Category Archives: General

The 12 Bar Club on Denmark Street to close in January 2015

When I first started playing solo acoustic gigs as an 18-year-old, one of my ambitions was to play at the 12 Bar Club.

The 12 Bar is a small (150 capacity) but rambling live music venue at the far end of Denmark Street, close to what I’ve come to think of as Google Plaza but which is, I guess, still properly St Giles Circus. It consists of four rooms, in an L shape, with the tiny live room at the back. If you were starting a music venue from scratch, you wouldn’t plan anything like the 12 Bar. The site of an old forge, it has a tiny stage (made smaller by the remnants of the furnace), a small area for punters standing (or sometimes sitting) in front of the stage, an overhanging balcony that came up level almost with the front of the stage but only sat about 15 people, and no sound insulation from the bar, which despite being in a different room is only about eight feet from the stage. Yet despite all these seeming limitations, I love it.

If you want to know how important a venue the 12 Bar is, think on this: in its 25-year history, veterans like Bert Jansch, the Albion Band, Gordon Giltrap and Peter Rowan played it. Roddy Frame, Boo Hewerdine and Robyn Hitchcock played it. Martha Wainwright, Joanna Newsom, KT Tunstall, Damien Rice, Regina Spektor, the Libertines, Keane, Jamie T, even Jeff Buckley played there. Whether I or you or anyone else likes those artists is not relevant in this case. What is relevant is that for a couple of generations of musicians, the 12 Bar Club has been an important rung on the ladder, one which you could play knowing whose footsteps you were walking in, and as a result its warmly regarded by practically everyone who’s ever played there, folkie, anti-folkies, punk rockers and roots songwriters alike.

I’ve played it more times than I have any other venue: a bunch of solo gigs (six or seven probably – conceivably more), a few with Yo Zushi, one memorable show with Great Days of Sail (the band I was in with Yo 10 years ago), an early gig with my old band the Fourth Wall, the last-ever Fourth Wall-related show.

So I have a lot of happy memories of that place. The show where I supported Berlin-based American songwriter David Judson Clemons, which I think was the first time I played solo there. The aforementioned GDoS gig, which we packed out, the one and only time I’ve been been part of a spontaenous, unplanned encore: James McKean joined us to sing You Ain’t Going Nowhere and the on-stage crowededness crossed the line from “impractical” to “farcical”. The time when I looked up during my set and realised that TV newsreader Martyn Lewis was watching me (his daughter Sylvie was top of the bill that night), looking very serious and newsreaderly. That time when a group of very dressed-up soul music fans who’d come to watch an after-show set by Roachford caught the back end of a Yo Zushi Band set (a particularly ill-prepared one at that) and looked rather flummoxed by what they saw.

In 33 days it will be closed, a casualty of the Crossrail development. The large Enterprise rehearsal complex, across the alleyway (Denmark Place) behind the club, will close also. I don’t know whether the buildings will be demolished. The 12 Bar is part of a terrace, so if it is to be knocked down, I assume that Hank’s guitar shop next door would have to go, too. Enterprise could be knocked down without it affecting the fabric of the buildings that face on to Denmark Street though. Conceivably the property developers (Consolidated) just want a nice shiny retail outlet there and would rather the place wasn’t filled with scruffy rock’n’rollers. We’ll have to see. I’m not optimistic about the future of Denmark Street though. I suspect that rents will continue to rise and the instrument shops will bow to the inevitable. With no form of rent control in place, central London real estate is too expensive for independent retailers, even niche ones like instrument shops. Unless Denmark Street is made a conservation area like Hatton Garden (and Consolidated are obviously not keen on this), an era looks to be ending.

Andy Lowe did a heroic job programming the live music there. In the course of more than a dozen gigs I played there, the bills were always high quality and thoughtfully put together. I was never on the bill with an inappropriate act, I never saw anyone on there who wasn’t up to the job. I could say that about no other venue. He did all this while being tremendously likeable and friendly, and without wanting to take up too much of his time, I stopped for a chat with him whenever I could.

There have been rumours about this for a long while, and the 12 Bar Club’s owner, Carlo Mattiucci, has obviously been prepared and look set to move the club to a new venue. But still, this is a terrible shame for London’s music-playing community. With Enterprise, the 12 Bar (and across the street the Alleycat) and the retailers, Denmark Street has been a real community, where musicians played, rehearsed, bought gear and hung out. That will end now. Nothing they could put in its place there will ever replace that.

