Last Friday I had a chat with Mike Cairns, who played drums on my upcoming album. We were recording a little interview ahead of the podcast I intend to inflict on you to accompany the album release.
We had a chat about how he approached recording his drum parts, getting out of music teaching, and we also touched on escapism, the main theme of the album.
As you can see, we both had a great time.
And what does that mean? It means the new album will soon be out!
Last week I signed off the final masters, so the music is finally finished. Mastering – ie. getting all the different tracks to sit together in terms of loudness and so on – has once again been done by David Elliott/Elephant, the Evil Record Label Boss.
This inevitably means that I have now heard all the songs far, far too many times and am slightly sick of them. That’s how the album process works. The point at which you finally get to hear them is the point at which I really don’t need to hear them any more.
Over the next few weeks I’ll share more things as they get sorted – artwork, release date, how you can get a copy, all that sort of stuff. There’ll even be a single with a video to accompany it.
What does the album sound like?
This one’s the most rocky yet, with guitars at least as loud as on Happy People if not more so. There’s a bit of metal, a lot of rock, and quite a lot of prog. How much prog? Well, the first song is 12 minutes long and the last track is 20 minutes long. So quite a lot of prog.
As I said, the theme is escapism. The idea was to have a load of songs that were just fun, up tempo stuff about spaceships and stuff. And that’s pretty much what I came up with.
I am very much looking forward to everyone else being able to hear it.
I saw a funny clip from the BBC over on the twitter:
It’s light-hearted, obviously, but it made me laugh cos I’m a Radiohead fan who could talk forever about how much I like them and I am also a Stewart Lee fan and could talk forever about how much I enjoy his stand-up.
Am I as blinkered as the stereotype they’re talking about in the video? Maybe not. I mean, Radiohead genuinely do interesting and different things with timbre and rhythm compared to other rock bands, and the way they’ve woven ideas from outside rock – bits of jazz, classical and EDM – is really creative. They’re progressive in a way a lot of ‘prog rock’ bands can barely comprehend let alone emulate.
But I also had a long period of not listening to their stuff, particularly around the Hail to the Thief era, and I can absolutely see why, for example, some people can’t get on with Yorke’s voice or find them a bit too miserable.
Anyway, this got me thinking about snobbery, particularly because the idea turned up in relation to sports the other day. I am not a sports fan. I find it confusing in general, and in the case of football actively unpleasant. Why? Because I associate it with a kind of masculinity that just is not me.
I was a kid in the 90s, which in the UK meant the height of ‘lad culture’. This meant football, Oasis and Loaded magazine. Loaded was a ‘lads mag’ that, according to it’s founder, was founded in part as a reaction against the feminising nature of dance music and rave culture (according to this podcast).
Yes, I know, can you imagine such a thing?
It was blokey, masculine, and as anyone who has ever heard Oasis can confirm, offensively incurious.
That wasn’t me. I was listening to Radiohead, and all the things that got put under ‘alternative’ which ranged from proper metal, to metal adjacent things like Placebo. Some of that is pretty masculine of course, but it was the kind of masculinity that was accepting of make-up on men, and singing about your feelings, and in the case of Radiohead of actually doing new things and thinking about the music.
Liking football went hand in hand with listening to Oasis, reading Loaded and wearing your football shirt with the collar up for reasons that were never clear to me.
So, when I amused myself be pretending to not understand what football is it was really interesting when a friend or two objected. I got the impression that to some people, football is not ‘established, high culture’. They seemed to think football was still the solely working class pursuit it once was.
And it ain’t. It is a working class thing, but it isn’t just that any longer. Football is all encompassing, established culture. Not liking football doesn’t make you a snob, it makes you the underdog. It makes you unusual.
Whereas, yeah, declaring Radiohead the best thing ever, and not really listening to anything else is definitely snobbery.
Is there a point to this rambling blog post? Erm… ‘snobbery’ implies looking down on something. Hard to do that when that something is being put on a pedestal by almost everybody.
Also, Radiohead is quite good, but not the be all. And football’s rubbish.
A couple of weeks ago an old college friend posted a picture online. It was a picture of our college class from 20 years ago.
As usual, while everyone else in the picture was being relatively sensible, I was grinning like a loon (too many others in the picture to check with, so I’ve just snipped myself out so you can see my blurry, loon face).
Because of that I ended up reconnecting with a couple of old college friends. There was a theme – none have had truly satisfying musical careers.
I was pretty clever at school. Yeah, it’s kinda conceited to say so, but it’s true. I got a little trophy for getting the best exam results one year. I was always in friendly competition with Meena, the only other person in my year who tended to do as well. But I didn’t go to the sort of school that cared, so they didn’t try and keep me on at sixth form (well, apart from Mr Haque who really wanted me to stay on and do science A levels. Sorry, Mr Haque). There was no career guidance either, and I wouldn’t have listened anyway. All I cared about was music.
