Recording the centrepiece of Spiritualized’s celebrated space rock masterpiece took engineer Darren Allison on a trip into the unexpected.
After his previous band — Rugby’s highly–influential Spacemen 3 — fell apart in 1990, singer/guitarist Jason Pierce formed Spiritualized to continue his quest to create ambitious soundscapes. Veering from narcotic ballads to otherworldly space rock, two albums followed in the shape of 1992’s Lazer Guided Melodies and 1995’s Pure Phase. But it was in 1997 with the evocatively–titled Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space that Pierce created what has come to be regarded as his masterpiece.
A collection of hymn–like songs of heartbreak and widescreen rockers, Ladies And Gentlemen... bridged an imagined gap between the Stooges and free jazz. A large–scale project centred around the core quartet of Pierce, then–girlfriend Kate Radley (keyboards), Sean Cook (bass, harmonica) and Damon Reece (drums), the album also featured such diverse collaborators as Dr John, the Kick Horns, the Balanescu Quartet, accordionist Angel Corpus Christi, pedal–steel player BJ Cole and the London Community Gospel Choir.
For the earlier Spiritualized albums, Jason Pierce tried to recreate on tape a very clear musical picture he imagined in his head. But as he explained to this writer in 1997, shortly after the release of Ladies And Gentlemen..., the process for the third album was somewhat different. “The way you think about music,” he said, “it’s not like you have a record playing in your head and when you’re recording you can just say, ‘Yeah, this is getting close.’ The way you think about music is just the way your consciousness works — it’s not just sound... it’s pictures, feelings, whatever.
“With Lazer Guided Melodies, I really attempted to get close to the way I heard it in my head. But it’s kind of frustrating because I don’t think you ever get as good as the imagined piece. Your imagination is always going to be better than anything you can do. I came extremely close, I guess, but after that I got more involved with working with people who had more contribution musically. With that album [Lazer Guided Melodies], it was very much telling people, ‘This is the drum pattern, this is the drum sound, this is how you play it.’ Now, especially with the people we’re working with, it’s more about people contributing in a kind of jazz way by getting the feel for it and understanding the rules of what we can do with the music, so it doesn’t go into any areas we really don’t want to go into. That really applied to everybody playing on the album. They all had a feel for it. It wasn’t like they were just brought in as regular session people.”
To create the head–spinning sounds he was striving for on Ladies And Gentlemen..., this time Pierce relied less on effects and more on layered performances. “The main thing on this one was to use a vocabulary of sound that was actually really normal,” he explained. “On the last couple of albums I’ve been making sounds, I guess, in a Brian Wilson way, where you lay glockenspiels against Theremins against bass harmonicas against oboes. With this one, it’s flat, it’s about as normal as you can get in pop music. It’s Elvis in Memphis, it’s Sly & The Family Stone. I didn’t want to make a record that was the same as any of those records. I just wanted to make something that was as unique as those. But the instrumentation is as normal as a symphony orchestra is to a classical piece.”
As an album Ladies And Gentlemen... is remembered both for its standout track, the epic and driving single ‘Come Together’ (featuring the rousing massed voices of the London Community Gospel Choir) and for the fact that it was perceived, after the romantic split of Pierce and Kate Radley, as being a lovelorn statement from a broken man.
“It was always seen as something and I’ve said a million times it wasn’t,” Pierce told me in another interview 11 years after the album’s release. “[The song] ‘Broken Heart’ was written ahead of that. The story around the album is what everybody wants to know, but with time that becomes less and less important. It wasn’t any more or less painful a record to make. It was still about exploring the possibilities of sound.”
Jason Pierce’s co–pilot for much of the sonic flight of Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space was engineer/mixer Darren Allison. In January 2016, almost 20 years to the day since he first got involved in the making of the album, Allison meets SOS at The Church Studios in Crouch End, North London, scene of the key sessions for the record. In the high–raftered live room of the facility, whose previously owners include Dave Stewart and David Gray and whose current owner is Paul Epworth, he casts his mind back to how the studio was in 1996.
“Back then when you walked through that door,” he remembers, “this room was super–shiny floor, mic stands in a row, spick and span, just looking like the brochure. It was a very different ambience from other studios, very, very live. Some engineers, you could see the caution in their eyes. ‘How do you deal with this?’ It was dense and reflective. But with just three or four screens you could actually take the decay down remarkably.
“I think although there were stacks of really good records done here; that Spiritualized record probably takes in more of the natural ambience of this place than any other example I can think of. A lot of the time you were trying to control it. So the Spiritualized album was a good opportunity to try and harness as much of the actual sound of the room as possible.”
