Jazz quintet Polar Bear have always been musical adventurers, and their latest album extends their experimental philosophy to studio techniques.
Scottish‑born drummer Sebastian Rochford is the leader of jazz group Polar Bear, and has worked with many other experimental bands including Acoustic Ladyland, Basquiat Strings, Oriole, Menlo Park, and Sons of Kermet. He has played with jazz icons like Herbie Hancock, Andy Sheppard and Joanna MacGregor, as well as with Malian singer Rokia Traoré and Damon Albarn's Africa Express. Perhaps surprisingly, however, Rochford is also a fixture in the world of mainstream pop, with acts such as Adele, Brian Eno, Chris Difford, Babyshambles, Suede, David Byrne, Corinne Bailey Rae, Patti Smith, Yoko Ono, John Paul Jones, Paul McCartney, Beck and Paolo Nutini.
Both in Polar Bear and as a duo, Rochford often works with another leftfield musician who has a lengthy CV. John Burton, aka Leafcutter John, is an electronic musician, guitarist, sound designer, programmer, producer, remixer and general sonic experimenter who is five electro‑acoustic folk albums into a solo career, involved in dance and theatre productions and arts installations, has created the Forester "magical sound creation” software and works extensively with Max/MSP. Leafcutter John clearly has a hands‑on approach to technology: his web site includes instructions for building piezoelectric crystal microphones, a laser microphone, a DIY synth, a tin can hydrophone, an "m‑log controller”, a Max/MSP algorithm that creates sound based on the price of gold, 1957‑2013, and more. His studio in East London includes much self‑made equipment, including home‑built 1176 compressors.
This Spring sees the launch of Polar Bear's fifth album, In Each And Every One. Together with the other three band members — saxophonists Pete Wareham and Mark Lockheart and bassist Tom Herbert — Rochford and John have conjured up a major work that is billed by their record company as "a truly breathtaking piece of work, and a marked departure from their previous output”.
Polar Bear debuted in 2004 with the album Dim Lit, and broke through to a larger audience with follow‑up Held On The Tips Of Fingers, which was nominated for the 2005 Mercury Music Prize. A self‑titled album followed in 2008, and their fourth effort, Peepers, in 2010. Peepers was recorded in the way that's widely associated with jazz music: live in the studio, without separation or headphones, and very little editing or treatments as things went down and were mixed. Rochford's aim was to capture the live sound of the band as closely as possible, and get a result that was, he remarked at the time, "raw and spontaneous. I also wanted to record the tunes in a more naïve state, so I didn't give most of the music to everyone until just before the recording.”
Four years later, In Each And Every One is an entirely different beast. Seb Rochford has made full use of the studio working methods that he witnessed when working on mainstream projects, and conducted an extensive post‑production editing and mixing process almost single‑handedly. The resulting album is as eclectic as anything Polar Bear have done. In Each And Every One takes the listener on an exotic journey through ambient music, drum & bass, electronic experimentation, free jazz, calypso, industrial, psychedelic rock and more, all held in a modern‑sounding production that has much more depth, variety and presence than that of Peeper. Rochford notes: "The way we made this album is almost the opposite of the last record. I wanted for there to be a strong rhythmic drive that propels it, and then sometimes for there to be the feeling of pure space.”
The writing, rehearsing, recording and mixing processes for In Each And Every One all involved the juxtaposition of old and new methods and technologies. Rochford's very first steps were as traditional as they come: he wrote down the tunes. His second step, by contrast, was to ask Leafcutter John to design and construct all manner of electronic content for the band to play to. Rochford, who also plays guitar, piano and some bass, in addition to drums, gives the lowdown.
"Musical ideas will usually come to me when I'm doing other stuff. I may hear it in my head and I'll go to the piano to work it out and write it down. I then give these ideas to the band and they play around with them during rehearsals. I did once make a demo for one song and asked people to learn it by ear, but they just ended up transcribing the demo, so I might as well write it down! The other guys all went to music colleges, so it's how they work, and also, when there's no demo and only what you've written down, you don't have any preconceived idea of how the end result will sound. The previous album was done more quickly, and we rehearsed more for the new album, but at the same time I wanted it to be very open music, with lots of space and freedom to improvise. I see the tunes more like little points on a map, and not the entire map. I wanted to experiment with how little information I could give and still keep people interested.”
