“I had a dream about an imaginary Japanese soap opera called Lemondale,” says Bill Wells on the title track of his new album. “I can't remember anything about it except when the credits came up there was this theme tune which I could clearly still hear in my head and so immediately recorded it”.
“That happens quite a lot to me,” he continues. “Although sometimes the ideas are not so good. I’ll be lying in bed thinking, ‘Is that really worth getting out of bed to write down?’”
A self-taught musician, Wells first came to prominence in the Scottish jazz scene of the late 80s and in 1996 won the Scotrail Award for the Best Scottish Based Performer at the Glasgow Jazz Festival, when he played there with his octet.
From the outset he needed jazz musicians’ ability to read his charts, but felt that his music was more jazz by default, as his interest encompassed musicians like Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson and Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, as well as jazz pianists like Carla Bley and Count Basie. In fact, he has gone so far as to say that he generally has more empathy with musicians from the Indie sector than with jazz musicians, “Who have so much respect for jazz they often have too much”.
Wells’s love of musical exploration has been demonstrated in collaborations with an eclectic range of musicians including Isobel Campbell, Stefan Schneider of German electronicists To Rococo Rot, Jens Lekman, Canterbury Scene legend Kevin Ayers and Japanese naivist group Maher Shalal Hash Baz. This year saw the release of the album Everything’s Getting Older with former Arab Strap vocalist Aidan Moffat, and his new group The National Jazz Trio Of Scotland – who are neither jazz nor a trio, but a four-piece pop-oriented group, all-female with the exception of Wells – are set to release their debut album next year.
Along the way Bill Wells has developed a trademark style of memorable melodic lines and structures strong enough to withstand any amount of sonic battering, as epitomised by Gok (2009), a collaboration with Maher Shalal Hash Baz. “They almost destroyed the songs,” he laughs, “But not deliberately”.
On Lemondale, Wells is more in charge of what is going on, although he allows the musicians plenty of room for expression within a basic template. “I like things a little bit messy just so it doesn’t sound too neat or clinical,” he explains.
He recorded the album in Japan with a handpicked dream team of musicians including Tokyo-based American guitarist Jim O’Rourke, improvising pianist Satoko Fujii, Saya and Uneo aka Tenniscoats, and singer Nikaido Kazumi who Wells reckons is “One of the best on the planet”. Tori Kudo, Maher Shahal Bhash Baz’s self-styled “king of error” also plays clarinet and the sweetest of melodica lines.
When in Japan, Wells also had a serendipitous meeting with Tetsuya Umeda. “When I first saw him, he was fixing a fan in a friend's vegan restaurant,” Wells recalls. “At first I assumed that this was just a kid that fixed fans. However it transpired that he was actually an established sound artist and his main instrument seemed to be an electric fan. He also played a number of gadgets and homemade instruments, like big tubes with balloons stretched over the end. When I started to talk to him I knew that I wanted him to be on the record. We made a joke that he makes the sounds that every studio engineer tries to erase.”
Through Satoko Fujii, Wells booked a day in a top Tokyo studio, but getting all 13 musicians in one place at the same time was proving extremely difficult. Wells was reconciled to just working with O’Rourke. But luckily all the musicians were able to make at least part of the session, even though some had just come back from tour the previous day, or even that morning, and some had to leave the following day.
“It’s not that good a way to make a record, to be perfectly honest,” he says laughing. “If it had been a day either side of the date it wouldn’t have happened.” There were other more basic problems. ”I couldn’t speak the language and Sekijima Takero the tuba player didn’t understand at all what I was saying,” he admits.
Despite its difficult genesis, Lemondale has a spacious relaxed feel, especially on songs like the luminous bossanova “Courtin’ Love” with Saya’s voice decorated by some lovely horn and brass playing, and Tetsuya Umeda’s fan sounding like a wet finger rubbing a wine glass.
On “Piano Rolls”, Satoko's lyrical piano arpeggios are joined by swelling brass lines, with vocalists Saya and Nikaido weaving their voices together, and bending notes to dramatic effect. The track closes with a scrambled guitar coda from Jim O’Rourke.
“I didn’t realise they were singing on that track because everything was so loud,” Wells admits. “Everyone was playing all the time, but then I told them to do that”.
Although there were a number of takes made of each track on Lemondale, with the studio only booked for the day, there was no time for playbacks. “Making the record was a strange experience as at the time it didn’t really sound like it sounds now,” Wells explains. “At the end of the day I knew a lot of really good stuff had happened, but there was a lot of stuff happening that I wasn’t sure about – or that I didn’t know about.”
Months of editing this raw material has yielded a remarkable record; a brilliant mix of the composed and the intuitive that Wells was seeking.
Considering the organisational headaches that he encountered, he would think twice before attempting such a venture again, but would love to go back to Japan to perform the music in concert. “It was a risky strategy,” he concludes. “But one that ultimately paid off.”
Mike Barnes - 2011