by Westley Holdsworth

Dictaphone Blues: Friends Need Friends

by Westley Holdsworth

Dictaphone Blues: Friends Need Friends

Ed Castelow is a well-travelled and well-practised musician. He’s spent time touring the U.S, Europe and the U.K. with The Ruby Suns and The Brunettes and had a good stab over the ditch with his old Christchurch band degrees.K, as well as touring with the likes of Liam Finn and Shihad. When not selling folk their next musical instrument at his place of work, he’s typically holed up in Auckland’s former Crystal Palace, maybe enjoying some spicy fruit loaf with a few good buddies. Westley Holdsworth dropped by for a chin wag with Castelow about the new Dictaphone Blues’ album ‘Beneath The Crystal Palace’.

Summer may be over but those hazy, sun-drenched days and long light evenings spent with the company of good friends can live on through winter and beyond thanks to Ed Castelow’s Dictaphone Blues.

Almost three years to the day since their debut full length album release ‘On The Down And In’ sees a considerably gutsier follow up, an album brimming with warmth that’s been crafted by Ed, his bandmates Rob Collins (bass and synths) and Myles Allpress (drums, guitar and vocals) and a handful of good friends. Ed himself is also credited with pretty much all of the above inputs other than bass, with the song credits belonging to the band.

It’s clear that the nature of ‘Beneath The Crystal Palace’ has come from a genuine love of the group’s friends and surroundings, none more pertinent than their practice space and recording studio of choice, Christchurch muso’s surrogate home, The Lab, in Mt Eden, Auckland.

“The building was built in 1920. It was a bit of a dancehall (The Crystal Palace) back in its day, with a movie theatre upstairs. This is where The Lab is situated and we’ve inhabited this area for a few years now. Ollie [Harmer] is the studio manager here and he’s a friend from Christchurch. This is where we recorded the album over winter.”” 

Funny how songs built with such a sunny disposition can be put together during winter, in the confines of a windowless basement. The name of the record is, of course, a direct reference to the building.

“One day it was just like, ‘What are we gonna call it?’ I had ‘Under The Crystal Palace’ and Rob was like ‘Beneath The Crystal Palace’ – just that little change. We’ve always had a real affinity with the place. I’ve got this old musical book called Blue Smoke about NZ bands and dancing in the ’50s and ’60s. There are photos of people singing live here and the wallpaper that’s on the outside of our practice room is actually in the shot – the same wallpaper still here. I saw it and I was like, ‘Oh my god!’

“This is where we record all of our stuff, we’ve been in other recording studios and they’re really cool, but once you come through the doors and go down the steps you’re nowhere else other than right here, and that’s the kind of state that it’s great to be in to write music all the time.””

The wait for more tunes from Dictaphone Blues since their debut hasn’t just been down to writer’s block but more so Ed’s desire to play music with whoever wants him – and the fact that sometimes life just gets in the way.

“We were a four-piece band. I guess we’ve been a three-piece for a couple of years. I rented a studio down here in 2010 and I was trying to write then, but I had a lot going on in my life and I didn’t really come out with much over the nine months that I was in that studio. We put out a seven inch with a couple of songs and that was what we came out with. We played some gigs, Myles had a baby, Rob’s been busy with his backline stuff (Rhythm Section Productions) and I was playing drums in Lisa Crawley’s band, which took up a bit of time.

“I’m just always one to put up my hand. I’m always one to say, ‘Yes, I’m good to go’.”

Thankfully Ed kept his hand down long enough to produce another Dictaphone Blues album, one that both reflects and takes advantage of the close knit, mildly hedonistic community involved at The Lab.

“I’m down the list here as far as awesome recording skills. Obviously Ollie is the master of this place. Jol Mulholland is living overseas at the moment but this is his patch as well and he knows how to make a really good din. Ryan McPhun knows how to do it and I’d put myself under all those guys. I’m always asking the questions, ‘Hey Ollie can I try that microphone?’ And Tom Healy [who mixed the album] as well, he knows all this incredible stuff.’”

