Friday, August 27, 2021

Turn the dial with your hand

Continuing the Colour Buffer sleeve notes lets look at the use of shortwave radio on the first three tracks.   

The only electronic music available to many in the first half of the 20th century was to be found on the shortwave band. To some the modulating, phasing, pulsing and distorted sound of shortwave was simply unwanted noise, but a few recognised that the ‘noise’ was in itself a kind of music. The exotic otherness of such interference was added to by the voices in foreign tongues, together with music that even the most intrepid of collectors would never find. Then there were the unidentified utterances, lists of numbers, calls to prayer or declamations by preachers spirited into the air for who knows what if any intended audience. A listener could dial through the same band over and over and each time find something different, even fractions of an inch of rotation of a dial around a busy node could bring several different mixes in and out of play. A shortwave radio provided invaluable hand ear training for any future sound artist. 


Given the sonic possibilities of shortwave radio it was taken up by both the heroic figures of the avant-garde such as Stockhausen, Cage and bands including the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk and Can. In avant-garde or experimental contexts shortwave sounds were treated as an instrument in its own right whilst for more popular music contexts it is nearly always an addition to the mix. 


In Can it was Holger Czukay who was the shortwave man, recording hours of it late into the night onto Dictaphone tapes. There is a certain circularity here as Czukay in the 1960s was a student of Stockhausen and it was supposedly hearing “I am the Walrus by the Beatles” with its AM dial surfing towards the end of the song (itself a nod towards Stockhausen) that inspired an interest in Czukay for the possibilities of popular music with him becoming a founder member of Can a year later. 


Czukay’s shortwave tour de force was Movies released in 1979 with its loose structure built around steady percussive patterns provided by Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit over which are collaged painstakingly edited shortwave recordings. Persian harmonies and snatches of trumpets drift in an out colliding with voices and unexplained crashes and bangs. Woven around this Czukay adds a further layer of instrumentation including keyboards and double speed guitar (which then sounds positively Highlife). It is a tour de force and the template of a rhythm groove over which radio or other ‘found sound’ samples are overlaid would be employed not only for Eno and Byrne’s My Life in The bush of Ghosts which followed a couple of years later in 1981, but the use of sampling in general in popular music.      


In this context it may be useful to distinguish three distinct sources: 

1.  Sounds recorded directly from the radio and/or live radio broadcasts.

2.  Found sound usually from tape or record – this may include spoken word such as say an instruction or information record, and non-mainstream musical recordings. This latter category could encompass music by folk or indigenous artists, or simply artists that are out of fashion and/or from a different era. 

3.  Voices and instruments treated in a way that to some degree emulates what happens through the broadcasting process.


Though distinct in their origins and sociocultural what have you the first two categories have often been used interchangeably or combined. Think "nineteen" by Paul Hardcastle, or M|A|R|R|S’s "Pump Up The Volume", and possibly the epitome Eric B. & Rakim’s "Paid in Full" We are talking here of the Coldcut remix of "Paid In Full". British duo Coldcut would have known all about Czukay, and their remix owes so much to spirit of Movies that royalties should have been paid to Czukay along with all of the other snippets that no doubt had to eventually be reimbursed. "Paid In Full" uses little if anything recorded from the radio but the samples share the same audio quality and sense of displacement. So whereas Czukay takes snippets of Persian singing from the shortwave Coldcut use a recording of Israeli singer Ofra Haza treated to sound as if broadcast.  Where Movies contains what sound like extracts from a radio or TV drama Coldcut take lines from Humphrey and The Big Sleep. The opening line “This is a journey into sound!" is the voice of British actor Geoffrey Sumner from a stereo demonstration record, and so on. 


The essential difference between Czukay and Coldcut is less the source of the samples but that whereas Czukay weaves his radio samples in and around the (hand played) beat, and then adds instrumentation to further intertwine with the samples, in contrast Coldcut are bang on the drum machine beat. Everything becomes sublimated and slave to the drum track even Eric B. & Rakim become samples on their own records - something which perhaps encouraged their initial dislike of the remix. In this context the samples state and self declare their otherness, there is an element of “heh listen to this weird shit I found” – how quaint and old fashioned Geoffrey Sumner “This is a journey into sound!" sounds, how exotic Ofra Haza is, and heh Bogey’s still got it. This the beginning of sampling less as celebration and more as cultural appropriation, reaching a bastardised popularity in the work of artists such as Moby. But lets not be too damming it is an easy line to crossover.


