12. The Empire Strikes Back

Around the corner from where we were staying in Kyoto was a small antiques-y shop, and in the window was a bus sign from the area of Shropshire I grew up in: Oakengates, Telford Town Centre, St Georges, Hadley, Leegomery, Dawley, Wellington. It was really, really, weird. I started reflecting on how obscure Shropshire towns must sound exciting and exotic to Japanese antiques shoppers – or maybe they were there for ex-pats wanting to be reminded of… Shropshire? Seriously, most people in England can’t tell you where Shropshire is.

It made me think about where I grew up, and how I ‘d a conscious decision to not stay there, and how trapped I had felt as a young person, which are all pretty familiar feelings for lots of people, I guess. The thing is, I feel guilt having that kind of resentment towards a place that was safe and pleasant, in a part of the country where my family still live (they’ve moved a bit away). I never resented my family for living in a place that they had made their home, but I feel guilty about the intensity of my reaction; this is me processing these conflicts.

The base tracks of this are samples – bird song at Uno, the ferry port across from Naoshima, the beautiful art island which is like a living version of Jonathan Blow’s Witness; the “nightingale floors” which squeak and sing as you walk on them in Kyoto castle; and the sound of an automated mini-waffle maker in Nishiki Market, Kyoto’s most popular food street. The vocal was recorded on a train held at the station in Toyama. This was right in the middle of the Windrush Scandal, when the UK government was revealed to be deporting people who had entered the UK on the Empire Windrush in 1948*, an emblem of Britain’s supposedly positive and open attitudes to immigration, especially for those from the Commonwealth. I’m always slightly surprised when the British public doesn’t seem to give a toss for years about bad treatment, detainment, demonisation and deportation of migrants, but suddenly The Windrush is a sacrosanct point of entry and even the gammons lose their shit**. To use a term Nikesh Shukla coined, perhaps these are the Good Immigrants we keep hearing about.

I suppose what these strands have in common is leaving your place of birth and making a new life, and how different that is for different people. The title “The Empire Strikes Back” seemed apt, and the end of the song even has a nice Star Wars reference for you fellow nerds.

Next week, I’m confronted by a partner about why I am intent on keeping our relationship a secret.

*and subsequently

**I’m not sure the gammons did lose their shit. But even they couldn’t go against public opinion and declare this A Good Thing.

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 2 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-2 this week and you’ll get the download of this track (and all previous tracks) right away, and the full album when it’s released on July 8th, 2019! Why not listen to Volume 1, too: https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1

11. Passion

Travelling as much as I have been able to travel in the last couple of years is a massive, massive privilege, and I think it’s the bassline to almost every song on this collection, but travel is also pretty deranging. As I write this I’m on a 7 hour flight to Dubai which will be followed by a 14 3/4 hour flight to Auckland. It’s some serious bullshit. With the benefit of being in Auckland at the end, which is exciting. But there’s a weird inbetweeny headspace that I get into on planes, specifically – too uncomfortable to sleep, too weary to do anything useful – sometimes even to do anything at all. On occasions like this, I frequently watch films I can’t identify or don’t care much about, over people’s shoulders, silently (the film, but me also, for added creepiness). I’m currently watching A Star Is Born on the screen next to me (the recent one, not the Judy Garland version where it’s James Mason who inexplicably plays the alcoholic). I might watch it properly, sometime. A couple of years ago I watched American Hustle in this fashion, which I found largely incomprehensible without the dialogue. I’m told it’s a good film that I should watch, and I may, if only because it employs the term “science oven” to mean “microwave”.

This is probably one of the most stream of consciousness songs I wrote for this collection. I started with my annoyance at being told seemingly forever that I needed to pursue some mysterious One Thing with a dogged determination and went from there. I think people do need to tell themselves that the reason their lives are miserable is because it’s in sacrifice to some greater passion – and it was a story I felt was woven in academia, and I see in audio and other media, to justify how fucking awful and mean and exploitative those careers can be. “Being is enough/being is tough” might be the stupidest lyric I ever wrote, but sometimes it needs saying. People are not purposeful instruments, function follows form.

