Need a Mac? Take to the Air.

MacBook AirI used to build computers. This was quite a while ago, admittedly, but I got into it to such a degree that I had orders from family members and friends flooding in. They all wanted a computer, and they wanted me to build it.

For them, I kept it simple, which meant, generally, they worked. For myself, however, and as any self-confessed geek will tell you, the temptation to get experimental in PC building often overtakes common sense at something approaching light speed.

Looking back, I rarely successfully built myself a computer which was reliable. In fact, the more stuff I added to them, and the more horsepower I tried to crank out of already sweating processors, the more time I had to spend fixing things. It was a long, unproductive and entirely miserable relationship.

I stopped building computers not long after because, frankly, it’s a stupid idea.

Then, some years later, I discovered Apple. This is a company that charges ridiculous sums for their hardware. And I mean bonkers sums. I’ve just been onto their website and configured their top-of-the-line MacBook Pro with stuff I want. By stuff, I mean some warranty, a speedy processor, plenty of memory and a secondary display. £4,042.01, please. For a laptop.

That’s nothing, though. Head to the Mac Pro section, upgrade everything to the max and you end up with a computer approaching thirteen thousand pounds. I’m fairly sure you could buy yourself a small island for similar money.

As a result, and just like 90% of the MacBook Pro line-up, no one can afford these machines. That’s a shame.

Back on planet earth, there is an affordable option. I say affordable – what I actually mean is ‘still massively expensive’, but it is an option which you could conceivably aspire to if you forgo food for a month. For those that must have an Apple computer, the MacBook Air is simply too amazing to ignore.

I bought one myself recently and it’s the first time I’ve ever wanted to lick an inanimate object. I plumped for the 11 inch version which is so tiny it beggars belief. Hold it at eye level parallel to one of it’s sloped sides and you’d be forgiven for thinking it has performed a vanishing trick. Where all the bits are, I have no idea. How it powers on (and stays on for a good 8-10 hours) is absolutely beyond me. Trust me, that’s enough of a review; it’s incredible.

Merry Christmas.

My Desert Island Discs

I’ve never been very good at listening to music. I’m not a John Peel. I rarely sit in a room on my own, headphones on, listening to albums. I absolutely adore music, though, and it has been as big a part of my life as the need to wear pants. And I do wear pants, nearly all of the time.

Music is something which accompanies me. Whether it be on long car journeys, a dog walk, trip to the shops or slaving over a hot stove, it is usually present. I have a musician father. I also make music and have done ever since my dad introduced me to an Atari ST and copy of Cubase when I was about 12. It is part of me.

I’m the antithesis of a music snob. I don’t have a favourite David Bowie album. I’m fond of the odd bubble gum pop record. I’d struggle to name more than three Smiths records. I’m pitiful at discovering new artists. I’d rather connect my teeth to the mains than listen to Radiohead. I’m about as uncool as you can get. But I don’t care – I just love music.

Lately, I’ve been getting somewhat addicted to the Desert Island Discs archive (available here), and it has inspired me to pick my own. I’m not famous and I doubt anyone cares, but I’ve decided it is a process I must go through, no matter how arduous.

And arduous it has been. Almost impossible. My initial shortlist consisted of forty-two tracks. You’re only allowed eight. Eight. If you suggest taking more, or sway even a millimetre outside of the rulebook, Kirsty Young punches you in the face. Of course, being a desert island, and the place on which you’ll draw your last breath, there’s no going back. What you choose stays with you until your dying day. It’s an absolutely frightening prospect and has forced me to make some of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in the last ten years.

So, without further ado, here we go. I make no apologies for what’s in this list – it’s mine.

1. The Beatles – Oh! Darling (Abbey Road)

In 2011 I got married to my rather lovely lady of ten years, Lindsey. As is customary, you’re required to choose a song which provides the backdrop to your exit from the church. Those fleeting steps you take out into a world which is, actually, just the same, albeit with identical surnames and the promise of a tax break from Mr Cameron. Still, it’s a nice walk, all the same. I did very little planning for the wedding. I was, as most grooms are, completely and utterly useless, but I did choose this song to walk out to and the collective ‘ah!’ which emanated from our nearest and dearest in the church confirmed it was the right choice. And regardless, there is no way I’m going to a desert island without the Beatles.