Moving on to the third category - voices and instruments treated in a way that to some degree emulates what happens when broadcast. There is some crossover here with existing recordings manipulated to make them sound shortwave, but there is a whole further class which is the production of sounds from scratch that emulate shortwave radio. 1970s Hawkwind come to mind with Dik Mik and Del Dettmar using a combination of VCS3 and tone generators to generate a wash of bleeps and bloops combined with rising and falling frequencies that sounded like (barely) controlled shortwave as one was transported to the further reaches of inner and outer consciousness (see Space Ritual). 


A more specialist form of shortwave generation is to be found with Kraftwerk. A cursory listen to their 1975 album Radio-Activity suggests that it combines classic and characteristic shortwave static and noises with vocals and simple melodies that could be radio station idents or call signals. Except that unlike Czukay’s Dictaphone recordings it is entirely manufactured, with the shortwave sounds being created in the Kling Klang studio using synthesizers, and the ethereal voices and strings coming from the newly acquired Vako Orchestron (a form of optical disk Mellotron), and the vocals being processed through a vocoder. On close examination it seems there is possibly no radioactivity on Radio-Activity.


As always Kraftwerk are tight lipped about their compositional choices, but there is a continuity of logic from the synthesized cars on Autobhan, the synthetic ‘natural’ sounds on Morgenspaziergang, and then the artifice of Radio-Activity. It is as if Kraftwerk listened to shortwave, analysed the atoms of musicality before re-imagining them in the studio. Conceptually it is a very clear statement, and eliminates chance and replaces it with determination.  


So where does my own practice fit into all this? Not surprisingly I was drawn to the sounds of the radio and in the mid 1970s mixed it into a few nascent experimental tape pieces, subsequently snatches of phone-in programmes, and various ring modulated voices are to be found on the 1980 release Table Matters EP. This mirrored the way that shortwave and samples were often used in the post-punk DIY industrial context which is to add a dystopian je ne sais quoi. Throbbing Gristle were the masters of this combination of noise  and found sound, but by the early 1980s when combined with photocopied sleeve art depicting bondage, mutilation or some other horror art is soon became gratuitous. The Storm Bugs track  "Hodge" recorded in 1979 employs a different approach. On one of the radio bands at the time was a particularly thick and ominous drone. Legend had it (and I don’t recall where this information came from) that it was a blocking or jamming signal coming from somewhere behind the iron curtain designed to obliterate or make unlistenable stations such as Radio Free Europe. It may have been something else entirely as I recorded the drone on a little cassette radio in Deptford in the halls of residence, which was a short distance away from Deptford power station. So it may have been some kind of electrical generator signal. 


Whatever the truth it was a ferocious roaring wave which was given shape in "Hodge" not by placing it over a beat but by feeding it through a VCS3 and using a combination of the self triggering envelope, and ring modulator to chop up the drone into various overlaid rhythmical pulses. It is a very simple method but one that would be difficult to achieve on another synth, and which I have had trouble replicating. As was so often the case with the VCS3 you would find a certain sweet spot and everything would fall into place and one would then commit the piece to tape as quickly as possible knowing that even if you painstakingly wrote down all the knob positions it would never sound quite the same again.


So "Hodge" did something different from the shortwave over a groove paradigm instead it foregrounded elements that were inherent in the sound teasing out a certain musicality from and inherent in the material, and using only that to create a track. In this sense Hodge has more in common with the avant-garde approach to shortwave however in its self-consciously pedestrian and straightforward parodying of a rock beat and/or Tony Visconti T.Rex string arrangement it would have found little favour with the more academic experimental practitioners of the day. 


From 1981 onwards my use of shortwave began to echo certain elements of the Kraftwerk approach. I too shared a fondness for the simple radio ident melodies played on vibraphone or marimba and these began to appear on many tracks both instrumentals and songs, and do so until the present day. The other Dusseldorf related element is the creation from scratch of broadcast type sounds, specifically radio voices.


For the soundtrack of the 1988 short film Green on the Horizon (made with Steven Ball) snippets of shortwave radio are interspersed between the voices of a male and female announcer who provide opaque instructions on how to negotiate a landscape. The recordings were inspired both by the prosaic and yet poetic sound of the BBC shipping forecast, and of the radio broadcasts in Cocteau’s film Orphée. Jean Marais as Orphée spends an increasing amount of time in the Rolls Royce parked in the garage listening to the car radio from which comes enigmatic phrases. Cocteau took the idea for these phrases from the coded messages broadcast during WW2 from the British military intelligence intended for French resistance fighters. There is another (pleasing) circularity here as the voices (especially the voice of energy) on Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity owe a debt to the Alpha 60 computer in Godard’s Allpahaville which itself draws heavily on Cocteau’s Orphée.  For Green on the Horizon two English language teachers (TEFL) provided the voices with a few takes needed to get just the right deadpan delivery.  The introductory section of the film was included on the On One of These Bends LPs, and has received a modest amount of airplay. Interestingly a few comments have suggested that the voices are sampled old BBC archive recordings or similar.


