Thursday, 29 September 2011

The King of the Bass in strings crisis

My contrabass
Four strings are definitely good, but where does that leave three-stringed instruments, like this monster contrabass, my bass of choice in the Russian balalaika orchestra I play in?

This magnificent beast is three feet (one metre) wide at the base, with an extendable metal spike in the left hand corner, which you balance the bass on as you play it.

Learning Russian songs, reading from a score and balancing an unwieldy triangular bass on a metal spike all at the same time takes some concentration, I can tell you.

But a strings crisis has overtaken me. The strings on this bass are the size of double bass strings and the bass is so big you can't hold the string in place at one end while turning the peg on the neck to tighten it.

On Saturday our children's orchestra Kalinka was appearing at a concert for the Didsbury Arts Festival in Manchester. I've played this contrabass with jazzy flatwound strings since I bought it two years ago.

As we played through our first number I noticed a strange notch on the top string - D - and felt the winding sliding imperceptibly up and down the string. Then as we played more numbers I felt the notch get bigger and the sliding get more and more pronounced. Which is quite off-putting when you're trying to concentrate on playing.

When the interval came I had a look at the string and found the very light wire winding had snapped and was gathering in bunches along the string - right where your fingers go on the second fret to play an E.. and there were a lot of Es in the second half.
Knackered third string

I was glad to get the gig finished. Though the wire was light, it was chewing my finger up. Double bass strings can cost £100 a set and I was wondering whether to replace the flatwounds or get some others when the orchestra leader Brian offered me a set of proper contrabass strings he'd bought on a trip to Russia.

The contrabass is the king of the bass. They don't really make instruments any bigger, and mine isn't even the biggest. The biggest is another size up from mine, and the strings Brian gave me were made for one of them: I can cut the strings down to length, but the strings alone are on an elephantine scale. I'll be taking about a foot (0.3m) out.

Russian strings

This is the packet of strings, direct from Moscow, with the price tag still on: 500 roubles. Believe me, that's nowhere near £100.. I'll be getting my strings from Moscow in future.

The bottom E string is like a trawler cable. It's as thick as something you'd tow a caravan with or waterski with.

And these babies are made with typical Russian ruggedness. They are double-wound, so round wound outer over a steel string core.. no doubt to survive the temperature-plummeting depths of a Russian winter, as burly bass players swing their contrabass into the back of a Lada Riva with two metres of snow on the ground in -30 degrees.

Trawler cables for strings
Doublewound for strength
Whatever, these strings are built to last. I reckon the only way one of these is going to snap is if I connect it up to an ice-breaker leaving Helsinki harbour and chain the bass to a lamp post.

Actually changing these strings is a job in itself, somewhat reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy. That's the subject of my next post. But the next destination for connoisseurs of bass is Warsaw, where the Inca Babies are appearing in concert on Saturday night.

Next stop Luton airport for premier travel courtesy of...  WizzAir.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The crazy sights of Amsterdam

Get rokin' then...
The Inca Babies jaunt to Amsterdam was my first visit for a few years and I'd forgotten what a crazy place it is. Here are a couple of the sights we came across in our few hours there.

First, for a band playing Amsterdam, where better to stay than the appropriately-named Hotel Rokin? Very convenient for throwing TVs into the canal, easy to get the van to the front door and being on a big road near Dam Square you'd be able to find your way back here after a mind-altering night on the town.

Or a taxi driver would know it.  Surely this is where we book into next time?
Can you get a bass amp up those stairs? Anyway, looks like a nice place.

Just across the bridge from Dam Square we came across a restaurant which had a spooky statue in it of a stuffed fox dressed up as a waitress. Apart from thinking stuffed animals are a bit disgusting as a concept, when they're old and dusty with their fur bleached by the sun, the fox-waitress idea becomes more revolting the more I think about it.

Ugh. Not weird, sick
The restaurant was closed - perhaps the owners only see the fox-waitress by candlelight and think it's cool.. well, it ain't... so I couldn't get a real-life close-up view of it. Or smell the musty, mangy stink of ancient fur as soon as I opened the door.

But through the window I could see the apron was moth-eaten, tatty and dirty, which made the stuffed animal even LESS appealing. Ugh.

That's all a bit weird and spooky, isn't it? I'll probably get a rude email now from the owners telling me how great they think it is. Or perhaps it was a family pet, preserved forever.

I wouldn't have my old black cat from London Eb stuffed and put on display for years, however much I missed him. That's just sick.

But how about this? We spotted one apartment with a ZEBRA for a pet! Wow. Imagine what it's like having a zebra running round the flat all day while you're out at work. They're really crazy in Amsterdam...

