Sofa Sound  Newsletter

37/January 2011


Past Newsletters

Another Year

A retrospective newsletter again: the snow’s gone now; the embers of last year have died away. Looking back on 2010 my initial feeling was that it had been a comparatively idle twelve-month, remarkable for the fact that for the first time since the very start of my career there was no new release, even one of live or sonics material. That fact made me think that perhaps I was becoming lazy or getting into that slow-up zone which inevitably comes with (a few) advancing years.
Oh, but.... When I examined what’s been done this year month by month I realised that while there have been long periods of apparent inactivity these have been interspersed with moments of great and intense action.
The year - or the publicly active part of it at least - began as it eventually ended, under the most severe winter weather. Halfway through January I set off for Bath station en route to the airport and Hamburg; I got only a mile or so from the house before discovering that the roads were already completely impassable. Happily the trains were still running from Bradford on Avon and I managed - just - to connect in time. We’d no sooner arrived at the airport, though, than the “cancelled” signs started going up against the flights, eventually including ours. For a time it looked as though touring had hit the buffers at the first attempt but a few hours later we were rebooked onto another flight and made it to Germany.
For the next couple of weeks we dodged our way around the snowdrifts across Europe. This was, of course, effectively the continuation of the solo tour I’d started in Italy in December and, as on that tour, I was looking to expand the repertoire and thus push the boundaries of my solo performances. In turn that meant I’d started carrying an enormous amount of paperwork around with me in the form of crib sheets for the songs. (Though still rather less than a VdGG tour involves!) These days, if I’m going to cock up a tune, it’s best that I’ve got the clues to correct myself readily at hand; mind you, even with a crib sheet there’s no guarantee that I’ll get all the lyrics right....
In spite of the sometimes arduous conditions (thermals ahoy!) the run of shows was very civilised and most enjoyable. Nearly all of the performances were on grand piano, the most notable exception being the Harmonie set in Bonn, which was guitar only. I’d agreed to this from quite a long way out; it would, of course, have been possible to have had a piano of some kind hired in but I felt it would give me a bit of an extra challenge to go back to first principles. Nearly all of my early songs and all my early shows, after all, were on acoustic guitar alone.
On my return it was time to look towards the next VdGG record again. We’d decided that we wanted to try a different recording route this time; rather than adopting the pop-up studio approach which had characterised the “Present” and “Trisector” sessions we felt it would be beneficial to go into an actual studio as our first move. We were still keen to get away from it all so that we’d be fully focussed on the job in hand for the short time at our disposal so a country studio seemed the obvious choice.
We happened upon the Propagation House, just outside Holsworthy (self-evidently in the heart of our modern hunting ground) and booked in for a week at the start of April. As always we arrived in our three individual cars, loaded down with equipment and provisions and bottoming out on a driveway which was something of a driving challenge. Day One was simply a matter of loading in and setting up before retiring to a nearby holiday cottage where we’d be self-catering like any odd trio of elderly chaps on a springtime holiday.
I’ll write more about the process of recording the latest record closer to its actual release date, even if it all now seems well back in the past of last year. As ever, I don’t really like talking about upcoming music until it’s available, or about to be available.... Suffice it to say that over seven days of intense activity we left Propagation House with a load of stuff to work on and a set of powerful backing tracks.
I spent the next couple of months alternating between live solo touring and overdubbing the VdGG material. It was a delight to do a solo mini-tour of the UK again after a number of years in which my shows had been rather more far-flung across the globe. In the course of these shows, taken at a comparatively leisurely pace, the song-list continued to grow apace, to the extent that I was now working off an “available songs” list of around seventy. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I go into the selection of any given set in a headlong “it must be completely different each time” spirit. It’s still important to have some kind of dynamic arc through a show and equally I’m always aware that the majority of any audience will only be seeing one show rather than a succession.
Tokyo, of course, is an exception to that rule and there I’m conscious that the dedication of the audience means that a high proportion of the crowd will attend all or most of the shows. It was in Japan some years ago that I first began to reacquaint myself with the mysteries of high-wire solo performing (particularly on piano) and from an early stage I decided that my visit in July should have a thematic setting. So the idea of the four different shows came about: “What if there were no piano?”, “What if I’d forgotten my guitar?”, “What if there were only VdGG songs?”, “What if I knew this was the last show I’d do?”.
