Dome of Discovery - Interview
PILGRIMS Aug 1993
ENTER THE DOME OF DISCOVERY: JUDGE’S GUIDED TOUR
Q: How did ‘Dome Of Discovery’ come about? What was the initial drive behind it?
J: It was to have an album. I was over forty; I’d been involved with music since I was eighteen; I’d written a very large amount of material, either all myself as a composer and lyricist, or in collaboration with other people. All different kinds of music - classical, rock, pop, comedy, theatrical stuff - and I’d never had anything recorded exactly the way I wanted it. I’d never had a solo release. I’d actually appeared on very few records at all of any description. That was the real motive. I wanted to land a fish of my own.
Q: So this was actually started before ‘Democrazy’?
J: Oh yes, most certainly. The ‘Democrazy’ project, which turned out to be my first release, happened in the middle of recording ‘Dome Of Discovery’. How (‘Dome’) came about was this:
Having decided to do the deed, I gave up my part-time job that I’d had for about seventeen years, and which had enabled me to do music several days a week, and left my London flat, rented it out and moved to Norfolk. I’d happened to be introduced to a farmer who wanted someone to house-sit his farm which had been burgled several months before. He wanted someone to live there while he went off back to college...
Renting my London flat, I would be able to survive almost indefinitely. I figured that that was the way to get my dream come true and have a record of my own. I’d already spent most of my available cash over the previous seven or eight years buying recording equipment. And I had, by the time I moved up here, a reasonably equipped sixteen-track studio. That’s now installed down one end of this large attic room in this seventeenth century farmhouse. I live down the other end.
I was able to contemplate making a record here. I had about the minimum degree of sophistication and equipment necessary to record CD quality material. I had not unlimited time, but I had time, but very little spare cash, and so I had to work out how I could use my recording set-up and my time to produce an album or a series of albums, a body of work, that would sound exactly the way I wanted it...
I believe in using real musicians playing real instruments. However, the financial aspects of recording real musicians playing real instruments, was more than I could contemplate. People don’t seem to understand that the act of recording music is very expensive. In order to record a drum kit with any degree of satisfaction, you need an acoustically correct room, you need perhaps fifteen hundred pounds worth of microphones, preferably ten years’ recording engineer experience, and then you might be able to get somewhere recording real drums. I had none of those, particularly the ten years experience. I was just starting out. So I decided to follow the route of doing everything myself...
Q: So how did you go about selecting the sound-world to what it is, because it’s a very specific soundscape?
J: ...I invented in my mind an imaginary band with their own characteristics, their own style of playing, their own faults, their own little idiosyncrasies. I made a series of samples for all those instruments, that would sound the way I imagined them to sound. So, the ‘Dome Of Discovery’ features an orchestra of four cellos, a bass guitar, a drummer who sounds as if he’s more at home in a cajun or skiffle band, in that he doesn’t play cymbals, but rather plays on the snare drum most of the time; a guitar player who likes playing Duane Eddy; four trumpets, a solo soprano and a choir. These are all sounds that I’m particularly fond of.
I wondered what happened if a band consisting of those forces got together to play my songs, and after many months, I was able to produce a set of samples that to my mind sounded as near as damn it to those people playing. I hope people will be able to suspend disbelief...
Q: How did you go about deciding on the material, whittling six hundred songs down to the dozen on the album?
J: I think this was as a result of picking my mad fantasy band. There were certain songs that I knew I had to record and they all seemed to be numbers that could be played by my punk cello section. I’m interested in that wonderful heavy rhythm sound that a cello can get playing short notes very loudly. You sometimes hear that on Bela Bartok String Quartets, and some forms of Eastern European gypsy music. That was going to be my basic sound. And that pre-determined the choice of most of this material.
The making of the sample was quite an epic in itself. These are not commercial samples but ones I made myself. I had to bring in musicians to record them, in almost all cases. I had a cello player who came in to create my cello group. I hired singers and used them to create a choir. I made all the drum samples myself, having listened to hundreds and thousands of drum samples. I still couldn’t get what I wanted, so I got an old snare drum, stood it in front of a microphone and hit it with a stick, and I then had the perfect sound. Commercial samples of snare drums are all monster heavy-duty rock snares. I wanted something that sounded like an elderly Cajun lady, tapping away in time to a zydeco band. The trumpets are based on commercial samples, but there are four different samples from four different sources, tracked down individually and then put together...
I’ve tried to work on one instrument at a time and actually make them sound like individual people playing their parts. This isn’t expensive, but it takes an incredibly long time.
I would take about a week to do one instrument part on one song. Consequently the album took an incredibly long time to do. I think that from when I moved here to when the album was finished was something like two and a half years. Six months of that was experimenting, making a lot of mistakes.
