Tony Mallett travelled
across Belgium to try out ‘Pop Factor’ at River Studios. It’s only rock ‘n’ roll but he liked it...
Si, si. Je suis un rock star. Ok, well not quite - but speeding to the Ardennes on a recent Saturday, beer in one hand, cigarette dangling nonchalantly from the other, feet up on the dashboard with Led Zeppelin blasting through the speakers did feel decidedly rock ‘n’ roll, baby. Just as well someone else was driving.
Myself and good friend Kfir (‘little lion’ in Hebrew) were determined to try the ‘karaoke-with-bells-on’ experience that is Pop Factor, hosted by Gus Gouldsbrough at River Studios in the small but perfectly formed village of Hampteau, just a few miles from the picturesque ‘world’s smallest city’, namely Durbuy.
Lancastrian Gus, who’s been involved in the film and music industry one way or another for a long, long time (remember ‘punk’?), runs a studio that, of course, records albums and demos for talented bands hoping to be the next big thing but, for those of us with more faded ambitions, he also offers up afternoons of pure fun and occasional mayhem.
The idea is this - get a few friends or work colleagues, choose a some songs (preferably in advance) then head out to River Studios where you can sing over the downloaded backing tracks and have the whole thing professionally mixed then put on CDs. You can even have a video made and pretend to be Band Aid. Yay!
It’s an absolutely perfect idea for, say, hen and stag parties, birthday bashes and even work team-building excercises.
Really wicked people can even change the lyrics for that embarrassing video to play at a wedding. The bride and the original artist might mind, but Gus won’t.
At this point, before he steps on up to the microphone, as it were, this writer has a small confession to make: Once upon a time I was a singer in a rock band.
We were a reasonably well-known outfit in our little world and once played to a ‘massive’ 600 people. But given that we were performing stuff by the likes of Thin Lizzy, Led Zep, Bad Company, UFO and Lynyrd Skynyrd, it’s fair to say that some of the notes were tough to reach, and also bearing in mind that we probably had the only rock drummer in the history of music who couldn’t count to four, it’s frankly amazing that anybody ever showed up.
Having said that, our bassist went on to become a roadie for many top bands while our brilliant guitarist still has an excellent career as a writer of music scores for video games (including ‘Goldeneye’, - take a bow Mr Grant Kirkhope).
But pre-gig soundchecks in grubby pub basements are many years in the past. The voice has not been helped by several decades spent clanging off the Marlboros either, so it was with some trepidation (and a couple of beers for lubrication) that I stood in front of a mic, in a recording environment, once again.
The surroundings certainly helped: River Studios is a relaxed and cosy place to be - not at all intimidating - and Gus, while utterly professional, is a very likeable, down-to-earth bloke with plenty of stories, an easy manner and, if you’re lucky, blue suede shoes. We had, of course, come along to write this piece and mainly have a bit of a laugh, but the kit available is no joke, the set-up is compact but bob-on and the mixing desk was once even used to record that caterwauling Bjork bird out of Iceland. So there.
Indeed, despite the fact that this was absolutely going to be ‘amateur hour’ (or four hours, in fact) there was no way I could get away with blaming the tools.
So, let’s get to it. ..Gus had already received the song suggestions and had everything ready - including printed song sheets. A couple of run-throughs to warm up the old voice and away we went.
It was hard work at times but always great fun and, a few hours, some more beer (for Yours Truly) and half-a-dozen ciggie breaks later, we’d managed to rattle off no less than four tracks (a few takes of each, obviously).
‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘Sultans of Swing’ by Dire Straits were actually pretty good (you can hear them via the link at the end) although I was too knackered to hit some of the notes in Lizzy’s ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ and our unrehearsed version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (with Kfir on guitar, my voice and no other backing) needs serious work.
Suffice it to say that the latter two tracks are now buried deep in a sound-proofed vault 2km under a Swiss mountain.
Now, how rock ‘n’ roll is that!
So, what’s the cost? Flexible and more than reasonable, it must be said. Just €80 will get you an hour-and-a-half (that’s 1-2 songs); an extra hour (and extra song) is €100, while three hours (four songs) is €120. A half-day (four hours) will cost €150 with a full day coming in at €300.
Basically, if it’s a laugh and a cool memento you all want, then half-a-day should do it (split the cost).There are special rates for groups and hen parties (this includes snacks and Champagne) and you’ll even be encouraged to dress up as pop stars for the video. In fact, hen parties often go on to a resto then a club having booked a stopover locally (there’s a B&B 50 metres away and plenty of other great places to stay). Journey time is about 90 minutes by car from Brussels and you can find out more here.
Keep on rockin’ in the free world!
Listen to Mallett's efforts, if you dare, here