Thursday, 29 December 2011

Mr Spizz, The Ghost Effect, Incas in Milan

The metallic blue van deposited us safely on an industrial estate way out in the suburbs of Milan, as unpromising a venue as I have been to in many a year.

The gig in Milan had been arranged by promoter Alessandro Kamo, who’d flown us out for our first appearance in the city two years before at the Cox 18 Club with Bettina Koster. There are a couple of numbers from that 2009 gig on YouTube (have a look at - it’s in there somewhere.)

If it's Saturday it must be an industrial warehouse complex in Milan
Although there weren't many positive signs of a good turnout when we arrived, there were positive signs that things would turn out fine. These were:

*Kamo seems to know what he’s doing
*It wasn't raining
*UK punk legend Spizz Energi were on the bill, appearing as Spizz Italia
*Everybody else seemed positive about it.
*Er, that’s it.  

      One of the great things about Kamo’s gigs - in addition to them being well-run, well-attended and well worth doing of course - is that everyone gets treated with respect and fed. Everyone. In Milan that meant when the sound checks were over we all sat down and tucked into spaghetti and salad with wine and cakes: bands, helpers, PA men, the works. An attitude like that means you remember that in this type of scene you are all relying on each other.     

     In this case that meant 30-odd people from four bands, the sound men and PA crew heading for a family-run restaurant nearby and getting stuck in to some food.
    I think the family were a little overwhelmed when 29 people plus a short guy with bleached white hair wearing a huge leather jacket with SPIZZENERGI painted across the back, colossal boots and a belt with flashing lights spelling SPIZZITALIA waving a laser pen walked in demanding to be fed. 

  But I guess that’s a sign that you have a ‘mercurial punk survivor’ at your counter ( and The food was great and Kamo, that was a nice touch, but it played havoc with the running order. 

Never believe stuff like this. Optimistic at best!
One of the bands that impressed me most that night were a five-piece from Torino called The Ghost Effect (

These people have their shit together. They film everything, sell merchandise, look great, sound great. Wow.

Laura the singer is a great presence fronting the whole thing and they create this multi-layered very impressive sound. It’s a high-tech well-produced experience which reminded me in parts of Xmas Deutschland, and great to watch. They’ve been going a few years now but I’d be surprised if they didn’t figure on a European level. They were great. Here’s one of their songs from the night, Korsakoff Syndrome: 

As Mr Spizz related proudly, he’d put his band for this gig together almost overnight and through an appeal on Facebook for musicians. And not just any musicians. His drummer didn’t know the stuff but learned it from being sent an MP3 by email. His bass player was simply awesome. 

The whole band were scarily tight for musicians who met basically at the soundcheck. That’s why Spizz’s soundcheck seemed more like a rehearsal than a check.. because that’s what it was. So they were second and they were very, very good – especially ‘Where’s Captain Kirk’.

Then on with us and quite a hard crowd to get going.. more willing to be drawn in than in Rome, where people seemed more aloof – well, it’s Rome, isn’t it – but also waiting to see what you do. 

So we got stuck in and worked at it, as you can see here, with this new song, Bikini Quicksand: 

By the end of the set people were dancing and things were going well.

We got back to our hotel at 3am and were up again at 930 to catch breakfast and head off to Milan Cathedral, La Scala and all points central Milano before a good lunch in town, a cab to the airport and a long trip home – via London – (promoters please note… that way takes ages to get to Manchester) with the Month of Gigs now over.

Ahead of me lay a house move and months of disruption. Ahead of Harry the simple task of mixing the tracks Rob and I laid down back in July for the next album. What could possibly go wrong?

Inca Babies in Rome: gallery

Pictures of Rome: Vince, Harry and Rob in St Peter's Square (left) on a day's sightseeing before the gig. The weather was great.

Club Closer was a basement club on the outskirts of Rome which didn't look too promising at first. But gigs in Rome start and finish very late so clubs take a while to fill up.

The Rome end of our mini-tour was arranged by a great bunch of people (left) who made sure we were fed and watered.

Incas in action onstage at Rome.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Et tu, Harry? The Incas in the Eternal City

September to October 2011 was an incredible month for the Inca Babies, with gigs in Amsterdam (Sept 17) and Warsaw (Oct 1) quickly followed by two dates in Italy: Rome, then Milan (Oct 7, 8).

Flying into Rome we bunked up in what seemed to be a workers’ flat close to the centre – ie one big room, three beds. It was on a big main road and walkable to the Colosseum, which is always a selling point in my book. Our hosts supplied us with a curious goody bag of supplies: fizzy drinks, chocolate buns, a family pack of crisps. Strangely, they'd forgotten the crate of beer and bottle of Jack Daniels each that we normally specify. And the iron. 

