Song, by Toad

Archive for the Rambling category

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Record Store Day 2014 and the Vinyl Revival

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Record Store Day 2014 is next Saturday, as you probably know, and although we don’t have a formal RSD release the new Virgin of the Birds album is out pretty much now and if you want to buy something Toadly then that’s the one.

It’s understated, and Virgin of the Birds stuff often takes a while to settle in, so I don’t expect it to be an immediate hit but nevertheless this is an absolutely excellent album – one which on first listen immediately had me going back to the start to listen again, which is a rather fantastic thing to feel when you release records for a living.

As well as the first single Every Revelry (see video below) there are exclusive plays of two album tracks Nine Sisters (which contains the best saxophone solo of all time) and The Serpent Plume on this excellent interview Jon did with Dani Charlton from Amazing Radio.

You can buy the album from Monorail or LoveMusic in Glasgow, or from Vox Box Music or Coda here in Edinburgh, or if you are more electronically inclined, from our website here.

It’s only out on 12″ vinyl (or digitally of course), not CD, and I suppose it looks a lot like we’re becoming a vinyl-only label these days, which in a sense we are, but it’s not a deliberate or strategic decision actually, just circumstances.

We can really only afford to release most album in one format, either CD or vinyl, not both, as we simply can’t afford the extra manufacturing costs. With albums like this one and Adam Stafford’s which are both co-released with North American labels, we pretty much have to press vinyl as apparently North American customers have all but given up on CD. Or at least that’s what I am told by my US-based hipster spies.

Now, I love vinyl, don’t get me wrong, and I was at the recording of Vic Galloway‘s vinyl special for BBC Radio Scotland earlier this week where they talked about many of the things I love about the format: the tactility, the artwork, the ritual of playing records, the physical embodiment of your love of music, and all the other stuff.

What didn’t come up, though, were any of my reservations about either the format itself or the much-vaunted revival it has experienced of late.

Revived it may be, but vinyl still only accounts for a tiny number of album sales. A huge percentage increase in sales is easy to achieve when the numbers are low, even if the absolute number of sales is still small.

For larger labels I strongly suspect the future is still in the effective monetisation of streaming and on-demand services, rather than vinyl sales, and for smaller ones vinyl is expensive to press and simply doesn’t generate very much profit on short runs. I love the stuff, as I said, but I am not sure it’s quite the industry saviour which the press paints it as.

Headlines need to be written simplistically and sensationally of course, so they are mostly bollocks when it comes to sensitive issues like this, but the whole ‘vinyl revival’ line reminds me of the mindless and utterly wrong statement that ‘all the money is in touring, nowadays’, which was repeated so often that it became common knowledge, despite being complete balls.

The relatively recent revival of interest in building vinyl collections is a good thing, of course, but perhaps more because it points towards an admittedly small but nevertheless important group of people for whom a strong relationship with music is still a core part of their personality, rather than implying any specific importance of vinyl itself. Some people collect plants, some buy every cooking implement going and create incredible meals, and others want to build a large, beautiful collection of the music that they love, and to surround themselves with that collection. It’s nice.

Is vinyl particularly central to that, as a format, though? I don’t know. It’s bolder and more visual than other formats, so I guess it’s the most obvious candidate. But (whisper it) a good CD gives you better audio fidelity, and I have seen some truly lovely CD and cassette releases too.

There is a definite possibility that a significant aspect of the vinyl revival is simply a passing fashion, no more significant than the retro-fetishism of Super 8 film, Instagram, drinking from Mason Jars, and an awful lot of hipster clothing fashions. It could easily, in other words, go away as fast as it has seemed to appear.

I don’t like to think like this, because I love my record collection, and I love making albums as well. But I do sometimes think the vinyl revival needs to be approached a little more critically than it is, rather than people pointing at 200% rises in sales from tiny to very small numbers, and endlessly parroting the dubious claim to superior audio fidelity.

I still welcome it, of course, and I will inevitably spend far more money than I can actually afford on RSD, but I still think a healthy degree of scepticism is needed, because these simplistic narratives are almost never right, and in the music industry at the moment we need to keep open minds about the future rather than relying on jumping from one version of ‘The Answer!’ to the next.

You should totally still buy the Virgin of the Birds album though. Seriously.

