Friday 12 March 2021

Bits Of A Year

It’s been over a year since I flew from London to New York. February 28th. I was only going to be here for three and a half weeks. I’d been fixing up a small apartment in Cromer, on the North Norfolk coast. My mother left us some money. We figured if we brought it into the United States the odious Trump administration would somehow get their hands on a chunk of it so we bought a flat in England instead. We were hedging our bets thinking that the worst might come to the worst we’d be landed with another four years of Donald Trump. Back in those naive times, just over a year ago.

I’ve been here ever since. The flat in Cromer has been sitting there quietly waiting, a dishwasher sitting in the middle of the living room waiting to be installed in the unfinished kitchen. We spent so much time in England. Hotels, sofa beds, the charity of friends. It made sense to have a place in England. I could say it doesn’t anymore. I used to be a touring musician, a performing artist. I’d make a record and go on tour, make another record and go on tour again, and in between I’d go on tour and make another record. I was wondering how I was getting away with it and occasionally I felt burned out and took a few months off. I wondered how long I could keep going, driving hundreds of miles all alone and between shows, staying in dowdy hotels full of businessmen, wannabe businessmen, the desperate and the dispossessed. Sometimes I wondered what kind of life it was for a man of my age but I was proud of the fact that I was doing it and that was how I was earning a living.

Now I’m left wondering what I am - I keep recording stuff but it’s not easy to find the motivation to assemble it into a coherent record, an album. And I’m not a fan of putting tracks up on Bandcamp or whatever as and when. I admire other people for doing it but it’s not my thing. I love albums - LPs - collections of material designed to sit together and be listened to in a particular order Something to be considered, not cherrypicked and discarded. I know it’s an old fashioned view but it’s where I come from and if I wrote a novel with chapters I’d expect my readers to buy the book, not just a chapter here and there, and I’d quite reasonably expect them to read them in the intended order so they’d understand where I was going and hopefully get something from the experience. My albums are my novels but please don’t take that too literally.

It’s been an awful time and a bloody nuisance and helped along and not helped at all by displays of utter stupidity, gross ineptitude, selfishness and self-seeking subterfuge. I can’t see it coming to end but life goes on. Except when it doesn’t. 

My own life nearly came to an end last May outside the Emergency Room at Columbia Memorial Hospital in Hudson, New York. I'd quarantined twice - the first time they said I hadn’t got it because my symptoms didn’t match the official symptoms. The second time I managed to get tested and the official symptoms had re-aligned themselves to fit with my own diagnostic, I also tested positive when they stuck the Q tip up my nose so this time I had it officially, I’m pretty sure I had it the first time around and that’s not just me trying to make the first quarantine not a complete soul-sucking waste of time. 

After the quarantine the lung damage, the shortness of breath, the inability to walk to the end of the street and back, the heart attack - three stents and the long road to recovery. Everything’s fine now - X-rays, EKGs - but I still get nausea, shortness of breath and crippling tiredness and it seems like I’m not the only one. 

The last doctor I saw, an older woman who had come up from New York City to help out, told me ‘there’s a lot out there that we don’t know’ the tacit message being 
there’s a lot they don’t know and a lot they aren’t telling us. Whoever THEY are. I liked her a lot but she had no answers. She referred me for yet another Covid test which yet again came back negative. It’s as well to be sure about these things. Not that I’m a hypochondriac - I’d prefer to be hale, hearty and fully functional. 

I don’t want to be a harbinger of doom, gloom or consternation either. 

I’m not very good at sticking to the subject - the word 
ABOUT is a real problem for me. People say you could write a song about that and I try not to get pissed off. Perhaps it’s because of the way my brain works that the word about reduces three, four, or even five big beautiful dimensions to one tiny, flat dimension. 

I think it’s the way my brain works. Or doesn’t work - it’s my own fault. 

