Simon - Interview
McNerney in conversation with Z00 Member Simon Withers. Summer 2002.
The engagement takes
place in the Nottingham coffee establishment, The Elbow Cafe. It is a
Monday morning and we are sitting at a yellow Formica table that has been
marked by generations of coffee drinkers mugs. The coffee served by the
staff at The Elbow Cafe is presented to you in a very large white mug
that sits on a yellow saucer. The un-glazed saucer no longer glides over
the table surface as the waitress serves the coffee to us.
It's a wonderful etched surface on this table.(Simon rubs one of his fingers
over the table's surface.)
JM How long has this establishment been here?
SW I think since the early 1970's. The coffee has
always been hand-ground; it's a lovely aroma in here. Importantly you
can chat all day and the staff don't have a problem with that.
JM We are here to talk about Z00's CD, The Discovery
SW It's just Discovery of Land, without the 'the'.
JM What I thought I would do is pick one track from
the CD and ask you to offer me your perspective on the particular song
I have chosen.
SW Fine, which one have you selected?
JM I have selected the first track, Driving in the
Rain. How would you describe this song to me?
JM Would you care to expand on that?
SW I'll go back to the point when the word sublime
came into my mind to summarise that particular track. It was during the
mixing of the song in Peterborough. The whole group and Andy Hawkins were
in the engineer's room. Andy was undertaking the final mix down. During
the play back it was evident to us all that the song had developed into
something quite special for us. It was the one song out of the four tunes
which we were recording over the approaching four days that we knew would
need to be crafted in the studio. We probably only began to understand
its potential and the subtleties contained within the song over the recording
period. To a degree the song had a life of its own.
JM Was the song controlling you, in a sense did
you run the risk of running out of time to complete it?
SW No, not at all, what was reassuring was that
the band, and I include Andy in this, showed good judgement and restraint
in not letting the array of ideas for the track get out of hand. Andy
was very good at managing our time over the four days. We were also quite
well organised ourselves.
JM What were some of those ideas for the song that
were not included in the final track?
SW Some of the band discussions were about what
would sit under the track. We talked about having a series of monologues
or conversations between the driver and the passenger. Another idea for
these conversations were that we could record them as if they were part
of a radio broadcast. A further idea would be to have more of an atmospheric
or sound effects track. Reg and I recorded some windscreen wipers one
night. I stood outside on the front of the Cleggs' driveway pouring a
watering can full of water onto the car window. It was a little absurd,
the squeaks of rubber on glass that were in the recording were a little
ridiculous; still we had a laugh.
JM I can hear that these ideas didn't find their
way on to the track, what did appear on the track however sounds interesting?
SW Yes, thanks. One late evening back at Paul's
house we spent some time grabbing hold of radio noise. Reg and I took
it in turns to move slowly through the radio bands for Paul to record
onto CD. Paul also recorded the shipping forecast. This material was taken
back to the studio on our last day of recording for Andy to use. Along
with some classical music which Andy had on CD this is the material that
underscores the track.
JM On hearing the track for the fist time with the
volume up, the high frequency sounds that are mixed within a hint of classical
music and an almost indistinguishable spoken word sits very well with
the haunting vocals of Karen and Denise. There is so much space and depth
in the song.
SW Yes we all thought so too, this takes me back
to your original question. As we sat listening to the final mix down,
the sound of Driving drifted out from the studios' speakers. Driving began
to fill the ether with sound. It was Liquidity, It was languid and by
the end it was emotional. I know that to use the word sublime to describe
an art form can be hackneyed, but upon the conclusion of the song I just
felt it was appropriate; I still do.
JM Did the recording of this track go well from
SW Yes and it was a little bit surprising to me
in particular and all the more pleasing for the rest of the band. Both
Reg and Karen both had colds at the time, both of them had yet to lay
their respective vocals down. The drums were recorded first, I played
along to the rest of the band to lay down the guide track. The band were
crammed into the mixing room while I'd bang away in the recording room.
Denise sang some of Reg and Karen's vocal parts to help preserve their
voices for later. Any way Driving was laid down in one take. We launched
into the song and I think we thought Andy wasn't recording it, this was
just a warm up and a chance for Andy to adjust sound levels and for him
to get a feel for the song. We finished the song and Andy called me into
the mixing room and said, "That's fine, we'll go with that."
