Thursday, 15 May 2008

Downloads are all well and good but...

An album is not just a random list of songs. It is lovingly and painstakingly arranged, with great attention paid to creating a listening experience that goes above and beyond the songs themselves. If it’s done well, the track listing creates a kind of sparkly magic glue, that binds the album together, and the whole becomes more than a sum of the parts.

So now we have iTunes and that’s all very well. I can see the advantages – especially for the environment – but something has been lost. In one sense the digital age has brought artists much closer to their audience, and vice versa. You can be their Myspace chum and read in their blog what they had for breakfast this morning. But in another important way, it has created a further obstacle to true connection.

McLuhen said, ‘The medium is the message’. I wouldn’t quite go that far, but downloading this track and that track then putting your iPod on ‘shuffle’ deletes an important part of the message for sure.

Although as a team putting this album [i.e. 'Here' - released 2nd June 2008] together we weren’t really verbalising this perspective, I think it’s the reason we made the album the way we did – ie as an album. We used analogue tape for much of the recording (at least to the extent our budget allowed) in order to build the warmth into the sound that comes from recording the music itself – not a bunch of ones and noughts that represent the music. We used analogue synths and acoustic instruments as much as possible, again to create immediacy and intimacy, and hopefully, dare I say it, to ‘keep it real’.

Even the way I write and play music – in essence it’s just me and an acoustic guitar – is a conscious choice I made to set fairly narrow boundaries around the creative process, in what has become in this age of Protools and plug ins, a world of almost infinite possibility.

The album is arranged into ‘side one’ and ‘side two’. Even if technically such a model is redundant these days, aesthetically I think it still has value. We’ve tried to create something of the experience of listening to a record, the way I enjoyed when I was younger. This is so much a part of the way I think about music, it really is the only way I can present these songs properly. We could have gone the whole hog and released it on gramophone record I suppose, but even I haven’t got a turntable anymore, and I would like people to actually hear the music.

I hope the sleeve too, contributes to our approach. I think it’s really beautiful. And because Just Music use environmentally friendly packaging, you don’t have the ‘plastic window effect’ to contend with. So even if you don’t like the music, I think you can still enjoy the packaging!

For all these reasons, I’d like people a) to buy the album, and b) to buy it in CD format if at all possible. Sure you can import it to iTunes and stick it on your iPod – that’s fine. But I’d really like people to own and enjoy the artefact. There are poems, thank yous and images in there that you can't get from downloading the MP3s.

I am not a Luddite (though he had a point), nor am I some kind of analogue fundamentalist. After all it’s no use denying the many benefits of the present – and anyway nostalgia is particularly unsatisfying when used as an attempt at refuge. But for this particular set of songs it feels right. It’s the record I’ve dreamed of making since I was first buying records of my own. It makes me happy to think that some people will get what I’m trying to do.

Monday, 5 May 2008

God damn the pusher man

According to Friday's Guardian, after declaring record profits a few days ago (£4bn in three months) Shell has decided to pull out of the world's largest offshore wind farm project (London Array) which would have provided 25% of London's electricity.

Hilary Benn, the environment minister, said this was 'very disappointing'. No shit.

The oil companies have the governments of the world over a barrel (barrel - geddit) and they can do pretty much anything they like. The global economy is addicted to oil and the pushers are raising the price, enjoying record profits. Food prices are rising as a result, to such an extent that people are protesting around the world.

Everybody knows we can't go on like this. People have been saying for decades that this economic model (which is based on treating finite resources as if they were infinite) is unsustainable and now it seems pretty obvious that this did not just make good theoretical sense. It's actually coming about. The economy will be forced to change dramatically - fundamentally - and the pusher man knows it. So he's skanking us for all we're worth while he can. Well I say fuck him.

It's easy to bury your head in the sand. This is the standard addict response - It's just a phase. Someday I'll get off it. I'm just going through a bad patch. After X has happened, I'll definitely quit.

The underlying conditions motivating this kind of response are:

a) Getting off the junk is perceived by the addict to be a painful experience
b) The addict doesn't know who they are without it - their entire world is based around the stuff
c) There is the hope that there may come a time in the future when circumstances transpire to make it less painful, and the addict may be able to move beyond it more easily, and may feel ready to take on this challenge. After all, things often work out even though you didn't know quite how they would.

But seriously - this isn't one of those times. The golden age has come and gone. The candy shop is closing down. That which released us has become our prison - maybe even our executioner.

So here is my plan. Let's get off the junk. There are other ways to live - we could soon be ex-addicts who sit around talking about how sorry we feel for all the sad junkies who are still selling their sorry asses for another tankful of gas. We could pass the pusher in the street and simply say 'No thanks', and feel the relief that comes from REAL freedom.

The adverts say it's cool to have new stuff all the time, to look slick, and to have the latest phone in your pocket. Well they would, wouldn't they. But really - how satisfying is this? With a bit of counter-advertising we would very soon be seeing that entire way of life as 'just sooo last season'.

I think this kind of change is possible now, and inevitable in the longer term (if we are to have a longer term). Living more locally, micro-generating our electricity, solar heating, buying less shit, growing our own vegetables (I mean why do I want an apple from New Zealand when I can get one - for free - from a tree in my back yard?). I think I may even learn to knit. I am not too good at multi-tasking (am male) but I think it would be groovy to sit around with your mates, talking about life and knitting a jumper at the same time.

Urbanites tend to see living simply and close to nature as a chore that will be uncomfortable and boring (and I say this because I have spent much of my life as one). But it really isn't. It only seems that way from the perspective of living in a landscape made by humans, surrounded by straight lines and signs telling you what you can and can't do, where one is forced to consume something in order to be entertained. But when you are in nature, WITH nature, your senses are overwhelmed by the majesty of this planet. You go out for a piss in the middle of the night and it's cold and you grumble because you could be just going across some hallway to your bathroom, but then you get outside of the yurt and feel the air and look up at the sky filled with stars that just go on forever. And the sky is DEEP with stars and the smells of the mountain fill your nostrils and the sounds of the night sooth your mind and you can't help thinking 'Wow. This. Is. Amazing'. Every night. (Depending on how much tea you drink before bed). And it doesn't cost a thing! You don't need to generate any income to have that kind of experience. Compare that to crossing a hallway that you've seen a million times.

We think we have gained so much through technology. The machinery that surrounds us and fills the air with noise, the tarmac underneath our feet that separates us from the free earth, the shops selling everything we could possibly imagine and more besides. But we have lost as much as we have gained. And now the planet is starting to falter under the weight of our desires. We twitch a little, and try to block out the sense of panic which is seeping into our collective psyche. But really, there is more to be gained by unplugging than there is to lose. The real shame would be if our fear of the future prevents us from acting soon enough, and decisively enough, to allow that future to arrive at all.