Archive for March, 2006

Set list–Part 1

Friday, March 31st, 2006

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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:

Leipzig
I Live In A Suitcase
Flying North
Europa And The Pirate Twins
She Blinded Me With Science
Hyperactive

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.

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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.

My talented crew

Thursday, March 30th, 2006

I have an insanely talented team working on my upcoming tour. Let me take a second to introduce them:

Darin Dahlinger is my brilliant keyboard tech, who can solder a broken cord, calibrate a 24 track tape recorder, or even create a 4 voice polyphonic ringtone while keeping on a happy face at all times. In short, he is way overqualified for this gig.

Dominik Fusina designed the artwork for the tour, including the image on my home page and some excellent t-shirts and a poster. These are not quite ready to debut yet, but they will be on sale at my gigs. Here’s one of his 3D images that I like, though he’s equally at home designing web sites or making interactive music applications:

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My webmistress, merchandizing vendor AND tour manager is Lunesse, aka Carli Schultz Kruse. Right now she’s busy booking hotels and flights, as well as redesigning my web site, which will get a total makeover in the next couple of weeks. In the midst of all that she still finds time to make beautiful beads and metalwork that she sells from her own site, such as this one below: wow!

Hyperactive bracelet

I will also be taking video on the tour, courtesy of ace VJs Johnny DeKam and Brian Ziffer. It’ll be a combination of live cams plus ‘canned’ footage.

Gustavo Lanzas is an electronic/acoustic musician and tech wizard who gutted my vintage oscilloscopes and retrofitted them for MIDI. Check out his music on MySpace. Here are a couple of the infernal machines he’s been modifying for me (more about these in a future blog):

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All in all I’ve got a truly a remarkable team pulling for me, and I feel very fortunate. Everybody’s working flat out with now only 2 weeks till the first gig… this is getting exciting!

Shed Life

Tuesday, March 28th, 2006

I work and make music in a garden shed. It’s small but cosy, with windows on all sides, and a gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean. Didn’t Nick Drake write a song called ‘A Man And His Shed?’ He must have been thinking of me. My daily commute is 15 feet. Some days I’m still in my pyjamas at 2pm. When it rains hard like it is today, it’s deafening. Afterwards you can hear the frogs under the floorboards, and there’s a scent of wild garlic from the empty lot next door. I love my shed!

Today I’ve got an equipment problem so I’m kinda dead in the water, sitting staring out and waiting for Robotspeak to call me back (ace synth dealer in SF.) But it’s not my shed’s fault.

I wrote my earliest songs in the corner of a £12/week bedsitter in South London. In those days it was every musician’s dream to own a private studio. You were forever reading bits in the Daily Mail about Ronnie Wood’s 450-acre estate in Hertfordshire, the Georgian manor house with the deer park and recording studio attached, none of which he’d ever been in as he was perpetually on a tour of Japan or South America. That’s the life for me, I thought! Only unlike Ronnie I’d never leave the studio. Studio time was like gold dust. To get your music heard by the planet you had to have a record, and the only place you could make a record was in a recording studio. Trouble was, they cost hundreds of pounds an hour. Nobody had that kind of money unless they had a rich Daddy. Even drug dealers didn’t have that kind of money. So you needed to find someone stupid enough to lend money to a musician, in the belief you’d one day sell millions of records. You needed a record company!

I suppose I was one of the lucky ones. I found a record company, or they found me, and they shelled out for me to play around in studios for several years. I thought I’d better have as much fun as possible while it lasted, because I was convinced they’d soon find out how uncommercial my music was and pull the plug. I never really imagined I would have hit records, any more than my musical heroes did: people like Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Throbbing Gristle, Joni Mitchell, Pere Ubu, George Clinton, Television, XTC and Van Morrison, these were every label executive’s nightmare because they didn’t fit into the defined rock’n’roll pigeon holes. I would have been quite happy following in their footsteps by never getting on the radio or TV, and only selling a few thousand records each time out.

So it was quite a surprise when I found myself with a Top 5 single in the USA, a couple of gold albums, heavy MTV rotation, and a large following in urban dance clubs.

