words: Jack Tractor
pics: Chris Saunders
Don’t be fooled by the stickmen t-shirts, offbeat rhythms and indie clobber, Champion Kickboxer have got something good going on. It’s taken 2Fly’s Alan Smyth to get it down on tape.
Quietly industrious are Champion Kickboxer, unfailingly amiable also. Almost humdrum in their normality. Which in many bands’ cases is translated onstage to the kind of pleasant forgettability accorded to nice people who point out you’ve left your wallet on the counter in the supermarket. Fortunately then CK’s true colours aren’t indelibly grafted onto the jeans and t-shirts they habitually wear any more than a strikingly symmetric haircut guarantees imagination, wit and flair.
Sam Marsh and Neil Piper, the rhythm section got together at University in 1999 as part of the wonderfully odd Round Town Four Fist Fighting Association (for a rough idea of how they sounded check out ex-member, James Brodie’s unhinged, improvised solo sets). Sam Marsh (guitar, maths genius apparently) and Tom Bates (singer, skyscraper lank) joined and the band morphed into CK the following year and they set about forging a sound that sets them apart from many of their peers in Sheffield.
Capturing that sound on tape has been a problem for them. Aside from a slightly archaic psychedelic folk edge, taut angular almost new wave guitar, Casio keyboard (and saucepan), four part harmonies and rounds, they have a serious predilection for tempo changes. When it works it’s entrancing, when it doesn’t one Sandman reviewer described it as.. ‘thrown together like a primary school orchestra before the invention of the metronome.’ A year in Red Tape and a further year recording themselves in their own basement saw them producing a couple of charming but seriously flawed demos which, comparatively spindly, jerky and anaemic did them little justice.
“We’d record them and like them for a couple of days but we couldn’t listen to them ourselves after a bit and it was a bit embarrassing handing them out.” Sam, who at 6’2”ish is maybe only the third tallest member of the band, says.
This time round they elected to go down to Alan Smyth’s 2Fly Studios in Sharrow’s Little Sheffield. Aside from his stints in nearly men Seafruit, and not so nearly men Don Valley and The Rotherhithes (which featured current Chicken Leg, Norton Lees) Alan has been recording bands since the early 80s, ‘taping a microphone to my acoustic at home and getting it to distort, then recording one track onto another tape recorder while playing over the top of it.’ Aside from a raft of local bands he works regularly with Hoggboy and Richard Hawley and can also put down bands like James, Pulp and Longpigs on his CV. Sandman went down to the tiny two-part studio – control and live rooms, not unlike a fairly glamorous shed – and saw the band and producer at work.
Alan’s first impressions? “English. A Pulp or Bonzo Dog like quality, almost folk. Tom’s voice and guitar style remind me a little of [Fairport Convention’s] Richard Thompson. They used really interesting time signatures that I instantly picked up on from the demo. I was sitting in my car going ‘hang on something’s going on there, counting bars, getting to 15 and going back to one again.’
Steve Albini, hobnob fanatic and legendary Nirvana engineer, famously simplifies the techno jargon of the studio by stating that his job is simply putting musicians in a nice sounding room, putting the mics in the right places and hitting record. Alan concurs, “Absolutely right. This is not a great room but it’s alright. It works.”
Before this process begins however there are a few things that needed to be attended to.
“The first thing for me is to try and make everyone feel at ease. We’ll get the kettle on and rather than saying ‘right we’ve got to be ready by whenever, I’ll say ‘if we’re recording something by half past two I’ll be happy.’ That’s four and a half hours getting used to and acclimatising to the studio. It’s not big but a lot of people do get nervous in the studio, not surprising really. There’s a bit of tension there whether they’ll admit it or not. Also I don’t know what I’m doing until I’ve actually heard the play.”
During this period the band set up, drum kit first and then the rest of the band. “For this recording we used their full live set-up, all their amps etc. We’re trying to capture that vibe, if you like.”
Ham Sangers and mini cheddars mix in with the musical clobber and Alan next mission is to convince the band to use a click track. “At first we weren’t very keen,” admits Sam Marsh “but he described it to us as simply acting like a conductor would, allowing everyone to concentrate on their own part while staying in time.”
