2010-2020 – A Decade In (My) Music

Decades are interesting markers in time. 10 years – however boring or eventful – is a MASSIVE chunk of any one person’s life. You change, whether you want to or not. The world around you changes. People are born and die, kids become adults, people who could previously see their youth over their shoulder are now glimpsing retirement and old age on the horizon. And whatever your work is, you do A LOT of it.

For musicians, 10 years is unfathomable. Careers are often shorter than that. Untold numbers of legendary musicians have died, and people who were pre-teen at the start of the decade are in rehab dealing with the ravages of years of toxic fame by the end of it.

10 years is enough time to become an AMAZING musician from scratch. If it’s your life, your calling, your passion, and you haven’t progressed, something has gone WAY wrong… It may be that you got trapped in the economics of playing other people’s music for decent money, built a life around that and couldn’t then afford the time and focus to work on your own thing. It could be that teaching became an option, and as is so often – tragically, and mistakenly – the case, you lost sight of yourself as an artist, as a creative entity. I see that a lot, and it breaks my heart… Or it could be that you made something beautiful, and spent 10 years being told that that one thing was going to be The Thing, and it held you back, hanging all your hopes and dreams on the one thing… There are loads of ways that people get lost in time, and for musicians, the commercial context is a veritable Temple Of Doom of traps and pitfalls.

So what of my own decade? Well, it started – monumentally – with a one month old baby. Flapjack was born during the dying embers of the previous decade, and obviously cast our entire lives in a new light. But I still entered the decade with dreams of spending my life playing music with Lobelia – our house concert show was pretty damn great by that point. Two solo sets, a bunch of stuff together at the end mixing her songs and cool covers (before that become the Kudzu weed of YouTube 🙂 ) – we had an amazing show, and I dreamed of us touring as a lil’ family building our mini-traveling-circus, even talking about home-schooling Flapjack half the year so we could tour more… What became clear many years later was that that was never going to work – it was way harder on Lo than on me, and despite two really successful summers spent touring with a baby in tow (and a godsend of a mother-in-law making it all possible), as the early years of the 10s progressed, we had to let go of touring together…

We also started the decade living in London, but again, escaping became more and more inevitable as the cost of being there was ever more starkly out of step with the kind of life we wanted to lead. So, thanks to a one-off incredible gig in Thailand, we were able to afford to make the leap to Birmingham, kicking off a whole load of work with Andrew Dubber and New Music Strategies, and a bunch of other work looking at social media in the arts, charities and the 3rd sector… stuff that was WAY less precarious than being two full-time musicians with a baby…

Photo by Rob GroucuttThe first massive change after that came when Andy Edwards rang me out of the blue and offered me a teaching job at Kidderminster College. I hadn’t taught weekly in a college for well over a decade, and wasn’t at the time looking for that, but the social media work with Amplified was slowing, and the opportunity to start to develop some of the New Music Strategies ideas in a college setting was a good one… I wasn’t aware at the time how much of the rest of the 10s it would influence, but it ended up being transformative, and my musical relationship with Andy became one of the most significant of my entire life.

Photo by Don AlbonicoTalking of significant musical relationships, a chance invite online to play some music with a Californian multi-instrumentalist called Daniel Berkman was the other great transformation of the early 10s… Daniel and I met to both play solo on a gig, but immediately decided to play improvised duo material for the entire show, and over the next three Januarys did, I think, 27 shows, the first 10 of which were released in their entirety, and set off a path towards bringing together performing, recording and releasing music that stepped WAY outside the normal economic and temporal constraints of the recorded music economy… Daniel also sowed the seeds that grew into the decision to start using percussion, keyboard sounds and field recordings in my music, that was eventually sparked by a collaboration with Divinity Roxx in 2015.

The third great musical moment of the early decade was meeting Chris Thorpe, and then Lucy Ellinson and forming Torycore – Torycore was initially inspired by the three of us going to see Cannibal Corpse and Triptykon in Birmingham (the night I met Lucy) and from there, she came up with the idea for using the visceral rage and anger of metal as an amplifier of the brutality and evil at the heart of the politics of Austerity. As an instrumentalist whose rationalisation for his music had always been deeply political, it was an amazing release to get to do something so explicitly focused on social justice, a performance that became incredibly significant to a whole lot of people trying to make sense of the death and destruction at the heart of the Tory Decade Of Austerity. We were seeing people die, people made homeless and services for the poor and disabled decimated, by people in suits smiling and talking in posh accents about difficult choices. True Compassion Means Tough Decisions. It was bullshit, and Torycore allowed us to give voice to that rage, by taking their words and putting them in context. It also threw me into a world of theatre makers and performers who had a HUGE influence on the next step for me – the start of my PhD.

