The Comet Is Coming – The 13th Floor Interview

This appeared last month as promotion for the upcoming Wellington Jazz Festival: http://www.13thfloor.co.nz/?p=88520

TCIC-by-Fabrice-Bourgelle-1

Playing the Wellington Jazz Festival this weekend are the London-based psychedelic funk-meisters The Comet is Coming. They mix sounds from the universe including snippets of Parliament, Sun Ra and Afro-funk pioneers like Fela Kuti – all channelled through a digital dashboard of synths and crazy sax.

The imagery associated with the band is based around outer space, science fiction and B-movies, as can be seen in the music videos for their wacky singles Neon Baby and Do the Milky Way. And to add to the mystery the band members go by the pseudonyms King ShabakaDanalogue the Conquerer and Betamax Killer; who are saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, synth player Dan Leavers and drummer Max Hallett respectively.

The band are currently touring the world, so getting them to sit still long enough for and interview was out of the question. Still, that didn’t stop Tim Gruar from jumping on the keyboard for an email exchange to find out more about their cosmic capers and what to expect this weekend.

https://youtu.be/Bih6JQzbFY0

TG: Where did this crazy thing you call The Comet is Coming all come from?

Betamax Killer: Me and Danalogue the Conqueror play as a psychedelic electro synths and live drums duo called Soccer96, he writes. We noticed this tall, shadowy figure hanging at some of our gigs. At one point he turned up by the side of the stage with his sax in hand and when he got up to play with us it created an explosive shockwave of energy that stunned us all. A couple of weeks later he calls me up and says that we should make a record. So, we booked three days and it all came together amazingly fast. We played and recorded with no pre-written material but by the end we had recorded hours of music.

TG: It struck me, watching your video for Neon Baby how far we’ve come with music making. Especially digitally, I notice, Yet the images you use in your vids are snippets from TV Sci Fi and B Movies (gotta love the Space 1999 and Battlestar Galactica cuts). Was that the vision of the future you had when you were growing up?

Betamax Killer: When I grew up, I was allowed to stay up late Friday night to watch Red Dwarf on TV. It was totally out of control story plots that were impossible to predict. At the same time, it was incredibly stupid humour. Later when I was at University we didn’t have a TV licence but a friend of mine had all the Red Dwarf episodes on VHS. And so, it was pretty much the only thing I could watch for a whole year. I don’t know if you had that show in New Zealand actually.

TG: Actually, we did. And its late night screening time was responsible for me sleeping in at least on 3 occasions, maybe more.

Because Betamax asks if we had red dwarf here in Nz and Im saying ‘yes’ .

TG: What guided your thinking, to model the sound and the visuals on this retro space theme vibe?

Betamax Killer: I’ve always enjoyed the creative freedom applied when imagining the future. We get to completely redesign anything we want about the world and see what happens. Old sci-fi appeals to me as it pulls you back into the past and whilst launching you ahead into the future at the same time. Everything feels strange but also familiar. I think this is also reflected in our writing and production. We record using tape machines and old mics and old instruments, but also attempt to travel into the unfamiliar.

TG: Your sound has that retro-future theme to it. Who were your early influences? I’m hearing Sun Ra Archestra, Manu Di Bango, Afrika Bambataa, Parliament, George Clinton and Funkadelic. Would I be right?

Betamax Killer: Personally I definitely had big George Clinton phase. I used to drum along with some of those albums, trying to get deep with the pocket, but also soak up the positive mushroomy vibes. He always seems to have a divine insight that feels enlightened and it’s very infectious. I always felt you are listening to a man who has done enough drugs to see through everything, and he’s letting me know that it’s basically all good if you stay funky. I think this is a very important lesson both in life and in music. To create positive intention and an honest musicality to bring all earthlings together.

TG: The band make their music in a small studio with the best name ever. Tell me about the ‘Total Refreshment Centre’ studio recordings that spawned Neon Baby? I think I can hear bottles clinking and people talking and dancing in the background – was this recorded live like a nightclub?

Danalogue the Conquerer: The Total Refreshment Centre is a very special place in Dalston, London. It is an old victorian warehouse that has been re-purposed as a live music space, along with a brilliant recording studio, co-run by Danalogue along with legendary electronic artist Capitol K.

