Piano Magic Diaries : The Troubled Sleep

Piano Magic 2003 by Helen Woods

As Chris Sharp of 4AD put it in Martin Aston’s definitive biography of the label, no-one at their Alma Road office knew what to do with Piano Magic. We’d released one film soundtrack and a proper album to a tepid response and although many more doors had opened to us on the touring front, we were battered and bruised by the recording experience. Despite two decades of fantasising about being on 4AD, we orchestrated a departure from it and they (rightly) barely waved us off at the doorstep. Tension in the band was suddenly taut. The drummer quit. Luckily, we had a better one (Jerome) in reserve and with the spare change from the 4AD deals, we picked ourselves up and headed back into the studio.

In hindsight, ‘The Troubled Sleep Of Piano Magic’ was actually more about my own sleep. Not only had the dream label fallen through but my dream job (at Rough Trade) was also becoming something of a nightmare. Proving that the band could not only survive but improve became my raison d’être. Our last album, the disjointed, ‘Writers Without Homes,’ wasn’t hard to better, surely?

We needed a lead guitarist. Jerome introduced me to Franck Jean Alba, an old friend of his from Marseille. We met, one Saturday Summer afternoon, in the yard of my-then favourite, The Angel pub on Denmark Street (London’s ‘Tin Pan Alley’). A Curehead, he arrived, all dressed in black, with a guitar case; a shiny silver plectrum on a chain around his neck. He didn’t want a drink. He’d rather play me some guitar. Within two months, he was touring Spain with us. Twenty years on, he would still rather play me some guitar.

We also drafted in James Topham, who’d already played viola on our 4AD Records. We’d liked him instantly. He did like to drink and thus, counterbalanced Franck in that respect. So, there we were : me, Jerome, Franck, Alasdair and James. Rafael Lopez from the Seville-based distributor, Green Ufos, wanted us on his label. We were, after all, almost a household name in Spain. Did we want to be on a label called Green Ufos? We were called Piano Magic for fuck’s sake, so we couldn’t exactly throw stones in that glasshouse.

Piano Magic 2001 : Alasdair Steer, James Topham, Jerome Tcherneyan, Franck Alba, Glen Johnson

When we left 4AD, we also left our children behind – they’d paid for and therefore owned ‘Son De Mar’ and ‘Writers Without Homes,’ for life. Determined not to lose copyright ever again, I decided on licensing the next record out for a mere 5 year term. After that, the album would effectively be ours again. Years later, I fought with Lopez when he’d uploaded the album to digital platforms, long after our agreement had expired and refused to take it down. Thankfully, the (digital) ombudsman stepped in. I’ve found that trust has a pretty short shelf life.

We wrote songs quickly, hasty to leave the 4AD debacle far behind us. Some songs only had two or three chords. We rehearsed in dingy, backstreet studios with sticky carpets and warm beer. The lights were always low, the amps and drums patched up with gaffer tape, the vocal microphones, SM58s, squashed and filthy. Organising rehearsals was akin to the proverbial herding of cats. Five people had to perfectly synchronise to be available for a different four hour window every week. On occasion, there were absentees but we soldiered on, regardless.

We played only three concerts in 2003 – one in Spain and two in France. I remember them well for our drunken shenanigans and little more. At the Rockomotives Festival in Vendome, James, barely able to stand, assailed poor Yann Tiersen from the back of the venue with heckles of “Busker!!!! He’s a fucking busker!!!” Englishmen abroad. The high jinx were an inevitable side product of boredom. Franck, new to the touring experience, squeezed every drop out of it, taking full advantage of what was theoretically, an all-expenses-paid holiday. His naturally animated nature became both the focus and occasionally, the target of a restless entourage.

Was our sleep so troubled because we were drinking too much? Perhaps. As the line in ‘The End Of A Dark Tired Year’ goes : “I slept bad, in bad dreams, on bad beer….”

Back in London, in the recording studio, The Fortress, a huge, grimy industrial complex five minutes walk from Old Street station, we buckled down with Robinson Hughes, a happy-go-lucky sound engineer and deadringer for Shaggy from Scooby Doo. Like all the best sound engineers I’ve worked with nothing fazed him.

“Can we record this squeaking chair?”

Noticing that my rapid descent on the concrete steps from the toilets three floors up made quite a good sound, I asked if he could also mike up the stairwell and the electronic entry lock which, on pushing a certain combination, would allow entry to the studio. This sequence became the introduction to the album/’Saint Marie.’

In time-honoured cheap recording studio fashion, we lunched on junk food from the local mini-mart, the kettle was on perpetual boil; pizza and beer for dinner. At the weekend, the Fortress transformed into an all-night, drug-fuelled club and come 5pm on a Friday, you could already feel the electric fizzle of the impending party. And on Saturday mornings, the stench of the night before – sticky beer, stale dope, sex and cigarettes. Oddly, we were in our element and the album began to respond to the environment.

It was also here where we met Gareth Parton, another affable sound engineer, not stumped by the ginormous, decrepit Neve mixing desk, held together by paper clips. Gareth virtually became a part of the band over the next few years, co-producing our ‘Disaffected’ and ‘Ovations’ albums, as well as the ‘Saint Marie EP.’

If you can bear it, here’s a badly-rendered, atrociously-soundtracked clip of The Fortress as it was at the time.

Those songs :

Saint Marie

On the surface, a heartbreak song, of which we have many, although the last line, “I light a candle for Saint Marie, in the hope she never brings you back to me,” is telling.  Sometimes, although devastated by the loss of a lover, having them return to us is the worst thing that could happen. 

