Sunday, 27 April 2014

Mellotrons: the men who (still) make them

Chains, tape loops, springs, lots of odd moving parts, and a lot of love. Two gentlemen boomers keep a key sound of Progrock alive.

If you're any age at all, you'll have heard the mellotron. The Moody Blues used it constantly. There it is at the start of the Beatles' Strawberry Fields Forever; it's all over the White Album. King Crimson fans? There it is at the Court of the Crimson King.

The mellotron sounds... weird. That's partly its appeal. Inside, it's a mishmash of bicycle chains, springs, recording tape and, depending on the age of the machine, more or less tech wizardry. It was built in Streetly, a suburb of North Birmingham which can't decide whether it's dead posh or dead rough. There's a blue plaque marking the original factory site in Aldridge Road. That was nearly fifty years ago. Now, the resurrected Streetly Electronics, creators of the first mellotron, have a thriving business. They make new mellotrons; they fix old ones; they even sell digital samples to add to your range of keyboard sounds.

The miracle is that it was invented in the first place; a second miracle is that mellotron use continues to thrive. 

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Old Dance School – eight years of different.

Robin Beatty has been studiously shepherding The Old Dance School since his music student days in Birmingham. A seven piece, they're finishing up a live album, their fourth. Nowadays, their music is increasing expansive and flowing, and it presents an interesting contrast with the decidedly funkier groove-driven sound of their early days.  Personnel changes have triggered part of that evolution; time the rest. And it has to be said that they have outlasted a great many of their contemporaries. The next studio album will, again, be different.

Defining them? That's a whole other matter.We're looking at a band who now have a lot of miles and music on the clock, who command respect and can happily pull in large audiences wherever they play; their home town audiences are studded with fellow musicians and collaborators. Creativity, practicality, and the business of managing it all, after the jump.... 

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Electric Swing Circus: a band with a plan

Electric Swing Circus' Tom Hyland is the embodiment of positive and optimistic. He's easy to chat to, and remarkably open about his band's business. I threw a volley of tough questions at him this week; he fielded them all graciously and with good humour.

I first talked to Tom to chart the band's progress since its formation in 2011. This week? A catch-up, ahead of the Swingamajig festival. 

The band clearly has a plan and a route map. They pretty much have a local monopoly on Electro-Swing, a genre which is huge in the States, big along the South Coast and in London, with devoted, high-energy fans. ESC made a whizzbang start with twostonking videos, making them permanent fixtures in the six-monthly Radio To Go video rankings. Since then, there's been an album, and a steady development of their associated brands, like Swingamajig and Hot Club De Swing. But it's been extremely hard work. The workload, along with the day jobs, can be close to overwhelming. They have a plan for that too.   

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Arts Funding: it's DIFFERENT in Germany. A chat with Simon Halsey, CBSO Chorus Master

I first met Simon Halsey 32 years ago, when he joined the team at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Now, he is the CBSO Chorus Master. This summer, he leads an extravagant public participation project, Crowd Out, taking over Millennium Point with a thousand, count 'em, a thousand, singers. I'm in: there's a blog post to come on this later this year. 

Halsey at TEDx, Berlin 2010. Photo Sebastian Gabsch
At rehearsals, he flipped from English to German with ease, the result of working in Berlin for the past 15 years. He is ferociously busy, about to swap the Berlin Philharmonic Chorus, Germany's top choir, for the London Symphony equivalent. His job is Chorus Master, but in reality it's a lot more. He has deep knowledge of funding, and, critically, of how organisations can survive and prosper, re-inventing themselves, burrowing deep into in the communities they serve, with humility and practical intent. 

So, he is an interesting and political man, as well as a committed musician with
a unique perspective.UK Arts and Media institutions could do well to study how the CBSO, with his help, has played its hand over the past three decades. There are profound lessons to learn. 

Friday, 4 April 2014

The Dumb team: One Beat at a time

There's a sweet meeting of worlds coming up in two weeks. At the Birmingham Institute, new boys Jaws, Dumb and The Magic Gang do 2014 Indie. In the main room, UB40 are on, for several nights. The old and the new; a nice coincidence. One Beat's Ian Light agrees.

One Beat? Most people know the name from the very successful One Beat Saturday and Sunday day-long gigs they've run summer times in Birmingham, focusing on new local talent. The next One Beat is in July, expanded to a two day bash, this year working with urgently cool on-trend promoters This Is Tmrw. The complete bill is yet to be released, but I expect a speedy sell-out: the mac arena venue is fabulous, if a bit small.

One Beat has a longer history than open air gigs. It's a record company and a management outfit, with one band on the books: Dumb. One Beat's Ian Light has a lot on his hands.