Gig report and the end of ‘phase 1’ – The Underworld Rally 2017

I didn’t know what to expect from a biker rally. My entire knowledge of biker culture comes from the TV show Sons of Anarchy, so I assumed there was a real danger of being killed by people with unconvincing Irish accents.

More to the point, are silly songs about aliens and tentacles and steampunk shenanigans really the sort of thing to play at a biker rally, even if it is the chill-out Sunday afternoon acoustic session? Might we get booed off, or worse?

It was with a slight sense of trepidation that Gareth and I headed into Sunday’s gig at the Underworld Rally 2017.

I headed up to Nottingham, where Gareth lives with his better half and my dog Charlie on the Saturday evening and we headed off for a very pleasant drive up to the rally which was taking place in Preston, finally turning in to the entrance to the venue, a farm somewhere quite a way from civilisation (being a lousy Southerner, I of course regard the interior of the M25 as civilisation and everything outside it as a bleak, desolate wasteland).

A lovely chap greeted us and gave us wrist bands. There was a woman with a baby at the welcome table with him. We drove in, still nervous, only to find a nice little group of people listening to the opening acoustic act, who was performing under a tree.

It turns out bikers like their rock music and a great many of them were wearing Iron Maiden t-shirts. I was obviously going to like them, wasn’t I? The event even had its own beer, a pleasant, rather wheaty affair. Apart from the bikes, which I have no interest in, this was the perfect event for me.

Gareth caught me off guard, hence the smile. I apologise and will make sure I stick on brand in all photos from now on.

We were performing outside in the shade of a tree and an old carved statue of what I think was supposed to be a native american. It was the afternoon of the third day of the rally and the acoustic acts were the chill-out section before the final evening.

We were last on and played a pleasant little set to about 40 or 50 people. It Is interesting, the different audiences you play to. This gig was definitely a mixture of some people paying attention and some hanging out in the sun with the music as background. Which is fine, and presents a nice challenge for us as performers. Can you find the peolle who want to listen and engage with them, can you win some more round? We had some nice little chats with people afterwards, so I think it’s fair to say we did okay.

So it was a pleasant gig, the fourth as a duo and the end of what I’ve bern thinking of as ‘phase 1’ of gigging.

What’s phase 1? It’s the proof of concept phase where we answered the questions does this duo thing work? And can Gareth and I work together? The answers appear to be ‘yes,’ and ‘yes.’

What’s phase 2? Phase two is where we book gigs strategically and really put some effort into building the audience.  This may involve a banner of some kind.


More podcast, whether you want it or not.

No-one asked, literally no-one, but I’m doing it anyway. I’m recording more episodes of my podcast ‘Tom Slatter’s Sunday Bootleg’.

If you don’t know what that is, it is a podcast wot I do on a Sunday that has a ‘bootleg’ recording of some sort and a true story about recent happenings. As an example, here is story about the true things that happened to me at last year’s Prog awards.

I’m not going to apologise. It is fun.

The next new episode will include a true story about what I stole from The Horns in Watford, and I why I gave it back.

IronBark song by song – Watermen’s Square

What’s it about?

Watermen’s Square is about some watermen on the Thames who dredge up an evil rusty twisted metal skeleton, take it back to the the Watermen’s square. Once there the executor turns up and claims it. Terrified, they hand it over.

Watermen’s Square is a real place in Penge, South London. Here’s a picture:

In reality it’s just an exceedingly pretty collection of houses built for the Freemen and Apprentices of the Watermen’s company who worked the Thames and associated waterways. It stands out as an incongruous bit of architecture in an otherwise kinda dull urban street.
In my song, it’s where the watermen drag the huge misshapen iron skeleton that eventually becomes the hulking body of the Miser’s Triumph.
It ain’t a happy place.

Its the middle song from the Miser’s Will, and possibly my favourite. It hangs somewhere in the middle of lullaby and horror story and the one I enjoy singing the most.

The Writing Process:

Watermen’s Square started heavier than it sounds now. I had recorded an instrumental Alice in Chains rip-off with the melody played by several harmonized guitars. A rough version of this was hanging around on my harddrive for about six months until I got the point last month where I needed a third song in the Miser’s Will and didn’t know what to do.

So I dug out this Alice in Chains rip-off, calmed it down, and there it was.

The Recording Process:

It took forever to record the vocals for this. So long and so frustrating a process was it that I ended up writing several entries of a diary about my singing voice.

Mostly I got there in the end.

Inspired by/Blatantly steals from:

Alice in Chains acoustic stuff.


