A couple of years ago I declared I'd had it with bands. Enough of blowing my weekends and evenings in rehearsals, I was perfectly satisfied with the Improvizone straight-to-gig record-everything approach that was yielding hours and hours of great ambient chillout listening material. I wanted to practice playing drums in a different way to what was useful for band-playing. And that certainly showed when I did what should have been a very straightforward session for Darkroom that left me feeling unskilled and ineffective. And except for the odd No-Man remergence here and there, much as I continuously practised on the acoustic kit, I maintained my abstinence.
Until the beginning of this year, when an incredibly rare thing happened. I got a call from people I didn't know.
Sanguine Hum, modern-day progressive rock band based in Oxford, signed to the new Esoteric Antenna Records label last November for a re-release of their most recent album Diving Bell. Next thing they knew, their long-standing drummer quit. It would be six months before the band announced his departure, but with a showcase gig to do in April 2012 and a 90-minute slot at RoSfest in early May 2012, they wasted no time and found a potential replacement immediately. Except that as the weeks passed, the prospects of their new drummer being able to get to grips with the odd timings of complex material that had taken the band years to master were not looking good, and by January they were wide open to other options. Their album photographer Carl Glover suggest they try this guy who played in the No-Man live bands. Ah yes, and he has a drum practice page featuring a couple of usefully obscure time signature patterns. Might be a good fit... probably best to present it to him in stages, have him cover these two gigs as a session player, then discuss joining the band for real after that?
For my part, I was so flattered to have been contacted by anyone that I mentally signed up before I got to the bottom of the email. I listened to their material and liked it, clearly progressive, but inventive rather than derivative, backed by solid technical ability rather than florid flashiness. On a practical level I was not immediately convinced. I mean, Oxford? Too far. There are great musicians all over the world. If I wanted to work with anybody new, I wanted people who lived round the corner. Furthermore, softened by age and years of playing chillout music on electronic drums, and general feelings of uselessness on the real kit, I doubted whether I had the muscle or the joints to carry off a real band any more.
I needed to find out. And if I risked coming across as a lacklustre player, at least I didn't want to look like an idiot. Be the worst musician in the band, but the best prepared. So I got them to send me mp3s of a bunch of material they intended to play at their showcase gig, and without asking for any clues I got to work learning the first half a dozen tracks. How you do this with a band like Sanguine Hum is as follows.
First, you sit down and work out all the arrangements on paper, what the time signatures are, how many of this, how many of that, and any interesting patterns that need figuring out. Then you spend a week of evenings in the rehearsal room attempting to playing along to the recordings. Youngsters probably do this all the time. Me, never. It was not ideal, but it got me through the first rehearsal well enough, and even though there were still sections I couldn't play, we were all happy coming back for more, and that I was going to be able to do both gigs for them. Thus followed another round of writing out and learning the the rest of the songs for the first gig.
I wasn't even put off by the first gig being in the Camden Underworld. First I go back to playing in a rock band, then I go and do a gig in that cess pit. If only it did make me feel 25 again. Funny how even back then I felt too old. Funny how even now the Underworld still smells of sick. In fact on the night it all came off reasonably well. My new band mates were sturdy and fearless, despite their material, which can be crushingly difficult, and that they play infrequently these days. Physically, the weeks of intensive practice had lifted my drumming fitness back into reasonably good shape. I was able to whack the pots with confidence once more, and even though occasionally the material was bastard-complicated, it had taken so much preparation, it was beginning to roll off the hands.
And so it was that through the short interval between the end of January and mid April 2012 I metamorphosed from improvising lightweight ambient electronic patterer to rehearsed progressive rock pounder playing in 11/8. But the thing is, it was only a subtle transformation. Although Improvizone is definitively unrehearsed, quite a lot has to have been figured out before it can happen. I cannot turn up to an Improvizone gig without having at least put together an electronic drum kit and preferably spent an hour or so revisiting sounds. Nor can Mike or Os, without having invested some time getting to grips with pedals, sequencers and looping software (in Os's case, writing it). Similarly with Sanguine Hum, there is no way I can turn up to one of their rehearsals for new material without having at least six hours preparing or revisiting the songs to make sure I can play from one end to the other, working out one pattern, tightening up another.
So that was the first gig. Less than a month later we travelled to the USA for our second, which story I will pick up next time.