The Southside Recordings
The Southside Studios lie deep beneath a florist, opposite Clapham Common Tube. Like some secret hideaway you can feel safe and out of reach there. You could almost imagine there is a doorway somewhere off from one of the train tracks of the London Underground, and that the walls are lined to shield you from the power of Kryptonite. Alternatively you can turn your attention to the buckets that collect the water from the leaks in the roof, and the make-shift desk and shelving units. There is a homeliness and a punk ethic that suited my brother and I as soon as we first set foot in the place.
It was back in 1996, and we had a barrel of songs we wanted to record there, and naively we thought we might get through at least half of them. That was until we experienced working with Pete, who owns the place, and is its only engineer. He is perhaps best known for his work on the Archive albums, and indeed he even contributes some flute! Pete was immediately someone we could work with. We’d been to a number of other studios enquiring into their rates and set-up… always we would be greeted by the same smug faces, and extortionate fees. Pete was very different. He is a quiet and calm man. He listens knowingly and though he is honest about taking your money he genuinely participates in your whacky projects.
We began by recording ‘Blue in the Face’, an up-beat guitar based track. The first job was to convert the computer sequenced rhythm track. This should have been simple enough as we both used the same Atari computer. Alas, Prav’s huge spaceship like constructions with unending duplicated tracks of bass and melodies muted but not deleted (stored for that rainy day), ensured it took many hours to finally get to that point at which we could hear the track as it was meant to be heard. This procedure would come to be a standard one in all our visits. Pete was very fastidious about the track layering, and for good reason. Once it comes to mix down there was need for clarity and simplicity as the outboard gear would do all the hard work.
Once we had the track running on the sequencer we would turn to each other in astonishment as Pete flicked through different sounds on the equipment. ‘that one is nice, oh no that was is better, but actually I really liked that squelchy quagmire sound… you know the one, I think it was the one you had playing before the bright Doors sounding organ’… this would go on for sometime, but the pleasure was all ours. Eventually it was time to put down some vocals. We glanced at each other in apprehension, but it was obvious Prav would have to lay down the guide vocal.
I could see him through the glass of the control booth. He did that thing ‘they’ all do with the headphones, and he simply smiled so much! I sat back on the couch pretending to relax, but I felt like I was the manager of a fantastic new band, ‘look this is my band, you might want to take note now before the whole world is on to them!’.
The vocal was sketchy and a little nervous, but Pete spoke through the intercom with measure and reassurance. It was all going to be smoothed out with the compressor, and there was nothing to worry about. As the afternoon worn on we built up the vocal tracks with Prav multi-layering the lead, I performed some rather too high counterpoints, and then we both stood in the vocal booth to put down an amusing melody refrain that was sometimes too close to the Batman theme. We had tremendous trouble making it to the higher notes for this, largely because we could not stop laughing. Eventually it was decided to simply sample the best take, then it could be stretched and squeezed and sped up to reach the right notes. It was rather like the scene in Manhattan Murder Mystery when finally the sample sounds as it should and all turn to praise one another.
Finally it was time to put down the guitars. This was my domain, and I have to say I have always been pleased with the end results. We managed to re-create the twangy, slightly off-centre licks that spin off from the lyrics, and also I forced my way into adding some real bass. I was being humoured in being allowed to play this, but once it was down, both Pete and Prav looked and one another in agreement, somehow the live bass gave it added cohesion. We just had a middle eight to deal with and we plumped for a guitar solo in the style of Supergrass from their hit current at that time: ‘Alright'. It almost worked. Certainly the overdubbed guitar sound, and harmony all sounded great, but listening back on the track I was woefully unsteady.
