Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Lazy People in Local Newspapers

I see from a report in Her Majesty’s Press that local landmark The Mulberry Tree is up for sale. Well, I say ‘report’ – what I mean is a non-subbed, non-parsed cut & paste from the selling agent’s website describing the assets of the building. This, I’m afraid, is what passes for journalism these days – an endless (re)cycle of former glories and nostalgic, misty mountain hop-flavoured memories of the way we were*. Still, you don’t need another reflection on the decline and fall of the local paper from me – there are many, many ex-journalists who are more than qualified to give you that, but if their modus operandi is simply to exploit the archive then surely one day they’re going to run out of history** - although I know of several bits that they won’t be able to lay their hands on, because at the end of his tenure as rock and pop correspondent (never a massive priority for the editor) Mr. Wendell*** lifted as many glossy 8x10 photographs with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was as he could cram into his briefcase. There are more mullets in there than in a Floridian haul seine net.
In a spirit of research though, here are a couple of things I found with their look up function – here’s Picturehouse letting local radio presenter Simon Talbot play guitar with us and here’s me and James looking forward to our shot at Hollywood glory. Because we’d written a song the photographer for the latter story asked us to pose holding pencils and a piece of paper and my favourite quote from the eventual published piece is “…several other talented musicians make up the band, some of whom play occasionally”. You see – [CTRL] + C – I could do that job. We took that picture in The Dove, by the way. 
Sadly, The focus of the current 'story' is on the value of the property, and not on the vital part the venue and it’s custodians played it my rise and rise to rock stardom and notoriety during the pub’s time as the rebranded The Milestone in the latter part of the last century and the early stirrings of this. Having moved from The Olive Leaf just up the road, Karen and Ady brought along some of the house bands who had kept them entertained so royally during their tenure there and here it was also that a nascent Songs from The Blue House made our live debut, and where we then backed La Mulley at SSW as she first presented many of the songs which would go to make up our second album.
Here The Picturehouse Big Band hosted a series of themed gigs – the Football Kit Night was going well until I tried to play 2-4-6-8 Motorway in goalkeeping gloves (don’t listen to those who tell you it improved the whole experience), our Beach Party drew admiring reviews regarding the nature of then-bass player Andy’s shortie shorts (Kilbey sported a Beckham-esque sarong) and the inevitable school uniform night came with the consequence that the music respectfully stopped whenever Katinka went on a glass-collecting run. There was the night that Limehouse Lizzy cancelled up at The Railway and we threw in a couple of impromptu Thin Lizzy numbers (“It’s Em, D, C and G all the way through – I’ll do the solo…”) and Pete Radar Pawsey did a harmonica solo in Take It On The Run. The Star Club played after-park parties which pulled in almost as many folk as watched us at Ipswich Music Day, I DJ’d a vinyl-only night - hell, they even let gods kitchen play.
All this reduced to “The property comprises of a ground floor L shaped bar, 50 covers, a tap room for beers & ciders from the barrel, ladies, gent’s and disabled toilets, a walled garden with seating area for 16 covers, complete with a BBQ dining area and a beer garden to the front of the premises.” Sorry, I do beg your pardon – that’s from the Penn Commercial listing – this is from the Ipswich Star story – “The property comprises a 1,599 sq ft ground floor L-shaped bar with 50 covers, a taproom for beers and ciders from the barrel. Outside there is a 1,237 sq ft walled garden with seating for a further 16 covers, complete with a BBQ dining area.” [CTRL] + P
And this is just from my experience – think how many stories they could spin out if someone was just prepared to get off their big fat keyboard, pick up a phone and ring a few people. What about the night David Coverdale bought everyone in the pub a round, when Tony Hadley got turned away from a lock-in because no-one recognised him, Dave Greenfield turned up at songwriter’s night and played Golden Brown or The Levellers were in the pub after their encore at The Regent before the audience were?
“Upstairs is a three bedroom flat with study, and a living room, attractive fitted kitchen and separate toilet and bathroom with free standing bath. The flat has also been recently renovated and decorated to a good standard” my arse.

*Although not entirely unlike much of this blog, to be fair

**We listened to an interview with an executive from Archant regarding the future of local papers on the wireless one day on our way to a festival, and if he said ‘monetise’ once, he said it twenty times, and it was only a ten minute feature. When the Ipswich Star do the inevitable self-aggrandizing history of their new offices, I hope they remember to include this.

***Following in a distinguished succession of feature writers (Rob Hadgraft, Simon Berrill, Julie Adams), Mr. Wendell employed Our Glorious Leader James and Myself as (unpaid) singles reviewers and once interviewed our band As Is for a feature which appeared under the headline “Too Lazy to Work, Too Scared to Steal”, which was a mantra we’d adopted from Green on Red’s Dan Stuart – his response to the question as to why he was a musician.


