Make your own entertainment

Andrew Booker 2009-07-26 21:56:01

Improvizone is roughly three years old now. I registered at the end of June 2006, started learning PHP and building the site for a couple of months, and uploaded the first mp3 on 21 Aug 2006. I remember I had lots of reasons for wanting to do something like Improvizone. Perhaps I should have committed them to a manifesto. Perhaps it's not too late for that.

And so, with a porcine squeal of high speed reversing tape, we rewind to the summer of 2006, and find ourselves looking inside my head at the following thoughts from that time.


So when I had the idea of doing a monthly improvised ambient/electronic/chillout gig in a bar... schwooomp! It seemed to satisfy nearly all of those at once. I was awake all goddamn night thinking about it.

Three years on, we can go through each of those a bit more closely, and see whether anything has changed since then.

I [was] not doing enough gigs
In 2005 I did only four gigs. In 2006 I managed five. I did travel to Pennsylvania USA to do a sixth, but the other half of the duo I was supposed to be performing with did not. Improvizone played its first gig on 27 Feb 2007. I did 16 gigs that year, 14 in 2008 and am up to 13 at the end of July 2009. Most have been either Improvizone gigs, or have come about because of Improvizone. Tick.

I have been gigging in London for 12 years and still have no audience
In and out of Camden bands, associating with luminaries from the distant dawn of progressive rock, I was, and remain, a nobody. My original scheme with Improvizone was to use the site to build an audience for the gigs using downloads and blogging. After six months I gave up, thinking I had the site-gig interest relationship the wrong way round, and started gigging anyway. The plan was to play in bars/cafes etc with existing clientele. So that those people wouldn't all get up and leave, we would play nice interesting stuff at a moderate background music level, and not mind people talking over us. If it worked, people would find themselves enjoying us and staying in venue, spending more of their easily-earned cash on expensive bottled lager and delighting the venue owner into giving us a residency and paying expenses. Our very first gig suggested this plan might work. Our fourth gig agreed. But after our sixth, we lost our venue, and I have not succeeded in sticking to this plan since then. In all, three years have not grown us even a handful of bodies who repeatedly attend our gigs. I blame no-one but myself for this. There are enough people in this city to populate a continent. Twenty of them somewhere must want to go to a nice little gig.

I cannot do gigs in the normal emerging band circuit any more
If that was my feeling in 2006, by now I am really past it. Camden-circuit gigs are for twenty-somethings who hope to make it big. The very best of luck to them all. I like sitting at home with a wife, a reasonable red, a few medium-tech software projects and several hours of nice recorded improvisations to listen to, captured in an environment far removed from that exploitative and desperate promoter-zone. If I found myself aged fifty opening a Tuesday night at the Dublin Castle, the incongruity alone would be enough to kill me. Whereas I would be quite happy playing spooky ambient music in art galleries in my middle age. Tick.

I [was] playing with the same few people all the time
It was depriving me of the wider gene pool of potential audience. And it was killing my drumming too (that and easily rehearsable stripped-down song structures). While we have naturally honed Improvizone lineups to a consistent few over the last year or so, it's still great to bring in new people every so often. Our two-dozen gigs so far have involved 23 people besides me, which considering we have settled on regular contributors, is good. Tick.

I want to play with other people without having to be in a band with them
Improvizone is exactly how to do this. I look for players in Gumtree. People email me offering their services. I don't have to feel like I'm cheating on a lover when I accept. Also, not only can I play music with people, I can be a tiny bit productive in the process. I get an evening's recording and, possibly, several downloads with all our names on them. Tick.

I want to play music with people who know how to set up their own equipment
Erm, yeeaah... I cannot understand how people can call themselves rock musicians and completely deny all knowledge of what happens to their signal between it leaving the piece of wood in their hands and blasting out of the big noisy box that I have to help them carry. Enjoy a couple of interruption-free zero-maintenance gig setups with Mike Bearpark and Os and you will never put up with that again. Tick.

