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.