Catching up with LEYlines Albums So Far

As announced yesterday, there’s a new LEYlines album arriving in the next week or so (actual release dates are bourgeois and should be rejected 😉 )

band photo of the trio LEYlinesIt’ll be available initially via two mediums – to my Bandcamp subscribers (click here to subscribe via Bandcamp now), and via Phi Yaan-Zek’s Bandcamp page. This is how we’ve done all the LEYlines recordings – I get them for subscribers and Phi does the public release, sometimes with a limited edition CD run, sometimes without…

So let’s recap the albums so far – here’s our first album, recorded in 2015:

This was the first time we’d ever properly played together collectively – having taught alongside each other for a couple of years at this point, we had really done much playing as a trio at all. We did a short improv thing for the students early on, but never an entire performance, and certainly not in the studio. We had limited tech with us, and Phi had no guitar amp, so the sounds were reamped in the studio. There’s some minimal editing going on here, and Phi overdubbed keyboards in the same spirit as the original improvisations, but this was the start of something special, as well as reflecting the freshness that can happen when you don’t have your usual pile of technology.

Next up was LEYlines II, from 2016:

This was another improvised-in-the-studio-recording, but this time we had all of the toys, Andy was in a separate drum room, Phi and I were in the control room, and on a couple of occasions, Andy didn’t even know we’d hit record… This goes to some really strange places, and shows the breadth of what can happen when our different musical worlds collide…

On the same day, Phi and I recorded The Quiet After The Drums when Andy went to pick up his kids from school… This is only available currently as a subscriber exclusive, but maybe Phi will do a bundle with the upcoming releases and offer it as part of that too 🙂

Next up from the LEYlines stable was Over Time – a live duo album from Andy and I – this was initially a subscriber release, but is now public, and not part of the subscriber back catalogue – this happens with a lot of the collaborations. They go to the current subscribers at the point of release, but aren’t bundled with future sign-ups. So you need to sign up ASAP to get everything.

Which brings us to the last LEYlines album – LEYlines III, which was recorded live at The Swan in Stourport when we opened for an evening with Neil Murray – Neil is the legendary bassist with Whitesnake and Black Sabbath (amongst many others) and was playing some tracks and talking about his careeer. A pretty odd setting for an improv trio (at least, for those who don’t know about Neil’s impeccable 70s jazz-rock credentials) but the recording came out really well, and clearly a wall of dudes in Whitesnake t-shirts acted as a good audience backdrop for us to play to… 🙂

So this summer, we’ve got LEYlines IV, V and VI on the way – if you subscribe now, you’ll get them all on the day of release direct from me. If not, they’ll be available as individual albums from Phi’s Bandcamp, where you can buy the albums above too if you want to catch up… Right now, LEYlines I and III are also available in the subscription bundle, so you’ll get those too if you sign up today. BARGAIN!

Blogging As An Act Of Defiance In An Age Of Social Media Manipulation

So this website finally had an 11 year overdue overhaul. Total redesign and optimisation. If you need yours sorting out, talk to Thatch, who did this one – he did such a great job. Have a rummage around to behold the goodness and read all of the words.

There’s a bit of me that feels like announcing a website overhaul in 2019 is like shouting ‘hey, check out my MySpace page!’ or putting my ICQ number in my Twitter bio, but we desperately need some push-back against the kind of bullshit that goes on social media, and by that, I don’t just mean ‘there are Nazis on Twitter and Fake News pages on Facebook’, I mean ‘social media algorithms reward us with attention for being blunt, sensationalist, aggressive, shouty and sloganeering‘. So worse than just nazis being there is that it’s built to push us all towards confrontation, to react not reflect, to argue not discuss, to punch each other with nonsense opinions instead of collaboratively researching stuff. All the shit that leads us to Trump and Brexit

So yes, of course Twitter/FB should ban the fash, but if the entire model is set up to gift attention to people with shouty opinions and misleading headlines, we’re all the worse for having to engage with it. At which point, having your own website is an act of defiance. Writing long-form without the dopamine hit of immediate likes and shares and comments, having a comment section that doesn’t reward those commenting with that same load of bullshit, it’s just a space to expand on ideas.

So, yeah, go overhaul your neglected website/blog – we’re all here slaving away in the Zuckerberg Saltmines, churning out ‘content‘ that gets ‘monetised‘. And we think we’re smart if we have a strategy to monetise it, even if that strategy involves capitulating to the horrible terms of engagement that are promoted (man, the tragic irony of this starting out as me waffling on like this on Facebook when I could have been writing it here as a blog post on a site I own… FML)

…anyway, we need spaces to be ourselves, to be quiet, thoughtful, nuanced, unsure, to tell stories & not be baited into shouting at terrible politicians as though they’ll change their minds due to informed snark.

