Since Lamb first came to prominence at the height of the mid-'90s trip-hop movement, Andy Barlow and Lou Rhodes' distinctive blend of electronica and organic songwriting has gone from strength to strength.
Study most successful songwriting partnerships and you'll see a common interest or bond, something that links both parties. At first sight, however, Andy Barlow and Lou Rhodes, who together are responsible for the mesmerising music of Lamb, seem poles apart. As individuals, Andy is the electronics techno kid and Lou the organic vocalist — but their unique interaction has produced some of the most inventive, intelligent and heartfelt music of the last decade.
The pair met in Manchester, where Andy was trying to find his role in the music industry fresh from a studio engineering course, and photographer Lou was simply looking for a challenge. Their early sessions were simple affairs. Using a sampler with 20 seconds of memory and a four-track borrowed from New Order, itself with a broken channel, they crafted their eponymous debut album in 1996. It was a collision of Lou's soulful vocals with a melting pot of drum & bass, techno, jazz and trip-hop provided by Andy. Seven years down the line, things have changed: Lou has two children, the band have achieved cult status in Portugal and the film industry loves Lamb's music.
I caught up with Andy at a rented farmhouse north of Bath that has been his 'home' for nine months. With six bedrooms, a live room, cellar and a natural stone hallway, the property provided an alternative base for the band to ensconce themselves whilst writing and recording their fourth album Between Darkness & Wonder. The choice, in preference to what would have been a more conventional and expensive residential studio, has Andy's full approval. "There's no way we'd get the budget to spend nine months in a studio," says Andy in justification, "and there's no way I'd want to really. This felt like a family, we hung out, had parties and even a real fire in the control room!"
With a handy collection of microphones, the band have utilised individual rooms and spaces within the building for specific uses. The 'live' room, for example, was particularly good for recording drums and a string quartet whilst miking from outside in the stone hallway. "We draped the live room so we had quite a dry signal and then put up two stereo pairs of microphones, one old pair of Coles ribbon mics and one new set of AKG 414s," recalls Andy. "I had the 414s very dry and close and the Coles out in the stone room quite naturally wet, and just used a mix of the two."
Guitars sounded good in the corridor or, depending on the part, in the stone room, and amps could also be placed in the cellar. The dining room housed various keyboards, including a Rhodes 88 and an old ship's piano.
Although the duo of Andy and Lou are the core of Lamb, they are in fact an active touring band, and for this album Andy had hoped to capture some of the magic that the other band members create on stage. However, the early plans of bringing the full band in to write songs didn't quite achieve the desired results. "We didn't have a concept of how we wanted the album to sound initially," he recalls. "We've had a live band for years and it feels like we're all in the same unit — it's not just us and a few session musicians. People say to us that we're a studio-based band but better at live shows — so we wanted to bring some of that live freneticness in to the recording process. We wondered what it would be like to write with the band, because we'd never tried before. So we tried it and we've kept some of it, but when we sat down with the guitar, bass, drums and keyboards it would sound 'finished' but it would also be quite normal. With Lamb it's always about something rattling around inside it, so it wasn't getting much subversion or dynamic.
"I don't think there is a sound for a mad bass player jumping up and down!" says Andy by way of example, in reference to the trademark stage persona of bassist Jon Thorne. "But you think 'If people react to it like that on stage, then how can we get some of that within the recording?' And I think that was the real learning curve for us — you can't."
After three months they resorted to what they knew best, although the full band sessions were not entirely scrapped. "There are a couple of tracks from when we sat down with the band, where I basically took the vocal and lost the track. That was quite a good way of having an idea and developing it."
These and other elements of the original group sessions became part of the track-building process, which normally evolves from Andy's writing setup consisting of a Powerbook G4 running Cubase, Live and Reason. At the farmhouse, these ideas and sounds were then developed with the aid of a newly acquired Pro Tools HD system, a Mackie D8b digital console and a Mackie Control controller. Andy was familiar with the D8b, having previously used one of the first in the country to mix the majority of their last album What Sound, but wisely delegated the Pro Tools and recording roles to engineer Simon Changer.
