Sugar and Sheeran

So yeah, it was our son’s 17th birthday yesterday and as such he got to choose where we went for dinner. His favourite is TGI Fridays, so TGI’s it was. Menus were scanned, orders made and the food duly arrived. While we waited we chatted and admired the real actual Strats, Teles, Les Pauls and Harley Davidsons which were bolted to various parts of the joint, along with colourful night time photos of Broadway and 7th.

The food arrived, and I must admit I never thought it was possible to stack that much food vertically between two buns! It was a good ol’ feed and a rare opportunity for the four of us to be together. We were, however, astonished at how sweet the ‘savoury’ dishes were! Stone me, they must have marinated pretty much everything in corn syrup – even the chips were more like churros. (I later discovered that these dudes are able to cram a whopping 850 calories into a Caesar salad – that’s got to take some doing, right?)

We dropped the boy off at his ‘yard’ and then headed home, listening to the bare-footed Jo Whiley enthusing about all things pop on her Radio 2 show. She had Ed Sheeran in the studio (wasn’t he a footballist at Newcastle?) talking about his new material. I’d heard “Castle on the Hill” by accident the other morning as our clock radio had erroneously been left tuned into R2, rather than its usual, and splendidly blissful Chill. Chris Evans was, as I recall, also waxing lyrical about the new Sheeran stuff. Anyway back to the journey home. She played the song. It’s nice enough, accessible, an evocation about a journey home to his native Suffolk Ed himself had taken; notions of nostalgia, roots, old mates – some who are struggling to get by, some who’d messed everything up, some who are doing ok; a sense of ‘back home’. It is accessible, no doubt, with a wide appeal, sugary sweet production, all flavours hugely enhanced with compressors, wideners, aural exciters, stereo-sonic-glutamate and multi-band glaze – a bit like my burger, I guess…

Now, when I first started getting into music, for me it was all about Led Zep, a band shrouded in sorcerous mystery, with songs about mythology, blues and sex, laden with infectious and explosive groove-thunder and overdriven magic spells of four, six, eight and twelve string wizardry. If one wanted to find out anything about the conjurers behind the magic, one had to read subsequent biographical publications. Hammer of the Gods came out a good five years after Bonzo’s untimely passing, but even then all we got was unlikely salacious stories of wet fish, TVs flying through hotel room windows, and bullshit tales of debaucherous derring-do onboard the Starship. The band, even in interviews, was still enigmatically inaccessible outside of the arena, and that was part of the appeal, no? We had no minute by minute Instagram or Twitfeed.

Different world now.

Mr Sheeran duly announced to Ms Whiley (and the rest of us minions) that on the night of his recent Grammy win, rather than attending the after-show, he’d hired a private jet so that he and a “friend” could fly direct to a geothermal spring in Iceland in which to spend his birthday. Suddenly all the nostalgia about ‘back home’ in his latest offering shrivelled like cold burger cheese. Now I’ve got nothing against successful artists earning a lot of money and spending it however they wish. What I object to, however, is being offered a chance of connection and yet being the ugly kid no-one selected for the team, all within a measure of a 5 minute broadcast segment. It is insulting, it’s mockery, and it rankles. Ed, spend your money, you’ve earned it, you work hard for it, paid your dues, honed your craft, but please don’t pretend you care about those of us ‘back home’.

Write your songs, entertain us, take our money, but don’t play your fucking nostalgic song on the radio and then go straight into a smug little brag about fortune, opulence and excess. That is not good manners, mate. Just remember that there are a lot of young people out here who, because of issues such as diminishing opportunities, shitty care and mental health systems, and a capitalist fascism you are doing nothing to challenge, are never going to see the Kent coast, let alone bathe with a lover in the Blue Lagoon, while they’re supposed to be celebrating with the ones who helped them get there, and instead will be force-fed increasingly vacuous hyperbole and pitiful deceit on the airwaves while they strive to pay sky-scraping rent for a tiny room in a dingy little shared shithole and make sense of this Trumped-up sugary-shit world we’re leaving for them.

