New Single – Recorded Yesterday, Out Today!

Right, I just released a single. When I woke up this morning, I hadn’t planned to. What I had planned to do was to mix the track I recorded last night. Like everything I do, it’s a one take, unedited improvised performance. All the drums are played and looped live rather than being a pre-existing loop, and everything else is bass. The field recording was triggered during the performance, rather than added afterwards. So everything is happening in response to everything else. Here it is:

I mixed it today, experimenting with getting a really huge low end on the synth and the kick, and loved the way it came out. So as well as adding it to the subscriber-only album Stepping Stones, which is gathering together all the things I’m recording towards releasing a new solo album and making them available as they happen to subscribers, I thought I’d put this out as a separate single so everyone else can have it too 🙂

All of this music is released as episodes in an unfolding story. I’m less interested in how it fares as a standalone entity, and am more interested in it as an emblem, an avatar, a signpost of where I’m going and what I’m up to. That’s why the subscription is my focus. Convincing you that a particular album is worth buying is way less interesting to me than inviting you into the process of it all happening, and forming a community around that. if that’s interesting to you too, check out my Bandcamp subscription.

It’s a ‘pay what you want’ release, so you can pay or not as you feel able/inspired, or you can subscribe and get everything I put out in the next 12 months, plus 48 albums from my back catalogue. And if you subscribe before the weekend, you’ll get the new LEYlines album, LEYlines IV, included. After that, you’d have to buy that separately...

I love living in a world where music can be made and released in a matter of hours – it’s about 14 hours absolute start to release with this. If you want to play it on the radio, or do anything else with it like that, please feel free – let me know if you need more info…

And the title? That came from a Tweet by Vernon Reid. 🙂

New LEYlines Album Out Now – LEYlines IV – with Two Ways To Get It

Phi Yaan-Zek, Andy Edwards and myself are LEYlines. Or we do LEYlines. I’m not sure whether LEYlines is an entity or a process, but whatever it is, LEYlines is us and/or how we make music 🙂

And we have a brand new live album out, recorded at Tower Of Song in Birmingham in 2017. This is the first set, and the second set will be out next month, as LEYlines V! And there are two ways you can get it:

Firstly, it’s out as a stand-alone Bandcamp release via Phi Yaan-Zek’s page: that’s where you can listen to it and buy it, and Phi’s running a special offer to get LEYlines V with it too (when it’s out next month). Here it is, hit play and stream it while you read the rest of this:

Alternatively you can get it as a subscriber to me on Bandcamp – it comes with different artwork (pictured), and as a single track instead of being chopped up Phi-style, but it’s the same music.

BUT you’ll need to subscribe this week, cos next week, it’ll cease to be part of the back catalogue offer for new subscribers – all existing subscribers will keep it (there’s no mechanism within Bandcamp for taking stuff back – it’s yours forever once you’ve got it!) but this won’t be part of the bundle you get for signing up after the weekend. If you want it then, you’ll have to buy it from Phi even if you subscribe at a later date…

So, go check it out, then have a look at stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe for the rest of the info on the Subscription. It’ll be more than worth your time and money 😉

Photos From The Second Stourbridge Festival Of Improvised Music

I had the great pleasure yesterday of playing at the Second Stourbridge Festival Of Improvised Music – I went to the first one last year as an audience member, and took Flapjack along. We had an amazing day, so I was delighted to be asked to play this year. I got to play alongside some absolutely stellar musicians, including Paul Dunmall, Steve Tromans, Bruce Coates, Sarah Farmer, Xhosa Cole, Trevor Lines – people whose playing I’ve been a fan of for a long time.

Of course, I also took my camera, so here are a few pictures – hopefully I’ll have more gigs with these amazing musicians soon 🙂

2nd Stourbridge Festival Of Improvised Music

The End Of The Age Of The Guitar?

This is a thing that’s been touted in the music press (and apocalyptically amongst music gear manufacturers) for years but it really does feel like we’re at the end of the age when guitars are the dominant icon of popular music. It’s not that people aren’t still playing them, and making both brilliant and utterly tedious music with them, just that they no longer play the totemic role in the visual semiotics of what ‘rock n roll’ looks like any more.

