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Entries Tagged as 'Musing on Music'

Who Has The Right To Critique Your Work?

May 11th, 2018 · No Comments

…This is a question that comes up for young artists all the time. The mechanisms for getting your work out there, in an economic setting where there’s a particular level of audience size that one needs to be able to make enough money to keep doing what you do, bring with them an avalanche of comment. Some of it comes from reviewers – gig reviewers, album reviewers, people who write about your particular field as their job and amateurs who just have a blog they keep for the love-or-spite of it. You’ll also get feedback from people who love what you do and feedback from people who are all too eager to tell you how you’re doing it wrong. Social media may give everyone a voice, but it doesn’t in any way mean we are obliged to absorb or even listen to their opinions…

So, while acknowledging that in some way resourcing and encouraging that kind of commentary is necessary to audience growth, how do we as artists maintain a sense of who we are and what we do aside from that, and how do we gauge which of the feedback might actually be useful to us? After all, I’ve had utterly glowing OTT reviews that I thought were WAY off the mark, and some critical reviews that I thought were completely fair. And I’ve had a very small number of reviews that actually taught me something about my own work. So how do we discern the difference? How do we decide who to let in and who to ignore? And as things progress, how (if we even should) do we build a team of people around who we invite to reflect on our work in ways that we listen to with a view to actually acting on their advice?

It is – not to put too fine a point on it – an absolute minefield. All the moreso if you’re in any way insecure about your work already. Anyone who’s had anything posted on YouTube that’s had more than a handful of views will know what a cesspool of vindictive and spiteful misinformation it is. I’ve seen friends of mine insulted in all manner of ways on there, and have had a ton of ‘why the fuck are you wearing nail varnish???’ comments as well as the ‘that’s not what you’re supposed to do with a bass!’ comments…

That end of things is irritating, but fairly easily recognised as not useful in terms of defining what you’re up to in your own work. Nothing useful comes of trying to salve the bile of a disgruntled YouTube dickhead… So who gets let in? Whose words get to be considered as useful?

I don’t think there’s one answer to this, but my own rule has always been that I listen to people who have previously demonstrated to me that they understand what I’m trying to do. Whether a review itself seems knowledgeable is not the thing I’m looking for. What I need from someone who is going to comment on my work in a way I can be bothered to acknowledge is the recognition that they have me being the best version of me as the focus of their comments. So anything that says ‘what you’re doing doesn’t sound enough like artist A, therefor it’s bad’ is out. Not useful. Anyone who says ‘this is amazing because it doesn’t sound like anything that anyone has ever done before’ is equally out. That’s not a useful or accurate assessment of where the value lies in what I’m trying to do.

This notion of ‘what you’re trying to do’ stems from a belief that the only meaningful way to measure the true value of an artist’s work is whether they’ve achieved what they set out to do. Whether you like it or not is useful in terms of you deciding what to do with your time, and what to lend your ears to, but a commentary on my work based on whether or not someone else would have done it differently is not useful to me. As my usual response goes when someone tells me that I should be doing an all-ambient record, or a funk record, or should work in such and such a way, I say ‘no, you should! It’s clearly you that wants to hear music in that way. If there’s something in what I do that you think fits there, you can either take that inspiration and make the music yourself, or hire me to help you get there and bring my musicianship and ideas to your project’. But they don’t get to tell me what to do with my own music.

So how does someone demonstrate an understanding?

Firstly, they ask questions. Anyone who truly cares about what you’re doing is going to ask you about it before making a bunch of observations and statements. They’re going to inquire into why you’re making the choices you’re making, what the things are that you’re working on, what your influences are and what you’re trying to do with those influences… There are a ton of different questions to be asked, and angles to be explored…

Secondly, they’re going to take the time to get to know what you’ve already done. This gives anyone who subscribes to me on Bandcamp a massive advantage over anyone who doesn’t, because I know they’ve got at least 35-40 albums by me in their collection. Now, they might not have listened to them all, but if they’re working through them with an open mind, they may well start to form a useful frame of reference for what it is I’m trying to do – I can test that through the kinds of questions they bother to ask. They’re probably going to have a better grasp on the improvised nature of the work, and the breadth of things that I’m exploring at anyone time, as well as the general trajectory of my solo work.

Thirdly, their comments are going to specifically relate their criticism to the framing of your work. It’s OK for someone not to like or understand how you frame what it is you’re trying to do – not everyone needs to like or understand what you’re up to – but if you’re thinking of inviting them to influence it, it’d help a lot of they at least had a respect for what you were attempting. Sometimes, that framing can be an obvious thing, but it’s normally pretty dangerous to assume what a particular musician is trying to do from hearing a track or two and guessing based on who you think it sounds like.

