Got to Onecat Studio in Brixton at nine to set up. We had a recording session a year ago to record some drums and harp and then I just dropped the ball completely and no work has been done on the album since then.
Rhodri arrived at ten, bass guitar in hand, and we started off by adding the bass guitar part to ‘Bad Joke’, which Ben had recorded the drums for during that 2009 session. ‘Bad Joke’ was written for an independent film called ‘Peacock Season’ but that doesn’t seem to have ever seen the light of day. I like the song though and it gets a good response live so we’re recording it anyway. Rhodri came up with some nice flourishes to play during the chorus which was a relief as I’m hopeless at coming up with imaginative basslines. I don’t really like to inhibit the rock sections of the band by being too prescriptive. When you’re dealing with the densely layered harmonies of the woodwinds, brass and strings you have no choice but to figure out every little lick and flourish in great detail to avoid clashes, but with drums and bass I always have the feeling that the musicians themselves will be able to come up with much better parts than I ever could, and as I am very lucky to have the services of Messrs Marsden and Handysides at my disposal I can afford to be very confident in that regard!
This proved especially the case when we got stuck into ‘An Adventure On The Trans-Carpathian Express Part 1’, the first chapter of what will eventually turn out to be an epic rock picaresque about an eventful train journey. We’ve performed it live once, and it appeared in instrumental form as the overture to ‘Nerdstock’ on BBC4 in January of this year. This first section of the song covers what our trumpeter Steve Pretty astutely termed ‘the most boring leg of the journey: the Kent leg’. At a London railway station, a nine-year-old called Theodore boards what he believes to be the train to his boarding school, but soon after departure he discovers he is in fact on a non-stop service to Constantinople. This first installment of the tale gets him as far as the bridge over the English Channel. Future sections will involve cannibals, spies and magic carpets – yes it is going to be as amazing as it sounds, and lyricist Reggie Chamberlain-King is hard at work on materials for a printed travel almanac that will accompany the final recording.
But first things first: rhythm section. We did this the way we should have done ‘Bad Joke’, by having Rhodri and Ben in the same room playing the song together. Amazingly, considering how many strange changes of tempo, time signature and musical genre the song covers, even in its first four minutes, Rhodri and Ben breezed through the whole thing in single takes. The song starts with a fanfare and march, some pomp and circumstance to introduce the big steam train, then it goes into a jaunty piano-led segment to introduce us to Theodore. I want the song to sound like something from a 1970s album for kids, the kind of thing Bernard Cribbins might have sung, and the first time we played it as a band (in a freezing cold rehearsal on the afternoon of the Hammersmith Apollo gig last December) I tried and failed to explain to Ben and Rhodri the kind of seventies funk vibe I was going for. When in January we rehearsed it again for a show at the Luminaire, I was encouraging Ben to play more fills on the toms when Rhodri said that it was sounding like the theme tune from ‘To The Manor Born’ – that was the key! It was Ronnie Hazelhurst that I was trying to channel all this time. The minute we figured that out there was no need to explain any more, Ben and Rhodri knew exactly what to do. So these verses of narration for Theodore’s character became known in the recording session as ‘the Penelope Keith sections’. We’ve ended up with something which could well pass for the theme tune from a seventies sitcom, so mission accomplished as far as I’m concerned. There’s an orchestra-only passage during which Theodore sings his school hymn to himself for morale, then we enter a dramatic passage for which I had written out an octave bassline which suddenly suggested disco percussion – more spirit of the seventies! It’s not how I imagined it when I wrote it but it’s certainly a lot better. Can’t wait to get the rest of the orchestra in to finish it off.
Other tracks we recorded bass and drums for in the session included The Lady Sleeps (a dramatic setting of Poe’s poem The Sleeper – it was composed for but rejected by my old band Scarlet’s Well and I’ve never liked the thought of it being buried alive so I’m doing it MFMO-style), The Taste Of Hair and three of the songs from the musical Master Flea: The Flea Tamer, The Flea National Anthem and Master Flea’s Song About The Wisdom Of Animals.
With these three strands to the recording becoming apparent (Flea stuff, Trans-Carpathian stuff and context-less bits and pieces) I’m not quite sure what to do with all the recordings when they’re done? Do we make an album that features bits and pieces of all of these projects or do we plough ahead and release them as separate projects? I’d really like to make a Master Flea concept album for kids, maybe get an actor to provide a Happiness Stan-style narration linking the songs. The Trans-Carpathian Express song is one day going to come out as a single recording with aforementioned accompanying travel companion but do I release the episodes individually as part of other albums? For now I’m just going to keep on recording stuff until I run out of money and then figure out how best to make sense of all the material.