Guest Post: Traveling Through the Cosmos with Camel of Doom
Writing for a website named Toilet ov Hell, I should be accustomed to the fact that a silly name can be deceiving, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised by the quality I found on Camel of Doom‘s Terrestrial, easily one of the most interesting experiments in texture and space I’ve yet heard this year. So intrigued was I that I reached out to the mouth of the camel himself, Kris Clayton. Mr. Clayton was both eloquent and humble and leaped at the chance to pen his own guest post to tell us a bit more about his band, his passion for production, and whether a camel by any other name would doom as hard. – W.
Doing press work as an up-and-coming band normally consists of answering the same five questions, all of which have answers returned by Google within a few seconds. Now that I come to think of it, I think this probably affects all bands of any level! So when Toilet ov Hell offered me the opportunity to write about anything I wished, I jumped at the chance. As always, with freedom of choice comes great procrastination, but after some deep thought (and the decision that nobody is probably interested in reading a tirade against my list of enemies), I have decided to write about the aspect of the band that is closest to my heart.
You see, much as I love guitaring, growling, screaming and keyboarding, and indeed touring, not sleeping and partying, the one aspect I love most about being in a band is recording and production. I have been making music alone on a computer for as long as I can remember. When I was 8 years old I was using Sound Recorder in Windows 95, recording my voice “beatboxing” (it probably didn’t have a name back then) and applying echo (the only effect available). At 11 I got hold of a copy of Music2000 on the Sony Playstation which let you create loop based electronic music, which I used to create all manner of noise. When I began to learn to play “real” instruments, it was only so that I could learn to record them, which I immediately set out to do with whatever technology I had available to me.
Over the last 20 years, my music production knowledge and skills have made a massive progression. It has been my main hobby throughout that time, and was the subject of my University degree. I even had the chance to apprentice in a proper studio for a year, with the long hours and low pay being a key aspect in my decision to keep it a hobby! My main project for the last 15 years or so has been the Pysch/Prog/Stoner/Etc Doom band known as Camel of Doom. As well as being the sole constant member, I have also produced and engineered every single release and participated in the mixing and mastering process for any others where I was working with a professional engineer.
There is a longer version of this article, that is more along the lines of a novel, that discusses – in depth – the making of each of our several releases, but out of respect for your free time, dear reader, I present a comparison of the making of the first album, The Desert At Night (2003), recorded by a fresh faced and clueless 14 year old, and our current record Terrestrial (2016), assembled by myself and some proper musicians, in a professional studio. As you can imagine, the results are… somewhat different… so if you aren’t familiar with our work, I would suggest listening to the new one first!
What’s in a name?
As a short aside – I most enjoyed the extremely long comment thread about our name when the site covered Terrestrial a few months back. Anyway, I thought I would take a moment to explain the “logic” behind it, before we begin, to save time later…
So, the band name was created when I was 13 years old. What was your band called when you were 13? Back in those days, the sound I was going for was totally Kyuss meets Black Sabbath. As a young dumb kid, I had only an extremely superficial view of musical genres – it was all just killer tunes to me, man. So, Kyuss – people called them “Desert Rock.” And Black Sabbath – people called them “Doom.” Deserts? Camels… Doom? Errr… Doom. Camel of Doom. Now, if I had been a little brighter, I might have realised that Kyuss were called “Desert Rock” due to living out in the sticks in California rather than anything particularly Saharan, but there you go. My adoration at the time of British prog greats Camel probably didn’t help matters either. So yes, if I was starting the band now, I would probably go with something else, but let me tell you now, that isn’t even in the top 20 dumbest things I did when I was 13, and I bet it wouldn’t be for you guys either.
Also, did you notice, I think this is a total coincidence right, but did you notice that it is “Mood Fo Lemac” backwards? Mind Blown.
The Desert at Night (2003)
I first picked up a guitar when I was 10, and could play it “well enough’ to play in a terrible, terrible band with some schoolmates a couple of years later. After experimenting with various methods of recording ourselves, I finally managed to get hold of a piece of recording software by Cakewalk – makers of the Sonar Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) – called Guitar Tracks 2 (referred to as GT2 hereafter). Looking back, it was incredibly limited and basic, but at the time – using a rudimentary tape multi track – it completely revolutionised my life. It had a grand total of 8 stereo/mono tracks, each with dedicated gain, level and pan controls, and even the ability to add up to three of a small selection of built-in effects (EQ was considered an effect, so you were usually down to 2 straight away).
