pleiades house and car park

not the most glamorous of locations perhaps, but when soundtracked by bj nilsen's 'invisible cities', well, it's a different place altogether. thanks hannes!

so goodbye 2009

good things in 2009

fennesz, dafeledecker, brandlmayr on cd/the unthanks at brighton komedia/watson, marsh and may at scaledown/lucy jane generally/clang sayne cd/clang sayne cd launch at cafe oto (ist half)/bj nilsen/sonnamble/flight of the conchords series 2/let the right one in/schnittke at the qeh/sonnamble and platform and watson at the fleapit/the necks at the union chapel/the bleedin' internet/playing with paul may. a lot./the neat at reading festival/peter broderick at the union chapel/bbc four/rick jensen trio at macondo/clang sayne at the slaughtered lamb
bevan, lash, marks, obermayer at cafe oto/cafe oto/oasis splitting up/the rest is noise

not so good things in 2009

john martyn r.i.p./bat for lashes at the roundhouse/no red rose or anything to replace it. flim flam in trouble/bbc three/clang sayne cd launch at cafe oto (2nd half)/animal collective/
the bleedin' internet/led bib/festivals/the prospect of oasis related solo albums

clang sayne interview


news story of the year...

watson marsh and may - scaledown 51

here's our set from scaledown a few months back for your listening pleasure.

ian r watson - trumpet
peter marsh - bass
paul may - percussion

thanks to andy coules, shaun hendry and mark braby for putting us on and recording it.

download (23.8mb)

everything is going to be alright

when the schnittke hits the fan

a year or two back my friend matthew gave me some alfred schnittke to listen to, specifically his concerto grosso no 1 for prepared piano, harpsichord, two violins and strings. i'm a little intimidated by most contemporary classical music, or more to the point i'm intimidated by the stuff that goes with it; the analysis of structure and form and all that. i probably know just enough about it to make a complete arse of myself should i ever end up talking about it. so my usual approach is to ignore all that and just attempt to engage with the music in an instinctive way. the concerto grosso is a beautiful piece and so it's easy to engage with it on that level.

so a week or so back i ended up at the QEH with matthew to see it performed live. it was great, it must be said, as was the monologue for viola and strings, which had some incredible textures, where all the strings were playing so softly that the notes were barely audible; i have rarerly heard anything so gorgeous. plus i like the viola a lot. matthew had written his dissertation on schnittke so when he said that he felt that the piece lacked a convincing structure i think he's probably right, but structure's never been my strong point.

matthew also pointed out (though i don't think this was a criticism) that the concerto grosso was taken at a fair old lick. i hadn't clocked that, but again i think he was right and a listen to it on the tube journey home proved it. of course performances of such music are all about interpretation, and for those in the audience familiar wirh the works this can be a bit of an issue. it's even an issue for rock fans, who generally want to hear the music played just like it sounds on the cd. but of course the classical model is way more complex. i remember when i was a kid my mum had a boxed set of classical 'greatest hits' on ronco records or something like that. it featured the usual stuff; the overture to william tell, 'morning' from peer gynt, the ride of the valkyries etc. a gymnopedie or two. what really floated my boat was a rendition of the second movement of mahler's 5th symphony (as used in 'death in venice'). now these weren't definitive versions - no barbirolli or haitink or boult, just probably some obscure romanian orchestra with the orchestra leader conducting (this was ronco records, not deutsche grammofon). however, that version of the seconf movement remains the best i've heard. i'm sure someone with a greater knowledge of mahler would have ointed out that it was too slow, the acoustic was too reverberant and the timing was sloppy etc etc. and they'd probably be right. maybe it was because it was the first recording i'd come across and that i was a particularly impressionable age, i don't know. but it shows how complex and subtle the issue of interpretation it is.

for years i'd assumed that classical concerts were a waste of time - dead music played by a bunch of highly skilled workmen responding to the will of an autocrat (ie the conductor). it was everything i didn't want music (or life in general) to be about. while i haven't exactly had a road to damascus experience that's overturned that view entirely, at least i've started to get that it's a lot more complex than that...

i hid my yo yo in the garden

for sarah. i'd forgotten how dreadful the cloudbusting video was. it's bonkers, but not in a good way. as appealing as kate is, i'd always prefer to listen to the music without watching her looking startled in a leotard or poncing around in a tutu and tights. or even pretending to be a 12 year old boy with donald sutherland. i have somewhere a dvd of kate's bbc special back in nineteen-grandad. here's a taste of the horrors on offer.

so, best without the visuals then (even her albun covers were generally terrible). but hounds of love would have to be in my top 5 ever. the dreaming could probably be there too, come to think of it. the few times my mum complained about 'that awful noise coming from your room' i was invariably playing the dreaming very loud. it's a genuinely strange record. you wonder what happened to kate between never for ever and that one.

the unthanks

a beautiful gig at the komedia the other night from everyone's favourite tyneside tragi-folk tentet. nigel and i counted twelve deaths and a miscarriage (not in the audience, in the lyrics). great sound, great music. and as lucy remarked, unspoilt by people taking videos or generally being arses. nigel reported the bar staff were rather taken aback by the amount of real ale they were selling ('can't normally shift the stuff' etc) till they were told it was a folk gig.

information rain

conor and i have been starting to set about compiling material for a sonnamble release (in time for the all important christmas market with any luck). the amount of material we've generated amounts to over 200 gigabytes. this would probably have accounted for all of NASA's digital storage not too long ago. accumulated over about a year, these are live recordings of me playing double bass, electric bass, lap steel guitar, and even ye olde novation bafftation, live processed by conor, who occasionally slips in a bit of lap steel or electric guitar. one with a leopard skin scratchplate. oh yes.

