Pabs looks back at how we created and recorded our unplugged album Its A Grand Day Out. Available to buy and download stream from Bandcamp. Alternatively you can stream on all digital platforms including Spotify.
Photographs Kevin Byrne (cover art, station hotel, Larbert station), various (studio)
Nearly two years ago I celebrated my 40th birthday, my how time flies. Amid the generous presents there was a gift voucher for some studio time at a place in Edinburgh. It was a great idea for a present but it got me wondering what could be achieved in 6 hours. I’m terrible for procrastination and didn’t book the studio for months. Time was passing and the voucher was due to expire. So I got thinking again.
An album would take weeks, and EP probably a weekend, certainly more than the six hours on offer. So I thought about a live studio performance, recorded professionally. It would be a great opportunity to capture our live sound. I contacted the studio from where the voucher originated and enquired if they would be able to facilitate the band playing live. They couldn’t. They did offer to move us to another studio outside Edinburgh but I didn’t feel this was an option. I suggested a refund for the voucher but the studio wouldn’t budge. I then suggested we strip back to an acoustic album. They agreed it could be done so the band started to prepare.
A couple of weeks before we were due to record the studio contacted me to say they were pulling the plug. Thankfully, perhaps in mind they were letting us down, they offered a full refund it was a turn of luck that I was waiting for.
So with the money safely back in the bank I wanted to fulfill the gift that was given to me and started to look around at studios. After a few emails I to some engineers I decided to go local and contacted Andy Taylor at Homegrown Productions in Larbert. He was happy to do the project but i’m not sure he was aware of how many tracks we were planning…
I visited the studio and met with Andy, a friendly chap who was happy to advise about the project. He was a little surprised when I suggested that we would be recording 15 tracks, I think he was expecting us to do a lot less. He offered some good suggestions, like different sticks for the drums and one really important point was practise, practise, practise.
The feel of the studio is great, hidden away on a working farm just outside Larbert, you would miss it if you weren’t looking. Its well decked out, a comfortable control room, a live room and an additional area for guitar work (we wouldn’t need this). There was a mixture of analog and digital equipment. I guess I have missed the experience of recording in a professional studio and letting someone else do the work. We agreed a booking, now it was up to us to get the heads down.
Picking the Songs
We got together and had a look through the albums to see what would work with the distortion switched off. There were a few obvious choices and some surprising picks as well.
Songs like ‘Vancouver’, ‘The Rain’, ‘Just For Today’, ‘Culture Creature’ and more recent tracks like ‘I Hear the City’, ‘Wonder’ and ‘Curtain Hits the Cast’ were picked. One thing that was quite obvious for the band was the high number of Whapper Stormer songs that were filling the set. So we looked again and found some of our forgotten favourites. ‘Flame’ has always been one of those songs we regretted not getting properly recorded. It was never mixed as we ran out of studio time. We put the track on Coldhome Street and that was never officially released (although if you are curious it is on our Bandcamp page). When we played at practise it sounded really good, it hadn’t aged much, although the lyrics were written by a heartbroken 21 year old and not the hand of someone of nearly 42 years so that was quite a strange experience stepping back into my old awkward shoes.
‘Side by Side’ was another song we hadn’t officially released (again you can find it on Bootleg 2 on Bandcamp). It was nice to play this track again. ‘Cold Calling’ was a little rusty but once Stu and I synced in it worked really well. Then Derek suggested ‘Industry’.
One of our more heavier numbers I didn’t think It would work but it did. The mood was still there, the intensity of the track was still evident. Now we were growing in confidence and curiosity, we tried ‘Educational Suicide’ but that didn’t work, we briefly tried ‘Three Days Ago’, again that didn’t fit in too well.
We were settling on songs but one was missing, a song that defined the early 2010’s for us, ‘Wonder’. It sounded good on the podcast version and went well when we practised it so it was in. Towards the end of our sessions the Rain was dropped, one of our best known songs from the early years. I was disappointed but the rest of the guys didn’t think it was going to fit with this volume of songs.
On the Day.
There is no denying that it was exciting to be going back into the studio after all these years. As much as I love DIY recording it was nice to think that someone else would be at the helm. We turned up to the small studio on a fairly overcast day broken by the cold winter sun. A sharp breeze passed the imposing wind farm nearby, the large white colossi steadily turning. Stu parked rather oddly and I couldn’t help but chuckle. Then Derek with his large SUV rolled onto the edge of Andy’s lawn. Car parking is not our strong points.
We entered into the control room, the desk was fired up and ready to go. We headed into the live room and started to set up. There was a jovial atmosphere, it was great to hear band banter flowing again, we don’t do this enough, I thought.