"Rehearsing more” means something rather different for Polar Bear than for the average rock band, who may spend weeks if not months in pre‑production. "I think we rehearsed maybe five or six times,” recalls Rochford. "We rehearsed at The Premises, a rehearsal studio in London, and one time at Tom's studio. Normally we gradually add new music to our live set, and rehearse things that way, but this time I wanted to have an entire new live set, so we needed to rehearse the material before we played it during gigs. The other band members played around and improvised with my ideas, and I would guide them. But even if it was going somewhere that I had not had in mind, if it sounded good to me, I'd just let them go with it. I always have a plan, but I also want to give people freedom. I recorded the rehearsals with just my iPod and I would load them into my computer, and selected the bits that I liked, edited out the talking and things I liked less, and then sent my edited versions to everyone.”
Regarding the electronic loops and soundscapes, Leafcutter John elaborates: "My role changes with each album, and Seb had specific ideas about the role of the electronics for the new album. For the last album I played guitar and electronics, and I really enjoyed playing guitar, because I felt that it was really direct, and my way of playing worked well with the music. But I was fed up carrying the guitar around, and my technical ability on the guitar is limited, so I did not want to do the same thing again. It was nice that Seb and I had the same thought about the new album, which is that I would only do electronics. My role was also quite rhythmic, and it's never been this rhythmic or central before. Sometimes Seb's ideas were very specific, and sometimes very rough. I'd build different patches for different tracks, and we were experimenting with the electronics holding down the tempo, allowing Seb to play around that with his drums, so he was freed from playing the pulse.”
"I really enjoyed not having to play the tempo and thereby having a lot more freedom when playing the drums,” Rochford adds, "but it was also a learning process for me in how to play with more space and also how to make sure my sound merged with what John was doing. I found during the rehearsals that my normal drum kit didn't sound quite right with the electronics. I didn't want the arrangements to sound like a drum kit with electronics, I wanted the two together to be more like one sound. I wanted them to blend. So I had some new things custom‑made, like cymbals, and I often used animal skins on the drums. I also chose not to have a ride cymbal. I wanted my sound to be drier. I also played some things with my hands, though mostly I used sticks or mallets.”
Leafcutter John's electronics range from the ambient sound washes in 'Open See' to the industrial, to quirky rhythmic textures. He explains, "The patch in 'Open See' is based on several field recordings I made, like of rain and other natural sounds, that I treated inside of the iZotope Iris synthesizer. I am playing the patch on the little GUI keyboard that is part of the plug‑in, so it's just one note at a time. In general I use whatever software is suitable for what I'm doing, but with Polar Bear I often use the [Cycling '74] Max/MSP software, which is best described as Lego for sound. It's similar to [NI's] Reaktor, but it's older and more versatile. I use it in a MacBook laptop, with MOTU Traveler I/O, and an Akai APC40 and Ableton Launchpad controller — I painted the latter orange, because I didn't like that it said 'Ableton' all over it.
"I used only a few samples on the new album, but treated them in very different ways, so it's almost like doing synthesis with these samples. On three tracks I used a sample of a cup and a bowl being hit, which I recorded with my MacBook, which is a bit perverse as I actually built these really beautiful Neve preamps and also have some nice mics in my studio. But sometimes you do something in the heat of the moment, and it really works. For the track 'Lost In Death, Part 1' I recorded everyone in the band breathing. Seb had asked me for a breathy type of sound, so I recorded these breaths, selected a 10‑minute edit, and made a patch from that in Max/MSP.”
Following the rehearsals, Polar Bear went to Livingston Studio 1 in north‑west London, where they laid down 11 tracks in just three days. They were aided in their efforts by someone called Sonny, an engineer who prefers to go purely with his first name. Rochford, who was producing the album, also put in a helping hand, and recounts: "We recorded in Livingston because they have four separate recording booths. John was in the same room as Mark, but John was not amplified, so there was no bleed. Pete, Tom and I each had a room to ourselves, and we could all see each other.”
Leafcutter John: "The reason for the separate booths was not that we wanted to overdub, but that it allowed each of us more freedom, without being afraid that if we messed up it would affect the others. So if everybody was doing something amazing, Seb would be able to get rid of my part if I happened to do something weird that didn't fit in. The same for the others. The idea was that everything went down as live performances, and the separation then gave Seb more possibilities to edit and mix things creatively. I don't think we did any overdubs, other than one place where Tom played an alternate bass line. Instead we got a lot of energy from being able to play together and improvise and yet have a lot of freedom at the same time.”
