Invisible Prison – Track by track

Here’s a run through of the tracks from my new album ‘Invisible Prison’, available from July 13th 2020 through all digital outlets.

Start Over Again
This opening track is a driving rock/blues number. The song starts with the guitar and harmonica playing the same riff. As the rest of this album will hopefully testify, I wanted to use the harmonica as a lead instrument that is on par with any other. This is a theme that reoccurs on this album quite a bit and is my statement about the versatility and stature of the tiny mouth organ. The harmonica can stand up against any other instrument and even lead the way. The lyrics are all about starting your life all over again with someone new; staking a claim and changing lanes.

I Ain’t Never Played An English Song With An English Guy
A classic blues riff has been regurgitated for this song, you’ll know it when you hear it. My Grandmother used to live in Bandera, Texas, USA and I was lucky enough to visit her in 2001. My Grandmother’s friend Tillman wanted to take me to an authentic cowboy bar in the local town. He took me out one night and told me to bring my harmonicas as the locals would love it if I played for them. The first bar we went into had a confederate flag pinned to the ceiling with ‘The South Will Rise Again’ printed across it. Pinned around this flag were signed bras. I was informed that the bras had once belonged to strippers that had performed there. The next bar Tillman took me to had a stage downstairs and a band was playing live. This song is about what happened that night and some of the things the locals said to me. They really did think I was Australian and one of them had a cousin who lived in Oxford and the chap thought I might know his cousin as I lived close(!). The band insisted on playing the Beatles classic ‘Get Back’. The bass player was so pleased at having played an English song with an English guy and turned to the rest of the band and said… you guessed it!

Are You A Have Or Are You A Have Not
This is a ‘bouncing’ blues track, mostly a straight 12 bar blues. I grew up and went to school in one of the most deprived areas of the UK. The lyrics are all about the crappy stuff kids at school used to say to me about my family’s financial situation. We didn’t have much money and in the 1980s it was important to have a well known label on your clothes, a games console and decent mountain bike. Woe betide you if you didn’t have all of those things when you were 12 years old.

KWS
An instrumental rock track inspired by those types of guitarists that have that one track on their album that gives them a chance to show off. (Kenny Wayne Shepherd in this instance). I thought I would do a similar track of my own just using the harmonica to show off instead of a guitar. As the recording of the track went on I felt less and less like showing off and I felt more and more like just letting the instruments breathe. The drums do most of the talking on this one. The impact of the harmonica when it does finally show off has built up to it and therefore has more impact when it kicks in. The layered acoustic and electric guitars compliment each other and create space to enjoy the driving nature of the track.

I Don’t Know When I’m Beaten
A rolling, almost Country style song. The main rhythm backing is done on a low A harmonica that chugs all the way through the song to create a great percussive backdrop. As to the lyrics, I put myself under enormous pressure sometimes when I should actually just admit that I’m not good at something and I should just give up. This song is all about that feeling. The song also features a guest lead guitar solo by Danny R.

It Hurts Like Hell
A riff based rock-blues song about a relationship break up. (Surprise surprise!) Standard 12 bar format with the guitar and harp sharing the main riff. I’m quite proud of the solo on this one, although I do make you wait until nearly the end of the song to hear it! I did all the harmonica parts on this album in one take without cutting in and out, so sometimes if the harp sounded a tiny bit raggedy in places I just left it because I felt that it added to the raw sound and the overall ‘band’ feel. I didn’t want anything too polished. Obviously if I made a complete stuff up of the solo I started the take again. I think it can be too easy with modern recording equipment and DAWs to record something one note or one phrase at a time, quantise it, autotune it etc etc I didn’t want to slowly drain all the feel out of the songs by trying to obtain a twisted version of perfection.

Passed Me By
I’ve gone pure Country on one which is about how in midlife I feel that everyone else is having a wild time and getting up to lots of things and I’m just missing out being busy working in a factory. I found the tone of the low E harmonica lead to the main melody on this track giving it a simple and almost spiritual sound. The low E harp has an earthy and honest sound and I loved it so much that I made art the basis for this song.

Help You
My take on the classic ‘Help Me’ by Sonny Boy Williamson. I just wondered what it would be like from the other side of the original lyrics. What it would be like to be the one that’s being asked for help but isn’t in a position to be able to give it due to their own self preservation or own understandable weaknesses. Although the song is in a minor key, I played it on a major keyed harp to try and get some dissonance in places and to try to play with the tone of the bends and overblows.

3 Heads Are Better Than 1
A 12 bar slow Blues instrumental track. I couldn’t decide which harmonica to use for this improvisation so I used them all one after another. The first solo is in 5th position on a Low F harmonica, second solo is 3rd position on a G harmonica and the last solo is in 2nd position on an Am Natural Harmonica.

I’m Never Gonna Change
A riff based, almost Indie style song about someone that thinks that they are fine how they are and that they do not need to improve or grow at all. I used a natural minor keyed harmonica on this one so that I could get the minor chords, just like a guitar and cut between melody, rhythm and just plain noise and rawk!

