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?

Monday, December 11, 2017

"...and a tenner on Mince Pies".

 
I have received notification of the accounts pertaining to Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs' gig at the weekend and, unusually, we appear to have made a profit, insomuch as we didn’t actually lose money on the night and everyone involved in the production got at least some pocket money to take home. This may, you might contend, be the idea of the game in the first place, but as anyone involved on the live gig circuit will tell you, the easiest way to amass a small fortune in the field of local music promotion is to start off with a large one.



Fortunately we were able to harness the goodwill built up over many years’ toil by the good folk of Live at The Institute (see blogs passim), who were prepared to adopt their old roles for one night only in order to throw us a Christmas party. Neighbourhood Tony was to readopt his role as MC for the night – a popular host always seeming endearingly within reach of forgetting the name of the act he is about to introduce. As well as The Dogs, we were Fern Teather (and sidekick Bongo Boy) and one Rob A, one of my imaginary internet friends who, although I had corresponded with at length via the electric internet, I’d never actually met in true life. I’d invited him on the strength of his group’s new vinly album, which I’d ordered out of solidarity with a fellow artiste and of which I was pretty uncertain how it would be received by the Kelvedon crowd, a constituency generally used to being treated to the sort of acoustic balladeering frequently unleashed by (say) Ken Bruce during his daytime radio reveries - Jamie Lawson, for example, is a LatI alumnus. Rob, it quickly became clear, was not of this persuasion. As he worked his way through the line check under the watchful ears of sound factotum James, Mr. Wendell sidled up to me. “I wasn’t expecting that” he muttered. It wasn’t exactly Daft Punk getting up at the Newport Folk Festival and launching into ‘Get Lucky’, but it wasn’t far off. Helen grinned a grin. “I feel like I’ve been transported back to the eighties and have just seen a really early gig of a really massive band”.



A massive band was quite the opposite of what he was being, however, given that The Disappointment Choir traditionally follows the time-accepted notion of the pop duo by having two members. Disappointment Bob was however, tonight, a man on his own. Facing down the crowd, singing all the songs, playing guitar, triggering the drum machine, cueing the synths – all of these things could, on their own, be considered to be quite a stressful night’s work, but to do them all at once could be regarded as unnecessarily penitential. After Fern’s thoughtful circle-squaring set of beautiful acoustic ballads, during which she mentioned that the last time she’d played The Institute she was just starting her Kickstarter campaign to pay for the recording of her album and here, two years later, the last available copy of the CD was on the merch table, Rob hauled his keyboards centre stage, the lights dimmed, and he began.



I was at a table with Mrs K. a woman of generally forthright opinions on the potency of cheap music. The number of times we have to skip stuff that comes up on random play in the car doesn’t bear mentioning. She leaned over attract my attention. I braced myself. “This is wonderful” she breathed “We need to own this….”. I breathed a little sigh of relief of my own. Why had I doubted him, them, and myself? With the no-bar set up (the venue is a bohemian bring-your-own kind of gig, which means there’s none of that lobbing J2O bottles at the glass skip behind the bar that you get at many other listening venues) the audience were able to give The Disappointment Chorister their full attention, and we in turn received his.



After a quick tune up backstage, I had to put on my roadie shirt to go on and adjust Helen’s microphone back down from Rob’s height (he’s a lot bigger in real life than he looks on screen), then those lights come up and we hear that crowd and we remember why we came. Our set was a bit of a blur after that. We spoke (at length), we played some old songs, some brand new songs (agreeably, the new ones received many appreciative post-show compliments, which is in the direction we really should be going), we enlisted Bongo Boy to add some percussion to our set (somehow James managed to find another couple of channels on the desk post-sound check – it was either that or Sam was going to have to hit them really hard), and we sent the good people of Kelvedon back out into the night, musically satiated to a man, woman and (one) dog.



For we are Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs. And this is what we do.

Monday, October 30, 2017

"Hello Bongo..!"


We are not entirely strangers to the concept of experimentation over in The Doghouse. Having negotiated the potentially choppy waters of one-take, in the round recording on previous occasions and employing techniques involving things like rehearsing, playing the songs live prior to the session & maintaining exhaustive crib sheets regarding time, tone and instrumentation, we decided to embark on our latest day out at an austere Baptist Chapel in Cambridgeshire in the spirit of those freewheeling troubadours from the seventies, who got it together in the country over a pot of steaming lentil soup, a few massive joints, and the sort of record company largesse that we can only reflect in wonder at these days. Being booked into a five-star hotel for a week’s suite swapping and songwriting might sound like a great deal to some, but you’re hardly likely to come away with something like ‘Dear Mr Fantasy’, no matter how many hours you spend finessing your top line. So, swap the lentil soup for a cafetiere of Dark Roast Italian Blend, the joints for McVitie’s digestives and the record company largesse for some homemade Ginger-free Gingerbread People and you’ve pretty much got the picture. To enhance the period vibe, we hadn’t all rehearsed together for about two months and had decided to do a couple of new songs, one of which we’d played live, once, in 2016. So far, so Traffic.



