BY DARE MASON
In 2001, I moved from London to Penzance. I had no idea what I was going to do in this quaint Cornish fishing port but I knew I wanted to escape the busyness and the pollution of the Big Smoke.
After three months of sharing a flat with a friend and getting to know my new home town, I was desperate to get back into making music. The only trouble was that all my equipment was in storage and I had nowhere to set it up.
Then one evening I bumped into Steve Slimm, a local artist I’d recently met and befriended. His studio was twenty miles away in the old mining town of Redruth and he told me he was looking for premises much closer to town. The following morning I walked into a local commercial estate agent and the next thing I knew I was being shown around the premises that would become the VIP Lounge. It was the basement of a large Victorian granite building, rumoured to be the one-time home of a Cornish sea captain. I felt very positive about the space and was delighted when Steve said he’d like to share it. He would have the larger, lighter room as his art studio and I would take the two smaller rooms.
One of those rooms was an obvious choice as a control room. It had natural light and it was not perfectly square. Acoustically, this is an advantage because the lack of parallel walls means less chance of standing waves (Google it!). The other room was more of a conundrum. Its walls were whitewashed stone, it was damp and it had no natural light. I think the captain must have used it as a wine cellar. A friend of mine, Hud Saunders, who was visiting from London, came up with what seems in retrospect an obvious solution – to use it as a live room. After all, when I was working at the Townhouse in London, its most famous live room was Studio 2 – the “Stone Room” as it was known – where Peter Gabriel first came up with that drum sound on his second solo album. So the whitewashed stone room became my live room, and became affectionately known as “The Cave”.
In the winter of that first year in Penzance, we recorded the first Noctorum album (Sparks Lane) in five crazy days that Marty snatched from his touring schedule with All About Eve.
In 2005 the lease came up for renewal and Steve told me he’d found other premises that were larger and lighter. His room was now vacant and I had to find a new tenant. At that time Marty was renting an apartment in New York but he was hardly ever there. I knew he needed a base and somewhere to store his musical equipment and vast record collection. Taking over Steve’s room made complete sense to him, so he moved in and the ‘In Deep Music Archive’ was born. Or rather, reborn: the original one was situated in a basement in Stockholm in the ’90s.
The immediate effect that this had on our subsequent work was that we had more time. We continued to write the songs in the same way – jamming over a loop – but now we could deliberate over arrangements and parts. I could edit basic tracks while Marty chilled out in The Archive. Instead of having five days to write and record the album, we now had two months before Marty was due to leave on Church business. By that time, all the songs were in good shape and, as with the first album, I was left to complete them by adding overdubs and getting drummer Mark Wilkin (who had played on Sparks Lane) to replace the drum loops.
This was also a much more social time. The Archive was a cosy, convivial space, so all sorts of friends and musicians would congregate to chat, hang out and listen to Marty’s huge collection of records and CDs.
Whereas on Sparks Lane, where we used only three or four guitars, we now had Marty’s entire collection, plus nearly all of his amps. We were in paradise! The only difficulty was deciding which guitar and which amp to use – but that was a welcome problem. I don’t recall any discussion as to the direction or feel of our second album. We just set up the instruments and amps and trusted that the creative juices would flow.
Alain Delon began with me playing some organ chords over a slowish drum loop. It reminded us of “How’s That” by Sherbet – that boom-cha b-boom-cha rhythm. Marty played the bass but there was no obvious guitar part. Everything we tried sounded wrong. However, I knew it needed another rhythmical part and, as we couldn’t afford to hire Nile Rogers, I had to come up with another solution. An electric piano might work, but I knew I didn’t have the necessary skill to play the part convincingly. It was time to call John Bickersteth, who you may recall played the accordion on “Hymn” on our first album. John is what you might politely call a ‘musical eccentric’. Son of the late Rt. Reverend John Bickersteth, Bishop of Bath and Wells (1975 – 1987), John was equally gifted on keyboard and guitar and had an enviable collection of vintage instruments. The only problem with John was that he had too many ideas. The trick was to identify the best one and then pin him down to it.
The date was fixed for him to come in and he arrived armed with his Wurlitzer and Rhodes pianos. Much to my delight and amazement, John had rehearsed his parts and they were perfect. Before he had a chance to alter them, I pressed ‘record’. The electric piano drove the song along beautifully and now we had a solid foundation of drums, bass and keyboards.
