Based in Bristol, UK, Jimmy Galvin is a pianist and multi-instrumentalist who has released several acclaimed albums as well as working with a wide range of musicians and producers across his prolific career to date. He also happens to be a keen artist. We caught up with him to talk tech, composition and his latest album, "A Million Seconds Make Eleven Days".
AskAudio: You’re a self-taught musician. Tell us about how you got into the creative side of music making.
Jimmy Galvin: I’m completely self-taught. Music has always played a really big part in my life. When I was younger it was my salvation in a not-particularly-great childhood. I grew up in a pretty rough area in Bristol so music was the way out for me. A school friend’s brother had the most amazing collection of 70s soul records. So we used to go home at lunch time and listen to that stuff.
I went to Bath Academy of Arts and did a year’s painting course. I’ve always done music and painting.
AA: Which artists were the ones that really spoke to you?
The ones that interested me were Marvin Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone, “There’s a Riot Going On”, early Roxy music and most of David Bowie. Those were my cultural touchstones.
AA: Some of your music has fused acoustic piano with tech machines and DAWs. Your latest album is a little different and returns to a purer space?
This album is just a solo piano album. It was recorded here in Bristol using a straightforward setup using two microphones into a Logic Pro setup with engineer, Charlie Groves. It was done really quickly which wasn’t intentional. I booked the studio for one day and then recorded the whole album in one take! That was 14 tracks which I listened to afterwards and then re-recorded one track.
After that I took the whole album to Abbey Road Studios in London to have it mastered by Andy Walter. He masters all the DVDs for bands like U2 and Coldplay. He’s also co-produced two albums for Paul McCartney and he’s worked at Abbey Road for many years. He’s also one of the top engineers for re-mastering classical music. When I contacted them to get the album mastered then sent me a brochure and I went for Andy immediately.
When I took the track to Abbey Road Studios it had no EQ, no compression, absolutely nothing. I just wanted the sound of the piano and that room. But obviously that wouldn’t be good enough for listening purposes on all platforms. The mastering engineer decided it needed a bit of EQ in places and went through the track with a fine tooth comb adjusting different sections, for 10 bars here and quiet sections there. That’s what you’re paying for with a good mastering engineer as opposed to a mastering plugin. He helped me get the best out of the track and take it to the next level. I wanted it to be the best it could possibly be.
AA: Was it always your intention to record the entire album live, in one take?
Not really. This guy I know has a home studio with an acoustic piano set up which is what I wanted to use as I prefer the sound of acoustic over a sampled piano. You just can’t touch the real thing. It’s all about the air in the room and how you connect to the instrument and how you play it and how it comes across. Technology can only take you so far, but you still need that gem of an idea to translate into something hopefully good.
Basically, Charlie had a good studio setup, quite a lot of gear and some really good piano. As an engineer he really knew what he was doing. When we got there he was talking to me about all the gear he had and I said, “look, can I stop you there? All I want is the mics set up, you to press record, then you go and have a coffee and I’m just going to do my thing”. And that’s kind of what I did. I called him back when I wanted to re-do one of the tracks.
I booked the studio for a day and was out of there after two hours. It was all extremely quick! Even though the album has a few mistakes I want them on there.
AA: Why keep the “human mistakes” when there’s plugins and software functions that could help correct them?
Technology is amazing. It’s a great tool, but we have to use it as a tool. It doesn’t have all the answers. The whole thing about creativity is that if you’ve got anything to say then that’s what it’s all about.
We’re all plugged into the same narrative at the moment because technology has led us on a particular path and that’s great. The whole thing about music or art is it doesn’t have to be about consumerism or being part of a narrative which is telling us we need this or that tech in order to express something. That’s what this album is about for me, just wanting to do something really, really pure and keep it as simple and open as possible so the music could breathe.
AA: Having known you for a few years, I’d consider you more of a perfectionist than not. Did you find it challenging to record a body of work with intentional, natural mistakes in it?
I wanted the mistakes to say ‘this is live’ and also ‘this is life’. We all make mistakes in life and we mustn’t shy away from that. Sometimes there is perfection in the imperfections. Sometimes we have to cross rocky roads to get to the scenic views. So for me it’s about being honest. Obviously they’re not horrendous mistakes. I can hear them but I don’t think most people will know they are there unless you’re classically trained.
But the point is I just want to say something that is honest and completely pure using technology as a tool to capture what I wanted to say, not manipulate it.
AA: What microphones did you use?
