To celebrate our pretty pink magazine being archived online for the first time in our six year history, we’ve delved into our back catalogue to catch up with a couple of our coveted cover artists. Our very first cover stars, THE SAND BAND, wooed us with their melancholic, Americana-tinged sole album All Through The Night back in June 2010. One time member of the quintet and current Sundowners lynchpin, Alfie Skelly, caught up with The Sand Band’s singer, guitarist and primary songwriter, David McDonnell, to talk influences, home recording and the passing of time.
Alfie Skelly: You put me onto so many boss records that have shaped the way I listen to music – what tunes or albums are you currently listening to?
David McDonnell: Thanks Alf, the feeling is mutual. You and your brothers have put me onto so much too. I still think the sharing of music between people is precious. Lately I have been listening to Nick Cave’s ‘Skeleton Tree’ album after seeing the film that accompanied its release. I went with my wife and we both felt seeing the recording as well as hearing the songs for the first time was really powerful. The Verve albums have just been re-issued so I have been working my way through those. There’s some amazing extra stuff on them, but the original albums still mean the world to me. Bon Iver’s new tracks sound interesting so I’m looking forward to that album. I like the track ‘Forest Fire’ that he did with James Blake. Other stuff I’ve been listening to is ‘Wide Open’ by Chemical Brothers ft. Beck, ‘The Spoils’ by Massive Attack ft. Hope Sandoval – for the vocal and string break, and ‘Daydreaming’ by Radiohead. ‘The Hustle’ by Lambchop is great. ‘Joe’s Dream’ by Bats For Lashes is really beautiful. Steve Gunn’s ’Way Out Weather’ is an amazing album. His guitar on that album blew me away. ‘Getting Gone’ by Mutual Benefit has a brilliant John Lennon ‘Imagine’ era vibe. I like ‘Advanced Falconry’ by them too. ‘Blood Moon’ by M Craft is a good one for the bath. Morgan Delt has a great sound going on with ‘I Don’t Wanna See What’s Happening Outside’ and ‘Some Sunsick Day’.
AS: During my time with the band All Through The Night took a lot of twists and turns with both studio sessions and you recording and mixing at home – how was it for you and did you get it the way you wanted or did the songs and LP take on a life of their own?
DM: Yeah I was happy with All Through The Night. It was mixed quickly to give out to friends but then never really changed. Just some drums were added by Jay Sharrock on The Secret Chord and then mastered. Because the time between me handing it in and it being released was so long I was frustrated with the pace of the music industry, but I did learn an album takes on a life of its own once you release it. What was sold to me as a quick soft release to get an identity became a fully functioning album being featured in magazines that I read and respected, reviewed alongside albums that probably cost ten times what All Through The Night cost to make. It got great reviews in the press so looking back I wouldn’t change how it went.
AS: I always loved your production and the sound on your records, especially the tracks you recorded at home – with it being so self-sufficient, what techniques or advice would you give to an artist trying to do home recording?
DM: Equipment isn’t important – ideas and songs are. Being creative is. Spending time with the song is the best part. Equipment wise I have always kept it simple, recording live takes to an 8-track cassette and then onto a computer. Hours of editing to fix parts never ends up sounding good. Try and get some magic down on tape before you start relying on effects to fix it. I’m building a small recording space at the moment and it has the same equipment in it as when I started. It’s what I used to make All Through The Night. I read that Nigel Godridge used SM58s to record some of Radiohead’s electric guitars on ‘OK Computer’. If your guitar doesn’t sound right down a £50 microphone, then your guitar probably just doesn’t sound right. Don’t rely on technology, rely on yourself to get the right sound. Also, not enough thought is given to space. Environment can have an influence on the recording without you even knowing it. Like recording at home in my old flat when I had really old wooden floors – the sound of that space was picked up down the mic take after take, in the background on guitars, then in the foreground of vocals. It stacked up and started to open out into a sound itself. It became something else – something unique to that room. Space is as important a sound as the instrument being recorded in it. The best advice I can pass on is to experiment and give a song as much time as you can.
AS: Is there anyone you would like to work with – to produce your next record, for example, or any artists that you would like to mix or produce?
DM: James Skelly and Alan Wills both encouraged me to record and mix myself as they preferred my production and mixes to what we got back when other people got involved. I definitely learnt a lot from Craig Silvey when recording The Coral’s Roots and Echoes.However, there is a guy called Sam Bell who I have spoken to on the phone a few times who I would love to work with. He asked his manager to contact me to see what I was planning next. He’s recorded REM and Beach House. We like a lot of the same sounds so it would be great if we got to work together. I heard Tony Visconti has designed a Octagonal live room full of old instruments. The idea of just being locked in somewhere like that with a friendly guiding voice in the headphones is appealing. When I first started learning about recording I would listen to The Verve, Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Spiritualized and Nick Cave and imagine how those sounds were captured so I guess they are the people I would love to record. Theirs are still the albums that I recognise as perfect. They all still excite me.
