Dictaphone Blues’ sophomore album ‘Beneath The Crystal Palace’ earned plenty of admiring talk following its release three years ago, and could even be credited with bringing the wonderful old theatre back into the Auckland ‘scene’. Still, it somehow didn’t have the cut through needed to achieve wide popularity. The cleverly-named follow up, ‘Mufti Day’, should set that record right. With his third album under the Dictaphone Blues’ banner Ed Castelow has delivered a canny mix of radio hits and album depths, experimental production cleverness and pop ease that delights further with every listen. Matt deKimble delved beneath the futon.
Dictaphone Blues have re-emerged from beneath Mt Eden’s Crystal Palace with their colourful third album, ‘Mufti Day’. After finding popularity on student radio with their 2009 debut ‘On The Down And In’ ,and again with 2012’s ‘Beneath The Crystal Palace’, Ed Castelow’s Dictaphone Blues are finally poised to break the mainstream.
The new album’s premier single, Her Heart Breaks Like A Wave, hit local airwaves like a tsunami and earned Castelow his first Silver Scrolls finals berth. (The song’s 7 min 38 second ‘official video’-slash-bodysurf comp, filmed at Byron Bay, is un-missable entertainment.) Following up came the chaotic, hypochondriac radio hit 365, featuring Street Chant’s Emily Edrosa. Expectations are justifiably high.
The Auckland retro-pop act’s line up and approach to album writing shifted between the first two albums, and ‘Mufti Day’ is again different. Having last time opted to collaboratively compose with then bassist, Rob Collins, and drummer Myles Allpress, Castelow has this time taken back full creative control.
“We all really liked those ‘Beneath The Crystal Palace’ songs but we got a little sick of them too quickly, he explains. “I started playing bass with Tono [Anthonie Tonnon] and playing drums in The Conjurors as well. Dictaphone Blues changed because I was getting fulfilled from other things.
Having played bass, guitar or drums in a myriad of bands, Castelow is a true multi-instrumentalist. Any of the album’s 11 tracks testify to this – with the exception of the sparse, lo-fi, classical guitar plucking interlude the album is named for.
“It’s a palate cleanser, Castelow explains. “There’s always some fun little thing I’ve been tittering around with and I like albums when they have little palate cleansers you know? It’s play lunch on mufti day.”
The album’s orchestration stands out as some of the most eclectic in memory, the songs packed with diverse aural textures making them a physically pleasurable listen.
Castelow recorded the entire album in his mezzanine studio space at The Lab (literally beneath Crystal Palace) and plays almost every instrument on it. Guitars, bass guitar, drums, harp, egg shaker, harmonium, Arturia MiniBrute analoueg synth, Roland Juno, Dave Smith Mopho, cowbell, keyboard, tambourine, güiro and Dictaphone Blues’ staple, infectious hand claps.
Sales consultant at an Auckland music shop by day, Castelow has made good use of available assets.
“I had access to various acoustic-y things and I just went for it. I tried to use different kinds of guitars, quite a lot of 12-string guitars, whether it be electric or acoustic. I experimented with female voices more, with Emily coming on board and singing, and I had a small corral of (mainly) ladies for backing vocals.”
Peter Riddell and Ben Sinclair played sax and flute, Elizabeth Stokes added trumpet and Carl Redwood applied some wild oscillation.
“What I enjoy about this experiment was none of it was MIDI, if you hear something, that’s what it is,” he smiles. “Yeah, there are synthesisers in there that may sound like other instruments, but if you think you’re hearing a harp then it’s a live recorded one, which was fun. I try to stick to fairly strong ways of doing things throughout the album.
“The drums were all recorded in the same way, through ¼” tape and then onto my computer. They all had the same sort of flavour and used the same pre-amps and miking techniques for all of the drums and all of the guitars were done through tape as well. There were certain sorts of things I’d do throughout the recording of it, like I would have the guitar mic away from the 12-string acoustic so it would pick up more of the room.”
You could be forgiven for thinking lyrics had taken a backseat with two of the 11 tracks, Mufti Day and Fizzy Water, being entirely instrumental. On the contrary, Her Heart Breaks Like A Wave and 365 feature some of the catchiest choruses Castelow has written since ‘On The Down and In’’s 100 Suns Inside My Lungs.
“Some of them are just stories that I’ve heard that are real, and some of it’s personal experience that’s generally quite morphed. I never had a dub of Lance’s tape but I had friends who did.”
Vocal tracks are often layered and tampered with for the desired effects.
“We had a group of gals who would come in and record, but the most part is just me trying to sing in different ways and standing back from the microphone to try and sound a bit different. [I wrote] phonetic ideas at the same time as melody and then lyrics as fast as humanly possible.”
Writing and recording such a fully orchestrated and consciously mixed album by yourself is no small task. No surprise that it took him a whole year to piece together.
“It’s a lot to think about, you kind of just go for a while. My production style was just [to] get on some vibey brain trains and just go nuts, and then reel it in tubs later on. I did all of the recording, I paid for the studio by myself, I did it all in my own time, I paid for it.”
Having written, produced and mixed the whole album, Castelow then handed it off to Olly Harmer, The Lab’s consummate engineer, to master. The result is an album that sounds superbly polished and wildly experimental all at once. The depth of the instrumentation and production provides new discoveries on each subsequent listening. Deservingly ‘Mufti Day’ is the first Dictaphone Blues’ record to be pressed on vinyl – ruby red vinyl in fact.
The distorted, fuzzy squelch, familiar from Dictaphone Blues’ earlier releases, hums like a stoned rainbow of tie dye t-shirts on ‘Mufti Day’ thanks to his penchant for pedals. He says about half of the effects were done during recording and half in production, but all of the guitar effects were done with pedals.
“There’s a couple of low bit rate-y synth pedals, one is called Subdecay, you can make it sound like a really fucked up thing and you can use it a little less brutally and it just sounds like a really thick sort of fuzz.
“There a bit of chorus and I’ve also got another fuzz called Face Lift, which is made by Prescription Electronics, that’s kind of classic germanium fuzz, and has an octave function in it which is really good. I used a couple of different amps, like a Vox Night Train and a classic Fender amp.”
With complex albums come complex live sets, but Castelow is confident that the album will translate well on stage.
“This album is definitely for the listeners, to be performed to them,” he says as a matter-of-fact. “Some of them transfer really, really well because they are just guitar, bass, drums and keyboard, so most of it we’ve played already.”
The Dictaphone Blues live band includes Castelow’s voice and guitar, long time member Myles Allpress on drums, Matthias Jordan on synths and Barney Chunn on bass. He is now keen to push ‘Mufti Day’ for wider international distribution.
“It would be nice to get it out overseas, just because I think it’s a really good album and I think people will really enjoy it. I’m really happy with it.
The act has a modest following in Australia due mainly to the popularity of Castelow’s former band, degrees.K, who had relocated to Sydney a couple of years before they broke up.
It’s uplifting how honestly proud of his music Ed Castelow is, and he has every reason to be. ‘Mufti Day’ is a mature record full of emotive, memorable lyrics and successful sonic experiments, tied together by professional production.
“I’ve really enjoyed this experience as far as my own writing is concerned. What you get with collaboration you’re never going to find by yourself, I appreciate that value but I think I’m better at doing my music by myself.”
Self-awareness never sounded so good as the eclectic, excited tunes take their seat to celebrate Dictaphone Blues’ graduation on ‘Mufti Day’.