Henry Priestman: the word
The Christians are back with a third album called 'Happy In Hell'. Will they be thrown to the lions or will technology be their salvation?
"It's difficult coming up with ten or twelve good songs... as I always say, you have 25 years to write your first album, and about five months to write the second"
Whatever the ramifications of production schedules in the long haul towards a finished product, the story of Happy In Hell begins at home.
"All of us have got little setups at home. Gary and Russell have both got the Akai MG14D; I've just got a Portastudio. I tended to work mainly just using a computer; you can generate so much stuff, especially if you've got quite a lot of memory. Unless you're actually working out vocals or guitar lines, most of it comes straight off the computer onto cassette, just my own ideas.
"The next stage was to go into Square One studios in Bury to do the demos. We were in the lucky position of doing demos to 24-track, but there is always this thing of doing demos to quite a high level, then trying to re-create them and it not being the same. This is especially true, for me, with things like Hammond parts, when the first thing you play is totally spontaneous and sounds great. And Gary will ad lib some vocals... there's so much where you think well, this isn't going to go on the album, so you let rip, you're relaxed. You'd be more self-conscious if you thought it was going on the album. So consequently most of the backing vocals, on the tracks that we demo'd there, were used on the album. Quite a lot of the lead vocals, too... we were able to use composite bits. For one song, we did some vocals in July, some in September, and others in January. All for the same song. You come back to it, and re-assess it each time.
"So by this time we were just working on those demo tracks. We did all the tracks ourselves, and Island were a bit worried about this. They heard the demos, and they couldn't fault anything about the melodies, the hooks, the singing, but they thought we needed some help in the rhythm department on certain tracks. So for those, we decided to co-produce. We started the first ones in September, and that was with William Orbit.
His way of doing it was for us to send him the album track for him to fiddle around with. I'd usually come down a couple of days later and add some guitar or keyboards and he'd fiddle around with that - cast his magic spell over it - and then throw it back to us in Bury. We'd put any extra vocals on it, and then send it back to William for him to mix it. It was great; recording by proxy. A definite coproduction."
And so, as the proxy music developed, the courier bills mounted. But the overall recording costs were kept in check by the judicious choice of studios. Such frugality is an increasing trend within the recording industry, and Henry Priestman knows why... "With the last two albums, we were thinking how come we can sell 1.2 million and still owe the record company £250,000? We know that we take ages doing an album, so we were keeping an eye on the budget, which is why we recorded at Bury and Deptford. People don't believe you when you tell them how much it can cost to record. But you don't need the most expensive facilities all the way down the line, as long as you mix somewhere good.
"With technology the way it is, you can do a hell of a lot in your bedroom, or wherever, and you can do a hell of a lot in a cheap studio. You only really need all this amazing outboard and everything when you're mixing. So it was great being at Jools' place, especially as, in a place like that, you feel more relaxed, you don't worry about having a sore throat and missing a day's recording, or whatever. Jools gets a credit, actually: Julian Holland, studio management! That's the feeling we got in Bury, as well: you know, good people, dead relaxed."
Was there no opportunity to make the most of Liverpool's newly relocated and refurbished Amazon studios?
"Amazon wasn't sorted out when we started. I'm sure we would have done a lot more there, if it had been. We ended up doing quite a lot of the later stuff there, in this tiny room which became known as The Christians Room because we seemed to be there all the time. But again, you don't need much space, especially when you're just doing overdubs, so it worked out really well being able to use that room. But the whole studio is going to be great - well, it is great, and if we can ever get in there we will. The big room is booked out, which shows it seems to be doing well."
In the autumn of 1988, The Christians did pretty well themselves. A cover version of the Isley Brothers classic 'Harvest For The World' took them to number eight in the charts - which remains their highest singles placing to date. But Henry remains unconvinced of the wisdom of covering songs that are too well known...
"About March last year, knowing it was going to take us ages to do the album, we thought about doing a covers EP to keep things going, and maybe surprise a few people - maybe put a Temptations number on there, and also do 'Soon I Will Be Gone' by Free, and a Gil Scott-Heron track 'The Bottle'. The Gil Scott-Heron idea came up again about a month ago, so we went in and did it, and it turned out so well it's going on the album. And it sounds like a single, so it could well be single number three or something.
"We wouldn't have done 'Harvest For The World' but for the fact that it was for charity. We are aware of the attitude of people who think you can't write songs if you put out covers, and I don't think we'd ever attempt to do another cover that people know so well - only Gil Scott-Heron aficionados are going to know 'The Bottle'. But with 'Harvest' we were specifically asked to do that song, for the animated film. Normally we'd have said no, you can't touch songs like that, and I still think that. No doubt there'll be purists who say we've ruined 'The Bottle', but I think we've done a pretty good job, as we did on 'Harvest'.
