Things don’t sound the same

I have one of these, in the same “unpleasant coffee table” finish. It sounds as pointy as it looks.

One of my favourite musical jokes goes something like this. A guitarist is on stage and puts one guitar down to pick up another. “Oh, good,” the audience thinks. “Everything’s going to sound so different now!”

I find it funny because it’s true: while there are sound reasons for swapping guitars on stage (to get them tuned, mainly, but also because some guitarists move between different tunings or play 12-strings for certain songs), most of the time you can’t tell the bloody difference through a PA.

On record, though, things are different. Guitars and bass guitars sound different from other, ostensibly similar guitars and bass guitars. So different that Rush bassist Geddy Lee has written a massive book just about different bass guitars. It’s easy to mock but I think it sounds fantastic.

In it, he talks about the Fender Precision Bass, the Fender Jazz bass and the Gibson Thunderbird. I’ve got all three, albeit in cheaper form. And he’s right when he talks about how they sound.

I never took Gibson basses seriously because they have a muddier, deeper sound — much harder to get that twang that I love in my sound. So they were pushed off my plate, like when a little kid has peas on his plate — he doesn’t want to do there [laughs]. Yet friends of mine played Thunderbirds, for example, and loved them. When I started doing this whole revisionist look at the instrument, I had to check those out. As a player 42 years into my career, how does that feel in my hand? I found that fascinating, and I fell in love with all the bottom end coming out of those basses.

I’ve been a Fender player for many years, because they’re great guitars – and in my RSI-raddled hands, more comfortable to play than Gibsons, which feel different. But man, the sound a Thunderbird makes is really something. Fenders are at home in any company, but T-Birds are thugs. Where the Fenders are scalpels, the Thunderbird is a club with a nail stuck through it. The first time I played mine, I laughed.

It’s even more pronounced with lead guitars. Again, I’ve been a Fender fan for a long time: in my previous gigging days I played and loved a Fender Telecaster, and I also have a Stratocaster and a gloriously weird Marauder. But while they’re fun to play and very versatile, you can’t make them sound like Gibsons.

All of my Fenders are “proper” Fenders while my Gibsons are the lesser Epiphone models, but the Riviera and Explorer have sounds that you just don’t get from Fender guitars. They’re nowhere near as comfortable to play – my fantastically pointy Explorer has the ergonomics of a dining table – but they have a very distinct sound. The Riviera is fat and hot, while the Explorer hangs around with the wrong kind of people and like its Thunderbird stablemate is tooled up and looking for trouble. No wonder it’s so popular in heavy metal circles, played by the likes of Metallica and Therapy? (and U2’s The Edge, back in the day; he still uses the Explorer live for that authentic post-punk drive). As with the Thunderbird, the first time I played my Explorer I burst out laughing.

The guitar is only part of it, though. As Geddy Lee points out, even when you’re trying to emulate a particular guitarist, even if you have the same guitar and the same amp and the same effects and the same settings, you can’t mimic them entirely.

You can put the same bass, the same amplification in the same song with another player, and it’s not gonna sound like Chris Squire. Only Chris Squire sounds like Chris Squire. Only John Paul Jones sounds like John Paul Jones. That’s the personality of the player. When I was producing records for a short time a number of years ago, guys would come in and say, “I would love to sound like this guy.” I would say, “I’d love you to sound like that guy, but you’re not that guy. We’ll give you a similar sound to that guy, but you’re gonna sound you — you’re never gonna sound like him because you’re you, and you should celebrate the ‘you-ness’ of that.”

Many of my favourite musicians happily admit to trying – and failing – to sound like their heroes.

Lee again:

…failing to get it right is actually your benefit — when you fail to mimic them, you accidentally get your own thing out of it. I often say that style comes from being influenced by so many people that you can no longer recognize the influence and you’ve developed confidence in your own personality and that’s started to supersede the influences.

#24daysoflove

My friend Karie Westermann has started something really lovely on Twitter: 24 days of love.

I’m a great starter and a terrible finisher, so I very much doubt I’ll manage 24 days. But I’ll start with this: I heard it for the first time the other day and I’m absolutely in love with it. The video’s great too: I love seeing people smiling, singing and dancing.

Pop songs played on chainsaws

I’ve written a lot about my love of pop music, but I don’t think I’ve included a particular favourite: pop music played on chainsaws. What I mean by that is strong melodic pop music played in a very aggressive way, usually through ridiculously distorted amplifiers by young men and women full of substances they’ll regret taking in later life.

Imagine. It’s the mid-eighties, you’re a teenager and like all teenagers you’re full of unfocused rage and confusion. For all its pop joys, Frankie by Sister Sledge really isn’t going to articulate that.

And then a friend plays you this.

What a glorious, frightening, exhilarating noise. Three decades on and it still gives my goosebumps goosebumps.