Three tales from Glastonbury to make the point – 0n Friday night, Stormzy headlined (BBC iPlayer link if you’re in the UK). His set was alternately a classic MC+DJ Grime set and a MASSIVE theatrical soul/gospel/grime/funk extravaganza with live band, dancers, dudes on mountain bikes, and an irony-free appearance by Chris Martin with a real Fender Rhodes. The music was heavy, complex, beautiful, and more rhythmically advanced than ANY guitar band that have ever headlined the festival. Grime is a music form developed in bedrooms, clubs and pirate radio stations. To transfer it to a festival headline slot took some monster skills and vision. The first Grime star to cross over like that was Dizzy Rascal, but he took on the predominantly white festival audience by working with shred-guitar-genius Guthrie Govan. He met them half way. Stormzy gave no quarter. It was an astonishing show, but there was no pandering to the expectations of a white rock-loving crowd.

Two – The Comet Is Coming, (iPlayer link) a sax, drums, keys trio featuring the great Shabaka Hutchings. Heavy riffage, ecstatic posturing, drum solos, hypnotic grooves. Not a computer gig at all but not a guitar-shaped instrument to be seen.

Three – Kate Tempest: performance poet and rapper, on stage with just a keyboard player/DJ, controlling all the beats and playing the most sublimely responsive minimalist keyboard parts. Utterly compelling, engaging, enthralling, and HEAVY in the broadest sense, but with nothing of the visual semiotics of a rock gig at all. Just talking/rapping and mellow keys. Brilliant and brave.

I’ve just finished teaching the first year of a creative performance technology course at BIMM here in Birmingham, in which students get to explore a wide range of ways to enhance their performance with technology (or completely upend their preconceived ideas about what performance even is). In amongst the final pieces we only had one ‘band’ performance, and two that used guitar as part of an otherwise electronically/digitally mediated performance, making use of the Ableton Push 2 controller. Gone are the days when ‘tech’ meant either decks or a DAT, with software and hardware options existing to create interactive performance tools for creative artists, and allow for as much improv and spontaneity as you could have with a ‘normal’ band.

My own performing set up is built entirely for improv, around choices, differing vocabularies and a variability that means I can choose from a suitably wide and nuanced range of places to start, and nothing can ever happen the same way twice. Despite bass still being my beloved instrument, the role of the bass is now as a component within a larger instrument, comprised of all my tech. It’s not the iconic emblem of rock in this context (I sit down to play, FFS! 🙂 ) It’s transformed and manipulated, and those vestiges of expectation become a useful foil for surprise and intrigue for an audience hopefully encountering sounds and ideas that are both entertaining and stimulating…

It’s weird, in a field (literally, at Glastonbury) that they used to OWN, bands with just four white dudes playing guitar, bass, drums and singing often feel almost hopelessly anachronistic if they don’t have something else to set them apart, and just standing there holding a Les Paul no longer seems to carry the same social or cultural cache it once did…

The value proposition has changed, and the range of possible start points for music making presented to young people who want to make pop music have expanded immeasurably. Arguably, it’s been that way to some degree since the advent of turntablism and sampling in the 80s, but guitars were still the orthodoxy, still the icon, the emblem, the badge, the logo.

Not any more? Not in my world. And I’m glad for the change. Western culture has moved on, we just need to make sure all of music education and retail keeps up!

(That said, I’m still REALLY looking forward to The Cure on Sunday night 🙂 ) 

Music For Patient People In Hurried Times – An Exercise In Futility?

As part of a module that I’ve just finished teaching, I’ve had to spend a fair amount of time thinking about the ways that the context within which we experience music impacts both how people listen and how musicians make their art.

Streaming services have provided one of the biggest changes to the way many, many people listen in modern times, for a number of reasons. Lowering the barrier to access such vast quantities of music brings with it the potential for option paralysis – not knowing where to start when looking for music – and also the desire to browse, either through a lack of trust in your ability to make a worthy commitment to a particular album (‘what if I’m listening to the wrong thing??’) or just ‘because it’s there’ – the world is full of incredible music, why not try and hear as wide a range of it as possible?

The finite nature of paid-for record, CD, tape and MP3 collections came with a built-in slowly expanding set of music that we got to know over time, and the financial commitment often led to us spending more time on an album that we maybe didn’t connect with immediately, but had spent the money on so we were really going to give it time to settle in before admitting we’d wasted a tenner on it… That’s less of an issue when everything else is just a click away for no additional cost, and those albums are co-present with thematic, generated playlists that can often be experienced as more appropriate for a particular activity or context than whatever the motivation was for a particular band to sequence their album a certain way.