The original sessions that spawned tracks from our Prophecy EP (2015) – including Neon Baby – and tracks from the LP Channel The Spirits (2016) were based largely on improvisation, played completely live, to tape, with the tape machine inside the room with us, engineered on the fly. Whilst the daytime sessions had yielded plenty of fruit, we had an inclination that a night session with people in the room, beers and good vibes might give an extra angle to our output, and an extra energy. Neon Baby is one of the few tracks from that session, and there are indeed bottles clinking and percussion being played off mic, which occasionally pops through. Watch the video (see below) to neon baby and you will see short exerts filmed in the moment!

 

TG: In fact, I have seen one of their videos of a recording session and was blown away by how ‘simple’ their set up is – yet how complex the sound is by comparison. What equipment are you using to make all that sound?, I ask.

Danalogue the Conquerer: The band is essentially comprised of a drum kit, a saxophone, and two synthesisers, both analogue, both Roland, one Mono, one Stereo. It is pretty simple, and I’d argue that you can get bands with far more members and instruments that don’t sound anywhere near as huge sounding. On record, we use a drum machine to stay in time which is sometimes added in the mix, but I guess part of why it sounds like a lot of sound is that we are often playing with a degree of intensity that fleshes it out.

TG: No band likes to talk about their writing process. How does it get started – because when I hear your music it’s like divided equally into 3 parts and I can’t tell which parts leads and the rest are following. Normally, in jazz you have melody and a downbeat that directs the tune. The soloists play over the top and grab the glory by in Comet the it feels more democratic.

Danalogue the Conquerer: I don’t think we started out to make a jazz record, so in that sense our writing process has nothing to do with jazz. Betamax And I already had a writing and recording style from playing as Soccer96, and involved improvising onto tape in a recording studio, so when Shabaka joined us we were ready to roll. We also ran Shabaka through a giant guitar amp owned by Capitol K which took the saxophone to an electric guitar kind of place, and set a new, dirtier vibe particular to our group.

In terms of composition, Herbie Hancock said once that improvisation is composition, just in a very fast form, you compose in the moment, minute to minute, make your choices in a split second, and if you all listen together, and play with synergy and cooperation, you can even form structures, dynamics and arrangements in the moment. It takes a very special group of players to pull that off, and I knew in the first minute of the first recording session that what we had as a group dynamic was going to be explosive!

TG: From what I’ve read, this group came together when King Shabaka joined in from the sidelines. I ask Wasn’t this originally a two-piece called Soccer69? Can you explain the origins of the group?

King Shabaka: I liked the music of Soccer 96 so I asked to sit in on their set a few times. We decided after a while to book a studio and record some jams. We found structures out of hours of free improvisation and built an album from it. Then started to perform at parties, then festivals.

TG: Can you tell me about your sax (and clarinet) playing. How did you develop this sound? Why not, for example play like Bird or in a more traditional way? What spirits guided you in this direction? Have you got formal training or did you learn from the street or a club? I keep reading about Sons of Kemet and your group’s associations.

King Shabaka: I trained classically at the guildhall school of music on the clarinet predominantly. I’ve developed a way of playing that incorporates aspects of many types of music that I like outside of the parameters which usually typify genre-specific playing. I’ve been through many phases of assimilating various styles so at a point in my career I was playing more orthodox jazz, at a point I was more into free improvisation. At this time, I’m into how I sound now which feels like an amalgamation of lessons learnt from these and more styles. I’ve always enjoyed jamming and performance in clubs so outside my classical training I learnt jazz by trial and error in clubs and bars, and through studying books and albums.

Currently the ‘Comet’ has just landed at a jazz festival in The Netherlands.

King Shabaka: Generally, if the gigs are marketed to people who are up for a rave and are open to joining us in the energy then it’ll be an epic show regardless of geographical placement. Sometimes we’ll turn up to a small town somewhere and there just won’t be that (type of) demographic, though, so we feed of vibe that the crowd is giving regardless and as long as it’s an honest exchange on both sides I think there is potential for a great performance. (When you come to our gigs you have to) feel free to express yourself with integrity.

In other words: Party hard!