I [could] not play my music to my wife
The Lovely Misses Booker benefits from more mainstream and classical tastes than me. It can be hard for your partner to stomach sacrificing couch time with her if she thinks what you're getting up to is completely unlistenable plop. But in the last few years I realised that wasn't the main problem. Even I didn't want to listen to the stuff I was doing. Whereas now you will find me listening to Improvizone all the time, actually for pleasure, and I would estimate around 50% of our output has been wife-friendly. Ideally this would be tending towards 100%, and maybe if this project were our entire lives' work, and we put on our lab coats and brewed plenty of tea and refined all the quirks and screw-ups and droning resonant mid-low frequencies out of the mix, it might be. That won't be happening any time in the foreseeable, but I'm more than happy with the 50% right now. Tick.

I don't know what to buy any more when I go into a record shop.
This is no less true today, but does not bother me, because I can make my own entertainment now. I have so much Improvizone to listen to, I could almost do with a second head. And these aren't endless versions of the same song you get from your rehearsing band. No, these are individual gems, each appealing in their own way. And when so little of it is a direct result of my playing, even if I am on the recording, I can enjoy it as objectively as if someone else had made it. Tick.

I love improvising
Ultimately, I think I always have. I learned kit drumming playing jazz. Rock followed later. In my other-people's-rehearsing-band decade I forgot this, and became scared of taking improvisation seriously live. I mean, I love playing and listening to organised music and recorded products. But with a living to earn and a home life to honour, I have to accept that my time for spending weeks in rehearsal rooms is over. On the other hand, the only thing I absolutely have to do for an Improvizone gig is drive the gear to it. Plus, I can get pretty good shivers listening to the frequent accidental wondrous moments that crop up in regular Improvizone gigs. Nowadays, it seems the most natural thing to take to the stage with no material prepared. Provided we're recording. I can't bare improvising without recording. Probably so I know I can erase and deny all knowledge of the duff bits. Tick.

I [had] a few interesting ideas of what to do on electronic drums
And with the Tim Bowness Band only occasionally venturing out live, I had no outlet for them. Trouble is, after two-plus years of Improvizones, I've kind of spent them. I guess I am pleased with having used notes a lot in my drum sounds, if not best pleased with my skill in playing actual music on them. I should probably have prioritised more time for developing my drum sounds over the last couple of years. I have made a few on-and-off efforts recently, but there's a lot more I should be doing here. And a continuing excuse to do it. Tick.

It would be good to gig my improvised electronic drums duos with other people
I keep forgetting that we used to open the early Improvizone gigs with duos, and feature people playing in smaller groups throughout the evening. I figured it would keep the evening interesting if we mixed things up like that, but also I had already recorded several duo sessions with people, and was simply carrying on with the same. And yet, the recorded highlights from the gig were always from the full lineup sections. So now everybody plays for as long as they like, usually for the whole gig. I reckon that if people have blown out their evening and made a car journey to do a gig with me, let them play. Tick.

I have totally run out of ideas of how to market a new band
How can you possibly convince people you don't know to come and watch an unknown band do a 30 minute set? The usual recipes are TV, radio or well-read review. At which point the band isn't unknown any more. On the other hand, selling a themed evening of live ambient chillout music hasn't felt quite so hard. Unfortunately I've burned through quite a few ideas on this already. Web listings. Printed listings. Free CDs. Leaflets. Posters. All without any real success, as we have done the majority of our gigs to only a handful of people. But pretty much every gig has brought at least one new person, who has either seen a poster or a review or a listing or knows someone who came three gigs ago. Occasionally those people return to see us again. In a city the size of London, you would think that if we can attract one new person to come and see us every time, surely we can find thirty.

No band I have been in so far has lasted more than two or three years
To be fair, Pulse Engine was still going strong after three years, but suffered premature death by mutation into a slightly bigger, theoretically more promising, ultimately hopeless outfit. With Improvizone, I don't think we've even got the formula quite right yet. Plenty more to try, and plenty of time. I might not want to be scraping around for venues, but I can see myself enjoying this just as much in ten years time, if not more. Tick.

Fourteen points, twelve ticks. Not bad. The ones missing the ticks are probably the most important if Improvizone has a future, but as I hope you can tell, I'm up for continuing for a little while yet.

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