Birthday Blues… and Folk… and Jazz… and Rock…

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debt endThere are some events that you just can’t see past. They loom on the horizon, impassable, immovable and as dubiously perilous as Don Quixote’s windmill giants. The Debt Records fifth anniversary (“Five Years In Debt”) was one of those.

I spend a lot of my time booking shows, mostly for myself, sometimes for acts on the label as part of their promo schedules for new releases. Every time a promoter has been in touch over the last few weeks asking for a tech spec or a biog I’ve looked at the email and thought “but… how can anyone seriously comprehend a time AFTER the Debt Records fifth anniversary? How can anything be planned? How do we know what will exist in such an uncertain future?” as if our birthday showcase were the musical equivalent of the fall of capitalism or an imagined Second Coming.

But that’s the funny thing about context. Everyone has their own. And each personal context tends to envelop us like a snug cocoon – there’s an entire universe embroidered on the inside blocking out a world of forgotten indifference beyond the slimmest of walls.

And now it’s over. Done. Past tense.
It was a wonderful event. Actually I’m amazed there were no breakdowns – mental or technical. We managed to cram representatives from every one of our current acts into about three and a half hours; with full-band sets from Honeyfeet, Felix Hagan & The Family, Snowapple, Walk and T. E. Yates interspersed with stripped down appearances from Ivan Campo, Alabaster dePlume, Becca Williams, Richard Barry and me. Time was short and expectations were high. The stage crew worked miracles.

Inevitably it was a relatively nostalgic affair. The venue was papered with old event posters and we had monitors in strategic positions looping all the music videos from the past five years. But then looking back has never been more fashionable. People reminisce about experiences while they’re still having them. Social media is full of dreamily filtered images of would-be memories from five minutes ago. We seem to be living in a temporal future imperfect where no verb is ever satisfactorily conjugated.
Of course there is always more back than forward at a birthday celebration, no matter how hopeful and future-conscious. In fact we kind of designed this gig with that in mind – our party took place in the same venue as our first showcase back in 2009 and I even wore the same suit and stetson (though the waistband was a little tighter this time round!).
This retrospective impulse seems apt for a record label. Notions of the past, present and future are staple themes of popular music. Indeed, the recording process itself is dependent on capturing a moment with the intention of creating some kind of immortal past striding into an unsuspecting future. Even the spontaneity is studied.

Little labels like ours are very much like bands. They depend on the enthusiasm of the contributors far more than financial common sense or a stable infrastructure. Once the passion goes, everything goes. Occasionally I look back and marvel we’ve lasted five years, but mostly I’m amazed that it’s only been five years. It now feels like something I’ve always been a part of.

Like most labels we were very naive at the start. But I think the enduring exuberance of Debt Records is a consequence of that naivete rather than in spite of it. In my short introductory speech I mentioned how we still have no idea what we’re doing. It got a laugh but I wasn’t joking. The music industries have been changing drastically ever since we started – they were changing then and they still haven’t settled on a “new way” that we can all agree on – indeed, there’s still no hint that this business is going to settle down any time soon. Some people still swear by CDs, for others it’s vinyl or nothing, many have abandoned all physical formats in favour of the mp3. And those are just the people who want to purchase music – that’s the easy stuff! More than the delivery mechanism, the very idea of ownership is changing with the proliferation of streaming services. Every time I go to a music conference I chat to label directors who don’t know how they’re going to weather all these changes without either suffering huge financial losses or enduring unpleasant compromises.
If you ever meet anyone at a label who confidently informs you they know what they’re doing, that they’ve got this business figured, well… consider yourself warned: you’ve either met a villain or an idiot.

So I’m optimistic because we still don’t know what’s going on. We’re still innocents. The records being released this year (whatever their chosen format or promotional angle) are of the highest caliber of creativity I’ve encountered. Everyone is pushing forward. Everyone is doing their best and most ambitious work. I have no idea if this stuff will appear on compact disc, wax cylinder, piano roll or download. But it will exist. And that’s good enough for me.

Here’s to many more years of being in Debt.

Photos © Andrew Ab 2014

Five Years In Debt

Debt Records (the label I co-founded with Biff Roxby and Dan Watkins in 2009) is five years old this month. We’re celebrating this auspicious occasion by holding an extravagant and fun-filled showcase event at the Dancehouse Theatre in Manchester on Friday 18th July.

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It’s unlikely that all these amazing acts will share the same stage again so do come along if you are able. Tickets are available at the venue Box Office on Oxford Road and online here.

