The mighty Ish Marquez

While looking through old photos for this website I came across this poster for a tour I organized in 2008.

Ish Marquez/Stanley Brinks Poster

This tour was one of the craziest, funnest, most amazing musical experiences of my life. It was a dream come true. These are two of my favorite musicians and songwriters ever. They are both just fountains of creativity, and each so unique to themselves, inimitable. We were all already friends and fans of each other so it was really fun, and the chemistry between us on stage was electric. It was just raw power unleashed. Everyone knew exactly what to do to support and spur each other on. I have had the very good fortune to be playing drums for many an ecstatic musical epiphany, more times than I can count, but this entire tour remains one of the most memorable high points of creativity.

It is absolutely insane that these guys are not both widely hailed as great legends. They are in some small circles but only amongst a few hundred people scattered here and there around the world. In my reckoning they are both up there with the greatest singer-songwriter-musicians in rock n roll history.

Ish Marquez grew up in the Bronx like myself. I first met him hanging out Manhattan’s Central Park when I was in high school. He was in an amazing acoustic trio of latino stoner punks called Hallucination Station. They played music I have never heard the likes of anywhere else, before or since. Ish’s propulsive guitar was the engine that drove it.

He’s got a relentless strumming style and some rare and fierce mojo that takes over when he plays, like he’s possessed. He loves Sam Cooke and old soul and doo-wop records, and that informs his choice of such sweet and melancholy chords, but then he plays them so furiously, he makes a guitar sound so fat and full. And his voice is amazing. He howls and cackles and moans and sings beautifully. It’s haunting. Here is a great classic example.

Some years after those days in Central Park, Ish found his way to a scene that revolved around the “Anti-folk” open mic at the Sidewalk Cafe in the East Village. Countless amazing acts were gathered around this scene at the time, including my future bandmate Jeffrey Lewis, and the Moldy Peaches who both got signed to Rough Trade Records. Adam Green and Kimya Dawson compiled a collection of music documenting the scene which was released on Rough Trade under the name Antifolk Vol. 1. and Gin is not my Friend was Ish’s contribution. That track stood out as very memorable to anyone who’s ever heard that album, I’ve heard that reported from numerous people around the world.

When word got around my musician friends about the whole Sixto Rodriguez thing, a few years before the Sugarman movie came out, and we heard the album Cold Fact for the first time, we all had the same reaction, “Thats great, he’s kinda got that Ish rhythm!” Really he’s the only one I know of who has something like Ish’s sensibilities. And it’s a similar story. Ish is just out there, living in France now, an absolute legend still mostly undiscovered to the world.

He has travelled around and lived in a number of different places all these years, but he’s never really got his music career off the ground. He’s recorded many amazing tracks but never put together a really great album. He’s done the occasional tour support slot but not kept a band together for a long time. He and I talk about it occasionally, us both being expats in Europe now. I hope we will get it together again someday soon. And actually something may be brewing now. I’ll be sure to let you know more soon.

And Stanley Brinks… oh man, he’s a whole ‘nother story. That’s going to have to wait again for another time. “Our generation’s Dylan” I once heard my friend David Deery say. I will say be on the lookout in the UK for his upcoming album with the Wave Pictures titled, Gin. It’s awesome.

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My hip hop mixtape

The golden age of hip hop… as I remember it. New York City, sometime around 1989-92, pre-Giuliani era. I was a skater and attending Jr. High School 141 in the Bronx. I grew up in a fairly white middle class neighbourhood, but skaters are cross pollinators. We went further afield than most people ever would. We swarmed into packs of kids from all over the place at the best skate spots. We were naturally open minded and curious.

I remember one afternoon sitting on some steps by my school. An older kid named Alex had all the big names of Hip Hop written all over his board like patches on a punk’s leather jacket. I was studying them, “I’ve heard this, I haven’t heard of this one yet, I have to look out for that.” That was my entry point and soon I was hooked.

Every night when I washed the dishes at home after dinner I put on my head phones and listened to Kool DJ Red Alert on 98.7 KISS FM. Yo MTV Raps! was in full effect on television when I got home from school. Fear of a Black Planet was one of the first tapes I personally owned. One of the first and only times I was in a car full of teenagers, a rare occurrence in NYC life, we drove to a block party near the Grand Concourse.

