Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Identity,1,2,3

1

Breaching Police Diver's Notebook regulations, I'm going to write about my job. I've recently returned to playing solo shows, for financial, health and creative reasons. For the last five years touring has been planned according to the nebulous industry standard notion: loads of live shows = best method of album promotion. This logic leads to the idea of playing as many shows in a row as humanly possible for as long as possible in as many places as possible. As a result, any coherent memories of great performances in great company were ultimately beaten senseless by inhumanly long journeys in cramped vans, dragging my larynx around
Europe like a silk glove through a paper shredder. Fatigue, boredom, self-destruction. Seizures, sickness, cancellations, reputation and financial ramifications. Vague recollections, repeat prescriptions. Singing for my supper through tonsillitis, and, now evinced, the Epstein Barr virus, finally, a doctor's note reads, 'Quiet, please'.

Seasoned fans finally at ease with Gravenhurst manifesting itself as a band, arrive once more, to a guitar, and one man.

*

I debuted my new solo set to fifty people in
Bristol, then a few days later, played to thousands at Latitude. A band photo in the festival programme was unhelpful, but thousands of people were very quiet when I played very quiet, applauded loudly and laughed generously at the questionable jokes and rambling non-sequiturs I am forced to breathe into dead air while hurriedly retuning between songs. I mentioned ‘Gravenhurst’ three or four times, 'The Western Lands' twice, and introduced most of the songs by name, so with luck everyone knew what was going on and what to spend their money on.

I finished with Black Holes In The Sand, and a descent into a squealing wall of sound, highly pleasurable for me and of tolerable duration for the uninitiated –yes, I pretty much always finish like this, it’s just something I have to do. "You looked like you were really enjoying it" said Michelle, my masterly manager, without whom I would have lost my way years ago. She was right. I was. I have to focus hard to not forget lyrics; eyes closed from the distractions of things written on t-shirts, and occasionally wading through synaesthesia from simple partial seizures that churn sound into spores of colour, the kind of thing people spend good money on drugs for, but that day at Latitude, for a rare moment there I did indeed hit The Zone. The Zone is a different place for different people. For me it is the full realization that being alone on a stage with my songs is the only thing I will ever have complete control of.

It’s not only rare, it’s a fleeting thing too, and it has no qualms about turning on you. I stumbled out of the dark marquee into lunchtime on a hot sunny day. A clanging emotional dissonance, like listening to Radio 3 in an abattoir. I slept it off for three hours in the back of the car.

That really is why I keep my eyes closed, it’s not an act.

2

“Is Gravenhurst a band or is it just you?” This question crops up regularly. My answers may have sounded unsatisfying, pretentious or plain drivel, but by breaking the journalistic chain of Chinese Whispers and telling you myself, perhaps it will settle the matter.

I am not Gravenhurst, and never have been. Gravenhurst is the name I give to the music that I compose, perform and record. I aim to create, musically and lyrically, something more powerful than the sum of its parts, and ultimately, something more powerful than myself and thereby achieve a kind of transcendence. But it makes addressing an audience bloody confusing. After several years of quiet study I found the solution. Whether solo or performing as a band, I now wait until after the first song to say “Good evening. You are listening to Gravenhurst”. Intentionally exploiting a declarative sentence of extensional ambiguity! Sweet.

(I clearly care about this more than anyone else does.)

But equally, Guy Bartell is not Bronnt Industries Kapital, the musical outfit of which he is the principle composer, and myself a long-time collaborator. And, if you will allow me further metaphysical postulation, (you’ve come this far) neither Gravenhurst nor Bronnt Industries Kapital will cease to exist when we are gone. For our purposes at least, they are ideas, evolving webs of ideas, sometimes frustratingly static, sometimes moving in a way seemingly beyond our control. The ideas spawn music. Music is an irreducibly mysterious, non-corporeal entity. Music cannot die. Nobody I know would care to disagree with this idea, but then everyone I know is either a music lover or a musician.

Not convinced? Pour a drink and sit down. Right, basically, when bands form they choose a name. This vital ritual can be performed without much self-awareness, but the name has to be good, everyone knows that. Everyone present has at least some kind of understanding that choosing a good name and saying it with confidence is to tell the world that you are more than the sum of your members; you are a band; like a gang; a force to be reckoned with. Fortified with a unique typeface, and consolidated with the sigilistic, binding power of a cool logo, the right band name will practically carve itself onto toilet doors in the venues all over the British Isles from which it will never escape, and within a short time be covered by another name, pissed on, painted over. It's like it never happened.

