Piano Magic Diaries : Writers Without Homes

Writers Without Homes, 2021. Redesign by Martin Andersen/Andersen M Studio

“These new songs aren’t very good,” John Rivers, our producer tells me after breakfast, long before the rest of the band have stirred.  Miraculously, it’s the first time I’ve heard those words and thus, in my naivety, I take great umbrage. 

We are perhaps four tracks into our first proper album for, arguably, our dream label, 4AD, at River’s Woodbine St residential recording studio in Leamington Spa.  My idols, Felt and Dead Can Dance had recorded there with John.  ‘Ghost Town’ was recorded there, for fuck’s sake but I am suddenly feeling decidedly unspecial.   

A dark cloud comes over the band as they descend from the upstairs living space when I relay John’s comment to them.  Miguel, in particular, is livid. There are no other songs and we’re on the clock; no time to write more (although, true, our ‘Artists’ Rifles’ album, only 2 years earlier, had been improvised and recorded here in just 5 days). 

A few hours later, as scheduled, our A&R guys, Chris Sharp and Ed Horrox from 4AD, arrive after a long drive from London to hear what we’ve been upto.  They walk directly into the storm. The atmosphere between us and John can be cut with a proverbial knife and when he plays back a rough mix of ‘The Season Is Long’ through a thick fog of flanger, we are not just horrified but bordering on violence.  Miguel and I take Chris and Ed aside and tell them it just isn’t working, that we need to sack John. 

I’ve always wondered about what’s going through the heads of sound engineers when they don’t actually like the band they’re recording.  Should they just bite their tongues and get on with it, regardless?  They’re being paid afterall.  Isn’t all money, money?  In hindsight, John may well have had a point.  It’s all very well wanting to make an album but what if you don’t actually have any decent songs?  Even so, from experience, I’ve learnt that songwriters themselves are perhaps not always the best judge of whether a song is good or bad.  The listener is.  I’ve lost count of the times fans have told me that some of my worst songs mean the world to them, whilst what I’ve regarded as the best have developed a thick layer of dust in the corner.

Piano Magic circa 2001/2002. L-R : Glen Johnson, Miguel Marin, Alasdair Steer, Jerome Tcherneyan. Photo : Andy Willsher

It seems like an age passes before the master tapes finally turn up from Woodbine.  Long enough for new songs to have been written but our mojo is still flagging.  Desperately, we book into The Fortress, a huge, industrial recording/rehearsal complex a stone’s throw from Old Street tube station.  Little do we know, this will become our home-from-home for the next three years.  

In the can already, ‘Postal,’ ‘It’s The Same Dream That Lasts All Night,’ ‘Shot Through The Fog’ and at least the music for ‘The Season Is Long.’  I ask Simon Raymonde, who has already improvised beautiful piano on two of those tracks, if he knows of any suitable singers for ‘The Season Is Long.’  It just so happens that he does.  The Czars, a band on his Bella Union label, are coming into the UK from the States to tour their new ‘The Ugly People vs The Beautiful People’ album.  If I’m honest, I find the record itself lacking luster but there’s no doubting the pipes on their singer, John Grant. 

I like John immediately.  A viking of man, he’s not only affable and easy-going but we share a lot of the same musical tastes (most notably Cabaret Voltaire, whose influence clearly shows up on his Pale Green Ghosts album, over a decade later).  The whole band sit with our new engineer, Robinson Percy Hughes, (a dead ringer for Shaggy from Scooby Doo), in the mixing room and eagerly wait for John, who we can see through the dark glass, to open his mouth in the vocal booth. 

Hairs stand on end.  Smiles are cracked.  He has the larynx of an ox.  I can’t quite believe it. Six albums in, we have finally found our first great male singer.

There’s a take in the bag within minutes and where the chorus was to be merely instrumental, John suggests adding a few words.  At this point, I am willing for him to add kazoo should he wish.  And there it comes, that step by step ascent, “Don’t you ever think that you might….” and then, like a wave slowly breaking, “….love me?” 

