Nick Stephenson Music – The History of Dream Logic
On the verge of recording my second album (the first with my new band ‘Nick and the Sun Machine’) it seems appropriate to look back on how and why my debut was made and all the talented people that made it happen…
Introducing Bill Johnson
I remember quite vividly standing in The Boot pub in St Albans one night toward the end of 2007 and casually chatting to Bill Johnson about music. Nothing out of the ordinary, except this time I expressed a need to do something with my life! Something of relevance that people would remember. I wasn’t sure how to go about this as I felt that money was a limiting factor (as it so often is). What I needed was a proper album that would represent me better than any of the homemade E.P’s and the Live recordings I’d been churning out since I started recording music. Bill came up with the idea of recording a full album and also offered up his services.
His first suggestion was for me to put together a compilation CD of the music that inspired me in terms of texture and aesthetic. Then Bill (as producer) would have a clearer idea of what we would be aiming for in terms of sound and style. The CD contained many things that I thought might challenge us in some way – I was very into the notion of making the record sound futuristic and atmospheric. One inclusion that sticks out in my mind was ‘Spiders (Kidsmoke)’ by American band WILCO. An almost ‘Germanic’ tour-de-force of abstract lyricism and distorted guitar. I thought ‘Ha! We could never make something like this!’ But I wanted to see how far I could push it. I went over to Bill’s house and laid down a guitar track to a simple robotic drumbeat for an old song called ‘Fool in a Fiery Sky’. A bit of history: I wrote this at school in 2001 and had previously tried it with a cello on an earlier demo. Listening to this demo now, it sounds harmless enough, with some nice touches from Carol Lodge (Bill’s friend who’d just dropped round that day with the instrument on her back) the recording suggests Nick Drake but has little spark or confidence to speak of.
So I left our first session of 2008 not really knowing what to expect from Bill. I came back a few days later to hear what he had done and was impressed. Somehow, he had managed to transform this innocent little song into something longer, moodier and darker, replete with the Krautrock inflections I had admired in the Wilco track. It was rough around the edges but the song had an instant, hypnotic feel and made for a very engaging listen. The start of a long, exciting and often painful journey had begun.
Introducing Justin French
We used this track and three other demos as a launch pad for the first of three E.P’s (Every Small Movement) that would lead up to the albums eventual release in December 2010.Bill’s home studio was fine for making acoustic recordings and experimenting with ideas. In fact, his acute musical ear meant that he had become very good at making things sound great with the small amount of equipment that he had at the time. But we both realized we needed a bigger studio to make this more than an acoustic album, especially if we wanted drums and a wider range of effects.This is where my good friend Justin French came in, who had his own studio space, ‘Sleepless Studios’ in his basement. At the time he was starting out just like me so we agreed on an affordable price and got to work. The idea was to get the demos flowing and most of our ideas clear before we entered Justin’s creative ‘cave’ to record things properly. That plan would prove hard to stick to, especially as all three of us (at times) wanted to be the producer! We all had strong ideas and there were disagreements, but more on that later.
Introducing Michael Wigram
I was living with Michael Wigram in 2008, my very good friend since school and collaborator as of 2007. His contribution to this project became absolutely essential to the overall feel of the record, even though he was on just three of the final tracks. Mike is still is a highly regarded classical cellist (recently he performed the music of ‘Fantasia’ at the Royal Albert Hall) Writing music was very new to him at the time so this side of our relationship started slowly (and sometimes painfully) until we had worked out our first song together, the melodic ‘Forest Song’.This was followed by ‘Mountain’, ‘Shinning Trees’, which didn’t make the final cut and what was to become Dream Logic’s opening track, ‘Better than any drug’.
Having Michael there on the sessions was a lovely experience. I think we had maybe three sessions with him, some candle lit, all at funny times because he was very busy, but all were highly rewarding. Justin managed to get a wonderful sound from Mike’s cello (ever the perfectionist – Justin would probably disagree and say he could do it better) particularly on ‘Forest Song’. We later added piano, bass and keyboard to this track and it began to take shape. I have always felt (and felt back then) that the synth needed to be LOUDER on this recording. I wanted it to swallow everything whole when it emerges at the end. It just sounded so huge when we tried it. But Bill and Justin disagreed and the subtlety was maintained. Right or wrong, they got their way in the end! I’m still happy with the end result, but one day there will be a mix with louder synth!
‘Mountain’ came to life when Bill added a twelve string to the mix; it just thickened it out beautifully. This was a song that we struggled with until the right ‘extra texture’ came along. It took ages to find something that worked but was worth it in the end. People seem to react very strongly to this song, which I’m very proud of.
