You’re so Venn

Bands are musical Venn diagrams: each member has their own tastes in music, and the music the band makes is located where those individual tastes overlap (in most cases, anyway: it’s different if the dynamic is more like Oasis, where one strong personality basically bosses everybody else about).

That means bands tend to be fairly consistent, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – for example if one of Chvrches wanted to do a death metal song or Angus Young decided to embrace jazz-funk, you’d hope the others would veto it – but it does narrow your musical horizons a little bit.

If you’re making music, is that a good thing?

I haven’t played in a band for a long time – ten years or so, I think, maybe more – but of course I’ve continued to write and record music with my brother and partner in musical crimes, David. And because there’s just two of us, and because we often write separately, and because we don’t have the issue of wondering how we’d play something live, we don’t have the consensus or compromise that you’d get in a larger group. The songs we’re working on at the moment include straight-ahead rock, grinding EDM, very delicate acoustic stuff, shimmery pop and at least one track that sounds like Donna Summer.

The thing is, though, while that’s an accurate reflection of the kinds of music we like, it isn’t a reflection of individual bands we like: each of them does a fairly specific thing. For example, Faith No More will do the odd bit of mexicana or a Commodores cover, but 99% of what they do is what you’d expect Faith No More to do. Eels are so consistent they often record the same song with different words. Chvrches aren’t going to start doing ska.

The only bands I can think of that don’t stick to a single recognisable sound or genre, who’ll flit from genre to genre without a care, are parodists. And that worries me, because I don’t really want to be part of a club that includes Weird Al Yankovic and the crap songs on comedy sketch shows. I’m not using arpeggiators and drum machines because I want to parody dance music, or big guitars because I’m taking the piss out of metal bands; I’m doing these things because they’re what the songs demand. The Donna Summer-esque song needs that Moroder chug. The shimmery pop needs those synths. The declaration of intent needs to sound like an invading army. And so on.

And yet I feel that I’m doing something wrong.

Am I?

Stadium crock

I went to see AC/DC this weekend in Hampden Park, Glasgow – seeing them is on my bucket list and I doubt they’ll be touring for much longer, so I overcame my hatred of Hampden (whose motto should be “Where sound goes to die”) on the grounds that it can’t be that hard to amplify two guitars, a bass and a drum kit.

It is in Hampden, it seems. Hampden is the wrong shape for gigs, I’m told, too low and too prone to the wind whooshing the sound away. So AC/DC joins my list of bands I’ve seen but not heard at Hampden, a list that includes Eminem (couldn’t hear the raps), Bruce Springsteen (couldn’t hear The Boss) and U2 (couldn’t hear The Edge).

It’s not the sound engineers’ fault, I know, but when you’ve got 50,000 people paying really big money for a gig and the only ones hearing it properly are the hardcore fans at the very front, you’re really taking money under false pretences. If you’re not the push-to-the-front type, it’s one of the worst places to hear music I’ve ever visited. And I’ve been to gigs at the SECC.

A new tune: Never Lonely Again

Here’s another song with an unnaturally long gestation period: it started off as a sci-fi riff in the SoundPrism app, took a detour into PIL-style punk metal, and now we’re claiming there’s always been a G-Funk element to our music. It’s about online friends, who we suspect are all bots.

I’m not a Nat

One of the irritating things about post-election reporting is the way many (English) publications keep banging on about a nationalist surge. The SNP vote was based on many things, and for some people I’m sure nationalism played a part. But for me, and for many of the No voters I know who voted SNP in this election, it wasn’t about nationalism at all. So kudos to the LSE for today’s blog on the subject of Scottish nationalism and voting:

To just make the point absolutely clear: Scottish identity or sentiment has not been increasing, but decreasing gradually since the advent of devolution…  the strongest determinants of both independence and SNP support were pragmatic evaluations about economic prospects, trustworthiness and political personnel. For most people in Scotland the SNP is a normal party, that they like, hate or are indifferent to, but those evaluations for most are based on whether people agree with their policies and how they evaluate their representation.

In The Night Garden is Jacob’s Ladder for kids

You end up watching quite a lot of kids’ TV when you’re a parent, and it gets pretty boring pretty quickly. So you let your mind wander. You create imaginary backstories for the presenters on the assumption that the perkier the presenter, the more depraved the private life. You take things out of context for your own amusement, such as the bit on Baby TV where a creature dressed as a scoutmaster growls “I will take the little ones.” And more than anything, you imagine what the programme is really about.

