Monday, 19 May 2014

Birth of a Band 17

The Cannie Man in Bracknell is a large pub on the edge of what I assume was once a council estate, before such terms became passé and Maggie Thatcher decreed that each tenant could buy theirs at a cut price should they so want to. They did.

Despite Maggie’s efforts to create owner-occupying English gentlemen of us all, such estates still tend to be a bit, shall we say ‘rough’? The pubs that were built for them somewhat rougher.

The estate is huge, so the pub was made accommodatingly spacious to contain the inevitable hoards that would throng there. Unfortunately, at the tail end of the worst recession the western world has seen for over a century, this pub served a handful of hardcore drinkers and shouters, who rattled about at the bar.

There was also a noise metre installed to keep the decibels low enough to prevent the neighbours from having their X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing viewing disturbed.

It has never ceased to amaze me that people move into houses next to (or even nearby) pubs, theatres, arts centres, clubs, restaurants, you name it, and then complain that there is noise. Of course there is noise! It’s a pub, theatre, restaurant, arts centre, club, whatever, you name it. There are going to be people there enjoying themselves and when people enjoy themselves, they tend to make a bit of noise. But that’s another blog, I guess…

The Cannie Man, Custard Cream’s first gig with Ant on drums, was good from the point of view of our playing, Ant’s ability to ‘telegraph’ the endings (thus meaning we all finished at the same time, which is a sure-fire way of making a band sound better than perhaps they might be) and in terms of the people there liking us. In terms of giving Custard Cream a fan base or furthering the cause of our high energy blues and psychedelic rock it was pretty pointless. We earned a couple of hundred quid between us, but I’m almost certain that the few people there had forgotten us before their heads had hit their pillows that night.

We weren’t asked back – and for the money they were offering, if they had, we wouldn’t have gone…

Our next gig was at the Dog & Partridge in Yateley, so different from the Cannie Man in many ways, yet so similar. The pub is pretty big – capable of holding a good couple of hundred people at a squeeze – and pretty empty, for much of the same reasons as the Cannie Man. The difference is that Yateley is a lovely little corner near Reading, found on a pleasant little village green down winding, bushy country rtoads.

The result was much the same, as well. The audience couldn’t have cared less about what we were doing, but didn’t object either. The landlord was new to the pub and we were the first band to play there. He also came from a rough part of Hull, so had a lot to talk about with Nige and George, both also children of that far flung North Yorkshire city. We were promised a return at a better price…

The next day (August 24th) we were in Pulborough, West Sussex! How Nige came up with this one we will probably never know, but we were playing outside in a small, three-sided marquee. No-one at the pub came out, the landlord never showed, but a bus-load of punters from the next village came over with the express intention of seeing Custard Cream!

Yup, that’s how slow life can get in West Sussex villages. A band no-one knows is advertised as playing blues rock in the next village and you ship yourselves out.

These guys and gals were brilliant. They danced, cheered, hollered, requested and danced some more – and then nattered to us during our break and after the gig. It was a real treat to have a group of people actually listening to us and enjoying us. Shame it had to be so far away!

We promised to be back. They promised to invite us to play at their regular pub. Neither ever happened… Of course it didn’t!

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Birth of a Band 16

The week that lay between auditioning Ant and our first rehearsal with him the following Wednesday I remember as being fraught. I hadn’t played with a drummer of Ant’s quality since Zhorro Varamezov and Ivan Latrinov in the No Breaks years in Bulgaria (93 to 96).

I must have been intimidated by him, although looking back now I can’t see why, but my memory is certainly of a deep-seated worry that he was going to turn round and say: ‘On second thoughts… Nah!”

I think this was probably reinforced by the fact that he didn’t respond to any of the emails that Nige and I were batting around. We had agreed, all three of us, that we would rehearse the following Wednesday, but for some reason, Nige and I thought that we needed email confirmation.

By August 2nd, Nige and I were really worried and Nige was starting the hunt for a new drummer. And then came an email. It had a surprised tone to it: “Been away doing a session in Wales since Thursday morning. Got back about an hour ago. Thought I already told you I was interested and was ok for Wednesday 7th? I'm ok for next week’s gigs too. I enjoyed last Wednesday. Thought we played quite well together for the first time. Cheers, Ant.”

And that was that. We got together the following Wednesday and Ant was officially our drummer. All of us had said at some point during the whole auditioning and hiring episode that we should get a dep trained up, too… This was forgotten.

My job now was to tell Angus he was out of the band. It took a while to pin him down. He kept wanting me to tell him why I wanted to meet up with him and of course the reason I wanted to meet up with him was to tell him what I felt would be wrong to tell him over the phone.

