Psychemagik on recording their new album and not sweating the small stuff
Following the release of Psychemagik’s brilliant debut LP, I Feel How This Night Should Look, we learn more about the record’s challenging birth and genre-straddling production processes.
From reworking classic hits of yesteryear to building cinematic compositions of their own, Psychemagik’s creative scope is vast
“It feels amazing to finally get this record out into the world. It’s been an insanely long journey but we’ve always been determined for it to see the light of day.” Tom Coveney, one half of esteemed producers, experts of the edit, and globe-trotting DJ duo Psychemagik, is taking stock of the bumpy road that led to the unveiling of their debut LP I Feel How This Night Should Look.
Alongside his partner in Balearic crime Dan McLewin, Coveney has come up with an ambitious first outing. Ranging from orchestral grandeur to acid squelch via yacht rock, funk, prog and more, the record is as bold as it is alluring. The tracks are immaculately constructed, drawing effortlessly on the pair’s broad record collections and love of soulful and eclectic sounds – but it’s been a 10-year struggle to get them released. From major-label deals to fallouts and false starts via DJ sets, killer edits and remixes, it’s a story at odds with the beautiful sonic world Psychemagik have built around them.
“The experience was a great learning curve,” says Coveney. “We were lucky enough to sign a major record deal on the back of an eight-track demo, most of which are also on the released album. Before we signed, we sat down with them and outlined the idea. It seemed everyone was on the same page but, as time progressed and the financial recession hit in 2009, things started to change and they were pushing us for a commercial hit. But, as you can tell, it’s really not our style. Psychemagik is something much more leftfield.”
While album turmoil has been percolating in the background, over the past decade, Psychemagik have earned an enviable reputation as some of underground dance music’s most agile studio heads. They’ve remixed tracks by everyone from Noel Gallagher and Brian Ferry to Haim, while adding club-friendly alloy wheels to classics by the likes of Fleetwood Mac and Talking Heads through limited-edition edits. This has stoked demand for Psychemagik’s first full-length and anticipation has only increased since it was first teased, accelerating even more in 2019 when the LP was finally confirmed.
But how did this story start? The friendship between Coveney and McLewin blossomed in the mid-2000s, when they were first introduced to each other. They hit it off over shared musical passions and quickly shifted their fertile new friendship to the studio.
“I was DJing and played one of my own tracks, an unreleased song called Shoebox,” says Coveney. “Dan was there with our mutual friend Carey, who had been trying to get us to work together for more than a year. Dan loved the track so, the following week, we met for a musical pow-wow and it escalated from there. It was an interesting collaboration – we went from not even knowing each other to writing music together really rapidly. We both knew it would work.”
The uniting of their talents led to increased musical productivity and, before they knew it, they were finishing tracks that would eventually find their way onto their debut. “The first track off the album we did was Valley Of Paradise,” says Coveney. “Prior to that we’d messed with some other edits but this was a monster psychedelic moment. We added extra drums and loops – it was a test for us in the studio but came out really well.
“In terms of the gear used to sketch and construct the album’s sonic architecture, much of the record was shaped in the box with the additional live elements layered on top. Valley Of Paradise started as an edit, then we wanted to bug it out and make it into this Balearic beast, the 10-minute thing it’s become. Then we just started processing beats, again all inside the box, until we landed the record deal, after which we worked on the drums live in Toe Rag Studios, London.”
According to Coveney, he and McLewin bring different elements to the creative process. With his experience working on jungle and drum ’n’ bass tracks in the mid-1990s, Coveney acts as the lead producer. McLewin brings technical expertise and an almost encyclopaedic musical knowledge to the party. They’re complementary skill sets that make for a winning aural combination.
Coveney agrees. “Sometimes a track might start with something I’ve begun on my own. I’m always working on loops, beats and hooks,” he says. “Or it might be a record that has inspired Dan – he’ll bring it in, play it, we’ll investigate it, and see if we can use it as a springboard to capture a similar attitude, feeling or sonic aesthetic. It’ll bounce from there.”
