Tindersticks' recording journey began over two decades ago, in a kitchen in Kilburn, London, where the band made demo recordings for their debut album (by the same name). These days the band's creative meeting place is Le Chien Chanceux, a studio located in the 200 year-old converted barn behind the home of vocalist/guitarist Stuart Staples in Limousin, France. The bulk of the band's 2016 album, The Waiting Room, was recorded there and features brass arrangements by longtime collaborator Julian Siegel, a guest vocal from Jehnny Beth of the band Savages, and a poignant duet with the late Lhasa de Sela. A visual companion, The Waiting Room Film Project , features short film interpretations of each album track by several directors, including Claire Denis. The tour includes a number of cine-concerts with the band performing the songs live to the projected films. Stuart Staples spoke with me about this ambitious project, his studio, and how the band makes and records their music.
How did the collaborative film project for The Waiting Room come about?
I was invited to be on the jury of the experimental section at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival. This was long before we were making the record, and I thought there would be a time frame to make an album, as well as collaborate with filmmakers. The album started to exist in sketch form at the end of 2014. At that point the conversation started with festivals, and we began to pair directors with songs we thought would be right for them. The album mixing finished in June , and the films were ready by September. It gradually worked out, but it could have stopped and fallen any step of the way.
Did knowing the songs would be visually interpreted influence how you made The Waiting Room album?
I think the album is part of our line of work. We are not thinking about images when we are writing, arranging, and recording. It's the music that's given to the filmmakers. It's a side project that's been rewarding to be involved in, but I wouldn't want these songs always shackled to these images.
What was your collaboration with Julian Siegel like for the brass arrangements? Was there dialogue that influenced what you and the band played?
The relationship with Julian is a growing relationship. He played bass clarinet on The Something Rain  and put together brass sections for Across Six Leap Years , our retrospective record we made at Abbey Road [Studios]. For The Waiting Room there was a point where we had this song "Help Yourself" and we didn't know where it was taking us. It was so different to songs we'd written in the past. I said to Julian, "Why don't you just do whatever you feel on this song. We can listen to it afterwards and see what happens." He did this great brass arrangement, and that led on to the conversation for "Second Chance Man." That was very much a conversation between myself and him about the album, and the voice that the brass had within it.
Were the songs featuring Jehnny Beth of Savages and Lhasa De Sela written with them in mind?
No, they are very different stories. Jehnny Beth and I were both guest singers at a concert in London for an evening of music from David Lynch films [In Dreams: David Lynch Revisited]. I was working on the song "We Are Dreamers" and was talking to Julian about what the brass arrangement needed in the second half. I heard Jehnny Beth sing live for the first time and it was, "Okay, this is the color and feeling that this song needs." I was fortunate enough to give her the song and she liked it; she understood it, and she gave herself to it. That finished the arrangement for me. For "Hey Lucinda," I had a weekend singing it together with Lhasa, who was a great friend of mine. After that she became ill and we lost her, and I had to put the song away for a long time. When I went back to it I heard it in a very different way. It was very much a moment in time.
"Hey Lucinda" is a standout song to me. The conversation between the characters really comes across. Were the vocals cut simultaneously live?
We had an evening in the studio in Montreal, and we sang it together. When I wrote "Hey Lucinda" it was exciting, because it broke down structural barriers that I'd felt in duets before. In the past I felt as though I was fitting the conversation into a song format, whereas with "Hey Lucinda" I found a way for the song to follow the conversation. It was a breakthrough moment; but I struggled with how to arrange it, and how to approach the recording of it. I was thinking about it in too linear of a fashion. When I went back to it, I was able to just connect with that moment of myself and Lhasa singing to each other. I was able then to go, "Oh, it just needed some glockenspiel notes around this bit. It needs tension here." It was a real step forward in the way of viewing a song.
You began self-recording early on in Tindersticks. Was this a creative decision?
