The invisible engine of music…

One of the great things about teaching bass is that questions, comments and observations from my students spark off trains of thought that get me reconsidering the nature of what we do as musicians, and obviously more specifically as bassists.

I was talking this morning with a student about the art of simple bass – the zen of bass – playing lines that on the surface are almost mind-numbingly simple, but thanks to the whole universe of intention that can exist in every note, can utterly define the song.

One of the examples we used was Nick Seymour of Crowded House. Neil Finn is a genius songwriter, truly one of the great songwriters of the last 20 years, IMHO. But what is it about Crowded House that stops them from sounding like a stadium emotional rock band? Largely, it comes down to two things – the production ideas of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, and the rhythm section of Nick Seymour on bass and the late and dearly missed Paul Hester – the production stuff adds tonnes of variety to the arrangements – guitar sounds popping up for two bars and then vanishing again, processed bits of voice and weirdness coming in and out. But the rhythm section do one really crucial thing that lots and lots of modern bands miss – they don’t play in the studio like they’re playing in an arena. One of the tragic things that happens to bands when they break into the arena-gig-world is that they start writing songs, and more importantly arranging songs, to fit in that environment. You only have to compare the first two Coldplay albums to hear the difference. The first Coldplay album is a gorgeous fragile intimate affair – sure, there’s plenty there that can be turned into flag-waving stadium bombast when required, but the record doesn’t sound remotely like that. The two albums that followed are both written for stadiums, and mastered for radio. They don’t make that distinction between tracks that sound great when played on your own at home and arrangements of those tracks that sound great in front of 40,000 people.

And in those arrangements, the first things to vanish are the intricacies and interest in the rhythm section – compare what Adam Clayton was doing on Unforgettable Fire with just about anything he’s done since…

It’s what I think of as ‘Journey Syndrome’ – writing songs for stadiums. It’s the death of subtlety. The stadium rock bands of the 80s did it, in those innocent irony-free days. Before them, bands seemed to be able to make it work. Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ doesn’t sound like a stadium record, the 70s Aerosmith records don’t sound like Stadium records – they were just great records that translated well into that environment, but still worked at home. Crucially, they weren’t squashed into a 5dB dynamic range like so much unlistenable modern rock. It’s so depressing that the hundreds of bands around now trying desperately to sound like Talking Heads have missed the genius of the Talking Heads sound: Space. As Candy Flip told us in the early 90s. You Need Space. Talking Heads were all about Space. So many recent bands that I really like in principle are messed up by writing for arenas and mastering for radio. Muse, The Killers, Kaiser Chiefs. All largely unlistenable on record, unless you’re playing them on the really shitty little stereo in the kitchen or on laptop speakers. Muse and the Killers both mess up my theory about dull rhythm sections, in that they both have really cool bassists, though I haven’t heard the second Killers album, so need to give it a spin and see if they’ve gone the way of Coldplay…

Some bands never got what the bassist was for in the first place – for all their desperation to sound like The Beatles, Oasis had one of the shittest bassists ever to strap on the instrument in poor ole Guigsy. He really couldn’t play. As in Alec John Such level uselessness. Missing the vital point that one of the things that was most remarkable about the Beatles was that in the later years, Paul and Ringo were the UK end of a transatlantic axis that changed the world of rhythm sections for ever – the US end being the Funk Brothers at Motown. McCartney’s bassy stuff was integral to the sound and genius of the Beatles. Imagine Guigsy playing Penny Lane, Paperback Writer, Rain, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer etc… Again, Oasis’ obsession with being the world’s biggest band extended to them arranging their stuff to be sung on the terraces – where it does indeed sound amazing – but meant that they were never going to be artistically a sensible comparison with the Beatles, even as Beatles copyists…

For one great example of how a rhythm section can make or break a song, have a listen to the Fleetwood Mac original of Dreams, and then the Corrs remake. Andrea Corr has a lovely voice, and does a pretty nice version, albeit a carbon copy of the phrasing and shape of the original. But the utterly soulless anodyne arrangement of their version that loses all of the tension, space and human feel that made the whole of the Rumours album so good. The Corrs version is pretty much music for people that really don’t care about music. It’s good, it’s just not good. Music by committee. This isn’t meant to turn into a rant about the Corrs – gawd bless their freakishly perfect gene pool – more a word of caution to those of you in bands not to get caught up writing music for arenas, not to get obsessed with making your album as loud as it can possibly be. If you have to, do a super-compressed version to send to radio, just don’t make the rest of us suffer through it.

