Party in a Box – Groove Armada
Byline: Joe Silva
As winter lays into England, the daily amount of sunlight is quickly withering away. All those Hugh Grant films would have you believe that at any moment, the country would be blanketed with snow, but thanks to worldwide climate change, December now brings only days and days of miserably cold rain. “We don’t even get snow any more now,” says Groove Armada’s Tom Findlay. “That’s the downside of global warming. The white rooftops are just gone.”
But Findlay and his partner, Andy Cato, should already be used to staying indoors at this point, as the sessions for their Lovebox LP (Jive, 2003) largely took place in Cato’s cramped 10×6-foot London studio. Considering that their touring and recording posse includes nine members and that the formula for last year’s ultrasuccessful Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub) (Jive) included recording in the verdant countryside of the Cotswold, the change must have been significant.
“I think we were kind of happier,” Findlay reports. “We enjoyed making this record more than the last record because we had our friends and our families. And by not making the life compromises that we had to do by living in a cottage for nine months – you know, not playing soccer on the weekends and not seeing our wives and our girlfriends for months on end – we were just happier people making a record. You just relax a bit more and make a record, and you feel like you’ve got less to lose.”
By turning the rock ‘n’ roll cliche on its head and keeping welcome distractions close at hand, Groove Armada has turned in what is easily one of its best works yet. The singles are big, the sounds are expansive, and the record was instantly given huge accolades by the likes of Pete Tong and journalists the UK over – not bad for four weeks in a shoebox.
“Well, it kind of helped in a way,” Findlay says. “You just don’t spend six hours worrying about whether a kick drum sounds good or not; you just kind of get on with it. I think it’s another way to work. Obviously, there are some things where you think, ‘Well, it would have been nice to sit back for awhile and ruminate on it all,’ which we didn’t have time to do. But I think it’s been good to just kind of get an album done and get the touring done before I need to take some time off.”
The upcoming birth of Findlay’s first child put intentional boundaries around Lovebox. And in keeping with those constraints, Cato and Findlay kept the recording of the album fairly straightforward and, at times, decidedly loose – a drummer’s stick clicks can be heard counting off the beginning of “Madder,” and every now and again, a 4-track cassette recorder is flown into the mix. “I haven’t gotten over the x-factor of tape,” Cato says. “In terms of representing what you can do, it’s an absolute replication in terms of conversion, as far as I can hear.”
Even after flying to New York to capture the soaring vocals of Sunshine Anderson for the track “Easy,” Cato rather perversely ran Anderson’s tracks through a Tascam 4-track cassette unit that he’s had since he was 13. Moves like that might seem like heresy in the 21st-century scene, but it proves once again that almost anything is still on the table when it comes to audio.
Back in 1999, Groove Armada released its career-making album, Vertigo (Pepper) – a year after the duo’s debut, Northern Star (Tummy Touch) – which featured the watershed 1997 single “At the River.” The record was produced for the astoundingly low cost of just $8,000. It was money well spent considering that it caught the lofty ears of both Madonna and Sir Elton John. John was so enthused with the duo, in fact, that he threw a heavy glitz party for Findlay and Cato where copies of the disc were given to all of the attendees. Since then, they’ve contributed to DMC’s Back to Mine series; successfully toured with a large live ensemble that wowed American audiences and swarms of fans at Glastonbury 2000; and followed up Vertigo with the Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub) disc (which included the club fave “Superstylin'”).
Given those successes, Groove Armada’s budgets have certainly grown over time, which is keenly demonstrated by the fact that the duo tracked some of the big guitar sounds that leap off of Lovebox at the infamous (and famously pricey) Abbey Road studios.
“That was great, you know,” Findlay says enthusiastically. “We went down for a day as a kind of indulgence. We wanted to do the string sections there, and while we were there, we thought we’d lay down some of the guitars. And for the first time, we bothered to get a Marshall, a Mesa Boogie and a Vox in the same room and cut out all those modern guitar processors and multi-effects pedals – just go straight into the amp, use the overdrive and spend the time to try all three with the microphone in a different spot. And that sort of hours’ worth of attention to detail made for the best guitar sounds I’ve had by a long shot.”