Having first talked about doing a PhD in 2010 at Leeds Beckett Uni, in 2015 the conversation got a little more serious just at the time that a number of galvanising conversations made it clear that my focus was actually about the intersection of improvisation as a practice, as a method of music-making, and the experience of audiences. I was fascinated by how aesthetics and expectations and experiences came together around music made in the moment, about familiarity, responsiveness and indeed the theatricality of performance in that context. So that became the PhD project. And I’m still at it 5 years on, the idea still as inspiring as ever but the work harder and more complex than it really should’ve been thanks to a bunch of interruptions along the way…

Meeting Andy Edwards span off into a ton of collaborative improv settings. He’d been out of open/free improv for a long time, so creating space for him to discover that, and for me to get right back into playing with an incredible drummer was a marriage made in musical heaven. We started to play with our incredible colleague Phi Yaan-Zek as LEYlines and also did a bunch of other collaborative improv shows and put improvisation at the heart of the course at Kidderminster. My music life has Andy’s fingerprints all over it, but I’m still not going to start listening to Zappa 😉

At the start of 2010, I’d JUST started to sell music on Bandcamp – it was a very new platform, but looked to be way more artist-friendly, and it didn’t take me long to realise that it was the *perfect* platform for me and what I wanted to build. Releasing the albums with Daniel Berkman on there, the option for us both to release music, for Artemis to compile albums of the vocal tracks and release them too… that portability of music seemed so much better attuned to what the art was meant to be and meant to DO. And then in 2015 I was invited to trial Bandcamp’s subscription platform. Three artists (I think) got to try it first before everyone else, to iron out kinks and see how it worked. And for me it was another line in the sand. This was exactly what I needed, to completely step off the album/promo/sales cycle and be able to release all of these amazing live collaborative recordings in a way that accumulated value through being prolific rather than diluting or decimating the commercial viability of any one recording… It was 180 degrees away from the economics of streaming, of trying to have a ‘hit’ track on a playlist, or trying to second guess commercial viability. Nope, give it to the audience, let them decide, hand them agency over it, tell stories about it and build a community of practice where the audience are able to invest in what’s going on not just by buying finished work but by funding the entire project, but talking about it, but encouraging the bits they particularly enjoy, but asking questions about the stuff they don’t understand… A transactional approach to the accumulation of social value in the recordings themselves… (see, PhD 😉 )

Back to 2015, and that project with Divinity – after a number of conversations and a rough plan to improvise and do shows with a lot of story-telling, we got together for a week, recorded some ideas and did an amazing freewheeling show at Kidderminster College… And after it, I realised that the way Divi used a keyboard to play beats (woven into her Beatboxing!) was the next thing I needed to explore in my own music. So I got hold of a Quneo – an instrument I’d first heard Daniel Berkman use a couple of years earlier – and start to build their influence into how I played as a solo artist. Keeping the principle and practice of improvisation for and with that particular audience, but playing beats and keyboard parts on the Quneo, and seeing where that lead. It changed everything for me, and over time I started to feed it into the improv duets and into LEYlines… It was a massive change in terms of the range of sounds I could produce, and how obvious the hip hop influence is on my music, but the process and performance brain has remained pretty much the same…

Eventually, my Kidderminster job came to an end – to make more time for my now-massively-behind-schedule PhD – and by route of a couple of other teaching jobs in between, I’ve ended up teaching one day a week at BIMM in Birmingham and LOVING it. A new and amazing bunch of colleagues, though I can’t ever imagine anything replicating the creative energy of making music with Andy and Phi (LEYlines is still very much a thing!)

I finished the decade with the 20th anniversary of my first solo gig, Flapjack’s 10th birthday, and the 5th anniversary of my Subscription starting. A whole lot of time to reflect and look back. I am, at least from where I’m stood, making the best music of my life, and other than the constant stress of the PhD (such is PhD life, I guess) I’m doing pretty well. I have projects lined up for the new year, a number of things recorded but still to release and some other stuff I want to try out. I’m cycling again after 20-something years out of the saddle, and that’s meant I’m WAY fitter going into this decade than coming into the last one… Life is good.

10 years is a long time in music gear too! By the end of the decade, I’d changed amp brand (to Aguilar), String brand (to Dunlop) main effects processor (to MOD Devices) and perhaps most noticeably had an incredible new signature bass with Elrick Basses. My obsession with individual pedals grew massively over the decade, and my pedal collection grew with it…

Across the decade I released somewhere around 56 albums, not including compilations and remasters (I’m not 100% sure how many it is!) with the rate increasing massively after the advent of the subscription. If you’re not yet subscribed, you REALLY need to hop aboard!

So, everything has changed. I went from a single brilliant and highly developed musical focus (touring and recording with Lo) to this incredibly rich music making life, from playing solo bass to making music with controllers, basses and a mountain of pedals, from normal gigs to theatre shows with Torycore, from doing masterclasses in colleges to writing courses and hopefully finishing up a PhD soon…

A decade is a long time. A lot happened. Take stock, look forward, and leave the past behind while committing to putting right anything that is your responsibility to fix (I HATE the idea that these arbitrary rites of passage give us license to abandon the mess we created! I’m still dealing with mine from the last decade, forgiveness doesn’t mean abandoning others to our consequences…) – but build systems and support groups, communities and patterns of behaviour that’ll help you break cycles that were destructive in the last decade, that will drag you from the inertia, the traps that hold us, and the missed opportunities to help others. Make sure your resolutions include an outward look to how you can best influence and serve your community… artistic types are terrible for obsessing over our own work but our ‘work’ needs to include fixing the world we’re writing about and responding to. Commit to get your hands dirty, then go home and make art that illuminates it all.

