Loop-Fests and non-music-specific music communities

It’s Loop Fest season again – firstly the daddy of them all, the Y2KLoopFest in Santa Cruz (Y2K7 this year). But this year, Andy Butler is doing a low-key thing in Norwich, which looks like fun. There have been others in Germany and other places in the states – generally smaller affairs, but seemingly most enjoyable.

Rick Walker, the organiser of the Santa Cruz fest, has done an amazing job of turning it into An Event – taking what was originally a way for he and I to do a show in Santa Cruz back in 2000 (with Michael Manring, Max Valentino, Scott Drengen and another guy who’s name completely escapes me, sadly…) and turning it into an annual event that this year has big name headliners in the form of Arild Andersen and Henry Kaiser.

A lot of the momentum for this came out of the rather-wonderful-and-at-times-all-too-serious Looper’s Delight community; a mailing list of people using looping in their music. Lots of great friendships have come from the list, and some fab collaborations (for me, I doubt I’d ever have played in California outside of the NAMM show if it wasn’t for the connection with Rick, and I also met the fabulous Luca Formentini on there too, with whom I’ve recorded a duet album that should be out some time next year).

I’ve always been a little uneasy about the idea that looping is its own genre – it clearly isn’t, any more than ‘repetitive music’ is a genre, or ‘german music’ or ‘music by freakishly tall people’. It has certain characteristics, but those are more to do with the limitations in the imagination of the user rather than any stylistic quality inbuilt in the technology. (though, thanks to the ever-wonderful Robert Fripp’s role as part-pioneer part-populariser of looping as a performance medium, a HUGE number of the loopers around are guitarists doing soundscapes, to varying degrees of success)

But that’s no bad thing – what Rick understood years ago is that audiences like a peg to hang their hat on – it doesn’t matter if it’s a loop fest or an acoustic music fest or a celebration of the music of italy or an electronic music fest – it gives the person marketing it an angle. My own hyper-sensitivity to being pigeonholed means that I bristle at the idea that what I do is defined by the technology, or that there’s some style attached to the instrument (as though solo bass is also a style or genre), but for the audience, it’s just an in road, an opening, a narrowing of focus that allows them engage with what we do, and crucially gives the media something to grab hold of.

Rick has managed to get press coverage for some pretty esoteric music, and even get the clearly-mad-mayor-of-Santa-Cruz to declare each festival day as ‘international live looping day’ (I have a mayoral proclamation hanging on my wall from the inaugural one, that most people think is some kind of weird ironic home-made christmas present. :o)

The point being, these are good things. The role of the curator is to make sure that whatever weird set of assumptions people come to these events with, the music they hear is great. There’s no such style as ‘loop music’ but that doesn’t mean that you can’t put together a coherent program of excellent music featuring looping musicians. The line up at Rick’s fests has gone from being a bunch of bassists who loop at the first one, though a period when it was largely about loopists getting together to ogle each other’s gear, to a place where he’s booking internationally known musicians (albeit from pretty esoteric scenes) for a festival of quality music. Hat’s off to his tenacity, long may it continue.

As I said a couple of weeks ago here looping is no longer a gimmick that will cover the lameness of your music but it can still work as a hook to get people through the door to hear great music.

BTW, It’s also Bass-fest season, though thus far, for the first time in years, I’ve not been invited to play at any of them… we’ll see if that changes, but it might make a nice change to be doing normal gigs at this time of year rather than playing to rooms full of bassists… They are generally enjoyable events, though meeting the people involved is mostly more interesting that listening to a lot of the music…

Tony Levin/Trey Gunn interview from '98

This interview was from the April 98 issue of Bassist magazine – I was already a big Crimson fan, but hadn’t – crucially – been involved in much free improv (well, I had, in a ‘band’ I was in at school called Pigfarm, but I didn’t realise it was a free improv band until much later…!) – as a result, reading this interview back, my questions are pretty rudimentary. I’d love to sit down and talk improv with Tony and Trey again now, in less bass-mag-ish terms. But here it is. Incidentally, the version in the mag was butchered from this – for some reason they were doing a ‘Minder special’ (you guess is as good as mine) so rewrote all of my bits as though I was Arthur Daily having a go at Trey every time he spoke!! It was the weirdest most inappropriate bit of magazine editing I’ve ever witnessed, and I think I emailed Trey and Tony to apologise afterwards…


Tony Levin and Trey Gunn Interview

(Reproduced from the April 1998 issue of Bassist Magazine)

When a group known for pushing back the boundaries of modern music announces a series of concerts consisting solely of freely improvised music, one wonders what on earth the end product will sound like. But this is exactly what ProjeKCt 1 – 4/6ths of King Crimson – did at the Jazz Cafe for four nights last December. The concert were of particular interest to low-enders due to the presence of both Tony Levin and Trey Gunn, so after many e-mails and a couple of phone calls, Bassist managed to collar them both one afternoon part way through the series of shows, to get the low down on ProjeKCt 1:

Tony Levin: “First of all there are only 4 of the 6 Crimson guys here, Trey and I, along with Robert Fripp (Guitar) and Bill Bruford (Drums). ProjeKCt 1 is one of the many planned variations on the King Crimson theme and this one will play totally improvised – by which I mean we don’t have any plan for the music each night.”

