The NME is fragile; no more print editions of the NME

Obscure David Bowie reference for you there. Before we turn to the NME, I just wanted to let you know that James McKean and the Blueberry Moon, in which I play guitar, have just released a new track called Rocks and Pebbles. And here it is. A full EP to follow in June, then an album. All mixed by your genial host at this weblog.

And now to the NME.

The NME lost me in the early noughties, when it became obsessively focused on the Strokes, the White Stripes, Interpol and, slightly later, their inferior British knock-offs. I simply wasn’t interested in a paper that could find nothing more worthy of discussion and analysis than Pete Doherty. It seemed to me then, and still seems now, that Conor McNicholas (the paper’s then editor) had driven them into a cul de sac, and was at some point going to have to reverse out of it, allowing his writers to turn their attention to something beyond retro indie rock.

When the NME did pivot away from indie towards pop, it was far too late.

But wider forces are at work here, of course. Chief among them is that, for all McNicholas likes to think his paper “owned” that cultural moment, and he’s been quoted plenty saying that it did, all the initial heavy lifting that made Brooklyn indie into the dominant form of rock for a decade was done online, by MP3 blogs, webzines and the young Pitchfork.

Like any long-lived print publication, the NME did not think digital. It’s now a web-only publication and it still doesn’t. Of all the music-writing portals online (they are legion, and some are spectacularly good), none has an uglier, more badly designed website than the NME. They’ll need a total site redesign immediately to have any chance in such a saturated market.

There’s also the thorny issue of music fans not needing gatekeepers to tell them what is and isn’t worth listening to, when they can do it themselves on their phones immediately and at no cost other than data. Oh, and the whole issue of editorial focus. These are not partisan times, musically. We all listen more widely than 20 years ago, because it’s so easy. The NME needs a staff who know stuff, can offer insight and analysis. If all they’re going to do is publish lightly edited press releases or stories off the wire, they’ll be completely dead inside 18 months.

I never knew the NME in its glory days, whenever you consider those to be. But I grew up with the NME still a thriving, widely read publication that could set an agenda, and seeing it slowly crawling to its end is a deflating experience. I hope those working for it are able to find new work, but my gut tells me that most of them won’t be able to find gainful employment in a similar sphere. The online ad market won’t support the number of titles it’d take for everyone to keep their jobs. The issue remains, how do you make money from something that everyone can get for free and that no one’s willing to pay for? And if you can’t get people to pay for music writing, how can you pay the people writing it?


Archives and remixes

Recording isn’t simply about documenting a musical performance. Nor is it just the painstaking creation of an artistic work in musical form. Still less is it about making something to be bought and sold, at least in my world. Recording is what one must do to have a proper archive.

At my dad’s house, in my wardrobe and under my bed are shoeboxes full of TDK SA90s. These tapes contain old four-track demos of songs I recorded between 1999 and 2006, many of which I haven’t heard in over a decade, some of which (as the old joke goes) took longer to play than they did to write. On my laptop (and my old laptop, and my old desktop, and on several external hard drives), are the hundreds of recordings I’ve made since I started recording digitally in 2006.

I’ve not just archived my own songs, either. I have recordings I’ve made of at least a dozen other musicians, maybe as many as twenty. My archive of recordings by Yo Zushi, for example, stands at more than 50 songs, of which only around half have ever been released. Every now and then I like to go through them, and of course, once the project file is loaded and I’m listening, I can’t help but hear possible improvements to the mixes. At times I do a proper remixes, for my own listening, of songs that have already been released.

What’s that about? It’s not like I don’t have live projects I could be working on. I think it’s about something more fundamental. To make a recording of something is to fix it into place, to say “this is a thing that happened”. It helps make sense of the past. To someone with my cast of mind, that’s a reassuring thing; I can measure my life as an adult in recordings I’ve made on various media with various other players. But it’s also a track-by-track record of my development as a musician, recording engineer, mixer and arranger. Some of it is precociously good, but inevitably some of it is terrible. Most of it is OK but would have benefitted from having the self-confidence to play less, to not try to fill up space the whole time. My drum performances until about 2014 bother the hell out of me – why is it that drummers that can’t play always want to play the most stuff? I can’t resist the urge to relive the past while simultaneously making it better, airbrushing it. I’ve even recorded proper versions of songs by my high-school band, with me playing everything (I was the bass player).

