They say a mix is never finished, simply abandoned. I can relate to that.
It’s a strange thing to spend months working on a song, only to get to the point in the mix where you say “enough’s enough, let’s move on”. Then it gets mastered and put on a CD and people buy it and listen to it and you’re left standing there looking worried, grinding your teeth and telling yourself that you did the best you could. Sure, maybe that guitar note there could have been tucked in, maybe that extra synth was a bit superfluous, but hey – hindsight’s a wonderful thing, right?
That’s how it was for me with the release of the Lights of Distorted Science. Once my work was done I didn’t listen to it for a few months. Then when I did, I thought it was shit. I heard every single problem, no matter how minor. It was all I could focus on. OUCH! That harmony is out of tune. OUCH! The guitar sounds like a vacuum cleaner here. OUCH! WHY did I put REVERB on THAT!? WHERE ARE THE GOOD SONGS? WHAT IS THIS TOTAL BULLSHIT!? I therefore came to the quite sensible (IMO) conclusion that I shouldn’t ever listen to it again and for 18 months I did a pretty good job of sticking to that rule.
It’s a strange thing when I make music. The best it ever feels is the first time it happens, even if it’s massively shit. Even after all the work goes in and it becomes a complete song, the excitement will never match the first time I strung the two chords together, wailed a few notes and proclaimed it a Song. Bridging that strange gulf of cognitive dissonance is tricky. It would be awesome to finish working on the song then totally erase it from my mind, listen to it fresh and get that excitement.
All this rambling musing is pertinent, because we’re in the middle of pre-production for the follow up album. All the songs sound exciting now, and when we get to recording them proper they’re going to feel like the best things in the universe. Once it’s all done, I hope to remember some of that excitement. Also, it’s my intention that this album will Smash The Shit(tm) out of the last one. Bigger production, better songs, tighter arrangements. I want it to be so good that people feel ill when they hear it!
I’m looking forward to the challenge. I guess looking forward is always going to be more exciting than revisiting the past.
I don’t know for sure, but I think the folder was arranged chronologically. A picture of my great-great uncle, in military uniform, young, fresh-faced, solemn (in those days having your picture taken was still a big deal). Then several little postcards from France – they’re not really postcards as such, these things, they’re about half the size of a postcard, and on the front, they have an embroidered pouch with a display of flowers and a stylised message below them. They don’t have writing on the back, they have a little printed card inside the pouch with another message and floral design.
The first of these had “Thinking of You” embroidered under a bouquet, yellow, green and red artfully splashed across the cloth. The card inside it said “All my love”. Aw. That’s pretty. What a nice little thing for a soldier to be able to send back from the field for his family. We don’t have the letter that went alongside it, sadly, but it feels poignant in and of itself. A couple of these were in there, carrying messages you could almost imagine sending back from a holiday. They seemed sent by a man telling his loved ones that he’ll see them soon.
The last postcard carried another message, and suddenly the theme changed entirely; “Remember me” on the outside, with the printed card inside the pouch stating simply, “Do not forget me”.
All of a sudden I felt like I was holding the last desperate wish of a man who knew, beyond any hope or doubt, that he wasn’t going to be coming home to his loved ones. And that it was all he could do to buy a mass-produced postcard and send it back to them.
The last item I came to in the folder was the envelope in which Seat Harris’s Death Penny (or, more accurately, memorial plaque) came in. Essentially the memorial plaque is a big bronze medal, 5 inches in diameter, sent out to the next of kin of all British personnel killed in World War I. About 1.3 million of them were made, and the backlog was so great that they were in production into the 1930s.
I found the contents of the folder horrifying. Not just because I felt I was holding in my hands items that this distant relative of mine had touched and written on and attached meaning to, but also because it brought home a terrible truth – that everything, from the cards Seat sent back to his family to his posthumous medallion, had to be mass-produced on an absolutely unimaginable scale. I feel like in some small way that compounds the horror of all those deaths by robbing them of their humanity. But how could it be any other way, with that many dead?
Some things just find you. A memory found me today and I’m glad it did.
It’s a summer afternoon. Fluffy white clouds drift slowly across the sky, and a gentle breeze stirs the leaves on the tall trees that line the fence of my back garden. They whisper, a gentle rustle that answers the chirping murmur of birdsong. I run across the lawn, chasing my younger brothers in a game. Midway through the long expanse of the summer holidays, school is a forgotten memory and all that matters is now. The year is 1995, and I’m 10 years old.
My dad’s in the house, upstairs in his study which has a big window that looks out over the garden. He was working earlier but now mum’s shaking her head and tutting from the kitchen because he’s got his bloody guitar out. It happens once a year (if that), and today’s the day. He throws the window open and starts to play. It seems very loud from outside, and he’s playing some kind of old fashioned music. I recognise a couple of tunes from last year’s afternoon of guitaring. There’s one that goes “If God was one of us…” and another that seems very upset about something; “Is it getting better… or do you feel the same…?”
I like them both, but I’m mostly happy Dad plays guitar because it’s just another thing he does that proves he’s cool. I walk in from the garden, through the kitchen, and the muted rumble of a little practice amp turned a bit too loud forces its way downstairs. Mum’s still grumbling about “that bloody guitar”. I’m only 10 but I know not to be underfoot when mum’s grumbling, so I go to the living room and fire up Sonic 2.
An hour or so later, Dad’s exhausted his repertoire of half remembered lyrics and licks. I’m pretty sure Smoke on the Water was featured at some point. He comes downstairs and turfs me off the Sega Megadrive so he can watch some TV. I saunter upstairs and find myself in the study. The guitar’s there and unusually there’s still a lead connecting it to the amp. I’ve seen the guitar, unloved and shoved into an unused corner of the room, for as long as I remember. It’s nothing special. But today it looks different. I notice it in a way I didn’t before. I study the amp’s control panel and find the “power” switch. Flick. There’s a pop and a hum starts. A little red light comes on.
The guitar’s on a stand. I have no idea how to hold it so it stays there. The strings feel a bit sharp so I treat it with caution. I sit cross legged on the thick green carpet in front of this object that’s suddenly caught and held my fascination, reaching out gingerly, vague worries about sharp metal strings and electricity in the back of my mind.
My fingers touch the thinnest string. A gentle squeak emerges from the speaker. I pull my hand back a little, place my thumb against the string, and pluck it.
The note fills the room. It sounds and feels different to anything I’ve heard before. It doesn’t just stop – the rich and pure sound carries on, gently receding towards the silence I pulled it from. I just sit and listen. It fades, fades, and after 30 seconds I can’t hear it any more. Even then I know it’s still there, quieter than I can fathom, ringing away. I want to hear it again. I pluck the string once more, and move from right to left, each string thicker, deeper and more sonorous than the one that preceded it. The thickest string makes a sound I can feel through the floor. I move back up the strings one by one, then with a final flourish rake my finger down all 6 strings. The notes vibrate the air and beat against each other. The chord I made from the open strings is dissonant and not particularly musical but that just adds to its wonder; this isn’t a sound I’ve heard before and within the noise I can hear possibilities, different notes fighting each other and hinting at melodies I won’t find for years. I sit, hypnotised, as the notes once more fade to silence.
I have no idea what the frets are for and I won’t find out for another 6 years. The guitar stays on its stand and, having exhausted the possibilities offered by the open strings, I turn the amp off and go back outside to chase my brothers in the garden under the long afternoon sun.