Let the Hype Commence

Last weekend I went to see the Magic Lantern launch his new album. It was a solemn and moving occasion, full of good vibes and lovely people. The experience made me wish that I could be like Jamie, and have a big release party for an album that I just recorded with Dean McCarthy.

HOW CONVENIENT. I do in fact have such an album primed for release, and it’s time to celebrate!

BzWTGd_CYAEm7XyArt by the delicious Freya Hartas of course

The two big shows will be in Oxford (Sunday, Nov 2nd) and London (Thursday, Nov 6th). Here’s the wrinkle: we’re setting these shows up through Tigmus, a cool artist-run music promoter that does everything through pre-sales. This means that we need to sell a certain (low) number of (cheap) tickets ahead of the shows, or they won’t happen.

Details of each show are below, but I just wanted to urge you to do everything you can to make these shows as awesome as possible: come if you can, share if you can’t, and let’s have a couple of really, really special nights.

Making this record has been an intense privilege, and I really want to celebrate with as many of you as possible. Please get tickets now and come along!

OXFORD – SUNDAY, NOV 2nd
Our venue for this is the Jam Factory, which some of you will remember as the atmospheric space where we recorded the choir tracks for the album! This time, though, we’ll be upstairs. There will be a piano with Mr. Sam Taplin playing upon it, Ditte Elly will be there with some of her tunes, and The Magic Lantern will be dropping in to pay his respects. Tickets are a measly £4. To buy them, go to http://tigmus.com/, click on the tile which says ‘FaceOmeter – Oxford Nov 2nd’, type in the number of tickets you want, and hit the giant T to check out with paypal. Simple! Please do it in the next 48 hours or the show won’t happen!

LONDON – THURSDAY, NOV 6th
In London, I’m hoping to stop by the Stour Space in order to have good times with a posse of the usual suspects. It’s a miraculous venue in Hackney Wick, which you can see more about here. Guest acts are not all confirmed yet, but I can tell you that the Magic Lantern (whose own album launched last week) is never far away where I am concerned! Tickets are a measly £4. To buy them, go to http://tigmus.com/, click on the tile which says ‘FaceOmeter – TBC, London’, type in the number of tickets you want, and hit the giant T to check out with paypal. Simple!

 

London and Beyond

At somewhat late notice, I’m delighted to announce a short season of shows taking place in London this weekend – and beyond.

Saturday, Oct 4th

My longstanding friend and ally Jamie, who makes music as the Magic Lantern, has a new album out. I’ve had a sneaky preview copy in my car for a few weeks, and it’s a real stunner. Jamie’s politely asked me to play a few songs to open the proceedings at St. Mark’s Church, Culverston Crescent, Dalston at 8pm this Saturday. This will be a cracker, and if you’re in the capital you don’t want to miss it.

Sunday, Oct 5th

I’m making a swift one-off return to the Railroad in order to settle unfinished business with Yo Zushi. It’s their last barbeque of the summer, and it’ll be my last show before the release of my own album! Speaking of which -

Album Release Shows: Nov 2nd+

You can buy tickets RIGHT NOW for my album release shows in London and Oxford, which are to be found through This Is Good Music. In fact, you have to buy them now: these gigs work only on advance sales and won’t take place if there isn’t sufficient interest. So do book now! More shows for that week will be announced soon!

Original Art

Today was another small but important milestone in delivering the album into your loving hands – the arrival of a sofafull of Freya Hartas artwork!

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Brilliant as it looks on screen, this stuff is even more awesome in real life. It was great to see it in the flesh for the first time! Freya’s worked super hard and some of this original artwork will be going out to people who backed the project as part of the rewards. They’ll look great on your wall! Freya’s also made some beautiful A5 and A4 prints of the art which a lot more of you will be enjoying very soon…

Getting Freya on board for this project was the first time I was certain it was definitely going to happen, and she’s been incredible to work with the whole way through. Hopefully, the box full of the actual records is not too far behind this one, so stay tuned!

