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.


Thursday, 30 December 2010

Batteries Not Included

Sorry about this. I had intended to ignore the "festive season" entirely, and instead inflict an exciting account of my music practice routines on everyone, but my constantly-disappearing internet connection is in full-on "thwart" mode, so...

This is just a quick note to say "Merry Thing", "Happy New Thing", and maybe I'll get the opportunity to delight you all with music-related stuff soon.

Anyway, in the meantime, here's some early C16th seasonal music, Finnish Symphonic Metal style - Marco Hietala singing "Enkeli Taivaan".

All the best, Andy

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Three Of A Perfect Pair

Here we have a trio of brand-new, highly-desirable 5-string electric bass guitars with a shared heritage. One of them originally designed by Leo Fender and made in the USA by the company that still bears his name, another a Japanese-built Sadowsky copy of that instrument, and the third manufactured in Indonesia by G & L - a company founded by Mr. Fender in the late 1970s, where he created "the finest instruments I ever built".

The most expensive of the basses in our little collection is three times the price of the cheapest. Which, having given examples of all them a workout in the last year, I can't even begin to understand. Allow me to explain...

Starting at the bottom of the scale, (yes, that was a dire attempt to make a very weak bass-playing-low-notes-reference pun. I apologise profusely. If it happens again, well, I'm sure I'm not that hard to track down, should anyone feel they've suffered sufficiently), we've got the un-snappily titled G & L L2500. £645 gets you an Indonesian instrument equipped with G & L's American-made hardware, and I must admit it sounds absolutely excellent. The enclosed, "saddle lock" bridge, combined with the strings-through-body design mean it'll sustain until the drummer's final 'big rock ending' crash hit is but a dim & distant memory. Plus, with all the passive/active/active with treble boost, series/parallel pick-up switching options, there's enough tonal variation on offer to satisfy almost anyone.

I thoroughly enjoyed playing this bass - it gave off an overall feeling of solidity, was extremely responsive, the neck & fingerboard were excellent - but...on this particular example, there were some serious issues on the middle three strings at the 15th fret. Probably easily fixable with a slight bridge saddle height adjustment, certainly, maybe a little attention to the fret itself, shouldn't have been like that, you know? The action definitely didn't need to be cranked down to a "how low can you go?" level for this to be a great bass. Unfortunately I didn't have time to compare it with others of its breed, but if anyone with greater experience can shed light on their overall quality control standards, then please feel free to get in touch.

Anyway, let's move on now to the Fender American Standard Jazz Bass V.

At this point I feel it's only fair to make a small confession. I don't really like Fender basses (as I've mentioned on this blog before, but then, who in the world ever reads this, huh?). Never have done, most likely never will. So I suppose all I can honestly say is that what we have here is very much a Fender. With 5 strings attached. Again, it feels solid enough, sounds exactly as you'd expect, and if you want a Fender, well, yup, fair enough, you won't go wrong with one of these. A large portion of the £1299 price tag can be accounted for simply by the presence of the word "Fender" on the headstock, of course, but that's personal choice for you...

...speaking of which, you could forget all pretence to rationality, and spend £1999 (no, that's not a mistake - one thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine pounds, folks) on a carefully-wrought clone of the same instrument from Japan. Give it up, ladies and gentlemen, for the Sadowsky Metroline MV5.

Don't get me wrong, in many ways this is a very nice bass. Thanks to the same pick-ups, bridge, etc as their American range, a wider range of tones available than the Fender (although still significantly inferior in this department to the 'whole-price-of-the-Fender-less' G & L). The neck's great, construction is excellent, etc,etc. But for that price it should, surely, be so much more than just another good quality - yet nothing spectacular - instrument? Also worth noting, perhaps, that if you want a lefty or fretless model, then you're going to have to pay full Sadowsky NYC whack.

The Metroline MV5 I tried was fine (I could say "if you're unimaginative and looking for an expensive Fender", but that might be marginally unfair), perfectly decent and 'professional', but...but...

Why, oh why, oh why would anyone willingly, deliberately, "being of sound mind and body" choose to purchase such a thing?

With that sort of budget available, how much better to be deep in conversation with a few local luthiers, to see what they could come up with instead? Something custom-built & crafted to our precise specifications, that would live & breathe under our fingers - and in our current economic situation, I'm sure they'd be extremely glad to see us.

If I had to choose one of these three Leo Fender-related basses to gig with, then quite honestly I'd go with the G & L L2500 - compared with the other two it represents stunning value for money. But then, if I had £645 to spend in the second-hand market, well...a quick glance at Ebay produced an interesting bunch of 5-strings that sold recently for less: Shecter Stiletto, Status Shark 5, Warwick Thumb,Streamer & Corvette, Yamaha BB615 & TRB1005, Musicman Stingray, MTD Grendel, Lakland Skyline, Ibanez SR605 & SR1015, to name but quite a few...

Caveat emptor!

p.s. Thanks to GuitarGuitar in Edinburgh for letting me plonk around on their valuable stock. All prices from their website, and correct as of 20/11/2010.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Time After Time

I trimmed my beard this morning. Not the exactly the pinnacle of human achievement, I grant you. Nothing added to our collective understanding, no great secrets of the cosmos unveiled - quite possibly an activity of such extreme insignificance as to rank alongside knowing how to open a cereal packet without tearing the cardboard top, recalling how hard you laughed when Margaret Thatcher resigned, or being able to name any of the contestants on Strictly-Come-X-Factor-Idol-So You Think You Can Pick Your Nose?...

