Shimura Curves

Monday, July 29, 2013

Poison Tree

Lead Vocals: Kate St.Claire
Harmony Vocals: Lisa Payne
Analogue Synth: Frances May Morgan
Bellzouki: Ed Lynch-Bell
Electric Guitar and Everything Else: Kate St.Claire

Download on SoundCloud. The track is free, but if you like it please consider donating something here.

Another song rescued from the box of stuff from the early 90s. This one might be even earlier, now that I think about it. The guitar riff at the centre of the song was taken from a much earlier track I wrote for a band called Clair - named after the My Bloody Valentine song - who accidentally gave me the surname I'd use for the next 20 years. (I was introduced to someone as "Kate from Clair," they misheard it as "Kate Sinclair" and it just stuck. Though it didn't hurt that St. Claire was the patron saint of television, due to her habit of appearing in people's visions at a great distance.)

I suppose I should have seen it coming, that I decided to revive this song of all songs. Honestly, I just liked the monster riff, and the nursery rhyme logic of the lyrics, a revenge fantasy spun out from two lines of the eponymous William Blake poem, full of glass coffins and poison apples and murderous mirrors and cursed spinning wheels. It's not actually based on any one specific frenemy, just a bunch of emotions hitched together. I had spent my late teens completely overshadowed by a series of older, cooler, and most crucially prettier best friends, I always felt like the fat, ugly kid sister perpetually in someone else's shadow. But the one thing that I always had, was that I was cleverer. I was good with words, with a particular talent for cutting remarks. I always wanted this song to sound like Hole, but I couldn't muster the sneer, I manage only childish petulance for the killing "everybody loves you when you're dead" taunt. I mean, that was the whole point, that jealous Kenneth Halliwell complaint, "you even die better than me."

It's funny; when you're a songwriter, sometimes you don't have a clue what songs are about as you're writing them. That's the impossible thing to explain to someone who is not a songwriter - you almost never write songs as a conscious act of will. The songs are out there, you just write them down, and they don't always make their meaning known to you as you're writing them. Often it's only in retrospect that the meaning pops suddenly into focus, in a way that makes them seem almost prophetic, like your subconscious mind realised that something was coming well before you did. Several times, I've written what I didn't realise was actually a break-up song, weeks before the breakup that I didn't see coming, and I thought had completely blindsided me.

So in a way, I think that reviving this song was one of those messages from my subconscious. I chose this song for Anna to sing, because we'd talked about fairytale symbolism in the work of A.S. Byatt, the Djinn In The Nightingale's Eye and the like. And a few weeks later, an explosive knot of sexual politics detonated between us, ultimately fatally fracturing the band. The details are unimportant at this point, but the emotions were that familiar ugly tangle that I thought I'd exorcised with this song. It doesn't matter how clever you are, how talented you are, how much fucking hard work you put in. No one will ever decide that they want you. Men will always choose the younger, smaller, cuter, prettier one. You will never not be the ugly sister. There is no fairy godmother, there is no glass slipper for you to even things out. You will never win the prince. Even your friends will eventually take her side when your bitterness and envy makes you too un-fun to be around. Most people will be happier without you in their lives. And you will be left alone with your revenge fantasies, and nothing else except an elegant put-down and a killer guitar riff.

I wish there were a happy ending to this song. (Kinda like I wish there'd been a happy ending for this album, but this is all I get.) I do still love the music, though, the whirls as Frances' manic Korg riff bobs up and down like a possessed spinning wheel. And Ed, long-time house-mate, fan and eventually roadie, had joined the band on rhythm guitar by this point to take some of the pressure off me (though I swear he grew a beard soon after, to prevent him being mistaken for another girl, with his waist-length blond hair.) This last incarnation of the band - me, Ed, Frances and the eminently organised and refreshingly professional Lisa - though short-lived and not particularly popular with promoters or punters (woe betide the twee club that booked us, expecting pretty dresses and fingersnaps, and got blown away by Hawkwind covers and band members in Aphex Twin t-shirts) was actually the most enjoyable for me, as everyone actually took on a more equitable share of work.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Just Like Friends

Lead Vocals: Kate St.Claire
Harmony Vocals: Anne-Marie Payne, Lisa Payne, Marianna Longmire
Everything else: Kate St.Claire

Download on SoundCloud. The track is free, but if you like it please consider donating something here.

