NOS Alive (Lisbon, Portugal) 2016 Review

9 Jul

Day 1. The first act I saw was LA. I’d never heard of them, but kind of wish it stayed that way. They were so painfully mediocre. Their style is like a Springsteen inspired style of American indie rock. They were competent, but boring as all fuck – with the most clichéd lyrics e.g. “Living in America, Dying in America”. What could you really expect from a band with the least inspired name since America.

The 1975: I was sceptical – because from what I’d seen and heard, I was pretty sure they’d be one of these indie pop buzz bands that will be quickly forgotten. However – they were a nice surprise. Their recordings sound a bit thin and shrill, but live their songs really pop. Heavily influenced by the funk influenced British pop of the 80s (Peter Gabriel, Duran Duran, David Bowie) – they held it down. The front man was a good singer and had an easy presence, while the rest of the band were tight. Not going to buy the record – but do recommend checking them out live.

Vintage Trouble: A truly outstanding live act. I’d listened to them on the Spotify Playlist as part of my homework for the festival – and thought their songs were derivative and boring (much like their band name). However, the stage show transcended the one-trick music. Mostly because the front man really sold it, and put so much of himself into it. He really dug into the Sam Cook, Otis Redding, James brown stage show. Dancing like a demon, spinning and spinning, down on his knees, then jumping and screaming. At one point he walked through the crowd to the mixing desk at the back climbed up on the surrounding barrier then crowd surfed back to the stage without dropping a note. They were a relatively small band for the festival being a 4 piece (essentially a 3 piece with a singer) so credit to them. The music was simple and familiar (you could basically sing Mustang Sally over the top of any song they played) but their showmanship more than compensated for it. Great guitarist too.

John Grant: I didn’t see much of his set so take this with a grain of salt. John Grant was recommended to me by a couple young guys on separate occasions. So I had a listen to some tunes of his, and was unimpressed. Boring folk rock. I was told I had to see him live. I watched 2 songs and was underwhelmed so I left. One of the 2 songs sounded exactly like a SMOG song (I think) – but with different lyrics. Meh.

Robert Plant: Shit yes! Just so much yes. I wasn’t too fussed about Robert Plant going into it tbh. His solo stuff has never really gripped me, and I felt he was an ageing rocker trading on past glories (which is at least partly true). However – OMFG – he and his band were outstanding. They played 50% Led Zep, and 50% originals or covers. As a Led Zeppelin fan I always thought his voice was proficient for the style – but not really distinctive – but now that he’s older and weathered, he sounds amazing. He still hits every note, yet it is now imbued with character – like a single malt aged 18 years in an oak cask. His band were top-shelf as well. I’m told by my colleague that it is made up of local legends, the sorts of guys that are well known in their home towns (Like Skin Tyson – the guitarist that hails from Liverpool). When playing Led Zep songs it is hard to imagine the original line-up doing it better. They did not sound like a covers band, they owned those songs and they all had the free-flowing feeling that they could (and did) go in any direction at any time. Even Robert Plant’s originals came over really well. My liverpuddlian friend correctly lost his shit.

Wolf Alice: The Kids loved them. I thought they were alright. Not a bad live band, but basically you get what it says on the box.

Pixies: Played 24 songs in like 1.5 hours. I missed some of it because I am a human being and have biological needs. I’d seen them in 2010 when they played the Vector Arena in Auckland. They Had Kim Deal back then, and sounded better. The current bassist is good, but they lacked a bit of punch – and Deal’s stage presence used to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Still, it was a Pixies show, you got the hits, Joey Santiago still rocks, Frank Black is still a bit of a charming loser.

Soulwax: I didn’t catch much of Soulwax, but was impressed with what I saw. I love it when dance music that sounds like it was all recorded in Ableton by one bedroom producer, is played entirely live with a killer band. Really powerful sound.

Chemical Brothers: Headliners for the first night, the Chemical Brothers had an insane visual and lights show. The supporting visuals were perfectly synced with the music (which suggests that their knob twiddling was all for show – but we’ll let that slide). They were at their best when playing the hits. When they weren’t I just felt I was at a 90s rave – which isn’t my thing – but if it’s yours, you would have loved it (I don’t think it was most people’s though). You can’t help losing yourself into the music and dancing. The visuals get pretty hypnotic. Mostly they played with the motif of animated people moving in time with the music (walking, being hit by objects, falling and hitting things – all on the beat etc.). Some of the imagery got a bit intense at points. Maybe it’s the catholic schoolboy in me – but having infinite permutations of medieval depictions of the devil flashed at you for 8 minutes straight can make you feel like you’re having a bad trip – even when you haven’t dropped anything. Aside from that section – the set probably would have been even better with chemical assistance. The chems didn’t disappoint. If you haven’t seen them “live”, and you get the chance, I would recommend it.

NB: At this point I should point out that while the line-up of NOS Alive is amazing – the logistics are fuckin’ deplorable. The usual festival organisation complaints are all present: No shade, hard to get a place to sit down, not enough toilets and crowd flow is terrible (people crushing to get to the loo- and stopping the ones trying to leave is a nightmare), timetable clashes (I missed Father John Misty for Tame Impala), drunk douchebags being fuckwits, and worst of all – leaving the venue and trying to get home. There is a train station and bus stop around 100m from the main entrance – it takes about 30 mins to get to the station from my hostel then a 10-minute walk to get in via the station underpass. Once the headliners take the stage they close the underpass and divert the crowd only a section of freeway that they have closed off to vehicle traffic. The crowd must now walk an extra few kilometres over an overpass to an off-ramp just to get to a station that was just a few meters away. Between the 30 min walk and 30-minute wait for the next train (because you will see your train come and go while you’re walking over the motorway) it takes 1.5 – 2 hours to get home. Also the last train leaves at 4:30am and a lot of the best acts start at 3am (Hot Chip, Ratatat etc.) so this severely affects what bands you are capable of seeing. We left at 2:45am after the Chemical brothers and didn’t get back until 5am. We were destroyed and it meant we needed to approach day two a bit differently. For contrast I camped for 4 rainy days at the Best Kept Festival and have no complaints about how that was organised.

Day 2: We only saw 4 acts, but they were all ones that we really wanted to see.

