Sunday, May 12, 2019

You Take It On The Run, Baby.

For the latest date on our never-ending tour (of Stowmarket) we in The Picturehouse Big Band have decided to freshen up the set, and to this end had convened at The Drummer’s house to run through a couple of new songs. And by ‘new’ we mean “From !979”. With a nod to modernity, the other one was from 1982. No-one can accuse us of complacency or not knowing our audience, at least. During the meticulous deconstruction process at rehearsal we had discovered that the chords to the verse of the former rather neatly matched the intro to the latter, which at least narrowed down the number of different notes we’d had to learn, and the order in which to put them.

At the pop show itself we had a hearty turnout, bolstered by a number of familiar faces – The Other Guitarist wonders if, since we’d organised our diaries with each other and the landlady, perhaps the audience could do similarly, and then we’d all know where we were going to be, and when. This seems sensible, and we resolve to sync our calendars. We are also joined by a number of members of the Young Farmers Club, who are celebrating the birthday of one of their brethren and are intent on hearing some Fleetwood Mac. Happily we are able to partially satiate their needs, and relieved to learn that the acronym of their organisation is no to be applied, as so often in the past, to us collectively as a result.

Everyone is on good form, and quips and rejoinders are soon bouncing around the room in what some might consider a totally unprofessional manner. Even The Keyboard player (normally taciturn to the point of hermitry) regales us with a good one about the pair of shoes he bought off a drug dealer. I am not yet fully aware of how fortuitous this act will eventually prove. At one point there is a small issue with the input socket proving to have a Norman Collier-like effect on the growling output of the amp during my stint on the bass, and which can only be ameliorated by tippy-toeing, twisting a hip and resting the lead on my thigh. The resulting pose could probably best be rendered as 'effete Phil Lynott'. At the time I considered that this would be the campest thing I’d do all weekend.

To be honest, a couple of the re-lifed additions to the set* haven’t really worked as well as they could have done, and we are reflecting on this in the car park, post-performance. “I’m not sure” says The Singer “...that ‘Go Your Own Way’ really worked. I think it’s probably the singing”. The playing didn’t really help pull it off” I add, remembering the solo which was probably less Lindsey Buckingham than Lindsey Lohan in its execution. The Other Guitarist wanders over. “We think that ‘Go Your Own Way’ didn’t really work” The Singer repeats. “It’s the vocals”. And the playing” I add. There is a pause as we consider the ramifications. The lights were good…” offers The Drummer.

In the meanwhilst I am happy that my signature big power ballad showcase - ‘Take It On The Run’ by The REO Speedwagon big haired big beat combo - has gone as well as it has.

Fast forward twenty four hours and I am outside a bar in Brighton**, about to drop into a Karaoke night organised and hosted by two flamboyantly coiffed and be-sequinned drag queens. I am unsure of where I fit into the current heirarchy in the grand scheme of things. Am I a Bear?” I enquire of my wife, upon whose invitation the pair of us are here. No. Phill Jupitus is a Bear”. She pauses somewhat deliberately. “At best you’re just a man with a Beard”. I think she’s doing it on purpose.

Unsurprisingly, the evening is a hoot. Toward the the end of the night, I am aware that there are moves afoot to coax me on to the stage in order that I can better be exhibited for the delectation of the throng. Mrs Skirky is being badgered to provide intel on something I might be prepared to perform for the crowd’s enjoyment. In order to try and stave off my blushes she thinks of the most heterosexual number - which they will absolutely, definitely not have in their library - that she can. He sometimes does ‘Take It On The Run’ by REO Speedwagon” she says, which is why, five minutes later, I find myself on stage about to perform for an archly critical audience. We are, to paraphrase Dorothy, not in Stowmarket any more. I am handed a microphone, and the crowd hushes expectantly.

So” I begin “I bought these shoes off a drug dealer...”

*We played basically the same two sets throughout our 2018 residency, but to be fair that was once every four months rather than twice a weekend straight for a year as some of our peers do.

**Long story.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

May Day! May Day!

