Monday, October 30, 2006

"Back in the garage...”

There’s nothing more likely to bring a smile to the attention-starved musician’s lips than the word ‘rehearsal’. This, it should be said, isn’t strictly true in some cases. It’s a broad-faced lie, in fact, especially when it comes to me. I can’t see the point, I mean it’s not like you’re going to get a round of applause or anything, is it? And isn’t that the idea? The show-off must, after all, go on. And you have to pay for the privilege. 

Although there are bands who like nothing more than the regular routine of the Thursday night run through the set followed by a quick couple of goes at a new song and then knocking off in time for last orders (I used to be in one myself and it was marvelous fun at the time, and I believe James Brown follows a similar routine when not on the road) we are not a group renowned for our rehearsive habits. Folk in Stowmarket, for example, still talk in hushed, awed tones of the version of ‘Rubber Bullets’ we attempted on the back of two quick acoustic run-throughs at which no more than sixty per cent of the band were present at any one time.

This was an unfortunate aberration as usually this tried and trusted method allows new songs to at least limp in to the set before being fine-tuned over subsequent performances until by about the fourth or fifth time we play them, they have gained magnificent lives of their own. Or they are discreetly dropped to the bottom of the list, whichever seems more appropriate. Suffice to say, our 10CC repertoire has a separate piece of paper to itself these days. 

That method also explains why it is very rare to hear of any band member actually listening to any of the songs we perform live for their personal pleasure. On one occasion The Singer was so frightened by listening to ‘Band On The Run’ at home, and the hideous shape we’d twisted it into, that he took fear and threw it as far away as possible. What with The New Drummer having done his homework and rather confusingly having decided to play what’s actually on the original recordings rather than what ought to be, it has been decided that we should convene properly to thrash a few of these things out, figuratively if not literally, and it’s a three line whip – with one exception. 

We will not be joined by The Other Guitarist who, having methodically checked everyone’s availability, sourced a rehearsal room and negotiated a deal for its hire, finally put the phone down on the last transaction only to remember that he was supposed to be in Stoke that night. This is another reason why the regular weekly practice session has fallen out of fashion. Our real, grown up lives intervene, and we find ourselves taking kids to piano lessons, escorting them to quasi-military religious rallies (Boys Brigade, I believe they call it), stock checking electrical components in Brighton, being on planning business in Milan or, in this case, being called to Stoke. 

There are worse things than rehearsal, clearly. We are issued with a closely-typed email detailing what we need to run through. Worryingly, this seems to comprise a large percentage of the set and it seems that we will be enjoying the delights of an ex-carpet workshop long in to the night while our absent friend in the north settles back with the contents of the mini bar and a selection of premium-rate hotel TV movies. Which of us is living the rock n’ roll dream now, eh? Practice commences in time-honoured fashion. Three of us have a fag outside while we wait for The Drummer to turn up. 

He phones from a nearby McDonald’s and kindly takes the time to ask if we need any apple pies before promising to be there shortly. Once he’s in and set up proceedings continue as they have from time immemorial – I sit and play with the presets on the keyboard and try to find silly noises, and play some very bad Depeche Mode riffs. To vary proceedings I then try Axel F, and once this has been completed to everyone’s satisfaction we stretch out by trying The Icicle Works’ ‘Understanding Jane’. Needless to say, this is not part of our homework but it’s a blast, so we play it anyway. Once gathered towards the highlighted set list we diligently work our way through, playing things twice, going back over intros, sorting out some errant chords that have become ingrained through repetition and explaining drum fills in the usual way – “It sort of goes doof-de-doof doof blam” to a clearly perplexed drummer. 

A handy mnemonic for one run round the kit (it’s the intro for ‘down under’ as well as many other things) goes “flats in Dagenham”. This was once the subject of a mildly amusing mid-song fill when one batteriste of our acquaintance got as far as the part in question at a gig and then forgot the name of the town. He answered our queries afterwards by explaining that he’d been playing “houses in Chelmsford” in error. Insert your own drummer joke here…. After a while it’s actually fun – it’s a bit raw, a bit loose, and we’re suddenly fourteen year olds again, back in the garage and reveling in the joy of making really loud noises with electrical equipment for our own amusement - so much more fun than power tools and piano lessons. A final run through something a bit more familiar, just to reassure ourselves that we do really know what we’re doing, and a quick check as to what time we need to be at the venue and we’re done. 