I’d recently started getting into Stoner Rock, and my current band was NOT in a position to play this kind of music, so I started working on stuff on my own. In the space of a couple of months I had recorded a couple of EPs. The first was pretty throwaway, but the second contained the four songs that would be expanded upon to release the first album.
Musically, I think my creative immaturity at this point really shows. I wore my influences on my sleeve, and pretty much every single riff and song structure is lifted from something else. “Child of the Scream” is Place of Skulls’ “The Fall” + Kyuss’ “Shine.” “Death on the Ship of the Desert” has an identical structure to Black Sabbath’s eponymous song. “Run Camel Run” is Kyuss again (“One Inch Man”). Since I was new to the scene, I discovered hundreds of bands all at once – all thanks to StonerRock.com’s (the biggest online site for the scene, and reviewer of all our early records) fantastic jukebox. Because I was just hearing hundreds of tracks without context, I didn’t know that x band was big in the scene and nobody had heard of y band. I treated them all equally when it came to “inspiration.” So whilst those songs were clearly Kyuss/Sabbath inspired, “Can I Be Bothered To Name This?” was HEAVILY influenced by Nice Cat’s “Chronic” – a band practically as obscure as we were. The songs written towards the end of the album had more keyboards and showed off my love of Prog Rock, with numerous nods to our namesake Camel. The end of “The Power” was so closely similar to Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” that when the song was re-recorded in 2011 I created an entirely new ending – it was too close even for me! The saving factor in all of this was my ineptitude. If I sat down and said I was going to write a complete clone of a song, my basic playing and untrained ear always resulted in something that sounded much less similar in practice than it did in my head.
The four tracks that made up the EP, “Child of the Scream,” “Death on the Ship of The Desert,” “The Hatred” and “Can I be Bothered to Name This?” used an appalling guitar distortion effect built into GT2, which gave a sub Under A Funeral Moon level of quality. The later songs are definitely recorded using my first guitar head, a Marshall AVT50H, and the only sensible explanation for why I would have that available to me by the end of the recording of “The Desert at Night,” but not when I did “The Song With Rocks In,” is if I received it for Christmas 2002. The EP’s were released in August and November 2002 but the album was a little later, at the end of January 2003, and I do remember having even more free time due to Christmas, and recording most of the additional tracks in a very short space of time.
The Marshall had a DI out, which I plugged straight into the computer, and had a better sound than the GT2 distortion. It did, however, still sound pretty fizzy. I know now that guitar speakers are responsible for taming this top end fizziness, as well as for generally shaping a tone to make it sound nicer. In general, the reason why guitar amp simulators sound better these days than they did back then is that the creators of them put so much effort into speaker/cab simulation. Even on stuff like the original POD, which didn’t sound good at all, you could improve it vastly by using a guitar poweramp and speaker cabinet. I’d already worked out that adding a load of reverb and delay to a guitar sound made it sound spacier, so that was a frequent feature, especially on the lead guitars. I also started to make a lot of use of phasers and flangers to (attempt to) match the tones of the stoner sounds I was listening to.
Due to the lack of MIDI in Guitar Tracks 2, sequencing drums was a real pain. The first song written was “Child of the Scream,” and I used the same technique for creating the drums as was used on the first EP, which involved using a free piece of software to create loops which I exported and then brought into GT2. For some reason however, the loops seemed to only play in one audio channel. This would have been no issue really, except I had such a lack of knowledge about what I was doing that I never even noticed. (You know, I was listening to a lot of early stereo stuff from The Beatles and Pink Floyd at this time, and they loved to do this, maybe I was… nope, just a dumbass). For some unexplained reason, they are in one channel on the EP version and on the full length they are on the other! As far as I remember, the songs are identical, so I am not sure how this came about. For the other songs I used a combination of things. GT2 had a whole bunch of drum loops included on the installation CD, and these were used a lot throughout the album – you can usually spot these parts as the drums are a) more complicated than usual and b) don’t fit with the riffs properly! The CD also had individual drum hits which could be used to build patterns. This was an incredibly irritating and time-consuming process of copying and pasting and lining up to a grid. It took so long to do, and I honestly wasn’t much use at creating interesting drum patterns at the time, so the beats usually ended up very simplistic. The only example I can think of, off the top of my head, where I did the drums manually is “Death on the Ship of the Desert,” but I am sure there are other examples. Whilst GT2 gave me an impressive (for me at the time!) 8 tracks with which to play, if creating my own drums I would be using at least 6 of these, so if I was using this method I had to have written all the drum parts in advance so I could put them down using 8 tracks, then bounce these down to a single track before adding the rest of the instruments.
