Monthly Archives: August 2013

Green Man Rising

I don’t want to sound like world-weary-amateur-music-circuit-dickhead-#5, but I’ve seen a few festivals at this point and I’m familiar with many of their characteristic tastes: the joy of checking out the poorly-erected tents, the queues for the agonising toilets, the sensation of watching a dubstep band playing extremely loudly at eleven in the morning, conscious that one of your eyes is a fair bit larger than the other. I love it all. But I’ve never before been to a festival where nothing went wrong; never been to one where there were no unpleasant people amongst the staff or volunteers, where the food was universally above board, where the stages were run so efficiently that you never thought about the fact that there was anybody running them at all. I’d never been to a festival that worked.

Ladies and gentlemen, The Green Man.

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Everyone goes on about this festival, and I understand why now. It’s superbly curated, it’s managed brilliantly, it’s exactly the right size (there’s always variety, but you’re never overwhelmed), and at the end of it they burn an enormous wicker effigy which is stuffed full of fireworks. What’s not to like?

One thing I especially enjoyed was my own ignorance. I had heard of about five of the bands on this year’s list, so it was a sheer delight to just wander the hills (part of Green Man’s perfection, anyone will tell you, comes from the idyllic setting provided by the Welsh mountains) popping into various stages and seeing what was on. For some of this I was joined by my old Australian confrère Jamie “Skip Dizzle” Doe who, despite a morbid fascination with the Comedy Tent, to which he returned like an awful boomerang every hour or so, made an excellent travelling companion between the acts. He was playing one of the smaller stages with his band The Ballina Whalers, but with his nautical companions summoned back to the capital on other business he and I swiftly resumed our happy-go-lucky tour spirit and got straight back to trading insults over pints of various hot and cold fluids.

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Jamie knows literally every musician in the entire world. “Oh hey, it’s Pete!”, he’d cry, six inches post-Jerome, before veering towards a Rebecca or two tacking in from the Starboard. A selection of wild-eyed, bearded jumper-wearers, many of them probably jazz flautists and/or cajon soloists, danced in front of my addled handshakes. “And how is Greg these days?”, Jamie would ask affably. “Still playing with The Corrugated Prunes?” I spent a lot of these conversations fixedly examining my lanyard-dangling festival timetable, wondering vaguely what time Crash In The Attic were playing (all made up band names in this post are copyright FaceOmeter MMXIII).

Green Man is obviously a – no, fuck it, the – destination for a certain type of slightly-leftfield music, but the only lot with whom I could claim any level of acquaintanceship were the large posse of Bristol legends loosely cohering around the band This Is The Kit, who played beautifully on the Walled Garden stage on the Saturday and whose various associated projects (ICHI, Rachael Dadd, Rozi Plain, Lori Campbell, Polly and the Billets-Doux) provided numerous treats over the whole weekend. I know Kate a little bit, having supported her back in the day, but our interactions in the last few years have consisted almost solely of me gushing about her music in an immediately post-show euphoria, and I suspect that has led her to the understandable conclusion that I am ‘a mental’ (as an aside, Lori knows me solely as ‘Weird Train Guy’ for reasons I won’t go into). Because of this, I refrained from bouncing up to them on this occasion, but their sets were a real highlight of the festival. Those of you who don’t know their work, especially the This Is The Kit album Wriggle Out The Restless, need to get on it quickly. Kate filled the Rough Trade tent with her solo set and was signing CDs in it for ages afterwards – she’s going to be very famous quite soon.

Perhaps more exciting were the bands I hadn’t heard of before. Heymoonshaker were the first lot I came across, and, well, just click the link. I also really, really enjoyed sets from More Like Trees and Gypsy Hill – I suspect it wasn’t a coincidence that all of these acts were on the same stage, Chai Wallahs (I detest the name for some reason, but the stage itself was amazing). Amongst the headline acts, there’s nothing really to say about Patti Smith that you haven’t heard already, but she’s a legend for a reason. I am late joining the Kings of Convenience train, but boy have I joined it. They killed Friday.