There was very little if any shortwave in my installation work of the 1990s but the return to music making in the early 2000s produced "Lay-by Lullaby" and "Crystal Set" both nods to Kraftwerk, and radio land. Shortwave was reinvestigated on the short film Pebble Dot Dash (2018) whose soundtrack is comprised almost entirely from radio recordings. In Pebble Dot Dash the camera takes a series of elliptical walks on and off the beaten track around my hometown of Hastings. The moving images are married with shortwave transmissions from across the globe including China, Pakistan, Russia, the USA, and elsewhere. Though long since superseded by other forms of electronic communication shortwave still has a place and many of the transmissions reflect contemporary concerns and anxieties; deals and scams, the financing of the second coming, aspiration and desire. The idea was to offset the local as caught by the hand held camera with a global shortwave audio, which was ‘in the air’ at the time of the filming.


This rather long (but hopefully interesting) preamble brings us to the use of shortwave in Colour Buffer. The first three tracks employ shortwave but all in different ways. The title track as noted in the last blog entry was recorded with an emulation of the VCS3 and indeed uses a variation/development of the "Hodge" patch. I was keen to see if there are ways to develop the paradigm of extracting the musical essence from the shortwave, and/or leading with it as opposed to working over a beat. The VCS3’s self-triggering envelope and ring modulator are once again at the heart of the sound shaping, but this time contouring a shortwave recording together with the synth’s white noise/oscillators. The shortwave loop is more minimal than that of "Hodge" and acts something like a background constant or drone that colours, and interplays with the synthesized components. An external sequencer imposes its own notational pattern, further modified in real time using the joystick and the individual knobs to create a series of crescendo moments or events. As is nearly always the case with a VCS3 or this case an emulation a ‘sweet spot’ was reached where the different element began to interact and to a degree play themselves. 


"Over the Horizon" used what to me was a new piece of equipment the Moog DFAM. I was drawn to the DFAM as its combination of sequencer and oscillators and white noise echoes the way one can make percussion sounds with a VCS3. It also has an external input and though lacking the possibilities of a self triggering envelope there is a lot of scope for cross modulation between a radio input and the onboard sound sources. I found that classical music stations worked well and added colour and melody to a simple 8-step pattern. The melody is not that of the original classical piece as one is in effect sampling small slices of it, but something in-between that and the sequencer pattern. One plays with the DFAM’s setting to reach some optimum combination. In this instance a lolloping Krautrock sound began to emerge somewhere between Can and Ralf & Florian.  I decided to go with a small element of homage, after all we are well past the point of cutting edge. Subsequently a bass and drum pattern were added but kept low in the mix so as to avoid the track falling into the sample over a beat formula.


Lastly "Velvet Coordinates in the Park". I found a Yamaha CS-15 in a local music shop in Hastings over ten years ago. A rather polite synth for my tastes it does however feature an external input which can be used to trigger the envelope. In this instance shortwave radio sounds were used to do just that thereby reshaping and colouring them. I long since sold the Yamaha to a collector, and the recordings were left on the hard drive. Recently with my renewed enthusiasm for shortwave I began to experiment with time and pitch shifting the sounds, and this seemed to pull the audio in two directions – with certain aspects of the original shortwave being brought to the surface whilst simultaneously whole new sonic characteristics began to emerge. Ah the old alchemical promise of musique concrète.      


All three colour Buffer shortwave pieces whilst different from one another seek to extend the paradigm a little - extracting the musicality from within the shortwave, avoiding the sample over the beat trap, or the gratuitous dystopian, not to mention the sometimes too pompously academic.   

Monday, August 16, 2021

Enter The Matrix

So to continue the sleeve notes for Colour Buffer and the questions raised during its making lets look at the title track that exclusively used PHILTHY by Phuteretone a Reaktor software emulation of the VCS3. 

The EMS VCS3 is an analogue synthesizer produced in England from 1969 to the present day. In research terms we can view it as a paradigm in which the specifics of the layout and of some of its components encourages a different mode of composition from both more conventional keyboard synthesizers, and modular synths.  


Objectively there are no good or bad synthesizers, each will facilitate a certain type of sound making, sometimes just one element such as a filter may be what is characteristic about a piece of equipment. The most striking aspect of the VCS3 (and the suitcase version the Synthi) is the patch matrix. No modules are hard wired together, and to hear a sound a connection must be first made between a sound source and an output. This is done not by using a cable as is the case on a traditional modular synthesizer but by using pins on a 16 x 16 matrix panel. 


