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Interview with Stuart Ellison - Periscope studio engineer (part 2)

After we had discussed the recording of Woodface we spent some time talking about the songs Tim recorded during that same time but set aside for his solo projects - mainly his next solo record Before & After. We also returned to discussing the unused version of Crowded House's "It's Only Natural" with sampled drum beats. Because part 1 of the interview is more about Woodface I posted that in the Crowded House forum. Part 2 which is mostly about the demos for Before & After fits better in the Tim Finn forum and is published here exclusively. Enjoy!

Stuart, at Periscope Studios you mainly worked in the secondary recording room at on Tim Finn’s solo recordings. Some of those recording were eventually released on Before & After. Which tracks did Tim work on and what was your involvement?

 “Looking out for you” [Can’t Do Both” – ed]. was written entirely around this Sly Stone loop which carried the entire atmosphere of the track, it was a 'riff' not just a beat, it was ALL the music basically, with synth strings and piano parts coming in to build the track. The vibe got lost in translation I felt, by trying to reproduce the magic of the loop.

“Hit the Ground running” I'm surprised at how accurately Tim managed to reproduce the complex beat I created, but the drum track sounds very different to any other Tim track I ever heard, to my ears, and that's probably why. Tim basically retained all he musical parts I wrote, except the bassline phrasing is slightly incorrect to me. The 'drop dead' chords in the chorus, which Neil particularly liked when we talked about the track the next day, the little falling piano note melody.  Even the harmonies… I was fudging this weird harmony on the "Keep you up for hours" ad lib with a pitch shifter, and it sounded hilarious on certain notes because it didn't scale intelligently, it was just locked to the root note. Tim sang the harmony to fix that on the final version.

 We actually performed “Hit the Ground” live together one night in Melbourne at the Princess Theatre for an AIDS benefit gig, using DAT backing and playing guitars and singing over the top live.

Reproducing the demos with other players worked on "Hit the Ground Running", but it missed on "Can't Do Both". What a mess that turned out to be. It became rudderless without that Sly sample gluing it all together listening to it now. I didn't realise Tim used the title of another track we worked on, which I loved - "Burning Down One Side Only" in the updated lyrics of “Can't Do Both”. I can hear him trying to consciously pull away from the sampled riff on that one, but he killed the vibe in the process somewhat.

We also worked on “Persuasion” and “Strangeness And Charm”. We had a nice, brooding version of “Persuasion” going, that one we fully demoed. Persuasion was already written when Tim brought the song to me, so we were basically just experimenting with what sort of treatment we'd give it for a recording. I just had a listen to “Persuasion”, and he destroyed that one [laughs]... Too fast, he's flat throughout much of the track, the country style backing is too plain and happy for the lyric... Tim worked with other people, because sometimes he needed steering, and he knew that in his heart more than anyone. The beauty of Tim was that he wasn't afraid to completely throw away his preconceptions about how a track could sound, and he was delighted when he got music dished up to him that took it somewhere different to what he imagined.

I was never a huge fan of “Strangeness and Charm” (inspired by the modern day physics term) and that one was being tracked up in the big studio anyway as a potential album track [for Woodface -ed], so I kind of let that alone for the most part, after a few hours of midi exploration one afternoon.

"In Love With it All' was written in the Periscope era, but it fell into the “Strangeness and Charm” category in that we didn't work on it ourselves away from Crowded House. “Strangeness and Charm” was tentatively tracked early days with Ricky Fataar playing drums in the big studio, but this one didn't get quite so much love, or perhaps, as i suspect, Tim wanted to hold it back to use himself. I think Tim was  picturing a pretty straight ahead band treatment musically, so maybe that's why we never went after it in the MIDI studio.

I don't recognise "Many's the Time (In Dublin)” or the other titles from Before & After as from the Periscope era.

