Post-GuitarCraft Depression? Is that a thing?

Hello again

I’m recently returned from my latest Guitar Craft adventure, working for a short week and then giving a live performance, along with 61 other “Symphony of Crafty Guitarists” guitarists, that was stratospheric in every way.

It was an incredible experience, and my first impulse was to write at length about it – which I may well do in the future, but right now, I wanted to ask a question – I am wondering if any other attendees of Guitar Craft (or, Guitar Circles, I am now beholden to say as well) courses, suffer from this (possibly imaginary) malady, not just now, but over time – across the years – which maybe I am the sole inventor of, I don’t know.

My life is pretty ordinary – I live in an ordinary town, I have an ordinary job in that ordinary town, and ordinarily, I work on music at home, with the occasional Internet collaboration, because of a disability that makes performing very difficult indeed.

So attending Guitar Craft courses, which I’ve done in a very, very intermittent way, over many, many years (since September, 1988 in fact!) is a huge, huge privilege and it’s a real highlight – a rarity, for a number of reasons:

  1. A chance to socialise with like-minded musicians and others
  2. A chance to practice Alexander techniques – great for highly strung or stressed out people (i.e. me, a lot of the time) or, do Tai Chi – and, meditate regularly, too
  3. A chance to perform with like-minded musicians and others
  4. A chance to spend one week in a very positive, very safe, very forward-looking environment
  5. It’s something enjoyed only rarely, recently, every five or six years perhaps – therefore, a huge treat for me
  6. It’s something very memorable
  7. It’s an occasion where you meet up with old friends, and renew those friendships (yes, I’m talking about you, Frank, and you, John Lovaas, and you, Ray Peck)
  8. It’s an occasion when you meet new friends, some of which, will stay so for many, many years (I’m talking about you, Pablo, and you, Jules, and you, Jamie! – you all know who you are!)
  9. It’s something very special in an otherwise very ordinary life

So when you only experience this once every five or six years, that strange, strange feeling – that people think you are a good guitarist, that people look up to you and respect your musical ability, that people want to jam with you, that people want to hang out with you – whereas, in your normal life, where there are few to no like minded musicians or people – doing any of those things is very difficult to downright impossible.

Recently then, since it’s now almost a week since the end of the course, I began to have moments where it all became a bit too much for me, and I really wished I could be back in that house, back at Koos Vorrink, in Lage Voorsche, in Holland – you just wish that the course could maybe run a bit longer, or you could somehow bring that environment back with you, and continue to live among like-minded colleagues, whom you respect, and, who respect you.

I am one of the most isolated of all Crafties, being the only Crafty guitarist in the northern part of Britain, and my disability prevents me from any chance of any regular meetings with those very few other Crafties who do reside in Britain – mostly, waaaay down south where that round yellow thing * can be sometimes seen in the sky.

Other symptoms include but are not limited to:

  • no desire to hear music of any kind
  • no desire to play or perform music of any kind
  • no desire to work on music of any kind
  • a craving for silence – silence is what I crave – silence as experienced at the course I was just on

So it can be daunting, coming back to that ordinary life, and not putting away the stack of spare strings you took with you to the course, or the gig flyer, just leaving them on your desk to remind you, to make you feel like you are still there.  Don’t get me wrong though, I am so, so glad to be home, home is where the heart is, and I truly missed home while I was away in Koos Vorrink.  I am very glad to be home, and especially glad to no longer be parted from my partner.

I am not depressed in the normal sense, I am fine, but there is an odd feeling to life now, I miss the routines of Guitar Craft, the communal feeling at meals and at other times of shared work or play – and I’ve rarely seen a course run so smoothly as this one did, the kitchen was amazing, Fernando should be crowned king and…some of those desserts – wow!  What can I say?  As a veteran of many, many Kitchen Craft courses, I know exactly what it takes to run a kitchen for a large group like this, and the hard work and intense effort that goes into it, is almost invisible when you are on the receiving end of yet another amazing dish or dessert – it’s flawless.

The quality of that performance, absolutely inspired and fed into the quality of the musical performance of October 15th, 2015 (at Koos Vorrink, Lage Voorsche, Holland) which for me, was one of the single most amazing things I have ever been a part of, in my entire life – simply astonishing.  I’ve never heard or seen anything like it before, even my original “Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists (I)” course performance in Sant Cugat, in 2009 – which was brilliant – was not quite the performance that THIS was.

And here I am now, talking about the course, rather than about my reaction(s) to the course – my recent feeling of being adrift in the ordinary world, so I will have to reign that impulse in, and not describe that amazing performance right now – that’s for another time.  At the moment, I want to say, I can remember this strange feeling from other courses – I remember after one California course, I had to go shopping in a brightly lit, clean supermarket, with very few people in it – and each time I came around the corner of an aisle, I fully expected to see one of the 75 faces that I’d just spent the last 8 days with – and inevitably, I would feel disappointed to find that it was just a stranger – I expected the face of a Crafty, maybe holding a guitar, maybe clearing away dishes, but – someone I knew.  those [however many] people on your course, become the whole universe, and when you walk out of that universe – it’s very, very odd indeed.  Disconcerting, even!

This feeling persists for days, you keep expecting to see __________ – put in the name of anyone you were just on the course with here, you expect to see that face, I expect to see Fumi coming around a corner, with that huge, huge grin on his face, always laughing, or perhaps it’s one of the Vicious Queens, intent and intense, on the way to a VQ meeting, or Fernando, worrying about the menu, but secretly, thinking about the dessert…

so – there are things that remind you – I am washing the strawberries…and I notice they are from Holland.  sigh.  I see the waffle cookies in the cupboard, which evoke every memory of Holland – too sweet, too good, too delicious to believe.

reminders, and then, going back to work, and remembering that this is my reality 99.9999 percent of the time, and Guitar Craft is some tiny, tiny minuscule part of my life – but, the impact it has, is absolutely not minuscule!  not at all.  It does stay with you, for weeks, for months, for years – and that’s both good and bad.  hopefully, I will have, perhaps, finally learned the right way to hold my pick.  I get Robert to fix it every time I see him, he fixes it, and, I get closer to the ideal, every time.  It’s progress, although it can be painfully slow progress.  But that is still preferable to nothing!  It’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything, I truly wouldn’t – but I just wonder if it affects other Crafties the way it sometimes affects me – it’s not so much a negative, as just a reminder of how ordinary life outside of Guitar Craft can be.  And how it makes you feel when quite suddenly, thanks to the extreme time compression of the Guitar Craft experience, you are thrust back into the ordinary world, and you start having to worry about connections and planes and trains and cabs and all that.

it’s jarring, it’s difficult to re-adjust, and after about a week, I don’t feel as if I have quite settled back into my ordinary life. Perhaps that is because I was part of an absolutely extraordinary group of people, that rehearsed and put on an absolutely extraordinary performance – probably.  Yes – that will be why.  And also knowing, that I won’t be able to take part in SOCGII – because it’s in South America, which is both a practical and a physical impossibility for me.  So that’s it – I was at the debut of the Symphony, but it’s doubtful that I will attend any future SOCG courses or circles.  It has just become too difficult, and, too geographically challenging.

sigh.  meanwhile, coming from a place of slight melancholia now – please let me know if you have experienced any post-Guitar Craft feelings of any kind, or, what other “reactions” you may have had within the first week or so after returning from a Guitar Craft or Guitar Circle course.  I’d like to compare notes, find out if others have had this kind of feeling before, upon returning to their normal life.  🙂 – whatever “normal” means, I suppose!

another sigh, then, before I go…

all the very best to everybody – thanks TEAM SOCGI, wherever you have scattered to now…

dave

* the sun

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the return of drone forest

I was pleasantly surprised to find that my old friend and partner in musical crime, ian stewart, has just created and posted onto you tube, some lovely long form drone forest videos (each running about 29 minutes and change) – four of them, to be exact, released on ian’s you tube channel just last month (june 2013).

