studio diary 20170705

well somehow time has really gotten away from me, and I’ve not managed to write a blog for a couple of months now.  I have an excuse (of course):  I’ve been busy.  Mainly, working on the new pedalboards and guitar system (more on that shortly) but also, still trying to “keep my hand in” by working on music in the form of a very, very large collection of new tunes created in Garage Band.  I would venture to say that over the past few months, GB became a bit of an obsession, to the point where my iPhone overfloweth with Garage Band songs and drafts, sometimes, just one or two versions, sometimes, six or seven if a particular song needs a lot of detailed work.

the net result of that, is that actually, both my phone and my favourite tablet, are currently overflowing, and later today, I will be offloading completed tracks, and also, completing incomplete tracks and then offloading them, and then, making sure I have final mixes of all unpublished tracks…so that finally, I can master them and upload them. Normally, this would be a handful of tracks, but if I am not mistaken (and this number might not be exact) at the moment, I have no less than 16 NEW Garage Band tracks to sort out and add to my Garage Band Eternal Album on Bandcamp.

Sixteen new tracks!  Now – I have been working pretty exclusively in Garage Band over the past several months, and not working so much with real instruments, etc. in the studio – and that is because when I have had time to work in the studio – I have had to dedicate that to working on the guitar system and pedal boards (plural).  Those have now grown to four in total, and in fact, just yesterday, I worked out a brilliant new system, for accessing the different sounds – I am using a very simple device, a “pan pedal” which is made by Ernie Ball, to allow me to “move” between my main studio set up (which currently is comprised of two pedalboards, which I call “Pedalboard 1” and “Pedalboard 2” (imaginative names, I know) and a third board, which, surprisingly, is named “Pedalboard 3”.  So I can be playing one sound via PB1/PB2 (which are currently chained together) and then I can “switch” over to take a solo on PB3 where a completely different sound is waiting patiently for me.

Having the pan pedal, also means I can “blend” the two sounds – and hearing that, you can get some amazing “stacked” guitar tones – because for the first time, I am actually running two complete stereo set-ups, through two separate guitar systems – and, I have the output of PB1/PB2 going to the board direct, while the output of PB3, is miked with two Shure SM-57 instrument microphones, and those are going direct to the sound card. This then means when I record, I can record two tracks of the direct sound on PB1/PB2 and two tracks of the miked sound of PB3 on two OTHER tracks which means I will then be free to mix and match however I want – using as much (or as little) of each of the two completely different-sounding stereo feeds.

I haven’t yet mentioned the fourth pedalboard – it has an incredibly imaginative name, which you will probably never guess – Pedalboard 4.  But – it does have a distinct sub-title, unlike the other three – it’s the Guitar Synth board.  It’s quite simplistic, but it is a viable very different sound source, and it can be easily chained to PB3 or otherwise incorporated into the mix since it’s also tied directly to the mixer.  So the Guitar Synth library of sounds is also readily available now – directly out of the mixing board.

Also – with just a very quick change of cables – I can re-route the pan pedal to move between PB1/2, and PB4, or, back to PB3, or if I really wanted – I could have it pan between PB1/2 and PB3/4 chained together.  Talk about sounds…that would be a lot of sounds.  Right now, I am pretty happy with my PB1/PB2 combination, panning to the little PB3 board which is great for distorted soloing.

Getting all of that set up and working, and finalised (for the moment, of course, until I change my mind again, or, more likely, until I think of a “better way” to do things) has taken up the last several months’ time, meaning that I have not had time to work with real instruments in the real studio, except to test sounds and boards – and I’ve been doing a lot of that.  I have successfully re-programmed my Ground Control MIDI controller with 200 awesome sound combinations, and successfully done a sysex backup of that new set of sounds.  So that challenge was finally sorted out after quite a bit of trouble…I have, however, finally cracked MIDI Sysex – which for a long time, was a mystery to me – no more, now, I know how to backup, and restore, the entire contents of my Ground Control…it’s fairly easy to do, if you are patient.

I do have one other aspiration, which I actually got this idea from Vernon Reid (a great source of guitar ideas – he has helped Eventide with a lot of their distortion algorithms – so I offer up my thanks to Vernon wherever he is!), which is to stop doing ALL of my effects in series, and do them in parallel (to be honest, I also remember the late, great Allan Holdsworth, describing the same idea in a guitar workshop) – running effects in parallel.  Vernon has discovered a nice little DOD Resistance Mixer (the model AC-240, to be exact) which allows you to run four in to one out, and he uses a few of these in his live set-up (which I saw on YouTube, of course!).  It’s brilliant, and I do plan to look into that when time permits.  For the moment, out of necessity more than choice, I am doing it “old school” – in series.  Given that I am running a lot of hardware in series, it actually is all sounding very, very good now.

Note:  later on this year, we are going to see Living Colour play live in a Glasgow venue, so I can’t wait for that – one of my guitar heroes – Vernon Reid, I will finally get to see and hear Vernon play – I can’t wait!  A great and greatly under-appreciated band, Living Colour.  One of my personal favourites…it”s going to be amazing. I am very excited about this concert!!

Anyway – based on the work I’ve been doing, I have decided that once I finished processing the outstanding 15 or 16 Garage Band tracks (which I plan to begin work on this afternoon) that I will no longer spend as much time working in Garage Band, or, if I do, it will be probably for ambient projects, rather than my endless exploration of Apple Loops mixed with “real” content i.e. bass parts “played” by myself, and instead, go back to working on real music with real instruments – primarily, the electric guitar.

