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Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond



Teaching ideas part 1. There's no electric bass in most orchestras.

July 4th, 2008 · Comments Off on Teaching ideas part 1. There's no electric bass in most orchestras.

The state of contemporary music teaching in the UK is terrible. Actually, the state of music teaching across the board is pretty awful. But at least with the classical stuff, the method makes sense, even if so many of the teachers are failing to inspire the students (do a straw poll of the people you know, find out how many played an instrument as a kid, and how many quit in their late teens. The percentages should be 90% keeping it up. In reality, well under 5% of the people I know have stuck with it…)

The huge problem with the way that pop/rock/jazz/punk/funk etc. is taught in the UK is that most of the methods are still based around the classical idea that you’re learning repertoire. If you’re learning an orchestral instrument to play orchestral music, there is an expectation that you’ll play your instrument a certain way, learn how to take direction from a conductor and play the way other people want you to. That’s what orchestral musicians get hired to do. Because of this, a set of graded exams that measure how far along that widely recognised scale you are is a great way of providing benchmarks on your journey towards proficiency.

I think I’m on fairly safe ground stating that pretty much no-one takes up the electric bass (or guitar, or drums) in order to play in an orchestra. People play bass for a couple of different reasons – MOST (not all, but most) people take up bass to a) play the music they love listening to and b) form a band with some mates. (Despite bass being the greatest solo instrument on God’s green earth, those are the primary reasons people play it 🙂 )

I think it’s fairly obvious to anyone who stops to think about it that there’s no set path to aims as nebulous as ‘playing the music you love’ – what is the music you love? any stylistic boundaries? Any desire to put your own spin on it? At what point does writing your own music become important in the journey?

There are a million questions that can be asked, and the answers are different for every single person. Sadly, this wasn’t taken into consideration when most of the bass teaching materials I’ve ever come across were prepared – the old model of taking the student through a set course, as though this was the repertoire they’d need, is still the way that instruments are taught in our ‘post-repertoire age’.

I’ve never liked the idea of graded exams, I don’t like the way it says that your ability to play a particular piece, or to sight read (whether or not your area of musical interest requires it), or in the case of the ‘rock school’ grades, to ‘improvise’ in a style are measured against any kind of fixed criteria. It seems to fly completely in the face of what makes music special.

Most of all it ignores the fact that pop music is essentially folk music – music BY the people and FOR the people. It’s not an academic exercise, measurable metrically and verifiable by an examination board, it’s about self-expression, shared language and history, identity, culture, branding, etc. etc.

So what am I saying? That all music teaching is futile? That music colleges are a waste of time? Clearly not. What is vital though is that the skills being taught and how they are measured have to be demonstrably related to the end result.

I have a few rules for myself when teaching, and number one is that Context Is Everything. A huge part of the value of having lessons is learning how to learn – how to extract valuable principles and concepts from whatever the actual material is that’s being looked at. Whether it’s a group of notes (key/chord/scale), a rhythmic subdivision, the bassline to a song or an approach to improvising, there are lessons within the material that are found by playing with it in context. Remove the context, and the material becomes sterile.

I refer to this distinction in lessons as ‘active learning‘ and ‘passive learning‘ – passive learning is about learning the material as is, ticking a box and moving on. ‘active learning’ looks at what’s there and says ‘what can I deduce from this? What does this tell me about the way music works? what does this tell me about the style I’m exploring? What does this give me in terms of skills needed to write and perform my own music?’

Those are things that are incredibly hard to map out as a mark-scheme for an exam. Incredibly hard, but not impossible. It just relies on the exam board recognising the value in the musical relationship between teacher and student, the shared journey towards the student playing the music they love, and being able to express the music they hear in their head.

How we start to break down those aims is part 2…

Feel free to post your own experiences – good and bad – with music education, in the comments!

Tags: bass ideas · Musing on Music · teaching news · tips for musicians

Timeline and Trivia

May 3rd, 2008 · Comments Off on Timeline and Trivia

Musical Equipment Used

Elrick Gold Series SLC 6 String fretted and fretless basses, Modulus Basses (6 string fretted and fretless and 4 string fretted), a Rick Turner 5 String Renaissance ‘Amplicoustic’ fretless bass, two Aguilar SL112 cabinets and 2 Aguilar Tonehammer 350 amp heads, A Jule Monique Preampthe Looperlative LP1 for looping, Keith McMillen SoftStep controller and Quneo controller, MODDevices MOD Duo for processing, MXR, Darkglass, and Markbass overdrive pedals, a TC Electronics HOF mini Reverb and Flashback delay, Aguilar Overdrive, Fuzz, Compressor, Octave, Chorus, Filter and Preamp pedals, MXR Reverb, Sub Octave Bass Fuzz, Bass Distortion, Bass Chorus Deluxe, Bass Envelope Filter, Bass Preamp & Bass Fuzz Deluxe, Subdecay Vitruvian Mod ring modulator, Pedal Train pedal board an E-Bow+, Latch Lake and Dunlop slides, Dunlop Super Bright strings, East-UK preamps, Evidence Audio cables, GoGo tuners, 2 Korg Mini Kaoss Pad s and a MOTU Ultralite Mk III Hybrid. And I carry my basses around in SlickBag gig-bags.