For more information about Debt Records visit www.debtrecords.net

Fresh On The Net

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Ever since I first saw the Secret Policeman’s Ball footage of “Glad To Be Gay” from 1979 I’ve been a huge admirer of Tom Robinson. Subsequently, when I became a full-time independent musician (then later a label hassler) and was looking for ways of both promoting myself and discovering new music, my admiration for Tom was renewed and reinforced. Through his radio shows, lectures and blogs he has become a sort of Gandalf figure to the DIY Fellowship (do I go too far?). Indeed, over the years Tom has given almost everyone on the Debt roster their first taste of national radio airplay, a tremendous boost in morale to any artist. His influence on the current UK independent scene is inestimable.

Over the last couple of years I’ve tried many ways to keep myself from becoming too cynical. It’s not easy though. I’ve seen floundering artists rebrand themselves as entrepreneurs, play-acting with a dwindling currency of second-hand industry fairytale jargon; seen good venues close down, seen bad ones get worse, decent promoters give up completely, corrupt ones become ever more predatory… It’s sometimes hard to stay optimistic.

Even harder is maintaining a sense of context. For a while I developed a kind of tunnel-vision wherein all I could see was my own band and the world’s reaction to it.
THAT WAY MADNESS LIES.

And this is where Fresh On The Net came to the rescue. It’s a website that grew out of Tom’s BBC Introducing show. As well as featuring guest articles and how-to pieces pertaining to the music industries there’s a listening post where bands submit their tracks for feedback (and a possible play on the radio). For me what began as a place to throw my own stuff became a place to be reminded about the diversity of new/underground UK music. And yes, some of it is utterly dreadful. And some of it transcends superlatives. But crucially, all of it means something to someone.
Since that first introduction I’ve made it a part of my general routine to visit the listening post every week and remind myself of the wider community of artists I belong to as an independent practitioner.
In this sense, I guess Fresh On The Net is my periscope.

And this week I got an email from Tom asking me if I’d like to join his team.
And I said yes.

See you at the Listening Post.

Alone… Talking Aloud… In A Dark Room

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In one of the more surprising developments of recent months I suddenly found myself presenting a weekly night-time radio show. I’d been asked into Fab Radio International for an interview about the new Bedlam Six album and, whilst waiting to go into the studio, got chatting to the man who runs the station. Before I knew it Debt Records had its own slot on a Monday evening, a regular broadcast home for the label roster to do with as they pleased. The trouble was everyone at the label who has ever had any experience in producing and/or presenting live radio was away on tour. So there I was, in a big swivel chair facing an intimidating array of dials, monitors, sliders and gauges – a radio novice alone… profoundly adrift.

Over the years I have become comfortable in radio studios (indeed for a long time I was BBC Manchester’s go-to emergency contributor, on regular standby in case a guest dropped out – I only lived down the road from their old Manchester building and always had something to plug!) but I’d never once driven the console, never shepherded an entire show from start to finish. Chatting to a DJ for ten minutes about a new single is one thing, running a two hour program is quite another. It also doesn’t help that I’m not overly keen on the sound of my speaking voice (that’s why whenever there are any narrative sections on Bedlam Six records we always ask Richard Barry to do them) so the thought of providing witty banter between tracks filled me with a certain distaste. It was beginning to seem like the whole idea was a massive mistake.
So as I sat in the booth for the first time, not sure if I’d properly cued up my opening track, wondering if my input levels had been adjusted accordingly, counting down the seconds before the hourly news headlines finished and my slot began… I was far from at ease.

And yes the first few shows were a bit terrifying. My hands were shaking throughout and my tendency to gabble threatened to go into turbo drive. Needless to say I have a new-found admiration for radio presenters. Where the desk is concerned, anyone not born an octopus is at a disadvantage. There are a lot of buttons and faders to navigate, all of which have the power to plunge the listener into silence or ear-splitting feedback. But really it was the sheer absurdity of the situation that proved to be the hardest obstacle to overcome. Sitting alone in a dark room full of blinking lights and wires, speaking into the void – it’s how I imagine an astronaut would feel operating the distress signal in an escape pod jettisoned from some intergalactic mothership… Is anybody out there?

The strange thing is, after a few weeks of this nonsense, I noticed I was looking forward to the radio show more than anything else I was involved in. Spending a few hours on Monday morning putting together my playlist, rooting out half remembered oddities, researching dates and contributors to old swing songs or the unedited cuts of 70s TV themes brought with it a curious pleasure, an earnest triviality akin to traditional boyhood pastimes like stamp collecting. It felt self-indulgent, an evasion of more pressing duties, yet wholesome, innocent… fun. I realised (with no small amount of mingled horror and self-reproach) that at some point over the last few years I’d stopped listening to music in that immersive way I used to when I was a teenager (before I began dissecting songs to see what made them tick). I was once again hearing the whole piece, rather than the component parts, and through that was spotting new things in familiar places, taking pleasure in details without getting eaten up by the quicksands of over-analysis. I was being transported the way I used to be before music became my job. I was being moved.