I think that my obsession with Garage Band has finally run its course, but, the result of it is an already very interesting catalogue of music, but, once I mix and master the next 16 tracks of completed Garage Band music – it will become apparent what a brilliant tool it has become for music creation.  It is pretty amazing what you can do with it, and I’ve been working more with matching tracks up pitch-wise and timing wise, so, matching a “real” bass part to an Apple loop, for example, or pitching different tracks to fit better with other tracks.

It’s amazing how well it all works, and, I have had an absolute blast creatively, it is endlessly fascinating to me what you can do with a stack of pre-made loops and a little bit of crafty bass playing.  I’ve found that to be key in most of the compositions I have worked on – I might create an entire piece out of Apple loops, but then, to humanise it, I play a “real” bass part – and that does it, that suddenly makes the track “pop” – it’s weird.

For a while, another technique I would use, would be to have the first two thirds of each piece, be entirely artificial; all made from loops, and then suddenly, during the last third or quarter of the piece, bring in a “real bass” part and the effect is really dramatic – it really makes the tracks sound so much better, even if there is already a synth bass or whatever – having that wonderful, plain, “Paul McCartney” bass there makes the tracks irresistible.

I have spent a ridiculous amount of time perfecting some of those bass parts – which are often played on the fly in one take, and then close-edited later to sharpen them up – taking a wild, on-the-fly live performance, and custom-fitting it to the existing song.  It’s a lot of work – but it’s so, so worth it, because it just brings the pieces full circle, and the artificiality that the loops create, gets seriously negated by the humanness of the Paul McCartney plays as “played” by yours truly.

So when you finally get to hear the next 16 Garage Band uploads from me – please listen especially to the bass guitars – because I have indeed, worked really hard on those bass parts – which you will find in most all (but not all) of my Garage Band work.

I should also mention the other “star” of the Garage Band tracks, which is the Korg IWorkstation synthesizer, with it’s two dozen different sets of presets – if you search long enough, you can always find the perfect sound, and since Garage Band’s Inter-App Audio is so well implemented, it’s easy to bring in a powerful synth like the “iWavestation”, and I use it extensively, on multiple tracks, on almost all of my Garage Band material.  So those are my two secret weapons, really:

  1. Apple’s “Paul McCartney” bass, in “Note” mode, which I play like a real bass, then close edit later to “perfect” the bass part
  2. Via Inter-App Audio, I call up the “Korg iWavestation” synthesizer which can provide an absolutely astonishing universe of sounds from any kind of synth sound; any kind of beautiful, spacious pad sound, to drums, basses, whistles, you name it, it’s in there – one of Korg‘s most amazing products, ever.  It has become my “go-to” synth whenever I am recording in an app that offers IIA connectivity – the first thing I do, is bring in an instance or ten or the iWavestation – I cannot recommend it highly enough, it’s a great synth and workstation, too – absolutely amazing and sounds great.

The third and uncredited star, is of course, those amazing Apple Loops – without them, none of this amazing catalogue of work would exist, and I can’t believe how this incredibly diverse set of music, where every piece is completely different, where each time, I try to find a new approach, a new sound, to make it utterly unique, and, importantly, different from the last piece I did – and if you are doing this across dozens of tracks, you end up with a diversity of music that is almost indefinable – I could literally, not describe the different genres, types, feelings, grooves, systems, concepts – I just can’t, the only way to describe it is to say, go to the Garage Band Eternal Album, and listen to it from start to finish – and then try to describe in words what you just heard.

And when I add in the next 16, which feature some of the most diverse and weirdest, most out-there compositions so far – that will make the above experiment even more interesting.  If I were to continue with this, the madness of being addicted to Garage Band might send me right over the edge – I don’t know.

I am going to take a break, I am extremely happy with both the catalogue “so far” (note, as of this point in time, 20170705, the Garage Band Eternal Album contains 24 unique tracks) or to date, as well as, I am very excited about the next 16 tracks – which will close out the catalogue in the short term (bringing the total number of tracks to about 40 – which in itself, is amazing), because I am (with some difficulty, I admit) going to slow down or stop producing so very much Garage Band material, and return to working on real songs with real guitars and keyboards, and I am going to give the amazing, easy to use, fun to use, Garage Band – a well-earned rest.  Because if I am honest, I have spent altogether too much time working on Garage Band songs, and not giving my other musical outlets a chance!  Of course – that wasn’t intentional, they weren’t ready – but, now they ARE ready – so – I am ready.

 

It’s also my hope, to return to making ambient music, and in particular, ambient music made with applications.  I still have unexplored areas that utilise ambient tools that I have had for many years, as well as some newer apps that I also have not spent enough time with – so I hope to rectify that situation, and in the process, hopefully, add some new ambient tracks to some of the catalogues / eternal albums up there on Bandcamp.

 

I am hoping I have reached, or nearly reached, the “cut-off” point, where the total obsession with Garage Band ends, and a new practice of music-making begins, which involves using real guitars and my new pedalboards and guitar systems plural.  That is the idea, anyway – and that is why I have also spent the last several months trying to get everything ready for this day – and after extensive testing, and spending a lot of time creating 200 amazing and beautiful guitar sounds in my Ground Control Pro MIDI Controller – finally, everything is ready, and I have now, at my fingertips, a huge and diverse array of guitar sounds that I can use in my new compositions!  It was a lot of work to get to this point, and I am beyond pleased with the way my guitar is sounding – and that is not something I’ve said very often in my life.

Of course, Komplete will still be there to play it’s part, since I don’t have the space for a physical drum kit, and, I’ve never had the opportunity / chance / space / time to learn how to play a real drum kit – I still depend on Komplete to help me set up my real guitars-based tracks – mostly, with the drum tracks.  I also, often, will use Komplete to do basses – and certainly, I use it for keyboards and synths, along with other softwares like the M-Tron Pro mellotron software.

