Saturday, May 26, 2018

“…The Phone Call”.

The Dogs try as best we can not to become encumbered by the possibility of us becoming a dead shark*. We also try not to jump the shark. The music business is, of course, a shark-eat-shark multiverse. If we were to gather together all the shark-based metaphors regarding our progress ever-forward, we’d need a bigger boat.

Endeavouring to keep the set list continually freshened up during the course of our relentless touring schedule means that we’re in no postion to let the alismatales grow under our feet. It only takes a couple of festival crowds to spot that you’re playing the same songs in the same order as you did last time and you’re bundled off the circuit quicker than you can say ‘SetlistFM’. With this in mind we hold regular song-wrangling workshops wherein tiny kernels of ideas are carefully fed and watered until they bloom (hopefully) into glorious panoplies of colour with which we adorn our set. That’s the idea. In reality Turny Winn, our banjo-frotting multi-instrumentalist, usually strums something unobtrusive at the end of a rehearsal which we all leap upon, divvy up the vocals and launch on an unsuspecting Fiddly Richard at the next gig. Meanwhile, carefully-manicured groupthink demo recordings continue to build up in our inboxes, patiently awaiting the flash of inspiration from whoever has volunteered to flesh them out with a narrative which will convert them into fully-fledged songs.

With this in mind I realised that a forthcoming four hour train journey I had to undertake would be the perfect opportunity to devote myself to knuckling down and producing a finished piece of work to present to the collective** at our next get-together. There had been a couple of gigs where our carefully-curated set list had been subject to a skipping order part-way through, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to knuckle down and see if I could do that thing that I'd read that proper writers do - sit down and work at their craft. Or craft their work. Either way, it was going to be something to occupy me on the trans-Southern Express.

As it happened, I’d been knocking around an idea called The Misfits for a while, engaged but not necessarily inspired by the film of the same name. I was interested in the idea of a pair who ride off into the sunset at the end of the song, and aren’t necessarily the sort of people you’d be rooting for in the first place or throughout the middle eight. Not exactly anti-heroes, but you wouldn't necessarily invite them round for tea without first hiding the silverware. As a melodic placeholder I used Neil Young’s Unknown Legend to hook the format together until I was able to hum something bespoke when I got in. By the time I was home again I had a notebook full of couplets, a couple of melodies and enough time to bang down a quick demo in Garageband which I sent out to Mr. Wendell and La Mulley to critique. A week later we were in The Snug at Helen’s, contemplating capos and ruminating on rhythms. Mr. Wendell considered my tried and tested Neil Young plod. “What about trying seventies New York white funk?” he said. Considering our reputation as the country’s finest purveyors of roots-based East Angliacana there was only one sensible answer. “Why not?” we replied as one.

A couple of weeks after that and after an extensive Doodle Poll had procured one of the three dates between now and our next gig that everyone was available we assembled at Mr. Wendell’s on a balmy late Spring evening to knock this sucker into shape. In line with the recording preset I'd submitted my demo version in, we were in a Nice Room. A fairly standard moot, in that Turny had remembered he had a prior engagement and so wasn't going to be able to contribute at this stage, Mr. Wendell didn't read his emails and so hadn’t realised we were all coming round to his, La Mulley was on a deadline to get back for the kids (their imposition of a curfew, not hers, I believe), Gib hadn’t listened to the song and Fiddly was just getting over having his fingering hand drawn part way into a lathe whilst hand-fashioning a set of castanets. As I say, a fairly standard get-together. Helen suggested that we eschew the usual forty minute tea and biscuit icebreaker before getting down to work, and we embarked on the usual deconstruction of the exegesis (“So, what’s this one about...”). I moved a capo, Helen bespake a harmony, Mr. Wendell tried to remember what it reminded him of***, Gibbon effected some ersatz 1970’s New York White Funk and Fiddly reflected that this was “…quite a good one. Y’know, when you get the demo it sounds like all the others, but this is working out well”. I silently quelled my rising inner Ike Turner as I pressed ‘record’ on the reliable old Sony CFS-W338 we use to tape all our rehearsals.

“Yes, but is it better than something we’ve already got?” asked Mr. Wendell, invoking the formal statement of our songwriting creed.

“Well, we’re about to find out”.

*A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies.

**We take it in turns to act as sort of executive officer for the week but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs but by a two thirds majority in the case of more...well, you get the idea.

***Luckily he doesn’t own Harvest Moon, so I’m pretty safe on that score.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Go, Compere!

