House Of Heads

Roger D'Arcy | House of Heads (interview)
Interview with Roger D'Arcy

Interview with Roger D'Arcy on his latest album release 'House of Heads' and much more. Roger D'Arcy is a singer/songwriter from the UK who lives in France. Next to his music career, Roger is a studio designer of note with star clientele, such as Sade, The Waterboys, The Kinks, and Annie Lennox. Roger is a craftsman of music and words, as you will be able to gather from this interview. So, sit back, take a drink and enjoy the most in-depth interview we have been allowed to conduct for UbuntuFM so far.

Your new release is called ‘House of Heads’. From the title and album cover, we might deduce it’s about a house made out of stone adorned with figurines and busts. The lyrics however give the impression that there’s more to the story. Please enlighten us.

The 'House of Heads' is indeed a building of stone, liberally adorned with heads and locally known as the 'Maison des Têtes'. It is the 15th century Renaissance house opposite my home here in France and I see it all day long - I can see it now as I try to answer your questions. There are dozens of carved heads all over the facade and around a small courtyard and at night it can look extremely eery. I sometimes try and imagine what those heads must have witnessed over the centuries and the stories lost to the wind - it is  ALWAYS windy here.

A young Napoleon Bonaparte actually lived here in my home and features in a couple of songs on my debut solo album, Crooked Tales from 2016.

He was then just a Lieutenant and is known to have frequently used the owner's library which was on the first floor opposite my balcony. The first part of the title song wonders what he may have learned - the second part is a ghost story based on something I genuinely think I saw but have yet to reconcile.

Is there a central theme to the album or should we enjoy it as a fine collection of music and stories? From my perception, but correct me if I’m wrong, there not so much a lyrical theme to the album, but most definitely one in terms of music, sound, and mood. Maybe the album is a ‘house’ indeed whereby the listener is gently taken from one room with musical and lyrical textures to another. As any good architect would do, this house is built in a consistent (musical) style. In the case of ‘House of Heads’ pop, folk is the overarching theme, whereas your previous ‘house' ‘Crooked Tales’ was built in the country style. Do you consider yourself an architect of music and lyrics? You are after all a designer/architect of recording studios. Do you take a similar approach towards creating music?

There is no theme as such running through the album but yes, we certainly aimed to keep a consistent underlying feel and atmosphere to the songs as the mood and instrumentation necessarily shifts with the stories. Hopefully, it hangs together as a coherent album rather than simply a collection of individual songs - the sequencing is very important to us. The more country feels of Crooked Tales and folk-pop of House of Heads was not by design. When we start to build a song, we often have no idea where it will end up but once in the studio, a particular drum pattern may emerge or a bass line (the bass player on both albums is Matthew Hall, our secret weapon) will grab our attention and that might suggest further instrumentation - for example, the pedal steel guitar on Bonaparte's Bedroom (Rusty Young of legendary American country-rock band, Poco), the flugelhorn on Topol's Pencil (Turkish jazz maestro, Imer Demirer) or backing vocals (the fabulous Greek chanteuse, Emma Kouros).

Is there an architectural influence in my writing process? I honestly don't think so - I must be using a different side of my brain. When I am designing a recording studio, often trying to reconcile conflicting and complex technical requirements, I have no urge to even pick up my guitar or the headspace for new lyrical ideas. I have tried to pass between the two processes but it can take a day or so to shift into the right frame of mind. 

I never subscribed to the oft used analogy, 'Architecture is frozen music' - they are not created or experienced in anything like the same way.

We have been featuring your album on our station in recent weeks. I personally have listened a lot to ‘House of Heads’ and your previous release ‘Crooked Tales’. The superb audio quality keeps drawing me back, but apart from that, I like the stories you tell in each song. Each track tells a different story from what I guess is your life’s experience and observations you made. Am I correct? How personal are the lyrics?

The quality of the recording is totally down to faithfully capturing the natural sound of each instrument using high-quality microphones in acoustically appropriate spaces while being monitored, mixed, and correctly mastered in acoustically accurate control rooms. This is only possible in conjunction with the skill and experience of the engineers coupled with the high quality of the equipment used - the combined Babajim team and environment are second to none. 

