Be in my video!

Would you like to be in a music video for my next single? Great! 

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Then please do this:

  1. Think of an interesting fact about the world, the sort of thing that makes you go ‘oh that’s cool’ and feel a bit better about being alive.
  2. Try and express it briefly – think tweet sized.
  3. Write it on a big piece of paper so it’s nice and legible.
  4. Film yourself holding this aloft – say for a minimum of 30 seconds. You must be in shot.
  5. Send the footage to me

If you can do it in some kind of interesting location then all the better. Try and adopt a facial expression which reflects how you feel about your fact.

Please don’t make up your fact.

Technical stuff:

  • Please film it LANDSCAPE not portrait
  • Please use a pretty generic video format, something I won’t struggle to import into iMovie -.m4a .avi .mov are all fine
  • Please upload it to some kind of filesharing site like dropbox
  • e-mail it to andy@andrewpaulregan.co.uk

DEADLINE: 11th November

Any questions let me know. I waffle a lot so I’ve tried to keep this simple.

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The Arthur C Clarke Award 2013

So I recently finished reading all six of the novels shortlisted for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award. Just in a ‘because it’s there’, kind of way. Having completed this essentially arbitrary task, I thought I’d do a victory lap by blogging about it. Will I pick the same winner that the judges did (semi-controversially selecting from an all-male shortlist, chosen by a 4/5ths female judging panel)? Read on to find out!

I’ll talk about the books in the order I read them….

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

Synopsis: This was the actual 2013 winner. Set on a distant planet named ‘Eden’ populated by human inhabitants, all of whom are descended from a single couple who ended up crashed there by accident decades ago. The plot follows their five hundred or so descendants several generations on, still awaiting rescue from back on Earth. The younger generations start to wonder whether they should be focussing on life in Eden, rather than waiting in limbo for salvation that may never come.

My verdict: I think this is  a very well imagined piece of writing, with a clear underlying message about being present in the moment and valuing what you have. Eden itself is suitably alien as a place. All the flora and fauna are named after earth equivalents, but their strangeness creeps up on you. There are ‘leopards’ which live outside the community, and have disc shaped dark green eyes to adjust to Eden’s almost total darkness, as well as bizarre trees which pump out heat from within the planet. The incestuous angle isn’t played up too much, instead the guilt of all Eden-ites being told that their sexual relationships are inherently wrong sits subtly in the background. The quasi-religious nature of the community and the wait for salvation isn’t overplayed either, but the parallels are clear, and the fuddy-duddy ‘Oldest’ who safeguard (inaccurately, we see as readers) the oral histories of back home are clearly painted as being on the wrong side of the debate.

I enjoyed this a lot. If I had any criticism it’s that the plot unfolds almost exactly as you would expect it to.

Nod by Adrian Barnes

Synopsis: Often the best sci-fi starts from the simplest premise and explores it inside out. In ‘Nod’ Barnes simply removes one element of human life – sleep. All of humanity finds overnight that they are no longer able to sleep, other than one in a thousand who continue unaffected. The protagonist Paul is one of those who still can, but his partner Tanya starts to suffer the physical and mental strain of a life without sleep. Society rapidly crumbles as the sleep deprivation takes hold more widely. A bizarre cult emerges, inspired by an incomplete scholarly work of Paul’s about archaic, forgotten words. The cult christens the new world ‘Nod’ and anoints Paul as an unwilling prophet.

My verdict: Based on the synopsis I read, this was the book other than ‘Dark Eden’ which most appealed, but it was actually the only one on the list that I didn’t really enjoy. Mostly I think because it’s so unremittingly bleak. It reminded me a little of Drew McGarry’s ‘The End Specialist’, a book I found too pessimistic about mankind’s likelihood of pulling together in a post-apocalyptic scenario.

The madness and masochism of the Nod Cult is, to me, a narrative dead end which offers no catharsis. The ‘archaic language thesis’ angle seemed contrived and under-developed – perhaps a stab at adding some ‘literary’ worth? Ultimately we don’t even find out what causes the end of sleep. To be honest I hadn’t, expected to – most such explanations end up feeling like the last five minutes of Dr Who. That said, not all do – and at least it could have been an opportunity to surprise us at the end, or even go on for longer/save the world – anything that might have cheered me up. Ultimately even the slightly Children of Men like MacGuffin that drives Paul’s actions as the Good Guy doesn’t really lead anywhere. Bad things happen to good people, lives are ruined, everything spirals down.

An interesting read, but ultimately a bit too pessimistic for me.

The Dog Stars – Peter Heller

Synopsis: Billed in some quarters as ‘the Road with optimism’ this was already set up to be a welcome antidote to Nod’s bleak outcome. A virus has wiped out much of mankind, there are small pockets of survivors, some making do in small communities, some are loners like Hig – the protagonist, and his neighbour Bangley. Hig is a pilot, regularly scouting the area in his Cessna aeroplane. Some years ago he picked up a signal from an distant airbase suggesting more survivors were out there, but to fly out and investigate would be a one way journey – there would be no guarantee he could find the fuel to return.

