It’s 2016 And We’re Looking For Magic In All The Wrong Places

“All of the magic in the world is leaving”

– this is a quote from a friend’s blog about the death of Prince. He was quoting what another friend said to him, but it echoes a VERY widely held sentiment that the number of stars/legends/genuises dying is leaving us bereft of talent, of magic.

To which I say ‘bullshit’.

Statistically incomprensible, culturally myopic, yet completely understandable bullshit.

I know why it feels like that. I get it. I succumb to that in the moments after the announcement of the death of a Bowie or a Prince or a Papa Wemba… ‘not another one??’

Another what? Another dead human, another dead musician, another lost piece of the consensus around what made the late 20th Century so special for mass consumer art. That last bit is key. Musicians die all the time, musicians who changed people’s lives, musicians who made music that meant so much to people. Just *not enough people* for it to register on the global radar. Whether or not another 100 million people liked someone isn’t a measure of how important they were to me. The global population is somewhere north of 7.1Billion – that many, many of those will be making music that could change your life is a statistical certainty. That you haven’t found them yet is the product of a whole shit-ton of overlapping choices, cultural phenomena, the outworkings of a capitalist media and a level of inertia that happens to most people in the west when their music consumption switches from being primarily about discovery to being primarily about nostalgia when they are in their early 20s. Life gets busy, and the messaging in music journalism for grown-ups is almost entirely about the importance of the music we loved when we were teenagers. Continue reading “It’s 2016 And We’re Looking For Magic In All The Wrong Places”

Insignificant Thoughts On David Bowie

I’ve mostly given up on writing about people who die. The public mix of heartfelt loss and restrospective hagiography does what it does and doesn’t need my words. My words aren’t needed now either (are they ever?) but it feels like an interesting exercise because Bowie’s presence in the music and cultural landscape of my lifetime was unique.

Unlike an awful lot of music listeners, I’m not particularly in love with Bowie’s 70s work. The canonical, adored, oft quoted stuff. I haven’t even listened to the Berlin Trilogy, beyond the singles. It feels like important work within culture, but it also felt so present in the world that to go and investigate it at this point would be less interesting than looking at almost anything else in the world of music. Confirming either the correctness of the popular take on his work, or my hunch that I’d like it but not enough to fall in line with the mountain of praise heaped on it felt both unnecessary and antagonistic. I don’t like listening to music in order to prove a point. His or mine. [After all, I’m a bloke who plays instrumental music on a bass in people’s living rooms. If I was apt to be shaped by consensus, I’d be in a 5 piece guitar band playing songs with a bunch of white dudes. Probably with beards.]

But, of course, like Dark Side Of The Moon and any number of classic bits of the pop canon that I’ve never given a focused listen to, it’s there in the ether. It’s there in its influence, it’s there in shopping centres – at least the singles are.

I did own Ziggy Stardust, I owned Space Oddity, I owned Pin-ups, i borrowed Scary Monsters and The Man Who Sold The World. I even bought Never Let Me Down and REALLY tried to like it. (Time Will Crawl still makes me smile, and somewhere I’ve got him playing it on TOTP on a VHS tape).

But I bought them as research, as a touchstone for what this massive figure, so oft cited, so ever present on the radio and TV, so beloved… for what he meant.

It wasn’t til Tin Machine that his music really connected with me. I know, Tin Machine, the one that everyone hated. I don’t think I was much aware of the hatred before I bought it. I lived in Berwick On Tweed, so there wasn’t much room to be arch about these things. I bought things based on hunches. and I got the 12” single of Tin Machine, with a sprawling insane messy live version of Maggie’s Farm on the b-side. THIS was the shit. Listening to Ziggy felt like being part of a club. Listening to Tin Machine felt like an initiation into something far more troubling. It was the point at which – in my world – Bowie stopped being a cultural monolith and instead became an artist about whom there was debate, on whom shitty writers in the pop music press heaped scorn for willfully rejecting the tropes of late 20th century modernist conceit. Tin Machine sold millions of records. MILLIONS. It was a ginormous success in so many ways, but didn’t play the game. That fascinated me. As did everything he did after that. Black Tie White Noise, Outside, Earthling, Heathen, Reality, The Next Day… that’s where my favourite Bowie music lives.