Last week, I witnessed an absolute masterclass in how to play bass in a stadium – the Police reunion show at Twickenham. For all his musical sins of recent years, Sting, in the context of the Police, is still one of the most imaginative, interesting and instantly recognisable rock bassists around… bizarre given that he’s playing lines that he wrote almost 30 years ago, which still sound fresher than 90% of what’s around today. The Police’s sound always had loads of space in it, in between Stewart Copeland’s out of time but full of energy drumming (still drifting all over the place tempo-wise, but crammed with that punkish drive that made them so compelling first time round) and Andy Summers spacey delay-drenched guitar parts (until he attempted an ill-advised jazz workout on, I think, So Lonely – not to put too fine a point on it, it was a disaster). Still, Sting and Copeland put on a show of just how defining a rhythm section can be if the musicians put their mind to it. Proper magic. (click here for my photos of the gig.)

David Sylvian at the RFH

david sylvian at the RFH London

Went to see David Sylvian last night at the RFH last night, with Lo, Catster and The Cheat. I’ve been a big fan of his (that’s David Sylvian, not The Cheat) for ages, but had never got to see him live so was really looking forward to it. When I found out a couple of days ago that the wonderful and lovely Theo Travis was playing sax and flute with him, I was even more excited. Any day watching Theo play music is a good day.

The gig was, as expected wonderful – moodily lit, as you can see in the above photo, and the rest of my sneakily taken rubbish camera phone pics, the band played a range of stuff from right across David’s career, all the way from Ghosts through tracks of Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth, Secrets Of The Beehive, Dead Bees On A Cake to last year’s Blemish (was Blemish last year? the year before? whatever…) – all good stuff. It was odd hearing DS without the foil of another guitar player – one of the defining features of his records is that he almost always has a mad guitarist as the random element in the midst of the calmness – BJ Cole on Gone To Earth, David Torn on Secrets Of The Beehive, Fripp and Trey Gunn on The First Day, Derek Bailey on Blemish etc… – but tonight it was just himself on guitar, playing simple acoustic strummy stuff on almost all of the tunes. Very simple acoustic strummy stuff – he appears to only use about 4 chord shapes… Which worked, but left me wondering what another guitarist would’ve added. Thankfully, Theo was there as that random more freewheeling element – the tracks without him were noticeably more restrained, tied more tightly to the sequenced tracks that fleshed out most of the gig with bleeps, squeaks and canned brass and woodwind. With Theo playing in and around the tunes, they took on a more spontaneous feel, and it seemed to lift the band into a more spontaneous place, intentionally or otherwise.

All in, a gorgeous gig. I love the fact that DS doesn’t feel the need to throw in an up-tempo number to please the crowd – the dynamic changes were largely left to whether the ever-brilliant Steve Jansen was playing predominantly acoustic or electronic percussion; the acoustic stuff being far more dynamic, which the electronic kept everything in a really tightly defined dynamic and emotional framework.

Last night's Recycle Collective gig…

Ah, it’s good to be back Recycling! :o)

It took Lo. and i ages to get to the venue, thanks to nasty south London traffic, but we’d left plenty of time, so no panic. When we got there, Cleveland was already setting up, Sarda and Kari were downstairs, Oli was sorting out the venue, and all was familiar. We set up, and just listening to Cleveland soundcheck made me realise how much I’ve missed hearing him perform in the last 9 months – for all of 2006, he was doing the Recycle Collective every 2 or 3 months, so I got to both listen to and perform with him a lot. He’s definitely one of my favourite solo looping performers anywhere, and he gets more proficient with the technology every time I see him play.

So the gig itself started with me solo, with a couple of improvs, including the now-fairly-regular one based on Bach’s Cello Suite #1 in G, and then I got Andrea Hazell up, for a big sprawling open ambient piece – Andrea’s voice lends a gravitas to everything she sings on, as noted before. Lovely stuff.

We then finished off the first half with some trio improvs, some cool funky stuff with Cleveland beatboxing, and some more spacey ambient things.

