It’s Getting Better: The Sawmills Sessions

“[At Sawmills] we recorded again as a band in the same room, unlike in Monnow Valley. It was a re-creation of the set-up we’d had both in the rehearsal room and Bootle, and we had that feel back, that understanding that a nod or wink could bring, that spark.”

(Tony McCarroll on the improvement made by the change of recording technique at Sawmills Studios, quoted from p. 123 of his book Oasis: The Truth – My Life as Oasis’s Drummer)

In the second part of this new interview for Oasis Recording Information, recording engineer Anjali Dutt recalls in detail about what it was like recording Oasis at Sawmills Studios and how the album finally came to be mixed on several occasions…

David: At what point was it decided to scrap the Monnow Valley recordings and re-record the album at Sawmills?
Anjali: We started again as soon as we arrived in Sawmills. The decision had been made at Olympic, and anyway I think Mark was itching to get his hands on it. Noel and Mark must have whiled away hundreds of roadie hours on the road perfecting their vision of the ultimate rock sound and the chance to flesh it out in a real studio, away from the constrictions of budget and criticism, was finally in their hands. Plus I was the ‘endlessly helpful and acquiescing engineer’ without any mandate other than to allow the creative juices to flow, hopefully straight onto that tape, so they were quids in there.

When did you first meet the band and what did you make of them as individuals? Was it a good atmosphere in the studio?
Yes, it was a lovely atmosphere. They were in control of the sound and they were also aware of the buzz awaiting the material if they could just nail it. Sawmills had a calming and productive atmosphere. It is halfway up a tidal creek so cut off twice a day from even pedestrian access. Sometimes you could only get out by boat. We could go out canoeing for fun and did eventually, with hilarious results.

Also you had to take the boat to the pub and bring back barrels of beer to fuel the night sessions if that was what you wanted. Across the creek were trees and birds and there was woods all around you – a lovely vibe, miles from anything and especially far from urban Manchester and corporate London, from both management and record company; there was someone there that they weren’t particularly keen on and they were far from him too. The boys were really young then, barely eighteen. I felt as though I was on a school outing. Ruth’s sausage and chips were devoured with relish; seconds and pudding were highlights of the evenings, school dinner grub, nothing foreign or exotic.

There had also been some incident with golf buggies at Gleneagles at the Sony conference and most of the band had been stuck in Holland without ferry tickets just prior to recording starting and much merriment was derived from all these stories. It was hard to get them up in the mornings, and then get them away from the TV, Match of the Day and the pool table and assemble them in the studio; there might have been an early PlayStation around too. Once we had them all in the studios it was quite late into the night and we recorded every single thing that they played and sifted through it the following morning. Noel was around in the daytime but no one else from the band was, and it was frustrating to hear him play all the instrumental parts, usually much better than anyone else could. But it wouldn’t have had a band vibe if we had made him play all the music on the album and he was as acutely aware of that as we were.

What was different about the Sawmills setup that helped get much better results than before? Any information on how the recording and mixing techniques differed would be of great interest.
The great things about Sawmills were isolation, atmosphere, and control. The studio space was rough and ready, workmanlike. Not too far off a rehearsal room. The owner was someone with an esoteric past in the sixties and minimal presence. I bought my ProAc speakers along (and everyone loves them) plus some Neve modules I had bought in the US with old mic amps, a ribbon mic which blew up quite quickly, and a valve DI. I think there was a Trident desk, echoes of the ’70s necessitating a ‘hands on’ approach due to a lack of automation, which was very much approved of. We faced the creek so your view out of the window was of the opposite bank and that was calming. The mantra was to enable spillage, so doors were deliberately left open and monitoring without headphones encouraged as much as possible.

Could you give a rough outline of what a typical day in the studio with Oasis was like at that time: what time they started work, how long it took to set up, how many takes per song etc. (something like ‘A Day in the life of Anjali at Sawmills…’ if possible!)
A day in my life was remarkably boring because no one ever got up. And when they did they just hogged the TV or played pool and then drifted off never to be found again. I got quite bored; I was an early riser and had acres of day to potter around for before I actually had anything to do. I like to wander and explore, and started taking my new fancy sports car out for jaunts to explore bits of the Cornish countryside. Bonehead was a bit older than the others and a bit worldlier; he had a car, a house and a girlfriend, and I think he once came with me to the car wash just to get out of the cabin. The others seemed insecure away from their natural urban habitats and hid in their bedrooms like little kids, which is what I suppose they were.

Very late into the evening we would start the first round up of trying to assemble the band but inevitably someone would be missing and by the time we found him, someone else would be gone. When the miraculous moment occurred when everyone was in the studio space at the same time ready to play, we would just slam the tape machine into record and capture everything. I am not sure that we didn’t use 15ips so that we wouldn’t lose precious time changing the reels.

