Interview with David Houghton
So is the creator of this Album Zenga or David Houghton?
Zenga was always part of me in reality! However this is very much a David Houghton creation.
Can you explain the difference? Is it Mr Sensible versus your alter ego and if so which one is Mr Sensible?
The Zenga character came about orginally due to the stress of working for a particularly difficult client in the City some years back and it grew from there. A mythical beast almost heroic yet somehow doomed. This time around I have been strongly advised to market the album as – gulp – myself! Because I am its unique selling point apparently and people will be better able to relate to it being a singer /songwriter album.The songs are quite personal and that comes across in the album. I don’t really have a definitive band to speak of - more a collection of session musicians who turn up when I ask them to join in. And wow - have they made a difference on this album. Not arf!
What’s the name of the new Album?
Celebrate The Weird.
When did you start composing songs for the Album? And, what inspired you to do so?
The songs have been written over a 5 year period with some of them written as a direct result of going to California in 2009. The inspiration is something which happens very quickly but only sporadically, it is not constant. So for example I saw the dawn come up over the trees in Norton Bavant this week and the contrast of the blue sky as the light changed was quite dramatic – turned grey of course but hey and I wrote a new song there and then which will be on the next album in about 5 years time – which evolved from blue skies to grey and is called “Desperate Times” – by the time it gets recorded hopefully we will be out of recession. My songs are nearly always observational or are reflective of actual experiences. I think the subconscious also comes out in the writing , things I am aware of but not really involved with.
Our California trip has had a big impact on the album I removed 5 songs from the album and replaced them with 5 new ones and that has made the whole album more upbeat. So my songwriting is very much about experiences and observations.
Have to say, it’s very different compared to your last Album “Can You See The Light?” I think you’ve grown up along the way! Are you a different person to the guy who created Can You SeeThe Light?
Yes I am – a lot has happened to me over the past 5 years but I don’t know about growing up because I like to think of myself as being consistently stupid as that’s more fun? HA!HA! But there is more of a maturity there and less mid-life angst crisis which was very much in play on both “Beyond Deranged” and “Can You See The Light?” Both albums had elements of escaping the rat race in them whereas this one doesn’t view life in that way so I guess I have got used to the reality of having to sort of work for a living – well almost. I think most of us would prefer not to have to work but it depends if you enjoy the work then it’s not an issue. If however it’s high pressure and boring with no reward other than the wage then it’s not exactly a barrel of laughs.
Which is your favourite track on the new Album?
They all are! I think the second track “Drugs” is very strong but I also really like
“Have A Nice LA - Baby” and “The Orbit Inn – Palm Springs”.
Best piece of musicianship on the album for me is Sean McBride’s saxaphone solo on “Starting To Feel” – it’s “awesome!!” as they say in America.
How long has it taken to make this Album? And what influenced you along the way?
The album itself has been recorded over a 12 month period in part due to budget and in part due to studio availablity plus musicians' availability. I was heavily influenced in the writing of it by my time in Los Angeles and also in Palm Springs. It could have turned out very different as a number of songs I dropped were much darker than this album which is more soulful, more reflective rather than angry or harshly cynical. I was also very much influenced during this time by the loss of my parents and a close friend.
Tell us about the musicians on Celebrate the Weird
Well on drums I have Jimmy Copley – ex Tears For Fears and still with Manfred Manns Earth Band. A well established session drummer in his own right who has worked with Jeff Beck and recently yes – Eric Clapton, also a diamond geezer so to speak – originally a London guy but now resides near to Bath and you will hear his amazing drumming throughout - it is outstanding.
Sean McBride on saxaphone and harmonica. my collaborator since the beginnings of me recording songs – originally from San Francisco but now living in Bristol teaching saxaphone there when not playing in either the Roxy Music tribute band or going on cruises doing barber shop style singing. There is some beautiful sax on this one.
Sean also brings total hilarity to the studio “Oh so you want it edgy and soulful –yeah no problem David- asshole.” HA!HA!HA!. Sean is very important to the vibe of this album, he should be up there with the great saxaphone players of all time - it's my and other people's view too but the music industry doesn’t work just on musical ability/merit – logical it ain’t.
Anders Olinder – delicate grand piano and keyboard strings – Anders is half Swedish and half Syrian – yep – let's not ask – a lovely guy again and the delicate playing reflects the genuine calm and sophisticated nature of Anders – he really shines on The Orbit Inn – Palm Springs.