It’s the Byrds song reimagined by psychopaths, and it’s one of my very favourite records of all time. Guitarist Bob Mould is one of my favourite musicians, and in my latest band I’m ripping him off quite shamelessly.

If you’re interested in Hüsker Dü, I really recommend the excellent podcast Do You Remember: it’s a fascinating broadcast from a very different world, a world without the internet and social media and where music was still fiercely tribal.

Music to watch girls by

I spent many years playing in bands, and despite public demand I’ve joined another one. This time it’s different, though, because this time I won’t be presenting male. That means thinking about things I’ve never had to think about before: what I should or shouldn’t wear on stage, whether I can fake the confidence I don’t feel, how I’ll deal with abuse and/or inappropriate behaviour.

I never had to think about that as a male singer. But then, as Beth McLeish writes, it’s different for girls.

Writing on Transistor, McLeish describes a change of opinion: when she was asked a few years ago about what it’s like to be a girl in a band, she didn’t think it was a particularly big deal.

I said that it was no different from being a boy in a band, as we were, quite simply doing the same thing. I recognised the barriers between women and music careers, but ultimately, I believed that things were by far better now than they used to be.

And she was right, because things are better than they used to be. And yet…

…surely it is not unreasonable for me to be getting tired of being one of only two girls on an entire gig line-up. From what I’ve gathered, the type of music we play, and the music scene, in general, is a boy’s club. For a long time, I just didn’t think there was that many women in bands. But now I’ve learned that this is 100% not the case. We just aren’t getting booked as much as our male counterparts.

Half of all guitar purchasers are women, but that isn’t reflected on stages. Festival line-ups are often embarrassingly male-dominated, and the same patterns filter down to the smallest clubs.

Putting on a line-up where the only thing the bands have in common is having a female band member isn’t helpful either. It’s tokenism.

Would you describe a band of guys with a male lead singer as “male fronted?” No, no one would say this, because sadly the assumption is that musicians are male. Surely, it’s not fair then to disregard women’s songwriting and their art, and just make it about their gender?

Musically, there is very little commonality between, say, Petrol Girls, St Vincent, Wolf Alice and Kathryn Joseph. And yet all too often women are reduced to their gender in a way male artists aren’t. Boys are classified by genre. And boys don’t have to worry about being objectified by audiences in the way girls do.

Whenever I play gigs, I feel the need to dress up in my coolest clothes and wear lots of makeup. It’s that constant pressure to look good that affects so many women in bands, and a lot of the time it matters more than what the music sounds like sadly. Of course, boys in bands are scrutinised for how they look too, and there is, of course, an expectation for them to look cool. But for female musicians, it almost seems like they’re there to be sex symbols, and their music is secondary.

The music business has long been sexist, and often misogynist. If they’re allowed to be more than just eye candy to look lovingly at the male performers, women artists have long been packaged with their sexuality first and their art second. That’s something that’s still very much in evidence today.

The treatment of women by male artists and the predominantly male people at every level from roadie to A&R rep has been famously bad. I could make my point pretty clear by listing just a few of the songs about “young girls” in which older men sing about the joys of statutory rape, or the underage lovers of your favourite rock stars or DJs. Or listing some of the court cases where powerful music business figures have exploited female artists both economically and sexually, sometimes simultaneously.

I’m constantly amazed there hasn’t been a #metoo for the music business. I suspect it’s because there’s just too much of it, the prospect of swimming against the tide must seem incredibly daunting. And once again, we’re not just talking boardrooms and limos here. We’re talking the toilet circuit of tiny venues and local radio showcases. I’ve played plenty of shows where I’ve seen appalling behaviour towards women musicians by DJs, by promoters, by audiences and by other bands’ members, and to my great shame like everybody else I said and did nothing.

McLeish has two important questions, to which her answers are “not yet”:

Are gigs safe spaces for women and girls?

Are women musicians respected and recognised for their art?

Neither of these issues are insoluble. Representation is a huge part of it. If you have more diverse people writing about music, promoting music, playing music, then it becomes less of a skinny white boys’ club. And it means things that were previously just seen as “just the way it is” can be changed.

Dream Wife. Image: Wikipedia

Here’s an example. A few weeks ago I went to see Dream Wife, a pop/punk band that’s generating a lot of buzz. And very early in the show, they stopped and asked the audience to do something very simple:

Look behind you. If the person behind you is smaller than you, swap places.

And the audience looked, and they swapped places. And it was brilliant. The largely female crowd was actually able to see the show without having to try and see past hulking great blokes (and hulking great trans women; I stayed at the bar because I’m massive); the guys’ enjoyment of the gig wasn’t affected one tiny bit.

Why doesn’t that happen at every gig?

