37. Fire At Sea

At time of writing, I’ve spent over two years without a home – apart from a storage unit in south London. My dad did it on and off for ten years. He left school at 16 to join the Merchant Navy, and worked as a cook aboard oil tankers, travelling as far as San Francisco, Singapore, Guam and Venezuela. I can’t help thinking about travel through the lens of his life before I was born – he left the oil tankers so he could be present for me, and later my younger sister.

My dad’s greatest fear in that time – and even after he left – was a fire at sea. A fire on an oil tanker sounds like the most terrifying thing imaginable. I don’t really want to write about it, and I had to be very careful about the way I wrote a song about it, because it’s something genuinely horrible, something he had nightmares about. He never saw one, I don’t think, but he did see his fair share of horrible accidents and aftermaths of horrible accidents. So I didn’t want to romanticise or trivialise it, but it did loom large in my consciousness, especially thinking about travel – about being far from home and how much could go wrong without those networks of love and support around. And how exciting it is to be out there – on the open ocean, the open road, seeing a big beautiful world.

I guess something pretty terrible had happened six months before in Tasmania, but I didn’t feel isolated or adrift at the time, so much as scared. The networks in that place kicked in – hospitals and hospitality, mainly. I read something a long time ago about how travel, if you’re at all a decent person, should give you sympathy for people in a country where they don’t know how stuff works, and maybe they don’t speak the language; and hopefully then you’ll treat visitors to the country you live in with the kindness and consideration that you frequently experience when you’re not in the country you live in. So, as frightened and adrift you can feel when you don’t have a home – even if you’re secure and comfortable in all sorts of other ways – there are decent people out there. You’re not literally on fire out at sea.

Musically, this is hugely influenced by seeing a David McAlmont gig in Streatham, South London, shortly before deadline. I had to go back and re-record what was a very vibrato-laden vocal, and really reign it in. I am not David McAlmont (yet).

Next week, we go for a run. Why not preorder Year of The Bird Volume 4 – it’ll be out in December and we can jog off that turkey together.

36. A Sad Bat

A Univocal Lipogram is a piece of writing – usually a poem – which uses only one vowel. You can use all the consonants you want or need, and you can use that vowel as many times as you like. I’ll reproduce the full lyrics for a A Sad Bat so you can see what I mean:

Black spartan lands
Salt flats and pans
Vast, Atacaman, all asphalt and glass
What a man saw was that sand as a maw
Past as a path, as a trap, as a flaw

A scarab ball, an alarm, a star fall
Mark that dark patch that casts a ghast pall
Craft a small map – salad days call!
Grasp at that canvas, claw as an awl

Dark falls past bad days
Man sat at a camp
Palm wraps an arm and a scarf wraps a hand
Was that a jackdaw, a hawk, a sad bat?
Warmth crawls as dawn draws an arc, a sharp band

I realised early on in this process that “Atacaman” was univocal (uni-vowel-ular) and decided to write a song about someone travelling through the Atacama Desert, a high desert in northern Chile that I visited in late 2017 to do a bit of stargazing. It’s stark and beautiful and thanks to all the salt and altitude, very dry – so good for looking at the sky. I saw the Magellanic Clouds for the first time.

There’s some debate over the letter “y”, which I forgot about when I wrote this. I heard about univocal lipograms from – as I do many ideas – poet Ross Sutherland, who appeared on my wife’s podcast The Allusionist to explain this form, and other forms used by the Oulipo*, a group of poets and mathematicians and writers who specialise in constrained writing. Ross crafted a univocal lipogram and performed for them, only to find out that they were disappointed by his inclusion of the letter y.

I don’t know where I land on this – presumably the “y” in “Egypt”, “Lady”, or “Ypres” does function like a vowel – in that it adds a syllable. The y I’ve used in “days” modifies the sound of the vowel – but so does the “r” in dark and the “l” in “palm” – so I think my “y” is legit. Idk whether the Oulipo sees it that way.

There’s a very good Univocal Lipogram in “o” that Ross put out on his show. His thesis is that this kind of constraint forces you to use more basic language, swear more, and – in this case – I think he created something very focussed, rich with detail. My Univocal Lipogram is sort of vague and allusive and slightly mystical, so I’m not sure it had the desired effect on me.

Oh – the music does something quite weird too, but maybe I’ll save that for the podcast. Next week, we’ll be experiencing a fire at sea, so why not prepare for that by preordering Year of The Bird Volume 4 ?

*you might remember that I name checked them in “Hawaiian Oulipo Hell” on Year of The Bird Volume 1?

35. Minnesota Sunrise

For the purposes of this song, you have to believe that God gave me pyjamas. “I stepped out, wearing only what God gave me, in a Minnesota sunrise…” is a better lyric than “I stepped out, wearing Adventure Time pyjamas…”. Actually, scratch that, I should have gone with the truth in this case.

