Sunday, December 30, 2012

Last Post (of the year)

It's been a bit of a year for me; hardly had time to catch my breath. I realised this, having been at home for a few days. I've been working so hard on new projects at work, that have also took me away a lot. I'm grateful for the opportunity to have gone to (deep breath), Bologna, Warsaw, Krakow, Istanbul, Helsinki, Amsterdam, Belfast, Berlin, Brussels, and Ghent this year; but its taken up a lot of time and its only taking stock at Christmas that I realise how much. I've hardly seen any films, or gone to any bands, or even read that many books, never mind any bigger things, like buy a house.

Creatively its been okay, though. The opportunities to read my poetry haven't been quite so many - and I can't believe its a year since we finished the Salt Modern Voices tour - but there have been a few, and I've also got involved in quite a few mixed media type events which have been interesting. I like performing, but perhaps more when its part of the art, rather than to promote the art (e.g. a book.) That said, I didn't have much published during the year, just a couple of poems, in the excellent Pussy Riot anthology, Catechism, and in the latest issue of the Rialto (wth a mention on the cover, no less!) of my poem "Beauty."

Not that I've been idle. I've probably written more poems this year, and more that I'm pleased with, than for a decade. Part of this I think is having spent time as part of the NW Poets group, organised by Lindsey Holland. Pleasingly, the group's first anthology will be due in 2013, with a couple more poems from myself included.

I've also been very busy musically, as I mentioned in a previous post, with a series of 12 cassette singles - some 47 tracks - being "released" online during the year, making it my most prolific year musically since 1989. The best tracks from this series will be compiled on an album early in the new year, but can all be downloaded or listened to anyway at my online music site.

My own art is not to be seen in isolation of course, as I've always felt that I belong to a cultural millieu, to which I react, and with which I occasionally engage. From going to see gigs such as Dexy's Midnight Runners, Grimes and Laetitia Sadler; to attending festivals like FutureEverything, Flatpack Festival and Abandon Normal Devices, there's something quite porous between my own artistic practice, and the cultural life here in Manchester in particular.

The Pussy Riot book was published using print-on-demand and available as an e-book and this year was the year when such things came of age. I wonder a little about the publishing industry, whether its now relying too much on small presses, start up ventures, and self-publishing to act as an A&R, or worse still, whether it only takes notice of such ventures when the books make a splash in the traditional places (e.g. a Booker listing.) Poetry in particular seems to have endless vibrant tributaries, yet the main rivers are slow-moving and slow to absorb what's happening elsewhere. Maybe its a bit much to expect literature to have its punk rock/YBA moment so late in the day, but it seems that it might happen some time - maybe 2013?

So, on 30th December, no new years resolutions just yet, particularly as the fundamental things for next year are so fragile. Like everyone else where I work, I've been offered voluntary redundancy, which speaks clearly of the problems everyone in the public sector is facing - even if my projects are funded for another year or so - one wonders what comes next? There's certainly no reassuring noises coming from Central Government. I've now been in Manchester for longer than I lived in Staffordshire, which is some milestone of sorts- given I lived there from the day I was born until I left for university - and if its imprinted on my life, it doesn't feel that permanent. I've begun to write about it, in a series of poems that I'm currently putting together - and that's one resolution for 2013 - to get those, at least, published in some form or other (get in touch if you're a publisher who might be interested in seeing them!)

Art and culture have always been political statements to my mind, and this will get more so, even if the most political poems and stories often aren't the most explicit ones. Yet, as Pussy Riot showed, a cultural act can quickly become a political and then a human act. The 21st century is only just beginning to show its characteristics, and just as Modernism only really came through in the 2nd decade of last century, I think the ramifications of our information society are yet to find themselves clearly articulated in the art and literature of the day. Again, 2013, may well surprise us.

Friday, December 28, 2012


I read an article on the Beatles one time, I think it was Greil Marcus, but may be wrong, where the writer made the case that the Beatles were actually their own antecedents: that the band playing in Hamburg in the late 50s, writing their own songs as callow teenagers, long before they'd met Brian Epstein, were actually peers of the early rock and rollers. He's a little right and a little wrong, I think. There's a fast transmission mechanism in music; and if you're around at the right time with the right influences - say, rockabilly quiff in 1957, a stash of LSD in 1967 or a battered guitar and an attitude in 1977 - then there's not a long distance from seeing the Pistols, say, and becoming the Pistols.

