Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond

Entries Tagged as 'Musing on Music'

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

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

“What Is The Work?” Thoughts On Cross Disciplinary Art

June 1st, 2015 · 5 Comments

“What Is The Work?”

It’s not a question we really ponder much as musicians, even though it’s one we would answer quite differently if we delved into the language we use. ‘It’s all about the music, maaan!’… yes, but what is the music?

Live music? That’s the main thing?

Or is it the recordings? Are recordings the thing, and if they are is it making them, or experiencing them? Do we make them to be amazing standalone art, or do we make them to be amazing experiences? Does the theatre of experience (for example, shifts in how and where people listen to music) change the work? What role ‘purist’ thinking in this?

Or is ‘the music’ the songs? Are the songs the thing, and if they are, do we just love recordings and gigs because they bring them into our lives? What of music with no songs?

Is it the experience of playing it? If so, what’s the purpose of an audience? Just money so you can keep playing? [Read more →]

Tags: Musing on Music

We Need To Talk About The Drummers…

May 5th, 2015 · Comments Off on We Need To Talk About The Drummers…

Drummers! Drummers have always played a massively important role in my music. Almost entirely by their absence. The conversation around what I do – perhaps not surprisingly, but still with some level of irritation – almost always gravitates towards ‘I’d love to hear what you do with a drummer!’. It’s kind of the curse of being a bassist. We’re seen as half of the rhythm section. It’s an instrument that was INVENTED for loud rhythm sections. Its voice was deeply integral to the development of rock and roll, pop, hard rock, prog, funk, soul, R’n’B… It is the sound of pop music. Bass and drums, that’s what makes it not-folk or not-chamber-music. As a voice outside of that, it’s still woefully under-explored…

So my decision to mostly avoid drummers, certainly in the context of my solo work (the decision to see all ‘band’ work as collaborative and never ‘my band’ is a huge part of this) is one that puts what I do apart from what most bass players do. It works as a USP, but has also been a very very useful set of limitations for exploring a new vocabulary for the instrument. I’m not the first to do this, by a long shot, though the degree to which it has dominated my work is unusual. [Read more →]

Tags: music reviews · Musing on Music

Creating Spaces Where People Can Respond To Music…

February 27th, 2015 · 4 Comments

[big gig update blog-post coming later, but this was bubbling in my head so needed writing first… 😉 ]

Right, this was inspired by a couple of brilliant thinker-friends. Partly it was this blog post by Corey Mwamba (an exceptional musician, thinker, doer and advocate for music) about The Family Album, and his audience-focussed rethink of jazz/improvised music programming, and partly by the work of a theatre company called Coney, particularly their co-director Annette Mees, whose thinking on pretty much everything has been of immense value to me over the last while… Their amazing work on new ways of experiencing theatre, of devising experiential work for audiences is truly remarkable (their upcoming show, Early Days (Of A Better Nation) is touring in the run-up to the election, and is unmissable)

Anyway, here’s today’s brain-ramble, on which I welcome your thoughts and input…

…disappearing down a wikipedia wormhole of synonyms for outmoded terminology that appears to have no analog in the useful terminology world, I stumbled on Cymatics –

cymatics by evan grant.

And I’m now thinking about how it works as a metaphorical space for thinking about visible human/audience responses to music… [Read more →]

Tags: Musing on Music

How to Talk About Music on the Internet

August 1st, 2013 · 5 Comments

The ‘publishing revolution’ of the internets has been overwhelmingly positive. We know that, right?

However, there have been a few – perhaps unintended – consequences to all online words being given equal billing (at least potentially) and all public typed conversations being searchable. So let’s have a think about how we – as musicians – talk about music on the internet:

One of the hardest things for a musician to do online is work out two very distinct ways of describing music positively: [Read more →]

Tags: Musing on Music · New Music Strategies

FingerPainting track by track – Antidote To Everything

May 6th, 2013 · Comments Off on FingerPainting track by track – Antidote To Everything

Antidote To Everything: (hit play)

So, imagine this – it’s a year since we’ve last seen each other, we’ve just released a recording of a show that, to us, sounds impossibly wonderful. Listening back to it elicits a feeling of ‘did we REALLY play that? wow!’ Such is the joy of improvised music.
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Tags: Music News · Musing on Music

New things for International Jazz Day.

April 30th, 2013 · Comments Off on New things for International Jazz Day.

