Dave Parker is no rock star, but the 22 year old is fast becoming one of the most ubiquitous characters in the Auckland music scene. The producer/engineer spoke to Lydia Jenkin about creating his Little Monster Studio in his parents’ house, overcoming budgetary hurdles and bringing this year’s most delightful yuletide compilation ‘A Very Little Christmas’ to fruition.
When people round me hear the words ‘Christmas music’ they grimace. Apart from the cheesy carols and naff songs by American pop stars regularly forced upon us during Christmas shopping, there’s the endless repackaging of Christmas ‘collections’ CDs that convey nothing of what Christmas means to most Kiwis. Fortunately that’s about to change with the release of ‘A Very Little Christmas’ – an 18-track compilation of original seasonal songs by a collection of some of Auckland’s finest indie bands, ranging across genres from folk to rock, alt-country to lush pop, heart-felt ballads to sly duets.
“Not all of it is super happy, but it’s real. Trying to be a bit more sincere than Rock Around The Christmas Tree,” its creator Dave Parker muses.
While he has been trying to steer away from some of the pre-conceived aesthetics of your usual yuletide compilations, Parker doesn’t want people to get the false impression this is an ‘anti-Christmas’ album.
“When I told some [musicians] about it they really cringed because they were kind of expecting to have to write Jingle Bells or something, or really awful Christmas songs, or just that it would be one of those albums where they get someone from Shortland Street to come and sing a song. But I love Phil Spector, and his Christmas album is what I aspire to at all times. So short of getting a gun, I thought making my own Christmas album would be the next logical step. Guns next year maybe,” he laughs.
The idea was first floated in March, when Parker met up with Marty Jones from Border Music, who’d been thinking along the same lines.
“He was really good at pushing me to think bigger than what I was originally thinking,” Parker says. “And then half way through the process, again we thought much bigger than what we were thinking before, and I was like, ‘Well, why don’t I just not charge anyone any money for this, do it for free and then give it away for free download’.”
Yes, in the true spirit of Christmas, ‘A Very Little Christmas’ is being given away online as a free download, though sensibly there is also a limited edition run of CDs complete with beautiful artwork.
It has been a mammoth job, a great effort from all the contributing musicians, and from Jones – who Parker has high praise for.
“He’s pretty much a one man record label in his spare time and has helped put out a whole bunch of records in the past couple of years. Border’s not set up as a music label, so Marty’s ended up helping a whole group of bands and artists release CDs that might have never made it in to stores.”
But the album would not have been possible without Parker’s own dedication and unique set up. Not only has he worked with many of the musicians before, giving him the requisite connections, but running his own home studio from Auckland’s green-belt suburb Oratia has meant he’s been able to allocate the necessary time and space to the project. Little Monster Studio is actually run from Parker’s bedroom in his parents’ home, with the bathroom and hallway also occasionally seconded as recording spaces. Fortunately his parents and siblings are all supportive and mostly enjoy having the numerous musicians filing in and out, creating magic under their roof.
The family moved from the UK to the large delightful property in west Auckland six years ago. Having played guitar since 12, when he began joining bands Parker soon found he enjoyed messing around and recording demos more than he enjoyed actually peforming. After arriving here he quickly signed up to a MAINZ course, and “… it all snowballed from there”. He hadn’t yet graduated before The Coshercot Honeys were topping the bNets with his recording of their song We’re All Lions.
“When I was at MAINZ I borrowed some stuff to do a recording at home with Debutantes. They could only record in the school holidays and I really wanted to record them, so borrowed some stuff, borrowed some microphones and I had a computer… and yeah, it turned out alright.”
He began working on recordings for Debutantes and Bear Cat at MAINZ, but his course finished before the music was.
“Dan wanted to track a little bit here and there, so we did a few things at home. And then I bought another microphone, and another little interface, and recorded more here until we were wanting to record drums and we managed to work out how to record drums in my bedroom, so it just kind of evolved.”
As his reputation grew more bands wanted to work with him, which meant more and more hours spent in the studio. Working days and recording through evenings and weekends was not ideal and Parker wanted to quit his day job, though wasn’t sure if he could survive financially if he did. In the end he took a leap of faith and found that the studio work was enough to live on.