I go to loads of gigs, and it’s become really clear that the more female and fabulous the crowd, the better the atmosphere. If you go and see, say, queer punk band Queen Zee it’s a riot of cis and trans, straight and gay folks all bouncing around together. Go and see a band popular with middle-aged men and everybody’s angry-pissed, territorial and furious.

When did we collectively decide that it was okay for men to use their physicality to block the view of people who are typically smaller and socialised to be less aggressive than them?

The venue (Glasgow’s SWG3) was also plastered with posters telling attendees to report any abuse or inappropriate behaviour, and on a purely practical level it had sufficient toilets for the girls as well as the boys.

Why doesn’t that describe every venue?

And then, of course, there’s the sexual assault.

The existence of campaigns such as Safe Gigs for Women should shame us all. The group’s statement regarding this year’s festival season was sobering: they note that at many festivals “there are bands and artists who are accused or convicted of domestic abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or rape… Some are accused or have admitted to inappropriate behaviour with fans. Some may have songs that are anti-woman or pro-abuse.”

It’s not enough to change the physical environment at gigs, although adopting guidelines such as the White Ribbon Project’s Safe Gigs advice for venues of all sizes would be a big step in the right direction. We need to address the wider culture too. Respect for all women, onstage and off, should be the rule, not the exception.

Update:

My friend Professor Batty writes from Reykjavik, where he’s been at the Iceland Airwaves music festival. The ratio of men to women performers? 1:1. The ratio of male to female event workers? Also 1:1. “I have seen the future, and I like what I see,” he says.

More here.

I came to mock, but this rocks

This is Gangstagrass, a band that combines bluegrass and hip-hop. I came to mock, because bluegrass is the music of yokels with bad teeth, but it’s really quite wonderful. The combination works both musically and thematically: both genres of music come from people at the very bottom of the heap, from the poorest working class white and black people respectively.

There’s something similar going on in the music of former House of Pain member Everlast, although in his case the working class genre he went for was blues rather than bluegrass. This is pretty old but I love it.

I’ll come back to the subject in more depth some time later, but this reminds me that one of the things I’m not proud of is a kind of class snobbery I have about country music: it brings so many negative connotations, and I have no doubt that as a result I’ve missed out on some wonderful musical experiences in the same way people who dismiss pop music have missed the magic of, say, Robyn or Carly Rae Jepsen.

I’m trying very hard to burst out of my self-imposed cultural bubble and experience things I’d normally dismiss out of hand: one of my most recent bookings is to see Scottish Ballet doing The Crucible, combining two art forms I haven’t experienced: ballet and theatre. So don’t be too surprised if you see me down the front of the Grand Old Opry some time soon.

Haters gonna hate… ukuleles

INT: A MEETING ROOM - DAY

A small group of people sit on plastic chairs. Some are young; some are very old. One of them coughs and stands.

CARRIE (visibly nervous): 
Hi everyone. My name's Carrie and I... I...

YOUNG WOMAN:
It's okay, Carrie. You can do this. Be strong!

CARRIE (sobbing):
My name's Carrie and I have a... a... a ukulele.

I like ukuleles. They’re fun little things, like baby guitars. Because they use a different tuning to guitars they’re cool songwriting tools – stripped of your usual reference points you can’t just play the same old stuff – and in the hands of someone like Peter Buck they help make some really gorgeous music such as a lot of R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People (although Losing My Religion was played on mandolin, which is similar but tuned differently).

But people really hate them. Otherwise nice, normal, well-adjusted people go a funny red colour when you talk about ukulele music; others visibly blanch at the suggestion you might play one anywhere near them?

Why?

I think there are several reasons. First up, there are hipsters. People being quirky in a really performative way are intensely irritating, and sadly playing a ukulele is an easy way to be quirky in a really performative way. It’s the John Lewis Xmas ad made flesh, your favourite indie song played by some wanker on a tiny ten-quid instrument.

Secondly: Tories. Mumford and Sons probably have entire mansions full of ukuleles.

Thirdly: it’s a bit naff. That’s something manufacturers have actually exploited: there have been ukuleles shaped as Gibson Les Pauls and as Flying V guitars by firms that were clearly taking the piss.

Fourthly, and this is mainly a UK thing, George Formby. You’ve got to love a country that’s still annoyed about a popular entertainer from the 1940s. And he’s got a bad rap because the world of popular entertainment was a lot more innocent back then. Give me enough gin and I’ll argue that Formby was the Sex Pistols of his era: not only was his one-man act about as DIY as you can get, but his banjo ukulele-powered The Window Cleaner was banned for its horrific smut.

There’s no doubt that in the wrong hands, the ukulele can be a terrible thing. I deeply traumatised some friends the other day by sending them a YouTube clip of a man doing a very bad cover of Morrissey’s Suedehead on a ukulele.

