Exclusive Artist Diary with ... DEAD LIKE HARRY - March 9, 2009
“By returning to Sheffield and to Cherry Street, we had begun a whole new journey.”The industrial heart of England’s ‘Steel City’ may have been broken and abandoned long ago, but Sheffield is now re-emerging once again as an industry powerhouse, only this time in music. Pulp, Richard Hawley and Arctic Monkeys have recently led the way, and now it’s the turn of exciting young hopefuls Dead Like Harry to fire up the city’s musical furnace.
True to their home city’s working class soul and music heritage, the recent Artist of the Week pride themselves on their honest, from the heart storytelling, and their inspiring rock and pop sound is enriched by touches of blues, country and folk.
Currently at hard work on recording their new album with esteemed Sheffield producer Alan Smyth, songwriting brothers Sam and Matt Taylor spare a few precious moments to pen an exclusive Artist Diary for HitQuarters. Studio time, career aspirations and the highs and lows of their musical journey to date are all included, as are their dramatic encounters with the dreaded ‘bag of death’.
By Matt and Sam Taylor
We’re halfway through the first week of recording for our new album. It was a pretty heavy day yesterday – 12 hours – in which we recorded almost continuously. Adam, our drummer, has blistered hands and I’ve no idea how Alice managed to keep her singing voice for that long. Still, although it was a tough day for everyone, we made a great start and the atmosphere seemed a lot more relaxed this morning, knowing that we’d got a lot of drum, bass and piano parts down on tape.
Towards the end of last year, after getting over 50 gigs done between April and October, we’d saved up a bit of a slush fund that hadn’t been spent on accommodation, food, petrol and van hire. It was obvious that we needed to get back into the studio and try and capture the songs we had been writing and performing over that period.
When me and Sam, my brother and co-writer of ten years, sat down to have a look through the material we had performed at the 2008 gigs, we noticed that, unintentionally - though probably subconsciously - we had written a narrative of the band’s recent experiences. These had reached a low point at the start of the year after a particular project and collaboration we had spent 9 months working at had failed to work out.
I think we tried to take a positive slant on the whole experience and decided to spend the whole year taking our songs and our live show to as many people as possible. We managed to bag several big festivals as well as travelling to all corners of the country.
Arriving at Cornbury Festival and parking between The Bangles and Paul Simon’s tour bus was a highlight. It was amazing to be a part of a festival with such prestigious acts headlining, and real experience to play on the same bill as some of those who inspired us to write songs in the first place.
We played in sunny fields, under wet marquees, on stormy beaches, in large night clubs, sharing stages with bands as varied as Scouting For Girls and Show Of Hands, as well as in numerous darkened city-centre live music venues. On our travels we started to put our experiences down into some sort of musical diary.
50 gigs and nearly 10,000 miles for an unsigned band is a lot of work for one year, especially when trying to contend with: parking in central London; 2 band members crashing their cars into the bass player’s Skoda at the same gig; our equipment being submerged in a muddy field at Glastonbury; a spring tide stranding our gear on the beach at Scarborough’s ‘Beached’ festival; drunken drummers and grumpy keyboard players; as well as the ever-present loading/unloading hazard of the ‘bag of death’.
After several close shaves with this strangely shaped and extremely heavy container we decided to swap the ‘bag of death’ for two “boxes of mild discomfort”. As recently as last month and at Alice’s request, these boxes were dissolved into four “briefcases of almost mild pleasure”. However, I have digressed and this is a story for another article.
Working with promoters all around the country has been a really good experience. Having no booking agent means that we have had to book every single gig we have played ourselves. Being on the front line and cutting the deals with the promoters was a useful experience but something I would be glad to pass on to an experienced agent. We have already booked in festivals for this summer and currently look set to play our first show outside of the UK!
In May 2008, we released our debut EP ‘When We Were 17’ on iTunes through the student company ‘Syllabus’, and then followed this with our single ‘Fight’. We followed this up with a good press push, which was aimed nationally for the first time.
