Friday, 8 May 2015

I'm Sorry

Dear English left-of-centre friends.
This is a hard day, and I feel your pain.
And I'm sorry.

Not that Scotland voted overwhelmingly against both the Conservatives & the Labour Party.
Not that we had a 5% higher electoral turnout as a nation - which, if you'd managed to similarly galvanise your support in England & Wales, could have seen the Labour party looking at government right now.
Not that the bigots of UKIP gained a derisory 1.6% of the vote north of the border.
I'm sorry that we don't have a fair & representative electoral system, and that far too many people (in the whole of the UK) have failed to understand that, or care enough to want to do anything about it, for too long.
So please, those who are desperately seeking someone to blame, stop pointing your fingers at us.
If too many of the English electorate swallowed Tory propaganda about "the most dangerous woman in Britain", that's not our fault.
If the opinion pollsters chose not to stress the margins of error in their statistics, allowing people to conveniently forget about "+/- 3%" and think things were a lot closer than they really were, that's not our fault.
If nearly 50% of English & Welsh voters chose right-wing parties, that's not our fault.
And if David Cameron has a majority in parliament, despite only having 37% of the votes cast...
That's everybody's fault.
Now let's do something about it, ok?

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Oops!...I did it again

To err is human; to forgive...extremely unlikely if the mistake in question concerns grammar and the internet. Fortunately for me, my most obvious cock-up in the last few months only involved things musical and money (my own), so swift, merciless and near-universal condemnation will possibly be avoided on this occasion.

Earlier this year I allowed myself to get swept away in a flurry of ignore-my-own-limitations excitement and "forget that I haven't played any wind instruments properly in over a decade" general stupidity, and bought a Yamaha WX5 midi wind controller on eBay. Cue many hours of trying to get the thing calibrated properly, and reprogramming my Roland XV-2020 synth module's patches so that
the lip-pressure-controlled pitch bend didn't sound like someone was randomly choosing notes from a large sack while blindfolded. Heck, even "free jazz" is (usually) tuned correctly...well, at least up until the point where folk actually start playing. My poor neighbours...

Anyway, eventually I reached the point where I felt confident enough to try recording a wee bit of looping stuff with it (this being roughly the original purpose - that I could integrate the synth-sax-whatever with my bass-looping noises at live gigs)...and that was when I finally realised that developing my use of the (not exactly cheap) beastie to anything close to an acceptable standard was going to require far more time (& effort) than I could possibly put in.

So it all turned out to be a bit of a waste all round, frankly. And when you're on a relatively slim budget to start with...ouch. Still, with any luck it'll be sold soon, so at least I'll recoup some of the cash. As for the time spent swearing copiously while fiddling with a small screwdriver, Midi-Ox and Roland's powerful-but-annoying patch-editing software (oh, how it makes you yearn for a good old-fashioned synth covered in knobs and faders), that'll just have to be put down to "experience". Yet again.

Mind you, I suppose if we don't get things wrong on at least a semi-regular basis, that's probably a sure sign we're just not trying hard enough...or something equally self-justifying of that nature.

I have, however, found a much cheaper, yet immensely fun alternative for the "wannabe-sax player who has no idea whether they'll have any ability whatsoever to pitch a note accurately by gripping a reed between their upper-front-teeth and lower lip with varying pressure which will initially make their mouth more knackered than they ever thought possible" - a Xaphoon!

The nicest-sounding ones are made of bamboo, but you can usually get one of these almost-indestructible plastic Xaphoons second-hand for about £45 (or less) - they make a surprisingly deep (and relatively pleasant) sound for something so small, use standard alto sax reeds, and could be a great starter instrument for anyone thinking about taking up the saxophone. Of course, I still haven't got the necessary time to become seriously proficient on it, but at least this little instrument won't make me feel guilty whenever I catch a glimpse of my bank balance. Do feel sorry for the neighbours, though.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Every Picture Tells A Story

  Along with a billion or so other folk (at the very least - there don't seem to be any exact numbers, so I'm making a conservative estimate based on the few stats I could find), I own an mp3 player. Unlike the majority of those people, however, it isn't an iPod - too expensive, don't subscribe to corporations trying to sell me a lifestyle, thanks - and I almost never use it. It merely sits, neglected & slightly forlorn, (in a dusty & slightly-off-white-oval casing sort of way) on a shelf in my bedroom. The battery's out of charge too, most likely. Shameful way to treat a perfectly functional device, really.