Then the whole band would expire and evaporate back up to the living area, we would have a little moratorium (mainly about the rigour of the drumming) and call it a night. The drumming wasn’t actually that bad but it was inconsistent and he did come out of every roll at a completely new speed. I had spent years in the eighties working with Mutt Lange on mega rock productions so could be really OCD and anal about the whole topic of timing. However for some reason I felt that the predominant reasons for disliking the drum tracks were personal rather than musical and there was always endless cussing in the background that I tend to associate with boys of that age.

Once the tracks were down it was a lot easier as the overdubs only required locating one person at a time. Liam always sang like a bird, usually one take, no drop ins, you could comp a vocal using whole verses and choruses from each take; there was no need for intricate surgery to repair tuning. There were no tuning problems; it was just a case of preferring one interpretation or intonation over another. Being a pianist, I tried to help Bonehead with the piano part on Digsy’s Dinner but he knew what he was doing and was really very adept. Noel was often around just generally enjoying being around musical stuff in the studio. He is actually quite a fine drummer you know, but very tidy in a new wave sort of way. Liam does very ‘in time’ tambourine too, a surprisingly hard thing to do.

Other than the Beatles (I’ll take that as read!), what records were the band listening to at the time? Were there any particular tracks or albums that were used as a reference for the kind of sound they were going for?
I remember an obsessive interest with You Wear it Well by Rod Stewart and The Faces which had been recorded in that very dead but solid way popular with ’70s bands. Also Neil Young figured, again ’70s dry. That is why my mixes were so untreated; un-effected was the template. The whole idea was to feel the physical presence of the band in the room rather than wash it in reverbs and effects. Everything from the snare to the rhythm guitars should be chunky, direct, and open.

The album cover I remember had this really laddish picture of The Faces playing football behind Morgan studios, Willesden; very ‘salt of the earth’ and unpretentious. However this dry treatment only works with very precise and coherent playing as it is basically so honest and in your face (I am not sure our performances were up to such nudity in mixing; a few delays and reverbs can add some much needed glue at times). So it was quite a surprise when the final album mix came out and it was so Spectoresque and compressed, as all the immediacy and openness was gone. But those mixes generated the excitement that had been missing in the actual playing. The band was not The Faces even if they might have briefly wanted to be, and it would take that different approach in mixing, I suppose, to inject the raw excitement of live.

Noel has mentioned in interviews that he was happier with the sound of the demos the band had recorded with The Real People than with the Batchelor/Monnow Valley versions; did you use the demos as a reference whilst working on the Sawmills Sessions?
It is always the bane of any studio engineer’s life to have the demo waved in your face. You want to ask them why they are trying to re-record something if they are already holding the definitive version. It’s a fail-fail situation and all you can do is defuse the situation as diplomatically as possible. It’s interesting that they as the artist don’t seem to hold much responsibility for their versions changing when they are the only consistent people ever present. Anyway later when The Real People came down to the mixing at Eden Studios in London you could see how myths can perpetuate. Everybody felt that they had a piece of the action if they were around at that time; it’s what made the band so personal and special. When we did listen to the demos it just muddied the waters more. No one knew whether the demos were better, or, if they were, why? It was like discussing the meaning of life: long, arduous, and ultimately, still unknown.

On the finished version of the album Married with Children is from an 8-track demo recorded at Mark Coyle’s house. Did the band ever try to re-record the track at Sawmills? If so, what did you think of the results?
No, that was always the definitive version.

Some of the early mixes from the Definitely Maybe sessions have surfaced on a promotional CD called the Stop the Clocks Collection, albeit in instrumental form; do you recall where these versions of Slide Away, Cigarettes and Alcohol, and Supersonic were recorded and mixed?

There’s also this alternate recording of Cigarettes and Alcohol, which has proved hard to identify – can you enlighten us on this? Thanks.
Sorry David, it was all so long ago. Slide Away may have been me; it’s dry and the take seems like the one I worked on. But I can’t be certain; the others definitely have nothing to do with me.

Can you say which session this version of Columbia is from and who mixed it?
I recognise this; it’s our mix from Eden and I am sorry to say I still love it more than the one on the album. You see I thought that there was a lot of depth in the songs on that first album and it was possible to mix with restraint and draw people in, rather than having it all slapped in your face with compression and piercing mid frequencies. The version on the album sort of rips your ears off with its chainsaw ferocity whereas this is elegant and understated, inviting you in to discover the riches in your own way. It’s such a menacing song anyway, so urban and ponderous with its multicultural twist at the start, anthemic power chords leading in, and disturbing octave harmonies in the middle.