Outside, somewhat embarrassed, I press a mere (though agreed) two hundred quid into his hand.  He, however, is grateful (at the time he is still moonlighting as a waiter in Denver) and happy that we are happy.  We shall meet again. 

We are back on track.  Further dates are booked at The Fortress, this time with another in-house engineer, Gareth Parton, at the mixing desk that’s literally held together with paperclips.  With Gareth, we find an even better glove for our hand.  ‘(Music Won’t Save You From Anything But) Silence,’ would be a difficult capture for any engineer, particularly as the band plays it live, in separate rooms, leading off the control room, making eye contact impossible.  But the Woodbine experience has made us not just more determined but defiant.  We must make it work.

Gareth recorded just one more track with us during these sessions, ‘Already Ghosts,’ my brooding autobiography of touring Spain with a broken heart. 

“In travel, there are traps, when I’m writing in the back, beneath the rain, between the maps…My diary bears this out but my memory has it wrong, I loved you when you loved me and then we were done…” 

Paul Anderson of Tram, who we’d often bump into touring the same Spanish festivals and London venues, took the lead vocal.  His voice, the perfect balance of woe and loss, was tailor-cut for Piano Magic. Paul also sang on the album’s title track, ‘Writers Without Homes,’ a song eventually rejected by 4AD, as were two or three others, including ‘The 17th Time’ with Darren Hayman of Hefner, with whom we’d also play live with a lot around this time. The latter was released only as a track on the cover-mount CD of a Spanish magazine.

In 2001, Miguel, Jerome and I were keenly excited by new developments in electronic music.  Thanks to generous advances from 4AD, a new publishing deal with Rykomusic and the money we’d made from soundtracking Bigas Luna’s ‘Son de Mar’ film, we spent most Saturday afternoons at Turnkey music store on the corner of Charing Cross Road, checking out and sometimes even buying, new drum-machines, samplers and synths.  ‘Writers Without Homes’ found us with our feet in ill-matching boots – soft, Björk-esque (or so we thought), music box electronica and the loud, dynamic alternative rock that was opening up the European festival circuit to us.  And we were equally happy doing both. 

With his 4AD advance, Jerome set up a small home studio in his flat above a launderette in the appropriately monikered “Murder Mile,” Lower Clapton, a long, slow bus ride from my Archway home.  Miguel lived only a couple of tube stops away.  Al, in nearby Shoreditch, still a few years before it became the hipster’s hood.   ‘Modern Jupiter,’ a minimal groove programmed on an Electribe sampling drum-machine, was sent to Bernd Jestram and Ronald Lippok of Tarwater where, in their Berlin studio, they added odd sounds, some of which I’ve always assumed were the washing of dishes.  Ronald’s words still amuse me to this day. 

“He lived a boy’s life…He loved his ‘Camp Mohawk’ on Viele’s Creek…And he loved to work on problems, drifting in his canoe…Lightning days…He hated formalities in dressing…He would welcome also god himself, in his red bathing suit…Lightning days…The doors of his house were usually electrified”

Although there was little communication between us and the Tarwater guys, we were deeply in awe of their ‘Silur’ album (1998) and hoped some of that would rub off on ‘Modern Jupiter,’ which it most certainly did. 

Tarwater : Bernd Jestram and Ronald Lippok

Far, far on the other end of the spectrum, Paul Lambden, our new publisher at Rykomusic, the publishing wing of Rykodisc, asked us if we’d ever heard of Vashti Bunyan.  She’d been “lost” since her album, ‘Just Another Diamond Day’ disappeared without trace in 1970 but was now fetching eye-watering sums on Discogs. Paul was about to re-issue it on his Spinney label and was looking for new songwriters to pair up with her in the event that she may, once again, be found.  The day we signed our publishing agreement (which, coincidentally comes to an end this April), we all left with a copy of ‘Diamond Day.’  The following day, after listening over a couple of bottles of red wine, I picked up my guitar and wrote a song specifically for Vashti’s voice.  Or at least, so I thought.  I posted a CDR with handwritten lyrics and a note to her the same night, before falling into a drunken stupor. 

