andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: July 2015

Songwriters on Songwriting: Kenny Mackay

Concluding (for now) my series of interviews with songwriters of my acquaintance, Here’s Kenny Mackay, of Isaac Brutal and the Trailer Trash Express fame. Kenny tends to have his own take on stuff…

Incidentally, if you are a songwriter who thinks your answers to these questions would be illuminating, thought-provoking or just plain out there, get in touch.

Music or words first? Or a bit of both?

I’m possibly sneaking in here under false pretences as I don’t think I’d really call myself a songwriter. The majority of my ‘songs’ are instrumental and any that do have lyrics, the lyrics are either written by someone else, or co-written with someone else. If it’s the former, I have zero interest in what they are and they’re basically just something that’s in there to stop the listener getting bored between the guitar solos! If it’s the latter, I’ll obviously take a bit more interest, but the lyrics are still secondary to the music.

Do you use a particular instrument to compose with, e.g. a favourite guitar; if you use piano/keyboard and guitar for different songs, do they produce different results?

I have two methods of composition. The first is a fairly standard knock it out on the guitar. The second is probably a bit less conventional in that I use a PS2 and Music 3000, which is a sample based music production ‘game’. Originally I had a Playstation and Music 2000, but I upgraded! Unfortunately Music 3000 isn’t a new version of the Codemasters classic, it just happens to have a similar name. But it was only 1p from Amazon! I know, Music 2000 will also work on the PS2, but hey, it’s not the 90s any more! But for both methods it’s the same building block philosophy – start off with one riff you like and keep piling things on top of it until it explodes!!!

Some songwriters talk about the process as if it’s like catching something that was there already, out there in the ether – as if the song was just waiting to be pulled in. Does it ever feel like that to you, or is the process much more mechanical for you?

‘Out there in the ether’? Sounds like it was something they might have heard on the radio and ‘appropriated’! [Yeah, I know. It’s a worry though, isn’t it? ACF] Maybe for a singer-songwriter with a guitar or piano, but for me it’s like one of those 2000 piece jigsaw puzzles of baked beans. Most of the bits look pretty much the same, but they all have a correct position in the puzzle. For me, all the various elements of a song have to go in the correct place. And that takes time. Sometimes a LOT of time! And I only have one rule: if it sounds like it could be done by Oasis, then it’s straight in the bin!

Name an influence on your songs that maybe wouldn’t be obvious to most of your fans.

Not sure I really have any fans. Who even heard, say, Dwarf Factory‘s Doom Stalks Your Boogaloo or Lunar Conquistadors‘ Hotwired Into The Cosmos? (Both great albums, possibly due a re-release?) But I think all my influences are glaringly obvious – minimalism, free jazz, prog rock, Krautrock, Japanese noise merchants, post rock, electric Miles, the Paisley Underground, Neil Young, Television, Springsteen, Tom Petty, black metal!!! I had a spell in hospital in 2001, and about the only radio station I could get a decent reception on was Beat 106. Now maybe it was the drugs, but I started listening to a lot of dancey type music and I really got into trance! So I’ll go with Sven Vath! Although now I mention it, that sounds glaringly obvious too!

Do you always write with your own (or your lead singer’s) voice in mind, or have you ever written for someone else? How did it turn out?

I can fairly safely say that whenever I have written lyrics, the potential singer plays no part in it! As long as they work on the page, then that works for me! And if anyone’s looking for me to write lyrics for them, then they should probably call it a day!

Do you ever revise your songs after you’ve started performing them, or are they pretty much fixed?

I think of everything as a work in progress. But then I tend to favour some degree of improvisation, particularly during live performances. That’s the jazz influence! However, most musicians are more like classical musicians, preferring all the bits to be in exactly the same place as they were last time and will be the next time. Things get too loose, they get edgy! And edgy musicians are a liability! Although I’m sure they’d say the same about me!

Name three favourite songwriters of yours.

For all the weird shit music I listen to, it’s hard to go outside the conventional idea of the songwriter. A solo artist who always gets lone billing, or maybe even with a band – Someone and the Somethings. Maybe because unless it’s one of those obvious guys (and gals), you don’t really know who’s a songwriter. There might also be other factors. My favourite band of all time is Television. Tom Verlaine wrote all the songs. But Tom Verlaine’s solo work is slightly less spectacular. So we have to assume that it’s not the songs that were great, it’s the band that made them great. And come on, in this age of CD booklets with tiny writing and digital downloads, who really knows who wrote what! What was the question again? Three songwriters. 1) Bruce Springsteen. 2) Neil Young. 3) Don van Vliet. I did seriously consider putting Nick Cave in there, but strip out The Bad Seeds and I’m not sure if those songs are going to sound so good. And apparently every single note of every single Captain Beefheart record was written down. Seems it’s easier to go outside the conventional idea of the songwriter than I thought!