Zebra alert! Crazy pets of Amsterdam...

PS: The views published in this blog about stuffed animals being disgusting are the author's private views and don't necessarily reflect the opinion of

Monday, 19 September 2011

Inca Babies in Amsterdam

17th Century Dutch houses
A forty-five minute flight separates Manchester from the capital of hedonism that is Amsterdam. It's been a few years since I've been there but the huge clouds of ganja smoke and creepy brothel windows are still a central feature, and make the city such a weird cocktail of other people's pleasure-seeking.
We had a five o'clock cab but by ten thirty (that's an hour ahead, European time) we were relaxing with coffee and cheese sandwiches in the garden of promoter Natasha TrishTrash, enjoying warm and pleasant sunshine, after meeting up at one of rock'n'roll's great meeting places: outside Burger King at Schipol Airport.

Could you be mistaken..?
We were on our first Dutch jaunt as the current line-up of the Inca Babies, and looking forward to it. Amsterdam's a capital of music in northern Europe: everyone goes through there and it's a great place to be playing.  I hadn't been in Holland in a band since 1986 and my days in A Witness, when we just had the night off in Amsterdam and didn't actually play there.

The venue was called Winston Kingdom, down a side street from Dam Square. It was a good size, clean and had - most welcome of all things - a good sound man.

I hate sound checks as a rule but here the mix was quick and easy and sounded good. There's only so far you can take a soundcheck, so we headed out to see more of the sights.

Rob and Harry soundcheck
We arrived back from our post-soundcheck stroll in time to catch the set from Yokocola, fronted by a great singer called Sidhi. Her style reminded me at times of Siouxsie Sue and the band's material of Suicide.. insistent and repetitive but with good vocal hooks.

After our last gig in Blackpool (when we had to cut the set short to 30 mins due to band over-runs earlier in the evening) we wanted to play what we'd gone with.
We started with The Judge and Opium Den and then a couple of new ones; Bikini Quicksand and But Not This Time. They'll be on the album we were recording earlier in the month.
Harry slipped on his bottleneck for the slow slide of Tumbling Man and Can't No Tombstone before Phantom Track and Monologues of Madness led into our ending of The Interior, Buster's On Fire, Some Kinda Reason and, to end with, Bewildered.
People in the crowd danced, shouted and generally interacted, which always makes you give more yourself, so we went back on and did two encores - Grunt Cadillac Hotel and Lung Knives - before calling it a day and giving way to DJ TrishTrash.

Harry, Natasha TrishTrash and Rob
Natasha's got a good thing going there. We met half a dozen English people passing through on their way from or to other gigs, football matches or heading through town, and a host of really enthusiastic music fans. It's good to go to Amsterdam if only to see a city where - it's been said for decades - people appreciate creativity and culture and the conditions exist for it to thrive.

We came back to the UK on Saturday buzzing about the gig, and keen to go back out next year when the new album's ready. Next on the list is the launch in Warsaw on October 1st of the vinyl version of the current Inca's album 'Death Message Blues' which is the work of Polish promoter Tomek, who is one of life's absolute characters. We're looking forward to seeing Tomek again, but I'm planning to get a few early nights in beforehand. That guy never sleeps!

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Bass player leaves studio, wants peace and quiet

Sing into this
Once you finish in a studio, that's not always the end of your involvement with the songs. Even though you may have got most of them down second or third take, sequences and parts of those tracks go round your head for days afterwards. I was getting something out of a cupboard today, three days after this latest Inca Babies session with the same part going through my head, round and round. That had been going on since Sunday. And just the process of isolating your playing or singing on a single track can be quite .. well, 'instructive' is perhaps a kind way of putting it. It's like looking at yourself very, very close up in one of those shaving mirrors. Sometimes not nice.

In the creative crucible of the studio, band members often seem to default to their popular stereotypes. Take for example, the bass player. Bass players are generally easygoing people, used to holding a song down while flamboyant guitarists or vocalists (or worse, both) show off their showbusiness chops. Bass players apply certain mottos to their lives - perhaps because they have to - like 'Less is more' and 'It's not what you play, it's what you DON'T play' (copyright A. Brown of Doncaster). Both these mottos are true to some extent, both to the art of bass playing and the experiences of bass players.

