June 25th, 2009


The importance of not-improvising

The first performance of Joemus the band last night at West Germany in Kreuzberg was pretty dire, to be honest. If only I'd listened to Mark E. Smith! In Slates he shouts at The Fall, bashing out a primitive riff behind him: "Don't start improvising, for god's sake!"

What we did last night -- playing everything live by hand, with no material prepared (unless you count the paper masks Joe and Bastien assembled) and just making it all up as we went along -- is very much a Berlin thing to do. When I do shows outside Berlin, I both respect and disrespect the audience. I respect them in the sense that I give them highly-edited, polished pieces of music I know in advance they're going to like. I disrespect them in the sense that I don't "challenge" them by doing anything too weird and unexpected. But because Berlin is a big laboratory, an experimental city, I like to try out different things when I play live here. My last show consisted of remade versions of songs I'd written in my teens and rejected because they were embarrassing. This time, we decided to improvise. The idea was to recreate onstage the process of making the Joemus album, rather than simply recreate the finished album.

The results -- when I listened back to the recording I made -- were depressing. Joe and Bastien had technical problems, while I flailed around trying not to rhyme "park" with "dark" and "tree" with "sea". There was one moment when the ghost of a nice song -- something a bit like Gilbert and Lewis (from Wire), a bit like Modern English, a bit early 80s and melancholic -- emerged. Here it is:

Modern English (mp3 file, mono, 4MB, 4mins 18secs)

At other moments I rapped (in the "Cockney menace" style of my collaborations with o.lamm and Hypo) about a Mrs Abraham Jones ("running from a burning Bible, with her hair on fire, with blood spilling from her foot, screaming of nothing and frightened of the world") or made up a tale of "three significant stalkers, stalking me all the time". It's the kind of improv I do in my art performances with language, and I've done it successfully in a musical context with, for instance, the loop-building pedal delay trick and Tomoko Miyata's bowl music.

But this time -- perhaps because I know Joe's capable of shining when he broaches shaped pop structures -- my feeling is it fell flat. We never really got started. We could've done so much more with the audience's time and attention. I came away from the first Joemus-as-band show more than ever convinced that you should do this kind of brainstorming in private, edit ruthlessly and meticulously, and only confront the public when you've got something worth showing them. Even in Berlin.