I know, we musicians are meant to listen to as much music as possible, to absorb & learn from a multitude of influences, blah blah blah. The thing is, most of the time I already have a soundtrack going on in my head - any extraneous noises can feel like an intrusion, an incredibly irritating distraction from what only I can hear. Or that might just be an excuse for acting like a grumpy sod who tends to ignore other people, given half a chance..? Hmm. It isn't, though, that my brain's only acting like a jukebox stuck on "random play", regurgitating stuff it's ingested over the last 40 years or so. Rather, it keeps on creating new music ("new" to me, anyway - the possibility of true originality is a much more dangerous issue, possibly for a blog post in 2014, or thereabouts), in response to strong visual stimuli - particularly landscapes. Abstract ones, at that.

An "interesting" picture or place - suddenly the music will start. Frustratingly, for the most part it's music I either couldn't begin to play myself (my limited piano-clomping, for instance), or simply don't have the resources (time, money, recording space, Manu Katché, etc) to realise...and those are the bits that tend to get stuck the deepest, keep coming around most often, etc. Sometimes, though, after a fair bit of nagging, and several sessions brutalising my fingers around "difficult" fretless bass chords, just sometimes...stuff comes out. And then promptly disappears, so if I haven't written the fundamentals of it down, that's it. 'Tis gone.

An old friend of mine, who's a writery-sort-of-fellow, has a very-similar-but-obviously-slightly-different take on visuals and the creative blobby bits of the mind here.

Anyway, wondered if other folk "hear" images, too, so I'll leave you with a wee "picture quiz"...

What sounds/music (if any) do these (entirely-natural, no editing-performed-upon-them I swear) images bring to mind...and please, if you have the foggiest, "why?"

Well, maybe not that last one...

p.s. this was originally going to be about the incredibly fascinating topic of synaesthesia, but that would have taken a lot more research than I have time for at the moment. For anyone who's interested, however, I reckon clicking here could be a fine place to start.

Friday, 20 April 2012

The Great Pretender

I'm currently trying to cajole my tiny little mind into learning Norwegian...again. It's my severalth attempt and, yes, I am indeed pretty hopeless at any/all languages that aren't from around these parts, but then you can't have your cake and gather moss. Or count your basket(s) after all your chickens have been put into it/them (whether this happens before, after, or even during the egg may be relevant). Something of that sort, anyway.

Alongside this linguistic self-flagellation, for an upcoming noise-making project I'm doing my best to become an approximately-competent Norwegian folk musician, compressing a lifetime of immersion in a complex cultural tradition into roughly three weeks. Which, as this video clip aimed at rhythm fetishists shows, is going to be interesting:

Thankfully I neither have to display my own (utterly abject) dancing skills, nor wear the
impressive skirt-come-emergency-parachute. 

Which brings me on to a question that's been bumbling around my head for a while now - when we delve into musically-unfamiliar areas, where is the dividing line between achieving an acceptable measure of "authenticity" & mere pastiche? And what the hell does "authentic" mean, anyway?

Let me put it another way - "Who Can Really Be 'Jazz'..?"

As I've mentioned here previously, I'm a Mr. McSkinny-Whiteass guy (in a McWorryingly-obese-whiteass country). I'm not American. I didn't grow up in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, etc. My background was originally in pre-C20th classical music, not Charlie Parker & Miles Davis. In my early teens I found prog-rock, not "Giant Steps". I've never had any inclination to try heroin. And yet, like many of my fellow whiteass (skinny or otherwise) Europeans, along the way I've been seduced by the be-bop, hard bop, post-bop, boppity-bop-doo-baaa-bop-bop, fusion, collusion - collision? Confusion!

A reasonable portion of my own noises would certainly fit into the category "ECM jazz", (although whether much of ECM's diverse output could be categorised more honestly as "muzak" is an issue I'd rather steer clear of for now).

