Joe Roberts and Melanie Williams: why art is all about being stripped naked and finding strength in your vulnerability…

2014-04-25 14.11.56

Mel and Joe are familiar faces on today’s Macc music scene with their band ‘Butterfly Jam’. Individually they also both have extensive careers in the music industry, with chart success and international acclaim. They live in Macclesfield with their two children, a cat, a dog and a recording studio in the cellar. We met them in the Snowgoose where Joe is the first to arrive…

What is it we’re doing here? Is it an interview..? I forgot…

Yes, an interview – about you and music! Did you always know you’d end up in the music industry?

From when I was about 4 or 5 I always knew. Making up songs in the back of the car and stuff. I grew up on a commune in Norfolk with lots of music happening there and 30 miles away was this other commune with a band who was signed to Virgin Records. When they were sound checking, I went up on stage with them, messed around on the mic’s and keyboard… I must’ve made a conscious decision then. And then just before I started secondary school and they asked what we wanted to be when we were older, I said ‘pop star’. And they all burst into laughter!

I grew up on Elvis and Dylan, started playing piano at 11 and wrote my first full song on the piano at 12 or 13. The first time I performed on stage I was 15 with my first band The Risk. I always thought I’d be a writer, I didn’t think I was good enough to be the singer.

I went to music college, Arden College Community College in Manchester, part-time for two years so you could still sign on and get the dole cheque… There were all styles of people, classical and rock musicians, and for the end of year exam you had to do something different, like have a cello on a rock song… the college had its own studio and theatre. A lot of the classical musicians didn’t write. As a classical player you’re trained to perform not really to write. A writer often is a free spirit. For me the writing was first. Performance is the pop star side, the bit in front of an audience. Being a writer, like Joni Mithcell, Leonard Cohen, they’re not interested in prancing around. The main thing is to tell a story. It’s like a movie.

So you wanted to be a writer but ended up on Top of The Pops..?

People misunderstand what it’s going to be like. When I got on Top of The Pops I wasn’t ‘famous’, my single was in the charts for a bit, when it happened I wasn’t comfortable with it. I’m much more comfortable now. The performing and pop star bit, I found out once I was having that kind of experience that I wasn’t so keen on that. It seemed to me it was all about how I looked, about my voice, expensive videos. Actually my songs to me were more important, the sounds we were getting in the studio…

2014-04-25 13.08.57Joe, your songs were in the charts, were they?

Yeah, I had a no. 23 ‘Lover’, a no. 31 and a no. 28 together with Mel. But that’s not the main thing… thing is, that you have to sell your art so you can keep doing it… The weird thing about any art is you need to sell your art so you can carry on making your art. You need time. Everyone needs time… So it’s an important part of it, being in the charts and stuff, but now it’s more organic. A lot of people just play their music and today it’s possible for everybody to get it out… How you reach your audience is more organic. Access is more democratic. It’s kinda good there isn’t loads of money floating around. People are just doing it for themselves rather than the money… Money and pressure dried me up. I had a period when I had dried up for 6 years, it drains you having to produce because you’re expected to produce a number one…

You’ve got kids now writing songs about stuff, the lyrics are true, they’re real… they write fantastic songs, great lyrics…they write about their lives…that’s why I’m not keen on R&B any more… people are writing ‘ooo I love you, I need you, I miss you’,… old fashioned lyrics, lyrics like that really turn me off now. But people are writing about life stuff again now. Punk was great in that respect, but I missed punk as I was a mod back then.

Is it becoming more political again do you think?

Yeah, with less mainstream control going like with radio approval and the freedom of the internet. The punk thing was amazing lyrically. A real underground revolutionary platform. It was amazing when I clocked what punk was really about!

We start chatting about the beauty of experiencing music when playing live with a band and how it all feels so differently when you have to doctor a piece of music into marketable songs…

Everything happens for a reason anyway. You just have to be patient, usually it comes around sooner or later. It’s like magic. It’s amazing!
I had a band, it was quite organic, but the record company decided to stop paying for my band, it all went pear-shaped within six months. I wasn’t in my power, I didn’t know how to say no. I believed they knew better and I didn’t have a clear vision at that time. I had a band but was signed as a solo artist. We were quite raw, just warming up for the album release. But they wanted to pull the band money and put it into remixes and videos. The club remix thing was massive, all good, but my organic raw side got brushed under the carpet. The live music, the band, was gone… So I ended up being the pop star I thought I wanted to be. The raw hippy side of me went. I looked ridiculous sometimes when I look back… and then I woke up. I asked my manager how do I get off this label? He said if you don’t write any songs in the next six months they’ll drop you anyway.

I’m working with young artists now and one of the things I’ve learnt is to do it the way you want to do it. Don’t let anybody tell you how to do it. So if you feel in your heart ‘fuck off!’, then why do it? The most important thing is the art, the music, that’s what people fall in love with. That you’re genuine.

Were people using or listening to music in a different kind of way 30 or 40 years ago, were they less consumer-minded and had a less fast-track interest in being entertained with music?

I think people have always had the same relationship with music. Something to dance to, escape into or to inspire their life somehow. The consumer can get hoodwinked sometimes by the industry but honest music has always found a way through. In the late 60’s early 70’s the record companies realised a lot of the artists were in the driving seat…

Our last record deal together (with Melanie) ended 2008. The last album we match funded it so we were out of money. We needed to keep the wolf from the door, so I thought I’d do something I like doing. I always liked doing carpentry stuff but I was so ridiculously slow with it back then…. I started joining Alan Davies (Fats from The Chinese Marbles) for decorating, and he taught me a lot. When I go out decorating I usually come home bursting with musical ideas because I’ve been contemplating them all day with a brush in my hand, in a Zen like state sometimes… I decorate if I need to, to help keep the studio going, so that I can spend more time in the studio, recording, writing etc.

Alan, he was one of the people that reminded me music was fun. When we came to Macc we noticed straight away at Storm Brewery rehearsals, gigs with the Chinese Marbles, Hot Bananas… we noticed how much fun everyone was having! Compared with my past experience, most of the time it was pretty stressful!

At this stage, Mel joins us…

Mel, how did you first get into performing?2014-04-25 14.10.50

I spent part of my childhood in Macc. I was always singing with the hairbrush. My neighbour used to swear through the walls to shut up! I did want to be Diana Ross but didn’t know that’s what I’d do.

I had a boyfriend at 14 and he said I should go and audition for this girl group, which I did, but the man in charge made me uncomfortable… I escaped in the night with my suitcases but at least I learnt to get in touch with my gut feeling. And above all I say that to our kids now – above all we tell you, trust your gut instinct. I just wanted to be a normal girl. It had all been very official and my parents had signed a contract, they wanted us to be like a modern young Three Degrees. I just wanted to get home.

How did it all go on then, did your parents carry on supporting you?

They did. From when I was 13 on I had several after school jobs, then when I was 17 at a party these guys said, you look like a singer, will you come and sing in our band Adventure, and we used to rehearse in the Beehive Mills at the back of Oldham Street in Manchester. I started writing for the band and that morphed into me and Eric Gooden leaving and becoming Temper Temper, and we got singed to Geffen Records.

I’d immediately started hearing whole songs in my head and used to think I’d stolen them, I did everything with my voice, I didn’t learn an instrument. And then I’d sing the song and they’d be like, no that’s original, let’s write it down!

I gave up A levels for it. At one stage, living in poverty in Hulme, my parents did say maybe you need to stop dreaming, but then I was spotted doing covers in a cabaret band – spotted by a guy with a studio and he gave us free studio time. And we were signed from those demos and then we were whisked off to Chicago, New York and LA!

As soon as I started it was like a door burst open and there was nothing but music in quite a dramatic way. Nothing else matters. This is it. These things just happened like a sense of destiny. If there was a grand plan, I didn’t know this was it! But this is it. This is what I have to do. And to be a part of the driving force of the music industry. It’s like an addiction – it’s fine when it’s all going well, but it did buffet me around a bit. But it’s obsessive. I had to find a way to live and breathe as a musician. It brings you so intensely into the moment. That sense of connection with other musicians, it’s amazing… That’s the stuff of life. Those connections. The essence of life. Connection. Being in the moment.