Most bass players turn up to rehearsals, learn their parts and then work on getting the best groove or flow out of the bits they've got to play. This is often done at high volume in a cold and draughty rehearsal room with an often-psychotic drummer battering seven shades of merry hell out of a practice kit on one side and a guitarist playing at ear-splitting volume on the other. Hmm. Maybe Monday night Coronation Street isn't such a bad option after all.
Drummer and guitarist at rest

In recent years I've taken to wearing ear plugs in the practice room. Excessive volume is just part of the business I'm afraid but I'm less willing than I used to be to be deaf all week for the sake of a practice. I met a guy who was training for the Olympic clay pigeon shooting finals who fired 200 shotgun cartridges at clay discs in an evening. He gave me some expandable ear plugs that cut out the deafening crack of a shotgun fired countless times right underneath your ear. They work a treat against a Fender Strat through a distortion pedal with the treble right up. Now I just need some flesh-coloured ones.

Such an intense workspace as the studio leads to pressure, and the pressure starts to mount when bands or band members don't get their playing right. Once you've stumbled over a part twice you might as well forget it, because you're either going to have people standing over you cursing that you get it right, or - perhaps worse - praying silently in the control room with their fingers crossed that this time you don't mess up. Which you invariably do. They tend to be the ones who are paying for the studio, and will often follow you outside while you get a breather and kick a few doorframes to encourage you, tell you how good your playing's been and how when you go back in they really believe you'll get it right.
Engineer Tim tweaks his eq settings

Then you have the engineer, the poor guy who has to get the whole sorry episode on tape and make something usable from what is often a total shambles. Engineers are notably and noticeably eccentric: they walk that fine line between genius and despair every day... or more commonly every night, as studio night rates are cheaper.

Someone like Tim Woodward at Courtyard (above left) has been doing it so long there's not a sight he hasn't seen, and that's great, because instead of letting a band corner a musician who's messed up he'll just run the tape back and get them to patch up their mistakes with barely anyone noticing that he's done it. At least that's what he does with me. There's been many a Mexican stand-off in the courtyard at Courtyard and Tim's too wise and too experienced a hand to let the bickering get to that stage nowadays.

Band members celebrate completion of recording
 And finally, of course, where does all that nervous tension go, having been stored up for days while you record and before that while you write, shape, nurse and deliver your musical baby, clocking up countless pints and miles and texts and phone minutes in its genesis.

Some people celebrate in time-honoured fashion: by going off and getting absolutely hammered. Others go home to their families and carry on where they left off. On Sunday I packed up my bass and headed down the stairs with the strap engineer Tim very generously gave me to replace the one I snapped at the gig in Blackpool - he also sells guitar strings and accessories online - with a quiet sense of achievement. And all I wanted was some fresh air and some peace and quiet.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Backing tracks and studio backstories

Rob makes final adjustments
When you're a kid starting out in a band, going into the studio is a dream come true: it's the very culmination of why you do it (except for those who do it because they love playing live). For my first sessions I was filled with a mixture of trepidation yet excitement, full of uncertainty.. how will the songs come out? Will they be any good?  Will my bass sound good the way that engineer has miked it up?
Even after the first couple of times I still found myself getting nervous going to the studio. Each time the sound seemed different, the engineers worked in a different way, the pressure was different. For our first A Witness session for John Peel we went into Maida Vale after staying with a friend who had a houseboat on the Grand Union Canal near Rickmansworth: we got absolutely slaughtered in the pub the night before. Perhaps this wasn't the best preparation for an eight-hour slog at 11am the next day with Dale Griffin producing.
This bass means business
 No-one ever got tapes of the Peel sessions afterwards so I didn't hear it again until one night a few months later when I was driving through Heald Green and Peel announced he was playing the session... it's weird to hear songs you've written and played on for that recording coming over the radio into your car .. and then a God-like figure like Peel says he thinks your band's good! That's quite a high at the age of 23. It's a shame no-one's ever really taken over Peel's role as a champion of the strange and the avant garde in the same way.. but now the guitar-driven 'independent' scene has become the mainstream.

Having done all the things you do when you're younger, like getting smashed the night before a session, then feeling like death all the way through it... turning up without food, drinks, milk or teabags and having to survive on crisps and tea with dried milk, or (perhaps worse) camomile or nettle tea or revolting chicory coffee or whatever's been left in the cupboard by the previous band .. well, having done all that, I've always tried to prepare myself for a studio session. I rehearse the songs.. practice the hard bits... make sure I have a tuner, some butties, some tea bags, spare strings and all the essentials a musician needs.
Harry gets a guide vocal and guitar down

Having got my provisions in before the Blackpool gig on the Friday, I slept in a bit on Saturday morning having not gone to bed until 3am, and on Saturday afternoon I joined Rob and Harry at Courtyard in Stockport to set up the bass. Rob got there earlier to check his drums so we'd be on course to be ready to record a batch of songs on Sunday.