The lack of MIDI also meant all my keyboards had to be actually played. This was both bad and good – bad because I am not much of a player, but good because it forced me to use the only decent keyboard we had in the house at the time, which was an absolutely massive string synth from the 70’s that weighed a ton! I regret I was not inquisitive enough at the time to ask what it actually was, so I can’t be 100% sure, but I believe I have hunted it down online. Reading the description, I can’t help but feel extra saddened that my dad decided to sell it the year after I did the album. It sounded great, totally unique, but it did weigh an absolutely stupid amount! Those big colourful buttons went ‘Thunk’ when you pressed them… goddamn I’m getting teary eyed and nostalgic now. Listen to “The Battle” and “The Power” to hear this beautiful instrument in action.
These records also saw occasional forays into non-instrumental music. I can’t sing, and back then I couldn’t even scream or growl properly, so I had to get inventive. I also had incredibly limited equipment available (as we’ve established), with my “vocal mic” being basically the cheapest computer microphone on the market. This was extremely prone to nasty pops and sibilance, which can be easily mitigated if you know what you are doing – which I didn’t. I’m actually quite proud of the inventiveness of the solution I came up with! Basically, I kept the mic inside an empty toilet roll tube completely stuffed/padded with toilet paper! This still sounded like crap though, so I added a ton of distortion (again from GT2 – in all its glory), reverb and delay. I’ve been asked several times in the past about the “unique vocal style” on this record, and now you too know the secret: extreme incompetence in every department.
I was also extremely incompetent at using effects and studio trickery – but was also enthusiastic about it, and began to experiment with it a lot. A common trick was crazy hard left -right panning of heavily-flangered lead guitars – this technique appears on both “Run Camel Run” and “The Power.” When these songs were both re-recorded in 2011, I strove to use different techniques on both to try and make them sound more distinct! I think the techniques used, as well as the more advanced instrumentation, are quite obvious when looking at the songs on the EP compared to the ones added to the full length.
Unsurprisingly, in the 13 years in-between our first and fourth albums, quite a lot happened, which I will try and summarise…
In 2004 I accidentally told a promoter that we could play a show in two weeks time, and very swiftly managed to get a full line-up together, which ended up as the unusual combination of Drums/Bass/Guitar/Sax, which allowed us to start diversifying our sound greatly. We released a demo in 2004, before slowly fizzling out towards the end of 2005.
Between 2007 and 2009 I was a member of UK dark psychedelic doomsters Esoteric, which greatly increased my knowledge of all things technical and recording – especially towards the end when I was interning in the studio of front-man Greg Chandler. Halfway though this period I went back and finished an album we had started with the full line-up, which was released in 2008 as The Diviners Sage.
In 2012, after a few aborted attempts of getting a line-up together, I decided to carry on alone once more, although this time with a pro, my old Esoteric bandmate Greg, at the mixing desk. This saw the release of Psychodramas in December that year.
Starting around January 2013, I was working on writing new material and getting a full band together at the same time. The writing was an easier process! The writing process for every record has been somewhat similar actually. It normally starts with writing stuff that sounds like the last record, deciding that I am bored with that sound, scrapping it all and then fucking around with guitar tunings until I feel inspired by one of them enough to come up with something different. In this case I wanted to go really heavy so I downtuned all the way down to F# standard. At this lowness it seemed that every time I picked up the guitar I was coming up with nice chunky riffs that I loved the sound of, so the songs came together at a great speed. Within about a month of starting this process I had 4 songs, totaling around 50 minutes, and was getting ready to go into preproduction for the next record – then I finally got a second member for the band, when Simon Whittle contacted me. He’d seen my advert a year before but procrastinated for ages before getting in touch!
Simon is a great bass player, and he brings something different to the band, in that he isn’t really familiar with any forms of underground metal whatsoever. He’d been playing in a fairly mainstream local rock band for over 10 years and – having recently left that – was starting to find new stuff to listen to. He’s quite into prog music, like me, so we do have some common ground. We started rehearsing the songs I had written so far every week, and they developed a lot. My bass parts had originally been written in the same vein as the last record, just aping the rhythm guitar parts, but having a proper player working on the songs for about a year developed those parts immensely. For my parts, generally, when recording an album I would play them just the once – when tracking the album – but playing every week instead meant I got much better at playing the songs and began to start adding little bits of flair to things, as well as a lot more lead guitar than on any previous record. In addition to the four long songs I had written, I Camel-ized some ideas of Simon’s to create the song “Singularity.”
