Wednesday, January 04, 2017

"Let's make some quiet..."


A missive pings into the Neighbourhood inbox informing us that Sam-out-of-Cambridgeshire has some shiny new interfaces he wants to play with and, although still awaiting confirmation of a delivery of the world’s most expensive microphone, has a window of opportunity in which we are invited to showcase our wares. Regular subscribers will be know that we have form with Sam and his trusted accomplice Fenton Steve, and we have been mulling over the initial (‘rough’ seems too recherch√© a term to employ in this respect) mixes from last year’s session with a view to thinking about how to move onward and upwards.I’ve played the demos to a couple of people and had some not-so surprising feedback. That vocal could have been better, the tuning’s a bit out, a specific performance stiffens up towards the end – that sort of thing. I have found - maybe surprisingly - that I’m genuinely not bothered by either the criticisms (in their purest sense) or the revelation of the supposed shortcomings they confirm.

Because here’s a thing – we do speed up noticeably toward the end of one song; we had to choose between a bum note and a misplaced consonant on another; and everyone’s performance gets a wee bit tenuous towards the end of Love Minus Zero/No Limit because we’re all painfully aware that La Mulley pulled off a great acapella first verse about four minutes ago* and no-one wants to be the one to fuck up and make her have to do it again. And here’s another thing. That’s absolutely fine. Because that’s what we sound like. If we were maybe in a position to be able to charge money for people to keep these recordings  - and there aren’t that many groups around these days who are – perhaps we’d insist on being able to go back and, ahem, ‘fix’ a few things.

One correspondent suggested that we wouldn’t be able to send these songs out anywhere as we wouldn’t be able to explain the inherent technical issues away merely by explaining that they consisted of six people gathered around one microphone** and that’s not what they would be expecting. But, oh man - you can hear the room, I say. I know exactly what he means though. Then again, I also know of a promoter who would instantly bin any demo which came in with a picture of any band member holding a Cajon. One used to divide every jiffy bag he received into two piles and immediately dispose of one of them without opening a single envelope on the basis that he only wanted to book ‘lucky’ bands. It’s not exactly payola, but you had no chance of appearing at one particular festival unless you’d paid your subs to a certain focus interest group and another wouldn’t give you house space until you’d reciprocally booked their house band back. Given of all this, the phrase (and I quote) “…we do not normally pay a fee to musicians etc as we do get along of offers to play at our shows, as depending on the show, they use our shows as a platform to promote themselves due to the expected footfall our shows attract”*** (sic) comes as almost laughable relief.

I’m not saying it’s not a game worth playing, I’m just saying that I was never very good at it in the first place, and so given the opportunity to make a recording that transports me back into the room where I made it, rain on the windows and dogs in the street and all, I’ll take it. I mean, people should be envying us, you know. I envy us. Yeah. I do.


*There’s a great section in Bill Bruford’s autobiography about recording with his big jazz band Earthworks and wondering whether the slight fret slur made by the bass player early on is worth calling a halt to the whole take for.

**We are going to also close-mic everything on the next session just to make it a bit more flexible in terms of the tweakability, as it happens.
***We took that one.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Tale of Two CV's



Back in the day (2009 as it turns out) I had little better to do on Christmas Morning than write blog posts on Facebook, apparently. Here then, is another Christmas repeat for you.... 


Before we start, it is important to establish two facts. One is that Judy Dyble, the one-time lead singer out of Fairport Convention, and current solo artist in her own right, very kindly agreed to once appear onstage with Songs from The Blue House. At the time we featured our friend Steve 'Kilbey' Mears on vocals. The other is that Anthony Costa, one of the blokes out of the pop group Blue, is currently appearing in panto in Ippo. Now then, let's begin...