Musical History

1986 – got a bass and joined first band
1988 – broke arm, kicked out of first band, formed second band (EARS) – played first gigs
1989 – GCSE Music, Grade C
1991 – AS Level Music, failed – fine at composition, not so hot on history… :o) Somehow got into music college in Perth, Scotland. Teaching as head of bass at West Lothian Rock School.
1993 – left college, moved to Lincoln, tour with Canadian singer/songwriter Johnny Markin. Gigs all over Europe, played on three albums.
1994-96 – working as a pro in Lincoln, teaching, studio and live session work.
1996 – moved to London, more session work, including TV, Radio and theatre work, more teaching.
1997-99 – teaching at Drumtech and Basstech, West London.
1997-2000 – freelance reviewer/interviewer/columnist/gadget guru for Bassist magazine in the UK.
1999 – Toured Europe with Howard Jones. First completely solo gigs in London.
2000 – Released And Nothing But The Bass on Pillow Mountain Records. More solo gigs around England.
2001 – 2 Solo tours of California, including headlining the world’s first solo bass looping festival, and tour with Michael Manring and Rick Walker. Clinics for Ashdown Amps and Modulus Basses. Solo gigs in France.
2002 – Another tour in California, Released Conversations, duo CD with Jez Carr, on Pillow Mountain Records, 2 Major tours of UK Theatres and concert halls supporting first the 21st Century Schizoid Band then Level 42. Two shows at the London Guitar Festival. National TV and local radio appearances in the UK. Featured in the Sunday Times Culture Section. Released second completely solo CD, Not Dancing For Chicken. NDFC picked as one of the best CDs of the year by Aural Innovations
2003 – four week solo tour of California, gigs with Michael Manring and David Friesen, including the Anaheim Bass Bash, featured interview in Euphoria magazine, and review of NDFC in Bass Player (Feb issue). New recordings with Theo Travis, BJ Cole and Patrick Wood for future release. Duo gigs with Theo Travis. Gig at the barbican with orphy robinson. Recording in France with Vigroux/Cury/Rives for upcoming release. first italian solo gig and recording session in august. Duo CD with Theo TravisThe Arts Show, alongside Jenny Eclair and Barry Cryer. Acclaimed appearances at The Detroit Bass Fest and European Bass Day. Gigs in US and UK with Muriel Anderson. A second tour in England with Michael Manring in November.
2005 – another year another NAMM show, followed by a few promo gigs with Michael Manring in California. Dates with pedal steel guitarist, BJ Cole, and recording and gigs with singer Cleveland Watkiss, as well as more UK dates, the Edinburgh Festival and a trip to Italy. Started monthly music night, Recycle Collective.
2006 – back to California, NAMM again and some more dates and another day-long masterclass, Recycle Collective continues to be one of the best live music nights out in London, and features musicians such as BJ Cole, Cleveland Watkiss, Orphy Robinson, Seb Rochford, Todd Reynolds, Jason Yarde, Andy Hamill, Patrick Wood, Leo Abrahams, Julie McKee, Andrea Hazell. UK tours with Theo Travis, Muriel Anderson and Ned Evett. 4th solo album, Behind Every Word, released on Pillow Mountain Records. Recording in Italy with guitarist Luca Formentini. New duo formed with singer Julie McKee, for the Edinburgh Fringe. European tour in October, including EuroBass Day and European Bass Day, as well as an electronica festival in Italy. Behind Every Word makes a number of end of year ‘best of 2006’ lists.
2007 – guess where it started? Yay, NAMM!! Bass-Bash, two days of masterclasses, Modulus clinics and gigs both solo and with Muriel Anderson and Vicki Genfan. Much fun. First New York show too. European tour with Lobelia, including first time visit to Frankfurt Musik Messe and gigs in Italy, Spain, Germany and Denmark, 7 week tour of the US, 24 states, 7000 miles. Gigs at Greenbelt festival with Lobelia, Sarah Masen and Ric Hordinski. Recycle Collective relaunched in September. Playing on one track on Luca Formentini’s album, Tacet. First Amsterdam and Geneva gigs in November. Released live EP with Lobelia in December. Recorded improv album with Patrick Wood and Roy Dodds.
2008 – NAMM again, with Lobelia this time, playing the bass-bash and for Looperlative and Modulus. More California shows. Back to England, playing lots of ‘acoustic’ shows with Lobelia, London Solo Bass Night in March with Todd Johnson and Yolanda Charles, . Year ended with Lawson/Wood/Dodds album ‘Numbers’ released, and some LDW gig dates round London, followed by a whole string of house concert shows in England and the US with Lobelia. 2008 was also the year of social media – 10 years of running my music career online turning into a 2nd career teaching and consulting on how it all works, including Nokia flying me to Helsinki for their Open Lab, and working on the launch of Ucreative.tv at UCA in Rochester. Finished the year with a series of house concerts in the UK and the US with Lobelia..
2009 – …which continued into the new year on a trip that included a trip to NAMM, a masterclass at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and a series of masterclasses in bass, looping and ‘social media for musicians’ in various people’s houses. But I did miss the bass-bash for the first time ever. Back to the UK for more bass masterclasses and other University-based projects around the future of the internet… look out for a new solo album at some point this year!
2010 – the first half was spent looking after our new born baby, but at the age of 6 months, we took him to the US for a 7 week, 6500 mile tour of house concerts, that took us from Brooklyn to Milwaukee, Massachusetts to Lake Charles Louisiana, via Texas, Tennessee and Ohio. Lo and I recorded a live album on the tour, featuring Todd Reynolds and Neil Alexander, and while in Louisiana I recorded TWO duo albums with Trip Wamsley, released in September. The end of the year featured a sold out London gig with Michael Manring, and speaking engagements in the UK and Berlin at grass roots music industry conferences. I also released another live album, celebrating the 10th anniversary of my debut album coming out.
2011 – first half of the year was focussed on getting my first new studio album in 5 years finished. 11 Reasons Why 3 Is Greater Than Everything was released and followed by a 2 month, 8000 mile US tour, which included shows with Julie Slick, Trip Wamsley, Tiger Darrow, Steven Guerrero, Darren Michaels, Neil Alexander, Trevor Exter and Catherine Marie Charlton. The trip also included me guest-performing at Victor Wooten’s Music-Nature Camp, teaching a bass masterclass in Virginia, and Lobelia and I being the only overseas musicians to be booked to play at the first Wild Goose festival. Oh, and  I also co-produced, mixed and mastered Lobelia’s new record, Beautifully Undone. We started selling our music on USB Stick, which has proved v. popular. A move to Birmingham in the late summer promises all kinds of new opportunities.
2012 – the year started with the release of Believe In Peace, an all-improv solo record, recorded in Minneapolis. January continued with a return visit to NAMM, 12 shows in 12 days including duo shows with Julie Slick, Michael Manring and Daniel Berkman, a recording session with Steve Uccello and a playing-and-speaking gig at Stanford uni, as well as a masterclass at LA Music Academy. The shows with Julie, Michael and Daniel were all recorded, so mixing and mastering work on those took up a lot of the following months, as well as recording for Californian singer/songwriter Artemis. May saw the relaunch of Beyond Bass Camp, and the remastering of 11 Reasons… 2012 also saw the formation of #ToryCore – a project that coupled the evil words of the Tory govt with twisted avant garde metal. One of my favourite ever musical projects.
2013 – started with NAMM and another 8 shows with Daniel Berkman, and this time Artemis joined us on vocals at every gig. It was one of the most amazing musical experiences of my life to play with them both. Which is why a large chunk of the year was taken up mixing, mastering and releasing EVERY show we’d done up to that point. All 10 of ‘em. Went out to Frankfurt to the Musikmesse, more ToryCore shows & a few more gigs with Alvin Stardust depping for his regular bassist. Started teaching at Kidderminster College, and ended the year with a lovely joint tour with one of my favourite bassists – Yolanda Charles, and with a duo show with Andy Edwards on drums.
2014 – Another NAMM trip, 11 wonderful shows with Daniel and Artemis (part of a run of 14 shows in 13 days for me!). Just before NAMM I was invited to speak at the Microsoft Social Research Symposium in NYC, which was one of the most brilliant few days of my life. The duo project with Andy Edwards expanded to become ‘Andy, Steve + 1’ and we played a couple of gigs with Julie Slick, made an album with Murphy McCaleb and gigged with Jem Godfrey and Bryan Corbett – we have further projects planned. Played a super-lovely duo show with Briana Corrigan, ex-of The Beautiful South, whose solo work I’ve been a fan of for 20 years. I released a new solo album – What The Mind Thinks, The Heart Transmits. Playing at the London Bass Guitar Show and inviting Jon Thorne to join me on my set led to the release of that as a new album – Diversion. Towards the end of the year, I launched a new subscription service via Bandcamp, with the aim of finding a useful home for the epic amounts of music that I record and want to release…
2015 – NAMM in January, of course, plus a handful of lovely house concert shows with guitar genius Thomas Leeb. Released LEY Lines with Andy Edwards and Phi Yaan-Zek, the first new thing that my subscribers got, which Phi released for everyone else. Did the London Bass Guitar Show again, and had another of my bass heroes Ruth Goller agree to play with me. That was fun. Formed a duo with Divinity Roxx – hip hop, improv, songs, stories, all rolled in. We had a week of playing and did a first gig in Kidderminster. The duo with Jon Thorne was expanded to a trio with Rob Turner, of GoGo Penguin, that band sounds amazing! In September, I release two new solo albums – my first proper solo album releases since 11 Reasons in 2011. A Crack Where The Light Gets In and The Way Home were really well recieved, and got played on Late Junction. In October, I was the cover star on Bass Guitar Magazine, almost certainly the only self-managed, self-releasing, self-everything solo bassist to ever get there without an association with any other artist. Still can’t quite believe it. The mag cover coincided with a mini-tour with Jonas Hellborg – we had a wonderful time playing in Birmingham, London and Leeds, and hope to do a bigger tour ASAP. By the end of the year, I’d released 7 albums for Subscribers, all of which I’m immensely proud of! The year ended with the recording of a second album with Phi and Andy, to be released early in 2016. The year also featured a few more Torycore gigs – a thing that gets better every time we do it, and more vital, sadly.

Current Musical Projects

Solo gigs and recording -::- Duo with Divinity -::- trio with Jon Thorne and Rob Turner -::- trio with Andy Edwards and Phi Yaan-Zek -::- performance duo with painter Poppy Porter  -::-  Torycore.

trivia

favourite artists. – these days, it’s lots of singer/songwriters, and death metal bands. So, alternately, Bruce Cockburn, Cannibal Corpse, Jonatha Brooke, Cattle Decapitation, Joni Mitchell, Job For A Cowboy, Paul Simon, Entombed, Emily Baker, White Empress, The Blue Nile, Soulfly, Nik Kershaw, Ihsahn…

Along side that, a bunch of other things – Hope & Social, Bill Frisell, D’Angelo, David Torn, Let Spin, Michael Manring, DJ Krush, Throwing Muses, Coltrane, Kristin Hersh, 70s Miles, Beauty Pill, Janet Feder, Jon Gomm, Kenny Wheeler, Trish Clowes, Divinity Roxx, Sweet Billy Pilgrim, J Dilla, De La Soul, Terje Rypdal, KT Tunstall, The Pixies, The Cure…

top 10 (or so) favourite(ish) albums

bass influences – Current favourites are Tony Levin, Ruth Goller, Michael Manring, Julie Slick and Matthew Garrison but there are literally hundreds. I suppose, in roughly chronological order, those players that have influenced me the most would be – John Taylor (Duran), Nick Beggs (Kajagoogoo/Iona), Chris Squire (Yes), Simon Gallup (The Cure), Pino Pallidino (everyone, but especially the D’Angelo stuff), Doug Pinnick (King’s X), Ewan Vernal (Deacon Blue), Steve Swallow, Abraham Laboriel, Jaco Pastorius, Scott LaFaro, Freddie Washington, Bernard Edwards (Chic), Ray Brown, Jonas Hellborg, Family Man Barratt (The Wailers), Verdine White (EW & F), Tommy Simms, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, Jimmy Haslip, Danny Thompson, Eberhard Weber, Mike Rivard, Marc Johnson, Kermitt Driscoll, Mo Foster, Todd Johnson, Doug Wimbish, Yolanda Charles, Trip Wamsley, Divinity,  and loads more.

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Bruce Cockburn interview from Nov '99

March 25th, 2008 · Comments Off on Bruce Cockburn interview from Nov '99

Back when I was writing for Bassist magazine in the late 90s, I mainly used interviews as a chance to meet up with my musical heroes. The bass ones were easy to sort out, but on a couple of occasions I used the magazine connection to interview my guitar playing heroes as well, and did this interview for Guitarist magazine. Given that Bruce Cockburn is my favourite musician of all time, and probably the songwriter whose songs have had the most real-world impact on my day to day life, it was always going to be a little hagiographic, but I think I’ve kept the ‘you’re amazing, tell me about being amazing’ type questions to a minimum.