There’s a great ‘live’ feel throughout ‘Beneath The Crystal Palace’ and you really get sense of a group of friends joyously jamming out some of the tunes together. It’s almost like they’re singing at the listener, you are somehow involved in the racket being made, especially on the tracks Spicy Fruit Loaf (a staple at practice), Shake A Leg and the first single Cliché. This intimacy stems from a different approach to both writing and capturing the band’s sound.

“Instead of me demoing all the songs and then playing them live with a bunch of people, then maybe asking them to recreate those sounds, it was written with three of us. Or I’d bring along a song but I wouldn’t demo so much on my own, I would just bring the chords along, and go, ‘Hey I reckon this is how it should go.’ Then fuck around with that and then Myles would try something else, usually the groove and the melody.

“I tried to write all the lyrics before we recorded the songs which I can never usually do, but I did that with 80-90% of the album. We had the drums in a large room, just trying to get a big sound, as big as possible. We had nicer microphones, I had more inputs and I had a couple of nice preamps from time to time.

“It wasn’t tracked all live but when I went to overdub or Rob went to overdub, the passes that we recorded were usually pretty long. It wasn’t like play one round of the chorus, yep we’ve got it now loop it. Some of the outro’s and some of the midsections are quite free and jammy and those are the things that Myles did on the spot, and so that’s how I felt I should record it as well. The end of What Happened To Our Love? it’s just free.”

Keeping things within the fold, since Ollie Harmer had mixed the first Dictaphone Blues album, Ed says he wanted Tom Healy to have input on this one.

“When we got to the mixing he was like, ‘Oh, what we should do is halve this, we should take out this instrument…’ He just sort of arranged it a bit better. ‘Maybe too much going on. That melody is the stronger one, we should use that…’ Stuff like that.”

The close knit community that encapsulates the record is hammered home with a bevy of cameos.

“We had a song which I thought could be split between two people, like a call back kind of thing, ‘Who does that kind of well? Oh, Jonathan’s been doing it for years with The Brunettes’, and [Princess] Chelsea’s got that kitschy kind of vibe and, ‘Oh, it’s called Friends Need Friends, and they’re my friends, awesome!’

“One time when The Unfaithful Ways were up to do a show I was supporting them just solo and we all went back to my house and had some beers. We had finished all the live tracking of the record and I had my computer at home. I was like ‘Hey sing on a track’ they’re doing ‘ahs’ in the background of Spicy Fruit Loaf. We just had a mic set up and those guys sing amazingly and we just did a few passes.

“I can stand there and do lots of harmonies but it’s all going to sound very one dimensional and nobody else’s ideas come in. So I just asked James Milne (Lawrence Arabia), Ryan McPhun (The Ruby Suns), Jacob Moore (who drums in The Checks and sings in a barbershop quartet most weeks) and a friend Lee Devenish, they sing on My Girl Anymore, As I Of You and Burning Ball In Outer Space. I thought there’s four guys, come round have some wine, knock out three or four songs.”

All of this friendly input, and Ed’s years of practical experience has led to a great psychedelic pop record, with a free and easy spirit, crammed full of catchy choruses but still plenty of fuzz. Good times with good friends is definitely the vibe.

“I mean, it’s just the kind of music that we like to listen to. We like to have a drink and we all like getting under the influence of different things. And then you play the music and you stay on a vibe for longer and that’s what we like. And we like a bit of noise. So we went with that a bit more, it’s more rocking, just because that’s the kind of album that we wanted to make, what we had become as a three-piece. My guitar playing had changed a lot. The other record is a lot more pop orientated, it’s a lot cleaner and even the dirty bits still sound a lot smaller and twee-ish. Everything on this is larger – not that it sounds like a $10,000 album or anything!””

He’s underselling himself. ‘Beneath The Crystal Palace’ is a glittering end product that was well worth the three years. The production paradox – one-part scuzzy, one-part refined – really fits the vibe of the record. The free form freak outs sit comfortably next to thought out rhythms and interesting takes on the standard pop song structure, much like old friends. And that’s just the way this particular album should sound. It’s not about the limelight, money or popular approval, it’s about hammering out a few chords with some good buddies.