So. Kilbey's out on a works do, the sort of thing where you get introduced to people and have to find some common ground over the canapes and then rather uncomfortably skip out to the car park for a restorative Marlboro light as soon as possible, ruefully considering that if the company spent half as much on your annual bonus as they did on forcing you to go out with clients then everybody would be a lot happier in the long run. But then, as they say, that's the difference between a bonus and a penis. You can always find someone willing to spend time enjoying making the most of your bonus. Apparently, on this occasion Kilbs gets into conversation with a nice chap who, as it happens, likes music and bands and enjoys conversing with people who like music and bands. The inevitable question comes up - "So, what sort of stuff do you like?". The chap pauses, knowing that this is a hole he's had to dig himself out of many times before, and tentatively asks "I don't suppose you've heard of a guy called Richard Thompson...?". Kilbey, after many years in my company immediately spots an in. "Mate" he says "He wrote Meet On The Ledge, yeah? I love that song - one of my best friends (he's not talking about me) says it's his favourite song, and I think it's a beautiful song, and every time I hear it I'm close to tears through all the connections and stuff..." The chap is visibly impressed. "Oh, so you're familiar with Fairport Convention?" he asks. "Oh yeah..." replies Kilbey "...in fact I wrote a song that Judy Dyble sang with some friends of mine". "No, way!!!!" says the guy "I BLOODY LOVE JUDY DYBLE!!!" At this point, Kilbey remembers something else. "Oh yeah" he says "We did a gig with her once - so, y'know, I've duetted with Judy Dyble on stage!". "YOU'RE FUCKING KIDDING ME!?!?!?" replies his new friend and, calming into lower case, responds "That's awesome, mate, you're so lucky!" Kilbey confirms that he is, indeed, very lucky, does a whole back story around our friend Big Paul (who first introduced him to FC), what little he knows about Jude, reflects on the band, some of the people we have in common, swaps numbers, and promises to keep in touch. A group formed over forty years ago has provided, through chance and connection, a conduit for people to start a social relationship, converse, swap stories over common ground and rediscover their love for its music. Jude will infer that when Jimi Hendrix got up to jam with the band back in the day she was busy knitting. But she was busy knitting there.

In the mean time, after two (count 'em) performances of the pantomime at the Ipswich Regent, it is agreed that the lead actor should mime both (both!) of his songs as he can't really hold up the rest of his performance if he strains his throat trying to hold a tune in his featured spots. As a result and an aside, the talented young actress playing opposite him now also has to mime. The actor has a VIP area reserved at an Ipswich nightclub where he is gifted champagne as a consequence of his exalted status. The free champagne (I've talked to one of the staff) costs about 70p a bottle at trade prices and last week the club DJ put on 'Killing In The Name' and pointedly dedicated it to manufactured pop stars.

Here's a question. Whose CV would you rather have?

Monday, November 14, 2016

On Angel Hill


If you - like me - are a big fan of the work of the actor George Clooney, you will doubtless be familiar with a pivotal scene in the Coen Brothers’ marvellous film O Brother, Where Art Thou, wherein the self-styled Soggy Bottom Boys perform the song I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow in a recording studio, set snugly around a single microphone which captures their performance in real time. “Aha” you may have thought to yourself “Those days are long gone – it’s all feeding digital files into computers and auto-tuning and cut and pasting these days – look at those hicks with their ancient depression-era ways! Those days are over, and good riddance - I, for one, welcome our new sonically curated digital overlords!” Well, quite.
So when we gathered at The Unitarian Hall in Bury St. Edmunds in order to record some demonstration tapes under the kindly aegis of folk singer and technical crackerjack Sam Inglis, we were surprised to find that the screens and baffles we were expecting to litter the place were notable by their absence and the technical arena seemed to consist of a pair of microphones on a stand, a shovel, a pair of angel’s wings, a goblet, a dagger and four candles. Most of this equipment, we quickly surmised, wasn’t really anything to do with the session we were involved in, but was more probably connected with the play that a local theatre group was putting on in the evenings while we were - if you will - sunlighting on the opposite shift during the day.