we could of course do a 50 cd box set and release the lot, but the only reason for that would be to guarantee a 70 word review in the wire. so hence the sifting and sorting process. conor has already spent a silly amount of hours assembling some pieces which work, so we're some way there already. i'm starting to sift through some sessions myself, and it'll be interesting to see what conor makes of my selections. this is the point where i suppose we start to agree what works and what doesn't. that is all ludicrously subjective of course but i reckon we'll get there...

years ago, in germany....

bbc four's rather super krautrock documentary was (at an hour) necessarily a bit sketchy. a six part series would have been more like it but hey....what was particularly great was seeing these beautiful, mad old geezers still at it some 40 years later. it was especially lovely to see danny fichelscher (guitarist with popul vuh and drummer with amon duul 2 and one of my particular heroes) still around, and confirm once more that michael rother is probably the nicest and best looking 59 year old bloke on the planet. even faust came across as rather likeable. and renate knaup is clearly the thinking man's nico.

my first exposure to, er, german indigenous rock ('krautrock' has always struck me as a dodgy term) was to can as a feckless teen in the late 70s. when my parents were out i would lie on the floor with my head between the speakers of our dodgy old decca 'music centre' and blast 'yoo doo right' at silly volume. can and faust seemed much more radical, dangerous and fun than punk, and obviously for a nascent muso snob they had the required exotica value. wandering around school with a copy of faust's first album (clear vinyl, clear sleeve, clear insert) became a habit.

but it was the much more low key stuff put out by the neu!/rother/cluster axis, early kraftwerk and especially popol vuh that really got me. many of the musicians in the documentary spoke of their determination to avoid sounding english or american - to make it year zero for music. to me it's these bands that managed to do that best. even neu! seemed to have much less to do with 'rock' than can, amon duul or faust, whose music still bore traces of american or british psychedelia (or the velvet underground's dystopian throb).

the music that harmonia, cluster and rother put out in the mid 70s is both distinctively european and seemingly not much to do with anything else that ever went before it. it seemed to be more about marvelling at the world rather than grabbing it by the balls and giving it a good kicking. more organic than kraftwerk, less kosmische than t. dream or ashra or schulze, their music was benevolent without being merely 'pretty'; iggy pop summed neu! up in the doc as 'pastoral psychedelia'. certainly looking at the view from harmonia's (and now rother's) studio in forst puts that music in some kind of context.

what was interesting too was the slightly ambivalent attitude from moebius and co towards their collaborations with mr eno in 1976. brian was at a creative impasse at the time and after a week of improvising, recording and hanging out in forst, eno disappeared with the tapes (even using one track for his next album). as rother said rather ruefully - 'we couldn't afford blank tapes - we were poor'; moebius was less circumspect; 'eno told me we would be rich one day - he was not right'.

mr parker

oh yes.


some things coming up...

17th october - i'll be playing electric bass (oh, the shame) with the insect explosion as part of the galvanised festival at cafe oto. it will be noisy.

21st october - double bass with the rick jensen trio at flim flam, ryans bar, stoke newington, 181 church st.

22nd october - the second sonnamble gig - at openlab, the roebuck, se1. i'll be playing lap steel guitar and conor will be making it sound interesting.

30th october - watson, marsh and may at the always entertaining scaledown club, the king and queen, foley st, w1. ian r watson - trumpet; me - double bass; paul may - drums etc. it'll look something like this, i suspect. though we may wear slightly different clothes.

bat for lashes

i saw bat for lashes twice last week. this wasn't entirely intentional, it must be said, but it did make me think quite a bit about how gigs work and the kind of factors that can make or break the experience for an audience member.

first off i have to say that i quite like bat for lashes. after initially being rather sniffy about the first album i've grown to rather love some of natasha khan's stuff. so i approached both gigs in a positive frame of mind. the first was at the brighton dome. the sound was good, the view pretty good too. the set was geared towards the more uptempo numbers which meant i was a little disappointed, favouring as i do the more miserable songs. but not to worry. it was a nice gig.

the second was at the roundhouse - a rather more cavernous venue; the sound wasn't quite as good, the view restricted by a flat floor and the presence of a lot more people (some of whom wore large hats). what was slightly disappointing was that it was exactly the same set - same order, even the same (minimal) patter between songs. possibly natasha's voice wasn't quite as together at the second gig, but that'd be nitpicking.

but what struck me most on both occasions was that (apart from my lovely companions) i was essentially totally surrounded by wankers. this shouldn't be a surprise to me by now, you'd have thought, but still i am utterly gobsmacked by the numbnut behaviour that goes on at gigs. at the roundhouse someone standing mext to me actually made a phone call. now being a bloke i'm quite good at ignoring things that are going on right under my nose but i found it very hard to ignore that kind of thing. at a gig i want at the very least to be able to hear the music without someone shouting inanities down their fucking blackberry. or to each other.

so instead of having some mystical experience listening to the stuff that's coming off the stage i find myself wondering why people would pay 20 quid to go and stand in a darkened room pumped with loud music and talk loudly about how they got so pissed the night before they couldn't stand or how they've been passed up for promotion at the web design agency they work for or shout about the shit photos they've just taken on their iphone ('s a shit photo of the thing we should actually be experiencing instead of taking shit photos of it. how cool is that?). perhaps if i paid them each £20 they could come round my house and do that while i go out and see a gig that i know they can't attend and therefore have a cat in hell's chance of hearing the fucking music.

but i don't really have enough money for that. tossers.

music on the move ran one of the straplines for the sony walkman when it came out, or so i remember. that was 30 years ago (sheesh) though i didn't manage to get one till around 1985 or so. despite their habit of chewing tapes, going through batteries like water etc etc, i found pretty soon that i couldn't live without one; going on a 200 mile coach journey without my hatfield and the north compilation became unthinkable.

but after a while i found that the walkman was doing more than just allowing me to indulge my taste for canterbury prog while using public transport. listening to stuff like eno's 'on land' on a moonlit beach or john dowland's lachrymae by a river as the sun came up made for experiences as rich and as revelatory as any acid trip. or anything else i can think of.