Time Travel

So yeah, yesterday I heard a re-mix on Grimmy’s Radio 1 show of Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” by an outfit called Just Us. It is a good solid example of a decent enough re-mix of a great record and, as such, a form of recontextualization – my current research area-of-interest.  I wanted to listen to it again, so I went to the R1 website and scrolled through the appropriately named Listen Again feature.  As I was doing so, I overshot the track and stumbled on an offering featured later in the breakfast show playlist by Christine and the Queens called “Saint Claude”, which I found instantly engaging.  There were aspects of her imaginatively fantastical vocal delivery which were, to my ears, clearly influenced by something I’d heard years ago, but who was it?  A trace of a particular sonic landscape started to unveil itself in my head, replete with weird glossolalia vocals and a dreamily jangly accompaniment.  Was it the Cocteau Twins?  We have “Heaven and Las Vegas” on CD at home, which is a splendid album, but I was thinking of something else…a similar sound, but a little less refined. I called up Spotify and starting having a scroll through some of their early work and “boom” I was to all intents and purposes in a time-warp.

Now then, I teach people about music; I write and produce music and I listen to music whenever I can.  As such you’d have thought that music’s capacity for significant emotional connection and interactivity would be something with which I am more than familiar.  Sure, something will come on the radio and I’ll maybe get the ‘tingle’, the ‘chill’.  I’ve known myself to experience a surge of empathy when I connect with the vivid viewpoint of the Country balladeer, or I might well marvel when I hear the genius in the composition, performance and production on, say, a Quincy Jones record.  As someone who once tried to make it in a (bloody good) rock band, I, to a certain extent, resonate with AC/DC’s “Long Way to the Top” and “Highway to Hell”. I might well-up a little when Jeff Buckley groans Cohen’s cold and broken “Hallelujah” or when Joan Baez bleeds out Dylan’s “Forever Young”, or when Lou Read warmly shares his needle and his “Perfect Day”.  Today, however, I got utterly ‘owned’ by another staggering property of music, namely its capacity for actual time-travel. 

So yeah, “boom”, I was 13 again.

The album was “Treasure” from 1984 and I have not heard it once in nearly 30 years.  I’d all but totally forgotten about the fact that back then whilst away at school I’d pretty much played it to death.  It was essentially my comfort blanket.  In an instant I was being olfactorily hypnotized by the joss stick smouldering in the corner of one of the 6th form shared study bedrooms to which I had been sympathetically invited, fighting back the tears, marvelling at the vast provocative posters of U2, Simple Minds, The Cure, and The Cocteau Twins which completely covered one half of the walls and ceiling, and Motorhead, Megadeth, AC/DC and Metallica covering the other half; the two genre-opposed occupants of said room telling me I just needed to “hang in there”, and that it would get better.  I could genuinely smell the incense from 30 years ago.

Then, I was sat on my own by the river on the far side of the lower fields with a copied cassette on an imitation Walkman, the ‘wow and flutter’ and the hiss of the piss-poor transport mechanism, not helped by batteries which should have been expelled weeks ago, somehow enhancing the other-worldliness of the sound. 

Then, I was in my room, head between the cranked Amstrad midi HiFi and its groovy detachable speakers – the futuristic brushed aluminium system from our kitchen at home which I’d coveted for so long, and that my dad had lovingly let me have.  I could smell the stale mixture of sweat, rugby mud and floor polish in the changing rooms across the corridor, the piss and bleach in the bogs, the cheese toasties burning in the boarding house kitchen mingled with way-out-of-date milk, and I could feel exactly the same feelings: alone, desperately alone, scared of whether it would be me or Richard Hanley who would be the kid nominated for running the gauntlet in the dormitories that night, pummelled by other terrified kids with pillowcases full of CCF boots, savagely jeered on by the older boys.  I was remembering Hanley’s muffled screams coming from the notorious ‘dorm 5’ the previous evening, so perhaps it was my turn tonight, that’d be fair, right?  Us two new boys at the upper school were treated a little harsher than those who’d been at the preparatory school.

Then, I was panicking that I might not get my head together enough to get my French prep finished so that I could avoid the brutal cane of the half blind French master, ‘Onions’, who had a nasty habit of getting you in the small of the back or the top of your legs, rather than on the arse which could be protected by beer towels the more compassionate 6th formers would steal for us from the local pubs.  He used to smoke fags in the classroom, too; I was smelling the stale, smouldering Gauloises in his ashtray while he was whipping me.