Festival Announcements

I’m playing two festivals this summer: the Green Man festival near Abergavenny in August, and the Tandem festival near Oxford the weekend after next.  I’m looking forward to both! I’ve wanted to play Green Man for ages, and I went as a punter last year and had a fantastic time – the prospect of playing the 2014 show has been made even more juicy by the presence of the bill of Jeffrey Lewis and Neutral Milk Hotel, two of my biggest influences. I’m on a much smaller stage than them, but it’s great to feel part of the same thing!

The Tandem lineup is great as well, and includes personal friends(/enemies) like James Bell, Matt Chanarin, and Sam Taplin as well as some other wicked people I’ve worked with before – Sam Lee, Count Drachma, and Firefly Burning. Check out their full programme, which includes a page on me. This promotional image is also redolent with promise:

unnamedEspecially if the weather holds up, these are going to be really special events – and I know there are still tickets left for both. I really hope to see some of you there!

Mastering Albums

“Can I just say something else?”, asked Sam. A pall of indissoluble murkiness settled over me; through the train window I could discern the shapes of several hundred ravens flying in an uncanny human skull formation. “Sure”, I said, without really meaning it.

“I think you should re-record the entire vocal”, said Sam. A terrifying wind whipped through the trees, probably because the train I was on had just sped past them at about 100kph. “Hmm”, I said brightly.

As Sam continued to talk, the grim realisation that he was right settled over the carriage. I’d sent him a rush of the last track from Why Wait for Failure? to get some feedback on a very specific artistic issue (the presence or absence of an extra harmony part) and he’d come back with a wider criticism which could not be ignored. The take lacked soul. It lacked vibe. It was a good technical performance, but there was no heart in it. The song itself was highly emotive, but I didn’t sound like a tortured artist clawing at my last vase of prosecco. I sounded, in short, like a guy singing a song.

Had I taken the time to think about it, it’s the criticism I’d have expected from Sam. He does his vocals in one or two takes – I’ve seen it happen – and he always absolutely nails it; his vocals invariably attest to an enormous level of artistic perfectionism without ever quite allowing you to shake the feeling that he’s improvising every word straight from the heart. And heart is the easiest thing to lose in the studio – days are long and tiring, the focus is always on technique, on sound, on individual errors.

But heart was also the most important part of this track, which is the album’s closing thought as well as one of the oldest and most well-liked tunes I’m putting on there. It’s also, unlike the rest of the record, very pared-down: it’s the only track which consists solely of my voice and a single guitar. And it’s the most emotionally raw tune I’ve got. Getting those vocals right was absolutely essential.

But there was a problem with the timing. The recording was meant to be finished. The train I was on (8am on a bank holiday Monday, picture the scene) was supposed to be taking me to a mastering session – all the finished material stacked together, checked for compatibility with your home CD player. The prelude to release. A technical day, not an emotional one. “Dean will kill me”, I whispered, a single tear slipping over my soft cheek. “I can’t help that”, said Sam, sensitively. “It’s him or me, basically”. It’s conceivable that I’m embroidering this conversation slightly.

Recording vocals parts isn’t something you can just do. The AKN 505/7-GCA, which is probably the name of the microphone we use, has to warm up – you have to switch it on, painstakingly arrange all the accessories, and then give it a good forty-five minutes to really come to terms with itself. All this requires moving around, a prospect which Dean doesn’t take kindly to at 8am on a bank holiday Monday. Picture the scene.

“Hello, Dean”, I said, dropping myself into his svelte Mazda. “You’re looking great! Fantastic beard”. “Hmm”, said Dean. We drove out of the station car park, listening to the radio talking about the European elections. “Bloody UKIP”, said Dean. “Yes..!”, I replied.

“Ahahaha”, I said. “Shall we go to Sainsbury’s?”, asked Dean.

At the Sainsbury’s, I was theatrically chased across the parking lot by Matt Sage, who was there by coincidence. “The whole car park was looking at us”, said Dean. “Can we re-record an entire vocal part?”, I asked. Dean did that thing you do when you’re driving a car where your eyes don’t leave the road. “He took that well”, I said to Sam, when we reached the studio.

