David Babbitt spoke with Lu Edmonds about dropping out of the Western world, discovering the spaces between the notes, transcending the guitar and the context of sound and noise.
I stopped living the teenage rock & roll dream and ended up back on the dole, skint and with nowhere to live. It took a couple of years to come through all that.
Part I: Exoduses and Wanderings
Lu, you have a storied history in the rock & roll world, having played with many seminal bands — The Damned, Spizz Energy, The Waterboys, Shriekback, Public Image Ltd. and The Mekons. Many would see this a successful career in rock. You then dropped out of pop music and the Western world altogether. What prompted this exit?
It hasn’t always felt particularly successful nor much of a career! Okay, when you are out on the road or in the studio, it’s all on, but the exit starts when you are off the road. I’ve been on “zero hours” for 40+ years. So it feels more of a revolving door, starting in 1978 when I stopped living the teenage rock & roll dream with The Damned and ended up back on the dole, skint and with nowhere to live. It took a couple of years to come through all that, in between which I was lucky to play on the late great Kirsty MacColl’s first hit record (I played the guitar solo), developed a serious illness (thank you, British NHS health system and the eye surgeon for saving my sight) and then rebuilt a vintage 1950 BSA M21 motorbike & sidecar (thank you, über-biker Mr. Nik Smulian.)
By 1980, whatever I had liked about music had all gone over into Oi! and New Romantics — baffling mass-fashions that made no sense — so I tried to make a strategic withdrawal into deeper pop and wrote songs with Kirsty in the old Chrysalis demo-studio as well as RMS Studios in South London. The major labels wisely rejected our weird little ditties, but by then I had developed just enough basic motor function skills to survive a studio session or a live gig. I made ends meet, and in doing so, I built up a network of trusted friends and colleagues, which is what really counts. I fell in and out of bands, with my high point being 1984 when I was simultaneously in the Mekons, Waterboys, Shriekback and world music pioneers 3 Mustaphas 3.
At the same time, I was wasting weeks of my life getting drunk in pubs with computer techies who were putting out computer games on Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64 machines. That was another “exit” and distraction. The head of Ram Jam Corp (Mr. George Stone, also inventor of the Max Headroom series) gave me a piece of paper in the pub one evening saying “Şemsi Yastiman – saz evi, Beşiktaş, Istanbul.” What better a time to ruin a promising pop/rock career by wandering off into the periphery? And I was off…
And how easy was that, to get away?
Logistically, it wasn’t that hard; London had Heathrow and plenty of “bucket shops” selling cheap flights to interesting places where a humble £1 would stretch as far as £10 or beyond. So I hopped over to Istanbul with a Berlitz Turkish phrasebook in my pocket, and for a mere £3 a day I had the run of cheap indie B&Bs (called a pansyon) along with other mainly Balkan “shop tour” merchants, pre-Soviet “Natashas” and their associated lowlife pimps as well as all these other travelers from around the world.
Psycho-drifting the maze of old streets, hanging about in music instrument shops, bazaars and 15th century mosques eating amazingly cheap organic food and drinking endless glasses of strong black tea on old Glasgow-built ferries that crisscrossed the Bosporus. Arriving in Üsküdar on the Asian side at the very moment all seven mosques start up the muezzin at a different moment and pace; what’s not to like? It was a welcome break from the horrors of Mrs. Thatcher’s emerging social revolution back home. “Cheap holidays in other people’s misery,” as wrote the poet.
What else prompted the exit?
There was a parallel musical world of London pirate FM radio stations blaring out very foreign music. If you turned an FM dial or checked out the gaudy cassettes on sale in street markets and “ethnic” neighborhood shops across the cities of Europe, all this amazing other music was just waiting to be discovered. The whole “world music” thing was also emerging via the triple miracle of the fax machine, jumbo jet and (unintended) leniency of European visa policy for non-European cultural workers and musicians. Independent researchers, labels, festivals and music enthusiasts then had this rare opportunity to push for more different types of global music onto more European radio waves and stages.
There were great shows at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden, Lyceum, the Sol y Sombre nightclub and others. Some cities were more ahead than others; London, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam had very active cultural diversity and brave promoters ready to take chances on shows, in Berlin none more so than a little firm called InterKulturBuro. Berlin also had the benefit of John Peel BBC shows rebroadcast on British Forces radio — Berlin was still an occupied city at the time — so the 3 Mustaphas 3 got some interesting gigs there.
