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John Otway’s Caribbean Odyssey

Or how the self-proclaimed ‘Two Hit Wonder’ brought recording back to Montserrat more than 25 years after the demise of AIR Studios’ legendary facilities on the island

To fans of a 1970s vintage, it is his ‘77 hit with Wild Willy Barrett, Really Free, with which John Otway will always be most closely identified. For those who started following the moves of this most maverick of British singer/songwriters a generation later, it will be 2002’s Bunsen Burner that looms most prominently in the memory banks.

In the quarter-century between the two hits… well, even by Otway’s own admission, he wasn’t exactly causing chart-compilers too many sleepless nights. But through continued releases and – more crucially – an intensive touring schedule of the kind that puts his hero Bob Dylan’s so-called ‘Never-Ending Tour’ to shame, he has cultivated a sizeable and extremely loyal fanbase.

Having received the enthusiastic financial support of his audience for a number of previous wheezes – not least a documentary film, Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure: Otway the Movie, in 2012 – it was always likely that they would get behind plans for his first full album of new material in more than a decade. And fortunately, Otway knew exactly where to record it…

“I had a fan who had invited me to go to Montserrat, where he lived, and around the same time I saw a documentary about Sir George Martin,” he says, alluding to The Beatles producer’s founding of AIR Studios Montserrat in the late 1970s. Adding to the sense that this was destiny, the first song completed for the project was entitled Dancing With Ghosts, and “it occurred to me that we were dancing with the ghosts of how things used to be done – in terms of bands going away somewhere to record an album – as well as the ghosts of the recording that had taken place in Montserrat during the 1980s.”

Turning to Kickstarter to fund the project, Otway informed fans that £10,000 would enable the album “to be recorded in my guitarist’s garage in Essex!” If the fund reached £30,000 they could both record in Monsterrat and enlist Grammy Award-winner Chris Birkett to produce. With nearly £40,000 raised by the time the campaign closed, there was no question that the new Otway opus would be brought into the world under Caribbean skies…

The (new) Basement Tapes

Otway’s first notable challenge upon arriving in the island for a reccy in January 2016 was to find a suitable recording venue. The former AIR premises (pictured) were “a no-no for various reasons” – not least the impact of Hurricane Hugo, which led to the studios’ closure in 1989. Eventually, after considering a number of spaces, it was determined that the basement of Olveston House – which has a long association with the Martin family and is now primarily used as a guest house – would be the ideal location.

“The basement area used to be a cinema and radio station, and it was really the perfect size to host the band and put a studio in there,” he recalls.

Turning it into a workable studio – however temporary – was never going to be without challenges, but fortunately Otway had several distinguished collaborators to call upon. A part-time resident of the island, musician and composer Peter Filleul has been a regular presence in PSNEurope over the years in his capacity as former executive director of the APRS. Malcolm Atkin – the current APRS chairman – should also require little in the way of introduction, having served as general manager of AIR Studios for 14 years before the Millennium and, more recently, as managing director of Sphere Studios. Most pertinently in this case, though, he was technical manager of AIR Montserrat throughout the ‘80s and even helped pack up the studio after the hurricane hit.

Filleul had joined Otway on the initial reccy, and agreed that the basement area – lined as it was with peg-board tiles – had a “very dead acoustic sound and could be [ideal for our purposes].” With the owner’s agreement secured, Filleul began to examine the practicalities of “putting in air-conditioning, decent lights and so on. And I thought who is the person most likely to know about all this? Well, it has to be Malcolm…”

In fact, Atkin had returned to Monsterrat “bar one night, since 1990, which was pre-volcano [the island was the subject of a devastating volcanic eruption in 1995]. So quite apart from the project – which sounded like it was going to be a lot of fun – it was nice to have the chance to go back and reconnect with the island, which is a magical place.”

Of course, the passing of Sir George in March 2016 added no little poignancy to the prospective project, although pleasingly for Otway he had been made aware that the legendary producer “liked the idea of someone carrying on the tradition of recording on the island”.

Channelling Heath Robinson

Atkin and Filleul set to work in early September 2016, transforming the basement (pictured) into a studio “in a very hectic six days… The air-conditioning was a bit of a Heath Robinson set-up, which Otway thought was brilliant. [With this project] it was very much a case of grabbing what was around you; it was a ‘pop-up’ with what we might call ‘industrial finishes’! But it worked really well,” says Atkin.

Capturing the four-piece Otway band – with Filleul occasionally guesting on keyboards – was a laptop-based system running Pro Tools. “We were just going through a Focusrite I/O straight into the laptop,” says Atkin. “It goes to show what you can do with some expert knowledge and a few suitcases of equipment!”

One of Filleul’s most important contributions to the budget-sensitive project was to highlight the fact that “the cost of bringing a lot of amps, guitars, etc, over from London was going to be greater than buying new ones in America and then leaving them behind.” Hence, a substantial amount of MI gear was purchased in Miami for use on the album, and has now been bequeathed to the island. (They were also fortunate enough to be able to use a drum kit once used by The Police’s Stewart Copeland during the sessions.)

Although observing with a laugh that his duties included regular replenishment of the beer supplies, Filleul notes that “everyone was incredibly well-organised. Otway has great musicians and they were highly rehearsed before the sessions, so it was all fairly straightforward.”

Indeed, the bulk of the recording was completed in one week, with Otway (pictured with governor of Montserrat Elizabeth Carriere) doing some additional overdubs after leaving Monsterrat. At the time of his conversation with PSNEurope, he was in the midst of mixing the album, to be entitled (logically enough) MONTSERRAT and released “in all the usual ways” this spring.

“Everyone knew their parts in advance, and the way it was recorded really gives it a lot of energy – it feels like a very exciting album,” says Otway. He’s also proud to be restarting a tradition of recording on the island that was brought to a halt with the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels – the 1989 album that was recorded in the wake of Mick ‘n’ Keef’s notorious mid-‘80s bust-up and is not exactly up there in the pantheon of all-time Stones classics.

“However, I want to make it clear that it is a much better album than Steel Wheels,” says Otway with a chuckle, “so really we will be helping to help get the island’s musical status back to where it should be!”