10 Collaborators Who Changed My Music Life. Pt 7 – BJ Cole

Today’s influential collaborator is BJ Cole, and for someone who changed my music-life as much as BJ did, there’s precious little documentation of us playing together. This is because the vast majority of the development that happened for me while playing with BJ happened in my living room. For a couple of years we got together as often as possible to just play. Sometimes it was every other week. When we were busy, our sessions were a little more spread out. But it was time and space to experiment with a particular kind of abstract textural improv that was utterly formative for me. BJ was quite involved with the London Improvisors Orchestra at the time, which gave him space to apply his mind-bendingly broad approach to the pedal steel guitar to some pretty out music. He was also working with Luke Vibert and others on the EDM scene, so his development of his own voice was an extraordinary thing to witness – especially in a musician who was already the most influential practitioner of his instrument that this country has ever produced (for those who don’t know, BJ played the pedal steel part on Tiny Dancer by Elton John, and played with David Sylvian, Robert Plant, Bjork, Deacon Blue, Paul Young, REM, Beck, and was in the Verve, as well as making groundbreaking ambient records under his own name).

Our experimental sessions in my living room were space to push ideas to breaking point – BJ had a Gibson Echoplex, and I had my Looperlative (or probably a pair of EDPs when we first started playing together) so we could create a massive layered sound – we built, and the dismantled, a whole load of cinematic and occasionally terrifying soundscapes. The great thing about it for me was that, because we had a tendency to occupy similar sonic territory (the steel has a huge range, and as I was using the eBow an awful lot at the time, we were both producing a lot of sustained chords in similar registers) I had to listen more intently than ever to try and find the space where our sound-worlds met. Often in those sessions things would go off the deep end, and we’d end up with harsh noise (I wonder if any of that music is on a hard drive somewhere? We did record a lot of it…) It was a project that involved a lot of trial and error, a lot of rescuing of improvisations that got away from us.

The thing that I think made it most interesting for me was how successful the music was whenever we played live. Those safe-sessions in my house allowed us to push boundaries that meant that when we played live, we had a whole load of experience to fall back on, and were less apt to fall over the cliff-edge. Allowing yourself to find what happens when things get too messy, or when sounds pile up to the point where it begins to lose meaning – those are important and formative experiments. I’m deeply grateful to BJ for all the time we spent finding sounds and ideas, pushing things too far, and then applying it to a range of gigs in different combinations – my favourite of our projects was a trio with Cleveland Watkiss. We played a number of times at my night, The Recycle Collective, and it was an amazing experience and a great combinations of sounds. But I also loved opening for and sitting in with BJ’s group at the time, with Eddie Sayer on percussion and Ben Bayliss on laptop, playing the music from his brilliant Trouble In Paradise album.

It was such a privilege to get to play with a musician of BJ’s stature, but moreso a musician of his deep, ceaseless commitment to moving forward in his own creative path. I learned as much just from the experience of playing with someone who was already ‘a legend’ in the pop world, already absolutely at the top of his game, but who never stopped reaching for new things, who was ceaselessly curious about what else he might be able to do with his instrument. I carry that inspiration with me every time I pick up the instrument, and I really hope we get to play together again soon. It’s been way, way too long.

10 Collaborators Who Changed My Music Life. Part 6 – Poppy Porter

OK, here’s an interesting one. The 6th collaborator on my list that changed my music-life is Poppy Porter, and it’s apt that I’m writing about her today because the new issue of Bass Guitar Magazine has just come out with an interview with me in it, and a lot of what I’m talking about is this project.

What’s interesting is that, in the context of our duo, Poppy doesn’t make sound in order to make music. Our project, Illuminated Loops, involves me improvising, and Poppy – who is synaesthetic – drawing what she sees while I play. And then, I get to see whatever she’s drawing as she does it, and treat it as a graphic score for the music that comes next – to reinterpret the shapes and patterns and colours, the pastel strokes and swirls, and turn them back into music. It’s one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve ever been involved in, and has resulted in a bunch of music that is both wholly me and simultaneously entirely dependent on Poppy’s input for it to be what it is. It’s a co-creation project, where the lines between the visual and the audible are blurred in terms of who is making what happen.

