The Thrill of a New Guitar

A new guitar is as exciting as a new baby, or a new lover, but with none of the mess.

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2016 photo by Alan Hawkins

When I was 17 I walked past the window of the only Music Shop in Ipswich and fell in love with a pink paisley Fender Telecaster guitar. I begged and begged my dad to buy it for my 18th birthday. Friends were getting practical presents like cars, tractors, horses, holidays and bikes (this was pre-computers). Only today my 82yr old mum was telling me how my dad didn’t want me to have a guitar – he was finally swayed by a stranger he chatted to on a train who was extolling the benefits of music for youngsters. I wish I could thank that man, because if it wasn’t for him I might be doing embroidery in my evenings now instead of rock. When I got that guitar home, I mainly stroked it, I had no idea where to put my hands. I have a video of me “trying on” a bandmate’s guitar when I was about 16, and I slung it over one shoulder like a handbag, no clue. When I went off to Uni, my family emigrated but the pink curvy Telecaster came with me and we remain very very close. I often sleep with my guitars.

Last week I got very excited about a particular 2nd hand Jaguar Bass I was going to buy, I told all my local muso friends about it. When I was about to collect it, the seller contacted me and told me I’d been gazumped. It was fishy.  I was gutted, I’d been after this ‘discontinued” rarity for 2yrs. The next day I saw a really silly transparent yellow guitar for sale , and I was feeling “on-the-rebound”,  so I went out today and bought it. Some things are meant to be.

img_0254-1A trip into deepest darkest Kent had me winding up what felt like a mountainside to a small estate of houses. A nice man greeted me, he had a huge tropical fish tank, a swimming pool and a wealth of beautiful guitars, he let me touch some of them. It was like a muso’s equivalent of the Playboy Mansion.  The transparent guitar was still dusty from his attic. I knew it was going to be heavy, the Lucite material it is made of is nothing like the acrylic of today.  He joked that you could probably kill someone with one blow of it, which felt like a good USP.   It’s not a practical or particularly comfortable guitar, but nor is say, a pair of posh stilettos costing the same price. I usually haggle and drive a hard bargain (a market trader once likened me to Maggie Thatcher) but the seller was so nice I handed over my cash and put Mr. Lemony Snickets in the boot. img_0130-1(Probably a bit weird if I start naming my guitars). Also, guitars don’t give you bunions. If all else fails, it will look good on the wall.

It’s so fascinating to be able to peer into the body of a transparent guitar. I mentioned in a previous blogpost how I took my dad’s radio apart (to his horror) when I was a toddler just to “see what was inside”. One day I’d love to be able to build a guitar, I built a camera last week (not working perfectly yet!) and I made a lyre once with one daughter, and panpipes (from plastic tubes) with the other. I have a crazy idea for a guitar design in my head,… one day perhaps…

 

So now I have my transparent Wesley guitar home, I’ve been polishing it and staring at my cat through it, I’ve been shining light through it and thinking about fitting it with UV lights!  It sounds pretty good for something that looks like a toy and feels like a tank.  Every new instrument I handle is the start of a new song. I still don’t know where songs come from, not from inside the guitar, surely, but somehow they must. Your fingers just do the walking.

img_0263P.S. Come and see us play at the Birds Nest, Deptford this Friday 25th August 7.30pm, you’ll be safe because I’ll be on bass.

Like The English Sea 

This is a picture of me today attempting to walk on water in the North Sea at Whitstable. Silly, I know, (I found a thin sandbar) but the sea fills me with magic. In a previous life I must have been a Mermaid or a Sea Witch, possibly an actual fish. I’m a Pisces, and like all water signs (are you one?) the sea pulls me like a magnet, I am literally ‘in my element’ here. It’s a great place for creative inspiration and self-reflection. Staring out at that infinite mass of blue puts your own petty problems into perspective. We miss out on this living amongst the stifling high-rise buildings in London where it’s hard to see ‘the wood for the trees’. Who hasn’t gazed out to sea and thought existentialist thoughts?