Thursday, February 02, 2017

Back to the Future

I had the pleasure of reading a great interview with Chris Leslie and Dave Pegg-out-of-Fairport-Convention this week, and in among the expansion and reminiscence there was the almost throwaway comment that one of the bass parts on the new album had essentially been edited together from various takes by Engineer John Gale and that he (Dave Pegg) had relearnt the whole in order to perform the song live. This, I thought, was a fascinating detail in the recording process, although not entirely unprecedented*. The exchange within the interview implies that Peggy is slightly more arm’s length in his approach to overdubbing than, say, my chum Shev, who has the traditional six-gun approach to guitars which befits a man who came of age in the glory days of two inch tapes and wearing sunglasses indoors – also alluded to by Pegg in his interview - or Simon Nicol, who back in the olden days once found himself popping round to a painfully dysphonic Linda Thompson's house with a Tascam four-track and doing a whole song line by line in order to get it right**. 
We’re currently sifting through the rough mixes of The Waterbeach Baptist Chapel sessions (there’s one here) and a more forensic, headphone-based approach than piling into the crèche at the back of the hall and running the most recent take through the Gibson Les Paul Studio Monitors has revealed a couple of glitches that we would probably not choose to incorporate in the finished versions, given the opportunity. Fortunately, Producer Sam is as adept with the right-click button as his twentieth century equivalent would have been with a razor blade and the editing block, and has already managed to replace a misplaced line of verse, an over-enthusiastically struck chord, and the word “Don’t” using what we like to refer to as The Old Take Two Switcheroo - that is to say that he has skilfully blended two (or three) takes of the same song – performed live by everyone all at the same time, remember – in order to produce a seamless whole.
Back in the Noughties, when sifting through tracks for the SftBH version of (Don’t Fear) The Reaper we found a brief snippet of Radar’s harmonica somewhere in the second verse which we were able to successfully cut, paste, autotune and compress into a completely different part of the song thanks to the wonders of digital technology (the drums went on last as well, which I understand is not exactly industry standard) but here there’s no going back and dropping something onto the clipboard and then repositioning it where you want it with all the off-notes trimmed off.
It’s an incredible skill, for which one requires application, ability, a steady hand and a firm nerve and, ears to die for. Mind you, it’s not like no-one’s gotten away with it before…  

*From attention to interviewer Colin Harper’s prior forensic examinations of the career of John McLaughlin I also know that the final output of Miles Davis’ seminal In A Silent Way is almost entirely a cut & shunt operation performed by producer Ted Macero.

**There are other methods.     

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Baptist Clown of Judginess.

Another splendid foray into the flatlands completed, and a reunion with FentonSteve and Sam - our recording Godparents - who it turns out aren't averse to occasionally explaining patiently to their families that they are going to be spending their Saturday spooling out cables, making coffee, rigging a Trace Elliot and attempting not to drop a microphone worth the equivalent of a small family car whilst a bunch of people they barely know emote meaningfully into the ether. We are recording once more, in a chapel in Waterbeach. Steve is so prepared that he has brought crates on which to put the amplifiers, and warns us not to place them upon the raised area in front of the pulpit, for that is where the baptismal font is secreted, which tends to make the bass boom a little. He also has Ginger Nuts. And some biscuits.

Sans Fiddly on this occasion (he has some pre-arranged wassailing to do) we have not only upgraded the main Soundfield microphone, but lessons absorbed from our last session mean that Sam has included a couple of close-mics in case we need to subsequently tweak the vocals and/or bass in the mix*. Multiple takes are run through and over - at one point an entirely different time signature is workshopped (and recorded for future reference) - and the feel is that of a group getting it together in the country, like in the olden days. Sam's production style is very hands-off - Joe Boydian by many accounts - and there's not a lot of listening back to takes going on until he suggests that we have a live one, whereupon two or three folk check into the improvised control room to confirm his gut feel (or not). Others make tea, eat cake, pootle on the piano or pop to the village shop, pausing on the way back only to admire the Mediaeval swordsmanship being played out on the green. There is an easy, relaxed air to proceedings, probably helped considerably by our new-found familiarity with the process, and that this time we don't have to worry about cars splooshing through the rain-swept streets outside bleeding into the mix. We do have to halt one take to let a plane fly over, and as we look upwards the full majesty of the plaster ceiling rose reveals itself. From a certain angle, it appears that we are being watched over by a particularly malevolent circus performer.

There is a song where we are arranged around a single mic singing a five-part harmony. In another I board the DADGAD bus with Mr. Wendell's booming Gibson acoustic** while he channels Tonight's the Night-era Neil Young on my electric guitar. It's not until I'm listening back to some rapid-turnaround rough mixes a day later that the full, flawless beauty of Helen's vocals shine out, Turny's intricate weaving banjo parts, Gibbon's sinuous bass lines (he's one of the people constantly listening to the playbacks - always looking to refine his part in service of the song).

"Blimey" I mail the group "I didn't realize we were that good".

Sam replies almost instantly.

"Just wait 'til I put the kazoo orchestra on..." 

*Which we do. 
**You know - the one that all the Americana singer-songwriters have.  

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 recherché 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 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.