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Insignificant Thoughts On David Bowie

January 11th, 2016 | 5 Comments | Categories: Musing on Music · obituaries

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.

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2015 – A Year In Music

December 24th, 2015 | No Comments | Categories: Music News

Right, let’s do a month-by-month recap, shall we?

January – Right at the start of the year, I had a lovely trip up to Leeds for an academic conference, which as well as involving a couple of REALLY important conversations about finally starting my PhD, gave me the opportunity to play with Ray Russell – a guitarist whose work I’ve admired for decades.
Then it was off to NAMM. A handful of lovely shows with guitar genius Thomas Leeb, and a one-off show with Artemis and Daniel Berkman made for a really enjoyable California trip.

February – back from NAMM, and my first gig back was at an amazing event hosted by Compass called Change:How? The gig itself was a fairly forgettable half hour of background music (I REALLY need to get better at thinking about logistics with gig booking), but the day itself was notable for a conversation with theatre maker Annette Mees that ended up defining a whole a lot of what happened in the rest of the year, and totally shifted the planned emphasis for the PhD… One of those ‘ahh, so *that’s* what I really do!’ conversations, for which I’ll be eternally grateful.

March began with a masterclass at the London Bass Guitar Show, which featured the amazing opportunity to play with one of my favourite bassists, Ruth Goller, and the chance to plan a future project with another of my bass heroes, Divinity Roxx… The following weekend was another lovely solo show at the Moffatt Bass Bash in Scotland. From those two shows came a lovely little EP for my Bandcamp subscribers – the track with Ruth and the first piece from the Moffatt show…
The last week of March was spent in Leeds teaching and talking PhD stuff, incorporating all the new shiny exciting focus that came from Annette’s input… A plan is taking shape! [Read more →]

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My Favourite Music Of 2015

December 22nd, 2015 | No Comments | Categories: music reviews

2015 has been a properly great year for new music. Like, seriously amazing. I still hear people complaining about how ‘music’s just not as great as it used to be’ – or some variant of that, and I have to wonder about their method of discovery. Sure, Radio 1’s daytime playlist is probably pretty dreadful. Delve into Bandcamp, or keep an ear to the ground on Twitter and Facebook, and way more amazing music is out there than you can properly keep up with.

Anyway, without further ado, here are my favourites from this year – this isn’t everything I liked this year, but I had to stop somewhere, otherwise it’s just a list of everything I bought… :)

Janet Feder – T H I S C L O S E

In a year of truly great music, a handful of albums stood out as ‘things I’ll be listening to til I die’ – top of that list is Janet’s new album – I love absolutely everything about the way she makes music. It’s fragile, beautiful, strange and beguiling. Sonically perfect, deeply human, always searching and reaching. There’s nothing about this I don’t adore. Get it.

Our Oceans – Our Oceans

This one was a surprise – I checked it out because my friend Robin plays bass on it. He’s a genius, so it had to be worth a listen… Imagine a really amazing modern metal band suddenly getting obsessesed with early Tears For Fears and deciding to fuse the two. Epic, emotive, sweeping, glorious.

Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Motorcaid Amnesiacs

Another record that will be with me forever – You know how much I already adored SBP before this came out, right? I was SO nervous listening to it for the first time… what if it didn’t live up….? It’s amazing. Proper genius. And the elevation of Jana Carpenter’s role has made everything even more compelling and carved out room for Tim to sing with… wait, actual swagger?? Yup. Implausibly brilliant. [Read more →]

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Thinking Out Loud – Improvisation, Complexity and Repeatability

December 11th, 2015 | 4 Comments | Categories: PhD Thinking Out Loud

Part 2 of me thinking out loud (I’m adding this opening paragraph 1300 words into this, so I know already that this contains some quite epic conjecture and points that desperately need backing up/refuting with actual research… which is great, as that’s kind of the point :) )

—————

So, in defining what improvisation actually is, I want to get into an interrogation of the context within which whatever it is exists. I’m fascinated by the historical transformation in our perceptions of what ‘music’ even is, as highlighted in Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay ‘The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction’.

Mechanical reproduction made a few things possible that were never even imaginable before – a lot of the stuff that Benjamin gets into is about the cultural impact of dissemination – access outside of the sacred turf of the concert hall and the gallery, the loss of space as part of the curated experience of art. But perhaps even more important for music is the possibility of repetition without memory. And exact repetition at that. Reproduction not re-performance. No subtle changes, no advantaging to the skill of being about to do a thing the same over and over again, just the ability to do a thing really well and then let technology take over so that everyone can hear that one time you did the amazing thing.

So, let’s back up a little – what were the factors in repeatability and its counterpart ‘knowability’ – the properties of being able to be known – what were the mechanisms of recall, what were the methods of transmission that dictated how we perceived, shared, performed and experienced music?


[Read more →]

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New Solo Video!

December 10th, 2015 | No Comments | Categories: Music News

Another new video of me has just gone up on the BassTheWorld YouTube channel.

It’s called Same Time Next Year, and is another improvised piece from the Warwick Bass Camp this September.

It features the Quneo (my new lil’ MIDI controller that I’ve been using for drums and synth stuff on the last couple of albums) a little more than some of the other videos I’ve put up recently, so you can see a little more of how I use it… will be doing more videos with it as soon as possible…

And just for the reminder, here’s the other video filmed about 45 seconds after this one ended, that was released last month, called Better Than The Plan:

Both these tracks will be available for subscribers very shortly as a little pre-Christmas solo EP. Subscribe now to make sure you don’t miss out…

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Thinking out loud – Improvisation

December 1st, 2015 | 8 Comments | Categories: PhD Thinking Out Loud

So, as many of you know, I’ve started a PhD. I’m looking at Improvisation, specifically the audience experience of improvisation. And it’s ‘practice based’, so the real focus is the audience experience of my improvised music.

