The Elephant in the Narrowboat

A few weeks ago Parsley and I drove down the M54 to find Mark, who hangs out on a canal boat recording studio making videos of passing folk musicians. I recorded three tracks with him, and they’re going to be released over the next few months! The first is here now.

I wrote this song four years ago (a discovery which has caused my brain to melt out of my ears) but I’ve seldome played it live and it’s never been recorded before. Working with Mark has made me keener than ever to press on with the next album – I’m pretty sure this’ll be on there when it happens!

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Catweazle at 25

A huge honour to be asked to play at Catweazle’s 25th birthday yesterday. It’s been just over 11 years since I first tiptoed into the East Oxford Community Centre of a Thursday evening, and – as readers well know – the night has had a formative for me ever since. I like that one of my biggest musical influences is not actually a band but a group of performers whose stuff actually has very little in common; Ed Pope’s thundering Peake recitations, the blues of Patti Dale, Sam Taplin’s frenetic piano, Ditte Elly’s tender folk, and of course the sub-Beatles croonfest that is Matt Sage. These are the names of titans, but even in naming them I miss my own point – Catweazle is really the random guy who comes in and does a single, memorable, insane song and then vanishes. Even when they did stuff I didn’t particularly like, these people played a huge part in teaching me what’s important about music, and life, and the advisibility of live amplification. They still do.

I was a bit sad last night at how few people I knew were in the crowd and onstage. I left Oxford in 2010, and although I’ve kept up regular visits the core of people I knew in that fine town have begun to disperse – Catweazle 25 had a lot of people from the Old Days (ie before my time) and a lot of more recent arrivals who I haven’t had a chance to get to know yet (late Thursday working, alas alack etc). But after 24hrs of reflection, of course it’s good really – I have new names to google and new music to get to know! Which is how it should be.

Yes, my dog did a stage invasion. No, it wasn’t on purpose. Yes, I’m doing a whole album of songs for her. No, it won’t be out for ages. Yes, life is for living.

Thanks to Rosie for the photo!

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Valentine Rd

Naff demo of a new tune! This is the third of The Parsley Tapes – it’s a song about walking along, on a pleasant day, down a street which scares you. The tune’s been in my head for months; I wrote the lyrics last night and recorded from scratch in 30 minutes today.

Here, under roomy sky,
Close houses leaning by,
Puffed up with antifreeze,
Road; rhododendron trees.
Please grasp it to your eyes –
Calm, empty pavement so
Time to be brave and try
Valentine Road.

True: it’s a nest for squid,
Ink-stained, in privet hid;
Ravens without their heads
Scream at the flower beds;
Ghost demon frantic gulls,
Mad laser-toting toads,
And grasping tentacles –
Valentine Road.

This little gentle stroll,
Cleansing for legs and soul,
Takes us all breezy by
Rose bushes, gleaming drives.
All through the gabled town
Crisp, wistful sunlight flows –
Boldly we saunter down
Valentine Road.

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Rolling Around the Stuartswell

Who can explain or understand, from the middle of the maelstrom, the individual flecks of spray? The laser-cut wooden hurdy-gurdies, boats full of sheep, a church hall full of greyhounds, the taste of Irn Bru? Climbing the walls of a warehouse in Digbeth. A theatre of mechanical Russian sculptures. Interactive vampire adventures. Canal towpaths, tousled parks, museums, classrooms, and cafés – these are the spaces where everything happens now. What wraps them all together and makes them last? The songs we write about them when we remember, so that we remember. Too often we think – I think – that music is a way of understanding something. But it can also just be saying “I was here at the same time as all these things, before everything changed”.

Keyforge is a brilliant card game. Voyager is one of the better Star Treks. I have a new Cat Empire album and I just discovered Zaz. The Subtle Knife is a very good book, as is The Calculating Stars. And I’m in a superb new(ish) band, and we played a gig recently and we kick ass. At some point soon I’ll write about some or none of these things – on this blog, on my guitar, who knows?

There’s this thing about jam-making. You add sugar and fire to something to make it last.

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So Very Long 2018

Even by my own miserably poor standards for blog upkeep, 2018 was a miserable performance – one post in the whole year, albeit a brilliant one, is all that separates us from my last retrospective. Because of that, it seems silly to do my usual elliptical recap of the year: it’s been a wild one, but I haven’t been keeping track of it and (I suspect) it’s not one which I’ll remember because of its collection of individual incidents so much as thanks to a few big stand out themes.