I was asked to write a piece about a lost album of the 1960s or 70s. I decided on Moonshine, the third and final album by Mickey Jupp’s band Legend. It proved to be a monumental task. I have no trouble writing - I just write what comes out of my head about whatever’s going on around me and in my life, and there it is. But writing about something in particular - it turns into something bigger than I am and almost reduces me to tears of impotent rage at my inability to express what I feel in a string of coherent sentences. 

I wrote sentences. The sentences said what I genuinely thought but the sentences seemed to have nothing much to do with each other. To me the whole thing lacked cohesion. And all the time that question in the back of my mind: 

Is this making any sense?

And here I am writing this stuff and it doesn’t actually matter to me whether it makes sense to you or not - I don’t think sense has got much to do with it. But writing about someone else’s work, something that matters to me, almost brought me to screaming point. 

Who the fuck cares what I think? What the fuck difference does it make that I think this album is great? I’m not an an arbiter of taste... 

I was transported back to 1962 - I was eight years old and I’d been sent to a Catholic prep school where the main thrust of the education, which they took very seriously, appeared to be reading, writing and violence. At the end of the first week of punch-ups punctuated by spelling tests and thwackings on the hand with the stick that held the roller towel the weekend came along and I was charged with writing an essay or composition that had to cover at least two and a half pages of my exercise book. The exercise book was large and the lines were close together and by Sunday afternoon I was in tears, unable to complete the task, worn down by the shouting, lecturing and cajoling of two parents, and fearful of the wrath of an entire order of Catholic brothers and the prospect of another week of bullying and whackings. 

But right now I could go on and on. 

Don’t worry, I’m not going to, I’m just going to pretend to get to the point. 

The point possibly being that I’m amazed that I’ve ever managed to get anything done ever in my life. 

I got the Moonshine piece finished. Amy read it and loved it. Karen Schoemer came round to record another track for the album we’ve been making together and I got her to read it. She immediately wanted to hear the Moonshine album so I think that means the piece does what it should. 

We got the track recorded, the basics - electric guitar and a vocal, a few overdubbed vocal harmonies and a second electric guitar. I used my big old Japanese Yamaha, a seventies knock-off of the Gibson George Benson model - large, clunky and nothing like a Gibson. It was all quite easy - we had it on the second take. We’ve managed to get most of the tracks in one or two takes and never got to the point where we’ve had to abort the session and come back another day because it just wasn’t happening.

There often isn’t time for meticulous overseeing of recordings around here, it’s a matter of getting it done and not getting bogged down. So inevitably there are glitches, crackles, clunks and vocal mic pops. I clean up as much of that stuff as I can without compromising the overall sound or performance.

I used to mix things in the computer but I got tired of it. The endless choice of echoes, reverbs, compressors and so on, that slightly flat quality in the sound as though you were looking at a photo of a cityscape rather than at the city itself. 

Soundcraft 200B
I had a sixteen channel Ramsa console that I started using for a while. I'd bought it in some sort of bancrupt stock clearence sale years ago. I didn’t immediately take to it and it had been very cheap so I put it in storage and basically forgot about it. I rediscovered it last year when I needed sixteen channels and it superceded an eight channel Soundcraft 200B which followed in the wake of a twelve channel Soundcraft K1 that I used to record the Transience album in conjunction with an eight channel Teac Series 5 which I’d previously used to record Construction Time & Demolition

That sounds very complicated and perhaps it’s really boring for most people, but it’s what’s in my head so it’s what I’m writing about. I’m hoping that my enthusiasm for the subject might help to captivate the odd reader in the same way that I sometimes find myself fascinated by someone talking with enthusiasm about golf, or stamp collecting, or some such thing that I have no interest in and know nothing about. 

Anyway… the Teac Series 5 is a magnificent piece but somewhat limited having only eight channels and a couple of fixed eqs (that’s 
tone controls in layman’s terms) about which some of my engineering friends have been quite snippy. I don’t use a lot of eq myself, or if I do it’s more as an effect rather than as a correction - if something doesn’t sound right I’m much more inclined to change or move a microphone than reach for the controls. I’ve watched engineers wrestle with the board, equalising the hell out of something, only to watch them re-wrestle the hell out of the same thing a couple of weeks later when they come to mixing it and quietly realised they fucked-up. Perversely I learned a lot of what I know about recording from watching bad engineers and producers at work. 