Charlie Jones – Bass guitar on “Misunderstood” and Double Bass on “West Hollywood” – Charlie is the Goldfrapp bass player and is another top class musician who I have been very lucky to have on the album. Charlie’s double bass on “West Hollywood” is a critical element on that song re the particular feeling/vibe. I got the feeling when Charlie was in the studio that I was in the prescence of someone with an amazingly clever intellect and having heard some of his own album I know that’s right.
Terry Edwards plays some nice lead trumpet on “Devastation City” – Terry is another top session musician who has worked with some clearly demented London band called Madness. Terry is another highly intelligent sensitive soul.
Paul Rayner – my new next door neighbour teaches classical guitar at St.Edwards School in Bath – I dragged Paul into the studio and requested he played “a Spanish solo man” – which he did quite brilliantly on the second track – “Drugs”. Paul was a bit shy initially but quickly worked out what to improvise. Ironcially he knew Sebastian Pecchia (owner of Riverside Studios and producer of Celebrate The Weird) as he taught him guitar at St.Edwards School !!!
Sebastian Pecchia who produced the album also did backing vocals and played lead guitar and bass guitar on most of the tracks and created some very special effects. Without Seb the album would be nowhere near where it is at right now. With the only exception of Sean McBride who I knew, Seb introduced me to all the musicians on the album and his choices have been perfect but then I did tell him I wanted the best I could afford!
I (David Houghton) wrote the songs i.e all the lyrics and the chords on rythmn guitar – I sing lead vocals and play rythmn guitar throughout.
Tell us about the journey of making Celebrate the Weird and how it evolved, the whole project seems to have morphed into something unrecognisable from how you set out at the beginning.
That is correct , the songs have been transformed from basic singer songwriter songs - that is my vocals plus my rythmn guitar into what they are now. I knew upfront that this would take a number of different musicians to work through it - as it would not be a guitar only led album. I wanted the songs to be more easily understood the message of each to come across more quickly and I also had very definitive ideas about which type of instrument would compliment each basic song.
So I turned up to Riverside Studios in Bath in October 2009 and said to Seb it’s just me and my guitars but I know what sounds I need to have. Seb said – “Fine no problem - we will record you first - a guide vocal and a rythmn guitar – so I know what the songs are about and then I will spend a day on each track doing a backing track and then we get the drummer in and a bass player, get the rthymn right first and then get whatever lead instruments you want on top and finally do your lead vocal. Then it will need mixing – about 10 days studio time and then you might want it mastered.”
So that was the process and it was a roller coaster ride but oh my goodness I have learnt a lot in a short space of time regarding this. It was a much better process than my previous album – get band together, rehearse band, go into studio, record songs scenario.
These songs could be worked on and reworked - indeed even post mixing which was the hardest part for me to comprehend I popped back into the studio and changed two words on two songs – the beauty of pro tools and the beauty of this process – you can take it away and listen and change it to ensure you are happy with it - which I am now.
Also I spent quite a bit of money having it mastered at Metropolis in London by Andy “Hippy” Baldwin - he did a great job putting it through a sonic bath so to speak and ensuring the levels on each song are correct and the gap betwwen each track is the same.
Andy asked me to explain which CD I had got recently that I liked the sound of – I said oh the Brandon Flowers album and Andy says – “Oh you mean this one?”- and pulled out the original master of that CD! I knew I was in the right place.
I guess working with other musicians everyone has ideas & opinions, did you incorporate ideas & suggestions or is it purely David Houghton?
Well Seb and I had some original ideas – I wanted an aeoroplane sound for Have A Nice LA – Baby for example- so we found 747 cockpit noise and Seb does a American Airlines voiceover on that. The session guys do very much as asked – they do 4 or 5 takes of an improvised solo all of which are recorded and then Seb and I agree which is the best solo or we could cut and stick if we have to from different takes but I don’t think we needed to do that in any of the sessions – the best solo takes stood out and they were either first take or last take – interesting - so the musiscian knew insticitvely what to do straight away and couldn’t better it or they had an idea and it grew with each take until it reached the right one or “the badger” as Seb would say. “That’s the badger!” All rock music comes originally from blues or even jazz structures so once they know which key the song is in off they go on one!
Listening in the control room to a track developing like this is a great experience and when Seb and I heard either some great saxaphone by Sean or lovely keys by Anders for the first time – it’s a great moment –creating music is so uplifting.
You had some singing lessons before making this Album, was it useful? How has it changed your voice?
It was more than useful as I have always felt nervous about my voice but it comes across much better on this album. Cecilia Sylvan was recommended as a voice coach and she has enabled me to understand that the voice is a muscle and needs regular exercise and she told me I could sing which helped my confidence! Also Cecilia somehow managed to get me to listen to my voice whilst singing which meant I could tell striaght away when I was not in key and I have to admit I didn’t really know how to do that beforehand! Her breathing advice was great as I can hold notes much longer now. When you hear me on “Searching For A Ghost” – that’s me - there are no clever technical things going on and I hold a few notes on that song much longer than I have ever done before. So the short time I had with Cecilia was well worth the effort and I would recommend anyone to get some coaching from a professional like Cecilia (or our very own Andrew) if they are going to record or perform live.