But can I ever be "authentic" as a jazz musician? I haven't learned 400 standards in 12 different keys, or spent years "hanging" with "certified jazzers", paid my dues at midnight bandstand jams...

The same goes for "folk" music - and for the purposes of this post I mean traditional Scottish/Irish/Welsh/English/wherever, not nasal Americans with banjos, or Bob Dylan. Never Bob Dylan. (He should have been arrested for crimes against harmonicas decades ago.)

The White Heather Club: the sheer
awfulness still causes pain to millions.
I wasn't brought up with Scottish "trad" music around the house (apart from occasional "White Heather Club"-style, Jimmy Shand & Moira Anderson TV nightmares), and wasn't even vaguely interested apart from the "folk-rock" of Jethro Tull, Steeleye Span, and the like. Then (mostly by accident) I ended-up in a ceilidh band for nearly a decade, and nowadays thoroughly enjoy BBC Radio Scotland's "Pipeline". Oh yes. But am I "authentic"..? And what about those office managers, surveyors, lawyers, etc, who head down to their local folk club one night a week, pick up a guitar and sing (in voices which are patently not their own) about being coalminers (usually dying in pit disasters), soldiers (usually dying in battles), and/or jacobites (usually dying in disastrous battles)? Or, indeed, those who perform traditional gaelic waulking songs as emotive, breathy solo pieces, relying on PA systems & cunning sound engineers to compensate for their own vocal deficiencies..? Not that I have anyone in particular in mind..

Of course, does it really matter what other people think? After all, as long as you aren't letting anyone down, musically, then where's the harm in some folk regarding you as a bit of a dilettante?

It's not as if I've never tried my hand at it before.

Maybe it's all down to personal insecurities. Maybe if I'd had more easily-quantifiable "success" in one genre, I wouldn't be so concerned when venturing into the unknown..?

Maybe...ach, well. Time to get back to the bouzouki-as-hardingfele studies.

As for "authenticity"? Vi skal se...

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

A Whiter Shade Of Pale

Yesterday morning, while waiting for a bus home from the delights of family grocery shopping, I found myself standing beside a large poster promoting the seasonal rom-com-schmaltz-fest, "New Year's Eve". Immediately I was struck by two things - the relatively large number of 'featured' cast members, and the fact that only 2 of the 18 cheery, highly-expensive-dental-plan weel-kent faces on display were black. In New York. At the tail end of 2011...
Garry Marshall's New York - a touch light, perhaps?
Now, I'd like to point out that I'm a Mr. McSkinny-white-ass, living in a McWorryingly-obese-white-ass country, (until the latest census data appears in 2012, best estimate we have is that c.3-4% of the Scottish population are from "visible ethnic minorities"), but this comparative absence of non-white folk even struck me as being odd. I mean, this piece of lightweight sappy hokum is set in New York, supposedly one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, right? Still, I thought, best check the statistics before rushing to make any judgements.

So I did.

Fortunately, the US Census Bureau have a very handy website, with all sorts of fascinating information available to those who thirst for demographic enlightenment.

For instance, did you know that in 2010, "Black" & "Asian" people made up 38.2% of the city's 8,175,133 residents?

That "White persons not Hispanic" were only 33.3% ?

And that between 2005 and 2009, 47.1% of the over-5s spoke a language other than English at home?

Ok, so the film isn't remotely representative, but they could, of course, use what might be termed the "Friends" defence - that this particular group of people occupy a small social niche where they just happen not to encounter/know/work with/etc many people from non-white ethnic groups. (I never said it was a good defence, but it has to be allowed as a possibility, however miniscule).

In this case, however, the film's own production notes (available online here) stress the diverse range of characters & locations within New York, which leaves us with the thorny question - is there some unspoken "difficulty" in the film industry with a portrayal that's a bit closer to the demographics?

Racial/ethnic invisibility in the media is a serious issue - why aren't we seeing more non-white faces on the screen (beyond the usual litany of "Guns, Drugs & Ho's" stereotypes)? Can "the audience" really have a problem with the idea that in this sort of syrupy, no-mental-effort-required pabulum, 4 (or, really pushing the boat out here, maybe even 5) of the cast could be black? (With a token Asian as "comedy sidekick", of course, otherwise it'd never sell...).

