The World About Us (Part 1)
Real World music
It is hard not to sound as though you are exaggerating when you talk about the Real World Recording Week. Nine albums recorded in seven or eight days by over 100 musicians and 17 producers seems a little far fetched. Writing and recording over forty tracks in that time with collaborators who don't talk the same language and have never met before sounds even harder to believe. Remixing some of them before mixing seems a little strange, too. But there is nothing on earth that resembles the excitement which takes place in the residential rural studios of Real World for this one week each August. And for anyone who has experienced the two events which have taken place so far, anything is believable.
The first week, held in 1991, was a bold experiment. Womad (World of Music Arts and Dance) was touring with dozens of world music performers and Peter Gabriel, Womad's patron, offered them the studios to see if any of the collaborations that took place on the tour were worth preserving. They were. And several albums have slowly trickled out on Real World records since then. This year, the Womad/Real World team were aiming for something slightly different. The first week had been pretty expensive and though hugely enjoyable, there had not been enough complete pieces to come from it. Jamming is fine for the participant, but can be wearing on the listener.
To help keep a check on the expense and to broaden the scope of the week, two large open air concerts were arranged in Bath's Royal Victoria Park on the Sundays at either end of the week.
A grant was obtained from the EEC to help support this and a series of theatrical performances in the park during the week. As before, the Womad musicians were supplemented by various talented western performers and a wide selection of producers were invited to record at the studios.
Gabriel and his team asked the producers to come with something of a plan so that as much productive work as possible could result. A few, such as Billy Cobham and (Gabriel/Floyd/Alice Cooper producer) Bob Ezrin, time-shifted their week by starting a little earlier and leaving mid-week, but the official starting date for recording was Monday - after a dry and rip-roaring gig the day before. Nevertheless Sunday saw the first signs of activity at the studios...
Simon Booth, producer and guitarist for Working Week has laid claim to the cavernous Big Room, the cathedral-like main control/performance room housing the vast SSL 4000G series. Although most recordings in here are to Mitsubishi Digital, Mike Large (managing director of Real World Studios) has decided to stick to 24-track analogue machines at 30ips (non-Dolby) to allow for easy transfer from one studio to another. Booth begins recording an album for Hassan Hakhmoun, the charismatic Moroccan and his mainly American band, Zahar. Billy Cobham is recording the rhythmic sounds of Farafina in the Wood Room via the smaller SSL 4048E in the Production Room. Both bands are also performing during the day at Royal Victoria Park.
A quick glance at the studio site and there is a sense of gentle confusion. A few people know exactly what they are doing, but others wander round the old stone buildings trying to find their feet. Ayub Ogada, a Kenyan musician who now lives in London, is sitting by the stream wondering what he is supposed to do. He wants to play but no one seems to have a space for him. "I'm beginning to get a complex" he says, smiling.
Inside the production office the confusion takes on a much more energetic form. Artists and producers are scattered throughout the accommodation network which extends from Bath to Bristol; getting them all on the site is a logistical battle. Simon Jeffes, key member of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra and renowned composer/producer/arranger arrives with his cellist and his plan. He is to take over the Power Of Three's production suite and Soundtracs-based 24 track studio to record some pre-prepared tracks and to try a few experiments with some of the musicians. "Well this is a nice place to be. It's a wonderful thing to organise." He's happy because he has a studio.
By contrast, Canadian producer Michael Brook spends the morning wandering around stealing odd bits of equipment to put together a pre-production suite in a small office. His is the first of a number of Heath Robinson recording facilities which spring up in spare rooms on the site. Toni Childs has brought her own ADAT eight-track flightcase studio which she sets up in her bedroom in the main house.
By mid-morning David Rhodes is using the Writing Room to try a series of recording experiments. SSL have donated an 8000G Series desk for the room, though the heat generated by having half the computers in the shower and the noise generated by having the other half next to the desk proves too much to bear so only half of its facilities are in use.
Lucky Dube and his band from South Africa are the source of some concern to the production office team. Apparently they cut short a gig in the Virgin Islands the previous night owing to technical difficulties. Government officials were not best pleased about the ensuing riot and have held the band hostage until they play again for free. It is not known when they will arrive. Meanwhile Turkhmenistani band, Ashkabad have finally turned up, but their instruments have been impounded by Moscow customs officials and Maurice Plaquet don't rent out ancient Turkish flutes. They piece together the rest of the instruments they need and get to work with Simon Jeffes.
Room eight has now been added, though it is actually more of an eight track mobile than a room. During the week this simple combination of ancient eight-into-two Yamaha console and Yamaha eight-track ministudio will become the focal point of some extremely lively jam sessions on the lawn by the stream. Every time one of these sessions takes place, locals from Box village come down with their picnic chairs and sit on the other side of the stream to listen.
