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early

bindlestiff

1993

pureambient

Dave Stafford, August 2010:  As the Dozey Lumps pretty much ceased operations in late 1992, both Bryan and myself began expressing a wish to do several things that we could not do within the Crafty/acoustic duo format of the Lumps, something very different began to happen.  Namely, playing electric and electronic instruments, but more specifically, creating ambient work, and especially “looped” material.

 

We were both very interested in looping, and as the Dozey Lumps gradually came to a graceful conclusion, Bindlestiff began it’s long ascent, eventually becoming the best band I’ve ever had the honour to be in, a band that could intuitively create utterly improvised, looped, ambient and active content with almost no verbal discussion or planning.  We just plugged in, started playing – and the music you hear on these seven records came out.

 

But that’s what came later, in 1994 and 1995.  Back in late 1992/early 1993, we had just begun to make our first, tentative, experimental recordings.  Later, these were compiled into what became “Early”.

 

This album is another one of those records, like the Dozey Lumps debut album, that was never, ever meant to be an album.  We used old, used, tired or recycled reels of tape of a very motley nature – in some cases, with splices in them that damaged recordings we made (luckily, these could be “repaired” later in the digital environment).

 

But at this point, in 1992/1993, the very first Bindlestiff recordings were made on tired reels on either TEAC 4-Track or TEAC 2-Track machines, using very primitive looping devices – I had four seconds of loop in my Digitech, Bryan had a luxurious 16 seconds in his Electro-Harmonix delay.  

 

Most of the pieces here are utterly unique, one-offs, that the band never played live, or in fact performed again, with the single exception of “A Chink In The Armor” – which gradually, as time wore on, became a live performance staple, being played at almost every Bindlestiff concert during the period 1993 – 1995.  The rest of the pieces, are experiments – some of them strange, some humorous, some of them beautiful beyond words.

 

I would say that the earliest pieces represented here are probably “Ariel Adrift”, and “…If Nothing Else” – the quietest pieces.  The more active works appeared later on.

 

In the former, Bryan’s lovely, deliberate, clockwork/chiming acoustic guitar is pretty much the one remnant of the acoustic guitar/Dozey Lumps style that made it’s way into this new band and this new sound.  There is also some Crafty acoustic guitar in the introduction of “More Earth Than Sea”.

 

Beyond that, we began working primarily with synthesizers, drum machine, and energy bow guitar – many tracks having that specific configuration, which could be said then to be the “standard” configuration of Bindlestiff – Bryan, live looping drum machine and synthesizer, myself, live looping energy bow or normal lead electric guitar.  That probably is, to be fair, the standard set up on at least 75 - 80% of all tracks we recorded over a five-year period.  

 

Of course, for specific tracks, we would and often did play in several other special configurations, although “Early” probably has the most variety in terms of unusual instrumentation such as African drums or real percussion.  These would become rarer later on.

 

A second “standard” configuration would have been Bryan, live looping drum machine and synthesizer, myself, live looping energy bow or normal lead electric guitar, alternating with live/looping synthesizer as well.  A couple of tracks on later albums were also done with a pure “two synths” approach – Bryan, live looping synthesizer and myself, live looping synthesizer.  Occasionally.

 

Tracks such as “…If Nothing Else” are simply ambient music at it’s very, very best.  Lovely, direct, quiet, meditative – music that I feel I could listen to forever. I’ve always thought that this is one of the very finest of ALL Bindlestiff tracks, perhaps for the very reason that it WAS a one-off, and there is no other track like it anywhere.

 

 

MORE EARTH THAN SEA

 

At the time these tracks were recorded, I lived in a third floor apartment, and Bryan lived two minutes walk away in another apartment, and we recorded at my apartment, where I had a tiny home studio in one of the bedrooms.  Now most of the time, this was no problem; as we worked with headphones, obviously, with the synthesizers, drum machines and guitars all going “direct”.  No noise to annoy neighbours.

 

However, for some tracks, we brought on the full wrath of the downstairs neighbours, but always, amazingly, getting away with it just by the time we had a good take.  So we would make furious amounts of loud noise, then cleverly go silent before the complainers arrived at the door!

