Tom Ellis’s sixth album is a deeply personal snapshot of his time living in a rural Welsh retreat. Here he talks us through it, track by track.
There’s an element of real escapism in this album. I moved away to a little wooden cabin on the side of a hill in the middle of Wales for a year, with my girlfriend at the time, and her dog. Our only neighbours were my old friends Steevio and Suzybee, who run the Freerotation Festival, a few chickens, a couple of peacocks and some very friendly sheep. We had the mountain to ourselves for most of the time. There was right-to-roam land all around us, with nature reserves, lakes, dams and rivers to wander around.
It’s a stunning part of the world. Early in the morning the mist would flow down the bottom of the valley like a river, making it feel like you’re above the clouds. We spent the summer exploring, eating pizzas outside in the blazing sunshine, and the winters being battered by crazy winds, storms and snow, wondering if the forest was going to blow over and crush the cabin! It could go from one extreme to the other a few times a day up there. A strange combination of intensity and complete tranquility, and a great place to party! I got a soundsystem in there for a little private party a couple of times. It was loads of fun.
Most of the tracks on the album were recorded in the studio I set up in the cabin. The acoustics were terible in there, to be honest: no carpets and almost square rooms! I tried setting up in various spots around the place, draping curtains over the walls, even outside on the veranda one sunny day. I had to spend a few weeks in my new studio space trying to correct the mixes of the tracks.
Steevio lent me a bunch of equipment over the months I was there, which was great. I got a chance to experiment with loads of different combinations of hardware, alongside my preferred setup of Reason rewired into either Ableton or Nuendo.
the album is a collection of highlights from what I recorded during my time living in the middle of nowhere
Three of the tracks were recorded on the other side of the valley, at the Malt Barn studio, owned by the band Superhand. I met them through Steevio – they moved to the area at a similar time to me and were looking for someone to help with their live performances. They’re super talented and super nice, and their studio is super cool – a nice combination of traditional acoustic instruments and high-end electronic gear. Unfortunately their Neve desk wasn’t plumbed in while I was there, so I didn’t get to hear or use it, but they had a great selection of vintage outboard effects and compressors – and boxes of guitar pedals, synths, pianos and percussion stuff there. It was a dream studio for me!
So yeah, the album is a collection of highlights from what I recorded during my time living in the middle of nowhere, in a cabin above the clouds. I have no idea if that comes through in these particular tracks – they weren’t written as a coherent attempt at an album – but there’s certainly a vibe that carries the whole way through what I wrote while I was there. I think this is a nice way to remember and archive that time in my life.
The Bored And The Lonely
A melancholic ballad inspired by the human inhabitants of rural towns in mid Wales, where the elderly meet in cafes to occupy their minds with empty tales of medicine mishaps and bus driver banter.
The track is layered with some polyrhythmic elements. The main chord sound repeats on a two-and-a-half beat loop, and the bass that comes in around the two-minute mark is a syncopated 6/8 swing pattern playing at around 22 bpm slower than the track itself, made using a home-made Reaktor patch. Layering different time signatures and loop lengths can often make things more challening to listen to, but here I wanted to keep it subtle and gentle enough not to be confusing, and make sure it wasn’t the main feature of the track.
The electronic percussion hook was made using the Arturia replica of the old Moog Modular. Arturia seem to have a tendency to make plugins that have horrible GUIs, eat the absolute shit out of your CPU and are generally cumbursome and awkward to use, but they sound great through a nice desk and a decent hardware compressor! This one was recorded through a Soundcraft Ghost desk and a TL Audio C-1 valve compressor and EQ-2.
Stranger In This Town
The vocal in this track was sampled from a Stevie Wonder documentary. It’s something he was singing to himself as he was wandering around before a performance. The track is all about tension. The broken kick drum pattern, the strings and the looping piano chords all work together with the intention of building a tense yet melodic point in a set.
Our Moments, Too Swift
This is one of the first tracks I wrote after buying my Dave Smith and Roger Linn Tempest drum machine. Everything bar the piano/sax loop and the vocal were made using the Tempest – it’s such a versatile machine! The depth of the modulation matrix and the option to use scales on the pads makes it a really interesting and fun machine to use as a synth. The other samples were both from a documentary about Billie Holiday.
From Across the Valley
This is the first one on the album that was recorded at Superhand’s studio, across the valley from the cabin. It’s also the first track I’ve ever released which features my own live acoustic drumming! Malt Barn studio is such a nice place to record – I recorded there for a week or so, right after breaking up with my girlfriend of two years – and I pretty much just recorded for 18 hours a day, non-stop for 10 days, with the occasional crying and eating breaks here and there.
The drums were all improvised and barely edited. I wanted to keep it as live and true as possible. It’s not perfect, I’m nowhere near being a good drummer yet, but it’s real, and that’s what I wanted.
The main hook was recorded with a bass guitar, with an old 70s Korg synth (right out of Star Trek!) following in the higher octave. The synth bass was recorded with a Moog Sub 37. Everything was recorded through a Midas Venice desk, and most stuff went through a Universal Audio 1176 LN limiting amplifier, hands down the nicest compressor i’ve ever had the pleasure of using. This was also the first time I’d got my hands on a real Fender Rhodes!
This one was also recorded through Steevio’s big Soundcraft desk and TL Audio compressor and EQ. Most of the melodies and bass came from Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere plugin, which is an absolute beast! The amount of realistic and natural sounds that thing can make is unreal.
Wide Open Window
The Tempest is being used for the bass on this one, recorded directly into an M-Audio Delta 1010LT, and processed with the Waves plugins. The rest is all Reason 4.5 and Ableton. I mention the Reason version number because i didn’t like the changes they made to the program after version 4.5. For me, that version of that program is the absolute height of virtual-studio environments – rock solid is an understatement. You’d have to have a mammoth project before your CPU even felt a twinge of stress. It’s a brilliant piece of programming – it’s home for me.
Another one from the Malt Barn session, with the live drums, Rhodes, bass guitar, Moog Sub 37 and the old 70s Korg combo. Again, the drums are all improvised, but here I think I overdubbed three drum takes: one focusing on kick, snare and hats, another for the cymbals, and one playing around with only the low tom.
The melodies are all derived from improvisations using the whole tone scale.
Probably one of the darkest tracks that came out during the Malt Barn recordings. I wanted to create a tense, hypnotic techno atmosphere here, and really wanted to push myself as a drummer on this one. After the initial build up, it’s pretty much a drum solo. The Moog Sub 37 was used for the main techno-style hook, with hats from the Elektron Analog Four through a Roland Space Echo. If I remember correctly, the chords were all from the Alesis Micron through a Kaoss Pad.
Tom Ellis’s From The Cabin Above The Clouds is out now on Black Key Records. Find him on SoundCloud.