Spinning the Compass is 5 years old!

Five years ago this month I released my first solo album, Spinning the Compass.

I had not planned on ‘going solo’ at the time. I was still doing silly things with Comrade Robot, and at the time that was my main musical undertaking. But as part of FAWM 2009 I had written a few songs that seemed to fit into a steampunk theme, so on and off over that year I put things together.

It just so happened that independently at the same time, Joe was also doing some steampunk models, particularly his ‘Oldroid’ models, so there was a ready made set of photos and ideas to use as artwork.

Spinning the Compass is about body horror, bad dreams and machines that get in the way or substitute for real love. Mechanism talks about love gone wrong, I Still Smile about latex and rubber alternatives to human contact, the title track is about being lost in a contracting world that doesn’t make sense and threatens to disappear.

Nevertheless, it is to me a happy album. It was recorded cheap mics and even cheaper software, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. It received my first bad review in which it was referred to as ‘an experiment too far’ (and a few good reviews too) and I learnt a hell of a lot from making it.

It is also where the Seven Bells John saga started. One of the songs from my next album was written at the same time as Spinning the Compass, and Lines Overheard at a Séance is most definitely part of that narrative. Indeed if you’ve heard my most recent EP, Black Water you will have heard the musical echoes of this in ‘Ghosts in my Dreams’ .

Five years ago it was released, accidentally kicking off a solo ‘career’ that so far has encompassed three albums, a few EPs and lots of fun.

Over the next 9 days I’m going to do a little daily post about each of the songs on the album.

You can get it for free here, if you’d like a digital copy.

How I wrote Spinning the Compass

<a href="http://tomslatter.bandcamp.com/track/spinning-the-compass">Spinning the Compass by Tom Slatter</a>

Spinning the Compass is the title track from my first solo album. It’s another song that’s been very long in the making – the chorus has been hanging around in my head and on scraps of paper for years. The demo below, recorded for FAWM, was the first time I realised the thing and got some verses together.

The lyrics I won’t explain, except to mention that there is an oblique reference to the end of The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester in the verses. The structure of the song is mildly unusual, having two verse together near the beginning of the song and nowhere else. The basic structure of the song goes something like:

Intro Melody
Melody (But a longer version)
Guitar Solo
Melody (An even longer version)

Each time that instrumental melody comes back you get to hear some more of it – that was the idea anyway.

Musically, the time signatures are all over the place (well, there are three different ones anyway) and the harmony is mostly centred around the E Lydian scale. The title and one of the counter melodies near the end recall material earlier heard in Bad Dreams. The two songs are related in tone and I think are the centrepieces of the album, although other people have had their own ideas about that.

Here’s the demo:

Spinning the Compass Demo

And here are the lyrics:

Been spinning the compass again
Changing the rules while I was looking away
5 paths in the same dial

Like living in a world of your own
all the time shrinking till all the roads meet
white lines dashing past at speed
And up is left, east is west and no-one cares

Spinning the compass again
16 down isn’t making sense
cross purpose and silent days
Like living in a mind not your own
thinking thoughts you don’t understand
white lights shining in the dark

Do you get the feeling we’re running out time?
Have you heard the rumours of war planes in the skies?

With this spinning the end is surely nigh?
Do you get the feeling we’re running.

White lines dashing at speed the windows
They’ve been spinning this compass again.

Musings on the nature of Physicality as it applies to the Commercial Release of Recorded Musical Artforms

A Physical Thing, of a steampunky nature

How should a steampunk album be released? What would you like to get your hands on when buying a physical object? A boring old CD case or something a bit more interesting?

I’ve been reading a blog post on BLDGBLG about the fictional worlds of protocol architecture.

The idea of creating entire fictional worlds has long held a fascination for me (so much so that I have two manuscripts for awful fantasy novels sitting in cupboards, gathering dust) and the artefacts Protocol Architecture created – maps,photographs and notebooks -are a wonderful way of providing windows into those worlds.

This morning I wrote a song: The Miser’s Will II: What the Orderly saw. Here’s a rough demo:

What the Orderly Saw

It’s the second of what will be five narrative songs, and tells the story of the last moments of a hospital orderly who witnessed something he shouldn’t have seen and dies for it.

The first song is about a cartographer who meets a similar fate after following the bizarre instructions he recieves, scrawled onto one of his maps.