Sam had very generously agreed to give over his own bank holiday morning to coming into the studio and making sure I bloody did it properly this time. “Is that a bag of snacks?”, he asked, embracing me warmly. “I thought you might have one of those”. In the live room, I recorded an electric guitar part I’d forgotten to add to one of the other songs while the microphone warmed up. “Isn’t this fun, Dean?”, I asked. Dean aggressively checked the rugby on his iPhone.

It’s hard to bring out searing, technically-adept emotional honesty in environments like this. “How was that last take?”, I asked, peering through the murky glass into the control room. “I think there could be more searing, technically-adept emotional honesty”, said Sam. Dean just started the recording again.

Eventually, we did it. The thing about these kinds of situations when you’re recording is that it’s always worth it – the new track sounds many times better than its predecessor, and properly conveys (I hope) the feeling behind what I was trying to write. I suspect that Sam wanted even more, but it was a really significant improvement. “Good work”, he said, exiting the studio. He left behind him a suspiciously empty carton of green olives and a challenging situation: we now had six hours to master a fourteen-track album. Remarkably, we did that too.

Duck II: The Return of the Duck

I don’t actually know if it’s the same duck. Presumably, there are more than one.

In 2007 I had a restless night in Oxford which ended up becoming ‘A Strange Visitor‘, the song which audiences ever since have been calling ‘The Duck Song’. It’s been my most popular song consistently ever since, and it’s the only tune from the 2009 album To Infinitives Split which is still a regular part of my live sets.

duck

In the song, a guy struggles to get to sleep whilst a duck the size of his house walks down the street outside. It’s deliberately quite scant on detail – the basis, I hope, of some of its appeal – and I’ve had the pleasure of hearing a huge number of interpretations of it, many of which had never occurred to me!

I never thought that I would write a sequel to this song, but I saw a duck on a university campus a few weeks ago and a few things clicked into place. The intention is certainly not to shed any light on the first song – or to make any kind of comment on it at all, really – but to check in on some of those thoughts and feelings after a few extra years of adventure. The new tune is called ‘Big Duck on Campus’ – I’ve been writing it for what seems like ages, but today I finally finished the lyrics. I like them.

Despite the Monkey Horse sequence and, now, the Duck songs, I’m not very keen on sequels, and I write them only when I feel a really organic need to. There’s nothing about ‘A Strange Visitor’ that calls for a second part, and I’ve taken care to ensure that both songs still function independently of each other. At the same time, it’s nice to think that I’ve been writing for long enough that one of the artists I can now have a creative conversation with is myself. I hope you guys don’t think I’ve sold out…

Picking the Packaging

Making an album isn’t just about fancy studios, awesome tunes, and line after line of premium-blend cocaine! The sophisticated modern musician must negotiate complex decisions from the amp modelling on the electric guitar on track 5 to the appropriate number insightful blogposts to release before everyone gets dizzy and goes home. But of all the nasty choices an aspiring albúmier (I just made that word up) is faced with, none is more involved and disgusting than the packaging.

In this digital world, the first question is whether even to have packaging at all. But I learned my lesson from Last Days in the Capital, which like three people bought – overwhelmingly, FaceOmeter fans prefer physical media. Plus, I’ve discovered that it’s better have to have tangible things (rather than download codes) to sell at shows. Speculative gig-goers want to see that they’re buying the manifestation of a huge creative process, and that means that we need what four years’ work in any case demands – a record that looks at least as good as it sounds.

Followers of this project will know that I’m ahead here, thanks to my collaboration with Freya Hartas, the best artist in town. But even with great art in the bag, there are decisions to make. Jewel case or digipak? Matte or gloss finish? And what about the inlay – a booklet or a poster? To staple or not? All of these choices have financial as well as aesthetic consequences, so I’ve been racking my brains.

2014-04-20 12.05.46ART IS DIFFICULT

I promised myself on the release of the last album in 2009 that the next one would be a digipak. Digipaks look cool and don’t break, and the particular design we have for the inside of this one will work a treat! On the inlay, though, I’ve been forced to compromise: a booklet proved excessively costly from the printer I’m using, so I’m down to a six-panel foldout, although I’m hoping that the format will allow some cooler tricks with the art. I’m also heading down Matte Alley after a lifetime of gloss-scepticism.