“Why not just look at improvised music, at playing it?” Good question, imaginary Internet questioner. I think the main motivations are that

  • this seems to be a massively under-explored area, and
  • I kind of know what I’m doing with improv – I could write it up and record a load of music, but I needed some other focus to help me dig deeper into it. Thinking more inwardly about what I do and why didn’t feel like a journey I needed to go on right now – at least, not any more than it’s already one that I’m on every waking hour of my life anyway…

So the audience experience, as it relates to my music, feels like a rich and worthwhile area of exploration for a number of reasons. [Read more →]

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Solo Bass, Looping and the importance of hip-hop – a masterclass (video)

October 23rd, 2015 | No Comments | Categories: Music News

I’ve done a couple of masterclasses recently, talking about the evolution of my approach to live playing, sampling, improvising and recording. One was for ScottsBassLessons.com which you can get if you’re  a subscriber over there, and the other was at Kidderminster College. The Kiddy College one is here in two parts.

Part 1, I introduce the Quneo and explain a little about the influence of two of my recent collaborators, Divinity and Daniel Berkman, and deal with a Looperlative fail (a fault I’ve now fixed! yay!) and end up with a lovely wonky hip-hop thing that’s a good example of where a lot of my music is going (comes in around 8:30) – if you can, listen on headphones, or Chromecast this to your TV :) :

In Part 2, I explain some of where the rhythmic stuff comes from historically, via turntablism and the influence of J Dilla, talk a little about the way it has influenced my playing with other musicians, then play another piece, that starts with a Quneo piano solo before evolving into a groove thing with a Posies/David Torn influenced solo and a lovely change of gear just before the end…

Note: Both the tracks here will be available as an EP for my subscribers soon. Today my subscription is a year old! Check out the subscription here and get LOADS of music for just £20 a year: http://stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe – it’s by far the best way to support what I do :)

[UPDATE!] – There’s a third part to the video! It was, I think, still uploading when I posted this first time round :)

Here’s Part 3, which has a lot more talking, exploring a lot of ideas around improvisation and performance:

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Question Time! – The Solobasssteve AMA

October 9th, 2015 | 4 Comments | Categories: Music News

So my lil’ tour with Jonas Hellborg is over – we did just three dates to test the water, with a view to doing lots more soon. And we had a great time. More of that soon – there are photos and video to be shared, and stories to tell, but for now, something else…

Hopefully by now you’ve had a chance to see the cover story in Bass Guitar Magazine this month. If you’ve not been able to find it in a shop, the digital edition can be bought from Pocket Mags.

So, the big question is, what did we not get to in the interview that you’re most interested to know? Any burning questions about basses, tech, approach, business, my career, my philosophy, improv, teaching.. anything really… This is where to ask them.

Post those questions in the comments here, and I’ll then compile a second interview to sit alongside the already-very-comprehensive one in the magazine (it really is one of the best interviews I’ve ever had – Joel asked a whole lot of questions that I’ve never explored in that way before at all).

This is the solobasssteve AMA. Sound good? Off you go :)

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2 New Videos (OK, THREE new videos… :) )

September 25th, 2015 | No Comments | Categories: Uncategorized

Yup, this week hasn’t let up on the awesome – we’ve had magazine covers, new albums, radio play and now two great new videos appearing online...

Firstly, here’s the latest video of me shot by Gregor at BassTheWorld.com – filmed at the Warwick Bass Camp a couple of weeks ago. It’s sort of an improvised baroque counterpoint piece, that morphs into a meditation on the serendipity of just letting things unfold. It’s called Better Than The Plan and it’s here:

The 2nd one is a long awaited clip of the first time the brilliant Divinity Roxx and I played together live. The first track from our first ever gig, at Kidderminster College. This bodes very well for our ongoing project, dontchathink? :)

…OK, how about a bonus video, because I don’t think I actually blogged about this last one when it was posted… From the gig earlier this year with Beardyman at the Jazz Cafe in London. This is the first bit of it to appear online, and it’s basically a 3 minute bass solo. Which is rather lovely. Playing with this quartet was a whole lot of fun. I’m really looking forward to doing more with Beardyman soon…

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Atmospherics? Listen To The Radio…

September 24th, 2015 | No Comments | Categories: Music News

My week of rather lovely media exposure rolls on – last night a track from A Crack Where The Light Gets In was played on my favourite radio show ever. It’s not my favourite radio show because they played the tracks, it’s been that since before they started occasionally playing my music about 14 years ago.

Listen to last night’s Late Junction here.

Late Junction is, not to get too hyperbolic, an amazing example of what the BBC license fee does/did best… eclectic, joyous, and exploratory with none of the demographic limitations that commercial radio’s need to appeal to advertisers demand.

I’ve discovered SO much music through Fiona, and earlier on through Verity Sharp. To have my music played in that context is an amazing validation of what I’m up to. The technical side of it is never discussed, there’s no ‘ooh, it’s so clever for a bass player to do this!’ – just my music alongside a whole load of the most beautiful, wide-ranging wonderfulness from around the world. As a validation of purpose, it’s about as good as it gets.

The track that Fiona played last night was ‘Praxis’ from A Crack Where The Light Gets In – have a listen to the whole album below, but do listen to the show linked above – the new context for the track, between all the other amazing stuff, gives a different perspective on it… and you get to hear Fiona say it’s one of her favourite tracks of the year 😉

…and a free download to the first person to Tweet me and tell me the name of the album that the track referenced in the title of this blog-post is from 😉

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