The lyrics are, on occasion, almost embarrassingly autobiographical and they do make me flinch sometimes. But every single one of the songs is based on some personal experience or direct observation - even the more historical Napoleonic tales - I live in the same house as he did and so his story naturally fascinates me although I am the first to acknowledge his many failings. 

From the information you have provided us, we gather ‘House of Heads’ is a truly international collaboration - all recorded, mixed, and mastered at Babajim with the exception of the backing vocals by Emma Kouros (something of a star in her own right in Greece and recorded in her own studio in Athens), Guilio Erra's guitars recorded in Naples and the legendary Rusty Young's pedal steel guitar recorded in Nashville. I guess there’s a lot of planning involved in the process. How do you manage this?

Technically, the coordination is all made feasible and easier by modern recording techniques - I am 60 years old, and by modern, I generally mean post Beatles! Parts, including alternative ideas and takes, can be performed and recorded remotely and then transmitted electronically for editing and incorporating into the mix.

Socially, I relied on my own contacts made while designing studios around the world for 30 years and the network of musicians moving in my producers' circles. The album, including photography, ultimately involved contributors from the UK, the USA, Italy, Greece, Turkey, New Zealand - and me in France.

Everything had to be carefully scheduled as different layers were added and this could involve waiting several weeks for the availability of a busy artist (like Rusty Young or Emma) - the real key is patience and allowing sufficient time.

For Crooked Tales, we were fortunate not to be working against any particular deadline and slotted in sessions as needed but there was much more pressure for House of Heads. We had a fixed period of access to Babajim's main tracking studios - in addition, the particular string quartet we wanted to use had to be grabbed as they passed through Istanbul on tour and we had no choice but to be ready for them - that sort of pressure can actually help give focus and generate creative adrenalin to capture a performance. There is a lot of luck involved.

When I listen to your album it sounds and feels like you’re sitting next to me in the room. It sounds totally unlike how a lot of music is produced these days: distant, flat. How did you achieve this? Do you have a recipe?

We certainly wanted to achieve that sense of intimacy from the outset, but for the recipe, I will defer to Pieter's take on how we managed to achieve it:

Well, at the risk of sounding glib, I'd say our recipe is proper production and proper engineering! We found a great microphone that suits Roger's voice (a Telefunken ELAM 251 E), matched it to an appropriate preamp (Rupert Neve Designs), and then recorded Roger being Roger, encouraging him but staying out of his way. He knows how to tell his stories, and we documented it!

We didn't over-process his voice in the mix, just a little outboard LA-2A compression and some Bricasti reverb. It's true we had access to some great tools, and that never hurts, but I've heard those same tools make some awful-sounding messes. Roger's voice is special and honest, and we just tried not to mess it up too much. It makes me very happy that you felt the sense of intimacy and vulnerability we were trying to capture and communicate. - Pieter Snapper, Babajim Studios & Mastering, Istanbul - producer of Crooked Tales and  House of Heads.

Next to being a singer/songwriter, you have a long and notable career as a studio designer. I can imagine this greatly aids you when recording and producing your music. You know both sides of the recording booth. How does this work out between you and the recording/mastering engineers? Given the result of the recordings it is fruitful cooperation, but aren’t they slightly intimidated at times?

Actually, during my sessions, I am the one feeling intimidated. I am continually and painfully aware of the countless other artists, far more talented than myself, that they have recorded. My familiarity with the other side of the glass probably does give me a certain empathy and most definitely huge respect for the engineers and their process. I try to do what they ask with a smile and without argument, I don't make unreasonable demands and I keep going until they say stop. 

The music industry has changed a lot over the past decades. I know this is a broad topic but could you point out a few pros and cons of those changes?

Con: The focus on individual tracks rather than complete albums - we had a single-driven music industry in the 60s but that was often associated with an album. The growth of the album in the 70s was, for me, the most satisfying way to enjoy recorded music - a collection or sequence of music designed to be listened to as a coherent whole, ideally in a single sitting.

Pro: The so-called democratization of music - the Internet and modern recording technology provides for a huge number of platforms/potential outlets for recorded and live music allowing an enormously diverse range of genres (including 'minority' sub-genres) to co-exist and, albeit slanted towards live performance and merchandise sales rather than purchased music, often thrive.

