goodbye's too good a word

someone asked me the other day how many bands i'd been in. by the time i'd worked out an approximate answer they'd lost interest but it set me thinking about how all those bands had ended, or how my involvement with them had. and maybe why. too.

i'd also read simon's rather nice piece about moist, in which he refers to our (entirely amicable, i think) demise. he got it spot on, i think. we had run out of steam, weren't really coming up with any new material, just getting together before the monthly gig to make sure we had a vague idea of what we were going to do. andy, our irreplacable drummer, was also about to move out of london, so it was unlikely this situation would improve without a certain amount of commitment,

i remember before our penultimate gig simon, ralph and i were standing outside the fleapit. i was suggesting that maybe we should go in a more acoustic direction. this was a not entirely unselfish suggestion; i'd switched from electric to exclusively playing double bass, and with moist it really wasn't working out. the band was too loud for me to compete. when amplified excessively, the bass would sound horrible or inaudible and my playing would suffer as a result. and, i suggested, we should be more improvisational, a bit freer. but definitely quieter.

anyway, simon said that he was essentially interested in doing entirely the opposite thing; more electricity, more structure. maybe we should call it a day. so we decided we'd do a farewell gig and that would be it. it was all very quick and efficient. i was, i think, a little taken aback at the speed of it. we told andy when he turned up and he said something like 'oh alright. have you got a roll-up?'

drummers eh?

as simon says, we did go off in very different directions. so it was, i think, the right thing to do. having said that, we have played together since and it was brilliant. and it may happen again.

and i played electric bass. yeah, whatever.

it's potentially difficult to write about this kind of thing without upsetting people, but i've generally been lucky in that none of the breakups i've been in have really been nasty. in two cases, the bands kind of just stopped. we'd have a gig after which we just woudn't ever bother to get together again. lob's demise was like that. we'd done a few cds. they had airplay, nice reviews. our final cd made it to (wait for it) no 6 in the jazz fm cutting edge chart. the band had been going for about six years and had seemed to rejuvenate itself whenever someone left or joined. no-one had done either for some time, and after a period of really good stuff happening it had, a bit like moist, run out of steam. the last gig we did was a showcase music industry thing in nottingham. we were playing our cosmic beat driven improv epics in front of possibly 7 people (that's one more than was in the band). everyone else was in the tent outside listening to some gypsy band with a mad cimbalom player ripping it up. which is where we should have been too. we were not at our best and it was hard work. worst of all, as we came off the stage a very polite but insistent woman insisted that we had ten minutes left and we should go back on. we did, but the experience didn't raise our game.

the weird thing was we all had a really good time doing the gig and got on generally a lot better than we usually did. or so it seemed to me.

so we said goodbye to each other in the wee small hours at a service station in the middle of nowhere and never bothered to organise another rehearsal, gig or anything else. a few months passed and then one of us (possibly me) sent an email saying that unless anyone felt otherwise, they'd assume we'd broken up. and we all assumed we'd had. again, all of us have played together since, and some still do.

my favourite exit was not one of mine, but the guitarist in the first band i was in - the semi-legendary uncle lumpy and the fishdoctors. this guitarist had not fitted in fantastically well in the group either musically or socially, and proved whatever doubts we may have had about him at a charity gig (comic relief, in deal castle). he'd had some equipment problems. when these persisted, he became agitated, smashing his guitar on the stone floor, and chucking his effects pedals all over the place, resulting in a hail of bits of wood, strings, metal boxes and nine volt batteries. he then left the building,

to our credit we finished the song, rather like the band on the titanic. the applause may either have been muted or otherwise, i can't remember. then adrian, our drummer and wit, announced quietly, 'we are now a quartet'.

that's the way to do it.

