The older I get, the less keen I seem to be on leaving the house. I travel in to the office several times a week, but I'm happiest when I'm working at home. Going out voluntarily has become a challenge. On the rare occasions when I have an event planned, I'm invariably a mess of anxieties beforehand: will traffic be a problem? What's the best route I should take to get there? Will I find somewhere to park? Will I be too hot if I take a coat? I don't know why this is, but it's been getting worse in recent years. And yet, in an almost unheard-of burst of sociability, I've left the house three times in the last week for things unrelated to work.
Last Sunday I went to see Robin Ince on his Chaos of Delight tour at the Tobacco Factory and had a lovely time, once again ending up chatting in the bar afterwards with a bunch of interesting people that included Robin, Laura and Tim. Robin's show covered the usual eclectic set of things which bring him joy, many of which triggered intense bursts of nostalgia for me. My inner film geek rejoiced in his celebration of the quite ridiculous film about a frog-worshipping biker gang led by Beryl Reid, Psychomania (and Robin's tale of working with its star, Nicky Henson) to the dubious delights of a 1972 film about giant killer bunny-rabbits, Night of the Lepus (which starred Doctor McCoy himself, DeForest Kelley). Few people love books like Robin does, and he frequently unearths forgotten treasures in charity shops around the world. He examined the attraction of cult 1970s periodical Man, Myth and Magic, and the cookery books of Vincent Price, yet in the next minute he'd be discussing neuroscience and psychology and the behaviour of children subjected to Stanford Marshmallow Test and finding joy in all of it, neatly summed up by Charles Darwin, who was the source of the show's title. Robin very kindly signed a copy of his latest book, I'm a joke and so are you, which is a fascinating look at humour and why we find things funny. In it, he examines the effects that early experiences had in shaping his interests and obsessions. The insights he gained into his relationship with his parents, and the conversation he'd recently had with his father about his guilt over a car crash that the family had been involved in when he was three were powerful and emotional and they really hit home, given the troubled relationship I've always had with my own father. I've been mulling it all over ever since.
Then on Thursday the lovely people at Intersound Guitars were celebrating twenty years in business at their annual guitar show. As always, it was held at the Gables Hotel down the road in Falfield. It's become the event where I catch up with friends and stock up with a year's supply of guitar strings at the same time. It was a great night, which culminated in a party (there was cake!) and a jam session that featured Elliott Randall (Steely Dan), Jim Cregan (Cockney Rebel, Rod Stewart), Jamie Moses (Queen, Tom Jones), Sam Lees, Gav Coulson, and more. It was a memorable and inspiring night and I was very glad that I'd booked Friday off, as I didn't get to bed until 2 am...
Yesterday I spent the evening having a few drinks with friends. It was a nice finish to the week and best of all, it was within walking distance of the house so I didn't have to drive.
I should go out more, shouldn't I?
I continue to be fascinated by the Jered Threatin saga that I blogged about yesterday. The story just keeps getting weirder. I took a look at his website, which at the moment has nothing to show except for a single page bearing his rather generic-looking band logo. But take a look at the source and hoo boy, what a mess. It's not exactly a professional job. It's been put together with a free online tool provided by wix, but aside from an initial set of metadata for the site description, the rest of the page's code is a massive dump of css style definitions in every language under the Sun. There are literally thousands of lines of code that isn't being used, and probably never would be. And come on, even if you did use even a few of the styles that have been defined, they should be in separate style sheets, because otherwise you'll have to manually edit every page in the site individually every time that you roll out the slightest style change. The clue is in the name: they call 'em cascading style sheets, after all. Right-click on this page and select "view source" to see how I handle things; I'm not a professional web designer by any stretch of the imagination, but at least my code, which is based on Dave Gamache's excellent skeleton boilerplate, isn't an ungodly mess. I comment the hell out of it. And when I decided a couple of years ago that I should change the body text of the site to Noto Sans, it took me a couple of minutes to change every single page (and at that time my site would have had around 220 pages in it. Anyway, this is completely beside the point, even if it offends my coding sensibilities. Back to Mr Threatin:
Looking at the metadata that has been entered had me raising an eyebrow. The keywords he's used are
threatin, jered threatin, jered, threatin, threatin band, threaten band
but the site description on the very next line is
Official Site of Musician/Solo Artist THREATIN (Jered Threatin) www.Threatin.com
He must really like that surname to list it twice, even if he's not too keen on the capitalisation of proper nouns. And on the one hand, he's a band; on the other, he's a solo artist. Well, there's nothing like covering all your bases, I suppose. When it comes to search engine optimisation, though, he's got a lot to learn.