My verdict: I really warmed to this book. So very simple in construction – I could spoil the entire plot in about four sentences – it gets by on the very well drawn cast of characters. Hig and Bangley’s relationship is complex and engaging. The occasional bursts of violence and cruelty from outside are underpinned, in the end, by optimism.

I found the book’s inclusion in a ‘science fiction’ award a bit of a stretch – the blood virus plays hardly any role in the story, so in the end the most advanced technology is Hig’s plane. That’s not to take away from a book which succeeds in exactly the way that Nod failed – by injecting a little hope and warmth into its otherwise bleak narrative.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Synopsis: A more traditionally ‘sci-fi’ book, in the ‘space opera’ style. It concerns mankind’s early colonisation of the solar system, and the conflict between the balkanised states on the various planets, moons, and asteroids. Beginning with the destruction of Mercury’s only city, ‘Terminator’, a giant machine which moves perpetually across the planet’s dark side on giant train tracks to avoid the lethal heat of the sun. We follow a native Mercurian, Swan, in her efforts to find out whether this was an accident, or an act of terrorism – and who might be responsible.

My verdict: In parts a little slow, in parts a little dry, I still enjoyed this book. Other than the fact of it being set In Outer Space, and including new technologies, like references to quantum computing, and artificial intelligence, this is actually more of a political thriller. The depiction of a post climate-change earth where billions live in poverty whilst new colonies out in the solar system thrive is chillingly plausible. Whilst some might find it a little overwrought and didactic, I don’t – because climate change is fucking scary. Such a complicated book is hard to summarise, and some might find themselves losing patience with some of the sequences, such as the part Swan finds herself pacing for weeks on end through tunnels under the surface of Mercury – herself going half mad with boredom.

Ultimately a believable and insightful vision of mankind’s future – if our technological skills outpace our growth as a more egalitarian society.

Intrusion by Ken MacLeod

Synopsis: A near-future dystopian Britain is the setting for another ‘what if’ thriller. ‘The Fix’ is a voluntary, one-off medical treatment, taken in the form of a single tablet taken by a mother when pregnant, which prevents numerous common childhood diseases by altering DNA. Opting out on anything other than religious grounds is highly unusual, and somewhat socially unacceptable. New legal precedents are being established which may ultimately make it compulsory.

Hope is pregnant with her second child, having declined to take ‘The Fix’ for her first she intends to do the same this time. Her reason remains unarticulated, beyond the desire for it to be her choice. The book explores how she is treated in a society where smoking whilst pregnant is now illegal, and a mother-to-be’s body is constantly monitored for alcohol intake, or other sources of harm to a foetus. This assertion of foetus’ rights is enforced to the extent that most women now have no choice but to undertake menial remote work from their homes. As the law closes in around her, well-meaning activists seek to use Hope’s predicament to further their own agenda.

My verdict: For the most part this is a really well developed ‘thought experiment’ of a book, it explores its central premise well, and sets it in the context of a hyper-controlling society in which everyone wears something which very much resembles Google Glass, with disastrous consequences for personal freedoms. Political and ethical stances from both the left and right are taken to their most absurd conclusions to result in an unusually liberal dystopia with nods to 1984 and other classics. A socialist Hindu terrorist group – the Naxals – is a presence at the fringes, but isn’t central to the plot. This enables MacLeod to make an interesting, almost passing, point about how close modern British society is to a socialist state. In the book, the state parties conspire to ensure the population doesn’t realise this, or existing power structures would collapse.

The story also introduces another more overtly ‘sci-fi’ element which I won’t divulge but which complicates Hope’s decision, and lifts the novel out of what could have been a very dry satire by introducing more action. The book only falls down a little right at the very end, having hinged so much around whether or not Hope will take ‘The Fix’ I found her ultimate decision didn’t quite seem to flow from what had gone before… I won’t elaborate. Ultimately an enjoyable and thought provoking book.

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

Synopsis: Joe Spork is a clockwork repair expert, and the son of a Reggie Kray style mobster, who finds himself duped into instigating a potential apocalypse by an elderly former spy. The unlikely method of destruction comes in the form of a hive of clockwork bees. Pursued throughout by various shadowy agencies, and never quite sure who is on his side and who isn’t – he uncovers the truth about his own history in the course of unravelling the mystery and trying to save the world.

My verdict: Summaries I read of this book before reading it probably did as poor a job of selling it to me as I’ve just done above. However I was pleasantly surprised by Angelmaker. It succeeds through sheer intrigue and enjoyment, with a high stakes plot based on somewhat preposterous science – which I can’t describe without spoiling it. The characters are well drawn and you really do root for them. It’s a deeply British book MI5, Bletchley Park, obsessive hobbyists, the civil service, and old school London gangsters all play a part in a story which is thrilling and keeps you guessing.

It’s probably the least believable book on the list, in terms of its ‘science’ content, this is far from an issue. It also probably tries the least to contain a ‘message’. Yet it isn’t shallow or ‘wacky’ either, despite its ‘terrifying clockwork bees’ premise. My only criticism is that it’s a little dense and hard to follow at first – being something of a unique plot, I found myself looking up an online synopsis to help me figure out where all the initially disparate elements were going. Ultimately highly enjoyable, with an interesting thought experiment about quantum theory, the nature of truth, determinism, and heisenbergian uncertainty at its heart.

