Archive for the ‘Words’ Category

Last weekend we went to Collider at the Science Museum, the exhibition about CERN, the LHC and the discovery of the Higgs Boson. It is £10 for an adult, gets drastically undermined by its introductory film – and I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed coming out of a major exhibition. 

Is this what mainstream science-based curation is like?

Collider opens with a video introduction given by scientists inside a mocked up lecture theatre. It’s not clear if these are real staff members, or actors playing caricature. The lead is a Yaffle-ish cliché, over-enunciating like a first time local newsreader, giving us a kind of smug, self-absorbed monologue about peripheral, mostly meaningless stuff. Of course, if he’s a real CERN scientist I feel bad for dissing his delivery – but this whole section is desperate distraction rather than rich content. It feels like a hundred idiots tweaked the brief. It feels like a multi-agency fluff – where directors and editors entirely fail to establish target audience, or decide what needs saying, or oversee their presenters to be simple and economic. Actually, it feels as if the sole aim is not to explain the Higgs Boson or LHC at all, rather to ram home the point that scientists are interesting people with human lives. This is Cowellian distopic nightmare writ large and shoved worryingly deep into our science and innovation establishment. Emotive (and silly) personal life nonsense and generic “Whoa! how excited we are!” replaces any sense of authority or faith in the richness of what these experiments may mean. One scientist tells us she’s doing it all for the memory of her humble schoolteacher father – and her script reads exactly like one of those moments on X Factor when they force-grow audience empathy. My gears grind. We’re in a presentation to relentlessly tell us how important it all is, rather than showing us.

Also, they use the phrase ‘money shot’. How on earth did that get past an editorial team? “Mum, what does ‘money shot’ mean?”

There’s one teasing footage moment of Peter Higgs and some actual findings – less than three seconds – before we skim away again, uneducated and unmoved. Far more time is spent on an inane, irritating joke involving Brian Cox, who appears faced away from us, while a scientist calls him ‘new boy’ and demands a cup of tea from “what was your name again?” “Brian”. Meaningful look to camera.

And then one scientist makes this joke, with the clear implication that we’re meant to laugh with him, not at him: “My wife says I spend more time with the LHC than her. But I can get another wife.”

Gobsmacking. The scriptwriting is criminal. Imagine how much more powerful this film could’ve been if someone (yeah perhaps Cox, since they’ve paid him to show up anyway!) did the following simple steps: (1) explained the problems they wanted to solve, questions they wanted to answer in the first place (which don’t get a mention). (2) showed us clips of CERN at work and play, (3) then clips of the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs and maybe some Peter Higgs himself (that can be our emotional kicker). Finally (4) summing up (as simply as possible) what it all means. It’s, er, not rocket science. By god, an actual history lesson.

Collider’s opening salvo is sexist, badly put together and dumb, its compromised cheapness rendered obvious by the huge screen size. It fatally injures the rest of the exhibition, which without it (and without the entry fee) might’ve been perhaps mostly harmless. We need to suspend skeptism and, fundamentally, maintain interest in these scientists’ achievement in order to enjoy being briefly and vaguely immersed in their world. Instead we walk through the rest of Collider filled with the exact wrong responses. Sarcastic and flaw-spotting. Disengaged. There’s a high quality surround CG film that takes us ‘inside’ the LHC itself, whooshing around us on a huge screen, yet with no components or processes adequately explained. There are further scientist narratives which are much better; talking about individual aspects of CERN’s work. There’s the evocative recreation of an office space and corridor, which – again – aims to entirely prioritise the humanising of the staff, ahead of any explanation of what they do.

If Collider is this weak, it has a further problem: how vastly rich the experience is to simply walk through the rest of the Science Museum to get there. If you’re remotely engaged with, or interested in science, or if you have children who are interested in science, please visit the Science Museum, it’s a wonderful, overwhelming place. I found more of Prof. Cox’s trademark “Wonder!” in a single projected display showing vividly how many satellites there really are orbiting Earth (answer: a shitload, looking at it makes Gravity a ton more plausible) than the entire Collider walk-through. So please don’t spend the extra money to visit Collider. If they’re contributing to the Cowellising of culture like this, we’ll only encourage them if it’s successful. Instead, we can find other ways to discover and share the joys of the LHC and the stories of the scientists who built and used it. An hour on Youtube will probably do the job vastly better.

posted on February 10th, 2014

Right so ‘Bury Me With A Scarab’ is the second single taken from The Bear and it’s out nowHere are the lyrics and at the bottom I’ve written about them, in some fashion…

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From News, Words
posted on January 3rd, 2014

Our new single Bury Me With A Scarab is scheduled, plus we have a Marc Riley BBC 6Music session and a short (full band) UK tour to play it… read more

From Words
posted on December 24th, 2013

As promised, an addition to my Top 10s of the year…
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posted on December 9th, 2013

It’s that time again. I think this year has been exceptional for all strands of culture and I’m well pleased with how much I got to check out (especially films and books), compared to the last 2-3 years. So here we go, 2013 in culture…

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Had this thought just now, listening to a Radio 4 item about evacuated children in the Blitz. I’m sure it’s a bit obvious but it startled me for a moment, gave me pause.

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When you’re a support act, your gig isn’t a ‘show’ in the complete, arching way a headline is; the job is vaguely to set up the crowd from cold-ish, while trying to make friends with an alien audience (though I’ve had an optimistic, heartwarming number of mates and fans at these gigs). So on one hand, you’re freed to experiment, challenge yourself (especially when it’s just one tour in many), yet on the other hand you have a more complex bunch of responsibilities towards people who don’t know you.

