Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Making of "Wilderness" - an album by The Housekeeping Society.


Avant Garde popsters "The Housekeeping Society" have a new album out. There's a link to it, right below this introduction. Rob Reed writes about the making of the album.




Ric Neale is sitting across the kitchen table, his hands around a cup of tea. I mentally scan him for signs of ageing. Receding hairline, maybe. Expanded stomach, crows feet, anything.

Nothing. What is he, some kind of bloody android? Why won't he age? Does he have a fountain of youth? A Dorian Grey-style portrait? Is that why no-one is allowed up into his attic? I bet it is.

I'm prevaricating because he's asked me how the 'Wilderness' blog is going and I'm wondering what to say. "I pretty much forgot all about it and haven't done anything," sounds kind of... lazy and unprofessional. Best lie.

"It is brilliant," I say. "Probably the best account of the making of an album anyone has ever written."

His perfect eyes widen in surprise. Damn it. I've gone too far. If anyone else has ever written about the making of an album - and I suspect this is a strong possibility - then my claim might unreasonably raise his expectations.

"That's very exciting." He says. "Could you put the blog up on the day the album is released?"

I can easily knock something up in a couple of weeks, I think. When is the album coming out?

October 6th. Monday. Two days time.

Oh dear.

I have two days to write twelve months worth of notes on the making of an album.

It can be done. As long as no-one else involved in making the album can remember what happened, I can pretty much just say what I like. Right?




AUGUST 2013

Ric Neale is sitting across the kitchen table. Perfect hair, flat stomach, eyes like the ocean etc. He has a proposition for me.

Would I like to collaborate on the new Housekeeping Society album?

This comes as something of a surprise. Although Ric and I have done lots of musical bits together over the years, there has always been a palpable difference between our levels of musicality. You know how sometimes there'll be a news reporter trying to do a live broadcast from a murder scene, and some random guy decides to enliven it by doing a dance in the background? Well, that's basically the relationship. My guitar playing is the dancing guy, in this instance. The look of pained tolerance on the reporter's face... well, you get the idea.

I made my own album, ten years ago. It's called Intoxicated and I have literally hundreds of copies in the cellar if anyone wants one. At the time Ric listened to the finished product carefully, and said it was 'good', but pronounced with a silent 'for you'.

So you can imagine my surprise and delight at being asked to be involved. The plan, Ric says, is to develop the more experimental sound they'd worked on with their Orange Dog album.

Really? The one that utterly bewildered me and - on some tracks - made me physically shake with fear? That's the direction? Why? Why would anyone make more of that?

"That is my favourite of your albums," I say.






SEPTEMBER 2013

I sit in my study, surrounded by leads and guitar pedals. Ric has lent me these accessories with the strict instructions to create a totally new sound that no-one has ever made before.

I plug everything together. I succeed in making a sound that no-one has ever made before. It is a horrible sound, and this is why no-one has ever made it. If I play it any longer, the Cenobites from Hellraiser will arrive and pull me into hell.

I abandon art and just spend the rest of the day playing along to Marillion songs as loudly as I can. Maybe I can just persuade the others that the new sound they want is basically Marillion? That would be good.




OCTOBER 2013

Ric and I drive to Bradford to literally the coldest building in the world. There we meet Ivan Mack - the other member of the Housekeepers who looks like either a romantic hero from a French New Wave film, or the villain from a 90s video game. He is in charge of percussion and loops and things. I think.

We set up our stuff. Ric had a variety of keyboards, one of which looks like something David Cronenberg would reject as 'too weird'. Ivan has some drums and a computer thing and ten thousand wires. I have my guitar and some pedals that I don't know how to use.

We noodle about with some ideas. I make a weird warping sound, by accident, that delights them. I stare at the pedals. What did I do? Why was it good?

Ivan and Ric talk to each other in a kind of musical shorthand that I pretend to understand. I occasionally try to contribute, in the same way that a dog might try to contribute to an episode of Question Time by barking at the television.