Do you manage to switch off and relax when you’re writing songs? Is there a good time for you to compose (morning/evening/middle of the night)?
I don’t switch off I switch on! It’s a very direct and fast process for me if it is to work at all and sometimes I do have an immediate need to get it down right away so I know what the lyrics are and the chord structure/rthymn . The title track Celebrate The Weird for example came to me post watching John Cooper Clarke (late 70’s Manchestser punk poet at Komedia in Bath) the following morning at 7:30 a.m. I said to Marcia “I've got a new song in my head” and ran downstairs to write it both the lyrics and the rythmn guitar straight away – the initial version it took maybe 10 minutes. So I did that and then brought her a peppermint tea to compensate I think.
There are definitely two sides to you, the analytical project manager and the extremely creative musician – I guess it’s a good mix to have. How does your analytical nature help the creative process?
I am totally ruthless in the recording studio I know straight away what I want and if it isn’t working it does not go into the mix and every bar in every song on this album has been listened to by me using Grado headphones through Bang and Olufsen speakers.
I am highly analytical and whilst I pretend not to be too detailed a person “Oh I am so high level dahling - HAHA!!!” - the reality is totally different I am actually obsessed by details as I know the devil is well within the detail. Usefully for recording my hearing is very strong I can hear people’s conversations in a large room from miles away – HA!!HA !! Be aware Norton Bavant I can hear you breathing when you sleep.
How much were you involved in creating the website?
I thought of some of the structure and threw money at Jon Pollard which he spent mostly on hallucigenic drugs then he told me he was a paid up member of the communist party and could he have some more money please. So I had to give him some more money and then I threatened to kill him unless he did it exactly how I wanted it. So we worked well together on it and obviously Jon has done a really professional job. Jon also helped me realise that the Zenga brand would not mean much to people who had never heard of Zenga. Seb Pecchia was saying all along this is not Zenga this is David Houghton’s album - so I have had to come out from hiding behind the awesome yet terrible creature that was Zenga – he is still there though hiding out in some weird bar in Vegas – drinking vodka martinis and blinking like a mad coyote – on acid - do not disturb him is probably the best and only option.
What do you like best about the new website?
The overall design and feel is great and it’s easy to use and easy to buy the album or a number of tracks or both!! And Elwood T Risk has allowed me to use so much of his art that makes the website richer in content.
It was a great plasure to meet Ellwood in LA and he showed us around his studio in Culver City and how he goes about doing his art - which was was so cool!
My new website is a professional website whereas my Zenga website which I knocked up using a tool is okay but is just not in the same league visually or feature wise or structure. Collaboration is the key and both Jon and Lena helped design the site so it flows – I think most folks will find it easy to navigate and use. Also it’s great that they were literally around the corner from me communicating with Matthew D Lane on Skype in USA with a 9 hour time difference between us is a totally different scenario. However Matthew has done a great job on the 16 page booklet that comes with the physical CD.
So, when is the launch party? And how can people hear the new Album?
Well there will be a number of launch “events” – one here in Norton Bavant on April 9th at 8:30 p.m. One in Bath in May, one in London in July and if the new job goes okay one in West Hollywood, LA in November/December. People can go to the website and hear parts of it and sign up for membership (free) and get a free track – Diamonds in Heaven. I am also hoping to get some radio airplay for this one.
Now that the Album is finished is there a big hole in your life?
Not right now because I am trying to understand how best to market it – but once we had all the tracks down pre mixing I got what I can only call post album depression (PAD) for about 3 days! Am not kidding it was awful I felt really low it really washed into me but I got over it and was informed by people in the music world that this is totally normal I guess CTW is my baby?.
And when is finished, ever finished? With personal projects it’s never easy to know when to stop. Tempted to have a tweak here & there?
It’s weird you just know there is nothing more that you can do – Celebrate The Weird eh?
What’s next for David Houghton?
Marketing CTW and a mad video for You Tube plus holding my new job down in the City, Bournemouth and New York and a week in a villa near St.Tropex by a pool!
Also monitoring the new website and constantly updating it and using Facebook a lot – I love Facebook! My new HTC android phone allows me to access the internet from anywhere including when on the train.
Stay Crazy!! and thanks for the interview Angela – clever questions - I have enjojoyed it!! - David