Part 4: Tales of the tape
The Killaz' recording methods have till this day been shrouded in mystery. Even from ourselves. But right now, in this very chapter of our story, I intend to attempt to demystify the genius planning that led to us achieving our unique "sound", which has been likened to "recording onto a piece of masking tape then mastering it using a piece of sandpaper and a four inch rusty nail" (© 1999, Phil Clark).
I say "intend to attempt" as, like many other parts of the Killaz story, dear reader, the recording process involved unhealthy quantities of alcohol, which tend to have the effect of remystifying the very things one wishes to demystify.
Nevertheless, onwards. It was 1996. The summer...
The Amber hiatus aside, it was a good year creatively for the KIllaz. We wrote a trio of great songs, Jackie, Straitjacket and The Great Seducer, which quickly became setlist standards for us, as well as sevaral more that were distinctly above average (Mr Bossanova, an unusually funky number by me and Jasmine, punky chugger Rubber Drugette by Luis and the rocking Dogs In Heat again by me and Jasmine, which I later spoilt by rearranging it).
The Great Seducer was a rare example of a whole band effort. It started with a tune that Mona had written that just didn't quite work out. It had a catchy bridge and chorus but the verse just didn't make it somehow.
Around the same time, Jasmine had written a lyric (with contributions from Holly) about a pair of doomed lovers addicted to heroin (prophetic, it would sadly turn out) that I thought was really good, and I started to knock together some musical ideas around it. But again, it really wasn't coming together. I played and sang it to the group but it never totally caught.
At these times, my friends, the power of musical glue can help. It works, and it's free! I realised suddenly that my verse and Mona's abandoned bridge and chorus stuck together like magic, and suddenly a song was born. Luis added one of his bipolar rambling raps over the playout and suddenly we had a tune where we could all claim a joint writing credit. Suitably enough, it being the Killaz, TGS wasn't a musicianly case of collaboratively "jamming" the song out in studio (that muso-like concept still fills me with dread to this day).
Nope, it was a series of accidents. Yay!
The song itself is a real blast. Mona's and my guitar parts have a real interplay and the call / response verse gives away to a real melodic and catchy chorus. They're some of Jasmine's best words as well. She had a knack for writing vivid imagery (though grammar and sentence construction weren't her strong points) and some of the phrases here are really well turned:
Long sleeve concealer / Poppy field dreamer
Shoot up your lover / Destroy like no other
Pin eye revealer / Sunshade demeanour,
Asleep on a tissue of scars
A rush you pray would last
The girl who lit the flame / A boy who finds the vein
Create your world again / You create your world again...
Meanwhile, Jackie and Straitjacket were both solo efforts by Mona. Jackie was a funny song that condensed the post hubby-assassination life of Jackie Bouvier-Kennedy-Onassis into a cutely observed minute and twenty second list. Mona was really good at writing these witty list poems.
Straitjacket I thought was even better. I always find these lyrics hilarious. They're inspired by the classic Joan Crawford movie of the same name. I especially like the middle eight with its reference to protective plastic cutlery for the insane:
It was only a matter of time
I shoulda listened to what the doctor said
Shoulda noticed the warning signs
When you slept with barbed wire in your bed
You need a straitjacket
You are confused
You need a straitjacket
To beat the blues
You need a soft spot in a rubber room
I wanna see you in a straitjacket soon
You were once a sweet young thing
With style and tact and grace
But I should have known there was something wrong
When you stuck bandages all over your face
You're paranoid, delusional
You need a plastic fork and a plastic spoon
Plastic fork, plastic spoon
YOU NEED MEDICATION!
It was only a matter of time
I Shoulda listened to what the doctor said
Shoulda noticed the warning signs
When you slept with barbed wire in your bed
Straitjacket soon straitjacket soon straitjacket soon
Lacking social skills
By the autumn of 1996 then, we had our strongest set of songs, we'd gone back to the trusted original line up and we were gigging pretty regularly. The next step was to get some of the songs down. In the spirit of feeling like we were moving with a purpose as I described last time, we decided to pay for some professional studio time for this set.
So Mona started looking around for a place to do some recording. I don't think we had any hard and fast conviction that analogue was the way to go over digital, but we ended up recording at what is today probably the most highly regarded analogue recording studio in Britain, if not the world.
But we actually chose Toe Rag, then located in French Place just off Shoreditch High Street, not because (primarily) of its reputation, but because it was pretty much the cheapest place we could find around that everyone was prepared to travel to.
(Many of you will no doubt have heard of both Toe Rag (and its genial sixties throwback owner and chief engineer, Liam Watson) as well as the London area Shoreditch, but this was way back before either of their heydays: a couple of years before White Cube and the Nathan BarleySwarm of Hoxton Twats colonised E2 and absolutely ages before The White Stripes recorded Elephant at Toe Rag (by then relocated to Homerton, much further East), thus instantly making it one of the most desirble places to record your garage rock masterpiece. The rates went up too...)
