Day One. May 18, 2016. For many people, I’ve been told, going to the studio is a drag and to be honest, I can totally understand their point. It’s expensive, you’re forced to be creative in a specific timeframe, you spend most of your time waiting and/or repeating the same bars over and over again, you work extremely long hours, it can be frustrating when you know where you want to go but continuously fail to actually get there.
For some reason though, I am different. I love going to the studio. Why? Well, maybe because I don’t do it that often and I can still see the magic in it. To me, going to the studio means witnessing the birth and growing up of a song. You help it stand, you watch it make its first steps, you nurture it and you give it a voice and once you feel it is ready, you release it to the world outside. Pretty cheesy, right? Ya, I know, but this is how I feel about it, sorry folks.
Another reason why I actually love instead of loathe studio time is that with me productions this time is limited. We recorded ‘Sounds of Soul and Sin’ in two and a half days, ’Sophomore’ in less than a week, ‘Orphan Keys’ in a day and ‘Ghosts’ will be finished within a little over a week and thus be my longest time in the studio ever. Only to give an idea, The Beatles spent six months to record Abbey Road and experiment with sounds and microphoning positions, so I can see why after a while the magic begins to slip away. Anyway…
It’s always surprising to me how much of the first day is actually consumed by setting up everything. Drums, microphones, guitar amps, headphone lines etc. It took us the better part of about five hours until we were ready to go.Once we were good to start, we decided it would be clever to go with a song we had already played as a band so that we could get into gear again. It worked better than I had anticipated because, after all, we hadn’t played together since early December, more than half a year. Drum and bass tracks for ‘Good Times’ really came together quickly. The only bigger problem here was agreeing on an arrangement, but even this wasn’t too much of a hassle. The same could really be said for the second track we worked on, ‘Two Out of Three’ had been played on both of our band tours. We knew the song, we pretty quickly nailed it (pretty quickly as in two hours or so for drums and bass).
By now it was already six o’clock and we decided that food would be a good idea. Pizzas were ordered and we had dinner. Unfortunately, due to pressing family matters, Lukas, our drummer (very understandably) had to leave and René, Daniel, Kay and I spent the rest of the evening experimenting on sounds for the more complex songs that we would work on later. By the time we switched off the lights and went home it was way past 11pm and we agreed to meet an hour later the next day. 10am instead of 9.
Day Two. May 19, 2016.
I was woken by a phone call from Lukas. He apologised over and over for the fact that he had to drop out from the sessions for said family matters. Details simply do not belong here, but there are things in life more important than music and things in life that are in no need of apologies. Thankfully, he had already organised a replacement. Max Schneider, drummer for artists such as Tom Klose, came in and did one hell of a job. We started with ‘All this time’, a song I wanted a little Neil Young vibe on and experimented with heavy guitars, grunge sounds and hard drumming before we went on to the slower, sadder songs. The title track ‘Ghosts’ cost us quite some time, because as a band, we felt we really couldn’t connect too much to the demo. Whatever we tried, it sounded cheesy beyond compare and while I love a bit of cheese every now and then, too much is too much. We ended up reworking the song from the ground up, brought in new chord changes and gave the song a much different vibe than I had originally intended. You can actually hear the differences when you compare the demos and the final version. It’s night and day, really. Instead of piano (as on the demo) or guitar (as first attempted), I switched to play an antique Fender Rhodes electric piano.
Next up was ‘Water Rising’, a song I wanted to sound like the apocalypse itself, building up tension slowly and ending in chaos and boy did the guys nail it. I am not going to talk about it much more here, but man… I was one happy John Allen after that song, believe me. You see, this is actually why I love studio time, because every now and then, you have an idea or a vision for a song and then your band absolutely kills it and you just stand there smiling because the result turns out just the way you wanted it. Good days!
Checking the time we realised that it was again past 4pm and we decided to take a longer break and walk around town to get some food. We ended up at Aldi and bought pasta, pesto a nd beers and returned to the studio to have dinner.
When you spend all of your day indoors, staring at song sheets or screens, concentrating on playing or forcing yourself to be creative, a little bit of sunshine and fresh air is probably the single best thing that can happen to you, so we decided to eat outside and just relax for a while before getting back to work. It’s staggering how important breaks are, you feel refreshed, you work and function so much better, so the next two songs literally flew by. Again, we’re only talking about drums and bass here, all the rest comes later.
Maybe a word or two about the recording process here. Max, René and Daniel are in the recording booth, while I share the engineering room with our producer, Kay. I sing and play my instruments from there, helping the guys to guide them through the songs without having my vocals captured on the drum mics. The idea is to give Max, our drummer, and Daniel a live recording context onto which we will later add guitars and pianos. René is already recording his guitar parts as well, but mainly for experimentation.
After Max had to leave at around 9pm, René and I worked a little on guitar arrangements for ‘Discovering Ice’, one of the quieter songs for the album before we called it a day at around 10:30. Tomorrow we will record the last two drum and bass tracks before starting with guitar overdubs.
So far, friends, all I can say is, that I really believe ‘Ghosts’ will be a good step forward from ‘Sophomore’, not only in terms of songwriting, but mainly in terms of engineering and sound. As we talked about yesterday, this is not a John Allen solo record on which I happen to play with a backing band, I really understand it as a band album. It’s John Allen & The Black Pages. Good night!