Thoughts and Questions on Originality.

Been having some fantastic conversations with creative people of late on the subject of originality. It’s a subject that seems to lead to wildly different comments and responses from creative people, but rather too often seems to become deified or fetishised to the detriment of the resultant art.

With solo bass being such a niche musical pursuit, I often end up with people thinking that what I do is ‘completely original’, in that listeners outside of the solo bass/looping/etc. cognoscenti have probably never heard anyone doing anything quite like what I’m doing before. It would be very easy for me to claim that I came up with the whole idea and convince people – at least in the moment – that I’m some kind of pioneer in a way that I’m not.

But, it’s also worth noting that some of what I do has been described as ‘pioneering’ and even folks within the ‘scenes’ from which I draw most of my influence have recognised bits of it as being in some way ‘original’.

So what is one to do with that? In both situations the result is that the people involved have another level on which to engage with what I do, but it’s one that holds precious little ‘real’ value.

The first question that comes from this is a) ‘how many records have you ever bought just because the artist was flagged up as ‘original’?’ – and part b) of that question is: of those, how many did you stick with just because it was ‘original’?

The answer to the first bit is probably – if you’re an early adopter and enthusiast like me – ‘a few’. There are a few things I’ve checked out (though these days more via downloads/myspace etc.) that I’ve being pointed to because the persons approach to music making was in some way novel. However, it’s the second half that concerns us – Long term engagement with an artist’s output is based on quality, value and integrity, not gimmick.

This is something that we’re all too aware of when it comes to the marketing aspect of what we do – trying to rebrand dogturds as caviar isn’t going to make people enjoy the taste of dogturds – but originality is trickier because it’s a) less easy to quantify and b) it feels like an artistic consideration first and not a marketing gimmick.

So, here’s the question that will help you to gauge your own reaction to concepts of originality – if everyone in the world did things the way you do, would what you do still have value? In otherwords, when your schtick ceases to be a schtick and just becomes a creative model like ‘being in a band’ or ‘taking photographs’, what is the innate value in the way your story informs the output?

For me, it becomes this – if all the world were solo bassists, would my music as a solo bassist still be worth anything? Or, to frame it in now, ‘what’s the value of what I do to an audience saturated with looped solo bassists?’ This last question is a key one when it comes to putting on ‘branded’ gigs – if I put on a solo bass night, does it water down my brand to the detriment of people’s perception of how ‘original’ I am, or does it just remove the ‘originality/novelty’ element from how they engage with it, and cut to the storytelling?

The reality for me is, as I’ve been telling my students for years, it’s way more important to be ‘good’ than it is to be ‘original’ – a whole load of the willfully obscure experiments that one can end up with when looking for a ‘new sound’ are things that other people have tried and dismissed before inflicting them on an audience.

Influence seems to be the dirty word in so many discussions about originality. The equation seems to go thusly –

Being original is key to my success, therefor I mustn’t experience anyone else’s art that may shape what I do in an overt way because if I hear them, I’ll want to sound like them, and that will ruin my USP (unique selling point), and I’ll be finished as an artist. So as a result, I’ll live my life in seclusion from talented people operating in the same field as me.

This, dear bloglings, is what’s known in the trade as UTTER BOLLOCKS. I’ve seen a few people’s musical paths really messed up due to their phobia of influence. I’ve seen people torture themselves when another band came up with a title similar to the one they wanted for their next album! It’s crippling creatively, but more than that it bears no relation at all to how we relate to art on any non-superficial level.