The social utility of music has always been a key factor in both its commercial success and the amount of time we end up committing to a particular recording, but now that those social functions can be outsourced to an algorithm, we can pull up playlists for writing, sleeping, partying, exercising, walking, driving and anything else that comes to mind…

On the other side of this equation, we have an economic environment where Spotify (and I’m assuming the other streaming platforms) pay out ‘per track’ rather than based on a per-minute royalty allocation (which is how radio works), and that you need to get 30 seconds into a track for it to be paid out on… So for artists, it makes precisely zero sense to make 40 minute ambient songs and put them on Spotify. That’s a single royalty payment for one track for a person listening to your entire album. Which when compared to an album with 20 or more tracks on, as is the case with many artists from grindcore (the reissue of Scum by Napalm Death has 56 tracks on it, though 8 of them are too short to get paid for ) to hip hop beat tapes and mixtapes ( J Dilla’s legendary Donuts beat tape has 31 tracks) – trends towards loads of short tracks paying way more than artists who record long tracks are inevitable, and deeply understandable when the payouts are already perceived as so small. It also stands to reason that packing the front end of a song with hooks is more likely to keep people listening who are browsing than a song with a long intro might. I can’t really imagine Halls And Oates’ She’s Gone being considered a smart production choice for a single in 2019…

So, is it insane to still record and release long, involved, complex music in the age of 45 second songs on streaming platforms?
Of course not! For a number of reasons – firstly, your art is your art, and you (I!) need to make the music that you feel needs to exist in the world. I’ve already massively limited my potential audience by being an improvising instrumental solo bass guitarist. That’s pretty damn niche however you slice it. And because it’s niche-by-design, I only need a TINY number of people – in the grand scheme of things – to make it viable. I’m not trying to top charts, win awards, get on the cover of magazines (that happened by accident 😉 ), I just want to keep making the music that matters to me. And the few hundred people I need to be interested in what I’m doing in order to make it viable are statistically insignificant in terms of the wider music industries. The demographic that will find what I do interesting, and have the patience to listen to music that requires time and attention to full encounter is not the same that is skipping through the 25 tracks on the new Migos or Kanye album while deciding which playlist to skip to next and showing up in the data analysis that Spotify are doing of the top 40 most listened to artists that month…

Global trends in music are of almost no significance to what you do as an artist unless you’re trying to have hits. While Bandcamp are still paying out over $9 Million dollars a month to artists, that’s an album buying audience that you can pursue strategically, while ignoring the bits of the economy that patently don’t work for you. Lots of artists have seen a drop in sales over the years, that’s true. But my observation is that VERY few have tried to meet their audience in the middle in any meaningful way. Charging £10 for an album is hardly a strong enticement to steer towards download sales instead of that same £10 providing access to Spotify’s vast catalogue ad-free for a month… And of course, the best way to talk about fandom is to demonstrate what fandom looks like. My Bandcamp fan account is as much a part of my Bandcamp economy as my artist page…

What you may find you have to do is make the case for people listening to you before they actually listen to you. That’s the job that used to played (and is still to some degree played) by radio, magazines, reviews, etc… But there are way more artists than there are media outlets, so you need to be prepared to tell that story yourself. It may be that you use streaming platforms to build that interest in your work – there are a ton of strategic uses between ‘all’ and ‘nothing’. I chose to put nothing on streaming platforms because the context for my work is deeply important to me – it needs to have the writing and the conversation attached. I’m genuinely not interested in having a faceless, unknown audience. I like being in a position to talk to them, and get to know what they like… That’s not the only way to be, it’s just what works for me, and I’ve found my tribe of patient, curious listeners, and I test their resolve by releasing more music than most of them can keep up with 🙂

But the community is growing every week – it’s steady growth, and it went past the point at which it was sustaining of my music practice quite a while ago. It’s never going to make me rich, and may never end up being a thing that I can live on exclusively (though it would only take another few hundred subscribers a year for that to be the case… 🙂 ) but it makes more music possible, and that’s what matters. To me. To make the same amount on Spotify as I have on Bandcamp over the last decade, it would’ve taken over 11 million streams. That would’ve required landing tracks on high ranking playlists, which would require making music targeted at high ranking playlists… That pull towards algorithmic homogenisation is not one I find useful or interesting as a listener or a music maker, so I’ll continue to experiment in other directions, and invite listeners to come with me.