Con:  The completely misguided and short-sighted contemporary idea that content should somehow be free coupled with a corresponding lack of remotely sustainable or fair compensation for most writers and artists. Streaming royalty rates are universally set at a disgustingly low and unrealistic level - artists struggle while Spotify and Apple employees enjoy relatively high salaries and teenagers sport $1,000 smartphones. The major record companies effectively sold out artists and writers for short-term profit - shame on them!

Pro:  I am out of more pros, sorry.....

We live in a digital age. The age of the internet. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to conduct this interview with you in this manner and share it with our readers across the globe. But there’s also this thing called ‘the loudness wars’. There is hardly ever a day we receive new material that needs to be tuned down, edited, before we expose it to the ears of our listeners. The music is more often than not too loud, too sharp, flat, or dull. Regardless of genre. This is a pity, because the music and the lyrics are good and well-intended. It seems to me there’s a general lack of understanding of how music should sound. But I much rather hear your take on it. Can you share some of your thoughts on this with us? What can we, producers, artists, and broadcasters of music learn? Maybe there are specific artists or albums you can recommend?

One of my favourite albums recorded with exceptional sonic (and musical) quality and acknowledged as such globally is 'Aja' by Steely Dan 

One perhaps less well-known is the more recent 'Croz' by one of my all-time favorite artists, David Crosby. Perhaps ironically, my absolute favorite album is 'Tonight's the night' by Neil Young - recorded in an improvised studio set up (I have been responsible for a few such setups over the years - Spiddal  House in Ireland for The Waterboys, an English stately home for The Cure and a villa on a suburban Parisian golf course for French legend Michel Polnereff to name just a few) and without much rehearsal and heavily (and audibly) fuelled by alcohol.

This perhaps gives my take on the first part of your question - for me, music is at its best when performed with a natural, spontaneous expression and capturing the sonic qualities of real instruments played by human beings. Sometimes this can be a little ragged but as Neil Young is quoted as saying, "Tonight's the night is the closest I ever got to creating art".

I would also put Joni Mitchell's majestic 'Hejira' up there though ragged that is not! A significant point that goes back to the previous question is that these examples are all very much albums - not just a collection of individual tracks - and were created to be listened to in sequence as a whole.

It seems that the contemporary tendency to concentrate on individual tracks streamed on sonically poor mobile devices has fed back into the creative process.

Music is written and recorded to be heard in that situation and 'optimised' - ie compressed - for that format. The whole process is frequently (though thankfully not always) reduced to this lowest common denominator of quality and attention span. But bear in mind, I am 60 - I grew up with vinyl albums and time not distracted by social media and games consoles and my opinions are undoubtedly somewhat biased! Still, I think everyone can appreciate well-recorded music, properly mixed and mastered.

A point to note is dynamic range - the difference in level between the quiet and the louder parts of a recording - whilst digital recording theoretically allows for a much wider range than vinyl, older records were often so much more carefully produced and recorded that they really can sound better than poorly recorded CDs or FLAC files - plus the music was not intended for nor compressed to survive a smartphone at maximum loudness.

Music is a business, an industry, it’s entertainment. But it’s much more than that. Music contains a message. It’s a vessel to contain thoughts and feelings. What would life be without music? How would you phrase it though? What’s your take on it?

Life without music for me is utterly unimaginable - if all the instruments and means of playback in the world were to disappear, we would probably just start humming, tapping our feet, clapping our hands, and making up stories to sing to each other. Music has been part of my life since hearing my mother play the latest Beatles single release in the early 60s and messing around with a ukulele aged from around 5 before graduating to guitar when I was about 10. My grandfather, George, could play piano, harmonica, and spoons but the guitar didn't come naturally and so he passed down his own guitar to me.

Music (and my Grandad's love of hats) is in my blood. 

There’s this anecdote about Prince where he would (always) rearrange the music in his mind when listening to other artist’s music. Do you fall into the same habit when listening to music? What music do you listen to? Which artists have influenced you? With such a long career in music, don’t you often think: “seen it, heard it, done it”?

