March 3, 2007 – 12:23 am
This was an unreleased track — a ‘work in progress’ that was never quite finished, but was recorded as part of the sessions for the ‘Count Backwards from 10‘ album — Strawpeople’s 6th (or 8th if you count the Remix album and the ‘Best of’).
Throughout much of 2003, I had the great pleasure of popping round to Paul Casserly‘s home studio of a Tuesday evening (actually, Greg Johnson‘s home studio — but Greg was in LA being almost famous at the time). We would drink a bottle of red wine and play ‘musicians’.
Strawpeople, for those non-antipodean readers and listeners of this blog, is a popular New Zealand music act that has 15+ (could it even be 20?) years of popular electronic music under its belt. At its best, it shares something of an aesthetic with Massive Attack and The Blue Nile. It’s pop music, sure — but there’s an introspective, even melancholy, quality about a great deal of it.
At any rate, the albums fairly regularly end up in the charts with Gold and Platinum awards. People seem to like it.
In fact, Strawpeople is just Paul Casserly, along with some people Paul knows. He is the only common factor among the tracks, and other warm bodies with particular talents are ushered in to collaborate, make noise or just provide an interesting sounding board. Usually these people are actual musicians who know how to make songs.
Fiona McDonald, Victoria Kelly, Mahinaarangi Tocker, Pearl Runga, Jordan Reyne, Leza Corban, Dan Sperber, Boh Runga, Chris van der Geer, Max Stowers, Joost Langeveld — and Andrew Dubber. Spot the odd one out.
Being entirely inept at making noises with musical instruments, I found Paul’s approach very helpful. He is a consummate producer — focused on an end result with a very pop-savvy ear, but entirely open to improvisation and experimentation at the same time.
Post-production happened at every stage of the process.
For the handful of songs I co-wrote with Paul, I came up with the tunes, arranged the chords, and played the instruments. Paul’s job was to make it sound like music.
This tune was one of the ones that ended up on the cutting-room floor and was never quite completed to our satisfaction. Its real highlight was guitarist Neil Watson, who played the melody and improvised around it.
As you might expect, his particular contribution lay in his ability to actually play a musical instrument. I wrote the main melody, but he came up with all the interesting stuff around it — then Paul chopped it up, turned it backwards, moved it around and added filters and echoes.
There were another couple of songs that Paul and I wrote in this way, one of which is my favourite piece of music that I’ve ever been associated with. I am quite proud of its structure and chord progression. I even like the melody and lyrics we wrote — my guitar and piano playing sounds like real music, and I even did string arrangements.
Chris Melville and Mahinaarangi Tocker did some great vocals for it too, but sadly, it will never see the light of day. It just never got to a point where we could happily release it for general consumption. There was always something about it that didn’t work. It was a bit disjointed and a touch unusual. No good for a Straws album at all.
While just an instrumental, Babich is far more the completed work.
The name (working title only) refers to the bottle of wine we were drinking as we wrote it. Rather nice it was too. A merlot, if I remember rightly — but a good one.
Despite the weeks and months we spent on several of the tracks we started, the tune I was involved in that ended up on the album came together very quickly. It was called ‘The Andy Warhol Effect’, and it was based around some work on McLuhan I’d been doing for my Masters thesis at the time.
I had some very clear ideas about it, which might be why it worked. It was supposed to say something interesting about the shifting media environment, and how we are anaesthetised to its effects.
Except how that manifested itself was me saying the word ‘widescreen’ through a vocoder.
Two good things about it though: first, it was the 14th most played track on New Zealand ‘alternative’ radio in 2004; and second, I got to be the person that counted backwards from 10 on the album of that name.
Anyway, I always had a soft spot for this Babich track — mostly because of what Chris and Paul did to that guitar — and also because in a flash of inspiration, I thought ‘I wonder what would happen if I added french horns…’ — so I thought it deserved an airing.
Paul’s always been interested in radio broadcasting (previous album titles include ‘Broadcast’ and ‘World Service’) and so the documentary sample that opens the track seems appropriate.
If you want to hear what actually got released, you should probably get your hands on a copy of Count Backwards from 10. Babich wasn’t up to snuff, and didn’t quite fit with the rest of it. But I still like it. In fact, ‘chuffed’ is a better word.