The mid-'90s was a wonderful time to be messing around with a drum machine, a synth and a sampler. Anyone who was looking for inspiration could mine a rich seam of beats from the likes of The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Underworld, Leftfield, Portishead, Orbital, Fatboy Slim, Massive Attack, Goldie, Bjork… let’s just say that it was a very long list indeed.
Electronic music was no longer a ‘club thing’; it was a permanent fixture in the mainstream musical landscape. These artists were having Number One records, and everyday water-cooler conversations were peppered with exotic-sounding expressions like electronica, big beat, dolphin jungle and trip-hop.
The latter - a mix of languid, funky loops and downbeat atmospherics - enjoyed success on both sides of the Atlantic, and provided the relaxed soundtrack to many a Sunday morning comedown. One of the era’s undoubted anthems was a track called The Sea by a Kent/London trio called Morcheeba. Although it didn’t chart at the time, it has since become the band’s biggest Spotify search, and undoubtedly helped its album, Big Calm, notch up platinum sales in the UK.
Ironically, for a band whose music exudes peace and tranquility, the ensuing 20-plus years have been rather turbulent. Plenty of records were sold, but in 2003, the technical bit of the band - brothers Paul and Ross Godfrey - split with singer Skye Edwards. Various vocalists filled her shoes for the next six years with varying degrees of success, but the original trio was eventually reunited in 2010.
After a couple of albums and tours, Paul Godfrey eventually quit the band in 2014. Initially, Edwards and Ross Godfrey - the latter now the sole studio bod - didn’t use the Morcheeba name, but it seems that any legal hassles have been sorted with the release of a new Morcheeba album, Blaze Away.
Though the band is now a duo - Edwards on vocals, Godfrey on knobs - the sound of Blaze Away is immediately familiar. It’s… chunkier, though. Less techy; more like a live band.
In between dates in Russia, Israel and the all-important school run to pick up his daughter, we managed to grab a morning with Godfrey at his London home studio.
Is that live feel all down to judicious tweaking, or was the album recorded live? Real people playing real instruments?
“Well, most of it was played by me, but yes, it’s real instruments recorded live. I’ve got a Hammond, a Rhodes, a Wurlitzer, lots of guitars, some vintage mics, mic preamps and guitar amps set up at home. It sounds like a big operation, but it’s not. It’s all in a spare room. If we needed to get someone else in to play stuff that I couldn’t handle - serious drums or percussion - there’s a nice studio around the corner that we use.
“Sound-wise, my space is not the best room in the world, but for what I actually use it for, it’s fine. Tracking guitars, Rhodes, Hammond… you don’t need an acoustically perfect environment. As I’m sure people reading this will know, so much of music is about ‘feeling’. If I’ve got time to make two or three passes of a Rhodes session with no one looking over my shoulder, I’ll probably make a better job of it.
“It’s the same with Skye’s vocals. Once I’ve got the basics of a track together, I send it over to her and she can work on it in her own time. She hasn’t got me picking over everything she does. Her little Pro Tools setup is in a room she calls her ‘woman cave’. It’s very simple; just the computer, an Empirical Labs mic pre and a beautiful Telefunken mic.
“Skye’s got four kids, so life is pretty hectic for her. It’s much easier if she can get the kids to bed, sit down with a glass of whiskey and work on her vocals when it really feels right. And, to be honest, what she sends over is close to the finished article. She only ever does one or two takes. Messing about with that would feel… well, it would feel pointless. Yeah, I might have some fun with the backing vocals, but I like to keep her main vocal quite pure.
“For me, the only time you really need to start messing around with the main vocal is when the vocalist has trouble singing in tune or in time. That doesn’t apply to Skye.”
Pro Tools is your main platform?
“Yeah, I started using it way back when it was still finding its feet outside of the professional studio, and it seems exactly the right platform for how I record. I’ve tried Logic, but the main issue I have with it is that it tries to help you make music… it makes suggestions and tries to second-guess you. Sorry, but I don’t need my computer to be an active member of the band. What I need is a precise editing tool; something that will allow me to input some noises and then work on those noises in the way that I want to. The computer’s job - and the platform’s job - is doing what you want it to do, not the other way around. Otherwise, we could run into all sorts of problems.”
A sort of scary, musical version of 2001? Dave, do you really want to extend that bassline another eight bars? Dave, I don’t know if that new kick is really working. Dave, I’ve just deleted that version of the album you spent two weeks mixing…
“Ha ha! Even the editing process in Logic seems a bit clunkier than Pro Tools. It doesn’t feel comfortable. With Pro Tools, you can make precise adjustment and then apply your crossfades in such a neat and tidy way. It does what you want it to do and it does it really well.”
This is the first Morcheeba album you’ve released as a duo. Did it feel different to previous albums?
“Me and Skye did put out an album in 2016, but, yes, this is the first Morcheeba album since Paul left. He actually started to back away from touring with the band more than ten years ago. He wanted to concentrate on the whole recording side of making music.”
‘Doing a Brian Wilson’?
“Yeah! I always wondered why Paul wanted that sandpit in the control room…
“Paul eventually left the band completely about four years ago. We still talk, and he’ll always be a big part of Morcheeba’s story, because he was one of the founding members and heavily involved in the recording of all the early albums. In the end, though, I don’t think he could be arsed with all the drama of being in a band. And, whichever way you look at it, there is always drama. Even when things are going well.
