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30 août 2006

Richard Chappell : Behind the scenes

Locals may disagree, but St. Petersburg boasts a great music scene, where even buskers are highly talented, according to Richard Chappell, a technical engineer for art rock legend and world-music pioneer Peter Gabriel.

Chappell was checking out St. Petersburg’s music scene this month, even though August normally has little to offer as far as live music goes in the city.

“I’d been expecting that there would be more of a gig scene here, I haven’t seen as much as I would expect, but what I have seen has been very good,” he said, speaking at the local music bar Novus during his visit.

“Musicians’ standards seem very good here, and actually all the buskers that I see on the street seem really amazing, like the standard of musicianship. Most days I walk around and see a new person playing or a new group of people playing, and that’s also really good. Compared to England, the standard of musicianship here seems very high.”

Chappell, who has been working at Gabriel’s Real World Studios in the U.K. for almost 20 years, came to St. Petersburg by invitation from local musician and producer Viktor Sologub, who first gained underground fame with ska pioneers Stranniye Igry, or Strange Games, in the 1980s. Sologub’s other bands include indie rockers Igry and, most recently, electronic band Deadushki.

The two met at Real World Studios in January when Sologub was doing some production work for an upcoming album by award-winning Uzbek world-music singer Sevara Nazarkhan.

“Viktor came to the studio to do some more production work there with a friend of mine, Bruno Ellingham, who is another producer there,” said Chappell, who was working on mixing a Robert Plant concert for release on DVD at the time.

“He kept coming to my studio, listening to what I was doing, and there we’re very friendly, and there’s many rooms to use in the studio, and you walk in and out, say hello to people. So Viktor came in and we were talking, and he said, ‘Come to St. Petersburg.’ He kept saying that, and he came back again, maybe last month, and again he said, ‘You need to come to St. Petersburg.’ So I came.”

Chappell joined the staff of Real World Studios, which celebrated its 20th anniversary on June 28, early in its history. The 20-year milestone was marked with live performances by various artists including Plant and Gabriel.

Chappell started at the studio in 1987, when he was 17, initially as a tea boy.

“I took a recording class at school, and it was a little four-track machine, and it was a two-year class of learning about sound and how to record things, it was the only one in England at that time” said Chappell.

“We would listen to The Beatles and to Steely Dan and all these amazing recordings, and we’d have to sit in the dark and listen and analyze, like, all these different records and get to talk about them. It’s a very inspiring class, very interesting, so at that point [I decided that] I’d like to be a recording engineer.

“And basically I found that I wasn’t clever enough, I wasn’t getting the right exams that would take me to the right university to do the proper university recording course. So I left and I joined a band and that didn’t work out, and I went to college to study some more. In college you have career advisers in England, and my career adviser said, ‘What do you want to do?’ and I said, ‘I still want to be a recording engineer.’ He said, ‘Find a recording studio in this area.’ So I found a studio called the Real World Studios in the phone book and I called them up and asked, ‘Are you looking for anybody to come and work, you know, just making tea and being a runner?’ And they said, ‘Actually we are right now. We’ve just been built and nobody knows about us, so come for an interview.’

“So I went for an interview and a guy there, Mike Large, who is one of Peter [Gabriel]’s managers and the general manager of Real World gave me a job! So I stayed there on trial for a few weeks, and then they kept me on and I’ve been there ever since. So I learned basically all my skills within that environment.”

Now Chappell is Gabriel’s full-time engineer, rarely having time to work on anything else. Always a perfectionist, Gabriel takes a while to work on an album, with his most recent, the 2002 album “Up,” being seven years in the making.

“It takes several years, and sometimes there are breaks, so you might get a month to do something else, if you want to, but generally it’s Monday-to-Friday working just on whatever he’s got going,” said Chappell.

Sometimes Gabriel can be somewhere in the building, but then he has a musical idea and comes to the studio, where keyboards and microphones are always on, waiting for him.

“The immediacy of recording is really important,” said Chappell.

“You need to have everything ready all the time to be able to record, because otherwise you’re going to lose the moment. You’re going to lose the instancy of somebody getting an idea. And my boss, particularly, is quite random in his approach to music, so he will suddenly come up with an idea, and maybe he’ll be in the office, and he comes running over and sits down, and he wants to be recording straight away. So yeah, generally all his keyboards and all his microphones are always open, so at any time, he can hit ‘record’ on something. It’s always very important.”

Real World Studios was founded by Gabriel for his world-music projects as well as for his own work in June 1986. The studio, built in a well-lit 18th century watermill and surrounded by water, is special a place for music making.

“The studio is based in an old watermill, a flour mill in Wiltshire,” said Chappell. “The building itself, I think, dates back to the 1700s. There’s a mill pond that surrounds the building where the mill wheel used to turn within the building. They put in a glass floor, so you can record on top of the glass floor and see the water flowing underneath you.

“The whole kind of idea of the studio is very much trying to combine the modern look with the old stone look of the building, and I think they’ve achieved that very well. So there’s a lot of big wooden rooms to record in. The main control room is one of the biggest control rooms in the world, and it’s based around a concept that Peter Gabriel doesn’t like to have a separate studio and control room. He likes to work in a room that’s big, and he can have a recording console within the room as well as the musicians.”

According to Chappell, what Gabriel had in mind was a dream studio, free of the drawbacks that he encountered when recording with his then band Genesis in the 1970s.

“He grew very paranoid during his Genesis years of doing things in a studio and then on headphones, and then everything goes silent and you can’t hear people talking behind the glass, and you don’t know what’s being said or what’s going on. It’s quite hard to communicate in a creative way,” said Chappell.

“So Real World has been built and based on this principle that you can have separate recording rooms, and we have them as well, but generally the recording spaces are built to accommodate the band to play as well as the engineer and producer to be there and listen to what’s going on. So it’s quite a unique place. It has many windows. When it was built, it was very rare to have a recording studio with windows. All the rooms have huge windows and are very light. Yeah, it’s a special place, you know.”

Chappell’s first work, then as an assistant to engineer and producer called David Bottrill, was the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Called “Passion: Music For The Last Temptation Of Christ.” It was also the first release for Gabriel’s label Real World Records in 1989.

“So, I began engineering with David Bottrill, who has now come on to produce Tool and many many big American rock records. What’s happened is interesting. I have an assistant every year to work with me and I can teach them things. And my assistants come from this course called the Ton Master Course at Surrey University. And Surrey University is the course I wasn’t qualified enough to go to. But now I have a new assistant every year; they come and work for me and Peter Gabriel — and they assist me. So now it’s like a turnaround, which I feel good about.”

By Sergey Chernov / Staff Writer

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