Saturday, June 26, 2021

A\\VOID

We began writing new material for Victims at the start of 2020. We were planning to record four songs and maybe release a split 7” with our friends Svalbard, who we'd just toured Europe with a few months earlier. When everything got cancelled Victims also came to a halt. With Johan now furlonged and no longer commuting to Stockholm from Nyköping we stopped rehearsing, stopped writing, stopped everything.

Things felt pretty fucking dire for a while. They still do now and again. But those first few weeks felt pretty apocalyptic. I had planned three weeks off whilst in between jobs and had dreamed of taking time for myself, pottering about in the city in the daytime, visiting museums, doing some toursting in my own town. Instead I pretty much lay on my bed for three weeks reading since it was the only place in our flat I could block out the sound of Jen’s endless Zoom meetings as she herself adapted to the new reality of home working. If I wasn’t laid up in bed reading about the Russian Revolution, which was strangely comforting in the sense that reading about crises from times past made me realise that we humans have gone through tough and tragic events many times over, that this situation we’re in now isn’t unique and frankly as bad as the poor sods in 1917 had it, then I was watching the news for the latest updates on the spread of the virus. When I went to the local shop and saw the empty shelves it really did feel like we were heading into a war.

A few weeks later Andy and I spoke about starting that “slow band.” We’d spoken about it many times before. We’d even gotten as far as practicing with a couple of different constellations. We practiced as a three piece with Luc from DB/Vidro a couple of times before it fizzled out. Jen played with us a couple of times too, but nothing really came of it. But with the onset of a pandemic and Victims being temporarily on hiatus, it felt like if ever it was to be then now was the time.

I don’t know if it was all the spare time, or if it was the impending doom all around, but I started writing pieces of music immediately. Every time I picked up a guitar at home something new came out. It felt easy and natural. And since we’d decided that we wanted to make some kind of instrumental, cinematic music, it felt liberating not being constrained by standard song structures with verse/chorus and where are the vocals gonna go? I had just re-entered a phase of listening to Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor again, as well as the Swedish jazz band Tonbruket, and all this was swirling around my head as I sat and plonked on Jen’s beautiful ‘75 sunburst Les Paul at home.

With ideas flowing I found myself getting pretty excited about things. Now Andy and I had to find some people to play with us. I knew I wanted it to be a large constellation, make it a kind of collective, with lots of different instruments. Having played previously in Battle of Santiago, a band with three guitarists, I fancied trying that setup out again. I’d loved the idea of three guitars ever since seeing Sonic Youth perform that way when Kim Gordon went over to guitar on the Washing Machine album. And with that idea firmly in mind we decided Erik from Battle of Santiago/Mary’s Kids would be a natural choice. He’s a great guitarist, very unique, and one of my oldest friends. We had a great time playing together in BOS and Rowdy Ramblers before that, and it always felt like we would play together again sometime. He said yes without a moment’s hesitation.

I asked Gill to join as third guitarist as we were squatting in the swimming pool at Sandsborgs Simhall, keeping an eye on our daughters as they played about in the shallow end. Gill had moved here from Edinburgh with his family three years earlier, having gotten a job with Spotify and fancying a move abroad. Data analyst or something. His daughter was in the same class as Polly and Jen had got speaking to him one day at pick up. A few months later we’d begun hanging out a bit after discovering we had a mutual love for a lot of the same music. Gill had played bass in a band called Broken Records who had released a couple of albums on 4AD, he said they sounded a bit like Arcade Fire, as well as guitar in a folk band called The Douglas Firs. It had been seven years since he’d last played with anyone and he had mentioned before how he missed it. He was also in without having to think too long about it.

For the first couple of months it was just the four of us. No bass. It began as naturally as it would continue. We set up the amps, tuned in, and Erik started playing some riff. It was a simple, driving sort of thing. We didn’t discuss it, we just played along, jamming it. It didn’t sound anything like the stuff I’d been writing at home, it sounded more like Neu! I really liked it, though. And what was most pleasing was how easily the other three of us fell into it. The three of us on guitar noticeably had different styles of playing but we seemed to be complimenting each other as opposed to fighting each other. I was playing the backbone of the thing, mechanical and structured, Gill is full of melody and intricate picking, whilst Erik is just out there doing his own chaotic thing. From the very first moment Andy and I could tell it was working. It was a nice feeling. Something to feel positive about amidst all the negativity outside the practice space.

I began introducing my material and that in turn began setting the broader tone and theme of the band. Dark, apocalyptic sounding music, each christened with a pretentious title based on sociology and politics. I liked the idea of having a political band with no lyrics, just song titles that reference something I find interesting. Often something I’ve read about in a book somewhere. Although I was writing most of the stuff, I was only providing the basic ideas, the other three would come up with parts to put on top that I could never have begun to conceive of. It became clear from the beginning that we would not restrain this band with rules, that we would be open to everything. By the time we had three of four pieces of music in the making we began looking for more members.

