The Great Outdoors

Between bird watching and touring the pubs of south-eastern Tasmania, The Lucksmiths found time to record their forthcoming album ‘First Frost’ in Lower Longley, Tasmania. Guitarist MARTY DONALD reports.

Monday morning is miserable: grey and wintry. This is the first day of the week-and-a-bit we’re to spend recording our new album in a tiny, ramshackle house in the foothills of Mt Wellington.

Yesterday, when Louis and I stopped by to drop some of our gear off before heading back into Hobart for last night’s show, the place looked pretty much like paradise: sunshine on the improbably green valley, birdcalls hanging on the breeze, paddy melons scuppering into nearby ferns and wood smoke drifting through the treetops. Now, however, a freezing wind turns the drizzle diagonal. Taking our cue from Bear, an ancient German shepherd who only rouses himself from his position prone before the wood fire to turn a couple of half-hearted circles before collapsing again, there’s nothing much for us to do but sit around and wait while Chris Townend, our host and producer, sets about painstakingly turning his house into a makeshift studio.

In addition to the all-important fire, the main building houses a kitchen, a small bathroom and a living area that is given over more or less entirely to the cause. Tali’s drum kit (or what passes for one) is set up as discreetly as possible in the corner. Mark’s bass amp is wedged next to the couch, while Louis’ amp has assumed pride of place in the shower. In another corner, Chris has built a cubby house for my guitar amp using a mattress which, owing to the shortage of beds in the separate sleeping quarters, someone will have to sleep on later.

The day unfolds slowly. We make a couple of trips into nearby towns for provisions, interspersed with more sitting around and waiting. Eventually, after dinner is done with, we somewhat optimistically decide to make a start on recording then and there, rather than waiting for the morning. ?Pines? is deemed both suitably relaxed and adequately rehearsed for the first number, and after a few takes, it seems to fall into place fairly nicely. We’re happy enough to call it a night. (When we eventually return to the song in a few days? time, we realise we have neglected to put in a drum track of any description through the first section, creating a few problems in re-recording the acoustic guitar. The tempo also seems a little, shall we say, fluid. It works out somehow, though.)

?The piles of empty bottles by the back door are starting to make it look as though we’re collaborating with Shane MacGowan.?

The weather in Lower Longley changes dramatically from day to day, if not more often. During our stay we will wake to sunshine, rain, heavy fog, and (as the eventual album title suggests) frost. Tuesday morning, though, it’s snowing: big white flakes drift silently past the bedroom window. It’s not quite cold enough for it to settle, but it’s cold nonetheless. After yesterday’s inactivity, it seems a good sign, somehow. A blueprint for the coming week is established: whoever is up first lights the fire and makes coffee, waking whoever has agreed to sleep on the mattress in the main room. (The main problem with this, we each discover in turn, is not the discomfort or cold, but the family of native mice who reside in the roof, going about their nocturnal activities with enthusiasm.) A leisurely breakfast follows. Around 10 – early for some of us, less so for others – we get to work.

First up this morning is ?Good Light?, a song we’ve been playing live for some time and theoretically, therefore, an easy one. And it turns out that way: a few run-throughs, and we get a take we’re happy with. We’re recording these tracks as live as possible. A lot of the guitar parts will need to be redone later, but (aside from the occasional touch-up) most of the drum and bass parts on the finished record remain as they are in these takes.

And so, over the next few days, the record begins to take shape. Some songs come together more easily than expected: ?South-East Coastal Rendezvous?, for example, and ?Highway? (the eventual title of which remains a point of debate throughout the process). Others we have pencilled in as easy ones, to be tackled when morale is wavering, prove harder work. By the end of the ninth or 10th take of ?A Sobering Thought?, another one we’ve been playing live for months, tempers are fraying and I have a gaping wound on my thumb – and it still doesn’t sound right. Eventually, thankfully, we nail it.

Chris has a few interesting ideas up his sleeve. On many of the electric parts, for example, he mics the strings (as you would for an acoustic guitar). Mixed in subtly with the amp sounds, these lighter ringing tones bring an amazing sense of liveliness to the tracks.

By the end of the first week, when the piles of empty bottles by the back door are starting to make it look as though we’re collaborating with Shane MacGowan, the basic tracks for most of the songs are done. We’re not behind schedule, exactly, but it’s a big record – we’re attempting 14 songs in these eight days – and already we’re resigned to some things like backing vocals having to wait until we get back to Melbourne. Our budget not extending to flying guests down to Tasmania, we’ve also arranged to record string and horn parts back home.

After a weekend off – spent variously returning to Melbourne, touring the pubs of south-eastern Tasmania and wandering around the back blocks of nearby Kingston in search of the endangered 40-spotted pardalote – we return on Monday with a renewed sense of vigour and urgency. Having completed the remaining drums and bass tracks for each song, we turn our attention to guitars, vocals, and whatever other half-formed ideas have suggested themselves so far.

When it comes time for Tali to tackle the vocals, the limitations of our “rustic” environs begin to emerge. Several takes have to be abandoned when the native mice spring into action, scuttering noisily across the tin roof, and eventually provoking even louder laughter from those of us in the lounge room attempting to contain ourselves. Passing cars also seem to become suddenly more regular along the dirt road. We persevere. This is generally my favourite aspect of the recording process: the moment at which the songs suddenly assume something like their eventual shape.

Tuesday is my birthday. Unfortunately, we have left the bulk of the acoustic guitar overdubbing till then, and while my bandmates are free to loll around enjoying the occasion, I spend several hours with headphones on playing each song over and over again into a microphone, pausing between takes to massage my aching fingers. The birthday is redeemed by the arrival of my partner and son and our old friend Deidre, who have all driven from Hobart bearing pizza and wine.

I wake first on the final morning, to find Louis has abandoned his mattress on the floor of the main room for the sanctuary of the couch. “They got in,” he tells me wearily. The mice have finally broken through Chris’ flimsy defenses. During the night, Louis woke to an alarmingly louder-than-usual scuttering and found himself staring one in the eyes.

Thankfully then, we’re nearly done. One more day of guitar tracks (redoing some more of my guide parts, and Louis mucking around with a few overdubs) and another workout for Tali’s poor vocal chords. Quite a bit remains to be done back home – more than we think, as it turns out – but for now, after a week-and-a-bit, and after three years, it feels as though we’re a good way towards finishing our new record.