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On stage at the 12 Bar Club, c. 2004-5

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On stage at the 12 Bar Club, c. 2014

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The Lay of the Land, 6th December 2014

Two years ago today I had a pacemaker fitted. The year before that I was in an advancing state of heart failure. At the point of my diagnosis, I was Class IV on the NYHA classification chart; the subsequent class is “end stage”, which is what it sounds like. I have idiopathic hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease where the myocardium is enlarged, without any obvious cause, weakening the left ventricle and impeding the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively.

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I used to play in a band called Carterhaugh. Kind of a strange band – sort of 1970s folk-inflected prog with some downtuned riffing and some traditional folk songs (Sabbath playing Fairport if you want a shorthand). The last line-up of the band, one that never got to play out for reasons I’ll get into in a second, contained three members who’ve all survived serious illness in the last few years. Between us we’ve come through bowel cancel, breast cancer and heart failure.

A bit of gallows humour is rarely a bad idea so we’ve made plenty of jokes among ourselves about our medical histories. The last of us to get sick was reminded more than once that her bandmates had faced similarly tough diagnoses and lived to tell of it, so she was expected to do likewise. The three of us have teased the bassist, the only one of us who hasn’t been ill, and asked him whether he’s feeling OK.

Two years today – on 6th December 2012 – in a hospital in Cambridgeshire I had my chest cut open beneath the shoulder blade and watched on a monitor while pacemaker leads were attached to my ventricles. You need to be awake during a pacemaker insertion so that the doctor can ask you to hold your breath at certain points to see whether the device is working as intended. You’re sedated a little bit, which makes the time go quicker, and your shoulder is numb so you don’t feel pain as the doctor makes the incision. But still, the sensation is strange. The area they’re cutting into is protected by a thick layer of muscle, so it’s not a delicate job. There’s a decent amount of pulling and sawing involved. I’ve likened the procedure (as that’s what they call it – it doesn’t count as an “operation” in NHS lingo) to sticking a knife into a shoulder of beef, carving out a little pocket and shoving an iPod Nano in it.

That day was the beginning of a new period in my life. Having a pacemaker fitted gave me a lot more confidence in my body. Before it was inserted, although I’d recovered far more completely than I’d been counselled to expect, I still carried myself like a sick person. Three words buzzed around my brain more than was welcome: sudden cardiac death. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death in young people. HCM is pitiless. When I became ill, I had been spared this fate and presented symptoms that were eventually diagnosed, but what if it I had a second “event”, this one instant and terminal? With a CRT pacemaker in my chest, I felt more confident that such a thing wouldn’t happen. I began to walk faster, push harder, go jogging (slowly – watching me in action is not going to keep David Rudisha up at night).

Of course, and here’s the irony, if such a thing were likely to happen, I wouldn’t have been given a pacemaker at all; I’d have been on the waiting list for a transplant instead. The reason I was given one was that I’d already made an extensive recovery, and the hope was that curing the lingering arrhythmia might give my heart a little extra help in repairing itself completely. Time will tell on that one. It’s still, relatively speaking, early days. The decision the consultants made to offer me the procedure was ultimately a financial one, as it has to be: is it better value for money to give the pacemaker to the guy who’s recovering pretty well and might live a full and basically normal life with it, or give it to the person who’s in a much worse state and is unlikely to make it to 40, pacemaker or no pacemaker?

So here we stand two years on, and it hardly seems five minutes since I wrote a “lay of the land” piece on the first anniversary of the procedure. It’s been by any measure the best year of my life. I have a wonderful relationship with my partner, Mel, who’s a daily source of inspiration and strength. I have a job I like a great deal, where I’ve made some important new friends. I continue to play music every chance I get. This year I’ve made a record with Sumner, on which I played drums and helped with some of the engineering. I’ve continued making records with Yo Zushi and James McKean; Yo’s will come out in January. We’re just finishing mixing James’s now (once a stubbornly persistent ear thing heals). I’ve released my own EP, written a bunch of songs (some of which I really like) and I’ve proudly watched Mel take her first steps as a songwriter and performer. Records I’ve played on have got national BBC radio play. I’ve been to Paris and Umbria. Next week I go to Barcelona. Next year Venice. Maybe Dubrovnik. Perhaps even, fingers crossed, New York.

And yet. Today most of all, but often, something nags at me, which I’ve wanted to write about on more than one occasion.

It’s a curious thing, but because I’ve recovered to the extent I have, when I talk about it with people who didn’t know me then, I sense they feel that recovery must have been somehow inevitable, or at least probable. I don’t like to correct them, as I wouldn’t want people to think I’m trying to take credit for my own recovery. But that reaction actually makes me angry.