The people whose commentary you allow into your own thought process are acting as de facto producers of your work. It’s WAY more important that they understand it than that they like it. I’ve had a mixture of people over the years give me useful feedback and encouragement – some who loved it, some how just cared about me, and took the time to work out what I was up to, without really being massively invested in the music itself. Sometimes the most useful input is just a well-timed ‘dude, just keep doing what you’re doing’, sometimes it’s in the form of a question I really should have been asking myself for a while. Other times its a suggestion for some new inspiration to check out that they see may well help take me in a new direction.

None of it arrives in the form of insult, none of it is trying to put me down, and none of it is about me meeting someone else’s idea for what music ought to be.

Finding those people can take a lot of time. When you do find them hold onto them, value them and keep them close. A huge amount of the advice that you’re going to hear will be about people’s perception of the commercial potential in what you’re doing, and how to maximise that (it’s baffling to me that I get that bullshit even as a solo bass player – as if playing bass on your own isn’t enough of a statement about your lack of focus on commercial motives already?)  – if commercial potential is your frame for your work, and they are people with a track record of making those judgements in useful ways, by all means let them in – it’s not a bad thing to want to make great pop music! But if that’s not what you care about, you need to find a way of blocking out those voices, because they’ll almost always pull you back towards the consensus.

And in the meantime, don’t feed the trolls, or listen to their bullshit. It’s not going to help you find your path.

Tags: Musing on Music · tips for musicians

The Beginner’s Guide To SoloBassSteve…

May 6th, 2018 · No Comments

TOO MUCH MUSIC?! What does too much music look like? Is it possible to have too much music? I know that there are some artists that have massive catalogues whose work I have no idea how to approach. Do you start at the beginning and work forwards? Do you jump in with the biggest selling, or just the most recent to see where they’ve got up to?

My own catalogue is, obviously, huge. I honestly don’t know off the top of my head how many albums I’ve released. That’s nuts, right?

So, anyway, to help you out, I’ve just gone over my solo output and annotated it a little as a Beginner’s Guide To SoloBassSteve – just a bit of context about each one. So of these albums are subscriber-only, so for those (and to get ALL of them right now) you’ll need to subscribe over at Bandcamp. The big thrill there is that once you subscribe, you OWN them all – it’s not a Spotify renting-access-to-streams-and-playlists thing, these are all yours. So if it takes you a few years to get through this lot, that’s OK. They aren’t going away. You’ll have them to download, stream via the Bandcamp app and even re-download if your computer dies as often as you like. The music is yours – click here to find out more about the subscription – http://stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe

So, jump in, have a read, see how you get on, I’ll link to each album so you can just click through and have a listen!

2000And Nothing But The Bass – my first album, recorded live in concert except for the last two tracks, one of which was live at home, the other a duet with Jez Carr on piano. A bit like looking at baby photos for me now, but there are still quite a few people for whom it’s their favourite album of mine. Got ridiculously great reviews when it came out, probably reflective of how few solo bass albums there were then!

2002Not Dancing For Chicken – first ever studio solo record. Was actually recorded twice, and I really wish I had all the earlier recordings still… Recorded direct to stereo two track, and destructively edited, still sounds pretty good considering. Features a couple of tunes that became live staples for the next decade – MMFSOG, Jimmy James and Highway 1. Was released while I w as on tour with Level 42, so solo VERY well on release, and got a fair bit of radio play, magazine coverage etc… remastered in 2012, to sound way better than the original, and also remove the comic sans from the artwork 😀 😀

2004Grace And Gratitude – probably still my most popular album – a consolidation of all the things I’d learned up to that point, and a pretty pivotal blend of all the elements that went into making up my sound at the time – big tunes, heavy ambient experimentation, beautiful chord progressions and weirdness! More radio support for this one, bizarrely. And I once reworked the title track for a beer advert, which sadly wasn’t ever used (mostly sad cos that meant I didn’t get paid… 😉 )

2006Behind Every Word – More composed that anything else I’d done to that point, features two amazing special guests – BJ Cole and Julie McKee, also was the first thing I’d released that had an outside co-producer (the 1st version of Not Dancing was co-produced by Jez Carr, but didn’t see the light of day because my insistence of recording with a mic’d amp was a stupid move) – this time it was Sue Edwards, who remotely monitored what I was up to, and gave pivotal feedback that made the album about 10 times better than it would’ve been…

