Still Alive

I can’t believe it’s been five days since the debut show and I’m not actually writing about it until now. I suppose I’ve been pretty busy but that’s no excuse. Must try harder.

I am still here, I wasn’t bottled in the face, torn limb-from-bloody-limb or taken out the back by the live music mafia and shot in the back of the head.

The turnout was incredibly flattering and the crowd response even more so. I was pretty nervous when I got up there and didn’t really make eye contact with the crowd until I’d finished the first piece. When I looked up and saw everyone clapping and smiling (and still there) it was a pretty great feeling.

I’ve had the opportunity to listen back to a great quality recording of the show (thanks Steve) and I can’t help thinking I wasn’t perhaps as ambitious as I may have been.

Naturally, I blame this fully on my gear – although I should say that I think the limitations made me work harder and quite possibly led to better tracks.

My super fancy looper pedal is still with the manufacturer being ‘repaired’ so I had to improvise (ha). My friend Leon came to the rescue by lending me a Headrush pedal which I was able to use in conjunction with my Hardwire DL-8 delay with its basic looper. So instead of one fancy looper, I had two more basic ones. This however, saved the day. Big props to Leon whose project DrumCunt you should check out.

In all I played four pieces, the middle two of these though were segued meaning everyone thought it was one track. Oddly, it was everyone’s favourite. Probably because it wasn’t all ear-bleeding noise and had a bit more space. It was my least favourite, but y’know…give ’em what they want. Most of it is captured in the film below.

Hellp Records records and I have discussed putting out some of the other tracks as some sort of limited release, so watch this space….

Do feel free to comment on the video, slag it off, take the piss out of my hood etc…

Until next time…


Scared of perfoming live? How’s about going on TV instead then?

The fears and concerns I talked about in the last entry were put in a very odd context yesterday when I suddenly found myself agreeing to a studio interview for ITV News.

In real life I work in Fundraising & Comms for a charity that is probably best described as ‘niche’. Some have been known to use the term ’boutique’ but I am a heterosexual; so I prefer ‘niche’.

Occasionally the media pick up on a story that involves someone we work with. As I’m the de facto media contact for the organisation this usually leads to me answering calls from journalists or tv/radio production staff then chasing about to see if I can provide them with any info. More often than not they manage to find someone sexier who is able to recount much more visceral stories of horror and gore.

Yesterday though; was our turn. Or to be more precise – my turn. Usually this is CEO territory. But as our CEO was indisposed all eyes turned to me. Ten minutes earlier I’d been procrastinating at my desk thinking about my upcoming solo performance in front of what will probably amount to a couple of dozen people. Now I was dashing about the office trying to gather as much relevant info as I could before appearing on a major news programme.

After a quick journey home to South London (with a 20 minute turn-around to shower, iron a shirt, and put a whistle on) I was heading to the TV studio for my ‘satellite link-up’.

Representing an organisation is really tough. People assume you know everything inside-out and therefore throw some questions at you that can be pretty challenging to answer. If I was to fuck-up  not only would I look like a twat, but the organisation would look really noddy too.

I was warned in advance what I’d be asked about, but even though I was prepping hard until the very second they stuck the mic on me I still struggled. I um’d and ah’d like a spherical Hugh Grant and stumbled on a few answers, but all feedback so far has been positive (isn’t online catch-up useful). The lovely tech guy at the studio said I did it like a pro and was surprised it was my first time – I bet he says that to everyone. Watching it back I also discovered that I don’t actually have a neck, but I’m hoping that won’t lead to donors leaving in their droves.

All of this makes Saturday’s forthcoming show seem like a doddle. Hundreds of thousands of people watched me speak on TV and I haven’t been lynched in the street yet.

Making some noise in front of a small crowd of rockers? Piece of piss mate….

The terrible realisation that I now have to do this in front of people…

When I started Kowa Axis a couple of months ago the intention to play live was there from the start. The improvised and malleable nature of the music let my imagination run wild – Kowa Axis is a solo project, but that doesn’t have to mean that every single performance must be solo.

I really hope I can make enough of a success of this for other people to want to  collaborate with me, and I’m (very) slowly working on a piece of music for massed guitars, but in terms of practicality solo performances are likely to make up the initial bulk of the Kowa Axis live experience.