Ergonomically a matrix is much neater, each pin replaces a cable and two jack sockets and even a relatively simple patch on a VCS3 would if translated to a modular synth become a tangle of cables. Neatness aside what the matrix does is encourage one to think in a different way. On the Synthi and on all software versions of the synth the matrix rather than the control knobs is at the visual centre of the synth. This not only serves as remainder of the signal pathways – something that is all too easy to forget amidst a jumble of cables, but also encourages one to think of patches as lateral rather than linear, connecting one output (be it signal or control voltage) to several destinations at once.


In the above picture (taken from the PHILTHY) if one looks down the matrix on the left hand side to the osc 3 triangle and then across in the pink highlighted row one can see it is doing several things at the same time. As a sound source it is being fed into the ring modulator, as a control voltage it affecting the frequency of oscillator 2, the wave shape of oscillator 1 & 2, the filter frequency, the envelope release time and the reverb mix. So several aspects of the sound are being impacted simultaneously. Oscillator 3 is itself being controlled by the x/y joystick, which is patched so that as you move the stick certain values increase whilst others decrease. Thus with just the action of the triangle wave and a few movements of the joystick a number of parameters are changed. It is this potential for simultaneous transformation of multiple parameters that is at the heart of what makes a VCS3 different.


These transformations may progress smoothly or may be clustered around rapid and sudden changes in the sound.  A useful analogy can be drawn with the three dimensional models found in Catastrophe Theory (see above diagram) in which periods of smooth transition lead to dynamic state changes at cusp or nodal points are encountered and the movement of direction shifts to another plane. Think of the process of bending a piece of thin metal. One can twist it back and forth in a regular and repeated motion several times until at a certain point the metal snaps. Catastrophe Theory can be usefully applied to map everything from physical processes to social situations.      


Together with the joystick the one module of the VCS3 that is unusual is the envelope/trapezoid generator. Unlike the more common ADSR used to shape sounds in 99% of synthesizers the EMS envelope can be set to self-trigger or loop. Sounds can be fed into the envelope and shaped by it, and the trapezoid output used to voltage control say the pitch of an oscillator or the filter frequency. With the envelope release itself being voltage controlled one can set up control loops in which the speed of the self-triggering is dynamically changed by say a triangle wave from one of the oscillators.


What is being described is in effect a system that incorporates elements of self- determination. Referring back to the blog post on the tape delay system and the Riley notion of it as “Phantom Band” the VCS3 similarly can be configured to not so much play itself as be a springboard against which one bounces. The user is directing the flow of events as they are being generated by the synth, working with and against the flow.


This was precisely the process used in the title track Colour Buffer. The patch uses the self-triggering of the envelope to shape a pulsing snare like sound and tone. An external sequencer interacts with and imposes its own notational pattern on to this train of pulses, and these are further modified in real time by hand using the joystick and the individual on screen knobs to create a series of crescendo moments or events. The track was recorded in one 30 minute take before being edited down to the seven minute version heard here.              



The VCS3 was the first synthesizer I used after moving to London in 1978. The electronic music studio at Goldsmiths college was at that time equipped with 2 VCS3s and a Synthi. Prior to this I had used rewired (or circuit bent) radios and cassette players as sound sources. The VCS3 seemed a natural progression from that approach. It was the VCS3 that enabled the recording of much of the Storm Bugs and solo output from 1978-82. I last used an actual VCS3 in around 1991 when working on the Shadowman soundtrack at Morley college. I was looking for a touch of reverb and ring modulation to add to a sound and dragged one of the VCS3s out of the cupboard where it was sitting unused and unloved. Ron Briefel the then technician at Morley wasn’t sure if it would work but sure enough it fired up nicely.


VCS3s are nominally still in production by EMS – there is however a waiting list of many years for one of the synths made in very limited numbers down in Cornwall. On the second hand market original VCS3s are around £12,000. A number of cloning projects exist using replica circuit boards to the original, these can be bought for around £5,000. The once affordable synth is now a collector’s item. It may seem counter intuitive for this most analogue of synths to be rendered in software, but many aspects of the VCS3 paradigm can not only be easily emulated they to an extent work better as matrix patches can be stored and sounds recreated in a way which was not possible on the original. Over a 10-year period I worked on and off on my own software version built in Max/MSP. This gradually gained a number of enhancements culminating in a version in which the pins are replaced by small dials allowing one to very precisely control parameters. This Synthi P as I dubbed it was used on numerous solo, Ice Yacht and Storm Bugs tracks. Last year however I came across another emulation built in Reaktor which though having less functionality sounded in some way ‘better’. I was initially a little nonplussed what exactly was it making the difference? A side-by-side comparison of the sounds didn’t reveal too much, but the Reaktor synth was somehow easier on the ear and to use the cliche 'warmer' especially when used over an extended period. After much digging around on forums I found a post from an old Max/MSP hand which conceded that it was acknowledged (at least by high end users) that though Max offers greater flexibility when it comes to sound design its oscillators and sound engine are simply not as good (at reproducing the sound of analogue circuits) as those of Reaktor. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Time keeps on slipping - into the future.

