Saturday 27 February 2016

amplifiers, guitars, amERICa, stuff like that...

I imagine it’s all in a days work for a lot of artists, but the reception my amERICa album got took me by surprise. Putting out an album with a real record company, in this case Fire Records seems to involve more work than when you do it yourself. There are dates and deadlines and stuff the has to be done and if the dates and deadlines and imperatives are not all met the whole thing will unravel and everyone will end up hating you (me that is), and they’re all working so hard and I mustn’t let them down and so I carry on trying to get through all the stuff - recording and mixing and mastering and booking dates and writing stuff for an artist biography and so on when all I really feel like doing is to crawl under the table, cover my head, assume a feotal position and rock myself into thankfully mind-numbing stupor…

I finished the recording bang on schedule and waited until way beyond the scheduled deadline for decisions to be made about the track listing and the mastering of the album, and for the artwork to finally materialise. I flew to England to visit my family in such a state of desperation and paranoia about the deadlines that I took half the artwork with me in a suitcase - torn pizza boxes, some with the remains of various toppings painted into my arse-about-face versions of the Stars & Stripes. I thought I’d finish them off on my travels but I didn’t of course. They rode around England on the back seat of a hire car, flew back home with me to Catskill where I posted them to John Foster who finally put the fantastic cover together.

I’d stopped touring for a while so that I could record. I was a bit off touring anyway because I hadn’t had a good time on the last European tour. We had a drummer who was…to put it kindly - unsuitable. Things like that throw me out of alignment. I’d come home feeling depressed. I had a bit of money stashed away that I could live on for a few months so as soon as Christmas was over I immersed myself in recording. I’d get up, drive across the Rip Van Winkle bridge, marvel at the frozen Hudson river, enjoy a couple of espressos, drive back across the bridge (this time marvelling at the snow covered Catskill mountains), and all the time I’d be thinking about the new album that was unfolding in my chaotic recording studio.

Some days I’d take time off from recording and work on the house. I’m supposed to be fixing the place up which is a thing that hangs most of the time in suspension midway between joy and despair. I rewired the kitchen and built in some new cupboards. I could have been an electrician or a carpenter.

By May I was getting ready to tour again. It’s strange now to think now that less than a year ago I strolled onto a stage in Toronto with no idea what I was going to play, having passed the afternoon in a private crisis of confidence. I fell right back into it. I drove south, played in assorted venues, a couple of micro breweries, one or two record shops and the odd juke joint. I was figuring out how to do the next thing - play the album live. 

By the end of October I was feeling confident. I even had an acoustic guitar sound that worked. I started out with a Framus - I love Framus acoustic guitars. I had the electrics salvaged from an electro-acoustic - under the bridge piezo thing and a pre-amp with a microphone sticking out of it that you could mix in. It was unreliable so I tried an LR Baggs soundhole pick-up instead. i went through two of those, the standard one and the deluxe model with 360 degree extra-sensory perception or some such bollocks. Neither of them sounded good so I went with a DeArmond soundhole pick-up, the genuine 1970s item. The sound took me straight back to my youth, David Bowie playing solo with his Framus 12 string, Family in 1969 at the Brighton Dome on the day their third album came out. I rounded out the sound with a six band MXR graphic equaliser and went on tour with that until September.

I was hanging out in Atlanta for a couple of days with my friend and art agent, Shawn Vinson. We did the round of record shops and music stores and I stumbled across an Alvarez acoustic guitar. It vibrated in my hands, sung out warm and full, and felt just right. I called Amy, told her about it: 
‘You don’t want an Alvarez’ she said, ‘I had one back in the eighties. It was a piece of shit.’
I thought perhaps she was right so I forgot about it for a few days. I was looking for an acoustic guitar to keep at home. I’ve got several but they’re all somewhat esoteric and beaten up. I wanted one that would make me feel legitimate as a singer songwriter on the odd occasion, an instrument that wouldn’t lead me into the same old avoidances and detours that guitars with weird vibrations and dodgy frets always do. I went back and looked at it again. The third time I went back I bought it.
Amy was skeptical. She’s got a Gibson J45 which is a bit like having a Mac in a roomful of PC owners, you know the kind of thing. One day she admitted to having tried it and conceded that it does sound really good.
I didn’t want to start cutting holes in it and fooling about with the under-the-bridge pick-up shit. It had come without the manufacturers choice of electronics which I think is infinitely preferable in a new acoustic guitar. I tried the LR Baggs option but it sounded squawky and didn’t bring out any of the inherent tone. The DeArmond had already found its spiritual home on the Framus so I looked around and found a Seymour Duncan soundhole pick-up. I put that together with a secondhand LR Baggs Gigpro acoustic guitar pre-amp. They’re meant to clip on to the guitar strap which is an idiotic idea. I took the clip off, hardwired the unit to a power supply and velcro-ed it onto the top of the DI box on my pedal board. And that’s the acoustic rig I’ve been using ever since. It goes direct from the pre-amp into the PA and splits off through the pedal board and into a Fender Deluxe Reverb.

