Cellar Door: From Pig Pen Rehearsal Studios to Blast Recording
It was once said that "of all the phrases in the English language, of all the endless combinations of words in all of history, that 'cellar door' is the most beautiful." That is what Cellar Door, five lads from Teesside, decided they wanted to capture in their music: the most beautiful combination of sounds possible. And this is a glimpse into the writing and recording of those beautiful sounds.
The beginning of life is a curious and magical thing. When a space of nothingness gets ignited into a throbbing, growing contingency with an urge to communicate we cannot help but be transfixed by wonder. The womb is a symbol of this beginning. A recording studio is the womb of modern music. The place where embryonic songs develop, laboriously, through multiple stages until that joyous — and somewhat painful — moment of maturity.
By the time Cellar Door offered me the chance to join them during the development process of their new EP at Blast Recording Studio in Newcastle, I was familiar with the studio's reputation as probably the best recording studio in the North East. The studio where the likes of Arctic Monkeys and Snow Patrol recorded, as I had often been told, and where the top-notch facilities, professional service and relaxed atmosphere form the ideal hub for several days of intense burgeoning creativity.
For a vast majority of us, when we hear of artists recording albums or singles, an MTV video runs through our minds of musicians having a jovial time filled with banter and junk food and occasionally plugging in some microphones and pressing record on a fancy computer. Nothing too serious or tiring. After a couple of warm-up ‘takes’, they should get everything right in one fell recording swoop, shouldn’t they? (But it is a little bit more complicated than that.)
Before we shoot into the truly mysterious happenings at Blast Studios with Cellar Door, we need to know where these songs are first conceived. In their case, it all starts in a barn.
Pig Pen Rehearsal Studios
There is a moment that will be forever etched in my memory. It is the moment Danny Rees, drummer to Cellar Door, welcomes me to Pig Pen Rehearsal Studios for the first time, his arms raised above his head. He seemed positively ecstatic about it as if he had waited the entire day for that moment: to travel a wee bit up the A19 into the postal-codeless world of the Pig Pen: barns converted into practice rooms.
Gone is the blue misty air of the sea, the boulevards and the imaginary palm trees that would take you to Grizzo’s rehearsal rooms in Hartlepool. These are replaced by those lovely dizzying English country lanes and the sweet smell of manure and nature; a timeless environment captured in puddles of mud and the various beats of the musicians who rehearse there. But, for whatever reason, the musty smell of old buildings and unknown bits of history remain. And, of course, that now familiar scent of carpets drenched in musical sweat.
It is here that the initial framework of Cellar Door’s alluringly melodic music is laid down: a largely collaborative process between the five members. A rough musical idea, a piece of freshly cut woody guitar riff or drum beat, is presented to the other members who each get a share of input in the further development of the idea. Over the course of several practice sessions, they carve away, nail together and polish various pieces of the motif as everyone writes their different parts to it, until they are left with a 'song' to which Danny or Craig (the leading guitarist) might add those soothing poetical lyrics.
Once Cellar Door gather a set of these embryonic songs, already ‘tried and tested’ at gigs where they naturally evolve further, they may decide — as they did recently — to take them to a recording studio, and by help of a producer, bring them to full maturity in the form of an EP release.
They spent three full days at Blast: Saturday from 8am to 6pm, Sunday from 10am to 8pm and Monday from 10am to 8pm. Three days fuelled by Coke Zero, magical grapes, energy drinks and coffee.
But what did each ten hour shift consist of?
Saturday was dedicated to the most time-consuming instrument to set up and get right on a recording: the drums. This involved creating entangling piles of cobratic cables as microphones were placed and adjusted, moved around and readjusted while going through multiple sound checks and tuning. The drummer then had to record all of his parts, which was further modified and polished by the producer the following day.
Sunday the other instrumental parts were recorded to the drum track: the guitar melodies, the vocals and the keyboard. A relatively simpler and cosier process most of which happened in the mixing room itself.
Monday was the final day during which all the musical ‘loose ends’ had to be added: pedal effects, tambourines, bells and other tweaks and dangling strings.
Everything is recorded separately. Several takes need to be recorded for each part from which the best pieces are selected and ‘reassembled’ by the producer, like a giant jigsaw puzzle of sine waves. The producer, Thom Lewis in the case, whom I have since thought of as ‘the Wizard of Blast’, is indeed that unknown god-like figure that gives the embryonic songs that extra something to help them grow and become perfect beings.
I only spent one of these days with them. To call it tiring is an understatement. It is mentally draining but sustainable and every bit worth it because of the passion for the music. What impressed me most was not only Cellar Door's sheer passion, but also the effortless enjoyment they seemed to take in being in each other’s company. You will often read that recording is a lot of waiting around in the lounge area, drinking tea and even cracking open some beers, but generally being bored while other band members are busy recording. Not Cellar Door. They were in the actual studio, listening and commenting and being part of the process with the producer all the way.
The only break was a rushed trip to Morrisons, fretting over an electronic shopping list while loading a basket full of take-away food and more Coke Zero, most of which was consumed in the mixing room while the work went on.
This is only the beginning of the actual release process, which can take another couple of months: there is always something to be changed, and then copies to be mastered, physical copies to be made, album art to be designed, musical videos to be made, and promotions and release gigs to be organised.
“And then," Danny explains enthusiastically, "all of that comes out and you go ‘bang’ and you expect hundreds of people to listen to it and you get about ten listens. And then it sits on your Spotify playlist by which point you've probably wrote the next songs for your next release. And then it all starts all over again.”
Yet, they would insist on the fact that all of this is just a hobby. Their lives are moving on and although the band remains an inseparable part of their lives it is an almost negligible part. Or perhaps incidental is the better word. It just happened. And it just keeps on happening. And I am certain that I am not the only person who is glad that it does.
Note: The quote used at the beginning of this post comes from the film Donnie Darko.