Sunday, 9 July 2017

Don't confuse "having a job in the creative industries" with "being creative"

This is an extract from an email to my friend Benjamin Belinska.  More of his work - along with that of his collaborator (and my very good friend) Elodie Roy - can be heard here.

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You will know the following from an intellectual point of view, but you must gain a deeper understanding of the following phrase:  "It is not what you do, but who you know."  

Please immediately tattoo it to your forehead (allowing for appropriate reversal of script so it remains legible in the bathroom mirror) and then proceed to bang on doors for the next interminable period of time as people in The Industry look at you blankly.  Or worse, like they wouldn't want you to sit next to them on the school bus in case you damaged their "cred".  

Only after this experience will you understand the tattooed phrase experientially, through your own frustration and lack of progress.

*takes a deep breath*

I'm speaking autobiographically, of course.  Don't get me started on those goons.  To me, it's a very murky, dark world - that of Planet Media in London.  I don't think you or I would benefit from me writing a three-thousand word screed here in an email to you about it, which would rapidly descend into very personal accounts of me doing soundtrack "work" for an Shoreditch-based production company in 2014, which was such a monumental fuckaround that I still cringe when I think back to it, and which I was eventually grateful for because it hammered home to me on a very experiential (that word again) level just how fundamentally incompatible I was with any of that stuff.  

In short, it's who you know.  And even then, if you do manage some "career success", it is on their terms, not yours.  Your job is to make a return on an investment.  The same way one might employ somebody at an estate agent, and hope that they make the business more money than it takes to pay their salary.  That way, both parties come out ahead.

I know that for you, the word "creative" is a sacred thing for you.  I know this because I can hear it in your music and in your voice when you sing.  It's a gut feeling thing.  

And I also know that in the world of Media, the word "creative" is definitely not sacred.  It is Something Else.  It is a way to a career.  A job.  An income.  A deal.  A thing that you tell your relatives about at Christmas.  A way to help you pay rent, or even a mortgage.  A category you tick on tax returns and an introductory sentence on every social media account bio you will every write.  It is emails, and phone calls, and conversations and talking and pot-luck and being in the right place at the right time, and being prepared and keeping a shrewd eye on expenditures and being on time and turning up and maybe even finding the few good souls who think the same way as you do.  It is most definitely being "in" with the right people, and being recognised and having some veneer of "possibility" about you.  It might even be others thinking cynically of you, thinking that you're boring, but sell-able.  It might be a maverick willing to take a chance on you and you abusing that naive notion to your benefit for a couple of years until it all runs out of steam, whereupon you jump ship to the next sucker.  Or it might be you working several jobs and juggling the gigs and the studio sessions and the rehearsal room fees and the amp hire around shifts and freelance work and session work and gun-for-hire songwriting.

But never confuse it - as I did - with the pure act of opening your mouth and singing / playing... because that is the real thing, and that exists no matter what - whether you're having a career in music or not.  It's something spiritual and can't be fitted into anyone else's idea of what That Thing is, to you.  It will refuse to go, like a willful dog being dragged by its collar.  It would rather cause your own self-implosion, than be compromised.

Which is why less talented people often succeed within the industry, because they are further from the source... so any kind of compromise is less painful for them than it is for those who have truly given their heart to the cause.  These people may simply wear "music" as a badge, because maybe their real talents lie not in the Voice or the Music, but in all the ephemera that orbits around it.  For them, it is less important.  That's why many of these "media types" have this eminently-punchable air of aloof, coolness about them... they look like they don't care because, well, they genuinely don't care.  (Though God forbid they should be tagged in a status update that somehow reflects badly on their digital brand - then you are truly applying pressure to the prostate gland of their priorities.)

So be aware of the difference between your idea of creative, and what "creative" is within the narrow outlook of the world of Media.  See if you can live with that Disconnect.  See if what you put out into the world is any way compatible with what's marketable.  See if you know the right people who will open the doors you need in order to make a living from it.  See if you're prepared to do what is necessary while still preserving, nourishing and cultivating your own talent.  