This is my original transcript of the interview, which is a fair bit longer than what actually got printed, I seem to remember. It was just after Breakfast In New Orleans, Dinner In Timbuktu had come out, and was conducted in the restaurant of some hotel in Ealing, I think. Bruce was a fantastic interviewee, and this is one of my favourite interviews to read back. A couple of my questions are a little crassly put, but it was 9 years ago, so I’ll cut myself some slack. I’ve met him a few times since, and he’s always been a very friendly, funny person to meet…

Bruce Cockburn Interview
(Reproduced from the November 99 issue of Guitarist Magazine)

Impossible to pigeon-hole, but equally brilliant whether finger-picking ragtime instrumentals or giving it what-for on a distorted electric, Bruce Cockburn’s artistry continues to climb 30 years into his career.

Once described by Melody Maker as ‘Canada’s best kept secret’, singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn has, over the course of 25 albums, built up a substantial following world-wide and is a bit of a superstar in his native Canada. He’s had 20 gold and platinum records, won 10 Junos (the Canadian version of Grammies), and does seriously big tours, but remains a cult act in the UK (albeit a cult act capable of playing the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank last time he visited these shores!)

Bruce’s body of work ranges from lilting country folk to the dark brooding punk and reggae influenced political ranting of his eighties albums. His recent move to the Rykodisc label has been accompanied by a shift back to the jazzier acoustic sound of his late seventies albums. Always focused, Bruce is one of very few singer/songwriters to last 30 years with no embarrassing period whatsoever.

Initially inspired by Scotty Moore and Buddy Holly, followed soon after by Chet Atkins and Les Paul, his guitar playing encompasses a huge range of styles, taking in ragtime and blues influences but combining them with jazz, country, rock and avant-garde in a unique melange that perfectly supports his heart-felt prose.

– When did you start playing

I started playing when I was 14 which was 1959.

– Why?

Scott Moore – the early Elvis records. Buddy Holly… well, the sound of the Crickets – I didn’t really associate it with particular people it was just music. That’s what got me excited about music. I started taking guitar lessons at the age of 14 and was very quickly introduced to other kinds of music. The teacher I had was into country swing like Les Paul and Chet Atkins, and all the tunes that were on Willy Nelson’s ‘Stardust’ album were the tunes that I learned to read music on the guitar with, to learn chords and all that stuff. The first tune I can remember actually working out off a record was ‘Walk Don’t Run’ by the Ventures. It just kinda moved on from there – I got interested in jazz pretty quickly, and through that moved into folk-blues. By the time I got out of high school I was doing some rudimentary finger-picking and was starting to compose music, and dabbled in writing poetry. I went to Berkley for three semesters out of a four year course, and did what all honourable Berkley students that are any good do – drop out! Last year they gave me an honorary Doctorate so I finally got my degree. When I was at Berkley I was shown by John Lennon and Bob Dylan that you could actually put poetry and music together and make something.

– So Dylan was the catalyst?

That’s what interested me about it. I had no interest in imitating the songs I liked – old Elvis songs, ragtime tunes – those were the product of a time and place and an experience that I had no part of so it made no sense to try and write those songs. It was OK for me to sing them, that made sense, but not trying to write anything like it. But it hadn’t occurred to me that you could do anything else until Dylan came along, and it was like ‘Oh wow, you can actually say stuff.’ So I started writing songs. When I left Berkley I joined a rock ‘n’ roll band in Ottawa where I had grown up, made up of a bunch of folkies that I knew, and we all were writing songs at that point, and that’s when I really started taking it seriously. It kinda grew from there’

– So that was the beginning of the solo career?

Yeah, except I did it with my wife at the time. At first I wasn’t really on the road – we were on such a small circuit, that it didn’t qualify as on the road. There were clubs in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal that I could play and the occasional folk festival, and in the early says that’s what I did. I was in bands for the second half of the sixties but had started to do solo stuff in the latter part of the 60s. ’69 was a fairly busy year for me as a solo artist, and that’s when the first solo album was recorded. In the spring of ’70, I bought my first truck, I was started to get paid for gigs so I had some money. It cost three thousand dollars, which was a big deal at the time. And we put a camper on the back of it, and spent the next five years driving back and forth across the country, staying with my in-laws or my parents during the winter and hitting the road again as soon as it warmed up. So for 7 or 8 months out of each year we’d be on the road.

– Was there a sense of the emerging Canadian sound?

There WAS an emerging Canadian sound, but there wasn’t really a sense of it. People started thinking about it after the fact.

– It must have really pissed off the Americans.

That Canada had all the best song writers? I don’t think anyone thought about it – in those days you didn’t say you were from Canada – most Canadians were embarrassed about Canada. Most Canadians didn’t know that Joni Mitchell was Canadian, or that Neil Young was Canadian. You’d say it to people and they’d go ‘What? Nah, that’s bullshit!’ It’s like ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth???’ Same thing.

There were a lot of us around that time who thought this was a bad thing who were right behind Joni, Neil and Gordon Lightfoot, who was the first to opt to stay in Canada rather than to move to the US. It was a cliche of Canadian culture that in order to be accepted by Canadians you had to prove yourself somewhere else first – you could do it in England or the US, but not in Canada.

But there was kind of a wave of nationalism that we were all affected by at the time that said it shouldn’t be that way, so I just thought I’m going to build up whatever audience I can in Canada before I think about going anywhere else, and then we’ll see where it goes. Over the next ten years – it took about that long to build a strong national audience, but by the end of the 70s I did have that, and I was also starting to work outside of Canada, a little. But hardly in the states at all – it was Italy and Japan at first. The states did really start to get interested in me until ’83 when Stealing Fire came out, when we started to do national tours.

– Didn’t you get some adverse press for Rocket Launcher?

No, it got no adverse press, it got nothing but positive response – it blew my mind! The Religious Right to my mind said nothing about it. I got the odd letter from somebody who were disappointed in it. One woman I remembered writing saying how could I write an anti-American song like this – her husband was a jet pilot and didn’t I know what awful things the Russians were doing in Afghanistan? Well yeah I do, but it doesn’t excuse what you guys are doing in Guatemala, and it’s not your husband who’s guilty, it’s other people.

I got the occasional letter like that, but what I also got was a huge amount of air-play for that song, which I hadn’t really had before – the one exception being Wondering Where The Lions Are which got played in the US as well as Canada. WWTLA was the first song I’d had that got big time national air-play in Canada and it got on the Billboard chart in the US. But whereas it was the start of something in the Canada, in the sense that the next few records I put out also got a lot of air-play, in the States that didn’t happen, so with Rocket Launcher it was like starting all over again. And that time it did take, and it’s been progressively better since then.

– How did your music develop through the 70s?

The finger-picking that I’d learned to do was based on Mississippi John Hurt and Manse Lipscomb, mainly, and other old blues guys like that, but I’d also learned how to play more complex chords. When I went to Berkley I went majoring in composition, with guitar as my instrument and I had this notion that I’d be a jazz musician – I hadn’t thought about it one way or the other, but that seemed like the thing you do when you went to Berkley! And then I realised part way along that I wasn’t prepared to do the amount of work, and I wasn’t interested enough in jazz harmonies per se to pursue it the way they were teaching it. But I still loved jazz and continue to love jazz, and whenever there’s an opportunity jazz creeps into the music – more now than ever, partly to do with increasing command of the instrument over the years, and partly to do with exploring options as a writer.

– Did you continue to study?

I didn’t study formally in anyway – I taught myself this and that. But I listened to a lot of stuff – you mentioned the world music thing – through the late 60s and into the 70s I was listening to music of every culture that I could get my hands on. I was particularly infatuated with European Medieval and Renaissance music – you can hear that in the records. I was also listening to African records, Tibetan Ritual music. I guess I got started on that track at Berkley because a lot of the jazz players were interested in Arabic music. That interest in Eastern music was prevailing in the jazz scene at the time and I got totally captivated by it.

So the guitar style was partly having started with a blues style that featured alternating bass with a melody over the top or a droning bass with licks over the top, the melodies and the licks got more complicated, and the harmonies never were as simple as blues harmonies so. So on top of that would be a song like Joy Will Find A Way, where the guitar part is an attempt at duplicating an Ethiopian thumb harp piece that I had on a record – it’s not the same notes, but an attempt to get that feel into it. I found that a lot of African folk music suited adaptation to finger picking guitar, which wasn’t lost on the Africans either, but I hadn’t heard African guitar music then. It was obvious to me that you could take these complimentary drum and xylophone type instruments and translate that music onto the guitar, and that became part of the style and then everything I heard that I like really.

And then in the 70s I discovered Reggae and then Punk came along and revitalised rock ‘n’ roll for me and so then I started getting those elements in there to.

– Was electric guitar an anathema – with prog rock etc.?

I used it a bit – all through the 70s there was also the Stones, don’t forget, so there was goo guitar around of the sort that I related to as roots based. And there was good jazz guitar, although there was a period in there where I didn’t listen to much rock or jazz – I completely missed David Bowie, for instance, until Heroes in the late 70s, then I went back and discovered the rest of what he’d done. Then I started to look into rock music again. Yeah, I missed a lot, but I also gained something in the freedom I had from that influence at that particular time. When the influence came around it was affecting me as a more developed artist.

– So the addition of electric stuff happened around Humans, or Inner City Front…?