Everybody seems to be able to record music these days, but what about talent?

Everyone has a voice, some of us just come in more connected to it. It’s good for the soul, good for breathing, good for health to sing. So once you’ve been bitten by that bug it takes over. Connecting to your true voice. It helps you to connect to yourself. But, you have to be prepared to allow creativity into your life….

They start discussing how hard it is to maintain creativity and manage an image of yourself that is meant for the outside, for ‘the industry’….

We work so hard, rehearse ourselves rigid in order to re-produce music on the stage so that it sounds like on the record… when you find that the real creativity sits in the live music. The benefit in later life is being able to just jam, ‘the pearls of poverty!’ (said in unison). The pearls that come out. Before if I changed my hair there would be a three-way conference call. Once I was flown to California to do a different shoot, we did quite a dark arty shoot for the UK, but was flown over there to do something more sex-kitteny for their R&B market. I wish sometimes in hindsight I’d been stronger. I said yes to some things and no to others that perhaps I shouldn’t have… But it was an overwhelming force. At the time I felt in power, and strong, but I wish I would have said no, and not ignored my authentic self. The main struggle is to remain creative and be your authentic self… Today there’s a lot of freedom in the arts and you can develop individually …well it depends on the area of music.

Once you’re in it, I thought myself a strong woman, strong artist, driven, ambitious, I would say yes to thinks I thought I was in agreement with because I wanted it to work. Ignoring my authentic self didn’t work for me. For some people it does. I look back now and think I knew that feeling and I ignored it… I was always trying to be reasonable to the investors too, but when trying to make things more commercial the creativity was inhibited. It was too contrived. It didn’t work. The pressure to get a top record doesn’t work creatively.

…Prince he can do it. And Madonna – she has scouts on the street sweeping for the next big thing. She takes it over, superimposes herself on it… I thought I was like that, then realised I wasn’t. She got authentic later, whereas I was hampered by wanting to be authentic now!

She pours more Gunpowder Green tea thoughtfully…

2014-04-25 14.24.23Nile Rodgers too. I met him once in the Ritz… he was so generous, like he was ‘giving’ generously all the time. Some artists are just drawing in to feed their egos… It’s feeding an addiction. Other artists are pouring out to me, to the audience… Erykah Badu talks about the journey of the artist… she’s a neo-soul artist, she’s a real icon for me. Her records went from making 7 million, to 2 million, to 1 million, she’s also an activist… I like the way she goes about it.

It’s incredible in Macclesfield at the moment! You wonder why you end up here and then you think wow I see it now!

We reflect on the fact that most of the musicians who have approached us for GITM are men. There are plenty of female musicians in Macc, but perhaps they don’t push themselves forward in the same way.

Is there something about rock music that is particularly ‘male’?

Joe: Prince always has female players. The work ethic of women is incredible, they won’t give up. Men less so, maybe because they’re used to having things done by them by their mothers..? Men would be like, fuck this let’s go to the pub, but not women…

Mel: I said to my daughter, be a bass player and you’ll never be out of work and I’ve encouraged her to play piano and sing so she can go out on her own and be independent.

Do you think this is a gender thing then, because only one other person has mentioned that need to be independent as a musician, and that was also a woman. None of the men have mentioned it?

Mel: Maybe…

Joe: I think the gender thing is changing though… but men are used to having people do things for them.

Mel: My babies were strapped to me during recordings, you can hear Pheonix and Coral gurgling over them ! I breastfed through business meetings… They learnt to cling on my children did, I think I got into a kind of superwoman trap, don’t think I slept for 7 years, recording, singing, writing, producing, breastfeeding, trying to be a perfect mother as well… I realised I wanted to be there for them, a perfect mother and a successful career woman… challenging call. My orbit got smaller and smaller – the kitchen, the basement studio, the school run… I’m wanting to expand my orbit again now.

Picture1Joe: What I hate about the decorating was it got me into this culture of pubs and men and after work drinking, and I’d get home, sit down, thinking… I’ve been out, done work, haven’t I? Whilst the person at home …well, would have worked too… don’t get me wrong, but… (Mel nods in agreement). I met such great people in the pub and got lots of new work from there too… but it was strange. I didn’t want to be that person.

So what advice would you give to aspiring musicians today?

Joe: Avoid ‘being famous’ as a goal. It’s about your expression as an artist. Keep expressing yourself… and you don’t have to have a lot of money to do that. Just enough money to have a few days off to write. Keep writing, keep playing live… keep a life. Most people who are famous don’t have a life. People miss their mates and their home life when they’re touring. It’s tough.

Mel: It used to be all exclusive, held back, you’d tour to promote a record, there was mystery… Now more people know you, you give your record away to sell the tour and that’s how you make your money, from the tours.

2014-04-25 15.15.52Joe: Make money by being yourself. Like Elbow. They do what they want to do on stage. They’re just themselves. They’re making money at being themselves.

Mel: Be connected to what your particular feelings and goals are. For some people fame is very useful, they do a lot of good things from that platform. It’s about checking in and being as connected to your authentic self as you can and then get paid for who you are… Get paid for who you are. If you can manage that, that’s the way forward.

Joe: My original childhood goal was to be famous.
Mel: Was it? I didn’t know that!

Joe: …and then when I got there I froze. I realised I just wanted to write and feel connected. It helped me emotionally… It’s saved a lot of lives music… A smaller audience is more connected.

Mel: For me all my nerves disappeared when I got eye contact with the audience, a real energy, connected. Sometimes when you play live, you make eye contact with people, some may be really cautious or doubtful at first and then further on, this moves on and you make a more trustful connection with them, like something has been exchanged with them through music. I get grounded in my body. It’s an exchange. We’re all in this together. Everything fell away when I had that connection. Some kind of energy exchange… I wanted to use the music to support amazing causes. I feel I’ve gone from an egocentric space programmed by society to prove myself as a powerful woman to the deeper and deeper expression of my authentic self…an ongoing re-discovery ! Butterfly Jam is like a parent energy, a force, spotting new talent, we’re encouraging the next wave of musicians now… It’s lovely for us to see how the next generation of musicians emerges and develops.

Joe: Macclesfield’s got this rally amazing support system. Everyone goes to see and support each other and then talk and drink together… It’s like Greenwich village2014-04-25 14.23.04 in 1963! Amazing writers supporting each other, playing in bars… yeah, that’s it! Like the poetry slams in Inca…

Mel: There’s something going on every night… Art is so revealing. That’s why people are scared to do it. It’s like being stripped naked. It’s hard to hide anything. Even if it’s revealing what you’re hiding, you cannot express something truly creative without revealing something about yourself. You have to be very strong to be vulnerable, to be able to reveal your vulnerability.

Joe: In Macc there’s an amazing amount of people taking a risk, setting up platforms for musicians, poets, artists… It’s always this difficulty with music. You have to build the vision first, get the essence of it and then get it out there…

Mel: I wanted to do an A to Z for artists tips! It’s all gobbledygook in a contract first time you see it. Later on you get to know it and understand it… but it’s changing so fast. It’s a whole new territory now…

The older I get the more open I feel about things. It was very important to me first we had to build it, there are no guarantees, we had to build the music first, with no illusion of security, build that vision first. It’s quite a magical thing. To create that out of nothing. It’s impossible to be uncreative, it may have been crushed out of you, but there isn’t a single being on this planet that isn’t creative . It might be blocked, but it’s in there somewhere…

Joe: The function of music, it’s a childlike state of being in the moment where everything feels possible. It’s kept me in touch with the openness to ‘anything’s possible’. With music anything’s possible – wow we’re free!!

Mel: It connects me to the limitlessness, limitless possibilities, magic. It’s the one thing that connects me, I’m not worried about tomorrow. Fears and worries about the future and past disappear. It takes you intro timelessness and spacelessness. Time ceases to exist… And you can experience it with others.