It Beats Me Baby
A rockin’ Blues up-beat number about the exasperation of knowing someone that continually falls in s**t but always comes up smelling of roses. A song about someone that lives a charmed life. There may or may not have been a woman in my life at one point that behaved this way, I couldn’t possibly say. I lost the plot a bit on the solo on this one but as I said earlier, one take and unless it sounds truly awful then I leave it!

I Gave Up My Evening For This
Pumping blues track about someone that goes out a lot but gets badgered to stay in by their partner. When they finally do get to spend some time together all they do is argue.

Waiting Blues
A slow blues track about being unable to get on with your life because you feel that you owe it to everyone else to wait for them. A song about feeling held back, a sombre end to an emotional rollercoaster of an album!

Final notes:
Throughout the album I tried to keep to a ‘band’ format: Vocalist, harmonica player, guitarist, bass player and drummer. The aim was to make an album as a band, albeit with only me on the instruments! The harmonica sound was not created using expensive valve amps or crystal element microphones. I recorded the harmonica acoustically and when required I used the distortion and overdrive settings that came with the recording software, a touch of EQ and Fanny’s your maiden aunt! I didn’t have an electric guitar so my mate Paul Harrison lent me his PRS (thanks buddy, it’s a beauty!). I didn’t actually even have a bass guitar either until my wife bought me one for Christmas, so thank you Ali for that. The drums were supplied as loop samples and single hits, all recorded on live drums in a studio by Nathan Luker and cut together by me in the DAW. The guest guitar solo on ‘I Don’t Know When I’m Beaten’ was supplied by my great friend and fellow singer-songwriter Danny R. I recorded the album in my home studio in Lowestoft using the free Garageband software that came with my 2010 iMac and sent the final streams to be mixed and mastered by the amazingly talented Raoul Crane at Blaze Studios.

Although I recorded this album during the spring/summer of 2020 during the pandemic, I was still working full time at my day job in a factory. My job was considered to be ‘essential’ and I was not furloughed. For that reason I don’t really see this as a lockdown album and the album was going to be recorded this year pandemic or not. I did, however, have plenty of free time in the evenings as the pubs were shut so I got to work on finishing this album sooner than I had originally planned.

Invisible Prison – Track by track

Crowdfunding an Album

Lately a few social media contacts (now on snooze) have been shoving a crowdfunder for someone to produce an album under my nose. It’s completely got under my skin and the following rant is the result of watching people on social media beg for money time and time again to pay for the recording and production their album. It’s not the first one I’ve seen but this one has pushed me over the edge.

Will someone please explain to me why I should pay for an you to record an album? Is it so that I can get a copy when you’re done? It’s like a forward bet isn’t it? What if I pledge £20 for a coloured vinyl and a t-shirt and the resulting music is a total pile of narcissistic, badly written shite? Why should I give you money in advance of you doing something that you love? Especially as it’s my hard earned money that I received working somewhere I despise. At any other job you work a month on hand and get paid after the work is done. But not you it would seem.

Whatever happened to making an album by hook or crook, on a shoe-string, taking the gamble yourself as an artist? Maybe you could embed the tension that your gamble might not pay off into the music of your shoe-string album. It might even give it an ‘edge’. Instead I give you my hard earned money so that you can be comfortable in the knowledge that you aren’t taking a gamble and won’t make a loss, is that right? What the actual fuck is that about?

To me it smacks of entitlement; “why should I (the artist) struggle, why should I go without, why should I save up, why should I do any of these things if you will just give me the money in advance?” I mean, I get it; a record company advance is a loan, a gamble and it has to be paid back out of future sales of said album. As an artist you are liable for it and you owe it to the record company, it’s their gamble/investment. For a crowdfunded project you’ve already sold all the stuff before you’ve even made it so win-win… But what if it’s a fucking terrible record that your ‘fans’ listen to once and then promptly throw into the bag of stuff to take to the charity shop. I’m not buying your next one, nor am I giving you any money in advance to make it. Maybe I’m just old and out of touch and I just don’t understand.

Is it just tin-rattling on a digital scale? I mean, I give to charity and I have done charitable work and I understand that certain things in life need help to exist and the work that they do is great. Do you ‘need’ to produce an album so badly that you need everyone’s money to do it? Why don’t you get bank loan or re-mortgage your house? Nerina Pallot re-mortgaged her house to pay for her second album and it is an incredible piece of art. There are endless stories of artists going for broke and then producing the best art of their life. But why should you do that if you can just beg online?

