Monday, 25 November 2013

Birth of a Band 7


To say that Custard Cream’s debut gig was inauspicious is probably to hit the nail on the head.

For me, no matter how many times I perform – and I have been performing in front of audiences since the age of five – I get nervous. This usually manifests itself as a sullen, moody demeanour, but it can lead to flapping as well. Flapping, in turn, usually leads to me forgetting something. At a wedding gig the 3-fold Arts played, this was the mixing desk. At the Hope & Anchor gig it was the equally vital cables for the PA.

A high-speed drive home and back again (on both occasions) saw the equipment in place with seconds to go. Needless to say, this does little to help my nerves, but, as is so often the way with performance nerves, once the performance is underway, the nerves find their outlet and good energy levels are achieved.

The Hope & Anchor in Wokingham is a good little pub with something of a tradition for live music, which meant that, aside from the immediate family Nige, George and I brought along (totalling five people!) there were a few regulars looking forward to hearing some rock music.

We were, at best, a bit shabby that night. Some of the arrangements seemed to go out the window, almost all of the song endings actually broke the windows in order to escape and we found ourselves about half an hour short of material. We somehow muddled through and finished the gig.

The fee for the evening was £150, but we were allowed to ‘pass the hat around’, which Nige’s daughter did, with no little aplomb and earned us a further 50 quid. The responses from everyone were very positive – which was nice… So nice, in fact, that we soon forgot about how shabby we had been and we basked in the compliments and nodded sagely at suggestions of further songs we should add to our repertoire.

The landlord and landlady seemed happy and intimated that we should return – say, some time in August… Cool!

A couple of days later we all began to correspond again and agreed that some remedial rehearsals were needed in order to tidy up those endings. Even Angus suggested that he and I get together ‘some evening’ to tidy these up. Needless to say, I don’t think anything ever came of that.

Suggestions were also put forward that we should rehearse as a four-piece on the afternoon before the next gig on June 8th. For some reason, I felt that this was an excellent idea, although I was aware that I would have to take it easy on my voice.

Suggestions were also put forward for new songs. A couple of AC/DC numbers and Need Your Love So Bad. I’d never been much of an AC/DC fan, so I figured I’d see if we could cruise along and hopefully forget about them… A Rory Gallagher number was also suggested. It was a good song (Off the Handle) so I’m not quite sure why this never made it. I think, probably because it was George suggestion. For some reason, George suggestions didn’t seem to carry much weight. At the time, I didn’t know why.

I have to take some of the blame, though, as once again, rehearsals could not be organised and I was not willing to play songs for the first time at a gig – or with the help of a two-hour rehearsal on the same day. I’d had enough of that sort of shenanigans with Gez and I wasn’t about to let this band go the same route.

The endings were, however, a real concern and I convinced the guys to go for a three-hour rehearsal to make sure we tidied everything up. I still didn’t see what problem this might cause.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Birth of a Band 6

By April 11th we were all feeling comfortable with our new drummer, rehearsals were going well and the diary was starting to fill. The Hobgoblin gig had been postponed for a week (to May 17th) and this meant that our first gig would be at the Hope & Anchor in Wokingham on the 11th, unless I could come up with one before then.

I had been playing guitar in another band before the Custard Cream thing got started and that had a residency at The Chequers in Marlow. For several months we had played every two weeks, but then the band leader, Gez, had formed a Santana tribute band and (for the sanity of everyone concerned) had taken one of the slots, meaning each band played once a month.

With the onset of Custard Cream, I had been asking Gez for one of the slots, meaning each band would perform every six weeks – even better for all concerned… In fact, we had been discussing working as agents for the venue and getting different bands in each week, but, well, either the manager at The Chequers was lying when he told me no-one had been to talk to him, despite his requests, or Gez was when he said that the manager couldn’t make his mind up.

Either way, I kept telling Custard Cream that we would be playing ‘next week’ for about a month. Eventually I gave up. Let the first gig be the Hope & Anchor…

Then, Nige came through with the news that he couldn’t play the Hobgoblin on the 17th!

My reaction to George not being able to play was that we should play as a trio without George. George wasn’t having it and I apologised for my hastiness.

