Solomon’s Tump 20th Anniversary Edition
Released Friday 6th October 2023
Twenty years ago I was living in a bedsit in Cheltenham. It was on the top floor of a run-down Georgian house in Cambray Place, a few doors away from my favourite record shop, Vinyl Vault. The room that I lived in was an extension on the back of the property and it was very disconcerting at nights because it used to sway in high winds. It had a tiny kitchenette and a sliding door that led to a miniscule shower room. There were spikes outside the windows to deter the pigeons. It was the first time I’d rented a place all to myself – having split up with my fiancé three months previously and moved out of our shared flat – and I loved it. It fulfilled some kind of Keatsian garret fantasy.
I had a white Bedford Midi van and was working as a franchisee selling books to workplaces around Gloucestershire. I would turn up at a school, office or factory and ask to leave a pile of books in the staff room and then come back a couple of weeks later to fulfil any orders. I quite enjoyed the voyeuristic aspect of going into all these different workplaces knowing that my visit would be brief and that I didn’t actually have to work there myself. The business gave me a sense of freedom because I could work my own hours and I enjoyed driving around the county playing Bevis Frond tapes very loudly. (The franchise eventually nearly bankrupted me, but that’s a story for another day.)
If I was out working near Winchcombe, I would stop off for my lunch at Belas Knap, an iron age burial mound at the top of a steep hill. The views from the top are incredible. On sunny days, I would sometimes lose track of time and fall asleep up there.
When sales were low, I would travel into the Forest of Dean to find more places to leave books and I would pass by a tiny hamlet called Solomon’s Tump on the way. I was intrigued by the mysterious name and wondered if there was a burial mound there like Belas Knap. I stopped a couple of times and searched for one but never found anything. When I wrote the song ‘Solomon’s Tump’, it scanned better than the actual place I was singing about.
I had decided to record an album at home inspired by the bedroom recordings of Nick Saloman, aka The Bevis Frond. I had accrued a stack of material since I started writing songs again at Swansea University in 1998, after a break of ten years. (I had spent those ten years writing poetry instead of songs, until I realised that my poems weren’t very good. I had gone to Swansea to continue my studies in American Literature that I started at the University of La Verne in Los Angeles, but I dropped out, for reasons that I won’t bother going into now, and moved to London, where I met my fiancé.) However, I didn’t intend to use any of this material for the long player I had in mind. Songs had been pouring out of me ever since the break-up.
My musical equipment at my bedsit consisted of a Squier ‘Butterscotch Blonde’ telecaster that I had bought in Duck, Son & Pinker in Gloucester for £200. (I never should have sold that guitar. I upgraded to a £350 Epiphone Les Paul Gold Top which I hoped would make me play like Danny Kirwan. Obviously, it didn’t!) I had an acoustic and a bass – the makes of which I can’t remember – and I must have had a drum kit but I can’t have stored it at my bedsit because there wouldn’t have been enough room. Maybe this was kept at my parents’ house or maybe I hired a kit to record the drums on the album?
What I do remember is the final recording session when I booked a three-hour slot at the ‘Star Gazer’ rehearsal rooms in Cheltenham to record all the drum parts in one go. I was clock-watching the whole time. I got most of it done but I ran out of time to record drums on ‘Bernard’s Theme’, ‘Beautiful Person’ and ‘The Groovy Buddha’. I didn’t have the opportunity to check for any mistakes. This is my excuse for the sloppy playing. When I came to mix the album I didn’t think the drum part I’d played for ‘Beat Myself Up’ was tight enough so I just used the original drum machine backing. It sounds alright to me now – at least, not any worse than the others.
I think I had a Yamaha keyboard but it was a very cheap, second-hand one that I’d picked up from somewhere and it only had one decent organ sound. I used this on all my recordings for the next five years!
I had been recoding my demos on cassette using a Tascam 414 MKII – a very basic four track model – but I borrowed a Tascam 424 MKII for recording Solomon’s Tump from my friend Magda’s then boyfriend who owned a second-hand bookshop in the town. The 424 MKII is a beast of a machine that now has a cult following. I later bought one to record my 2019 album, Reel to Reel. I had forgotten how difficult it was to use by then, mind you.