As a kid growing up in Northumberland, the son of a guitarist father, Allison was naturally drawn towards music, both as a drummer and through experimenting with tape recorders. At the age of 11, he was given a Toshiba reel–to–reel quarter–inch machine for Christmas, before buying a used second recorder and building himself a six–channel mixer from a design in an electronics magazine. He soon progressed to an MTR mixer and started learning about EQ and compression. Enterprisingly, in his mid teens he fitted his equipment into a van and, with this makeshift mobile studio, began recording local bands. “I was gonna call it Reels On Wheels,” he laughs.
Moving to London at 17, he bagged a job as an assistant engineer at the now–defunct Fire House Studio in Kentish Town, owned by John Cale’s guitarist Dave Young. Here Allison learned his craft through working with an array of artists from Ali Farka Touré and Slim Gaillard to Carmel and the Pogues. “It was like, I’m in heaven, man,” he grins. “Going and getting Shane MacGowan’s single malt every day.”
In 1988, after the Fire House went into liquidation, Allison moved to Ezee Studios in North London, where his background in electronics meant that, initially, he was part of the tech team refitting the facility. In this environment his recording knowledge took a leap, engineering sessions on both SSL G Series and Neve VR60 desks, for the likes of Tina Turner, Robert Plant and — significantly — Dave Stewart.
“The best thing of all about the SSL desks,” he says, “was that the tape control was in the middle. It meant that if you wanted to be the one doing the drop–ins, you weren’t on an MTR–90 remote sitting at the side of the desk. You had to sit in the middle. I could get eye contact, that visual thing. Getting locked with a musician. The magic happens when they get it right and you’ve got it right.”
From here, Allison ended up working for Stewart at The Church, at the time gaining a reputation as a studio which indie bands such as My Bloody Valentine and Curve would book to work with Alan Moulder and craft their heady, heavily treated indie sounds. “Right place, right time,” Allison notes. “I came here to try and get classical experience and a wider spectrum. Yet it turned out to be the very studio that was the centre of the shoegaze thing and alternative indie, all of which was happening downstairs in the SSL room.”
Allison progressed to co–producer, with Neil Hannon, of three albums for the latter’s outfit the Divine Comedy, leaving The Church to go freelance when he realised that the labour–intensive creation of 1996’s Casanova would take up most of his time. It was during sessions for that record at Moles in Bath that the studio’s manager Jan Brown first suggested Allison and Jason Pierce might make a good creative match.
“She’d come in enthusing about what we’d been doing,” says Allison. “I’d been putting my Gretsch kit in the lounge to get space into the sound, and doing stuff on the stairwells and things, so I guess Jan had been clocking that. She was going, ‘Jason could really use working with somebody like you because it’s not just engineering, you’re just so engaged.’
“I got a call from Jason and he said, ‘We’ve been demoing at Moles, but some of the demos have effectively become masters.’ He said, ‘I need to work with an engineer, but I need to work with an engineer who can produce.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m your man.’”
The preliminary sessions at Moles for what would become Ladies And Gentlemen... had generally involved Pierce and the band jamming and then sampling sections to fly back in and build up the tracks. “Most of what they’d done, fortunately, they’d dumped to tape,” says Allison as he leads SOS into what used to be the small control room at The Church, at the time based around a 40–input Amek G2520 console and ATC 100 monitors, with a tape machine room downstairs containing an Otari MTR–90. “This was really a tracking room for analogue,” Allison adds. “The tapes arrived the same day as Jason. You’re anticipating tapes with some of the pre–production on, plenty of blank tracks, enough to deal with what you’re doing.”
It didn’t quite turn out like that. Given the intensive and spontaneous throw–it–down nature of Spiritualized’s sessions at Moles, it took Allison some time to sift through what was actually on the multi–tracks. “I got the feeling that the two–inch tape had been used as a bit of scratch pad,” he says. “Half of what was on the tapes seemed to be what was intended to be there, and then on these other tracks, many of which didn’t have anything written on the track sheets, we were finding things. You had to put up all the tracks that apparently haven’t got anything on them, check that the channels are switched on for starters, that the line gains are up, and bloody well listen through the whole thing — listen to an album’s worth of nothing to make sure that they really are blank.
“Most of the time there were all kinds of squally bits of guitar takes and half tracks where that guitar sound cuts off and there’s something else there. Jason would sit at the back taking in stuff, so I found myself keeping on encouraging him to come and sit up at the board with me and go through the stuff. You’re either listening to the silence or you’re having to watch the 24–track needles for any sign of something that might be there. So my first contribution I’d say was just bringing a bit of organisation to what was there already. It was, ‘OK, we’re definitely using this, this has yet to be sampled, that... we don’t need it.’ The first day or two was a hell of a lot of just erasing stuff and then keeping back anything that would be used possibly.”