Jagwar Mar: We were really pumped to see Jagwar Mar. I love their album and had it on high-rotate in my car for some time. Their live show was a total disappointment. Just so lazy. They put no effort into their live act. The front man dressed like me when I’m severely hungover and am not leaving the house. He was wearing these really loose fitting stubbies, with a flannel shirt of over a white t-shirt. I thought I was going to see one of his balls drop out the bottom of his shorts at any moment. The bass player hardly played and when he did it was sloppy AF. He mostly stood around striking poses. They perform as a three piece with most of the sound being supplied by the guy manning the sequencers. Not many keyboards were played, and I get super sceptical when the guy running the sequencers and samplers hasn’t touched anything leading up to a drop. The singer was off-key too. At one point he layered up his vocals on a looper, except he was singing so out of key that it sounded terrible. These out-of-tune vocals kept looping, and to make it worse the music dropped away at the end of the song leaving this mess of flat harmonies echoing around on their own. 2 stars out of 5.

Courtney Barnett: She’s awesome. Such a relief to see a three piece just get up, plug in and rock out. Her lyrics are great, she’s a great guitarist and her band feels like a band. I don’t have much to add. I loved her set. Sounded huge.

Tame Impala: Holy Fuck these guys are amazing. You must stop what you are doing, and see if they ae playing near you soon. If not, put on their latest album Currents and console yourself. Tame Impala were the absolute highlight of the festival. Every song had all the psychedelic sounds and effects from the records, but were played live by incredibly good musicians as part of an impressively tight band. The drums and bass locked in perfectly, but never lost feel. This contrasted with the washy synths and phased out guitar. Kevin Parker has developed a sound that is really unique, and would otherwise seem difficult to translate effectively to a live show, but they played every sound from the record (except for the de-tuned spoken word sections) and went on exploratory journeys while doing it. So good. 6 out of 5 stars.

Radiohead: Ok, so this set was one of the main reasons why I came to Europe in the first place. Most of my trip could be characterised as a pilgrimage rather than a pure holiday, because since I was a teenager I always wanted to visit my host family in Germany, see Beck live and see Radiohead live. It took me 17 years to get back to Europe, and I was missed both Beck and Radiohead when they came in 2012 because I was broke. Experiencing Radiohead live was the last key moment. This is serious business. Also the chances for disappointment were high.

We tried to get as close to the stage as possible and used the Tame Impala set on the main stage to get into position. Despite this the best we could do was to get just in front of the mixing desk (about 70m back from the stage. Everyone at the festival crammed the area because there were no other acts performing while Radiohead was on (I suspect because the acts themselves refused to compete with Radiohead for an audience).

The first 20 mins of the set were a nightmare. The band started by playing songs from their latest album, which are mostly quite soft and delicate. There was a group of about 6 to 8 Essex girls behind me that would not shut up. They just kept talking. I thought they’d shut quieten down eventually, but they didn’t. One of them started hitting on me in a really weird way. Turning towards me and rubbing her boobs on my arm. She had a running conversation with one of her friends about how she was trying to get my attention. “Make him want you.” I heard her friend say “He’s pretending he hasn’t noticed.” The boob-rubber said. Just as I was contemplating my response another friend turned up and all the girls started screaming, and whipped up into a frenzied 6-way conversation about who-the-fuck knows what. At the same time two women get on the shoulders of their boyfriends in front of me and someone else starts recording on their phone. Two blokes on the other side of me also seem to think now is an appropriate time to discuss the price of fish. So after not really experiencing much Radiohead for the first 20 mins of the Radiohead set, I decide to concede our location and seek refuge further back in the crowd.

This was the best move. I found a spot where no one was talking and they seemed as interested to be there as I was. Now I could hear Radiohead, and watch as much of them as I could see between the sea of women-on-shoulders and mobile phones.

They started of with Burn the Witch, which I was interested to see how they do live, given that it is mostly a string driven song. However, the lack of a string section was not a hindrance at all. Johnny Greenwod played the chords made up by the strings on his guitar using a violin bow, and the rest of the arrangement sounded very close, and even more powerful, played on guitars bass and drums.

A great deal of the new songs were quite acoustic, employing acoustic guitars and pianos so these translated well. For the most part everything sounded just like the record.

Then after about 30 mins of the new material they started playing “the hits” starting with My Iron Lung. It rocked. Ed Obrien seemed to be laying most of the foundation of guitar and backing vocals on most songs, while Johhny Greenwood mostly focussed on the piano and keyboards parts. However every now and then Johnny would turn up with a guitar and unleash an unholy solo from his guitar like a demon possessed savant. Such a show-pony. I felt sorry for dependable Ed doing all the foundation work only for Johnny to turn up and claim the limelight.

They played a bit from each album. Some songs that I never thought would be any good live were in fact excellent. The Gloaming is probably the best example of this. It’s one of their more divisive songs, and not generally one of my favourites. But when they played it live – Wow! Only a very small amount of it was a looped sequence. There was a lot more guitar and live percussion throughout it, which makes me want to re-listen to the recording – since I thought it was by and large digitally sequenced.

Likewise, for the TKOL material. Lotus Flower rocked and I was surprised at the how much of the digital, syncopated material used essentially the same instrumentation from their older material.

Tom Yorke’s vocals seemed a bit unfocussed at times, which was hard to defend to my mate that wasn’t a Radiohead fan.

When playing Kid A, he got the audience to make noise that he then sampled and manipulated throughout the song. It was pretty cool. Everything in its right place sounded so good through the massive PA. An old friend described that song as having “bass you could hug”, but here it was bass that was hugging you.

After about 1.5 hrs they exited the stage, briefly before returning for an encore. They really delivered during the encore playing Paranoid Android (which satisfied this little boy’s fantasy) and the best song of the entire set – There There. Holy shit that song sounded good. Both Johhny and Ed playing timpanis while Tom took the lead on a beautifully distorted guitar. Just beautiful.

After an extended wait following the encore, they did come back for a second encore where we were treated to the song that has had fans all a flutter recently “Creep”. Now, I’ve heard other bands cover Creep quite well, and usually they do this by emulating the recording, but when Radiohead did it, it was like they were bringing it back to life. Something about the guitar sound, and I didn’t get a sense that they begrudged doing it. In fact they seemed like they were having fun. Maybe that’s the more blasphemous idea for Radiohead fans. That one of the most sour and neurotic bands – actually had a good time playing their first hit.

