Steve’s Gig Diary: Damo Diary 2004

Wednesday 10th March 2004

I set off from Harrogate bound for Manchester in the late afternoon, Duncan is arriving in Stockport at nine so Gary and I make a start on setting up at The Greenhouse. We're in the big room again (we're talking enormous), there's a large PA in there so I set my drums up right in the middle. It'll be like playing along to a giant stereo. Once Duncan's on board we spend a couple of hours getting into the swing of it, he has a great acoustic guitar loop that makes everything around it shine.

We retire to the trusty Woolpack near the pyramid, and return to Gary's for a pretty late night. We have two days rehearsal time for two very different gigs. Our plan is to prepare for both simultaneously, then throw the lot out of the window!

Thursday 11th March 2004

We crawl out of our pits at Dane Rd having asked the guy at the Greenhouse to open up at 12 O'clock. We arrive at 1.30 displaying a fair bit of ignorance on our behalf, but then I remind myself that bands are supposed to behave like this. It's been a largely legitimate delay anyway, as I needed to buy a case for my new Black Beauty snare, and a keyboard stool to go with my drum seat. Standing up's too much like hard work. We then tuck into a dismal excuse for a bacon roll garnished with ketchup from an industrial vat that's never even seen a tomato.

It's freezing cold in the vast space of the rehearsal room and the enormous torpedo of a gas canister meant to stave off the frostbite is empty. There's nothing for it but to play until we warm up. I've not touched the drums for six months so it all creaks into action rustily rather than lustily. The gig with Damo Suzuki is a real departure for us and we'll be playing Guitar, Bass and Drums behind him, along with the electronics. There's nothing to rehearse because the gig will be improvised, but I suggest we learn 'Mother Sky' because Damo has on occasion revisited the song. We also have a piece we call 'Damo Blues', which we have kicked around as an instrumental and played at E-Live.

The early jams to me sound too 'rock & roll', but I appreciate how hard it is to de-learn this tendency. We hone Mother Sky into a tidy 8-9 minute version, with some good changes in dynamics. It's a swine to play as every bass drum stroke is an offbeat! Experiments in different time signatures are only partially successful, but we know that on the night the circumstances will be unique anyway.

Gary has a parents evening to attend, he's selling the house and he's never truly out of the office thanks to the curse of the mobile phone. For him, the music is part welcome diversion and part added stress to an already busy life. His family are as hospitable as ever in having us late drinking, spliffing musician types over at Dane Road.

Friday 12th March 2004

Gary's up first with a new sense of purpose, we're off to Cheadle to his favourite guitar shop to pick up a highly essential new addition to the guitar collection, a Fender Telecaster. When I say "pick up", of course I mean take an hour or more trying several guitars through the variety of amps on display. Duncan immediately dubs the new guitar 'Sheryl Crow's wedding cake'.

We then take a quick trip to the shopper zombie zone to buy some blank mini-discs, and have lunch at the pub nearby this retail park hell hole. Good food is a good start to the day, and we're finally ready to rehearse. I use the kit to accompany the sequencer lines blasting from the PA. This is OK as long as I can hear what I'm playing to.

I'm using a bigger kit this time with the new snare complemented by 3 toms and 4 cymbals. I have the ride cymbal unconventionally to my left, which gives the benefit of being able to add 16ths with my left hand when it's not on the snare.

We try various run-throughs of 'Mother Sky' and also play a tune in 7/8 while Duncan stays in 4/4. It's dreadful. Then Duncan comes up with a slow drum loop, which has some mileage in it. I think we're obsessing too much about having a plan for the Damo gig and forgetting that ingredient X will take over on the day. We haven't prepared at all for the National Space Centre concert tomorrow.