Final verdict

So which one was my ‘winner’? Here are my rankings

1st Angelmaker
2nd Dark Eden
3rd Intrusion
4th 2312
5th The Dog Stars
6th Nod

So Angelmaker is the winner! Meaning you shouldn’t judge a book by…. well anything at all really. It was a close call between that and Dark Eden, but I think Angelmaker took it for originality and unpredictability.

Looking forward to next year’s list!

On Completism or “Why Phil Elv(e)rum must have seen me coming…”

I’m a sucker for a man with a big discography. As with so many things in life, a man’s discography should be judged, not by its size, but by what he does with it. But just as thrill-seekers will offer no better reason for scaling Everest etc. than ‘because it’s there’ I too find the gravity of a mountainous discography pulls me in.

And of course if you know Phil Elverum’s (née Elvrum) work, you’ll doubtless have anticipated that I’m heading for some clever pun on ‘Mount Eerie’ – for indeed Elverum has spent most of the last decade writing cryptic albums about the intriguingly named mountain which he grew up next to, and the world around it.

A teensy bit of history, Phil Elvrum (as was) started a one-man-plus-guests band called The Microphones in 1996 and did the usual 90’s American alt.rock thing of releasing lots of limited 7”’s, tapes and detritus alongside ‘proper’ albums… before hitting his critical peak with an album called ‘The Glow pt.2’ which I heard recently for the first time, prompting me to excitedly tell the other members of Local Sports Team ‘I think it might be as good as ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’ (not a claim I make lightly).

Next he did an artistic backflip, releasing an LP called ‘Mount Eerie’ which had an 18 minute long first track which was mostly drum solo, and which charted some inscrutable narrative about birth, life, death, the universe and everything. He then changed the name of his band from The Microphones to Mount Eerie, changed his surname (in liner notes at least) from ‘Elvrum’ to ‘Elverum’ and has been releasing gorgeous abstract folk/black metal hybrid albums ever since, always centred on the mysteries of nature and the fleetingness of life.

Mount Eerie released two albums last year called ‘Clear Moon’ and ‘Ocean Roar’ which were recorded at the same time and though released separately are clearly two halves of a conceptual whole. In fact it would be truer to say that they’re just the latest parts of one long album which Elverum’s been working on ever since ‘Mount Eerie’ the LP. Most records have a ‘part 2’ of a song which appeared on a previous record. Certain phrases ‘the lights of town’ ‘through the trees’ recur in numerous songs. The sense throughout the body of work that he’s always grasping at something which eludes him is tangible.

Sonically the Microphones and Mount Eerie are quite distinct. Both are usually centered around acoustic guitars, but The Microphones then play with recording technology to deconstruct the songs. The use of panning is quite integral to some Microphones ‘riffs’ in a way I’ve never come across elsewhere, tape manipulation plays a role, as does destructive use of EQ’ing and distortion. Some of the earliest Microphones songs have fun lyrics about recording technology, such as ‘Feedback (Life, Love, Loop)’ which is about microphones and speakers ‘singing to each other’. Nice.

There’s a sense of playfulness and spontaneity to it, often the guitars are out of tune, a little out of time, it’s clear he prioritises ‘feel’ over perfection. He also uses a trick once or twice that I’ve had in the back of my mind for years, which is starting a propulsive punky backing, then gradually fading it down low and using it as the bed for a slow acoustic track. Damn him. I still want credit for thinking of it ‘first’ if I ever use it.

The last track on ‘The Glow Pt.2’ mostly consists of a single ‘bong’ sound – which has already reared its head throughout the album – repeating for about seven minutes, whilst snatches of the album reprise themselves almost inaudibly underneath. The ‘Mount Eerie’ LP which followed it then begins with the exact same sound, gradually mutating into a rhythm track for the opening song. I’m sold. Where do I sign up?

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Mount Eerie the band, outside some of the earlier recordings which just seem like slightly duller versions of The Microphones, by contrast is more polished. It really hits its stride with a 10” vinyl EP called ‘Mount Eerie pt’s 6 & 7’ (housed in a 112 photo book pictured above – don’t get me started on the care he takes with packaging, we’ll be here all day) which really started to nail this ‘Black Wooden’ (i.e. black metal using wooden instruments) genre Elverum’s trying to invent. You could mention shoegaze and Loveless and be in vaguely the right territory. My knowledge of black metal is, and is likely to remain, very limited but you can see the wall of dense sound approach in some tracks. Conceptually it works with the whole ‘Mount Eerie’/raw elemental nature idea – what better evokes the roar of the sea or the grandiosity of a mountain than a searing wall of distorted guitar? Can’t do that with a groovebox!

Most of his albums feature one or more instrumental tracks simply entitled ‘(something)’ – as if he created something he couldn’t explain and just included it anyway, hoping someone else could make sense of it. As a result, ‘(something)’ by Mount Eerie will probably soon top my last.fm charts (toppling, I think, a track by Guided by Voices, another band with an epic discography).

