Remember December Blue? For the last few years one of Northern Ireland's best loved bands, the team from Belfast are back with a new album...and a new band name. Mike Rimmer met up with SCSI.
"Excuse me, can you tell me where the studio is?" I know I'm in the right place on the outskirts of Belfast but with all these buildings, nothing really looks like a studio. The only music is coming from a barn where a band are rehearsing. They direct me to a blue door round the corner. I thank them and give a word of encouragement, "You're sounding really good!" and off I trot. It's only when I find the studio and tell the group, formerly known as December Blue, what happened that they fall about laughing. The band I have just encountered and encouraged is in fact Brian Kennedy and his cohorts, rehearsing for that evening's gig opening up for Simply Red! Kennedy is a bit of a celeb in these parts and a mate of Van Morrison! I manage not to blush, only stating in my defence that he's had his hair cut since I last saw a photo!
When the band finally stop laughing at me, recording continues! It seems that laughter has been regularly punctuating the making of their new album. The band's musical direction has toughened up and consequently, within weeks of finishing their second album; they opt for a name change and after much discussion the band are now called SCSI (pronounced scuzzy!). For their second album the band have teamed up with Californian producers Carla and Tim White. I am here to witness the creative process, and also take some of the responsibility for what transpires, as it was my idea for band and producers to team up. Thankfully it seems to be working.
It's ironic that a few days prior to the "Brian Kennedy incident" we'd all been sitting around the dinner table at the home of Sharon and Raymond McFeeters (singer and manager of the band respectively) discussing our most embarrassing moments. Modesty does not permit me to share with you the details of this conversation, but it is interesting to observe how; in the process of recording and the pressure of completing an album to deadline, this house has become a crowded, rowdy environment. Children mill around and at times work is taking place in different rooms. Keyboard player Alistair Hamill and singer Sharon play Carla White one of the songs and they work on arrangements. Sharon sings it while Alistair plays and the creative juices flow.
Meanwhile in the kitchen guitarist Michael Houston and producer Tim White are huddled around an electronic gizmo on the kitchen table. They've hired it for one day and are trying to entice interesting sounds from it to add into the mix of the album and stretch the sound of the band. They play sounds, replay them, huddle and discuss, hear new sounds, move on making notes as they go along. Houston comments, "I guess one of the things that has progressed with the band with this album is that we've moved into the realms of technology an awful lot more. We've been using a lot of drum loops and programming on this album, so some of the influences of the bands that we've been listening to, like Garbage, Texas, bands like that, have come through. For our new sound we're really trying to push back the boundaries of combining live instruments with the loops and the pre-recorded and the programmed stuff."
Apart from bassist Peter Snowden, all the members of SCSI and their partners are teachers. This strange coincidental state of affairs means that recording an album during the summer holidays is the only viable way of proceeding. It's been three years since the release of their debut album 'Remember This', and since then Michael Houston has shifted from drums to guitar and a new drummer has been recruited. Reflecting on the changes, Houston comments, "I think we'll all agree it's been a massive difference to us as far as unity and vision. We all pull in the same musical direction now, and we all have a common vision for where the band is going, and for the sound as well. I think last time round we played things a little safe but I'm sure, as you've been hearing, it's a massive difference from anything that's on 'Remember This'." Alistair continues, "I certainly think that for years we've been trying to find our sound and on the last album there are snippets of it, but I think since Michael started to play guitar it just opened it all out for us."
That new sound was evident from the moment I arrived in Belfast. My wife Pippa and I are picked up from the airport by bassist Peter Snowden, who takes us to the house where we're staying, and eagerly plays us a couple of very rough mixes of what the band have already spent a week recording. An embryonic "Looks Like Me" grinds out of the speakers and whets my appetite to hear what else the band have laid down.
The influence of a producer on the band cannot be underestimated as Carla and Tim White have pushed the band into new realms of excellence, challenging them about the song structures, lyrics, their sound in the studio and overall approaches. Experimentation, fresh approaches and plenty of fun have combined to stretch everyone involved. Michael Houston explains, "This album has given us all a chance to stand up and be proud of what we've done, and feel that we've been pushed and all accomplished a great deal. It's much more innovative from all our points of view, not just the guitars or keyboards, even vocally we've been pushed."