Inner City Front was really the big one. There’s electric guitar on many of the earlier albums, but it didn’t start to take over until I was playing with heavier bands with more drums and more emphasis on rhythm, and then it was an irresistible pressure to pick up the electric guitar – to hear myself on stage for one thing – but also to keep up in intensity with the other guys. There was a big learning process in there. on Inner City Front I got away with it, but there a lot of learning in front of people going on. I was applying the same techniques to the electric as I used on the acoustic, but there’s a big difference in touch and it took some time to kind of get the feel for it.

– Was there a parallel between the music and lyrics in that development?

The earliest album that has a real noticeable amount of electric guitar on it is Night Vision, which is also a dark kind of record and I hadn’t thought about it but I guess that’s true, it does contribute to it, though unconsciously – I must contribute to what I was doing. The choice wasn’t unconscious the connection was’

The tone of the albums really changes with Humans, which also coincides with my divorce, and the end of a decade and a point in my life that was partly triggered by the divorce and partly not where I spent a lot of time looking at how my inner being related to the big picture, the cosmic picture, and it was time to include other people in that search for an understanding of relationship. To put it in simple terms, as a christian if you’re gonna love your fellow mankind you gotta know who they are, you can’t love them in the abstract. So it was time to kind of be among humans. It started with the album humans and the songs there come from those first travels in Japan, and Italy – the first ventures outside of North America, and the greater understanding of human interaction on mass which translates into politics, and that carried through into inner city front, and all through the 80s.

– Your one of the few artists who was around in the 80s, when all the world’s singer songwriters went electric, who has no embarrassing period…

I was pretty careful, but I look back on certain of those things with a little embarrassment, but only a little – more the live gigs that the records cos there were more chances taken on stage than in the studios.

– Influences –

The Clash, Bob Marley that whole new wave thing had a broad non-specific effect but I remember thinking on Trouble With Normal, on Tropic Moon, and I could figure out how to get the right feel, so I remember thinking, ‘what would the Clash do with this?’ so I did what the Clash would’ve done with it, that was a conscious decision in the studio – it doesn’t sound very much like the Clash at all, but you can hear that mental process’ Bob Dylan was still an influence – Blood On The Tracks – he hadn’t had much of an influence on me for years and then Blood On The Tracks came out and that was a big album for me. Life in general – at that point I was starting to write life and looking outward’

– But there’s a musical sophistication that goes beyond those influences, more of a Peter Gabriel kind of vibe –

That has partly to do with the producers on that album, although I listened to a little Peter Gabriel, though I don’t think it was as much Peter Gabriel as listening to the same things that he was listening to and translating them. The producers, John Goldsmith and Kerry Crawford, who worked on World Of Wonders and Big Circumstance – their understanding of album production was bigger in scope than I was used to working with, and that’s one of the reasons why I was interested in them. So they got bigger sounds, and used more instruments and tried out more ideas, the music lent itself to that. At that point I’d been in Central America, and been to the Caribbean a bunch of times and I had more direct influence from those cultures – see how I miss you, down here tonight, world of wonders – on that song the imagery is all European, but the music is Afro-Caribbean.

– Influence of the Stick?

That had something to do with it as well. That was the thing that interested to me about the Stick. I was excited when I discovered that I knew someone who played it. With Hugh Marsh I’d explored the possibilities with Violin and Guitar, then Hugh’s brother Ferg (Fergus Jemison Marsh), turned out to be this incredible Stick player who was very Tony Levin influenced with the bass strings, but added on all this treble stuff that you don’t hear Tony Levin doing, and it seemed to me that there would be incredible textural possibilities with that part of the stick and guitar. So that became a big deal.

During the period that I was writing the material for Stealing Fire, I’d rented a little office space that I’d go to to practice and or write each day, and I had a little drum machine so I’d set up drum rhythms, and I have the lyrics and I’d be pulling at the lyric and the rhythms and that would spawn the guitar parts, and I got Ferg coming over and work on Stick parts that would go with the guitar parts, and then I’d modify the guitar parts if he had something better than I did. So the presence of the stick was in there early on in the process of building up to ‘Stealing Fire’.

– There are strong polyrhythmic possibilities with the Stick –

and then when you start adding drums to that the trick is to get people to start leaving things out because you can get so many things going at once.

– Guitars – who were you listening to?

I don’t think I was really listening to guitar players much through there. Since about 1960 I haven’t really tried to learn anything off a record in a ‘OK, how he’s doing this’ kind of way. I get influenced by the feel of things and I sort of take what my ear will grasp and then I mess with it, so the learning process has been slow, but also kind of less conspicuously influenced by any one person that it might other wise has been.

– And that helped to maintain originality?

It has had that effect, I don’t think I did it on purpose that was, it’s just my nature to do things that way. I would hear things I like, and any time I heard one I’d either find a way to do it my way or it would just become a kind of general influence – there were lots of people, Mark Knopfler was the most conspicuous fingerstyle electric player around, but I was always sort of slightly uncomfortable with that, even though I really liked his records, everyone would be telling me that I played like Mark Knopfler, once I started playing electric guitar, and it kind of was a little irritating, so I made a conscious effort where possible not to sound like Mark Knopfler – there was already one of him and we didn’t need another one.

– You started fingerpicking on the electric before Knoplfer, what lead to that? Naïvité’?

There was no question in my mind of ever picking up a pick – there was no reason to. I’d played electric guitar when I was in rock bands in the 60s, and I’d had lots of experience playing electric guitar with a pick. But through the 70s I’d developed enough facility with the guitar that it just seemed like OK now how do I apply this to this other instrument, and by the end of the 80s I’d sort of almost learned how to do it!!

– It gave you a unique sound, and a continuity between the electric and acoustic.

They’re not polls apart

– sometimes it’s pretty hard to tell which you’re playing.

yeah, depending on which guitar I’m using – the National Resophonic that I’ve got is an electric guitar but I’ve got it strung with acoustic gauge strings and it has this chunky sound that has much of the attack of an acoustic.

– What electrics were you using in the 80s?

I had a couple of Strats, and a couple of hand made flying Vs, made by Emory Deyong, in Canada. They were really nice guitars, with humbucking pickups, but I’ve always had a problem playing Gibson style electrics cos the necks are to flexible and I’d always bend them out of tune, I grab them too hard, whereas Fenders, or anything with a Fender feel didn’t present that problem so I tended to lean that way. Also the attack on Fenders in more finger friendly, more like the acoustic.

– A kind of natural compression to the sound?

yeah, so it suited’ it easy to overplay an electric guitar when you’re used to an acoustic, whether it’s fingers or a pick. One of the most flagrant historic examples of that is Django Reinhard – when you listen to his records on electric guitar they sound horrible next to the genius tone, not to mention the content of his acoustic playing. He’s whacking the shit out of the electric and it hurts! And I did the same thing -everybody that switches, has to overcome that same tendency which was made easier on certain guitars than on others.

– After the darkness of Big Circumstance, you came back with a far more commercial album in Nothing But A Burning – a shift to new country?

The term new country got invented after we made that album, but the conscious effort made in those songs was definitely a shift. I’d had this big dry spell and at the end of the 80s, from the middle of 88 to the end of 89 I didn’t write anything,

– was that scary?

It was very scary, it was sort of like well OK, either I’ve got to think of some drastic thing to do or I’ve got to go and learn a new trade! So I decided to declare myself on sabbatical, I was gonna take 1990 off, which I did, and I just announced to the world that I was going to have no public involvement with anything, and I more or less did that. And within a week of having started on my sabbatical I started writing, and I wrote Child Of the Wind, and the songs started coming that ended up making up ‘Nothing But a Burning Light’.

But there’d been this big clearing of the slate before that, like the whole 80s was cancelled. The thing that I’d realised during that dry period was that I’d be looking around at songs and I noticed that I had no virtually no songs that someone who was an untrained guitar player could sit down and make work, and I thought that was kind of a lack, so I deliberately made an effort to write songs that you didn’t have to play like I do to make them sound good, you could just strum the chords and they’d still work. So Child of the Wind was like that, and most of the other song on NBABL fit that description. That was on purpose, that had the effect that it wasn’t an attempt to make the songs commercial, it was to make the accessible to someone that wanted to have fun playing them. And that kind of carried over into Dart to the Heart, and then I kinda dropped it – I got bored with that!

– Any label pressure?

No – well, record companies like radio air-play – but nothing that affected the content of the songs, or even really the way we recorded them. The choice of T-Bone Burnett to produce those records was a process that involved the record company, but we had a list of people and he was on everybody’s list. The sound of those records owes everything to T-Bone, and to the particular to the writing of the songs that set that up.

– Burning Light is an amazing sounding album

Nothing But A Burning Light came out really well. Dart To The Heart we didn’t get as lucky on, although there’s still a lot that I really like about that. But NBABL was one of those instances where everything falls together exactly right. It was such a great band on there – Keltner and Michael Been, Edgar Meyer and Booker T.

– Two albums with T-Bone on the major.

..and the Christmas album which was done sort of in between, which I produced though I owe a lot to T-Bone for that, for the inspiration of his attitude towards production more than any of the technical stuff. I guess it was the same as my process of learning from guitar players, I didn’t study what he did, but I picked up an understanding from him of how to focus on the essence of a song without screwing it up in the process of adding instruments to it. there are many many ways that you can mess with a song in the studio so there’s something very important about uncovering that essence and keeping it in the forefront.