I’m normally quite cautious about checking out new stuff, and for me exposure to all these brilliant new things to listen to justified the weekend by itself. But of course every festival aims to be more than the sum of its headliners, and from the food to the scenery Green Man had everything nailed. The Guardian review points out the lack of advertising and corporate sponsorship, and it’s right to do so – this felt like a festival designed for its punters, not for a wider scene or out of a sense of its own reputation. But not enough people are talking about the sound. Every stage had unbelievable sound, which is impressive in an outdoor setup of any kind, but genuinely incredible on a huge rig like the Mountain Stage, which handled two-person acoustic sets and massive rock-outs equally without a trace of buzz, distortion, or interference. Sitting in front of it was like having very expensive headphones on. The Kings of Convenience came through like crystal, as if they were playing on a sofa next to you instead of on a massive platform in front of thousands.

When you’re a DIY singer-songwriter, attending Green Man as a punter is a joy tempered only by the frustration of not being able to get up on one of the stages and join in. I really hope I can manage it one day: it’s exactly the right audience for me, I think, and there’s nothing I’d like to do with my tunes more than play them in their company. Well, now I have something to aim for.

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On Micropayments

Listen, I’m good at Tetris. Not incredible; not a world champion or anything. But I could easily beat for instance, you. I’m not so good that I can routinely do back-to-back T-spin triples, but I’m good enough that I know what a back-to-back T-spin triple is. I know how the randomiser works (fun fact: it’s not entirely random), and therefore what the longest you can wait for a long one is. I’ve got, as it were, some game.

The future of gaming is apps, I hear. I’m not sure about this, because I have an Android phone and I have a Nintendo 3DS XL, and I know which one has Mario Kart 7 on it – but what’s definitely true is that phones are now the destination for casual gaming, for the kill-two-minutes puzzle or adventure thing. For Angry Birds or Temple Run or the many who trail in their wake (I recommend Ruzzle and Draw Something, although the latter only guardedly). These games are fantastic at what they do, which is provide a few moments distraction in moments of need, like when there’s a delay to your train, or you’re waiting for a kettle, or you get bored of playing one of the other games you downloaded, seconds of your vigorous youth draining irreversibly into the abyss.

Tetris Blitz, then, sounds like a great idea at first. A version of Tetris – free to download – with each game limited to two minutes, the objective shifting from the slow accelerando of the classic game to breaking combos as quickly as possible, pushing the game into ‘frenzy mode’ and using tetrises to increase a points multiplier. The name evokes Chess Blitz, of course, and the comparison is a good one – the pure strategy of the long-form game is switched for a different kind of purity, the purity of concentration and energy.

tetris-blitz_006Lasers! Lasers?

I stayed away from Tetris games on touchscreen for a while because to me, button bashing is what this game is all about. But the Blitz concept intrigued me, so I downloaded it. I must say, the controls thing isn’t an issue – it’s smooth, intuitive, straightforward. In fact, there’s good design all over this game. But then, you realise, as your coins dwindle (coins? asks the regular Tetris player), there’s also a problem.

Here’s what it is: it used to be that games got harder. You wanted that to happen. Level 18 of Game Boy Tetris was harder than level 5. Sonic the Hedgehog was impossible to finish – one Japanese guy did it and now spends his days in a large sofa grinning aimlessly out of the window and whistling the Marble Zone music through his clenched teeth. Games getting harder makes logical sense – it’s expected that completing the game, or simply getting further in it than you did already, gives you a sense of accomplishment, of superior skill. Of work for a goal achieved. But with the introduction of coins and micropayments, games get easier as you go on. Worse, they get easier because you buy your way through them. You don’t pay for the challenge (buying the game), you pay to complete it (bribing the game). This represents an important shift in the relationship between gamer and developer. The developer no longer feels like a puzzle master setting you a mission, but like a landlord asking for the rent – sliiightly too much rent.

There are a ton of different powerups in Tetris Blitz. They’re all extremely satisfying – what player of the classic game hasn’t fantasised about the magnet, which draws all the minos to the left of the screen, opening an ideal chute for your next long one? But when enabled, at a price, powerups fall arbitrarily. They can’t be used tactically because their effects always have a degree of randomness. And whilst reacting to surprising new situations is one of the attractive things about the blitz form, a wedge of powerups (you can enable three in a round) swiftly severs the link between skill and accomplishment. On two adjacent games I got 30,000 points and 400,000 points, and I didn’t play differently, have any notable triumphs or fuckups in either. Most importantly, the powerups cost coins, and coins are earned either at a glacial rate by completing games or at phenomenal speed by paying cash money. Either through work or your credit card, you strive to increase the randomness of your score. Something else: I’ve not lost this game yet. The pieces piling to the top of the screen, The Nightmare Of The Children Of The Eighties, simply doesn’t happen any more. There’s no threat; no risk.