It became clear that the project would have to move to 48–track, of course doubling the tape costs. A second MTR–90 was hired and moved into the small tape room at The Church. “There wasn’t even enough room,” Allison recalls, “so the secondary machine had to sit just inside the door. We made a slave reel on day one. So we basically absorbed the entire album in a few hours, what they’d got so far, and made some sub mixes that we could work to. Making sub mixes is a commitment because you’re gonna work to that and that’s gonna form in your mind where this record is going. So we did it for practicality’s sake, but it has an artistic bearing.
“So then we could let the machine go back and we could work 24–track. And now we had plenty of space for me to do choirs, strings, horns, any more guitars, any more bits and pieces of sample–y things. There was a working palette.”
At Moles, the band takes — drums, bass, guitars and keyboard parts on a Roland D50 — had been recorded by the studio’s engineers Trevor Curwen and Darren Nash. “They’d recorded the drums going for a ’60s style, not close miked,” says Allison. “I think it was a really great decision that they wanted to do it that Glyn Johns way because it’s Keith Moon, isn’t it? The drumming on the album is utterly stunning. And really who wants to put a close mic and trigger a snare on that? The framework demo stuff — the drums, the bass, most of the guitars were tracked, if some of it still needed sampling and to be arranged. It was just a core indie band–sounding thing at that stage really.”
The first overdub at The Church was suitably dramatic. The London Community Gospel Choir appear on a number of the album’s tracks, but most notably ‘Come Together’, where their contribution was recorded even before Jason Pierce had recorded his lead vocal. “So that was a pretty fast learning curve,” Allison laughs, standing back in the live room remembering the positioning of the choir. “I had them in a semi–circle, I guess about 20 people, and the Reverend Bazil Meade conducting them. It was just incredible. I like width in stereo and I wanted to incorporate the sound of the room, so had them pretty well spread out. Mic–wise, it was just three [Neumann U] 87s — left, centre and right, just above them. The thing with this room is you really couldn’t stretch too far back or suddenly you’ve swamped it in like a Walker Brothers reverb.”
For the ambient mics, forming a square with the outer U87s that he made sure wasn’t too sizeable, Allison used a pair of Neumann KM86s. “I found that with this room, because of the density and the decay, the timbre of the ambience had a lot of mid–range content. As you look around, it has a lot of glass. I always found the KM86s to be just generally lovely for ambience anyway, having a bit of softness in the mids.”
Allison committed the choir’s contributions to a pair of tracks. “I wouldn’t have put that down onto three tracks, I would just get a blend. They didn’t have racks of stuff here at the time, so I just used the Drawmer 1960 [dual–channel valve compressor] that was in there.”
Next to add their parts were the Kick Horns, recorded positioned near the left–hand wall of The Church’s live space to lend their parts some slapback. “You had Tim [Sanders, tenor sax] and Simon [Clarke, baritone sax] and Roddy Lorimer [trumpet], and Neil Sidwell augmented it on trombone. I tried them in the region where the choir was, but it was too engulfed there. So I had a couple of screens behind them just to cut out this glass. You can’t beat hearing a bit of slapback on a trumpet. They’re so punctuated those lines, so it was a balancing act between not just having them lost in the room, but having some control. Being nearer the wall helped I think.”
Allison remembers he had a clear plan when it came to finding space for these overdubs when combined with the band sound of Spiritualized and Jason Pierce’s vocals. “My thinking with the tonality of the band was, this was exciting as hell, and it was all trashy in the mids. So we can put more in behind it and then, when it comes to his vocals, we can put them right in your face. The band occupies the middle ground, and we can push the furthest things back and we can bring the closer things forward... then there’s space.”
When it came to capturing Jason Pierce’s vocals on ‘Come Together’, Allison employed a technique he normally used for recording drums in the small booth at the back of the live room.
“I thought, this guy’s gotta sound larger than life here, because this is absolute Armageddon going on around him,” he says, standing in the drum room. “As you can see there’s not much room to set up ambience mics. The trick was, when you had drums in here and you couldn’t get the mics very far back, I would have a pair of KM86s or U87s up in the corners, but pointing away from the kit. And then of course you’d just have to polarity reverse them on the desk because you’re putting it down completely out of polarity with the sound. It was just a trick that we’d always used, and you could really hit them hard with dbxs or 1176s.
“I had an 87 in here for him to sing into, but I also had a dynamic as well just in case —a [Sennheiser MD] 421 or an [Electrovoice] RE20. I had a little SansAmp at the time and it was cool for just a bit of distortion to blend in off a secondary mic. With ‘Come Together’, I left the doors open with a KM86 about six feet outside. That just helped give it a bit of connection with the choir.”
