The Missing Sleeve Notes: SPARKS LANE

By Dare Mason

Noctorum - Sparks Lane (2003)
Sparks Lane (2003)

For five or six years Marty and I had discussed collaborating on an album. I had already produced his solo albums, but we had never worked co-creatively on a project, mainly because we were too busy to find the time to meet up and begin the process. For ten years I had been a freelance producer and engineer based in London, but also working in Sweden, Canada and the US. At that time Marty was a full-time member of two touring and recording bands, namely The Church and All About Eve. No wonder we found it difficult to be in the same place at the same time!

However, in the summer of 2001, an opportunity presented itself. Earlier that year I had moved to Penzance, Cornwall and had opened my recording studio, the VIP Lounge. It just so happened that All About Eve would be doing two unplugged shows at the local arts club, the Acorn Theatre, which was situated literally opposite the VIP Lounge. This was our chance! While the rest of the band returned to London after the gigs, Marty was able to stay in Penzance for five more days.

I prepared for the event by rifling through Marty’s considerable vinyl collection and taking some samples that may come in handy later. We had a vague plan to record an ambient guitar album along the lines of Fripp/Eno. I had already released two ambient albums (Dive and Mother of Pearl) and Marty’s speciality was electric guitar; it seemed the obvious choice.

In the early 90s, I had the pleasure and privilege to produce Sometime/Anywhere by The Church. Whenever someone asks me which record I enjoyed working on most, it’s always that one. Why? Well, I had been a fan for years and my best mate played for them. But also, it was their method of working. Steve Kilbey and Marty (there were only two of them in the band at this time) would start jamming, usually over a drum loop, and write the song on the spot, while I recorded them.

So it was natural for Marty and I to adopt this approach when recording our album. For each song we would choose an instrument and just jam with it and see what came out. “Hey that’s a good riff, let’s repeat that four times and come up with another bit.” – “Great, we’ve got a verse, a chorus and another bit that could be a middle eight or an instrumental.”

Sometimes I would play bass while Marty played guitar. Sometimes it would be me on keys with Marty on bass. We would try all sorts of combinations. Usually, we would jam over a drum loop. I had a huge collection of drum takes that I had recorded on my travels as a producer. Sometimes, we would programme a beat and sometime we would use my old Roland rhythm box.

I remember that while I was programming a loop on the very first day, Marty had his Takamine 12-string lying across his lap and he started to play an unusual arpeggio. “Hey, listen to this,” he said, “can you record it?” That became the chord sequence to Hey There and we were away! I added the electric arpeggio on Marty’s Strat and, as I did so, Marty sat on the couch and wrote the lyrics. This was to become our pattern of recording. We would write and record the basic backing track, and while I arranged and tweaked it on the computer, Marty would miraculously write a whole set of lyrics. I’d turn around, having done my engineering bit and he would say, “Right, ready to record the lead vocal?”

It soon became clear that this would not be an ambient guitar record. It was also clear that we would have to work our proverbial asses off to record an album in five days. Rather than think about it or discuss it, we just got on with it. We had no distractions. Marty was staying at my house, which was only a ten-minute walk away, so we would get to the studio at midday and work through till two or three in the morning, pausing only for refreshment. At that time Marty was still drinking, so we must have got through a fair amount of beer! In the middle of the week, I caught a bad head cold, but I just ploughed on through. We had dreamed of making a record together for years and nothing was going to stop us.

At the end of the week, we had ten songs. Most of them were in a fairly coherent state, meaning the structure of the songs was set, the guitars, bass and some of the keyboards had been recorded and the lead vocals and most of the backing vocals had also been recorded. Marty left to resume the All About Eve tour, leaving me to finish the album. This would entail filling in all the missing pieces with additional instruments and vocals, as well as replacing the drum loops with a real drummer. When I was satisfied the songs were complete, I would send them to Marty. As soon as he approved, I could start to mix the album. Although it was a daunting task, I was really excited and looking forward to it.