"Actually it sounds surprisingly in the same vein as 'Harvest', maybe we have a way of approaching cover songs. There's definitely a pressure that's taken off you when you do them; we did this latest one in about five days, definitely the quickest track on the album. It just sounded great so it went straight on there."
"Like most songwriters, I get a thrill in the studio. What the technology is doing is making it easier for me, as a hamfisted keyboard player and guitarist, to get my ideas down"
"I play guitar on most of the tracks, actually. Although it takes me ages, I usually work out something. It might take me a day to get one line, but it would take days to explain to someone else how I want it to go. With enough drop-ins, I can do it. So there's not so much 'muso-ness' on this album - which was a deliberate policy. On the last album, all you read about was, 'Ah, Manu Katche on drums...' and nobody discussed what the songs were like. Nothing against that - those musicians were brilliant, but so what? That's why it's been good to try out people we haven't used before, like Harry Morgan on percussion, and the string arranger Peter Whitfield, who we met through the studio in Bury."
So despite the increased use of samplers, arranging a real string section remains preferable?
"Yes, but you can't always afford it, can you? And some things don't need it. Sometimes I just can't tell the difference. Then again, there's a bit on 'Father' where I'm thinking how on earth are we going to do that live - a really manic, meshing of strings. But hopefully the song's strong enough to stand up without all those embellishments. That always happens when it comes to playing live; you start trading off one hook in order to have another, because you haven't got enough hands to physically do everything. We've got all the cheesy little Cheetah and Casio bits, so it comes down to what you actually listen for in the song, the main thing - rhythm, voices, the odd hook."
Do I detect a certain frustration with having to play live? "Yes, but you've got to gig, otherwise people think you're not confident with your material - at least that's what our record company tells us. I don't actually like gigging that much, neither does Russell; Gary likes it, but there is that thing if you don't go out there, that someone will start asking questions. But of course we're competent, we just can't be bothered gigging all the time.
"Reluctantly, I do agree that if you're seen as a live band, it gives you more authority' - you're a real band, you can do it live. But for me it's just frustrating, the rehearsing, the waiting around; I don't get that huge buzz when I'm on stage. I'm sorry to say that - no doubt there'll be Christians fans reading this thinking, 'What a miserable bastard'. But I'd rather be in the studio. I'd rather be writing. I see myself more as a writer and producer."
Well, the record company may say playing live imbues you with some kind of authenticity, but the real function of gigging is to promote recorded product. "Of course, I accept that, and we're quite blatant about saying the only reason we're touring is because it's the best promotion for the album. But I still don't get that huge thrill out of it, and in some ways I wouldn't mind never doing it again."
By now, most of the pub has descended into a drunken chorus of 'We Are The World', proving that some sections of the Liverpool community are quite happy to do cover versions of anything - and do them live - even if Henry isn't. But he still has plenty to say, and as we leave the cabaret his enthusiasm remains undiminished.
"Like most songwriters, I get a thrill in the studio. What the technology is doing is making it easier for me, as a hamfisted keyboard player and guitarist, to get my ideas down. I can have loads of goes at getting it right. Otherwise you have to get session musicians in and say, 'Can you play that?... No, that's not quite what I meant'. Obviously, I know that some people are better than me at playing guitar, and sometimes you get them in. But I'm pleased to have played a lot of guitar myself this time.
"So technology is great as a songwriting tool, and the idea that you can do so much at home before you get into the expensive studios - where all you're paying for is time - I think is great. Obviously it can be abused, but I'm not worried, because the song will out. There'll always be songwriting; it's not suddenly going to go away. That's why I don't jump on the pessimistic bandwagon. Look back 15, 20 years: there was plenty of nonsense around then, too. But you don't remember that, you just remember Isaac Hayes, The Temptations, all the funk going on, and then a few years later the Punk thing, Television, Talking Heads... You just think of the good things, but don't forget that there was loads of crap around then as well, and there always will be loads of crap around. And, of course, Neil Young's been around forever!
"In a way the increasing sophistication of sequencers does make it harder to come to decisions; there's sort of no final version of anything, you can always say well, I can change that, or we'll run the drums again... but I try to look on the positive side. If, in the past, you put the drums down first, then that was it, you were stuck with them. But what happens if you then come up with a great rhythm that doesn't work with those drums? I think it's great that you can - run the drums again and again. It's down to discipline and knowing your craft, basically; knowing when the song is finished. I know the album appears to have taken a long time, but we haven't been trying to get every note perfect. If anything, we've tried to be more ragged on this album - using bits from the demos, as I said before, when it was more spontaneous, when it was more relaxed.
So it's knowing when a song is finished. We are learning our craft, and we're getting better at it."
Getting better all the time - as that other Liverpool band might put it.
Interview by Phil Ward
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