I'm the last person who'd argue that introducing box-ticking quotas ever solved anything - "Hey, Carla, for this next scene we're going to need the Native American, the Thai ladyboy and the half-Hungarian albino lesbian, ok..?" - but seriously, if this big-budget, big-star, mush-fest is anything to go by, perhaps it's time to introduce busing to Hollywood.

It can work.

Just a thought.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Little Black Heart

A bearded bloke wearing glasses & a cheap haircut walks into a music shop, plugs in a guitar, and plays really badly for about half an hour. When he's done embarrassing himself, he tidies up the cables, carefully wipes down the strings, says cheerfully,"Thanks, that was really great", to the shop assistant, and heads off, thoroughly pleased with the whole experience.

Alright, possibly not the finest joke you've heard in the last 20 seconds, but please, bear with me...I'll try to make it worth your while - not necessarily any more amusing, mind. Can't expect miracles on this budget.

So, there I was in Kenny's Music, (it was pretty obvious who the hirsute chap with the malfunctioning fingers was going to turn out to be, wasn't it?), sitting in front of a rather cute Blackheart "Little Giant" 5w/3w (switchable) amp head & 1x12" cabinet, clasping a good-quality-but-not-stupidly-expensive Godin LG HB guitar (ideal for doing an amp test with - twin humbuckers with a  5-position selector switch for single-coil tones, although the feel of the beast was slightly spoiled by its crappy tuning pegs), ready to inflict some terrible playing on the shop staff.

You see, quite apart from any technical deficiencies (many) I may possess, on the rare occasions I've played an electric guitar in the last few months, it's only been through a digital amp simulator. Now, these cunning little boxes are absolutely fantastic for indulging yourself in screaming-distortion-metal sessions at volume levels appropriate for maintaining sleeping children & convivial neighbours. What they are also very good at, however, is cheating, lying, and altogether deceiving us into believing our playing is faster - and more accurate - than is actually the case (A/D & D/A converters, my friends. Wonderful things, but oh, the fraudulences they do commit. That's my main excuse, anyway, and dammit, I'm sticking to it. Fortunately for me, being shred-tastically dexterous - or anywhere approaching it - is far from essential when checking-out an amp. I still ought to apologise to the staff, though).

"Little Giant" - big fun.  

The "Little Giant" isn't like that. Not at all. Oh, no. When it comes to replicating what your fingers are doing, it's direct and honest to the point of brutality - which is, of course, precisely what you'd hope for in an all-valve amplifier. Unlike a drunk, long-unseen & deeply-embittered cousin at a wedding, though, this truthfulness results in noises you'll want to listen to long past the point of forced sociability.

So what can it do? Well, it took all of about 15 seconds to set-up a reasonable impression of Deep Purple-era Ritchie Blackmore (one of my first guitar heroes, 30 years ago or so), then straight on to a fat, smooth jazz tone, the classic "just breaking up" blues sound, followed by some proper, old-fashioned, no-nonsense 'eavy rock. A very pleasing tonal palette, albeit one with a distinct "Marshall" tinge to it (nothing wrong with that in my book). And loud enough, even at only the 3w setting, to hurt my ears when I dialled the treble up a fair bit (but then, I'm a bit of a delicate flower when it comes to volume. If you've spent years getting used to multiple 100w stacks & double-bass-drum kits you'd probably not feel a thing. I SAID, "YOU'D PROBABLY NOT FEEL A THING", OK? I'LL GET BACK TO THE REVIEW NOW...YES...YOU GO & STAND BESIDE THAT RUNNING JET ENGINE FOR A WHILE, IT'LL BE NICE & RELAXING FOR YOU...GREAT.)

Add to that the previously-alluded-to excellent responsiveness to picking intensity, volume-and-tone-pot rolling-off, pickup selection, etc, plus the fact that the amp has been designed  to make third-party modifications incredibly easy, and you'd be forgiven for thinking this whole piece is really just one big letter to Santa. Ah - and did I mention that if you go & talk to them, Kenny's could most likely do you an amp-and-cabinet deal for something in the region of a tiny bit over £200 or thereabouts? (I believe that separately, it was Amp head £129, 1x12" £89 when I wrote this... Don't quote me).