It was, however, significant to me, because I was starting to resemble the mutant offspring of Brian Blessed & a border collie...
...and finally felt I could allow myself the time to do the job (the electric-clipping bit's fast enough - it's the cleaning-up afterwards that takes so long...the tough little hairs seem to fly off everywhere, then cling determinedly to the damn basin. And then there are all those tricky bloodstains...).

You see, this whole single parent/musician lark seems to be placing more & more pressure on my time management lately. Some days simply to consist of a litany of mundane and menial domestic chores, half-an-hour plonking around (quietly) on something stringed (but only after I've got the kids in bed & dealt with the washing), finished off by cramming in as many of the on-line social & self-promotional obligations that are concomitant with the modern music business model as possible. (But infinitely preferable to scratching a bare existence out of infertile soil, without the comforts of electricity or running water, certainly. This is not intended, I hope, to be an exercise in self-pity).

Which is why the shaving just wasn't happening. Inessential, takes too long, so it can wait. As can, for instance, television. Not to mention the vast heap of literature, films, music, philosophy, politics, sport, blogs, twits, etc that I might have some passing curiosity in, the accumulated cultural detritus of the 'every artefact can be preserved forever' digital age.

Heck, I probably shouldn't even be writing this blog entry - do I really need to be doing this? Does anybody out there really want to be reading it? (Think I know the answer to that one already, cheers).

Seriously, though, I originally wanted to write stuff that might prove worthwhile-yet-amusing, that sometimes involved proper research - magazine-feature style, rather than occasional drips of solipsistic snivelling.

So here's the crux of the matter. For musicians (especially the annoyingly young ones - without families, mortgages, hearing loss, colostomy bags, etc), the temptation to waste whole screeds of time is enormous - after all, rehearsing/recording/gigging/touring often involve a great deal of waiting around, so why shouldn't we spend more of the rest of our time on stuff we want to do, huh? No reason at all...except we never have as much time as we fool ourselves into thinking.

You genuinely want to take your music seriously? (rather than simply use it as an excuse for ingesting recreational chemicals and magnifying your putative sex appeal)

Turn off the TV, (still the world's greatest black hole of time wastage, in spite of the challenge from social networking sites and YouTube), accept that "going down the pub" instead of re-stringing your guitar won't help you achieve your goals, and concentrate your efforts on making the most of the opportunities that come your way. You'll catch up on all those books & films eventually, when that arthritic hip has crimped your gigging style a touch...

Finally, speaking as someone who suffers sporadic bouts of insomnia (and occasionally has it forced upon him), I can't recommend trying to make the day last longer as a solution. Agreed, it's an obvious route to go down in an effort to fit everything in, but sleep deprivation only makes us (more) stupid and fat. Ok, that's maybe a slight simplification of the medical evidence (see below for details), but insufficient sleep does us no favours, even if it's only short-term. And don't get me started on trying to combat the effects with caffeine and/or cigarettes...or anything else...

Oh, and don't become a single parent. Trust me, that doesn't work out so well with the music thing either.

More grumpy-old-man witterings coming soon. Ish. If I have the time.

A few brief slices of sleep research:

"Less effective executive functioning after one night's sleep deprivation"
(Journal of Sleep Research, full article)

"Sleep deprivation doubles risks of obesity in children & adults"
(Warwick Medical School, press release & podcast)

"Can You Catch Up On Sleep?"
(NHS inform, research & article on its misrepresentation in media)

"Neurocognitive Consequences of Sleep Deprivation"
(Semin Neurol, abstract)

Relative effects on performance of sleep deprivation & alcohol
(Occupational & Environmental Medicine, abstract)

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Have A Cigar


Since it's been a whole year since I launched my website on an unsuspecting (and mostly indifferent) world, I thought it only proper to provide anyone who might be interested in my musical endeavours with an 'annual report', to show how the whole thing's been meandering along - oh, and prove once and for all that I am not, in any conceivable way, like U2 (just in case there was any lingering confusion).

I won't be moving my assets to Holland to avoid tax.

I will never insult my fans' intelligence by suggesting the only reason they didn't go out and buy 20 million copies of my last album was because I had "made a work that is a bit challenging for people who have grown up on a diet of pop stars".

I am taller, and have considerably more hair than Bono.

Right, now that's taken care of, here are some extremely exciting statistics:

Site visits: 4,792

Track plays: 666

Downloads: 31

Sales: 22

Gross Revenue (ie pre-Bandcamp & PayPal fees): £110.47

So, not exactly setting the heather alight...or even warming a small patch of it just a little. Still, nae mind, eh? Insane fiscal benefits were never a serious consideration - although I must confess that being able to afford new strings was handy. Additionally, if I was a pop kid on a typical record company deal I might have seen about £10 of that revenue, if I was (very) lucky.

Thanks to everyone who has listened to my noises, immense gratitude to those who downloaded them, and who knows what the next 12 months may bring...?

p.s. As a wee comparison, over the same period 1,413 people visited this blog a total of 1,890 times, generating 2,456 page views. The most 'popular' page being December 2009's "State of Independence" (offering some better alternatives to the 'Simon Cowell vs. RATM' nonsense that was going on). My favourite search engine enquiries that (somehow) led people here: "why the fuss over heroes of Telemark?", "strompebukse fetish" (it's a Scandinavian thing, it would seem), and "braw neeps" (that'll teach me to suggest it as a comedy band name).