If you can do all these things, then do it.  Do it and do it well!  My message is not one of negativity, simply one of seeing things as they really are.  If you can survey this rather spiritually barren vista, and know that you can walk through it and still do what you do, then do it.  Start by meeting people who think the same as you and band together until others take note of you.  Leave yourself open to the wonderful, random possibilities that life has to offer.  If your heart is in the right place - if you are at peace with how the process works and what is required of you in order to engage with it - then the doors will open.  The natural laws of the universe will swing that moment of luck your way if you've got yourself lined up right.  I keep thinking of Zimmerman playing harmonica on Carolyn Hester's rehearsal session, and being spotted by Columbia talent scout John Hammond.  That came seemingly as a stroke of luck (and not one that would exist in today's industry, I might add - Dylan would need 100,000 views on his YouTube channel for that conversation to even take place), but Bob had pointed himself in the right direction, and consciously put himself in the firing line by riding that train over to New York in the first place.  If it hadn't happened then, then I'm sure he would've got his break at some other point - he was a weather vane just asking for the lightning strike.

Personally, I couldn't walk that path.  It took a long time, and a lot of experiences (that word again) for me to learn that I was not able to squeeze my song into a job-shaped box.  So I must find Another way - one beyond the remit of "job" or "hobby" or "side-project".  

Others can make that shoe fit, however - and who's to say you're not one of them?  Many do, and the world is a richer place for it.  And there are no winners or losers here.  Simply those who can play The Game, and those that - for whatever reason - can't.  I for one, cannot.  I'm proud not of that fact, but of the realisation... the realisation that gave me the insight... because it's my own personal Truth - and that's always a good thing to have to hand when the nights draw long.  

But others can do that dance - through various means (like being fortunate to make music during the early era of recorded sound - not something you or I can do anything about unless we have a time machine), and they are to be admired much in the same way one admires an estate agent, or a civil servant.  Well done that man, for turning up to work and doing his job!  Tomorrow night I'll see Radiohead in Manchester, and I'll be grateful that somehow they made it into the mainstream in a way I never could.

But if one is to judge on the basis of artistic quality, then all men stand equal in the subjective eye of the listener.  One man's 'Kid A' by Radiohead is another man's 'The Party Album' by The Venga Boys... one man's 'The Book Of Changes' by B. Belinska is another man's 'Tech Support' by My Attorney and so on.  In that scenario, we all stand together as people just channelling the creative flow in our own personal ways.  Do you have something special that no one else has?  Of course you do, you're you and no one else, even if that means being in The Venga Boys, or Bob Dylan, or - hopefully - Benjamin Belinska.

Thoughts about Blur and "supplanted nostalgia" via remastering

'Parklife' by Blur.

I can remember Scott Wood from my second year form class buying it, and I think I listened to it around then - but you remember how it was with CDs back then:  £15.99 in Woolworth's when one only got about £2 pocket money per week.  It felt impossible to build a collection, and my money went on Pulp and Elastica tape cassettes (£9.99 each) instead.  I honestly don't know what the album sounds like, despite its fame.

However, I'm patient, and ye gods of media, technology and recycling have been kind to me.  Having spotted it in Oxfam, I thought I would treat the 13 year-old me to a gift:  the original CD, as sold in 1994.  

I later noted with some satisfaction that Spotify only offer the remastered version of the album in their library, meaning that one can't even hear the version that was swimming around radio sets back in one's youth via streaming.  

This concept has bothered me for some time.  There exists a prevailing trend of "supplanted nostalgia":  where people are duped into thinking they are listening to the sonics of their childhood, when in fact it has been messed with, "updated" and "improved", under this rather dubious umbrella term of "remastering".  It is retconning at its most invasive, because the mastering of the 90s - for good or for ill - was implicit in creating that sound, the sound that exists in the memory banks of the brain... rather than some potentially dynamically-slaughtered reissue.

So there is still a value in Oxfam charity shops selling old CDs:  you can reclaim some of the records of one's past that slipped through your fingers, as they were then, and not as Spotify (or whoever) would have you hear it now.  I want to hear what Scott Wood's copy sounded like.  I think you get the idea.

I got into Blur properly with Song 2.  That was my ground zero for anything approaching "art rock" (I'm hopeless with genre tags, so forgive me if this is completely the wrong category to put this type of song into).  The album that accompanied it seemed to be such a departure, and I marvelled at the way a "band" could do that; that it was possible for groups to change so dramatically from one record to another.  (I remember the press surrounding the record at the time talked a lot about a band called 'Pavement', who I hadn't heard of - and wouldn't, until Ryan from Nes forced their entire back catalogue onto me years later.)