Tape Op Steve put the kettle on. This would be a feature of the course of the rest of the day – whenever there were a lull in proceedings he would appear almost magically bearing tea, coffee, Lemsip and/or biscuits. For all my analogue inferences up there ^ we were actually recording onto a shiny laptop, however the vagaries of the room’s sound, the acoustic properties of our instruments and whether Helen had had a hot lemon drink and a vocalzone recently meant that Steve’s honorary title actually translated into a practical series of tasks, as he delineated the optimum position for chairs and feet with masking tape in order that the best balance be effected for each track depending on instrumentation, who was singing, and whether there was a banjo involved or not. Mr. Wendell spent the day facing slightly away from the group, playing his Gibson acoustic into the well of the hall. Helen was instructed to rotate through 360 degrees in order to ascertain the optimum angle for her flute to cut through tonally and then had to take a step forward to sing. Each take literally began with the entreaty “On your marks…”.

Having six people to performing live in a room brings its own complications. “We seem to have a tuning issue in the last chorus there” remarked our de facto producer at one point. “No – it’s just that the closer to the end we get, the tighter I’m gripping the guitar” replied Mr. Wendell affably. It was fairly obvious when someone had got an intro wrong, but if somebody happened to stumble over a vocal well into the trunk of a take we stopped and went back to begin again. Turny forgot the order of a couple of his characteristically momentous lyrics; for some reason I purported that the protagonists in one song would be entranced by each other’s 'furniture' rather than their 'flirting'; I sang ‘totches’ rather than ‘notches’ right in the last verse of ‘Harrogate’. “It’s okay – I can drop that in later” said Sam guilelessly. We all looked around within our circle of concern, processing this new information. Significantly, we stopped looking at each other at the conclusion of a take and started deferring to him*.

We relaxed between takes with small talk and noodling. The theme from Crossroads became a recurrent…theme. Fiddly’s theorising about the placement of the microphones** and other such technical concerns gave way to a philosophical “Well, you know what they say – it’s not so much about the quality of the recording as whether you’ll be whistling it on your way home that counts”. Mr. Wendell reminisced fondly about the days of four track recording. We waited for passing cars to plough their torpid furrow through the drizzled streets outside before we recorded a particularly quiet intro to our token cover version. Steve shielded my amplifier with a cushion so that the sensitive recording equipment wouldn’t pick up its ambient hum during the same. We ran through the outro of one song half a dozen more times*** for posterity’s sake. We checked the clock. It was half an hour before we had to be out of the hall. Packing instruments back into cases, gathering cables and leads, unscrewing stands, disassembling improvised risers, replacing the chairs and finishing off the chocolate brownies, I motioned Fiddly to pause and listen, as from the other side of the room came the unmistakable melody of Love Minus Zero/ No Limit.

“There’s your old grey whistle test, right there”.    

 
*This was obviously a lot easier for Wendell, as he was partially turned in that direction anyway.
 
**”No – I’m just using that one. The other one’s just there in case the first one breaks”.

***”You’re all slowing down at the same time, just at different speeds”.          


 


 

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Thank You Very Glad.


Big up and props to everyone who came out this week to support our continuing efforts to combine the haunting lilt of the banjo with the sublime mellow wash of the bouzouki in pursuit of the perfect East Angliacana stadium anthem. Inclusive of - but not limited to - The Earlybirds, Fern Teather (and Sam - "Hello Bongo!"), whoever put money in the hat, bought us a drink and who made the effort to come out on a wet Tuesday night* to hear us perform songs we'd made up out of our own collective heads, a couple of Dylan numbers, one by Moses and an utterly sublime The Queen and The Soldier on Fern's part. Lastly, and very much not least of all, James out of Blue House Music who put in a sterling shift in the face of a deliberately provocative fiddle, squeezebox, flute, whistle, bouzouki, bass, twelve string, acoustic and electric guitar-based line up with four singers, and who came up smiling nonetheless**. Thanks buddy - obviously we could have done it without you, but it would have sounded shit. 


*Yeah - we could do it in Stoke if we needed to. 
**Or at least not grimacing any more than he normally does.     

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Thirty Eight Things to Go Wrong.