Rochford: "I remember Polar Bear gigs during which we had big improvisations that really changed the feel and rhythmic nature of what we were doing, and that carried over into the next tune. It's not like we switch in and out of improvisation mode to get back to just playing pre‑written and pre‑arranged music. We put a lot of effort into making sure the band can operate as a really organic unit, with nothing being 100 percent set and everything, whether written or improvised, played with the same kind of passion. We also released a two‑track vinyl EP called Black & White with outtakes from the sessions for this album, and there's one song in which John decides how things change and how we move from one change to the next and even at what speed he plays things.
"I really like that kind of freedom. When you write music, you have an idea of how you want things to sound, and then, when you are playing it with a band, you might be wondering where it is going and how it fits in with your original idea. But I like the feeling of giving that up. I trust that John knows what he's doing and whatever it is that he does, I'll accept it. It's quite a liberating feeling to say: 'Whatever you do is great with me.' Sometimes when you're writing music you can box yourself in and it's nice to escape from that. Obviously, there's a difference between playing in a band that has a lot of room for improvisation and playing set arrangements. But when I'm playing a pop song I also never take for granted that it's always totally the same. The moment you switch off, the music is not what it should be. For me it's important that I put 100 percent of myself into every song, whether it's a preconceived arrangement or idea or not.”
The recordings made at Livingston were often deliberately coloured by the use of vintage microphones and effects that were printed during recording, as Rochford explains. "We used an old RCA 74B and a Coles on Pete's saxophone. I love the RCA mic and I ended up buying the RCA. Pete also had a [Electro‑Harmonix] Memory Man pedal on his sax. I had a Coles 4038 on Mark's sax, and put that through a [Roland] Space Echo, on a spring reverb setting, and then compressed that really hard, because all the tiny noises, like him pressing his keys and breathing and also the little bits of bleed from the drums, became really loud. We had a Neumann mic on Tom's double bass, I don't recall the model number, and he also put a bass DI through pedals, which I recorded separately and then distorted. The final bass sound became a mix of the mic, the pedal sound, and my treatment of the pedal signal. For several tunes I did not use the acoustic sound, and instead just the DI/pedal sound, which also went through studio outboard gear.
"On the drums I had lots of mics, including an [Electro‑Voice] RE20 on the bass drum, and a mic between the snare and the bass drum. Many of the mics I used were overheads, including a Coles in front of the drums, a small French Melodium mic on which I put a backwards effect, and there were several room mics, which I put through some backwards effect. I also had an RCA Bantam microphone behind me, which went through a distortion pedal, and there was another room mic in the corner that got slammed with a compressor. I also put John's sounds through a compressor and just crunched them. I did all these things during the recordings at Livingston, because I did not want to use plug‑ins during the mix. I can't remember what the compressors were, I simply used the ones that they had in the studio. Another element that went down was that I gave Sonny a recording channel and told him to do whatever he wanted on that channel, but he was not allowed to play it to me during the recording, so it would be a surprise later on when I listened to the recordings. It was to have somebody else's input who wasn't in a band. I integrated those things during the mix.”
Following two days of actual recording — half a day was taken up with setting up, and the sessions actually finished half a day ahead of schedule — Rochford took the results back to his house, where he transferred them from Pro Tools to Logic, and mulled them over at length, selecting, editing and pre‑mixing the best bits. "I was isolating myself a bit, and didn't play the recordings to anyone, not even my girlfriend. I did one day ask a journalist who lives close to me to come and have a listen and get his thoughts, because sometimes when you listen to it with someone else you quickly realise what you like and what you don't like. There was lots of stuff. Even now I'm still discovering stuff, and we're working on another EP with alternate takes that I liked just as much. I gave myself a lot of time to work on this album, and spent a couple of months editing, while also taking regular breaks, so I could come back with fresh ears. I did that three times. It was really amazing to me to have that opportunity to reflect and weigh different possibilities. Sometimes as a jazz musician you are used to sounds being very pure. So after the first edits and treatments I felt that I had not pushed it far enough, so I did it again, and after the second break I still had the same feeling and pushed things again.”
Leafcutter John remarks that Rochford "is at a point now where he can technically mix an entire album. And he has a very special way of mixing, and doesn't really need help from anyone.” And so just as the drummer trusts the Polar Bear band members to take his compositions into uncharted territory, the band members in return also trusted him to apply his own vision to the mix In Each And Every One.