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Death is never far away. 7/17

“Why do you think old people live at the seaside?” I ask my daughter. (My elderly relatives live in Felixstowe on the East Coast). Is it for the clean air, for health and longevity? For the relaxed pace of life? We see a dead seagull get cleansed by the waves, a dead crab becomes sand eventually. Death and regeneration go hand-in-hand here.

 

Dived into the surf to get some iPhone footage for “Like The English Sea” 7/17

And let us not forget the immense power of the sea. I’m looking out now at the wind turbines in the ocean off Whitstable, these beauties could save us from self-destruction with fossil fuels. I recall crossing the ocean to Belgium and Holland with my dad when I was little (he was a sailor), the big waves crashing over the deck, and me throwing-up over the side, it felt so dangerous. In my twenties I ran into difficulty swimming during a boat-trip in Turkey, I had no snorkel or flippers like everyone else, they were all facedown looking at the pretty fish, a riptide swept me away and I swallowed so much water, I thought I was going to drown. I let out the biggest scream I ever have made and then my lungs filled with water, luckily someone on a boat heard me. The images of refugees being drowned at sea were uppermost in my mind when I started writing “Like The English Sea” a year ago.

“Spare me, my dignity, as your spirit crashes over me” – lyric

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King Canute tried to show his courtiers that even he could not stop the tide. It got passed down as a story of how he tried in vain stop the tide. This is just me singing over the sound of the sea Felixstowe 7/17

It’s my favourite song on the EP.  It’s unusual for me to write a song about a place, (can you think of rock songs about the sea?) I’m using the sea as a simile for powerful emotions, which are like unstoppable natural forces. The guitar riff in the choruses sounds watery to me, like the waves. There are heavy shouty sections, like those sudden storms that come out of nowhere and batter you.  It’s the only song from the CD “Breakables” that we have not yet added to the live set, I’ve been saving it until last. I’ll post the lyrics next time. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences of the sea if you care to leave a comment in the box below:

 

London Bass Show Report

I had a flying visit to the Bass Show on Sunday 5th March. Due to the shitty London transport system it involved Rail Replacement buses between hailstorms. I hurried past the entrance marked “Bridal Show” at Olympia and straight into the next entrance, demanding a ticket for the talk by Andy Rourke (The Smiths’ bassist). The ladies at the desk waved me in looking rather frightened, I then realised I was entering the Knitting and Sewing Show! I soon spotted a herd of bassists (lanky leather-clad people with either abundant hair, or none of it) and followed them to the 3rd floor.

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Andy Rourke pic-Bass Show mag

Andy Rourke spoke with Manchunian dryness about his days with The Smiths. His early influences include Mick Karn and various funk players, which explains why he came up with those flambouyant basslines that intercut with  Johnny Marr’s guitar riffs to produce that trademark Smiths sound. I’ve tried playing Smiths covers on the bass in the past, and they are the only songs I can’t manage to sing lead on at the same time (Japan is tricky too!).  It turns out that Rourke’s secret was the F# tuning he used – I just tried it and it makes those bass riffs a whole lot more achievable! It also helps explain why those basslines sound like they have been sucking helium balloons, or taking speed. In fact another thing Rourke revealed was that they speeded up all their songs in the hope that they could “get onto Top of The Pops”.

Coincidentally, I’d been reviewing some of our Zara band clips on You Tube.

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“Faster” Zara rehearsal

I’d come to the conclusion that we were playing a lot of the songs too slow. Sometimes, with stage nerves, we start a song over-cautiously, it then naturally picks up pace. Time actually feels slower on stage with all that adrenalin. A song tempo can be satisfactory on a recorded demo, but everyone’s energy gets boosted if you play it a little faster live. I feel it in the room. At rehearsal today I tried to ‘up’ the tempo on everything. I’m not sure if it was the energy drinks and flapjacks we consumed, but it all came to life.