He seems to have devoted considerably more time setting up the other websites he's been using as part of his European media push, although they were all put together using Wix's same "design your own website!" tool. Looking at the web pages in question, I suspect that claiming that your fake management agency represents ex-Bebop Deluxe guitarist (and Wakefield's finest) Bill Nelson or legendary alt-rockers Curve is likely to result in angry phone calls from their lawyers. The Cars might want to have a word with that band called Cars, too.
This morning, even the BBC have picked up on the Threatin saga, and they report that Threatin's Belfast gig will take place as planned "because it's been paid for." Threatin also had to pay out at the other venues he's appeared at; this level of notoriety must be costing him dear.
So why is he doing it? I've been thinking about this, and my conclusion is that Threatin was hoping to become the musical equivalent of Flappy Bird, where an (allegedly) fake following wrote so many ecstatic reviews of a rather mediocre video game that it spawned enough genuine interest for the game to become a runaway success. If that's the case, it's probably not a sensible aspiration, as the creator of Flappy Bird ended up getting death threats.
The moral of that story, kids, is that if you decide to follow the fake it 'til you make it approach, you should always stay within the confines of the law. Is it going to pay off for our boy Mr Threatin? Well, he's certainly getting a lot of exposure. Provided that he manages to stay out of jail, unless he does something monumentally stupid, I suspect he'll find a few ways of monetising all this to good effect.
There is much schadenfreude being shared among the metal community at the moment thanks to the activities of one Jered Threatin from Los Angeles, who (it is alleged) managed to land his band a headline tour of Europe by buying fake likes on Facebook and fake views on YouTube, then posing as his own promoter and booking agent and getting gigs based solely on the band's presence on social media. And it worked; the band landed gigs at The Underworld in London and The Exchange, down the road from here in Bristol.
Well, it worked up to a point; although the venues had been told by the band's promoter that several hundred tickets had been sold, on the night of the gigs in question it turned out that the actual number of ticket sales that the band had achieved was closer to zero.
Much closer to zero.
Actually zero, in fact. The only people at The Exchange to watch the performance were the (real) support band and the people they'd brought with them. The venues were not happy and now that word's got around, things seem to be unravelling for Mr Threatin. His Twitter account is now protected, the "band's" Facebook page has gone offline, and all comments for his YouTube channel have been disabled — which is probably just as well, for his videos are now being watched by real people and, frankly, they're not very good. It's not that they're bad; they're just boring and uninspiring. It's also evident from the videos that his "band" are just him, playing at home with no sign of an audience. The Underworld management has told him never to contact them again and are gleefully linking to each new report on their Twitter account as Mr Threatin goes viral in the worst possible way. I suspect that the rest of his tour is unlikely to happen.
I spent yesterday evening wondering how anyone could pull a stunt like this and expect it to work. Now, I've played gigs as a musician; the biggest venue I ever performed at was the now-demolished Hemel Hempstead Pavilion. I know how important it is to have a fanbase out there who are willing to come to your gigs; you have to get them to show up when you play, or there's absolutely no point in playing the gig. Forget achieving your self-actualisation, or feeding your sense of self-worth. If you step on a stage, you need supporters. You. Need. An. Audience. A real one.
How can anyone expect to become a successful live act if their fans are all imaginary? Surely, anyone who constructs a fantasy for themselves like Mr Threatin appears to have done must realise that if you take it on the road, it is going to come crashing down around your ears pretty sharpish. How grandiose a perception of self do you need to have to believe that something like this would work? Was Mr Threatin having a manic episode? It's not unknown for musicians to get carried away with a grotesquely inflated sense of their own abilities in such circumstances (and let us never speak of Kanye's massacre of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody at Glastonbury again, okay?) An equally plausible explanation is that this behaviour was a result of narcissistic personality disorder. I've known one or two people with the condition and I have to say that if they'd pulled a stunt like this, it wouldn't have surprised me at all.
