Happy People song by song 6: Fire Flower Heart

Part 1: Happy People
Part 2: Name in a File
Part 3: Satellites
Part 4: Flow my tears, the policeman said
Part 5: Even then we’re Scared
Part 6: Fire Flower Heart
Part 7: Tracking Signals

Fire Flower Heart takes us back to the main story of Happy People. The protagonist has fled the clutches of the oppressive government, found the woman he loves and escaped. But now she is dead, killed by government and the frightened public we heard from in Even then we’re scared.

What do you do if your one true love, the centre of your universe, your compass and guide is killed? Well our protagonist is of the opinion that with her gone, there’s nothing to lose and the gloves are off.

But now I’m here with this button beneath my hands
And none of you seem red
None of you seem real

My Fire Flower Heart
Would still my hand
If only she was here

Composition and recording

This was another FAWM song, written as a solo acoustic ballad. I was trying, as I have with several other songs, to get a balance between sweet, ballady chords and melody and dark subject matter. It even has a key change at the end, cos what says ‘pop’ more than a key change? I love the idea of a listener thinking ‘oh that’s a nice song,’ and then listening closer and thinking ‘hang on, what is he singing about?’.

Here’s the original demo, which has quite a different arrangement:

The email conversation about this track went something like this:

Jordan: Love each and every second of this track! Just needs more mellotron 🙂

Tom: Mellotron is banned from this album. Sorry, did I not say? Other pad sounds are allowed, mellotron is not.

Dan: I can understand the mellotron – it can be polarising – but flutey mellotron would actually sound nice on this. Pull back the guitar and some sort of organic, paddy, keyboardy sound. Maybe vox organ. Not sure about the bells. Might be a bit festive? Glock may work better. Not convinced about the choir falsettos during the latter stages either. Unless we can get an actual gothic-sounding choir to do it!

There are three things I’d like to point out about the final track that came about in the recording stage:

  • The slidey gutiar parts, particularly at the end. Dan’s contribution, and one of my favourite bits of the track
  • The piano. That’s all Jordan. Good innit?
  • My voice hitting the high notes. Never would have happened without Dan’s coaching and encouragement in the studio.

This is the ballad, the quiet moment before the storm of the final three tracks.
The title, which I thought I’d come up with is actually the name of a thing in some novels by Tad Williams which I had read years before and forgotten about until I reread them more recently. There’s not much connection between the two except the name is similar. Weird how the subconscious works, eh?

Happy People song by song 5: Even then we’re scared

Part 1: Happy People
Part 2: Name in a File
Part 3: Satellites
Part 4: Flow my tears, the policeman said
Part 5: Even then we’re Scared
Part 6: Fire Flower Heart
Part 7: Tracking Signals

After writing the behemoth Seven Bells Redeemed I joked that I needed to write a riff 25 for every album.

Turns out that wasn’t a joke after all.

Even Then We’re Scared is the voice of the people who wanted the safety an security of the authoritarian government that our protagonist is trying to escape. In the verses they are explaining why they needed big brother to look after them:

The barcodes and scans
The database is safety
And it watches over us
If you’ve nothing to hide
Then why should you be worried?
There’s a price to be free

But in the choruses their true, frightened little selves can’t help but tell the truth:

Even when we go to bed
And hide under our blankets
Safe and warm in arms of sleep
Even then we’re scared

Composition and recording

Here’s the demo:

All right, it has some twisty rhythms in it, but this song was one of the most organically composed on the album. The music was pretty much one sitting – somewhere I have an acoustic sketch of it with me humming the melody but getting the music pretty much spot on.

Recording it was interesting. I think of these kind of rhythms as additive – I count the smallest sensible unit, in this case the semi-quavers (sixteenth to any weirdos/Americans listening). it therefore seemed sensible to record to a click track of these, and not bother working out all the time signatures. What became apparent when we were recording the vocals however was that Dan and Jordan were counting the riff completely differently, to the point where we didn’t agree where the downbeats were. Which was weird. Jordan had suggested changing one of the verse vocal lines slightly and we spent what seemed like hours trying to get an alternative right, which was totally scuppered by the fact that we were hearing the rhythm wrong.

In the end I took an executive decision and we stuck with the verse as originally written, but the rhythms did throw us for a time.