How long did it take to record the whole album? When recording was complete, where was it mixed? How many attempts were made and when?
The band was needed in London. Pre-booked promotional commitments had overtaken the completion of the album and they had to come back. Eden Studios in Chiswick was booked and it was very different from Sawmills. Owned by ex BBC-ites, it was very technical, precise and sensible, with visible staffing and the urban sprawl of West London close by. I may have chosen it for its connections with my Stiff record collection or just because I was used to SSL and thought that the automation would help, I can’t remember now. The technical stuff that comes with SSL didn’t please Mark that much as he was more of an ‘all arms on deck’ type of guy. But it gave me a more central role in the mix and I could record their fader movements and recall them with ease. They loved one mix, they no longer did, and could I get the one before last back etc.etc. The usual mixing indecisions could be graciously catered for.

So we were more or less left to it and everyone seemed happy though there was always that niggling feeling that the live essence of the band hadn’t really made it onto tape, still. And people just seemed to find us now, even from as far afield as Manchester and Liverpool. All sorts of unlikely types dropped by with their party spirits and connections to the perhaps dodgy past; and some extras too that Liam may have found on a trip to the off license; he did attract strangers with such ease, a natural magnet. Every time I came out of the control room there were more and more people sitting around! How did they keep finding us?

What made it difficult to mix? How close did Mark Coyle’s mixes of the Sawmills recordings get to being released?
The mixes are still great to me; I still enjoy listening to them. They were tidy, focussed, and immediate. I liked the way you felt yourself drawn in and they were sonically warm. Another way of describing them could be staid and polite but I guess that didn’t bother me as I thought that the songs had a quality of their own and I liked the understatement. I hadn’t seen them live… so I guess it wasn’t as evident to me as to others that the full personality of the band hadn’t been captured. When I did see them on The Word I did notice that they were more different from The Beatles than they may have wanted to be; perhaps other angles should have been explored. Though I don’t think that the original mixes were amazing, I did prefer them to the final album, as the relentlessness of the compressed chainsaw guitars just wears you out even if the initial feeling of excitement is invigorating.

When did Owen Morris get on board? Once he joined, how long did it take to complete the album?
It was all quite mysterious the way it all got whisked away but I was used to everything being brilliant one minute but then suddenly re-mixed the next, as it happens quite often in the music business. Anyway Marcus managed Owen so perhaps there was some monetary recoupment angle there. The trouble was that you did feel very connected and committed to the work and initially I think everyone agreed that the original mixes were the best and it was a terrible travesty that the ‘baby’ had been taken away.

People were threatening to put out the original on homemade record labels, cane the management etc etc. But once it all started becoming a hit, the tempest subsided as everyone was about to get very rich. Anyway there was no denying that the missing spark had been found at last, if only through a mad mixing process and less democracy, and the brashness and swagger that could not be found any other way had finally emerged. The band were to get busy getting enormous, there was other things to do other than emulate record collections and refine sonic ideas, there was the business of being stars.

What did you think of Owen’s mixes? Did you have a favourite? Were there any tracks on which you preferred earlier mixes?
I think his mixes did the job and gave it that much needed excitement and attitude. But it wasn’t my kind of sound and found far it too abrasive so I can only recall ever playing a few tracks at a time. It sounded great if it came on the radio or a juke box as you were walking down the street or drinking in a club as it grabbed your attention and it was just a clear winner in terms of loudness.

In an intimate setting though, it was too dense for reflective thought; I suppose as a girl this had always been my main area of fascination with music, those moments indoors with your records and introspection. However he managed to make it sound dirty and dangerous rather than pompous and overbearing so full marks for that; it reeked of attitude and defiance. I liked the intro to Bring it on Down with the tribal toms and the sneer of Cigarettes and Alcohol but otherwise, from a long term point of view, would have happily lived my life with the original mixes as my soundtrack.

The finished version of the album was one of the first to be mastered using the brickwall method, which maximised its loudness. Owen Morris recalls that this meant that, for the first year, Oasis came on pub jukeboxes louder than everybody else. Do you think that the album would have worked as well musically if it had been mastered in a more conventional way?
The loudness bothers me a lot. I like the overall character of the mixes and if, prior to mastering, the sonic profile had been a bit warmer and the dynamics more open, it might have been more appealing, to me at any rate. It is all in your face straight away, lacking subtlety to put it mildly. But at the same time, the opening seconds of any track when it first comes on, when your whole body and soul perks up with recognition and love almost immediately, are priceless.

Many thanks for your time, Anjali.

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(Interview by David Huggins. Answers © Anjali Dutt. Oasis Recording Info, 2011)