The Comet Is Coming play the Wellington Jazz Festival Saturday 10 June.

https://thecometiscoming.bandcamp.com/

https://www.jazzfestival.co.nz/

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The Comet Is Coming: Wellington Jazz Festival, Wellington Opera House, 10 June 2017

The Comet is Coming

The Comet is Coming. Photo credit: Stephen A’Court/ Wellington Jazz Festival

The Comet is Coming came, saw and conquered, leaving an explosion of psychedelic dust in its wake and the uncontrollable urge for Festival goers to get down and boogie. Wellington was passionate about The Comet, nearly selling out the Opera House for their Jazz Festival performance. The Comet took off slowly with a couple of intense and deeply indulgent jams building up layers of funky Herbie Hancock styled futuristic keyboard loops – courtesy of Danalogue The Conqueror (aka Lan Leavers); vibrant counter-rhythms from Betamax Killer’s drum kit and swirly, punchy sax from King Sabaka.  They started this way and except for a short interlude where Danalogue played a short and quiet keys solo continued at full assault mode.  Some of their performance collapsed into deep percussion led rhythmic trances, punctuated by sax and drums which seemed to compete and compliment, simultaneously.
If the Comet’s music was a colour, then they’d be a psychedelic rainbow.  It’s impossible to finger a particular pantone but let’s just say that this was close to a Pink Floyd 60’s trip out.It was sometimes hard to tell where one ‘song’ began and the other finished but in there I noted their big singles Neon Baby and Do The Milky Way and a new single from an upcoming ep called Start Runnin’.  The first two drew huge cheers as they appeared out of the fog-jam of free jazz mixed with elements of Afro-jazz, Funk and even Soul, creating these recognizable hooks that got all shoulders moving and heads nodding in the seat.  The new single was more of a slow builder, very cinematic, and again referencing the avant-garde side of the jazz spectrum.

This crew managed to do so much with so little, and this is impressive.  The poncho wearing hippy presence of Danalogue, leaning over two simple synth-keyboards was something of an illusion, given the myriad of sounds and loops he produced as he frantically twiddled knobs and consciously pounded keys over and over more like a drummer than a pianist.  Betamax’s drumming was just simply stunning.  Watching him was like a calm and gliding duck – on the surface he was tranquil, but underneath frantic rhythms and counter-rhythms are exploding.  His solo used a mixed of drum kit and a digitised tom to produce some unique and surprising sounds.  These weren’t the usual rolling and building constructions you get with jazz.  He’s like four drum machines all going at once – Drum and bass; Hip hop and syncopation (think Brubeck or Krupa) all at one!  Now while that was impressive, you can’t leave out the stunning energy exuded from King Shabaka’s sax.  Using a simple reverb tool he created layer upon layer upon layer of beats and punches.  His style is more like Fela Kuti than Bird.  The aim is to create these sophisticated patterns, like aural fractals.  It’s more like a texture than a melody that he’s creating.  But wow! What textures.

If I had a grumble, it’s a small one.  Comet’s music is probably more suited to a warehouse party than an Opera House, with many of tonight’s punters being, naturally younger, but feeling a little formality of the of the location.  Many threw off their twinset and pearls and headed to aisles to get down to the groove.  Lighting was adequate but again could have done with a proper video show.  Something with plenty of vintage sci-fi like their music vids.  But that’s just a minor point.  Hopefully, they’ll be back again and we’ll get to see that.

Originally featured: http://www.13thfloor.co.nz/?p=88630

Harold López-Nussa Trio – Wellington Opera House 11 June 2017

Photos by Lisa B Doyle/ Wellington Jazz Festival

What a treat, to finish this year’s festival with the Harold López-Nussa Trio. Beaming ear-to-ear, all three, which included Horacio Hernandez (electric bass) and ‘Harry’s’ brother Ruy Adrian (drums) exuded radiant energy, and a real sense of fun.

With a drum kit and a wonderful grand piano placed at the front of the stage it quickly became clear that this was not a single billing. The brothers played off each other all night. It was like they’d been doing this forever, probably with duelling spoons at the dinner table when they were young. Harry’s fingers literally flew across the keys with the subtlest of gossamer touches yet his music was complex and meaty. The rhythms were all based around well-known Cuban themes, mined from a rich boyhood sitting at the knee of his father Ruy Francisco and uncle — Ernán – both gifted pianists from Havana. Harry even played one of his uncle’s pieces tonight, based on a Chopin sonata. But he wasn’t just playing the standards, he was reinventing them. Still in his 20’s Harry plays as if he was born with a piano in the womb. He wiped his face with a towel several times, yet his body language showed a man calm and collected, in contrast to the frantic energy of his fingers.