We were out and about again over the weekend, on this occasion closing a boutique festival where – in accordance with the tenets of hospitality laid down in the Small Festivals Act of 1897 – we were fed upon arrival. Mr. Wendell, a staunch vegetarian ever since Paul Weller told him to be in Smash Hits, was even supplied with his own platter of meat-free goodness which, after twenty minutes of determined munching, did not seem to have decreased in any notable mass or volume. With the Cheddar included with his Ploughman’s taking preference over the Leicester cheese, even at this late juncture in proceedings there was still a significant remaining red wedge unable to be shoehorned into a Eighties-based Thatcherite reference for the purposes of blog-based pun enablement.

During our onstage introduction later it occurred to me once again how a good MC can build a positive platform for a band, akin to introducing one to an unfamiliar circle of the host’s acquanitances at a chi-chi cocktail soiree rather than welcoming you in through the front door and abandoning you to make your own cold open while they go and make sure the party platters aren't burning. Our host, Bill Pipe – formerly of the impeccably-named combo Fat Bill’s Platypus – made a point of finding something solicitous to say about every member of the group, which made our entry into song that much more agreeable. Admittedly I was temporarily distracted by whether Fiddly really did have more pedals than Jimi Hendrix and was moved to look it up after the event* but it didn't detract from our performance any more than our regular triple-checking of keys and capos usually does. He did the same for everyone else in the line up, finding a bespoke nugget of interest or a sincere compliment for all, and made a most amenable host.

It reminded me that with the festival season coming up I probably need to get my own Stage Manager’s chops in order once again, which means trying to (a) recognise and (b) pronounce the names correctly of the good folk of the entertainment world trusted unto my charge. I tend toward the egregious in the manner of my introductions, although having at least asked the turns in question if they’d like the audience built up into a whooping frenzy before they take the stage, whether they’d like the warm smattering of applause which might greet the achievement of a middling third-wicket stand via a glance to fine leg on a bucolic Thursday morning at Chelmsford, or whether they’d prefer to just get on with it and (if you like) crash the cocktail party. I won’t lie to you, most turns tend to go for the third option if they’ve been on my stage previously through the weekend.

At least it’s a complex mix of nerves and ego which drives me to such expansion. No-one who’s seen Fiery Jack insouciantly rattle off a few hat juggling tricks before welcoming one Dan the Hat to the Children’s Arena at Beautiful Days can seriously be in doubt of his deflatory intent, although sometimes it has the effect of driving the artiste in residence on to more sterling heights of performance if they find someone having parked a People’s Limousine square in their comfort zone prior to the gig.

My favourite MC’s are those quietly confident in themselves, appreciative, with an air of discernment which suggests that all of the turns have been hand-curated for our enjoyment, familiar to our hosts as comfortable old shoes, impressive to us as shiny brass buttons on a dress uniform but there’s nothing deflates my expectations more than a stage introduction which I know to be false news. Mind you, you can prove anything with facts. At one gala concert at The Barbican Joe Boyd introduced a former member of Fairport Convention to such a bristling reception from the audience that leader Simon Nicol had to go on stage a couple of numbers later and confirm that his parents had indeed rented the top floor of their house to bass player Ashley Hutchings lest the muttering from the hardcore in the expensive seats overpower the subsequent folk-rockery. Getting the name right helps too. No-one’s going to give you any credence as a host if you’ve just heard someone refer to nu-funk acid jazz pioneers Jammerocky, as happened to one Jamiroquai-loving acquaintance.

Know where the exits are, be able to point toward the lost dogs and children tent, don’t take the brown M&Ms**. In the best traditions of the be-dinner-suited BBC continuity announcers of yore. Pre-announce, back-announce (“You’ve been listening to XXXX – weren’t they great? One more time...”) and don’t trip over the furniture. It’s all we ask.

*It’s tricky – Fiddly just has the one big pedal board, and although it does contain a great number of different effects he tends to just use the one setting at a time, so arguably Hendrix overtakes him on that front. Nevertheless, the access to that number of delays, reverbs, compressors, distortions and loops suggests that Fiddly Richard might technically have the edge, even if they are not in use per se. If I were Alain be Botton I could go on for another couple of hundred pages in this vein.

**(Ed – please check).

Monday, April 16, 2018

"There's no money, and it's terrible exposure..."

"What do I have to do to get on that bill?" a chum enquired of me the other day regarding some festival or another we were both shading covetous eyes at. "Sell some tickets?" I replied. Down here at the dusty end of the folk-rock aristocracy we are still largely dependent on hand outs and favours to get us on the boards, and we are still not quite yet at the stage of being able to demand quilted robes in which to recline after the show whilst we construct elaborate creations from Lego sets with all the brown pieces taken out. Nevertheless, there are still standards that we aspire to and, in no particular order, here are some do's and dont's that perhaps you, in your capacity as amateur dramatician, or perhaps co-promoter of a small musical soiree, might keep in mind.

