Trapdoor Studios has recently opened its doors. Getintothis’ Matthew Eland talks creativity and grief with Alpha Male Tea Party guitarist Tom Peters.
Trapdoor Studios is, on the face of it, an unassuming operation.
It’s hidden away down a side-street off Edge Lane, in a building you could walk past a thousand times without ever suspecting anything was in there.
You could assume that ‘Trapdoor’ refers to the feeling of surprise on walking in from the gritty, rain-streaked winter wind; the studio is a homely bolt-hole that mixes bold, pastel colours with handmade soundproofing and sturdy, pallet-wood walls.
But for owner Tom Peters – producer, engineer, and guitarist in Alpha Male Tea Party – the name ‘Trapdoor’ is loaded with personal meaning.
‘He was just a fucking lovely guy. And yeah, it totally sucks that he’s gone. But there’s definitely lots of ways that you can keep someone’s legacy and memory alive. And that’s what I’m trying to achieve in here.’
We’re sat in the control room of Trapdoor discussing Dan Wild-Beesley, guitarist in Cleft and Tom’s old recording partner.
Dan was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2015 after he had a seizure while driving. After an operation by a specialist neurosurgeon and a 6-week course of radiotherapy he was given the all-clear, only for two new tumours to appear 2 years later – one of them an aggressive stage 4.
Despite specialist treatment in Istanbul, which was funded by a spirited effort from friends, family and the underground music community, Dan passed away in October 2018.
The pair had always dreamed of opening a recording studio. One early attempt fell through due to structural and tenancy issues, before Dan’s illness put the plans on hold indefinitely.
When Tom decided to press on with their plans, he was determined that the spirit of his ‘fallen brother’ should permeate every aspect of the new space. Trapdoor, a glorious tangle of riffs, ideas and twists and turns, was Cleft’s signature tune; hence the name of the studio.
‘It felt like the right thing to do. But it annoys me, in a way, that my brain works in such a manner that I was too scared to do this. And I was a little bit…when me and Dan first started talking about doing the studio, I was really scared about it. I was really worried about whether we could make it work.
And I think to a certain extent I was a little bit relieved when that initial thing fell through. But now, I feel more secure about what I’m doing.
I do wish that Dan could have been a part of making this happen. And obviously he is, but in the way that you want him to be.’
Anyone in any doubt about the love the DIY-indie-prog-metal community had for Dan can watch his tribute set at ArcTanGent 2019. The Beft was a supergroup comprising Alpha Male Tea Party and Mike Vennart (formerly of Oceansize and now plying his trade as Biffy Clyro’s second guitar player).
The set begins with a beefy rendition of Trapdoor, followed by a medley of Dan’s riffs. And it ends with something truly special.
‘I’ve got to be honest, at the time I was still grieving quite heavily. And I wasn’t sure whether I had the mental strength to actually pull anything together.
But Mike Vennart got involved on a very pissed night at Strangeforms, and thankfully he took the reins. Because that was something that was quite intensely stressful for me when I was trying to organise this thing.
Dan worshiped Oceansize, he played a few shows with Vennart as well, so they were good pals. We just started bouncing ideas around, and Mike came up with the idea of doing this big D, and getting loads and loads of people on stage.
I think we had about 15 to 20 guitar players and bass players on stage, and we all just went boom!
It was a magical, magical moment. The noise that came off the stage when it actually happened was…was unlike anything. It was unreal, it felt physical. I felt pushed in the back by it. It was an amazing moment and a really super-special thing to be a part of as well.’
Even on video, over a year after the fact, the catharsis evident in the clip is still tangible. Was it as emotional an experience as it looked?
‘Yeah, it definitely was. When we kind of came offstage, I just had to go sit on my own for about 10–15 minutes. It’s a weird feeling because it was something really beautiful, but at the same time…I don’t know, something that you really wish you weren’t doing in a lot of ways.
But yeah, I mean, me and Dan, we had a band as well called GUG and I played drums in that band. Dan’s last-ever live performance was playing with GUG at ArcTanGent 2018.
And Dan just put every last drop of energy that he had into that show.
He was very ill. He’d been out in Turkey, receiving treatment. And the night before they were due to fly back for ArcTanGent festival he got the news that it had come back, and it was worse.
And so it was, yeah, the mood at that was quite…it was beautiful, because it was great to have Dan back. But it was pretty bittersweet because it was clear that Dan wasn’t in a good way.
Me and Ben Forrester, who’s the singer in the band, we were discussing with Jess, Dan’s wife, whether it was the right thing to do, whether we should even play the show or not, but it was really obvious to Dan that he HAD to play that gig.
And he smashed it man. He was incredible.’
It’s clear from the way Tom talks about his friend that Dan was a special character: someone who had lots of people rooting for him.