– Was that a chance to re-indulge your love of folk music?

Well, in a way.. circumstantially I guess’ The Christmas album was something I’d wanted to do for 20 years because I’d loved that music and thought I could do something with it, but it took that long to get somebody to pay for it. We were doing these radio shows out of New York, we did 5 in the end, which became the Columbia Records Radio Hour, which became a monthly show that they did, I ended up doing all the Christmas ones.

– And you duetted with Lou Reed on Cry Of A Tiny Babe????

I know, it amazes me too – you should have been there when it happened. We’d rehearsed it but he was reading the lyrics off. There we were playing the song, and it came time for his verse and that’s what he did, and I just started laughing as you can probably hear on the ensuing chorus.

– New York was a favourite of yours?

Yeah that was a great album – I don’t really know the body of Lou’s work’ you know who else I really liked through that period was Laurie Anderson, or course they’re now a pair which is pretty interesting. She did some marvellous stuff. I don’t go to many shows, especially big shows, but I remember going to see her at Massey Hall in Toronto and it was maybe the best show I’ve ever seen, for sheer entertainment and content’

– now your on Rykodisc – it sounds like your back in a love affair with the guitar…

It’s what came out of the experiment – it starts with Dart, or maybe even Burning Light. It’s like I said, but the end of the 80s I’d finally learned what to do with an electric guitar, and you can start to hear that on the records, and it continues, I’m still learning all the time – the more I learn, the more I want to do with it, though the new album doesn’t feature that much electric, there’s a couple of prominent bits, but the Charity of Night features some extended leads and stuff. It’s the first time I’ve felt confident enough to allow myself to do the jazz part of the record – I’d always imported other people to do that, you get John Goldsmith on keyboards, or Hugh Marsh on violin adding the jazz into it, but as of the Charity of Night it was time for me to try and do some of it myself, though on the new album it’s not so much on the electric but the two instrumentals have a lot of improvising in them. I’m just letting myself play – we’ll see what happens when we put the band together to tour’

– And live? At Greenbelt the guitar playing was really front and centre…

That’s always been part of the live shows – Dialogue With The Devil, although I’m playing different thing in the solo part of it, it’s basically the same way I was doing it in 1974. To some extent those little lead things have always been in the shows, more so than on any of the records, and with the band shows there’s always been more electric guitar leads, until now when it seems to be evening out a bit. It’s fun to play, you know? It’s partly getting older and allowing myself more freedom. I’ve always had this built in limitation of things supposed to be a certain way, I’ve a limited concept of how things can be and how stretchy you can make things, and over the years that’s gotten a lot looser.

– The record sounds unfettered. Fun, passionate and full of energy.

There wasn’t much restraint – the restraints on me are my technical ability more than anything, and I suppose ones technical ability limits to some degree what you can imagine, at least in my case it does! It doesn’t stop at the same place, but you hear things projected from what you know how to do.

– your guitar now is a Linda Manzer, right?

I had a Larivee – I had the first cutaway guitar that Larivee ever made. Larivee was the first Canadian guitar maker to work with steel string guitars, and he developed a whole style of guitar making that owed nothing to Martin or Gibson, having a different concept of bracing, ‘n’ all that. And Linda along with a couple of other people was one of Larivee’s apprentices for a while – there were three of four of them who were spawns of the original Larivee thing, only Larivee has moved into more a shop thing, with helpers – not a factory as such, but more like that than it was. Linda continued to make guitars on her own.

I had two Larivee guitars, and a David Wren, who was another Larivee apprentice. I had two Wrens, one got destroyed in a fire, at a rehearsal space, which was right before one of the tours of Italy, so I had to play electric guitar – my telecaster was all I had left, and the Italians were really pissed at that, and were yelling out ‘acoustica, acoustica!!’ They didn’t want to hear me playing electric at all, and didn’t believe that my guitar had been burnt – they thought I was putting one over on them.

Anyway, I ended up moving from that to a Manzer. I’d experimented with a few commercial guitars that people were trying to get me to use, and I didn’t like any of them – that was in 86/87. The guitar that Linda made me then I had until the beginning of this year and I traded it back to her for a new one with slightly different characteristics. It was a particularly deep bodied guitar with a cedar top, slightly wider than average neck to make room for finger-picking. When I got it that’s what I wanted, but over the years as I started switching back and forth between electric and acoustic more often, I started wanting my acoustic strings to be closer together so it wasn’t such an adjustment moving back and forth. I found to that I developed a problem over the Charity of Night tour I started getting a problem with my right hand fingers, and what had happened is that because of the extra body depth – we’re only talking about a 1/2 inch but with a guitar that’s significant – the top corner of the guitar was pressing in the nerves in my forearm and over the 10 years that I’d played the guitar it had started to cause problems with the nerves in my arm. So I approached Linda about getting another one from her and she makes a kind of guitar that’s sort of wedge shaped – narrower on the bass side. You sacrifice some bottom end tone, acoustically, but no-one listens to guitars acoustically any more live anyway – very few people even know how to mic one anymore’ The wedge shaped one is not extra deep, mainly because survival is more important than the bass end! That’s what I used at Greenbelt – it’s slight, and not really noticeable to the casual observer, but it does have enough of a slope that it doesn’t put pressure on that particular spot. I knew this from playing the Dobro which has a very thin body and I wasn’t having any trouble playing that so duh! Make the connection, it’s obvious! But so ended up with the new Manzer, which I really love. As I said, it sacrifices a slight amount of bass tone acoustically, electrically, with the fishman pickup that’s in it, it sounds as good as any other guitar with a Fishman. Just the latest generation of piezo. It’s got a really nice neck – it’s a beautiful guitar to play.

– Mic and line in the studio?

Normally I would just mic it – we probably did some of it plugged in, but we never used it, it’s kind of more for safety – if we get a little noise on the mic, or we have to punch in…

But I don’t really like the sound of it plugged in when you don’t have to have it – it’s there live because there’s no other way, but the new Manzer is not what appears on the new album – that’s a Collings that I have that I’ve had for three years. It’s the one that like D28, big body. You hear that on the Charity of Night and on Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu, because the new Manzer was still too green – it hadn’t opened up yet’

– Electrics on the album?

On Blueberry Hill, it’s a black and cheesy Charvel Surfcaster, And a Strat that a friend gave me that she’d had lying around is doing a lot of the leads of the album.

– which artists have you seen recently that class as ‘ones to watch’?

Ani Defranco well enough known at this point that she’s not really one to watch unless you haven’t heard her yet in which case you’d better! But she’s to me the best thing happening now, in terms of acoustic style songwriters. And Kelly Joe Phelps is running right up there behind her. They’re both completely original really interesting players playing very different styles of music, but very distinctive in their approaches. For guitar players, Bill Frisell – he’s somebody that I would go out of my way to see live, and Marc Ribot – the Cubanos Postisos Record – that’s an incredible record. I saw him play in New York at one of those weird avant garde gigs and he was excellent – those are the kind of things that interest me. James Blood Ulmer is someone else that interests me greatly, and has done since the 80s.

– are you influenced by the avante garde?

I like stuff that’s out on the edge, I’ve always liked that. I’ve never seen myself as being there, but I’ve always wanted to be.

– Any plans to work with Jonatha Brooke again?

I’d love to, but there’s no plans to at the moment’ She’s a fantastic writer and singer and a great person. She’s someone who uses a lot of different tunings but really uses them interestingly and doesn’t just play the same thing from tuning to tuning. She’s got a great sense of sonority.

Tags: journalism

Creativity and Socially Networked Marketing – the good and the bad.

March 23rd, 2008 · Comments Off on Creativity and Socially Networked Marketing – the good and the bad.

So much is being written about the egalitarian nature of online distribution, it would be easy to believe that all our worries as wannabe professional musicians are now over. We all know that we can get a myspace page and a facebook music page, a reverbnation widget and a last.fm page, just like the big boys. We can also get our music onto iTunes and eMusic, Amazon and Rhapsody, just by sending a CD to CDBaby and paying them less than $40 to set it up. Easy, huh?

Well, not quite. It’s true that the music economy in the last couple of decades has shifted from hundreds of acts selling millions of records to millions of acts selling hundreds of downloads, but two things are still problematic – monetizing the attention that we’re given, and building online spaces where attention is available in units greater than 30 second chunks.

You see, the huge problem with the MySpace/Youtube/iTunes generation is that it favours instantaneous gratification. It favours music that ‘wows’ in the first few seconds over music that takes a while to grow – in much the same way that mainstream pop radio has done for decades. It’s just that now, it’s not just the top 40 sector that’s expected to fit that paradigm, it’s everyone. There’s no special version of myspace for people with long songs, where the listener knows that it’ll take a particular piece of music a good few minutes to get going and reveal its hidden magic.

It’s true that to a degree it has always been thus – playing music to your friends in a ‘hey, check this out!’ scenario has always been a less comfortable proposition if you’re introducing them to the magic of Steve Reich or Brian Eno’s Music For Airports than if you were letting them in on the hitherto-undiscovered-to-them genius of Chic or Duran Duran. Pop music is by its very nature more immediate.