My reaction to this latest news was that we should play it as a trio without Nige… but George wasn’t having it. “all for one, one for all,” he said. I have to confess, I got a little angry.

To try to resolve the issue, Nige went back to the (grammatically challenged) Carly to see about switching the gig back to the 10th. Needless to say, we have still, to this day, never heard another word from Carly or the Hobgoblin pub.

When asked to give advice to young, aspiring musicians, Robert Fripp said: “don’t fly Air Iberia”. I might add to that: “don’t mess the venues about with date changing”. With those two priceless nuggets, you’ll doubtless go far!

The next couple of weeks were spent, privately, adding songs to the repertoire for the next rehearsal – necessary as we had less than two hours’ worth of material, which would not get us through most gigs.

Rehearsal on April 20th seemed to go down well and Nige kept on coming with the gigs for the diary, so the whole Hobgoblin scenario faded fast.

The first gig was now upon us, Things had reached the point of no return…

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Birth of a Band 5

By March 9th we were still only managing a single rehearsal per month, although in our defence, our rehearsals were (are) five or six hour marathons in which a lot of work is done, but now with our second drummer in place, we were already two months behind where we had wanted to be originally – ie a gigging band.

The rehearsal with Angus on March 9th went well and we decided it would be good to get another, midweek session in to keep the momentum going. This meant rehearsing without George. After some email and organisational kerfuffle, we found a slot at the West Star rehearsal rooms in High Wycombe on Wednesday 13th March… In the evening, of course. It was still looking as though I would never get rehearsals during weekdays!

The midweek session was good in more ways than one. Yes, it furthered us along the route of getting the songs into our bones, but, for me certainly, more importantly it showed us that we could function as a trio perfectly well. Ever since I was young boy I haven’t played the silver ball, but I have wanted to be in a power trio. A trio is the best rock combo as far as I’m concerned. It gives a freedom to all three players and a simplicity and space to the sound. Once again, I was hit by realisation that Custard Cream could indeed be a force to be reckoned with.

Plans were made for a full rehearsal on March 23rd…

… but George couldn’t make it…

… So we did it as a trio again. It was good.

By this time I had re-recorded all of the guitar, bass and vocals over the top of Angus’ drumming and, combined with the crowd sounds from an open mic night, I thought it sounded as good as can be expected. The recording sessions were short and mistakes were allowed to stay because we were trying to make a live sound, but once I had finished the mix downs, Nige was unhappy with his guitar parts. Of course, we could record them again, but, as I explained to Nige, I was missing out on earning money – over two-months’ worth and counting. We decided to go with what we had and I put together a medley of the best bits.

Despite my moaning, there were signs that we were making progress. We had another full rehearsal booked for April 6th, we had a few songs and a medley produced to tout for work and Angus, it transpired, was a designer and he came up with a flyer that was to become our emblem (see above) – and I came up with the slogan: Blues on the Rocks. A package was evolving.

On top of this, Nige was getting some gigs booked. We were moving into April and we had gigs lined up fairly regularly from the middle of May.

One early gig was booked in and looked to be our first – May 10th at The Hobgoblin in Maidenhead. The girl who looks after bookings there, Carly, said that (and I quote) “Before we go any further I just have to let you know that although we can’t afford to pay bands properly for their time, we can offer a percentage of the bar takings for the duration of the show if we book you. It’s 10% from the moment you start to the moment you finish, which is on average around £100 usually.” (Grammar corrected by me). A percentage of the takings! What a load of bollocks that is. Not to mention “we can’t afford”. The Hobgoblin is a large pub on Maidenhead High Street that takes hundreds and hundreds of pounds on a Saturday. Believe me, they can afford to pay a band for its work. They just don’t want to!

But it was academic. George couldn’t make May 10th!

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Birth of a Band 4

So, we had to oust Neil from the band (see here), but, as Nige wisely pointed out, even better to have Neil at a rehearsal than no-one, so we delayed telling him he was out until we could find someone to take his place. We all started putting our feelers out.