Having indulged my pop ego with April's song based release Not Even My Closest Friends we can now return to exploring issues and debates within contemporary electronic music by way of the new Ice Yacht Colour Buffer album. OK only joking - well to an extent, as whenever I make instrumental music there is a sense of in some way seeking to resolve or answer a number of questions. These questions are unspecified in the academic sense, as without going round the "is practice research" roundabout - the idea that an artwork can ever be an answer to a research question reduces the creative process to something likely to make for an interesting paper, but an uninteresting artwork. Nonetheless questions there are, many of them dating back to the early 1980s. 

For example how might one extend the rhythmic use of the tape delay (paradigm)?  To which a possible answer might be "kicky Bang Bang".

To um 'unpack' this a little. Lets start with the tape delay paradigm. As used by Fripp and Eno (who had borrowed the idea from Terry Riley who first used it in the early 1960s) a tape delay is an extended from of echo using two tape machines (one recording the other playing back). Instead of delay time measured in milliseconds as typically found on an echo pedal, tape delay can produce much longer repeats of say 4 or 8 seconds, with the delay being dependant on how far apart the record and playback machine are positioned.  Inevitably the exact length is a little imprecise and so one tends to play to the repeat, laying down one note or short phrase and waiting for it to repeat before counterpointing or adding to it with another note or phrase, slowly building up a looping pattern. 

Terry Riley/Pauline Oliveros called their tape delay system a "time lag accumulator", reflecting perhaps the odd way in which the system takes the (musical) past, layers it and then transports it (literally in the case of the tape as it stretches from one machine to the other) into the present. There is the paradox of the sounds apparent retreat into the distance, which is actually a projection into the future.

Another way of looking at a tape delay is as a realtime version of multi tracking whereby the process of overdubbing takes place without having to start and stop the machine (or DAW). You are automatically overdubbing yourself, you can become your own lead and accompanist, a shadow band if you will as reflected in the Terry Riley title "Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band".

This Phantom Band quickly takes on a life of its own, and absorbs player and listener alike. The result is often a series of languid long notes creating a looping wash of sound, encouraged by the decaying quality of the analogue repeats. Eno's Discreet Music would be a perfect example of this. There is a certain mesmeric aspect as the ear anticipates the repetitions. You can even try this for yourself as there is a very nice online app that recreates the process.     

This shall we say traditional approach to tape delay I pastiched on the 1980 "Bright Waves" track, but had ambitions to try something different - faster and more rhythmic. This was the basis of "Reprint" 1 & 2 using a sequencer and VCS3 to feed short percussive patterns into the delay. The process was somewhat hit and miss working on the fly to create new patterns to compliment or offset what was in the loop. At points percussive poly rhythmical interplays are achieved at others the loop becomes overloaded sounding more like a cave with melting ice spikes. 

I last set up an analogue reel-to-reel delay in the early 1990s for a soundtrack project but in the early 2000s feeling there was possibly more to do, returned to the idea in the digital realm. At that point most digital delays produced either 100% accurate repeats (within the boundaries of bit rates, etc) or mimicked bucket brigade guitar stomp pedals in which the repeats get progressively darker or murkier. For a tape delay the opposite is true the repeats get thinner and brighter as the bottom rolls off which each return. The 100% accurate repeat it turns out produces a very sterile sounding loop, it seems that colouration you get with a reel-to-reel is as with much analogue equipment a technical failing that the ear rather likes. It was a while before I found a plug-in with a filter setting that one could adjust so as to colour the repeats.                 

Unlike the analogue tape delay one can with a digital delay accurately set the delay length and if using a sequencer set that to a specific time or BPM. So one has the basis for creating complex evolving patterns, well up to a point. One can divide and subdivide the beats so as to achieve a range of rhythms and yet there is still a fair degree of trial and error. There is an offset between making mathematical calculations as to where beats will fall and interact, and simply playing with the sequencer pattern and speed until something interesting happens. 