Eventually Angus got round to mine after work one evening and was completely cool and understanding. He knew what was coming, of course, and he even outlined to me (very accurately) why he thought he was being sacked. Since then, unfortunately, he and his girlfriend have taken exception to this blog, but, for the record, Angus is a fine drummer and decent bloke. Circumstances were against him and his priorities were different to mine and Nige’s. That’s all.

The rehearsal with Ant was a blinder. We went through just about everything and, as is the way with a quality drummer, Ant made us sound ten times better than before… And we sounded pretty good before. He also made us sound hard, heavy, down and dirty. A fine guitarist once said that drummers dictate the sound atmosphere of a band. I had noticed it before, but never quite so starkly as now.

On the Thursday I got a call from Gez that the Chequers gig had been cancelled and would not be reinstated. The pub had decided to go through an agency in Henley to get its acts. I was a bit pissed off.

South African Mark, the manager, would not talk to me about band arrangements and Gez, despite being told at least twice by me, would not go in and talk to Mark. Thus Mark said ‘enough’.
I went in and complained that you can’t cancel a gig the day before without paying something.

“How much?” asked SA Mark.
“Full price!” I responded.
“On your fucking bike!” came the retort. Fair enough. I knew I was pitching it a bit.
“Ok, how about half price?”
“I’ll give you a hundred.”
“Fair dos.”

And thus, when meeting at the Cannie Man in Bracknell for our Saturday gig, Ant became the first muso I have ever known who got paid for playing with a band before he had ever played with them! Pretty good going.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Birth of a Band 15

July 26th saw a flurry of emails regarding pics from the Chopper Club gig and general website maintenance. I was quite surprised when I saw the pics…

“Just looked through the pics,” I wrote. “Can I propose that we ban anyone in the band wearing shorts, please! Not a good, bluesy, rocky look, I must say. Let’s face it, we’re not going to win any Sex-God competitions, but let’s not draw attention to the fact! Ouch!”

This was primarily aimed at George, who really did look like granddad out for a spot of sun. All that was missing was the knotted handkerchief. Nige was a bit put out, however. I know he always makes jokes about being the ginger one, but deep down, I think he thinks he’s a bit of a catch… Well, with arms the size of tree trunks, he does make the ladies’ eyes flutter, so we’ll give him that one.

This day also began to separate the men from the boys. One of the ‘to-be-auditioning’ drummers – an American in Shepherds Bush – was kicking up with Nige about the auditions being during the day. Kept on about something to do with having a job and a wife and kids.

“My initial reaction was to tell him to go and fuck himself,” wrote Nige. “If he can't commit to an audition how can he commit to all of the gigs we are going to have. I require your diplomatic guidance old chap! Or, should I just tell him to fuck off?”

I added a diplomatic alternative to the ‘go forth and multiply’ option.

So, the auditions were down to two. A bloke called Barry and the ‘up for it’ Ant.

In between times, we (Nige, George and I) were batting around ideas for recordings. There is a place near Milton Keynes called Rockhopper Studios that does a package of four live recordings, plus a video shoot for one of the songs: £250 all in. It sounded like a good deal… But when?

The day of the auditions came, Barry was in first. He was ok, he could keep time, but there wasn’t much in the way of flair. I certainly didn’t rate him over Angus.

Then Ant arrived and set up. He gave a quick couple of hits on the snare and then a run around on the toms. I whispered to Nige: “We’re going to have to turn up, mate. This is the real deal.”

And so he was. He knew the vast majority of our material and hooked in to the endings without a murmur. The odd one caught him by surprise, but once he had heard it, he knew it. His power was unbelievable, his runs expert and appropriate, and he led us in the big endings with a great deal of aplomb. I was worried we wouldn’t be good enough for him.

Afterwards, we were nattering outside as he and Nige had a cigarette. His name was Ant. Ant what? Where did that come from? Where did he live? How did he live? All questions were met with (at best) evasive answers. The most we could extract was that he lived near Reading and lived off royalties from a successful gig back in the 80s and 90s.

Again, I thought he was being like this because he didn’t want to play with us, but he said he did – and he seemed to mean it… But he wasn’t going to get drawn on anything personal…

Monday, 24 March 2014

Birth of a Band 14

Nige’s relentless hunt for gigs never faltered – and never does. He is the dream member for any band… Really. The rest if us were now pretty much settled back into a life of practising and doing what we felt we needed to do, safe in the knowledge that the gigs would be piling up. It’s a good place to be, provided this was what you really wanted to be doing.

For Angus, it was becoming clear that this was not what he wanted to be doing.

In a way, it’s pretty unfair in that a couple of months earlier, our stalwart drummer had lost his job and thus was able to dedicate a lot of time to improving his chops, runs, fills, paradiddles and all those other things drummers do. It was paying dividends.

