Recording Diary

D A V I D E S S I G Into the Lowering Sky

Prelude

CD Cover
Ideas start coming together in Mexico at Christmas, re-reading Under the Volcano, almost in situ - we're on the coast and Lowery set his novel in the interior, near Cuernavaca. I underline the final words of Chapter IX: "into the Lowering sky." This will be the concept/title of the new CD - songs dedicated to the memory of Lowery, about faith and loss. Milena buys me a beautiful antique lined ledger book and I start to organize the writing.

I decide to record with the same trio that had gone to Europe last summer: Dennis Pendrith on bass, David Haddock on electric guitar and harmony vocals, and me on electric, mostly slide, guitar. We'd gotten a wonderful sound in Europe - "the woven groove," and I want to catch that again on tape. I get in touch with Dennis and Dave and we settle on the week after Easter for recording. We agree to ask Dave H's friend, Chris Nordquist to join us on drums.

Steve Darke at the board...
My old pal, Steve Darke, who has mixed mainstage festival concerts for me more times than I can remember, accepts the offer to co-produce and engineer.

In the weeks before the sessions, I sketch out the production design. We will record in our living room on Thetis, live off the floor into a multi-track, with a minimum of over-dubs and "fix-it-in-the-mix." Our goal is to catch the spontaneous sound of live performance in a relaxed, congenial setting. I plan to use an analogue multi-track to get that warm, live sound. It takes some research to find an analogue deck for rent, but I finally find one, along with a good, quiet board, a DAT deck, some great mics and a load of outboard gear.

I reserve the equipment for 10 days, figuring 4 days for the basic recording and 4 or 5 days for the overdubs and mixing.

Meanwhile, the ledger book is filling up with lyrics and outlines for songs. What had started as an underlined passage in "Volcano," has taken on a life of its own - the ledger becomes a maquette for the third panel in a triptych of CDs since the move to Thetis in 1990.

Musicians

Chris Nordquist
Chris Nordquist
Drums

David Haddock
David Haddock
Guitar

Dennis Pendrith
Dennis Pendrith
Bass

Thursday, April 9, 1998

A four-ferry day - to Vancouver and back in 10 hours to pick up all the rental gear. It amazes me that what used to take a moving van will now fit in the back of the Jetta.

Saturday, April 11

Move all of the furniture out of the living room and set up the 24 channel board on Milena's mission oak partner desk. Organize a rolling computer stand into an ad hoc rack for the 16-track, the DAT deck, and the outboard gear, (compressors and the reverb unit.) The Japanese tea room, adjacent to the living room, is readied for Chris to use as a drum booth.

Sunday, April 12

We take the day off for a special lamb dinner - just the two of us - too cold to follow our family tradition of eating outside on Easter. In the evening, I put all the lyrics on the computer and print them out large - don't want to loose the "magic take" by forgetting the words mid-stream.

Monday, April 13

Dennis flies in from Toronto; Dave and Chris pick him up in Vancouver and take the big ferry to Nanaimo and then the little one to Thetis. All arrive in the late afternoon and settle into our neighbor's summer home, which they've generously donated to the project. We set up the equipment and celebrate our reunion with Martinis, a big Italian dinner and lots of vino rosso. (This the first time the trio has been together since last summer and the first time Dennis and I have worked with Chris.)

We run down a few tunes in the evening and the sound is together right away. 25 years later, it's still a thrill to hear new songs emerge for the first time.

Tuesday, April 14

Steve arrives on the mid-morning ferry, with more mics and cables. We get right to the tech work and by lunch have the location set-up complete. The lay-out is straight-forward: Chris in the tea-room, Dennis and the two Daves around Steve at the board.

Steve and I use a fairly standard 6-mic arrangement on the drums - Chris sounds so good he doesn't require much help from us. We've rented Dennis an amp that would fill a stadium - mic it and run direct as well - compressing on the way to the board. Dave and I play our Godin Acousticasters through Fender amps with mics in front of each. Run an AKG 414 for Dave H's vocals - a Neuman U87 for mine. In most cases, we've got 13 or 14 channels open on the board.

Steve says he is getting good, recordable sounds coming through the board to his headphones, and by lunch the woven groove is starting to come into focus for all of us. We take a break and cable the 16-track deck into the board - everything's hooked up and we're ready to start recording.

Disaster!! Steve powers up the 16-track deck for the first time and it immediately goes into error mode and shuts itself down. Dead. Careful diagnosis by Steve determines that the capstan motor is jammed, the main power supply is disabled, the on-board computer is defaulted and all of the internal fuses and breakers are blown.

We book a seat for the tapedeck on the noon floatplane back to Vancouver and spend the afternoon rehearsing and waiting for a verdict from the rental techs. They finally call with the news - the deck is toast for at least two weeks.

Everyone has to leave Thetis by Friday - time for a meeting...

We huddle in the kitchen and consider the options. I'm so taken by the sound we're getting that I take the leap of faith and decide to forget the 16-track and record directly to the DAT (i.e. two-trk stereo) with Steve mixing on the fly, the same way he does at the festival mainstages. Yes! Everyone agrees we can do this and away we go.