We're visited by a young kid with a backwards baseball cap, and a Telecaster slung nonchalantly around his shoulders. He's heard what we're doing and is interested. We invite him in and give him a couple of CDs. His band 'Army of Innocents' is going to change the world. When he asks how long we've been at it, the truth is probably since before he was born. We don't dwell on this for too long, and he seems pretty impressed when he discovers we've made upwards of twenty albums as well he ought to be. Cocky young whippersnapper!

Saturday 13th March 2004

Gary and I go and pick up the van from the usual place, and it's down to The Greenhouse to load up. We're off in good time, with Gary driving and Jonathan Ross (the best of an unspeakably bad lot), on the radio. Today he has young Joss Stone in the studio, barely out of school, with her super-efficient record company picked muso backing band. Before they've played a note you know exactly what it's going to sound like, and they duly oblige. "Amazing" says JR as young Ms. Stone demonstrates as much soul as a Kentucky Fried Chicken ad. "Major label fodder" say we. It's second-hand soul from a cute young white girl who can mimic the black greats despite having little or no life experience of her own to draw on, but the great British public laps this stuff up. Music for people who don't like music.

While we're lost in the ideological struggle between art and commerce, we're also hurtling the wrong way up the M6. Gary's had one of those blank-outs that happen to us all from time to time, and completely missed the turning to head south.

Eventually we make progress in the right direction towards Leicester, but haven't left enough time to eat properly. I may be the nearest we have to a tour manager, but there's no way to hurry the guys up when they don't want to be hurried! We reach the Holiday Inn in the centre of Leicester, just in time to have a shower and out again. As we move the van out of the space in front of the hotel, it's quickly replaced by another vehicle, and the occupants all give us a wave and a thumbs-up as we drive off. Turns out they're RMI fans!

We suffer the indignity of having to eat at McDonalds. No, we're not lovin' it. It is in the middle of nowhere, yet it's heaving with the gastronomic cognoscenti of the East Midlands. Do people actually come here out of choice? Do they really have nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon than to come to this homogenized hell and eat this shit? We've got an excuse, we're in a band, and there's nowhere else to eat. We have our 'meals' outside by the van, as Leeds United slide inexorably towards division one with another defeat (by Fulham) on the radio. We look at the hapless couple in the car opposite, obviously out on a date. It takes a man of rare sophistication and imagination to suggest McDonalds as the venue for a romantic encounter. Maybe they'll be going back to his place afterwards to listen to the Joss Stone album.

We pull up at the National Space Centre, and there's a lovely blue sky with huge clouds, so I take a few shots for possible album covers while I have five minutes. It's a hefty load in, and we've brought a lot of gear. I set up the kit to the right, as we did on our first visit last year.

Tempus Fugit, and before we know it, Dave Law's introducing us. Duncan immediately abandons the slow start we'd agreed on by bringing the sequencers straight in. Gary looks at me aghast! Ah well, spontaneity guaranteed. The first piece works out fine as an opening thirty-minute exploration. We follow that with a piece in 'A' based on an acoustic guitar chord sequence, just for a change. A few technical issues towards the end make it less than perfect. My volume pedal is raxed, so that every time I play a note it comes in at full blast. Aaaagh. Thank god for intervals. The first set closer is unadulterated bollocks, but you can't win them all.

Duncan fixes my pedal between sets, we have a breather outside, and mingle a bit with the audience. Some introduce themselves, others prefer to keep a distance, and there's a few familiar faces (Hi Lemmy, Cockney Steve and the gang, Dave Gurr, Rob De Cecco and Al Freeman from Ultima Thule).

We start the second set with solar winds and space sounds, the noises reverberate around the dome as the lasers spring into action. Well, it's one way to spend a Saturday night. This turns into a forty-five minute epic with a rhythmic hard centre. Duncan then brings in the drum loop from yesterday for the next piece and I play the kit for the first time. What emerges is like a cross between the mid section of the Floyd's 'Echoes', and Reggae! Bit of a departure…(an enlightened correspondent recently emailed with a reference to Can's `Flow Motion'. He's right y'know)

We finish with a fast sequencer and drums piece to seal our space-rock credentials, it works great live but doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. We play so loud in that place that it's virtually a night off for the PA guy, but we like to move the air if we can. There's some great guitar playing here but the timing on the drums is all to cock.