It was by now very late. We packed up the equipment and ventured home, analysing and re-analysing the days events as we trundled home in the midnight traffic. The next day was to be mixdown, and this was where Pete came into his own. Though we would continue to ask for effects and tweaks, essentially Pete was in charge, and we sat for many hours wondering what the hell he was doing. There was an 'Emperors New Clothes' feel to the proceedings as he nudged the controls this way and that. We frequently could hear no difference, but the master craftsman worked on. From time to time Prav and I looked at each other as if to say, ‘shall we intervene, I mean we are paying for this’?!!! Of course by the time we got to work on Performance Art, the importance of this activity was thoroughly acknowledged. In fact we rather enjoyed the opportunity to sit back and let the work be done for us, a la KLF, Pet Shop Boys!
We had little time to genuinely assess the final mix of Blue in the Face, but pumping out of the studio speakers it was magical. Sitting back on the couch letting the bass flood the basement, and hearing the vocals claw their way through the track, it was all a proud moment. This was going to be the next number one, of course. But we did not stop there. The clock was ticking, money was owing, so we pressed on with our second track Cult Sculptor. This was a largely sequenced track and, as we had previously established the configurations, we were able to get on more quickly. We still had to clean up the vast constructions that Prav is so well known for, and we had a tricky time eliminating a hi-hat that was not required, but soon we were able to record the vocals.
This track is much understated, and when I hear it now I really treasure the subtleties. My vocal sits very low underneath Prav’s and together we produce a rather serene ambience. Later we recorded a guitar stab that again is very low in the mix, it gently adds a little jazzy quality, and was perhaps the most cleanly played guitar we have ever managed. Sadly there was not enough time to fix a number of problems, and indeed to develop the vocal harmonies and extra melodies, but this still holds happy memories and is a unsung Adorno gem!
It was sometime before we pooled enough money together, and managed to fake enough time off work and college to get back to Southside. When we did, we went in with just one song, Generation Experience. Essentially this is a simple song, built on few chords, but with a haunting vocal-line. We needed lush strings, bass that would make Trevor Horn flinch and an expansive vocal effect… I think in the main we got it all, but the complexities we developed through the technologies would easily have warranted a further week in the studio for tweaking and final mixdown. In many respects Generation Experience is the precursor to our experience of recording the now legendary Performance Art.
As ever we had ventured into the studio to record the next big Adorno single. We had such high hopes for this one. It was, and still is, a symphonic anthemic pop song waiting for the likes of Pet Shop Boys or the Spice Girls to take it to the top. There is a melancholy in the lyrics and the droning strings that make it an obvious choice for a brooding come-back single…
The track is very dense. Sutured with the sequenced strings and rhythm section are a number of guitar parts. We hit upon a driving, slightly distorted stab that leads each refrain, and deeper still in the mix are crash chords. The drumming came through perfectly with samples of that good old 808 drum, along with a careful selection of hi-hats. The addition of an off-kilter Moog synth line was perhaps the icing on the cake! There is a gliding quality to the track and as we sat in that same old couch waiting patiently on Pete’s usual unfathomable actions, we heard wave after wave of magic. There is something fantastic about being in the studio. The sound system is refined, and you enter the situation prepared to use your ears to a much higher capacity. You start to inhabit all manner of tonal and rhythmic qualities. Added to that, as you work on specific aspects of the track you can loop a section and so just as it is building into the rousing chorus, suddenly the multi-track hits pause and all you are left with is the residue of the echo chamber as it reverberates the closing refrain ever more faintly. There is that ‘less is more’ wonder, and sometimes you wonder whether you should just release the track in this way… but then once you get to the final mixdown and you just want the music to play forever….
Generation Experience required a better set of vocals and this time we felt more comfortable with the whole situation. Again Prav put down the lead, and then we worked on the backing voices. The real gem comes in the second half when we sing together like two Motown cats picking up on the close of a phrase, which then wallows in a swathe of reverb. The effect is of a flight in the arches of a great cathedral, lifting the sentiment of the lyrics to a longing wonderment. We came away from Southside with what we thought was a perfect piece of pop. In reflection we realised again that the great mixdown situation could have been afforded far more time and care. Again the dense melodic edifice that is the Project Adorno sound could not quite be tempered as we would have loved. However we picked our way out of the studio that evening, the stairs amassed with flowers for the florists' next day of trading which happened to be Valentine’s Day, and we were thoroughly happy. We had had our belief in the generation experience realised.
