Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond

It’s 2016 And We’re Looking For Magic In All The Wrong Places

April 25th, 2016 · 8 Comments

“All of the magic in the world is leaving”

– this is a quote from a friend’s blog about the death of Prince. He was quoting what another friend said to him, but it echoes a VERY widely held sentiment that the number of stars/legends/genuises dying is leaving us bereft of talent, of magic.

To which I say ‘bullshit’.

Statistically incomprensible, culturally myopic, yet completely understandable bullshit.

I know why it feels like that. I get it. I succumb to that in the moments after the announcement of the death of a Bowie or a Prince or a Papa Wemba… ‘not another one??’

Another what? Another dead human, another dead musician, another lost piece of the consensus around what made the late 20th Century so special for mass consumer art. That last bit is key. Musicians die all the time, musicians who changed people’s lives, musicians who made music that meant so much to people. Just *not enough people* for it to register on the global radar. Whether or not another 100 million people liked someone isn’t a measure of how important they were to me. The global population is somewhere north of 7.1Billion – that many, many of those will be making music that could change your life is a statistical certainty. That you haven’t found them yet is the product of a whole shit-ton of overlapping choices, cultural phenomena, the outworkings of a capitalist media and a level of inertia that happens to most people in the west when their music consumption switches from being primarily about discovery to being primarily about nostalgia when they are in their early 20s. Life gets busy, and the messaging in music journalism for grown-ups is almost entirely about the importance of the music we loved when we were teenagers. [Read more →]

Tags: Musing on Music · New Music Strategies

Musicology – A Few Thoughts On Prince

April 22nd, 2016 · 5 Comments

Often when a musician dies, the platitudes that are heaped on them feel like too little too late. Imagine if Terence Trent D’Arby died, and suddenly the whole world rediscovered what a work of god-like genius Introduce The Hardline… was? Or any number of amazing MCs who changed the course of rap but whose work has been ignored for years…

Despite the heartbreaking knowledge that he had DECADES of vital music-making ahead of him, Prince, at least, had the opportunity to read and hear on pretty much a daily basis that the world recognised him as one of the greatest artists of the recorded music age. There’s nothing remotely controversial about stating that Prince was ‘our Mozart’ – perhaps the most hyperbolic of all musical accolades. We’re all pretty much OK with that comparison. Like Mozart, he had a complete mastery of the form that he placed himself in, throughout his life he expanded on every parameter of what ‘pop’ could be numerous times in ways that everyone else then followed, and he had a keen ear for how things were developing and was able to absorb them (just look at what he did with hip-hop and RnB in the 90s).

Having been listening to him since (the single) 1999, on the radio, the first Prince thing I actually bought was the single of Glam Slam – not often talked about in the pantheon of great Prince songs, I was just taken in by the guitar tone at the beginning. SO much about Prince frustrated teenage me. I was wholly wedded to preconceived idiomatic constraints – I couldn’t deal with people inventing their own creative paradigms. I wanted Prince to make ‘rock’ records or ‘funk’ records, things that I could label. That he had this obvious and outrageous instrumental virtuosity but made it completely subservient to The Music – or indeed, on stage, to The Show – drove me nuts. It took me a few more years to embrace and learn from that laissez faire approach to other people’s labels. Lots has been written about him doing that with fashion and gender norms, but for me it was the musical transgression that was most fascinating. Maybe Batman was the first time that I properly understood what that way of thinking made possible…

And at the heart of all of his musical world was his status as one of the greatest – if not THE greatest – multi-instrumentalists of all time. For most people, ‘multi-instrumentalist’ means ‘plays guitar AND keyboards, and can play drums too!’ – there are handful of people I can think of who are genuinely world class on two different instruments (Gary Husband, Mike Keneally etc…) but Prince’s well-documented mastery of SO many instruments, and his invention of a whole new genre application for all of them, was on a unparalleled level. That all of that skill – all of the time it must’ve taken to get THAT good on guitar, bass, piano, synth, drums etc. etc. – was at the service of some completely other-worldly musical vision, making music that was both familiar and completely alien, where the reference points were all in place, but the sum total of them was only ever accurately labellable as ‘Prince music’ – that thing that frustrated small-minded teenage me – THAT was the thing that I looked at when I was at college and went ‘nope, I’m going to put all my energies into one instrument.’

You see, at music college, everyone had to do piano lessons, everyone had to sing. And Prince presented me with a choice – did I want to go that route, and have whatever music my brain came up with channeled through a polymath aesthetic, where I learned to play everything I needed, or was I going to put my energies into doing it all on one instrument? Prince made that decision easy. He made the creation of your own musical world into A Thing. He did it, conspicuously, proudly and without apology. I wanted that, but knew I’d NEVER get there by learning loads of instruments. In the same way that hearing Michael Manring steered me away from trying to play bass as an unprocessed, unlooped solo instrument, Prince shifted my understanding of what multi-instrumentalism meant, and gave a whole lot of clarity to my own path – my passion, my energy, my vision and my sense of where I needed to end up years later was in exploring just how far I could do with this one instrument. Prince’s multi-instrumental virtuosity and mastery gave me vertigo. I knew not to go there.