So from my observation of my own and other people’s reactions to these questions, here are a few thoughts on the creative process as it relates to originality and influence:

  • We are all aggregators: or as Bono put it (possibly quoting someone else) ‘Every artist is a cannibal’. Very very little in the development and progress of human existence has appeared in an intellectual vacuum. Our progress on a macro and micro level is way more often than not evolutionary rather than eureka-moment-driven. We take in our observations of what’s going on around us, filter them through eachother, through the world as we see it, through a complex-but-contained set of experiences and ever-growing opinions and tastes, and decide what to do, what to create, how to create, how to tell our story. Those Eureka moments that do happen are too random to be factorable in steering our creative path. What influences we choose to subject ourselves to is something we’re very much in control of.
  • Influence is influence, whether the influence is from within your own discipline or outside: If I stopped listening to all music, I’d still be shaped in my music making by politics, art, comedy, love, life, illness, nature etc… Everything I do as a musician is shaped by influences, millions of them. Influences won’t negatively impact my art, only unhealthy obsessions will.
  • The problem isn’t influence/no influence, it’s self-awareness or the lack-thereof: People who make great music in isolation won’t suddenly start making crap derivative music if they open themselves up to influence, and likewise people who are so unable to figure out what they want that they just ape someone else’s process to the point of plagarism aren’t suddenly going to discover their creative focus by not listening to their main influences. The problem with obsession is bigger and more fundamental than whether or not your music sounds like another band.
  • Influence is like a diet – it’s the mixture and balance that keeps us healthy: Obsession is not a healthy state to be in. Like eating only potato, or drinking nothing but tea, listening to one artist is going to mess you up. I have for a long time viewed my music listening as a diet, and as such cherish my music listening time like a meal. I avoid junk-food, and crave sumptuous filling meals that meet my dietary requirements. I don’t like eating the same thing day after day, and definitely enjoy the effects of seasonal variation.
  • Style is a medium, not a message – how you say something IS important. Vitally so. But talking shit with a soothing voice is still talking shit.
  • Speaking someone else’s language doesn’t make you think like them, it just makes you able to communicate with the same people they communicate with – this blog doesn’t come across as derivative just because it’s in English. None of us trawl the interwebs looking for ‘new languages’ just because they’re new. Language is there to communicate ideas.
  • Storytelling is an artform that exploits shared history and narrative form: If you’re telling your story through music, things that are familiar have a different resonance from things that are completley alien to both artist and listener. This is one of the reasons why so many creative musicians still find so much to stay within the confines of ‘blues’ – despite the restrictions of the form, there’s still so much great original music that’s coming out that is blues-based and blues-influenced. The language, imagery and resonance of the blues still provides a channel for so many people’s unique stories.
  • the quest to be original might actively prevent you from soundtracking your world: If I attempted to do away with my influences, most of the stuff that makes my music important to me would vanish; the melodic forms, the chord progressions derived from folk, pop and jazz idioms, the phrasing that I’ve absorbed from Joni Mitchell, Bill Frisell or Michael Manring, the bass techniques that I’ve nicked from Trip Wamsley or Victor Wooten. What makes me sound like me is the combination of everything that goes into my music. I throw it all into the mixing pot, and out comes my music. I practice to learn more about how to channel the feelings and emotions that those independent influences bring out in me, and look to find the right amount and blend of ingredients to make me feel the way the combination of all of them makes me feel.

So, where does all this leave me? Well, right now, I’m working on a new album, or at least, I’m getting ideas together to start working on a new album. Some of that involves working out what’s physically possible with the Looperlative, but a lot of it is working out what I want to say and how best to say it. So I’m putting myself on a fairly strict diet. A diet that will contain a whole range of music that generates the kind of response in me that I want from my own music. I’ll be listening to a lot of The Blue Nile, Joni Mitchell, Eric Roche, Rosie Thomas, Theo Travis, Alan Pasqua, Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, and then a whole bunch of extreme stuff in as many directions as I can to help me push back the walls that define the stylistic parameters of what I’ve done up until now.

And how I deal with notions of Originality and their value or otherwise impacts every minute of my practice time – do I get frustrated when I play something and it reminds me of some other musician, or do I use that as a model for saying something in their language? Do I get fixated with listening to other solo bassists because I am one, or do I realise that solo bass is in the grand scheme of things nothing to do with whether my music is any good or not, and look at developing the component parts of my musical narrative via influences that are best at those bits – for example, looking to singers for melodic influence, pianists for harmony, and classical guitarists for phrasing and shaping chord/melody ideas?