Some of the songs I’ve recorded three times from scratch. I didn’t let anything go until it was as good as I could get it. You only make your first album once.
Q: Do you want to talk us through the songs, tell us a little bit about the items on the disc?
J: I guess the only track on the album that has any conventional commercial potential is the opener, ‘Tell Me You Love Me’. That was one of the few that were written from scratch while the album was in progress. That features backing vocals in Dutch, French, German, Spanish, and Xhosa and Greek. I like bits of foreign languages in my songs, though I don’t actually speak any.
Q: Where do you get the ideas for some of the songs, such as ‘Carpet Tiles’?
J: ‘Carpet Tiles’ is one of those that springs from the ‘working title’ syndrome. Lots of songwriters, when they have a tune before they have the lyrics, write silly words to go along with it to help them remember the tune and help them work out things. I had my chorus, and I had to make up silly words to go with it, so I sang ‘Carpet tiles’ because it fitted the notes very well. When it came time to work out what the song was going to be about, I realized I wanted to do something about the recession and small businesses and people going to the wall. I thought, ‘Well, what is my story going to be?’ and I realized ‘why not have the guy selling carpet tiles because it fits the tune so well?’
Q: Why the decision to re-record the song you wrote for Lene Lovich, 'What'll I Do Without You’?
J. It was always a favourite song of mine. I wrote that for her in the early 1970s. She had a fair crack at it, but it never ended up quite the way I thought it could be, and I’d always felt a sense of frustration in those days, writing for other people where you listen to the end result and think ‘That’s fine, but it’s not what I had in mind’. I’d always intended to do that one my way, to see how it comes out. It popped up as an obvious candidate for that reason.
Q: There’s a couple of more serious songs on the album, like ‘The Voice Of The Night’ and ‘Place Of Your Own’.
J:‘The Voice Of The Night’ music comes from a long string quartet piece I wrote a long time ago called ‘The Book Of Hours’ which for one reason or another was not a success artistically, or indeed any other way. (Laughs) I salvaged the tune from that, ...wrote those lyrics and submitted them to Lene towards the end of her career. She didn’t take it up, so I had that song already there. It’s another old one. It seemed to fit in with the cellos and stuff.
‘Place Of Your Own’ is a dark little number. That comes from a repetitive riff of fourteen notes that is repeated throughout on the guitar. It doesn’t change all the way through. I had this interesting pattern, not a melody, more like a tone row. I was interested in what one could do over the top of it. Various chords and progressions started to occur. I know a lot of people write like this, but it was very unusual for me, not something I’ve done a lot of. In fact, an early version of this was submitted as incidental music for a television play, without the words. I always wanted to follow it up and write lyrics. It had a dark doomy feel to it, so that sour and desperate little lyric popped out of the air and fitted.
Also, there’s quite a lot of silly songs on the album, quite deliberately. I like silly songs, and this is a good antidote. An hour’s worth of silly songs is too much of a good thing. You want some music to cut your own throat by as well.
Q: What about ‘Jimmy Jimmy' which People will know as they’ll all have the bootleg from Scorched Earth?
J: I think this is another song that sprang from a working title. I had a chorus and I couldn’t think of the words. When you work these things out, you just sing any old garbage over it, and you usually sing the same old garbage over and over again as you pace up and down and think what a wonderful song this is going to be. I kept on singing ‘Jimmy-Jimmy’, so I thought why not write it about a character called Jimmy-Jimmy. It’s not based on anyone I know. I’ve invented my little Scots tearaway completely. The juvenile delinquent is made up.
None of the people on the album are real. Except ‘The Judge Rides Again’. I think every album should have a song about the person who’s done it. An intimate and revealing number, in which I take the piss out of myself.
Q: Then there’s ‘The Dying Of The Light’ which rounds off the album and brings the other characters up to date.
J: I had the melody first. It was actually two good songs, but I took the best bits of both of them and stuck them together to made this very long song. I was then in a position of having to write a lyric. I didn’t have words for it. This one didn’t happen organically as songs are supposed to do. I thought, having invented these people, Raymond and Valerie. Faye, Jimmy-Jimmy and the Tsar, and since I’d been living with these people for two years, it seemed as if time had passed since I’d first recorded their activities, so it seemed natural to bring their stories up to date.
Q: And ‘God Save the Tzar’ - is there an element of anti-Europeanism? Dissatisfaction with the world situation?