Sunday March 14th 2004

Up in decent time, we decide to avoid the rip-off Holiday Inn breakfast, (£13 a pop! do us a favour!) and head for a service station on the way to Manchester. We're feeling pretty spragged, and after not having eaten properly yesterday, a tad peckish. One full English later, and we're ready for the day ahead.

The City of Manchester stadium is hosting the City v United football derby which is in full swing as we get closer to the city. Tony bloody Blair and his pack of bastards are in town, so the police have all got a semi-on about traffic arrangements and security. Security? I can't imagine why any right thinking person would want to harm a member of a government which taxes them to the hilt and then spends it all on a war that nobody wants, whilst lying through their teeth like it's second nature. They do a great job, and history will prove Lionel right!

The net result of the media's message to 'stay out of the city, you peasants!', is that we breeze through central Manchester to our destination on Oldham Street with hardly another vehicle in sight. We're right on time for a 3 o'clock load-in, as we spot Jay Taylor arriving to unlock the doors to the Night & Day which is a great café, bar, music venue and cultural hub for central Manchester. They're still sweeping up the beer bottles and butt ends from last night as we introduce ourselves. The radio's on in the bar and Man City are leading United by 4-1!

At the back of the room a huge window looks out onto Oldham Street, the bar is on the left of the room and the stage at the bottom. It's a cosy stage, but easily big enough for us to set up the electronics towards the front and still have room for the drums at the back on a riser. There's a couple of side wedges for me so I should be well sorted out. Not such good news on the electronics front. Duncan's sequencer set up steadfastly refuses to work. There's no choice but to ditch it, I'll have to do what I can with my Maq.

The soundman is a rare diamond, and has thrown us a perfect monitor mix in super quick time. Jay plugs in to his Fender Twin and joins in the sound check. He offers to sit out a lot of the set, but we say he's welcome to play as much as he wants. Damo appears at the back of the venue with his suitcase on wheels. Greetings all round, he spies the communal Golden Virginia to which we invite him to help himself. Another ex-smoker! I mention 'Mother Sky' to test the water early on and he says "better to have no concept". He's right of course, and it will not be mentioned again. We talk of Finland and 'after gig gigs' he's done in Liverpool, the legend of which has already reached Manchester ahead of him.

Now that Damo's got his breath back, I suggest a vocal sound check, and we launch into 'Damo's Blues' or loose approximation of. It's a magic moment when THAT voice leaps into our music for the first time, bang on cue. As I look out from behind the kit, Gary tips me a wink and I'm already grinning like a kid at Christmas.

A short and wonderful run through and Damo just says "It works". Which is about as concise and all encompassing as one can get. We invite him to come out with us for food, just as Duncan's girlfriend Fujie arrives. We get temporarily lost on the streets of Manchester looking for the restaurant. Ashamed Manchester United fans have gone to ground early, and there are sporadic outbursts of singing from triumphant City supporters. I explain to Damo how it was a big surprise that City won. He smiles and says "This is good, I like it when the underdog wins". We finally locate the Turkish restaurant where we partake of wholesome food and conversation as a knackered cassette deck wows and flutters to a tragic degree in the background.

We return to the venue and looking through the window, it has filled up nicely and is buzzing. I feel great for the first time today, as all apprehension evaporates. The gig's a bit like a cup final for us and we want to put in a good performance. Almost immediately we're onstage for the RMI opening set. This is a rare opportunity for us to play to a different crowd and it goes really well. We decide to go for one 30 minute piece, to maximise our time playing with Damo. We start quietly, and gradually rise to a good loud sequencer frenzy that sounds very clear and powerful onstage, overlaid with loud bursts of guitar. It's a handy little intro to RMI for the uninitiated, and I can sense the audience are interested enough to give it a chance. We bring it to a halt after 30 minutes, receive warm enthusiastic applause and quit while we're ahead.

