The Making of… Clarinet & Piano: Selected Works, Vol. 2 by Group Listening

What goes into the making of a great album? From the creative throes of songwriting to the sometimes-spontaneous, sometimes-arduous process of recording a full album, Wales Arts Review dives into the making of some of some iconic albums from Welsh music artists in our new series ‘The Making Of… ‘. This week, we take a look at Clarinet & Piano: Selected Works, Vol. 2 by Group Listening.

Group Listening is the project of two of Wales’ finest musicians – duo Stephen Black (A.K.A Sweet Baboo) and experimental jazz musician Paul Jones. In their second album, they offer a new collection of reimaginings bringing their characteristic oneiric edge to tracks both familiar and not. It may be Group Listening’s second outing, but recording during a pandemic whilst aiming for the authentic texture of a clarinet and piano duet, certainly came with its own challenges. 

Group Listening’s previous record, Vol. 1, came in at number 17 in Wales Arts Review‘s 100 Greatest Welsh Albums of all Time list, credited as, “both charming and thoughtful, exploring a wide palette of songs from Brian Eno, Robert Wyatt and more”. Indeed, Vol. 2 is equally thoughtful and eclectic – but how was the experience shifting from a recording studio, to a living room for Vol. 2? We hear from Stephen Black and Paul Jones on the making of Clarinet & Piano: Selected Works, Vol. 2.

On recording 

[JONES] We recorded the majority of the record in the front room of my house. We’d set it up as a DIY home-studio and would then record one or maybe two pieces at a time, mostly done live. Then we’d do a lot of the mixing round at Steve’s house.

In many ways it was fun to deal with the entirety of the recording process by ourselves: all the way through from engineering, monitoring the recording process, performing and then mixing, along with any bits of post-production we wanted to add afterwards.

[BLACK] We wanted to record the album ourselves, we have always been interested in recording and over the years have amassed a fair few bits to help along the way. 

We thought it would be fun to try and use what we had. This included: Paul’s Ferrograph tape machine, a 707 drum machine and some very industrial looking mic stands. I have a spring reverb housed in a drainpipe. We used that too. It was recorded over a series of two day sessions in Paul’s front room.

On technical challenges 

[JONES] Sometimes when you are engineering everything yourselves as well as performing, it can be tricky to be in the same room or same space – you have to juggle a bit between a few roles and make sure everything is running smoothly when the red light is on. In other ways that’s really satisfying because you have this nose-to-tail involvement over the whole thing and that can give you a certain type of playful enthusiasm. 

There were a few sessions where the car noises or a neighbour’s dog barking became a bit problematic – but only on the quieter tracks really. I remember doing the piano part to ‘This Was Us’ a quite a few times and we’d be approaching the end of the take and then a siren or a motorbike or something else really noisy would start up. It’s actually a wonder that it didn’t happen more often, it was quite comic but there was a lot of swearing from me when it happened.

[BLACK] We wanted to be self sufficient this time around, so no professional studio, no outside pressure. We gave ourselves time and the freedom to try things out.

On the sound of the album

[JONES] As we did with the first record, our ethos was to keep everything live where possible. Whatever stage the song gets to afterwards, that’s normally the general aim at the start. We’ll often want it to feel like a straight up live duet of clarinet and piano, but often not with the naturalistic sound you might associate with that set-up. But basically it’s got to be performative. 

[BLACK] I would say it was equal parts by design and accidental. We knew what we wanted it to sound like and we also knew we wanted to use mics and equipment we had lying around the house. But we also wanted to record it as live as possible so we balanced ourselves together in the room and then pressed record.

On songwriting 

[JONES] As they are all arrangements of pre-existing pieces the creativity takes on a different shape quite early on. You sort of work out how best to go about recasting a certain song; some seem to need to be reproduced quite faithfully (at least initially) and then come together quite quickly, others work better when you improvise ideas together – ‘R&D jamming’ – changing and adding parts, and with those you can be quite loose with the interpretation. Then there are others then seem to work better with more of a surgical, dogged and meticulous approach all the way through. I suppose it depends on the character of the original and what we are trying to do with our version to get it to sing, to get it to pop.

[BLACK] It’s not songwriting but it definitely is a process. Everything on the record is an arrangement of an existing recording that Paul and I like and have chosen to reinterpret. We then notate them quite faithfully, discuss how best to approach the piece then go at it. 

On this album we have arrangements tunes by Beverly Glenn-Copeland, Neu!, Laraaji and Malcolm Neon among others.

On recording anecdotes 

[JONES] It’s not the most entertaining reply, but, you know what – not really. You could say it was a very uneventful but creatively fertile endeavour!

As there was such little involvement from anyone else, and we were in the middle of a pandemic, any chance encounters or unexpected extracurricular events did not really get to happen. It was quite a hermetic existence at that time. 

[BLACK] Nothing particularly exciting, just your usual next door’s dog barking, or the sound of a pigeon in the chimney breast. It was fuelled by coffee and cheap bread.

In retrospect

[JONES] Looking back on it now – and it’s funny what you remember – I think about the time in the run-up to us recording it more than the actual record itself. What with the pandemic raging then and the lockdowns in full flow, it created a seemingly endless horizon of time to fill. I think about that time spent finding pieces we could work with, an on-off sometimes haphazard, sometimes methodical process. What also pops into my mind from then is remembering the often fairly dry procedure of transcribing a lot of the music, perhaps taking longer over some of the details than I would have done with less time. I think it was all about taking time then, slowing down things on purpose so they would take up the better part of a day.

I guess it’s not all that that long ago that we finished it, and I still think more about the work of it and the process of making it rather than a final qualitative sense of it as a definitive thing to listen back to, but I’m really very proud of the record.  

I excitedly listened to it several times when we got the first LP’s back, and I really enjoyed zooming out the microscope a bit and listening to it a bit more casually – I feel it makes sense as an album and I like it!

[BLACK] I’m really proud of it. I’m excited it’s coming out on the PRAH label and I’m looking forward to figuring out how to play it on tour.