Tetris Blitz wants your facebook longin. It wants to share your scores with your friends and connect you to the other Tetris players out there. What this all compromises is the very purity of experience which the blitz notion offered in the first place. Every four hours or so you can roll a special dice which gives you – again, randomly – various rewards from a selection of coins and powerups. This is not what Tetris is about. As I said at the start, the randomness of classic Tetris is actually extremely narrow, allowing a sensitive player to formulate strategies, reactions.

This game doesn’t want you to know that the best way to experience it is to turn off all its features. Doing so restores something like a status quo, and although the frantic joy of some of those powerups is lost, a place for skill slowly reasserts itself. The extra features are not for you, the player – they can’t have been designed to make the game better, because they make it worse. They’re for the developer, who wants to monetise. If this game had had cunningly designed powerups integrated into the basic design, and then cost £10 up front, it would have been amazing. As it is, with their subscription randomness social marketplace, they won’t get a penny off me. Real shame.

Unwillingness to Dance

A while ago, I played at a fantastic show with Sofar Sounds in Oxford – you can hear the whole set here! Now, Sofar have released a really nice-looking video of one of the songs, and decided to feature it on their website! Aw, you guys.

They chose the first ever performance of Unwillingness to Dance, which I’d finished writing a few days before this was show. It’s not a flawless rendition, but it’s great to see the crowd getting into it and having a good time!

Home Studio

My old recording box, which was a BR-532 for those of you keeping notes, recently bit the dust after around a decade of relatively faithful service. Ten years ago, it was an intimidating piece of technology – a digital four track, with the ability to bounce up to 32. Now, in the age of the iPhone, it’s cumbersome and inefficient. And the ‘enter’ key has broken.

Time to dive, then, into the deepest depths of the future. Strapping a few pairs of credit cards to my forearms, I headed in the direction of Dean “I recorded The Spooky EP with you in 2011 but you will not. Stop. Talking. To. Me” McCarthy. He sorted me out, as I knew he would, with the very latest in state-of-the-art home recording technology:

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Oh sorry, I made a mistake. That’s a picture of Dean’s setup. What I meant to say was:

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Well, I’m pretty sure half the knobs on Dean’s desk aren’t connected to anything, so tally ho!

We’re looking here at an ‘Interface’, which is what you call it when you cut out the middle man and record those sounds directly into the PC you do the production on. Combined with a new pair of Sennheisers – does it damage my indie credibility that I no longer record with my iPod headphones? – I now have an entirely new home audio demo happiness workshop, replacing the setup on which I made all my demos, Campfire Songs, To Infinitives Split, and much else besides.

How does it feel? Well, it’s frustrating, fiddly, and I’m remarkably bad at it. Similar to the old setup, then, only now I don’t have to move everything around on a small SmartMedia card and deal with a chunky scrollwheel alphabet menu UI which made recording on the BR-532 resemble entering a high score on an arcade machine.

I was halfway through demoing a new album when the old box broke, and I won’t deny that the new system encourages me to get on with it a bit. It’s reassuring working with new gadgets when the products only have to be ‘roughly okay’, although some of them are coming out better than that, I think (you can listen to an example here). This prompts me to give you what I hope will be the first progress report on Why Wait For Failure?, which will be my second album and which will, I hope, be out in the next seventeen years.