"If we're doing sessions or vocals I quite like to have an engineer here so that I don't have to look at screens, and can be more creative than hands-on," he explains. "So I'll work on one side of the studio with those three bits of software, and whoever's engineering will work on the other side with Pro Tools and the D8b. The D8b is really handy and great for recalls. The Mackie Control is a new acquisition that I've got working with Pro Tools and is really cool — I like doing arrangements on it. It feels more like conducting than rigidly chopping — a lot more fluid, and again I don't like looking at screens that much."
Andy's Powerbook G4 provides backing for Lamb's live performances, running Ableton Live and 16 channels of audio from an external drive. "Basically, everything on stage will get split and come to me and then also get split to go to front of house. I use a Mackie 32:8-buss desk on stage, which I've had since we started. I like being able to see where everything's going. I'll be doing stuff like mutes, EQ and effects (using a Roland Space Echo and Korg Kaoss Pad) that I can manipulate them with. Then I've got 16 channels coming off the hard drive — synth, drums, and strings if we haven't got the string section.
"So, between splits from the live stuff and hard drive I can do dubs of what's going on — then I'll also play percussion, djembe and electronic drum pads. Nicolai [Bjerre], the drummer, has a full kit and also triggers sounds with Clavia D-Drums. Johnny [Thorne] will play Fender and an electric double bass and Oddur [Mar Runarsson] plays acoustic and electric guitar. Some tracks sound like the album versions, and other times we'll do a completely different remix of the track. We play this one track called 'Sun' and by the end of it we're all playing drums. With Live, you can do mad things like assign a key to play the arrangement. The tour with Moby was the first time we used it — I feel like I've only just scratched the surface of what it can do."
A dedicated engineer was also essential when it came to liaising with the visiting session musicians who contributed to the new album. These included the CHI2 string section, African bass player Hilaire Penda, percussionist (and Lou's husband) Crispin Robinson as well as Lamb band members Oddur Mar Runarsson (guitars), Jon Thorne (basses) and Nikolai Berre (drums).
"Usually we would just stick mics in front of things and wait until the mix to try to make them sound good, but on this album Simon would spend a long time with the player, moving the mics slightly and putting them through different input devices, so basically by the time it went down it sounded like the mixed version — which I'll always do in the future now. It takes more time but sounds so much better. Similarly, we'd do interesting things when recording congas, like putting an SM58 in a metal bin next to it. It's instant lo-fi — you put up the fader and it sounds like there's Amp Farm on it. So we'd try to get natural acoustic effects rather than just relying on plug-ins and outboard, which again on this album was a new thing."
The Focusrite Octopre was favoured for recording drums, whilst the Focusrite ISA Session Pack was used for vocals. "The TLA has got beautiful mic amps in it, really good for older mics — the Platinum is good as a DI, so we've got enough ways of going in. We'll avoid the desk and go straight into the HD system and it sounds really good. We've got everything the major studios have got so it doesn't make any sense to track there."
Working weekdays and taking into account the time taken out for touring and other commitments, Between Darkness & Wonder proved to be a relatively quick album to record. "Usually it takes 15 to 18 months, so I feel like we've finished it a lot quicker," recounts Andy. "One of my favourite tracks is called 'Clouds Clear' and it was written and recorded in about one-and-a-half days. Other tracks, like 'That Thing', which was basically written for the last album but didn't make it 'cause we didn't have time, has been changed around loads and rewritten for three years till it's ready to go on the record. Another one called 'Sugar 5' was the first one we started and has had about seven different choruses."
On previous albums, Lamb had adopted the approach of working on one track and developing that all the way to the mix stage before starting the next track. The approach on this album has been very different in that they would do a simple demo, spend a couple of days on that and then do another demo. "At one point we had about 25 different demos, so basically all the songs were getting finished together. The concept behind it was to get more of a thread to run through the whole album. We made this chart on the computer of tracks and how finished they were — there'd be none finished for nine weeks, and then four would get finished in a week and we'll be ticking off all these boxes. So it was a bit like having an Advent calendar leading up to Christmas!"
