Monthly Archives: December 2014

ramblings on the nature of spare-room music

I think it is generally acknowledged nowadays that making music is not problematic. I am lucky to be one of the <insert big number guess> with a computer, a guitar or two and a microphone in the spare room. Like all those people, I can make music of my liking, unhindered by annoyances like other people or time or studio dollars, to a quality unimaginable when I started out. I won’t go into what “quality” means in this sense as that is not really the point.

The point is what you do with your music once it is done. From my bedroom studio, I think there are people out there in the ether with a similar musical worldview to me, who I like to think would enjoy The Complex Engine if they got to hear it. How to find and connect with them is the challenge…..

Initially, I naively thought that Facebook would be the best means of promotion. And indeed, it is a useful thing. However, I was shocked – call me stupid – at how few of my FB friends actually got to see my “release”. I had woefully underestimated the speed at which things disappear off the FB timeline. Anecdotal and actual evidence showed that it was not simply that the music was unlistenable, though I am happy to say it is not to everyone’s taste. Many FB friends who I think would be partial to my music never knew it existed.

This really caused me to examine exactly what I was trying to achieve, something musicians probably don’t spend enough time pondering. If they did, they’d probably give up. I had made some music that I was happy with, stuck it on the web. I told my FB friends about it. Those that listened seemed to think it was ok, and a few downloaded it. If that was it, did it matter? Was it enough? Was I successful if I liked it and no-one else did? Or if it was never heard beyond my friends and family? Did it need to be liked or downloaded or played by some undefinable number or type of people to be successful? Given that I am not yet playing live and not part of a scene, what is a reasonable expectation? How long can one be happily lost in the long tail?

I don’t know the answer yet, but this is one of the few moments where I will acknowledge my ego comes into play – I reckon my music is plenty good enough, when compared to other things, to find a niche audience somewhere. And that niche should be big enough to provide sufficient feedback to make me think it is a worthwhile endeavor, over and above entertaining myself as a hobby.

So what am I trying to achieve? Well, I find it really easy to dislike a lot of music. I am unsatisfied and frustrated by most things I hear, so my primary motivation is to fill those holes and make something that I want to hear. I want to hear a guitar that sounds like this, a drum that sounds like that, a structure that is like a building instead of a pop song, a melody that is not a melody, lyrics that are as much about nothing as they are about something. Like a lot of people (so I’m led to believe) this helps one make sense of the world. Certainly it is an odd sense of relief and satisfaction when something is completed and I can sit back and say “yes, that is right, that is how it should be”. It is also a bit of new hobby for me – the nature of a “good song”, what works, what doesn’t, and why that is so. It is a different thing applying such analysis to your own work instead of listening to other people’s songs.

Secondly, I like the idea of making these things as a thank you to those whose music I have enjoyed over the years. Making stuff for others is more satisfying than making them solely for yourself.

Finally, I like building things, and it is fun to use the things I build – guitars, preamps, mixers, amps, fuzz boxes etc.

Note – in case it is not self evident – that making money, or burning cd’s, do not feature on this list. More those another time.

War on Drugs review – Powerstation, Auckland

Goddamn I got it wrong again. According to the 2 reviews I read, the War on Drugs gig at the Powerstation in Auckland was pretty awesome. I was ready to go home after 3 songs, but I stuck it out, at least until they went off stage. An encore would have been a step too far, like the awful Cat Power concert a few years ago where after every song I held on – “they’ll hit their straps with the next one”. Never did.

I have to say I was predisposed to not be awed. I have tried 3 War on Drugs cd’s and sort of like some of them. I would like to like them more, much like I would like to like Dinosaur Jnr or Sebadoh. But I have to ‘fess up to the the fact that I don’t. WoD drive me nuts because I have no idea what he is singing about. After the first song at the Powerstation I thought that problem might be solved – vocals seemed a lot more upfront than the cd’s. But either it didn’t last or I
switched off, hard to say which. Actually the first song I enjoyed, and had to laugh when they launched into the guitar solo. Nothing like a complete rock cliche well executed! It was a welcoming statement – this is what we do, this is the page we are on, come on a ride with us. You could see it coming a mile off, but it was so assured it would have been churlish not to join in the fun.

It became less fun when they did it again. And again. And again.

The other thing that bothers me with WoD, and particularly in this gig, was the mid tempo 2 chord strum that seemed to be every song. I felt sorry for the musicians trying to work up a vibe playing C and G all night. Dynamics, either musically or sonically, were horribly lacking, which is why by song 3 I was confident I had seen and heard everything they were going to deliver. Odd that a band with 3 sets of keyboards, a bass sax, a small tuba thing (euphonium – dear god they’re not bringing Don McGlashan on stage are they?), an array of guitar effects that looked like a submarine control station, 6 guitars, electronic drum pads as well as the acoustic set, and a second guitarist, could sound so much the same for an hour and a half. No another guitar solo does not count as variation. I guess at about 3/4 through the set they tried a couple of quieter numbers, but I was underwhelmed, and then it was back to formula #1.

At the risk of getting nerdy, I’m going to comment on the sound. I find sound at the Powerstation to vary wildly depending on where you stand. We started off upstairs to the right, and if I hadn’t had earplugs I would have left. It reminded me of the bad old days with high frequency horns pointing right at your head. Just ear shredding high frequencies, at literally dangerous, deafening levels. I thought modern PA’s, with their wide dispersion arrays, had largely solved this problem? I’m not really up with that tech, so I don’t know what was going on, but I wasn’t hanging around to ponder it. We headed downstairs where thankfully there was a much better balance, at the expense of the view. Lord knows how many years of hearing those upstairs without earplugs have lost.

Back to the band. Dylan and the E Street Band are obvious touchpoints. I didn’t think Dire Staits were so apparent in the live show, though I did on the recent cd. I thought they were like the E Street Band as played by MGMT, the kitchen sink pummeled and smashed into a wall of sound, an exhilarating rush for a few moments but quickly revealing itself as an empty throb. Throb along, folks. How I longed for something to grab a hold of, like a guitar solo not swamped in effects,
or words I could decipher. Or a tune I hadn’t already heard. I wanted to be thrilled by wild, crazy guitar solos, but didn’t find them so. In fact he seemed to do the same one finger wiggle down the fretboard quite a lot. It made me want to listen to Darkness on the Edge of Town, or Gang of Four, or even Black Flag. Something concise, articulate, and not sound proffering itself as meaning.

WoD seem to be at their best when they hit on a magic groove, when the simple, motoring drums coalesce with the layers of guitars, keyboards, echos, and fragments of vocals that hint at a world that is in fact revealed and illuminated by driving, joyous music. They are great at subtle changes that kick this on, like switching from electronic to acoustic drums, or changing to a bigger sounding snare. The vocals come back in at just the right spot, as do the guitar solos.

It’s good, rousing stuff when it works. Some engagement with the audience from stage would be a nice addition though.

WoD seems to be quite prolific, and I’m curious where they (he) goes next. More of the same, or development that gets them onto the stadiums of the world?

Other reviews:
http://13thfloor.co.nz/tag/war-on-drugs-auckland-review/
http://www.nzherald.co.nz/entertainment/news/article.cfm?c_id=1501119&objectid=11376651&ref=rss

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