Blur's latest album has taken the band 18 months to make, commuting between London, Devon and Morocco. Somehow, producer Ben Hillier also found the time to produce new records by Elbow and Tom McRae...
This summer saw the release of Blur's seventh studio album, Think Tank, co-produced by the band and British engineer/producer Ben Hillier. It was a project both Hillier and Blur had been working on since November 2001, when recording began in the band's West London studio, 13. Their first long-playing release in four years also swiftly became their first album as a three-piece, with the departure of guitarist Graham Coxon soon after sessions began. Rumours abounded that the band were splitting up, but according to Hillier, Coxon left on good terms. "Graham's an awesome guitarist and an amazing musician, but he wasn't really that interested in making a Blur album. His solo stuff is what he's into doing and Blur was becoming a bit of a chore for him, so it didn't seem right to have him involved — we're not at school!"
As a consequence of the reshuffle and the remaining band members' numerous commitments outside Blur, a real sense of urgency accompanied these early sessions. "When we started the record, the choice was to either sit around and wait for everyone to turn up, which wasn't really going to happen, or to get on with doing the record in the time we had. So we said 'Here's the two weeks we've set aside to work on it. We start at 10 and finish at six. If you're there you get to play on it, if you're not you miss out'. So everyone was really hungry to play on the record. If Damon [Albarn] wasn't there and we wanted to record a vocal then Alex [James] would sing, or if Alex wasn't there then Damon would be desperate to get on the bass. It was quite competitive but really exciting. Everyone had this real drive to play." Coxon does play on one of the tracks on the album (and two more which weren't used), while the rest of the guitar-playing duties were taken by Albarn himself.
The initial two weeks of recording in 13 were followed by another fortnight at the end of January 2002. "We were mostly working from demos Damon had done on his four-track. He'd done some work on them in Logic with [13's in-house engineers] Tom Girling and Jason Cox, so when it came to starting the recording, they were ready to work on and me, Jason and James Dring [assistant at 13] set about it with the band. I don't usually work with an engineer, I usually do it all myself, so it was nice — especially nice to have Jason. He's an awful lot more than an engineer, he's worked with the band for years, he knows 13 and the band's equipment inside out. By the end of the four weeks we had 17 songs — quite an astonishing work-rate considering that the band won't work past 6pm when they're in London."
Work on Think Tank began again in earnest in June 2002. "We went back to 13, tracking, doing overdubs and reworking what we'd already done, and all the time new songs would be popping up — I think we had 28 of them at one point." Hillier and the band also spent time working with other producers: "The Dust Brothers came in for a week, and Norman Cook came in for a couple of days. The Dust Brothers did good work but they probably came in a bit early in the process. I don't think we ended up using any of the things they did in the end, but that wasn't a reflection on them at all. It was more a question of them turning up at a point when we weren't quite sure what we were doing, and if anything they showed us that we needed to do a bit more work on the writing."
The band struck up a good working relationship with Norman Cook, who rejoined them later in the project, and also renewed their acquaintance with William Orbit, who had co-produced their previous album, 13. "We sent a couple of tunes to William to work on in his studio, working round the clock in a computer environment the way he does. He's a nutter and works all night. That was quite an interesting juxtaposition, us doing office hours then going to see William after work, just as he was getting up!"
The decision to relocate the recording of Think Tank to Marrakesh, following in the footsteps of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, was prompted by a visit to Morocco by Blur's frontman. "Damon had been out there to a music festival one weekend and was really excited by it. The musical life in Marrakesh is amazing. Live music is everywhere. It's a very important part of the culture, in a more direct way than it is over here. Here it's all strictly disseminated via radio and records, and DJs and bands. Over there live music can happen anywhere, and usually does. And they'll write songs about current situations all the time and not think twice about it. It's the sort of living folk tradition that we used to have here, and probably still do somewhere."
