I sort of lost the plot with progressive rock and other similar music from the mid ’90’s to mid ’00’s. We didn’t collect a lot of it – focusing on more alternative rock forms. But more recently, I’ve been missing the music that fueled my imagination as a younger man, and am realizing that many of the original practitioners are on their last laps, and some others have been filling in, developing the art and taking this music to new places.
A case in point is the compelling band Spirits Burning. This space rock collective has as its main practitioner and organizer one Don Falcone, keyboardist, editor, and producer. His notion has been to work with scores of musicians on each new release, collaborating over the internet, and producing a wondrous home brew of space rock, world music, and anything that lights the way. I visited Don at his home studio this May of 2014.
The latest release from Spirits Burning & Bridget Wishart is Make Believe It Real from Gonzo Multimedia. This is the third release with Bridget Wishart, who sports her own rich catalog including time as lead vocalist for Hawkwind along with other projects. This one is a longer release spanning two CDs. To begin, I asked Don if this double is a watershed moment or mark in time for the Spirits Burning project, as can be the case with longer releases:
Don: Actually, to make this release a bit special, we said why not have a second CD – a bonus disk – with some tracks that are only available on compilations, some remixes, and a piece with Twink, which we made into a new track. So it’s not a “best of” or anything like that. Instead the length of this new double CD allows us to do something special for the release. One note – we are planning a compilation disc that will be coming out through Gonzo, and which may be tied to a Hawkwind release as a promo. Our last compilation was after 10 years and this one will be at the 15 year mark.
Being in Don’s studio, it was a great time to take a look at his recording equipment, methods and approaches. Don and I walked through several tracks and talked about how his approach to recording has changed over the years.
When Spirits Burning started, many of us recorded together in the same place. Over time, more people have gained the ability to record themselves. So things have developed and changed – it’s clearly given me the opportunity to do different things with space rock and not get bogged down with the same musicians and instruments.
Collaborations have included band members from such disparate sources as Counting Crows to Hawkwind, along with concepts and words from literary sources including Michael Moorcock, and Bob Calvert (posthumously).
Collaborating in this way, I thought it was a great way to write or start pieces and then have other people change that track and turn it into something else, and also to have them start pieces. So it wasn’t just about me – I’ve always felt that the best band is one where everybody is as good as or better than me. The other thing is, from the beginning – I wanted to make this a celebration of space rock – over time what’s it’s morphed into is a celebration of collaborating – the result is lots of space rock but there’s prog and other elements – people taking the chance to play with others they would not normally play with. Slowly over the years, I’ve asked people and they’ve said “yes” – so for example I asked Steven Wilson (of Porcupine Tree) and he agreed, Daevid Allen (from the band Gong) comes in when he is here. And there are several collaborators from Hawkwind. Most of the recent recording sessions now happen remotely, although Cyrille (Verdeaux from Clearlight) and others still come here to record. To continue being relevant, I do think I have to vary the classic artists involved and mix in more contemporary performers.
At this point, we walk through a new track Don is working on – from the upcoming release titled Starhawk (an adaptation of a Mack Maloney novel). I asked Don how these compositions begin and become developed into the final form:
About 75 percent of the pieces start off with the rhythm and some chords I have in mind. If I have a vocal line in mind, I know where that has to go as well, but to get it into the digital workstation, I need to decide on the tempo. Then I get a click track or fake drum. As an example, I have a bunch of plug-ins for this piece – there is a drum plug-in called Strike and there are others I use. I sometimes mix drum machines. To begin, my intent with this piece is to get rid of the drums once I have a drummer. Occasionally, I will find that I lose something with the real drummer and then I do a bit of both. So this piece started with the drums (plays a bit of the drum track). And then I knew what I was going to do on keyboards (plays a bit of the keys with drums). There are five MIDI instruments – organ, piano, two synths, plus keys that sound like a guitar. Next, I did a scratch vocal.
Do you ever start with sheet music you’ve written?