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2000 Miles Worth of Fannying About

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Kaboom, fuck yeah music, etc etc etc… No, sorry. No music today. Alright, maybe some, but not much.

As you’ve probably guessed, this blog is going to be an erratic place to be for the next few weeks, until I have finished driving first myself, then Meursault and then myself and Mrs. Toad around America.

In theory, I was supposed to fly to Phoenix last Friday with half of Meursault to collect an RV to use as a tour van for SXSW and their subsequent US tour. In theory. One long series of utterly avoidable fuckups later, and I am here by myself while they are back in Edinburgh cancelling early shows and hoping they can get out in time for Thursday’s Aster Foundation day party, which it fortunately looks like they now can.

All of which leaves me in America with and RV and four days to kill.

(This is going to be long. Really long. If you’re of the TL;DR persuasion then it’s best avoided, I think. But then if you’ve ever actually used ‘TL;DR’, then seriously, fucking grow up you fucking imbecile. Seriously though, this is too long. Don’t read.) Read the rest of this entry »

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So What Have We Learned From Kickstarter, Then?

kickstarter-funded-badge It’s been an interesting few weeks, this. Apart from the visa panics and the whirlwind of trying to get an album learned, recorded and made in three weeks, this has been my first use of Kickstarter (or indeed any such crowd-funding model beyond, y’know, just selling stuff to people) for funding a record release, and it has been fascinating and educational. Although I will admit I am still trying to figure out what all of the lessons are.

For those who don’t follow the blog or the label, we put together a Kickstarter project for Meursault, to help fund their trip to the US to play the SXSW festival followed by an East Coast tour. The idea was that people would chip in to support the project, and vote for five songs – Meursault songs or covers – that we would then record for an album and then play at a series of shows around Edinburgh. There were the usual extra bonus bits and pieces, but that was the basic premise of it.

The reason for this post is that in three weeks we ended up with an album which was already four grand in the black (we raised about £5k and the whole record was manufactured for about £1k), when most of our records take a year to chug through the release process, cost way more, and are still a few hundred in the red even a year or two after release. I found myself looking at the project again and again thinking ‘what the fuck are we doing wrong the rest of the time?’

The hard part is figuring which elements of this project are comparable to a regular release and which are not. There’s a part of me that would quite like to build a whole label around Kickstarter actually. You could basically release a couple of free singles, and then put the album project up as a Kickstarter, and that way you’d only really be putting stuff out if your audience liked it. The problem would be that, for all I assume the blog and the sessions would keep the audience in the region of ‘people I mostly agree with about music’, it still sounds just a little like an indie X-Factor and leaves little room for me insisting that you all like a band because goddammit I said so!

There are obvious reasons, though, why this project isn’t really comparable to a regular album release. A first US tour is a unique and landmark event for bands who have to do something as expensive as cross an ocean to get there. Europe we have managed by ourselves, more or less, but the huge extra costs for flights and equipment make this significantly more challenging. I am assuming this makes committed fans of the band more likely to feel generous, be they Americans wanting their first chance to see them or long-time local fans who want to see them spread the word abroad.

Also, because we were asking for extra commitment and generosity from our fans we tried to get them more involved, which we achieved by inviting them to vote on the songs. Personally I think this was a fantastic touch for an album like this, but obviously wouldn’t work with a normal record. ‘Hey, which of these ten songs you’ve never heard before and two you might half-remember from when you were drunk at that gig the other night would like to chose for the record?’

Nevertheless, I think we need to take a bit of a look at how we work and try and learn some stuff from this, because it went really well and was a world away from how we normally work.

1. Speed of recording. Considering most of the band didn’t even know most of these songs before we started, the recording process was amazingly quick. We spent five days at it, recording pretty much everything live. I am a huge fan of live recording, and that is only partially because it’s the only kind of recording I have the technical knowledge, equipment or experience to do with any real confidence. Obviously different projects suit different approaches, but I can’t help but feel that by far the best way to get an awesome-sounding record is by coaxing the best performances out of the band. I’m not sure any amount of crisp capture or post-production will make up for stilted, lacklustre playing.

