There are many ways to record an album — and former Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker has tried them all...
Back in December 2017, former Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker set himself a task to write and record an album of all-new material with his latest band JARV IS... on stage, in front of live audiences. While the project eventually developed into one using those live multitracks as the foundations for a mostly studio-recorded album, Beyond The Pale, Cocker says the new songs' evolution on tour was a vital part of the process.
It's been 19 years since the last Pulp album, 2001's We Love Life, and seven years since the Sheffield group's final reunion gigs in 2013. Meanwhile, Cocker has maintained a sporadic solo career, releasing the Jarvis album in 2006 and Further Complications in 2009. For the making of Beyond The Pale, though, he realised that he needed to form a band again to drive him on creatively.
"I mean, I've been in a band since I was 14 years old," he points out to SOS. "It should be obvious to me that that's how you make songs good, is you involve other people in them. It has to have input from, first of all, the other people in a band, and then an audience. When you play a song in front of an audience, you get so much feedback and information about it that you can then use... it's amazing."
From the debut JARV IS... gig, in Iceland on December 30th, 2017, Cocker and the band began honing the new songs in the live environment, before the singer asked his soundman Andy Pink if there was any way of recording the shows on the band's Spring 2018 UK tour. "He said, 'Yeah, I can do a multitrack recording,'" says Cocker. "I was happy that we were getting some insight into the arrangements of the songs. But I didn't know we would be able to use those recordings."
It was in fact Geoff Barrow (Portishead, BEAK>) who suggested that the band use their concert recordings after catching a JARV IS... show at the Desert Daze festival in California in Autumn 2018. "He suggested getting in touch with Craig Silvey, who ended up mixing the record," says Cocker. "I sent a recording of the song 'Must I Evolve?' to Craig for him to have a critical listen to it, and he said, 'Yeah, we could easily mix that.' So, that was a revelation to me."
Cocker describes Beyond The Pale as less of a live album and more an "alive" album — or, in other words, one that was made while trying to keep the spontaneous spark of creativity alive.
"I've always had a bit of an issue with going in the studio," he admits. "Because I find that the energy or the initial spark of a song can just disappear in that slightly clinical atmosphere of a studio. So, this idea that we'd maybe recorded an album without really noticing it, completely unselfconsciously, was something that I was really interested in. I really wanted it to work."
Jarvis Cocker: "I find that the energy or the initial spark of a song can just disappear in that slightly clinical atmosphere of a studio.
Down the years, Jarvis Cocker has had many different and varied record-making experiences, working with producers as diverse as Chris Thomas, Scott Walker and Steve Albini. From each, he says, he learned various tricks in the studio. He's also keen to point out the work that Ed Buller (Suede, Node) did on Pulp's breakthrough 1994 album, His 'N' Hers.
"We'd recorded some stuff and we tried mixing it ourselves and it just sounded really terrible," he laughs. "We kind of brought Ed in out of desperation. Just said, y'know, 'Could you salvage this?' And he completely transformed it. He had quite an amazing collection of analogue synths and he would put stuff through them. He kind of breathed the life into our songs. And also, I got to mess around on his old analogue synths and that really was an education for me."
Pulp's commercial peak, however, came through their association with Chris Thomas, on 1995's Different Class (and its '98 successor, This Is Hardcore). Cocker says the band were initially attracted to Thomas because of the fact that his client roster was so incredibly diverse, ranging from Roxy Music to the Sex Pistols to the Pretenders. "He didn't really have an identifiable, signature sound," he says. "But somehow he always seemed to be involved in a band's best record.
"I suppose the thing that I really learned from him was how to do vocals. I'd never really seen somebody comp a vocal in such a complex way as Chris Thomas did it. He would sometimes just take one word from one take and splice it in. And this was before computers, y'know, so he was doing it on a tape multitrack. You got something that didn't sound like it was compiled. He somehow just seemed to find the best moments and then make it into a convincing thing so you just felt like it was one performance."
Scott Walker (We Love Life) and Steve Albini (Further Complications) were, as Cocker explains, both producers more concerned with capturing performances live on the studio floor. "Scott Walker was different to Chris Thomas as in it wasn't such a constructed thing," he remembers. "He spent a long time placing the microphones in particular parts of the room. It was the same when it came to my vocals. I remember he had a room set up and there were maybe four mics in there, including two different Neumann [U47] mics. He said, 'They're old microphones and each one's got a different character to it, so just try 'em out.'
"Steve Albini's got this really crazy ethos that he's just a technician. He wears overalls with Electrical Audio written on the back and it's like you're at a garage. It's really about mic placement and he's doing a job which is to record you as faithfully as possible.
