On tour pt I – Utrecht and Vienna

Late afternoon sunshine on a campsite in Vienna, day two of the two-night music party in Club Bach and a long-awaited pause for breath: the first day without any driving… bliss.

For a while it felt as if our whole world had narrowed to a series of two, three, four lane roads snaking across France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and then Austria: watching the satnav oh-so-slowly marking off the miles and minutes until our next destination, alternating tarmac and  concrete marked off with service stations, parking spaces full of slumbering hauliers and a constant stream of McDonalds and Ikea reminding us that however alien the road signs we hadn’t travelled as far as it may feel. In a way it’s a disappointment: the realisation that all that makes these places exotic to us is that we have been too lazy to learn the language; I had the notion that I would prefer it if the natives would break off in mid-conversation, inflate great gas bladders and drift off into the atmosphere, be totally alien, incomprehensible.

The tour started on a high note: Paul had managed to find himself extra time off and secreted himself onto the bus: the news that we wouldn’t have to play a gentle acoustic set in Utrecht immediately uplifting. Getting used to driving our giant tour bus to Folkestone and then onto the train for the journey under the Channel: like a docking sequence from a sci-fi movie. Ever onwards; north through France and Belgium until fatigue compelled a stop in a truck stop.

Bacon and sausages, coffee and more driving to our first campsite: a strange place in Utrecht on the verge of closure where we were possibly the only campers, it was hard to tell.

Utrecht is beautiful: canals, old buildings and a never ending procession of beautiful girls smile as they ride bicycles past us. Has our fame spread already or are our ever-swivelling tourist necks simply comical? No, it’s just the polite, laid-back Utrecht way; smile, relax, enjoy.

We meet up with Duke at Henk’s house – he’s an elemental force, a wellspring of positivity. Henk arrives and on to the venue: Moira, balconied and shambolic, wonderful in every respect. Henk is constantly doing three things at once, there is trouble with the food, the PA, the bands haven’t all arrived. None of this dents Henk’s good nature. We pitch in and start doing what we can – the boys provide muscle and cheerful aid; I assist the engineer as we strive to turn the disparate collection of electronic detritus into a fully functioning PA system. The long day stretches on but finally, in the nick of time, it somehow all comes together. The Utrecht CS community have produced a fabulous, wholesome vegetarian meal. The acts start to show up: Tommy Beavitt songs in five languages, from beautiful, lilting folk to comical German and the memorable, Thackerayesque, ’Friends who Fuck’. Duke unleashes a roaring, passionate voice that freezes us in our tracks. Rueben dazzles us with a home-made guitar and an amazing retro-blues set and Skiff provide melody and harmony, a warm, relaxed vibe is building. We grow nervous that our somewhat louder, more confrontational music will provide too much of a contrast. We needn’t worry: the crowd are warm appreciative – we play to around 180 people. As ever, it’s over too quickly and almost before we’ve had time to enjoy the experience, it’s over: our hands are shaken, backs slapped, we are embraced.

It’s party time: local ska outfit Stampede bring the whole crowd to their feet and the place erupts: they put on a terrific set and we realise that there is a lesson here for us about showmanship. Finally Logathore close the evening with their techno-rock-opera… an act that defies pigeonholing; mysterious, challenging, eclectic – a perfect bookend.

A weary night in the motorhome and then Paul wins the golden bollard for reverse parking the 8.5 metre behemoth in a narrow, crowded street. Coffee with Henk and Bri and then loading gear and back on the road.

Endless driving follows, an epic journey punctuated by fitful sleep in a lorry park next to ’The Lust House’. It’s a nightclub, aparently…

Finally we descend into Vienna where we locate ’Camping West’ and then go in search of Club Bach. We love the venue immediately – a cousin of our home venue The Vaults, a low, tunnel like room with a well-set up PA. Again, there is much carrying of gear and sound checking. Our performance in Utrecht seems to have promoted us to top of the bill in Vienna or, more likely, we’re the only full band to play this evening.