Only I wouldn't want one of these for Christmas - thanks, though, (in the extremely unlikely event you were considering it). For what I do, the "Little Giant" could be a brilliant recording amp, but for playing live there's too little 'clean' headroom, it lacks a post-eq/power stage input for multi-fx/rack gear users, and there's no line out socket, so it can't be used as a super-valve-distortion/pre-amp (although I'm sure, with modification, that could be done. Just not straight out of the box). Oh, and nae reverb either - a wee touch of which can be nice, now & again.

But don't get me wrong - it's still a great piece of kit. Made in Korea, rather than China, so the valves are (much) nicer, and in ethical-consumer-terms should mean improved factory working conditions, environmental standards, etc, (although stuff like the Cort guitars controversy highlights just how much worse those conditions can be than what we judge to be acceptable in our own countries). Limited budgets, equipment choices, global trade...hmm. Difficult decisions all round.

Still, if anyone is desperate to buy me a new guitar amp, I'd be absolutely delighted if this particular item from the Blackheart product range showed up...

great value, but "handsome"..?'s a "Handsome Devil" 15w/7w, 1x12" combo - with separate "Master" & "Level" controls, 3-band eq plus "Presence"...and currently available to pre-order for only £199 (!)

I'm convinced that given a couple of months playing through one, I'd be...a great deal better than I am now. Huge improvements. For sure.

I'd better go now, I'm drooling too much. Still no reverb (or post-eq input) of course, but at that price, I'm complaining..?

"Sleigh bells ring, are you listening..."

p.s. A wee addition - I try to find (cheesily) appropriate song titles for my posts, so I reckon that since I'm nicking their words, it's only fair I link to the original artists concerned. So here are Norwegian pop-gods "a-ha", with a live performance of "Little Black Heart":

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

"I Am The Music Man"

Or perhaps, more accurately, "I am a music man. Of a sort. Domestic necessities permitting". But then this isn't about me at all...except it will be a bit, but only tangentially. Really it concerns that mighty sorcerer of low-end noises, Mr. Tony Levin (as per the pic on t'right)...well, strictly speaking, more precisely his Music Man bass & the sound(s) that he makes with it. You know what? This hasn't been a good opening at all, has it? Far too much floundering around. Probably for the best if I simply start again. Sorry. This time it'll work beautifully...maybe.

In the aeons since I last scribbled anything here, many vast, traumatic events have swept across the world. Since, however, there are a great many folk who are far more experienced, educated in such matters & have much more spare time than me, I'm going to do this instead...

(with many apologies to William Topaz McGonagall, and indeed anyone else who has ever engaged in poetical endeavours)

"Oh, 'twas several months previously in the year of two-thousand-and-eleven,
When I finally touched what, for some, might well be bass guitar heaven.
For in the musical instrument establishment known by the sign of a dog that is red,
There hung a fine bass with five strings, as used by Tony Levin (who can be recognised very easily by his moustache and bald head).

Nor was that all, for when to plug-in this deep-toned beast did I beg,
Directly underneath lay its ideal amplificatory partner, from Ampeg.
In less time than to brew a decent cup o' coffee it would take,
I had dialled-in "that sound", and oh! Far too many were the poor-quality Tony Levin impressions I did make.

And yet there came a fractious thought, a clichéd fly in music's ointment,
Could it be that with the range of other tones there grew a sense of disappointment?
My treacherous eye did glance awa', its goal the price-tag's brief perusal,
Therein it did uncover a further reason for refusal.
The sum required may well have been entirely reasonable,
Quality control, transportation, the costs of weather most unseasonable.

Alas! On repetitiousness's tempests blown I felt compelled, an old theme to return to,
For any off-the-peg creation, such an amount I would not pay - nay, not were I you.
Instead, your bawbees clutching, hie thee to a luthier o' uncommon skill,
Your heart's desire to build, for a couple o' grand,in the current economic climate I'm sure they will."

