You can listen to DS on SoundCloud and share our tracks with your friends at soundcloud.com/distantsignal/
You can now listen to the Shotgun Orchestra EP on YouTube.
We’re currently practising for a Jonny Flame tribute gig in aid of Help for Heroes, a charity you’ve probably all heard of.
For percussion, there’s no better choice than Pete: a long time friend and Monkey Farmer who previously played drums for us at the Flapper and Firkin when Jon was on his first tour. Jon taught Pete to play, and Paul and I were in El Kermito, a fast paced punk band with Pete on the drums. So there’s a musical connection to pick up on as well as years of friendship. Even more than that, Pete has attended most of our studio sessions, helping out with the drum tech and giving his encouragement and opinions during recording and mixing. He’s always been at the front of the crowd gamboling and throwing his shoes: the traditional signs of music appreciation. I’m proud to say that he’ll be behind the kit from now on.
But we do want to get this right, and it takes a lot of practice to learn a full set of songs. So that’s what we’ve been up to. No matter whether you fill stadiums or spend five years in the studio recording a double album, 95% of being in a band is practice. If you can’t enjoy playing the same song for three hours whilst standing in a stale smelling room with no windows, you’d be better off taking up watercolours.
At Apex Rehearsals, they had a poster up for a while that warned about the dangers of excessive loud noise – obviously to your hearing but also its potential to cause feelings of anxiety, depression and dread. Dread! When you get to practice everyone is keen to warm up, to test out a new setting on their distortion pedal, to throw out the new riff they’ve been working on or pound a syncopated beat. The golden rule for any band practice, whether you’re a marching band, a ukulele orchestra or doom-sludge metallers is that when someone is trying to talk everybody stops playing and listens. Otherwise, you’re never going to be able to identify what you need to work on, drill specific sections of a song or come up with new ideas and sounds.
We started to say that we could feel the dread coming on whenever a practice threatened to turn bad. Being interrupted can be frustrating, and it’s a normal part of conversation. Imagine how helpless you feel being cut off by 120 watts of amplified riffage! And since you can’t be heard you end up sullenly noodling along and drown out everyone else’s thoughts. It can quickly descend into a mess. Of course, it’s easy to wave your hands and say, “let’s try it again”, but the dread remains and the productive feeling is gone. I’m sure this is why many bands split up. As you mature individually and become more professional as a band, it becomes a thing of the past.
For me, practice is often a great time to catch up and have a laugh, it’s like having a kickabout or playing poker. It’s something we do as friends. But it’s only truly satisfying when you hit a gallop and the four of you play with ease and the song comes through naturally. A song is only half-written until you play it with the band, even if you have all of the chords, the lyrics and the melody. You were given that song for the band to play: more than anyone you listen to, or anyone who teaches you, it’s the band that informs your sense of what can be both imagined and played. When you hit one of these strides, with enough practice and awareness you can listen to yourself, not having to think about what you’re playing, only responding to the beat and changing your attack to emphasise the rhythm. Everyone finishes the song with a grin.
But this is often a frustration in itself, because you want people to hear what you’ve done then and there. The satisfaction of a new song going down well at a gig is probably the best feeling, but even then you know that the song is still transitory: it exists in the practice room and is at best half-remembered by the audience. So you have to record it to have some sense that it’s a finished thing, and make sure that recording means what you want it to mean.
You have to be able to step back and count your blessings. If you practice regularly, you may not notice much improvement from one day to the next. Sometimes it may even seem that you’re heading backwards. But then you listen to something you recorded six months, maybe a year ago and realise that you’ve covered a huge distance… maybe without really trying. What drives you on then is to see the vision complete, or at least as complete as your time and talent and cash will allow. We say we practice to become better, to improve, but practice is what allows us to say we’re in a band: it gives us the opportunity to try new things with old songs and old things with new songs.
The first thing we’ll probably do once we’ve gotten set up is have a talk with the producer about the kind of sounds we want, and other bands and musicians whose sounds we admire. We might listen to a few tracks with us all in the room, so we all know where we’re starting from.
Then we roll the tape and record a few takes. The first one’s a warm up but we record it as you never know, it may be a keeper. By the time you get into the studio you should practically be able to play the song backwards. There are two reasons for this: time is money in the studio and you have to be able to play unself-consciously as a band to hit a musical gallop. Adam sings a vocal as we play so that we get fully into it and respond to the lyrics musically but, due to noise bleed from the instruments, we’ll probably throw that vocal out.
Once we’ve got a handful of good takes we return to the cockpit and sound them out. Often a take can be discounted straight away if one of us feels we didn’t play at our best. It’ll take a few listens to find the best one. If we’re happy we can move on to the next song, if not we go back and do it again.
We’re listening for something that ‘rides’… when everyone is playing in full flow. We always go for this, but perhaps have managed best in the last couple of minutes of ‘Shotgun Orchestra’. This is why we play live and don’t layer our tracks to the metronome. It’s the kind of rhythm you can only hit when each musician is responding to the others all the time. That’s not possible when something is pre-recorded or programmed.
Once the core of the music is in place we try new ideas and guitar and keyboard overdubs. Even though we may have played the track hundreds of times by this point, we always think of a twist once we’re in the studio and have the freedom to try anything out.