Some of the acts are late: I get to do a little acoustic set, Paul from Logathore and his friends show their incredible versatility again. Then Tommy and Duke arrive, Henk and Reuben play, Logathore play again. We’re treated to witty, acerbic, allusive poetry from Jess, an American girl with a heartstopping smile.

Then it’s our turn. With space on stage and resolved to how off more we put on the performance of our lives: it’s fantastic. Roo, Paul and Caleb are grinning, moving, jigging, dancing, jumping. The audience start to get the idea. We have people dancing, jumping about. Beautiful girls are smiling at us: we feel like rock stars. Better still; the manager tells us that we’re the best band he’s had down there: we feel unstoppable.

Beer and celebration follows.

Today has been a gentle come-down: we’ve wandered the gorgeous streets of Vienna, goggle-eyed like tourists, eaten together and continued to laugh. Another night at Bach soon; more engineering for me but a night off for the boys. Next stop is a mercifully short hop to Pardubice and our last gig of the tour: can’t wait to play again although it’s a shame that is has to end so soon, just when we’re getting into our stride but there is the feeling that great things could follow. Watch this space…

Too many people to thank so if you’re reading this as someone who’s spoken to us, been part of this experience – thank you; it’s been indescribably good.


Hartelijk dank!

I’m a little weary this morning – I should have had an early night last night but couldn’t resist the urge to play at open mics on consecutive evenings in two different countries.

Yes, I visited Utrecht to meet Henk and all the other guys that he’s recruited over there to publicise the CouchSurfing Musicians party gigs; where we’ll be going to play in April. May I take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to Henk, Peter and all of the other people who went out of their way to make me feel welcome. I had a great time and look forward to seeing you all again in April.

So what have we learned from this mini-adventure?

Firstly, the guys over at Gigswap HQ are working their asses off to produce publicity material and are diong everything that they can to make the gigs a huge success. I’m really excited about the whole thing and feel so much more confident about the venture now that I’ve met everyone.

Secondly that Utrecht is a lovely little city – a real gem. There are some lovely old building, canals, friendly people, welcoming bars… I felt immediately at home. Not only that but then I was privileged to be able to come and play some music at an acoustic stage in a little bar in the suburbs of the city – I met a fantastic group of people and heard a wonderful, eclectic set of music – the only common theme was excellent musicianship. It’s great to see grass-roots level music so vibrant.

Lastly I have to comment on the ‘grass is always greener’ thing that we all get when we travel. I heard a few people over in Utrecht say that they’d rather be somewhere else, preferred other places, weren’t happy (although everyone I met seemed pretty relaxed and happy…). There were a lot of things that I noticed made me feel envious, though. Everything was so clean in Utrecht; the public transport is sparkling, clean, efficient and very cheap. The pace of life seemed different: purposeful but relaxed. There was very little traffic congestion (one thing that we are lucky enough to share in Ciren!). And it has to be said that the Dutch look great – slim, healthy and well turned-out. It really struck home how much we’re turning into the US over here; the contrast was obvious even as soon as I walked through Stanstead – back to the land of obesity, slovenliness and gluttony.

Roll on April and the Layers European tour. Very, very excited.


We’ve got this rash…

…fear not, though, dauntless Layers fans, it’s not a dermatological crisis. Indeed, it’s not really a crisis at all; the rash of which I speak is merely a rash of gigs. We appear this evening at the Vaults in Cirencester to support JTAR in a sensitive, laid-back, unplugged way, then in a few weeks we’re in Stroud on Sat March 8th in a more insensitive, up-front, plugged in way.

The big news is that after that gig we embark on our European mini-tour: 28th March at the Vaults in Cirencester, 2nd April in Utrecht, Netherlands, all being well, 4th in Berlin, Germany; 5th in Vienna, Ultravox; 8th in Pardubice (where?) Czech Republic and elsewhere if we can cram them in en route.

