Classic album: Morcheeba on Big Calm

Paul Godfrey discusses the 1998 trip-hop classic

It's Christmas Day 1995, and Morcheeba brothers Paul and Ross Godfrey are sacking off any idea of a follow-up course of mince pies, and instead heading to the studio right next to the bedsit they share, pissed as newts, to make their second album. In one day. Sozzled. Before the first album has even come out. Hic!

The two bros headed up the garden path, armed with the Christmas booze, to fire up the samplers. All they needed now was a plan of attack...

"Let's make a song every five minutes!" shouted Paul, thrusting a triumphant finger in the air to further signal the drama of the idea. It's at that point that a brother is legally allowed to slap you firmly across your chops and demand that you "get a grip". But no, the drink makes you the king of the world and, in good company, these types of demented brain children are given permission to run riot.

So, they looped up beats, waffled lyrics into a dictaphone and laid down the foundations for what would be a trip-hop masterpiece and a massive worldwide commercial success. From little pissed up acorns, eh?

"My main memories from that period are just ones of intense panic. We were out of our minds all the time on various things, and the fact that we were making such peaceful music was bizarre." Paul Godfrey

"We had to do something," says Paul Godfrey, the beats and lyrics guy from Morcheeba. "We were waiting for our first album to drop, and we'd worked really hard on it and got the record deal and everything, but we were just sat there in limbo, panicking about the whirlwind that was about to follow..."

Paul and his more musically-inclined guitar-strumming, slightly younger brother Ross hadn't been
in London that long before they suddenly got a record deal, you see. "Before we knew it we were out in Hollywood playing to celebrities," says Paul. "We really kind of lost our minds a little bit. There was no kind of 'big calm' surrounding our lives at all. My main memories from that period are just ones of intense panic. We were out of our minds all the time on various things, and the fact that we were making such peaceful music was bizarre. It's probably because we were so hungover most of the time."

The album was a runaway success - their little drunken Christmas present to us all and, more importantly, themselves. It was the album that shook off the Portishead comparisons from their debut, and set out a stall for the more intricate and mature sound (AOR-cheeba?) that they would further develop across the early 2000s with the next three long players. What was to follow may have stormed further up the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, but they owe everything to this one Big Calm that came before it.

Here's Paul Godfrey to take us through the album track by track


The Sea

"This was one we wrote in five minutes on that drunken Christmas Day. It was just drums to start with, then we added a guitar after we came back from the pub. We used to go to the pub every night. We came back hammered and Ross put it down in one take. Then we DI-ed it into the Mackie desk through a wah-wah peddle, and when we mixed it I rolled all the top off it to give it that smooth sound.

"The strings were arranged after by Steve Bentley-Klein, who I met when I was DJing at a party his string quartet were playing at. I didn't know anything about strings in those days so just said, 'Err, can you do some strings for us?'

"[Morcheeba main vocalist] Skye Edwards came up with the melody and gave it that blissed-out feel. The Sea went on to be our biggest song."

Shoulder Holster

"This has a Raga, almost George Harrison vibe to it with the Indian influences. We didn't actually want to put this on the album as we weren't happy with it, but we ended up re-working it. It was one of those ones that we didn't really like ourselves, but it became very popular.

"It's a bit more 'up'. We were very conscious that we needed some radio play. There wasn't a lot of other thinking that went into it. The thing we thought about the most was that our lives were going to go insane because we were blowing up and ready to do a world tour for the first album. So we decided to get the next album ready before the first one came out, so there was no pressure on us to quickly follow up. We made Big Calm with that in mind."

Part Of The Process

"This just kind of happened as well, really. It was based around a Country idea we were messing around with. It was written really quickly, and made really quickly, with stuff just looped up. We just had our EMS Synthi out and Ross there playing his guitar and we made it work.

"There is a mix of live musicianship and straight-up beat making going on with this album. It's a difficult balance to get just right. It's something I've always tried to do - to mix the organic, if you will, with the electronic.

"It's difficult, especially because I'm used to sampling great old records, made by great old musicians. So when I work with musicians the playing has to be really great for me. It's gotta be really 'in the pocket' to feel right. It was also difficult because we were pretty much off our heads the whole time."

Blindfold

"This wasn't written in that first crazy batch of records that we did before the first album came out. This came after, when we were approached to write a song for a Nick Cassavetes movie called She's So Lovely. We wrote this for the movie, but didn't have time to record it for them as we were touring, so it ended up on our record.

