An Endless Sequence of Dead Zeros | Spacebomb Studios, 7-14 Mar’22

Day 1 | Monday 7th March 2022:

When I eventually arrived at my apartment beside the studio – 18hrs door to door – I was surprised to see the same slither of a moon gleaming over Richmond as had sat above Belfast the previous evening; on the wax, it will be full by the time I arrive home on the 18th. 

The following morning, in daylight, Richmond seems like a cool little town (225k people); rows of colourful terrace houses with plenty of liberal placards driven into their front lawns, murals on the walls, hip little coffee shops queued around the ‘block’, a lake with big beastly swans, and sunshine (a balmy mid-20s today though that’s the outlier for the week it seems).

Spacebomb Studios operate in the tradition of Stax and Muscle Shoals with a house-band, in-house arrangers and producers. The plan is to record the bones of 10 songs live – myself, Cameron Ralston (bass), Pinson Chanselle (Drums) and Alan Parker (Guitar) – over 4 days with pianist Daniel Clarke coming-in for overdubs on Day 5. The final 3 days are vocals (including backing singers) and a day of strings, brass and woodwind scored by the in-house arranger Trey Pollard. All overseen by producer Matthew E White.

A 10:30am start in the studio this morning, so my jetlagged body-clock woke me up at 5am just to be sure. I arrive with a mask on but it becomes apparent that I’m overdressed. I caught a short bout of covid on 15th Feb so am relaxed about it all for the week ahead. 

Most of the morning spent with set-up and sound before an hour or so working through the first track ‘Black Halo’. It has been just over 2 years since I’ve played music in a room with people; Jesus what a thrill. The demos I had for both of today’s tracks are pretty fleshed out – and Matthew and I have discussed them at length on calls – so most of the focus was on Alan’s guitar which ended-up sounding much more bombastic than I had imagined but totally class. Pinson’s beautiful dog, Ophelia, was in and out of the studio all afternoon while we recorded.

Second track is ‘Matisse’ as it has a similar sound and feel to ‘Black Halo’. Alan’s guitar turned-out really melodic and tasteful with some overdubs still to do on that. Cameron’s bass was immaculate every time and we have about a dozen decent takes, will dig into them tomorrow.I’m completely zonked. Bed.

Day 2 | Tuesday, 8th March 2022:

“Hey Mark, do you want to play Spacebomb FC tonight?”

If nothing else is achieved over the next week, I’ll always have my debut for the revered Spacebomb FC 7-aside team. The opposition, having clearly caught wind of the international signing, didn’t show but we got a game going anyway with me blowing out of my jet-lagged arse throughout.

Only a day in, we seem to have established a pretty fluid process of working through things: we all sit in the control room and listen to my demo, take some notes, talk about the general idea of things then decamp to the live room for rehearsal. Matt will chime-in from the control room after each run-through with points on sound and parts for the band then we’ll simply start recording and do as many passes as we feel we need. Time is pretty tight so there isn’t a great deal of opportunity to sit and reflect on it all before moving onto the next one.

Today was made-up of two full-band songs in ‘Unkind’ and ‘Ghostwriter’ followed by a late evening of Cameron (double bass) and I working through a gentler number called ‘O Margaret’, his bass thrumming along and keeping me in time. We tried something a little looser but I feel it needs an anchor; a decision for another day.

Day 3 | Wednesday 9th March 2022:

Still getting up to go to the toilet at 4am – it’s a very lonely saddle at that hour – but I’m sleeping pretty well on Richmond time now. The Spacebomb FC outing definitely helped things along.

I got the chance to walk through the takes for the first few days this evening which is a nerve-racking experience but all seemed good. Day 3 definitely felt like we hit our stride with one bombastic, noisy number called ‘Dreaming in Another Language’; Pinson’s drums in particular, with their slight distortion in the headphones, propelling things along. There are 9 verses which come in and out at different points every time we play it, no two takes the same. With the song around 7mins long I worried about how to navigate the takes and find the best one but there was a lovely moment where Pinson altered his beat perfectly in sync with my vocal and I knew we had it. Elsewhere, there was a Nashville Skyline-esque ditty, ‘The Weeping Rot’, and a song that owes a lot to John Cale – on his 80th birthday no less – ‘One Morning, Mid-November’. Pinson is playing an 18″ kick drum which definitely gives it a distinct, taut 80s sound. That alongside a little EQ-ing by Alex and Matt.

I worked on a couple of overdubs after the band went home with Matt and engineer Alex in the control room, though their focus was mostly on Benzema’s hattrick for Madrid in their last 16 comeback against PSG. A little part of us all was still out there in the Spacebomb FC red.

Day 4 | Thursday 10th March 2022:

Today is the last day with all the lads from the core band with 2 songs to get through plus overdubs. The synergy/energy from Wednesday continued through and both sounded great. ‘Dewdrop, Cherry Oak’ purred with Alan’s pedal steel and Cameron’s double-bass snapping on the outro like something from Astral Weeks, “A little taste of home” as someone remarked. Ha.

The last track, ‘Alabaster Skin’ was with me clunkin’ the piano and no electric guitar. It all felt a little dry and exposed, so Matt hatched a plan to feed my piano signal back through to Alan’s Microcosm Hologram effects pedal and he fiddled away during the live tracking; sounded insane but fantastic.

I had asked a photographer to come in and take some snaps of the recording today. A lovely guy but not entirely accustomed to the studio environment. At one point, during a take, I thought he was walking around with a clown horn in his pocket it was that loud. I’m sure the end results will be great though.