 

I remember it was a Sunday morning and we were working on “More Earth Than Sea”, which has two or three different takes of African drums on it.  The drums were on the floor, miked-up, and Bryan and I were sat on the floor playing them live, together, to create the basic track.

 

We did a couple takes, and then stopped.  No complaints.  Then we went to work on the end section, doing a more boisterous drum part.  Got the take very quickly – back to silence.

 

Bryan went home as the session was over.  A few minutes later, the self appointed building monitor arrived at my door, where I expressed bemusement, I could demonstrate that I wasn’t doing anything that was making noise – did she hear anything? I had NO idea what it could be!!!  

 

This scenario played out on more than one Sunday, whenever we had to use microphones or record live in the room.  Each time, by the time the Noise Police arrived – my apartment was empty and silent.  I still to this day chuckle about this, it brings a smile to remember how innocently I acted, when five minutes earlier, a mad African drum duet was in full swing in the studio at full volume.  Good times.

 

All fun aside though, I feel that “More Earth Than Sea” is a breakthrough work in more than one way, as well as incorporating live African drums, it also has a lovely tempo change at the end, and a fantastic, single chime for an ending – the purest sound, that I spent ages getting just right, and making sure it had the perfect, long fade into silence.  Again, this is a very unique track, there is no other track like it anywhere, and it’s one of my very favourites – and obviously, we both felt it was good, as we chose it to lead off the record.

 

 

STOLEN MOPED

 

Next comes “Stolen Moped” which was simply one of the strangest recording sessions I’ve ever been involved in.  I was using my beautiful Digitech 4 second delay, and I had found that if I captured a bit of guitar at a longer time setting, then slowed it down to a very short duration, that I could get this amazing “moped” sound, and by moving the potentiometer up and down, I could “rev up” and “accelerate”.

 

If I am not mistaken, we set this up so we could capture it live.  I built a sequence into my toy synthesizer (a tiny Yamaha with keys so small you can barely play them – but, the only hardware sequencer I have ever owned) that I could trigger on demand, meanwhile, Bryan had created a sort of “police siren” loop sound on his synthesizer, along with I believe some other looped content - which he brought in and out of the mix…using the siren sound as if it were “in pursuit” of the moped.  I played strange lead guitar in between my goofy sounding synthesizer sequence, and manipulated the moped as the track was being recorded – so I played “live” moped and Bryan played live “police siren”.  I think.

 

Once we were ready, we just hit “record”, and I MANUALLY adjusted the “moped” throughout the take, triggering the synthesizer sequence when it was required, and Bryan somehow played or looped along with his “siren loop” and whatever else bits he had going.  That was the take.  

 

I am pretty sure it was take one, because I only remember “driving” the potentiometer once.  We were laughing so hard at this moped sound (which was, after all, a sampled GUITAR!) and the silliness of the song, but it’s actually a very unique and unusual piece, with its bizarre alien noises, and siren/moped chase going on.  While it is intended to be humorous, it’s also a nice little piece of music – with live guitar/”mopeds” to boot.

 

A lot of fun to make, and I still enjoy hearing it now.  Bryan actually made up some quasi-lyrics for it, which he would “recite” out loud while the track was playing, in a mock Italian accent, the idea being that this was the tale of a moped stolen off the streets of Rome, with the outraged Italian owner trying to get it back.

 

Luckily, no versions with any “vocals” or narrative were ever recorded, so that piece of Bindlestiff history is lost for good.  Which is probably for the best.

 

 

CARTESIAN DUALISM

 

“Cartesian Dualism” was another of the earliest pieces we recorded, and I believe this might be the first example of a piece upon we BOTH played keyboards.  I can recall almost nothing about the process of recording this piece, but I will say outright that I love its creepy, eerie dissonance…it begins with an unparalleled air of mystery, and then ramps away into strange musical plateaus of pitch shifted strangeness...

 

At this point in my life, I wasn’t terrifically comfortable with dissonance, or pitch shifting gradually up or down, and it was Bryan’s influence here, since he had the 16-second Electro-Harmonix delay, he was accustomed to manipulating time.  