If you want to find out more, head over to stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe

Streaming Exclusive – Steve Lawson and Michael Manring album!

Yesterday was Michael Manring’s birthday (Happy birthday Michael!)

To celebrate, I’m making our duo album – which is still only available to own via my Bandcamp subscription – streamable for a limited time. Here it is:

“Language Is A Music” was recorded at a house concert in San Jose on January 29th 2012 – it was, like everything Michael and I have ever played together, entirely improvised – no discussion of start points etc. (I wasn’t even sure we were going to play an entire duo show – when we got to Bob and Kelly’s house and were setting up, I said ‘shall we do solo sets and then some duo playing at the end?’ and Michael said ‘nah, let’s just play it all duo!’ – I think we did a solo tune or two each somewhere in there, but this was the bulk of the show!) 

If you want to get this album, along with 47 (or so) others, and everything else I release in the coming year, subscribe via Bandcamp.

 

The End Of An Era- Finishing A Teaching Job

So yesterday was my last day of one of my teaching jobs. It’s one I’d had for about 6 years (my longest ever non-self employed job), and one that was the beginning of my return to teaching actual courses rather than one-off masterclasses after a break of over a decade.

The real joy of it was working with these guys:

Phi Yaan-Zek and Andy Edwards are both such excellent teachers and musicians, and between us I don’t think we had a single conversation in the 6 years I was there that wasn’t on some level about how we could making teaching better. It was such a joy to work with these guys on trying to come up with innovative methods to help music students connect with their creativity in ways that were conscious of the cultural and economic environment they were moving into, but not deterministically bound by those constraints when considering the role of creative practice in changing culture… We were constantly looking for ways to inspire the students to dig deep into themselves and pursue something other than purely commercial measures of meaning and value for their work. And, judging by the parade of extraordinary creative people we helped release back into the wild, we did OK.

The context wasn’t ideal – HE in the UK is a tough area to work in right now wherever you are, all the moreso in a provincial college with no underlying commitment to creative practice or focus on the arts. We, like everyone else around the country in the many, many institutions like ours, were constantly trying to make something worthwhile for the students. There were times when we were REALLY good at that, and times when we struggled, but we still punched (and the course continues to punch) WELL above our weight in terms of the circumstances we were (are) in. The course wasn’t reliant on me for what made it good (Andy’s extraordinary legacy in inspiring music students in the West Midlands stretches back decades before he met me!), so will continue to provide a worthwhile education to the students there. And, while there’s a ton of nonsense that I won’t miss at all about being there, I’ll dearly miss these guys, and Meldra, who more recently came on board to teach the vocalists, and brought so much wisdom and experience to the team.

If you’re paying attention, you’ll know that Phi, Andy and I are LEYlines – so it’s not like we’re not going to be working together still making music, and I’m probably going to end up Skyping the pair of them to argue about Wittgenstein and Heidegger, Phenomenology and Aesthetics, and how the hell we turn this or that scheme of work into a course worth studying…

But for now, we’ve got a LEYlines album coming out this weekend, gigs to organise, and I’ve got a PhD to write that I’m 18 months behind on (the real reason I quit my job there). And come September, I’ll still be working at the one college teaching gig I’ve kept on, at BIMM here in Birmingham.

(BTW, this also means I may have more time for some more private Skype students, so if you want a bass lesson or two get in touch…) 

Nine Years Since This Gig…

Yesterday was the ninth anniversary of the gig where Lobelia and I recorded this video:

…I say ‘we’ recorded the video. Obviously we played the music, but the video was actually shot by our friend Brian Wilson (not that Brian Wilson…) – he’d invited me in 2007 to play a house concert after I’d talked about my plan to do a tour of them. He and his wife Michelle obviously got the bug, because after that they became exquisite house concert hosts, even going to far as to buy the grand piano you see in this video!