The show closed on Kama Police, in which Tom Yorke continued playing on his own after the rest of the band had completed the main arrangement, allowing the crowd to continue singing along with him.

At the time I was just trying to take it all in. There is a lot going on onstage with each song, and I’m so familiar with the recordings, and deconstructed them so much in my mind – that it was a little overwhelming trying to just be there, in the moment and enjoy the sound.

You can check out the setlist here:

Day 3: I was fucked. I was feeling burnt out all day, ad it took me until 9:30pm before I felt alright. If the festival was run a bit better, and the schedule made a bit more sense, I would have been back there, and I would have been fine. But the level of endurance required due to poor planning and logistics was too much for me and my colleague. While there were lots of acts that I wanted to see today, they were all spread-out timewise, starting at 6pm and finishing around 4:30am. I don’t want to list who I’m missing here, but if you want to join me in my FOMO – you can check it out here:


I hope you enjoyed the review. Sorry it’s a bit long. Once I start writing – it gets its own momentum.


The Wave

8 May

I’ve been held down, dragging on the bottom, on the sand. The surf keeps pushing me back down. Every time it feels like I’m going to start heading up for air, down it comes again. I can’t breathe. I start breathing water. I’m kicking hard but it seems useless. Do I give up? What’s the point in fighting it. I question if there’s such thing as air anymore. The whole world is salt water and sand. But I remember it’s up there, it’s where I came from, so I kick harder. I keep kicking, and despairing, and kicking. I’m not on the bottom, but I’m not on top either. I can’t do it anymore. My body won’t do it anymore. Maybe water is the new air. Maybe I’m not supposed to fight it.

Fuck it! I give one last push against the tumult and resign to fate as I begin to lose consciousness.

Something hits me that snaps me back to life. What is it? It’s cold, expansive and vaguely familiar. My head seems to expand as salt spray whips my face. I spew primordial fluid from my lungs. I cough, I gasp. I breathe one deep breath as I turn to see a terrifyingly beautiful wave is bearing down on me. Breath two comes as I kick to catch the wave. It’s instinct now, I’m not going down again. I think about the shore. I’m not ready for it. I spread my arms. This wave will take me where I want to go.

This wave loves me. It holds me up and pushes me toward the horizon. We communicate through our bodies. It through the water, me through my flesh. It tells me when the wind is threatening the part I am on, so I swim hard to escape the crash. It tells me that it will carry me now so I relax. This wave and I go on until we meet the shore together.

Play For Me

9 Nov

Doreen was pottering about in her kitchen listening to the radio. It was the talk-back station that she would occasionally call when the urge took her. Today they were talking about the interests that people pursued after retirement.

Doreen’s interests hadn’t changed when she retired. She did however pursue them with more verve than she had when she was working. Just before she and her husband George had made that change she had invested in building a dance studio on the bottom floor of her house. She would take flamenco dancing students on from time to time, but really it was for her own pleasure that she had the dance floor and wall of mirrors installed.

Her house was adorned with velvet prints of flamenco dancers and bull-fighters; it was full of dolls in traditional Spanish dress, and the kind of kitsch knick-knacks that someone obsessed with a culture will envelop themselves in, but a person from that actual culture would find absurd. She interwove her own history with flamenco and her connection with the Romani people who had taught her clairvoyance as a girl to create a persona that was (although improbable) completely her. She was eccentric, self-centred and impossibly charming. A flirtatious 16 year old girl in 70 year old’s body. If she had aged, she’d never noticed it.

She gave passing mind to the pursuits that the callers were rattling on about: gardening, quilt making, woodcraft, volunteering, learning musical instruments. None of it really interested her, but she felt a kind of connection with the callers if only because age provided the only demographic that she fitted in these days.

Then Simon came on. “Hello. Long time listener, first time caller. I’m actually a classical guitarist and wanted to reach out to anyone else out there with an interest in classical or Spanish guitar. I moved back to town a few years ago but it’s hard to meet people these days with similar interests. I was just calling in to see if any listeners who liked Spanish guitar music, or Spanish cuisine – anything really – would like to get in touch.”

‘Oh!’ thought Doreen. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to meet someone who could play the kind of music that I dance to. Maybe we could even perform together.’

She called the station and asked to be put in touch with Simon. They gave her his number and she rang him straight away.

“Hello Simon, I’m Doreen. I heard you on the radio just now. I am a flamenco dancer and I love Spanish guitar; Paco Pena – that sort of thing, so I thought I’d get in touch”.

“Ah Hi. Yes I can play Paco Pena. He’s great. I lived in Spain for 25 years where I learnt the style.”

“Really! Can you play other Flamenco music?”

“Of course. I made my living travelling with a troupe of dancers, playing small townships. That’s where I learned my craft. I miss it a lot you know – playing that music. I still tinker a bit, but I never really play. There’s no-one to play with, or play for.”

“Oh that’s such a shame. I live for Flamenco. I’ve been dancing it since the 60s when my competitive ballroom career came to an end. My husband and I were national champions in the UK, but then the children came. Flamenco was like all the fire I felt dancing all those different dances condensed into one. It’s very passionate”

“It is that. I played many a show with the beautiful dancers of our troupe in the small towns of the regions. The crowd’s enthusiasm would fuel the dancers emotionally. It got pretty fiery at time’s I can tell you! The audience yells out and claps the dancers on. Not like here at all. I also learnt to make Spanish cuisine Paella and the like. I love cooking it, but you can’t really cook it just for yourself.”

“I love cooking, but I don’t know any Spanish cuisine” said Doreen, though she was in fact a terrible cook.

“Well maybe you should come over to my house. I could play you some flamenco and cook you something traditional. Bring your husband too.”

“That sounds lovely. I think we’d enjoy that. Thank you for the invitation Simon.”

“How does Sunday evening sound to you?”

“That sounds fine. I usually cook a roast for my daughter and the grand kids but I think we can shuffle that around.”

“Great, well I’ll see you Sunday then, say 5:30?”

“Yes, we’ll see you then.”

Doreen hung up the phone, very excited. She shuffled around her kitchen for about 10 minutes trying to concentrate, before calling her daughter to relate the news.

Her husband George wasn’t nearly as excited as she was. He didn’t share her enthusiasm for all things Spanish, though to be fair he didn’t really enthuse over anything. He had nothing against his wife’s obsession though and went along to the Sunday engagement relatively happily.

