ROCK / Sharp sounds from a flat: Giles Smith makes a house call on the studio that Gary Clark built - This week's new albums reviewed

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The Independent Culture
THE MONEY on the table to pay for Gary Clark's first solo album was pounds 100,000. 'And I thought,' said Clark, 'why give this money to studio owners when it would pay for the equipment to build a studio in my own home?' Or, to put it another way, why line other people's pockets when you can make an album and get your flat done up into the bargain? Luckily for Clark, his record company agreed. Soon, perhaps, all pop stars will be working from home.

Gary Clark used to sing and write songs in a band called Danny Wilson, who came from Dundee, named themselves after a Frank Sinatra movie and seemed to be getting along fine. Their first album contained a bright pop song called 'Mary's Prayer'. Their second included another, called 'The Second Summer of Love'. When people spoke of Gary Clark, they would often mention Prefab Sprout and Aztec Camera and talk about neat lyrics and big tunes.

Meanwhile Danny Wilson's following as a concert act was growing steadily. It's a little-known fact about the band that they had evolved an almost foolproof method for diminishing pre-show nerves: in a kind of shamanistic ritual devised by their regular trombone player, Frank Rossiter, and designed to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, the group would gather in a small room backstage and jump around shouting, in broad Scots, 'Reach for the pozzies, shake oot the neggies.' Whatever, their live performance at the Town & Country in 1989 - during which they switched between instruments like jugglers while two drummers thrashed away in sync at the back and a horn section blew and swayed to the side - was among the best pop shows that venue has staged. Virgin, their record company, were certainly backing the band and ready to fire a few big cannons for the launch of the third Danny Wilson album. At which point, in a move not recommended to anyone trying this at home, they split up.

'There was so much expectation around that third album,' Clark said in his modestly quiet Dundee voice, which he tends for the most part to direct at the carpet. 'You could feel it building up gradually. The record company and the management were saying, 'This is the one, this will be the big one, the one that goes from reasonable sales to big-time'. But I had a lot of songs written for the record, and so did the other two (Ged Grimes and Kit Clark, Gary's brother), and they weren't all going to be able to fit on there, so there were going to have to be compromises. And we seemed to be sitting talking about it more than we were making any music. The relief when the final decision was made was enormous.'

Not long after, Circa Records took on Clark as a solo artist and wrote him a cheque for the work on his flat. Clark lives in a basement in west London, and even before you find the studio there are clues to his calling in the front room, which is practically bare but for great wads of records stacked against the skirting board, a machine to play them on and a grand piano. Even the dumbest celebrity panel on Through the Keyhole would probably twig there was something musically orientated going on here; but once the cameras were out in the passage that runs to the back of the flat, the game would be up entirely.

Actually, the instruments ranged along the wall seem to anticipate the attentions not so much of Through the Keyhole as Antiques Roadshow. Leaning up against a knackered speaker cabinet, there's a Roland 'Juno 60' synthesiser (pre-digital, so technically speaking a dinosaur, and yet never out of fashion with Clark). And, best of all, beside a rather ill-looking guitar, stands a nearly mint-condition Wurlitzer electric piano. A small black box on spindly legs, the Wurlitzer electric piano was popular for approximately five minutes during the 1970s. If the Fender Rhodes was the Rolls-Royce of electric pianos, the Wurlitzer was the Austin Allegro. 'In fact, I think it makes the better sound,' said Clark, 'but you have to turn it up.'

And there at the bottom of the corridor, conveniently close to both the kitchen and the bathroom, sits what was once the spare bedroom and is now the studio. 'You can probably see the settling marks,' said Clark, peering up at the ceiling. 'I would have repainted after a couple of weeks, but I was too desperate to get on with the album. The builders were in for two weeks. They floated the floor up on joists and rubber to absorb the sound and they spent a lot of time running upstairs with sound meters. Nothing comes through so the neighbours don't complain. It's a thing called System Z. The studio is like a big box inserted in the room, and it's done in blocks so you can take it away with you when you move.'

Clark says the real art to working at home is to be able to ignore the phone. There's certainly little to distract him visually: the window above the mixing desk affords an unrivalled view of the white brick wall opposite, approximately four feet away. It's not spacious in there, though there's certainly room to swing a cat; in fact, there's a choice of cats to swing - either Spencer or Jackson, who take it in turns to slink in from the kitchen. Responding to a dilemma not frequently dwelt upon in the technical magazines, Clark had to evolve his own method for preventing pets from playing around in the tangle of cables under the mixing desk. The trick is to go down on your knees, push your head under the desk and clap, but it's worth the indignity because, rather than the more glamorous looking bits of equipment with buttons and sliders and pretty lights on, it was evidently this cabling that hoovered up most of the budget. 'You'd be surprised how much good wiring costs.' And that's when you've finished being surprised that there's such a thing as good wire and bad wire, rather than just wire.

Making his album, which will be called Ten Short Songs about Love, Clark ran cables down to the front room to record the piano, went and stood in the bathroom with his guitar, and did vocals almost everywhere. All the while, he was using the tips he'd picked up from technicians during the Danny Wilson days. From Howard Grey, for instance, engineer on the first album, who as an apprentice once accidentally erased an entire Phil Collins vocal. (Luckily, Collins saw the funny side and Grey stayed in work, though some would claim that Grey should probably also have been given a special BRIT award for an outstanding contribution to music.) And from Greg Jackman, an engineer for Trevor Horn.

'While he was working, he had other records running on the studio's CD player, constantly, and he would switch the machine in and out to give you some kind of picture of how your record was sounding by comparison with finished records: even a heavy metal record, it would tell you something about where you were. So when I was getting near the end of a mix I would play it alongside things which I think sound brilliant - Yello, Thomas Dolby's stuff with Prefab Sprout. Or if I was working with acoustic instruments, I'd have an old Neil Young track running, just for the level of the vocal and the general atmosphere.'

It wasn't hard to spot some other chief influences. On the floor in the mixing room lay a CD of Stevie Wonder's Talking Book, the imprint of which is detectable on the current single, 'We Sail on the Stormy Waters', a sort of pop sea-shanty, at the moment in the first verse where Clark manages to turn the single word 'crew' through five notes. And at the foot of a microphone stand in the sound room was a copy of Brian Wilson's autobiography. 'I had my Beach Boys period about a year before I made the record, going back through their albums and finding so much to learn from a studio point of view. And melodically, too. In Wilson songs, the melody seems to rule the chords and the keys. If the voice wants to go there, that's where it's going to go.'

The songs on the new album show again Clark's style with a tune, and his ear for neat little contra-flow melodies, tucked under the main drift of the chorus. It sounds as buffed and polished as anything recorded at vast expense in the Bahamas, but at the same time, the touches provided by clapped-out instruments, turned up loud, give it warmth. There are some senses in which Ten Short Songs about Love is Gary Clark's Pet Sounds.

And over at Circa Records, Ashley Newton, the man who agreed the deal and signed the cheque that bought the studio that Gary built, was talking big business. 'It shows you don't have to spend a fortune to build a respectable studio in a domestic environment, and then make an album fit to compete internationally.' Then he became slightly more teary-eyed. 'Gary's dug very deep for this album,' he said. 'We're very proud of him.'

'Ten Short Songs about Love' is released by Circa on 19 April

(Photograph omitted)

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