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Simon - Interview Transcript

Jo 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.

SW 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 Of Land.
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?
SW Sublime!
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 the beginning?
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 song?
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 sound?
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 with Andy.
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