When I used to go to the Papworth Outpatient Transplant Clinic (the name of clinic should give a clue as to the prognosis I’d been given), I would routinely be the least sick-looking person in the room. Not always the youngest, but always the healthiest, even when a slow walk around the block – 600 metres – left me needing a nap to recover. I will never forget a man of around forty in a wheelchair attached to a bottle of oxygen, his young children with him. I don’t know whether those children still have their father. I’ll never forget the young man whose age I couldn’t determine, because he was nothing more than flesh and bones. He was in a wheelchair too, he also needed oxygen to allow him to breathe and every breath was evidently a struggle. I didn’t know whether the young woman with him was his partner, wife, sister, friend or carer. He was there to see the heart and lung consultant. When you’re in a transplant clinic to see the heart and lung guy, it’s not looking good for you.

I always used to leave Papworth bearing good news – continued progress in my recovery, causes for cautious, realistic optimism – and yet, I always used to leave Papworth heartbroken. Any one of those people could have been me. The father who couldn’t get out of his chair? Why did this happen to him, a man with responsibilities, a wife, children? I can’t make any sense out of any of it unless I attribute it all to a cosmic rolling of the dice. And so the language we resort to when talking about disease (we talk about people “bravely” “fighting” a “battle” with an illness, as if that made more of a difference than access to good doctors and, above all else, simple dumb luck) is specious. Of course, some people respond well to being told, “You’re brave and strong and you can beat this”. But there is a widely evident net social ill that’s the inevitable result of too much of this. If we think our “positive attitude” or our “courage” or – God help us – “strength” is what saved us if we do survive, we imply that those who died or were left more disabled deserved their fate for not being as courageous and strong as we.

A little more truth and honesty and care about all of brothers and sisters, not just the ones whose survival we have a personal stake in, would be very welcome. Because really, you can’t see what I’ve seen and cling to any vestige of that mindset. Yet it’s so pervasive, across every strata of society, on the right and the left. Ayn Rand-reading, will-to-power capitalists are as guilty of it as “the spirit of the world flows through me” hippies. The truth is harder: the lives of all of us hang by a thread from the moment we’re born to the moment we finally die. At all times. A serious, non-negotiable, disabling or fatal illness can strike any of us at any time with no forewarning.

But we hide from that. It’s not a comforting thought. We talk about the amazing strength of those whose recoveries appear complete, and assume that the disabled are simply weaker specimins. We deny them financial help, we shun them, treat them as second-class. In my first few months of recovery – realising that I’d be living on £70 a week ESA forever and trying to get around in a world full of heavy doors and stairways, filled with people who just want to overtake you on the street and don’t give a damn about your dignity – I realised how complacent I had been. I became furious with the world, with my own selfishness and blindness. It was at least better than being angry that I was ill.

That anger hasn’t fully subsided. I hope it never does. There are things one should be angry about.

But most days I put all of this stuff to the back of my mind. I hunker down, do my work, try to make the people around me happy where I can, and be grateful for my extraordinary good fortune. I’m a happy guy for pretty much all the other days of the year. But today is a strange day for me. I’ll not be out having a party. It’s a sombre day, when I reflect on what could have been, and spend time with the person in the world who understands most how conflicted all of this stuff leaves me. Illness and recovery is not a zero sum game; I know that. That I’m still here does not mean that some other, more deserving, soul had to die to free up a space for me. And yet, undoubtedly, there are people I’ve encountered in wards and waiting rooms who are now dead while I am not. I fear my contributions can never be enough to justify the enormous cosmic judgement that came down in my favour.

7th December is my new year’s day. Another year begins tomorrow and I’ll again look to the future with optimism and excitement. I have so much to be optimistic and excited about! But today I remember.

Podcast #2 – How to record a bass drum

Hi there. Another podcast for you. This one’s focuses on the bass drum: approaches to take to miking it up, and a discussion of compression, EQ and editing. I hope it’s of use to some of you!

I’ll be doing a regular post over the weekend. I’ve already got a song in mind – it’s one of my favourite-ever records so it may be quite gushy. Just to warn you in advance.

As before, if all you’re seeing is a grey Soundcloud box, refresh your browser till you can see it properly!

Podcast #1 – Introduction to recording drums at home

Hi there. So as promised, I’m going to try uploading some podcasts and see if anyone bites. I’m thinking that I’ll start by having a couple of different series: one focused on some of the technical aspects of recording music, and one where I discuss music with various bloggers, writers and musicians. Don’t worry though: I’ll still be doing written posts too. Although in the first week or so while I get off and running, perhaps not quite as many as usual.

