How I record cover songs – “This Is The Sound”
In my twenties, I spent a few years running a covers band called Co-Star. Great name, right? Good work, Gareth the guitarist.
I booked the shows, played bass and sang. It was an education in many things – how far away Aberdeen actually is in a van from London, how to file a CCJ when the agent doesn’t pay, how to dodge drunk wedding guests – but mostly in how songs are put together.
The first track in the latest Correspondent’s Club CD/download bundle is a cover of “This Is The Sound” by Battery Thinkers.
When Richard approached me to make my version of his band’s track I was delighted at the idea. It’s rare that a musician actively asks someone else to have a go at redoing their work – in my experience, we’re not the most humble bunch! – not to mention the invitation came via my Bespoke Sponsorships page, and a generous contribution to the Penfriend project.
Here are both versions of the song side by side.
“This Is The Sound” – Penfriend
“This Is The Sound” – Battery Thinkers
I think a good song should still be immersive and affecting when you strip everything away apart from the main vocal line and a simple instrumental accompaniment. But when you add in the other building blocks – drums, bass, melody lines on guitar or synths or something else – you’re creating a world within the song, an alternate reality the listener can step inside for a few minutes. An escape.
I love “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” by Kylie Minogue, and I bet I’d still enjoy it if she sang it along to an acoustic guitar. It’s a good song. But when you add the hypnotic beats and subtle synth lines, you reside in a different universe for 3 minutes and 50 seconds.
Go back and listen to just how many bursts of different sounds support the vocals in that song…it’s a complex, but deceptively simple arrangement – and for once, I’ll accept the choice to fade out at the end (I’m not usually a fan).
[I’ve just realised my pop references are 21 years old – oh my. ANYWAY -]
I’ve only recorded a handful of covers over the years, so re-arranging “This Is The Sound” was a fun but slightly daunting challenge. When I listened to the original song, it sounded just right. I listened, I really enjoyed it, and I couldn’t think why there would need to be a cover of this song in the world. That *was* the sound.
However, I needed to honour Richard’s request, and so I set to work on picking out the key parts that I felt were integral to the world of the song, without seeking to recreate what was already there. You might have noticed that covers are often faster or slower than the original, perhaps a sad version of a happy song or vice versa. Creating contrast in speed or tone is the most straightforward way of creating space between the original and the cover, and I decided to go for “slow and weird”.
As I wrote to Richard in a status update email: “Your song is so great as it is that the only option was to GO WEIRD.”
I started with the drum machine parts, then added sounds from my OP-1 synth played through the Strymon Nightsky reverb pedal (which I was just starting to get the hang of…still am, if I’m honest…), vocals and synth bass.
As I was making a slower and therefore longer version, I was keen to make sure stuff kept happening throughout – and the shift in energy and tone at the end via the energetic bassline just came to me in a flash as I was sitting at my computer, wondering how to make the song sound more weird. Mission accomplished, I think!
Over to Richard now, to let you know more about Battery Thinkers. Please check them out on Soundcloud!
“Battery Thinkers is a duo that emerged from Hull University in the late 90’s. I met Chris at regular music gatherings of students on the last year of my maths course, calling ourselves The Mobius Band. The two of us kept meeting up after University when we discovered we had each started writing our own songs and Chris was keen to try out some recording software he had recently acquired. Our influences were Teenage Fanclub, R.E.M. and Blur, our band name coming from a Blur lyric and we are both massive fans of Underworld. Battery Thinkers is something we do as a hobby just for fun, it’s never been something we have seriously pursued.
Our first ‘album’, ‘Dreaming in a Northern Town’, 2005, was recorded using a knackered kick drum found in the loft of Chris’ house when he moved in(!), improvised bass guitar for some songs as we didn’t have one & when I did buy one second hand it wouldn’t tune properly – and a mic stand that regularly had a leg fall off of it. We discovered at the end of that process that we had recorded most tracks incorrectly and the overall sound is a bit muffled on those songs as a result. So the song I chose for Laura to cover, ‘This is the Sound’ was from this album, as a surprise for Chris – he was really emotional about it when it arrived.
We have improved very slowly over the years in terms of standard of equipment and knowledge of recording, Chris has been the one making advances in the production knowledge whilst I generally sit on the other side of the room and make helpful comments. We recorded another 2 albums, ‘Three Thousand Thoughts’ in 2007 and ‘To the Rescue’ in 2011, after which progress stalled with the distance between the two of us greater due to my move to London and Chris being regularly busy in York with two kids.
Getting anything finished nowadays is a massive task and our imminent (maybe) next album has been years in the making. We stripped some songs intended for the album to form an EP ‘Square Pictures’ in 2015 just to get some songs finished. The new album, provisionally titled ‘All Things After Sunrise’ will have between 10 and 12 songs, depending on our sanity. We also have songs written for the next one after this, which we intend to be a road trip album.
In December 2019 we fulfilled a long time ambition to play a Battery Thinkers gig, at my friends 40th birthday party at Band On The Wall in Manchester, bringing in 4 friends to help us. After only 2 or 3 full band rehearsals we managed to get together 9 songs from our history, including This is the Sound and we went down well on the night. We did have plans to continue rehearsing in 2020 until of course they decided to hold a global pandemic event, so we are still waiting to meet up again.”
+ Get your copy of the latest Correspondent’s Club bundle in physical or digital form here (10 copies left!).
+ Get back issues of zines and CDs here (last few!)
+ Request your own cover version, sponsor a Penfriend song or music video, or have your own song written and recorded via my Bespoke Sponsorships page.
+ Listen to Battery Thinkers on Soundcloud.
It takes a lot of faith in your abilities for anther artist to actually give you one of their songs to record (and I imagine it also saves you the headache of acquiring the rights to cover it). I must confess, even if I could afford my own covr version, I wouldn’t know what to ask you to cover. I love your version of Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?, but I would never in a million years have heard the original and thought “You know what? I bet Laura would do a great version of that.”
Having said that, someone on Twitter recently asked “has there ever been a cover version of a song that is faster than the original?”, and I couldn’t think of one. So I would probably pick a slow song and ask you to speed it up, so that I would have an answer to that question!
And of course, no sooner had I typed that than I listened to my weekly Release Radar playlist on Spotify, which featured Snooper’s speeded-up cover of Come Together,