Nightmare on Wax's George Evelyn
Photo: Tracey Taylor
It goes pretty much without saying that aside from getting robbed, shot, divorced or called next at the dentist's office, moving — that is, boxing up everything you own and relocating to a faraway place — is one of the most stressful events you'll ever experience during your brief stay on this planet. So you'd have to be off your rocker to add intentionally to the deluge, right? That's what everyone, including execs at the Warp label in London, told producer and Nightmares On Wax founder George Evelyn when they learned about his plan to liven up his cross-border odyssey by overhauling a camper van so he could record a new album on the road.
“When I put it to the label, they were like, ‘That sounds crazy, but we're up for it,''” Evelyn laughs. “But really the only way I could get my studio from my hometown in Leeds to my family's new place in Ibiza was to do it myself. And maybe there was a bit of paranoia in that, but that was when I thought, ‘Well, if I'm gonna deal with my gear, I could be doing something. What if I set my studio up on a camper van?'' Then I could spend however many days it took traveling to write the next album. So the whole project just started mushrooming out of that one idea.”
Actually, traveling in all its forms — physical, mental, even extraterrestrial — has been a recurrent theme of many a Nightmares On Wax project, going back to the breakout disc Smokers Delight in 1995, which yielded such cuts as the stretched-out desert groove “(Man) Tha Journey.” The album itself marked a significant progression beyond N.O.W.'s 1990 acid-bleep club hit “Aftermath,” recorded with Kevin Harper and based on a sample of The Main Ingredient's “Happiness Is Just Around the Bend,” but by the end of the '90s, Evelyn — also known to N.O.W. fans as E.A.S.E (a loose acronym for Experimental Sample Expert) — had set the wheels fully in motion, delving into gradually more funky, downtempo moods with Carboot Soul (1999), Mind Elevation (2002) and In a Space Outta Sound (2006).
Harnessing similar elements of funk, dub, soul and chill-out, Thought So… (2008) is a musical itinerary of Evelyn's 10-day trip from Leeds through northern France, the Pyrenees, the Spanish cities of Segovia and Cadiz, the Sierra Nevada and eventually on to the island of Ibiza. But deeper still, the album is a testament to group ingenuity and perseverance — after all, not everyone can just jump in a van and expect to throw down solid, usable takes over days and nights of jamming, but that's exactly how Evelyn, engineer Bruce Wood, keyboardist Robin Taylor-Firth, guitarist/bassist Chris “Earl Tutu” Dawkins and percussionist Shovell got it done.
“I think this album definitely has more of a live feel to it,” Evelyn says, “but if I'm being totally honest, I think it really captured a combination between Carboot Soul and Smokers Delight as well. Carboot Soul was really inspired by being on tour and playing live, and Smokers Delight was my first real dive into combining live musicianship with sampling and beatmaking. So it's almost like a full-circle thing, but with a bit more of a fresh approach. We just got to do what we feel comfortable doing; it wasn't a case of trying to be anything apart from what we were experiencing in the moment.”
Before he could pull out of his driveway, Evelyn had to start with the obvious: a proper power supply. Starting with Logic Pro 7 (running on a MacBook Pro) and a MOTU 896HD interface, the mobile studio was tricked out with a Buzz Audio Elixir preamp, Empirical Labs Distressors, a Tascam 2-track digital recorder (for capturing local atmospherics), an Akai S3200XL and MPC1000, a Yamaha DX7 (MIDI-connected to a vast library of synth sounds), a Technics SL-1210 turntable, a bulging DJ bag full of records and numerous mics, amps, cables and other instruments and outboard effects. With all that stuffed into a van, you can't just plug into the cigarette lighter.
“In the end, we found a guy who normally works on big tour buses,” Evelyn explains. “He found us an inverter, which transforms the power from the camper battery to a normal four-way plug system. But of course we actually had to customize that, too, and this is all happening while I'm running around town making sure that we've got enough rolling papers. [Laughs.] Everybody else is ringing me up going, ‘This isn't gonna happen!''”