Here’s to brighter days and much more music xx

A Thank You, and a Reason to Subscribe at the Dawn of a New Decade

I’ve finished off 2019 – and the decade – with a bit of a release flourish. December started with the release of my first ever Best Of compilation – a look at my solo work from the very beginning up until I introduced percussive samples and keyboard sounds into my live set-up in 2015. Then last weekend’s gig celebrating 20 years of my solo career (exactly 20 years from my first ever solo gig!) yielded not one but TWO new albums that were released this week to my Bandcamp subscribers. The first is the solo set from the show, and the second is the audio part of my Illuminated Loops collaboration with genius visual artist Poppy Porter. So at first glance they’re two solo sets, in that all the sounds made are made by me, but the contrast between the two is pretty huge, and certainly the memories attached for those who were there will be, I assume, rather different!

I want to finish the decade with a huge thank you to all of you who’ve bought and listened to my music over the last ten years, who’ve subscribed, who’ve told friends about the music, come to shows, messaged me on social media to offer encouragement, reviewed the records on Bandcamp or come and said hi at the various events where our paths have crossed. It’s such an amazing luxury to get to make music and share it with people, and this path towards carving out a sustainable ongoing way of releasing a lot of both solo and collaborative recordings would feel pretty exposed and out on a limb if it wasn’t for your encouragement and patronage. So thank you.

If you haven’t yet subscribed, or used to subscribe but are interested in getting the new music that’s been released since you let it lapse, I’d love for you to join us for the end of the decade. It would be amazing to finish the journey over 2020’s threshold with a subscriber boost, and it’d certainly give you a massive amount of music to investigate during any down time you might have over the festive period!

So head over to http://stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe now and see what’s on offer. There are 50+ albums that are yours the moment you subscribe, along with whatever I release in the next 12 months, a couple of eBooks, and a ton of subscriber exclusive video and conversation to investigate in the subscriber area on Bandcamp.

The streaming economy still offers nothing like sustainability to niche music makers, so I rely entirely on the generosity and patronage of those who are curious enough to come and find out what’s on offer. In return I promise to make the best music I possibly can! 🙂

I hope you have a wonderful festive time, however you choose to celebrate at this time of year, and that despite whatever set-backs and sadness we’ve experienced on a global scale over the last decade, we’ll be able to muster enough hope and resolve to greet the new year with love and gratitude, and a commitment to being a vital and positive presence in it. Aside from anything else I’m able to do, I’ll do my best to provide that journey with a soundtrack…

Two New Albums and My Anniversary Gig!

So, last week, I released my first ever best-of album. It’s culled from all my solo work between 2000 and 2013, and is a pretty lovely summary of what I got up to as a solo performer before I added the Quneo into my performance set-up and started to experiment with percussion and keyboard sounds.

The album was put together by two of my long time friends/listeners/subscribers, Tom and Mike, and their sleevenotes are on the Bandcamp page, so you can read a little about their thoughts on each track. Tom also provided the photos for each individual track, so if you go to the track pages on Bandcamp you’ll see those, or if you buy it and download the files…

Anyway, have a listen here:

Then Sunday was my 20th Anniversary gig – it was a deeply special show at my favourite venue in Birmingham, Tower Of Song. As part of the evening, I hosted pre and post show discussions about improv, which were recorded as part of the research for my ongoing PhD. What became apparent fairly quickly is that these weren’t ‘pre and post show discussions’, detached from the rest of the ‘event’ – they were the first and last acts of a four act play, ones that centred on conspicuous listening, and gave space for the audience to register their presence, preferences, gratitude, and anything else they wanted to talk about…

As an improvisor it was quite a profound moment, to have an entire audience talk about their anticipation of what was to come, about their reasons for being there… The permission to ‘do what we do’ comes from the audience – lots of people have theorised this, but I’ve never actually encountered it in quite such a clearly expressed form!

And what’s more, the first album from the gig is out today! The subscriber-only, 42 minute album is the whole of my first set, the solo one which preceded the Illuminated Loops set with artist Poppy Porter. That’ll be up next.

It’s been a really interesting year for music-making – The Arctic Is Burning is one of my favourite albums I’ve ever made, and ended up being a really fitting part two to Beauty And Desolation, despite that not really being the plan initially.  There have been two LEYlines albums (vols IV and V), four other live solo albums, Seeing Sound with Daniel Berkman (recorded in 2014!) and my most recent duo album with Pete Fraser, Restless got a public release this year.

But it’s been a year of solo experimentation, mostly. The explorations with field recordings have been a really inspiring addition to my sound, and have given me so much to thing about and experiment with. Perhaps I’ll do more with that in the new year.