May all your turnips, indeed, be fine.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

I Belong To Glasgow

Ah, dear old Glasgow – that unique Scottish metropolitan experience, where the average life expectancy is the shortest in the country, you can treat yourself to “authentic Indian tapas” (instead of that fake Indian tapas that's so prevalent everywhere else), and the road signs become increasingly-didactic the closer you get to its concrete-and-despair-clad outskirts: “Please use your seatbelt”, “Be a courteous driver”, “Dinnae pick yer nose or we’ll chib ye”.

[To be fair to the "tapas" - which apparently means "heat" in Sanskrit - folk, they might just be referring to the "essential energies" of the yogic tradition, a sense of deliberate self-discipline & austerity related to a higher purpose in life. Or not.]

Still, today I come to praise Glasgow (for once), rather than bury it - even if that does seem like the most merciful option from time to time. For one thing, the city certainly possesses some fine architecture:

and for another, it's home to the small-but-perfectly-formed "Strung Out Guitars":

tucked away in the railway arches of King's Court, in the south-easternmost corner of Glasgow's central 'Merchant City' area, Strung Out is a delightful haven of independent instrument expertise & fascinating second-hand gear...some of which was pleasantly familiar from my dim & ever-more-distant past hanging around the old Live Music shop in Edinburgh back in the mid-1980s.

A few Sundays ago (yes, I work on a geological time-scale), I happened to be in the vicinity with a couple of hours to use up, so after I'd wandered around taking photographs (occasionally endangering residents by standing on bins & other assorted street furniture to get a better view), and enjoying the sunshine (an incredibly rare commodity in those parts), I headed over to see what they were all about...

...and ended-up being handed a not-yet-on-display 1965 Martin D-18 acoustic to plonk around on - currently could be yours for £2399 (correct as of 20/09/10). Which was far too nice for me, but hey, I wasn't about to start complaining.

Anyway, suffice to say, with its fine assortment of noise-making equipment, and friendly (& extremely knowledgeable) staff - oh, and did I mention they're top-notch specialist instrument repairers, too? - Strung Out is all the reason you need to make the effort and drag yourself over to Glasgow sometime soon...just remember your potential lifespan, and obey the road signs, eh?

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

One White Duck / 0^{10} = Nothing At All


After virtually no deliberation whatsoever I have decided that, in honour of the current state of my bank account - and the level of political genius swilling around our delightful Lib-Con government - September shall henceforth be known as "Vacuity Month".

[ vacuity: noun (vacuities) 1 the state or quality of being vacuous. 2 a foolish thought or idea. 3 formal an empty space.
(from the Chambers on-line dictionary) ]

So let me invite you most cordially to celebrate the next 30 days of glorious emptiness by posting superficially-meaningful-yet-utterly vacuous statements, (i.e. precisely the kind of stuff that seems to get the most attention on Twitter, advertisements for mobile phones/cars/the latest gratuitous Apple iCack, and 'motivational' posters*), wherever and whenever seems appropriate.

Vacuity, after all, does have a long and noble history - for instance, in Wu Ch'eng-en's C16th Chinese classic "Monkey", the Monkey King is given the name "Aware-of-Vacuity" when he is accepted as a pupil by the Taoist immortal Patriarch Subodhi (chapter 1, page 18 in my copy).

Here then, without further ado, is my first 'Vacuity Of The Day':

"Inspiration can come at any moment, yet the leaf cannot drift upstream"

cheer up, there are only 29 more to go...

*when it comes to "motivation", I much prefer these.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Kiss Me, Honey, Honey, Kiss Me

Evening. Time to delve into my ancient history again, thanks to a ceilidh-related request from a fiddler friend. You see, many centuries ago, when I was wandering around various bits of the country with the WildGeese Ceilidh Band, playing the bass and waffling instructions (along with bad impressions & odd 'humour') into a microphone in an attempt to prevent any major injuries on the dance floor, there was one particular dance I used to call that seemed to offer all the participants (band included) more...amusement...than any other.

Now my good friend Jon asked if I could pass on the instructions, but I'd completely forgotten a couple of important things - firstly, which dark recess of a cupboard I'd "tidied" the book it originally came from into, and secondly, how I'd modified it (slightly) to allow for the level of both technical ability and alcoholic impairment found in your average ceilidh dancer.

You see, the "average" ceilidh is a very special thing. It will, almost inevitably, be a wedding. In a marquee. That's on a slope. And it shall bring together a wider range of experience, age, lack of willingness to participate (especially the blokes), and quantity of booze required to sufficiently overcome that aforementioned lack (again, blokes), than at any other species of public performance. I have no statistics to prove this, of course, but seeing as how I've done hundreds of wedding ceilidhs, I'm a self-proclaimed internet expert on the matter - so if you don't agree with me, then you're just like Hitler. Or Stalin. Whichever you prefer. Possibly Robert Mugabe if you're feeling a little more creative.