For a long time we had the idea of having Erik’s friend Aurelie playing synthesizer and piano. I knew Aurelie from when she played records at the bar I used to run. I hadn’t met her in years, though. I liked the idea of the band having several nationalities. For a long time it seemed Aurelie would join us, but unfortunately for us she was constantly busy. For a while she was performing some sort of art installation in Lithuania, which was telling of how her schedule looked. She seemed to be into the idea of playing with us but simply never had the time. And then we heard she was stuck in Lithuania due to restrictions being what they were. In the meantime we’d asked Patrik to play bass with us. He played third guitar in Santiago and is an all round superb musician. He’s played in loads of bands, varying instruments between bass, guitar and drums. He’s one of those that only needs to hear a song once and then he’s on it. He knows music. He knows where all the notes go without having to be told, or look at what he’s doing. Unlike myself.

After nine months or so, with the odd pause for a few weeks here and there when the virus caused the government to take tougher restrictions, we were nearing a complete album’s worth of material. Aurelie told us that she wasn’t going to be able to be part of things, she simply didn’t have the time. We turned to Pigge, another synth wizard, who was delighted to hop onboard. He’d played Fender Rhodes and sang in The Worthy, in which Patrik played drums, which was a kind of soulful 60’s sounding pop-rock band. Pigge and Patrik later played together in a jazz prog band called Sly. We had two or three practices with Pigge before he recorded his parts on the record. He's another one of those who understands the theory of music and what key shit is in etc. Stuff that is totally lost on me. Patrik and Pigge would laugh about how everything I wrote was in E or A. I still don't get it. There is simply a certain section of the guitar neck I like the sound of.

Martin Savage had already joined on saxophone, and likewise he’d only practiced two or three times with us before recording. His approach to things was simply, “I’ll just toot over everything and you can cut out/keep whatever you want”. We kept about 95% of it.

During the course of the year or so we’ve been playing, all but Gill have had a dose of Covid-19, which is quite strange considering his wife works in a school and the schools have stayed open here. Our first attempt at the studio was cancelled due to Stefan Löfven calling a press conference a couple of days before, announcing that Sweden was enforcing its toughest restrictions yet. It didn’t really feel like the time to be going into the studio. The government said we should limit our gatherings to four people. There were seven in the band. A week later I got infected with Covid at work.

It was gut wrenching then, postponing the studio. It was the only thing we’d had to look forward to all winter. And now the darkness was coming and the second wave was hitting. It was a miserable period. The music we’d been making certainly felt fitting for the times we were living in. The situation gave time for reflection, nonetheless. I realised, as disappointed as I was about not recording then, starting the band and having such a creative streak this last nine months had kept my spirits up considerably. It made me realise how important music still is to me. As well as A\\VOID, as Andy had now christened us, I was also playing guitar on some recordings a hardcore band my friend in Barcelona had started up. Completely remote. Very Covid. But that’s another story. Anyway, what this time has taught me, is that all I need in life is my family and music. And football. Even if it is crap without fans. And books. And I’m good. A job I enjoy helps, too. I don’t need much, is what I’m saying. Although I can’t survive without music in my life.

It was a lot of fun, recording the first album/record/twelve inch/whatever it will be. We already have a second one of those written, which felt kind of strange, going into the studio to record a first album with a whole other bunch of material waiting in the wings. And we haven’t even played a show yet. Don’t even really know when we’ll be able to. Linus, who recorded and mixed the songs, thought it was hilarious that we played this dark apocalyptic music whilst being the biggest bunch of goofs he’d ever met. Every second that wasn’t filled with music was filled with arseing around and laughter. It feels like we have a good thing going.

What happens next I don’t know. Hopefully some shows. Hopefully a physical release of our songs. It’s a bit trickier when the music we’re playing is outside of our normal hardcore/punk bubble. But if we don’t find anyone to release it then we'll do it the hardcore/punk way and release it ourselves.

Here’s the first song on the album, with images borrowed from Jan Svankmejer's film The Fall of the House of Usher.

The title is taken from Raymond Briggs' animated book of the same name. It depicts, in haunting fashion, the fate of an old aged English couple, living ignorantly through the immediate aftermath of a nuclear bomb. I had the images of their innocent faces, slowly greying as they sat around drinking tea, whilst I played around with the main riff of the song. It’s quite reflective of a lot of the thoughts that have been floating around in my head this last year or so.