I may write down letters – A minor, G, whatever and then I experiment – if I’m going to do 7ths or 9ths, then it’s more in the playing, not what I’ve written down. I don’t know with people who contribute outside this room whether they write things down or not. I do know someone like Cyrille, will have his way of writing things down. Violinist Craig Fry will chart everything out. When Daevid was here for the original Spirits Burning CDs, he would be here for a day and do six pieces – he kind of installed in me more improv – it’s fun to see what happens – when you throw something at somebody. If they like it, if they get along with it, and you see what they do. If you are playing rhythm tracks, of course you have to stay consistent with that, and make that work, but if you are doing a solo or effects, you can stretch out. Plus, if I play something that sounds great – I don’t have to worry about playing it live, as I might not play it ever again. Yes, I’ve captured it digitally, and while I could generate sheet music from it, I typically won’t, unless someone requests it.
Next on this track, a lot of things are done as stems, so you can click on that one Aux or VCA track, for instance, to modify the volume of all the “stemmed” keys at one time (Plays track again while changing the level of the keyboard stem). With every song, I pick a reverb and plug it in (replays background vocals which sound wide across the spectrum, modifying what we are hearing with an external Eventide Model H3000 SE Ultra Harmonizer).
As an example of how these ideas come together, for this same track, I had a specific idea in mind for the progression of vocals. “Vagabonds of the Western World” by Thin Lizzy was one of their early tracks that I liked and it inspired me – it starts off with a vocal line and then has a lead vocal line, and a third part – and then at the very end of the song, all three parts happen at once. I went back and studied what they did – they used complimentary keys that work on top of each other, and using the stereo mix – left, right, center for the lead vocals – it’s very powerful. I decided to use the idea – of course with different chords, a totally different song, but planned so that the three vocal segments line up in a similar way. (Plays verse, chorus, lead vocal from “Our Crash”). Here, eventually, I bring them all together – lead guitar during the bridge is Billy Sherwood (plays a great melodic solo from Billy). Here is the first part on the left, second on the right, center for the lead.
To put down these vocals, we need two singers. For now, the lead is me. I’m working on getting someone special for the final version. For backing vocals, Judge Smith did 3-4 parts — he’s got a great voice. I gave him a version with all of my scratch vocals and one without. Given the same parts happen in multiple places, he could concentrate on when it was cleaner and fit best.
To pull all these tracks together, there are many cloud services on which to collaborate. I typically use Dropbox but also have a Box account. When I put all this together, we align the track to “zero,” before anything starts. There is also a mark (or transient) I’m watching for (Don points back to the session window, early in the piece where the first sound is displayed). If someone is sending a small part, they might not send the whole WAV file (these are quite large), and in those cases I line up the bit where it’s intended to go. But I ask them to also send me a quick mix of their part with what I gave them, so I can hear where they see themselves fitting in, and at what volume. If for any reasons there is some latency, where their part is a couple samples or seconds off, I can hear it and know to line it up. There has been some fun mistakes over the years. There’s a song on the Spirits Burning & Bridget Wishart CD, “Skyline Signal” where Bridget and I got confused, and invited two bass players. Luckily, one played in a higher frequency and the other a lower and it sounds really cool together.
So these pieces are coming up on the next project. “Our Crash” plus “Two Names” are the first two tracks. Not sure if there will be more instrumentalists in between. I have been thinking about the type of transition heard in the Hawkwind piece “Assault and Battery” as it goes into “Golden Void” – one of my favorites. I love how they start with this massive sound and then they come down into this combination of mellotron and bubbling synths and tabla. You can be influenced by things you like – then work with those influences and take them to a new place. For “Our Crash” you would never make a Thin Lizzy connection for a million years. But just structurally it inspired the work. This is typical of how Spirits Burning tracks are formed.
Don walked through the stack of keyboards, equipment and software he most typically uses – including:
• Kurzweil 2000 as his main keyboard MIDI trigger
• Pro Tools HD system for recording and mixing it all
• Eventide Ultra-Harmonizer Model H3000 SE – which is used for various reverb and delay effects
• Roland Juno-60 – a classic synth used a little in 2012’s Astralfish release on Don’s Noh Poetry Records label.
• M-Audio Venom – used for many of the moving synth lines on the “Make Believe It Real” album.
• Virtual synths. Don says that he typically uses more virtual synths – software plug-ins — than physical keyboards. These include Structure sampler, Xpand!, organ, piano, and a couple of synth plug-ins.)
• A mellotron he’s storing for a friend and has used for seven of the last eight Spirits Burning CDs!
His home studio is real and warm in a house filled with family and friends, often musicians!
Make Believe It Real is now available and highly recommended. Check it out!