"Not made of Stone" rings a bell, but I can't confirm it came from that far back. The title reminds me of one of Tim's favourite sayings when he was trying to describe a situation as fluid: "Look, it's not carved in stone".

"Hit the Ground Running " sounds so much stronger than everything else to my ears, and not just coz  it's my music... it's comfortable, plus the myriad of vocal adlibs were all created when we up late at night wasted and messing around with funny pitch shifting ideas etc. He captured the entire essence of all those sessions in that recording, and it sounds slick, but I can hear him struggling on all the other tracks to a greater or lesser degree. Songs get their own energy after a certain stage, you can submit to that energy and run with it, or try and manipulate it into something else, but I reckon that's when you start overthinking things, and sucking the life out of it.

We came up with heaps of songs that I don't think Tim ever recorded, I must dig out those demos we made, because some of the tracks were superb. Tim probably felt a bit funny using all our tracks without me around, but he put a couple to use, as I mentioned. The last night of Woodface tracking, after Neil went home with Sharon, Tim and I grabbed Andrew Horne, Paul Kosky's assistant engineer, and took control of the studio for the night and tracked a bunch of songs. One in particular, “You Change”, we wrote on the spot, and it was a killer piece of funk.

At one point “It’s Only Natural” was worked on in the main recording room. You were involved with an unissued version of that featuring sampled drums.

One of my goals at the time was to get Crowded House to use a breakbeat as a starting point for tracking. They would've been the first Australian band to drop a beat in a release if they would have run with that. We gave one of my rhythms a shot for a night's session on "It’s Only Natural" which still needed a drum track at that stage. Neil was simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by the whole studio-grown beat idea, as it was strange and new, and untried for them...he didn't quite have his heart in it. In the end he reacted about as violently as you would get out of Neil; once he decided he wasn't happy with an idea, it became his enemy. There was a recurring open hi-hat in the drum pattern which came from "Impeach the President" [an often sampled 1973 song by the Honey Drippers -ed.] which he pointed out as the thing that was putting him off at the time, which he had an issue with.

Was the decision to abandon the idea of sampled drums have to do with technical reasons?

I don't think Neil's reticence at the time regarding loops was due to any technical reasons. Although its grunt was relatively meagre by today's standards with a mere 16 meg of sampling time at full bandwidth in stereo, the AKAI S1000 was the state of the art, an $8k sampler, and the remix is testament to its power. I think it was just the way that the situation played out at the time and was probably a bit of fault on both sides. "It’s Only Natural" has a very straight ahead beat, and in the end sounded great with Paul playing, but Neil kind of put me on the spot that night, and wanted a beat in a hurry, so I wasn't super comfortable with what was going on myself, in terms of getting the best beat for the track. It's easy to rifle through hundreds of beats in a minute these days, but you still have to try a stack of things first, to find 'the one.' The only disadvantage with having just enough memory to do a whole track, (S1000) is that auditioning ideas was slower. I was storing samples on 3.5" floppy discs! There was also the question of clearing samples, which was a whole new ball game for someone like Neil, but indicative of sweeping changes that would affect the way music was made over the next 30 years, from 1990.

Neil and Tim embraced your ideas more in the years to come.

It's interesting to hear how prominent the drum tracks are on Neil’s newer stuff and how much of the ‘Stu attitude’ to rhythm remains to this day. Neil is still taking advice from relative unknowns that he trusts with regard to song writing, just like he did with me back in the day. It's great he got the family involved too, but that's Neil... he loves his home space and his family and friends. I'm glad Neil embraced it later on though, and he has his own home setup now, which is the ideal situation for a songwriter.

Tim on the other hand, used almost all of the parts I'd written or come up with in sample form on his tracks, and just got other musicians to play them when he came to recording his next album [1993’s Before & After]. It was a bit of an odd feeling to hear those tracks after working on them for so long, basically being re-recorded to copy my parts, or my samples recreated in the studio, but that's rock 'n' roll I guess.

 

Last edited by Guy.
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