I LOVE that he carried on innovating, behaving like a cultural magpie, absorbing bits of the underground into his work and making it the zeitgeist. There’s probably an interesting conversation to be had about influence vs cultural appropriation, but that’s for someone smarter than me… I love that he worked with such great musicians – he was like Miles Davis (perhaps the only musician of the century with influence on the same scale and across so many worlds? Beatles fans can argue with that if they like 😉 ) in that he could spot genius, and assembled music like ingredients for a recipe – anyone who had Fripp, Belew, Reeves Gabrels, Nile Rogers, Stevie Ray Vaughan and David Torn on guitar is doing fine. Gerry Leonard is another guitar genius. Gail Anne Dorsey is both an exceptional bassist and singer, and while the vast majority of Bowie’s musicians and collaborators were white dudes, he was arguably more open to diversity than most – Nile Rogers was a surprise choice after the Eno collaboration years, and Gail was one of the longest serving members of his band (and sang Freddie Mercury’s part on Under Pressure live!!) …though it surprises me that according to Wikipedia they never wrote together.

So, for me, the magic of Bowie isn’t in Heroes, or Five Years or Let’s Dance. It’s the frailty of The Loneliest Guy, it’s the introspection layered over David Torn’s burbling gentle guitar glitch. It’s Angry, Messy, Shouty Bowie, playing small clubs while having a huge amount of fun, as Reeves waves a guitar shaped wand over the music of Tin Machine, it’s releasing an album chock full of super-hip and super-deep NYC jazzers the day before his death.

So I’m not listening to Heroes today, or Sound And Vision, or Space Oddity… I’ll be listening to Cactus (a Pixies cover! You’ve no idea how great that was to hear when it came out), You Little Wonder, Slip Away, Where Are They Now… Give me 90s and 00s Bowie, Bowie actively ignoring the bullshit around his own legacy and the bloviating about his 70s so-called ‘peak’ and making music that he seemed to care about.

It’s not that they’re better, or have to mean more to anyone else. It’s that when the world hands you a Bowie-sized set of material – musical, historical, cultural, fashion, media, film, and a dialog with meaning through artifice – everyone gets to tell their own story. David Bowie is Lego – there’s a normalised way to assemble the pieces, a recognised big story to it, but everyone gets to pull it apart and build their models, tell their own story, construct their own launch pad for inspiration.

I have a number of friends who worked with him. All had a deeply complex relationship with him and the machine around him. You can’t engage with something like that as equals. That’s both fucked up and inevitable. That he wrestled with it better than many is of note, but also it’s part of why the notion that we may never see his like again doesn’t sadden me. He was him, we are now, and it’s all good. No-one needs to make hundeds of millions of pounds out of music, no-one needs to be a global megastar. Given that the affordance existed for that to happen, I’m glad that we had David Bowie as part of that absurdity. But the seduction of bigness is the most mundane, meaningless part of what Bowie meant, for me. That was the story before he interested me. Fighting that, making work in spite of it and the pressure it brought is where his vitality lay.

I’m not sad because a legend is gone. His music’s still there, and it’s unlikely I’d ever have met him. I’m sad because in the same week that Pierre Boulez died at the age of 90, we’re robbed of another couple of decades of Bowie fucking with our heads, doing infuriating stuff, making great music and making misunderstood music, disappearing for years and then changing his mind and being a monumentally huge and pervasive influence without being a dead icon. That’s rare. Like, once in history rare.

The temptation is to write some kind of personalised send off, addressed to the departed, but that wouldn’t mean much, because I didn’t feel close to him. I wrestled with his work, I love that it made me think, that at times I wanted to not like it and ended up loving it, and the opposite was also true. I like that music was enough. And I still have that. So for that, I’m deeply grateful.

“What Is The Work?” Thoughts On Cross Disciplinary Art

“What Is The Work?”

It’s not a question we really ponder much as musicians, even though it’s one we would answer quite differently if we delved into the language we use. ‘It’s all about the music, maaan!’… yes, but what is the music?

Live music? That’s the main thing?

Or is it the recordings? Are recordings the thing, and if they are is it making them, or experiencing them? Do we make them to be amazing standalone art, or do we make them to be amazing experiences? Does the theatre of experience (for example, shifts in how and where people listen to music) change the work? What role ‘purist’ thinking in this?

Or is ‘the music’ the songs? Are the songs the thing, and if they are, do we just love recordings and gigs because they bring them into our lives? What of music with no songs?

