Way back in 1987, I was totally into an awesome rock band called 'Little Angels'. So much so in fact, that I have a couple of tattoos which feature artwork from their albums. The front man and driving force of the Angels was a guy called Toby Jepson, an excellent guitarist, song writer and fantastic singer. Toby has been involved with many projects since then, writing, producing and performing. He declined an offer to join 'Van Halen' in 1996, fronted the rock outfit 'Gun' for a couple of years from 2008 and was heavily involved with 'Fastway' and 'Dio's Disciples', but the call of his own path was strong, and he eventually left to dedicate the time to his other musical responsibilities.
Toby has now put together an exciting new band called 'Wayward Sons'. I was really looking forward to checking these guys out, so I kept an eye on their website and saw they were offering a 'Studio Experience' day in December, 2016. After a quick conference with the wife (something along the lines of 'Remember when you asked what I wanted for Christmas?....') I snagged a ticket and waited eagerly for the big day.
Vale Studios is based in a listed status Georgian manor house on the outskirts of Pershore, Worcestershire, and holy hell, the building is magnificent! The owner and sound engineer, Chris, is one of the nicest blokes I've ever met, and is more than happy to explain the recording process and how the equipment works. His wife also makes killer Brownies! Understandably, we were asked by the band not to take any photos of their gear (or song titles!) so I turned my phone off before entering, but the Vale Studios website has plenty of in-house pics, and loads of info.
There were nine places available for the studio tour, and we all arrived roughly at the same time. We were greeted by Chris and welcomed into the house. I wasn't sure what to expect, but a grand piano, several drums, a ton of microphone stands and various amplifiers and speakers dotted about probably made for the most interesting lobby I've ever stood in.
The band were out on the back garden, being photographed for some publicity material. The official photographer was world-renowned image man Tony Mottram (Kerrang, Ozzy Osbourne, Nirvana, Iron Maiden and many more) and he turned out to be a really likeable (and loveably eccentric) bloke. I can't imagine the amount of inside stories Tony is privy to! After a very short wait, the band came into the lobby to greet us all with handshakes and warm words. It was rather crowded, so Chris and Toby led us out to the 'Artists Chalet' which is a separate building from the main studio, where the artists go to chill, watch TV, play pool or videogames and generally relax. Toby introduced us to the band, and after a few minutes discussing how far people had travelled and where they were from, he cracked open a crate of beer.
Everyone was chatting happily, and I got to meet the other members of the band - and they were as equally cool and down to earth as Toby was. On bass guitar is accomplished player Nic Wastell, engine man for Leicester outfit 'Chrome Molly', and a long-time friend of Toby and Little Angels. Lead guitar comes from Sam Wood, a young and exceptionally witty guy who is instantly likeable. Sam also teaches guitar and having heard him play, I wish I lived closer! Percussion is provided by seasoned drummer Phil Martini. Everything about Phil screams 'Rock Star!'. He's totally cool and approachable, but he has such a rock star aura about him. He's played with big acts such as 'Tokyo Dragons', 'Spear of Destiny', 'Joe Elliot' and 'The Quireboys'.
After a short while, Chris appeared with a pizza stack! Here I was, still giddy from meeting a musical idol of mine, and the next minute I'm sharing pizza and beer with him! I hadn't noticed earlier, (partly due to the excitement, and partly due to the fact that I hadn't seen him for years) but Big Dave Kemp was also there! If you're not savvy with who Dave is, check out some Little Angels stuff, and look out for the Big Bad Horns. Another legend! Turns out Big Dave is performing on the new album too.
When we'd finished eating, it was time to head into the recording area of the studio and listen to some tracks! The band gave us a mini-tour of the place, and it was honestly like something out of a movie. There were instruments and amplifiers, cables and microphones, booms and boxes everywhere. The place just oozed creativeness. I was starting to understand why Toby rates the place so highly as studios go, it gave me the feeling that everything was only an arms reach away, Chris gave the impression that nothing was too much trouble, and a band could just focus purely on the music without having to worry about a thing. It was like a nuturing area for artistry. That might sound strange if you're reading this in the cold light of day, but trust me, there was something special about that place.