All this to say I’m really enjoying his work. And I’m enjoying it all the more precisely because there is such a vast body of it to dip into. I am cursed with an old fashioned affliction – an attention span. I’m willing to comb through nearly twenty years of a guy’s lyrics to see if he mentions ‘the lights of town’ again because that’s part of the fun of being a music fan for me. I narrowly avoided wasting a small fortune in my teenage years on the complete works of egotistical jazzwank bore Frank Zappa, precisely ‘because it was there’ (thankfully one day I had an epiphany ‘this is just awful’ – I think it was about halfway through the third disc of ‘Läther’…).

I’ve always been this way – I think it comes from my first real musical love affair being with Pulp – going into Andy’s Records in Bolton and discovering that they’d had a career as old as me before ‘Common People’ and poring over early albums like ‘Freaks’ and ‘It’ without really caring/noticing that they weren’t anywhere near as good as the records that steered me to them. I think that’s where I got my interest in always wanting to engage with an artist’s entire body of work. The same impulse that had me buy the two Captain Beefheart albums which are universally derided as being utter shit, including by him. I knew they were shit, I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy them. I just wanted to understand why they were shit, to see the artistic bridge between his two ‘good’ eras.

Gotta catch 'em all

Gotta catch ’em all

In my own work I also include these little bits of continuity, repeated lines, parts 1 2 3’s, song suites, forward referencing the next album before I’ve finished the current one. My ultimate imagined listener remains the person who’s heard it all – a demographic which is in single figures if it exists at all. It’s why I finally put everything I’ve ever done on Bandcamp in 2011 (something Elverum has also done).

So this overt continuity of theme and sound is something which Elverum could have done specifically to get my hard earned paypal dollars (that and self-releasing and selling direct, which I try and support wherever possible). He saw me coming! Me and my big omnivorous attention span.

How Music Works

I’ve just finished reading this tome, in which David Byrne from Talking Heads effectively whizzes through several areas of music-related theory in an entry level sort of way, using numerous examples from his own career.

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Before I delve deeper I’ll answer a question I’ve been asked about it… is it ‘How Music Works by David Byrne’ or is it more ‘How Music by David Byrne Works’? Well there are times when it’s more the latter. The chapter on performance leans particularly heavily on a largely anecdotal account of how his performances have evolved over time – but then  what else does he have to draw on. A familiarity with Talking Heads and Byrne’s solo output would certainly help, and add a level of enjoyment for fans, but I’d still say this is an interesting read for anyone. There, that’s as close as I’m getting to ‘reviewing’ the book.

I say it’s about ‘music-related’ theory, it’s very much not a book about chords, scales, modes, harmonics or owt like that. Byrne’s central argument is that music arrives out of a specific context – be that social, technological, cultural, financial, or political – and that the old fashioned view of a composer who suddenly gets a gleam in his eye and furiously starts scribbling a score as an act of pure inspiration is a false one.

As an example, he discusses the impact of early recording technology on jazz. The crude ‘reverse-gramophone’/single microphone approach to recording a group would dictate choices about what instruments were used – banjos were used instead of acoustic guitars because they were louder, tubas came through better on the recording than a double bass, etc. Other groups of musicians in geographically separate locations would then hear these recordings and assume that a band with a tuba for a bass was how that music was ‘supposed’ to sound, and would promptly form groups with banjos and tubas.

He also looks at music’s social context. There’s a particularly opinionated section on how nouveau riche people have a habit of casting around for something to spend their money on, and ending up building an opera house (or similar temple to ‘high’ art) at huge subsidy. Why do this – he asks – and not fund subsidised pop concert halls ‘for the people’? In answering he links it to ideas about how the perceived superiority of classical and operatic forms of music are assumed (by the elite) to be good for the ‘soul’ of the common man (hi!) – John Maynard Keynes being a person who held such views – or in less abstract terms for the educational achievements of. In fact there’s no evidence that any one kind of music is better for the developing brains of children, though there’s clear evidence that learning some kind of instrument, and playing some kind of music is very valuable indeed – it doesn’t really matter what it is.

He also goes through how business models affect what music gets made, how radio broadcasting or night club PA systems affect how music sounds, how the amount of music that would fit onto a side of vinyl began to affect the length of compositions etc. All things which are obvious when you think about them – and most of these ideas weren’t new to me, and won’t be to many of you – but which all linked together effectively by Byrne, and are worth thinking about again.

How does context affect what music is made, Deadmau5?

Ultimately the central message is hugely positive. Byrne views music as a social phenomenon to its core, empowering, unifying and a way of communicating things words can’t. I think he’s right.

(Here’s where I stop talking about the book and start talking about me)

I don’t, if I’m honest, generally enjoy going to gigs. Even when I really like a band there’s so much about the live music experience which irritates me. The other people there, the poor sound, not knowing where to look, having to stand up, having to pay too much for beer, watching support bands, the set going on too long etc. Before I started university I’d probably been to about ten gigs ever and just a single music festival (Werchter 99 in Belgium if you were wondering). At university the gigs were largely local bands, and I would go mostly for the social side. There was probably one band in Aberystwyth that I genuinely wanted to hear for musical reasons.

