By this time last year we had finished our first bout of
touring as a trio and felt empowered and invigorated by the
performances. Already, though, our attention had turned
towards the next stage in our development: new
From the outset we were reluctant to go down the
conventional studio route. Our budget was limited and we
didn't fancy piling on financial pressure on ourselves in
addition to the creative pressure which a hot-house studio
atmosphere imposes. "Present" had fallen into our -
admittedly well-prepared - hands and we hoped to achieve
something of the same sort of spontaneity this time, albeit
with much more of a conscious sense of what we were about.
In any event, we weren't sure of what exactly we might come
up with nor, indeed, of how much we might manage to get done
in any given time period.
At some point the Gaia Centre in Cornwall once more came
under discussion and we quickly agreed that there'd be a
logic in going back there, both in terms of the linearity of
our story and in the continuance of the DIY ethic which
usually characterises our rehearsals and recordings.
The Gaia Centre was originally intended as an alternative
energy museum/resource centre. It's a large building
situated in the middle of a wind farm (the first commercial
one in the UK) near the village of Delabole and quite close
to Tintagel Castle and other Arthurian tourist spots.
Unfortunately visitor numbers were never enough to give it a
commercial viability and it closed some time in 2003.
When we first went there in 2006 it was in something of a
mothballed state and we set up in one of the smaller rooms.
It was here, of course, that we made our first exploratory
steps towards trio-dom, working our way through past
repertoire and beginning to shape new material and new
approaches; probing to see if we had a future as Three, in
fact. In the intervening period this room had been taken
over by Cornwall Council as a schoolroom for children who
had been excluded from mainstream schools. We therefore
moved into a large space originally designated as a lecture
We had more than enough room to set up in stage format, with
HB's Leslie speakers some way off and baffled in by noise
screens. More of these also provided some separation for
drums from organ and piano/guitar. The desk (a modest
Soundcraft), outboard, interfaces, computers and drives were
then placed on tables in the centre of the room. I had a
separate laptop set-up at the side for editing. Both for
acoustic and aesthetic reasons we flew blankets from the
roof girders. Moving a sofa from elsewhere in the building
finally gave us the semblance of a control room in the
middle of the space.
For "Present" the bulk of the recording responsibility had
fallen to me, with HB also pitching in. This time Guy got
the main engineering role, though all of us contributed
various bits of hard- and software to the mix. Since we were
recording to computer the main initial thing (apart from
getting a decent sound, obviously!) was to ensure that we
weren't putting things down too hot and Brain did a
fantastic job in setting up original settings which only had
to be slightly tweaked for each piece as we went along.
Although the organs and my instruments were played (quietly)
through amps in the room we actually recorded them direct,
so that the drums were the acoustic element of each take.
It took us the best part of the first day to get ourselves
set up, ready and running - pretty fast work! Quickly we
were ready to get down to business.
In the intervening period between our Spring touring and the
July sessions we'd exchanged many CDs and files of material
through the post as we attempted to establish what kind of
record we were going to make. Some of the ideas we swapped
were mere sketches, others much more developed; some were
more or less completed ideas. By the time we arrived we had
a couple of CDs with the main contenders tracked up and so
had an inkling, at least, of what we were heading into.
We began by working on "Over the Hill", even though it only
had gestures towards lyrics at this stage. This was a piece
which had grown organically from a couple of tunes HB had
originally sent me, which I had added to and sent back to
him for further work...and so on. We were fairly clear and
determined that this one should be in the mix from the
outset...it is, of course, the closest to a "traditional"
VdGG piece in the collection. Saying that, our arrangement
and playing heads had to be bolted on pretty rapidly and
firmly in order to get the job started, let alone done.
We worked on it in four sections. (Shades of sessions from
the era of "Pawn Hearts"....) Very, very speedy work: once
we'd established what we were meant to be doing, we
immediately went into record mode and simply did take after
take until we felt we'd got The One. Generally, we'd have
the same feeling about the takes but of course we then had
to listen through for confirmation or perhaps, to discover
that actually we needed to go through it again, for musical
or, rarely, technical reasons. Files were then copied over
from one hard disc to another for safety and we pressed on
to the next passage.
After the first couple of days we'd completed the backing
track for "Over the Hill". Although it was still in separate
pieces and of course absent of vocal it was immensely strong
in itself and had laid down one angle of marker at least for
the nature of the work we'd undertaken. Significantly, for a
"big" number, we felt comfortable bringing things down to a
gentle level both in the middle of the song and at the end.
