Music

I've been an enthusiastic musician ever since I persuaded my parents to buy me a shiny electric guitar when I was twelve or so. Since then I've played on various stringed instruments (some of which didn't need an electrical supply) and have tinkered with synthesizers and other esoteric sound sources.

Ithica
Playing the Bassmaster with Ithica

Where did this urge to make & perform music come from? Nobody in my family or my childhood circle of friends played an instrument and I was both too old for the Beat Boom and too young for punk. School music lessons seemed primarily aimed at discouraging any musical expression or creativity and I'd been authoritatively told that I couldn't sing - by a nun no less. On the other hand I was growing up at the end of the 1960's and into the 70's when the musical landscape seemed to be opening up in all directions, there were bands playing live in pubs, clubs & colleges all over the place (even in my dull little corner of Essex) in all manner of genres & styles. Although the established musical pathways were reserved for the gifted & conventional it felt like popular music was more egalitarian than it had ever been.

My first taste at playing an instrument came with the Boys Brigade, a sort of tepidly Christian version of the Boy Scouts, probably in my very early teens. There was a drum & bugle marching band that everyone took part in and after establishing that I couldn't play either of these I was assigned to the bass drum. I turned out to be surprisingly good at it - there wasn't much variation in what I played but I could keep time with metronomic precision, something that was a seemingly highly prized skill.

Another instance of ending up with the instrument that nobody else wanted came at my local youth club when we were preparing for a show. The big number at the end was Stairway to Heaven (really!) but the guy who would normally play bass was singing & playing acoustic guitar so as the acknowledged worst guitarist I was given the bass part to play. It was almost certainly played by rote - I have no memory of the performance at all - but a seed was obviously planted and the bass became my instrument. Literally so in fact - I ended up buying the actual instrument from him, a Vox Bassmaster. In hindsight it was a dreadful instrument but it served me well for many years.

One of the unexpected advantages of playing bass was that it wasn't a cool instrument therefore not many people took it up - which meant that I got invited to play with bands rather than have to seek them out myself. It's a testament to the resilience & adaptability of youth that I happily went along with virtually no musical knowledge at all and somehow coped with whatever I found. Mostly it was just mucking about in someone's garage or a community centre room but I did play in public a couple of times at folk clubs accompanying a friend who sang & played guitar.

St Vitus Dance
Onstage with St Vitus Dance

Ironically I'd started off thinking that if I got hold of an instrument I'd somehow become a musician and despite the fact that this had failed horribly with my guitar I'd ended up as a musician anyway. So somehow it had worked. I'd also thought that playing music would impress people & make me more attractive, another thing that didn't work out at all (and never has). Sigh!

By the time I went off to university at Reading I'd become confident enough of my bass skills to advertise them on one of the student union notice boards. I was quickly snapped up by Ithica, a band of older (and therefore cooler) students whose previous bassist had left after graduating, and we played a few gigs around the campus. Sadly the rest of the band graduated the next year and with my own university career ending one term after that I said goodbye to the college music scene.

My almost non-existant guitar skills were dragged out when I joined the punk-influenced Sex King Cole & the Defects for our one and only gig before an unsuspecting audience. But was it Art?

After university I started experimenting with electronic music and my bass started to gather dust (before I gave it away) - there's a potted history of my adventures in Searching for the Sound on my Blogs page. I played synthesizer (in the broadest sense of the word) for a host of bands while in Reading - Headroom, Rhythm System, St Vitus Dance and Blood (who were originally Blood-soaked Brian & the Gay Gippos but the promoter flatly refused to put the name on the bill). I also recorded some demos with DAN but we never ended up playing live.

By this point I'd become pretty well established in the local musicians' scene but, it must be said, definitely on the more obscure edges of it. I was playing (fairly) regularly and there was a small but determined group of followers who would make a point of getting to our gigs but for some reason I never thought of setting out to produce something popular. In pretty much every band I was in we played stuff that we liked with barely any thought of what would be a crowd pleaser, if we liked it then surely other people would too? Several performances to slowly emptying venues should have given a hint that this wasn't actually as true as we might think. To be fair we rarely emptied a place and were self-critical enough to usually put on a good show but it was pretty clear that a career in music wasn't likely to happen. And anyway, we had some great fun.

Bassist in a suit
Playing bass at Findhorn

In the late 1980's I moved away from Reading and lost touch with the local music scene. I was still making music for my own enjoyment but no longer playing with other people or performing live, instead I was lost in composition and multi-layering with my 'home studio' of synthesizer and Atari computer. The tracks for my solo CD Angelus were produced this way, although not released until much, much later.

When I moved north to the Findhorn community in 1999 I started playing live again. The first opportunity came when I bought myself a new bass (a Rickenbacker 4003, the bass I'd yearned after but had been unable to afford in my 20's) and started going to a regular local jam session. From this evolved a series of bands based around the perennial Bergie who played drums and hosted the sessions, I played three gigs with a different lineup and band name each time - my favourite being Dinner at Bergie's. Once again the rarity of bass players worked to my advantage and I ended up guesting in a variety of bands and musical ventures over the years.

The next venture was a new one for me - playing folk music. I'd been teaching Circle Dance for many years and although I loved the haunting melodies and fascinating rhythms from the Balkans and was developing an understanding of how the music was structured, I couldn't see how I could actually start to play it myself.