Joe: It’s limitlessness and magic. That’s why drugs are so prevalent in the creative world, because they extend that childlike openness beyond the performance…

Thank you, Mel and Joe, for taking the time to talk to us, and for sharing your timeless, spaceless, magical world… here’s to Macclesfield’s next generation of free-souled musicians!

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Steve Smith: “Music is more obsessive…”

steve1Steve Smith paints beautifully aesthetic canvases of a world filled with subtle reflections of light on skin and water …or eclectic visual cocktails of seemingly arbitrary scenes hitting the canvas with bright colours and bold authority. Steve also plays rhythm guitar, fast and furious, previously with Mars Black. Now that Mars Black is no more, he assembles some of his artwork under the same name. Despite his screaming canvasses and his self-confessed passion for ‘just hitting a guitar really loud’, Steve seems to be a quiet man of reflection… We met him in Monocle Deli surrounded by his paintings.

Steve, are you a musician or an artist?
Artist. It’s like trying to go out with two people at the same time. It’s not a good idea is it? One gets in the way of the other… You have to focus 100% on one.

Does one inform the other for you?
With music I might think about it in terms of what it would look like as a painting. But they get in the way of each other.

How did you get into guitar playing and into painting?
As a kid I used to draw, draw, draw all the time. A little weird…! Others would be going outside… I’d stay in. I’d draw. Not paint. Then as a teenager I started playing guitar and didn’t do any art work for about seven years. Fourteen years ago I started to paint on a whim and I stopped doing music.

Can you listen to music while you paint?
When I paint, I can’t have music on… it stops me thinking about the painting, I go distant and I start thinking about music. It’s a bit embarrassing, I’ve got recordings of rain, rivers and stuff, to shut up the noise in my head that’s usually quite negative!2014-04-004

Do you have a similar negative voice in your music?
It’s much louder! Much louder! Painting is more natural. Music’s a bit of an obsession. It gets out of hand at times… the thinking I mean that happens, all that is even louder with music …and when you play music with others, even more so.

You talk of your art and music as if they are very compartmentalised. Are they?
Two different buildings! Got my guitar in one place and studio in another. The last ten years I started doing them together, but…Music is quicker, more immediate, you can create a song in minutes. A painting takes days. It’s a lot quicker. That’s what I like about music.

2014-04-03 10.16.36When you play music in public people are really quick to judge it. With art they’re more reserved. Usually a bit more scared by it too. You can sit in here (we’re sat in the Monocle Deli surrounded by Steve’s art work) surrounded by pictures and you can ignore them. If you pick up a guitar and start thrashing around you can’t ignore that. So you need to be a bit more responsible. I find music much harder, frustrating. I’ve got no natural musical talent.

With music you have to rely on other people as well so it just takes longer. If I could do it all myself I would but I can’t. With painting you just have to put the time and effort in alone.

I have no natural musical abilities… I have no clue about melody. I just do rhythm. I think it reaches people quicker, it has a more direct impact. I’m more natural with art, music is more obsessive…..it is quicker. Music is the more frustrating one.

Are you worried about how people judge you?
About ten years ago I changed – I really don’t care what people think. I was never going to be as good as the people I wanted to be. Also, there’s no point in just copying stuff… with a musician sometimes you can just listen for five minutes and know exactly who they’re trying to sound like. I really don’t like that.

How do you go about finding new things to paint or new music to play? Do you research, do you listen to other people’s music …?
I just do what I want. With art, you can do it on your own. With music, you need to make it work with other people. You need to get the ideas across the room to the others.

Before, I did look more to what others did. Now, I just do what I want. I was never as good sounding as I´d like to be… I don’t want to copy anybody, it’s never going to work, I try not to do what others do, and I don’t want to sound like others.

2014-04-006Have you made any sacrifices for music?
I think so yes. I think everybody sacrifices something… I would say it was security. I don’t have any of that but I don’t really want it because there isn’t any of that anyway… Anything you do, you’ve got to give something up. But you have to go down the rabbit hole!

What links your art and your music?
They’re sort of the same. They’re both done for impact. I like things to be really definitive. I’m not trying to be clever, it just is what it is. It either makes you feel something or it doesn’t. And I feel something… It sounds really pretentious when you talk about it! Basically, like TV’s really boring, so I’ll play guitar. And I just like hitting a guitar really hard! People have a lot of respect for guitars, it´s got scales, and maths… for me it’s a piece of wood that makes a sound.

If you like just hitting a piece of wood really hard, why not play drums?
I wish I could!! I’m not good enough. But then when I’d see Ben moving his drums I’d think I’m so glad I’m not a drummer! …I just like sounds. It’s very rhythmic. A lot of bands neglect the rhythm of a song – you can play two notes rhythmically and people feel it. It doesn’t have to be complicated… Lots of musicians forget it’s about the sound that’s coming out for the audience, not just what they’re doing.

What are your plans for the future..?
I used to have plans. But they stopped. It’s so difficult to make money out of music these days, it’s not a good career option. With art you can paint something once and sell it, but with a song you need to sell it a million times. It’s a lot easier to support yourself through art… for me anyway.
You have to be lucky. These days everybody can do it themselves but I’m not sure they make money from it or not…steve2

In a parallel universe what would Steve Smith be doing..?
I’d be a dolphin. No I wouldn’t. I’d actually be a koala…. A parallel universe? I don’t know what I’m doing in this one!! …If I could do it all again I’d just do one, I wouldn’t do both. And it would’ve been the painting. I wouldn’t do anything musical. I don’t like the competitive side in music, in art it’s much easier to ignore them.

Do you ever get yourself outside your comfort zone (art and music wise) and what happens then?
I like to stay in my comfort zone. I know I can only do certain things so I try and do those really well. I don’t try to compete. Let them do it.

Judging by the speed with which Steve’s paintings are selling, it seems like it might be a comfort zone worth settling in for a while! Thanks for taking the time to talk over tea and toast with us, Steve.

Steve’s artwork can be found here and here:
Stevesmithartwork.com
Mars Black

Fil Hill: “…I do it all because of the writing…”

We know Fil Hill as this ace guitar player, who seems to be able to play everything and anything, plays in lots of Macc bands,…always smiling…who practised five, or six or ten hours a day, could be met going up the stairs of his parental house, sideways, with a guitar, whilst playing scales… we hear how he went to Spain with friends, on a holiday, and developed an un-tanned spot …because the guitar came to the beach and was played and used so often that the blocking out of the sunlight left its trace…

 

Fil has played guitar since he was 14 and studied Music at uni. He teaches guitar and music to a wide range of learners and he plays in many bands. He also performs as an individual artist.

 

fil pointed finger b 6 w

We meet Fil at his house in Macc….

I bought this house when I was 23 and have lived here ever since. Lots of people lived here, we all played music, had parties, …they all sat round here (Fil is making coffee in his kitchen) on various work tops…oh, you still had to teach the next morning and were so tired.

 

You got a studio in the cellar, do you?

We wonder downstairs …behind carpet clad walls, there is this space filled with guitars, amps, electric blue computer screens, cables, above all guitars, pedals and things of which we don’t know what they are,…guitars with old stickers on , a yellow guitar, …

 

We don’t have to ask questions,…Fil provides the answers anyway. There is one subject, and that is central to it all..

I do it because of the writing. I don’t see a point doing it if you don’t write yourself. Everybody I teach needs to do some writing.

 

There are people out there, many of those who are classically trained and they don’t seem to write at all….?

I embed theory in the process of writing in my lessons. You don’t need to tell people that you are doing theory….you can tell them after…The biggest mistake you can do is treat musical theory as a set of rules. What matters is listening to what other people play, theory informs your ear, it can make you understand why you like something and what you don’t like.

 

You like teaching do you?