Second half started with Cleveland on his own, but he very quickly got Andrea up to join him, and their duo segment was really really wonderful – their voices combine so well, and the juxtaposition of his funkiness and her operatic poise was beautiful. I really hope we get to hear more of that!

Cleveland invited me back up, and we went into more funky, spacey territory with Cleveland launching into a tune from Carmen, which he and Andrea then played around with for a while which was both marvellous and hilarious, especially when Cleveland went into a patois/ragamuffin version – really magic stuff!

And to finish the night, I got Lo. up to sing with us, and she improvised a really gorgeous sound, that Cleveland added harmonies to, and the three of them stacked vocals for a big ambient ending. Lovely lovely music.

It was really lovely to play the vortex, though with the venue shift and the big break from the last show to this one, the audience numbers were down on our Darbucka averages… We should be back with a Darbucka show in October – watch this space, I’ll be booking it ASAP!

write up in Time Out for tomorrow night's Recycle Collective gig…

Once again, we’ve got a really lovely write up in Time Out

“Singularly talented solo looper/electric bassist Lawson moves his long running RC night from Darbuka to a new regular slot at the Vortex. Joining the ambient effects maestro tonight will be bewilderingly versatile singer Cleveland Watkiss, also looping his a capella voice, and Royal Opera singer Andrea Hazell, this will be breathlessly spontaneous, indefinable, music making.”

That’s rather nice, and true, and means you shouldn’t miss it!

Time to instigate a gig checklist…

Each time something like this happens, I vow to never let it happen again… but it does. For last night’s gig at the Perseverence in Marylebone (that’s in London, worldwide bloglings), I managed to forget all but one of my foot controllers – no midi board for the Looperlative, no expression pedals, no volume pedal… just the two button footswitch that i use for the Lexicon… which did save my arse, as it meant I could still do rhythmic loops, which I could then rerecordf rom the Lexicon into the Looperlative. It made for an interesting gig, which was webcast (sorry I didn’t let you know before…) and I think will be archived somewhere to be watched at a later date… I’ll post the link, once I’ve checked out the general levels of crapness on it…

As it was Lo. played pretty well, considering I was without hoof-controls. And I did a couple of nice improv-y things at the beginning, including one based on Bach’s Cello Suite no. 1 in G, that I’ve done a couple of times before (with the best version I’ve done being the one at Tuesday’s gig at the Spitz).

So I’ll comment again on the show, once I’ve watched it back. The audience, however, were lovely – almost all friends and some people I haven’t seen in ages, which was particularly pleasing.

But I really have to be more vigilant about what I need to pack for gigs! doh!

Greenbelt round-up…

So Greenbelt – another fab weekend. This year’s them was ‘Heaven In Ordinary’ – I didn’t like it when they suggested it last year, but it’s what Greenbelt is, an ordinary world full of heavenly loveliness. At least, it is for those of us who’ve been going there for years and know a million people (bit tougher for those peeps who are there for the first time and spend the weekend meeting a million new peoples…)

Anyway, we got there thursday evening, set up the tent.

Friday was spent catching up with friends and getting ready for the first gig of the weekend that both Lo. and I were playing at – a mainstage set with Sarah Masen. The first nice surprise was how well bands are looked after on mainstage – lots of lovely roadies and stage managers sorting everything out. Good peoples. The set went really well – was a whole lot of fun, and the crowd was HUGE for a first-band-on. Sarah sang beautifully. All good nothing bad.

The best thing about that was that we then had the rest of the night off, and were able to see a bit of Over The Rhine, and then all of Billy Bragg’s set. He was, as expected, outstanding. Funny, engaging, moving, all good things. Couple of great new songs, fab versions of old songs. He just confirmed why he’s one of my favourite live acts in the whole world, and one of my favourite guitarists too.

Onto Saturday, which started as Friday ended, with Billy Bragg, doing a talk about the campaign for a British Bill of Rights. Interesting stuff, if not without some unanswered questions (especially his attachment to the notion of a new inclusive english national pride to replace the cynical racist nastiness of the BN/P et al.)