So I went off to college to do a music diploma, and I did well (very well. I did extra units and got really high marks. Did I mention I was clever?). I became a better musician because of that course. Then I went off to uni, got better at music, went into music teaching before switching career into a day job that has nothing to do with music.
I never made a serious attempt to make a living from being a musician. Teaching it was one thing, but earning money from performing and composing? No. Too precarious for me. I think I had the musical chops, but I never really had the entrepreneurial skills necessary.
It transpires that quite a few of my college-mates gave it a stab.
And having caught up with them, I was reminded why. It can be a really difficult job.
One was a member of a successful band, touring all over Europe and selling thousands in merch at every gig, but never making a penny.
Another got nowhere in metal bands before packing it in to sell real estate in the middle of America.
Another spent years on the rock covers band circuit, occasionally having a run of good gigs, but not really making progress for years.
In short, not huge amounts of professional success. But loads of musical success.
Away from college friends, I also know musicians who have had struggles with money, struggles with mental ill-health. All of them are musicians who have tried to rely on music as a way of making a living. The musicians I know with day jobs are generally speaking happier for it.
You put money in, you get art out is, I think, a line from the Terry Pratchett novel Maskerade (or paraphrase. I could go and check. But I am lazy). I think that’s the best way to think about music. There is this pernicious and destructive myth that a lot of us musicians fall for – that you can win the lottery and become a rock star. Just work hard enough, make the music good enough, and you will turn this art into your living.
If you can, great. But that takes a good head for business, a realistic model for making it work, huge amounts of luck, and even then I don’t think I’ve met a musician who didn’t make money from something besides performing, recording and composing.
I know for a fact that I, with my full time non-music job, make as much of my own original music as most of my ‘proper’ musician friends.
I know that thinking of the art itself as a goal has lead me to be much happier than when I thought it needed to be something else.
So, daft as he is, I am quite content with the decisions 18 year old me made.
Music doesn’t need to be a job. Most musicians don’t ever consider earning a penny from their music, the ones who do are a tiny, tiny minority. Music is a goal, a thing to create, not a thing to earn from.
As I mentioned in my last blog post, I had lots of fun early this year writing songs inspired by ‘fan’ pictures.
(‘Fan’ – is that the right word? Seems a bit pretentious to declare people my fans. Listeners anyway. People I know online.)
Lots were shared, and quite a few ended up as finished songs with at least a demo recorded, if not a final version.
I Have A Mask is one of the songs that has so far got to the demo stage. But I like it, so it will likely turn up as a finished song at some point. Here’s the demo:
The song was inspired by this picture of a menu, shared by a guy named Randy. I don’t know what the artist who originally created it intended, but to me that is downright creepy. It isn’t a mask, but it made me think of masks, and that’s how I got to the idea of the song.
I have a mask,
And on that mask I placed a smile,
And with that smile I stole some friends.
To begin with, you might be forgiven for thinking the mask is metaphorical. The narrator is singing about faking his way through friends, family, the whole of his life. But as things progress his starts talking about removing the mask and looking to the sky, about finding some other poor bastard to put under the mask and force to live his life. It could be read differently, but to me there is no metaphor here. Whoever this creature is, he has literally lived a life under a mask, disguised as human when he is anything but.
In scifi there are rarely metaphors. If something weird is described, the author probably means it literally.
Music nerd stuff
I mentioned songwriting shortcuts in the last post. Well this one uses a shortcut in the lyrics that I’ve used variations of several times – I’m building up a list. In the example above I’ve got a mask, and on the mask a smile, and with the smile I stole some friends. On an early album I did something similar with a song called What the Orderly Saw.
I pushed the trolley that shot me dead,
I pushed the trolley that carried the corpse that shot me dead,
I pushed the trolley that carried the corpse the doctor cut that brain out of, that shot me dead.
Why would I do this? Cos it both sounds cool and makes the next line easier to write, cos you know how it starts already!
Harmonically the first half of the song is pretty simple. It’s based around Am and F, with a Dm and E turning up in the chorus too. It’s in 7/8 and started life as that ostinato riff you can hear in the guitar. The bassline is simply descending the A harmonic minor scale.
The second half of the song takes us on a little journey, changing key a couple of times as our narrator gets a bit more introspective. But it’s the same sort of chords each time, descending in thirds. And at the end we return to the same opening Am and F chords.
Why change key? It can be a bit cheesy, changing key in a vocal piece, but this one’s telling a story and has a little hint of musical theatre, so it seemed a reasonable thing to do. Maybe a bit of cheese is what it needed. So we go from Am to Dm, and then Cm before returning to the Am figure from the opening. That also leads to a high note in the vocal that I do not get right in the demo. But it’s a demo, so who cares. I’ll get it right in the final version. That, or re-write it so I don’t have to sing so high. One of the two.