I am drawn to Alexandra Park, in the heart of swinging downtown Ipswich, to celebrate International Workers’ Day in the company of Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs, a number of worthies from the international community, and some musicians. Obviously, these are not mutually exclusive positions to keep. 
Upon arrival I am greeted with the news that Luke – on sound – has not received any stage specs, specifically our careflly crafted series of eight-by-ten black and white photographs with the circles and arrows on the back of each one explaining what each one is. He seems ambivalent about this at best. I explain that we need three mics, four DI’s, two amplifier hook ups and that there may be a marimba. He seems momentarily enlivened. “A marimba?” he says. “”No, not really” I reply. He is momentarily crestfallen.

The last time I was here Picturehouse performed on the morning after my stag do, which had - among other things – involved kidnapping the landlord of our local and forcing him to perform Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel Like Dancin’”. The stag do, not the gig. However today I am not only playing, but ostensibly stage managing. This role will, due to the absolute professionalism of all of our performers, the aformentioned Luke, MC Jock Davis and a generous backstage binful of ice and beer, mostly be a blissfully stress-free series of tasks, principally involving humping drum kits off’ve stage left and replacing them with equally deep-throated kits from the reserve stash to the right. Jock – clipboard to hand and inviting all performers to furnish him with biographical, geographical and commercial details with which to entrance our audience – is on the stopwatch. I’m pretty much looking for band members for whom to hand their individually tailored thank-you letters containing their hourly stipend - again, a much-appreciated gesture which many, many other local events could save themselves a great deal of online opprobrium by adopting.

Mr. Wendell observes the young people’s stage equipment with a quiet bewondermont. “They’ve got so much!” he observes. “I was a bit concerned about leaving gear round the back, but they’d probably look at it and have a bit of a laugh". “If we’re lucky” I say “They might take pity on us and leave us something extra”.“Like Santa” he says. Later there will be bass player whose foot pedals control the time signatures, key changes and rhythm pads to the rest of the band via onstage in-ear monitoring. Satisfyingly, he also has a Flanger*.
The Dogs performance is brisk and hearty. There has been some discussion around what constitutes a ‘festival set’, but in the end we just decided to do what we do, including the power ballad and the polka number. Turny is not on singing form, and so a late couple of substitutions remind us of just how much we have in the tank, material-wise. Always a happy luxury to be able to afford. We get the ‘one more’ signal and finish with ‘Nelson’, which is really starting to adopt the show-stopping mantle we all quietly hoped it deserved.

“Thank you” says Helen. “I’m now off to put on a big jumper”.

*I know. Me too.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

This just in...or ‘out’, rather.

Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs, as a band, has always been very much a live entity. Songs tend to be stretched and manipulated, so that cues and endings are dictated by the feel of the moment, and communicated by nods and cues. This does not not always sit well with Fiddly, a man who prefers to operate under formal arrangements, at least in musical terms. “That’s not the way we did it last time” has become a familiar, if plaintive, refrain at Dog Central. With this in mind he suggested that we record some rehearsals in order to fix the format of our material, and put an end to all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace once and for all.

We did so, and it turned out that when we listened back to our efforts we had some pretty special performances on disk. What if, we thought to ourselves, we tidied up a few of the looser ends and mixed these down properly? And so on a few spare evenings and weekends we tramped out to The Hovel – Fiddly’s rehearsal studio-cum-shed – sometimes singly, and on occasion en masse, in order to redo a few errant harmonies, fix the odd timing aberration and generally buff up the bridges.

Sometimes we dropped things out entirely, and on one occasion a couple of us turned up to find that someone had had a moment of inspiration and added a complementary vibraphone part while no-one else was watching. It was very much an old-school approach in terms of getting it together in the country without click tracks, sans autotune, and eschewing cut and paste technology. What you have here is essentially the sound of a bunch of people playing some songs in a room (even if – admittedly - not all on the same day).

Our thanks are due to the devotion to duty of Fiddly Richard, who spent an awfully long time in his back garden either compiling endless alternate mixes for our approval, wiring up headphones, tracking down errant buzzes in the system and enthusiastically chasing pigeons away in order that their incessant cooing wouldn’t bleed onto the vocal tracks.  