Though it seems a bit premature before the record is even engineered, it’s important to make these sorts of decisions early. I’m using an American printer who specialize in independent bands because the company for the last project I did massively screwed us over and left us without discs to sell on the launch day. This means allowing plenty of delivery and production time this time around.

But it’s also good that the disc’s appearance and sound are evolving alongside each other, because it means that it really won’t be a question of decorating a pre-existing audio project, but of allowing sound and appearance to really talk to each other and create (hopefully) a more coherent end product. There are two vocal takes, some drum sessions, and a few other tiny frills to finish in the studio, and then we can get to the engineering. Progress!

Sessions Resumed

Last weekend, I attempted to prove I could look cool with an electric guitar:

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I don’t play the electric enough, which is a shame! I have a lovely thinline telecaster from the days of my teenage whimsy, and it’s a shame I don’t have more opportunities to get it out. It’s not a heavy presence on the album, but I think you will like the moments where it turns up! Sound engineer Dean “Are You Still Here?” McCarthy provides a video preview of the “coolness”.

Anyway, we tracked those guitar parts and then did a lot of basslines – every bassline on the album, in fact – before some slightly less successful attempts at polishing off the vocals. There are only a couple of vocals takes left, but my voice just wasn’t there on Sunday, so they’ve had to be deferred until the next session.

Not to worry! The next session also includes James Bell, who will be coming in to help with a track called ‘The Singular Adventures of Sally the Tumbleweed’. It’s now the only unrecorded song of the 14 on the record, and once some drums, a few vocal parts, and some miscellaneous other ornamentation have been added to the rest, this album will be recorded! Stay tuned.

Sofar, So Hamingbirm

I have to say that one of my happiest discoveries of recent years has been the Sofar collective, whose YouTube channel is filled with diverting performances from pretty much everywhere in the world, each one recorded in pleasant surroundings. You can easily spend an evening on their website, but it’s much better to spend one at one of their shows – I’ve now played three, and last night was my first experience of the Birmingham part of the franchise.

It was a gig I approached with some trepidation, for two reasons: the first was that I hadn’t played a full-length set for over six months, a half-deliberate album-recording decision combined with what are sometimes called “real life factors”. I felt rusty, I hadn’t played much outside a studio for ages, and I wasn’t sure I was going to perform well. The second reason was that I hadn’t gigged in Birmingham properly for years and years. I grew up in this fine city, but since relocating here I’ve struggled to reacquaint myself with the music scene, and this show was part of a renewed attempt to get out there and find the heart of the vibe.

It was a success! Sofar Birmingham is operated by the Cannon Street sisters, whose music I commend to you, and the venue they’d managed to get their hands on for this performance was a repurposed nineteenth-century Unitarian chapel in the middle of Digbeth. There were fairy lights everywhere – independent musicians love fairy lights, we’re like dragons with tacos in that respect – and an attentive and forgiving crowd of complete strangers, surely my favourite thing to work with. Alex Ohm opened the proceedings with a voice worthy of the space, and the headline act were a new group called Aztecs; the interval included an ad hoc sea shanty performance and the green room could have hangared a light aircraft. A capable and pleasant chap called Joe made recordings of the evening which I imagine will be available at some point. A well-drilled team of camera-operators with alarmingly sophisticated camera-holding apparatus took co-ordinated photos and videos of the whole thing, and I imagine some of that might also find its way to interested parties at some point.

I’ve always had a bit of trouble playing my kind of music in Birmingham, so it was fantastic to find a crowd receptive to my stuff, and really wonderful to be playing a show again. I don’t want to get schmaltzy (I do) but when i sat down on the floor next to my guitar case to get the thing out and tune up before the show, some weird muscle memory kicked in and I realised how much I’d missed doing this stuff. It was an important reminder – and I need reminding often – that it’s this stuff, rather than everything else, which is the “real life factor”. Back in studio for the new album next weekend.