Shoot Them Down

At the heart of Shoot Them Down is a pretty good song. It has a verse, and then it has a bridge, and then it has a chorus, like all good Adele songs. It has many parts actually, most of which work well. It’s catchy without being too cheesy. In particular, the arrangement is effective. This is the first thing to improve in my music. Given my incompetent jack of all trades approach, I gradually learned how to place simple parts together to make a whole that sounded ok, whilst the individual instruments continued to be performed to a sort of primary school ‘good effort’ level. You may notice some artificial brass sounds. I liked them a lot. They made me feel like a ‘composer’. The 3rd verse stabs have always been my favourite bit. 

It’s early 2009, I’m 17, and, to a certain extent, we’re out of the woods. Songs will now generally offer at least one thing to make the 4 minutes worth your while – a small fresh leaf of basil on a plain dish of under or over-cooked pasta. If the lyrics don’t make sense, there will usually be a reason for that: ‘I was under the influence of dadaism that day’, or ‘I couldn’t be bothered’. Some mistakes will have been corrected before the song was packaged and posted. Others won’t have been, sure. And gradually, imperceptibly, my singing voice is going to improve, from the unthinkable lows of Hyper, to the relative highs of Knowing How To Use Your Voice In A Track.

So, I measure my life out in girlfriends. This is strange, I know, but a combination of developing a reputation for being a Relationship Person (always vehemently denied, I would counter that I just happened to be with people I actually liked), and historical quirks, meant that it just seemed right to create mental memory slots labelled by relationship. Historical quirk-wise, it so happened that all my early relationships were between 1 and 2 years long, at an age where quite a lot happens in that amount of time. The first lasted from the age of 13 to 15, the early teenage anxious/defiant phase. Then there was a neat 15-16 one, covering GCSEs, and the advent of drunkenness. And then another lasted the whole of 6th form, ages 16-19 – the growing-up-a-little-bit era. This categorisation sounds extremely unemotional. It doesn’t feel like that for me. Anyway, Shoot Them Down is the first song from that last phase – The 3rd Girlfriend. It isn’t really about her (‘I used to know a girl’ is the first clue – we were in the early days of our relationship), but there are references. The beginning of our romance included a lot of me waiting with an undignified level of keenness for her to text, and then trekking across London to see her at 2am. She would normally be with her friends, people I knew a bit, but not enough to protect me from the intensely hostile atmosphere they created. (This was all a front of course, what wasn’t in those days? They were pretty much all fun and nice people, and only a little bit criminal). I’m sure I didn’t help with my passively judgmental face and incessant sarcasm. So maybe one day I was feeling annoyed, perhaps she hadn’t texted, or maybe I’d just had a shit time pretending to be 20-30% cooler than I was for hours the night before. And so I wrote this song, imagining her to be a pretender just like me. Just a sly reference, nothing more. But I was clearly suffering from bitterness that day. Useful for writing songs, it seems.


You Don’t Want Me To

A soft, dreamy song that has very few memories attached to it, You Don’t Want Me To was nevertheless sufficiently liked by a previous incarnation of myself to be recorded again, almost four years later. This second version plays after the first in the video.

The main thing with this song, which those with eagle ears might have already noticed, is that it was sung by a girl. And that girl was my sister. I may have been going through one of my regular Periods Of Doubt, with regards to my singing voice, and decided to try something different. Or, more probably, the melody I came up with was too high, and I was incapable of changing the key. I never really paid as much attention to those Periods Of Doubt as I should have done…

So I got my sister to sing it. My sister had a naturally better voice than me, although she was less musical in general. When Britney Spears tunes were belted out from behind the door of her bedroom, they were delivered mainly in tune. Unfortunately, the recording process of this song was a shining example of:

1. The importance, as a producer, of making the performers feel comfortable in the studio.


2. The power of an older brother to undermine, upset, and shatter the confidence of a younger sibling.

This wasn’t the only reason her vocal takes aren’t great. She wasn’t familiar with the song, and she isn’t amazing anyway at actually recording to live instruments. But I definitely made it worse. Within minutes we were arguing – her telling me she couldn’t do it, me telling her to just try for god’s sake. By the time we pressed record she was angry and nervous.