Me trying to ‘play live’

The years 2006-08 were probably my peak gig watching years when I was touring a lot myself and was integrating myself into a new city by meeting friends who also played/went to gigs a lot. So I probably enjoyed those shows more because I had some sort of personal investment in the band doing well, and in them having a good time. More recently I don’t go to shows as much, and my own gigging has slowed down for a number of reasons.

But I buy more records than I ever have (partly just because I can afford to) and my love for music is as all-consuming now as it’s ever been.

Still I find my relationship with it is mostly based on its recorded form. I view a gig as an opportunity to basically evaluate a band and see if I want to listen to them at home. You generally ‘can’t hear the words’ at loud gigs, which is fine – but it means there’s nothing to connect with there. I tend to go to gigs in tiny venues that don’t lend themselves to music which depends on a very precise balance of sounds. Sound-based artists I love (like say Fennesz) don’t play in Cardiff – or anywhere near Cardiff – so I don’t know if I’d enjoy a gig like that or not.

Christian Fennesz playing live

There are bands I’ll go and see where I know the performance will be distinct from the recordings. A Hawk And A Hacksaw spring to mind. I’ll always go and watch them (because they actually bother to play Cardiff!), but I rarely buy their new album. Battles are great live and on record – but I think I appreciate them live so much because they’re such a hybrid of real instrument playing/computer and it sounds like it shouldn’t be possible to reproduce it live, but it is.

For the most part then I’m completely out of step with how the music ‘industry’ is perceived to be going. Records will ultimately, so the thinking goes, become adverts for gigs. They’ll be given free or sold at a loss in order to promote a ‘brand’ (formerly ‘artist’) which makes money from the concert and in other ways – as Byrne says in the book, this may include selling perfume, or lines of clothing. Whereas in the past concerts were viewed as promo for people to buy records, and tours would often lose money.

I’m still here happily buying albums, and deeply engrossed by the album as an authorial medium in itself. Am I saying music has to work in the context of a ten song 45 minute ‘work’? Absolutely not. A single song has just as much value. Only being able to write one or two great songs doesn’t mean you’re a crap band, most bands can’t even write one. But I grew up with albums, and I like the coherence, the ‘whole package’ that they offer.

In my own music I tend to think ‘I’m writing a new album!’. Although this only started with ‘European Monsoon’. Before that I would just think about new songs, and would clump them together in a vaguely pleasing order once I had enough to fill a disc. So Byrne’s right, considerations about format do affect how music is written.

I would also, in the past, think about how I’d be able to perform stuff live. In reality my gigs have never been that ‘live’, because they’re so reliant on pre-recorded material. At one point my songs would be entirely electronic, and only have space for one guitar part, because I wanted to be able to perform them live and have them be similar to the recordings. Then when I started to use a laptop rather than a groovebox it would feel less weird to have an acoustic guitar strumming away in the background and another real one in my hands.

Ultimately I always felt the more I went down that road, the less successful the gigs were. The more I felt I needed to ‘perform’ and engage personally with the audience for them to enjoy it. Performing with a laptop feels less ‘live’ than performing with a sequencer does – even if all you do on the sequencer is press play. Strange. I think I slightly offended a fellow laptop-toting artist once by asserting that I’d ‘never seen a genuinely great gig involving a laptop’ – lots of good gigs, lots where I heard good music, but nothing truly exceptional. A possible exception would be Germlin, where Joe would do nothing but scream and throw himself around whilst 100% pre-recorded music came out of his laptop. No real vocals, no ‘playing an instrument’ – but I think it worked better than most because his actions were such a great embodiment of the music the audience was hearing.

Fundamentally I’m a writer before I’m anything else – a singer, instrumentalist, sound recordist, performer – and I’ve just spent a happy few minutes gazing out of the window trying to decide if I listen to so much stuff in that ‘prolific one man band’ genre because I am such a being, or if I am such a being because I’m drawn to that approach. I remember being fascinated by the early solo Graham Coxon records (yeah, that’s my reference point) where he played every instrument, and finding that really appealing. The idea of that independence – much closer to the idea Byrne dismisses of the solo composer’s inspiration, than to the social ‘influenced by context’ writing of a band.

It’s only been the last 12 months where I’ve been part of Local Sports Team, writing genuinely democratically, and making allowances for other people’s musical strengths and shortcomings (usually I only have to contend with my own!), that I’ve realised how writing can be constrained by ability, context, number of hands. At home if I want five guitar tracks I can have them, in LST we have one guitar so I’ve got to make it count. Still I sort of view LST as something I do more for social reasons, and I save my best lyrics for my own stuff. So why do I value this hermitude?

I wonder if it stems from the role music played for me in childhood? One of the reasons I went to so few gigs was because no one would come with me, not because I didn’t have any friends, but because the friends I had didn’t like the music I liked (for the most part). I always felt a bit of an outsider at school, and amongst the friends I had where I lived (which were totally separate groups) so was I drawn to weird music because I wanted to further define myself as an outsider? And did my passion for the likes of Aphex Twin and Tortoise in fact further drive a wedge between me and the people I grew up with (purely a cultural if not social one)?

To this day I know no one who entirely shares my taste in music. There aren’t many records in my collection that someone else I know doesn’t own, but no one has them all (to be fair I do own hundreds and hundreds of records). No one also seems to like stuff in the same way I do. Not many of my friends would read a book called ‘How Music Works’ for example.