of course, the material and the surroundings have to come together - hatfield and the north on a coach are unlikely to do it (kraftwek are probably a better bet in that situation). but a couple of days ago i had one of those magic moments. the soundtrack was this and this is what my phone thought the world was looking like at the time...

queer as folk

like most people of a certain age, the late lamented john peel played a pretty big part in my musical education. huddled under my nylon sheets, headphones (or usually earphone) on, i'd be regularly exposed to damascene experiences of all shapes and sizes, from linton kwesi johnson to ivor cutler to god knows what.

so far, so obvious, i suppose. but equally peel often educated me as to what i really didn't like. for instance, his interest in folk music struck me as unfathomable. often he'd play something ineffably fantastic by pere ubu or the raincoats or the slits or whoever, only to follow it with a selection of jigs and reels by the bothy band or some dirge by june tabor about walking out one midsummer morning and seeing a pretty maiden. i could see or rather hear no redeeming features in this music. it felt alien, but not in a good way. it was a culture that had nothing to do with me. surely this was the sort of thing they played on radio 2 for god's sake...

though for some weird reason i had bought steeleye span's 'all around my hat' on a single, my aversion to folk music remained very firmly in place for years, despite the fact i did have a soft spot for arran jumpers (i blame my gran's exceptional knitting skills). instead i devoured increasingly industrial amounts of krautrock, jazz, prog, post punk and avant rock. and though i had developed a love for john martyn, that was pretty much as close as i got. and anyway, he wasn't proper folk, was he?

in the late 80s i joined a band called three straw men. their guitarist andy bole had played with a very fine band called the lowest note on the organ. i had one of their singles. he hung out with fred frith and the like. they sent me a demo tape and though it sounded suspiciously like, well, folk music, i assumed all that would change and we'd become some wilfully odd experimental outfit.

i was wrong. andy was about to leave and we only managed one gig together; and i found that the other members were deeply into traditional breton and eastern european folk. but we had lots of gigs and studio time and despite my misgivings about the music, i stayed on, thinking that a broadening of my musical experience was probably not a bad idea.

i was right on that front but it was often a difficult experience. most audiences actually regarded us as a wilfully odd experimental outfit, so i had got my wish i suppose. and though initially the sight of accordions, melodeons, hurdy gurdies, pipes and banjos among our fellow musicians (not to mention their beards) that we shared bills with all over the country filled me with abject terror, eventually i learned at least some tolerance towards them. and their sincerity and passion for tradition began to trigger something slightly more profound in me, though my listening habits remained largely unchanged. while on tour in ireland, i would habitually slink off from some marathon pub session to listen to motorhead on my walkman.

something changed though, and it was probably in ireland that it happened. while i was deeply impressed by what went on in the sessions - the passion, the knowledge, the idea of a shared vocabulary of tunes and the notion of music as a precious and essential part of everyday life, the music itself still refused to speak to me, if that doesn't sound too pretentious. actually this routine by tommy tiernan sums up the pleasures of a good irish session beautifully.

but on my return i found myself with a hankering to hear some of that music. my bandmate ashley compiled a tape of irish tunes for me, and it rarely left my side for months. i still have it. but though i loved it dearly, this was music that was essentially exotica - as foreign to my cultural roots (whatever they were) as john zorn or linton kewsi johnson or ornette coleman.

so began a love/hate relationship with english traditional music that has of late became more of a love/love thing. there's much that still pisses me off about the folk scene (froots magazine, for instance and the indiscriminate use of the term 'folk' for anyone who has an acoustic guitar), though i do find these days i'm probably more on the side of those who'd ban drumkits and amplification from the stages of the cambridge festival; not because i think such things are contrary to the spirit of the music or that it cheapens it, rather than there's enough of that kind of thing elsewhere. i even tolerate accordions for fuck's sake.

i think part of this is might be born of some kind of desire to feel part of a cultural lineage, however bastardised it's been. but maybe it's more a desire to hear something that's somehow unmediated, unaffected, something honest. it's still somehow transgressive to hear someone like chris wood sing about how we wishes he were still a maid, or martin carthy declare his love for a blacksmith....i don't know, it's hard to explain. but increasingly it's the only kind of music i really want to listen to.

better get meself a tankard.

no surprises

off to the queen elizabeth hall to see john adams leading the london sinfonietta in a programme of works by american composers (including, not unsurprisingly, john adams). things kicked off promisingly with john cage's credo in US - a piece i'd not heard before and dating from 1942. scored for piano, two percussionists and 'radio or phonograph' (here, adams had prepared his own samples of american radio broadcasts). it was a lot of fun, sounding at times like charles ives on hallucinogens. i'm not sure if i was hearing things, but at one point the piano part seemed to be cruelly deconstructing ragtime cliches, removing all the usual dynamics and most crucially any sense of swing. it sounded a bit like jools holland. cage was not a jazz fan, and it showed.

next up was paul dresher's two part concerto for violin and electroacoustic band. the electroacoustic bit was actually two keyboardists playing yamaha sample workstations. it's a bit of a meaningless term these days i suppose, but i still think that was pushing it. i've heard a fair bit of dresher's stuff which seems to trawl a fairly barren but not unpleasant stretch of water somewhere between dodgy art rock and proper, serious classical music. this was no different, and as the 'band' took the stage i could see an electric guitarist among them. ooh, radical. there were some nice bits, particularly in clio gould's solo violin parts in the second movement, but the vaguely cosmic prog rock electric guitar just sounded silly (dresher is a guitarist himself and has recorded a lot of competent but boring sub-fripp loop noodling in the past). the electroacoustic bits were confined to prepared piano hits or horrible synthetic strings, which seemed entirely surplus to requirements to my ears. disappointing.