So, our final rehearsal before next week’s expedition to darkest Colchester is completed. You couldn’t really call it a dress rehearsal since when performing on stage Turny often puts on a skinny tie that makes him look like a member of a late seventies post-punk power pop combo – how you always picture Ric Ocasek out of The Cars during their Just What I Needed pomp, say. Mr. Wendell has taken to wearing a polka dot shirt which lends him the slightly whimsical air of a Robyn Hitchcock, and Helen had taken to sporting a pair of spray-on leggings covered on Shakespeare quotations until she noticed that the ‘Ham’ from ‘Hamlet’ was emblazoned perfectly on her upper thigh. I myself usually pick out the cleanest checked shirt in the wardrobe, which is frequently the one I wore at the last gig, so carbon-dating the age of any band I’ve been in through the medium stage wear has become an increasingly knotty issue over the past two decades*.
We ran through everything a couple of times, just to bed in new yet enduring bassist Gibbon, whose arrival in our midst has been necessitated firstly by the departure of original stand-up guy Ant and then also of his replacement, Producer Andy, whose lucrative side line in playing bass for Purple Rain – A Tribute to Prince means that since the recent surge of interest in the work of one of Minneapolis’ favourite sons he gets to fly by private plane into tax havens to perform the music of the Stack-Heeled Sex Impness of Funk rather than the slightly more staid East Angliacana’n fare we cater for, with, and to**. Also along for the ride is SftBH alumnus Fiddly, in whose shed we are rehearsing, and whose pre-match chocolate cake and tea we are fortified with. Not being a self-styled full-time filler of the ranks, Fiddles describes himself as a Three Legged Dog. Their approaches to the run through are both familiar and heartening. Gib wants to know which key to start in and after that pretty much anything can happen, and Fiddly wants to know how many bars we’re going to do at the end, so he knows when to stop. The only thing they really have in common is that they’re both actually called Richard.

We have secured the expertise of a proper sound engineer and their bespoke PA system for the gig itself, mainly because they haven’t received any more better offers since we asked if they’d do it for us a favour***. We have engaged two guest turns (“…a couple of mics please, and a monitor would be great!”) , arranged load-in and sound check times, forwarded details of parking, run off some posters, created events on three separate social media platforms, alerted the press and I have worked out the settings I’m going to use on all three electric guitars, the twelve string, and the bouzouki. I’ve also forwarded a copy of the stage plan and technical specs (although I did lose brownie points on that as it wasn’t formatted to print in landscape). And that’s just for one Tuesday night, low-key run through of some material before we go to record it in a couple of weeks' time. At one place I’m playing shortly they won’t even let your gear in the room unless it’s got an up to date PAT certificate****. Imagine what it’s like then for your local arts centre, folk club, open mic, songwriter’s showcase or blues club promoter who does this every week!  
We’ll leave a tips jar on the bar for you to show your appreciation.
 

*If I’m wearing a white shirt with a heart overlaid with an ‘X’ on the breast pocket it’s a photograph of As Is. That was a gift from a grateful record industry on behalf of Duranduran, whose “1988 single “I Don’t Want Your Love” fell swiftly from its debut chart position of #14, despite EMI’s best efforts to promote it through the dispensation of form-flattering wardrobe. Go on – try and remember how the chorus goes. See?  

**To be fair, he also plays in the Tony Winn Trio, so it's not all "Twenty minutes, off, helicopter, back to the Warwick Hotel, two birds each."

***i.e. ones that pay, and at least at time of writing.

****You’ve got Google – go and look it up.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"Let me bore you with this story, how my lover let me down..."


It is a truth universally acknowledged that once you’ve learned how to play the first six The Beatles singles you’ll be in possession of everything there is that you need to know about writing a song. Song writing, I should stress, is not the same as making a record, as John Seabrook’s excellent The Song Machine explains in detail and at length. But I digress. With the benefit of knowing how "one gets the impression that they think simultaneously of harmony and melody, so firmly are the major tonic sevenths and ninths built into their tunes, and the flat submediant key switches” one can all the more appreciate the “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!”'s that tend to round off those early choruses. Listen and learn, kids, listen and learn. My own personal road map on the way to song writing enlightenment on the other hand, was Neil Young’s Comes a Time. Once I'd reached the point where I could play all the way through the whole album I knew what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it, and had also developed a penchant for checked shirts, the key of 'G' and battered straw hats that has withstood no little critical opprobrium even to this day.
 