For both Poppy and I, Illuminated Loops is a chance to inject another stimulus into our work, to see what happens when something else shapes the process. For me, that’s have the twin focus of both making a noise with the aim of ‘triggering’ images, and then reinterpreting them, and for Poppy, it’s taking a process that’s done for a while – that of turning the images she sees while listening to music into art – and making that a real-time performance. That’s a pretty terrifying shift of modality for an artist who makes things in a studio and then presents the finished work. To have a creative process that ends in a product suddenly morph into a performance is a massive change of context, and has big implications for the aesthetic of her work. For my part, I end up making a different kind of music in this context – it’s both me and not me at the same time. It’s all my sounds and stems from my musical vocabulary, but I react to things differently, and assemble things in a different way because of the visual cues and the that glorious feedback loop between Poppy and I.

With all of that magic going on, it’s no surprise that this project is at the heart of my ongoing PhD study, looking at my audience’s experience of improvisation. So we should be doing a lot more Illuminated Loops shows in the near future. Til then, grab a copy of Bass Guitar Magazine, and have a read of the new article. And if you subscribe to me on Bandcamp, Illuminated Loops vol I is already available, and vol II is out in the next couple of weeks (spoiler – Vol II is easily one of my favourite recordings I’ve ever done 🙂 )

And definitely check out Poppy’s work on her website – www.poppyporter.co.uk – and have a read of her blog, she’s a fascinating thinker, and extraordinary artist.

10 Collaborators Who Changed My Music Life. Part 5 – Theo Travis

And on the 5th day, Steve talked about working with Theo Travis.

Day five of the ‘collaborators that changed my music-life’ series, and we reach someone with whom I had from the very first time we played a quite amazing synergy. Not til I played with Daniel Berkman did I find another musician with whom it felt like we could do nothing wrong… Theo and I met on a gig in Norwich, the day after the end of the tour I did opening for Level 42 in 2002 – it was a mini-festival of solo performers, each of whom had to overlap with the next player. I’m trying to remember which was round it went, but I either joined the end of Theo’s set, and then ceded to Roger Eno, or the other way round. Suffice to say, the little bit of crossover in my playing with Theo was enough for us to make plans to play together again soon after. It must’ve been very soon after, because I remember the first time we played, I was still using a Soundblaster soundcard, with just a stereo input, and I replaced that with some of the money I made on the Level 42 tour!

Playing with Theo was the pinnacle of the early collaboration period for me, and there was pretty much nothing we ever did that I didn’t love. It was really interesting because our sound was constantly developing and evolving through the time we played together, but we never went through a period of making a bad noise. Some of the musical relationships I’ll be detailing in this series were great because they provided space for experiments that didn’t initially bear fruit, but Theo was definitely the first person I played with where just about everything we ever did was releasable. He was also the first melody instrument collaborator that I’d had – although his exquisite use of the DL4 allowed him to do some amazing textures and harmony – for a lot of the time, my primary role was harmonic and textural, and that gave me space to focus on those sounds, on building my vocabulary of textural pad sounds and looping techniques to layer them in interesting ways. Which had a massive effect on my solo playing thereafter (compare Not Dancing For Chicken with Grace And Gratitude, and you’ll hear what playing with Theo did to my solo work!)

When we finally recorded For The Love Of Open Spaces, every track was a pure improvisation. No discussion of keys or moods or anything, except on the track ‘Lovely’, where I said ‘let’s try one without any looping’. But, for every track we did, we tried to repeat the same idea, and see if there was a better take of that idea once we’d played it through. The whole album is first takes. While we did quite successfully transition those recordings into re-performable compositions, at the time, the spontaneity of the original each time was where the magic was.

