Saturday, 4 October 2014

My tribute to Robert 'Bo' Boehm

A tribute to my friend and collaborator Robert ‘Bo’ Boehm.

I am trying to finish a new album and for the first time in my recording career Bo won’t be around to offer comments, produce, or completely rebuild any of the tracks. It is a strange feeling.

For almost twenty years he was a friend and for fourteen or so he was a collaborator in various different capacities. And for thirteen of those years he was a very ill man. Some people are aware of the enormous body of work he did earlier in his career, producing some of this nation’s best indie rock bands. Some know about his psychedelic act Clowns Smiling Backwards. And some are aware of his dub influenced electronic music outings with WindUpToys. Less are aware of the recognition our collaborative work achieved overseas, especially in the US.

But more of that later.

I first came to know Bo when he was doing a lot of live band sound mixing at venues like the Punters Club and Empress Hotel. He was one of the few sound engineers who understood how to mix music that combined electronics with organic instrumentation. Most engineers would mix all the electronic beats much in the same way as a drumkit in a normal band. This always sounded weak. Bo understood that the electronic beats had to completely dominate with the organic elements mixed into them, rather than being more equal in a normal band mix. He took it further by tweaking the bass as much as the system would allow, making for a sound that was crushing – which was exactly what I wanted with Ragewar.

We toured interstate a lot and it was always frustrating to have to ‘educate’ a new engineer about how to do all the stuff Bo did so very well. As Ragewar lumbered on I became increasingly interested in electronic downtempo music, and after finishing a couple of demos with Josh Abrahams I was lucky enough to get signed, firstly to local label Angel’s Trumpet and then iconic UK label Matsuri Productions. A very intense period followed with constant live shows as ‘Psyburbia’, and plenty of compilation appearances. Around this time I began recording demos with Bo for a new album. And I gather he had begun his adventures with dub inspired experimental cut and paste approaches – the embryonic version of WindUpToys.

I am not sure of exact dates – it was all a bit of a blur, but sometime around the turn of the century we started working together more closely. At some point he suggested remixing one of my tracks, and the result was mind blowing. We generally worked on the basis that I would present him with a finished track, or something very close, and he would re work it. Sometimes the change was subtle – sometimes radical. 

In 2001 while I was in the studio with Bo he had his first heart attack. I’d been concerned about his health for some while and I know his girlfriend Kate had also been concerned and convinced him to make some changes. Bo’s fascination with sound took precedence over everything – even his own wellbeing. He was a vegetarian which was in keeping with his deep compassion, but his diet seemed pretty terrible, and when he was in recording mode he survived on sugar from what i could tell. He got very little exercise and almost no vitamin D – he usually stayed up almost all night. I had tried to gently influence him in terms of making a few changes and he had started taking regular walks during day time, and it seemed to be agreeing with him. But on one of these walks about a week before his heart attack he had a fall and injured his left shoulder quite badly. It had been giving him a lot of pain all week. So when the pain of the heart attack started he initially thought it was his shoulder. It soon became clear that it was more serious, and his housemate took him to seek medical attention, but I gather that entailed further delay. By the time properly qualified people got to him a considerable amount of damage had been done.

When he returned from hospital he seemed better than ever and determined to make the changes he needed to make. A very creative period followed and he worked with Jeremy Smith on the WindUpToys material. This resulted in a critically acclaimed album – ‘Double exposure’ – which was very successfully launched at Bar Open to a packed house. Seeing how happy he was at that point was incredibly gratifying.
Meanwhile we continued with our collaborations and decided that we would do at least one entire collaborative album. Subsequently he had another heart attack – once again whilst doing music – but this time when he re emerged from hospital it was clear that his health was now severely compromised. Around this time I had to take a bit of a step back from music both for career reasons and because of a record label that was stuffing me around. We did however collaborate on a number of tracks for my first release as ‘Sunsaria’ in 2010.

The ‘Australien’ became album of the month of August on ‘Musical Starstreams’ in the US – an electronic music radio show syndicated to over 200 commercial stations. Better still the album made it into the Top Twenty albums of the year in 2010 alongside Ryuichi Sakamoto, Kaya Project, Steve Roach and Blue Tech. A lot of this was due to the popularity of the track ‘Revolutionary’ which Bo and I collaborated on. This track was then used by a number of compilations such as RMG’s ‘Chill Out Vol 3’.

We were justifiably proud.

