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Tim Wheeler studio update

Published: August, 2008

Thursday 07/08/08, without much time to get over the jet lag, I was back in the studio with our engineer Claudius. We pulled up our mix of the Reading 1996 show and worked a bit on getting rid of the feedback that was flying all round that stage for the first few songs. A little clever EQ-ing and some nifty level rides and we managed to clean it up quite nicely.

It’s been fun hearing that show again, we were so amped up, I remember us all being so nervous which felt strange at the time as we’d been playing so much, but we just hadn’t got used to the big stages by that point. In fact I think it’s the most nervous we’ve got before playing a gig ever. Mark would have done his puke-before-the-show ritual which he managed to ween himself off a few years later. We had a massive crowd that day (40,000? 60,000? something like that). We were third from the top of the bill, below Sonic Youth and The Stone Roses (playing their last ever show). When we got the tape back from being transferred to Pro-tools a couple of weeks ago, the guy who did the transfer said how “passionate” the performance was. I guess by passionate he means really fucking fast and messy, but it’s true you can hear how excited we were. I remember the sun starting to set some time round “Oh Yeah” and the fireworks going off during “Kung Fu” and a massive sea of people jumping up and down throughout the whole thing. Good memories.

So from good memories to more twisted ones. We decided to tackle the track that we’ve been too scared to mix for the last 12 years; “The Scream”. Some time in mid January 1996, during the recording of 1977 some sort of cabin fever set in, probably due to the amount of time I was taking writing lyrics. We’d been holed up in Rockfield Studios for a few weeks while our producer Owen Morris subjected us to all sorts of drug and fashion experiments. I don’t quite know where it came from but the concept emerged of recording a hoard of voices, starting quietly and building up into a huge screaming choir of demons. We were recording back on tape those days, so we started with a 24 track reel and eventually slaved up a second tape machine so we had 48 tracks at our disposal to fill with insanity. Claudius and I were pissing ourselves listening to the individual tracks, a lot of them involve Rick and our guitar tech Leif in a range of bizarre characters. Our big obsessions of the time are all present; The Exorcist, The Jerky Boys, Star Wars etc. Along with a load of other dumb shit; “The boy who’s not afraid of ants”, “film star with creams trapped in his shoes”… don’t ask… We also got the Boo Radleys in on the act who were recording in the other studio at Rockfield. The main part of the “song”; the thing holding it all together, the rhythm section if you will, are several separate tracks of demonic humming and droning that builds and builds until it breaks into all out sustained blood-curdling screaming. It is indeed the sound of Hades. The most twisted thing about this is that I remember dancing to this “song” at one point, I may have been slightly medicated at the time. We were cracking up during mixing when we soloed individual tracks, but we the whole cacophony was playing we’d get crazy eyes. I don’t know how people will take it; Is it just a 12 year old juvenile joke or an interesting curio for fans or perhaps the perfect audio representation of hell? Who knows. Maybe we’ll hide it somewhere amongst the three discs for those brave or crazy enough to seek it out.

I was meant to be mastering the three disc re-issue on Friday but it has postponed until sometime next week. We’ve had one casualty for the tracklisting. We’re going to have to omit “Silver Surfer” as it’s from a 1994 John Peel BBC session and we don’t have enough time to get the clearance from the BBC. Still it’s not too big a deal as it will eventually find a nice home on an Ash BBC Radio sessions compilation whenever we get round to it.

Friday 08/08/08 turned out to be a very powerful day. As I don’t have to go to remaster 1977 until next week, I instead hooked up with Claudius at the studio to finish a new track “Space Shot”. We added crunchy guitars, electric kazoo, shaker, high backing vocals, vocoder guitar effects and synth slide zap noises. I’ve got to say it’s sounding good and I’m looking forward to getting it mixed next week. It’s some kind of Ash/80’s pop hybrid, very poppy. It started one night in January or February when I’d spent half an hour tuning up my autoharp, next thing I know I was playing some pretty chords thinking, this sounds good, I’d better record it. I’d just bought a new toy, a Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 08 synth which is an updated version of the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, one of the defining synths of the late 70s and early 80s. So I added some 80’s synth riffs to the autoharp. Over the last few months Rick and Mark have added drums and bass, and I’ve thrown on guitars and vocals. I’ve been enjoying some Jonzun Crew songs recently so I added some vocoder as a tribute. You should check them out on YouTube for a laugh, they have the greatest image ever and I’m ever-so-slightly tempted to base our new look upon their style.

It’s weird how new gear can inspire the writing of new songs, a few chords strummed on an autoharp can lead to an 80’s pop monster. It happened again on Friday night. We were just finishing up “Space Shot” with my last idea, a guitar lead line played through an Electro Harmonix Poly Chorus effects pedal. The line I was trying just didn’t cut it or seem necessary, so we scrapped the idea, but at that moment I started doodling round with a weird chord progression that sounded great through that guitar pedal. We looked at the clock, it’s was 10 pm and we thought - we’ve got a few hours, why not make a song out of this and record it now? I came up some different chords for a chorus, then I threw down the rhythm guitar and then a lead line. It was sounding like a basic Tom Waits boneyard stomp so I played some rudimentary drums. Next some weird shell shaker percussion that sounds like rattling bones. At the time Mark was still in Ireland so I added some bass. Our studio is in an industrial building that is totally empty at night, so we went out into the echoey hallway and set up a mic and did some distant acoustic guitar. The track was starting to sound quite spooky at this point so I scribbled some lyrics about hanging out in the cemetery, with a hint of inspiration from “Midnight in the garden of good and evil”, the last book I read. Claudius fired up his Copperphone microphone which has the circuits of a vintage telephone and I recorded a double-track vocal. Voila, “Midnight in the Garden”, a new song in three hours. It’ll probably be a good track round Halloween time. We’re used to slaving over a song for up to 6 months so this approach was really exhilarating and refreshing.

I’m such a sad workaholic, I spent Saturday night recording vocals on a track called “Command”. I’m heading in to the studio now to edit the best takes together, then that’ll be another tune in the bag.

Over and out.

By Tim Wheeler