Theo and I played a fair bit together between 2003 and 2006, including a Jazz Services-funded tour, from which we have a really good live recording that I’ve recently remastered and will be reissuing soon as part of an expanded deluxe download version of For The Love Of Open Spaces, along with a remaster of our earliest record – It’s Not Going To Happen, which was released in a limited edition of 100 to the first 100 pre-orders of the CD when it came out in 2003. We also met up recently when LEYlines opened for Soft Machine, and talked about doing something new together. I really hope that happens. Theo’s a wonderful human, and a quite extraordinary musician. Go check out his other music on his Bandcamp page.

10 Collaborators Who Changed My Music Life. Part 3 – Michael Manring

Day 3, and today also happens to be the 20th anniversary of my first website going online! The one that eventually became this site here. When I got my first laptop in 1997, it was because I’d started writing for Bassist Magazine, and the first thing I ever wrote to them I actually hand wrote and posted to them. So, that was insane, and I needed a way to get stuff to them more easily. So I bought a laptop, and not long after, a dial-up modem for it. I got myself a Compuserve address, and used some kind of by-the-minute dial-up access thing for a while, before finding an email company in Orkney via some excellent geek friends, called Zetnet. Zetnet email came with webspace, but I initially assumed making a website required expensive software and stuff that I didn’t have. It didn’t take me long to work out that if I knew just a little HTML, I could hand code a site just in notepad, and if I saved the text files as .html and one of them was called index.html I could upload them to my Zetnet space and have my own website! What an extraordinary thing. The version on archive.org dates it to 20 years ago today, but in thinking about it, that may actually be the day that I added a counter, as that’s what the image shows…

Anyway, what does this have to do with collaboration? Well, one of the first things I was able to do when I got online was start to contact my music heroes, people I wanted to be able to interview for Bassist magazine, and the companies that made the gear I was interested in. I remember finding Modulus’ website, and discovering that their artist relations person was also a big Bruce Cockburn fan…

And one of the people I first got in touch with was Michael Manring. I already had his Thonk album, and having read a bunch of interviews with him, was deeply inspired and influenced by his take on solo bass. This was before I’d released anything solo, but I was starting to play things at guitar shows, and I was on a record with a quartet called Ragatal, with flamenco guitar, tabla and electric violin. I sent a copy to Michael, and we struck up an email correspondence.

Fast forward to my first NAMM show in 1999, and I met up with Michael and interviewed him for Bassist mag. I was driving up to the Bay Area to visit Rick Turner, Modulus and Zon Guitars and found out that Michael was playing a solo show opening for Trey Gunn (who I’d recently interviewed for Bassist Mag in London). So I thought ‘I’ll go to the show’. Michael offered to let me stay at his house, and I set off. But I had no map, and sat nav didn’t exist then. So I drove through San Francisco, with no idea where I was going, out the other side, and over the Golden Gate Bridge. That was obviously not the way to the venue (which I only knew was called the Last Day Saloon and was in-or-near Chinatown) – so I turned round, came back over the bridge, guessed a turning, eventually stopped and asked someone randomly who told me I was about three blocks away… 🙂

Anyway, that’s not what this is about. Collaboration is the theme here, and Michael became a collaborator the following year, when we both played a solo bass gig in Santa Cruz and did a thing together at the end. Over the next few years we did a LOT of shows both in California and around England, and in those duo shows I got to discover much of what was possible at the intersection of two bass guitars (albeit to heavily processed and decidedly weird bass guitars). We played sold out shows, did clinics together, and drove a lot of miles – I think at this point I’ve probably done more shows with Michael than any other improv collaborator besides Lobelia. And the whole thing was an extraordinary eye-opening experience. Remember, here was the person who introduced me to the idea of looping, whose records made me want to be a solo bassist, who had inspired me for many years, and there we were playing loads of weird and wonderful improvised music. We’ve never rehearsed together, never played not in front of an audience. Only twice ever played a prewritten tune together (we did Autumn Leaves as a duo, and played Blue In Green in a trio with David Friesen… Oh, and we did a version of All Blues in a trio with the very brilliant John Lester when he opened for us on tour!)