At precisely 5:30pm on Sunday Doreen and George arrived at Simon’s house. It was a small, modest looking bungalow, a little messy on the outside, but Simon was a pensioner and maintenance gets harder as the body slows down along with the bank account. Doreen was carrying a trifle that she had made for desert. It was her self-professed speciality. George was tucking his shirt into his trousers as Doreen knocked on the door.

The door opened with a slightly grinding creak to reveal the silhouette of a person in a very dim hallway. The couple’s eyes widened, perplexed, as they digested the image of the man that stood before them. He did not resemble whatever image both of them had constructed in their mind’s eye.

“Hello Doreen, and you must be George” said Simon, “Come on in”. The cigarette on his lip ashed itself as he spoke. He was a man in his late sixties or early seventies; long greasy wisps of hair hanging from a mostly bald head. His white t-shirt was tattered and holey, and covered in stains of at least four different colours and textures. He was in pyjama pants as well, and barefoot. He was not who they were expecting.

Doreen knew she had made a mistake, but was too polite to back out at that moment. It would be rude after all. Surely George will say something. His bluntness would be really useful about now.

But no, their legs carried them into the bowels of what they now recognised as a hovel. Old news papers and magazines were stacked on the floor along the hallway that lead to (what must have been intended to be) a dining room – though there was no real furniture. The house smelt of stale urine. Doreen assumed there must have been a cat, though she slowly began to notice the absence of one. There was no sign of any other pet either. Do free roaming rats count?

“Make yourselves comfortable”. Simon waved them toward some dirty pillows on the floor, against a wall. This was where they were to converse and (God forbid!) eat. There was no table, no chairs, just a kind of sideboard with an ashtray and a Best Bets on it. The only other things in the room were a tall, ancient lamp stand and a battery powered transistor radio.

“Mi casa es su casa.” Said Simon.

‘You can bloody well keep it’ she thought, but said “Thank you” instead.

“Did you find the place alright?” asked Simon as he placed a fresh cigarette in his mouth and began tapping his person in search of a lighter. ‘Really?’ Thought Doreen, ’pyjama pants don’t have pockets’.

“No trouble”. Said George. He sounded unperturbed by their surroundings and host. Stupid man.

Doreen noticed a lack of Spanish memorabilia. She had been hoping Simon would have some interesting trinkets she could fawn over. Nothing to fawn over here, not even a pissing cat. Still, she’d best be polite until George found a way for them to escape.

“Do you have a wife or children Simon?” She asked.

“No wife. We separated about 30 years ago. We had two kids together but I never see them. I never remarried. I just travelled. Found myself in Barcelona one day and thought I’d stay a while.”

“How long have you been back?”

“Oh, about two years now. Long enough to get lonely.” Simon sat down uncomfortably close to Doreen. All three of them now were squished up against the same wall looking out across the blanket that she imagined was to act as the tablecloth when he served dinner.

“Um, why don’t you play us some guitar. We’d love to hear it, wouldn’t we George?”

“Sure.” said George.

“Of course. I’ll just go and grab it.” Simon left the room.

“George, you stupid man.” She desperately whispered, “What are you doing?”

“What do you mean what am I doing? This is all your idea!” George replied also trying to keep his voice low.

“Well get us out of it!” She wanted to go on, but Simon was returning with a battered looking guitar.

“Oh good!” She exclaimed.

“I may be a little rusty,” Simon said as he sat down next to Doreen again.

“You wouldn’t mind sitting over there where we can watch you play could you Simon?”

“Not a problem.”

He sat down opposite them and Doreen got her first good look at him. Well, she wouldn’t describe it as good. From his features it was hard to imagine he’d ever been much to look at. His nose was long and red, and had white hair sprouting from its pointy end. His eyes were dark and beady pin-pricks behind an old pair of thick rimmed, coke-bottle glasses. His skin was blotchy, particularly on his scalp that reminded her of a shoreline when the tide had gone out. Thin strands of seaweed lying flat on the mottled sand stone and sediment. His head was dewy with sweat as well; the salty body odour adding to the low-tide theme her mind was forming.

He began to pluck a familiar tune.

“It’s Porompompero, one of the most famous classical Spanish songs.” Said Simon while he struggled with the strings.

“I’ve heard it before. Porompom isn’t it?” said Doreen.

“He just said that was the name Doreen” George grumped, agitated.

“No he didn’t, did he?”

“I did, but don’t worry about it.”

Simon continued to play a wobbly version of the song. He would slow down as he tried to remember or position his fingers for the coming chord changes. Doreen began to realise he wasn’t very good at all.

There is no way he could have played with a touring flamenco troupe in Spain. She’d come to hear him play, but God she just wanted it to stop now. When would George pull-finger and drag her out of there?

She didn’t have to wait long for the song to finish. Simon abruptly stopped playing as though he’d just given up his charade. She half expected him to apologise for lying about his abilities and confess that his entire Spanish experience had been a lie, but no, instead he eagerly looked her in the eyes and said “What did you think?”.

“Wonderful!” she heard herself saying. George leant forward to look at her face in disbelief, obviously hoping to see some sense of sarcasm in her expression, but there was none there. He sat back rolling his eyes.

“Thank you!” said Simon, obviously chuffed with the compliment. “Well I should get on with dinner. I’ll only be a few minutes.”

“Thank you Simon. Did you prepare it earlier?”

“No, but it doesn’t take long to put together.”

‘I hope he’s a better cook than he is a guitarist’ thought Doreen.

Simon left the room and could be heard opening cans and using the microwave.

“Get us out of here you stupid man!” She whispered at George once Simon was out of earshot.

“We can’t leave now, he’s cooking dinner.”

“Well as soon as dinner’s over you make an excuse.”

“Why me? You got us into this!”

“That’s why I can’t do it. It would be rude if I did it. You usually have no trouble dragging me away from things I want to do. Why can’t you do it when I need you to for once, you grumpy old sod.”

“Alright, after dinner I’ll tell him I’m not feeling well and we’ll leave.”

“Thank you.”

Simon came back holding their plates, after only about five minutes.

“That was quick.” Said Doreen.

“It’s my speciality so I’m pretty fast at putting it all together.”