I wondered whether this is an outlier of the curious Internet phenomenon of influencers, a group of over-entitled young people who think that having lots of followers (whether they are real or imaginary is not clear) watching their videos on YouTube or Instagram means that other people, with real businesses, should give them free stuff. There are people out there who really do believe that the world owes them a living, but reality is beginning to fight back.
Or perhaps, once again, we can just chalk this down to someone suffering from the Dunning Kruger effect and simply having a much greater opinion of their abilities than they should do. I suspect we'll never know. Let us simply hope that Mr Threatin returns to his bedroom to enjoy whatever strange version of the world he believes in without inconveniencing the world's music venues any further.
I read a blog post this morning from David Wilkinson on the importance of teaching critical thinking in schools. For many people, Wilkinson writes, knowledge is simply regarded as facts. To accumulate knowledge, you simply have to memorise which facts are right, and which ones are wrong. Schools do nothing to disabuse people of this notion, he says, because much of our educational system is designed around this approach and if you've got a good memory, you're golden.
The article introduced me to the work of William Perry, who discovered that only a small percentage of his students (around five percent) had a more nuanced idea of what knowledge is. While Perry went on to develop a robust syllabus for teaching students how to develop higher-level thinking skills, his students' initial attitudes showed that they believed that all knowledge is "just an argument" and that "facts" have no objective reality, but instead depend upon the context in which they are presented.
Oh dear, I thought. That sounds suspiciously like the "yes, but it's only a theory" retort that creationists and other wingnuts use to disparage accepted scientific wisdom when it contradicts their cherished beliefs. And I bet I know where it came from.
I've grumbled on the blog about this sort of thing before, which can be traced to the work of Thomas Kuhn, a gentleman whose bizarre interpretation of the scientific method set back popular conceptions of science more than anyone since the Catholic Church told Galileo he was wrong. For the five per cent of Perry's students, just as for Kuhn, reality is be determined by who puts forward the most convicing argument; this is as silly an idea as if we decided the existence of the Higgs Boson by putting it to a public vote. Like gravity, the Higgs isn't interested in context, or plausibility. It just is. It doesn't matter if you have a really convincing argument that your design for a perpetual motion machine will work; it won't, because the second law of thermodynamics won't let it.
Contrary to Kuhn's ideas, scientific progress occurs through observation and prediction. If a theory accurately predicts something that hasn't happened yet, it's a useful theory, and it'll be accepted until someone comes up with a way of making an even more accurate prediction. Our models of reality start wide, and are refined and refined until they provide an extremely accurate way to describe the way we see things happen in the real world. General Relativity is a spectacular example of this approach; when Einstein developed his original theory we didn't even know that black holes existed, let alone that there was one at the centre of our galaxy. But the theory predicted that black holes existed, so we looked for them, and found them. The theory predicted how matter that is in close proximity to a black hole would behave, so we looked to see if it happened to do so in real life; this week, a series of observations were announced which confirmed those predictions (and we found, in the process, that the matter orbiting closest in is travelling at a mind-boggling 30% of the speed of light.)
In recent years, the "science is just about who has the best argument" view has become accepted dogma at the BBC. As a result, if a program explains that the Earth is an oblate spheroid, they're likely to invite someone along who claims the Earth is flat "for the purposes of balance." This week the BBC has run several stories on Flat Earthers, giving them a public platform and a gloss of credibility instead of the ridicule they richly deserve. And nowhere is the BBC's approach more likely to undermine science than in their coverage of climate change. Frankly, anthropogenic climate change means that we're in deep shit; the sooner we stop people telling us that it's nothing to worry about and it'll all be okay, the better. It most definitely is something we need to worry about. We need to start doing something about it, yesterday.
The weather in the last few days has been atrocious. It's cold and damp and I keep on feeling like I might be coming down with a cold. So far, I've been successful at holding it off. In fact, I generally feel good these days. While going on a diet and eating sensibly has no doubt helped, I'm sure my increased resilience also has a lot to do with the creative stuff I've been up to in recent months, from the Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge that ran through the summer, through the bonanza of cover versions that was Rocktober, to the celebration of drawing in ink of #Inktober, which I participated in last month. I've had lots of fun, and that's been very helpful in keeping the both the dreaded lurgi and the black dog of depression at bay.