The elephant in the room here is the fact that, while I’ve played on and/or mixed records that have had proper releases (a couple on labels, more that were self-funded), I’ve never done a physical release of my own music. When you release something digitally on, say, Bandcamp, you can replace the master files at any time, allowing you to to continue tinkering with mixes. The song is released and it’s out there, but you can call it back at any time. Once you’ve pressed up vinyl or CDs, you can’t do that. It’s out in the world, and not yours to control any more.

This year, I’m forcing myself to put out a couple of physical releases of my own music: first an EP with a couple of non-album tracks, then the album itself. I doubt I’ll be able to truly say goodbye to those songs even when I have, but it’s a big step for me to learn to let go. Saying that a project is done, putting it out there, and watching as it’s received (or not) by whatever audience it finds (or doesn’t) is a brave new world for someone who spends as much time as I do messing around with past projects.

But right now, I have a couple of hours’ worth of unreleased Yo Zushi songs waiting for me. He wrote some great stuff in 2009/2010 or so that few ever got to hear.


Mixing James McKean

I’m just getting going on a mix project: the next album by James McKean and the Blueberry Moon.

It’s not ideal timing. I’ve only been in my new house with Mel a couple of months, and I’ve not yet had time to really do anything with our music room in terms of acoustic treatment, and as a result it’s still echoey as all hell. But we’re under the gun, so I need to get going. I’m familiar enough with the material from listening to it in my old monitoring environment that I know there are no major EQ issues to compensate for, so as long as I keep to modest, sensible EQ treatments, and listen to mixes frequently in other rooms, on headphones, on my iPod etc. to check I’ve not done anything wacky, I won’t go too badly wrong. Hopefully by the time we’re ready to finalise all the mixes, I’ll have dampened the room down and fixed some of its frequency-related inaccuracies to the point where I can trust it.

It is, however, really exciting being at the start of a project like this. There are ten songs to mix, plus two B-sides, with the ten songs for the album all having been recorded semi-live at the same studio with the same band at three sessions between February and December last year. By semi-live, I mean we set up amps in an iso booth, plugged the bass guitar straight in, sat in the room with the drummer, and ran the songs down all together, recording drums, bass, acoustic guitar (played in the control room by James) and two electric guitars all at the same time (I’m one of the two electric guitarists). There are vocal overdubs, and the occasional extra bit here and there (some brass, a keyboard or an occasional add guitar), but it’s the most documentary-style album-length project I’ve been involved in making.

This is album number three I’ve made with James. The first one was often just him and me (though we had the benefit of overdubs from a great guitarist and a pedal-steel player), and I was a real novice recordist and mixer at the time, with inadequate gear. The second one was done over a protracted period, with a wider team of players, but still there are three or four songs that are largely/entirely just him and me. So this is a very different affair, a five-man effort, with one recording engineer (Jon Clayton) for the basic tracks, and the rest recorded by James or me in our respective homes.

This is how a lot of albums are made nowadays, especially rock records. Budgets are tight so you cut costs however you can. In most cases, bands go to a studio to track drums (drums are loud, they require space, and most importantly they’re difficult to record well because you have to manage the phase relationships of lots of microphones pointing at different aspects of a relatively small sound source), then you do as much as you can at a home studio. Some artists take their stuff back to a pro studio for mixing. Some (the foolhardy ones, the poor ones, the control freaks) do it themselves.

Mixing isn’t my favourite part of the process – I prefer tracking and building up the arrangement – but it’s the one that’s most obsessed over these days, far more than tracking, where a “that’ll do” mindset prevails. The power of computer recording software is such that any sound source can be shaped almost infitely: equalised, tuned, compressed, limited, repitched, replaced with a sample, compressed again, edited for timing, modulated and compressed some more. Then given a final smash.

(So if you’ve been wondering why so many records from the last 15 to 20 years sound like aural sausage meat, there you go.)

We will be resisting most of that. We ain’t Steely Dan, but as a group we can play our own music pretty well. Editing has been minimal. A few notes/beats here and there, but nothing even nearly approaching the snap-to-grid, to-the-16th-note uniformity that overtook rock music in the noughties (I stopped listening, so I don’t know if that’s gone away. I sure hope so). James is a very fine singer indeed, so Auto-Tune is a non-issue, too. At any rate, I did not istall it on my current laptop. I have an old laptop with a tuning plug-in, so I can use it if I really need it, but there’s going to have to be a damn good reason. This will be an old-school affair: an LCR-mixed project with a consistent treatment of instruments in terms of panning, time-domain effects and mix density. Oh yeah, and some really good songs, too.

If any of that sounds appealing to you, check back in three months when the Rocks & Pebbles EP will be coming out. I’ll be releasing my own EP (it’s mixed; just needs mastering, artwork and pressing) at around the same time, so exciting times ahead!



