My hard rock band GNH is not even a week away from a long weekend in the studio. The studio in question is located in the town of Strömstad, which is on the Swedish west coast, about 100 miles north of Gothenburg. The place provides sleeping quarters and a kitchen, so it’s basically the boys away camping and playing rock n roll for three days. It’s brought up a whole lot of thoughts and reflections about my career in and out of recording studios.
First and foremost, I have to take my hat off to my bass player Mats, for persisting and making sure that we really got around to booking a studio date during 2021. If it had been up to me, I would probably have demurred and postponed until May, 2022 or so. I don’t really know what I would have been waiting for, perhaps just that better moment, that didn’t come, as the song goes. The song also says that there never will be a better moment than this one, and that’s just how it’ll have to be. I don’t really know what I’m all that apprehensive about, really. I don’t know if it was something I read in an interview or wisdom I somehow managed to pick up on my own, but a recording is just a record of how a song sounds right now. It is forevermore a work in progress; what you do when recording is like a photograph, capturing a slice in time. If it changes, then it changes, and then that’s your new reality. Some bands take the time to reissue songs in new versions to reflect what they’ve learned since they made the original. Others just issue live album after live album, because maybe this version of Run to the Hills is the definitive one. But I digress.
If my count is correct, this will be the tenth time I’m in a professional recording studio. My mind is just about made up about which guitars to bring: the PRS baritone, the Telecaster and the Les Paul Studio. Full range and three kinds of pickups, two of which are noiseless. I will also bring my big pedalboard and stock it with boost and overdrive pedals, my compressor and some other swirly stuff. The studio has a nice selection of amplifiers: a stock Marshall JCM 800, a modded ditto, a Mesa/Boogie Rectifier, a Fender Twin and a Vox AC30, and that’s just what my eyes zeroed in on.
We will be recording two songs, with the option of squeezing in a third if we’re lucky. We have prepared the third one just as well as the other two, but it’s a psychological issue at work here. I’d rather set the goal at two and succeed, than aim for three and then feel I need to rush to get that final work done on #3. I shouldn’t worry. In 2002, we nailed four songs in the same amount of time, and back then the band wasn’t nearly as experienced, and had only two people instead of four.
Why I have decided to write this article with the title I’ve given it is because of some stuff that I’ve learned the hard way in the past five years or so. In August, 2016, Namlar released the Winter album. It wasn’t the first album I’ve recorded or even released myself, but it was a bit of an ordeal and it set me thinking about what I really want out of this entire deal. For better or worse, I cut my teeth in old-school recording studios where you had microphones, a mixing desk and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. At any time I’ve been in a proper studio, every tick of the second hand has meant a quantifiable amount of kronor and ören – dollars and cents to you. At times, someone else has footed the bill, but that hasn’t given me carte blanche to cut Sergeant fucking Pepper. On the contrary, it has meant an even tighter schedule, sometimes forcing us to play the backing tracks entirely live, with the option of perhaps one pass of guitar overdubs, and then directly to vocal tracking to finish the thing in the allotted time.
The thing is, I kind of like that pressure. It’s what I grew up with. Recording Winter with my two best friends was a joy in and of itself, but it also took way longer than it needed to, explicitly because we did everything in my studio and could take just about all the time we wanted. In the end, it came down to the patience level of the individual members. It’s a trade-off, really. The limited time afforded by a professional studio means that you have to make do with the takes you can get. Working on your own equipment in your own time is different. Sure, you can take the time to make sure you get things right. But I have felt that without the pressure, it is difficult to come to a decision. Everything can wait until tomorrow. It is especially hard to impose a deadline on yourself, so as to have at least the artificial sense of that ticking clock. Sometimes, a hard deadline can really get the creative juices flowing. As I seem to remember from some Star Wars documentary, films aren’t ever really finished, they just escape. Sooner rather than later, you’re going to have to stop tweaking so you can deliver a print to the theater. Even though I haven’t exactly felt the pressure from a fan base or a record company in my day, I totally get what they mean.
