I don’t try this very often, because I believe you can enjoy a gig or film it but not both. Also (you may have noticed) I have serious attitude about sound quality. But I thought this one time I’d give it a go.

It’s not every day you see two guys and a suitcase entertaining a pub crowd on a rainy night. A surprisingly cool way to jam.

Jon Theodore on fire. He absolutely dominated the stage with QOTSA. Immense, powerful sound, monster drumming, perfect fit for the band. We had some serious musicians up on stage that night but he effortlessly outclassed them all.

Oh yes, and I thought his steel Ludwigs couldn’t be bested until I heard him on DW. During the setup a roadie hit the kick drum, just once, and the entire stadium erupted. Monstrous.

Fantastic finish to Soundwave festival 2014! They say there’s a lot more to Mastodon than just Brann Dailor in an endless blissful drum solo. But since there’s no chance of wrenching my mind off those spectacular moves and gloriously tuned drums, I guess I’ll never know …

More Soundwave pics - http://pinealeye.tumblr.com/tagged/soundwave14

Billy Rymer blazing the frontier spirit in the age of computerised tunes … he wants it raw, wild and alive, mixed up every way he can think of. Ironically with a style so technically perfect it’s like watching a machine. The perfect member of The Dillinger Escape Plan - a mindless savage with a brain.

Awesome clinic tonight @ The Drum Cartel, Brisbane.

DJ Shadow and the spice route

Yes, the unthinkable happened - I bought tix for a DJ set! Never thought I’d do it.

My kind of music requires sweat to produce. Plugging in a laptop then twiddling knobs and pressing headphones to one ear while frowning intelligently does not turn me on. And my boredom threshold is way too low to want the same thing over and over. Electronically-produced music lacks the human element to give light and shade, so I’m done after about 30 seconds. For all the frowning and knob-twiddling that goes on, your average DJ is unable to break up the monotony enough to grab my interest.

But Shadow I wanted to hear. He is a consummate musician. Eveything’s put together so cleverly and precisely … you can tell he agonises over each detail in pursuit of some rare and shining goal. And always exquisitely tasty tones in the drum sounds. I was betting on his musical mastery winning me over.

Arrived in time to catch the last support act. I assumed they’d be the cream of the local crop and I wanted a baseline to compare Shadow against. Dexter didn’t disappoint: he laid down some great grooves. His set was upbeat, it made me want to dance, and I got through it with only a moderate amount of glancing at my watch. For me, that’s a standout DJ effort.

Shadow told us this tour was about being as different as possible from anything he’s done before. He believes he’ll let his fans down if he isn’t constantly evolving. (Knew there was a reason I liked this guy.)

His performance was exactly what you see here. Yamaha drum pad. Pioneer mixing desk. No laptops. No visual effects. Just DJ Shadow’s latest ideas in their rawest form. It was enough to keep the entire crowd captivated.

And yes, me too. I was hooked from the start. I spent a few minutes trying to figure out why, since there was nothing particularly complex about the individual riffs … then gave up and surrendered to the journey.

A voyage of discovery, because for many months he’s been seeking out cool beats to sample, then arranging them for our pleasure. Made me feel I was back in the noble courts of Europe when Marco Polo returned from afar, beaing food no-one had ever heard of, spices no one had ever seen or smelled or tasted. Think about it - in the age of decadence where everything had been seen and done, that would be the ultimate experience.

That’s the great genius of DJ Shadow. He brings you riffs that, by themselves, may not be revolutionary, but puts them together in such a way that it creates something truly surprising and unique. And today, just like in the age of explorers, a genuinely new experience is the ultimate prize.

I guess that’s the goal of all re-mixing, but until now I’d never heard anyone with the skills to pull it off. Like these composite photomosaic pictures - everyone knows the concept, but imagine having the discernment and patience to sift through thousands of photos until you got just the right grading to create images like this eye. I can’t even make an eye look that good when painting with paint, let alone painting with tiny random photos. Sure there are apps that cheat and do digital photomosaics for you, but DJ Shadow picks all his beats by hand, and blends them together with unerring taste.

The individual units of his sound mosaic were quite short, well within my 30 second timeframe. I never had a chance to be bored with a particular piece before it changed in some way, even if it was slight. Maybe the fact that the building blocks were similar in length helped with the subtle transitions and made the overall flow more harmonious. The samples were incredibly varied with some great contrasts - some almost sounded like church music mixed up with African beats. A whole banquet of spices and spice combinations. Plus occasional moments of truly glorious drum tones.

So stoked that he got his sticks out a couple of times. I’m convinced you can tell a person’s character by their drumming style and this was no exception. The beats were not at all complex and he could’ve found samples that were 99.99% the same. But then, if he were willing to settle, he wouldn’t be DJ Shadow.

—Tara Simmons with Chris O’Neill and band covering Portishead’s “Dummy” album @ The Powerhouse.