I've been so inspired by the new sounds I'm getting from the Arturia collection that I blogged about at the weekend that, even though I'm not taking part in any music challenges at the moment, I've recorded some new tracks. Here's one I made in about an hour on Tuesday evening:
One thing that I've learned from taking part in February Album Writing Month and Fifty/Ninety over the last ten years is that I find the act of making my own music to be one of the most creatively rewarding activities I know. It's not about the financial reward (it's so not about the financial reward, believe me); it's about nurturing the creative spark, however tiny it may be, and making sure it doesn't go out. That spark can provide a massive amount of sustenance to your soul. If you have that spark, make sure that you feed it. And never let it go out, because it will see you through those times when things don't seem to be going your way.
Although I work hard at improving my skills as a musician, I have come to realise that playing better (or faster, or more loudly) isn't the be-all and end-all of the creative process. These days I recognise that it's my emotional reaction that's important. When I record music, I try to make something that will make me happy when I listen back to it. I don't always get that feeling, and if I don't, it drives me to go back and try harder the next time. Just the process of asking myself, "Does this make me feel good?" has changed the way that I write music, and I think it's a change for the better.
Many interviews I've read with the guitarist Allan Holdsworth noted that he never liked to listen to his recordings; as a master improviser, he was focused on the moment of playing. Once the act of performance was over, the results held no interest for him. I don't have that level of detachment, and to be honest, I'm not sure that I'd want it. Whenever I finish a piece, I will go back to it and pick away at it, again and again. I listen to my tracks a lot — although, firstly, I have to decide whether or not I can bear to listen to them again. If a track meets that criterion, I next consider whether my performance was up to scratch or not. I'll try to avoid letting any obvious mistakes through during the recording process, but occasionally things will slip through. I hate that. Then, I'll pay close attention to the structure of the piece, to see if I can hear anything that might trip up the flow or take me out of the experience of listening. Finally, if I'm satisfied that a track flows coherently from start to finish, I think about how it makes me feel. It's my emotional response to a track that's become the clincher for me in recent years: if a piece stands up to all of that examination, I'll be happy with it. However, recently I've started going back to old tracks that didn't quite make it, trying to find something that might let them pass muster. I've been doing this not only because the tools I have for making music these days are vastly superior to what I was working with even five years ago (and because I'm curious to see what effect new technology might have on my older material), but also because I've done enough listening to what I do that I've started to be able to figure out how I could make it better. Have I spent ten thousand hours listening to my stuff? It wouldn't surprise me if I have. I've certainly spent that amount of time playing.
So, every year since I started taking part in FAWM and 50/90, I've ended up with a few more songs that I can add to my "this makes me happy" pile. Each year, that pile of happy songs grows at a faster rate. And the process of writing and recording tracks also makes me happy. It's very effective therapy for me; even if nobody else ever listened to my music, I'd still keep making it. The buzz I get from being able to say, "I made this!" is some of the best medicine I know.
As I wrote on my music page a while ago, an upright piano "is no substitute for a rack of Moog synthesizers when you're thirteen and dreaming of being the next Rick Wakeman." I've been fascinated by the technology of synthesizers since I was old enough to understand what a synthesizer did, and I wanted to play one the instant I heard what they sounded like. Over the years, I've built up a collection of my own machines, although it's skewed heavily towards classic analogue synths from the mid 80s.
There are a number of legendary synths that I always wanted, but have never owned. I should have bought a Yamaha DX-7 when they were the most ubiquitous synthesizer on the market, but I didn't buy one because they were the most ubiquitous synthesizer on the market. I've regretted not getting one ever since. The fact that I could have afforded to buy one makes the feeling of regret so much deeper, but most of the other synths on my wish list were well beyond my financial capabilities. The Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument, for example, totally deserves its legendary status. When they came on the market, purchasing one would set you back the same amount of money as I paid for my first house. Even now, getting your hands on a specimen that's in full working order will cost you a significant sum of money; there was one on eBay last year going for $13,000. Kate Bush had one; so did Thomas Dolby. Trevor Horn and The Art of Noise put together entire albums on theirs, and when Peter Gabriel fed his own samples into one back in the 80s, he changed how music was put together forever.