Kenny’s work features on the latest Isaac Brutal CD, Night of the Living Trailer Trash. He also features in one of my own favourite live recordings of recent years:

 

 

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Latitude, Day 2: Black Snot and the perils of stage programming

Black Snot.

A phenomenon, one’s reliably informed, more usually associated with exhaust gas-choked central London than the delightful Suffolk countryside. However, a long, hot spell leading up to Latitude Festival had produced a dry, dusty site which, when combined with the passing of many feet and a persistent west wind, meant the local soil permeated into all and any exposed orifices. Producing, in your blog’s case, the aforementioned olfactory by-product: in the case of those staying on site, one can only imagine other, direr consequences.

Minor inconveniences such as this aside, Saturday at Latitude dawned bright and breezy and full of promise of a full day of musical delights. This time the Redoubtable Mrs F sat things out in Southwold, so it was just Daughter and Heiress and myself bussing onto the site amidst the traffic chaos that comes from pouring several thousand music fans down a rural B road at once.

This year did seem a good bit busier than last, to be honest; and whilst that’s good for the organisers, it did on occasion cause a bit of discombobulation – especially when, as seemed to be the case with the later acts, there was an element of mismatch between stage and popularity of performer.

To recap from Friday’s review. There are four main stages at Latitude, in descending order of audience capacity: the Obelisk, big stage in a field with seating set half a mile back a la most festivals; the Radio 6 Music Stage, a tent – mostly enclosed – in the ‘bloody big’ category; the Lake Stage, technically probably capable of having a huge audience, but subject to sound bleed from the first two by nature of the site’s topography; and the iArena, tucked away in the woods, and consisting of a smaller tent with more gappy bits under the canvas so that one could – and did – experience a fair bit of the perfromance from the slope immediately outside the tent itself. There are other, smaller stages, but let’s stick with the main four for simplicity.

Pity, though, the job of the programmer, who has to decide which band should go where. So last year’s Lake Stage kings, Catfish and the Bottlemen, might reasonably be promoted to the Radio 6 Tent; but what of, for example, Leon Bridges, a soul singer who’d had more recent coverage in the music press than said programmer could reasonably have known, and was therefore to pack out the iArena? So many variables – not just the band’s own profile, and previous festival appearances, but recent appearances on Jools (which, let’s face it, is the first we Festival Dads and Moms may have heard of someone) time of day, and, crucially, who’s on at the same time elsewhere.

More on this later – but in the meantime, the traffic jams having caused us to miss Benjamin Booker, we had a brief look at Badly Drawn Boy, (not compelling enough on the main Obelisk Stage to keep us from the merch stalls) and then Sun Kil Moon.

To be honest, the main reason for giving the latter a go was the well-publicised spat between Mark Kozelek, the motive force behind Sun Kil Moon, and War on Drugs – ironically enough after sound bleed issues at a festival. No such problems here for your man in the Radio 6 tent, probably the most sound-proof of the stages, but he still wasn’t moving us greatly after a couple of songs, so we made our excuses and left him to his grumpy comments about how sweaty he was. Though some props to the guy for doing a cover of Nick Cave’s ‘Crying Song,’ presumably in sympathy for the recent death of Cave’s son.

We returned to the same tent shortly after, however, for one of the Daughter and Heiress’s picks: Wolf Alice. This turned out to be the gig of the day for your blog: the tent packed, but not so packed as to be a diversion from the excellent, heads down, driving rock the band produced; a charismatic front woman who was capable of roaring, screaming, and occasionally squealing in wave bands only audible, one suspects, to the sharper-eared canines in the audience, but also, as she showed in a rare slower number delivered with especial aplomb mid-set (‘Turn to Dust,’ appropriately enough?) singing, like, proper singily.

I’ve given up trying to keep up with the labels music journos give to bands’ sounds. To be honest, the song structures weren’t so out there as to have eschewed the sacred twelve-bar on occasion, and there was a bass, drums, and two guitars fed through distortion pedals. In other words, pretty much as it should be. And Ellie is quite some front woman: again, she isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, burning-eyed blonde to front a rock band, but she’s got oodles of it, whatever it is. One to watch.

