The Egg

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I played a gig on saturday with the live dance band The Egg.  Well, it was more of a scrambled Egg as Maff Scott, the awesome drummer and twin brother of frontman/synth guy Ned was on holiday in Turkey plus bass maestro, the unbelievably funky Paul Marshall was similarly unavailable hence my inclusion along with stand in drummer Tony.

The Egg are genuine legends of the underground music scene not just here in the UK but due to numerous global jaunts, worldwide too.  The band formed in Oxford in the 1990′s and were one of the first bands I’d ever seen play electronic techno but as a typical four piece bass/drums/guitar/keys affair.  I remember thinking when rave music was taking over in the early 90′s that bands would have to learn to play this thumping dance style in order to compete with the rash of DJs popping up everywhere.  The Egg not only mastered this but also  developed their own highly funky take on the genre that proved irresistible with the countless audiences they performed to.  The Egg had a hit record in 2006 with the David Guetta mashup Love Don’t Let Me Go (Walking Away) which reached number 3 in the UK and charted all across Europe.

I was fortunate enough to first play with The Egg in a backstage jam at the 1998 Glastonbury Festival playing to a packed marquee called The Green Room.  This venue was exclusively for the crew and performers of the circus and cabaret fields and is one of many backstage areas that are real hidden gems of the festival as the parties stretch out way until dawn.  I sang improvised vocals with them at that particular performance which also included sometime Egg member Jerry on guitar.  Jerry was coincidentally the guitarist I played with on Saturday too.

I saw The Egg play the following year at Glastonbury and this was during their number phase where all the band members dressed in pure white other than the humorous individual numbers ablaze on each members top!

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Over the past few years I have performed a few times with the band when Paul has been unavailable and it is a thrill partly because Maff is an amazing drummer and Ned is constantly pulling surprises out of his deep bag of party tricks such as vocoding, stylophone and the most bizarre samples.  One of the coolest aspects of the band is the lack of sequenced clock.  Maff essentially controls the timecode to which Ned’s various arpeggios and loops are synchronised to.  This means that if Maff wants to speed up or slow down, everything else essentially follows him.  This gives an organic and free flowing quality to their live performances which avoids the staticness of being slaved to a computer clock and allows the band to create arrangements on the fly reacting much like a DJ to the audiences moods and whims.

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Hollow Sun aka Stephen Howell R.I.P

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With a heavy heart I learnt about the passing of my friend, the legendary sound designer Stephen Howell this morning.  I first learnt about Steve’s existence through his sterling contributions to Alesis’s ill fated Fusion synthesiser that he virtually transformed with his exacting and inspiring sound sets and sample libraries. I was surprised to then discover that he was a fellow Welsh man and had formerly lived next door to my good friend and long term collaborator Tim Lewis aka Thighpaulsandra in Cardiff way back when.

Steve’s legacy stretched way beyond software and into hardware with his long term involvement with Akai Professional and their esteemed sampler line.  He worked on the interface design for numerous models throughout the 1990′s and was even involved with the stupendous DPS24. Steve also had a hand in inventing pedal based looping with his idea to utilise available memory in Akai’s groundbreaking Headrush delay pedal.  Steve wrote an interesting (and sad) blog entry about the death of his friend and collaborator Jack Sugino of Akai in which he explains much about his involvement.

His Kontakt based sample libraries released under his Hollow Sun moniker were an astonishing collection of innovative and unusual instruments that we used extensively in the rock opera Pop’pea. You can read about that crazy show here.

I had communicated with Steve numerous times over the internet before our first physical meeting at a gig by my band Rocketgoldstar at the tail end of 2012 in Cardiff.  Steve wrote about that encounter on his blog here.  From that point on, we regular communicated and we spent a fabulous and silly evening back in January this year that Steve blogged about here.

I’m so sad to learn of Steve’s untimely passing and I extend my heartfelt sympathies and love to his friends and family especially his wonderfully talented 17 year old daughter Alice.  I would also like to thank Rob Puricelli (aka Failed Muso) for letting me know about Steve’s sudden illness and for keeping me informed.  Rob has also opened a book of condolences on his site here.

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The future of gazwilliams.me!

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Hello readers old and new! I am going to make a pledge to any of you who enjoy this site or are interested in my musical exploits that I will make much more regular updates. I have so many articles on the back burner waiting for a spot of time to finish that there soon should be a steady flow of new posts and that is a promise!

I am looking more towards the internet and my site as a focus for my activities as in recent times I have crawled out from under the stone of anonymity and through mostly Sonicstate.com I have started to enjoy a more public persona. In the past, I was so preoccupied with my perception that as an artist I should remain somewhat aloof and mysterious but now I realise that just leaves you with a whole heap of nothingness!