Sorry about that. I'll try to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Probably ought to make it clear at this point that I'm a huge fan of Tony Levin, both for his incredible musicianship, and the fact that he was enormously polite when answering inane questions from a certain daft Scottish bassist at a King Crimson/DGM event in London back in 1997 (or thereabouts).

(grainy pre-digital snapshot of this momentous occasion by Martin Lennon)

He was then, and still is, The Man.

Monday, 28 March 2011

A Woman's Work

With the imminent arrival of "Mother's Day", and another chance to cast our ballots in a Scottish parliamentary election coming up in a little over a month's time, I thought I could link these events in an extremely tenuous manner with a look at the current political gender balance here in Scotland.

(For those expecting music-related postings on what's ostensibly a music-related blog, and beginning to feel pangs of disgruntlement, don't worry - it's an interesting topic, I promise to be brief for a change, and there's a fun interactive graphical thing to play with further down. Honest, there really is. But don't scroll straight to it, there's some good stuff coming up...possibly)

First of all, the essential numbers - women make up 52% of the population (and almost exactly the same proportion of our 3.99m electorate), but in the last parliament only held 43 of the 129 seats (33.3% - sadly down from 39.5% in 2003). Which isn't likely to improve this time around...

For one thing, there are simply far fewer women than men standing for election - e.g. counting all the Glasgow constituency & regional list candidates from each party, there are 77 men compared with 37 women. Folk may be astonished to learn that such a progressive, forward-thinking party as the BNP has a male-only line-up on offer. I couldn't possibly comment. (Anyone who has the time & willpower to repeat this exercise for the whole of Scotland is very welcome to - the full list of would-be power-hungry egomaniacs can be found here.)

Why so few women candidates? Well, Labour's abandonment of "twinning" constituencies meant that local parties have been free of any gender selection criteria, and whereas back in the 1970s heyday of Winnie Ewing & Margo MacDonald the SNP may have been tagged "a woman's party" (a typically charming insult in ultra-macho Scottish politics, naturally) by Tam Dalyell & co, the current reality is that women make up less than a third of the party membership. (They do, to be fair, at least still have some prominent senior female figures - deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon [pictured], Fiona Hyslop, and Roseanna Cunningham spring immediately to mind. Conversely the departure of Wendy Alexander from politics this year has exposed a significant dearth, arguably of women & ability both, in the Scottish Labour hierarchy).

Of course, factors such as a candidate's rank on the regional list or the "safeness" of their constituency will also affect how many women are elected, but on those criteria it doesn't look promising for greater female representation come May 5th either.

Casting around for the faintest glimmer of a brighter side to all this, we can still say "we're not as bad as Westminster". In 2010 the UK House of Commons hit an all-time record high of... 143 female MPs. Out of 650 seats. Which is a massive 22%. And if we choose to look a little further afield, say, the world's second-largest 'democracy', perhaps? Well, the "land of the free & home of a large number of people who don't believe in scientific evidence" scores a frankly pathetic 16.78%.

In fact, since you've been exceptionally patient so far, here (all praise the mighty Google & their works) is the cool bar-chart toy I mentioned earlier:

(dragging the slider across shows changes over time, clicking on "explore data" lets you select different countries to highlight...ach, it's ridiculously clever.)

Just watch Kyrgyzstan go, eh? Ireland doesn't come out looking so good, mind...

It should always be the case, obviously, that we seek to be governed by the best possible representatives available - irrespective of gender, race, age, sexual preference, superstition of choice or even daft football obsession (for "Auld Firm" fans see "superstition of choice"). But the briefest of glances at the numpties who've filled some of the Holyrood seats thus far does beg the question - could a truly representative Scottish Parliament really be any worse?

Right, that's quite enough politics for now - back to the musical nonsense next time.

p.s. For any Scots considering not exercising their (extremely hard-won) right to vote in May for whatever reason, here's one I wrote earlier that should put you straight. Cheers.

Sources: (NB. Wikimpedimentia was not consulted in the creation of this blog post. If I wanted unreliable 'facts' & unsupportable conclusions I'd take the quick route & rely on my own memory).