Considering Damon Albarn's recent forays into world music with Mali Music and chart-topping dub-rock with the Gorillaz project, many expected one or other of these musical directions to be reflected in the new Blur album. While Think Tank is certainly the band's most eclectic album to date, with some strongly groove-based tracks, not to mention some very 'un-Blur' moments, a North African flavour is less clearly discernible. Hillier sees the band's chosen surroundings as having a different kind of influence on the record. "There was quite a lot of Arabic influence in Damon's writing, though not really in an obvious way. If you listen to a lot of the scales he's using, and to the structure of some of the songs, a lot of that has come from Arabic music. A lot of the songs on the album aren't just straight verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, chorus and so on. There'll be one whole bit, then something in the middle, then it'll change into something completely different. Or it'll just keep going round the same thing and gradually building."
Before the band could take advantage of Marrakesh's attractions as a place to record, there was the small matter of transporting an entire studio there. "Basically, I hired a studio's worth of gear from a company called Tickle and put it in a truck. We needed to set up a whole studio as the plan was to record and mix in Marrakesh, and we did do a fair amount of mixing out there in the end. I hired a big 40-channel Amek Mozart desk with the really nice Neve EQ on it, a pair of Genelec main monitors and three sets of mini-monitors. We took half-inch tape machines, my full Pro Tools rig, two racks of outboard from Tickle, one from 13 and my rack as well, and cabling for a whole studio. Just so we could rely on it, we ended up taking our own electricity sub-station too!"
The only thing that had been forgotton was the required clearance from the Moroccan customs: "We were out in Marrakesh for five weeks and I spent the first six days trying to get the equipment out of customs! We had a truck with nine and a half tons of gear in it stuck in customs. It didn't even strike me what a stupid idea it was until that happened. They kept on finding new reasons to stop it coming out — 'You haven't got this form or that form filled in,' or 'We need to talk to the Ministry of Culture,' and so on. Five days in we were thinking we might have to go home, so when the equipment did finally arrive we were really up for it."
The arrival inspired a new song, initiated by drummer Dave Rowntree drumming on the flight cases as they were being wheeled off the truck. The end result was 'Morrocan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club', one of the tracks that made it onto the album. "I started recording it with my [Digidesign] M Box. I had my laptop out there because we knew we'd have to wait for a while for the equipment to get set up, though not as long as we had to wait in the end! Tickle had sent a tech team out with us to help set everything up and test everything, and to fix the desk, because obviously when you move a desk that size that far, it turns up and there's loads of faults in it, so one of the guys spent a whole day wiring the desk back together. 'Morrocan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club' turned into a 'test the gear' tune, and as soon as we got the desk up and running we recorded some proper drums and it all went off from there."
The villa the band had rented provided some interesting venues for recording. "It had this little concrete building based around a covered courtyard and we used the courtyard as a live space. Like everywhere else in Marrakesh, it had a marble floor, tiled walls and a concrete ceiling so it was really, really loud with a really banging reverb. The drum sound for 'Crazy Beat' is just the effects of that room. All the strings on 'Out Of Time' were recorded in there as well — the acoustic was really lovely for it. Unfortunately the control room had almost the same acoustic! There was a clay wall behind the main monitors that was about three inches thick and if you turned up the monitors and coughed into the microphone, it made a sound like an 808 bass drum!"
Despite these less than desirable working conditions, several tracks were still mixed on location as planned. "'Out Of Time' was mixed out there and it sounded great when we got back, but that was probably more luck than judgement. We took a load of acoustic panels out with us that we glued to the walls, which controlled the top end a bit as long as you didn't turn the volume up. We were working quietly on NS10s and Auratones, and we'd turn up the main monitors just for the vibe really, because when you turned it up it was very difficult to tell what the bottom end was doing. You just had to be careful, fly by the meters a bit, and try and guess what was happening down there."
The alternative to the cavernous-sounding live space was to record outdoors: "The acoustic in that room was mental and we wanted to get a much drier sound. The only place to do that was outside, which is about as dry as you can get. Those were the options — either completely dry or completely roomy. There were some smaller rooms there as well, including a derelict bathroom that was great for vocals, but lots of the vocals and drum parts were done outside, sometimes with a mic inside the room so I could mix in some ambience."