Changing key was also another little shortcut. The story was giving us new information, taking us on a bit of a journey, so they key changes reflect that.
The other thing I like about this song is the ‘oh-ho-oh’ vocal hook, which really works imho.
This song was the first I wrote for February album writing month 2021, so it had to get written and recorded pretty quickly. I think I had it done in a day. Getting the final version recorded will happen later this year. Maybe.
A song I’m proud of, and it wouldn’t exist without Randy sharing that picture. Thanks, Randy!
I just clicked publish on the digital version of this year’s subscribers only EP and over the next few days the physical version will be winging its way to my small but mighty band of subscribers.
It’s a funny old game, being a musician these days. Or any days. Things change, but musicians are always struggling to find ways to make the music sustainable. Not to make money (I decidedly do not make money from my music), just to cover costs and make sure the next project happens, the next songs can get written or recorded.
And there’s a lovely small band of nutters who help me do that but paying a very small annual fee and becoming an Immoral Supporter. One of the things they get is access to these annual EPs. We’ve 4 of those now, just for subscribers, plus all sorts of other extras.
It is not too late to join in if that’s your sort of thing. You can find out more about it here.
As a solo artist you don’t often get to collaborate. So I am very happy to have had about seven different collaborators over the last six months or so.
Except none of them made a sound or wrote a word. Instead, they helped out by providing inspiration in the form of some pictures. You see I asked lovely internet people, some of whom I might even call ‘fans’ to provide some pictures that might serve as inspiration for songs.
I specified that they should be weird or unusual in some way, because, well that’s the sort of thing I write, isn’t it?
So I thought I’d tell you about them, in no particular order.
Faceless Men – It was all Barry’s Fault.
In January I wrote Faceless Men, inspired by this picture.
Looking at that picture, I got it into my head that the men in the picture were hiding their faces, because they were scared. Unable to put on a brave face, they covered them up instead. The picture to me looks like bravado. Hubris.
I mentioned to Ex-Brit singer-songwriter Simon Godfrey the other day that I usually feel I have a song when I work out what the character is saying, what the thoughts running through their heads are. And with this picture I could see what they were thinking was “We are the Faceless Men and we’re not scared”. But in fact they are very, very scared indeed. They’re a cult and they hate the outside world because it terrifies them.
Once I’d found that, the song kind of wrote itself. It’s all bravado, so it need to be fast and energetic. So that’s what I wrote.
The music nerd bit
I have a lot of shortcut rules of thumb – I’m sure every songwriter does. For this one I thought we’re going for fast, energetic, sort-of punky, so let’s break out the electric guitar and turn up the distortion. And it’s going to be a bit dark, so let’s use a dark scale – I picked the phrygian mode.
Shortcut: a common chord progression in that key is bvii II i. So that’s what I played in A – Gminor Bb Am (You can hear the same thing in the chorus of Metallica’s Creeping Death for example)
Another shortcut: If you’ve got a fast song that keeps the pace up, one of the things you can do to keep it interesting is change key a lot. So that’s where the chorus came from (other examples, Aces High by Iron Maiden or House of Fun by Madness).
It’s a chorus, so you want it to sound a bit more settled and primary colour, so I moved to D minor, which is the ‘proper’ minor key related to A phrygian. And after singing a little phrase in that key, I moved down a third and did the same in B minor. Then the same again in D minor. And then I threw in a C#minor chord, before ending on a Gminor – the first chord in the verse riff so we could start again for verse 2.
Writing that makes it sounds like I thought it all out, doesn’t it? That’s not what happened. For a start it took me about an hour to get there. And more importantly, it was the vocal melody that led. These scared men in their gas masks had taken up residence in my head at this point, and they were singing about being safe from the rain coming down (rain being a metaphor, I assume, for whatever terrible things they thought were going outside their bunker. I’m not sure exactly what, but it’s their metaphor not mine). The important notes in the opening lines of the chorus move down in step F E D C#. And the final line We are the faceless men, we are the faceless men and we’re not scared centres around an E. Another shortcut – to make chords interesting you can pick a chord that contains the important notes but that isn’t in the key. So that’s what I did, using trial and error to come to the conclusion that a Bm suited that D note. Hence my changing to B minor briefly.
Is this enough music nerd stuff?
No, let’s have a bit more. The notes I sing at the end of the chorus on the words ‘we are the faceless men, we are the faceless men’ are fun. The two lines start on the same note, but other than that they disagree: E D# C# the first time, E D Bb in the second. I use the same group of notes in the quiet bit after the second chorus, and again at the end of the twisty metal riff.
Finding little interesting groups of notes like that can be great as it’s often how I grow later ideas. By messing around with ideas, trying them in a different order and in different places on the guitar neck you find out what other parts of the song could be.