"The thing that took some getting used to with him was we would do a take and then we'd say, 'How was that?' And there would just be this silence. Then he'd go, 'Well, it's your song. You better come and have a listen.' He wouldn't volunteer any value judgement whatsoever. But once I'd got used to that, I really respected it."
The roots of JARV IS... as a band can be traced back to 2013 when Cocker was himself asked to produce English singer/harpist Serafina Steer's album, The Moths Are Real. "I said, 'Yeah, I'll have a go,'" he breezily remembers. "I just tried to build it around her voice and the harp and identify places where something else could happen. Then I just balanced it, y'know. I didn't really do much production as in trying anything fancy."
When Cocker started to put together JARV IS..., he invited Steer to join the band, along with Jason Buckle, his production/keyboard-playing collaborator in their early-'00s electro duo Relaxed Muscle. The line-up was completed by Emma Smith (violin/guitar/vocals), Andrew McKinney (bass) and Adam Betts (drums).
Ahead of the first rehearsals, Cocker and Buckle began to develop the structures of the songs together at the latter's home studio, Place Du Big Boss, in Raynes Park, south west London. Buckle acknowledges that his recording setup isn't exactly state of the art, but takes a firm "if it ain't broke" attitude:
"I've got, like, a 15-year-old version of Cubase [SX 3]," he says. "The soundcard is an old Digidesign thing I got in a Cash Converters for 40 quid, which is solid as a rock. Then I've just got some modern Logitech computer speakers with a big bass speaker. I actually found them on the street [laughs]. They sound brilliant.
"I don't get posh studio speakers at all," he adds. "They're just telling you lies, I think. Play it on something normal, cause people are gonna play it on this kind of thing anyway. So, why not make stuff that sounds good on that?"
Buckle's original role in the touring JARV IS... was offstage, adding analogue effects and synth parts (with an EDP Wasp) alongside soundman Andy Pink at the mixing desk. "I had a Watkins Copicat echo to start with and I used that for just sending vocals and saxophone through. But that kind of blew up on the first live gig in Brighton, so then I just started using a digital echo in one of those little Roland [SP-404A] samplers. I was also playing bits of synth over songs. Then I started getting too much gear, so I had to move onto the stage, really."
Jason Buckle: "I don't get posh studio speakers at all. They're just telling you lies, I think. Play it on something normal, 'cause people are gonna play it on this kind of thing anyway."
As the tour progressed, Andy Pink would send Jason Buckle the WAV multitracks of the live performances to work on at home. "They were just really long WAV files of the whole show," says Buckle. "So, they'd be like hour-and-a-half long WAVs, 35 channels. They were enormous and just recorded straight."
Two gigs in particular stood out: the Desert Daze show in California and the second of two nights recorded at Peak Cavern in Castleton, Derbyshire, on April 7th, 2018. Together, Cocker and Buckle began editing songs from the live shows, sometimes cutting between two different performances from two different locations. "Yeah, we spliced a few," says Buckle. "We'd played to loops on a few tracks, so they were sort of in time.
"I wasn't mad keen on using the live stuff," he admits. "Not because it was played badly. Just because sonically it didn't sound very good. There were just bog-standard mics on things. But we just got them in order and made the recordings quite good in case we were gonna use them for the final thing. And quite a lot did get used."
"On two of the songs," says Cocker, "'Must I Evolve' and 'Sometimes I Am Pharoah', the basic tracks that made it onto the album, are from that second night in Castleton. Jason and I would go through the multitracks and if there were any massive problems, like somebody missed a beat or something, we would fix that. Then we would maybe add stuff.
"That was quite an important stage actually because we would work on the arrangements there and also do a bit of recording. Sometimes I would start on the vocals at his home studio in Raynes Park."
In terms of tools for additional production at his home studio, Buckle favours the analogue and the outboard. Along with his Wasp synth, he has a Korg MS-20 and original Roland TR-808. "I'm not a big fan of soft synths," he says. "The Wasp is just really a massive sound. Yeah, it looks like a piece of crap and it probably did when it first came out [in 1978]. But it's really distinctive. You can hear it a mile away on any record. A lot of monosynths sound the same. But I've got the Wasp and the MS-20 and if you know your stuff you can spot them anywhere. Just cause the filters are really quite wild."
Another key piece of gear for Buckle when processing sounds is his Multivox Multi Echo MX-312. "It's like a rip off of the Roland Space Echo," he says. "A cheap version of that, but it's actually really good. I fed loads of things through that, twice, and then I panned them stereo. It gives it a nice airy, tape-y sound, which was used quite a lot."