Following the success of their recent ‘Best Of’ album, James’ first single for over a year was much anticipated — especially as it saw them renew their relationship with production legend Brian Eno. Tom Flint reports.
People often point out that the band James have been around for a very long time — but then they were saying that even back in 1991, when the huge success of the single ‘Sit Down’ transformed the group into a stadium act at the height of the Manchester-dominated ‘baggy’ era. James had already been active for the best part of a decade by then, and had a clutch of commercially released records to their name, including a couple of EPs on the seminal Manchester Factory label, home for so long to New Order and the Happy Mondays. They had even, despite their relatively low profile at the time, undertaken support slots for The Smiths (Morrissey even went on record at one point saying James were his favourite band). You could say they were just latecomers to success.
Of course, the days when The Smiths ruled the indie charts have long since passed, the Factory label no longer exists and many of those bands who rose to fame during the baggy late ’80s and early ’90s are a distant memory, or faded photocopies of their former selves. Nevertheless, James have kept going, never quite reinventing themselves, but constantly tweaking their own anthemic type of pop just enough to keep pace with the changing sound of modern productions. Proof of their enduring appeal came only last year when their hugely successful Best Of… album reached the coveted number one spot in the UK album chart.
This month, James (currently a seven-piece band comprising keyboardist Mark Hunter, vocalist Tim Booth, drummer David Baynton-Power, backing vocalist Michael Kulas, violinist Saul Davies, bassist Jim Glennie, and lead guitarist Adrian Oxaal) return with their eighth studio album, Millionaires, produced once again by eclectic sound sculptor Brian Eno, whose distinctive touch graced the band’s earlier Laid and Wah Wah albums. For the task of mixing the album, the group hired engineer and producer Dave Bascombe, whose previous production and mixing credits include work with Depeche Mode, Tears For Fears, Echo And The Bunnymen and The Lightning Seeds. Bearing in mind Eno’s reputation for creative sonic experimentation and Bascombe’s uncanny knack of producing lively pop mixes, the nature of the first single release from the album comes as no surprise. Entitled ‘I Know What I’m Here For’, the track is cunningly awash with inventive sonic ideas, but also possessed of a tremendously catchy tune. The single was released in July 1999, but work on the track first began when the group arrived at Ridge Farm Studios in May 1998 for a one-week recording session working with engineer Ott (best known for his engineering work on the Embrace track ‘All You Good Good People’).
Over the past couple of years, several members of James — for example Saul Davies — have taken to working pretty much alone at home, making initial demos in their home studios which they then bring to the rest of the band. This process continued throughout the Millionaires sessions, with much work being added to songs in band members’ homes and then being brought back to the commercial studios where work on the album was progressing. The new single was one such track. Sketched out at Saul’s house in Scotland with just a guitar, a drum machine, and a rough Tim Booth guide vocal, ‘I Know What I’m Here For’ was one of several home recordings the band brought to Ridge Farm with the intention of working them up into full band recordings. Almost immediately, however, the plans changed. Drummer David Baynton-Power, who produced James’ Whiplash album (see the SOS feature August 1997) takes up the story…
Ridge Farm — Drums & BVs
Baynton-Power: “We were going to try out a few songs, to get some parts recorded that would be worth keeping, but in the end we just decided to work on ‘I Know What I’m Here For’ and get it really good rather than ending up with four or five sketches. We had no concept of how the song should be at that time, we just thought we’d see what would happen.”
During the Ridge Farm sessions, all the members of the band were on hand apart from vocalist Tim Booth, who was unavailable for the week. The band recording was built around a short rhythm loop prepared by keyboardist Mark Hunter. Baynton-Power elaborates: “Mark had a nice vibey loop, which remained in the background all through the track on the final mix; we just wanted something more inspiring than the tick-boom of the drum machine on the demo. Mark went through the bank of sounds on his Emu e64 sampler and found that one-bar sample loop, which he triggered from an Atari. It was just looping to the tempo which was about 103bpm at the time.”
In traditional fashion, the first item to be recorded was the drum track, on a Remo Mastertouch kit set up in a room at the back of Ridge Farm. Baynton-Power: “There’s a big wooden barn there with a loose, warm sound, not too sharp or brittle.” Engineer Ott set up the drum mics using an AKG D12 on the kick impact spot, a Neumann U47 outside the kick pointing in, a Shure SM57 on the top side of the snare, a Neumann KM84 on the hi-hat, two more KM84s on overheads, Sennheiser 421s on the toms, and two Neumann U87 mics set up to capture room ambience. To ensure a consistent drum sound which could feature high in the mix, Ott applied several compressors to the drum tracks: the studio’s Urei 1178 compressor on the overheads, a Dbx 160 on the toms and kick, a Urei 1176 to handle the snare, and the studio’s SSL desk compressor on the ‘hi-hat’; though in fact Baynton-Power had modified his kit slightly, and was using a stand-mounted tambourine to play the eighth notes rather than the hat. He also used Hot Rods instead of drum sticks. “They’re like little bits of thin dowling wound together in a bunch with shrunk plastic — halfway between a brush and a stick. Instead of getting a donk, you get a bit more of a splat.” he explains.
