Louis asks Fran Lydiatt, Bedlam Six keyboard player and resident physicist, about his nocturnal recording habits, the different approaches he takes between working in the studio and performing live, and why sometimes you just can’t beat the grime and imprecision of acoustic and analogue instruments.
We’ve done the move-into-a-house-and-make-a-record thing twice now. As a band it’s suited us very well, but inevitably, as individuals, we all have our own preferred rhythms. You, for example, are very much an evening person; I remember getting into the mixing room around 8.00am one day to find you’d only just gone to bed, having recorded all sorts of weird and wonderful things through the night. Some of your 4.00am sessions are among my favourite parts of this album. Would you say you’re something of a lone wolf in this respect or do you just like to let things percolate a while before diving in?
People always seem to make such an effort to fit their particular motions and rhythms into the world around them – which is understandable, as most jobs and endeavours (and even the sun) have set hours of activity. I’m a bit different in this respect, as in all of my various projects I have relative freedom over when I choose to do them, so my inherent night-owl takes over. It’s not really by choice; I’ve just discovered that I work better, both rationally and creatively, when the sun goes down and all the morning types have gone off to Bedfordshire. I’m not in bad company either; Darwin, Joyce, Proust, Churchill and Dr. Johnson were all equally nocturnally oriented. (We’ll ignore Hitler because, well…Hitler.)
You have a tendency of playing something different each time we perform a song. In a live situation that keeps things fresh, but when it comes to making an album is there a pressure to cut a version of the track that will later be deemed something of an “authoritative text” – i.e. more official than the live equivalents? Do you then subsequently feel bound to that recorded version? Or is it just a case of recording whatever comes out that day and then moving on without a backward glance?
Unlike, for example, Dan and Cleg, I’d say that I’m a reactive musician. Rather than sticking to individual parts, I remember the form and feeling of songs and let my fingers fill in the gaps. That often results in me playing differently depending on the room acoustics, the balance of the other musicians I can hear, the time of day and what I had for lunch that afternoon. For live playing, I always have a “safety take” ready up my sleeve, which contains the bare bones of my piano bits that I can probably negotiate in my sleep; then depending on exactly what I can hear and what mood I’m in I can elaborate on that or be a bit playful/experimental with it as the feeling takes me.
When recording, however, I’m often in almost complete control of my audio balance and don’t have the pressure of having to play in front of a crowd on-demand, so the majority of the recording process for me is elaboration or experimentation. That means I can really get stuck in! There’s also a feedback element to this, as many of the interesting parts that happen to pop out of my fingers in a recording session will get reinforced in my memory and can then make it into my safety takes. But there’s never any sense of being bound to particular parts I play, because as long as it’s not interfering with anyone else’s instrumentation I’ll always want to change or experiment with what I’m doing – that’s what keeps it all fresh for me. Plus there’s also the fact that my memory is generally a bit pants…
Following on from the last question – Youth includes a number of songs that we’ve been playing for years and are very familiar to a lot of people. A few of them have been changed a bit, like Mother, the album opener – your solo is very different from what you play on the single and, indeed, in concert. Do you think it’s important when making an album to tackle the material with a fresh approach, or must we tread lightly for fear of compromising the numbers that have endeared us to people in the first place? Does it simply depend on the song, with some being more suited to the stage than the studio?
I’ve probably covered some of those points in my previous answer, but regarding the audience and their expectations I feel that live music should always be constantly evolving and changing – if they want to hear a band play something identical to the version they have in their record collection at home then they might as well invite loads of strangers to their house, put the CD player up to eardrum-perforating levels and press play. Granted that would mean less money to the band, but I strongly feel that live music is a two-way process, and to arbitrarily pick a “finishing point” in any song’s development and refuse to move forward from that is to go from musician into monkey-with-organ-grinder territory. If the audience like where a song is, they should also be able to appreciate where our band might want to take it – and after all that they’re still perfectly free to prefer an earlier version.
Like so many bands, we like to peddle a dubious notion of “real” when we do things – recording together rather than relying too much on overdubs, not auto-tuning, not “fixing things in post” – but we do use a lot of modern gear, so we could never really be classed as “old timey” musicians. You mostly divide your time and attention between two very fancy Nord keyboards – one has a lot of dirty, rumbly synth sounds and the other is about as close to a real piano as it’s possible to get. Which do you prefer? And does it matter about whether a thing is “real” or not if it sounds believable?