It was also possible to actually own the 'Blur' album, thanks to MiniDisc copying technology.  By 1997, the electronics of the day had moved on sufficiently for me to broaden my tastes via copying the CD collections of my friends.  It's fascinating to me how my consumption of music has been so closely linked with the prevailing tech of the day...

Closing notes on Blur include two things you told me about them.  One was that you and your housemate Ian had reappraised the record as "not having aged well".  The second was that you bumped into some very pretentious-sounding person at a house party in London back in the Noughties, and they declared that their favourite record of theirs was "The Great Escape", which you thought was rather audacious.  If you only listen to the first half the record then this very "yeah man" comment almost holds water.  As for 'Blur' not having aged well - for me it's neither here or there how it's aged:  it's the contrast in sound compared to the rest of their catalogue that they'd released at that stage, that still makes it an important touchstone for me.  That, and Essex Dogs.

* * *

This text was taken from an email to my friend Grilly, who later blogged his thoughts in reply here.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Thoughts on tuning, double tracking & contrast of style on an LP

Here's a reply I wrote to Grilly about his post here. I thought I'd repost my thoughts here for my own reference, as they felt substantial enough to warrant it.

Image result for double tracking images

I've never listened to Soundgarden, but now that I've read this - and listened to 'Fell On Black Days' - I might investigate further. Some thoughts on your post: - the "tuning of the guitar should suit the performer" is such an important realisation. It encourages the player from the get-go to abandon the normal constraints of received wisdom and how to do things "properly"... and understand music as a flexible and expressive medium that can adapt to any ability, taste or company. There are no right or wrong ways in its implementation. I felt I discovered this with the piano. I couldn't play it, but if I banged the bass notes really frantically with the pedal on, it made a fantastic sound that seemed to chime with how I was feeling when I did it. This seemed to me as valid as any dextrous part played in a Grade 9 piano exam. However, this point only really hit home when playing in my duo in London, where I was required (as the only one not playing drums) to play guitar and sing at the same time. Not being able to play guitar, nor able to do two things at once, in desperation I tuned the guitar to an open tuning and then just slid my finger along the fretboard in a big line to make different sounds. Later, I tuned most of the strings to the same note, to create a really thick, chorussy sound. It may not have sounded like much, but there I was, playing guitar - something I would never have thought possible, and all because these moveable pegs on the headstock had been utilised a little further than I had seen done in the past. It may not have sounded that good, but it felt incredible! - I agree with what you say about double tracking. It has always been a weakness of mine, so much so that in recent productions I have attempted to limit its use because I feel I am repeating past production methods... but it is a revelation the first time one does it. There is a depth and a richness, a quality, that is impossible to achieve in the live performance. It is something special for the recording rendition of the song alone. I also love how the depth is achieved not through any great artistry, but the tiny imperfections in the takes, and their respective differences between one another, that force the ear to pay attention. For this reason I find The Beatles' use of ADT (Automatic Double Tracking) really brittle and flat: there's none of the good stuff in there, reacting with a take that's slightly different. - having contrast between the styles of the songs throughout an album seems groundbreaking as an idea now, doesn't it? Yet back in the day when one actually sat and listened to the whole CD from start to finish, variation in tone was essential. One of my chief complaints of the cool, aloof and hopelessly affected touring bands that would pass through the proto-hipster venues of Newcastle's underground music scene in the late Noughties, was that all their songs, and all their records, sounded EXACTLY THE SAME throughout. They just fixed their aim on one particular sound, and then beat it out over countless tracks, albums and live sets. It was exhausting and boring to witness. Their repetition paid dividends, however: it made them easy to pigeon hole, and therefore easier to sell to a gig-going market. By the time you left the show, you were in no doubt what they were about, having been hammered with the same motif twelve times in 40 minutes; essential if you had spent the last half hour talking loudly at the bar and ordering fizzy beer in plastic cups, or were already too inebriated to realise that one song had ended and another identical piece had begun in its place. It did my head in, partly because it seemed like a prerequisite for "success" in the music industry world. As soon as anybody from these groups did anything remotely different or interesting, it was siphoned off into a side project, whereupon the repetition of this new particular style was done once more, under a new name. When I listen to an album (yes, some of us still do this!) I want to be taken on a journey, and end up somewhere different from where I began. This can't happen if the drums sound as though they've been mixed for the opening track and then all the settings have been copied and pasted en masse across the whole album mix, or the guitarist takes a solo after EVERY second chorus.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Future Loss release Extraction album 'The Empire Never Ended'.