A machine that created an even more seismic shift in what music could sound like was New England Digital's Synclavier. If the Fairlight was the Rolls Royce of synthesizers, the Synclavier was the Bentley. You will be familiar with its sound, even if you don't know that you are: that resonating "bong" at the beginning of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" was made with one; Duran Duran used one to record "The Reflex"; Trevor Horn used one to produce Yes's 90125 album and it's all over their single "Owner of a Lonely Heart". Mark Snow used one to create the music for The X Files. And Frank Zappa composed his album Jazz From Hell almost exclusively on one (and then somehow got his band to recreate the fantastically complex music on stage). Forty years after the first version went on sale, Synclaviers can change hands for six-figure sums.
There were a couple of more traditionally-designed (and significantly cheaper) machines that I admired from afar, too: I loved the lush sounds that Geddy Lee got from his Oberheim OB-X on Rush's Moving Pictures and Signals albums. The beginning of Subdivisions is, for me, one of the most iconic synth lines in the history of popular music. Its successor, the OB-Xa, was the synth that Eddie Van Halen used to record "Jump" - as far as synth lines, go, it's difficult to get more iconic than that, but its successor, the Matrix-12 was pretty much the be-all and end-all of analogue synths as far as I was concerned. If you were to look up "fat synth sound" in your dictionary, you'd probably see a photo of the Matrix 12 alongside the entry. Vangelis loved the thing almost as much as he did the immense Yamaha CS-80. You needed to be a weightlifter if you wanted to gig with a CS-80; it weighed over 100 kilos (220 lbs) but Vangelis performed most of the music to Ridley Scott's film Blade Runner with one. That, for me, was reason enough to want one. Then there was the much cheaper (and lighter) Sequential Circuits Prophet 5. It would appear in just about every keyboard player's rig when a band appeared on the Old Grey Whistle Test or Top of the Pops. It was an integral part of recordings by everyone from Peter Gabriel to Madonna, from Michael Jackson to the Eurhythmics, and from Duran Duran to Thomas Dolby. It was only capable of five-note polyphony and it didn't even have MIDI, but what a sound it could make!
There were a number of other machines that were not only too expensive for me, they were also too damn big. Even if I'd been able to afford some of the gear I wanted, I wouldn't have had anywhere to put it. The Hammond B-3 organ and its associated Leslie speaker cabinet most definitely fell into this category. It wasn't an instrument, as far as I was concerned: it was a very large and lovely piece of furniture. Keith Emerson may have spun his around on one corner and stabbed it with daggers, but he would have had the space to practice doing so without maiming anyone. I certainly didn't, and while I loved the sound Keith got out of it, the idea of owning one of my own was just too ludicrous to contemplate - it was just too exotic a beast. That applied even more to Keith's most grandiose piece of stage equipment, the Moog Modular. As its name suggests, it was put together from a number of discrete modules, each housed in a solid wood cabinet. It was the sort of thing that you did not take on tour in exactly the same way that you didn't take a fully operational nuclear reactor on tour: it was insanely complicated, difficult to maintain in tune, and you really didn't want to be around it if it had a meltdown on stage.
And yet right now I can head upstairs into the studio, fire up my DAW, and software versions of all of these fantastic machines will be right there in front of me, ready to use, with many of those iconic sounds available as presets that I can load with a single mouse click.
I'd been considering getting a copy of Arturia's amazing V Collection ever since I saw that they'd assembled a collection of virtual synths a couple of years ago, and when I discovered that the collection is on offer at the moment at half its normal list price, it was far, far too good an offer to resist. After downloading and installing it on Friday night I've been having lots of fun discovering what sounds I can make with it. The Synclavier and Fairlight emulations in particular are astonishing. Arturia have even emulated the control screens that each synth used, and it really feels like - and, more importantly, sounds like - you're using the real thing. I have so many new sounds to use in my music, it's left me feeling profoundly inspired.
I haven't spent the whole weekend playing around with new virtual instruments. I spent yesterday afternoon gardening, and the green wheely bin is now full to the brim. Last year I didn't really spend enough time keeping the back garden under control, and I'm afraid it's pretty obvious that I didn't. So yesterday I finished cutting back the buddleia, which has been left to its own devices for eighteen months or so and had made the most of things; it was well over three metres high and badly in need of a trim. The holly bush next to it is now a holly tree, so that had to be cut back as well. I even managed to make a start on the undergrowth, which has become a dense tangle of brambles. All that traipsing back and forth to the green bin did wonders for my step count and I ended the day at just under 5700. That's not a lot, but it's much more than I usually manage on a Saturday afternoon.