But in the right hands, they’re great. I wrote a song on one the other day, and while that particular song is now an extremely vicious-sounding guitar stomper, the original demo of ukulele and acoustic guitar was really warm and lovely.

Never mind me, though. I’m rubbish. Check out this guy playing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.

His name is Jake Shimabukuro. Isn’t he great?

And here’s Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder.

The ukulele has a fascinating history. It’s the descendant of an instrument called the machete and travelled to the US from Portugal via the Hawaiian Royal Family. It caused a craze in 1920s America, where it felt like an exotic novelty, and became associated with that most sleazy of all genres, jazz. Things were going just great until the Wall Street crash.

While the US lost interest, UK performers embraced the same banjo ukulele that George Formby would make famous, and after WWII the arrival of mass market manufacturing led to a second US ukulele craze, this time with plastic instruments sold to kids. The figurehead of the second ukulele boom was Tiny Tim, and that’s where it all went wrong.

Here’s what I mean.

With George Formby on one side of The Atlantic and Tiny Tim on the other, the ukulele’s cool was irreparably dented. And it’s been that way ever since, with the good efforts of bands such as The Magnetic Fields drowned out by the finger-in-one-ear bullshit of Mumford and Sons and their many terrible imitators.

Here’s The Magnetic Fields with This Little Ukulele:

I think it’s a real shame that the ukulele has fallen out of favour. It’s a brilliantly cheap way to make music (it costs a fraction of what you’d pay for a guitar), it’s a doddle to learn, it’s brilliant for kids and it’s capable of genuine magic.

Go on, buy one. Make ukuleles great again.

Singing from the chandelier

NPR has a great profile of Sia, one of the most talented and fascinating songwriters of our age.

On the verses she trips across syllables like skipping stones and chews vowels like gum — an affectation that’s spawned no end of affectionate memes. On the pre-chorus, she switches to the sloshed gutters of her low register, Auto-Tune bubbling off the vocal like a Poliça record. On the chorus — a big one — she belts loud, but it’s not the immaculate belt of a Whitney Houston, but one with exertion and rasp, strain and push (in the spinto sense, pushing away air). Where traditional divas’ voices sound like centers of gravity, Sia sounds like she’s fighting against gravity itself. She’s singing about it, too; the chorus doesn’t end with a big high note, but an almost-mumbled oath: “holding on for dear life.”

Three times three minutes of joy

I’ve been trying and failing to persuade one of my friends that Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe is one of the greatest pop songs ever made, which of course it is.

I was genuinely dancing to this when I played it this morning. Given that I was in a dressing gown at the time I resembled an asylum escapee, but that’s fine. It’s the power of pop!

This song’s great too, and the video has Tom Hanks, making it twice as great.

And now there’s a new one, Party For One. And guess what? It’s great! (and mildly unsafe for work)

I hate people who pretend to like pop music ironically, or call it a guilty pleasure. Good pop music is one of the greatest art forms, an expression of pure joy and so much more.

Battle Royale Mile

BBC Scotland has announced some of the shows for its new channel, launching next year. And it’s clear that with a roster including River City (But Broadcast Slightly Earlier), it may need some fresh ideas.

Allow me to introduce “Battle Royale Mile”.

The premise is simple. Each week, two Scots music legends fight in a pit in Edinburgh. No weapons, no environmental hazards. Just two pop, rock, indie or dance music titans fighting. The winner is the last one standing; the prize, critical acclaim and booze. Mainly booze.

Imagine it. Imagine Del Amitri vs Deacon Blue, Justin Currie making the fatal strategic error of not hitting a woman and Lorraine McIntosh bludgeoning him senseless. Imagine Simple Minds vs The Rezillos,  the latter’s sheer force of numbers easily overwhelming the stadium rockers. Imagine Honeyblood vs Primal Scream, Bobby Gillespie squeaking with fright before Cat Myers even lays a finger on him.

Imagine Mogwai, Jesus and Mary Chain, Biffy Clyro, King Creosote, Texas and KT Tunstall pummelling Gerry Cinnamon. I may be letting my personal taste show here.

Not every bout would be so entertaining. While I’m sure Garbage vs Chvrches would be a win for Manson’s group, her fearlessness more than compensating for the other band’s youth and agility, it’s one of those bouts where you don’t want anybody to get hurt at all, let alone lose. Similarly Teenage Fanclub vs The Proclaimers. And Travis vs Wet Wet Wet might be a ratings disaster, although I suspect the Wets might prove to be pretty handy.

There would need to be some kind of weighting system, though, because otherwise some fights would be hopelessly one-sided, which is why the only fair opponent for the might of Belle And Sebastian would be a paper bag or perhaps a small mouse.

I’d watch it. You’d watch it. I think we’ve got a hit on our hands.