Next, a diversion to the iArena to see the opening numbers of Leon Bridges, a soulful type who had received a lot of sympathetic press recently, and therefore filled the smaller tent to bursting and beyond. He sounded good, but it just wasn’t enough of our kind of thing to detain us from David O’Doherty in the comedy tent, a diversion from the True Path of Musical Righteousness that caused me guilty pangs (I’ve kind of taken a scunner (1) to stand up comedians since they’ve effectively taken over the Edinburgh Fringe (it feels) lock stock and barrel, and I had a personal code of honour to only go and see music acts, but stuff it, it was DO’D, and he does play that wee Casio keyboard after all).

Coming out of the comedy tent, we were in time to catch the last of Laura Marling’s set, which seemed strangely subdued, somehow. However, that may have been because we were sitting quite far out to the side of the Obelisk, where it was easy to feel uninvolved, or at least less involved than in the Radio 6 Tent in the midst of a crowd. I did wonder if Marling, despite being a Big Thing in terms of the pantheon of names appearing at the Festival, might have been better suited in the Radio 6 Tent. I’m glad I’m not that programmer.

By this time the hunger pangs were craving attention again, and Daughter and Heiress and I shared a half roast chicken, smothered in a green and yellow radioactive type material which advertised itself as ‘Lemon and Herb:’ to be honest, though, it was absolutely delicious, although the rapid attraction of dust particles to the dish, the sauce, our hands and, frankly everything else at this point deterred us from finding out if it was finger-lickin’ good or not. Sic transit festival food.

If all of this and the next paragraph’s whinge about crowd behaviour all sounds insufferably middle-aged and fussy, especially when your blog wasn’t even camping out on site but instead was staying in a well-appointed flat in town, well, maybe, but I really, really, did enjoy Latitude again this year, and would definitely come back. The atmosphere is great. The mix of people, and seeing people feeling it’s a safe place to take their kids is great – although the sight of parents holding their pre-schoolers aloft at the louder, late-evening gigs, like some sort of chubby, Boden- and ear-defender-clad sports trophy, did make you wonder whose benefit the whole thing was for; the chance to see such a range of new, exciting bands all in one sun-soaked 48 hour period is great. Most of all, the ability of the best of the music to transcend the fact that the toilets smell like an army latrine in the Gobi desert on one of its hotter days, Suffolk clay is silting up every available orifice, new species of biting insect are trying out their just-arrived mouthparts on a fleshy part of you, and your hands are covered in some form of radioactive lemon and herb goo, just reminds you that, well, great rock and roll can overcome almost anything.

Unfortunately, Catfish and the Bottlemen didn’t quite manage it.

To be fair, they just about did. This blog predicted last year that they were the coming thing, several more esteemed rock critics had agreed since, and interviews with your man Van McCann, the lead singer, had heightened the media interest. Tellingly he’d made a comparison in one article I’d read with Oasis, and the band seem to be aiming for that larrikin, bad-boy image the Gallagher brothers used so adeptly back in the day. Unfortunately, this seemed to translate with the Radio 6 Tent filling with more than its usual quota of teenage and pre-teenage lads and numpties, including one type who barged in beside me and insisted in waving some sort of home made banner with fish on it (Catfish, see what he did there?) all over your blog’s personal space, while his stunted offspring stood in front and jabbed sharp elbows about at groin level.

And – I’m sorry – but what is it with people moving about so much in these crowds? I totally get why a big conga line of twenty-somethings might want to plough, hands joined, to the front of the audience just before or even during the opening numbers. The serving system at the massively overpriced bars is Byzantine in nature, and anyway, the collective hive mind might take a bit to get going. I completely get that. But once you’re wherever you’ve got to, just stay there, okay? I mean unless you suddenly discover you actually hate Catfish and all his Bottlemen with a passion, can you not just stay in one place for the rest of the performance? They don’t last long, and trust me, if you needed the toilet, you would’ve bitten the bullet and gone before they started.

(And … breathe). Catfish and the Bottlemen delivered a high octane, raucous performance which had the crowd totally lit up. They’re not about to add a string section or collaborate with Brian Eno or anything, but if you like your rock straightforward, loud, and with stadium-friendly melodies, they are definitely a band to catch as they continue their inexorable rise. McCann is a compelling front man with an eye to the main chance. Probably better to be more lagered up than your blog was, is all I’m saying.