on to david lang, who runs the ubiquitous bang on a can allstars. his cheating, lying, stealing was a short chamber piece for bass clarinet, bassoon, lots of percussion, keyboards and woodwind; there were a lot of 'classic' minimalist techniques on display (it was probably the only piece in the programme that would really merit the term), but they were stretched and played about with in a maximal way. i liked it.

finally, john adams conducted his own son of chamber symphony. adams has never really grabbed me, though i still love a bit of shaker loops on occasion. there was a lot going on here; some nifty instrumental combinations and some very nice double bass lines too. yay. the start of the second movement was beautiful, but soon relapsed into a procession of strident, restless call and response between strings and brass. all very clever, but somehow it all left me a bit cold. i should say i was probably in the minority though.

this was very much the acceptable face of contemporary classical music (not too much dissonance, lots of rhythm etc) so i don't really know why i was surprised at how indifferent much of it left me feeling, even though i was often left in awe by the technical abilities of the players. it says a lot though it's not that surprising that the cage piece was probably the most entertaining and certainly carried the most sense of danger; much of the rest of the music did seem to sum up one of his maxims; 'we've nothing to say and we're saying it'.

on some faraway beach

i've just finished reading david sheppard's biog of bwian eno. it's a good read, and mr sheppard is both knowledgeable and an elegant writer. and though a fan, he maintains enough critical distance from his subject to avoid's certainly better than eric tamm's rather miserable tome. a couple of things stand out - the book's 439 pages long, yet by page 365 we're only at 1984, leaving less than a hundred pages for the last quarter of a century. the other is the sometimes less than favourable opinions of brain given by his sometime associates. gavin bryars is particularly sour, as is john cale on occasion (but then that's probably to be expected). what certainly comes across is eno's ability to be in the right place at the right time, and his ability to soak up high art conceptualism and squeeze it into pop music with varying degrees of success. a certain steely determination that machiavelli may have been proud of seems to mark some of his dealings, while others are marked by a heartwarming generosity of spirit towards his fellow musicians.

as sheppard says in his intro, there's a huge amount of enoid info out there, so any obsessives are probably likely to find little in the book they hadn't known already. and that's largely true, though i did pick up a few nuggets (as well as spotting a couple of errors, sadsack that i am). nowadays eno seems a rather distant figure to me, and some things about him (particularly his somewhat patronising obsession with africa) kind of grate. let's not mention coldplay or u2 or james or robbie williams. so i read the book with a certain detatchment which grew as it went on (the last hundred pages became a bit of an effort). last night i stuck on music for films, followed by another green world. it's no exaggeration to say i know every last note, drone, whirr and hiss of those records. i was relieved to find that despite all the words written by brian or mr shepherd or lester bangs or whoever, there's still an essential opacity, mystery and unabashed beauty to eno's music of that time that those words can't get rid of.

cale is of the opinion that brian's always slightly removed from his music, citing his reluctance to sing as a sign that he likes to hide his real self, his essence. he might have a point, but then again it's the opinion of someone whose music has often been about revealing the dark corners of his own psyche (listen to 'music for a new society', if you can). there's something else at work in what i reckon is brian's most emotionally engaging work; stuff like 'becalmed', 'slow water', 'through hollow lands'. i don't know what it is exactly, but it's way beyond any talk of oblique strategies or systems and in their own quiet way those pieces are as emotionally charged for me as beethoven's late quartets, john coltrane or even mr cale himself. for those pieces to still curl themselves around my core in the same way they did some 30 years ago when i first heard them must count for something.


well, i haven't been gracing the blogosphere with any of my usual gobbets of wisdom of late. mainly because i've been dragging my double bass all over the shop, and even playing it on occasion.

so maybe it's time to cast a critical ear over what i've been up to.

clang sayne
after much post production wizardry by the redoubtable mr conor curran, clang sayne's 'winterlands' has snuck out into the big bad world. it's a beautiful looking thing and it sounds good too, though as laura ruefully remarked t'other day, it's a bit too long. making it was hard work - not that it was difficult or unpleasant as such - it just became hard to generate a 'definitive' performance while the tape was rollin'. or rather, while the hard disk was whirrin'. yep, that old chestnut. anyway, the wire liked it enough to stick a track on the last wire tapper cd. hurrah. we've done four gigs, including a launch gig for the album last week at cafe oto. that gig was a bit of a curate's egg for me, but the others have been pretty good. it's got to the stage where we can start to take liberties with the songs, recasting them on the fly much like john martyn or tim buckley might have done. laura's off in new york for three months so we're taking a wee break...chiz.

lucy jane
playing with lucy seems to get better and better, even if the playing conditions aren't always as great as the music. the rather lovely mr paul may has chosen to play with us when he can and a recent gig hinted that we could have a very fine trio on our hands; it was a thing of beauty. we've also been moonlighting as a (ahem) jazz quartet with the wondrous ralph littlejohn on saxophones, taking liberties with tunes by everyone from nick drake to dusty springfield. lucy constantly amazes me with her musicality and her fearlessness. she's well good, and if someone doesn't take a serious interest in her soon it will prove to me once and for all that the world (and particularly the music business) is going to hell in a handcart.

conor and i wheeled out the sonnamble project for our first gig a few weeks back at the fleapit, alongside platform and paul may (trading as shaded monocle for the evening). we also brought in the v. wonderful ian r watson for a spot of trumpet, playing as duos, a quartet and a quintet. despite a few tech issues it was a good night and touchingly well attended. conor and i intend to get a release sorted by the end of october.

rick jensen
i've been gigging with rick for a year or so now. i have a thorny relationship with free improv having had what's felt like a huge amount of poor quality experiences playing it. but what's nice about rick is while i ponce around worrying about it, he doesn't give a fuck - he just goes for it. and sometimes (as at last week's gig at hoxton square's macondo) it all comes together. i always have a ball playing with paul (and our trio with watty needs some serious kicking back into touch); he generates this beautiful free swing that's such a joy to play with - airy, delicate but still intense as fuck when it needs to be...


