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Ancient instruments and long-lost samples: Setec runs us through his new LP Atrial Flutters

Atrial Flutters (Or Raise Yr Hand If Yr Afraid)

Hi there, everyone reading. My name is Josh, and I write, record and perform under the moniker of Setec. I recently released my second full-length record, entitled Atrial Flutters (Or Raise Yr Hand If Yr Afraid), and the folks at Happy have been kind enough to let me use this space to talk you through the album, share some behind the scenes snippets, and just generally ramble on.

I won’t go through every track, just highlight some key things that I thought would help people better understand my head space surrounding this album.

Atrial Flutters (Or Raise Yr Hand If Yr Afraid)

As I’ve written before, it’s a work entirely surrounded by anxiety and depression, and the more I wrote the more I realised it had been about these emotions almost entirely.

Wasted, Parted

From the moment that I started playing with ideas for this song, I knew it would be an opener. At the time of writing, I didn’t know what it would open. This was the first song that I demo’d for Atrial Flutters and the process set the tone for the recording of the bulk of the record. I didn’t know what I wanted to say, but I knew how it would sound: huge swathes of strings, deep basses and long reverbs.

Coming off the first album I thought I wanted to miniaturise; write tighter songs with more focused beats and hooks (and for a lot of the album I think I did), but I always knew the opener would feel like swimming. Sounds silly I guess, but a lot of my songs come from single word ideas and build from there, and I want to present that as honestly as possible.

The biggest problem I had with executing this idea was filling up the sound spectrum. All of my bass instruments had been recorded already – the overwhelming textures of this track are all from bowing my upright bass, and layering that with bowing the lowest strings of an acoustic guitar, but I didn’t have anything happening in the higher register. A lot of my work comes from a place of nostalgia – all of the melodica and glockenspiel you hear on this album comes courtesy of two very old instruments passed down to me from my grandmother. In this track I fed the melodica through a stereo reverb guitar pedal, and into a software hall reverb that a friend of mine recorded the impulse response for years ago. It’s one of those recording tools that I hold very dear to my heart, and you’ll hear it a lot throughout my work.

The recording here is that long hall of melodicas.

To Hide In

Years ago when my partner and I were still share-housing, I bought a toilet-cubicle sized box made of plasterboard and lined with carpet, with an enormous cable loom emerging out the back. It was seven feet tall, had a roof and a floor, and was fully soundproof – it looked like a comically large telephone booth. Some industrious engineer had built it in his Bondi apartment to record vocal tracks at home in a controlled and acoustically perfect environment. But then, as happens to all of us, life got in the way and he had to sell off his amazing creation to some guy on Gumtree who offered him quite a bit less than what he asked (enter: me). It had to be disassembled to transport, and in reassembling it I realised that it dwarfed our entire bedroom, which at that point I’d turned into my recording space (editors note: my partner and I are still happily together, even after I did this for several years).

It sounds like I’m rambling, but this is all important to the story. One of the lyrics to this song is “I built this room just to hide in”, and it’s true. I spent all this time and energy getting this thing to my house, assembling it in a room that couldn’t fit it, and never touching it again. I think I recorded vocals in it maybe twice. Every step I took towards bettering my recording environment was another piece of procrastination, another exercise in futility occupying precious hours that I could’ve been using for actual creation. The idea got in the way of what I actually wanted to be doing. I was lazy, and when I realised how much I’d put into that laziness, I felt ashamed. I still feel ashamed, because I still do it. It means everything takes longer than it should, but hey, it also means I end up with weird shit from the internet. And at the end of the day that’s what really matters, right?

The recording here is a snippet of me bowing open chords on my acoustic guitar with a cheap cello bow.

Cotton Bones

This song is about craving closeness but then taking that intimacy for granted. I’ve always relied on an element of solitude in my life, often to my detriment. I tend to hold feelings in, preferring to process thoughts on my own rather than asking for help. The lyrics are a little oblique in that message, but when I sing it I’m picturing a cocoon – pulling it close, and letting the silence last a little longer.

When I wrote this song I was listening exclusively to the first Akron/Family record, which is one that’s been constantly on rotation since I first heard it in 2005. They ended up veering away from the loose, found-sound ‘freak folk’ style after the first couple of albums, but it was the textures in these first few releases that really grabbed me. This one in particular still knocks me out.

Interlude: First Flutter

I came across this sample on an internet archival site, and it’s since been removed. I can no longer find any record of the uploader. Someone had unearthed this in a box of old family reel to reel tapes. There’s a such a purity in this one-sided conversation, I felt such a connection to it as soon as I heard it through. As far as I know it was recorded in the mid to late sixties.

There’s such a beautiful vulnerability to him speaking to his clearly not understanding supervisor, knowing how powerful it was back then to even admit to anxiety and depression surrounding something as everyday as the workplace. I’m sure a lot of us have wanted to make this call, and hearing it made me feel strangely happy for this unknown man. I’m definitely taking the whole thing out of context though, and it was probably way more grim than my rose-tinted viewpoint.