Then, I was thinking about whether I’d ever be cool enough to get a girlfriend; maybe I should get a tattoo or a piercing; maybe I could (or should) be this, or that, or the other. 

Then, I was bitterly homesick, counting the minutes until half-term, until I could jump on that warm train and trundle home along the South Wales coast, to where I’d get a good feed, a cuddle and a listening ear from my mummy and my daddy, but knowing that it would never be quite the same at home again, but not really knowing why.

There was something deeply and spiritually soothing about that album.  Perhaps it was that dreamy soundscape with its wonderful chord sequences full of hope and possibility; maybe the strange, almost alien-like sound of Elizabeth Fraser’s swooping and totally unintelligible multi-layered vocals beckoning me into a trance of tranquility and wonder in some other universe a little nearer home where I could just escape, float, detach, heal.

For nigh-on 30 years those feelings have laid dormant, occasionally stirred by well-intentioned counselling sessions, but this album took me straight through that wormhole in a way no therapist ever could.  How is it that I can forget where I put my phone and sunglasses within the space of an hour, but I can remember nearly every nuance of “Treasure” from 259,200 hours ago?  That music stuff, it’s pretty powerful gear!

Storm in a Tea Cup

The thing is, since the (now defunct and stuffed) cats have temporarily put paid to all the cabling in my studio, I have lost the facility to be able to put my ideas through the workflow mill, and hence, the facility to engage with that manner of creative endeavour.  Having a studio / writing room / creative space is such a privilege, but I tend to be one of those people who pines for something for years (like my very own recording studio) and then when they get it, either forget or neglect it, but then really miss it when it’s gone!  There’s some weird psychology going on there, probably as a result of being beaten in Latin class with one of many policeman’s truncheons our beloved teacher used to collect from various forces around the world, proudly displayed in a glass cabinet at the back of the class, to which he would ceremoniously strut, and from which he would ceremoniously select, if one could not correctly conjugate one’s verbs.  Or something. (Hell, where did that come from?)

So the cats all but obliterated the studio and, since then, I have been pining for its reinstallation.  So much so that, whilst making tea for some colleagues at work yesterday, in a desperate bid to do something creative, I found myself tapping the spoon (probably rather annoyingly) on the 4 different mugs arranged before me, and creating a tune.  I quite liked the sound: the way my line-manager’s mug was slightly less tintinnabulous than that of his line-manager, and the fact that the four of them were fairly recognisable musical notes on a B minor scale.  I deduced also that if I was able to play them all simultaneously, I’d have a Bmin chord, with a sus2.  So, I got  the phone out quickly and recorded it.  I did consider asking the good folks who were chatting while waiting for their tea if they wouldn’t mind shutting the fuck up while I made my recording, but I felt that would be rude.  Actually, I’m glad I didn’t as the capture of the exclamation of “oh really” by my line-manager’s line-manager proved to be an interestingly mysterious addition to the ‘ting’ sound once time-stretched, and one which may well (with her permission) become a feature of the finished production.  Back to my desk, import into Logic on the laptop, little bit of processing and hey-presto a tune!  (Or at least a sound effect to enhance a drum beat for an 8 bar loop!).  Who needs Hammonds, guitars, Juno 106s, Akais, etc?  I thought I’d learnt that lesson! (Ok, ok, the song will of course feature Hammond, guitar, bass, synths, etc., so sue me for being a hypocrite.)

Check it out… I’m going to develop it into a song about making tea, with a stylistic nod to a bit of Ska, and also to that wonderful band: Fat Freddy’s Drop.

Naturally, the process which lead to this will also serve as a basis for some lecture content, with a view to getting students to think outside the sugary world of presets and instant ungratification.

Release of ‘Long Way to Grandma’s’: Day 111

625 views, as of this morning.  One can hardly call that viral, right?  One of the most frustrating aspects of the music industry is the sheer effort it takes to give something away for free.  Still, other than a few posts on my personal Facebook and Twitter pages I have done diddly-squat as regards promotion.  The track has also been available on iTunes all this time, but I haven’t logged in to my account to see if anyone has actually bought it yet!  All the DIY blogs say to get the thing reviewed by a magazine, but who the hell is going to review this?  I don’t know of a publication entitled “NoisePopSka Monthly”… Maybe I should create one… Maybe mine could be titled “S’Car”…?  Maybe I should just crack on and write some normal music!  