So, if you’re blogging on a regular or semi-regular basis, post a link in the comments here. I’m going to give Feedly another try and see if curating a diverse bunch of daily reads by thoughtful people is even possible. And if you’re a blog reader, grab the feed for this blog from https://feeds.feedburner.com/SteveLawson

BTW, there’s a lot of this theme that gets explored in the new MusicTechFest podcast that came out today, an interview with me that could be subtitled Small Is Beautiful. musictechfest.net/podcast035/  give it a listen 🙂

New LEYLines Album Coming Soon!

So it’s been a busy few months for solo work – just yesterday, I added two new tracks to an album called ‘Stepping Stones‘ – one of the joys of the subscription model is that I can make more of my process public, and albums like this are a place to gather together the new music that is leading towards becoming a new album. Often, artists will record music then sit on it for weeks or even months before they make a judgement about whether it’s good enough for whatever project it is that they are working on. Here, I’m able to upload those things that I’m considering for the consideration of my subscribers, if that’s interesting to them.

So Stepping Stones is three tracks that I’ve recorded so far while thinking about what this year’s solo studio album might be. They’re recorded exactly the same way as the live albums – all live, no edits, but obviously don’t have the presence of the audience as a factor in the music. Improvisation in front of an audience is a very vulnerable thing, in that the music is entirely dependent on the permission given by the audience to make it (hence the reason I’m looking at this for my PhD!). In the studio, the presence of the audience is actually the conception of the audience as I imagine them. And for me, that’s the subscribers. So I make the music I want to hear, but the latitude that the subscription model offers me to not be working about marketability or how it’ll work on the radio or in Spotify playlists is a very freeing thing. Paradoxically, by relying on the audience’s permission, I end up freer to pursue my own curiosity.

Which brings up to LEYlines – my trio improv project with the great Andy Edwards and Phi Yaan-Zek. We’ve got a number of recordings lined up and ready to go, including LEYlines IV – the first half of our gig last year at Tower Of Song here in Birmingham. We’ve split the gig into two separate albums just because we can. It’s a pretty long chunk of music, so spreading it out makes a lot of sense.

It’ll be released via Phi’s Bandcamp page, and to my subscribers, BUT it won’t be part of the subscriber back-catalogue. So you’ll have to be signed up before it comes out in order to get it. That’ll go for each of the collaborative albums I’m releasing this summer – there are three LEYlines albums, and more music from me, Daniel Berkman and Artemis from our 2014 tour that has already yielded Seeing Sound. Each of these albums will be given to subscribers – it’ll be yours to keep for ever, as a download and in your Bandcamp collection for streaming from the web or the app – but it won’t become part of the vast quantity of music that new subscribers get when they sign up. Miss this, and you’ll have to buy it separately if you want this.

There’s been a large amount of new music in the last couple of months – it’s been a fertile and experimental time for me, with three live albums recorded and released in a month, and my subscribers at various stages of catching up with it all. It’s fine – the joy of the Bandcamp subscription is that you’re not renting access to a catalog that at some point in the future disappears. All of the music is yours, so there’s no time limit on when you have to listen to it buy – it’s a pre-pay model for Steve’s Every Expanding Digital Box Set, and gives you access to a bunch of other stuff as well, most notably the occasional eBook and the ongoing commentary about how and why all of this music exists!

So if you want to get in on that, head to stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe to find out what it all entails. The user experience of streaming tech is really good, but as an economic model, it offers precious little to niche, experimental music. The subscription is a sustainable model that has moved on from the rather bogus idea that an album’s-length of music is ‘worth’ £10, and instead looks to find a funding model that makes the continued music-making possible. Please join us 🙂

New Album Out Today – The Field Of Strategic Possibilities

With the brand new recording of Sunday night’s gig being released to subscribers today, I thought I’d put the sleevenotes here as a blog post, as an insight into the process of making it and some of the thoughts behind it. With each album, I do a series of subscriber-only posts explaining the titles and giving some other background info on the albums, but here are the actual sleevenotes. If you want to find out more about getting the music, head to stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe

                                                         o^0^o

So, here we have the third album of the month! Recorded May, 2019 at Tower Of Song in Birmingham. It was another gig with Lobelia – I think our duo gigs make for a really interesting context for solo playing – maybe the knowledge that there’s going to be something a little more pop happening means I can get a little more strange? Who knows…

Anyway, as the third of three gigs in a month, I had a desire to go somewhere else with the music. As an improvisor there’s an eternal dialectic of sameness and difference that I’ve talked about elsewhere – the bits of what you play that constitute your vocabulary, your set of preferences for areas to explore, sounds to make, a harmonic and melodic language that you’re building on. This exists across pretty much all forms of improvised music, whether idiomatic or not. In my case, I see it as pan-idiomatic, so the bits that fit into a particular style are subject to the same sameness and difference considerations as anything else – so a different kind of hip hop beat have familiarity as hip hop but novelty in the change of groove.