'Interesting' is of course highly subjective, but there is an optimum moment when the phantom band seem to be cooking up an evolving rhythm that has a life of its own. There is another tendency however and that is for a delay piece to engross one whilst recording, but for it to sound pedestrian when played back an hour later. I must have deleted 99% of the delay pieces I have recorded for this reason. 

Partly this may be due to delay pieces not responding well to the 'needle drop' style playback one might use when listening back to other tracks  You really need to start at the beginning and listen all the way through. So occasionally I have erased tracks that may have had more merit than I thought. Indeed this is exactly what happened with "Kicky Bang Bang" which I has transferred to my phone to listen to on a train journey earlier this year only to then delete it from my hard drive and forget about it, before then rediscovering it on a subsequent train ride recently.    

That's it for now - lets do more unpacking of other questions on future posts.      

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Not Even My Closest Friends - sleeve notes – Day For Night

Day for Night 

The sunken features of a satellite 

The moon tide turning as two stars collide

And love ignites            

Depth of field 

An image caught inside a Catherine wheel 

Rotating, turning now you can’t conceal 

Just how she feels 


The day is dressed, but still unlit 

The benzy buzzing of fingertips 

That spark a thought into a sound 

As the motorcade drives underground 


Edge of frame 

Peep through the curtain to that other plane 

Rewind forwards, and then backwards again 

In a looped refrain. 


Fade to black 

The film is over, and the screen retracts 

We leave the theatre in our stove pipe hats 

As the stars collapse 


The day is dressed, but still unlit 

The benzy buzzing of fingertips 

That spark a thought into a sound 

As the motorcade drives underground


This track is the closest to the small group of songs I recorded at West Square almost 40 years ago with Naomi. Back then it was a simple VCS3 pattern over which I laid vocals and vibes before then asking Naomi to sing them as her vocal style seemed more suited to the tongue in cheek cinema inspired tales of “mixing drinks and aeroplanes”. 


Here the first phrase that came to mind whilst singing over a synth pattern was “day for night” a film term that describes a now largely redundant technique of shooting what are ostensibly night time scenes during the day, but underexposing them.  Rather like back projection, day for night is far from convincing, but has its own charm. The phrase itself is perhaps more evocative than the technique. 


Having chosen the first phrase I decided to begin each verse with some kind of film term. As with the Naomi tracks the lyrics are mini melodramas - they could be outlines for 1980s pop videos in which lots of stylised action takes place with a performative vacuousness. There are plenty of nods to that and this, “the sunken features of a satellite takes in Bowie, Bolan and Reed in one go, “caught inside a Catherine wheel” is “Windmills of Your Mind” and so on.     


Musically it went from a simple backing, vibes and vocals to a full on orchestration, so much so that I had to start cutting back the velveteen layers to make any kind of sense of the mix. Vocally I tried to keep the delivery as unmannered and plain as possible, you can have too much chocolate in your box.  

This is the last track proper to be covered from the album which leaves "Bye", suffice to say it is not my dad speaking. 








Monday, July 05, 2021

Not Even My Closest Friends - sleeve notes – Swing


Dance a furry foxtrot 

In your puss in boots shoes 

Hobble as you hopscotch 

Now late Chelsea muse 


Saucy little swindle in 

Cigarette tight pants 

All of a giggle 

Out blowing the ranks 


Swing why dust she swing thee 

Swing thee round the house 

Bring why dust she bring thee 

Crashing to the ground 


Reflecting on a fortune 

Now in the looking glass 

Cream on the wrinkles 

Blur on the past 


Plotting every movement 

With glass headed pins 

Waiting for the moment 

Knowing when to give in 


Swing why dust she swing thee 

Swing thee round the house 

Bring why dust she bring thee 

Crashing to the ground


As with so many of the tracks “Swing” started life as a sequencer pattern, this time a ¾ tango type pattern which you can hear at the beginning of the track. Over this I quickly improvised a vibraphone and matching vocal line and the core of the song was there so to speak, bar the usual challenge of working out what if anything the song was about - filling in the gaps between the few phrases I had already mouthed. I usually do this by repeatedly singing the lyrics to myself as I walk along the road, stopping every now and then to scribble a new line down in a notebook.  


The scene is 1950s Chelsea – the model is perhaps Major Rupert Rutland-Smith from the film The League Of Gentleman. In the film Rutalnd-Smith’s wife makes little attempt to disguise her unfaithfulness talking to her lover on the phone whilst taking a bath with Smith in earshot. “The war’s been over a long time” - “Nothing’s rationed anymore, there’s plenty to go round” she says provocatively. This and a host of other B & W 1950s British films provided the role models for the different characters that pop in and out of the song. For a singer prone to sibilance the lyrics are almost a self-directed/inflicted challenge. 


