The issue of what songs I’ve chosen to play at my concerts is a complex one. I have a suspicion I can’t explain it in a single blog, so I’ve made this Part 1, which gives me the opportunity to stop writing at some point and pick it up tomorrow.
Here are the songs I played at my last 4 gigs:
I Live In A Suitcase
Europa And The Pirate Twins
She Blinded Me With Science
It’s very hard for me to make choices, because an enormous amount of work goes into preparing each song for live performance. How did I select these few songs from among my ‘extensive’ repertoire (a whopping 50 titles*)? And how did I go about choosing which additional ones to add in April and May when I go out and play a full set of an hour or more? Well, my main aim with this tour was to reconnect with my musical roots and my core audience. So they had to be songs that are fundamental to me; songs that I still feel good about, 20 to 25 years after I wrote them. They have to be ones I can sing comfortably, five or six times per week (I’m no Vegas seasoned professional when it comes to vocals.) I also had to play ‘the hits’ because everybody will expect them, and a large proportion of people at my gigs will be unfamiliar with the more cerebral tracks. And I know that my most fanatical fans, the ones that travel thousands of miles to see my concert, have their own favorites–often the least commercially successful ones–and I’d love to be able to make those fans happy by performing those songs for them in an intimate setting.
I always saw myself opening with ‘Leipzig’. It’s about a bored man in a no-hope job that thinks maybe he’d do better in another country, behind the Iron Curtain in fact. On the surface it’s very cold, alienating; but underneath it has a certain optimism, this man has an almost romantic wish to be assimilated into the modern world. It’s a song that defined my early period, yet I never played live in the old days. It was too hard to recreate it with the technology we had back then. Many of my early songs utilized a setting I discovered on my Roland JP4 (see below) which basically created a pulse that you could ‘steer’ on the keyboard. It would follow the chords you held down for as long a you sustained them, and the actual chord changes got a little touch of emphasis. This made for a great backing track for a recording, but there was no way to use the synth’s ‘clock’ to control anything else. So any other parts after the first you laid down, had to be played manually with ‘human’ timing. I got pretty good mileage out of this sound–it was the basis for ‘Leipzig’, ‘Urges’, ‘Europa And The Pirate Twins’ and ‘Cloudburst At Shingle Street’. However the downside was, it was hard to recreate those songs on stage. These days of course, everything is done right in my Mac and all the elements share a common clock: If I change the master tempo from 120 beats per minute to 130, all my drums, percussion, and even echoes follow suit. At any point I can go all the way back and rework the first part I laid down. And when it comes to playing it live onstage, I can have a separate mix in my earphones with a click to play to that the audience doesn’t need to hear through the PA. So this has opened up songs that in 1979 were prohibited to me as live material, which is very satisfying.
I decided to keep that flavor of ‘Leipzig’ and let it set the tone for the first few songs of the show. In the same category were ‘Suitcase’ and ‘Flying North.’ Both had their issues when it came to live arrangements. They both have multiple layers of sounds, impossible for one person to play all at once. Of course, I could have pre-recorded those parts, but I somehow felt that would be cheating. I wanted the audience to get a glimpse into my musical world, and that meant limiting the arrangements to what I could realistically play live, and that they could watch, while still giving a decent rendition of a vocal.
In both songs I am totally maxed out. On ‘Suitcase’ for example I play… let me list them… a bass sound, lead and rhythm guitar, organ, piano, bells, a spacey pad thing, and a vocoder. The parts are not terribly complicated in themselves–but I’m a ham-fisted self-taught keyboardist, not a virtuoso, and just juggling these parts is making my brain work overtime. Thankfully, muscle memory takes over at a certain point, and my fingers know where to go. Sometimes what I’m playing is the musical equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. And often when I can’t reach a certain interval, I’ll define a MIDI zone on one of my keyboards and transpose it to make the fingering easier, which means I’m often playing some parts in a completely different key. [If all this is hard to envision, have no fear: I'm planning on filming some clips with my video 'headcam' with a live spoken commentary, and putting them on this site as downloadable video podcasts.] But when it all gels I’m able to come up with an arrangement that feels really natural to play, and I stop thinking about it altogether. Then I can just go with the flow of the music, and focus on projecting the lyrics and the meaning behind them.
There’s a vital balance to be struck, too, between staying faithful to the original song versus allowing new elements and influences to creep in. In ‘Europa’ I use an effect on a couple of sounds that never could have existed in 1981 when I first recorded the song. It’s called Camelspace and it uses a sequence to ‘gate’ a track in a specific rhythm. All I have to do is hold down a chord, and Camelspace chops it up in the tempo of the song and turns it into an instant rave epic. But that very idea might be sacrilegious to many fans who have lived with and loved that song for over 20 years. So tempting as it may be to spice ‘Europa’ up with a new toy, I have to weigh the validity of this new effect, and whether it’s really in keeping. I ended up going for it, and now I’m very happy with it. It moves the song along in a gratifying way, and somehow updates it for 2006. In this way I’ve allowed new influences to seep in.
‘Science’ and ‘Hyperactive’ fall into the ‘required hits’ category. But though they’re certainly the most lightweight songs I ever wrote, I can still have fun with them. They’re definitely crowd pleasers, and I get the sense by the time I play them anyone that’s still on the fence about me is is won over. It’s amazing how many stories I still hear from fans about where they were or who they were in love with when one of these was playing on the radio or the club sound system. Even when I’m in business mode, sitting in some Silicon Valley board room with a bunch of VPs in suits, there’s inevitably one guy who gets this peculiar look on his face and proceeds to tell me about Lavinia whom he was bonking at MIT when ‘Science’ was on the stereo.
Ok, tomorrow I’ll tell you how I selected which songs to add to this list for the Sole Inhabitant Tour.
*I’m anything but prolific! Most artists have a much higher output. By comparison, Prince, who first hit the mainstream round about the same time I did, has released something like 23 solo albums compared to my 4.