Some new music for you to discover on international jazz day. Cos you’ve got 364 days for listening to Coltrane, Miles and Sinatra…

Tags: Musing on Music

10 Favourite Gigs of 2012

December 28th, 2012 · 3 Comments

So I started putting together a list of all the gigs I’d been to this year, from which to compile a best-of list. But in doing so realised that, aside from the few music things I saw at Greenbelt this year (Bruce Cockburn was my highlight) I only went to 12 gigs this year!

Thankfully, these were all excellent – if I had to pick any as highlights from the list, I’d have to say that the Rosanne Cash gig at the Union Chapel ranks in my favourite gigs ever list – just her and John Leventhal, two guitars and an incredible set of songs. An outstanding performance.

The other one that impacted me the most was Triptykon – I didn’t even know who they were when I went to the gig, but not only was their set one of the most visceral musical experiences I’ve ever had, they inspired the formation of Torycore – definitely another of my musical highlights from this year, though one with me playing so it doesn’t make this list 🙂

Here’s the full list – [

Tags: Musing on Music

My favourite new music of 2012

December 16th, 2012 · Comments Off on My favourite new music of 2012

As is traditional, it’s time for my ‘favourite new things I bought this year’ music post.

There has been a lot of amazing music released this year. As has been the case for the last three or four years, I haven’t really heard any ‘bad’ music at all. I’ve got way too good at filtering. I heard some things that ‘weren’t my cup of tea’, but they were all interesting and worth investigating.

I’m going to do a full list of all my favourites of the year at the bottom, but there were a handful of records this year that have gone straight into my ‘all time favourites’ list. Properly incredible music. So let’s start there:

Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Crown And Treaty

Having had their previous album nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, this album was hotly anticipated by people who know about these things. I was more interested in having followed bits of the journey of its creation via Twitter. None of that expectation prepared me for just how amazing the album would be. Everything about this is wonderful – from the hat tips to pop’s greatest songwriting traditions (particularly the ‘grown-up post-new-wave’ 80s stuff like David Sylvian, Prefab Sprout, Talk Talk, The Associates, Eg White etc.) to the utterly sublime drumming (pop records can be made or broken by the drumming, IMO). It’s a pure delight. Go have a listen on Mojo’s website, then buy it.

Emily Baker – All At Sea

Emily’s last album, House Of Cards, is already a deep favourite of mine. She’s one of the greatest songwriters I’ve ever come across, a stellar performer and a deeply lovely human being. All At Sea is, at least for me, a hell of an emotional ride. Emily’s draws pictures with words with a skill that I’ve rarely seen anywhere. Joni Mitchell-level skillz. I could probably quite happily spend all of 2013 with this as the only music I was allowed to listen to and still not get tired of it.

Neil Alexander – Darn That Dream

now HERE’S a record I was waiting for for a long time. Neil’s an exceptional talent, and turns his hand to a mind-boggling array of musical styles and situations as if he was born to play each one. But this album reveals the piano to be his true home. Melding the introspection of jazz, the flamboyance of the romantic solo piano tradition and the unexpected twists and turns of the world of improvised music, this album takes us on an epic journey. Any solo record this long has to be pretty damn special to not outstay its welcome. This one can come back for a visit time and time again.

Julie Slick – Terroir

Not content with being one of the greatest rock bassists I’ve ever heard, Terroir sees Julie growing as a composer, arranger and producer – not remotely swamped by the dazzling array of collaborators she’s assembled here, her musical vision is front and centre for the entire record, and shows that her self titled debut wasn’t a fluke, but was a signpost to what was to come. A startling record.

The Alvaret Ensemble – S/t

I know next to nothing about this! I bought it just two weeks ago on Sid Smith’s recommendation, and immediately fell in love with it – a core quartet, with various additions, recorded in such a way that it’s often not entirely clear what the instrumentation is anyway. Hugely compelling minimalist improv. Check it out on their site.

Mister Barrington – II

One of those records that seems to come out of nowhere – so many recognisable influences, but in SUCH insane combinations. Funk, soul, electronica, disco, jazz, prog and weirdness rolled together by one of the most amazing trios you’ll ever hear. check it out at


Just outside this top six are the brilliant 2012 releases from Hope And Social, Denison Witmer, Dave Douglas, Clatter, Adrien Reju, Christine Bougie, Darin Wilson, Jake Dubber, Jez Carr/Simon Little/Mike Houghton, Nik Kershaw, Scott McLemore, Ihsahn, 4 Sided Triangle, John Lester and Alex Machacek.

And probably a load that have slipped my mind.

Such is life – it’s been a bumper year for amazing music, with nary a dud track between all of these. You could quite easily spend all of 2013 just listening to my favourites of 2012 and still not have ‘finished’ them all in the year!

Tags: Musing on Music