The latest LP from Freerotation’s Tom Ellis, From The Cabin Above the Clouds, is a reflective odyssey, inspired through a recording process that took place in the heart of the Welsh countryside. Cavernous valleys with booming reverbs and periods of stoic isolation, along with a new live setup, have created Ellis’ most improvisational LP yet.
Known for some of the more serene moments that transpire at the legendary Welsh festival, Ellis’ LP, although tranquil, still has the kick that has dogged his reputation to date. It’s an interesting period for the UK producer, with a new label on the way, a new approach to music and an album with a new found deepness, it was time to catch up with the staple FreeRo act, to see what is actually keeping his head above the clouds.
How does this new record differ from your other LPs? I used a lot more hardware than I used in the past. This is the first record I’ve ever released featuring my own live acoustic drumming. Tracks "B1", "D1" and "D2" were made without using any samples or samplers at all, which is very different for me. Everything you hear is a real instrument being played on those tracks.
Why is it you decided to release with Black Key Records? Their back catalogue is great. The last record I released with them sold well, and got a lot of good attention, and Rich is a pleasure to deal with.
You stated you moved to the Welsh countryside to make this record, where did that idea come from? It wasn't to make any specific record really, just lots and lots of music. The girl I was seeing at the time talked me into moving there. She wanted to get out of London for a while, and I had nothing keeping me in Cardiff, where I’d been for four or five years.
Things just kind of fell into place at the right time when a little wooden cabin became available next door to my friends Steevio & Suzybee (Mindtours/Freerotation). It was a perfect opportunity to go and focus on new material away from the rest of the world, and spend some time improving my skills on a few instruments, and hang out with friends in a beautiful place.
How did the environment influence your compositional process? It's such a prefect place to be creative because there are no real distractions there. There's a massive sense of space and freedom, and a gentler pace of life. The girl I moved there with had a dog, so there was always a good reason to walk in the hills. I'm pretty sure those big valleys influenced a few reverb tails, especially after hearing thunder ring out down the huge valley.
There would be times where I was totally confined and cut off from the rest of the world with no TV, no car, a shitty Internet connection; just me and the dog keeping each other company while my partner was away working. But there were other times where it was like living on a private mountain in the Mediterranean with my best mates, and the last thing I wanted to do was sit in front of a computer! Living next door to Steevio definitely influenced some of the music I made up there. Getting a closer look at the way he's working at the moment was great.
Have you written records in this way before? I was playing around with a different recording process every few weeks there, so there are definitely some new methods for me here. I got the opportunity to borrow a few machines from Steevio's studio, which opened up loads of ways to experiment. Also, my friends who own a studio across the other side of the valley let me use their place a few times, and that was like my absolute dream studio. I got to play around with a real Rhodes for the first time, and they've got a nice drum kit and a bunch of high-end synths and FX there.
The track titles are also related to this precise period – was this quite an alienating experience for you? My track titles don't usually mean a lot. Sometimes nothing more than a reference to something that was on TV when I first saved the project. I guess these do hold some relevance to the experience. I remember noticing at one point, I hadn't seen any friends or had the opportunity to get out of there and socialise. That can get to you after a while.
The tracks with live drumming are a real testament to your rhythm skills. Did you lay the drums down first, or after the beat? I'm nowhere near being a good drummer yet. Although I've been messing about with drums since I was young, and only had my own electric kit for a couple of years, and don't practice enough. This was the first time I'd had the opportunity to record with an acoustic kit, which is so different to the electric pads. It's so much more natural and expressive. I was staying on my own at the Malt Barn studio for a few days when I recorded the drums.
I was playing and recording for around 18 hours a day, so I had the chance to get really warmed up for the recordings. When recording, I played along with the drum machine and whatever loops I was working on, and then built the tracks around the structures that came about while improvising. I played around with lots of overdubs on one track, recording the rides and toms separately to the rest of the kit, kind of inspired by the stories of the way Stevie Wonder worked on Innervisions. I tried to do as little editing as possible, because I really wanted it to be a real representation of what I’ve learned, even if it means a few loose moments here and there.
How do you intend to perform these tracks live? They weren't really written with live performances in mind. I’m playing around with some ideas for a more collaborative live act to take on the road, at the moment. I would love to get some real drums involved one day. I met a couple of great musicians in Wales that I’m working on new ideas with at the moment. So my live setup is in the process of being changed a little right now. I'll be DJing a lot more until the new setup takes shape.
When writing tracks, do you have Freerotation in mind, and how they might sound at the festival? It's always at the back of my mind, yeah. Especially when I’m working on more down-tempo stuff. I usually get a few hours outside in the Dome on the Saturday afternoon every year, to play some of my more chilled productions. There's tons of music I wrote over the years for that specific moment. The time leading up to the festival can be my most productive time. It's kind of like a benchmark in the year, a time to check myself and see what decent new material I’ve written since the previous year.
There’s also a new label in the works. I'm really excited. It should be ready to launch by the summer. The label is called In Modo Di (a classical music term meaning 'In the mode/style of'). The label will be distributed through Juno, on both vinyl and digital. Since I was running Trimsound with Leif, my releases have pretty much been in the hands of other people. So I'm really looking forward to being in control of my own records again.
What else do you have planned once the album is out? As I mentioned before, I’m playing around with ideas for a new collaborative live act. I'm hoping that will be ready for a few gigs by the summer. I have a few other releases and remixes coming out soon, too. Leif and my brother Joe are planning to release an EP for me on their label, Until My Heart Stops. I’ll also be on some of the upcoming compilations on the Freerotation label, alongside some absolute legends in the scene. Very excited for those to drop.
Above the Clouds was released on Black Key Records on April 4th.
Photos by Daddy's Got Sweets. Words by Daniel Cole. Find him on Twitter here.