Cool for Cats

So I went into my studio the other morning to fire up the rig, full of creative juice, coffee and leftover curry.  As I switched on the main power feed, there was this strange buzzing sound coming from one of the multi-gang sockets, followed by a exclamation of disappointment by the small persons watching TV in the other room as the power went off.

I thought I’d better investigate – obviously, one of the plugs has somehow come loose and is creating some kind of short circuit.  So, I switched off the offending feed, reset the trip and crawled behind the rig.  Nope, all the mains plugs and ‘wall-warts’ seemed to be pushed well home.  However, I lifted up one of the multi-gangs so as to be able to access further cables beneath when I became conscious of some liquid dribbling out of the plastic casing.  As I tilted the casing further, the dribbling turned into more of a flow.  And then I noticed the smell.  Yes. Cat piss.

The little furry bastards.

It was everywhere.  They’d evidently decided that the level of service they were getting from their human servants was not quite up to the standard they now aspired to.  As such, they decided on a plan to effectuate the most amount of disruption to my creativity and musical enjoyment, with the very least of effort on their part.  It must have been quite a little party in there behind the racks – like a couple of inebriated disaffected youths breaking into posh houses, depravedly smearing excrement on walls and furniture.

So a massive clean-up operation ensued, whereby I had to strip the studio, remove all the cabling, disposing of that which was affected (which was quite a lot) and then deep-clean the room.

So far, I have not found the time to get back in there and set it all up again, so the kit is simply sat there, clean, unconnected, and dormant.  And so it shall remain until I can find a good run of about three days to re-install.

Needless to say, both cats are now stuffed and framed next to the entrance to the studio.

To their credit, however, it has given me a chance to reassess my workflow and reconfigure the studio accordingly.  When one has such an ad-hoc collection of gear as mine, several configurations are likely to be trialled before settling on a final installation and, even then, there is always room for improvement.  But no longer any room for cats.

‘Release’ of Long Way to Grandma’s: Day 1:

Although “Long Way to Grandma’s” has been sat dormant on YouTube for a few weeks, today was reported in the news as being the busiest day on the roads, being the end of term, and people heading to family retreats, airports, the seaside, caravan parks, etc. So, it seemed a good time to post a link to the track on Facebook. I offered the following, together with the link:

As today is supposedly the busiest day of the year on our roads, what with people all starting their summer holidays and such, I thought it would be a good day to share Long Way to Grandma’s. The track is part of a study I did into the relationship between noise and music. All the sounds in the backing track are from our VW Sharan – an idea my very clever and imaginative wife came up with. I’m sharing it via Facebook and YouTube mainly as an exercise into releasing music without a record label – something a lot of my students are looking to do. So, if you like it, do please feel free to share it with your friends and family. I am hoping it will appeal to folks who like Madness, or cars, or kids, or going on holiday, or any combination of the above. Happy end-of-term Friday, everyone.



The post has been live for nearly half an hour, and so far, only one person has shared it. This could obviously be that everyone who has seen the post does not have time to listen and watch; or it could be that they did, and thought it was crap and therefore not worth sharing. The third option, of course, is potentially a little more sinister. Is this something to do with the News Feed Algorithm?There are many thousands of variables within the algorithm, all programmed with a view to prioritising posts which will generate the most ad revenue for Zuck and his crew. Facebook is currently promoting it’s own video service, and is ‘at war’ with Youtube, fighting for domination in social video. I have noticed that there are very few YouTube videos featuring in my own newsfeed – most are hosted by Facebook, and I guess that this is the reason why.

This is all very well, until it comes to monetization. A YouTube channel can be set up quite easily to monetize videos via ad revenue. Currently, Facebook’s videos are all completely gratis. There are plans for this to change, but these are currently embryonic.

I could, of course, post the video via Facebook’s own video service, the two posts could even have a ‘race’, but in order to do this, I’d be knowingly foregoing a huge slice of potential revenue. Actually, this point is fairly meaningless if Facebook is not going to play nice with my Youtube video anyway. In truth the whole exercise is fairly meaningless if people don’t consider the work as worthy of a ‘share’!