We got there in the end, thanks in large part to Michael’s one take drum part. yes that’s right, Michael played the most difficult piece on the album in one take. I still can’t get over that.

Here are Jordan’s notes:

  • Love the riff! Almost Tool – esque.
  • Somehow the flow of the second verse (vocals) is ever so slightly more fluid than the first one (It’s probably a question of number of syllables, haven’t investigated closely yet). Lovely interlude after the second chorus with a nice modulation.
  • It seems to me that the transition between the verse and the chorus is a bit abrupt. Is there a way to make it more flowing? maybe a short transitional part?

As you can hear, for this song I pretty much ignored all his advice.

Serendipity and other people

There is whistling in the song. It was not planned.

I was just whistling along in the studio, as I tend to do, and Dan decided we should record it. I thought this was a barmy idea, but in creative things you don’t say no (at least not until you’ve heard the idea). He was right. I really like the middle section to this song, with the backing vocals courtesy of Dan and Suzette and the guitar counter melody.

Another thing I said yes to was trying a load of vocal ad libs. They did not make it through to the album. I’m not much of a vocal improviser anyway, I much prefer having a written part and really dislike gospel-style adlibs, but the verses of this song are a bit choral in nature. After several attempts though, that was an idea we sensibly ditched.

What is left is one of the rockier tracks on the album. The lyrics were written back in 2014/15 well before the current political climate had developed and I had no intention of writing something allegorical. Any similarity between the people in this song and the sort of scared people currently voting for authoritarian politicians in various places around the world is entirely coincidental.

Happy People song by song 4: Flow my tears, the policeman said

Part 1: Happy People
Part 2: Name in a File
Part 3: Satellites
Part 4: Flow my tears, the policeman said
Part 5: Even then we’re Scared
Part 6: Fire Flower Heart
Part 7: Tracking Signals

Flow my tears, the policeman said takes it’s title from a book by Philip K Dick. The story is about a TV presenter and singer Jason Taverner who wakes up one morning to find himself apparently erased from history. No-one remembers who he is. He has become a non-person.

The book is set in an alternative America of government control and work-camps so thematically it fits with the concept of Happy People even if it doesn’t carry on the story directly. While it isn’t a perfect novel it does create an atmosphere of confusion and bewilderment as only Philip K Dick can. I liked it so much I wrote a whole song about it.

Composition and recording

Musically I think this was an attempt to emulate some of my favourite David Bowie ballads, particularly big mid-paced numbers like Word on a Wing or Slip Away. It’s based around a D lydian feel with the raised 4th giving a mood that’s slightly eerie and bittersweet.

The original demo is pretty bare, just chords a simple drum beat and the vocal. Jordan and Dan made the thing sing. Here are Jordan’s notes:

  • Great tune – we need to make those atonal moment in the nooks and crannies pop out better.
  • It could be a good idea to have an extended coda after the “policeman said” bit in the end, akin to Radiohead’s Karma Police. It’s too good of a moment to not build upon it.
  • First listen, something bothered me and then I realised what it was. The asymmetrical structure of the tune. Drumbeat – verse – interlude and then verse bridge chorus verse bridge chorus. To “isolate” better the symmetrical part of the song how about no conventional drum beat until the end of the interlude?

I went along with Jordan’s suggestions, taking the drum beat out of the intro and extending the end with a guitar solo. We went through various iterations of that solo, from an initial guitar sketch played by me to synth solos by Jordan and finally what we have on the record which is Dan playing a fantastic guitar part. It’s my favourite guitar moment on the album simply because it’s nothing like a solo I would play.

The little fills, piano, trumpet and keys really make this song for me too. I love the mood we’ve ended up creating, from the very first chord to the final fretless bass fill.

Maybe this song really is my favourite on the album. What it says to me is that what we think of as real is a thin veil of opinion and biology. At any moment you might come to your senses and see things as they really are. Nothing means anything, nothing is real, and that’s scary, bewildering, cruel and wonderful.

Or something. Good innit?

Happy People song by song track 3: Satellites

Part 1: Happy People
Part 2: Name in a File
Part 3: Satellites
Part 4: Flow my tears, the policeman said
Part 5: Even then we’re Scared
Part 6: Fire Flower Heart
Part 7: Tracking Signals

Satellites is a love song. Except in the world of Happy People love is difficult as there are are spy satellites that will get in the way if the authorities disapprove.

