The floor lurched sickeningly as two hundred people jumped in unison. "We're definitely all going to die", I thought. The four of us had arrived late - too late, really - and now there was no chance we'd be able to manoeuvre ourselves into a position where we could actually see anything of the stage (other than the occasional glimpse of an over-sized, fruit-laden headdress, or the uppermost branches of an inflatable palm tree). But that didn't matter, this was the Launch night of Mango Rescue Team's debut album, Ritmos Calentitos, and - the building's increasingly questionable structural integrity notwithstanding - we were here for the music, not the visuals.
I'd seen MRT before, but that night at Hagglers Corner in early December 2015 was the first time where it had felt like a real band. A dynamic rhythm section of percussion, drums, keyboard, bass and guitar, played off against a formidable brass trio, Alex and Lucy's bilingual vocals alternately intertwined and fought over the din, and the whole thing drove the crowd into something approaching an actual bonafide frenzy.
Fast forward to early April 2016 and Mango Rescue Team's Commander in Chief, Alex, approaches me having just written a song in the wake of the Panama Papers Scandal. "Can we make this record in a week?", he asks. "Of course!" I say, with what I hoped came across as a nonchalant confidence.
This is how we did it. Against the clock. Against the odds. And against all that the modern super-rich hold dear.
Alex had written the song very quickly, and wanted to go down a slightly more electronic route than their first album. We spent a couple of evenings laying down some ideas over a beat I'd put together on MASCHINE. We were joined on one of the sessions by Hannah, the band's Saxophonist, and trumpeter James Atashroo of - amongst many others - K.O.G. and The Zongo Brigade. By the end of these sessions, Alex had pretty much settled on the lyric, and we had a structure that was working.
Things really began to come together when he sent me a phone recording the following day. He'd taken our demo to the band and they'd worked on it during a rehearsal and come up with a great live version driven along by Mikey's energetic drumbeat. On hearing the high energy of this live version, and the way the band played off each other, the plan changed instantly from 'electronic' to a full band production.
A track needs time to 'bed in' with a band. A few weeks/months of rehearsals and performances gives the music time and space to naturally evolve into a finished product. There's no substitute for playing a track in front of a live audience to make any flaws startlingly clear as a writer. Unfortunately, we didn't have that luxury with Tropical Tax Haven. To guide the project towards a coherent, exciting, and musical end product, I knew that most of my work would involve would be making decisions quickly on arrangements and structures and performances whilst tracking.
The live room at Sounds Like Screaming isn't really large enough to track drums (on most of my projects, I record these on location in decent rooms around the city). However, with the looming deadline at the forefront of our minds, we decided it would be most time-efficient to track them here. To overcome the room's acoustic shortcomings, I placed a microphone in the downstairs hallway with the door to the live room slightly ajar. This worked fairly well in creating some natural ambience and give the drums some size and space. The song was new to Mikey, but he'd really done his homework re: the structure. The session was mainly a case of getting him comfortable playing in the room and playing along to the click.
CLICKING INTO PLACE: I have found that there are three distinct stages that a drummer who is new to playing with a click goes through. Stage 1: timing slips alternately in front and behind the beat as the drummer gets a sense of where they're pushing and pulling the tempo. Stage 2: the drummer locks into the click, but the playing becomes rigid, uptight and mechanical as they strive to keep exactly in time. Stage 3: everything falls into place, the drummer hears the click, but it has become more of a guide than an all-encompassing ear smasher, and the drummer begins to play naturally and musically. Mikey reached stage 3 pretty rapidly, and we ended the session with two or three really energetic dynamic takes.
Once the drums were down, the band's understatedly cool Spanish bassist, Lenri, stepped up. He'd written a bass part during that rehearsal which had some incredible ideas, but to my ears, was too busy, and didn't sit that well with the drums in some parts. Most of what we did was simplifying it so that it worked nicely with the drums but still kept as many of his initial ideas as possible.
We had a lot of fun layering up Rob's percussion - congos, cowbell, woodblock, cabasa, we even brought out the big guns (the timbale) at one point (until the nitty gritty of the mix, this last addition seemed like a great idea!)
Alex's off-beat guitar was the key that unlocked the heart of the track's groove. His ever-so-slightly-rough-around-the-edges playing style gelled the whole rhythm section together. We gave the guitar as much edge as we dared from the amp, captured with two mics (and the obligatory DI *just in case*). In fact, once it came to the mix, I had to give it even more drive (re-amping the DI signal to waves GTR plugin, and then blending this in with the initial signal from the amp). I love how his dynamics work with the drums (particularly the cresendo leading from the "tropical tax haven" verse to "Mr President...").
Jack's trombone provided the foundation of the brass arrangement. He laid down a main riff full of energy and bombast, and contrasted this with off-beat verse figures of lightness and bounce. We worked in a few dynamics here and there to bring out certain parts - note the swells on the minim notes at the end of every four bars in the verse/chorus.
Hannah's tenor sax was next up. Using Jack's trombone as a template, we worked out a part that fit in harmonically and rhythmically with his. Hannah's beefy main melody drives the choruses along in the centre of the stereo field. We took three takes of the solo, and the final version is mostly take three, with a comp of take two at the end. I love the push just after beat four in the rap, where she leaps up the octave. So exciting.
James Atashroo joined us again on trumpet, and it was just a case of slotting in with the trombone and Saxophone and making sure all the harmonies worked. He's an exceptional session player, and we had his part down in double quick time.
"Some ladies will arrive at yours at 20:00. Don't be late". As text messages go, this one from Alex couldn't be ignored. In Lucy's absence, he'd brought together some of Sheffield's finest vocalists to perform backing vocals on the track. Jungle Lion's Shinny, Captives on The Carousel's Sarah, Forefathers's Siobhan, MRT's own Hannah, and Holy Robots's Ben, amongst others, all stepped through the door of Sounds Like Screaming that night. Suffice to say, it got very tropical, very quickly.
The last piece of the puzzle was Alex's lead vocal. He knew how he wanted it to sound, and once he was comfortable in the booth - and had wet his vocal chords with a half-bottle of red wine - he delivered some great takes. His idiosyncratic half-spanish/half-english-with-a-spanish-accent delivery gives a really distinctive twist to the Mangos' music. It's unmistakably them from the moment he whispers, "in the jungles of the Panamaaaaaaa..."* We had all sorts of fun layering up extra 'hype' vocals over the rap (see project screen below). Once we'd got the main vocal down, I set the track running and asked Alex, who was by this point swerving wildly in and out of traffic on the ring road of semi-inebriation town centre, to do some ad lib vocalisations. With a splash of automated delay, and a touch of tube drive, a few well chosen excerpts of these add an extra layer of energy behind the main brass riff.
So there you have it, driven by Alex's writing and supreme organisational skills (making sure that all of the musicians were in the right places at the right times was no small feat!), by the band's great musicianship and creativity in the studio, and by Dave, MRT's keyboardist and vastly experienced in-house sound engineer, we took a rough demo of a promising song, through to a complete production in (just over) a week. I hope you enjoy it!
*On a side note, Alex had to google whether or not panama had jungles and whether or not it had beaches - always good to fact-check before releasing a song/video!