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IronBark song by song – What The Orderly Saw

The Miser’s Will II: What the Orderly Saw

What’s it about?

The second song of the Miser’s Will is from the point of view of a hospital orderly. He witnesses a doctor cutting a brain out of a body, placing it in a jar and then trying to diddle the man who hired him to do so. He is killed, as is the orderly.

The Writing Process:

This is connected to the first song musically both in terms of the arrangement, at least to begin with, and the minor arpeggios which aren’t a million miles away from the Cartographer’s Tale either.

Here’s the original demo. As you can hear, it was pretty much fully formed by the time I recorded it:

It’s through composed, the music changing to follow the story, and most of it turned up pretty easily. I’m not the sort of songwriter who slaves over songs, constantly editing and rewriting. I much prefer to let things simmer and stew at the back of my mind until they come to fruition of their own accord. What the Orderly saw obliged me by doing so very quickly. As we shall see, some other tracks on this weren’t as easy to write.

The Recording Process:

There’s some actual live percussion in this! Most of the percussion on Ironbark is programmed drums and sound effects. What the Orderly Saw has real tambourine and Djembe as well.

There are also lots of messy synth sounds which I recorded with my trusty Sonuus G2M midi converter.

Inspired by/Blatantly steals from:

Black Holes in the Sand by Gravenhurst, the poem ‘There was an old woman who swallowed a fly’ and a couple of Opeth numbers


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IronBark – song by song – The Cartographer’s Tale

The Miser’s Will I: The Cartographer’s Tale

What’s it about?

This is the first song from The Miser’s Will, a series of interlinked songs that share a story and some musical ideas.

There were basically two ideas that drove these songs along. One was the desire to write a set of songs I could actually play live, just me and my guitar. I’m a singer songwriter used to performing as a solo acoustic act, but with Spinning the Compass I foolishly composed a set of songs that were very hard to play in that manner. The Miser’s Will is an attempt to rectify this.

The other impetus was the story itself. I have a habit of emailing myself little snippets of lyrics or ideas. Searching through my inbox I came across an email I didn’t remember sending that said ‘A story about the search for strange artefacts that are used to construct a body’. That’s what the Miser’s Will is all about.

The lyrics are from the POV of a cartographer who recieves one of his own maps with instruction to go to a specific place and dig. He does so, unearths some leather and brass claws, and then follows the instructions that came with the map and letter. These take him into the middle of London, where the dark and deadly ‘man in black’ (the executor) promptly shoots him and nicks the claws.

The Writing Process:

The Cartographer’s tale was written for February Album Writing Month, an online challenge I attempt most years to write an album’s worth of songs in the month of February. What i usually do for this is write very quickly, just acoustic guitar and voice. Here’s the demo, which as you can hear is very similar to the final version of the song.

I was trying a couple of things with this song.

1. As I said, The Miser’s Will was designed to be playable solo. A lot of my previous album was not designed with solo gigs in mind and I wanted to remedy this with the new work.
2. An attempt to combine nerdy time signature changes and two relatively unconnected keys and pop-folk sensibilities

Also of note – the chorus in this song is used elsewhere in the Miser’s Will.

The Recording Process:

The drum kit is made up of various samples of plastic bins and things. The percussion arrangement is inspired by ‘The Flying Chaucers’ and English folk group I heard just before starting to record.

The rest is an attempt at relative minimalism. Which I then decided to fill up with synth lines.

Inspired by/Blatantly steals from:

‘The Flying Chaucers’ and the sort of arepggios Matt Stevens might use.


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IronBark – song by song – Steamlife


What’s it about?

I started writing a short story (Yes, one of my hobbies is creative writing. No, you can’t read any. It ain’t good enough. Maybe three decades in the future I might but some proper effort into it, but not yet. No. Don’t ask again) about a man who tried to introduce elements of selection (natural he hoped, artificial in practice, sexual eventually) into his designs for steam engines. These led to designs for machines that designed their descendants and the whole thing got out of hand and led to tiny feral steam powered creatures living under his floorboards.

Or so he thought.

And then the Pinnochio, Data-from-Star-Trek story ensued where the half-mad designer was forced to defend them as being life forms worthy of respect (Doesn’t anyone know what the heart is for? he pleads).

Yes, this is the sort of thing I write songs about. Sod that love stuff, balls to sex drugs and rock’n’roll. Self aware steam-powered insects is where it’s at.

The Writing Process:

I wrote the following for my old songwriting website that no longer exists:

A Brand New Old Song and Why You Should Never Throw Away Songwriting Ideas

One of the most important things you can do as a songwriter is keep track of your unfinished ideas.