Hey There was the only track that didn’t have drums on it and we wanted it to stay that way. I asked Matt Pharaoh, a local percussion player, to lay down some subtle congas. My long-time friend Duncan Bridgeman happened to be visiting, so I took the opportunity to get him in to jam over a few songs. Duncan is a double Grammy-nominated filmmaker, musician and producer, with credits too numerous to mention here. But the important one, listed in Discogs, is his credit on our first record! His sensitive and delicate flute melds beautifully with the recorder, played by local musician Sigge Hawken. The backing vocal was by a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl, Stacey Williams. At this time, I was working part-time at the Humphry Davy secondary school in Penzance as a teaching assistant in the music department. Stacey had a lovely tone to her voice and I thought it would be nice to give her the opportunity to do some professional recording. We were very pleased with the results. The finishing touch were the playground noises at the beginning of the song to reinforce the innocence (or so I thought) of the lyrics. Marty has since told me that the song has far more sinister overtones.

I don’t remember how we wrote Aujourd’hui. I can only surmise that Marty came up with the chords on the Takamine 12-string and I played bass. I do remember writing the hook synth line and fiddling around with my Novation Bass Station to get that sound. When it came to recording drums on the album, I asked around and a friend recommended Mark Wilkin, so I thought, why not get him in and see if he’s up to the job? I was impressed with Mark immediately because he had learned all the arrangements and his kit sounded good.

Moreover, he would not accept payment. I insisted. He insisted back. In the end, I relented and Mark offered his considerable services on the first two Noctorum albums in exchange for the pleasure of playing on them. I wrote the backing vocal part, ‘Je préfère vivre hier’, which Stacey sang in her best French accent. All that remained was to find a French woman to narrate the middle section. Enter the formidable Brigitte Ariel Newman, a genuine film star, who had appeared in three major films in the 70s before leaving the industry to manage her Playboy photographer husband. In typical style, she told us the song bored her to death.

One day I arrived at the studio before Marty, found a groovy loop and wrote the piano part to My Museum. I had three sections that would become the verse, the bridge and the chorus. Marty added the acoustic guitar to drive it along and I anchored it with the bass. I also found various weird-sounding samples to add to the foreboding atmosphere. My idea was to have an extended instrumental outro featuring viola and cello. In the 90s I had produced a band in London called The Unsophisticates, and they introduced me to that particular combination of stringed instruments which created a brooding, melancholy feeling. Again, two local players, Rachel Didcot and Allen Samuel, did the honours. However, there was something missing. It still needed Marty’s touch, so I sent the track to him in New York and he managed to grab an hour in the studio and sent me a superb lead guitar track that takes the song to another level. This was one of only two songs where we did not replace the drum loop – it was the perfect sound for the song.

The simplicity – and possibly part of the appeal – of Hymn is that it is an 8-bar chord sequence that just repeats throughout the whole song. I think I originally came up with the chords on our little Casio keyboard. Later it was replaced by John Bickersteth’s accordion. John was introduced to me by Paul Hunt, the same guy who recommended our drummer, Mark Wilkin. A multi-instrumentalist and an eccentric to boot, John was a great addition to our collection of session musicians and we would use his services again. But the star of this song is undoubtedly Colin Smith who plays the dobro guitar. At the time, he was working in The Granary, the local health food shop, and playing the odd open-mic night. I loved his style of playing and his humble attitude. When he came to the studio and played what he had written I was blown away, and I knew we had the crucial part that would make the song work.

I remember that High As A Kite was one of the last songs we wrote in those hectic five days. Marty sat down with his trusted 12-string and started playing the chords. They just flowed out of him and I believe the vocal melody came to him at the same time. I chimed in with the middle eight. This is the pop song on the album and we always say that in a fair world, it would have been a big hit. The song itself was fairly complete by the time Marty left and my job was to make it even more poptastic. To that end, I added nylon string guitar in the bridges (uncredited on the album sleeve!), brought in an organ in the second verse, wrote and recorded the Beach Boys-esque backing vocals, played bouzouki in the third verse and added the lush strings.

After Marty wrote the twisted lyrics to Ask Again, my job was to exaggerate the atmosphere of peril and impending doom. The first sounds the listener hears are two samples from my EMU sampler that I just happened to discover that day. I thought they sounded cool, so I sequenced them and found a drum loop that complimented them. We kept the arrangement fairly sparse so that we could add strange, unsettling samples and noises. Really the song is based around the funky loop and Marty’s bass riff. I knew that the focus should be on the spoken, almost deadpan vocal, which leads the listener into a journey of mishaps, blind alleys and bad directions – a feeling of being lost in a dark, dangerous and unfamiliar place.

