player and five of us singing. That's really exciting. I've worked with sequencers for over twenty years, and whilst it is great to know where the beat is coming round, you only need to be close to the drummer to know what the groove is and be in the groove. It's actually quite restrictive to have the click coming from those things in your ears, just so you can lock to the beat, and they disconnect you from the sound.
"I feel it should be more of an exploration, where you can say, 'Now we are going to stay here for a while because the drummer's playing great, let's just hang on and give him some space."
A HAPPY WORLD
In the final analysis, Someday World feels exuberant and exhibits a likable energy with its intertwining synth and guitar lines and restless rhythms. The enthusiasm of Karl and Brian was very apparent at the interview session and clearly the positive experience both had of improvising together has made its way into the album recordings.
"It's a rare find when you come across somebody that you connect with in such a way that there is not a lot that needs to be said, and that is what I have found working with Brian, and in working with Fred and Leo as well," concludes Karl.
"When we got together in that little room through the winter and started to make it into pieces that were more complete, I suppose you could say it was good fun. It sounds a bit crass to say good fun but it was extremely good fun, continuously, every day.
"Coming to work on this record I'd do a four hour round journey home and back, which should really have made me quite miserable, but I love working with Brian. So I was just happy all the time creating that album in that tiny room. I was waiting for the day where I wouldn't be happy but I gave up waiting because it wasn't happening!"
Brian agrees, but can't resist joking about it. "It was a very nice experience, which is why the album is so ridiculously joyful. We are trying to correct that with this new work, so we'll look like the grim, industrial victims of modern technology that we really are!"