I first wrote/recorded a song in 1982, when I was 15, though I'd probably had tunes in my head and lyrics in my school book for years before. The music I liked - electronic music such as Kraftwerk, OMD, Soft Cell and Human League - was way beyond my suburban imagination, I don't think anyone in my class realised that some of these bands had been plugging away for years. But more important than the influences was the availability of cheap equipment. From the Casio VL-Tone which appeared on Top of the Pops (Trio's "Da Da Da") almost as soon as it appeared in the Kays Catalogue; to proper fully featured synthesizers. But I wasn't the only entranced by both the sounds and the possibilities of the cheap synth. It appears that in bedroom's the country long, people were swapping guitar aspiration for synth love and then with a quick press of the record button and a smidgin of imagination creating their own electronica.

Fast forward 30 years and the internet makes eveything available. So I was both surprised and not when a guy called Simon Holland approached me with the idea of an internet album consisting of electronica from that era. I contributed a track called "Exit to Maya" from 1987 to what has now evolved into a beautifully presented compilation called "Bedroom Cassette Masters." 

In the excellent download insert, he talks about what Simon Reynolds - in his book "Retromania" - has referred to as "hauntology" - a music that has a ghostly imprint of the music from the past. So though some of the tracks on BCM are originals uploaded from compact cassettes, others have the sound of that era. Listen and download, its a lovely selection.

Thinking of my own music and how it fits in, I'm not sure I've ever been as close to the zeitgeist as I am now - which is kind of weird given that I've been recording music for around 30 years. To celebrate this "milestone" during 2012, I set myself a task to record a monthly cassette single - and with December coming to a close I'm just finishing off the 12th in the set, featuring the Christmas song "Christmas in Siberia"

2012's cassette singles from Jan-Nov. December coming soon.

.Its been a fascinating project recording over 40 tracks in a year; taking inspiration from stuff I've done before or hearing sounds around me that I've tried to emulate. All of this would be recognisable to my 15 year old self, I think, perhaps inevitable when I'm using a very similar instrument set up as all those years ago. Yet listening to my favourite albums of 2012 - I hear a familiar electronic palate in Grimes or Chromatics - and wonder where those thirty years have gone. In the New Year I'll be "releasing" an album featuring the "best" tracks from the cassette singles series.

One thought is that I might look at some more collaborative stuff in 2013 - as I very much enjoyed a few "live" events during 2012 where my poetry and music lives began to merge a little. There's some interest in Manchester for a joint electronic "jam" session - putting together an album in a day. We'll see what happens. If interested leave a comment or email me at adrian dot slatcher at gmail dot com.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Hard Year

It's felt like a hard year. It has gone fast, but there's been little time for reflection. The culture of anxiety that is a distinct policy objective each time the Conservative party gets into power, has gone into overdrive. They want us all to be afraid that we might lose our jobs; they want our institutions to be both valued for cutting staff to create "efficiencies", and to be as equally anxious. Rarely, and certainly more than most other places in Europe, has power been so centralised. We see it time and again. The decision to spend precious police resources on the storm-in-a-Tory-teacup "plebgate", against the lack of prosecutions for the illegal fraud that the banks perpetuated on the Libor rate; the de-coupling of the welfare benefit system from any reality so that those with disabilities aren't judged on their real condition but on an arbitrary system that would be more at home in a Polish ghetto; and most of all in the corporate coup that has taken over not just much of Britain, but much of Europe, with EU territories such as "Luxembourg" or "Jersey" creating tax holes that can help corporates escape billions in tax, and fiascos such as the rail franchising system and the continuing disaster of PFI, where the systems have been designed as if to maximise the vulnerability of the public sector in order for the fake mantra of free trade (fake because these companies hate fair competition) to be the only thing we hear.

In a year of Olympic triumph it might seem that the crass dismantling of our better natures, begun by Thatcher, and continued by Cameron and Clegg, hasn't yet happened. Yet all the Olympics told us was that a publicly funded stable system that rewarded real excellence (regardless of class) and was fully resourced could be a triumph. For after all, lets not beat ourselves up, Britain has often excelled, despite, rather than because of its leaders and its institutions. But cracks are already showing. There seems a quiescence among the struggling young. The DIY art culture of the 70s has come back a little, helped by all these empty bars and shops which can no longer guarantee a puprose, yet University numbers are down, the effect of that debt culture is yet to be seen; I'm seeing arts and literature and music at a grass roots level, shrivelling up after the initial enthusiasm fails, with a time-rich but cash-poor artistic audience looking at the artificially high rents and house prices, and the low salaries offered in 2012 Northern Britain, and wondering where they go with this? There needs to be a massive redistribution, as Heseltine suggested, from central government to the regions, and then there has to be redistribution from our failing institutions to the grass roots. Yet I'm not seeing any political discussion about these things. The need for economic growth - with its false leveraging of debts above investment as "investment grade" financial instruments - comes at a price. The flow of people and goods is now destroying whatever bit of localism that had managed to gain ground.

