COMPOSING CHANCE WEEKEND
My original idea for this album was to create the songs using chance materials, and random outcomes, inspired very much by Brian Eno’s approach to writing and recording Another Green World combined with my own 2 day version of ‘The 12 Song Game’ as described in the ‘Frustrated Songwriter’s Handbook‘ by Karl Coryat and Nicholas Dobson.
I had what we as youngsters used to refer to as ‘an empty’ for a weekend, so I closed the curtains, locked the door, set up all of my equipment (including the drumkit) in the living room, kept the kettle boiling , and then set about spending a whole weekend generating the raw materials from which I would spend the following month arranging and recording for a new album. The Chance Weekend.
My aim for the weekend was to use a series of techniques that went against my natural approach to writing songs and to step outside of my comfort zone and away from my usual practices in the hope that I’d come up with something that was slightly left of my recorded output to date.
What resulted was much discovery about my approach to creativity, and a re-ignition of a fire for making music that challenged me to think outside the box, make unusual decisions quickly and to trust my instinct.
Above all I had a lot of fun throughout the entire creative process.
I hope anyone who hears it, can hear that coming across in the music contained within
1. A Picture I Don’t Want To Paint
This song was written using a dice game I came up with based on the Luke Rhinehart novel The Dice Man. The idea being musical categories are assigned a number on a dice with a further set of variables within that category, instructing musical direction which you then must incorporate into the composition.
My three instructions pre-composition dictated that I use only three chords throughout the song, in 4/4 time and the title should include a colour. While thinking of a colour related title, I came up with the idea of painting a picture, which led to an almost immediate line for the chorus, which I also felt was strong enough for the title. I decided to develop this idea further rather than try to incorporate a specific colour. As a result, the lyrics all came at once… a rarity to be embraced when it happens!
2. Little One
Ok M’lud guilty as charged… this one has nothing to do with chance at all, other than I grabbed the chance when the inspiration came to write it. I wanted it on the album as it’s one of my favourites of anything I’ve written to date. The entire song was written around an E drone that I made by combining three different sounds on the Arturia Microbrute and varying the tracking dial and cutoff as I recorded it in…. so I guess in some way that’s chance…. well it’s close enough!
3. Forget Me Not
This was part of #9 and the last composition during the Chance Weekend. The entire chord sequence for this was originally intended as a middle section for Crazy George, with the idea that it be part of a ‘through composition’ but it got a bit out of hand, and once I’d written it and made the transition, it felt a bit out of place and I couldn’t get back ‘home’. I drew a card from the STUCK deck that read “Clean Break”. My interpretation for this instruction at the time suggested that I cut the entire section out and try it on it’s own.
A quick guide track from there, and then I stuck the drums down building the rest over that. Heads I stick the guitar through the Leslie, tails it’s the Tremolo.
Shame really, I fancied the Leslie!!
4. Tomorrow Sky
This was the #5 written over the chance weekend and the third using the cut-up lyric technique. This time I drew a handful out of the hat and picked 8 that I was initially drawn towards, and discarded the rest. Immediately I saw the hook line for the pre-chorus by combining, ‘Trying not to catch an eye’ with ‘Tomorrow’s sky’, which sounded better rephrased to ‘Trying not to catch the eye, of tomorrow sky’. I liked the idea Tomorrow Sky could be a character if the listener so chooses.
The guitar is tuned to DADDAD after a card from the START deck suggested I use a drone. DADDAD is a magic tuning I picked up from the Super Fury Animals who use it quite a bit on Phantom Power, an album I go back to time and time again.
I liked the guitar idea enough to decide not to sing any lyrics over it, so I decided to stick in a mid-section between the verse and instrumental section that would feature the lyrical hook.
5. Crazy George
The START card on the #9 and final composition from the Chance Weekend revealed the instruction ‘Use Field Recordings’. I have a wealth of these. I have a habit of bringing my phone out absolutely anywhere and just recording what’s happening around me. Sometimes it’s just noise, sometimes though on repeated listen on the headphones, a pneumatic drill in the background combined with a perfectly timed car horn and a passing conversation can make a pretty cool loop…
Anyway, this was none of those. My ‘Field Recording’ was actually the guitar part you hear on the opening bars of the track. It was recorded last summer sitting outside of the King’s Cave on the Isle of Arran. I was messing about with it and a chap, who happened to have a vibra-slap handy, chipped in.