Then, around mid-July, a new job came in that Angus was clearly excited about… and that’s when the whole might be going horse riding’ stuff started. And that’s what is unfair. I was pleased when he was out of work, and became pissed off after he found a new job... There's something wrong with that, isn't there?

Nige sent me an email asking about mid-week gigs and I said that if we could top the money I earn on an Open Mic Night (which at the time were running on Tuesdays in Maidenhead and Thursdays in Marlow – the latter still going strong, the former… well… ahem, let’s move on, shall we?) I could find a dep. All other days were fair game.

It turned out that a pub in Bracknell, The Goose, was looking to invent a mid-week slot for live music. At a push, they might try a Sunday. At first Nige was keen on the mid-week idea – and for me, if we could have got a Wednesday night, that would be knocking five gigs a week! I crossed my fingers…

Nige came back shortly afterwards saying that, because of his new job, Angus would only be willing to do weekends…

Does that include Fridays? No. It’s agency work and deadline driven, so, while promising to fulfil all Friday gigs already booked, he asked Nige not to book any more Friday gigs.


My response to this was: “Ok. That’s it. I’m looking for a new drummer.” As it turned out, Nige had already put the feelers out on the various musician websites and forums. I felt bad about this – and I think Nige did, too – but I wasn’t going to have a band member dictating which days of the week we could or couldn’t have gigs. There had to be a priority and that had to be the band.

A couple of guys from West London answered Nige’s calls on Band Mix and then this: “Hi, I’m an experienced Blues/Rock drummer. Looking to join a great dedicated full on blues rock band that really wants to gig as often as possible. Also love to rehearse/jam. I have good availability and a deep passion for playing live. If you are looking for a powerful passionate drummer who lives to play the blues get in touch. I live near Reading have transport, good kits and no hang ups or restrictions.

Well, he certainly talked Nige’s and my talk… Let’s see if he could walk the walk…

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Birth of a Band 13

Following a weekend that included two successful gigs and something approaching a living wage in the pocket (at least for a couple of days) we then had a fortnight with nothing in it.

A band needs to shooting out feelers for festivals soon after the New Year, so with Custard Cream starting gigging in May, the chances of being in the ‘outdoor calendar’ was pretty slim. These were always going to be quiet times.

Nige suggested we should get together as a trio (minus George, that is) and I concurred. Unfortuantely, I was away for one weekend and Angus another. So what about midweek?

Angus said no. To be fair, he had booked this time off when Nige had asked for dates when we were not available, but I felt certain that we could have found a couple of hours somewhere in between July 17th and August 10th… Apparently not. My turn to wrankle…

After this – and I need to add here that Nige and my attempts to get together for a two-man rehearsal also foundered – another ad hoc gig popped up at The Chequers in Marlow on August 16th. Then another at The Pub with No Name the week before (Noctor’s – now The Corner House), where I was now organising an open mic night. So that would be two gigs in my territory in one week. I was going to make as much noise as I possibly could.

Nige then found a gig in Reading on the 17th. August was really filling up… Then Angus came through with his now-(for us)-legendary email: “I might be asked to go horse riding on the 17th, and if I am, I would like to go, so I can’t do that gig.”

What?! Not: “I’m going horse riding, I told you I wouldn’t be around”, but “might be”. To say that I felt as though someone had hit me in the face with a shovel is not over-egging it. Might be?! Might be?!

Nige’s response was, to say the least, not diplomatic. I was sitting at home. Silently seething at this invasion of nonsense into our ever-burgeoning state of well being and self importance, when Nige fired from the hip in an email of no uncertain terms. He concluded with: “Fucking think about where exactly you really wanna be Angus!” I had to agree. 

Angus’ response was to acknowledge the work Nige was putting in getting gigs, but pointed out that sometimes new unavailable dates would be added and Nige should contact him before confirming each new gig in order to avoid the embarrassment of having to pull out.

This seemed a little churlish on the face of it, but when you consider that Angus was never exactly prompt at replying – in fact a number of times, he needed prompting in order to get a reply from him – the tone was pretty condescending. I was purple with rage. God only knows what Nige thought.

The next day, Nige confirmed that he had cancelled the gig on the 17th and all but apologised for his email. I’m not sure why, but he was keen to get things back on an even and friendly keel…

Nige and I then corresponded and concluded that the only thing that had redeemed young Angus was the fact that he was obviously doing his homework and improving on a weekly basis… But we agreed that this was definitely ‘strike one’ for him.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Birth of a Band 12

Out of the blue, on July 9th, the 3-fold Arts gig at The Chequers in Marlow was called off to make way for an Oye Santana gig elsewhere. I fired an email out to the band and, after a couple of ‘oooh, not sure’s the gig went ahead.