To give Baynton-Power something to react to, the band played along — and they used their own monitors rather than headphones. Unsurprisingly, Ott describes the situation as “a bit of a handful, until I worked out how to cope with it. Dave had this great big foldback wedge pointing at him in the drum room blasting out kick drum at everyone. It worked a treat, even though we had spill from the band on everything!”
With the band recording live in the studio to 2-inch analogue multitrack, it was important to make sure everyone and everything kept in time for future recording purposes. Ott: “Mark’s got his keyboard rig with a Clavia Nord Lead, Korg Wavestation, Atari ST, Emu e64 and a Roland drum machine. I sent him MIDI Clock from my computer setup in the control room, which was obviously sync’ed to the code on the multitrack. That kicked off his Atari sequencer with which he runs all the clicks. I recorded their performance to tape and took a feed of their loop into the desk and then down onto its own tape track. I also sent it back out to Dave’s wedge. Dave’s magic on a click — when I played it back later I found he’d stuck to it like glue.”
After recording the band’s performance to tape, Ott transferred the drums onto the group’s Tascam DA88s, and from there directly into his Soundscape hard disk recording system. Baynton-Power explains why: “The Soundscape system interfaces perfectly with the DA88 via the TDIF interface, so we used it to get the drums into Soundscape for editing. Ott did all the Soundscape work. I’d rather someone else did it, otherwise I get to know every little beat and fill and become thoroughly bored with it. Ott pieced together one of the fills from two separate ones I’d done. It was ridiculously complicated; I wouldn’t have done them myself, but I’ve had to learn to play them now!” Ott elaborates on the extent of his Soundscape work: “I did sit there for a few hours chopping the drums about to suit the backing track. I also comped down the guitars, bass and guide vocal. There’s no quantising involved though; it’s basically a whole take with a few repairs. I did as little as possible.”
Apart from the obvious benefits of using Soundscape as an editing tool, Baynton-Power contends that the working method helped to improve his actual performance. “Using Soundscape allows you to play without worrying about getting it perfect. You’re more up for taking chances. You might try a stupid fill you wouldn’t normally do because you’d think you’d get it wrong. You know you can always paste another bit in there, so you play better.”
After the editing on Soundscape, the drums were transferred back onto two-inch analogue tape. Without Tim Booth available to work on his lead vocal, Ott concentrated on recording Michael Kulas’ backing vocals. Baynton-Power: “Mike went to town on the multitrack vocals. During that session he recorded the ‘la la la’ vocal lines you hear at the end of the track. We also found the perfect place to put them in the middle eight.” Ott explains how the BVs were recorded: “The band had their Tascam DA88s set up in a side room to work out ideas. I made a slave reel for Mike, and he went in there with just a horrible little microphone you get free with your stereo, and recorded this amazingly impressive bank of harmonies, completely dry. He’s like a one-man Beach Boys!”
The middle eight section of the song had already been conceived by this stage, and now underwent the first of several stages of processing. Baynton-Power: “We filtered the drum loop through an old Octave Cat synth, using its external input. We did a filter sweep on it and took all the high end out. The track drops down to just the loop, then the low-pass filter opens up. Then my snare comes in doing the big fill. That roll is part of the Soundscape drums track, and it’s three bars long, which is an odd length. I tried to put a bit of a shuffle into it to give it a bit of a groove.”
Another sound effect contributing to the middle eight was a heavily tremoloed Les Paul guitar played by Saul. As Ott remembers it, “Saul has these Coloursound, Boss and Lovetone pedals and a tremolo. When he wants it all to go a bit bananas, he leaps onto his pedals. That’s what’s making the wobbly sound”. Finally, Ott himself added some additional processing: “I put the whole middle eight through a filter on the Eventide H3000; if you listen to the backing vocals and the drums you’ll hear them filtering in the background. That was the last thing I did on that session.”