Harry moves with ease between classical, popular and jazz styles but never shies too far from his Cuban heritage, or his family roots. A quick look at his experiences reveal a recording of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Fourth Piano Concerto” with Cuba’s National Symphony Orchestra (2003) but also winning the First Prize and Audience Prize of the Jazz Solo Piano Competition at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland, in 2005. But he’s done his time outside the jazz world with projects as diverse as Ninety Miles (a recording with David Sánchez, Christian Scott and Stefon Harris) and Esencial (an album of compositions by revered Cuban classical guitarist, composer and conductor Leo Brouwer). If you haven’t heard these then seek them out – the hunt is well worth it. He also did work on the Rhythms del Mundo album, which paired him with veterans from Buena Vista Social Club; and has toured with Omara Portuondo. No wonder the stage seems so natural to him!

Now listening to Harry alone would have been a treat but measure this up against his brother Ruy, who replied to every note with his own interpretation. He performed several solos that totally upstaged his brother, mixing Latin beats with batucada, bongos and wood blocks. Harry had a turn too, making use of a foot pedal version that he played during one of his many solos.

Their repertoire was chosen for its colour and variety including the Afro fusion pieces including several pieces from his new album El Viaje, sadly without the trumpet and Senagalese vocalist and bassist Alune Wade. What is cool is how diverse the music is, moving from sow to full on grooves that are mesmerising and even funky in places. We also go his very cool Fantasmas en Caravana (check out the circus themed video) where his fingers fly at incredible speed.

To break it up there’s a quiet solo dedicated to his mother (Lobo’s Cha), which is so simple and sublime then it’s followed by the brothers playing a traditional 19th Century Cuban song taught to them in their youth. But this is no Chopsticks. Their party piece brought the house down as one brother (mainly Ruy) plays rhythm hands while his brother leads off on tangent after tangent. Then, mid song, and without skipping a beat the get up and swap seats and roles, and then again. It reminded me of Victor Borge, without the silly antics. Another tune, Bacalao con pan, provided yet another opportunity for the brothers to face off in friendly rivalry with Harry pulling out all the stops to blast us with an electric performance on his key board. Again, his fingers moving at lightning speed but somehow you could hear every note and nuance. Then in the other corner Ruy is blasting out endless drum pattern using sticks, brushes and his hands – sometimes all at once it would seem. All the time both are smiling with absolute joy. The audience had picked up on the mood and were soaking it all up. At the end they all stood and stomped loudly in appreciation.
Such was the energy and improvisation on the stage, punters may feel a little let down by the recordings. El Viaje, in particular, is a brilliant record but it just does capture the magic on the stage. There’s only one way to get some of that.

There was, sadly one encore, a very ‘straight’ version of Que Sas Que Sas (Perhaps, Perhaps) to finish the night, and a lone Cajón was left unused. Perhaps the mood, which was overwhelmingly one of fiesta, did not call for it. What a brilliant way to finish the Festival.

Jonathan Crayford Wins Tui for best Jazz Album

New Zealand Jazz Awards

Jonathan Crayford was awarded the Tui for best Jazz Album, at a cocktail party attended by Wellington’s jazz community and sponsors of the Wellington Jazz Festival.

Callum Allardice announces award at the Wellington Jazz Festival Photo: Stephen A’Court.
The event included Anthony Healey, Head of APRA and Damian Vaughan (Recorded Music New Zealand). Jonathan Crayford picked up the award for Best Album for East West Moon, which he recorded in New York with Ben Street and Dan Weiss. Crayford was up against some tough competition including veteran Jazzman Mike Nock (Vicissitudes) and new comer Myele Manzanza (OnePointOne).

Callum Allardice (of The Jac) managed to swing Best Composition for his piece Deep Thought. Festival favourites award went to The Brad Kang Quartet for their amazing concert at St Peter’s on Friday night.

Tim Gruar

Originally appeared at: http://www.13thfloor.co.nz/?p=88663

Reb Fountain – Hopeful & Hopeless (Southbound)

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First appeared on www.13thfloor.co.nz

As its title suggests, Hopeful/Hopeless is something of a tribute to those we’ve lost and those that remain. ‘Death’ is a common but never mournful theme running through these five beautifully crafted songs. This is also a fitting tribute to one of this country’s most innovative and supportive musicians, Sam Prebble.

Singer/Songwriter Reb Fountain, Sam Prebble (banjos, violin, guitar) and Dylan Storey (electric guitar) were part of a wee gang that I once met 10 years ago performing as Reb Fountain and The Bandits in Wellington’s former Happy (Blink’s old club) in Wellington. Simultaneously, Sam was pushing his own project, Bond Street Bridge. The band were officially there to promote Reb’s album, Holster, but that never stopped Sam from exploiting the opportunity.