I first ran into ian stewart via his excellent music mag “autoreverse”, and ian did some features on my mid-90s ambient and crafty output, and over time, we became friends.  he has also done a couple of in depth interview with me over time – one, back in 1995, reprinted here from autoreverse, and the other, quite recently – again, from autoreverse – 2011 version.

ian is an incredibly creative person, plays a number of instruments, and has a wonderful band called “devilcake” – a metal band – whose songs are exclusively about food, and another band called samarkand…he’s a fellow fan of XTC and king crimson, and is one of those people I’m always happy to work with.

one day, quite a number of years ago now, ian asked me if I would record some material for him on guitar, but he posed a really, really curious and difficult challenge:  he wanted pieces of music, but, critically, they were to have no melody and no beat – just texture.

so a few days after receiving this request (and, scratching my head a bit in terms of, how exactly will I do this?), I set up my guitar system, and started recording pieces of guitar “texture”.  I actually found this really quite difficult to do, because of the no melody rule in particular!   but, using stompboxes and my trusty ebows and some just plain strange, strange techniques, I produced quite a large “library” of these textural guitar sounds (probably more than an hour’s worth – I remember it took two cds to capture them all – maybe 25 tracks or more – I will have to locate the original discs to be able to say definitively how many tracks / how much time there was there).  I then mailed them away to ian – and promptly forgot all about it.

ian had never really said why he wanted the sounds, when I asked him about it, he would mumble something about a project of his, so I just put the whole thing out of my mind, and carried on with my life.

a few months later, out of the clear blue sky, a cd arrived in the post from ian, bearing the band name drone forest, entitled “drone forest”, which, apparently, was a new band, featuring ian c. stewart, c. reider, mike bowman, and…myself !!! I couldn’t believe it – here was a cd I was playing on, that I didn’t know existed, that I didn’t know was being made – I put the disc on, and sat there in an astonished state – and there were those textural guitar sounds of mine, recorded perhaps four months previously and then promptly forgotten –  expertly mixed in with sounds produced by the other three musicians (none of whom I had ever met, although I knew of c. reider because he’d reviewed one of my albums for…none other than ian’s “autoreverse” magazine!).

sitting there, hearing this cd, and realising what ian had done – he’d basically asked the same of both chris and mike, solicited material – they duly recorded sounds with no melody and no beat (a difficult task in particular for mike, who is a visual artist first; a drummer second, and a great guitarist/multi-instrumentalist – with his main instrument at the time being drums…the “no beat” rule must have been extremely challenging!) – but, all of the samples were superb, and ian had done an amazing job, creating several unique songs for the album which is known as “drone forest I” or simply “df1” – the first of many, many cds to come.

“drone forest II” followed hot on the heels of the first album, and after that, the albums started flowing so quickly that we couldn’t really believe it – we very quickly worked out a way of working:

1) we formed a yahoo “group”, and we all uploaded our self-created audio samples to our “sample pool”

2) we then would listen to and download the samples that the others had uploaded, picking what we liked, ignoring what we didn’t like

3) these then became the source material for new “drones”, which we each made many of, using whatever music software we favoured at the time

4) sound stretching, speeding up, slowing down, crushing, distorting, flanging, delaying, echoing, cutting, reversing, phasing, reverbing, mixing, contorting, convoluting – anything and everything went, any source files, mixed any way – as long as the end result sounded…like a drone.

a furious year of work, 2003, saw us so exhausted from the speed and quantity of creation, that we just sort of…stopped working.  leaving a massive trail of really, really interesting and innovative drone cds in our wake.  a while into the project, we decided that we would each produce a cd, instead of creating tracks and then picking a few from each member as we did originally, so I set off to produce “my” drone forest project, which is entitled “ZOSO” – the supposed “name” of led zeppelin‘s fourth album (although the music has nothing to do with led zeppelin – I just fancied calling it that, and that was that) – and each of the other members produced their own vision of drone forest – so all of these approaches, all of these amazing ideas were just flowing and it was a really fabulous and truly exciting time.

I am not exactly certain of the numbers, but I believe that in the first year, 2003, we produced eight cds – and then again, in the second working period, 2006 (which spilled over into the first part of 2007, to be fair), we also produced eight cds and then, chris produced a lovely piece of vinyl entitled “amy’s arms” right near the end – as well as two “posthumous” cds as well – for a total of 19 releases.

we’d invented a sort of  “bastard son of ambient” genre, the “drone” – along with several hundred other artists and bands, probably, but the quantity and quality of the drone forest catalogue cannot be underestimated.  sure, others before and after us, have claimed to invent the drone, but I think ian’s “drone supergroup” idea was a first – and his methods of working are unique and unrepeatable – brilliant thinking.

ian, as the godfather and founder of drone forest, embarked on a number of really, really interesting drone projects, including but not limited to a project where he created 100 one hour long drones (these were amazing, I never even heard them all, I probably have about a third of them), I think only ian has them all.  in any case, he developed a really clever and remarkable way to create these drones, for the 100 drones project (which was called “megadrone” I think – not quite sure) – he would create a short drone in the usual way, using different source files, he would build it to a particular length, five minutes or seven minutes or whatever it was (he had calculated this out) – and then, once happy with the short drone, he would “stretch” the track to one hour – and whatever the outcome – that was the drone.

remarkably, using this very strange and quite random technique – the resulting drones were – surprisingly – very consistent, and, they sounded great, and were perfect to listen to – equal in every way to drones that I had spent hours carefully concocting in cool edit pro multi-track!!  so he could produce a one hour drone, using a seven minute starting track – just by pushing a button.  this allowed him to work very, very quickly – to create a massive body of work – 100 hours – using a formulaic method that is truly inspiring.  I worked far too hard on my drones – ian just did it the easy way – and the results speak for themselves – really beautiful work.  what is perhaps most fascinating about this is, is that it demonstrates that the creation method of a drone can be almost anything – I spent hours meticulously building multi track drones, whereas ian just pushed the button – but both methods, along with whatever methods mike and c were employing – ALL methods produced beautiful, quality drones. it’s uncanny, really.

each of us worked in a different way; each of us favoured different software for the squashing, crushing, stretching and other audio atrocities that were committed in the name of drone creation – yet, when you put together an album with say, two tracks from each of us – there would be no way to tell “whose” track it was, because they came out remarkably consistently!  it really was quite something – mike, as a drummer, would make his drones the way he made them, c.,who is primarily a vocalist, would make his drones the way he made them, I would make my drones as if they were songs, but intentionally working towards a dronelike sound – and ian, well, ian was the master, really, he could make these “push button” drones, sure, but he was also the guy who put together that astounding first album – still one of my very favourite records from that period.

time passed, and for some reason, in 2006/2007, this time driven more by c., who in the meantime had built up the very, very cool drone forest website – we started recording again (quite suddenly, we just…started up again, as if three years hadn’t just passed with almost no band activity), and we created another large batch of records during another intense year-and-a-bit of drone creation.  I should mention that c. is the champion of all things netlabel, and on his netlabel site, you can download lots and lots of not just his music, but music by other netlabel artists, including compilations and collaborations galore – a fabulous netlabel resource.

and then…we stopped again – this time, for good – mike was busy starting a new family, and always busy with his art work – and his music (see velveeta heartbreak – this man is an incredibly talented artist and musician!) – I was busy with guitar craft, bindlestiff and my own solo records, and c. carried on his own solo work, on his label vuzhmusic – as well as being the caretaker of the drone forest website and being it’s main builder and webmaster.