With live recording everything is more informal and friendly, which relaxes people.  Also, there may be plenty of mistakes on this record, but because it was done as a band the musicians didn’t question them, they questioned whether or not it was a good take by the whole band. Put someone in a booth with a pair of headphones, however, and a mistake is no longer a minor whoops in an otherwise awesome take, it becomes a MISTAKE which must be fixed.  And of course when people are too focussed on what they themselves are doing rather than playing as a band, which is how most pop musicians are most comfortable, then mistakes are far more frequent anyway. And seriously, sitting in a studio by yourself, adding violin bits to something recorded three months ago… well that just doesn’t sound like much fun to me. And I don’t want to listen to ‘not much fun’, thanks.

2. Packaging. CDs are cheap, and we released this in card sleeves which we hand-printed in our living room, pretty much how we recorded the album. The unit cost ended up being pretty much the same as getting them mass-manufactured, but with vinyl, printing your own sleeves ends up being slightly cheaper (see our box set). This is even more evident if you’re talking about smaller runs of, say, a hundred records. It also brings a really nice personal touch to the release, and gets the band involved and makes them feel more attached to their own record. On the downside, if you basically just keep screen-printing onto blank card sleeves it can leave everything looking a little samey – is that boring, or just a consistent brand image, I dunno!

3. Zero PR spend. This is one of the big ones. If your record is well in the black before it’s even released, why the fuck bother with advance PR? Or indeed any PR? PR is actually very costly, between the postage, the CDs and the sheer amount of time it takes.  It also causes huge delays to the release process – a three month lead time for the glossy magazines, for example. And yet and yet and yet… would we really have been as successful with this project without the money we’ve invested in PR in the past? I very much doubt it. And can you do a lot of PR at basically no cost, with streams, download links and a lot of emails? Yes you most certainly can.

The big problem is radio. I could happily write off physical promo if it were just print press. We get so little out of print media that we wouldn’t lose much, and a lot of the places which do take an interest in our releases are happy to operate on a digital-only basis anyway. However, we do get an awful lot of traction (comparatively) on radio, particularly the BBC, and they just don’t work with digital. One or two people I have a decent relationship with will respond to emails, but in general you can’t get through to people there with email promo. Well, I can’t anyway. So if we ditch physical promo, we lose radio, and mostly we can’t afford to do that. Still, given the cost physical PR adds to our releases, and looking at the sums for this album, I really, really think we need to re-evaluate how we promote our records.

4. Journalists can be total cunts. This went out to journalists on the day of the first release show and by the next day was on every fucking illegal download site on the fucking planet. We have a lot of pals who are journos and a lot of very good relationships with the press, but every single fucking time something leaks it is when it is sent to press. Now, if you write about music the pay is so shit that presumably you only do it because you care so much about music itself. In which case I can’t see how this would happen. Even if you’re just a hack trying to wring a living out of writing about what-the-fuck-ever-who-cares, then if you love something you hear, I can’t see how you would do this. But equally, if you hate something why would you even go to the trouble, and what are you trying to do – teach us a lesson by behaving like an absolute cunt?

Whoever the fuck it is who does this, I cannot express the amount of contempt I have for you. Honestly, it’s utterly pathetic, pointless, and makes you just seem a bit like Salacious Crumb: hanging around the more important people cackling away sadly to yourself but without any real hope of participating and without any real point to make. For those of us actually trying to make a contribution, it’s like treading in chewing gum: annoying and a little bit disgusting, but not even enough of a nuisance to really bother yourself with. You’re pathetic. Piss off.

5. Maintaining the energy. How easy will it be to re-enthuse the musicians from Bastard Mountain when it comes time to release their album in May, given it was recorded over a year and a half before that? I don’t know, but I do know this: absolutely everyone involved in this album has been hopping with excitement since day one. That means excited chatter on social media to everyone’s pals, rather than the more dutiful ‘check out the second single from my band’s last record’ stuff you tend to get. It means more energy at the gigs. The semi-improvised nature of the arrangements and playing has been a huge challenge, but the musicians involved are talented enough to find that fun rather than terrifying.  The excitement has also been constant, too – from the start of recording to release – and with a longer process that would have dissipated.

6. Audience excitement and commitment. Okay, the commitment has been helped by the voting, but the number of incredibly kind and excited messages I’ve received in the Kickstarter inbox has been really quite touching, I have to say, even for a cynical old fucker like me. I think the condensed process has had a huge impact here too, as well as the fact that we’ve consistently put out small bits and pieces from the process itself, even before we had finished audio – Matthew Swan’s amazing photos, that silly video of the recording process, and the Soundcloud stream of Tugboat, which didn’t make it onto the record in the end. I think we’ve managed to make people feel more involved in this record than almost any other, and I think that’s a really good thing.