Seb Rochford's home studio has "KRK VXT8 monitors, a few preamps, compressors, Space Echoes, and an ARP Axxe synth, plus I bought a [small] Audix BBC desk on eBay that I haven't started using yet. I did the editing and pre‑mixing in Logic because I really love the SoundToys plug‑ins. I added a number of plug‑in effects during the editing process, like distortion on saxophones and EQ‑ing things and also adding Space Echo. Towards the end I submixed things into stems, took off all the plug‑ins and transferred everything back into Pro Tools for the final mix. I did this over four days at Terry Britten's State Of The Ark studio. The reason for going to that studio was that I love the sound of the EMI TG12345 desk there, plus they have a Fairchild compressor, which I also think is great. It's a very relaxed place, a little bit like being in somebody's home.”
Rochford explains that he had been on a bit of a learning curve with regards to mixing. "I had half‑mixed Peepers with Sonny. He would get the tracks up, and I would mix them to the best of my abilities while he was out of the room, and then I'd go out and he'd come in and listen to what I had done and work on it, and after that I'd come in again and change little bits again. That was again a matter of coming in with fresh ears, but I also thought that it was quite a good way of communicating to him how I wanted things to sound. Compared to him, I'm not that experienced in mixing, but I could get the sound to a place where he could understand where I wanted to go with it. So for the new album I wanted to throw myself into the deep end and just go for it all by myself. John told me to trust my own ears, and the other band members also just left me to it. The only other person present was Manon Grandjean, the assistant at State Of The Ark.
"I didn't use many effects on the mixes, but I did do some things, like I added a spring reverb on John's electronics in places, or some distortion. There's a track called 'WW' on which I compressed his sound slightly, in the box, by side‑chaining it to the bass drum. John's sound was a drone, and I wanted to create some movement to get things to breathe a little bit more by using light but very fast compression and side‑chaining it. I also used plug‑in EQ on the saxophones because there were some specific frequencies that I wanted to notch out, and the desk only has two‑band EQ, so I could not do it on that. But other than that I'd guess 90 percent of any effects I used in the mix were outboard. All sessions were recorded and mixed at 9kHz and I mixed back into the session, while going through a Fairchild, just to glue it together a little bit more.
"Putting the Fairchild over the stereo mix wasn't a matter of making it louder, but when you are mixing a record, you do want to know how it might play next to, say, a Kanye West track, to see how it sounds. I also listened to mixes in my car, and realised after a while that my car stereo puts delays on everything, and you can't switch that off, unless you go for some reverb! I remember putting some delays on the mixes and when listening in the car thinking that I'd put far too much delay on. I then realised that it was my car stereo. I also checked mixes on my laptop, and worked hard to make sure that you could also hear the double bass through those speakers. It's frustrating sometimes when you're playing a piece of music to someone, and there's no bass on it. So I did compare the mixes in various ways to make sure that they can hold their own. You are mixing a record because you want people to listen to it!”
As mentioned in the main article, John Burton, aka Leafcutter John, has at his command a wide range of technology from vintage preamps to cutting‑edge digital audio software. It's the latter that is to the fore in his work with Polar Bear: "When playing with Polar Bear, all of the interesting stuff I do happens in my Max patches, and there's a kind of unified Max patch that I use during live shows. I've written software to map Max/MSP to my Akai APC40and Ableton Launchpad controllers, and I create new structures every night, controlling the speed and direction and octaves of different notes. Sometimes it can be very rhythmically driving, sometimes it's really loose. Regarding the algorithm I wrote that creates sound based on the price of gold during 1957‑2013, it sounds a bit like a 1980s techno track. But there actually is a whole field of science that is about the sonification of data. Scientists use it to find anomalies in huge amounts of data. It allows them to hear things that they may not be able to see.
"As for my other activities, I am doing lots of live shows and also dance and theatre things, and I am working with many different musicians and also producing things. I often work at my own studio, where I have Dynaudio speakers that I know really well, and there are some acoustic treatments, so I can get a reasonable sound. I've built my own 1176 compressors and Neve preamps and have other bits of gear and I tend to use Logic, for which I have loads of plug‑ins. I used to make my own plug‑ins in Max/MSP, but they took away that functionality, which is a shame. I like to build my own stuff, because the industry is playing things very safe and if one company launches a touch controller, then everyone will come out with that, whereas I might want to have a light‑controller hat, or something! When you have an idea of what you want to achieve, it usually is easier just to make it yourself.”