Winter of Darkness Part II: the scene moves to deepest Cornwall, in the frigid grip of February. I’m standing in a primeval forest by a tidal river. Above me crows wheel and screech in alarm at the sound emanating from the stone walls of an ancient sawmill. It’s the sound of some demonic machine, incredibly loud, a circular pounding and pulverizing that echoes around the glade and dies in the gnarled bark of the trees.
At this point the band had 5 members. Michael Gira and Jarboe were joined by longtime guitarist Norm Westberg, with Al Kizys on bass and Theo Parsons on drums. These guys could kick up a racket like no other, but as this album demonstrates, they could also be pastoral as all get out. Together with the Skin material that was later included, this work represents the full flowering of the Gira/ Jarboe creative partnership.
Real Lovemay well be my favourite of all the songs I’ve recorded. The title track sung by Jarboe still gives me chills, as does much of the album to be honest. I fell into a bit of a depression after it was done; I think I knew I’d probably never work on anything quite as good again.
Al, Norm and Theo were fun loving guys who liked a drink. One night we took the studio boat (no road went there) down to the local pub at Fowey and got good and plastered. Then we took it out on the ocean waves, soon realizing even in our stupor that death was imminent. Somehow we got the boat back to harbour and up the river, where we crashed it into a buoy.
So began my incredible “winter of darkness” (as I remember it) in which I co-produced the albums Opus Dei by Laibach and Children of God by Swans. The first of these projects began in November 1986 when I flew to Ljubljana, Slovenia (then still part of Yugoslavia) with my trusty Akai S900 and a big wad of cash to pay for studio sessions.
I’d been expecting to further refine the montage techniques used on Nova Akropola, and I suppose we did in a way. Laibach love to nonpluss, though, and they evidently enjoyed my reaction when breaking the news that they wanted to do a version of the Queen track One Vision in German, and versions of the cheesy euro hit Life is Life in both English and German.
As it turned out these songs were the centerpiece of the album and represented the future for Laibach. The more familiarly collaged tracks, good as they were, served as “entr’actes” to the main programme.
Laibach had the benefit of a wide pool of local talent at their disposal, and when I say that, I have honestly never seen anything like it: superb musicians, technical staff, cooks, growers of a certain smoking mixture favoured by your devoted auteur, you name it. A gifted orchestrator (code name Nightingale) who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal did a truly spectacular job on the cover versions, and played a lot of the parts himself on an Emulator III. The local working men’s choir came down to sing on the German Life is Life (Leben Heißt Leben) which may be the single most glorious session I have ever conducted.
When I referred to this as my “winter of darkness” I’m certainly not referring to the mood of the sessions. Laibach were a particularly uproarious bunch, completely entertained by what they were doing, and my main memory of them is the sound of laughter.
One day two of the lads took me and a visiting Japanese girl up to the mountains to enjoy the spectacular scenery. We came upon a four-seater sleigh and without thinking twice jumped into it and plummeted down the mountainside with no idea of where we’d end up.
Another dream assignment, to do an alternative remix of Depeche’s rockingest (at that time) track, a personal fave of mine. I thought that Martin Gore’s song captured the claustrophobia of small town life particularly well with its motorik beat and cynical lyrics.
I determined to rough it up as much as I could, and I was immeasurably aided by a rack mounted ring modulator, a highly unusual item to come across. This was down at Britannia Row Studios in Islington; no doubt it was the plaything of one of the Pink Floyds or their crew.
Anyway I stuck it across a cue send and was soon happily turning synth leads into death rays and making Martin Gore sound like a dalek. Daniel Miller came down for an earful and I’ve always treasured his comment: “…it ain’t Hi Fi, but I like it”. Got me sussed there Dan.
My next Mute assignment was to mix two tracks in one night, the Erasure single Sometimes backed with Sexuality. This was Vince and Andy’s first big hit as a duo, and an important record for Mute.
What a fantastic gig, although I had to work like the devil, as an “alternative” mixer I wasn’t so much bound by the strictures of the dance floor or the need for radio play. My main job was to try to give a new spin on the track, to come up with something different. I was being paid to mess around with the multitracks of the gods.
On this occasion I had a new toy to help me out, an Akai S900 sampler, which I was still getting to know at this point. Here I mainly used it to loop and effect vocals.
As soon as you hear that undulating noise gate matrix, you know it’s a Rico joint.
Let’s jump on a number 73 bus and take it to the end of the line…Stoke Newington, London N16.
Jowe Head, of the equally fabulous Swell Maps and TV Personalities, was an early supporter of The Lines, and when he moved down to Stoke Newington he became a good friend. He started a band called the Palookas with local brother and sister Wall of Sound merchants Paul and Trudi Holt. With guitar and Roland Juno 60, their amps on each side of the stage, these two put out a head spinning barrage of strangely melodic noise. This was underpinned by the angular bass of James “Elvis” Rowbottom and the pounding drums of Richie Rich.
I started working with them in 1984 but it took a couple of sessions to capture them on tape; well, I’m not sure we ever really did, certainly not the raw power of their live presence, but we did our best. I’m happy to say that I’m still working with Paul Holt, and betimes Jowe Head, to this day. Here I present the Palookas debut single.
While we’re on the subject of great moments in film, here are some stills (magnified 200x) from the celebrated Ramones vehicle Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.
They clearly show your devoted ingénieur du son, on the sidewalk before the Mayan Theatre in Los Angeles, in January 1979. In a textbook display of method acting I am pogoing enthusiastically as the Ramones arrive in a Cadillac convertible driven by Rodney Bingenheimer. This despite the best efforts of a ginger haired girl in pink to obliterate me from cinematic history.
After the previous year’s YoungbloodI guess everyone thought Torch Song were dying to score another sports movie. It was all a bit much for Laurie Mayer though, and she begged off of this one. I therefore took up the slack and helped William finish the score. We were so pressed for time that for years afterwards, “hotshot mode” meant we weren’t getting any sleep for a few days.
In fact this film has a lot going for it, not least the legendary Pelé. I’m sure a lot of young soccer enthusiasts really enjoyed it. William did some good work; four minutes into the movie the score kicks in rather nicely as our hero takes off in his car.
I always hoped Daniel Miller would turn up at Guerilla and so it happened when he booked in to mix some live Depeche Mode tapes with producer Gareth Jones.
Like Ivo from 4AD, I knew Daniel from the old post punk trenches of the late 70s-early-80s. The Lines drummer Nick Cash also played with founding Mute Records act Fad Gadget. We got on well and Daniel entrusted some of the mixes to me, and obviously liked them well enough, because my next assignment was to do a remix of this mighty track.
By this time Depeche were massive in Europe, their big push into the US would come the following year. Their album Black Celebration was a big leap forward in production and songwriting, and the title song in particular seemed designed to propel them into the stadium-cramming entity they would soon become.
This wasn’t mixed at Guerilla, it was done at a big fancy studio in the West End of London, on the graveyard shift. Imagine some red-shirted yeoman from Scotty’s engine room having to take over control of the Starship Enterprise in the middle of the night and you might understand how I felt sitting before the 30 foot wide SSL desk with two 24-track machines chasing each other back and forth.
Luckily I’d already built up a method of remixing at Guerilla which could be applied in any situation, because it involved running the desk manually, taking numerous sections “on the fly” and snipping them together as I went along. Thus a mix would only roughly be planned, it would rely very little and often not at all on automation, and there was plenty of scope for following strange side roads spontaneously. A good example of this is the hilarious section where I “scratch” the vocal by disengaging the sync between the multitracks.
This mix was the beginning of an interesting couple of years working on Mute and related projects, of which more will be written anon.