The Making of ‘Who’s In Charge Here?’
It was the Summer of 2015 and Kathy and I had moved back to Itchy Mansions for a bit. I had just left the school I was working at and had set aside a couple of months to focus on music. In one corner of the lounge was my computer with ‘Logic 9’ onscreen. That’s recording software, for any non-musicians out there. My upright piano had its back to the window that looked out onto the bright, loud and hectic high street. Our sofa bed was made up in the other corner of the room, and all of mine and Kathy’s worldly possessions were piled up in huge mounds around us. With no sound-proofing whatsoever (apart from all our coats hanging up everywhere) against the backdrop of a high street that would rival central Delhi in volume and chaos, I’d open up a ‘new project’ in Logic and lay down some acoustic guitar or piano.
A metronome track would be up on the screen, and I would play a few takes of whatever song I was doing. Re-angling the mic in slightly different ways, changing the gain, trying to cancel out the roaring engines, car horns, and shouts from the street below. At some point towards midday I’d hear the pitter patter of footsteps outside the door. I’d walk out and see Adam would be coming down the stairs in nothing but his towel. He had lazy mornings on his days off, and this was the time when he was going through his David Icke/conspiracy theory phase, and used to stay up very late watching YouTube videos. He’d make a tea, maybe a bowl of Shreddies with chunks of cheddar on the top (an Adam classic). We’d stand in the hallway and chat. With his laid back smile, bare chest and bowl of cheese Shreddies, Adam would suggest skateboarding, or be telling me about David Icke theories, and I’d be thinking how best to tell him that I wanted to ‘book him’ for his whole day off to help me record. More often than not we agreed on a compromise — skateboarding and recording. This was a good summer.
By the time Adam was showered and dressed, it was lunch time. So we would skateboard down Sydenham road to ‘Punky’s Dilemma’, the pop-up shop Kathy was doing, and get some delicious homemade health food and coffee. Sometimes I’d buy Adam’s lunch to say thank you for the work he was about to do on the album. Sometimes we had the laptop with us and we’d look at the works I’d already started and do some mixing — making some tweaks here and there, and he’d give me some hints and tips on using Logic. Once we’d eaten our leisurely lunch, skated for a bit, arrived home, made some tea, we’d start putting down some live tracks. I would play Adam the song I had been working on, and either he’d come up with a part for it, or I’d already have something in mind that I wanted him to play. Then he’d plug his bass in, and lay his parts down. For three of the tracks, I’d already recorded all the parts for it at the house I’d been living in for the previous year — ‘Itchy Cottage’ — a ten minute walk down the road in Penge. These songs were ‘Just in Case’, ‘Moving the Mess Around’ and ‘Even God Makes Mistakes’. But I’d done all the parts myself on the computer, with synth drums and bass, and for this album I wanted live instruments. Adam played the drums on these three songs and ‘You’ve Got Your Whole Life to Fall off the Ball’. He also did bass on that song, and on ‘Who Cares Wins?’ and ‘The Worst in Me’, and played bongos on a few tracks too. It was all done fairly quickly, bass sessions in the lounge, and drum parts up on the top floor in Adam’s room. One of the most fun parts of the recording process was doing the percussion parts for Signor Olivio’s. We went to the kitchen and grabbed as many kitchen utensils, glasses and pots and pans as we could carry, and brought them up to Adam’s room. We crashed away the whole song through, to give it a live restaurant vibe, and only smashed one glass in the process.
Big M came round a couple of times and put his bass playing magic on ‘Moving the Mess Around’, ‘Just in Case’, ‘Even God Makes Mistakes’, ‘Toxic People’ and ‘They Put an End to Morning’. I got Oli to play drums on the two rocky numbers on the album ‘Who Cares Wins?’ and ‘They Put an End to Morning’. I told him to think of the Modern Lovers in the first one, and Crazy Horse for the second. He laid them both down in one take each, which is pretty remarkable, as he was playing to a click track for both of them. One time my old school friend and artist, Jack, was round having a skateboarding day with Adam and me, and I asked him if he’d be up for playing on the album. He did the lead guitar parts on ‘Toxic People’. I really like his spacey atmospheric parts in the verses. Xav was the busiest of all the Itchy Teeth clan at this time, and was therefore the last to record his parts. He played lead guitar on ‘You’ve Got Your Whole Life to Fall off the Ball and ‘Even God Makes Mistakes’ (his playing on this one was particularly inspired), and bass on ‘Signor Olivio’s’. I’m incredibly grateful to all these friends for lending their time and creative talent to the album. I am delighted to have gotten a ‘live’ sounding record with such good players, even though the whole process was quite long winded.
