Tom Cawley on recording ‘Captive’ for Society of Sound

Tom Cawley, Joshua Blackmore and Sam Burgess at Real World Studios. Credit: York Tillyer

The distinctive sound of Curios owes all to the group’s chemistry and the unrivalled interplay between the musicians. Formed by pianist and composer Tom Cawley, we asked him about their recording for Society of Sound.

“For this album, I wanted to incorporate some new sounds and new improvisatory techniques. Our first two albums Closer and The Other Place were completely acoustic and with the third we introduced a small amount of looping, delay and some pitch shifting. But for this I wanted to expand the sound further with filters, use looping more creatively and add a couple of extra sonic textures.

There is a Moog low-pass filter applied to the rhythm loop on ‘Captive’, which is initially created by percussively playing the inside of the piano. The same filter is used on ‘My Brain’ for the escalating piano improvisation lines – allowing them to build whilst remaining in the background, sonically. The fundamental bass part is also looped after its first instance, allowing Sam to play a second, improvised part for the rest of the tune. In the final section ‘Blues for Phineas’, the filter is of a different type – an envelope-follower which gives a more aggressive and rhythmic effect to the looped piano part.

The looper and filter are also used with the melodica on ‘Meat Semantics’ to enable the theme to repeat whilst the band improvises over it. The looper is used alone with the vocal on ‘Him’ in order to allow it to be layered progressively in three parts while the band repeats the harmonic sequence and the bass solos. On ‘Bokeh’, the looper was used to build the four-part vocal chord at the start, which plays through the whole piece. The electronic handclaps on beats 1 and 3 were programmed in and run along with the performance.

In terms of the music itself, I have always been interested in the relationship between melody and harmony; I like to write diatonic-sounding melodies which are perhaps slightly subverted (or maybe enriched!) by their harmonisation. ‘The Corridor of Uncertainty’ is a good example of this – the harmonisation of the melody changes continually throughout the first part of the tune. In ‘Captive’ there is an attempt to create a sort of unending unease with the melody against the harmony, as cheery as that sounds. The bridge provides some sort of glimpse of light, but this quickly dissipates and we’re back to the dreadful reality. I hope you enjoy it.

Some tunes on this album – ‘Coanda’, ‘Blues for Phineas’, ‘Mistakes’ – are built largely on transpositions of the same chord type – in the case of ‘Coanda’ this is literally sustained throughout the whole piece. Every note in the melody is the major third on its respective sus chord. Needless to say, I like the sound of this.

Most of the drum patterns on the album are entirely the product of Josh’s rather mercurial brain. In ‘Him’, for example, Sam and I had literally no idea what he was going to play before each take. The drum groove which I suggested to him when I wrote ‘Mistakes’ could not be further from the pattern he arrived at. Ditto ‘Bokeh’, ‘Meat Semantics’ etc. He used different set-ups and tunings with his kit for more-or-less every tune, which I think added nuance to the tracks and depth to the recording.

The piano and bass were recorded relatively conventionally, albeit with an extraordinary number of microphones on the piano. The emphasis was on natural sound and space, and I think this was achieved quite wonderfully. We recorded with Sam and I in one space and Josh in a booth; although the booth was positioned very close to the bass, was not entirely isolated and thus enabled us to communicate freely.”    Tom Cawley

Find out more about the album here.

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