i've been a gradual convert to the joys of spotify. as a music 'discovery' service it's quite passive, and its recommendations are patchy and sometimes unfathomable, unlike last or amazon or whatever. but for checking out all those things you meant to listen to but never managed to get round to (or had completely forgotten about), it's undeniably great. and i've even been moved to buy a couple of things as a result. ooh er.

the ads are increasingly annoying though - not so much because of their frequency but their naffness. those made by the spotify people themselves are the worst - they seem to be recorded on a webcam mic (the plosives could blow sensitive speakers) and i'm certain it's the same bloke doing a lot of them using slightly different voices. my favourite though is the one featuring a rather nervous sounding amy macdonald plugging her new album, which ends with this line - 'the guys at spotify believe that everyone loves music, and i'm sure you will too'. er, what? is amy sure that we'll believe in the somewhat radical notion that everyone loves music, or that, hey, we'll love it too now thanks to spotify. i don't think she's suggesting we'll love her music, which is probably just as well.

equally awful are the 'punters' voice messages telling us how great spotify is but wouldn't it be even greater if we could listen to the entire beatles back catalogue on it. again, some of the early ones seemed to have rather similar voices to those on some of the other ads...hmmm. certainly if the bloke with the comedy irish accent who says he'd love more dance music so he can get his dancing shoes on really talks like that i'd be very surprised and not a little sympathetic.

still, all this is unlikely to make me (or anyone else i know) actually shell out for a subscription to get shot of the ads, so it looks like that's where they're going to have to earn a crust for the next while...

on the other hand, i'm not sure if any artists make anything out of their plays at all. and i can understand why the likes of robert fripp have gone to quite considerable lengths to make sure their music is off it and be very public about their distrust of the operation. lob's last album is on there - not sure if anyone gave permission for that, but it's ok with me. it's not like anyone's going to listen to it, is it?

bewitched, blistered and bewildered

i'm not long back from three gigs in manchester with lucy. despite horrible blisters that meant i had to play each of them with my fingers bound up with surgical tape, it was a great few days. lucy's friend jules joined us on percussion and did a most admirable job; i'll miss him. and even though i'm as southern as it gets, i have to say that the north rocks.

lucy jane

wow. the first lucy jane video. it all went surprisingly well really, mainly due to lucy's fearlessness (and dare i say it grace) in front of the camera and also some of the loveliest natural light i've ever had the pleasure to wave a camera about in. for lucy's perspective on the shoot see here and here.

nice video

ooh. lovely. found on metafilter...

the necks

last week i saw the necks at the union chapel. most descriptions of the band say something like 'experimental jazz trio of double bass, drums and piano'. they'll probably mention krautrock and minimalism and stuff. none of this is inaccurate, but none of this (and not even their cds) comes close to capturing what they do on a stage with just three instruments.

not that i'm going to do any better, but i have to say this was one of the most transcendent gigs i've ever seen. or to be more accurate, heard. i kept my eyes shut for 90% of it - not because the band were particularly unattractive, and the union chapel is a gorgeous venue - but it was mainly because i couldn't reconcile what i saw on the stage with what i heard coming from it. building up from simple, spaced repeated figures, they go (usually over around 40 mins) from ripples to huge waves. something happens when all the overtones and harmonics created by the eddying piano arpeggios, clouds of cymbals and so on mesh; bells, electric pianos, harps and even what sounded like a choir emerge, wraith like, and fade. it is at times, unbearably beautiful without ever descending into mere prettiness. in a way this is kind of the same thing that phill niblock or john butcher or alvin curran or evan parker do; exploiting acoustic phenomena to musical ends. in the necks case, the ends were enough to leave me almost speechless; enough to render me incapable of going for a pint afterwards and going straight to me bed.

last time i saw them i thought that the gig would go in my top five of all time etc. they just put another one in there.

can blue men sing the whites?

bbc 4's latest big music documentary tells the story of the british blues explosion of the 60's. and it's brilliant; if you ever wondered just how and why a bunch of mainly middle class white boys from the home counties ended up imitating, developing and then exporting american black folk music back to its birthplace (and what's more, to a white audience who were completely unaware that this stuff had ever existed), this is the film for you. there are some great observations from most of the key players en the scene. even keith richards makes sense, and the fab val wilmer gets a lot of screen time.

it's not music i'm particularly fond (apart ftom a bit of fleetwood mac) of but there's no denying the passion and commitment of people lke tony mcphee or paul jones or chris dreja or even eric clapton. but what struck me was that all of them (except john mayall perhaps) were really aware of how odd it was that they should be obsessed with the music of people they had very little in common with. being unable to get sweets as a kid because of lingering post war rationing doesn't really equate with lynchings, segregation and enforced poverty; they didn't have the blues as such, but they wanted to play it nevertheless; something in it spoke to them.

anyways, here comes the rant. the prog set me off thinking about the way music travels across cultural boundaries and all that malarkey, and how to a large extent it's mediated and increasingly accelerated by technology. throughout all of the participants recalled the thrill of discovering this strange, alien music through records, and how they would travel miles to knock on some strange bloke's door just because they'd heard he'd got a muddy waters album.

this might seem rather quaint now, but it wasn't all that long ago - forty years or so. but before commercial recordings and the radio, such cultural transmissions would have to happen orally (should that be aurally maybe?), through people singing or playing to others actually in front of them. it's weird to think that even the most rabid and well monied follower of beethoven in the 19th century would probably only get to hear any of their hero's symphonies once or maybe twice. imagine only getting to hear 'dark side of the moon' or 'never mind the bollocks' or 'rumours' or whatever just the once. now there's a thought.