More importantly, I have felt that when we go it alone and work by ourselves on my laptop and sound card, we tend to lose track of what we’re doing. So much energy is spent on managing the project, then making the really tough decisions that you need to make when mixing and mastering. It is not a coincidence that when you name-drop a great band, they tend to have the name of a record producer closely associated with them. The Beatles had Sir George Martin. Iron Maiden had Martin Birch and more recently have enlisted the services of Kevin Shirley. Rush had Terry Brown in the 70s and early 80s. Those are just the top 3 of my personal Pantheon, and the list can go on and on. When we in GNH first started talking about recording ourselves, these were the examples that I brought up. We could absolutely go it alone. Via file-sharing and hard work, the drummer and I managed to make perfectly viable demos of our then-current songs last fall and winter, live drums, Mac vs. PC and everything. We could absolutely set up everything anew and track new drums, new guitars, and then pull in the two new guys to lay down bass and vocals. I’m positive that the results would be splendid. I’m just not sure that it would be as good as it could be, and then I’m talking about the process.
Back in the day, I cut two demos and a full-length album with my former band Nox. As it’s getting to be long ago, I’m no longer sure if I was asked the question, or if it’s something my active mind has invented. But either way it’s a good question: why do you do it, or more properly, why do you spend all that time and money to record yourselves if you’re unlikely to ever earn it back? Because sometimes it’s not about the destination, but the journey. I look back on those days in Studio Fabriken as among the happiest times in my life. Yes, there were times when I was frustrated, when I felt like throwing my guitar out the window, strangling someone, or both. But on the whole, it was a positive thing. Some people pay that kind of money to go to Greece or Mallorca or the Riviera for four days in March or May. They have drinks with umbrellas in them, eat good food and swim in the Mediterranean. We go into the studio, get creative for three days and live out a rock n roll fantasy where nothing exists but the next track, the next take, the next song. I clearly remember being sprawled on the couch in the back of the control room, just thinking that I could do this every day for the rest of my life.
The thing that made the difference back then was that we had a producer. Michael would do all the technical stuff. We didn’t have to worry whether or not the mike was four or six inches from the speaker, offset or inline, how to setup a console for mixing, how to dial in a compressor, an equalizer or a reverb tank for mixing. He took care of that. More to the point, he was our George Martin, Martin Birch and Terry Brown. He was the third member of Nox, who knew enough about music to know what we were trying to do, and had enough experience and clout that he could go to great lengths to try to persuade us to try something else – or just get us to back down and accept that good enough is good enough and perfect is just an ungrateful bitch. Michael was a constant inspiration and if you ever faltered, if you ever lost sight of what you were doing and why, then he was there, and if you couldn’t be bothered to do a great take to please yourself, then at least you could pull it together to not disappoint him.
Michael is a true character and I’ll sidebar a bit about him. We soon discovered that the more polite he came off, the further you were from the mark. If you heard, “please make another take, the tape is rolling”, you knew you had fucked up big time. If the talk went, “all right, come in and listen, you big turd”, you were onto something. When you finally got into the zone, he was so colorful that what he actually said in the control room is pretty far from being fit to print (“way to go, you bleeping bleep!”). After he was done with the below-the-belt language, he would jump up from his producer’s chair and burst out into spontaneous air guitar when listening back to a particularly successful take.
Going into a studio means that you spend at least 500 crowns an hour. But it’s not just renting a room. You get the experience and know-how of a professional, or at least somebody who’s really good. That means that you can focus on the stuff that matters to you, and leave all the boring things to the producer. I spoke to a friend about it just yesterday, and we were in perfect agreement that the magical part of recording isn’t the finished product, it’s being a part of putting the song together, track by track, section by section. As soon as it’s approaching its final form, we both lose interest, and maybe that’s why it took ten months and not two weeks to record Winter. Mixing and mastering isn’t fun, it is a chore and a necessary evil that we’re genetically prone to postpone until we get tired of ourselves. I would much rather leave it in the hands of a trusted professional. They don’t really have skin in the game in the same way as we do.
I am especially excited about the fact that we’re heading out of town, and have to sleep over at the studio. It is very likely far from a five-star hotel. Our singer has already made his misgivings quite clear. Myself, I’d gladly sleep on a Pilates mat and eat cold wieners for breakfast, since I’m all about the recording and creative stuff. I think it’s awesome and excellent that we can go away and do this. There is a plethora of good recording studios in Gothenburg, but recording locally means that every afternoon or evening, we go back to the distractions of everyday life. That isn’t an option here. If not for modern appliances like the smartphone, we would really be isolated, and isolation I think breeds creativity.