Here's a thing - even though they might not be coming straight off the back of a worldwide tour supporting Ed Sheeran your turns still require basic sustenance. I am no stranger to the Co-op egg and cress sandwich and pork pie combo to get me through the evening - soundchecks tend to be frusratingly generally scheduled around tea time - but a bottle of water is often appreciated come stage time. Better still, open a discreet bar tab for the band, especially if you're not going to give them any money. even better than that - give them some money. You can't put exposure in your petrol tank.

Speaking of petrol tanks, if we could unload the gear and park in the same postcode as the gig, that'd be awesome.

Please read the stage plan and let us know in advance if there's anything we need to help you out with. You asked for it, we sent it, so don't look all surprised when there aren't enough microphones to go round when we finally turn up with five of us wanting to contribute to those sweet, sweet candy harmonies. Or if you have to unplug the drummer's in order to ensure there is a feed for the keyboard player. Admittedly that time we turned up with a drummer who we hadn't told you about was, like, totally our bad.

If you're going to spend three quarters of an hour on a soundcheck (and believe me, that's a rare luxury we very much appreciate) please do try to ensure it still sounds like that when we go on two hours later. A shrug of the shoulders is never an attractive look in a sound engineer, especially when viewed in a murky half light from the stage.

Don't have that Henry Rollins quote laminated and gaffa taped to the door behind the stage. Not at your level.

A mirror ball. There must always be a mirror ball! 


Monday, March 26, 2018

The Loneliness of The Long-Distance Drummer

 The Picturehouse Big Band are engaged in one of our infrequent forays and soirees, and are headed to darkest Posh North Essex, where we are to appear at the Brigadoonian Bacchanal that is Helstock. A new venue has been sourced, this time in a three hundred and fifty year-old barn which has been decorated with flags, fairy lights, vintage posters, artfully-distressed sofas and - crucially - a mirror ball. there is also a bar, a pool table, table football and a stage, upon which The Drummer has already set up by the time The Bass Player and I arrive, reverse straight up to the stage door, and unload the backline. We have taken the executive decision to go all-guitar tonight, the better in order to avoid trailing leads, overly-complicated set ups & changeovers, and us having to drive all five cars in order to get the gear in. The Singer rolls up shortly after us, relieved to be relieved from his flu-inspired confinement of the week, but still inhaling deeply from a menthol-infused nosegay as a result. It is half past five in the afternoon.

 As there is a full PA for this show, we enter the time-honoured routine of line checking everything in order to ensure that our front of house sound engineer has all the tools he needs to curate the best possible sonic experience at his disposal. In practise, of course, this means The Drummer stolidly thumping a kick drum until the correct sine wave of appropriate resonation has been achieved. That is to say, when he makes the low thumpy noise, it doesn't sound like the room has been transformed into a massive oil tank which everyone is sat inside while a baboon hits the outside with a crudely-crafted hand tool. We also do that with the vocal microphones, which is the point at which everyone makes those roadie jokes about not being able to count up to three. There's a lighting engineer one which is much better, but that's like The Aristocrats of crew banter, so I won't share it here.

 The barn, splendid as it is, is nontheless intrinsically barn-y, and so as the evening draws in and the mercury drops, the relevance of the blankets strewn faux-casually across the arms of the sofas becomes clear. The Singer is wrapped in a comfort blanket and huddled against the cold. He is informed in no uncertain terms that he resembles, in the vernacular of the times, "A Homeless". Fan heaters purr into action, a firepit outside springs into life, the bar opens. We are faced with the classic conundrum - it's now teatime, there's a hearty buffet of cheese, rough farmhouse bread and Minstrels to sustain us, but we've now got around five hours to fill before showtime. The Drummer and I enter into consultative negotiations around the appropriate level of drinking to pursue. Too little and peak party is missed. Too much, and you get into the sort of scrapes where you can't quite remember which fret your capo goes on, whether you've tuned down for this one in the first place, or if simply falling off the stage might be a good way to distract the audience from the concurrent incidence of the first two examples. I'm not necessarily saying I speak from experience here.