But in terms of our collaboration album things had slowed right down. Bo had completed a dizzying array of tracks, but he found deciding which ones to use, track listings and so forth very hard going. Music in general was a slog for him and emotionally fraught. It was tough to see his decline. There were times when I would catch up with him and be genuinely shocked by the changes. He went through a number of procedures that must have been horrifying, including one where they electronically reset the tempo of his heart. This then had a flow on effect with elevated anxiety. 

Despite all this we agreed that we had at least two complete albums. Right before he went into hospital for the last time I caught up with him and he was far more upbeat and had started working on music again. Despite his ongoing ill health it was almost a shock when he was admitted to hospital this last time. Seeing him in the ICU was heartbreaking. He wasn’t coherent and I didn’t expect to see him again. I sat there holding his hand because it seemed to comfort him and I didn’t know what else to do.  But then they moved him to cardiology and when I visited him there he seemed much better and was even making me laugh. It didn’t seem right – a man that ill making me laugh. But that was Bo. It seemed like he might hang on quite a bit longer, but it was not to be. A few days later he was dead.

Bo has left behind a huge body of work. His released work is the tip of the iceberg. He meticulously recorded and catalogued everything, and I do mean everything. He had kept every release we had ever worked on and every release variant. He had kept every mix he ever did – sometimes literally a dozen different versions of a tune.

I will aim to release two albums initially – ‘Swampland’ and ‘Darkness Descends’ – and will curate the rest as time permits. There is a huge amount to go through and digest. It is all of a high quality. Listening to it is hard going at times – music is an emotional thing and each track defines a moment in time and a neural pathway to some particular experience. 

The night after Bo died I woke up around 3AM and had the strongest impression of his presence. He seemed happy, almost relieved. I was reading that quantum physicists believe they have evidence that something of us continues after we die, and I like to think of Bo’s spirit floating through the ether, making fine adjustments to the sonic vibrations of Creation. 

He will be missed is the biggest understatement I can think of.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

'Casio' and 'groove' mentioned in same sentence!

Casio XW-G1 Review

It’s not unfair to say that in recent year’s the name Casio hasn’t probably figured highly in discussions about must have, hi tech music making gear. But it is clear that the company is now intent upon making a bit of a statement with its two new synths, the XW-P1 and the XW-G1. The former is very much a player’s instrument with a vast range of synth, organ and rhythm sounds, and handy features such as ‘hex’ which allow the layering of up to six sounds. But the XW-G1 is a slightly different beast, aimed at what might be diplomatically termed the ‘DJ’ market. This is a sort of code for people who tend to not be terribly musically literate, and might struggle with things like chewing food whilst reading. Okay that’s a little unfair, but what the XW-G1 can do is add some much needed flair to the DJ and dance music setting.

It is essentially a six oscillator synthesiser with the capacity to record phrases and samples. It looks great and two things initially struck me namely how light it was and how ‘generous’ it is with 61 keys. These are weighted just a little so they are much more fun to play than the usual ‘springy’ kind of synth keyboard. And I also immediately noticed the non slip area on the top right, which would be ideal for an iPod, or similar such device.

The main controls are divided into what are essentially three main areas. The left deals with the editability of tones, with four assignable knobs, and nine sliders. Three parameter program button options on the left allow the sliders to be used for different sound editing functions. It also doubles as the event editor for the sequencer function and is laid out in a way reminiscent of classic Roland kit synonymous with techno. I could speculate that Casio may have felt this was a kind of genre standard.  The right hand section deals with navigating around the preset sounds and user banks. It is the middle which will interest the dance music fraternity greatly however.

This area has the main volume knob as well as controls for the three main functions - performance mode, tone editing mode and the step sequencer. In performance mode the keyboard can be divided into four and there are one hundred user and one hundred preset tones, available plus the capacity to play pre recorded sequences and phrases. Tone editing allows the user to generate new tones, whilst the 16 step sequencer consists up of nine note parts and four control parts. Five of these are for drums, one for bass, two for solo instruments and one for chords, however there is still plenty of scope to create phrases for jamming, or augmenting a performance. And there is the sampling capability, with up to 19 seconds per sample available. Used intelligently this is the kind of firepower that will make you look good.

It has all the expected ins and outs on the backpanel, but one handy feature is the option to run other devices through its processing engines.