ALBUM PROGRESS REPORT
Supervising Officer: F. Ometer

Tracks fully written: 11/14
Tracks demoed: 8/14
Tracks displaying a probably unhealthy sentimentality: 14/14
Totally sick sleeve artist on board: Check
Totally ill beats merchant on board: Check
Projected date for Kickstarter campaign: 1/9/13
Projected release date: 1/2/14
Earliest any of this will actually happen: 15/7/29

INSIGHT INTO THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Running the Good Ship Catweazle

For years now, with a mixture of honour and trepidation, I’ve been occasional steward of the Catweazle Club, looking after the weekly event when regular host Matt Sage is absent picking flowers in Gibraltar or whatever it is that he does. It’s very unlikely, if you’re on this site, that you haven’t heard of the Catweazle, but just in case: it’s a particularly special performance arts evening in Oxford, responsible for a very high percentage of the good people and times which I’ve known in the last five years. Being trusted with the reins of this powerful beast remains one of the great privileges of my extremely privileged life, and is definitely one of my top five musical achievements (another, by the way, is the Catweazle Compilation Record which we did in 2011).

For many regulars, the running of the Catweazle itself is a great mystery. What does running the night actually entail? How does it work? How frequently do I sell performance slots in exchange for elephant tusks, human kidneys, and other black market goods? Two weeks ago, I hosted whilst Matt cavorted at the Secret Garden Party; today, I’m onstage in Oxford again as he saves the world from rampaging killbots in the something-something sector. Using photographs gleaned from my previous outing, I take this rare opportunity to draw back the veil, to show Catweazle behind the scenes, to reveal its darkest secrets, to- well, basically, we put some cushions out and then people do an art. Happy now?

2013-07-25 18.47.38The sun shines deliciously on a new mural on the Cowley Road. For many years, the Catweazle Club has been harboured out here, in the East Oxford Community Centre. I remember frantically calling the Dapper Swindler on the exact spot this photo is taken from back in 2008, gabbling down the phone  that I’d found this new night and he had to come and play it at all costs.

2013-07-25 18.48.10Here’s the centre itself. It used to be a school – some of our older attendees had lessons in the very room where we now ply our nonsense. Buildings; people; history. Weird.

2013-07-25 19.16.45People who see it are surprised by how normal the room looks when it isn’t in Catweazle mode, but in fact we don’t do much to turn it into itself. Some tactical lighting, rearrangement of chairs, a little incense, and, of course, the legendary Catweazle backdrop. the crowd does the rest of the work.

2013-07-25 19.26.13This week, excitement abounds in the form of big new pillows for the mosh pit (“hippy floor seating area of love and sharing”). Some moron keeps nicking our pillows, but a regular attendee took pity and made these replacements. Thus is cosmic balance achieved.

2013-07-25 19.21.51Catweazle is useless if you aren’t pissed, and therefore John is the most important part of the evening. His reasonably-priced alcohol and crisp provision has warmed many a weazleite, and in the run-up to the night he’s always on hand with smiles, conversation, and worldly advice. He also provides backing music, this week through his new and insanely overpowered speaker system (part of which is just visible to the left).

With the room prepared, I always leave time to pop out to meet my sidekick. Everybody has one, from Sherlock Holmes’s John Watson to David Cameron’s Tobacco Industry Representative Guy!

2013-07-25 18.48.46With his incredible blend of style and chips, the Kid always sorts me out for those precious minutes before the show begins.

2013-07-25 19.01.08Catweazle is a congregation spot for vegan-loving hummus-making delicates of all kinds, which is why that salad definitely isn’t covering a huge pile of nasty chicken tikka. I am a sensitive host.

2013-07-25 20.04.03Back in the EOCC, we light the candles, dim the overheads, and open the doors. It’s a quiet evening – you can tell that because forty minutes before kick-off, it’s still possible to breathe inside. As a host, I like the quiet nights more: busy nights have a frantic, delicious energy of their own but the host gets to enjoy less of it, since all you do is worry about how much time’s left and how many acts you have to get through. Tonight, exactly the right number of performers have turned up. At fifteen, everyone gets to do two things, there’s no particular hurry, and we can chill out plenty. My record is thirty-one performers in a single evening – Birthday weazles, which happen once a year and which accept as many people as want to play regardless, go even higher.

2013-07-25 20.22.57This is probably the most mystical part of running the Catweazle – “the list”. Once all the performers are signed up, it falls on the host to organise a running order. Two halves with a break in between. You want the second half to be slightly shorter, and you want the poetry and the music to be more or less evenly distributed where possible. This week we’re lucky to have a high ratio of poets and spoken word artists, who are normally a smaller demographic than the “guys with guitars” crew.

