Mercury Prize Blog

Enjoy The Experience

posted 23/05/2013

Author Johan Kugelberg is no stranger to large scale projects, his previous books on The Velvet Underground and Punk were both celebrated for the amount of research that went into their production. For his new title, however, Kugelberg has tackled what may be one of the largest and most disparate fields in 20th Century music, namely the culture of private press vinyl that existed throughout the 60′s, 70′s and 80′s.

Long before Soundcloud and Bandcamp were born, the process of self-releasing was both arduous and expensive, yet thousands upon thousands of would be musicians dedicated their money and time into producing their very own albums, especially in America where, in Kugelberg’s own words, “privately made records [are part of] the American vernacular”. Without the music industry’s established chains of manufacture, press and distribution, self-made records would often disappear into the ether, buried at the back of dusty vinyl collections.

Over the course of three years Kugelberg, a huge vinyl collector, used his many contacts to compile a plotted history of the private press, a task that many would have thought impossible given the enormous scale and underground nature of the subject matter. The project now culminates with what director Larry Clark has called “the ultimate coffee book”, Enjoy The Experience: Homemade Records 1958-1992, a 500 page tome with details on more than a 1000 records and their always distinctive covers.

In exploring the art and impulse to such a great depth, Kugelberg highlights the human drive behind the records. In an interview with Nothing Major, Pitchfork’s sister Art & Design website, the author explains “The more [album covers] you look at, the more an aesthetic narrative unfolds, not unlike Scandinavian Folk painting, where different regions had local painters who never met but where the style is cohesive.”


As well as the huge book, which will no doubt prove a must for all different kinds of collectors, the wealth of private press vinyl detailed in Enjoy The Experience is simultaneously explored with some other events, releases and online initiatives. A 2LP / 2CD set of recordings curated by the author will soon be available, and Sinecure, the books publishers, have started delving deeper into some of the characters behind the music on their own blog. Finally for those in London, Rough Trade East will host an exhibition of cover art and welcome Johan Kugelberg for a sit down and chat with St Etienne’s Bob Stanley.

Chelsea’s 606 Club celebrates 25 years!

posted 24/04/2013

There are a couple of names that always crop up when discussing Jazz venues in the UK. Perhaps the first off most lips will be Ronnie Scott’s, an establishment synonymous with Jazz since the 1950s, whilst others will mention The Stables, the venue in Barnes founded by Cleo Lane and her husband the late great John Dankworth. Those with more experimental ears will point to The Vortex, the club opened by Babel Label’s Oliver Weinding that’s been so figurative in the new generation of players, or even its immediate neighbour Cafe Oto, a hang out for advocates of Free Jazz and Improv.

 

606 Club

There is another spot in the Capital that’s been keeping a light burning for the Jazz community since the 1960s, the 606 Club in Chelsea. First opening its doors at 606 Kings Road, the club was the epitome of Swinging London. Outrageous locals, visiting musicians and passing stars would all frequent the tiny basement, which boasted seven tables and a log fire, the only available heat during the long winter months. Throughout the Seventies and Eighties the club’s support for local musicians was unwavering, and as its renown grew it became clear that relocation was required. In 1988 Steve Rubie, the current proprietor who’d been a customer, performer and even a chef at the club, moved the 606 to the other side of Chelsea to a bigger premises where it’s since flourished.

Steve Rubie

This year marks 606′s 25th anniversary at its current location, and such is the impact its had on London’s Jazz scene it’s managed to attract an all-star line up of London’s finest to celebrate. A fortnight of shows starting in late May showcase many generations of British talent, all playing in the perfect environment for Jazz.

Ian Shaw is a perennial presence on the Jazz circuit. As well as being a two time winner of the prestigious BBC Jazz Award for Best Vocalist, Shaw is a well known broadcaster, presenting the Ronnie Scott’s Radio Show on Jazz FM and co-hosting the Big Band Special show with fellow singer Claire Martin. Shaw and his quartet play the 606 with another guest vocalist, the inimitable Jacqui Dankworth, who’s added to the rich Jazz legacy left her by parents Cleo and John.

