A music blog from Ireland.
With a keen sense of appreciation for the finest musical and visual pleasures, Chequerboard is preparing to make a fourth album The Unfolding, using the crowd-source method of FundIt. Now with a week and less than €1000 left to go, I spoke to him about past experiments and plans for the future.
“I recorded all the guitar on my first album through the tiny microphone at the top of my little blue iMac at the time,” reveals Chequerboard, the Dublin musician who came into the world as John Lambert. “So it’s good to have experts onboard this time.”
Those experts happen to be Stephen Shannon and Ken Thomas, widely respected in their fields of production and engineering. Some of the most accomplished Irish records of recent years have been produced at Steve Shannon’s Experimental Audio Studios in Dublin, while Thomas, whose career spans from work with David Bowie and Queen to the Cocteau Twins and M83, is on board to mix The Unfolding.
“Yes, its very exciting. My mixing abilities are very limited so I’m really dying to hear what he does with it.”
Having done all the work on previous albums himself, John is enthusiastic about working with professionals. “Steve’s great, someone I feel very comfortable working with. He is a world class engineer and producer, a skilled collaborator, he can really bring out the best in you. Some demos were recorded already and it was so exciting to hear my guitar recorded so well. He has so many microphones of all shapes, sizes and purposes.”
Combining acoustic guitar with electronica, one of the distinctive features of Chequerboard’s music is a penchant for ‘found sounds’, or as he informs me of the technical term, ‘musique concrete’. In an old MySpace blog, John explained how his songs expanded and developed from the inclusion of sound recordings that were made without the intention of becoming music.
Around spring of that year I was given a small dictaphone tape as a gift from a very dear and brilliant artist friend of mine called Ciary Healy. It was recordings from Ciara’s recent trip to Japan, featuring glitchy scratchy beautiful samples of bells from different Japanese temples along with voices, birdsong and even beethoven on a digital watch ( which features at the end of 20th Century Artillery on Penny Black).
As a thank you to Ciara for the tape, I set about making a song from the gift by isolating samples and slowly building a song around them. The first chime-like sound in Konichiwa is in fact a sample of the Hiroshima memorial bell, I later found out from Ciara. Having overlaid other high pitch bell samples over this initial chiming sound a melody began to suggest itself which was followed with the guitar and so the piece was on its way.
I hadn’t really worked with found sound before in my previous albums so it was quite a significant moment for me as I found that rather than chasing a pristine high quality sound I started to fall in love with the opposite. The audio equivalent of super 8.
This way of viewing things subsequently became the theme for the mini album Dictaphone Showreels. All from a tiny dictaphone tape with ‘Japan from Ciara’ written on it.
With that Japanese tape having altered the topography of Chequerboard’s music irreversibly, Konichiwa went on to re-appear on Penny Black, the third album that scooped high praise on its release in November 2008, garnering a 5-star review from the Irish Times and prominence in Tony Clayton-Lea’s new book 101 Irish Records (You Must Hear Before You Die). Yet John does not seem at all anxious that it leaves deep footprints to be filled by The Unfolding.
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“There will be lots of differences but I won’t be cracking out the sax or anything. I’ve got a clear idea of what this album could be so I just hope it turns out as a visualised because it’ll make sense as a follow up to Penny Black that way. I would certainly think of it as chapters of a book so there’s no point in trying to do the same chapter over and over.
“I guess I’m trying to work from a very solid base so I’ve whittled all the songs down to a set, hopefully the best of what I’ve been writing and trying out live since Penny Black. I certainly intend to bump up the production values, record my guitar properly for once.
“I think I’m becoming more minimal with my approach to things. Been listening to lots of Stars of the Lid and Loscil lately too so I’m sure that may influence the album sound and feel.
“I find it hard to break any ground of my own. I work incredibly slowly, frustratingly so in fact, I am the inertia snail. After discovering transcendental meditation last summer, it all started to kick off. I found a defogging, clarity and motivation: all the things you hear meditation is great for but I just hadn’t bothered with it until a good friend pointed me towards it. I guess there’s a been a big wave of new experience in my life as a result, hence the title seeming even more appropriate. It was initially a descriptive title for the song The Unfolding which kind of reveals itself in layers over time.”
The Unfolding will be the fourth Chequerboard album, following on from 2008′s Penny Black. However, first John has to attain the full total of €7,500 in his FundIt campaign, with just €990 and seven days to go. Having seen solo musicians Julie Feeney and Nina Hynes achieve similar targets this year, John took the plunge for himself.
“I had very mixed emotions about going for so much and actually needed a good friend who works in the industry to push me to think of it as a dream opportunity and just go for it at whatever that costs. Seeing both Nina and Julie secure that kind of backing was very encouraging, particularly Nina as we go back a long way as buddies, being on the same labels years ago. I was fabulous to see her take things into her own hands, that was very inspiring. I can honestly say that using Bandcamp was the first time that I felt fully in control of my music so this is a whole other leap in the same direction.
“I was sending a message to someone in Australia the other day on MySpace and it was so nostalgic. Like rocking up to an old house you used to live in. God, it was so slow and clunky though. Used to drive me mad.” We talk about the perks of social networks and online services for musicians managing their own affairs. “It’ll be really interesting to see where this takes us in five years. Fundcamp may be the norm!”