We had also established our system of working. We'd get to
the centre at 10 or 11 and work consistently to 6 or 7 in
the evening, with a brief pause for lunch. Then back to our
holiday home in Camelford, where we'd have our
(self-catered, boys on holiday style) evening meal, a glass
of wine or three, a bit of editing/comping/analysing what
we'd done during the day (oh, the joy of laptops and
firewire drives!) and then to bed ready for an early
So we pressed on. "Interference Patterns" was next and this
*did* have a set of lyrics already prepared. This piece had
a direct connection to Gaia: it originated in an
improvisation during our first visit in which we'd flipped
around the discovered riff from one time signature to
another in something of an unconscious manner. When I began
preparing it for further work I discovered that colliding
the two versions and time signatures produced a third,
phantom, riff. Eureka!
Once we'd locked into playing this we really knew that we
were getting somewhere and also that we were stretching
ourselves, while gritting the teeth in dogged concentration.
It was one thing to have set up a sequence in which the
contraflow worked, quite a challenge to play it live once
we'd apportioned the parts. In places I think the three of
us are playing completely independent of each other,
sustained only by the internal count which *in theory* means
we'll meet up together in x bars time. Good fun.
One piece followed another, day by day. We waited to record
"All that Before" and "Lifetime" until at least half-way
through the sessions, feeling slightly intimidated by both
of them. When you know that you've done at least a couple of
pretty decent live performances of songs it's a bit daunting
to attempt the Definitive Versions. "Before" really had to
have some weight and "Lifetime" a great delicacy in order to
succeed. In the end neither proved too painful; and both had
benefited from the live outings. They'd also served the
purpose, in that context, of staking out some of the
territorial limits of our musical map.
We made a few sonic detours along the way but fundamentally
stuck to the plan of recording discrete songs. It was only
later that we realised that several of these came in at
around the five minute mark. Some things which might appear
a tad throwaway - I'm thinking particularly of "The
Hurlyburly" and "Drop Dead" - seemed, even at the time, to
have an important contribution to make in counterbalancing
some of the other, more dense material. Equally, it was a
great pleasure to put down a recording of bare simplicity
like "Only in a Whisper"; undoubtedly the DNA of a piece
like this had been established, again, in our initial visit
Some of this music required intense work, some came very
naturally, albeit strangely: the main riff for "Not Here",
for instance, was one which came to me in a dream (in which
I struggled to master it). In any event, all seemed correct,
fresh and exciting.
After a fortnight, we were done and drove away (cars laden
down to the axles with the weight of our equipment) with CDs
of rough mixes to listen to on our long drives home, knowing
that we definitely had the basis of The Album. It had been
an extraordinarily intense period of work which exceeded all
our expectations, while challenging us to come through with
post-prod work of equal vitality.
There was much more to do, of course: the next phase of
private study/overdub took place in our respective home
studios. Some extra parts had always been envisaged - a
couple of bass parts for HB, some guitar for me, some
percussion extras. All of us quickly came to the conclusion,
though, that we already had prime examples of the three of
us playing together as a unit in real time and that it
would be a great shame to compromise the force of this by
getting into over-dub-itis. The essence of the recording, as
of the group, is live playing and interaction, often by the
skin of the teeth. It's probably this approach which has
made it comparatively simple for us to translate this -
often quite difficult - music into performance on stage.
Once all the files had been assembled, lyrics written and
vocals dubbed I began the mixing job. This ended up being
quite an extended process, with work-so-far often being sent
out to HB and Brain for comment and reaction (which they
were neither slow nor too bashful to proffer, naturally!).
Gradually it moved towards completion. In the final stages
both HB and Brain came to Terra Incognita to work through
final wrinkles, final nudges; in some cases to port across
whole chunks of drumkit processing. Finally, cooked to our
satisfaction, the album was ready to enter the world....
An addendum: the giant wind turbine structures which
surround Gaia had been a constant, near-animate, presence
for us on both visits. It was only on the penultimate day
that we realised we hadn't recorded the whoosh of the
blades. Hikers of a nervous disposition might, then, have
been shocked by the sight of Brain and myself manouvering a
one-man tent (which had served as chill-out room in the
studio space) under the pylons to create a makeshift studio
from which to record the beating blades, as evening wind and
rain began to close in. This is the sound which opens and
closes the album; one which has special and continuing
resonance for each of the three of us.