Anyway, at these events the caller has to cope with incredibly reluctant folk who've driven all the way up from East Grinstead, (had several rows over directions, arrived late, and are still angry because one of them got the drinks in damn quickly so they wouldn't have to drive back even though the other thought they'd agreed....), and have no clue what all this "Scotch dancing" nonsense is about, being thrown together with smug eejits from the Royal Scottish Country Prance (sic) Society, who find ceilidh dances so dreadfully simple and beneath them, so why, oh why can't the band just start because everyone will be able to follow what they're doing easily...and why has their request for the "Reel of the Auchterfistin Fish-manglers" (sets of 11 couples, arranged diagonally at the points of a decihedron, with only the spare ones in the middle dancing while the rest look on with artificial, synchronised-swimmer smiles and clap along) not been played yet?

Fortunately another delving session produced the goods - "Back In Step" (the dances) by 'The Occasionals', which if you click on the link, can, I believe, be obtained in exchange for money (hopefully that should prevent any potential unpleasantness surrounding copyright).

So here it is, for anyone wishing to partake - "The Russian Ballet". Better known (to the band), as "The Russian Snogging Dance" (for reasons which shall become obvious).

Music - anything with a heavy 2-big-beats-in't-bar feel that can start slow & speed up. Russian, if you've got it, but there's no point being too bothered about it. They'll be too drunk to care.
Sets of 3 - (1 man & 2 women, 2 women & 1 man, 3 men, 2 wolverines & George Osborne, whatever. A mixture, ideally)

Each set of 3 stands in a line, "odd-one-out" in the middle of the trio, facing anti-clockwise ("widdershins", if you will), and holding hands. Which is nice.

First 4 bars: Starting on the left foot (not that it really matters), march forward for 3 steps, and kick the right foot out in front while shouting "Hoi!" loudly, in as guttural a cod-East European manner as possible. Then march backwards for another 3 steps and kick/"Hoi!" again. We used to start the dance at "Soviet State Funeral" pace, (the ones where the guy's secretly been dead for months, but the corpse had finally become so tatty they couldn't keep propping it up at military parades any longer), which seemed to work pretty well.

Next 8 bars: An intricate little manoeuvre officially known as "Double Arches" - aka "going under the sweaty armpits". (8 bars should allow plenty of time for this, but once the dance speeds up, it can get...interesting). The middle person raises their left arm, thus making an arch (with their left-hand partner's right arm). The right-hand partner now heads over to & through this arch, followed by the middle person - who turns underneath their own left arm - and back to their original position. The key to this is to keep holding hands - although if the middle person uses too tight a grip they can end up in what closely resembles a very painful Jiu Jitsu restraint position. Not nice at all.

Fairly obviously, the middle person now raises their right arm, allowing the left-hand partner to scoot through that arch & back to their place. Hopefully people haven't neglected their personal hygiene on the day.

Last 4 bars: Middle person turns & snogs (at last - here's the gravy) the person on their left, turns and snogs the person on their right, then walks forward to join a different pair of 'outside' partners - calling something like "Kiss! Kiss! Forward, two, three, aaand..." helps to prevent over-lingerers slowing the whole thing down with too much tongue-entangling at this point. All of which means, if you've done your job properly & you've got a fair mixture of trios on the floor to start with...oh yes. The slow dawning of realisation on the part of those who may, perhaps, not be entirely secure in their sexuality is priceless. Oddly enough, this discomfiture is almost always confined to the blokes...

....and there you have it. Not earth-shattering, not ground-breaking, but a simple wee bit o' fun. Repeat until they can't keep up with the band, or something of that order.

Sometimes I miss it. I really do. Ach, well.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Bastille Day

Sometimes I feel like the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, I'm running so late for almost everything. Still, after more than 2 years of very sporadic recording, I've finally got something that just about passes for an album of music available on-line for the world to embrace - or, quite possibly ignore, but hey, ya gotta stay optimistic.

Yes, that's right, competitively priced at only £3 - well, George Osborne's already started spreading the pain around all those with less than a quarter of the average income of his personal friends, and the market for 'instrumental music that doesn't fit into any easily-defined genre' isn't exactly buoyant (bouzoukis haven't quite captured the public imagination...yet) - "the mourning tree" was released into the wild this week. (On the 14th, to be exact, which happens to be my mother's birthday. Oh, and something happened in France a while back...probably involved bicycles).

Of course, this means that I'm now into the unpleasant and self-esteem-devouring next phase - trying to persuade people that paying for music is, (in this case anyway), an excellent idea, and that my particular offerings merit both their attention & a little credit card action, too. Sadly, this can feel as if I'm primarily tapping-up my friends for cash, although at least they'd be getting 11 tracks of "landscapes and portraits of longed-for places and much-missed people" in return. (I know, I know, but how would you describe it? Alternative suggestions welcomed).

Striking the right balance is especially tricky. I could take a 'complete honesty' approach, and let folk know that without some small financial encouragement, continuing with the pleasant fiction that I'm still a "serious" musician (rather than simply a full-time single parent who's just trying to stay sane) won't be possible, what with the price of bass strings and other such minor necessities.

That might come across as ever-so-slightly desperate, however, which never goes down well. It's a fine line.

Anyway. There it is, "the mourning tree" is done and hoping to find some friendly ears. All I can do is invite y'all to come over, give it a listen, and see what you think...



Saturday, 5 June 2010

Into The Lens

Afternoon. Well, I've finally got some new music out there - "the older we get" is a fretless bass-driven, (heavily ECM-influenced..?), track that's intended to follow-on from my earlier "the more like ourselves we become". Apologies if using the first part of the aphorism as a title seems a little back-to-front - it just came out that way. Possibly this reveals something deep & meaningful about the state of my parenthood-addled mind. Or not.

