From Ethnic to Electronic: Real World Engineer Reveals All

David Bottrill, resident engineer at Real World Studios and long-time assistant to producer Daniel Lanois, wasn’t too sure about revealing all. Perched up in the rafters at Box Mill on a cold, wet Autumn afternoon, with the wind spewing clouds of drizzle across the valley, I suppose I couldn’t really blame him. We’re looking down from this cantilevered eyrie over Peter Gabriel’s personal studio and there’s a remix cooking on the desk. Come on, Dave, relax, loosen up your bandana — the album’s finished already — heck, it’s out! But no, really, I guess that must be hard, when you’ve been working solidly on something for the last two years or so.

There are strange instruments made of wood and bicycle wire and ethnic drums of every conceivable shape and size lying abandoned all over the studio. The track sheets for the songs from the record are still taped to the big beam over the mixing desk, some of them with their original working titles and accompanying graffiti — ‘Shut Your Mouth’, ‘Plod’, ‘Contrapo’, ‘Slim Jim’ and ‘Love Town’ — one that was deemed to be material for a future album and destined one day to be a hit. So… this is where it all happened? “Yeah, this is it.” Slowly, David Bottrill takes off his bandana.

“I’ve been working here with Peter and Dan right from the start. But let me just take you back, give you a bit of a background, ok. I’d been at Grant Avenue, Dan’s studio in Hamilton near Toronto, since about 1982. Dan was working with Brian Eno on The Unforgettable Fire and Peter heard some of the mixes and really like what he heard, so he asked Dan to come and do Birdy with him. Peter was using a lot of material from his third and fourth albums for the soundtrack, remixing and building up atmospheres and it seemed like a good opportunity to see if things might work out for the next solo album.”

You know the rest of the story — they went on to do So forming together what was to become a pivotal working partnership. Peter Gabriel elaborates. “This is the fourth record now that I’ve worked on with Daniel and that’s a record in itself for me. He’s extraordinarily gifted as a producer. He understands the power of the performance. Sometimes we disagree in taste and  he’s certainly an anti-technology person in that he’d much rather work without a lot of knobs and devices and the twiddles which are an important element in what I do. In terms of writing, I think he pushes me further along the path that I would like to travel.”

David Bottrill agrees. During the recording of So, Dan called David up at Grant Avenue and asked him to come over and assist with the recording — and he’s been here ever since.

The electronic press kit for Peter Gabriel's 1992 album US, featuring footage of Peter and Daniel Lanois working together at Real World Studios.
“My job was technical, primarily; engineering, programming as well as organising a lot of pretty hair-raising recording.” David Bottrill

Since then he has worked with Peter on the soundtrack for Martin Scorcese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ, the Passion album and some new recording and remixing for Shaking the Tree. Then it was on to US. “Dan and I worked with Peter right from the start of the project. During the early stages Dan was essentially a sounding board. Peter always has a lot of song ideas he wants to use, some of which work better than others; he needs a sensitive editor. Dan is very good at trying out lots of things, but then knowing immediately when something has stuck to the wall. So, we’d work very intensively for about eight weeks, and then Dan would go away — he was doing U2’s Achtung Baby at the same time — developing new sections, working with the grooves we’d laid down. Peter does all of his writing, everything happens here in the studio.” And we’re getting warmer. So, David, what was your role?

“My job was technical, primarily; engineering, programming as well as organising a lot of pretty hair-raising recording. When Peter gets the band in he likes to record quickly. It’s like, here we are, let’s get a tape up and do it. You might get half an hour, if you’re lucky, to get a drum sound. You’ve really got know what you’re going for. But I think it pays off, you can get something great really fast. And you don’t leave the band hanging around for days losing their energy. I think that you can hear that in the performance.”

This sounds like the old jazz ethos of spontaneity, waiting for the spirit to come to you, catching that source of inspiration. Peter Gabriel elaborates, “For me, some of the moments of improvising when you’ve got an idea, and you’re singing or playing free, are the most exciting — because it just comes without any sort of filtering. It’s very spontaneous and from the gut, whereas once you engage the brain and analyse what you’re doing, barriers get in the way. Daniel is very good in terms of recognising when the mood is there, when the moment is ripe, because the tendency when you’re on the artist’s side is to think ‘Well, that was good but there were these things wrong with it, but I know I can get them next time’ and actually next time you may be losing the great feeling of spirit. And then when you get to the mixing stage you’ve got to be careful not to smooth out all those rough edges.”