The Cartographer’s Tale

There’s a definite narrative here, and there’s the possibility of all sorts of artefacts existing to accompany the story – the map the cartographer recieved, the Miser’s Will itself, and objects the cartographer dug up.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the different ways I could represent my music – CD cases are a little boring after all, and more than a little old hat. There are wonderful steampunk USB cases out there, and more interesting things could be constructed to hold boring old CDs. At some point in the near future I’ll want to start making my music available in a physical format and given the narrative nature of so much of my music, it seems reasonable for it to explore some of these ideas.

After all, Steampunk people do seem to have a real affinity for beautiful things and well made physical objects and it seems appropriate to acknowledge that, even in music.

What do you reckon? Handmade copper CD cases, handmade leather bound CD booklets, maps and metal artefacts. Are those the things that should accompany a Steampunk CD?

I’m not sure yet, but I do know that boring old plastic CD cases are not on the cards.

How I Wrote ‘Ingenious Devices’

<a href="http://tomslatter.bandcamp.com/track/ingenious-devices">Ingenious Devices by Tom Slatter</a>

Ingenious Devices was almost entirely improvised. I was coming to the end of Spinning the Compass, and realised the pacing of the album didn’t quite work – I needed another upbeat song near the beginning. So I sat down one day with a guitar and started to improvise:

Ingenious Devices draft 1

The improv began as a little vamp on an Aminor chord and the title ‘Ingenious Devices’. As you can hear, it’s very very rough. All I’m doing in the recording is playing around with the chords, trying out A minor, C minor, F major, getting a feel for the mood of the song. I’m also using la and ooh sounds, and nonsense half words to try and find melodic ideas.

Ingenious Devices draft 2

This, the end of my little improv jam is a little more refined – I’ve got a verse riff and a descending melody, the F chord, A minor vamp and title have worked themselves into a potential chorus.

This turned itself into the finished verse and chorus. The middle section is actually the verse and chorus from another song I wrote years ago but never used.

Interesting fact – the middle section contains a melody played on a stylophone.

The section before the final chorus has lots of loops, both instrumental and vocal that build on one another. The basic idea here is that the 9 beat bar is broken up in different ways – there are loops based on 3s and 2s cutting across the bar like cogs of different sizes fitting together in interesting ways until it becomes so complex it has to break – which it does by returning to the chorus.


I’ve seen them, with cracking skin,
Greying hair, yellow teeth
And haunted eyes.

I’ll not be one of them
I’ll fill my lungs with oil and steam
And never die

Ingenious devices
keep me alive in perpetual motion these
Ingenious devices
filled the steam from a thousand pistons

Ingenious Devices Turn

My heart beats by pendulum
I’ve filled grave with cogs and wheels
so there’s no room.

And my lovers have passed me by,
I’ve seen towers pierce the sky
with crystal eyes

Ingenious devices
keep me alive in perpetual motion these
Ingenious devices
filled the steam from a thousand pistons

Ingenious devices turn

My daughters died,
My sons all met their fate
Wouldn’t join me
Couldn’t see till far too late.
The clockwork beating
of my polished heart
Reassures me that I haven’t gone too far

Ingenious devices keep me from the grave
Piston as the master, tendon as the slave

Tick tock tick tick this heart beats
Tick tick tock tock this heart beats

Ingenious devices
keep me alive in perpetual motion these
Ingenious devices
filled the steam from a thousand pistons

Why Pay What You Want?

I’ve just made a few changes to my bandcamp.com site.

As well as adding some new quotes from some of the lovely people who’ve reviewed the album, I’ve changed the payment scheme from ‘free’ to ‘pay what you want’.

What does this mean? It means anyone who wants to download my music can choose to pay what they can afford/ judge it to be worth. I’ve left the free option, as I want people to hear the music and to have a copy on their mp3 player of choice, but I’ve also given the option of paying actual real money for people who want to do that.


I love composing and recording music, and would like to be able to do so full time in a few years time. My bills aren’t going to vanish though, so this is the first step in working towards supporting myself through my art.

Several other artists I admire already do this. There’s the famous Radiohead example, but as well as that Matt Stevens and Steve Lawson also offer their music in the same manner. Amanda Palmer does this too, though I’d be hard pressed to say I admire her.

So it seemed the way to go – we shall see if it works out.