Down to business
After a year in the studio and with plenty of finished music in the can, the duo found themselves a manager and inked a deal with Warner at the close of 2008. “We were stoked,” says Coveney. “We had an advance and access to the clout of a major label. But things didn’t quite work out as expected.”
Psychemagik were dropped when the recession hit in 2009. The label had been looking at the project differently and decided they wanted a crossover hit. “I remember thinking, rather naively, that nothing could touch us once we’d signed. But they tried to mould it into something commercial, which felt uncomfortable and was against what we set out to do,” says Coveney.
“It felt like selling out and for two years we tried to accommodate the idea and reach a compromise but it never happened. After three years, we parted ways,” he adds. “I think the record could have been completed in the first year if they had let us stick to our plan.” Rather than searching for another deal, the pair retreated to the studio to do what they do best: concoct killer tunes.
“We didn’t want to find another label, as it had been torture,” says Coveney. “We had no money by this point so we decided to start making edits and see where it went. SoundCloud was just kicking off. We started using that platform and giving away our edits as free downloads.”
During the period in which Psychemagik were signed, they made hay while the sun shone, recording the album’s live instrumentation at some of the UK’s most prestigious studios. As well as Toe Rag Studios, they utilised Kate Bush’s old workspace, George Martin’s Air Studios at Lyndhurst Hall, where they recorded a string section. This was the scene of The White Stripes’ recording sessions for their seminal Elephant album too.
“The major-label support did allow us to take the record to the next level,” says Coveney. “We were able to enlist a 17-piece string ensemble, an eight-piece brass band, live drums and incredible vocalists, and bounce around some of the best studios in London. Watching a brilliant orchestra play your music injects you with this confidence and energy, and makes you want to give your all to your music, give it everything it deserves.”
Despite Psychemagik’s access to high-end studios such as these, Coveney believes a great-sounding record can be put together anywhere. “We obviously benefitted from working in these places but you don’t need to make every record like this,” he says. “I don’t think working in these studios shaped the album’s sound, the musicians did that. At the same time, when we entered these rooms, I remember thinking: ‘This is incredible. We’re doing this in the best way we can.’”
Collaborating with an ensemble orchestra made the pair feel like they were elevating their music to a different class.
“It was both bizarre and incredible working with a conductor for the first time,” says Coveney. “We would explain how we’d prefer the piece to be played in layman’s terms and he would translate to the orchestra for us and together we’d nail it. One of the most exciting and haunting moments was at the start, when the orchestra warmed up. The sound of them playing their scales and warm-up pieces separately echoed around Lyndhurst Hall. It was awe-inspiring, not to mention emotional.”
Covering all bases
Stylistically, I Feel How This Night Should Look demonstrates not just Psychemagik’s impeccable taste as selectors but their creative skills in ploughing diverse sonic furrows but bringing together varied sounds to create a cohesive whole.
“A lot of the album is very cinematic and fits into a soundtrack world,” says Coveney. “We were influenced by legends such as David Axelrod and Ennio Morricone. It’s a thread that runs throughout the record.”
Their musical knowledge may rival that of some of the world’s top crate-diggers but Psychemagik’s creative approach is informed by a desire to capture a heady atmosphere, rather than merely replicate the choicest cuts from their sweeping libraries. “I think about the feeling music gives me rather than the actual artist themselves,” says Coveney, “about where it places me in my imagination and what I see in my mind. I use this as a basis for a track rather than just attempting to emulate something.”
Advice for producers
Coveney reckons Psychemagik’s magpie-like approach to sourcing new sounds is part of their appeal. For him, aspiring producers should adopt a similarly fluid approach when starting out, particularly when it comes to their influences and inspirations.
“Listen to lots and lots of different styles of music, get into it all,” he advises. “If you’re a deep-house or techno producer, don’t just listen to deep house and techno all day. Take inspiration from elsewhere, otherwise you’re in danger of writing the same songs as everyone else. Stretch the ears a little bit – we love so much different stuff, which is why our records are so eclectic.”