Originally, much of the Groove Armada material was recorded to an older Mac running Steinberg Cubase before Cato switched to a (since stolen) Roland VS-880 digital 8-track. Now, he uses an Apple G4 in his studio that runs Emagic’s Logic Audio married to a Digidesign Pro Tools hardware rig. “It’s really easy, actually,” Cato says. “You just sort of install Pro Tools first, and in booting up, it sorts out its relationship with the hardware. After that, you just go into Logic, and once you’ve done that with Pro Tools, the DAE option shows up in Logic, and you just pick it.”
The switch, however, from being a longtime Cubase user to Logic wasn’t without at least one temporary pitfall. Cato figures that he lost somewhere near 16 hours of productivity to at least one simple editing task. “I was getting really annoyed because I couldn’t get the snap on the main Arrange page to be fine enough,” he says. “And then someone pointed out that if you hold down Control and Shift, it basically took the snap off completely. And I’m sure that it was in there somewhere, because Cubase does the same thing. But I just couldn’t find it, and predictably, despite the fact that I’d bought a brand-new copy and paid the money, I’d obviously lost the manual, being a slightly chaotic person. So I was just soldiering on, and then someone pointed it out to me.”
BREAKING DOWN THE BOX
Because the live element is now so crucial to Groove Armada’s existence, putting Lovebox together involved a slick marriage of the organic and the digital.
“Basically, the system was that we got the whole band – bass, drums and guitar – in a room and recorded them all together,” Cato says. “We used the drummer with a click track to keep them in time, and then I took that and put it in Logic. I made a few edits as the vocals developed but kept the live thing in sort of huge chunks. As the last thing, I just fed the live drums through a Sherman Filterbank, which also gives off a MIDI trigger when it receives a signal. So I got the MIDI triggers off the live kick and snare and doubled that with a fat kick and the fat snare. So you keep the live feel, but it gives you more of a 21st-century wallop.”
On the flip side of his organic persona, Cato admits to still loving the mesmerizing feel of the loop. The hypnotic vibe of “Be Careful What You Say,” with its airtight groove and sporadic bits of percussive samples thrown on top, is perhaps the clearest example of this on the new album. “That was just sort taking a few nice noises and making a one-bar loop,” Cato says. “It’s that kind of experience that just goes around and around, and some of the speech is blurred, and you end up loving it. Well, I do, anyway. Yeah, just loop that all the way.”
For the extra-fat, atmospheric bass lines that underpin “Remember,” Cato used an incredibly simple but powerful technique for the bass parts he tracked live. “That was a breakthrough moment,” he says. “When you listen to a lot of Beatles tunes and tunes of that era, you hear that huge sort of round sound. It’s that really fat but not shaking-the-boot-of-the-car sort of sound. So, obviously, that was all coming off bass guitars, and I was thinking about what can be different between what they had and what I had. I had an amp with valves in it and a decent microphone, which wasn’t sounding right. The secret for me was just switching to flatwound strings; I was playing on modern bass strings. As soon as I got flatwound strings on there, the whole thing just turned ’round. And then that sound started to emerge.”
Any extra coatings of warmth were acquired by sending the resulting bass parts to his trusty 4-track and back. But for the song’s ’60s period, “To Sir With Love” vocal tone, Cato etched out of a trusty old Roland Space Echo. “A lot of the reverb on the vocals is just off the Roland Space Echo’s spring reverb,” he says, “because I’ve never really got it with reverb. You sort of go to these big top-end studios, and they’ve all got these big Lexicon things where they’ve got the faders on the top of the mixing desk. They’re incredibly expensive reverb units, and I’ve never understood the need for that, really. I’ve got a small rackmounted [Alesis] QuadraVerb and this Roland thing. For me, since I was trying to use as little reverb was possible, I really can’t tell the difference that much. Once I got the reverb going on the Roland thing, that was it for me. It just seems to do everything you ask of it in a really sympathetic way.”
The cramped Lovebox recording quarters called for its own set of compromises. Enough room didn’t exist in-house for Findlay and Cato to physically get their ears away from the speakers and be able to really assess the bottom end of the mix. So one of the last bits of gear to be added to Cato’s setup was a decent spectrum analyzer.