I hope 2019 has been a good year for you – I know that politically it’s been a struggle for a huge number of people, and I’ve seen various friends struggling under the stress of the way things are going, but I hope that in the middle of that you’ve been able to find a sense of purpose, have some fun and explore ways to be part of the solution rather than buckling under the weight of the problem. Peace to you and I hope you get some time off through the festive period.

(top photo by Richard Hallman) 

Improvisation, Audiences and The Magic Of Live Music

Right, so my 20th anniversary gig is coming up fast! I’m super excited about it, and wanted to tell you a little more about the non-musical PhD research bit of the evening (if all you want is practical info about that, skip to the end 😉 )

But first, I want to talk about improvisation and specialness. One of the tricky things about being an improvisor is that making a gig ‘special‘ is never going to be about the setlist. If you go and see a Greatest Hits tour, or that thing where a band plays a classic album top to bottom, you know what you’re getting, and the enjoyment is linked to your history not just with the band, but your memories of those particular songs. And your expectation is linked to that. The promotion of concerts, and even the language that we use to get friends to come with us to gigs, is built around the motivating power of familiarity, nostalgia and the safe expectation that you know roughly what’s going to happen…

But, as someone who makes it all up as I’m going along, I don’t have that list of track names on which to hang a set of expectations (for me or you!) I don’t get to do a set of ‘songs I don’t normally play live!’ as a special treat, but on the other hand everything is stuff I’ve never played before, and thus every gig is a completely unique treat for whoever shows up. That is – over 20 years of talking to my audience – one of the things that comes up most often as being the ‘wow’ moment at a gig – the realisation that this music would never happen again. Back when I was playing a mixture of improvised tunes and things people were more familiar with from my records, that was mixed with people who were super-happy that I’d played their favourite tune, and sometimes the two experiences were combined, because I’d played a familiar tune and made it new by taking it off in a new direction.

(for those who joined us recently, the point at which I stopped playing versions of things off my records was when I realised that all the magic in those records, for me, came from the fact that they were improvisations (that’s always been my recording method of choice, with a few notable exceptions around the time of Behind Every Word) – so the recreation of them resulted in an oversimplification of what was special about the original, and a split in terms of the improvised music being FOR that place and time, and made in collaboration with that audience and space, and those that were tunes I was playing in order to trigger a memory or sell a CD or two… in a nutshell 🙂 )

So I’m left pondering of all this from two angles – one is how to market a 20th anniversary gig that doesn’t have a bunch of old tunes in it – how to create a sense that this gig is the culmination or the celebration of 20 years of work, when it will be demonstrably an hour or so of completely new work. Though when I say ‘completely’, the process of  being an improvisor is an evolutionary one – you are both bound by your physical relationship with your instrument(s) and any sounds you’ve pre-programmed/selected for it, but also freed by the permission you’ve given yourself (and crucially are able to feel from the audience) to play what feels right for that moment. Defining the aspects of the moment is quite an interesting task – those that are present, the conversations that take place, the music that plays before you go on, the specific placement of the music gear, the length of time since you were able to practice (gigs with a ‘warm up’ are palpably different from gigs where you go from chatting to friends to playing in the space of two minutes), and of course any preparatory work you’ve been doing – developing ideas, expanding your vocabulary and listening to music that may influence your sense of what the music ‘ought’ to be right there.

The language around the process and practice of improvisation is thorny and rich with the potential to contradict another musician’s entire sense of what they’re doing and why (so if you’re an improvisor who doesn’t see themselves in this description, that’s absolutely fine 😉 )

But the key thing is that the ‘specialness’ that we collectively experience at a gig where we expect to hear a set of songs we know, get to hear them at high volume with cool lights and excellent posing and dancing from the band is a very different type of specialness from the utterly unique sensation of going to see an improvised show and knowing that you are IN it. That if you weren’t there, it would be different. That anything you’ve said to the artist before they play will shape it, that your smiling and nodding is felt in a deeply practical way. The music is for you, you are present in it, we make it together, and the sense of place is embedded in it. It’s not just the case that a gig on a tour where the set list is largely the same is remembered by what went wrong in a particular place, or how crazy the audience were… Every set of music is a collaboration, and for me that results in a massive amount of releasable music… 71 albums in the last 20 years, at the latest count…

There’s a lot of discussion (and scholarship/writing/theory) that places live music and recorded music as opposing experiences, where one is meant to be better than the other, or one embodies qualities that the other can never share… but for me – in a way that has grown throughout my PhD research so far – the relationship is a cumulative one, where one informs the other, where the recorded work is both a product of the live gig and a way to revisit and experience in an entirely new way the audio bit of the experience. Removing the sense of place from the experience – the smell of the venue, the lighting, the price of the beer, the journey to get there, the dressing up (all the things Walter Benjamin told us in 1935 were the rituals of concert-going) are stripped away and we’re left with a trace. But it’s a trace that we can revisit, that allows us to experience it away from that context, to hear it on headphones, on a train, in a car, in bed, in the bath, with friends. We can project onto the music recording whatever set of meanings, images, mythologies and emotions we like, uninfluenced by the gestural quality of the performance (note: if you’re a subscriber, go read the essay I wrote about my Belfast Guitar Festival gig – it digs deep into this idea!) It enables us to talk over it, to read to it and sometimes it becomes that reminder of the magic of the gig. It reverses the nostalgia-relationship of falling in love with songs on an album then going to hear them live, and instead invites us to experience unique new deeply personalised music at a live event and then to revisit the recording for its nostalgia.