Rhythm tracks were the order of the next five days on the road; with Taylor-Firth and Dawkins onboard, Evelyn would usually start things off with a beat or a loop, or he might use the downtime at a rest stop to come up with a bass line and hum it into his cell phone. Naturally, there were some minor technical obstacles to overcome when the whole studio was in motion, but instead of fighting them, Evelyn simply chose to fold them into the result.
“There was one funny thing about having the inverter,” he recalls with amusement. “I might be sampling a record or recording Chris' guitar while the camper was moving, and every time the driver changed gear, the inverter would go up and down in frequency. I think you can actually hear it on ‘Bringing It.'' It's a whirring sound, but I decided to leave it there because it's part and parcel of where we were. We just had to adjust. We might be going down the mountain and Robin is rocking from side to side trying to play his keys, and he's just like, ‘We need to stop.'' [Laughs.] So the driver would stop for a break, and we'd just get on with it. Then you look outside, and there's a waterfall coming down from the Pyrenees, and it's like, ‘Shiiiit!'' It was pretty inspiring.”
SOUND MIND & BODY
Not only was Evelyn intent on maintaining a loose, live feel throughout the sessions for Thought So…, but after 15-plus years of making records, he found himself returning to an unadorned, what-you-hear-is-what-you-get method of creating songs. Quantized beats wouldn't cut it; by accessing his massive library of live drummers and sampled breaks, he'd tap out a live rhythm until the sound and swing fit the surroundings. “Calling,” for instance, is a downtempo hypno-jazz instrumental that ebbs and flows with elongated string swells (fine-tuned over the years by Taylor-Firth using blended layers of E-mu Proteus and the Vienna Symphonic Library's viola) and Shovell's tastefully placed percussion. Evelyn identifies the song as a key product of his less-is-more aesthetic.
“I picked out some really '80s-sounding snares and kicks,” he says. “It was a reference — just a basic beat to get started — and then I got Shovell to lay his shakers and percussion on it. Later on I messed around a lot with the mix, and at one point I had even mastered the track, but I still wasn't happy with it, and that was because I realized that this basic '80s-sounding beat, which was recorded really badly and not treated with anything, actually sounded good. It was capturing something. Shovell's movement was giving it a live feel, but in the end it was a case of me coming back around to something simple.”
The same idea held for recording vocals. In keeping with the raw, unfiltered computer dub sound of “195lbs,” Ricky Ranking tracked his full-throated toasts on a thoroughly battered Shure SM58 as the van rolled down the highway to Cádiz. “The only thing I did was to cut out a little low end on his voice,” Evelyn says, “and then I added some overdrive using a Logic plug-in. I was going for that high-mid dub-clash vibe because in my experience of working with sound systems, everything is always about the bass and the top, with the high-mids always cutting through on the vocal.”
For opening track “Da Feelin,” the wah effect on Chris Dawkins' bass turns out to be the pivot that guides the song's sweat-fueled party vibe, although it also helps to have a roomful of people at a Spanish finca (country house) in Segovia chanting and clapping along with the band, as well as singer Chyna Brown soulfully peppering the mix with diva-like couplets. Almost a year would go by before Evelyn actually got into the mix in Ibiza [see sidebar, “Wax On Studios: Make Mine Analog”], but he knew that the uncut multitracks had the seeds of what he wanted.
“It was really straight on the money,” he recalls. “Even the video footage we have is the actual take that ended up on the album. Chris has some Bootsy Collins shit going, and there's a loop of a Rose Royce song [“Do Your Dance”] in there, and Shovell is playing percussion, so the groove is so strong that I felt I needed to find a happy medium between all the elements. I think that's probably the track that I went back and mixed the most, just to try and get the balance right. The beats and the bass need to be solid, but neither one should run the show.”