One evening in August 2014 they got together at Auckland’s Wine Cellar with Dave Khan (accordion), Brendon Turner (bass) and Cole Godley(drums) to record some tunes live at the venue. This turned out to be the last time they’d perform with Sam in the band. These recordings were completed and mixed. But never released. It took some time for Reb to come to terms with the tragedy of his passing or to revisit recordings he’d worked on but she knew intrinsically that the only way forward was to reconnect with him was by completing their unfinished projects. And so, we get not one but two releases.

This ep (Hopeful/Hopeless) is the first, followed in September by the Little Arrows album. The Truth About Us opens the ep with Reb’s usual upbeat mournfulness. It’s the kind of Americana that she’s been crafting for some time now. Her voice is so familiar and often reminds me of Karin Bergquist (Over The Rhine). It has just enough melancholy to feel disturbed but she never sways into the corny or cliché. It’s lilting and haunting, floating almost in dream state over the band as she sings of giving away her possessions, toiling for the bank manager, the ogre of inner city high rises and other everyday battles. The theme of death emerges early, with a wish to avoid all these irritations: “I just hope we die young.” This is really a song about honesty in a relationship but once you know about the ep’s backstory you can help rethinking this one.

You get a sense of desperation in the title track, with its references to passing and remaining. If ever there was a reference to the gap between poverty and prosperity, it’s in the opening lines: “So much doubt up here in the wasteland / Like we sinners come undone”. Is the ‘wasteland’ Auckland. Does she refer to those who sleep in cars and line up at food banks while some sail 30ft yachts and dine at harbour side bistros? Reb’s poetry touches on religious themes in the tradition of many Southern country singers. The gentle strumming beat feels a little like a Johnny Cash number but with a more forlorn outlook. What I really like about this song is the optimistic hook in the chorus. Rather than being a depressing song about fate’s fickle hand it’s something more. It has the rousing tone of a Salvation Army Corner Band. Confident in overcoming death, evil and tyranny.

The fourth track, Dance With Death Alive, is the most personal. Here Reb sings about a dead father and dancing to keep memories alive. It’s not clear if this is her father or another’s. Although it was made prior to Sam’s departure you can’t help feeling that this could be about him. At the start she talks about Pap’s music collection Interestingly, she juxtaposes the music he played (“I grew up on Cowboy Songs, Folk Tunes and Hymns of The Lord/I used to think that a song was made to help you feel” ) with the commercial (“Strange, how a song made for money, just a cog in the wheel feels kinda dirty”). That’s also a comment on her own industry and her own part in it, I guess. She’s almost saying how necessary it is to sell her music to pay for his funeral.

There’s a foreboding line about losing someone and moving on in this song. “Strange how we hold on to what we were and what we do and some of us don’t want to remember these things. As if an answer, Sam’s understated banjos chatter away in the background like faded conversations in bar. That’s offset by Khan’s accordion, which adds a spot of melancholy and sets the tone of the song. Her take on death is one of sorrow, here. It’s always common to think you’ve lost direction when someone passes. “When I wasn’t looking, I lost the meaning of my life/ Seems like it’s the only imprint I get to remind me I’m still alive”. And by that she could mean the father’s record collections, as if playing these will bring back life. “Papa I think I found it lying at the foot of my ghost/That dollar bill so I can pay the man to bring your body back home. When my records are playing will you dance with death alive?” Towards the end of the song, her direction changes, maybe to a boyfriend of even a friend, inviting them to dance along and keep the memories alive. This is by far, the most pertinent song on the ep, it’s hard not to feel affected.

The final song, Crazy Horse and Violence, is another trademark of Reb’s – the cowboy torch song. A sorry tale of a man destined to die. “Crazy Horse and Violence were destined to be lovers…his father cried when he discovered that he bore a child of war….at 19yrs he joined the forces”. Those lines say it all. This time Sam’s violin does much of the speaking, played in the traditional Southern fiddle style you are immediately transported to a shanty shack in Forest Gump territory and taken along for the fateful ride.

There’s no denying that this is a special record, not just because of Sam…the warm ambience of the recording is like an embrace of comfort. You don’t feel like there’s been a tragedy. Reb said it best: “Releasing a record is nothing in comparison to the experience of growing it from the earth up with your loved ones. I will always have that time in my heart.” This, essentially, is at the essence of what you can hear on this wonderful record.