So it was that we pitched up at the studio one gloomy winter day in 1996, ready to lay down some tunes.
Like I said, we never really got the hang of recording. We used to go into a studio with the foggy notion that we wanted to sound like we did live, but as to the actual craft of how to capture that sound, we never really thought much about it, feckless that we were. Well, I think Mona and Luis might have done, but you know what I mean. It was all too much. This is why our three sets of studio recordings sound so different from each other. It's also why some of our four track demos sound closer to what we felt we wanted to achieve.
Without a good plan going into studio, and usually hungover, bickering and grumpy, it's quite miraculous we managed to do anything (actually, from our testing 1997 session at Talking Drum, we quite literally almost walked out with nothing at all usable - but more on that later). We'd also try and record far too much in a day. I mean, when we went to Toe Rag, we actually laid down seven songs and mixed them all. This is probably about three or four more than is practical in a one day session, even without a drummer. Especially as engineer Liam, who is a great and amiable man with a keen ear, nevertheless has a reputation for being a bit of a stickler for time - he won't spend extra time mixing your masterpiece for you. Why should he? So whatever you have laid down at 6pm is what you'll leave the studio with.
So given that, it was pretty much a miracle that the stuff we recorded with him still sounds so good. I think Liam was a bit bemused by us, probably understandably, this weird, androgynous bunch of semi-musicians, angry, lacking social skills, scary.
I like to think he gave it a go though. As the session wore on, I remember him making more suggestions, coming up with the plan with Mona to put the toy piano on Great Seducer; eking every bit of overdrive he could out of the Vox AC30 I was playing through, because my fuzz pedal was inconveniently at home rather than in my gig bag where it should have been; almost enthusiastic when asked to do a bit of tape sampling for the intros of P.I.G. and Trashola.
Looking back, it was a funny and exciting day - we did a lot of work and came up with a lot of new ideas. that improved the songs a lot. With the playout of Great Seducer sounding long and boring, Luis came up with the idea of the voiceover at the end, which worked really well. I remember leaving to go for a walk in the afternoon, and coming back to be really chuffed that Mona's terrific toy piano part had suddenly appeared out of nowhere in the rough mix of Seducer.
Perhaps the funniest moment was when Jasmine was recording vocals for one of the songs - I forget which - and did one of her trademark SCREAMS.
Liam obviously hadn't been warned about this. None of us had, as Jasmine tended to throw them in on a whim. So he hadn't adjusted the recording levels to cater for this. We all jumped in the gallery when that DEAFENING-JET-ENGINE-SHRIEK came over the monitors. Liam's head popped up like it was on a spring and he said "What the FUCK was that??". He immediately stopped the tape and started worriedly punching buttons and twiddling knobs trying to isolate what he thouoght was a major breakdown in his beloved and unique analogue setup.
"Er. It was Jasmine," explained Mona, embarrassed, "she does that."
It's still there. Liam patiently adjusted levels and we got the scream on tape and into the mix.
I think the Toe Rag recordings still stand out. It's perhaps a little polite for what we wanted, but Liam recorded the guitars and vocals really well and they're a pretty good representation of what we could sound like when we were together and on it. The only problem for me is Dr Rhythm. Probably understandably as, Liam, being an old-fashioned sort of chap, didn't do much with our pocket drum machine, which he must have regarded as some dark digital voodoo.
At our third and final studio session at Britannia Row in 1998, Martin and Rob compressed, reverbed, EQ'd and distorted the fuck out of the little machine to get it working in the mix. From what I can hear today, Liam recorded it and just left the dry sound in the mix. Ah well.
LISTEN: The Toe Rag Session
If you were paying attention, you've already heard the version of Trashola that we recorded with Liam. Now here's a few of the others, along with a version of Mr. Bossanova we did at Talking Drum a year later which is superior to the version from Toe Rag. The other songs we did that day at Toe Rag: P.I.G, Dogs In Heat. Neither recording is that great.
- The Great Seducer (Holly / Luis / Jasmine / Miss K / Mona) 3.27 Recorded at Toe Rag, December 1996. Engineered and mixed by Liam Watson
- Jackie (Mona) 1.17 Recorded at Toe Rag, December 1996. Engineered and mixed by Liam Watson
- Rubber Drugette (Luis) 2.34 Recorded at Toe Rag, December 1996. Engineered and mixed by Liam Watson
- Straitjacket (Mona) 2.04 Recorded at Toe Rag, December 1996. Engineered and mixed by Liam Watson
- Mr. Bossanova (Jasmine / Miss K) 2.48 Recorded at Talking Drum, July 1997. Engineered and mixed by Nick Farr
All songs Copyright Control © 1994 - 2009 Six Inch Killaz.