By the end of the session, we have got the rough shape of a few songs. One of them will resolve quite easily into "Is This a Place", the opening track on 'Wilderness'. We also create embryonic versions of 'Gone Too Far' and 'Rainclocks'. I try to sneak some Marillion-esque moments into 'Gone Too Far'. Ric and Ivan look at me with pity in their eyes. I pretend I was being ironic.

They know I wasn't being ironic.





NOVEMBER 2013

Another couple of sessions in the terrifyingly cold theatre in Bradford. Outside, people lark about doing live action roleplaying. Inside we create a surprising amount of music.

Some of these things will never make it to the album. For Ric and Ivan, with their brains that constantly generate amazing melodies and rhythms, this is par for the course. For me, any musical idea that gets past my fumbling fingers and into the world is a surprising creature of beauty and should be shown to everyone. In this respect I am like those annoying parents who clutter social media with thousands of pictures of their child, no matter how ugly the thing is.

A lot of stuff is, however, taking shape. Weightlessness is developing into something pleasingly loud, though it is not yet the all-out freak show that will charge excitedly onto the album. The song that will become Ticket - still called Belearic at this point - is developing in a way that is utterly incomprehensible to me. I have, however, found an exciting shimmery sound to play over it, which pleases me.

We also come up with the initial idea for Way back to the Sun. This is special for me because at least the first three chords are my idea. That's right. My idea.

I'd better get my bloody photo on the sleeve now.





DECEMBER 2013

There is not going to be a photo of me on the album sleeve.

The disappointment of this is mitigated by me coming up with a couple of pieces of music on my own, in my house, where it is warm so I can concentrate rather than just wondering if I am going to die of hypothermia. I have finally started to sort of understand how to use the guitar pedals and I come up with a couple of musical sketches which Ric and Ivan are very excited about.

The first one is a kind of rising, throbbing pulse. I call this 'Romero' - after George Romero, director of many zombie films - because I am a bit scared of it. Ric and Ivan love this and talk about all the exciting things they are going to do with it, before binning it to spite me because they hate me.

The other piece fares better. It is a spiky, brittle melody that I call 'Happy Nowhere'. Ivan disappears with this for quite some time. When he comes back with the finished result, it is... very different. It is the track that currently sits in the middle of the album called 'Frost'. It is mental.

I'm not sure what Ivan does when he takes tracks away to play with, but I can only imagine it is something like this:

A darkened room. Ivan sits in the exact centre, in ceremonial robes, eyes closed. He raises his hands. A deep, pulsing beat rises up out of the darkness. Gently, so gently, he waves his fingers, playing with the air. Fragments of sound collide, snatched from the ether by his fingertips. They swirl around the room, building, breaking and mutating.

His eyes snap open. Mad, staring eyes, lit with golden fire. The darkness shivers. Ghostly forms materialise, music made manifest in corporeal form. The very fabric of the universe is torn apart as noise itself is redefined as matter.

He stands. Spider webs shoot out of his fingers, each strand an impossible sliver of sound. The ghosts scream, supernatural howls that entwine in harmonies both beautiful and monstrous.

Ivan smiles. This is good. He raises his hands before him and claps them together. Everything falls away into silence. Satisfied, he turns and walks out of the room. Time for a sandwich.




THERE IS NO OTHER WAY HE COULD HAVE MADE THESE SOUNDS.






JANUARY 2014

At some point along the way a man called Simon has been asked to play bass on the album. This instantly irritates me. I thought I was special. Apparently they've even been rehearsing the songs with this bastard, behind my back, like whores. To make matters worse, he's tall, good looking and really nice. Like it wasn't enough having one Ric in the band, now we have two. Great.

We rehearse together as a four piece. Simon plays double bass, because apparently being tall and sexy and interesting wasn't quite cool enough for him. I resolve to a) learn bass and b) kill him.