"It came from a riff that Ross had, then we added the strings to bring a melody to the raw hip-hop beat. Strings are always hard. The problem with string players is that they don't play in time - they all play ahead of the beat. We'd be sampling them and then knocking them back a beat so they sat in the grooves. Still, once they'd hit the two-inch tape they sounded really lush and it just glued them all together."

Let Me See

"The beat came together just from looping stuff up in the Akai S950, and it went on to feature keyboard player Dom Pipkin. He was really great on the Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer.

"It was weird how we met him. We weren't really part of any scene in London - we were quite isolated in the local pubs. We would just bump into friends of friends, or if someone came in the pub and said that they knew a musician, we'd just give them a job. We really didn't understand the auditioning process back then [laughs].

"There's also some nice flute on here from Jimmy Hastings - he used to play with those [prog/jazz] Canterbury Scene bands like Caravan and Soft Machine. The studio I'd worked in in Kent, before Morcheeba, used to have a lot of those guys come through, so that's where I pulled him from."

Morcheeba

Bullet Proof

"Another good break here. It's off an old library record. I started, like most people, looking for beats on Meters records, then James Brown, then diversified into the more library and psych stuff.

"This one is an instrumental track. It was important to have those on there back in those days. Ross and I were out of it quite a lot, so liked the more psychedelic instrumental stuff.

"I was the guy who worked on the breaks. I'd dig for quite a while to get the right atmosphere for the song. Once the drum break was right, the rest used to fall into place. If they sounded good on record then they were going to sound great through the S950 in mono - that crunchy and hard sound. Our engineer might be EQing the break for hours and I'd just pop the EQ out and it would sound great."

Over And Over

"This was one of the ones we wrote on Christmas Day really quickly. Ross and I were living in a bedsit together at the end of the yard where our studio was. It was a mad area. There would just be constant fire engines and police cars. You'd never get any sleep. This song was about that. Just going insane, trapped in this one little room in your bedsit.

"George Michael came to the studio one day and asked us how we got that great vocal sound and we'd just have to point at the cheap mic in the corner."

"Great vocals, though. Skye Edwards is a real enigma. She's very shy, but has this real kind of magic. In those days we were using an AKG C3000 [mic], with a bit of EQ. She still sounded amazing through it. George Michael came to the studio one day and asked us how we got that great vocal sound and we'd just have to point at the cheap mic in the corner. She just makes it really easy."

Friction

"This is our cod reggae track [laughs]. There had been a load of riots in Brixton and we were in Clapham, and it was kind of about that, with Bob Marley type vibes. We also got some trumpet and trombone from the guys from Zion Train. We worked with them quite a bit.

"An old friend of ours called Spikey T does some toasting on this track, too. We'd met him when he was touring with Jah Wobble. He's been around for years. He used to be in the UK crew, Sindecut. We just invited him into the studio to lay stuff down. I couldn't understand much of what he was saying though - but it sounded good."

Diggin' A Watery Grave

"We used to call this, affectionately, 'Ross Left to His Own Devices'. It's also reminiscent of the Performance soundtrack with its Jack Nitzsche and Ry Cooder vibes droning away.

"This might have been Ross's track, but for the most part we'd do everything together. I'd worked in studios before, making hip-hop and that kind of thing, and Ross was traditional and into blues and older stuff like rock and Hendrix.

"I used to be in a hip-hop crew called First Down. We used to hang out with DJ First Rate and the Gutter Snypes and Prime Cuts from the Scratch Perverts. First Rate actually scratches on this album."

Fear And Love

"This was an acoustic track that we stuck some live drums under and added some orchestra. It's just a very simple kind of 'message' record, which encourages strange responses from the hardest looking men. I find that really bizarre - I get stopped in the street by guys who look like nightclub bouncers, and they tell me that this song makes them cry.

"We were very young at the time this record was made. I was about 22, and Ross must have been about 18. We had that kind of arrogance and ambition that you have around that age. That's why we went ahead and had loads of strings and stuff on tracks like this. People would go, 'Blimey, that's a bit ambitious isn't it?'. It'll carry you through a lot of situations."

Big Calm

"This features Jason Furlow from our favourite rap group of the time, New Kingdom. They were criminally underrated and misunderstood, but amazing.

"We had a Roland Space Echo and our samplers out for this track. We were just looping up bits of guitars and drums and then turning the two-inch tape over, running backwards into the Space Echo to get that reversed zipping sound to the noises. Even now the production on it, considering what we were working with, is amazing. It's just incredible. The groove and everything... I love this track. That's why it's the title track, because we enjoyed making it so much.

"This track also features DJ Swamp, who was Beck's DJ. We met him on Jools Holland and invited him over the next time he was in town. He actually did the scratches on this track sitting down. It was so effortless. Like the album."


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