A good example of the genre is Chris Brown’s Teletubbies video, which is based on the discovery that the Teletubbies in black and white are quite frightening.

But I prefer the theory that In The Night Garden is Jacob’s Ladder remade for kids.

If you’re not familiar with the film, Jacob’s Ladder was a 1990 film directed by Adrian Lyne and starring Tim Robbins. I’m not sure how it’s aged, but I remember it as one of the most frightening and disturbing films I’ve ever seen. It’s very difficult to explain without giving away the whole story, so let’s just leave it at this: it’s about death.

In The Night Garden is about death too.

The programme starts with the main character, Igglepiggle, alone in a boat. It’s dark and the seas are high. Igglepiggle takes down the boat’s sail, lights a light, and is transported to the Night Garden where he meets the love of his life, Upsy Daisy, along with a cast of characters including midget families and giant inflatables with faces on them. After a bit of excitement everybody goes to bed and Igglepiggle goes to sleep on his boat.

Here’s an episode I’ve just watched with my son.

It’s all very lovely, until somebody on the internet tells you that the whole thing is desperately sad. Igglepiggle has been shipwrecked. He’s out of food and water. He’s hallucinating. And everything that happens in the episode is a fever dream as his body shuts down.

Viewed through that prism, it all makes sense. The weird characters. The voice of God (well, Derek Jacobi) talking to the characters. The way everybody leaves, leaving Igglepiggle alone in the garden, wishing the fun would never end. And through that prism, when Derek Jacobi says “Don’t worry, Igglepiggle. It’s time to go”, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. It’s the equivalent of this bit in Jacob’s Ladder (spoiler alert!):

“Don’t worry, Igglepiggle. It’s time to go.”

The camera returns to the boat, where Igglepiggle is silent and still, and the melancholy theme tune swells as the boat disappears into the horizon.


Next week: why Peppa Pig is secretly about Satan.

Sometimes winning elections is very simple

As an elderly woman told our newly elected MP during last week’s canvassing, she was voting for him because he was the only person coming to her door with reasons to vote for a candidate. The only thing the other canvassers talked about, she said, was why she shouldn’t vote for their rivals.

Stop sending me bloody letters

I have the mixed fortune of living in East Dunbartonshire, which is a nice bit of the world but also a crucial Liberal Democrat seat: all the polls point to our MP, Jo Swinson, getting the boot come May 7 and the LDs are spending an astonishing amount of money trying to prevent that from happening.

I’m averaging three pieces of mail a day from the Lib Dems, not including flyers and fake newspapers, and I’m at the point where I think I’d vote for any party that promised I’d never receive another Lib Dem leaflet or letter in my life. But until that happy day, my most recent personalised letter is from a Stewart Moohan urging me to vote Lib Dem. I understand similar letters are going out from a former Tory to voters more affluent than me.

Moohan isn’t, or wasn’t, an LD party activist. He’s a former Labour voter, former chair of a community labour association, and he and his wife Mhairi are convinced that the only way to save Earth from demons is for all Labour supporters to vote Lib Dem. Otherwise the SNP will get in and plagues of locusts, boils, etc etc etc.

The thing is, Stewart and his wife Mhairi have appeared in a very different election communication recently. This one.

Mr Moohan, it turns out, was an unsuccessful Labour candidate in 2012 (he got just 700 votes), and he went on to be unsuccessful in his bid to become the Labour candidate for this election. So he did what any man of principle would do: he threw his toys out of the pram and signed up to campaign against Labour with the Lib Dems.

I appreciate that people can change their minds. But I’m pretty sure Moohan hasn’t quit the Labour party, so urging tactical voting is breaking party rules. And I’m absolutely certain that it looks bad leaving your pre-Damascene conversion rhetoric online so people can Google you and see this.

We have seen the damage that has been done already in the last three years to our country’s public services by this Coalition Government’s austerity policies and the effect this has had on our economy, cutting too fast and too deep.

That’ll be the Conservative coalition with, er, the Lib Dems.

Update, later that day

The Lib Dem-supporting letters from “a conservative voter since I have been allowed to vote” are from Tatjana/Tanya Hine, who spoke at a Lib Dem event in 2009, who publicly signed the Lib Dems’ online pro-Europe petition a year ago and who has a habit of appearing in Lib Dem promotional literature (this one is from the run-up to the referendum). That’s hardly damning, but it does suggest an ongoing connection rather than another Damascene conversion. As does suddenly writing to loads of people you don’t know telling them to vote for a party you say you’ve never supported before and getting the local Lib Dem election agent to print and distribute it.