…update… it’s been live for one hour, and there are now 2 ‘likes’ and 3 ‘shares’. I’ll check back at the end of the day.

Distro Disco

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Ok, so maybe I ought to think more seriously about releasing the car-based tracks.  Friends and colleagues really seem to like it!  To this end, I am in the process of setting up a webpage, organising an appropriate stage name and looking into branding, trademarking, promotion, legal, social, video, etc.  Such a load of non-rock-and-roll malarkey, yet, for the DIY muso, all totally essential.  Time was, all of this stuff would have been handled by the record company, but no one in their right mind is ever going to sign this nonsense, so its down to me.

It’s a minefield.

I’m currently looking at digital aggregators.  These are firms which, for a small fee and / or a share of the sale, will upload your music to iTunes, AmazonMP3, Spotify, Deezer, etc.  Now that everything is, potentially, all digital, this method of distribution is ubiquitous amongst folk who are not all that bothered about not having CDs and vinyl.  The problem is, who do you go with? Some firms charge more each time you want to upload a new single or album; some are able to collect from YouTube syncs, some are not; some will collect your YouTube revenue and keep it ALL for themselves, the greedy bastards.  Did you know that?  If your music gets used by some cat-on-a-skateboard clip, the algorithm flags up a potential copyright infringement – all good – but because the aggregator has the agreement with YouTube,  they claim the copyright, depriving the unsuspecting artist of much-needed beer-vouchers!

I’m told that Zimbalam is pretty good,though, so once I’m happy with the mixes, and once I’ve got some video, perhaps I’ll give them a whirl.

In Car Audio

Where to start? I’m too old for this shit, anyway! I’ve been in and out of bands since I was 13; been playing piano ever since my late uncle David taught me how to play “Billy Wash Your Dirty Shirt” on granny’s old Emerson when I was four. I’ve toured, recorded, been on telly, radio, played in pubs to one man and his dog (literally – in an old toilet called The Sir George Robey in Finsbury Park, around 1991), played huge festivals, been signed to a label, the lot. But it was never my own music. I was always either a hired hand or simply along for the ride, so my creative input was restricted by the fact that I was not in charge. (truth be told, I probably spent a lot more time making the tea for those who were!) Sure there were some laughs, but also some catastrophes and times when I very, very nearly lost it all.

I’d been trying, best I could, to impart some of my ‘wisdom’ to the undergrads at the London College of Music, and soon realised that I needed some form of creative release to instantiate a sense of through-put, whereby continuing to create stuff I could keep my lecture content relatively fresh. The Uni was kind enough to facilitate me doing an MA in Advanced Music Technology, which I began alongside my lecturing schedule. It was a little humbling to realise that 20 years of banding, recording, sessioning, roadying (and, of course, making tea) hadn’t amounted to much other than a basic overview of some aspects of the industry. I was thrust into the wonderland of surround-sound, visual programming languages, acoustics and psychoacoustics, not to mention research and academic protocol. I muddled through, learning more in the space of two years than I’d learnt in a lifetime of climbing in and out of the back of transit vans, tour busses and recording studio kitchens. Pretty soon it came time for me to undertake the ‘final project’ – the culmination of all of my studies. I was given a blank sheet, on which to demonstrate that I was indeed a Master of Arts. I was to create an audio artefact, underpinned by a not insignificant body of research. What should I do? I have a studio full of kit, so why not put it to some good use and make a record?

So, there I was sat in my room, looking at the array of apparatus I’d amassed over the years – guitars, synths, samplers, mixers, microphones, tin whistles and all manner of obsolete gadgetry, begged, borrowed, stolen and, occasionally, purchased. I have sample libraries, midi files, patches, patterns and presets-a-plenty, more than I will ever use. The world was my oyster and I had many swords with which it to open.

I knew that with all these tools I could do pretty much anything. Should I produce a chillout album? A country blues record? A rock opera? Classical? Jazz? What about a foray into post-dub industrial doom-core?

I had the strangest experience. It was an overwhelming and very sudden sense of boredom and frustration, mixed with some hopelessness and depression. Had all my hard work amounted to nothing other than yet another re-invention of the wheel? Haven’t we got enough chillout / country blues / rock opera /classical / jazz / doom-core? Isn’t the internet full of more of this stuff than even the most dedicated musicologist has time even of which to scratch the surface?

