Sunday, 29 June 2014

Making it pay: consider being a hard bastard; definitely get a lawyer.

2013: the Steve Harris memorial gig      
 Photo from Rob Campbell      

Four re-mortgages and counting – but Madhouse's Roy Davis is cautiously optimistic

At Madhouse Rehearsals last month, Jaci Davis startled me by revealing that she and husband Roy had had to re-mortgage their house four times to keep the business afloat. I've known Roy since his Shy days: late period NWOBHM. They had a pretty good run. Since then, I've seen Roy and Jaci build up their business against the odds. Lots of PR and charm; lots of graft. But they haven't exactly got rich.

That said, the place thrums. Twelve busy rehearsal rooms, a recording studio, two venues, two record labels, a Rock club night that promoters would kill for. A diverse roster of clients rehearsing and recording. And like all good music workplaces, it's got a calm and business-like vibe. 

So I'm curious. Let's start with what Jaci told me: you've actually re-mortgaged your house four times to keep thise place afloat
Roy Davis: We have. When we started, we re-mortgaged to raise the money. As things went along, we need to re-mortgage again, to get more money... and again... every time we needed money to expand or build, we re-mortgaged. 

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got till it's gone?

Two weeks ago, I walked out of Birmingham's New Street station on to Hill Street. I found a man in a Judas Priest t-shirt, completely lost; no idea where to go. He hadn't been to Birmingham for a while. I set him on his way, walking with him down Hill Street. As he headed off, he told me that he used to be able to navigate in Birmingham by the music venues. And, irony of ironies, we were outside the Crown on Hill Street. 

Late in the day, there's been a bit of noise about the Crown. Pretty much the last of our traditional city centre rock venues, it's been sold for redevelopment. The Crown shut its doors for the last time on Sunday 22nd June 2014. 

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Skyping Sid in China: Sid Peacock in Chongqing

A double Skype selfie...    
It's teatime in Brum, and I'm gassing, for free, with one of our most adventurous musicians, Bangor-born but Birmingham-based Sid Peacock. If you dig into Birmingham's Jazz and experimental music scene, it won't be long before you come across Sid's work. He runs a string of bands, and participates with maybe a dozen more. This week, Sid is seven time zones away, in China - halfway around the world. I am Skyping Sid on an ancient netbook. It's got a camera, so this is a video call. Sid's looking chipper. 

Sid is three quarters of the way through a visit brokered by the British Council, working with the Sichuan Opera and the Chongqing Troupe. It's his third trip.