Art and culture are as worldwide a market as precious metals or scarce foods, yet we were once - and still are - rich in them. Yet you wouldn't think so, listening to our politicians, who explain everything but understand nothing. The lie that Labour caused our debts through overspending is exposed by the coalition's own "blaming" of the lack of growth on crises in Europe and elsewhere; yet world growth has been growing again.

And, if the Olympics distracted us, and we could be accused of navel-gazing on our own first world problems - most of our own making - I don't think any of us with any compassion went through the year entirely comfortably about what was happening in the wider world. The ongoing murder of civilians in Syria, the escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the late year massacre in gun-crazed America, the repression of free speech on the internet, including here and in the US, but also the remarkable women of Pussy Riot. This world remains adept at flinging more problems on top of those it already has, apparently intractably. And yet amidst all the swivel-eyed loathing, the somewhat battered President Obama made it to a second term, which like with Tony Blair's time in power, is the period when difference can really be made (and lets hope he doesn't embark on any disatrous wars); the Olympics showed that whether competitor, volunteer or audience, the British always know how to throw a party (unlike most politicians; they may have "Ok-d" it but the booing of George Osborne must have been one of the highlights of the year); and elsewhere millions of us continue to the best in a difficult situation. Unlikely as it is that we'll overthrow the rentier class any time soon, but Leveson and Uncut and public debate (though rarely, this year, the diminished BBC), at least have the power to embarass them occasionally.

Not yet over, but I've finished work for the year, and intend to have a couple of weeks of reflection myself.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Prose Style

There was a time when I cared about prose style; more than that, I cared about it more than anything else in literature. I've been thinking about this lately; as I wonder about starting writing some fiction again; and what book to read next. Like I used to care about music being "the best", its not that I don't anymore, rather than it seems further away from ever. You watch X-Factor and there are some talented people on there - albeit mostly in the big set pieces accompanying the contestants - or see a live band; or - like tonight watch Masterchef, and there's so much to admire about the striving to be better. Yet, there's something else I think, which is kind of missing at the moment - not that it is missing, necessarily - but its missing from my life. The "caring" for exceptional writing; at what point did I give up looking? At what point did I stop trying to emulate it?

For there's something brave about the best writing - it's not just words on page, not even just sense and story, but something more than that; words carved from the granite; and I guess the further we are from having read anything that reaches those heights, the more important and vital it actually seems - yet its not that we just want writers like (as an example) DeLillo or Roth at their best - but want that talent to be turned on the times in which we live; that in fact to write a relevant prose for our times is actually to write a brilliant prose for our times; that it's not enough to think we live in degraded times, or to emulate the best writing of the past; we need a writing that does a job today. I'm thinking its not that the prose itself is impossible; but that sometimes it seems that it is the trying that is impossible. The over praising of somewhat style-less books, or writers who are clearly extremely talented but writing as if the last twenty, fifty or hundred years hasn't happened. Not sure where I'm going with this other than a sense of thinking: yes, it's still worth fighting for, looking for; and that the other things that writing can do - telling a story, making us laugh, whatever... - are valuable but its the other that matters. In the dullness of the everyday, in the bright shining light of other artforms - whether HBO drama, or some internet pyrotechnics - words on page can still be the most remarkable of currencies. We have devalued the coinage if we forget this.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Other Room

Even though the Other Room frequently features three performers from the more experimental end of the poetry spectrum, its rare that you can find more than cursory connections between them. On the surface, Alec Newman, Nat Raha and Seekers of Lice (actually a solo artist, called, I think, Anne), hadn't much in common either but coincidentally all read sequences, and had some element of the improvisational in work that was otherwise very structured.

Alec is the publishing phenomenon that is Knives, Forks and Spoons press, but as host Tom Jenks reminded us he first "met Alec as a poet." Our first sequence of the evening was a sombre one; as Alec, pulling random prose sections from a brown envelope read testimony from the Lodz ghetto. It was a surprisingly effective mechanism. The horror of the ghettos, and the move from containment to expulsion and extermination of the Jews, is our very own descent into Hell. By telling the story at random - interspersing the speech of the ghetto "elder" Rumkowski with that of the survivors - our "descent" is fractured, and somehow the horror of even the smallest decisions is amplified. These found texts have their own poetry of course; their own monotony - (the banality of horror?) - but Newman's approach, which didn't interpolate meaning in any way other than his matter-of-fact delivery, stopped this short of the language feeling appropriated. In the end, we are listening to the horror, and reflecting on it.