Long Strange Trip

Being British, and having only developed a deep love of the band’s music in the last five years or so, I got a lot out of Amir Bar-Lev’s Grateful Dead documentary, Long Strange Trip, which I caught up with last week on Amazon Prime.

The strongest episodes may have been the last two, which tell the interconnected stories of the groups’s legion of fans, the Deadheads, and Jerry Garcia’s relationship with fame. A natural anti-authoritarian, he refused to assume the role of mayor of a travelling hippie carnival. So while Phil Lesh did PSAs asking Deadheads who didn’t have tickets not to come to the show anyway to party outside (Deadheads routinely did this in their thousands), Garcia couldn’t bear to tell anyone else how to behave. Instead he allowed the fans to do as they pleased, even as his iconic status effectively imprisoned him in hotel rooms for months on end where he ate and smoked himself to death.

The story of Garcia’s final years is as dispriting as late-period Dead shows (on the whole) are to listen to. The band could still rouse themselves occasionally, but Garcia frequently sounded disengaged, his voice worse for wear. The playing, too, could be ragged, the double drums of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann often at odds (truth to tell, I’m a Kreutzmann guy, and he was at his best during the period in the seventies when Hart left the band. Not having to worry about where Hart would be putting his emphases, he could just play his own feel). Yet the fans still turned up by the stadium load, loving Garcia to death, not allowing him any break from the rigours of being a countercultural icon.

Bar-Lev is extremely good at showing how this happened – how the machinery of a veteran band is so big and relentless that no one inside it (or at least, no one actually in the Grateful Dead) really understood what was happening until it was too late. He handles the whole issue sympathetically, and clearly doesn’t blame the band, although one of the talking heads obliquely accuses management of enabling Garcia in his addictions, simply because rehab would have meant cancelling tour dates. The toll such a life took on him was evident simply in his face. When he died, Garcia looked a couple of decades older than his 53 years.

As powerful as those final episodes are, there’s great stuff earlier on too. Joe Smith, the former head of Warner Bros. Records, talking about his strained relationship with the band in its early days is always a hoot. The group’s 1969 appearance on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy after Dark is a when-worlds-collide jaw dropper. It was fascinating to hear, too, about how Garcia’s obssession with bluegrass banjo bored his then girlfriend Barbara “Brigid” Meier so much that she ended things with him.

The highpoint of the early episodes is the section about the Wall of Sound. Owsley “Bear” Stanley, maker of (it’s said) the finest LSD anyone on the West Coast ever had, conceived (and largely built) for the band the largest PA set-up in the world at the time. Weighing over 75 tons and requiring four semi trucks to haul it, the system contained 44 amplifiers developing over 26k watts of power, driving nearly 600 loudspeakers and 54 tweeters. Each band member had his own stack directly behind him, and a differential microphone system that cancelled the noise on stage resulting in only their voices being amplified. The sound could be heard clearly a quarter-mile away without wind interference degrading it. It was an awe-inspiring creation, and when the crew and Lesh reminisce about it their enthusiasm for it is palpable. “I loved that thing,” said Lesh, his face shining like a schoolboy’s. “It was like hearing the voice of God”.

There’s good stuff all the way through the documentary. If you’re a fan, it’s a must. I’m one of those who tend to enjoy music docs even when I’m not into the musician being covered, as you still find out things about the era and the history of the music business they operated in. So even if you’re a sceptic, I think you’ll still get a lot from it.

A House is Not a Motel – Love

Laurel Canyon, a rural idyll ten minutes from Hollywood and The Strip, became widely populated after it was settled by developers in the 1920s, who built weekend and vacation properties for wealthy Angelenos intending to spend their leisure time hunting up in the mountains. Later, in the 1960s, Laurel Canyon later became a kind of countercultural centre, as the major names (and many minor names too) of the folk-rock scene bought the funky cabins that used to belong to Charlie Chaplin, Harry Houdini and Louise Brooks. Billy James, of Columbia Records, lived there. Mark Volman of the Turtles. Neil Young, Crazy Horse, Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, members of the Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds and the Mamas & the Papas. Even Frank Zappa.

In 1967, Arthur Lee was one of those musicians. The leader of Love, a moderately successful folk-rock band with increasing leanings towards the orchestrated and the psychedelic, Lee was a well-known, striking figure on the LA scene. The son of a black father and white mother, Lee’s very appearance set him apart in the overwhelmingly white world of rock and roll music in the mid-sixties, and his ornery personality and drug-fuelled paranoia merely added to his isolation. He spent most of his time in his house on Mulholland Drive, listening to the sirens and the traffic noise from the city below, obsessing about what the hell was going on down there.

