Sunday, 26 October 2014

Happy Birthday to you, Catapult Club!

Twenty Five Years of promoting. Arthur Tapp's still remarkably sane, still  a romantic at heart.

I like the ins and outs of the music business: the nuts and bolts of how people and things come together, and what you have to do to make it all work. I like that there is a surprising spread of often very fine people who rotate around the processes of music creation and performance. There's a deep range of skills and talents, all essential to the local music economy. Naturally, this is overlooked by the powers that be. It's immensely interesting.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

All that Ruby Turner Is

Straighten up and fly right! Ruby's still in the game, and that makes me happy.

 Photo: Caroline Harriott at PurpleOrange
It's a nice afternoon – sunny and bright. King's Heath is managing to look quite pretty, which is no mean feat. I've fixed to have a catchup with Ruby Turner. Normally it would be at her place, but the builders are in. So the excellent Adam Regan has kindly given us the back bar of the Hare and Hounds to chat in. That makes six blog interviews so far at the Hare – Katherine Priddy, Goodnight Lenin, Miles Hunt and Erica Nockalls upstairs in the dressing rooms, Brian Travers and Terry and Gerry downstairs – and now, Ruby. There's a new album. Out on her own label again, 'All That I Am' packs a very wide range of punches.

Ruby and I go back a loooong way. When she was a wee slip of a girl, just starting out, she was surrounded by some of Birmingham's best musicians. We did sessions at the old BRMB, she gigged at the 70s Lark in The Park at Cannon Hill. It was grand. Ruby wound up representing commercial radio at the European Broadcasting Union Rock Festival, with me elected as tour manager. It was testing - half the band disappeared into a bar at Frankfurt station the moment we got in from the airport. They eventually showed up in Nuremberg, 140 miles down the road, slightly the worse for wear. Ruby went on to to tear the place up and down and sideways. Gratifyingly, Ruby and band completely blew Radio 1's entry away. We were on a tight budget; the BBC mob was definitely not. Score one for the indies. 

Decades down the line, Ruby is still at the top of her game. Now, when not touring with Jools Holland, she runs her own band. She picks the musicians, rehearses them, and keeps them in line. And with the possible exception of the great Steve Gibbons, she's had the longest recording and gigging career of any Birmingham musician that I've been lucky enough to work with.

These days, it's not a question of begging for pathetic airplay scraps at risk-averse local radio. Ruby takes it to the top, scoring a huge chunk of time on the top show on the UK's biggest station, guesting on Chris Evans' breakfast show on Radio 2

So... the new album. Lots of nice things being said about it. Lots of airplay on BIG shows on the big station – Chris Evans on Radio 2 is a cracking way to tell the world... But it's taken a while since your last. Why?
It took a very long time. There was so much going on. As you know, a lot of tours with Jools... then I had to find a new producer to work with. Cos you know I used to work with Bob Lamb – the last album, Moving On, was amazing. But Bob decided to quit and leave. That left me in limbo. He was a great friend and a wonderful producer. We had a great connection musically. But I understood why he had to call it a day – he just wasn't happy.

But look, Ruby, you now have vast professional experience and a brilliant reputation – you could have your pick of great people.
I guess I can. But I keep to a small circle of friends that I know. The truth is I work well with these people, and I always go back to them, where I always feel comfortable and I can be myself. I'm not saying I wouldn't venture out and work with new exciting producers. But unless you're a huge name and you've got a huge record company behind you, then nobody's really interested. So I work with what I've got,. That's the story of life – work with what you got.

You've got some killer musicians to work with, though
I am blessed, yes.

You're writing a lot more these days.
I guess it's confidence and life experiences. With any album, the process is – you get writing. Obviously you have a producer in mind, but in Bob's absence, I kept writing anyway. I'm learning. Learning to be myself and to trust myself. We all have our stories. I've gathered a few myself. I feel quite liberated and, dare I say it, quite grown up!

You kick off with a gospel track that nails it from the first lick.

I cut that as a prayer. 

Then there's an older track – your duet with Passenger. 

This is a much more ambitious album technically. You've even got show tunes. That's a bit of a mix.
Well, that's me. It's what I am. Way back I did a wonderful night of Gerschwin. It was like a moment of time. Great days. When I was putting the album together, that was my thinking. I was going to put Embraceable You on there. Then Time It Was came up.