But the intriguing thing about those Beatles singles is the stories they tell and the questions they ask. “If there’s anything that you want..?”, “You think you’ve lost your love…”. Despite any contrary claims regarding the groove, it’s story tellers whose work you have to keep coming back to. Desperado was a disappointing follow up to Eagles’ debut album sales-wise, but it’s still their best work, due in no small part to the narrative thread that runs through it. Thin Lizzy’s best song isn’t Jailbreak, or The Boys are Back in Town or even Don’t Believe a Word, but the relatively unassuming Southbound*, with its trail-weary protagonist reflecting on the good old days in the same way that Bruce Springsteen’s tough young punks from Asbury Park turned into the jaded parents of The River. Throughout these songs, I want to know what happens in the next verse, the next chapter. To reach the gloomy denouement**.
At last night’s Doghearsal we sat down with two chords and a couple of verses of lyrics, trying to make sense of the narrative and bookend the story of 'As Yet (Untitled)' as best we could.

I dug out all these old photographs

The three of us smiling on New Year’s Day

It’s almost as if it didn’t happen

 And it feels like it’s a century away

...it starts. It’s not like our song Harrogate, which is a jolly, chirpy four verse country romp about an illicit but ultimately doomed liaison in a northern spa hotel***. That’s a straight soup to nuts Squeeze song waiting to happen. This is more opaque. Who are these people? Where have they met? What are they doing there? What are their regrets? I won’t lie to you – these are the themes I keep coming back to. There may be a hundred protagonists, a few dozen parties and a hundred miles of tarmac in the notebooks, scraps of paper, bookmarks and receipts I’ve scribbled things down on over the years, but the question is always the same. In common with The Boss, I just want to know if love is real.
We worked on the arrangement. I’d come in with two chords and the lyrics, intending to workshop the thing into something bigger, but we’d decided that it didn’t need to break out into a bridge, a chorus, a middle eight – just to go circling around and around, Mr. Wendell keeping the hypnotic rhythm going - like the very best of Simon Nicol’s Sloth work - while the rest of us drift in and out according to mood and inclination. “It’s only two chords” said someone “It’s not a bit too U2, is it?”
“Fuck ‘em – they didn’t write ‘A’ and ‘D’” someone replied.
After a while I remembered where I’d heard these inversions before. Many moons ago our drummer had written a song called Love is Here through the simple expedient of positioning his hands anywhere on the guitar neck that sounded good to him, and then moving the odd finger to see what happened. The verses were based around a repetitive three chord round with lots of open strings and odd sub-tonics. I’d absorbed, assimilated and re-stumbled upon his fingering**** for two of them and here we were, some twenty five or six to four years later bringing them back out into the light of day, or at least the stygian half ten-ness of a Tuesday night in Coggeshall. Song writing, chord construction, words and bridges - all there in spades. And he couldn’t play you a Beatles song if his life depended on it.        


*And it closes with a great big fuck-off gong. Which is awesome.
**TMFTL
*** Which in turn is not a patch on Scarborough, by Farrah, which covers pretty much the same sort of ground lyrically, but which has a better chorus.
****Easy, tiger.

Monday, September 05, 2016

"Do your Claude Monet!" "I'm sorry - I don't do impressionists..."