No, the problem here is a slightly more insidious one – it’s that all of us, ‘pop’ acts and more difficult to classify musicians alike, are being encouraged to market what we do via these channels in the same way, and music lovers are being encouraged to look for it in that way, and it can have a negative effect on the way we create and the way we find the music we love.

The fantastic potential that Myspace/Youtube/iTunes gives us to connect with an audience that we’d previously have needed a record label and radio plugger to connect with is still largely bound up in the ‘instant gratification’ notion of where the value lies in a piece of music. 30 second previews of tracks are useless for through-composed or gradually evolving music. 30 seconds of just about anything by Michael Nyman or Philip Glass isn’t going to show where the piece goes as it unfolds over the course of minutes rather than seconds.

How do we deal with this? I think acknowledging it is the first part of the answer – once the influence has been ‘named’ we can see if for what it is, and hopefully recognise the difference between our own creative urge pushing us towards brevity or accessibility (certainly no bad thing if that’s where you’re leaning) and the crippling of a deeper more evolved sense of where a particular piece of music should be going out of a fear that it just won’t work on myspace.

Download culture is wonderful in that it frees us up from the limitations of length – in both directions – that vinyl/casette/cd/minidisc had – we can put out tiny short works and not feel like we need to pad it out to fill a CD, or we can release massive epic hours-long single pieces if that’s really where our muse is heading. There’s nothing to stop you putting out 10 hours of continuous music, other than the limitations of the download speed of the person trying to get hold of it. We’re no longer constrained by pressing cost or media size, but we are still subject to the evolution of the music-discovery culture, and we all need to be thinking hard about how we build a space where we encourage people to investigate music that takes many listens to sink in, music that doesn’t reveal any of its complex magic in a 30 second low-res preview, but given time will seep into our consciousness and affect us in a unique way.

We need filters. We need

  • people and
  • media-outlets and
  • blog groups and
  • socially networked advisors who will recommend great music to us in the way that magazines used to.

Magazines still provide some of that, but they are very limited in their scope, because they are beholden to their advertisers and the broadcast nature of what they do, so are constrained by the need to write about people their core readership already know about. Those people aren’t really our concern. The ones who already have a career, a fanbase, a stream of self-generating traffic to their sites and online store. Finding out about the new Nick Cave or Pat Metheny record is rarely going to prove difficult.

No, we need microfilter channels, groups of 5,10,20,50 friends who get excited about new music and do the research for eachother, in the same way that Google Reader lets us search out news and blog posts for eachother.

There are already music blogs like this – audioblogs that feature MP3s on a daily basis. Some of them are fabulous. Many of them are less helpful in that they are basically a mashup of bit-torrent and blogger.com – illegal giveaways of whole albums that don’t actually help the band because they direct no attention or traffic in their direction. I was talking with a guitarist friend in LA in January who found that only a week or so after his latest album had come out, someone was giving it away on an audioblog based in Holland. The sales in the first few weeks of any project are important because that’s when the publicity is focussed on, so to be offering illegal free downloads of an album that close to the release date is particularly galling.

The new currency online is attention. Time is valuable, and it is possible to monetize that, through sales of CDs, downloads, DVDs, t-shirts, gig tickets, teaching weekends, meet and greets, promotional spin-offs, advertising revenue. But directing attention is best done by communities, by trusted advisors, but bloggers and twitterers and facebookists and friends of friends who know their subject and seek out the best new music around and tell people about it. And do it because then their love for it is propogated, the artform and the creators are encouraged, make enough money to make the next record, and the cycle of soundtracking a part of our lives is completed and begun again.

BUT if you’re a musician, unless the career part of being a professional musician is more important to you than the musician part, all of that has to be at the service of getting the word out about YOUR art. That which you hold most dear. Not an advert for what you hold dear, not a truncated, MySpace-ized version of it, but the real deal, however dense, complex, mellow, subtle or otherwise it is. Which brings me back to a point I’ve made a few times on here before – BE THE KIND OF FAN YOU’D LIKE TO HAVE – musicians need to be using the attention they have from their audiene to share the love, to let their listeners know about the music they love. It’ll come back, karmic-stylee, and will solidify your position as a guru of great music, a person of taste and discernment and the hub of a music-loving community. That’s how we build RELATIONSHIPS with the people who connect with our art – relationships built on shared knowledge and an unfolding understanding of where our aesthetic tastes overlap…

That is, as the yanks like to say, all good.

Tags: cool links · New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

Masterclass tour finished – some thoughts on teaching…

March 21st, 2008 · 5 Comments

So the last four days have been spent touring the south of England giving masterclasses at branches of the The Academy Of Music And Sound – a chain of music schools that stretches the length of the UK, but is focussed around the south west and midlands.

Once a year they do a masterclass week, where they book two or three teachers in each of the instrumental disciplines they teach (bass, guitar, drums and vocals) to go round to the various centres and teach the students. I did it last year, they liked it, and so I was back doing it again this year.

I really love the masterclass format for teaching – being given a couple of hours in which to impart something of value to the students, hopefully something that’s different yet complimentary to what they are studying.

One thing that I decided years ago was that the ‘here’s how to play this song’ or ‘here’s how to do this technical thing’ approach was a bit of a waste of time, as it gave them one thing to learn, but because the situation is pretty much ‘hit and run’ it was a rather closed way to teach, as there’s no follow up.

So instead I look to help shape the way they think about the process of learning. How we learn is at least as important as what we learn, and I’m fascinated by what it is that makes a student want to teach them self. I try to impart a love of learning to my students, so that the question of ‘motivation’ is dealt with in their own practice room, rather than being something that is imposed in a lesson… Making people feel guilty for not practicing seems to be entirely counter-productive to me, given that a) there are loads of great reasons not to have practiced in any given week, b) it’s my job to inspire them to WANT to practice, not berate them when my ability to inspire falls short, and c) the consequences of not practicing are felt in the frustration of not improving, and the guilt of disappointing ME by not practicing is just a red herring…

So what do I talk about? Well, in this series of classes I started out be defining what I mean by ‘Bass 2.0’ in describing what I do – the idea that for much of the history of the instrument, the bass guitar has been defined by the role it takes in pop music, limiting it to what it ‘should’ do, rather than allowing your imagination to explore what’s possible. That’s Bass 1.0. Bass 2.0 detaches the lump of wood and magnets and graphite and strings that is ‘the bass guitar’ from any preconceptions about what it ‘should’ do and instead explores what’s possible with it, just thinking of it as a sound-source, albeit one where the craftsmen making a lot of basses have maximised its physical properties to emphasise that low end function…

The reason for that as a starting point is that it gets us thinking about music first – the instrument becomes a vehicle, a voice, a medium for channeling the music we hear in our heads.

And where does that music come from? What is it about the music that we love, that we’re proper FANS of, that amazes us, wows us, makes us buy t-shirts and posters, makes us dress like the band and pay lots of extra cash for the limited edition boxed set, rather than putting up with the phone-cam footage on youtube?

Thinking about music from that point of view causes us to consider the importance of music and to readjust our sights: It makes us want our music to have that significance. To write music that changes the world. Whether or not your music actually changes the world is moot, and certainly no concern of anyone else but you. The point is to aim to be to our audience what the music that changed our life is to us. To write and play music that makes them feel the way we feel when we’re willing to travel a hundred miles and pay £50 a ticket to see the band.

Why? Because anything short of that is selling ourselves short, and that kind of impact doesn’t happen by accident. You can’t MAKE it happen, any more than you can make yourself successful, but showing up is vital, being on the right journey, aiming in the right direction, focussing on the things that matter – it may well not happen even if you do all that, but it’ll definitely not happen if you don’t, and for us as musicians the journey is the goal. We can only influence the journey not the destination.

So we aim to change the world. We aim to soundtrack the lives of our audience. How on earth do we do that, given that it’s impossible to second-guess what our audiences want or need or will ‘get’. We soundtrack our own world and invite people to share the soundtrack. The only person in the entire world whose feelings I can assess with any level of accuracy or intimacy are my own. So my process for writing music is to write the music that I want to hear, that I need to hear, that soundtracks the world in a way that helps me make sense of it. And I then invite people to share in that.

Lots of people won’t get it, won’t like it, and that’s fine – I’m not really concerned with whether or not they like it. Marketing this stuff is about giving people an opportunity to hear it and an entry point to understanding where it’s coming from. Beyond that, you let go.

So given that as an aim, our approach to learning the instrument is two fold – we’re developing AWARENESS and CONTROL. An awareness of what music can do, how it makes us feel, how it relates to our world, and then the control to make that happen, to produce that music. To have an awareness of the nuance of a particular style/song/instrument/amplifier etc, and to develop the technical ability to utilise that nuance to make you feel the way that music should make you feel.. The sound with which we make music is like our language and accent – if I screw up the grammar when I’m speaking, it obscures the thought I’m trying to communicate. If my accent is so thick that native speakers struggle to understand me, they’re not going to be drawn in by my thoughts as easily as if I spoke in a clear and compelling style.

So our technical instrumental ability is about developing that clarity, skill, breadth and depth. About learning how to be compelling, convincing, and emotive. Impressing people with instrumental skill isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not everything, any more than long words carry any intrinsic importance. Great orators are wonderful to listen to, but stand or fall on the ideas they are communicating. Same with musicians – great technicians are a joy to hear, but if the music itself isn’t there, we’re going to switch off.