I think this song was written in Fukuoka, which has a really good fountain display in their mall. I wanted the song to sound like The Jesus and Mary Chain, which has nothing to do with it being written in Fukuoka. The friend I was walking with in my dream is Dr Ahsan Nazir, a theoretical physicist who studies interactions of quantum computing systems with thermal environments, or did when I last understood his work in about 2004. When we lived together as undergraduates, he once added a spoonful of mince pie filling to a cup of tea and declared it “Christmas Tea”, so I’m not sure why I agreed to brave a thunderstorm to go and drink tea with him in my dream when it probably would have been disgusting. But writing his name down makes me feel cheerful so I think I know why I included my stupid dream in this song. I have no idea whether he likes The Jesus and Mary Chain*.

Next week I discover a bus sign from my home town – in Kyoto, Japan.

*I know he likes the Pixies cover of “Head Down”, but only a monster doesn’t.

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 2 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-2 this week and you’ll get the download of this track (and all previous tracks) right away, and the full album when it’s released on July 8th, 2019! Why not listen to Volume 1, too: https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1

10. Theme Song

This song was written and recorded in Taipei and Hualien in Taiwan, but to be honest it doesn’t bear much of their DNA. The music was written as a theme song for Earlonne Woods, then living in San Quentin Prison in Marin County in Northern California. Earlonne co-created the podcast Ear Hustle with Nigel Poor – giving a voice to the prisoners in San Quentin*. Helen, my wife, and host of a popular podcast about language, had interviewed Earlonne about prison slang, and I’d gone along to meet him and the team, back at the start of January 2018. San Quentin is a surprisingly appealing building, with a sort of Victorian castle vibe to it, which didn’t stop it being hugely intimidating. I had never been in a prison before and didn’t know what to expect – I wasn’t scared that I’d be in any danger, I just didn’t know what stupid thing I’d say or do to show my privilege. On the day we visited, no one was allowed to use the yard, because the fog from the San Francisco bay meant the prison officers couldn’t see all of the corners – a fairly common occurrence thanks to the misty bay. Earlonne was warm and friendly – he’d heard about our year of travelling around the world, and wanted to know about our passports getting “inked up”. We talked about the merits of the “SOS” – a uniquely American dish that he’d eaten within the prison system and I tried to convince him was not worth chasing down when he got out.

Flash forward to the end of March 2018, and I’m writing music to underscore the episode Helen was releasing – writing Earlonne a theme song. I try to avoid all of the obvious cliches of a Person of Colour in Prison story – so no blues, no harmonica, no slide guitar. I went in the opposite direction – a jaunty plinky plonky sound using a lot of octave pedal, inspired by This American Life-style unobtrusive post-rock, and the sort of string pizzicato that would be playing under a 1950s public information film about egg rationing. Anyway, I didn’t have time to write two songs this week, so Earlonne’s theme song became a song called Theme Song.

Talking to a man who’s spent over twenty years in prison about travelling around the world is pretty humbling. I was happy to have written him a theme song for this Allusionist episode – but as I was repurposing it as a song, this idea of privilege was swirling around my head. What sort of person has their own theme song? Who apart from Earlonne, I mean? They would have to be someone very privileged indeed, and someone pretty egotistical and fragile. But what happens when they fall on hard times, and they want to keep up appearances, but can’t afford to have a full-time entourage blaring their theme song everywhere they turn up? They must turn into real shut-ins. And then technology changes! Suddenly everyone can have a theme song – one they’ve written on GarageBand, or just their favourite pop song, blaring out of their smartphone. Oh the indignity! Someone used to being the only voice in the room has to put up with all these upstarts blasting music.

Of course this isn’t just about having a theme song and someone who follows you around with a jukebox. Because that’s not real. It’s a metaphor. Or maybe a simile. Probably a metaphor. This was around the same time that the Parkland shooting survivors were becoming organised and vocal on social media, and right wing commentators saying things like oh it seems suspicious how media savvy these kids are. And, putting the subtext aside – they’re fakes, they’re paid, they’re crisis actors – the truth (that these writers might realise but their readers may not) is: it’s just not as hard as you’ve convinced yourself it is to be articulate and persuasive and a smart writer. These kids just have access now, when they didn’t before – only you did. Yes, this generation is (social) media savvy, but they also have a platform.