ian carried on with his “megadrone” drone projects, and others, and also continued to work with his two bands, samarkand and “devilcake”, as well as going on to run the internet version of autoreverse, and also, his own bizarre depiction label.

but – there is so, so much drone music that has never been released – ian was far, far more prolific than any of us, and while we all gradually returned to our normal lives after the ’06/’07 round, ian continued with the “mega” and other drone projects – which really should have been released – as they were the some of the best – really remarkable stuff.

ian did produce an ultra-rare, 10-cd set of one of his unreleased projects – “metadrone” (which has the cryptic title “df8” on the actual package, and ian sent one to each band member – I am the proud owner of number 10/10 of “metadrone”, and also, a very proud owner of the vinyl record that chris produced, “amy’s arms”).  luckily, you can now download “metadrone” for free from the drone forest web site, while c’s vinyl release is still available for purchase as far as I know.

if we now fast forward to june 2013 – ian has (apparently, as I had no warning or inkling of these new recordings’ existence until today, when they appeared as suggestions on my you tube page!!) taken the original source tapes (I assume, from myself, mike and chris – and himself) and created new random audio mixes, one each for his four 29 minute long videos, using the original “drone forest I” source materials.  this is exactly the kind of thing that ian excels at, and I am so, so pleased to see these “new” videos, along with the first brand new drone forest music since 2007 (that I am aware of, anyway!).

what a pleasure and a privilege to be involved in a project like “drone forest” – an internet band, but an internet band like no other – working with three of the most creative people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know and to work with, and it’s with an incredible fondness that I think back on those two-and-a-bit remarkable years of creation, and, the massive catalogue of music we produced – which, by the way, you can download every single album and track for free at www.droneforest.com (with the one exception of the “amy’s arms” vinyl release, which is a for sale item as it is in vinyl format) – otherwise, all of the other tracks, 16 original cds and 2 posthumous cds, are free to download!!! free.

for me – well, what an absolute joy the entire drone forest experience was – and is, because right now, I am sat listening to four brand new, 29 minute long drone forest tracks – probably recorded in some very unusual way by the most excellent ian c. stewart – all hail the master of drones ! these new pieces are intriguing, dark, and most, most excellent – drones 2013 style.

you can view the entire discography on the drone forest website – we created 16 cds in our main heyday of 2003/then 2006-2007, plus the “amy’s arms” vinyl release makes it a nice round seventeen (my lucky number)  – and two “posthumous” cds.  in looking at the discography just now, I noticed that there are actually two of the drone forest cds that I produced, in 2003, it was the aforementioned “ZOSO”, but in 2006-2007, at the end of the second run of albums, I did a second production job on the final cd released by the group as a whole, “spatial displacement”.  in a way, I’m pleased that I was the one to master and produce our final album as a band – followed by the swan song – c. reider’s most excellent “amy’s arms” making it seventeen releases in total during our active lifetime as a band.

I think it’s more than fitting that exactly ten years after the release of “drone forest I”, that it’s creator has seen fit to create four brand new works from the band, here and now in 2013, but, using the ten year old samples – randomly re-arranging them into these there wonderful new pieces of music – I think that is brilliant !

if you are interested in drones, which, after all, are a sort of bastard son or offspring of ambient music, I would suggest a visit to the drone forest website, download an album or three or five or nineteen, and you might find you have a new love – the drone.  drones can be dark, disturbing, momentarily uplifting, disorienting, wonderful, moving, annoying or just downright cool, but, as an unusual offshoot of the ambient genre, once you start listening…you may find them very compelling indeed – I just listened to two full hours of brand new drone forest music, and it was absolutely captivating, relaxing, exhilarating – a great listening experience.

here are direct links to the four brand new drone forest videos, on the ian stewart you tube page:

drone forest video 1

drone forest video 2

drone forest video 3

drone forest video 4

ian also produced a short form drone forest video in 2009, which is here.

in listening to the new tracks tonight, I really find the to be most excellent – an updated, remixed, powered up version of the drone, set to ambient videos of – what else – trees, forests, snowstorms…the 2013 version of what we did so well back in 2003 and 2006/2007 – re-imagined for the 10s by none other than the drone master himself, ian c. stewart.

all hail indeed!

the drone forest discography:

title  /  assembled by

drone forest / ian c. stewart

drone forest II / ian c. stewart

our ghost in her wood / c. reider

june 21, 2003 / c. reider (a live simultaneous one hour event from four studios)

ZOSO / dave stafford

airways nova teeth / mike bowman

remixes, volume I / ian c. stewart

metadrone / ian c. stewart (original release, handmade, hand painted limited numbered edition 10 cd set)

drone forest IV / compilation – assembled by the band

remixes, volume II / the band

kirchenkampf vs. drone forest / john gore – guest assembler – drone forest source material

biolegacy / ian c. stewart (original release, handmade, limited numbered edition 3″ cdr 10 copies)

point / c. reider

honey / ian c. stewart

wormwood / c. reider

spatial displacement / dave stafford

amy’s arms (12″ vinyl release) / c. reider

forester / c. reider (posthumous release – the entire DF catalogue to date, put through an audio mulcher)

distinguish / to be determined (posthumous release)

I’ve been in some unusual bands before, from the dozey lumps to bindlestiff to the orchestra of crafty guitarists, but there has never been another band quite like drone forest.  go have a listen!

scorched by the sun – “dreamtime” – first pureambient release of 2013

the first release of 2013 for pureambient is a new album, from a new band, namely “dreamtime” from “scorched by the sun” (released as download only on january 17th, 2013, by pureambient records – available on bandcamp right now) and we could not be more pleased and proud.  this record represents a new kind of ambient music, made with new techniques and a lot of experience and history, too.

veteran ambient musicians bryan helm and dave stafford (who “are” “scorched by the sun”) bring a lot of experience to the table: both students of robert fripp’s guitar craft, they formed a crafty acoustic guitar duo in 1989, “the dozey lumps”, that worked mostly in a live setting, for a few years, creating a remarkable repertoire of original acoustic guitar music comprised of about 25 unique and very special songs, before they gradually transformed / mutated into a completely different musical entity: “bindlestiff”.

bindlestiff” was many things – a precursor to “scorched by the sun”? absolutely.  more a studio entity than a live performance entity, paradoxically, most of the material they recorded, whether it be on stage or in the studio…is live, absolutely live, 100 percent real, live, looping, without the benefit of MIDI sync – just doing it manually.  at that time, 1991 – 1995 (with an extended posthumous life that carried them forward to 1997) – and of course, the obligatory “best of” CD in the early 2000s, “enlighten” – “bindlestiff” could be said to be quite innovative, because of course during the late 90s and throughout the 00s – the “noughties” as we say – everyone was syncing up their MIDI clocks and all “playing live” to a click track…something we never did.  we just counted in (or not, once we really knew a piece, we would just start cold with no count in!), and played – our loops might not have technically been in sync, but we both have a good “ear” for music, so that meant we didn’t really “need” technology to enable us to loop – we just…looped.