When the urge takes me, I do sometimes play real bass instead of Komplete’s bass, but using Komplete is truly tempting because it does contain toolsets like Scarbee’s amazing Rickenbacker bass samples, and I just can’t resist having the sound of a Rickenbacker or a Fender Jazz bass or a Fender Precision on my tracks – I love those basses, and being able to “Play” them, even via a MIDI keyboard – is heaven.  My cheap throwaway bass cannot compete with those sampled basses for tone – it was so cheap, that I actually paid nothing for it – a good friend of mine, and an amazing musician, too, Michael Dawson, actually gifted that bass to me – which I have subsequently used on certain tracks, one of which was the tribute to the late John Wetton – “Wettonizer” is the one main track I remember using the “free” Washburn bass on.  It is actually, a lot of fun to play (it’s tiny, and I am not!), so maybe I will add in some “real basses” as well as using the amazing Rickenbacker and Fender samples available via Scarbee via Komplete.

In essence, in the studio, Komplete is my “band” – they come up with the bass and drum tracks, and if needed, keyboard and synth tracks – and then, I am left to play real guitars on top of those created tracks.  It’s as close as I can get to having a real band to play with at the moment – and again, I don’t have the space available for a real band anyway, so at the moment, the Komplete “band” does me more than proud – and you can hear exactly how well they do, by listening to a couple of my larger works, where they are heavily featured – in particular, on “the complete unknown” “planet obelisk” and “day seventeen” – these are examples of the full Komplete band – drums, bass, keyboards – supporting me, the man of many guitar parts :-).  It takes weeks or months to get the drums, basses and keys in place on tracks like these, and it’s not uncommon that three months might pass, before I get to play a single note on the guitar.

(Note: all of the tracks noted above, are all taken from the dave stafford “progressive rock” eternal album – please have a listen on Bandcamp).

 

Of course, it does take time, creating drum tracks, and bass tracks, and keyboards and synths – but it’s worth the time, because I want the best possible backdrop for guitars – and with Komplete, I get the best there is.  For example, depending on what kind of era I want to emulate, I tend to use the Abbey Road drum kits, and I can choose from a vintage 50s kit, a 1960s kit, a 70s kit, 80s, kit or “modern” kit – and each one has it’s own character and options, and they sound absolutely amazing – so I tend to mostly use those, although there are many, many other drum options within Komplete…Abbey Road drums are my current favourite, and they can be heard on a lot of my works.

I have also favoured the Scarbee Rickenbacker bass, using different pickups and presets, for a lot of my pieces, and I think Scarbee is an absolutely amazing company, the care with which they create their instruments is exquisite – the details are absolutely stunning.  I can get so many amazing tones out of that Rickenbacker bass, I could just about not ever use any other – except of course, when I do need a Fender bass for a deeper, more traditional sound – and then, I turn to Scarbee once again – and in many cases, they even offer an “amped” version – so you can have just the bass, or, the bass sampled through amps – it’s amazing – I am totally spoiled for choice.

After a lot of hard work, especially the programming of 200 custom preset guitar “sounds” on the Ground Control Pro, I am ready to play some serious guitar – but, serious guitar with the best tones possible.  I have really chosen a bit of a strange path, over the years, I have mostly stayed away from “guitar amps”, instead, using a plain power amp, and asking either software, or, my pedalboards, to be the main source of “tone”.  Now I am in a hybrid set up – I am using an amp, or actually, two amps – one is a solid state guitar amp, which has a line out to the mixer, and the other is my plain power amp, where I am miking my two 1X12 guitar cabs direct to the sound card.  The “tone”, however, is the tone of whatever guitar I am playing, plus, what sound colourations are available from the pedalboards – which of course, include the many-faceted Eventide H9s – each of which contains a massive library of absolutely astonishing, high-quality sounds.

When I think about what is possible with just the H9s (ignoring all other pedals for the moment) I kinda wish I had more than 200 slots in my MIDI pedal, but the truth is, by combining different H9 algorithms, the number of possible insanely good guitar sounds, is not just 200, or even 2000, it’s probably more like 200,000.  Seriously – and, Eventide keeps adding in new algorithms, too, which just increases, exponentially, the possibilities, to basically, limitless – the latest new algorithm, “Pitchfuzz”, contains some amazing new distorted and / or pitch-shifted sounds, which are out of this world, and, of course, I have incorporated the best of those into my 200 presets.  Using the H9s in multiples, makes it possible to create combinations of effects that are truly lush and incredible sounding – you have to hear them to believe them.  Exquisite combinations of beautiful, individual sounds…

I did spend a bit of extra time on one particular sound that I truly love, and I got this idea straight from Allan Holdsworth (may he rest in peace) – on the first of several occasions where I was privileged to see Allan play guitar, he had this amazing “swell” sound, where while the bass and drums played a kind of “drone”, he would “fade in” or “swell” these beautiful, clean chords, which were drenched in layers of delay and reverb – and I never forgot how beautiful that sounded live.

During the Bindlestiff years, I even tried to emulate that sound, by fading the sound in manually with a volume pedal, into a huge reverb “room” – close, but not quite.  But now – in the land of H9s – I can have auto-swell, at any time setting I want, and it’s brilliant.

I took this opportunity to create some special Dave Stafford auto-swell settings; starting with a short auto-swell (1900 milliseconds), then, medium (3100 ms) and finally, the “Allan Holdsworth” series of auto-swell (my “long” swell at 4000 ms or 4 seconds) – and I made several variations of that basic sound, running the swell through various different Eventide Space reverb sounds, and in one final example, through a beautiful Eventide delay and then into a beautiful Eventide Space sound.  The result is a mini-bank of amazing “swell” variations, and I am so glad I took the time to work out the programming for those sounds – taking care of details like that, gives me an edge, it gives me something unusual, not stock – but with my own personality – these 200 sounds are Dave Stafford Guitar Sounds, regardless of whether they are “stock” or “custom” – they are my choices and juxtapositions – and it’s so nice to have such an amazing library of “algorithm meets algorithm” possibilities.