2002/2004Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline Pts 1 & 2 – two very limited edition releases that came with the 1st 100 CDs of Not Dancing and Grace And Gratitude – lots of other things I was recording at the time. Started a trend for producing way more music than would fit onto a single CD…. (LLFAAF Pt 3 only exists as MP3s, and that came out with Behind Every Word) Pt 1 has my first couple of mahoosive ambient tunes on it, and they still sound good…

2010Ten Years On: Live In London – live album to mark the 10th anniversary of my first solo album. Recorded live at Round Midnight in London. Not a bad record of what I sounded like, but also the beginning of the nagging feeling that playing compositions wasn’t really what I should be doing live…

2011 – 11 Reasons Why 3 Is Greater Than Everything – first studio solo album since Behind Every Word, recorded in Catford and Muswell Hill. Remixed a year after it came out to reflect my improved skills as an engineer. Features a couple of my favourite ever solo tunes, and features LOTS of big tunes, and a little bit of epic strangeness – mostly reflective of how my sense of harmony had developed in the interim. Some less obvious tunes in there that I still really dig…

2012 – Believe In Peace – improvised live in an art gallery in Minneapolis, proved very popular, and still gets a lot of love today. I think this was my first all-fretless album… The artwork was from the amazing display of art by Geoff Bush that inspired the music. Recorded during a Tornado!

2014 – What The Mind Thinks, The Heart Transmits – the album that SO many people had been asking for for over a decade – a single ambient piece, recorded as the soundtrack to a guided meditation on a retreat. Super-popular with people who do yoga, meditate, or who just like really relaxing music to drive or sleep to! Followed another two year-long break from focussing on solo work following the life-consuming FingerPainting project!

2015 – Closing In (subscriber exclusive) – the first Bandcamp subscriber-only solo release, this was the ideas I’d started to develop on the journey to making the next two albums, and is the bridge between the first 15 years of my career playing only bass and nothing else, and then adding in the drums and synth stuff on the next two albums… ALL CHANGE!

2015 – The Way Home/ A Crack Where The Light Gets In – Two albums released on the same day, and the first things to come out publicly featuring my new set-up with the Quneo being used to play drums and some keyboard parts. Everything was (and is) still recorded live with no overdubs, but I have the option to play other sound and particularly to incorporate more obviously the hip hop influence that has been there in the background for my entire music life… Beats and weirdness galore – a new adventure to be sure!

2015 – You Guys, Let’s Just Talk About Nail Varnish – compilation of tracks recorded for the Bass The World YouTube channel.

2016 – Well, Say Hello Then (subscriber exclusive) – a lil’ EP recorded to introduce my brand new bass (my first new instrument in over a decade. Features some lovely ideas, is better than it’s slightly rushed existence might suggest!

2016 – Referendum – recorded just before and the day after the EU Referendum here in the UK. A hopeful then despairing collection of music that still emotionally resonates and became a favourite with a lot of people. Vertigo may be my single favourite ever solo piece…

2016 – Hands Music (subscriber exclusive) – Recorded at the launch exhibition for brilliant German photographer Marc Mennigmann’s ‘Hands’ photo project. Fully improvised as background/contextual music for the exhibition, is an interesting mix of very ambient and very poppy/tuneful. Has a couple of sneaky covers in there. V popular with subscribers…

2016 – Colony Collapse Disorder (subscriber exclusive)/ The Surrender Of Time / Towards A Better Question – 2016 produced a ridiculous amount of solo music from me… recorded in the same sessions, these three recordings consolidated the experiments that began with the previous two albums. The feeling of integration between the Quneo and the bass as a combined instrument, seeing the whole thing as one big music-generating thing, is way more fully expressed here (I’m even playing them at the same time on a couple of tracks) – Colony Collapse Disorder was originally just the first half, but a subscriber suggested that it felt like the beginning of something bigger, so I recorded the second half as an other track, put them together, and that’s what we have! The beat side of things is getting more varied and the hip hop more conspicuous.

2016 – Hark/Winter – Christmas single, that doesn’t really sound like a christmas single 🙂

2017  – Illuminated Loops (subscriber exclusive) – not really a solo album, even though it’s just me playing on it. The recording of my first performance with the great Poppy Porter – Poppy has synaesthia, which means she sees sound, so she draws what she sees while I play. I then treat it her art as a graphic score. It’s all kinds of fun and results in some very interesting music. My new favourite project.