I have told the story behind this song rather too recently to want to tell it again. In fact, it was trying to explain the emotions behind it, and how they still resonate through my fears, that gave me the idea to publish these old songs this way. But I've reached the point with this particular story that Borges explored in Night of the Gifts, where I am no longer sure if that is the way it all actually happened, or if I've been telling the story for so long that the Story itself has supplanted the actual memories. And memories are such tricky things, they are so seldom recorded in perfect detail, like videotape, they're more like projections that the limbic system assembled from a jumble of sense impressions, that have to be reconstructed each time they are brought to mind.

In my mind and my memories, now, the Shimura Curves years were some kind of golden age I long to return to, but then I go back and read the older entries of this blog, and am surprised at how often I was actually confused and unhappy and totally stressed out. It's like there were two narratives surrounding that band, and I can't work out which one was the real one.

In one narrative, it was all giggling fits and sleepover parties with my best friends. We drank pink wine and ate pizza and gossiped at rehearsals, and planned our outfits and made each other mixtapes and did each others' hair. Four girls in love with the world, and our manager, Emma, who was also our biggest fan. Happy moments like snapshots, places that sweep into focus in my memories, imbued with the essence of that band and echo with those girls' laughter. That house full of writers in Hackney Wick where Frances and Ampy lived, me sitting on the steps down to the kitchen as they made dinner, then eating communal supper round the dinner table. Anna's flat on the Holloway Road just up from the Garage, where she played me a Knife album for the first time. (I wrote Just Like Friends on her sofa, strumming her housemate's semi-hollowbody guitar.) The top floor of Marianna's house in Archway, lying on her bedroom floor as my bandmates drew freckles on my face and laughed about ever-more ridiculous suggestions for remixers and planning our stage show for when we played Wembley, and we'd have fireworks and everything. That Erno Goldfinger flat in Poplar where the Payne Sisters lived, and fixing Lisa's stereo because she couldn't hear her own vocals panned hard to one side in the mix. An impromptu a capella version of Stronger, sung to unamplified Jazzmaster, while waiting for soundcheck in the garden at Cargo. The grin on Emma's face every time we took the stage, whether it was the back room of the Windmill, or the main stage at 93 Feet East. They were the happiest times of my life. Weren't they?

And then there was the other narrative - the narrative where I felt put-upon and taken for granted and overworked and under-appreciated. The endless fucking waiting around, as two of my bandmates decided to have some weird passive aggressive contest to see who was the ~most important~ in the band, by who could be latest for rehearsals, gigs, soundchecks, etc. and therefore cause the most fuss at their eventual arrival. As a relentlessly punctual person who is routinely 15 minutes early for everything in case a bus gets delayed, I found it beyond infuriating. Then there was the fact that I provided all the music, and therefore had to drag a guitar, a bag of pedals, a laptop and sometimes a MIDI keyboard to every gig, while the others waltzed in and out with nothing more than a costume change. And, of course, asking a bandmate to transport a practice amp half a fucking mile to a gig was the most massive imposition, which required being two hours late as opposed to merely one, with every other band on the bill waiting for it to arrive so they could soundcheck, staring daggers at me, because I was the only one there. I thought it was just me being oversensitive when I pointed these things out. But when we played the Truck Festival, The Texan roadied, and was absolutely flabbergasted at the division of labour in the band, and how much my bandmates protested over being asked to do trivial tasks like handing out flyers. I wrote the songs. I recorded the songs. I mixed and produced and talked to mastering engineers about what format and bitrate they needed because no one else understood that stuff. I arranged the laptop backing tracks for live shows. I arranged the sets. I wrote the set-lists and made sure everyone had one. I talked to the soundpeople and made sure we had the right amount of mics and the correct interface to input a laptop into the soundboard. I set up and soundchecked and triggered the laptop, and played guitar, and sung, and had to tear down the entire stage set-up while they were skipping off to snog their groupies backstage, and sometimes they had even finished the wine before I got off the stage. I paid the deposits, on club bookings or on tourvans. I paid for all the equipment, bar one microphone which paid for itself by us not having to go into an expensive studio to record our album. When they complained how much ~work~ it was to occasionally hand out flyers, well, it started to all feel a bit lop-sided.