Singing and playing by Steve ‘Mr. Wendell’ Constable, Richard ‘Gibbon’ Hammond, Shane ‘Skirky’ Kirk, Richard ‘Fiddly’ Lockwood, Robert ‘Young, Young Bob’ Lockwood, Helen ‘La’ Mulley and Tony ‘Ellis’ Winn.

The Misfits written by Shane Kirk
There Is Nothing (The Wave) written by Helen Mulley and Shane Kirk
What’s The Moonlight For? written by Tony Winn
Harrogate written by Shane Kirk

Monday, February 25, 2019

If it ain't broke, don't break it.

This crazy business of what we call ‘show’ is, as the more spiritually inclined of our brethren might say, a house with many rooms. Up the top end of the East Wing are your international hyper stars, charging the far side of your average pub band’s five way split for a single ticket. Over there, a multitude of jobbing musicians who are prepared to sofa surf and forgo weekly laundry in the hopes of some day becoming one of the former. Round our neck of the woods there is a carousel of fetes, festivals and showcases that you can hop on to sometimes merely by being in the right place at the right time, above averagely talented or simply charming to work with. Having all three in your locker doesn’t hurt at all. Luckily we have Helen for that.

Having been on three sides of the great divide (artist, promoter, hands-on stage wrangler) I appreciate that there are traditional mores to be maintained if everyone’s going rub along the same way. That’s not to say that there isn’t a way to kick over the statues and revolutionise the industry, but I don’t see it happening at my level any time soon. Trying to set up some summer shows for my (our) band can involve filling in multiple application forms, which in turn might require three different social media addresses, or you might remind those nice folk you played for last year that you’re still available, pulling in some personal favours (at this level more in hope than expectation) or simply being pleasantly surprised when someone gets in touch and asks if you’re free on such-and-such a date. It’s all-consuming, and I don’t even do this full time.

Being part of a seven piece band means that these can often feel like Sisyphean processes, and so if you ask me, the least you can do is try to be prompt, concise and polite. It was a pleasure and a privilege indeed to speak directly to an actual human on Friday night and have a gig booked with them by lunchtime on the following Monday. Similarly, a club got in touch with us over the weekend, and by this morning I was compiling a fifty word biography, sourcing a half-decent photo and reading their mission statement regarding what PA they did and didn’t have, how they’d like it used, looking up a couple of references they’d given us as to what to expect and agreeing a fee in advance. And this is for a show in December.

In contrast, we were approached at the end of January by a venue who are proclaiming their commitment to showcasing the best in local original music (thanks for the inclusive vote of confidence, by the way) and really looking to make their mark on the local arts scene. They’re doing it their own way, eschewing the norms and forging forward with all confidence. Good for them. Being in at the ground floor at such a venture can be the making of a band like us. Right place, right time, and all that. We replied straight away with a stage spec, links to our music and a pretty generous offer for our time and services, all as requested, and suggested a date when everyone could make it from the list they proffered. That date is now next week. So we don’t know if we’re playing, whether we need to grab our own PA, whether we’re being paid what we asked for – or at all - and if the gig is confirmed we have less than a week to round up some (or any) of our semi-devoted fanbase, many of whom are in the invidious position of having to organise a babysitter before they can think about devoting their occasional date night to listening to us over two-for-one cocktails.

I can’t help thinking that the old way works better.

Friday, February 01, 2019

"...really explore the studio space this time"

Mr. Wendell and I are exchanging text messages. In Ye Oldene Dayes we would probably have waited until it was six o’clock* and then rung each other whilst looking out of the window. It’s the weather, you see. We are due out at The Hovell (sic) to continue fixing and mixing the putative new Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs EP but as Fiddly – de facto engineer, producer, remixer and designated Record Company Um & Err Man – points out, they don’t salt the roads out his way. Nevertheless, time and tide wait for no man** and so we embark on the potentially hazardous trip out to the middle of what the registered voters of Nowhere are said to regard amongst themselves as a bit of a backwater. Narnia-like, Fiddly’s garden is the snowiest of all the places we drive through on our journey. “I do my best work in these conditions” I remark over a steaming mug of tea in the kitchen. “Remember that session for the first Blue House album?” Fiddly does. “It took me four hours to get home from that one”.