The end result of this is whether or not you hear those influences, the music is 100% me. It might be a different angle on me that hasn’t come out in other ways before. It might be me as expressed through the playing of other musicians on music that I’ve written for them, but it will be a combination of all the various influences that make me want to do what I do, and will at the same time be both entirely derivative and completely original.

Thoughts on composition and improvisation

Went out for dinner last night with the ever-wonderful Theo Travis. Not only is Theo one of the finest musicians I’ve ever had the good fortune to play with, but he’s a really inspiring person to spend time with, and I always come away with all kinds of new thoughts and inspiration whenever we hang out.

One of things we were talking about last night was improvisation. Theo made a couple of great observations; the first was about how lazy it is of reviewers to think that the highest praise you can give an improv record is that it’s ‘so good is sounds composed’. His second was that whenever you see a ‘what I’m listening to’ list from the titans of jazz, it’s almost invariably ‘classical’ (orchestral/chamber works) music that they are listening to.

Which sparked off a series of thoughts in me about structure in improvised music – the first point about reviewers is an important one, because it presupposes that the best structure and form comes for writing and refining rather than reacting. The record I recorded with Theo is, IMO, way better than it would have been if we’d composed it. The structures are too complex to be writable, the interaction between us way too intuitive to have been conceived of abstracted from us playing and reacting… There are things in it that felt wrong to one or other of us as we played them but turned out to be fantastic.

And to hammer the point home, every track on the album is a first take. There is somewhere a second take of every track, and none of them had the magic of the first takes. When we tried to turn them into ‘songs’ they lost something.

So onto the ‘top jazzers listen to classical music’ – I think this too is a matter of structure. I think it was Daniel Barenboim (might not have been, but it sounds like something he’d say) who said that ‘the best composed music sounds improvised and the best improvisations sound composed’ – meaning that in a composition one is hoping to inject the feeling that the performer is playing it because it’s the best possible thing to play right at that moment, not that they are settling for the shit that’s on the page cos that’s their job. There wants to be a relationship between the various parts that feels like it’s happening right there, like those lines are so meant to go together that all the players must be sharing a brain and thinking it up together…

Likewise, with an improvisation, the feeling that it’s the best you could possibly come up with even if you sat and edited it, that the strands running through it grow and evolve in the way you want them to, that the performer is in control of saying exactly what needs to be said with the most amazing level of skill – that’s what we’re aiming for.

So it stands to reason that great improvisors would spend time absorbing forms and structures and arrangements and ideas from the masters of form and structure – composers.

For the last couple of days I’ve been ‘rinsing’ Bartok’s string quartets nos. 1, 3 & 5. The music is so so beautiful, so deep and complex, and at times incredibly dark and dissonant but never without shape and form and beauty. It’s remarkable stuff, and I’m just letting it soak in and seeing what happens. I may end up having to get a book on Bartok, to try and get inside some of the harmonic ideas, but we’ll see how far I get by osmosis…

Video of Theo Travis' Double Talk live…

The very marvellous Theo Travis has just posted a couple of videos of his ‘Double Talk’ quartet on youtube – here’s one, and the second one is the top related link on there if you want to check it out. It’s great stuff and features the fabulous Roy Dodds on drums, and lots of lovely sax and flute loopage…

Forgotten Gems…

Was just browsing around the pages of my ‘top friends’ on Myspace, and on a whim started playing the tunes that are on the Recycle Collective page – just in case you’ve only just found this site, the Recycle Collective is a semi-regular improv night that I run in London with a revolving cast of characters that has produced some of the most incredible music I’ve ever had the fortune to be a part of…

Anyway, I’d forgotten just how lovely the tunes are that are up on the RC page – go here to have a listen – the first one, Dido’s Lament is with Andrea Hazell, and is particularly interesting as for big chunks of it when I tried to loop her voice, all I managed to loop was the reverb on her voice, which makes it all the more ghostly…

The second track is an improv duet with Cleveland Watkiss, the first thing we ever played together, and has a sort of Gregorian chant-ish harmony to it.

Track three is with Theo Travis, and is an improv track from a gig we did in Cambridge, that will eventually end up on a live album somewhere!