Interview – Beth Orton

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(Originally published at 13thfloor.co.nz)

UK singer/songwriter Beth Orton is returning to our shores on late June for three shows.  The last time she was here, back in 2013, her focus was on Folk but this time she’s returning with a new work, her sixth studio album Kidsticks, which was released last May, an album that marks a distinct turn towards a purely electronic sound for Orton and the bold step of co-producing.

I phoned Beth Orton at the un-a godly hour of 8.30 on a Friday morning (actually 7.30PM, London time, but definitely not Rock’n’Roll).  She’s a little battle weary, having endured a slew of Kiwi and Aussie journos responding to her recent tour announcement.  Initially, it’s a prickly exchange, but she eases up when I let slip that I’m on the tail end of the list because I had to do the school drop off and so ended up with the last time slot.  “Aww,” she mews before asking more about my children.

The last time I spoke to Orton was back in 2013.  I had been on the school run then, too.  She was peddling 2012’s Sugaring Season, a more folky effort that was the sum of the parts of being a solo mum in Norfolk, her marriage to musician Sam Amidon, the birth of her son, and second child Arthur and moving to the USA to live.  Back then, she was trying to shrug off the unwanted label “the Comedown Queen”, which had been applied to her when her first album, Trailer Park came out. Both came to us as something of a de-stress tonic amongst the heady chaos of mid-90s rave culture.

Orton spent two years in LA (her husband’s American) and moved her family back to East London around 2015 where she reckons she’ll stay ‘for a bit’.  She told me that while she misses the peacefulness of Laurel Canyon, she still defines herself very much as “a Brit’ and and was missing those connection.  For her previous album, the move to the sunshine was necessary for a creative shakeup, she says but the older you get the harder it is to keep uprooting yourself and your family.  She does admit that London’s harder than she remembers. ‘With BREXIT, the elections and everything the place is more stressful. Even the music industry is harder’.

We turn our attention to her latest album, Kidsticks, which was partly a result of moving back to that ‘harder’ place, even though it’s where she now feels most grounded.  It’s a considerably more adventurous album than her previous releases.  She chose the title, she says, “because for me it has that joyous feel of kids playing music with sticks”. That said, it’s miles away from the introspective trip-folk she made with William Orbit replacing her usual samples and guitars with a dizzying swirl of words and sonic collages.

Many of the songs have single-word titles – Snow, Moon, Wave, Petals – but only occasionally do they approach familiar Orton territory.  Snow, for example starts with an abrasive, harsh clang, perhaps the opposite of what’s expected.  Mainly they are more like abstract paintings.  So it’s unclear how the titles came about. You can’t call these folkie or fragile, I suggest.  And sometimes her voice is almost unrecognizable.  “That’s deliberate,” she says.  “I wanted to be constantly changing dynamics.  This time I wrote everything on a keyboard, instead of guitars.”

It was her co-producer Andrew Hung (Fuck Buttons) who originally encouraged her to try using a keyboard.  “Giving me that gave me more control, in a way, I think.  In the past it was other producers that provided everything (she’s especially referencing Andrew Orbit and all the men that she’s worked with).  Music is still a very male dominated industry so it was good that I could take some control.  For me that was new.  I was playing with synths, with my own basslines, everything. I got to build my own sound. It was great to experiment and play without too much thinking.” She explains that to some degree there’s a sense of wonderment to just making sounds, creating music out of nothing.  Like a child with a new toy, as if she’ sneer played it before.

But with everything now hanging off this new infrastructure she also felt somewhat vulnerable.  “When I played keys on my recent UK tour I got a sense of how different it was. It was tricky at first. You feel so exposed and out of your comfort zone.  On the first night we lost all the power so nothing was working until right on curtain time. So that was unsettling.  That’s the kind of thing that reminds you that this music is very much reliant on the digital world and that’s exposing.  It wasn’t that I could jump up and just play my guitar like before.”

Adopting the keyboard, and the techno-desk, seems to be a bit of a paradox given that when I last talked to her she told me she’d taken guitar lessons from the venerable Bert Jansch in an effort to ground her music in the English folk tradition.  So, it seems Kidsticks is a complete rejection of all that.  “No.  Not really,” Orton claims (and I can hear something defensive in her tone), “Learning from Bert meant I could take on the hard core, season folk players.  I was trying to be more serious and dedicated to my craft. I think this album is a reaction to that. Look, I’d was done with performing just as an English singer-songwriter.  I think I’d taken that as far as I wanted.  I got to a point where I needed to find Something new, both creatively and physically (by this she means moving to London).”