Oh, and if that wasn't enticing enough already (!), it also features some occasional tinkly noises courtesy of my fancy new Roland SRX-11 "Complete Piano" board (big thanks to Dave & Will at Red Dog in Edinburgh for invaluable assistance & incredible customer service).

Anyway, even if no-one thinks much of the music, hopefully at least folk might like what I was trying to do with the artwork, aka "mucking about with some photographs what I took" - and I'll be inflicting a description of the whole D.I.Y., no-budget process on the world right here later this week...child-free time permitting, naturally.


Thursday, 15 April 2010

There's No Way Out Of Here

This is a small, inadequate apology for the lack of posting in these parts in a very long while.


There won't, I'm afraid, be anything appearing until well after the Easter 'holidays', when my schedule returns to something akin to normality, and I might get enough of my brain back to allow rational thought to begin again.

Currently, my tedious single-parenthood means I only have the space after both monkeys have gone to bed in which to do...everything. Typing nonsense about subjects that aren't going to change anybody's life doesn't exactly figure too high on the list of stuff that needs to be done, either.

There are, of course, so many things going on presently which are extremely noteworthy - Papal obfuscations & evasions, the UK general election (aka grand lying & airbrushing contest), giant clouds of Icelandic volcanic ash - but there are far more interesting & informed folk than I producing vast screeds of information on such matters already. Trying to add to it would simply be superfluous.

Anyway, apologies again for the long unexplained silence. Some service may resume eventually.

In the meantime, here's a photograph of myself from 1995, which looks (& feels) like a very long time ago indeed, and proves conclusively that I've never had any sense of style whatsoever...

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Don't Bring Me Down

Since tomorrow (at the time of writing, Sunday, the 14th of February, 2010. When you happen to be reading this, who knows? Not that it'll make much difference - like so many of us, it doesn't improve with age), happens to be the annual "International Day Of Kitsch Tat And Misery", and with my current singleton status unlikely to change any time soon, I thought I'd take a wee stab at cheering myself up by focussing on some of the simple things in life that I like, enjoy, appreciate, etc.

Following on from last week's "positive negative" campaign for non-voters, I came up with a small personal challenge, which I can thoroughly recommend if you're particularly bored, or just trying to avoid work...the latter being something I find far too easy to do (I should be bouzouki-ing my fingers to the bone right now, for instance, rather than write this ephemera).

Give yourself one minute (nae cheating) to write down/type out a list of "things you like" (and nae cheating by selective editing after you've finished to make yourself look better, like some politician appearing on Desert Island Discs, either). Then, if you're like me (oh dear) be surprised at all the stuff that didn't make it onto the list as the final seconds rushed away.

Oh, and there were a couple of other rules, too - no vague, woolly abstracts like "committing yourself to the cause of world peace" (or indeed, "world low-intensity conflict" if you're an arms dealer..unlikely, admittedly, but...). That's all great and lovely (not so much if it's the 'arms dealer' scenario), but could you be a little bit more specific, please? Name your favourite pro-peace (or war) organisation(s) instead, ok? And I consciously avoided anything to do with "lurve", since however much I may enjoy "snuggling" (a lot, since you didn't ask), there isn't any going-on around here, and this was meant to be about 'happiness'. No specific musicians, bands, or genres of music either, because thinking about that topic would have sabotaged my already-limited brain and prevented it from considering anything else.

Anyway, here's my 'honest & genuine' little list, in exactly the (dis)order in which it issued forth:

My kids, Bergen, rowing boats, hills, trees, flowers, Edinburgh, running, lifting, bouzoukis, bass guitars, chocolate, Puddledub Pork, castles, Norse sagas, history!, David Hume, John Muir, Richard Dawkins, my friends, red wine, Port Ellen, whisky, rugby, dogs, Keswick.

No idea why I typed an exclamation mark after "history", and yes, starting with "my kids" might seem a little contrived, but that's just what came out. Surprising, maybe, after the way the little beggars had been behaving today...

A few brief, but possibly necessary, explanations: "Puddledub Pork" are producers of delicious bacon and the fantastic "Auchtertool Originals" sausages; "running" is probably a reaction to my knee cartilage injury/surgery last year (I don't run up hills these days, just after my kids, but it's a great feeling - trying to do some "lifting" again though, albeit very carefully, and with a lot lighter weights than in years past); I'd been discussing John Muir and what an incredible life he'd had with my older monkey earlier; "Port Ellen" is, for me, the finest malt whisky ever produced; "Bergen" is a wonderful place, albeit expensive; finally, sorry, but I haven't a clue how "flowers" got in there, but "bicycles" didn't. Or "photography", for that matter, which is something I really enjoy (however mediocre the results may be).

Like I said, give it a try yourself - hopefully your results will make as little sense as mine.

Still, for what it's worth, thought I might as well finish by entering into the St. Valentine's Day spirit...

For Sale: Scottish bloke, medium-size, 1969 version. Single parent, reasonable condition for age (although some visible deterioration). Fully domesticated, comes with 2 "boisterous & energetic" children. 7 previous owners (some more careful than others). Might suit lady of similar vintage capable of tolerating fondness for hills, prog rock, & alleged sense of humour. Offers in the region of "Will work for food".

