California, Norfolk

August 25, 2013

Tim Bowness’s album notes also appear on the reissue of California, Norfolk.

Michael Bearpark’s notes are exclusive to this site.

Peter Chilvers’ reflections on making California, Norfolk are available exclusively in the booklet of the 2013 Deluxe Edition reissue.


 Tim Bowness, August 2013:

California, Norfolk

A ‘local album for local people’, California, Norfolk started life in the Autumn of 2001.

Coinciding with us setting up Burning Shed with Pete Morgan, Peter had recently moved to Norwich (where I’d relocated to from Manchester a couple of years previously). As a result of the move and the birth of ‘the Shed’, we were in more regular contact than at any other point during our friendship and musical partnership. Most days brought a fresh diet of dvds (bleak art-house and dystopian sci-fi our specialities!), combined with multiple curry pile-ups and intense writing sessions.

It felt to me like the frequent close proximity enabled us to develop our songwriting and sound design in a way we couldn’t with our previous band, Samuel Smiles.

Samuel Smiles generally worked under extreme pressure and within very tight (often self-imposed) deadlines. Consequently, we rarely had the chance to develop the compositions in the way we’d have sometimes liked. World Of Bright Futures contained songs, sounds and moods we liked, but in parts seemed a little incomplete (not always a bad thing).

By contrast, we lived and breathed California, Norfolk for months and added and substracted parts until everything was completed to our satisfaction. The home studio equipment was primitive, but we were keen to discover what it could do. Alongside his customary keyboard excellence, Peter developed double bass and Stick skills in interesting ways, while I provided textural and arpeggio guitar parts in addition to vocals. I think the fact that neither of us were accomplished in several of the roles we took on the album added a naive charm and a very personal quality to the material.

Despite this reliance on happenstance, more so than with most things I’ve been involved with, Peter and I had a very specific agenda and a very specific set of reference points for the album. We both admired the subtle electronic arrangements of The Blue Nile, Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson, and we both had an unhealthy obsession with John Martyn‘s Small Hours, Peter Gabriel’s outtakes, and Eberhard Weber‘s bass sound. We also shared a love of Minimalism (Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt in particular), old drum machines, new plug-ins, and film soundtracks (Cliff Martinez, Carter Burwell and others).

As with albums like Hats and soundtracks such as the one for the US version of Solaris, while allowing for spontaneity, we wanted to explore a very particular mood with a very particular set of repeated sounds.

Lyrically, I was keen to develop the ‘song as short story’ aspect of World Of Bright Futures further and to give the material a real sense of place and continuity. The more isolated parts of the crumbling and grey Norfolk coastline and the county’s slightly incongruous colour-saturated seaside resorts provided both inspiration and feel.

Cheery as ever, most of the songs concerned regret, unrequited obsessions and a sense of being trapped by circumstances. Chant One was influenced by the relentlessly grim diaries of fellow Warringtonian (and style icon!), Ossie Clarke. Despite the subject matter and the fact that our personal lives were in a state of disarray at the time of making it, Peter and I had a lot of fun recording California, Norfolk and there was a real sense of joy and humour at play during its creation.

I remember late night walks home from the sessions, where I’d be constantly thinking about the songs we’d been working on and silently coming up with new counter melodies. Many a 3am was spent wandering deserted streets with Winter With You, Post-Its or Hostage running through my head.

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Takes were chosen for feel more than perfection and with the exception of Hostage, most performances, both vocally and instrumentally, tended to be first or second attempts.

Weirdly, due to a technical glitch, it often sounded like a pan of the local delicacy Samphire was constantly sizzling in the background as the vocals were being recorded. Taking this as a sign, we liberally experimented with processed vocals, thereby giving the album one of its signature sounds.

I really enjoyed making musical contributions and Peter’s studio techniques progressed at an enormous rate during the recording. If it worked, anything was acceptable (including the distorted crunching sounds that either made or destroyed Winter With You depending on your tastes).

In keeping with the intimate nature of the material, we pressed up 1000 copies ourselves and decided to sell them solely through our online shop. No review copies were sent out and no adverts were booked. We liked what we’d done and felt we’d achieved what we were after, so we weren’t bothered about seeking public acclaim for such a private statement (not that it was very likely to get any!). That said, some positive responses and Grant Wakefield’s evocative (unasked for) video for Chant One were welcome affirmations that the album meant something to some people who weren’t us. After a few years, all the copies had been sold leading to escalating Ebay and Amazon prices for the original cd. That the album had sold out purely by word of mouth was a very pleasant surprise to both of us.