2017 – PS, You Are Brilliant – a deep, experimental record with some big tunes but a lot of pretty intense textural experimentation, and deeply strange hip hop beats. A big step forward for the new set-up and probably my favourite thing I’ve released solo so far…

2017 – Small Is Beautiful (subscriber exclusive) – the subscriber only accompaniment to the PS… only one track with any Quneo as all, lots of stuff with minimal looping and maximal mellowness. I love this, and is no doubt popular with all the subscribers who prefer my solo stuff from before I started messing around with electronics so much 😉

2018 – The Long Game (subscriber exclusive) – first solo release of 2018 is live album from the 2018 London Bass Guitar Show – both performances came out really well, and this is them. Foregrounding some of the Quneo-as-piano experiments I’ve been working with, rather successfully. Also the first solo release to feature my Elrick SLC signature fretless.

—-o0o—-

So there you go. I plan to do the same for the collaborations at some point soon. Hopefully it’ll help you dive in and find the ones you like the sound of! If you want to post your own thoughts on the albums, PLEASE do, either here in the comments, or via your Bandcamp collection so they appear next to the album!

Tags: Musing on Music · Random Catchup

10 Collaborators Who Changed My Music Life. Pt 7 – BJ Cole

April 26th, 2018 · No Comments

Today’s influential collaborator is BJ Cole, and for someone who changed my music-life as much as BJ did, there’s precious little documentation of us playing together. This is because the vast majority of the development that happened for me while playing with BJ happened in my living room. For a couple of years we got together as often as possible to just play. Sometimes it was every other week. When we were busy, our sessions were a little more spread out. But it was time and space to experiment with a particular kind of abstract textural improv that was utterly formative for me. BJ was quite involved with the London Improvisors Orchestra at the time, which gave him space to apply his mind-bendingly broad approach to the pedal steel guitar to some pretty out music. He was also working with Luke Vibert and others on the EDM scene, so his development of his own voice was an extraordinary thing to witness – especially in a musician who was already the most influential practitioner of his instrument that this country has ever produced (for those who don’t know, BJ played the pedal steel part on Tiny Dancer by Elton John, and played with David Sylvian, Robert Plant, Bjork, Deacon Blue, Paul Young, REM, Beck, and was in the Verve, as well as making groundbreaking ambient records under his own name).

Our experimental sessions in my living room were space to push ideas to breaking point – BJ had a Gibson Echoplex, and I had my Looperlative (or probably a pair of EDPs when we first started playing together) so we could create a massive layered sound – we built, and the dismantled, a whole load of cinematic and occasionally terrifying soundscapes. The great thing about it for me was that, because we had a tendency to occupy similar sonic territory (the steel has a huge range, and as I was using the eBow an awful lot at the time, we were both producing a lot of sustained chords in similar registers) I had to listen more intently than ever to try and find the space where our sound-worlds met. Often in those sessions things would go off the deep end, and we’d end up with harsh noise (I wonder if any of that music is on a hard drive somewhere? We did record a lot of it…) It was a project that involved a lot of trial and error, a lot of rescuing of improvisations that got away from us.

The thing that I think made it most interesting for me was how successful the music was whenever we played live. Those safe-sessions in my house allowed us to push boundaries that meant that when we played live, we had a whole load of experience to fall back on, and were less apt to fall over the cliff-edge. Allowing yourself to find what happens when things get too messy, or when sounds pile up to the point where it begins to lose meaning – those are important and formative experiments. I’m deeply grateful to BJ for all the time we spent finding sounds and ideas, pushing things too far, and then applying it to a range of gigs in different combinations – my favourite of our projects was a trio with Cleveland Watkiss. We played a number of times at my night, The Recycle Collective, and it was an amazing experience and a great combinations of sounds. But I also loved opening for and sitting in with BJ’s group at the time, with Eddie Sayer on percussion and Ben Bayliss on laptop, playing the music from his brilliant Trouble In Paradise album.

It was such a privilege to get to play with a musician of BJ’s stature, but moreso a musician of his deep, ceaseless commitment to moving forward in his own creative path. I learned as much just from the experience of playing with someone who was already ‘a legend’ in the pop world, already absolutely at the top of his game, but who never stopped reaching for new things, who was ceaselessly curious about what else he might be able to do with his instrument. I carry that inspiration with me every time I pick up the instrument, and I really hope we get to play together again soon. It’s been way, way too long.

Tags: 10 Collaborators · Musing on Music

10 Collaborators Who Changed My Music Life. Part 6 – Poppy Porter

April 25th, 2018 · 1 Comment

OK, here’s an interesting one. The 6th collaborator on my list that changed my music-life is Poppy Porter, and it’s apt that I’m writing about her today because the new issue of Bass Guitar Magazine has just come out with an interview with me in it, and a lot of what I’m talking about is this project.