a very, very straightforward and real proposition – we just played the tunes, and the loops took care of themselves.  perhaps a bit surprisingly, very few loop disasters occurred, but occasionally – they did.  when you listen to bindlestiff’s 1994 live album (entitled “live”, unsurprisingly) you don’t really hear any evidence of any loop trouble – and that’s because really, there was none.  because much of what we recorded in the studio was also live, the “live” album doesn’t actually sound terrifically different to the “studio” albums – we sounded the same, studio or live, because we were a live performance unit.  the only real difference on the studio takes was that there wasn’t an audience, and, we could play the piece as many times as we liked until we got the “best” version possible.  a very, very few tracks, a handful out of the total, actually involved overdubbing, which was normally just doubling up by playing a second live pass on a second stereo pair, to add additional colouration.  you could count those overdubbed tracks on less than ten fingers…

so: bryan and I have a shared musical past: three very difficult years writing 25 really, really difficult to play songs in robert fripp’s new standard tuning for guitar, and playing them…then, the amazing transformation from crafty acoustic duo to electronic looping duo – so moving from a very difficult instrument, the ovation 1867 acoustic guitar, to much easier instruments – for me, electric guitar, and ebow guitar, and looper; for bryan, drum machine, korg synthesizer and looper.

that change was really dramatic, and it really “freed” us – it gave us enormous scope to create (and the first bindlestiff album, “early” is testament to that freedom – what a strange collection of wonderful musical experiments!) and that sense of freedom carried on through the very important recordings of 1994 and 1995 – “live”, “quiet”, “LOUD” and “distant” – our four most important records, perhaps.

we explored the world of looping – both of us – both as a group within the very loose confines of “bindlestiff” as well as in our own individual solo careers – so this was a double education for us, and I felt I could do one kind of looping in the band, and some very different kinds of looping on my solo records – which really gave my output a broad span sonically, and the same applies to bryan – all the while we were in the band, we both carried on making our own recordings, as well…which is how it should be.

we also fully explored the world of ambient, and there are major ambient works on every “bindlestiff” record, from “early” to “enlighten”.  that also carried over into our respective solo careers – for example, since “bindlestiff” tended to make a lot of long form live ambient improvs, I decided to make an album of extremely short loops (“other memory / sand island”) – and it worked out really well.  so one decision in one area, affected another area positively – it was a brilliant and very, very creative time.

then, in 1995, bryan made the difficult decision to move from california to colorado, a move which effectively ended bindlestiff (although we did make two more albums, “distant” and “late” – and that inevitable compilation CD, “enlighten”, too) and simultaneously, launched my solo career!  but that was fine, bryan and I were very good friends for many, many years, and I respected his decision – for the sake of his family, he needed to be in colorado – so that is where he went.

the next thing that happened was…life.  time passed.  a lot of time.  bryan made recordings, bryan set up his most excellent blog and web presence, “my life in sound”.  I carried on making solo albums of many types, working on collaborations such as “drone forest” or the work with my musical and business partner, ken mistove, “saffron matted voids” – and we both kept very busy with music – bryan was in a couple of different bands, including one where he played upright piano (of course, as guitarist/synthesist – when you join a band, you play the piano – why not?) – and also worked on various collaborative recordings.

of course, we stayed in touch all through this long, long period of time.  we talked about recording again, but somehow we knew that since we could not work physically in the same room (because by this time, I had moved permanently to scotland, while bryan remains in colorado) – we knew that “bindlestiff” could not really make more records.

we talked about making a new record in some format, but then it would get set aside, somehow, we never started actually working on it.  we agreed that with the amount of time that had passed, and with the experience gained, that making an album now would be very interesting and exciting.  still – we couldn’t seem to figure out how to actually make the record.

then one day, an email arrived from bryan with a link to a download page, that had 12 pieces of music on it.  I downloaded these, and when I listened to them, I knew that at last, we had our album.  in a similar way to how leaving behind the acoustic guitars freed us to do the very creative “bindlestiff” material, having these great tracks delivered to me all in one go, absolutely freed me to use some very, very creative approaches when playing “my parts” on the record.

the approach I took surprised even me.  the first thing I did, after only hearing each of the pieces once or twice, was lay them out into a final running order, in sonar, but not in the order that bryan had numbered them, so I re-ordered them according to what I thought would “flow”…12 pieces, set up and ready to overdub.

this created for me, a huge blank musical canvas to work on.  I did a rough mixdown of the 12 bryan tracks, and listened to that for a few days, before attempting to work on the actual piece.  that helped, because it got me familiar with the music, and, it gave me ideas for what I might play…

but that was the interesting part…since so much time had passed, I now had a huge selection of instruments and sounds available, everything from soft synths to the guitar synthesizer, and of course, my trusty ebow and loopers.  I reckoned that I would just do what I always did; what bryan had done was mostly synth-based, so I would add parts that were mostly guitar based, or, I would (as always worked so well on all of the bindlestiff albums) – I would play the ebow.

this proved to be erroneous, uninformed thinking – it was just wrong; and when I tried to do this, it backfired horribly, it just did not work.  a day or two of this, and I realised – this will never work like this.  so I stopped, because I knew it would not “work” – and in thinking things through, I realised that I truly needed to view this as a new band, a new kind of music – and therefore, it demanded a very different approach indeed. on reflection, I should have realised earlier, that “falling back” on “what I knew” was just a bad idea; of course, playing looped ebows worked perfectly for “bindlestiff” – the old technique for the old band, but for this new band, which at first, did not have a name, and then gradually became “scorched by the sun”, I realised I had to approach it another way.

a few days of wringing my hands and worrying later, thinking, what am I going to do? one day, I was listening to the 12 tracks again, and it suddenly came to me – three words – “play the mellotron”.

and that was the answer.  I realised, that with my late 2011 album “sky full of stars”, that I had very successfully created an entire album of music using just the m-tron mellotron software synth – no other sound source of any kind – and that record for me, is one of the most beautiful and effective that I have ever created.  it just hit me, that what would work with bryan’s beautiful tracks – was the m-tron.  and that was the problem solved.

with one exception, every sound on the record that I made, was made with the m-tron mellotron, and the way it worked with bryan’s tracks is simply breathtaking – and simplicity is also key, in some cases, what was needed, was a very simple, very effective “basic flute” mellotron setting, and sometimes, of course, “simple” is best.

the one exception is a very brief, very reverberant grand piano part that I play on the first track, but after that, it’s mellotron all the way 🙂

hearing the fully produced, fully mastered and mixed version now, it’s difficult to conceive that (with one notable exception) the only instrument I played was a mellotron, because the m-tron does make a lot of very unconventional sounds, many of which I did use during some of the more…atmospheric tracks, so some of the mellotron work was more of the “creepy” variety, as well as the sweet, beautiful flute tones used in other sections of the piece.

some early mixes included versions that had just bryan’s parts, or just my parts, (the “overdubs only” or the “underdubs only” mixes) and listening to those, is like hearing two different, fully alternate versions of the main “dreamtime” album.  I haven’t properly finished or mixed either of those alternate versions, I suppose if there was enough interest from folk, I’d be happy to take the time to do so – perhaps they can be “added on” to the main album, as bonus tracks…maybe.  finding time for things like remixes is increasingly difficult – bearing in mind that the first draft of this very blog was written on january 23, 2013, and it’s taken me until march 6th to finally update and upload it!).

I also paid homage to my progressive rock roots on one of the tracks, performing a very camel-like flute mellotron part, and also, my one contribution to the main form of the album “part 9” (a new, thirteenth track that I added in after the existing part eight) – a mellotron solo, also has it’s roots in prog.  both bryan and I love a bit of progressive rock, and while it’s influence is here, it’s not overt – it’s mostly inherited, just subtly “rolled into” the overall feel of the record.

“dreamtime” is therefore a new creation, from a new, revitalised musical partnership, and bryan and I have both spent a lifetime in music, as he puts it, a “life-in-sound” – and after some forty years plus in the business of music, it’s great – no, it’s fantastic – to sit down and make a record with such a capable partner.  I respect bryan’s prowess as writer, performer, keyboardist and guitarist, and I am always interested too, in hearing what he gets up to in the studio, the things he records – because he has an approach to looping and ambient like no other, but is utterly willing to try anything once, or twice, in the studio or in performance – and we often pushed our own broad boundaries even farther than we would have perhaps planned to – often resulting in some real musical surprises, and some fabulous live improvisations came out of those early two incarnations too.

