The Making of Moon Country

A memoir by Trevor

Part 1: Ireland (June 2006)

The idea of recording in Ireland was Ted’s idea. Ted “Two Thumbs” Heagle. Cheers Ted! Knowing my travels there had inspired a lot of songs, our longtime friend and sometime tour manager (and head of Sunny Lane Records) suggested I return and do some demos. I wanted a quiet retreat where I could focus on writing for a new album. My uncle has a stone cottage near Sligo, so all I needed was a laptop, a microphone and a few bottles of Buckfast. It was easy to organize, the band had a tour of the UK coming up with the Brian Jonestown Massacre, so I just tacked a working holiday on to the end of it.

[Ted “Two-thumbs” Heagle and yours truly, Lansing: May 2006]

In Carlisle, on the last day of our UK tour, I left the others to ride a tow truck back to London (typical High Dials van trouble) and set off for the hills like a high-tech hobo.

I got to Dublin early the next day. All I needed before heading to the country was an acoustic guitar. I was shocked to find there was nowhere to rent one in the city. I didn’t know anyone in town but through a string of odd coincidences that began with meeting a Stone Roses cover band unloading in the street, I wound up having a pint with a local troubadour known as The Mighty Stef. The Mighty Stef it turned out, knew the High Dials, shared a mutual friend with me, and had just returned from living in Montreal for a few weeks, where he’s recorded his album. He loaned me an acoustic guitar and put me in touch with local band Mainline who offered up their rehearsal space as temporary Dublin digs, right in the heart of the madness known as Temple Bar. My adventure was off to a fortuitous start and I got pissed. Stopped in a store on my way back from the bars and flipped through a Mojo magazine to find a High Dials review. Good omens all round.

My destination in Sligo was fairly isolated and I had no car, so I knew I would have to stock up on things in Dublin beforehand. It was murder getting through the tourists down to a main road for a cab the next morning with my backpack, laptop, guitar and bags of groceries! But I managed to get on a train.

My headspace changed as soon as I got out west. The west of Ireland is a magic place for me. A cab driver picked me up at the station and we wound our way out of the widening sprawl of Sligo’s new malls and suburbs to the Ox Mountains, as bare as bones in the sun. One day I have to walk up on them, there is supposed to be a lake on one of the summits.

At the cottage, the grass was wildly overgrown. It was silent save for birds, insects and wind. The driver seemed amused leaving me at the doorstep. I guess it looked pretty rough, or I looked ridiculous with a computer.

The studio

I started the pump for the well and turned on the faucets to test it out. An enormous, ancient-looking spider sputtered out from the drain in panic. Out back, swallows darted in and out of a hole in the spare room, slicing through the air like blades. Everything seemed to shimmer in a golden haze, like a 70s photograph. Notes on the acoustic chimed out like metallic sunshine. I felt blessed to be there. I sat on a stool in the late afternoon sun just strumming and picking vague tunes, very hippied out.

Over the next two weeks in that cottage, ideas came fast and free and I worked quite hard. I was surrounded by creatures at all times. Snails on the door, slugs in the grass, droning bumblebees fat with pollen, lazily trying to connect with little purple flowers, little mother spiders cowering over their eggs in the woodpile. Their work seemed to mirror my own. Late one night, as I was layering harmonies in “The Case Against Love”, a beetle circled round my feet. He kept falling over, little legs kicking in the air. I’d help him out, and over he’d flop again. When you’re alone in a place like that, you feel a strange kinship with the life around you that would never feel in the city. There’s just so much more of it and the silence and solitude draws your attention to it.

I struggled with the recording software, Cubase, learning through trial and error. I had learned the bare essentials at home. Problems would crop up and threaten the whole project, and then somehow I’d figure out a solution and feel relieved. I am not a computer guy. All the tracks wound up having a loud buzz of electricity in them, for reasons I never figured out. Some ended up having loud pops and crackles from the open fireplace in the background. I was burning scrap wood and the paint would hiss and explode. You can hear the fire crackling if you listen closely in “Angels and Devils” and the end of “Oisin, My Bastard Brother”. It felt odd working on a laptop in that damp stone environment, but it looked beautifully absurd.

I had bought a little drum machine off of Murray Lightburn of the Dears before leaving. It served me well at first, then suddenly went haywire, erasing everything I had prepared at home and refusing to play any soulful beats. It didn’t matter how funky or tight I might punch in a beat on the little pads, the computer would process it and play it back as interpreted by a robot who could not dance. I spent one whole day madly trying to trick the thing into playing properly, trying to play the beats off time so it would play them back correctly. In the end, I just had to settle for shitty drum performances of simple beats, or do without drums entirely. I also hated the math involved in planning out the correct number of bars for beat changes. So gradually, the songs became more and more, um, folk, with large helpings of reverb.