What attracted you to this world music thing and how did you finance it all?
The world music thing had a political edge, a seeking of a level-playing field for all music and musicians anywhere in the world. I was lucky to get to know kind people who helped me with contacts & knowledge, which later prompted other travels too. For example, via a Finnish NGO — GMC Helsinki — I took a trip to the ex-CCCP Republic of Udmurtia to track down a granny choir. That was a crazy train-trip with the Siberian singer Albert Kuvezin of the band Yat-Kha with whom I ended up playing bass, managing and producing, etc.
I got a grant from an NGO which led on to some development work in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan building recording studios and digitising folk archives. Other trips to Africa and Latin America also came through with paid investigations and consultancy work into tourism, music and music festivals, one of which ended up, in a roundabout way, with the ZIFF Zanzibar International Film Festival. I also did some work for the European Union being the guinea pig for various online cyber-projects looking at music, culture and tourism. All distractions.
Amazing musical talent can be found anywhere. People can either stay indoors or get out. Meet people, make friends. Being a privileged westerner, I could. So I did.
In a way, your travels coincided with the West embracing world music. Is this your doing, or were your travels and explorations in touch with the zeitgeist?
Yes, I guess so. But as Sir Francis Drake put it way back in 1580, there is a lot of music “of a very strange kind, pleasant and delightful” on this planet and nobody needs a zeitgeist to get out there and listen. Or just to go down to their local library, go online and sift through YouTube.
I was just very lucky to have grown up just before we could access all this music on the Web, so I had to actually go to these places and I also had the good fortune to meet people who had started embracing this music way before me. Add to that the massive economic differential between the so-called West and these other places — it was not hard to get there and find oneself in this very privileged position.
So why not drop out? Amazing musical talent can be found anywhere. People can either stay indoors or get out. Meet people, make friends. Being a privileged westerner, I could. So I did.
Part II: Disconnections and Extensions
Was your exploration an extension of living in various locations growing up?
Yes, but there were various extensions to this exploration. Growing up in different locations certainly gave me a head start with languages and being able to interact with foreigners, maybe being one myself most of my early life. But the places I chose to visit were sort of new to me — Istanbul, Africa, Central Asia, for example. For Istanbul, I jumped onto a plane with the little Berlitz phrasebook, and by the time we landed, I was more or less able to count, make friends, order a meal, find a place to pee and haggle over the price of a taxi. The Deep End is an incentive to learn. And Turkish is so regular — i.e. no ‘swim/swam/swum’ grammar weirdness — so you can sort of guess how to say things. Better still, most Turks find it amusing to hear foreigners speak badly in what they call “Tarzance,” Tarzan being big in their comic book culture.
But a bigger “extension” was my failure as a foreigner to assimilate in the UK. I spent most of my early years abroad or in cruel state-funded boys-only Catholic boarding schools, some of which after 40+ years are now beginning to undergo investigations and have the pedophiles locked away. So, compared to my inner-city hipster acquaintances of 1977, I lacked social graces and the supporting networks of friends and family to fall back on. They must have thought I was somewhere between a hick and a weirdo.
Next, I fell in love with someone who had fallen in love with heroin and then lost many of my newly found inner city London pals and acquaintances to an extreme psycho-encounter group called “Exegesis”, a variant of EST neuro-linguistic programming. They all lived, shagged, found work and eventually married within this highly motivated and successful sub-tribe of the North London elite afterwards. You were in or out, and I was out because I had already been through that sort of a mill. They’re all survivors now, but that was a shock to lose so many people.
I then moved over to a cheap semi-squat in Brixton and secured enough of a space to grapple with Linn-drums (thanks to Mr. Will Birch of The Kursaal Flyers) and analog synthesizers in the basement (thanks Mr. Kevin Armstrong). Once I could leave my guitars where they would not necessarily get stolen, I could get me out to the periphery of Europe and over into the badlands of Soviet and Muslim space, both of which by then were morphing into the Empire of Evil and the Axis of Evil, etc. That felt as exciting and wicked as punk had only a few years before. Quitting the relative comfort zone of western Anglophone rock/pop and going out and recklessly exploring a cultural mirror image way outside our system, where riches and poverty were very different to those imagined by all the western pseudo-leftists and conservative stick-in-the-muds; exiting that dark neoliberal Thatcher-world and entering a “known unknown.” Yes! To all that, and to getting away from the standard Anglo-American worldview of other peoples and cultures.