What’s interesting is that, in the context of our duo, Poppy doesn’t make sound in order to make music. Our project, Illuminated Loops, involves me improvising, and Poppy – who is synaesthetic – drawing what she sees while I play. And then, I get to see whatever she’s drawing as she does it, and treat it as a graphic score for the music that comes next – to reinterpret the shapes and patterns and colours, the pastel strokes and swirls, and turn them back into music. It’s one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve ever been involved in, and has resulted in a bunch of music that is both wholly me and simultaneously entirely dependent on Poppy’s input for it to be what it is. It’s a co-creation project, where the lines between the visual and the audible are blurred in terms of who is making what happen.

For both Poppy and I, Illuminated Loops is a chance to inject another stimulus into our work, to see what happens when something else shapes the process. For me, that’s have the twin focus of both making a noise with the aim of ‘triggering’ images, and then reinterpreting them, and for Poppy, it’s taking a process that’s done for a while – that of turning the images she sees while listening to music into art – and making that a real-time performance. That’s a pretty terrifying shift of modality for an artist who makes things in a studio and then presents the finished work. To have a creative process that ends in a product suddenly morph into a performance is a massive change of context, and has big implications for the aesthetic of her work. For my part, I end up making a different kind of music in this context – it’s both me and not me at the same time. It’s all my sounds and stems from my musical vocabulary, but I react to things differently, and assemble things in a different way because of the visual cues and the that glorious feedback loop between Poppy and I.

With all of that magic going on, it’s no surprise that this project is at the heart of my ongoing PhD study, looking at my audience’s experience of improvisation. So we should be doing a lot more Illuminated Loops shows in the near future. Til then, grab a copy of Bass Guitar Magazine, and have a read of the new article. And if you subscribe to me on Bandcamp, Illuminated Loops vol I is already available, and vol II is out in the next couple of weeks (spoiler – Vol II is easily one of my favourite recordings I’ve ever done 🙂 )

And definitely check out Poppy’s work on her website – www.poppyporter.co.uk – and have a read of her blog, she’s a fascinating thinker, and extraordinary artist.

Tags: 10 Collaborators · Musing on Music

10 Collaborators Who Changed My Music Life. Part 5 – Theo Travis

April 22nd, 2018 · No Comments

And on the 5th day, Steve talked about working with Theo Travis.

Day five of the ‘collaborators that changed my music-life’ series, and we reach someone with whom I had from the very first time we played a quite amazing synergy. Not til I played with Daniel Berkman did I find another musician with whom it felt like we could do nothing wrong… Theo and I met on a gig in Norwich, the day after the end of the tour I did opening for Level 42 in 2002 – it was a mini-festival of solo performers, each of whom had to overlap with the next player. I’m trying to remember which was round it went, but I either joined the end of Theo’s set, and then ceded to Roger Eno, or the other way round. Suffice to say, the little bit of crossover in my playing with Theo was enough for us to make plans to play together again soon after. It must’ve been very soon after, because I remember the first time we played, I was still using a Soundblaster soundcard, with just a stereo input, and I replaced that with some of the money I made on the Level 42 tour!

Playing with Theo was the pinnacle of the early collaboration period for me, and there was pretty much nothing we ever did that I didn’t love. It was really interesting because our sound was constantly developing and evolving through the time we played together, but we never went through a period of making a bad noise. Some of the musical relationships I’ll be detailing in this series were great because they provided space for experiments that didn’t initially bear fruit, but Theo was definitely the first person I played with where just about everything we ever did was releasable. He was also the first melody instrument collaborator that I’d had – although his exquisite use of the DL4 allowed him to do some amazing textures and harmony – for a lot of the time, my primary role was harmonic and textural, and that gave me space to focus on those sounds, on building my vocabulary of textural pad sounds and looping techniques to layer them in interesting ways. Which had a massive effect on my solo playing thereafter (compare Not Dancing For Chicken with Grace And Gratitude, and you’ll hear what playing with Theo did to my solo work!)

When we finally recorded For The Love Of Open Spaces, every track was a pure improvisation. No discussion of keys or moods or anything, except on the track ‘Lovely’, where I said ‘let’s try one without any looping’. But, for every track we did, we tried to repeat the same idea, and see if there was a better take of that idea once we’d played it through. The whole album is first takes. While we did quite successfully transition those recordings into re-performable compositions, at the time, the spontaneity of the original each time was where the magic was.

Theo and I played a fair bit together between 2003 and 2006, including a Jazz Services-funded tour, from which we have a really good live recording that I’ve recently remastered and will be reissuing soon as part of an expanded deluxe download version of For The Love Of Open Spaces, along with a remaster of our earliest record – It’s Not Going To Happen, which was released in a limited edition of 100 to the first 100 pre-orders of the CD when it came out in 2003. We also met up recently when LEYlines opened for Soft Machine, and talked about doing something new together. I really hope that happens. Theo’s a wonderful human, and a quite extraordinary musician. Go check out his other music on his Bandcamp page.