 

As time went on, I did eventually become more comfortable with dissonance and grew more used to truly warping sound – but this is an excellent first example of the more dissonant side of Bindlestiff, and Bryan gets the credit here, for having no fear of dissonance as I did.

 

My 4 second Digitech could not pitch shift in quite the way the 16-second Electro-Harmonix delay could, and I would say that Bryan’s “long” delay played a huge part in the sound of “Early”.  On this track in particularly, which just drifts all over the pitch map, it’s clearly in evidence.

 

 

DOS VEDANYA, TANYA

 

This is another utterly unique piece in the Bindlestiff canon, there is nothing like anywhere else.  It’s the polar opposite of “Cartesian Dualism” – on the surface, a piece of innocuous guitar jazz.  But with Bryan playing this amazing chord sequence, using the 16-second delay to “fritz” the ends of his chords so, so beautifully – this provided an amazing backdrop for what was actually my first EVER attempt to play jazz.

 

Having played in old standard tuning for 17 years, and then moving to new standard tuning in 1989 with the advent of attending Guitar Craft for the first time (see the entry for “One Lump Or Two?” by The Dozey Lumps), at this point I had achieved some mastery of the new tuning – and I had found, much to my surprise, that while in the old tuning I never could play jazz – suddenly, in the new…I could.

 

The new tuning allowed me to become (temporarily, at least) a jazz guitarist.

 

I used this new-found skill sparingly – perhaps four or five times in the Bindlestiff catalogue, over a three year plus period, do I play in a “jazz” style.  

 

The way “Dos Vedanya, Tanya” (my bad pun of a title I am afraid!) was created, was, I believe, Bryan laid down his track first, when we had a take that we liked (probably take one, but not sure),

 

I then overdubbed my jazz lead guitar a few days later.  I had to actually rehearse, because I was unused to playing in this style, but I spent a few days, working and working with the amazing backing (an absolutely beautiful track in it’s own right) until I got something I could live with.  However, I am relatively certain that the solo is a “one take” – it may not be take one, but it’s not pieced-together – that’s what I played on the day.

 

I wanted to express sadness, a sense of “farewell”, and I believe I almost succeeded, and considering that it’s the first time EVER, in 19 years of playing guitar at that point, that I had ever tried to play jazz, I believe I acquitted myself well enough in this instance.

 

 

A CHINK IN THE ARMOR

 

Now unto “A Chink In The Armor” – well, this was the piece that really caused us to mutate from a sort of experimental/studio unit into a real, looping, live band.  This was really Bryan’s track, it astonished me, because if you listen, he just hits a chord, starts it looping, drops in some individual notes, starts them looping, hits the drum machine, starts IT looping...and within seconds an entire backing track is “playing” – astonishing!  We are both then free to improvise on top of this very complete-sounding backing.  

 

So I tried to develop some energy bow guitar lines that would compliment the keyboard part, and I began a short loop (still being limited to just four seconds of loop) at the beginning of the track, which I could then leave running, or alter, or stop at any time during the piece – as soon as that loop was running, I could then “solo” with the ebow, sometimes sampling or looping bits of the solos, merging those in with the original sample.

 

Perhaps at the end, I would re-establish the basic ebow melody to bring us full circle.  I would alternate between ebow solos with a lot of reverb, to relatively dry almost bluesy lead guitar parts, then back to reverb ebow, and so on, there really were no firm rules except for how the beginning went (and even that varied wildly in practice).  A lovely and very flexible, very forgiving piece of music, and a lot of fun to play.

 

Meanwhile, Bryan would add in, perhaps, a single “bashed” drum beat, or play the coolest organ riffs in the world, improvising and building on the basic loop – and then, in this version, the track fades completely into these absolutely magical notes on the synth.  That is unique to this version – no other version featured that particular ending.  “A Chink In The Armor” was like a blank canvas for us both, where we could improvise freely, and it was a joy to play no matter what happened.

 

This piece perhaps more than any other in our repertoire, was performed in a wide variety of ways, always different, always a surprise – anything could, and often did, happen when we played this piece.

