Listening to new JAMES stuff – still muddled and looking for direction, but something dimly emerging. The question : “What is the vision?”
Tidied studios, set up for JAMES visit. Who duly appeared – Tim, Larry and Jim. Played several things, but the nub was them asking me if I could work with them. They seemed to not want to record again until I could do it with them.
To Westside, setting up (tackling the problems of hearing and visibility of seven players in one room) and, as band arrives, listening and making charts of song-starts in hand. Worked on “Assembly” (new chord section) and “Star” (ditto). Home at 11pm.
To studio for 11.45, but whole band not assembled until 1. We talked about making new vocal music over the instrumental discoveries of Wah Wah and after. We started working on a song in that mode – Ambient opening song without any changes over it. Promising – the song was. Also worked on “Darling” and “Make It All Right” (very nice new low-register singing).
Things are going well, but the poor band are tired (too much touring?) They need a lot of pushing. There are so many of us there, and therefore a tendency to submerge compositional problems in sheer density. Mark is brilliant but modest, so his contribution is always heard later (and therefore doesn’t help in the jams). Tim asked the assistant (with flu) to take time off.
On to studio. Today felt like pushing a rock up a hill. I was directing, in detail. That’s fine – we try to get specific, controlled experiments; but it’s hard. I have to get bossy or everything will dissolve. Like many of us intuitives, they have a great ability to start things “by accident” but then it’s hard to improve them “by design”. I guess that’s my “outsider” job. Dave gets frustrated because nobody locks with him, so he’s trying to make all the rhythm in the drums. With a big band, every beat tends to get filled, and, unless expressly prohibited, everyone tends to play all the time. That makes for an evenness of density. Nonetheless, we made “Whiplash” come to rather triumphant life – a very beautiful, wistful song over a machine throb.
Worked today on “Hedex”, “Waltzing Along” and “Avalanche”, for all of which I suggested new arrangements and sections. Things sounded really good. We tried to start at 11.00 but the band were not ready (I got bloody mad); but we did focus and stick to schedule after that, and it paid off. Came home for a brief child break at 6.30 while the guys were having dinner. Could I be as good-natured as them and still keep things moving?
On to studio with fresh strawberries. 1 1/2 hours on “Honest Pleasure”, but no result. Then a jam – really strong, good bass line and great drums and guitar – pure Larry. I suggested we graft “Hey That Muscle” on to the jam, which seemed to work well, and we had a new, tougher thing. Later we attempted “Whatever The Sound”, but it’s basically a dull song with a nice atmosphere. Everyone was tired by the evening – time for a day off.
In the studio everyone was completely passed out. Tim asleep on the sofa, Jim on the worktop, Saul late. Dave had done some late mixes last night. Good old Dave, the grumbling, laughing leek, a dependable spirit. Some OK, some disappointing. Four or five standouts: “Hedex”, “Avalanche”, “Assembly”, “Whiplash”, “Waltzing Along”. When I can listen without hearing the labour pains in the background, it’s good stuff. When I do, it’s strong stuff. The other songs still conceptually smudgy. Playing on most things tired. Saul tending to noodliness.
Worked today on “Home Boy or Girl” and “All One To Me”. The first has some excitement, though not enough personality yet. The second ended up sounding proficiently poppish (and a bit pointless), so I suggested a completely different version – softer, more a cappella, melancholy – which was OK, but then started to think that the basic tune is too normal to do much with.
Interesting watching the dynamics here. Saul, whose sonic contributions are erratic, is essential to the social ecology of the band. He’s the person (with Dave) most likely to say what’s on his mind, but without any rancour (so it doesn’t stir up bad feeling). This opens the door for other people to talk. These two, the most naturally undemocratic and un-polite, are the log-jam busters. Saul’s lively and funny and explosive; Dave’s a dry-witted Welsh sparkler. Both make for life and soul.
At Westside, Tim ill and everyone hard to motivate. “Orson” ground on with me singing a semi-crappy chorus vocal part, but a good instrumental / bridge idea evolved. I suggested the tag go on to the end. Tim suggested having the last chord of the sequence as Bar 1. Weird, I said, but when played it sounded great, unsettling the sequence interestingly.
The difficulty is keeping all those different attentions in one place long enough for a process like that – a process of sculpting – to take place. Later on “Strange Requests” I added a new bass part and some arrangement ideas. All these songs are either one-note-joes or monocycles. Laissez-faire composing – which is not to deny the force of some of the ideas. But songs that don’t depend on composition depend instead on performance – so the fire has to be there in the playing, which it isn’t after several long days work.
After that we went onto “Waltzing Along”, in which I yelled myself hoarse shouting new structure cues over the music. That’s a great song – only they do songs like that. The emotional melange in Tim’s ainging is hard to pin down : yearning, abandoned, intimate, warm and wide-eyed. It’s interesting that he hardly ever sings in bluesy scales, so the result is very English – slightly nostalgic in a nice way.
Worked on “Whiplash”, which shone with brave promise. Also “Honest Pleasure” turned out well with Larry’s new rhythm guitar part. I want Saul to think in terms of sections of strings (hard, when you’re only playing one), but he flits from idea to idea. Poorer musicians are so pleased to find just one thing that they can successfully play that they often contribute more to the architechture of the piece – because other people can then build on what they’re holding in place.
At the studio we worked on “Hedex”, “All One To Me” and “Chunney Pop”. The shock of the day came when Larry produced the fax that Anthea had sent to Peter Rudge referring to my nightly grumbles (to her) about the difficulty of the work. I was excrutiatingly embarrassed. To grumble is one thing, but to have it in writing is another. They, however, were extremely gentlemanly about the whole thing, doing their best to make me feel better.
Dinner in the evening with Peter and Joyce Rudge, Dave Bates and Amira, his Bosnian fiancee. Talking about James, their next record. Jim and Dave have been doing some good work, trying to push the envelope. The problem is that they have made music that doesn’t necessarily involve Tim; it’s good stuff, but hard for a singer. There’s rhythmic and sonic drama, but little harmonic drama for him to respond to. What singers like are shifts of harmonic gravity which they can either float above or succumb to. There’s two different polar types of singers : floaters and drivers. Tim tends to be a floater – some of his best work is when there’s a string vortex set up in the music and he manages to stay in the same place. Gospel singers tend to be divers – sucked down and thrown back up by the music, or engaged in great passions of will and surrender with it. But for either of these you need something other than a harmonic plateau.
Later, a long meeting with James, discussing strategy for their recording, Surprised to discover that they hadn’t been all in the same room together since the Westside sessions. They have a list with something like 30 pieces on them. I reiterated the dinner conversation. I also suggested (on the importance of backing vocals) that they start working with a Digitech Vocalist, so perhaps Tim will have two mikes – one for his normal voice and one for creating instant harmonies via the Vocalist. Pleasant meeting, with the music playing quietly in the background as we talked – anything that caught our attention, we then talked about (a good test – music interesting good enough to stop the conversation).