I’m pretty sure I said to myself that I would probably struggle to come up with a set of songs to make enough for a 3rd solo album in the immediate aftermath of “Second Time Around”’s release in late 2015. I didn’t really have anything left over from those sessions and also felt that I’d exhausted my back catalogue sufficiently too. But I actually hadn’t in truth on that latter point, and it was deciding to go in a slightly different direction that has ultimately led to a brand new 11-song collection ready to be unleashed.
In my Shotgun Wedding days (1988-94 for the rock historians), my songwriting got a whole lot better with every tune I brought to the band, but I also derived increasing confidence from co-writing with my bandmates - and specifically with the band’s guitarist, Gray Ettrick.
Gray was weaned on an ever-so-slightly different diet of rock and metal growing up than I was. He was introduced to AC/DC and Scorpions before me, and likewise I was knee deep in Deep Purple and Rainbow before him. But our Venn diagrams of taste intersected hugely as we got to know each other as both friends and rehearsal room colleagues. KISS were a link that soon became obvious to us both and I certainly learned a quick love of Angus and co from quickly delving into their back catalogue. Riff Raff in particular was a real moment of clarity!
Gray is and always was a riff writer - simple as. He was constantly experimenting with little sections of chord patterns and staccato double stop figures that I would never have come up with myself on guitar. Almost every time we rehearsed at our ‘sweatbox’ on the Tyburn Road beneath Spaghetti Junction, he had a new idea to show us - or show me, more accurately. Gray knew that not every idea he brought in would fire my imagination as a writer, but his ‘hit rate’ was pretty good with me over time. He knew that I had the ability to mould and craft what golden nuggets he had into song structures and arrangements that would eventually become fully fledged Shotgun Wedding tunes. These would either be alongside ideas and riffs of my own, or just a ‘Frankenstein’ approach with his stuff, tying his own ideas together in a way that even he hadn’t necessarily envisaged.
And, despite the fact that Shotgun Wedding ended as a band before even Britpop was even a thing, Gray kept writing and riffing away through the nineties and into the noughties. He was never one to fall into a covers band situation that would never truly fire his creative instincts, which is to his eternal credit. So, one day when I’d nipped up to Brum in early 2019 to see Gray at his gaff, we eventually got the guitars out (as we often did) and he showed me a few new ideas he had bubbling away.
I loved them - just as much as I’d loved the ones he’d shown me 20/30 years before.
I learned the 7 or 8 ideas that he had and recorded them on my iPhone to take away with me. Around that time, I had actually started writing a song called ‘Massive Passive Aggressive’ (title came first) and I was stuck without a connection between verse riff and chorus riff. Hey presto, one of those phone-stored ideas of Gray’s fit perfectly and within a day of getting home, the song was finished with my lyrics and melodies on top.
Another rapid-fire riff idea that he showed me that day sounded like a great fun track opener, and he hadn’t thought that a separate idea he played in the same key would connect with it - I thought it most certainly did, and suddenly “I Was There” was born. Something was brewing.
It got me thinking about the Ettrick/Danter songs that fell by the wayside in days of yore and my mind turned to ‘One Over The Eight’, ‘Route Of All Evil’ and 'Fine Time To Die’…3 great early 90’s examples of one of us having a song 80% there and the other having the ideas to complete it, whether it be a chorus or a melody. Then I remembered 'Whatever Happened’, one of Gray’s brutal riff collections that I’d moulded lyrics and melodies to in the last incarnation of Shotgun Wedding.
Next thing you know, I’d decided these songs need a new lick of paint to go with new Gray/Ian compositions and I’d also started writing a slower song that had somehow come to me whilst borrowing my older brother’s 12-string Takamine.
Cut to several months later (July 2019, during Wimbledon fortnight) and I pitched up at an old haunt - Monnow Valley Studios in Monmouth, South Wales. I’d previously recorded there in 1994 just after Shotgun’s demise with a Welsh band that turned out to be my next project, Sons Of God (nee City Kidds). The idea was to spend 2 days tracking drums for 10 songs I’d put together; the new and older songs co-written with Gray, newies of my own and a song from my very first band in the mid-80’s written by my best mate and guitarist Keith Laurent that never got recorded but that totally deserved a chance to be heard.