Undeniably a Durutti Column homage, particularly once the vocals have ended.  The drum-machine, an Electribe EM-1, my constant companion at this time.  The Alan Sparhawk version on the ‘Saint Marie EP,’ also recorded at The Fortress, was somewhat superfluous in hindsight, much as I love his voice. 

The Unwritten Law

Our bedfellow to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart,’ if only in the lyrics, “You turn on your side ‘cos you have to face North, or else you can’t sleep – the unwritten law.”  Very, very sad, of course but we’ve all been there, right?  Beautiful guitar by Franck, beautiful singing by Angèle – the natural singer for Piano Magic going forward.  I think we only played this once, live; our more delicate songs invariably jettisoned in favour of dynamic.

Speed The Road, Rush The Lights

Long distance love never works.  If you’re serious about someone, move closer to them.  This song tries to break down the miles and nights between England and France, imploring geography to be kind.  Traffic lights must be ignored, brakes should not be applied.  We always loved playing this one and I particularly enjoyed singing, “their aspirin white legs marked by young love’s overbite….”

Help Me Warm This Frozen Heart

Possibly inspired by a dream of a fairground in snow in the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, though I only ever actually saw it in Summer.  Retrospectively, it seems that 2003 was actually one long Winter, though the ‘Troubled Sleep’ album wasn’t released until December.  Again, a desperately sad song.  Beautiful, melancholy vocal by Angèle. 

I Am the Teacher’s Son

My father, of course, an engineer and not a teacher at all.  Although my favourite sound is church bells, I never learned to swim and I’ve never “fucked around.”  This track was almost left off the album but we were convinced by the label to include it.  It subsequently became a live favourite.  The whole song is just two chords.  As Lou Reed purportedly said, “One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”

The End of a Dark, Tired Year

We invariably rehearsed from 7 – 11pm in cheap, dirty, dingy studios in North London.  The carpets were sticky and smelly, the lights were dim, amps were noisy, drums were held together by tape.  We drank awful, warm beers from the fridge behind the proprietors’ desks and within a couple of hours, we were all in a bad, drunken mood.  London seemed oppressively heavy with violence always around the corner.  This song, above any other, reminds me of that time.  “I walk around with a knife in the cuff….but that’s not gonna be enough….”

The Tollbooth Martyrs

We toured Spain a lot around this time because we were wanted there.  That golden era of British bands touring Europe is well and truly over, thanks to Brexit.  I pity the bands that will never experience the unbridled joy of playing to the good people of every city, every backwater town and not just flying into the capital city and fucking off after one show. 

The Tollbooth Martyrs, is of course, word play on The Tolpuddle Martyrs (go on, Google it), though concerns the imagined lives of the people who manned the tollbooths of those Spanish motorways, giving up their Summer to sit in a box and issue change.  “The tollbooth martyrs, 21 to 56, leave their lives at the gate and beneath the standard issue crucifix, push their Summers to the side of the plate.” 

When I’m Done, This Night Will Fear Me

A revenge song.  For such a genteel group, violence rears its ugly head on many occasions throughout our back catalogue (Music Won’t Save You, Dark Horses, The End Of A Dark, Tired Year, etc).  Well, at least, the promise and expectation of it. 

It wasn’t until many years later did I realise I’d subconsciously paraphrased Dead Can Dance’s ‘Black Sun’ with “Black star in white night, like a blue wave in a black sea.”  Brendan Perry, thankfully, has not yet noticed. 

Luxembourg Gardens

The title, of course, referring to the stately park in Paris, at the time a regular haunt but the song could’ve been set anywhere really.  More troubled sleep : “Tonight, I can’t sleep, the heart’s all wires, the moon is widowed, the stars, retired….” 

Our sound engineer of that day, Robinson Hughes, unfazed by my request to mike up a squeaky chair for ambience.  Also contains perhaps our loudest moment on record? 

A fan once told me the song reminded them of Pink Floyd and that this was a good thing.  They were sorely mistaken. 

Comets

My favourite Piano Magic song.  Around this time, we were prolific songwriters and recorded virtually every musical idea we had.  Aside from regular studio recording with the band, Jerome and Franck had their own writing/recording sessions and this, for my money, is not only the fullest fruit of those sessions but the legacy I’d be most proud to leave behind. 

I wrote the lyrics on the bus en route from Shoreditch to the recording session at Jerome’s home studio in Lower Clapton and they were perfectly rendered by Angèle when we arrived.  The music, simple but beautiful, the production and arrangement, deeply emotive.  Unashamedly, I can’t hear this song without getting a lump in my throat.  Why?  Because we’ve all lost someone we love and for one reason or another, perhaps pride or whatever got in the way of us telling them we loved them.  In these dark, difficult times, don’t leave it until it’s too late : tell them you love them.  You just never know.  You never know. 

There is a café/record store in Paris named after this song.  You should pay it a visit.

‘The Troubled Sleep Of Piano Magic’ went on to be the band’s biggest selling album and in a Facebook poll of 2022, voted the fans’ favourite. We licensed it to P-Vine in Japan, Green Ufos in Spain and Dora Dorovitch in France. Reviews were good (even in the UK), tour dates were forthcoming and finally, we were on steady ground again.

The artwork, ostensibly a skull blended in with an old map of Germany, was, at least to me, symbolic of our European touring. Driving through the dry hills of southern Spain, stopping only for nutritionless service station lunches, tired and bored, we were, to coin a phrase, death warmed up. And yet, come the evening, somehow, despite the odds, we managed to inject an urgency and gravity into the songs the album had only hinted at. Volume helped.

In 2004, we managed a grand total of 23 concerts – twenty up on the previous year. ‘The Troubled Sleep’ gradually became less restless and by 2005’s ‘Disaffected,’ we were positively buzzing with energy.

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