Most of the songs for this album were written in 2014/15, and either too personal, or the wrong vibe for Itchy Teeth. The oldest song on the album, and the last to be recorded (I did it in our Margate home a month or so ago) is ‘I Can Never Go Back Again’. It was written about 5 years ago. I had the piano part first and I thought it sounded like a traditional French song. I thought maybe some French lyrics would have sounded nice on it, but then either thought better of it or couldn’t be bothered. The song is about growing up, leaving home, having a misspent few years and feeling nostalgic about childhood and family. It’s a melodramatic song a self-centered drunk man sings with a tear in his eye, staring into a half empty glass of wine.
The other songs were all written within a year of each other. Some of the songs are homages to different artists/styles, like the last track ‘Golden Moon’, written visiting my wife’s family in South Africa, it’s a simple and naive tune in the style of Harry Nilsson’s early child-like ballads. The loudest song on the album, ‘They Put an End to Morning’ is a nod to Neil Young. I wrote this one when they started closing down the record shops and music venues. The thought that inspired the song was this: they’ll close down anything that doesn’t make money. They’ll put an end to anything lovely, if it doesn’t bring gains to the bank, and we’re powerless to do anything about it. With the song ‘Even God Makes Mistakes’, I wanted its form to echo the jazz standards. It’s a tragi-comic look at the human conception of God.
‘Just in Case’ is written from the perspective of a guy who thinks he’s a man of science, and doesn’t have time for ‘spiritual mumbo-jumbo’. But he’s such a worrier that when it comes down to it, he can’t help worrying about superstitions and the spirit world as well as all the stuff we can see at face value. This song is linked to ‘Moving the Mess Around’ because they both have some hip-hop elements in their arrangement. The latter is about not dealing with your problems. How it’s sometimes in our nature to sweep them under the carpet, run away from them, box them up, do anything but confront them face to face.
‘You’ve Got Your Whole Life to Fall off the Ball’ was inspired by hearing an old record producer brag to me about his grand-daughter, who was in reception or nursery school. He said with such blind faith that this girl was a genius, and at top of the class at 3 or 4 years old. I thought that was a bit early to tell. Who knows, maybe she was. But at primary school I was a pretty high achiever, and look at me now! The premise of the song is this — at any point you think you’re in a good place or you’ve achieved something, your whole life stretches out ahead of you with a million pitfalls that will come your way. It’s fine to enjoy your victories. But keep it in perspective. Don’t be smug. ‘Who Cares Wins?’ is another song about achievement. I had the idea for this song while I was helping out at sports day for the school I used to work at. I saw how the competitive spirit is instilled in children at such a young age. It reminded me of my own experiences at school — how they used to rank the year group according to intellectual achievement, how they used to send us out in skimpy white shorts to try and outrun each other around a freezing muddy field. It’s not that I’m totally against the idea of competition, but there’s just too much focus on it in children’s formative years. The song is suggesting that those who are at the back of ‘the race’ might be far more interesting. Those who don’t match up to the system’s conventions of perfection have something more original to give the world. Either they don’t care to fit in, or they can’t. The focus on competitiveness in children creates an ‘otherness’ among one’s peers. Children should be encouraged to find their own strengths, and not see them as conflicting with their classmates. All have something valuable to bring to the table, and it’s not a case of out-doing your friends, as this just creates unhappiness and jealousy in later life.
The two nastiest songs on the album are ‘Toxic People’ and ‘The Worst in Me’. They deal with difficult personalities that one comes into contact with on a daily basis. ‘Toxic People’ is about those who carry around so much negative energy that it’s very difficult to be in their presence. ‘The Worst in Me’ was written after having a few encounters with someone, and whenever I left them I felt like I’d acted out of character, said things that I shouldn’t have said. It’s strange how some people’s presences can have that effect. It’s advisable to avoid those sorts of people.