Often I listen back to tracks I have produced and wonder where on earth I found the sounds I’m listening to. That’s very much the case with this song. I do remember recording the traffic sounds on a portable DAT recorder in Portobello Road, London. There is also a sample from a well-loved 70s prog record. Tom Green of Another Fine Day and The Orb was passing, dropped in and played some funky organ. And finally, I had just met a Penzance legend by the name of Billy Burman (except everyone called him Indian Billy), who was a reggae DJ and a fine watercolour artist. I was determined to get Billy on the album so I got him in to scratch. I think he ended up using a Diana Ross record.

I think it would be fair to describe Things To Do And Be as a tour de force. It certainly was for me in terms of the difficulty of arranging and producing it. This was the last track we recorded before Marty had to leave. By this time we were both exhausted, physically and mentally, but not creatively! We started with a loop from The Insect God by Michael Mantler from his masterful album, The Hapless Child. This established a frightening, doom-laden atmosphere, the type we specialise in! We then introduced a loop of John Bonham’s drums from Rock And Roll on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album (which Mark Wilkin later replaced). Then we just took it in turns to play guitar and bass over that loop. There must have been seven or eight tracks of guitar and two of bass running through the whole song for about eight minutes. As I was sitting in front of the computer screen wondering how I was going to sort this mess out, Marty announced that he had written the lyrics. Really? He did warn me that this time they were a bit different. He then proceeded to get behind the mic and did the whole thing in one take. I remember thinking, this is brilliant, only MWP could come up with something like this! Despite the muddled cacophony of the music, I could occasionally hear some magic and I knew that if I had the necessary patience and perseverance I could make something out of it. I must say I am proud that I managed to make this song work. It took a lot of creative editing. I would listen to sections of the song, decide which guitar tracks to use, and make sure that each section flowed into the next. Listening back to the song now, my only regret is that I didn’t have the vocals a bit louder in the mix.

Finally, we decided it would be wise to contact Michael Mantler to clear the sample. We were secretly hoping that he would say something along the lines of, Oh don’t worry about it lads, but alas, he put his manager on to us and she started mentioning fees and royalties. We were disappointed, but I was not to be beaten, so I recreated the feel myself, using the instruments at my disposal. If you ever get the chance to hear The Insect God you can judge for yourself whether I did a good job.

All In Good Faith was built around the guitar riff in the verse that’s doubled by the bass. I used my production skills to make this one work. I heavily edited Mark’s drums to impart a busy, funky feel and then I added healthy doses of sequenced synthesiser. I also wrote and sang the counterpoint backing vocal part in the choruses and clamped my nether regions in a vice to reach the high octave vocal in the ‘doot-doot’ bit. There are not many songs that begin with the lead vocal – this is one.

Ever since we wrote A Girl In Every Graveyard, every Noctorum album seems to contain an epic ballad. I don’t remember how we wrote this song. Marty is credited with acoustic guitar, electric guitar and bass. He plays the lead guitar as he does on all our songs. I do remember there were a lot of holes to fill in on this one. So I added little guitar licks and synth melodies as well as piano in the choruses and sound FX in the verses. As usual, Marty wrote the lyrics, but on this occasion, he agreed that this song would suit my voice.

Marty would joke about how he wasn’t allowed to play many solos on this record. I don’t know about that – it just worked out that way. But he does get his chance on this track, with lovely lyrical solos in the intro, after the first verse, and after the first chorus. Ironically, he didn’t play one after the last chorus, so that’s my understated playing you hear there.