I developed the rest of the guitar part during the Chance Weekend while thinking a SMiLEY SMiLE and wrote the lyrics based on an absolute madman that lived across the landing from a flat I once occupied.
Sagro was originally composed in Italy in 2015 with my little usb keyboard, around about the time I had my initial idea to develop the dice game. I decided to use the dice to dictate a pattern of notes from which I would try and build a track. The first notes climbed from a C to an octave higher and back in a nice way which then suggested the rest. You can hear that melody on the guitar part of the chorus.
The full unedited version is probably around the 8 minute mark, but when revisiting this particular song for the album, I decided that a coin would dictate whether I edit it down to a shorter, ‘poppier’ structure, or keep the 4 movements that made the whole thing feel like a lost SMiLE outtake (which was my inspiration in the first place). Heads it was, and the chopping board was prepped.
Lyrics came during a particularly brutal drive home in heavy traffic just before Christmas. I kept thinking about how we waste so much time in our daily lives, sometimes out with our control and how frustrating it can be, yet we go away on holiday and wasting time is top of the leaderboard. Gotta love that.
7. Like A Bullet
This was the #2 of the Chance Weekend which came about from picking up the guitar after the START card read ‘Rhythm Up’. The first thing I played into my phone was the Dmaj7 going to the G. Simple enough, but it came with an accompanying melody so after a few bars into the phone, I decided to cut to the chase and see what results the cut-up lyric technique would yield.
I pulled out 12 lines and placed them underneath one another without looking. The first verse was there right in front of me, and the second verse almost the same. After taking away the one line that didn’t fit any kind of phrasing for the verses, I decided to make it fit a chorus.
The STUCK deck indicated a ‘Key Change’ so that took my brain nicely into chorus mode, the first chord suggesting the melody which in turn suggested the rest of the chords. An exercise in trusting your instinct and not overthinking anything. Perhaps something I should do more often.
8. UNKNOWN HOMETOWN
This was #3 on the Chance Weekend, combined with the #5. Another attempt at the cut-up technique which by now I was really having fun with. A Start Deck instruction told me to ‘Visit The Past’ of which my interpretation was to look through my ‘old phone ideas’ folder for a riff that caught my attention. One labelled ‘Tusky Mac (!?)’ sprung out and I based an arrangement around this riff.
Unknown Hometown was an entirely different song originally than the one on the album. It had a lot of complicated chord changes, sparse electric guitar with a slapback riff and synth parts, giving it a really eerie vibe. When returning to it for overdubs later on, I kept getting the niggling feeling that something just wasn’t right.
I tried another re-write and again came up with nothing. I was just about to give up when I remembered that the 5th session from the Chance Weekend was merely a two chord sequence along with a drumbeat that I left at that to return to later. When I tried the words AND the existing melody against the far simpler chord arrangement, I realised it was exactly what I was looking for. That day I had been listening to Yo La Tengo at high volume on the way home in the car, and I think some of that bled into the production…
9. I See Crocodiles
I woke up one morning and immediately wrote down the lyrics to this song based on a dream I had just had. That night after work, I decided to use them as the basis for a new song. I used a 12 sided dice to dictate the chord sequence having written down 12 chords at random and assigned them to a number.
C to F was rather a lucky start, but then it took me from Dm to B to F# and back to C which is most certainly something I wouldn’t have tried naturally, however it forced me to come up with a melody that would fit over the chords and I actually really liked what I came up with.
There are loops and drones all over this track, all manipulated at random and out of time with each other as a result of employing a stuck deck card that instructed ‘Audio Destruction’. I interpreted that to be a selection random filters or plug ins I didn’t know how to operate, turn the dials at random and utilise whatever the results were in some way without editing.