The studio is a converted barn in a farm complex. There's a small control room and an adjacent larger recording area although there's no visual communication from one room to another. In near darkness, Sharon is running through a particularly difficult vocal line, with Carla encouraging her and engineer Gary capturing each take. The track is played again and Sharon ' struggles to get the timing right. In the control room, a quiet conversation distracts her and she asks that the studio be cleared. As I leave, I joke that I'll tell the world that she's a temperamental diva! Later she protests, "I'm not one of these diva type people. I've never, ever had in my head, 'This is exactly how I want to sound, you gotta make me sound good, blah! blah!' I was really keen to work with another vocalist and Carla has worked with so many people including Maria McKee and to have her expertise has added so much. I think before I was so concerned with hitting that note, making that vibrato perfect and sounding like I could sing, and perhaps I lost some of the feeling behind it and some of the emotion."
During the making of their new album 'Crave', Carla and husband Tim pulled out all the stops to try and encourage the best performance from Sharon. She jokes, "Tim's my drama coach and he comes in and says, 'Sing it from the soul, woman.' For me it has been wonderful. I do like to have the studio to myself, but it's not for any other reason than I get nervous and if I'm gonna make a mistake I'd rather it was just me and Carla and Tim. It's nerves, I know it's silly." Peter has also been on the receiving end of Tim's "motivational" approach as it's been suggested to the bass player that he should try using a plectrum on some of the songs, to get a varied sound. Peter has never played with a plectrum. He confesses that he spent a great deal of the night trying to master a new technique. As a joke he turns up at the studio the next day with an enormous model plectrum and produces it with a flourish when Tim demands he plays with a "pick".
Tim White looks like an ageing surfer dude - permanent tan, long blonde hair, no compromise American attitude. One evening we all sit around the open fire back at the McFeeters' residence, a glass of wine at hand. It's late. Everyone is chilled out and Tim suggests we play a game. We all raid the CD collection and choose a significant song taking turns to introduce our favourites. It's a bit of fun and fun is an important element when it comes to making their album. The band and their producers even put together a mission statement for what they wanted to achieve whilst recording, and "Have Fun" is one of the aims.
With Tim and Carla around, it's hard for the band not to have fun! And then there's the red helmet! Tim found a kid's toy fireman's helmet and decided to wear it. He explains, "Actually I was playing with the kids outside and I ran into Alistair the keyboard player, and it was the first time I had met him and I was screaming at the top of my lungs. I thought, 'Oh well! It's too late, I'd better keep going.' So I decided to wear it and wind up the drummer." During the recording process I notice that the helmet takes on mock cosmic significance and is used to relieve tension from time to time. "It was like... feel the life force of the helmet," Tim laughs. "I'd let people wear it during selected songs so they could tap into the life force and get a better take. It was a big joke, anything to lighten it up." And the band's drummer, Des, fell for it. Tipped off by the rest of the group that their producer was Californian and a little strange, the band were at pains to warn Des in all seriousness not to mention the helmet or be disturbed by Tim's eccentric behaviour. Tim says, "He found me wearing this red helmet and he started touching it immediately after he was warned not to mention the hat. So I told him, 'Dude, don't touch the buttons.' Des spent some time trying to work out if he was being wound up. On the control room wall a list of tracks and their various stages of completion are listed so everyone knows the pressure is on. In the studio Peter Snowden is wearing a red helmet, and trying to get a difficult bass part recorded. He has a pained expression on his face and suddenly the studio is cleared so he can concentrate. Outside the studio guard dog wanders around persuading various band members to play with it. We stand around outside chatting.
So why does SCSI exist? I wonder out loud. Michael Houston responds, "Music is a very powerful way of communicating. We just all love it to bits and I suppose if God has given you a gift, use it. We use it for him and I feel that although we're not out and out like some other Christian artists, it's still in there. It's possibly in our country where Christianity has been rammed down people's throats for so many years that it is refreshing to be able to go up to someone who isn't a Christian and say, 'Listen to that, you're gonna get something out of this, just listen to that.'" Sharon expands on that point, "We would love to be able to go to someone who doesn't go to church, who isn't into religion in anyway, hand the album to them and for them not to immediately react against it, because there are really obvious images lyrics in it. In Northern Ireland, they've heard it so many times and they just switch off. People are not looking for the easy answers, they're not looking for the cliché's, they're looking for reality."