I went through the same process when writing the 4 songs for the EP, I would gradually nudge up each draft by 1 BPM until it hit pop-breaking point. 1 beat per minute makes a huge difference, it never ceases to amaze me.

I’ve been going to the Bass Show for several years and I love being able to test out the new equipment on display. The first time I went, there were hardly any women present, and people on the stalls assumed I was a marketing person, not a bassist like everyone else. Thankfully that has now changed, there are several females bassists.

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Me having a feel of some Danelectro basses at a previous London Bass Show

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Oliver Lang pic by Roger Millington

I was passing a stall of basses hand-made by Oliver Lang, he invited me to try one. I wouldn’t usually go for any bass that looks remotely like a tree (I don’t want a bass to sound natural like a tree, so I wouldn’t expect it to look like one!) But he handed me a fretless that felt nothing like I’d ever played before. The feel of the neck (a smooth sanded wood, warm to the touch) made it effortless, the notes came like they were in a liquid. Playing it was very much like singing. I have a Squier fretless bass but it has an glossy Ebonol (synthetic ebony) fingerboard which is whole different experience.

With places like Denmark Street (London’s home of guitar shops) under threat, it’s very important to have somewhere where you can feel and hear instruments, amps, and accessories in the flesh. A lot of gear in the 2nd hand market has been bought on-line and disappoints.

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cogeffects.co.uk

Another discovery I made was Cog Effects. I tried some amazing pedals on this stall. My favourite was the Grand Tarkin Bass Fuzz Pedal, which gave a huge thick wedge of fuzz that drowned out a poor guy slapping some bass beside me. ‘Slapping da bass’ is very rarely seen on stage these days, but it is alive and kicking at Bass Shows! Why? Well I suppose its a “show-off” skill, and it cuts through the din. I confess that if I am testing a bass I will give it a slap to test its action and response.

me cog bass show

pic by Roger Millington

Another shocker was the Cog Effects Brutalist pedal (a clone of the Brassmaster), played through a Barefaced Audio amp it shook the very stall itself. Imagine an earthquake in a box, but with pleasant musical tones. Both pedals were very versatile, and although bassists don’t tend to use any/many pedals, with tools like this you can achieve the sound of several different instruments in one.

It was great to see Roger and Paul , who have both played guitar and bass in Zara. It’s interesting to observe a lecture theatre full of bassists; bassists are nice, they are always friendly and reliable. I got offered a seat and a sweet. One of my next blogposts will be about the character of guitarists  🙂     But I’ll leave you with some more images from London Bass Shows:

P.S. look out for 2 Zara gigs this Easter weekend. Daylight hours! See Gigs.

 

My Fascination With Synths

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One radio I didn’t break

When I was a toddler I got into big trouble for taking my dad’s radio apart. I remember wanting desperately to find out where the music came from.  I was also fascinated with my primary school teacher’s big beige cassette player. I sang lyrics over my clockwork jewellery box for hours while the ballerina span around. I pleaded for a Stylophone when I was 12, and later I had a Yamaha ‘toy’ synth that I could strap-on like a guitar. That synth taught me everything I know about modelling sound. I painted the keys with luminous nail varnish. When I was 15, I joined a very early SynthRock band called Domino Effect in Ipswich. 

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Numan 2016

 If I’d have been a boy I probably would have left school and worked for the local BT Engineering Centre, which was the biggest employer (behind farming) in the area. But my relationship with technology has been a precarious one. Growing up on a smallholding in the countryside, the radio I had under my pillow  became my connection to another world. John Peel’s local radio shows introduced to me to Gary Numan’s records which I played relentlessly on my dad’s turntable looking out at the barren fields. What Numan was doing with synths was revolutionary, it was magical and has enchanted me from childhood to the present day.