The last band we intended to see, again in the Radio 6 tent, was the Vaccines. They were on at the same time as Portishead were playing the Obelisk main stage, and it would have been interesting to see just how busy the latter was, because the Radio 6 was packed to the gunnels (if tents have gunnels) and beyond. In the interests of shielding Daughter and Heiress from some of the more extreme ruck-and scrum tactics of the crowd this time, I’d positioned myself against one of the metal posts that held up the back of the tent, with D & H in front. This strategy was also designed to give us a quick exit at the end in order to catch the bus back into the village – a strategy, which I quickly realised, which was flawed, when I turned round to see a crowd maybe 100 deep and 500 wide behind us.

What we saw of the Vaccines was really promising, and Daughter and Heiress has just found out they’re playing at the Usher Hall on 7th December. However, this time it was D & H, somewhat to my surprise, who said she’d had enough of being shoved and jostled, and we made our escape into the night, to where the taxi drivers circled like brightly-coloured tiger sharks round a crowd of other early exiters.

And so another Latitude Festival comes to an end for us. Our plans may take us elsewhere on holiday next year, although I would definitely like to be back some time. Festival economics dictate that this year’s increased numbers (I assume) will be something the organisers will want to build on. However, it is one of Latitude’s USPs that it’s a relaxed kind of affair, so I hope that’s factored in, as well as a willingness to take risks with the programming, particularly on the smaller stages. Until then, we shake the dust of Suffolk from the soles of our feet finally, although it will live on in our hearts.

Just not forever, we hope, in our nostrils.

 

 

 

(1) follow the link for a decent definition.

 

 

 

 

 

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Latitude, Day 1: The Worst Band Name Ever

We came across the worst band name ever two years ago when cruising in a boat on the Norfolk Broads (I know, this appears to have nothing whatsoever at all to do with a review of last Friday’s Latitude Festival, which took place in Norfolk, not Suffolk, but work with me, ok?). We pitched up at a pub in a place called Thurne, where, a sign at the side of the bar informed us, One Hand Clapping would be performing that very Saturday.

One Hand Clapping. I ask you. I suppose they could have been some sort of Buddhist folk-rock band, all tinkling bells and clunking gongs, but the image I had was of some bozo with a Clavinova, churning out Stevie Wonder covers, with a lucrative sideline in weddings and bar mitzvahs. However, the Redoubtable Mrs F made further inquiries and we went anyway.

It was one of the best nights in a pub I’ve ever had: One Hand Clapping turned out to be a good going covers band, majoring in 60s and 70s, who gradually built their set towards a finale that had the whole bar variously singing, dancing, and clapping along (with both hands). The fact that only one of them was looking forward to his own sixtieth birthday hadn’t affected their abilities: there was a female singer and guitarist, a lead guitar player who occasionally took on vocal duties, a bassist and a drummer.

Two years on, we were again on a boat in the Broads in July, we again moored at Thurne on a Saturday night, and lo and behold, One Hand Clapping, the Band With The Worst Name Ever Who Had Been Surprisingly Good, were playing again. We ordered our reasonably priced pub meals and took a ringside seat, awaiting their arrival.

But wait. Age had not withered them, at least not substantially, but ego, it appeared, had shrunk them. The lead guitarist had got rid of the bass player and drummer, it seemed, and the lead singer – his own wife – had been relegated to setting up the amps and occasional flute playing duties. Lead Guitar Guy had drafted in a mate, who was a pretty decent guitar player, but not so you’d notice since the Main Man instructed his missus to turn his own amp up so far you couldn’t hear his mate’s finer noodlings half the time.

A cautionary tale, then, which we took with us to Latitude. No matter who you are in music, sometimes all the choices left to you are occasional flute playing duties, or divorce.

There were no flutes immediately apparent at the Latitude site – perhaps surprising, given the hippy reputation of this particular festival – and, indeed, both days were dominated by the sound of grinding guitars of various kinds – no bad thing for this blog, if you already know its prejudices. First up, though, was Curtis Harding, a soulful sort whose style, the programme advised us, was ‘born in Michigan and bred on the road.’ He was excellent: good, soulful voice, handy guitar player too, with (mostly) his own material, although he did a good cover of Ain’t No Sunshine When You’ve Gone. From under a tent flap, the band was good, too.

Which brings me to the stages at Latitude. There are four main ones: the Obelisk, which is your standard issue festival main stage, on a grassy plateau at the top of the site, with stands set well back; the Radio 6 Music Tent, which is a big but (as we shall see) not always big enough full on tent, open at the back and sides, but with plenty of canvas to keep the sound and atmosphere in; the Lake Stage, down by the bridge, which is a great venue for passing traffic, but is open to the elements and can therefore suffer from sound bleed most (as Norma Jean Martine found to her cost last year); and the iArena, where Curtis had been doing his soulful thing, a smaller tent in the woods with more of a gap under the canvas.