So what can we expect in the future? Well I have started writing up little featurettes on some of the notable people I have worked with some of whom are well known and some may be new to you. I have been incredibly lucky in my career so far to have worked with some truly inspirational musicians and artists that I feel I should share some of those experiences. The fairly recent features about Karl Hyde and David Rhodes should give an indication of the type of thing I have planned.

Other features will be around my continuing exploration of music technology and it’s applications. I am first and foremost a live musician who thrives on playing and collaborating with others so it may seem strange that I am so enthusiastic about this subject as it appears to thrive on electronic music and solitary working (both of which I also enjoy). I am, however, constantly interested in developments which encourage collaborations (both physical and virtual) and of bridging the gap between acoustic and electronic. These are the themes I plan to explore in future posts.

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The White Flame – an experiment in writing for the room

 

Here is a performance I recorded last August of my Jean Guillou influenced piece, The White Flame.  I am using my trusty Roland GR55 which is the same unit I have used extensively with Karl Hyde and the rock opera, Pop’pea.

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Jean Guillou’s magnificent flames of hair and the inspiration for the title of my piece!

I was interested to see how writing a piece of music within a particular large room would affect my note choices and phrasing.  The hall I used in this example is the Upper Room at Cairns Road Baptist Church and I’d like to thank them for the opportunity.  The room has a long decay, around the 2.5 second range so therefore lots of long legato notes would work best in that setting.  I also wanted to try and use tones that would resonate well within that space so I created a trombone woodwind hybrid using the dual PCM layers of the GR55.  I mapped the trombone sounds to the expression pedal which let me create swells over the woodwind base.  The GR55 has an incredibly deep programability which I think people aren’t aware of.  I have to say though that editing on the unit is no fun and I highly recommend Gumtown’s astonishingly excellent free editor for it available here.

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The GR55 editor for PC and OSX

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The Fantasy Orchestra

Want to hear me croon?

I had great fun today performing with Bristol’s Fantasy Orchestra at the funkily titled café Roll for the Soul. The Fantasy Orchestra is a project run by a bit of a Bristol legend called Jesse D Vernon, formerly of  90′s hippie festival favourites The Moonflowers. Jesse truly is a one of a kind and has been responsible for many interesting projects such as his long running band, Morning Star, his ever evolving the Greatness of the Magnificence plus his continual involvement in BBC 6 music faves This Is The Kit.

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The terrific Jesse giving the audience cues to join in!

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The crowded venue earlier.  You could hardly swing an ewok in there!

The concept behind the Fantasy Orchestra is that it is open to everyone no matter what instrument they play. The selection of songs initially was centred on the incredible music of Ennio Morricone but has expanded to take in such disparate film score composers including Dominic Frontiere, John Barry, Alexander Courage,  Jimi Hendrix and R D Burman.   This is interesting music to play, Burman for instance is one of India’s seminal film score composers so it’s highly rewarding to perform in this Bollywood style.  Hendrix’s name may seem odd included amongst these cinematic composers but the arrangement the F.O performs of “1983 (a merman I should turn to be)”  reveal Hendrix’s music to having terrific film scoring potential.

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Here I am singing with the Orchestra, new years eve 2013 at The Cube, Bristol

The show today however featured a lovely song that was originally meant for Disney’s 1967 The Jungle Book but didn’t make the cut. It’s called Brothers All written by Terry Gilkyson. Jesse has a particular talent for locating obscure gems and performing them makes being involved with the Fantasy Orchestra such fun.  My original involvement within the ranks of the F.O had me playing bass (along side Eels, PJ Harvey producer John Parish) but due to being otherwise occupied I had to bow out. Upon rejoining at the tail end of last year and with the bass job now handled by the psychedelically funky Stefano Manfredi , Jesse asked me to sing lead vocals instead on a bunch of songs including this one, which is a low baritone crooning style.  This is in contrast to my normal quoggy wail style as ably demonstrated here.

Another element to playing within the Fantasy Orchestra is that we have to perform wearing whatever the dress code happens to be.  When we played at Bristol’s venerable Cube Cinema, new years eve 2013, the code was Wildermann. This is French photographer Charles Fréger name for his project of trying to capture the spirit of tribal Europe.  This resulted in some inspired outfits that evening!  There are many awesome photos of those outfits here.

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The Wildermann influenced look!