'One-man noise machine' - I quite like that. Might nick it.

So why am I so terrified that I actually have a gig next week? A couple of days ago I got a message offering me the show and instinctively I jumped at the chance.  Playing music this awkward means my phone battery isn’t being run down by promoters bribing me with coke and hookers if I’ll just deign to play their night. As with so many things in my life I agreed to do it without actually giving it any rational thought.

I must admit I love the attention, why would I be writing this blog if I didn’t? But now I find myself in a completely new situation…what the hell am I actually going to do when I get up there?

I’ve plenty of experience playing live, I’m pretty confident with being the band member who does the talking on stage and I enjoy dealing with the random challenges the performer/audience dynamic brings up. The difference now is that there are no band mates to share the nerves with and no well-rehearsed songs to play.

When I get on stage I’m only going to have one chance to get it right. I will be in sole control of what the audience sees and hears, and with eight days to go, I don’t have the faintest idea what I’m going to do.

When I signed up to be an improviser I never considered I might have to get my shit together and play on demand. I was quite happy just recording stuff when I felt like it and telling anyone I thought may be remotely interested that ‘I’ll be doing some shows in the near future’. I’m staggered by how naive I am at times.

But I suppose this is going to be a good test at least. I’ll get to play in front of a small audience and see if I can viably peddle this racket as entertainment. Half of that audience will probably be my friends who know me well enough to not be expecting me to be sitting down with an acoustic scrunching up my face and crooning passionately in a south-London mockney twang , but the other half will be regular punters up for some rock, probably not expecting to see someone who thinks their wail of feedback should be appreciated.

I’ve been batting some ideas around of whether I should try to incorporate some sort of visual elements, and by elements I mean – ‘gimmicks’. I’ve always had this internal struggle around ‘performance’. Many of the bands I’ve truly loved have been particularly attractive to me because they didn’t dress up and pose. They just got on stage, fucked you up, then left. However, I am just one man playing guitar with no accompaniment – is that going to be interesting enough to watch? For every Nirvana, Helmet, or Dillinger Escape Plan – I also love Bowie’s platforms, Jaz Coleman’s face paint and the Bad Seed’s suits.

I’ve considered using a bit of lighting. My little sister kindly bought me a strobe light a few years back. It often comes out of the cupboard when my wife and I are having a drunken night-in dancing around the living room; but hasn’t yet accompanied anything I’m playing on a stage. I owned a smoke machine for a short period too. This was great (and hilarious) at band practices, but sadly got half-inched before it ever got the chance to set-off a venue’s fire alarm.

I suspect I need to just accept a few things about myself. I’d like to get on stage and give off an air of mystery and intrigue, but the truth is I’m closer to being a fat, noisy clown smashing a huge cake with a mallet than I am a folkloric wisp conjuring forth a black mass with my guitar.

As I wrote that last paragraph it’s suddenly become clear that I’d probably be less stressed if I gave up on trying to make this some sort of visual extravaganza. Last week I saw Alexander Tucker keep a room’s attention at Cafe OTO while he stood-still in front of a table. He wasn’t even doing card tricks. But he’s earned his reputation and his audience; I’m just starting at this. He also has some pretty great songs, but that’s beside the point.

This then leaves me with just the sounds to worry about – and worry about them I will.

Steve, the promoter, wants the night to start heavy and get progressively more gentle as it goes on. Theoretically this means I need to get up there and spend 30 minutes punishing the audience with fat square waves of distortion. But as funny as the idea of completely alienating a room full of people is, going back to what I mentioned about liking attention, I want people to like what I do.  I’m not saying I’m going to go up there and play a full set of quiet improvisations, but I might do well to try to add some dynamics to the set.

I’m not so needy that I’ll write a bunch of pop songs and apply to appear on whatever mobile phone company-sponsored talent show T4 is doing this summer – this is a noise project after all. But maybe I need to play to my audience rather than at them.

I suspect that in reality, I won’t know what’s going to come out of my amp until I’m standing there playing through it.

But maybe that’s precisely as it should be?

Anyway, come and see me play if you like. The show is Saturday the 18th of June at the Unicon in Camden, London. It’s a free show, and I’m on early… go here for more info.