Even though your faith pumps thought every bone in your body,you've still got a cheatin' and lyin' song there. Dark End Of The Street: the classic country song of adultery and deception
Humans. Human failing, It's all that we are. There's a track on there called Ask Me. There's a line that goes

I'll Tell You I Ain't No Saint
Got My Faults And I'll Take Some Blame.
I wanted to do our failings, our spirituality, our longings...all those things that makes us human.

So what kind of reaction have you had?
Oh, great. I've had feedback from America, where I don't have a deal at the moment. Everything is happening so quickly. But because I'm working so hard with Jools Holland, I don't have quite enough time to look after all that. But - lots of airplay – Radio 2 have been very good to me. It means an awful lot.

Tell me about being a working muso. You've done this for over thirty years.
It's a battle. You have to be match-fit. I've got some down time before the next tour. So I'm doing badminton, and walking and swimming. Make sure you've got the lung power and the stamina. A fitness level that will take you through the day to day stuff – sitting in cars for hours, lugging your cases into hotel rooms.

Eating right?
Oh yes. You got to start the tour in a good place. You got to hit the stage running, at your peak, every gig. Some people use Jack Daniels. I don't. It's about taking care of yourself. Dairy can present problems. You got to keep yourself hydrated. And plenty of sleep. And walks, plenty of fresh air. I'm hanging in there.

And where's that kid who plays piano with you?
Reuben James? I got a text saying 'I've just landed in DC' ...that's Washington. So he's off and flying. He's had to put college on hold. I can say to Reuben: Well done, and good luck, mate'. Spoke to him mum a couple of days back. Bless her, she's so concerned. He came to me when he was eighteen. So talented. So I said - the first rule is to get a roof over your head. Invest that as soon as you can. Instead of renting and sleeping on other people's bean bags – get yourself a roof.
That's what you do at that age

If I look back on myself, it was the same. No holds barred Yeah, I'm having this. But as we get older, those walls get harder to climb.

Ruby and her band of desperadoes, Nuremberg, 1984. Spot the faces...

Know what? I'm so pleased that we can have talk like this after over thirty years. It's life-affirming.
I'll never forget Nuremberg! Have you seen that photo floating around on Facebook? With you looking terrified in the background, and me looking like Ma Rainey...
Know why I was scared? Stopping the renegades in your band sparking up on the train back to Frankfurt.... with German police walking up and down the corridors...

Ruby Turner website. Ruby would just love it if you bought her album here.

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Sunday, 12 October 2014

John Paul White, Victories at Sea, Oxjam, This is Tmrw. When bands promote....

14 bands, lots of local action, starts in the afternoon, runs till late.
Get there early, or you'll miss two days of good stuff and up and comers.

Poster from the great Lewes Heriot. Don't nick it. 
We're closing on this year's All Years Leaving two-day indie-alt festival at the Hare and Hounds. The team behind it, This Is Tmrw, have significantly expanded activities of late. They have a brand. They have an image. They have lovely posters which are regularly nicked before they can do their job - take a look at them and you'll see why. This is Tmrw aren't exactly making money, but the hope is that their operation can wash its face. 

John-Paul White has been with the team for five out of their seven years. He plays in Victories at Sea, who are featured in this year's All Years Leaving. Victories At Sea are growing steadily. It looks like they're going to sidle into the next West Midlands video top 50 come February. Decent video numbers apart – and getting these is a considerable achievement – the songs Victories At Sea deliver are pleasingly reminiscent of classic New Romantic post punk pop – without the dreadful mannered vocals. Reminiscent, but not too close. And that puts the band in a good place, in their own field.