Is it the experience of playing it? If so, what’s the purpose of an audience? Just money so you can keep playing? Continue reading ““What Is The Work?” Thoughts On Cross Disciplinary Art”

We Need To Talk About The Drummers…

Drummers! Drummers have always played a massively important role in my music. Almost entirely by their absence. The conversation around what I do – perhaps not surprisingly, but still with some level of irritation – almost always gravitates towards ‘I’d love to hear what you do with a drummer!’. It’s kind of the curse of being a bassist. We’re seen as half of the rhythm section. It’s an instrument that was INVENTED for loud rhythm sections. Its voice was deeply integral to the development of rock and roll, pop, hard rock, prog, funk, soul, R’n’B… It is the sound of pop music. Bass and drums, that’s what makes it not-folk or not-chamber-music. As a voice outside of that, it’s still woefully under-explored…

So my decision to mostly avoid drummers, certainly in the context of my solo work (the decision to see all ‘band’ work as collaborative and never ‘my band’ is a huge part of this) is one that puts what I do apart from what most bass players do. It works as a USP, but has also been a very very useful set of limitations for exploring a new vocabulary for the instrument. I’m not the first to do this, by a long shot, though the degree to which it has dominated my work is unusual. Continue reading “We Need To Talk About The Drummers…”

Creating Spaces Where People Can Respond To Music…

[big gig update blog-post coming later, but this was bubbling in my head so needed writing first… 😉 ]

Right, this was inspired by a couple of brilliant thinker-friends. Partly it was this blog post by Corey Mwamba (an exceptional musician, thinker, doer and advocate for music) about The Family Album, and his audience-focussed rethink of jazz/improvised music programming, and partly by the work of a theatre company called Coney, particularly their co-director Annette Mees, whose thinking on pretty much everything has been of immense value to me over the last while… Their amazing work on new ways of experiencing theatre, of devising experiential work for audiences is truly remarkable (their upcoming show, Early Days (Of A Better Nation) is touring in the run-up to the election, and is unmissable)

Anyway, here’s today’s brain-ramble, on which I welcome your thoughts and input…

…disappearing down a wikipedia wormhole of synonyms for outmoded terminology that appears to have no analog in the useful terminology world, I stumbled on Cymatics – en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cymatics

cymatics by evan grant.

And I’m now thinking about how it works as a metaphorical space for thinking about visible human/audience responses to music… Continue reading “Creating Spaces Where People Can Respond To Music…”

The Evolution of Sound

‘This is a journey into sound…’ – thus sampled Eric B and Rakim. That’s pretty much the definition of my musical journey thus far. Perhaps because I’ve always been drawn to texture as much as to harmony and melody in music, it was inevitable that I’d end up pursuing an approach to music that put the sonic palette on an equal – or often superior – footing to the notes… The development of my technique was always primarily about tone rather than dexterity. Switching to playing melodies on my fretless bass with the side of my thumb slowed me down a LOT, but gave me the sound I was looking for, so it stuck as my dominant technique. Using the Ebow and the slide, while quirky-looking on stage, result in music that is generally more languid and moved my music further away from the muscular fusion many expected from a solo bassist back in the late 90s.

As a result, my gear choices have also been mostly governed by the possibility to broaden, deepen and enrich that same palette of sounds. To give me a broader base of colours to paint with, a greater range of contrasting textures with which to create the layers in my looped improvisations and compositions. Indeed, the very definition of a ‘composition’ for many of my solo pieces was ‘key plus set sequence of sounds’ – they were improvisations as far as the specific notes were concerned, but the sequence of sounds to be layered was way more consistent.

The 20 year (thus far) journey into that particular set of priorities has lead to a few interesting outcomes – I’ve mostly had wonderful relationships with the companies whose equipment I use, and have been able to have useful practical input into the development of quite a few unique products and product developments over the years. It has also meant – in combination with the platform my journalistic work gives me – that I punch WAY above my weight in terms of the influence I have over other people’s perceptions of music gear. That’s a responsibility I take very seriously, given the potential for someone to invest an awful lot of money in gear at least partially directed by my own choices.

For that reason, I tend to only change my gear when the sound dictates that it be the wisest choice. I’ve avoided paid jobs as ‘the demo guy’ – partly because it’s just not a job I want, but also because they’ve never been offered for the gear I really believe in. I’ve had long standing relationships with a small number of companies that I work with. The one area of my rig that HAS changed the most over the years – and even then only when the music demanded it – is amplification.

It’s also, not coincidentally, one of the areas of music gear development that has changed most in the last 15 years. The advent of super light, efficient, powerful, full spectrum bass cabinets, and REALLY great sounding lightweight power amps was a long time coming, but we’re definitely in that age now.

I’ve always been fascinated by the conversation about amps, and was for a time pre-occupied with the notion of things being ‘flat’ – I wanted uncoloured sound, just my sound back through a loud lightweight amp. With that in mind, I switched to a high-end pro audio PA set up about 7 years ago, leaving ‘bass’ amps behind for a couple of years.