We are due to have a bit of a listen to our work so far, Wendell has a harmony to do on one of the new songs, and we’re going to beef up the choruses of something that at this point has two official titles and may well end up with a third if it is not careful about how it conducts itself. In time-honoured fashion, I’ve also found a bouzouki part for the middle eight of the new one. “You’ve always got a bouzouki part for the middle eight” remarks Helen via email when she is informed of my honourable intentions regarding The Misfits. If you look at the text, black on white, in isolation, it could almost come across as admonitory. “He’s not putting a bouzouki up my middle eight!” responds Mr. Wendell via CC. And then he got off the bus...

Cheese shop sketch and Third Man Theme once again summarily avoided during the bouzouki work, we have time to review the various bits and bobs that Fiddly has appended to the rough mix of “What’s the Moonlight For?” AKA “What’s a Rainbow?” AKA “What’s The Moon Light For?”*** These turn out to be a number of percussion tracks, which he flips through in turn in much the same way as Heston Blumenthal might talk you through his latest tasting menu. With a flourish he tears away a cloth which turns out to have been covering a rude flight case. “Here’s the kit!” he proudly exclaims. There is a cabasa, there is a guiro, a tambourine. There are not one, but two cowbells. It’s like nepeta cataria, only for guitarists. We beaver away playing through the tracks and indicating that these are the rhythm parts we would like enacted forthwith, only ideally on the beat and without undue recourse to Bezzing around the studio at the same time – apparently it plays havoc with the close-miking. We check the forecast again. Snow storms due at half past nine. Time to move on.

Once Wendell is set up at the pop-shielded microphone, having been sternly instructed not to sway back and forth, we start with the vocal overdubs. It’s not a big room, and is cluttered - by now not least with a number of discarded percussion instruments – and so I am perched behind a drum kit, out of his eyeline so as not to be distracting, but air drumming enthusiastically along with the faint feed hissing from the headphones. “I can hear you, you know” he remarks laconically, as I attempt a stick spin which climaxes in me unsuccesfully attempting to pluck it from the air before it lands on a sixteen inch Paiste crash cymbal. “I think you should, er, go again” I remark as casually as someone who has just enacted a particularly avant-garde Bill Bruford-style roll around the kit should. Ever the pro, he nonetheless nails the next take (while I sit on my hands throughout) and upon listening back to double check for timing, phrasing and intonation errors, enthusiastically mimes the cajon part that portends the section where we come out of the instrumental bridge section and go into the middle eight he’s just double-tracked.

Fiddly bursts out of the wardrobe-sized control room, at remarkable speed for a man of his age. “That’s it!” he enthuses “That’s the tambourine part we need, right there!!”
“I was doing the diddley bit on the boxymathingy” protests Mr. Wendell.
This was bad grammar of course, but that is how Wendells talk when they are excited; I mean, in Narnia—in our world they usually don’t talk at all. 

*It is one of the great tragedies of our time that a generation has grown up with no appreciation of the rich seam of textual imagery contained within Mickey Jupp’s seminal 1979 pièce de résistance Switchboard Susan.

**We will enjoy a lengthy conversation with Fiddly regarding the riparian ownership rights of non-tidal waterways with specific reference to the Gipping above Needham Market. This is why it’s generally a good idea to get out there on time, especially if you want to get any work done.

***Because it’s made of cheese.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

"My style is not so good. As a matter of fact it's minimal".

Come hither, young shaver pull your coat and scarf tight around you, for the winter chill seeps inst through the door and wraps unwary limbs in its cold embrace. Sit here by the fire, and I shall tell you of the hinterlands, the dark places where old lore hast not yet been driven out by the briskness of modernity. The hoot of an owl, the scurry of the muntjack, a bustle in your hedgerow – don’t be alarmed now…

Mr. Wendell and I are on our way to an undisclosed location in Mid-Suffolk where, behind a hedge of epic proportions lies The Hovell and inside the rambling adjunct without, Fiddly Richard – a man as drawn by Quentin Blake as an approximation of what the protagonist of Roald Dahl’s great unreleased “The Woodcutter and The Canoeist” might best resemble.* We wipe the mud from our boots – he’s vacuumed in anticipation of our visit, after all – and put down guitar cases. We are here to embark on perhaps the most magic alchemical process of all – that of overdubbing the electric guitar onto an acoustic demo.{FX: Roll of Thunder}. It’s the sort of process which used to beget all those outtakes and alternate versions that now turn up on remastered reissues of classic albums, but with the advent of computer technology much of this “ it rolling, Bob?”-style malarkey has been superseded by the mere touch of a button.