Bassist: So, no Crimson material at all?

Trey Gunn: “It doesn’t even sound like Crimson.”

TL: “The day before the first gig we had a rehearsal day, just to check that all the gear was working. No two of us played at the same time, to avoid falling into any groove that we might later repeat. We’re trying to keep it totally fresh, and we’re pretty much doing that.”

Bassist: Is there an ulterior motive for tonight? I read somewhere that Robert referred to it as a ‘research and development’ ProjeKCt?

TG: “Well, we’re taping all the shows, but then we always do.”

TL: “Robert finally discovered that some great stuff happens but the only record of it is bootlegs, so for years we’ve been taping every concert, just in case it’s great. If something sparks, and has a good writing impetus for KC then we’ll use it, but that’s not really a plan.”

Bassist: What instruments are you using for these concerts?

TG: “I have an 8-string mono Warr Guitar, and a couple of rack effects and pedals.”

Bassist: No 12-string?

TG: “No, I haven’t played the 12-string in about two years. I really liked the 12 but it’s a stereo instrument, allowing you to have two different sounds from the two sets of strings, which seems a bit ludicrous in a six piece band like Crimson! I’ve stuck with the 8-string for a while, although I think I might go back to a stereo 10-string, as there are some cool things you can do with the interlocking strings that you can’t with the mono’but I like having less options right now.

Bassist: That’s the first time I’ve heard using an 8-stringed instrument referred to as going for ‘less options’!!

TG: “I also have a MIDI pick-up fitted. I resisted it for ten years, but I finally gave in.”

TL: “I don’t really go for MIDI stuff. I’m the opposite of Trey; I have a whole bunch of instruments on stage and a pile of little old guitar effects pedals. Though sadly I couldn’t get the Box Bass on the plane. It’s pretty un-portable!”

“I have the Musicman 5-string, the Chapman Stick and the NS electric upright that I’ve been using a lot with King Crimson, which gives me the option of playing with a bow. And I brought along a Nordlead synth, just for the heck of it – because it would fit in the case. I programmed about 30 bass sounds into the synth before we came.”

IMPROVISING

Bassist: When you get on stage, how does it start? Or is that a stupid question?

TL: “It’s not stupid at all. Sometimes it doesn’t start to begin with – the audience assumes it’ll happen and we assume it’ll happen, and nothing happens! Sometimes we all get on stage and nobody wants to start. In which case Bill starts!”

Bassist: And is any pattern or formula emerging?

TL: “I’m not an expert at this kind of thing, any more than anyone else is, but my feeling is that we’re pretty good because we do it a lot. We’ve been doing it with one song a night – ‘Thrak’ – for years. And more importantly, we all listen to the other guys, so no-one’s up there playing licks or riffs. Everybody is reacting to what’s happening, so if one guy does get onto something interesting, the others will generally lay back and leave room – generally, not always. That’s why I feel it’s successful.”

Bassist: With both of you having the capacity to play bass parts, have you had any difficulties working out who’s going to take the bass role at any one time?

TG: “I think we’re doing pretty well regarding low end. I’ve been playing a lot more low end than I thought I would – and we’re still talking, which means we must be doing something right!”

TL: “Firstly, if I hear Trey at all, it’s because Bill isn’t playing too loud! If I hear Trey playing a bass part, I’ll do something else. I might go up high on the Stick or the upright. Or I can stop, or do some sound on the synth that’s neither high or low, it’s just noise. Or I can put the funk fingers on and play percussion. I can do a lot of things. Or I can play bass as well! In fact, what has occurred, maybe too many times in this series of gigs (and you Bassist people will be overjoyed to hear this) is the sound of three fretless bass players soloing incessantly, as both Trey and Robert can get a fretless bass sound from their rig. And we’ve gone long stretches where it’s just basses galore. But my sense, if I hear Trey laying down a bass line, is to stay away. Other times, I’ll go half an hour just playing ‘bass’ bass. Trey has a way of going in and out of the bass register.”

TG – “all I do is switch string!”

Bassist – Tony do you switch instrument mid song?

TL – “This is improvised – there is no ‘song’, but yeah, I switch instruments a lot. I spend a lot of time just listening with my hand on the neck of an instrument and then pick it up and put it down before I’ve played it – people in the audience may be a little puzzled why I don’t know what I’m doing!”

TG – “when Tony’s fiddling, I go to the bass register!”

