Penny Blacks – The Silver Screen EP
Today our new EP, The Silver Screen is available digitally, with the physical release following next week as we hit the road here in Canada.
We recorded these songs in very much the same way we recorded our last album, Harbour. We borrowed what recording gear we didn’t own, tapped some talented friends and holed up in our rehearsal space and started tracking. Once the bed tracks were done (basically when Clinton felt happy with his drum parts), we did the bass and guitars in another part of the room.
The space where we write and rehearse is almost like another piece of integral gear to our sound, or another member adding its mark. It’s a loft on the top floor of an old printing company building in downtown Saint John (or uptown, as we say here).It’s a huge open space, adorned with patches of exposed brick and great wooden beams running across the ancient ceiling. Decades ago, it used to be a factory where they made jeans. The occasional rivet found among the floorboards attests to the life this room lived long before we started making noise here.
Of course, because the space is so vast, we have makeshift baffles and walls everywhere. Some couches and tall storage shelves kept by the printing company downstairs help absorb sound. The wall facing the street has a row of no less than eight ancient windows, looking out on more of the city’s old architecture and the harbour. In the summer, the sun will almost blind you through them. The place becomes like an oven. In the winter, they frost over and are sealed. The place can become like a meat locker.
Adam tracked his bass in our rehearsal area proper – in the middle of a mob of amps, cables and drums. Chris tracked guitar over in the back corner by the freight elevator. I chose the same spot as Adam for my guitar, as did Dan with keys. We tracked the drums and original scratch tracks to 1/2 ” tape on an old TEAC reel-to-reel. For the sake of portability and time, we then dumped the beds to digital and worked in Reaper on a couple of different MacBooks.
As with Harbour in 2011, the subsequent tracking became sort of nomadic; I would pack up the mics, MacBook, preamps and A/D rig and go wherever was needed to track. The overdubs on Harbour were much more scattershot, however. Harbour took me to folks’ basements, living rooms, office spaces; wherever. This time, the only other major location was my apartment.
My apartment was also uptown, about 6 blocks away from the rehearsal space. It was one of those amazing, old, three-story brownstones that makes Saint John the gem that it is. I was on the top floor, with a view from my living room of the entire south end of the city, and beyond that, another section of the harbour. In the distance, you could see Partridge Island, which has a sordid history in which it has played many roles – from being Saint John’s own Ellis Island to serving as something of an Alcatraz. A skylight in the dining room lit the whole apartment on a sunny day. We often had acoustic jams right beneath it. Rent was a happy $525 a month.
Tracking at my place was natural for two reasons. One, I had lived there for a few years, and I had made a lot of noise in there, writing, practicing and recording. No one ever complained. And at this time, almost the entire building was home to artists and musicians. Two, I was in the process of moving out. My girlfriend had already left, and all of our furniture went with her to our new place in another city. Basically all that was left were the essentials for me to get by for a couple of months until I joined her. So, the apartment was almost empty.
I set up in the small spare room. This room, having been emptied of the desk, spare bed, bookcase and whatever else was cluttering it up, sounded incredible. I don’t know what it was about it – the size, the shape of the nooks and crannies (it wasn’t a perfect square by any means) or the window alcove or what, but everything recorded in that room sounded amazing. In particular, the violins sounded incredible. I placed 3 mics around the room, fiddled a bit with them (no pun intended) and just rolled. And these were by no stretch of the imagination great mics. It was all Ali and the room. It was just the perfect amount of natural verb and space. As much as I was going to miss that apartment to begin with, now I would miss it all the more for that room as a recording space.
That, in a not so tiny nutshell, is a bit about how we recorded The Silver Screen. We couldn’t afford to rent a studio, so we did it ourselves. Which means it takes a lot longer, but it also means you have more time. And I think you get a little something extra out of the end product that you don’t get in a studio. Call it character. Maybe just a little more personality because the band’s hands are into it so deep.
As for the end result, the four songs we recorded for The Silver Screen are somewhat of a departure from our last album. Harbour was moody and paced, and probably demanded some commitment to really appreciate it. This EP is four short rock ‘n’ roll songs. It’s the most upbeat thing we’ve done. We kind of consider it a companion piece or conclusion to Harbour, though. When we finished Harbour, we had these newer songs that just didn’t fit the mood of the album. They were too happy sounding and upbeat, I guess. So we earmarked them for this EP. The Silver Screen mines similar themes lyrically, yet ties up the whole arc with a new optimism.
I am optimistic that folks will enjoy it.