Thursday, August 04, 2005


There are many odd things about being in a band, and here's one of them: making music collaboratively involves a whole bunch of people trying to "agree" upon an abstract idea. It’s like trying to hold a bunch of smoke together, using ropes. Success within your number (however small that number may be, two people is difficult enough, three? Hah. Impossible) depends upon somehow reaching a consensus about where a song ought to live in the imagination. You’re catapulting this… thing… at the listener, and you have to decide how high it ought to arc before landing mightily on top of them.

On the other hand, maybe I’m thinking about it too much. Maybe an LP is in fact like a bunch of shelves and should just be nailed up to the wall, bracket after bracket, and left for the listener to dump stuff on as they see fit (stuff they’re going to come back to regularly, or forget completely, or occasionally unscrew and use a pinch of, whatever.) I’ve been in bands where recording and playing is like that, instinctive, animal. And it’s incredibly satisfying. But then so is gradually and painstakingly chipping away at something that changes beyond all recognition as you work.

As if you hadn’t guessed already angel tech is very much the latter type of outfit. It’s no longer about three blokes playing their instruments in a room. The working consequences of delving as far as we have into our technology and abstract concepts are very easy to mock (there’s certainly more than a little of Spinal Tap about the whole thing) but it’s not as if the final results are measured with strict reference to textbooks and aesthetic manifestos. They’re measured by whether they make us grin, dance, bash the table in excitement or laugh until our wigs fall off.

So, back to the quantity of smoke, and the attempt to contain said smoke using a system of ropes, perhaps some pulleys, maybe also by running around the smoke quickly, in a little circle: this is known as “mixing.”

Mixing is the stage at which your disagreement about what a drumbeat “means” raises its ugly head. Mixing is where you discover that everything sounds better on its own and you begin to consider turning the song into a long procession of isolated elements lasting four and a half hours. Mixing is where a chord is “angry” to one member of the band, “kind” to another member of the band, and the third thinks it sounds like “Tuesday.” Mixing is trying to kill the Hydra, the fucking heads just keep sprouting back up at you, you’ve sorted the bass guitar sound but it messes with the hi-hats, you’re hacking away, gasping, up to your knees in bits of snake. Mixing wrecks marriages and turns old friends against each other, all at the whim of the high-pass filter. Mixing asks you to “turn it all up, that’ll sort it, just make it louder,” but it lies, lies, lies. Mixing is never finished, because every system you play your record on will make it sound different in some unexpected way. Mixing sits at the bottom of your bed and laughs at you when you wake up in the morning. Mixing costs, and right here is where you start paying, in sweat. Mixing makes you quickly realise that you wish you had the hearing abilities of a Labrador, because there’s not enough to room in the human range to cram all those sounds in. Mixing is starting with a beautiful palette of vibrant colours, and ending up with a canvas completely covered in BROWN. Mixing is the compression of what you hoped the tune would be into something you think you might be able to live with in the future, and it all hinges upon blind fucking faith. Mixing blows. It blows like the wind. I hate mixing.

At least, that’s what I thought until recently.

In the past I would often leave the room when the mixing process began. My ears would fail me. I'd begin to hear everything in component parts and never be able to get a clear overall impression of how the music was sounding... in other words, I couldn't see the wood for the trees. But there's been a gradual shift in my attitude, and it's all to do with giving each mix an imagined story, a narrative all of it's own.

When I was younger I had a real problem with Mathematics, a mental block which I still struggle with today. The only way of defeating it was to give the numerals individual characteristics, personalities, to make equasions like conversations, graphs like maps, prime numbers proud and arrogant, obtuse angles literally obtuse - It's an approach that I've been told bears some relation to the ideas of educationalist Rudolf Steiner. So I've started using these ideas to get over my hurdles with the vagaries of EQ and panning, with the flow and balance of a piece of music. It sometimes produces interesting results in that I'll latch onto one aesthetic principle and not let go, revelling in the sound of music presented as though recorded inside an oil drum, or through a wall, or on a fucked-up hard drive. I adore music by, say, Tom Waits, where you hear roosters crowing in the background, the devil-may-care hiss of lo-fi, the creak of the piano stool, coughs, buzzes and clicks. Then there's the segments of "There's More To Life Than This" by Bjork where she walks into different rooms during the song. You hear doors slam shut, and acoustics change, and then you walk back with her to where you originally came from.

The latest batch of angel tech mixes are sitting on my minidisc player, on random play, and I'm very pleased to say that they're beginning to take on similar qualities. Angel Tech RIP starts like a squeezebox whirring to life and suddenly shifts gear, defiant, maddening. Molotov seems to have two bands playing the same song on different sides of the world, before being flattened by the loudest guitar in the universe. Compatible just sits in the corner of the room with a funny little smile on its face. Calm Down is the noise of a band of robots getting ideas above their station. God, I can't wait to hear this whole record from start to finish.