What was going on down there was a crackdown by the police – begun in the summer of 1996 and said to have been instigated at the behest of local business owners – on the kids who hung out in the coffee shops and drugstores and on the street corners of the Sunset Strip, with a curfew instigated for kids under 18. The folk-rock scene had inherited the Strip after it was abandoned by the film stars and gangsters that had made it their playground in the 1930s and 40s, and for a while young musicians and the kids who constituted the scene mingled freely (“There was a magical quality to it,” said Billy James; “like a carnival midway,” said musician/photographer Henry Diltz). But in 1967, concerned about what looked like it might be becoming a countercultural uprising, the new Republican Governor of California – a former actor by the name of Ronald Reagan – doubled down. Police were not sparing with their use of the side-handle.

Lee, like most of his peers, was appalled and it was inevitable that his disillusionment, which coexisted cheek by jowl with his native cynicism, would find its way into his music as he convened his straggling, multi-racial band at Sunset Sound to record Forever Changes. Most of the band members were by now strung out on something or other (heroin and acid mainly, but coke probably figures too, this being Los Angeles) and the sessions did not go smoothly at first, requiring producer Bruce Botnik to bring in session players for the first couple of songs tackled during the sessions (Neil Young is said to have been involved in arranging The Daily Planet, too). It’s amazing they got the thing done at all.

A House is Not a Motel is one of the record’s more musically aggressive tracks, with a twisting, knotted tension that is only released by the duelling lead guitars that take over (both played by Johnny Echols? One by Echols and one by Lee or Bryan MacLean? – the two guitar tracks have a very similar tone, suggesting that maybe they’re two of Echols’s takes playing simultaneously). While A House is Not a Motel lacks the orchestration that is the album’s defining musical characteristic, in its mix of fingerpicked acoustic guitars, intricate drums, lyrical paranoia and screaming lead guitars, it’s quintessential Love.

It’s become part of the record’s legend that Forever Changes failed to sell in great numbers. This is partly an exaggeration; the record did stay on the Billboard chart for 10 weeks, and was a top 30 hit in the UK. Given that Love seldom played outside the Greater Los Angeles Area and band relations were so low that Lee turned down most of the opportunities the band were offered, that wasn’t a bad showing. Today, though, with its utterly idiosyncratic mix of psychedelic rock, acoustic fingerpicking, orchestral pop and mariachi brass, Forever Changes is universally regarded as a masterpiece, one of the very finest LA records and a towering achievement that casts a long shadow over everything Lee did subsequently.


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Arthur Lee

Kathy’s Song (Songbook version) – Paul Simon

Managed to score tickets for Paul Simon’s farewell gig in Hyde Park this summer. To celebrate, here’s a look at one of his most beloved early songs. If you enjoy this post, you might like this old one too:

Paul Simon’s first solo record was not his self-titled album from 1971, made in the wake of his split from Art Garfunkel (and one of my favourite records ever). The first album to be released by Paul Simon as a solo artist was 1965’s The Paul Simon Songbook, recorded in London, released in the UK only, and deleted from catalogue at his own request in 1969, at which point he and Garfunkel were among the biggest stars in the world of music, following the back-to-back triumphs of the Graduate soundtrack and Bookends.

In 1964 and 1965, Simon made several trips to the UK on his own, to tour provincial theatres and folk clubs. While he and Garfunkel had already released two albums by January 1965, they weren’t available in the UK. Sounds of Silence would not be released in the UK until 1968, and was available on import only when Simon came over on his solo tours. So the UK arm of Columbia Records (named, confusingly, CBS – confusing because CBS stands for Columbia Broadcasting System, the parent company of the American Columbia Records label of which CBS was the UK offshoot) decided to capitalise on Simon’s growing popularity by having him bash out a quickie album in a cheap studio for UK release only.

Simon cut 12 songs for the record in an upstairs studio on New Bond Street. Compared to his lavish albums with Garfunkel, which were meticulously recorded and produced by the pair’s genius engineer and guiding hand Roy Halee, The Paul Simon Songbook was a low-key, lo-fi affair. Songs were recorded in just a couple of takes each with one microphone, with Simon playing and singing live and minor flubs left in. This is how countless albums by the UK folk scene’s big names were recorded (live to tape, usually in an afternoon), but it’s fascinating to hear immortal Simon songs like I Am a Rock, The Sound of Silence and Kathy’s Song in this more intimate, less controlled setting, the balance favouring his voice over his guitar playing. And of course it’s fascinating in an alternate-history kind of way, too – this is what his records might have sounded like throughout his whole career if he’d stayed at the level of a Davy Graham, Bert Jansch or Jackson C Frank, beloved only by a cult audience and subsisting on the proceeds of small gigs more than from the sales of albums.

