Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Den-Time Summer/Autumn 2009

Strange things happen with time in the Den. Like in a science fiction comic strip where they go to space for 10 years but when they return only a week has passed. Yeah - it's just like that.

So a lot has happened, and I'm just going to sum it up in one post to get back on track. Fuzz and guitars have taken a back seat over the summer. I was briefly involved in a history of UK fuzz boxes project, but that stopped suddenly and unexpectedly. Should be interesting if it's ever finished, but without me. Meanwhile I've got more interested in the low-tech electronic music thing. I've built two new instruments (both based on the STEIM Cracklebox) and I've been playing live and recording with the A-Band, and also with my pals Deathline. The 123s had an outing to Birmingham to play our friend Tamsin's birthday - we dressed up as the (Fabulous) Stains and played their apathy-chic punk classic "Waste Of Time". I've also written music to go with some Werewolf incantations I found in an old book by Elliott O'Donnell, which I'm hoping to record soon.

But the A-Band has been my most consistent distraction/activity - recording in London and singing with Astral Social Club in May, then 8 gigs over the next 4 months including Salford, Newcastle in July and Edinburgh in August, plus a few in London. Here's some of what I wrote in my notebook on the July trip:

Writing about the A-band isn't so easy. I'm not attempting any history, but suffice to say it started in Nottingham in 1990, fizzled out some years later, reformed in 2004 and started up again with many new members in 2007, including me, although I didn't do much until May this year. There is no set line-up, no songs or riffs or rehearsals, anyone who turns up can play, musicians and non-musicians. Each time we/they play the band has a different name, always beginning with A, sometimes decided in advance, sometimes on the evening of the gig. There is something like a shared sensibility, but with so many people involved, even this is shaky. There are vague practical ideas discussed, like who plays first or how many people play at once, when loud/quiet etc, but these are not musical per se, and a frequently forgotten anyway. Beyond this it's spontaneous, veering in and out of noise - it's been called 'ambient hardcore', but there are quieter moments also - an acoustic gig this year even. At the Klinker, there were 15 people playing, it was very chaotic.

Though I have approx 20 guitars, I don't play guitar in the A-Band. I have played the video tape ribbon controller gtr thing, and the Duo Tone Party Time oscillator box, plus this year's additions the Cracklepuss and the Cracklele. I do the A-Band for fun. I'd been wanting to play live music again, and the A-Band is perfect for me right now. I mostly stand at the back.


There's an amazing old terracotta Picture Palace-type cinema near Islington Mills, the venue, but typically it's converted to a church now. The rest of Salford is pretty dead, and reminds me of Detroit - a big change from gentrified metrosexual Manchester across the bridge. I don't expect much to happening at the venue, but it would be good to get a soundcheck for once. Does it make any difference with the A-band?

Well - yes! the sound man was very conscientious and all the bands soundchecked, and the A-Band (Adorno's Allegory of blah blah) were really great tonight! This is the first time I've really 'got it', and it was quite magical. There was room in the sound for me to be heard without playing full blast, and even though a load of people joined in it seemed to hold together with some kind of intuitive structure, with a beginning, a middle and an amazing end! I won't list the players, but here's Stewart Keith's summary of the gig from the band forum:

Started with a duet of Greta on theremin and Andrea (glammed up) on table leg & banjo), with Simon in the background. They played and played and played while we all watched (our cue for going on one at a time was Andrea switching on the vacuum cleaner, which she seemed to think somebody else was going to do) So that went on for maybe twenty minutes and sounded incredibly wonderful.

Then we went on one at a time - Meg, John (John mostly played piano throughout), Gary (melodica), Joincey (new synth toy), Stuart Arnot (trumpet), me (percussion), and Lenty (guitar). Played for a while and then one at a time off again leaving just John doing a piano solo, and then everyone back on again, more music. Andrea at the piano, and a fit of screaming hysterical laughter - genius!

And so to the chaos finale, extra members joining us (Simon & Kate from the Ceramic Hobs, Gaz & Cara & Rhiann from Barbarians) and lots of metal bashing (we'd found four huge metal tubes out in the yard, and we had a hammer. Rhythmic whacking of metal, Greta singing with a contact mic on her throat and later on metal that she bashed (a terrifying sound), and eventually everyone in a rotating circle of piano players.

Next night in Newcastle was total noise chaos and a bit of a let-down by comparison. Stewart destroyed a vacuum cleaner, I got tinnitus. Someone videotaped it, but I haven't seen or heard it.


Due to the persistence of Karl Waugh, the A-band were invited to play a residency in a small pub cellar venue for a week at the end of August, playing at midnight every night, as part of the Free festival. Audiences were small but often enthusiastic /participatory, and overall it was fun. More than 50 people played over the course of the week and each night we were called An Audience With ... followed by the name of an absent member. I played 3 nights in the middle of the week, and only later found out that the night after I left it was An Audience With Simon Murphy. Here some more note book bits:

Tuesday - 10 people (most of whom I had never met before) plus 5 who join in spontaneously. Lots of metal bashing and cymbal crashing. I played the Cracklepuss, DuoTone and a mic into a delay pedal, with a mixer - able to have all going at once or individually. Couldn't hear much, but everyone happy afterwards.

Wednesday - much smaller A-band, and audience even smaller! Martin has arrived from Totnes to join Karl, Stuart G and I. A more restrained set, but still good; a couple of people join in, including a guy who spontaneously sings, and afterwards says we remind him of Faust.

Thursday - Stewart, Chloe and Sharen arrive. We all have dinner together and the gig later is great. My amp is only battery powered and runs out of juice half way through, so I have time to watch the band for a while, take some photos, then play my gizmos straight into one of the venue mixers, and anything else within reach, which is the A-band way. I was sad to miss the last gigs of the week, but also glad to be going home after tiring of the Edinburgh crowds, drunks and tourists.

A photo of my Edinburgh stuff, including my two main A-band instruments over the eight 2009 gigs...

the DuoTone Party Time

Just a silly name I added to Ben's Simple 40106 Tone Generator, that I built from a schematic at Experimentalists Anonymous. It has two oscillators, so DuoTone seemed a good name. Party Time was the brand name of an old record player I had in the 80s. I put it together in 2006 and used it in it's stock state for a couple of years, and then added a small transformer to the output (for a 'warmer' sound) and a proper on-off switch + LED, and a big red 'circuit bend' switch which connects one pin of the 40106 chip directly to the output when you hold it down, raising the note a step or two at some settings. It's very loud has a super-wide frequency range, from ear-hurting highs to bowel-rumbling lows.

the Cracklepuss

Variation on a Dutch 70s noise classic - there are a few schematics floating around, make sure you use the corrected STEIM version if you make one. For some reason my one generally produces much lower bassy sounds than the chirps and squawks you hear on the YouTube clips etc. I think I must have made a mistake somewhere, but I like the mistake. The original units have a built-in speaker - my only intentional change was the addition of a small audio transformer and a volume control, so it can be plugged into an amp. The case was an old AM radio I bought 20 years ago. You hold the left eye, and flick your fingers over the other contacts, and get low bleeps and boops.

I brought the Toy Piano to Salford/Newcastle as well as Edinburgh, but didn't play it much. It feels a bit fragile now, and was slightly damaged during the Newcastle gig. I think it's staying home from now on.

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