Roadie #42 – Blog #120

Jun 03, 2010

Greetings to you from Budapest. I’m nearing the end of a two week break from the studio. We’re back in on Monday. I greet you hanging my head and begging forgiveness. Yes, seven weeks is an obscenely long time to be leaving you hanging. Apart from this couple of weeks of being a civilian, my primary distraction has been that they’ve asked me to get a little more involved engineering on the record. This means I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to work out exactly what plugs in where and more importantly, why.

I’m far enough along the learning curve now though, to return to my primary responsibilities of keeping you wonderful folks posted of progress. If you’ll forgive me this once, I promise that when we make it back next week I’ll more than make it up to you – how’s that? đŸ˜‰

So anyway, enough of excuses, what’s been going on? Well, "Your skin and bones, turn into something beautiful…." was the first hook that Coldplay sank into many people – and it also pretty much perfectly describes progress over the last month.

With the project getting something of a reboot after Latin America, they’ve been very much back in the exploratory phase again. As described in the previous blog, there is a list of songs now and those songs have verses, choruses, riffs, lyrics and so on. These are the raw materials, though. Unrefined and rough, this is the record’s skin and bones, if you will. The "turning into something beautiful" bit, is the result of two methodologies.

The first is a huge amount of sheer graft and attention to detail. Brian Eno calls it "screwdriver work" and he’s not much of a fan of it. It’s the real craftsmanship of the songwriting phase. Everything is tried and changed, analysed and re-appraised. All in search of an approach that will yield the magic they’re seeking. Leaving no stone unturned means that the elusive "perfect arrangement" or "getting everything to sit just right" will be achieved no matter how much work is required to get there.

The second method, is the lightning bolt of "happy accidents". Sometimes, the thing that ignites a tune appears to come completely out of nowhere – and you’d need to do a lot of retracing of steps just to work out exactly who triggered it. It could be as simple as someone playing a part with the wrong sound in error, or it could be Will noodling distractedly on his drum machine and Chris jumping on it and putting it under the verse of a song from another day.

Both things get the record made and neither can be invoked by attempting the other. Sitting around waiting for inspiration doesn’t get the hard work done and long conversations and methodical approaches can waste hours when a single snap of brilliance can change everything in an instant.

It’s this growth and evolution of the songs in the studio that I’ve never witnessed before (previously, I’ve only ever been with the guys on the road). I remember first hearing Lost! during the X&Y tour. We were in an empty arena one afternoon in Chicago. Chris asked me to record a bunch of demos with just him onstage in the empty venue at the piano he plays in the gig. He put down about a dozen ideas that day, but I remember Lost! jumping out at me immediately as a great song, even as just a sketch in an echoey arena.

The next time that I heard Lost! was when the album had been completed and we were making preparations for touring. It was like seeing a favourite nephew for the first time in years and saying "My how you’ve grown". (Although if I remember correctly, my exact quote at the time was "Wow, I’ve always loved this song, I’m really glad you didn’t fuck it up…"). There are already several tunes for this next record that everyone has their eyes on – and plainly there is absolutely no intention of fucking them up.

In other news, Brian has been dropping in regularly, but has also been leaving the band to get on with things alone. It’s been noted that he’s having as much effect on the record when he isn’t here as when he is. The band observed a little while ago that very often when they were working without him and getting stuck, they’d think of something that he would say and apply it, getting them "over the hump".

To this end, they asked Brian to come up with ten commandments that could hang on the wall and could be applied to every dilemma. Of course this isn’t brand new, Brian’s Oblique Strategy Cards are themselves as famous as many pieces of studio equipment. Here though, Brian’s Ten Commandments (of which of course, there are eleven) are tailored to this project and provide strong guidelines for just how these songs will grow up.

Just as every child needs to be shown wrong from right, the songs are now free to express themselves in any way they choose – whilst knowing that if they’re caught doing what they know they shouldn’t, they’ll be getting a hard stare at the very least. I’ve seen Chris on more than one occasion get halfway through playing something a little too flowery or "done before", before breaking down in laughter and shaking his head, saying "All I can hear in the back of my head is Brian telling me off".

It has to be said, that throughout the entire band, the Eno impersonations are becoming quite uncanny.

All of that of course, makes it sound as though Brian is somewhat tyrannical and negative, which simply couldn’t be further from the truth. When he arrives in the studio control room, he brings with him his very own portable sunshine of enthusiasm. His excitement is very contagious and addictive. He’s like a naughty schoolfriend who encourages anyone he comes into contact with to try things that maybe they shouldn’t, or maybe go exploring somewhere exciting that their parents have told them to stay away from. He’s a true dichotomy, part benevolent schoolmaster (nod to Phil…) and part wonderfully bad influence. He plays both roles extremely well and the results speak for themselves.

So, now we’re on a break for a couple of weeks, giving everyone the chance to spend some time with families. As before, a gap in proceedings made for a great deadline and a deadline became a great motivator. The most recent few weeks were a real concerted effort to push every song to a place that everyone was excited about.

Anything that’s not as great as the current favourite song gets strong focus. Problems get the spotlight so that they can’t hide. A verse that’s not flowing into the bridge gracefully can get a whole day’s attention – the screwdrivers have well and truly been out.

The ongoing war on obstructions to greatness was further escalated with the arrival of Markus Dravs. He was back in the camp for the last few days before the break. I’ve seen him referred to as "Drillmaster Dravs" on one the studio whiteboards and now I can see why. He’s not one for letting folks slack. Markus, for those of you who don’t know is German.

His grasp of the English language is of course perfect – it even extends well down the road of a superb appreciation of dry British humour. When he was studying the phrasebook though, he appears not to have learnt the phrases "that’ll do" or "good enough". I don’t imagine he’s ever uttered the words "can’t be arsed" either.  No wonder he fits in so well around here…

To round off the last week before the break, Rik was asked to put together "monitor mixes" of all of the songs in progress. The band and Markus sit down for a listen through on the final day. The plan is to work through every one of the songs in progress – to listen to it, discuss it and then play it together out in the live room.

Inevitably, it’s an overambitious plan and the day slips away before they get through the whole list. Something very interesting happens though as they make it through listening to the first few songs.

After weeks and weeks of working on the tiny details, of only paying attention to the flaws, they are now standing back and trying to objectively experience what they have made so far. I could be mistaken, but it genuinely felt as though there was real excitement spreading through the room. Perhaps it began to dawn on the fellas that what they have here is more than just a collection of intros, verses and choruses.

The songs haven’t assumed their final beautiful form yet, but they’re a very long way from their skin and bones phase. What’s impossible not to conclude though, is that they have some absolutely killer tunes. I have no idea whether the fellas left for their break proud of what they’ve achieved so far and excited about what they have here, but I really hope so. They should be.