I got took the Ramsa out of commission because I got a chance of a Tangent 3216 which proved to be something of a white elephant for me. The Tangent is big and beautiful with a fat, creamy sound. Magnificent. But also problematic - it needs a thorough clean up - pots and switches crackle and cut out and two of the channels don’t work. It could be great but it’s a project. I reluctantly came to the conclusion that there aren’t enough hours in the day or days left in my life. I want to make records, not enter into the world of restoration and refurbishment. So it’s dismantled and in storage waiting on a buyer. i have it for sale on Reverb if anyone’s interested. 
Tangent 3216 - gorgeous, infuriating...
I replaced the Tangent with a sixteen channel Soundcraft 200B, the upgraded model with sweeping eqs. I got it from a Harley Fine who runs Super 70 Studio in Newburgh, New York. He got hold of an Allen & Heath Mod 2 console from the late sixties so the Soundcraft, which he’s used to mix countless records, became available. 

I’ve mixed a load of tracks that I’ve recorded for this album I’m doing with Karen Schoemer on the Soundcraft and I have to say I absolutely love it. I’ve learned that no mixing console is perfect - the Soundcraft 200B has no direct channel outputs and only four busses - it could be an issue if I was recording a band but I could work around that, and it’s not likely to be happening soon given the current state of affairs. My studio certainly isn’t large enough to accommodate a social distanced recording session with a lot of musicians. 

I organized a couple of socially distanced recording sessions in the backyard during the summer. Someone had put a large white gazebo Folded up in a special wheeled carrying case) on the wrong shelf in Walmart and somehow, by using a mixture of charm and tenacity I managed to get it for half its real price which made it an affordable bargain. We erected the thing outside the back door to keep the sun off us and then put up screens made from plastic tarpaulins to hide us from the gaze of inquisitive neighbours. 

I have a theory concerning noise, neighbours and musical instruments: if they can’t actually see them they don’t present a threat and therefore aren’t as loud. And even though a person playing a guitar is a fairly mundane sight these days it’s best not to risk a crowd forming. 

Brian Dewan came round with his electrified autoharp which I plugged into a Fender Princeton sitting amid the junk out on the breezeway. Amy played a Telecaster through my old Fender Vibro Champ and I sang and played a Framus acoustic guitar.
 I miked everything into three channels of a Tascam 424 portastudio and got two tunes out of it. The results were intimate, sparkling and quite casual. I sat on the swing chair with the portastudio on a low patio table next to me, An insect chirped along in time and the neighbour’s kid bounced a ball and threw hoops while someone mowed a lawn in the distance. 
Tascam Portastudio 424 MkII
I got obsessed with portastudios after I transferred, mixed and mastered a collection of Amy’s portastudio casette demos.the year before last. I love the Portastudio - it makes you want to go away for a few days with a load of notebooks and cassette tapes, a collection of wacky musical instuments, and record a classic lo-fi album. Easier said than done though - we can’t all be The Cleaners From Venus. 

I could go on about this forever but perhaps I’d better wrap it up and shut up. I’m working on a new Amy Rigby album at the moment. Or in reality I’m reclining on the sofa getting over a bad reaction to the Covid vaccine while Amy finishes up a piece she’s been asked to write about Bob Dylan. We were both vaccinated the other day in Woodstock. It was a charming and humane experience - old hippies and aging groovers lining up outside the village hall and being screened, processed and even reassured by delightful healthcare workers at tables inside the door. As it was Woodstock I was almost surprised to not be asked for my star sign. The injections happened at injection stations lined up across the middle of the hall, and afterwards we were invited to sit on the edge of the stage and wait for ten minute in case one of us had a fit. We didn’t so we left and Amy took a photo of us in the parking lot to commemorate the event. 

post vaccination, Woodstock NY

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