I’m not one to sweeten criticisms with compliments, I’ve never been very good at mincing my words to build confidence or create a Positive Atmosphere. So I don’t think my reaction to the first few takes would have been uplifting.

But we got through it, and the end result is ok. My main problem with it now is not the singing (have you heard any of the songs I’ve sung myself?) but the awful mix. There are some nice parts in there, but they all sound a bit drunk and muddled.

Ultimately, the process was a positive one – like all young siblings my sister was, despite the stress, happy to involved in one of her older brother’s projects. She still has a CD with the track burned on to it somewhere in her room.


So then I remade it, at some point in university. Music developed for me in two ways while I was studying – on the one hand, James Blake’s album had just come out, and he, along with Radiohead, were setting me slowly but surely on a path towards electronic music. On the other, I had far fewer instruments there, and so would spend much more time playing and recording with just my acoustic guitar. You can hear both strands here. It’s an acoustic track, but the atmospheric fluttering synths on top (they were meant to be the birds from the second verse, see?) and the bass, are both from the Logic Sculpture synth, one I would use quite a lot as time went on. I thought I’d made something quite beautiful, at the time. It’s a bit wet though, in hindsight.

An ex-girlfriend of mine had quite liked the original version with my sister, so when I made the newer one I sent it to her, possibly in a state of wistful angst.

She replied saying it was nice but that she preferred the original.


Russian Step

I wish that the lyrics in this song were a metaphor. In a pleasant parallel universe in which I led a similar but noticeably cooler and more intelligent life, the lyrics of this song are modified to form a witty and sarcastic character assassination of whoever, using the theme of revolution as an analogy.

Not so in plain old boring reality. I don’t want to be too quick to judge, because I know this is an example of a light-hearted joke outliving its humour – Russian Step was never intended to be a serious comment on the Russian Revolution, nor dictatorships in general. I think I just wanted to write a flippant punky sort of number. The problem is that time adds weight to things. This song was almost always my school band’s encore track, and the bridge hook: ‘Why don’t you take your Russian step and step away again?’ was one of the few lines all of our friends could sing along to. So it occupies quite a large cell in the prison of my memory. And it sits there gathering nostalgic dust until its original form becomes obscured. We’re also far enough away in time from myself in this recording to lose a bit of subtlety in our appreciation of my character. It’s easy to see the song as encapsulating the whole of my personality, rather than just a throwaway expression I meant completely insincerely.

On the other hand… I know that I took music seriously, and I presumably wanted people to think my music was good. So even if the lyrics are a joke, the piece as a whole is meant to be real. It’s meant to be me. And this is a huge issue I’ve always had with these artistic endeavours. Too insincere to just sing about love, or the lack of. Throwing words together cynically because expressing some sort of truth would be cliché, but expecting the music itself to be treated sincerely. It doesn’t work. It’s like a private joke to myself. Incidentally, I heard an infamously bad recording of this school band recently, which I hadn’t listened to in over 5 years. We knew it was terrible at the time, but even so, it hasn’t aged well. And the worst thing about it is not the singing or the playing or the songs. It’s my stage chat. I literally said private jokes into the microphone. And I remember thinking it was cool that the audience wouldn’t get it. Just a nod from one of the band was what I was after. I enjoyed the stilted awkward vibe I gave off. I mean thank god the only people in the audience were 4-6 friends, there not to judge the quality of our band but to relish the teenage freedom of going to a mate’s gig / doggedly showing their support because of the sheer weight of pleading texts in their inbox.