Satisfied with this, we go home and keep listening to the material and thinking about it. Paul and I will cook up sound effects and perhaps program some detail on a laptop. Part of the ethos of Distant Signal is that we come at things from a slanted perspective: beautiful things have a small piece of their own destruction built in to them. On top of this, recording is in some ways an artificial process and we want to show that without completely deconstructing the song: the song should be good enough to hold. There’s tension between our desire to make the process as natural as possible and the possibilities that arise when you embrace the unnatural aspects of music-making. Strange things can be achieved through computers and the thousands of recording techniques developed over the last hundred years.
One of the reasons the backing vocals are so aggressive on our earlier recordings of ‘Bathtub of Acid’ and ‘Knee Deep in the Dead’ is that I found it difficult to sing without playing the guitar or having the rest of the band around me. When you’re standing alone by the mic it feels completely different to playing in a band. It’s something you get used to. In that session, Paul took me into the sound proofed drum room and told me to scream all of my anxiety out. It worked, and has never really bothered me since, though my voice was pretty hoarse for the rest of that session.
Once the vocals are done we listen again, exchanging ideas on the treatment of sounds and the overall effect we’re trying to achieve. Mixing is a vitally important art, but much of the work to be done is not subjective, it just needs to be done to achieve clarity and power. During this stage the engineer uses well-trained ears to eliminate frequencies that overlap, or impinge on other instruments. When this happens it creates a kind of disrupted soundwave that means the mix becomes muddy and loses its power. Speakers have a limited capacity for expressing sounds at different frequencies and volumes, so the engineer has to be mindful of where everything sits and what should come to the foreground at various times and on the spectrum between deep sounds and higher pitched sounds. Everything plays its part. While your home stereo speakers deliberately colour the sound for warmth (a mix of deeper frequencies and distorted harmonics that sound pleasing to the human ear) the studio speakers used by the engineer are designed to colour the sound as little as possible, so he or she can be aware of exactly what is going on.
While we often take part in this process, after a certain point it’s best to leave the engineer in perfect quiet. So we’ll probably head back to the recording room and have a chat and a couple of beers. Jon brought his laptop and the film version of Silent Hill (an old PlayStation game that has influenced us) to the last Shotgun session so we watched the most gruesome bits of that. This clip is about a nice man called Pyramid Head.
When there’s a chance to make the mix musically expressive or there are aesthetic choices to be made, we return to the mixing room. It’s important to listen to the results both at ear-splittingly volume and a ‘don’t breathe’ hush. Otherwise you can’t tell whether it’s the natural appeal, harmonics and apparent clarity of high volumes that’s doing the work and not the mix. When the mix is done we usually finish mastering it elsewhere. Then the process of physically making the CD and distributing it begins.
Sometimes we forget how strongly film influences our music. As we play a song, a stream of scenes and cinematic images come to mind, and I hope the same is true for the audience. ‘Mexico’ calls on the imagery of a road trip, a cross between Pulp Fiction and From Dusk ‘Till Dawn. ‘Shotgun Orchestra’, with its chorus of “Redrum, redrum, look how far we’ve come” looks to Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining, itself an allegory for the murder and marginalisation of Native Americans.
Today I thought it’d be a good idea to discuss the references in ‘January Embers’ in a little more detail. The song engages with Stephen King’s IT which is, frankly, a fucking terrifying film. Tim Curry plays a demented clown wreaking havoc in a small town, and on the lives of a group of close friends. It’s evil and I don’t recommend you watch it, but anyway here’s a clip of it:
The periods in the song refer to different times in the film and the characters’ lives, spanning the distance from childhood summer to adult autumn:
“Summer heat, melted face paint;
Trick or treat, they all celebrate”.
The reference to a paper boat spinning down a drain becomes clear once you’ve seen the film. My favourite bit is when Henry Bowers, the two bit thug, is locked up in a mental ward and Pennywise the clown appears in the moon to talk to him, which surely should be a confirmation that the asylum is the best place for him. This sequence spawned the lyrics:
“Moonlight messages, they’re fucking with your eyeballs!”
After the instrumental erupts in the heat of these horrific scenes, we escape towards more serene imagery and sounds, nodding the head to a Guy Maddin dream world. If you’ve ever wondered what Paul and I sing during the breakdown, it is the mantra: Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, which I suppose I’d want to be our solipsistic link to another kind of filmic experience. Here’s a clip of stills from that film soundtracked with some ambient music:
Unfortunately, the illusion cannot hold beyond the middle eight, and the reverie collapses back into horror references. Which gives us a good reason to riff onwards. The nursery-rhyme keyboard part that follows the dying feedback of our guitars is not the consolation it seems: it is the clown’s theme. I remember coming home from school one day and walking up to my bedroom. As I entered, I heard that riff coming from nowhere and nearly bricked my pants. Adam was hiding in the wardrobe with a tape recorder.
There are many other references on the Shotgun Orchestra EP.
iTunes Download: http://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/shotgun-orchestra/id426688169
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On the 16th of July, Jon was tragically killed during a reassurance patrol in Afghanistan. He gave us many bright memories and brought many loyal friends together. We will be playing a tribute gig to raise money for Help for Heroes, featuring Pete on drums, one of Jon’s close friends. Please watch this space and thank you for your support. You can also sponsor the band members to complete the Tough Guy challenge in aid of the same charity.
For your pleasure:
- Teeth Marks
- Born to Die (Lyrics by Donkhole)
- I Just Wanna Eat Your Heart (Lyrics by Freddie Fisher)
- Knockin’ on the Ground
Listen carefully for Paul’s shout out to Kit Kats before Teeth Marks starts.