I was listening to a lot of punk music at the time also, but Hip Hop was positively infectious. It was undeniably flourishing, especially in New York. The top producers at the time were mavericks like Pete Rock, Prince Paul, DJ Premier, Marley Marl, Erick Sermon! This was the height! These guys were at the peak of their prowess in the fine art of piecing together tracks almost wholly constructed of sampled beats and hooks from old vinyl records. They were pumping out hit after hit, and any one of those tracks you could listen to all day without getting tired of it. This was before copyright infringement laws got so out of hand as to make it too cost prohibitive for the average producer to make this music at all.

This was also before protools, computer editing and any kind of quantising of beats beyond what a rudimentary sampler could do. So as tight as these guys were making beats, the music could still breathe. There is an analogue warmth to this music. You could still feel the human element… in the original music be played on the vinyl that was being sampled, in sound of the vinyl it was sampled from, in the funk of the MPC chops on those samples, and in the skill of the DJs scratching records over top of it all.

It was fairly good natured too. The MC’s weren’t talking about all that much, but their bravado hadn’t yet escalated to being exclusively about death threats, money hoarding and drug dealing. It was all a bit lighter and mostly about rocking the party. I definitely have some respect for Wu Tang Clan and Biggie Smalls but for me that was pretty much the end of the era for me. That was about when I dropped out and tuned into sixties psychedelic music.

Anyway, it seems to me like there has almost been some kind of conspiratorial coverup of this era of music history. Where has that music gone? Why is it never played anywhere anymore? Do younger generations have any access to it? Have they ever even heard it? This was a revolution in popular music. A thriving epoch of creativity. The beginnings of hip hop’s domination of the music market. This is bonafide music history. There should be at least one radio station on the dial playing this stuff on repeat forever.

Is it just because that was the music of a key moment in my teenage years that I think it was so important, and so distorted my perspective that I cannot see that in reality it was rather disposable and didn’t age well, didn’t quite deserve entry into the canon of American music history?

Spotify just opened up their free service in the UK. I don’t want to get into the politics of Spotify right this moment, and because I didn’t feel I could budget the paid subscription, I’ve managed to avoid thinking about it until now. But I just signed up a week or so ago and I am pretty amazed by it right now. Anyway, the first thing I did when I got it was make this playlist of all the hip hop I have missed and haven’t heard in so long. I think it still holds up pretty well. What do you think?

And also, what songs did I forget?

The R.G. Morrison

If you live in Totnes, then you already know The R.G. Morrison. You may not know that is his name, but you know him as Rupert, one of the pillars of our community here, the guy who runs the Drift Record Shop, one of the best and last record stores in the country and world, let alone our little Devonshire market town. It’s one of the things that makes Totnes great, and was one of the first things I noticed when I first arrived here. In fact, Drift and Soundart Radio were two major factors in me deciding this was a reasonable place to settle down. Probably Dartington Music College was a third, but that closed just after I landed.

It was only a matter of time, and me suspiciously skulking around the shop, before the R.G. and I befriended one another. And as it turns out he is my main local friend who knows what the other half of my life is like when I’m away from here, out on the road on the indie rock tour circuit. He already knew my albums with both Jeffrey Lewis and Johnny Flynn before I arrived. He booked Jeff and also my friends The Wave Pictures to play in-stores at Drift. And we both recently became dads at around the same time too.

My point here is he’s got a band, and has released some critically acclaimed albums of his own. He’s just recently released an LP on Static Caravan called Diamond Valley, and its had some great reviews. And I am happy to say I’ve joined the band now, but that was just after the album was recorded so unfortunately I’m not on it. Nonetheless, I’d highly recommend it. It’s one of the few albums that my wife and I agree on. But check it out for yourself. It seems you can still have a cheeky listen here on the website for a limited time only.

Hopefully we’ll be playing these songs at some gigs or festivals later in the year. Otherwise we’re going to start a dirty electronic euro house band to feed our children.

Oh, the Wave Pictures!!!!

No, not these wave pictures.

No, not these wave pictures.

These freaking Wave Pictures!

These guys. These well read, mild mannered, English village boys. They are a shockingly well oiled machine! Not a wave machine. No, that’s a more recent, more famous band that they sometimes get mixed up with. I honestly have no idea what the wave machines sound like, but with all due respect it is very unlikely that they can hold a candle to The Wave Pictures. This band is a finely crafted samurai sword of rock n roll. They’ve been smoldering for a long time now, pounded and hammered by that blacksmith thunder god called the road. And now they are perfectly shaped and sharpened. The legendary kind of sharpened that can never be dulled.