And that process of experiencing ‘sameness’ as familiarity with a particular dispensation towards music making rather than as ‘the performance of a composition’ or ‘the rote repetition of a bunch of musical ideas’ seems pretty key from an audience point of view, and one that is hugely magnified when everything is recorded and released. If these gigs were just a tour, I don’t think anyone came to more than one of them, so I could’ve played almost identical music across the three shows and no-one’s experience of it except mine would’ve been impacted by the sameness… There would’ve been a tangible impact on the complexity of the music if I’d consciously set out to repeat ideas (repetition pretty much always leads to simplification for me, given my lack of current interest in composing complex music and the consequential reliance on recalling elements of another improvised piece, rather than the focussed attention required to learn and practice complex composed music)

But the recording process – the thing that brought us here to this release – means that what comes before is part of what is now. We hear in relation not just to what is on its own, but how it stands as another episode in a longer story. How it works as part of the mini story-arc of this month’s releases. Putting out three albums in a month is a bizarre thing to do – on par with the decision to release everything that Daniel Berkman and I recorded across two years of touring. And that closeness in time certainly causes us to condense our sense of them as a subset of the longer narrative arc of the subscriber release project.

So The Field Of Strategic Possibilities – a phrase borrowed from Michel Foucault (and an idea not without its own problems) is a reference to the fact that this music springs from a complex web of possible happenings that are shaped positively and negatively, that have valence with the friendships in the room, the acoustics, my own restlessness, my caffeine intake (!), the journey to the gig (if I arrive late and have to set up in a hurry it unequivocally alters the music that happens after it)… A whole massive field of possibilities against which decisions are made. The strategic part is only one part – there’s a cultural backdrop, a perception of what is and isn’t communicable as intention, an aesthetic of chaos and complexity that makes sense and a line that crosses into something that feels less meaningful to me in relation to you… A million parameters that bring us to here.

And now it’s fixed in time. Only it’s not, because every time you hear it, it means something else. And the second time you hear it is completely different to the first, moving from revelation to remembrance. From there on it, the remembrance is fed in new ways and the context shifts, but that first step from novelty to nostalgia is a transformative one, and one that distances you from the experience of everyone who was there at the gig.

I was talking on Twitter recently with Beardyman about the fact that sometimes things that are great in shows aren’t great as recordings (and vice versa – I’ve had things that felt really off on a gig that were amazing and greatly surprised me when I listened back!) – the Jazz Cafe gig I did with Beardyman, Andy Gangadeen and Gary Lucas was one such gig – an incredible live experience (the majority of people I spoke to after said it was one of the most amazing gigs they’d ever seen), but for some reason, didn’t hit that same high as a recording… That’s OK. It in no way diminishes the gig.

These three albums haven’t been released as part of a challenge, there are no points for being prolific. Just make the best music you can, and if that means you take 10 years to make an album – like Phi Yaan-Zek’s extraordinary project from last year – that’s great, though it’s going to be harder to fund it.

But I want to thank you for subscribing to this stuff and making it possible. The latitude to release anything that is worthwhile, that is meaningful, and not have to take – as Miles Davis did with Pangaea and Agharta – two recordings from the same day and release them a year apart, is an extraordinary blessing, it’s freeing to be able to listen to every piece of music as a worthwhile event, rather than as a marketable commodity.

Here’s to the next episode…

New Effects Course at ScottsBassLessons.com

Yesterday, a course that Scott and I filmed last year went live on SBL – titled ‘The Essential Guide To Bass Effects with Steve Lawson’. 

The course is broken up into effect types, and is a broad look at what each of the effect types do and some ideas for combining them. We talk about the influence that effect order has on your sound, why it’s often important for bass sounds to have the dry signal as well as the processed one, why there’s no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ pedal for any one type of effect, and an exploration of what’s actually going on with each effect type. 

What it doesn’t have is ‘here’s how to set this pedal to get this sound’ type demos. Partly because those kind of product demo videos are available in their thousands on YouTube, it’s also because the single most important thing you can do to your music with effects pedals is to experiment, try things out, and the more general guidelines for how to understand what a pedal type does and how it may be applied are a much better start point for that experimentation. 