Andy entered the room after briefing introduction he got to work on setting up the sound. This was when I began to wonder if we were stretching the session too far. However it didn’t take us long to set up, after a few soundchecks we were good to go.
Playing through the first songs was straightforward, we had tea and coffee so it was all going well until the first mistake. Nerves started to creep into us all and we had to retake a couple of songs. We soldiered on, time was now an issue, we were aware of it and I think it was affecting our performance. There was one song, ‘Sky is Falling’ I think, where I completely forgot the vocal melody despite playing it for weeks on end. Our minds were just going blank as we reached into the 4th hour of our session. But we got there, a little bruised and battered, 15 songs recorded live. Now for the quick mix, could we really finish this album in 2 more hours?
This was where I was trying not to impose on Andy, I forgot we had just over an hour to mix 15 songs. Now I realised how lofty my expectations had been. I guess because I’ve recorded the band so many times that I thought it was possible. I suggested some mix changes during the first song, put the vocals up, nah drop them again, essentially I was now doing what I do in the home studio, spending an age mixing, however time was something we did not have.
So I reluctantly stepped back and opened my first beer and let Andy do his thing. 20 minutes past our time we had a CDR with the raw mixes. I had mixed feelings now.
Old Friends back in the Bar
After a healthy wee cheese and ham roll from the shop next to the pub I was ready for a fair few pints and some catching up with the band. We dropped all the gear off at Derek’s and headed around to the Station hotel for a couple. Our good friend Byrne turned up for a blether. We didn’t stay long however, we headed back to Derek’s, the guys were eager to hear the CD. I just wanted a beer.
After a few laughs and drinks by the fire we spun the CD. Already I was picking at it, what was I really expecting to achieve in 6 hours? 15 songs? An album completed? It sounded pretty good but not finished. It sounded thin, lacking in presence, my high hopes for this album were fading, but the guys around me were loving it, I didn’t have the heart to tell them at that time I wasn’t happy.
I spiralled into a bit of a downer for a few weeks after it. It was a long winter for me, I just wanted to shut myself off from everyone. I logged off the internet for nearly 3 months and didn’t go near the acoustic album. I still wasn’t enjoying the record, but the performances were good. Perhaps revisiting the mix would work. We still had some money left from the gift voucher and the guys were happy to put some extra cash into the record.
Some weeks later I returned to the album and started to take notes. I asked the rest of the guys to give me their opinion of the songs. They were generally good, one or two tracks were in danger of not making the final cut. I contacted Andy to explore further mixing.
The extra studio time comes to the rescue.
Springtime had sprung, green was returning to the trees and the last of a fairly mild Scottish winter was fading. Optimism was back in my thoughts, I had booked in another 4 hours of mixing and would be attending the studio with Andy during the May weekend. The mixes went really well, he had already started to work on the songs by the time I arrived at the studio. The tracks needed subtle tonal changes, in addition, turning up Stu’s solos and integrate guitar parts worked wonders for the feel of the album. It was now vibrant and full of personality. It was good too have input into the mixes. Andy is so laid back, he listens to all suggestions and will gently disagree if you suggest something that won’t work.
As this was a live session all 15 songs responded well to the tonal and fader adjustments so it turned out mixed a lot quicker than anticipated. There was also a desire not to lose the live feel of the record.
Mastering was booked next. I decided to step back for this. It was a subtle master, with Andy leaving a significant amount of dynamic range. Hearing the single (the Ending and Trying to Grab Hold) it makes sense, there is a good dynamic range in the streaming sound.
Kevin Byrne is a great friend, always happy to help the band and he, like many of our friends, has been there from the start (in 95!). He takes a guid photo. We needed a theme for the album, ‘Its a Grand Day Out’ so we decided to head to the pub, the Station hotel, which, as its name suggests is next to Larbert train station. The idea was to invite our lifelong friends and have Kevin shoot pictures as we got drunk. It worked quite well, there was a brilliant portrait taken of us before we left the pub.
As we passed the station I suggested we take some shots on the platform, after all most days out start and end at a train station. These shots were superb and one made it to the cover of the album. The guys suggested releasing a couple of singles, so I looked through the photographs that Kevin had taken but none seemed to fit. Kevin stepped up and took some stunning shoots. My favourite being the speeding train blurring past the static platform, we used that for the Ending.
After the original photoshoot had taken place we headed back to Dereks and drank into the night. Surrounded by friends, listening to vinyl and building beer towers. It felt like the old days that we used to have. We celebrated into the morning hours, after two years of highs and lows we finally had the album we wanted.
Coming soon, the track listing and the story behind the songs.
Click here to buy the album. All monies goes towards future recordings.