Five years ago today, we officially released the second Whybirds album, Cold Blue Sky. It feels like yesterday and a million years ago all at the same time.
Some of you reading this will already own it, some of you won’t. But I can say it’s still one of my favourite things I’ve ever been a part of, and if you haven’t heard it, I heartily recommend you check it out.
To set the scene, us Whybirds had released our debut, self-titled album in March 2008. We’d recorded it in March/April the year before, and it took us that long to get our shit together and get it released. It was our first time putting anything out (aside from 2007′s Tonight EP) and we had a lot to learn.
While we were all proud of the record, it was made after only about six months of being The Whybirds, and maybe we hadn’t quite refined our sound yet. Nick Mailing, who produced it, certainly helped us in that way. There were some songs we were bringing in that sounded more like Foo Fighters than alt.country, but Nick helped us distill what it was we were trying to do. I can safely say that without him, the rest of our musical output would’ve been vastly different. And vastly worse.
Maybe there are a couple of songs on there that in retrospect might not have made it, but there are a lot of our “classic” songs on there. I say classic, they’re only classic to us and the discerning members of the Whybirds faithful, but they’re good songs I think. “Girl is on Fire”, “What it Means”, “Hauling”, “Foolish Heart”, “Rainclouds”, “Four Little Letters”, “Turn Right (I’ll Turn Left)”, “Hard to Find”… I’m proud to be a part of all of those.
By the time it actually came out though, we’d already started playing a lot of what would be come Cold Blue Sky live.
That was one of the key differences in the two records. The first one was largely conceived in the studio – in terms of the arrangements at least – whereas Cold Blue Sky was conceived onstage. And we were playing 80+ gigs a year at that point (2007-08), no mean feat considering we all worked full time jobs. And any buzz we ever had started around then, when we were playing everywhere and audiences were really enjoying our live sound. That’s what we wanted to capture on our next recording.
By 2009, three quarters of us had quit our full time day jobs, we had a manager, a little bit of label interest, and we’d attracted the attentions of one Elliot Mazer, known to us as the man who produced Neil Young’s Harvest. This was a big deal for us. Huge, actually.
We did a bit of recording with Elliot in December 2008 in a London studio, but nothing ever came of that. Then, in the spring, we headed to Monkey Puzzle House in Suffolk to make an album with Elliot. The plan at this stage was to take the best songs from the first record and the best of our new songs and re-record everything as a brand new debut (!). We made the 11-track record in four days, and we were pretty pleased with the results.
However, I can’t remember how it happened exactly, but we decided we wanted to leave the older material as it was. We wanted to make an album of all-new songs. So we headed back to Monkey Puzzle that summer to do it again. This time Elliot couldn’t make it over from New York, so we cracked on with the engineer from the first session, Tom Peters, at the helm. Tom ended up producing my solo album and drums in The Penny Dreadfuls and is a very good friend, so this was an important union for me!
Prior to that though, once we’d decided we wanted to make the record, we’d already started planning its release. We were working with this great promoter in London at the time – who I wish we still knew, but he disappeared off the face of the earth – and he wanted to book us at The Garage. We’d already gone from The Fly to The Barfly to The Borderline for him (selling out the latter) and The Garage was the next rung on the ladder.
As it turned out, we ended up booking the album release show for 7th November, before we’d even recorded a single note of the album.
We recorded 16 songs in six days. I believe there were a couple of overdubs during the mixing process, but the rest was done during those six days. We recorded all our main instruments live, no click or anything, and then added vocals, guitar solos and “ear candy” afterwards. There wasn’t much though, literally an acoustic guitar, a tambourine or a mandolin on certain tracks. We wanted to capture our live sound, without too many embellishments, but still have it sound like an actual record.
Monkey Puzzle House (great place) is a residential studio, so we’d get up in the morning, Taff would make us bacon sandwiches, we’d have some coffee and then we’d start on the Guinness. Now, we didn’t get really pissed during the entire recording process (some of the evenings we did though. The last one in particular…ask Ben!) but we wanted to be loose enough to get good performances. So we’d have the odd can to keep our minds limber.
As I said, we recorded 16 songs, and two of them didn’t make it. One of mine called “My Darling England” and one of Dave’s called “Something Real” (a version of which later showed up on the Live Recordings album). Technically, I suppose, “I Just Want To See Your Face” didn’t make it either, as it was a CD-only bonus track. We did that because we much prefer people to buy the physical product, so we thought that by doing that, it would encourage people to do so.
With that song, I don’t think we ever planned to do it. We already had a pretty good version from the Mazer sessions. However, one night, we were listening back to the day’s recordings, which must have included “Morva”, “If You Stay With Me” and “Cold Blue Sky” itself, because the studio was set up for the more acoustic tracks.
Tom and I (and maybe some of the others, but I don’t think so) were a little bit stoned. I’d already largely stopped smoking by then (I pretty much never touch it now), so this was kind of an occasion for me. Tom asked what happened to the really sad song from the Elliot sessions as it was his favourite, and then suggested we recorded it while the studio was set up for acoustic stuff. This was late at night, towards midnight I’d say. So we went into the live room and did it really quickly.
This was the only bit of recording we did where we were a bit out of it. We’d already allowed ourselves to get a bit more drunk as we thought we were finished for the day, and some of us (ahem) were a bit high. I did the vocal as soon as we’d got the take, but we had to go back a few times because I was too stoned to remember the words. Anyway, the song came out nicely.
I remember that “Morning Light” was never supposed to be on the album. We recorded it purely because we were slightly ahead of ourselves and decided to get it down. Once the mixes were done, Dave said that the song had to go on the album or he was quitting the band. I’m pretty sure he was joking, but it was the right call, as it’s one of our most popular songs.
Other songs on there included some more “classics”: “Wild Wild Wind”, “Mona Lisa”, “Jenny, Can We Take a Ride?”, “Isabel”, “Something Beautiful (This Way Comes)” and so on.
We decided to make the official release date in March 2010 to give us enough time to get copies out to the press and ready for digital distribution etc, but thankfully, we got the record done in time for the gig, which went great. Here’s a video of our encore, a version of Springsteen’s “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”.
It’s hard looking back then sometimes. We’d just done a packed show at the Garage, we’d worked with Neil Young’s producer, we’d made a record that was universally well reviewed, it all seemed to be happening. Not to get too Crème Brulee about it, but things took a turn after that. Lost the manager, lost the promoter, lost the label interest, eventually lost a member…
The record reminds me of that hopeful period pretty vividly. It’s a really positive album - despite a couple of sad songs - and flows really well. Everyone’s writing and playing was spot on, the tracks had a great theme, and it really sounded like an album, not just a collection of songs. Our collective mindset at the time is right there in the lyrics, especially on songs like “Something Beautiful”, “Wild, Wild Wind” and the title track.
A Little Blood, the record afterwards – once we’d become a three-piece – is a really strong record too I think. But it largely deals with the realities of the situation we faced after the good times had gone. I don’t know whether that makes Cold Blue Sky an easier or harder listen in comparison. As Springsteen said: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”
I don’t know what the future holds for the ‘birds. I’d really like to make another album. I hope that happens, and until it does I’ll keep cracking on with the solo stuff. A new record is already in the works.
But I’m rambling here. You can check Cold Blue Sky out on Spotify if you want, but even better, you can get the CD for a fiver (and get that CD-only bonus track!) from www.thewhybirds.com