There are defining moments in every band; a time where the bond between musicians can be strengthened and the foundations laid for a more positive future. The recording of Riot Act was one of those moments.
I packed up my old Ford escort with recording gear, my new Tascam 2488 was carefully bundled into the rather ample boot of the old Maroon car. The rest of the gear was flung in any available space.
I met up with Greg, Derek and Stu. Stu would ride shotgun in the Ford, Greg and Derek would team up in the transit hire van which was packed with enough food and beer to sustain a small country (that likes its drink).
We headed off up the A9 through the epic Cairngorms. Stu switched on the radio and we were greeted with a radio station that I had never heard before. Gone were the annoying presenters, absent were the frustrating adverts, instead Stu and I were treated to track after track of solid rock. ‘Stu what is this station’ I asked? Stu had no answer; he just made the devil sign and smiled. ‘Well wait until we tell Greg and Derek about this radio station!’ I smugly stated. However I did get frustrated as the music would briefly fade away most notably as Gerg and Derek’s van fell behind.
We stopped for petrol in Inverness. I jumped out of the Ford and ran over to tell Greg and Derek about our discovery. As I explained our find, they started to roll of some of the music that we had heard. Alice in Chains? Yes I said. Guns and Roses. YES I said, did you find the station as well? Nah, said Greg, it’s my iPod I had it set up to a radio transmitter. They both chuckled as they walked away to grab a sandwich.
As we drove on from Inverness towards Cannich I started to realise that we had booked a cottage rather far away. As time passed we were soon sharing a single track road with sheep and eventually deer; then it became clear just how breathtaking the Cannich valley was. Further in the distance, sheltered by some trees, was the Leattrie lodge. It looked just like the brochure, that is until we drove up its steep drive and saw it looked a little run down. Just perfect for four lads who wanted to play loud music and drink a lot of alcohol.
The excitement was palpable, a whole week surrounded by the hills of the beautiful valley. The guys charged into the cottage and as I heard their excited voices fade the deeper they got into house I could hear the silence of the valley and a river far in the distance.
I turned and headed into the lodge. It was modest, it had small rooms that ran into a narrow corridor. The living room was open plan to the kitchen. This was the biggest area and I suggested we record here but Derek pointed out we’d be dining in this room and we’d have to dismantle the drums every time we wanted to eat.
We headed upstairs, the bedrooms were small but Derek’s room was a little longer. There was no escaping the ceiling, which due to the nature of the upper level of the cottage, sloped inward, For some reason we decided to set up the drums upstairs. It would prove to be a mistake.
Once all the gear was dropped into the nooks and crannies of the small lodge we started to pack the fridge with beer and had our first meal. I unpacked the Tascam 2488, marvelling at my new purchase. 24 tracks of digital recording. I carefully laid my first condenser microphone; a cheap Stagg, basically a budget version of microphone that I liked. I had recorded the Armour is Broken (a solo lp) with this mic.
As the light faded on the first day Greg lit the fire and we opened our beers. We wouldn’t be sober for the next 6 days.
We recorded Riot Act in batches. Drums and bass for 3 or 4 songs and then we’d layer the guitars and vocals. We’d repeat this process until we had all the tracks down. The drums were crammed into the biggest of the bedrooms upstairs, the low ceiling made the drums sound a bit flat not that I was aware of this at this time. I used various methods to split the signal of the guide tracks and sent a feed through to Greg and Stu who were in another room. It was a crude method but it worked.
The small rooms lended well to a tight guitar sound which translated fairly well on the record. The bass was a direct input. All of the songs were recorded this way with the exception of Weekend All Over My Face where we used Stu’s practise amp to record the bridge that worked really well and room mics for Only Had A Shandy, but that’s another story.
The vocals were sung in another bedroom where the windows overlooked the valley. I remember the guys headed off to the small village at the foot of Cannich. I was left alone to sing It’ll All Work Out In The End. I’ll never forget that afternoon. Alone in a remote part of Scotland, I was singing a song about hope while my head was full of troubles. My late father in law was very ill and it was the first time I was truly alone to think about it. The emotion would spill onto the record.
Every night the fire would crackle and beers would be drank. The laughs would get louder as the darkness surrounded us. Greg would often go out for fresh air… Sometimes I would join him in the darkness of the night, it was breathtaking, There was no orange glow from any nearby cities. Whenever the clouds cleared, stars would hang in the black sky and I’d sway as I tried to focus on the patterns above.
During the day, at down time, we would hang around the outside of the cottage. At times the weather was good. Sometime we’d go our own way and take a walk. A week in a small cottage with the same guys could be cramped and you needed your own space. Greg and Derek took this to a different level. Literally.
They headed up the hill that was our back garden. When I say a hill I mean a proper hill climb, the cottage had no fences or boundaries. The hill rose far into the distance, Derek and Greg filmed the adventure, off they went climbing higher and higher. Stu and I would look up, the pair of them getting smaller.
As they reached the top, flakes of snow started to drift in. Most people would head back. Not Derek, he stripped off and shouted ‘I’m naked at the top of the hill!’ and went off on a merry dance much to Greg’s amusement.
Life in the valley of Cannich was serene, we were visited by a cuckoo on a number of occasions and I managed to capture our visitor on record. The days and nights merged into one long party, recording, beer, jigsaw puzzles and music. At night greg’s fire would continue to crackle as we took stock of life in the band and life in general. We were in our thirties, married or getting married but without kids.
Thursday was a special day, I did a half day of recording and settled down to a BBQ in the small woodland next to the cottage. It was the last change to have a proper night of booze. As I wandered into the woods to gather some firewood I heard an almighty explosion.
I ducked and turned towards the flash of light…peering through the trees I was trying to make sense of what happened. Then I heard Greg laughing, with Derek proudly standing over the fire ‘Lard bomb!’
Then came the dueling banjos, Stu and I pulled the best banjo posies with sticks, only for Derek to snatch mine and fling it in the fire. He redeemed himself with the BBQ’d chicken which was simply wonderful.
The sun slowly set as we got merrier, I left the gang and headed back into the house to set up some microphones. When I was ready I asked the guys to come into the living room. I gave Stu a guitar and some headphones. He played along to the end of Only Had A Shandy as the rest of us sang a drunken chorus of random words. Derek and I spilled over the couch into the floor, mics came crashing down. It was all recorded.
The night grew longer as we gathered around the now small fire out in the woods. I can’t remember what we talked about but it was probably deep and meaningful. We all headed into the cottage except Greg who waited for the sun to rise on the final day.
When I awoke on the last morning with alcohol on my breath and hunger in my belly sadness crept into me. I was hungover and despondent that our recording week had come and gone so quickly. A long quiet drive awaited us, the party was over, our jobs awaited our return on the Monday.
So we set off home; there was a subdued mood in the car as Stu stared out the window. I muttered with anger as a Ford Transit overtook us. As I was about to slam my hand on the horn I saw Derek lean out of the van’s passenger window with a big smile, Greg wearing a smug grin as he was overtaking me.
It was a wonderful experience that changed the band for the next ten years. We hired another three cottages after this one. Each growing in size but we never quite matched the drunken madness of the first time.