I’m going to to take a week off from Year of The Bird, and then I’ll be back with the first song from Year of The Bird, Volume 2: Passion – a song about the yoke that is passion, and watching American Hustle with no sound.

*and, at the end of 2018, Earlonne’s work on the podcast resulted in his early release – but we didn’t know that was going to happen when we interviewed him.

So – now you can buy the whole album – Year of The Bird, Volume 1 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1 – have at it!

9. Tiny Lungs

Penang is in northern Malaysia, and is really hot and really humid. I asked my Malaysian friend for advice for dealing with the climate, and, despite the fact she is half my weight and much less furry than me, she told me she couldn’t stand the heat in Penang so wore moisture-wicking fabrics and tried not to move. It’s an incredible food city – you can eat amazing Chinese food, Indian food, and Peranakan food, which is a delicious hybrid of Chinese ingredients and Indian spices. It’s so goddamn good. Everyone says this, but try the Char Kway Teoy – noodles with meat and cockles. I managed never to find a really good one in the city, but ate plenty of amazing other things – caramelised pork, amazing nasi lemak, and the best Indian meal I’ve ever eaten. Note to self: you should probably visit India.

When you’re travelling and you don’t see friends, or people you know, and you’re an introvert and terrible at languages like I am, you mostly talk to your partner. And sometimes I think if she hadn’t been there I might have ceased to exist, like Schrodinger’s Brummie or a silent tree falling in a forest. I had a friend who took some brutally strong antimalarials on a trip to India (Note to self: Visit India) in the 90s and convinced himself he had died, and was some kind of ghost. He had watched “Jacob’s Ladder” before going on the trip, so maybe that’s a more direct reason. Luckily he was travelling with a friend, and after three or four days (!), he said to his friend, “I don’t want to sound weird – but am I dead?”. I think it probably did sound a bit weird*.

“Don’t give time or thought to people who tell you ‘you are not enough’ or ‘you are too much’”. It’s a sentiment I’ve seen expressed more and more in the last year, but I came across it first on one of Lily Sloane’s podcasts. I think it arises in the context of the way women can be treated by men in relationships – they are told that they offer too little or ask for too much. In “Tiny Lungs” I just extend the metaphor. If you tell someone they are “too much” or “not enough”, it’s as absurd as telling people their lungs are too little or too big – that’s about you, not them. Giving love to another person should be as natural as breathing.

This isn’t intended as an insult to people who actually have small lungs or have breathing problems, and the song does not side with people who use that as an insult. I did also worry a bit that women who had been teased for having small boobs might have been called “little walnuts”. Is that something that happens? People can be very mean, I can imagine it happening. But to be clear, I am not talking about that. In any case, walnuts are a bit more like brains than lungs, but they have the sort of crenelations and branching that lungs have. Maybe “little broccoli” or “little cauliflowers” would have been better insults to put in the mouth of the people in this song? “Little Cauliflowers” is actually quite pretty. But cauliflowers are pretty massive. Both in life, and in terms of scanning as part of a lyric.

Next week features a Theme Song for a Very Important Person.

*he wasn’t dead. The antimalarials became notorious for causing psychosis. He stopped taking them and was fine.

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 1 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1 this week and you’ll get the download of this track right away, and the full album when it’s released on April 8th, 2019!

8. Snow Day

Cambodia is really, really hot, and really, really humid. On a typical day , when we were there in early March 2018, it would be 34C* with enough humidity that it felt like 43C**. I say I hate any weather above body temperature, but really I hate anything above about 25 degrees.

We sheltered in a large, not particularly expensive, aggressively air-conditioned room at a hotel called the Privilege. We had a driver who took us to the temples of Siem Reap in the blistering heat of the early morning, before the rock-melting heat of noon set in. On the way, one day, he showed us a gigantic hotel with hundreds of rooms, newly built for the incoming waves of Chinese and Russian tourists. “The Governor of Siem Reap owns that hotel” he told us, pausing with exquisite comic timing before adding “the same man that owns the hotel you’re staying in”. It was a few months away from the July general election, and the leader of the opposition had been imprisoned for treason.