Curiosity is an essential component in any creative journey. A point that Scott makes brilliantly in a recent interview with Musical U founder, Christopher Sutton – here’s a video of Christopher talking about things he’s learned from Scott, from Adam Neely and from me… It outlines a curiosity and creativity-driven pathway through music learning really well, and dovetails really well with the intended learning pathway through the effects course… 

Music News Update – THREE New Albums???

So, as I write, I’m listening through what I think are the final mixes for the third solo album I’ve recorded this month… 

…wait, THIRD?? Yup, as you probably know, I record every gig I do, and I’ve had three in the last month – the first was at Servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston, London, then a week and a bit later, Lo and I played a house concert in Hackney, London, and then this past weekend Lo and I played together again, this time at Tower Of Song here in Birmingham. And the solo bit of each gig was good enough to release, so I have. 

Not so many years ago, the thought of putting out all that music would’ve been pretty outré… Three albums worth of new material would have had to be spread out over a couple of years – Miles Davis recorded the albums Agartha and Pangaea on the SAME DAY but they were released a year apart… 

But thanks to the deep joys of my Bandcamp subscription, I’ve been able to release these as I go along. There’s been no press fanfare, no need to send out press releases or contact radio or magazines. At least, not yet. As part of the subscription, these are recordings that have already been paid for. The time I’ve spent mixing and mastering them is time that’s covered by the amazing, brilliant, art-loving souls who keep this ship afloat. And they’ve already had albums one and two. The first was called Time Is A Broken Lens and the second is called Gift Of Patience. As I said, the third one is, I think, finished being mix, and will be out in the next week or so. 

The first two form something of a set within the set – they follow quite similar arcs, though if you read the essays that accompany them (by clicking through to Bandcamp via the links above) you’ll see that there are some differences that feel significant to me. One of the great things about the subscription as that we get to discuss this stuff in the subscriber area on Bandcamp – lil’ chats about what the music means to the listeners not just to me… 

So, anyway, if you want to join us, head over to stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe and jump right in. We’d love to have you there. And if you want to spend some time listening to the music before deciding to support it in a more concrete way, that’s absolutely fine too… We’re here for the long haul… 

There have been some interesting changes in the music of late, so I’ll post more about those soon, but til then, I hope you’re enjoying the music. x 

14 Questions About that Terrible Joni Mitchell Quote

Yesterday, a graphic with a Joni Mitchell Quote went massively viral on my Facebook and Instagram feeds. Lots of my most brilliant and usually quite observant and clued in music friends were sharing it unquestioningly as a useful comment about the state of music now. The quote itself is apparently from 2004, and is as follows: 

“I heard someone from the music business saying they are no longer looking for talent, they want people with a certain look at a willingness to cooperate. I thought, that’s interesting, because I believe a total unwillingness to co-operate is what is necessary to be an artist – not for perverse reasons, but to protect your vision. The considerations of a corportation, especially now, have nothing to do with art or music, that’s why I spend my time now painting” 

Joni Mitchell, quoted in the LA Times, Sept 5th 2004

So, perhaps not surprisingly, I take some issue with this. So here are 14 questions/comments you may want to ask yourself or reflect on about this before going ‘yeah, Joni! I’m taking up painting too!’ (though obviously, painting is a really really awesome way to spend your life, and in no way an inferior choice to making music…!)

1) who was this ‘someone from the music business’ and which bit of the music business were they in? Why is this one unnamed person’s pretty gruesomely commercial focus being held up as a template for understanding the motivations and behaviour of everyone in ‘the music business’?

2) what the hell is ‘the music business’. I’m in the music business, clearly this person’s thoughts don’t reflect on me… were they in publishing? Sync? A&R? Running a label? A sub-label? The ‘music business’ is gargantuan – finding a person with really terrible opinions within its bounds has never been hard.

3) For every renegade artist through the history of music, I’ll show you a thousand successful and often brilliant artists how had a certain look and were willing to co-operate. Frank Zappa was a total one off. Find me the label that launched 500 Frank Zappas and we can have a talk about Zappaism as a business model.

4) I adore Joni’s music – Hejira is my favourite record of all time, and she’s easily in the top 10 or so most significant musicians of the last 100 years, but when she was signed, she was a beautiful young acoustic guitar playing singer-songwriter in the golden age of acoustic singer/songwriters. She didn’t need to co-operate, she was exactly what they were looking for. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was what she could do after a decade as a global icon, not the demo that got her signed in the first place.