This is turning into a real gear nerd piece. The rest of you can skip ahead to some of the other stuff further ahead, but I’m going to stick around here for a bit and talk about amplifiers.

For sometime I’d been using Vox AC15s for solo gigs. Amy and I have one that we keep in England - she uses it when we play together and I was using it  for solo gigs. I’ve got another one here in the US. It gets a lot of use in the studio. I used it for solo shows for about a year but it never really gets loud enough or full sounding without breaking up. Last year I started looking around. I was going to buy a Deluxe Reverb but I found a Guild Superstar - a forty watt combo with one fifteen inch speaker. A relic of the early seventies. It weighs the same as a Vox AC15 but it’s taller and unwieldly. I put wheels on the bottom and fitted it with inset carrying handles. The reverb and tremolo are fabulous - the tremolo was modified by the previous owner, with a switch that puts it down to half speed. The reverb tank has a label on the side:


It’s a great sounding amp in all respects but it’s big and bulky, and it takes up real estate in the trunk of the car so I'm looking for a Deluxe Reverb to use over here.

For the UK and European tour dates last year I bought a secondhand Deluxe Reverb 65 reissue that had been race-tuned by someone who knew what they were doing. My double fuzzbox thing tends to fuck the input tubes but it’s never let me down and it’s never not been big enough. And neither did too many soundmen ask me to turn it down. Not that I ever would.

I’d just finished setting up at the Junction and I was playing my guitar, going through the pedals and into the amp. The soundman blanched:
‘You’ll have to turn down considerably!’
I’ve learned not to rise to this kind of thing. I looked surprised, smiled at him:
‘It’s perhaps a bit early for those kind of judgements’ I said, ‘you don’t know what I’m going to do yet.’
He looked embarrassed and beat a retreat.
I had it firmly in mind from the beginning of the tour that getting wound up and upset about things was a pointless waste of energy that I’d need to get through such a lot of touring so I avoided sugar as much as I could, ate healthy food, drank gallons of water and tried to seek out good coffee places.

I wrote this next bit on my way to the first of the European dates which was in Munich:

I’m on the ferry, Dover to Calais. I must be keen because I arrived early and got put on an earlier boat. I feel like death warmed up and the onboard Starbucks express-o is doing nothing to change that. The last good espresso I had was in an initially unpromising place in Nottingham called (promisingly enough) Wired. Since then I’ve been down in Margate constructing a stage set for my London shows. The construction is too big for the stage because I omitted to get the stage dimensions ahead of time. I like Margate in spite of its desperate lack of decent espresso possibilities. You can’t go round judging places on their coffee. That is, you can, but it’s limiting so I take the broad view and suffer the strichnine-like bitterness as uncomplainingly as I can.

The Nottingham show turned out well. I was there for two nights - the night before the show I did an instore appearance at Rough Trade Records. An easy start to the tour: play for half an hour, sign a few records, plug the show and hit the hotel. I hadn’t bargained for Guy Fawkes Night and a GPS with a personality disorder.

I rented a car, a Peugeot 308. Satelite navigation was extra so I bought my own with me, a TomTom thing that clips into a support suckered onto the windscreen. A stupid fucking idea - who invented the sucker cup system? Probably the same mentally negligible divot who invented the CD jewel case. It doesn’t work - once you’ve got it suckered onto the screen it’s generally positioned itself so it obscures the view, and then you can’t get it off to reposition it. The only benefit is the excersise - abdominal crunches everytime you try to programme it. Unless you’re blessed with Amazonian arms you can hardly reach the damned thing, and clipping and unclipping the thing is dangerous - I’ve very nearly dislocated a rib trying to do that.