Our last visit to Southside, in 1997, was surely our most successful. We had the track, indeed we had performed it each night at the Edinburgh Fringe (though in its more primitive state). The recording of Performance Art was, to date, to be my most treasured studio session.
Again we went through the usual rituals of clearing out all the debris of our sequenced arrangement, and then came the tantalising procedure of choosing new instruments from the banks of sound modules about us. We had the basic track running when I dug out from my bag a handful of recent CDs. I demanded we give some new thought to the rhythm track. I wanted it all: samples, dance rhythms, techno sounds married with "arty" lyrics and of course the usual pop synths and bass.
After listening to all manner of tracks: drum 'n' bass remixes, hip-hop breakbeats, rousing intros and outros of various different pop songs, the breakthrough finally came as we hit upon a drum pattern that was a mishmash clatter of sticks and snare and married this with a booming bass sound purloined from another equally diverse source. The end result was perfect! Suddenly we had a new edge, and we set to work on the bass-line. Again I delved into my collection of CDs and this time, like a naïve little prince asked if we could take the bass-line from another popular hit of the time that I was rather partial to, speed it up, change its key and weld it to our fledgling track. Pete and Prav looked at me suggesting that, where music is concerned, it is only possible to do so much and no more. However I have a certain way of responding to such looks and so Prav took it upon himself to fix the bass-line I wanted. He of course performed this task with the usual Zappa aptitude, and so now we had the fizzing drums with yet another one of those bass-lines that ZTT would drool over!
Time came to get the vocals down. Prav worked on the verses and we urged him to make it terse and edgy. I think we perhaps compromised, for as anyone will know, Prav, like Neil Tennant, can only accept being himself. I sat in the control room marvelling at the song as it played again and again. The vocals were sounding better and better, and any little mistakes were recovered in isolation.
With the lead vocals solid and shinning, we needed to decide on the backing vocals. At this point Prav produced a practice tape from one of our many ‘bedroom’ rehearsals. ‘I want to you sing that line you had here’ he urged, and I of course had no idea what he was on about. I listened to the tape and it was undeniably me singing my little heart out and as usual going all over the place. ‘Now repeat that 3 times’ he said with a huge smile. We had this joke from an interview we’d seen of Bowie. Talking about working in the studio he said if ever any one made a mistake that sounded good he would immediately ask the musician to repeat it three times. I ranted of my musical failings, but it was no good, not only was Prav adamant about the part, but Pete was smitten too. The next minute, I found myself in the vocal booth being coaxed through the refrain. The trouble came at the chord change where suddenly I was required to reach what felt then to be unnaturally high notes. I screamed and wailed and stamped my foot. Then, pacified, I tried again. And again. It must have been quite hard work on the other side of the glass. I even seem to remember at one point doing a cod impersonation of Ronald Reagan (somehow the echo in the headphones afforded a certain quality suitable for this)… never work with children, animals or me!
Before we entered the special status of mixing down, I managed to add one more sample. This time it was simple a delicate thread of a vocal line taken from an album by an obscure Chinese vocalist - after the full-on drum and bass treatment, this provided the perfect antidote. It is a haunting soft cry that floats in the background, and actually opens the track. The variety of texture on Performance Art meant it was the most challenging of our tracks to mixdown. The three of us huddled around the mixing desk with Pete working the main faders whilst Prav and I were assigned special tasks of tweaking specific vocal or guitar parts. At the half-way point we insisted that the vocals in the break needed to be distorted. This caused a number of aborted runs as it was either forgotten or the timing was a fraction out. And of course each play back had us at panic stations, our hearts racing… were the vocals too highly pitched, was the guitar a little insistent, is the drumming as stinging as it always was before? Eventually we fell back in our seats. It was gone midnight again, and we simply loved every mix that came back over the tape, aborted or otherwise. Performance Art was born, and in many regards it has never been surpassed.
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