Teaching is great. I have to be able to describe to others what I do or what I don’t do…

Fil tells us more about his teaching …as you would expect he has developed his own views and approaches to aspects of teaching music, …

At uni people would be practising riffs, faster and faster…I found that when you ask them to change one note, their speed comes down to a quarter…I think, you have to be able to do a different thing every time. The first three to four weeks of a way of practising something gives you a lot of improvement, after that, it gets detrimental.

 

How to remain creative when playing music and when practising seems a central topic…

You have to learn to be creative with next to nothing. Do a blues with just four notes…Simplify things. Setting borders is dead useful. Take little ideas and explore them …it will get you there in the end. Hum a tune, then, vary it,…it is all about repetition, about alterations in rhythm, about phrasing.

And you must recognize the sounds of scales before you can truly say that you know them. Only then you can use them fully. If you play them and just know fingerings and shapes without having a sonic reference then it seems more like maths. That’s why I tend to say…”you need to be able to sing them…”.  There are lots of misconceptions about things like scales..You play 7 notes…and then there are 5 that you don’t play…what if you use one of those notes too…see how it affects the scale.

 

You work a lot with autistic people, do you?

Some of these kids have amazing musical skills…they still need to learn technique,..everybody does…because they haven’t developed advanced speech it doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of being great musicians.
Fil gets this set of bells which are attached on a board and come in different colours…
We play the “hello” song to start the session,…and we play other songs,…and some of the people in the group wouldn’t interact at all with you…but all of a sudden, after some weeks,..they play all the songs to you, one after the other…we sometimes film them and their responses, meaning where they look, how they react ..gives us a lot of information how they learn. Out of 10 autistic people, four or five will have near to perfect pitch. This whole initiative is together with Professor Ockleford who does a lot of work with autistic people. We are trying to work out a musical framework called “Sounds of Intent” about how to assess people with special needs in a musical context.

 

fil bells bright

When did you start playing guitar?

When I was four I was sent to this teacher. His piano wasn’t tuned to concert pitch..it was something like 445 Herz or so…I did not like the music lessons at all and eventually revolted.
I did not do anything with music until about 14 or 15. At Fallibroome, I sat in the back of guitar lessons and listened. I did not play. I finally got hold of a guitar, my sister Isobel’s who did not use it any more. I heard that song, “Stairway to heaven”, I got the song, figured out how to play it, played it up and down…I started playing on this very day..and I did not stop till the next morning…played through all the night. And, basically, I did not stop playing till the week after on the Monday when there was the next lesson. I must have played for about 100 hours.

Then, I got obsessed with it. I never stopped.
There were times when I was forbidden to cook anything in the house, because, I used to burn anything, as I was with a guitar all the time,…microwave , that was all I was allowed…

 

Do you have perfect pitch?

I have very good relative pitch..
I think the theory goes that people are either born with it and then they lose it…or it is developed in the first two years…Well, this strangely tuned piano of my first teacher, he must have certainly not helped me…

 

Is there something special about the guitar as an instrument….?

Well, …it is the filter everything goes through for me…
But this man,..I wrote some software for him, …he can only blink  his left eye. He can’t talk, everything else is paralysed. He used to be a guitar player. With this software, he can compose now. I had to work out how to produce this software so he can get into a compositional work flow without have to blink too much…it takes a long time to compose things ….his wife told me how much joy it brings to his life.
The guitar is the filter through which I perceive all music. When me and Joe (Joe Ashworth) write the singing parts , I always refine things with the guitar, I can’t visualise music without it. It is a pretty insufficient way to go about it though, it is so much slower than visualising music on piano. I learnt how to play the saxophone..well, I could sight read very quickly with that if you got the C chord, it is just the same kind of fingering, …just on different positions on the keyboard,…not with guitar,…
It can be so interesting to use another instrument for the creative writing process ….

yellow gituar

A lot of people who play music for the passion of it but have not been trained classically…would they benefit from learning more theory?

Hm…you see,..all these classically trained people who have been taught it all as a set of rules…when you ask them, when have you last written something.. it has always been a long time ago that they did …

Music is all about a feeling…

Also, when it comes to performing …you make mistakes, but that is fine, as long as people keep entertained, it is no big deal…

You need to keep challenging yourself…
I am obsessed with it.

 

I like my situation where I am now. I socialise with a lot of musical people,..a record deal? I like what I am doing…no matter what,..I’d play that kind of music anyway.

 

You play classical guitar as well, do you?

…there is something therapeutic about it..yeah..I have written classical things.
I don’t enjoy so much the playing of classical gigs…you drive there on your own, and you don’t know anybody there…you are booked to play for an hour …I have played for the British Medical Association…but in the gaps,…there is nobody to talk to, there is only small talk…so I tend to just carry on playing.

 

It is different with bands, isn’t it?

Sure. With the bands it is great…I am writing music, I am with friends…it was getting to this point, where me and the drummer, that was 20 years ago,… were having this discussion about ..”what if we had a record deal?” ..so I asked,..would you enjoy it more if there was a record deal and you started to compromise on the music…when things get “monetized”..would you enjoy it less or the same? What would change? Yeah, it would be great to tour…but it might start bringing in stress..I love playing music with others,…if there weren’t others, I´d still play, I’d play on my own.
I have invested a lot in music, I got all the equipment I need and I can record, I got enough to do what I want to do.

It is all about caring what note the next one could be. ..and that you keep moving forwards.

I feel so lucky to be able to teach disabled people, their learning is so different.

 

So what are the things that you do in the week?

I teach guitar lessons for 2 days a week. I work with a group of disabled adults, ..it is called “assisted music technology”, some of them they can just move a hand, and they use ipads for writing and playing,..this is a proper techno band and we had a gig in “Band on the Wall”.

I teach assistive music technology in schools with a view to use that for teacher training, because lots of schools have the musical equipment and resources but not necessarily the skill to teach music that includes the disabled students…

I go to Liverpool to work with a group of autistic people….A lot of my teaching with disabled people is about inclusive education and comes through the charity called Drake Music, of which Jools Holland is the patron…
Oh, and my approach to teach theory is to make people use it in writing…and tell them about it later.

guitars fil posters

 

Do you have plans for the future?

I would like to expand my work with disabled people.
I´d like to write music for computer games,….I wrote some music for a film score…I call that descriptive music. I like the thought process that you go through when you develop it…e.g. For a film score, I’d assign a certain melody to the different characters, …and depending on when happens what to them in the film, that melody appears, but in modifications or played differently…
I’d like to write more music for film …

 

Fil grabs his phone…”need to go,.. have to meet Michelle in town” (that’s his sister) …

We can’t help thinking, that he has truly managed to mould the musical world that matters to him in such a way that he can freely move within it….the inteview leaves a deep inner smile on our faces.

 

Thanks Fil for talking to us!

 

http://www.filhill.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

John McColm: “You need to be fully committed…”

Most people know John McColm as ‘Scottish John’; the man with a raspy bluesy voice, guitar, hat and Katie the dog. They know him from his busking around the streets of Macclesfield, and from his appearances at  Mash Guru’s  Sunday Night Jam Sandwich, where words and stage go back and forth between musicians and other performers.

 

We met John a few days before he was about to set off on his travels Southwards…

johm mccolm 1

Has music always played a part in your life?

Hm. I had put it a bit to the side when I was married. It seemed to be an issue then.

I play keyboard and I had piano lessons for two years. The piano playing did not seem right for me the way it was taught then, so I just played by ear. My mother had a really good record collection with Al Johnson, Night King Cool, Bing Crosby, South Pacific Musical. When my Mom died, I was 15 or 16 then,  I got a guitar and I played it all the time for about a year and got quite good with it. But then I never picked it up again until I was 36.
I started on open mic nights and I looked for songs. I started because of the music, but I was not sure about the performing part of it. I decided, first subconsciously, then consciously to do music.

But it is hard to be in music and work. I worked in a pub then. I started to get away with friends, for two or three gigs and it would pay for itself, ..we had a nice trip and got a bit away from work.