It was years later that I got to read extensively about his prodigious work ethic, that I got to know a number of musicians who worked with him, and understood what was actually going on behind the media creation. A bloke utterly driven by music making, willing to play two sometimes three shows a night in order to make more music. Who would then go back home and straight into the studio, sometimes with a band, sometimes just with an engineer to record yet more music. God only knows what’s in that vault. It’s highly likely that my favourite music ever is languishing in there somewhere never to be heard. That he released some music that doesn’t connect with me is itself inspiring. He wasn’t beholden to anyone else’s mythology. He made the records HE wanted to make, and was clearly devoid of fucks to be given for how we felt about them…

So what do we, as musicians, do with this? I don’t know about you, but I accept the challenge – the challenge is to make deliberate, purposeful music, to do A LOT OF WORK, to keep making music, to keep challenging the received wisdom about what music is and what its for (Prince’s infamous struggles with the Internet are instructive for a whole number of reasons, some really great observations and moves, and other ridiculous ones (he thought iTunes should give him an advance, and once claimed to prefer CDs to digital music… errr) ) – but to never let up on the need to make music happen, to build a life in which we get to do the thing that matters to us, and only to us – being wilfully obscure is as stifling as trying to write hits. Just make the music that matters… I have no interest in stadium shows and all night jam sessions in clubs. I don’t make music for that, it’s not a context where the music I need to make can exist – but Prince built that world because that’s what he cared about.

So don’t copy what Prince did, copy why he did it. Build the life that allows you to do the thing that matters. Make the best music you can, then make more of it, make it based on the demands of the music itself, not some bullshit industrial process that’s beholden to release dates and touring schedules. Built a vault of unreleased work if that’s what needs to happen, then find a way to get it out to the public, if that’s what needs to happen. Listen, absorb, synthesise, invent, create, experiment, fail, succeed. But do it deliberately. DO IT.

JFDI – Just Fucking Do It.

Tags: obituaries

Modelled behaviour – Be the audience you want to have

April 5th, 2016 · 5 Comments

Here’s a thing I’ve seen happen more times that I care to remember. And every time I see it, I wonder what on earth is going on in the head of the musician concerned. I’m talking about the experience of seeing a musician whose entire online output is a series of hagiographic celebrations of the music of the past, steeped in nostalgia and the palpable sense that all the decent music was made during some golden age…

This is presented objectively, even though in almost every instance it was the music that the person in question discovered between the ages of around 14-20. The music that first showed them the life changing power of music. When it comes time for that person to release some music of their own, the conversation switches to one of sadness and often some degree of anger that no-one is paying enough attention to their music, and the Internet has ruined everything, and no-one has any attention span and blah-blah-blah. The extreme version of this also includes them sharing all of that music via the medium of Spotify links, or YouTube clips, with no useful conversation happening about the sustainable funding of whichever bit of the music economy they happen to occupy. [Read more →]

Tags: New Music Strategies

Insignificant Thoughts On David Bowie

January 11th, 2016 · 5 Comments

I’ve mostly given up on writing about people who die. The public mix of heartfelt loss and restrospective hagiography does what it does and doesn’t need my words. My words aren’t needed now either (are they ever?) but it feels like an interesting exercise because Bowie’s presence in the music and cultural landscape of my lifetime was unique.

Unlike an awful lot of music listeners, I’m not particularly in love with Bowie’s 70s work. The canonical, adored, oft quoted stuff. I haven’t even listened to the Berlin Trilogy, beyond the singles. It feels like important work within culture, but it also felt so present in the world that to go and investigate it at this point would be less interesting than looking at almost anything else in the world of music. Confirming either the correctness of the popular take on his work, or my hunch that I’d like it but not enough to fall in line with the mountain of praise heaped on it felt both unnecessary and antagonistic. I don’t like listening to music in order to prove a point. His or mine. [After all, I’m a bloke who plays instrumental music on a bass in people’s living rooms. If I was apt to be shaped by consensus, I’d be in a 5 piece guitar band playing songs with a bunch of white dudes. Probably with beards.]

But, of course, like Dark Side Of The Moon and any number of classic bits of the pop canon that I’ve never given a focused listen to, it’s there in the ether. It’s there in its influence, it’s there in shopping centres – at least the singles are.

I did own Ziggy Stardust, I owned Space Oddity, I owned Pin-ups, i borrowed Scary Monsters and The Man Who Sold The World. I even bought Never Let Me Down and REALLY tried to like it. (Time Will Crawl still makes me smile, and somewhere I’ve got him playing it on TOTP on a VHS tape).

