Sunday 29 December 2013

A Cassette Reliquary

Recently I unearthed a new forgotten bag of cassettes at my mother's house. It contained some very interesting and embarrassing moments of recorded music and speech, including a telephone conversation between myself and my first girlfriend when I was about 16 years old..sheesh what a dork I was! Nevertheless, there was also a wonderful ancient recording of my sister's little boy Paddy, at 4 years old (he is now all grown up aged 28) singing a song about the evils of whaling as only a 4 year old can.

I decided to take this ancient relic of childhood and present it to my sister as a little music box containing the tape and also an mp3 recording of the same that she can listen to whenever she feels the nostalgic urge. Again I employed the Pringles speaker and knock off mp3 player but housed them in a tarted up box, quite a nice box with a magnetic fastner and fancy lining paper. I attached a metal curio to the outside and faux rivets made from dome headed upholstery tacks along with some painted carboard detailing. The cushion is some wadding wrapped in fabric and serves as acoustic baffling.

My sister was touched, my nephew suitably embarrassed.

Typical family xmas.

Music Made Manifest

I wanted to give some music away. I didn't want it to be a CD, mp3 or a link to a bandcamp or soundcloud URL. I wanted it to be a sculpture. I'd been ogling the WIRE magazine's sleeves received blog for a while and thinking about the album as 'art object'. Along with the notion of artists books and limited edition runs of cassette tapes. I am making a cassette edition as it happens but this is something a bit different, unique and very limited.

After gathering my technical and economic data I arrived at a symbiosis of digital and physical namely a heavily pimped pringles tube speaker. I was able to find these speakers on ebay @ a very reasonable 2 for 4 quid price tag so I purchased a few. I found an online article concerning the enhancement of the audio quality through the addition of a ported bass tube and acoustic baffling to soak up some of the nasty mid range tubiness.

All that remained was to load up the super cheap mp3 players with sounds, apply the necessary paint job which adopted my usual trademark weathered military colour scheme - grey, red oxide and rusted metal strips. A bit of simple stencilling for added intrigue.

The tubes came out well and still managed to produce a strange twinge of the uncanny, a mortar shell producing sweet music is after all a slightly disturbing object to behold.

This notion of music and sound re-embodied in a physical medium is something that greatly attracts me as an artist and musician. Not only does it combine some of my interests but I think it lends the music a new substance and fetishistic value, I'm trying to re-connect with ritual and aura, things that have have become sadly washed away in the wi-fi stream.

Monday 18 November 2013

Assuming the role of the Flâneur

DiShevelled La Pelle

(This is a piece I wrote for the MFA Art,Society and Publics blog after an afternoon of art activism experiments in Dundee.)

 To be guided through a city space at the whim of another is to give up ones habitual pattern of travel and to enter into the nuanced space of the unfamiliar, it becomes an experience of re-visualising and rediscovering urban environments and is both an act of subversion and disobedience.
This particular exercise granted licence for the participants to witness the cityscape in a new and unusual way. It was for example refreshing to be able to stand aimlessly on the street without fearing the suspicious glances of the public, psychologically bolstered by the silent reassurance of the art action and the complicity of the group. This sense of social liberation allowed one to indulge in a feeling of playful wonder and discovery. Of course, in the old tradition of the psychogeographic Dérive one begins to notice details and hitherto unacknowledged features of the urban topography. Decorative facets and roof lines become suddenly significant, when the psycho babble of ones life drama is temporarily put on hold, the mind is able to re-invest the world with meaning which has been lost or taken for granted. Acts such as holding a conference on the green, drawing self portraits in a cafe, ritualistically hanging around outside a locked church and making a fuss in the local record shop become delightful diversions from the humdrum monotony of social conformity. The walk becomes an act of social disobedience undermining preconceived and accepted societal behaviours and norms and if accusations of mental illness or suspicious loitering are brought to bear, one can reveal the trump card; artists at work. 

authoritarian regimes in particular object to any expression of loitering or idleness, seeing it as a manifestation of subversion; Hitler, for example, banned both prostitutes and vagrants from the streets. The loiterer refuses to submit to the social controls of modern industry.

Many architectural and cultural signs and signifiers burst into consciousness as we traverse the commercial, academic, artistic and religious sites of the city's West end. Including, significantly, a glittering panoramic view of the entire topography, a symbolic whole as seen from the intellectual ivory Tower Building of the University.  

There we were, playing our games in the sky while a thousand personal dramas unfolded beneath us.

The afternoons drift was not random and one did not become lost in the traditional sense of the word but it was a voyage into the unknown where the interactions of events and situations led to altered states of awareness. The afternoon's experience left myself with a curious feeling of elation - the journey had taken me out of myself. It was also apparent that the group had been 'through' something together, tentatively feeling its way into a process, by the end of which it was left pondering the repercussions and significance of the questions which had arisen.