Part of me wishes I had more recordings of those early gigs. Part of me is happier to remember how they felt than get hung up on what the music actually sounded like. But I was being stretched, trying to rise to the challenge of playing improvised shows with easily one of the most brilliant musicians ever to pick up the bass guitar. He was ceaseless in his encouragement and support for me – and still is! – and he became a supremely valued friend.

There were so many things I learned playing with Michael, and watching him play solo, so many times when I wondered if what I was doing was any good, and his words of encouragement dispelled doubts. And none more so than when we played a house concert at the home of the inventor of the Looperlative, Bob Amstadt, in 2012, and I suggested doing two solo sections in the first set and then some duo stuff later on, and he said ‘no! let’s do it all duo!’ And we did, and I was finally able to record what we sounded like properly, and get it out there. The album, Language Is A Music, is still subscriber-only, and you can get it here – it’s something that I’m not only deeply proud of as a work of art, but which represents almost two decades of playing together, of friendship, encouragement, of growing as a musician and improvisor, and learning from one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever heard, let alone been on stage with.

10 Collaborators Who Changed My Music Life. Part 1 – Daniel Berkman

I’ve been meaning to do this for ages, but for the next ten days I’m going to post about one collaborator each day that has changed my music life. There are way more than ten who could fit the bill (maybe I’ll enjoy it so much I’ll keep going after ten, we’ll see) but we’ll start with these ten:

Day one, I’m want to talk to you about Daniel Berkman. I met Daniel because of another fabulous collaborator, Artemis – though I hadn’t met either of them when she suggested that Daniel and I should do a gig or two together. Sure, says I. I showed up to the first gig – a house/loft gig in San Francisco hosted by another new friend, Jimmy, and we met while setting up. As we started getting a sound, it dawned on both of us that playing solo sets and a little bit of a duo thing at the end was a bit of a waste of this opportunity, so we did two entire sets of improvised music, and finished wide-eyed and wondering if it was a fluke… But the gig we had the next night in Oakland was at least as fabulous as the first one, and something magical had been set in place.

The following January we did 8 more shows, then ended up releasing the recordings of all 10 shows – pretty much every note Daniel and I had played together up to that point (we didn’t jam in soundchecks, or play tunes outside of the gigs – just get on stage and see what happens) – the recordings also feature Artemis on vocals, and her presence became such an important part of the emotional/artist arc of the gigs, each set climbing towards a vocal finale.

Working with Daniel brought with it the most extraordinary sense of possibility – his skill set as a multi-instrumentalist is unfathomably huge, and the crossover in our taste from electronica to pop music to weird shit to folk and jazz was equally huge. So we got to go to a lot of different places. It was a really formative collaboration for me in terms of how percussion and drums related to what I do as an improvisor – a whole load of ideas and experiments fell into place in that particular musical setting.

Right now, I’m finishing up mixing the 11 shows for our third tour together, which should be out in some form or other later in the year.

For now, you can check out the work we did together via the players embedded below, and Daniel’s extraordinary solo releases on Bandcamp too… Go buy his music and follow what he’s up to. I hope we get to play together again soon 🙂

Crossing The River – When Albums Move From Product To Chapter

I’ve finally started work on mixing the rest of the recordings from the FingerPainting project. The existing recordings are from 2012-2013, all ten shows available as a download, a complete document of everything that Daniel Berkman, Artemis and I had played together up until that point. But we did another tour in 2014, and until this week, they’d remained untouched in my Reaper-recordings-vault. Too massive a venture to contemplate, especially after the absolutely mammoth task of mixing and mastering the first lot, which put a huge strain on the rest of my life for about four months in 2013. However, this week I decided to see what would happen if I mixed and mastered them really quickly – applied a much lighter touch than I did to the processing last time round – FingerPainting was right at the beginning of my journey with professional-quality mastering work, and the project taught me SO much. But it also took an extraordinary amount of time, as I worked on getting the perfect sound for every aspect.  Continue reading “Crossing The River – When Albums Move From Product To Chapter”

Thoughts on Cecil Taylor

Listening to this and thinking about Cecil Taylor. His legacy, his choices, his extraordinarily personal take on music.