In which I blather on about the point (or not) of my music.

I’ve had some really interesting reactions to the most recent track I put up. These ranged from: “Yeah, that’s pretty intense” through “Sorry, but this is fucking shit” and all the way up to “It sounds like the soundtrack to the film ‘The Money Pit'” (which is incidentally the first ’15’ rated film I ever saw.)

Now, the Money Pit comment was obviously a good mate taking the piss (especially as his current project sounds like the soundtrack to Crocodile Dundee II), but people’s reactions to the music I’m creating are really interesting.

Unaccompanied guitar music is not exactly part of the zeitgeist, as far as I’m aware, it never has been – especially when that unaccompanied guitar is churning out a sound that is doing its best to avoid any form of melody. For an instrument so essential to popular music it’s amazing how the guitar is restricted to either being part of an ensemble or occasionally allowed to be the focal point of a song for sixty seconds while some arsehole wails a Les Paul in front of a remote church.

The guitar is a sexy instrument. It’s the indie kid’s penis extension. Their version of a boy racer’s body kit-clad Ford Focus. The guitar gets people laid left, right and centre. Apparently.

So why is improvised solo guitar so un-sexy? My guess is that most guitar music employs the rhythmic fucking emulated by the drums . It’s really the drummer that is the musical sex-machine in a band (though there are few sex-symbol drummers out there). So why does the guitarist get all the girls?

It may be because guitarists are the ones up-front looking all sensitive, but confident, and sadly the cliché that all drummers are total lunatics does generally prove to be true.

[Note: I’m sitting in a pub writing this, and there is now some idiot in a suit at the piano covering ‘Walking In Memphis’ – he is not getting any female attention. Is it because he’s sitting down, like a drummer?]

All this makes me wonder why I’m doing Kowa Axis and who I’m doing it for. It’s certainly not to get girls, I’m already very happily married to a girl who loves guitarists, but surely at the ripe old age of 33 I should be trying to write popular songs that people will like? If I wrote nice songs on an acoustic I could play pubs; probably get paid £100 for an hours’ set in some god-awful boozer in Wimbledon and go about my merry day.

And the thing is that I probably could do that. If not that, then I could easily learn a set of popular contemporary stuff and cover it in front of people who just want to hear a song they know.

But I don’t do that. I record music that sounds like a plane crash. Music that is getting me nowhere commercially or financially. Part of me thinks that it might be related to my rather unattractive elitist habit of enjoying getting a rise out of people who like pop music. But maybe it’s deeper than that.

I genuinely LOVE the music I record. It is truly the most honest music I have ever played. I find it visceral and emotive. I listen to it quite often,

[Note: the besuited cunt is now covering ‘My Way’]

So is the fact that I love it enough? The listening stats on my Bandcamp page are still in the low double figures at best, and probably most of those are my kind friends. Some (most) days nobody listens at all. This hurts my feelings a bit, but I only have myself to blame.

I know that Kowa Axis is not a career. Maybe if it was I’d be up with the piano man doing a Mumford & Sons number, it could supplement my income. But as tempted as I am to run home and collect my rig I imagine I will get short-shrift.

[Ok, a female customer in the pub has just joined in singing some quite impressive operatic vocals along to ‘My Way’ – respect love; show this besuited fuck how it’s done.]

Anyway. I suppose I haven’t answered the question I set myself about why the hell I’m bothering to record this music that is of such a minute niche interest. Maybe like Albini mentions below. ‘It’s my art’.

Perhaps it doesn’t need any more thought than that.

Comments and discussion welcome.

1603 Hillcrest EP released today (written and recorded today too)

Today I saw an old friend, and met new people too.  After a couple of pints with my old schoolfriend James, at the least busy real ale festival I have ever seen, I headed across London and spent some time with a group of slightly older people.

Many of them had children, all of whom were around the same age. It made me wonder if a similar thing will happen with my friends soon. If so, how much will things change? I get the feeling I’ll discover just how selfish I can be. Everyone was so happy and well behaved. It was really refreshing, it also highlighted how little I see my friends who have children. It made me consider how so much of the socialising my group of closest friends does is based around sheer alcohol-based carnage. Having a child might be the healthiest thing we could do.