So we’re hoping that you’ll come and see us off on the 28th and if you’re at a loose end in early April and want to form an informal entourage…

We’d be happy to hear from anyone who wants to design us a tour tee shirt, help us find interstitial gigs in Euroland, publicise us or supply us with drugs and hookers. (That’s ladies of negotiable virtue, not thick-necked men with cauliflower ears and residual concussion. We’ve got enough of them in the band…)

Watch this (my) space and I’ll endeavour to keep our adventures on the road blogged more efficiently than I’ve been updating the blog of late.

Peace out.


Heart in a jar

Jennifer Sutton and her heart

I saw the picture above in the newspaper. The young woman is Jennifer Sutton. After having her life saved by a heart transplant, she donated her heart (the old one, obviously) to the Wellcome Collection to try to help raise awareness about her disease (restrictive cardiomyopathy if you’re morbidly curious)

I found myself wondering how that would feel. So here’s the resulting lyric.

Heart in a jar…

Went right out to the edge

’til I looked down at the stars

but they pulled me back again

and they put my heart in a jar

This phantom in my chest

measures out seconds that aren’t mine

this heart is quiet, still

resting peacefully, perfectly in time

Staring through the bottle

at the tangled knot of flesh

that kept me anchored to this world

that animated every breath.

This second chance – to dance in bliss

as lovers’ lips, the raindrops kiss

a snatch of song; the heart insists –

a second longer, the beat persists

Beaten insensate, like warrior drums

worn on the sleeve, carried to ignominy

ignored, misused, battered, abused,

surviving still, the poet’s muse,

tender beats such soft tattoos

the comforts of the live embrace,

fill up this empty, aching space

my heart, locked in its jar,

feels so much more,

feels so much…


The myriad joys of recording (pt II)

Keen observers of the Layers site will have noticed (between adminstrations of powerful psychotropic drugs) that we’ve posted a new set of recordings. For those of you just waiting for Neil to royally fuck up another vocal, you’re in for a treat as I still fail to hit the right notes on the first verse of surf trip. Otherwise, though, we’ve been really impressed by the way that the recordings have turned out. A huge thanks is due to Andy at DB studios in Stroud, whose skilled ear managed to find us the big sound that we were after in double quick time.  As a result we were able to nail down no less than five recordings in one Sunday and mix them down the following evening.

Anyway, we invite comments and suggestions on the new recordings and encourage our fans to engage in a mass debating session over the direction that the Layers are taking.



My baby, she’s a neonate…

In a quest for inspitation, I’ve been having a quick read through some of my old sets of lyrics. It’s kind of like picking over the carcass of a long-finished Christmas turkey looking for enough tasty bits to complete a soup.

Anyhow, as I was singing along to something or other on the DVD player (I’m currently sans stereo – there’s no story) it struck me that I don’t think that I’ve ever added the word ‘baby’ to any of my lyrics. Not as a self conscious statement that I wouldn’t patronise a woman by equating her to a newborn (anyone that knows me is fully aware that I’m never afraid to be patronising…) but because I try to avoid those ‘filler’ words in a song. I try to say what I mean and I’m not sure what I’d mean by baby. I found myself thinking about this far too much.

Things one might be implying with ‘baby’:

You look like Winston Churchill; You are selfish and demanding by nature; You cry a lot; You smell of baby powder and poo; You are utterly incapable of doing anything for yourself; You’re bald, fat and dribble a lot; You’re incontinent; I don’t understand a word you say…

Other suggestions welcome.

I guessed that this wasn’t it. ‘Baby’ is a nice, punchy, two-syllable filler and it ends up in so many songs just because it’s in so many songs. At some point there was a tipping point and it just became universal. But how did it enter the first few songs? And why does it persist so?