In terms of production the band have always turned away from having a third party supervise their work. "We've worked with Steve Osbourne on a couple of tracks," recounts Andy, "but we're quite funny working with producers — essentially Lamb is about the two of us. Working with anyone else usually just makes us want to do it ourselves."
This sense of autonomy carries over to their record label's A&R department. "The record company haven't got a clue about us really. We're on Universal who are 'pop' — they're into Fame Academy and we're the only weird thing on the roster. I'm baffled why we're still there really — I don't think they really know what to do with us. They'll come along to our sold-out Brixton Academy show and say 'Wow, these guys are really popular,' and then we'll get a big advert or movie music. But as far as A&R is concerned, we just give them the finished album and that's it — go off and try to sell it! Usually when anyone from the label would come along and say 'That's a single, but can you just make that bit in 4/4?' we'd always get stuck. Then we'd start listening to it and really trying to make it like that, and every time it would bite us so we would end up hating it and have to leave it."
Lamb bassist Jon Thorne contributed a variety of bass sounds to the album using electric, upright and orchestral double basses. Although not as prominent as on the Fear Of Fours album, the double bass has been integrated within the overall mix through the careful use of microphones and layering.
"I like using something like the Coles through the TLA and placed about a foot away from the body, which gets a lovely warm sound," reveals Andy. "Then I quite like putting a 414 tight near the fretboard, so then we can compress it and get quite a lot of fret noises and breathing — it just makes it sound a bit more chaotic, if needed. On some tracks it'll work to have a whole performance, and on others I'll chop it up in Live or Pro Tools and use loops of it. On some tracks we want a live, not quantised, feel, whereas others are quite rigid. Quite often if I want the drums and bass tight together I'll use Beat Detective — the bass to the drums or vice versa, so we can keep the groove of one of them.
"I usually see the bass in levels — right underneath there's sub-bass which, on an acoustic bass, I'll usually roll off at 90Hz and underlay it with a synth sub-bass from the Nord 2 or Maelstrom in Reason. So then you've got the synth sub-bass, the Coles body mic and the fretboard mic, and between the three you can get it to cover quite a lot of the frequencies."
Sometimes, indeed, this combination generates too many frequencies, as on the track 'Please': "There's tons of bottom end in that tune," explains Andy. "That was in Live again — the boom, boom is basically like a kick drum that I time-stretched but on quite a harsh time setting. Originally the track was one of the tracks we wrote as a 'song' song with bass, drum and guitar. Then we thought how we could subvert it to make it like a Lamb song so we made the decision to mute the double bass and turn up the sub-bass — the two didn't work together, there was too much bass information."
The use of complex rhythms and unusual time signatures is an understated trademark of Lamb's work — in fact their second album was titled Fear Of Fours. As a child Andy played snare drum in marching bands, moving on to a drum kit and other percussion such as the djembe. Between Darkness & Wonder continues the fascination he has with quirky beats and drum programming. "That's usually my main focus," he admits. "Lou is usually a lot more melodic and chordal. But what gets me going is a good or weird beat. Lou quite often writes in other time signatures without even knowing it. She'll be tapping on her leg and I'll have to work out what time signature she intends for it. Like we've got this track 'Sugar 5' that's all in 5/4 but it sounds like a pop song with something weird about it. I quite like it when we disguise weird rhythms as normal — like a rhythm that grooves even if it's in a strange time signature, and I love the way that if you're doing some drum & bass stuff, you can chop it up in 3/4 and change the signature."
A particular piece of software that aids Andy's radical drum programming is Ableton Live. "It's an amazing piece of software, like a conventional audio sequencer but everything's elastic on it — you can assign any controller to any function, like the tempo, and get away with 20 percent either way. There's tons of plug-ins, it's very fast, logical and I've been hooked. You've got these things called warp markers, a bit like Recycle. Some tracks were written with that and have a totally different feel than if I'd done them in Pro Tools or Cubase."