TL – “the irony is that Robert, who doesn’t need to be in the bass end, is playing quite a bit of bass!! And that’s the cool thing about this, we don’t have any rules. I think if someone were playing really badly, and taking over, then Robert would probably talk to that person.”

Bassist – Has there been any conflict?

TG – “We’re all right on the end of that thing that’s unfolding so there’s no right or wrong.”

TL – “I would say that King Crimson always has an element of what I would call tension rather than conflict. There’s a tension level in the band – not this week but generally in the band – an inner tension and friction, there’s plenty of that in KC, but less of it this week.”

TG – “As there are only 4 of us this week it OK. If there were six of us and we were doing this, that would get hard.”

Bassist – So where does the material evolve from? Do you sense a chord progression developing, or just a general feeling or what?

TL – “There are no chord progressions – that’s one problem we don’t have! No, actually last night I played some but nobody knew them.”

TG – “the ones I couldn’t find I didn’t play on!!”

TL -” there’s not much point in chord progressions as, being King Crimson, we don’t generally play like, E7 anyway, in any of our stuff, so if I laid a progression of bass notes, it wouldn’t lead to the normal chords – it’s a little further out than the jam that would result from laying down chord progressions – not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Bassist – Do you think you’ve gone beyond chords and theory to pure feeling..

TL – “I’m not beyond that, I just don’t enter it. I think you’d get four different answers to that. Bill has xylophones so he can play notes as well. Of course if he plays notes, life gets easy as they are very easy to recognise. In my opinion Trey and Robert play a harmonic style that is really nothing to do with the chords that the rest of us imply. If I’m hinting at chords they are more accessible more normal chords, but this week I’m not hinting at them very much. So what we have is kind of cross harmonic stuff all the time. I don’t know what the other guys are doing, so what I have to do is pick the notes that either blend with that or don’t and ideally I’m trying one or the other, sometimes I’m trying to make it sound nice and it sounds like The three of us – Trey Robert and I – are blending into a moving contrapuntal thing that’s not tense. Other times, in fact most of the time, I’ll sense a hovering around one key base, and I’ll go to a different one, or sometimes two, as I can play around say G on the synth bass, then reach over to the upright bass and play in F# simultaneously.”

Bassist – What has the audience reaction been like to ProjeKCt 1?

TL – “I didn’t expect the audience to be able to stand it for 2 hours and if they hadn’t done I wouldn’t blame them, but it’s been really good.”

TG – “I was not much of an early Crimson fan, but I guess that there are some people for whom this is a real treat. I think the band used to do this kind of stuff – a lot of improvising’ and a bit more jazz stuff. Actually that’s why I enjoy what we do, because we’re not jazz players, and what we play isn’t jazz,”

TL – “I get scared that the subject is even coming up! We’re not jazz but I don’t know what would define us as jazz – maybe if we had a sax player!! You got the wrong guy for a talk on jazz!!”

forgotten influences…

It’s happening to me a lot of late – hearing things I haven’t listened to for a while, and realising how formative they were in me getting the ideas together to do what I do solo. Hearing Iona again was one, and seeing the Doug Wimbish clinic at the Bass Centre at the end of last year was another.

And now I’m listening to Iona again, and hearing Robert Fripp‘s parts on one track, and having a vivid flash back to his opening soundscape set at the ProjeKct one gig at the Jazz Cafe in London back in, er 98? 99? something like that… Anyway, he came down 40 minutes before the rest of the band, and set up all this soundscaping stuff, overlapping asynchronous loops of mainly synth sounds. The effect was mesmerising, and as someone who was already experimenting with looping (at the time, all I had was my old Lexicon JamMan, and an ART Nightbass processor) it was a big inspiration.

Not long after that I got one of his solo soundscape records, and was a little disappointed. Not in the musical ideas, but in the synth sounds, and it swore me off ever getting a MIDI pickup fitted – I’d had one for a while to demo it for Yamaha, but ended up sounding like a bad keyboard player. Fripp sounded like a much better keyboard player than I, but it still sounded like keyboards a lot of the time, and that to my ears lost much of what is magic about stringed instruments – the attack, the decay, the way we can keep moving the note after it has happened (especially if you’re using an Ebow or the Fernandes Sustainer circuit that Fripp uses in his guitars) – to use that to trigger a synth seemed a little disingenuous.

Still, it meant that I was less likely to end up sounding like him, which was a good thing I guess, but the influence is undeniable, and that gig was a pivotal moment for me. As was the rest of the night – watching the free improv of Fripp with Trey Gunn, Tony Levin and Bill Bruford, I got a glimpse of what was to become one of my main ways of making music – just getting up on stage and playing. The sense of each sound evolving from the last, in an instantaneous thought process, with the intentions of the players meeting, combining, clashing and melding into one another. It’s a magical thing, and the direct descendent of that gig (and in no small way, the interview I did with Tony Levin and Trey Gunn after the gig) is the Recycle Collective.