Days later, the phone.  Her voice, tiny at the end of the line, as if she were at the bottom of a well, thanking me for the song and well, she’d love to record it with us.  Our deal with 4AD had been struck on the proviso that we’d operate somewhat like This Mortal Coil, writing and producing the music over which invited guests would sing.  That we would be the first to help raise Vashti Bunyan from a 30 year long sleep, was something of a dream.  “Does she still sing the same way?” I wondered. 

Miguel and I met Vashti for the first time at Blue Mountain, a small but functional demo studio in Notting Hill Gate, utilised by legendary producer, Joe Boyd (Nick Drake, Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Pink Floyd). We both fell immediately in love.  She had a glowing aura of kindness and loveliness about her I truly hadn’t ever encountered before.  She was also very beautiful.  But could she play pool?  Indeed she could.  My memory is hazy but I do believe she gave me a run for my money that day on the studio’s table. 

For her first recording session in thirty years, Vashti requested that we draw a curtain around the tiny vocal chamber.  She was understandably very shy and nervous, as much as we could do to make her comfortable.  And it was only when the engineer, Spike, turned the faders up almost as far as they could go, did we realise that her voice hadn’t changed in those thirty years.  It was still a fragile crystal. 

Vashti Bunyan

Vashti, of course, came back to sing on our ‘Saint Marie EP,’ a year later. Through the magic of overdubs, she even shared a track with Alan Sparhawk of Low whom, a big fan of ‘Diamond Day,’ couldn’t quite believe his luck. Vashti, of course, also collaborated with the likes of Devendra Banhart and The Animal Collective around this time but I claim some small victory in knowing that we, Piano Magic, had awoken her.

In the same Blue Mountain session, we recorded and mixed a new, simple track, ‘Certainty,’ programmed entirely on the Roland PMA-5 (Personal Music Assistant), with spoken word by Caroline Potter, my former Nottingham housemate who’d previously lent vocals to ‘Artists’ Rifles’ and ‘Low Birth Weight.’  This was to be our last ever recording with Caroline, although the subject matter, a reflection on the long since dead animals in old films, was one of Piano Magic’s more tongue-in-cheek moments – the recording often interrupted by Caroline’s uncontrollable laughing. 

Of the other tracks, ‘Dutch Housing,’ again, owes as much to Björk as anyone.  Technically, a simple, programmed loop, was brought to live with words written by Angèle (David-Guillou) and narrated by Charlotte Marionneau of Le Volume Courbe (who, around this time, introduced me to Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine at a Hope Sandoval concert). 

‘Shot Through The Fog,’ a beautiful piano improvisation by Simon Raymonde accompanying a genuinely tired, sad Caroline, as she reads words of how my favourite American author, Richard Brautigan, supposedly shot all the numbers from his clock before turning the gun on himself (I had met his daughter, Ianthe, at a book signing around this time). 

I asked Robert Johnston of the band, Life Without Buildings (I’d signed them that year to my Tugboat label) if he fancied recording some guitar pieces for me as a starting point for songs.  He sent me five, all unnamed and I picked the best one for Suzy Mangion (then of George), to sing my words over. 

Suzy Mangion

If anything, it’s the vocalists who really stand out on ‘Writers Without Homes.’  Suzy’s harmonies on ‘Postal,’ are inspired.  John, Vashti, Ronald, Paul, Caroline and Charlotte all have so much unique character.  Irked by a review in NME for ‘Artists’ Rifles’ (I later recovered), I sing only one song on this album, (Music Won’t Save You From Anything But) Silence.’ A live favourite to play, on record, it’s something of a trap. The near inaudible introduction might trick a novice into turning up their hi-fi volume, only to regret it a moment later.

I knew we hadn’t made a great album when I handed over the final mixes to 4AD.  The experience with John Rivers had broken our mojo and we’d hurried to fix it.  And given that it was recorded in several different places by several different engineers, it’s undeniably fractured.  Of course, it also marks the end of our short-lived tenure with 4AD.  Reviews were mixed, an album launch was disappointing, sales were poor and tensions soon became taut in the band.  In retrospect, we should’ve regrouped and tried again but the rips in the canvas were already too noticeable.  We made the decision to jettison the This Mortal Coil model and become a proper band, one that tours, a more conventional drums-bass-guitar group.  That idea, understandably, had no allure for 4AD and so, we parted ways, amicably but sadly. 