The use of strings is an important element of the Lamb sound, from the driving strains of 'Gorecki' to the sparse accompaniment of 'Learn' from the new album. "On the first album we had just two 'cellists, and basically we had them play different lines and built the arrangements up from that. But from that point onwards we've had 20 and 22-piece sections at Abbey Road Studio Two, which was pretty amazing.
"I like the control I have when there's just a few players and you're tracking it up to Pro Tools or whatever, but when you're in a room with 20 people playing as a unit then that's something gob-smacking, especially when they're putting it down. Microphones can't capture the whole range of those frequencies. It's usually the highlight of our album.
"I really like doing string arrangements. I can't read or write music, I've never bothered learning, so on the day I really depend on a lot of gesturing, a lot of eye contact and a lot of humming. And I don't have a problem with making a fool of myself! Quite often I like doing keyboard string lines and then I'll ask the arranger to score out their own arrangement and mine. We'll record them separately and assemble it together in Pro Tools."
Between Darkness & Wonder features two tracks with string quartet recorded at the farmhouse and two with a seven-piece section arranged by David Campbell and recorded in Los Angeles. Lou and Andy had been particularly impressed with his strings on the Beck album Sea Change. "The sound and the arrangements blew us away," recalls Andy. "We tracked down David, sent him the tracks and he was really into them. So we spent a week MP3'ing ideas back and forth to LA, me mocking up with synth strings and David responding by sending sampled strings back to us to give us an idea where he was heading. Lou and I flew out with the arrangements about 70 percent complete, and we then spent an evening at his house finalising ideas over a piano. When we arrived at his house, greeting us on the wall were some pictures of David with a very young Beck — it turns out David is his dad!"
The strings were recorded at Ocean Way Studios, Los Angeles, a unique studio that Andy can't help but enthuse about. "The engineers and the staff are real fanatics, and a lot of the equipment has been hand-made including the very strange-looking, but sweet-sounding mixing console, made back in the '70s. We managed to get the sound we wanted with only seven players and a good selection of vintage microphones. We then added the extra sparkle on [the album's first single] 'Wonder' by bringing in a harp player."
Andy openly admits that he and Lou have had, and still have, their differences — but it's exactly those conflicting interests which give their music its cutting edge and individuality. "I think we've got a real Yin-Yang dynamic between the two of us. She's really heart-based, she loves things like 'cellos, guitars and voice — things that really express a sense of emotion — and I like gadgets, squelches, bleeps and drums. So when we play live, she's quite statuesque, but me and the boys are leaping around getting off on the energy of the gig, and I think that happens in the studio. I kind of like exploring new territories and Lou likes checking out old territories, finding the good parts and getting that sense of emotion. And I think that's why we work so well together. If Lou was on her own she would write acoustic, quite straight music — and there are big arguments about how we think and how our sound should evolve. As individuals we'd both write very different music from Lamb."
During the making of Between Darkness & Wonder, Lou would visit the farmhouse every couple of weeks and stay for a few days, a working arrangement which suited Andy. "We'd do a bit of writing or she'd re-record a vocal, and we did a choir session so she arranged that. I'm definitely more hands-on than she is, but she's started playing guitar so that brings in a whole new range of possibilities."
Lou has a unique and soulful voice, for which a perfect microphone and routing chain has been found. "We've got this weird thing where we've found the microphone, an Audio-Technica 4033, that we love, even though we'll go to somewhere like Real World where they'll have 1950s Neumanns worth £7000. We've done blindfold tests with loads of different microphones and it just suits her voice."