The tour I’m finishing now (opening for Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo) has an older, more folk-literate (and small-c conservative) audience than mine, with a range of ages (some gigs are 18+, some full of families). It’s a healthy challenge that has almost entirely been excellent fun and (I emphasise) a large number of hugely inspiring gigs to many lovely people. But this isn’t a blog about that, this is about the night that went very odd for me, perhaps even badly awry. In Cambridge, of all places.

The 40 minute setlist I kicked off the tour with, driving around north Scotland, back at the start (feels like months ago but was early October), was too lightweight and warm; almost no politics and just one or two darker songs – and only one on piano. It was heavy on the A.A. Milne poems in the first half, to put people at ease but this wasn’t quite right, so after we came down from Scotland, after we’d done Brighton (getting my hometown show out of the way, which is different anyway) and arrived at Shepherds Bush Empire, I shook it up: dropped a Milne poem, switched to a more challenging, downbeat opener – doing Tunguska on piano. This made room for a second piano song later on and, best of all, I realised I could trust Emily’s audience to get a lot out of Tall Woman (from Love Is Not Rescue) on piano.

So from then – and for a while – I felt I’d established a set that worked for these shows and the Red Clay Halo audience, with light and shade but not too many T-T extremes.

However there’s something tricky about all this and it’s definitely thrown me off: not quite being a ‘real me’ onstage. Maybe the prioritising of people who know me less, above those fewer people who really know my stuff, or maybe just a limit on the pure truth when compacted into 40 minutes. But however pretentiously I frame it, what happened was, as the tour rolled on, I caught myself stretching out jokes and dicking around between songs, even to the point of dropping a song to leave more room for stupid interaction. This has happened a few times before and it’s become a warning sign (for example near the end of my tour with Franz Nicolay back in 2011) – that something is up somewhere in the music itself.

Then came a late night tour bus conversation that totally threw me. I got challenged about under-selling the material, about the opaque nature of my songs, in contrast to this ‘open’ character singing them. Also, a couple of live reviews have seemed to ‘write down’ the quality of songs, with a hint that I’m ‘enjoying myself’ too much, perhaps just along for the laugh. We’re mainly getting reviewed by (largely amateur) folk scene bloggers who’ve never heard my stuff and I wonder if the ‘taster’ support set is simply too far outside their comfort zone.

Anyway, whatever the reasons, as we arrived in Cambridge I (almost automatically) made a decision (set firm rules) to perform without fun (!), to drop any Milne, pick as dark and weighty a setlist as humanly possible and see if I could find a route through the set without a single compromise to personality. To not smother any fragility.

With hindsight, writing it down, it’s fucking bonkers: definitely self-destructive, though in the hours leading up to the show, I felt almost deliriously liberated by this plan. The result (of course) was hugely pessimistic: a bleak-as-shit song selection and performance. Through the middle, probably the bleakest run of songs I’ve ever done, especially without introducing them or lightening the tone in between. Ankles is particularly tough on an older, crowd (with more powerful taboos in place about domestic violence) and I did it as slowly and quietly as I ever have, without a warning or explanation. It got a couple of walkouts and three people also mentioned on the merchandise that it was too much for them.

I do believe the audience was appreciating the music (confirmed by friends I had there – who also texted later to check I was OK!). But (no surprise) the crowd certainly didn’t “like” me personally in the way they might at a normal show. So I wonder about this: I wonder about artists who are enjoyed for their perceived vulnerability and what that gives them, sharing it onstage, Elliott Smith, John Mury, bloke from Brian Jonestown Massacre. It was possibly a taste of being that character – but not so empathic – since that’s no more my true persona than the over-cheerful one on previous nights.

Oh, for the socially disastrous nature of performative personality. What it felt most like was people came to see Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo and first had to sit through a punch in the stomach – which is definitely, 100% the wrong way to approach a support set!

In my case, the most immediate result was almost no-one (I didn’t already know) approached me on the merch stall*, so I sold far, few fewer CDs than any other night and I was punished in the pocket. Fair play!

There was a big positive outcome: every live set since has felt like much closer to the correct balance between authentic (non-schtick) dicking around and the serious moments within the songs. Fundamentally, it solved the original problem – but at the cost of a show. I simply have no idea how I could’ve fixed that trouble without screwing up one gig.

Sometimes I think this whole game is about looking for yourself onstage, your true self, in parallel to the difference between loving song and just loving the idea of song.


*totally unrelated but it’s fun that WordPress auto-corrects ‘merch stall’ to ‘mercy stall’. Apt name!

posted on October 31st, 2013

My third Pecha Kucha talk was given (as were both previous ones) for the Brighton Digital Festival edition of PKN Brighton. I love the format but this time it ran away from me…

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From News, Words
posted on October 18th, 2013

Right, here come the dates for my winter solo UK tour, singing The Bear. These dates are all full headline concerts except where noted…

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posted on August 27th, 2013


Shit in the woods! Our first single (and title track) from the new album is ‘The Bear’. Since the lyric video went online I’ve had a pile of people ask me to explain the song, which seems like a reasonable request but each time I try, I quickly get stuck. As I sing in it; “I don’t even understand what I wrote to myself.” So do I even know what the flip I’m singing about? read more

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