A lot done, the bones of 10 songs tracked, with the band over 4 days. Matthew commented that with more time you probably couldn’t have achieved more, it’s the limited parameters that make it work.

I permitted myself a couple of those enormous pint cans of Budweiser from the local ‘store’ as a reward for the end of the full-band stretch. Had a chat with the friendly lady behind the counter and stood outside the place listening to a perversely long ad for a revolver from the window of a parked taxi. 

Day 5 | Friday 11th March 2023:

Keysman, Daniel Clarke, was in today for Hammond B3 organ overdubs with some spicey piano work too. I was exhausted after 4 days with the band so was steeling myself for a day of concentration to ensure we got what the songs needed. But the man was sensational – and his energy infectious – even when minimal direction was required he recalibrates and gives you exactly what you asked for but in his own lyrical and tasteful way. He also added some wonderful Korg Minilogue to ‘Dreaming In Another Language’ with me occasionally leaning across his lap to tamper with the pitch or throw in a rogue note for which he did look at me askance. Afterwards he regaled us with a tale about playing with KD Lang for the Obamas at the White House. Bit of a step-up for him today, eh? lol lol lol.

Managed to squeeze two vocals in late this evening so we’re ahead of schedule with a day of vocals plus 2 backing singers coming in tomorrow.

Elsewhere, Matt has taken to reading a little ‘Pocket History of Northern Ireland’ book I had added to the Spacebomb collection so I’ve been fielding a lot of questions about the last 100 years including a post-take, “Hey, Mark, what’s an Orange Man?”

Day 6 | Saturday 12th March 2022:

Spent most of today recording vocals. With the last Arborist album, after coming back from ‘Real World Studios’, I recorded the vocals at home and managed to drag it out over about 4 months, so it was strange to pack it all into a couple of days. But I think it all sounded pretty lethal.

We also had backing singers Jessica and LaToya Fox in. They were sensational, very little instruction required. Again, their energy and enthusiasm propelled things along and they had a good hearty laugh whilst singing the line, “is he taking the piss?!” on ‘Matisse’, not a phrase they had ever heard or used. I like the incongruity. Jessica is a regular Spacebomb contributor and used to be part of a 3-piece that made it to the latter stages of ‘American Idol’. A bit of a step-up for her today, eh? lol lol lol

After a crisp and Spring-like 18-degrees on Friday, we had a few inches of snow on Saturday afternoon! I have a full bottle of suncream and 4 pairs of shorts staring at me here in the corner of the room. Myself, Matt and Alex braved the cold and ate some Thai food at a place called Pho Luca’s in Carytown.

Day 7 | Sunday 13th March 2022:

We spent most of Sunday evening mixing the tracks that don’t have strings, brass or woodwind overdubs. Again, a nerve-racking experience hearing it all back but I think it is sounding great. Matt threw a few ideas at it as we went and, by and large, he was on the money. He seems to have a vast knowledge of music to feed off. That, and his communication with the Spacebomb players – fluid, instantaneous fixes when needed – is where the magic is.

The guys from the band have been popping in and out of the studio to hear how things are progressing which is nice. Another artist from the label, McKinley Dixon, dropped by and chatted for a while too, all adding to the familial/community feel of Spacebomb.

On Tuesday I’m heading to DC for a few days before flying home from there. I asked Matt and Alex to bounce down any rough mixes we had so I could luxuriate in them whilst staring at the White House but Matt advised against it saying people always get attached to rough mixes and find it hard to move away from them. His idea was to record the playback through my phone mic which would allow me to hear the track but has enough separation to avoid getting hooked on that particular mix. All sound advice but I wanted to get drunk with my headphones on and feel all proud of myself, so they bounced down the mixes anyway.

Day 8 | Monday 14th March:

Strings, woodwind and brass today, under the guidance of in-house arranger Trey Pollard. Matt added a nice little glock part to one of the songs before the players arrived; big PPL cheque coming his way! The arrangements provided some serious pay-off after all the efforts of the week. I just sat back and watched the magic unfold, the strings in particular are astonishing. A big part my reason for coming out here was the arrangements on Spacebomb records like Matt’s, Nadia Reid’s and Bedouine’s. 

Trey had his scores printed and propped upon his lecturn ready to conduct but when I glanced at ‘O Margaret’ it was in A major whereas Cameron and I had recorded it in Ab. A moment of blind panic on my part; had I sent him an old demo in A to work off?! But, alas, Trey felt that he couldn’t get the feel he wanted from the strings in Ab soooo he sped-up the track in Pro Tools to the key of A and the string players recorded to that. The take was then bounced down to the tape machine (MCI JH-110 8 Track 1 inch) which was in turn slowed down to the key of Ab, again, and recorded back to Pro Tools. During the bounce back the tape accidentally rolled onto a tiny slice of menacing strings from another session, they sounded great and the coincidence felt too good to remove so we left them in there. Marvellous to watch it all unfold, I think it gives it a slight shimmer; really beautiful.

We’ve knocked the mixes into pretty good shape but there are a few decisions to be made on my part, seemed silly to force it at this stage, need to let the dust settle.

During this last week I’ve had the sense that, despite all the years, making music still possesses the power to conjure up that urgency you first had playing in bands at 16, where the whole limitless future is rushing towards you and you know that you’d better be ready for it. It’s easy to lose that feeling over time but occasionally you’ll turnaround and see – or be snagged in your walking by – the taught rope tethered to that 16 year old in the past. What a mad, thrilling business altogether. You may find me in a bar in DC for the next couple of days, should you need me.