After months of practice, hours and hours spent trying to get the songs into our heads, saving, excitement, loans, phone calls, emails, organising, rehearsing, writing, talking, keeping it a secret, letting it out, hoping it would happen, trying to make it happen – it nearly didn't happen.
Aer Lingus decides to have a strike the day we are due to leave (perhaps the government got word of our plans and had the taste police do their work), and The Chocolate (drums, accordion, saw, vocals, organiser) gets so sick he can hardly move – literally. We get booked on an impossibly early flight to London to catch our connecting flight with Chicago, and somehow, perhaps the rocker god in heaven was looking out for us, we kept The Chocolate's insides in.
None of us had ever recorded in a "proper" studio before, it's always been on friends' borrowed equipment, but it's weird the way you just slip straight into it. Steve Albini's legend was something we were all very aware of, but as soon as you meet him you realise he's just a bloke doing his job (he just happens to do it very well). Then it becomes five people working together trying to make as good a record as they can at that particular time.
Albini, quite understandably, seeing how we were strangers, was a bit reserved for the first two days, just answering what we asked him and offering nothing up. But as he got to know us a bit better things became a lot more relaxed and we all had a good laugh while still working 10-18 hour days, trying to get it all done.
We had decided to record 12 songs with a view to using nine or ten of them for the album. The first two days were spent getting the live basic tracks of two guitars, bass, drums and a guide vocal. Mostly these were got in two or three takes, but sometimes it's the songs you know best that you keep making a balls of. Some of the individual tracks had to be gone over again if someone wasn't happy with their particular bit, but the twelve were down in two days.
Then it seemed as if we were way ahead of time and could afford to slow down a bit and try things out. Which of course wasn't true. We probably took too long over the "unofficial" overdubs and left things a bit tight for the stuff we'd planned to do in advance. But during the next two days we managed all the vocals, the extra guitars, accordion, mandolin, piano, guests' etc. But only just barely.
Albini's approach is to put microphones everywhere, especially for the drums. That's why when you hear a record that he has done, what you're hearing is the REAL sound of the band, as it should be. By the time we'd finished the recording – four days of solid rock – we deserved a break. But we were so used to the institutional cabin fever of Electrical Audio Studios, that we decided to stay in and have some Rolling Rock and play billiards.
A huge thunder and lightning storm had broken out and it evoked the spirit of the Flightless Bird in Gumbo and me. As an offering for a good days mixing the next day, we did a tribal Flightless Dance out on a main road with cars beeping us out of the way and the storm-rain lashing down on us while we danced frenzied and barefoot and with our trousers round our ankles (as a mark of respect) to evoke the good will of the Bird. It did not let us down.
Albini had advised us to pick what songs were definitely going to be on the LP, so that we would mix them first, in case we ran out of time. We got the exact timings of the songs and found that we had nearly TWO LP's worth of music! It was good in a way as we then had plenty of material to choose from – we think we chose the best possible combination of songs for the record.
The day of mixing started a little bit later than usual, but we got to mix it in the even posher Studio A setting. Very plush. Albini records everything so well that there is not too much messing around with frequencies etc when it comes to mixing, so we got all seven songs that we had picked for the LP (still clocking in at 45 minutes of music, longer than the average LP) done in a day, but it sure was a long day! You become very aware that you NEED to get it right at this stage, as it is the last opportunity to do so.
It was a very exhausting recording process, and we'd do things differently next time. But sure if you don't learn from experiences along the way, you'd end up dragging your musical knuckles along the fret board forever. On 17 September we released 'Distant Hearts, a Little Closer' in Ireland – so you can listen and see if you think it was worth our while. The rest of the world has to wait until 15 October 2001.
The Bearded Lady
'Distant Hearts, a Little Closer' is available on Scientific Laboratories Records (Slab4) in Ireland and through Cargo UK distribution. Joan of Arse are Gumbo, Shane, The Chocolate and The Bearded Lady. Joan of Arse play Whelans in Dublin on 22 September.