I think when you're a young band, or a young band at that time… We spent maybe ten years between [the ages of] 16 and 26 going to make demos to please record companies, and going into studios where the engineer would be tuned into the production techniques and sounds of the time, which was quite dangerous in the late ‘80s! We got to a point, when we moved to London, that we just needed to turn our back on record companies, studios, and the perceived wisdom of how records should sound at that time. We started to buy recording equipment and made our first single, "Patchwork," in our kitchen. Probably all of the best-sounding things I've ever made were done on a no-brand mixing desk that we picked up in a second-hand paper. I think it's gone on from there. We demoed the whole of our first album in this kitchen, so by the time we were able to step into a proper studio we knew what we were looking for. [The debut was recorded at Townhouse 3, formerly The Who's Ramport Studios.] We had Ian Caple [engineer and co-producer] to help us and it was a really great mix at that moment. He was trained at EMI a long time ago, and I learned so much about engineering from Ian on the records we made with him. It was a positive thing to step into our own world, and not try and be in this music business kind of world.
Your studio, Le Chien Chanceux, means "Lucky Dog" in English?
Yes. Around 1996 I was able to have a small studio in London, on the side of my house in a converted garage. I had our dutiful MCI JH-400 [console] in there. We acted as an overdub/mixing studio; I could work one-on-one with people. In 2005 I recorded my second solo album [Leaving Songs] in Nashville with Mark Nevers [Tape Op #21] and brought it back to the studio. As I finished these recordings, I realized I needed to be in an ambient space where people could come together, play, and capture an idea at a very early stage. A natural kind of progression happened. We needed more space for our family, for my studio, and for my wife's studio. My wife is a painter, and she was painting bigger paintings! We found this property in the middle of France when we were driving through one summer. It's a big house for our kids, and behind it was this big shell of a barn with a hayloft on one side. I found this old ladder. I went up, fought through the cobwebs and thought, "Okay, this is where my studio needs to be." It's been evolving ever since. It's our meeting place, it's our studio, and we can rehearse there. What's great about making albums there is we can find our sounds and leave the drums, bass, and guitar setups intact. We can go back months later when we have time to be together [the band members reside in different cities] and we're in the same sonic space. We can go for the moments of spontaneity; the excitement of being together.
Is Le Chien Chanceux an analog, digital, or hybrid studio?
It's hybrid. I spend so much time on my own that I have to use Pro Tools for the accessibility of the ideas. I think the ideas have to come first, and I'm not enough of a technician to be dealing with a tape recorder. But I use digital recording as an "editable tape recorder." What I love about digital recording is keeping spontaneous moments together. We used to have to think so much about structures of songs. Digital recording takes away that pressure, so you can enjoy playing music in a room together. We have an MCI JH-500 desk, an Ecoplate [plate reverb], and an AKG spring reverb. With the colors all of this equipment brings, I have a balance of being able to work on my own and the feeling of authenticity with the sounds we create.
Do you master to tape?
I always experiment. I have an old Studer B62 1/4-inch machine. For this album, all the final mixes sounded better on the Studer.
How is your space set up?
Lots of this album was recorded with me behind the desk, singing, playing guitar, and trying to get the drum sound at the same time. There's no control room. The desk is in the middle of a 100 square-meter room, and the ceiling, at its highest point, is six and a half meters, so it has a color. It's lively, but it's not overpowering. The first time somebody played drums in the studio I had my heart in my mouth because it could have just taken over the room. We've gradually found where it sounds good.
Do you have a specific vocal mic you like to use at your studio?
Yeah, I use a [Shure] SM7. I've used many expensive microphones, and it will always be a quest. When we recorded at Abbey Road, it was amazing! You can walk into Abbey Road's mic store, talk to the engineer, and say, "What do you think for my voice?" He'll say, "Okay, you should use this [Neumann U]67." Being at Abbey Road and having beautiful, vintage Neumanns on everything makes it a great experience; a different sounding record. When we're in our own place I like the way our sounds are colored. They are slightly fuzzy and dirty. The SM7 works with the palette that we've created in our studio.
Are there any other specific pieces of gear or instruments that are important to your sound or recording process?