Modern technology being what it is these days, it’s pretty straight forward to make a decent sounding recording. In the 1990’s a hissy fostex 4 track borrowed from a mate was what I used to make demos with. Why should you make a full album and have it mastered in Abbey fucking Road? I’ll tell you why; because someone else is paying for it, that’s why. Necessity is the mother of invention, they say. Just how creative are you gonna get if I’m paying for you to relax and play whatever you want? Surely if I’m paying up front you’ll play what I want? Doesn’t ‘he who pays the piper call the tune’? I’ll tell you what, why don’t you make what you want; art for arts sake, edgy, troubled, desperate and rough around the edges and if I like it I’ll buy it and if I don’t I won’t. 

Crowdfunding an Album

Recording Studio Progress

In 1993 at the age of 17 I shared a house with my music managers/mentors; Norman Ives and David Michelsen. The three of us did a bunch of stuff to get by and earn some money.  We had a harmonica group and did gigs, we wrote and recorded harmonica tuition material and sold harmonicas and a variety of musical goods via mail order. In a lot of ways it was the best time of my life. In all the trading of musical equipment that went on we had managed to procure a Fostex 4 track tape recorder. For the younger generation or those unfamiliar with this device it was a piece of rudimentary multi-track home recording equipment. One could record one’s self separately onto the 4 tracks and then mix them together into a narcissistic blend of Tubular Bells-esque madness. So that is exactly what I did.

MT_92_05_fostex_x18_large
Fostex X-18 4 track tape recorder

I had always tried to write songs and tunes with multiple parts but I lacked a way of being able to present my ideas to other people. Don’t get me wrong, I could write and read music notation and had a thorough understanding of music and chord theory. I just lacked the confidence and self-belief to be able to convey my ideas to other musicians without worrying that the other members would trash my ideas or just plain get bored. To this end I shied away from musicians of my own peerage and didn’t even try to form a band. I needed a way to make my own band by playing all the instruments. This Fostex thingy provided the perfect solution for introverted me to record my music as I envisioned it (more or less!).

Uninitiated as I was to recording equipment I made a bit of a hash of it by over-recording the whole thing. I remember the sound being distorted as hell. A standard SM58 microphone was all that was to hand so I used that to record all the harmonica parts and even plugged an electric guitar directly into the Fostex for one of the tunes. They were all instrumental tracks, just me chugging on harmonicas and playing melody lines over the top of the simple chord patterns I’d invented. I remember being totally over the moon that I had created such a thing. Norman and David were very supportive and Norman reproduced a number of copies of the tape to sell via mail order. David insisted I put it out under a ‘Blues name’ so he called me ‘Dynamite Red’ on account of my ginger hair and proclivity to play fast runs on the harmonica. As the recording was done on a tiny Fostex at home and not in a recording studio and being of pretty poor quality, I decided to call it ‘Rough Cuts’. I have a copy of the cassette and I really should get it digitised for prosperity.

In 2013 I bought and iMac when I was trying to start a graphic design business. The business never got off the ground and the iMac sat unused for years. Sometime in 2018 I decided to switch it on and see if it still worked. Whilst looking around it to see what software was installed on it I discovered a little programme called Garageband. This programme was like a Fostex on steroids. I soon discovered that with Garageband I could multi-track record and THEN add effects. And not just any effects, this programme had hundreds of them I could add. Not only did it have effects but it did MIDI and did loops that it gave you for FREE! It had amp simulations for your guitar and bass and pre-built settings for recording a large variety of instruments. My mind was totally blown and I immediately started recording my harmonica again.

The first issue I came up against was how to get the acoustic sound into the Mac. My SM58 didn’t work no matter what adapter I used on the tiny plug in the back of the iMac. I soon discovered that the iMac had a built in microphone so I started using that instead. I chucked together a few drum loops, recorded a bass line by playing it on a regular harmonica and dropping it an octave in the software (you can do that too!) and then I strung melodies over the top. It was just like the old days but with massive digital knobs on! Here’s one of the first tunes I recorded that way:

Okay, So I also discovered iMovie whilst I was about it and set about making silly videos to go with my music. I soon discovered that the recording quality was a bit thin and boomy through the built-in microphone. It was also a pain leaning in towards the Mac to get enough recording volume. I own a few PA bits and pieces and had an old Peavey 8 channel powered PA mixer to hand. It had phantom power so I could use a condenser mic to get a better quality recording. I found a mic on wish.com for £25 that looked the business so I bought that. I covered my spare room in sheets and cushions to try and get rid of the ‘boomy’ room sound and actually tried recording vocals. Plugging the ‘tape out’ phono plugs from he PA into the 3.5mm jack input on the back of the iMac created and fairly pleasing result. In fact, my guitarist friend and I recorded a small album worth of songs and released it. Here’s one of the tracks:

Doesn’t sound half bad eh? I was impressed and we released it on iTunes etc to a pretty good response. I was on fire and I loved this new way to record my own stuff exactly how I wanted to. So I went mad and recorded all sorts of stuff and found that I could instantly release it to the world via Soundcloud:

I think it’s fair to say I was addicted. As you listen through my Soundcloud uploads, working from oldest to newest you can (hopefully) hear the progression in the recording quality as both my equipment and knowledge upgraded gradually. The more I recorded the more I heard holes in my audio spectrum and holes in the recording quality. The next steps happened over the next two years. I upgraded my £25 condenser microphone to an AKG to the tune of £170 and then looked into a way of dispensing with the very hissy Peavy amp mixer. I was using the PA for monitoring as well through a couple of well placed PA speakers. I needed those upgraded too, but one thing at a time. After much research into interfaces I purchased a Focusrite Scarlett to the tune of £169. The USB interface was worth every penny. I plugged it into the USB port and plugged my AKG mic into the front. I just sat and listened to the silence for a good 20 minutes after that. The hiss had gone, the tiny bit of latency had gone and the £200 I had spent on a new pair of AKG headphones made it clearer than ever. The monitors would have to wait. As the recordings went on I grew so tired of the crappy sound from the PA monitors I ended up just mixing with headphones.

All this may sound completely rudimentary and obvious to the seasoned musician and I know that as I’ve been playing the harmonica for over 30 years you’d think I would be a bit more savvy about modern recording techniques. I can tell you that I wasn’t and in a lot of ways I’m still not. I am, however, fascinated by it and always looking for new ways to improve my sound and to grow.

After the advent the album with my guitarist friend I noticed that my recordings were coming up quite once I’d exported them This lead to a whole journey into ‘mastering’ and what that means. It’s a tough subject to get anyone to shed some light on and I’m still not sure that a lifetime of sound engineering would qualify me as an expert. My understanding of mastering is to set the volume and mix to a place where they can be heard on almost any device with minimal loss of volume and quality. Its a skill of picking frequencies that need to cut or boost through EQ-ing and a level of compression that creates a reasonable even volume for all the instruments on the recording. Adding a high-pass filter would help with the ‘boomy’ room. The mastering can make of break it and I’ve had good and bad experiences and every shade in-between. Some of my better mastering is on the latest of my Soundcloud tracks, I’ll always be learning it! I found that I would have to use a programme AFTER Garageband to master stuff up. I chose Audacity and use its tools to Normalise, amplify, compress and add limiter to my tracks in a strange brew that differs every time. Indeed, I chickened out of mastering my last album ‘You Don’t Even Know’ and sent the files to the rather awesome Blaze Studios to master it for me. Plenty of studios offer a mastering service and very reasonably priced too.

My finest and most proud moment for my home recording studio was being Able to record someone else. I was at an open mic night in October 2019 and a young man got up to play with a beat-up old guitar, flat cap and beard and proceeded to sing a collection of his own songs. As he opened his mouth on that first song: “Who are we…Who are we-e, does anybody know…” the hairs on my arm stood up. The young man was Danny R and I waited and spoke to him afterwards, I think the young people would say I wanted to ‘fan’ him(?) He didn’t have a CD or demo for sale which made me think. I thought about it over the weekend and contacted him on the Monday morning offering to record him in my little studio. Two weeks later he was round and we recorded his 5 track EP:

Danny R was most impressed with the result and as a thank you gifted me a pair JBL powered studio monitor speakers. Bless his heart! Danny has now set up his own home studio in the same vein as mine and we regularly collaborate on songs from the comfort of our own homes. The JBL’s have improved my mixing ability no end and I’m now hearing even more stuff I was missing in my previous mixes.

My new album entitled “Invisible Prison’ is due for release in July of 2020 and I’ve recorded, mixed and mastered it myself. Funds aren’t allowing for a mastering service this year, but I’m hoping that it stands up to its peers when it gets some airplay. It’s an electric Blues album this time and I’ve used the amp simulators, the bass amps and even bought some new live drum loops to create my very own band-in-a-box. In a way I feel I’ve gone full circle, I feel like I’ve finally achieved what I set out to in 1993. Whatever it is, its been a world of fun and I can’t stop now.

Recording Studio Progress

You Probably Think This Song Is About You

Since I’ve been writing and releasing songs regularly over the last two years I’ve been getting some flack about what the lyrics are about. The songs I write aren’t always about someone in particular or a situation that is actually happening to me at the time. When I was 21 a songwriter friend of mine told me that I should write all my lyrics while I’m young. Regardless of having any music to go with the lyrics or not, he said that I should write down the feelings I have as a young man because as an older, settled down man I wouldn’t have so many wild and tempestuous feelings and that the quiet and mundane feelings I would have as an older man wouldn’t make great lyrics. In a way he was right, my feelings are less tempestuous and less dramatic as an older man but a lot of them are still there.