For the raucous brass parts on ‘Come Together’, Allison used the same approach, positioning the Kick Horns in the drum booth with the door open. “I thought that just having one thing that was in this wildly different ambience might be a bit out on a limb. I thought it would be better if it can seem like they are all together when it’s ‘Come Together’ and it’s all like, ‘Charge!’ You want to feel like it is actually all going on at once.”
The Kick Horns’ overdubs on Ladies And Gentlemen... were largely improvised or notated on the day in the studio. “Their ability to just think on the spur of the moment and deliver was incredible,” Allison says. “I remember Jason singing lines and giving them a bit of guidance. Jason liked to sit at the back and he was an executive producer in that sense that people got their freedom to explore.”
Initially, Jason Pierce travelled to Memphis’ House Of Blues Studio, to mix Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space with one of his heroes, Big Star producer Jim Dickinson, attracted to his high–concept views on record–making. “When I was in Memphis,” Pierce told me in 1997, “I was talking to Jim Dickinson and he had this theory about music — that after all the electricity and all the playing and stuff, the end product is speakers pushing air molecules around. He reckons that the thicker the air molecules are, ie. the nearer you are to sea level, the better the music. He kinda backed that theory up with the fact that the music from New Orleans, Memphis, New York and London was often great and they’re all close to sea level.”
Darren Allison, meanwhile, had moved on to another project, making an album at Jacobs Studios in Surrey with UK country singer Clint Bradley. “I get a call from Jason in Memphis saying, ‘It’s great here, the studio’s great and they’ve got all the gear but they just can’t get on my trip. They don’t understand what this music is. Can you get on a plane and come to Memphis?’ I said, ‘Well I can’t because I’m committed to mixing this album for a couple of weeks.’ He said, ‘I’ll just have to come back then.’”
Throughout the process, Pierce had been happy with the monitor mixes and so asked Allison to mix the album. “I’d never prepared myself for possibly mixing this,” says Allison, “so I did a lot of going for a walk in the woods or lying down and just letting your mind expand as to what this could do. We got stuck in and it was a chance to try to get the mid range right and get that core thing with a bit more separation, a bit more expanded. It was all dense. And this was gonna be an assault on your senses...”
In the Neve VR60 room at The Strongroom in London, Allison and Pierce mixed ‘Come Together’, along with ‘Electricity’ and ‘I Think I’m In Love’, using some unusual techniques along the way. “One of the things which I set up in the live room was a pair of Beyerdynamic DT100 headphones,” says Allison, “literally clamped onto one of my Sennheiser 509 mics. Both cans squashed together sandwiching the mic and gaffer tape around to keep it in place. This mono situation was brought back up, in reverse polarity, on two channels of the desk. We could add this inverse ‘speaker effect’ effect to anything we wanted, and being up on two channels meant I could automate stereo panning. The DT100s are famously mid rangey, and I thought this would help us to throw more of that dense Spiritualized mid range out to the sides to create space.
“You listen to [the Rolling Stones’] Exile On Main Street, it’s all mid range, and it’s this compressed thing. But within it, all the ambience is there and you can pick it all out. I was trying to do that but taking a little bit longer maybe than might have been anticipated.”
In the end, Pierce tried out different tracks with other mixers, but then — in a highly unusual move he’d first used on the aptly–named Pure Phase — he separated the left and right channels of two different mixes and, using proto–digital editing software, matched the two up.
“Jason said that on the previous album,” recalls Allison, “it was all mixed on an SSL and he lived with it and he thought he liked it and then he didn’t. And then he went in and mixed some of it again in a Neve studio. So he had Neve mixes and SSL mixes and he still really wasn’t happy. I don’t know if it might have been desperation, but in the end he put the two together, left and right.”
“I was mixing the album twice,” Pierce told me in 2008, “and putting one mix in one speaker and the other mix in the other speaker. And it gave them this incredible soundscape where the bass drum was floating around somewhere.”
“The bass drum is floating around because of cancellation,” Allison explains. “I think somebody else had a go at mixing ‘Come Together’ because I hear a bit of the Pure Phase thing happening. If anything it pushed it into that Spiritualized world a bit more. If you listen to ‘Come Together’ on great headphones, like Sennheiser HD600s or something, you’ll hear the vocal wavering and the position of a few of the central things moving. I think on any record Jason’s done, it doesn’t end with the mixes.”
Ultimately, ‘Come Together’ and Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space turned out to be quite a sonic trip, and one that hasn’t dated down the years.
“I think that comes down to the fact that it’s actually not terribly reliant on the technologies of the day,” Allison reasons. “It’s harnessing a lot of the natural stuff. It did employ sampling, it employed a lot of cutting up. But it wasn’t all triggered snares and kicks and autotuned.”
“We didn’t just write a song and go in the studio and that was what you got,” Jason Pierce concluded back in 1997. “We took time and went on a journey.”