During my work as a producer, I frequently experimented with the arrangements by muting the central parts of the song (vocals, guitars, bass and so on), to reveal the extra instrumentation that had been added during the studio process.  

Originally, these brief blips of obscure texture and ambience were designed to illustrate certain production techniques I was employing, without compromising the artist by revealing their work wholesale before it was finished.

I found these pieces of work beautiful, and loved how a new piece of music in its own right emerged from an existing arrangement.  I called these 'extractions', and set about applying the technique to as many of the recordings I had worked on as producer.

In 2013, I approached a Newcastle-based digital radio station about a programme documenting my extraction work.  Although only three episodes were broadcast, the concept remained with me as a powerful way of viewing a piece of work from a fresh angle.

Often I ended up enjoying the extracted piece more than the original - it seemed to chime with my increasingly esoteric taste in music.  As well as exposing the many layers of my production, it also gave an opportunity to hear the virtuoso performances by the many musicians I had been lucky to work with and record.  Suddenly violins, backing vocals, rinky dink percussion and massive delayed feedback could be brought to the fore, creating a new and exciting take on the original piece. 

Future Loss would, as one of the bands I recorded most, take centre stage when it came to the extraction process, and here is a selection of the best pieces from their back catalogue.  

The listener can hear at close quarters the cavernous beats of Stuart Stone in the upstairs room at The Cumberland Arms, playing Daisy Chained Pianos (before they snap to a dry feed once the ambient mics are turned off), or James Emsell's thunderous bass on Last Year's Fashions in complete isolation, or Brian's haunting, drifting ambient guitar on Disinterest Club (something I believe flat out to be one of the best things the band has ever put its name to).  

Audiophiles will also be interested to note that small details not normally heard in the finished mix can now be identified:  the headphone bleed from overdub takes, fast noise gates closing on rattling snare hits, automation programming at work.  

In some pieces the extraction takes a more left-field approach and, rather than merely exposing what already exists, goes one step further and distorts, delays or tampers with the extracted layers, which brings the lister as close to a "remix" as they're ever going to get.

I'm as proud of the sounds we captured on our records as I am of our songwriting - and I'm very proud to release this and shine a light on some of the cool stuff we were up to under the bonnet of our recordings.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Thought process while compiling solo albums

1.   No one's going to listen to it anyway.

2.   The current tracklisting keeps sending me to sleep.  It's because there are very specific requirements for listening to this stuff.  It has to be dark, and you have to be staring into an open fire.  At 2 o'clock in the morning, when everyone else is in bed.

3.   How does one deal with the variety of genres and songs?  There are remixes, extractions, laptronica, straight singer/songwriter recordings with the microphone balanced atop the piano, ambient recordings of trains and half finished blips that sputter into existence, then immediately die a death before they properly get started.

4.   Try to embrace the unfinished, abandoned nature of it all.  See it as an opportunity to work in a different way, free of the perfectionism that has often interfered with previous work.

5.   It seems the best way to sequence the material is chronologically.  I found that there is just enough shared airspace between the various tracks composed while in London to bind them together, despite the radicals shifts in genre.  In earlier pieces, it's the access to the equipment that provides cohesion between the songs:  certain spaces, microphones and instruments available to me at the time act as the centre point, rather than a common musical theme.

6.   It's looking like there's going to be about four - maybe five - albums.  The reason why there are so many is because...

7.   I honestly can't stand listening to more than about 25 minutes of this stuff at a time.  After that, I start to feel tired.  I think it's because the material is quite dense:  there's a lot going on sonically in a short space of time.  So things have to be broken up into lots of installments.  This approach seems to dovetail well with presenting things chronologically, as there was never more than half an hour of material with each location I worked in.

8.   No one's going to listen to it anyway.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

An album commentary for the Grilly record 'On Benefit'

Grilly and I had the opportunity last week to meet in a noisy Camden park, and geek out over his seminal 2006 release 'On Benefit'.  

It is an album that I cannot overstate the importance of in my own path to becoming a producer.  The bold and inventive sound design was matched by brilliant melodies, which twisted and turned throughout the record to create a record of true dynamism and diversity.  

In short, it is one of my all-time favourite records, ever, and was a major motivation for starting Ex Libris Records.

You can hear Grilly talking about his inspirations and processes behind making this very special record.