When the Wind Blows:


Saturday, May 15, 2021

I Just Can't Turn It Off

Next week I turn 43 years old. I started my first band when I was 13. 30 fucking years ago. I haven’t not been in a band during that time. There have been times when I’ve felt like stopping, but that has never gone beyond the stage of muttering to myself that maybe it’s time to give it in. The fact is, being in a band is a huge part of my identity. For a long time, it was my only identity. Now there are other aspects of my life that are vying for the position of “Who am I?”. Parent. Social worker. Book nerd… But when I was sat eating dinner with my friend Gill and his family, Gill plays guitar in our new band A\\VOID, and Jen, discussing the bands we’ve played in, it hit me just how fucking long I’ve been doing this, and for how long music has been the dominating element in my life. My life has almost entirely revolved around music. Quite a thing.

Things have evolved and adapted over the years, of course they have. That’s only natural. I don’t spend five or six hours of a day listening to music anymore. I don’t have the time. I’m maybe down to one or two hours a day, when out walking the dog or biking to work. Although podcasts have taken over a lot of that time, too. I still get a buzz when I begin on a project, though, normally in the guise of taking on a band’s entire discography and listening through in chronological order. Sonic Youth, Jesus Lizard, Tonbruket, Black Flag, Fugazi, Mogwai, David Bowie, Brainbombs, Shellac and Iron Maiden (up to Fear of the Dark), have been some of the latest projects. But listening to music doesn’t take anywhere near as large a chunk of my waking hours as it used to, as it did up until about seven years ago. Incidentally about the time we had Polly and I began studying again.

But one thing has not changed since I was 13. And I realised as I was talking about it at dinner this weekend that this thing is the reason that I’m still playing music after all these years. Playing live has always been a big part of the rush, as has touring and journeying all over the world, playing to new people, making new friends, absorbing new sights and cultures. Touring, though, especially the way we do, has become more a physical and mental strain with age. I still absolutely love it, don’t get me wrong, I love the adventure of it, but the length of time on the road I can handle in one stretch has reduced dramatically these last ten years or so. It’s not just that it’s physically tiring, it’s also hard being away from my daughter for more than ten days or so, especially at the age she is right now. When she’s older things might change again, who knows.

All this being said, something else quite staggering hit me as we were on this subject. 2020, the Vile year of our Lord, was the first year since 1994 where I didn’t play a single live show. That made me think about a lot of things, and I’ll probably write another post about that.

The thing is, whilst the attraction of touring for months on end no longer exists, I’m still, after all these years, playing in bands. Three right now as a matter of fact. Four, if you count D?B!, which you probably shouldn’t. But there is Victims, A\\VOID and Nubenegra. So, if not touring, what is there? Well, I assumed a few years back that what kept me playing in bands was the issue of Identity. Since I was 13 it’s been “who I am”. If I didn’t play in bands there would be a huge hole in my life, a massive part of me would be lost. And holding on to that for that reason is purely based on fear of changing. But that’s not why I’m still playing in bands. I have other aspects to my identity now, aspects mentioned above, that I’ve fully embraced. The reason I’m still playing in bands is because the need to create music, to make things out of thin air, to produce things and put them out into the world, no matter the scale of it, is something I can’t simply turn off.

Maybe one day it will no longer be there. But until then, I will continue to play and write music with other people. That could be next year, it could be when I’m 70, who knows?

But as it is, right now, it’s still an obsession that has a hold over me.

When one of my bands has a new record on the go, whether it’s Victims where Johan has been writing most of the music recently, or A\\VOID where I’ve been the main writer, the new songs we’re playing around with orbit around my head for months on end. I play them over in my head from start to finish. I do it when out and about in town, out with the dog, lying in bed at night in the short space of time between putting my book down and falling asleep.

As in the case with A\\VOID right now, I’ve been in a long period of inspiration, thinking about new songs, writing something every time I pick up a guitar at home, it just seems to be flowing out of me. It’s truly like a spring that’s been tapped and I can’t help but drink from it. And at almost 43 years old, 30 years after being given my first guitar as a Christmas present, this still has me as excited now as it did then. Without wanting to sound cheesy as shit, it makes me feel alive, creating music. As long as making music makes me feel this way, I’ll most likely keep on keeping on with it.

In the midst of everything that has been completely and utterly shit during this pandemic, starting up A\\VOID and being asked to play guitar in Nubenegra has kept me sane during what otherwise has been a down period for Victims. Of course, my family, my job and all that, they give me meaning in my life, but making music, I realised maybe more than ever during this last year, is simply something I can’t live without. It’s not even a question of will, it’s simply something I can’t turn off.

As I write this, I dare to hope that the light at the end of this tunnel we’ve all been in, truly is the end of the tunnel, and not an oncoming train. I hope that in a few months time we might just be able to start opening up society again, as it should be, and start playing shows again. And then maybe I’ll have something to start writing about on here again.