10. Where Have They Gone?
This came directly from the START card ‘Use unusual loops to suggest chord/melody’. The loop I used came from when I got a bit obsessed about cutting up old cassettes and taping them back together at lengths of 11cm. I would then run them back through the 4 track, recording in absolutely anything I could find on to the tapes that would continue recording on a loop of about 4 seconds, and then hearing back the results.
I have absolutely no idea what that sound even is, but once I trimmed the best bit, it immediately suggested a bass line which I also looped and built the whole thing from there. The entire song then became a series of cut and pasted loops, probably composed more visually than anything else, with each layer suggesting another counter melody, so I just went with it.
The lyrics were unused from a song section on my last album, which I developed slightly and thought would sound good with a kind of choir singing. So I sung it about 30 times over and mixed them all together. I really shot my voice doing it, which, if you listen to Forget Me Not, you’ll hear notes I struggle with as a result of singing that song directly afterwards…. but I kept it all in the spirit of chance!!
WRITING AND RECORDING “WHERE ARE THE STRANGE PEOPLE?”
Making this album was a departure from my usual mode of writing, in that most of it was written with the DAW open and the guitar taking more of a backseat. Writing with Joe Kane during the Dr Cosmo’s Tape Lab years was a real eye opener in the sense that we would record as we wrote, which meant very often the production became a bigger part of the writing process. Traditional ways of ‘writing a song’ were often disregarded in favour of allowing technology to influence the direction of the music.
Working with ad watching Joe use the computer as a writing/production tool was an education. I learned a whole new approach to recording sounds and with that firmly in mind, I set about this album with that at the forefront when writing. Recording as I go. Instinct. Experimentation with regards to chopping up parts and re-arranging sections. Sampling myself and manipulating sounds to further influence the writing. Starting songs with unusual loops or beats that may suggest chords or melody. Nothing new to most people, but a whole new world had opened up for me. Snorkel and Flippers time.
WHERE ARE THE STRANGE PEOPLE?
The backing track was created the day I bought a new synth. An Arturia Microbrute. It’s got this great little programmable arpeggiator function that I fed some notes into randomly. I played about with that until I found some chords that sounded nice over it and left it at that for a while.
It was a while before I returned to it with the idea that a set of lyrics I had written on holiday one year in Italy might fit. The original idea had been floating around for a few years with a more fingerpicked guitar-style tune behind them, but I never really finished it. I tried them over this little improvised piece and they fitted nicely so I discarded the original tune and used them here. It’s all about the synths in the background for me though!
2. An Afternoon In April.
This one stemmed entirely from a little thumb piano I found lying around The Tolbooth in Stirling that didn’t really make any kind of sensible notes but a really great wee honk. I made a little rhythmic pattern and recorded it to my phone knowing that at some point I could use it somewhere. It’s the little loop you hear at the start of the song. All the music was written around that and the lyrics came much later once the whole thing had been arranged and recorded. Very rarely do I leave lyrics until the end, but like most of the tracks on this album, the tune came first and I was really into making sounds rather than writing songs at first. I had learned a lot of new recording and production techniques whilst working with Joe Kane on the Dr Cosmos stuff, and a lot of what you hear on this record is me at home, attempting to get to grips with a lot of them. The lyrics came from the title, which was one picked at random from my little book of titles that I keep for days when I fancy a bit of random inspiration!
3. Cyan Seren
This was one of my ‘dice games.’ I had previously developed a way of writing by chance using dice, something that was heavily inspired by Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies and the novel ‘The Dice Man’ by Luke Reinhart. By rolling the dice several times before composing, certain writing and arrangement decision are made for me. These are determined by several categories, each containing six different variables in each, leaving me to ‘fill in the blanks’ as it were. Musically this entire song was written using that method, and even the title. The lyrics were inspired by a very dear friend of ours who had recently passed away and a star we bought in her name to remember her by. She will be forever in our skies.
4. Independence Day
Ian Thistlethwaite is a chap who played strings on the Poundstore Riot album, and came via Ash Cooke, my co-writing partner for that particular project. I’ve never met him, or even spoke to him, but one day he sent me a demo of a song and asked me to record a version of it. I re-arranged the whole thing, added some bits here and there and sent it back to him. I’d say it’s probably about 70% his, but I loved how it turned out and it really fitted with the other songs I had recorded up until then, so I asked him if I could put it on my album. I was chuffed when he agreed. A lot of the tracks on this album have a kind of Joe Meek/Sci-Fi vibe to them. This fitted right in!