They say eyes are watching down on all the lovers
Ironclad watchers in star-bitten skies
They’re keeping a record of all our romances
They’ll pull us apart if they don’t approve

It was written for FAWM, as much the album was, though not in the same year as the first two tracks.

Composition and Production

I love the coda in Satellites. The keys, the backing vocals, the 12 string guitar melody. I think it sounds great and it’s all Dan Bowles`s idea. The original demo has none of that, as you`ll hear. I think it really makes the song.

I didn’t think that about the coda idea when I first heard it. It took a few listens to persuade me that Dan’s idea was the right one.

The other main change between the demo and the final version is the key. The original is in C# minor, and the final in F# minor. This was in line with Jordan’s notes:

  • Because of the subject matter I’d use A LOT of electronic textures a la Royskopp, along with the rock instrumentation.
  • I’m in two minds whether the key is too low or not but then again I have the idea that if you have to double the chorus an octave higher because the verse sounds more powerful, it probably needs a kick up a couple semitones.

We didn’t go all out with the electronic textures, but he was right abut the key. I think it sounds much better like this.

They say you have to kill your babies on any creative endeavour, ie get rid of the ideas you absolutely love if they don’t fit. One baby I had to kill was part of the backing vocal in the final chorus. In the demo there’s a line that reads:

They police our thoughts, can’t police our hearts, won’t ever pull us apart again.

In the final version that’s truncated and far less significant. I liked the original to sing, but the rest of the team were of the opinion that just because you can write a counter melody doesn’t mean you should. I can’t argue, they were correct.

Satellites. A 4 minute love song on a prog album.

Happy People song by song track 2: Name in a File

Part 1: Happy People
Part 2: Name in a File
Part 3: Satellites
Part 4: Flow my tears, the policeman said
Part 5: Even then we’re Scared
Part 6: Fire Flower Heart
Part 7: Tracking Signals ;

Name in a File is the second track from Happy People. As the second track its job is to keep the pace and theme of the album going – now isn’t the time for a massive change in direction – while still giving us something to get our teeth into.

The first track was about our protagonist escaping the clutches of the totalitarian government he found himself living under. Here he’s searching for his lost love, a woman he knew from before everything went wrong. but everyone keeps telling him that it is impossible, that once you’re gone you will stay disappeared.

They’re never gonna come back
No matter how hard I shout and I cry
They’re never gonna come back
Now they’re nothing but a name in a file

Composition

Like Happy People, this song was composed in one sitting in 2012 with a guitar and a click track in less than half an hour. As a consequence the structure is a bit odd. We start with a verse built around a six bar sequence with the chords B minor B major and G major. The B major chord there is a bit of an anomaly, but i do often use major chords a major third apart, and those chords aren’t a billion miles away from Creep by Radiohead either which might be why I chose them.

Then a chorus in E minor that changes time signature a little bit and uses similar chords to happy people. Then we get an instrumental section followed by a build up with monks.

After the build up with monks there’s a solo over the chorus, a vocal chorus, and an outro based on the previous instrumental section.

The whole thing is:

  • Verse
  • Chorus
  • Instrumental
  • Solo
  • Chorus
  • Instrumental

To me it feels quite improvisatory, with the second chorus a different length to the first for no reason at all.

Lyrically it’s very different to the original demo, though much of the music has changed. Here’s the earliest version of the song I could find, from back when it was called ‘Augur and Scry’ and was a song about the idiocy of superstition.

***It’s a rushed songwriting demo, please forgive any performance fluffs of which there are many***

As you can hear, quite a lot changed. The lyrics were completely rewritten to make it fit with the album’s themes and the intro was completely removed. Of course much of the instrumentation is different, there are no monks in the demo or real drums. Interestingly the guitar solo is basically the same in the demo, though I think I played it a little better in the final version.

Most of those changes I made myself for a second draft so by the time it came to Jordan there wasn’t much for him to add in terms of basic songwriting. What Dan and Jordan did add was all the great little details that make this a great track. The monks you can hear in the instrumental section were Jordan’s idea. Originally I wasn’t convinced but the guys stuck to their guns and they were right to do so.

