Saturday, 21 August 2010

A History of Slab part 4


If people weren’t sure where we were coming from after Smoke Rings then Descension was one huge kick up their arses.

Some fans have bemoaned the change in sound. But as I have said earlier logically there is little difference in the intent of the very first demos done by me and Bill , or say Mars On Ice or the Animals from what was to come on Descension.

Descension just stopped being polite about it and stopped trying to please anyone.

It did exactly what we wanted. But the “we” wasn’t the whole band.

And that is where Descension lies in the band history. It took no prisoners from outside or within.

It’s a colossal album. Still is. Can’t think of anything that sounds like it. Nothing did at the time, nothing did before and nothing has since. People still can’t classify it.

Well I can. Its called SLAB.

Full stop.

It was recorded and mixed in approximately 10 days in Livingston. We knew everything that we were doing. We knew what we wanted. We pretty much got it too.

We went in and laid down Gutter Busting first. Took a few takes. But we got it. Then we went through the rest of em.
We didn’t spend hours doing things we just did em, knocked em out, got the recording right. No loads of overdubs or fiddly bits. The fun would come in the mix.

If you were to listen to the original raw recordings on the 24 track you’d hear something quite sad (Sanity Allergy….. ha ha I jest….well not always my thoughts on SA are well documented… but more of that later)

If you were to listen to it you’d hear dry drums, fairly standard fuzz bass, guitar parts…. Sanity Allergy heh heh… sorry I cant stop.

But then its gets more interesting as you’d also start to hear, backwards tape tracks, slowed down demonic recordings of me in total darkness late at night - in what was lets not forget was an old chapel - pacing the studio being genuinely scary according to Dave Morris, sound effects, deliberately out of time brass that had been recorded without listening to the backing tracks, sounds that seemed to not be there but were.

Descension has an ambience quite literally.

Once everything was recorded we went back in for another week and mixed it. The recordings had been done by Tony Harris. Poor Barry Clempson, who was the mix engineer, walked in thinking he had a straightforward job to do. Wrong. We wanted to trigger the Akai sampler by every drum sound already recorded, a hideous task, involving gating and limiting everything on the kit and making sure that extraneous sounds didn’t set the samples off.

Then we needed to do everything else. We had a week and we did it. No bollox. We supplanted everything in the mix and I can say overall I’m pretty happy with it. It’s all there.

If I could change anything it would’ve been to make the bass less thin on Big Sleeper as to me it’s the dominant sound there. The sound is big but not big enough.

I’m not particularly enamoured of Loose Connection either. Dave, Paul and I arrived very late at the studio that day about 4pm I think we’d worked late the night before.

We got there to find that Bill, Robin and Barry had already started and to my mind completely misinterpreted the track. They’d mixed everything over the loop, it wasn’t meant to be like that, the loop was meant to be the dominant force. But we were under time and money constraints and Barry said it would take too long to go back and start again. So we had to put up with it.
But anyway why complain, it’s a stunning record.

Name me a record that begins with the sound of the bass guitar having had knitting needles placed in between the strings being pummelled to produce a kind of demonic fuzzed rhythm with a lyric being whispered in a death rap about a person jumping under a tube train. Hello we’re home honey. Happy little industrial funkers that we are with our jingle jangle guitars and skippity bass and cowbells…. No you morons you’ve just let Lucifer into your pants and he’s about to party. And of course it gets heavier.

When we first played an assortment of tracks to Dave Kitson he went white. But being the trouper that he was he went with it, well he had to, he had no choice, he couldn’t afford to send us back in on the instructions to write something nice and proper old chum, so that left him two options say goodbye to us or try to sell it.

I remember he gave this little mixed bag to some journo friends one of whom described it as the best metal album ever made. Of course it is - cos it don’t have no widdly bollox or people wearing spandex and singing in pixie voices over the top or equally those black wearing buffoons pretending that they are so down with Satan and making growling sounds… lets face it if any of those gits walked down some of London’s streets at night they wouldn’t survive 5 minutes…ho ho….

But it aint a metal album cos I DESPISE METAL.

Nor is it the first industrial jazz album as one blogger described it. True it does have Live at Mooseland on it where we got back Chris Baker on drums and has Dave on bass and me on piano improvising for 33 mins until the tape ran out. Then we edited it to a sensible length. And we did approach the legendary British improvising pianist Keith Tippett prior to recording to see if he would play on it, he was very keen actually but it never worked out. Shame, imagine Descension with Keith Tippett…. Maaaaan Interstellar or what???

So how did this little gem come about, chance, joy de vivre, making furious notes on the backs of fag packets, careful musical notation????

Well it came about cos of the publishing deal which split the band and destroyed my friendships…

Dave Morris, Paul Jarvis and I met during the summer months of 1987 around Dave’s flat in Walthamstow.
We wrote furiously, Dave playing bass, me taking Paul’s lyrics and structuring the bass riffs, and the sampler. I structured the tracks, even loose things like Dr Bombay were structured to the point that we knew what was going to happen with it. Descension did what we needed, we were free from restrictions.

We used heavily detuned drum sounds and the bass was tuned down to C and stuck through fuzz pedals.

Now as far as I am aware no band had ever detuned a bass down to C and put it through pedals at that time. Not a soul. We were the first and it would be nice if we got a little credit for it seeing as the world and has mate seems to have ripped off Descension in some roundabout way, usually third hand.

We also tried found sounds through Dave’s 4 track. Rachmaninov plays as the middle 8 of Gutter Busting. Dolores rides on a backwards triple pronged Public Enemy drum loop. Loose Connection surfs along on George Clinton. But I’d challenge anyone to prove it, cos we didn’t use a sampler just to copy people as most idiots were doing at that point, we were experimenting with the sonics. But these were just carrying on the original ideas I had had with Bill way back when.