As well as getting to grips with the quirks of their ad hoc studio, the band and producer had to battle the heat of Morocco in late August. "We'd had so much time off at the beginning waiting to get set up that we couldn't take any more days off, so we just worked non-stop for a month. You couldn't work that much during the day because it was so hot. Damon would be working hard writing lyrics, or the band would be working on songs, and I'd be editing and doing mixes, but not with too many people in the control room. It was just about OK with me, Jason and James in there, but it would overheat if there were any more people in there during the day."
It was not just the local climate that was causing problems: the local cuisine had a few surprises of its own. "We all got food poisoning out there as well. We all lost about a stone and no one could be more than 20 minutes away from the nearest toilet. It was 200 yards to the house where the toilets were and we had a bike outside and every now and then you'd see someone legging it back to the house."
The arrival of Norman Cook was a welcome shot in the arm. "Norman turned up at just the right point. We'd done a lot of work but it was great to have someone come in with a bit more energy and a bit more focus. He came out for five days and we worked on three songs, which was really good fun. We finished off the tune we'd started in London, 'Money Makes Me Crazy' which didn't make it onto the album in the end because it was just too happy, it was too bright and bouncy, but it's a great tune — it's the 'B' side on 'Out Of Time'. We did two more tracks which worked really well and really tied in with the rest of the album. Working with different producers on various tracks involved them taking the track away and doing their thing with it, which was what we wanted them to do, but then we'd have to wrestle it back into our realm. That's why I mixed everything — it just wouldn't have sat together as an album otherwise. William Orbit was in the middle of doing his record and didn't have the time to come and work with us, so he'd send us hundreds of tracks for each tune and we'd sift through, pick the bits we liked and blend them into what we were doing. 'Crazy Beat' [which was co-produced by Norman Cook] started out as a completely different song. We'd changed it round various ways and tried different things with it and then Norman came in and said 'I like that bit, I like this bit,' and we'd do that."
A closer collaboration was involved in 'Gene By Gene', the other track on the album co-produced by Cook. "That was where the collaboration worked best, because we were all there together and wrote it together. The track is based around some samples of Damon jumping up and down on an old truck that was parked round the back of the farmhouse. It had a really good squeak on it! We also used samples that me and Dave had made at 13 on a particularly slow day. I told Dave that if you hit a cymbal and lower it into a bucket of water it pitch-shifts. So we got an old fish tank and filled it up with water and spent all day hitting cymbals and lowering them into the water, sampling them and making loops. Gongs too — anything we could hit and lower into water. Norman made a loop out of Damon's squeaking sounds which fitted with the cymbal sounds and it turned into a tune."
Hillier is in no doubt that the recording sessions in Marrakesh, which might have been viewed as rock & roll extravagance or affectation by some, were worthwhile in terms of the music they produced, despite the difficulties he and the band encountered. "It started as 'Yeah, let's go to Marrakesh, that'll be great!' and of course it was a bloody nightmare! But it was definitely worth it in the end. As it was getting more and more expensive and more and more complicated I was thinking 'Shit, maybe this wasn't such a good idea.' But when we got going it was absolutely ideal, it filled in all the holes in the record that we needed to fill."
The only problem was, the record wasn't quite finished.
"We ran out of time in Marrakesh, as we knew we would, and we decided we wanted to finish all the tunes we'd started. We didn't want to kick songs out until they were done and we knew that if we didn't finish them they'd never be finished because we'd all be off again doing other things. We wanted to hold on to what we had and make the most of it with everybody there — me, the band, and the studio as well. The studio we'd hired had become part of it. It was everything we wanted but also wasn't in a studio, if you get my meaning. So we decamped to Damon's farm in deepest, darkest Devon — from bright sunny Marrakesh to rainy Devon in October. But from a technical point of view it was great. Marrakesh was difficult for me because
the control room had that ridiculous reverb. We set the studio up in Devon in this 200-year-old barn that was acoustically completely dead, which was ideal. It was raining all the time, which is what happens in Devon at that time of year. So we were just bunkered down, really concentrating on the music — we had been in Marrakesh as well, but it was really hot and the record was really open-sounding because we'd recorded so much outside. We did a lot of honing down of the songwriting and lyrics in Marrakesh, so Devon was about honing down the sound of the record and mixing it. We re-recorded some of the vocals and instrumental parts. But we were out of the way and undisturbed, so we could finish it off."