The need for more volume – and the advent of the Markbass combos that I’ve been using for the last few years – brought me back to bass amps, and a sound that was definitely not ‘flat’ but was ‘full range’ and has a tonal imprint I liked.

Freed from the tyranny of spec sheets and response graphs, I was able to explore the notion of ‘good’ sound without the interference of notions of ‘correct’ sound. That was helpful.

If you’ve seen any of the pictures I’ve posted of late of my rig, or seen me live over the last month or so, you’ll see that I’m now using an Aguilar amp set-up… ‘dude, I thought you really dug the Markbass combos??’ said lots of bass players. And I do. They haven’t suddenly stopped sounding good. They’re cool amps that definitely did the job.

So how did the Aguilar thing come about?

Dave and Justin at Aguilar have been friends of mine for over 15 years. we go back to my very first NAMM show in 1999 – they are great friends that I care about a great deal and hang with as much as possible. As a clear testimony to their integrity, neither of them over the years tried to get me to switch amps, but after using an Aguilar house rig at the jam night at this years London Bass Guitar Show, I was interested to find out what they would sound like for my solo stuff – it’s one thing having an amp that sounds great for ‘normal’ bass playing, it’s quite another to be able to handle the huge array of sounds I make, and to deal with all the other instruments that go through any system I use on collaborative gigs (including electronic drums, and vocalists!)

So I arranged to try a rig out – the SL112 cabinets and Tone Hammer 350 heads that I now have. A stereo rig, the same as I’ve had since 2003.

I set them up to A/B them with my existing set-up, and was absolutely blown away. I had NO idea they’d sound the way they did. Clear, full, warm, present… just amazing. Exactly what I was looking for. It was very much a case of not knowing that I wanted to change – I hadn’t really felt unhappy with my other system, but on a straight A/B, the suitability for my music was clearly with the Aguilar rig. I ran iTunes through it, to hear what it was like for full-range playback. Added a very slight EQ in my MOTU Ultralight and found that it sounded richer and clearer than even my (admittedly rather cheap) studio monitors. Like a high end 70s Wharfedale hifi. Properly jaw-dropping stuff.

This experience was confirmed again and again as friends and colleagues and students got to experience the sound. Wide eyes and big smiles were the unanimous reaction.

So I found myself changing amps for the first time in a lot of years. I’ve never been a fan of changing gear for the sake of it, I’ve never tried to deal with frustrations in my playing by getting new toys. It’s only when a clear and obvious choice to move to something that better represents the sound I hear in my head is presented that I’m left having to shift.

I’m deeply grateful to Markbass and Markaudio for the many years of great bass sounds (and am still utterly reliant on their MiniDIST overdrive pedal every single time I play), but if you see me playing shows from now on, you’ll perhaps be able to hear why I made the switch to the greatest sounding bass amp I’ve ever played through.

How to Talk About Music on the Internet

The ‘publishing revolution’ of the internets has been overwhelmingly positive. We know that, right?

However, there have been a few – perhaps unintended – consequences to all online words being given equal billing (at least potentially) and all public typed conversations being searchable. So let’s have a think about how we – as musicians – talk about music on the internet:

One of the hardest things for a musician to do online is work out two very distinct ways of describing music positively: Continue reading “How to Talk About Music on the Internet”

FingerPainting track by track – Antidote To Everything

Antidote To Everything: (hit play)

So, imagine this – it’s a year since we’ve last seen each other, we’ve just released a recording of a show that, to us, sounds impossibly wonderful. Listening back to it elicits a feeling of ‘did we REALLY play that? wow!’ Such is the joy of improvised music.
Continue reading “FingerPainting track by track – Antidote To Everything”

New things for International Jazz Day.

Some new music for you to discover on international jazz day. Cos you’ve got 364 days for listening to Coltrane, Miles and Sinatra…

10 Favourite Gigs of 2012

So I started putting together a list of all the gigs I’d been to this year, from which to compile a best-of list. But in doing so realised that, aside from the few music things I saw at Greenbelt this year (Bruce Cockburn was my highlight) I only went to 12 gigs this year!

Thankfully, these were all excellent – if I had to pick any as highlights from the list, I’d have to say that the Rosanne Cash gig at the Union Chapel ranks in my favourite gigs ever list – just her and John Leventhal, two guitars and an incredible set of songs. An outstanding performance.

The other one that impacted me the most was Triptykon – I didn’t even know who they were when I went to the gig, but not only was their set one of the most visceral musical experiences I’ve ever had, they inspired the formation of Torycore – definitely another of my musical highlights from this year, though one with me playing so it doesn’t make this list 🙂

Here’s the full list – Continue reading “10 Favourite Gigs of 2012”