So I don’t know. I many ways this was a one-off event which can’t really be replicated, and in all honesty maybe we shouldn’t even try. But it’s got me thinking about what we do an awful lot, and I think there must be some really important lessons to be learned from The Organ Grinder’s Monkey, if I could just tease out exactly what they are.

The Organ Grinder’s Trailer from Song, by Toad on Vimeo.

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Ivor Cutler. On Virgin?

Almost nothing at all highlights how much the music industry has changed over the last thirty years than what happened when I was listening to Ivor Cutler the other day. I remember thinking (as I think a lot of people think when they first sit down and properly listen to Ivor Cutler for the first time) ‘fuck me this is weird’ and then ‘fuck me, but it’s good‘ and then ‘but fuck me it really, really is weird’.

As I run a label now, and have on occasion had people express their incredulity at the obvious commercial risks we take from time to time, I do find myself wondering when I listen to such obviously strange stuff as this: who the fuck released this? And why? Maybe they just have a deliberately contrarian streak, such as myself, or maybe (also a little like myself) they have a naive hope that at some point the rest of the world will hear the genius within the madness and suddenly we’ll all float off to some mental magical musical Eden together.

It’s one of the reasons small independent labels are so important, actually. We make no money, so in a sense we are free. We can take chances on things because we don’t have a dozen people’s jobs to protect, and if we lose out then we aren’t depending on the label for our income anyway, so it may not represent successful business, but it is indeed a kind of freedom. So what kind of inspired maverick took a leap of faith on Ivor Cutler – something strange and completely idiosyncratic, and which nevertheless has proven to be enduring and, in a small way, quite legendary.

Virgin Records.

What the ever-loving fuck? Virgin? A major label released this? How the blazing blue balls did that happen?

There are reasons, of course. Virgin with Richard Branson at the helm were pretty aggressively innovative back then. And to be fair, Cutler didn’t start out making quite such weird music. And to be fair, this wasn’t the era of the focus-grouped, X-Factor deluxe karaoke album. But whatever way you cut it, it just feels like a different fucking universe.

For someone as idiosyncratic as Cutler to end up on a major these days… well, it just wouldn’t happen, would it. They’d have to either be so very commercially successful on a small label that they felt there was serious potential there to be exploited, or some inspired/deranged A&R scout would have to think ‘fuck me – THAT’S the one!” I honestly can’t imagine it, can you?

I mean, was music more important back then, that you could take a risk like this and trust enough people would buy it? Did people use music as a means of expanding their cultural life more than they do now? Nowadays music on even the big indies is released for commercial reasons, and it really doesn’t feel like they are even in the business of thinking about music in this way.

I know the teen and tween-orientated Children’s-BBC-pop the majors are looking for these days, like Hannah Montana or Olly Murs, existed back in the seventies too, but it seems like music as culture – or as anything with even the slightest nod towards intellectual validity or artistic ambition – simply has ceased to exist as far as the ‘music industry’ is concerned.

I put that in scare quotes because I really do mean just the industry part. I see music pushing at these boundaries and attempting to be more than just entertainment fluff all the time, but absolutely none of it seems to be of the remotest interest to the industry. The link between Olly Murs and whatever Ivor Cutler’s modern equivalent might be seems to be to be utterly broken now. They seem to exist on two different planets, whereas back then they may have been at opposite ends, but they were at least on the same spectrum.

Is it just the reduction in people paying for music that ends up hurting anything apart from the seriously big sellers? Is it that the music industry is now simply more mature and knows what will sell and what is, in the long term, not really worth taking a risk on? Is it that people in general simply don’t look to music to challenge them as much as they used to? I don’t know – of course I don’t – but it’s been a bit like boiling a frog, for me, in that the industry today feels a lot like the industry yesterday, but add enough of those incremental changes together and holy shit, you get back to a time when Ivor Cutler was on a major fucking record label. Ivor fucking Cutler!

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Performer Mag So Nearly Get it Completely Right

not-my-job I don’t know anything about Performer Mag, I must confess, but they recently wrote a really good article on the basics of getting press. It’s combination of a peek behind the scenes, and some simple advice on how to approach contacting the press, and almost all of it was spot on.  So generally apart from reading it and nodding I wouldn’t be commenting on it at all, but in their penultimate bullet point they mentioned something which is a massive, massive bugbear of mine and which has been irritating the living shit out of me for years, so it’s ranting time.