But I paid the price for it. I was covered in puncture wounds from thorns (and my gardening gloves have worn through at the fingers, so I need a new pair). I have a bruise on my right hand that had gone a very interesting set of colours by teatime. By the time I went to bed I was a mass of aches and pains. Even before I checked my sleep tracker this morning, I knew that last night I'd had a dreadful night's sleep. I got a "bad" for sleep quality, which was no surprise at all given that I'd woken up several times. I'd even got out of bed to find some painkillers to take. They hadn't helped; I'd subsequently thrashed about so much that the blanket on the bed was on the floor when I got up.
Today, it's raining. The front garden will have to wait, I think.
Yesterday I spent a very enjoyable evening at St. David's Hall in Cardiff in the presence of the one and only King Crimson. The band are a favourite of mine and I have seen them many times over the years in different incarnations (it's been thirty-six years since I first saw the band and three years since I last saw Mr Fripp and his esteemed colleagues), but last night's show was one of the most impressive concerts I've been to by any artist. A glimpse of the stage is enough to let you know that things are going to be a bit different: three sets of drums are placed closest to the audience, behind them a raised platform carries a bewildering array of musical gear for everyone else including Mel Collins's array of saxophones, clarinet and flute, Tony Levin's NS Upright bass, Chapman Stick and Stingray bass, Bill Rieflin's stack of keyboards, Jakko Jakszyk's beautiful PRS custom Schizoid Man guitar and a lovely tobacco semiacoustic, and on the end, a rack of guitar processing equipment for Mr Fripp that was as big as a decent-sized fridge.
It was an extraordinary show. The music chosen provided a great introduction to the output of a band that has been in existence for forty-nine years (the first line-up rehearsed together for the first time on January 13th, 1969). Every time I've seen King Crimson play live, the level of proficiency of the musicians on stage has been breathtaking and last night was no exception. Even when the music has thirteen beats to the bar (as it does in the middle section of Starless and Bible Black) it grooves in a way that completely draws you in. Music this engaging has an odd effect: the rest of the audience goes away and I found myself immersed in the simple act of listening to the music. I don't get this experience with many bands and it's why I love the music so much. It came as no surprise at all to read that Mr Fripp describes the current version of Crimson as "the best band I've been in, musically, personally, professionally" because they really have taken things to the next level. Paradoxically, they make it all look easy. A composition as mind-bendingly complex as Level Five is played as nonchalantly as lesser bands might approach a twelve-bar blues; it looked effortless. The band are clearly having a large amount of fun playing everything, too; the interplay between drummers Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey (looking resplendent in his bowler hat) and Gavin Harrison had me laughing out loud at several points. Even Mr Fripp was smiling. At the conclusion of Indiscipline, Jakko has taken to replacing Adrian Belew's original line of "I like it!" with something of a more local flavour; last night he finished it with a gentle "There's lovely..." It felt like a really special event and I really didn't want things to end. The whole evening went by in a flash, but after they concluded proceedings with Twenty-First Century Schizoid Man and various band members had taken photographs of the audience (I'll be checking to see if I can spot myself in Tony's Road Diary pictures once again) it was all over.
I had an unexpected diversion on the final stretch of the way home. After topping up the car at Tesco's in Thornbury, I drove up to the M5 junction at Falfield only to discover that it was snarled up with dozens of HGVs trying to get back on the motorway (the southbound stretch from Junction 13 to Junction 14 had been closed for repairs) so I turned around, headed back down the A38 to Thornbury again and came home through Tytherington instead. As a result it was well after midnight when I put the car in the garage and closer to 1 o'clock when I got into bed. When my head hit the pillow I was still buzzing from the gig. I was totally wired; it felt like I'd had three or four double espressos and it took me an age to get off to sleep. I kept waking up, too. When I got up this morning I'd had a truly dreadful night. My sleep tracker score was the lowest I've managed to achieve since I bought the thing at just 66 out of 100 and it took quite a while for the coffee to kick in after breakfast. I hope that I get a better night's sleep tonight; I will definitely need it.