Irish themes worked themselves into some of the lyrics, some vague, some less so: the myth of Oisin the Wanderer, memories of travels in Clare and Donegal, always the sea, some imaginary existential coastline lay in the back of these songs, the edge of all things. But I sang all kinds of stuff, some of which were truly out of place in that setting. It was weird recording “Snowed In”, written in a claustrobic Canadian snowstorm, out in the bright sunshine with the swallows.

[A Sligo tree]

Each song took many hours. I worked pretty hard, sometimes regretting missing so much of the beauty around me. But there were some great interludes. I sat under an old oak by a castle with a can of Tennents and saw amazing things happen in the light. I sat out back listening to the trees hissing in the wind. Sometimes I just hacked away at all the grass with a scythe for something to do. I had no bike and had to walk a long way to the nearest village to get food or have a pint.

My grandmother’s brother lives on his farm up a hill overlooking some forest and bog, with a view of the Kesh mountains blue on the southern horizon. I spent time with him there every couple of days, listening to stories of old Ireland, from his youth and his father’s time. I helped out a bit on the farm, cutting down branches, injecting a sick calf with medicine, trying not to feel ridiculous. One day he sent me out to bring the cows in. They bolted as soon as they saw me. Apparently cows can gallop. They hid in a thick piny wood and I had to crawl in on my belly looking for them. They were in mortal fear of me, and almost broke their necks trying to get up over a shedful of peat to escape me, as we tried to close the gate. I have this effect on cows.

It was sad leaving Ireland. I hadn’t allowed myself enough time. But the demos I did there were the foundation for the album when I got back, and the mood set there remained in the songs.

Part 2: First Studio Recordings (July-October 2006)

Back in Canada the band has obtained a bit of money to do a proper demo. We booked some time at Studio Frisson, a live studio in Mile End with some decent vintage gear, and aimed to lay down as many bed tracks as we could pull together within two weeks.

At the time, Max had only just started doing gigs with us and we really wanted to record a few songs with George Donoso (of The Dears), since he had saved our asses filling in on drums while we searched for a full-timer, and he had come to feel like a band member. George helped us work out the arrangements in “These Days” and “Open Up the Gates”, and added a lot to other tunes as well. It was a rushed process though. After 4 rehearsals and two days in the studio, we had bed tracks for 6 songs. We all commented on how “fat” and “warm” the drums sounded on two-inch tape. Only later would it be revealed that the two-inch machine was broken and had not been used, with everything going straight to computer. The engineer had been too embarrassed to admit this to us. But the drums really did sound fat and warm, because George tunes his kit well, and the room sounded good, and Joseph is good engineer.

[George Donoso III]

[Joseph and Don the engineer at Studio Frisson]

From then on, throughout the fall, we worked on overdubs with Joseph at his smaller studio in Old Montreal. This phase seemed to go on forever, and it was filled with anxiety, since we felt so much depended on these demos being good and the creative process was not smooth. The main problem was, we had had very little time to work on new material as a band. The guitar and keyboard arrangements were not fully thought out, they were vague. This meant we were making stuff up as we went along, constantly re-recording things as the song evolved. Someone would add a new idea that would radically transform the feel of the song forcing us to redo other parts we had spent ages perfecting. We never lost faith that we were creating good stuff, but it was an unnerving and expensive way to do things. The band is never short on ideas and it makes us indecisive.

The self-inflicted agony of those first 3 songs ended when Joseph finished 3 good mixes for use as a demo: “Clare”, “My Heart Is Pinned To Your Sleeve”, and “These Days Mean Nothing to Me”.

Part 3: New songs (April 2007-April 2008)

At this stage we came up against some hurdles. The band went through a huge change when Rishi, our longtime bassist, bowed out in order to begin his own project. The demo had not resulted in any advances and our funds had now dried up. It was suddenly unclear how we would finish the record. We bussed in a buddy from Philadelphia (Chris MacAllen from the Lilys) to play bass at first. Then Robbie stepped into the breach to keep the jamming going, hanging up his guitar temporarily to play bass. For several months we jammed away on new songs without lead guitar, getting the bass parts organized. We didn’t know where the money would come from but soldiered on anyway like any rock n roll addict does.

Then there was sudden, much-needed good news. We learned that Rogers wanted to use “The Holy Ground” in a national ad campaign. The money from the publishing and a couple of gigs over the summer gave us just enough to keep going. We booked some dates at Mountain City Studios, Joseph’s new improved digs up in Park X. The plan was to record all the drums and bass for the remainder of the album.

