Steve’s Gig Diary: Damo Diary 2005

Browsing I noted that he was once again visiting the Night & Day in Manchester, scene of our 2004 triumph. I thought I'd at least ask the question as to the possibility of a return visit for RMI. I got the expected response that there were many other 'sound carriers' on the waiting list, which was of course fair enough. I then noticed that Damo was in Leeds the next day (May 4th) and cheekily asked if he might be requiring a drummer for that particular engagement. Damo being the gentleman that he is, said that he had a band for this gig but that he would contact them and ask if they could accommodate another drummer. To my delight, they said "yes".

Saturday, March 26th 2005

After a friendly e-mail from drummer Neil Turpin, it was decided that we should have a couple of exploratory sessions, not rehearsals you understand, but an opportunity to see how we might fit together. With some trepidation I pulled up outside Mook rehearsal rooms in Leeds, nice and early, and sat in the car wondering what the hell I thought I was doing going to meet a group of perfect strangers having muscled in on their gig. As another car drew up alongside I followed the occupant to the door of the studios. "Are you with the Damo Suzuki collective?" I enquired. "I'm your other drummer". "Oh, I thought that wasn't happening" replied the person I would come to know as Dave the keyboard player, rather testily. Good start I thought. Eeek. (It later transpired he was flu-stricken and not in the best of moods). As the rest of the guys filtered into the rehearsal room, I quietly set about organising my hired drum kit. Before I'd had time to press 'record' they were already launched into an improvisation that was to last for 90 minutes uninterrupted. It was a heavy session and with two kits in the room, a little louder than they were used to, and as they'd had an earlier get together that they'd felt had a lot more space in it, I left feeling not altogether convinced that I'd be welcome to return.

Of course my first chance to hear Neil, my opposite number on the drums, in the cold light of day came when I played back the recording when I got home. It was a clear recording with good separation and his drums to the fore. Had I heard him previous to the rehearsal I'd have had an understanding of his style and not tried to impose my grooves on his intricate 'around the beat' playing. Two drum kits were overbearing and I could understand why they seemed to have reservations, and aside from a miraculous exchange mid way through the improvisation where we played almost telepathically together, I could appreciate that a rethink was required on my behalf. Dave Lazonby the keyboard man had made subtle but effective contributions, Joe O'Sullivan on guitar and Stuart Bannister the bassist weaved an interlocking web of trance-like figures, with Neil's drums skittering over the top changing time signature at will. Enforcing my alien groove over the top was not going to be cool.

I e-mailed Neil shortly afterwards and suggested instead that I play Jamie Muir to his Bill Bruford. He liked that and asked if I'd be replete with animal skins next time (Check out King Crimson Beat Club 1972 to understand this reference). I told him that they were in the wash and left the zebra jacket on the hanger.

Monday April 25th 2005

A Monday evening a month later, and I unloaded my re-thought percussion arsenal. I'd decided to lay everything out on the floor and play with the cymbals upended alongside my collection of things to hit, shake and stroke, and in the case of Sarah's wind chimes from the kitchen, smash (oops). It worked a treat, Neil was free to lead the way and I was happy to follow. I got very sore knees from all that crawling around on the floor though. Everyone seemed very happy and we double-checked the gig date just over a week away. I gave Dave a lift home to Oakwood as he'd had a rough time getting over to the rehearsal, and the ice was broken.

Playback at home was a mesmerising experience and I realised that we had managed to play 80 minutes of music in 2 hours (including set-up and breakdown) and this time we'd done several pieces which were dynamically pleasing all round. No messing about for these boys!

Wednesday May 4th 2005

After meeting a late-running old friend Joe in the Wetherspoons at Leeds station, we made our way up to the Brudenell Social Club. My car was playing up and I couldn't get it into gear at the traffic lights which somewhat added to the stress of already being late for the soundcheck. We pulled up outside the Brudenell after a brief detour round the surrounding streets during which Joe realised he'd lived here as a kid in the 60's. The unmistakable strains of the band in full flow with Damo were audible outside as I opened up the load-in door I'd seen on a previous visit. Bad mistake. It brings the soundcheck to an abrupt halt. Like so many venues these days (The Night and Day being another case in point) relations with the neighbours are fragile, and there is a long running noise issue to contend with. They don't mind blasting dance stations out all day in their cars or watching Hollywood blockbusters on surround sound at ear shattering level, but live music? God forbid.

Undeterred I shake hands with Damo and the band and apologise for my late arrival. "It's his fault" I say to Damo as I introduce him to Joe. He had been well and truly versed in the wonders of Can many moons ago when we roomed next to each other at college so he's impressed to make the acquaintance.

The Brudenell Social Club has been running since 1931 and is a great venue. Dave the keyboard man had described the layout as like that of a PA horn. The stage is small and is at the apex of a triangle towards the back of the room where the bar awaits on one side with raised seating on the other. There's a dance floor with tables in the main seating area. It can easily accommodate 250 people. After a respectable support slot from a Nottingham band, we amble onto the stage at 9 O'Clock with no discussion or direction as to what we would play. Instant Composing is the soup du jour.