Later in the programme there’s a night of unashamed nostalgia with two bands that represent the rich roll call of musicians who’ve played at the 606 over the years. The Ronnie Scotts All Stars, an ever changing group led by Ronnie’s musical director James Pearson, will warm up for a band put together especially for the evening, the 606 Club Band: Past & Present.

 

Gwilym Simcock Trio

Two pianists with close links to Barclaycard Mercury Prize will also pay tribute to the SW10 institution: Gwilym Simcock and Kit Downes appear on a bill that will set the pulses of British Jazz fans racing. Gwilym appears with his trio, whilst Kit takes to the stage with saxophones Julian Siegel. Were that not a sufficient draw, the evening also promises a performance from one of UK’s most respected musicians, saxophonist Iain Ballamy.

Kit Downes

Other highlights include a set from Clark Tracey, son of legendary pianist Stan and a world respected drummer in his own right, Empirical’s smart dressed saxophonist Nathaniel Facey and the inimitable Liane Carol who appears with her trio.

There’s no underestimating the importance of clubs like the 606, which provide an essential platform to an art form that can sometimes struggle to make an impact amongst more mainstream audiences. The strength of the line-up this May is certainly testament to how the club is regarded by the musicians who play and customers who come to listen. Congratulations to all involved in reaching this auspicious milestone, and here’s to the next 25 years!

For more information visit the London Jazz News website

The Festival Season Starts Soon!

posted 21/03/2013

The weather might not be indicative of spring, but the clocks are set to change and summer is – hopefully – just around the corner. That means music fans around the UK can start planning which festivals to visit, and as ever they’re spoilt for choice with hundreds of events taking place throughout the summer months.

With so many different festivals presenting such an incredible array of music it would be impossible to recommend a definitive shortlist. However, seeing as many festival organisers are starting the ball rolling and announcing some of their biggest bookings, it seems appropriate to cover those events that have recently made the news with their freshly revealed line-ups.

 

Latitude
Perhaps the biggest scoop of the season comes from Latitude, the weekender that’s established itself as one of the UK’s leading lights for cross-cultural celebration. As ever there’s a massive programme covering music, comedy, literature and cabaret, but undoubtably the biggest attraction at the 2013 event will be an appearance from Kraftwerk. Following sell-out residencies in London and New York, the legendary electronic pioneers bring their incredible 3D live show to Suffolk. Foals will also headline, whilst The Maccabees, Alt-J, Jessie Ware, King Creosote and Villagers all appear.

www.latitudefestival.com

Truck
After starting from the humblest of beginnings, Oxford’s Truck Festival has become a firm favourite with the more independently minded. There have been a few changes over the past couple of years, with the festival’s original organisers standing down in 2011. It’s done little to stop Truck motoring forwards though, as this year it welcomes two of its biggest headliners to date: the mercurial Jason Pierce brings his iconic outfit Spiritualized to the Oxonian countryside, whilst The Horrors hit Hill Farm for one of their only live dates this year.

truckfestival.com

Unknown
For the past few years there’s been a movement on the Adriatic coast, with more and more festival organisers taking advantage of Croatia’s stunning beaches, glorious weather and general enthusiasm for new and exciting Dance music. The Garden, Outlook and Soundwave have been leading the way for a while, with Dimensions inaugural event last summer proving a massive success, but this year there’s a new kid on the block packing some serious provenance. The promoters behind The Warehouse Project, Field Day and Hideout Festival present Unknown, a celebration of cutting edge electronic music with spots from Actress, Disclosure, Four Tet, Django Django and literally hundreds more.

 

Land Of Kings
City festivals have become more and more popular in recent times, with Brighton’s Great Escape and Liverpool Sound City amongst the first to favour a broad spread of urban venues over idyllic countryside and rolling fields. More recently Dot To Dot and Sheffield’s Tramlines have built on the template, as has Land of Kings, the East London event which utilises venues up and down the cultural highway know as Kingsland Road. This year Land Of Kings boasts Andrew Weatherall and Sean Johnson’s Love From Outer Space, Darkstar, Friendly Fires (DJ set), The Wave Pictures, Gaggle and Fimber Bravo amongst its billing.