Jay comes over and says it sounds tremendous. We're due almost immediately onstage again, and to make things interesting, Damo has decided to conduct a 'lottery' to bring an element of chance to the proceedings. He has a rolled up sheet of A4 paper with a series of straight lines emerging from the folds and asks each of us to sign our name next to one of the lines. The paper is then unfolded to reveal numbers corresponding to the lines we have signed, which will dictate the order in which we go onstage and play.

For the first piece I'm number one, but for the second piece there is no number. This means I must start the first piece solo, and then sit out the second piece altogether. By now I'm ready for anything and totally up for it, feeling that surge of confidence that only a day's apprehension can finally release. I sit alone at the keyboard and start with some space sounds, attempting to play percussion at the same time in an early and pathetic attempt at multi-instrumentalist showboating. Duncan joins me after a few minutes with some trademark RMI 'boofs', and Gary eases his way in with some long chords. I suddenly get a tap on the shoulder from Gary. "Damo says the drumming starts now".

Immediately I leave Duncan and Jay droning away, compose myself at the kit, take a deep breath and off I go with a chugging, understated dream beat. Duncan picks up his bass and comes in with just the right bass line as Damo arrives onstage to great applause. Immediately into his stride, he helps shape the structure of the piece by appearing to sing verses and choruses, and soon we're doing little guitar middle eights, dropping down for a few bars, the whole vocabulary of song structure except that the song is being composed as we go along! It's a phenomenal piece to start with, and my spirit-guage has already registered `ten' several times.

I'm sitting the next one out. This is all very Zen I think to myself as I watch from the wings. Am I in the band or the audience at this point? Onstage it is developing into a very strange non-rhythmic, non-melodic drone piece with lots of space in it. The audience is quiet and listening intently. It is wonderful to see this in a club venue. At times the piece descends into near silence and it has the feel of some ancient ceremony. Any latecomers could be forgiven for wondering what the hell they'd stumbled into. Damo tries some of his most 'out there' vocalisations and we get a wonderful but brief bout of screaming as the music erupts. The piece descends into silence after about 20 minutes. I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever be asked back on stage!

We launch straight into 'Damo Blues' developed for this very occasion and never to be played again. The pace is ideally suited to Damo's funky alien scat singing and he fills every bar with something new. Jay adds some sterling contributions from my left, as Gary chops away on his wah-wahed guitar. Brimming with exuberance I throw in my maddest drum fills one after the other, but Damo rides the lot, never losing the beat. I feel that a lot of rhythm sections in 'The Network' tend to be a bit nebulous and don't test his astounding timing enough, we kind of force him to sing rhythmically tight, but it's him at his most beautiful when he does. He has a drummer's relationship with the beat, knowing how to sit just behind it. Those years spent with Jaki Liebezeit must be etched in his soul. The drumbeat behind this tune is one that I developed many years ago, I've used it in several contexts and have never heard it from anyone else. (it was originally part of a jam with my Sheffield band nearly twenty years ago they christened 'Steve Is Jaki Liebezeit' after The Fall tribute 'I am Damo Suzuki'. Funny how these things turn out!) We all stop at the same time, and in a well remembered stroke of genius, Duncan comes in with an organ coda, still in perfect time. A huge "yeah !" from someone in the audience and we're all back in again to ride this song out into the sunset. Jay's making some great contributions, and contrasting well with Gary in every way.