A big music lawyer contacted us and is helping guide us through the industry and that is a useful contact that we can call on. It gets difficult sometimes to know whether you are making the right decision or not and I would suggest having either The Musicians Union or a music lawyer there to help protect your interests. Obviously lawyers come at a cost, but it is always worth being a member of the MU.
We have showcased to many major labels in London this year and have realised that showcasing and meeting the A&R in the industry is just another part of the big picture. When you are starting out in a band you dream of the day Universal or Sony come to see you play. But when it happens you realise you will probably have to play to quite a few A&Rs before you find the person who understands your music.
Although we are still self-managed, releasing our material on a very low-key level and booking our own gigs, we feel it can only be a matter of time until the right people come along. They are invaluable and it is nearly impossible to take a band to a professional level on your own. However, it is not impossible to get a band out there and gigging and releasing music regardless. That is what we have achieved and experienced over the last year and this year I’m sure will just get better!
The money we saved this year from gigging and merchandise was not enough for a full album studio session, but we managed to strike a very interesting and exciting deal with producer Alan Smyth, whom we had worked with before, and who has recorded bands such as Pulp, Arctic Monkeys, Richard Hawley and Reverend and The Makers.
When you’re recording at his Sheffield-based 2 Fly Studios, hardly a day goes by before some local pop legend pokes their head in the door. “Know where I can borrow a banjo from?” Jarvis Cocker once enquired.
Well, it turns out our old collaborator Alan and his co-producer Dave Sanderson had found an old factory space they wanted to renovate and turn into a new studio. This is the kind of thing that’s happening behind the old red brick walls of Sheffield’s industrial quarters. When I was a kid in the late 1980s, Sheffield wasn’t the prettiest place. With a lot of its industry dead, there were many empty shells of buildings with dark interiors and broken windows.
Things have since changed and are continuing to change, often surprising speed. The arts sector has become a large employer in Sheffield and one of the most exciting things about this is the amount of music now pouring out of this city. In 2009, if you walk through these areas of disappeared-industry you are likely to hear the sounds of bands all day as the old factory spaces start production once more – this time producing music.
We made a deal with Alan that we would renovate and build the studio over autumn 2008 in return for enough studio time at the start of 2009 to get our album recorded. And here we are…
We spent Christmas rehearsing and preparing every part of the album. We wanted it to be the real deal – the best possible album we could make. We wanted a thematic feel to both the lyrics and the music. It had to tell our story in both of these mediums without compromise. The next few weeks will tell if we have got it right.
I think the events of the last year and a half have brought the six of us together. We have had highs and unfortunately we’ve seen some real lows. We know we’re still on that journey together and that we have a lot to offer. The six of us have become very close friends. With Alan Smyth and Dave Sanderson on board for the project, we feel sure that we are going to get back on the road in the summer to promote a special album and tell our own story on our own terms.
We are aware that in the current climate many bands are recording albums that are almost just a collection of singles that, when put together, make a disjointed muddle of songs. Perhaps these albums are just reflective of an iTunes generation of songwriters?
We came into the studio wanting the songs on the album to work as singles – after all, this is a business and we need to make money to survive and progress. The album has to be attractive to record companies. They have to be able to market the album through radio. But at the same time we didn’t want it to be a collection of unconnected short stories. A good album has to be a book, where each song is a chapter, that can stand alone – and be a potential single – while still being part of the whole story.
We are sure of one thing – the album ends with a song called ‘Cherry Street’, in which the girl and the boy that went off on their journey at the beginning of the album return home. Cherry Street is the name of a road near to the studio I’m sitting in now. We wanted to name-check a few places we grew up playing gigs in – “at The Boardwalk, down in the city…” The song reaches a false climax in the middle section before dropping away and becoming reflective. For a while we feared we were coming to the end of something.
It soon became apparent that by returning to Sheffield and by returning to Cherry Street we had begun a whole new journey. We wrote the closing lines of the song knowing they would also be the closing lines of the album:
“Down on Cherry Street the lights are shining. The world is waiting there.”
Next week: Interview with SXSW manager Una Johnston
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