So, Russian Step is about some sort of dictator who, it’s implied, will be overthrown, because everyone is bloody starving. It’s very upbeat, and was much more effective live in sweaty sticky underage venues. The guitar sound is not appropriate at all, it should be crunchier, dirtier. Same with the drums. This was a chronic issue for our band. Listen to the way the bassist and keys player sing that hook – it’s like they’re humming to themselves while trying to remember something else.

The end is the best part of Russian Step, and not just because you’re happy it’s over. Mainly that. But it’s tight. I can still hear the rapturous roar of up to 20 people rise up to me as that final bar ends.

Vive la Revolution!

Very Kind


This song is the most Trying Artist thing imaginable:

In and amongst the dreary, badly sung melodies, the incomprehensible lyrics, the usual messy instruments, the 5 minutes of underwhelming overkill, there is a saxophone.

So there I am, Jack of some trades, master of absolutely nothing, recording a song on piano, bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, drums, and vocals, playing each one badly. And I decide to pick up the sax.

I remember the week. I think it was summer, my Dad’s office was swelteringly hot. Or maybe I’m just imagining that because the song I decided to learn was Summertime. But anyway, I picked up his sax. Above all I remember the intense vibration that would sometimes occur against my lip when I pressed it a certain way against the reed. It tickled so much I had to stop playing. How do you stop this happening? I’ll probably never know. But I learnt Summertime, and played it a handful of times. Then I took the sax downstairs, and used it in a song. A few long notes, adding an extra layer of sludge onto that chorus.

I must have stood back and surveyed the scene, sonically. ‘Ahhh, another instrument. Good.’

There was always part of me that knew the most impressive part of my musical output was the volume of it – both in terms of instruments within the songs, and the number of songs in total. So I’d improve those things. Adding some piano, adding more layers of guitars (because I couldn’t play anything interesting enough with one layer). Getting a saxophone in there. Half finishing a song to show it to people as quickly as possible, never perfecting anything. Ignoring technique. Inundating my life with musical noise, too much to really hear how good it was.

I don’t really regret this. I’m the same with all things. I like the bigger picture. I like to throw things together in a disorganised way, skipping from one idea to the next when I think of them, not resting on the first one until it’s right. But it certainly made my music shit for a long time. Once, when I was 15, I saw that my ex-girlfriend talking about this guy’s music on Myspace. It made me really jealous, because she used to listen to MY music. He was a friend of hers, and his song was a simple pop number, just voice and acoustic guitar. Guitar played nicely, vocals sung sweetly. I defensively dismissed his music instantly – ‘It’s shit. It’s just stupid pop. It’s bland. It’s too simple.’ But I listened to it a lot of times, all the while seething.

What I was forced to acknowledge, although I didn’t want to, is that if you do something simple, and do it well, people react to it better than they do to a loud mess of ideas.

I acknowledged it briefly, then went back to doing exactly what I’d always done.

Here is an example of randomly added saxophone which works a bit better:

The Trampoline Scene

So, we’re moving on.

Recordings are becoming a bit more crisp. The playing is improving slowly, especially the drumming. Chords now have numbers after the letters semi-frequently. The lyrics make sense for good proportions of the songs. The singing is moving from a lowly 4/10 to the giddy heights of 5/10.

March 2008, I am 16, and I have just written a love song for my girlfriend. It’s called The Trampoline Song, and it’s quite insipid. I couldn’t really muster any real love. It has one clear reference: we met on a trampoline at a house party, about 7 months before I wrote the song. Apart from that, there is very little true feeling in it, and I think it shows. In my defence, I don’t think this track was ever presented as a love song to that girlfriend. Maybe it was just designed to exist as a little ditty and – oh look! that’s a reference to us! he’s so cute!

This is one of 3 songs that are related to this girlfriend. All Along is another one, and the third will come later. Listening to The Trampoline Scene now makes me feel a bit guilty. Of the 3, it’s the only one that was conceived in positive spirits – the only one that was meant to reflect positively on our relationship. And it just feels a bit false. The cheap jokes in the second verse:

You and I could try to fly,
Although if we did we probably first should say goodbye.
You and I could try to fly,
In fact, no we might die.