Hook End — Enter The Eno
By the time work on the track moved to Hook End Studios in July 1998, the loop, drums and most of Kulas’ backing vocals were finished and down to analogue 2-inch tape. The July session was the first of two three-week stints working with producer Brian Eno (the second was in September 1998) who asserted his influence on the track immediately, as Baynton-Power explains: “Brian set himself up at Hook End with his Yamaha DX7, his EMS Synthi VCS3, and a rack of effects units that he likes [see the ‘Eno’s Gear’ box below]. At that point, ‘I Know What I’m Here For’ sounded pretty much like a conventional James track — guitar-driven like ‘Destiny Calling’. The original guide vocal at that tempo was a bit slow-moving, so the first thing Eno did was speed up the tape by about 12 percent! The pitch went up by a tone, but we got away with it. Eno said he thought the rest of the track was all right, but the vocals were too slow. I have to admit that when he first did it I thought it sounded a bit ridiculous, because I was so used to hearing it at 103bpm, but now it was kicking around at 115 or 116bpm. But in fact, that proved to be the key moment. The whole track happened fairly quickly after that. Once the bass had gone down on tape I saw what Eno was getting at by speeding it all up.”
As this quote of Baynton-Power’s indicates, the next Eno-driven addition was a new, prominent bass line played on his DX7 synth through a miked-up amp to Hook End’s Studer A800 two-inch, replacing the previous guide bass recorded at Ridge Farm. Baynton-Power: “Mark and Brian did a live take to two-inch with Mark playing the bass notes on the DX7 and Brian applying the mod wheel. That was great to watch, far more exciting than watching someone moving stuff around on a computer screen. You can hear it in the vibe of the take. Brian hates sequencers; he just does everything hands-on. When he creates a sound, too, he’ll get it exactly how he wants it, and record it with the effects he wants already on it. With everything you’ve got in studios these days, it’s so easy to postpone your decision until a later stage, but Brian just bangs it onto tape and it’s finished. It saves a lot of time later. Everyone who heard the track later thought the bass was an analogue synth, but the DX7’s the only keyboard Brian uses. I think he said that he wasn’t very well once and couldn’t go out, so he got right inside it and learnt how to use it properly. He’s probably the best DX7 man on the planet; he swears by them.”
With the song now running at a faster pace, the feel of the track had changed enough to require some new guitar parts to replace those recorded at Ridge Farm. The first to tape was the toppy-sounding funk guitar which can be heard on the verses, played by Saul Davies on his G&L Telecaster-style guitar. Although the song’s speed change had been agreed, Davies nevertheless recorded the part at the original speed of 103bpm (Baynton-Power: “so it sounded tight when we sped it back up”). Davies also double-tracked the funk part, playing slightly different inversions each time. After these parts were recorded to tape, Eno passed them back out through his rack for some additional processing. Saul then added the track’s heavily distorted, dirty guitar line (which can be heard during the second verse and just before the middle eight, and right at the very end of the finished track), this time using his purple Fender amp recorded via a Marshall 4×12 cab close-miked with a Shure SM57.
The next contribution was again one of Eno’s — and it proved to be one of the song’s major hook lines. The distinctive lead keyboard line appears first at the start of the song, then repeats after the first chorus and middle eight. Once again, it was coaxed by Eno from nothing more than his beloved DX7, and DI’d straight to tape. He also added a VCS3 synth line to the end of the middle eight, coming in under the Baynton-Power’s three-bar drum roll.
The Townhouse — Lead Vocals
Although the backing track was more or less complete, Tim Booth’s lead vocal lines still needed recording. Eno found a spare week in November and recording resumed, this time at The Townhouse in London. According to Baynton-Power, Booth sang his vocals along to the main monitors in the control room without headphones, at Eno’s suggestion, the producer not being terribly concerned about spill into the vocal mic and instead favouring ease of communication with Booth. A couple of mics were used, including a Neumann U47 and even a Shure SM57 for some handheld takes. Eno then started experimenting with the vocoder on his Digitech Vocalist. Baynton-Power: “Brian’s had that Digitech for ages; he always brings it along to a session in the hope that it’s going to do something amazing! In the past, it’s sounded African, which isn’t really what we’re after, but this time he coaxed something out of it that was alright!”. Engineer Alex Haas explains the process: “We sent several recorded vocal tracks to Brian’s rack, where he added whatever treatments he wanted and then sent them back to the desk. We re-recorded the processed vocals onto another track, and then blended the wet and dry tracks together, or just used one of them”. This was how the heavily vocoded ‘Follow me’ section came about, as mix engineer Dave Bascombe explains: “Tim was singing ‘follow me, follow me’ and Brian decided to take Tim’s lead vocal out altogether there and just use the effects. It makes another sort of middle eight break there. He used the same effect behind the lead vocal in the second verse”.
Eden — Mixing It
With the lead vocal in place, the track was deemed complete. Eno now compiled the various parts making up the song on to one 24-track analogue tape. Baynton-Power comments: “Brian doesn’t like to work on anything larger than 24-track; his attitude is that if it can’t be put on to 24 tracks it isn’t worth recording. He’s got a point, hasn’t he?”. Eno’s last task on the single was to prepare a rough stereo mix for Dave Bascombe to work from. This he sent on DAT along with the 24-track tape to Eden Studios, where Dave had chosen to work: “‘I Know What I’m Here For’ struck me straight away as being potentially a great single, and by the time the Eno tapes got to me the track was fairly finished. Brian had done a mix and had sifted through quite a lot of stuff. I referred to his mix for the arrangement.”
