Shimura Curves

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

If We Can Stay Together

This one is pure 60s bubblegum-gospel in the vein of The Archies and all those lovely honey dripping Jeff Barry productions. Bouncing drums, big throbbing farfisa organ, and a melody bouncing back and forth between steel drums and guitar - this was one of the first songs I ever recorded with my Jazzmaster, when the strings were new and it sounded like cut glass.

But the real fireworks happen in the vocal harmonies, especially at the end. For the first time in mine own home, I wasn't constrained by the limitations of a 4-track, and decided to just keep piling harmonies on - by the end, I think I had 16 different vocal tracks. These days I think nothing of that - an average Shimura Curves track usually has at least 8 vocal tracks (4 singers all double tracked in stereo) but at the time it seemed almost magical to be able to just keep going.

The lyrics are straightforward enough. The soundartist and I were on one of many rocky patches, yet I still held out a ray of optimism. He was a packrat, the kind of man who never threw anything away, never bought a new anything. He had had the same computer for 10 years, he had inherited a suite of old appliances from his grandparents, his clothes he wore until they fell off him. I thought this was really commendable - I was quite proud of the way he would never give up on any piece of gear, he'd drag out the soldering iron and fix it.

It's just too bad he didn't have the same approach to relationships. There was a bit of faulty wiring, but it seemed sound to me. It didn't seem to me like there was that much wrong, apart from his bizarre insistence that somehow a 2-bedroom 2-bathroom flat wasn't actually big enough for the two of us. He refused counseling, he refused any kind of compromise or discussion. To this day, I can't really figure it out. He constantly demanded freedoms for himself that he refused to concede me. The only answer I've come up with was that he fell too fast, and he fell out of love just as quickly. We definitely moved in together too quickly, within about 6 months of meeting - I suppose for him, moving in together was like some intensive form of dating whereby he didn't have to leave the house to get sex. For me, moving in with someone was a hugely big step, one I thought over, and thought over everything it meant to me, before I did it. And then he turned around and claimed that it was always intended as temporary. All I can say is, I wouldn't have done it had I thought that.

The only thing I can really do in retrospect is to throw my hands up and realise that I loved him a hell of a lot more than he ever loved me. I've spent my whole life trying to love and never being loved in return. I overheard two women in a bookshop the other week, talking about relationship self help books. "If a woman is having trouble, she'll bargain, she'll try to work through things, she'll talk and talk and talk - but if a man decides he doesn't want to be in a relationship, that's it, there ain't nothing on earth that will make him stay."

So this song, I guess, was me, like King Knut, standing on the beach, with the waves licking round my feet, trying to hold back the tide.


Thursday, December 17, 2009


This is an old, old song. Not one of the first songs I ever wrote, but certainly dating back to 1992. I wrote it originally during the total mental breakdown that resulted in my being arrested, and sentenced to a 28 day rehab program that caused such an utter collapse to my precarious mental state that I was transferred from rehab to a mental hospital. Which was where I wrote this song.

It was also one of the first batch of songs I re-recorded using my laptop, while I was still learning how to use Reason and Cubase with songs I had sitting around. I swear there was no reason in particular for picking this song, other than that I liked the melody - one of those cases of odd prescience where one's "creativity" seems to be one step ahead of one's conscious mind in terms of what's going on in your life.

The eponymous Harriet was my roommate in the nuthutch, a 50 year old career schizophrenic who used to keep me up half the night shouting at god and the devil. Considering the number of times I was hospitalised between the ages of 15 and 22, I was used to this kind of thing, and to be honest, more annoyed than disturbed or anything. The staff didn't like the patients wandering the halls at night, so I'd go to the patient lounge where there was an ancient, badly tuned piano, which proved my greatest joy and consolation for those 28 days.

That piano kept me entertained for hours. I'd grown up always having a piano in the house, though I wasn't fond enough of practicing to justify proper lessons after the age of about 12. It died shortly after we moved upstate. My parents decided to sand and re-polish the ballroom floor, and instead of lifting it up into the parlour, my dad simply rolled it out onto the porch overnight. Of course, it rained, and the piano was ruined. So my father got an axe and a crowbar, and together we smashed the thing into pieces. The soundboard (with strings still attached) and the striking mechanism, however, we kept - my father later turned it into a "sculpture" in the ballroom, complete with hanging plant and bust of Beethoven. My sisX0r and I spent hours of fun banging the strings with mallets and metal spoons and things and recording the results with our 4-track. (I wish I still had tapes of these tracks - my favourite is still one where she threw a mic into the freezer and made a rhythm track out of the sound of shutting the seal on a bag of peas.)

Anyway, whacked out on more drugs (legal ones, prescribed by doctors) than I'd ever consumed to get me into rehab, I used to spend the nights banging away on this old piano, my forehead pressed against the wood - or better yet, with my head inside the case if there were no staff around to check on me - writing these endless repetitive Philip Glass style compositions that sounded just fantastic on heavy tranquilisers and 3 hours sleep. I'd sleep during the daytime, when my roommate was out at therapy. Since I didn't smoke, the staff were utterly at a loss for any means to get me out of bed, as threatening to revoke my ward-leaving privileges did nothing to move me. (Funny how no one ever thought to revoke my piano-playing privileges - I think those were sacrosanct as some kind of "art therapy".)