“scorched by the sun” is different though – it’s a very different animal – because for the first time since “the dozey lumps” – we are not looping. well, let me re-phrase that – I am not looping.  at all, not one note.  bryan may well have looped in creating his original pieces, I never analysed them that deeply (I shall have to ask him!) but whether he did or not is irrelevent – they are just lovely pieces of music regardless, and they represent “his half” of the work beautifully. and, they gave me a mostly melodic, often ambient, sometimes unusual but very, very inspirational “bed” of music to play over – a fantastic experience!

I also think that…maturity has a huge part to play here, and being…older…helps in so many ways.  I think we both have learned from our mistakes, and I think we are both much more subtle in our approach, and are both capable of sitting back, and letting the other lead the way, when that’s appropriate, or, if need be, taking the lead ourselves – whatever the piece of music at hand demands, we are ready for it.

most of bryan’s 12 songs, were fully realised pieces of music when they arrived; fully-formed, and quite complete on their own, so I had to work hard to find “overdubs” that were not too over-the-top, that complimented rather than were overbearing, and I think the finished record is testament to my success in that endeavour.

and it was a real pleasure too, to first, “imagine” this piece as a single, continuous piece of music – which I had to do in stages, first, by “deciding” what order those 12 pieces needed to go in – then, making the decision to add a 13th part, and inserting that into the piece – and finally, not just the overdubs for each of the pieces, but the small “linking” parts, which variously did or did not carry – overlapping pieces of music – bridging two of the songs, binding the pieces together like musical glue.

that was really fun, trying to subtly “mask” each transition, by having melodies or perhaps, a single note, playing across and over each transition…attempting to make it sound like a smooth, continuous piece of music as opposed to 13 separate tracks running in order.

so the process of “imagining” this as one single, long song, began with arranging the 12 supplied tracks into a specific order that sounded right to my ears, then, adding one short grand piano (on track one only – true piano via sonar) and mellotron parts to each of the tracks, then, adding a thirteenth piece, then, working on linking the tracks via parts that “overlapped” – and finally, melding and mixing all of the pieces together into a cohesive whole – I’ve never really had an experience quite like it, and it was highly enjoyable.

and I do believe that we succeeded in the stated goal of getting “dreamtime” to sound like a single, continuous song; this mix sounds about as continuous as it ever could, and possibly, I would live in hope that this might be true, possibly if I had never mentioned publicly that this work, this single 50:57 long piece of music, is actually comprised of 13 individual “songs” linked together – that many folk would not really have ever thought about that – they would have just perceived it as one piece of music – which is actually how I listen to it now – I really don’t think about the 13 pieces any more (after all, the work has been essentially complete for about one year – it just had a long, long wait in the queue for mixing and mastering), I just think about the sound of the “whole piece” as it unravels…a lengthy (but not too lengthy), continuous ambient musical journey, the first of many I hope, to emerge from the now mature musical minds of mssrs. helm and stafford, otherwise known as, “scorched by the sun”.

it’s “dreamtime”, everyone 🙂

“dreamtime” – available now from pureambient records via bandcamplisten and download now, on the new “scorched by the sun” bandcamp site.

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.

dave stafford solo album, “gone native”, released, download only, worldwide on august 1, 2012

hello,

this is just to let everyone know that “gone native” is now live on both the pureambient store and on bandcamp, which means you have a broad choice of download formats, from the standard mp3 320 on up through FLAC and even WAV if you so desire.

a proper physical CD release is being prepared as we speak, which will be available later on in the year, but I really felt that these songs deserve to be out there where they can be enjoyed.

I’m very happy, too, that the tracks have been added to bandcamp, which is a great resource, and the bonus there is, you can listen to the album before you buy – always a big plus in my book.

I hope you will take a little time, and go and listen to some of these tracks – this is my dream album, by my dream band – and to make sure the parts were played right, I just played them all myself – another lifelong dream, to follow in the footsteps of todd rundgren and other musicians who “do it all” themselves…it was a joy to play, to be the drummer, to be the bassist, to play the mellotron – and then when the tracks were ready, to sit down and play the guitars.  ALL of them! including lots of energy bow guitar, lots of lead guitar, lots of rhythm guitar, lots of guitar synth – which meant, of course, playing oboes and flutes, as well as many very eclectic, strange and wonderful synthetic voices courtesy of the roland gr-55 guitar synth.

this record was an ABSOLUTE BLAST to make, hard work at times, painstaking effort went into the tracks, working out a precision ending for “open to anything” involving the most precise bass part I could conceive of, in fact, I spent a lot of time trying to achieve really excellent endings on several other tracks as well, it became a bit of an obsession – the lead guitar figure at the end of “force of nature” – even the title track, which features a sped up, super tempo bass, drum, guitar and mellotron finale – fun! (but not easy!).

I am very proud of this record, because it very nearly never happened – I was content, in 2008, to continue working on ambient, looping, ebow – but then I got the idea for “gone native” – starting with a remarkable “take one” live guitar part, which was “thanks, frank” – and from there, it was a real rediscovery of the joy of just playing the guitar!  I played that solo, and it seemed so complete, so right – that I really got inspired to do even better on the rest of the record. slowly but defiantly, I collected these tracks together, testing many mixes, making improvements – until I ended up with the 19 tracks that are on the final album today.

when I was a teenager, I played the music of my time – hendrix, clapton, cream, camel, zz top, zappa, nektar, king crimson, todd rundgren, etc. – all of that, and even though that was really just for about six or seven years of time, that music stayed with me, and I still played lead guitar, even if all my albums did go down either a crafty or an ambient path – that “lead guitar guy” was still there inside me. wanting to rock, wanting to play a little prog, wanting to just let go and have fun playing guitar – and, that is exactly what I did!

In 2009, then, inspired by the one take “thanks, frank”, I kitted myself out for rock guitar, and began to record – learning first sonar 4, then, sonar 8.5 in the process, and really coming to terms with digital recording and mixing – let’s face it, before that, I didn’t need to know how to mix, because I never worked multitrack – it was always “two live tracks – stereo” – I was playing live, loops, ebow, whatever, so there really was no “mix” per se.

but that all changed with “gone native” – and learn to mix I did.  “wettonizer” went through about 10 different major mix session over many weeks, until I was satisfied that it is at it’s very, very best – and it is.  tracks such as “sinuous thread” had very carefully orchestrated, layered mixes, and I really enjoyed both the process and the results.  I really feel now that sonar is the absolute equal of pro tools, and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise! 🙂  it’s a great toolbox with a huge range of tools available for building, mixing and producing really high quality music. some of the plug ins are absolutely outstanding, and those tools really made a difference to the tracks with really dense mixes – I could mix a LOT of tracks together, but still have clarity for all of the instruments – brilliant!