On a fundamental level the experience was an investigation of roles: activists, observers, reviewers, leaders, followers, the dominant and passive but even more than this it begat existential reflections such as; what is my role in society, what public costume do I choose to wear and how do my creative actions disrupt or interfere with the wider sphere of my life and the lives of others, where do I place myself in this vast amorphous sea of culture?

Dérivea technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll. In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

Sunday 29 September 2013


The old dirt pavements near my mother's house in Barnhill are something of significance to me. I tramped these ancient byways as a child, they seemed so much longer then... Tamped down earth with a layer of fine grade gravel on top. I always wondered whether the gravel rose by some kind of gravitational osmosis from the dirt or if it was placed there on purpose. The thing is, the gravel was always there, engrained in knees and palms after a bad fall from a bike or while running wildly from unseen enemies that lurked up in the mansions of Camphill Road.

These old pavements had furrows and grooves worn into them by countless feet over countless years...perhaps even Victorian ones? But still the fine gravel surface persisted. Why was it never blown or washed away by the Scottish deluge of winter? These ever present, slightly muddy paths running alongside the magnificent abodes of that particular neighbourhood. The jute baron playground of Dundee's boom years, the richest square mile in Europe according to some sources.

But today, to my horror, I see the old ways are being dug up and replaced by shiny new asphalt runways. Skateboarders delight.....heaven knows I was one once (I still have a woefully underused longboard festering in the cupboard under the stairs). This march of progress and jobs creation may be seen as a good thing by some, but to be honest those old grit walkways still had a lot of life in them, yes really engrained in them. Generations of Barnhillians have traversed those muddy miles to who knows where. And so it goes, with a glint of sadness in my heart I walk the weary way up to my mother's house with my own children now, bouncing ever so slightly on the springy black least I imagine it feels like bouncing.

Notice the mossy growth in the damp shade of the wall.
 That fine old grit.
All dug up..
 Mid excavation.

 Note the beautiful curved masonry work on these big old wide-scale kerbstones, 
at least they've been spared. You can see the edge of the new asphalt there, smothering the earth.
 The new shiny black stuff. Bouncy bouncy.

Friday 20 September 2013

Aren't these Bikes a bit like those Bikes ?

A couple of years back I wrote a post about some glorious retro bicycles I'd seen made by this company and now today I see an article in the Guardian newspaper about these equally magnificent machines. It's hard to believe they are not made by the same guys. Maybe they are, I haven't really researched it, I just know I want one.

NB: I've just had another look at the Imperial blog and it seems a bit neglected to me, the Etsy link doesn't work for a start. Maybe Derringercycles are the new face of Imperial? Does anyone out there know the answer?

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Handmade DIY Fretless Bass Thing.

A while back I went and foolishly sold my vintage Dynelectron bass guitar in a fit of non-materialistic pique (I also needed some money to pay the rent). Of course I immediately regretted it as I later craved the very distinct sound it possessed, not to mention the fact that I'd had it since I was youngster..BUT..we must not dwell on these nostalgic things...they are only 'things' after all. Best not to look back at the past through rose tinted spectacles...because actually, a lot of it was much worse than we like to selectively remember.

Anyway, finding myself a bit poorer (again) and in need of low end satisfaction as it were, I turned to the web in search of solace, foolish I know, but I did stumble upon a guy who had made a rather good fretless bass from no more than a plank of 2*4 timber, some screw drivers or machine heads and a couple of strings..actually it sounded very good indeed (nice work Ben). Needless to say this got me thinking. Now as it happened I was studying for a degree in Fine Art at the wonderful University of Chichester at the time and had access to a woodwork shop and some nifty power tools. The lovely technicians (Nic, Bob, Anne and Di) even gave me a rather nice piece of Ash to play with. Before I knew it I had profiled the neck on a band saw, found some bits of scrap metal and a few discarded guitar machine heads. All I had to buy was a set of short scale flat wound bass strings, a piezo strip pickup and a jack socket. That was it, the whole thing cost about 20 quid and the strings were by far the most expensive item. A little bit of tweaking and refining along the way and it sounded and played fantastically well...better than I could ever have hoped for. Here's some photos. You can hear it played all over my recordings on bandcamp and youtube. Just check the links on this blog. The one with 'Bamstick' in the title is a good place to start. Later on I appended a 2 string diddley bow type broom handle guitar on to the bass for double neck rock out action, so now I can lay down a bass part on the EHX looper and then play mean slide guitar over the top of it whilst pulling pained facial expressions..... happy days!