I started to become invited to pubs to play and there was a lady singer with me. That worked really well and there was a big network of local open mics and other places to play.
When that ended, I realised that the quality of what I was doing was good enough.

It was in the last year that I learnt how to busk.

 

What kind of music do you play?

Hm. Acoustic blues and ballad? I like to vary and I don’t like to label myself, I’d rather have other people do that. Well, I have this expression that I quite like for the style of music … ‘skunkfoot’ …but you’d have to be a band to be using that label.

There is a video of me by ‘badkamra’, …it was a recording that Jake Evans made, he offered to do it. I like all that Southern Blues, like Paul Simon and Billy Joel, also because they change their styles all the time.
There is always the ‘theater’ element to the music playing too.

 

Did you plan to have things develop like they did?

It went from the open mic nights and people seemed to like it. When playing with the lady singer stopped, I started pulling things together myself.

 

Do you have a stage persona?

Yes. You need to feel comfortable doing it. And I like to come across so that people feel comfortable too. Not everybody does it like that. At the moment, I feel to be in a place (in that respect) where it works for me. I like to be completely non-threatening for the people.

 

Apart from playing songs, what else do you do musically?

I write lyrics as well. Oh, I could do with a partner for writing lyrics.
I write different kind of songs. There are those ones which I call ‘chat-up lines’, when I try get a girl think of me ‘favourably’…(they are some kind of self-indulgent love song) and then there are those that I call  ‘self-portraits’ or ‘note-to self’ kind of songs,…. I also like humour in my music….(not necessarily comedy) ….I like to pick up other people’s songs not just any song,…they need to be songs that I think are great and people may not have heard them … I also might take a song by somebody else and do a jazzy version…

 

How do you feel being in an environment with so many other musicians? Does it affect you?

I never felt uncomfortable with others around. I tend to be delighted by their abilities or put off by it …My ego is as big as everybody else’s and I don’t compare myself to others. I am incomparable to others and nobody just sounds like I do… I have done a bit of acting aside from doing music.

You can’t call yourself a musician until you work as a musician. You need to be fully committed. And it is all about live performing.  I have toured a lot.

This friend of mine, Martin Stevenson, we had this conversation and he said that at the base of it, you need 500 fans who stay on, come see you play, buy your cd and bring other people to it. He said it won’t work until you have reached that level.

 

To reach that level, is that a plan of yours?

Yes. I want to be able to produce something. Also producing it because you do it for others. It’ll take a couple of years, I bet. Play every day…it is a long, slow process…I treat it as an apprenticeship. You need to do it like that, there is no other way, if you rush …you might miss something.

Basically it is like your give yourself ‘up to the universe’.

 

Do you mean, you ‘lend’ yourself to the case and in loosing yourself in it you actually get there?

Yeah, kind of.

 

Do you have self-doubts?

I always think that I can help others…!

I am hugely critical of others…and I am learning that I don’t need to tell everyone everything that I think….(big smile…)

kate 2

If you could choose your favourite, most important musician and ask that person one question and one question only? What would you ask?

Can we sit and have a jam for a couple of hours? And the people would be Paul Simon, or Cat Stevens, or David Bowie or Kate Bush.

 

Do you encounter obstacles with playing, writing or producing music?                                 

When a song doesn’t work, you need to re-approach it. Try to find a different angle. I´ve  been working on these lyrics for three months… oh, there is one, I’ve been on since 13 years…
Sometimes, you have built the song wrongly, and you just need to take it apart and re-assemble it in a different kind of way. Sometimes, with a song that doesn’t work it is like when you are tuning the guitar… you may misjudge which one’s the one out. And you are trying to change something at the wrong end. Same with a song… applies to many things in life ….
You need to see things differently…

 

We’ve spoken to professional musicians, people who just do music, no other paid job. It’s not always fun for them… What about you?

Well, it is like with smoking. You may not like that one cigarette, but you’re still having it…
Sometimes it only takes 20 minutes such a moment…..I only don’t like it at all when I am absolutely desperate for money.

 

So, there is an element of discipline in it?

Yes. …I ignore that far too often.

 

Is there something special about Macclesfield and its music scene?

Well, it is here where I stopped on the way.
The people of Macclesfield have looked after me.
It has been here that I got exposed to Reggae Music …that is really important for me now. This has been helpful, to take me out of my old labelled path.

The next on the list is Bhangra. I’m interested in a mixture of Rock, Bhangra and Hip Hop.

 

You said that you are going to travel now for a while?

I will go down South, to the English South Coast, to establish a range of places to play and later get back to play again, and eventually go to the South of France and maybe winter there or in Italy.
I have places to play in Glasgow, in Northampton, in Prague …

Hopefully by next winter I’ll have a proper recording in place, a product… First I want to make it work though…

I’d love somebody to manage me. So I could just focus on music. I don’t want to waste time, or my talent… Isn’t there this parable in the bible (the bible is rubbish for religion but great for stories)… about these three people who were given “talents” or coins of money, and one of them hides it, the other one puts it to good use… etc…You need to put your talents to use.

 

We’re feeling a little sad as John sets off travelling, thinking the streets of Macc will feel a little emptier musically as a result. But hopefully we’ll meet him back soon with new songs and stories. After all, he told us he sees no reason why he shouldn’t end up back here again… 

 

Thanks, John, for talking to us, and good luck with your travels.

 

John has a website :  john@johnawakening.com

Currently, this website is only a holding page… but watch there in the future…

 

 

 

 

Meeting the Mystery Creatures: it’s all about the product…

2014-03-022We met Alex Oppenheim (drums), Marcus Dennerly (guitar) and Chris Beech (vocals) in the Park Tavern, Macclesfield. They had just come from their rehearsal in ‘a dark cellar’ just round the corner. The Mystery Creatures have been together about three years with these three as ‘solid’ band members. Bass players have come and gone and they’re currently on their third who has stepped in as a temporary measure.

When asked why they get through bass players so quickly we were told ‘people find us interesting to work with’. The Mystery Creatures were also ‘interesting’ to interview… the first question, simply trying to get the band members’ names right, took at least 5 minutes to answer as they swerved side-tracked through tales of pub-brawls that nearly happened and mythical musical differences… Interviewing Alex, Marcus and Chris is like herding cats, but the clear message we got is that for them it’s all about ‘the product’ and the Mystery Creatures now have their product ready to deliver…

How did the three of you get together?

We’re called the Mystery Creatures because it’s a mystery how we’ve come together from different backgrounds. It was a freak coincidence we fell together and how we stuck together… We’re all completely different people. We don’t hang out in the same social circles, but when we get together in the studio something works… We naturally got this sound which comes from the music we listen to (a mixture of Queens of the Stone Age, Bon Jovi, Guns’N Roses, Led Zepp and Slayer)… we ended up naturally making a sound we all liked… and we put on a bit of a show! The energy’s massive, we’re doing it for the love of it, and we need to do it… I wish we were all 20 years younger. I wish we’d met 10 years ago!

How do your songs come together, what’s your creative process?

Chris says that Alex is the driving force of the group: He has his own independent approach to things… Alex is a different kind of drummer. Drummers usually wait for instruction. Alex is the musical director.

The raw product comes from you guys Chris and Marcus bring the sounds (adds Alex).

Chris concludes: Yea, I come in with an acoustic ballad and these guys rip it to shreds and turn it into a rock song!

Alex insists their music is pop formulated, 4 to 4 and a half minute tracks, intro-verse-chorus, a hook, but they also want the dirt, the punk, the raw energy: My technique’s appalling, but it works because of the energy!

These three guys certainly have a massive energy between them. Their side-tracking stories and jokes bounce constantly off each other with an incredible, almost dizzying, dynamism and drive: We all have a bit of OCD, suggests Alex…

They also have an endless source of little anecdotes about their experiences as a band. Cutting their first track in a recording studio in Wigan, staying in a £10 a night hotel, they bumped into ‘Paula’, a transvestite who they say used to play in The Cult 25 years ago and recognised Marcus from a band they both played in once. Chris ended up singing karaoke till 2 in the morning and Paula was eventually evicted by the barman. They’re heading back to Wigan soon to record the next tracks and you kind of wonder what stories they might come back with this time…

2014-03-19 21.22.51 (Sara MacKian's conflicted copy 2014-03-021What are your plans for the band?