Shortly after the release, courtesy of an extremely kind Canadian fan, Peter and I ended up making two trips to Toronto to play a few dates to some very lovely North American enthusiasts. Over the years, tracks from the album have been played live in Holland, Estonia, Canada, the Ukraine and, yes, Norfolk. For better or worse, versions of songs have rarely sounded the same twice and never sounded like their album counterparts.

A combination of Burning Shed’s growth, no-man, and Peter’s work with Brian Eno meant we never got around to completing a follow-up. Several sessions took place between 2003 and 2010 and Bowness/Chilvers tracks ended up scattered on albums as diverse as Peter’s A Marble Calm, my My Hotel Year and no-man‘s Schoolyard Ghosts. Another World and the original Criminal Caught In The Crime, which have the same DIY ethos as California, Norfolk, give an idea of what might have come out sometime in the mid-2000s.

Eventually, in late 2011, California, Norfolk’s ‘sort of’ spiritual successor arrived in the form of the self-titled Slow Electric debut album. Slow Electric possessed the mood and completeness of its predecessor, but didn’t recreate its sounds or character. It couldn’t. California, Norfolk was and always will be a highly personal sonic snapshot from the very beginning of the 21st Century and I’m still glad I played a part in making it.


Michael Bearpark, August 2013:

California Coming Home

Days Turn Into Years – a title from the forthcoming Burning Shed re-release of Tim Bowness & Peter Chilvers’ album California, Norfolk – is also a fitting description of the project’s long-delayed journey to availability again. Why the wait? Here’s one explanation, partly inspired by the notes Tim & Peter themselves have written for the new package.

In March 2004 I mastered Peter Chilvers’ A Marble Calm album. We’d improvised and recorded together for a potential follow-up to our instrumental set Thin Air (to be called Thin Air III – a separate story), and afterwards Peter had played me a couple of tracks from his new project. The instrumentation seemed richer, building on the best of the duo albums he’d recorded with Tim Bowness and as Alias Grace. Something about it caught me… but it also sounded muffled, and didn’t communicate as I thought it could. Interested to experiment, I offered to master the recordings to see what difference this could make.

The little I knew of mastering at that stage came from discussions with Dallas Simpson (Serendipity), who’d mastered the earlier Voiceprint release of the Samuel Smiles album A World Of Bright Futures for us. Experimentation and careful listening to the Marble Calm recordings led to suggestions for a few mix changes as part of a process that developed organically through the rest of the month, leading to a final album that was well received both musically and sonically.

In taking on the A Marble Calm project, I’d had in mind a comment from Dann Chinn (Misfit City) that the preceding California, Norfolk album didn’t “play to a room”. It was a subdued and private experience; probably for headphones late at night. For me, the introspective DIY approach coupled with the lyrical focus had made that album increasingly inaccessible, however. I found I couldn’t listen to it, and that I wasn’t able to follow this slow change of direction.

In Mid-February 2009, a surprise message came through:

“Mr B,

We know it’s one of your least favourite Bowness/Chilvers offerings, but we were wondering if you’d be interested in re-mastering the new version of the album we’re going to put out?

It’ll consist of the original album, plus Overstrand (the re-mixes album) and Winterton (an EP of acoustic versions of C, N songs).

I’m presuming you can re-master from the original CDs with C, N and Overstrand? Peter will have to send you the additional EP (you can play some guitar over the pieces for that authentic Samuel Smiles touch!).


Thinking initially that this would be a straightforward extension to the approach I’d used on A Marble Calm, I accepted. Peter searched for the original unmastered files I asked for. The planned Spring 2009 release date came & went…

July 2009, Peter: “Unfortunately, the California album has fallen victim to my busy schedule, and Tim’s hyper-creativity… what started out as just two existing albums being remastered and released together, became extended by an EP of unreleased acoustic tracks (which still need mixing in), and then that became ‘why don’t we hire a studio, some session musicians and an engineer and record new versions’…”

One of several directions not pursued. (What happened to the the 3 CD box?) Instead – silence.