I didn’t heed his advice and here I am finding that I’m having to draw on a number of experiences from throughout my life in order to create food for songs. I have also found that the mundane does make a good song, please check out ‘Blue Collar Factory Blues’ from my album with Neil Challis. My life does have plenty of ups and downs and still gives me food for songs. I still get angry, but nit as intensely as I did as a young man, nor am I as likely to act as harshly as I did as a young man; the argument with the guy in my office last year would have ended far less amenably if it had happened 20 years ago! So there is the element of intensity that may have gone from my young man lyric writing, but there has added the element of perspective and also the fact that just by virtue of having been around the planet longer I have heard a lot more stories. I have had friends in situations that I have helped them through or news stories I have read that I can draw upon. I dream about lives I could have had, I know I shouldn’t but I do.

The mad thing is that these are all private thoughts and feelings that as an artist I wish to express that I otherwise couldn’t. The issue is wether I should express them or not. What if they do harm? Should I only stick to flattering lyrics? As a Blues artist is that realistic? As a miserable and sometimes suicidal person with mental health issues is that realistic? Should I just not bother to say anything at all if I can’t say anything nice? I think the answer is that art should be for art’s sake and just like anything else, if you think it’s about you then it might well apply to you even if it wasn’t written with you in mind. Maybe it says more about you than it does about the writer? Many people don’t like having a mirror held up to them.

Modern culture is full of questions about who particular songs or characters are about. Was Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter books based on J K Rowling’s ex husband? Was ‘You’re So Vain” actually written about Warren Beatty? Was Adele’s song ‘Someone like you’ written about her ex? The writer of hit TV show ‘Cold Feet’ had his friends testify in a TV documentary that the attitude amongst their group was to ‘be careful or you’ll end up in his show’ and apparently he wrote the whole first series based on actual events that had happened to them. My take on it is that it doesn’t really matter because they are all amazing pieces of art and surely the source material is irrelevant to enjoying the art experience. It’s interesting for sure but not essential to the experience.

As far as my own songs go, I’m just a tiny part-time musician from the arse end of no-where that doesn’t even do music for a living. I get about 20,000 listens a year on Soundcloud which is really just a drop in the ocean. My last song that caused a family riot has only been listened to 120 times, probably not all the way through, probably 100 times but the person it upset. Chill out, no one’s listening anyway, I’m hardly Adele or J K Rowling!

In the meantime I will continue to make up stories for my songs, imagine situations and write about what I know and just reap the whirlwind.

You Probably Think This Song Is About You

Support Slot

One of my favourite parts of being a musician is getting to meet other musicians. During the summer of 2019 I managed to secured a support slot at a tiny venue called The Queen Street Brewhouse in Colchester. The slot was support to a young, up and coming Blues/Rock band from Cambridge. Having stalked them on social media I found out that they played all original music, had an EP out and were working on as new one. This band had been playing some large venues, done radio interviews and had also been nominated for a songwriting award. Needless to say I was expecting big things. One thing bugged me: videos of them playing live were few and far between. This had been a common thread I had been finding with so called ‘harmonica experts’ on Facebook around that time.

I finished work at the plant in Norwich and drove straight to Colchester and to the venue, parked up and grabbed my gear; my pedal board, a bag of leads and a case of harmonicas. The venue was tiny but cozy and reminded me of the Triangle Tavern in Lowestoft. There was a great choice of ales, regulars were propping up the bar and the décor was what I would call ‘ramshackle chic’. The permanent stage and house PA showed me that they regularly had music on so I was expecting some sort of appreciative music-loving crowd at the very least. The main act had already started setting up so I waded my way through the empty drum cases, leads and howls of feedback and made my way to the stage to introduce myself.

“Hi, I’m looking for Jake,” I grinned at the pretty young people who were holding instruments, microphones and the like.

“What’s your name?” asked a chubby, guitar-laden young man in a stripey shirt and black fedora.

“I’m Paul Gillings, nice to meet you.” I proffered my hand to shake, fixed my grin and made eye contact.
“I’m Jake,” he said, returning a rather floppy handshake.

“Nice to meet you,” I said again. I offered my hand, name and grin around to what I suspected were the other band members, one of whom just stared at me and the other two offered a shake but gave no names. Was I supposed to know who they were?

“We haven’t got a sound engineer,” Jake shrugged, “we normally have someone do this for us so we don’t know what to do.”

I’d been in the exact same situation a million times myself so I felt for the young fella, I wondered if I should help out. I know my way around sound gear quite well and I was pretty sure I could get a decent sound for them. I opened my mouth and was about to offer to help when Jake piped up again.

“This is the smallest venue we’ve ever played,” he said, “and we’re never playing here again.”

“Wow,” said I, amazed at their meteoric rise to venues with house PA’s and sound engineers in 8 short months of forming.

It is true to say that I have spent a large part of my burgeoning music career dealing with and solving sound issues. I own two PA’s of different sizes that I choose between depending upon the size of the venue. It almost seemed unfair to me that they hadn’t had the experience of having to deal with lairy musicians that ‘need more reverb in the monitor’, or a Bass player that insists on DI’ing his instrument only to thrash the hell out of it and blow the speaker. I was once in a band that was asked to support a ‘larger’ band at a pub in Norfolk. We were told to bring our own PA to use for our set, when the main act finally arrived they hadn’t bought a PA so they asked to use ours. We obliged but then had to put up with having to sound engineer them. Complaints then ensued from said main act about the poor quality of our PA. Never again, I though to myself. Yet here I was, being tempted to help again. I had to stop myself, keep my mouth closed and let them learn the hard way. To be fair it sounded like they had had a pretty easy ride to stardom so far so what would a little humbling lesson in bad sound hurt them? It might even do them good, I thought to myself.