It’s very sad that the US and the UK are separated by temperature scales. Fahrenheit is a really annoying scale, and I can’t remember anything in it. On this particular morning at 6am in Minneapolis, it was -15 Celsius; I have no idea what that is in Fahrenheit, so I decided to pick a sensible unit that neither Americans nor Brits regularly use, and went for Kelvin – degrees above absolute zero. Then both countries can be united by a common disdain for the most sensible temperature scale.

Based on what you’ve heard so far, this song might seem like a series of poor decisions, but it’s one of my favourites of the year. It’s about trust, isn’t it? When do you trust your instincts that tell you not to trust someone, when do you trust people? If you treat the dating process – or whatever the equivalent is for friendships – like kissing frogs, what does that say about the people you’re kissing? Just because someone let you down, you don’t have to lock yourself in a room, wear a wedding dress all day and train a girl to fuck up men. You don’t lay out bear traps to catch a mouse – and if you do, it’s overkill. Not to mention all the time you’d spend driving dearest friends to the nearest hospital. Bear traps don’t just catch bears (or mice).

I can’t believe I never thought to sample wine glasses before. There’s an instrument called a Glass Harmonica which is basically a load of nested wine glasses mounted horizontally on a rotating axis, which I think are dipped in a little trough of water; the player then holds their fingers on the notes they want to play as they bowls rotate, and you get notes and chords in exactly the same way as if you sample running a wet finger around the rim of a wine glasses and use Garageband iOS’ sampler for a drier version. I really like the way this turned out, and I loved singing it.

Next week we hear about a sad bat, console yourself by preording Year of The Bird Volume 4 over on my band camp page.

34. The Cascade Mountains

I used to dabble in science communication. I mean, I took it seriously – wrote songs about science, did talks, made videos, did podcasts, trained and helped other people to do all these things and more. But I wasn’t especially successful at it, only in part because I decided a long time ago that the world wasn’t in short supply of beardy white straight middle-aged men getting dewy-eyed over physics on screen or blowing shit up or whatever. Another reason is that I find the dewy-eyedness a bit boring and there is definitely an authorial style that people adopt when talking about science, and my preferred approach – let’s call it “morose and oblique” – doesn’t fit it well.

I thought it would be fun to do something in that mould, though. A sort of BBC4ish history of the Cascade Moutains, a range which extends from Northern California to Southern Canada, and I happened to be flying over just at the point that I needed a new song idea. I also liked the idea of a narration which blandly elided Physical Geography (volcanos and earthquakes) with Human Geography (Empire, Migration, Gentrification) with seemingly no acknowledgement at all that the confident voice of Mr BBC was really full of shit; although, there are gems of truth, the rapid development of Vancouver could arguably be linked to the industrial revolution via Hong Kong and the British Empire; there has been a lot of migration to the Pacific Northwest from California, but more because of house prices rather than fire; and those fires weren’t caused by volcanoes, and do affect the homes of people who work for tech firms with multi-billion dollar valuations. I hope no one’s upset by the broad brush strokes – in my estimation, Northern California has more to offer than kombucha and sourdough cultures (although, let’s be honest, those are huge draws), and I thought the fires at DIY performance venues like Ghost Ship were really heartbreaking. But not so much Rupert Murdoch’s house.

Next week, we get up in time to see the sun rise over Minneapolis – why not celebrate and preorder Year of The Bird Volume 4 – the final volume of Year of The Bird?

33. At Least We Got Some Decent Punk

New York seems like a wonderful and terrible place. It’s like a world-class vineyard, but the grapes are people. Not only are the grapes people, the grapes will defend to the death their right to be crushed underfoot on the basis that New York is the best vineyard in the world. It’s a city where the grapes are drunk on their own myth, and the juices of their siblings. That sounds even more disgusting now that I write it down.

I see the enormous appeal of pushing together a load of talented and ambitious people in a small area (never mind that people don’t really live in Manhattan any more), but it seems like an expensive, dirty, tiring, exhausting city to be in. It’s really running on the fumes of it’s own notoriety – if it woke up tomorrow to find it had been renamed Cleveland, people would wonder what the fuck they’d been doing with their lives and why they were putting up with so much bullshit. Which is pretty much what happens as you age – yeah, I like art and shit, but I don’t love the making of the sausage, if I’m an ingredient in the sausage. Or the wine. Or whatever grinder people are throwing themselves into.

When Trump got elected people said “at least we’ll get some good art” as if that’s a given, or a reasonable trade off. The art seems about the same so far. With Reagan, the US had a decade of hardcore punk; not a genre I love, but I do really really like Fugazi – it’s hard not to love that sound. I also thought about capitalism – and, to extend the wine metaphor, how the simple pleasure of a bubble rising up and popping serves no useful purpose, unless that bubble could be monetised, its energy harnessed and used. The popping of a bubble marks the useless release of energy.