Here’s the first of the technical ones. It’s the first in a series about recording drums, aimed at the independent/unsigned musician on a budget. Hope it’s of interest to some of you! As ever, soundcloud embeds in wordpress somewhat erratically, but if you can’t see the podcast link below and you’re getting a grey soundcloud box, refresh your browser and it should appear. It is downloadable (as a mono MP3, about 16MB in size).

Enjoy!

News & a Sunday plug

Hi there. I’ve just got back from a trip to my hometown of Southend in Essex, so haven’t been at home in the flat much in the last few days. Indeed, it’s been a busy couple of weeks, and as I’m playing a show next Sunday with James McKean, it’s going to stay busy for the foreseeable.

However, just wanted to give you a heads-up that I’m planning something with the blog that I’m quite excited about, and which I hope will be appreciated by the people who come here and read my witterings. I’ll just say one word about it for now: podcasts.

In the meantime, here’s a quick reminder that you can find my recorded musical works at soundcloud (see player below – refresh your browser if not visible) or bandcamp.

 

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 1 – What Makes You Think You’re the One? – Fleetwood Mac

Lindsey Buckingham did not want the follow-up to Rumours to sound like Rumours. That much we can say for sure. He infuriated the band’s engineer and co-producer Ken Caillat by asking for sounds completely alien to his sensibilities (literally so: whenever Caillat dialled in a sound on a piece of equipment, Buckingham would insist the knobs be turned 180 degrees from wherever they were set before he’d start recording a take) and bemused his bandmates by playing them the Clash’s first record and trying to convince them that this is what they now needed to sound like. If his bandmates were unconvinced by Buckingham’s insistence that they change with the times, history has proved him right – their generation of artists either had to come to terms with the new music and changed fashions or wait a few years to start playing the nostalgia circuits. The majority of the band’s peers at the top of the industry accordingly updated their haircuts and wardrobes, bought synthesisers and drum machines, pushed up the sleeves of their pastel sports jackets and tried their best to make post-new wave pop hits.

For all his good intentions, though, he couldn’t really make Fleetwood Mac into the Clash. But what the band came up with in the attempt was much more interesting than if they’d have succeeded. The appeal of Tusk lies in the tension between his aims for the record and the band’s failure to quite get there, between his own nervous, fractured songs and the material given to him by Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie. Lacking the woody warmth of Rumours (partly perhaps due to being recorded on an early digital system called Soundstream, rather than to analogue tape), Tusk’s Buckingham-penned songs turn away from mainstream LA rock, only for those written by Nicks and McVie to attempt to return to it. The attempted fusion of slick, albeit heartfelt, West Coast AOR with this raw and ragged new music resulted in a record that was uncategorisable: Fleetwood Mac gone askew, covert punk rock on a superstar budget.

Buckingham had recorded demos for his own songs in his house and, enamoured with the sounds he got by recording in his bathroom, had a replica of his bathroom built in the studio. Some songs (for example, the beautiful, woozy Save Me a Place) saw him playing all the instruments himself, painstakingly Xeroxing his lo-fi demos in a hi-fi studio. What Makes You Think You’re the One?, fortunately, was one song that he let Fleetwood and John McVie play on.

Buckingham has remarked that something about hearing the goofy drum sound in his headphones, with its clangy slapback delay, turned Mick Fleetwood into an animal, and Fleetwood’s unhinged performance is hilarious, the highlight of the track. He beats his snare drum brutally, mercilessly, switching his patterns seemingly at random, sometimes playing two and four, sometimes crotchets, switching to double time for two and a half bars and then switching back unannounced – there’s a childlike glee to his performance. It’s a joy to hear such a tasteful musician play so uninhibitedly, throwing away all restraint, while Buckingham bashes out incongruously chirpy piano quavers and cackles maniacally.

Critics seemingly didn’t know quite what to make of all this, and neither did the public: Tusk sold ‘only’ four million copies in the US, less than a quarter of Rumours’ figures. Yet Tusk’s critical reputation has soared in recent years, in tandem with the band’s own – overtly West Coast-influenced artists (Midlake, Best Coast, Jonathan Wilson et al.) have resurrected the old FM sound and made them a ubiquitous reference point again, while hipster kids are content just to blast Everywhere at any opportunity. All this was hard to envisage fifteen years ago, but it’s nonetheless welcome and deserved for a group whose work was never less than sincere.