 In the end we decide to alternate foaming pints of ale with warming hot drinks. This works well in some instances, in that they are, by their very definition, warming, but the cumulative effect will be felt later when we engage in a rendition of The Jags' Back of my Hand which usurps the original's fairly frantic tempo by several degrees. I am also aided in temperance's pursuit by our sound wrangler, who cheerily lets me know that he has been drinking my delicious Coggeshall Gold since it was (a) nearby and (b) he didn't know whose it was. "No offence" he adds solicitously. By some series of infractions of the laws of thermodynamics it actually appears to be warmer outside by the brazier than it is in the bar. "I should get one of these....what do you call them..?" says The Bass Player. "Flames?" suggest someone helpfully. A small person in a hi-vis jacket takes time out from his parking attendant and glass-collecting duties to throw another log on the fire for me. I make a cheese sandwich and coffee.
 At twenty past eleven we hit the stage running, or at least stamping from foot to foot, and launch into some full-tilt boogie. The audience is thinning quicker than my hair, the demands of childcare and the lure of getting home in time to put the clocks forward lending an irresistable pull to some. We play the hits and even manage to conjure an encore, during which the signature intro from Neil Young's Like a Hurricane is surreptitiously drafted into the solo in You Really Got Me. "I'm just having fun!" I say. From the stygian corner over by the cheese, someone counters. "It's not your birthday any more". 



Sunday, January 28, 2018

"It's Just The Normal Noises in Here"

Anyone who’s been within overdubbing distance of a recording facility will know by now that each has its own vibe, its own personality if you will, driven and dictated by the man (and it usually is a man) behind the screen - swivel chair adjusted just so, mug of something restorative within reach, lips a-pursed, brow a-furrowed, studio tan topped up by endless nights peering into the glowing maw of the computer screen, and days very rarely broken up by the occasional snowball fight. From Maida Vale to Clarkson Street, these hardy (and frequently subterranean) folk are rarely happier than when the musicians have buggered off and they can get on with the actual business of tweaking the 60dB proximeter, re-routing the sub-service buss and overlapping the reverse Aphex so it syncs in with the Dobly pulse. And that.

It’s an intensive business, and one that requires an engineer to be part-therapist, part-life coach, part-technician, part-sparky, gracious host and full-time font of wisdom regarding rattles and hums. Good recording engineers are frequently also exceptional players of Connect 4 and Jenga. Obviously before all of this serious business gets under way the band themselves will attempt to curate a series of demonstration recordings in order to give their poor producer/engineer/record company/fiddle player* some idea of what to expect. After all, as one of the touchstone sayings of my glorious career so far goes – if you’ve got something, then at least you’ve got something to change. These demo’s may be extensively workshopped in the rehearsal room and presented to higher lights in order to attempt to extract funds for a proper studio trip, they may be self-produced in the artists’ home studio – whether that be an extensive remodelling of the former stables on their estate or knocked out in the bathroom during a break from the sound check** - or simply (in the case of one Green on Red album) bawled into a microphone while the singer shouts chord changes over his shoulder at the guitar player.

Whatever works best for each band, artist or writer is fine, and although no-one ever wants to admit that the demo versions are better than the expensively buffed and intricately mastered finished copies, it happens. It’s also worth hanging on to those early versions in case your album really does take off and you need something to fill out the remastered and reissued box set. I’m speaking to you from a time vault in the last century, obviously.

Mr. Wendell and I set out for Fiddly’s Hovel in the country more in hope than expectation. We rehearse out there when we’re likely to have to play something all at the same time and all in the same key in public and Fiddly likes to record these sessions so that he can laboriously work out what he’s going to do on the big night. He gets...not exactly cross, but certainly discomfited when we veer away from the prescribed performance format, and often volunteers to play us the original version so we can see where we’re going wrong. Having nagged us for months that he’d actually got some good performances lurking on his hard drive we agreed to go out there and have a listen, more to shut him up than anything else. It was a dark and stormy night...he emerged from the shack with a dead mouse. As usual the was preemptory chat – this time concerning rats, their lifestyles, habits and affinities. If nothing else, a trip to Fiddly’s is generally informative and entertaining before you even get to the music. Last time we were out there there was a lot about Robot Wars, for example. We settled into swivel chairs in the listening room, and playback began.

It turns out that while we were all relaxed and bashing out some reference versions, we were also turning in some astonishing performances. Not me, obviously – I was too busy hogging the backing vocals and adding unnecessary flourishes to perfectly good ‘C’ chords, but the others were, freed from the pressure of having to get it all right, paradoxically, getting it all right. Wendell and I looked at each other. We started scribbling notes. Fiddly expounded on the importance of high frequencies, decent quality microphones; words like ‘marimba’ started being bandied about. If you’re the sort of person who thinks that Tonight’s the Night has a better feel to it than Landing on Water***, as I am, this was a Damascene moment. By the end of the playback, we were humbly apologising to our host for ever having doubted him. Turns out the most important things an engineer can bring to the recording party are their ears.

We start work next month.

*Delete as applicable.

**As it were.

***And who in their right mind doesn’t?