To my left, sits Mr. Wendell, fully armed with a Fender Telecaster, an amplifier and an electronic effects board, which has a bewildering number of knobs, dials, pedals, and numerous flashing lights aglint. “I mainly use it as a tuner” he explains. Fiddly bustles off to make tea. At this point I should explain that Mr. Gibbon and I have already contributed a bass part and an acoustic guitar to proceedings, La Mulley has donated a guide vocal so we don’t get lost half way through the bewildering middle-eight and Neighbourhood Tony is due in to record some melodeon and harmonica the next day. He’s the banjo player, for those who haven’t been keeping up. We have experimented with many examples of the long-form recording format, however with the dearth of solid Baptist chapels in the area and conflicting diary commitments ever at our backs, we’ve decided to entrust recording the latest example of our ouevre to Fiddly. In his shed. 

He’s using Cubase which, again for those not overly familiar with the white hot development of recording technology over the past few years is - if you ask some people - somewhat akin to holding up a ghetto blaster outside a rehearsal room, pressing Play and Record at the same time and hoping the sellotape doesn’t fall off the C-90 your big sister used in order to enable her tape the top forty off the radio at the weekend. I’m not saying it’s old school, but he has to keep a spare elastic band in case the hard drive starts running slow and if the system needs rebooting he has to rub a balloon briskly against his jumper whilst pressing CTRL+ALT+DEL. This is why it’s obviously handy if there are two or three of us involved in each session.

Nevertheless, the actual sounds he records in the room are as the surroundings suggest – warm, woody, rustic. For someone who regards Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night as the modern apotheosis of production capability, as I do, this is welcome fare. We’ve already had a discussion about Helen’s vocal take on the new song. “It fades in and out and there’s a bit where it wavers a bit at the end of the phrase” runs one argument. “It sounds like her...” I counter “...singing in a room”. Mr. Wendell runs down the chords, adjusts his vibrato and delay settings**, confirms that he can hear the monitor mix in his headphones perfectly and goes for the vibe. The tension rises as we reach the bridge – has he remembered the double-stop arpeggio and 6/8 chord reversal which introduces the breakdown before the penultimate verse? He has! We both relax – me with a gentle exhalation (we’ve got a DI from the Boss rack and a mic on the Marshall combo, so quiet please in the room) and him with a desultory swipe across a capo’d Em which breaks both the rhythm and mood of the song. Fiddly, in the control booth awakens with a start. “Do you want to hear it?” he enquires solicitously. “No thanks, let’s go again” responds Wendell. The endgame is in sight - but as the kids say these days, it’s not over until Ed Sheeran sings. The hum of the amplifier hangs sonorously in the room. “It’s what an amplifier sounds like” I say.

A couple of takes later and it’s almost in the bag. There’s one more chord to drop in – at the very last Mr. Wendell’s nerve has failed him and he’s waited a nanosecond too long to hit the climactic Am in tandem with my ringing double-tracked acoustic. One quick flick of the mouse to get us on to a new track and he’s paused ready to caress the strings of steel. Job done, we ask Fiddly to put it on the big speakers so we can listen back to our work. It’s already full and resonant, and the lengthy (five minutes plus) running time leaves little room for error in a one-take working scenario. Just before the last chord, we hear it. Someone suggests hesitantly “I think you fluffed that picked note just before the end”. I think I did, responds my internal monologue.

“Fuck it” I say out loud. “These box sets don’t compile themselves”.

*Spoiler alert – it’s the same guy.
**I know – once it’s down, it’s down. No post-production remix and remodel for you, Mister.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

"This was a museum in 1847" "Blimey, and it's only half eight now!"