Personal stuff and work stuff have interfered with FaceOmeter this year, but things are delayed not dismissed and 2019 is going to be different! With that in mind, please join me in my unusually public commitment to some resolutions: to gig more, work better, relax harder, and check in with you all more often. I hope to write soon about gardens, gigs, and records, but for now – Happy New Year! I’ll try to keep better track of this one.

PS. fuck Brexit

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Shute Barrington

All my fans are always asking me for the recipe for Shute Barrington, despite the fact that I have carefully guarded its secret ever since I invented it around ten minutes ago. Finally I yield, super-fans! Do as you will.

Serves, like, 2?
Preparation time the back quarter of one episode of This American Life

INGREDIENTES
1tbsp groundnut oil
1tbsp sesame oil
A bunch of slightly withered spring onions
A cup or so of basmati
1tsp tomato puree
2tsp honey
Half a stock cube
Soy sauce
A calculating expression

METHOD
1) Gently blend the oils together in a large pan, get them all hot. Meanwhile, cut all the crispy bits off the withered springs. Chop what’s left into predominately white bits (hereafter called ‘Jeremy Irons’) and predominately green bits (hereafter called ‘Slow Rider’).
2) Fry off the Jeremy Irons in the oil. I’d stick some garlic in too if you have any, but I didn’t have any. When they’re fizzing good, stick the rice in. Fry it for longer than you think you need to, then put in the puree, the honey, the stock cube, and the soy. Add a tiny bit of water to get things loose, continue to stir and fry until you have a paste.
3) Pour boiling water up to twice the depth of the rice. Bubble (but not quite boil) uncovered until the rice is cooked (you may have to add more water).
4) When it’s ready, turn off the heat, put a lid on it, and leave to rest for exactly 7 minutes and 24 seconds.
5) Stir through the Slow Rider and serve immediately.

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So Very Long 2017

Those of you who have been with me a while will know that I like to close each year by documenting some of my experiences in an oblique way that really has meaning only for myself. 2016 was full of badness but it was good to find the shards of light – in 2017, there was still much which was unpleasant but I’ve had some good times too! I’ve rambled past redwoods in the grounds of a Northern castle; held bread in a Victorian museum; watched Voyager over IM; went out for a group meal (Mexican) where the bill splitting actually worked; carried a soaking king-size duvet down a residential midlands street; had a quick Angolan meal before buying horrendous chips from a place called ‘of Denmark’; got offered a complimentary coke by a team of seven nerds; bumped into a friend’s ex at a whittling workshop in Pembrokeshire; watched a spontaneous Bob Marley remix dance in a community centre; dragged everyone to the vegetarian hotdogs; had coffees with old students; identified a Hawthorn by its leaves; soloed Cardigan Castle; splatooned with two dogs; added popping candy to my blue grape juice; took a train through the mountains to the North Pole; threw blocks of wood in a field with old friends; lost my voice in the Dorset fog; mourned Carluccio at Carluccio’s; stood on a daffodil wall in the early morning; went back to the charity shop to pick up that Star Trek retrospective after all; killed traindelay time in a pizza pub; patrolled my neighbourhood in a skeleton costume; rated my piss with a French cokehead; saw my first wild possum; listened to a massive gong in the rain; put up a patrol tent next to a cheese workshop; saw somebody shoot at someone (for real, guys); ate ice cream near a 38ft hay sculpture of Peter Rabbit; unconed a cat to ‘The Final Countdown’; (legimtimately) skipped an enormous museum queue to look at an art display for ten minutes; spent hours on trains and trams to look at a different museum display for twenty minutes; took a spontaneous Ouse Cruise; paid £5 to learn that the Buncombe Turnpike Trio gig was behind me; skipped a stop on the nighttime DLR; attempted to lift the Gloomhaven box; got given a tour around the Triceratops skull; bought a cocktail book at the British Library; sat in sleet in the summer art market; accidentally detoured to a Welsh village in the middle of nowhere; played tag (as the Den); drove to Witney explicitly for granola; did a history documentary walk past two-tone sheep; organised a number of particularly insane taco parties; passed closed dino-golf in Britain’s biggest garden centre; discovered silken windhounds; picnicked with deer; paused by the illuminated flamingoes; parked near a goose to talk about dinosaurs; saw a 200-year-old bat in a vault near Picadilly; cheered for the twice-a-day train; ate plantain in a modified shipping container; engaged in a heated winter ping pong tournament; found the golden egg high up a rock wall; captured an electric sheep and used it to fight other electric sheep; cheered loudly at the recorder recital; drained my car battery in Devon’s least accessible location; pressed on with a Q&A session after an old lady collapsed behind me; failed to find an ammonite; took the deadwood off my raspberry canes over breakfast; had my registration number written down by an angry sexist; bumped into a former grocery cashier whilst drinking Luscombe’s ginger beer in an abandoned print works; dove into the Channel in my pants; ate strawberry soup behind the iron curtain; cycled by canals and rivers to a haribo and spaniel session; tossed logs in a Welsh brazier; watched a fish kissing movie at the $5 matinee; listened to horrific housemate tales over brunch; saw Franklin’s bell; slept in the mezzanine bunkloft of a Georgian townhouse; popped corns to watch Discovery; watched the Perseids with Princess Buttercup; found myself at a Clean Bandit gig; poisoned myself at my own pizza party; fell in love with Strange & Norrell; and profoundly regretted getting on the Waltzer.