Unfortunately, my dictaphone didn't pick up Grilly's speech at a particularly audible level - partly because I was balancing the mic on a park bench along with my (rather loud) bluetooth speaker / iPhone combo; so you will have to strain in parts to hear what he's saying.  Bear with it, however, as it does get better as the recording progresses.  Perhaps it's fitting that a commentary track should be as lo-fi as its subject matter?

Don't forget that the record itself is available for download at Grilly's Bandcamp.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

My Attorney publish an album commentary to their fourth studio release, 'Tech Support'

An album often has as much of a story behind it, as the music it finally presents to the world.

Collecting together the surviving members of the band - Andrew Gardiner (vocals, production), Andy Warmington (guitars, brass) and Stuart Stone (drums, high hats) - this intimate recording takes the listener through the band's reflections on their fourth studio album, 'Tech Support'.


Where have all the high hats gone?  Which invasive backing vocals were sensationally edited out at the last minute?  What about that big fire that happened?  All these questions, and more, are covered in this in-depth commentary.

The album itself can be downloaded in full at the following address:

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Future Loss Soundcloud account now ready to meet its public & unreleased b-side

As part of this slow climb to the summit of 'Archival Status', I've given the Future Loss Soundcloud account a bit of an overhaul.

Before, it had been a depository of demos, works in progress, live recordings and extractions.  Most of those pieces have now been catalogued in proper albums, either in the form of the live album King Yeah Man, or the extractions album The Empire Never Endedavailable from the band's Bandcamp page.

The unreleased curios record Keep The Commission will collect together the remaining outtakes and alternative versions, to ensure maximum documentation of all things ever done. 

With this in mind, it felt like a better use of the Soundcloud space to present a general overview of the band's work.

I want the band to put its best foot forward when it comes to having an online profile.  So that when people stumble across the group online, they're met with a coherent summary of what the group was - and is - about.  And when they want to download something, or stream in greater detail, they can do so at the Bandcamp page.  It's something I hope to have for My Attorney and Ex Libris as a whole, too.

Housekeeping, basically.

To celebrate me staying up until 3am uploading and tagging audio while watching Building Alaska on ITV3 and eating muesli with chopped banana, and then having to reupload audio because the files began or ended with a hard edit that needed to be faded in or out, and then having to purchase a Pro plan to enable me to replace the existing files on the profile, causing me to question my very existence on a profoundly spiritual level... the Soundcloud account now features an unreleased song, taken from the Pattern Magic / Summoner sessions.  It will be available to download in due course on the Keep The Commission b-sides/unreleased material album, but in the meantime can be streamed below.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Future Loss release their sixth LP: I, Realia

From the liner notes on Bandcamp:

Sitting as a companion piece to Kept Alive, Future Loss' sixth album sees the band settling into the "live production" approach established by its predecessor, taking it deeper into the murky undergrowth.

The greater cohesion between the players is evident after a year of working together, as is the desire to experiment within the stark lines of the three piece setup.  Two songs now feature bass, while vocals often take a back seat in favour of wild manipulation of samples and loops from the guitars and keys, all of which were conjured up live and spontaneously in the room as recording took place.

Recorded once more in a disused bank in Belfast, the band abandoned preconceived song ideas, and instead followed their noses through long improvised sections, which were later edited down and blended together.  We didn't plan it to sound so whacked out and semi-lucid; it just turned out that way.

Future Loss release their fifth LP: Kept Alive

The album notes read as follows:

Coming off the back of the studio sessions for Pattern Magic and Summoner, Future Loss was ready for a change in approach once more. 

The band had undergone considerable life changes since the last record, with Andrew and Brian leaving Newcastle for London and Belfast respectively. Brian's recording experiments with his Over Sea solo work, and collaboration with drummer Michael Farrelly on the Privileged Idiot: King For A Day recording, pointed the band in a new direction. Gone were the lush, dense arrangements using all the luxuries afforded by the studio environment, replaced by a raw and uncompromising sound captured live in the room. 

At the core of this stylistic shift was the addition of Michael to drums. A long-time friend of the band, Michael was still learning his craft when the Kept Alive sessions began. He proved a natural behind the kit, and quickly brought his stripped down and pacey delivery to bear on the new material. 

The band convened in a disused bank in Belfast, throughout the summer, autumn and winter of 2014. Recordings were made on the Roland R-05 stereo audio recorder, placed strategically between the amps, PA and drum kit. With the exception of Sleep Deprive Your Soul, all textures and ambiences were created live in the room. 