Up in the Workroom - the cluttered attic of the old mill - Peter Gabriel is working on an excellent impromptu collaboration between himself, Toni Childs, Juan Martin and Papa Wemba which is turning into an incredible track. A chorus is put together between some of the visitors but because of the looseness of the African rhythms the click track is abandoned when it becomes more of a hindrance than a help. All is glorious chaos and Toni Childs emerges looking exhausted. "There is a real problem with languages up there," she says. Apparently there is a mixture of French, English and Spanish being spoken. "Somebody just asked Peter did he mean 'si' or 'C' in English."
By mid-afternoon, the eight-track is in use on the lawn with Zi Lan Liao and Ziu Yu recording some beautiful traditional Chinese tunes straight to DAT and eight-track cassette. Over in the Writing Room, Andy Sheppard is recording some stunning soprano sax ideas with David Rhodes. Music is pouring from every part of the site.
Come mid-evening, Bob Ezrin can be found dancing round the Rehearsal Room where a Soundcraft Sapphire desk forms the centre of yet another make-shift 24-track studio. He is recording a small group comprising Papa Wemba, Farafina and a Cuban trumpet player who has dropped in for an afternoon. Heavily into Latin grooves, Ezrin has the whole band dancing... "This is great," he says, "We've recorded a whole bunch of stuff; I've no idea what it's going to sound like." When he finishes, Mark Rutherford and Sugar J. move in to turn the studio into the Groove Factory.
Rutherford claims to have arrived with a plan and quickly brings in the Electra Strings - a women's string trio - to play some ideas over a computer driven groove. Atari STs and Akai S1000s litter the control area - there is no separate recording area. Ayub Ogada follows the strings and by the end of the night cellist Caroline Lavelle has put a breathy performance of a traditional Irish air over the groove - bizarre and brilliant.
As some of the musicians steal time for dinner in Lulu's cafe late in the evening, Bob Ezrin takes over the mixing of the Papa Wemba/Toni Childs/Juan Martin track while Simon Booth continues with Hassan Hakhmoun in the Big Room, having completed seven tracks on the first day.
In the Power Of Three room, Simon Jeffes puts together a tribute to the late John Cage who died a few days earlier. Ayub Ogada pitches in with some ideas in the Writing Room with David Rhodes while Michael Brook programmes away in his personal suite. Meanwhile the 'schedule police', as Mike Large and his crew have been dubbed, wander round the grounds trying to sort out the next day's sessions.
Despite the best efforts of the schedule police, Ashkabad have arrived at the Workroom only to find it occupied by the hyper-energetic Ezrin who is still trying to mix the previous day's work. Undaunted, they set up their instruments on the lawn and before long, gather such a collection of musicians that a large audience is drawn. Despite regular interruptions from British Rail (an Inter-City line runs right by the site) and passing cars and planes they record two tracks combining their Islamic wedding music with electric bass, Juan Martin's flamenco guitar and assorted African drums. Peter Gabriel and Bob Ezrin love one of the tracks so much it is commandeered and re-recorded in the Workroom - so Ashkabad get in there in the end. The title, appropriately, is called 'Between Two Trains.'
Daniel Lanois is recording material for an album with Farafina from the Wooden Room into the Production Room. He keeps himself pretty much to himself, barring short beer breaks. "I don't have time to mix later because I'm only here for three or four days" he explains, "...so I mix as I go along." He is ripping through Ampex Grand Master two inch tape like it is going out of fashion. The Farm's backing vocalist, Rebecca Leigh-White adds some Swahili vocals to another track with Ayub Ogada.
Mid-afternoon sees the arrival of Nigel Kennedy who has adopted the Robinson Crusoe look and is driving a trashed BMW that he has hand sprayed in Aston Villa colours. He scurries off to the Power Of Three room with Andy Sheppard and producer Alex Gifford to record a jazz piece he has written. Simon Booth and his team have completed almost an entire album with Zahar and Hassan Hakhmoun, whilst programmer Ron Aslan sits in the corner of the Big Room with a Macintosh, a master keyboard and numerous samplers and effects. "We've set a precedent here" says Booth, "Ron is actually remixing before we mix, if you can get your head round that. Just taking DATs off the desk and sampling them into the computer."
Jane Siberry, the shy but brilliant Canadian singer/songwriter has found a soulmate in Ayub Ogada and she and the Kenyan are working on an idea that David Rhodes had started the previous day. It is fascinating to watch him tune his gut string lyre by twisting the top branch of the instrument while David Rhodes plugs his Fender into a Korg electronic tuner. Michael Brook still beavers away in his room with his seventies wax lamp for comfort.