“I kind of know what a good house tune should sound like,” Cato says. “It just became a really useful thing, because when you think you’ve finished [mixing] – especially at times when you’re a bit tired, and you know this has got to be the one – you just stick on a record that you know sounds great in clubs, see what it looks like and make sure you’re in the same ballpark.”
Although Cato spoke to many of the technological issues regarding the new album, Findlay will man much of that gear for Groove Armada’s late-winter, early-spring U.S. tour. Officially, Findlay will be playing the part of the studio in the group’s 2003 lineup. “I’m sort of behind things, helping the samplers tick over, monitoring what the computer is up to and checking that the effects are doing what they are supposed to,” he says.
Even with the tremendous reception that the media have already given to Lovebox, coupled with the band’s enthusiasm for the approaching live gigs, Groove Armada has reached that desirable/undesirable point in its career where a given amount of corporate hassle is necessary to keep the project aloft. At one point, the duo seemed to have reached a significant new low; however, Findlay found that this mininadir actually helped to fuel the work on the record.
“That was really kind of before the album,” he says. “It had a lot to do with politics, just dealing with our record label and dealing with this monster you create if you have any level of success. You’ve suddenly got eight to 10 people in some sections on the payroll, and it’s difficult to balance that all out. To keep everyone motivated and happy and feeling rewarded, you just get to a point where you spend more time discussing deals and massaging egos than you do in the studio. That’s sort of frustrating. It’s not the reason I got into music in the first place, and I think the album was a kind of response to that. [It was] an attempt to go into the studio and just make tunes and enjoy ourselves.”
Not only was the in-studio rebound strong enough to produce potent and radio-friendly material such as “Purple Haze,” it saw Findlay and Cato through the creation of their own label. Ragbull Records will be a singles label featuring artists that the duo handpicks. But Findlay is quite clear that Ragbull is about love, not profit.
“We don’t want to make any money out of it,” he says. “We don’t want it to be another Apple records, where it becomes an intellectual vanity project where you lose millions. We’re silent partners, so we’ve put a little bit of money up for it, and we’re contributing some music to it. At this moment, we’re just trying to get the product out there and see how it goes.”
All of this new activity leaves Groove Armada with little time for remixing, although Findlay reports that the offers are still rolling in. “I miss it, actually,” he says. “We’ve done some excellent ones in the past. It would be nice to get back into doing that. Every week, we seem to get an offer for something. But most of it seems hopelessly inappropriate. They haven’t been up-and-funky dance records, but I really wouldn’t want to do any of those, anyway. We’d like to try our hand at remixing sort of rocky stuff and giving that a bit of a makeover.”
Groove Armada’s interest in rock is clear on Lovebox. Someone hearing the fist-pumping, aggressive guitar work on “Purple Haze” would not necessarily be able to connect the artistic dots back to the smooth trombone lines of “At the River.” But that’s the point. Call it populist dance music if you like, but artists who are looking for the kind of longevity that Groove Armada is aiming for will always try and stretch past the sound that made their name, in the studio or onstage.
“Everything we’ve done, we’ve tried to push it so that if we’re making house records, we’ll try to make records that rock,” Findlay says. “And if we’re making mellow records, we try to make records that are lovely chill-out records but that still have song structures to them. In certain respects, this was one of the more confident records we’ve done. We’ve honed this live thing down. We’re pretty confident that we’ll take on any dance act in the world in the live arena. So we’re desperate to get back over [to America]. We think we can definitely turn a few heads there.”
Getting Their MIDI On
Groove Armada’s live rig – including a Fender Precision Bass Guitar, a Roland JV-1080 and a Korg MS2000 – is fairly simple and relies on the tried-and-true E-mu 6400 Ultra rather than newer samplers. “We know them inside out,” Findlay says, “so it’s at the point that if we want an effect, we know how to get it. If we’re on the road, the nice thing about this system is that we can be changing it from night to night just by programming stuff, which is easy with the E-mu. And from my point of view, you never really have problems when you’re running MIDI. The thing about software samplers is that once you start bringing in any sort of audio aspects, you bring in a bit more worry. So we’ve got an old Macintosh laptop that’s kind of tired and only runs MIDI. We run MIDI in loops, so I’ll be bringing in hi-hat parts and that sort of thing. We go around and do grooves with the band. And most of the time, that’s quite rehearsed, but there are sections that can be a bit more improvisational.”
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