The last track features Cleveland again, and Julie McKee – all good stuff!

So head over there, enjoy, and look out for more RC gigs coming up soon!

End of year eMusic round-up…

So, end of December, time for everyone to do their end of 2007 best music lists… I’m just going to offer the stuff I got off eMusic, and a few of them were released in 2006 even though I didn’t get them til 2007 – with the way digital releases go, things released on CD one year might not end up being available for download until early in the next year anyway, so there’s a little ambiguity about what a ‘release date’ is these days…

Draw Breath – Nels Cline Singers – LA-based avant guitarist keeps on melding ‘out’ weirdness with amazing tunes. This new one is no exception.

Line By Line – John Patitucci – John continues to grow as both a composer and player on this beautiful guitar-led album of introspective jazz and beautiful chamber music. My favourites of his since One More Angel.

Double Talk – Theo Travis – push comes to shove, probably my favourite album of the year. Theo just gets better and better, and here his band are just amazing. It’s no wonder he’s so in demand right now… Look out for our duo live album some time in the next 12 months….

Shine – Joni Mitchell – seems like a very personal record, much smaller in scope than anything she’s done for years, a beautifully understated return to the recording world. Now let’s hope she tours…

The Antisocial Club – Alan Pasqua – anyone savvy enough to put Jimmy Haslip and Nels Cline on the same record HAS to have it going on. A beautiful album of spikey post-miles jazz, and the kind of project that Jimmy excels at, even though people don’t think of him as an out player…

You’ve Got To Laugh – Nik Kershaw – when are people going to wake up and realise that he’s one of the finest songwriters of the last 25 years – how long can one man’s reputation be defined by his mullet of two decades ago?

Sermon On Exposition Boulevard – Rickie Lee Jones – mad freewheeling gospel album, sounds unlike anyone else that I can think of. In a good way.

These Friends Of Mine – Rosie Thomas – really a trio record with Sufjan Stevens and the wonderful Denison Witmer, Rosie’s yet to record a bad song, let along a bad album. Now when is Sheila’s first album coming out?

Rock Garden – Ty Tabor – Ty finally allows himself to really rock out without the rest of King’s X.

Strange Conversation – Kris Delmhorst – as with everything she does, it’s full of great tunes and great words.

there you go, no Radiohead, no Britney, no Arctic Monkeys, no… whatever, you can go and read about their tedious nonsense elsewhere… :o)

Recycle Collective gig, Tuesday 30th…

(this is cross-posted from my mailing list – thanks to the lap-top problems I’ve been really slow to send out info about tomorrow night’s Recycle Collective gig, so am putting the word around as much as I can today, giving you the chance to make a last minute decision to come and spend the evening listening to marvellous music in the gorgeous surroundings of Darbucka…)

Sorry for lack of communication over recent gigs (if you have a look at www.stevelawson.net/gigdiary.shtml you might see some stuff that you’ve missed) – broken laptop has messed up my web-life all round… all the more reason to subscribe to the gig RSS Feed on that page… :o)

But anyway, this is really a reminder about tomorrow night’s Recycle Collective gig at Darbucka in Clerkenwell, London – www.darbucka.com is their website.

The line-up is me on bass and loopage, Patrick Wood on keys and Roy Dodds on drums. This is a bit of a dream line-up for me, as I’ve been a fan of Roy’s drumming since his days with Fairground Attraction (yup, that was him on ‘Perfect’) through to his beautiful playing on Theo Travis‘ new ‘Double Talk’ album. And Patrick is a regular at Recycle gigs, having played with us at Greenbelt this year, and is never less than amazing – melodic, funky, inventive; the ideal improvised music collaborator! :o)

So PLEASE come down – it’s only £6 to get in, and Darbucka does fabulous food either upstairs in the restaurant beforehand, or while you’re sitting listening to gorgeous music!