Fans have been doing this under their own steam for decades – I remember visiting Camden Market and see a number of stalls devoted to cassette bootlegs of classic bands. For fans who already had all the officially sanctioned studio and live records, these filled in extra knowledge, provided the social capital of hard-found experiences and foraged expertise, but also meant a gig that you were at might show up as a thing to be revisited. However, they were rarely official, rarely well produced, often terrible quality, and didn’t come with any real connection to the artist. Being a self-archivist was a rare practice – such that Frank Zappa’s predilection for recording everything and producing live albums that combined his favourite bits from different takes became a defining trope in his public persona, in the story of his idiosyncrasy.

But from here – as a self-releasing, self producing artist with a desire to make the best work I can – it feels like a way of taking back my music life from the constraint of making-a-product marketing-a-product recouping-the-costs-of-a-product. Because even the Kickstarter model – hailed by so many as the new mechanism of indie sustainability – required a level of emotional investment in a future wow that exhausts me and demands of the product a level of hype that is wholly unsustainable if the product comes along 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 times a year (such is the quest for novelty cache in the pre-funding market, that some artists have done entirely unrepeatable offers, scorching the earth for themselves and others in the process).

So by improvising I get to make music FOR that situation, but by recording it I get to build that catalogue that documents the journey, that captures the unique music and packages it in a way that isn’t about reminding the live audience of the moment they coughed or the funny thing that was said, (my live audience is WAY too small and geographically constrained for that to be meaningful) but recognises the unique musical aesthetic parameters of making things up from my particular set of creative interests in response to the stimulus of a room full of curious amazing people… The entire thing becomes more episodic, almost like a podcast or a Netflix digital box set, even while each album is experienceable within the semiotic boundaries of ‘an album’. The decision to treat it as an episode in a story, or as an album that soundtracks your life for years is entirely in the hands of the listener. The agency to make it be what you want it to be is yours as the listener, and isn’t constrained by my sense of what it might be FOR.

But of course – and this is where the research bit comes in – absolutely none of this summary may be in the minds of a specific audience (beyond the fact that I’ve seeded it by writing this screed in the first place! We’ll dig through that at the analytical phase!) – and even though the impetus to do this was a series of conversations with listeners over the last 20 years, the actual thoughts, ideas, experiences and expectations of a given audience are likely to be way broader than this… so as part of the research for my PhD we’ll be talking about this before and after the gig on the 15th.

DETAILS

So, starting at 6.30pm, we’ll be having a pre-show discussion about improv, about live music, about people’s specific expectations and reasons for being there, and how it fits within the rest of their life-with-music. It’ll be wide open, there’s no sense at all that there are right and wrong responses, and it’ll be recorded. Because of all that, there’ll be a consent form to sign (you can’t just go around recording conversations with people and writing PhDs about them without the proper ethics clearance, of course!) but the conversation is just a chance to talk about it all. To ask questions, and for me to find out what’s going on in your heads when you show up.

And again, after the gig, we’ll have another chat. Because it’s an Illuminated Loops gig, I’m sure a lot of the questions and comments there will end up being about Poppy’s artwork and its relationship to the music, but that’s all great. It’ll be another open forum to talk about your experience of the gig, what you remember, what you liked, didn’t like, what was exciting/confusing/good/bad/etc. etc.

Does that sound like fun? Good. Now, go get a ticket from Bandcamp and as soon as I get my ethics submission from the Uni signed off, I’ll send you the form with a full description of what’s going on that you can sign and return to me. 🙂

I’m SO looking forward to playing for you, but also to talking about making music. This is the stuff that goes through my head as I’m cycling round Birmingham, walking round shops, lying in bed at night… I’m fascinated by what, how, why and with/for whom we make music. And your voice as the audience is often one that artists ignore. So I’m listening… 🙂

20th Anniversary Gig on Dec 15th!

Twenty years
Twenty years of solo shows
Twenty years of explaining that no, I don’t have a band, and no, none of it is pre-recorded
Twenty years of curious sonic adventures
Twenty years of playing all over the world, in all kinds of venues, to all kinds of people
Twenty years of refinement – of getting better, of going deeper, of exploring the edges
Twenty years of wondering when I’ll run out of inspiration and do something else…
Twenty years of recording and releasing music – 71 albums so far!
Twenty years – a milestone worth celebrating! 

December 15th 2019 will be a really special show for me, here in Birmingham. I’d love for you to join me. Here’s why: 

December 15th 1999 was my first proper solo gig. I’d played solo before that, but never a whole set to an audience coming to see me. I’d done product demos at Guitar Shows, and solo tunes in gigs with Ragatal, but a whole gig? That was the first.