Tags: 10 Collaborators · Musing on Music

10 Collaborators Who Changed My Music Life. Part 3 – Michael Manring

April 20th, 2018 · No Comments

Day 3, and today also happens to be the 20th anniversary of my first website going online! The one that eventually became this site here. When I got my first laptop in 1997, it was because I’d started writing for Bassist Magazine, and the first thing I ever wrote to them I actually hand wrote and posted to them. So, that was insane, and I needed a way to get stuff to them more easily. So I bought a laptop, and not long after, a dial-up modem for it. I got myself a Compuserve address, and used some kind of by-the-minute dial-up access thing for a while, before finding an email company in Orkney via some excellent geek friends, called Zetnet. Zetnet email came with webspace, but I initially assumed making a website required expensive software and stuff that I didn’t have. It didn’t take me long to work out that if I knew just a little HTML, I could hand code a site just in notepad, and if I saved the text files as .html and one of them was called index.html I could upload them to my Zetnet space and have my own website! What an extraordinary thing. The version on archive.org dates it to 20 years ago today, but in thinking about it, that may actually be the day that I added a counter, as that’s what the image shows…

Anyway, what does this have to do with collaboration? Well, one of the first things I was able to do when I got online was start to contact my music heroes, people I wanted to be able to interview for Bassist magazine, and the companies that made the gear I was interested in. I remember finding Modulus’ website, and discovering that their artist relations person was also a big Bruce Cockburn fan…

And one of the people I first got in touch with was Michael Manring. I already had his Thonk album, and having read a bunch of interviews with him, was deeply inspired and influenced by his take on solo bass. This was before I’d released anything solo, but I was starting to play things at guitar shows, and I was on a record with a quartet called Ragatal, with flamenco guitar, tabla and electric violin. I sent a copy to Michael, and we struck up an email correspondence.

Fast forward to my first NAMM show in 1999, and I met up with Michael and interviewed him for Bassist mag. I was driving up to the Bay Area to visit Rick Turner, Modulus and Zon Guitars and found out that Michael was playing a solo show opening for Trey Gunn (who I’d recently interviewed for Bassist Mag in London). So I thought ‘I’ll go to the show’. Michael offered to let me stay at his house, and I set off. But I had no map, and sat nav didn’t exist then. So I drove through San Francisco, with no idea where I was going, out the other side, and over the Golden Gate Bridge. That was obviously not the way to the venue (which I only knew was called the Last Day Saloon and was in-or-near Chinatown) – so I turned round, came back over the bridge, guessed a turning, eventually stopped and asked someone randomly who told me I was about three blocks away… 🙂

Anyway, that’s not what this is about. Collaboration is the theme here, and Michael became a collaborator the following year, when we both played a solo bass gig in Santa Cruz and did a thing together at the end. Over the next few years we did a LOT of shows both in California and around England, and in those duo shows I got to discover much of what was possible at the intersection of two bass guitars (albeit to heavily processed and decidedly weird bass guitars). We played sold out shows, did clinics together, and drove a lot of miles – I think at this point I’ve probably done more shows with Michael than any other improv collaborator besides Lobelia. And the whole thing was an extraordinary eye-opening experience. Remember, here was the person who introduced me to the idea of looping, whose records made me want to be a solo bassist, who had inspired me for many years, and there we were playing loads of weird and wonderful improvised music. We’ve never rehearsed together, never played not in front of an audience. Only twice ever played a prewritten tune together (we did Autumn Leaves as a duo, and played Blue In Green in a trio with David Friesen… Oh, and we did a version of All Blues in a trio with the very brilliant John Lester when he opened for us on tour!)

Part of me wishes I had more recordings of those early gigs. Part of me is happier to remember how they felt than get hung up on what the music actually sounded like. But I was being stretched, trying to rise to the challenge of playing improvised shows with easily one of the most brilliant musicians ever to pick up the bass guitar. He was ceaseless in his encouragement and support for me – and still is! – and he became a supremely valued friend.

There were so many things I learned playing with Michael, and watching him play solo, so many times when I wondered if what I was doing was any good, and his words of encouragement dispelled doubts. And none more so than when we played a house concert at the home of the inventor of the Looperlative, Bob Amstadt, in 2012, and I suggested doing two solo sections in the first set and then some duo stuff later on, and he said ‘no! let’s do it all duo!’ And we did, and I was finally able to record what we sounded like properly, and get it out there. The album, Language Is A Music, is still subscriber-only, and you can get it here – it’s something that I’m not only deeply proud of as a work of art, but which represents almost two decades of playing together, of friendship, encouragement, of growing as a musician and improvisor, and learning from one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever heard, let alone been on stage with.