The recording process for Kidsticks was deliberately or consequentially protracted, depending on your point of view.  It initially began in fits and starts in LA sheds and back-garden studios and then, later,  in her front room “with the kids running around, tripping over leads and amps.  The opposite of your usual cold, sterile recording studio.”.

It all began with Hung’s stark, scratchy loops and her early synth tracks.  Then she felt it was important to in bring other musicians “ground my melodies.  Digital stuff is good but I’m still a live performer and I still needed real instruments. The whole thing took 18 months, with Orton writing her lyrics on tour and then bringing in a range of performers from LA’s indie music community including Twin Shadow’s George Lewis Jr, Chris Taylor (Grizzly Bear) and multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily.

The album’s other producer was Andrew Hung of Bristol electronic/experimental duo Fuck Buttons.  Orton originally worked with him when he remixed one of her tracks from Sugaring Season.  Orton’s musical trajectory from 1006’s Trailer Park and Central Reservation (1999), through the tentative electronica Daybreaker (2002) to the dry, harsh folk of Comfort of Strangers (2006) and on to her more upbeat, song-based Sugaring Season (2012), has been a documentary of constant changing between styles – often guided, directed or supported by a collection of surprising and varied collaborators.  They include William Orbit, Andrew Wetherall, Johnny Marr, the Chemical Brothers and Jim O’Rourke. And as it could be thought that Orton’s direction is something of a mysterious journey: a free spirit, paradoxically looking for somewhere to fit in.  “No, I wouldn’t say that,” she argues,”I just like to mix things up – change locations, styles, ideas.”

I have to ask why it’s important that she needed to co-produce this album because Producers, males in particular, often want to impose their vision over of what is, really someone else’s material. “This is such a male dominated industry, and sometimes you have to fight to get your ideas across.  It happened a bit with Andy but not majorly.  There’s the producer that has the overall vision of the sound and direction and then there’s the producer that makes the music, loops and the details.  We worked together on that (she doesn’t divulge exactly which did what but is very clear that this is her music and that she played that major role in the creative process.” She does acknowledge that working with others is a two-way street, with the traffic sometimes heavier on one side.  “I’ve been lucky to work with some really amazing and inspiring people.  Sometimes I got carried away by their Ideas and I certainly went down many side roads, I guess.”  She admits that in the past she’d become a bit obsessed with certain sound directions working with Jim O’Rourke or Roback made. “Often what they did was was genius, but it was their genius.  This time I wanted some of that.”

Kidsticks is a record of multiple points – there’s a lot of references to falling – falling in love; letting go of the self (even if unintentionally) and there’s even a song by that name.  Falling includes a very disturbing lyric: “Now my phone book is filling up with dead friends, and I wonder who would answer if I called them.”  I’ve been asked that a lot today.  I When you grow older, loss and dying becomes something you become more aware of.  I’ve got all these numbers in my phone of people who’ve died or I don’t see anymore or don’t work with. Oddly, I forget to delete their names. I think it’s a sort of modern way to stay connected with the past and the people we’ve lost.  It’s like these markers, lie visiting graves or old flats or places where we used to go, you know?  We still visit their names when we whizz through the address book”.

Family is also important and it shines through in the album with a number of ‘Flesh and Bone’ love songs to her husband, including Dawnstar and a spoken word or poetry piece, an ode to her mother who died after from illness when she was only 19.  Then there’s Corduroy Legs, the other spoken-word piece, a nod to motherhood – “a hand reaches to me, across the banished sea, and holds me, holds me holding you”.  “I wrote that when I was a single parent, with a tiny baby, living in my mother’s house in Norfolk. Just us against the world.  It’s about being alone with a child but also being motherless and helpless without the support networks mothers should have to raise a child.  But then I realise it didn’t matter. It was all OK.” The reference to corduroy legs was added later.  “That’s (Her son) Arthur as a toddler thumping down the stairs.  It was the right sound to go with the music and the right description of optimism.  but don’t over think it.”

The last time Orton was here she played churches around the country, predominantly as a solo folk artist.  “I remember that tour, such pretty locations.  I’ll have a band and digital toys.  It’ll be a different experience.  But,” she adds,”I’ll still bring my guitar.  I’m planning to do stuff from all my albums.  I just want to bring the best from my career.”