At Eden an SSL desk was used, recording to a Studer half-inch and an Otari RADAR. Also involved in the process was Dave’s own collection of gear. “I’ve got a rack with a Mac G3 running Emagic Logic Audio, and also a lot of guitar pedals. I use the Lovetone stuff like the Meatball and Doppelgänger. Those type of pedals don’t like being used on insert points, because the line level is too much for them, so I had them on effects sends. The Meatball was always available on the desk, so if I wanted to try something I could send to it immediately from anywhere. Sometimes if I wanted a specific effect on something I just recorded it into Logic Audio and used a plug-in before feeding it back into the mix.”
Another regular send effect in Dave’s setup was a Leslie speaker cab: “We miked it with a couple of Neumann U87s either side on the top speaker and anything that was knocking around on the bottom one, such as a Neumann U47, AKG D12 or Electrovoice RE20. The bottom speaker didn’t really matter, because I only used a little bit mixed in; otherwise, the sound got very muddy. I had the mics on three channels of the desk; with that arrangement, I could instantly try any guitar or vocal through the Leslie.”
As Dave began work on the mix, some extra material was sent to him by the band on DAT, which Eno had apparently omitted when compiling the master 24-track tape — specifically, Michael Kulas’ ‘la la la’ backing vocals, and more of Saul Davies’ distorted guitar part. Dave Bascombe explains: “After Eno had got it down to 24-track, Saul realised that some of the grungy guitar had gone missing in the process; originally he played it all through the track, and Eno had wiped it, using it only in the chorus. Fortunately, Saul had often taken slaves off to work on at home on his Fostex D80 8-track. He wanted to hear what it sounded like during the rest of the song, so he brought it back in, but the guitar had no timecode and drifted, so we had to put it in the RADAR and snip it around to get it in time”. Dave Baynton-Power advances a possible explanation as to why the backing vocals were also omitted from Eno’s multitrack and mix. “There was a bit of contention within certain camps as to whether those vocals should be used or not. Some people think, ‘brilliant, pop vocals’. Others find them too poppy for their taste, and Brian usually veers towards the more arty side of stuff. But prior to going into Hook End we had played the original Ridge Farm version live a couple of times, and Mark [Hunter] had pulled the backing vocals off to DAT so he could trigger them live. Otherwise, they’d have been history!”.
With the extra guitars and vocals recovered and running on the RADAR alongside the 24-track, Bascombe continued with the mix, applying EQ, compression and effects.”I always EQ individual channels with everything running. Obviously if you solo something and it sounds horrendous, you do have a muck around with it, but it’s got to fit in a mix context. I tried to build the track as quickly as possible, just so I could hear everything and get a balance on it. Then I went through trying stuff out to see if I could make anything sound better. I used the SSL compressor on the overall mix, and a bit of voice doubler from the Eventide H3000 to thicken things up a little bit. I also put Saul’s grungy guitar through the Leslie to make it swirl around a little bit as it was too static, and panned his two funk guitars, one left and one right. Panning is always important to separate things out in the mix; in the middle eight I put the wobbly guitar through the [Audio Design] Pan Scan auto-panner and sent it whizzing around.
“The most tricky thing during the mix was getting the balance between the drum kit, the loop, and Eno’s bass. The drums and the loop balance was fairly crucial, you didn’t want to hear it flamming but you did want to hear them both. I thought the bass was a great Eno sound, and I also noticed that it featured high in the Eno mix. I struggled to get it as loud as possible without letting it dominate everything else.”
Although James were present for most of the mix process, the final version of ‘I Know What I’m Here For’ was mixed later, at one final session. Bascombe: “I played a couple of different versions of the mix to Tim Booth, and we both agreed I hadn’t quite cracked it; there was still a balance problem between the loop and the drum kit. It was the only track I remixed on the whole album, but we did use the new version in the end.” Dave mastered the finished mix onto half-inch tape and handed it over to Mercury Records in good time for its July release.
‘I Know What I’m Here For’ proved to be a complex project, involving Ott, Alex Haas, Brian Eno, Dave Bascombe and the members of James, all working on different aspects of the track. Looking back, Dave Bascombe reflects: “It’s quite an involved process with James, and rather like the way U2 work, from what I gather. They try out shit-loads of ideas, and it can make life very complicated — someone has to log all these little things in their head, or you end up going ‘where’s that bloody guitar we did 10 months ago?’. But it’s using all these snippets, these ideas that have been gathered together over the months, that makes it different, rather than just bashing it on to tape and adding two standard overdubs. When you put it all together, it makes for a very interesting record.”