japan (in a dishpan) and manafon

in between protracted bouts of newsom-swooning i've been cocking an ear to david sylvian's manafon. my first experience of mr batt was at a japan gig at folkestone's leas cliffe hall. this was around the time of their debut album, the charmingly titled 'adolescent sex'. they were glammed up in a kind of new york dolls stylee but played more like bowie or roxy. they did not go down with the regulars at the venue, who would flock there weekly for a diet of prog, reggae (there was a lot of reggae - the taxi gang would always stop off in folkestone on their way to europe) and, er, hawkwind. you had to go to canterbury to see anything punk or post punkish, which was kind of ironic. the headline act that week was, i think, er, jim capaldi. despite the many synth solos, the proggers were not keen on the lipstick and eyeliner which were clearly signs of having sold out to the teenage girl market. the few punks were not impressed with the band's musical virtuosity (or the eyeliner, come to think of it). a feeble but persistent drizzle of cans and bottles persisted pretty much throughout the last half hour of the set. i don't remember anything about jim capaldi.

the next time was on top of the pops a few years later, when it took me a while to figure out that it was the same band. and they were good - by this time i was deeply into eno, talking heads and the like, and mick karn's bass playing was very like that of my idol percy jones. but there was something deeply annoying about them as well. it was david sylvian. the bowie-esque faux cockney twang had gone to be replced by this honeyed existential croon and dreadful lyrics that hinted at significance but actually had as much as any of jon anderson's. i bought 'tin drum' anyway because i had decided that richard barbieri was brilliant; just like eno but with more technique.

i hate that video with a passion that surprises me even now, it must be said. i only remained at all interested in what dave did from then on because he always ended up working with people i liked. deep breath - jon hassell, holger czukay, danny thompson, jaki liebezeit, robert fripp, kenny wheeler, marc ribot, even percy jones (what you might call a sylvianian family). i bought a fair number of his records begrudgingly. i liked the instrumental ones best (sylvian's very good at atmospherics), because that voice, and those words....they would literally make me wince. mainly because i could hear every word pronounced immaculately, so none of his painfully crafted jean paul sartre or jean cocteau references could escape me. jon anderson never made that mistake.

a few years ago he made the really not very predictable move of hooking up with derek bailey for 'blemish'. manafon is the same kind of thing. sylvian sings over free improv, not with it and tinkers with it abit. it's recorded first and then he does his thing. which makes it kind of unique as far as i know, at least as a method you'd use for an entire album. the voice is huskier now and has a lived in quality which is hard not to warm to. it sounds more like a real person. and the words are great, much sparer, conversational, often dark. they're like a less playful peter blegvad at times; allusive and elusive at the same time.

so he's got a stellar cast of top notch improv/noisy types of various persuasions from sachiko m to fennesz to john tilbury to keith rowe to evan parker etc etc etc in various combinations. some of those combinations were made later using protools or whatever, but that doesn't matter. this isn't really about free improv as a process. these are stretched songs, none of which are particularly hummable, as if you hadn't guessed. that said, there are ghosts (sorry) of song structure from sylvian's electronics, synths and guitar. it errs towards the minimal, as you might expect from the cast.

i was about to waffle on about how much i'm sarting to like this record but i've just seen chris's rather positive appraisal, of it, which i think is pretty spot on.

damn. it seems i really like some records by david sylvian and joanna newsom.


back when i was writing reviews i got sent a copy of joanna newson's 'the milk eyed mender'. i didn't get very far with it, and tossed it into the box of cds to go to the charity shop (known in the office as 'the box of shame'. eventually a colleague discovered it; he was already apparently a big fan and was rather disappointed in my inabilty to appreciate her genius.

it wasn't that i thought she wasn't a genius but that i just couldn't get past my immediate dislike of her voice. i thought i had a high tolerance of peculiar singers whose voices could be described as an acquired taste, but i wasn't too bothered about acquiring a taste for this one.

when 'ys' came out featuring arrangements by van dyke parks etc i tried again and met with a similar level of success. by this time it had become clear that ms newsom was doing something that was probably really good and was certainly not much like anything else that was going on and that a lot of people really liked it. but i just didn't get it.

so the announcement of the release of the three cd 'have one on me' didn't really register with me as a potentially gripping event in my rich cultural lifestyle. ahem. but then i read a review that mentioned how her voice had changed as a result of a medical condition; joni mitchell was mentioned. and kate bush, this was somehow just enough to pique my interest again so i ended up listening (in a distracted way) to NPR's stream of the entire album. after three songs i'd ordered it.