Thomas Oliver – San Fran May 13, 2017

Thomas-Oliver023Originally published at 13thfloor.co.nz

On the eve of Mother’s Day, Wellington musician Thomas Oliver gave us all an early present (including the mums) by stopping in at his home town on his national tour. The fuss was the release of his first proper album, Floating in The Darkness.

Ok, ‘proper’ is probably not quite the word, given he’s already made a bunch of others, first as part of the Thomas Oliver Band, and then there’s an all instrumental release from back in 2013 called Beneath the Weissenborn. The Weissenborn, by the way is a type of lap slide guitar, originally made by Herman Weissenborn in LA back in the 1920’s and 30’s. It’s an instrument Oliver has come to master over the years and we certainly got plenty of chances to see his skills in action tonight.

Most of tonight’s set is from the new work. Oliver starts off slowly with a stripped back version of Tenderly, mainly featuring Oliver on his Weissenborn. On the album, it’s got a bigger sound thanks to his meticulous production standards and fanatical approach. On stage, it’s a little more loose and a bit more of a quiet storm than the big soul swell that you get on the CD. I certainly missed the ever-present soul-sister BV’s of Lisa Tomlins but that said Bella Florence does an equally nice job. Her touch is subtler but it suits this live rendition pretty well.

Next up is a very tender ballad, Remember, which is a delicious slow burner. Again, the album version has a certain vibe to it that varies from Oliver’s live version. For the better, in this case, I think. His voice is so pure and sweet, utterly convincing and bordering on goosebumps inducing at times. But the sweetest, most delicate moment is on one of his older songs Boy – a track that’s been in his tour set for a while now. It tells the tale of growing up and stepping out in the world but unlike many coming of age songs it’s devoid of mushy sentiment. Just more of Oliver’s simple vocals and his guitar.

The band comes to life with the album tracks Shine Like The Sun and Budapest is Beautiful (which was written, incidentally, in that great city). It’s at this time that we get a fleeting visit from flugelhorn player Barret Hocking, who provides some sweet and jazzy brass under this bittersweet love song. They play in support but slowly but surely start to come into the foreground. Ed Zuccollo’s Rhodes-like keyboards are particularly wonderful as they start to pepper each tune, giving everything a slightly ecumenical feel.

After this, Oliver clears the stage and performs a very sensitive take on Bob Marley’s Is This Love, which he originally did for a recent tribute album to the man. It’s very different from Bob’s original, delicately constructed around the melody and unfettered by the usual reggae feel. It works surprisingly well. The audience stand with their mouths open in amazement, savouring every second. Me, too. You can really feel the love.

To break the spell, the band return and knock out the ol’ standard Take Me To The River. Ed gets to put his keyboard through its paces on this one. I was hoping to hear a bit more from his vintage Moog but maybe it needed to cool down.

If that wasn’t impressive then they were just warming up, with the best coming. Bad Talkin’ Man is a simple tune but, done well, it’s a pretty stunning blues jam and Oliver and his band give it their all. We get a crazy good solo on the Weissenborn from Mr O followed by funky solos on keys from Ed Zuccollo and then a face off between drummer Sam Norman and bassist Johnny Lawrence. Just when you think it’s all over they reprise it all and get the audience to join in for another 10 minutes. But no one was checking their watches. We were all too busy wigging out!

Finally, they close it down and finish up with the big single – If I Move To Mars, which they do just as it is on the album. It’s a great tune and works as well live as on the very cool video Oliver made and released last year. The crowd loved it and are shouting at the top of their voices ‘Encore, encore!’ Just as well, as it gives Oliver the chance to bring out his other guest, legendary Kiwi digital music composer Rhian Sheehan, to help out on the trippy finale Let This Be The One. Sheehan adds layer upon layer of guitar is subtle, spacey walls of sound that provide the perfect architecture for this song. It builds slowly to a climax, swirling around Oliver’s simple but clever song lines and yet more sweet vocals.

If you haven’t seen Thomas Oliver yet, there’s still time. Although tonight was sold out, so be quick! Two years ago, he was the one to watch. With a couple of year’s performing in festivals around the world he’s gained enough stage time to say that he’s now the one you shouldn’t miss! He’s done Aussie, Vietnam, Europe and supported Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker and Fat Freddy’s Drop. And check out his new album, Floating in The Darkness. Tonight was the first time I’d heard it played live and it’s a keeper, I’d say.