Last Sunday Mike and I headed up to Norwich. That's pronounced Narrch if you live there, and Naaaaarrch if, like me, you live in suburban London and are taking the mick. We went to meet up with Tim Bowness, Pete Morgan, Stephen Bennett and occasional fellow Improvizone collaborator Steve The Legendary Maestro Bingham, assembling to blow the dust off half a dozen or so No-Man songs for airing next month. We last touched this material three years ago. You could tell.
The venue was an airy University of East Anglia Music Department seminar room, one side of which was windows looking out into empty parkland down to the lake, far away from the stale-smelling windowless rehearsal boxes I'm used to in London. Cutely, all the rooms in the department are numbered, all less than one. After a three hour journey, followed by lugging acoustic and electronic drums through concrete corridors into room 0.19, one could sidle off to freshen up in room 0.24, room 0.23 remaining unused since there were no ladies amongst us, then maybe stick the kettle on later for a brew up in room 0.22.
Well spotted there. I took acoustic drums to this session. Thus far I have used electronic drums for gigs with Tim as the singer. They were very helpful in the early days of his live My Hotel Band, facilitating a quiet rehearsal volume over which his vocals hardly had to compete. They carried on being helpful when we morphed into the No-Man live outfit, and were additionally valuable for their note-playing capability in songs like Truenorth, All Sweet Things and Returning Jesus. But as the rehearsals progressed, and guitarist Steven Wilson joined us, they quickly sank beneath the surging decibels of Lighthouse, Mixtaped and Things Change. Although I could still enjoy the gigs using them, I was totally underwhelmed when the recordings surfaced. I feel a sad irony that the tool that helped make the live band possible is the reason I cannot listen to the live No-Man recordings (whereas I listen to Improvizone all the time). Looking back, I would probably have allocated more time to making interesting sounds. The lifeless, unimaginative and feeble noise that introduced Time Travel in Texas certainly begs improvement, but it was disappearing behind the Wilson wall of sound that made me not want to use the electronic kit again with this band, given another chance.
The chance came up again this year, and I checked with Tim whether he'd be OK trying out the acoustic drums this time. Packing them in the car along with the SPD-S sampling pads and an amp, I set off to chez Bearpark. On arrival, I took the floor tom out of the car and left it in Mike's basement, to make room for his new Hughes and Kettner TubeMeister 18 amp head and 16 Ohm 50W speaker cab. A German designed valve amp made in China, with a balanced DI for trouble-free recording, not only does this equipment glow a handsome radiant blue when operational, it is easily liftable. Last time round, Mike used his Rivera, which is so heavy you can practically feel its gravitational pull.
As to how we got on that afternoon, it goes without saying that acoustic drums change the game a bit. We were fine going over some of the songs from the previous set. Some of these beatier, beefier pieces are sounding more genuine than they did three years ago. If audiences were pleasantly surprised by the hard edge to the band then, they've got it in spades this time round. On the other hand, we have to introduce ups and downs in the dynamics to give Tim spaces to sing in. There are many quiet dips where I drop down to rim clicks on the back beat. I must have played more rim clicks last Sunday than in the whole of the last decade. I also have to deploy different kinds of sticks for quiet sections. And this is where my lack of practice is measured to be its most extreme. I never do this. If I want other sounds on the electronic drums, push a button and there they are. I have absolutely no capability of changing sticks or turning on the snare in the space of half a beat. Lots of work needed.
When it came to learning things we'd never played before, we got quite a bit bogged down, with several opinionated personages each having to express their suggestions or countermands to how an arrangement should take shape. Loud drums do not work in our favour here either. It's easier to be rational when you can turn everything down.
Even so, I didn't take long in deciding to leave the electronics at home for the next rehearsals. Both these No-Man engagements have reaffirmed that making electronic and sampled sounds work in a live rock band is hard to do, and I've given up for now. In the complete sonic control of the studio everything can be put in its correct position in the mix. But electronic noises, particularly with as little dynamic range as my drum sounds, are very hard to place at the correct volume. They're either too loud for the character of the song, too quiet to be monitored adequately by the player, or they're disappearing completely as the rest of the band gets louder. Plus, electronic sounds rarely stand up well to being played through stage speakers. At one point in the afternoon I had the SPD-S pads playing samples of my own kit, the very kit I was sat behind for real. Utterly different noises.
No-Man will be back rehearsing next month somewhere around Cambridge. That means I can look forward to getting home before midnight. We will then be playing a one-off show at The Leamington Spa Assembly on Friday 14 Oct 2011.