I want to be more explicit than I usually am in these posts (and on this blog) in acknowledging the awfulness in the wider world, expressing my gratitude for the prviliege of my own life, and hoping ardently than some of the insanity which has gripped my country in the last few years begins to subside in 2018. I have hopes regarding insanity on a personal level, too, and an exciting new musical collaboration (of which news later) to power FaceOmeter up over the next few months. I hope you’ll be there for some of the ride, and I’m looking forward to seeing what we get up to!

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A New Old Aspect

In a characteristically glacial way, things are looking up here at FaceOmeter towers. There’s a new writing collaboration which I’m quite keen on, I trekked over to West Wales so that I could watch the Dapper Swindler melting a cheese (pictured), and I was given the courage (12:20PM, 20/11/17) to write a simple new tune – back to my roots in some ways, a bold departure in others.

I debuted the tune in a crowded pub in Lichfield where nobody was listening – I like it a lot just at the moment, not least because it feels like the start of something rather than an end in itself.

Episode IV
The Parsley Tapes, Session One

Six little spines turned up inside my coat
 Just when I’d been abandoned by my hopes.
Six little strings of vertebrae,
Six little lines on the old X-ray –
 It’s time.
Six little spines.

Six little spines to start to let me out,
 Ways from inertness, edginess, and doubt.
Six little talks, six little moods,
Novels by the hearth in six red snoods-
 It’s fine.
Six little spines.

Six little spines which might be melodies –
 Might prove myself by writing one of these.
Six little tunes, sick little beats,
Six little ways to defeat
 Those blues with rhymes.
Six little spines.

Six little spines; a bookshelf rearranged.
 Six little signs there’s going to be a change.
Six little places from which to grow,
Tails and noses and bellies and toes
 Entwined.
Six little spines.

Six little chances, six shape-shifting flames.
 Things won’t ever be quite the same again.
So set your heart out and tuck your knees
There’s a world about and it starts in here
 With these
Six little lines.

With these six little lines.
With those six little spines.

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Of Owls and Memories

Ten years ago to the day I took the Pilot V7 which is always in my right-hand trouser pocket and I drew an owl on my forearm. I can’t remember where I was, nor who with, but I remember there being no reason for it. I write on my hand inveterately – that’s what the pen’s for – but I almost never go behind the wrist, and the owl was back nearly as far as my elbow. I also can’t draw, even when I try hard – and I wasn’t trying hard. I scribbled ‘fOwl’ next to it because I’d just started working on a series of videos – the FaceOmeter weblog (!) – but I wasn’t consciously trying to come up with a design for anything, even though a version of the owl eventually ended up on the CD art for To Infinitives Split. Likely, what I was really doing was killing time. I was playing a show in Exeter that evening with The Dapper Swindler (my first time back in the town since moving from there to Oxford the previous summer), and there was probably a bit of sitting around. I desperately want to tell you that I had a feeling, some premonition that it was going to be important. It might even be true.

Anyway, it’s a decade later and the owl is still there.

I draw it on most mornings over the faded lines of the previous day’s. Sometimes (especially in winter) he lasts for as long as 72 hours. On other occcasions, I forget about him and go up to a day with bare skin. But he’s always back in the end, staring up with an amicable smugness. Almost without exception, every person who has noticed it has asked why it isn’t a tattoo, and there are two reasons. The first is that I am a massive wuss and extraordinarily afraid of commitment. The second is that I am a massive wuss and extraordinarily afraid of losing stuff.