Again, it was the same battle with the management about noise levels for the first half an hour and then nothing as we slipped seamlessly into hard rocking and jamming.

A guy called Terry showed up and filmed and recorded us. He said we could have the material – he was just checking out new gear. Well, it’s now March 2014 and I’ve given up asking him. Some things, you know, are just never going to happen.

But the gig went down well and the money was appreciated… My smug face continued. I had earned us £1,000 in three gigs in a couple of weeks. It felt good.

After the success of the birthday party and the  Chequers emergency gig, our next gig was daytime, outdoors, on a Sunday… all of which are usually things to make a rock band wince. Not us this time. This was a gig for the National Chopper Club, Berkshire chapter.

If ever there was a group of people we thought would really go for what we were doing, this was it.  I reckoned we’d not only go down a treat, but get requests for future bookings at chopper gatherings the country over.

Nige was the same. In one missive, he said: “They keep mentioning it’s more about the bikes than anything else and that bands they’ve had previously just crack on without too much interest in them. Not wishing to sound conceited or anything, but I think we all know that’s not going to be the case on Sunday, now is it?” And we all agreed.

Sunday 14th July was a glorious day – hot… and then some… and then some more. It was brilliant. I’m not much of a one for exposing my fetta-coloured skin to the elements, so I was dressed pretty much as normal. The other three turned up in shorts and sandals.

Now, I’ve no problem with this per se, but George looked like something from It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum. Not a great rock image, but hey. The gig got underway (our first with all instruments going through the PA) and the grizzly, hard, tough, rough looking bunch that was our audience milled around the bikes, chops and hot rods on show.

It was an impressive lay out and no mistake. Trouble was, we could have been playing Bucks Fizz numbers for all they cared. There was no doubt that this was the right crowd listening to the right music, but they were all too busy with the business of the day and generally being cool to pay any attention to the band.

We battled on and by the end of the show, we had a few people standing and sitting around, actively listening to us – which I consider to be a success – but Woodstock, Monterey or Glastonbury it was not… It wasn’t even Stonehenge!

Once again, as is so often the case when we think we’re bombing, everybody says how much they have enjoyed the show. People just have different ways of expressing it.

And the National Chopper Club, lovely fellas though they are, are just waaay too cool to show emotion at a live show. Great day, though…

Friday, 14 March 2014

Birth of a Band 11

In all the bands I have been in over the past 35 years, I have never known anyone like Nige for getting gigs. I came to describe him as a ‘ferocious gig getter’. And he is. His determination and conviction, thick skin (and you need it as any salesman will tell you) and immunity to the concerns of venue owners and managers are second to none.

Thus my getting a £400 gig sent him into something of a frenzy. By June 20th he had come up with a gig in Devon and was negotiating £800 plus accommodation. Impressive.

Unfortunately, at the first mention of this, Angus announced that he couldn’t make it and George said it was ‘a bit far’. £800 and a bed?! Even as a four piece (which we were still exclusively) this was worth it. I would have dropped my mum to do it.

Next came an outdoor event in Basingstoke, then an emergency gig, found and (to be) performed on the 22nd – this time it was me that couldn’t make it. Then a gig in Hayes (at The Old Crown). It was impressive to see – and anything that came in at under £250 he apologised for!

On June 28th we had a gig at the Golden Retriever in Bracknell. It was the pub’s tenth birthday, so they had a whole weekend of barbecues and bands – all outside…

This is England, of course, so on this particular June 28th, it was bloody freezing! The band was to set up in a sort of gazebo on decking. I swear there was ice, water and algae on this decking and any sort of foot movement brought with it the risk of breaking a bone somewhere where the body might strike the ground in a fall!

What was important about this gig, however, was not the risk of fractures or hypothermia, but the fact that this was the first time Custard Cream had gigged as a trio.

Without George, there were a handful of songs we couldn’t perform, which, owing to our being a little short on material anyway, left us a good 45 minutes short of a gig. So we jammed it. Songs such as Spoonful, Voodoo Chile and Roadhouse Blues came out at ten minutes plus, and blues numbers such as Red House and Worried Life also benefited (is that the right word) from highly extended instrumentals.

It is hard to tell how we went down, as the ‘audience’ were all behind a hedge in the secondary seating area. (We were still very loud at this time.) Despite this, everyone we saw complimented us on an enjoyable gig – and we had an absolute blast!

All my life I have been wanting to be part of a band that would be happy to just jam on a theme – and here it was. A bit rough at the edges, sure, but again, for me, that was a big part of the appeal. The next gig we played (my mate Chris’ 50th birthday party) gave us the chance as a four-piece to expand our arrangements into the free form – and this time it really did go down a treat. There was a lot of congratulations from people whose opinions I hold dear. In short, we were damned good. We knew it and those that heard us play knew it, too.