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Stephen Cummings Gets Spiritual

by Stephen Andrew - from Australian Musician, spring 1999

From a place that once heard little more than the rumble of a petrol engine and the closing of car doors, Stephen Cummings' garage is now the source of an incredible range of non-automotive sounds. With his motor vehicle now banished to the street, internal combustion now takes place as creative sparks inside Stephen's brilliant imagination. The sounds that follow from his inspiration are captured on the equipment within his former garage that makes up his home studio.

It was within this building that Stephen and some of Melbourne's finest musicians created his new album, Spiritual Bum. The disc is a change in direction for Cummings and follows on from the Steve Kilbey produced predecessors Escapist and Falling Swinger, which had complex and multi-layered sounds and spacey production values. "I wanted all that to change with this record," says Stephen, "I wanted to make things really stripped back, with the vocal really loud. I really wanted to make more of an acoustic record. Simple and to the point. It's really the thing of the song and the singer."

Cummings's voice and his songwriting are right in the centre of this disc. His voice has never sounded better - it's richer, deeper and more subtle than his work with The Sports and his early solo albums. Despite its prominence in the mix, it has the effect of pulling the listener in close and arousing curiosity. His attitude toward singing has not shifted throughout his career - it's just something he does without spending too much time thinking about it. Similarly, he says that there is nothing that either assists or hampers his voice.

Like his voice, Stephen's songs deserve the uncluttered treatment. They are full of melodic hooks and lyrical barbs, tightly constructed and drawing on an enormous range of influences. In his CD ROM 'liner' notes, Stephen drops names like Al Green, Todd Rundgren, Roxy Music, Even, Morrissey, "a Greek restaurant band" and French symbolist poet, Guillaume Apollinaire! Stephen is also a fan of flat, black, plastic circles and is a regular browser at shops stocking second-hand vinyl. When he can, he'll snare albums by Mott the Hoople, John Martyn, The Faces, The Kinks and, "things that I missed out on or things that I liked when I was young and never bought again on CD. I like different things like that, just to hear what the sounds are like."

To get the record that he was aiming for, Stephen called up a collection of musicians that are well know to just about anyone who follows Australian music - Bill McDonald (bass), Shane O'Mara (guitar), Rebecca Barnard (vocals) and Peter Luscombe (drums) [a quartet a.k.a. Rebecca's Empire], Peter Jones (drums), David Bridie (toy piano!), Jeff Burstin (guitar), Peter Luscombe (drums), Bruce Haymes (organ) and Dan Luscombe (guitar) - A mighty team who understand understatement.

All this came together in his garage, a solid brick building with woolen sound bats on the ceiling, multiple layers of foam on the floor and thousands of books lining the walls. "The room's actually got a really good sound," says Stephen. "Setting up any kind of recording studio, you need a lot of luck. As it turned out my room is a really good room. Because it's lined with thousands of books, they're really good at soaking up the sound." Recording at home has its pros and cons according to Stephen. The saving in money is obvious, but the sense of occasion often brought on by going to a professional studio is absent. When he's busy recording in his garage Stephen says his girlfriend is never sure that he's doing 'proper' work.

His equipment is as eclectic as his inspirations. As one might expect in a record that puts the human voice in such a prominent position, a good quality microphone is a pivotal piece of equipment. Stephen spoke about it with some pride. "It's an East German mike. A Microtech. It's a really good mike. It cost around three and a half grand. We also used a lot of old Neumann mikes as well. We used a great old compressor from the Astorfactory when it closed down."

Stephen's set up also includes an Alesis eight track digital recorder and a Mackie desk.

Stephen enlisted the help of old friend Robert Goodge (Essendon Airport, I'm Talking, Filthy Lucre) to mix the album. "He'd read all these books on early Beatles recording and '50s recording with tape reverb and tape delays and stuff like that. He'd bought old tape recorders and set them up himself. We bought all those down and some old effects like Dimension D and rack effects from the early seventies. He uses a lot of semi-domestic expanders. We used spring reverbs from old Roland Choruses rather than modern digital effects. For me it was more an adventure. It gave a vibrancy to the whole thing."

The Cummings/Goodge philosophy deemed that there would be no digital effects, no gating and as little e.q. as possible. Manipulation of sounds was limited to some heavy, '60s style compression, mechanical reverb and some '70s analog effects like a Dynachord Leslie. The aim was to create, in Robert Goodge's words, "an uncluttered, naturalist canvas."

The energy behind all of this is a complete mystery to Stephen. When I asked him about his conception of a Muse, he confessed ignorance about the origin of his inspiration. The songs, he said, come from having "the right attitude and just playing and writing. A space is cleared and a new song comes in its place." Is he worried about the Muse deserting him? "No," he replies, "If it does then it's probably time to do something else."

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