5) Why are co-operation and artistic vision contradictory? Why do we view wilful obscurantism as a virtue? How many artists are doing exactly what they want to do AND making commercially viable music? James Taylor wrote some of the most beautiful, singable, hummable music of all time. I don’t see that as a flaw in his creative plan.

6) The 70-80 year history of the recording industry is LITTERED with stories of records being rejected because of a lack of singles. Some dickhead sent back Three Feet High And Rising for not having a single on it. Listen to Wasted Years by Iron Maiden and tell me that’s not an obvious attempt to write a hit. Big Yellow Taxi is arguably Joni’s most famous song, and by far the most poppy thing she ever did. And it’s great! It’s not worse art because people loved it! You can’t rate art on its complexity, less still argue about the ethics of a multi-national business based on how insane their commercial choices are.

7) The Major labels were once the only game in town, at least if you had any concern for global success. That’s not the case now. Joni said this, apparently, in 2004. Even then, that was not the case. Marillion had already gone it alone and crowd-funded a record by then, Joni could’ve done literally anything to make a record, and the more outside the mainstream she did it, the more coverage she’d have got (x-ref Radiohead and In Rainbows)

8) Joni’s reasons for quitting music are, by her own extensive admission in many many interviews, WAY more complex than this. All of them are valid – her life and work are her own. The validity of her choices is not really up for discussion.

9) Looks and commercial success have always gone hand in hand. The idea that ‘a certain look’ is a new idea is specious revisionism.

10) There has never EVER been a better time in human history to make recorded work as a musician, protect your vision AND negotiate a deal after the fact. Making records is orders of magnitude cheaper, labels do A&R via metrics now – look at Stormzy’s deal with Atlantic/Warner. He owns his entire operation, they just do the donkey work that he doesn’t need to do. But ‘recorded music’ is a tiny blip in the human timeline. Even if the model goes away, that’s not the end of anything. The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world.

11) If this is about there being an absence of successful ‘risky’ pop music out there, please explain Janelle Monae, the last ATCQ album, most Grime, Bjork, Kate Tempest, DJ Shadow, etc. etc. etc. Some are on subsidiaries of majors, some are completely independent and wouldn’t accept a deal if they were offered it. That’s a GREAT thing. A wonderful situation.

12) On a daily basis I come across incredible music, so much I can’t keep track of it. The world is laden down with people making extraordinary art. There are people making incredible art who I saw sharing this insane meme, in seeming ignorance of their own careers being the evidence that this is nonsense. Commercial success has been the death of many, many people. Riches are rarely ultimately a blessing. Sustainability of artistic practice is the only concern I have here, so a reduced capacity for stardom and supreme wealth is not going to make me sad… 

13) being an artist is hard. It’s always been hard, that’s what makes the art so special. A handful of people who remember selectively isn’t the story we need to be hearing or re-telling. Sure, there’s less money in A&R and artist development from majors now. The whole landscape has changed. But more people are making more music in more places, and that’s a fundamentally good thing, unless you assume that by the divine right of kings you should have their audience as well. There’s also a lot less record label money being spent on coke, turning every charlied pop star into an insufferable self absorbed bankrupt arsehole. Every cloud has a dusty, silver lining…

14) go make some art. If that’s painting instead of music, that’s not a step down. Joni’s music is unassailably amazing. Her painting is also exquisite. I’m glad that she’s had the economic latitude in her life to pursue both of those dreams in such extraordinary ways. But please don’t take a dump in our paddling pool because things aren’t they way there were in the 70s…

Steve’s Incomplete Guide to NAMM

The NAMM show is on next week – for those who don’t know, NAMM stands for the ‘National Association of Music Merchants’ and the show is the world’s most important music gear trade show (it’s not the biggest, but it is the one where everyone launches their flagship products for the year and flies in their biggest endorsers.) It can be a huge amount of fun, and many of my favourite people in the world are brought together in one place for a weekend, so that’s great. But it’s also incredibly weird, and potentially a shitshow, so here in no particular order is my incomplete guide to how to behave at NAMM:

1) Listen to the person in front of you! It’s so tempting to keep one eye on who may be walking past, looking out for celeb sightings or people you’re trying to do a deal with. Ultimately, it just makes the person you’re talking to feel unwanted. If you genuinely have to be somewhere, just say so, don’t string people along. I’ve often described NAMM as “120,000 people lying to each other for a weekend” – and there’s so much in it that is false and meaningless. Avoid that. Give the person you’re talking to your attention, be as real and as kind as you can be, and carry yourself with some dignity… Likewise, wait your turn if someone is already in a conversation. Wait to be invited in (few things are more annoying than having a conversation about something that actually matters and having some numbnuts pile in and start hugging and high fiving you or the person you’re talking to with no awareness of what they’ve just interrupted). This isn’t primary school, behave like a reasonable person…