So I got without the sucker thing, chucked it in a bin at some motorway services. What you need is Velcro, but that takes advance planning and there’s never time for that. I tell myself that it’s only going to be inconvenient for one journey, balancing the Sat Nav on the cup holder and so on, but one journey turns into six journies and then half a tour and you get used to the inconvenience, and the undercurrent of irritability that seems to accompany every journey. 

But it’s better than peering around the permanently suckered lump on the windscreen. I’m sure that everyone who’s used one of these things knows that the only time the thing will come off the screen is when you’re late for something, in rush hour traffic and presented with three different road choices - take the wrong one and you’re going all the way around the one way system again. And that’s when the sucker cup finally gives out and the stupid thing tumbles off the screen and falls into a dark recess of the passenger footwell.

Here in Dresden it's time for the one man group hug
With touring it’s best if you can laugh your way through it. Though it was a bit difficult to laugh my way through a wet Tuesday night in Dresden, especially after the communal dining experience - vegetarian pasta dish, hearty Germans all friends together, the support act, the promoter, the sound engineer, artist friends of the venue…all talking together in German and politely ignoring me because for some reason people usually assume I’d like to be alone. When the show got underway I holed up in an unheated back room until it was time to go on. The people were actually very nice, it's just hard to be a lone foreigner sometimes.
A few nights before I’d stayed in Dresden on a night off between Vienna and Berlin. The night before in Vienna was the night of the terrible massacre in Paris. It must have been going on while I was playing, or afterwards when I was talking and laughing with friends. I didn’t find out about it until late in the night - someone posted a comment on my Facebook page: thank God you’re not in Paris.
I was glad not to be playing the following night.
The morning after my night off I found a friendly cafe that served an excellent espresso. I wrote this Facebook post:
I'm in Dresden in a hipster coffee place. The espresso is very good. When I ordered I asked (n German if they spoke English and the answer came 'of course!'
I didn't think there was any ‘of course’ about it - I remember when speaking English in Dresden would get you the worst room in the hotel, your dinner spat in, or a blank refusal of service. 
During World War II the RAF bombed the hell out of Dresden, apparently as a reprisal for Coventry, even though Dresden could hardly have been classified as a military target. 
The generation who experienced this first hand are dying out. Hopefully the rest of us are moving on as we eventually have to. 
I can't imagine how some wounds can ever heal, how forgiveness and reason can ever be arrived at, but something about being in Dresden this Sunday morning is giving me some kind of hope.

The day after the show in Dresden I headed back to the same cafe. I bought a hand cranked musical box mechanism in an art supplies and handicrafts store next door. I went in to buy a notebook and bought the musical box thing on an impulse. I thought it might come in handy one day.
By the time I’d driven through torrential rain to Hamburg and arrived at the venue I’d decided to screw the mechanism onto my Telecaster. I asked the promoter if he had a screwdriver and some small screws. When I showed him what I wanted to do he was thrilled to bits, said it was imperative that we get this done in time for tonght’s show, so that’s what we did. I screwed the thing in behind the bridge and I’ve been using it ever since. It vibrates through the body and the pick-ups amplify it. It sounds very creepy, especially through a delay pedal.
Some reviewer in London didn’t like what he referred to as the electronic twiddly bits which apparently added nothing of value to my set. I remember when The Len Bright Combo was going, back in the mid-eighties - people said our one chord jams and long freeform freak outs were gratuitous. These people were usually quite smug in their own puritancial misery. They made me wonder how a creative act could be anything other than gratuitous and why gratuitous carries such a negative connotation. By virtue of that fact that more people abhorred what we were doing than actually liked us The Len Bright Combo was an almost entirely gratuitous project.
And so it goes on. It’s not as if I’m playing to thousands of people who queued up in the rain, spent the night huddled in nylon sleeping bags on some grimy city street for the privilage of buying an overpriced ticket for a stadium show that won’t be happening until sometime next year. It’s a small scene I’m in and I figure I can do pretty much exactly what I want. And that’s what I’ve been doing, electronic twiddly bits and all.

I’ve got more to say but there’s already too much to read. When I came to the Fire Records office and saw the vinyl copies of amERICa for the first time I was almost moved to tears. It’s the best album cover I’ve ever had. And it seems it might be the best album I’ve ever made.I was doing exactly what the fuck I wanted, no eye on the prize, no people-pleasing. It was a thoroughly gratuitous exercise. I’m glad it worked out.

I’m driving up to Albany now to pick up my ’73 Deluxe Reverb which may or may not be a lost cause. I’ll probably write a post about that, and my modified Telecaster. Another post for gear nerds.