Sofa Sound  Newsletter

34/December 2008


Past Newsletters


Just shaving into the dying embers of 2008, here's the second newsletter of the year.

To be honest there's not that much of newsworthiness to relate this time: no major new projects, no major realignments or fresh bust-ups.

Of course the music industry is currently going down the tubes and, that's going to have some effect on me and us in the coming months....

Basically, though, older, wiser or not, I'm carrying on with the pursuit of That Music still tracing out my own levels of competence and incompetence.

And now I'm looking forward to 2009....

In the meantime and until later, as ever, thanks for listening.


A Year of Shows

I've done more - and more varied - touring in this calendar year, it seems, than for a very long while indeed. The road life is still an episodic rather than continuous experience, so my memories of the various planes, buses, rooms, cities and countries are very much of the snapshot variety. In any event I've had a full photo album's worth this year.

First up, of course, was the VdGG European tour to coincide with the release of "Trisector". We'd met up for three days of rehearsal in London immediately prior to the run of shows, with a degree of trepidation to do with the daunting nature of the material we were about to attempt. As you will recall we'd "learned" this during the intensive recording process at the Gaia Centre, without any initial rehearsal, and had moved on from each piece or portion of piece just as soon as we felt we'd recorded a satisfactory take. None of the material had ever actually been played-in in a normal sense.

As has become familiar in VdGG world in the 21st Century, each of us had to do a fair bit of homework leading up to the rehearsals. Frankly this is (or should be) a much easier matter for me than for Brain and HB. The sheer physicality of drumming means that it's not really happening unless it's with full on kit and band; and HB's responsibilities, of both hand and foot, are enormous. As well as learning the pieces in principle we also had to come to agreement about how exactly certain passages should go, for in some places we'd never quite formally established the authorised patterns in any case. A number of emails along the lines of "how many times does this happen then?" went the rounds.

All in all the new material had to be reinvented into proper live shape; even though, self-evidently, it had been recorded in a full-on performance way in the first place.

While the first appearances of the three-piece VdGG in 2007 had been very much focussed on the "power trio" aspect of things this time much more precision was required. For instance, in the case of "Interference Patterns" if one of us fails to be locked onto our correct sequences then not only will it i) not work and ii) fall apart but iii) we'll be stuck in an inextricable loop of "how do we get out of this?". There were moments like these in "Over the Hill" and "We are not Here", the other two new songs which we decided to include, as well. Clearly, though, power - albeit of a senior, sitting-down variety - is still very much what we're about as much as complexity.

Opening night in Manchester is a long, long way back in time now and I can no longer remember the fearful anticipation of waiting for the first show, though I'm sure there were big time nerves. As always, though, a full-on commit saw us through. Then we were off on our travels for the next week or so in an entertaining and civilised swoop around Europe, ending up with a really good show in Moscow for a large, young and enthusiastic crowd. As is by now customary the routing was fairly incredible but that's the way of things: the group goes (as do I) where and when we're invited, provided it appears to make some kind of financial sense. (Though it usually doesn't become clear whether sense has been made or not until much, much later....)

We find ourselves in something of a curious position, of course. Our periods of activity are determined by our mutual availability, which is far from constant, and we have to pack in whatever we're doing into fairly tight windows of opportunity. We do also have to attempt to break even; so far we've managed to do a bit better than that but VdGG has clearly never been a Golden Goose and that applies just as much now as ever it did. In any event, that's not the motivation. So far I think - and I'm grateful for the fact - that we've managed to strike a pretty good life/art balance in this period of resurgence. It remains an honour and  a privilege to have this chance of playing again as a unit with HB and Brain and it's also tremendous fun.

I also believe the trio has really found its feet with the addition of the "Trisector" material to the repertoire. This dense, locked-together, sometimes brutal stuff has, in turn, informed the way we now play many of the older pieces. There remains a big variance in the performances of songs night to night, since much of the way they work depends simultaneously on both accurate counting and on instinct. There are a number of places where a gap is just...*that* much (said and done with a wink).

After the VdGG shows my attention turned back to solo world. It had been quite some time since I'd done a consistent run of solo performances and the time felt right, especially in view of all the band playing with VdGG in the last years. Ten days in Spain got me back into the habit with some serious distances being covered across the country. From the outset I looked to increase the number of songs which I could draw from, so a number of tunes which hadn't appeared for a while were dusted off and aired once again. This does involve the use of written notes in some cases and I make no apologies for or bones about that. My aged memory's bad enough these days at a normal domestic level, so it'd be all too unreliable when applied to lyrics and music. I'd started (and continue) to use written notes in VdGG, especially where correctness was crucial: "All that Before", for instance, utterly depends on the singer being on the right verse at the right time for its musical shape. Of course, even with the help of these notes I still manage to mess things up from time to time; but that goes with the territory of actually doing committed performances rather than fault-free run-throughs I suppose.