Marty was now inspired to write the lyrics. Both he and I are fans of Arthouse cinema. I remember sitting in his flat in Stockholm watching the films of Ingmar Bergman and our trips to see obscure French films (sometimes starring Alain Delon) in Arthouse cinemas in Sydney, surrounded by “so many empty seats”. The title is a little misleading. It should read “Alain Delon – It Never Feels Lonely” as in when you watch a brilliant arty film, you never feel lonely.
Earlier in the year I had recorded some demos for a talented young singer/songwriter called Hollie Rogers who was only 17 years old at the time. She brought in two of her friends, Louise Bedford and Hannah Pinkertt to back her. They sounded great together, so I invited them to sing the backing vocals on this album. Hollie Rogers now has a successful solo career; Marty and I saw her supporting Suzanne Vega at the Falmouth Pavilion in 2008.
I’m a big fan of Steely Dan. They are possibly my favourite band. When I was considering how to fill the instrumental sections of this song, I thought, “What would Steely Dan do?” That’s when I came up with the idea of the brass arrangements. I decided to use the combination of trumpet, sax and flute that Joni Mitchell had featured on her jazz-influenced albums, and to make the section more interesting, I introduced a key change. Now I needed some real players to replace the sequenced parts I had written. I had just produced an album for a local guy called Tony King. Tony fancied himself as a singer, but he was a much better trumpet player. The sax was played by Phil Smith, a one-time member of the 80s pop band Haircut 100. Playing the flute parts was Gillian Poznansky, a highly accomplished classical flautist who tours the world with the pianist Mark Tanner.
By now, the middle section was sounding lush but, as Marty pointed out, there was still a lack of focus. That’s when we realised we needed some lead guitar to complete it. The icing on the cake was the arrangement for strings. If we could have afforded it, we would have booked a string section and a studio to accommodate them, but we were on a tight budget. A way I’ve learned to get ’round this problem is to combine one or two real players with sampled strings. The combination sounds fuller and more authentic.
Let Me Tell You a Secret began as a jam – Marty on his trusty 1978 Fender Strat and me on the early seventies Fender 6-string bass. This bass has a particular sound – you can hear it on nineties Church albums like Priest = Aura. I came up with the harmonic riff that starts the song and Marty did his glam rock thing on guitar. The bulk of the song was written in one take.
When Mark Wilkin came to record the drums I had to ensure that his part built gradually through the song. I also had to replace his snare sound with a sample because his original snare sounded too high-pitched. Similarly, we brought in different guitar parts as the song progressed in order to build the dynamics.
Sometimes I will get Marty to record two or three “vibe” tracks. I will roll the track from the beginning and he can just play whatever he feels from the top till the end. Mistakes don’t matter – we’re just looking for background atmospherics or hooky riffs that we can chop up and slot into the song when needed. There’s a lot of that going on in this song!
For the guitar solo, I’m pretty sure we used one of Marty’s ‘Big Muff’ distortion pedals. We might even have used two! I purposely mixed it loud and upfront – bold and beautiful! The bass goes down to a bottom D to make this section even more deep and powerful.
Lover’s Head is one of those songs that really splits opinions. A dark tale of gruesome revenge, delivered in a matter-of-fact monotone, set over a techno-jig backing track. People either love it or hate it.
This vicious little monster began life as a preset drum pattern on my Yamaha DX7. For a few months in the nineties, the DX7 was the must-have instrument among keyboard players and producers. It was essentially a cheap techno sequencer, with great factory presets. It was great for jams, great for busking and great for writing songs on. A friend of mine wrote a whole album on it!
I had a bunch of synthesizer sequences I had programmed on my Korg Wavestation, so I matched the tempos of these with the drum loop and built up a track. There was enough there to inspire Marty to write some lyrics – some very twisted lyrics. The task now was to arrange this basic track in a way that would enhance the feeling of impending doom. Congas, played by Matt Pharaoh once again, are introduced after the second verse. Suddenly they drop out and Marty’s funky bass line takes over. Ominously, the lead vocal is delivered in a harsh whisper as the track breaks down to the drum loop and some strangled guitar tones. Then all hell breaks loose as the Queen opens the box “to stare down at her lover’s head”, Marty repeating the line three times – in case you missed it.
Marty plays guitar in a very particular style on this song. I don’t know how he does it but I will say, “I think we need a bit of Terje here” and he will proceed to play lead guitar in the style of Terje Rypdal. It’s a combination of a tone and an unusual musical scale. We use it sparingly but it really works on this one.