Similarly the phrasing of the verse melody was worked out collectively in the studio and the slide guitar in the instrumental section is Dan’s playing. That section went through a few different versions too with several different string parts being tried before we settled on the final version.

As we were recording I found myself saying ‘this is probably my favourite song.’ I’ve said it about every track at one time or another, but as I write, this really is my favourite song on the album.

Happy People is one month old

Happy People has been out for one month. How on earth did that happen? I have no idea where the last few weeks have gone.

Here’s what’s happened in that month:

Reviews!

The reviews that have come in so far have been really positive.

“I get the feeling that all Tom’s previous works were a flexing of musical muscles, practising for the real thing. This album is the real thing.” – Prog Radar

“This feels like the quirky Tom Slatter that I have come to know and fear.” Progressive Music Planet

“Tom has probably made the best album that I have personally heard from him. It’s consistent, melodic, psychedelic, and well written. This could very well be the album that really breaks Tom into the vast, lucrative world of progressive rock. ” – Prog Mind

“Slick as a buttered cormorant…riddled with ear-worms” – The Progressive Aspect

There will hopefully be a few more reviews in the next month or so. It’s really nice to see that all our work has paid off in terms of other people liking the thing!

Gigs

Will there be gigs? Yes there will. One of the things about having to fit music around a full time job is that it is a bit tricky getting things organised. In an ideal world I’d have gigs in the calendar as the album came out, but I wasn’t able to get that sorted.

So the next gig in the calendar is an acoustic set at Airship Northstar, a Steampunk festival in Berwick upon Tweed on 8th July. I’m also in talks about another acoustic gig in the north East that same weekend, more on that when it’s definite.

I’m intending to play more gigs, both acoustic and hopefully full band over the next 12 months. If there’s somewhere you’d like me to play, please do let me know.

Mubla?

Have you found the three Mublas? There are three ‘mubla’s hidden in the artwork and audio of the album. The first person to let me know they’ve found all three gets a prize (I haven’t decided what yet).

Why are they there? This video explains it:

What’s next?

As well as the gigs I’m currently working on my ‘secret’ instrumental album (the one I’d been not-so-secretly talking about for a couple of years) and a little EP of vocal stuff. Both of those should be about in the next 12 months. Probably.

Thanks for listening!

 

Happy People song by song track 1: Happy People

Part 1: Happy People
Part 2: Name in a File
Part 3: Satellites
Part 4: Flow my tears, the policeman said
Part 5: Even then we’re Scared
Part 6: Fire Flower Heart
Part 7: Tracking Signals

Happy People is the title track to my fifth album. It’s the opening track so it has a job to do. It needs to set the scene in terms of musical tone and introduce us to the sound world we’re going to spend the best part of an hour listening to and introduce us to the story.

Happy People is loosely a concept album. It doesn’t have named characters or any voice acting or things like that, but there is a narrative arc and it starts here. The verses are the inner monologue of the protagonist. He has realised that the world in which he lives is not the utopia the powers that be claim it is. The government insists everyone should be happy, docile and obedient, but he no longer wants to obey.

Prisons float in your eyes
Lies on your tongue
Let the public decide
On drips to make them grin
Don’t you want to be happy for a while?
Pull another tooth out
Fixing up your smile

It’s a place where the people are metaphorically and literally drugged up and unable to see the world as it is. They only care about the superficial and the empty. Think Brave New World or Stand on Zanzibar.

The choruses on the other hand are the government instructions on how to be an obedient happy person:

Happy people don’t pull faces
Happy people smile and wave
They ask after your family
They never say a thing that hurts

In the middle section our protagonist has finally escaped. He pays for a new identity, ‘the man I paid stitches me a face,’ and he is free.

Composition

Happy People was written in one sitting for February Album Writing Month (FAWM) in about 2012. I’ve been participating in FAWM for about nine years, whih means that every February I try (and invariably fail) to compose 14 new songs, or 14.5 if it’s a leap-year.

My method for this song and the second on the album Name on a File was to set up a click track at an essentially random tempo, plug in a guitar and start improvising. Whatever turned up, warts and all, had to be the song. This is why both tracks have choruses of slightly different lengths – I could have changed that later but I liked the variety.

I then added layers on top of that guitar, including very hastily written lyrics, until I had finished songs. Both of the opening tracks were written in an hour, at least in first draft demo format.