One might presume that this reckless approach to our limited recording time would stymie the creative flow, but having being through the early stages of the K├╝bler-Ross model of recording (over-anxiety, slight relaxation, knocking it out of the park) we found ourselves at the point where we generally agreed that getting a good performance was going to be more of an end point to aim for than spending many hours of studio time nailing down a stone-cold classic single which we could then give away on the internet to as many as eight or nine of our friends (other oblique strategies in a similar same vein to this included going out in the street and randomly handing out ten pound notes to strangers, which we also decided against as a band exercise). After all, if artists like Richard Thompson, Neil Young and The Rutles could produce classic albums by dint of knocking out three takes of a number, deciding on the best one and moving on, why shouldn’t we? Shoot Out The Lights apparently took three days to record. The follow-up took even longer.



Also along for the ride on this occasion, Sam ‘Bongoboy’ Thurlow, who had incidentally been at that gig where we’d done ‘As Yet (Untitled)’ and had so impressed all of us with his percussive work with Fern Teather that we took the opportunity to invite him along for the day, if only to give Fiddly something to keep us all in time on his behalf. Open-minded, amiable and above all, cheap, Sam did indeed keep things on track, and previously perilously floating tempos became grooves under his beneficient percussedness. Once we’d warmed up with something we did know, time came to start jamming on autologically named new item ‘Snug Song’ (if you think that’s lazy you should have heard the working title*). Gibbon tried some different bass lines, tuned down, retuned, forgot he’d retuned and played a non-dropped ‘E’ by mistake. Turny Winn alternated between squeezebox and harmonica, Fiddly regaled us with another tale from ye olden days – this time about an acquaintance who ate garlic butter sandwiches for lunch and rolled his glass eye betwixt buttery fingertips in between times in order to clean it, and Mr. Wendell attempted to impose some authority upon the situation by striding up to the performance area, a flurry of Christian leaflets in his wake and rallying the troops with a declamatory “Right – now let’s nail this fucker!”

Dude – look around you…” I admonished with an appropriately Saintly import.



As a team bonding session the day struck all the right notes, as did the group albeit – paraphrasing, if we may, a response to the great Andrew Preview – not always on the same take. We ran down a couple of versions of a pretty-much improvised song which took us up to clearing out time. Perfectly, as it happened. As the last chord died ambiently down, an arpeggiate sequence of notes trilled across the fading Dsus2 I was holding on the Tele. I glanced sideward, searching for the gently flailing fingers which would indicate that Turny was finishing off the song with a gentle banjo coda. Helen, next to me at the microphone blushed and scrabbled to turn the alarm off on her phone. “It’s five o’clock. Time for me to put my eye drops in...”




*’None More Eighties’, as the chord progression in the bridge and chorus are...go on, have a guess.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Another Happy Day


I’m occasionally of the opinion that if I were to write an autobiography, and simply stop at the point at which we started getting gigs in London, it would be a rip-roaring success with an unholy clamour for the sequel – of course in reality wouldn’t even be worth the tax Amazon would dodge on it. I’ve very much lived my career so far in a sort of parallel universe to those who have made it though, and who have retired to a life of speaking tours, and the occasional showcase gig in (say) Pompeii. Nevertheless we share many of the fundamental aspects of our life and experiences. I’ve got sleeping in the van stories, sleeping in someone’s kitchen, sleeping in a dormitory at a community centre in Denmark…in fact upon reflection, very many of these rip-roaring anecdotes involve either finding, or being overly concerned with securing, places to sleep. There more I consider it though, the more I tend toward the school of thought which holds that I may have misjudged the mood of the memoir-buying public in this respect.
Neil Young has a great (now confirmed) urban legend about him listening to mixes of his new album whilst sitting in a boat on the lake outside his home in California with the house serving as one half of a stereo speaker system while his rehearsal PA, set up in the adjacent barn, served as the other. My equivalent story involves listening to Magical Mystery Tour whilst leaning against one wardrobe - which had the left-hand speaker atop it - while the other side of the harshly split stereo was being channelled via a chest of drawers on the other side of the room. Admittedly I didn’t have Graham Nash in the boat with me while I shouted “More barn!” at my road manager, but we were stoned and looking through kaleidoscopes at the time, and if anything’s going to convince you of the genius of Paul McCartney’s bass playing, that’ll be it.

You see what I mean though – it’s hardly doing our second gig at Woodstock, is it?

I do have my own little moments though – like this morning, when the SftBH song ‘Another Happy Day’ came on in the car through the magic algorithm of random play. I see by reference to the electric internet that it came out over twelve years ago. Twelve years before that I was covering Gram Parsons songs in gods kitchen, which had a nice sort of synchronicity when we put a GP in-joke on the credits for our next album. Back in 2005 though, we were in the middle of a hugely creative and collaborative patch. I think we were still making up the set list as we went along whenever we played live, which certainly kept things interesting for the rest of the band, whilst at home the creative nucleus of the band swooped and dived around each other like two starlings hatching a plot. Helen and I were chipping in on songs with each other remotely, but I think this was one of the first times we sat in a room and decided we were going to write a song together. She wrote the words, I came up with most of the progressions and Mr Wendell, along for the ride for the evening, provided a vital intervention with the odd passing chord in the bridge (he described it as either a “Paul Weller chord or a Beatle one…”) which forever after I had to check the fingering of before we played it live, and without ever quite getting it quite right.