Monday, 31 January 2011

Interstellar Overdrive

As the latest orgy of music technology pornography that is the NAMM* show fades slowly into a distant memory of smug postings/tweets/other annoyances from people who were in attendance to ogle and fondle its diverse splendours, and the next "International Day Of Kitsch Tat And Misery" looms hard on the horizon, perhaps this is the ideal moment to consider what you might proffer the bass player in your life as a token of your everlasting affection.

Well, given the plethora of the noisy little beasties that keep appearing on the market, what better than an overdrive/distortion pedal?

There are, (as an hour spent trawling Google & assorted music shop websites revealed), at least 46 different models to choose from that are designed specifically for bass - and that's a conservative estimate, given that I didn't count the various pre-amps which have a "drive" knob, purely "fuzz" pedals, or any multi-effects units, most of which contain several distortion options (usually stuck in amongst the digital amp simulators - which, it should go without saying, are the first thing you should turn off when using such units).

And if being spoilt for choice wasn't enough, they also come at prices to suit almost every budget - pre-Government spending/welfare cuts in the UK, that is. Once those really kick-in, the only affordable equipment for many people will be whatever they can obtain by employing their skills with a brick and Parkour. You can pay less than £30 for, say, a Behringer BOD400, all the way up to a wallet-jarring £240 for a Zvex "Woolly Mammoth". This might, however, even be topped by the Daring Audio "Laser Cannon" (pictured above), whose $349 US price tag could well translate into a retail price of £250+ once shipping, import duties and the inevitable inexplicable extra mark-up (because it's "not from round here"..?) have been taken into account.

At this point, we could (but in all probability won't) spare a grain of sympathy for guitarists, who, in their never-ending (and almost always pointless) quest for their absolute, ultimate, no-expense-spared-or-thought-applied "tone of utter perfection-ness", could easily hand over £330 for a "Tonebone Radial Plexitube" pedal. Much good that it'll do them, but still...a lot of money.

But (and you might have sensed this was where we were all headed), I really don't think you should buy any of these - assuming anyone out there could actually love a bass player enough to want to shell out hard cash on us in the first place..but that's a different issue.

No, the problem here, as I see it, is that all this huge array of distortion boxes demonstrates is an enormous failure of imagination. Maybe there are so damn many because the basic circuits are relatively simple to design. Or perhaps the companies look at bass players and say to themselves - "I'll bet they're all frustrated guitarists, and guitarists want distortion - so we'll give it to 'em...again and again and again and again...!".

A few more of them on the market and we may even be facing the "Distortion Pedal Event Horizon"**, where so much money is being spent on mediocre distortion pedals (as we search for the aforementioned "tone of utter perfection-ness"), they become the only type of pedal that it's economic to produce...eventually leading to the collapse of civilisation as we know it. Or something like that. Worst case scenario. The asteroid'll probably have wiped us out by then anyway, so I wouldn't worry too much about it.

Seriously though, please don't purchase one. There are so many far more interesting "boxes o' noise" out there - how about the joyous hours of neighbour-tormenting an Electro-Harmonix POG2 ('polyphonic octave generator' - as demonstrated with fretless bass [and a few other effects] on this track here) could bring? And of course, in all probability they've already got several overdrive pedals kicking around - none of which they're satisfied with.

Best alternative? Give the bass-playing object of your desire a hug, a big smacky kiss, and possibly a small-yet-considerate gift voucher for their favourite music shop...?

Just a thought.

* NAMM = National Association of Music Merchants, in case anyone cared.

** Blatantly copied from the late, great Douglas Adams' idea of the "Shoe Event Horizon" in "The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy".

Friday, 31 December 2010


As we tumble into 2011 I realise I've barely managed to update this page more than once a month over the last year - because I, like so many of my fellow human beings, am ridiculously lazy. Always have been, even when my life has seemed full-to-overflowing with diverse activities. Given the opportunity I will prevaricate, procrastinate and waste my time in a manner so profligate I might as well be a domestic cat - although without the concomitant unfathomable attraction said felines apparently hold for vast swathes of the female population. In all honesty, I'm a Russian baritone of under-achievement accompanied by a chorus of poor excuses - "I'm a single parent", "the weather wasn't so great", "I'd have had to spend 10 minutes tidying stuff up & plugging cables in so I never quite got round to recording that symphony".