This afternoon, then, will be dedicated to downloading (and, clearing off, thank god) the 16 new Garage Band pieces, trying to first get the final mixes just right, then, the mastering, and finally, probably starting in a few days’ time, uploading them – and once uploaded, the Garage Band Eternal Album will have reached about 40 unique Dave Stafford compositions done over a relatively short period of time – months – but, in terms of sound, and quality – it’s a huge, huge sound – and, a catalogue of which I am both very proud and very fond of – I have really enjoyed my “time of Garage Band”.

You should try it – drop everything else for a while, and just create with Garage Band – a piece every couple of days was usually my method, although some of the more complex pieces might then stretch out to a week or two until I was happy with the final version – and then, immediately, start another one – preferably, something that sounded COMPLETELY different to the piece just completed.

In a week or two at most, you will be able to hear all 40 tracks, and these should give you a good glimpse (at least) – if not an amazing view – of what this creative and innovative Apple tool – one of the oldest “computer-based” music making tools (now, mobilised on the iPhone and iPad, of course – in the Apple way) can do; and, with it’s latest updates, it has become one of the most fertile, stable, and unique grounds for growing musical ideas.

Anyone can have a go – drag some Apple loops into your song, and you are away – dream up any kind of music you like.  Just do loops if you don’t want to play, or don’t know how – you can still create, using the magical Apple loops, if you do play an instrument, then you have the opportunity to add in some keyboard based or drum or bass content of your own.  It’s easy to learn, and endlessly expandable, you can add many, many bars and create very long pieces, or create three minute pop masterpieces – it’s all there with Garage Band.

 

And now – to mix, download, master and start getting those new tracks uploaded – I can’t wait !!!

 

 

peace and love

 

dave 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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playing peter hammill

I’ve been thinking lately, about my long, long association with the music of peter hammill (and of course, his band, van der graaf generator), and I am finding it a bit difficult to comprehend just what an effect his music had on me back in the day, and how it still resonates so very strongly with me, now, many, many years later.

it all started with a “bootleg” – a live vinyl recording of van der graaf generator called “fellow travelers (all watched over by machines of loving grace)”, a band I’d heard about, but hadn’t ever heard.  this was a strange bootleg, with just three long live van der graaf tracks on it, and then some  rarities or what were rarities at the time: “firebrand” – a very early van der graaf generator single from about 1968 and also it’s “b side”, “people to you were going to”.  sandwiched in between those two songs, are three live or possibly “live at the bbc” peter hammill solo tracks, “rubycon/a louse is not a home” and “red shift” – live; with david jackson on some or all of those 1974 tracks.

but the songs that were on this record – wow.  “man-erg”, “w”, and “killer”.  that’s all I remember really, I played side one of that record over and over and over…  I set out to learn “man-erg” on the piano, and many, many days or possibly weeks, I am not quite sure – later, I could actually play it.  that’s a track that I do intend to re-work, and I have done rehearsal versions of it quite recently…but it is not an easy one, I can tell you that much for free.  I do have it written out, chords and lyrics, but having it written down is one thing; being able to play and sing it live – is quite another!

those three live tracks had a huge effect on me, so I immediately went out and bought a studio lp – which was “h to he who am the only one” (because I wanted to hear the studio version of “killer”, mainly…).  this album, then, did not leave my turntable for many months, and I very quickly acquired all of the other van der graaf albums as well.  where I could – I tried to learn or teach myself how to play the songs.  “man-erg” was probably the first van der graaf song I ever attempted, followed by “w”.

following that, I remember tackling the songs from “still life” – including the rather difficult to sing title track, and the rather difficult to sing “my room (waiting for wonderland)”.  I learned those, then, “the undercover man”, which I spent quite some time trying to make a decent recording of (playing real piano, real hammond organ, and singing) and then finally, I got up the nerve to try something really difficult…

much, much later, perhaps a year or two later, I approached “the siren song”, a song which haunts me on two levels, no, three levels – one, it’s a very, very difficult piece of music to play and sing, perhaps the single most difficult of any ph or van der graaf generator songs that I have attempted…two, it’s personally haunting, musically and lyrically, and three, it haunts me because so far, well I am not quite sure, because the last session may have yielded a take, but this is a song that has proven very, very elusive in terms of getting a live take.  then…and now.

in fact, many if not most peter hammill and van der graaf generator songs are very difficult to perform unless you are peter hammill – that’s all there is to it.  I am the first to admit that I am not particularly good at it, however, I love these songs, I spent a lot of time learning them, and I am determined, after all that work, to try and capture live performances of at least some of them.

I’m happy to say that I’ve recently re-recorded three tracks from the ph/vdgg canon, which were “flying blind”, “my room (waiting for wonderland)” and most recently, “vision”.  two peter hammill tracks and one by van der graaf generator.