William Wordsworth – what a prick

There’s a fear of knowing too much about music, this ‘we murder to dissect’ idea which both I, and David Byrne in the book, categorically reject. The reason I love music as much now as I ever have is precisely because I keep digging into it. I’ve read about sound mixing, about how synths work, about how music affects your brain, about the social context, never mind the linguistic and theoretical stuff around language I did in my degree (woo!). Every new thing you learn about music affects how you hear the music you love. Music isn’t a magic trick, it’s part of what makes us human. If you suddenly understand a bit more about how X artist made the synth sound on song Y then you love the song more, not less. Or I think so anyway…

I’m not saying I like music in a ‘better way’ than people who, say, just enjoy songs that remind them of fun nights out, or see records as souvenirs of great live shows they’ve seen. There are very few songs where I think I like it because it reminds me of something from my personal life. I think I mostly try and engage with music because of whatever I perceive to be ‘innate’ in it. I’m thinking of something like a Fennesz record which is genuinely moving in its raw state – it’s just a beautiful sound – but then I cherish it more because it’s deeply original (sonically, though not compositionally), and I value the idea that he’s found a new way to make sound beautiful.

What Byrne’s book has reminded me is that I bring a whole lot of that to the table myself. There isn’t anything innate in music, it’s a sound which you hear and then it’s gone. Being able to hear the exact same sound over and over is a very new development, and a slightly artificial one. More than ever before you can analyse a ‘composition’ which consists not just of notes and chords, but of how those notes are played and sung, how they’re arranged, and specific decisions about how things sound. Previously music could only have been an event, a specific moment – not a ‘text’.

Reading ‘How Music Works’ has been refreshing, it’s opened my head up a little, and given me a few more ways to appreciate something I love.

Why John Maus is my awesome

My new year’s resolution is to read and write more about music (feel free to hold me to account for this). So it’s somewhat intimidating to try and make my fresh start with a blog post about John Maus….

Maus is himself an uber-articulate, academically minded gentleman, more often covered by the likes of The Wire adjectivising generously on his art as an immanent critique of pop music itself. Or something. Here he is talking about how he performs live…

…what he describes as the Hysterical Body may look to some like a man punching himself in the face whilst he sings over a backing track, but you can see that he’s very much Thought About It. [Shocking to think any artist would show so little regard for the medium of ‘live’ music *cough* – at least I delete the vocals on my tracks before I sing over them!.]

Clearly we’re dealing with a man who needs no help analysing what he does. Shall I plunge deep into the darkest depths of my long-neglected BA in English to deconstruct his lyrics? Shall I wield my literary scalpel and split signifieds from signifiers in his verse? Okay, let’s pick a lyric at random…

Rights for gays / Oh yeah!
Rights for gays / Oh yeah!
Right now / Rights for gays / Oh yeah!
And medical care / for everyone!

Erm….

Okay so I didn’t pick that at random. I picked it because it’s funny. One of two John Maus songs which has made me giggle on public transport during the last few weeks. The other is ‘Don’t Be A Body’ which I’ll let you discover for yourself (see playlist below).

‘Rights For Gays’ is from his 2007 album ‘Love is Real’. Lyrically it is something of a curveball, most of his other songs are less overtly daft – and if you read the Pitchfork review of the album, the writer seems to want to gloss over the song as being faintly embarrassing – bordering on inappropriate. But for me it does encapsulate what I think Maus is doing with most of his other stuff.

If you take it at face value ‘Rights For Gays’ comes across as a somewhat guileless lefty protest song. As if the person who wrote it sincerely wanted to unite the world behind their big positive message but couldn’t quite get the lyrical chops together to come up with anything better than ‘Rights for gays / oh yeah!’. The ‘medical care’ line feels like ‘and while we’re at it, I demand action on this other liberal poster issue’.

The early Maus stuff has a kind of ‘found’ quality to it. Like the ‘outsider music’ work compiled in that ‘Songs in the Key of Z’ book and CD. In particular it reminds me of Wesley Willis, the paranoid schizophrenic electro punk artist who made hundreds of near identical mini-anthems with stream of conscious pop culture heavy lyrics about pretty much whatever he last thought of, releasing them on dozens of short run self released albums.

Outsider music recordings generally feel like they’ve been made by someone who’s ‘missed something’ – some nuance of either the social context of pop music or of the form itself. They often come across as overly earnest, savant-like bursts of creativity, that survive only through the miracle of home recording (see also Jandek – who I’ve written about before, Daniel Johnston etc).

Except that Maus’ music isn’t, it’s made quite knowingly by a smartly dressed, well educated, seemingly fairly well-adjusted, and frankly quite attractive young man from Austin, Minnesota. The lo-fi nature of the music is presumably a logistical thing rather than a committed aesthetic choice, I’m guessing all his stuff is homemade in some way, but it certainly adds to the ‘vibe’. Whether he’s conscious of this I don’t know. As far as I know he’s using his real name, which would generally point away from an attempt to play a character. So who then is this ‘John Maus’ coming out of the speakers? Sure doesn’t seem like the same guy talking in that^ video.