I was doing a bit of research for my wife’s podcast, which is about language. I was reading about Bo Yang, who was a cartoonist who lived in Taiwan in the 1960s and translated Popeye cartoons. In one series of panels, Popeye and Swee’pea land on a deserted island and Popeye declares Swee’pea Prince. Swee’pea said he’d rather be president. This really pissed Chiang Kai-Shek off. Chiang Kai-Shek was the leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party, and when he was defeated by Mao’s Communists in 1949, he withdrew to Formosa (Taiwan) and in one of the most batshit moves of the twentieth century (not an era noted for its restraint), not only claimed sovereignty, but proclaimed that Taiwan was the “real” Republic of China and that that maaaaaaasssive landmass to the left was chopped liver. Essentially claiming the right to be called “China” rather than just forming a separate state is seemingly a big part of why (mainland) China doesn’t have much of a sense of humour about Taiwanese independence, up until the present day. Anyway, the people of the island later to be known as The Republic of China didn’t have much of sense of humour about being occupied by the Nationalists, and Chiang Kai-Shek didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humour full stop. So when Bo Yang published his cartoon, Chiang Kai-Shek saw it as an assault on his legitimacy (reminder: THROUGH THE MEDIUM OF A FUCKING TRANSLATION OF A POPEYE CARTOON) and threw Bo Yang into jail. There was even talk of the death penalty. Eventually things settled down, but Bai Sheng was imprisoned for nine years because of a cartoon that he may or may not have intended as a slight on the regime. I guess the message here, as always, is fuck dictators. They have no sense of humour.

I had a lot of fun using a really huge sarcophagus-like bath as a reverb tank for this song – I was using my trusty H5 which has a nice stereo mic head, which I put in the bathsophagus and then pointed a regular mic at my face. There’s a nice nerdy detail there for you audio pals.

I’d like to pretend this was the only snow day – but we took a lot of snow days – in Siem Reap, in Kuala Lumpur – and in Penang, where next week’s song, Tiny Lungs, was written.

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 1 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1 this week and you’ll get the download of this and previous tracks right away, and the full album when it’s released on April 8th, 2019!

*that’s ~94F, Americans
**that’s ~110F, Americans

7. The Year of The Dog

This was largely written and recorded just after Chinese New Year, in Hanoi, but inspired by walking around Hong Kong and seeing dogs being treated like royalty. They were having a whale of a time. It was about to be their year.

The last Year of The Dog was 2006; the song is bluntly autobiographical. February 2006 was the last time I was unemployed, and I did spend a week doing a sudoku (which I did not complete), I also spent a week doing a crossword (which I did not complete), concluded I have limited problem-solving intelligence, and spent a week doing an EP called Tissue of Lies, my first solo recording. After that I worked in Westminster Council transcribing questionnaires from users of drug, alcohol and homeless services, worked for four years as a medical physicist, lasering and imaging various parts of the body (most of them not parts you would not have on display, even wearing a swimsuit), became a data visualisation lecturer, started several podcasts (in 2006 I had no idea what a podcast was), and here I was – 12 years on. Unemployed, on a sofa. In Vietnam. Not doing a sudoku.

I asked twitter for recommendations for the worst synth sounds in GarageBand, eventually finding some really terrible ones and layering over a vocal that sounds like I’m drunk even though I’m basically teetotal and a square. The first letters of each line form an acrostic for “The Year of The Dog”, and I had some idea of changing the lyric on each verse to reflect different takes on the same ideas, but in the end just gave up and stuck with the original weird direct “straight out of my brain” approach because it seemed more fun. And added some sentimental chat about dogs in the second chorus.

I’d previously not been a huge fan (of dogs), but then I’d met Inscrutable Rita (as mentioned in Rusty Horse Bones) and Reproachful Flower, a border collie we dogsitted in Los Angeles in December 2017, and who didn’t like to give affection and didn’t like going for walks, but nevertheless stayed calmed while I was freaking out when Elon Musk launched his rocket from Southern California and I saw it from the street in Los Angeles and thought it was a North Korean missile attack/chemical weapons/aliens. These dogs were a lot more like cats* and I am a cat person**. So I was pretty well-disposed to dogs by the time The Year of The Dog rolled around.