Tags: 10 Collaborators · Musing on Music

10 Collaborators Who Changed My Music Life. Part 1 – Daniel Berkman

April 18th, 2018 · No Comments

I’ve been meaning to do this for ages, but for the next ten days I’m going to post about one collaborator each day that has changed my music life. There are way more than ten who could fit the bill (maybe I’ll enjoy it so much I’ll keep going after ten, we’ll see) but we’ll start with these ten:

Day one, I’m want to talk to you about Daniel Berkman. I met Daniel because of another fabulous collaborator, Artemis – though I hadn’t met either of them when she suggested that Daniel and I should do a gig or two together. Sure, says I. I showed up to the first gig – a house/loft gig in San Francisco hosted by another new friend, Jimmy, and we met while setting up. As we started getting a sound, it dawned on both of us that playing solo sets and a little bit of a duo thing at the end was a bit of a waste of this opportunity, so we did two entire sets of improvised music, and finished wide-eyed and wondering if it was a fluke… But the gig we had the next night in Oakland was at least as fabulous as the first one, and something magical had been set in place.

The following January we did 8 more shows, then ended up releasing the recordings of all 10 shows – pretty much every note Daniel and I had played together up to that point (we didn’t jam in soundchecks, or play tunes outside of the gigs – just get on stage and see what happens) – the recordings also feature Artemis on vocals, and her presence became such an important part of the emotional/artist arc of the gigs, each set climbing towards a vocal finale.

Working with Daniel brought with it the most extraordinary sense of possibility – his skill set as a multi-instrumentalist is unfathomably huge, and the crossover in our taste from electronica to pop music to weird shit to folk and jazz was equally huge. So we got to go to a lot of different places. It was a really formative collaboration for me in terms of how percussion and drums related to what I do as an improvisor – a whole load of ideas and experiments fell into place in that particular musical setting.

Right now, I’m finishing up mixing the 11 shows for our third tour together, which should be out in some form or other later in the year.

For now, you can check out the work we did together via the players embedded below, and Daniel’s extraordinary solo releases on Bandcamp too… Go buy his music and follow what he’s up to. I hope we get to play together again soon 🙂

Tags: 10 Collaborators · Musing on Music

Crossing The River – When Albums Move From Product To Chapter

April 10th, 2018 · No Comments

I’ve finally started work on mixing the rest of the recordings from the FingerPainting project. The existing recordings are from 2012-2013, all ten shows available as a download, a complete document of everything that Daniel Berkman, Artemis and I had played together up until that point. But we did another tour in 2014, and until this week, they’d remained untouched in my Reaper-recordings-vault. Too massive a venture to contemplate, especially after the absolutely mammoth task of mixing and mastering the first lot, which put a huge strain on the rest of my life for about four months in 2013. However, this week I decided to see what would happen if I mixed and mastered them really quickly – applied a much lighter touch than I did to the processing last time round – FingerPainting was right at the beginning of my journey with professional-quality mastering work, and the project taught me SO much. But it also took an extraordinary amount of time, as I worked on getting the perfect sound for every aspect.  [Read more →]

Tags: Music News · Musing on Music

Thoughts on Cecil Taylor

April 6th, 2018 · 1 Comment

Listening to this and thinking about Cecil Taylor. His legacy, his choices, his extraordinarily personal take on music.

He’s someone whose choices inspired me for many decades. When I first heard that he chose to wash dishes rather than capitulate to the way the clubs that would book him wanted him to play, it literally changed the path of my music career. He’s an avatar for choosing the hard road. Choosing a path like that is not a one-off choice that you tell your friends about to make yourself look like some bad-ass. To be as accomplished a musician as Cecil was, and still choose to keep your music as a sacred thing not to be messed with just to pay the bills, is an extraordinary commitment. It’s not like he couldn’t have played standards as well as anyone if he’d wanted to – he even recorded a bunch of standards later in life – but he saw something as bigger than the status of being ‘full time in music’.

I spent a lot of years thinking that being full time was the aim. Cecil’s witness was a huge part of me getting past that point and realising that the music was way too important to make it bland just to get a gig. It’s a position that’s put me at odds with some of the places I’ve worked, and it’s a lesson that I’ve had to relearn a bunch of times, but thinking I could make my music ‘fit’ (and I’ve always been happy to play other people’s music as a ‘job’, and do the occasional function band – it’s just my own creative path that I’ve been more protective of) – but thanks to what I gleaned from Cecil’s path, I’m still doing the thing I do, finding the places where it fits, and refusing to screw it up to fit some booker’s idea of what I ought to be doing. I do WAY fewer gigs than I otherwise might, but Cecil is there to illuminate the long game.