I am currently rehearsing three van der graaf songs: “the siren song”, “man-erg”, and “still life”.  these are all extremely difficult, and I may rehearse for many months and still never get a decent take.  in some cases, I may eventually be forced to record the piano on it’s own, and then record the vocal live – so far, I’ve avoided that, but there may come a day.  right now, my feeling is that if I can just get through one take of “the siren song” (from 1977’s “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” album – a re-jigged van der graaf without the “generator” in their name – stripped down and with graham smith absolutely wailing on massed electric violins) where nothing goes disastrously wrong, I will be very, very pleased.

why is that song (“the siren song”) so difficult?  well, I don’t really know, it’s not in an “easy key” for one thing – so I am not really used to playing in d flat (or c sharp, I don’t actually know which it is – only peter hammill knows for sure), so it’s physically challenging on the fingers – and of course, it has quite a few “odd chords” i.e. chords that have an unusual bass note – a third or a fifth in the bass, and that takes some getting used to (strangely, todd rundgren also uses this musical device a lot, many chords where the bass note is NEVER the root note of the chord – always something else! – so I do have some experience with this, but it’s still very awkward and often quite tricky to execute these special chords) and then there is that “solo section” which is just bloody difficult!  I have now (after MUCH rehearsal!) got it down to a science, but of course, if I play through the solo section correctly (something I do about one in ten tries, if I am honest!), invariably, I mess up the final verse – you know how it is.

I do have one more day’s worth of takes to listen through, having already been through two or three “siren song” sessions and found all the takes wanting in one way or another…some are close, but none close enough for my demanding ear – so, it’s once again, back to the drawing board…and, I insist on a completely live performance, so that really leaves no margin for error – it has to be right, vocal and piano.  and for that song – well, let’s just say, I am really struggling to achieve that!

but – I persist, and as I persist, and, luckily, my knowledge of the song increases with each rehearsal (I feel I actually understand it much, much better than I ever have before – in my head, I “know” how it goes!), and eventually, I will win.  I hope 🙂

now – in sitting down to reflect on the music of peter hammill, and his amazing group, van der graaf generator – I know that the start was that live bootleg, but now, after some 30 – 35 years of listening to this man’s music – what songs did I learn, and which ones can I still play – I am not even sure, so I am going to attempt to document this now – just so I can see where I am with this remarkable body of music – one of the most unusual and varied I’ve ever heard, from any artist.

figuring out the songs I’ve learned from the van der graaf generator part of my peter hammill repertoire will probably be the easier task (as opposed to the solo canon! which is massive…) so I will tackle that first.

from the first van der graaf generator album, and the second album, just one track each, and then, none from the third (although I did used to play parts of “house with no door” and “lost”, and even a few bits of the remarkable “pioneers over C” on the piano, but I never learned a whole song from “h to he” unfortunately – possibly because they are all bloody impossible to play!).

from “pawn hearts” – just one, although you could call it two as “w”, a single, is roughly from that period  – so approximately one song per album seems to be the pattern.  I also learned a few portions of “a plague of lighthouse keepers” but of course, not enough to play through even a fraction of the whole piece.

honourable mention:  from “the quiet zone/the pleasure zone” I did learn how to play “last frame”, but not well enough to consider it complete, so I’ve left that off – unfortunately, since I really love that song – a classic!  I learned fragments of songs like “patient”, and I also worked on “lifetime” from “trisector” – the only “late” period van der graaf I have ever attempted, but I never finished learning it so that’s another one I started, but can’t really claim, as I never did finish learning it 😉

I was quite certain that the van der graaf list will end up to be considerably shorter than the peter hammill list; and indeed, it did – here is the van der graaf generator list (in chronological order, of course!):

  1. afterwards
  2. out of my book
  3. refugees (added to this list on 20130101)
  4. man-erg
  5. w
  6. the undercover man
  7. still life
  8. my room (waiting for wonderland)
  9. the siren song

remarkably short, really, but then, these are not easy – I sometimes think peter saved up his most devilishly impossible-to-play songs for van der graaf, keeping the “easier” ones for his solo catalogue – but that’s probably a fallacy – I am sure that some of his solo pieces are just as difficult as the most difficult van der graaf generator piece.

here is the peter hammill list (in chronological order, of course!):

  1. vision
  2. the birds
  3. the lie (bernini’s saint theresa)
  4. forsaken gardens
  5. again
  6. been alone so long (chris judge smith)
  7. shingle song
  8. airport
  9. crying wolf
  10. time heals
  11. the mousetrap (caught in)
  12. if I could
  13. mirror images
  14. flying blind (being a portion of “flight”)
  15. stranger still (added to this list on 20130101)

I think that’s it – I seemed to have just stopped at the tenth album – which will roughly hold true for van der graaf, too, I stopped with “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” which will be just short of the tenth van der graaf album (it’s the eighth, apparently)…although you could argue that since that album is really a different band, “van der graaf” that it’s the first of two – it, and “vital” – but, a moot point, in any case, no matter how you argue it; with the release of “vital”, in 1978, the band stopped playing for a long, long time!

I’ve never done this before, sat down and tried to figure out what peter hammill songs I’ve learned in total, this is the very first time I’ve attempted to compile a complete list – which turns out to be, in the end, well, this number keeps changing, so I will give you the current figure here: twenty four tracks, nine van der graaf and fifteen solo peter hammill works – all learned when I was a young man, from perhaps age 20 to age 30 – which for me, is the decade between 1978 and 1988.

for many years after that, I was without a piano and without any 88-key keyboard, until very recently (february 2012) so for many years, I didn’t really play the piano – which meant, I did not play these songs.  in some cases, not since I first learned them.  not playing really, really complex pieces of music for thirty years – well, I can tell you – re-learning them in some cases is almost as difficult as learning them the first time – it wasn’t easy then, and it’s not easy now!

so at this point in time, I would say that from the above list, that I can still perform the following (so far):

van der graaf generator songs:

man-erg

still life

my room (waiting for wonderland)

the siren song

peter hammill songs:

vision

the birds

again

shingle song

airport

time heals

if I could

mirror images

flying blind

…so thirteen of the twenty-four have survived the passage of time, and if I were to sit down and work at it, I am sure I could relearn most of the others.  however, for some songs, in some cases, I am no longer sure that my voice can hit the high notes any more, particularly in pieces like “the undercover man” where even when I was young, I could not hit the high notes, so it would be impossible now – even if I could relearn the keyboard part.