There was a lovely rich mounted tom sound on the track, really heartily
sexy. Near the end of the finished version it sits perfectly with the
vocals, guitar and bass. The song up until this recording had been about
40 to 50 seconds longer in duration. We had discussed about making it
shorter. We must have been relaxed during this take as we got our desired
shortened version without consciously trying.
JM That's serendipity for you.
SW Yes I suppose it is, it's lovely when it works.
JM Is it your favourite song on the CD?
SW I sometimes prefer Waiting, other days Its Driving,
but they are my favourite tracks on the CD.
JM What do you think about your own performance
on Driving in the Rain?
SW I was very pleased with it at the time, there
is just one moment where it is almost too languid. This is the first couple
of strokes on the snare drum. The bass Drum just before the snare work
has a very heart-beat feel, I like that. The slight changes in emphasis
and accents through the song I like, there are some interesting subtle
differences taking place.
JM Did you work out what you would play in this
SW I had an idea, but I want to preserve my notion
of the unknown, the improvised. However I wanted to have a concept as
to what sound I was making or striving for had some reference to an idea.
In other words this version is but one interpretation of the song. I knew
that I wanted to evoke a sense of claustrophobia that one can feel in
a steamed up car during a down pour of rain. A dampness in the air, one
is in a cocoon. The ears' sensitivity to the sounds outside, the splashing,
the drone of heavy goods vehicles on the tarmac. That kind of thing.
JM A certain vulnerability.
SW Exactly, I like the snare sound, it has a paper
like quality. That is Andy's work. I enjoyed creating sounds that are
evocative of other sounds. The sounds of a drum kit that are comparisons
to those other sounds but are not assimilations. The sounds are not supposed
to belong to the school of Mickey Mouse sound effects.
JM Can you give me an example of the comparative
SW At the beginning of the song, I wanted a sound
the was akin to lorries moving past a car. A heavy rumbling sound. Andy
and I over-dubbed a few Tom rolls to create that feel.
JM Were there any other over-dubs?
SW A couple, The crescendo of a cymbal just before
the lethargic groove kicks in. There is some Free Form percussion as well.
JM What is Free Form Percussion?
SW Recording a sound or sounds in isolation then
adding those sounds to the track later.
JM How did this come about, what Free Form percussion
can I hear on Driving in the Rain?
SW The seeds were set a year ago when the band went
to Peterborough to record Sinistra, our first CD. Then as now I set my
kit up first to lay my drum parts down. Before that however the kit needs
to be miked up by Andy. This was a good time to find out more about what
we want from this working relationship. There was a lot of common ground
between Andy and I as to the type of sounds we were looking for. We were
both interested in having a very open drum sound with lots of natural
resonance on the kit, minimal dampening, a kit that was not miked up to
the hilt, including a microphone on the drum throne.
JM Do people really do that?
SW Probably. During the process of adjusting levels
on the kit, Andy asked me to play each drum in turn as I intend to use
it. Sometimes this involves playing a straight beat. On one occasion I
began to create hi-pitched screeching sounds on the cymbals with my sticks.
Andy liked the sound and we thought we would incorporate it into a recording.
The opportunity never came to anything on Sinistra, there wasn't time.
However in 2002 we gave ourselves more time to record. Andy remembered
the cymbal screeching so we thought we would record some.
JM And that is what we hear on Driving in the Rain?
SW Ah, no. We got interested in another sound. This
was using a violin bow over and across the edge of the cymbals. Andy recorded
me randomly creating an array of bowed cymbal sounds in isolation. From
those sounds we made a selection that would be included in the song.
JM You seemed to develop a good working relationship
SW Yes. In fact the whole band did. He made a valuable
contribution to the sound and in a few cases he arbitrated between band
members who held differing interpretative solutions to the same creative
problem. We hope we get the opportunity to work with him on future occasions.
We think he enjoyed working with us. We buy him Mars bars, healthy drinks
and chips with two battered sausages.
JM Time to eat.
SW Yes, let's end on that note.
JM Thank you Simon