November 24th, 2011 | Published in Articles
Regular readers will probably know that 3 of the BangtheBore janitors – Clive, Seth and myself (Kev) – recently did a 36-hour continuous performance at Supernormal festival. We were joined by other BtB affiliates – Barnabus Yianni, Jamie Glew-Osborn and Huw Webb. Rather than let the memories disappear into the mental flotsam cabinet marked ‘stupid things I once did’, I asked everyone to write down some reflections on their experience at the festival. Predictably enough, getting everyone’s responses down has taken a wee while – I’m no psychiatrist, but it’s certainly likely that part of the delay was due to some form of delayed trauma from playing music through two not-very-warm nights in an open-faced (and therefore windswept) marquee and failing to sleep/ eat properly.
The piece you’re reading now is a bit of an edit of what I’ve received from the other chaps – but for the purposes of archivism, I’ve copy + pasted their responses verbatim onto my blog (here), which makes for a much longer read.
It was interesting for me reading how everyone felt about Supernormal. Because it was my idea, I’m kind of obliged to like what happened. But… given a more-or-less caveat, everyone seemed to feel the same about it.
First, in terms of quality: It was a 36 hour performance. Expecting it to be wall-to-wall brilliance was a bit beyond the capabilities of anyone, I’d imagine.
Seth: “it certainly didn’t always produce music that I liked, or that I could defend in terms of quality.” (full text)
Barn: “playing a fair amount of what I’d potentially call ‘good stuff’, having detached myself from my own likes and dislikes; played a very small amount of what I’d call ‘good stuff’ if I were myself lots; and playing one hell of a lot of what I’d probably just shrug at. The pluralism of our selves reigned in my playing style comparatively?” (full text)
Clive: “I didn’t imagine for a second that we would create 36 hours of beautiful improvisation, but I was surprised at how quickly we came to use rock forms and structures” (full text)
I have to say, I was also surprised at how much of it fell into rockist structures. All six of us have played in straight rock bands, to greater or lesser degrees, but we’ve all explored plenty of other places on the music map. It seems that there’s something about sleep deprivation, and a sextet who don’t know each other terribly well, that leads to a reduction in musical form and quality. I think we’d all agree that when we were at our laziest, it turned into post-rock-by-numbers. Which is a lesson to any of us who feel like getting whimsical or nostalgic for post-rock – it’s a piece of piss to make.
But having said that, I’ve had the chance since the festival to listen to the recording a couple of times. Perhaps not intimately (who can listen to 36 hours like that?) but there are a number of places in the recording where what I remember as dogshit, lazy playing actually produced some interesting stuff. There’s a couple of bits that have these narrative arcs which are really fascinating. Bits where there’s 6 people just grinding away at an instrument with no real necessity to come together that over quite long periods coalesce into apparent cohesion. I didn’t hear it at the time – a lot of the time I was playing just to play (l’art pour l’art et jouer pour jouer) – but in retrospect it’s a pretty interesting phenomenon. The below, coming in just as we enter into the last hour, is as good an example of grinding away as any – the finishing post is in sight, but everyone’s just floundering around for something to play. Turns out quite well, to my mind:
It’s a really unusual improvisational context, and in the course of the average performance that sort of thing simply can’t happen. It’s not just a case of deliberately not listening – anyone who’s seen bad improv knows what that’s like – but it’s a kind of post-deluvian approach to deliberately not listening. The temporal size of the performance prohibits a reliance upon standard approaches to ‘how do I improvise?’, and cohesion appears over much, much larger periods – perhaps as a trick of the ear.
