A Sunny Day in Glasgow
By Skip Perry | 16 April 2010
A Sunny Day in Glasgow’s Ashes Grammar burned up CMG’s 2009 year-end chart and the group is at it again with a solid new EP and a tour attended, so far, by no less than five CMG staffers. On a short rest between the North American and European halves of their tour, bandleader Ben Daniels took some time to talk about the recording of Ashes Grammar, why he doesn’t sing, and the only natural response to multitracking in triple digits.
Cokemachineglow’s Skip Perry (CMG): What’s your musical background? Did you study any theory in school or play instruments growing up?
Ben Daniels (BD): My mother was a music teacher for many years when we were kids and when I was a little kid I had piano lessons, played the violin for a couple years, but I pretty much quit everything by the 6th grade. And then in my teens I started to play guitar again. That’s it.
CMG: Compared to the band’s first record, Ashes Grammar feels far more layered and complex even though it uses many of the same sounds and compositional elements. Is it fair to say that on Scribble Mural Comic Journal (2007) you were still learning how to record an album?
BD: Yeah, probably. I had never really written complete songs before and that was the first time I had ever written lyrics or melodies. I had played in bands before and wrote music for songs, but that was the first time doing all that. I got a laptop, got a little Mbox, and taught myself ProTools.
CMG: Was there something particularly different in the approach you took to Ashes Grammar or was it the result of an evolution in what you were capable of doing?
BD: There was a slightly different approach between the two. For the first one, I just recorded everything and kind of went along, and when we got a few songs done we put them together in the Sunniest Day Ever EP (2006). People heard that and kind of got excited about it and then it turned into “Oh, we should probably record an album, people might like that!” So I took it a little more seriously, but as we were recording I was thinking of everything in the demos I was doing. Once I got done, I tried to re-record a bunch of the songs that ended up on Scribble Mural but whenever you re-record something I feel like it always sounds worse. So I just stuck with the original ones I thought of as demos and that became the album. I didn’t want that to happen with Ashes Grammar because I think on Scribble Mural every song has kind of a different sound to it. I wanted Ashes Grammar to be a little more coherent, so I didn’t finish any demos before we started recording. I left everything really skeletal and then Josh [Meakim] and I fleshed it all out while we were recording. I think it sounds a little more cohesive.
CMG: It’s not always clear where the sounds on the record are coming from, but if the video you posted of the Ashes Grammar recording session is any indication, most of the record was recorded using live instruments, not samples. Is that accurate?
BD: Pretty much. We had a big space and I borrowed a PA system from a friend of mine, so any electronics were sent out through the PA and we mic’ed the room. Everything went out into the space before it was recorded. Even electronic drums were that way; we ran a bass drum through a big amp and a lot of times would run a snare drum through a guitar amp and put a real snare drum on top of it.
CMG: In general, do you have a fully-formed idea of what a track should sound like before going into the studio, or is the process more experimental?
BD: There are a few songs we’ve done where I’ve had something in my mind and that’s what I’ve worked towards, maybe even achieved that. But the majority of the songs are done by getting the idea out there and seeing what works. You’re kind of reacting and pushing and playing with it.
CMG: This is the case with many of your songs, but on “Nitetime Rainbows” it often sounds like the band members are playing two or three songs at the same time. How do you fit it all together? Do you come up with the backing track first and then fit the vocals in afterward?
BD: We pretty much always get the music done first and then I spend days and weeks listening to the music, and then melodies start coming into my head. Once you get a melody down, sometimes you think a harmony would be nice here so you throw a harmony in there. It’s just about seeing what feels good and what feels right. “Nitetime Rainbows” is probably the most monstrous song in terms of tracks—there’s something like 150 tracks on it. I remember mixing that and thinking, “How did this happen?”
CMG: Why do you sing so infrequently? I thought you sounded pretty good in “Failure.”
BD: Well…I cannot sing. My sisters got the vocal genes but I have an absolutely terrible voice. On “Failure” I can struggle through it; on the recording I sang that with lots of pitch correction and Auto-Tune.
CMG: About the EP, it has three remixes of “Nitetime Rainbows”—was that the first time you had other artists remix your songs?
BD: When Scribble Mural came out on vinyl in 2008, Ulrich Schnauss and Asobi Seksu did remixes. I remember when I got the Asobi Seksu one, I didn’t know what to expect, but it wasn’t that. It blew me away. I felt the same way on the Nitetime Rainbows EP with the Buddy System remix. It’s kind of like its own song. It was kind of wonderful. But everyone did a phenomenal job.
CMG: So there are no ownership issues with letting someone tinker with your songs?
BD: No, I’m happy to let artists have carte blanche. I don’t want to tell them what to do.
CMG: You guys have had a lot of personnel changes. Does the current lineup feel like it’s solid for the time being?
BD: This has been the most fun lineup, I think, with the highest level of commitment. Who knows what will happen? We’re on tour for a long time and it’s really demanding. I hope for the next record that everyone is around to contribute so it’s more of a team effort. Josh and I did the overwhelming majority of the work for Ashes Grammar, and that was fun—the first album was all me, so it was nice to bring someone in to help and it added a lot. Josh knows a lot more about engineering and recording than I do, so he was tremendously helpful. I’m very crude; I just put a mic in front of something and play. There would be parts of songs where I would have no idea what to do; I’d know a guitar line has to go here but I don’t know what it is, and he would have ideas and write some guitar parts. We’d be trying stuff out, talking: what do you think of this, try this, and so on. It was really good.
CMG: Where will we be able to see you next?
BD: We just finished about five and a half weeks on tour and tomorrow we fly to Europe for two months more.