I had been a musician for over half my life - I played my first gig at 16, worked as a session bassist in New York for five years, toured the UK several times. I knew the sheer amount of hard graft and shifting heavy gear and finger-blistering rehearsals and ass-kissing and shitty support slots at the Bull and Gate that it took to get a band up and running. And in The Lollies, that hard work (and a substantial amount of luck and excellent personal contacts) had started to pay off - so Shimura Curves didn't start from nothing, we started off already further along than any band I'd ever been in. I had expectations of commitment based on the (I now realise quite extraordinary, compared to most UK indie bands) work ethic of bands I'd previously been in. Rightly or wrongly, I felt like my bandmates walked into a situation where all the groundwork had been done, without even realising it was being done. And I started to feel really, really resentful, at how put-upon they would act when asked to handle a portion of that work, and at the same time, how entitled they felt to my time and energy, for instance, complaining if the set-list fairy didn't magically hand-draw and leave the sheets by their microphones at every gig. Guess who would not turn up to the soundcheck, then complain loudly into the mic that it was the soundman's fault she couldn't hear herself in the monitor. If four people had four different commitments for each day of a week we needed to rehearse, guess whose social life got shunted over, guess whose dates got cancelled, guess who took endless days off work? There was a sharp divide - friends of ours who were also in bands thought I was being exploited, friends of ours who had never been musicians thought I was an ogre. And I remember the surprise with which a mutual (non-musician) friend greeted it, when I broke down into explosive tears of frustration, because he had an actual go at me for just asking my bandmate to just do her job. I felt like I got no sympathy because I wasn't cute and vulnerable and pretty, I was hard and tough and no-nonsense because that's what it took to be a session player in NYC. That bloody-mindedness that made the band even happen in the first place was what made me look like an ogre.

I know it all sounds so petty when listed in black and white. And what good is it doing to drag it all up again? I still get annoyed, thinking about the time we scheduled a much-needed quick rehearsal the morning before the photoshoot for our single, and I dragged my guitar, and pedals (if you've ever seen the size of my pedalboard, you'd realise this was not an insubstantial thing) and bag full of costume changes all the way up the hill to Archway, only to have one bandmate cancel because she "felt fat" and required our manager to cycle across town to reassure her. By the time I dragged myself plus all my gear on a hot bus across town over to Dalston to the photographer's studio, I felt a lot more than just fat, I felt sweaty and disgusting, and my hair was so lank and gross that people said I looked like Kurt Cobain on the back cover of that single - but I somehow had to stuff that irritation down and pretend to lark around for the camera. I got through a fuck of a lot of the prop wine on that occasion, is how I coped. It was supposed to be fun; it was the life I'd dreamed of since I was 16, all coming true. Oh, and then my other bandmate got rat-arsed and went off to have a super-awkward one night stand with the label-mate who had been at that photo shoot with us, thus ruining any chances we might have had of having an ally in the brewing war with that record label. The record label we only signed with because it was run by another ex-bandmate's on-again off-again (mostly off-again) ex-boyfriend, who I'd disliked from the first night I met him (he was an indie snob, I was a Poptimist, and he was outraged - outraged! - that myself and another Plan B writer were discussing Britney Spears at a Final Fantasy gig) and then grew to loathe after he oh, just walked out on said bandmate while she was having a miscarriage, leaving her to get home from hospital by herself because he would rather go out DJ-ing. And believe it or not, it went downhill from there. I never believed her insistence that she wanted us to sign because it would be good for our career. He schmoozed our contacts even as she was hacking his email to see who he was cheating on her with. Was it worth getting into bed with his label, in order to secure the Radio 1 airplay he promised us? No, no it was not. I learned a hard lesson through that - never, ever, go against your instincts regarding who to work with, no matter who urges you to do it.

Do I feel disloyal about typing out all these complaints, some legitimate, some verging on nasty gossip, about people I used to count as my friends? Oh, I'm sure they could tell tales about me. The time I got so drunk at a bandmate's party I hurled a glass bottle at some boy's head. The time I got so angry at that jerk from our label and his annoying friends that I screamed the rammed dressing room at the Garage completely clear of liggers in two minutes flat. The shouting, the drinking, the times I took to my blog to air disputes that couldn't be resolved in person. (How ironic - which is a nice way of saying hypocritical - given one of my bandmates' career as a confessional blogger.) I know I come off badly in their versions of events. That is, if they remember me at all.

That's the thing. That you can spend 3, 4 years of your life locked up in these intense relationships with your bandmates, cooped up in dressing rooms, rehearsal studios, vans, urgent meetings in posh restaurants. And your phone stops ringing, your email stops pinging, and then one day, you never see them again. They have moved on with their lives, they have forgotten you, but you're stuck with this unfinished milestone of your life. Just Like Friends, indeed.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Boy Hairdresser

Lead vocals: Kate St.Claire
Backing vocals: Lisa Payne
Analogue Synthesiser: Frances May Morgan
Everything else: Kate St.Claire

This is one of the much older songs on the album, but it's also one of my favourites - possibly my favourite song I ever recorded. But it is a revival. It wasn't that I was running out of ideas (we had so many songs that we weren't even able to fit them all in on the album.) What happened was that in December 2005, I bought a flat of mine own, and was able to unpack, properly, my entire life, for the first time since the 90s. I found a box of lyric books and 4-track tapes, dating back to as early as 1994, and decided to revive 3 of the tunes - The Boy Hairdresser, Poison Tree and Hung With Joy - and rearrange them for laptop.