How else did you fund ways to support this exploration? What resources were available?
The free and easy megalopolis of London also has these great repositories such as the SCR (Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR) with a massive library of photos, books and old LPs from the Soviet Union. As a member, I could explore Central Asian folk LPs, take cheap Russian lessons with extreme-leftists and Afghan refugees, one of whom taught me some Shawm Lu songs by the Iranian singer Farhad. He also explained how Khomeini had come to power in 1979 on the back of the humble cassette, about Mossadegh and the 1953 coup d’état. My brain got stretched.
Other libraries such as the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) gave me access to books about global folk and urban musics and also to real ethnomusicologists who could pinpoint out other global music often more “punk” than punk, more weirdo-dissonant that any of the “out” New York scene then emerging, etc. One of these was via Dr. Carole Pegg, from whom I heard about Siberian throat singing.
Were there any formative moments in this exploration?
Big formative moment? Maybe getting into the back seat of a minicab in 1981 in Southall, West London, and the driver putting on a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Qawwali cassette. I felt like I was dangling over an abyss between what I thought I knew and what I didn’t know — a fantastic, passionate alien otherness. That was one cab I didn’t want to get out of.
And we all made cassettes for each other, swapping discoveries and listening to anything and everything: Hank Williams on side A and Georgian polyphonic choirs on side B. Jaipongan! Soukous! Cumbia! Son! We didn’t have a clue, but we loved it. And it was not just about sitting at home; we wanted to actually get out there and play to them, and get them to come over here and play to us. This was a collective “extension”, and I owe a lot to these people who gave me the chance to hear these different musics, and to see it live onstage. Many of them lost their shirts; some are still at it.
Through the mysterious phenomenon of shared interaction and enthusiasm, we were all drawn to travel and to see what work we could do together.
Could you discuss your travels while growing up and the creative influence it may have had on you? What took your family to all those locations?
There were a lot of different influences. My father worked for HMG in what was then known as “the services.” After the war (WWII, 8th Army in Egypt) he joined the UK Foreign Office in the cold hard winter of 1947 to escape freezing to death at university. He started as the nightwatchman at King Charles Street doing the night shift, where he had to answer phones, check the ticker-tape newswires and decide whether or not to wake up the relevant Whitehall mandarin if an emergency came up. He did it well and moved up and the family went off with him to these posts abroad.
This is much the same background as Joe Strummer, or Justin Adams (from Les Triaboliques, who now plays with Robert Plant.) We spent nine months of the year away from our parents from the age of eight. I think the government paid for two trips a year for us to travel to and from UK, and they also paid the boarding school fees. All in the twilight of the British Empire.
As a kid, I had little control over these travels or what music we heard, though looking back, I guess we were actually insulated due to the pressures of the Cold War, shifting geopolitical tensions, even threats of kidnappings by communists. Stuck in this ex-pat “bubble,” we were fed music from outside via family Christmas presents of mainly Anglo-American LPs and elder siblings’ forays into record stores in transit from the UK, which in those days were massive HMVs and loads of smaller indie shops too.
As there was not much else about to link us into the home culture, these LPs got intense listening and were a big creative influence. I also had my own battery radio which opened up all the great North Sea MW pirate station ships. One played a lot of Northern soul. I explored radio waves and their slow phase filtering sound, a soothing ocean of abstract electronica in itself.
As for the local music, it was mostly nameless stuff that would get played in shops and radio stations blaring out of the cars. We never had music lessons or went to concerts, but I remember I liked it! Maybe I absorbed it all through the ambient environment and the odd local LPs that came our way, but I do react differently to Latino, Slavic/Balkan and Middle Eastern music now as a result.
When you were off the grid, little information about your whereabouts made it back to the West. What was driving this expedition, what were you searching for?