so I would probably leave “the undercover man” out, which is unfortunate; because I really love it…I love all of these songs, they are like old friends that comforted me then, and they still comfort me now, but in a different way…they are a link to an emotional kind of song writing that I personally never really embraced in my own musical career, I opted for guitar craft, the ebow, and years of looping, and more lately, to rock and prog guitar with the release of “gone native” – so sitting down at the piano or acoustic guitar and “writing songs” is actually a fairly alien process for me – I can do it, but I really don’t do it – or at least, not often.

being able to sit down then, and bash out a peter hammill song on the piano, is a great, cathartic, experience, and I can happily re-live all the feelings and emotion of these songs from a place of maturity and relative calm – at the time, when you are young, things are a bit tumultuous and turbulent in your life, and these songs helped me through many a dark night – but I needed them then, now, I merely want them, just to remember, really.  and they do bring back a wealth of amazing memories, each time I play them.

of course, I might well decide to learn some “new” van der graaf or peter hammill songs, there are so, so many I would love to tackle, including some very unusual ones, like “the jargon king” – I’ve often performed this a cappella, but I am mentally preparing some kind of live version involving heavily treated vocals, loops and I am not sure what else.  it may never come to pass, but I’d love to do some version of it – in fact, I’d really like to learn as much as possible from “a black box”, the tenth peter hammill solo album, from 1980, which might be my single most favourite peter hammill solo album…and I had made tentative starts to learning “golden promises” and “the spirit” – two fabulous songs from that period.

then there is the question of “arrangement” – when you go to perform a peter hammill or van der graaf song – what “model” do you use to arrange the piece?  the studio version?  the live version?  the bootleg live versions?  alternate versions?  your own arrangement?  I think the answer is clearly, “all of the above”.

early on in my musical life, I worked very, very hard at very literally, “imitating” the music of others – I felt that if I was going to play a piece of music by anyone, that it “should be” “just like the record”.  that works sometimes, but other times, it can be a disaster, and part of learning to be a better musician was letting go of ideas like this, learning that actually, it doesn’t have to be “just like the record” at all – in fact, sometimes, that’s the worst thing you can do.

so if we listen to early recordings of my peter hammill covers, they sound very much like his versions, as much as possible given the modest gear I have compared to what he has available…I can remember recording “airport” using a borrowed steel string acoustic guitar – something I couldn’t afford until a decade later.  to my eternal shame, I didn’t know the words, so I just sort of made them up – incorrectly, it turns out – but, oh well, live and learn.  I didn’t have a sax and couldn’t play a horn part, so I used an organ horn stop with a chorus pedal to emulate a horn part.  it’s actually quite a spiffing version of “airport”, considering the limitations of my gear and experience.

back to arrangements – I feel I am very, very fortunate here, because not only do I have the records, and the live records, and even a few live recordings of peter hammill and van der graaf, I am also lucky enough to have seen/heard peter play in many, many situations, from solo guitar / piano performances at the roxy in los angeles, in the late 70s/early 80s, or performances with nic potter on bass and the amazing stuart gordon on violin, and later still, with the reformed van der graaf generator – so I’ve been very fortunate in hearing many, many different arrangements and techniques – many possibilities – for arranging these songs.

and the way I play them, is a total hybrid – part studio, part live, part made up – I tend to play the piano in my own strange style, so some of my idiosyncrasies creep in, too, so you get “dave stafford” flourishes and arpeggios thrown in where they really do not belong, or silences, or bass notes that “aren’t on the studio version” – some through design, some, probably through accident, because, perhaps, I don’t totally understand a certain chord or passage (bear in mind, that with no peter hammill songbook, that I’ve learned every one of these 24 songs “by ear” – and with songs as complex as these…well, it’s not straightforward much of the time!) – although now, I do try to make sure I am at least playing the right chords and the right bass notes, regardless of flourishes, embellishments, and mad arpeggios.

speaking of arpeggios, they form a huge part of my odd arrangement of “vision”, the track I just completed a few weeks ago, at the end of november, 2012, and released on the “ablackboxhd” channel on youtube, and I really worked hard on that arrangement – I could have played it safe, with a very minimal piano part, but I wanted to do something creative with the piano part, while leaving the basic structure (hopefully) intact.  so that’s a case where I play fast and loose with the arrangement, whereas on other tracks, for example, “the siren song”, I keep such changes to a minimum, well, maybe not a minimum, but with that song, it’s hard enough just to play it through unembellished, much less play it with additional, difficult piano parts added – well, either way, to be truthful, it’s just bloody difficult.

what was required there, though, was rehearsal, and lots of it – and now, after two months of practice, I can play it fairly well – and I may have captured it in my last session, I can’t wait to find out.  if I did not – well, it’s well-embedded in my memory now, so I can sit down and perform it again with no problem now – I am sure I will “get it” eventually, through repetition and rehearsal, if none of the takes from the other day are any good.

unlike many artists, who publish song books of their music, there is no “101 peter hammill classics” for me to refer to, so of course, the only way for me, is to use my ear, and teach myself each song, chord by chord, note by note, using only my ear as a guide.  I wish there was a song book, but maybe I should publish one, since I already have “24 smash hits by peter hammill” learned – which I could “write down” courtesy of the notation view in sonar – if I can capture a decent performance of each one, I suppose I could publish a ph songbook – what a strange idea !!!

other artists whose songs I learned, I was fortunate enough to find an actual song book – so I learned a lot of todd rundgren songs from my “best of todd rundgren” song book, including many I might not have taken the time to learn by ear, so I am very thankful I had that book – but it gives me an unfortunate advantage, and having song books for todd, roxy music, steely dan, and even artists as unusual as allan holdsworth – remarkably, there is an allan holdsworth song book (believe it or not!) – although I could only learn tiny bits of songs, never a whole song – from that one! having those books was a real help and a real blessing…but when it came to van der graaf generator or peter hammill songs…I was totally, totally on my own.