JP is very clear about This is Tmrw's founder, Matt Beck. He stepped in because a lot of bands were bypassing Birmingham in favour of, say, Wolverhampton, where Wolves Civic was doing splendid business. Through Matt, Foals came to Brum to do their first local gig at the tiny Sunflower Lounge.
“A couple of years later, we were booked – my band at the time – were booked, to support The Rascals (at the time serious indie contenders). I was impressed. How did they get a band like that to play the Sunflower Lounge? And the next night they were off to support Arctic Monkeys at Alexandra Place or somewhere like that. How does that work?”
One thing led to another, and JP started going to more and more gigs, including indie-alt DJ gigs with Matt.
“Preceding that, the only promoters I knew of in Birmingham had been Rob and Jack at Zoot, who were becoming more and more successful with Editors, and didn't have time to promote, and Arthur Tapp at the Jug of Ale. As a musician, I was wondering who's going to take the city forward?
"In 2009, I was running Oxjam with Nicola Toms, and booking all the bands.As Matt had been running This is Tmrw for two years, I asked him to help out. Matt did that, and he brought a pal, Tom Hopkins, along. So I came on board after that. And last year John Fell of Goodnight Lenin came on board as well. And that's where the festival idea came from.
As promoters, you've developed a very distinctive style. Lovely posters.
"Lewes Herriott – he also plays, in Johnny Foreigner... Matt's known him for years. He never used to be in a band.
Ah but there's a long and honourable tradition of graphic artists who also play in bands – people like Hunt Emerson. Do those posters get nicked a lot?
"Yeah – it's expensive. We've encouraged Lewes to exhibit his work. People really like to collect them.
Pity they do that before the gig. You could have a sideline – downloadable images, print to order reproductions... There is an established market for classic posters, especially if you've got prestige names who then go on to be monsters. Look at those classic posters for the Fillmore West from the 60s, with Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Steve Miller, Grateful Dead, Santana – they were all local bands on the Bay area at the time. And those posters still sell.

Let's talk about Victories at Sea. Your videos are really nice – but the band aren't in them. You're not featured. Why?
"Budget! Those are all made using Creative Commons footage. We do appear on one, but it's very stylised. We thought that was better than shooting something ropey on a smartphone. Not that there aren't some very decent videos made that way.
I gather that the goal is not to make money. The goal is to break even.
"If we do well at a show, it goes into the pot. So we can put together a bigger offer to get a bigger band.
But there's a point beyond which you can't be idealistic. If you want to grow This Is Tmrw as an organisation, you can't go on doing this part time, just like you can't go on doing a band part-time past a certain point.
"I still generally regard myself as more of a musician than a promoter. So that's a question I would leave more to Matt. Ultimately, if I wasn't a musician, I'd like to do this full-time. And we do know people in other cities who do do this full time. It's still difficult to break even. We do a lot of good, but it's still difficult. We have some very fiercely regular people who come to our gigs.
"They come to the whole gig. A lot of people don't realise that as promoters, we like to work with theme, so every band has its place; they're there to be seen. It's like a club thing.
You miss an awful lot if you come in late. Like those acts that might have opened last year... and then bingo! Look what they've done now.
"But people still say, oh, they played a festival this time last year, and they can't have been any good if they were so far down the bill. They don't understand how it works!"   

This is Tmrw 
All Years Leaving Facebook page
Lewes Heriot
Victories At Sea

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Sunday, 5 October 2014

Erica Nockalls - she's going to melt your iPhone

"Music isn't free, it takes time, effort and energy, training and all the rest of it. I want to see something for it."

In the September sunshine, backstage at Moseley Folk, Erica Nockalls was all smiles. She'd just played a breezy set as half of Miles Hunt and Erica Nockalls – see this earlier blog post. Sunday was her birthday; the MoFo boys had given her a cake, which she cheerily shared around. 

But now we're already, suddenly, deep into Autumn. Things are getting more intense, with a new solo album coming up in October: EN2. Erica is selling the album directly from her site.

It's a world away from her work with Miles Hunt, The Wonder Stuff or the Proclaimers: self-financed, self-produced, self-distributed and self-marketed. And it's punchy as hell. 
It's a move on from her first, Imminent Room.
Erica explains: "The music is more progressive, more quirky, still maintaining melody and pop sensibilities. My first record came out on a record label, and I was very happy with how it went. But I'm not a fan of doing things twice. I wanted to self release to have complete control over my rights. It's not going to be on iTunes for now. It shan't be available on Amazon."