I get asked about the list a lot. Some people think it’s essentially a random process – how can it be anything else, when I’ve never met or heard the work of half the people I’m assigning slots to (this week it’s more – about sixty per cent of the people on stage tonight are meeting me for the first time)? Others think it’s an opportunity for me to advance my own tastes, pushing my allies into prominent positions like Sweden did with Denmark in the outrageous Eurovision setup this year AMIRITE??

Other than to assert that these allegations are unjust, there’s not much I can tell you about how the list gets made. It’s a deliberate process, but not necessarily a conscious one. I think it compares well with eating a meal: if you pay attention to yourself next time you eat something good, you’ll notice that you actually put quite a lot of thought into what’s going to be in the next mouthful, what you’ll be combining next for maximum deliciousness, the moments at which you’ll drink, and so on. You do all this without really noticing. The list is a bit like that – you have this plate of dainties in front of you, some known, some not, and you have to decide the order which will get the most out of them. It’s a delicate process and I’m staying vague about it deliberately.

Everyone who runs the Catweazle has a unique style, which suffuses the evening without (ideally) ever dominating it. Matt Sage, the regular champion who set up the Club back in 1994, has a great memory for faces and can snatch the next performer out of the crowd at a second’s notice. When he’s in charge, you barely even see the list. I clutch mine like a kid with a hospital lollipop, terrified of missing out somebody who signed up or getting the order wrong. Occasionally, of course, you have to go off liste – the vibe of the evening is always ultimately in charge and you can’t plan for everything. Adjusting the list on the fly is part of the stressful magic of running the show.

2013-07-25 20.30.40By the time the list is done, the room is tolerably full and it’s time to kick of the festivities. I think the first slot is by far the hardest to play, although every regular performer has a different opinion about where the best and worst slots in the evening are.

2013-07-25 20.37.15Extra points are available if your trousers match the backing drapes. Did I mention there were points?

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This week, one of the highlights for me was Ms. Patti Dale’s seasonal performance of ‘Summertime’. Whole room sang along (at least until the second verse) (apparently there’s a second verse).2013-07-25 21.10.18

The first half ended with an uproarious gypsy violin performance which got everyone tapping their extremities and prepared them for the gruesome inevitability of an interval drink.2013-07-25 21.22.33

The thing to say about Catweazle, if you could only say one thing, is that it’s an audience as much as anything else. The quality of the attention given to the performers is what marks it out from other similar nights – there’s a real sense of collective appreciation. As an artist, it’s both amazing and daunting. There’s nothing quite like it.2013-07-25 21.25.33

After the interval, we had a great surprise in the form of Henry, who looked like just another unassuming guitar-guy until he got onstage and let rip in a manner that has not been seen since Cobain himself.2013-07-25 21.56.23

Another treat of Catweazle is seeing people onstage in front of an audience for the first time. This teenage couple debuted their poetry together. They looked a bit morose about it afterwards, but I do hope they come back – part of the fun of the night is watching people grow into themselves and develop week after week.2013-07-25 22.14.01

It was a night for spoken word, with plenty of poets taking the stage.2013-07-25 22.20.05

Some dickhead did a Roald Dahl recitation, I’ve no idea what makes people think that’s okay.2013-07-25 22.32.47

And then it was nearly over, with the last slot of the evening going to these two guys who I hadn’t seen before. People never want to go last, but the good ones always rise to the challenge and these two were no exception.2013-07-25 22.38.30

After the show, it’s easy enough to strike the set, especially when the remnants of the crowd pitch in to re-stack the chairs. Final hosting tip: never touch the lights, they get really hot. INSIDER KNOWLEDGE. Aren’t you glad you read this?2013-07-25 23.03.52It’s gone from the room, and will have to live for the next six days in people’s hearts and minds. Next Thursday, we unpack it all again.

Digital Engagement Something

I’m interested in widening my social networking footprint. What the hell does that mean? It means, in my view, that civilisation teeters on the edge of the abyss. But never mind that now. I did a new demo for the new album – perhaps you’d like to hear it? It’s an old song but it’s never been recorded before, and this preliminary version of it is free so long as you sign up for some kind of digital connection with me at the same time. E-mail, Facebook, Twitter, it’s all the same!

I just feel lonely basically. You can connect with me in your computer. Then we both feel better. DIGITAL