I wrote ‘Signor Olivio’s’ when I was obsessed with Dr. John. It’s my attempt at a vaguely New Orleans piano style. Signor Olivio’s is a place that everyone can go to when they’re feeling down in the dumps or separate from other human beings. It’s a restaurant but it’s also not a restaurant. There’s no dress code in Signor Olivio’s. There’s no entrance policy and everyone eats at the same table.
If all I had to do was write the songs and record the album, this record would have been released last year. The production of the album took a while as it was a learning curve for me. This was where I had to consult YouTube videos for advice, and ask Adam and Xav countless questions. I produced this album in the Autumn when Kathy and I had moved to her mum, Debbie’s house in Ealing Common. It shouldn’t have taken me as long as it did but live got incredibly busy and I had a lot to learn. I randomly got called up for jury service and had to go to the Old Bailey and do that all day, every day for 5 weeks. Then I worked at Oli’s Dad’s building site for a few months. I tried to do an hour or so every night, but I was tired out after work and the initial burst of excitement that comes with the early stages of making a record had started to wain.
Eventually I got all the tracks sounding pretty good. I called up Adam and asked nicely if he wouldn’t mind mastering the album for me. He agreed. But since he had (and still does have) a full time job and full time band, it wasn’t exactly the top of his list either. So after a couple of months I arrived back at Itchy Mansions with a big pile of sweets and fizzy drinks and sat up in Adam’s room while we began mastering the album ‘together’. He did the technical stuff. I was more there for moral support, company and encouragement.
Aside from artwork and funding for printing C.D.s, the album was pretty much ready to go at the beginning of 2016. Then Itchy Teeth made the giant leap into our European ‘Never Ending’ Tour and all quit our jobs to focus on the band full time. I also moved house with Kathy down to Margate. And she was opening a shop that needed renovating, manual labour, D.I.Y. and lots of general help. So between touring with Itchy Teeth and everything else that entails, helping Kathy and her business partner Wade start up their café/shop and doing up our own house, the album took a backseat. For about 9 months.
By the time I had set up my computer and recording equipment in the Spring of 2016, the last thing I felt like doing was revisiting the album. I wanted to move onto new songs, recording in different ways and focussing on new Itchy Teeth material. There was a vague feeling in the back of my mind that once I had a few hundred pounds spare cash I would be able to print some C.D.s and get ‘Who’s in Charge Here?’ out there. But over the months, as the little money I did have dwindled further, it dawned on me that the likelihood that I would ever have disposable income over the next year or so was quite unlikely. Plus the spectre of the album started to hang over my head — that I’d put all this hard work into it, that everyone involved in helping to make it deserved to listen to the finished product. As much as I’m against the mp3 generation and much prefer being able to own a physical copy of an album on C.D. or record, lack of funds have dictated that I have to do it this way. One day I hope to be able to make some physical copies of this album. But for the foreseeable future at least it’s on the internet.
When it came to making the album cover I re-listened to the tracks. I tried to soak up the vibe from this collection of songs to come up with a painting that unified some of the general themes of the album. I attempted the cover about five times before I arrived at the image you can see now. The figure in the mask is having a self-obsessed existential crisis. He cannot feel unified with his fellows, and is now lost in a terrifying dream sequence and can no longer discern what’s real and what’s in his head. He is in the grips of such angst that he has metamorphosed into a slug like creature.
I watched a documentary on the American writer Robert Bly recently, and he said that he felt he had only ever reached 50% of his own artistic potential, but that the other 50% of his life (day to day struggles/relationships/bills/work/money worries) had made that artistic output twice as rich. It felt comforting to hear that. I doubt I’m even working at 10% of my artistic potential right now, but by Bly’s logic, that 90% of chaos that makes up the rest of my life is helping to enrich my work massively. Sometimes it feels like life gets in the way of music, and that’s why it’s taken so long to get this album out there. But without a chaotic, full and complicated life, there wouldn’t be nearly as much to write about.