That's very precise. 
"Once you realise that every aspect of the music industry is seemingly totally sewn up, it's liberating to not have to ask for permission, validation or approval from anybody to make my own music. Why should I? Once you stop trying to please or impress people, then that's when the good stuff happens. 
"I started writing EN2 on January 1st this year. I wanted to create a record and release it within the year. I get bored of my own ideas quickly. I wanted a more urgent sounding record. I also wanted to make as much of this album by myself, so it's a true representation of what I'm capable of. It's entirely self produced, though I called in a huge favour from guitarist Mark Gemini Thwaite on five tracks. I also sought the opinion and assistance of a record producer/sound engineer friend, Simon Efemey. He works with Napalm Death and produces heavy metal bands. It's completely undiluted, which is what I wanted." 
What about distribution and sales?
"I'm pressing up 1000 CD copies of EN2 and for now, these will only be available to pre-order through my site. That's to generate income to pay for mastering, manufacturing and distribution. Once those copies are sold, I may consider the usual bullshit iTunes route. If a label shows any interest after that, then I'll consider my options. I'm doing it my way first. A basic version of crowd funding! It feels like right, and most importantly, it's fair to everyone involved. 
You said specifically it shan't be on Amazon. 
"You just get ripped off left right and centre. Everyone takes their little percentage and before you know, you've just spent seven or eight months toiling over something for very little in the way of reward. And I'm not being greedy. I'm not being a bread-head about any of this - it's just music isn't free, it takes time, effort and energy, training and all the rest of it. I want to see something for it. If I do break even, the extra money can help fund my live band, which costs an absolute fortune. Everybody's band does. 
You present a very precise image. I think that reinforces the online loyalty you've generated: you have an unusually passionate following. 
"We do have some very nice fans. Mainly Wonder Stuff fans! I don't think I've particularly got my own audience yet for the Erica Nockalls Band, but this may change. 
It's very nice that The Wonder Stuff audience has taken to you.
"It's incredibly nice. I'm overwhelmed that they've taken to me, and I really appreciate their support.
When you're running your own band, do you have to be a bastard?
"Absolutely not. You have to be fair, you have to be kind and you have to give praise where praise is due. And surround yourself with musicians who are smart, intelligent, kind, fun and who like your music.
That's an ideal. How do you achieve that?
"It's not easy. I'm on my second line up already, and the band haven't been playing live for much more than a year. It's hard keeping a relationship going with four other people. It's hard enough with one other person. If we had to spend a lot of time on the road together, it would be more difficult. It's not yet an issue. We're all getting on.
From the first Erica Nockalls album, Imminent Room                          
Tell me about the extras: the bundles and packages. Your marketing strategy.
"So. The videos made for Imminent Room: there are nice things used in these that I have no further use for. Take Serpentine City: I have some ex-Soviet gas masks that we used in the video. If anybody wants them, they can buy them along with a record from my website. I'm going to have a nice menu: interesting, quirky prizes that you can buy.
That's almost crowd funding.
This fetching hat could be yours.   
"It's my own version of Pledge but I don't have to pay 15% to someone who's not doing anything. I don't think Pledge are ripping people off. I'm not saying Pledge is a bad thing, it's not for me. And to give percentages away before you've even sold your first copy just seems counter-productive. 
Ok. Apart from the gas masks, your hats...
"...necklaces, clothing, paintings, yes. 
I have an album art exhibition coming up in October. It's a new gallery - Havill and Travis - that's opening in Harborne in Birmingham. The launch night is Friday 17th October - invites only - and it then runs for 10 days.
I'm going to paint a piece for every track on my new record . These oil paintings will come in album order as you walk around the art gallery; there'll be listening booths where you can listen to a piece of music, with a pair of headphones, and view a piece of art that's directly inspired by a track. It's not an easy thing to do.
Closing Of Day: a  painting by Erica Nockalls, available in print form from her site    

"And it's invitation only, with a limited amount of guest passes available from my website. 
So when you pre-order an EN2 copy of the physical record you can also get tickets to the exhibition."
Some of your online stuff is sweetly candid. You put personal stuff up: it's charming... but here, there's a slight aloofness - red carpets and such... is there a conflict there?
"I don't think so. It's important for people to see you as approachable if you want them to buy the music. I don't have any issue there – I'm not that personal. You have to be careful of negativity. If you've got nothing nice to say, don't say anything at all.
"I do try to be engaging, and I enjoy watching people discuss their points of view. I share my personal interests publicly, mainly for my own amusement. I talk a lot about food, booze and art."
Smartphones in the crowd: I really dislike audience videos. You have a technique for that...
"Yes. My band are quite heavy. Simon Efemy does our sound. He knows what I want. If it feels like you're being hoofed in the stomach by a raging horse, and your head feels like it's going to crack open cause it's so loud - then that's what I'm going for. It's quality loudness. I have it so incredibly loud that poor little camera phones can't deal with it."
Ha! Melt those microphones! But there is volume and volume.
"Yes there is, it has to be quality and it has to cover all the different frequencies. My band doesn't sound like me playing the violin with backing. Everybody is as important as everybody else."

Erica Nockalls website

The Album
EN2 is available directly from Erica's website, initially in a limited edition CD run. 

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