It goes down really well, although there's never time to bask in the applause, because it's always a case of "now what do we do?" I start gently on an electric piano sound, poking around and find myself unconsciously developing a simple chord sequence. Damo is singing well and I'm hanging on every word looking for spaces to play my next chord. Duncan picks up the reigns at the keyboard seamlessly as it gathers momentum and calls out for the drums. It's an epic tale that just keeps growing and growing, like flying low over the wreckage of a huge city. It somehow also reminds me of 'In A Broken Dream'. There's emotion and beauty flying from the stage, created from nothing. Perhaps this piece is the biggest surprise to us. It's totally unlike anything we've played before or since. Damo's out doing himself and Gary's soaring guitar is probably his best of the night.

Somebody says "ten minutes" which is all we have thanks to licensing laws from the last century, and the dolts who bought a flat next to a music venue and then spend all their time complaining about the noise. We play the encore that we won't have time for, a driving wah-wah groove to see the set out on a high. "Thank you so much. We love you. That was it" says Damo as we all take a comically uncoordinated bow at the front of the stage before disappearing downstairs to the dressing room. Jay comes bouncing in with some welcome beers, and I'm jumping up and down, unable to contain myself. We didn't let ourselves down and in fact it went into realms that we couldn't have even imagined. Damo led the whole band with just a microphone, yet all the musical decisions were ours. Hugs and handshakes all round!

A quick photo call, and we're upstairs packing up. Meanwhile Damo tries to book a last minute hotel due to a mix up with his arrangements for the Hull gig in two days time. The outcome of this is that he asks if he can stay with us tomorrow night! Gary thinks this'll be OK and gives him his mobile number. As we return to Dane Rd I'm with the gear rattling around in the back of the van, but the mood I'm in I could fly home. When we get back to Dane Rd we can't resist the temptation to get stuck into the Boddies and have a little playback. When the band comes in on the first piece it's a moment every bit as good as I thought it was. It's just so right.

Monday 15th March 2004

We load the gear back into storage at The Greenhouse and as Dunc and Fujie prepare to return to London, Gary suggests that seeing as Damo is coming over, that perhaps I'd like to stay on too. Amazingly the thought had not at that point occurred to me. We rescue cymbals and percussion just in case Damo's up for some unplugged improvisation. It pays to be prepared.

By lunchtime we've returned the van and seen Duncan and Fujie off, so Gary very sensibly suggests lunch in The Bridge. Before we've been sitting down for too long, Damo calls from his windowless billet in town, he's not slept too well. He's using a call box and it's eating up money as fast as he can put it in, it takes several calls to establish where we are and where to meet us. The pub is right by the tram stop so it should be straightforward enough for him. Gary meantime calls the long suffering Sharon to announce that there may be a diminutive Japanese gentleman turning up at door!

A half hour later in amongst the other happy mondayers in the pub, Damo arrives straight off the tram. We buy him a white wine, and settle down with our post lunch pints, offering him the communal tobacco. Damo is happy to talk about anything but I try and consciously avoid too many 'Can Fan' questions. The nature of our relationship is now that of fellow musicians, and surely he must tire of talking about those three years in his life. We do quickly learn that he is totally mystified by the whole 'Krautrock' movement he's said to be a part of. He's hardly even heard of Faust! I suggest that it was the communal aspect of these bands, Can included, that makes their music so individual, but to call it a movement is wrong. Can were holed up in Cologne pretty much doing their thing oblivious to the outside world, just as Faust were in their Wumme schoolhouse, and Amon Duul in their commune. The Melody Maker just needed a tag for all of this exciting stuff coming from the continent for the first time I guess.

We also learn that Damo had actually given up music for ten years following Can, and that the simple reason he'd left them was that he was sick of the music! As a young man, his decision had not seemed a momentous one. He worked for a Japanese company in Cologne and lived a very normal office life. This of course, Gary and I can both identify with, as our normal weeks do not usually involve spending Monday afternoons in the pub on the back of a weekend of gigs. The muse of course never leaves, it's just put on hold while the economics of living take precedence.