Routing goes via the preamp of the TLA EQ to the Session Pack compressor and then out to the input of the HD192. Andy insists there's something specific about the TLA, the 4033 and her voice that really lines up well. "I've done other sessions with other singers and it just hasn't worked. I think there's a certain breathiness in her voice that our combination really captures. On some of the tracks we borrowed, from Real World, a Sony D9000 which is an amazing microphone — it's so bright and the clarity is unbelievable, but I still prefer our recording chain. We've been using that for a couple of albums now so I know the in and outs of it. We usually record it with no EQ and a bit of compression, but more than anything it's keeping Lou happy, getting her headphones right before she even gets in there. Usually within the first three takes that's it — if you have to do more than three takes it doesn't usually happen.
"I usually find that if I get towards a completed backing track and ask her to sing on it that it never works out. The rule of thumb for writing with Lou is not to have too much. If you start putting in too many melodies she'll start going towards those. So usually there's just a beat to time to and maybe a bass line and something to pitch to, but still giving her the full range of upper opportunities. When I'm doing vocals with Lou I really like to vibe her up — and quite often before the take I'll shout something like 'Smile! I can't hear you smiling!', or sometimes I'll go in there and make her do star jumps for two minutes, so she's out of breath and you can really hear that. I really like doing that."
The addition of Lou's vocal often inspires the track to take off in a different direction. "I see so much electronic music as having a vocal that sits on the top of it, whereas we like to have the vocal like a cheese in the sandwich. The bread is the music and production either side of it. For us it works to get the vocal down, at least a guide vocal, very early. Then the track can be built around it to enforce the vocal or to set up a dynamic against it. Tracks like 'Cotton Wool' [a live favourite from their first album] — they're all like, 'How can we not make the vocal work?'"
Vocal treatments are also widely used, as on 'Please', where the backing vocal was run through a Leslie cab. "We've run a lot of stuff through the Leslie, especially backing vocals and keyboard parts like the Sunsyn. With backing vocals it really puts some distance on them. We'll put the Leslie in the stone room with two stereo mics and an underneath mic and it automatically makes it sound old and kind of worn and takes all the harshness out if it. When the Leslie kicks in it gives things a dynamic lift, you kind of hear the motor spinning — it's lo-fi but I enjoy it."
The rented farmhouse served well for writing and tracking, but Andy is realistic about the pitfalls of mixing in an untreated environment. "With the last album I was lucky — we had a warehouse apartment which sounded good and the mixes worked elsewhere. This room sounds really good but is quite 'boomy' and not acoustically treated at all, so I wouldn't trust mixes done here."
Final stage mixing is also an area that Andy would rather hand over to an engineer. "I don't have any interest in learning an SSL or Neve. I like communicating and being part of a team of people, so usually I'll leave the mixer most of the day till they've got a vibe up and then they'll call me in. Sometimes I'll just say 'Turn the hi-hat up a bit,' or 'Can we have the vocal down?' and that'll be it. Other times it's completely wrong and I'll move the faders up and down to get a rough vibe and let the engineer have another go with it."
Because of looming release deadlines, the decision was made to get multiple rooms at London's Mayfair Studios in order to finish mixing. "At one point we had three rooms," recalls Andy, "with a lot of running about between them! There was a production room that we would also track in, an SSL mix room and a Neve mix room, with Jim Abbiss and Ali Staton taking on driving the desks. Neither Jim or Ali like computer processing, so there was a steady flow of weird and wonderful relics coming into the rooms that they would process the sound with. Jim liked running the beats through triggering drum machines to get a crunchy lo-fi layer, or getting random-sounding textures from his ARP 2600, and Ali has a multitude of old and new stomp boxes. One of the highlights was on 'Darkness' doing live mix pass takes, dub-style, jamming on the auxiliaries set up to tape delays, flangers and a quarter-inch tape machine, which we were gripping the capstan roller on and off to add a deranged effect."
Though the facilities were available at Mayfair to add treatments and overdubs, achieving a successful mix was as much to do with what to leave out as what to add in. "I think it's better to start with too much and get rid of stuff, rather than be in Real World at £1500 a day and realise you need more," concludes Andy. "I like simplicity — but sometimes it's quite complex to reach that simplicity!"