In the meantime, here’s my current favourite song of Spinning the Compass, Lines overheard at a Séance:

<a href="http://tomslatter.bandcamp.com/track/lines-overheard-at-a-s-ance">Lines Overheard At A Séance by Tom Slatter</a>

How I wrote ‘Lines Overheard at a Séance’

    Lines Overheard at a Séance began life as an improvisation for last year’s 50/90 songwriting challenge. I turned on the keyboard, sat down and began to play. The only decision I made beforehand was that I was going to start on a slightly unusual chord: D/C#

    Before long I had the rising bassline and out of kilter chords. The lyrics came to me at the same time, exactly as you hear them on the recording – in fact I’ve only ever played and sung this song once: everything you hear from vocals to piano to bass is all one take and semi-improvised.

    Lyrically its what the title suggests – I’m not too sure any more explanation is needed.

    Here’s the original demo:

    Lines Overheard (Demo)

    There’s a red red room that I can remember
    With a clawing branch right outside the window
    And I’m not breaking down

    On a cold cold night I saw something evil
    Turned the red red walls a deep shade of grey
    And I’m not breaking down

    Won’t you tell me where the last one is?
    There are ghosts in my dreams,
    But I can’t hear them

    How I Wrote ‘Bad Dreams’

    Bad Dreams, the fifth song from Spinning the Compass is one of my favourite of all the songs I’ve written.

    It began life as a short song for the 50/90 songwriting challenge, the absurd summer competition where songwriters challenge themselves to compose 50 songs between July 4th and and October 1st. Here’s the original demo:

    Bad Dream (Demo)

    As well as the production values, there are some obvious differences – I’ve since composed an entire middle section that foreshadows one of the vocal lines from the end of the title track from the album (‘They’ve been spinning the compass again…’).

    I’m really happy with the solo section after the second verse, which borrows heavily from Frank Zappa, via all the Steve Vai and Dream Theater songs I’ve listened to. The structure of the song, with it’s three verses portraying various nightmares, was heavily influenced by ‘One More Red Nightmare’ from King Crimson’s ‘Red’.

    Does that leave anything original in the song? I don’t know, but I’m still really proud of this one.

    The cables break
    Car begins to fall down
    An electric flash and I’m heading for the ground
    All around me people panic and scream the cables break
    Another bad dream

    Bones begin to fall down
    The ashes begin to rain
    Red washed cry a strangers cry of pain
    Your safe safe world is nothign like it seems
    Bones begin tof all down
    Another bad dream

    They’ve been spinning the compass again
    Changing the rules as we play
    These Bad dreams are spinning me round
    With this compass a way can’t be found
    They’ve spinning the compass again.
    Spinning the compass again.

    Flashing knife broke through my guard
    A bolt of light dazzling my eyes
    Trip and stumble red water in the stream
    A flashing knife
    Another bad dream

    How I Wrote ‘Home’

    Home is a song I’ve had hanging around for rather a while. How long? Here’s a really rough ‘first time I’ve ever heard the thing’ run through with a college band. It was recorded in 2002. That’s how old it is.

    Home (Demo)

    There’s a violin on this that you can just about hear. Great violin player, but she was standing too far away from the little mini-disc recorder.

    Oh, and isn’t it obvious how unprepared the drummer was? I think he was halfway through a residency with a Blues Brothers tribute and was completely dead to the world when attending college…

    Anyway, the song itself is about missing the object of one’s affections because you’ve been away from home too long hunting big game from an airship.

    Of course.

    The lead parts  were improvised – I recorded plugged my guitar into my Sonuus G2M midi converter and recorded both original guitar sound and the midi signal through a synth patch. Lots of fun.

    I was going for big pop chorus with quirky verses, and personally I think it achieved that. Still, although it gets listened to, Home appears to be the least popular song on Spinning the Compass.

    At least I like it.

    Leaving the earth was such a thrill
    A ship of the sky, lighter that air
    At hunting grounds we made our kills
    Kings of the great game, on top of the sky

    They say we’re took the long way
    Say we’ll soon touch down
    I don’t see that, I’ve only eyes for home.

    Thrill of a lifetime but I’ve been away too long
    What I would give, to touch the earth again

    They say we took the long way
    Say we’ll soon touch down
    I don’t see that, I’ve only eyes for home

    They say we’re coming home soon
    They say the clouds are grey
    I don’t see that, I’ve only eyes for home

    And all the kills, all the trophies, all the game that we bought down
    All the hides, all the skulls, all the savage beast we found
    I would give them all, every one if it would bring you close to me
    I’d chant your name like spell, reach for you just like a drowning man

    They say we took the long way
    They say the clouds are grey

    They say we’re coming home soon
    Say we’ll soon touch down
    I don’t see that, I’ve only eyes for home

    They say we took the long way
    They say the clouds are grey
    I don’t see that, I’ve only eyes for home