As Doreen received her plate she jolted once she saw what was on it. Simon had served them microwaved black beans on soft tortilla wraps. That was all there was to the meal. Nothing accompanying it. No sides, no condiments. Shock gave way to disgust. She couldn’t eat anything that bland. She wasn’t that hungry. In any case she came for Spanish food, not Tex-Mex.

“Thank you Simon.” She said as George passed her a sideways glance both disapproving and disbelieving.

She made an effort to eat at least some of it. As she was taking her second bite of the makeshift wrap, she looked up at Simon who was now sitting once again cross-legged in front of her, eating his muck. He had balanced the paper plate on which the tortilla had come, upon one thigh. Upon the other she observed, lying quite impassively, his penis.

Doreen convulsed. She didn’t know if she was coughing, choking or gagging but as she did so a black bean shot forth from one of her nostrils.

She simultaneously felt George jump at her side, while Simon too jerked at her unexpected seizure. As he did so the fleshy appendage that had escaped the single button on the front of his pyjama pants flailed wildly for a second or two. That was when George first spotted it.

“Are you alright?” asked Simon, making a motion towards her as if to help. George began patting her on the back, while his saucer sized eyes flitted between Doreen’s face and the member, like someone caught between two adversaries in a stand-off.

“Um, yes, er…..the beans…..Sorry they were a bit spicy.” She said. They weren’t, but it was all she could think of.

“I didn’t add any chilly?”.

You didn’t add anything, you cheeky bastard.

“You’re, ah, flying a bit low there mate”. Said George finally asserting something to Doreen’s relief.

Simon looked down at himself for a moment, then as his eyes came up to meet George’s his expression changed. Not to one of shame, but to something quite different. There was a wry half-grin and a mischievous glint in his eye. “Oh, I am too!” he said with a touch of irony, and without breaking eye contact with George.

Everything froze for a second, as though the tension coagulated to stone.

Simon rocked back down on to his haunches, but left his smaller-self on show.

‘He’s going to have me!’ Thought Doreen.

George was speechless, though it sounded like he was trying to say something. He was grumbling, and coughing as if to clear his throat for a speech, but none followed.

“Would you mind, um, putting it away there Simon”. She heard herself say.

Simon momentarily broke his stare with George as he responded.

“Where would you like me to put it Doreen?” he said as he recommenced gazing at George.

“Oh, George, I just remembered we were supposed to pick one of the grandkids up from their dance recital in 20 minutes. Terribly sorry Simon but we must be off. ” Doreen feverishly rattled, raising to her feet while tugging at George’s arm. He was still trying to talk, and she could feel him shaking in her grip.

“You can’t leave now!” Simon interjected “I’ve only played you one song, and we still have desert.”

Doreen’s mind turned to the bowl she brought the trifle in, with a pang of loss. It was her favourite salad bowl. Somehow she knew that wasn’t the desert he was talking about though. Still, small price to pay she supposed.

“Sorry Simon, really must be off. We’ll show ourselves out.”

“We’ll have to finish this some other time then.” Said Simon innocently.

“Like hell!” George exclaimed as she dragged him down the hallway. They couldn’t leave fast enough.

As soon as they were in the car Doreen shouted at George “Fat lot of use you were! I thought he was going to have me. Didn’t you notice his John Thomas hanging out?”

“I thought he was going to have the both of us!”

Twelve Vignettes

18 Jan

I have had a lot of stuff boiling under the surface for a while. Most of it revolving around some true stories from family lore, so I thought I should just get it out of my system as quick and succinctly as possible.

I therefore now present to you:

Twelve Vignettes


2013: Driving down Mason Street. 10pm Thursday night. Dad’s driving me home. There’s a bicycle lane. The light’s aren’t working properly (truth be told – They shoot half a mile up in the air). Little brother’s excited about getting his first car. He’s 15. Will start learning to drive in the next few months.

Shit! What’s that? Dad, almost ran him over; slows the car down. Dad winds down the window.

“You should be on the footpath you idiot!” He shouts. Keeps on driving.

Little brother and I piss ourselves laughing.

“What?” dad says.

“You just road-raged at Stephen Hawking” one of us says as we catch our breaths between laughs.

Dad had just slowed down to tell off a disabled bloke in a motorized wheelchair for driving in the bike lane at night without reflectors or lights. He was dressed in a pinstripe suit and bowtie.

The wheel-chair guy was – not Dad.


c. 1930: Great Grandad’s friend dies on the ship. The crew don’t know what to do. Great Grandad suggests using a coffin they’re transporting in the hold to keep his body in until they dock. All agree. Great Grandad helps them take the body down to the hold and place him in the coffin. The body is too long. Shit!

Great Grandad suggests cutting the legs and slipping them up inside the pant-legs to fit him in.

No-one can agree. Great Grandad say’s “Give it here!”

Takes the saw and cuts the legs of his late friend and slips them up inside the pant legs.

Shock gives way to sailor humour and laughs.

The next day Great Grandad inexplicably starts walking with a limp. It accompanies him to his grave.


c. 2005: My sister buys me a tight pink shirt. “ It’s all the rage” she says. “It’ll look good on you”.

I wear it home from a night out, also wearing an ironic handle-bar moustache. I keep getting stopped by bunches of cunts.

“Where are you going you homo?” they all ask.

“Home. What the fuck’s your problem?”

–       Laughs –

Curious at the number of dickheads out tonight. Mention the fact to my flatmates in the morning. “Never been hassled so much in my life!”

Later that week I interview Georgina Beyer [Trans-sexual MP] on her equality for gay employees bill, on the radio. Draw a parallel on discrimination. It’s not a parallel.

Penny drops.


c. 1944.  Grandad lands at Auckland with (Grand) Uncle Conrad. Arrested on landing. No passports.

“What nationality are you?” the officer asks.

“German” answers Grandad.

“Tongan” answers Conrad.

The Customs/Police officer lays into Conrad. Beats him bloody. “You’re a fuckin’ liar! At least tell the truth about who you are you coward!”.

Conrad spends his night in a cell.

Grandad is waved on through.


c.1880: There’s a storm at sea. The sails must be cut or the whole ship will be lost. Great-Great Grandad runs up the mast and cuts the ropes that are holding the sails in the tempest.

As soon as the last rope is cut the ship violently rights itself. He falls, smashes the left side of his face against the railing of the ship. Lands in the water, unconscious.