We are already in a bus lane, and in a designated loading bay, when we are aproached by the bagpiper. “Are you looking for somewhere to park?” he enquires solicitously, having taken a break from producing the stirring and skirling sound of the pipes - albeit, rather incongruously, in the heart of swinging downtown Ipswich. We agree that we are indeed looking for somewhere to park. “Just down there” he indicates with a wave of his chanter before cheerily resuming his droning on. We park up and I hurry toward the service door, pausing briefly as I remember that Helen is negotiating a darkened car park in three-inch red velvet stilettoes. “Keep up!” I say brightly. “Are we in the right place?” she says. “Of course!” I reply “There’s a white van parked out the back”. And, I remind myself, a bagpiper parked out the front.

We are at Arlington’s, where I’ve played before, at the behest of the new owners, who are minded to launch their new venture in a hail of free drinks, canapes and, as it turns out, the lilting sound of sweet, sweet music. Which is where Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs come in. We have received an electronic mail inviting us to perform at the soiree at slightly shorter notice than one might expect – today being Wednesday and the mail having been received on Monday – but by fortunate happenstance all The Dogs are free* and so we accept the offer of a meal and a drink in return for two ten minute performances about an hour apart from each other, Which at least should give us time to get our small plate Tapas in between sets. And it doesn’t even look like they want a fumble in the car park afterwards, which is where quite a few dinner invitations have led me in the past. Out by the bins.

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. “Two sets, an hour apart? But what the very devil are folk supposed to do in between?” Aha – you see, well, they’d thought of that too. We are but one of seven turns to perform on three stages set about the ballroom in rotation. Someone has clearly been watching too much Later with Jools… and some seasoned heads in the organisation are already muttering to themselves regarding timekeeping and logistics. Fixed upon my “Not my circus...” mantra I am nevertheless slightly taken aback that the promised eight channel PA does not come with microphones, mic stands or monitors**. In these sorts of situations one hopes that the fraternal and sororal nature of the musician’s creed will come to the fore and indeed we are quickly offered the use of the estimable This Machine Kills Fascists’ microphones and bass amp, Turny has a spare mic with him, fellow troubadours Blues Brother, Soul Sister lend a microphone stand, and before kick off TMKF even conjure and set up a vocal monitor onstage. hat'll be where the van came in. Or, rather more accurately, what came in the van.

Waiting staff circulate with plates of tasty morsels, the bar has a limited range of complimentary beverages. It’s not exactly Queen’s New Orleans launch party for Jazz, but it’s pleasant enough. Also on the bill are a couple of conjurors, who have already been asked to cut their sets as we’re running late. We sympathise, as this is a not unfamiliar experience at these sorts of events. I bump into one of them at the bar later. “Are you getting free drinks?” he asks? “I’m about to find out” I reply. “Are you paying for these?” enquires my bar steward. Miming playing an imaginary ukulele as the universal sign for being slightly musical I respond that “I’m with the band”. “Oh” she says, handing over my tasty beverage. “I’ll have one of those” says my fellow traveller. “Are you in a band too?” she asks. “No” he replies, whisking an instantly fanned deck of cards from an inside pocket. “I’m a magician...”

As the evening wends its way toward an end, the genteel hubbub has faded slightly with the thinning of the glitterati, the velvet among the palm fronds further between, and so for our second set we throw in the sort of mournful ballad that you usually need the rarified atmosphere of a folk club to perform. It’s clearly the right move for that time of the evening. There are a couple of solo spots before TMKF return to the stage with their scattergun punky ska approach***, clearly having similarly assessed the vibe of the diminishing crowd. “This is catchy” I remark in an aside to Helen as we tap our toes along to the chorus of something lively. “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!” they sing. 

We make our way to our carriages.

*This is virtually unheard of. Even at rehearsals we can only usually round up two thirds of us at best.

**For the layperson, imagine that you’ve been over to stay at a friend’s house and that when you wake up in the morning there’s a note on the fridge which reads “Gone to work, frying pan in the cupboard, help yourself to breakfast!” You open the fridge, and there’s nothing in it.

***Listening to them is akin to a experiencing tightly-condensed support bill at Beautiful Days.