J: Yes, I suppose that’s my sort of political comment in the whole thing, and a rather confusing one at that. Bear in mind, when I started this album, Boris Yeltsin had hardly been thought of. Gorbachev was in charge, the Eastern bloc was intact and was disintegrating as I was working on the album. The Tsar doesn’t necessarily refer to Russia, though I use him as a symbol of oppression and authoritarian government. The song is about revolutions and how they very rarely come off because they replace one authoritarian regime with another authoritarian regime.
I particularly dislike the authoritarian regimes that come over all liberal and ‘call me by first name, but still do what I say’. I was in fact thinking more of Romania and the fall of the system there than I was of Russia; you have a bogus revolution, where the baddie’s been toppled and replaced by another set of baddies. There’s a little dig at pan-Europeanism. though this only comes out in ‘Dying Of The Light’. I’m indicating that I have profound suspicions that the forces behind a unified Europe are not nice forces, and would not be pleasant forces to live under.
Q: There’s only one vaguely conventional love song, ‘I Never Loved You Anyhow’.
J: What can I tell you about that? (Long pause) Nothing by the sound of things. It doesn’t have any real story attached to it. It’s not a personal one, of mine anyway. I’m very fond of the tune and the words, but I can’t think of any anecdotes about it. (Laughs)
Q: ‘Don’t Point That Thing At Me’, which I’d have to confess is the one that I’d throw away if I had to cut one?
J: I’ve always been fond of coarse humour and vulgar jokes, and I don’t think I’d be true to myself if an album didn’t have at least some smut in it, or some fruity double entendres. I’m afraid that’s me; it’s part of the package. History overtook me on this one, with references to Gorbachev and filling sandbags at airfields. I did write it when Gorby was still there. The end of the Cold War caught me with my trousers down, and my rhyming dictionary in some disarray. At the time I was finishing this, it was extremely unclear who was in power in Russia. And besides, ‘Gorbachev’ rhymes and the other fellow didn’t.
Q: What the hell is ‘Giant Hand’ about?
J: It’s the paranoid song. Everybody has one and that’s mine.
In all these comments, we’re talking about the lyrics, but in many cases, what the song is about is a sound. This song is about a choir singing with Duane Eddy. Punk cellos playing with the Tijuana Brass. In many respects, the important thing for me was the music. That was what was significant. ‘Don’t Point That Thing At Me’ is significant to me for the very elaborate choral passages. That's why the piece is there.
That’s why it’s a music driven album rather than a lyric one. Whether anyone would notice that by listening to it, I don’t know, (because) the lyrics are very prominent and you can hear all the words.
I like writing lyrics. I get a lot of fun out of putting jokes and allusions in. But there’s plenty of musical jokes as well.
Just to finish off: You asked earlier about how ‘Democrazy’ fitted in. It was in the middle of all this that the Oedipus crew turned up, pestering me to delve into my old cardboard boxes and pull out lots of old demo tapes.
Q: You suggested we should have a listen to them first, if I remember correctly.
J: I can’t believe that for one minute (laughs). And then Oedipus insisted this stuff should be put out. (‘Democrazy’) has all the early material. ‘Dome’ was in mid-swing while that came out.
Q: What about the hassles of trying to get a deal for it once it was complete?
J: That was a wretched business. Once I’d finished the thing up here in solitary splendour, I then twisted the arm of David Lord who used to run Crescent Studios in Bath and is still very active in working with Peter Hammill (who he? - Ed). He’s always struck me as being a producer and a half. I sent him a cassette of my rough mixes and he volunteered to help me out and mix the thing with me. Thank god he did, say I, because he’s given it the edge of professionalism and clarity that you can only get from twenty years experience and several hundred thousand pounds worth of equipment. I think I’ve had the best of both worlds. I think it really does sound like a grown-up studio CD, but I was able to make it all myself in my own rough and ready fashion.
Having done that, I tried for a few months to a conventional release, by a record company that actually has a receptionist, which is my definition of real company, someone who answers the phone who isn’t the managing director. I tried quite a few of these, but I had no response at all.
One company told me that ‘I was talented. I was original, I was doing work that no-one else was doing, I was my own man and they didn’t want anything to do with it at any price, because they wouldn’t be able to sell it’. I think this showed a deplorable lack of enterprise on their part. But at least they made some comment. Virtually nobody replied to the quite handsome and elaborate package that I sent round. I think this is a sad comment when you don’t even get a rejection note, let alone a favourable response.
So I’ve been reduced (laughs) to offering the record to Oedipus Recs who I’m sure will do a famous job on it, and will shift it by the steam-shovel load……..
Q: Anything else you’d like to add before we close?
J: I think I’ve said enough about ‘Dome Of Discovery’. Let’s hope to God that people buy it.
Q: There you are; you heard it from the man himself. Thanks.