One funding drive at ArcTanGent raised around three and a half grand. It’s also appropriate that the loss of someone so important should prove a galvanising force; a fact evident in the success of the Indiegogo funding campaign that enabled Tom to get the studio up and running.
‘It’s been nice and busy. I’ve barely stopped the last six months or so. I’ve done my first full album here in January, a couple of EPs, a couple of singles and all sorts of stuff. And I’ve got plenty of other things in the pipeline. So it’s all coming together nicely, which is great.’
One of the striking things, for a new studio, is how Trapdoor already has its own personality. There’s nothing sterile about it.
The first thing you notice is the classic practice-room smell: that of freshly sawn MDF, with the faint electrical warmth of recently used amps. The fabrics that insulate and muffle the rooms have been bought from Abakhan and neatly sewn into wooden frames.
On the far wall, over an array of cabs, is the blackboard commemorating the Indiegogo donors; it’s surrounded by an ornate golden frame rescued from Otterspool tip.
One advantage of having the studio a bit further away from town could be that it’s easier to focus, to resist the temptations of the city centre. Was the intention behind the location to create a sort of siege mentality?
‘The vibe is kind of cosy, and you’re supposed to feel like you’re a little bit cut off from the rest of the world. Even though you are sort of in the middle of the city and all that kind of stuff, it’s a little hideaway.
It’s not a million-pound kind of offering with like, you know, a cupboard full of four-grand mics or anything like that. But the whole point was to pick the gear that I knew was going to make records sound great regardless, and it seems to have worked so far, you know?
It’s nice that people recognise what I offer as a producer/engineer as well, because it can be quite hard to kind of stand out in that world. But I’ve always been quite stubborn about what I like and what I don’t like in production.
My aim with any recording is to make sure that whatever comes out is uniquely what that band or artist is. I’m not someone that wants every kind of recording that I work on to sound exactly the same as the last one; I’m happy making a massive-sounding rock album as much as I am happy recording someone with just a vocal and an acoustic guitar or whatever.
The only real thing that has to be there, for me, in a recording, is that it has to feel human. And that’s a huge part of what I do. It’s a huge part of what Dan did when he was recording as well.
You know, like there’s value in warts-and-all kind of recording. Not to the degree of, like, Steve Albini.
But I still want to hear that human beings played the snare drum on a record and that kind of stuff.’
The discussion of Tom’s day job brings us neatly round to Alpha Male Tea Party.
One of the impressive things about the group is their longevity. Since forming in 2009 they’ve released three albums, and they continue to operate as a force on the national stage.
They’re an excellent case study for any artist looking to go about their business in a sustainable fashion.
‘The whole thing with Alpha Male Tea Party was that we were going to be playing the long game with it.
It was never going to be a flash-in-the-pan kind of thing, with that instant spike of success that a lot of bands want or do get.
Primarily from the nature of what it is that we do, we’re never going to be, you know, signing ludicrous management deals or anything like that.
But we just love what we do. It’s a very important part of all of our lives, and I think more now than ever, with the way that all three of our lives have shifted and changed over the years.
It means more to us now than it ever has done. Like anyone that’s creative, the best way for you to communicate how you’re feeling about stuff in life is to be creative.’
Alpha Male Tea Party are currently writing the follow-up to their 2017 record Health. With everything going on since the release of that album, it’s no surprise to hear Tom report that ‘it’s all coming out a little bit on the darker end of the spectrum.’
‘We’ve been kicked about a bit for a couple of years. But it’s great, because you feel that much more connected to it, when you know that the music you’re making is directly translating how you’re feeling.
But, I mean, ultimately, whatever we do with this album, it’s still going to sound like our band, because it’s the three of us doing what we do best. And I just think the motivation and the reason for the songs existing is possibly slightly different now from what it used to be.
Which has resulted in it feeling a bit darker. When it’s heavy, it’s heavier than it’s been, and it’s more reflective-sounding in a way.
But it’s hard, because I still reflect on the stuff that we’ve done in the past and Droids, our second record, is probably still my favourite one.
It’s still got moments on it that I’m really proud of and I really love, and I think there’s a certain wild abandon to that album because we were sort of learning how to write with each other for the first time.’
A quick history lesson: for a band so identifiable as a unit, it’s a surprise to be reminded that they initially had a different drummer and bass player. It’s also a surprise to hear Tom cite 2014’s Droids over Health as his favourite; from the poise and swagger of Have You Ever Seen Milk to the bruising breakdown that ends Don’t You Know Who I Think I Am, Health sounds like a band on the absolute top of their game.
‘Health was a strange album for me, because we were somewhere between a darker thing and still kind of having that happy, almost pop-punky edge that we had in some of the earlier stuff.
And again, it’s an album that was written around the time that Dan was really sick, my mum was really sick, that’s why it’s called Health.