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Korg Gadget – Mobile Multiple Synthesizer Studio

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Korg created a real surprise today when they launched their new iOS music app Gadget at the Namm 2014 winter show. It is a music production suite of 15 “gadgets’ within a sequencing environment. I had just returned from a late night rehearsal when I read about the new launch. I immediately downloaded it and thought it would be great fun to film a first impression of it without any preparation. Below is the first part of my first look:

And here is the second part:

In order to make this little film, I downloaded a piece of software for my Mac called Reflector. It allows you to use your Mac as an Airplay client for your iPad, therefore able to record the screen. I hadn’t used it before so I apologise for the audio glitching which I think was due to that.

I had written a full review following my first impression but sadly due to incompetence on my part, I lost it all :( If I can be bothered I’ll get around to writing it again.

*Update* I decided to do a follow up video after I’d had a further investigation of the app.  Here it is:

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Pop’pea – a peculiar rock opera and an even more peculiar experience!

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Back in early 2012 I was asked to play bass in a modern reworking of the Monteverdi opera masterpiece L’incoronazione de Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) to be held in early summer that year in Paris’s beautiful and prestigious Théâtre du Châtelet on the banks of the Seine.  It was a star studded affair featuring Carl Barât in the lead role as Nero, Marc Almond as Seneca and French lothario, Benjamin Biolay.  The whole rock opera is currently available to view online at the moment in 2D here and in 3D here.

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The principals from left (back) Valérie Gabail, Carl Barât, (front) Pete Howard, Marc Almond and Benjamin Biolay 

This production was the brainchild of the director general of the Châtelet, Jean Luc Choplin and follows the long tradition of taking the original top lines and bass lines of the opera and orchestrating it using current methods.  Back in 1643 when this opera was written, that is all that essentially existed of it and various productions would sound quite different due to differing approaches of the orchestrator.  The opera had largely been forgotten until it was revived in the 19th century and since then has become a staple for Opera productions worldwide.  What made this particular production of Poppea unusual was the bringing together of the classical world and the rock’n’roll world of which I inhabit!

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The director of the Chatelet, Jean Luc Choplin

The well known American composer Michael Torke was commissioned to carry out the musical adaptation which although a skilled arranger, his original interpretation lacked rock music’s contemporary edge.  To counter this, at the suggestion of the English librettist, Ian Burton, a much more credible source in ex Clash/Queen Adreena drummer Pete Howard was brought in to act as musical director.  Pete duly brought on board Max La Villa, former bandmate from their time in early 90′s alternative rock band Eat to co orchestrate.  Together they set about deconstructing Michael Torke’s adaptation and using a very contemporary approach mixing all sorts of musical genres and instrumental sounds to give it a timelessness.  There is a good video here which has Max explain the approach.  This did prove to be a fairly controversial idea as the much hyped “Rock” element of the production was partially subsumed within this esoteric and peerless arrangement which featured a never heard before blend of unusual sound sources.  The advertising for the opera featured a flaming Les Paul (as shown at the top of the page) but this kind of balls out rock was very much in the minority in Pete and Max’s treatment.

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The Hammond Novachord – a major part of the sound of Pop’pea

Samples of the rare and groundbreaking 1940′s Hammond synthesizer, The Novachord rubbed shoulders with the 80′s sampler The Fairlight mixed with liberal splashes of analog classics the Mellotron and Korg’s Monopoly along with a whole host of other well chosen sounds.  These synth parts were played by two exceptional musicians, Angie Pollock (who I would have a musical future with playing together in the Karl Hyde band in 2013) and former Cardiacs keyboardist and solo star William D Drake (Bill).

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(From left) Marcus “Matic Mouth” Smith, Carl Barât, Angie Pollock, Max La Villa, Me, Bill Drake, Chris McComish, Pete Howard plus some of Carl’s fans!

The band was rounded out with the astonishingly talented drummer and percussionist Chris McComish and myself on bass.  Max was the sole guitarist and Pete was the primary drummer with Chris bringing a more electronic percussive element along.  Pete Howard is a phenomenally powerful drummer and his über rock dynamics brought a genuine edge to the show.  Max’s elegant and spare approach to guitar playing interwove beautifully amongst the complex and dense keyboard lines.  Although initially brought in just to play bass, I ended up working intensively with Max preparing the music technology to be used within the show.  Below is a video tour I made for Sonic State giving a tour of the theatre, a rig rundown of the equipment and interviews with the band:

To try and stay faithful to this new orchestration, I needed to play a midi bass as many of the bass lines were in fact synth parts.  I used the Roland GR55 (as shown in the above video) and attempted to program parts to be as close as possible to Max’s carefully chosen timbres.  This was mostly successful but on a few numbers the bass parts were performed in unison along with Angie on the keyboard.  Using this approach did make what was already extremely complex baroque bass lines even more difficult as I had to seek ways to minimise the inherent latencies to trigger the sounds cleanly.  I discovered using a capo increased the tautness of the strings and prevented false triggering.  Since then, I have used capo on bass significantly for many purposes and found it helpful on a couple of numbers on the Karl Hyde tour.  I must strive for a signature bass capo at some point!

