A couple of Fridays ago No-Man took to the stage at the Assembly Leamington. We played a 55 minute set of nine songs, seven of which were reprisals from the 2008 gigs, plus two new items. In all we had a nice evening and the material came off generally well. I particularly remember driving home with Lighthouse in my head. I may have forgotten one thing or fluffed another, but its latest rendition felt more stately and more edgy than I remember from last time. Here's what we played.
Looking back on a gig, I like to settle back in my anorak and focus on the practicalities of being a contributing member, rather than the aesthetic experiences of the consuming audience. Especially as by this point I seemed to have forgotten how to do a gig. Boringly I tell you that I arrived at 12:15, second only to Jason the stage technician, however, on arrival at the stage door, one finds a lift immediately to the left, via which all the gear can be raised in a single elevation to the foot of stage right by a bunch of very obliging stage technicians. I think I may have lifted one bag out my car. You're supposed to pay for that in hotels.
Meanwhile to the right, a green room the size of an ideal Improvizone venue, within which a spacious bling mirrored caravan occupies one side. They must have installed the caravan first, then breeze-blocked the room around it. A stainless steel picket fence encloses a seating area in front, a Dalek guards one end of the trailer.
As any task tends to fill whatever period is available, sure enough I took my sweet leisurely time setting up the kit, and was still moving cymbals into position when the last of us had arrived. The heads on the two toms were sounding suspiciously dud, so I changed them and couldn't believe the difference. Hours passed, eventually it came to soundchecking the drums. I have not done this for a long, long time. Thud thud thud thud thud thud on the bass drum. Whack whack whack whack whack whack on the snare. And so on, until we got to the floor tom. Ian the sound man said it needed tuning, to get rid of the ring. No sound man I have worked with has ever made it to the end of his checks and calibrations without telling me one or other of the drums has a ring to it that needs removing. Never. I twiddled the drum key and tapped for a few minutes. The moment passed, attention moved on to to Pete's bass guitar, and the drum was left alone.
Meanwhile Ben the stage monitor sub-mix engineer asked me what mix I would like for my monitor. I'm not sure I've ever been asked this question before. Consequently, for two lengthy seconds, I had no clue, and after that I could only apply logic in lieu of experience. Bass drum, lead vocals, both essential. Plus Mike, as he was off to the side of the stage with a 30W amp and we had two or three songs to begin together. Plus my own backing vocals. Nothing else. Years of recording Improvizone gigs have taught me to forget trying to have a representative balanced band sound on stage. Beautifully mixed recordings will be available later. Right now I need to know when the chorus is.
At the beginning of the week the plan had been for No-Man to fit in a complete run-through of the set in the afternoon. In the end there was time for only three or four songs. I'm usually wary of a good soundcheck. Just as well it demonstrated I had forgotten the material. It was also very important to get used to the sound of a big room. Most of my playing experience has been in small ones. Recently most of my live experience has involved playing to a click and I'm now well accustomed to it, so that apart from My Revenge On Seattle, which I didn't start, I used a metronome for every track. I used the Simple Metronome android app on my phone, using no special in ear monitoring, just a pair of old mobile phone earplugs with one of them stuffed down my shirt and the other either in my ear or dangling after I've ripped it out. This happens when the drums have gone too quiet for people to follow and the band's timing has drifted.
For the first time ever I took a practice pad for warming up in the dressing room. Actually I wanted to take a spare rack tom stand in case the one I was using collapsed, and in fact I just used one of my Roland PD-8 electronic drum pads. As people retired for some quality hanging about, there was plenty of time for around two hours of metronomic warmup tapping. I'm still trying to decide how much difference it made. Some, but not much. During the opening acts, SW had retreated to a dressing room for an hour or so of peace and quiet. He told me he didn't mind when I invading for another round of click sticking, but I kept the noise down anyway. Good practice when you're in a band with Tim.
Up on the boards, a lot of the songs went very well. Tim was brilliant. I've never heard a lead vocal so loud in a monitor mix, all the more staggering that it was the normally dulcet-toned Tim Bowness blasting over all the other instruments. Any concerns over whether he would survive an acoustic drum kit were squished. My own backing vocals went OK when I remembered them, except perhaps for Things Change, where they might just have been absolutely dire. I don't think I want to know.
If I had my least favourites, they would be All The Blue Changes and Pretty Genius. The latter because I'm just not very good at that kind of slow funk. More flunk than funk, though with focused practice I could be fine. All The Blue Changes was a surprise hit with band and audience alike during the 2008 shows, when the planar construction of the record first achieved a modest live crescendo with three or four lead instruments all having to find things to do. This time we cranked the crescendo up to eleven, and I had my first taste of antipathy to what this piece should do. In rehearsals we noticed a lot of the songs started from nothing, grew a big crescendo, then quickly dropped down to a final quiet coda. The arrangement we ended up with for Beaten By Love was a deliberate attempt not to do that, but All The Blue Changes took the formula to max. Other drummers know how to make a huge amount of noise sound be not quite so boring. I don't. One of the things I love about a lot Improvizone output is how pieces can be interesting from beginning to end without having to get louder. Often the reverse in fact, that they get better as they reduce in intensity. In our latest version of All The Blue Changes I felt I and it were beating ourselves to death.
Rapid kit teardown requirements meant I did nearly zero mingling with audience peoples afterwards, but I did consume a couple of complimentary remarks about the sound of the kit and my accuracy in playing it. Maybe the practice pad did make a difference, or maybe it was simply the metronome keeping me steady for a range of slow tempos. Changing the heads, which I believe the greater drumming populace refer to as skins, on the toms was clearly a good idea, but I'm going right off my snare. The snare mechanism is poked. I can either have tight snare that I can't turn off, or one that is loose at best. Maybe I need to break the inhibition of a lifetime and buy another one.
As I was packing away, I realised I could do with another five of these gigs to really figure out how to play this set. There is so much virtuoso drumming in the world, all accessible from youTube, that it can be a bit of a personal battle to cast that aside and do your best for the music instead of feeling you need to compete with whatever new global percussive hotness you've just been watching. On the electronic drums this was never a consideration for me. They are there to do what I want with them. But I realise that what the experts are up to on acoustic drums has been influencing me a lot. Playing a gig with No-Man reminds me that it should not.