The whole thing was intended as a sub-Bible tribute song (certainly on my part) - an intent further magnified when everybody else declined to sing it and I had to adopt my best Boo Hewerdine croon in order to perform the vocal. It was never going to win me first place on an obscure singer-songwriter edition of Stars in their Eyes, but given that my usual party trick up to this point was a note-imperfect rendition of Tonight’s the Night I reckon I got away with that one. Occasional auteur Pete ‘Radar’ Pawsey – a man who had (and I strongly believe still has) the uncanny ability of being able to tinker seemingly pointlessly for hours on end before coming up with a moment of inexplicable genius which puts the cherry on top of whichever Bakewell you’re currently involved in icing – put on a Skywriting dobro part to counterpoint Russ Barnes' lovely answering mandolin. As evidence of both our creative and collaborative instincts we then decided that what the outro really needed was a sung/spoken rapid and rhythmic vocal at the end, which we duly adjured from our friend Matt* who accepted both the commission of writing a short essay on the theme of Another Happy Day and the lack of attention afforded him when he actually came to record his part with impressive equanimity. To be fair, his wife was wearing an astonishingly short skirt when she accompanied him to the studio, and the sofa in the control room was not a forgiving place to sit and think, or even to just sits, so at this remove perhaps you’ll forgive us our temporary distraction from the job in hand.  
We also overdubbed and timecoded the sound of James’s camera, which we’d noticed made a sound in the same key as our song when he switched it on, and which he was duly credited with playing in the sleeve notes. Studio engineer and unflappable sound guru Steve Tsoi arranged the stereo microphones with an impressively straight face for that session, I seem to remember.

Upon reflection, I guess this isn’t the sort of anecdotery by which rock memoirs are judged after all. “We wrote a song, we recorded a song, we hung out with our friends and ate rotisserie chicken from the Tesco’s in Tiptree” it pretty much runs. Still, whenever he hears Harvest on the radio while out cruising in his LincVolt, I wonder if Neil Young chuckles to himself and thinks “That day with Nash on the lake. Man that was fun…”?   


*In the same way that Matt came up with the rap part on this song, our friends Wendell and Kilbey did some guitar parts, a friend of Helen’s Dad played the accordion and the mandolin player’s girlfriend came in and did a lead vocal for us. At times it was a bit like the von Trapp family in there, with us going “Adjure, adjure, to you and you and you…”.**

**Do it in the accent.

Friday, September 08, 2017

The Kindness of Strangers


 We - Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs - are not, it should be stressed, a band of independent means. Our fragmented touring schedule (we are not the most hawkish of gig-mongers) means that since we don’t play much* our concert-related income stream does not stretch to budgeting for a week’s recording in the country, two days’ mixing and a subsequent mastering session with a devoted engineer, even at mate’s rates. Hence we are pleased and grateful that our munificent benefactors Sam Inglis and Fenton Steve are the sort of chaps who enjoy nothing more than spending a bucolic Saturday looking concernedly at a whirring laptop, making sure we don’t knock over absurdly expensive microphones, marking out soundtastic sweet spots with masking tape, and making endless cups of tea for us (see blogs passim).
Our latest foray into standing in a big room and playing a song from start to finish, all at the same time, and hoping no-one lets off fireworks in the car park has been lovingly curated once again by our benevolent uncles from darkest Cambridgeshire, and we think it’s the best one so far. Three songs – one of which I distinctly remember demoing with The World Service in the function room of a pub that Google informs me was decommissioned in 1997 – wherein everybody gets a bit of a play, most of us have a sing, and the majority of folk are happy with their arrangements. Fiddly likes to prepare meticulously and has his own form of impenetrable musical notation which future etymologists are more than welcome to try to deconstruct whereas by contrast Gibbon (on bass) is far more of an improviser and a wing-it kind of guy, and so to get a take with which both are happy can be quite the calendar event.

As I say, we recorded these songs live - mainly around one magnificent Soundfield, with additional booster microphones for those elements which were getting slightly lost when fighting against the sound of Mr. Wendell’s mighty room-swamping Gibson acoustic. Meticulous attention to detail was then applied to the soundscapes by Steve (a considerable step or two beyond my contribution of “Could you tweak the banjo a bit?”) who passed on his thoughts to Sam, who then curated the finished objets. Our continued thanks for outside audio perspective, chapel wrangling, and biscuit provision are once again well overdue.

Please have a listen, enjoy if you can, and share at will. We truly appreciate it.
 

*After the last recording session we did we immediately started looking to the next one. The first date that all six band members were available on the same day was five months hence.