In those days, there were no mobile phones, so information never got back. Fax machines were unreliable and expensive. The post took too long. So once you left, you left. Anyway, at the time I never thought anyone would find what I was doing that interesting. The big time for music journalists were trips to cocaine-central NYC and LA — not Istanbul, inner Asia or anywhere I was interested in. Looking back, yes, it might have made a good blog or social media thing, but that just didn’t exist.
As for what was driving the expedition, I guess my purpose was simply to seek out music, people and instruments. At first, the saz, or Turkish lute, was my main focus. I had found something like it in a book of Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings. The saz has these frets made of fishing wire all tied up with a clever little knot i.e. extra frets for the blue notes’in between the western chromatic notes. You can move these about. That triggered another sub-search into the related musical algebras beyond standard western tuning. Did I find what I was looking for? Not really; I think you have to grow up inside a culture to get to these notes into your head, or just have rare super-talent, which is not me. All I know now is that there are notes between notes, so the puzzle remains, and I am still puzzled.
As for what I did find, in the end, I hope I made a lot of friends. Through the mysterious phenomenon of shared interaction and enthusiasm we were all drawn to travel and see what work we could do together. Adventures were had, mistakes were made, unexpected consequences resulted, goals were scored. Funny times, hairy escapes, mad parties, scrapes with the police and the criminal underground — thankfully, most of us are still at it.
Since you have been a traveler nearly all of your life, could you describe how the act of traveling has changed over time? Has the manner in which you are received by the local people — not necessarily those who invited you — changed as well?
I suppose travel used to be mainly for invaders and refugees, merchants and sailors, pilgrims and nomads. Nowadays, tourism has maybe commodified and monetized the experience of local reality so there is more foreigner-fatigue than there was. Some people call this modern travel progress; some call it globalization. Like I said, the technologies released the masses upon the world. Is that for better or for worse? I don’t know; the carbon footprint is just one aspect, but maybe everyone will one day have to migrate in a great human transhumance with the seasons to save energy. Unlikely, though, with all the xenophobia.
How am I received? Well enough so far, I am glad to say. People are kind and curious about travelers versus tourists and seem to want to hear your stories firsthand. The happiest travelers I ever met were an Austrian pair who took their bicycles over the Tien-Shan mountains all the way from Vienna to Beijing. The reaction of everyone en route was amazing. People were so kind and generous and would always take them in. They never hardly ever had to take a hotel. That rings true with what I’ve been told the Hajj used to be like, when people went to Mecca on foot and with no money in their pockets. Everyone along the way feeds the pilgrim. Now, that would be the way to travel. All gone.
Part III: Tunings and Progressions
I was told once you are a guitarist who was so good you searched out other instruments for a new challenge. This was said out of pure admiration for your playing. That said many if not most musicians stick to a few instruments. You have an almost explorer-like relationship with the guitar-shaped string instrument. Was there a moment when you looked up and saw other instruments in the same family?
Well, that’s very nice of whoever it is who said that, but I think my expert skill is adapting to my deficits. I never had enough of a proper guitar until it was way too late to be able to pick up the challenge of known guitar technique, like jazz, which meant I bluffed my way through. But I grew up in a time of musical minimalism and the Linn Drum shock, which turned focus onto timing in the nanosecond rather than fluency, on the fretboard, so that made sense too.
As for the other instrument moment, it came in 1982. I went to see my dear pal Mr. Ben Mandelson who lived near the Turkish areas in Green Lanes, Stoke Newington. And there it was, hanging up in the back —a badly injured Turkish saz. The tailpiece had fallen off and it was dusty and rough-looking, but I asked how much. They refused to sell it at first and said it was broken, but I insisted. In the end, they took £25, and I fixed it up with some primitive carpentry, sawed the head off an old bolt for a bridge and attached a tie-pin mic. I moved from being the narrator and singer to saz player in that band, the 3 Mustaphas 3. I was hooked.
Can you outline your progression from guitar though the various stringed instruments you have learned? What are the history, qualities and personalities of these instruments?