Lyrically, the record draws upon the emotionally lean times of that period; the loss of lovers and friends, amid the dull exhaustion of a foreign city. 

Kept Alive is not for the faint hearted: it is ragged and imperfect in places. But it's also heartfelt, true to a fault, and shows a band reaching for something beyond the gloss of studio recording.

On a purely personal note, this record holds a great deal of darkness in its vaults.  Something about the instinctive, almost reflex way it was recorded seemed to bring that out, without any opportunity to filter some of the feelings in the lyrics.  

It also has some of the melodies I 'm proudest of.  Maybe that was because I was back in a very pure role of just singing, and not getting distracted by other things.  

It's not a record that will appeal to everybody, especially if you were drawn to the more high fidelity offerings of the band's back catalogue, but that doesn't mean to say it doesn't have its own lo-fi, scuzzy merits.

Monday, 16 May 2016

December 2015 / January 2016

Prior to the trip home for Christmas, I managed to steal a weekend up in Newcastle, seeing Stuart and Andy - and saying a farewell to Luke before his emigration.  

My Attorney recorded a webcast documentary commentary to Tech Support, which I still need to edit.  It was great fun, and has inspired me to record similar commentaries for other important Libris releases.  Next up will be Grilly, talking about On Benefit, ten years after it was made available. 

The festive period saw another opportunity to record with Loss, this time with the multitrack equipment from Colerabbey Studios. 

I can tell you, it felt strange and ghastly exhuming those old mic stands and dusty XLR leads out of their boxes in my parents’ garage:  like disturbing an old pharaoh in his tomb, the shadows of those final Newcastle days.

The results were mixed:  a lot of faffing around setting all the stuff up as usual, and then Core Audio dropouts, no doubt because my MacBook Pro has difficulties running the Mavericks OS.  I felt really upset by it, it brought back all those bad memories of stressful sessions of yesteryear and all the reasons why I had left the whole process behind. 

Subsequent playbacks with the lads confirmed that most of the songs “sounded quite good with that massive bleep at the end and then total silence”, which made me feel a little better.

The end of the year also provided an opportunity to start cutting together two more Loss records from the bank sessions in Belfast that we had been conducting over the last year and a half.  They’re the antithesis of the stuff contained within Pattern Magic, Summoner and Tech Support.  Everything is recorded live in the room on the audio handset; and the results are thin, scratchy and raw.  But they have a certain quality to them that is very true, very satisfying.  Everything sits, pre-mixed, in this honest reflection of what was happening at that very moment.  Nothing is fabricated or contrived.  Nothing can sound out of place, unless it also sounded out of place in the room when it happened.  The psychology of mixing has always fascinated me…  it’s interesting to think that I have somehow gone backwards in terms of fidelity through my ten years as a producer, and yet ended up somewhere that at times sounds far better than anything that took up thirty tracks and half a terabyte of hard disk space.  The complete discography of The Fall that sat on my iPod for a year or so has clearly counted for something.

November 2015

Capitalising on the work done on the previous four visits home, I was finally in a position to master and release two Future Loss records, and one My Attorney LP.  That was a delicate process.  Not very interesting to write about, but delicate.  One doesn’t want to screw up several on-off years of work at the last hurdle my over-compressing a mix, or rushing a cross fade.  

I was also able to get a live album by Future Loss up online too.  

More music was done in the disused bank in Belfast with Future Loss.

August 2015

The summer of 2015 saw the beginning of a new project for me; a two-piece experiment called Sham, with me playing guitar and shouting, and Mark Warmington (whom I had formed my childhood band Pond with back in 1996) on drums and backing vocals. 

The idea was just to do some music, despite us both being aware of our considerable limitations as players.  To date, it has been a lot of fun, as well as cathartic, a welcome date in the diary each week when the two of us can let off some steam and bask in the racket we both make. 

The more we do it, the more we feel we might be able to produce something we’re proud of.  We’re not particularly proficient, but we won’t let that get in our way of having a good time and making music.  One should never let being able to play your instruments get in the way of groundbreaking music.

A momentness of seriousnessness

Is it worth stating at this point my ideas on production, writing and creativity within music as a whole?  Is that something I really want to try to articulate, when the last ten years of talking hasn’t been enough to truly nail my feelings on the matter? 

