Sunday, 17 May 2009

Perfect Sense.

I seem to have a chip in my brain that means I can’t stand to see potential unfulfilled. I’ve been like that since I was a teenager. I remember making dates to go round to friends’ houses to work out what they needed to do in practical terms, in order to be where they dreamt of being. I have one official success story - a former cinema projectionist who is now a very happy and successful primary school teacher - and hopefully have many more in the offings; I am constantly joking that, in a few years time, the Sony Radio Academy Awards speeches will almost all feature a thanks to me. But actually, I’m half-serious; I regularly meet up with people who are trying to get into radio, and do my best to support and advise the ones who are making it happen and in whom I see great potential. This kind of behaviour is how I ended up managing Sam Isaac - I was so smitten with his music that I was doing everything I could to get A&Rs to come to the gigs and listen to him, helping him in any way I was able, until someone pointed out that I was effectively managing him and I decided I wanted to make it official.


Sometimes, I think about things that I’m good at, that have little to do with any of my jobs or any I might want to do in the near future. I am not bad at writing press releases and thinking about what the best way to communicate a message to a potential customer or journalist. I’m quite good at commanding and engaging a room full of people in a business (as opposed to an entertainment) environment. Sometimes I have ideas for inventions I will never, ever use. I know I’m not exceptional in this. Obviously, there are vast swathes of people who have excess skills they‘ll never use. Sometimes, I think of all the businesses that could use the help of these people and it breaks my heart a little.


So, let’s think about how many people there are with extra untapped resources, and how few of them are likely to ever use them in order to help other businesses, when these people have their own jobs to occupy them. Imagine if there was a way you could use this extra knowledge/talent/pools of ideas, without employing people full time. Now, wouldn’t this be even better if you could pick from a varied pool of people, all doing interesting things, in locations spread across the world? This way, you could combine a wide variety of their experiences and areas of expertise. Finally, how about you could do it in such a way that it was incredibly rewarding for those people whose insight and ideas you were using? A win-win situation for everyone concerned, right?


This is what The Sense Network does. Sense Worldwide is a London-based research and innovation consultancy. It uses a worldwide network of people who sign up by autonomous choice. I first learnt about it from a conversation struck up in an airport security queue. In order to join the network, all you do is fill in a wee questionnaire. If, like me, you always do Saturday paper magazine Q&As on yourself before reading the interviewees answer, this quite a fun thing to do. Sense then email out a monthly newsletter, detailing their activities and those of various Sense Network members. In addition to this, they periodically send out emails asking for specific kinds of people. For instance, they might be looking for someone who lives in a capital city, goes out a lot and for whom fashion is important. Or, they might be looking for someone who uses portable speakers during their work. If you think you fit the criteria (and are interested in taking part), you usually answer a handful of questions on the bottom of the email (again, for those of us that do myspace quizzes for fun, this is enjoyable). Then, if they select you to take part, they might call you, ask you to do some online activity, or go into their offices for a day (if you’re based outside London, they’ll fly you in) - all of which has a financial reward.


Having done the odd phone interview and online task, last month I was selected to be one of a group spending an afternoon in the Sense London office, discussing a number of ideas. Part of the deal is that you sign a contract saying you won’t divulge anything that was discussed, so I can’t go into details about the particulars, but MAN it was fun. It was a wonderful combination of people asking, “What do you think?”, in a low-pressure, accepting-of-all-ideas environment, of batting around ideas as they were forming and of hearing loads of really interesting people tell you really interesting things. During the discussions, we collectively came up with a lot of ideas for different inventions. It actually made me a bit sad that not all of these would end up getting made, as I feel my life would be better for their existence. I also learnt a lot of facts that I have since been quoting. As well as this, it felt like my mind was being broadened; not just by quantity, but the way that we explored some ideas opened me up to new ways of thinking about certain things. Finally, it was exciting to think that, not only were we all clearly having a ball, but also that these discussions were going to be of practical use to company (we were told which one it is on arrival, so there were no worries about helping one we might have moral issues with).


What a wonderful and simple use of otherwise untapped potential. The chip in my brain felt deeply satisfied.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Austin Translation

This is the report I wrote for The Hit Sheet

South By Southwest 2009


It’s Wednesday night and we’re walking down 6th street. It’s pedestrianised for the duration. Already the floor is littered with flyers, the street is busy and there’s a buzz of excitement. Regulars, for whom it’s the highlight of the year, are psyched for what’s to come; newcomers like me are thrilled in anticipation of how it will be. Everyone is smiling. Up and down the strip, there are random performances. Sometimes it’s to promote a show - with over 1,800 bands playing, you have to make yourself stand out somehow. But often it’s just for the fun of it, part of the spirit of the festival. We encounter a nine piece band: among them a double bass, a banjo and a hyperactive oboe player. They’re singing three-part close harmonies and it’s charming. The businesswoman in me thinks they should have a sign with their name or be handing out flyers. “Spirit of the festival, Marsh”. I keep my mouth shut and walk on


First gig of the trip is South Africa’s BLK JKS at Paradise Bar. They’re hotly tipped. All my cool friends think they’re amazing. I know I’m going to hate them. But I also know it’s good for me to expose myself to such things, so that I can have courage in my convictions when sup erior people sniff at some of my music choices. Twenty minutes late, they come on. They have fire and energy. The whole room is jumping and the friends are grinning wildly. It’s one of those gigs that makes me feel like a nan; I turn to Best Friend and say, “I can’t find a tune! There doesn’t seem to be a regular beat!”. After three songs, she concedes and we leave.


We’re off to see Charles Hamilton, a rapper she loves who she says is really interesting and amazing. As we’re so late, Best Friend pays for a rickshaw and we hurtle down the street. Arriving at the Back Alley Social, we push our way past all the achingly hip rap fans and try to look gangster, with our party frocks and diet cokes. The earlier delay means we’re incredibly late, but hey -it’s South By Southwest - everything runs a bit late, right? Actually, turns out, BLK JKS were the anomaly - we’ve missed Charles Hamilton. It only becomes apparent when Brother Ali takes to the stage. He’s actually very good, but not what we’re here for, so we move on.


SURPRISING SXSW DISCOVERY # 1: SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST IS MOSTLY HELD IN INDOOR VENUES
I had always been under the illusion that it was all shows on makeshift stages in back gardens and car parks. In fact, a lot of them are no more exotic than they would be at In The City. Just with nicer accents. And lighter beer.


We wander down the strip, thinking we can maybe catch the end of something and encounter two fellows in costumes with cardboard. They tell us they are from the time-machine 7286 metablob which has broken down. One is from 8,000 BC, the other from 100,022 AD. Would we like to ask them a question about the future? We ask if we’re going to have a good festival. What else can they say but yes?


Inspired, we make our way to Brooklyn Vegan(hot US blog)’s Club De Ville showcase, where Phosphorescent are playing their To Willie album,(a tribute to Willie Nelson ) in full. There are beards. Lots of beards. It confirms my suspicion that the key look at SXSW 2009 is “Jesus: Through The Ages”. The band are rockin’, the beards all love it, and the show is wonderfully ended with a little dancing and a lot of smiling. Remembering that it’s a marathon and not a sprint, we head home for refuelling. On the way back, I pop in and watch the tail end of Mumford and Sons’ set headlining the Chess Club night at Friends. Their glorious, warm, indie- hoedown style works perfectly here. Another room fills with grins.


Thursday: up and at ‘em. My first task is to see a Hawk and a Hacksaw - a friend who knows me well says I will love them. I make my way up to the French Legation Museum. It’s bloody miles away, but when I arrive, I find one of the nicest spots I’ve seen so far: two stages, one indoors, one outdoors, lots of grass, beer in big bins of ice and happy people lolling in the sun. This is more festival! Before AHAAH can start, Camera Obscura - delayed - must finish their set. I’m worried about being late for my next appointment and trying not to get stressed. They play their sugar-indie-pop with energy and sweetness and the crowd is happy. Now for my band.! On they come with..oh. Strange instruments. Wooping,. It’s Klezmer gypsy-folk. Charming but not my thing at all. I’ve just realised I was thinking of Gregory and The Hawk. Who, it turns out, aren’t playing at all. I get up and run.


And run.


And run.


SURPRISING SXSW DISCOVERY # 2: EVERYTHING IS VERY FAR AWAY FROM EVERYTHING ELSE.
It takes me thirty-five minutes to get from that venue to my next.


Next up is Sam Isaac -my charge - at Café Blu. No one knows where this is, and, trying to be a good manager, I field calls from confused industry invitees. He and his band play, and the sound is terrible (it’s a café - converted into a venue for the purposes of sxsw, but not used to being one), but everyone seems to enjoy it, and a photo of Sam from the show makes it onto the front page of the following day’s Austin American Statesman newspaper.


On to the next: Tricky at The Fader Fort. This is a non-official venue, on the outskirts. If you have rsvp’d, then queued for at least half an hour to get your wristband, it gives you access to a four-deep free bar and twenty minute- long toilet wait. It feels a bit like a rubbish central London festival. I have to confess to not being a huge Tricky fan -I’m there to meet a friend, so not too excited when he hits the stage. What I see totally surprises me. He is incredible live. In spite of my knowing very few songs, there is something chemical that means my jaw drops and I can’t take my eyes off him. Special stuff.


Afterwards, I head to meet Best Friend at the Secretly Canadian party at Mohawk, where Akron/Family are playing. As seems to be the theme of my evening, they’re another band who surprise me. On record, the songs aren’t my cup, but live they’re stunning. The effect on the crowd is astonishing; there is a tribal feel to it all that you can’t help but get caught up in. They are added to mental list of Bands Everyone Should See Live At Least Once.


I am summoned to rescue New Lawyer Buddy (we had met on the bus the previous day) from the worst gig of his life. The dude on stage looks like Deuce Bigalow Male Gigolo (with less charm), and his band are playing tuneless, lifeless funk-rock. I drag NLF and his pal Industry Dude to Sam Isaac’s second show of the day at Fado’s Irish bar. They are both immediately smitten and I am drunk and parentally proud. Time to get a taxi home.


SURPRISING SXSW DISCOVERY # 3: YOU CAN’T GET A TAXI BETWEEN 12AM and 5AM.
Seriously, don’t even bother trying. You’ll end up on the street for a full hour and a half.


Once finally home, I make a plan for the following day. With over 1,800 bands playing, I had thought I could employ the method I use every Glastonbury: just follow your nose, and see what you come across. However, South By Southwest has so many shows and the area across which they are is so vast, that purely leaving it to chance can mean you end up hearing a lot of terrible local rock bands and missing out on the special moment everyone else will rave about. The best method seems either to be military with your planning, or to stick by other people who are.
Friday: action day. By 12pm, I am back at the French Legation Museum for Dent May and his Magnificent Ukulele. This is one of my favourite moments of the week. What better way to ease your hangover than to listen to gentle, devastatingly charming songs in a beautiful location in the sunshine? Afterwards, Singer Chum and I sit on the grass and listen to a band, brand-new to us both: Virgin Forest. They explain that they usually don’t play acoustic, but it doesn’t matter, we are both enchanted. A chat with them afterwards reveals they don’t have anything to sell, so I add them to my list of post-festival must-buys.


SURPRISING SXSW DISCOVERY # 4: EVERYONE IS SO NICE.
Even the homeless are charming. Everyone smiles and is happy to help whenever they can.


We amble around the main drag and poke our noses into the Spin party. Free popcorn and Justin Hawkins’ new band. The former is more appealing to us, but the crowd there are cheering wildly for the latter. A little faffery later, we catch the end of Your Vegas at the Beauty Bar - a band I had thought I didn’t like, but I loved them live. Always good to be proven wrong from time to time. Then I find New Lawyer Friend and Industry Dude and we go to watch UK new pop band Honey Ryder.


Before the gig, I meet the band’s manager, who is tasked with handing out Honey Ryder wristbands. Over the few days, I have had several discussions about how interactivity in a gig can make an enormous difference to the enjoyment of the crowd; if you’ve ever seen Scouting For Girls, Dashboard Confessional or Get Cape, you’ll understand what I mean. Inspired by this, I convince him to get the band to play hoopla with the crowd’s beer bottles. Happily, everyone goes for it, most of them are caught and Honey Ryder’s wristbands will now be proudly worn and talked about. The daytime finishes with Rod Thomas’ set in the reception of the Hilton hotel. For me, the highlights of this week are increasingly quirky gigs like this. His emotional but engaging beats and acoustic tunes are perfect for the grand, slightly surreal setting.


The sun goes down and Sam Isaac’s keyboard player Jose convinces me to come to the 18th Floor of the Hilton to see Sam Amidon. I know nothing about him, so go to the bar for the first song. On he comes, singing gentle folky tunes accompanied by his banjo. Then, with no warning, he starts making a vocal noise that sounds like metal being crushed. Everyone at the bar bursts out laughing. I sit back down and he gets better and better. One song is stopped while he does twenty push-ups. Another is interrupted so he can tell us about the dream where is his mom was two foot high and chasing him through the house. His chat reminds me of David Shrigley art - the sort of thing that confuses some, inspires others to stroke their chin, but always makes me laugh deep, throaty laughs. In-between his mischief, the songs and singing are beautiful. He is my favourite live spectacle in months.


SURPRISING SXSW DISCOVERY # 5: AT SOME POINT, YOU HAVE TO STOP BEING SURPRISED.


After him, Tom Brosseau comes on, looking like someone has pulled him from a photo of the American Mid West in 1929. He seems a little frightened and sings us enchanting song-stories that sit nicely with the incredible view and pot plant-covered stage. Afterwards, we amble across town to the Central Presbyterian Church, an enormous building that Laura Marling is playing in. A tiny slip of a thing, she is dwarfed by the 50 foot-high cross on the wall behind her. She plays with Marcus Mumford, who both accompanies her on various instruments and sings harmonies. The quality of the two of their voices together almost makes a new one. It’s an extraordinary and utterly wonderful thing, which reminds me of the effect when Gram Parsons and Emmy-Lou Harris duet. This must be the tenth show I’ve seen Laura Marling play, and each time I am struck by how incredible and timeless her voice is. This is the beginning of a very long story. I am absolutely certain that, at the very least, people will be writing about her for decades to come. Moved, we head home.


The final day of SXSW begins in the best way it could: Sam Amidon and pancakes. I am at the Hometapes Friend Island festival. After only four hours sleep and on my own, I have hauled myself out of bed to come and see him play again, so taken was I last night. And pancakes! There is a brief period where I am sitting on the ground in the sun, eating them with maple syrup and watching Sam Amidon play, where I think I might actually pass out with joy. This moment was not only my highlight of the festival, it is one of the highlights of my decade. What a treat.


Having poked my nose in to the PACKED Sky Larkin show at Latitude 30, I head with LA Friend to the Q party at The Parish. We watch Delta Spirit, young, bluesy-rock dudes from San Diego. It is yet another example of a band I wouldn’t have thought I’d be into, but who captivate me live. They have amazing chemistry onstage, all looking so pleased to be there. The front man, Matthew Vasquez, does something I’ve never seen before, but love: whilst singing, he appears to pick a person in the crowd to look at, then sings, really sings, the song, just to them. As it’s different people at different points in the tune, it has an amazing effect of making you, as an audience member, feel like you’re inherently a part of the gig.


LA Friend then takes me to the Smell party. Smell is an all-ages punk club in Los Angeles, famous for being a home-from-home for bands like The Mae Shi and No Age. LA Friend gives me some ear plugs and we settle down in the back yard of hipster art bookstore Domy to watch awesome, loud, (mostly) girl punk band Mika Miko. After them, No Age themselves (Grammy-nominated and used to playing to enormous crowds) come on. Kids squeeze around the fence, filming on their phones what they know is a special, once-in-a-lifetime show. I stand grinning wildly. This is my South By Southwest! This is what I expected! Secret punk gigs on shonky stages set up in back gardens, watched in the burning sun! Another best moment is noted.
After a brief stop for pizza and frozen margaritas, I make my way to see Boston’s Magic Magic. They live up to their name; their feisty, rocky, interesting-but-accessible and inherently American-sounding indie is brilliant, and between the five of them is the kind of chemistry that is a delight to watch. Some bands just Are Great Live. They’re one of them.


As soon as they finish, I run down to the Dirty Dog Bar to catch Hypernova. Although such things shouldn’t affect one’s appreciation, their back story is hard to ignore: they are from Iran, a place where, I’m told, you can be thrown in prison just for owning an electric guitar. The government won’t allow broadband, so they have had to download any music they get over days on dial-up. As such, you’d expect them to sound like some kind of eighties throwbacks. In fact, they are more like gutsy, rocky Killers, with some “Juicebox”-era Strokes thrown in. The music speeds along at breakneck pace, and singer Raam’s deep semi-growl sucks you right in. Afterwards, I’m breathless.

Finally: Sam Isaac’s showcase set at Latitude 30. The band play brilliantly, the crowd are enthusiastic and appreciative and I am, again, proud. Afterwards, there is talk of sneaking into Perez Hilton’s party, but the draw of more margaritas and new friends proves too much, and so the end of our last night in Austin in spent laughing, drinking and occasionally pausing to bite a bottom lip, widen the eyes and breath in with excitement at what fun it’s been.

South By Southwest was full of surprises. But one thing I knew for sure was that I’d fall in love with it. See you there next year.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Finding out and showing off (20.2.09)

Today I went and watched 'The Inbetweeners' being filmed. It's a sitcom, shot with no audience, about four teenage boys trying to get laid. It was shown last year on E4 then repeated on Channel 4. If your humour is terribly sophisticated and highbrow, it may not be for you. If, like me, you find spunk jokes funny, you'll love it. It did well enough that they're doing a second series, which was what I went to see today. I was invited because I'm choosing the music for it. I did this on the last series, pulled in at the eleventh hour by one of the writers, an ex-Xfm colleague of mine, Iain Morris. He's signed up to the mailer and is very enthusiastic about it, which is why he thought I'd be the dude for the role. He and the others involved were all terribly complimentary about the job I did last time, which was nice. Not least because I'm genuinely a big fan of the series; there are certain jokes that, because of the nature of what I was doing, I had to watch twenty times, and they still now make me laugh out loud. My 'spunk jokes' description probably does it a disservice; there is something a little more intelligent in the mix that's hard to describe. A lot of people have likened it to a teen Peep Show, which seems fitting, not least because, whilst you love and root for the characters, you spend most of the show watching their actions with your head shaking in your hands. It's also similarly not done with an audience or laughter track.

The actual process of choosing the music is an odd one and much harder than I'd anticipated. Essentially, it's someone saying, "Here's a scene. Now here's every song that's ever been written since the beginning of the history of time. Pick one!", which feels a little like standing on the edge of a cliff. In the end I came up with a method: I went through the last few years' 'Best of the Year' mailers, and then my flatmate's iTunes, and noted any songs that might be appropriate (due to the fact that it's a comedy, it immediately ruled out all my Fionn Regan/Laura Marling-type misery music). On bits of A5, I wrote down how each of those songs makes me feel. Then I watched the scene I needed to soundtrack, and wrote down how that made me feel. Then I searched through my scraps of paper looking for a match ("anticipatory and excited", "anticipatory, but slightly doom laden", "mild disaster and panic, with an edge of it being funny for others" -if you've ever read my mailer, you'll know that's pretty much the way I tend to describe music to myself). Then I would play the DVD with the scene on one computer, the song on another simultaneously, and see how it fit. Then I’d suggest between three and five songs for each scene. I've since met sync people who do this full time, and they all think I’m crazy for being so thorough. They say they just watch it and think of a couple of songs and email them through a list. I think it says more about my OCD tendencies, or perhaps just that I hate doing a job in a way that could have been done better (there's the reason I'm so apologetic about the writing here...).

Back to today: I'd been warned and re-warned that the filming would be deathly boring. The thing is, it's an almost impossible challenge to bore more. Partly because I find almost everything interesting. Partly because I spend so much time rushing from here to there and never getting enough done, that to sit, quietly staring into the middle distance whilst nothing is happening, is rather a treat. As well as this, I have a Teletubbies-style enjoyment of happily watching comedy shows hundreds of times over and still finding them funny. Finally, having seen each episode from the first series tens of times, the actors in The Inbetweeners are as famous to me as Pitt, DeNiro and Streep. So even watching them fluff lines or try out different facial expressions is pretty fascinating.

I watched two scenes being filmed, with a lunch break in between. The only thing I've ever seen filmed before was 'Blind Date', when my old flatmate was on it. There was tons of stuff I found revelatory and interesting. For instance, I'd always assumed that they filmed with a bunch of cameras at the same time, to get each angle. In fact, when on location (as we were, in a suburban house) they usually use only one, and re-film each scene (usually a few times) from different angles. The other revelatory thing was the pace they film it at. In order to account for editing the different camera angles, there are often tiny pauses between lines in the dialogue. Something that makes complete sense, but that it never occurred to me they'd have to do.

I was also fascinated by the houses we were in. All the carpets covered in a sort of Clingfilm and the lino in a weird, thin polystyrene. Apparently the people often come and go to the upstairs of the house. I wondered whether they get bored of it but it's good money, or whether this is the most exciting thing that happens to them all year.

During the lunch break, they filmed a wee interview with me for the DVD extras. I'm normally terribly self-conscious doing anything to camera, but they asked me fun questions (about the process, about the series, about embarrassing teen exploits that still make me cringe)(which mostly involved drunkenly trying to get off with boys who had shown no interest in me all evening)(ug), which meant I got over-excited and enjoyed myself. Plus, I'm pretty sure my hair was behaving well. Good timing, hair. I guess we'll see how it comes out in a few months....

Then I came back to London and went to a Radio Academy event about censorship in the wake of the Brand/Ross scandal. There were some interesting points: one about how music is, in essence, art, and sometimes swearing should be acceptable in music as part of that. One about how, a few decades ago, people didn't swear so casually. So when they were VERY angry, they would swear. Now, people eff and blind every other word, so what do they do when they're really angry? Punch people? I was called upon to say something as someone who'd (vaguely) had to think about censorship in my job (in terms of bits I could and couldn't include from pre-recorded comedian interviews). There had been debate on whether OfCom were more stringent of late (the dude from there saying they weren't). I said that I'd been told by a cautious boss that it wasn't so much that they are more strict, more that punters now know who Ofcom are, and how to complain, so they tend to do so more casually.
Standing up in front of the room made my face go all red, but I was secretly really pleased to do it, massive show off that I am. I also (ludicrously) still always feel like a kid at these events who's somehow snuck in, so when all the luminaries said, "Good point", I felt like I'd been given a lolly.

Then I came home and listened to The World Tonight, with Robin Lustig live from Alabama. Lots of people who had experience of segregation giving their thoughts on the Obama inauguration today. It was terribly moving. In times like this, I wonder if I should write something down, as it's such a momentous day. But I'm sure there have been hundreds of thousands if not millions of more eloquently written blogs or from people with more personal experience. So I'll stick to the media frippery for now.