Of course, the first thing I wanted to do when the royalty check came in was build myself a recording studio. I picked out a prime location in West London, and started researching mixing boards, rackmount effects, and every keyboard imaginable. I laid it out in quite an innovative way with plenty of space in the control room for my tiers of electronics. I had an artist design unusual art deco-ish silk drapes so I still felt a little edgy and stylish, nothing like a spoiled rock star. I also bought a black 1964 Jaguar Mk2 and parked it in the driveway in the driveway and ordered in sushi while watching soccer games on a giant projection screen.

And you know what? I didn’t record a decent piece of music there in the five years I had that place. Frankly it was a burden. The equipment lost 50% of its value the day it was installed. The landlord saw how I’d done it up and immediately doubled the rent. I had to hire it out for commercial projects to offset the loss. And every night when I locked up, there was always tomorrow to carry on, until it was perfect, which was never. Yet often if I wanted to work on my own songs I would have to kick out a paying customer–so I ended up making a little setup in the corner of my bedroom again, and tucked away in there with my Roland Drumatix, I was happy as a clam.

So it’s no great surprise that I ended up here in this garden shed. It’s got everything I need, and no guilt attached. It never needs heating or air conditioning, as the equipment takes care of one and the foggy North-Westerlies blowing in off the Pacific take care of the other. It glows at night and looks pretty high-tech, in a ham radio operator sort of way, but when my roadies clear it out for a gig, it returns to its humble beginnings and you’re almost tempted to wheel a lawnmower in there.

One time I was working late and a little note slipped under the door, written in crayon by my then 7-yr-old son: “Dear Daddy. I hope yue ar having a good time en yuor shed. Love Graham.” I still have it pinned to the doorframe.

Yes Graham, I’m having a great time. Hooray for my shed!

Shed Note

Welcome to my blog

Monday, March 27th, 2006

I’m new to blogging. Well, at least in the modern sense. But I’ve been keeping online journals of one sort or another ever since the late 80′s and the days of the Tandy TRS-80 computer…

…with its wonderful acoustic cups that always looked to me a bit like a male mutual masturbation device.

Modern blogging has all sorts of new ways for guys to jerk off, but I will try hard to refrain from doing that here.

It’s about twenty days until the start of my tour — the first in over 15 years, which is a long time to be away from rock’n'roll. So long, in fact, that until a few weeks ago my three children had never seen me perform. They’d seen tapes of MTV videos starring some guy that had hair, and heard other kids’ parents refer to me as a ‘former rock star’, but for all their short lives I was just a business guy who went to work every day with a briefcase.

Why choose now to get back into music? Well, for a start it was never meant to be a 15 year hiatus. Certainly I was pretty fed up with the music business and when I left LA in 1994, I washed my hands of the whole thing. But in the back of my mind I always thought I’d get my appetite back within a couple of years. Music is the only thing I really know how to do well. I can do lots of things ok — including writing, directing flims, starting a business, computer programming, soccer, and sailing boats and boards — but I’m only world class at one thing and that’s music.

Then there’s technology. I’ve come to realize I only function well when I’m using tools that are unrefined, ill-defined, unexplored. That’s the way it was when I started making electronic music in the mid-70′s using primitive synths. The same thing happened when music videos took off in the early 80′s but nobody knew what a music video was supposed to look like. And in the 90′s, virtual reality, video games, the Web, and finally mobile phones and content caught my imagination. In each era I was drawn to a new technology and its possibilities for self-expression. When I moved to Silicon Valley, I was right in the crucible of all technology, and it was irresistable to me. During that period, I watched as technology turned itself inside out more than once.

In 2006, the new horizon for music is the Internet. And I don’t mean MP3 piracy, which is old news by now. It’s taken a long time to arrive, but I feel the true Internet music revolution is finally upon us. I’m talking about musicians having the ability to reach out to their fans and make music in close to real time, in their own back room, while never having to put themselves in hock to large corporations.

I believe we’re about to enter a fascinating new era for musicians and music fans, and I want a front row seat. So I’m putting my enterpreneurial activities behind me, and going back on the road. This is just the first step — before embarking on new songs I’m feeling a strong need to reconnect with my original music and my core fans, who (unbelievably!) have never stopped arguing about my songs and lyrics, even with the total dearth of fresh material. Certain music has the ability to become part of the fabric of your life, and it’s something you never outgrow. This tour will be a way for me, as well as the audiences, to rekindle the old excitement. Getting road-ready is a complicated process, but it’s fun as hell. I’ll be recording some of the process here on my blog. Hope you enjoy it!