Saturday 13 July 2013

A Dundee Psychogeographic

Recently I returned to live in the area where I was born and raised. After many years living in various parts of the British Isles and a stint in Canada my young family and I have returned to the east coast of Scotland. I am a much changed man from the one who walked these streets some 30 odd years ago. Now I'm putting together bits and pieces drawn from my creative spectrum in new ways.
Here is an example. Assuming the role of the flaneur I took to the streets of Broughty Ferry with my phone cam. It's tricky to get lost in a town this size, but it's still possible to observe things that have previously passed by unseen or un-noticed. I've attached a soundtrack played on the homemade 'bamstick' bass using the usual EHX Hazarai and Holy Stain machines. played in one live take...onto cassette this time. My hope is to create a little time capsule for myself and my sons to look back on in years to come and remember the days we lived in 'The Ferry'.

Here's another longer one.

My eldest boy Hughie filmed this one as I tramped up Camphill Road with his brother in the pram, me passing the time with happy imaginings of playing music and making art ...all too rare commodities in the life of this father. I love Camphill Road. One day I want to live in one of the big houses up there and look out over the Tay estuary and Broughty Castle below. Sweet Dreams.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Lo-fi Studio Tour Featuring the Bamstick Twin Neck Fretless Bass and Diddley Bow.

So a couple of years ago I very stupidly sold my vintage Dynelectron longhorn bass guitar and immediately regretted it. Without the funds to buy a replacement the only course of action open to me was to make one. Fortunately I was studying at art college at the time and had access to the workshops and some nice bits of wood.
The instrument which I have affectionately dubbed the 'Bamstick' (a Scottish word for a mad/bad person) is made of a single plank of ash with brass bridge and nut, undersaddle piezo strip pickup and flatwound shortscale strings The body is mild steel sheet and a piece of dowel. Standard guitar machine heads and a steel tailpiece. I was pretty amazed by how well it worked and I've used it on tons of recordings with great success. Looking at it I realized I could push the idea a bit further and create a really hybrid instrument. As a result of researching homemade instruments I settled upon the idea of a diddley bow or one string guitar, the most basic melodic stringed instrument. Mine is made out of a broom handle and sports a round piezo pickup under the threaded bridge bolt. Hot glued into position, (same with the nut) and wired straight onto the jack socket along with the other strip style piezo from the bass. My diddley bow also has two strings instead of one for a slightly phatter sound and a bit chorusy when detuned slightly, strictly speaking it's 1 course of 2 strings. Amazingly it all works terribly well and now with the addition of my Electro Harmonix flight deck pedal combo mounted at waist level I can set up loops and basslines and play melodies and create drones with the diddley bow. It's great having the combo of high and low end sounds to play with and also with the added benefit of never having to plug and unplug different instruments. I've also modded the EHX Hazarai by adding an external footswitch to capture the loops and adjust timing which means I can have all the knobs at a height where I can adjust them on the fly without the drag of having to stoop down (at my age this is a definite boon). So there you are. I'm still getting to grips with the sonic possibilities of this setup but it's so addictive, I have to get a fix everyday. I like the fact that I can record it onto tape too, it sort of fits right in with the DIY ethic and besides I really like the sound. By the way I've discovered that if you record onto all 4 tracks in stereo in one go (my machine allows this) you get a pretty big fat sound for a cassette, I guess that's because it uses the whole width of the tape for just 2 tracks. I'll post up some more once I get to grips with the rig properly.


Friday 17 May 2013

Adventures in Un-popular music with a Boss Micro-BR

I got myself a BOSS Micro-BR last year mainly because I was all out of space in my house. The arrival of son number 2 meant that my creative space was relegated to a plastic box which had to be opened and setup then put away again after every creative session...what a drag. So away went all the FX boxes, wires stands, leads and mics and out came my little studio in a fag packet size container. A miracle of modern music tech with all its built in FX and input options.

Anyway, with no more than a guitar and a home made bass (more on that later) I fashioned a super swish if not rather cheesy in places, collection of er 'pop' type songs. No stylistic straightjacket for me thank you very much. There's everything on here from soul funk to rock and soothing ballads. Of course I didn't dare put my own name to it so I requisitioned a moniker from the hero of a wonderful book called 'The Moon and Sixpence' by Somerset Maugham which sets the willfully creative tone for the 'Charles Strickland Express' debut 'Let Them Eat Pop'.

Everything was recorded on a Boss Micro-BR so it may give you some idea what's possible with one of these tiny boxes of fun. I had to custom tweak quite a few of the presets but it was a worthy experiment. (What's that you say..sounds like all music made on a small digital studio).

About Charles Strickland from the liner notes:
If you met Charles Strickland you may think him a nice enough fellow but if you really got to know him (which is highly unlikely) you'd soon begin to realize that below that amiable exterior there lurks a gaunt and hermitic fanatic, hellbent on following his creative path to the exclusion of all else. 'Go to hell' he'd say if you asked him to get a proper job, or if you should be so bold as to ask him whether he cares what other people think of him or his art he'd say 'why the hell should I give a tuppenny damn what you or anybody else thinks?' That's just the sort of guy he is really, all he wants to do is create or perish.

footnote: son number 2 is now my biggest fan and at 1.5 years of age this is all time favourite album!