Here’s the original demo for Happy People:


Redrafting and Recording

When it came time to start work on the album I dusted off the demo and sent it over to Jordan Brown for his thoughts. Here are the bullet points he came back with for improving the song:

  • Verse – might be too low
  • Chorus – guitars sound too much like Megadeth. I mean the riffing has something ’92 thrash to them. Not that it’s a bad thing but it is a bit limiting texture wise
  • Maybe the guitar interlude between ch1 and vs2 brings the song to anti-climatic apex. I would use the same phrase but in a very understated way. That would make the second opening more powerful.
  • IMHO the half spoken section after the instrumental interlude is too low – we’re talking a good minor third.
  • During the extended outro I would double the length of the buildup (the section with the toms) layering voices as if it was a canon. Probably samples from TV shows too. I would then lose the chorus where the guitars back down because it spoils the crescendo which climaxes with the guitar melody.
  • Not a huge fan of the vocal adlibs it the coda. The second part of the melody could be stronger (the descending contour spoils the big anthemic ending nature of it)

This was really useful feedback – some of which I ignored – that lead to some pretty significant changes. For a start, the verse are now a minor third higher and the chorus guitars are a lot less metal. The outro and final chorus have changed pretty much as Jordan suggested. I didn’t go with his idea of changing the key in the middle section though, as I liked what we had originally.

This also marked the first time since uni I’ve had someone make technical suggestions to improve my songs. I liked it. It’s funny, I often think of myself as having quite an ego, but I’m not sure if that’s true. Before I have the feedback I assume I won’t like it, than the feedback turns up and I realise it’s useful stuff.

When it came to recording, this was done first at Amersham Music Studios for the drums, and then at Jordan’s place over a a humid summer where we couldn’t get the guitars to stay in tune. It also involved me singing the lead vocal when very ill. I’m surprised it sounds as good as it did. My memories of singing it are rather hazy and for some reason involve visions of David Elephant (my evil record label boss) stroking a cat and laughing maniacally.

Again.

So that’s Happy People, the first song from my latest album. Next up, Name in a File.

Happy People is out now

My brand new album Happy People is out today!

I’m really proud of this one. It’s more rocky, more serious and far less steampunk and it sounds amazing.

You can find it at this link.

Don’t take my word for it. The first reviews have said:

“I get the feeling that all Tom’s previous works were a flexing of musical muscles, practising for the real thing. This album is the real thing.” – Prog Radar

“This feels like the quirky Tom Slatter that I have come to know and fear.” Progressive Music Planet

“Tom has probably made the best album that I have personally heard from him. It’s consistent, melodic, psychedelic, and well written. This could very well be the album that really breaks Tom into the vast, lucrative world of progressive rock. ” – Prog Mind

The first reviews of Happy People are in…

… and they’re good ‘uns.

Rob over the Progressive Music Planet wrote the following:

“Name in a File” combines tunefulness with the odd slant that Tom is known for and good at. It makes for a great one-two punch to start the album out. “Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said” reminds me a little of Tim Bowness for some reason. Given that I love what Bowness has been up to, that’s a good thing. “Even Then We’re Scared” feels like the quirky Tom Slatter that I have come to know and fear

The Prog Mind had this to say:

My favorite tracks are “Happy People” for being just a great song, “Satellites” for its addictive chorus, “Fire Flower Heart” for its classy and poetic soul, and “Set Light to the Sky” for its gleefully dark premise. Other great offerings would be the electronically laced instrumental “Tracking Signals” and the sweet guitars of “All of the Dark”. Honestly, now that I think about it, that last one might be my favorite.

Tom has probably made the best album that I have personally heard from him. It’s consistent, melodic, psychedelic, and well written. This could very well be the album that really breaks Tom into the vast, lucrative world of progressive rock. I think David over at BEM should maybe keep him around for a couple more albums.

Both very postive reviews, which is great. Like all artists I am incredibly vain and want to hear only praise. Two 8/10 reviews will do nicely.

Incidentally it is interesting to note that where the reviews have mentioned what they think are influences, they’re way off. 60’s music? The Beach Boys? Nothing wrong with those things but I’ve never really listened to anything from the 60s to be honest.

Anyway, two down. Let’s hope any more that turn up are equally as flattering.