Brian is now a pro photographer (not much of a surprise when you see the quality of the video), and no longer lives in the house where we played these shows, (we played again almost exactly a year later, with the great Tiger Darrow opening for us – here’s a vid of an improv trio from that show) but they hold some incredibly dear memories for us.

This year, Lo and I have got back into doing gigs together (parenting kind of knocked the wind out of our duo gig sales for quite a while!) and we played a gorgeous house concert in Hackney, London in April. If you want to host one, please do drop me a line!

The tour where we played this show back in 2010 also became our album Live So Far – an album that grew progressively as the tour went on and I mixed and mastered the tunes on our days off… Check it out here:

Everybody Needs A Manifesto

Yesterday, I came across a gorgeous thing on Twitter. It’s the manifesto of Gate Theatre in Notting Hill:

It’s a beautiful mix of ideals, ethics and concrete commitments. It lays out what they want to do, how they want to do it and the moral standards that are to be held to while they do it. And none of it commits to making a particular amount of money for shareholders, or to meet funding requirements, or to getting a certain amount of reviews or any other typical metric of success. It’s not that none of those things will happen or are even necessary, it’s just that with the manifesto in place, the mechanisms for making them happen are now subservient to the operational code laid down in the manifesto. They are now people of The Way. They have a document to refer back to whenever they make decisions. (I have a deep love for Gate Theatre anyway, as it’s the first place we ever did Torycore 🙂 ) 

And it made me think about how little of what we do in music is based on any kind of meaningful thought-out foundational principles. I mean, EVERYONE has things they are working towards, but most of them are based on the received wisdom of ‘the industry’ (spoiler alert: there is no ‘the industry’) – and way too many artists let go of what they assumed were their artistic goals in order to meet a set of commercial ones imposed from outside. Again, if that’s your aim, cool, write it down, commit to it and do it honestly. But for a huge number of musicians, there’s a massive disconnect between what they think they’re trying to do, and what the mechanisms they are pursuing are for, or what they almost always bring about.

Let me tell you about two manifestos I’ve been involved with. The first is an easy one – when I was a part of New Music Strategies with Andrew Dubber, we first convened in The Netherlands in January 2010 to decide what we wanted to do. There were five of us, and we stuck post its all over a wall and talked a lot about what we thought we had to offer. But at the heart of it was a very simple manifesto that we agreed on – “to help bring more music to more people in more places”.

It gave us a focus that was about what was good for music in its widest sense, rather than getting distracted by individual quests for ‘success’ or a particular sector of the global music economy’s obsession with the numbers in their spreadsheet. It helped us decide what we did and didn’t want to do, and led to us turning down a very well paid offer to shepherd the career of a teenage starlet whose overbearing uncle (I think) was utterly convinced that we were the ones to help her become a star. Our response? Go to college, do things you love, make the music you care about and stop worrying about being famous. Not something anyone was going to pay money for. But we ended up doing all kinds of good stuff with NMS during the period in which it was a 5 person team. And none of it compromised that central manifesto.

The second one has only ever been seen (before now) but a couple of people – it was borne out of a joke project with a friend, but contains so much ridiculous truth about how I think about music that I really need to cannibalise it for a manifesto of my own. The project in question is an imaginary band called The Steveness, with my friend Stephen Mason (out off of Grammy-winning, multi-million rekkid selling pop stars Jars Of Clay) – the unique situation in which the Steveness find ourselves is that we’re so good we can’t actually make any music or everyone else will just give up. We’ve never played a note, out of kindness to the rest of the planet. So back in 2015, no doubt after spending a little too long on Bill Drummond’s website, I decided that The Steveness should exist as a Manifesto, and so I wrote this, and sent it to Steve for his birthday:

A Steveness Manifesto

Music Is Not A Product
Music Cannot Be Bought, Sold, Taken, Manufactured or Contained.
Music Is An Experience.
Music Is The Context For Experiencing The Experience.
Music Exists Only In Time as Expectation, Experience And Memory.
Music That Is Sometimes Never Was.
Music That Will Be May Not Be.
The Home Of Music Is The Memory.
The Chorus Remembers The Verse. The Bridge Remembers The Chorus
You Do Not Hold Music. It Holds You.
You Do Not Own Music. It Owns You.
Music Is Fleeting And Eternal.
Music Is Made Possible By Ideas, Aided By Performance, Shared By Recording.
Music Is A Conversation.
A Conversation About Music Is Music.