My first port of call was a guy called Angus who played with a really cool bunch of guys, but in a band that was clearly going nowhere. The lead singer preferred hiking and hockey to playing guitar and the bandleader is not the strongest character you will ever come across – though an absolutely lovely bloke…

Anyway, I thought Angus might be able to squeeze us in as well as his other band. As it turned out, he was champing at the bit to find a more serious band. I assured him that we were precisely that.

Thus, after an email from Neil on Feb 13th saying we should establish a set list to get used to playing the songs in order, Nige (having volunteered, I hasten to add) had short-straw duties to perform as our next rehearsal was Feb 16th…

Neil did not take it well, Nige told us, but (interestingly) after a long and painful silence, said: “Andy had made his mind up early on that I was not up to his standard, and it was only a matter of time.” Me?! I articulated my surprise to George and Nige at the rehearsal.

“Yeah, well you did keep giving him ‘The Look’,” Nige said. The Look?! “Yes, when we make a mistake you give us a look that can kill,” explained George. Really?! “Yup,” George continued. “And add to that comments like: ‘Why can’t you get it right? It’s the simplest, most classic fucking song ending in all of history!” Who did I say that to? “To Neil!”

Oh…

How little one can know one’s self sometimes.

At the rehearsal, Angus had had almost no time at all to get to know the songs, but he kept going with admirable stoicism and with his laid back, friendly demeanour, he won us all over. “I just can’t wait to get gigging,” he said. You and us alike, mate.

We arranged for Angus to come over to me (Feb 24th) to re-record the drum parts on the songs we had recorded and set about sorting out the next time we could all get together for a rehearsal. Saturday March 2nd was mooted, but Angus asked if we could do the Sunday instead. I thought nothing of it – it suited me, and anyway, George couldn’t make that weekend, so that was that. The next rehearsal was 9th March.

Angus came over for the recording – and it is here that I really should have seen the signs. He came around, set up his kit, recorded a song with a couple of mistakes, so I said, we should do it again… “Can we leave it till the end,” he asked. “I’d rather do the next one…”

We went through the songs like a dose of salts and he couldn’t wait to get away. I later got to know (for the wont of a better word) his girlfriend and realised what was happening. Poor old Angus spent his entire time with the band trying to balance his job, his girlfriend and the band, but the band always came last – and the girlfriend always hated the band.

After re-recording the drums, of course, we needed to re-record everything else. Not a bad thing, but more time. Looking back, I think I was very na├»ve to think we could have got a band from scratch out gigging in a month. We would have been playing for six weeks by our next rehearsal – and nowhere near getting a gig… Let alone having recordings to tout.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Birth of a band 3

You know what? I’m not the world’s greatest producer and I don’t have extensive recording facilities. I do, however consider myself to be very lucky in that I have a little ‘cave’ at the bottom of my garden, sound proofed, warm, full of gear and with a couple of Macs that can do some pretty high level recordings. It’s not Abbey Road – I can’t really record anything live – it’s just a single room – with not much room in it – but it is a recording facility and one where I have recorded four albums, so I’m pretty pleased with it. It has served me well and continues to do so…

So why, then, was it that Nige, before any discussion of what could or couldn’t be done, said: “I know you have recording facilities of some kind Andy. Would it be suitable to purpose because I get the feeling we're a band who would be better live and should record that way.”?

Hmm… Why am I suspicious of this? No matter, I said I would be happy to consider the alternatives. These turned out to be studios and services that ranged from £160 to £380 per day… the Yorkshire element – and I, to be perfectly honest, balked at the idea.

Nige’s ‘would it be suitable’ email was on Jan 8th. On Jan 11th, after realising that pro studio services were probably a little more than we wanted to pay, he wrote: “I recall you saying you have some recording equipment Andy? I wondered if it was in any way portable at all and, if so, would it be attainable to achieve anything decent with it down at the rehearsal rooms?”

How odd. Anyway, yes, I did (do) and, to be perfectly honest, no, I wouldn’t be able to get anything decent at the rehearsal rooms. From here, however, things began to move quickly. By the end of the day on the 11th, we had arranged dates for Neil to come over to do the drums, Nige to come over to do his guitar and George to come in on the 27th (the day after our next scheduled rehearsal).