The album is more or less ready. There is a lovely new song called 'Yours Sincerely' which just seems to kind of fall out of space fully formed. Ric plays it, I accidentally improvise a really good little motif over it and there it is - pretty much done.

A studio is booked. I practise loads - especially a very complicated one that Ric calls 'Romp' but I keep calling 'Goldfrapp'. He very pointedly tells me that it is not called Goldfrapp. I acquiesce, then, when he is gone, call it Goldfrapp anyway. To myself.

It will transpire that it doesn't make it onto the album either, because it is simply too insane. If you have listened to the album, you will know just how truly bonkers that makes it.







FEBRUARY 2014

It is the coldest day in the history of the world. We spend all day in a recording studio. I have never been in a recording studio. I am thus childishly excited all day and keep jumping up and down and laughing. Everyone else has been in recording studios loads and it is quickly apparent that they find my noisy excitement tedious.

We record most of the album in the course of the day. Only 'Frost' and 'Moment of Clarity' are made elsewhere. Ric has prepared a guide vocal which I can hear through my headphones as I play. This is surprisingly soothing. 'Chorus coming up', he intones, like a musically inclined satnav. We stand in separate rooms, divided by thick glass, giving final form to the songs we've lived with for months.

It is a long day and strange. Music is art, but it is also maths. I have to be fluid and responsive, but also precise and accurate. This is the new bit for me. 'Way back to the sun' is particularly hard, rough and jangly as it is. Half the time I am too forced and measured, the other half I'm all over the place and sloppy. Neither is what the song needs, and it takes a while to get this right. My appreciation for my fellow musicians grows as I see how well they navigate this.

The vocals are not done today. Ric will do them later. All of them. Sometimes he will do many layers of vocals, as if there are dozens of him. Which is, I imagine, his secret dream. A world where there are just loads of Rics, all playing together in massive, perfect bands. But who would they play to? Eh? In a world entirely composed of Rics, no-one is going to want to stand in the audience.  Plus everyone would want to be in charge, so civil war would break out pretty quickly. He just hasn't thought it through.

I wonder about asking if we are all going to contribute to the vocals. But then I have a very clear mental picture of him looking at me, like I was his one year old son suggesting that maybe he could drive the car this time. I decide not to ask.

At the end of the day we congratulate ourselves and take a group photo. I decide to do 'happy smile', then change my mind and decide to do 'serious musician'. To my delight the camera catches the exact half point between these two states and I look like a simpleton.






OCTOBER 2014

Ric Neale sits across the kitchen table. We listen to the finished album. It has taken him ages to finish because he is very lazy.

The album is called Wilderness. It is peculiar and fascinating. I have no idea if it is any good. Mostly, I hear a process. In each song I hear the ghosts of other versions. I hear choices, paths taken and not taken, places where what I thought I was doing turned into something else entirely. Songs like Yours Sincerely and Rainclocks are as beautiful as I expected. Weightlessness and Is This a Place, on the other hand, are so transformed as to be new.

It is a strange, adventurous piece of work. I am very proud to be part of it. I didn't get my picture on the cover, but then neither did anyone else.

And I did get to sneak a bit of Marillion into Gone Too Far.











Monday, 9 June 2014

Remember the Alamo. 4 reasons I loved Rik Mayall.


 
photo: suchsmallportions.com


Rik Mayall died today. Which is ridiculous because he's brilliant and unkillable. A mad lion with a soft voice and crazy eyes. He simply can't be dead, because it is stupid and wrong.

I knew about it for an hour or so, and I thought, "Oh, that's sad - I liked him," and went for a walk and thought about other things. Then I got back in and it was on the news and there he was, in clips, still alive. Wonky moustached Flash-Heart. Shouting, bug eyed Richie. Self important people's poet Rik in the Young Ones. And I cried like I knew him.

It is no exaggeration to say that a huge part of who I am is down to Rik Mayall and the characters he played. Played? That doesn't seem enough of a word. The characters he was. Leering out of the cathode ray tube at my young, impressionable face, shaping my mind and my behaviours. Forming my growing, adolescent self in his image.