Anyway, that was great, fascinating stuff. Following that was The Rising – Martyn Joseph’s songwriters in the round session that he does every year – fascinating stuff as usual, with BB, Amy Wadge and the bloke from Willard Grant…

After that much mellowness ensued, hanging with friends, eating lovely food, until it was time to get ready for a busy evening, firstly my gig with Ric Hordinski and then the Recycle Collective. Always a highlight of Greenbelt for me, the RC gig was a blinder, featuring me, Lo, Ric, Andrea Hazell and Patrick Wood. Much lovely music followed, and Patrick in particular was on incredible form. A real triumph.

Sunday was meant to be my mellow day, but after the previous night’s gig, Ric asked if I’d play with him again in the Performance Cafe, and I’m v. glad I did, as it was probably the best gig we did – we rocked! Great reaction from the Performance Cafe crowd too.

After that I was supposed to be compering but managed to delegate and get some time off for buying fairtrade shoes and hanging out with lovelies again. Got to see Sarah Masen play solo in the Perf. Cafe (aside from a couple of song with the lovely lady vocalistes) and she sounded great, as did Emily Barker who was on before her.

Late nights at GB are spent in the Organic Beer Tent – friendships are made, beer is drunk and the world is put right.

Monday was back to more gigs – I was compering in the Perf. Cafe, and got to introduce one of my highlights of the weekend – Nizar Al-Issa (though I got his name wrong on the intro – sorry, Nizar!) – he’s a singer and oud player, and a really great musician. Beautiful haunting music.

After him was Lo and I doing our main duo gig, playing to a nice full tent of peoples, and we played pretty well. Lo’s piano songs being especially great.

after that I got to see another one of my highlights – Beth Rowley, a fantastic singer with an amazing band (it helps that her guitarist and drummer, paul and phil wilkinson are two of my favouritest musicians anywhere). Really great stuff.

the evening was spent watching first Iain Archer, then Duke Special on the mainstage – both long time faves of mine, and both on fine form, playing to a huge crowd who loved them muchly. The headliners on the night were of no interest to me, so we headed for the beer tent. After being there an hour, Lo and I got a call asking us to go and play the late night cabaret (playing to about 1500 people)… after 2 pints… hmmm, we did it, and pulled it off. ‘Twas a little ragged, but fine.

And thus ended another great greenbelt. Now it’s time to buy a load of the talks I missed as downloads.

See you there next year!

Tuesday night's gig at The Spitz.




6-String Bass

Originally uploaded by Schrollum

Got back from Greenbelt on Tuesday morning (more on that in the full GB round-up coming soon), and barely had time for anything before having to pack my stuffs up and head out the door again for the gig at the Spitz, opening for Hauschka and Max Richter. I wasn’t familiar with either musician before the show, so didn’t have any particular plan of what to play.

Before i went on, the event organiser, Ben Eshmade, was DJ-ing, playing some really really beautiful music, which inspired me to stick to the more ambient mellow end of things, so I started with Grace and Gratitude, which morphed into a more electronic drum ‘n’ bassy thing (with that slap ‘n’ pop percussion idea I’ve used on quite a few improvs). I then played Behind Every Word, again, with big improv cadenza and with Looperlative weirdness at the beginning (actually it was MIDI footo-controller weirdness thanks to a pedal getting stuck, but it meant that the loopage didn’t happen quite as planned…) – and I finished up with an improv based around Bach’s Cello Suite #1 in G Major. Much fun, and a fine set, though I say so myself, which was very well received. Hauschka’s music was beautiful prepared piano stuff, quite minimalist for the most part, and his stage persona was most endearing. Max Richter had a two person string section with him and a laptop, and played ice-cool piano-scapes, with lots of vocal samples and backwards stuff. Lovely, if a little to far to the blue end of the colour spectrum (I’m a hapless romantic, don’t you know ;o) )

All in a fine evening (including a delish curry on Brick Lane with Lo, Sarda and Kari). But I’m now knackered and definitely in need of some time off!

Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman

Every now and then I revisit an album and kick myself for leaving it so long between listens – such is the case with Tracy Chapman’s first album. I like everything I’ve heard from her, but this album, written, it seems, in poverty, and brimming with righteous anger is an outstanding debut. Every song is great, the production is sparse but interesting, and her voice is both world-weary and fresh at the same time.

Go on, fish it out and have a listen again…