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Ian Breen in Q&A Corner: Musical Collaboration In Detail

Ian Breen in Q&A Corner: Musical Collaboration In Detail

The art of balance

We're pleased to announce a guest article from a legend on the Manchester music scene, Ian Breen. A man who has graced the stage and studio as part of more bands/collaborations/projects than Mike Patton himself (possibly), Ian knows a thing or two about collaborating with others whilst retaining a sense of self and delivering accomplished albums by the bucketload. We want to find out from the man himself his secrets behind successful musical collaboration?

Over to Ian

One thing that I’ve realised over the years of being involved in my city’s local music scene is that several people, myself included, seem to juggle several projects all at once with what appears to be an effortless ease. The beauty of that is that every project is different, which is a testament to both the variety of music on offer in Manchester and also the eclectic tastes of those involved in DIY music. Although I can’t speak on behalf of other musicians, but the process is hardly effortless on my part. Often, the pressure of committing an equal amount of energy and creativity into multiple projects can be daunting, especially while also holding down full-time employment, a long-term relationship and various other commitments.

Close-knit collaboration

As a self-taught musician that has kept his circle of collaborators relatively small and close-knit over the years, approaching writing music very, very rarely comes down to the idea of jamming – although this is no doubt the way that many bands operate successfully, for me it has hardly ever produced material which I’ve considered to be worthy of others hearing.
The only way that I find satisfaction within a musical project is to have a clear understanding of who is steering the ship – whether that’s somebody bringing in fully formed ideas or at least somebody to guide a sound in a particular direction. Often, being the captain can be the most fun in the world, but there is a lot to be said for knowing your role within a group and contributing as best you can for the greater good.

My personal motto is always that you should serve the song and not your ego – meaning that ideas aren’t sacred, everything is open to change to improve and sometimes less is definitely more.

The creative process

I’m going to focus on the writing/creative process for Claw The Thin Ice, which is a project that I began in 2010 as an excuse to attempt writing and recording dark, lo-fi “bedroom pop” but with a demented twist. Initial songs began as fairly simple, reverb-soaked synth explorations recorded using FL Studio 9 on a cheap, malfunctioning laptop.

The laptop couldn’t handle the idea of a MIDI controller, so all the MIDI parts were drawn in manually to the FL piano roll, played back and then edited. The result was a short collection of icy gothic synth mood-pieces which served as a springboard to the next batch of songs, where this same approach was applied – however, this time acoustic guitars were also recorded into a four-track simulator app on an old iPhone 3G, all of the faders on the in-built mixer pushed to their limits and then recorded into FL Studio where further distortion and reverb was added to the peaking madness.

Both sets of recordings were fun to make, but not particularly satisfying – as a desire for collaboration was burning away in me, I enlisted the help of friends – a mix of collaborators old and new – to breathe life into the project and transform it into a fully-fledged, “real” band.

Early stages

Our first full-band record, 2013’s “Pony Walker” was based entirely around songs that I had written over an intense six-month period of creativity, focussing on pop-song structures with chord structures and lyrics that leaned heavily into melodrama. Recording with our close friend Jon Fearon of the incredible band The Longcut, the album was recorded in a handful of sessions over the course of around 5 or 6 weeks at our rehearsal space before being taken home where layers of 12-string acoustic guitars, keyboards, vocals, saxophones and even an electric mandolin (run through an Electro Harmonix POG pedal) were added. We seemed to lose months to this process – fitting in as many after-work sessions as we could. The entire record was recorded, mixed and mastered by Jon while I assisted with as much as I could – providing guidance on sound, edits and making an endless number of brews to get us through.

At that point, we were collectively still finding our feet as a band. Our sound was almost there – we were confident in our own music, but the tools we had were constantly being swapped out and changed. Pedals came and went; amps were borrowed and trialled – we even tried out having the lead vocal run through its own set of delay and reverb pedals live before the idea was abandoned.

Maturity of sound

Now, in 2019, we find ourselves in a position where we are comfortable with our equipment and have focussed on perfecting our sound. The core sound of the band is that of a traditional heavy rock band – two guitars alternating lead and rhythm, bass guitar, drumkit and multiple vocals. However, we have each found our own individual sound and know its particular strengths.

My secret weapon is the introduction of an HH IC100 2x12 Combo, picked up cheaply (about £70 in slightly beat-up condition) and run through my Marshall 4x12 cabinet – the HH is quite top-heavy and has quite a lot of grit to it, with the Marshall providing more of the mids and lows, bringing quite a large dynamic range to play with. The in-built spring-reverb is quite shrill but adds a colour to the sound which is truly beautiful. The amp handles everything you can throw at it with ease – our songs often rely on a healthy amount of feedback, brought by a combination of the BOSS Blues Driver and Turbo Rat pedals together which provide a thick, Kyuss-esque tone to the riffs and a wild, howling feedback.

Effects minimalism

Personally, I try to keep the amount of effects on my pedal board to a minimum, making sure that each one serves a purpose – besides the aforementioned pedals, there is the BOSS Chorus Ensemble which is constantly switched on - the depth of the chorus is quite wide but the over level is kept low, allowing the chorus to add a very subtle shimmer to the overall tone.

