Slow Club use old-school recording style on One Day All Of This Won't Matter
As Sheffield duo Slow Club release their fourth album, Andy Welch discovers how an old-school approach led to their most beautiful set of songs
IN THE late 1950s, Berry Gordy got a job working at the Ford car factory, where he stumbled upon a novel approach to songwriting. Detroit was, once upon a time, only famous for its motor industry, but pretty soon, it became synonymous with Motown and hit records.
Gordy realised he could apply the same assembly line technique he was familiar with at Ford, to music, with the same people taking care of certain elements of a song, just as factory workers did the same task over and over. The lyrics, main melody, backing vocals, band parts, string and horn sections would be bolted on to the main chord structure just as body panels, wing mirrors and interiors were fixed to a chassis.
"Artists would come in one door, an unknown kid off the street, and go out another door a big star," he said.
That's how Motown was born, and it was a method copied many times over. A label would have a team of songwriters and a house band, and only the main artist names would change. Atlantic, Stax, Hi Records and Philadelphia International are just a few companies that adopted the idea, while associated house bands such as the Swampers, Booker T & The MGs, the Hi Rhythm Section and MFSB are still spoken about with the same kind of reverence as the labels' marquee names.
These days, outside pockets of hip-hop and pop production units, it's not really the way most artists make music – far easier in the era of dwindling budgets and digital technology to do everything alone in your bedroom with a laptop.
Sheffield duo Slow Club, however, have kept tradition alive on their fourth album, released last week.
One Day All Of This Won't Matter Any More was recorded in Spacebomb Studios in Richmond, Virginia, with old school producer, label founder and musician, Matthew E White.
"We'd done some recording ourselves last summer and we were going to do the album on our own, but we felt we needed someone to whip us into shape," says Slow Club's Charles Watson. "We met Matthew last year and got on really well, and he had some time available in February. We thought it was the perfect way to do it."
Rebecca Taylor, the other half of Slow Club, explains how working with White and Spacebomb's four resident musicians was a joy to witness.
"We played our little demo recordings of the songs to the guys there, and they're just insanely good. They'd listen twice, make some notes and then go off into the studio and play it better than we ever could. We were in awe of them.
"It meant recording the album was very quick, which was both exciting to be around and great for me, as I'm extremely impatient. We'd start mid-morning to plan out each day, have a lovely lunch, record for a bit, have a couple of drinks and then we'd be done by 8pm, when I'd go to bed because I was so jetlagged. It was a lovely way to live."
There are, of course, downsides to having such talented musicians on your team, but only when you're recording your album.
"Alan, the guitarist, is hands down the best player I have ever seen," says Watson. "It's actually intimidating to watch. But he's such a nice guy, too, it's impossible not to like him. He wanted to try a solo at the end of In Waves and even he was taken aback by how well it worked."
"I feel sorry for our bass player," says Taylor. "Some of the parts on this album are ridiculous. But we'll be fine, it's not like anyone we normally play with is hopeless, they're all really good."
"I don't normally sign and play complicated guitar parts," continues Watson, "but now I really have to practise and concentrate. I think it'll be a version of the album that we end up playing live."
As for White, his role in this is more director than traditional producer. Each time the band ran through a song, he would make an A4 page's worth of notes, feed back to Taylor, Watson and the musicians, and they'd go again. After a couple of hours, it was exactly as he wanted, and then it was just a question of pressing record.
Apparently it's similar to how he recorded his own albums, Big Inner and Fresh Blood, and Natalie Prass' 2015 self-titled debut.
All in all, it was a big learning curve for Slow Club, and a hugely enjoyable experience. The resulting album is beautiful; easily their most mature-sounding with a rare warmth. And, even though Taylor and Watson have different writing styles – the chasm between those styles has got bigger since their 2009 debut, Yeah So – White's production skills make a satisfying whole out of what could otherwise be an album of two halves.
"I don't know if we'd do an album like this again," says Taylor. "We like to move on and try different things, but this time it definitely worked and we wouldn't have an album ready if we hadn't done this. On our own, we'd still be working out what to do."
"We both like quiet night-time, red-wine music," she adds. "We don't really listen to pumping music and I guess our aim was do some sort of Nick Cave Boatman's Call record. That hasn't really come to pass, but it was more a vibe we were aiming for than anything else."
Packing a case and heading to Virginia to work with a producer you've only met once may fill some bands with terror, but the duo say they've grown more confident in their own abilities with each record, and believe that, even if things hadn't have gone so well at Spacebomb, they're experienced enough to have pulled things round.
"We weren't nervous about trying with Matthew at all," says Watson. "In any case, we couldn't have afforded to go out there, make an album but not like it and then discard it. We knew what we wanted and we were better prepared than ever.
"It's always tough, but if you've done the work beforehand, you always feel better about it and there's no reason there should be shocks along the way."
For now, they're rehearsing, trying to work their way around the other players' parts on their own songs, rehearsing more, and getting ready for what will be a packed end to 2016 with UK, Europe and US tours booked.
"By the time we've finished," says Watson, "we'll be the best UK-based Spacebomb covers band in the world."
:: Slow Club play Whelans in Dublin on Saturday November 5. One Day All Of This Won't Matter Any More is out now.