Here’s my unresearched, unsubstantiated theory (ah – blogs; home of the unresearched rant…). Babies bring out the protective side in us all – even non-baby people like myself. They get our unconditional love. We forgive them all of their annoying qualities – and not, I think, because we intellectually know that they can’t help it; we’re much less forgiving of adults who let us down even when circumstances make it inevitable – I think that we forgive them because something inside us is hard-wired to protect our progeny. When you call someone baby, I think that the true meaning there is that you’re offering that uncondtional love. ‘Baby’ means ‘I’ll carry on loving you even though you might well shit all over me’. (I’m not good at tender, am I?)

I don’t think that we think it through that far when we sing ‘baby I love you’, we’re just following an acquired behaviour pattern, but it’s interesting to think about what might be at the root of it. Maybe I’ll pop it into a song soon.

Next blog , the philosophy of ‘Doo-wah-diddy’


The myriad joys of recording (pt I)

Those of you not currently experiencing the aftermath of a prefrontal lobotomy will have been eagerly looking forward to hearing our demos on the site. If you are post-prefrontal, you can’t look forward to anything, it must be weird. Our hearts go out to you.

Anyway, here are some preliminary mixdowns to start with and while you enjoy (we hope) the recordings, we can sit back as a band and take stock of what we’ve learned. Mostly, that recording is difficult. It takes bloody hours to get set up so that you think that things are going to sound ok, even longer to produce a session that you think is going to be fairly error-free and then, when you finally listen to it played back, you hate it.

Well, two sessions of recording drums, the purchase of some lavish digital recording equipment and many loans of equipment (Trevor, Kevin, we thank you) later, we turned one of our lounges (guess who? Which one of the band is currently a bachelor?) into a recording studio/Tardis and embarked upon recording guitar and vocal tracks. And re-recording them. Again. And again.

If you’re not good mates when you start recording, it can be the end of your band. Fortunately, we’ve mostly enjoyed the process, helped in no small part by Roo seeing fit to supply each session with a reasonable percentage of the Rioja region’s output.

We rely a lot on Roo’s energy in the band and recording has been no exception; he’s been brilliant at not letting us settle for second best and cajoling us to re-record tracks when we’ve been tired and have had enough.

Digital recording and mixing has been a learning process for us all, it’s odd trying to do things with a mouse. I’m still not at home without a bank of faders in front of me. We’ve got a way to go with that side of things and I think that there’s room for improvement with the mixes, so keep an eye on the page for new, improved versions. Converting file types has been interesting, too, some of these recordings have undergone more translation than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Anyhow, we’re ready to cautiously release the preliminary mix downs and we’re looking forward to hearing what you think. Enjoy.


Hey-na, hey-na… the lyrics matter.

I think that the words are as important as the tune. Of course, I would say that, as I’m a lyricist.Lyrics, like music and, for that matter, art in any form, are a matter of taste, so we find ourselves navigating tricky waters here. I’m sure that I can find a www full of fans who think that Robbie Williams is the greatest lyricist of the modern age. We love the lyrics of our favourite artists, cheesy or not. I think that there’s room to appreciate a well-crafted or a meaningful lyric regardless of the music that you like, though.

I’m not saying that I think that every lyric has to be deep and meaningful – just beautifully poetic will more than do – in that respect I’m with old Archie MacLeish – “…a poem should not mean, but be.” (Ars Poetica). But let’s not get too deeply lost up in our own ars…

There are lyrics that I love. I grew up with my parents’ creaky old record collection – a lot of Eagles, Simon and Garfunkel, Fleetwood Mac – a selection that influenced my love for strong melody and harmony more than anything else, I suspect. Paul Simon’s lyrics were the first that I remember loving – “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school / it’s a wonder I can think at all…”, (Kodachrome) along with The Boxer and American Tune.

