In 1990 I earned some money building rocks and a crashed plane for Tony Geddes’ ‘Madame B’ set. I gave my wages to my flatmate John and he gave me a drum set : two cymbals, hi hats, a snare, kick, floor tom, high tom and stands. A bargain. Most guitarists love playing drums. I sure did. I gradually replaced the ropier parts as they came up for sale second hand at Cj’s. I bought a stool, hi hats and floor tom. The kit was more jazz than rock.
Steve suggested that Marcus and I should play some music together. I’d jammed with Marcus at Steve and Jude’s house in Armagh Street sometime in the early ‘90’s.Steve and Marcus met in Dunedin in the late 80’s. In Christchurch they played in Kate, and later in Glow, with Ross and Liz.
Campbell was visiting around Christmas 1999 when Richard popped around. After a few beers we ran through a few old Letter 5 songs accoustically in the shed.
A few weeks later Richard, Marcus and I sat down with beer and candles in the shed and played accoustically. Marcus was an amazing bass player and good at drums and guitar. His songs were cool and he was easy to be around.
We named ourselves ‘103’. I wrote a theme song explaining the name – our combined age.
The early days were great fun. The shed had no power so we bought a peavey battery powered amp for the bass. We lit candles and tea lights. We harmonised, laughed and drank a lot of beer.
We swapped instruments. Marcus played drums on my songs and a few of Richard’s. I drummed on their songs. Richard played bass on Marcus and my songs. Marcus played bass on most of Richard’s songs, I did a few. We all sang as much as we could.
I began to write specifically for the group with an acoustic guitar and a piece of paper. It was easier than adapting songs I’d previously recorded. In Creeley I cleaned cars and wrote a bit about that. When I went to university I wrote about books, tv and ideas. A lot of my 103 songs were about living at the beach.
We wanted to play electrically, so we arranged to have a few electric practices in K4, Richard’s classroom. Shifting drums is never as much fun as playing them. It was a long drive across town in the Maxi. Carrying the drums several hundred meters from the car to the classroom before and after practice sucked. The kit was too small for the space no matter how hard we hit it. It was a battle.
We played a quick set at a fancy dress party in Ilam Road. We set up some gear in a bedroom and started playing unannounced. It was a good way to start without the expectations of a gig. My dirty brass cymbals spun as we galloped through our set. Afterwards, some drunk teenagers told us we were like ‘Belle and Sebastion’, which made Richard cross and Marcus happy.
We booked a gig at The Wunderbar in Lyttleton with Minisnap – Paul and Kaye from The Bats and their laptop. It was a warm night and I was nervous . We played two sets, with Minisnap in between. It was my first long gig on the drums. I enjoyed being at the back of the stage. Ian took photos and compiled them into several A3 colour copies. I was blushing red with nerves in all the shots. We ended with both bands playing a version of ‘point that thing somewhere else’ by The Clean’.
My Hofner bass had always been difficult to record. The pickups no longer sat tightly in their casings. They were loose, rattling and not worth recording. I cleared my student loan. A $4000 loan for two years of university fees ended up costing me $3000 in interest over six years. Marcus and I spent a wet lunchtime bass shopping. I bought a $1500 Yamaha SBV bass on sale at CJ’s for $900.
In 2001 it cost $300 to get power connected to the shed. Our shed practices went electric. We used my Starcaster through my small Vox transistor amp, my Yamaha bass and my crappy drums. It felt a bit weird. I began to drink scrumpy at practice.
Most weeks I had new songs. It was a mixed blessing: It was great to be writing a lot, but I was writing more than Richard and Marcus could keep up with. My expectations were unrealistic. I began to demo my songs so they didn’t get lost.
Minisnap replaced their laptop with Malcom Grant and we joined them for another gig at The Wunderbar. We played 37 songs and made $20 each.
[photo : University of Canterbury]
With Paul’s help, we played a couple of lunchtime gigs at University. We relished playing in a sunny corner of the caf in the middle of a two week winter cold snap. We felt a bit different about playing outside in The Quad on a thirty degree day in early October. Copious sunblock, jeans and sweat made for impossibly slippery drumsticks.