‘Happy Alone’ (leading track on the second E.P ‘I Heard the Quiet’) was another labour of love. One day, Simon Hadwin (drummer) and I had been trying for a good hour to nail a decent take. It was getting frustrating but on the very last one, I decided to dramatically change a few vocal ideas at Bill’s suggestion. This involved approaching it softly at the beginning and letting it grow in intensity throughout. It worked! The last take was the one we used. We added instruments and textures left right and centre meaning that it ended up being the track on the album that took the longest. It must have taken months (with breaks in between sessions) to get it right. Add to that the ‘latency’ problems we were having with Justin’s computer and with ‘Logic’, the program we were using. I should have called the album ‘Day Dream Logic’ at the rate it was being recorded! BUT things had to sound right. Listening back, I feel that ‘Happy Alone’ is one of the weaker recordings on the album. Some will disagree of course. But it was a HUGE learning curve and by mid 2009, further incentive to get our arses into gear!
The Pool Studio
A fantastic opportunity came along in August 2009 when Justin won a free day of recording at The Pool in London, a studio previously used by the likes of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and the Arctic Monkeys. Here we laid down guitar and vocals for ‘100 years of Frost’, ‘Poor little Boy’ and ‘Time Planets’ giving us most of the albums second half. The session was a thrilling experience, with my friend and collaborator Katie Masson adding backing vocals to ‘Poor Little Boy’ and recording some of her own material.
We recorded three cover versions in this session including ‘Jesus Etc.’ by Wilco, ‘Hounds of Love’ by Kate Bush and ‘Farewell, Farewell’ by Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention. The results were spread over the final E.P (Dream logic E.P) with Poor Little Boy as the leading track. Later that day, my band mate Joe Brooks from ‘Ground Dust’ (the group I was in at the time) would lay down some great guitar licks for ‘Innocent Dream’ and ‘Poor Little Boy’. He has always been unhappy with his playing on these recordings but I personally like what he added and both tracks have a great feel about them, Poor Little Boy being one of the standout recordings on the album. This had a lot to do with some tight and simple playing from Simon (a pop beat as opposed to a jazz shuffle) and some dreamy keyboard sounds from Bill.
Black and white movie
The biggest disagreement came with the inclusion of ‘Black and White Movie’, which, if it hadn’t been for Bill’s relentless stubbornness, would not have made the final cut. I’m glad he persisted. The fact was, I was SICK of recording it and hearing it on everything I released. It was on most Ground Dust CDs (!) and had been done to death as far as I was concerned. So a different approach was needed. Bill experimented with drum machines at home. At the start it sounded promising but then seemed to lose it’s way. Bill’s drum machine was old and sounded dated. So we tried to put normal drums over the top, it kind of worked but then Bill wasn’t happy. Rightly so, if I listened back to those demos I’m sure they would sound like shit! So, Justin and I hated Bill’s drum machine sounds and Bill hated our idea of recording drums over his drum machine sounds! HA! The song got shelved for quite a while. We weren’t really communicating around this time and as a result the project was in hiatus. After all our hard work, ‘Dream Logic’ nearly didn’t happen. I sat down and had a very frank discussion with Bill over this matter one afternoon at the very pub it had all started in, The Boot. It was a tough conversation because eventually, I had to swallow my pride and give it another go, something I was quite against at the time.
Bill felt things were going ‘ok’ but he was not convinced it would be a complete album without this song. So I told him exactly what I did and didn’t want, he asked me to trust him and the journey started up again. Bill emerged one day with a little something he’d laboured over at home. This was after constantly being moaned at by Justin and I to ditch the drum machine in favor of more ‘modern’ textures. The next surprise came when what he played us not only worked, it fucking well GROOVED! Thank god! Just by simplifying what was already there, Bill had managed what we’d all thought impossible and made his drum machine sound REAL by mixing it in a certain way. This was a clever and inspired move resulting in things getting back on track and the song getting the treatment it deserved, overlapping harmonies and all!
Dream Logic is complete!
‘Midnight Movements’ is vocally strong with a nice subtle arrangement from the band, particularly Joe’s beautifully simple, chiming guitar and Simon’s understated drum patterns. ‘Mine’s a simple mind’ was an effective and atmospheric closer with some nice trumpet from local Green Party councillor, Simon Grover. The song has an interesting feel with its militant ‘last stand’ type drums and is an appropriate closer for the album. The session was typical because on one hand you had me wanting madness from Simon, asking him to ‘play some crazy, Avant-guard shit!’ and then you had the voice of reason in Bill. So somehow we met in the middle. Editing seemed to take the longest on this song.
On reflection, I prefer the more chaotic, experimental ‘Ground Dust’ version, but we didn’t want to repeat our selves at the time. Bill’s concept was partly based on one of the recordings I gave him at the start of the project. This was Bon Iver’s ‘For Emma, forever ago’ with its wonderfully touching trumpet at the end of his song. In de-coding my vague idea, Bill had come up with something unique and moving.
So it was our baby for three years and when it was released, we were sick of hearing it! Jon Astley (who had worked with the likes of The Who and David Bowie) did a fantastic mastering job on the album. The name of the record and its amazing art (by Samantha Davey) was inspired by childhood innocence, dreams and the subconscious (I was very into the films of David Lynch at the time) I wanted it to be a celebration of these things. I’ve always been a daydreamer and I over think stuff. Sometimes this achieves things very slowly. But what a trip it can be!
Photos by Gosia Morozinska