Twenty years often feels like an impossibly long time in music. When I went to music college aged 18, anyone with a 20 year career would’ve started in 1971, and been at it for longer than I’d been alive. 20 years in music is inconceivable from the start, but feels like the blink of an eye from the other end… I still feel like I’m just getting started with my creative path, I feel like there’s so much more I want to do, so many more ways to explore what the bass can do, the kinds of music that I can make within this set of constraints that were set in motion at that first gig – everything is live, everything is me and it’s all based on improvisation.

At that first gig, I had start points. A handful of loop ideas that I could play and then see what happens… The versions of the tracks that became my first album that were played at that first gig had completely different melodies – the only fixed part was the chord progression. Over the years I went back and forth between playing tunes from the records like that, and playing all-improvised music.

The point where I stopped playing those tunes was after my tours with Daniel Berkman, listening back to the recordings of our first 10 shows, which became the FingerPainting set – the low point of every single gig was my solo tune. Because it was the one thing that was set in stone before the gig, and wasn’t made FOR that moment. It existed so I could let people know I had new music out and maybe encourage them to buy it. That’s not a terrible motive, but it really stands at odds with the kind of dangerous, in the moment music making that Daniel and I were up to for the rest of the gig. Everything else that was happening was about what was happening. Our conversations were the score, the audience were the score, the room was the score. And we played to that. Across the 10 albums of the FingerPainting set, there’s a massive range of musical territory that we got to explore. It all sounds like US, but it sounds like us in all those different spaces to all those different people.

So, soon after that, I gave up on revisiting old tunes. I was just much better at playing new music rather than recreating old music. And that was the origin of all of this – those ‘starter loops’ that were present in the first couple of shows and eventually had fixed melodies and were given names were just launchpads for improvisation. Training wheels for this fledgling improvisor.

It’s a tough sell to promote a gig where none of the music that you’re playing has names that relate to the music that’s gone before. But weirdly this improvised work is perhaps more connected to the journey because it contains EVERYTHING – everything I’ve played and loved is in the toolbox. Everything I’ve played and failed at is there as a cautionary tale. Sometimes I revisit old ideas thinking I may have a new take on them, sometimes the spirit of those ideas is manifest in whatever it is that I’m excited about right now.

Five years ago after a week of jamming and experimenting with Divinity Roxx I added a MIDI controller and a laptop to my live set up and started playing percussion and keyboard sounds along with the bass stuff. Still there were no pre-recorded loops, no beats that I could just trigger at the same tempo and feel every night. Everything was played FOR the event, every sound was made with tonight in mind. On one level it felt like a transformative step – ‘SoloBassSteve’ had been a brand identity for a long time, and I guess this wasn’t strictly solo bass anymore, right? But on another it made perfect sense. The all live all-for-now constraint was way more central to the musical ideology than the all-bass bit. Bass is my voice, my language, my vernacular. What I’ve chosen to avoid isn’t a character, it’s a script. The story begins anew and builds on the last episode.

So this 20th anniversary gig will be a celebration of that journey, of the evolving newness that includes its own story in every note. Where the names of tunes are not the locus of familiarity, but the sound and the adventure offers a point of remembrance, of revisitation. A space to hear sounds and ideas that are woven through 20 years of live and recorded music, are embedded in my head and that of my longer term audience.

Please join us on Dec 15th…

Five Years Of The Bandcamp Subscription!

This last weekend, I went to a gig by Richard Lomax AKA Granfalloon – a singer from Manchester. He was explaining where the band name Granfalloon came from – its origins being in Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle. A Granfalloon represents a false or absurd sense of connection felt between a group of people who aren’t really connected in any meaningful way. And its meaningful opposite is a Karass – as Wikipedia puts it, ‘a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial links are not evident.’

Which obviously got me thinking about the strange and wonderful group of people that make up my subscriber community on Bandcamp, having just reached the fifth anniversary of the subscription’s inception!

The people who subscribe to me represent the last 20 years of my solo career in breadth and depth, with some old friends and very long time listeners in there alongside people who’ve found my music more recently,  and even a few who I imagine are there because they think the venture is worthwhile even without having a particularly deep connection to the music… Those ‘superficial’ links are absent purely because of the diversity of their backgrounds and ways of relating to this central community – they’re from all over the world, of a pretty huge age range, and I’d be hard pushed to pigeonhole the interests of the typical Steve Lawson subscriber, beyond there being a statistically significant number of bass players present in the sample 🙂

We are a Karass, gathered around a bunch of music and a way of making it available that cuts across so many of the assumptions about how and why recorded music is supposed to exist, it’s relationship with live concerts, the economics around how musicians are supposed to leverage some value from their work, and the balance of significance given to the actual recordings vs the conversations, discussions, questions and contextual ramblings that frame their existence.