Their initial concern was, chiefly, that the click tracks would seem too rigid, almost a hindrance than a help but Alan had spotted a reticence in the band’s own demos when it came to tempo changes, the band had either sped up or slowed down giving an unwanted jerkiness. The band recorded a track without a click which was then placed over the recording to see where it fitted and where it didn’t. In certain parts Alan recognised where the band wanted to speed up and adjusted the click accordingly, “Maybe just two extra beats at points.” It worked and the band recognised the fact.
“Al’s got the knack of saying the right thing. He’s got an overview of what we’re doing and understands what we wanted. It would be like him saying. ‘You want to do that, or that bit was wrong’ and we’d be like Yes! You’re right!” Champion Kickboxer are, as far it goes a pretty democratic outfit, three of them live together but getting an outside voice in seems to have helped a lot.
Recording the backing tracks was done fairly rapidly. By the following morning they’d recorded the five backing tracks for the demo and were ready to overdub vocals and a bit of keyboard and percussion. (Tom has an iron skillet, which he taps on ‘Like Him and Her and Me’ and a curious piano part which he plays with his hands backwards. It looks odd).
Comping is an important part of the process, a way of editing the best parts of different takes into the best whole. “My job is make sure everything is in the right place,” says Alan, “Like fitting a jigsaw together.”
Finally came the mixing and it was over.
“The real constraint here is time, We only had three days and you always feel you can do better.” Alan reckons but will admit to be reasonably happy with the finished product.
Having heard the earlier demos there are three major improvements. Firstly the quality of the sounds of the instrument, the drums sound like drums rather someone busily tapping a matchbox with matches and the guitars are full bodied and in yer face. Secondly the band are tighter and the playing sounds more certain, the tempo changes more natural. Thirdly and most revelatory Tom’s voice is central to the mix and you can hear what he’s singing. Revelatory because you can finally hear the songs rather than the faults.
Tom I would have to say is one of the best lyricists in Sheffield. He’s not particularly comfortable in analysing them in public though. “It is all personal stuff but it’s not obvious. If anything it’s trying put complex things down without making them simple. It’s about communication.”
The Kazoo Song seems to be about finding someone to share a fear of an adult world where the brutality of childhood simply grows into an adult version of the same, Supertram takes Mariah Carey’s singing boobs to represent the mad, greedy rush for attention without considering the implications. It’s all guesswork on my part but they’ve lodged in head and left me wondering what they mean to someone else. These songs stick in the head.
These songs also raise the point that rock music ties itself up in its own image sometimes so that it limits what it can say, it constrains itself within its own vocabulary and its own traditions. Its perpetual adolescence and unfocused dissent glossed over by the sheer excitement of cranking up the amps. Tom’s songs, and these people ain’t rock’n’rollers, try and fumble though confusion by using language via both rhyme and metre as well as coded meaning to try and communicate something more than simple rage.
Shadowboxing is one of the best songs I’ve heard this year, hints of Love’s ‘Alone Again Or’ mix in with a rolling drum pattern and unusually aggressive guitar.
‘Fear not now what looks like death is only shadowboxing that you see,
Hands are thrown faster than mortal speed but of its deadly speed I am free,
Free to wander in fields of eyeless shadows, free to see shadows,
So how can I concede you?
Fail to warm to your never fading silhouette,
I will have my answers yet.’
Make of it what you will there’s no denying it a certain potency. What Champion Kickboxer do is use wit in their work. They’re not a comedy band and the distinction is important.
For the first time the band feel they’ve got something that represents them fairly if they put the CD into other people’s hands. If you get the chance get down to a gig, make up your own minds, or get your hands on the demo.
CK know nothing is instant, nothing is give in music. There’s talk of a 7” coming out at some stage, using the tracks recorded at 2Fly and the possibility of recording more stuff, an album’s worth so they’ve really got a body of work to show.
The next week Smokers Die Younger were in the studio with Alan. The process he uses with these bands is pretty much what he does with Hoggboy, although he reckons he’s learning new techniques all the time. The main difference is that he’ll have a bit less input, the difference between producing and engineering.
“They’ll know exactly what they want,” he says.
If you’re serious about your music don’t waste your own time and devalue your own work by letting shit demos represent you. If someone hasn’t seen you live that’s all they’ll have to gone on. Kickboxer care.