The other side of that is a kind of perversity that struck everyone’s playing at various points. There’s a bit where Seth and Clive are playing a kind of EAI, textural improv thing; others are making scratchy, clattery sounds over the top. For whatever reason, I picked that moment to explore Hawaiian-style repetitive figures on slide guitar. It’s a combination I’d never pursue in my normal practise, for thinking it a bit hokey. For whatever reason, it worked. I know that that wasn’t a particularly ‘conscious’ decision, it wasn’t me thinking ‘this’ll make an interesting juxtaposition’ – I was drained of mental and physical resources and that’s what came out. Belligerently, everyone keeps ploughing their furrow, with me incongruously serenading over the top. At the time, it was exasperating, but the results… well, I like them. (This section comes in at around 8m20s on the below)
One of the reasons for taking on a 36 hour performance was to do with how various deprivations affected us. I say various deprivations because ‘sleep deprivation’ doesn’t quite cover it. I don’t want to over-play this – we’ve not been through an actual war or anything. But sleep deprivation is just one thing. If I miss a night of sleep, it’s usually easy enough to sit around, watch crap TV, be fairly sedentary, graze for the day until sleep o’clock. In that state, I’m not usually compelled to be sociable, I’m not unable to get a decent meal, I’m not required to do anything physical, I’m not compelled to do anything cognitive. All of which were true for Supernormal:
Jamie: “ Within 36 hours you feel like you’re being suffocated by your instrument and others around you…” (full text)
Clive: “I ate no hot food; or indeed anything substantial – merely snacking on sugary things and cereal bars/flapjacks. I didn’t pass any solid matter, and urinated three, maybe four, times.” (Piquant, no?) (full text)
The problem is that this was always going to be the case. The only real response to it was to be gung-ho about it. How gung-ho were we? It varied.
Seth: “Clive and I closed our eyes when we were at breaking point; I caught about ten minutes at about 5am on Saturday and a further twenty minutes at the same time on Sunday. The event never quite became the endurance test that it probably should have been. We all took long breaks, timed so that there would always be someone making music.” (full text)
I don’t think any of us took it to its masochistic extreme. I was planning on sourcing some sort of hair-shirt for the performance, and all I ended up with was a pair of deeply uncomfortable leather trousers. But on the other hand, there’s a serious limit to how beneficial a hair-shirt would’ve been. I actually can’t express my gratitude to the other 5 lads enough for playing – following the gig, I realised that I don’t know of any other musicians who’d give it a crack, let alone see it through. Did any of us sleep? Yes, to varying degrees. It’s not a competition, but Seth’s entirely right that he and Clive were foremost stalwarts in the fight against sleep.
My self-preservation took the form of relying on seat-of-the-pants lack of preparation – I didn’t bring enough food, or decent warm clothes and those sort of supplies. Having ‘small’ things to worry about was a good way of avoiding things like the quite how massive an undertaking it was. There was a few moments where people would appear and say ‘helpful’ things like ‘only 20 hours to go!’ Not to be nasty about them – they were being encouraging, and it was greatly appreciated – but when you feel utterly drained and are being told you’re not even halfway through… Well. It’s not great.
One of the things that united everyone was the ambiguity about audience participation. I think we all entered into this a bit naively, and we should’ve made ourselves a lot clearer from the outset. There was a bit of an altercation on Friday night, partly due to nerves/ stress on our part, partly due to poor lighting (meaning I was fretting about the gear getting knackered by incautious, drunk feet), and partly due to us playing in an open-faced marquee with no clear demarcation of audience/ performers. But I’ll put it in a positive light first and foremost – when contributions were good, they were carrying the six of us through the slough. Particular mentions go to Ben Pollock (a Bristol-based artist/ musician), Dave ‘captain’ H-S (of Plurals), Will of ViV, Sharen Sum of the A Band, the guy with the hat and the sax whose name I didn’t catch, and Dylan, the young lad who used most of Saturday to get a crash course in drumming. There are probably others I’ve forgotten as well – thanks. And in terms of other audience people, the A Band in general were great at nipping in and out and providing some much-appreciated good vibes.
Seth: “The eight year old [Dylan] who joined us on drums – with no previous drumming experience – was a fantastic addition, audibly growing in confidence and ability throughout Saturday and nicely confusing any sense of cohesion. And the members of the A Band who joined us at several key junctures were predisposed to colour artlessly over the lines, giving us a boost when we really needed it.”
“Stewart Keith helped give us a great send off at 6am on Sunday morning, having woken up especially to join us for the final half hour.” (full text)
Huw: “We played for 36 hours and were still over shadowed by a kid in wellies” (full text)
Everyone mentioned Dylan (kid in wellies on drums). If there’s one thing to take away from Supernormal, our utterly absurd, penitential, masochistic nightmare probably inspired a young chap to take up the drums. He really was quite good by the end. And Barn was particularly good at playing teacher without being a formalist bore.