He’s someone whose choices inspired me for many decades. When I first heard that he chose to wash dishes rather than capitulate to the way the clubs that would book him wanted him to play, it literally changed the path of my music career. He’s an avatar for choosing the hard road. Choosing a path like that is not a one-off choice that you tell your friends about to make yourself look like some bad-ass. To be as accomplished a musician as Cecil was, and still choose to keep your music as a sacred thing not to be messed with just to pay the bills, is an extraordinary commitment. It’s not like he couldn’t have played standards as well as anyone if he’d wanted to – he even recorded a bunch of standards later in life – but he saw something as bigger than the status of being ‘full time in music’.

I spent a lot of years thinking that being full time was the aim. Cecil’s witness was a huge part of me getting past that point and realising that the music was way too important to make it bland just to get a gig. It’s a position that’s put me at odds with some of the places I’ve worked, and it’s a lesson that I’ve had to relearn a bunch of times, but thinking I could make my music ‘fit’ (and I’ve always been happy to play other people’s music as a ‘job’, and do the occasional function band – it’s just my own creative path that I’ve been more protective of) – but thanks to what I gleaned from Cecil’s path, I’m still doing the thing I do, finding the places where it fits, and refusing to screw it up to fit some booker’s idea of what I ought to be doing. I do WAY fewer gigs than I otherwise might, but Cecil is there to illuminate the long game.

RIP, Cecil – you influenced a huge amount of people, made some extraordinary music, and I’m materially less well-off because of your example, but infinitely happier with my creative choices. Thank you x

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/apr/06/cecil-taylor-free-jazz-pioneer-dies-age-89-new-york-pianist-avant-garde

What Does It Mean To Do Your Own Thing?

Light and Shade
High and Low
Fast And Slow
Loud and Soft
Harsh and Mellow
Tension and Resolution
Inside and Outside
Sound and Silence

…the spread of options can be seen both in a micro and macro senses. It’s OK (caveat – of course, anything’s OK, it’s your creative practice here… but Imma try not to get bogged down in overly-explanatory language) to say ‘actually, my role within the scope of things happening in my field is to explore only shade.’ You don’t have to do everything or be everything. Your art is not a school science project to be graded on a set of learning outcomes.

BUT. As orthodoxies and modes of practice within particular disciplines emerge and coalesce around a limited set of expressive options, the invitation is built into that to transgress, explore, colour outside the lines, stay INSIDE the lines when everyone else is going nuts… Your practice is yours, but it exists within an ecosystem that’s partly of your own choosing and partly in the perception and experience of your audience. You can opt to ignore that and be ‘true to yourself’ or however you want to frame it, but when everyone is ploughing the same furrow, your seemingly radical notions are seen in that light.

An example – when I first started playing solo with a looper, a ton of (obviously inexperienced) people thought I’d invented it. Like I was the first person to ever do that. Even to those who had come across it before as an idea, there were very few who could name another solo artist using a looper, and even fewer who had ever seen someone play like that. It was, in short, a killer gimmick. I used to do this schtick where in the second tune in my set (back when I played compositions with actual names n shit) and go to the bar, leaving all the loops running. The trick was that it didn’t sound like just a loop going round and round, but because I had enough unsynced loops going, it could sustain interest as a performance without me adding anything for the 90-120 seconds it took me to go the bar, get a drink and rejoin my toys on stage. Ta-daaaa! 