And our technical practice becomes more important, not less, it’s just no longer an end in itself. Context becomes paramount, dexterity and speed become subservient to nuance, control and expressive articulation. New technical ideas stand or fall on their ability to add to your sonic palette in a meaningful way.

Of course, none of this means anything – nor should it – to the people listening to what you do. They’re either going to dig it or not dig it. It doesn’t mean you’re a genius if they do dig it, and it doesn’t mean your shit if they don’t. It’s all about the journey not the destination, and you’re inviting listeners to share in that, to take from it that which makes sense to them, that which enhances the sound-world they live in.

So in a masterclass situation, I encourage the students to want to change the world, to love their instrument and its history but to remember that that’s vital to them but not to the people they’re playing to. I exhort them to listen and learn and play and improvise and write as though their life depended on it. To be mindful of what they want from music, what they want it to do for them, and to work towards that. To see the world of music as a big sand-pit to play in rather than a business venture to succeed in or a body of knowledge that needs ‘conquering’ before their contribution is validated.

What does music mean to you when you’re not playing it? How can you make music that makes you feel the way that music makes you feel? There’s a process in there, a journey, a whole load of exploration and mistakes and discovery and joy and frustration and great gigs and crap gigs and hours on your own in a room practicing and days spent wrestling with ideas in a band. Do it because you love it, because it’s too important to ignore, and don’t listen to the voices of those who WANT to dislike it. Screw ’em.

And somewhere in all that I demonstrate a load of right hand tonal variations, play a couple of tunes – on this trip, having Lobelia with me made SUCH a difference, being able to demo some of the concepts in a song rather than an instrumental. We played Black Hole Sun, looped the vocals, and I then talked about how we listen to music when we can’t see it – on the radio nobody cares that I’m playing a fretless bass. they’re only going to notice if I go out of tune. It just has to be ‘good’ – and make them laugh, answer questions and invariably explain how an ebow works.

And all that in two hours. :o)

Is there any of this you’d like me to expand on? Add it in the comments below. And if you were at one of the classes, feel free to contribute here, or over in the forum.

Tags: bass ideas · Music News · Musing on Music · teaching news · tips for musicians

Managing information streams (Pt 1)

March 7th, 2008 · 7 Comments

This will (I think) be the first in a series of posts about this, mainly because it’s an ongoing struggle and area of conceptual development.

So, I’ll start by saying where my problem lies – a lot of the stuff online about being overwhelmed by email starts by talking about spam. Apart from when I’ve had my domain-name spoofed by spammers and suddenly had 3000 ‘user not known’ replies, spam has never been a big problem for me. If you’ve got your email on a dedicated server, then there are various very effective and ‘teachable’ spam filters out there. the Gmail one seems pretty damned good too. (if you’re still using Hotmail as your primary email interface, you’re probably sorting through spam now and not reading this…)

So, what is my problem with email? it’s largely two fold – one, it’s filtering the mass of information I get on a subject so that I get only the best information, and two, it’s how to process info as it comes in.

I’m on a few different email discussion lists, which are seeming increasingly anachronistic as a way of doing group interaction. With the web forums I read, I tend to browse via keywords in the search box on the really busy ones, and glance at the recent posts every few days on the less busy ones. That doesn’t take long, and means I can track where the things I’m interested in are being mentioned. I also have google alerts, and technorati alerts for certain words cropping up in other places. But the email ones still take time to filter.

I get a fair bit of info that relates to gigs and teaching that tends to get lost as I put it to one side while I consider what to do with it, or juggle my diary so I can fit it all in… then someone emails me and says ‘are we still on for tomorrow’s lesson?’ and I panic as I try to make it all fit… so I need a new system there, for sure. the Search box in Macmail helps a lot, as I can just do a search for ‘lessons’ or ‘tuition’ to find all the bass lesson related stuff… Maybe I should try the ‘smart mailbox’ thing.

My other big problem with email is that replying quickly creates an expectation that this is your norm, so people use email for things that are urgent. I REALLY need to get away from that… Tim Ferris has written some really useful stuff on this topic here

Anyway, I’ve not got very far with managing my information, have I (though I did just go and unsub from a couple of lists I receive but never read, so that’s good…) – as my friend Karen would say ‘Land the plane, Steve!!’

It’s about filtering. I’ve written about this WRT music recently, but it applies equally to information – the problem isn’t a lack of it, it’s a lack of quality control. If I want to keep track of what’s happening in the bass-world, I could spend all day every day reading stuff on forums, blogs, email lists, digests…. And even for an info-geek like me, less than 3 or 4% of it is useful or even particularly interesting. So I need to be able to target my info. Here are a couple of suggestions for how WE can do it.

#1 – collaborate – if you want filters, be a filter. Google shared items is such an amazing way to get someone else to filter for you. I’ve read SO many great stories that I’d have missed thanks to following Jeff Schmidt and Jyoti Mishra‘s shared items. Some of the blogs I them subscribe to, often I just leave it to them to filter them for me.

Same goes for futuremusictalk.com – a GENIUS filter for stuff about the future of the industry. Not all the info, just most of the best info. And it gets better every time sarda tweaks it. He’s a genius, and lovely, and very busy, not surprisingly.

So using ready-made filters (here are my shared items for those of you who want them) – let others do the legwork.

If you have a very specific search criteria, use Google Blogsearch – put the searc term in, then grab the feed. Google rules. Technorati provide a similar service, but it’s hopelessly flakey…

So, get google reader, and start sharing – let me know when you do, and I’ll watch what you’re linking to… and then…

#2 – be ruthless. If you subscribe to a feed that you find yourself continually paging down past, delete it. Don’t clutter your reader. get rid of it, and let the google blog or news search watch it for you for keywords. (note to self, must see if google blogsearch can handle boolean commands). Don’t put up with duplicate feeds – if you subscribe to a feed that is fed straight into futuremusictalk.com, delete the feed (with some blogs, including mine, only certain posts are cross-posted. With others more specific blogs, everything is aggregated there). I did this recently with news feeds – the beeb cross post a lot of articles to world and UK news, so I deleted one of them. Same with the guardian. strip it back, get the info you need, don’t sweat about missing some stuff – if it’s that good, someone else will share it anyway (thanks Jyoti for the political filter stuff – you rule!)

#3 – set limits. This is the bit I’m worst at, and the bit that from next week is going to get experimental. Have set times for this stuff, then click ‘all read’ – use the starring thing in google reader (do you get the idea that I think Google Reader ROCKS??) to come back to things at a later date, or share it then go read your own feed… But stick to them. I’m definitely writing this for myself now, I’m terrible at this. One thing I’ve started to do is not have feeds loading in the background. Using FluidApp.com I’ve turned Google Reader into it’s own application. I read, then close it, so its not giving me alerts all the time. I read it like a newspaper in the morning or evening. I also set my email to only check once every 30 mins, so I do it in batches. Soon, I’m hoping to switch to twice a day email too… we’ll see if that works.

And here’s the clincher, and the link to the next post (later) – I’m using twitter to do a lot of my filtering. Twitter deserves its own post, but so far my online presence has gone through the roof as a result of using it (even with a fairly modest number of followers) but I actually spend LESS time on that than I used to on forums, IM and email… next post will explain how and why.

I hope that lot helps – PLEASE post suggestions – I’m still working this one out. Blog about it, and post a link in the comments, ask questions if I’m using geek terms you don’t get. This shit is important because it threatens to swamp our time to be human, creative and alive. Help me out here…

Tags: cool links · Geek · Managing Information Streams · New Music Strategies · Random Catchup · tips for musicians · website recommendations

Bluffing…

February 15th, 2008 · 1 Comment

I just watched the following video on Myspace – a hilarious clip of Fred Armisen going for an audition that he clearly has no place being at –

And it reminded me of when I did a very similar thing, albeit slightly more unwittingly. Back in about 1996/97, I had just moved back to London from Lincoln, and was just about eking out a living teaching (still driving back up to Lincoln one day a week) and living in a house where I was sharing a room as that’s all I could afford.

A friend of mine who had just left a gig as an on-stage musician in the west end told me that they were auditioning for the role of Buddy Holly’s bassist in ‘Buddy!’ the musical, and suggested I go for it. He seemed to think that the fact that I’d spent less than 10 minutes in my life with a double bass in my hands, couldn’t really sing and had no clue how to do an american accent wasn’t going to be a hindrance and that I should go for it.

So I went round to a friend’s house to try her double bass, did about 15 minutes and thought ‘that’ll do’. And then worked out two songs to sing, which were (I shit you not), ‘Looking For The Heart Of Saturday Night’ and ‘I Fought The Law’, both with electric bass accompaniment (despite there being no electric bass in the show).