The other side… well, as I say, the altercation. But also…
Clive: “…we had a mixed bag [of audience participation]: people who “got it” and made excellent contributions; people who didn’t really get it, but nevertheless played sympathetically and in the spirit of the thing; and people who were only there for the purposes of their ego and vanity. So, on the downside we had jazz flute; on the upside we had an eight year old boy playing drums with us for most of Saturday, having the time of his life.” [Again, kudos to Dylan] (full text)
Jamie: “ “The participation from the audience members was… strange. I don’t think I would ever join in to a bunch of musicians playing incoherent music and just ignore them, or just start playing – ignoring everyone around you, like you’re trying out an instrument in a music shop. There was very little actual joining in – lots of selfish joining in for their own reasons. Also, because I was so tired – so us as a group ended up following those people, rather than playing ourselves. I remember following someone for 20m and then going ‘oh, that’s bollocks’ and trying to get back to us” (full text)
I think Jamie probably put it about right when he’s saying about following other people. Again, I have the recording to refer to, and it’s not quite as bad as it might be, but because of how frazzled we were, I don’t think any of us had our normal resources to refer to. I certainly cranked it up to be pugnacious a few times. Can’t be helped in that situation, I suspect.
I’m not sure if I’m avoiding talking about the music. Obviously, there’s a lot to be said for the bits that weren’t musical. From listening to the recording, there’s a fair breadth of stuff manifest – impossibly quiet scratching at dawn, EAI, krauty jams, plenty of Eastern-European scales (my go-to for the weekend, it seemed), free jazz blowouts, massive sections of pulsey drumming, Takayanagi-style free-noise, massively disjointed trad jazz and the aforementioned odd juxtapositions of surf guitar and textural ‘things’. It’ll definitely take a long time to process everything, but I think there’s a surprising amount of high quality stuff there. On the slightly more rockist side of things, but this bit jumped out at me as something to be proud of:
Clive: “Someone else has remarked that there was a cellular aspect to the performance and i think that’s true. Part of this was simple volume issues – I was at the opposite end of the tent to the piano, and I could barely hear it. But there were also two clear pairings in the tent (Jamie/Huw, Seth/myself) who were more used to playing together, which may have been a factor” (full text)
I found this a pretty interesting point. I think it may have been me who mentioned the cellular thing. The nature of the tent – acoustically not very good, operating without a PA/ monitors – meant that one side of the tent often couldn’t hear the other. So we ended up with a kind of daisy-chaining of ideas through the ranks, left to right and back again. This might’ve been why we resorted to rockisms (or at least felt that’s what we were doing) – a middle ground of relatively standard pulse. But listening back, because of the daisy-chaining, ideas feel more refracted, as if they relate to each other but not quite as clearly as ‘bassline + drums + melodic instruments’. The other thing Clive mentions about the clear pairings did make me laugh though – he omitted Barn and me as the other pairing. Probably fairly. But one of the reasons I had Barn along is because in the last few years of working with him regularly, I’ve never known him to be a predictable quantity. If there’s one thing I can rely on Barn to do, it’s exactly what I wouldn’t expect him to. And, in fact, I was (drunkenly) saying this about everyone who joined me at Supernormal – awkward, absurd, masochistic humans who made it quite one of the most ridiculous performances I, or anyone else, will do for a long time. Whether it was good or not – and I’m saying a lot of it was – it’s definitely something we’ll all be telling people about for years to come.
Ok, I don’t want to take liberties by writing too much, but a final thing: once again, massive thanks to everyone who made it happen. Seth, Clive, Barn, Jamie, Huw – saints. James King of ANTA for recording it all (and tolerating me putting him on the guestlist as James ‘the cunt’ King) – Brilliant. Sarah BB, Luke Gosling, Ben Pollock, Kelly Bloom – astonishing humans. The festival organisers (especially Sam Francisco) – amazing work, truly.
Would I do it again? Very possibly. Give me an offer and we’ll talk. If anyone’s interested in releasing it (ideally in full, but in part is good too…) let me know (Hákarl soundcloud)
And finally – I can’t really let the article pass without mentioning how utterly silly this was. There was a lot of laughing. This bit particularly made me laugh quite a bit, coming in at the beginning of hour 35…