Music starts at 8pm – www.stevelawson.net/gigdiary.shtml – head there for a link to a map for where Darbucka is. The address is 182 St John Street, London EC1V 4JZ and the nearest tube is Farringdon, and we’ll aim to finish in time for you to get the last tube home! Music starts at 8pm.

thanks – please check out the gig calendar for more dates and my blog for more on what I’ve been up to. Hope to see you soon,

take care

Steve
www.stevelawson.net
www.recyclecollective.com
steve.anthropiccollective.org
www.last.fm/music/Steve+Lawson

What music gear manufacturers don't get about looping.

My looping rig, featuring the looperlative LP1Looping is no longer a gimmick. It’s official. If it’s your gimmick, find a new one. It’s way too mainstream to be a cover for crap music any more.

It’s all happened fairly recently – back when I started doing solo gigs (late 90s) it was a fantastic gimmick. Fortunately I never relied on it being such, or I’d be screwed now, but it had a certain freak factor that was appealing to certain audiences.

Now everyone and her dog are looping, so it doesn’t work as a gimmick. Which is fantastic news. Really, really great news. It stops crap tuneless musicians from doing mindlessly repetitive gigs just because they’ve bought an esoteric bit of kit and can impress a few gear-geeks with it. One nil to the audience; oh, and learn some tunes, crappy-looping-dude.

However, what hasn’t changed since looping went mainstream is the conversation about it. Both from the vast majority of the musicians using it and from the manufacturers, the basic statements about what it is and what it does – and what it gives you – are the same as they were years ago;

  • that it’s about recording a bit of audio that goes round and round and round until you stop it at the end of the song.
  • That the longer the loop time you have, the better the box you’re playing with.

So the digitech jamman gives you up to 6.5 HOURS of loop time, but still has most of what few functions it has applied in such a way that they only work in ‘step-time’ – ie, you have to stop the loop, or at least interrupt your performance to the point where you look like a bit of a twat on stage in order to be able to do them. (Ironically, the original Lexicon JamMan, with its 32 seconds of loop time, was an infinitely better looper than the Digitech…)

Here’s a list of things that the gear manufacturers seem to think people want –

  • internal metronomes that play through your amp
  • quantise functions
  • massive amounts of loop time
  • amp simulation
  • the ability to get rid of mistakes, but not undo layers
  • only two buttons to work with
  • removeable media

And what’s weird is, if you’re the owner of one of the lower end loop boxes, who bought it after seeing an ad for it, you probably agree with the stuff on that list. Even though what they amount to is a glorified mini-disc recorder with foot controls, and a practice tool that stops you learning how to actually play your instrument.

Lemme explain –

Internal metronomes – What use is an internal metronome? For one, it plays through the outputs, so if you hear it your audience hears it. That’s crap, no-one wants to listen to a click track. Secondly it suggests that looping works best when it’s in time. It doesn’t. Thirdly, it suggests that even if you want it to be in time, you need a click. You don’t, you need to practice.

Quantise functions – Why quantise? No idea. All it does it mean that you don’t learn to loop in time, and most importantly you don’t know what’s going to come out when you loop it. You don’t know because you’re not in control of how it works. Something else is. It’s the death of anything spontaneous about looping, and looping without the option to be spontaneous is like gigging with a backing track. ie, largely, shit. It also requires you to have a metronome on, see point above.

Massive amounts of loop time – Surely that’s a good thing? Well, yes and no. It’s not in an of itself a bad thing. It’s using it that’s a bad thing. REALLY long loops are very, very hard to make interesting, especially if you’re playing solo. I’ve heard a few people do it, I’ve heard very few (one or two) do it well. None of them were using RC-20s or JamMen. The advertising says long loop time is great for saving lots of loops. But saving loops is a curates egg. It’s great if you want to be able export them and remix particular things. It’s crap if you start using pre-recorded stuff because you think you’ve got the perfect take and don’t want to risk getting it wrong. Because of this last point, pre-recorded loops are, by and large, the death of creative aspiration. (the qualifications in my statements about pre-recorded stuff are because there are a handful of artists doing REALLY interesting stuff with prerecorded material. They are however, overwhelmingly the exception rather than the rule).