I can remember, too, the titanic struggle, the hours and hours of patiently writing out chord charts, again and again, the agonising work of trying to understand and get written down, for example, the bizarre and strange series of chords at the very end of “man-erg” – that really took some work and a lot of patience. it’s amazing how patient I was, how endlessly willing I was to spend unlimited time working on these songs, just so I could play them, not for any other reason but my own enjoyment of them.

nowadays, I wouldn’t take that much time, I can’t imagine spending not just hours, but actual days of work on one song, trying to work out what those odd bass notes are, or how a linking section works, or what on earth is that melody – and songs like “man-erg” were so, so hard to work out, because part of me wanted to play the piano part, another part of me, the hammond organ, that beautiful organ part; and another part of me still thought I was david jackson, playing the beautiful horns in between the verses…so my arrangement is actually part piano, part organ, part horn…because I tried to get the whole band into my arrangement, to get it to sound like the song the way they played it on that live recording.  and not really succeeding, except in the most rudimentary way.

“the undercover man” also gave me a lot of grief, now, in that case, I was, at the time, actually making a four-track multitrack recording of it (on my TEAC 3340-S 1/4 inch reel to reel deck, of course!), with piano, organ and vocal – so I first had to play the piano part correctly, and then go back and overdub an organ part, and when I say “an” organ part, I mean that literally, I couldn’t really play what hugh played, I am sure, so I just did the best I could with the skill I had at that age (mid twenties, perhaps).  working out the chords, working out how the piano and organ worked together, was both fascinating and very, very difficult – but very rewarding in the end, because I did learn it, I could play it all the way through…and I did get it recorded, although that was one where my vocal range just could not quite cope with one of hammill’s amazing vocal performances – I just couldn’t quite hit the notes in one part of the song, which is such a shame.  but the music was enormous fun to learn, practice, arrange and record – what a beautiful song!

“still life” is the third in the “very impossible” category, I loved this song from the moment I first heard it, and I was determined to learn it, and learn it I did – every word, every chord, every screaming emotion – a raw, passionate poem of questioning, questioning – demanding an end to all things of infinity.  this song, perhaps, has the best hammill lyric ever – it asks so many important questions, questions that I still want answers to today – and will never get answers to.  it’s such an amazing musical observation – and one of peter’s most emotional and most amazing songs, ever.  I love performing “still life”, despite how difficult it is to play.

as with “man-erg” and “the undercoverman”, “still life” took an enormous amount of time, and effort, to learn, it was really a challenge, but eventually, I worked it all out.

“my room” while perhaps a little bit “easier” than “man-erg”, “still life” or “the siren song” was nonetheless not easy to learn, not easy to sing, and I immediately put it into the “quite difficult” category with the other four difficult pieces I decided to attempt.

so those four, plus the very difficult “the siren song” were the most difficult to learn, meaning that these five, then…

man-erg

the undercover man

still life

my room (waiting for wonderland)

the siren song

…made the other four that I learned “seem easy” by comparison:

afterwards

out of my book

refugees

w

although to be fair, really, only “afterwards” is “easy” – and that’s because it’s a very, very early song, when peter had only strummed a few chords, although his development on piano and guitar over those first few albums is absolutely astonishing to witness – so I would expect “afterwards”, from the very first van der graaf record, to be “easy” (relatively) – but for example, despite being from a quite early period (1970-ish) “out of my book” is actually very difficult in it’s own way, the vocal is not easy, and it’s one of those that seems simple, but when you try to play and sing it, you find out it’s actually not that simple…

conversely, the fifteen peter hammill “solo” songs that I learned, were relatively uncomplicated (of course, with a few exceptions) when compared, in general, to the selections from the van der graaf generator canon, those exceptions being “the lie” (which I’ve forgotten almost completely by this time), “forsaken gardens” (many, many chord changes, none difficult in themselves, but getting through the whole piece is a real challenge – I’ve also, unfortunately, lost my ability to play this – although I have it written down) – and, for me, a rare guitar song, “if I could” – that’s fairly tricky, and also, of course, “flying blind” – very, very challenging indeed, approaching “van der graaf” level of complexity.

the rest of the ph songs I have learned are relatively simple, but really, none of peter’s songs are that simple – it’s just relative.  after the hellish progression that is “the siren song” – well, if I then sit down to play “vision” – well, it does seem easy by comparison!

I have noted that the majority of these 24 songs are “piano songs”, with just a few being “guitar songs” and I was wondering why that was, and I just don’t have an answer.  I think possibly, for me, it’s simply comfort – I am quite comfortable just sitting down at the piano and singing a song, whereas, I am not quite as used to singing while playing guitar – sure, I can do it, but, normally, I always played lead guitar, and when you are playing lead guitar, it’s not always easy to sing at the same time, so that may go some way towards explaining why I didn’t learn more peter hammill “guitar” songs.

two out of nine of my van der graaf generator covers, “out of my book”, and “w” are guitar songs, while a more respectable six peter hammill solo pieces are guitar songs:

“again”

“been alone so long” (which is really not a peter hammill song, but a chris judge smith song)

“shingle song”

“airport”

“crying wolf”

and the exquisitely beautiful “if I could”

…are guitar songs, leaving a remarkable nine as piano songs – that’s a lot!!

in total then, for all 24 ph/vdgg pieces learned, 8 are on guitar and 16 are on piano – so my repertoire is seriously biased in favour of the piano songs – that’s just the way it’s worked out.

maybe that’s telling me that I should learn more peter hammill guitar songs 🙂

moving back now to the question of arrangements, in thinking about the way I approach the performance of these songs now, I think it’s a really good thing that I’ve totally “let go” of that early view that the song should be as much like the studio version as possible, and I’ve instead, embraced a very free and very unusual style of performance with these pieces – which in a lot of cases, is more about my memory of the song, my impression, my emotional take on the song – rather than re-creating every single note, nuance and vocal twist – I just try to sing and play these songs with the kind of passion and beauty that they deserve.

