Records (yeah) Yeah! (yeah)
Mum used to joke sometimes, if I was ever verging on the side of bad behaviour, that Father Christmas would be bringing me a sum-book for Christmas if I wasn’t careful. Sums? Maths? Eugh. I don’t know if it was the threat of the extra maths courtesy of St. Nick via Mum, or just luck – but I got through school not being too awful at Maths. And this is pretty useful as it turns out because when you’re an independent, even in the feckless seeming music scene, you end up crunching more numbers for breakfast sometimes than coco-pops. The really hard sums are always the ones that govern what you can afford to make, who’s (hopefully) going to buy it – how many you can make and when, if at all, these things we make will pay for themselves.
The Bournemouth EP was always intended for vinyl. No matter how many times I re- jigged the spreadsheet however, I couldn’t make it happen. It would have taken everything – and made life pretty difficult. The only way to recoup the costs would have been to have made the packaging very limited and the units very expensive – two things which don’t seem to work together in my view. So as anyone familiar with my stuff will know, the EP came out as a CD but with a playful take on the packaging – which I hoped would make it kind of special. Compromise is something you have to learn to wear well. You have to wear it proudly, and when that’s hard to do – pretend that Rod Stewart is singing you your own personal theme music and you’re wearing your grey Rocky tracksuit and punching the bejesus out of some hanging meat. Sometimes you just have to do the best you can and hope your fans and followers are down to earth enough that they can appreciate what you’re getting at. It’s pretty darn humbling when you get a feeling that people are going with you on something and are generally out to see you succeed than sniff at your attempts and watch you fail. That’s the undeniably nice thing about the thin end of the wedge.
Even with that in mind, and that kind of an eco-system close to my heart, I still hate to be beaten. I don’t like to be told what I can and cannot do. I like it even less when it is a matter of pounds and pence. I don’t know how that began but I would point a waggling finger in the directions of my parents for starters. My Mum is as stubborn as me – and she can make pretty much anything if given a roll of tape, some plain cotton and I don’t know – a plastic spoon, say. Dad’s not dissimilar – except his action figure if ever stocked in miniature by ToysRUs would come with the Screwfix catalogue and some two by four as its main accessories… with ripped jeans, an earring and Fender Jazz bass. I remember pretty clearly, my eighth birthday – I was really into electronics and went with Dad to electronics shop in Great Yarmouth where we picked up a pick and mix of precious things – a few light bulbs, a buzzer, crocodile clips… that sort of thing. They were cheap as chips of course but all I remember thinking the whole time was that I must have been getting really spoiled. I made a whole bunch of crazy things – and as each project became more ambitious I collected the working parts from things around the house and anything that could be unscrewed.
Fast forward twenty or so years… and I’m killing some time in a coffee shop in York. It’s the day after the York Marathon and I’ve got a busted up foot and knee and hip… and no plans for the day that involve a great deal more than sitting around. I’m researching for a song I’m sort of part way through writing about an area of history I’m particularly fascinated by – the way that youth culture had to covertly filter into the Eastern Bloc. I’ve read about loot rides from Czechoslovakia to Vienna and back smuggling in Steve McQueen styled motorcycle jackets, jeans. I read that groups of kids in the Soviet Union would get hold of records and clone them using X-Ray films – pinched from hospital bins. They called it ‘Music On The Bones.’ The notion tugs on my sleeves for the first time here that there must be some way to do this right now – some way I can ‘make’ my own records.
In the same year I toured a couple of times in Italy. I went back and forth to Rome, hanging out with my dear friend Emiliano – a guitar player in a punk group based out of Rome and we’d be hanging out mostly in the apartment he shared with his bandmate Marco and was HQ for their band’s merchandise-making production line. Their operation was refreshingly based on ‘where there’s a will – there’s a way’ even if perhaps they wouldn’t choose to prettify it in those exact words. Both worked day jobs in a warehouse that screened T-shirts en masse. They were screening pros and screened all their band’s stuff. It helps too that frontman Marco is a pretty incredible graphic artist. They made shirts, CDs, tapes and even a record – searching out the best deals for the individual parts to the package, hand screening, hand assembling. The love that these Italian punks put into their art is a credit to them. This is what I talk about when I talk about DIY music. It tugged on my sleeves some more.
About a year ago I worked out I could do this…
I didn’t invent this process. It started with some basic instructions found online for creating a rubber mould of a record and then casting disks from that mould with plastic. I needed to work out what these plastics and rubbers were – as the products cited were all American brands and not available to me to just go out and buy. It’d take some working at, but I thought I’d give it a shot. The experiment began with an ordinary 7” record – Cher’s ‘It’s In His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song)’ ; an old picture frame and some silicone bath sealant that smelled like salt and vinegar crisps. The first time around I used stuff called Copyflex – its main use being for making moulds in cake decorating. It was a two parter – and easy to mix up at a 1:1 ratio and was a vivid orange colour which was both exciting and formidable in equal measure. So, only intending to make a mould of the one side I committed my first crime against Cher and stuck the record b-side down onto the glass with some good tape.