In an ideal world, I’d love to mostly play on nice “real” instruments, as it’s the randomness that goes into the creation of an acoustic or analogue instrument that gives it all the character and separates it from some generic sine-wave tone generator (think “bleep bleep bloop”). Essentially, I love character and audio grime in any instrument – “clean” sounds at best just irritate me and at worst leave no impression on me whatsoever. Pianos are flippin’ amazing as inside they contain around two hundred and thirty metallic wound strings stretched over a huge cast-metal soundboard with a combined tension of around eighteen thousand kilograms. All of this is enclosed in a giant box made out of dead trees. With so many different materials and so many variables it’s amazing that they can sound as clean and pure as concert grands do, but it’s all this randomness and complexity that gives every piano such a unique character – when you press one key every single element in the whole contraption, and even in the room, vibrates and combines to make that unique sound.
Unfortunately, even tiny pianos are huge. They’re very heavy and they get very unhappy if you try and move them in any way whatsoever, so a gigging pianist has to turn to technology. It’s only really in the last ten years that electric pianos have got to the point where they sound sufficiently “organic” and I have to say that I’m a particular fan of the Swedes and their Nord company. It takes a hell of a lot of effort to make digital electronic devices so complex that they don’t sound digital or electronic anymore, but I’m pretty content using my big Nord Piano in most recording scenarios because it takes a very good ear to “spot the fake,” as it were.
As for other sounds, like many other keys players I’m firmly stuck in the mid-20th century, when electronic keyboards were all analogue and relatively basic so that musicians had to “make do” with what they had. These instruments – such as the Hammond organ, Clavinet, Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer EPs – had such fantastic and characteristic sounds that we’ve adopted them into our musical consciousness. Most newer or cleaner sounding keyboard instruments just don’t quite invoke the same visceral or emotional response. Before I get too wordy or pretentious, just think of the keyboard playing of Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Ray Manzarek of The Doors and most Rock, Pop, Jazz, Funk, Soul and Prog from the 1950s to the 1980s and you’ll know what I mean. Synths have come a long way and progressed massively, but people just can’t help bringing out these old sounds. My other keyboard is a Nord Electro, which specialises in digitally recreating realistic versions of all these vintage keyboard instruments – indeed, I can now carry on my back the equivalent sounds that only thirty years ago would have barely managed to fit inside the back of a lorry. I think it’s because these instruments were created in an era where limited technology was merged with a fledgling Rock and Pop genre, and now these grimy, imprecise sounds are so familiar to all of us. You’d be surprised at how versatile they all still are, especially when you mush them up even more through a range of effects units and pedals!
Everything we recorded on this album was done in that three-week period on the coast – all except the last song, All That’s In Between. It became clear early in the mixing process that we really needed a genuine grand piano on that one, so we re-recorded the track at Limefield Studios with you and me playing/singing on opposite sides of the same room. Any thoughts on why the latter version just makes so much more sense than the previous cut? Is there just something about creaking wood, the thud of sustain pedals and a bit of bleed between the various microphones that elevates a certain kind of song to new emotional heights? Or am I over-romanticising things again?
See my previous answer. Too much complexity in sounds can distract from everyone else, especially in a large group such as ours, but for All That’s In Between, with its roomy solo piano, the electric piano sounded just too good and precise. We needed to get a track down with more space and more imperfection. John Ellis’s baby grand piano at his Limefield Studio in Manchester fit the bill just right.
Finally, you’re not just a musician. You’re also a physicist. I’ve not met many people with the arts and science sides of their brain balanced as evenly as they seem to be with you. There’s an intuitive nature to your playing that always turns heads, but it’s at odds with certain preconceptions regarding the logical thinker. Is this something you’re aware of, or do you simply shut down one side of your reasoning depending on the task in hand? Or do you just not think about it?
This disparity between logic and creativity is a load of rubbish; it’s a convenient excuse for why accountants who couldn’t be bothered practising the violin enough never progressed that far, or why postmodern Impressionist painters never bothered to think about how their toaster works. I see extreme cases in various musicians with whom I work, where they genuinely can only seem to excel in creative exploits, so it’s obviously a very personal and individual thing and I wouldn’t want to overly generalise it. It’s probably less the case that logic and creativity are quintessentially opposed spheres of thought, and more that some people can do or prefer to do one thing over the other. I’m just curious about the world and especially curious about the inner workings of the things to which people have an emotional response. Richard Feynman famously talked about a conversation he had with an artistic friend who thought science destroyed the beauty of nature through its methodical reductionism. He thought this was claptrap and I agree – understanding the mechanism behind music (sound/acoustics) and art (optics) and nature (biology/chemistry) only adds to your appreciation of them (psychology/neuroscience) as beautiful things.
As for how I manage to do both, I honestly haven’t the faintest idea. Contrary to what this wall of text may suggest, I really don’t think about things that much and am quite content not doing so.