When I listen to music that I really like, I generally think "OK, I give up - I won't bother to try anymore." I always feel that they have skills and secrets I can never learn and that everything they do is SO much better musically and more interesting than anything I could achieve. Then I snap out of it and think "Well, it's not complete and my work IS at least as good as all the stuff that I DON'T Like." Plus, I am utterly addicted to the process - writing (which is an extremely solitary affair) and then turning it into something tangible as part of a big collaborative team. The fact that people often seem to enjoy even loves the results is just amazing - and very humbling.

These days, I find myself increasingly listening to jazz - I love the complexity and the fact that I don't even begin to think of comparing or emulating anything I hear and can become completely lost in it. I am drawn to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman - and particularly to bass players: Jaco Pastorious, Avishai Cohen, Stanley Clarke, Christian McBride. I love everything by guitarist John McClaughlin with or without the Mahavishnu Orchestra. 

The more pop/country/folk influences throughout my life would have to include: The Shadows, The Beatles, The Byrds, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Gram Parsons, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, The Waterboys, The Felice Brothers, The Drive By Truckers.... where do I stop?

I think that once you look beyond the surface of any genre, there will always be something new and interesting to explore - there are so many different ways to interpret a song. For my own work, it has largely been about the lyrics and the story but coupled with isolated musical moments, details within a song - often barely noticeable and sometimes even lost completely during recording but which, during the writing process, give each song life and personality completely of its own.

"Old men shouldn’t sing love songs, white men shouldn’t sing the blues, Frenchmen shouldn’t sing Rock and Roll…” you chant on your album ‘Crooked Tales’. That’s supposedly meant tongue in cheek? Even though love breaks all the rules?

Oh yes, I would agree - LARGELY tongue in cheek - although if you listen to the other prescriptions in the song, French rock n roll does always seems to me to have concentrated on superficial, surface presentation rather than core musical values - a somewhat Karaoke approach to music that puts style over content. It's perhaps a little unfair to single out the French for that last point - but then, I am English after all albeit with a French surname and living in Bonaparte's house! I think the song is really about respecting or at least acknowledging boundaries - whilst going on to cross them anyway. It is not a serious song - but it is sincere and the only song in its closing phrase, written specifically for my French wife, Noelle. Its placement after an extended pause at the end of Crooked Tales is a direct homage to Her Majesty at the very end of the Beatles' last recorded album,  Abbey Road.

“I ain't broke but I'm badly bent" 

On a side note: your previous album is titled ‘Crooked Tales’ and your Twitter hash is @crookedroger. Are you crooked?

Ha! Well, a little wavy at times - the hash naturally directly derives from the album title and alludes mainly to the fact that the stories in many of the songs are not always what they seem at first. The last part of the road to Crooked Tales actually began several years ago  - I was visiting New York with my great friend, London restauranteur Paramjit Dev, and we dropped into a famous bluegrass venue/bar called Banjo Jim's (now sadly long since closed). The artist performing was the incredible bluegrass crusader, Michael Daves. He played one song with the lyrics: 'I ain't broke but I'm badly bent" which instantly burnt into my mind and was the catalyst for me to begin writing again - I hadn't written anything since my brief stint in The DT Band in Sheffield, England in 1981 - and directly led to Old Men Shouldn't Sing Love Songs followed by Crooked Tales itself. Without that visit to Banjo Jim's that night, we probably would not be talking now.

House of Heads is out now. Where can people buy it, apart from listening to it on UbuntuFM Radio? And where can people see you? Will you support the album with live concerts?

Yes, the album is now officially released [and distributed in 41 countries (!)]. The best source for the physical CD is directly from the website of my label and publisher, Longsongs Music. The album can also be downloaded from iTunes as high-quality MFiT (24bit Mastered for iTunes), Amazon as an MP3 or in various formats (including FLAC) from my distributor, CD Baby. There are no immediate plans to tour with the album but we are looking to get out on the road before the end of 2018.

In closing, when people listen to your music, maybe attend your concerts, what should they take with them?

An open mind and a full wallet..... and given my principal audience demographic, their grown-up children.

Thank you so much for this interview, Roger! It's been an amazing trip. We hope to hear and see more from you in the future.