Improvisations are almost always the seeds for James songs. Before we started our formal recording sessions for what became the Laid album, I spent some days working with the band in their rehearsal room in Manchester, seeing extraordinary pieces of music appearing out of nowhere. It occurred to me that this raw material was, in its own chaotic and perilous way, as much a part of their work as the songs that would finally grow out of it.
The music was always on the edge of breakdown, held together by taut threads, semi-formed, evolving, full of beautiful, unrepeatable collisions and exotic collusions. I suggested that, instead of just working on one record (the ‘song’ record, for which we’d already agreed a very tight schedule) we find two studios next to each other and develop two albums concurrently – one of structured songs, and the other of these improvisations. It seemed pretty ambitious at the time, but we decided to aim for it. Generally, we improvised late at night and in very dim light. We worked on huge reels of tape, so that we could play for over an hour without reel changes.
Strange new worlds took shape out of bewildering deserts of confusion, consolidated, lived gloriously for a few minutes and then crumbled away. We never tried making anything twice: once it had gone, we went somewhere else.
Ben Fenner, who was engineering, attentively and unobtrusively coped with unpredictable instrument and level changes in near-total darkness, leaving us to wander around our new landscapes.
I asked Markus Dravs, who’d worked as my assistant at my place, to come down and occupy one of the studios. I wanted him to look at the improvisations and see what he could make of them while we carried on with the ‘song’ record. We’d select a promising section from an improvisation and he’d investigate it. Using bits of processing equipment and treatment techniques evolved in my studio, he’d evolve new sound landscapes located somewhere at the outer edges of aural culture.
We were initially too busy in the studio to bother him much, which left him free to work with the material in much the same spirit as it was originally performed – by improvising at the console.
As the days passed and there became less group work to do on the ‘song’ record, people spent more time in the wild studio, emerging from the jungle of interconnected equipment in the early hours. We worked very long days, but there was always enough going on to prevent any loss of momentum. Things happened very quickly.
My mixes from the jams were all done in a single afternoon: I was trying to get a little of each jam onto DAT because there was so much new work flying around that it was hard to remember it all. I made fifty-five mixes that day and never mixed anything twice.
I wasn’t expecting that we would use these mixes in the end, but it turned out that this fast, impulsive way of working was right in the spirit of the performances, and the results often make a cinematic, impressionistic counterpoint to the elaborate post-industrial drama of Markus’ mixes. They set each other off well: the combination feels like being at the edge of somewhere – where industry merges with landscape, metal with space, corrupted machinery with unsettled weather patterns, data-noise with insect chatter.