Steve Lawson with Vernon Paul and Morton

2) Don’t promise to go to everything. Factor in the time it’ll take you to get to places. Everyone at NAMM has unexpected encounters with friends and it messes up their schedule – that’s fine, obviously, but don’t go around promising to go see someone play or to go to an event or launch or whatever if you’re not going to show up. It just means you end up compounding the bullshit later when you see them again and start making up excuses. Put things in your calendar with at least a 10 minute buzzing notification so you can make decisions rather than piling up regrets at all the things you’ve missed…

3) If you’re not a buyer or a dealer, don’t expect manufacturers to prioritise conversations with you. This is one for artists – NAMM IS NOT ABOUT US! We are a vital and important part of the ecosystem, a big part of the mythology that fuels the whole shebang, but unless you’re Eddie Van Halen or Vinnie Colaiuta, you don’t take precedence over the dude from Iowa who needs to be convinced to stock your friend’s guitars/amps/pedals etc. Having a booth at NAMM is eye-wateringly expensive, and the companies are there to do business. If you do get some downtime with a friend there, great, they’ll be delighted to see you and talk to someone they know for 5 minutes, but as soon as someone with a buyer badge arrives, make yourself scarce, or if you know the builder well, offer to demo the product (and don’t be offended if they say no).

4) Eat a massive breakfast. Food in the convention centre is, well, convention centre food. It’s bogus. You can get out of the centre and go to Subway on the corner of Harbour and Katella (my food of choice for my first decade of NAMM – so much so that the manager recognised me and said hi every time I was in there for the next decade… 🙂 ) but I’d recommend a decent diner breakfast to get you through the day, and a snack at lunch time. Take it with you, so you don’t end up paying $8 for a slice of reheated pizza.

steve lawson with bryan beller at NAMM 09

5) Drink water! Loads of it. The air con in Anaheim is vicious and will destroy your voice in minutes. So drink water whenever you can. If you’ve got a friend on a booth that has loads of it, make regular stops. Bring a water bottle if you can to save on plastic, or reuse the first one you pick up – refill from a water fountain. NAMM is already a spectacular environmental disaster, try not to make it worse…

6) Be honest with people. This is perhaps the hardest of all of these things. The number of meaningless superlatives that get thrown about at NAMM ends up crushing you. If every person you meet is awesome and their music is the greatest and every guitar you try is perfect, and every amp is the greatest you’ve ever heard, you have literally no way of ever conveying an opinion that has any merit at all. NAMM is overflowing with people who’ve never learned that superlatives are best used in strict moderation, or they become utterly and irredeemably useless. I have a mental list of the people who every year tell me that I’m amazing and an inspiration, and I’m all too well aware that I hear or see nothing from them in the intervening 12 months – no social media comments or anything, and certainly no Bandcamp sales. So, vague rule of thumb: If it’s not something you’d part with cash for, if they aren’t a band you’d drop everything to go see if they come to your town, they aren’t ‘awesome’. There are other ways to make people feel loved and cared for beyond lying to them about the degree to which you’re invested in their life and work. You can be meaningfully and demonstrably delighted by your friends’ successes without trying to falsely insert yourself into that success. Be present, be honest and be compassionate.

7) Pace yourself. The history of NAMM is littered with people fucking their lives up for a weekend. Regional sales guys who suddenly think they’re in the Guns n Roses biography. It’s quite possible to have fun without getting wrecked and doing stupid shit. Look out for your friends too, especially if they’re new to this – NAMM is quite literally overwhelming. It’s unlike almost any other experience on earth – it’s a weekend in Vegas but with 10,000 hustling musicians trying to show off their musician-y-ness to each other. I have deep enduring friendships that I made at my first NAMM show in ’99, and people I still avoid because two decades ago they tried to drag me into their coke-fuelled hell. No. Don’t be a dick – rule #1 of human existence.

8) Feel free to step away from it all at regular intervals – get outside, go grab a coffee in a remote corner of hall E, go sit on the grass, or take an afternoon off to head over to the beach. It’s an utterly inhuman environment, in which a lot of human wonderfulness thrives despite the context not because of it. Be kind to yourself.