Certain things stand out.


1.

Seeing 'Bambi' for the first time, 13 years old. Astonished at what television could be. I watched forwards into series two of the Young Ones and backwards into repeats of series one, amazed at this weird, spotty young man. Rik, with a silent P. So awkward and so insignificant, yet so utterly possessed of his own worth.

I don't know if I thought, "That's me!", but I should have.





2.

Reciting Rik's monologue about killing himself, sitting on a wall with Lisa Rhodes at the skate park, hoping that if I was funny enough she would go out with me. "And punks and skins and rastas will gather round and all hold their hands in sorrow for their fallen leader!" She laughed. I was delighted. I didn't know what punks, or skins, or rastas were. But man, I was selling this. I did the whole speech again. She laughed again, but with less certainty.

She never went out with me.



3.

Performing the entire episode of 'Nasty' on the last day of Middle School. I played Ric. I wore my Harrington jacket, covered in badges, big anarchy sign chalked on the back. Stupid cap, spotty face. It was uncanny. It was quite the performance. One of the proudest achievement of my life is the wall we built. In the episode, Vyvyan can't get the plug for the video to reach the socket. So he goes outside, braces himself against the wall and pushed the entire side of the house towards the VCR. A lesser 13 year old would have thought, "That's probably one of those things you can only do on TV, and not on the stage of a Bradford Middle School." That man would have been a faint hearted loser. Using every piece of wood in Mr. Leech's craft room, I constructed the greatest wall in the history of amateur schoolchild anarchic theatrical comedy  adaptation.

On the night, the wall fell apart, no-one remembered their lines (except me - I was word perfect) and none of the audience seemed to really understand what was going on. We left the stage - and indeed the school - in something of a mess and ran off into the last Summer of childhood. It was one of the best days of my life.





4.

Lord Flash-Heart. It was only when re-watching Blackadder a number of years ago that I realised how much of my personality was owed to Rik's astonishing performance in 'Bells'. Bursting through the ceiling, staring straight into the camera and announcing, "It's me!" Like Rik the people's poet before him, Flash became the default setting for a certain part of my persona. We all like to think we break the rules. Generally, we don't. But there's a little bit of Flash-Heart in me that I enjoy. Disrupting what's going on, loudly proclaiming his own importance over everyone else's, breaking even the rules of the story he is in with his salute to the camera - he's the reason I occasionally burst into a room, shout my own name and try to steal somebody's wife.






There have been many other things that Rik Mayall did that brought me pleasure. His one off TV plays were beautiful. Alan B'Stard MP was fun. But it is Rik, the spotty, self important poet from The Young Ones, who matters most.

Lost, afraid and sensitive, Rik was a child who wasn't ready to be a man. Desperate to appear worldy wise and cynical - "Thatcher's bloody Britain!" -  yet overcome with innocence and childlike glee - "It's a telescope! WITH A MOUSE INSIDE!" Rik was reassurance to a boy on the verge of terrifying adolescence. Never cool, always cowardly. Unable to dress right, always on the outside of the joke. Yet brimming with unshakeable confidence that his was the voice that would be remembered.

Without him - without the brilliant comedian who made him - I would not be who I am.

You may thank or blame him for this.

I thank him.




Friday, 18 April 2014

Easter, and a young man's thoughts turn to atheism



I've been calling myself a Christian for about 25 years now. On and off. It's a strange thing to call oneself and I find it increasingly difficult to do without some form of qualification. Such are the complicated meanings of the word, I feel compelled to develop some form of pre-emptive argument.

"I'm a Christian, but not one of those raging homophobic evil right wing ones."

"I'm a Christian, but I'm utterly rubbish at it and don't really understand what it means."

"I'm a Christian, but yes I will have some of your alcohol, debauchery and crime."

Most of all, I'm a Christian, but please don't ask me why. The original answer - "so Sarah Fenchurch would go out with me" - quickly became redundant, especially when she got married to that other guy and changed her name to Sarah Mibblethrop or something.