We’re not out to get signed by a label. We’re self-producing. We’re not doing the circuit looking to get spotted.

Perhaps they don’t need, the band are being ‘sponsored’ by a rich benefactor…

He said here’s 6 grand, now go make a rock record… he sorts the finances out. He’s a very wealthy man but not involved in the music industry. He just said, guys, you need to record an album!

The moment the interview seemed to be descending most deeply into some kind of Spinal Tap spoof was when frontman Chris started to tell us about playing tennis in an enclosed wooden court with the ‘People’s Tenor’ Russell Watson. He told us: To have that kind of music mentor is just phenomenal…

Perhaps it’s not surprising therefore that there would be no ‘alternative parallel universe’ for the Mystery Creatures. When asked what they would do if they could have a parallel life they all claimed they would be doing more or less exactly what they are now:

2014-03-19 21.31.25I’d drum in a rock band (Alex).

I’m proud of the musician I am (Marcus).

We’d be doing exactly the same as we are (Chris).

Though Alex then admits he would actually be a drummer who sang: preferably with the voice of Ray Lamontagne…

We are all proud to be what we are and what we do. And we’re focused in doing so… We would just be 20 years younger… no, you can’t deny the ageing, can you?

We’re planning to bring out this EP and then record a full album. The first track is being mixed now, and we should have a three track EP out in a month and a half. Then record another seven tracks by mid to end of the summer. Then we can start pushing the product and playing gigs regularly. Have a mini UK tour.

We become a real band when we’ve got a product to sell.

We’ve become a unique product and we’re looking hard to take it to the next stage… whatever the hell that might be.

Have there been obstacles on your way as a band?

When the first bass player left. One day, he just showed up without his guitar, telling us he had just come to pick up his gear. That was hard.

Marcus: I said, right, that’s it, and I think they thought I was going to say pack it in, but I pulled out a new song and said, rights that’s it, let’s get on with it… So we got on the phone and brought in a new bass player and it was the best thing for the band.

We’re getting the right team and the right people around us. We’re going for ‘The 6 Ps’: Perfect Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.

This perfect preparation includes ‘thinking mathematically’ about their songs and stripping out what doesn’t need to be there.

Keeping them solid and simple. I’m regimented with the way I play drums (says Alex). I want a reason for everything to be there with my rhythm. The maths of it… We don’t like to muddy it with over twiddly bits. The rhythm side is machine like, then the lead sits in over the top for the melody and effect and the flowers from Marcus!
I’ve got 8 effects pedals (says Marcus) it’s enough when I’m tap dancing!

Do you have a stage persona?

We’re trying various ones… Just a big grin. Biggest grin on stage. We love it. We’re enjoying ourselves. Putting an act on too, it’s a performance. All these modern bands, so cool, like I want you to think I’m brooding, but we’re just enjoying ourselves! It’s live music… I don’t care if you make a mistake, its’ a comedy act as well.

The day you stop playing is the day you get old. You don’t stop playing because you get old, you get old because you stop playing.

Do you get nervous before a performance?

Marcus – I get excited. I want to go on, I want to show off. I was born on stage. Did all the school plays, then got a guitar in 1980 when I was 12 and was on stage by 1982 as a 14 year old.

Chris – I get nervous, very nervous.

Alex – Every time I play a gig something happens to my gear… We all have limitations, if you don’t have limitations you don’t know when to stop. Limitations make a band.

So, if you had one, and one only question to ask your favourite musician, who would it be and what would the question be?

Alex – Keith Richards will you be my father? Be my daddy, can I call you daddy, Keith..?

Marcus – Question to Marc Bolan from T-Rex: “When did you go near my mother to create me?”

Chris – Is Jacko still alive..? Can you make jam? Do you know how to make jam..?

And Macclesfield, is Macclesfield important to you as a band?

95 per cent of the music industry is still London. Some great bands have come out of Macc, but it’s a very hard industry. Never sell out. It’s so obvious when bands sell out. False, not cool, there’s no love there.

Alex tells us about getting off the train in Macc the day of Barnaby and thinking: Macc isn’t dead! It’s a fab creative hub! I had a big smile on my face for two days after that! It’s great, it’s saying something different, not all that “Macc is a silk town” but Macc is a place that’s full of creative, vibrant people. Is that maybe what keeps me here..? Home sweet home!’

2014-03-023We’ve all got jobs, we’re not desperados. We’ve been given a responsibility to produce a great record. We’re fine tuning, looking at every element of it, but still having great fun. When it becomes less fun, when tensions rise, that’s when bands split up…

Judging by the fun these three lads are having, these three members of the Mystery Creatures won’t be splitting up any time soon…

Throughout the interview Alex was keen to stress that they’ve been working hard at getting ‘the product’ right: We haven’t been able to promote ourselves massively because we haven’t had the product we’re happy with…

But now they have, and it’s likely you’ll be hearing more from the Mystery Creatures in the not too distant future…

Thank you, Mystery Creatures, for your time, the coffee, the stout… and the experience!

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Steve Taylor: “I like to promote music and be part of making it happen …”

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Steve is a bass player with The Christophers. He also plays bass with Steve Delight, and The Mystery Creatures.

He works as a Business Development Manager with ADOmedia in Macclesfield.

Has music always been an integral part of your life?

My Dad used to be a drummer and we had a big HiFi tower in the corner. We had music on at dinnertime. My Dad would call me down to “…listen to that part of a song”….

Steve pauses a bit, then he says…

I have no musical ability by nature..I need to work for it all.

That sounds a harsh judgement on yourself….?

Is talent so relevant anyway?

You move swifter with talent.

For me it is all a more calculated move. Seeing with my eyes what others are playing on the neck is important…I don’t rely just on hearing it alone. I don’t think it’s my natural ability.
In the last year though, I think, I have seen a shift, since I have been playing with the Christophers my listening skills have improved, but again this isn’t through a natural talent,….

People ask the question a lot about talent, practising and how your music develops from that.

Steve hands us a Cd called “Like a complete Unknown”..

What is this Cd about?

I played in the band. Where I was the main driving force behind it. This is a band where we’d practice 3 times a week then gigged three-four times a week. We toured all over the country but we’d only ever play a 30 minute set, regardless of if they asked us to play for longer, we´d still only play 30 min…and then we were off to the next one. Last year, being just with the Christophers has been such a relaxing and stress-free experience , it was me “taking my year off”.

What are you planning for things to come?

I want to do more, apply myself more. For example, I am playing with Steve Delight and looking to put together a band to do an album and I’ll be working with Steve on his arrangements, getting the band their parts and working with the producer and studio to get a setup that will best compliment Steve and his music. Very much a Musical Director role.

How did you get into music?

I wanted to be a producer. My interest wasn’t initially with a certain instrument. Well, I realised that you needed to play an instrument else people wonder where you are coming from.

So I chose the bass because it seemed the easier instrument. And there are a million guitar players out there,…I was not really interested in my Dad´s drums. And there is always a shortage of bass players and drummers. With bass, you could have two or three lessons and then somehow make do in a band. I have been playing for 15 years now.

When you started with music, where did you see yourself heading ….?

I always liked and wanted to be in the recording and studio environment. I had this romantic viewof a session player, and it would be the kind of work that you could make a living from. Now it seems with bedroom studios everywhere and the way music can be recorded, people seem to be so much less prepared to pay somebody for session playing in a studio. I have friends who live in New York and L.A. And they say that there is no session scene.

In “Our Innocence Lost” I tired myself out from it. I don’t want to do that kind of thing again. I just want to play in a band and enjoy it. Yes, treat it professionally but without the strings and burdens attached that touring bands are faced with. It might be fun sleeping in a van but after 4 four weeks and returning to it every night it can get old very quickly… ..