We were shown a couple of rooms which were used for all sorts of recording, sometimes photography, and sometimes storage. The acoustics in the main lobby were pretty amazing and I could understand why Chris had decided to base the grand piano there. The soundproof area was divided into two sections, one with a drum riser, and the other one for the rest of the band. I guess drummers can be a bit noisy, even unamplified! Phil's drum kit was looking sexy as hell, and was completely mic'd up ready for recording. Toby showed us through to the second soundproof room where the guitars and keyboard lived. Sam's pedalboard was like something out of a sci-fi movie, and I couldn't help but notice they'd gone with Marshall amplification all the way - best of the best! Sat quietly in the corner was Dave's Hammond. It looked innocent, but my god it sounded anything but when he played it!
At last, it was time for the main event! We made our way into the engineering area of the studio, Chris sat in front of his mixing desk, and the band took their places in the recording booths. Chris gave us a quick rundown of how it all worked, warned us that he liked it loud (who doesn't?!) and gave Toby the OK to go.
Holy shit! The sound quality was way beyond anything I've ever heard, my adrenaline went into overdrive, and best of all the music was absolutely banging! I mean rocking, and rocking hard! So, so good. I looked around the room and everyone was loving it. One girl had her eyes closed as she just absorbed it all and savoured the experience. There wasn't enough room for nine of us to dance in there, but if there had been, we would have! There is no way I can convey the feeling using my words alone, but it was kind of uplifting on a spiritual level. I couldn't stop smiling until the track was over, and it was a fair while after that when I did. We all clapped and cheered - even though the band wouldn't have been able to hear us at that point - but we just couldn't help it.
Toby's voice came over the speakers and asked if it was 'OK?' and we all cheered again! This time, Chris turned the comlink on and the band heard our appreciation. Now if you're reading this blog expecting to find some inside info on the tracks, their style, titles, or even their mood, I'm afraid I'm going to disappoint you. The band has asked us to keep quiet about everything we heard that day (including song names and ideas for the album title) and I'm not about to betray their trust, I respect them all way too much. What I can tell you is that this album is going to be absolutely kick-ass, make no mistake about that.
To our elation, the band played a number of tracks that day. All along the journey, Chris was explaining what was happening, and why. He showed us how he could switch the monitor to individual instruments or microphones (goddamn, Toby has a voice on him!), and explained how the whole process worked, in this particular instance only actually intending to utilise the recording of one instrument even though all five of them were playing. He explained what the band could actually hear and adjust from within the recording booth, and couldn't have been more open answering any questions thrown at him.
Part of the experience was getting to sing backing vocals on a track. Yes, you read that right! After the main recording session was over, we were ushered into the main lobby where a microphone was set up, and under Toby's direction, we sang a backing piece to one of the tracks as a group. At first I was a little nervous about doing this (yes, I've played in a band before but that was twenty years ago!) but everyone was getting on so well, and the band were making us all so relaxed that I didn't think twice about it once it started happening. I don't know whether it was the magic of the studio, the obvious musical history that had been created there, or what the hell it was, but singing in that acoustically glorious lobby while being recorded for an album track seemed the most natural thing in the world to do.
I really didn't want this day to end, but of course it had to. People were asking for autographs and hugs (well, the girls were asking for hugs) and I was so glad I'd taken my acoustic guitar along in the hope that I could get it signed. The guys couldn't have been more accomodating if they'd tried, and were more than happy to sign anything. A young fan named Billy had taken his guitar too (and Sam actually played it on one of the tracks! How cool is that?!), so he had that signed. I had my acoustic signed by all five musicians, and Phil even gave out some of his (used) drumsticks for people who hadn't brought anything along to be autographed. To top all this, we were each presented with some gifts which were a signed lithograph, a bag of button badges and a limited edition T-shirt! Toby explained that this T-shirt wasn't available anywhere else, and was only given to the studio experience attendees - the first people in the world outside of the band itself to hear the music performed live. What an honour!
If the band ever do another studio experience day and you get the chance, I highly recommend you go. You will not regret it, trust me! What an unforgettable day it was! Simply brilliant.
This article was published with the kind permission of Wayward Sons and Vale Studios. Official group photo to follow soon.