Why a drummer can’t cover Portishead singlehandedly, and how cool it is when he can

As you can probably tell from this site I’m a great fan of Chris O’Neill’s drumming, but when I heard he planned to take on the whole of Portishead’s “Dummy” album live my only thought was “Impossible”.

The thing about covering fast, complex, technically difficult drumming is the audience will be wowed even if you miss a few hits. With alien-sounding atmospheric music, even if the beat is simple, there is nowhere to hide. You either capture that elusive and contrary mood, or you don’t.

First of all, Portishead play live with two drummers. And not just any two drummers but Geoff Barrow, master of experimental electronic soundscapes, and Clive Deamer, last seen on tour with Radiohead. I dug up the notes I’d scribbled excitedly after Portishead’s live show and the more I read, the more impossible it seemed.

I’d been fortunate enough to see Portishead headline the Harvest festival in 2011, at the Riverstage just as twilight descended over Brisbane. Magical though the whole performance was, Geoff and Clive’s drumming and the way they interacted put this show in a league of its own.

We’ve all seen bands double up on drum kits, but the second guy is usually there to fatten or embellish the main drum part. Sort of the way an orchestra uses the 1st and 2nd violins - even though you hear different nuances it all sounds basically like violins. But Portishead’s drummers were so different from each other in tone and texture that they appeared as two separate themes. For me it was more like hearing a cello contrasted against a flute.

On one track the left kit sounded disciplined, almost militant, with the right kit ragged and whispery. Next track the left kit produced weird metallic or electronic noises while the right played like cracking on wood. Then the sharp definition of sticks was outlined against the quiet thunder of mallets. These counterpoints created an awesome sense of tension between the two kits. I felt each drummer gave a different side of the story: the neat disciplined voice of the mind and the spacier, wilder voice of the emotions.

The tones and textures themselves are extraordinary. Portishead offset their ethereal vocals with tortured and unusual drum sounds. Crunchy, rattly, crackling sounds. Not easy to blend into the music without jarring, especially when you throw cymbals in the mix. Much harder to pull off than sweet tones. And the snare is unique. Rattly yet refined, rustic yet with a sense of otherworldliness. If you wanted to create the sound of Catherine’s ghost rattling the windowpanes of Heathcliffe’s house you’d be asking Geoff Barrow to do it.

So how can a solo drummer pull all this off? Ok, maybe you can reproduce some of those weird alien sounds, but what about creating that tense elemental mood? It’s like a movie where the actor plays not only some unique quixotic character … but also his evil twin brother.

It’s the first time I’d come to one of Chris O’Neill’s gigs wondering “Er, is this actually going to work?” It’s also the first time I’d turned up with an actual list of what I wanted to hear. I’d decided if he could deliver half the things on it he’s a genius.

But he nailed them all. It was brilliant. Somehow Chris balanced the two themes and made a perfect blend out of alien elements. No two tracks sounded the same (and that was so important), the flavours were satisfyingly distinct. Two tracks had no drums at all - an authentically Portishead-like contrast.

The kit featured two snares, kick drums, and hi-hats, electronically enhanced of course. He used contrasting tones at crucial points of each song, so the sense of two drum kits made itself felt without crowding or confusion. The dual personalities were both there; one knocking inexorably on a door, the other rattling nervously at a windowpane.

The drums moved from cracking to gentle, from warm to metallic. Everything was delivered with Portishead’s trademark stern sombreness, as though the mark of Fate is stamped heavily on every song. The highlight was the honey-sweet drum tones on ‘Wandering star’ - exquisite in the Powerhouse’s high-vaulted space. ‘Glory Box’ was a brilliant finish and a perfect fit for Tara’s beautiful voice. Portishead would be immensely proud, guys.

There can be only one.

My review of the Sydney and Brisbane shows this week -

Hail to the King!

Someone should write a definition of ‘pocket’ with Darren King as the main content. Hang on, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. Perhaps I should get to work.

More Mutemath pics -

Finally got to see Tony Royster Jr live - what a phenomenon. Sure he has the moves, but the thing most blowing me away is his resourcefulness.
He’s got an incredible imagination … no matter how much or how little the song calls for, he can think up something exciting to fit. And it’s never the same thing twice. As he said in response to an astounded query about what the hell he’d just played - ‘Singles, doubles and paradiddles … but it’s about how you put them together.’

Today was a clinic, and this was some of his advice:

Playing with other musicians means listening to what they’re doing and bouncing off it, not competing with them. He showed off his partnering skills in a way that gave me a whole new understanding of music creation. Made it seem like having a conversation, almost. For someone who’s famous for solos it seems most of what he does is fuelled by other musicians. He even recommended playing along to random songs on the radio rather than to a metronome, as an advanced exercise in keeping time.
He also recommended practicing for powerful, strong-sounding drumming by emphasizing consistency (following the lead of Thomas Pridgen). I knew there was more to sounding strong than just hitting hard.
After today I think I get what makes Tony Royster Jr so special. It’s that he’s a drummer second, and a fan of music first of all.