Amp simulation – Again, not a bad thing, just not the kind of thing you can do with any level of sophistication at the push of a button on a £200 loop box. Amp Sim = roll off the high end, boost the midrange. get an amp or a proper amp sim, or learn to live without it.

The ability to get rid of mistakes, but not undo layers – OK, this really is a biggie. The way the undo works on the RC-20 is that you hold down the footswitch for 2 seconds and then it deletes the last layer. Possibly the most unmusical interface ever in an effects pedal. Totally useless bollocks, based on the assumption that removing layers is about getting rid of mistakes when step-time building a loop, not about arranging a piece by putting layers in and taken them out. We’re back to the mini-disc concept of looping. It’s rubbish, it’s annoying, and it needs to change.

Only two buttons to work with – I kinda understand the need to make the RC-20 meet the floot-print of the other Boss pedals like it. It’s just that they crippled the user by doing it, and end up with shit functions like the one mentioned above. You can’t do proper interactive loopage with two buttons. It doesn’t work. The JamMan allows you to plug in another pedal, but infuriatingly it controls a load of step time functions for recalling prerecorded loops!!! ARRRGHHH! Why not have reverse? Why not have ‘next loop record’? You utter morons!

Removeable media – Again, a curates egg, like loop time. Nothing wrong with it, just not something that is ever going to be particularly good if you can’t also record an entire performance into it, and export each layer separately. That would be a great use of removeable media. But nobody does it.

So what’s missing? Conceptually, the notion that loops are static is really, really restrictive. Unless you just write very simple, beautiful repetitive songs, looping needs to be interactive, because it’s the interactivity stops the audience from ‘learning’ the loop. As soon as the audience knows exactly what’s going on with the loop, it becomes a backing track. That’s why on tracks like Grace and Gratitude and Behind Every Word the timing is so stretchy. It’s really difficult to get a handle on predicting exactly where the loop is going to come back round, and means I can build rhythmic tension and ambiguity into the melody. It also, crucially, keeps me listening on a much more intense level, because I haven’t learned the loop shape exactly first time round, I’m interacting with it the way I would another musician.

So how does one interact with a loop? Well, the simplest way to do it is to stop and start the loop. Record something, play over it, then stop it and play something else, then start it again. Hurrah! interaction, human decision making, audience interest. Any of these boxes can do that.

The second level is overdubs. You don’t have to do all your layering at the start! A simple ‘AAAAA’ form tune can be made way more interesting by starting simple and adding bits as you go along – again, have a listen to Grace and Gratitude – on the album version there are three layers, which come in progressively through the piece, and then a load of post-processing of the loop (all live) which I’ll get to later…

However, with overdubs, it’s also nice to be able to take them away again. The Akai Headrush does this in a really cool musical way – the undo removes everything except the initial loop, and it does it the moment you hit the pedal. It’s great, it’s musical, and I could get more mileage of of the 11 seconds I get with the Headrush than the 4 years of loop time in any of the others… would be nice to have a little more than 11 seconds though. :o)

Third level is fade-outs, which can happen in three ways – manual volume control, pre-programmed fadeout or feedback control. The Line 6 DL4 allowed for a manual fade out, thanks to the expression pedal socket – you could set it so that as you fade the loop out, the delays over the top got louder and the feedback on them increased, which is a fantastically musical option (have a listen to any of the looping Theo Travis has been doing of late to hear that effect…) – Pre-programmed fades are a pain in the arse, because again, you’re relinquishing control, and losing your own touch on the detail. and IT’S ALL ABOUT THE DETAIL.

If you ever get a chance to go to a classical masterclass with a world-reknowned master musician, do it. Doesn’t matter what instrument. What matters is what it is the sets them apart. In my mid-20s, I thought I was the bollocks, thought I was a really shit-hot bassist. Then one night on tour, I watched a televised cello masterclass. The dude giving it had the student play through the piece – I can’t remember what the piece was – anyway, she was fantastic, and my first thought was ‘what the hell is he going to say to critique that??’ Then he started to pull it apart. He was pretty gentle in his words, but he deconstructed almost every element of what she did. And when he demonstrated passages, it was like taking off sunglasses when you’ve forgotten that you had them on, and realising it’s not as dark in-doors as you thought… It was a whole other level up, BUT, that level was probably less than 2% of what was going on. The woman playing the piece was great, at least 98% proper great. But that 2% counts. The control, the detail, the focus, the hours and hours of practice. And pre-set fade-outs aren’t in that 2%.