As usual, I got ahead of myself, and by the end of that second day in the idyllic surroundings of the Wye Valley, I had not only completed all the drum parts, but had also laid down all the bass guitar parts for the tunes, as well as a piano part for the slow song ‘Landscapes’ - taking advantage of the beautiful grand piano available to use in the live room.
Buoyed by getting off to such a clean start, I resolved to record the rhythm guitars at home via my Mac’s GarageBand program and then work out the best place to do the vocals. Guitar solos would be farmed out to others as I’d done on my debut LP ‘Prove You Wrong’ - I’d solo’d throughout the follow up quite capably I thought, but was of a mind to get some illustrious names to join the fun if they were willing.
First on the list was Gray himself to solo on ‘One Over The Eight’ and ‘Whatever Happened’ but I then tentatively asked Chris Buck to help out. Chris is one of the UK’s very best and most soulful blues/rock players that I have ever heard, and I felt that the slow song ‘Landscapes’ had a solo section that he could really enjoy getting his teeth into. Remarkably, he agreed to record a take for me and dutifully emailed me a solo part 2 days later to paste into the backing track I was slowly building up. It’s no exaggeration to tell you that I welled up on hearing it first time. It was utter bliss to hear it and huge for the tune and its ‘feel’.
Having got Chris on board, I was subsequently able to persuade others to join the fun. I approached Sam Wood of Wayward Sons about a solo on Pick A Side and he provided a
wonderfully Bruce Kulick-esque lead break plus some nice harmony parts into the bargain. And it wasn’t just guitar players that I enlisted. Needing some female backing vocals I went straight to my bandmate from Leather And Lace, Tanyth Roberts, to get some gorgeous harmony parts on Landscapes and she then joined in with Beth Blade and Jane Gould for some raucous ‘call and answer’ stuff on One Over The Eight. Beth also contributed some fine work on ‘Fine Time…’ whilst Jane (who sang on Second Time Around’s title track 6 years ago) helped out on a song that came out of nowhere to add to what I had already tracked.
Glenn Quinn, another Leather And Lace cohort, initially agreed to provide solos for 2 tracks ‘Massive Passive Aggressive’ and ‘Fine Time To Die’ in early September 2019, but then he mentioned a Sons Of God song we’d never played live and only existed as a pre-Danter demo with a drum machine and an indecipherable lyric, although we knew the title as ‘Teenage Bootfreaks’. Glenn had recut the song on his iMac with better effects, a slightly slower tempo and an even more realistic sounding drum machine than on the original, but he’d not added any vocals to it.
Would I, he mused, fancy recording this tune for the album, adding real drums and trying a lyric rewrite? It was a challenge for sure, but I accepted the lyric rewrite immediately and ‘Generation Z’ was born - the drums would come later.
In fact, everything would come MUCH later as the pandemic hit us all in March 2020. I did complete some rough rhythm guitar parts at home using my trusty Pod FX unit during the first lockdown and got my old pal Greg Platt Lake to provide a brilliant, wiry wah-wah solo for the song ‘I Was There’ but things generally went on the back burner for nearly a year, largely because I knew I wanted somewhere nice to record my vocals, and my spare room studio simply wouldn’t fit the bill. Plus, I knew I wouldn’t be hard enough on myself in terms of tracking those vocal parts alone to the best of my ability. It had to be better than that.
The project kicker came as 2021 developed. My talkSPORT work would eventually take me to Blackpool in July for the World Matchplay Darts over 10 days. Most of the sessions were played in the evenings at the Winter Gardens, leaving almost all the days free to do as I pleased. With no interest in sunbathing or amusement arcades, a quick internet search found me a nice looking recording studio with a Neve desk (look it up) just a 5-minute walk from my hotel! As luck would have it, the Rock Hard Music Group had some availability whilst I was by the seaside and could fit me in to record all the vocals. This was a shot in the arm - even after my 2nd Covid jab - and producer Matt Chung got some surprisingly good vocal performances out of me (in my opinion).