This picture, which hangs in the National Gallery under the title This is what a Multi Looks Like, was taken on the morning of the 31st of October, 2007. The photographer is the Swindler himself, who has placed his Digital SLR on auto-timer on the roof of the Peug (which is just visible at the bottom of the frame). We’re standing outside the North Bridge Inn, at that time the best pub in the world, where we had played the show the previous night as part of a Princess Bride reunion (the first since the tour ended three months earlier and the last until we met up in East Prawle this year). I won’t bore you with the entire setlist – although I do still have the entire setlist, thanks for asking – but we played most of the PB soundtrack, ‘Song for the Summer’, ‘Cosmic Picaresque’, ‘Mellow Drama’, ‘Stuffed Animals’… all the classics.

The approximately 24 hours between drawing the owl and posing for that photo still rank as one of the best days of my life. I’m not going to tell you exactly what happened. Interestingly for an oversharer like me, I’ve never really talked about it – to the extent that writing this post feels strange, even treacherous. I will tell you, though, that there was a real owl involved – a wild one, a wise one, silent and graceful and skimming low over the water in the night – and, well… Well. If you drew an animal on yourself for no reason and then had a mindblowingly good day in which that same animal featured very prominently and entirely unpredictably, would you be able to wash the drawing off?

What I don’t know, as I smile for the above photo, is that I’m around 8 hours away from being punched quite hard in the stomach outside a pub in Oxford which is now a reasonably pleasant Indian restaurant. It should have occured to me as every atom of wind left my lungs and I creased over onto the picnic table that perhaps the owl was not a universal bringer of good fortune. At that point, though, I hadn’t decided to keep it – it was simply still there, through thick and thin, a memento of inexplicably good times. It’s always been like that: I didn’t ever decide that it was never going away, it just became incrementally clear that this thing was part of my arm now.

You see, there’s a third reason I never got it tattooed: I like drawing it on all the time. I like that I have to take fifteen seconds every couple of days to remember why it’s there, what it means, and why that matters. I like that the size and texture and expression of the owl alter very slightly over the numerous reiterations. I like that it has moods. I like that I can’t take it for granted. An intense overthinker, I like making time for a part of myself which is not really a product of thinking.

At both ends of the scale, 2007 was perhaps the year in which I was most thoroughly… myself. I did the Princess Bride, finished my undergrad, goofed off in Paris with the Swindler, buzzed around in the Peug playing shows and writing songs, made videos, and got into Oxford, but I also had some of my most difficult struggles with mental health, hurt some of the people closest to me in huge and unforgiveable ways, and found my new home desparately and relentlessly difficult for all sorts of reasons. At the end of 2007, and ever since, I’ve chosen to remember that year fondly – not because everything about it was good but because of the intensity of all. I cherish the tone that it set by becoming platonic to me (and of me), the gifts it gave me in terms of friends, memories, and tunes, and the lessons it taught me about what was important and how to be better. I’ve never aspired to get back to 2007 – that’s not the name of the game, time moves forwards – but I keep carrying it on my arm. Sometimes I don’t really think about it, and sometimes it’s useful.

Another song I played at the North Bridge on October 30th, 2007, was a cover of Kimya Dawson’s ‘My Rollercoaster‘. I don’t play covers that often, but this was (and is) one of my favourite songs and the gig was at the point where there were really only people I knew in the room. I decided to quote the best, and last, lines of the song here before I noticed that I already did so in my 2007 end-of-year-post – I suppose I’m just maniacally boring and predictable, although I do also find something reassuring in the fact that Dawson continues to have meaning (and more or less the same meaning) for me a decade later:

Life is a highway, and I’m gonna ride it
Every day’s a winding road, yeah!
My rollercoaster’s got the biggest ups and downs
As long as it keeps going round, it’s unbelievable

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Enter the Jamsman

I’ve been fooling around with preserves lately. Don’t believe me? I have an instagram account solely for jam. It’s that serious.

I moved house last year, and the new place came with a secret fruit garden. That is to say, when spring came round, up popped the blackcurrants. And the raspberries. And the plums. And the rhubarb. This year, I found pears that I hadn’t even noticed before. And some kind of apple? The neighbourhood birds are idiots and leave everything for me to harvest. I’m no gardener, but you don’t just stand idle when something like this happens to you: you grab a maslin pan and start caramelising*.

I’m going to be as honest with you as I possibly can: the results are good. I begin to understand the Dapper Swindler’s oft-repeated claims about the similarities between cooking and music-making – or, rather, to recognise the shared theraputic value. Melting down fruit with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell on my headphones, stirring in the sugar, I feel quite the domestic goddess, and it comes across in the final product (highlight so far: Pear and Lemon).

It’s not my intention to write more than ten or twelve songs about jam making, but I feel decidedly in the zone and presume that there will be knock-on consequences for my writing (namely, that I shall do less of it). Onwards!

*caramelising is actually a completely different process, I take this very seriously
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