Once Nige and I get into gear, things do get done, but we do faff about a lot before that happens! Then, of course, the snows came and George couldn’t make it down from Yorkshire…

Thus, by Sunday 27th Jan, I had four of the five parts for five tracks recorded and George due down on Feb 3rd. By Friday February 8th I had also recorded audience responses from my open mic night in Marlow, which I mixed in to our recordings to give them an authentic feel. I quite liked it… But I was really worried about Neil’s drumming. There were moments when it seemed almost random – and not in a good sense.

I broached the subject with Nige and discovered that he and George had had reservations from day one! (You can read about that here.)

He had to go – and we had to find a new drummer. It was February 10th. The project had been on the go for nearly five months. Was it really worth continuing?

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Birth of a Band 2

I’m not sure why men seem to think that ‘meeting up for a drink’ is some sort of positive, ‘getting-things-done’ sort of activity, but generally they do – while women do not. Usually, I would concur with the ladies on this one. Not that I’m averse to a drink – on the contrary, I love a beer, but I almost never mistake having a beer for having a meeting.

In this case, of course – as you can read here – simply seeing each other was in fact a proactive step towards actually doing something.

The emails from this late November period seem a bit strained. Neil and Nige were both obviously keen to be seen as easy going and humorous, but trying too hard in these areas tends to have exactly the opposite effect.

We met up on Saturday 15th at half two at the George & Dragon in Wargrave. During this meet (at which we all got along swimmingly) we heard George’s first reference to his having played in a gypsy jazz band and Neil’s first ‘well, we’re just hobbyists, aren’t we?’ comment. I suppose I should have seen the danger signs here straight away…

The really good thing about the meeting was 1) we set a date of January 5th for our first rehearsal and 2) what had started out as a good feeling became an excellent one. Again, I really don’t know why, but I knew this was going to work – and it seems that Nige did, too.

By Tuesday 18th The Rhoom had been booked for rehearsal and Nige was going through some odd explanations of how he and George would be playing Saw Her Standing There by The Beatles (“It would, on the surface of it, appear to be a simple evolution of both George, and myself to play our (completely different roles), put the two together, and hey presto (hopefully) it's the Beatles live on stage! Lennon is kinda working along with the Bass line creating a driving sound in the background, whilst Harrison seems to be kinda vamping along with the chord work and fills. Seems quiet simples"). 

What?!

Interestingly, however, is that a song list with ‘arrangements’ (read as: “keys and who will be playing the solos”) that Nige sent through on December 18th contains 26 songs of which only seven are no longer part of the set – one of them, of course, being Saw Her Standing There!

And so it all went quiet for the Christmas period and, following a brief reminder email from Nige on Jan 4th – he really is good at that. I guess it is the being prepared army training or some such. We met up for a six-hour rehearsal on Saturday 5th

Sunday saw various emails thrown about regarding song arrangements (Roadhouse Blues and Worried Life Blues) and a call (from me) for more rehearsals during the week with just Nige, Neil and me. I note there is no hint that we might be unhappy with Neil from these mails.

A word is spread that we can meet as a trio on Tuesdays and Nige is desperate to be out and gigging by the end of February.

Neil then comes back and says he can’t rehearse before 4pm… useless for me. In the end we went for a Wednesday from 6 to 9pm. Neil also sent through a couple of songs he’d like to do – one of which was an out and out country number. He never really got it, did he? Nige and I discussed the possibility of doing Spoonful, Crossroads and Voodoo Chile. George added Hey Joe.

(Nige also suggested Born Under a Bad Sign at this point, saying it was “a nice easy one”… I finally nailed it for our most recent gig on September 21st!)

