Image: Domino

Drift Code


Paul Webb is Rustin Man.


Webb, formerly the bass player in Talk Talk, has released one record under this name so far, the superb Out Of Season, a collaboration with Beth Gibbons of Portishead. That happened in 2002.


He has been working on the follow-up ever since, recording it in his home, a converted barn, in an Essex field three miles from the nearest village, an extraordinary building as much Old Curiosity Shop as modern living space. Creating that, and two daughters, with his wife Sam, was happening alongside the making of Drift Code, finally due for release in February 2019 on Domino. Consequently, it took longer than anticipated.


“A friend told me of an interview with Kraftwerk,” says Webb. “When asked why it took them so long to write music, they replied, ‘The writing of the music was very quick, it was the building of the instruments that took the time’. I really hope that quote is true because it’s hilarious and totally relatable! Making music while simultaneously creating our living and working environment, and a family. We made the barn feel like a big playground. Our own world, a unique atmosphere where outside influences could not creep in. You could say it was all distracting but in some respects there are no distractions, it’s all pointing in the same direction.”


As you might expect from someone of Webb’s pedigree, working in such an individual way, the resulting album, is a deep, detailed work. The passage of time, the living space full of art, treasured objects and junk, the years spent listening to film music and ‘40s standards are all audible. But there’s a surprising spontaneity to it too. Though he did much of it alone, Webb’s recording technique made the music feel as if it has been recorded by a group of musicians playing in the same room.


Raw demos written on a Dictaphone provided the basis for tracks begun with drums played by Webb’s former Talk Talk and O’rang colleague, the great Lee Harris. Then, one instrument at a time, Webb created arrangements from multiple takes, each one recorded with six microphones positioned at different distances from the instrument. This way he could place each instrument in a different part of an imagined room. When he had finished all the guitars, he picked up a bass and went back to song number one. When he’d got all the bass lines, he moved on to keyboards. This approach means that Drift Code’s songs have literally matured, in a unique way.


“Through the necessity of recording over a long period of time, the album has a kind of unfixed or uprooted quality. As if the songs belong nowhere so hopefully belong everywhere. Every time I came round to the first song it sounded like a fresh track again, you kept hearing each song from a new perspective.”


The music went where it wanted, as Webb recorded drums in a bedroom or horns in the lounge, pausing when necessary to let jets take off and land at nearby Stansted Airport.


“Some days the planes don’t stop, you can just hear them in the background. So once, while we were recording an acoustic guitar, I had to get Lee to come in between four and five in the morning - the window of time with no planes. We got the take, but when I listened back to it the next day there was an owl on it!”


He fit right in. Drift Code has a warm, wise kind of euphoria to it, coupled with an acute sense of storytelling and surreality. Webb, who for the first time has written songs specifically for his own voice, turns out to be a gifted character actor, adopting various vocal roles across the songs. In ‘Vanishing Heart’ he is someone freed from a loveless relationship. “In his mind this guy is playing out a conversation, telling his ex how much better he feels now they’re not together. There’s anger and sarcasm in his voice, because he feels duped, putting up with years of cold-heartedness without realising it.”


On ‘Judgement Train’, which Webb describes as “the Marx Brothers in a musical version of  Apocalypse Now,” he casts himself as a man playing poker with God on a train. “He is a bit of a cheat and a chancer, confident he can outwit God to win his place in Heaven. As it develops he realises it’s not going so well and God has cunningly switched places with the devil. By the end, the guy has been out-played and realises he actually has a lot in common with the devil. I like to think it has a happy ending!”


Another song, ‘Brings Me Joy’ had the working title, ‘Dean Martin’. “I wanted a track that recreated a warm nostalgic feeling. My parents listened to Dean Martin, Sinatra and Nat King Cole, records that remind me of an innocent, cosy time. I took the lyric from a beautiful, sad story my grandmother told me from her childhood. She had a younger brother who was trampled by a horse. She was led to the room where he was on his death bed. She was obviously very upset but, surprisingly, was greeted by her very weak but very cheerful little brother, who told her there was no need to cry because he could hear all the angels singing to him. He said they were beckoning him and it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever heard. He asked my grandmother if she could hear them, she replied she couldn’t. He then took her hand and peacefully passed away.”


“When I started singing it, I realised this lyric had a double meaning, it was also a song about my love of music and how important it is to me. I’m not a religious person, but I imagine the closest I get to it is when I hear a song that blows me away. Hearing that is what ‘Brings Me Joy’ is about.”


Singing these songs, “pretending not to be yourself for a while” was liberating for Webb, as he took on narrators of all ages and temperaments, sometimes full of love, sometimes battered and careworn - all part of his aim to make records that you can get lost inside.


“Talk Talk was a kind of schooling for me. It was Mark Hollis who first turned me on to Sketches of Spain and Astral Weeks, and those are the kind of records I’ve always tried to make, records that take people somewhere for a while, preferably via a route they’ve never been before. I like the idea of music as escapism. I’ve separated myself from the world making this album and I’d like to think it could do that for people while they listen to it.”


Aside from Webb and Harris, Drift Code also features various local orchestral players and Webb’s old Essex school-friend Snowboy, who brought in a rare keyboard, the Clavioline, one of the instruments another eccentric auteur, Joe Meek, used on The Tornados’ 1962 classic Telstar. It helps bring a colour to the music which relates to the haunted sound of Out Of Season, and which may become a Rustin Man trademark, the sound of a semi-opaque window onto a real or imagined past, of time trapped in amber. No surprise, considering there’s a decade and a half of its creator’s life inside these songs, time spent reaching out for something ungraspable.


“I called the album Drift Code as it’s an oxymoron, a code is something fixed, but our instinct is to wander, to drift. I like the idea that life is a puzzle that can’t be solved because the answer is always changing.”