I am so glad that I decided to have one more go at being a “lead guitarist” and writing “songs” (albeit all “instrumental” songs, but, songs nonetheless – as opposed to live, improvised loops) – it was very strange and surreal, to be building multi-track rock music, instead of just hitting record and doing a loop.  but I got used to it, and over 2009, built up the first half dozen or so tracks that eventually became the album.

in the meantime, I had acquired the guitar synth (in march, 2011) and I immediately began to incorporate it’s huge arsenal of amazing sounds into both the songs in progress, and into a number of new compositions made entirely with guitar synth, which, for the record, are: “caladan”, “sun willow quartet”, “junction”, “salusa secundus”, “desert power I – drone mix”, and “cinematique I” – although “caladan” and “sun willow quartet” also feature sonar’s “session drummer 3” on drums 🙂

I also incorporated some guitar synth into a couple of the earlier compositions, notably, the title track, as well as many guitar synth/atmospheric overdubs on the reverse-engineered 2009 guitar solo that is “this is a test”.  so the guitar synth really expanded my guitar vocabulary, and it was quite remarkable to be playing a flute part, or an oboe solo, or the dual “nylon string guitars” on a track like “caladan” – really an extraordinary experience.

and last but not least, I managed too, to incorporate two other more recent innovations into the project:  on “zencourage”, the korg kaossilator – hand-held x-y pad synthesizer, is the only instrument heard – it’s many kaoss pad loops all worked together into a larger composition; and then also, ipad applications – I used a guitar application called “ampkit+” to record one of the tracks, which is an active energy bow solo, entitled “wide open spaces”.

so this really is a remarkable batch of 12 songs and 7 sonic experiments, and if you want to hear an unusual rock album, with a definite ambient influence, then please visit the bandcamp site and have a listen…start at the beginning, and just let all the tracks play – it is my sincere hope that you will really enjoy this work.

three and a half years in the making, but really, 41 years playing experience went into the making, and here is it at last (well, the download version, for the moment! – the CD version is on it’s way…):  “gone native” by dave stafford.

happy listening!

dave

the music of the moment – recalling the piano and vocal repertoire

since february 2012, I’ve been working,  in earnest, on “re-learning” some of the piano and vocal repertoire that I used to play when I was…younger, and it’s been both challenging and rewarding – as well as sometimes, surprising.  this repertoire is mostly of progressive rock, with some pop thrown in for good measure, but it was mostly repertoire learned between roughly, 1971 and 1981, which I then played for the next ten years or so.

an example of a surprise would be: the fact that I could take one of my own songs, which was originally written on guitar, and quickly adapt it to become…a piano song.  that surprised me, and my song about the death of john lennon, “john” is a case in point; during one of my test piano and vocal sessions, I just gave it a go – and was so totally surprised that not only could I play it and sing it at the piano, but it actually works well arranged that way, for solo piano and voice – brilliant.

an example of a challenge would be…well, mostly, the challenges are twofold – a) getting my fingers to play what I do know in my brain, and then, b) if I succeed at that (questionable) getting my 54-year old vocal chords to reach those notes that seemed so easy to reach when I used to sing these songs…

getting both to happen during one performance – very difficult!

an example of a reward would be: when it all works, when I get a really quite good take of a really quite difficult song…such as “flying blind” by peter hammill.  it took a few tries, but in the end, I did get one – a good take!

I persist, that is what I do – I persist.  the “easier” songs – well, those come back quickly, and I find them easy enough to play – maybe something like “vision” by peter hammill: it’s in an easy key, the vocal is not demanding – this, I can manage. few of the songs I know fall into this category, and even some of the lighter pop music I know, is actually quite complex – for example, early todd rundgren – it sounds simple, but actually, it’s full of complex chords with odd interval bass parts (which is part of what makes those early songs so sonically appealing). so something like “a dream goes on forever” from the “todd” album (1974) sounds pretty easy, but the intro is actually very, very difficult to play well.  I am getting it – it’s coming back to me, but, it’s more difficult than you might imagine.

but playing that song isn’t the problem – it’s singing it.  most of the verses, I can sing fine, but, there is one section that has a very high vocal part – and I just can’t hit those notes anymore…which is heartbreaking, it means I will perhaps have to satisfy myself with whatever historical recordings I have of me playing that song when I was a young man – but those will have their own issues, poor sound quality and so on.

now, I have devised a method whereby I drop the vocal to the low octave for that one verse – but in practice, a) it’s very difficult to “switch octaves” during a live take and b) it sounds a bit strange, to suddenly go for these very low notes, just so I can hit the few high ones – and then switch back up an octave again a few seconds later – it’s not really working.  so I may have to scratch “a dream goes on forever” from the list of possible songs for “a black box”…

speaking of todd, there are a number of pieces that I used to play by todd: “believe in me”, “be nice to me”, “sweeter memories”, “real man”, “black maria”, “couldn’t I just tell you”, “lucky guy” and many, many more, so over the coming weeks, I will begin looking at these pieces to see what is involved in relearning them. of course, a couple of those are guitar songs, and there are some todd guitar songs that I would REALLY like to learn – for example, I know huge chunks of “number one lowest common denominator” on guitar, but I’ve never learned it properly…so maybe I can invent a giant todd guitar medley – black maria/no. 1 lcd/couldn’t I just tell you…something like that.  if only I had time…

so I did learn and play a lot of todd and utopia songs – including the big utopian anthems, both “just one victory” and “sons of 1984” – todd was a big influence for a long time, and I can remember spending weeks trying to perfect my version of “lucky guy” – I even recorded a version of it with borrowed grand piano, and then overdubbed my vocals – as well as a painstaking re-creation of todd’s dual ebow solo in the middle – I really love that song, and I may have to have a go at it again now – it’s the highlight from “hermit of mink hollow” (1978) and it was a real joy to learn, sing and play that – a great piece of beautiful pop music.

if todd was my biggest pop influence, then peter hammill was my biggest prog / dark side / influence – and I am not sure I can even list all the peter hammill songs – of both van der graaf generator and “solo” variety – that I have learned, forgotten, relearned and re-forgotten…so, so many, from “man-erg” to “still life” to bits of “a plague of lighthouse keepers” to “vision” to “the birds” to “my room (waiting for wonderland)” to “the undercover man” to “the siren song” to “w” to ever more obscure items from the hammill canon “forsaken gardens”, “out of my book” (that’s a guitar song right enough, not a piano song) or “mirror images”…so again, as with the todd catalogue, there are so many songs that I used to sing and play, and I think while I can often quickly re-learn how to play the songs, it’s going to be the vocals that challenge me – every time.

I do hope that with some rehearsal (and I am never big on rehearsing, I just expect that I can sit down and play these songs, and that’s expecting too much!) – I hope that with a few weeks of recording and rehearsal, that my voice will loosen up, and maybe I can recover enough extra range to at least once, capture the odd good take of one of these songs.

over the past four months, my facility to sing and play these songs has slowly, painfully slowly, improved – where previously, two months ago, I could not even “get through” a full take of a complex song like “still life” (the title track of the album of the same name) or “the siren song” – now, at least, I can get through, although so far, with too many errors to make any of the takes “good” – but, I can at least, now PLAY the songs.  the good take – well, it’s always the elusive thing, I did version after version of “flying blind”, I even went so far as to master one version, make a video of it – then decide it was just not good enough, and, by re-recording it again on june 1st, got a far, far superior version – so my intuition was correct, it wasn’t good enough, while the june 1 version, is.  so I need to learn to be more patient – I am impatient, I wish I could just sit down and reel out perfect versions of each and every song I’ve named here – and a host of others – I used to play so many different songs on the piano, everything from roxy music “a song for europe” or “pyjamarama”  to steely dan’s “charlie freak” or “doctor wu” – “charlie freak” being the first piano piece I ever learned by actually reading the notation – note by note, because I couldn’t figure it out by ear.

most of these songs, I learned completely by ear, by playing along to the album – and I mean the vinyl album (or if not, a cassette of the vinyl album) – this was the way I learned.  so something like hammill’s “man-erg” – it would start with me recognising one or two chords, realising there was a progression with a descending bass line, playing that bit, then working out the whole verse – but it would take deeper study of the album to learn the strange “middle part” or the long and complex chord progression at the end.  I would play along with the record, and write down the chords, and eventually, after days and days or even weeks of work, I could play the whole song.  but “charlie freak” had no chords, it was entirely composed of notes, so I had to use my limited sight-reading skills, and work it out from the sheet music.  I can’t play it now – I’ve completely forgotten how it goes I am afraid.