These days we don’t need to wait outside for our parents to pick us up – basses are hoiked on to child seats, briefcases shunted aside to make room for amplifiers, and project folders shifted aside so that guitars have room on the back seat. And finally; The Drummer’s apple pie has cooled down enough for him to be able to eat it.

Monday, October 16, 2006

1992 and all that.....

Of course, while I'm out folking about, the business of Picturehouse continues. Here, The Singer explains what goes on behind my back....

While our Picturehouse Big Band colleagues Skirky and Gibbon are plying their trade (their particular trade being better described as a “folky-country-bluegrassy mix of original songs”) at an acoustic evening in Colchester, Kilbey and Wendell, watched by drummer Frisky Pat, are preparing to play as an acoustic duo for the first time in about two years. 

The venue is a country pub on the high street in Bramford, just outside Ipswich, run by good friend Noisy Jane, and attended by locals with a smattering of various band wives and friends.We’re feeling a little nervous. Having not played this set of songs for a while, and being used to having a wall of noise behind which to hide any hesitant chords or backing vocals, this gig seems to present more than the usual set of worries. But on the plus side, neither of us are driving home, and the traditional nerve sweeteners of Guinness and JD / coke are available in abundance.

We start off with a couple of our old faves and before we know it we’re half way through the first set and each song has been greeted with a fair amount of appreciation. Before playing the next song I decide to tell the attentive audience about the time that I, along with Skirky and Gibbon in one of Skirky’s bands called Gods Kitchen (with no apostrophe), supported an up and coming band by the name of Dodgy, whose song ‘Staying Out For the Summer’ we are about to play. 

The crux of the story is that despite a fair amount of publicity, only 5 people turned up to see the show, which left us playing to these 5 plus the main band and them playing to the 5 plus us. As I’m recounting the story, I mention that, I think, this all happened in 1991. “No, it was 1992.” Shouts one of the audience. After I’d asked how he could be so sure, he said “I was one of the five.”What are the chances? 

At the break I go and find this guy to check if he was actually just having a bit of a joke. Charlie, as his name turns out to be, is indeed telling the truth, and we chat for most of the break about other gigs we’d both been to in our home town and he requests that we do a Smiths song in the second set. As we don’t know any, he has to make do with a Starsailor song (no, really!) and seems happy with this.

At the end of the show one of the locals approaches us and asks if one of the guys sitting with the band friends is really the keyboard player for Fish – him out of Marilion. We explain that not only is he the keyboard player, but also co-writer on a lot of Mr Fish’s last couple of long players. “I’d hoped so,” replies the pleased local, “I bought him a drink and got him to sign this bit of paper. Should get something for it on E-Bay.”

As we pack up the gear, Frisky Pat is telling us that we need some percussion (“You won’t even know that I’m there” he explains), and we drain our drinks before being driven home by the very sober Mrs Wendell, who tells me that I should choose any of the other backing vocal lines for one of the songs. Any that is, other than the one I actually sang. Harshest critics and all that… 


Friday, October 13, 2006

"Someone's throwing sand at the moon...."