Many years ago…

About two years ago I started writing a song. It was a heavy metal song sort of in the phrygian mode with crunchy stoccato riffs and a chorus that I couldn’t sing very well and probably wasn’t very good.

I recorded part of it, but I don’t have a heavy metal band and never finished it.

Ten years previously I half wrote another song. It had slightly embarrasing juvenile lyrics and the verses weren’t up to much but the chorus was good. I needed to use that chorus in a decent song.

For at least 10 years I did nothing with that chorus.


At about Christmas time 2010 I started work on my second solo album, IronBark. I went back to that heavy metal song, made it more rock than heavy metal, replaced electric guitars with acoustic.

But the song still didn’t work because it didn’t have the hooky chorus that I felt it needed.

After several months nudging at it that hooky chorus from ten years ago came back to me – I had to dig through some old cupboards to find the piece of paper I’d written it down on, but even through three house moves I’d kept hold of it.

I changed the key, did some cutting and pasting and made it fit.

Two songs I didn’t know how to finish and thought were dead ends turned into one song that I’m proud of. It’s madcap and silly and the lyrics are absurd, but tis become one of my favourite new songs.

The Recording Process:

This was recorded over a very long space of time. The original heavy metal version was recorded in 2009, left on a hard-drive then revived almost as an after-thought when I started on IronBark in late 2010.

It was recorded with the original chorus, which I cut out and replaced. The distorted metal guitars were replaced with acoustics, weird noises added at beginning and end.

The guitar solos in the middle took forever to get right. Listen carefully and you’ll actually still hear mistakes (I shouldn’t point this out should I?) but I’ve never liked perfect recordings.

Inspired by/Blatantly steals from:

Not sure. Perhaps slightly from the bands ‘Unexpect’ and ‘Frameshift’. But only a little. This one is almost original.


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IronBark song by song – The Beast of the Air

The Beast of the Air

What’s it about?

The Beast of the Air is about hunting Sky Kraken from an airship. It’s about the difficulties of defending one’s livestock from such creatures, particularly in light of their bewitching tentacles and hallucinatory scent.

Yes, like all the songs on IronBark, The Beast of the Air is a narrative affair. I can’t help it – I grew up listening to heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden, Metallica, Megadeth all of whom wrote narrative songs about various sci-fi and fantasy topics which has led me to writing my own story-based songs.

Musically the album is a mixture of my folk, prog and indie influences, with a bit of metal here and there but lyrically it’s all narrative, and all set in a steampunk world.

The Writing Process:

Here’s the first recording of Beast of the Air. It’s an acoustic version, but as you can hear it didn’t change very much between the intial idea and the recording:

Here’s something I wrote about on my songwriting blog in 2011, back when I used to have a songwriting blog. I think it gives a fair account of the songwriting process:

Here’s a little story of how I wrote a song about hunting Sky-kraken

Sitting down with my acoustic guitar, I just started playing. I didn’t know what I was going to play except that I wanted to write something new.

Lately my fingers have been finding E lydian rather too easily, so I started with an E major 7 chord and a few twiddlings with the scale – not enough to be called a melody, just a bit of noodling.

I carried on playing, entirely aimlessly…

Alun Vaughun a fantastic solo bass player had recently turned me onto the music of Mike Kineally. His songs use lots of complicated chords, I decided I wanted something harmonically lush – so some 9th chords worked their way into my guitar part. Nothing like Kineally really, but that memory triggered the chords.

A few more moments noodling…

The last big gig I went to was Opeth at the Royal Albert hall – some Opeth-like chords appeared under my fingers – but I remembered Kineally and for some reason that meant I had to play a little melodic run that didn’t sound like Opeth at all.

I had been reading PZ Myers’s blog – he’s a biologist who likes Cephalopods. This combined with my recent obsession with Steampunk and suddenly the song was about hunting Sky-kraken in an Airship.

Steampunk led to memories of Radiohead’s video for There There, which led to a chorus ripping that off – and now the Kraken was winning because the chorus melody was about the bewitching power of it’s ink and tentacles.

All of this occurred at a far less conscious level than I’m making it appear, and it resulted in this song

The structure of this is pretty standard: intro, a couple of verses, a chorus, a middle bit, back to the chorus. What makes it stand out I think is the instrumental arpeggios and the slightly dreamy atmosphere. I think the chord choices I made help create a slightly sweet, slightly odd mood. Also of note is the structure of the melody in the intro. You get the first part of a line, then the line again a little bit longer, then a third time with the full melodic line. That’s something i do quite often, for example in the intro to Watermen’s Square, or the title track from Spinning the Compass.