The reasons I would have given you in the early, zealous years - carefully ordered biblical phrases that formed a kind of logical equation about avoiding Hell - now seem na├»ve and self serving.

And the reasons I would give in more recent years don't seem to be exclusively 'Christian'. Standing up for what is right, arguing for the weak instead of defending the strong, seeing through external appearances  - these seem to be values that simply define basic human decency.

And the reasons not to go by the name 'Christian' are manifold. Barely a day goes by without news of some hideous act of small minded selfishness committed by a "Christian". Someone who wears the name with pride, but appears to think that Jesus's main message was "Go into the world and fuck over everyone who doesn't agree with you about absolutely everything."

Occasionally I see Christians standing up for their beliefs and I think, "Man, standing up for *my* beliefs means opposing everything you say, and possibly hitting you over the head with a rake." Like recently, with the Christian campaign against World Vision.

World Vision is a charity, a big one, stopping hungry children from starving to death. A couple of weeks ago they decided to extend employment rights to homosexual couples. So that's two good things, in my mind - looking after the weak and supporting a marginalised part of society. My definition of Christianity sits pretty comfortably with that.

My definition is apparently not that common.

Several Christian leaders opposed the recognition of gay marriage, and decided to register their dissent by withdrawing their support from the charity and urging others to do so, until World Vision changed their minds. So, to clarify, that's church leaders using their influence to persuade massive groups of Christians to use starving children as hostages in a game of ideological warfare.

Now. I'm never going to say whether someone is 'a Christian' or not. As we've seen, I have enough trouble working the definitions out for myself, so trying to define someone else's spirituality is probably beyond my remit. But, if I had my way, these people - these people in positions of power, responsibility and influence, these people who would rather risk a child's hunger than a challenge to their way of thinking - if I had my way, these people would not be called Christians. They would be called fuckers, and that would be that. It would be tattooed on their heads and written on the labels of their coats. There would be a box on every form they filled in that said 'fucker' and they would have to tick it. If someone in the street shouted, "Hey - fucker", they would be duty bound to turn round and say, "How can I help?" And on the signs outside their churches, it would say, in massive letters, "Church of Fuckers". And if you supported their policies, that's the church you would have to go to.

I am not in charge. They will stay 'Christian' and calling them fuckers will earn me no points whatsoever. Leaving me wondering, what do I do? Do I do what a lot of others are trying to do and reclaim the name of my faith? Make noise in the name of Christianity that is, in my terms, 'good'? There's something to be said for that. There are some really smart, compassionate thinkers out there who are doing their best to remind the world that Christianity should be about tolerance, love, respect and support for those who find themselves persecuted.

Sometimes, though, I just want another word. Let the idiots have the word 'Christian'. To a lot of people, it pretty much means 'fucker' anyway. Let them practise their panicky, inflexible, prejudicial nonsense in their massive buildings with their massive incomes. Let them continue to rejoice in the incredible coincidence that the most powerful being in creation happens to share the values of middle class, right wing, conservative, consumerist Western society. Let them have it.

It's not like Jesus called himself a Christian. In fact, it was only after he'd gone, and things started to become an organisation, that labels started to matter. Wherever I am in my confusion, I find nothing problematic about the way Christ lived. I feel challenged by it, and inadequate in my response, but that's OK. That's a tension I'm happy to live in. He seemed to be all about not settling for the obvious answers, not holding onto things too tight, not resting on a set of ideas and saying, "This is it!" He seemed to be about a living, changing response to the needs of others and the truth of individual situations.

I'm not sure what to call myself. Except, 'idiot', mostly. I'll probably stick with Christian for now. After all, there are plenty of good people who are fine with the term. People I respect, people I am proud to know. But I must hold it lightly. Because I am also, always, on the edge of being a fucker too.