Magda and I had just formed a band that she had named Karma Truffle after some fantasy delicacy. We had met at a meditation class that I had set up when I lived near Cheltenham train station in the mid-nineties. Magda was a few years older than me and a real hippy chick. She had great taste in music and introduced me to Pentangle, The Incredible String Band, Hamell On Trial and The Bevis Frond. Magda played lots of instruments including violin and mandolin but in the band she played bass, I played guitar and my best mate Dean’s girlfriend, Amanda, played drums in the style of Mo Tucker. My previous band, The Dandelions, had split up acrimoniously following a disastrous gig in Cheltenham when everything that could go wrong did. I had been busting my gut with this band for three years. The idea was to have a female lead vocalist and we would sound like a cross between Fairport and Blondie. It never worked out. Karma Truffe, on the other hand, was just designed to be a laugh and we were determined not to take ourselves too seriously. We would play a mix of songs that Magda and I had written along with covers that we loved, mainly by The Bevis Frond. This more relaxed approach worked and we started to gig in Cheltenham and go down well.
I wrote songs for Karma Truffle separately from the ones I was writing for my, then unnamed, solo project. These included ‘A Better Way, ‘Such a Shame’, ‘So Long’, ‘When He Comes’, ‘Pretty Big’ (later rewritten as ‘Panic Attack’) and ‘Never Get To Heaven’. I had bought a Zoom foot pedal and our bag was noisy rock. Magda’s songs included some that I would later release on Blake records, including ‘Don’t Ask’, ‘Without You’ and ‘Astronaut’. Magda tragically died from cancer earlier this year. I can’t believe she is gone. One of my most treasured possessions is a cassette she gave me around this time containing all the demos she had made, complete with handwritten lyrics. There are some gems on there which I would love to record in the future.
I had begun using the moniker ‘Bernard Blake’ the previous year when I compiled a ragbag of demos onto a CD called ‘Into The Light’; copies of which I gave away to family and friends. Most of these demo recordings eventually saw the light of day on 2008’s Antheology and 2021’s Will The Real Blake Please Stand Up. Solomon’s Tump, however, was going to be a ‘proper record’ – a series of songs that would sit well together to create a cohesive listening experience… or something like that.
Apart from the drums, everything was recorded in the bedsit. It was particularly difficult recording the vocals because I didn’t want to sing too loudly for fear of disturbing my neighbours downstairs. I must have recorded the high-pitched screaming at the end of ‘Let It Go’ when I knew they weren’t at home. I didn’t have a very good vocal mic, either. However, the early Frond records had proved to me that recording in your bedroom was a viable option and I was determined to follow suit.
The songs reflect what was going on in my life at that point – the title track is a candid account of how being up at Belas Knap made me feel, ‘Beat Myself Up’ was me telling myself not to be so uptight and to let go of feelings of guilt, ‘Round and Round’ was about watching the seasons turn from my swaying window and ‘Throwing My Life Away’ was about the daily grind. ‘Lost The Plot’ is a rant about artists I admired who sold out, inspired by Bill Hicks’ “Willie Nelson/Artistic Roll Call” routine and Stephen Fry doing voiceovers for commercials, and ‘Silver Sun’ is… well, I’m not sure what it’s about.
‘The Groovy Buddha’ is not included on this remaster because I am concerned that the song could be offensive to some. It was written as a light-hearted response to Magda’s song ‘Judas, Man’ which was a comedic tale about Jesus and Judas splitting the gold and running off together like a couple of bandits, inspired by her love of Townes Van Zandt's song, 'Pancho and Lefty'. Magda was a Buddhist at that point and I used to be, but had become a Christian, and we were gently mocking each other’s belief systems. Out of context, however, the lyrics could come across as disrespectful.
‘Don’t Let Go’ is a sincere song about faith and ‘Bernard’s Theme’ is an instrumental that managed to capture a lot of what I wanted to say musically. Bernard Blake was the name of a client I worked with in my previous job for the social services in Stow-on-the-Wold. I just thought it was a cool sounding name and it also referenced one of my favourite poets, William.