The point in question was this:

30. You have no damn pitch. Please realize that “We have a new record coming out” is not a pitch. There’s no story there. You have a new record coming out? You don’t say! So do a hundred thousand other bands. Here’s the most crucial question every writer and editor asks themselves, and you need to ANSWER it when you pitch press on your band: “What’s in it for me?” Simple, huh? Can you answer it? If I get a package on my desk, that’s immediately what I’m trying to answer, even if I don’t literally speak those words aloud. “What’s in it for me?” Why should I give a shit about this band? Will my readers care? Are they offering up any story angle that’s gonna make people visit our site or pick up the mag? What’s in it for me to cover your band? Think long and hard about it. ANSWER it before the editor or writer has a chance to ask it themselves, and you’re a HUGE step ahead of most bands jostling for ink.

Now, I am a blogger not a journalist, and I know that gives me a slightly different (and entire self-imposed) mandate, but nevertheless if deep down you really think like this, I kind of despise you. You’re a music writer. You write about music, you find the fucking story. It can be anywhere, from a wider movement you think the band are part of, to the place in music history their stuff fits into, to the innovation or lack thereof of their sound, to the most basic shit like how it makes you feel.

Their argument seems based on laziness, and in my experience wearing my other hat as a PR guy for Song, by Toad Records, that is exactly what it generally is. When I send out a press release with an obvious ‘story’ in it, it makes me bash my head against the wall how often I see it just copied and pasted into whatever article ends up being published. What the fuck is the fucking writer for in this scenario – couldn’t I just send my press release straight to the fucking sub-editor myself?

Look at it from the other direction, if you want to see the latent selfishness of their point: for most bands there is no fucking story. They are just some pals who made some music. Maybe they live in Dayton, Ohio, and maybe they live in fucking Dundee, but basically they’re just a fucking band. As Scroobius Pip once pointed out, even Radiohead are just a fucking band. What they are literally saying is that a shit band with a good back story is going to get more press than a great band with a really pedestrian back story, and I kind of fucking despise you if you think that this is okay.

Do you really prefer some utterly contrived attempt to make a bunch of normal everyday people whose one special thing is actually being good at music sound like they have something else wild and interesting about them in order to merit your interest?  That sounds completely back to front to me. You’ve missed the important point already: they are fucking good at music. What you really seem to want is someone to write a fucking article for you, you lazy, unimaginative fuck.

Now, I completely understand the pressures of both time and the sheer quantity of incoming music, but if you let that overwhelm you then you cannot blame the band. It is YOUR JOB to deal with this. It’s okay to lament it, but assuming the music is appropriate for the publication in question, it is not okay to pretend that it’s the band’s fault you get sent so much music.

Equally, I know most music is more or less the same. So most reviews or articles are going to be more or less the same: ‘here is a band who are very good at music – so fucking what’? Well, as you can see from the pages of Song, by Toad, I struggle with that challenge myself. How do you write a compelling post when you’re effectively just scribbling ‘here is a band I rather like’ for the five thousandth time? I am not sure – it is difficult – but that makes the person who can do it a really good writer and the person who can’t a mediocre one. If I can’t find a way to make that five-thousand-and-first post interesting then the failing is my own and I have to accept it.

If I didn’t explore the bands who wrote me the most ludicrously crap introduction emails I would have missed out on some of the most interesting music I’ve featured on this site, and if I’d stuck to the ones who sent me the most interestingly prepared stories I’d have covered some right shit. Music writing doesn’t demand an interesting story, it demands interesting music. If a band sent you some, then they have done their part of the job. The writing part is yours, you lazy fuck.

The rest of their article was pretty much spot on though, so it’s still well worth reading. But, erm *cough* that last bit rather got on my nerves. As you can possibly tell.

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Some Exciting Releases Coming Up

It’s been a quiet start to the year in terms of album releases and the like, but there are a couple of things on the horizon about which I am most excited. Nervous too, in a sense, because these are bands of whom I am a long-time fan, and in one case a personal friend, and both things tend to give me a sort of enthusiasm anxiety – what if I’m too excited and then don’t like it, what happens then?