The XW-G1 is in essence a production workstation. It is generally laid out in a functional manner, and features the sorts of capabilities that will appeal to DJs who want to take their performance up a notch – the preset sounds are very ‘club’ and there are plenty of rhythm kits and so forth. It is probably not intended to be a standalone piece of kit and should not be judged as such. What it can do is provide a considerable presence to DJ and live electronic music performance, and its sequencing/sampling capability allows complex phrases to be stored and played with one key stroke, meaning it will make you look good, even if you are not the most experienced keyboardist. Oh and the price….with change from a grand it represents pretty decent value as well. And if the manual intimidates you at all, Casio product expert Mike Martin has plenty of tutorials on You Tube that take you through all the main functions.

Casio are back and it will be interesting to see what else the company has in store.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Left, Right, Left, Right….time to march to the beat of a different drum?

The binary dualism of ‘Left/Right’ politics can be blamed on the French. In Revolutionary times those who supported the King, and generally thought change might bring about the unacceptable situation of owning less stuff, sat to the right of the President of the Assembly. This self segregation was largely brought about by a desire amongst the aristocratic caste to avoid the unpleasant vernacular and general obnoxiousness of those who were starting to harbour disrespectful ideas about perhaps owning more stuff than they presently did. This latter group of people banded together on the left of the President. At this stage the ‘left’ was mainly made up of people who would most likely be ‘right’ by today’s standard – the filthy masses had not been invited to partake in politics just yet. When they eventually demanded a place the ‘left’ became divided up into all sorts of sub groups, whilst there wasn’t much left of the old ‘right’ at all. Over time balance was restored as more and more people came around to the idea that the ‘left’ always seemed to be about redistributing wealth, which was not a good thing if you happened to have finally gotten a bit of it. So the ‘right’ grew a little.

By the early twentieth century the British took it upon themselves to organise everything and it wasn’t long before you could tell if a chap had a few bob just by where he sat in parliament. It seemed like the perfect way to arrange things but then of course back then people weren’t used to time and space being relative, so a linear, dualistic way of looking at politics still made some kind of sense. Today it does not. The Wikipedia entry for the ‘left/right’ political model states that things like civil liberties are associated with the Left for example. And yet last century is cluttered with ‘Leftist’ regimes that set about crushing civil liberties. Apologists always say things like, ‘but that wasn’t true socialism’ with a tone of understandable bewilderment. I hear their pain. It’s meant to be a Utopia where everyone is equal and gets along, but it just never seems to work out like that. Can it be that guys like Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and even charismatic killing machine Che Guevara really be that far off the mark? Or is it a matter that we are overlooking something when we try to describe political affiliation?

I believe the ‘Left/Right’ duality makes virtually no sense without an axis for ‘Free/Unfree’, or ‘Libertarian/Authoritarian’. Under this model Gandhi and Stalin are both to the Left, but the former is down south in Libertarian land, and the latter is way up in Authoritarian –ville. Under this model the basic structure of a society is either Free or Unfree, with ideology providing the social refinements. To further complicate matters let’s also allow for differences in Left/Right ideology depending on what we are talking about – it is for example entirely possible to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal. And liberalism is an ideology like any other, so when this is enforced as the dominant paradigm, then that society is Authoritarian in nature, even if the values it is enforcing are ‘progressive’. Small ‘l’ liberals have a terrible time understanding this. The imposition of any ideology upon others, even if you feel yours is more ‘fair’, is still Authoritarian in nature.

Which brings me to ‘liberalism’ and ‘progressive’. Both words have been co opted by dreary cultural Marxists in unwashed cardigans, and now mean something quite different to their original intention. Liberalism in the classical sense was all about diversity of thought, but it has now become synonymous with the Authoritarian imposition of a politically correct orthodoxy. Same thing with ‘progressive’ – it is a great word that is now used to describe a complete lack of evolvement in social and political thought. The Left has been especially keen to embrace Authoritarianism because of this deep seated belief that their social construct is morally superior. Traditionally the French have seen the Left as being the realm of ‘movement’, whilst the Right represents ‘Order’. But the Left has become so enamoured of the justice of its cause that time and again it has resorted to Authoritarianism to impose itself, which instantly destroys key Leftist principles. And in doing so the Left has sent Libertarian elements to the Right, and helped create an environment whereby it is increasingly the domain of  ‘progressive’, dynamic political dialogue. It is interesting to observe the vibrancy of grassroots political activism on the Right, and the confused hand wringing of the generally Left leaning establishment in the West, especially the media and academia. They can’t seem to understand why these dreadful Rightists don’t like their Utopian social constructs, much in the same way as the people on the right hand side of the French Assembly could not quite grasp why those on the left wanted to cut their heads off.