I hadn't been to Spain for some time; but I've been a frequent visitor there, of course, in comparison to North America. Finally, after a decade or so, this was put right in 2008.

For this I have to thank the Nearfest organisation. These days - well, always, actually, but these days it's much more of a complicated process than previously - it's necessary to have a full working visa to play shows in the US. That means i) there has to be a sponsor and ii) it's very expensive. Nearfest committed to sponsoring the visa application as part of the deal for my appearance there and so I've been given a one-year window in which to perform solo shows. (Visas are show-specific, so this one only applies to solo shows and only Will Hitchings can be my soundman.)

The first leg was a modest East Coast trek leading up the Nearfest appearance. There was definitely a sense of reunion at these shows, with warm hospitality all round. I met up with a number of old friends at Nearfest and whatever worry I might have had about appearing at a festival which, however loosely, is associated with the dreaded "P" word was baseless. Actually the same thing applied to the Gouveia festival in April with VdGG. I/we am/are getting rather looser about these things, perhaps, these days. As you'll doubtless know I've never been one for categorisation but I'm significantly less prickly about this than I used to be. (I still say, though, that VdGG began as an Underground group and that I make unpopular commercial/uncommercial popular music.)

Leaving the US the day after Nearfest Will and I had a truly ridiculous turnaround, arriving back home on the 23rd and leaving for Japan on the 25th. No point in even thinking about adjusting to jet-lag there! A swift head-turn into the VdGG repertoire and full-on electricity for your singer. I really liked the "residency" aspect of doing three shows in the same place, especially as it was a modest walk from where we were staying. All too soon we were done and that was the end of the VdGG work - well, publicly at least - for 2008. (I'm not saying that we've been away doing new stuff, incidentally; but we have at least been applying our thoughts to what might come next....)

In July and August I began work on the next solo disc. I'm still deep in the middle of it, just about half way through at this point, I'd say. And as ever I'm unwilling/unable to reveal anything about it until it's all done, so that will have to wait for next time, probably in early spring....

I broke off from the recording to cross the North American continent one more time, West Coast to East and ending up in Canada. A great mix of flying and driving and a lot of shows in a short space of time, once again seeing a number of familiar faces along the way. By this time the setlists were being selected from well over 60 different songs, some more secure than others, obviously. The touring year finished a couple of weeks ago with two shows in Tel Aviv; again, the first visit for some considerable while and again a highly enthusiastic and young audience for an emotional couple of nights.

37 shows is a lot for me to do in a year these days; 80-odd songs are a lot to (kind of, at times) remember; and getting on for two and a half months is a long time for me to be out on the road. But I have to say I enjoyed it all and am already looking forward to more in 2009. We have a week of VdGG activity coming up in January (Budapest, Prague, Aschaffenburg and Malaga - that VdGG routing again), for the first part of which we will once again be loading our old bones into an overnight sleeper coach after each show, with wry smiles and possibly a glass of wine to the ready. Thereafter we'll establish what else we'll be doing but we're all keen for more stuff; and I'm also keen to hit some European stages in solo touring this year.

But, but...who knows what's to going to work out in 2009? I honestly can't remember a shift-over of years with a greater sense of uncertainty hanging over it. We shall see. In any event, I intend to be pressing on!

Now, of course, I've now reached the Senior Rail Card age of 60...but I've no inclination to stop hitting the boards or pounding the key/fretboards yet. The fact that I've passed this milestone and along the way have now been a musician for 40 years as well didn't escape the notice of the Yahoo! discussion group dedicated to ph/vdgg stuff.

Some of this group decided to mark the occasion by clubbing together to get me a present ("I'll take the gold watch &c...") and so, a couple of days after my birthday and by a somewhat circuitous but highly coincidental route, a new Hagstrom guitar came into my hands. Now this is the kind of thing which, even with the best of intentions, can go quite badly wrong for one reason or another. In this case, though, I have to say that the guitar is a fine one and I've received it with due humility, respect and understanding of what a complicated process must have been gone through to get it to me at all. As yet I don't know if I'll be playing it live and as yet I haven't recorded with it. But that's partly because it still sits in the very odd tuning in which it arrived with me, which is not one in any guitarist's book, nor one I've ever publicly owned to using to my best knowledge - but which, nonetheless, is the tuning in which I wrote "Solitude" all those years ago and which I'd forgotten until now.

What a rum planet this remains!

And now the Old Year's almost up. I'd better try to nail that tricky middle riff in "Over the Hill" for my homework before I get into celebratory mode....

Happy New Year to all.

top of page