That’s dumb of course, but I think a lot of music fans feel that strange tinge of concern in case one of your favourite bands releases something you aren’t so into. The second Perfume Genius album, for example, left me feeling a little underwhelmed, and also somehow kind of sad because I loved the first album and it seemed such a shame to be so cool on the second. I assume I am not the only one who suffers from the odd kind of music fan idiocy.

The new Timber Timbre song (above) is even more sultry than his previous album, although without perhaps the same sense of eerie menace. The shuper shexshy lounge sax solo towards the end of the song is just mental though – not in that it’s horrible or sounds all that shocking, more that it actually doesn’t sound weird or shocking at all. This is popular music in 2014, how the fuck is there a cheesy-as-all-fuck sax solo in a pop song and yet that pop song still sounds ace? WHAT MANNER OF WITCHCRAFT IS THIS? After that, fuck knows what the album is going to sound like, but if it’s anything like as good as the above tune or the band’s previous records then it is going to be ace. Pre-order a copy from the excellent Full Time Hobby.

In the case of Broken Records I have three  Toad Session tracks and now a new tune from their forthcoming EP which suggest that I am going to really enjoy it, so that seems safe. They’ve changed a lot since I first harassed them for a copy of anything they might have recorded after a T-Break Heats gig back in (I think) 2007 and Toska, the new tune they’ve just posted on their Soundcloud page (and which I sadly cannot embed here, so just click on the link) is much dreamier than anything I’ve heard from them before. The Toad Session was pretty raucous though, so I am guessing the whole album won’t be quite like this, but I like the way the song comes across as an unhurried lament without necessarily sounding like a ballad. You can pre-order the band’s new album from their PledgeMusic page here, should you so choose.

Micah P. Hinson has several brilliant albums in his past already, at least three of which are amongst my favourite albums ever*, so I assume he isn’t going to start magically sucking all of a sudden, and the new song On the Way Home to Abilene (below) suggests he is not. He doesn’t change much from one album to the next, honestly, but where in some artists I might find this boring, for some reason I can listen to him make this kind of music pretty much forever.

It’s out on a small French label called Talitres, rather than Full Time Hobby like his previous ones, and I know he’s been thinking of working with smaller labels for a while (and yes, I am kicking myself for not suggesting Song, by Toad Records) but I don’t really know too much about why. When I am chatting to musicians I tend to steer away from that kind of question a lot of the time, as it feels a bit like asking personal questions about why someone split up with their girlfriend. Sometimes people would rather just have a pint, honestly, and I don’t want people feeling they have to keep me at arm’s length in that ‘industry’ sense, if I can avoid it.

Anyhow, this tune sounds bloody lovely. Less aggressive and less lushly sad than some of his stuff perhaps, but the song itself and his mesmerising voice still retain all the old qualities. Pre order here.

*Admittedly, that’s quite a long list.

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If I’m Recording, I’m Not Writing

Me! - Photo by Matthew Swan

Photo by Matthew Swan

That sounds so massively bloody obvious as to not really be worth saying, doesn’t it, but I mean it in a more specific way than just not being able to do two things at the same time.  You may not notice it around the Toad Sessions, because they are relatively brief, but I would imagine that it’s more evident around the Split 12″ recording sessions, and has become incredibly clear in the last week since we started recording The Organ Grinder’s Monkey: when I am working on a recording project, I simply cannot write. Not at all, not even in the evening once the dust has settled.

It’s about focus, really. I think of blogging as being quite top-of-the-head stuff – you write about what is most in your mind at the time, rather than systematically addressing specific issues as a journalist might. I know everyone is different, but that is generally how I approach things. It keeps me interested, ensuring I am always writing about something I am enthusiastic about at the time. I also hope it helps keep a sense of energy about the site; more so than if I was just writing about the new Nick Cave album simply because it had just been released and I felt some self-imposed obligation to write a timely review.

I am not a great multi-tasker though, and you have to be pretty damn focussed when you’re recording. Even though most of the stuff I do is live, and once the mics and levels are set up at the start I am pretty much just sitting there watching a band play, it still seems to demand an awful lot of concentration. As a relative beginner I think I probably concentrate harder than most at the moment as well, simply out of a fear of making an unrecoverable fuck up.