Harry strikes his Caesar pose
The Friday was a day off until the soundcheck, so we checked as much Roman history as we could: The Forum, Trajan’s Column, Bread and Circuses, the Colosseum. Then we switched to modern history: the Wedding Cake, La Dolce Vita, St Peter's Square... we beat those streets until we were knackered, winding up in a pizzeria near our flat supping a few Peronis.

We came back to the flat to find we’d been locked out by the Polish guy who’d been staying there for several months, so after we eventually knocked him up we warned him we’d be back even later the following night and there would be serious repercussions if he did the same thing. Just to make sure he got the message I repeated it the next day, complete with fingers slicing across throats and gruesome noises. International language, you know.

Eventually back in our bunks Rob inspected the punishment meted out to his sticks during the course of battering away for the Inca Babies and Goldblade.. he doesn’t chuck them into the crowd every night… at least not till they’re a bit more worn down than these pencils…

The gig in Rome was in a club on the outskirts of the city called Club Closer. It started really late because everyone goes home after work for their tea and they get home really late because there’s so much traffic. Tea takes about two hours, then everyone sits round for a bit before heading out somewhere, which takes ages because there’s so much traffic. So no one really expects anything to get going until about one o’clock, so a gig in Rome will finish pretty late. I think in the end we got back home about three, but of course we had to be up early the next day for the six hour trip to Milan.

This show was quite well attended because the first act was a guy who’d been quite popular in the 1980s and who was now finding his way back onto the live circuit. PAOLO TABALLIONE he was called and he’d called some old pals to be sidemen for his acoustic set. Nice guys all, the set was half in English, half in Italian and went down well enough, though I’d have to admit I wasn’t familiar with his material.
The second band THE BEATBREAKERS were a ‘nuova band milanese’ which is always going to be a tough fit in Rome, but they gave it their best shot and took the stage with attitude, apart from the lead singer (Sebastian, I think his name was) who appeared to have been on the wrong end of a bottle of Jack Daniels beforehand and who delivered most of his vocals lying on the stage writhing and screaming. 

While showtime is the moment to show people what you’ve got, it didn’t seem to impress the Roman crowd a great deal, and when he chucked his shoe into the audience I feared for his safety. Amazingly, after a couple of songs without it, someone threw it back. We gave each other knowing looks because had he done that in Manchester he might not have seen that shoe again, at least until he’d had it removed from where the sun never seems to shine.

Sadly I can’t find any mention of The Beatbreakers on the web to list details of the band but we found ourselves sharing a van with them on the trip to Milan the following day (left, dropping Sebastian off on the outskirts of Milan: he's on the right with the long hair and green velvet jacket).

 It turns out that the guitarist was an AC Milan fan and the drummer and bass player were Inter fans, so there was a fierce inter-band footballing rivalry not unlike that within the Inca Babies, where the all-important rhythm section are Blue while the singer is Red. 

So we laughed about that, especially about the likely chances of a 6-1 demolition of Manchester United by the Blues which did in fact happen a few weeks later. At Old Trafford as well. United’s worst defeat since 1930, I read.

Anyway, six hours in a van on a motorway with anyone tests your nerves but these guys were great to travel with, and took care of us on the road. They had a driver who did Milan to Rome return in two days and out in a lot of hours making these gigs work. They pulled off at service stations so we could get food and shared their water, that kind of thing. Respect due, boys. Thanks.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Inca Babies: Conkers, Chopin and military hardware

While a night out in Warsaw is full of romantic adventure, fuelled perhaps a little with neat vodka, there’s plenty of raw material to keep three culture-hungry musicians going.

The morning after our carousing with promoter Tomek, we made our way into the centre by tram from the flat we had been very kindly loaned by his friend.  

Dropping our gear at the venue we strolled down Warsaw's poshest street, (Krakowskie Przedmiescie and Nowy Swiat) where the Hotel Bristol is, then took a cut through to the Chopin Museum. 

Outside we found a bench under a horse chestnut tree that was dropping the biggest conkers literally like rain. They were huge – there’d be a sudden ripping, rending sound and a cluster of conkers would hit the ground and bounce dangerously towards us.. like coconuts falling from a tree. 

We sat there for half an hour, flabbergasted. Conkers falling in October, when it’s dry and sunny, rather than pouring with rain and the ground sodden?