king crimson – yes, a few, not many, because songs by this band – they are not easy, but certainly “islands” in an abbreviated piano version (although I cannot touch keith tippett’s original arrangement – a fantastic pianist!), “exiles” in an all-piano arrangement – on guitar, a few others: “lady of the dancing water” (on nylon acoustic), “red” (on electric, obviously), “one more red nightmare”, “larks’ tongues in aspic part II”; fragments of “easy money”, “21st century schizoid man” and even entire fripp solos like the infamous lead solo from “easy money” live on the USA album – I learned that note for note on guitar, because I love that solo so much.

there are others from the golden era of prog – genesis – I learned several, the only ones that I learned well were “the carpet crawlers” and “anyway” – both from “the lamb lies down on broadway” – and then there was gentle giant, the only piece I ever learned (and this was actually more recently, NOT back in the day) is the very, very beautiful “aspirations” from “the power and the glory”.

where available, I would and do use song books to get the basic structure, although when I was younger, I just learned them without the song book – and of course, for things like van der graaf generator and peter hammill – there IS no song book! (maybe I should publish one – 10 easy peter hammill songs for piano!) so you are forced to learn them totally, totally by ear. it seems crazy to me, now, to spend that much time learning a song, but I’m glad I did – because the chords and notes I took then, actually enable me to remember the tunes, using my 35 to 45 year old documentation – all neatly typed up on a manual typewriter !

so I have help – I have the chords, I have the lyrics, but as far as actually playing the pieces, I actually “make up” the bass parts and the melodies, I just “pick them out” as I work on the song.  so for example, hammill’s “still life” has a section at the end, where the voice follows a piano note, so I had to learn every single note in that sequence by heart, so I could sing that climactic section with conviction, yet follow along on the piano, note by note, to the heartbreaking end.  “still life” is one I am determined to get on tape, because I never, ever captured it on tape back in the day – so if I don’t manage to record myself playing and singing this song, there will be no dave stafford version of it left behind – and it was such an important part of my hammill repertoire.

over time, sometimes, with additional “listens” to the originals, these “made up” bass parts and melodies and chord inversions actually start to very closely resemble what peter hammill or hugh banton played – it just takes time, and practice, and persistence – and being able to listen really well, and “hear” every note…sometimes, if a piece is too complex, I cannot “get it” by ear – most classical music falls into this category – it’s too complex to learn by ear – but popular music, even prog rock, is not – because it’s mostly just chords, lots of chords, with sometimes, melodies or bass lines – much easier to learn than classical music.

it’s great when there is written sheet music, because that gives me a great head start, I can sight read, very slowly, very painfully, so if I have to, I will resort to the sheet music, but it’s tough when it comes to a king crimson or a peter hammill song.

growing up in the 70s, when progressive rock was at it’s height, peaking in 1975-1976 and ramping very quickly downhill from 1977-78 onward, I was so, so lucky because I basically learned every song I could learn, not really realising at the time just how difficult, just how complex this music was – but to me, it wasn’t “prog” it was just – music, the music I listened to, the music I loved, the music I wanted to play.

as you then grow up and become adult, there is less and less time available for things like practicing your piano repertoire – I eventually got rid of my upright piano and hammond organ, so the piano repertoire fell by the wayside for quite a few years.

now, in 2012, well, albeit slowly – it is coming back.  I’ve had such an amazing time these pasts weeks and months, playing pieces like “my room” and “the siren song” – what a remarkable experience, it is actually amazing that I can remember them at all, but – they are on their way back, if only I can be patient, can keep practicing, if I am very, very fortunate – one or two of them might end up on a rolling tape.  I hope…

“dreams, hopes and promises…fragments out of time…”

what we’re listening to – the innocence mission (a guilty pleasure)

in the 1990s, since joni mitchell was already in semi if not full retirement, there was only one female singer that filled that gap (for my money, anyway) – big shoes to fill – and that was the innocence mission’s karen peris.

I discovered this band in a really strange way, I used to videotape mtv’s 120 minutes, which ran from midnight to two am, I would go off to bed and watch the tape the next day, on the off chance that an interesting or good video would be shown (and usually, I was disappointed) but on one of the tapes one night, there was this strange video for an even stranger song called “black sheep wall”, by a group I had never heard of – the innocence mission.

the singer was a shy looking girl with long brown hair, with a lovely soprano voice, but what got to me was the song itself – it was strangely compelling, and I liked the arrangement, which has some sort of reverse reverb backing vocals, and I really liked the instrumentation and the guitarist.

I did something completely uncharacteristic – the next day, I went out, and bought the album on the strength of that one song.  and this was an accident, I never did that – but for some reason, I did.  and I loved the album – it’s an absolute classic, and “black sheep wall” is just one of many great songs on that debut record.

I didn’t know it then, but this was the start of a long love affair with this band, this singer…these SONGS – delicate, fragile, beautiful, sensitive (all the things that most music of the 90s was not) and I was lucky enough to see the band live a couple of times as well, usually in a very small club in san diego. on one of those occasions, I even got to speak to don and karen, and they were just absolutely welcoming and wonderful people – I had a really nice chat with don, told him I liked the way he would go out on a limb with his guitar playing – which he did all the time, his riffs, bordering on the strange, his use of the whammy bar, very peculiar indeed…but wonderful, refreshing – unusual.

a huge component of my admiration for this band IS the guitar playing of don peris – he pretty much never uses distortion, always plays it clean, plays it straight, uses a lot of bright, chorus-y sounds…but can also play so, so powerfully when the need arises.

of course, it wasn’t just don’s guitar, karen’s ability as a vocalist, pianist and synthesist cannot be overstated, of course, really, this is in some ways, “her” band – mainly because it’s her songs – her piano. again, this always impresses me – I am not normally fond of singers who cannot play an instrument – but karen sings lead, sings harmony, play piano, plays synthesizer, plays acoustic guitar – whatever is needed, and she is a musician first and a singer first, as well – now, for a lot of people, it might be difficult to deal with her voice, because it’s one of those really powerful sopranos that some people don’t like, but if you listen to the words, the stories she tells – and then her vocal arrangements – for example, the arrangement on “black sheep wall” is absolutely stunning – as if joni mitchell and kate bush had a magic love child, and her name was karen peris.

as one of the few husband and wife teams out there in the world of popular music, the peris’ had a long and fruitful, albeit low-key, career – and it’s interesting, if you look at the series of recordings they made at the time, starting with their debut “the innocence mission”, moving on through “umbrella” and onto the phenomenal “glow”…but what was interesting was that at first, it was a real band, with bass, drums, guitar and piano – with karen at the centre of it all, those amazing songs, and don supporting her with his world class super clean, melodic, chiming guitars – those guitars!

but, as time went on, first the drums disappeared, and then eventually even the bass, leaving karen and don right back where they started – full circle, so that the last couple of “innocence mission” albums were really just karen and don – and therefore, a lot more acoustic than the earlier records – but the songs never suffered, and in fact the more minimal approach on the later albums actually works very, very well indeed.

early songs such as “clear to you” and “black sheep wall” – are just so, so beautiful, and even now, so many years later, the distinctive sound of karen’s voice, and those beautiful band arrangements, just resonate so beautifully – nothing has changed, even though…everything’s different now.