The rubber poured like nothing I’d ever seen – that wasn’t edible and loaded with naughty calories. The consistency was something like Carnation condensed milk. Playing on weaknesses further, I needed to leave the CopyFlex 24 hours to set. In an ideal world, 24 hours later I might have peeled away very carefully at the edges of the rubber to see what had or hadn’t moulded on the underside. I’ll admit, my excited little claws – like those of a kid on Christmas Morning – separated the rubber from the tray all too carelessly, with so much gusto that it ripped. Right down the middle. Gah.
The most important thing to work out here was whether or not this scheme had any legs at all, I reasoned to myself. There was every chance this whole thing was a non-starter and like a great many of my schemes – a great idea but much too hard to actually pull off in reality. More carefully now, I flipped the mould over and gently, silently even – I ran my index finger’s nail from the middle to the edge. Grooves. I was sure I felt them under my nail, the little bevelled tracks that hold the music, they are the music – the valleys of guitar solos, the scratches in the throats of the world’s most soulful singers and where we can all keep safe, a little bit of Bowie forever. I raised the orange next to my ears – and I could hear grooves.
This being no guarantee of course that I could actually cast a playable record I wanted to move quickly onto the next step. Thinking optimistically, I wanted to trial a material for the actual records that would be cheap to obtain – so that I could cast records in a larger quantity – PVA glue. Poly-something or other – wasn’t it? It was a type of plastic. It was nothing but a hopeless mess of course – but nevertheless a hopeless mess with the all important grooves which squeaked delightfully when tickled.
“It’s in his, in his, in his, in his, in his, in his… in his kiss”
So I bought some casting resin. Again – a two part formula and mixed 1:1 by weight- which meant I had to employ and quickly ruin my digital kitchen scales. I also took to wearing marigolds, an apron and big plastic safety glasses. My housemate, who is a real scientist, sniggered gleefully at me in my DIY chemical handling garbo, albeit nervously initially, having just watched season one of Breaking Bad. As the process has gone on, I’ve relaxed the get-up but I do vigilantly protect the eyes.
The resin I bought came with no instructions beyond the mix ratio so I turned eagerly to the internet for advice and found several Youtube tutorials which offered plenty of friendly advice for handling resin – in a sugary sweet American coating – aimed more at crafters as opposed to meth-lab vinyl casting. The first time I mixed the resin I used a couple of leftover detergent balls from under the sink and a pencil to mix. My Youtube craft gurus suggested a slowly slowly approach to blending the parts so as to get an even mix avoiding air bubbles. Disaster. As it turns out the resin sets actually very quickly in such tiny quantities – frighteningly quickly and with acceleration, and with heat. The little cup of resin-mix hardened quickly in my hand and as it did so it releases heat and that’s called an exothermic reaction. I’d read on the internet that the fumes it gives off are a bit on the toxic side, so had the french-doors to my living-room slightly open from the get-go but now I was outside – holding the hot little ball in a marigilded hand wondering if it’d explode and I’d spend my afternoon picking creamy coloured shrapnel out of my face. Within a minute or so though, it had cooled down.
I was thankful to have learned the exothermic lesson so vividly in that first instance. Juggling projects, I happened to be also in the middle of an art commission involving a fair bit of spray-painting which I’ll admit I’d callously do indoors without any ventilation. This was usually in the morning, leaving the afternoon open for that arm’s-length list of music admin tasks to be brightened by a warming spray-paint high. From then on I’d have to alternate my days between projects.
Undeterred, I mixed my next measures of resin with greater haste and poured the resin into the waiting mould with the viscosity and sheen of pouring custard, which being ever my father’s daughter, is a thought etched on my memory and as long lasting as my own personal eternity. I patched the mould with tape and waited. As it cured, the resin turned from the colour of murky dishwater to an opaque white. To be on the safe side, or perhaps not wanting to make any more mistakes that day – I gave it a half a day left alone – which was naturally – agonising.
Everything had to be done carefully, not least the first de-mould of the first thin, frail could-be record. The finger-nail test confirmed the grooves and sweeter still you could see grooves this time around. In fact the CopyFlex had been super sophisticated, in that the difference in textures between the actual vinyl body of the 45 and its matte paper label. It looked like a record – a thin, wobbly sort of anaemic record at any rate.