Joe and Stuart start with gently tremeloed guitar figures as Neil lays down a jazz fuelled beat on hi-hats. I ease my way in on my hurriedly set up floor percussion, (complete with knee saving, newly purchased `percussion cushion') which is directly behind Damo, who is barely inches away from my furthest cymbal. Space is at a premium here, but the proximity binds us together. Neil is immediately to my left with his drums facing across the stage towards Dave's keyboard. Just behind me is Stuart on Bass with his amp right next to me, and to the right at the back is Joe on Guitar. From my position it's possible to hear everything, all the subtleties and all the nuances; my own living breathing surround sound system. The guys are obviously experienced enough to keep it all at a level where everyone can hear everything, which makes for good interactive improvisation. The music begins to flow, and even within pieces there are tempo and time shifts that are reactable to in an instant. Damo adopts his classic head down pose, his hair hiding his face, and listening, listening, listening while belting his heart out into the microphone.

The first piece ends beautifully after 10 minutes or so, and Damo turns inwards, his face already wringing with sweat, and gestures to Neil and I to start the next piece together. After a brief percussion intro we are once again off into uncharted territory as a collective. I concentrate on my percussion, continually striving to live for the moment and make each different from the last, as every stroke flies off into history. I play time on the cymbals along with Neil's tom-tom work, interspersed with a good deal of clattering and battering on whatever is to hand. I drop pennies onto cymbals and let them sizzle as they work their way towards the bell, blow whistles and rattle my thunder tube as time begins to dissolve into the eternal now, a rarefied sacred space up there on stage with the lights belting down and a glorious noise. An out of the body experience beckons ever so gently as outside and inside dissolve into one. Damo is reacting to everything and looking for space to interject in that mysterious language known only to him. He has stated that he sings about nothing. What a wonderful philosophical concept. It's a global, universal expression of the human voice, divorced from culture, tradition and just about everything else that holds conventional singers in shackles.

This obviously calls for an understanding from the audience but they seem perfectly at one with the concept of music in the moment, after all, it's everybody's moment. That's the point, and the reason why Damo very rarely enters the audience-free confines of the recording studio. A few of the freer souls begin to dance as the set progresses, and more and more join them as we groove away. In one piece in 5/4 I sit transfixed with my heavy shaker, holding it aloft, shaking it steadily in time, head down, as the sweat pours into my eyes. A beautiful trance, less is more, no ego, just part of the ritual. It's the nearest a white boy can get to the invocations that take place in remote tribes scattered across the globe. Pure unmediated music, living in the now, celebrating life.

It's also physical. I suddenly realise that just by hitting the cymbals scattered nearest to Damo that because the stage is tiled, he can feel each hit through his feet. It's a staggering thought.

Having chosen a member of the band to start each piece individually, it's now Damo's turn and he lets out a gutteral volley of abstract sound. As the noise from the rest of the band builds around me and with a rising feeling of pure release as time rears up to meet me and says "Now!" I take my newest addition, a baking tray filled with pennies and launch it into the air across the stage. It crashes down to earth sending shrapnel everywhere. A perfect moment. Damo looks at the baking tray and laughs into my eyes.

We draw to a close after 90 minutes onstage and leave to rapturous applause via a barely negotiable corridor full of obstacles, wobbly legs testifying to the exertion of the last hour and a half, the adrenalin pumping.

In the tiny dressing room Damo has a quick smoke while the applause rings out, and asks us to play something that will keep the audience dancing. We return to the stage, Neil clambering over boxes to reach the Gents for a somewhat urgent slash. The audience is clearly ready for more as a relieved Neil finally returns and we play 3 encores, each one better received than the last. Damo announces that he "really needs to sleep" before finding reserves of energy from somewhere. Who knows what he's been through just to be here tonight? As I write he's already e-mailed from Paris, next week he's in Buenos Aries and Sao Paolo and after that, Moscow. Musicians of the world unite!

As the encores progress, we party like a band who know it's in the bag, Dave's laughing and grimacing at his keyboards, Neil's grooving away totally on top of his game. Stuart and Joe exchange glances and keep the music flying off in all directions. I've had enough of sitting down and am sending out rim-shot snare tattoos before picking up the baking tray in one hand and beating out time with a drumstick in the other. I'm dancing too, and as I look at the audience losing themselves I want this moment to last forever. There truly is nothing to compare.

We finish at 11 o'clock, and take a shambolic rather than shamanistic 'Damo bow', arms round each other but totally unable to predict when to make the dip! I stand onstage and grin the widest grin as the audience goes mad.

As the dust settles and we return to earth, I'm onstage gathering up the debris of my percussive exploits, when a young lady approaches the stage and asks me what I had in the baking tray. "Pennies" I say. "I win the bet" she says "We thought it might be marbles". "I wouldn't like to be responsible for the hospital bill if it had been marbles" I reply. She says she was totally carried away by the music and paid us the highest compliment I can imagine.

A senior member of the venue staff comes up to the stage as I'm gathering up my pennies, and I think aloud to him as to what I should do with them all. "Put it in the collection" he says. "What's the collection for?" I ask. "Soundproofing" he smiles, as I crack up in fits of laughter, and as he makes me a makeshift paper funnel, I load it all through the neck of a massive demi-john. If I'd known at that point that Dave would be thrusting my gig fee into my hand (You mean we get paid as well??") I'd have put that in the collection too.

At five o'clock in the morning back at home, I'm still up, recording the dawn chorus. The adrenalin gets you that way.

Saturday May 7th 2005

I get a text message from Russell in London: "Crazed second drummer" Guardian page 19. I had no idea. The gig review is fantastic, and a total surprise. My week is complete.

Guardian Gig Report

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.

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