A chum flagged one of those memes on their Facebook page the other day – this one a product of the venerable Musician’s Union, which has a history of being very good to orchestral and session musicians and is widely ignored by the rest of us – suggesting that unless you were doing good works for charity you should not play gigs for free. A wizened old chestnut indeed. Having been on both sides of the paid/plaid* divide I can confirm that this is an emotive subject and has been discussed online many times before. The financially rewarding Star Club years went a great way toward financing the not-so-lucrative gods kitchen and SftBH epochs and yes, we did a lot of work for charity, notwithstanding the rather heated discussion we once had with some members of one bike club when we declined their invitation to spend our entire Saturday providing the PA and playing for their good cause – not because it wasn’t lucrative or that the charity wasn’t entirely worthy, it’s just that all of us had better things to do with our personal time on that occasion.
One of the online responses to my friend’s post was from a correspondent indignant about being continually told to monetise her art (I’m paraphrasing – there was a lot of text to summarise) which I can sort of see, or at least I could do clearly if I weren’t so completely mesmerised about the prospect of one day being in the position of insisting on monetising my own art. That would certainly help assuage a lot of low-level guilt about asking your friends and colleagues to spend an hour and a half driving in order to play a twenty minute ‘open’ spot when they could be more gainfully employed sewing name tags into their kids’ PE kit ready for their first day back at school. Or building furniture.

As it was, we spent two afternoons this weekend gainfully not monetising our art – firstly in Needham Market at a Fun Day where we were the starter course to a veritable banquet of open spots, a singer who was on The Voice, a bouncy castle and, later, karaoke**. Our host, who had a terrific voice of her own, made us thoroughly welcome and waited patiently while we phoned around to see if anyone in proximity of the venue had any microphone stands we could borrow, the privilege of digging them out and bringing them to the venue on our behalf they would be similarly un-monetised for. We had a good time, using it as a pre-session run through of the set for the next day’s gig, and Nicola put a clip of our performance on to the electric internet, prompting one viewer to comment that it was the best version of Love Minus Zero/No Limit he’d ever heard. So, no money, but good exposure.
It was also a useful try-out for the new instrumentation – we’d decided to eschew the familiar two acoustic guitar strumalong style in exchange for one of us going electric and the other going to California for a couple of weeks and this had been the first opportunity to see how it sounded live. A bit too long tuning between songs for my liking – Helen’s “Talk among yourselves…Um, I probably need to work on my between-songs banter a bit, don’t I?” had been merely the confirmation that I was spending a little too much time on capo-related tweakery of my guitar and so I decided that for the next day’s show I would brazenly break Robert Forster’s seventh rule of rock and roll and take another to go with the bouzouki I was using on one song. One of five, I should probably mention. Let’s face it, if you’re not being paid in items you can legally take to a superstore on the outskirts of town and exchange for goods and services you may as well indulge yourself in other ways - it’s only that we’d already decided on the set and we weren’t playing anything that demanded a capo at the fifth fret in order for me to conjure my inversions*** too that meant that I didn’t pack a third electric guitar to go with the other two.

Our Sunday host and de facto front-of-house sound engineer looked at the mountain of equipment we (I) was loading in to the cramped open mic-sized performance arena with a mixture of rising panic, fear and disbelief. “I didn’t see why I should make it easy for you!” I chirruped happily. She looked slightly less impressed than if I’d announced that there was a fortress of keyboards**** and a Mellotron still to come in, but took it all with good grace. Thankfully, she’d had a cancellation and so we had a bit more set up and pack down time than we would have otherwise allowed ourselves and also had an opportunity to drop in a couple of extra (unrehearsed) songs from our back catalogue – one of them a genuine request, which is always gratifying. With all of the history of recorded music stretching out around them as far as the ear could hear, someone wanted to listen to something we’d written
  
At a party recently, someone asked me what my ideal job would be. “Tim Dowling” I said. “He gets to go out at the weekend and play with his band, and then he gets to go home and write about it”.

And he gets paid for both.                                

 

*I tend to wear the familiar Neil Young/Rory Gallagher-inspired lumberjack shirt when performing my own works. And pretty much all the rest of the time too, if truth be told.
**That is, the singer had appeared on television’s The Voice, not that she appeared on the bouncy castle. I explained this line up to a friend, including the karaoke. “When does the fun start?” he replied, drily.

***Ooh, Matron, don’t! They can’t touch you for it.
****Thanks to @backwards7 on Twitter for that one.