Today I found a quiet corner and listened to ‘Alistair The Optimist’ again. As I listened I thought back over the recording process and the fun we (mostly) had while making the album. Here are some of my thoughts…
The album was recorded over 3 days in August 2011 at Cross Leaze Farm Studios near Bath. The studio was built and is owned by Charles Grimsdale, who my band mate Matt had met through the local music scene. We met Charles and he kindly offered to record the album with us – for free!
We all agreed that we should try and capture as many tracks as we could over one long weekend, and to do this Charlie suggested we set up the band to record a live session. This turned out to be a fantastic idea as the studio (a stone C17th barn with views across a gorgeous green valley) suited a live and mainly acoustic vibe, just what we thought we were after.
In the end we managed to record the basic live performances of all ten songs that weekend, as well as vocal and guitar overdubs. Of course my drum set up had to be adapted to my new playing style. I was no longer able to use the foot pedals and my strength and coordination in my upper body were on the wain, my stamina was also becoming a problem. We overcame these problems by setting up the bass drum on it’s side next to the snare so I would be able to play simple rhythms with my drum sticks – additional percussion was overdubbed my me afterwards (or Alex when I became too tired). Also, we had written (by accident or design?) short and uncomplicated songs which certainly made my drumming role a lot easier.
I am amazed by how much we achieved during the three days at the studio and also by the quality of the finished tracks. Of course we had a few tricky moments, particularly at the beginning of the sessions when our lack of confidence in the songs and our own parts really shone through.
We were very under-prepared for the recording sessions and at times it showed. Alex, Jez, Jim and I had met up for three rehearsals beforehand but the entire band had never played the songs through together before we started the live recording session! In fact Paul and his guitar had only just flown in from the states the day before and Matt had been on holiday.
I am pretty sure the whole weekend would have been a disaster had Jez, Paul and I not spent a long time figuring out arrangement ideas, sharing lyric and chord sheets and compiling a spreadsheet called ‘who’s playing what and when’. Bizarrely, the preparation we did for the album did feel very reminiscent of my teaching career – I felt like I was planning a series of lessons……rock n roll!
After we had finished the recording sessions, the lengthy and at times difficult process of post production and mixing began. We added more guitar, harpsichord, zither, ukulele, dobro and percussion parts and also wrote a few string parts which were beautifully played by Catherine Strauch and Maria Beaven. At this point the album went ‘transatlantic’ as Jon Nachez (California) – horns, and Kathryn Calder (Vancouver) – backing vocals, added their talent to the mix. Kathryn is an established singer/songwriter and member of acclaimed Canadian band ‘The New Pornographers’ and it was simply brilliant that she offered to help with the album. Kathryn got in contact with me via facebook after hearing about the ‘Incurable Optimist’ campaigns.
She had lost her mother to MND/ALS a couple of years ago and was really excited about the album. Kathryn was very busy and getting ready to go on tour, but she found time to run down to her friends studio and record some beautiful vocals for three of our songs.
The album was mixed by a host of volunteers including members of the band, Richard Wilkinson (offered his services after seeing an ‘Incurable Optimist’ poster on the Tube), Graham Pickford (sound engineer/producer and friend of Jim), Charlie Grimsdale (with Patrick Phillips and a memorable visit to Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios) and Paul Lane (recording engineer and colleague of Jim’s).
All fine and talented gentlemen who gave their time and expertise and sprinkled magic dust over all our mistakes. Eventually the 10 tracks were ready for mastering (I still don’t understand this ‘dark art’) and sent up to Jay at KJAMM in Nottingham and then either uploaded to various digital platforms by Ditto Music or replicated to CD by John at Double Vision Group. I asked friend Marcus Walters at New Future Graphic if he would create the album artwork as he is a genius artist and designer.
I love the artwork and think it ties in with the flavour of the music. I was keen to have all 6 members of the band on the cover as this project was all about friends working together, against time and in order to realise an ambition. With my name in the title I was especially focused on communicating that this was a band and not a solo record.
So that’s it. I won’t bore you with explanations about the meanings and inspirations for each song… think I’ll leave that for another time. However, I will just add that Jez, Matt, Paul, Alex and Jim are all incredibly talented musicians and song writers, close and loyal friends, and time spent with them is always treasured.
I hope you enjoy the album.