Tell me where you are, and what you can see?
I'm in Chongqing – Jiangshen avenue. I'm by the new Opera House, in the new Northern District. I'm looking at a new Spaghetti Junction, right outside my window. There's a Spaghetti Junction every couple of miles in this place...
You're a regular visitor now, so you can see the changes.
2006, 2007 and now. Even in the time since 2007, I've noticed a massive change. Significantly. But you know, the conditions for working musicians are excellent out here. 
Are you talking about state funding like they have here, and to a much greater extent in Europe? 
No – there's no funding,. But you can make a living. Since I've been here, I've been offered jobs. They want musicians in bars, in hotels. I've seen a lot of musicians, not all of them that good, who are making a living, at functions and so on. If the guys at the level of working musicians in Birmingham came out here, they could make a living. 
But you look out your window and you see Spaghetti Junction. 
It has its charms. I'm looking out the window now, at 1 in the morning. I see a girl walking home, high heels, miniskirt, walking home. Safe. No fear at all. 
What about air quality? You're a singer or a horn player, you need your lungs.
It's not good. Another problem is that they smoke in the bars, everywhere. Look, it's a bit rugged, a bit rough. But if you want anywhere near that experience of the 40s or 50s, this is the place to be. 
Don't your hosts simply want your Western music chops?
I think so. But you know, they love the Irish songs as well. 
Tell me about the work you're doing there? 
There's lots of musicians and arts organisations that want to meet up. So I'm being ferried about to meet lots of different people. Making some really good friendships that I think will be long term. Getting on really well. We've just done a concert in an arts theatre space: a group of Chinese musicians, a jazz pianist and a drummer from Birmingham. A guy called Max. I don't know his surname. 
What do the Chinese musicians want from you?
I'm working with the Sichuan Opera – that's my main thing – we're just in final rehearsals right now. I think what I'm getting from them, is that they always have to read from the score, they always have to play the tune 'as it is'. What they like now is that they're improvising, making it up as they go along – they're loving it.
You brought that into the mix?
When you hear them play, it sounds like they've been improvising for ever. 
But don't some forms of Chinese music leave room to improvise within a structure?
I think there is, in some areas. But you know, some of the stuff I was doing last night, it was pretty crazy. Free improvisation. Last night, as well, I recited Alan Ginsberg's 'Howl' Рthey went ballistic. That might have been a China premi̬re performance...
Wow. Of course, when he wrote it, back in the day (1955) he was challenging everything. It''s in your face, full of drug references and stories of repression, and urban decay....and of course it was stamped on by the powers that be. He deliberately set out to upset the apple cart. How did it go down?
I'm not sure how many people understood what I was saying – not that many people speak English...
But the rhythm, the sound, the patterns....
Yeah! One girl, a guzheng player, said that when she came to it, she had to decide could she do this or not? And they all decided they could. Guys are all over it in an instant. They decide, and it happens.
I can only judge by the footage that's presented to us here in the UK. The picture I'm getting is of rampant consumerism and a hoovering up of western styles. Last week they showed footage of a rock festival, with a metal band delivering stereotypical stadium rock, and the crowd could have been from anywhere in the world. 
It's the same as in the UK. In the UK, you go to a metal concert, and it's packed out. Go to something a bit more independent and weird, and you'd be lucky to get a hundred people there. 
So let me ask you this: We've seen that massive explosion in local and grass-roots creativity, because of the tools that we can now use, and the way we can send ideas stuff around the world. Is that happening where you are?
Certainly. I think this has been a good trip because it's given people I've been working with the reason to do something different. There was young guy, pianist guy, who was giving me these pieces, and then after we'd done a performance, he was playing like Cecil Taylor. Giving all these clusters with the whole left hand. Totally no fear in having a go. There's a really good jazz guitarist... Now, I'm probably only the second best jazz guitarist in Chongqing, in a city of thirty-three million. But in a city of one million, Birmingham, I'm pretty low down in the ranks. And he just... opened up. So the sort of things we're talking about now is a band of musicians coming out for three months. 
You're coming to the end of your current stint, heading back to the UK next week and resuming duties with your bands (Surge and Peacock Angell). So have you thought about touring your own bands? 
I would love to. Love to. But Surge is a sixteen piece band. And we're turning into a twenty-six piece band, we're adding ten strings to it. We're going to have to get some healthy funding. We're hoping that my contact here from China is going to come over to see that.
The intention is to take Peacock Angell band over to China. We're a six piece so it would be cheaper! Steve Tromans has joined, and then we've added drums...
And have you collected any more new instruments?
I've got quite a few Chinese instruments. I'm looking at things and going 'I've got to stop this...'

Sid Peacock's website, which has a lot more about the China trip. 

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Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Stuff of Wonder: Miles Hunt and Erica Nockalls

Twenty seven years of solid songs, changing line-ups and killer on-stage monologues

Convention says: if the bastards grind you down, your youthful exuberance will be drummed out of you, and your bright shiny work will be damned and spurned by the new breed. The new breed will, in turn, will be spat out by and swept aside. But they don't know that. Yet.

Durability and craft can work for you long after the business boys write you off. Look at the headliners at this summer's festivals: they're vintage acts. Later this year, the 47 year old Fairport Convention headline their 38th annual festival. High up on Fairport's bill? The Wonder Stuff who started in 1987.

The Wonder Stuff, like Fairport, are sustained by an adoring and loyal audience. They come for Miles Hunt's songs and brilliant on-stage patter. The repertoire works with a full band, and in a duo with partner and fiddle player, Erica NockallsThat tells you the songs are solid enough to take a whole range of treatments. And it says a lot about on-stage presence.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

What's your music worth? Well, how about asking?

The Bluebeat Arkestra put up an online Honesty Box for their new EP and plugged it on Facebook. Here's what happened.

Dark Disco, Trip-Hop, Funk,    
Electronic  and Breakbeat heaven    
You can get lots of free music online. Much of it is on dodgy torrent sites who stiff musicians illegally. Streaming sites pay tiny royalties and stiff musicians legally. 

What's to be done? Ubercool web marketing gurus tell you to give it away; it's promotion. That's the online equivalent of expecting a band to play for free. 

The bottom line? The web has devalued music. It's great for spreading and sharing ideas. It works fine for me: I like to write. But it's not great for musos who put up money and rehearsal and collaboration time to make their statement. 

A while back, Dave Breeze of The BlueBeat Arkestra told me of their plans to launch an EP with an online honesty box through Bandcamp: download for free and then pay what you like. We fixed to meet up after the release to find out how it went.