Even once you’ve finished recording, all you really want to do is listen back, start mixing, and start putting songs together to see what goes well. You’re basically putting the album together in your head – jumping many, many steps ahead to fantasise about how incredibly awesome the finished product is going to be. I can try as much as I like to pull the focus back to the blog, relax, listen to some new music and write about it, but I simply find it impossible.

If I were to put anything on this blog during recording then it would almost certainly end up being a preliminary mix from one of the songs we’d just done, because I would be so excited about them, and that would be a terrible idea. An unfinished version of an as yet unreleased song – the band would fucking kill me! I know you’re supposed to play it cool, but really, after a recording session all I want to do is listen to the songs again and again and marvel at the fact that we can make awesome, proper-sounding music in my living room. And then listen to it again because it’s awesome. And again.

Also, when recording there tends to be drinking, and then a very sociable post-recording wind-down with the band. When you’re not technically all that proficient, as I am not, the best way to get a fucking great recording is for the band to produce a fucking great performance, and that tends to be best achieved by them feeling relaxed and enjoying themselves. Perfect mic placement can’t make up for a band playing in an uncomfortable, constipated way because they don’t feel relaxed, so we try and make people as comfortable and at home as possible, and generally I think this works really well for us. It does mean, however, that once the session is over I am NOT going upstairs to diligently plough through my inbox looking for new bands to listen to, I am going to sit around the table with the band, have dinner, drink wine, and cackle excitedly about the work we’ve just done.

We’re now eleven songs into the Organ Grinder’s Monkey recording, after three out of five planned recording sessions. I don’t mean to sound like a giddy cheerleader, but I am really, really excited by what we’ve got so far. There’s something great about recording things mostly live. It feels more fun, and musicians tend to be less paranoid about mistakes. Fans just don’t notice most mistakes like musicians do, but when you’re recording the whole song live, the band tend to think ‘Was that a good take? Yes, right then, that’ll be the one, then.’ If they were recording each part individually I think there would be way more re-takes for tiny errors, whereas like this if the overall thing sounded good, then a couple of minor errors are really no big deal, and I think that’s a great attitude to take, as it also seems to make the general playing looser and more relaxed, leading to fewer mistakes overall anyway.

Either way, this is why you’ve not heard much from me this week. Not because I’m getting lazy and couldn’t be arsed posting, and not even because I am doing enough work during the day anyway and don’t feel obliged to post. Instead, it’s because when I’m doing something as involved and demanding as this, I genuinely can’t pull my head out of it long enough to sit and properly absorb something new, it’s just impossible to break the hold a recording project has on your thoughts enough to do it.

Still, never mind, it will be finished soon. And in the meantime here are some absolutely excellent photos Matthew Swan took during the recording on the weekend. Doesn’t Sam look all moody lighting his cigarette. Shexshy!

Photo by Matthew Swan

Neil Pennycook – Photo by Matthew Swan

Rob St. John - Photo by Matthew Swan

Rob St. John – Photo by Matthew Swan

Sam Mallalieu - Photo by Matthew Swan

Sam Mallalieu – Photo by Matthew Swan

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Sometimes I am Grateful for My Own Nepotism

I know nepotism is one of the most derided aspects of the music industry, and I can understand that, I really can. It can be intensely frustrating watching the whole industry revolve around its little centres, knowing that being out in the sticks here in Edinburgh puts us at a massive disadvantage. And that’s just Edinburgh, imagine how permanently raging I would be if we were really isolated.

But, if we want to look at it another way, and perhaps see it as something a little less pernicious, then perhaps we should acknowledge that a large part of nepotism is born of good things, like trust and loyalty. If a band gives their pals’ band a prominent support slot on their tour then it’s annoying for me, or anyone else who wishes they could have scored that slot, but generally they’re doing it for good reasons and shouldn’t really be criticised that much.

Certainly my loyalty to a few bands and a few recommendations has served my musical taste well, over the years. Some of my favourite bands and favourite records are ones I persisted with not because I liked them all that much on first listen, but because I trusted either the band or the recommender to come good in the long run. In fact, I think it has been one of the most consistently reliable ways I have found over the years to push my music taste in new directions. You need some sort of reason to persist with something you’re not really getting, after all.