i can honestly say i've not been so in love with a record for some years. and so far i've only listened to disc one. i like it so much that i don't really want to write about it and anyway there's enough people out there doing that already, and far better than i could. i think i'll end up checking out the earlier ones again at some point and maybe i'll end up completely revising my opinion of them. but i'm not in any hurry just yet.

the only problem i have with the album is the series of photos of ms winsom poncing around in her underwear (see above) which look like the kind of things you'd see framed on the walls of a gents hairdresser in the 1980s. it doesn't quite sit right with what i hear, somehow...

rip charlie gillett

i've just heard that charlie gillett (oft referred to by gideon coe as 'the silver fox') has died, i used to love his shows on GLR/Radio London (the best local radio station in the world for a wee while in the 90s, i'll wager). best was radio ping pong, where charlie and a guest would play alternate records and talk about them. i met mr gillett a few times and he was a lovely bloke, both ridiculously knowledgeable and passionate about music in a quietly infectious way. i didn't always share his tastes but he taught me a lot.

i still have a cassette recording of his ping pong session with brian eno (yeah, i know, him again) which is a lovely two hours of gospel, doowop, afrobeat and amusing banter.

i think i'll dig it out now and give it a listen.

thanks mr gillett.

in the studio

i have a love/hate relationship wih recording studios. while i'm inevitably drawn in geeky fashion to the flashing lights and am actually interested in the specs of compressors, eq units and even patchbay configurations, as a musician i am filled with trepidation upon entering them. which is why my natural inclination is to avoid studios in favour of less formal, DIY recording methods. that works some of the time (with lob it seemed to work quite well) but there are some occasions where recording needs to be done 'properly'.

once you're through the studio doors, there's a lot of decisions to be made. some are probably best left to the engineer, who will for a short time be effectively a member of your band and not just hired labour, with any luck.

the trick is to find a set of circumstances to record in that both enable you to give a good performance and get the sound you want. that could mean anything from putting up one mic in a local church or by a river at dawn and just playing, or a month or two in an air conditioned box dropping in, double tracking, sampling, splicing, looping, precessing etc, etc, etc. this last scenario is more likely if you don't really know what sound you want.

even within the studio there are of course loads of ways to commit your genius to disc for the edification of future generations. most bands i've been in have chosen to record more or less live, sometimes opting to do overdubs, sometimes not. this can pose all sorts of problems; playing effectively in those situations relies so much on where you are and what you can hear. if the double bass player needs to be near the drummer then that makes the engineer's job a bit trickier and your recording a lot less malleable, so you weigh that up. will it work if the singer's in another room and you've got your back to her? is that more important than being able to get a clean sound? there's usually a compromise point. where that point is depends on time, money, mood, communication and possibly the prevailing wind direction.

i've just spent the best part of two days recording with lucy and paul in a sweet sounding and eccentrically, beautifully scruffy studio called dropout in sunny south london. we still have overdubs and mixes to do but even the rough mixes we've taken away sound rather lovely. we've been very lucky with our choice of engineer in particular, and the fact the studio has a cat is most important.

meet stewart.

we've been recording to tape. which is great. it just seems to avoid the kind of brittleness you can get sometimes with digital. it's a bit more...forgiving in some way. and we've been recording without click tracks, pretty much live. so the focus is pretty much on collective performance.

here's a member of the collective.

one of the reasons i like playing with lucy is that we never do anything quite the same way twice. there are very few prearranged endings in the repertoire, for one thing. most of the arrangements have kind of evolved organically and can change a bit. even the more tightly arranged material has a bit of suppleness to it. so it's an inexact science which relies on the musicians being comfortable and able to concentrate, listen and give a reasonably consistent, error free performance in what can be quite an alienating set of circumstances.

this isn't always easy, and for the more sensitive among us can lead to an attack of the horrors, as it slowly dawns that every mistake or lapse of taste you churn out could potentially be around to haunt you and possibly others for ever. i speak from experience. what i really loved about dropout was the way james (our engineer) and tim (his assistant) made sure that when the tape was running, the lights were low and the monitoring was right and we could all see each other and we were as happy as we could be. they would even secretly record the run throughs just in case we delivered something wondrous while we weren't thinking about it too hard. this is the kind of stuff that makes it worth doing things this way.