AS: Do you have any plans to release any new tracks or album?
DM: Yes. I have recorded an album which is a step forward from the first album. That album was made alone and was shaped by the people in my life at the time and the place I was in. I no longer see those people or live in that place. I wouldn’t want to just recreate that album because people liked it. I will always love those songs, but they are done. I have evolved and hopefully my songwriting has.
AS: There were so many tracks I loved that never made the debut Sand Band LP – would you ever release any of them?
DM: Half of me likes to think that someday they will be heard. But the critical half thinks, why didn’t they make it? I guess I am in different place now spiritually as well as musically. Letting things go is good for the soul.
AS: You’ve played guitar for other artists and fronted your own band, like playing for Richard Ashcroft and The Coral, as well as having The Sand Band. What was the best thing about working with those other artists?
DM: The best thing was being around creative people. That’s what brings out the best in me. I am a guitarist not a singer, so playing guitar for an artist or band has always been what I am best at – what I enjoy the most. Playing guitar has allowed me to travel all over the world so I always go back to it. Working with all the different styles of musicians over the years has meant I have learnt a lot. I tried to have my eyes and ears open in every musical situation I found myself in.
AS: Do you have any gigs or live experiences that you remember the most?
DM: I have three that really stand out. First, when I played for Richard Ashcroft at LCC supporting Oasis – we had only played one warm up show in Dublin the night before so it was only my second gig. Half way through the gig he just started to play ‘History’ and turned to us to come in. He had done it alone in rehearsals so we’d not practised it as a band. His drummer Pete Salisbury was The Verve drummer so he just came in and I came in on slide with a kind of pedal steel sound. Loads of the crowd knew the words and I couldn’t believe I was playing a song that I had listened to all through my youth with the person who wrote it. Unreal. Richard Ashcroft also played a gig for The Royal Albert Hall for Teenage Cancer Trust at which I didn’t play one wrong note. That never happened before or since.
Another time was when I was playing guitar for The Coral in Canada in 2004. I think it was called The Mod Club. People had told me that on the right night The Coral had this ‘extra gear’ that they could slip into and blow any band or crowd away. The whole gig in Canada was amazing. The club had been waiting for them to play there for years – the queue was round the block during soundcheck. The crowd were nutters and the band just fed off it. In the drop down in ’Calendars & Clocks’ James motioned for us all to keep playing so we all just let rip. James put a guitar on and we all just went in and out of these mad sections driven by Ian’s drums that ranged from The Doors to The Byrds to 13th Floor Elevators, all to the back drop of a strobe and people going mental. When we came off James said it was one of his best gigs of his life. I felt privileged to have been part of it.
Last was with Noel Gallagher preparing for his High Flying Birds tour. Although ultimately it didn’t work out with me in the band, I came out of it still loving his songs. The first week of rehearsals was just me, Russ [Pritchard] and Noel in a really small practice room to get all the parts and sounds together before the full band rehearsals. Noel was on acoustic and I was using his signature red Gibson. All the tunes were good but when we did ‘Listen Up’ it was something special. I still can’t really explain how some songs get so deep into your soul – it’s mainly the ones you listened to growing up that hold the most weight. It was a sunny outside and his guitar tech had opened the door to let some air in and I had a bit of a moment – playing ‘Listen Up’ with Noel Gallagher in the sun. It took me somewhere – like the best music is supposed to. For the length of that song I just felt like the world was an amazing place, like the universe listens, that you do get out what you put in.
AS: Have you seen any new artists or bands out now who you would recommend checking out?
DM: My son plays drums in a band called The Mysterines. The band are only 15 and 16 but have something special already. They are original and all good players. They don’t sound like anything that’s already out there, so that’s always a good sign. I am excited to see where they go as a band. And I like Jack Joseph Band. I played some shows with him and recorded him early on. He has a really pure voice. His band all work around each other so well and have some really beautiful parts. They record live as a band. He has a free download on bandcamp of ‘Unfurl Your Heart’ that is like something from ‘On The Beach’ by Neil Young. Check out ‘Wayfaring’ from his ‘First Blues EP’ – ’Travel On’ – ‘Keep It Stock’ – right through to his new release ‘No Reason To Hesitate’. Also ’Last Night I Dreamt Alone’ and ‘In Your Shadow’ by Faded Gold. She is a Wirral based solo artist who is really talented.