How do you go about further musical development?

I read up about other bass players, I talk to them if I can. I went backstage at the Queen of the Stone Age gig because I know this session player Jonathan Hishke and he introduced me to Troy Van Leeuven, the guitarist with Queens of the Stone Age as the guy who gives him ideas. I had the change to look at the equipment that produces their sounds.
I play pretty much anything I want to, in the genres that I enjoy so I tend to research sounds and work on that more. I always use my own effects and equipment, I never really gear share.

Anyone can learn to play a particular song given enough time, there is nothing to hard to play, you just haven’t spent enough time practicing it. What puts you apart is professionalism, personality and the way it sounds. This is how you separate yourself from the crowd.

You play bass for The Mystery Creatures. What role do you have there apart from playing bass?

Hm. I have a bit of a directing role there. I help to sort out the sounds. I sort of oversee the recording or do pre-production work with them, similar to what I’m planning with Steve Delight.

I have a natural affinity to manage and organise people, that is what I do in my day job, so I’ve stopped fighting it and brought this side of myself to the bands that I work with. I may be able to help others to get more gigs. I think, I am creating the studio role for myself. Playing live bass in the studio. I would like to add that to my portfolio. That’s why I am playing bass for others for free…I’m not looking for fame and fortune, effectively I just wanna play music without it costing me anything, cover the costs so to speak.

I can take a band and turn them into a great sounding band…I think the Mystery Creatures sound has improved since I have been with them…

The way you developed in musical terms…did it come in stages?

steve's guitar handsI was always a rock bass player. Still makes me laugh when I see young kids play all those songsI started on…it makes me think…”another one playing teen spirit”…
Sometimes it is frustrating starting out….I remember being at high school and I’d had my bass about 3 months and this friend of mine who is a French horn player just picks up the bass and it sounds great…

I had my first guitar lesson with Mike Maxfield (Gutarist with 60’s Merseybeat band The Dakotas). I was with him for two years. Then I started at Saturday musical school, Cheadle Hulme Musical Academy, for theory and more classical training.

In that Music school I played varying styles of music, with everything from classical guitarists to a woodwind section…the people and the instruments there could be different every time…

When I was 16 I lived in Venezuela for two years. I had no job, no money, I couldn’t even speak the language. I moved to be closer to my Dad who lived over there,… I played 6 hours a day, but without any structure. It gives you stamina, but it did not transfer into music, I did not improve musically. I treated bass playing as an olympic discipline…I completely overplayed. It took me 10 years to learn to become a tasteful player. But you have to remember just playing the notes correctly is the absolute bare minimum of what is expected of you. You have to look at the full performance, the movement and the sound above and beyond just playing the notes right.

What advice would you give to people who want to get into guitar playing or bass playing?

Play with others, as many as you can. Jam with them, be put on the spot.

For so long, I just played 4/4 rock, it took me a long time to play off the beat. It has taken me 3 years to play off the beat… But I identified it as a weakness and a drummer friend and myself would work together to practise so I could play off the beat, even if it took two or three weeks.

In a parallel universe, that would run at the same time as this one here, where you could opt in and out of the one or the other world…what role would music play in the parallel world, …given that you are already a bass player in this one….?

Hm. Musically, I don’t feel better now than at 20….I mean there is only so fast you can get your playing. I wish I would have had the knowledge I have now, such as how to compliment a song, how to get into and play music the way I am doing now. If I could go back to when I was 20. I would have tried to play on cruiseships, in theatre pits… I am too old now with too many commitments …

There was a time when I wasn’t enjoying music any more, people not coming to gig all the hard work practicing to play to an empty room,….Then a friend pointed out to me “you’re a musician isn’t the main part of that playing music?” From that I’ve become a lot more relaxed about it all and as long as I’m playing then it’s enjoyable, if people are there great, if I get to go into a studio and record great, if not then at least I’m happy just playing… If I would have known what I know now I would have liked to become a professional musician. Now, I can’t take holidays that long to tour like a band does… I made so many mistakes with gear…still paying off some of them…If I could spend a day with myself at 20, I would tell myself what to do….

How much time do you spend practising at home?

Very little. But, I have five to 6 band practises every week. I do a bit of distance recording with someone in America and and I read and do research. I am bad at learning songs. I take a long time. I pretty much improvise over other people’s songs. When I first got back from Venezuela, I played fast, super technical stuff and it was all wrong, not what a bass player should be and as such I’ve had to unlearn a lot of things.

You are very critical of yourself!

I know where my weak points are but on the flip side I struggle to take criticism if I think I’m right. If somebody told me that a two-note song is too simple and I truly believed the opposite I could disagree with somebody for a very long time about that.

Over the years I’ve wasted a lot of time and money. I often say if people had just told me this or that then I’d have saved so much time and money. But people did tell me …”all you need is a good valve amp and a p-bass”…I was arrogant and I didn’t listen. I did not believe them and its made me lose opportunities. I do enjoy the technical side of things though…(smiles…). You gotta take advice from people and listen to it and balance that with doing your own thing and making your own mistakes, just try not to make your own mistakes for years and years.

What do you think of Macclesfield as a location for music?

I moved here five or six months ago. I moved here because of this town and because of the scene. I lived in Heaton Chapel but I just could not get into the Blues Scene there. Here people are open and it is different and there is so much going on. And it is not a competition. Pete Mason invited me to play with my double bass…other bands have asked me..
This is a great place to go out and you don’t need to drink to enjoy yourself.

I’d love to get more involved in other musical projects and I’d be open for further opportunities.

(Steve Taylor tel. 07837 545111 and www.tayste.co.uk)

Thanks, Steve, for talking to us.

 

Ben Jackson: he’s never made a plan in his life, but he knows he wants to be himself…

2014-03-12 12.29.24-2Ben Jackson is a singer/songwriter and guitar player who fronts the band Rough Twist, based in Macclesfield. He also works part-time in Margin Music and teaches guitar. We met Ben in The Snowgoose in Macc, where he sipped tea from a bandstand teapot, talked about how you never stop learning as a musician and told us why he floats on the wind in an industry that is being ripped to shreds…

Did you always want to be in music or did it just ‘happen’?

At a young age I was in school plays and things, I just loved being on stage, I loved performing. But, it was the learning of the lines, I found that hard and tedious; and also I didn’t like pretending to be someone else. I wanted to be myself, why would I play someone else if I would rather be myself? I got cast as Pinocchio and that was the last part I played in theatre. I decided to do music for the plays instead.

So when you perform on stage, are you being ‘yourself’ or is there a ‘stage persona’? …are you still playing a part?ben

There’s a persona I guess. It gives me a confidence, a confidence in life even. It is definitively this feeding off the crowd. It is that energy. Even if you have a gig that doesn’t go well… And there’s a brotherhood about it. The ‘gang’ thing of being in a band, they become your best friends. It’s a very social thing.

You have it even at rehearsals. It’s creative and social.

The thing with music is it can be what you want it to be… At one time I didn’t play for a few years and I wasn’t very happy. When I play it’s like I feel that’s what I’m good at, and it’s right. And I feed off the energy from the crowd… And when I got into the teaching, it was another way of working with music. It was just the only thing I really enjoyed doing and if I wasn’t going to be a famous rock star, well, I could teach it!

Have you always be in bands ever since you started playing music and it just ambled along since then?

Well, yeah,.. but there’s always something new. I also teach and I work in the music shop. You constantly learn, you never stop learning. Sometimes you can get stagnant musically. And then something new comes along and revitalises it. And it can even be bands that have been around for ages, but you’ve not heard, and someone will play something from them and you think, yea that’s brilliant…

How do you find new songs?

It starts with something emotional. Writing is a very emotional thing. Any good song for me is related to an experience close to me. Some emotion you have come through yourself, or something you find, or that a friend has experienced. I start writing on piano and then bring it to the band with the acoustic guitar.

Are songs things that are never quite finished? Could you keep on tweaking them..?