I know it’s just politicking, but it’s just such bollocks. Patronising, misleading, insulting the electorate bollocks.

It’s been a while. Here’s some new music

The trouble with doing music in your spare time is that it can take ages to get anything finished. That was definitely the case with this song, The Sun Is Going To Shine Today: it’s been in half-finished form for months. We finally knuckled down and finished the track, and we hope you like it. We won’t keep you waiting quite so long for the next one.

What’s your point, caller?

A passing thought: what exactly is the point of phone-in programmes? I’ve caught a few this week before turning off in disgust, one about vaccinations where ridiculous claims (knowing loads of people whose kids were harmed by MMR, knowing loads of people who went for homeopathy instead and their kids never contracted the Black Death) went unchallenged while people with evidence and expert knowledge were barracked, and several about political issues where every caller was either an idiot or a party activist. I know phone-in radio is cheap to make, but what’s in it for the listener?

Stayin’ Alive

Image by Anel Rosas on Flickr, some rights reserved (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Image by Anel Rosas on Flickr, some rights reserved (CC BY-SA 2.0)

About a year ago, I was diagnosed with depression. It wasn’t a surprise – it’s something I’ve experienced on and off for years – but the act of naming it, of putting up my hand and saying “I need help”, was an important part of getting better. When you hold monsters up to the light, they lose their power.

And depression has a lot of power. As I’m sure you’ve read elsewhere, depression isn’t about feeling a bit sad. In my case it was an inability to feel anything positive. All the things that give me pleasure – family, friends, music, movies, comedy, books, work – didn’t. Imagine eating your favourite meal but something has switched your tastebuds off, seeing your favourite band live but being unable to hear any of it.

The only emotions I still felt were negative. Fear, panic, self loathing, anger. Tiny little things would release furies, anger that would rage and burn everything it could reach. I’m the least frightening man you’ll ever meet, and yet I found myself one morning jumping out of my car to harangue a bull-necked, shaven-headed ogre of a man in a big BMW because he’d had the temerity to beep his horn at me. He could have snapped me in half easily but backed off instead, calling me – with some justification – “fucking mental”.

The feeling of being a passenger in your own body, the feeling that somebody else is driving the bus, is very frightening.

I’m writing this now because I’ve just finished reading Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig, a novelist whose The Humans I really enjoyed. This one is non fiction, and it’s about his experience of depression. It’s a good book, sad and funny and wise, and the conversations between Matt-then and Matt-now really resonated. I particularly liked the list of things Haig experienced that elicited more sympathy than his depression, a list that’s as horrible as it is hilarious.

Like Haig, I’ve come through it and I’m in a much better place. Everybody’s experience is different, but in my own case I found my wife and brother invaluable, seeing a sympathetic GP helpful, Sertraline/Zoloft useful (albeit possibly due to the placebo effect: the dose was small and I was also making big changes that I’m sure had positive effects) and counselling a complete and utter waste of fucking time. Over six weeks of three-hour gaps in my working day (there’s a clinic in my home town but I was sent to a faraway one due to an admin error; once you see your counsellor you can’t change clinics) I was given the following advice:

  • why don’t you get a wee part time job?
  • think you’ve got problems? Remember there are babies with Ebola in Africa!

I imagined my counsellor hanging around road accidents, yelling at the mangled victims: “look on the bright side! At least you don’t have AIDS!”

One of the questions you’re asked each week is whether you had made plans to kill yourself since your last session. When I said I had I was told that the question really meant was I making plans that I still intended to keep. As I clearly wasn’t trying to top myself at that specific moment, my answer was logged as a no. Presumably that was to keep the figures looking good as my six weeks were nearly over and I wasn’t getting any benefit from the sessions.

I’m not just bitching here. The point is that I got better despite such fuckwittery. Not all counsellors are hopeless. Not all drugs are ineffective. Not all lifestyle changes are pointless. X might not work, but Y just might. And talking to people about it really helps.

Like Haig, now-me could have a conversation with then-me. I’d tell myself that what I was feeling was real, but that I could make changes to deal with it. I’d tell myself that depression is an obstacle, but not a life or death sentence. And I’d tell myself that one day in the not too distant future I’d be sitting with my family, making them howl with laughter, feeling joy so much greater than the worst things depression could ever throw at me.