I feel personally like I didn’t connect with that album’s writing process as much as I maybe wanted to for various different reasons.
I still really like it, and it’s still got some of my favourite Alpha Male Tea Party moments on it…but yeah, it’s a weird one. I don’t want to bash it because I still really like it, it’s still got some really brilliant, brilliant moments.
The other thing for me is because I always produce the records, there’s this added layer of how I perceive it. And mixing the album absolutely kicked my fucking ass. I found it really hard to mix it, but I’m a massive control freak over Alpha Male Tea Party stuff and I don’t think I can let anyone else touch our music without me being an unbelievable pain in the arse.
I went into that album with this quite strange idea of how I wanted it to sound. I had this idea in my head that it was going to have a really dry, almost jazzy kind of sound to it, and it was stupid. It wasn’t right.
I think Greg helped me a lot with that. He was like, man, just make it sound energetic and big. And that’s because that’s what Alpha Male Tea Party is.’
In many ways, it’s a curious conflict of interest to be so intimately involved in the writing, and then the recording and mixing of the music. Is it important to stop those two sides of the venn diagram interlocking?
‘Yes and no. I think there are times when I can perceive exactly how something should sound or how something probably is going to sound at the end of that process. And that can be helpful sometimes.
But then sometimes there are moments where I’m like, let’s just see how this translates into a recorded environment. Because often the way you perceive something in a practice room isn’t always how it’s perceived once you get it onto here [indicates computer].
Which is a really weird thing that can happen sometimes. Me and Ben have actually been doing some writing, just in this room, and we’re just doing some programming and stuff on Logic. And it’s been really interesting, because I feel like we’ve written stuff that we wouldn’t normally write in that way, because we’re not standing in a practice room together.
This environment really helps with that, because you can hear how that perception plays out in a more sterile kind of situation.
Having this place in terms of our creativity has been amazing, because we’ve got no one knocking on the door when our three hours is up. We can take as long as we want, we can have a cup of tea while we’re at it, which is wicked, and also we’re able to document absolutely everything.’
It’s interesting to hear from Tom how collaborative the AMTP writing process is. For a band with such complicated song structures and intricate riffs, you might expect the guitarist to guide the process as a sort of benign dictator.
‘No, I’m on generally not, unless it is a riff that I have spent hours writing!
I think the thing when I started AMTP was I really wanted it to be collaborative. Because I was aware of my own creative limitations as an individual, and I liked the idea that someone could come in, I’ll play something to them, and they’ll interpret it completely differently to me.
A lot of the time it’s quite free and it’s quite open. We usually are very happy to let each other have our spaces when it’s time for it…not in a jazz, play-a-solo kind of way. But it’s a fun band to be in from that perspective.
Because no one’s too precious. There are definitely times where I’ve written something and I’ve been like “I really like this,” and the other two have just been like, “Nooot sure, not really feeling that.” That sucked, but that’s part and parcel of the process. I respect that, even if it annoys me sometimes!’
If a new recording studio and a new album wasn’t productivity enough, the group have also found time to record a series of podcasts. The Long Drive Home features the group discussing the trials and tribulations of life on the road with a number of special guests.
‘It’s hard to work out where that came from. We chatted about the idea of doing something. Because every time we’ve done interviews or anything like that, we always quite enjoy doing it.
So the premise of the podcast The Long Drive Home is to highlight, in a mostly humorous way, what it’s like to be in a band in terms of when it goes wrong. Because there’s a lot of time devoted to when things are good, but not when you sleep on a concrete floor next to an overflowing bin and things like that.
And it’s insider information that’s quite interesting. So we’re sort of doing that as a casual, sort of a side thing. And it seems to have gone down really well.
I’ve had a lot of personal messages from people saying, “Oh, it’s really fun and good.” So that’s great. But the last one we did with Mike Vennart was ridiculous. Like some of the stories that he can tell are just ridiculous.’
For all the pain of the last few years, it’s heartening to find the group fighting on a number of different fronts as we go into 2020. It’s encouraging as well to see a venture like Trapdoor Studios beginning to prosper, especially since its genesis was in something that was so traumatic for lots of people; not least for Dan Wild-Beesley, who is missed by many.
If grief is the price of love, then let it also be a catalyst. Sometimes reminders of the fragility of life can show us what kind of people we want to be, and what we want to do. It’s for this reason that we hope to see Trapdoor Studios go from strength to strength over the next few years.
Let it be an enduring monument to Dan, and a testament to the good work a community can do when it bands together.
You can see Alpha Male Tea Party on the following dates:
Friday March 20, 2020, The Deaf Institute, Manchester (w/ Delta Sleep)
Saturday April 18, 2020, StrangeForms Festival 2020, Leeds
You can find more information about Trapdoor Studios here: https://tompetersproduction.com/trapdoor-studios/
Photos by Getintothis’ Warren Millar.