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Power To The People

Every time we have an election in this country, I do the same tiresome, irritating thing - urge people to go out and VOTE. Participate. Stand up, shuffle off down to the nearest primary school (or wherever the voting station happens to be), and be counted - unless you're using a postal ballot, where past evidence suggests you may already have been counted several times, or not at all (it's electoral roulette, without quite so much misplaced optimism, excitement, or slim chance of any financial gain...unless someone offers you hard cash for your ballot paper). Even if you're in the safest of safe seats for a party whose policies you despise but you have no realistic chance of removing - please, please, vote. I know, the election itself is still up to three months away, but I thought I'd give myself plenty of time to get the message out this year.

It's not that I particularly mind who you vote for (ok, honestly, I'd much rather you didn't support any flagrant bigots, or the Conservatives, or...), and it's not as if there isn't a wider choice than ever before. There are parties for almost everyone these days - from the religious "we adore our supernatural invisible friend who loves and knows what's best for everyone, but homosexuality is bad", to the xenophobic "we love our country - or how it was in a mythical 1950's that never actually existed, but foreigners (and homosexuals, come to think of it) are bad", via the ridiculous George Galloway-esque "We are all Hamas now! Even though they say both certain foreigners and homosexuals are bad, oh, and violently repress anyone who disagrees with them...but..errr...they hate America, and they're being oppressed too, so..err.." crowd.

[Perhaps one day there'll even be a post-modernist party who regard all political views as equally valid, so espouse everything (and nothing) simultaneously - yes, you're right, Tony Blair came perilously close, and Obama is sailing in the same direction - and regard elections in a reflexive manner, with the voters 'meta-reactions' towards policy decisions being interpreted through the medium of a shin-kicking contest....?]

It's undeniable that, under the UK's shamefully unrepresentative current system, in most parliamentary seats only a couple of parties stand a genuine chance of winning, so a vote for a 'minority' party might seem to be a waste of time - although that's not necessarily the whole story, since even if voter support is not translated directly into seats, it can mean increased media coverage, membership, financial support,etc,etc which would benefit your cause of choice (lost or otherwise) in the future. Plus a vote for the "Rainbow Unity Old Folks' Legalise Guinea-Pig Eating, Ban Nude Cricket Coalition" is at least standing up for something you believe in, so you can feel good about yourself in a slightly smug way.

Usually by this point, too many people I know will have trotted out the old (and demonstrably false)"don't vote - it only encourages them", or "it doesn't matter who you vote for, all politicians are the same" clichés, or variations on those themes. These arguments are, I'm afraid to have to say, a load of bollocks.

Not realising that there are significant differences between the (three or four, depending on where you live) major parties in the UK, is simply an admission of personal ignorance. If, for instance, you haven't spotted yet that David Cameron and chums are, underneath the overly-smoothed exterior, really only a twinset-and-pearls away from Thatcherism (and all that that entails), then you haven't been paying any attention. There's an election campaign heading our way rapidly, and a host of easily-accessible sources of reasonably reliable information (not Wikimpedimentia, please) available. Who knows, there's the remote possibility that a substantive argument might even be put forward in one of the televised debates...but don't get your hopes up, it's pretty unlikely. So not acknowledging/understanding the variations between the species is not a reasonable position. The variations might not be as great as you personally would prefer, but that's not the same thing, and as previously mentioned, there are lots of other choices on the electoral menu.

Deciding not to vote at all isn't an especially clever choice either. All that "not voting" achieves is to make it easier for politicians to ignore you, and for bigots like Nick Griffin to gain power. In the European Parliament elections, the BNP didn't increase its vote, but a large number of (predominantly) Labour voters went off in a huff, and by not bothering to vote at all, allowed the bigots to take the victory. If these disaffected-but-lazy Labourites had gone out and registered a 'protest vote' for *any* other party, the BNP wouldn't have had a sufficient share of the votes cast to be elected. Some achievement. Hope the "non voters" in the north of England are properly proud of themselves.

After centuries of struggle for representation, where people suffered enormously for the right to vote, I find it depressing that so many people today simply don't bother, even though there are so many options to vote positively for, and voting is so easy to do. We no longer have the spectacle of women chained to railings, desperately fighting against legal prejudice, suffering forcible feeding in prisons - merely for the right to have their say. Here in Dunfermline, admittedly, at certain hours of the weekend, you can witness women leaning on railings, struggling not to vomit while shouting incoherently into the mobile phones that they're too drunk to operate...but that's another issue - possibly they're just canvassing on behalf of the "Too stoshious tae stand fer onyhing..'cept maybe that Brad Pitt, ye ken? He's gorgeous!" party? Who knows...

What "not voting" also fails to do at all is "send them a message", which is something else folk have used to justify their idleness/apathy. (Rain affecting turnout is, frankly, pathetic).

So here's an idea. A little challenge to the apathetic...

If you don't think voting does any good, if you don't like any of the myriad political views on offer - start your own campaign.

Launch a group with a simple aim - to encourage people to make a minimal effort on election day, head over to their local polling stations, and write NO in nice, clear capital letters on the ballot paper.

It would be extremely easy (and cost nothing) to organise this on a massive scale, thanks to the internet - set-up the Facebook Group, Bebo, MySpace, etc. Twitter away merrily. Blog your progress. Co-ordinate your efforts and send press releases via email. The media are always hungry for stories - remember what happened with the Simon Cowell/Rage Against The Machine business at Christmas? Well, that could be you saying NO on the BBC Breakfast sofa this time...what more incentive do you need?