But I bought them as research, as a touchstone for what this massive figure, so oft cited, so ever present on the radio and TV, so beloved… for what he meant.

It wasn’t til Tin Machine that his music really connected with me. I know, Tin Machine, the one that everyone hated. I don’t think I was much aware of the hatred before I bought it. I lived in Berwick On Tweed, so there wasn’t much room to be arch about these things. I bought things based on hunches. and I got the 12” single of Tin Machine, with a sprawling insane messy live version of Maggie’s Farm on the b-side. THIS was the shit. Listening to Ziggy felt like being part of a club. Listening to Tin Machine felt like an initiation into something far more troubling. It was the point at which – in my world – Bowie stopped being a cultural monolith and instead became an artist about whom there was debate, on whom shitty writers in the pop music press heaped scorn for willfully rejecting the tropes of late 20th century modernist conceit. Tin Machine sold millions of records. MILLIONS. It was a ginormous success in so many ways, but didn’t play the game. That fascinated me. As did everything he did after that. Black Tie White Noise, Outside, Earthling, Heathen, Reality, The Next Day… that’s where my favourite Bowie music lives.

I LOVE that he carried on innovating, behaving like a cultural magpie, absorbing bits of the underground into his work and making it the zeitgeist. There’s probably an interesting conversation to be had about influence vs cultural appropriation, but that’s for someone smarter than me… I love that he worked with such great musicians – he was like Miles Davis (perhaps the only musician of the century with influence on the same scale and across so many worlds? Beatles fans can argue with that if they like 😉 ) in that he could spot genius, and assembled music like ingredients for a recipe – anyone who had Fripp, Belew, Reeves Gabrels, Nile Rogers, Stevie Ray Vaughan and David Torn on guitar is doing fine. Gerry Leonard is another guitar genius. Gail Anne Dorsey is both an exceptional bassist and singer, and while the vast majority of Bowie’s musicians and collaborators were white dudes, he was arguably more open to diversity than most – Nile Rogers was a surprise choice after the Eno collaboration years, and Gail was one of the longest serving members of his band (and sang Freddie Mercury’s part on Under Pressure live!!) …though it surprises me that according to Wikipedia they never wrote together.

So, for me, the magic of Bowie isn’t in Heroes, or Five Years or Let’s Dance. It’s the frailty of The Loneliest Guy, it’s the introspection layered over David Torn’s burbling gentle guitar glitch. It’s Angry, Messy, Shouty Bowie, playing small clubs while having a huge amount of fun, as Reeves waves a guitar shaped wand over the music of Tin Machine, it’s releasing an album chock full of super-hip and super-deep NYC jazzers the day before his death.

So I’m not listening to Heroes today, or Sound And Vision, or Space Oddity… I’ll be listening to Cactus (a Pixies cover! You’ve no idea how great that was to hear when it came out), You Little Wonder, Slip Away, Where Are They Now… Give me 90s and 00s Bowie, Bowie actively ignoring the bullshit around his own legacy and the bloviating about his 70s so-called ‘peak’ and making music that he seemed to care about.

It’s not that they’re better, or have to mean more to anyone else. It’s that when the world hands you a Bowie-sized set of material – musical, historical, cultural, fashion, media, film, and a dialog with meaning through artifice – everyone gets to tell their own story. David Bowie is Lego – there’s a normalised way to assemble the pieces, a recognised big story to it, but everyone gets to pull it apart and build their models, tell their own story, construct their own launch pad for inspiration.

I have a number of friends who worked with him. All had a deeply complex relationship with him and the machine around him. You can’t engage with something like that as equals. That’s both fucked up and inevitable. That he wrestled with it better than many is of note, but also it’s part of why the notion that we may never see his like again doesn’t sadden me. He was him, we are now, and it’s all good. No-one needs to make hundeds of millions of pounds out of music, no-one needs to be a global megastar. Given that the affordance existed for that to happen, I’m glad that we had David Bowie as part of that absurdity. But the seduction of bigness is the most mundane, meaningless part of what Bowie meant, for me. That was the story before he interested me. Fighting that, making work in spite of it and the pressure it brought is where his vitality lay.

I’m not sad because a legend is gone. His music’s still there, and it’s unlikely I’d ever have met him. I’m sad because in the same week that Pierre Boulez died at the age of 90, we’re robbed of another couple of decades of Bowie fucking with our heads, doing infuriating stuff, making great music and making misunderstood music, disappearing for years and then changing his mind and being a monumentally huge and pervasive influence without being a dead icon. That’s rare. Like, once in history rare.

The temptation is to write some kind of personalised send off, addressed to the departed, but that wouldn’t mean much, because I didn’t feel close to him. I wrestled with his work, I love that it made me think, that at times I wanted to not like it and ended up loving it, and the opposite was also true. I like that music was enough. And I still have that. So for that, I’m deeply grateful.

Tags: Musing on Music · obituaries