And then I did a guitar solo where I just copied the chorus in a few different keys, and a simplified version of the chorus to sing us out.
What did I do with the song?
I recorded it! I recorded it and put it on my subscribers EP as the opening track. I also hastily recorded a little homemade video for it with my webcam and a gasmask.
I think it’s a fun song, and it is all Barry’s fault. Thanks Barry!
The other day I posted a ‘bootleg’ recording from about 2015. Hearing that reminded me that I made a big decision as a singer round about then. I started singing in my own accent.
For years I had done what lots of British rock singers do and sung in an American accent. Partly this was habit, partly this was to make things easy as there really are some vowel sounds that sing better with that accent.
Singing with my own accent is one of several things I try to consciously do with my singing voice these days. I also try to avoid techniques that sound overly forced and unnatural like too much vibrato. I try to maintain a speechlike quality, while not getting away from the fact that it is singing not spoken word.
It feels more honest. I think it also helps my voice sound like me, rather than trying to sound like someone else. Rock music is full of ‘good’ singers who all sound the same.
These decisions aren’t without their drawbacks. My first print review referred to my ‘mockney’ accent. It isn’t ‘mockney’ it is my actual accent. I can only assume that the reviewer was so used to hearing American sounding voices they were confused.
A review of my album Demon expressed surprise that my slightly speechlike approach fit the music. Apparently not considering that this might be deliberate choice (A mistake 95% of reviewers seem to make is to assume that the musicians were trying to accomplish something that they weren’t).
However, when I listen to my music now I can confidently say that it sounds like me. I found my songwriting voice on my second album, Ironbark. I found my singing voice three years later on Fit the Fourth.
(While we’re at it, I found my attitude to recording only on Demon, after years of trying to sound like someone else, it is that album that sounds closest to what was in my head).
Do I have a point? I guess that singers should sound like themselves. The most successful signers are not best by any technical measure. Many of them are technically bad. But they all sound unique. And almost all of them are divisive with as many detractors as fans. So I shall continue to attempt to entertain and alienate in equal measure.
Anyway, here’s the song that got me thinking this:
Back in 2015, round about Christmas time, I played a private gig at the birthday bash of one of the many people I know named Andy.
I just rediscovered the ‘bootleg’ style recording of that gig that I thought I lost years ago.
It was a fun night. As well as my little acoustic set, Matt Stevens played a set full of guitar loops and beer quaffing and a gentleman named Robert Ramsay cast a spell.
Yes, an actual spell was cast.
The gig was notable because my set included the first ever public rendition of my song Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.
It also included a performance of my song When Will I Get My Jetpack? This is a fun song that has been lurking about for ages. Because it has never fit into a wider project I’ve never got round to recording it.
Maybe one day.
In the meantime, here is the dodgy acoustic version of that song to put in your ears!
I’ve put the whole set up on bandcamp for my subscribers to enjoy. Or at least to listen to.
Bit tired – hence my slightly knackered looking face.
I have spent a big chunk of Saturday working songs for three – yes, three – different projects.
I’ve got a song from my next full length album to a good enough state that I shared it with the Evil Record Label Boss. He said nice things (though mostly about the bass and drums, which were played by other people).
The new album is taking shape nicely. It’s the most rocky album I’ve done so far, with more distorted guitar than any others I’ve released. Not full on metal or anything, but a bit louder fuzzier than the others.
That said, there’s also plenty of acoustic guitar on it as well.
Depending on the final track listing I decide, it might end up being another long album with only 5 actual songs, like Fit the Fourth from a few years ago. Two of the songs combined come to about 32 minutes, which I almost enough for an album all by themselves. Then I’ve got three or four shorter form songs to choose between to complete the thing. Including a finished version of this song from last year’s FAWM:
I’ve also been working on my next subscribers only ep – more info on this over the next few weeks. Basically bandcamp subscribers get loads of extra stuff, including a whole actual EP of songs that aren’t available elsewhere.
Well, I say EP. This year I have a lot of songs. We might be in album territory. Which means this year might technically be a two album year…
Aaaaaaaaand for the third project, I’m doing a bit of production on a friend’s album so have put a bit of time into that as well. Busy busy. New music soon!
Songwriting selfie! Here’s my stupid face – and also a deliberately blurred picture of some lyrics. Cos guess what? I’ve finished the lyrics for my next album.
The last song that needed words was the big long twenty minute proggish number that will finish the album. Turns out it’s a sort of hymn to being an indoors kid and getting lost in scifi and fantasy novels, computer games and stuff like that.
The theme of the album is probably escapism and how important it is. But as I haven’t finished recording the vocal parts yet I guess that could change. We’ll see.
More importantly, I have lyrics! The album is completely written, most of the recording is done except for vocals and a some guitar parts. There will be a new album. (There’s even an outside chance it will be finished by the deadline. but don’t tell the Evil Record Label Boss that).