The rest of the songs were about the break-up with my fiancé. I don't really know the full story of what happened, but, as I remember it, someone told me she had fallen in love with a soldier. We really did have our parting at The Strand, as it says in ‘She flew Away’. I wouldn’t have remembered any of the details of this now without having written the song. The whole sad story is there. I’m asking her why in ‘Slipping Away’, I’m telling her she’s amazing before she leaves in ‘Beautiful Person’, I’m going out of my head trying to accept it in ‘Let It Go’ and my heart is breaking in ‘Leave A Light On’. I recorded the latter live to try and bottle the emotion.
I’m not sure if she ever heard the album, although I remember that she did come to a Karma Truffle gig at The Two Pigs in Cheltenham not long after we’d split and I sang ‘Slipping Away’ while she watched. I would go on to write many more songs about her. I’m not exactly sure why it hurt so much back then but now I am very grateful for all the inspiration. I was a terrible boyfriend, anyway, and it really was my loss. She was a beautiful person, inside and out.
The following year I got signed to a London indie label, after its head heard the Solomon’s Tump CD, and I met my wife-to-be, so everything worked out OK. I persuaded the label to sign Karma Truffle instead of Bernard Blake because I wasn’t ready to have a career as a solo artist at that point. I was still thinking of things very much in a band context. That’s what I had always dreamed about, finding success in a group with my mates. I’d never even considered being a performing singer/songwriter. It was far too frightening.
Ultimately, this turned out to be a mistake, mainly because I didn’t want to be straitjacketed by one genre: Indie Rock. I’ll probably go into more detail about this in 2025 when it comes to the 20th anniversary of the release of Karma Truffle’s What You Do Comes Back To You LP.
For now, I hope you will enjoy Solomon’s Tump in its remixed and remastered form. Originally, I’d mixed from the Tascam 424 to a high-quality cassette (if that isn’t an oxymoron) and then the audio on this cassette was mastered to CD by Mike Hill at Attic Studios in Bishop’s Cleeve. This meant that a lot of tape hiss was present on the original release and the sound is very muddy. Not that any of this was Mike’s fault. I think I manufactured about 50 copies of the original fifteen track CD. I have one left in my possession.
When it came to remixing the album this year, I had to find the original four track tapes and transfer the audio over to Logic Pro on my Macbook. In the process, I remembered that when I was mixing the original album, I added a final track to the audio on a number of songs by recording it live while mixing down – giving me an extra track but with no separate recording of it. I therefore didn’t have access to the original vocal take of ‘Solomon’s Tump’ or ‘Throwing My Life Away’, for instance. It is only with the recent availability of affordable AI technology that I have been able to isolate the missing tracks (mainly vocals, keyboards and percussion) from the original mixes and then re-add them to the source tracks to enable proper remixing to take place.
Do let me know if you feel that the project has been worthwhile and that the audio quality is an improvement on the original release. It took me an age to remix the tracks, literally hours and hours. Plainsongs, in contrast, was mixed in a day! I kept thinking I had got a pretty good mix down but then I would compare it with the 2003 version and it would sound rubbish! It must have been a case of beginners luck when I originally mixed, particularly as I would have had to have done it live while bouncing down and, in most cases, adding an additional track in the process. I noticed that the original album is slightly sharp because there must have been a slight speed increase when I mixed down from the 424 to the master tape. It took me a while to get used to the songs in their actual, slightly slower tempos and lower pitch.
If there’s demand for it, I will issue a CD version. In 2006 when I released Solomon’s Tump ‘officially’ for the first time, two months after the release of my ‘first’ solo album as Blake, Final Whistle, I included new recordings of ‘Round and Round’, ‘Beautiful Person’ and ‘Lost The Plot’. I felt that the originals of these three songs were not quite up to scratch. I don’t share that belief now – again, they don’t appear any worse than any of the others, to my ears, and I’m not sure if the new recordings were significantly better. They always felt a bit out of place anyway because the fidelity wasn’t as bad as the rest of the album!
‘Humankind’ was left off the 2006 release of the album because of the superior recording of the song made by Karma Truffle in 2005 included on What You Do Comes Back To You. Karma Truffle also recorded ‘Let It Go’ for our debut E.P. She’s Not All That on the Ecto Music record label in 2004, but this doesn’t seem to be available anywhere now, sadly.
The Solomon's Tump 20th Anniversary Remaster is available for free download on Bandcamp from Friday 6th October 2023.