By the time we tried to get booked in The Rhoom, we had missed the chance. The Rhoom was fully booked. We called off all rehearsals until George could next make it down on Jan 26th. In the meantime we started discussing recordings…

I was, by now, getting pretty frustrated…

Monday, 23 September 2013

Birth of a Band 1

If you scoot back over the news section of the Mechkov website, you will see that (apart from news of a cracking new soundscape album) there is a flurry of news regarding my new band, Custard Cream. From this flurry, it is also (I hope) clear that the band has managed to cement itself into the local gigging scene with some speed following its first gig on May 11th this year (2013).
I thought I ought to get down how this came about…
There is a rather spiffing little website here in the UK called joinmyband, through which musicians and singers can find other musicians and singers, and which I had been trying (unsuccessfully) to get people to hop in on my projects.
Ah! We are a funny bunch, we musos. We seem, when we are together, to have so much in common when together on a stage, but when a person has his own plans and ideas, getting others involved is a tough ask. They are all far too busy trying to find others to join them on their projects.
So, having had limited success on this, my wife suggested I join in on someone else’s project – and maybe earn some money while I was at it.
Unfortunately, the ad I followed up on the site is now long gone, but it went something along the lines of: “Custard Cream is moving to Berkshire and needs a drummer, bassist and a singer to join lifelong pals Nige and George on guitars for a blues and rock band. We have a lot of experience and our own Sharon Osborne.”
Can you tell what the clincher might have been for me here? Yes, of course, as with any musician, the thought of having someone actually taking on the responsibility of marketing, managing and promotion was too much to ignore – let alone hope for. I answered the ad immediately and pretty soon Nige and I were in correspondence. I’m guessing that he was attracted to me as an option because I could both play bass and sing AND I had my own website with original music. He wasn’t interested in this, but it does show I have some capability without having to go through the pain of a crap rehearsal.
The email chain goes back to September 26th 2012 and it appears that Nige had said that the band would be able to meet during weekdays – this really did sell the project to me. Nige was moving to the area from Cornwall, so I figured it would be best to leave him and his family to the horrors that are moving house before pushing for anything more.
By mid-October, Nige informed me that he thought he had found a drummer – and, what is more, one that could rehearse on a weekday (one day per week), but that, following the move, he would have to spend a few weeks doing the house up before ‘Sharon’ would even let him think of going out to rehearse. Fair enough, I thought.
By October 19th, we had shared set lists and George had come through with a sort of hybrid list based on all of our contributions of song titles and Nige was saying we would be in rehearsal by December at the latest and gigging in January. ‘Bloody perfect’ was my thought on the issue.
Come the end of November, I was champing at the bit to get into rehearsal, but Nige still hadn’t finished his ‘house work’ and so we agreed to postpone until after Christmas and meet up in the New Year. It also turned out that George (the other guitarist) would NOT be able to rehearse on weekdays… hmm…
In the meantime, the drummer, Neil, suggested that we meet up for a drink. Yes, all of this planning and we hadn’t even met – yet, for some reason, I felt sure this was going to be a good project…
Why? I have absolutely no idea. Normally when I have a gut feeling for something, I end up being so wrong, I have to pretend I was never really interested in the first place, but of course at the time it all seems to make perfect sense. I really did not see this as being something that was dragging on.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Manners will get you nowhere

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I suppose it kind of ties in with the whole ‘Joys of Mediocrity’ subject thread that those who succeed tend to be single-minded, ruthless and altogether unpleasant. This is a sweeping statement that will garner a huge wave of protest and the production of a series of exceptions that go an awfully long way to disprove the rule. But…

I watched the Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll movie a year or so ago (and terrifically good it was, too). In it Andy Serkis’ portrayal of the late, great Ian Dury showed a man so determined to succeed, and so convinced of his deserving success that anyone or anything that stood in his way was treated with such an utter disregard as could easily be interpreted as contempt.

Pop and rock music is littered with such people. David Bowie, Eric Clapton – in fact all three members of Cream – John Lennon, Eminem, Victoria Beckham even… And not just music, of course. A brief look at the life of Charles Dickens will produce a very similar picture. Brian Clough, anybody? Alex Fergusen? Robert Oppenheimer?

Single-minded people tend to work hard and push through obstacles and barriers. The hard work brings them up against more barriers than the lackadaisical, and the stubbornness keeps them battering at them until they give way.

I’m sure to their kith and kin, these people are as lovely as any other person on earth – certainly once they have achieved the important goals they seek – but to the rest of us… Well, we are just potential barriers or obstacles.

I kind of wish I had known this 40 years ago. If someone had had the foresight to instill this into me as an 11-year-old, I’m almost certain I would be far closer to achieving the things I want to achieve by now. I am sure that I would ‘be there’.