“In terms of recording as a duo, it sort of works the same… except that it’s just me doing the musical bit. I get the ideas together at home, send them to Skye, she works on a few vocal melodies, sends it back, I flesh out the music with those new melodies and then it goes back to Skye to start working on the lyrics.
“That’s the point where the ‘demo’ starts becoming a nearly-finished ‘song’. And that’s when a lot of the plugin synths we use get changed for hardware.”
You put the song together inside the computer, then add the finishing touches outside the box?
“Like I said earlier, there is a lot of hardware - guitars, pianos and what have you - in the studio, and I do like to make my ‘sounds’ in the real world before I put them into Pro Tools. I suppose I’m quite a traditional producer in that sense of it.
“I’m not anti-software! God, no! Can you imagine trying to make this album without Pro Tools? Ironically, it’s working with software that allows me to make an album that is built around real instruments and hardware. The reason I can use a real Hammond is that, if I make a few mistakes in an otherwise great take, I’m only going to waste a few seconds putting them right in Pro Tools. If we were still recording to ADAT - like we did on the first album - correcting those mistakes would have taken all morning.
“There’s a convenience and a freedom to recording in the box that has completely changed the whole process of recording. The big problem, of course, is that you have to be careful to avoid The Vortex. With that freedom comes the ability to cut and tweak and re-tweak forever. What should be a finished song becomes a constantly ongoing work-in-progress.”
That was definitely an issue in the early days… and it’s probably still an issue when you first start making music on your chosen DAW even today. You suddenly go, ‘Wow, I can do this and change that and have 15 stacked synths playing this lead line’. But novelty, by its nature, is usually fleeting. As the industry moves deeper and deeper into the box, it feels like production has evolved and we are learning to say ‘stop’.
“Technology will allow you to create soundscapes and drum tracks that you wouldn’t have been able to dream of 20 years ago. Just don’t get sucked into The Vortex and get lazy. Just because you can easily fix a bum note in the guitar solo, doesn’t mean you don’t have put your heart and soul into the take.
“I think that’s probably why I still record so much live… you retain that sense of organic musicality that it’s hard to recreate once you’re inside the computer. I’m not trying to lay down hard and fast rules here. This is just an opinion.
“One of the musicians we worked with on this album is Robert Logan, who is very much an in-the-box experimentalist. Skye had worked with him on her solo album [the leftfield British composer and producer also earned a Primetime Emmy Nomination for his soundtrack work on the 2012 documentary, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God] and we asked him to send over a few ideas. What he did was wonderful. Modern, glitchy rhythm loops. Totally different to anything I could put together. Most of them were long and very strange, built from so many different layers. It was a really interesting process, listening back to them, picking out all the bits we liked and then trying to write a song on top of them.”
You’ve been working with drum loops for almost 30 years. Does it get easier with time? Or do you struggle to create inspiring new loops? Do you often find yourself relying on tried and trusted ideas?
“My idea of a good drum sound has not really changed in all the time I’ve been making music. I’m a huge fan of drum production from about 1968 to 1973. Quite dry and natural sounding. In the early days, that’s where I took most of my samples from.
“Today, of course, it’s so easy to add a few hits and noises… make it harsher, make it weirder. Having said that, I still get really excited if I hear a record from 1970 with a great snare sound!”
Apart from Pro Tools, is there any software that really earned its keep during the recording of this album?
“The Valhalla Plate reverb, just because it sounds so good. One or two of the synths from Reason (G Force M-Tron) and Native Instruments came in useful for pads and atmospheres. Battery for drum programming and Razor for synth basslines. I also used a comb filter delay called Spektral that has been discontinued, unfortunately. Oh, and Native Instruments Guitar Rig.”
But you’re well-stocked with vintage guitar amps, aren’t you?
“I am, but the way it worked on this album is that I would record a guitar part using Guitar Rig, and while we were putting the song together in its initial stage, I’d experiment with different amp sounds… trying to work out exactly how much colour or distortion the guitar needed.
“Then, when it came to getting ready for the final mix, I sent the guitar part out and re-amped it, based on what I’d been working with on Guitar Rig. Doing things that way, I got the great sound of a vintage guitar amp, but I didn’t have to worry about playing the guitar part while I was trying to work out how it should sound. I could concentrate fully on how the guitar needed to sit in the song.”
And a favourite signal chain?
“Royer R-121 Ribbon Mic, the AMEK 9098 mic pre, the Urei 1176 Compressor and then the Avid HD I/O 8x8.”
Have you got a favourite bit of vintage equipment in your collection?
“The Hammond B3 cost me about 500 quid with a Leslie tone cabinet. It was the one that used to live at Streatham Ice Rink in South London. Somebody would play it to entertain people while they were skating. It’s been painted completely white, and looks rather splendid in my studio.
“I did go a bit crazy with vintage gear for a while. We’re talking 40 or 50 guitars!”
Really? That many?
“Yeah. That many. I bought my first one when I was about 12. Thank God I did buy them then, because I wouldn’t be able to afford them now. Crazy money! Some of them have increased in value over 10,000%. I suppose that’s the pension sorted out!”
Morcheeba's latest album, Blaze Away, is out now.