A couple of months ago, six of the seven-piece No-Man live band got together to start recording a handful of new items. Of these, one had an airing at the 14 Oct 2011 gig at the Leamington Assembly, another was a variation of the same piece according to how we had initially rehearsed it, and another was a demo from Tim. The venue was the Bingham residence near St Ives in Cambridgeshire. He's since moved out. I didn't think we left the place in a that bad a state, but perhaps I'm wrong.
The first advantage of recording in a house is that the musicians are immediately disposed to sitting around in the kitchen chatting. We discussed the possibility of releasing the October gig recording, and this has since become reality. You can get hold of it directly from Burning Shed at http://www.burningshed.com/store/noman/multiproduct/271/2780/, except for the double-vinyl version, which sold out in the first couple of days.
The second advantage of the day was that of the two sound engineers, both UEA music degree students, one was also a drummer. Once I had set up, I could defer all the soundchecking to him, while I sat with the others in the kitchen drinking tea. We subsequently clocked up quite a few hours of sedentary non-music-making, because in technical respects the session did not go well. Eschewing anything so has-been as a mixing desk, we were recording and monitoring entirely through laptop-controlled audio interfaces. We got started, then stopped again and again after hearing mysterious clicks in the foldback - were they or weren't they going to disk? Worse, we seemed to have unlearned the zeroth commandment of hard disk recording, lasered into all our psyches for at least two decades, that thou shalt monitor with zero latency and no higher. Not when there's a drummer around, anyway. 10ms may sound insignificant, but if I try and play a beat when I can only hear the effect 10ms later, it is completely debilitating. Totally impossible to keep time. Everything slows down. With the monitoring resolved, finally we were able to knuckle down to some serious recording at about 7pm. Mike and I had arrived at 10am.
That said, I had a good session. Having not played acoustic drums since the Leamington gig, I had cleverly booked myself into a drum practice room the previous week for an hour a day to get back into shape for a day-long recording.
Whatever my state of practice, so often in a recording studio I have been horrified to sit behind the kit, once familiar in whatever lively drum room I had grown used to, now alien in the acoustic black hole of the recording booth, mics poking everywhere. Not this time. The drums went up in Steve's study, and it turned out to be a really nice familiar-sounding room to play in, as if I had been established in there for weeks. Some combination of hardwood floor under a good thick rug, a sofa and a glass display containing two live snakes seemed exactly the sauce for a comfortable playing environment.
For these recordings I used almost the same kit as the Leamington gig, with a few minor differences, firstly in the cymbals. The splash has now moved straight in front of me. I'm not even sure I hit it on anything that we recorded. Also I brought my cheap and nasty china cymbal. This really is a denied-entry-level specimen, though I find it quirky and therefore useful as brushed ride. Another setup difference is that the roto-tom to the left of the rack tom is now a 10", and I have inserted the 8" roto-tom between the lower toms. According to conventional order this is wrong, it should go somewhere above the hi-hat, but I thought this might suit one of the pieces we were recording, which involved mainly a tom rhythm throughout. Plus it looks fun. Finally, I'm back to using a single bass drum pedal here. I realise that although practice is important, it is not to be confused with performance. I pointlessly included the double pedal in the Leamington gig setup because I had been using nothing else for the 18 months beforehand, but after a couple of months off, I wanted to see if I could go back to enjoying the Pearl pedal I've had for over a decade.
No trouble re-adjusting to it. In fact I think my right foot prefers it. Having nothing for my left foot to do except play the hi-hat made me realise I should be learning to use it properly. In the tom-heavy pattern I developed for one the new tracks, one thing I wanted to do was alternately splash and choke the hi-hat, all with the foot. Maybe by the time we come to play it live I will have mastered that. At the going No-Man rate, that should give me plenty of time to learn it, forget it, re-learn it, retire and recover in time for their fiftieth anniversary.
In order to use this extra roto-tom, I had to spend some time in the shed. A while ago I allocated myself the task of mounting my four hand-playable roto-toms in a consistent way that would encourage me to use them in a kit. Roto-toms are typically sold in 2s or 3s. Each is mounted on the end of a long M12 bolt, and these are tightened onto a long aluminium C-beam. As I lamented before, the trouble with mounting even two drums on a C-beam in this way is that they are not in a comfortably playable arc. I long time ago I sawed a 10cm length off my C-beam for mounting a single roto-tom, which pretty much set the other drums up for compromise or neglect ever since.
You can buy small square pieces of metal with two holes, one for the roto-tom bolt, the other for a smaller bolt for attaching to a cymbal stand instead of the cymbal bolt. I was not keen on this, but have since decided I can spare some 20 year-old cymbal stands for experiments. Rather than do any more shopping, I drilled a hole in another sawn-off C-beam, this time making a diagonal so that the bolt into the cymbal stand could tightened properly. I have always shied away from metalwork on account of fairly sucking at it. However, an ordinary disc of sandpaper on the end of an ordinary power drill can render even my scruffy work convincing and presentable. It almost looks like I got somebody else to do it.
Practice and amateur metalwork combined, I was for once reasonably cheery at how an acoustic drum recording session had turned out, more so when I listened back to the raw material a few days later. It may surprise some of his audience to know that Tim is partial to some mild goofing around. Earlier he had recounted a recent holiday to France where he bought a book on birds in French for his son, and that he was doing quite well learning them himself. Later, with the tape rolling, we were jamming an introduction to one of the tracks with a jazzy feel, light brushes on the drums. Just as Stephen is about to land a downbeat on the piano, Tim announces Les Oiseaux in his deadpan voice-over.
Un... Le Cuckoo
Deux... Le Rossignol
A nature documentary for six-year-olds? A euphemistic enumeration of new positions to try during le jiggi-jiggi? Two months later I'm still chuckling at how he pitched it perfectly between the two.