The band have an honesty, in the way they live and work, and that communicates through the songs. Alistair comments, "Honest is all we can be really. I think that certainly the kinds of songs that Michael writes, they are from the heart and a lot from experience." Michael agrees, "I think that's really where we're at. We can only be ourselves, and if we started to try to write differently or bring a different angle, I don't know that God would really be in that. I really feel so excited about this, we've prayed a lot about it and we really just feel that this is where we're meant to be at the moment."
Another evening back at the McFeeters residence, and a rough mix of the incredible "Right Here, Right Now" blasts out of the stereo, and the purity of Sharon's voice punctuates the air on top of a mesmeric acoustic guitar riff. Sometimes passionately yelping and other times nothing more than a whisper. It feels good and sends shivers down my spine. The band are delighted by the progress, Carla and Sharon and Michael huddle looking at the studio chart ticking boxes as they discuss what needs to be done. There's an idea floating around that they should record a local 300-piece church choir for the album's closing "Be The One". This is fraught with difficulty because the choir is busy. Everyone thinks it's a cool idea though.
At the end of my time with the band and at the end of a day of recording, we gather in a dingy room next door to the studio and chat. Although the album still isn't finished, Michael enthuses, "I think we're all excited about the potential. There's an uncertainty about exactly where it's gonna lead us, we just have a real passion to share our music and to share our message as widely as possible. As regard to lyrics, I suppose that's the main spiritual element of the music and that's where the communication comes from. It's something we have always been hugely concerned with. I write songs not as worship songs but about the world around me, influenced by a Christian worldview. I don't write songs that necessarily have nice neat answers; I don't have nice neat answers for the issues we're tackling, but I'm happy to leave things like that, because it's part of my faith for me to believe that there will be answers eventually. There are some things that you just have to put up with. Perhaps it's nice and refreshing that we're not 'Hey, we've got this solution.'" He pauses, shrugs and says, "Maybe I'm wrong but I think that it's okay to be like that."
Many will relate to the album's opening cut, "Better Than This", which has a searching, frustrating energy. Sharon agrees, "The song itself is coming from a frustration stand point, someone who is not happy with the way their life is and they're searching for something. As the chorus says, 'I need something, I need anything, I want something better than this.' It's just a song where all of us are, whether we are Christians or someone who doesn't have faith in Christ. You're always driving for something better than where you are, whether it's to go on further in your faith or to come into faith."
One of the final sessions which falls into place is the recording of the choir. The idea began as a cool idea and now it's a reality as 300 or more voices add to the beauty of "Be The One". Sharon describes the song as a "very, very simple song that was probably written in about five or 10 minutes. The lyrics are about meeting God and God meeting you in a difficult situation. After having an album full of issues and things that we don't always have the answer to, this song is us just saying, 'Well! Our answer for these things is to rely on God for them,' and it's just saying to God, 'Be the one to complete us.'" It proves to be an atmospheric and fitting end to the album.
It's clear in hanging out with SCSI that they enjoy what they do but more than that, they have a realistic grasp of the bigger issues. Sharon describes an incident after their first album was released. "I remember something Peter said to me even when the last album came out. He said, 'Do you realise that people are taking what we have to say into their cars, into their homes and basically it's getting into their heads.' A few weeks ago in my church a friend came up to us and said that one of his daughters had got the 'Remember This' album and she knew a lot of the lyrics off by heart. It's something that we are very concerned about, that the things that we write about, people are listening to. We generally feel the weight of the responsibility, but also the privilege that that carries with it of being able to communicate with people in this way. It's very rewarding for us when someone will come up to us and say, 'That's a great song, I really enjoyed it and it's really ministered to me as well.' That's a great privilege. That's why the band exists, for both those things."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.