At the same time, however, the band were still adding to the record. "It was very much like a mixing session but with extra recording. I don't really like to break up the making of a record into strictly distinct phases: tracking, mixing and so on. I like to be free to add stuff all the way along. But I decided eventually that the only way we were ever going to finish it, because we were all having such a good time in the studio and enjoying it so much that we were just writing new songs, was if I set a date. So I said 'At the end of November I go to Liverpool and start recording Elbow's album.' If I hadn't, we'd still be doing it now I'm sure, and we'd have 40 songs. We tried mastering the record in London but we hadn't quite decided which tracks were going on the record and some of the tunes didn't sound quite right. In the end I went to New York on my own and mastered it over a weekend with Howie Weinberg at Masterdisc, who's very experienced. That was the only time we went to a proper studio during the whole process!"
Ben Hillier had already produced Elbow's debut album, Asleep In The Back, which was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 2001. Its success reflected the band's considerable powers of perseverance: signed to Island in 1998, they had recorded what was to be their first album before being abruptly dropped when the label shifted its priorities from alternative to pop. A lifeline deal with EMI fell through soon after. Dropped twice in the space of a few months but undeterred, the band eventually secured a deal with V2, re-recording the album that was to become Asleep In The Back with Hillier; and when I met Hillier he was in the final stages of mixing the follow-up to Asleep In The Back, Cast Of Thousands. "It's a terrible cliché, but 'second album syndrome' is a very real thing. You don't know how hard it is do do a second album until you have to do it. Tom McRae's album was his second and he's lucky in that he writes a lot of songs, but even then he had to deal with taking his music to another level, to the next stage.
"Elbow had written a load of songs that they thought they were happy with, but neither I nor the head of the label, David Steel, who's a big fan of theirs and does their A&R, was convinced that they had enough material. They were having to wait for me because I was doing the Blur record, so they wrote some more songs, and all of a sudden things were looking a lot rosier. So we went into the studio, and then it turned that they weren't all happy with some of the tunes. They hadn't lived with them for long enough to know if they liked them, so quite a few tunes fell by the wayside. So all of a sudden we'd gone from having 12 songs to having eight. We took a two-week break and they wrote some new songs and reworked some of the old songs. We went back and sifted through the demos and picked out what was right about some songs and what we were doing wrong with others. So in the end we had to work very hard to get things right. If you're working with a band who've recorded a lot of records, they're used to having to push at it. But if you're working with a band who've only recorded one record before, no matter how prepared they think they are, they're not quite prepared for how difficult it can be. But they've worked really hard and as a result they've got some really strong stuff.
"When we went into the studio with the Blur record, we didn't have any songs at all, but no one was worried because Damon and the band have already proved that they can produce the goods in the studio. Elbow have got to prove that, and they're in the process of proving it right now. They've got a really good attitude — they will work hard on songs, they will try lots of different things, and if you're willing to do that, you can come up with a really great record."
The new album was recorded at Parr Street Studios in Liverpool — Hillier is a big fan of the studio's stone and wood live rooms. "They're a bit less moody on this record, with a broader sound palette. There's some quite full-on tunes on there as well — maybe even a couple of singles! They really want to move forward. You've got to work with a band with ambition. One of the things I hate in music is people hiding behind a front, pretending they're cool and actually not having any ambition. I hate it when people refuse to take the next step because they think it's selling out, when in actual fact if they do it and do it well it's not selling out, it's just having ambition. And there's nothing wrong with that. I don't see why music should be bad because it sells well. I think completely leftfield music should be selling really well all the time. Take The Specials, for example. If you listen to their music now, it's mental. The arrangements are all over the place, really clever, really well played and it was hugely successful at the time. Those were big pop hits but if you listen to it now it's still really clever stuff. It's got absolute dignity and absolute integrity. I think that all music should have that — dignity and integrity. And enormous sales!" Amen to that.