There are two delay pedals at the end of the chain – firstly, a Marshall Echohead with the effect essentially acting as a slapback-delay, going into a BOSS DD-500 which is by far the most ridiculous pedal on the board. I tend to favour the Analogue Delay setting with the feedback at about 70% and the level at about 50/60% as this (coupled with the Marshall) creates a very lush enveloping cloud of delay which is perfect for either huge walls of white noise or extremely gentle ambience - often we like to combine both of these elements in the same song. The DD-500 is also used for a lot of looping live, but mainly just to fill the dead air while guitars are tuned between songs.

Tuning & troubleshooting

On our first two records, both rhythm and lead guitar were tuned to DADGAD with only very slight variations being used on occasion. For our third album, “Wanderlust Of Venus”, every song was in a completely different tuning – we aimed to find beautiful, dark-sounding open chords which would allow each song to have its own character and exist in its own world.
While this made for a more aurally pleasing record, it created issues when it came to our live show – meaning that about a quarter of our set would be spent retuning and making awkward small-talk (hence the introduction of the DD-500 loops and noise to fill the dead air).

When I first approached writing demos for what became our new record, “Colour Phase”, I wanted to try and return to the single-tuning approach, however this time settling on a tuning stumbled upon during the “Wanderlust…” sessions, D>A>D>F#>G>D (this probably has an official name, but I have no idea what it is). The combination of discord and harmony when ringing out opening chords is absolutely gorgeous and lends itself well to melodramatic songs, although it does require you to kind-of rewire your brain when it comes to playing scales and lead parts.

While writing and rehearsing the songs for “Wanderlust…”, we had adapted our approach to song-writing to incorporate a lot more improvisation in rehearsal, which often led to songs stretching out towards (and occasionally surpassing) the 10-minute mark, so that the finished product was often very different from the initial demo.

With “Colour Phase”, there was a conscious effort to reign in those impulses and create an overall body of work that was shorter, sharper and more focussed than before without completely abandoning the expansive improvisation altogether.

Personal lyrics in abstract form

We spent the summer of 2018 honing the songs in our rehearsal space, deconstructing song structures and editing (often ruthlessly) to create what we feel is a near-perfect pop album – albeit a pop album with songs about lust, cancer, failed romance and nightmares. Lyrically, the project has always had a somewhat-autobiographical nature, detailing everything from death and friendship in almost excruciatingly intricate detail.

“Wanderlust…” was so singularly-focussed that songs would often obsess over precise moments in time and events, trying to encapsulate very specific feelings and emotions in music which, in retrospect, may have been somewhat alienating to the casual listener. I am consciously attempting to move away from that as the band continues. An example of this is in the lyrics to “Tropic Of Cancer”, which originated from a fictional idea I came up with when joking with my housemate about the most melodramatic lyrical subject we could imagine.

The song initially dreams up the idea of an astronaut in deep space who receives a distress call from Earth that their wife/partner/loved one is on their deathbed back home, so races back to Earth in time to be by their side just before they die. The lyrics also mirror the feelings that I personally experienced when seeing a close loved one passing away a number of years ago, but through the eyes of a fictional character, rather than a clinical diary entry which may have been my go-to option previously, adding a level of drama that escalates as the song builds to a climax.

Recording at the ready

“Colour Phase” was recorded live at NO Studio in Manchester with our friend Joe Clayton, whose expertise in live recording was extremely enticing to us. We recorded the bulk of the album live in the studio during a rainy Saturday afternoon in March 2019, with a couple more sessions dedicated to recording vocals, synths, extra percussion and anything else we could get our hands on. Some synthesizer parts were recorded using an old Yamaha keyboard that was in the studio, mostly used for thick organ sounds and Rhodes piano. The remainder were recorded at my home using a Roland JD-XI synthesizer and recorded into Logic Pro – this also includes an electronic drum loop which forms the basis of the song “Daydream”.

Having recorded almost entirely live in the studio, it feels like there is no way back from that process now. It captures the sound of the band as it is intended – loud, working in unison and with passionate performances which are hopefully evident in the finished product. The key though is pre-production and rehearsing – knowing your own music inside out and back to front prior to recording is absolutely the most vital thing and it makes for an infinitely more smooth and enjoyable experience. It allows you to work quickly and diligently on the bulk of the record while still having time to tinker around and experiment with your spare time in the studio – which in turn makes for a more fun experiencing when mixing.

The next phase for Claw The Thin Ice

Where things go for Claw next is still up the air – our attitude previously has always been to act in a reactionary way to the previous album or project, but as we’ve got older and our line up feels more settled now, I guess we’ll just wait and see. It feels like right now we’ve hit a sweet spot and to deviate away from it to wildly would be foolish, but who knows. Maybe it’s time to go full Spinal Tap and explore the sacred and mythical land of the Jazz Odyssey.

Get in touch

Check out all things Claw The Thin Ice over on Bandcamp, Facebook, Twitter, and Spotify.