David Bottrill was Peter Gabriel’s main engineer during the making of the album Passion, which is being released as a high resolution download for the first time as Bowers & Wilkins celebrate the 100th release on Society of Sound. Here, David Bottrill talks to Nige Tassell about the making of the album.
How did you come to be engineering and mixing Passion? What had led you to Real World’s door?
I was working in Canada for the producer Daniel Lanois. When he came to the UK to work with Peter on the So album, I followed as his assistant. When the opportunity came to stay in the UK and continue to work with Peter, I jumped at the chance and stayed on to help in the studio. That generally led to me helping to record B-sides and live performance tracks from the So period, as well as joining the This Way Up tour. Working alongside Peter this way led naturally to his Passion project.
Had you been involved in soundtrack work previously?
I had never recorded or mixed for a film project before, but we just started the recording process as Peter normally does, with rhythm. Peter had met with Martin Scorsese who had given him some source material to draw inspiration from. Nass El Ghiwan and other North African artists material was what we started with. He had some source recordings which we augmented and also built new recordings with those as inspiration.
The main studio at Real World was believed to be – at the time, at least – the largest control room in the world. How did it help in marshalling, both artistically and physically, Passion’s many musicians? Did the studio’s scale aid the epic nature of the score?
I think we would have had a very different record if we hadn’t had the quality and versatility of Real World to record it in. The studio made my job a lot easier. The larger spaces allowed for people to all play together in the same room and to also set up creative spaces where they wanted to. Most of all, Peter wanted to lose the separation between the recording spaces and the sonic sculpture spaces. Remove the wall of glass between the artist and the technology. This was why the control rooms were of a size that could mostly accommodate both.
Were there any particular challenges, either artistically or technologically, with dealing with so many artists from varied musical backgrounds?
The challenges I had were basically which mic to use and where to place it on an instrument I had never seen before, let alone heard. Peter has a way of communicating with musicians and getting the best performances out of them And we worked with so many great ones that they were able to modify any of their cultural idiosyncrasies to fit the music.
Do you have any particular anecdotes from the recordings?
When recording for Peter, you are often flying by the proverbial seat of the pants. Not ever hearing Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sing before and so being unaware of his incredible dynamic range, I had set up a mic for him to sing and set a conservative level to record him. First takes are often the best and getting them recorded is vital. I basically started the track, Nusrat started singing and as the track grew in intensity, so did the singing. I was holding on to the level controls for dear life and rode his level to tape as the performance was happening in real time, trying to anticipate where he was going.
It was analogue technology, so I wanted to make sure it was recorded strongly enough to avoid noise problems while keeping it within the range of not distorting. I managed to get the first performance and this ended up being the centrepiece vocal performance of the soundtrack’s title track.
You then took the recordings to New York to match the music to the movie. What particular challenges were there at this stage?
There was an instance that I won’t forget. We had gotten Richard Evans, a great musician and engineer/producer who eventually joined Peter’s band, to record the Wells Cathedral Boys Choir singing an arranged piece of Peter’s that he wrote for the film. There were many takes, but when we were in New York, I received the DAT tape of the takes. I listened and chose what I thought was the best and just tried to line it up with one of the scenes we had been given. It was the scene where Jesus is on the cross and is told by the little girl/devil that he could come down from the cross and not die. The girl takes out the nails and brings him down from the cross. The music seemed to magically hit every moment and fit the scene incredibly well. It was a sort of divine intervention, if you believe in that sort of thing.
We brought everyone down from the dubbing room upstairs to play this to. As we didn’t have sync technology for the DAT player, we hit ‘play’ on both machines and hoped for the best. It lined up pretty well this second time too. Martin saw it all and said “Great, but we can’t use it”. His rationale was that this was the most ‘blasphemous’ part of the film with the most classically religious style of music on it. He was already receiving death threats and didn’t want to stir any more controversy.
Finally, what do you think of the record when you listen back to it today?
It is still one of my proudest achievements. I still reference that project as a defining one in my career.