Coveney has seen musical trends come and go, and what’s so impressive about Psychemagik is the way they’ve adapted to change. Yet, due to their position as music fans first and foremost, they are still able to deliver disparate sounds authentically. To do this, Coveney says producers need to strike a balance with their gear, and utilise an appropriate mix of software and hardware. These days, with so much affordable equipment available to the fledgling music maker, anything is possible.
“If I’d had access to the technology that’s available today when I was starting out, with all those aspirations, it would have been game-changing.” Amid all the technology, Coveney thinks aspiring producers need to leave their love for gear aside and rely on what’s always been with them: their ears.
“Don’t get sidetracked by visual aids,” he says. “Use your ears and reference as many systems as you can. Try not to get bogged down in the details, especially during the writing phase. I used to be guilty of spending ages on perfecting a kick drum down to the nano-details of the transients and the length way too early. I still think these things are important but it’s not worth wasting time on them early because the chances are you’ll have to tweak them again once the track is done anyway.”
Sound generating set-up
“Lyra-8 is my go-to for sound-scaping drones or gnarly feedback effects,” he says.“It’s based around eight voices that are paired up and can self-modulate each other via FM synthesis. The voices are triggered by touching the metal plates to complete the circuit. It’s a really organic and unique machine, and you can get lost in it for hours. It creates the weirdest drones and the delay feedback on it is insane. It’s one of my favourite bits of gear right now.”
In terms of Coveney’s music-making processes, working outside of the box and becoming more in tune with his hardware has been important. “It feels nicer being outside the box a bit more, I have to admit,” he says. “It was always one of my complaints – I hated getting on the mouse and staring at a screen. I’ve definitely expanded since but when we made the record, for the most part, it was in-the-box apart from live elements like the drums and bass, piano and the horns.”
Coveney sees working with a partner in the studio as conducive to completing and finishing tracks. “You can bounce ideas off each other and it forces you to keep the ball rolling,” he says. “You don’t want to get bogged down in tweaking one small thing for too long or you can lose momentum. On your own, the possibilities are almost too infinite. But I enjoy the freedom of that too.”
Remixes vs edits
Album talk aside, Psychemagik’s remixing and editing output remains seriously impressive. Remixes for heavy hitters such as Roisin Murphy and Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve have done much to bolster their reputation. But what does it take for a track to be deemed worthy of a remix?
“I need to be captured by something in the original song,” says Coveney of the selection process. “If it’s a vocal lead track then I need to like the vocal, unless the artist doesn’t mind me stripping it back in more of a dub approach. When I think about a remix, I often think about how I can put our stamp on it. I want to rip it apart then build it back up with my own bass, snare, kick drum, everything.
To me, a Psychemagik version is almost like writing an original piece of music using an original element as a sample in the remix. Obviously, every remix is different and I treat each in its own way but, essentially, I want people to know it’s us when they hear it. That’s the constant challenge.”
The edits are approached in a different way and, although the results are similar, they’re an art form unto themselves. “It’s not often you even get the stems for an edit (hence the name edit) so any additional production is usually wrapped around a full track,” says Coveney.
“Sometimes I can high-pass tracks and therefore add my own bottom-end, other times I’ll be trying to layer on top of the original and sculpting kicks, snares or synths to sound like they belong in it. Some are kind of restoration edits, as in fattening them up to be played in a club, others we go to town on and make our own.”
Dare to dream
With the album now available – on their own label, no less – Psychemagik have control of their own creative destiny. With plenty of remixes and DJ dates ahead of them, momentum seems strong.
Coveney continues to try and quench his insatiable appetite for new music, looking for novel flavours from all around the world, with new favourites coming from Tel Aviv and Mexico. “It’s a combination of techno, industrial, EBM and cold wave, and all with a dark theme,” he says.
“I’m enjoying finding new upcoming artists. It reminds me of when I was discovering drum ’n’ bass and jungle for the first time as a kid, back in the 1990s. You knew you were into something fresh and underground, and I think there’s a similar buzz about this sound too – a sound related to my solo project, Thomaas Banks. It’s exciting to find young underground producers and new tracks that you can’t shazam.”
I Feel How This Night Should Look is out now. Visit Psychemagik’s Bandcamp for more information.