“Who’s the organiser here? Has anyone spoken about start times?” I asked,

“There is no organiser, or maybe it’s the landlord. I think,” Jake replied.

I decided that with his attitude Jake would be best to sort out his own sound issues. I went over and sought out the landlord. The landlord was a very nice chap indeed, who informed me that they had a licence to serve alcohol until 12 midnight. My stomach sank as I realised that this was going to be a long night with this band.

I grabbed a drink and sat at the bar chatting to the locals whilst the main act continued to set up. The band continued to complain about the lack of sound engineer and criticise the house PA. I found the locals and bar staff to be great people. I was indeed correct in my initial assumption that they liked their music. The small gathering at the bar were looking forward to what was going to be on offer, told me about the regular music that they have in the pub and how much they liked the place. I felt welcomed and my initial nerves slowly dissipated as I chatted to those lovely people. My sinking stomach feeling subsided and I was really looking forward to sharing my music with these people. Our conversations at the bar were punctuated by more howls of feedback and as the band had now managed to get the microphones to work Working microphones meant that their complaints were being projected around the pub for all to hear. A couple of music loving people I was talking to at the bar had overheard my conversation with Jake and were none too impressed with him. You never know who’s listening.

The band had made several references to their ‘fan base’ on their social media prior to the gig. Ten minutes later the ‘fan base’ that they had mentioned arrived at the venue. The lead singer’s grandparents and mum, all wearing the band’s promo T shirts. It was very cute. Amongst the entourage was also a professional photographer, obviously a friend of the band, but he really knew his stuff and had all the gear. The photographer snapped away as the band continued to set up. Peaking over his shoulder at the display on the camera I could see that this chap had a great eye and the photos looked amazing.
“They look great mate!” I complimented, “I’m the support act, if you manage to take any of me I’d be very grateful of a copy.”

“No probs at all mate, add me on insta and I’ll post them up.”

This was great. I could get some good promo photos as I didn’t really have many at the time.

I managed to get in a small soundcheck, I never really needed much, and sat back waiting to start.

“If you wanna start at 8.30, do 45 mins and we’ll go on after that for an hour. We’re off for something to eat.” Jake announced. So off they all trounced leaving drum cases, instrument cases and lead in the middle of the floor in front of the stage. Was I supposed to move that stuff? Did they normally have roadies do that for them? Are the venues they play normally so big that the staff cleans up after them? As much as I love being instructed by a twenty-something, stadium-playing upstart, I wasn’t about to start playing at 8.30 for all the tea in China. I decided that I would start when I wanted to. In the end I started at 8.45: there were people there and I was looking forward to sharing my music with them.

The main band walked back in from their feed at 9.20 as I was in full swing of my set. Were they hoping I’d be finished by then? I made a sarcastic reference to the drum and instrument cases that had sat in front of me whilst I played, which unsurprisingly fell on deaf ears. I finished my set at 9.30 and was immediately rushed by the guys in the band making to set up their gear. Even their photographer friend remarked that they should give me a chance to break my gear down and get out of the way before they came on to set up.

I was expecting good things from this band. I had read the hype, seen the T shirts and felt the swagger and arrogance of youth. Bring it on. I actually, believe it or not, love having my mind changed about people. It’s fair to say that my mind was not changed in the slightest upon hearing this band. Their unresolved sound issues aside they continued to sing off key, be out of time with each other and periodically the Bass player would stomp on a pedal that made the house PA speakers rattle and buzz horrendously. After twenty long minutes the band decided that they had had enough of playing so wrapped up their performance with an original number that we were encouraged to vote for in an online songwriting competition. Vanity press anyone? You know the scam: ‘pay £40 and send in your poem to get published in a book’. I looked it up and this was the same deal, just with songwriting and submitting your MP3 online. Total bullshit.

I had to be up in the morning so I didn’t hang around for my fee and wrongly assumed that the venue would be in touch about sending me my money. I can’t believe I made such a rookie mistake after all these years. Two weeks later the venue informed me that they gave all the money to Jake and that he was to give me 50% of it. I contacted Jake who told me that that was not the deal he agreed with the venue and I wouldn’t be getting any money out of him at all.

Lessons learned: 1) don’t believe a band’s own press 2) you never know who’s listening and 3) make sure you get paid before you leave a venue.