even in the early 60s though, the rate of assimilation was pretty slow compared to now (even despite all the speed that keef and his chums were knocking back). and while it may be great that at a few strokes of the keyboard we can hear pretty much anything from baka pygmy music to tuvan throatsinging to eskimo whaling songs, on the other hand i think it does have implications for how musical culture develops. nothing like that blues explosion will ever happen again. those conditions don't exist anymore. things are too fragmented these days, too fast to allow anything to develop at its own pace.

it seems to me that a lot of what currently passes itself off as cross cultural musical exploration is just simple cut and paste (often literally so now given the possibilities of digital recording). we get the bland horrors of the afro-celt sound system or any one of bill laswell's casual frankenstein creations. the end results are nearly always lowest common denominator. the richness of musics evolved over centuries are reduced to a bunch of exotic signifiers; a sitar here, a couple of tabla hits there, a few strums on a kora or a burst of the uilleann pipes or a hardanger fiddle, usually stitched together over a lame dub beat. why is it always dub, i wonder. maybe so middle aged white people like me can dance to it at WOMAD and not get too out of puff.

i'm not advocating that cross cultural collisions shouldn't happen at all. that would be silly. it's just that they're happening too fast. nothing's allowed to develop or grow, just slapped together to feed our hunger for novelty and sometimes the rather wet liberal notion that we live in some kind of nice global village where all cultures are equal and music is a universal language. er, no we don't. they aren't. and it isn't.

personally, as a white and (i admit it) middle class bloke from kent struggling to find some, er, 'identity' as a musician, i feel a bit rudderless in a lot of ways. and so i can see why this stuff happens. it's easy to be cynical (i certainly don't find it a challenge) but at the root of it all there is i think maybe a genuine search for some kind of identity and community. some 'spotty 16 year olds from dartford' (in the words of keith richards) found it in a shared love of strange and powerful music from thousands of miles away that they managed to make their own. but as the song goes, those were different times. maybe i should learn some hop picking songs...

rights and wrongs

'the music industry can create has ears only for the rustling of money; its heart pumps with the blood of the murdered.' (from henry cow's final press release - 1978)

'the music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. there's also a negative side.' (hunter s. thompson)

i suppose when those words were written it was clear to anyone of a left-leaning or anti-capitalist bent (or just plain old hippies) just what the music industry was; a bunch of big corporations making money by either exploiting and manipulating the god given talents of creative musicians or creating pre-packaged crap for teenage girls. etc etc.

punk changed all that; or at least that's what we thought. for a wee while there was a sense that the 'industry' was back in the hands of the musicians. but only for a wee while. as henry cow went on to say in their press release, 'independence is only a valid first step if revolution is the second'. soon enough labels like factory, rough trade, stiff and beggars banquet started to either behave like the majors or actually (and often covertly) become owned by them. and the majors became less interested in signing stuff that was 'left field' or whatever.

but back in them days, cassettes were the enemy. it was not unusual to unwrap your latest vinyl purchase and find this on the inner sleeve.

a more honest slogan written with the benefit of hindsight might read 'home taping is eating into our short term profits, though it probably allows for grass roots dissemination of our product and will in the long term probably result in greater sales'.

what is really offensive about that original slogan was the complete identification of 'music' with the industry that grew up as soon as it was possible to commodify it. it was an attitude that pissed everyone off, not just revolutionary socialists and freeloaders hoping to add to their hawkwind collections without paying a couple of quid.

it's interesting that the 'legality' bit was kind of tacked on there. nowadays confronted with the evils of filesharing, the industry has got serious; witness the recent spate of arrests, fines and raids on downloaders and uploaders alike. in the last day or so it's emerged that rapidshare are now, er, sharing their data on uploaders with 'rights holders'. so the clampdown continues...

it's kind of hard to have any sympathy with a music industry that's behaving like a slightly psychotic ex-lover towards its customers. or ex-customers. but there again, the vast majority of those ex-customers aren't looking to create a utopian community of shared music creation and listening free from the dead hands of commerce. they just want the same stuff they usually get. they want to hear it on the radio, watch the videos on the telly and see their fave fab pop stars mumbling away about fuck all on T4 or whatever. but they don't want to pay for any of it.

so i suppose what all this comes down to is 'ethics'. and there's a lot of weird little rules that music sharers employ to either salve their consciences or to act as some vague legal disclaimer - totally fuzzy will only host downloads of music released more than 2 years ago for instance.

my own ethics are hopelessly muddled too. i've downloaded a lot of music for free from blogs. some of it i can justify because either a) i've gone on to buy the cd or even a legal download or b) i own the original on vinyl or whatever. stuff i don't like i get rid of. so, a) seems fairly watertight to me should any 'rights holders' come knocking on my door. b) is probably less so. downloading old stuff by long dead musicians seems perfectly ok to me. after all, who gets the money? legally indefensible though. after all, i wouldn't steal a car, would i...

brian eno
often goes on about the idea of 'conferred value' when it comes to art. a painting or sculpture often has little intrinsic value. its monetary value is determined purely by how much someone is prepared to pay for it. sometimes that can be manufactured through hype, but mostly it's a complex and unmappable set of circumstances that make this happen. what's happened with the music industry is that it's taken on the job of conferring value for us. of course there are millions of copies of 'sergeant pepper' around so it's not quite the same (see walter benjamin for details), but you get the idea. i suppose radiohead's 'pay what you like' experiment was an attempt to put the onus back on the, er, 'consumer'. and it didn't really work (at least without the physical release). even radiohead fans like a free lunch.

i've made a fair bit of music that i've put up on t'internet for free download. it didn't cost me anything to make really apart from my time. realistically i can't be arsed to try and get some way of making money out of music, and i've got a proper job so i don't have to. so that's a 'vanity' project i suppose. if someone approached me to put it out 'commercially' i probably wouldn't be interested. on the other hand i've recently played on two upcoming albums that did cost money to make. studio time, mastering costs, duplication, etc etc. and all self-financed. it's still not cheap to do that stuff. fine if you're sitting at home surrounded by software plug ins, but if you want to use 'real' instruments there's still costs involved, and if you want to make an actual cd you can sell rather than a bunch of mp3s. the bottom line is that if someone started putting that stuff out on a blog i'm not sure that i'd be that excited about it.