The Steveness Is Music.

The Steveness Is
The Story Of Music
An Encounter With Music
The Idea Of Music
The Soul Of Music

The Steveness Is Dangerous, Beautiful And It Exists In Your Memory.
The Steveness Is A Memory Of A Reality That Never Was And May Never Be.

The Steveness Is
A Memory.
The Knowledge Of Greatness.
An Experience Beyond The Senses.

The Steveness Is.

-o0o-

Download the manifesto here.

The Steveness in 2007

Now, the bizarre thing about this is that the first half of it, before I invoke the name of the Steveness, is all about music as a phenomenological proposition, written a year or so before I’d heard the term phenomenology. It also encapsulates some of what Christopher Small’s seminal work Musicking is about. Even though it was me using the frame of ‘other Steve and me mucking about’ as a way to think about the true ephemerality of music. It’s ended up as a reimagining of John Cage’s 4’33” for the Flight Of The Conchords generation.

So, my suggestion for you is, go and write your manifesto. What matters to you? What’s truly important in your life, your work, your art? Write it down, print it out, refer to it when you make decisions. Cos without it, if you’re in music, you’re going to end up doing a lot of shitty gigs and being put under a whole lot of pressure to change what you do to fit someone else’s idea of sellable.

Three Recent Bass Inspirations

I am, in general, pretty picky when it comes to bass things that inspire me. Sure, there are Instagram videos that offer up 15 seconds of cleverness that raise a smile, but I’m still for the most part a long-form listener, so am left ultimately a little underfed by social media fragments.

But there are a number of bass players around doing supremely wonderful things with the bass, and today I’ll tell you about three that have been inspiring me recently:

Ruth Goller is easily one of my favourite bassists around – she’s in a tiny group of players whose presence on a record means I’m immediately interested in whatever the project might be, such is the quality of what she brings to projects, and her good taste (others in that group include Mike Watt, Charlie Haden and Tony Levin…) – she’s recently been working on an amazing project that features just her bass and three layered voices, called Skylla. Here’s the first track from it to be released, but there’s an EP or album to follow, I gather:

Skylla – ‘M1’ (Ruth Goller, Alice Grant, Lauren Kinsella) from Ruth Goller on Vimeo.

Another player whose work I’ve been enjoying immensely recently is Björn Meyer – he’s been part of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin for a long time, and put out a solo album last year on ECM. But this album from 2016 is one that I only found on Bandcamp about a week or so ago, and I’ve been listening to LOADS since. It’s a trio of bass, drums and bass clarinet, and is full of awesome:

And finally one from earlier in the year that actually has me on one track – I’ve been a fan of Aaron Gibson’s playing for quite a few years, having discovered him through the lovely guys at No Treble. And I’d actually already pre-ordered this album before Aaron got in touch to ask me to play on it. As he says in an interview with No Treble,

“When I had finished writing “Webs”, it had this middle section that I could hear a melodic, Steve Lawson-ish, solo over. I could totally hear Steve’s tone and phrasing in that spot, but I didn’t think that I would ask him to do it. I also didn’t think that he would say yes and then get it to me within days. It’s brilliant.”

Here’s the track that I play on, but definitely go and listen to the whole album, then buy it – it’s glorious, is mostly just bass, voice and string quartet, and is available on vinyl too 🙂

Like I said, I’m funny when it comes to bassists – some of the people who are most celebrated in bass-dom do very little for me at all, and some of my favourite bassists are actually people who wouldn’t class themselves as bass players, so end up with really original approaches to our beloved instrument. Some of the others I come back to time and time again include Michael Manring, Mike Watt, Julie Slick, Rich Brown, Doug Lunn, Divinity Roxx, Dylan Desmond and Robin Mullarkey. Check out those links if you’re looking for some new inspiration – there’s quite a range of sounds in there 🙂

I don’t really divide up the things that inspire me by instrument, or even art form. Sometimes the things that drive me to create are literary or drawn from theatre or even comedy. But there’s still such a direct connection with people using the instrument I’ve committed so many years to understanding in interesting ways. I’m super-grateful for the kick in the arse all this amazing music gives me, and the challenge to make evermore meaningful music.

Got any current favourites? Stick ’em in the comments 🙂