Trumpets, candles and vocal looping

Andrew Booker 2009-03-09 21:15:24

Last Thursday 05 March 2009 we did another Improvizone gig at the Plough in Walthamstow again, and I really enjoyed this one. By the end of the gig we had quite a few people watching, most of them strangers to us. We, on this occasion, comprised your host (me), regular bassist Nick Cottam, and three newcomers. I insist I was not at all trepidatious at the prospect of doing an improvised gig with three people I didn't know. Pretty chilled in fact.

I made sure I got there at about 6.30pm to allow myself time to set up on my own. I know, that sounds like a pathetically dull thing to say, like I have nothing else to talk about, but it really does put me at ease for the evening. Some people need drugs to get that. I like talking to people, but if I do, it takes me three times as long to set up. Last time, we started the gig and I still hadn't plugged in my laptop, which I then couldn't get working, meanwhile Os was videoing the whole thing!

If I'm set up early, it means I can give Nick a hand with plugging in and debugging his stuff without getting annoyed. It means I can get the first drinks for once. And get the video projection set up. And put leaflets on tables. It meant I could set up a simple drum/MIDI chimes-and-vocal loop on my new Boss RC-2 pedal before the others arrived. Still chilled.

In fact I think that little looper totally set me up for the evening. The gig began with me gradually turning up my loop, which had been running for the last 45 minutes already, saying OK, go guys! And walking off stage to take a picture. And plug in the lights. And tinker for a bit. No rush. Even if the others fell to pieces and stopped playing entirely, there would still be sound, video and atmosphere.

Come another track, an introductory loop from Matt and his acoustic, some vocal looping from me, and I was back out into the audience, get a bit further through my pint, and consuming the experience as an observer for a change. Of course, like the best of Oliver James's affluenza subjects, I can't sit still for five minutes, especially when my own gig is getting on perfectly well without me, and I want to go and join in.

Come the interval, I left another vocal loop on quietly while we took a break. This is better than silence. Apart from that loop I made as soon as I'd set up, I only did vocal loops during the gig, and was even able to manage this while tapping lightly at some drums with one hand. I deliberately didn't try and loop up the drums. I had a go with this at home and managed it sort of. Trouble is, I don't see the point. I've been two years trying to pare my playing down to the simple level that suits ambient music, even leaving significant parts of the kit at home. Looping either takes away the need for playing at all, which is totally against my principals of live music, or it's exactly how to make all the drumming overly complicated.

Vocal looping, on the other hand, is great because it can be purely textural, and adding more and more layers makes it better, not worse. It has the slight drawback of being, for me so far, a bit of a one-trick donkey, but I hope to be able to make more of it in the future by introducing effects, or just letting Os process the sound.

So much for the fun I had with my first performance using looping. About the rest of the gig in general, musically this was an inevitable departure from the style of most of our recent Os/Mike gigs. Our electric guitarist was Nils Eyre, a very talented bluesy rock guitarist with plenty of ideas. Also we had Matt Stevens on acoustic guitar who, being generally a solo performer, is typically quite a busy player, but was at his best here providing the simple picked phrases that add that those lovely sweet tinkling acoustic-guitar pickings that cut though all the other washes of sound going on. Being a looper, he also started many of the pieces for us that way. And then there was Simon Taylor on trumpet, who really lifted this gig out of the standard lightweight rock jam it could have been into something more jazzy and off-centre. He did pretty much what I thought and hoped he would do, and it was terrific. I sat in the audience, where the tables had little candles on them, listened to Simon's gently muted rasps and swells, Matt plinking and electronically pitch-bending his acoustic, Nils's exploratory runs and phrases on electric, all anchored by Nick's burbling basslines, watched blurry closeups of the bark of a silver birch tree projected above the band, and felt the whole thing was working out absolutely fine.

So we had some new people, I had a looper, plus I did two other new things this gig. I handed out our new free CD to the audience. And, before the gig, I put leaflets on tables.

Now, you may be aware that in graphic design for promoting our zero-cost musical event, my propensity has been towards full-colour lavishness at far-from-zero expense. For example, the A3-sized posters I usually print up for these gigs, such as this one. Or, last time I did a leaflet, I had five thousand of them printed up and distributed around the pub locale. Hmm.

Having demonstrated to myself time and again that tipping cash into these pursuits is basically a loss-leader, this time I manufactured my own leaflets from an HTML base, an old inkjet printer and a guillotine. Perfect. I spread them around on the tables. A few of them were picked up. So I'll be making some more of these that detail our gigs at the Plough in the coming months. I'll be seeing if those prove to be more effective than the posters I have to pay someone else to print.

Learning how to record again << | >> 22nd gig: 25 March 2009 at The Plough E17