 

“when it’s…when it’s clear to you, I’ll be near to you – I will be around…

“when it’s…when it’s clear to you, I’ll be near to you – I won’t let you down…”

 

I really admire the amazing talent of these four people, of course, it’s all about karen’s songs, karen’s amazing voice, those kate bush/threatening background vocals, and don’s amazing, concise, careful, clean and sometimes daring guitar playing – and the songs are good, they are solid, the writing is good, the lyrics are intense and meaningful and joyful, the melodies are beautiful – and the band supports karen in an amazing, yet delicate way.

when I spoke to karen and don, I was struck by just what…almost withdrawn, quiet people they were, totally introspective, and when karen spoke, it was in an absolute, barely discernable whisper, almost as if she were afraid to speak aloud (she was probably just saving her voice for the next gig) – and some of her songs are like that too, fragile, you can’t believe something that fragile can exist, something that beautiful – but they do!

so these are definitely not your normal “rock stars” – there was no posturing, no nonsense, just come out, sing and play the songs (and don has a great harmony voice, you could tell that he and karen have been singing together for many, many years) and I was amazed that they then came out to speak to us after the show instead of “off to the hotel” – that was a really nice thing to do, and I haven’t forgotten that conversation even after all these years – I was wanting don to let me overdub one of their songs with layers of ebows – but that idea never came to anything (at least, not yet!) – there is something fairly hypnotic about a lot of the songs, and I had done some experiments where I looped live as the album played – so I could hear it in my head anyway…

 

I really think it’s such a shame that this band was not well known, here, we have real talent, real song writing ability, a great pianist and singer, a fantastic, accurate, clean, quality guitarist – and of course, they were largely ignored in favour of musical atrocities such as…shudder…tori amos.  tori amos was compared to kate bush, but the real talent, the woman who really should have been compared to the vaunted kate b., is our own karen peris – if you ask me, there is a holy trinity of female singers: mitchell, bush, peris – NOT amos, never amos.

 

even new female artists like joanna newsome…OK, I get it, but for me, no one has yet to touch the beautiful, fragile, yet strangely powerful songs of karen peris – they are tops, and it will take someone really, really amazing to replace her place in my heart – I love this music, I’m forever going over black sheep wall and karen peris is taking me there…

sometimes, the band builds up to an amazing frenzy of layered, chiming, beautiful guitars, with multiple karen peris overdubbed vocals lending themselves to this musical frenzy – there is a part in “that was another country” from the “glow” album that never, ever fails to give me goose bumps, as karen’s voices vie with don’s guitars for “most beautiful” or “most chilling” – a really musical, really creative build up of layers, and “that was another country” is a masterpiece, albeit an unknown one – if I had to take just one innocence mission song to my desert island, that might be it…

as I mentioned before, they start out very much “band” and end up very much “acoustic duo” which is a strange career, almost like a career in reverse, the most number of fully arranged, upbeat songs being on the debut, and then, fewer and fewer tracks with band as time goes on.  I love both, and there are also a few tracks that are mostly about karen’s piano and voice, and it’s then that comparisons to both mitchell and bush are totally unavoidable…obviously, she is influenced by both (in fact, mitchell was an actual mentor on the first album, which was produced by mitchell’s then husband, larry klein – as was the second album, “umbrella”, as well) but totally has her own identity, and I love that she is such a strong songwriter, and that the boys in the band – originally, mike bitts on bass and steve brown on drums, along with don and karen peris – they all contributed to the material, but peris is, and always will be, the principal songwriter and is the quiet, gentle, shy driving force behind this band and it’s incredible music.

there is no other like it. an early single, “wonder of birds” has a driving drum beat and a glorious orchestral arrangement that support karen’s massed vocals – and then don starts to layer in his “chorus guitars” – and the whole thing is away, flying, literally flying away – and what kind of band writes about how wonderful birds are – in fact, one of their later albums is actually called “birds of my neighbourhood” – so twitchers (birdwatchers/ornithologists) everywhere, including myself, can rejoice, karen peris and co. are still singing the praises of our avian friends…and that was even a minor hit, with a successful MTV video – can you imagine, a song about birdwatching, an MTV hit??? it doesn’t get more unlikely…

their second album, 1991’s umbrella, starts with an incredibly beautiful, upbeat song called “and hiding away” – with the most glorious guitars, picked chords flying, trying to keep up with karen’s voice, which is soaring so high, so far – and then it’s all don, amazing guitar break, I really cannot express in words what a good guitarist don peris is, you just have to listen – none of it is gratuitous, there is nothing excessive, nothing unnecessary; there is just what the song needs, no more, no less – pop masterpiece minimalism, and “and hiding away” is a perfect example of a great, great pop song – I love it!

I prize the cloudy, tearing sky
for the thoughts that flap and fly.
for staying in and reading by.
for sitting under.

I read a book of madeline
and her friends in two straight lines,
in paris, in a house with vines
over its old face.
far, far is paris…
and the sky is dark with mystery.

try, catch the thoughts that flap and fly
in the cloudy, tearing sky,
that touch and stir and won’t be tied-
and try to speak them.

I think of my old flower sky.
of us, when we thought we were spies.
of bobbing eggs in easter dyes.
of walks in london.
try, try to hold my love for you,
it knows no measure.

this is a day for hearing bagpipes
somewhere playing.
this is a day for hearing sarabands
and hiding away.

sky, I hold my tears if you do.
starling thoughts, go over me

 

and then, from pure, unadulterated joy, the album moves to unspeakable sorrow, with the dirgelike, slowly evolving “ sorry and glad together” with it’s perfect four-note george harrison style slide guitar break – the world’s shortest, best slide solo – so beautiful, a very moody song, that moves from sorrow to joy and back again, and even if this album only had these two songs on it, it would be a masterpiece, “umbrella” is a really, really lovely record.

I love the first three records perhaps a bit inordinately much, and for some reason, I am also very fond of the third album, “glow” – I don’t know why, there are so many good songs, great songs even, across the now-substantial canon of this great, unknown band – and whenever I hear them, I am taken back to the time when these songs were brand new, and I had a secret, I was into one of the best kept secrets ever, the beautiful experience that was being a fan of, and seeing play, a totally real, totally honest songwriter, who would sit down to an absolutely hushed audience, sit at the piano, and pour her heart out without opening her eyes, as don and the band quietly supported her – I will never forget that as long as I live – the venue was a tiny club, and you could hear a pin drop as karen sang…

I feel very, very fortunate that I stumbled across this band by total, total accident; that I took a chance and bought their first CD, that I kept buying their albums (and was rewarded time and time and time again with an even better record than the last one), that I went to see them play and supported them – so many bands are just hype and nonsense, all bluster and no talent, but this incredibly honest couple, with their beautiful, truthful songs, really touched me in a strange way, the songs get into your head and your heart, and you find yourself singing them days and days after hearing them…

“I can see you
I can feel you

I can see…see

you”

normally, I would never buy a CD based on the strength of hearing just one song that I liked – but in this case, I am so, so glad I did, because there after followed 23 years of enjoyment, and I class this band in a very unique category, a rare category, where the quality of the songs and the delivery of the music is such a pure, undamaged thing – even the record companies, the record industry, could not spoil this, and this band always did work on their own terms – they had it their way, even when that way was probably commercial suicide, and for that determination, they have my undying admiration and love.

 

“(I’ve got) clouds in the upstairs, clouds in the memory…

clouds in the upstairs…I still remember…I remember me…”

“clouds in the memory…”

 

 

karen and don – keep making that beautiful music !

 

 

addendum:

 

early period innocence mission playlist – killer tracks

if I had to just take 14 tracks with me…

 

 

black sheep wall

clear to me

you chase the light

wonder of birds

and hiding away

sorry and glad together

now in this hush

someday coming

keeping awake

bright as yellow

that was another country

happy, the end

go

everything’s different now

where does the time go?

snow

moon river

 

 

 

beautiful pop heaven playlist…

 

bliss.