At this point, the listener needs a break. Enter the mellow, almost ambient The Guessing Game. This began as a chord sequence on our little Casio keyboard. It’s often a good way for us to start a song as neither of us is completely au fait with the keys. We place our fingers on it and move to the next chord intuitively, often surprising ourselves with a harmonious movement. As I was experimenting with chords, Marty started to play this sumptuous, very unusual bass line, that enters in the second verse.
The next day, as Marty was recording the lead vocal, I had a strong feeling that this was one for my voice. So he laid down a guide vocal and I replaced it while he was away on Church business. The chorus lyrics were not quite complete, so I remember finishing them before checking they were OK with Marty. I didn’t bother to ask Mark Wilkin to play on this one – we were happy with the sound of the original drum loop.
I had a vision for the outro of this song: I wanted it to sound cinematic and ethereal, like a mellow version of Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky, so I called in our young backing vocalists and invited each of them to jam over the ending. My friend and collaborator in FOLD, David Bickley, describes this end section as one of his favourite pieces of music ever. Thanks, Bickers!
We didn’t set out to record a pop song for the album – it just happened. Having said that, Stop Cryin’ Your Eyes Out must be the only pop song written from the point of view of a newly deceased husband. He sings to his recently bereaved wife pleading with her to move on – “With everything you get, there isn’t time for your regret” and “I’ll be a memory before the flowers die”. The subject matter didn’t seem to bother our local radio station, Radio Cornwall, who loved the song so much that they put it on high rotation.
There are a couple of random memories I have about the recording of this song. Marty was singing the lead vocal and he had doubts about the melody in the verse where he goes into a high register, for instance on the line, “but now you don’t need to be scared of being near.” We singers all get a little insecure about our voices sometimes. I reassured him that it sounded fine and he bravely took on the challenge and cracked it. One of the last elements to be recorded was the banjo that appears from the second verse onwards. I had noticed a busker in Penzance who played one, so I asked him to come in and play on the track. All I wanted was a simple arpeggio, but although he was quite proficient on the instrument, it was beyond him. So I brazenly asked him if I could have a go. That was the first and only time I have ever played banjo!
When I listen to The Muse what strikes me is its warmth. It draws you in and enfolds you like a cashmere blanket. The bass guitar is full and prominent here and mixed higher than usual. The rhythm guitars, one played by Marty, the other by myself, are perfectly in sync and sound delicate and sensitive. It came as a surprise to me when I recently looked at the credits and realised that I played the piano on this one. Not bad, Dare!
I suppose this is the closest Noctorum will ever get to writing a love song. Even then, the subject of the adoration is not a human being but a goddess, the elusive muse that inspires us to write these songs.
The middle section is introduced by a lovely bass melody and then descends into a different world, where a plaintive lead guitar soars over pulsing strings in a minor key. As the section ends, we rejoin the major key and the muse is once again “imagined into reality”.
On The Striker, we began by playing complementary arpeggios, Marty on his Strat and me on his 1966 Rickenbacker 12-string. The lead line that appears at the beginning and end of the song was played by Marty on the 6-string bass.
I have no idea what inspired Marty to write the lyrics. Perhaps, because we are both football fans, he figured it was time to write a song on that subject.
As you may know, we grew up on the Wirral, a rural peninsula between Liverpool and Wales. Everyone in the area supported either Everton or Liverpool. So when my family moved to the area, my dad said, “Well, son, who are you going to support?” On discovering that Everton played in blue, I chose Everton simply because blue was my favourite colour. Marty went through exactly the same process but chose Liverpool because he preferred red and liked the idea that the shorts were the same colour as the shirts. Thus decisions of massive consequence were based purely on adolescent whimsy. From that fateful moment, we have remained loyal to our respective clubs, enduring the good times and the bad without a thought of changing allegiance. It’s strange and poignant to think that, of all the relationships we have had, the one with our respective football team has endured the longest.
This poignancy is reflected in the fate of the striker. His best days are behind him but he knows, if only he is given the chance, he can make a difference. Perhaps it’s an allegory for the modern man. Stuck in a meaningless job, underappreciated, he longs for the chance to shine and rise above the mediocre.