I just found this fan website url in a search for them online: http://fuckyeahthewavepictures.tumblr.com

And that’s exactly the level of enthusiasm I am talking about. This is like magic powers kind of business. Except it’s not. They just humbly go about their business like there is nothing out of the ordinary.

I’ve known them for years, I’ve seen them develop. Along with Herman Dune and Misty’s Big Adventure, they were one of the closest sister bands of Jeffrey Lewis & the Junkyard on this side of the Atlantic. Our bands toured together a few times, opened for each other countless times, joined each other on stage, crossed paths all over the world, slept on each others couches.

They started out pretty amazing. Guitarist Dave Tattersall was already playing masterfully fingerpicked blues guitar in his early teens (Listen to some of that style here). His childhood friend Franic Rozycki joined him on bass to form a rock band in their late teens. They were just those kids who grew up in a bubble, in a small village with parents who had great musical taste and record collections. They were still in university in the days when Jeff Lewis and Herman Dune were first touring around Europe. Dave gave or sent a home-recorded tape of their band and some fan mail to Herman Dune. When you are a touring band you get handed these recordings from young aspiring musicians all the time. You have to listen to them, but 90% of the time they are excruciatingly bad. But that 10% of the time that they are actually good, it’s so refreshing. Those CDs stand out like crazy. You don’t forget those albums. You keep them and wear them out. That’s what happened here. Herman Dune so endorsed the young Wave Pictures tape they made a copy and passed it on to Jeff. And so followed years of acquaintance and collaboration. Eventually they relocated to London, got Johnny ‘Huddersfield’ Helm on the drums, and sometime after that, signed to Moshi Moshi Records. All the while they kept writing songs, playing shows, touring, recording and putting out albums on their own, honing the craft, whittling it down.

I remember when Jack Lewis first got a copy of their album Instant Coffee Baby before it came out in 2008 and played it in the van on tour. The one two punch opening tracks of Leave that Scene Behind and I Love You Like a Madman! And so many other great songs. We thought, “that’s it, they’re going to be famous.” It made a splash and took them up a notch but even today, five or six albums later they are still criminally overlooked. Yet they’ve managed to survive, stick together and keep going. And the whole time they keep getting better and better.

Tattersall is a prolific songwriter. The songs usually stick to fairly simple formulas so he can churn them out at a pretty furious rate. A bit like the Rolling Stones, the focus is less on sophisticated musical arrangements, it’s more a case of the songs are vehicles through which to showcase their visceral band chemistry, their gritty funk, their pocket. Legend has it that when they came home after a tour in the US last year, Dave turned the scrawlings from his tour journal into around 40-50 songs in a period of about two weeks, many of which became the substance of their recent double album City Forgiveness. What’s remarkable about that is the album doesn’t suck, there isn’t a weak song on it.

Similarly, when they record an album, they don’t make a fuss about it. They show up at the studio, set up as few microphones as possible, as fast as possible, and then play the songs live. Done. Rarely an overdub or retake. They are purists like that. They want to hear the sound of a real band playing rock and roll in a room. And they are good enough to pull it off. From a session like that, they often have more songs down on tape than will fit on an LP. That’s why they release numerous EP’s, singles, and B sides. Have a look at the Discography here if you are interested.

They don’t fuss too much about their image or promoting themselves. They kind of naively hope and expect that the music will speak for itself, as well it would if given a fair chance at exposure. But unfortunately and heartbreakingly it just seems to serve as another piece of evidence for the argument that the main gatekeepers and channels of promotion in the modern pop music business are so obsessed with image and mystique, they seem to barely be interested in music at all.

Nonetheless, I am here to tell you, these guys are the real deal. I just recently went on a two week tour with them in Spain, where for some reason or other, they have a decent sized audience. I did a lot of the driving and I played percussion with them: shakers, guiro, tambourine and cowbell. I saw it with my own eyes from the stage… Night after night, never a dull moment, each show better than the last. They shred! These were seriously ecstatic musical experiences.