Soundtrack – James Taylor, ‘Hourglass’.

Too long in the wasteland…

…out of blog-dom. So let’s catch up.

When did I blog last? er, 25th, so let’s start from there…

Friday 25th was Rob’s leaving do – Rob’s a friend from church, moving away from London down to Devon (wise man, methinks), and it was lovely to see so many friends turn out to give him a good send off. He’ll be missed…

Saturday 26th – Masterclass at Colchester Academy Of Modern Music‘s Bass Day. Lesson number one in the Steve-makes-mistakes-so-you-can-learn-from-them book is always check the address of the venue – I got an address off the website for what I assumed was the college venue, but was actually the home of the organiser. Got there, rang him, and was fortunately only 5 minutes away. Lesson two is not to trust the RAC website’s directions to anywhere – very shoddy indeed, and resulted in a 45 minute detour on a journey that should’ve taken less than 2 hours anyway…

However, the masterclass went really well – seems like a great little set up at CAMM, run by good people. The questions asked were good, and we were able to talk a lot about the process of learning an instrument and how to apply practice material to real music… A fine day.

This week I’ve been to a couple of gigs – the first was G3 at The Albert Hall – G3 on this tour is Robert Fripp, Steve Vai and Satch. Fripp was up first, and was, as expected, remarkable, playing a beautiful beguiling, deep, rich soundscape, to an audience half captivated, half disinterested. Breathtaking stuff, but pearls before swine methinks for much of the audience. Then Vai came on – did a solo intro on a triple-necked guitar, before getting his band up on stage. Now I had high expectations of Vai’s set – I know he’s an incredibly gifted technician on the guitar and have heard some stuff by him that I really liked, but tonight was a bit of a disappointment. Actually a huge disappointment. Not helped by possibly the worst mix I’ve ever heard in a major concert hall – no drums, very little bass, a tiny bit of keys and second guitar and then Steve’s guitar ripping your face off. And it’s not like I had some weird seats up in the gods – I was not far behind the sounddesk, so apparently in a good aural vantage point. Anyway, the material didn’t grab me at all either, and the shredding got tired very quickly. Especially following Fripp, it seemed unbelieveably dated and teenage. It’s a shame, cos I really wanted to like it, but it so didn’t happen for me. That coupled with the fan on the front of the stage blowing Steve’s hair back… oops.

Last on was Joe Satriani – This is the fourth time I’ve seen satch, and the third time in 18 months, and by far the best. His current band of Matt Bissonette on Bass, Jeff Campitelli on drums and Gaylan Henson on second guitar is, IMO, his strongest ever, the tunes were there, the shredding was well placed, the mix was better, the interplay between the musicians was great, and Fripp joined in on some numbers towards the end of the set. The playing was a bit freer than before, with Joe giving Jeff and Matt a fair bit of space to play, deservedly so, as they are definitely one of the finest old school heavy rock rhythm sections I’ve ever heard.

The encore was matt and jeff with all three guitarists doing Ice Nice, Red (a King Crimson number) and Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World – apart from the obviously surreal experience of seeing Fripp and the Shredders takling Neil Young, it was a great choice of tunes, and Free World an inspired choice of closing number. The aftershow was fun too, with a chance to catch up with Jeff and Matt and Matt’s wife, and see Jakko, Clive and a few other old friends too…

Wednesday night was an altogether more satisfying musical experience, watching Spearhead at the Jazz Cafe (thanks to Deb and Alice for the ticket!) – one of the finest live bands on the planet, they were well on form tonight, if a little loud. A heavier reggae content than the last couple of gigs I’ve seen, they were nonetheless as groovalicious as ever, with Franti’s tales of his recent trip to Iraq an inspiration to everyone there. Very late finish though – why on earth did they start at 9.30 if they wanted to play for three hours? surely starting an hour earlier would have made sense…

Which brings us to last night’s gig, an improv sesh with Filomena, Orphy, Dudley, Roger and Roland, along with some improv theatre and dance stuff. A slightly shakey start before the gig got underway due to a couple of misunderstandings about the nature of the gig, but the gig itself was fantastic – great players, lovely people, some marvellous music and surprisingly engaging dance and theatre stuff. All in all, a marvellous night. It’s always great to catch up with the lovely musicians on these gigs, and Fil gave me space to play a solo tune from the new album, which was a great plug (and I sold a few CDs afterwards too… :o)

anyway, in between all those events, I’ve spent the last week doing album/tour/promo stuff – emailing radio, sending out CDRs, ringing venues etc. all trying to get this bass-show on the road! Things are looking good!

SoundtrackCathy Burton, ‘Speed Your Love’; Muriel Anderson, ‘Heartstrings’; me, ‘Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline Pt 1’ and of course more of the new album.