Protocol says if a man is overboard in a storm, you leave him.

Captain orders the ship be turned around. Great-Great Grandad is hauled aboard.


c.1983: Dad scores the last try for the Prems in a league game. They win. The whistle blows. There’s cheers. As they’re walking off the field someone shouts “Behind you!”.

Dad turns around quickly. Someone bites into his face. Horror! Assailant spits out his left eye-ball. Nerve still attached.

Run to hospital. Tube installed. Bionic dad created.

Photo of me and Dad in the paper. I’m touching his face ( I’m only a few months old). Dad not happy. Not because of the wound, but because of the slander.


c.2004: I’m driving home from a gig on campus. Shit night. Band broke up.

I sneak my car between the bollards next to the library. Some arsehole’s in the way; standing in the middle of the drive. I beep. No movement.

I roll toward him slowly. He stares me down. I keep rolling (foot off break in an auto – no accelarator). He jumps on the bonnet of my car, grabs onto the rim above my windshield.

Was being nice; Now I’m angry. Foot on gas, sharply brake! He’s still holding on.

Don’t want to kill him by doing it faster. I get out. Drag him off. We scrap. He’s on the ground. I’m grabbing his throat, starting to rip! Hear footsteps. Someone’s coming. I turn around. A friend of his was hiding!

SMACK! Left eye waters. We scrap.

“I’ve had a shit night already!” I say.

“Leave him alone. I know he’s a dick. He’s an idiot but he doesn’t know what he’s doing!” my opponent says.

“Fuck you both!” I say as I jump back in the car. Can only see from one eye. Drive home.

Get there. Start blacking out. Call an ambulance. Need an operation. Eyepatch.

Part of my jaw is now my eye floor.


c. 1957: Grandad is playing in a bar. Gig is a success. Ladies flock to him. He’s married, but doesn’t shun the attention.

Jealous husband smashes a bottle. Throttles Grandad in the left eye. Operation. Stitches. Eyepatch. Suspicious wife.


c. 1947: Grandad’s little brother Moses rides a horse as a child in Tonga. Gets thrown. No worries.

Notices horse is missing a rear shoe. Approaches from behind. Gets kicked in the left side of the face. Moses’ Mother sits by his bedside for two weeks. He’s in a coma.

Comes to. The left side of his face is shattered. Never the same.


c. 1915: Officer from British Consulate sent to Tonga tells Great-Grandad (a Methodist Minister) that the he is being stripped of his assets. Geat Grandad’s main assets = his family home, a bakery and a church hall.

Great-Grandad is Furious. Does not physically assault the British officer but physically strips the officer of all his clothes. Sends him back to his superiors.

Bakery and church expropriated.

Great Grandad breaks into bakery and continues to deliver sermons from within it. Crown does nothing until….


1941: Grandad’s 21st Birthday. Watches his father herded onto a ship bound for a NZ internment camp from Tonga. Great-Grandad tells him to look after his mother and his siblings (one unborn). He swears he will (he does). Grandad’s still happy. His Dad will be back. Surely?

He isn’t.

Never said goodbye.

Reduced to the Fundamentals

21 Nov

I watched the final of the Australian X Factor last night. Actually it was probably a combined  six minutes of the final, but that was about as much as I could stomach and was plenty to set my neural pathways on a course towards this blog. I don’t want to pick on an easy target, that’s not what this is about. This is about what happens when the development of a cultural value nears its logical end. The approach of the far end of a polar scale. It is a subject I haven’t seen discussed anywhere (specifically), yet once I explain it, I’m sure you will notice it everywhere.

I am talking about the value that mainstream western culture places on the pure fundamentals of the human voice to the exclusion of its timbre.

It’s easier if I explain it how most people would experience it: Like I did.

So I turned on X factor. Some pretty teenage girl was singing a run of the mill pop song. She was pitch perfect. She hit every note high and low without so much as a hint of vocal stress, emotion or character. I was unimpressed. I mute the TV until the next contestant comes on.

The next contestant is some guy in his early to mid twenties wearing a dinner suit and singing (what I’m guessing is) a Michael Bulblé song. Once again pitch perfect, no audible effort, no character, no emotional connection between the singer, the lyrics and the audience. Terrible. This guys was playing dress ups. I mute the TV ahead of the last finalist’s performance.

You can guess what happens here. The next contestant was a boyband. I thought they were One Direction making a guess appearance. They looked and sounded exactly the same, except I was apparently wrong. Absolutely inflectionless. No defining character was to be found in any of their voices. I turn the TV off and now I’m sad.

In audio engineering there are essentially two aspects that an engineer is attempting to capture and shape:

  1. The fundamental; and
  2. The timbre

The fundamental is essentially the key aspects of the sound that allows the listener to identify the core elements of the song they are listening to. The melody, the chords. We’re basically talking about pitch, but it can cover other things such as lyrics. It is what you are left with when you remove the timbre of the sound. The fundamental is what helps us identify a song even when no-one is singing it. Like an instrumental version of a popular song.

Timbre is the aspect of the sound that gives it its character. The reediness and airy hiss of a saxophone, the imperfect oscillations of a bowed violin string and those characters of the human voice that help us tell one person’s from another.

It is no secret that audio engineers have long been able to master the fundamentals of the human voice via the use of pitch correction – more popularly known as auto-tune. The fundamental is easy. It is in all music. Without the fundamental there is no music.

At the other end though we have the the timbre of the voice. Infinite techniques and effects exist that effect timbre. It is possible to remove the timbre characteristics of a person’s voice, but you can’t add them in. For instance there is no effect that can make anybody’s voice sound just like Elvis. These are therefore the collective characteristics on which we base our preference of one singer over another. Well that’s how it has traditionally worked. I am not sure it’s like that anymore.

I have noticed over the last decade that the kinds of pop singers that rise to A list status have had less and less distinctive voices, or rather the lack of character in their voice has been the closest thing to a defining characteristic. For me it started with Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and Akon, and has spread to the point that I am hard pressed to think of a pop star today that has a voice of true character in their timbre. Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Pink, Carly Rae Jepsen, Taylor Swift, Kelis; These artists might appear on the odd decent track, but their voices could be interchangeable.