Dave Tattersall is certainly one of the best guitarists I have ever seen or heard. I’m talking about ever in the history of blues and rock and roll. He’s up there in the top 40 in my book. He does a lot of extended soloing, but it never gets old or boring. It never feels showy or overindulgent. It’s just that he has an endless flow of ideas, and the technical capacity to realize them, so it’s just so fun to go on the journey with him. And he’s enjoying it as much as everyone else. On 3 or 4 shows he broke a string early on in the set, but just didn’t bother to change it, and played on the rest of the show without it. He said it’s not that big a deal but I’ve never seen another guitarist do that. Also, he uses no effects pedals at all. Every night you could see some guitar nerds in the audience coming up close to see for themselves at his feet and marveling that there were none.

And the rhythm section… relentless! Unshakeable! Fran takes some pretty mean solos himself on the bass nowadays. As does Johnny on drums. And he pounds them so hard, it’s crazy. He’s got forearms of steel. He is soaking wet after the first couple of songs. He also sings with the most angelic voice, in an amazing Yorkshire accent.

On the way home from conquering Spain we stopped to play a show in Dijon France, where they notably do NOT have a decent following. It was a small Irish pub, with the bar taking up most of the room, tiny little triangle fenced off stage in the corner, international log splitting sports competition on the television. We just drove 16 hours. Some drunk Dutch guy yelling at us during songs. This was like walking into gig minefield. There was almost no way in hell this was going to be a successful gig. But everyone kept their head up and turned in towards one another for a good portion of the show and we played the most incredible music. It was so much fun! Such a thrill. After each song, only 5 or 6 people clapped and we just laughed at each other. Had it been recorded, it would have made a classic live concert album.

With a lengthy discography behind them now they have so many great songs to choose from. They stretch them out and jam them, but they know exactly when to stop them too. Those razor sharp senses they have now, that chemistry, you only get that from years of playing together on stage. You can’t fake that. Every year there are a hundred “hot” new bands that step out into the spotlight on the British music scene, and there are a hundred more that drop off like flies. A year later you can’t remember any of them. It’s bands like this who simmer in the background for decades, that’s who will be remembered centuries down the road. They don’t play to what’s fashionable, they don’t give a shit about that. They are playing the truth. They are playing what’s written in their soul. With all the hoopla surrounding the business of popular music in the last hundred years it’s easy for people to forget, but that is what music is for. That’s why we listen to it.

Their most recent album City Forgiveness is a double album and it’s great all the way through. It seems you can listen to it here, (but probably not forever). And here is a video of them playing a song from it at Toe Rag studios.

In the next couple of months they are releasing an album called Gin with our friend Stanley Brinks. I’ve heard it already, and it’s pretty great! I’ll have to come back and write about Stan some other time, he’s one of my favorite’s ever but that’s a whole ‘nother story. They will all be on tour together in the UK, look out.

You have to go see them live to get the full effect. The last show I played with them at the Lexington in London after we returned from Spain, was one of the best shows I have ever witnessed, let alone performed. In this day and age, it’s hard to justify the expense of a fourth band member who only plays percussion, but I very much hope to get the chance to play with them again sometime soon.

WavePicturesWithMe

Studio Geekery : Glyn Johns Mic setup

I recorded my drum tracks for Johnny Flynn‘s album Country Mile in May, 2012 at Soup Studios in Limehouse, East London. We wanted to try something different this time so at our bassist/producer Adam Beach’s suggestion we went for the legendary Glyn Johns three mic setup. In this case it involved two Coles 4038 ribbon microphones in very specific relational distances from the snare, and a third mic way out in front of the kick. Soup’s engineer Giles Barrett described it in more detail in a post here and put some audio samples up on soundcloud to illustrate. They also had just wired in their new reverb chamber which sounded fantastic. Listen:

I think I want to record all of my drum tracks this way from now on. This is an excerpt from the song Bottom of the Sea Blues. I was literally just inventing the drum part on the spot. I swear it makes sense in the context of the whole song. In fact it is by far one of my favorite songs to play live at our shows now. It always lifts the crowd up a bit.

Oh yeah, one more aside, the famous recording publication Tape Op re-tweeted Giles’ post so I had a few kilobits of fame there for a second.

If you are looking for a studio in London I highly recommend Soup. They used to be located in a tiny room underneath the old Duke of Uke store by Brick Lane, but moved further east a couple of years ago to a bigger space and set it up really nice. It’s a great room, great equipment, great sound, great engineers, just great. My friends The Wave Pictures also record there all the time. I can’t wait to get back there again sometime soon. Check them out!