Nat Raha read several pieces, both before and after a break, the majority of which was newer work. There is a fractured lexicon to Nat's work which occasionally (live, rather than on the page), strays into confusion, but more often seems jagged with meaning. What that meaning is is less certain - this is a provisional art in some ways; provisional on our engagement with it, and free somewhat of context, whereas Newman's work felt more tentative, its meaning certain, but its execution asking us questions. In certain pieces, the density of language, its slightly academic complexity creates a veneer that is occasionally impenetrable, but mostly something comes through, whether its queer theory; contemporary political anger (in a strong poem castigating the coalition, dedicated to Sean Bonney), or language itself (in an anti-sonnet sequence that will be published in 2013.) The best performance piece had Nat and a friend reading a simultaneous poem, where there voices, even more matter-of-fact than Alec, combined effectively, reminiscent of the vocal collage of the Velvet Underground's "The Murder Mystery"; not surprisingly these pieces had been written for a tribute to Sonic Youth, and the final poem used their lyricals to early classic "Youth Against Fascism."

When a performer is billed as "seekers of lice" one didn't quite know what to expect. But Seekers of Lice, a tall, quietly spoken woman, was more art than performance, though the quietly effective nature of her performance had its own power over the room. Reading short prose aphorisms from a stack of cards that she let fall beside her, the same random element that we'd found with Alec came into play. The writing was occasionally funny, sometimes personal and anecdotal, occasionally simple but decorative. This felt like a distant sister of Stein's "Tender Buttons." When artists engage with words, there's sometimes an over-simplicity that makes you wonder about their choice of medium, but Seekers of Lice read her somewhat oblique strategies in a way that made you want to seek them out on the page. The second piece, was a new sequence where she was accompanied by a slideshow of equally oblique images, some photographs being close-up shots of banal objectives; others being slightly mis-shot street scenes that were almost animated for three or four slides of the view from a slightly different angle; others being blank sheets of colour. The piece ended with a rich red, a calming end to a piece that was both calming and unsettling, her quiet words again offering something off a fractured narrative, and like Greenaway's not entirely dissimilar "Drowning by Numbers", having a sequence to it. Perhaps the most tentative of the works this evening, it was also my favourite.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Albums of the Year 2012

Albums of the year lists come earlier every year it seems, and chances are I've not yet heard 2012's best records (I only discovered Nicholas Jaar's wonderful album after those lists came out last year) Anyway, here's a partial attempt at listing records that have made an impression on me.

Born to Die - Lana Del Rey 

There are 3 versions of the album now, mine's the original tight selection. Our thoughts that Lana was some kind of cult artist readymade for David Lynch film didn't quite lend to the reality - which is this is the best Madonna-like pop album for years, as aspirational and sparkly as "Like a Virgin", and as polished as "Ray of Light." So Lana Del Rey has morphed into a real pop star rather than a cult artist's approximation of one. If nothing's quite as poised as "Video Games" and "Blue Jeans" the tracks we knew her for, teen anthems "This is what makes us girls" and "National Anthem" are not far behind, but are pure pop confectionary.

Visions - Grimes

I was played the single "Oblivion" and its minimalistic catchiness seeped into my brain - so that I picked up the CD and went to see her. Mushroomed in popularity, you felt that she should be playing somewhere smaller and more intimate than the Ritz, and the stage show hadn't quite grown with her increased success - that said, the intricacies of the album sounded even better live. Are these cult songs that are inadvertently poppy or pop songs that are cleverly draped in experimentation? A little of both, I think. Grimes has stumbled on something genuinely new and original- retro electronica and echoes of 80s new wave fused into something new. Its an album that you keep wanting to play all the way through, but individual songs all have their own character.

Tonight I'm Gonna Soar - Dexys

I was never a massive Dexys fan - but I took a punt on this returning album and was glad I did - a brilliant suite of understated mature love songs, with a tasteful soul backing - its a heartfelt mini opera, that has Kevin Rowland's sometimes thin voice carefully massaged by the classical country-soul band interpreting the songs. Again, the songs came alive when played live, as a "suite" of songs - half stage show, half musical - but the dynamic range is there on the record as well.