Kathy’s Song is one of Simon’s finest early compositions, one of his most deeply felt and most mournful. Simon met Kathy Chitty and the Railway Inn folk club in Brentwood, Essex, in 1964 and was smitten. They began a relationship and are pictured together on the cover of The Paul Simon Songbook, sitting cross-legged on a wet cobbled street, playing with puppets. If that sounds a bit precious and twee, well, Simon was a bit precious and twee in those days. The main fault of early S&G was the duo’s relentless ra-ra earnestness, which clashed with and undercut their wish to be seen as intelligent and bohemian. Yet Simon’s affection for Chitty was real enough; she reappears in one of his greatest songs, America, and he was hit hard when she ended their relationship. While travelling around on tour with him in the US, she realised how big he and Garfunkel were becoming off the back of The Sound of Silence and she wanted nothing to do with that life.

So she returned to England and now lives in a village in Wales. Simon re-recorded Kathy’s Song for the S&G album Sounds of Silence and went on to become one of the best-selling artists of all time. The first version of Kathy’s Song captures him at a moment before he chose the life of a star over the life of a folk singer whose heart lay not just in England, but in my own county of Essex.

The Paul Simon Songbook was recorded at Levy’s Sound Studios. If the history of recording technology interests you, or of the British music industry generally, read this article by a former mastering engineer at the studio.

Featuring “Birds” – Quasi

Featuring “Birds” is one of my very favourites. When it came out in 1998, it sounded like no other album I’d heard. Sam Coomes wrote fragmentary, snarky little songs with immediately memorable pop melodies, and then buried them in huge, gunky layers of distorted Rocksichord (a chintzy electronic keyboard from the late 1960s). Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney’s drummer), meanwhile, played drums with frantic, nervously twitchy energy, but with the confidence to fill every available space in the songs.

The album sets out its stall immediately with Our Happiness is Guaranteed. Weiss plays a syncopated pattern with improvised rapid-fire fills while Coomes makes as much noise as possible, segueing into the song proper via a series of tone clusters (there’s a melody in there, but the harmonies applied to it seem to be a result of keyboard mashing) and a brief riff that recurs prior to every subsequent verse. The song, when it begins, is a sci-fi fable with a sing-song melody, which Weiss harmonises sweetly. The whole thing is over in under three minutes.

The tension between the group’s melodies and its casual dissonance and sonic aggression made the music thrilling to me, as did the unconventional song structures (many tracks are just a verse and a chorus, or even just a verse on its own) and Weiss’s gonzo drum fills, which sounded like her mind was only a stroke or two ahead of limbs and she didn’t quite know where she was going to go next. The musical tension may well have been fed by personal tension, too; Weiss and Coomes had been married but were already separated by the time of Featuring “Birds”, and as the group were a two-piece, there was no one else to defuse things when they got heated. I imagine the rehearsal studio was an interesting place to be at times.

The album is full of songs like Our Happiness is Guaranteed – wonky little tunes that are definitely pop, but that are skewed by Coomes’s sardonic delivery and the group’s full-bore commitment to its sonic aesthetic. I Never Want to See You Again, California (with its hilarious intro: “life is dull, life is gray/at its best, it’s just OK/but I’m happy to report/life is also short”), the surprisingly poignant I Give Up and Nothing from Nothing are all gems, and Please Do shows that Coomes could even rival his friend and sometime bandmate Elliott Smith with an acoustic guitar in his hand and nothing but his fingerpicking to fall back on.

Alas, the group couldn’t repeat the trick. Field Studies, from 1999, was a less frantic affair all round, and saw the group diluting its signature sound with more electric guitar and piano, less distorted keyboard, and more bass guitar (courtesy of a guesting Smith). It also saw Coomes’s chippy observations losing their freshness and becoming dulled by his reliance on unvarying end rhyming and repetitive melodic phrases. I checked out after Sword of God, which suffered even more badly from the same problems (and also sounded rubbish, as the group had recorded themselves), and never really picked them up again. But I still come back to Featuring “Birds” and would recommend it unhesitatingly to anyone with any love for 1990s indie.