In a nutshell, I got too close.  Music is part of me.  And to try to turn that into a way of making a living just doesn’t work for me.  It does for others, but not for me.  And that isn’t meant to sound like some principled, Dischord-spouting rhetoric.  Because it isn’t.  It’s just a belated acceptance of the laws by which my nature as a person is governed; and something I failed to realise, or take heed of, as each endeavour to carve a career out in the field of music only seemed to repeat bilious feeling after bilious feeling upon me over and over again.

I got into music because I’m a singer.  Not because I wanted to be a producer, record label owner, events organiser, manager, A&R man, live engineer, studio owner, college teacher, mediator, publicist or company director – though in my journey through music I have been all of those things too.  I lacked the confidence to just stick to what I felt closest to – singing.  That didn't seem enough on its own, somehow.  So I felt I had to do all of these other things, to bolster my idea of myself, other things that just distracted and took away from the raw pleasure and vitality of being a singer in a band.

It feels good now to admit that, and tell you hand on heart, instead of producing all those records by other people, I should’ve been concentrating on my own stuff.  I didn't know it at the time, but I know it now.  Because no one else was going to do that for me; and tragic delays such as the one for My Attorney LP4 was proof of how skewed the priorities had become.  Of putting off personally important work in favour of paid work and flyposting shows for bands in a city I had long grown tired of.

In the last days of Newcastle, I was slowly beginning to realise this.  I had pulled up the drawbridge on promoting live shows and producing other people’s work.  The bands I was in just rehearsed, wrote and hung out together.  It was by far the most creative time, disengaging from a closed-shop music scene that had no time for blow-ins like us.  And why exhaust oneself trying to appeal to an audience one didn’t respect?  Why try to hawk for work in a profession that was two steps removed from the heartfelt reason you got into it in the first place?  By 2013, I had run out of patience and energy trying to engage with an alternative music scene in Newcastle that had become bogged down in the hipster aesthetic and which was cliquey beyond belief.  It’s a small place; and if your face doesn’t fit then don’t expect to get any shows without having to put them on yourself.  And that takes time and energy that could be better spent working on your own endeavours. 

I got so angry with it all.  I didn’t really know why at the time, but I understand more of it now.  It doesn’t stop me being angry – mainly at myself – for pandering to all that scenster nonsense, when I should have been way, way ahead of all that, making my own stuff and having a life worth living, rather than grubbing around in the constrictive world of the Ouseburn.

And that's not to invalidate the successes Ex Libris did have while it was operating.  I achieved a lot through it, though I'm not sure if it was all in exactly the direction I had originally intended.  Things got blown off course as time went by.  And the work I did for others gave me knowledge and experience beyond my wildest dreams, compared to when I started out on the little MiniDisc 8-track in Portrush.   So I'm fighting to use this mixed bag of experiences to map out a better way forward for the future.

Any attempt at engaging with the professional “industry” was the same.  There was this innate incompatibility that ran through me when I tried to work with such things.  I found that lots of people can be good at many things, but few involved in music are there for creative reasons.  They may say they are.  They may talk as though they are, wear the clothes as though they are and make the friends that suggest that they are.  But when push comes to shove, they’re invited to the party on reasons other than merit; and all the artistic integrity in the world isn’t enough to hammer through the thick skin of artifice and clique-iness that exists in a scene that distrusts anything it doesn’t already know or feel familiar with.  The only way in, is via people – and that takes a certain talent that isn’t necessarily related to making good music.  The same can be said of business as a whole:  it’s not what you know, but who you know that grants you the exposure you need to make a living.

At one point during my final furlong in Newcastle, I was in talks with a business that pairedproducer-songwriters with emerging artists.  I thought it might be a good idea to turn what talents and experience I had in the field to good, commercial use.  It ended up with these two middle-aged business men talking a lot about X Factor finalists in Serbia, and criticising the vocals on an old My Attorney track.  I felt violated; I knew in my heart that the work I’d done was – for the most part – good.  Inviting these clowns into my life to grope me and leave without so much as a follow up phone call was humiliating.  Again, it was Life’s way of saying that I was going about things the wrong way.  Something as precious as singing is not designed to be grafted onto the mechanics of a business that is just looking for the next corporate consultancy payday, masquerading as some "workshop" or "enterprise programme".

Make the sign of the cross, and walk away.  Which was difficult, because I never wanted to be a hobbyist.  For me it was a life thing.  So you have to step back, and reappraise it all.  Work out how you are going to do what it is you want to do, outside of anyone else’s system.  Because once you start playing by someone else’s rules, you’re fucked.