Support Slot

Facebook keyboard warrior

I’ve been observing a chap post, comment and advise harmonica players all over social media lately. It’s actually good advice overall, but I found some observations, especially one comment on my own playing, a little hard to swallow. I decided that I could heed the critique he had made if it was backed up by his own expertise on the instrument. To read what he has to say I thought he would be an harmonica player of God-like proportions.

After much, much digging I finally found a video which contained a sample of his harmonica playing. It was a video from over a year ago, an instrumental with him on harmonica as lead. I was stunned at how this player of over fifty years, dishing out his worldly advice, couldn’t actually play very well at all; poor single note clarity, thin tone, inaccurate note bending, etc.

Personally, I think very long and hard before I comment on someone’s work, knowing how difficult it is to learn to play the harmonica, let alone video oneself and place it up online. I try to be positive and if can’t think of anything nice to say, I say nothing at all, it’s not difficult to just keep on scrolling. I also cringe like hell when placing videos of my own playing/practicing up online, I know I have a lot to learn and I’m always keen to get feedback.

This guy can never seem to help himself though: gear, harps, techniques, players; he’s a world expert. And then you hear him play.

I can’t really decide if I have a point or if I’m just bitter about his comment? 🤣

Facebook keyboard warrior

Taking an original track to the band.

It’s always nerve wracking bringing an original song to a band. Especially when that band is mainly a covers band that throws in a few of the lead singer’s superb original songs from time to time.

The last time that I dared to bring an original song idea to a band was about twenty years ago and to a very different band. That particular band was an all original indie/rock outfit that had very big dreams and ambitions. My song was pretty much ripped to shreds by the other band members that last time. As I recall they changed the key of the song from major to a minor key, added a middle section that was essentially another whole song and then had me change the lyrics to something less personal.

Now, I’m all for band members adding their own stamp to a song and bringing their own musicality to it, but I think back then that those guys went too far. I did have a fairly solid idea of how the song was supposed to go in my head which I demonstrated on the demo I had recorded and presented them with, along with a copy of the lyrics and chords. What we ended up with was nothing like it, even the title was changed in the end.

This time around was an entirely different affair and a much different band. The band did add their own twist to it, not what I’d imagined but better! They didn’t want to change the key or the tempo, the words or the structure. There was just their feeling, vibe for the song being pushed forward. They left their ego at the door and felt their way around the song, got lost in it and were happy to come along on a little journey of my song.

Since then I feel that the song no longer belongs to me but this time in a much better way. The song is now bigger than me, it’s ours, our band’s song. We made it ours by adding empathetically rather than logically to the musical content. I can’t wait to play it out there live!

Taking an original track to the band.

Kongsheng Solist – Harmonica Review

Kongsheng Solist – Harmonica Review

Feeling low…G!

IMG_0025.JPG

What do the two harps pictured above have in common? One is a 365 14 hole Marine Band in the key of G and the other is a Seydel Noble Low Tone in low G.

Tenuous link coming up…

In the 1990’s Steve Baker developed the ‘Steve Baker Special‘ or SBS for short. Based on 14 hole 365 Marine Band harmonicas, and for those that don’t know, it was the laid out with the first 3 holes of a regular diatonic harmonica repeated on holes 4 to 6, then the rest of the harp carried on as a normal Richter tuned diatonic. The other way to look at it is that it it’s another three holes an octave lower tagged on the beginning of a regular harp.
Or just look at this diagram:

SBS Layout.jpg

I managed to obtain a low G version of one of these beauties in the mid nineties from a deal Norman Ives did with Kevin’s Harps, who was the distributor for Hohner USA at that time. My harmonica teacher David Michelsen was a proponent of the chugging technique and made some crazy sounds with the low G SBS. The octave splits on the first 6 holes at the lower end of the harp lost their disjointed sound when compared to a regular 10 hole diatonic as they become true octave splits on the draw notes as well as the blow notes. Like a say, when mixed with chugging this made for a monster sound.

To start with these where just detuned Marine Band 365’s with a multitude of solder on the reeds to weigh them down and make the notes real low. Unfortunately I sold my low G SBS on ebay years ago and haven’t hankered after it since.

That was until I spotted the other little beauty pictured in the main image: the Seydel Noble Low Tone. Before the Bristol 2017 international Harmonica festival I had never seen one. I guess I just haven’t had my ear to the ground! I spotted it on the Seydel stand for a festival special of £55, a bargain for any Seydel harmonica, so I had to see what it was. It’s a lovely weighty chunky little number with coverplates that stand well proud of the reedplates to prevent the reeds hitting the inside of the coverplates when played. Windsavers cover the reedslots at various places to stop air leakage over the large reedslots and in place of old bits of solder are actual chunks of metal on the reeds to weigh them down to those low notes. The chap on the stall also told me that the comb is 1mm thicker than usual as it creates 20% more airflow. Is this true? I don’t know but it sold me!Noble Low Tone.jpg

Pic above shows weighted reeds (bottom left) wide coverplates (bottom centre) and windsavers/valves (bottom right). As you can see by the main image the harp certainly is a chunky little number.