9) Watch out for the casual racism/sexism/homophobia/ableism. Politically, the wider context of NAMM is one of the most toxic environments on the planet. The position of women within many, many dudes’ understanding of what’s going on is ‘promotional eye candy’ – a huge number of the women there – regardless of their skills and experience – are essentially handed an ultimatum – look sexy, or stay away. Feel free to celebrate with the women who’ve carved out a space for themselves outside of that, but do not fall into the trap of either objectifying or vilifying those women whose work requires them to engage with that toxic bullshit. From the ‘booth babes’ (pro-tip – never use the term ‘booth babes’ about anyone ever) who hand out flyers and pose for pictures with provincial dudes to the artists who are ‘strongly encouraged’ to get overly glammed up in order to make any kind of headway in a world where male musicians are listened to and female musicians are gawped at. You WILL see a lot of that, and you will likely hear a bunch of hideous bullshit spewing from people with horrible opinions. Work out before you get there how you plan to deal with it – don’t be blindsided but also don’t be complicit. Offer solidarity, but also don’t commiserate with someone doing their job – just don’t reinforce the culture that limits their options. (it goes without saying that there are a lot of women who get glammed up because they LOVE it, and should be and ARE free to do that – that anyone might question their motives is a sign of just how toxic the environment is. If you assume that every woman looking glam is only doing it for ‘attention’ that’s as much a part of the problem as giving her marks out of 10 to your guitar-bro. Just treat all humans with dignity, and all musicians as fellow professionals. It’s not that hard, honest.)

10) Phone home. Stay in touch, stay grounded, talk to your partner and kids, get away from the mayhem to do it. E.T. understood this in the early 80s, and he was a fictional alien. As a real life human, it’s not beyond your abilities.

11) Wear VERY comfortable shoes. I’ve sometimes walked more than 10 miles a day at NAMM. The convention centre is huge and the events are often a few blocks away. Don’t get caught wearing shoes that you couldn’t comfortable do a quick 3 mile walk in, you’ll injure yourself. If your schtick requires showbiz shoes (I say his as someone who wore a fake-fur coat in the sweltering California heat for YEARS at NAMM), take some flats in your bag…

12) Bring earplugs! This was suggested by my lovely friend Sam over on FB – (he’s a many-year NAMM veteran, and can often be found playing crazy-fast jazz on upright on the booths of some of the sax and jazz guitar amp companies..) But yes, the ambient noise level at NAMM is pretty high and gets fatiguing – I’m not sure if the high percentage of that noise that is total bullshit makes it even more draining, but I like to think it does. So bring earplugs. Maybe even wear them all day. You’ll take them out at 6 o’clock and it’ll feel like a new day.

There you go – I may add to this over the weekend, so check back, or add your own tips in the comments… 🙂 

A Reflection on Improv, Audiences and Recording

My recorded output is divided sharply into live and “studio” recordings. The equipment and audio process are identical for them both but the presence of a live audience completely changes the experience. When I’m in the studio (such a professional sounding euphemism for “the corner of the bedroom”) my audience is me, my aesthetic decisions, my moment to moment assessment of what needs to happen to is made in relation to my own taste, in dialogue with my own history, with whatever I’ve been working on and the lingering shadows of whoever has been inspiring me of late.

steve lawson playing bass

But live, the audience are present on the music. I interpret their presence, I respond to who’s there, to the sounds and gestures that I’m aware of while playing, and to my projected imagining of what their experience is like. I play to them, and for them but also with them and I become them, projecting my own understanding of what my experience would be were I not the one with a bass in my hands…

Listening back to any recording is a fascinating exercise in time-shifting the audio record of that moment, live or studio, and re-experiencing it with its own extant nature as a factor instead of the sense of possibility that exists in the unfolding.

So recordings are a translation of that experience and its quite possible for something to “work” on the moment but not as a recording or vice versa to feel like a failure live and then blossom under scrutiny.



I’ve been listening to my latest solo album on the way to work this morning, which is without doubt my favourite thing I’ve ever recorded. It’s also the most “successful” thing I’ve released in many many years. I was trying to remember the experience of improvising it all and some of the performances are still vivid in my mind (aided by the video that exists on YouTube of the actual recordings 🙂 )



Anyway, here it is if you want to hear it – just remember that, first time through, you share the sense of becoming that I had as it emerged in the moment. Second time through, you’re experiencing something wholly new – improvised music that now exists in relation to the memory of itself.

My Favourite Records of 2018

Right! I’ve waited til the last minute to do this list cos it’s been such an amazing year for music, I half expected to find something released today to write about!

These aren’t in any kind of order – they’re all properly fabulous records that I suggest you check out and spend some money on if you dig them. They’re just separated out into Bandcamp albums and Google Play albums:

Sonar – Vortex (feat. David Torn) : I’ll buy pretty much anything that has David Torn on it, to be honest, but this time, the record would be in my year end best of whether he was here or not. Odd-time hypnotic grooves, exquisitely played, minimalistically evolving and layered with Torn’s wild guitar explorations. Just incredible.