The Recording Process:

The album was recorded in my spare room with two cheap mics, a cheap and simple version of Cubase and a few free plug-ins. At the time I considered myself a novice when it came to recording – I still do!- but I was certainly getting better at it with Ironbark, and this album was a step up from the original version of Spinning the Compass, my first album. I know it doesn’t sound pro yet, but I’m proud of it.

Of particular note in the Beast of the Air is the wailing ‘Kraken’ sounds – these were recorded with my guitar by playing through a Sonuus G2M midi converter – something I used to play a lot of the synth sounds on the album.

Inspired by/Blatantly steals from:
As well as ripping off Radiohead (a little), some of the arpeggios are very similar to a couple of Opeth tunes. Sssssh, don’t tell anyone

This song got a live airing at the Asylum, one of the biggest steampunk events – here’s a blog post about that – but I haven’t played it that often. Maybe that’s something Gareth and I should get around to doing.

As I enjoyed writing about the creation of my most recent album Happy People I thought I’d go back and write about some of my earlier songs. It turns out I started a blog series about Ironbark. This post is an updated version of one that appeared back in 2011


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Metallica and the limitations of classical theory

Here’s a video – admittedly one with a sense of humour – that analyses a Metallica song and claims it has a bar of 21/32.

Being a nerd, I wrote an analysis of this song for my university dissertation which was all about genre distinctions in heavy metal.

Even then I was a little uncomfortable with the idea of using classical notation to transcribe this kind of music simply because heavy metal musicians don’t use it. It’s the wrong language, though before recording technology became so readily available maybe it was the only option.

This guy, nice as he seems, mistakes skill at the music for being able to think about it from a western classical perspective. Being able to think ‘let’s make this bar 21/32’ is not in any way more advanced than thinking ‘let’s make this bit go ‘ba dum dum’ ‘.

A rhythmic grid is one way of feeling music, but it’s not a rule, just an option. Western classical methods are definitely fine, and very useful tools that I use myself, but they are not the only way to think of music and I find myself mildly annoyed at musicians who only see through this lens. In fact it’s one of the reasons I don’t regret not being a music teacher anymore – all the qualifications saw things via that lens even when they were pretending not to be about classical music.

So, yeah, music theory. Raaaw.


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Gig report: Surrey Steampunk Convivial

On Saturday 5th August Gareth and I played at the Surrey Steampunk Convivial.

This is always a great gig. I’ve played at something like eight or nine of them over the years and it’s always fun. Sometimes I’ve played to a nice full room, sometimes to a small but lovely audience. This gig was more the latter, but the audience certainly built up over the set.

Before our set there was the small matter of the tea duelling competition. The aim of the game is a simple one: hold your tea-dunked biscuit aloft the longest without dropping it, and get it into your mouth to win! It is a series sport, arranged in tournament style and held at steampunk events the world over.

Tea Duelling at the Surrey Steampunk Convivial

And then, late because we were on Surrey time, not clock time, we had a bash through some songs.

As a solo performer I’m quite used to juggling the setlist, deciding on different songs to play depending on the mood and energy in the room. So it seemed natural to do that on this gig too, which is arguably not fair on Gareth. But I did it anyway, and he managed to keep up despite me not explaining myself and just introducing songs out of order.

Halfway through a song that Gareth probably wasn’t expecting!

In particular, with the smaller audience some of whom were really paying attention and listening to every note, it seemed necessary to have Self Made Man earlier in the set rather than Flow my Tears. Self Made Man is a little bit more immediate, and has a funny intro whereas Flow my Tears is a bit more serious and it seemed appropriate to put it in and save Flow my Tears for later. I reckon this was the right call.

Anyway, a fun gig and a good way to round off the initial trio of gigs with Gareth. Things are sounding pretty good.

Here’s some video:


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Mastering the ‘Secret’ album

As I write I’m listening to the first draft master of my ‘secret’ instrumental album. This has been a labour of love, put together over two years, five years or if we go back to when the first tracks on it were initially composed, 15 years.

Here’s a picture of me burning a CD so I could listen to it on various speakers, including the ancient CD player in our kitchen. My wife reckons she got this particular CD player when she was 16, so it’s the better part of two decades old. it even has a tape deck. If we can make a recording sound good through this, we can make it sound good on anything.

If everything goes according to plan the album will be out in the autumn. Fingers crossed!