A band must aim to be more than the sum of its influences, not its members. Some great bands only have one songwriter. Sometimes bands only have one member. When Bruce Wayne says he's not Batman, he is lying. When I say I'm not Gravenhurst, I’m telling the truth.

3

I’ve recently discovered some other musicians covering my songs. There is no greater praise than this. It is a touching experience, and all the more poignant in that they aren’t established or famous, but just sticking a Gravenhurst cover in amongst their own songs, playing small pub gigs or at home with their mates. It reaffirms my aim of achieving artistic Gestalt. I have written songs and they have taken on a life of their own. They are out of my hands now, and may become more powerful, in any chosen sense, than me. Late 1999, I had just written the ‘The Diver’ and showcased it tentatively in front of a few friends round someone’s house. Around the same time, at The Louisiana, Bristol, I was also covering ‘Sundays and Holidays’ by Red House Painters. There was no You Tube back then to prove it, but a circle is complete.

If a famous person covered a song of mine, it might be thrilling but it would not be touching. Judgement is notably absent in the circle above, it has no seat, no relevance. A famous cover version could bring me money and attention, and where there is money and attention there is judgement. What if I didn’t like it? What if I had to lie and say I did? Did they even mean it? Was it suggested to them by a dunder-headed major label marketing slag? Take the melody and make it more.. Street Soul? Did Mark Ronson really think Morrissey & Marr would like his emetic, crashingly ill-judged cover of “Stop Me..”? Did he even care?

A kid jamming out one of my songs in his bedroom and uploading it to You Tube- only one thing matters: he really means it.

8 comments:

mm said...

I always liked Leonard Cohens attitude to cover version of his stuff "whenever I hear anybody do one of my songs my critical judgements go into immediate suspended animation. I'm just knocked out when anybody does a cover of mine... First of all I am happy that someone has heard the song and is moved to cover it. Second, of all it gives me a completely fresh take on the song and I can then enter it into my own judgmental process."
http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/kcwr.html

George said...

THe same frustrations have been bothering me this last 18 months or so. I commend your example no end. Keep up the good work!

Cameron said...

I really, really enjoyed these thoughts!

Nick Talbot said...

Thank you! They are indeed unusually candid thoughts. I've been ill for a while. I thought I'd explain why. Better to hear it from me than via a journalist's slant laid atthe mercy of a temping sub-editor's clock-watching hurry. We have established my limits and strengths: short but regular tours suit me best. I plan to play solo across most of Europe in the coming months. Shorter drives, fifteen minute soundchecks and hopefully time to explore the cities. I particularly love Belgium and the Netherlands, if only because of the small size, unqiue architecture and unusual geography. And Amsterdam and beautiful Utrecht's coffee shops, let us not forget. Germany and France I also love but they are enormous countries; I've travelled so much and seen so little of them. The only German city I have spent significant time in is Berlin.

No baby-sitting, no-one to worry about but myself. For some reason, if a whole band fucks up a song and has to restart, it breaks a dramatic spell and can sully a whole show. If I fuck up a song i can make a joke of it and start again, and no-one minds. Some find it endearing. Touring to perform and enjoying performing. I've got five album's worth and much more material to dig into. Exciting times.

Sergio said...

It's difficult to explain thoughts about Music with my poor english. So, I won't try it, but there're days that you need to take guitar an play any songs. Maybe you're frustrate, maybe you're happy, maybe angry... I use to choose Gravenhurst. Music is more than a therapy, but it is too. There're songs that make an effect in your mind when you play it, and a lot of your songs has this effect in me! I only could thank you for it, and for sharing your thoughts in this site!

Greetings from Spain.

Dan said...

Hi Nick,
Great blog, and GREAT music... the Western Lands has all the signs of being an all-time favorite of mine. I have found myself returning to it again and again, and enjoying it more each time... it's a superb record, tick tick, v.g.
As for your thoughts on cover versions, I completely agree with your reaction to Ronson's mutilation of the Smiths. For me the whole preposterousness is crystallised by the manner in which he sings the line "Friday night in outpatients"... he delivers it in this deadly earnest soulful croon, seemingly completely oblivious of its irony or comedy. Has he actually listened to the lyrics at all, I wonder?
Anyway, keep up the excellent work.
All the best
Dan.

Nick Talbot said...

Dan, your comments inspired my next post.. thank you

paddy said...

Hi Nick. Interesting ideas on identity and collaboration there. How does this work for you as far as having a visual identity with with to promote the music, or inform people about the existence of your 'band'. Thing susch as line up changes and photographs must be tricky. And while on the subject, who have you worked with visiually in the past for design and photography purposes and how did you feel these collaborations went as extra dimensions to the music. Best wishes, Patrick in Prague.