At right angles to the Chopin Museum and directly in front of our conker-endangered bench was a strip of offices divided into study rooms for the student musicians at the Chopin Institute. As we sat waiting for conkers to fall we listened to trainee pianists straining to reproduce the works of a man who is reputedly one of the most technically difficult composers to master.. phrases clashing and competing with one another into a cacophony of piano on a Saturday morning, a little hung over. 

Having drained my bottle of hangover cure water as the conkers fell, I was glad we were outside, and able to walk away.

Inside the museum there’s a beautifully detailed homage to the composer’s life and loves – mostly experienced outside Warsaw, it has to be said – but I’ve always been impressed by seeing the actual instruments these giants of music played, and there’s a Chopin piano in the museum, and many samples and examples of his music. 

It does tend to be presented a little like a Van Gogh museum.. you can buy merchandise in every format: books, CDs, pencils, cooking aprons etc.  I bought a life history in Russian with a CD for my mother-in-law, whose ambition for her sixtieth year is to go where I was standing.

Outside the museum there’s a garish mural that places Chopin at the centre of the tensions acting upon his art: this mistress, that mistress. He had a busy and twisted life, that’s for sure.

Then around the corner and across the road for the Museum of Warsaw’s Violent Past which was extensive but very well presented. From the modern Migs and Soviet helicopters the casual visitor moves back in time to the Kubus armoured car used in the Warsaw Uprising – one of only two armoured vehicles in the Rising – which appeared welded together in a backstreet workshop but performed a distinguished role in action.

Kubus armoured car from the Uprising
The Museum of the Violent Recent Past then blends into the Museum of the Violent Past of the Past Thousand Years. Actually the museum closed before we got round all of Poland’s violent past: Poland has been a turbulent place since the 8th Century and while English history is bloody from the Anglo Saxons onwards, it’s nothing like what Poland has been through. Phew. Relentless.
Unbelievable hospitality

So out into the sunshine of a Warsaw Saturday afternoon. Take a right at the palm tree junction by the Ricoh Building, then we’re on the right. Imagine a gig where there’s a plate of sandwiches waiting for you after your soundcheck, including plenty of vegetarian? Well.. that’s Warsaw people for you.

The gig was great and the support bands were – as always – excellent musicians and good company. 

We bade farewell to our excellent friend Tomek as we waited for a midnight cab on the main road and the journey back to our borrowed flat with a pint or two of Polish beer waiting for us. 

Tomek would stay up drinking for several hours then go straight to the airport for a week in Crete – while we had a kip, flew home to Luton, picked up the car and went straight to a greasy spoon for a fry-up before the long drive home.

As we tucked into the English fry-up at a cafe across from the Luton airport long term car park we knew the weekend had been a success.

Our second gig in Warsaw was over. We’d launched our album on vinyl, had a great night on the hammer, done a gig in the city centre to a hundred well-disposed fans and seen a lot more of the city’s culture and history than on our first trip. Bring on Warsaw 3.  Respect is due.

Warsaw: we love this town

Friday, 23 December 2011

Inca Babies, vodka, Tomek and Warsaw

So to European bass playing duties, and three men arriving at Warsaw Chopin Airport with musical equipment and intent to give it some.

Here's Harry and Rob with the gear just collected from Outsize Baggage - I wonder if awesome and often prize-winning Large Vegetables need to go by this route en route to country shows? Perhaps taped together with gaffer tape?

We had such a good time in Warsaw the last time we were there - I was quite shocked to find that was two whole years ago - that spirits were high as we headed into town with our friend and gig promoter Tomek, a legendary figure in Death Rock circles across Europe. He's a man who also commands respect from us because he carries a considerable flick knife .. but he uses that to point to places on the map at various moments during our stays. So that's all right.

We toasted our good fortune at meeting again and our return to Warsaw with a little vodka snifter at the bar where we were playing.

We talked about stage times and equipment and how the soundcheck had gone, and then we had another quick one.

"How was Tomek keeping?" we wondered.  "Not bad," he said. "I'll tell you more later."

For those who don't know Warsaw there's a very wide and long main street with bars at various intervals which becomes an evening promenade for lovers, friends, city visitors. Two thirds of the way down there's a cut through to the Chopin Museum, which is where Frederyk spent some time as a young man before making his way to Paris where he made his name.

Like Vienna and Mozart actual downtime on these flagstones is quite limited but the museum is very tastefully done and there's a great research department... all that lay ahead, but on the Friday night we toasted the musicality of Chopin with a little salute in honey vodka, procured by Tomek from a liquor store a few minutes previously.