 

At one live show, with Bill Forth on guest guitar, we ended up playing “A Chink In The Armor” for almost half an hour, because the ebow player got caught up in the piece, and didn’t realise that band had been trying to end it for about ten minutes!

 

Anything could, and did, happen, when we set out to play “A Chink In The Armor”.

 

In this, the “studio” version, one alteration has been made.  This is basically a live track, just the two of us, with absolutely no overdubs.  However, when I went to produce the album, I was very unhappy with one of the guitar solos, so since I was in the digital realm to edit, I was able to “fix” it, by taking the ENTIRE SOLO, and reversing it – so the piece is still 100% live, there are no overdubs, that’s the real solo I played on the original four track master – except that one solo has been turned backwards.  It sounds much better that way – trust me.  That’s probably the only post-production manipulation that was done, barring the unavoidable repairs to “Ariel Adrift” described elsewhere.

 

 

PARADE REST

 

“Parade Rest” was basically an incomplete piece that we built up in the studio – it started with Bryan’s lovely military drum pattern, for a long time, it was just this drum track that we didn’t know what to do with…and then, later, many short loops were layered on, by both Bryan on synths and bass synths, and myself, doing some very short, rhythmic ebow loops, perhaps a second or two long, that merge with the looped synths, to create a somewhat busy but also very textural and lush background.

 

Then, on top of this backing, I play energy bow guitar very much in the style of Bill Nelson, actively soloing, but into a fairly large reverb so also strangely ambient.  I love this ebow sound; some very long, long notes and they just dissolve into that amazing 24 bit reverb (another Digitech, the TSR-24S, a beautiful piece of kit).

 

With a four second delay and a modest 24 bit reverb, I was set to conquer the world and become the best ebow/reverb/looping/energybowist ever.  It was really on this record that this playing style began to emerge – Bindlestiff gave me the vehicle I’d always needed, Bryan would create the most amazing backing tracks upon which I could then just create, trying to get the most beautiful, heartbreaking sound that I could wrench from that little electromagnet and my beautiful reverb unit.

 

Sometimes, it succeeded.

 

I love the mood of this piece, it’s somehow cheerful, it’s certainly NOT ambient, it’s quite busy, quite active, but the ebow solos are quite nice, and I think the whole thing evokes a certain mood – again, unlike ANY other piece in our entire canon, as so many of the pieces on “Early” are.

 

 

GREGORIAN STATION

 

I think that this track was my idea, it was built up on the TEAC 4-Track, and it’s a reflection of the state of the art in 1993.  CDs were new, and sampling and looping were pretty new too.

 

I had this idea – I won’t say which ones, but I had a couple of CDs that I thought we could do something interesting with, capture some short samples of sound, and then use Bryan’s delay to alter them in a very specific manner.

 

The plan was, we would loop the sound of women singing, dump them into a massive reverb on my Digitech DSP-128 called “Train Station” and then using Bryan’s Electro-Harmonix 16-second delay, LOWER the pitch of the women’s voices until they sounded like men.

 

Then, on another track, we sampled men signing, Gregorian chants to be exact, and raised the pitch of their voices to sound more like women.  Only that didn’t sound so good, so we just raised them a little bit.

 

That was perhaps less successful than what we managed with the women’s voices, but we blended the whole thing together, lots of reverb, lots of lovely rhythmic collisions thanks to the altered voices – and by merging the idea of the source material “Gregorian Chants” with the reverb they were dropped into, “Train Station” – hence was born “Gregorian Station”.

 

I actually very much enjoy this despite it being less than technically successful – we were trying to use this new idea of sampling from CDs, one of the few times we did not play the instruments ourselves, although I believe there may well be some Bryan Helm synths or synth basses buried in this track somewhere along with all the manipulated vocals.

 

An interesting and very moody piece of music.

 

 

ARIEL ADRIFT

 

Ariel Adrift, as mentioned above, was one of the very, very first pieces we did.  It ended up on a tape that had a couple of splices in it, so for a number of years, it had to be truncated and faded whenever it was printed to a copy of “Early”.