My Mum had a Venezuelan quatro in the house for about a week, which fascinated me, but I was not allowed to play it. Some four years later at the age of nine, I was given a Harrods plastic guitar which broke two days later due to excessive enthusiasm. Next up, I got a Soviet tourist balalaika, which I had mistakenly put the bridge in the wrong place i.e. adding an extra two frets to the octave. Odd riffs emerged, some of which I still remember. Then I saved up and bought a cheap acoustic guitar:
Egmond small steel string; £5.
The action must have been about 5mm off the neck, it never stayed in tune, my fingers bled and I was surprised after a couple of years to find out one could change the rusty strings and buy these things called plectrums — i.e. not have to use cut up washing up liquid bottles. I played it for hours and hours at a time. Must have sounded terrible, but it didn’t stop me.
Columbus semi-acoustic/electric: £18.
Action 1mm lower than the Egmond, but it had a whammy bar. I miss it a lot. Feedback with my little Crown 5 watt amp with its little oval speaker, especially with the tremolo on, sounded like ambulances going off everywhere at once.
Jedson Les Paul copy: £60.
One of the early Japanese ones. It worked and had a proper chunk. Almost made me consider playing scales.
1963 Fender Stratocaster: £179.
I sold it for £200 to Gen X’s guitarist Derwood much later. Never stayed in tune. Maybe needed a setup. Probably worth quite a lot now!
Gibson Les Paul Signature; semi-acoustic.
Stolen by a heroin enthusiast. Great guitar. I miss it. Whoever ended up with it probably destroyed the guitar case which Capt. Sensible had defaced with a cartoon of me in thick felt-tip and the words “Vulture, why are you so ugly?”. That case would probably be worth as much as the guitar to a serious Damned fan.
Gibson LP Deluxe
Also stolen, this time backstage in Aberdeen, probably by another heroin enthusiast. Another good guitar with freshly added new EMG pickups, I miss it too. Was not insured.
My current electric; bought for 300DM in West Berlin, belonged to Neşet Ertaş. The only really good instrument I ever bought, all others just came to me by chance. Also EMG pickups. A lucky instrument.
I have about 10 of these and have played with different necks. Fretless, 12 string, almost impossible to play, but I like these a lot. Modular. You can make your own necks, swap them around and you can’t go wrong with tied frets. A much-maligned instrument, played mainly by the Turkish Roma (gypsies) and with a great backstory featuring Kemal Mustapha Attaturk.
A whole ragtag heap.
Ouds, bozoks, saz, dotars, setors, khomuz, all mainly from Middle East and Central Asia. Some not working.
As taught to me by the late, great Salah Dawson Miller of the 3 Mustaphas 3, RCM and others.
Currently, I have a nice 1963 Gretsch Country Club, Fender Esquire, Tokai Love Rock and an old Yamaha FG350w. My pal Andrew Scrimshaw has made a lot of what I have that works work, because he is so good at what he does, which is being a master luthier and a brave one at that. I also play through two amps and have a whole raft of Eventide pedals.
I think some instruments are just alive and some are not. If you get a live one, you will get a sound and if you get a dead one, you will not.
You’ve not only learned to play an assortment of instruments; you also build them, delving into the tonal qualities of materials and construction methods. Is there a sound you are chasing or is this pursuit the for the joy of discovery?
Well, I think Ijust tried to build them. I used a standard Indonesian hardwood in DIY shops called ramin. As I had no workshop or clever tools, this was all done in my bedroom, which suffered dust and shavings for weeks. Eventually, I was saved from these experiments by Andrew Scrimshaw, and this rare Indonesian timber is now banned due to illegal logging.
Chasing a sound? A guitar must have a bright, big and shiny sound, but what about the dull blunt scraping of a Pamiri stringed instrument, with the very heavy thick leather skins? That’s good too. I would love to have just one instrument that does everything and sometimes imagine it is a double-stringed sound, with a bit of Indian sitar bzzzzoing! and enough top & bottom to carry itself in an Irish session. I wish I had a budget to build experimental instruments.
Recently, I was playing Fridays in Crowley’s, the oldest pub in Corofin, County Clare, at a session by the local flutemeister “Mick Nestor and Friends.” I play a borrowed Greek bouzouki tuned to Irish GDAD, which I like as it has 75% of the saz tuning. It won’t really stay in tune, which is a pain, but Ollie O’Connell plays box with us and is always surprised at the amount of noise and rhythm I get out of this bouzouki.