By now things were going really well and we were heading through parks and back streets seeing parts of Warsaw we'd never seen before. This honey vodka was quite something.. and very portable.

Obviously we discussed the people who would come to the gig and the set we would do, and how we might play a few songs from our latest album Death Message Blues that Tomek had pressed up on vinyl and we were here to promote.
Oh yes. It was shaping up into a champion evening.

But wait. We stopped for a pint outside one of Warsaw's oldest restaurants, parts of which dated back to the 14th Century.
Except it wasn't a pint of beer, it was a pint of honey mead. We'd decided against that on our previous visit, which had begun with an 0400 alarm call and a drive from Manchester down to Liverpool Ken Dodd International.  By the time we'd arrived in Warsaw we 'd been ready for a kip rather than a big session.

Not this time, we were having a great night out. Bring it on - delicious!

Perhaps Tomek might show us where we are on the map?  "No problem," he said, producing the huge flick knife and jabbing to our whereabouts on the map. Classy.  The waiter coming with the bill faltered... then headed over to another table.

Having been educated about the delights of 999 vodka on previous trips to Warsaw and Lithuania - also in the company of Tomek - we were enjoying the vodka libation enormously, as Harry was happy to note in the picture (left). We saw a few more sights then got our heads down in a flat kindly lent to us by one of Tomek's friends.

So a great night all round, spanning tourism, professional discussions about the gig the following night and catching up with old friends. Tomek did tell me what had been going on but to be honest it slips my mind now.

The gig was fabulous, the Warsaw crowd were excellent, the sound men and the people working on the concert were first class - we even had food laid on. And I tell you what: after a night on the honey vodka, that is very, very welcome.

Warsaw. What people, what a place. Great attitude. I can't wait for us to go there again.

Strings suspended for a strip down

Apologies for a blogging lay-off rather longer than intended. I've moved house, changed computer, criss-crossed Europe, had five weeks of building work done and damn near lost my mind .. but for those waiting with bated breath to see how the bass crisis turned out, take that sigh of relief now… THE BASS IS FINE.

Ease those pegs
We left the bass without strings being cleaned off after a two-year sting with flatwound strings, which makes a giant Ukrainian contrabass sound rather jazzy .. that’s an interesting combination .. think smoky clubs full of men in well-worn tweeds with leather elbow patches, cravats and horn-rimmed glasses sitting at tables crammed with rows of empty pint pots holding schnapps glasses to their lips while choking back tears, waxing their moustaches and murmuring along to the sounds of the Steppes.. The Gadfly, Kalinka,  Kamarinskaya, Bereyuzoviye Kalyechke, Lara's Theme etc. These gigs can get rather emotional you know...

I had to take a break from the Russian repertoire for duties in Europe in the service of the Inca Babies so October was the perfect time to give the contra a breather, slacken off those strings and let it chew carpet for a couple of weeks. Now it’s back in the saddle with a refreshed fretboard and re-strung with the marvellous Moscow strings previously mentioned (see September 2011) just in time for the biggest gig of the year: the annual Kalina Balalaika Orchestra charity fundraiser for the homeless of St Petersburg at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music.

So here’s a brief resume of how we did it. First all the strings came off, then a bit of essential maintenance – a clean up of the body, check the neck, clean off any dust and dirt and ease the tuning pegs with some WD40 to keep them flowing (above).
The contra bass is so big that you can’t reach from one end of the instrument to the other so it's almost a Laurel and Hardy sketch to hook the loop of the string around the peg on the bottom while winding a very long and slack new string around the tuning peg three feet (1 metre) away. 

After a little trial and error I decided to enlist the help of a glamorous assistant (left) to get this bass beast under control. The danger then of course is that the loop slips off the grooved peg on the base of the bass while you’re tightening it and goes twanging through the air, slicing through necks, taking eyes out and so on and wreaking carnage.. when all you’re trying to do is change the sodding strings. 

Thankfully none of this came to pass and my glamorous assistant emerged unhurt.. that tiling brochure isn’t there by accident.. it’s a cunning first line of defence. 

Then with the onset of European Death Rock duties pressing I tightened the strings to the correct tuning and left the bass for a day or two to settle down before coming back with a pair of pliers to tighten up again and tidy up the surplus string wire above the peg.  

And that’s it. 

It’s a bit more of a struggle that re-stringing the Fender on the left of that picture but these Moscow strings are so thick I can’t imagine having to do it again for a good few years. Which leaves me free to concentrate on my vodka-lifting duties in between songs.