Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond

“Why Do You Sit Down To Play?” The Long Answer…

October 24th, 2016 | No Comments | Categories: Musing on Music · New Music Strategies |

When I get asked why I sit down to play, the short answer is normally ‘because I need two feet to operate all these pedals!’. But it’s a little more complex than that – as you’d expect, given how many people manage to play standing up while also having massive pedal boards…

The problem is not turning regular effects on and off. That you can easily do with one foot. It’s not even turning off more than one at a time – that can be done with a loop-switcher (pedal that allows you to have any number of pedals in a separate ‘loop’ that the sound can either go through or bypass), or by having them as a patch in a multi-FX unit (I do that a lot, obviously).

The issue for me is continuous control – wah, volume, delay feedback, pitch shift, parameters that fade in and out, and the interactions between them… That’s such a huge part of that constantly evolving feel that I aim for in my music – the feel that is absolutely at the heart of what I’ve been trying to develop as a solo artist since my very first album. Have a listen to ‘Drifting’ from my first album – in order to transition from one set of loopy-stuff to another, I had to fade the first loop down to nothing, quickly delete it and start looping again, all within the context of the music…

It’s by no means a convenient set of musical challenges to be exploring. I realised decades ago that I’d get way more gigs if I had a more portable set-up and could do it standing up – I’d engage with standing audiences better, and it’d be a different kind of energy – I’d be able to dance, move around the stage, make my arm and body movements way more theatrical/performative.

But it would also change the music, completely. It would pull it towards the broader consensus around popular music, driven in large part by the way venues are designed and gigs are planned. Driven by the fact that most musicians make music designed to get people’s attention. I’ve always started from the point of playing in places where I already have people’s attention. I’ve focused on making the music that I need to make, and then finding the context for it, rather than writing a completely different kind of music geared towards a pre-ordained context in which improvisations that take 5/6/7 minutes to really get going are going to send everyone to the bar…

My experience is that standing venues are a context in which my music struggles – it’s not always a bad thing, my recent gig with Divinity at the Jazz Cafe worked great (perhaps that’s because the Jazz Cafe leans more towards being perceived as a listening venue? Perhaps it was just that the audience was full of bass players??).

But the recognition that what I do isn’t a best fit for large parts of the music economy stretches beyond gigs. One of the dominant modes of discovery online, a foraging approach, where people listen to 30 seconds of a thing on YouTube hoping to be wowed by it somehow (this is particularly prevalent for contemporary instrumentalists) – is not a situation in which my music flourishes. I *could* make music for that. The times when I have uploaded music that was either more direct, or had a more technically-driven, flash focus to it, it’s gained a whole lot of views. But it isn’t, as an emphasis, where my heart is as a music maker. There’s a whole lot of music I love listening to that is properly amazing like that, and there’s a large part of my audience who, so they tell me, are wowed in another way by how I manage to put the music together – but that particular ‘reveal’ takes a lot longer, a lot more focus and attention from the listener…

However, it’s by no means all bad. Because the story-telling bit of the web, the bit where we get to talk about why we do what we do, what it means, and how it makes us feel, the bit where we describe it, where we tell tales of what’s coming up, of processes, of how we’re making music and how excited we are to be doing it – that’s where my music, and my work ethic works so well. Because it’s not only me talking about it, but anyone who likes it is free to talk about it.

  • They’re free to write reviews of it on Bandcamp if that’s where they got it,
  • free to share links on Twitter and Facebook with descriptions,
  • free to send MP3s to their friends with invitations to find more…

That’s why it makes me so happy when I get to see people talking about how, where and why they listen to my music, when writers and coders talk about using it while they write, why it makes me so happy if people tell me their kids love it, or they played it for some specific occasion. I think some of my proudest and most humbling moments as a music maker have come when people have told me the moments where my music has been the soundtrack – births and marriages, moments of grief and sadness, the accompaniment to falling in love and to saying goodbye.

And, of course, it’s why house concerts work so well, where I can chat to the audience and talk more about why I do what I do in a space that allows for SPACE, for things to take time. Where I can listen to them, hear how their relationships with music, discover new friends and new things to listen to.

I try to create, encourage and foster the kind of spaces where my music can flourish – where I can play to my best, where discovering it is easiest, where people are most likely to give it the time is to obviously needs… I hope you feel inspired to spend a little time listening – if you’re not sure what all that sounds like, head to – but take your time, there’s a lot there to digest 😉

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