By the time KT Tunstall appeared on Jools, that gimmick was dead. It was no longer a big reveal. A ton of people were looping by then, Imogen Heap was doing amazing shit with it, and YouTube was happening so people could see all the old footage of Michael Manring and David Torn and David Friesen and Eberhard Weber and Robert Fripp and Bill Frisell and a ton of other people doing extraordinary looping-enhanced performances from WAY before I started doing it… If I’d stuck with the gimmick, with the fact that for my audience it had been a new and novel thing, I’d still be wearing those clown shoes now and be looking like a massive bellend. When Lo and I did a gig with Ed Sheeran in 2007/8, he still had this whole ‘look at me, I’m looping!’ moment in his set. We were on before him, with a much more sophisticated take on the whole looping thing and it stole the thunder out from that moment. However, he had a ton more going for him, so it didn’t spoil his gig at all – he wasn’t reliant on that gimmick for ‘the sell’. (And he was about 12 or something at the time. His mum picked him up after the gig 🙂 )

Anyway, be aware of the way the wind is blowing, and take note of prevailing trends and orthodoxies. If you stick with them, you’ve got to do them in a way that makes your work something other than a hazy reflection of someone else’s work. Doing your own thing doesn’t require you to be wilfully obscure. Conspicuous originality is a deeply overrated and misunderstood notion. Plagarism is, after all, way harder than you imagine. But it also takes

  • some deliberate intent
  • some deep breaths and a commitment to an exploration that might not come to much immediately
  • to be able to go out on a limb and build on those other innovations
  • to take your art to a new place, to see the thing that’s happening from a alternate vantage point
  • To bring your life, experience, skills and curiosity to bear on what’s going on in your field.

All of those things can be fed, nurtured and brought into your work in fascinating ways. There are no guarantees of brilliance or acclaim or financial reward (in fact, the opposite is demonstrably the case, that by far the biggest chunk of money in the arts economy goes to the safe and the derivative, with a number of notable exceptions) but as human beings, doing mediocre things for money is how we got in this mess in the first place. There is no creative or artist reason to pursue anything less than excellence. Now, go be extraordinary – even if you miss, the journey will be worth it.

“Why Do You Sit Down To Play?” The Long Answer…

When I get asked why I sit down to play, the short answer is normally ‘because I need two feet to operate all these pedals!’. But it’s a little more complex than that – as you’d expect, given how many people manage to play standing up while also having massive pedal boards…

The problem is not turning regular effects on and off. That you can easily do with one foot. It’s not even turning off more than one at a time – that can be done with a loop-switcher (pedal that allows you to have any number of pedals in a separate ‘loop’ that the sound can either go through or bypass), or by having them as a patch in a multi-FX unit (I do that a lot, obviously).

The issue for me is continuous control – wah, volume, delay feedback, pitch shift, parameters that fade in and out, and the interactions between them… That’s such a huge part of that constantly evolving feel that I aim for in my music – the feel that is absolutely at the heart of what I’ve been trying to develop as a solo artist since my very first album. Have a listen to ‘Drifting’ from my first album – in order to transition from one set of loopy-stuff to another, I had to fade the first loop down to nothing, quickly delete it and start looping again, all within the context of the music… Continue reading ““Why Do You Sit Down To Play?” The Long Answer…”

The Beauty Of Complexity – Why I Can’t Play Anything Live Off My New Album

Right, before the main bit of this post, let’s get some niceness in your ears – my brand new album is here: Hit play while you read this:

…and if you’re in London or Birmingham, come see me play this week – Wednesday (tomorrow!) at the Bulls Head in Barnes, Sunday at Tower Of Song in Birmingham 😉

Now, on with the wordsmithery: 

I’m an improvisor. That much is known, right? But there’s a pretty broad range of approaches to improv and ways of understanding what it means:

  • People who play guitar solos on rock songs are often improvisors.
  • Jazz musicians who play the head then play a solo full of material they’ve culled from the rich recorded history of jazz are improvisors.
  • Classical musicians who can interpret figured bass and play baroque music authentically are improvisors.
  • Free players who actively avoid consonance, western-harmonically-define melodic structure and metric rhythmic combinations are improvisors.

So where does my practice fit? Cos, let’s be honest, a lot of it doesn’t *sound* like improv, right? And the language we have to describe recordings is, quite understandably, about ‘songs’ and ‘compositions’ and ‘arrangements’. And once it’s recorded, it just *is*. The variation in the experience of the music is now all about context and the technology used to turn the digital file into sound… The [lossless] file itself is a fixed entity – if it gets changed, it’s a something else. It ceases to be the thing it was.