The audition itself, fortunately, was a one at a time affair, not a big casting call. So I went in, onto the stage, with two blokes sat in the audience, plugged in my bass, and played (well) and sang (terribly) my two songs, then they said ‘can you play some double bass for us?’, so I picked up the double bass that was on the stage. It had action a mile high, and felt like a different scale length to the one I’d tried. I played a couple of really shitty rock ‘n’ roll walking basslines – I must’ve sounded like some 12 year old in a music shop, trying an instrument he’d never played…

They called me down to where they were sat, and gave me a script to read ‘it’s a southern US accent we need’. So I launch into it, trip over the words, get the emphasis wrong, and worst of all drift from really appalling new york jewish accent to californian surf-bum and back to ridiculous cowboy. The kind of american accent that makes Dick Van Dyke’s cockney sound like he grew up in Plaistow.

Thinking back, I’m surprised they didn’t either laugh or punch me in the face for wasting their time.

The only other time I’d ever felt quite so HOPELESSLY out of my depth was my audition for Salford University when I was 18. I’d driven down to Manchester the night before, so Martin and I could go and see Ocean Colour Scene at the International 3 [side note – this was before their first album came out, and they were, in all seriousness, one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen – hard to believe given the terraces rock they morphed into later…] – we slept in the car, and drove into Manchester the next morning, where I bought my first ever jazz records (a Coltrane live in Europe album called ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, Mingus Plays Duke and a Bill Evans Trio album called ‘Autumn Leaves’ that was actually an edit from ‘Live At The Village Vanguard’…) then went out to Salford for the interview.

I got there and there was a guitar player sat outside the interview room playing King’s X tunes. He was, to me then, amazing. I was REALLY bad at working out songs off records; I had no ear for it at all. So hearing this guy play all this stuff was the first point at which I thought ‘hmmm, maybe I shouldn’t have rated myself quite so highly on their pre-audition questionnaire’.

Anyway, I was eventually called in, played my two solo pieces, REALLY badly – mistakes, out of tune, everything that could have gone wrong short of pissing myself did. They then did an ear test, and I had no idea how to pick out intervals, didn’t know what a compound interval was, bollocksed up the reading test… by this point I half expected then to invoice me for an hour of wasted time… I was asked how I thought it went and said ‘frankly, shit’, and they smiled and said ‘we’ll let you know’.

…fast forward 15 years, and I’ve done two masterclasses at that same uni. So maybe one day I’ll be playing rockabilly slap upright on a west end stage, you never can tell…

Tags: Musing on Music · Random Catchup

Back teaching in London next week…

February 1st, 2008 · Comments Off on Back teaching in London next week…

Having extended my stay in NYC for a few days due to not wanting to fly while ill, I’ll now be back in London next Tuesday, and will start back teaching pretty soon after that…

So if you to book in any bass lessons, either at my place, or with me coming to you, please drop me a line and we’ll get it sorted out!

Teaching is one of the things I miss most when I’m away. Having regular time to teach, to apply my brain to the problem of working out what’s getting in the way of my students’ musical flow and coming up with creative ways around that, and ways to inspire them to find the music inside themselves provides a great rhythm to my week, and keeps my brain thinking about creating music even when the rest of my music life is taken up with trying to book gigs and sort out the logistics of making a living as a musician…

See you soon, lovely students!

Tags: teaching news

California part II

January 27th, 2008 · Comments Off on California part II

NAMM was over as soon as it began. It was definitely one of my favouritest NAMM shows ever. Getting to play all the Looperlative demos (and a Modulus demo) with Lo. and getting to hang out and play a lot with Claudio was just great. Having set times to play at Looperlative made the days much easier to plan, and thanks to a food intolerance, we didn’t make any trips over to Subway (about a 45 minute round trip), so stayed nearer the convention centre for food and coffee, thus giving us more time on the show floor.

As usual, the magic of NAMM was in the lovely peoples – the rest of it is 100,000 music gear makers and sellers lying to each other for a weekend to the atonal accompaniment of slap bass, poorly executed paradiddles and 80s guitar shredding. Thankfully, in 10 years of visiting NAMM, I’ve accumulated a circle of friends and acquaintances so lovely and so numerous that there were quite a few I didn’t get to see this year, or saw for such a brief time that it was actually more frustrating than not seeing them at all! So for those of you that I missed, I’m REALLY sorry. Hopefully we’ll be out in CA in the summer for some stuff – watch this space…

It was a really great NAMM for Looperlative, partly because most of the ‘competition’ were conspicuously absent from the show, but largely just because in its third NAMM show, the product has proved itself, there’s a solid user base who swear by it, Bob’s proved he can do the customer service and support required for a product in that market and price range and a lot of people are realising that to get a dedicated laptop looping set up that’s stable enough for stage usage, fast enough for low latency audio, and especially if you want to use it for processing your sound too, costs a heck of a lot of money. The software part of it may be a free download, but trying to run a looper on a laptop alongside all your other stuff and expect it to not crap out on you on tour is asking a heck of a lot from your gear… 2008 could end up being an amazing year for Looperlative…

In other gear news, Accugroove launched a new amp, that sounded great, and certainly bodes well for the hopefully-finally-on-the-way powered cabinets…

From NAMM, we spent a day in and around LA with Claudio and Alex Machacek – who inevitably found that had hundreds of friends and musical acquaintances in common. Alex gave us a copy of his new album, Improvision, a trio record with Matthew Garrison and Jeff Sipe. Really amazing stuff.

Then it was the long drive north to Oakland for a couple of days with Michael Manring, before our last gig of the tour at Don Quixote’s in Felton, near Santa Cruz. Things were looking really great attendance-wise before the show – threads on discussion boards with folks arranging to meet up at the show. Then the weather went to shit, and a snow and ice warning quite understandably curtailed the travel plans of quite a few people. And yet we still managed to pull a decent crowd, and played some of the most satisfying music I’ve been a part of in ages. I started the show solo, then Lo. joined me for a duo set, then after the break was Michael solo, then he and I duo, and finally a trio improv piece. The improv stuff both duo and trio felt really really great, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the video and hearing the recordings that were taken on the night… we’ll see if there’s anything useable in there… Also worth a mention is that the soundman at the venue, a guy called Lake, was one of the finest club engineers we’d ever worked with. A really friendly guy, with great working gear, and just fantastic sound! It was one of the best sounds I’ve ever heard Michael have, and the on-stage sound was amazing too… it makes all the difference.

And then we flew back to Ohio, and both Lo and I fell ill. Proper ill. Fever and shaking ill. Yesterday was a wash-out – having hardly slept on an overnight flight, I slept pretty much all day, and then all night too. Feeling much better today.

So tomorrow we drive to New York, and I fly home on Wednesday – feel free to email me now if you want to sort out teaching stuff for when I’m back! :o) It’s time to start booking some UK gigs now too.

Tags: Uncategorized

busy busy busy

December 12th, 2007 · Comments Off on busy busy busy

It’s all go here!

We’ll start with last weekend – two gigs, Saturday/Sunday.

Saturday’s was a gig with Lobelia in Brighton at the Sanctuary Cafe, opening for MAP – that’s and Peter Harris – both incredible acoustic guitarists, writers of sublime melodies and fantastic performers. Also on the bill before us was a marvellous singer/songwriter, Conrad Vingoe – as well as having one of the most rock ‘n’ roll names ever (not much chance of that domain name being taken), he writes great songs and has a gorgeous voice. All good. ‘Twas a small crowd, but the venue was intimate and sounded good, the people lovely and a fine time was had by all… I’ll put photos from it up on Flickr soon.

Sunday’s gig was back at Smollensky’s with Luca Sirianni, this time with Sophie Alloway on drums. The gig with Luca is becoming a fairly regular thing, and a whole lot of fun – the chance to play a lot of pop/latin/jazz tunes, do some interesting arrangements, get funky and get paid (a bit). Luca’s a fine guitarist, who does enough ‘dinner jazz’ gigs to know just the right kind of things to play, but also likes to stretch out, improvise and have some fun. It was the first time I’d played with Sophie, and she was a treat to play with – not having come the usual ‘3 years at music school’ route, she plays with the maturity of a player who’s been gigging twice as long as she has, because she learnt on gigs. One of my main gripes with so many drummers is the don’t listen well – they establish a beat and stick with it, instead of letting the grooves grow and expand. Sophie listened really well, and also – crucially – understood the space a drummer has to occupy in a trio. As usual, I hit my stride about half way through the second set, but that’s the price I pay for not playing with drummers often enough…

…Though that’s not the case right now – I’m in the middle of a really fun recording session with Patrick Wood and Roy Dodds – if you saw the last Recycle gig, you’ll know this is a pretty special trio… We spent most of yesterday setting up, but got about 20 minutes of amazing music recorded last night, and will spend much of today on it as well… except the time that I’m teaching – thanks to my going away for Christmas and January to the US, I’m having to fit in as much teaching as possible before I go, partly because lots of students want lessons before I go and partly because I need to earn as much as I can in order to be able to pay my rent, and renew my car tax in january…

in between all that, I’m booking things to do in the US (masterclasses and gigs in California), sorting out my tax return (spending a lot of time buried under piles of receipts) and somewhere this week, I need to fit in a few hours to record some tracks for an italian electronica project that I’ve been meaning to record some stuff for for over a year, and HAVE to have done before Christmas…

Add to that regular trips to the post office to send off CD orders for the new EP and people ordering other stuff as christmas presents, and you’ve got yourself one seriously overworked Stevie.

Roll on Ohio…

Tags: Music News · Random Catchup · teaching news