The rest of his work poses the same questions. Even a less ostensibly silly track like ‘Do Your Best’, which immediately precedes ‘Rights for Gays’ on the album, seems to do pretty much the same thing.

Reach out your hand to the one alone
In your city tonight
You gotta do what’s right
In your city tonight

What? Really, John? You want me to go find someone who’s lonely and have a chat with them? Well okay….

This time the track is much doomier, slow chugging basslines and swelling synth pads, vaguely Joy Division-y. There’s no campy trill to his vocals, this is closer to his usual mode. But again the lyrics seem like a clumsy attempt to advocate some lefty cause – let’s all join a befriending service cos our favourite electro pop act tells us to! Or maybe he was just lonely when he wrote it… who knows?

And oh yeah, the music… ‘Electro pop’ pretty much suffices as a description of John Maus. Short of some more neo-classical stylings to the keyboard playing on his earlier stuff (a bit like the Magnetic Fields), and the slightly choral feel his layers of vocals often hint at the music is fairly straight retro electro. Usually a bass guitar chugging over unshowy drum programming, smothered in glistening synths. This isn’t sophisticated sound-designer stuff. The sounds he uses are straight out of your favourite ‘eighties presets’ sample pack, all drenched in unsubtle amounts of reverb.

There’s a seemingly wilful amateurishness to how it all comes together. His early albums have the occasional crackle and mic hiss, which is mostly gone on his ‘breakthrough’ record, 2011’s ‘We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves’. However there’s still a general lack of fidelity which gives it a ‘cheap horror film’ quality. Is this part of the schtick? See above.

We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves

Again this adds to the feel of the music as something ‘found’. Like there shouldn’t be a real guy called John Maus wandering round out there. We should be trying to track him down for a retrospective documentary, Searching For Sugar Man style, or Mingering Mike not waiting for him to tour and release a new record.

I’ve got to admit that it’s taken me a while to get to my current status as whatever the Maus equivalent of a Belieber is. On the listening post at Spillers I switched off ‘Streetlight’ about a minute in because the synths sounded naff and the vocals were just utterly lost in the reverb. I still think the synths sound naff and wish I could hear the lyrics better on some songs, but now I love it for the same reason. It also took me nearly twelve months after finally buying ‘We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves’ to finally come to love it (I got it as part of a Bleep albums of the year bundle, if you were wondering).

It’s rare for me to listen to an artist on repeat, never mind one song or album. But last.fm tells me I’ve listened to Maus about 100 times in the last month, and that’s just iPod and laptop listens. He’s sent me back to the days of being a teenage pop fan, playing the same song on one side of a 7” over and over again.

Maus does seem to inspire the same in others. There’s a small, delightfully nutty online community dedicated to him called Mausspace. It wasn’t quite as Capslock House as I was hoping it might be, but there’s similar levels of adulation. If you search you can see a Happy Birthday message to John from his mum in one of the threads, it’s quite sweet.

So what swayed me? What made me a Mausketeer? Well I think it helps that his songs are catchy as fuck, and that even whilst you can sit and write a lovely blog post about the levels of irony in his work there’s still a core of soul in it all. Songs like ‘Bennington’, ‘Big Dumb Man’ and ‘The Fear’ give the impression of being rooted in real experience of demons and lost love, even as they use humour to introduce distance by sleight of hand (a technique I know well).  And ‘Believer’, the last track from ‘…Censors’, has a soaring uplifting quality which isn’t remotely diminished by the fact you can’t really make out a word of what he’s saying. It’s one of two tracks – the other being ‘No Title (Molly)’ – that I wish went on for twice as long as it does.

Ultimately I think it’s those ambiguous lyrical and stylistic hooks that go along with the musical ones. He walks elegantly the tightrope between irony and earnestness, and wrong foots you with occasional moments of ‘hang on, what am I actually listening to here?’. You can’t hear ‘Rights for Gays’ and not do a double take. Maus has made something so convincingly ‘faux outsider’ (I feel a bit sick for coining that expression) that it is actually possible to forget that he’s out there washing his socks, eating bread, and finishing his PhD or whatever, and that believe that you live in a world where the guy in the video doesn’t exist, and ‘John Maus’ is the great lost King of Pop.

I will now scribble his lyrics on my exercise book.

—-

If that’s whetted your appetite, here’s a Spotify Playlist I made of my ten favourite John Maus songs.

Local Sports Team EP “Latvia” + new APR LP

For the last year or so I’ve been playing guitar and singing in a band called Local Sports Team, alongside my regular collaborator David Madoc Roberts – who’s played on a few of my records, in my band, and directed two of my music videos – as well as our friends Tomos Jones (ex-PWL band circa 2008) and Shane Wilson.

We’ve finally got around to recording an EP called ‘Latvia’ which is out to buy tomorrow. If you’re in Cardiff you’ll be able to buy it at a launch gig at Undertone – also tomorrow, or from Spillers as soon as I drop some copies off. People further afield can listen/buy and download it from bandcamp.
http://localsportsteam.bandcamp.com/

LST

Local Sports Team is very much not ‘my new band’, it’s a democratic four way collaboration with all the songs on the EP written from scratch in the practice room, in some cases before I joined. Whilst I have ended up being the main singer and lyricist – at least on the songs we’ve recorded – the words are increasingly based on things we’ve come up with as a band. Reviews have used the word ‘comedy’ but that does tend to conjure up associations of excruciating ‘whack whack oops’ type songs, I prefer ‘light hearted’. The songs are variously about obsessive fandom, undercomplicating things, Facebook, losing yourself in a crowd, and a giant reptile woman attacking Cardiff.