I knew the sounds that all this kit could make. I knew it backwards. How was I going to make anything new, innovative, interesting, if all I was doing was succumbing to the music technology industry and dialling up presets and pre-recorded wave files only to organise them into a slightly different order to that of a billion other electronica producers?

I sat back in my chair and averted my gaze away from the hard-drives and hammond organ and drifted into a dark dream of disillusionment. I could see my assessment feedback: “A well-crafted audio artefact, utilising many of the skills you have learnt as part of the course, but lacking in any real sense of purpose or innovation.”

My lovely and long-suffering wife brought me in a cuppa and, on hearing of my frustration, suggested doing something different.  She wondered if I could combine my interest in cars with a composition, perhaps incorporating car noises into the orchestration. My eyes opened and I found myself looking at my £250 Golf MkIIIIMG_1872 sat semi-rotting on the driveway, and a disjointedly daft thought flashed through my mind that perhaps I could collaborate with my car! I shook this nonsense out of my head and looked down. I found myself looking at an old portable minidisk recorder I’d bought off Ebay many years ago and studied its form, determining that it was probably about the same age as my car. I then started looking around the studio, in a desperate yet familiar act of procrastination, to see what else harked back to that era. My gaze fell upon my Akai sampler in the rack atop an old midi Function Junction. Hold on, was a plan starting to form? An angle? A topic? A concept? Make a record out of anything from the 1990s?

Drunk on a cocktail of desperate determination and idiotic despair, I plugged an old camcorder mic into the minidisk recorder and marched out to the car, and something started to happen. I had read in some ancient music tech mag about using ‘found sound’ to spice up recordings and just thought “why not? I’ve got bugger all else to contribute!” I listened back to the recordings I had made but I started hearing in a different way. I compared the sound the car door made when I slammed it to the sound of it closing gently, and discovered in that innately inert rotting green heap of neglected and insignificant automobilia, a sense of dynamics. A soft ‘close’ versus a purposeful ‘slam’ gave the car a voice with which it could describe two emotions – gentle optimism and angry determination. That’s music, isn’t it? It can’t be, it’s just noise. Hang on, what’s the difference??

And so my academic question established itself. What is the difference between noise and music? I pondered for a while but needed some help. I turned to a book called Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, and came across a letter some turn-of-the-century composer had written to his mate. In this letter he described his boredom and exasperation with the sound of the orchestra, the fact that all he seemed to be doing was arranging the same old sounds just in a slightly different order. This was at the time of the industrial revolution, a time when the streets were alive with the alien sounds of hydraulic pumps, steam engines, and mechanisation. The chap, Russolo, spoke of his wonder at these new and intriguing sounds and started to ask why he could not compose for them rather than for the traditional orchestra, a collection of sounds he knew backwards.

It was like I had made a friend!

My only frustration was the fact that I could not travel back through time with my minidisk recorder and my sampler and give him a hand! So I thought I would do the next best thing and write an opus using nothing but the sounds I could get from cars.

However, I was determined that this project was not to become an inaccessible avant-garde electro-acoustic squeaky-door experiment into sonic weirdness. I still wanted to make a pop record. So I did. And I also did a lot of thinking and writing about the notion of noise, and what has to happen to it sonically, psychologically and culturally in order that it can be considered music.

It came together quite well, in my opinion, and I got a great mark for the project. The question is: what the hell do I do with it now? That’s why I’m writing this – to get some sense of what I have done and where to go with it next. I am just full of questions! Do I start a record label and sign myself up? No other label is going to know what to do with this stuff, it’s too bonkers to fit in with any kind of promo campaign. Do I just stick it all on Soundcloud and share the link? Should I make some accompanying videos and put it all on YouTube and watch the halfpennies roll in? Should I start furthering my research into the noise/music debate and submit papers to symposiums and become a Doctor of Noisy Racket? No idea!

So I will just try a few things out and see if anything sticks, blogging my efforts to anyone interested. Is anyone interested? Maybe the tracks will see the light of day, but if my past experience and endeavour is anything to go by, the whole project will simply find itself laying abandoned on some hard-drive somewhere. Let’s see.

Engaging in Sonic Recontextualization for kicks, giggles and hopefully a PhD…