RIP, Cecil – you influenced a huge amount of people, made some extraordinary music, and I’m materially less well-off because of your example, but infinitely happier with my creative choices. Thank you x

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/apr/06/cecil-taylor-free-jazz-pioneer-dies-age-89-new-york-pianist-avant-garde

Tags: Musing on Music

What Does It Mean To Do Your Own Thing?

February 22nd, 2018 · Comments Off on What Does It Mean To Do Your Own Thing?

Light and Shade
High and Low
Fast And Slow
Loud and Soft
Harsh and Mellow
Tension and Resolution
Inside and Outside
Sound and Silence

…the spread of options can be seen both in a micro and macro senses. It’s OK (caveat – of course, anything’s OK, it’s your creative practice here… but Imma try not to get bogged down in overly-explanatory language) to say ‘actually, my role within the scope of things happening in my field is to explore only shade.’ You don’t have to do everything or be everything. Your art is not a school science project to be graded on a set of learning outcomes.

BUT. As orthodoxies and modes of practice within particular disciplines emerge and coalesce around a limited set of expressive options, the invitation is built into that to transgress, explore, colour outside the lines, stay INSIDE the lines when everyone else is going nuts… Your practice is yours, but it exists within an ecosystem that’s partly of your own choosing and partly in the perception and experience of your audience. You can opt to ignore that and be ‘true to yourself’ or however you want to frame it, but when everyone is ploughing the same furrow, your seemingly radical notions are seen in that light.

An example – when I first started playing solo with a looper, a ton of (obviously inexperienced) people thought I’d invented it. Like I was the first person to ever do that. Even to those who had come across it before as an idea, there were very few who could name another solo artist using a looper, and even fewer who had ever seen someone play like that. It was, in short, a killer gimmick. I used to do this schtick where in the second tune in my set (back when I played compositions with actual names n shit) and go to the bar, leaving all the loops running. The trick was that it didn’t sound like just a loop going round and round, but because I had enough unsynced loops going, it could sustain interest as a performance without me adding anything for the 90-120 seconds it took me to go the bar, get a drink and rejoin my toys on stage. Ta-daaaa! 

By the time KT Tunstall appeared on Jools, that gimmick was dead. It was no longer a big reveal. A ton of people were looping by then, Imogen Heap was doing amazing shit with it, and YouTube was happening so people could see all the old footage of Michael Manring and David Torn and David Friesen and Eberhard Weber and Robert Fripp and Bill Frisell and a ton of other people doing extraordinary looping-enhanced performances from WAY before I started doing it… If I’d stuck with the gimmick, with the fact that for my audience it had been a new and novel thing, I’d still be wearing those clown shoes now and be looking like a massive bellend. When Lo and I did a gig with Ed Sheeran in 2007/8, he still had this whole ‘look at me, I’m looping!’ moment in his set. We were on before him, with a much more sophisticated take on the whole looping thing and it stole the thunder out from that moment. However, he had a ton more going for him, so it didn’t spoil his gig at all – he wasn’t reliant on that gimmick for ‘the sell’. (And he was about 12 or something at the time. His mum picked him up after the gig 🙂 )

Anyway, be aware of the way the wind is blowing, and take note of prevailing trends and orthodoxies. If you stick with them, you’ve got to do them in a way that makes your work something other than a hazy reflection of someone else’s work. Doing your own thing doesn’t require you to be wilfully obscure. Conspicuous originality is a deeply overrated and misunderstood notion. Plagarism is, after all, way harder than you imagine. But it also takes

  • some deliberate intent
  • some deep breaths and a commitment to an exploration that might not come to much immediately
  • to be able to go out on a limb and build on those other innovations
  • to take your art to a new place, to see the thing that’s happening from a alternate vantage point
  • To bring your life, experience, skills and curiosity to bear on what’s going on in your field.

All of those things can be fed, nurtured and brought into your work in fascinating ways. There are no guarantees of brilliance or acclaim or financial reward (in fact, the opposite is demonstrably the case, that by far the biggest chunk of money in the arts economy goes to the safe and the derivative, with a number of notable exceptions) but as human beings, doing mediocre things for money is how we got in this mess in the first place. There is no creative or artist reason to pursue anything less than excellence. Now, go be extraordinary – even if you miss, the journey will be worth it.

Tags: Musing on Music · New Music Strategies