March 2011, Peter: “Sorry for the delay – just been settling the final track listing via the well established combination of reasoned debate, paintball and arm wrestling. Here’s the full list…”

Then over to me. In retrospect, starting with the title track California Norfolk was a blunder. With A Marble Calm there’d been something to work with in mastering: instruments to differentiate; parts to bring out. With this stark earlier recording, there was piano, voice, and hiss. Was this third frustrating addition to the bleak intimacy part of its charm? Not for me. Experimenting with approaches that had worked before led to a dead end instead. The ‘lift and separate’ that I felt the material needed brought out the recording’s limitations, getting further in the way and becoming the opposite of what I was aiming for. With no multitrack files to go back to this time (allegedly lost to physical and digital archaeology in a garage), and with decreasing empathy and patience with the overall sound and feel, other projects took over…

May 2012, Pete Morgan: “Any chance of pumping yourself full of Prozac and having a go at California, Norfolk?”

A brief revisit, then a silent apology. January 2013 brought Burning Shed support forwarding a series of increasingly desperate requests and threatening pictures of cats (not in northern landscapes though). Finally, after discussions about other projects such as no-man and Henry Fool where the re-release hadn’t come up as a high priority,

June 2013: Tim: “When I realised how long it had been out of print and how long since you’ve had the files, I felt a certain urgency to re-release this!

It’s also one of the things we get asked about most at the Shed, so it’d be nice to finally do something with it (C, N’s eBay and Amazon prices aren’t cheap).

As I think this won’t take long to improve, is there any way this could be done earlier? I only ask because Carl’s designing a new cover at the moment.

Beyond the sonic problems, you did also say that you still found it a very depressing listen.

I may use a negative Bearpark quote on the promotional page for the new C, N! 

‘Rarely have I heard something so indulgently miserable and utterly dismal. California, Norfolk makes Over and Berlin sound like the Birdy Song.’ – Michael Bearpark (No-Man live guitarist and C, N mastering engineer)”

Yes, it makes The Chameleons sound like Katrina And The Waves; a Norfolk Punch of a different kind. But finally, a breakthrough:

July 2013, Peter: “There’s a latecomer to the party! I’m just sending a mix of Criminal Caught in the Crime, which would be track 10 of the second disc, between Another World and California, Norfolk.”

Jon Astley (Close To The Edge) – who mastered my forthcoming Darkroom album Gravity’s Dirty Work and indirectly taught me much more about audio – likes to master tracks in album order, going with and enhancing the flow. But when the line’s blurred between mastering polish and audio restoration, maybe it’d be better to start at the end? Here’s a better-sounding mix just in: use this as a key to open the project up.

“This won’t take long to improve”… break the rest down into pieces and see if that’s true (which of course it wasn’t). The late-night DIY feel is part of the charm for some: keep that as a constraint, but – late at night again – remove as many undesirable audio side effects of the inspired recording process that get in the way as possible. Proximity bass thumps from singing quietly to a microphone too close? Taken out one by one though spectral analysis. Electrical clicks; uneven volume – caught and partly levelled. Adapt new software tools to lower hiss that’s distracting without losing key material. Turn up the sonic contrast carefully… and finally everything starts to fall into place. There’s a coherence in this distinct sound world that I can finally hear: in the linear development of the pieces that had initially seemed so restrictive, and in the minimalist and musique concrète soundscapes that became richer than I thought, beyond the original starting point. Not having access to the multitrack recordings was an additional and unfortunate obstacle at times, barring the iterative remixing that had helped with mastering parts of A Marble Calm, but it was no longer insurmountable.

Finally everything fits together and it’s done. The musical equivalent of Bleak House is instead gently bent and broken into a better shape. I’m pleased as well as relieved to have finished, and to have made a contribution throughout that’ll paradoxically be most successful when no-one notices they’re hearing it! As well as offering new discoveries for those already familiar with the material, it’s probably accessible enough now to be a welcome new discovery for others, more than justifying the decision not to re-release the existing recordings (if not the protracted delay).

Beyond the sound itself: Tim’s album notes say something about the genesis of the California Norfolk recordings, and how they were made possible by a certain time, place and space. Listening to them so closely as part of finalising the re-release, together they seem now to be a final summary of that particular phase, as feelings about the places they were originally created in change, and thoughts turn to leaving. The live tracks included (although right at the end they almost weren’t) show how some of the pieces evolved as the musicians moved on musically and personally. Separately, Days Turn Into Years became an increasingly powerful standard, and other live recordings still wait for a home.

California Dreamin’? For me, California from Joni Mitchell’s Blue gets closer to what’s here in spirit, even if the trappings are very different. If it’s dreaming in there it’s consistently of somewhere and of something else. But it’s easier listening now, even if there’s plenty that’s uneasy beneath all that surface restraint and some new gloss.

Mike Bearpark

August 2013

P.S. What about that Thin Air box set now?


Order the 2013 Deluxe Edition reissue from Burning Shed.