I was flying alone to New York a while ago to meet the rest of Gulp who I was drumming with at the time. On the flight, I ended up sitting beside a chap who was from somewhere like Bradford but who had lived in New York for years working for a company navigating satellites that circled the earth. His job was to steer them around to certain places at certain times for various reasons and I got the impression it was some kind of espionage. I started to conjure up all sorts of images as him as some kind of secret service space-age spy and immediately the ‘this would make a song’ function in my brain started to whirr. By the time I’d gotten through customs, most of the idea for this song was in my head and the little loop you hear at the beginning came from an app on my phone I programmed random notes into and then sung the melody over. I had to borrow ma Da’s Stratocaster for the guitar parts at the end, as the Casino just wasn’t cutting the mustard.
Callisto is the second largest moon that orbits Jupiter. I loved the name and it fitted nicely over this tune that sounded to me like it could have been one of the satellites being steered around by the chap from the previous song. This was recorded on my old Tascam 4 track cassette recorder and then fed into the laptop and left exactly as it was aside from a few backwards guitar bits. It began life with me playing a drone with a few wine glasses over a mic’d up snare drum and tuning my guitar to DADDAD. Using an old delay pedal I began to steer the satellite around Callisto with the mysteries of the universe twinkling in the background…
7. Modified Radio Birdsong
Another ‘dice composition’ that began life on the Tascam 4 track. I cut up a length of tape, stuck it back into the cassette and made some random loops which I then mixed together and fed into the laptop. There it remained for some time as an instrumental, before I added lyrics at the 11th hour when I had a sick day from work (genuine!). Possibly because I was pretty feverish, I felt a bit self-conscious about them so I heavily disguised them with a vocoder and buried them a bit in the mix almost as soon as I’d recorded them, and then left it as it was. This was probably the first thing I recorded for the album, and the last one I finished.
8. Baby Bird
Friends of mine had recently had a little baby girl. They sent us a picture and she just had this really beautiful wee face. Her eyes were closed in the picture and her mouth slightly open. For some reason it reminded me of when I was young and my Dad used to lift me up to peer into a bird box nailed to the garden shed when there were little baby blue-tits in it. I would always pester him to lift me up again to look at them as soon as the parents flew off to find a worm or two to feed them. As I thought of that memory, the lyrics pretty much all appeared fully formed, the idea the parents will work tirelessly for the wellbeing of their offspring. Something which I myself now understand first hand!
9. Misty’s Golden Years
This came from the book of titles and was another ‘dice composition’. The idea for the title and the story came to me when I was leaving work one day and it stuck with me for ages before I finally sat down and tried to flesh out the lyrics. It started off with a little guitar loop I played through a filter which you can hear at various points over the arrangement. I ended up with far too many ideas for this one, and it took me some time to settle on a final arrangement with a lot of cutting and pasting going on. How very untraditional, I can almost see Neil Young furrow his brow. I kept hearing brass through it, but settled for mouth brass as I’d never fit a brass section in my cupboard. It was also the last thing the old Casio VL-tone played before the batteries melted the insides and it had to get put down.
10. Looking For The Way Out
I wrote this the day the idiots of Britain outvoted the good to leave the EU. I’m still in disbelief. This is probably the most political I’ll ever get.
11. Where Are The Strange People? (part2)
This was written in Italy when I was on holiday and had a little two octave usb keyboard with me. I spent the whole holiday just recording little melodies on it with a view to coming home and writing Enoesque soundscapes over them all. I ended up with about six or seven that I really liked and have indeed created the soundscapes, but they are yet to see the light of day. This one was one of my favourites. The title came to me when I was in Wrexham, again with Gulp strangely enough! I re-recorded the whole thing after I composed another bunch of 4 track cassette loops that just fitted the overall vibe of the tune. I was listening a lot to EDIT by Linden around this time, and if you know that album, you’ll immediately hear the influence!!