So it was all a bit rushed and all, but we were pretty happy with the results.
I'm loving those, and produced by the legendary Liam Watson as well, in his lab coat i hope. Glad i stumbled on those, i shall listen again now!
As you were.
Liam Watson wasn't so legendary at the time, and Toerag was one of the cheapest studios in London then.
I was mortified when Jasmine produced a mic she'd stolen from them on the tube afterwards. It was missed straight away, and there was a message waiting for me at home as I'd booked the studio. I had to pretend I knew nothing. It was a drum mic and no use to us at all anyway. I don't know if it was ever returned.
Miss K says:
Jesus. I'd blotted out the microphone incident from my memory. I think Jasmine did take it back. Or maybe that's wishful thinking...
Big gay Christmas tree
The year played out with a few more interesting gigs.
In September, we returned to Matthew Glamorre's club Smashing, where for me it had all started, though this time I was in the band. By then it had become the club of choice for the Britpop crowd, so it's quite possible that the likes of Jarvis Cocker, Kate Moss, Damon Albarn and one or more of the Gallaghers were there. Probably not, eh? Perhaps to some people's disappointment, we just played a set of songs there. Quite well. Rather than splattering people with ketchup and dog food as Luis had done before. This was the gig where my rubbish Laney amp finally gave up the ghost. I also had the fun of arriving at Eve's Club horrendously late, missing the soundcheck, and having to fix my guitar's electrics with a soldering iron minutes before going onstage.
Later that month we had the first of several bookngs at the fantastically seedy Charlie Wright's International Bar on Pitfield Street in Hoxton. It's still there and well worth a visit if you're up our way. This was at an appropriately named club night called Alcohol and we would meet a bunch of people here that were to play a major part in our story later on. But more on that soon.
The club at Charlie Whites was called Death by Alcohol; I remember the miniature irish girl whose night it was telling me this was the teleology of all life in ireland. These were truly the sleaziest gigs, at Charlie White's the band framed by the door of the ladies on the right and the gents on the left./p>
Miss K says:
They were great nights. One of the few we felt truly at home and appreciated at. Funnily enough Irish Anne recently made contact again with me via MySpace.
The year rounded off with another visit to a GLBT Pride festival. This time the somewhat maligned Winter Pride all dayer that they used to hold every year at the University of London Union back then. We'd been booked to "headline" the upstairs stage, which we were pretty chuffed with (and attributed to our Toe Rag demo and general sense of thrustingness).
Well, chuffed until we realised that closing the festival meant waiting round through interminable shitty cabaret acts all fucking day, all overrunning, all squeezing our slot later and later and shorter and shorter until we'd finally have to stagger onstage a few minutes before the music licanse for the venue ran out. Bugger. So we got drunk of course.
Very drunk. Especially Jasmine.
This was Sunday December 15th, 1996. Not many shopping days to Christmas. Picture it - a still pretty busy crowd, somewhat glazed with booze. Right next to the stage, is a huge great big gay Christmas tree. It's a wonder to behold this tree, all glittery and baubly and Christmassy and gay! A bit like the big gay Christmas tree in that Doctor Who Christmas special, but less homicidal. This tree is not a killer. It's a victim. You wait.
So we've spent all evening getting more and more frustrated about how late we're going on. We've drunk the rider ages ago and have started on the bar and our own stash (as you know, Holly and Jasmine, not having to carry gear like the rest of us, always packed two litre bottles of Coke liberally cut with vodka. Clever girls).
Finally the penultimate act clears off and we bound up onto stage, Jasmine a little unsteadily.
Especially when her high heels totally miss the edge of the high stage and she falls slap bang into the huge tree, knocking it clean over into the grumpy sound lady's gear. It looks really bad, but to be honest I think Jasmine was a bit too pissed to be badly hurt and she gets up unscathed from the debris. She's absolutely spitting mad angry, which makes it even better.
The set is a bit of an anticlimax after that, especially as the now even more surly sound woman cuts us off half way through when the license time expires and the house lights come up. This only serves to utterly incense Luis, who smashes some stuff up and has to be escorted offstage. Yep, more madcap fun chez the Killaz!
No one sane and competent
So that was 1996. Where to now?
You hear bands talk about "getting to the next level". No, I don't know what that means either, but that's what we were ready to do by this time. I think as a self-managed, self-promoted entity, the Killaz had got just about as far as we could, especially when coupled with that lack of drive and organisation that you've come to recognise in us.
So really, we needed to get help to reach the next level. But surely no one sane and competent would ever, ever go near a frightening bunch of vodka-fuelled drag queens on the verge of a nervous breakdown, would they?
Miss K says:
NEXT TIME: Wayne...
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