In April 2014, literally the day after returning from my honeymoon, I began tracking the album. All my original demos had been recorded in Cubase, but I was getting quite annoyed with it at the time and, during Simon’s and my rehearsals, had switched to a newer DAW called Reaper. There were a LOT more parts on this album than on any previous one, and I wanted it to sound crushing, so I recorded 4 rhythm guitars throughout as well (two on my Gibson Les Paul and two on a seven string which Simon built that I borrowed for the recording, and subsequently purchased off him – seven strings being way too many for his bass player brain). It probably took about a month in total to get all the parts recorded – although I had a full time job as well, so that was only working evenings and weekends. When you have riffs that are quite intricate in places, extremely downtuned and quadruple-tracked, you need everything to be extremely tight or else things are going to sound messy rather than heavy, so I set about doing a ridiculous amount of very anal editing to get everything perfect. This took at least another three months to get done, and at points during this process I thought I was going literally insane. It was completely mindnumbing, as it essentially involves doing the same little process over and over and over and over again, every evening and weekend, for months. Continual self-doubt was kicking in, asking whether it was worth it – but I think the results speak for themselves, with the final record sounding tight, deep and heavy.
Although we didn’t yet have a drummer, we were very keen that we could play these songs live properly, so we took our time before going into the studio, and slowly accumulated the gear we would need to play them live so that we could use that same gear for the recording. I was particularly keen to get hold of something that would let me do crazy vocal effects live. Greg had recommended me a TC Electronics Fireworx multi FX unit. These were nearly £2k when they were launched, but have sadly been discontinued. They usually go for a lot less on eBay, but only seem to come up very occasionally, so I basically camped out on there for months until one showed up, and I bought it immediately. We wanted to do our studio stint all in one go this time, so I recorded guide vocals at home this time and then programmed all my effects in against those, which added another month or so.
We were finally ready to record at the very end of 2014, and booked the first couple of weeks of 2015 in the studio to record, mix and master the album. Since we had live bass now, I didn’t want to still have to use a drum machine (as I had on Psychodramas), so we got ourselves a session drummer for the record in the form of Tom Vallely, who plays with Greg in progressive Black Metal band Lychgate. He’s an absolute monster drummer, and learnt the whole album, which isn’t simple by any means, in just a couple of weeks, over the Christmas period as well. He also knew how to set up his kit properly so it was tuned to perfection, and when mic’d with Priory Studios’ fantastic assortment of mics it sounded amazing. Something I was trying to get out of the drum sound, which might have been a little tricky in that studio, was the feeling of natural ambiance that is present in a lot of recordings where the drums were recorded in a large space. Priory only has a fairly small and dead live room, so that would have been quite difficult. There is, however, a tiled stairwell outside the main studio, and we put a mic out there and left all the doors open. When that mic was compressed to hell we got the sound we were after. We also recorded handclaps for “Euphoric Slumber” out here, with Tom and I both adding several layers. My wife visited the studio later in the week and she incredibly reluctantly agreed to add some too – she has no interest in a career in music and even contributing handclaps was too much for her! I had scheduled two days for Tom to record drums but he was done in a day and a half, and everything was just perfect. It has made such a massive difference to the overall sound of the record, and I was extremely happy with the job he did.
For the main bass tone we recorded two full stacks with different settings to get a real massive sound. We had the deep and bassy Ampeg stack, like that used on the previous album, but also used Simon’s own stack, with most of the sound created from his pedals: a B3K bass overdrive into a 3 Leaf Audio Enabler preamp. Simon changes his gear almost every week, for some reason, so he has neither of those things now, but his sound is usually fairly consistent. We also added the same crazy heavy Supercollider fuzz bass track for some sections, plus a Big Muff/MC404 wah combo for the wah bass on “Euphoric Slumber.” On a few of the quieter clean sections we added some modulation effects, delay and reverb during the mix process.