I am not a heat person; and I’d already spent several days in Vietnam in mid-30s*** heat with impressive humidity. By the time we got to Cambodia, which was even hotter and more humid, I needed a day hiding from the world in an air-conditioned room. So I took a Snow Day, the subject of next week’s song.

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 1 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1 this week and you’ll get the download of this track (and all previous tracks) right away, and the full album when it’s released on April 8th, 2019!

*weird and distant

**weird and distant

***Celsius – mid-90s F

6. Hey, Veronica

February 2018. We were staying with a friend in Sai Kung, a fishing town in Hong Kong blessed with an arsenal of black kites who swoop in at dusk from the outlying islands. The Heathers TV show had just been postponed because, on Valentines’ Day, a terrible school shooting had occurred in America. For the unfamiliar, (the original) Heathers is a high school movie – some* would say the high school movie – from 1988. Its writer was consciously reacting to the bittersweet John Hughes portrayals of high school, and concocted a bitchy and witty story full of smart and funny pokes at bullying, conformity, 80s materialism, homophobia, shallow liberalism, and the media. It also features Winona Ryder’s Veronica being led, somewhat unwittingly, on a trail of destruction instigated by Christian Slater’s JD – a character who I thought was amazing in his James Dean-y (JD, geddit?) nonconformity and I now have to sadly report was obviously written as a sociopathic arsehole. There are poisonings and shootings and explosives and you can see why they postponed the TV series for a while.

The same week, writer and internet brainperson** Jay Owens talked on social media about JD and how we can be attracted to someone we wish we more like. Braver, more of a rule breaker, stronger, faster, better. I always felt I related to Veronica more – naive, idealistic, and ultimately stronger because she’s not at the mercy of her homicidal urges. And I fancied Winona Ryder, because of course I did. But yes – ultimately I wanted to be her – a braver and more self-possessed version of me – someone unprepared to deal with the social forces and personalities swirling around her at school, but ultimately immune to the allure of violence as an end in itself – a decent person, but a little braver.

Did the Heathers series ever come out? It did, in October 2018. I was surprised that there was a time in 2018 it wasn’t crass and inappropriate, or framed by another bout of death. There’s certainly things that in 1988 seemed an ok way to talk about the pain of adolescence and tackiness of American culture that just seem like on the nose reflections of reality in 2018 – things that seemed liked melodramatic fantasies now seem mundane – horrible, but everyday. And as the role of violence in high schools has changed, so has its role in movies about high schools. The closest comparators I can think of in recent(ish) years are The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner films – where teens are sacrificed mercilessly for a greater good, or at least a greater purpose.

If states (and more specifically military and police forces) are conceived as holding a monopoly on violence, gun advocates presumably view the deaths caused by gun violence as a regrettable but necessary sacrifice which prevents that monopoly on violence existing. I know this sounds very callous, but I feel like we accept these sorts of calculuses every day – we want the freedom to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, drive cars , fly in planes, and so on – all killers, and not always to the person smoking or drinking or driving a car or riding in a plane – a sacrifice we accept. But to break someone’s monopoly on violence, you have to do violence yourself, directly or indirectly. Then the plot of Heathers, played out again and again across a country, with variations, isn’t an act of isolated, fruitless rebellion anymore. It looks like the offerings at the Quarter Quell; a series of sacrifices to prop up a status quo. Heathers was such an important film for me that I hope I can watch it again and enjoy its amazing dialogue and cartoonish death and carnage without thinking too much about the reality, which is grim as fuck.

We left Hong Kong for Hanoi just before the Year of The Dog began. So in the Year of The Bird, I was a few days behind reality with next week’s song.

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 1 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1 this week and you’ll get the download of this and previous tracks right away, and the full album when it’s released on April 8th, 2019!

*I

**not how she self-describes***
***to my knowledge