Musically a top of the ¾ synth pattern I added various layers of tango type instrumentation albeit warped and morphed. So in the mix one has organ, brass, vibes, piano overly foregrounded drum all building to something of a New Orleans funeral march on the chorus. In all of this the original synth sequence got a little lost so on the final mix I poked its head through here and there.

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Not Even My Closest Friends - sleeve notes – Before The Mast

Upon the rocks where the winter waves dash 

Along the shoreline with its twinkle lightning flash 

It all happened a long song ago 

When we were drifting, our powder running low 

And all the while you were waiting on the drum 

But nowt to hear but the sad and dirty hum 

All dressed up in your bright blue uniform 

Before the mast and waiting for the storm 


And when it came it hit just like a fist 

The bow it buckled, and broke just like a stick 

We were tossed high into the air 

Our mouths were gagged by wind and rain and hair 


And all the while you were waiting on the drum 

But nowt to hear, but the sad and dirty hum 

All dressed up in your bright blue uniform 

Before the mast, and waiting for the storm 


The morning after, the waters still and slow 

Just a little debris in the ebb and flow 

No sign of bodies, and no sign of blood 

All hand were lost, taken down to the mud 


And all the while you were waiting on the drum 

But nowt to hear but the sad and dirty hum 

All dressed up in your bright blue uniform 

Before the mast and waiting for the storm


In 2012 to coincide with the release of the Hollow Gravity LP I recorded a session of nautically inspired instrumentals for Daniel Blumin on WFMU. One of the tracks “Running The Rigging” is a lively number using the MFB Nanozwerg and the Rota-Synth sequencer. It has a crashing through the waves, tossed on the high seas feel, and over the years I have returned to it adding more sonic layers, but to no real effect as after a while it seemed to merely drown out the riff. 


One approach I did try in 2013 was to add a vocal line with sea shanty phrasing. This was well before the shanty became all the rage in the pandemic, but even back then I wasn’t convinced that it wasn’t a tad contrived. Last year (I don’t give up do I) I tried again but this time instead of more atonal noise I added a simple set of chords. This provided the foundation for a verse/chorus structure. I kept a nautical theme to the lyrics borrowing the title of one of the other WFMU session tracks as a chorus lynchpin. The three verses are a relatively simple tale of a boat and all hands lost at sea with the chorus returning us repeatedly to a figure “all dressed up in your bright blue uniform, before the mast and waiting for the storm”.  Is it a metaphor for something, for the pandemic, for impending doom, tempting but I’m not sure that it is.  


Once a song structure was in place and the BPM established extra musical parts could be added and there is veritable orchestra of vibes, piano, brass, strings, scaffold poles (from an old improv session) and other sundry noises. There were so many tracks that I ran into those mixing dilemmas they earnestly discuss in muso magazines and on line. Basically you reach a point of having to decide which instruments to foreground and which to leave in a supporting role. So one may have a great vibe pattern, but even though it is counterpointing the strings, and in a different register to the brass not everything can be equally loud, and even with all the compression gizmos in the world pushing the vibes (for example) ultimately means making something else less audible. So you have to choose which child to sacrifice.


As an aside I think Tom Jones would make a decent fist of covering this track, one could just imagine him belting it out with that voice of his as the waves lash the deck in the accompanying video. Probably be a number one.  