it may be an unfashionable view but i still labour under the delusion that somehow musicians should be paid for what they do. even radiohead. it may have taken a bit of a knock recently, but it's still a capitalist world out there. there has to be a way of cutting out the middlemen and getting some kind of sensible way of renumerating musicians - enough to keep them in pot noodles but not cocaine, perhaps...

come the revolution, comrades...

for god's sake

apparently the archbishop of canterbury has given a speech in which he's told us that god is not about to intervene to save us all from the perils of global warming.

i don't know about you, but this hasn't come as much of a shock as it seems pretty much in line wth the rather staunch non-interventionist policy that the almighty has maintained for the last two thousand years.

looks like we'll have to sort it out ourselves then.

no matter, try again. fail again. fail better

ooh, pretentious post title or what? never mind. the other night i was rehearsing at laura's house and was pleased to see this postcard on the wall. it's a portrait of samuel beckett by tom phillips. i must have bought about 30 of them over the last god knows how many years; every now and again i'll pck up a dusty half finished book from the shelves and find one inside, marking the point where i gave up on it. sad.

i don't really know much about beckett, but that quote's always stuck with me. i found it echoed the other day when i read something that eno said - something along the lines of 'copying someone else's work is always a good idea, as long as you don't succeed'. when i started playing music with my friend martin (back when the earth's crust was still cooling) that's exactly what we did. armed with a couple of reel to reel recorders, a guitar or two, a really crap synthesizer and some home built electronics, we'd try and ape the styles of our then heroes - everyone from killing joke to tim buckley to john cale to. er. bauhaus. and of course we'd fail. miserably. but somehow in doing so we created our own thing, though i'm not sure we knew that at the time.

ths was of course down to our lack of competence and the fact that we had very limited gear. so not exactly the result of a well thought out aesthetic approach. but the more i think about it the more that mr b's words seem to be something to keep in mind. usually when i sit down at my home studio for an evening of fiddling about i have some kind of vague idea of what i'm aiming for, just because you have to start somewhere. but it never turns out like that, and though sometimes i just get pissed off and scrub the whole thing, at others i'll end up wth something that is maybe better. failing better, maybe.

this is partly incompetence (still) but more tied in with the way i work, which tends to be entirely intuitive rather than planned or thought about much. which i guess is why i admire people like lucy and laura so much, who seem to have a clear idea of what they want to do and how to do it. and seem untouched by their influences in many ways. i'm sure they'd both think i was talking bollocks here, and they may be right, but if they're failing, they're really really good at it.

groupthink pt 1

i once read a book called 'how not to ruin your band' or something like that. i've just tried googling for it without any success but that's ok as it is a deeply crap book and i wouldb't recommend it to anyone. it sets out to tell you how to form a band; how to choose its members. how not to screw it up. all of this valuable advice is informed by a combination of vague music biz talk and even vaguer psychometrics. these included a set of multiple choice 'personality' questions, the answers to which would tell you what instrument you were suited to play.

that was the kind of thing that led me to wonder if the author was just taking the piss. but of course we probably recognise the kind of thing he was on about, particularly if you reduce it to something like this -

singers - up themselves.
guitarists - up themselves, but louder.
bassists - boring. probably finds 6 strings too much of a challenge.
keyboard players - clever. really boring.
drummers - stupid. really not boring.

i could go on but you get the idea. and i've probably played with people who to some small degree have at times behaved in a way that might have had some of those qualities that their instrument befitted. ahem. but it's the stuff of in-jokes rather than anything that bears much analysis. mind you, i was always a crap guitarist...

over the hill - john martyn (1948 - 2009)

john martyn died yesterday. he made a lot of records. some of them contain some of the warmest, gutsiest and beautiful music i've ever heard. others aren't very good, and some aren't even half as good as those. i saw jm play live a lot. some gigs were brilliant, but most were indifferent with fleeting moments of greatness; some were just awful. but even if the gig was crap at least you took some comfort from the fact that he was still alive. he was by all accounts a pain in the arse to have to deal with (a self mythologising stoner drunk; unpredictable, occasionally violent, but posessed of an irresistible boyish charm). but he still made those bloody gorgeous records that seemed to fill my ears with warm honey (not literally, you understand. don't try it at home). those records that i've been listening to since the Britannia Music Club sent me a copy of 'one world' by mistake when i was fifteen.

the last time i saw him i left before the end of the gig. it was the first time i'd ever done that in all those years. it's probably a bit sentimental to say it but i wish i hadn't done that now.

i was going to write more but i think my friend colin's post does the job a bit better...goodnight john, and thanks for the music, you mad old bastard.

sex, lies and super eight

many moons back i worked for a small video studio where we shot test commercials, corporate videos and the occasional low budget telly programme. during quiet periods when we weren't at the beck and call of the usual coked up idiots that formed our client base, my colleague matt (possibly one of the funniest, most beautiful blokes i have ever had the pleasure of knowing) and i would experiment endlessly with lighting, super 8 cameras and whatever we could get our hands on. matt was friends with a bloke called ben, who was in a band called miranda sex garden, who were signed to mute records. we ended up producing a very low budget electronic press kit (ie a video) for them, and as a result got the gig of making a promo video for their forthcoming single.

ben, matt and i met several times, drank a lot, talked a lot of bollocks and mapped out a storyboard and budget on the back of a few beermats. ben was to direct; i was director of photography and matt was also on camera.