There are certain things I use on the drums and certain things I use on the guitar because I want us playing together. I've been in studios where you spend so much time finding the sounds that by the time you find them, the musicians are exhausted and have lost their energy. I am happy to put a [Shure] 57 on the guitar and just start. At least then if something happens immediately you have it in some form, which I think is the most important thing about recording, from the musician's point of view. If you have an engineer who is not a musician, and doesn't understand that mentality, you can end up killing a moment or not recording something because things aren't "right" at that time. I always put the emphasis on playing as soon as possible, and recording everything from the moment people walk in the door. I think you get great things that way. The bass on this album is a real departure for us, because it's not a [Fender] Precision. Every album we've made has probably been with a Precision bass. This is a Guild bass; a kind of twang-y bass. Just finding the bass sound, and the way that it sat in all the ideas, was really exciting, because it was new territory. It still ended up in its channel on the desk with the dbx 160 [compressor] across it.
Do you typically have the bulk of a song worked out before you record?
I suppose, as a writer, the more loose I can be with an idea, and the more space I can give the guys in the band, the more exciting things can happen. In the past I've tried to understand an idea fully, rehearse it with my guitar, and make a space that's already defined where the drums fit. Now I try and understand the idea and keep it as loose as possible. Even if I understand the chords, or how I would play it, I might leave that behind and just sing it and see what people take from that. If you're going to work with great musicians, there's no point tying their hands together. I want to know how they respond to something. I think it's the same if other people bring ideas into the band. The more tight they are, the least successful they are in the moment.
Does having your own studio play a great role in the way you create?
For sure. With the song "Help Yourself" I was working on my own recording a loud guitar part for a different song, and I stopped and leaned the guitar against the mixing desk. I started to tap the back of the neck, and because it was jacked up so much it created this rhythm that started going on in the room. I started recording this loop, and a half an hour later I had sketched "Help Yourself" out very roughly. When the band turned up, the drums were ready to go, the guitars were ready to go, and I said, "I've had this idea." Everybody listened to it and 45 minutes later we made the version that's on the album. It was able to go through that process to capture that moment of spontaneity. I think, at its best, what we do is an exchange of ideas, or an exchange of energy. The idea goes through the band, then I give it to Julian Siegel and he does this amazing brass arrangement for it, then I give it to Claire Denis and she makes this amazing film for it. That's when things really start to feel as though I have momentum behind them. Also, the way I write words comes from singing and nuance. It's important to hear it in context. On a song like "Were We Once Lovers?" with all the echoes going on, it needed to be built in that way. I needed to sing against the echoes for that song. Having your own place helps ideas like that. The production becomes interwoven into the actual writing process.
So you develop lyrics from musical cues?
I generally use a guide vocal as a leader of where it's going, with the idea that it gives people something to latch onto. I'll sing a song without knowing what the words are, but I understand the feeling. I might have a chorus, or a few lines. I like to explore a song without knowing what the words are and then find the words gradually, with the shapes I'm trying to sing.
Has the solitude of the French countryside impacted your writing?
For sure. When I had the studio in London, I lived in an area with people like me; very liberal, open people. But I felt like I was hemmed in in London. Being in France these last eight or nine years, my studio feels like it's afloat somewhere in Europe. It's not defined by being in France, or this town. That gives a real kind of freedom. It allows it to be a dream space. I don't think the studio in London ever escaped a certain kind of reality, and I think with making music you have to try to suspend reality. I do think that it's had a massive effect. There's more space to explore ideas, and that space allows an internal wandering as well.
Have you used the studio for projects outside of Tindersticks?
The first person that was recorded in my studio was Lhasa de Sela. She was writing songs for her last album. She sat down at the piano, I put my SM7 up and a ribbon mic on the piano, and she just started to sing. She was writing this song called "Fish on Land," and when I heard that I knew it was going to be great. It was like my studio was being blessed! You know what I mean? Lhasa de Sela, sitting in my studio at the piano — singing, playing, and me recording it — totally set it on the right path. I would love to have made an album with Lhasa in my studio. I would have put everything I wanted to do to one side to do that. That doesn't happen very often.