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Hackney Studios 2016

In the digital age, we are using more “soft synths” than ever, you don’t need all those racks of knobs anymore when you can synthesize sounds using a computer program. Well, that’s the theory. Personally I hate gear like digital Amp Modellers  that claim to replicate the sound of a physical guitar amp with exactitude. Blindfold me and I can tell the difference. When I recorded the EP “Breakables” I picked a studio that had a very rare 80’s Synclavier Synth  – it was like a dream come true for me to use it, the sounds were rich beyond belief. Like velvet to my ears. I previewed several string sounds on it, and plumped for one which turned out to be a sample from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Last week I was lucky to see an artist called “Look Mum No Computer” perform in the back of a warehouse gallery in South London. This guy builds his own synths.

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Look Mum No Computer

The towering machine he wheeled into the freezing cold backroom was incredible. His songs sounded amazing too. Live drum pads, distorted vocals, and god knows what else, combined with projections. I think the Futurists would have loved this. I was really pleased to see it, so many bands are going down the LAPTOP route these days which is no fun to watch, and I’m not sure I would even call it “music”. 

2yrs ago, as an experiment, I made a song called “Awkward Time” entirely on my computer, it was aired on the radio but I was never 100% happy with it. It’s an indulgent song that came straight out of my subconscious after playing with an electronic drumbeat. The drumbeat came to me in my

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“Awkward Time” Optical Radio. by Alan

sleep (probably after practising paradiddles repeatedly for a drum exam). The song has that ‘detachment’ that you get in a lot of electronic music. It made me realise just how much passion you tap into when you put a physical instrument like a guitar into your actual hands. I think I’ll sharpen the song up, and release it on Soundcloud this year.

Steve, Paul and Tiffany have stepped up to the mark recently to play synths at our live gigs. There will more of that this year. It’s a bit of a conundrum being a grungy guitar band with synths, sometimes promoters don’t like it…  but we do what we do.

Addendum: 

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Lorenzo Senni at the Tate

I went to see an Electronic Music night at the Tate Modern this week, part of the  “Ten Days, Six Nights” event. I had high expectations, but the performances were dull and pretentious. Lorenzo Senni sat at a laptop with his hands in his lap, playing unremarkable pre-recorded dance music, in a huge room lit with static light. There are Night Clubs with more interesting music and lighting within a few minutes walk of here.  I couldn’t help but feel this was an attempt to make the Tate into some late-opening nightspot with extortionate bar prices for hipster Rhubarb Soda and broccoli stems. In another space, Isabel Lewis had plants

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“Occasions”, Tate

suspended from the ceiling, and performers walking amongst the audience doing some low-key wailing, and slo-mo dance. It was a bit like B&Q on a Tuesday morning. But seriously, looking at the Tate’s  program of events, there were no British Musicians there, it is a shame that this huge institution (part-funded by our taxes) is so out of touch with the really amazing stuff happening at grass roots level in this country. The underground scene cannot be beaten for creativity, and long may it exist.

 

Proscrastination

I’m a Pisces:  I’m creative but I’m 2 fish swimming in opposite directions, it is hard to make decisions. Looking back I’ve been a jack-of-all trades … TV, art, theatre, writing, photography..  but my passion was always music.  Music (in my head) has kept me awake at night since I was a kid. I dabbled in bands in my teens but I have put music off. I put it below practical things like studying, earning and family.

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The Day of My Dad’s Funeral. Felixstowe.

When my dad died of cancer 5yrs ago, my priorities changed, music shot to the top of my list, the floodgates opened.

Making the debut EP “Breakables” in 2016 was gruelling. There are thousands of tiny decisions involved… one extra verse?  Should the guitar play D or A? Is the bass too low?  Some of the choices are made by experience, but most rely on gut instinct alone. That’s why its like tearing your guts out.

Any artist is a glorified decision-maker. At the end of the process, your invisible decisions, your abstract thoughts,  your emotions, have  built a network,  the skeleton of an actual thing, like a song, or a sculpture. I see it in my mind’s eye as a pattern like a  mandala, but in a 3D geometric form.  The process is draining, but it’s like you’ve made a baby out of thin-air, and if people enjoy your creation , well that’s the best I reward in life to me, and the biggest high. That’s really why we procrastinate, we like to leave the “icing on the cake” until last.