Of course this contains vast generalisations, and the tiny little part of the Right spectrum I am talking about is also treated with suspicion by the turgid monolith of the Centrist Right establishment. It’s just interesting that supposedly key elements of Leftist philosophy are now in the domain of the Right. I think it would be a great exercise to get some Tea Partiers and some Occupiers together in a room with a large whiteboard. I would ask them to list some basic ideas about preferred social constructs. You would start with things like getting rid of the corporatist influence on government. And government could be smaller and less Authoritarian. And individual freedoms need greater protection. And so on. Quite a long list of shared preferences would emerge. Then of course, the shouting would start. ‘You’re unwashed dope smoking hippies!’ ‘You’re beer guzzling squares!’ Huge differences would emerge over the details of individual lifestyle preference. But perhaps some would see that on a ‘macro’ level they basically want the same general social configuration, whilst on a ‘micro’ level they will disagree on all sorts of things. This is the key lesson of Libertarianism.

In a Libertarian society we have to accept that we will share the air with people who we do not agree with. They will be ‘too conservative’ or ‘too liberal’. Their ideology may seem less fair than ours, or weak minded or whatever. For those who hold Utopian visions of how society should be, this is an intolerable state of affairs, which may explain why the Left has embraced Authoritarianism so wholeheartedly. If your vision of society is perfect, it ‘logically’ follows that anyone who thinks it isn’t simply needs to be ‘educated’. Or gotten rid of. You may recall a chap called Adolph Hitler. He ran a political party that started out all ‘socialist’ and ‘workers’. He was the darling of the progressive types of the day, delighting them with his beer hall oratory that spoke of a Utopian vision of a Greater Germany. Of course there were a few changes needed and a bit of social reorganisation. When charismatic guys start mentioning having to crack a few eggs to make an omelette, the alarm bells should start to go off.

But they never do. Hitler wrote his autobiography before he became famous. Barack Obama also did this. I am not presenting an Ad Hitlerum, despite its obvious appeal, just an observation that meglomanical sociopaths tend to do this. Through his penchant for Executive Orders, signing of the NDAA’s clause for indefinite detention without trial, and many other acts he has done more to concentrate dictatorial power s in the office of the Presidency than anyone else. And that is saying quite a bit because some of his predecessors gave it a real shot. But of course a black man couldn’t be a dictator could he? Actually come to think of it, perhaps Amin, Mugabe and Taylor to name but three, kind of speak for the non racially discriminatory nature of despotic absolute power. But Obama is pro gay marriage point out his apologists – how can this possibly be congruent with the idea that he is Authoritarian? Well Hitler was a vegetarian who loved animals. Authoritarianism is seductive because it often first appears in a role supporting something you may cherish dearly. But once you let it have its way, don’t be surprised if there’s a shift in ideology, and an unpleasant one at that. The groovy modern artist who listened to a young Hitler in a beer hall in Munich, probably didn’t expect to wind up in a concentration camp because his art was ‘decadent’. He probably thought, ‘hey – this Hitler cat is an artist like me!’. It’s a slippery slope.

Of course a Libertarian society is a ludicrous joke that will never work. It relies upon people being self responsible and making informed decisions, all the while respecting that others may have different worldviews. When has that ever worked? Much like the Left/Right divide, it only really has a chance if we accept that we may have different models for different aspects of society. In a way Libertarianism needs to be ‘encased’ in Authoritarianism. For example it would be possible to envisage a country that has a strong military, that deters potential aggressors, but within that country there is a high standard of personal liberty. And perhaps a strong police force that regulates behaviour to ensure that freedom of expression is maintained and those who threaten it, or others, are dealt with. Unrestricted Libertarianism is possibly as na├»ve as the Utopians who believe that everyone will adopt their particular social model if only they can be ‘educated’ about its merits.

But by at least having an awareness of the Libertarian/Authoritarian dynamic and incorporating it as an axis in how we position ourselves politically, we are able to better understand why it all keeps going so horribly wrong. The key thing to watch out for is when the dissenting voices disappear, especially the ones you don’t agree with. When that happens enjoy your beer because your little victory will be short lived. Ultimately there is only Free and Unfree, and whilst there are people you disagree with ideologically, there is still some hope.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

I think I might be turning Japanese....I really think so.....

I have a head cold. So I have not been in the right 'space' to review Casio's new XW - G1 sampling 'groove' keyboard. And the deadline is Tuesday. So I have about a day to get some idea of how this quite complex bit of kit works, and to formulate some opinions. Luckily Casio product guru Mike Martin has  a number of tutorials online which are very helpful. The manual is written by Japanese people you see.....and then translated. And not just any Japanese people. Nerdy, technical Japanese people. So it isn't terribly easy to come to terms with, especially for an Aussie with the attention span of a gnat.