When we were set up we ran through a couple of songs and it sounded good enough to get a track down on tape so we rolled on it ... then another, and then another. Within the space of an hour we'd laid backing tracks of bass and drums for four songs, so went home well ahead of ourselves.

Don't forget the words...
Sunday we'd booked a long-ish session to get more bass and drums down, having left everything set up and channels open etc.. and we just got our heads down and worked at it. Suddenly all those Monday nights of rehearsal through the spring and summer paid off as we clicked through the gears and got all the songs down sounding really good.

Some bits were tough - concentrating in such depth for so long can be exhausting - but then all of a sudden the songs were down and I was free to go... my input was no longer needed. That's quite an odd situation when you've been shaping these songs and getting the feel of them in your head, working your part out so it feels right and fits, or trying to work out how to change something so it does fit .. and then there's just free time and you don't have to remember the number of verses before a chorus, or whether this song has a double chorus.

And the notebook that you've worked out the song structures and modifications along the way can be heaved into the box under the bed along with all those updates the singer's given you of the lyrics, and that old H+H bass amp can go back into the cupboard under the stairs (for another week, at least) and maybe I can start doing other things on a Monday night now for a bit. Like.. er.. watching the match. Or going for a pint. Or...I dunno.. I'll think of something.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Work starts on new Inca Babies album

September the third, 2011: work starts on the new Inca Babies album, the day after a live appearance at The Beat Club in Blackpool. This was an interesting affair in a well-run club just north of the Tower. The Friday night was also the night of the Illuminations switch-on, so we had a plate of chips and curry in a cafe overlooking the 'Switch-on Arena' also known under normal circumstances as the 'Central Car Park'.
The switch-on seemed to go quite well though the lights only came on halfway up the prom at first. When they eventually came on there was a big cheer from the crowd of people walking along it: then they flickered off again. Deep groan. Lights back on: big cheer. Lights off again.. deep groan. On. Off.. until finally.. on. Hurray.

Anyway. On a four-band night we finally took to the stage at 2330, with a midnight curfew, so had to cut chunks out of our set to finish in time. That's always a shame because you shape a setlist for good reasons and having to whack ten minutes out because of a slow changeover or because one band went on ten minutes later than planned (who knows what the reason was?) is a bit of a drag.
We had a few new ones in the set from the album we're recording now and actually they're shaping up really well. There's only really one way to get a song in shape and that's to play it live. That irons out all the shaky bits because you have to make it work in a live situation.
The gig was fine and the people were great so we headed back from Blackpool quite happy with the night's work, though a bit disappointed that we didn't get to work through the full forty minutes, as we have a hectic autumn coming up in Amsterdam, Italy and Warsaw and it really helps when you're slick with the order.
So just ten hours after we arrived back in Manchester from Blackpool, Harry (guitar and vocals) and Rob (drums) reported for recording duty at Courtyard Studios in Stockport (above).
Courtyard's run by Tim Woodward (right), a guitarist and engineer who's been beavering away in the air crash district of Stockport for .. well.. I've been going there since the mid-1980s when I used to rehearse there with my first band A Witness and we'd write songs for Peel sessions in the gently-collapsing practice rooms. Hopes Carr, the area is called. There was once a nasty shotgun murder at a scrap yard up the hill: Tim swears he used to see the ghosts of the air crash on those quiet, spooky winter nights.
Nowadays no-one remembers the Stockport air crash and only a pair of troll-like stones just before the turn for Gorsey Mount Brow marks the disaster, still one of the worst in British aviation history.
Strawberry Studios is just up the hill too, so it's a pretty famous part of Stockport we're talking about here. Round the corner from the Rhythm House.. you know...
We recorded our first album of this Incas line-up with Tim: Death Message Blues, starting the winter before last, and we've played it through Poland, Italy, Los Angeles, in Milan, Manchester, Brighton, London, the Lake District.. all over. So it seemed a reasonable idea to go back there.
Going into the studio is exhausting, exhilirating and  profoundly odd all at the same time because it messes up your focus. Suddenly you have to concentrate like a madman on a passage of music like your life depends on it and a string keeps buzzing.. it never did that before.. why is it doing it now.. and you're distracted because someone is walking in front of you during a take, or gesturing towards you and you can't afford to stop concentrating or you'll make a mistake.
And then I looked at the tuner I was using to tune up with and realised that actually, yes, that really belongs in a museum. My old bandmate Keith Curtis - yes, Keith from Goldblade - gave me that in about 1985 and I've used it ever since. It's about the only thing he did ever give me but I'm grateful for it.. and I've got good use out of it. And, as you'll see in the days to come, it's not the only piece of ancient equipment we found in Courtyard....