The exchange is, from where I’m sat, very much two-way in so many ways other than the economic sustainability that is so evident at the heart of it. Releasing live recordings throughout the year gives room for the development of my music-making ideas and focus to be influenced by the discussions and responses that happen in between those gigs – earlier this year I released three live albums in the space of a month or so, giving the subscribers who wanted to dig into it the space to consider how my set of tools and ideas manifests itself differently across multiple nights of what in any other context might have been part of a tour, but which almost none of my audience would ever be able to attend across multiple nights.

The kind of exalted status any artist needs to have in order to inspire their listeners – fans – to turn up to multiple nights on the same tour is neither a desirable state to be in nor a practical one if I want to continue to play in small-scale, intimate, community spaces in the way that I do. Recognising that the upper ceiling on my audience size for doing things the way I really want to is actually pretty small has been a huge relief in terms of letting go of many of the expectations of scale that go with having any kind of music career in the age of streaming.

How do I get to make loads of music, release it, and find a community that are willing to engage with it, be present IN it and shape it by giving me permission to keep experimenting (as opposed to withholding their economic support from what I do until I do a farewell or greatest hits tour)? Those were the big questions I set out to try and explore when I launched my Bandcamp subscription on Oct 23rd 2014. FIVE years ago this week.

I’m so, so grateful to everyone who has subscribed over the years – whether or not you’ve since unsubscribed. This was never meant to be a social engineering project, aimed at trapping/tricking people into remaining subscribed beyond the point where it’s useful or meaningful for them to be so. The first year’s offering is by far the biggest if you bring normal industry metrics to bear on things, because you get some crazy number of albums from across the last 20 years immediately. And they’re yours to keep, not contingent on you remaining subscribed. Unlike so many other platforms, Bandcamp doesn’t do access rental. The music is yours to keep.

But that initial offering is the raw material needed to get caught up with Where We Are Now. My own focus is not ‘how can I leverage value from my back catalog?’ – this isn’t my retirement fund in any way, shape or form – my focus is forward-looking, and the back catalog is all context for where we are. I’m deeply proud of all of it, and am happy for people to listen to it in a focused way, to dump it all in a folder and listen across the two decades represented on shuffle, to have favourites and to have projects that don’t work for them…

The most amazing thing for me about the subscription, other than the friendships and conversation perhaps, is that I no longer need to think about the direct marketable ‘value’ of any one album. I don’t prepare music for release thinking ‘will people buy this?’ My thought process is episodic – I make music that advances the story, I release music that builds on where we’ve come from and where we’re heading. I have favourite episodes, for sure, and certainly the guest stars are an absolute joy for me, but it’s the totality of it that feels like ‘the work’ – that 20 year story arc that shows no sign of stopping or slowing.

Just under a year after I launched the subscription I was inspired by a recording session with Divinity Roxx to add a MIDI controller to my set up and to start playing drums and keyboards and later to incorporate found sound and field recordings into my music. Even at that stage, the sense of cushioning that the subscription gave me from the raw economic impact of wrong-footing my audience gave me the creative latitude to try things out, to in one sense trash the ‘solo bass steve’ brand as an accurate descriptor of what I did as a music maker, but to significantly broaden the sonic scope of my work. The ‘all live, no edits’ rule is still in place – not because it’s an ethically superior state for music (that’s a wholly absurd notion) but because that particular constraint focusses my thoughts around a kind of music making that results in the gradual and constant evolution of my language, my ability to construct compelling and meaningful stories in sound, and to perform in a way that allows for every gig to be at the same high standard as the recordings, but also to then be released as a unique event for those who couldn’t be there.

There is in music scholarship a large amount of energy and effort given over to people’s perceptions of the relative merits of the experience of live vs recorded music – the idea that a live recording has no value because it doesn’t capture the atmosphere and the experience, or the idea that a live gig can never scale the heights of the production of a well conceived recording. That, to me, is an entirely false dichotomy that misses the interrelatedness of liveness and the documentary process. A record is different from a gig, in the same way that a meal is different from going to the park. They serve different needs, and the availability of the experience means that they have wholly different levels of exclusivity in terms of who may experience them.

A gig is geographically and temporally bound to the where and when of its happening. A recording is wedded to the technology required for its experiencing and the emphasis that tech brings to the sound as envisaged by the person recording, mixing and mastering it. A live recording isn’t comparable as an experience to a gig because one is repeatable and relocatable and the other is not. But the possibility of RE-hearing an improvised show you were at is a magical one. The option to experience and compare multiple nights across a fixed time period, to compare, to listen again, to even transcribe and learn the music if you’re a performer – to do that without the frankly ridiculous limitations to the time required to manufacture product, distribute it, market it, promote it and then focus ones energies on drawing attention to it – that is an amazing, breathless liberty.

There’s no such thing as ‘creativity free from influence or constraint’ – the mythology of the entire liberated auteur magicking music from the ether is a marketing construct like any other, elevating the creative path to that of the alchemist. Instead, if we’re aware of them, we can deliberately curate our influences and shape our context to best create the affordance for the kind of creative exploration that feels most meaningful to as at any one time.