That makes me wonder about the context of sound and noise. The bouzouki is percussive; the box, flutes and fiddles are not. Maybe sound is also a question of “touch” and also how your tone and volume come through over what everyone else is playing. Maybe it is more about how your fingers strike strings and how you damp the notes with the stopping hand; maybe it is all in the hands and not the instrument? Whatever, I think some instruments are just alive and some are not. If you get a live one, you will get a sound and if you get a dead one, you will not, no matter how much it costs or what it says on the label.
In between all the above, thanks to Public Image Ltd., where I am unusually)the only top-line instrument I have again tried to adapt to my deficits and have got myself sucked into the wonderful world of Eventide pedals: Time Factor, Mod-Factor, Space, H9 — all of which has led into this new semi-electronica sonic zone, using the guitar/saz/Cümbüş more as a noise generator and trigger mechanism.
So, time, space and modulation — another final frontier of joy and discovery. Soon we will have the Eventide H9000 Box, which I hope will occupy me for the rest of my life. It’s the mega-pedal to end all pedals.
What are your thoughts comparing synthetic materials to natural materials? Not only stock for bodies and necks, but adhesives and finishes.
As above, it depends on the instruments; some are alive and some are not. As for materials, I like everything, but maybe we have to move into the future and give the trees and animals a rest? Metals like aluminum are cheap but a bit old hat now. So where are the new alloys we can use? Outer space? I bet the military industrial complex has loads of secret stuff they are hiding from us. Swords into banjos!
Which reminds me — I got in touch with an F1 car chassis manufacturer back in 1985 and proposed they make a carbon-fiber saz, and they got very keen but then I had one of my many black moments of self-doubt and decided the idea was probably insane. I’d love to do more, but with a budget but I guess that is unlikely.
You have expressed a special interest in construction and materials for the necks of instruments. How did this investigation start?
Yes, the neck has to be exactly right, as it reacts to the stopping fingers which control a lot of “touch”; and the connection from nut to bridge all contributes to “sound” (hey, some necks are even hollow and have sound pinholes in them to let the sound out and make it more stereo). But first of all, a neck has got to be in tune, which means frets are a big issue. Strings tend to stretch and wander off pitch over time. Fretless is one way through. Tied frets also are interesting because you can tune frets as well as strings. In the end, you can wobble a note with a bit of finger vibrato, but the neck is where it is at if you are a twanger.
My investigation started with being confused and continues in similar vein, and I am still trying to play in tune. This investigation caught fire when I realized quarter-tones existed — i.e. a 50% sharp or flat semitone — that to be really in tune in a western choir, you had sometimes to push notes up by as much as 16%, e.g. a minor 3rd.
At that point, the roof of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” collapsed on my head. I had never been able to tune my guitar (and still can’t) but at least now I know why! I read up a bit more and found out about this thing called “just intonation,” Maqam/Dastgah/Raga tunings, etc. all of which pale in comparison to the sonic insanity of Indonesian Jaipongan. Can I play in these tunings? Probably not, but I know they are there.
What materials speak to you?
Wood, metal, clay, some plastics, stones, horn, bone, nails (mine). I like any material that moves, but I mostly stick with Tortex 60mm and a Fender Telecaster or my trusty saz and my hands.
What instruments are you attracted to learning about next?
Something light and portable, maybe a penny whistle, a non-standard flute? I’d love a real piano too, but that requires space and tolerant neighbours.
Epilogue: Final Reflections
What have you discovered as a musician or as an adventurer of the globe?
Trick question! Discovery suggests being the first to find something new under the sun, of which there ain’t anything. The huge world may shrink with every Facebook and Instagram post, but real reality lies hidden under levels and layers. Amazing musical talent exists everywhere, and with it, the hope and ambition of players to get out into the wider world and work. All of that is modified and restricted by each individual’s access to the good old means of production, which is determined by local money and power structures and, of course, passports and visas. The big anomaly is what we in the privileged West have enjoyed for 60+ years — a semi-autonomous independent music non-system, more or less crowdfunded by real fans buying real records, attending real gigs and buying real T-shirts. However much we thought the Internet and digital tech was going to help, it has yet to plug that gap. And I’m not sure it’s going in the best direction just now.