I’d become a music fan again.

A far more rewarding occupation than music pundit.

The Debt Records Show can be listened to every Monday from 11pm at www.fabradiointernational.com. There is also a Listen Again page here for those who prefer being in bed by then.

Album Commentary: “Youth”

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My friend Joe Sparrow (head honcho at A New Band A Day and online coordinator for ASK ME PR) has begun a project compiling album commentaries with various artists. I recently became the first of his interviewees (aka the guinea-pig).

The full-length commentary for “Youth” is still being edited together (he’s probably trying to remove the persistent sound of clinking wine glasses) but here’s a little taster from the beginning of the interview in which we discuss the album in general terms.

For more information about the album visit www.bedlamyouth.com

Harry Doherty 1953-2014

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So sad to hear that Harry Doherty (writer for Melody Maker, Metal Hammer and many other music magazines, plus official Queen and Thin Lizzy biographer) has died.

Freddie, Harry and PhilHarry was an enthusiastic champion of The Bedlam Six, giving us a vital boost and sense of affirmation when we most needed it. We first met him back in the days of playing for beer in the corners of pubs – gigs in which stoic punters were required to duck and weave through the band (fingers in ears usually) just to reach the toilets. He came up to me after a show to say how much he’d enjoyed it. We kept in touch and later he joined us for the recording of our Memoir Noir EP, listening back to the days’ performances and generously donating to our teetering collection of empty wine bottles. He also contributed hand-claps to the record. Definitely a man with a unique sense of rhythm.
Harry Handclaps
Harry was that rare breed: a passionate critic with an open mind. He was an early supporter of Queen and Kate Bush while other journalists were either ignoring or sneering at them (needless to say we chose to interpret this as a favourable omen). Even after quitting full-time rock journalism he was always open to the discovery of fresh talent, seeing no difference between the new songs he liked and the old songs he liked. Later when he came to write Queen’s official biography he got me invited to the book launch at Soho’s Groucho Club (where I briefly met Brian May and even touched his Red Special!), a place that didn’t seem to be a natural environment for either of us. It’s rare for someone in a largely unknown band to rub shoulders with rock royalty and not be made to feel inferior, but music is supposed to be a great leveller and Harry made sure those around him didn’t forget it.

Musicians and music critics alike could all learn a lot from him.

Honoured to have known you Harry,
with love from
Louis and the Bedlams.

To read some of Harry’s articles click here.

Fear Of Poetry

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poetryBefore I had any ambitions in music, I wrote poems. In my early adolescence I even kept a poetic diary (much the same as a normal teenage diary but even more moany and self-conscious). I had no particular desire to share this work, I think I wrote this stuff more out of a confused intention that it might be discovered in the event of my death and everyone would finally realise just how deep and misunderstood I was. In fact I was neither, which makes me particularly pleased that I didn’t die young.

When I began focusing more on songwriting and live performance then poetry very much took a back seat. But I’ve never completely left it behind and I still write the odd scrap here and there. My songs have always owed more to the written and spoken word than rock and roll. Some people’s entry point into popular music is through basslines and rhythms, for others it’s the fashion, for me it was always the words. I think good lyrics can redeem a bland melody but I don’t think the opposite is true. Needless to say, many disagree with me.

And though I adore music and have allowed countless songs to shape my character over the years, I’ve never been a particularly good music fan in the traditional sense, at least not in any of the cathartic life-changing ways that the likes of Danny Baker would relate to in an interview about vinyl nostalgia. The most moving live experience I can remember was seeing the Romanian poet Nina Cassian perform when I was a student. She was in her late seventies, I was nineteen or twenty. I fell hopelessly in love right there and queued up afterwards for her to autograph my book. Her line “…when your shoulders ache for want of wings” completely floored me.

The other day I found myself smitten with a pique of madness that resulted in me entering my name into the open mic segment of a spoken word event called Evidently that’s run by two friends of mine. It’s widely regarded as one of the finest regular poetry nights in the country (and it just happens to take place in one of my favourite pubs in Greater Manchester – The Eagle Inn). I was utterly terrified of getting up onstage without my guitar, of standing still and delivering a succession of naked words, utterly prone to criticism and indifference. I also had other worries on my mind: I have a tendency to gabble, trying to fit ten words into the space of one (oftentimes I leave no space between words at all); sometimes I find myself at the mercy of a stammer and worried I wouldn’t be able to say anything at all. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, or where to look. I was mortified at the thought of all the real poets cringing over my attempts to pass myself off as one of them. Everybody hates a tourist.