After eating enough barbecued food to kill a horse, I left early. I’ve been very concious of my lack of musical productivity of late. I had to record something.

And what better reaction to seeing one possible future? Why, a 15 minute drone track of course!

When I got home I switched my amp on and set the recorder off. I wanted to record something pure, clean and immediate. What you can hear now is the first and only bit of guitar I played today.

I wanted to make this an standalone EP, so made the decision to play for 15 minutes. The results  of that 15 minutes are what you hear. It’s going to totally ruin my surprisingly impressive ‘complete plays’ stats on Bandcamp, as I don’t think even the most pretentious noise fan will stream a 15 minute track, but I don’t really care. Kowa Axis has never been about trying to write a hit. It’s simply expression.

It is of course free. I hope you enjoy it.

**Competition time**

The first person to leave a comment with the correct explanation of the new track’s title gets £5 sent to them via paypal.

Gelbe Musik and the Subsonic collecting starts.

When you walk down Schaperstraße in Berlin you could be forgiven for walking straight past Gelbe Musik. The leafy road looks just like any one of the hundreds of residential streets that sprawl across the city. But the apartment buildings so typical of this area hide a bit of a gem in Berlin’s already pretty good record shop collection.

Gelbe Musik doesn’t shout about itself. A simple sign just saying ‘Musik’ is the only clue as to the crazy shit you’ll find here once you follow the steps down; but ever since my first visit to the city eight years ago I’ve returned each time.

See if you can spot the record shop hiding on this road.

It contains an incredible collection of avant-garde and  experimental music. I can safely say I haven’t even heard the names of 99% of what’s in there, let alone what any of it sounds like, but that’s what the real joy of this place is; discovery.

The shop is clean and minimal. Ursula, the owner, sits in a little back room with her dog, smoking fags in an nonchalant way that only someone who was around to witness a lot of this music being born could. It was in Gelbe Musik that the Subsonic series actually became a collection for me.

My wife and I were in Berlin to see Einsturzende Neubauten play a special ‘supporter’ show  in the derelict and stripped-out Palast Der Republik. It was a joyous long weekend of spotting ex-Bad Seeds, saying hello to Blixa Bargeld in his massive fur coat, becoming one of 200 drummers, and getting ripped to the tits at the best aftershow party I’ve been to yet. In fact the poster for the show is hanging behind me as I type >>>

That weekend with my mind open and brimming with creativity and wonder, a trip to Gelbe was more than necessary; it was vital.

Now I should clarify something here. At the time, I probably loved the idea of Gelbe almost more than the reality of it. I’d yet to make the transition from Kerrang reader to pretentious Wire magazine reader, so visits could sometimes be like being in sweet shop without a mouth.

Flicking through the racks of CDs was akin to when I occasionally go through a load of dance 12″ records – not a fucking clue. But then my eye was caught by a green coloured cd case, I pulled it out and found a familiar font and design style.  There it was; Justin Broadrick & Andy Hawkins:Azonic’s – Subsonic 3: Skinner’s Black Laboratories.

Ursula put the first track on for me and at first nothing happened, we looked at each other a bit awkwardly. The only Subsonic record I had at that time, Page Hamilton & Caspar Brotzmann’s ‘Zulutime’, explodes out of the speakers as soon as you hit play.  Slowly the track faded in, seconds later I was falling over myself to hand the Euros over.

And so now I had two Subsonic CDs, now it had become a collection, a challenge if you will. (Please check out this earlier post for a bit of background about the series.)

I haven’t visited Gelbe Musik for a couple of years now. I feel a real need to go back. If you happen to be in Berlin, and have any interest in a record shop that doesn’t choose to stock a load of pop records in order to pay the rent, check it out.

Next post I’ll talk more about the album in depth…

Bill Laswell & N.J. Bullen – Subsonic 2: Bass Terror

This second part of the Subsonic series is a bit of a wild card. Whilst sonically it can claim the right to be the most representative of the Subsonic name, it stands out in that there isn’t really much six-string action on here at all. What there is is added more as embellishment rather than being the main focal point.

The primary focus of both artists on this is the bass guitar.  Both are pretty well-known for their bass playing past, but each also shares a reputation for being exploratory musicians who deviate far from the traditional brackets that pop music often imposes upon its proponents.