That night, Lulu throws a birthday party for herself in the cafe. An impromptu string jam occurs with Nigel Kennedy, the Electra Strings and sundry bongo, conga, bass and vocalists. They stagger home at four in the morning; Daniel Lanois is still mixing in the Production Room.
All change today as Lanois takes over from Simon Booth in the Big Room to start some more experimental tracks with the likes of Kudsi, a Turkish flautist. Lanois keeps his recordings simple but very atmospheric to get the most from the performance. By working with unusual combinations of instruments he gives a strange and dark sound to his recordings and with the candles in the room and his wild-eyed look he creates a curious vibe. He works at an alarming rate yet he still has time to record a lively vocal in the Groove Factory and to play some guitar for Peter Gabriel.
His early start in the Big Room awakens Anthony Michael Peterson, guitarist from Zahar who had crawled into the vocal booth the night before and fallen asleep. Everyone forgot about him when they locked up. Michael Brook emerges from his cell to add acoustic instruments to his vocal samples and programmed tracks in the production room. Simon Jeffes has begun recording the Electra Strings in the Power Of Three room before they leave at lunchtime for a London session.
Bob Ezrin is feeling a little frustrated at having to leave today. "I've just got so much to finish" he says as he tidies up some mixes in the Workroom. The latin piece from Monday night is in two separate takes and he hasn't had time to edit them together. "It's a shame, because one take is technically perfect and one has real energy but I just don't have the equipment to put the two together. The trouble is it's only a great backing track at the moment and it needs a little guitar or a brass section. I'd quite happily hand it over to someone else but it needs editing first." His frustration is common, but it goes with the territory.
By this stage there are at least ten recording facilities up and running and the only mic left is for a Tandy Walkman. Someone, somewhere is bound to lose out. John Leckie is waiting for Ashkabad who are sleeping off the vodka in Bristol. He has taken over the Writing Room from David Rhodes who has had to leave on business. Sadly, Rhodes cannot return to complete his tracks but they will certainly come in useful for him later. While he waits, John Leckie records some solo guitar with Juan Martin.
Out on the lawn, a lone bagpiper wakes the village before being joined by Turkish flute and a form of Chinese violin for a rather esoteric jam. Simon Jeffe's tribute to John Cage has been coming along well and, true to his style, he has devised a piece written in the chords C-A-G-E and D-E-A-D. Peter Gabriel has invited Michael Horovitz and some other poets as part of his plan to record more complete songs than last year and, as Horovitz knew John Cage, Jeffes invites him to say a few words over the track. Jeffes then records the voice via a walkie talkie to distort it.
Nigel Kennedy leaves for an Aston Villa match by chauffeur-driven Jaguar - the BMW being deemed unsafe. He is worried about how his playing will be affected by the result of the match. "I think there will be some serious grief when I get back tonight. Last time we played Leeds we lost 4-1 at home." Jane Siberry and Senegalese producer/musician George Acogny spend some time writing in her room.
John Leckie has taken a break from the writing room to have a meeting with Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians' bassist to discuss Leckie producing an album on the Isle Of Wight in two weeks' time. The bassist ends up caught in a ramshackle jam between Ashkabad's clarinet, accordian, hand drum, tar, fiddle and George Acogny and Sagat on electric guitars with David Defries on flugelhorn and bagpipes - though he has to stay outside to play because he is drowning out even the electric guitars.
Leckie attempts to control the cacophony, but eventually Ashkabad's clarinetist - who is head of department at the university in Turkmenistan - takes over the musical direction and starts teaching George and Sagat how to play funk. What started as an unruly jam has turned into a careful multitracking session. Hitchcock sits outside musing over the chaos of the thing and writing a potential lyric to sing over the music. "This is a really strange thing to walk in on," he says, "I'd love to be involved next year."
Simon Jeffes is very happy with the results of his work, too, but he points out one of the problems of the event. "Nobody wants to take the lead" he says, pointing out that everyone is enjoying the 'equality' of the occasion, but few are willing to take control. Luckily the producers are there to take care of that. Speaking of which, Michael Brook has set up U Srinivas, the young Indian electric mandolin player and his band in the Wooden Room. Just before nine, people stroll across from Lulu's cafe and sit on the studio floor surrounded by candles to watch as he performs. Brook records the whole thing in the production room for a live album and the event is also filmed.
Peter Gabriel, Ayub Ogada, Hossam Ramzy, Kudsi and Zi Lan Liao are working on a piece by Ogada in the Workroom. Gabriel sings and plays keyboards.
Next Month: The Final Days. Lucky arrives, Billy Cobham gets ecstatic,: William Orbit comes down and Nigel Kennedy sprays everyone with mud...