Instead, I am still trying to convince myself that it is worth being a little more unpleasant if it means getting what I want. Dammit all, I’m not exactly Mr Popular as it is – why the hell should I worry about what people I don’t really know think?

But I do.

Those of you following the news on the Mechkov website will be well aware that I have been gigging recently with a new band – a covers band playing the music of Cream and Hendrix and the like. This band began rehearsals in February with a mind to start gigging in March.

The guitarists, Nigel and George, were the protagonists in getting this band together and they called upon the skills of me for bass and vocals and Neil for drums.

Problem was, Neil was awful. Bad timing, bad rhythm and just all-round not very good at playing the drums. I kept schtum, thinking two things: first, he could improve if he takes it seriously and rehearses properly. Second, he has been brought here by the guys putting the band together.

Three weeks and lots of rehearsing later, we recorded the band in my little studio. It all sounded ok for the time we allowed ourselves… Except Neil. A friend of mine later said that his drumming sounded like someone falling down stairs… yes it did.

I finally told Nige and George that I couldn’t play with this guy.

“Oh, thank God for that!” they said. “We were just saying to each other that we couldn’t gig with him!”

“So why didn’t you say anything?” I asked.

“We didn’t want to upset you!”

Dear, oh dear! You see? Had I (or any of us) been a little more single-minded, a little more determined to get what we wanted and not let anything stand in our way, we would have ousted the dodgy drummer after rehearsal number one. Instead, we plodded on, wincing and grimacing, hoping that something would change or that someone else would do something to make a difference.

As Britons of a certain age, we are brought up that minding your Ps and Qs is an essential virtue. That might well be so, but no empires were ever built worrying about other people’s feelings. Sometimes you just have to say: “Please, stop. Please, go away! Please! Thank you!"

Thursday, 20 June 2013

The end of one rainbow

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Now, why would I have gone to all that trouble of starting to document my task of documenting a new open mic night only to come to a shudderingly abrupt halt just eight weeks into the project.

Well, there are two reasons. First, my wife kept saying ‘do you really think you should be writing a blog when you are earning as little as you do?’ which is, sadly, true on one level.

Second – and if it hadn’t been for this point, I probably would have ignored my wife and continued – I chickened out.

When writing a blog, one needs to be brutally honest and true to one’s thoughts and opinions, however upsetting they might be for the people you are writing about. When organising an open mic night, one needs to nurture relationships and create a nucleus of loyal participants. Pissing people off could well be counter-productive.

The fact is, the main body of support I got for the Plough’s Tuesday evenings included Psycho Deano (a lovely bloke), Sassy Lozza (my wife), The Mafia (nice people, but always tricky in terms of conversation), Jeff the Jock (who is as lovely as he is boring beyond belief) and Not Manic Mark (again, as sweet as honey, but a real effort to talk to and play with). Among this group, only The Mafia would both play and sing. All the others either required me to play and/or sing. But I needed these people to make sure that someone was there in the pub to keep East End Bob happy.

So, taking the micky in a blog might not be the most conducive method of mollification of my muso masses. With these guys coming regularly, anything else was a bonus.

And so the Tuesday evening chugged on through up to Christmas and into the New Year, becoming stronger and more defined with each passing week. In order to keep East End Bob happy and in control, I agreed to a pay cut, but he was decent enough never to pay me the minimum amount – always adding a little extra on and often giving me the full fee.

Then the last week of March was upon us and – after a couple of quiet evenings – no-one came! For the first time ever, not a single person showed up. I was gutted. East End Bob was mortified.

This stung me into action. I immediately got on to the Slough Observer and wrote press releases, gave interviews and sent over pics (taken by The Mafia). The lovely people at the paper promised me good coverage.

Then I got a message to ring East End Bob…

“I think we’d better knock it on the head,” he said… At least I think that what he said. It could have been ‘a thud with berry knocker on the air’, but I took it to be the first one. The second one was just ridiculous.

The next Tuesday some 15 people turned up having seen the article in the Observer. I wasn’t there. I just smiled a knowing smile and thought to myself: “Bob, you chickened out. We’re as bad as each other.”