The Allah Las - The Allah Las 

A late addition to my list - the Allah Las are like the perfect 1965 bar band that never really existed - surf guitar, mod licks, beat band rhythms - its unashamedly retro, as if waiting for a Tarantino film to be featured in - but somehow such pop classicism seems perfectly times for late 2012. Anyone who liked the early stomp of the Small Faces, the Action, the Rolling Stones of "Aftermath" and pre-Pepper Beatles, will find room for this lovely debut in their collection.

Until the Quiet Comes - Flying Lotus

How could Flying Lotus follow the immense originality of "Cosmogramma"? If that was a hip hop record in only the vaguest sense, oweing as much to sampledelic pioneers like DJ Shadow and the Avalanches, his new album is a quiet, more evenly stated thing - and none the worse for it. Its as much a jazz record as anything else - but again genre is defied - this is the jazz of late Miles Davis, 1980s Herbie Hancock and Spearhead but with a remarkable amount of sonic invention throughout. Again, an album for playing all the way through, its charms take a listen or two, but its worth taking the time.

Banga - Patti Smith 

Her first album of original material since 2004's excellent "Trampin'" its a perfectly honed record that plays to all Smith's strengths: there's poetry, quietude, yearning, loss, and beauty. The CD was beautifully presented in a "book" edition, but the contents is what's important - and its a really consistent record that can stand up with any of her latterday work, and even echoes some of her unimpeachable seventies material.

The Cherry Thing - Neneh Cherry and the Thing

Neneh Cherry always seemed a bit of an accidental pop star, after all her father was Don Cherry, and she was part of the avant jazz post punk madness that was Rip, Rig and Panic. This album came out of the blue - mostly covers, with the European jazz band The Thing, it reinterprets the Stooges "Dirt" and most remarkably Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" but never seems a gimmick - rather you feel that this is the music Cherry's meant to be singing.

Sun - Cat Power

Its been an incredibly female-friendly year, and I almost missed that there was a new Cat Power album out - and then when I got it, didn't play it for a while. Perhaps I wondered whether she could live up to "The Greatest". Its a very different record. She's ditched the Nashville country-soul licks, for a more varied instrumentation, that returns a little to her indie roots, but as ever with Cat Power its the expressiveness of her voice and the quality of her songs  - whether her own, as on here, or her interpretations - that really matters, and its a consummate collection. Like the Grimes album this is a record that is a "singer songwriter" album only in name; it finds new ways of constructing songs that seems to have inhaled the example of some of the more left-field acts out there.She even has Iggy joining her on the epic Heroes-echoing "Nothin But Time."

Ill Manors - Plan B 

When the video and single "Ill Manors" came out earlier in the year it felt like a direct response to the 2011 riots and was hailed as a "Ghost Town" for the era. Ben Drew, aka Plan B, is a very modern star though, and almost at that stage where critical acclaim or not hardly matters. He appears on adverts, sings and raps, has appeared in his first self-directed film to which this is a kind of soundtrack, he even gets the grizzled legend that is John Cooper Clarke to guest with him...  and he has hit records. "Ill Manors" the song is probably the heaviest record to make the top 5 all year, and its sonic template is repeated throughout the album, a modern industrial rap record, both a world away from his soulful breakthrough on "The Defamation of Strickland Banks" and entirely at one with it.

But it would be wrong to sum up 2012 based just on artist albums as two other things during the year were worthy of mention. Isle of Wonders, the Danny Boyle/Underworld soundtrack to the Olympic opening ceremony was stunning, and the double CD acts as a welcome reminder of that expressive event. Arctic Monkeys, Mike Oldfield and Vangelis's Chariots of Fire make the oddest claim to "Britishness" but two phenomenal Underworld tracks, the 17 minutes "And I will kiss" and the beautiful "Caliban's Dream" mean its a necessary addition to any collection. Secondly, contemporary R&B remained the soundtrack to the year - even if its now near impossible to separate the well-tooled pop, rock and R&B tracks, often constructed by the same producers or the same songwriters. Oft-derided Coldplay deserve serious kudos for being the one rock band that still goes head-to-head with the pop acts in the chart, and the discordant, no-chorus wonder of their Rihanna collaboration "Princess of China" was one of the year's oddest hits. As for R&B/pop music, the best tracks were unstoppable. Alex Clare's "Too Close" has the heaviest electronic chorus since "Firestarter", Azealia Banks' "212" raises expectations for this new artist, and Rudimental's "Feel the Love" and Rihanna's "Where have you been?" are wonders of the modern studio. More left field was Zebra Katz's minimalist psychothriller "Imma Read".