Happy Easter





Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Nobody knows the trouble I've seen

My life is unbearably easy. You know that thing you were just doing, before you got distracted and started reading this? Whatever it was, it was harder than my day. Even if you were laying down, stroking your elbows, sipping Lilt through a straw, my day is more relaxed.

You see that paragraph above? I stopped after I typed the word 'my', to put on some music. Because I realised that my day was not quite as pleasurable and decadent as it could be. And then, after the word 'easy', I stopped to have a massive bite out of a sausage sandwich. Thankfully, the person at the shop has correctly put red sauce on it. The other week, someone erroneously put brown sauce on my sandwich. Brown! Ruined my day. And, by consequence, the day of everyone I met.

In the absence of actual, real difficulty in my life, my brain is forced to invent pretend problems. Bored of having no actual issues to unravel, my brain works very hard to come up with reasons why my life is not, as it appears, a constant stream of uninterrupted joy but is, rather, a terrible struggle against incredible opposition.

I'm going to share one of these with you today, that you might empathise with my plight, feel my pain and, maybe, engage in some kind of fundraising effort on my behalf.



Look at this.



You see? you see how intolerable my life is?

Seasons one to four of fun serial-killer show Dexter, all lined up nicely on my shelf. Fitted, as they should be, between 'Deep Space Nine' and 'Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds'. Alphabetical by series, chronological within series, obviously. Nice and neat. A universe of order and calm.

But am I happy? You'd think so, wouldn't you? You'd think I'd be content, sitting in my leather armchair with a glass of port, thinking, "Hurrah! Should I decide to watch the episode of Dexter where Jimmy Smits goes nuts during a game of golf, I know exactly where it is, on my shelf of wonderful things!"

But I'm not. Can you tell why?

That's right. Look at those bloody DVD spines. Look at them! Not one of them is the same as the other. Not one!!! How can I sleep, how can I eat, how can I envisage happiness when these maverick, mismatched, irritating bastards sit on my shelf, mocking me with their crazy, haphazard design?

It looks like they were planning great things with the first one. There's a red band, consistent with the imagery of the show, that is clearly meant to develop over future box sets to create a pleasing, if gruesome, ribbon of blood. But by the time series two comes out, some gibbon has decided, screw that. Let's keep the ribbon but change its size, shape, colour and position. And while we're here, let's change the position of everything else! Let's make sure that it in no way matches the last box set. Screw you, Rob. Screw your attempts to be happy and calm forever.

Series 3 tries a little bit to match 2, but still gets it wrong. And changes the logo. By series four they even change the font saying 'season four', except it's now 'The Fourth Season'. Well, that's not the same at all. Why? What's wrong with you people? Why do you hate me so much?


How difficult can it be to create a uniform, consistent design for the merchandising of a TV show? Here's my Babylon 5 DVDs.




Now, obviously I'm already slightly unhappy that the boxes don't all fit on one bit of shelf. Don't think I haven't tried. While some people spend their days working hard to save lives, put out fires and carry water to their family from a hole in the ground, I stand by an Ikea shelving unit, fretting about the spacing of DVD box sets. Should I just start 'Babylon 5' on a new section? What will I do with the space after 'Angel'? And what if the knock-on re-spacing culminates in there being no space for 'The West Wing' on the bottom shelf? Fuck this! Why was I even born?

And then there's the spines themselves. Full marks for at least using the same logo each time. But why are they all different sizes? And why can't you make up your mind where to stick the BBFC rating? Idiot! Who even gave you a job? Was the only other candidate at the interview a bowl of soup?

Anyway. As you can see, my life is quite the conundrum. There is some small solace, though. Deep down on the shelves, hidden between 'Party Animals' and 'The Prisoner' are some beautifully designed, perfectly matching spines. Their uniformity gives me hope that, despite the apparent meaninglessness of existence, there is - somewhere - someone who gives a toss. Thanks, whoever designed these. They make me happy. For now, at least, I will not kill again.





Hang on. Those BBFC ratings aren't quite the right size...








...the voices...













...the voices are back...