Saturday, July 03, 2021

Not Even My Closest Friends - sleeve notes – Idol Ferry

It’s got to be Kate Bush 

It’s got to be the Nice 

It’s got to be the Eagles 

And Three Dog Night 


It’s got to be Lulu 

It’s got to be the Ramones 

It’s got to be Pierre Schaefer 

And the Rolling Stones 


It’s got to be the Beach Boys 

It’s got to be Dick Dale 

It’s got to be Brian Eno 

And John Cale 


It’s got to be Organum 

It’s got to be the Seeds 

It’s got to be the Beatles 

Playing with Lou Reed 


It’s got to be Iggy 

It’s got to be the Cars 

It’s got to be Stockhausen 

And the Spiders From Mars 


It’s got to be the Monkees 

It’s got to be Wings 

It’s got to be Momus 

And his Pretty Things 


It’s got to be the Faces 

It’s got to be the Clash 

It’s got to be Stackridge 

And Wishbone Ash 


It’s got to be Ian Dury 

It’s got to be the Slade 

It’s got to be Johnny Winter 

Eating Marmalade 


It’s got to be Dory Previn 

It’s got to be the Rats 

It’s got to be Beyonce 

And her Stray Cats


It’s got to be the Blockaders 

It’s got to be the Skids 

It’s got to be Barry White 

And his Heavy Metal Kids 


It’s got to be Amen Corner 

It’s got to be the Fall 

It’s got to be Burt Bacharach 

And Lynsey De Paul 


It’s got to be Hot Chocolate 

It’s got to be the Cream 

It’s got to be the Sweet 

And Tangerine Dream 


It’s got to be Delia Derbyshire 

It’s got to be Judge Dread 

It’s got to be Adam Ant 

And his Medicine Head 


It’s got to be Scott Walker 

It’s got to be UFO 

It’s got to be Magama 

And Status Quo 


It’s got to be Marc Bolan 

It’s got to be Mungo Jerry 

It’s got to be Billy Idol 

And Bryan Ferry! 


It’s got to be 

It’s got to be



Another sequencer delay line pattern this time with the BPM and delay time just offset enough to allow for a scrolling or combing effect. The sing over produced the beginnings of a list song. Having got the first couple of acts in place I sat down with pencil and paper and sketched in the rest. I decided to not try too hard, there are some contrivances such as the deserts verse “It’s got to be Hot Chocolate, It’s got to be the Cream” etc, but generally I left the associations between acts fall pretty much as they came to mind. Most of the names are from the 1960s and 70s canon with the odd noise act such as The Blockaders and Organum. I can’t remember why I left Storm Bugs out, it would have rhymed nicely with the Fugs. Anyways inspiration wise the list song has many antecedents though if there was a model of sorts for this one it is “friends” by Adam Ant.  


This is another track I left to mature for more than 36 weeks in a cool cellar before rerecording the vocoder vocal, and adding further instrumentation: a hand clap pattern (“Three six nine, the goose drank wine. The monkey chew tobacco on the street car line”),  drums and in a nod to Kraftwerk’s “Europe Endless” an extra sequencer pattern with romantic strings. 


I’m mindful that in including in these sleeve notes the various reference to popular songs I may be overly foregrounding the influences as if they were at the forefront of my mind when putting the tracks together. Whereas it is more the case that having been soaked in popular (and unpopular) music for 60 years they seep out whenever one opens one’s mouth and start to sing over a track

Friday, July 02, 2021

Not Even My Closest Friends - sleeve notes – Oozie Bluzey/Glazing Over

That oozie bluzey moment when the ceiling caved in 

That bluzey bluzey moment with a startled grin 

I feel like I’m crying now the moon is bad 

Sitting on the corner watching wallpaper die 

Wallpaper die 


That bluzey bluzey moment when you walk past my door 

Quest a world end the nightmare before 

That bluzey bluzey moment what more can I say 

A bluzey bluzey moment when you played it away 

That bluzey bluzey moment when you called in today 

That bluzey oozie bluzey jack-a-oozie jack-a-oozie bluzey 

Jack-a-oozie jack-a-oozie bluzey 

Jack-a-oozie jack-a-oozie bluzey 

That bluzey bluzey moment when the ceiling caved in 

Drunk like a pig on whisky and gin 

That bluzey bluzey moment when you walk past my door 

That bluzey bluzey moment of the nightmare before


In another room I make videos, artist moving image videos or whatever this week's term is. The emphasis is often on the sound to image relationship and one particular piece of software I use produces tones in response to shifting forms. One ‘composes’ both sound and image simultaneously. Occasionally though the sound produced offers potential as the basis for a song. Oozie Bluzey uses one such sequence. 


I'm not sure why I adopted the stylised blues drawl but that is what came out when I opened my mouth and attempted to sing over it, indeed the vocal line is the first take recorded with the laptops built-in mic. The thin sound and occasionally half formed words seemed to fit the bill and so I left it at that. I sat on the track for a couple of years before adding the synth bass, percussion and guitar parts.

I don’t know why you believe in me 

For I’m no ghost of substance 

Just a see through gossamer man 

No shape no form no feet no hands 

Who slides unseen right down your screen


My recent solo albums have all had at least a couple of instrumentals indeed at one time my albums were all instrumentals but for Not Even My Closest Friends it is pretty much songs all the way except for “Glazing Over” which is half-way between the two forms. It contains a reworking of part of the vocal from “Ghost of Substance” but stretched out of shape and mixed in with – well to be honest I can’t quite recall, a montage of various electronic bric-a-brac. The element binding it all together are jazzy chords (probably augmented or some such thing). The synth sound used for the chords was one you would find more often on a deep house or chill out track but here it blends in nicely with the clatter to hopefully give that floating between collapsing stars kind of vibe.