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Mick Fleetwood, punk rock monster

 

For the curious, some of my music:

Live music, part one

Since I was able to get my hands on a 4-track recorder as an 18-year-old, I’ve preferred recording to playing live, and I’m sure I always will do. I like playing live when it goes well, but there are so many factors you can’t control that make it stressful, from the size of the audience that will show up to technical problems striking right at the moment when you’re on stage and can’t do anything to solve them. At one gig I played once, at 93 Feet East in London, the power went out on Brick Lane from Whitechapel High Street up to Shoreditch, about half an hour before doors. We had little choice but to play the whole gig completely unamplified, in a big room, lit only by emergency lights and candles.

Recording sessions can be stressful, but things seldom absolutely need to be got right in this one particular moment. You can always do another take, you can always come back another day. Being a recording musician is less stressful than being a performing musician; being a recording engineer is less stressful than being a front of house engineer. And I’ve been all these things at one time or another.

As my love of recording grew, my enthusiasm for live music waned. Partly this was a matter of simple economics. I was not well off at the time (as in, didn’t know from week to week if I was going to earn any money, or get paid for the work I had been already completed), so what spare money I could amass had to go on recording equipment and instruments worth recording. But it was also a matter of not being enthused by the idea of live music any more. I was so passionate about the possibilities offered by recording that there wasn’t much room left in my life for any other interest. My devotion to learning the craft bordered on the pathological. When I wasn’t actively engaged in a recording project, I was thinking about it. Theorising. Reading. Studying. Listening. Especially listening.

I made a playlist of songs culled from every significant rock record I could think of from the late eighties to the present day and I listened to them all over and again. Listening for sounds, for trends, for techniques. For months, I didn’t listen to songs; I listened to drum sounds. For weeks within those months, I didn’t listen to drum sounds; I listened to snare sounds. I listened to how much close mic was being used as opposed to overheads, or whole-kit stereo mics or room mics. I listened to how quick the compressor’s attack was set, and how long its release was. After a while, where a normal person would hear a drum, which they may or may not be able to identify as a snare, I could hear a snare that went ‘blap’ or ‘wap’ depending how much the attack had been blunted by compression. I could hear how whether it was tight and dry, or big and ambient. I could hear how long the echo was, and make a decent guess at whether it was real room ambience or a digital simulation. I could sometimes hear a shift in snare sound in the midst of a quick whole-kit fill, suggesting the use of noise gating on the tom-toms. I got hung up on whether panning drums from the audience’s perspective was more satisfying than panning from the drummer’s.

Recording engineers care about this stuff. It became my life for a couple of years.

The dedication required to learn all this – the stuff you’ll need to learn if you’re searching for timeless, emotional perfection in the studio – automatically led to less interest in live performance, as a player and a fan. For years, I hardly went to gigs unless I or a good friend was playing one.

But in the last year or so I’ve started to go to more. I’ve got enough disposable income that I can, for one thing, but also I had an experience at a gig coming up for a year ago that was something of a revelation. Early on in my relationship with Mel, we went to see Hem play at the Union Chapel, which we’d both been to a couple of times before and both loved. It’s a gothic-revival church in Islington, North London: stone, marble, high ceilings, wooden pews – it sounds great for the right kind of show, for sit-down, acoustic music-type gigs, and of course the fact that it’s so beautiful just adds to the atmosphere.

Hem are a band whose music I care rather deeply about. I’ve written about them here, in a post that to my regret is one of least visited on my blog. Hem’s music has been well described by Scott Elingburg in a popmatters.com review of Departure and Farewell:

They’re a Brooklyn band dreaming of other, more pastoral locales: the folkist regions of Appalachia, the countrypolitan halls of Nashville, the brass band marches of New Orleans, and anywhere along the East Coast where an acoustic guitar and songwriter might have met.

Swap East Coast for West Coast and that’s them exactly.

This Union Chapel show, as I said in the post linked to above, was one of the best experiences of my life: an incredible performance in a beautiful space of a group of wonderful songs. Just witnessing it with each other brought Mel and me closer together; I could feel it happening during the show. And it reawakened me to the power of live music. Since then I’ve seen several more gigs, some good, some great; some with Mel, some with friends. Midlake at Shepherd’s Bush with Mel, where we ran into Kit Joliffe with whom I play in various people’s bands. Jon Auer at the Islington with Kristina (aka Sumner, whose band I play drums in). Jonny Greenwood and the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Roundhouse in Camden with my friend (and boss) Sara. I’ve seen Mel play her first open mics. She’s seen me sing my songs on stage, and play bass, drums and guitar with other people, too. Before the year’s out, I’ll see Spoon, Throwing Muses and Sebadoh; new favourites and old favourites. Live music is, rather to my surprise at this point, quite a big part of my life again. Once again it feels like a powerful, potentially transformative force.

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Hem, live at the Union Chapel, October 2013
Photo by Christina at All About Hem