As I got into my teens I was introduced to Rush, another huge influence on me, and the lyrics of Neil Peart – at his best a stunning wordsmith –

“The dancer slows her frantic pace in pain and desperation,
Her aching limbs and downcast face aglow with perspiration.
Stiff as wire, her lungs on fire with just the briefest pause
Then flooding through her memory; the echoes of old applause.” (Losing it)

I became a great admirer of the lyrics of Steve Taylor – witty and laced with puns, like ‘Jung and the Restless’ a pop at pop psychology:

“Jung and the restless / primal screams
ain’t showbiz bewitching?
first came stats pulling habits out of rats / now they may need more attention”

I loved the (admittedly pretentious at times) musings of Fish in Marillion’s latter albums – an excerpt from ‘Warm Wet Circles’ remains one of my all-time favourite lyrics:

“I saw teenaged girls like gaudy moths: a classroom’s shabby butterflies
Flirt in the glow of stranded telephone boxes;
Planning white lace weddings from smeared hearts and token proclamations –
rolled from stolen lipsticks across the razored webs of glass.
Sharing cigarettes with experience with her giggling jealous confidantes,
she faithfully traces his name with quick-bitten fingers
Through the tears of condensation that’ll cry through the night
As the glancing headlights of the last bus kiss adolescence goodbye.”

I think that’s poetry in its own right.

I’ve come to love the lyrics of artists like Joe Jackson and Squeeze for the wit and artists like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits for the power of the pictures that they paint with words: if small-town America has a purer, more plaintive chronicler than Bruce, I’d like to hear from them. I still get a lump in my throat singing along to The River in the car sometimes.

I could go on about lyrics and lyricists that I love all night – I’ve not touched on Dylan, Suzanne Vega, Joan Armatrading, Willy Mason, Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello, Barenaked Ladies…

The point is, I think that lyrics are often under rated and under appreciated. They end up as filler in too many songs, just syllables to fit a vocal around, pretty much scat (pun intended).

The problem is: writing lyrics is hard. Writing even bad lyrics is a challenge for a lot of people, writing good lyrics (let’s, for the sake of argument, say that lyrics can be judged on quality for some reasons independent of personal taste) harder still.

Lots and lots of musicians put hours into learning their instruments, finding new chords, rhythms, runs and licks. Fewer, I think, are willing to put the same craft and effort into lyrics – there’s a tendency to say ‘that’ll do’. I know, I’ve done it. Partly because you suspect that nobody’s listening, partly because there’s a touch of inverse snobbery about classy lyrics – it’s easy to be overly sensitive to accusations of pretension. Partly, though, I think, because it’s just so easy to end up sat there with writer’s block and think “screw it, nobody listens to the words anyway”.

“The writer stares with glassy eyes, defies the empty page

His beard is white, his face is lined and streaked with tears of rage.

Thirty years ago, how the words would flow – with passion and precision

but now his mind is dark and dulled by sickness and indecision.” (Losing it)

This always haunts me when I’m sat with half a song. Bloody Peart, smart-arse.

I hope that I’ll never lose the spark that makes me want to write. It can be a pain in the behind, pacing the floor and rejigging a set of lines again and again, trying to condense something that you really want to say into some elegant, rhythmic, rhyming structure. It’s so worth it when you get it right, though.

I’d like to say thanks to all the people that have complimented us on our lyrics after hearing us play. It means a lot to me. It also means kudos to Rob, Trev and Dave, who have done sound for us, that people can actually make the words out. I’m delighted that people have enjoyed our lyrics, I’ll be putting some of them up on the site shortly.

There are loads of people round here that write great lyrics, Kev’s (Millner) and Sian’s (Just to Annoy Ray) songs are lyrically (as well as musically) brilliant, keep your ears open.

To all of the existing, budding and would-be lyricists out there – keep writing. I’ve discarded three times as many lyrics as I’ve ever kept and I have loads that I’ve never been prepared to put out there. We all improve with practice and we all inspire and challenge each other. Pick up that pen. In the mean time, I’ll be posting some of our lyrics soon; comments welcome.