Since I uploaded the preorders for my forthcoming album Cells I've been thinking about writing a bit about the process and ideas behind the music. But I really have no idea where to start.
I guess one place to start would be in Eastbourne, in the late 80s and early 90s. We had a piano in that house. A nicely kept upright. Loud to my tiny ears. Memories of that house kind of come and go. I remember having a bedroom at least twice the size of my sister's. I remember that at one end of the terrace there was a wall that caught the sun all summer long and all kinds of bugs would congregate there. I remember there was an old, kind couple that lived on the opposite end of the terrace with an immaculate garden that wrapped around the side of their house. I remember walking home from school, alone, the backdoor key on a string around my neck, under my shirt, letting myself in and playing with the guinea pigs we kept. I remember the steep grass bank opposite the house, climbing it, and crossing the road to a play park. I remember falling off the slide, and cutting open my thumb, the wound filled with gravel, my father picking out the pieces with a pair of tweezers.
I still have the scar.
But most of all, I remember the piano. We must have either sold it or given it away when we moved to Spain, all our belongings fitting into an old ambulance. For some reason my Dad's shitty motorbike made the cut, but the piano did not, and was replaced with an electronic piano, which I suppose, was pretty nice, but it wasn't real.
I've written before about my legendary maternal grandparents. My grandmother played the piano beautifully, and in a way which gave a lot away about her personality. She always played from sheet music, and was so very concerned about getting it "right". I remember watching her feet in high heels on the beautifully worn brass pedals. So precise. Her piano now lives in my cousin's studio.
Last year they knocked down the arts annex at Swansea Uni where I used to get my piano fixes as a student. There were a series of rehearsal rooms, and I remember sitting in one with Gonz and Jess, playing in the myopic way only a teenager can, not listening but using my friend's turns at the keys to think about what I'd dazzle them with next.
When we got married my wife's childhood piano came to live with us. It is the largest, tallest, heaviest upright I've ever encountered. It has the dark patina of an instrument that was french polished long ago, and has since lived in many houses, been abused by many children, and had many cups of coffee spilt on it. Soon after moving in together, Rachael and I were given notice on the rental property we were in and the following two houses we lived in over the next 7 years were SMALL. We lent the piano to some friends who's daughter was having lessons. They moved. They moved again. The piano followed them once, but the second time they lent it on to an aunt or cousin (?) and I wasn't sure it I'd see it again. To be honest, I wasn't sure if I wanted to see it again. It's large. HUGE. But around a year ago we got a message. The current keeper of the piano was moving and did we want it back.
I count myself as very fortunate to have some great friends who'll do a lot for me. Most of them are human, but three guys are either a special kind of selfless, or a special kind of stupid. I think you have to be a bit of both to respond to a text asking if you'll help move the largest, heaviest piano halfway across Wales. It hardly fit in Nathan's van. David nearly put his back out lifting, and Matt was the perfect realist to my in-denial optimism that the piano would easily fit through every doorway.
But we did it. And now, in my overly-cramped studio lives an heirloom and a white elephant.
Cells was written at that piano, for that piano, and while each of the tracks features a varying amount of piano, they all started in the same place.
Here's a blow-by-blow of the tracks.
The Thought Alone - How to make an album accessible? Start it with a piece in 5/4. This originally featured all the synth parts played on a 1970's Hohner melodica, but no one ever needs to hear that.
Cells - The first track written for the album, that kind of set the tone for the rest of the tracks. This track for me answered the question "How do you move on from an album like PENINSVLA?"
I've Done Questionable Things - My ode to poly-synths from the early 80s. I clawed this track back from going full Vangelis.
Redemption in Epoxy Fumes - As a kid I'd help fix the fiberglass bodywork of my dad's motorbike. While writing the album I was asked to fix a synthetic "HPL" guitar that required some epoxy glue. Smells bring back memories like nothing else, do you find?
Rube Goldberg - You know what a Rube Goldberg machine is, you just might not know what it's called. More and more I see modern society as this hugely complex beast that accomplishes very little.
This album would never have happened / sounded so sweet without:
Nathan, Matt and David moving the piano.
Andy for lending me his tasty tube preamps and talented ears for the mastering process.
Edie Bens for coming to sing.
The support of the Presence Project for giving me a reason to write to deadlines.
The crazy and friendly lines community for getting me into the whole modular synth thang.
Olafur Arnald’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful Albert Hall gig.
I'll leave you with the only lyrics from the album:
I want to feel something that’s not despair,
I want to hold you tight and touch your hair,
I want to lie; there’s something else out there,
I want to feel something, anything.
I want to see the wood but not the trees,
I want to feel the cold chains of the free,
I want to close my eyes and begin to see,
I want to feel something, anything.
I want the hymns we sung to all be true,
I want to look through the glass and still see you,
I want to drown the crowds out, hear the few.
I want to feel something, anything,
I want the widest smile, the closest touch,
The best laid plans, the devil’s luck,
The pride of falls, the fastest buck,
The never-never, the gold we struck,
The touch of a barge-pole, edge of a knife,
The strings to my bow, the inch of my life,
The spin of the wheel, the roll of the dice,
The best times, a glass and some ice.
I want to feel something anything.