upon seeing our budget the record company brought in a producer, which was probably a wise decision, though she only turned up for one of the shooting days and then spent most of the day on her phone. this is what producers do. she did raise her eyebrows when two of ben's mates turned up to roll around naked on the floor. other than that we were left alone. apart from the one studio day (which was unbelievably chaotic) we filmed guerilla style, trespassing all over the place. we even got my then four year old daughter holly to appear - her fee of a tube of smarties (or two) helped keep the budget to within manageable limits.

i'm still amazed that we got away with it to be honest (though i guess that if mute were prepared to release what is essentially a huge slab of atonal wailing as a single, then i probably shouldn't be). i also served as offline editor and remember mute supremo daniel miller turning up to view the results. he seemed to love it.

i'd almost forgotten about the whole thing till i came across it recently via the wonders of youtube. them were the days.

homemade software - bring earplugs

over the last few months i've been 'hanging' (as i believe the young people say these days) with my friend conor (aka CJC). conor makes very nicely crafted electronic music and is clever enough to write his own software patches. we've had a few sessions where i noodle away on the double bass or lap steel or whatever while he processes the noodles through a bewilderng array of filters of his own design. the results are sometimes swooningly gorgeous sonic cathedrals of sound; at others they can erupt into massive swathes of distended, earsplitting noise. as conor says, "homemade software - bring earplugs". this is as good a tagline as any for when we get to do gigs.

what has happened apart from a few moments of temporary deafness and possible monitor damage is that we're gradually evolving a way of making music that is really new to me. while i'm used to shoving instruments through loads of boxes or processing them into submission with software, i'm not used to someone else doing it to what i'm playing while i play. conor's treatments coax weird ghost frequencies from the bass; the gentlest of bow strokes produce sighing, angelic choirs; plucked harmonics are mutated into the kind of ethnic percussion you might find on the planet tharg. it's actually more like two people playing the same instrument, only one of them is redesigning the instrument while it's being played. knd of digital (as in fingers) meets digital (as in zeros and ones)...

what helps is that conor's as much a musician as he is an engineer; what it actually sounds like is as important to him as the elegance of his code. which is pretty much why it works. and probably why the sounds are often so lovely.

there'll be more from us soon. have your earplugs handy.

albums of 2008 pt 2

matana roberts - chicago project
strangely my love for this record was given a huge boost by a stunningly ill informed and wrongheaded review which brought into focus just why it's so good. ms roberts is an alto saxophonist and member of the legendary AACM who's managed to evolve a supple, open and beautifully crafted music that owes much to certain jazz traditions but doen't just ape them. neither though does it feel the need for novelty that screws up so much so much contemporary 'jazz', particularly as far as the rhythm section are concerned. when there are so few female jazz players about it's always tempting to read their music in gender terms, but i'm going to resist that. the music resists it too.

brian redeems himself. nearly.

my love for brian eno has been sorely tested of late. while i could understand his work wth u2 (just about), his recent assocations with coldplay, dido, jools holland and jason donovan (!) have been hard to swallow. now i know he's got a mortgage and kids and everything, but still...

but his recent appearance on the bbc's question time almost made up for that. anyone who gives jack straw a good verbal kicking is ok in my book...

albums of 2008 pt1

er, slightly late to the party, but nothng new there. here's my first stab at the usual end o' year list type thing.

Rachel Unthank and The Winterset - The Bairns

it wasn't so long ago that folk was a four letter word. nowadays it seems to be used to describe anyone who has an acoustic guitar, is a bit sensitive and doesn't use autotuning on their vocals. and it covers a multitude of sins. just take a look at the list of artists on tagged as 'folk'. er, jack johnson? nelly furtado?

to me the word suggests some kind of connection with 'tradition' (i'm being Eurocentric here - American folk is a different thing altogether). so in my possibly slightly warped and definitely simplistic view, nick drake isn't folk, while billy bragg is. whatever, the unthank sisters most definitely are folk by anyone's reckoning (except maybe the most hardcore of purists). ok, so they cover robert wyatt and will oldham (more on that later) and replace the guitar with piano, but they tick all the right boxes; songs sung in regional accents, directly and simply. songs about having your true love press ganged into nelson's navy, lost maidenhood, dying children, domestic violence and getting pissed.


but it's their cover of wyatt's 'sea song' that really does it for me and where they show how good they really are. the original is so perfect and so much wyatt's song that it resists interpretation by anyone else. in fact, tears for fears had the gall to try it back in the eighties. i'm not exaggerating too much when i say that they didn't so much cover it as stunned it with a brick, nailed it to the floor and then repeatedly sodomised it. but the unthanks' treatment of it is sublime; unforced, exquisitely arranged (particularly the violin part, which references a lot of wyatt's vocal improvising on the original) and becky unthank's vocal is equally wondrous. and she's only 20. sheesh.

the rest of the album is just as good. the closing. almost ambient collage of lullabies punctuated with abstract deep space piano is so gorgeous it's almost hard to listen to it. as mr wyatt says..."They are like the morning dew that hasn't steamed off yet, they are fresh and new and I really don't think they know how good they are".

stump - buffalo

they don't write them like this anymore...especially for james.

youtube/ mashup

geek warning...

just come across this, which offers users a youtube stream based on their listening habits. i got emmylou harris, ornette coleman, jolie holland, can and francoise hardy plus a very nice clip of cassandra wilson and david murray in the studio. so far so good. and then i got nirvana's 'smells like teen spirit'. now maybe there are a couple of plays for kurt and his chums lurking on my playlist. but there is certainly no fucking razorlight, who came up next with some song with 'wire' in the title. when the ukulele orchestra of great britain turned up doing the nirvana tune soon after i remembered that youtube can't differentiate between artist names and track titles (the fab pop combos wire and spirit feature heavily in my playlist). doh. so, er, if someone could sort that out and maybe find some way of maybe scrobbling video plays or adding clips to your youtube profile...anyway, it's worth a peep, innit.


been listening to a lot of mingus of late. monday marks the 30th anniversary of his death, so i've decided to listen to nowt else on that day.

take that, bill drummond.