I’m preparing for the wrath of Beyoncé fans at this point, but I think that one need only look at the central conceit of her role in Dream Girls (that her character was picked out for solo stardom by Jamie Fox’s character because her voice lacked character – it was good enough, but not great, and certainly not the best in the group) to see her career mirroring that of her character’s and also Diana Ross’.

I recently read Underrated Overground by Noah Berlatsky, an article defending modern R&B as an artform. In which the writer had this to say:

“Take one of the most common contentions — the argument that the performers’ voices are lousy. I’ve seen this said of Ashanti, Ciara, Kelis, Teairra Mari — even, bizarrely enough, of Mariah Carey. And it’s undeniably true that few of those performing R &B can belt out a tune like Aretha. The thing is, they’re not supposed to. Contemporary R &B has very little to do with classic 60s Southern Soul. Instead, it’s rooted in the high-gloss production and intensive harmonies of Motown and Gamble and Huff. There are a couple of exceptions: Shareefa’s debut deftly combines old school grit with new school gloss, and Faith Evans unbelievable“Mesmerized” sounds like Stax on steroids. In general, though, a big voice and giant production add up to a faux- Broadway disaster (hello, Christina.) Contemporary R&B just works better with less dramatic singers. Tweet and Monica, for example, both use smooth, creamy deliveries that swirl languidly into the backing tracks. And then there’s Cassie, whose vocals might be kindly described as wispy. That doesn’t hurt her a bit, though; on her debut, her voice is so processed and multi-tracked that the singer becomes just one more electronic blip among many — part of a robotic, flawless glucose-delivery system that makes Pizzicato Five sound clumsily robust.”

I added emphasis in the above passage. I’m not arguing that there is no artistic merit in mainstream music (a friend of mine performed on one of the biggest worldwide hits of the past two years, and I think it was a genuinely great song), but the inclusion of the character of one’s voice and high production values are not mutually exclusive ingredients in a pop song. The writer of the above passage is an informed and willing participant in the shift of cultural values, whereby the fundamental is the only element of the human voice that is of value, and it’s character has none. In fact  a voice that lacks character but is capable of carrying off the fundamental without inflection is more likely to be successful than a voice that is both proficient and full of character.

It wasn’t always like this. Most any of the enduring pre-millenium vocalists possessed very distinctive voices with unique characteristics – regardless of genre: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Dusty Springfield, Dione Warwick, Lennon and McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Harry Nillson, Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Joe Strummer, Johnny Rotten, Arri Up, Michael Jackson, Cindi Lauper, David Byrne, Debbie Harry, Frank Black, Henry Rollins, Kate Bush, Glen Danzig, James Hetfield, Axl Rose, Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Trent Reznor, Perry Farrel, Chino Moreno, Chris Cornel, Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker, Björk, Thom York etc. etc. Even Christina Aguilera and Ronan Keating had distinctive voices.

I struggle to come up with a list of singers that have distinctive voices from the past 12 years. Here’s an attempt: Brandon Flowers, Adele, Kimbra,Feist, MIA, Lily Allen, Julian Casablancas, Daniel Rosen, Lykke Li, Jack White, Lana Del Ray and… I’m out. I hate lists, and I’ve essentially incited a pissing match by writing these two, but you get my point.

It used to be that you identified the artist performing the song by the voice, now the voice is literally just another instrument, and the holder of it is merely name-checked as a hangover from a previous cultural structure. Vocalists are no longer even associated with the writing of the song. It’s all about the producer featuring [insert name here], and if you are lucky enough to be releasing music in your own name you’re also lucky enough to possess a voice bland enough to appeal to the masses.

The best explanation I can give as to what I think has caused this shift has to do with the convergent nature of electronic music. That electronic music and the wealth of technologies creates a natural gravity in song writing and production whereby purely electronic sounds are manipulated to approximate natural sounds and natural sounds are manipulated to sound artificial and electronic. These developments have been at play since the early days of electronic instruments in the 1950s when analogue synthesizers were endowed with as many features as possible to approximate natural instruments, and samples of real world things were recorded and manipulated to sound unreal (the original Dr Who theme is a really good example of this). What tends to happen is that the more manipulated natural sounds meld well with electronically generated sounds that imitate real instruments and sounds. I’d say that the preference of character deficient voices is the result of this production technique that has been employed to such an extent over the last 20 to 30 years, that it now forms a cornerstone of mainstream taste.

So yeah, next time you are watching a TV talent quest (X Factor, Idol, The Voice et al.) you’d have a better chance of predicting the eventual winner by picking the contestant with the blandest voice. So good luck. I’m changing the channel.

Time and Place

31 Oct

“Ladies and Gentlemen all the way from Akron Ohio – The Black keys!”

The crowd screams. “Woooohooo! (whistles) (claps) Yeah!”

Most of the merchandise says nothing other than “The Black Keys – Akron, OH”.

So what of this Akron Ohio place. It must be important. After all the Black Keys have attached their brand to it.

Turns out Akron doesn’t have much to say about itself in popular culture. Chrissie Hynde wrote a song about it once, no-one other than her and the The Black keys ever really came from there, yet it has a population of 200,000 so I wouldn’t call it a small town. That’s a city.

Dunedin New Zealand is much smaller, yet it had a sound. A sound I might add that countless bands from New Zealand and even elsewhere continue to attempt to attach their name to. So what of that place. If you are a band from there, are you of that sound. What claim do you have.

I find the attachment of a place to a band or musical artist’s brand a little tenuous. It is both inclusive and exclusive depending on the context and at worst it only works to pad out a headline for an act.

I was once sitting in the greenroom for a shins concert and some idiot approached me with “All the way from Portland Oregon, it’s the SHINS!!!” – Sorry bro, I’m not in the shins. Red-faced before his companions he muffed a recovery and slunk away only to be heard in the distance repeating the same excited intro when he stumbled across the real Shins. They were equally unimpressed. The point being his emphasis on the place was supposed to give the band a fantastical quality. He might as well have said “All the way from Mount Olympus….”.

But what does the place name add? I still don’t know. I played around Dunedin for about 5 years. I never claimed connection to the Dunedin sound, yet I strongly identify with the creative architecture of the city that allowed me to grow as an artist and play more shows than I have since. The town has an amazing musical history that I think all acknowledge, whether they identify with the music of the stars from its glory days or not. What if I was there 16 years earlier?