If you gathered enough support, if the number of NO papers was in, say, only in the tens of thousands, then you might just get the politicians' attention. Plenty of them are sitting on small enough majorities to be nervous, and an orchestrated campaign like that could make all the difference...

I did mention you could achieve all that for free, didn't I? Good. Just checking.

So please, in this next election, whoever, whatever you support, exercise the right your great-great-great-great grandparents most likely were denied...and vote. It's a hard-won privilege, which too many of us forget all too easily.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Left Of Centre

...and in favour of Scottish independence, as it happens, but that's quite enough about my personal political persuasions. Instead let's have a wee look at the question of where exactly should you place instruments in a stereo mix...? (Non-musicians may be feeling their eyes glaze over at this point - but hang on in there, because it might almost be interesting. Give it a couple of paragraphs, anyway, before you decide to go and watch yet more videos of people falling off all manner of bizarre things in simply hilarious ways on YouTube...)

'Panning' has become something of a minor obsession of mine, recently - it all started with the last track I recorded, "magnetic north", featuring 3 separate bass parts (1 electric upright, 2 fretless bass guitars - shaken, not stirred). No matter how many subtle (and not-so-subtle) eq adjustments I applied, the E.U.B. wasn't coming through clearly. Then an article on stereo placement I'd read years before stumbled helpfully back into my brain. It suggested drawing a stage layout diagram, showing where each player should stand/sit/mooch around looking bored during other people's solos, exactly as you wanted to hear them in the mix.

This really helped - my original plan was to have the E.U.B. in the middle, with a fretless bass off to each side. Picturing that nightmarish trio on stage, though, it made much more sense to have the E.U.B. on one side, with the main fretless part (basic melody and chordal bits) taking the centre. The version of me that was just doing little filling-in, fancy-dan stuff could stand well off to the left-hand side, and just be grateful he was on stage at all.

Now I don't claim there's anything particularly clever or unique about all that, but after a few conversations on the topic with Mr. Martin Lennon (who's currently recording an album of his fine songs, and gets mentioned on this blog far too regularly), I started paying a lot more attention to the panning on albums I personally know and would bite yer fingers off if you tried to steal from me, to see if any of them had unusual set-ups that might prove educational...

There can be, in these days of widely-available stereo enhancers, auto-spatial-expanders, and multi-dimensional-sonic-whiffle-diffusionators, quite a temptation to stretch everything as massively wide as possible - after all, you've paid good money for that 40gigabyte piano sample, and you want your listeners to hear every bloody note as if it were a foot (30cm) wide. Or by judicious mic placements, you've created a multi-channel vastness-of-a-drumkit that encompasses so much of the stereo spectrum the drummer would require a taxi to get from one end of a tom roll to the other. And I'm sure that in its place, that's lovely, fantastic, and entirely appropriate.

But not so helpful when you're trying to maintain some kind of clarity for the listener - if all your instruments are competing for the same space, then inevitably, some of them are going to lose. And start complaining about their level in the mix, and demanding you turn the sax player down instead, because their part's not so important to the vibe, and anyway, they were out of tune for half of it - yeah, shut up, you know you were...yeah? is that right? aye, yer maw an a'! Stick yer reed up yer...! Etc,etc.

So, anyhoo, after sliding through plenty of examples of HUGE production (massive flying keyboards on all sides, ranks of backing vocals attacking from wide left and right simultaneously, how many sodding guitar parts did you need...?) from the last few decades, I finally listened to one of my favourite albums for the first time through headphones...and was very surprised.

(Quick "by the way" - I'm not an enormously-walleted 'audiophile', so don't possess an acoustically-perfect 'listening room', equipped with multiple speaker arrays and gleaming, platinum-knobbed hi-fi gear. There's a 10+ year old technics cd player & cambridge amp in the sitting room which enable music to come out, and that's fine, ta. That's my excuse for not noticing certain things's not a good excuse, but still...)

On the 1967 Cream [who invented "heavy rock", not the Kinks] classic, "Disraeli Gears", Ginger Baker's drums are almost entirely on the right (unless my headphone wires are somehow connected back-to-front). Jack Bruce is playing bass & singing in the middle (the vocals move slightly when he and Clapton are both singing), and Clapton's main guitar (mostly rhythm) is away to the left. And that's how they sit for the whole album. Which makes a lot of sense, given the complexity of Baker's drumming (the intensity of "We're Going Wrong", for instance) and what folk were listening to the album on at the time. It does, though, seem quite odd - he certainly sat in the middle of the trio when they played live, which is where most of us would expect the kit to be. Just not on that record - and it works (I reckon). If anyone wants rather more detail than they might have expected about the recording of Disraeli Gears, there's an excellent article (with photos) here.

There are, of course, plenty of examples of classic albums where there is "a place for everything, and everything in its place" - the late, great John Martyn's "Solid Air" offers wonderful clarity, even when he's "echoplex-ing" away at full blast. Placing the electric piano wide left, and keeping it in quite a narrow space over there, certainly helps. And in terms of keeping keyboards under control, even when Joe Zawinul, on Weather Report's "Heavy Weather", is using several different sounds simultaneously, each one seems carefully positioned in such a way that it doesn't overlap too much with anything else. Mind you, I'm guessing that Wayne Shorter wasn't taking any chances in his "Assistant Producer" role, and panned his saxophone far right to ensure it stayed well clear of the marauding synths.