I think in the end, that’s all you really can do, and if you are just true to what you know, what you know you can play, and what makes you feel good about the song – if I play this a certain way, if I leave a long silence here, if I sing this note here instead of here…that your own flourishes, embellishments, and changes actually make the performance better, because you are taking a good song, and making minor changes that hopefully enhance and grow the song, making it more than it would be if left “exactly the way it is on the album” – there would just be no point in that!

also, if I sit down and do a very serious, analytical “comparison” of my version to peter’s version – well, it’s immediately hopeless – my versions are so incorrect, they are just impressions…I didn’t write these songs, so I can’t possibly play them like peter does – so they are dave stafford impressions of peter hammill songs, rather than really good copies of peter hammill or vdgg songs – I will leave that task to someone else !!

I look back at my career of learning, performing and recording many van der graaf generator and peter hammill songs, as quite strange – it has almost nothing to do with any and all of the other music that I play and record.  yes, I am a bit diversified, what with the many different types of guitar I play, and the various synthesizer, application and kaoss pad pieces too, and all the hybrid combinations thereof – somehow, this catalogue of vocal and piano, or vocal and guitar, pieces by the amazing peter hammill, sits in there too, as part of the basic dave stafford musical dna.

for me, after initially being caught up first by the music of yes, and then, by early (peter gabriel period) genesis – I then found van der graaf generator, and their music was unlike any I had ever heard, and in a way, classing it in with “progressive rock” didn’t make a lot of sense, but I suppose it was closer to “prog” than many other forms of music.  but it turned my head around, it wasn’t “nice” or comfortable, at all, it was edgy, uneasy, uncomfortable – but, at the same time, brutally honest in a way that yes and genesis possibly were not.  and I found that very attractive, and that changed me, it brought a more dissonant playing style to me on the keyboard and guitar, and a more dissonant vocal style too – peter hammill did things with his voice that were like nothing I’d ever heard any singer do – so that also had a profound effect on me.

but, curiously…it didn’t really make me want to write songs that sounded like van der graaf or peter hammill, I just wanted to play those 21 peter hammilll songs (and one chris judge smith song), because I loved them, along with the other piano/vocal and guitar/vocal songs I knew from other artists, such as todd rundgren, steely dan, genesis, bill nelson, roxy music, roy harper, nick harper, peter gabriel, beatles, and many, many others – but out of all of the “covers” I’ve done, it’s the peter hammill/vdgg catalogue that has had the most unique effect on me, because it’s such a remarkable canon of very, very special and extraordinary music.

when I did finally get a decent keyboard again, and “had back” the full scale piano (but now, it’s a sampled grand piano, not a tired old out of tune upright) I began the slow, slow process of re-learning the first few hammill pieces – of which I’ve managed to complete three in less than six months, and a couple more are very close to being “good enough” to publish.

I will continue with this process (of attempting to capture live performances of van der graaf generator and peter hammill songs) until I reach the point where I feel that I’ve done the songs justice.

back in the day, I couldn’t always record, so some of these were never, ever recorded, while some of these do have existing tracks from back then (usually recorded under the worst sonic conditions imaginable, using the most primitive equipment imaginable, I am afraid); some useable, some, probably not – so eventually, I will publish the “old versions” too, for comparison – which will be odd – to hear first, the 1979 or 1980 dave stafford cover of a peter hammill song, and then, the 2012 dave stafford cover of the same song – that will be very, very strange!

that will demonstrate something interesting, though, the effect of aging thirty-three years in an instant; the effects of age, the effects of maturity as a musician and as a pianist (certainly, my skill now must exceed my skill then, on the piano?), my ability as a vocalist (questionable at all times, which is why I play instrumental music in the here and now) – all of these will factor into the “33-year test” that I am apparently (unconsciously) conducting.

I am not sure just how many songs, or which songs, I have recordings of (certainly, “out of my book”, “airport”, “the undercover man” and a few others), from “back then”, and how many I would/will also be able to play and record in the “here and now” – so it may be a very short-lived experiment, but even if I can’t do a direct comparison of certain songs, at least we can compare over all…

I look forward to seeing where things go with my 24 piece catalogue of peter hammill songs in the coming years, and I am hopeful that perhaps some of the “new versions” that I manage to capture (and any “old versions” I also put up for comparison purposes), will be enjoyable to fans of peter hammill’s music – I am sure they are, as the videos of the ph songs I’ve done so far have done quite well over a very short time, as enjoyable as playing and singing them again has been to me – I love these songs, and I am hopeful that my affection for them will be self-evident from viewing and hearing the performances – these are good songs, meaningful songs, songs that endure, and by playing them, I am stating that, I am saying “this work has value, please listen to it” – meaning, the songs of one peter hammill – which have had such a strong and lasting impact on my musical life and even my personal life, and very nearly sent me onto a whole new musical course…but, luckily for the world, I opted to be an ambient loop guitarist instead of a prog rock/singer/songwriter/pianist/guitarist like peter hammill.

that’s very probably, a very good thing 🙂

you can hear the latest dave stafford “cover version” of a peter hammill song here, in this instance, “vision”, originally from “fool’s mate”, 1971, peter’s first solo album, which also happens to feature one very young robert fripp as guest lead guitarist on a few tracks.