I don’t remember exactly what we did to get the four different tones for rhythm guitars, but there was definitely the Engl Powerball with its own distortion, the same but with my Empress Heavy distortion (which is the basis of my live sound), then a couple of different pedals (probably the Blackstar and a Big Muff, but this is where I am unsure) through a Marshall JVM410H. For a few of the semi-dirty/clean sounds we used a little 2w Traynor guitar head that I borrowed off Simon. Just as we were finishing recording the last tone we needed with this, we actually blew it up, and Simon wasn’t actually present at the time so we had to contact him very sheepishly… fortunately he was able to get it fixed under warranty, phew! There were also countless different individual sounds for just about every lead guitar part on the album, and there were a lot of them.
In total we spent about half a day tracking bass, one and a half days on drums and nearly four in total on guitars, in between which we recorded all my vocal parts. The trickiest part for the vocals was the intro part to “Sleeper Must Awaken” as this features clean(ish) vocals, which have never been my strong point (see The Diviners Sage!), but after many, many takes we got there in the end. I always seem to have a cold whenever recording vocals, as well, but with lots of Lemsip and honey I was able to record them all easily without any drama.
At this point the record was well on schedule, but we seriously underestimated how complicated it was going to be to mix it. For Psychodramas I allowed a day per song, and we actually finished a day early, so I thought a day per song would work again here, but every song ended up taking two days just because there was so much more going on than before. Each track had the live drums, 2 layers of bass, 4 rhythm guitars, a minimum of 3 lead guitars, all totally different, and four to eight keyboard/synthesizer tracks. Then, of course, there were the vocals, with up to 6 different effects patches per song. It all added up to us running out of time to finish, so by the end of the time I had booked, we were still lacking two songs. Greg’s studio is always fully booked, and I could really only spare weekends to finish off, so I couldn’t get back in to finish until April, when I booked two subsequent weekends to mix each of the last two songs.
When it was all finished, I couldn’t have been happier with the final result. My main gripe with the previous album – the lack of live bass and drums – was rectified, and this made a huge difference for me. The whole thing finally sounds like a “real” band at last. My issues with this record are now down to the level of singular drum edits that I don’t quite like, or fade-outs that aren’t 100% perfect – things that I guarantee nobody else will ever notice.
We sent the finished record to a small number of labels that I personally thought were putting out the best quality records in a similar vein to ours, and actually the first label I emailed (Solitude Productions) got back to me very quickly. Solitude are home to several of my favourite contemporary doom bands, especially Doomed, Mare Infinitum and (EchO), so I was keen to work with them. We signed around September 2015.
Prior to this record I had always done my own artwork. To say the results were mixed would probably be a lie, as they were almost always terrible – although I think the Camel of Doom demo art was pretty good. The Psychodramas vinyl artwork looked professional at least, but I had nothing to do with that and the label didn’t even consult with me about what I wanted, so the finished product has very little to do with my ideas for the record. I discovered the artist Daniele Lupidi when I reviewed a Death/Doom band – Assumption, from Italy – whose record was great, but whose artwork was phenomenal. I got in touch with him and he agreed to do the work. The only brief I gave him was explaining the title of the album, which a lot of people seem to have been confused about, seeing as terrestrial commonly is taken to mean “earthly,” and then we have all this space art. As it happens, they are correct – the four Terrestrial planets of the solar system, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are so called because they are earth-like. As this is our fourth full length album, I wanted a title with some connection to the number four, and the four terrestrial planets won out. When I first envisioned the artwork myself I made a few really awful interpretations of it myself, but I never showed these to Daniele, so was pleasantly surprised when he came back with something that looked exactly like my ideas but a million times better.
As for the future, I’m not quite sure what it will hold – I hope that it will turn out more like Terrestrial than The Desert At Night though! It’s been an interesting journey so far, and it was quite interesting for me to think back to how I made those early records back when I was just a kid, and compare to how I do things now!
I review Doom records for another site on a regular basis, and sometimes I come across something that just sounds awful, badly written, played and recorded. On those occasions, I try to remind myself of what my first album was like, and try to offer constructive criticism. We all start knowing absolutely nothing, but anybody can make great records with enough time and dedication. Our early records got good feedback from what little of a scene there was back then, and that really encouraged me to carry on and improve, where harsh words would have made me quit. I don’t want to preach, but I feel that there should be some kind of point to this ridiculous article, so I will leave you with this: if you see some kids playing some god-awful music, be nice; one day they might actually amount to something. And if they have been together 20 years and still suck, hell, if they are having fun, leave them to it. Life’s too short…
Many thanks to Kris for sitting down with me and wrangling this mammoth account. Be sure to swing by Facebook and tell the Camel, “Hello.” You can pick up Terrestrial and all of the other releases on Bandcamp.