I like simple stuff. Like the Boss BR1600 manual. Obviously designed to be used by complete dickheads, ie musicians, it has a quick start manual that has everything very clearly laid out in big type, with even shows you what buttons to push, with a shot of what is on the display. It is pretty much fool proof, unless the drummer gets hold of it.'s a hard disc recorder by the way.

The XW - G1 isn't. It's a synth with a sampling function, and plenty of buttons. It reminds me of Roland 'groove' gear, at leats superficially in its intention to provide a hardware alternative to software sound processing and phrase creation. The keyboard is generous, and it is even a little weighted like a proper piano. Initial sounds ain't half bad.......tomorrow I will bite the bullet and delve in.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Death to all Butt Metal - an encounter with Steel Panther.

I am getting a little tired of irony. But more of that later. Festival Hall security sucks. A body frisk for a Steel Panther show - seriously? What were they looking for - Bon Jovi bootlegs? And the OCdish, obsessional behaviour continued all night with comments such as 'don't touch the barrier mate'. How about you not touch my dick and I won't touch the barrier? How does that sound? Were they scared some middle aged guy in an Ozzy T shirt would suddenly go crazy and trash the place? Dickheads......

I couldn't decide if the support band sucked more than the sound quality. As with any gig at Festival Hall it was boomy and lacked clarity. The support band had plenty of cliches and a drummer who was kind of like Conan, but I couldn't recall a single hook.

Then the break and a barrage of 80's 'hair metal'. Autograph, Def Leppard, Ozzy, Cindarella....the ageing metalhead behind me was loving it. And I have to say i have never seen so many different T shirts at a metal gig.....every sub genre seemed to be represented. But hearing the classics from back in the day I was struck by something. In the 80's music was quite tribalistic. Those who grew their hair long and listened to metal incurred the ridicule of those with spiky hair and synthesisers. It was a complete lifestyle and those who bought into it lived it 24/7. Looking at all the guys in wigs and spandex, I was struck by how we now accept that you can buy into a lifestyle at whim, experiencing the external signifiers for a night, but not having any long term involvement. It's all very ironic, and it is irony that now allows us to have an escape clause for just about anything. Rather than risk looking foolish we can just say the magic word 'irony'. Is everything all about external signifiers and short term experience these days?

Steel Panther are Poison with a much better vocalist and guitarist, and a sense of humour. In fact about 30% of stage time turns out to be surprisingly amusing banter. 'If our singer was any more stupid we'd have two bass players....' says the guitarist. The playing is great and it's clear they really love 80's metal. But they couch it all in humour and irony, and thus avoid being an anachronism. Songs like 'death to all but metal' really do rock, and the guitarist's solo was genuinely entertaining, especially when he combined his playing with a bit of rhythm work on the drum kit, delivering a barrage of familiar rock riffs. And of course they get girls out of the audience and convince them to show off their breasts, and dance around whilst being subjected to a barrage of ironic objectification cliches.....incredibly it really is funny. There's a look of momentary horror on a girl's face when she hears this banter.
'Do you want to see her titties?'
'Do you want to see her pussy?'
'Do you want to see her have a poo and eat it?'
By this point the girl is starting to panic, but it's all part of an ongoing joke centring around the supposedly incredibly dumb and self obsessed bass player who spends every spare moment checking his makeup and hair, which is fair enough since he probably paid quite a bit for it. His few contributions to the banter centre around an anal fixation and a distaste for playing any music by 'ugly' bands like ZZ Top.

'We've got some great news.....our album has just gone triple Guam.....that's three hundred sales!' The silliness is unrelenting. 'I've got heavy metal Tourettes.....', says the singer after one particularly demented outburst. Good to see that at '62 years of age and after two hip replacements and 17 liposuction operations...', he is still rocking. And so it goes on. Catchy rocking songs that are actually rather good, and lots of silly banter. It all ends with lots of girls on stage, followed by the encore we were always going to have.

Then the lights come on, the security staff encourage us to get the fuck out, and a sea of metalheads with T shirts ranging from Kiss to Metallica to Mayhem to KMFDM, and of course Steel Fucking Panther, pour out onto the cold streets of Melbourne with big smiles on their faces.

Maybe a bit of irony isn't such a bad thing afterall.