There's also a quiet and meditative quality to Evelyn's current work that harks back in some ways to the stoned reveries of Smokers Delight, but with a far more nuanced and subtle delivery that suggests the evolution of a producer who's fully at peace with his inner adult, although the child still rules the roost from time to time. Evelyn has said it himself: This is Nightmares On Wax coming full circle, marking a return to a sound that's more basic and direct. Whether or not it flogs the club crowd into submission or soars up the charts is of little concern.
“I don't believe that we base anything that we do on a traditional song structure,” Evelyn clarifies. “Again, I like finding the adventure and the journey in a track, so you can go with where the groove is taking you. It's never set in stone. And then the mixing itself is another art form, which I love, especially if you're in a total zone and you're mixing on a level where you're not producing anymore. I have to snap myself out of that sometimes [laughs], but that's what I'd tell anyone who worries about getting all this gear and working a track to death: Sometimes you just need to leave it alone and get it finished.”
Two years removed from his musical odyssey, Evelyn still marvels at how many chances he took just to make the album, but insists that he never had any doubts about how he and his core of N.O.W. compatriots would respond. “This trip was always about more than just the music,” he says. “It was gonna be an experience. We found ourselves in a situation that we realized none of us had ever been in, and I think that made us more unified. Technically, there was nobody to ask how to do it because nobody had ever done anything like this. When I reflect on it now, yeah, it's like, ‘Wow, this is crazy!'' And that was the whole point of calling the album Thought So…, because it came from the power of thought, and this is the result.”
WAX ON STUDIOS: MAKE MINE ANALOG
Since he first started making records in the early '90s, George Evelyn was immediately drawn to the tactile aspects of analog mixing and stuck to it even after a lot of UK producers he knew were going all-digital. Beginning with Smokers Delight in 1995, every Nightmares On Wax album went through an Allen & Heath GS3000 until the desk started to hit the skids around 2006 with In a Space Outta Sound. Evelyn decided to pony up for a new TL Audio console, and he couldn't be happier.
“I love digital but I'm an analog man through and through,” he says, “and the thing I love about this desk is that you can find the pocket where something works in a mix. To make things sound fat, you don't actually need to make them that way. You just need to be able to hear them, and the fatness will come within everything. This is probably obvious to a lot of engineers, but to me the whole thing is an adventure. You just sit back and let the snares be snappy instead of pushing the kick, and the kick actually sounds fatter. Then you go back and listen to Quincy Jones, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown and all that, and you're like, fucking hell, that's how it's always been. [Laughs.]”
Thought So… also marks the first time that Evelyn mixed down to an Alesis MasterLink unit. “I used to route my stereo mixes back to Logic and re-record them,” he explains, “and I realized later on that it's incredible how much you lose. You don't notice it unless you A and B it, and I was going back and checking the audio on the Logic mix — it's almost like it's so busy processing what it puts out, that when it's bringing it back in, it can't represent what's there. The great thing about the MasterLink is it's just like a tape machine, really, and that works fine for me.”
ALL ABOARD THE CAMPER VAN
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Alesis Masterlink ML-9600
Apogee Big Ben master digital clock
Apple MacBook Pro and Mac Mini hard drive running Logic Pro 7
MOTU 896HD interface
Tascam HD-P2 portable stereo recorder
TL Audio M4 24-channel valve console
Mics, preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
Avalon Vt-747sp compressor/EQ
Buzz Audio Elixir preamp
Empirical Labs EL8 Distressors (2) and EL7 Fatso Jr
Neumann M 149 mic
Shure SM58 mic
Synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, turntable
Akai S950, S1000, S3000, S3200XL, MPC1000 and MPC2000XL sampling workstations
Apple Logic ES1, ES2, EVP88 (soft synths/piano) and EXS24 (soft sampler)
E-mu Vintage Keys, Mo' Phatt modules
Korg M1 synth
Native Instruments Kontakt soft sampler
Roland Juno-60 synth
Technics SL-1210 turntable
Yamaha DX7 MKII (as MIDI controller) and DX21 synth
Dynaudio Air 20 active system