We experimented with sounds in the studio. The outro string/trumpet tune on Dolores I had stuck on after writing it at Dave’s. It was an old guitar motif from our first band, but we only used the reverb of the sounds so it hangs and drifts in a way that really fits the song and to me conjures up the sickness in the water supply.

So we came up with a series of gargantuan riffs. Which is what I’ve always wanted to do. Don’t matter if it be a Stooge or a John Lee Hooker, a riff is a thing of wonder.

I guess we sorta rehearsed them with Bill and Robin in our rehearsal studio up in Camden.

By this time Bill was (rightly so I guess) far than enchanted with his role or with what he was hearing.
From being the central player he was marginalised and being asked to play bass parts he hadn’t written and didn’t particularly like.

We had always shared a fondness for Ornette Coleman, Ronald Shannon Jackson and Jamaaladeen Tacuma, but Bill was veering quite heavily in that direction and focussing on technique, whereas me I wanted heavy heavy grooves with bouts of psychedelic freeform.

Me , Paul and Dave went to see Bill Laswell’s Last Exit at their first London gig. It was mindblowing, it was sheer brutality, but by fug it grooved too and who should I be standing next to at the bar in a pretty small audience but the Ig himself. Needless to say I nicked his empty cup and took it back to the Chiswick shithole for Mr Hugo Roberts to peruse and admire. I think we may have drunk the perfect martinis from it. (Go read Luis Bunuel’s autobiography to find out how to make one)

As usual I digress, anyway I was too blind to see the effect all of this was having on my friendship with Bill.

The split in the band was obvious. Robin went along cos Rob liked to play and the whole thing of being in a band was his thing. But I think he felt his days were numbered.

So Decension went ahead and we fell apart as a band. The brass section had already been ditched. There was no role for them and if there was we could get the odd one off person to do studio stuff. They weren’t needed in our new world live.

A long time previously I had somehow managed to blag some work for a local music PA company run by some friends in Coventry. I managed to get myself a role as drum roadie or something on a tour with King not that I had a friggin clue how to set up a kit ha!. Anyway this was the time when suddenly King had a number one single Love and Pride. The crew eg me and PA guys were all to be issued yellow Dr Martens emblazoned with Love and Pride on either foot. I had always said how I would change mine to SHORT and BRUTAL. It became a Slab motto. (Glad I never actually did that tour heh heh.)

Descension was most definitely a short and brutal period. We felt austere. The kind of band jokiness and happy go luckiness had disappeared. We were entrenched. We were utterly and desperately poor, I never had any money, none of us did. I am not sure quite how I survived.

In the band promo photos for Descension there is one shot, I think used on the original sleeve back cover of myself, Dave, Paul, Bill and Robin sat as a Victorian family. It summed up the austerity well. The darkness of a Victorian living room after a séance.

If you look very closely you will see ectoplasm coming from my fingers.

(there's a download link at the very beginning of this blog)


Anonymous said...

Paul Jarvis again ... yes , Descension was when we let the darkness in , with fatal consequences to our original gang . But as ani fule no , to create something extraordinary involves going so far deep inside you lose touch with reality ... I'm not saying we went mad making it , just the intensity of the material and the sheer bloody-minded focus it took got to all of us .

It was actually quite scary at times ... seeing the real darkness in people you thought you knew so well ... the spookiness of some of the found sounds we were using ( the Victorian seance photo says it all ) ... doing 'songs' about brutal Orwellian storm troopers ( Gutterbusting ) , child abuse ( Flirt - my disgusted riposte to Nabokov's Lolita , although it's still one of my favourite books ), impending murder ( Loose Connection ) , hallucinatory time travel back to the gas-filled Somme trenches ( Big Sleeper ) , sinister anonymous propaganda ( Undriven Snow ) , Tube suicides ( inspired by an experience I once had on the Hammersmith Piccadilly line Eastbound platform , when a young-ish woman threw herself in front of a train . I didn't see it happen but I sure as hell saw the aftermath , and the ghastly shock of everyone on that platform ... it still haunts me to this day . Could any of us saved her ?!? )Even Dolores is shrouded in darkness , with it's post-apocalypse landscape and disease-carrying drinking water ... but I think as people , this is what Steve and I wanted to explore in ourselves , and with the help of Dave Morris we dragged the band down into - well , a Descension of the soul .

There was one moment of utter joy in the making of it tho' , and I'd give anything to be able to experience it again . It was when we'd finished mixing , and had an official playback over the big studio speakers . We dimmed the lights , pressed play , and not a word was said 'til the last screes of feedback drained away from the apocalyptic end to Big Sleeper . For that 40 minutes , I loved everyone so passionately in that room - together , whether certain band members were into the darkness as much as others - we'd made an incredible album that sounded like nothing else - still doesn't . We knew it was brave and timeless , and we understood it's power . That the band fell apart after that is almost inevitable ... how do you follow that ? Maybe you don't ...

Anonymous said...

"doing 'songs' about brutal Orwellian storm troopers, child abuse, impending murder, hallucinatory time travel back to the gas-filled Somme trenches, sinister anonymous propaganda, Tube suicides"

Heh, and you wonder why people thought you didn't have a sense of humour!

In all seriousness though, these are a great read and it's good to finally hear - 20+ years later - why you didn't push on from Descension (or even tour it). Such a shame; as everyone says you really didn't sound like anything else and I still struggle to find comparions. And don't be too harsh on your early singles, they were excellent (as was Descension).

Dray said...

Loft and lost

Ha ha good point about the sense of humour!

Personally i think we shoulda got sponsorship from car parks... then we coulda stood about in em for free looking bleak and windswept....heh heh