But the genesis of the music? That’s all improv. That’s not to say that none of the elements of the tracks on The Surrender Of Time have any precedent – that would be like expecting a conversationalist to invent new words every day to avoid being a script writer.

No, improv forms a distinct set of variables for me in music making, which I’ll attempt to list and explain here.

  1. Vocabulary, not repertoire: If you’re in a band, or planning to play in bands, your greatest asset is a repertoire of songs to call on, in a variety of styles that you’re comfortable with and respectful of. Being a great technician – beyond a fairly basic level of facility – is definitely secondary to your ears, understanding and experience. Your ability to play the songs is everything. The relationship between the songs and the spaces to add your own stuff in is variable depending on the setting, but first of all, you gotta know the songs.

    I know very few songs, comparative to how long I’ve been playing bass. I’m *really* good at learning sets when I need to (this is my job, after all!) but I don’t retain them, and I rarely practice songs between gigs. I don’t sit down and play along with records to practice, and I’ve done hardly any transcription in my life. I got good at it so I could do it when needed, but it ceased to be part of my own creative development when I started putting together the toolkit for making the music I cared about, based on the impact certain practices seemed to have on other players…

    Instead, I spent time – and still spend most of my time – building vocabulary. Working on variations on the building blocks that make up the sound that’s recognisable as me. Expanding the set of harmonic possibilities that follow any chord, building a set of sounds that take that music and give it meaning, working on myriad melodic ideas over all the harmonic areas that I’m finding interesting at the moment. When I hear music that moves me, instead of trying to recreate it, I intently focus on how it makes me feel, and then try to recreate that feeling with my own music. That’s one of the reasons why I can quite unashamedly love my own music – it’s not about an arrogant juxtaposition of what I do alongside what anyone else does, and I don’t necessarily expect anyone else to agree with my enjoyment of it, but if I didn’t love it, it wouldn’t exist.

    So when it comes to making the music, instead of me drawing on a massive catalogue of other people’s songs, or transcriptions of their solos, I’m searching through my own catalogue of sounds and ideas for the right thing to attach to whatever it is that I’m trying to say. It’s soundtracking, in a very unmetaphorical sense. But it also means that I never get to properly ‘re-play’ anything. I don’t do multiple takes of the same ‘piece’. I might spend a day exploring a particular area (similar to the process of working out what a book meant to you by talking to multiple people about it, and refining your own take on it…) but there’s never two ‘takes’ of the same piece. Sometimes multiple versions of that iterative process get released, because they’re always distinct enough to be treated as different works.

  2. Complexity vs Repeatability. So, because I’m not forward-projecting to a time when I need to be able to recreate this music, I can allow it to be WAY more complex that I could ever make a composition. Again, it’s not about relative levels of complexity with other musicians (there are people whose composed work would in many ways be way way harder to remember and recreate than mine…) it’s more about my process – I have very little headspace for spending months learning how to recreate existing work. I don’t operate in a commercial space where that matters… or rather, I’ve consciously constructed an alternate performance space, or slotted into the bits of existing ones where I fit, in ways that mean I don’t have to do that.

    But even then, I do bang up against audience expectation that they’d love to hear a favourite tune…. That’s totally understandable, especially as I spent quite a few years doing just that – playing my own songs, doing a set list… Getting away from that has brought about the single biggest leap forward in my creative process since I first picked up the recorder aged 5. When I listen to my live versions of recorded tunes now, it’s only the deviations from the script that interest me. The start point feels like an unnecessary limiting factor, when that start point could just as easily be a sound as a fixed melody.

    So I stripped back the start point to be vocabulary and emotion based, not ‘skeleton composition’ based. It’s pretty heavily influenced by what Coltrane did in later years, when his compositions got looser and looser and were mostly a vehicle for what came after the bit that anyone was familiar. Or Miles’ 70s work, culled from hours of improvisation. Or Bill Frisell’s live solo excursions.

