One of my biggest passions is recording. Especially albums. I love making them and I love listening to them. As a listener, I’m always excited when an artist I like puts out a new LP. Singles are great, EPs too, but I think the full album offers so much more. From a songwriter’s point of view, the album can be the ultimate undertaking. It is a big challenge that will require time, energy and sacrifice to achieve. The motivations are numerous – fun, self expression, documentation of experience, liberation of ideas… It’s exciting to imagine what might be learnt throughout the process and what growth could be experienced as a musician along the way. It’s an exhausting road, but it’s also a chance to say something that's important to you and to get your thoughts and feelings out there, in all their manifested purity!
When I was a wee lad I had a cassette tape Walkman that I used to rip tracks off the radio. I was ready to hit record as soon as the ads ended. It felt like obtaining a treasure. Once you had the recording, you held the Holy Grail. I’d listen back a lot, absorbing and dissecting it as much as I could. Years later, I commandeered (nautical term) the cassette tape section of dad’s old analogue stereo system. This beauty had not one, but two independent tape decks (I still have it – don’t tell dad). With this, I began to experiment, bouncing between two tapes and layering tracks on top of each other to build songs. No computers. I would record a rhythm guitar track to tape A. Then play that back through speakers and simultaneously record a lead part to tape B. Then I would playback tape B and re-record over tape A, adding vocals, and so on... It was just as lo-fi sounding as you might imagine, but that really didn’t matter. I was just a little kid experimenting with sounds and having fun. I learnt a lot from those childhood experiences.
Around the age of eighteen, I bought an 8 track, semi digital console and set it up in my bedroom, right next to my great grandmother’s old upright piano. I lived in a cave dwelling at the far back of my parent’s (now earthquake demolished) house. Every square inch of wall space was covered with band posters and in the corner sat a 100watt guitar amplifier (my poor neighbour, Foxy John, in all his patience – he was also the chief of discipline at my school, so I knew him well). My friends would come and have regular album appreciation nights and we would often jam and cut little late-night blues bits and pieces on the 8 track, drinking bourbon and beers in true Christchurch style. Represent. More fantastic times of self guided 'education'.
I studied a music degree in Christchurch before leaving and took a real interest in the production side of it all. My band made it's first album (which was terrible - no discredit to anyones' performance, I just wrote 12 rubbish songs that had no business ever being recorded) and I had a few recording experiences throughout a number of different studios, some very professional. Although nothing much good came out of it, in fact I made a fair lot of musical mistakes around this time (including an attempt at a 25 track double album), but again, it was all prime hands on learning and good fun with good friends, so I'll take it and run... It's so important to have the space and time to practise what you're trying to get good at, all of the greats started out somewhere. Even if the early results aren't flash or don't lead anywhere, keep on trucking I reckon...
Photos by Mike Neumegen, Elliot Howey
I relocated down to Dunedin in 2012 and set up my own little freelance business called Smokey Room Records. It was a side project to my bands, but I managed to produce some great projects and meet some awesome people as a result. At the time, a group of us teamed up, operating out of “Bond Street Studios” – a bit of a dive that was always filled with last night’s left over bottles from someone's rehearsal. Yet, it was a wonderful place to hang out and make music late into the night, without any frills or pressure and some really great things happened there. I actually used some old footage shot in Bond St for the video of my song “Not Space Nor Time”. We got so far behind on rent in the end that we were evicted. Pretty comical in hindsight, that the 15 people within the bands couldn’t pull the $$ together for what I’m sure was the cheapest rent in town, without any noise restrictions. We were all in our early 20’s, so it is possible that our collective leisure interests may have involved other, more pressing expenses at the time. I also had various bedroom studios around that era that I would return to for mixing or tracking less obscenely loud things (sometimes)... I'd normally use Bond St or hire King Edward Court hall for drums / electric guitars, but not always. Some days the neighbours just had to wear it on the chin.
Photos by Mike Neumegen, Tom Batchelor
In 2016 my band, The River Jesters, made our first album. We’d done a video and single for $12k a few years earlier and the album cost us roughly the same again. It’s expensive business, for something that usually doesn’t make the money back in full. We toured hard to pay for it all, so the songs were tight and we knew they rocked live (apart from “King Long”, which just confused everybody - still, it made the cut). We worked hard on the preproduction, first in our band rehearsal room and then at Sammy’s Theatre in the two weeks lead up to full production. The album was tracked in stages at “The Helpful Studios” in Christchurch. The drums and bass were done together over the first week, guitars and vocals followed. I was there for a whole month in the end. It was a little gruelling at times, as we wanted to give the project everything we had, but overall, it was a fantastic experience with a result that I'm still really happy with now. Tom recorded all his vocals in two evenings, wearing nothing but his undies....
Photos by Mike Neumegen, Andy Farrant
One of my all time favourite recording experiences was the session I produced for one of Tom Maxwell’s wee projects, “The Lonely Crowd”. Five Queenstown musicians that decided to descend upon Dunedin for a weekend, seemingly just to drink booze mischievously and make what I still consider to be an outstanding 6 songs. We opted to do it all old school – Tom Petty / Bob Dylan style – all the band members in one room together, everything completely live (even vocals). No overdubs. Magic captured. I even mixed the whole thing live, through my tube analogue desk, adding spring reverb to each track as it was needed. Everything was bounced down to 2 stereo outs, unable to be tampered with after the fact. The more that I’ve worked alone since (overdubbing – recording each part separately and working to get everything sitting “right”), the more I’ve come to realize that this is where the beauty of music really lies – people playing together in a room. Not overthinking it, not looking for perfection, just a pure feel. It’s also the most enjoyable way to do things in my opinion. You share a human connection that’s removed when you do everything alone. I look forward to making my future records with more of that approach.
Photos by Wioterangi Ngarimu
Currently, I’m finishing up the recording stage of my second solo album. As with my debut, I’ve played all the instruments, apart from the drums and saxophone. So far, it’s taken over a year of mostly full time work. That’s not something I necessarily enjoy by the way. It’s something I’ve had to do (being so far away from both my home and so many working musical relationships). It’s been a great challenge for my abilities and it's pushed me to become a better player, but it hasn’t been out of a desire to do everything alone. To illustrate the workload, I’ve used the document below to plot my progress and stay on track throughout the whole project. Think of each box as a different performance. Once each instrument is recorded, it gets coloured blue, meaning it hasn’t yet been reviewed (normally I do approximately ten takes of each part and then go back through them to select the strongest one). There’s a lot of time spent listening back. Once something is completed, it then gets coloured purple and I do a dance of obsessive compulsive joy. 248 performances! Logistically and emotionally, that’s so many different situations to facilitate… Writing and learning the part, sourcing the instrument and equipment needed, arranging spaces and times to record, paying for studio time, setting up, packing down, travel, time off work, etc. For me, it’s a real mental exercise to get through it all, particularly alone. You have to be ready to battle your own mind, which will undoubtedly attempt to convince you to quit, every single day. It’s all a bit heavy. In the end you just hope people will listen to it lots and take something good from it, but you can't expect to get paid!
I do look forward to starting a recording studio of my own one day. It's something I'm sure I'll do, although I don't know where or when exactly. There's just something about working at a sound and trying to bring what's in your head into reality. I love working on both my own music and that of other peoples, so one day there'll be a designated space for all of that to happen. It's going to be very special. Remind me to try and figure out how to put in a window or some form of view to the outside world??? Cheers.
Photos by Elliot Howey