2. Jeff Beck – Brush With The Blues (Who Else?)

As a kid, I harboured a deep desire to play the guitar. I never took up the instrument (although I can still strum the odd chord) but I’m forever in awe of those that did and none more so than Jeff Beck. I’ve chosen this particular track because it features, without a doubt, the best guitar performance I have ever heard. It also stands out like a beautiful, sore thumb on an album which is made up predominantly of dance-infused rock. Have a listen, and bear in mind this guy doesn’t even use a plectrum. Two things have the power to bring a tear to my eye – dogs and music. Beck’s playing on this track did just that to me the last time I listened.

3. Mary J Blige – Family Affair (No More Drama)

If truth be told, Mary probably wouldn’t be coming with me to the island, but there is simply no leaving this song at home. I have something of a distaste for the ‘our song’ thing, but there is no escaping the fact that this song was played a great deal during the early days of my relationship with Lindsey. Happy memories. And its produced by Dr Dre, who I love a little bit too much.

4. Daft Punk – Contact (Random Access Memories)

It is now fashionable to like Daft Punk. Before their seminal 2013 album, Random Access Memories, you liked Daft Punk if you appreciated what they did, often silently, for dance music. They invented French filtered house, but RAM was a huge departure from that, successfully resurrecting 70s disco and, in turn, putting Chic back on stage at Glastonbury. Somewhat controversially, I’ve decided not to delve into their back catalogue for the inevitable take-with-me Daft Punk track. I know it will be a wrench having nothing from Homework or Discovery to accompany me, but Contact is without a shadow of a doubt the best thing they’ve ever made, in my mind. It closes an album which, for me, is second only to Dark Side Of The Moon and Contact literally sounds like two robots falling from space, crashing through the atmosphere and heading gallantly towards the ground. Legend has it they broke the studio on the final listen to this piece and the thought of that thrills me every time. It also features NASA. Need I say more?

5. Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Relax (Welcome To The Pleasuredome)

I’ll keep this brief. I had no idea what the song meant when I was 12, but Trevor Horn’s production was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard and I’ve been trying to make music like this ever since.

6. Pink Floyd – Comfortably Numb [live] (Pulse)

In 1994 I discovered Pink Floyd. Since then, they’ve been ever present. If I’m not listening to them, I’m probably thinking about them. I’m not sure how long I’d last without Dark Side Of The Moon, but I’m hoping at least having the greatest guitar solo of all time on hand will help numb the pain (boom!). Yes, this is the live one, but it’s the best rendition of that solo by a country mile:

7. The Prodigy – No Good (Music For The Jilted Generation)

I figure that, if you’re on a desert island on your own for the rest of your life, it’ll be pretty impossible to get by without a piece of music occasionally punching you in the ear for six minutes and eighteen seconds. Picking just one Prodigy song to take with me was as hard as the Pink Floyd conundrum, but I managed it. And it had to be this.

8. Jay Z – Takeover (The Blueprint)

The books I’ll have with me (see below), will provide literary relief for a while (and a source of fuel, as far as the bible is concerned), but I’ll likely get bored, which will leave something of a gap. Rap will fill that. Not taking a hip hop record with me would be akin to having no source of food. Picking just one track was, yes, nearly impossible, but I managed it. This one made the grade because Jay Z is still one of the most accomplished rappers I’ve ever heard and he absolutely destroys fellow mike bandit, NAS, in this brilliant, dirty, relentless assault. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a piece of music that sounds as confident as this:

If I could only take one…

That’s easy – Oh! Darling. Lindsey wouldn’t be there in person, but she’d be there every time I play that, which would be on constant repeat.

The book (complete works of Shakespeare and the bible are already there)

Roddy Doyle – The Van. Still the most enjoyable book I’ve ever read.

Luxury item

A piano. I don’t get enough time to practice at home, but that shouldn’t be a problem on the island.

There you have it. I really recommend doing this yourself, if you’ve got time. If I get time again, I’ll do another little blog on the ones that didn’t make it. Until then…

Never drop the bottle

IMG_0561There’s nothing like feeling out of your depth, particularly when you desperately want to feel entirely comfortable.