Peter Gabriel working in The Big Room at Real World Studios with engineers David Bottrill and Richard Blair.

But what if under pressure, you end up with an amazing performance on a naff technical take — do you use it? According to David, that was never an issue. “I think that this approach has given each track on the record a more individual, unique sound. When you work very quickly, you end up with surprises. So, maybe I would have liked more time to do things, but quality wise I’m not disappointed with this album at all. And when you’ve got great performances you work with those sounds and you build things out of that.” Now we’re motoring. Let’s try and find out more about how Peter works in the studio.

“Peter works sectionally. He had about 23 song ideas when we started recording this album. After we’d done the first lot of band takes we worked for about a year on all the different ideas. The stuff that Peter was excited about would go into the ‘A’ pile. The rest would go into the ‘B’ pile, but we would work on selections from both. Sometimes a song would cross over, other times we would build on a groove, build something around it, and then take the original working groove away. That gets interesting because you start to get all sorts of non-obvious things happening — you’re working into the spaces so that the accents become the foundation.”

“Peter’s favourite phrase is ‘I know there’s a way we can make this work.’ And he usually does.” David Bottrill

“Most of the songs that make it to the finish line are made up of lots of different sections, ideas, phrases, grooves — sometimes it’s a real fight to make them all work together. Peter’s favourite phrase is ‘I know there’s a way we can make this work.’ And he usually does. Peter is very loathe to let anything go that he believes in. Sometimes at the eleventh hour when you think this is never going to work, he will pull something out of the hat that makes the whole song hang together. Peter’s very good at that — he knows there’s a way, it’s just a matter of finding it. Then there are other songs, like ‘Steam’, that tend to come out fairly fully formed.” Ah, Steam. Hot, wet and wobbly. Tell me more.

Making the video for Peter Gabriel’s ‘Blood of Eden’

Directors Nichola Bruce and Mike Coulson discuss the inspiration and development of the video.

Peter Gabriel - Steam (Official Video)

“The last stage is putting all the lyrics together and bedding down the vocal. Peter will often come up with a sort of rhythmic phrasing of nonsense words. When he’s working on a song he’s always singing along, but it’s not words — it’s what we call ‘Gabrielese.’ Uh-huh. “It’s mostly just vowel sounds with the occasional consonant thrown in and the odd lyrics, like “Shut your mouth.” Oh, to be a fly on the wall! “Peter can re-do a vocal 20-30 times, and we end up meshing the final version together using takes that are current alongside other takes that we recorded maybe a year ago. It never ceases to amaze me that it actually works — because over the space of a year, your voice ages, like the rest of your body. It’s a bit like listening to a sound bite of a piece of history.” What a concept — the Gabriel vocal as anthropological record.

And guess what, whoops — all is revealed. So that’s how he builds up those wondersome vocal textures and rhythms that end up being as important as the actual sense of the lyric. You know the sort of “Backslap, booby-trap, cover it up in bubble wrap,” thing. And what about that guy who keeps asking for ‘Steam’ — surely it’s esteem he’s really after? But I digress. I know a lot more than I did at the beginning of this wind-swept afternoon, however, there is one thing I still haven’t found out yet… What is a doudouk anyway?

(Ed. Note: A doudouk is an Armenian wind instrument with a large double reed.)

The Box, Issue One

This article was published originally in Issue One of The Box, December 1992. The Box was a Peter Gabriel / Real World Fanzine.

By Martha Ladly

Martha Ladly is a Canadian academic, designer and musician. She is professor of design at OCAD University. She worked for Real World in the early 1990s on a number of creative projects, and was editor of The Box magazine.

Main image: David Bottrill, Real World Studios, 1991. Photo credit: Andrew Caitlin.

Published on Tue, 01 December 92

Further reading

Making the video for Peter Gabriel’s ‘Blood of Eden’

Directors Nichola Bruce and Mike Coulson discuss the inspiration and development of the video.

Producer Kevin Killen remembers the birth of Real World Studios

The legendary recording engineer/producer worked on projects at Real World Studios for Peter Gabriel and many others throughout the years.