No. I have to finish them. I write songs fairly quickly and that’s it, they’re done. But there’s a constant need to write a better song!

Were there certain people that have played a particularly important role in your musical path?

When I was younger, every male I can ever remember was a guitar player, but my uncle and granddad were the biggest influences. At 15 or 16 I started taking it seriously. My uncle also made guitars. My granddad was the biggest influence …on anything in life…he is my definitive number one.  They both went to this pub called Knights Bar in town, they had an open mic night there. My uncle got me in to a jam night, even though I was underage, so I could play, so he got me into being in a pub to perform and I got bit by it and that’s where I said that’s what I want to do. There I was, 15, with much older people playing… that is where the magic really hit me… Then I was asked, some of the lads who played at the jam night asked me to fill in for their band. It used to be the old Bull & Gate, not sure what it is now, next to The Millstone. It was my first proper paid gig – and I was like, these cool older people let me play in their band! That was a key thing.

I did do music at college, played in a band from there, which broke apart after two years or so….

But any musician really is an influence, you never stop learning. My biggest influence was my granddad but you should take a little something from every musician you meet to learn. If you stick yourself in a closed box and don’t take on other influences and learn from them you miss out. You get a nugget of wisdom from people always.

In a parallel universe, a world you could dip in and out of as you please, what would you do musically in that world..? Anything different?

In a parallel universe I would probably have tried harder. No, not perhaps tried harder, I did try, but perhaps started earlier, applied myself… I once picked up the guitar at 8, had a go, then, for another four years, never touched it again. So I perhaps would have carried on maybe, instead of razing round the park on my bike!

As a musician do you ever feel there’s always someone better, or faster or more talented than you…?

You need to learn from it. Talk to them, try to get to their wisdom. Some people are just ‘naturals’.

I am a natural performer, a bit of an exhibitionist even, but am I a natural musician..? Dewi (band member), he’s a natural, and he just gets better and better… I seem to be plateauing a bit (smiles). When I look at Dewi, he is so natural, and getting better and better ….you wonder ‘why can’t I do that?!’ So, is it a natural thing or is it something you learn..? Am I a natural..? I’m a natural performer! I don’t know if I’m a natural or not… I’m a natural with limits! I’ve hit a point…

Are you a bit too critical of yourself maybe?

2014-03-013Hm. Maybe Dewi would say the same of me with regards singing and performing..? I used to say I can’t sing, I can’t get that note, but Joe and Mel (of Butterfly Jam) used to say just wait, once you’ve recorded it and you’ve heard you can do it, you can sing live. And I sing all the time now. Once it was recorded and there was physical evidence that I could do it, then suddenly I could do it… Joe Roberts has helped me a lot with singing. He was a driving force behind my singing and he helped a lot with developing my vocal skills. I like to sing and be a front man but I started singing because we couldn’t find a singer, so I gave it a go! Working with Joe Roberts, he’s brought a voice out of me I never knew I had. I’ve become a singer. Ultimately I just love doing it. Being a frontman, you’ve got to be silly and cheeky, and that’s me, that’s always been my angle on stage, that’s what I play at. But, I’m modest as well… I don’t need to pick up a guitar at every party and play it, I’m not like that. It’s a stage thing; a performance thing. I like the build-up, the bubble, the release of energy on stage. I like the nervousness and the built-up to starting a gig and drawing from the nerves and transforming it into energy….saying that, I can’t walk past a piano without playing it! I play the piano as well, do all my writing on it…I taught myself.

Is your singing persona more your ‘self’ than the ‘guitar persona’ when you are on stage then?

I was terrified with the singing at first, never like that with the guitar. With singing it’s you. It’s your personal instrument. If it goes wrong or a squeak comes out, you can’t blame electronics, pedal failures, snapped strings. It’s all down to you. That was terrifying. Now I thrive off it. I turn the nervousness into energy… So it’s the singing, that is closer to myself, there you are the sole person responsible for any wrong sound… Singing gets you the right kind of attention as well!

Do you practice singing?

Yes. But I don’t do scales. I sing all the time, even in the shop or in between lessons I sit at the piano and play and sing covers I like. With Joe we did a lot of singing exercises and Joe produced our album ‘Reality Bomb’…I barely touch my guitar when I’m at home. It’s the social aspect of it to me, playing with a crowd or with the band lads, for me it’s not about sitting alone in my room with my guitar.

What’s the hardest part with being a musician for you, what are the obstacles or constraints?

Trying to get paid for what you do is the hardest constraint. We put the money into a pot that pays for rehearsals and recordings. Even rehearsing, it’s 30 quid a week, and then travelling to a gig with six in a band, it gets expensive. We had to do about fifty gigs to pay for our album and we’re still paying for it. We’ve had to spend a lot on technology to get the album right because we’re such a loud band… we recorded at Chapel Studios, the Virginmarys, lots of people record there.

There’s just no money to be made for musicians. Spotify etc they pay the bare minimum. Less than 1% of the 79p download fee for a track goes to the musician… There are always hundreds of other people being paid first before the band. They get paid last. There’s always a middleman.

And, when you’re under contract, well, depending on your contract, you still have to pay back all the advances for travelling to gigs etc that the company forwards for you. It tends to be taken off the music sales.

So you just don’t get paid for your trade as a musician. You wouldn’t expect an electrician to come in for nothing, but with music… Musicians should be getting about 50 quid a head, but with six in the band, that’s 300 quid. So people ring up and say they want to book us and, knowing the state of the economy and everything we bring it down, we say 200, 250, but they ring back and say no that’s too much. People don’t pay for music now. It’s all for free online. And it’s slowly ripping the industry to shreds.

Do you think playing music will be very different for young people starting like you did when you were 15, now that the music industry has changed so much?

It just doesn’t work like it did in the ‘50s or ‘60s anymore. Like, ‘You’re a good band, here’s a cheque to record!’ …Just doesn’t work like that anymore. I’m quite happy to keep it a pleasurable thing. It would take all the enjoyment out of it if I was in it for that.

Have you got a plan for the future, where do you want to be in say 5 years’ time?

I’ve never made a plan in my life. I float on the wind. If you’d have asked me back in 2012 I would have said I wanted a career out of it. Actually I’m quite happy with doing what I’m doing now… So yea, I want to be here, just like now, playing music, as I do, in front of other people. But I also want to have family and be able to support that and make music playing compatible with that…which you can’t do when you’re travelling around a lot because of gigging. I really want my own family sometime, and I can’t have that if I chose a career that doesn’t pay me and takes me away from home. I make my living from music still and I still get to play to people. I don’t care if it’s ten million people or ten; if I can still sit at home with my dog in the evening, then that’s fine by me! That’s the future. I’m quite happy where I am!

I like to keep music to be that pleasurable thing that I do. There’s that quote, Hunter S Thompson was meant to have said: ‘The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.’ I don’t want to take it that far, but… I’m a homely person. I wouldn’t like to be on the road 8 or 9 weeks. I’m happy now, playing a few bands, locally in Macc and also a bit further afield… I’m happy. I hope in five years’ time to still be doing it!ben

Being a writer for others I would be interested in in future. I’m not sure how you get into it. Writing would be a good career. You see these song writers and they write great stuff, but by the time the producers have got their hands on a great song, with whatever is the latest sound, it’s ruined! Fabricated music. But the great song writing is still there… There’s this film, ‘Almost famous’ where the character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman talks about the death of rock’n’roll and he says the music industry is ‘an industry of cool’, as opposed to, well, an industry for making music!

And what about Macclesfield? Is that a ‘cool’ place for music..?

In the last 4 or 5 years Macc has grown in so many ways. Not just music, arts in general. There’s lots of things going on supporting the arts, like Barnaby. It’s just a great place. I do like it here!

We left Ben with his bandstand teapot, and the midday sun streaming through the windows of The Snowgoose. Thanks, Ben, for taking the time to talk to us, and we wish you all the best with your continued floating; keep being yourself and you’ll be just fine!