So to feedback. Feedback is the single most undervalued parameter in a looper. I know because I was utterly clueless about it for years, to the point of suggesting that my set up with the jamman was fine and I didn’t need an Echoplex because feedback could be simulated by doing fadeouts with a volume pedal.

Bollocks it can. (never let it be said I’m unwilling to admit when I’m very slow indeed at getting my head round things…)

Feedback, put as simply as I can, is control over the progressive decrease in volume of the audio in a loop, by a certain percentage each time it comes around. So if you’re feedback is set at 70%, the second time round will be 30% quieter than the first, and so on, until it fades out.

What’s really important about feedback is that stuff you overdub while it’s fading is still coming in at 100% – if you fade it by volume, everything reduces at the same rate. If you use feedback, you can get the effect of layers receding into the distance. Have a listen to Ubuntu, Need You Now or No Such Thing As An Evil Face from Not Dancing For Chicken – that was me discovering the joys of feedback, and the subtle evolving textures work really well.

None of the cheap loopers have feedback, not even the RC-50 (the Roland website hilariously states “The Ultimate Looper Has Arrived” – but then forgets to link to the Looperlative…) A feedback control would change everything for one of those crappy loopers. Just a jack socket for an expression pedal. Please?

Next up on the interactivity list we have changing the form – with the current crop of low and mid-priced loopers, they’re set up to do A/A/A/A/A/etc. or to switch between prerecorded backing tracks. Would it have been so hard to set up the architecture so that if you used the track up button on the JamMan external footswitch and went to an empty slot, it started recording to that slot at the end of the current repeat of the one that you’re on? Apparently, it would be too hard, cos it doesn’t do it.

I’ve done a few tunes with multiple sections – Behind Every Word, FRHU, Despite My Worst Intentions – as you can see I tend to lean towards tracks that evolve rather than ABABABAB, which is why I’d vote for feedback control over switching between loops for recording, but both would be ideal.

Back to how this fits with interactivity, and your connection with the audience – multiple sections give us another way to be unpredictable. The audience doesn’t know when you’ll switch to the next loop, so they stay attentive (assuming the actual noises you’re looping are engaging in and of themselves – x-ref the stuff about gimmicks at the start).

It’s UTTERLY vital that your audience feels like anything could happen right up to the end of the song. Even if they know that you’re likely to play the song in it’s usual form, they need to feel like they’re part of something unique. The gig I did at The Spitz a few weeks back opening for Max Richter and Hauschka was a really interesting one for me, and hopefully for the audience, because I used each of the tunes as a springboard for a big improv. Grace and Gratitude was about 40% written content, same for Behind Every Word – both spiralled off, and everyone was rapt. I got a far better response that I thought I would have done on the gig, and life was marvellous, if only for a moment.

This is all before we’ve got into varispeeding, reversing, scrambling, replacing, selective overdubbing and generally fucking about with the loops in a way that the Looperlative, Repeater, Echoplex and the various software loopers can. We (we being the loopers who aren’t happy with glorified minidisc) owe a huge debt of gratitude to Kim Flint and Matthias Grob for the work they did on the Echoplex – everyone else working in this field right now is standing on the shoulders of giants… or at least standing on the shoulders of a Swiss hippie and a geek from the Bay Area.

Thanks to the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Gibson corp, the EDP seems to be on hold at the moment – perhaps because of the fact that it miraculously manages to be that advanced on a late 80s Mac processor, which is both remarkable and very limiting in terms of development without a total hardware redesign. It’s also still mono and relatively low-fi.