Writers Without Homes original CD cover (front). Art direction and design by Vaughan Oliver. Design assistance Alan Oliver
and Charles Grant. Photography by Michele Turriani.

Our next chapter required a rebuild.  Back to basics and with a new guitarist and a new drummer.  ‘Writers’ had closed some doors but opened others, which we gladly, blindy, went through.   

For their part, 4AD, did all they could with a difficult record. They financed a remix EP, ‘Writers Remixed’ and allowed us to choose the deconstructors (Dntel, Fort Dax and Sybarite). The sleeve design has hung, proudly framed in my house, for the last twenty years. Promo videos were commissioned – one even by Bigas Luna himself who, of course, provides the haunting, spoken word intro to ‘Already Ghosts.’ Most of those films, lost now but I’d dearly love to see at least his again. His warmth and generosity towards us was a shining light through the 4AD years, short though they were.

Fastforward two decades.  Piano Magic is no more.  In fact, it’s been finished since 2016.  4AD is a very different label. And yet our ghost lingers on in a recent, sublime cover of ‘Postal’ from ‘Writers Without Homes’ by current 4AD band, Efterklang.  Frontman, Casper Clausen :

“Summer 2002 I went on a family holiday to south of France, on that trip I picked up 3 albums from FNAC; Lamb ‘What Sound’, Múm ‘Finally We Are No One’, and Piano Magic ‘Writers Without Homes’. All 3 albums became a major influence for the first Efterklang music and especially for our first release ever; ‘Springer’ (2003). I’m forever grateful they entered my life and how they inspired me. It’s such an honor and a beautiful orbital return to be able to cover and celebrate Piano Magic’s song ‘Postal’ for 4AD’s 40th anniversary release.”

Given its difficult birth and its legacy as the record that cost us not only our record deal but to an extent, our reputation, why re-issue ‘Writers’ on vinyl this year?  Well, like wine, I think it needed time.  Playing the test pressings, fresh from the plant earlier this year, I was struck by the braveness of the whole fucking thing.  It’s resemblant of a bizarre taxidermy experiment.  Take the head of a duck, the body of a goat, the legs of a rhino, the tail of a cat, stitch them altogether and see what you have.  It may not be beautiful but it’s certainly interesting. 

Why redesign it?  My first meeting with Vaughan Oliver, who I held in great, great esteem then and still do now, quickly ended up in the pub, as I learnt, most design meetings with Vaughan did.  “It’s called, ‘Writers Without Homes,’” I said.  “I’ve bought this antique Italian typewriter.  Perhaps you could use it on the sleeve?” 

“I’m sure we could, Glen.  Shall we go to the pub to discuss it?” 

I never saw that typewriter again.  ‘Writers’ isn’t one of Vaughan’s best sleeves.  In fact, despite his credit for “Art direction and design,” I have an inkling that Vaughan didn’t actually have much to do with it.  It’s too crowded, half-realised, text-heavy (my fault); little, in fact, to actually do with the subject matter within.  Two decades on, I once again called upon a designer who not only understood us but also knew Vaughan and could unravel him.  Martin Andersen worked alongside Vaughan and Chris Bigg at v23 (4AD’s in-house design department) back in those days.  He’s since designed our best record sleeves.  The new sleeve is a beautiful thing – Martin has breathed new life into an old man.  If you didn’t already know it, you might think it were a modern record. 

Writers Without Homes original promotional postcard (back) designed by v23

Recently, looking through my cupboards for a fun, simple micro-composer for my flatmate to play around with, I came across my old Roland PMA-5.  I was amazed that it still worked.  I was even more amazed that the programs for ‘Postal’ and ‘Dutch Housing’ were still there and through my home studio speakers, sounded just as good as they did in 2001. 

‘Writers Without Homes’ vinyl, completely redesigned by Martin Andersen, is out now now and you can listen to it/buy the digital version with bonus track, ‘Blood & Snow,’ here

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