Bethesda Fountain

The field recordings for the first half of this song were recorded in Central Park in and around the historic Bethesda Fountain, which had been completely emptied. The ornate weathered sculptures laid motionless and dry when we found them. I recorded the samples as we walked through the trees, hearing buskers as we passed by (that saxophone sound you hear was one of these – I’m kind of wondering if I owe them money now). I can still hear snippets of conversation between my friends and I when I listen to this. It’s a sound collage I hold very close to my heart. To me it feels like the happiest song on the album, lyrically.

“In my own cold gaze,
they surround me traces
and offer love in embers”

The second half was recorded very early on into the album process. I had just purchased an incredibly cheap cello from the internet (see above), and after several exhaustive days of struggling to get workable sounds from it I started just sampling note by note and layering digitally. It’s definitely somehow cheating, but that broken-up sample sound led to the whole texture of this song unfolding. I very slowly taught myself to layer bowed cello strings. Some single, long-held notes took hours to get a single decent take on. A lot of work went into the smallest, simplest parts on this track; it’s the sound of me being way too confident and being firmly put in my place.

Years later, closer to the album release, I would start working with Peter Hollo, cellist for Fourplay and Tangents, and immediately sell my cello. Best decision I’ve made.

Across The Break

I wanted to make a song that sounded like winter in my hometown, by the lake. Water is a recurring theme through the album, and with it the feelings of a current stronger than myself pulling me away. While I was writing I was struck with memories of being caught in an ocean rip at a young age. Not knowing how to act in that situation, I struggled against the current and it took us all further away from shore. When I sing this song that’s all I can see, and it doesn’t strike me with the same fear I felt then.

I wanted big, thunderous snare sounds for this song and had no idea how to create them. I’m really not good with programming beats and all that comes with it, which is why I’m always resorting to using whatever implements I can find in the studio and messing with them until they fit into the track. With no other way to create the snare sound in my head, I just made the noise with my mouth and processed it heavily in my software, compressing and distorting it and adding a long reverb tail. Please don’t tell anyone that I pretty much beat-boxed though.

In Sawdust

Demos for the album were well under way at this point. Everything had shared the same tones, the same warbling bowed strings, the same slightly de-tuned electric guitar lines, and I was sick of pretending that I didn’t want to just write a wimpy acoustic emo song. That became this. I wrote it while coming off antidepressants and feeling very unlike myself. That feeling of absence felt so real and permanent. I remember telling doctors the same words over and over again and getting tested for different physical conditions, but it was all anxiety and depression, and new medication playing havoc with my head.

Midwest emo fans will hear lots of Kinsella-inspired tapping in the background of this, I wanted to create a background orchestra of little tap sounds. I’m really proud of those textures and I’m still not sure how they ended up sounding good with the track.

Here’s a link to some American Football to see some of the inspiration.

Tying Tourniquets

“Lately I’m faltering,
muzzled mouth, dimmer brights
to say I’m glass in the sinew string,
corner lights, the corner”

This song and In Sawdust were actually written and recorded in the same week. They felt so connected sonically that I always knew they’d adjoin each other on the album. The idea was to make them both part of a larger suite of acoustic-feeling tracks, but I’m really glad I didn’t do this (mainly because using the term suite makes me sound pretentious as fuck, and I don’t take things quite that seriously).

The melodies in this song were inspired very much by an incredible band called The Forms, who are criminally underrated.

Number Three Cassette

Family, huh?

Last Season

This is the most honest song I feel I’ve written. It’s one of the only songs that doesn’t make me feel like an imposter. Lyrically I was in a very dark place when I wrote it. This year depression took me fast and without warning, and honestly I’m still processing the breakdown that followed. This song found me not understanding that only a day can mean huge changes in how I perceive the world, and longing to hold on a little harder to the nicer thoughts.

In this song I played all the guitars and upright basses, and Peter once again provided the cello backing. At the end of the snippet you can hear me saying “Perfect” as he nailed the final track for the album sessions.

Forewarner

Lyrically, this song is about discovering my sexuality, and the shame it made me feel as a teenager who liked boys and girls. I’ve never been someone comfortable with putting a name on that: it is mine, and that’s what matters to me, and that’s the end of it. This was not a happy time for me, and there are some uncomfortable moments alluded to in this song that I’ll always keep with me.

Instead of providing any recording stems, I’m putting up the full recording of the first demo that led to this song, warts and all. I didn’t think I’d ever put this up, so forgive me if it sounds bad.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you so much for sharing this with me. Please go and listen to the record if any of this interests you. Otherwise, I’ve been smashing Bill Withers: Live At Carnegie Hall recently, so go listen to that instead because it’s the most joyous concert ever put to record.

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June 13, 2018

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