It is one of those periodic fallow times for Picturehouse (frankly, if The Drummer was looking for some time off due to pressures of gigging relentlessly, consensus is he left the wrong group) which enables me to spend time with my other musical interest, Songs from The Blue House, a moveable feast of a collective of mainly acoustic musicians playing a folky-country-bluegrassy mix of original songs and whom some of the members of Picturehouse refer to as my “proper group”. Oddly enough, as members of SftBH do when referring to Picturehouse, as it happens. The combo has been invited to celebrate John Peel Day in the company of a couple of other turns in a converted church – the very same one which saw the departure of The Drummer a few weeks ago - and as we gather under the vaulted ceiling a friend remarks that the last time she was in here she was at a mate’s wedding and it felt very different “with all the tables and stuff”. I mention that the last time I was here it was for a wedding and agree that yes, it did feel very different. As the players slope in, I strike up a conversation with Sound Man Marky – always a good move early on in the proceedings, especially with the number of things we need DI* connections for – and ask him how it’s going so far. “Well…”, he reflects world-wearily “…I set the fackin’ PA up and there was all sorts of fackin’ crackles and shit goin’ on so I switched a few leads round and it still fackin’ crackled like a bastard and then I moved across to switch another couple o’ connections and tripped over the bleedin’ stage box”. “…and!?” I wonder out loud. “That seemed to fix it” he says happily. “You’re gonna need shitloads of DI’s, aren’tcha?” I confirm that yes we are indeed going to need ‘shitloads’ of DI’s, and four vocal mics too. For an ‘acoustic band’, it generally takes an awful lot of wires and electronics to get us heard anywhere beyond the front row. “I was afraid you’d say that”. He finishes off his cigarette with a deep pull and his features take on a steely and yet faraway expression as he reaches a satisfactory conclusion to his ongoing internal debate. “I’ll get some shit out’ the van”.
The turn on before us is a young bass/drums/piano combo called Making Eyes at Elvis who are sparky, spunky, quite, quite brilliant and quite obviously destined for far greater things in life than opening a charity gig on a Thursday night in Ipswich. As our MC for the evening announces that the last time he’d introduced the band he’d been mercilessly heckled by the band’s entourage there are “Ah, that’s where we’ve seen him before!” nods between the band members over his shoulder before they kick robustly into a series of driving, complex and quite possibly lyrically brilliant (it’s hard to tell) songs which should have them recording bad cover versions in the Jo Whiley live lounge before they’ve even had time to decide which support tour to turn down because they’ve got A-levels to revise for. They, clearly, are aware of this already as post-set congratulations are accepted in a shrugged “yeah, and your point is…?” kind of way, seemingly as if they have more important people to listen to. Which I’m sure they probably do. Or maybe I’m just the wrong demographic, or maybe they’re just shy. Still, they seem happy enough to borrow both the drum kit and our bass amp, so perhaps it’s just that they like to travel light and with this in mind, in the way of the young folk these days, once they’ve done their set they’re packed up and on their way. Well, why would you want to bother hanging around to watch anyone else play when you could be home in time to catch the end of ‘Extras’? I feel like I should be compiling a tome on old-fashioned band etiquette. The least they could do is hang around outside and smoke for a bit after all, like we’ll do later with the headline act
One of the diversions of having to smoke outside the venue is that we have been able to listen to the band play inside while watching local salsa clubbers entwine themselves around other of their constituent members’ limbs in the glass-sided atrium nailed to the front of the building, in a sort of oddly coherent pastiche video style. The jumping skittered piano, whip crack drums and rumbling bass riffs of M.E.A.E. post a heady backdrop to the fluid moves and snake-hipped twistery of the dancers, making up what looks like a BBC 1 trailer as edited and mixed by Damon Albarn in one of his more art school moments. It also makes it tremendously entertaining getting through to the toilets. How the smokers during our set felt about the same thing occurring is unrecorded. We, for our part, had fun on stage, having whipped a couple of less-frequently performed things from the repertoire out of our pockets and enjoying our intro from Simon-from-The Urban Sofa** a bit more than the youngsters did (“When I first met this next band they were arguing over which idiot had booked them to play at the Jorvik Viking Centre in York. Since then their choice of venue has, if anything been even more inspired. Potters Bar Dog Borstal, the deep-sea research vessel “Albatross”, B&Q and the Millennium Stadium have all played host to their uniquely wonderful style of music…”). The next day reviews were good, everybody played well, and Marky’s gaffa-taped on stage box, stuffed to the gunwales with bouzouki leads, banjo DI’s and cables from mic’d up bass cabinets and fiddle delay pedals held out long enough for us to finish the set with ‘Risk’, singer James’s weary affirmation of hope for the future and celebration of new life. As we hit the last chorus I look up to the far end of the venue, and notice where the neon lights of the insurance building next door are shining through the stained glass window left over from the building’s previous incarnation – “A life that wasn’t yours” I sing to myself from one of our earlier songs. And I think of all these little pieces. Tiny fragments.

*direct input from an internal pickup, ie you don’t stick a microphone in front of it and hope for the best.