The lyrics to The Boy Hairdresser (yes, the title is a Joe Orton reference) are about the improbably named Sanford Santacroce, my on-again off-again Great Lost Love Of My Life (tm) for most of the 90s. Our actual relationship was so brief it still amazes me that it actually happened, but the being in love with him thing lasted for about a decade. Being in love with the idea of him was so amazing, so powerful, so overwhelming that I wrote songs about him, wrote comics with him, even wrote a novel about him, projecting his personality and our story into a fan fiction soap opera. But it wasn't the kind of love that could withstand nights in with a VCR and arguments over whose turn it was to do the dishes. Dear god, I wish it could have been, but it wasn't.

It was the kind of love this song is about, all crush and breathlessness and your heart-rate soaring like those high, spinny synth sounds that Frances wove in and out of my guitar, and your breath catching in your throat like the bass sound I programmed, slipping and grinding like a car stuck between gears. The bit where the second set of drums kicks in, about 1:06 and the whole song shifts up a gear as the distorted guitars blast off, that's one of those few moments where a song I wrote sounded on tape exactly like it sounded in my head.

But this song is also sad to me, because for most of our life, Shimura Curves was a musical war between two halves of the band - and two conflicting aesthetics - and this song was the moment that I won. See, half the band wanted to be in Hawkwind, and the other half wanted to be in Sugababes. There was the krautrocky, shoegazey, kosmische contingent, me and Frances, who wanted to get our heads down and space-rock out. Then there was the clubbing half of the band, Anna and Marianna, who were the ones who were out dancing at Fabric or FWD>> every weekend. And then there was Miss AMP, the soul of the band, who flitted back and forth between the two sides, never quite sure if she wanted us to be the kind of indie-rock band who would impress her boyfriends, or the kind of electronic act her girlfriends could go dancing to. We should not have worked, as a group, and yet, we did.

It's funny; the girls were originally hired as a distraction. When I first started writing the songs that would become Shimura Curves on my laptop, back at the end of 2003, I went to see other "laptop acts" and was completely unimpressed. Talking with the singer of a friend's band, she suggested jokingly that I get some dancers to prance about in front of me and act out the song. Genius idea, I thought, and set about assembling the coolest girls I knew, the kind of women that when I was a kid, I'd have looked up at onstage, and thought "Damn, I want to be them!" Funnily enough, most of them turned out to be writers, rather than musicians (I met 2 of them through the magazine Careless Talk Costs Lives, and 2 of them through the messageboard I Love Music - even Lisa, the little sister who joined a bit later, was also a writer) but I wanted women who knew about, and were obsessed with music.

And though it was me who wrote all of the songs, "the girls" became absolutely crucial because they were my first - and often toughest - audience. I wrote for them, with them in mind, as I pounded the keys. The bassline had to make them move their arses. The words had to make them giggle. And the melody had to make them want to raise their sweet, sweet voices and twine them into 4-part harmony. I'm not one of those people who "writes music for themselves and if anyone else likes it, it's a plus." Not at all. I always wrote for very specific people, for my friends, for my bandmates. Their opinions mattered to me in a way that blogs and critics and record company people's just didn't. As much as I love this song, it wasn't written for my bandmates, it was written for me. And that was a mistake.

Download on SoundCloud. The track is free, but if you like it please consider donating something here.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Other People's Cigarettes

Lead vocals: Lisa Payne
Backing vocals: Kate St.Claire
Everything else: Kate St.Claire

This was always conceived as the album opener. But though we tried several times to open our set with it, the song seemed cursed - once the laptop malfunctioned, another time the guitar cut out, so it was never played very frequently.

It was written in those weird days, right at the end of The Lollies. In fact, "OPC" or "Other People's Cigarettes" was the catchphrase of our driver/roadie/soundman/ligger/general bon viveur, Jesse - every time he was trying to give up smoking, he would stop buying his own packs, but would end up smoking more, because he was so "down with OPC."