There are plenty of opportunities to enjoy weekends full of music, for continued information on forthcoming festivals, and all manner of other live dates, freshly released albums, music news, videos and tracks, make sure you subscribe to Barclaycard Mercury Prize Recommends for weekly updates.

The Art of Pop Video

posted 01/03/2013

Ever since the earliest examples of cinema, music and the moving image have gone hand in hand. As silent films, which were always presented with musical accompaniment, gave way to the “talkies”, the Hollywood studios started to make short films featuring singers, bands and musicians of the time, giving birth in principle to the music video.

By the Sixties the concept of music videos had taken full hold, with pioneers like The Beatles and Bob Dylan shooting films for their songs that – especially in the case of Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues filmed in 1966 – would set a benchmark for generations to come. Fifteen years later with the birth of MTV, music videos quickly became ingrained in the collective cultural conscience, changing the way music was marketed, enjoyed and evaluated forever.

For the first time in the UK, an exhibition will celebrate the medium of music video – tracing a line from its humble beginnings to the Eighties explosion, and subsequent refinement in the late Nineties and early Noughties led by the likes of Michel Gondry, Chris Cunningham and Spike Jonze. Perhaps most interestingly, the exhibit will also examine the current revolution taking place in music video, with platforms such as YouTube helping the audience quickly shift from passive viewer to active producer.

The Art of Pop Video opens at the Foundation for Art and Cultural Technology (FACT) in Liverpool next month, and will use more than 100 clips from across the decades to document the evolution of music video. There will also be a number of projects and events during the exhibition’s two month tenure, and a whole other exhibition that will run concurrently.

Screenadelica: Printing The Art of Pop celebrates another of music’s visual incarnations, that of the screen printed poster. As well as filling the space with an abundance of music inspired hand-pulled posters, Screenadelica offers patrons the chance to produce their own screen prints.

The launch of the exhibition will be marked by a very special commission. FACT put out an open call to up-and-coming directors, asking them to pitch for a music video for one of Liverpool’s most promising new bands, Outfit, whose releases on Double Denim have invoked all manner of excitement amongst the thinking Indie fraternity. The winning submission came from Manchester’s Isaac Eastgate, whose previous work includes promos for Django Django, Dutch Uncles and Egyptian Hip Hop. His video for Performance will premier to coincide with the opening of The Art of Pop Video.

Outfit

For more information on this ingenious exhibition, visit the FACT website.

David Bowie Is

posted 19/02/2013

Next month the V&A throws open its doors in a brand new exhibition, and in the process examines one of the greatest chameleons in popular culture, David Bowie. David Bowie Is brings together an unprecedented collection of costumes, artwork, artifacts and memorabilia, each piece offering insight into this most idiosyncratic of artists.

Before the exhibition opens next month, the Guardian gave fans a taste of what to expect with two great articles recently: the first, a tantalising look at some of the costumes featuring in what promises to be one of the summer’s biggest shows, the second a thoughtful piece by photography critic and award winning journalist Sean O’Hagan which serves as the perfect introduction to the retrospective.


In the long form article O’Hagan discusses the singer’s formative teen age in Bromley and the path that quickly took him from Davie Jones to David Bowie. He also touches on the impact that Bowie’s first wife Angela Barnett had, and how she encouraged her husband to start exploring different sides of his own persona – an approach that over the years has come to define Bowie as one of music’s greatest visionaries.

After this the article’s chief concern lies with the four characters Bowie created between 1972 and 1976, examining the dramatic shifts in style he underwent during those short four years. Starting with the proto-Glam pomp of Ziggy Stardust, it maps Bowie’s progression from Pop star to icon for a generation, pinpointing his legendary appearance on Top of the Pops (a performance seen at the time by over 5 million people) as the moment where everything changed.