What if I was in Akron 6 years ago? What if I was in Portland instead of Dunedin? What if I was making music in Bristol in 1991. In Manchester in ’81, in London in ’76, in Mississippi in the 30s.  It’s difficult to imagine that just being in those places at a certain point in time could provide one with a promotional edge. Like your music was better for being there at that point in time.

Time and place are often cited as key ingredients in the success of an artist, like you had to be there, but somewhere deep down I call bullshit. Yes you can be part of a movement, but because something is going on around you shouldn’t mean your music gets raised to mythical status. Because you’re from a place shouldn’t give you a claim to musical superiority, or fame in and of itself. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe Akron Ohio appears on the T-Shirts because it is a symbol of defying the odds. Maybe the same goes for Dunedin, it was a scene and a sound that was international in spite of itself. Portland, Detroit, Nashville, Memphis, Bristol,  Manchester, Liverpool, Nigeria, Cuba, Brazil – all appear to me to be symbols of success in spite of great obstacles. The movements associated with each are famous because the music was born out of adversity of some kind – even if that adversity is simply emerging from a cultural wasteland unscathed.

I like to think there is hope in that. So many artists from small towns or seemingly insignificant places write their chances of reaching an audience off purely because of where they are, but from what I’ve seen the place doesn’t put the artsist on the map. The artist puts the place on the map. I for one know where Akron is now.

Solace in Traditional Forms

25 Sep

As a young songwriter (I’m talking teens and early twenties) all I wanted to do was re-write the book on how songs were made; to make something so outrageously original yet accessible that  young and old alike would think “this is amazing. I can’t believe this hasn’t been done before”. I went so far as to shuck traditional theory and lessons when learning the guitar in the hope that my lack of formal knowledge would allow me to stumble upon some sonic truth that had laid undiscovered throughout civilisation.

Yet somehow even using this method of songwriting I was drawn to the traditional forms. Major and minor chords would still form the root of whatever I was creating. It had nothing to do with selling out my ideals, but everything to do with solving the particular problem I was facing in bringing the musical idea that was trapped in my head out into the world. I had been willfully blind to the fact that every chord under the sun can be quantified by traditional (still largely current) musical theory.

I still did the best I could to steer away from the traditional forms. I didn’t want to have anything to do with my parents or grandparents generation. I wanted to help define the sound of my own generation. Yet despite dabbling in (and usually mixing together) every trend of that decade, I found myself drawn to traditional forms as if by gravity.

I hated Country, yet I would write it. I hated old american folk music and yet I would write it. Ragtime was boring. Most everything that wasn’t the result of some sort of punk attitude or aesthetic I had no interest in, yet somehow over time I began to appreciate it. And it wasn’t just me.

All my friends began having less and less interest in the latest hottest thing. We became fluent in the pathways of music past, and how to interpret their influences on those hot new things. The hot new things became hollow. Not hot or new at all. Just a jumble of old influences that their friends and contemporaries hadn’t yet cottoned on to, or if they had it was intentionally ironic or post modern or whatever other excuse was needed to form a membrane between what they were doing now and the context within which the earlier influence arose.

Something else was also happening. We were living. Things in our lives weren’t going as we’d planned. Life was more complex than we had been led to believe, and it was harder to succeed than we had thought. All of a sudden the new music with its vocals set deep back in the mix, its illusive meanings, or straight-up shallow raps didn’t seem to reflect where we were at emotionally. It didn’t shed a light on what we were going through and we were old enough to know what was going on behind the curtain; “That’s just a TR808 with a Juno bass line” etc.

There was however a pre-existing cure for our ailment, and it has come back time and time again when it has been needed, and that is the traditional folk song in its many forms. Blues, country, appalachian, jazz, gypsy and soul etc, are all folk formats to one set of peoples or another, and they all offer a reliable platform upon which an artist can say what they feel they must.

It tends to come back into popularity in times of great social change and turmoil, when people are looking for something familiar to hold on to (GFC anyone? That’s still happening right?). It’s hard to identify with a guy singing about getting a bitch on a dance floor when you’re being bullied at work, have money troubles and a rocky relationship. Sometimes you just want to hear your life sung back at you.

There is currently a healthy resurgence in these folk musics and the cringe formerly attached has greatly lessened in the younger generations (at least in my own). I have felt a shift in the current generation of pop artists whereby the aim is to be as respectful to the source influences as they can, to pay homage to them while also attempting to bring something new to the canon of that genre. Aloe Blac, Sharon Jones and the Dap kings and Mark Ronson come to mind as examples of respectful referencing of classic soul music for instance.

I have been doing live sound for countless acoustic acts over the past 7 months, all of whom have sought to bring irony free truth in communicating the subject matter of their material. When tongue-in-cheek does creep into a set it is usually in the form of an ironic acoustic cover of a Destiny’s Child, Spice Girls or Britney Spears style pop song.

They tackle the traditional art form in all seriousness because they are relying on it to help them deliver their message in the most economic form of emotional communication as they can. It is this economy of communication that has ensured that the traditional artforms that gave rise to the 2 minute pop song still endure. It is also why I myself have gravitated towards it.

I have been heavily influenced by artists such as Harry Nilsson, Johnny Cash, Randy Newman, Neil Young and  Burt Bacharach in the past few months. Not one of them would I say was all that original. Of course they all exhibit something unique to themselves, but every single one of them relies heavily on the frame provided by the traditions that came before them on which to hang their ideas. These guys were just particularly good at using the format to communicate.

I am still in the throes of dealing with a number of years of complex and deeply upsetting trauma through song. I can’t stop writing (I wrote a song yesterday while repairing a broken window!). And the only format that I have found that can adequately allow me to match my ideas with lyrics and melody is the traditional pop song. Often I have found Country to provide the easiest backdrop to what I want to say, and allow me to marry complex lyrical ideas (such as a narrative) with a strong melody. It’s like coming home. Like that moment when you’re old enough to realize that your parents aren’t really bad people, that they had tried as hard as they could for you given the circumstances and while struggling with their own demons. The traditional pop song was never boring. We just didn’t get it. We thought we didn’t need it. We were sure there was a better way that completely avoided it; and there might be, but it is my belief that you need to acknowledge what the traditional form is before accusing it of what it isn’t. To move forward sometimes you need to look back lest you go around in circles. Wait a minute….but we are going around in circles! Well I suppose he world isn’t flat.