There are a number of factors which have meant Parker’s popularity as an engineer and producer have escalated quickly (he took on management about six months ago to help with the business end of things). There’s his very reasonable pricing system which appeals to many up and coming bands for starters, Then there’s his very friendly, approachable attitude and the appeal of recording in a cosy house where quality cups of tea and home baking are always available.
“I think a lot of musicians are kind of scared of big studios – they shouldn’t be, big studios are usually really cool and friendly, and I really like when I get to work in them. But there is kind of that thing here that there’s no big shot guy looking down on you or whatever… it’s really relaxed here. I kind’a like that it’s not too perfect also, like on some of the Teacups’ stuff there might be birds outside that sort of bleed in, but no one’s ever really anti birds bleeding in! And I like the unconventional sounding reverbs that you get in the different rooms.”
Another key part of Parker’s engineering appeal is his enthusiasm and ability to solve problems or think outside of the usual range of options. The constraints of recording in a bedroom or bathroom often generate interesting solutions and Parker enjoys the DIY aspect of working out what can be done with simple objects.
“One of my recording heroes is Chad Blake and he really likes to use acoustic filters. So he’ll put microphones in rubbish bins or along lengths of tubing and stuff to get weird sounds, and I also read this really great blog by this guy from Wellington, [former NZM columnist] Tim Prebble. He’s a film sound guy and he makes me think out of the box a bit. He’s all about creativity and I really like film sound and that whole foley ‘how can we recreate the sound of this guy walking along this path?’ type thing.
“I guess a lot of that also goes back to being quite influenced by a lot of ’60s stuff. Towels on drums especially are a kind of Beatles’ trick. I don’t know, I think the most important part of the recording chain is the point source, so if you’ve got something that sounds really terrible acoustically, then fix it at source rather than going through EQ and other things later.”
He laughs when I suggest that he seems to be a relatively efficient engineer and producer in general, given that he has recorded, mixed and mastered 18 different artists for the Christmas compilation album since August.
“I kind of struggle with it. I like to spend as much time as the band want to spend on it, and usually I want to spend a lot more time than they want to. I guess being in the same room as the band it does take a lot less time to set it up and so on. And you don’t have to worry about trying 20 different bass drums and 20 different microphones on that bass drum, and then running it all through different pre-amps. I think sometimes that limiting myself to recording at home forces me into not worrying about some of that stuff – which I would like to worry about.”
That’s not to say that Parker has limited facilities. The heart of Little Monster Studios is a Mac running Pro Tools and Parker has a selection of top quality mics and toys from Neumann, Blue, Shure, AKG, Sennheiser, Nady, Rode, etc. There are also the requisite guitars, basses, piano and amps, along with a ’60s Tonewheel Hammond with Leslie, and a selection of percussion and toys which includes a set of marching drums.
“I found myself wanting to add a really lo washy kick drum in places, and it was really difficult to get from a regular kick drum… I don’t use the toms much but the bass drum’s really nice as kind of a sound effect, rather than using a sample or something.”
He’s even learnt to enjoy the unique challenges of recording in a bathroom (“Usually I’ll put a duvet up, and that just kind of kills a bit of the nasty ring. It doesn’t sound great. It never sounds great in the bathroom, but it works when people wanna do stuff live”), or mixing in his bedroom.
“I kind of aim to be as good as the best, rather than being, ‘Oh that’s good enough for a bedroom’.”
Apart from the logistical challenge of recording 18 individual songs in such a short time, one of the other challenges of ‘A Very Little Christmas’ has been putting it together as a complete album.
“I really wanted to make it cohesive, but I also want to be sympathetic to the different band’s styles and genres and their own aesthetics. Like Bear Cat really want to sound quite girl groupie, like The Ronettes, whereas that’s really not Canadia or Luckless. But yeah, trying to get that blend of pushing them in their own direction but also making it feel like one. I guess that’s more a mastering thing than a mixing thing, but it does come into the mix as well.”
His very comprehensive blog chronicles all his recording projects, complete with entertaining photos, and includes a breakdown of the process each Christmas song went through. While a good reference point for Parker, it’s also a lovely insight into Little Monster Studios and the magical creative atmosphere that seems to be crafted in the slightly ‘alternate-universe’ vibe of Oratia – one which has been the perfect setting for the production of what I’m sure will become a classic Kiwi Christmas album.
Click on the album cover below to get your FREE download of 'A Very Little Christmas'.