Harriet was one of the whole raft of proper songs that came out of that time, the clanging piano noises cleaned up and made nice-nice and turned into pop songs. But if you listen carefully, you can hear the cycling 4-note melody underneath all the noisy guitars. (It's really just the chord progression from "Boys Don't Cry" with a couple of minor modulations.) The vocal melody uses a trick, a sort of audio version of an optical illusion (as much favoured by Bach) to make it seem as if the song is continually rising in pitch, up, up, floating up and away.

I changed the last verse - mainly because I couldn't remember the original last few lines, which adds a sweet ending to a song which was originally totally bittersweet. It's about disengagement, alienation, the constant restrain of "leave me alone" - the irony being, of course, that the song was actually a reflection of my state of mind at the point in time I revived. I'd been living with the Soundartist for nearly a year, and things were dragging badly.

Really, I just wanted to be left alone to carry on the sort of bohemian existence I'd scratched out. I'd burned out on my posh advertising job in the wake of the crash. My band had splintered under pressure and I wanted to be done with the music industry. All I really wanted was to be left alone to record my weird symphonies in my bedroom, and work a part time temp job to pay for the groceries.

The soundartist - although he was living almost exactly the same lifestyle (i.e. minus the temp job and plus a trust fund, a flat in Bloomsbury his mum had bought him and an Arts Council grant to cover his expenses) simply didn't think this was enough for me. He hounded me to "do something" with these songs I was recording, and not in a supportive way, either, but in a "you're worthless without a record contract" way. I responded by withdrawing further, moving my studio into the spare room and sleeping in there, instead of in our bedroom, between recording bouts.

He confessed to me later, in a sort of drunken moment, that it was because he was actually jealous. Despite having carved a career as a professional Sound Artist, music was not something that came naturally to him. It took him weeks to get anything out of the music generation software we had, and when he did, it was highly cerebral and required explanation. For me, it's always been completely effortless, writing catchy melodies. It's odd, how much time we spent being jealous of one another's talents - perhaps why artists should never have romantic relationships? He was jealous of my ability to pull something accessible and "pop" out of almost anything, while I was jealous of his ability to make abstract, intellectual, experimental... noise. I have always wanted to make unlistenably *weird* music, and have never succeeded.

He couldn't understand that for me, the joy of music was in *making* it, not in displaying it to others and getting cold hard cash for it. His relationship with Art, indeed, always seemed to me, to be purely commercial on a simple transactional level. Not that there's anything wrong with getting paid - but it was more like, he never did it for the simple joy of it, the play of it. If there wasn't cash or coverage to be had, he wasn't interested in making it.

The irony being, of course, within a year of his dumping me, I started Shimura Curves, and we had more ostensible Success (radio play, magazine coverage, being on the telly) than the Soundartist ever had or likely ever will.

I recorded this song before we broke up, rather than during the process. Listening back to it now, it's stunningly obvious what was going on, but I was oblivious at the time.


Friday, December 11, 2009

Past Perfect

So much for trying to upload one MP3 a week, huh? Will try to keep more on top of this, though this time of year is a bad time to attempt to do anything with any regularity.

Past Perfect.

I always promised Matt that I'd write a song about him some day. We had an on-again off-again tour romance for ages - every time our paths crossed, we'd just kind of fall into each others' arms again. But the truth was, I lived in London and he lived in Hull and neither of us were going anywhere. So we took our romance where we could, supporting each others' bands on tour, trying to play the same festivals to snatch backstage moments.

Matt was probably one of the most beautiful men I'd ever known - the kind of angelic blond Englishman that caused Pope Gregory the Great to remark "non angli sed angeli". About 6'2", with long, curly golden-blond hair that fell in great tousled masses to his skinny shoulders, wide blue eyes, a viking nose and the softest of perfect peach lips. He played guitar like a man possessed. I didn't even know if he was a boy or a girl the first time I met him (he was playing in an "all girl" band) but when he let me braid his hair, I saw the golden stubble on his jawline. Just everything about him was golden. The first night we slept together, I woke up to see a sign reading YOU COULD DIE TODAY pinned to his ceiling and knew this was going to be something... *special*.

We never got it together, really. Morning-after pills, hangovers, incompatible touring schedules, it all proved too much. I carried a poem he wrote me as a text message saved on my phone for years. He was obsessed with Canada - I think he assumed from the fact that I played in a band that counted as CanCon, that I was Canadian, too - no, I was the 1/3 that was not.

The song was my attempt at utterly pure bubblegum - right down to the direct lift of the Yummy Yummy Yummy intro. I spent ages working on that, but it still doesn't seem quite right. I kinda want to rework the song with different drums, as there's a lot about it that I do love. The gentle "la la la-la-la-aaaah" on the choruses. The weird thrum of the gurgling noise I used for a bass. The hard panned tremolo keyboard wub - I did actually record two separate keyboards and put them slightly out of phase and panned them left and right for the effect instead of actual proper wub.

The breakdown where the drums drop out and it's just voice and the odd synths is one of my favourite musical moments I've ever written. I kinda want to re-record the rest of the song to match. But the song is about regret and not getting it together, so perhaps it's fitting that I could never get the song to fit together.

Past Perfect.mp3

a tour diary from those days