I don’t know why Sparks Lane has such a strong French language influence. Perhaps it’s because Marty and I are both fascinated by the language and the culture. All I know is that, when he went into the recording room to jam lyrics over this piece, he kept saying “Qu’est-ce que c’est, ca?” and so we decided to make a song out of that phrase, which also provided the title: Qu’est-ce que c’est. This proved challenging for two reasons – how could we make this simple question interesting, and how do you spell it! Marty came up with a solution by bizarrely imagining that someone was being interrogated. Enter Sigge Hawken for her second appearance on the record. She does a fantastic job of sounding increasingly distressed, pleading “Ich weiß es nicht” as a Frenchman asks her repeatedly, “What is that?” We wrote this with Marty on guitar while I played his ancient Roland Vocoder using the strings sound. We proceeded to throw in the proverbial kitchen sink. This was another song that really had no form until I got the digital scissors out and started to edit it. However, we did have a direction in mind. We are both fans of Space Rock, as epitomised by Hawkwind, and this song is our homage to that genre.

Once I had finished all the recording, I began to mix the songs. For those of you that are not familiar with this term, mixing means balancing the sound levels of the various musical elements of the song and adding effects like reverb and delay. As I finished each mix, I would send them to Marty for his input.

The next stage – sequencing the tracks – is consistently challenging for the Nocky lads. The problem is, our albums are so eclectic. We had a gentle acoustic song, a space rock number, an epic ballad, a narrated song, a dark atmospheric song…and it seemed like everything in between. Albums are so much easier to sequence if you stick to one style. But that’s not how Noctorum do it! We are both fans of many different genres, so we don’t see why we should limit ourselves. On every album, we try many different sequences, but what we find is that once we get the opening track right, the rest follow. Hey There was the last song we imagined would open the record, but as soon as we had made that decision, we had solved the puzzle.

Once the mixes were done, the tracks had to be mastered. This is the final process and is usually done by a dedicated mastering engineer. He or she will make sure all the tracks are the right overall level and will apply subtle tone changes if they are needed. At the end of the process, the album should sound ‘radio friendly’ and should flow from one track to the next without any jumps in volume or tone. This task was undertaken by Dan Grigsby, a friend of Marty’s who lived in New York. Marty was present at the session and told Dan he wanted our record to sound as loud as Definitely Maybe by Oasis, which had just been released. Dan did a great job of extracting maximum volume while retaining the overall dynamics of the album.

We still had to come up with a title for the record. At some point during the recording, we had decided to call ourselves Noctorum, the name of a village close to where we grew up on the Wirral, near Liverpool. We thought the word sounded dark and ghostly. So it made sense to use another place in that area as a title for the album. We toyed with Landican Lane and Thingwall Corner, but eventually settled on Sparks Lane because it was the road equidistant between our houses.

Marty Willson-Piper in Noctorum

In Penzance, a friend called Martin Cassar (who gets name-checked on a later release) introduced us to the artwork of Greg Daville. We loved the image of ‘The Plate-Spinner and the Orrery’ and sought his permission to use it. He was delighted that we bought the exclusive rights to that image. Marty’s good friend, Rachel Gutek, kindly offered her services for layout and design. Rachel was in-house designer at Warner Bros and is an award-winning art director, so we count ourselves very fortunate to have her on board the Nocky train.

Then there was the small matter of finding a label to release our masterpiece. After Marty had completed his last solo album, Hanging Out In Heaven, he was approached by Heyday Records with a view to releasing it. The CEO, Robert Rankin Walker, was a big fan of the church and had admired Marty’s previous solo efforts. Marty’s response to the offer was that he would prefer a fan to release his records rather than a corporate label who were purely concerned with profits. So Robert was the obvious first port of call when we were looking for a deal. It was a very simple agreement – Heyday would pay the cost of manufacturing the CD up front and would begin to pay us royalties when they had recouped their investment. I don’t think we even signed an agreement! It was all done on trust and, fortunately, Robert turned out to be a trustworthy guy. He was as excited as we were to release Sparks Lane and Heyday continued to be our label for the next two albums. In a recent video call, he described the time he was associated with Marty and I as “magical days”.

The CD was released on Heyday in the USA and on Um & Ah in Australia in June 2003. It was released in Europe on Shaoline a year later. Copies still exist on the internet if you are prepared to search.

Ad for RSD 2021

Eighteen years later, in 2021, the album was released on “moody grey” vinyl by Schoolkids Records for Record Store Day. A limited edition of 750, there are still a few copies available.

Many thanks to Noctorum friend Hud Saunders for editing these sleeve notes.

Additional edits by Olivia Willson-Piper.