Now that the EP “Breakables” is complete,  I am procrastinating about how to release the music to a wider audience than the initial core Pledgers who coaxed me through the recording process. Videos, radios, interviews, gigs, I could pursue all of that, or none…. and meanwhile bubbling away in the background are a bunch of NEW songs rushing in to fill the vacuum. I have opened a can of worms.

Sometimes there are dark days when its easier to do nothing, than to do something. You’ve beaten yourself up from all the decisions and you look down at the world and every decision seems petty anyway. Which of course it is. Whoever you vote for, whatever you do, its a blip on a blip of a blip, on a tiny blue dot. That’s a crippling feeling.

Even this small task of making a website has been fraught with procrastination. I literally asked so many people for advice on where to host it etc, I got 100 different answers, and even now I am delaying publishing it because there is a shade of lime green in the free template that I don’t like. Perfectionist? Yes. I want you to get the best impression of me.

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Feeling at home with fish, Brighton Sea World

And here’s a thought – perhaps its those conflicting fish that MAKE good art happen…   As artists we question things, its never-ending. Why are we here? WTF am I doing here? What if i went that way, what if I swum the opposite way…

I’m always going to be experimenting, working with new styles, new instruments  and new people.  If anyone wants to put me, or my music in a box, its not going to happen because originality has to be fluid and evolving. Originality is my holy grail. Its time to embrace the “chameleon” way, it never did any harm for David Bowie.

Soundcheck by Alan Hawkins

My New Year’s Resolutions

1. Don’t Be A Slave To Technology

When your Mac dies and loses everything, it’s not the end of the World. When your phone dies, no-one has died. When your memory card gets corrupted and loses all your photos, it’s just bytes,  not real memories. When it happened to me recently I was  distraught. We are 1 step away from having devices implanted in our bodies for convenience. The next evolution of Man might be half-robot,  a ManMachine Era, one that can survive the wars and environmental damage we inflict. Apple want to imprison my songs and photos and make me pay for access. Step away from the matrix!

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On my way to Numan’s Telekon  2016

2. Buy No Leather 

Nothing beats the feel of real leather – but this year I go faux.

3. Listen To Black Sabbath 

A band that passed me by! I keep catching snippets in cafes etc and asking “What is that you’re playing?”.

4. Don’t Mourn Dead Stars, Make New Ones

Back in the day, when music wasn’t pumped out of sausage factories, we had rock stars. They are all dying off now, all at once. For every gig I play, I go to see at least one other, the stars are out there, give them your light.

5. Beware The News

All News these days relies on clicks. The more clicks, the more ad revenue. Only the sensationalist stories make it through the quagmire. Don’t be fooled – there are no regulators checking that anything is “true”. If they can get people arguing, or sharing, or filling in a Petition then they have succeeded $$$$. I’ve blocked all News Sites. You cannot trust photographic or video evidence, it’s easily fabricated. I used to make TV for a living, so I know.

6. Don’t Be a Dick

  1.  Don’t fire off emails before coffee
  2.  Wait 12hrs before making any rants as could be PMT

7. Healing the Divide

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Brexit night gig with drummervDave & Guitarist Richard. pic by Khusro

Brexit/Trump split my friends and family into 2 warring camps. We are going to be polarised more and more in the coming years, over topics we don’t even know about yet. I will strive to make people respect the views of others, and to see all sides of any debate. Peace and understanding; our future depends on them.

8. Watch For Signs

When my dumb Pisces brain doesn’t know which way to swim, there is usually some obvious “sign” or omen that comes along and guides me. An expert once told me that my spirit guides are unusually close to me. Who knows.

9. Create, Create, Create

Let it all out before it consumes me. Oh, and I must practise the guitar more, it’s never too late!

10. Get this bl**dy Website up!