This is particularly unhelpful behaviour since I'm probably already at (or past) the half-way point in life, and definitely not getting faster, cleverer or indeed, prettier (which isn't good unless you're starting out as a freakish combination of Usain Bolt, Archimedes & Brad Pitt). Which doesn't help my pathetic need to try to create music that people might find slightly interesting. As I decline, and my mini-primates grow up, time (not to mention space) in which to "achieve" anything becomes more and more precious, and prioritising is vital. For instance, I'd love to own a digital SLR camera (if I had the money for one), but couldn't justify devoting the time and attention necessary to learn to use the thing properly.

This collision of personal idleness, increasingly-desperate desire to be taken seriously as a musician (yes, I know, that's the best gag I've done in ages), and relative time poverty means that I've developed a strict daily routine in order to get any practice done.

Once the kids are in bed, the kitchen has regained some semblance of tidiness, and a load of washing is on the go (usually about 8.30pm, if I'm lucky), I pick up an instrument. Then I turn on the TV in search of practice material for the next hour or so. I find films are best - if the music's especially interesting (& varied), then it's play-along time, which is usually easier with a fretless bass, where you can compensate for any painfully 'odd' tuning in the studio orchestra. Otherwise I just click on the subtitles and compose an alternative soundtrack - maybe take a single phrase and try modifying it to suit different moods, play in a set key or time signature, or (if I'm fully brain-dead from child-wrangling) work through assorted scales & arpeggios, right-hand techniques, etc,etc. When the washing machine beeps, that's it, time's up...clean off the strings and back to domestic meniality.

This year I've been doing this while watching a lot of "Wallander", (melancholic Swedish crime drama with plenty of snow - what's not to like? Prefer the Krister Henriksson ones, but Rolf Lassgård's infinitely better than Kenneth Branagh - the BBC-made ones are best avoided), which has the added benefit of forcing me to play without looking at what my left hand's doing - my (very) lazy and sporadic study of Norwegian means I can only understand about 1 word in every 5, so staring at the subtitles is essential.

It may well also have influenced some of the music I recorded & released earlier this month - although much of that probably comes from somewhere a fair bit further north-west (ish) of Ystad. Certainly I must thank Bar Bien (apologies, their website's only in Norwegian) for allowing me to take photographs for some of the artwork. Perhaps I'm quite lazy musically, too, since I usually rely heavily on improvisation around a simple harmonic structure, rather than writing everything out with more care, detail and precision. Maybe that's a reaction against all the years I spent playing classical music, following assiduously some long-dead genius' dots and instructions? Or it could simply be it's a quick way of working that allows me to beg indulgence for unpolished moments by claiming they're "part of the authentic performance experience", or some such self-justifying flannel?

I couldn't possibly comment.

Sport's pretty good for this sort of practice, too - rugby more so than football, since there are more changes in the pace of the game, slow crescendos of intensity, and individual moments of immense physicality within wider patterns of movement that lend themselves perfectly to expressive instantaneous soundtrack creation. Of course, if it's a dull slog of a game, there's always mindless two-handed-tapping (or clichéd "whiteboy funk" thumb-slapping, whichever you prefer) available as a musical version of a "Mexican Wave".

Anyway, although this method doesn't entail concentrating fully on the instrument to the exclusion of all else (as we all know, deep down, we really, really should when practising), it does mean I've been able to catch up on a few great films I'd otherwise never have got around to, such as "Offside", "Looking For Eric", "A Serious Man" and "Gran Torino" (not even spoiled by Jamie Cullum's warbling). Which just about makes up for not being able to play "Donna Lee"...

Which pretty much wraps things up for 2010. Inevitable summary of the year? Well, internationally, many parts of the world still hate other parts of the world, professionally, although I released two collections of noises, I'm flat-lining, and personally, the year went from "crap" to "wonderful" and back to "crap" again. Initial indicators suggest that 2011 is most likely to be very much more of the same - except probably without the "wonderful" part.

Ho hum.

Merry 2011, folks. Hope y'all have a good one, and that eventually we can start bombing each other with food and kindness for a change.