I only got into vaguely nasty guitar music by a friend of mine continually playing The Wedding Present. I’ve only really started to understand drone and noise music, and I suppose psychey prog opuses as well,  since I came to Edinburgh and have been surrounded by people who love this kind of stuff and are forever excitedly making me listen to it, despite the somewhat sceptical facial expressions which tend to result. I give this kind of recommendation so much more time, though, because of how much I know our tastes overlap already and also because once you get to know someone, and get to know how they think about music, it tends to give you more respect for opinions of theirs even when you disagree with them. In GCSE terms, if the working-out is right, it’s not so crucial if  the answer is incorrect.

The song at the top of the page is new stuff from a friend of mine, and I really like it. Honestly, though, I am not sure if I would have given it enough time had I not known the guy who made it. We’ve sat up late and bickered about music in the past, so I know that whatever my first impression there is likely to be something in there that I like. I also know that we have a lot in common in terms of the overall aesthetic and approach to music, so I am guessing that will still apply when the music in question is his own.

For another example, last week I mentioned the ten-minute, squealing feedback tone on Side B of David Thomas Broughton’s UnAbleTo. I am not sure how well he took me saying that I didn’t like it, but I loved the rest of the album, and I can’t think of anyone else who would have had me listening to a noise like that again and again, actively trying to find a way to enjoy it. But I’ve seen DTB play live often enough to know that he likes to push his audience, and there have been plenty of times when I’ve been stood there just on the cusp of thinking ‘wait, he’s not playing music anymore is he, he’s just fucking about here, surely’ only for the melody to suddenly kick back and that feeling of relief and understanding to flood the room once more. So I know that’s how he makes music – finding those edges and picking at them – and I really did give that ten minute feedback as many goes as I could before admitting that, nah, it just wasn’t for me in the end.

Why do I say this? Well because this kind of nepotism makes me feel guilty at times. I think of all the artists who send me stuff, and who get fifteen seconds of listening before some horrible RnB vocal or nasty ‘rawk!’ guitar riff make me switch off immediately with a shudder, and it feels a little unfair that I should listen to a friend’s song ten times before even trying to form an opinion, or that I should play that one feedback passage over and over again, trying to get my head round it.

But where aspects of that are just nepotism and are just plain unfair, there are parts of it which are okay. I trust both Chris and David to make music I love, so to an extent that leeway is earned by being part of a broader conversation.

But also, I think it’s quite important. Without having a few people around you who you trust to take you into unfamiliar territory it can be hard to properly embrace new things. After all, you need a good reason to continue to listen to something you don’t necessarily enjoy properly at first. That persistence tends to come from a little faith in the recommender, or from familiar tones from an artist’s other work that you like making themselves heard in something weirder, and providing you with just enough of a vein of familiarity to stick with it a little longer. So nepotism may be bad, in some ways, and is definitely more than a little unfair at times, but without it I think my music taste would have utterly stagnated some time ago.

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Song, by Toad’s Top Albums of 2013 1-5

trphy 1-5 / 6-1011-20

So here we have it, the definitive, totally objective list of the five best albums released in 2013. I could show you the proof if you wanted, but it’s basically just a chart which says that I am always right, except when I change my mind, and even then I am right the first time and even righter once I’ve decided I wasn’t. Got that?

It’s kind of from the Donald Trump School of Reasoning, so surely can’t be all that difficult to grasp.

Anyhow, unlike some years, this time there are at least another five records or so I would personally have wanted on this list, and actually if you ask me on another day they might well have found themselves on it. You know what it’s like red wine and saucisson and you choose one album, gin and radishes and you choose another.

Song, by Toad, where the deeply, deeply middle class have been going to find out about music since 2004. Read the rest of this entry »

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Song, by Toad’s Top Albums of 2013 6-10

horse1-5 / 6-10 / 11-20

Welcome back to the utterly definitive, empirically more correct than anyone else, final once and for all list of the best albums released in 2013.

In fact, these aren’t necessarily even definitive in my own bloody house, and actually depend a little on various factors, not least of which is the amount of diligence I’ve put into actually listening to particular records.

I love the Flaming Lips new album, for example, but haven’t spent enough time properly listening to it to be able to put it in this list. Old Earth, on the other hand, I have listened to an awful lot because as well as loving his album, I also helped put him on twice in Scotland and recorded a Toad Session with the guy, so I have listened to his music a lot!

So yeah, don’t think I take this too seriously, there are plenty of factors beyond the specific excellence of the album which influence where it finished in this list. Read the rest of this entry »

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