I almost completed all the lead and backing vocals that I wanted to do in my time there. Essentially, by the time Peter Wright was crowned World Matchplay Champion, there was only one song left that needed my vocals doing. That one song, along with a further chat with Glenn, would lead me back to South Wales, and to the recording studio that not only took on the rest of this project but duly knocked it right out of the park.
Glenn had suggested a studio not far from him in Llanelli where his band Son Of Man had worked under the guidance of producer Tim Hamill. The idea was to go in sometime in August ‘21 with Glenn’s instrumental track, strip away his drum machine part and replace it with my live drums instead. Then I would knock out the vocals for that and that one remaining song I’d run out of time for in Blackpool (‘Last Chance Wagon’ which already had a terrific guitar solo supplied by another Dizzy Lizzy pal in Tim Raybould) to complete recording on the 11 tracks. Seemed almost too straightforward to get all that done in one day. But thanks to Tim, we most certainly did do it all by close of play, and upon hearing the sounds he got whilst ruff mixing the songs we were working on, it became all too apparent that this guy was the guy to mix and master the lot.
Covid restrictions and mad working timetables meant that when Tim did start mixing in earnest, I wasn’t able to join him at the console. Instead, he would email mixes for my suggestions/approval. This was very new for me and I was a tad apprehensive about it after an experience years ago in Shotgun Wedding where I’d missed a mixing session and upon listening back to what had been done in my absence, the bass drum on my kit was practically inaudible! I’d resolved that day never to miss a mixing session ever again, but here we were, working remotely.
But this is Tim Hamill we’re talking about here - he was every bit as expert and accomplished as he’d seemed at the outset and the back and forth of emails and files led to a completed set of mixes by Christmas 2021, fully 2 and a half years after the drums had started to go down back down the M4 from Tim’s lair.
I think I’ve said before that one of my favourite parts of making an album is deciding the song order. It’s not a concept album of course, so there’s no narrative flow that suggests an obvious sequence, but I do enjoy the process of choosing the lead off track, where the slower songs go etc etc
Actually, there’s not many slow songs on ‘Rule Of Three’ - listening back to the first draft running order (I’ll change it at least 3 times before I settle on a final list) there’s a clear spikiness and attitude to these songs that seems very direct and uncomplicated to these old ears. One thing Tim has done is let the drums breathe and sound natural, unprocessed…dare I say it like a drum kit rather than a box of tricks? ‘Drum sound 101’ is everywhere you look in modern rock albums…the snare, toms and bass drum sound the same from album to album, band to band.
There was a time when you would hear a drum sound on the radio and go ‘That’s Neil Peart!’ or ‘There’s Roger Taylor!’, such was the uniqueness that countless drummers were given in the studio by producers. It’s a dying art, but guys like Tim Hamill clearly get it, and he took advantage of the excellent way my DW kit was mic’d up at Monnow Valley and let those vintage mics do the work to keep the character that I know my kit has. It gets enough compliments from sound engineers when I play live, so why strangle that sound with triggers and processors that strip away all individuality?
The other interesting thing Tim asked me to do was to re-record all of my rhythm guitar parts from scratch ‘clean’ and without any effects or overdrive. He would then feed those clean guitars through his console and via the extraordinary array of vintage amps he had at his disposal. Again, as with the drums, this led to a more aggressive yet natural sound to the parts I’d recorded and the sound of the tunes lifted again.
I can’t wait for everyone to hear these songs - usually a 3rd album by an artist is known as the ‘difficult 3rd album’. The only difficulty I found was the sheer passage of time to get stages of the album completed! But it’s there, and as with Prove You Wrong and Second Time Around, I could not be more proud of the achievement. No 4th album planned…yet…