I have contemplated soldering the reeds of the 365 to make a low G SBS but I think I’ll leave it as it is and enjoy the extra notes. I think I’ll go and use my Noble low G more and more. The first thing I’m gonna do with that low tone is make some Cello type notes to go behind the guitars in the indie band I’m in. Then I’m gonna chug out some solo stuff ’till my little heart’s content! Brilliant harp.

Seydel info page on the Noble Low Tone.

Feeling low…G!

Soloing etiquette

I love a bit of band politics and a recent experience has got me to reminiscing about a certain situation that has arisen in bands I have been in:

“I think you two should take it in turns to solo during more numbers,” Came the input at band rehearsal last night. “I think it makes a great extension to the songs and gives you (points at me) a chance to show off your harmonica skills.”  Five minutes later during the soloing section of the song in hand, our guitarist was happily noodling away. As soon as he started I backed off the mic, took the harp out of my mouth and waited out the allotted ‘one time around the verse and chorus’ that he had his turn to solo in. I did my usual introductory riffs to take the lead from him at the end of the turnaround, but to my surprise he wasn’t budging. He just kept on soloing. I tried the eye contact, but his eyes were closed, lost in his solo. It was actually a truly epic solo so I took the chance to listen to what he was playing and felt awed at how good his chops where. ‘I’ll get it on the next one’, I thought to myself. The turnaround came again and… you guest it, he carried on soloing! This time around the verse when the turnaround came the singer had decided that it was time to bring the last verse in so he wilfully started singing, my chance of a solo in this song passed by. I automatically dropped back in to backing mode and the band played on.

At the end of the song our singer wasted no time and addressed the issue straight away.
“When it’s Paul’s turn to solo you have to stop playing so that we can hear him.”
“I did!” protested our guitarist.
“No you didn’t I was here and I heard it!” Our singer shoots back. The singer and guitarist have been in bands with each other for many years now so how they speak to each other looks like crap when written down but is actually always spoken with complete affection.
“Alright, maybe I did carry on soloing, but I did play a bit quieter during his solo.”
“That’s still soloing even if it is quiet, maybe you should just play chords while Paul solos?”
“Yeah man, no probs!”
An amicable solution had been found and the issue addressed.

The whole situation took me back nearly 30 years to the first band I was ever in. I then realised that this ‘solo stealing’ had been happening all my musical life. Thankfully, these days it was dealt with in an adult and (semi) professional manner. Back when I was in a band with 4 other teenage boys, all playing harmonicas it was a completely different story…

We had a tune called ‘Random’s Boogie‘ and we played that tune everywhere. And when I say everywhere I mean EVERYWHERE. It was a mostly improvised 12 bar blues boogie where we started off with a slow section and then after a couple of times round the 12 we kicked off into a fast paced boogie chug. The structure after that was to take turns in having a solo and show off our skills. There being 3 lead players in the band there was plenty of room to extend or shorten the tune depending on the time slot we needed to fill. This made the tune perfect for radio and TV so we wheeled this tune out time and time again. You can probably see where I’m going with this…

The solo stealing started by accident, we just weren’t listening to each other and couldn’t tell who’s turn it was. Everyone wanted to play at once and it just sounded like a dog’s breakfast. Needless to say that the tact of a 13 year old boy is far removed from that of a 30something, so the suggestion that we take turns was not given or taken as lightly or amicably as it was at my recent band rehearsal. To be blunt, we just swore and shouted at each other over it. Far from resolving the situation (quelle surprise), drawing attention to the issue only made things worse. Knowing that stealing each others solos wound each other up we started to do it on purpose. When the solo stealing started out in rehearsals it was quickly jumped on by our managers and musical directors, especially when we were rehearsing for TV slots. We would start just soloing over each other and it sounded proper awful. After being reprimanded we would all play nice and take turns during the next rehearsal. The very second the red light turned on on the TV cameras it was a free-for-all again. We all played over each other, stole solos and made each other really angry. Being the goody-two-shoes that I was at the time I stopped participating and just back and didn’t take my turn to solo, I just carried on playing the backing. I started to feel like a side man in my own group. I began to resent the situation and came to hate playing the tune at all. I was 14, moody and if I couldn’t play I was gonna take my ball home.

What I have taken away from this is that what we are playing, the tune, the song, is bigger than those of us playing it. We are party to creating a great thing and should feel privileged to be part of the song, no matter how small a part we play. It’s a cliche for a reason but the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. The solo is no good without decent backing to play it over. But it’s tough, because if we’re doing it properly we commit ourselves emotionally to the song and give a piece of ourselves away. The trick is not to be too precious about it and give that piece of yourself willingly and accept deference to your higher power: music.

My advice: keep your ears and eyes open, remember what you rehearsed and most important of all leave your ego at the rehearsal room door!

Has any of this happened to you? How are the politics in your band?

Soloing etiquette