You can kind of understand the organisers’ original thinking on this, of course: iArena small, more intimate, Lake Stage for the up and coming young thrusters; Radio 6 Tent for the coolest latest things (Anna Calvi, for example, last year) and the Obelisk for the big acts that everyone would want to see. However, matching band to stage can’t be easy, and this year there were what might have been a couple of mismatches, of which more in the next post.

That said, Curtis Harding was just fine in the iArena. Our our next act, after we’d caught the end of Philadelphia-based The Districts (not bad at all) was Fife’s own King Creosote, with a superb set that drew initially on his most recent album, From Scotland With Love, but also included plenty of other material for hard core fans to enjoy. This was in the Radio 6 Tent, and the enclosed space helped the band’s more intimate sound – not that they were lacking amplification. Kenny did us proud – and it was nice, I may say, to have at least one band that made good use of acoustic guitar. No flutes though.

Next, it was back to the iArena for an act that I sincerely hope to see in a sweaty Glasgow venue in November: Ezra Furman. Your blog was temporarily confused and thought Daughter and Heiress was taking him to see George Ezra, which was confusing on two grounds. Firstly, why was he playing on the smallest of the main stages? Secondly, why had D & H forsaken indie rock for a sensitive pop troubador?

However, it soon became apparent that the only thing Ezra Furman has in common with George Ezra is in fact the name, Ezra. And even then they use it at different bits, don’t you see? Out of this haze of confusion (blame the heat, the dust, the lack of alcohol) it quickly became apparent that Ezra Furman was, in fact, right up your blog’s street. The programme entry referenced New York Dolls, Ramones and the E Street Band, and all of these influences were in play: the latter especially by means of the big chap giving it laldy with a saxophone right up front, although his style was probably more a blend of Clarence Clemons in his pomp and Bad Manners ska-influenced honking. Great guitars, and a bit of keyboard that could’ve been further up in the mix if anything, but overall a terrific sound. Literate lyrics – well, Tom Sawyer got a mention at one point, at least.

I found myself thinking that Furman himself was part of a continuum of what I’d call ‘street-punk-ness’: that indefinable mix of insouciance, sarcasm, and vulnerability that inspires devotion even as the possessor of it is spitting irony right in your face. Mid-Sixties Dylan had it; before him, folk such as Eddie Cochrane, and then of course the likes of John Lydon and Debbie Harry. Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice, featured in Saturday’s review, has it in spades. But Ezra Furman and the Boyfriends was the gig of the day for me, possibly of both days, and that was in the far from ideal iArena hanging onto a tent flap.

Oh, and plus he wore a dress, which takes a bit of attitude, even in these so-called enlightened times.

The last complete gig we saw, since we left half way through Alt-J (nothing wrong with them, although not my kind of thing, really) was Django Django in the Radio 6 Tent. This was a band I’d done my homework on, having listened to their most recent album at least twice (yeah, I know, the sheer dedication!) Half-Scottish, they’re an extremely marketable blend of synth and guitars, and what impressed me most was their songs were genuinely catchy and melodic, and worked well live. They may well have been Daughter and Heiress’s gig of the day, and although Ezra shaded it for me, they were pretty great, too.

My only criticism was your man’s guitar playing seemed pretty minimal: but I guess they would say it’s integral to the sound, not the main instrument. To which I would say, if you’re going to strap on a Telecaster, you might as well use it. It’s not just for decoration.

Or risk ending up on flute duties.

 

 

 

 

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Andrew C Ferguson’s Virtual Fringe: Fair Warning

Calling all Fringe performers: this year I’m doing nothing at the Edinburgh Fringe at all. Nothing. Nada. Zilcho. For a number of reasons. This, of course, frees me up to come to your show, and maybe even do a wee review of it. So, in case you weren’t going to anyway, be sure to invite me – best way is probably through the medium of Facebook – and I’ll probably say I’m maybe coming, by which I’ll mean I’m maybe coming, because there are a lot of shows and I have to travel in from Fife’s dark interior.

However, priority will be given to folk I know personally, who are good types, and who’ve been to one of my shows in the past. Just saying. So there.

Next up, more Diary of a Festival Dad as the final sartorial and other preparations reach a conclusion….