 

Then, as I gradually moved from the world of tape recorders to the world of digital, I was later able to repair this tape-related disaster, I was able to mix the two halves together seamlessly (this also occurred on “Pacific Gravity” from the “Live” album, when the tape was turned over during the performance) so at last, we have the full length, fully restored version of “Ariel Adrift”.

 

This piece had a complex genesis, it was meant to be about certain musical “events”, I was at that time obsessed by the idea of events…so Bryan had a synth loop with big spaces in it, that repeated endlessly, over which I played a lot of very determined energy bow guitar – but then Bryan laid down the amazing acoustic guitar that really “makes” this track.  A beautiful chord progression, each chord “landing” at a particular moment, and it just glues the whole impossible idea together so, so beautifully.

 

I love this piece and I was heartbroken to find it was damaged, cut in two inadvertently by a splice in the tape, but was overjoyed that I could later restore it, thanks to digital technology, to it’s original intended full glory.

 

This, and the final track, are possibly two of the most remarkable pieces of music I’ve ever had the pleasure to be part of.  The name of the piece, I believe it was originally meant to be called “Adrift” but then the name “Ariel” came up in discussion, and suddenly, it became “Ariel Adrift” – the idea being, of a newly-born child, set adrift in a strange and wonderful universe.

 

I think the deliberate, beautiful, patient acoustic guitars, coupled with the busy yet lovely energy bows, along with Bryan’s amazing synth loops and occasional other “events”, just make for one of the most fascinating pieces of semi-ambient music ever made.

 

There is an interesting moment in the song at 1:56, where, while we were making the take, I reached over and DELIBERATELY hit my reverb unit with my fist (gently, of course!) and it makes this amazing CRASH sound, right on the beat (as they will) – and we never planned it, I heard this silence coming and I just suddenly thought, I should make a crash here…and there it was.  Right on the beat, we both just kept on playing as if nothing had happened.

 

I think it’s events like that, that you could NEVER plan, that just spontaneously occur during a live performance, that’s where the magic begins, and for me, “Ariel Adrift” is one of those magical pieces of music.

 

 

...IF NOTHING ELSE

 

And to bring “Early” to a beautiful, quiet, introspective, close, what better than to save the best for last, “…If Nothing Else” - this piece, I just have no idea how we did it, I wish I could remember, all I can say, is when I listen to it – I am GLAD that we did it.

 

I believe that this is mostly, possibly ALL Bryan, I can hear very little or possibly none of myself – I really cannot.  I remember working on it, but I don’t remember if I played any actual instruments. I would have been the engineer, and probably Bryan and I just constructed this loop via mutual discussion.

 

In this piece, it’s the…pace, and the strange hesitancy, of the loop, that make it so, so magical.  And the fading of the various tiny bits of sound that make up the loop – just stick in the brain, this is a piece that I believe rivals pieces such as “Thursday Afternoon” or “Neroli” or “Music For Airports” by Brian Eno, for the simple reason alone that it has the most amazing mood, a mood that takes you with it, that sweeps you away and holds you in it’s sway until the very end.  I really do wish that I had a 70-minute version of this song, because I would be quite happy to put myself under its spell for that long, or longer.

 

“Early” is a collection of unrelated pieces, not meant to be an album, not intended, not planned, yet, when listened to now, from the perspective of 2010, 17 years after it was made – seems to me, almost utterly timeless.  “…If Nothing Else” capping a remarkable, diverse and very strange selection of ambient and other early looped works.

 

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

“Early” provides the grounding, the basics, the starting point – of which strangely, only “A Chink In The Armor” then moved forward through the years and became part of almost every live performance the band ever did, while the other tracks remain here, in this remarkable musical document, timeless, introspective … quiet.

 

The album is basically sequenced to begin with the most active piece, and then gradually become more and more and more ambient, until by the end, you are utterly transported by the undeniable beauty of the last two tracks.

 

I feel that this strategy at least, worked extremely well.  “Early” is an amazing, unique musical document, of which I am inordinately proud.

 

It was an honour to participate in, and to co-create with my partner Bryan Helm.  We were so determined, so serious, but also so joyful in what we did, and, you can hear that in this record.

 

 

 

Please see the entry for “live” to read what happens next.

notes from the guitarist’s seat:

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