From there O’Hagan follows Bowie through the dark, dystopian undercurrent of Diamond Dogs to the euphoric Blue Eyed soul of Young Americans (telling of how a chance meeting with John Lennon inspired the song Fame, which was added to the album in the 11th hour) and finally the troubled but visually striking persona of the Thin White Duke.

The photos from David Bowie Is featured on the Guardian blog are similarly focussed on these interesting shifts during the Seventies, showing some of the costumes created by Freddie Burretti, Kansai Yamamoto and Ola Hudson that were so integral in defining these distinct phases of his career.

There are other shots including film stills, promotional shoots and hand annotated images, all giving a flavour of what to expect when the exhibition opens. The last shot of all is perhaps the most exciting, as it gives a sneak peak into one of the rooms at the V&A, showing just how mind blowing – and eye catching – an exhibition fans can expect come March.

For more information on David Bowie Is visit the V&A website

Play Me, I’m Yours

posted 05/02/2013

A news item that ran in The Times this week served as an ominous warning to instrument makers the world over; faced with continued drop in sales Harrods have announced plans to close their piano department, an institution that first opened its doors in 1895.  Unable to compete with the ease and accessibility of digital music software for tablets, laptops and smart phones, or match the significantly lower costs of electric keyboards, pianos have become a feature of fewer and fewer lives. With sales at a quarter of what they were less than thirty years ago, most of the British manufacturers have since disbanded, their marques transferred to makers in China and Japan. At one time there were over 100 piano factories in North London’s Camden Town alone, with hundreds more throughout the UK. Sadly, the last surviving British firm, Kemble, closed its door in 2009.

Despite this downturn the pianoforte still holds a very special place in the world of music, and one artist in particular is determined to finding it a brand new audience. Luke Jerram has been working on his ongoing project Play Me, I’m Yours since 2008, and in the process he’s released over 700 pianos into the urban wild.  Luke began in Birmingham with fifteen pianos, all painted by local artists, and left them for three weeks in specially selected locations. His aim was to provoke people into engaging and reacting, both with the piano and also the landscape itself. It soon became clear that not only were the streets teaming with secret pianists, there were even more people who were keen enough to stop and listen, not just in the UK but all over the world.


In the six years since its inception, Play Me, I’m Yours has travelled all over the globe, with pianos popping up in places as far reaching as New York, Barcelona and Bury St Edmonds. Almost immediately they’re taken to heart by the communities in which they’re placed, as the many videos on the project’s website will attest. There are also scores of incredible stories, such as the two Australian journalists who met whilst reporting on the pianos when they appeared in Sydney, and are now married, or the young musician in London who so impressed organisers they offered him the piano after it had finished its tenure out in the streets. After a year of being able to practise at home, Paul Gbegbaje’s playing led to a finalist place on Britain’s Got Talent.

This year the project visits Monterey, Munich, Cleveland and Boston. To find out more about Play Me, I’m Yours visit the website. A look around lukejerram.com will tell you more about the artist’s work, which includes the incredible Sky Orchestra – a fleet of seven air balloons that set off at dusk or dawn with speakers attached, each playing a different element of a musical score written specifically for the city that sleeps below – and Aeolus, an enormous stringed instrument, based on Aeolian harp designs, that amplifies minute shifts in wind direction.

 

Greta’s Records

posted 28/01/2013

 

Whilst attending an auction in Beverly Hills, independent filmmaker Alison Anders won her own piece of popular culture, and in doing so has opened the door to a fascinating new project. The auction was for the remaining estate of the reclusive actress Greta Garbo, a screen siren who more than any other embodies the golden age of Hollywood. After appearing in almost thirty films in two decades, Garbo famously turned her back on acting in 1941 and led the rest of her life away from the spotlight. Though myth and rumour have always painted her as troubled and lonesome, the contents of the two day auction showed another side to Garbo, a traveller, painter, collector, and a keen follower of fashion and culture who stayed active until passing away in 1990 aged 85.