We decided to try some recording in K4 – live to Marcus’s four track Tascam reel to reel. We had a stereo mix of drums on two tracks, bass on three and guitar four. We recorded a dozen songs over a night and an afternoon, then transferred the tracks as files to Logic. Vocals and overdubs were added to the basic tracks at Marcus and Richard’s houses, laboriously backed up to CDR, and finally mixed. We learnt a lot. The results were fine considering we’d used bad gear, dull tape, and a low quality drum set. ‘The coldest snow’ and ‘Measure’ got a lot of airplay on RDU. Marcus’ song, ‘Mayo Thompson records The Chills’ was included on a local CD compilation produced by the Package, a weekly events guide.
Party gigs can be nervous and self-conscious for the band and the audience.We played in Richard’s lounge for his 40th birthday, and outside at another party in Ilam Road . The drums didn’t cut it outside.
While 103 was my main priority for a couple of years, Range had quietly carried on in the background, recording on the Tascam 424 and at The National Grid. When we bought a computer in 2002, I moved onto using Micrologic. I recorded a lot of the songs I had intended for 103. Micrologic allowed me to build up a song over 16 tracks. It was a big step up from the three working tracks on the 424.
The skills I’d developed four tracking didn’t necessarily cross over into the digital recording environment. I’d become adept at cramming a lot of things onto a single track on a four track, singing while playing instrumental parts, balancing the mix by leaning closer or further away from the single microphone. The process had a distinct effect on the aesthetic of the music recorded. Computer recording was something else again.
In the new setup I used the 424 as a mixer and treated the computer like a sixteen track tape machine. Sixteen tracks gave you the chance to make something great or something truly awful. You had enough tracks to separate parts, but you lacked tape [or any other] compression. Headroom became critical. Signal to noise rations worsened. It’s easy to record a lot of unnecessary tracks if you are not disciplined. It was easy to record a lot of noise.
I usually recorded the drums first, playing along to my idea of the song in my head. I got slightly better quality recordings if I split the kick and snare onto the two available recording tracks. This was always hit and miss. The physical difficulty of getting the mic.s, 424 and large G3 computer into useable places in the shed impacted on the quality of the recording. Despite quite a bit of effort sound-proofing the shed, the drums were still quite audible outside from some distance. It made me self-conscious. I limited the amount of time I spent playing, stopping when I’d got through the song without a major error.
103 tried some recording in the shed. We did some additional soundproofing for separation and set up two Apple G3’s to record. Micrologic only enabled us to record two tracks at once. In order to record drums, bass and guitar together in one take, we used two computers in tandem. Our computer recorded two separate tracks of kick and snare, while Marcus’ computer recorded bass and an acoustic guitar on separate tracks.
Recording my drums on the G3 was difficult. The drums have a vast dynamic range. You wanted things to sound full, but there was always a danger of blowing recording levels. I had no limiting or compression, and two very basic, passive microphones. If you left too much headroom, the drums sounded distant, clattering and gutless. When I was recording drums solo, I could alter the dynamic of my playing through out the song, with close monitoring via headphones. I was able to play certain pieces of the song quieter when necessary, to maximise my overall levels. This wasn’t practical in the band situation. I played it safe and ended up with overly conservative levels, so that when I amplified the recorded drums, I also amplified all the noise on the tracks, making for a rougher, thinner sound. I put a lot of effort into fixing my two songs as best as I could by boosting individual kick and snare hits where necessary. It was laborious but worth it.
We decided to go to The National Grid for our next recording . We demo-ed the songs in K4 on my Tascam 424 and went up to the studio a few weeks later. We knocked out the backing tracks for fifteen songs in an afternoon. We played surprisingly tightly. John transferred the recordings from his eight track into computer files and we set about finishing them. I drove across town to Marcus’s in Ilam on Sunday mornings to overdub and mix. We were only managing a few sessions each month. It took ages.
Eventually the album was finished. We paid John $100 to master it. I bought some black Mitsubishi CDRs and began burning them on the G3. It was a tedious process. The burner would initially reject every disk at least once when starting the burn process. Marcus made a cover and Richard gradually sent out review copies.
We played a CD release gig at The Dux with Minisnap.
We returned to The National Grid for an afternoon and recorded guitar, bass and drums for six new songs. We overdubbed at home on G3s and G4s, swapping files on CDR. Massed saxophones, multiple keyboards, wah wah, piano and guitar filled any gaps in the initial recordings.
You can’t and shouldn’t expect major compromise in musical direction from your band mates. You’ve got to be after the same things. One night we sat in the sun in the gazebo over a few beers and talked things through. We’d all had our fill of guitar-based pop. We were more interested in the overdubs.
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