Breath held, my nervous hand placed my prize poppadom on the turn table in my living room and set the needle. Amid extremes of pops and crackles – it was there. Shoops galore and the thunderous voice of Cher came blaring out of the speakers and I danced like a maniac of course around my living room until the inevitable moment of skip skip skipping because of that impatient tear in the mould!
A rubber dolly.
My experiment had worked, and I had successfully cloned a vinyl record. The plan would always be, and realistically could only legally be, to create a short-run of my own records with my own song on. The next step then was to get hold of a one-off cut. I chose a live version of ‘The Last Song’ – using by contrast, all the wonders of digital and instant technology to send the song off to the cutters to be cut into a super durable if slightly sober looking dub-plate. I wasn’t getting ahead of myself, part of me still suspected that cloning from a cheaply made dub-plate wouldn’t be exactly the same as cloning from a mass produced, factory cut 45. I’d just have to stump up the cash and find out – repeating the process with a few tweaks such as a little skim-coat over those precious grooves and a bit more of that pesky general care.
A big part of this process was in not getting disheartened by the long list of mistakes and failed attempts that I would rack up with each afternoon spent in the pursuit of mock- vinyl. Who could predict that something as little as a hair falling into the mould would be enough to ruin it and produce skipper after skipper! At the start of the process I imagined making colour records – spattered and swirled records that would look incredible – maybe even a picture disk. I tried several methods of tinting the resin – ranging from the proper tints from the same manufacture supplying me with the rest of the stuff, to acrylic paint, other paints, inks, dyes – even food colouring! Unfortunately nothing would mix thoroughly enough in small quantities to not affect the integrity of the grooved surface record. In short it wasn’t worth the risk – so I suspended any affairs with colour for the time being. In an ideal world I would mix a larger batch of resin chemical part A (or was it part B?) with colourant in something that would mix it gently but thoroughly over time, like say, an old food processor.
Instead I changed tack to focus on the label of the record. Instead of applying a paper label to each cast I would use texture to create a decorative centre to a record which would be entirely one piece. Inevitably this would mean more experiments and more mould making. I’d need more rubber.
CopyFlex was expensive. It was time to play with the big boys anyway – not these cake- decorating pastel-peach townie sissies. So before too long a big box of bad-ass silicone mix and catalyst arrived from a large scale manufacturer and by courier – which felt strangely good. This time it was a little trickier as it involved mixing the catalyst at 3% – but meant I got to employ use of a pipette and my scientist housemate revelled in the thrill of pinching stuff from work. What followed was a string of failed attempts to artistically yet appropriately doctor the middle part of the records and an obsession with a 6cm circle* that drove me nearly into the ground – until I ran out of silicone again.
After a breather and a gap which I filled with a whole load of touring and then Christmas and then more touring, I decided I was feeling a little fed up with the process and felt like I would never find a way to transfer some mark-making that was truly ‘me’ via a process of mould-making onto the centre of a record. I decided to order the components for clear resin. I thought perhaps I could adopt a layer by layer approach and trap some artifact, or sketch or something in between layers of clear resin and create something like a picture disk. That change of tack came with its own can of wriggly little worms. Clear resin takes forever to set – so making a run would take months to complete. The clear stuff was also very very fragile, brittle in fact. It was hard to work with – far harder to mix with a catalyst and a hardening agent each at 3% as opposed to the good old 1:1. I needed a respirator to work with this stuff – it was rank. Even setting up shop down the bottom of the garden the chemical smell was unreal. In short, it just didn’t feel right.
I went back to white resin, my love for it restored and having vowed never again to stray. Eventually, with the help of some aluminium tape, I created the design to accompany my then unreleased song ‘Natalie.’ On the turn-table however, the thing sounded like utter garbage. It suppose it had just been luck that I hadn’t come across this problem earlier in the process – or perhaps the fact that I’d only made records that skipped due to tears or hairs until now so never had anything that played from top to bottom. The surface hadn’t been level when I made the mould – so one side was thicker than the other making a record that was ever so slightly wedge shaped – causing the needle to bob up and down like apples at halloween or some other crude simile**.
I bought a mother-fucking spirit level.
I ruined a table. I melted several cups. I was very afraid of naked flames for quite a while. Today however, I boxed up the first ten decent copies of ‘Natalie’ on hand-cast mock-vinyl and sent out to my favourite DJs – with photocopied sleeves in plastic jackets in bubble wrap and sturdy seeming cardboard mailers. Good luck kids.
* – studio with Dan Whitehouse who says this could actually be a metaphor for life.
** – It’s been a long read (I’m amazed you’ve stuck with it!) Treat yourself to a rude simile. You know the one.