Rehearsals for the band began at the end of March in Stoke Newington, North London before moving to The Châtelet itself in April. We laboured under extremely stressful time pressure once at the Châtelet as we were expected to perform in front of the Theatres top brass much earlier than expected.  Here lay an obstacle, The Châtelet were not used to rock musicians and certainly not what the technical requirements were.  Ideally we should have had a technician with us at all times due to the ferociously complex sound mix plus getting the scores to be playable and all the instruments to behave as they should took much tweakery and adjustments.  Our original brief was that there was to be no sheet music on stage which especially for the keyboard players would have been impossible so thankfully that restriction was lifted. There were so many unexpected developments that all seemed to heap on the pressure; reports that the French Prime Minister was coming to the opening night, Kanye West and Jay Z would be attending, that it was going to filmed for national French TV, that it was going to filmed in 3D!  And so on.  Tensions were running high as we worked for 21 days straight without a day off often working from 10 in the morning to midnight.

The trailer for the show

By the middle of April the rehearsals moved from the Châtelet to a fairly dilapidated studio on the outskirts of Paris in the district of Montreuil.  This was a huge contrast to working in the confines of the beautiful Chatelet but the workload didn’t let up though it just mean that we had to travel daily to this location.  The studio it transpired has an incredible history as being setup by Georges Méliés, the famous early film director who created A Trip To The Moon, there.  This is the famous 1902 short film where a space rocket gets fired into the eye of the moon. Ben Kingsley starred as Méliés in the recent Martin Scorsese film Hugo.

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That famous scene!

The first run throughs with the principals was interesting though.  Marc Almond astonished everyone with his precise and convincing performances each time playing it as if it was the real thing. His professionalism was outstanding and his stage presence, mesmerising. Marc was playing the philosophic tutor Seneca and he brought a real depth and sincerity to this rather melodramatic role.  Carl too was impressive.  Being a punk rocker, it was a huge challenge for him to take such a large role on and manage to  pull it off.  He had to sing some extremely challenging vocals but managed to achieve it with some aplomb.  His Nero was maniacal, unstable and vicious which was just what the role required. For me, and many others, one of the big star turns was that of Swedish singer Fredrika Stahl.  She was playing the role of Nero’s rejected wife Ottavia and although she only had a few songs to sing, she sang with such chilling precision and with an utterly convincing intensity that was genuinely moving.  It was interesting to see these performances at this stage of the rehearsals as it gave us a much clearer idea of how it was going to turn out.

Around this time, we met this wonderful character called Julien Lambert who was the most prolific character to appear in Pop’pea starring in virtually every scene as a mime and acrobat providing much comedic relief.  Julien had just starred in Les Fraises Des Bois , a critically acclaimed film which at the time had not long been released.  Julien once told me how he used to have a party trick whereby he would surprise guests by unexpectedly leap out of a nearby window to the gasps of the horrified onlookers only to have utilised his considerable acrobatic skills to have discreetly grabbed the balcony and would be safe hanging just outside of view.  After he told me this he surprised me by doing exactly that and leapt off my fifth floor hotel room balcony, I panicked and rushed out to see him dangling with this enormous grin!

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The unmistakeable Jean Guillou

Towards the end of the rehearsal period (and back at the Châtelet), things relaxed slightly for us musicians as the focus became more about the staging and technical matters.  We found ourselves having moments of spare time where we could start enjoying being in the dead centre of Paris. Acting on a tip from a friend, most of the band went to see an organist by the name of Jean Guillou perform at the nearby Saint Eustache cathedral. Jean has been the resident organist at this magnificent building since the early 60′s and had studied under the genius Olivier  Messiaen.  Jean performs most Sundays there around 5pm and it is truly a magnificent experience that I highly recommend.  Having had the organ rebuilt to his specifications some years back, we realised that he not only played the instrument but in his use of sub bass and echoes, he played the whole building!  Myself and Bill Drake became obsessed with him and attempted to see him perform as often as our busy schedule would allow.  His compositions rank as some of the most spiritual and psychedelic music I have ever heard. During one break Bill and Angie were invited to play on this extraordinary piano in the Chatelet.  Below is a film I made of Bill playing his wonderful composition The Moth Surrenders To The Flame

The remarkable William D Drake

Two English rappers had been brought in to play the roles of Nero’s guards, Achilles “AC” Charrington and Marcus “Matic Mouth” Smith.  Both extremely talented, they provided an almost comedic element to the show and were both lots of fun to hang out with over the two months or so of production.  Marcus would dazzle during impromtu jam sessions back at the hotel whereas AC blitzed my mind with his amazing grasp of history and philosophy!  Myself and AC went together to witness the amazing scenes at the Bastille the day that the narcissist and bigot Sarkozy was deposed at the French general election.  the scenes that greeted us were astonishing as we could hardly move amongst the thousands and thousands of revellers who had gathered to celebrate.