I’m just another embarrassed teenager, completely unable to commit to any form of real sincerity. I began with a plan to write a nice song, but felt immediately compelled to write some spanners into it.

I’ll be honest and say that I am still very much a spanner-addict. But now when I write a song, I take out the bit at the beginning with faint sounds of rustling and the metronome.

I guess I might have to mention that this song appears to be influenced by Jack Johnson. I never owned an album by him, but, like everyone else in the world, I did learn how to play Banana Pancakes and Sitting Waiting Wishing on guitar. ‘banana pancakes’, ‘trampoline’ – both from the twee hell of love that is universally relatable, and instantly forgettable.



It’s Gonna Be Good

When you save a project on the production software I use, Logic Pro, it makes you give it a name. This can be tricky if you haven’t yet written all of the lyrics. How do you choose a name when you don’t know what the song is about? To this day I have multitudes of unfinished tracks with incredibly unhelpful names like ‘new song’, ‘new new song’, or my favourite: ‘Really Beautiful Amazing Song That Everyone Loves and Is Really Really Good.’ (That one is just a simple 4 bar phrase repeating some chords with a choir-synth sound. I keep finding this out again and again, because it has the unfortunate attributes of being incredibly forgettable, whilst owning a name too seductive to not click on.)

Anyway, It’s Gonna Be Good is called It’s Gonna Be Good not because the lyrics contain a positive, uplifting message, but because I genuinely just thought it was going to be good when I was halfway through making it. SECRETS OF THE ARTIST REVEALED.

And, you know, it is quite good. Good enough for my band to play it until the band stopped, despite no-one in the audience really showing much enthusiasm for it at gigs (they want to DANCE. they want to JUMP.) We carried on playing it because we believed that, to the trained ear, we sounded more polished performing It’s Gonna Be Good than any of the other ones.
NOTE: the attached video contains the original version, dutifully placed first, recorded sometime in 2007. The second half, beginning 3.46, is the version recorded with my band around this time in 2008. It is much better, both because the instrumentation of my friends on keys, bass and guitar is more interesting, and because my singing has improved a bit. In particular: check out the bassist’s little lick at the beginning of the 2nd verse, at 5.22. That’s a bit of proper music! You weren’t expecting that!

This is an important song for me. Like the song that might be at some big but calm revelatory moment in a film. The protagonist lying on his/her back, looking at the sky, squinting, slight smile beginning to form on his/her face. Something has resolved. Something is going to be ok.

I was proud of it, yes. But the reason it feels important for me is different. I think it’s because it’s become lodged in a very specific time and place in my memory. And weirdly, that time/place is 2007, year 10, in Biology class. An interesting thing about lyrics like the ones in Its Gonna Be Good, is that sometimes they’re vague enough that even the writer doesn’t know what they mean. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing: the lyrics convey a certain atmosphere, they’re not trying to say anything concrete. I don’t think I wrote the lyrics in Biology, but at a certain moment, maybe listening to the song months later, the lines in the second verse created an image for me of myself looking out the window of that classroom, distracted and sleepy. The lines are:

‘I want to leave,
The chemistry is killing me,
And how I look outside and dream a lot.
They’re all smiling,
Holding hands,
With their eyes on the ground and their hair in the sky’.

Let’s get one thing out the way: I’ve always known that it was the word ‘chemistry’ that placed me in a classroom in my mind, but I’ve literally just put two and two together and worked out that Chemistry is the wrong subject, I’m definitely picturing my Biology classroom. This all fits in with the dream-vision stereotype: ‘it was like my Chemistry classroom, except it wasn’t my Chemistry classroom, you know?’