Being a lifelong fan of the Swedish starlet Anders was determined to secure herself a piece of her personal history, but faced with the sheer volume of artefacts available asked herself “What would I truly WANT… and what would I do with it?”. Her answer came when discovered Garbo’s vinyl records, an extensive collection spread over several categorised lots: Classical, Jazz, Spoken Word, International and Rock & Pop. After winning the final of these lots, Anders quickly realised the purpose to which she could put them and started a blog called Greta’s Records.

With each post Anders picks out an individual LP from the fifty strong set and writes with about it with an assured and amiable style, drawing from her in-depth knowledge of Bardot’s and – to an even greater extent – her own passion for music and popular culture. The first post, which went online this week, is an illuminating article on Gene Vincent’s ill-fated masterpiece No Other, a record that Anders knows well and talks about with great authority. In other posts the culture surrounding the records comes into focus, such as the piece on Chubby Checker’s Twist Party in which Anders discussed the exuberance of the early 1960′s in Manhattan, Garbo’s home for many years.

The variety of music contained within in the collection is broad to say the least, with The Beatles, Professor Longhair, Diana Ross and German singer Hildegard Kneff all taking their place on the shelf. Such a wide array gives Anders great scope, and should lead to a highly personal and uniquely informative project. Perhaps the only shame is that those other bidders who now own parts of Garbo’s collection aren’t chronicling them in such an interesting manner.

http://gretasrecords.tumblr.com/

The Rest Is Noise

posted 22/01/2013

Alex Ross, author of The Rest Is Noise

 

Throughout 2013 the Southbank Centre will be hosting a year-long musical festival that celebrates 20th century classical music. Though many will identify classical music with the many composers who defined the art form, from its earliest origins in the Renaissance and Baroque periods to the 18th century vanguard of Viennese composers including Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Schubert, it is only in the past 100 years that classical music has welcomed some of it most innovative and challenging works.

The festival takes both its name and theme from Alex Ross’s definitive book The Rest Is Noise, an endlessly informative and imaginative text that was hailed on its release as a masterpiece and has fast become recognised as one of the most comprehensive examples of music history writing. Ross started writing reviews for magazines whilst still in college, and fell into a full time career as a critic when the New York Times offered him his first job in 1992. Fifteen years and countless columns later came his first book The Rest Is Noise, which went on to be shortlisted for both the Pulitzer Prize and the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non Fiction.

Jude Kelly, Southbank’s artistic director and the curator of The Rest Is Noise was one of the first people to read Ross’s book and straight away knew how important it would prove in introducing contemporary classical – a notoriously niche genre – to a much broader audience. ‘In about 2007 I was sent a proof copy and I read it from cover to cover. I knew immediately that this was a translation space for people to find a way of understanding music differently. It takes the history of the 20th century and reveals how this history – the turbulence, intrigue, revolution and warring political philosophies – deeply affected composition.’

This intertwining involvement with the political and social revolutions that characterised the era is reflected in the festival’s programme. There are many hundreds of events, with each month focussing on a different theme: next month the spotlight falls on Paris and the early experimentalists who first began to challenge tonality, whilst June promises a series of events that explore the impact life in a post-war world had on composition; November will be dedicated to the music that emerged in the completely contrasting worlds of Hollywood and Russia, leading to the festival’s finale – New World Order – in December.

The Rest Is Noise will be a unique series that offers a new depth of insight into one of the most important chapters in contemporary music, with concerts, talks, workshops and specially curated commissions all taking place around the Southbank. What’s even more exciting is the way the festival promises to appeal equally to those who are already immersed in the world of contemporary classical and those who, as yet, have little or no notion of the breadth of creativity at play throughout a hundred years of music.

For more information visit the Southbank Centre website

 

TED 2013

posted 12/01/2013

TED, the non-profit platform that’s been making the world a better place with the promotion of “Ideas Worth Spreading” since 1984 has revealed the programme for its first season of talks in 2013. As ever the list of contributors is as broad as it is intriguing, and true to TED’s commitment to the creative arts there are more than a couple of musicians who’ll be bringing their own personal insights to the talks in Long Beach, California.