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Crazy scene of the madness and joy following Sarkozy’s defeat

Marcus and AC discuss their involvement

As show time approached we started to understand the odd staging that Pierrick Sorin and Giorgio Barberio had planned.  Essentially what this involved was the actors would perform in front of a green screen whilst various cast members would manipulate minature models or props around the stage edge.  All of this would be projected on to a huge screen overhead whereby the audience would see the amalgamation of all these images as a cohesive whole.

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Fredrika as Ottavia being projected against a stormy sea scape

This was an ambitious idea that the directors had used in other projects prior to Pop’pea.  Its idea being that the audience are as interested in the process as they are the finished item.  In the most, the ideas worked really well but in my opinion were let down by the lip synching delay caused by all the computer processing.  During dress rehearsals we all thought this was a glitch that would be solved in the main shows but sadly not.

The costumes for the production were made by the world famous Nicola Formichetti, most famous for designing Lady Gaga’s far out costumes.  Nicola being have Italian and have Japanese had the rather enviable life of growing up in both Rome and Tokyo. He is now the artistic director for the Italian (and my favourite) fashion label Diesel.  His involvement with the show ensured that the fashionistas were fascinated with the production and it featured in the pages of Elle, Paris Match, Timeout and many, many more.  In fact when the show was over we were presented with dossiers over an inch thick of the various international press the show had garnered.  Sadly us musicians were not clothed by Nicola had had to just look smart instead of ridiculous. Probably a good move!

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Valérie Gabail as Pop’pea wearing one of Nicola’s fantastic outfits.

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Here I am modelling the shiny suits the male band members wore.

A news article about Pop’pea

The publicity around the show was huge.  Everywhere we went in paris we saw huge billboards advertising the show, it was splashed across all the major publications and the principals were interviewed on many of France’s leading cultural programmes.  There was a large amount of healthy scepticism too as this was a very daring production.  Rock opera to most conjures images of musical theatre a lá We Will Rock You and true like but here was a genuine baroque opera conforming in many ways to a traditional opera but yet casting one of France’s leading female opera stars (Valérie Gabail) against a notorious punk in Carl whilst messing with post modern ideas of presentation with the most surreal approach to orchestration and there is a recipe for disaster or triumph!

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A poster for Pop’pea outside Paris’s famous Hotel de Ville

Well what happened?  I think in many ways it was a triumph.  We received generally very positive reviews with some naysayers but I think most were in agreement that this was an audacious and enjoyable show.  Opening night was thrilling too say the least as Paris’s great and good turned out in huge numbers including some very prestigious actors, musicians and politicians.  For me the opening night was the best performance too as is often the case as the months of hard work all come together.  If I was to sum up what I thought of the show it was remarkably brave, noisy, exciting, sometimes silly, sometimes sad, innovative and ultimately slightly flawed. The video below was taken at the party on the Châtelet roof top after the opening night performance. I am interviewed early on and can hardly contain my excitement!

As I mentioned at the top of this piece, the whole show is currently available online to view in 2D here and in 3D here.  I’d love to hear comments about what you think.  If you are just interested in a taste of the show I’d recommend watching the powerful opening but then skipping on to Marc Almond’s appearances or Fredrika’s as I think they are the show highlights.  Be warned though if there are youngsters around though, Marcus’s and AC’s turn as the rapping soldiers is loaded with expletives and some of the scenes are quite saucy!

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The band about to take their bows (from left) Bill, Max, Pete, Chris, me, Angie

Being involved in this production was something I’ll never forget: The generosity of the Châtelet, the friendly and charming crew, the bizarre collection of actors and musicians, the beautiful Châtelet Theatre, the incredibly difficult baroque bass lines, being personally thanked by the mayor of Paris, the challenges and resolutions amongst the musicians, the list goes on.  I’d like to thank Jean Luc Choplin, Sylviane Borie, both Stefans, the crew at the Châtelet, Pete Howard, Max La Villa, Angie Pollock, Chis McComish and especially a huge thank you to Bill Drake for bringing me in to this life changing production!

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