So I’m in Biology, I’m looking out the window, and I see couples walking past, down on the street. And they’re all holding hands, and they’re all dressed as punks. They’re all dressed as punks because they all have Mohicans. And as I hear that line ‘their hair in the sky’ I can see their Mohicans stretching up from their bodies, impossibly high. So this isn’t a very imaginative interpretation of those lyrics. In fact it’s boringly literal. But the significant part of it for me is the feeling I get from imagining their faces, and my state of mind. They’re smiling, holding hands, but they’re looking at the ground. Like they’re scared, or shy, or embarrassed. And they just keep walking past this window, and I’m almost nodding off from the summer heat and the sheer boredom of listening to Mr. Branch go on, maybe about Biology, but more probably about his wife.

Over the years, this image has attained mythic proportions in my mind. Like a repeated dream you had when you were younger, or the same fear you used to get every time you turned off the light in the corridor coming back randomly every once in a while. When I listen to It’s Gonna Be Good, I’m 15, and I’m peaceful, and I’m feeling slightly lost.

The final lyrics are:

‘So I burn a line out through the clouds,
And I watch the sleepers taking ground,
And I burn a line into the sky,
Taking it into the night.
Through the trees, make glowing red,
I spread the leaves into my head,
And I’ll wait a while and make a smile,
Softly burning mile by mile’

I don’t know what those ones mean either. But the rhythm of them, and the way I stay on one note for several notes, is much closer to the way I use my voice in more recent music. And they cement the feeling of the song for me. I’m in a classroom, and then I’m out the window, and I’m burning softly out into the sky.

Poder Nadar Es Bueno En Este Empleo

‘To Be Able To Swim Is Good In This Job’ is a translation of what I wanted the Spanish to say. To this day I have never actually checked whether this is right. I was relying on my GCSE Spanish then, and nothing I learned from then until now has told me otherwise. Let’s keep it casual, shall we?

Poder Nadar Blah Blah is an organic (read: unplanned) instrumental, one of many many songs I wrote over the years by playing an open E major chord on the guitar and sliding up and down the guitar neck to make blue-ish sounds. It starts relatively well, gets a bit boring, and then peters out towards the end. A progression many of us will come to know very well, I imagine.

I used to listen to it a lot while walking or on the bus, probably for two reasons:

1 – it’s boring enough to work well as background music. Nothing to really concentrate on – just soft, glossy sounds, thick textures, and a level of emotion that can be accurately depicted with the use of a hyphen:         –

2 – the fact that I don’t sing lends it an air of professionalism, despite the numerous messy moments and lack of real musical intrigue. Until I learnt, very late on, how to use my voice in recordings, the singing was always the single detail that made my songs sound like the work of a hobbyist, not a real, proper musician. Listening to instrumentals like this or Imminent Death And Bubbles allowed me to escape from the prison of my own voice box.

But, as I’ve mentioned before, these vague non-substantial efforts don’t stand the test of time. They exist in my memory like weak sighs, like my past self was never really trying to be anything when he made them. I prefer the anguished cries of my over-dramatic, under-worked songs because I can hear the ambition behind the shit.

Real life memory: my friend, the bassist in my school band, once told me he liked the bit in the middle, starting 1.47, and that it sounded ‘a bit like Gershwin’. After nodding confidently but modestly, I went home to look up Gershwin and was pretty happy with that comparison. Basically I just play a few dissonant notes on the bass over some chords. It’s not jazz, it’s not Gershwin. It does sound nice though, I’ll stand by that.

I also remember exactly where I was standing in the kitchen when I played my parents the song, and which speakers I played it on, as my Dad made dinner. I don’t know exactly what his comment was, but I know it was weakly negative – an elaborate ‘meh’. I think this stuck in my mind because it was a clear example of that moment when the bubble of self-congratulation you can become stuck in while creating anything bursts. I had become convinced, I think, that Poder Nadar was a great leap forwards. Maybe it was, in my quest to become the World’s Premier Elevator Music Composer.