Bill Laswell

Bill Laswell may well have the heftiest discography out there, almost certainly when it comes to bass players. Reading through his CV reveals his involvement in a number of records sitting on my shelves here at home that I’d never really noticed in the liner notes. Miles Davis, PiL, Last Exit, The Damage Manual…the list goes on. It’s also interesting to note that he would also pop up on Andy Hawkins:Azonic’s contribution to the next in the series – Subsonic 3: Skinner’s Black Laboratories credited with ‘Guitar Production & Design’.

Nic Bullen is another highly prolific artist who emerged from the West Midlands in the early 1980s as part of the original Napalm Death lineup. This lineup soon added Justin Broadrick who contributes  the other half of Subsonic 3; making these two records the most closely linked of the series, by personal connections at least.

Nic Bullen

Bullen went on to work on a number of different projects.  One of these was alongside other Napalm Death alumnus – blast beat pioneer, and self-proclaimed ‘whirlwind’, Mick Harris in the long-term project Scorn. I feel it’s safe to say that Scorn is a much better indicator of Bullen’s contribution to Bass Terror than Napalm Death. In fact it was recorded while he was still a part of Scorn before his 1995 departure.

The most obvious thing about Bass Terror is that this is clearly the one you can dance to. Beats are essential to both these artists contributions in a way that doesn’t occur in the rest of the series.

Laswell only contributes a single track; the 15 minute ‘Tetragrammation’. What starts out as a very 1990s sounding ambient piece soon develops into a pretty rapid 4/4 beat funkathon. Laswell’s bass quacks through an envelope filter while vocal samples and monophonic synth lines splatter themselves over the rhythm.

Guitars crop up later adding a whammy bar manipulated drone that could well have been provided by the aforementioned Andy Hawkins; although he’s not credited as such. Theoretically the track is split into three different ‘methods’ which allows it to cover a lot of ground. My favourite is the third – ‘Evaporate’, which ironically drops much of the bass and brings it closer to the feel of subsequent records in the series.

Bullen provides two pieces here which, although they are also more rooted in beat culture than the rest of the series, have a distinctly darker tone than Laswell’s somewhat cheerful track.

The first; ‘Nocturnal Crawl’ brings to mind DJ Krush; with it’s speaker-threatening levels of low-end and ominous hip-hop beats. These sometimes give way to the relief of sampled tabla before pulling you back in to the grimy dirge of layered treated bass and drones. Towards the end of the piece the beats disappear altogether and it disintegrates into wobbles of sub-bass and reverb. In short…it’s wicked. Subsonic 3 and 4 are the albums I’ll listen to if I want to relax alone. This is the one I’d put on if I had company.

The closing track ‘Again & Again’ spends its first half riding a more up-tempo beat with spooky organ sounds and a floor shaking dub bass-line. The beats abruptly drop out at the mid-point taking things into ten minutes of some of the most atmospheric and unnerving sounds the series has to offer.

Bass Terror was the third record I bought in the series and I have to admit I was pretty disappointed at the time. Still obsessed with the more singular guitar sculpting of the third and fourth records; I found the more processed nature of both Laswell and Bullen’s tracks far less exciting. Subsequent listening over the past few years though has revealed a real depth and level of feeling in these tracks. I’m a bit older, perhaps more open-minded, and I really have grown fond of this record. Don’t get me wrong, nine times out of ten I’ll go for the guitar feedback, but at the right moment this record really delivers the goods. I do think Bullen wins out as Laswell’s bass is just a little bit too chirpy for my miserable tastes.

Bullen is soon to feature in a new exhibition ‘Home of Metal’ celebrating Birmingham’s contribution to metal which is organised by the people who run the rather excellent Supersonic festival. You can see him talking about it here.

I’m currently booking a trip to Birmingham to see the exhibition as well as return to the place where I studied at university for three years. Sadly, it seemed that I lived there during its least metal era – but I’ll check out the exhibition, hopefully catching Nic’s contribution, and report back.

Meanwhile, I suggest you find a copy of Bass Terror, and build.

Next in the series Justin K Broadrick & Andy Hawkins:Azonic – Skinner’s Black Laboratories.