The first two concerts were comparatively simple to prepare, as guitar-only, piano-only shows are known, if not absolutely familiar, territory for me. The last two, though, required quite a degree of visualisation and preparation and that I spent much of my final two days in Tokyo concentrating on the choice of songs for them. The VdGG set meant (re-)learning several pieces that I hadn’t played in ages - or, in a solo context, ever, in fact! Some of them were real fingertips efforts but I - and, I hope, the audience too - took that to be in the spirit of the thing. Very taxing, but very enjoyable and perhaps this is an experiment which I’ll repeat again at some time in the future.
Back in Tokyo, I came to my “last ever” show. A number of points need to be made here. Firstly, for years I’ve approached every show I do as if it might be the last - certainly that it’s the *only* show I’m doing. Secondly, in reality it’s something of a given that I’d never know ahead of time which show would be my last. If, for instance, I discovered that something imminently terminal had crossed my path then I’m pretty sure that my reaction would not be to arrange and head out on a tour. So although the title of this show seems to have something of a macabre bent to it, that wasn’t really my intention, nor really the direction I went in choosing the songs to play.
Rather, I was trying to come up with a set of valedictory songs which would tie together different aspects of my writing and singing career and would also serve as reasoned “farewells”. Naturally, there were quite a few candidates jostling for selection and, again, it took me pretty well all day to finally sort out the setlist. In the end I felt it both balanced and emotional - just like any PH show, ho ho - but it certainly had some extra kick to it.
So, finally, this sojourn in Tokyo was, once again, a pleasure; it was also sincerely challenging.
So much for my solo touring in 2010. (There was a little postscript of two gigs in Greece in November, full-on and honourable shows with the added zest of having to get out of the centre of Athens early in the morning for an afternoon flight home in order to avoid grid-locking demonstrations...) Meanwhile, ever since the Propagation House sessions, overdubbing had been continuing on the VdGG album.
This mainly involved HB and myself at this stage and bit by bit as we added superstructure we’d send our contributions to each other (and to Guy, as we all had full copies of the files for the project) on CD or as files via the Web world of Cloud. By the second half of July we were coming towards the end of this process, at least on those tracks which were nailed-on to be included. Our thoughts turned to the mixing of the Opus.
From the very earliest stages of recording we’d discussed the possibility - the desirability - of having someone other than ourselves take charge of the mixing process, without having any very clear idea of who might be a candidate for such a job. Shortly after returning from Japan, by a series of coincidences, I chanced upon an email correspondence which I’d had some time previously with Hugh Padgham, the legendary Producer, Engineer and long-time VdGG fan. (He’d been at both the RFH and Shepherd’s Bush shows.) After Guy, Hugh and I had discussed it we agreed that he’d be an ideal person to do the job.
Thankfully he agreed and so dates were set for September. This gave an immediate hurry-up to our remaining overdubbing (and lyric writing/vocal finding!). Even further impetus was given to that when almost out of the blue Guy came up with some new drum tracks for pieces which had been put on the back burner at an earlier stage.
Well, we got things done, just, and at the appointed date the whole circus shifted to West London. As I’ve said, I’ll write more about the album closer to the release date but what I can say now is that Hugh did an absolutely outstanding job on the material. When I came home after the first week’s worth of mixing my wife asked me whether he’d made it sound different and my response was “No, just...better!”. Pretty soon you’ll be able to judge the results for yourselves, of course. If you didn’t know already, “A Grounding in Numbers” will be out on March 14th, on Esoteric Records.
The year finished with the extraordinary and unique VdGG show at Metropolis. It would have been unique in any circumstances but in the Arctic conditions which prevailed it was even further out on the edge.
Which brings me to the “what’s next?”. I’m sure it won’t have escaped your attention that this newsletter really belongs to the year 2010, in which I failed to post either of the promised two. I suppose that’s partly because there wasn't the anchor-event of a release. It does seem to me , though, that the idea of a biannual, physical newsletter is something which belongs more to a previous age than the current one. Similarly, my habit of posting news on the “Latest” page and then overwriting it whenever further novelty appears sits ill with the planet of blogging, tweeting and so on. I’ve no intention of going full-on down that path but I think I can make a move that’s half-way in between.
So in future I intend to put something up in journal form at least once a month, and I’ll leave the entries online in perpetuity. Newsletters will still go out/be compiled twice a year but will probably be edited from the monthly journal entries. Finally, the numbers of physical newsletter subscriptions have, of course, been diminishing markedly over the last few years so the time’s now come to close the book on new ones. Anyone who’s currently a subscriber will continue to get newsletters in the mail for the foreseeable future and of course we’ll continue to send out emails when there’s something really newsworthy.
So that’ll be over and out for now from me. But this doesn’t count as my journal entry for January, so expect more very soon!
Thanks for listening, as ever.

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