The best of the hardware loopers (and I’m not a fan of trying this stuff on a computer – way too much to go wrong, i just don’t trust mac or windows enough to rely on them in a gig…) is definitely the Looperlative – the ethernet port for software upgrades means it’s properly upgradeable, the full stereo signal path and much higher sampling rate mean it’s useful for proper recording, and the fact that it’s basically one bloke doing it all means that while it all slows down if he’s out of action (Bob was ill for a while earlier this year), there’s no focus groups or board members or rubber stampers to get past to make it happen. Bob Amstadt is a truly remarkable bloke for bringing the Looperlative to fruition and I now can’t imagine gigging without it. There isn’t anything that I could even begin to replace it with.

Which brings us to what is probably the single most annoying thing about what Roland and Digitech and to some degree Line6 have done to looping – they’ve turned it into a pedal/effect market when in fact it has the potential to be an instrument. The Echoplex is an instrument, the Looperlative is an instrument, the Repeater is an instrument. They take time to learn, they are subtle, complex, adaptable, interactive, require finesse and taste and get tired very quickly if seen as a gimmick. They reward hard work, practice, focus and conceptual consideration, and can be used to make unique, beautiful, complex engaging music in the same way that a piano can. I’m sure that someone will argue the semantics that because they don’t generate sound they are processors of sound, but my counter to that would be that unlike a processor, for most of the functions on a looper you have to actually do something to get a result – you can’t just plug it in and have it do things to your sound like, say, a chorus or delay pedal.

Because people see Looping as either an effect, or even worse, a toy, they see the Echoplex and Looperlative as expensive. I think £700 or there abouts for a Looperlative is the greatest bargain in the music world since the last time someone found a Strad in a junk shop. It all depends on whether you want to learn it as an instrument or keep ploughing the defunct and potentially embarrassing furrow that a bit of rudimentary looping is a clever gimmick that will get you gigs when your music won’t do it on its own.

BTW, none of this says that you can’t make great music with an RC-20, JamMan or Dl4 – all of them have parameters that can frame your fantastic looping ideas. What they don’t do is point you in the right direction, so you have to do the hard work yourself. Remember that great music is technology independent – the technology will inform it, and facilitate it coming through in a certain way, and even feed into your creative process, but it won’t make your music great, any more than buying a Moleskine will make you a great writer. That comes from practice, thought, process and having a story to tell. Which is a whole other post.

New unreleased tunes!

Thanks to the wonders of ReverbNation, I’ve uploaded a bunch of new tunes that you can have a listen to… The tracks in the player, embedded below, are a previously unheard live version of Scott Peck, a live version of Uncle Bernie from a forthcoming live album with Theo Travis and ‘Endo’ from the brand new ‘Calamateur vs Steve Lawson’ album that will be appearing in my online shop at some point in this week.

Enjoy – just click on the picture!


Steve Lawson

Four gigs coming up in the London area…

After a bit of a barren time gig-wise, I’ve got four London shows coming up – a couple more half hour sets at the Freedom of Expression nights in Croydon and Marylebone, a return gig at a church event in West London called The Waiting, and the much later on in the month, the Recycle Collective is back at Darbucka, this time featuring the genius talents of Patrick Wood and Roy Dodds.

Patrick’s done lots of Recycle gigs before, and always brings a whole load of beauty, funkiness and melodic magic to the gigs. His playing at this year’s Greenbelt Recycle gig was some of the finest Rhodes playing I’ve ever witnessed, especially in an improv setting. So I’m really looking forward to that!

Roy is an amazing drummer that I first heard playing in Estelle Kokot’s trio, then played with him in John Lester’s band at the 606, and recently heard him playing with Theo Travis’ new project Doubletalk at the Vortex. But I’ve been listening to him play for 20 years, as he was the drummer in Fairground Attraction, and has played with Eddi Reader ever since. I’ve found over the years with the RC that the musicians who are primarily ‘song’ players tend to improvise the most coherently; players who are as happy supporting what’s going on as they are leading. and both Patrick and Roy have that quality by the bucket-load. They’re both fantastic versatile musicians, and I’m really excited about it…

So for more details see the gigs page on my website, or the event page at last.fm, or the event page on facebook.

David Sylvian at the RFH

david sylvian at the RFH London

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

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

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