The breakthrough came when I went to a folk dance camp at Ramblewood in the USA. The camp offered many different instrument classes and beginners had the chance to borrow an instrument for the week to see how they got on. I signed up for Beginner's Macedonian Tambura and when I arrived I was handed a strange, four-stringed, narrow lute sort of thing. Under the tutelage of the wonderful and patient Adam Good I learned to produce a recognisable tune from the tambura, in an uneven rhythm no less. On arriving back in the UK I was able to find myself a tambura (from a Swiss man who imported them from Turkey) and although this had eight strings rather than four I managed to adapt quite successfully. (Eventually I got hold of my own four-string Macedonian one).

Most of the folk music I've played comes from the southern Balkans (Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece) but I've also played Turkish, Armenian and Klezmer tunes. I also expanded my instrumental options with acoustic guitar and have played electric guitar & bass in folk bands too. I guested with The Festival Band before joining Rosadusha and later Gadje Dilo, with whom I was invited to play at a dance festival in Brazil (you can read about my adventures there in my Brazilian diary blog).

Gadje Dilo
Rehearsing with Gadje Dilo

A third outlet for music came when I started performing solo. After forty years of believing I couldn't sing (curse that nun!) I finally plucked up courage and dragged my guitar down to the local café on one of their Open Mic nights. The warm response encouraged me to carry on and I became something of a regular there, accompanying myself on electric or (later) acoustic guitar.

My approach to repertoire was, as with so much of my musical creativity, to come up with something that was definitely mine rather than trying to sound like somebody else. I'd usually choose a song that wasn't normally associated with voice & guitar - good examples being Don't You Want Me (Human League), Like a Virgin (Madonna), A Little Respect (Erasure), God Save The Queen (Sex Pistols) and Toxic (Britney Spears) although there were many more. I found I could be quite expressive despite my (extremely) limited range and uncertain pitching and I really enjoyed the sort of intimate & close connection of playing in a small room to a few people. I also developed an appreciation for good songs that could stand being approached in an unexpected way and enjoying the audience reactions to singing things normally associated with a female voice.

As my guitar playing improved I found myself often being asked to provide accompaniment for singers & other performers. It's a role I enjoy, working to provide a setting for someone else's creativity without overshadowing it.

Something that grew out of my solo performing was looping - recording a phrase or snippet of a song that could then be set to repeat, either to provide a backing on its own or to be added to and built up into something fuller. After finding a song that could be reduced to an 'essential core' I would perform it by playing this central riff, record and loop it with one of my effects pedals, then sing and/or play a solo over the top. Sometimes I had to switch the loop in & out to play the chorus manually which made an interesting (& sometimes challenging) exercise in coordinating hands, feet and voice.

My most impressive looping piece was played at a community event in Findhorn where I built up a Latin-flavoured tune while my then-wife Laura Shannon improvised a dance to it. When I'd assembled a full sound (and finished soloing over the top) I put the guitar down and joined in the dance, leaving the music looping behind us. Finally, using the control that stopped the looper at the end of its phrase, I was able to theatrically 'conduct' the music to stop. Great fun.

From looping I went on to explore a more ambient style, using a long, slow echo to build up drifting, textured pieces. I've written about this process (and the results) in my Soundscapes of Isolation article.

Rhythm Methodists
Playing with the Rhythm Methodists

In some ways my time at Findhorn provided the same sort of supportive musical environment as I'd found in my 20's - a (relative) scarcity of players and an abundance of gigging opportunities. With Rosadusha, Gadje Dilo and my solo stuff I was able to perform regularly in public, building up my self-confidence and letting me enjoy being on stage rather than being wracked with panic each time. Inside I still thought of myself as a fake musician, just about getting by in the company of 'proper' ones, but that didn't stop me from joining in at (almost) any opportunity.

Once again when I moved away I found myself cut off from a musical circle. In my new town of Bradford on Avon I saw a notice looking for a bass player but I dithered over it for weeks - I'd not played bass for quite a while and the prospect of auditioning before a group of strangers blew all my confidence away. But eventually I plucked up courage, rang the number and ended up jamming with a group of guys around my age in a tatty little room at the back of the local snooker club. After many months of rehearsals and finding two new vocalists we emerged as the Rhythm Methodists but were soon rechristened the Rhythm Coalition and have been gigging (fairly) regularly in and around Bradford.

Playing in an eight-piece band has been a new challenge for me, not only do I need to find something that fits the song I also need to leave acoustic 'space' and not cramp the other instruments. This usually means playing something relatively simple and low down in the frequency range, a real case of less is more and often more difficult than finding something full & flashy.

My confidence in playing folk music has reached the point where I'll often join in with scratch bands at dance events but I managed to surprise myself in 2012 when I was teaching at the 'Back To Our Roots' retrospective workshop. Mandy de Winter, someone I've always looked up to as a musician, invited me to join her in an improvised tambura duet where we took turns to solo over a 7/8 rhythm and not only did I hold my own but I managed to enjoy it. It's amazing how the part of my mind that can actually play seems almost totally isolated from my self-belief. Sigh!

Most recently I've discovered the delights of simple music making apps on my iPhone, things like iKaossilator & ThumbJam. Being able to play (in the most literal sense) music with virtually no setup is great fun and amazingly empowering - I find myself recommending it to youngsters (& their parents) as a way to discover the delights of making music without the tedium of conventional music tuition. Find the fun - everything else will follow on naturally.

I'd not played (or owned) a synthesizer since the mid-90's but my interest had not totally atrophied and for Christmas 2015 I bought myself three little Volca units as the basis for a home recording set up. These have been great fun to use and have inspired a prolific outpouring of creativity as I've explored their potential and my imagination. It's been nice to do more composing & arranging and the basic but flexible layout of the mini-synths has made it easy to experiment & try things out without needing too much preplanning. Lots of fun! I've written about my first few months with them on my Life with the Volcas page and you can hear the results on my Volca tunes page or SoundCloud.