Sunday, 22 May 2016

#74. March Of The Albatross – 21st Century Ox

Dion Barker: bass, backing vocals, percussion
Harry Fahey: drums
Brendan Hoffmann: vocals, guitar, percussion
Matt Neal: guitar, vocals, percussion

Lyrics by Brendan Hoffmann.
Music by Dion Barker, Harry Fahey, Brendan Hoffmann and Matt Neal.
Recorded in the Warrnambool City Band Hall in 2000.
Produced and mixed by Harry Fahey.
Released on the 21st Century Ox album What Am I Going To Do With All These Portaloos?.

This remains, to this day, the most Herculean feat of mixing I’ve ever seen. It probably doesn’t sound much chop to your modern ears, but this was recorded under various levels of duress by Ox drummer Harry Fahey, who it turns out is a Level 5 Sound Mage.

Here’s the set-up: It's the year 2000. My band 21st Century Ox - Warrnambool’s self-proclaimed “alternative to the alternative” - has set up shop for the day in the Warrnambool City Band Hall to do some recording. Harry, who is undertaking TAFE’s Music Industry Skills course at the time, has secured the use of TAFE’s digital four-track recorder for 24 hours. The plan is to record a demo for The Ignored so we can enter the song into the Couch Surfing competition and try to win us some money.

Yay, another chance to use this pic from The Standard of 
21st Century Ox with artist Damian "Macca" McDonald
to celebrate us all winning Couch Surfing.

The day progresses well. Harry, bassist Dion Barker, guitarist/vocalist Brendan Hoffmann and myself smash out a pretty decent demo of The Ignored (since lost to the mists of time) in between ducking up to Fishtails for coffees and getting progressively more inebriated as the day goes on.

My memories are hazy, but I think we had a crack at recording another song called Sorry I’m So Stupid after we’d finished The Ignored, but abandoned it because I couldn’t nail the vocals. So we turned our attention to a song Hoffa had written called March Of The Albatross. It was an odd tune, but one we’d been playing since our first gig in April, 2000.

First Ox setlist. April 2, 2000.

The song consisted of one lyric and one riff, played at varying degrees of heaviness, so there wasn’t much to it, but it was a song we could jam on and mess around with every time we played it. And given that we were getting pretty trashed by the time we turned our attentions to recording a new song, it was a perfect candidate.

This pic was taken during the recording session in the band hall. 
Hats took up much of the recording budget.
Pic: Brendan Hoffmann

“My original idea for the lyrics,” Hoffa said, “were my usual punk, anti-establishment comment on 'sheeple'. I was very much into me vs the drones back then. You may see a resemblance between the albatross, the cats (from a future blog) and the cash man... I definitely had a theme going!”

We laid down the basic tracks - I think the finished version was take 2 - and decided to start messing around with overdubs. This is where Harry’s heroics came into play. Remember: this is a digital four-track recorder we’re using so it only has four tracks to record on. Every time you want to record a new track, you have to “bounce” the four existing tracks on to one or two tracks to clear room. But bouncing means the mix is set. You can’t remix what you’ve bounced. There’s no undo button.

Myself, Dion and Harry getting set up for recording in the band hall.
Picture: Brendan Hoffmann.

By this stage we were fairly messed up, but Harry rallied like the trooper he is. Dion, Hoffa and I were running around coming up with crazy new layers to add to the song. There was an awesome Mega Boogie amp someone had left in the Band Hall that we made extensive use of because it sounded fucking incredible. We added stacks of percussion including coffee cups and gueros and thumping on tables (most of which is out of time and gives the song a certain psychotic seasickness). And we decided to make use of the acoustics in the bathroom for extra eerie vocals.

All the while, Harry bounced and bounced, somehow managing to retain the core drum, bass, guitar and vocal tracks. All while off his head. Like I said, it was a Herculean effort.

“Dude, it’s in the region of 40 tracks on a four-track recorder,” Harry recalled. “Fuck me that was epic! Best memory is you guys in the bathroom with a mic pointed into the sink to get that beautiful porcelain reverb and running water effect over a psycho screaming session.”

"You know what I think it needs, Harry? Psycho screaming!"
"Shut up, Doc."

Here’s Hoffa:

“The tracks upon tracks of Mesa Boogie guitar amp made for the most epic guitar sound ever in an Ox song! I remember the goth fans loved it!”

And here’s Dion:

“The recording was done in conjunction with The Ignored demo. Talk about layer upon layer upon layer! That thing had more bumps than all the posts on a Buy Swap Sell page!  A miracle of digital four-track technology, if you will.  And despite the many, many, many tracks, it's still a very uncluttered recording - it's not over-the-top, or a jumbled mess of nonsense (although very abstract).  It was one of the more polished Peppermint-esque recordings, and a symbolic representation of the playful and fun-filled genre that Doc so eloquently described as "the alternative to the alternative". Good times! Despite all the influences, H-Bomb (Harry) had the uncanny ability to keep us on task when needed. And it certainly was an experience, it just so happened that it resulted in a pretty good track, in spite of the absurdities.”

Me, laying down vocals on The Ignored. Pic: Brendan Hoffmann

Listening back, 16 years (holy shit!) later, it’s hard for me to separate the song from the experience. Compiling this track remains one of the most enjoyable recording experiences I’ve ever had. It was chaotic, experimental, and abstract, but the finished product wasn’t a total mess (thanks to Harry). We all learnt a lot and I think the recording is a good example of combining spontaneity and overdubbing, which can be tricky in a studio environment.

Yes it’s a bit of a mess. The aforementioned seasickness, as the tempo and out-of-time percussion pull against each other isn’t ideal, but it adds to the uneasiness of the finished product. Ditto for the disembodied backing vocals. But my favourite bits are a couple of unplanned guitar excursions that Hoffa does, most notably a weird little happy rhythm thing he does at 3.37, that burst of feedback that’s in there twice, and the random few chords he plays during the eerie outro as the final guitars whine out. It’s those impromptu moments that I love.

This recording ended up as one of the four hidden tracks on What Am I Going To Do With All These Portaloos?.

Needs more secret tracks.

And to cap it all off, here’s a live recording done in The Cellar (which was under the Criterion and no longer exists) on November 30, 2000 - most likely on the same four-track recorder. Not great quality, but there probably aren’t that many recordings from The Cellar kicking around.

Dion Barker: bass
Harry Fahey: drums
Brendan Hoffmann: vocals, guitar
Matt Neal: guitar

Recorded in The Cellar, Warrnambool on November 30, 2000.
Recorded and mixed by the TAFE MIS crew of 2000 or maybe Harry Fahey.

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