Dead Slow Hoot's music is distinctive. Melodies, equal parts unusual and memorable, wind their way around colourfully off-kilter chord structures. Massive(ly) weird guitar sounds combine with a driving rhythm section. And rich vocals, reminiscent of many of the 'greats', deliver lyrics that are writ through with menace, wit and razor-sharp social commentary (they even quote The Simpsons for goodness sake). Working with the band to create this EP was a joyous process.
This is the story of how it all came together.
My first meeting with Luke (bass, vocals), Sam (drums, vocals) and Hugo (guitar, lead vocal) was in an attic bedroom in deepest darkest suburban Sheffield (on a side note, they dealt pretty well with me turning up in full on winter cycling lycra). This is where they rehearse. In full ear-shot of the neighbours and the bustling road below. Consequently, the drums have rubber mats on the skins, and the guitar and bass amps are turned down just enough so that Hugo's un-amplfied vocals can be sort of heard (but not enough so that they can actually be *definitely* heard). But then, that made sense, because so much of DSH's sound is the unique tones that Hugo wrestles from his guitar and pedal board. It was immediately evident that Sam was rock-solid on the kit and that Luke's bass-lines brought a sure foundation to the unusual harmonic changes, and, being no stranger to the odd pedal himself, a rich and varied set of colourful tones.
They played me all the songs they wanted on the record, and we chatted about each one. I put a lot of value in first impressions - whether it's something I'm writing, or something I'm hearing for the first time - and my initial instincts here were mainly structural. I felt that the melodies and individual sections of each song were there, but that some structures could be tightened up. I also felt that the band could be slightly more inventive with their arrangements and dynamics to really bring out the 'song'. We tried out a few suggestions and then I left them to work some more on the songs and really refine them before we came to record.
The last stage of pre-produciton was the recording of guide tracks for Sam to lay down his drum parts to. I like to get the whole band together in the same room for guide tracks so we capture as much of the organic live energy as possible, and so that everyone is agreed on tempos and dynamics etc. All three of them played, and I just tracked the bass, guitar and vocals, for playback during the drum session.
Recording was done in five sessions.
Session 1 - DRUMS: We tracked the drums in a large rehearsal space overlooking Sheffield United's Bramhall Lane ground (we could just about make out intermittent disembodied roars of the crowd outlining the ups and downs of Shefield United vs Wigan Athletic. Thankfully, though, none of this spilled onto the mics). Sam settled in very quickly to playing to a guide track and to a click and delivered some really great performances. I remember particularly working on the drum part of Blood Breath (mainly bringing out the really catchy, hooky bits he was playing, and tidying up the endings of each of the chorus sections), we also rearranged the second verse of You Belong to No-One (I particularly like the missing snare drum in every fourth bar), The room worked really well, and we managed to get a pretty huge sound in the end. In time-honoured tradition, we added more cowbell to Dead Slow Disco, and some disco handclaps for good measure.
While we were tracking, Luke and Hugo headed out into the surrounding rain-soaked streets armed with my trusty Zoom stereo recorder. Some of these field recordings made it onto the final album (including the conversation in "the Chinese supermarket"...).
Session 2 - BASS: After finishing the drums, we decamped back to Sounds Like Screaming and tracked all of the bass parts. Luke absolutely nailed it, and it was just a case of bringing out the dynamics, and making sure that everything sat really nicely with the drums. The bass was DI-ed for re-amping at the pre-mix stage. Before we finished, we ran a few sections through Luke's Big Muff pedal for some extra hi-frequency energy where we felt it was needed (you can hear examples of this in Blood Breath, and at the end of Keep the Ball Rolling). We also tracked Luke and Sam's backing vocals during this session.
Session 3 - GUITAR: Once I'd comped the drums and bass, there was a super-solid and dynamic foundation for Hugo to add his guitar onto. What struck me most about his guitar playing during that first attic meeting was his unique sound. I was keenly aware that this was an important session to get right. I set up a couple of mics on the amp (to give tonal blending options at the mix) and also took a DI feed *just in case*. We spent a great few hours experimenting with sounds, pedals and arrangements, aiming to create a cohesive and exciting guitar sound across the whole record. I think this is most evident on Keep the Ball Rolling, where it goes from the lightest of guitar figures at the start, to full on layers of strumming and soloing at the end - the most exciting moment musically for me is the added lower octave on the third iteration of the main riff at 02:40, matching Sam's step up in the drum part.
Session 4 - LEAD VOCALS: In many ways, this was the simplest session. Hugo knew what he wanted to achieve, I just had to be there to capture the good takes, and make the odd suggestion of dynamics and flow. We got everything down fairly quickly, doubled up vocals here and there (for example the last chorus of I Hope You Never Say A Word). On the day, Dead Slow Disco sounded fine, but once mixed, no-one was that happy with the vocal. The main issue was the melody at the end of each verse, which Hugo hadn't really completely decided on. This indecisiveness translated as a kind of hesitant run in to each chorus, so we decided to track the lead vocal again. During the second session, we spent a lot of time throwing ideas around to see if we could sort out that melody and settled on what appears on the record.
Session 5 - EXTRA BITS: Once the band had been fully tracked, I began getting all the projects ready for mixing. At this stage, there were a couple of extra bits that I was hearing that I wanted to add.
On Dead Slow Disco, I recorded myself doubling up the main guitar riff melody in the choruses to "oo"(right on the edge of my usable range at a top E!). This chorus was also spiced up in the mix with a 1/4 infinite delay capturing the last syllable of each verse.
Listening back to I Hope You Never Say a Word, I really felt as though it needed something extra in the choruses to beef it up. Something sustained and rich. I tried out a few different Hammond organ sounds and settled on the one you hear on the record, I also added to the verses with this, doubling the off beats stabs of the left hand guitar.
The band always wanted to put some kind of quote over the final loud section of Keep The Ball Rolling. And so, one day in late February, Hugo sent me an mp3 of a speech by Winston Churchill. It was the first time I'd ever worked with a world leader (dead or alive) in the studio, and was a privilege - he was the consummate professional, although even today I'm still struggling to get rid of the stench of cigar smoke.
So there you have it. A bit about how we made I Suppose They Were Better Off as Dead. I think the band have crafted a really, really great record. You can listen to the whole thing below. If I had to pick a couple of standouts, I'd go for Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea for it's unique and human take on the refugee crisis and huge chorus, and Keep The Ball Rolling for it's varied arrangement, brilliant playing, and biting vocal.