    The result for me is that I can put things together in a way where the serendipity of how they fall IS the composition.

    The unknown state of just how the loops are going to line up half way through the song, or how that loop is going to interact with the Kaoss Pad I’m going to send it through… it’s not ‘random’, in the way that nothing that’s been looped digitally is ever ‘random’ – as soon as it’s done, the result is inevitable, it’s just that no-one can ever know what that will be. The ratios of loop length, because I don’t sync them, are sufficiently complex as to be unknowable, unlearnable, and thus I get to interact with that complexity like a brilliantly unpredictable creative partner. If I was trying to do things that I could recreate, all that would be lost. And if I did it over fixed ideas that were ‘the song’ (in a more jazz like way) that would feel like an unnecessary limiting factor on just how great things can get when serendipity is your homeboy…

  3. Aesthetic constraint vs ‘industry’ expectation : With all of that process, all of the various inspirations (I’m a VORACIOUS music listener, and treat it like ear-food), I needed to find a way to keep focussed on the musical path that would get me to where I felt I needed to get creatively, not be distracted by the rather narrow expectations the come with the various typical western contexts for music – radio stations that play songs, venues that want to know what you’re playing, audiences who make requests, corporate situations that expect a set list, musician-collaborators who want to play standards, or a set of songs. I needed to break from that. Context-wise, house concerts were that, without a doubt. The strangeness and unfamiliarity of ‘your friend’s house’ as a venue gives me a whole lot of creative latitude to mess with all the other expectations, as well as plenty of time to talk about this stuff between songs without the venue getting annoyed that people aren’t dancing…

    But I also needed a way to do something with all the recordings. Because, the simple set of influences on the actual sound of my work mean that the recordings are experienced as ‘finished works’. I’ve built a live recording set up that is basically a studio. The studio IS my instrument (which Jazzwise VERY perceptively picked up on in their review of The Surrender Of Time) – my musical influences contain a LOT of singer/songwriters, because I’m drawn to storytelling over pyrotechnics, politics over self-aggrandisement, questioning music over music that sees itself as the answer… and singers tend to do that best. The music becomes subservient to what the music is trying to say, whether that’s a death metal band, or a rapper, Joni Mitchell or Cannibal Corpse, Divinity Roxx or The Blue Nile – the music is all about creating the context for the story. I just get to hide my stories a little deeper by leaving out the words 😉

So, the records sound ‘finished’. The language that makes most sense when talking about them is the language of songs, of arranging, or composing. They aren’t ‘jams’ or ‘little grooves I’ve been working on’ or however else people’s unfinished work on YouTube gets described, but they also aren’t things I’ve worked out, learned, done a couple of drop-ins on and chopped the end off to make them work for radio… They are conversation pieces that stem for a pretty highly developed philosophy of what improvising within the limitations of live performance with real-time looping makes possible. We have no real words for that, so I’m perfectly OK with you digging my songs 😉

My process is the result of 20 years of finding out how best to tell the stories I want to tell, to play the music that I hear in my head, and do it in a way that responds to the things I hear missing (for me) in other people’s music. When I hear music that doesn’t work for me, I don’t wish they changed it (telling someone else who hasn’t actually hired you as a teacher how they should play music is some tired lazy shit) I just use that as a nudge to work out what it was that was missing for me emotionally and adjust my musical process to work towards that thing that was missing… The gaps are mine to fill, not theirs. (as an aside, this is the exactly the same point of origin as my response to people who come and tell me what they think I should do, in a ‘you should do a funk record!’ or ‘you should totally do a whole ambient record’ or ‘I wish you’d do more of ****’ – my response is, ‘no, you should! It’s you that wants to hear that! This music is exactly what it’s meant to be – take the inspiration and go make your own music’.)

So anyway, call it a song, choose your favourites and play them over and over, transcribe them if that helps your own practice…just don’t ask me to play any of them at shows… 🙂