But what was I really frightened of?
Not simply the thought of laying myself bare – there’s always an element of that in any kind of performance. I was worried about a weight placed on words that are more accustomed to being consumed as part of something more elaborate. I would definitely class myself as a lyricist rather than a poet. It’s all about how things fit. I often fancifully compare songs to films: the words are the dialogue and the music is the weather and scenery, the waves lashing against the galley or the meteorites breaking against the hull of a space craft. The final scene from Casablanca would have been very different if it had taken place on top of a volcano or against the backdrop of roosting pterodactyls… “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship” says Humphrey Bogart as the camera pans out to reveal Rick Blaine and Louis Renault riding off into the mist on the back of a stegosaurus.
It’s all about balance and context. Indeed, telling a songwriter you like their lyrics more than the music can be very dangerous, like saying “this roast dinner would be nothing without the gravy” only to find that next Christmas you get served a bowl of gravy and nothing else.
If you’re going to send words out into the world with no armour or back-up, those words need to be strong enough to take care of themselves.

But I’m a great believer in wriggling out of comfort zones. I’ve been singing words into microphones for years but I’ve not been speaking them. It’s not healthy for any performer to forget how it feels to be nervous. One needs to remain a little bit vulnerable, to leave a chink in the chain-mail, however small. If art is about anything, it’s about being human. And no human is invincible.

I had a great time that night. I was bowled over by the other performers, they were all utterly superb. More than that I was moved by the atmosphere in general. It was so supportive. Too often music gigs featuring multiple acts have a surreal gladiatorial atmosphere of competition and impending bloodshed. Here there was a palpable reverence for emotional expression but without any sense of worthiness. No shushing or tutting, no smug chuckles at clever references identified. Just a sharing of words and thoughts and experiences. There was a charge to the room that I haven’t felt for a while. Maybe it was just because I’m less accustomed to these events than band gigs, maybe I was simply seduced by the unfamiliar. The things I love about good music performance were all here – honesty, enthusiasm, commitment, enjoyment. But there was none of the posturing or hierachy or hero worship that so often ruins gigs; no sense of there being two sides separated by a wall. It was the idea of equality and inclusivity that first drew me to live music. And here I find it at live poetry.

Still, I’m not contemplating any drastic career changes just yet. It was strange leaving the stage and not being covered in sweat, beer and blood. I’d definitely miss that.

Evidently takes place on the second Monday of every month at The Eagle Inn, Salford.

The Solo Album

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WaterfallFor every ebullient, rollicking, bombastic Bedlam Six song I write there tends to be born with it a furtive, introspective and slightly malformed twin (which must be immediately shooed away into the nearest attic or coal cellar). The fun tunes are toured, arranged and recorded by my indecently talented bandmates and generally given the freedom to feel the sunshine upon their musical skin. The songs’ neglected shrunken siblings, however, must cope as best they can with restricted glimpses through cage bars.

I do my best for these sad half-creatures, staring semi-blindly through the slimy patina growing over their light-starved eyes. I try to make time for them, to give them affection. I love them as much as their muscular assertive brothers – in fact I love some a lot more, pitiful though they are. I spend awkward tender afternoons with these songs when I’m not on tour with the Bedlams, gently rearranging their thin little wasted limbs, comforting them as best I can.
A couple of years ago one got lucky and was adopted by Bridie Jackson & The Arbour, becoming something of an ugly duckling turned swan.
Most of these songs know not to get their hopes up though. Many can’t even reach the window, let alone see the view.

But now they are taking their first preparatory steps towards moving into a halfway house… AKA my debut solo LP.
Many will die along the way, many will be mocked, many will yearn for their once despised captivity. But it is time these shrunken twisted things saw something of the world.

Today I begin the recording process, ably marshaled by my friend Biff Roxby, the producer of this album.
And the name of the release?
Gentle Songs Of Ceaseless Horror

Wish us luck.

Album: Crypt Covers Vol 1

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In 2012 some of the Bedlam Six and I joined Hope & Social in their crypt studio to record a version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Keep The Customer Satisfied” as part of the Crypt Covers series.
(I wrote a little piece about that experience here)

Here’s how it sounded:

They now have ten of these sessions in the can (also including our friends The Travelling Band and She Makes War among others) and have just released the set as an album (aptly titled “Crypt Covers Vol 1”) available here.

You should definitely have a listen, there are some absolute gems!

The members of Hope & Social have also just released a video of themselves listening and commenting along to the songs in the series.
Here’s what they said about us: