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#2 Snowflakes and white whales.

It has been a turbulent time in this corner of the galaxy since the last blog post. A dark time for the rebellion.

There was that whole affair where the wind turned easterly and turned those airborne water crystals into tiny ice sculptures of immense beauty. They accumulated quite a lot on this little island of Ireland. Skerries, my adopted hometown rarely gets snow, even when other places nearby get it. So, to see the islands and rocks surrounding the town bathed in white was a rare site. Ireland, not being accustomed to snow in any significant quality, put into action it’s national snow strategy, which I called “Project Armadillo”. Basically everybody stayed home, watched Netflix, and ran out of sliced pan. There were still three loaves of the sacred Brennan’s Family Pan™ in Skerries Costcutter shortly before the RED ALERT. Oh, my Canadian neighbour was much amused. Fie on Brennan’s bread! We had a breadmaker and we weren’t afraid to use it. And don’t even get me started on those Imperial walkers.

In my home, we didn’t engage much with the conditions outside. No snow angels, snow men, or, indeed any snow-beings or structures were ours to build. We didn’t slide down inclines or throw snow projectiles at anyone. We worked. Well, Kim worked. I cooked and cleaned and did bits of work in between - and occasionally ventured out to keep our stock of custard cream biscuits stocked. Something about the freezing temperatures made us both crave the ritualistic comfort and security and calorie intake that is dunking a custard cream into sugary hot tea. Oh yes. I know I’m skating on thin-ice here - see what I did there?- but there’s a whole other discussion to be had regarding the dark and ancient dunking arts, of which custard creams are a mere thin slice in the pie (or segmented Scottish shortbread biscuit) chart of the dunking biscuit galaxy. It would take another blog post, nay! a thesis to categorise and discuss the dunkable from the non-dunkable. And what, pray, is the dunking soakage structural integrity (the time taken for the submerged portion of the biscuit to detach from the dry part and plop distressingly into one’s brew? Never to be attempted with a rich-tea digestive.) Or the biscuit-to-fondant ratio? Double-stuff Oreos set the standard there. Then there’s the thorny issue of branding. Jacob’s is tolerable, Crawford’s the only sane choice and Bolands can die under a bridge. That’s a bit harsh, but my emotions are rather stirred up right now, swirling in a sugary brown maelstrom into which the undesirable mushy lump of political correctness has fallen into and dissolved, only to be guiltily ingested, furtively, at the last slurp.

I realise that I have ceased to make sense, but I was having so much fun. This is why I should not ever write blogs.

With the flakes teeming in the air outside, I thought to play Kate Bush’s 2011 album “50 Words for Snow”, which is a majestic but underplayed work about sex with a Snowman. I think. I do think that. It appears to be so. Oh, Kate, never change. In the course of the album, Stephen Fry appears in a spoken word recital of 50 words for snow. I don’t recall it exactly, but I think I could categorise the snow that fell in Skerries as being primarily Graupel. More of of a granular “soft hail” rather than the big fluffy flakes that my heart desired, that drifted extravagantly in the windy hollows in deeper inland Leinster.

Any live music or event work that I had booked had been cancelled or postponed. I got off lightly. Sure, I lost a few quid. The grinding front right wheel bearing of my aging but still NCT certified car shall have to go unreplaced for another few weeks. Many folks in the insecure world of arts and entertainment suffered from lost revenue last week. Many other people suffered worse; the old, the isolated, those depending on footfall for their business, those in farming and agriculture, those in need of medical care. For my part, I relished the extra spare time to “play” in the studio. If one can make hay while the sun shine, one can certainly make art when the snow falls.

I also take heart in those other so-called snowflakes of a different kind - the students and other young people in Florida showing class, empathy, maturity and bravery in the face of political and economic corruption. As has been said elsewhere, if these are snowflakes, then winter is coming. I hope those snowflakes stick.

The importance of play in learning, alongside “deliberate practice”, in adulthood as well as childhood, can’t be overstated. I was working on a new song for a new client, a fine Italian singer-songwriter (more detail on this in the future), and the closing track of the proposed 4-track EP required a bit of pre production. I decided to use all new techniques using a myriad of tools on my hard drive that had heretofore remained sadly under or un-used. Yes, I just used the word “heretofore”. Deliberately. Careful now. I learnt much. I have new workflows. I have new killer claps and finger snaps! I also learned more about integrating AIR Strike and Boom! drum modules with Wavemachine Labs “Drumagog” and Pro Tools. The results are satisfying. I also have a killer bassline composed and sequenced using Scarbee Jay-bass Kontakt sampler (hang in there non-musos) and tons of compression and distortion. It’s beautifully gnarly. I hope to give you a listen someday.

We had recorded the guide tracks on the Tuesday night before the real Storm Emma hit. My client had impeccable timing and he could play bang on time - wonderful! The work was quick, and in one evening we had the shell of an EP constructed with all tempos and meter changes and our recording plan worked out. As the wind howled outside I was hit by inspiration. Fortunately, our electrical power and water supply held.The 4th track outro has been re-constructed into something of a euro-dance epic. I love it. The client may hate it. I hope not. We shall have to see next week when proper recording commences.

In the meantime, another recording project looms. Whereas my italian project has come together with very quickly, this other project has been like Melville’s elusive white whale, and I a deranged Ahab trying to pursue, that cetacean prize, that Pyrrhic victory. With slightly less oil and fat. I speak of devilishly difficult tunes and conflicting schedules. I love these tunes, and as producer I think they should be tracked live. At least the core instrument tracks, the vocals will be overdubbed shortly after. It’s amazing that the first tunes of this project were recorded nearly 6 months ago, and since then we’ve been cursed with delays. But soon, my pretties, soon I will have these harpooned and in my grasp, or hard drive, as it were. I’m reminded of a classic album around which 18th century whaling was the theme - “Nantucket Sleighride” by Mountain. Great cover.

The title refers the the phenomenon of a whaling crew (part of a huge industry one time along the North East coast of America and further north) harpooning a whale and the whale dragging the ship out or under the waves in an attempt to drown the crew, break free, whatever, to survive. It would be the crew’s hope that the whale would eventually be exhausted and then easily slaughtered. The titular track “Nantucket Sleighride (to Owen Coffin)” refers to an actual historical incident in 1821 where things did not go to plan for the crew of the longboat whaler “Essex” when the sperm whale they were hunting rammed the ship and the survivors, starving in the following days, shot and ate the most vulnerable of the crew - a lad named Owen Coffin. This is described in a book by Owen Chase, another more senior member of the crew, who survived the horrors of the hunt and its aftermath (Chase, Owen (1821). Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. New York: W. B. Gilley) . Those of a certain age may recognise the tune as being the one blasted over the credits of the hard nosed political interview show “Weekend World” in the Sunday lunchtimes of the 1980’s. In those days the choice was either the show’s host, Brian Walden, skewering the cream (or scum?) of Westminster or RTE farming forecasts. Oh, I can smell Sunday roast (the aroma of an ambushed Thatcher).

I write this leisurely blog to you in the early hours from the deep dark dales of County Wicklow, where Kim and are I are babysitting our beloved niece and nephew. Everyone’s asleep, and I can’t make any noise, so here I am tapping away. It’s a strange thing though, for as we drove down in the beating rain to Wicklow, this very day, Kim selected an Eric Clapton compilation CD and we listened to Cream tracks - some I hadn’t heard in quite a while. “The Cream of Eric Clapton” was the first vinyl album I ever bought ( I think? Sometime around 1987.) It was my first exposure to the British 60’s blues explosion. I had heard the strains of “I feel Free” and, later, “Layla” in car ads, not having a clue who was playing. No shazam or internet in those days - oh I miss that delicious sensation of discovering the artist of a track that you’ve heard once, and was captivated by, but couldn’t find out who it was. The Germans surely have a word for such a forgotten phenomenon. Those over a certain age will recognise this snippet of conversation. “You know the one….singer goes “oooooh, cadgafragalistic agaiiiiin” and the guitar goes twiddlydeeeee,dee,dee,deee,deeeeeeee”. Surely you must know of which I speak? The guitar goes twdiddlydeeeee,dee,dee,deee, fuckin -deeeeeeee!” At the end!! Yes? …..ahhhhh fuck it, stop looking at me like that”. 20 years later I discovered that tune was “Girl can’t help it” by Journey. I never was a fan but I love the end of that tune. I digress. Stick with me, said the snowflake.

But there is a tune that eludes me still. Male vocals, really laid back American male a la JJ Cale, with gorgeous strings (possibly mellotron?) and a lovely sax solo reminiscent of Dick Parry. Oh. be quiet. I recall the final lyrics as “you’re like the bonny breeze, blowing through my knees, you’re the (best thing?) baby I do believe” (cue sax and strings). Any ideas who that could be? Help a guy out. I heard it once around 1992 on the now defunct Horizon FM radio show, which I think was called “Horizons”.They played some amazing music on that show and the metal show - the metal show played serious metal but also great rock and, in particular, progressive rock. I still have a few tapes of recordings of that show on cassette, mouldering away in a case somewhere in the attic. Damn. I’m going to have to get that case down.

Anyway, as I drove, I struggled to remember the producer of those early Cream tracks. That other sensation….you know it….but damn it just evades your recall. Any Germans in the house? It just hit me. Felix Pappalardi. He produced those Cream tracks from “Disreali Gears”. He was also the bassist for Mountain, of “Nantucket Sleighride” infamy. Such an influential band, they helped create the temple of modern hard rock. Poor Felix was shot and killed (accidentally?) by his wife Gail in 1983. He was dunking jammy dodgers at the time, I believe.

I’ll let you know how those upcoming recordings go. If you got this far….why did you????!!! And thank you....

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