There’ll be talks from two British musicians who, despite coming from completely different ends of the spectrum, share a singular approach to the way they work. Peter Gabriel’s contribution to contemporary music is largely immeasurable, from his work with Genesis during the Seventies and pioneering studio-centric output of the Eighties to Real World, the recording studio and label which have helped nurture the careers of a vast number of musicians and artists. Gabriel is also the co-founder of WITNESS, an organisation that distributes digital cameras around the world in a bid to document human rights abuses. His abiding fascination with technology will no doubt feature heavily when he takes to the stage in February.


Beatboxing and production powerhouse Beardyman will also appear amongst the many psychologists, scientists and specialists joining the bill at February’s talks. His pioneering work with technology began at BattleJam, a club night where he and DMC champion JFB would keep crowds on tenterhooks for hours without a record in sight. This passion for producing music in real-time has developed over the years, the past few being devoted to the development of the Beardytron 5000 mkII, a real-time production system that places live looping at the centre of a new musical paradigm. The djtechtools.com website ran a brilliant article last month in which Beardyman explained how the system had evolved over the past few years.


Beardyman and Peter Gabriel are just two of the latest in a long line of musicians to get involved with TED, with performances featuring as frequently as talks. Last year the Observer ran a day long TED event at London’s Sadlers Wells Theatre, with highlights including appearances from Lianne La Havas, Plan B and Amadou & Mariam, who explained how they’ve overcome their blindness and learnt to see music. Elsewhere, Talking Heads frontman and celebrated journalist David Byrne (picutred above) gave a talk about architecture’s role in the evolution of music. Many of the theories he discussed during this talk form the core of his brilliant new book How Music Works.

Such championing of ideas is noble and much needed, and thankfully TED has become an integral platform in the ever increasing online environment. To find out more visit www.ted.com

Albums of the Year Live @ LSO St Lukes

posted 27/09/2012

Barclaycard Mercury Prize Albums of the Year Live brings together artists and bands from the 2012 shortlist for a series of unique live shows. The first event took place in London recently, offering music fans the incredible line-up of Lianne La Havas, Field Music and Jessie Ware in the rarefied surroundings of LSO St Lukes in Shoreditch.

The evening, hosted by Radio 1′s Nick Grimshaw, began with Lianne La Havas, who took to the stage with a stripped back band. Whilst Lianne’s debut album Is Your Love Big Enough? is notable for its rich and varied production (courtesy in the main of Matt Hales, formerly known as Aqualung) her live performances hinge on her incredible vocal delivery. As the band left the stage shortly after the first number, Lianne proceeded to play solo with just her guitar. Perfectly suiting the intimate setting, her solo performance also helped highlight the incredible craft that lies at the heart of her songs.

Sunderland’s Field Music were next to the stage, and from the outset the complex rhythms, powerful playing and dry humour that are so inherent to the Brewis Brothers charm was immediately evident. As well as tracks from their shortlisted album Plumb, the band dipped deeper into their back catalogue, playing songs from previous albums Field Music (Measure), Tones of the Town and from David Brewis’s side project School of Language. As the band took a minute to retune, David Brewis joked “At this point in the show we like to have an interlude, because when you write an album with 15 songs that only lasts 35 minutes you HAVE to have an interlude, believe me!”

The final performance came from Jessie Ware. Looking incredibly glamorous as she walked onstage, the young South Londoner’s humour shone through as she explained how hard it was to walk with her new hair do. Wasting little time she led her band through a perfectly formed set that ran through the many highlights of her debut album Devotion. The audience were particularly responsive, no surprise given a number of Jessie’s friends and family were present (including her sister, who’d flown over from America to see her, and the friend who inspired Jessie to write Wildest Moments). Finishing the night on a high, the singer treated the crown to her breakthrough hit Running.

The evening was enjoyed by all and helped highlight the quality and diversity of both the 2012 Albums of the Year shortlist and of British music at large. The next installment of the Barclaycard Mercury Prize Albums of the Year Live series features Sam Lee, Django Django and Plan B at LSO St Lukes on Wednesday 10 October. For a chance to get hold of tickets visit the Mercury Prize website.

All photos by Steve Glashier.