Musician Jeremy Warmsley – who’s doing his own Year of Songs project, but is doing 12 and really putting a lot of effort into them being awesome and complex and things I didn’t really do writing 40 songs in 2018 – introduced me to Santo and Johnny’s Sleepwalk around this time – an amazing lap steel melody that you’ve probably heard and didn’t know you had – and having got it stuck in my head, I decided that I wanted to do something very melodic that involved very high harmonics. The melody is around the 12th fret, and the pinched harmonics happen at what would be about the 24th fret I guess, so they have that very brittle sound. I was really quite pleased with this song, and that something so ballad-y had “punk” in the title.

Next week, we take a trip to the Cascade Mountains – until then, you can preorder Year of The Bird Volume 4 – out in December.

32. Suggestions for Halloween

Toronto has a very good Halloween game – porches decked in fake spider webs, lit by spooky pumpkins, the whole bit. Toronto October is gloomy and damp and leafy and wonderful. It inspired me to stay in and write a spooky song on my Novation Circuit.

I’ve always liked the idea that conjuring a demon was a way to kill it; that making it flesh made it more dangerous, but also more vulnerable. Halloween costumes are part of that tradition, I think; of course, children may be frightened of witches and skellingtons, but adults probably aren’t. Well, we would be, if we saw witches and skellingtons wandering around the place – but as things we don’t expect to see in the flesh, they’re not very scary. I thought about the abstract things that we’re scared of as adults – yes, spiders eating up the city, but also turning into our parents or being unable to help and protect the ones we love. The idea of a cult of demon-worshippers getting together and exorcising their fears for Halloween seemed pretty fun. It’s a silly song.

I’ve never really had to come up with character names. I usually just use “I”, even if the “I” of the song isn’t the “I” that is “me”. I was grasping around for names of people I know, and so many of their fears have nothing to do with the person – I don’t think my friend Ahsan is afraid of flying (“…through the air”), for example. However:

  • James (Kneale) is a scholar of H.P. Lovecraft, so if he has any sense, he’s afraid of Nyarlathotep.
  • My friend Dave is someone from who I’ve learned a lot about inclusivity and sensitivity, so the idea that they’d be facing a fear of “the other” is a bit unlikely.
  • Rita the Shiba Inu (who I mentioned in connection with Rusty Horse Bones at the start of the year) did experience a small earthquake with us, and did not seem frightened by it.
  • Mark Higginson – my oldest friend – loves the Alien franchise.
  • Joseph K – and indeed, all of Kafka’s protagonists – have troubled relationships with their fathers.

Next week, we listen to the sounds coming off the streets of New York City. Until then, why not preorder the final volume of Year of The Bird?

31. Man, I Just Had The Weirdest Dream

Man, I just had the weirdest dream back on the bus there.
Do you ever have those dreams that are just completely real?

I mean, they’re so vivid, it’s just like completely real.
It’s like there’s always something bizarre going on in those.
I have one about every two years or something.
I always remember ‘em really good.
It’s like there’s always someone getting run over or something really weird.
Uh, one time I had lunch with Tolstoy.
Another time I was a roadie for Frank Zappa. Anyway…”

This part of the collection is a bit of a tour of North American cities – we’ll visit Toronto, New York, Minneapolis, and the Cascade Mountains. This one was written on my first trip to Austin, Texas, which seems like a wonderful city. I knew about it from its early ‘90s portrayal in Bill Hicks routines, and Richard Linklater’s Slacker, a film I still really love. I even dug out a Slacker location guide and was able to visit a lot of the places that appeared in the film. There’s still signs of the Austin of Slacker: the apartment of Richard Linklater’s character, who delivers the opening monologue of the film (the beginning of which appears above) is still there. It was the office of Richard Linklater’s production company. In Slacker, there’s limited distinction between the fictional world and the world of the people making it.

But that was 1990. If you haven’t seen Slacker (you should), you’ve probably heard about its most iconic scene – in which Teresa Taylor (RL drummer for the Butthole Surfers) tries to sell two passers-by what she claims is “Madonna’s pap smear” – pubes and all. It’s one of the more quotable and light-hearted moments in a film that is, like many of Richard Linklater’s films, full of deeply flawed, somewhat weird and pretentious characters that are nevertheless grappling with big existential, political, and creative issues, and figuring out what it means to live their lives.

The Pap Smear location is right in the middle of downtown Austin – and is now an anonymous-looking generic boutiquey shopping street, if such a thing is possible. Those towers are crystal daggers, dreams pinned down by glass and steel. I’m not sure what I would have made of 1990 Austin, to be honest – I’m probably a bit more vanilla than anyone in that movie, or in Austin thirty years ago.

This song’s another word acrostic (like Dental Health) – only this time the first word of each line spells out the first 33 words of Richard Linklater’s opening monologue (above). I can’t remember where the guitar was recorded – possibly in Richmond, Virginia, I didn’t have an acoustic guitar while I was on tour so it must have been a friend’s – but I do remember I had a crappy cold for days, and the original vocal (which I scrapped) was recorded in a basement in New York City – and it sounded terrible. I like the breathy intimacy of this one.

Next week, we think about Halloween costumes – until then, you can preorder Year of The Bird Volume 4 – out just in time for Christmas.