The most in depth review is by Ben Likes Music here:
http://benlikesmusic.com/?p=575

I see Local Sports Team as a band making fun leftfield alternative rock music, serious about doing something of our own, but not in a very serious way. The influences I scribbled down for our press release included Battles, Deerhoof, Pavement, Life Without Buildings, Electrelane, Mogwai, Future of the Left and a few others I’ve forgotten. Reviewers have mentioned Caribou, Yo La Tengo, Jarcrew, and Hirameki Hi-Fi.

There’s an interesting dynamic going on because I think we’re each influenced by music which the other three really quite dislike. Shane is an unashamed, unironic lover of mainstream chart music. David brings lots of metal influences to his drumming. Whereas Tom would happily listen to an endless parade of straightforward punk rock music (think McClusky and the Thermals) for the rest of his life. I’m not going for anything specific with my contributions – I get to ‘play guitar’ a bit more than I do with my own stuff, and I’ve always thought Stephen Malkmus was my biggest guitar playing influence (though I’m clearly not up there in terms of proficiency), whether that comes through or not I don’t know.

So yeah, there’s my take on LST – the others would doubtless see it quite differently. Not bearing sole responsibility for every aspect is a new thing for me. Interested in what you all think.

~

In other news, I’ve finished whatever the audio equivalent of principal photography is on a new solo record, release date tbc.

I’ve come to think of it as a ‘cubist folk’ album, much more relaxed and open than ‘The Signal and the Noise’. The intention this time was to go for sonic coherence throughout, where previously eclecticism has been the order of the day. Mostly based around acoustic guitars but with greater or lesser amounts of computer interventions – reslicing, granular synthesis, arpeggiators etc, and uses of space (field recordings – using acoustically sub-optimal rooms etc). I tried to limit my use of synthesisers, breaking this rule only when that was the only way to get the sound I wanted. Eleanor Tyrrell has once again contributed some beautiful violin playing which also gets chopped up a little, and I’m hoping to add a few guest singers here and there.

Because it was recorded in a single place, and will forever be linked with that place in my mind, I think I’m going to call it ‘Dinas Powys’. I think the slightly arbitrary title reflects the fact that this is just a collection of songs – there was no overarching theme guiding the writing this time, though I think one has emerged organically.

Anyway, that record isn’t out yet… Latvia is. So go listen!

Alternative test for psychic ability

It’s quite admirable that two professional psychics recently volunteered to have their abilities tested by Merseyside Skeptics.

The test devised is interesting, it basically consists of each psychic having to do written ‘readings’ for five different ‘sitters’ who they can’t see or talk to. Each sitter then rates the five written readings out of ten for accuracy, and chooses the one they think is about them.

Only one sitter correctly identified her reading from one of the psychics, and gave it an accuracy rating of 8/10. So the test didn’t uncover any psychic ability overall.

A lot of the negative comments about the test focus on the fact that psychics do not normally ‘read’ for people they can’t see or talk to. This made me think of a potential alternative approach.

For each psychic, they get to see, say, 10 people. Five of them are instructed to treat it as a normal reading, give honest answers to the questions/observations, but saying only ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The other five are given detailed false ‘back stories’, don’t wear their own clothes (or dress everyone the same in nursing scrubs or something), and instructed to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the basis of those stories. Call these ones the Liars.

There would now be two different things you could measure.

Firstly you could ask the sitters to assess the accuracy of the ‘reading’ as before – but in the case of the five Liars, they would assess the statements in respect of their real selves. So every correct assertion, even if they replied ‘no’ during the test would count towards the accuracy rating.

Of course it might also be interesting to see how accurate the psychics were against the fake back story too. This might be suggestive of how psychic powers ‘work’.

Secondly you could test whether the psychics can identify who the Liars are. This would be similar to the measurement of confidence in their readings taken in the Merseyside experiment. Clearly there is a risk that they might be reading body language which can give away lies, so for that reason it might be necessary to employ actors to play the Liars.

Reading of body language or other non-psychic intuition would hopefully be mitigated by the fact that sitters would only say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – preventing a detailed interrogation. “Ah but where exactly is the bank you work in? Name all your co-workers, etc…”.

This approach would hopefully eliminate an element of cold reading. If psychic powers are real, and the individuals being tested really have them, then the accuracy of the information they receive shouldn’t be dependent on the feedback from the sitter.

If they could make accurate judgement about who was a Liar it would go some way to adding credibility to their claims about their abilities. After all, if someone tells me an orange is purple I don’t doubt my eyes. Shouldn’t psychic ability be the same?

Clearly the details of the experiment would need to be fleshed out. But I think it could mitigate the criticisms about lack of face to face contact, and introduce an interesting new variable.

Comments welcome.