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August/September 2016

by Richard Thorne

Trip To The Moon: Ambient Planet

by Richard Thorne

Trip To The Moon: Ambient Planet

Being jazz-based instrumental recordings, radio has never been an outlet – and being evidently performance-shy, touring and gigging has not earned them a following. Still, it could well be that you are more familiar with Trip To The Moon than you think. If you’ve locked in to Shortland St at any stage over the last 20 or so years you’ll likely have heard their music – not that they deliberately make music for syncing to local television or film – well, not until recently at least. Richard Thorne caught up with Tom Ludvigson, the duo’s keyboard playing composer, recording engineer, producer – even video maker – to discuss their latest album offering, ‘A Traveller’s Tale’.

Starting out as A Trip To The Moon, Tom Ludvigson and Trevor Reekie released their first album, ‘Jazz Hop’, in 1996. Regular Sunday afternoon get-togethers in Ludvigson’s garage/home studio have resulted in a steady stream of subsequent Trip To The Moon albums, all variously blending the realms of trip hop, jazz, electro-acoustic, ambient and electronic world music soundscapes.

2012’s ‘The Invisible Line’ was album number five, and 2016 brings ‘A Traveller’s Tale’, the most consistently realised of their albums to date – and also the most determinedly ambient.

Over almost 20 years their composition process has typically involved working tracks up from beats and drum loops, meaning a strong rhythmic element as a start point, with the creation of a new album the end goal. The pair wanted this time to be more ambient, and initially set no other agenda.

“Instead of working with that intent and compositional ideas we just set up and played [and recorded]. For probably a year we kept meeting once a week, as we have for years, and took the approach of not planning it.”

Their recording space (his open plan lounge) is neatly populated with a variety of keyboards on desks and stands, a baby grand piano dominating one corner. There are a couple of matched condenser mics on stands but nothing looks state-of-the-art-new. Every Sunday Ludvigson would set up some of his older synths, which he says offer far greater user friendliness than computer-based versions in terms of sound tweaking while you play – “… new models don’t have any knobs to turn and so are less expressive,” as he notes.

“We accumulated a lot of recordings, and the constant factors meant that we had quite a lot of room to collage this material together in interesting ways. Trevor sees them as all being in one key [G minor] but they weren’t really. I know that he likes to tune his guitar in open tunings and most of the time he plays in open D or open G, I think, maybe DADGAD, but depending on what bass notes you put underneath it becomes a different note in a different key!”

Over a few hours together they would play and record just two or three long stretches of spontaneously created music. With a bit of in-computer engineering at the session end they’d each get a rough mix of the day’s playing. After a year of this they started listening back and decided they should make another TTTM album after all.

Ludvigson had been working up his video skills and raiding their work for backing, so had already been looking over the material. Sections that were half an hour long might provide just a few minutes of selected content, but surprisingly he describes the reduction of all those recorded hours down to the components of a dozen tracks as being easy.

“You pick one to work with and if it’s satisfying you finish it. If it’s not you pick another one. We threw away probably a third of the material we had worked on, sometimes tracks that we might have spent 30 or 40 hours on! It’s actually part of our process, we always make more than we need. Then when we decide that some isn’t as good as the rest we are improving the overall quality, throwing some away means that what’s left is only the best stuff.

“We could probably make another album, or two from what’s left, but there’s another thing about music in that it’s related to its contemporary context and so it grows old and becomes history. So maybe the best things are still there – but I doubt we will ever dip in to look at them again.”

With documentaries and Shortland St being the main revenue sources for TTTM, ‘A Traveller’s Tale’ does have origins in music for syncing, and to some extent is a more musically populated version of a recording they mastered en route, for distribution to decision-makers in the local film and soundtrack scene.

“Trip’s music has often been too busy for that kind of background music role as there is always something happening,” Ludvigson notes smiling. “So we in fact mastered an album that we called ‘5.5’, and made only a dozen copies of it, which we sent to people who use music in film because that was tailor-made for background.”

Key to the difference in overall sound from previous TTTM albums is that for ‘A Traveller’s Tale’ they decided not to get their usual master-musician collaborators involved in track creation, rather leaving their involvement to later in the process.

Songwriter Greg Johnson has been a regular contributor with his trumpet since ‘Jazz Hop’. Guitarist Nigel Gavin and Jim Langabeer (soprano sax et al) have both featured on most albums since. Though photographed together with their instruments for the album’s CD liner, the other musicians recorded their parts individually – especially in the case of the LA-based Johnson.

“It might be that Nigel did an overdub on one and Jim did an overdub on another and then we decided to put them together onto a new hybrid track – and many of the tracks were created like that. They became what I call an ‘epic’. An epic is a track that has at least three disparate sections,” Ludvigson chuckles. “There are very marked transitions into something new in some of the tracks.”

In the case of the two Auckland musicians he would take his very portable recording system – his laptop, a digital converter, headphones and mic – to them.

“It’s so different from last century. With Greg’s overdubs we just emailed him the tracks and he did them in his LA studio and sent them back.”

The Auckland-based four played as a band for the last album release and will be coming together again to release ‘A Traveller’s Tale’ in late August.