Enough of all this mellow, thoughtful, sensitive stuff, let’s ROCK! Here we go with Surrounded, the closest Noctorum will ever get to garage rock a la Stooges or MC5. Beginning with yours truly playing another killer harmonic riff on the bass, Marty keeps the verses sparse, only adding random, angular bursts of spluttering guitar as he spits out this tale of dysfunction and betrayal. Sounding bitter and disillusioned, the complexity of the character is revealed as he admits, “If you ever loved me as much as I want, I’d have to find someone new”.
I had recently seen a local band and was struck by how hard the drummer bashed his skins. That drummer was Jed Kingsley and I knew that he was the man for the job. I coached him through the recording, encouraging him to save his most manic playing until the end of the song, as the lead guitar competes with Marty’s tortured vocal in a frenzied finale.
Just when you thought Noctorum could not get any more morbid, along comes Already Dead, a song about a man awaiting his execution on death row. The origin of this song was Marty’s guitar riff in the verse, complemented perfectly by my bass line. It was his idea to segue into a more heavy, Led Zeppelin-esque section that became the bridge and the chorus.
Talking of Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant would sometimes play harmonica to good effect on one or two of their tracks. Check out “When the Levee Breaks”, for instance. That was what inspired me to ask Barnaby Flynn, another local musician, to come in and play. He did an amazing job – just what I was looking for.
You may hear a banjo in the second and third verses. I didn’t credit myself for this part because I played it as a sample from my keyboard. You may also hear some atmospheric sounds in the background. These are from a trip I made to India in the 90s. I took a portable DAT recorder with me and sampled various indigenous sounds – prayers, chanting and some music.
Sometimes, as we are working on a track, Marty will get an idea for a vocal melody, so he will sing it using words that come to him spontaneously. Occasionally, these ‘scratch vocals’ will contain words that suggest a feeling that may inspire a finished lyric later in the process. On this song, he kept singing, “I tried to find something inside you”. After he had completed the lyric, we realised that those words were entirely relevant to the sentiment of the song so we kept them. Perhaps they were uttered by the convicted murderer’s judge, his attorney or even his victim.
Hopes and Fears began its life as the opening interplay between Marty and me on 6 and 12-string guitars, respectively. Just for a change, I had programmed a loop in 3/4 timing, the same time signature as a waltz. This timing always imparts a lilting, folksy feel. Perhaps that is what inspired Marty to write these outstanding lyrics about a couple of young lovers, living in a Northern industrial town before the outbreak of war. They may “pray to live in peace,” but the listener knows that the sirens that “call from the factory walls” may soon be the sirens that warn of impending attack.
While Marty was away playing with The Church, I asked another talented local musician, Adam Reeve, to come in and play piano. It was his idea to play the 40s-style piano in the fade-out.
Marty returned from his travels and felt that the song was not quite ‘organic’ enough and the arrangement could be improved. I agreed with him so we dropped one of the electric guitars and substituted an acoustic. Marty suggested the stripped-down organ section in the middle which works as an interlude before the denouement. The song closes with a beautiful, understated melodic solo before the lonely piano reappears to accompany our couple into an unknown future.
As usual, we deliberated for weeks over the sequencing of the album. It had to flow from start to finish, taking the listener on the clichéd ‘journey’. The problem was that once again we had a set of wildly disparate songs – mellow, sensitive numbers clashing with raw rockers, a pop song and a techno track. Lord help us! We got there in the end but we have had complaints that there is just too much eclecticism to cope with on this album. Well, the Beatles got away with it.
We still had to make decisions regarding the cover and the title. We seriously considered Songs about Death as three of the songs refer overtly to that subject, two allude to it, and another one’s subject is a dead French actor. In the end, common sense prevailed as we settled on Marty’s suggestion of Offer The Light, a term used in cricket.
The artwork is drawn from photos I took using my brand new Canon IXUS at the Olafur Eliasson sun installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern. As usual, layout and design were expertly handled by our friend, Rachel Gutek. It really does make such a difference having someone as talented and experienced as Rachel working for us on the visual side. Both Marty and I have seen some good albums spoiled by poor, unprofessional artwork.
Once again we called on the services of Dan Grigsby in New York and his superb mastering skills. Once again, he did not let us down.
We were more than pleased with Heyday’s handling of the first album’s release so we asked Robert Rankin Walker to take care of our second offering. The CD album was released in a jewel case on Heyday Records in August 2006 and then as a digipak on Second Motion Records in 2010. The album is OUT NOW on orange vinyl (as part of Record Store Day 2023).
Offer The Light sleeve notes – edited by Hud. Additional edits by Olivia.