[High Dials with Chris MacAllen in construction area/recording space]

The first days recording drums with Max were tricky. On our first day, all of “Cartoon Breakup” was accidentally erased and we lost a few hours redoing it, wondering if the new take was as good. There was a lot of creative disagreement in the studio about drum sounds and tempos and how loud cymbals should be. Tempers flared absurdly. “Oisin My Bastard Brother” was fraught with all kinds of trouble. We knew what it was supposed to be: a Thin Lizzy-ish rocker telling a melancholic story over a solid soul beat. But everything we tried felt wrong. The groove was wrong, the drums sounded wrong, the bassline needed direction (there was none), the guitar needed changes and no one could agree on the tempo. Classic High Dials arranging in the studio! I was pretty sure the song was doomed. But Max played a completely reworked drum part at the last minute in one take, in complete frustration, and when we laid tracks over it months later, we knew we had it. Other bed-tracks went much more smoothly. “Open Up The Gates” was done in one take. “Seagull Blues” was so fun to play we just kept re-recording the end bit for enjoyment.

Throughout the overdubbing I was struggling with a mysterious throat problem. I was worried I had scarring on my vocal chords, as I could no longer sing in my full range and was constantly hoarse. I seemed to have some kind of lump in my throat. I had an expert check it out and was told I just had a very dry larynx. Ginger root saved me. I ate bags and bags of it raw, or with hot water and honey. Slowly, eventually, my voice recovered, until one day, suddenly, it returned in full and I sang two difficult songs back to back. It was a huge relief.

[Raw ginger]

Joseph began to get booked up with our old friend Sam Roberts and we had no money to continue anyway. We applied for a FACTOR recording loan and hoped for the best. Meanwhile, I rented some gear and began doing some overdubbing on my own, having by now learned a lot more about recording things properly. I lost myself in the joys of making wild noises, sampling everything from classical Indian music to Irish reels. Flipping things around, distorting them, filtering them, like an alchemist smelting metals. Wild mournful sounds a voice or instrument could never make, that sound incredible at full volume on headphones on a hot July afternoon. Some songs changed dramatically with the sounds I dropped into them, others shifted colour in some subtle way that is hard to pinpoint.

I spent hours recording harmonies amidst the construction debris in our in-renovation rehearsal space, always chewing ginger. Sometimes Robbie or Eric would be there and we would record guitar or keyboard ideas. One night I left to get us some beers. As I was returning up the street I heard an oscillating roar like the heavens ripping in two. From high up on the 10th floor of our building the organ sound for “Open Up the Gates” was echoing out across the night city. How on earth had Eric and Robbie created that menacing sound? I entered to find Eric droning away, Robbie hunched mysteriously over a chain of effects pedals at his feet, like a monkey. The room was bending and lurching with the noise. I hit record as quickly as possible.

[Robbie and Eric]

Guests dropped into our ramshackle recording space. Players of viola, trumpet and harp! I had been vaguely wanting harp on the record from day one but never thought it possible. Then, the day after first mentioning it to the band, the sound of harp came wafting down my street as I made my way to the studio. I thought I was in a dream. But there on the street corner was a statuesque troubador playing an enormous harp. A few days later Myriam was playing harp on “Clare” and “Oisin”.

When we did book an odd day in the studio, it was often used poorly. We did 158 takes of bass for ‘Killer of Dragons”. I was determined that it was going to sound like reggae and/or Klaus Voorman. Joseph had different ideas. Robbie was caught in the middle. Finding the right emotion was hard, each choice of bass note changed the mood. The bill for that bass line alone could’ve sank the record. Another day was spent entirely on recording the recorder in “Open Up the Gates”. None of us could play recorder, though we all tried valiantly and eventually managed. That insane, childish melody had appeared in my head some time ago and had now seared permanently in my frontal lobe. Other days were victorious, with keyboards and guitars slipping in easily. Joseph helped guide us through moments of indecision, steering us to keep the arrangements focused and clear.

Then we learned we had been approved for a FACTOR album loan. Our album would get finished as cash flow was assured! The relief, the joy, was intense. There were so many highs and lows making this CD and we had overcome the last hurdle. Dear reader, remember how important arts funding is in Canada!

I went to South America for two months, burned out on the record. I went to the jungle. I went to the desert. I went to the sea.

[Argentinian desert]

When I got back things moved swiftly. Finally the album began to reveal a shape, songs began to come together in a way we hadn’t heard over the two years of labour! The mixing sessions were intense. We knew these songs inside out and some were mammoth in scope, heavy with detail. We went in search of the beating heart at the centre of these masses of tracks and they began to breathe. We broke the songs into two groups, mixing half with Joseph and half with Stacy LeGallee, of Stalin’s Little Santa Studio, upon Max’s recommendation. Mixing the songs in two groups might have inspired us with the idea of releasing the album with a side A and side B, like an LP of old. This is how an album is meant to flow. It should have four corners.

On the last day of mixing, I felt deeply happy that I could still hear the wood burning from the Sligo fireplace snapping out of the odd mix. The sounds on the record have different places of origin, different sources of electricity, and they weave together and make a new place existing only at the moment of listening, Moon Country, where no one lives.