15 August 2011

Adam Stafford - Build a Harbour Immediately: Track by track

Way back in January I sent Adam Stafford, he of "ya'll is fantasy island" fame, an email asking if he'd be up for doing an interview at some point in the future. What was to follow completely caught me off guard. Yes, he was for doing it, but more excitingly than that, he offered to send me a copy of his new album i.e. the then un-named 'Build a Harbour Immediately'. Outside of a handful of folk close to him I was privileged enough to be one of the first people to get to hear it. For several months it's been the soundtrack to my day, I know it's a bit of a cliché but every time I listen to this album I discover something new about it. It's an album that's very hard to pigeon hole, which is half of its charm. At certain points it is an unashamed pop record, but the further down the rabbit hole you go the weirder the trip gets. The key to it all is that it's all so coherently held together. In lesser hands this could be a higgledy piggledy mess, however Adam Stafford has crafted any album of pure joy that is going to take a lot beating for my album of the year. So without further ado here's Adam to talk us through how 'Build a Harbour Immediately' came to be...

1. Fire & Theft

It was a demo that had been floating about since 2006 and it was just the six chords repeated on a loop with the descending lead guitar lines – basically written on the spot in five minutes. I'd forgotten about it totally until I went through some tapes and it came up again. I think it was Paul Savage (producer/engineer) that suggested the “La-la-la”'s at the end. I remember playing a rough mix to my girlfriend and her disliking it a lot because she thought it sounded too saccharine and I panicked a bit because I thought I'd made a huge mistake. But then other people started saying that they really loved it, so now I've just stopped trying to second-guess what audiences are going to like! Paul said that radio-pluggers would never touch it because it wasn't poppy enough and that pop had been hi-jacked by wankers anyway. I agreed and that put me more at ease...

2. Police No Speech

The imagery in the first verse is a kind of homage to Edward Gorey's illustrations in that he imagined a disparate group of people that are thrust into these strange unexplained scenarios which they are baffled by. The lyric “Laughter will/and laughter can/bring the house down/but your insurance will just/burn it all down” is one of my favourites for some reason, I don't know why, probably because even when you think you have everything covered things can still come crashing down around you. I love Emily Scott's vocals in the choruses, they are like a velvet drape, and Kim Moore's (Zoey Van Goey) string arrangements just cut right through you.

3. A Temple of the Holy Ghost

The title is a straight rip-off of Flannery O’Connor, again, it's the title of one of her short stories. I'm a great lover of American Spiritual and Gospel, so the song is an attempt at that. It's strange as an atheist to write a Gospel song, but it's really a “what if?”, what if I was to suddenly find faith and what kind of jubilation would that bring...? It's not difficult to hear that there's a fairly religious and spiritual tone to the record as a whole.

4. Cathedrals

I want to retire Cathedrals from the live set altogether, it's too difficult to play! The chords are obscure and require me to stretch my fingers to their maximum length, there is a tempo change in the chorus and too many really high falsetto notes to reach. It's a pretty fragile song to perform and it took forever just to track the acoustic bed in the studio without me making a mistake and having to start the whole thing over. Thematically, it's about dealing with the changes as you get older, about the delicate nature of being in a long-term relationship, thinking about marriage, children and moving to a city. It really is as personal as it gets. That huge string sound is Kim playing her viola electrically through a distortion and delay pedal, she is just an amazing arranger. We kept thinking Boy Child by Scott Walker.

5. Shot-down You Summer Wannabes

It was an honest attempt at writing a soul-pop song in the vein of Motown or Gospel Doo-Wop. The “Wow-wacka” vocal riff was actually me trying to imitate a guitar going through a Wah-wah pedal. I've had a few people try and sing it back to me, but they never get the pitch-change right! Even I don't, sometimes. The technical process was singing the riff to a click and tone track, then multi-tracking all of the other parts individually on top. The lead vocal was sung into the exact same microphone used to record Michael Jackson's Thriller – STONE COLD FACT!

6. Step Up, Raise Hands

It was demoed to sound like a Cowboy Junkies-esque slow and sleazy blues-down, a' la Sweet Jane, but ended up being Prince! It was the song which caused the biggest mixing headache but I'm quite proud of its absurd popiness, it has a stupidly catchy chorus hook! If Prince ever wants a new hit, I'm his man.

7. Build a Harbour Immediately

I need to doff my cap to Jon McCall (ex-Y'all is Fantasy Island) for giving me the eponymous title. We were returning from a camping trip very drunk. In the back of the car he noticed they'd began construction work on a harbour on the banks of the River Carron in Falkirk and he flew off into a hilarious rant about how the council was spending money on superfluous projects. He began adopting a booming Daniel Day-Lewis voice, imitating a foreman saying, “I want a harbour! Build me a harbour immediately!”. It always stuck in my head. Another funny McCall rant was when he stood drunk in front of an art gallery window shouting at paintings of sunsets. He screamed furiously, “Is that all you've got for me?! Fucking sunsets!”.

8. Frederick Wiseman

It was written for a film project that was abandoned. The song is named in honour of the famous Documentarian whose greatest achievement is Near Death, a seven hour portrait of doctors and patients on a Terminal Illness Ward. Anyone who presents such a stark and unpretentious document on the fragility of life touches something most artists don't manage to reach in a lifetime.

9. A Vast Crystal Skull

Paul Savage really rescued this track, which was essentially a fragmented idea when I demoed it. He chopped sections of Louise Ward's improvised vocal track and pasted them in, he made the guitars like harps and the noise you hear that sounds like a zooming spaceship is him piling reverb on top of reverb. He really was the sonic architect for the whole album and we talked in length about the production techniques of Dave Fridmann and Scott Walker. When you make an album you make it three times: the demo; the recording; the mixing. The whole sequencing was planned before the recording so that it would sound like a trip. If the propulsive guitar noise at the end of Fire & Theft is the house taking off for heaven, then Crystal Skull is us deep in its acid mines.

Build a Harbour Immediately is available to order now on snazzy yellow cassette through Insularis Records (which includes a download code too). Adam celebrates the release of his new album this coming Saturday at Stereo as part of Ayetunes vs Peenko 4. Support on the evening comes from PAWS, Miaoux Miaoux and Mondegreen.

Aside from his appearance at this Saturdays 'AvP4', Adam has the following live dates lined up:

Sun 21st Aug: Supporting The Twilight Sad (acoustic set) & RM Hubbert at The Electric Circus in Edinburgh
Fri 26th Aug: He'll be performing in The Hei Ensemble (Hey Enemy – Predestination Records), at Nice`n’Sleazy, Glasgow.
Sun 28th Aug: A live rendering of Stafford’s short film The Shutdown, spoken-word/music performance by Alan Bissett and Adam, Live Film Leith, Drill Hall Leith – Edinburgh.

The album is available to buy now on cassette through Insualris Records, alternatively you can download the album directly from the WiseBlood Industries Bandcamp page for just £6, it could quite possibly be the best £6 you've ever spent.

Adam Stafford
Wiseblood Industries

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