I think they might have been Shoals. They were designed for recording bass drums but many people use them to record strings or pianos. I then played the engineer a track by Eric Satie and told him that’s the kind of soft sound I really want. I didn’t want it harsh or too bright.
AA: So did you do any processing on the piano?
I asked him to record it with no EQ. There was no reverb and no extra processing. I wanted it as flat as possible.
AA: The resulting sound on the album speaks for itself.
I hope so. When you listen to a piece of music or look at a painting it’s the subtext that is giving it its meaning. It’s not always the thing you’re seeing on the canvas which is the immediate response to your brain or heart. In a way technology takes a lot of that out of music for me so I wanted to keep it in there. That’s why people get excited. It’s just me with a piano. There’s nothing to hide behind. It’s almost like there is no production on the record!
It’s like the difference between doing a big painting and a doing a drawing with a pencil. You have this ability to express something or you don’t. You can’t fake it and while technology has been useful, over the past twenty years I don’t know if it’s made music better. When you think The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix were recorded on a 4-track, nothing is going to touch that, you know. I think musicians have to get back to that, you’ve got to have something to say.
AA: At the same time you’re no luddite. I’ve heard your previous albums with some Ableton Live trickery and analog drum machines, etc.
I like artists like Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto, or Johan Johannson and Max Richter. They’re using technology in a really interesting, amazing way. They’re not slaves to it. They’re using it to add to something that already had to say.
AA: So, tech to enhance the creative concept and process, not replace it.
Yes. The next album I’m getting ready to record is at St. George’s in Bristol. This time I have lots of 1970s phone beeps and sounds with Alex Swift, an amazing programmer, who has worked with Massive Attack and Peter Gabriel. He’s been putting together lots of loops using these 70s abstract phone noises. So the next album will have that with string quartet and my grand piano on top.
I love technology, it’s just finding new ways to express something that remains relevant and is personal to you, so you have your own voice.
AA: You recently performed on BBC Radio 4, which was beautiful. How did the engineers there approach your performance? What input did you have into this?
It was interesting. They did a safety take when I got there so if anything went wrong during the live recording of the show they could edit bits in. So, I did a take of the track A Million Seconds Make Eleven Days. There were no mistakes, I felt really good. When it did come to the live take there were about 35 people in the studio along with Clive Anderson and all the guests. I wanted to get the performance right and you’re a bit on the spot. I personally thought I didn’t play very well, but after the show they asked me to listen and choose the one to use. I chose the safety one as it wasn’t rushed. But they really liked the live performance as it had the vibe and the magic. So we went with that version.
It’s the BBC. The engineers and producers were really great. The room was lovely and the Steinway piano was great to play on.
AA: Have you tried any of the higher-end sample or synth based piano instrument plugins?
I have and they are amazing… But, there’s something about acoustic instruments. It’s like giving someone an electric guitar and asking them to play it like an acoustic guitar. Of course you can get those effects that can make it sound like an acoustic, but it’s never going to be the same as you’re talking about an instrument that has been engineered with wood and metal and for me it’s all about the weight of that piano key that I haven’t been able to get from modern tech yet.
When you’re with an acoustic instrument, you’re in a room. The air, they breathe. I can always hear when someone is using the real thing or an emulation. You just know.
AA: Your latest art exhibition has just opened in London, Paralysed Paradise.
The opening night was on 2nd November and it’s running from now until 18th November 2018.
AA: Your paintings are quite dramatic and vivid. How does the visual art inform your music or vice versa?
They’re both completely different disciplines and that’s what I like about it. When the music is not going great I can plug into the painting and when that’s not going great I plug back into the music. But they’re both expressing quite different things. With my music there’s a vulnerability there that you can’t see in the paintings because they are very big, abstract and masculine. You know very strong colors, lots of black and I’m really into Rothko, Barnet, Newman. It’s a completely different narrative to the music.
AA: And tell us more about your album, A Million Seconds Make Eleven Days.
I got the title from a science magazine, because apparently one million seconds does make just under eleven days! I found it such an amazing sentence. It fits in to the album which is all about time and stopping. Technology and social media have sped life up for everyone whether we like it or not. That comes with lots of opportunities but everyone’s ability to concentrate isn’t as good under the pressure of life being faster. We’re being force-fed these images of ‘the next thing’. With this album I wanted to stop, take a deep breath and look at what we have got and where we are, rather than thinking about this clicking and liking thing al the time!
The album is available everywhere now on iTunes, Amazon, Bandcamp, Spotify and you can also buy signed copies via Jimmy Galvin’s website.