February 2015

I had been asked to compose another soundtrack for the same director of the previous short film I had worked on.  But after hearing my sketches, they decided to go with someone else.  

To be honest, I was relieved.  Working to a brief had been a fun challenge the first time, but I was becoming more clear about how I needed to continue with music in the future, and this wasn't really compatible with it.

The film in question was about Frankenstein’s monster who lives above a kebab shop, and eats an American tourist played by the large captain from the first episode of Red Dwarf.  It had a long section where the large man walked about an empty attic, then he was attacked by a Boris Karloff-lookalike.  In the end he was turned into kebab meat.

I later tracked down the Facebook profile of the chap who they preferred over me, and it was the usual thing:  a man with a beard and an unpronounceable surname, hitting exotic African percussion in a meaningful way and maintaining an intimidating social media presence.

But the demos from this aborted brief still remain; and they'll see the light of day in some form or other.

December 2014 / 2015

This saw the concluding part of the My Attorney LP4 mixing work; a lot of snags to fix, and last remaining high hats to delete.  

By this point I felt a little more ease at the fact I was mixing the music posthumously; perhaps because it was starting to sound good and I think Ian would have been pleased with the finished result.  

Mixes were sent to Andy and Stuart for their input and complaints about missing high hat parts, the latter of which were duly duly ignored.  Another year gone, stood around the bonfire.

April 2015

It was common practice for me by this time to escape my box room in East Sheen and retire to coffee shops in central London – anywhere with a free plug socket.  I would end up wandering the city, working on the laptop, making abortive fragments that at time of writing have yet to find a home. 

I definitely feel there is a solo project forming, however.  
  • A disc of piano songs with voice and nothing else.  
  • A disc of tense, boxed-in laptop pieces.  
  • A disc of old stuff found on old hard disks that should have been cleared from the decks years ago.  
  • A series of extractions albums highlighting my production treatments on third-party records (not to mention shedding light on some of the virtuoso performances from the musicians I’ve been lucky to record with).
  • A disc of free-floating, found-sound, druggy ambience.  
  • And then disc of stuff from the here and now, using all that I have learned, summated into one true album of coherence, that draws together all the disciplines and lessons I have learned from my journeys with other people’s work over the last ten years.  Old plastic boxes plugged into pianos plugged into hallways plugged into the person I am now, rather than the one I was then, with guest cameos by guitarists I've worked with in the past.  Served on vinyl with a book of photos and handmade sleeve by Brian.

In mid-April, Future Loss reconvened for an even more successful session than last time; capturing a hypnotic, weird vibe that seemed to introduce a fresh idea to the group:  that the production treatments should take place live and in real time within the room…  with Brian and me taking care to fade in, modulate and then remove each texture with the same care as one might automate or mix the faders on a console when bouncing down the final mix.

October 2014

After 84 consecutive days at work – working two jobs at the same time – I came home for two weeks to quietly collapse in the arms of the East Strand.  During this time at home, I was required to sift through the remains of my immediate past in Newcastle, since much of it was still in boxes in various rooms in my parents’ house.  There was welcome respite from this in the form of another session with Future Loss in Belfast.

The band had evolved once more.  The last time Brian and I had been in Future Loss land, it had been a place of lusciously recorded guitars, and multi-layered synthesisers, which acted as the icing on the cake to hypnotic rhythm sections that were muscular and mighty in their presence. 

Now we had Michael on board, who was significant in being a friend and fan of our music long before he sat in the drum stool.  It was also significant because he was still learning to play, though his natural talent had been evident right from the first time I’m heard him behind a kit at Ex Fest back in 2006.  His style was stripped back and fast.  I remember thinking that if he developed steady rhythm-keeping, he’d be dangerous.  It only took him a couple of sessions in Belfast to get up to speed.  Brian and I have always been blessed when it comes to drummer talent.

During the October session, we cranked out scuzzy, white noise punk in a disused bank in Belfast.  Things were a bit ropey in places, but I don’t think that mattered.  It wasn’t the point.  The point was finally having like-minded individuals who all wanted to be there as much as each other, together in a room, letting off steam.  

So much of the band history up to this point had involved sharing musicians from other projects, who had commitments and priorities other than Loss. 

Now we had a gang, a shared starting point of listening to Idlewild b-sides back in 1999, in student flats off the Ormeau Road and dreaming of guitar tone so white it made your teeth rattle.