I tell him that we have a mutual friend in Mark Spybey. Mark was the drummer in our first ever band way back in 1979 (we were only 16!), before he emigrated to Vancouver in the early 80's. He continued to plough an artistic furrow of his own whilst working in music therapy, and performed with a collection of toys and 'chronic instruments' (a term coined by Richard Sanderson at the time). Mark somehow ended up in one of the finest Damo bands of all time that also included Can guitarist Michael Karoli. Mark then moved from Damo's band to Michael's Sofortkontakt, but not before writing the mission statement on Damo's website. Duncan and I had a wonderful reunion with 'Spib' at the Can solo concerts of 1999, and met the guys backstage. After being introduced to Michael he uttered the immortal lines "where is there more booze?" I'll drink to that.

He also tells us of his problems with US immigration, and how he was denied entry to the country and sent from Chicago to Amsterdam. All he wanted was to meet some soul mates, see some of the USA, and sing for his supper, what is wrong with these uptight assholes? They're uptight, and they're assholes. That's what.

It's about 4 o'clock by now and several pints later we amble back to the house for Damo to meet the Houghton kids. We head downstairs to the basement room, and Joe, Alex and Stephen are very interested in our visitor. They decide that because he's a singer that he must want to hear some Iron Maiden! When that's mercifully over, they ask if there's anything with Damo singing on it. I've got my copy of Can Soundtracks and play Tango Whiskyman because it's got a lovely vocal. Damo listens with his head bowed, a lovely mark of respect for the music entering the room. The kids are of course nonplussed at this unfamiliar music from another time, so we decide instead on a game of indoor football. Damo keeps goal at one end, and I the other. The child in him takes over immediately and we laugh as the usual dramas and fights are played out amongst the boys "Mark Joe !" I say to Alex. "Mark Spybey !" exclaims Damo.

Meanwhile Sharon has prepared a wonderful dinner, and we all arrange ourselves at the dining table. The kids are interested when Damo tells us that he left Japan when he was 16 to travel the world. When it transpires that he does not own a TV set, they are stunned into silence, unable to contemplate the unthinkable. Main course over, Sharon asks who would like ice-cream and Damo's hand shoots up quickest, he says "See what a big kid I am when it comes to Ice Cream !". Sarah calls from Harrogate, so I put her on for few words with Damo, meanwhile little Katherine is enunciating "Damo Suzuki" in the background.

We retire back to the basement, Sharon joins us and we start listening to some music. Gary decides that I can DJ, and Damo says that this is a good opportunity for him to hear some new music, as he's been asked by Wire magazine to do an Invisible Jukebox (where the interviewee is asked to identify and comment on tracks chosen by smug Wire journo) and he doesn't know anything! (as it turns out, this feature never materialises although a straightforward interview with Damo does…). His CD case is full of classical and ethnic music, and discs given to him on his travels.

The kids are packed off to bed, and I give the hash to Damo and ask him to do the honours. He constructs a masterful cone, and we all tuck in. Plumes of smoke are emitting from this masterpiece as Joe suddenly re-appears…ah well, maybe if he sees his parents getting stoned it'll stop him experimenting too young. We discover that Jaki likes a smoke and during his peak days in Can, would chain smoke spliffs and practice for hours on the drums before the rest of the band even arrived at the studio. In total it amounted to 15 hours a day, and it was apparently his ultimate ambition to become a machine. He'd recently become a dad for the first time at the age of 64. Nice one Jaki.

Gary and Sharon retire leaving Damo and me alone. He plays music from the edge of the Hurl forest, once again adopting the head down pose, then Rimsky Korsakov in which he hears the vastness of the land, the sunshine, and flying. A fine day I'll not forget in a hurry.

Do Electric Sheep Dream Of Space Rock?

This hour long collage of Radio Massacre International material consists of previously unreleased material from various sessions between 2003-15, and might be seen as their version of `The Faust Tapes' in its construction. Endlessly fascinating, playing as a continuous suite, it is an unpredictable journey through many of the places RMI have found themselves in whilst working and improvising together.

Purchase the CD-R now!

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