My own path requires me to stay as unburdened by my own history as possible. ‘Solo bass’ carries its own set of expectations and distractions that I try to remain conscious of. I’d hate to have a hit record that brought with it an audience offering the promise of economic enrichment for my willingness to tread that same ground over and over. It’s not that songs are bad, or that touring with a setlist is some lesser creative path. That’d be both offensive and wholly disingenuous to try and elevate small scale improvised performance to some loftier creative plain.. But it is MY path, it’s where my curiosity leads, and it’s the area within which I can best explore how to soundtrack the world in all its beauty and desolateness.

And the Bandcamp subscription is UTTERLY vital to not only me being able to do that, but to helping define that emerging sense of it even being a possibility. It’s a very different way of thinking about the purpose and value of performing and recording, of developing my creativity and presenting it to people for their enjoyment, edification and often bemusement 😉

So thank you. Thank you subscribers, thank you Bandcamp, and well done if you’ve read this far. Send me an email and I’ll send you a download code for my latest album as a reward for actually reaching the end of this 😉

Subscribe now at stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe

Epic New Video! The Arctic Is Burning Title Track

Here’s the video for the longest track on my brand new album – the title track, The Arctic Is Burning.

As always, this is the film of me actually recording it. I film every time I hit record, as a document of what’s going on for my Bandcamp subscribers. They get way more video than is ever made available to the wider public – new approaches that I’m working on, video for tracks that only end up on subscriber albums… I end up filming a whole load of stuff that obviously doesn’t get released at all, but rather gets deleted, but that’s OK. I’d rather do that than miss a good performance 🙂

So here it is, the video of me recording The Arctic Is Burning – one thing to keep in mind is that as you watch it for the first time, you know as much as I do about where it’s going to go. I don’t start these things with a map of what the resulting piece of music is going to sound like, or the transitions its going to take. The role of the camera is really interesting here, in that it acts as a proxy for the subscribers. They’re who I’ve got in mind when I’m thinking about the journey and how it is perceived from the outside. They play the psychological role that a producer would play in a studio, watching through the glass while I record a take, hoping not to screw it up 🙂

So sometimes the journey takes me by surprise, sometimes I have to dig deep to find out where it’s meant to go, and sometimes it feels inevitable…

Hear the whole album at music.stevelawson.net/album/the-arctic-is-burning or check out my Bandcamp subscription now to get everything I release throughout the year!

New Album, New Essay, New Adventures In Art Making

I’ve just released a new live album for my subscribers – it’s the recording of my set at the Belfast Guitar Festival a couple of weeks ago.

But more than just being a live album, it comes with a 3000 word essay – a reflection on the experience of playing there, and of listening back to the music afterwards. The album is probably best thought of as the soundtrack to the essay.

The joy of all this is having the latitude to experiment with things like this – in a conventional release schedule, this gig wouldn’t have been released, and the story wouldn’t have been told even if it was… If I’d put it in on my blog for people to read, the album and the essay would’ve been in different places and only a tiny part of the possible audience would end up experiencing them both. Bandcamp allows me to bundle the two together (the PDF is downloaded with the album, though I’ve offered a Dropbox link to it for those subscribers who do most of their Bandcamp listening in the app). I have a lil’ community of relatively focussed listeners who I can invite to think about and talk about the wider experience of playing improvised music to a festival audience that are unfamiliar with my music, and to contemplate why the music ends up being the way it is…

If you want to get the album, along with 48 other albums, and a couple of other PDF books, and a load of subscriber-exclusive video, head to stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe – come join the fun! 🙂

New Video Interview with Talking Bass!

Last week I did a loooong video interview with Mark J Smith over at Talking Bass and it’s just gone live on Youtube. He asked a whole bunch of fascinating questions, steered the conversation to useful places, and then edited out a lot of the fluff and waffle that inevitably ensued (maybe there’ll one day be a director’s cut with all that left in for the die-hards 😉 )

Anyway, it’s a good up-to-date exploration of what I’m up to. We covered:

  • The new album
  • Playing and improvising
  • The inspirations behind the music – what I’ve learned from hip hop!
  • Approaches to pedals and processing
  • How the subscription model works

and a bunch more besides! Thanks Mark for taking the time to do this, I really appreciate the opportunity to talk!

The Arctic Is Burning – New Steve Lawson Album Out Today!

Hurrah! Finally, my new solo album, The Arctic Is Burning is out today – you can listen below, or click the link to listen/buy/download/share 🙂

In case you missed the pre-announcements, this is my 30th solo album in 20 years. It is, as with everything I do, live single unedited performances. I’m playing bass and Quneo – a MIDI control surface that allows me to play drums (and in other situations, piano and anything else I choose 🙂 ) You can see a couple of videos of me recording the tunes below.

My Bandcamp subscribers have had the album for a month now – if you enjoy the record, it’s worth considering the subscription. With your first year, you get 49 existing albums, plus everything I release in the next 12 months. In the last 12 months, that’s been TEN albums. Lots of the collaborations on there are exclusive to the subscription, and it also comes with a ton of video and a couple of eBooks! Head to the Steve Lawson Bandcamp Subscription Page to find out all about it.

Anyway, here’s those videos for you :