Steve and I need to change our perspectives, from production, to performance. Working through the details, I realize that this "calamity" is getting us right where we want to be: emphasis on art, rather than on the illusion of technique (Wm.Barrett). So I'll have to forego my beloved mandolin overdubs - our tight rhythm section is more than making up for that.

Freed, in a way, from the tyranny of choice (that's maybe putting it a little strongly,) we jump into the live recording. Dennis gets the Annie leibovitz book, opens it to the portrait of Keith and sets it on the board. I turn up my tube pre-amp another notch and sweet distortion fills the floor.

Wednesday, April 15

We spend the day recording the songs, one-by-one, doing two, or, at the most, three takes of each tune. No one misses the multi-track tape machine. The DAT is working fine and we are lucky that our home stereo is a "what-you-hear-is-what-you-get" monitoring system (Carver Amp into Rogers BBC monitors, hung from the ceiling on chains) - I've mastered through it before and trust its accuracy. The sound is working.

Team "Lowering" is falling into a rhythm of work - record 3 or 4, sit back and listen. In this scenerio, nothing is tentative - we're playing as hard as we can and we all know right away when we've got the "keeper". The energy is high but ominous - almost threatening. Milena has to leave during the 19th century violence of "Knoxville Girl." Steve is visibly shaken - and relieved when we nail it on the second take. ("Are you sure you want this on the CD?" he asks as we listen back...)

By late afternoon, Steve figures we have over half of the CD on the DAT. We stop for the day - Dennis goes for the canoe, Chris takes a long walk and Dave H. finishes the last two chapters of "Volcano." Milena and I work up another tribute to the Italian kitchen - find the cooking a relief from today's intensities. Pasta, salad, lots more vino, a tour through Milena's schnapps collection, and we all opt for early bedtimes.

Thursday, April 16

Milena's joyous dinner last night was magic - we slept like lambs and we're now back hard at it this morning - fuelled with espresso and fruit. Draino for the soul.

We're on the home stretch - taking lots of chances now. Hearts are wearing heavy on our sleeves. The European songs, "Venice" and "Sheep May Safely," leave both Daves a little glassy-eyed. Dennis and Chris are laying down waves of incredibly sensitive rhythm.

1PM - we realize it's a wrap - keeper version of the 9 tunes I'd planned to record. Feeling Malcolm in the room - tempted to set another place for lunch. After we eat, we break for naps or time on the beach.

3 PM - everyone drifts back to the house and Steve suggests that, since we're all set up, if there's anything else we've ever thought of recording, well, now's the time. I recall that Dennis and I had recorded a song called "Wake Up Smilin," 25 years ago, almost to the day, for my first lP. This song I wrote about lord Buckley seems to slide right into the theme of this project. Dave H. remembers the tune from years ago in the Yukon - an arrangement falls together and goes to tape within an hour.

Just as we're finishing, David Borrowman arrives from Salt Spring Island, to take photos for the liner notes. He poses us out in the front garden and on the back porch, seems to be surprised how sombre and serious we all look. (later, when he hears the tapes, he'll know why.)

After the photos, we all listen to everything one more time and agree, yes, it's a wrap. The lord Buckley tune seems to be bringing some symmetry and balance to the project. I already have the sequence of the songs for the CD mapped out and can see the flow - the song-to-song is starting to make sense. I declare us finished and exhaustion settles in over the Spring afternoon.

Meanwhile, Milena is calling friends on Thetis and an end-of-the-session party is coming together for the evening. The team has a great farewell dinner together, listening to the keepers at low volume, to see if anything jumps out. By 8 PM, the driveway's filling up, so is the kitchen. We've got pizzas in the oven, the counters are covered in bottles and glasses - the house is rocking. (Some of our Thetis pals are in their 70's - it's a gentle rock...)

All of the equipment is still set up and we decide to show our friends how the process works. Steve mans the board and powers up the DAT machine. We do a couple of tunes and one has the spark and end up on the keeper pile. Things wind down and the 6 of us have a tear-stained toast to midnight and call it a day.

Friday, April 17

Up early - Steve catches a floatplane, the rest of us head for Vancouver on the ferry. Dennis to the airport, Chris and Dave to the city, Milena and me to return all of the rental gear. We sit together on the Queen of Port Moody - surrounded by tourists and school kids. No one would suspect that this tranquil clutch of middle-aged readers, with their Globe&Mails and styrofoam coffees, is reverberating to the gospel according to Malcolm Lowery.

Postlude

I take a break and lock the DAT tapes away. Two weeks later, my head and the tapes have cured and I can listen to what we've got. We rent two DAT mastering machines and a pair of Drawmer tube compressors. I copy the keepers through the Drawmers , using the tubes to warm up the sound.

I run a normal cassette and carry it around for a couple of days - listen in the car and on the boom-box - in the shop and out in the garden. It's sounding together.

It's now several days later - I feel like Lowery's on one side and Monroe's on the other as I hit the playback button on the DAT one more time and unveil the finished work to Milena.

The varnish is starting to dry on the third panel
- Milena smiles and whispers...

"Caro mio, your triptych is finished."

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