Have I discovered anything in a sonic sense? Well, we are all addicted to hearing music through recordings, so we are all conditioned to some degree of compression. I love cassettes because the tape-compression sound is all bunched up and exciting. It leaps out of the speakers. Vinyl is good too. Valve amps, radio stations multi-band limiters – everything is maximized by this “compression.” Hundreds of amazing digital plug-ins now sculpt and enhance everything in the composition and audio software. It’s all great, but maybe we all need to thrown away the PA systems sometimes and get back to the basics of compression — no microphones and a decent room.
As a musician, have I discovered anything? Not really; I am still more or less a prisoner of the western chromatic system. Three chords are fine by me — G, C, D. Or less. I have tried and failed to apply math to rock at various times. I’m also still trying to figure out if I am really a musician. Some people are in the zone musically all the time. It’s really only every now and then that I manage to almost get to where I can relax enough without getting floppy or losing energy. At that point, I seem to have all the time in the world. I can see each beat coming, can plonk my little noises anywhere and it fits okay. It’s subjective, so maybe nobody notices, but I do. It’s rare though.
If you want some wild generalizations, then firstly, there are few discrete “Eureka!” musical moments. When you get them, it’s best to treasure them and to not ignore (or expect) the other side of discovery, which is the gradual accretive creative process and the balance of opposites: flexible vs. solid, fast vs. slow, listening vs. playing. Knowing what you think you’re doing might block a discovery of a new thing or end up losing you the side-paths into the variations. Knowledge, logically, is limited. Puzzles are useful.
Where is your next adventure as an adventurer of the globe?
The very fabulous John Lydon and Public Image Ltd. will be going out on a big summer tour in 2018 and it looks like we might also go into the studio again. That will take us around the planet, mainly in UK, Europe and East Asia. It is always a big musical adventure with John and the rest of the band, as we never know what will emerge. It’s all improvised spontaneously in the studio and John can pull anything out if thin air. He’s a true magician. There will also be a box set coming out including the new documentary film The Public Image is Rotten which has been around a lot of the festivals.
The Mekons toured the United States in 2016, from which a new CD is getting finished off in Chicago. Perhaps we can do some dates in Europe, as there might be a European label that can release tha, and re-release box sets of old LPs along with the Mekons documentary film Revenge of the Mekons by Joe Angio.
And at the ripe old age of 60 I think I am allowed to start making my own records outside of my usual bands, and I have a new project called Blabbermouth with my pal the great drummer Mark Roberts, and featuring pals from Yat-Kha, Mekons, Raz3 and Triaboliques. This album will be called Hörspiel and features robots speaking in tongues with texts culled from the web exploring info-wars and alternative histories. All good clean satirical stuff.
I am also being asked to do a solo album; me and a guitar and some songs. Also, I dredged up recordings made in Tajikistan in 2007-2009 and I am hoping to get these out for people to hear. Recently, I came upon 90 minutes of Lol Coxhill and me playing in my front room. There are plenty of projects on my plate.
Curated by: David Babbitt
Conducted by: Email
Edited by: Morgan Enos
Published: April 26, 2018
Total questions: 20
Word count: 3105
Reading time: Twenty-one minutes
abstraction, algebra, alien, Asia, Berlin, bozok, budget, chromatic, clay, computer, connection, David Babbitt, dissonance, dotar, electronica, escape, Eureka, experimental, fantasy, filter, formation, instrument, John Lydon, Jon Langford, khomuz, knowledge, Kyrgyzstan, limit, logic, London, mathematics, metal, Middle East, moment, otherness, oud, party, passion, periphery, plastic, polyphony, privilege, Public Image Ltd., puzzle, saz, setor, Shriekback, Siberia, Sir Francis Drake, sitar, stone, Tajikistan, The Mekons, The Waterboys, Touch and Go Records, travel, variation, westerner, wood
About the curator
David Babbitt has lived and worked on the indie side of music, art and design for nearly thirty years. He has DJed, designed and screen printed for Wax Trax! with Interzone and was Touch And Go Records’ celebrated art director. He is also a student and teacher of Aikido and Iaido, two practices on the spiritual side of the martial arts spectrum.
Related conversations W