Kristin Hersh – Possible Dust Clouds : Again, not a surprise that this is amazing, cos everything Kristin does is amazing, but Possible Dust Clouds gets even more unhinged than the last couple of albums. The mix is dizzying, the guitar/bass/drums are SO intense and the songwriting is extraordinary. Maybe my favourite thing Kristin has done in ages, and I’ve LOVED everything she’s ever done…

Phi Yaan-Zek – Reality Is My Plaything : A record I’ve been waiting for ever since I met Phi 4 or 5 years ago. Reality… had a 10 year gestation period, was recorded all over the world, and incorporated skills that Phi took time out to develop as he found a need for them. An amazing way to make a record, and it’s even more amazing just how coherent it is. It’s a HUGE amount of music, some amazing hooks, insanely complicated writing, but nothing that ever feels twiddly. A masterpiece.

Cuong Vu – Change In The Air : Everything Cuong Vu does is brilliant. I’m a huge, huge fan of his, particularly his earlier trio albums, but marrying his trumpet to Frisell’s guitar is an inspired pairing and has some of my favourite Frisell playing for YEARS on it. Just wonderful.

Liran Donin – 8 Songs : Liran has been bassist with Led Bib for years (I saw them play at the Vortex a decade ago) but on this, his solo debut, the writing and playing are so mature and developed. It’s a deep album, full of great improv, amazing bass playing and killer tunes. British jazz is absolutely overflowing with massive talent right now, and this is at the top of the shop.

Dinosaur – Wonder Trail : speaking of British jazz, Dinosaur are another example of just how exciting the scene is right now. Post-Miles electric jazz, amazing playing (bassist Conor Chaplin is just incredible here) and Laura’s killer writing. Properly brilliant.

Echotest – Daughter Of Ocean : the first of two pre-releases here (out properly TOMORROW!) – Julie Slick and Marco Machera just get better and better. The writing, arranging, recording and playing are all progtastic, hummable and grooving, and Marco’s beautiful voice just gets better and better. Will be playing this a lot throughout the coming year.

Andrew Howie – Micronations : I subscribed to Andrew this year, and he’s released SO many great recordings, many of them remasters of albums I already loved. This new one is a beautiful experiment in downbeat electropop. It really doesn’t matter what Andrew turns his hand to, it always turns out incredible. I’m a MASSIVE fan.

Artemis – Of This Dirt : Artemis actually asked me to record some stuff for this album years ago, but I took WAY too long to get round to it, and by then it didn’t fit at all. But, it doesn’t miss me at all – the record hangs together as such a gorgeous suite of songs. Like the Andrew Howie album above, it’s the sound of grown-ups making electronic music. All that wisdom and experience wrapped around a deeply current aesthetic. Magical.

Sam Phillips – World On Sticks : Another great Sam Phillips album that sounds like a great Sam Phillips album. No surprises, but who would want them? She sounds utterly like herself and tells her beautiful stories in a way that everyone should hear.

Gretchen Peters – Dancing With The Beast : talking of songwriters who tell amazing stories, Gretchen goes from strength to strength, telling rich and moving stories of growing older, of resistance, of troubles and trials. The opening track rips my heart open. So, so beautiful.

Aaron Gibson – Horror Films And Sunday School : another pre-release released TOMORROW, this album is one of the finest things ever recorded by a bass playing singer/songwriter. The strings are exquisite, Aaron’s playing, singing and writing are all exemplary, and it’s also the only album in the list that I played on (I take a solo on one track). Just incredible.

The Midnight Hour – The Midnight Hour : I spent a lot of time this year listening to hip hop. Much of it was older Tribe Called Quest/Eric B and Rakim/Dilla/Slum Village/De La Soul stuff, but there was also this incredible crossover jazz/soul/hip hop record by Adrian Younge with Ali Shaheed Muhammed. I found them via the Luke Cage S2 soundtrack (below), and foudn this soon after. An incredible level of skill and soul at work here.

Field Music – Open Here : the last Bandcamp album on my list, but one of the best pop albums I’ve heard in decades. Everything about Field Music is incredible, and Count It Up is possibly my track of the year. They were also one of my gigs of the year, opening for The The in Birmingham. Joyful awesomeness.

And then there were these fantastic albums not on Bandcamp, that I bought on Google Play. Every one of them is amazing:
Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Wapentak
John Coltrane – Both Directions At Once
Adrian Younge/Ali Shaheed Muhammed – Luke Cage Season 2 soundtrack
Black Thought – Streams Of Thought Vol. 1
Anderson Paak – Unreleased