I was living in Clerkenwell at the time, in that mad flat above a pub, with the style journalist, her boyfriend (the flat's owner) at the weekends, and an erstwhile indie popstar who occasionally flew in from Japan to sleep on our sofabed. I had a tiny, box-like room at the back, with a loft bed above, and a desk that I turned into a home studio below. I'd just recently got one of those 2 second sample/delay pedals, to replace the "etherealiser" I'd been using since the late 80s, that gave up the ghost in a puff of grey smoke, quite fittingly, in a dank basement venue in Oxford. I was just mucking about trying to learn how to use the sample/loop function when I came up with this odd little riff, inspired by weird Turkish prog records.

It was a difficult place to live, noisy, smelly, and to make matters worse, relations with my housemate (one of my closest friends before I moved in) were fraying. Smoking was a major bone of contention. I'm a non-smoker; she swore that she was going to give up before we moved in together. But when you live above a pub, OPCs are the easiest of temptations. She took to rolling her last cigarette, right before she went to bed, at the kitchen table. I would wake up, usually with a raging hangover, and find that she had forgotten to clear the vomit-inducing ashtray and fag paraphernalia from the exact place where I needed to eat.

The dislocation and sense of alienation of living in someone else's flat, smelling someone else's cigarettes and not even feeling at home in mine own life, spilled out all over the lyrics. And it became a weird, spooky, haunted-sounding song.

I recorded a demo of the track at Jesse's house, up in Swiss Cottage. A copy of that demo made its way to the ears of a renowned indie record label, and I actually had a couple of meetings with a man responsible for signing some bands I really, really loved. The Lollies were breaking up, I told him. Never mind, he said, if I'd written this song without them, he'd sign me as a solo artist. He was obsessed with OPC. He wanted me to go into the studio with some back-up musicians gleaned from his label, but I balked at that. I was having trouble keeping track of who I was, between other people's cigarettes, other people's music, other people's clothes and yes, ashamedly, sometimes other people's lovers. And he wanted me to go into the studio with other people's bands? I said no. Bad move. Jesse pulled the disappearing act I've written about before, and my contract disappeared with him when I could not produce the masters. Yes, it is 10 years now, and I still have never forgiven him.

But the song resurfaced as a Shimuras track, the sparse guitar-loop and Turkish percussion backing track now filled out with these gleefully warped Tim Burton "la la la"s which still send a shiver down my spine when I hear it.

Download on SoundCloud. The track is free, but if you like it please consider donating something here.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Laying The Ghost

I've been having conversations with a friend (who just happens to be studying neuroscience) about obsessions and OCD thought patterns. She said (and I'm paraphrasing from memory, badly) that OCD loops form when the brain feels like there is unfinished business, a task that has not been completed, so it keeps trying to circle back to the beginning and repeat the cycle until the message gets received that the task has been completed and it can move on.

My thoughts keep circling back to a particular period of 2006-2007, to the bands I loved then, and the crushes I had then. And recently, the problems and concerns that I faced back then have kept circling through my head, over and over, as if they happened last week, and not 6 or 7 years ago. In this terrifying, anxiety-ridden loop, I believe that this was truly the last time in my life that I felt that I had hopes, and dreams, and plans for the future. Which can't possibly be true! My brain is just stuck. Except there is unfinished business, there is something that my brain has never been able to file in its "completed" box.

I became completely obsessed with the unreleased album of another group I loved during the same period, wondering why it was never completed or released. This has suddenly hit me, that it's so obvious it feels like it's been staring me in the face. The missing album I'm obsessed with is not theirs, but mine own.

There are perfectly good reasons it's never come out. Endless line-up changes, personal dramas, at least 3 or 4 different record companies and by this point, several marriages and at least 2 kids. (I was invited to only 1 of those marriages. Of the others, one I found out the normal way these days, through social media; the other I found out about from reading an article on a music magazine website. That hurt, I can't pretend it didn't.) And yet there is this ghost I need to lay to rest, before I can move on and find peace.

I did a blog recently, where I listened to and wrote an entry about every song on every album that a musician of my acquaintance has released. It started as a kind of cheerleading exercise, to distract and encourage a friend who has cancer, while he was in hospital. But it ended with me, as the patient, being psychologically healed, through his music and my memories.

So I'm going to try to attempt to do the same thing with mine own great lost album, to dig up the stories and memories associated with these songs, as a way of exorcising my ghosts. This is not the big, high profile release we expected in 2008; there will be no fanfare. I can't even bring myself to finish the album artwork, though at the time we had an entire comic book for the lyrics planned. I don't even imagine anyone else still cares, possibly not even the other former members of the band. But this is something I have to do, for mine own peace of mind.

I'm going to blog all of the songs from The Universe From First Principles, the great Shimura Curves lost album, and post them for download one at a time. Nah, you won't have to pay, but if you feel the urge to throw some money at someone for the tracks, donate it here.

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