And, well, that's about it, really. No great revelations, merely a humble suggestion that just because you can spread every instrument all over the stereo mix, it doesn't mean you should. And why not try sticking the drums off to one side for a change? You never know, you might like it...

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

If I Had A Million Dollars

Merry 2010. Hope you all had a great start to the new year, and that everything you could possibly desire for the next twelve months is going to turn out just peachy. Of course, statistically, that's incredibly unlikely, but hey, misplaced optimism, it's a positive lifestyle choice for the 21st century. And when the inevitable depression sets in after you realise that your life is, in fact, rapidly crumbling around you, there are the always widely-available alcohol, narcotics or spank-that-overdraft comfort-spending as alternative options to help get you through the most desperate times. Like I said, "Happy New Year".

Anyway, when I bang on about musical equipment here it's usually the value-for-money slice of the market I'm looking at - good quality bargains on a budget. But for once, my folk-blues-acoustic-songwritery chum Mr. Martin Lennon suggested I pick a "money-no-object", fantasy bass rig.

Which has proved surprisingly tricky to decide on.

Back in the mists of time, (some point in my mid-20's, when I was progging away with Citizen Cain), I'd likely have plumped for some mega-stack of ridiculous size & power. A mighty 1000 watts (or thereabouts) of thundering low-end disturbance, probably with at least two of the massive custom cabinets Trace Elliot built for Tony Levin (20"+ speakers, I seem to recall?). But I was young and foolish then.

Now I'm almost 41 (dammit), and still equally foolish...but a little more aware of my limitations and frailties (mental and physical). Plus I don't own a car (I don't drive at all), and haven't done any proper weight training in about 4 years.

Also, I'm not very likely to be indulging in any arena tours...ever, so that sort of set-up would be utterly pointless. To be a little controversial, I'd suggest a great many bass players have amplification that is far more powerful, space-consuming, and injuriously heavy than they really need. I know, there are plenty of drummers out there who seem to be acting-out their repressed rage on their kits, but still...

Recently I've been aiming for a set-up that's completely modular, adaptable for a variety of gigging circumstances, but predicated on two notions -

1) A large PA offers the best set of bass speakers this side of a hefty physiotherapy/osteopathy bill; and

2) You shouldn't own any piece of performance gear that's too heavy to lift (from the floor) above your head, comfortably - unless you happen to own some roadies as well. Thus, if you're a huge, strongman-type, an 8x10" cabinet is fine. Otherwise, we mere average-size folk should try to take as little as possible that'll do the job.

(a handy, simplified, visual guide follows for any guitarists who think that a full Marshall stack is appropriate for pub gigs, and that they somehow deserve assistance with carrying the bloody thing)

In truth, the Ashdown amplifier I'm modelling in the left-hand picture only weighs 27kg - a relatively easy overhead lift - but I still wouldn't enjoy having to heft it up a few flights of stairs (e.g. Teviot Row - remember those stairs, Martin?), especially if I had both basses and a rucksack full of 'gig essentials' slung over my shoulders at the same time. My Tech 21 VT-Bass pre-amp pedal in t'other photo, however, is lighter than a very small kitten, and makes much better noises than the long as there's something to plug it into.

Which is where my indecision starts. All I'd need, strictly, would be a decent wee power amp and a speaker...but really I'm after rackmount-gear performance, only without having to lug around the inevitable big injection-moulded rack-carry-case (this also rules-out Tech 21's rather cool SansAmp RBI, unfortunately). The amp has to be as fully-functional as possible, yet small enough to fit tidily in a rucksack, and the speaker light enough to be one-hand-portable over fairly long distances.

A little research proves that, as in the rest of life, if the budget is big enough, you'll always have a choice. There's quite a wide range of lightweight-yet-powerful amp heads available - Markbass, Eden, Gallien-Krueger, Aguilar, even the wee Ampeg Micro-VR I wrote about a while ago (and I'm sure there's many more besides). No idea which to choose - all/any of them could do a very good job, especially with the VT-Bass in front of them to provide sonic variety. Or for upright players, how about a Phil Jones 'Briefcase' combo? So many great options - again, assuming you've got the cash.

And when it comes to speaker cabinets, they're getting lighter all the time - I haven't tested them, so can't vouch for their quality, but if the Barefaced compact's spec sheet is moderately accurate, it should be a cracker. Definitely seems slimline & portable...until I found the Schroeder website. Their "Mini 12+" full-range cab looks impressive - but if even that's too large - how about a "Mini 10+"...? 300w RMS, 45hz bottom end, and less than 8kg! Alas, I don't live anywhere near a retailer that stocks such wonders to see how their claims stand up, but since I'm picking 'fantasy' gear, and could send them back if they were rubbish...

ummm...I don't about...the Tech 21 VT-Bass pedal, into a Markbass Little Mark III, going through a Schroeder 'Mini 12+ light' (< 9kg). Not outrageous (whole lot could be had for £1200-ish), and eminently practical - total weight of 12kg. So, if any of my friends happen to win the lottery, I've a birthday coming up, and now you know just what to buy me - that'd be really nice of you, ta.

Back to some sort of reality with a dull, painful thud next time. Promise.