I immediately knew I was swimming against tides far bigger than my assumed Wiggins status when I looked to my right in the bicycle shop. Leaning gently against the wall was a piece of metal. This particular piece of metal had been formed into the shape of a bike frame. Only, it was missing literally everything that would justify anyone referring to it as such an instrument. There were no wheels, no pedals, no gears, no brakes. There wasn’t even a bottle holder. Or a bell.

Regardless of these glaring omissions, a price tag hung from the gaping hole I assumed the seat would normally fill.

£4,500, it read.

At this point, I was halfway through buying my own road bike (wisely, I’d picked one that had all the bits our friend on the wall so badly needed), and it was also at this point that I realised I was entering a world I was entirely unfamiliar with. I’d never spent the kind of money I was laying down on a piece of aluminium and rubber, but I certainly wasn’t in the league that clearly existed for super bikes.

Fast forward a month. I’m very much enjoying my road bike. The ease with which it glides up hills and the almost eerie lack of any discernible weight make this thing part of me, an extension of my body. We’re connected. As one. It does what I tell it to and, together, we coast down empty country roads, duck under low-lying branches and set off the odd speeding sign.

am Bradley Wiggins.

Then I decide to take a drink, fumble the bottle in an entirely un-Wiggins like fashion and watch as it falls from my grip and heads silently towards the tarmac below. Then, obviously, I run over it.

Forgetting my feet were effectively glued to the pedals via NASA-grade straps, and in an entirely justified state of shock, I very nearly sent my expensive bike crashing to the ground as I attempted to release my right front from it’s cage. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, and I managed to clumsily turn myself around in time to watch the water I would so badly need in ten miles time gushing into the drain at the side of the road.

Knowing that releasing myself from the bike with such an epic, Tour De France regulation seat height was near impossible without pulling a muscle, and that re-inserting my feet into the pedals would take around twenty minutes, I elected instead to walk myself and my trusty steed, Flinstones-style, to the scene of water bottle decimation. It was an undignified retreat from my intended course, and doubtless broke every Olympic road biking regulation going. No one was watching, though, so my blushes were saved.

The bottle was slightly contorted, scuffed and, more importantly, completely devoid of any liquid. I thought back to that four grand bike frame. I bet the person who bought that never drops their bottle.

I pedalled on. Slowly.

Random access excitement

dp-videoteaserIt hadn’t occurred to me that other people don’t care. I’d not given a single thought to the fact that, outside the circular wall of my robot-addled brain, additional human beings inhabiting this planet may not give two (or even three) hoots about an impending album release.

If you’ve spent any longer than one minute in my company over the last few weeks, I’ve probably asked you if you’re as excited about Daft Punk’s forthcoming LP, Random Access Memories, as I am. The answer, without fail, has always been brick wall specific.

“No,” you said.

With some people, I left it there. These are, after all, friendships and relations I’ve built and maintained for many years, and I wouldn’t want two French robots to spoil them. That would be a shame. And an incredibly odd way for things to end.

Then there’s my mum. As we all know, mums know everything. For a very long time, we pretend not to believe this is the case, but, as soon as school becomes a distant memory and we’re thrust into the world of work, mortgages and the requirement to deal with other human beings on stuff which doesn’t involve reenacting yesterday’s Street Fighter battle or comparing Panini stickers, we come to the distinct conclusion that everything mum says is, in fact, 100% correct.

Mums also humour their children indefinitely and it was with that in mind that I recently raised the question of whether or not she’d heard Get Lucky, the first single from the album. She had, and confirmed that it was good, if a little repetitive. This was going well. Much better, in fact, than my previous attempts to make people like Daft Punk. So, I continued. If mum liked it, maybe all hope was not lost elsewhere.

A brief, but exciting (for me, anyway), recount of some of their earlier stuff followed. Less impressed, but – as mums always do – putting boredom to one side for the sake of her child, she continued to listen intently.

I showed her the Saturday Night Live advert with Nile Rogers jamming away on a glittery stage filled by shiny instruments, a shiny Pharrell Williams and two men dressed as, yes, shiny robots. It is at times like this that, for even the most ardent Daft Punk fan, the pretentiousness of it all briefly catches breath before being stuffed firmly back into the sea of suspended belief. It all looks a bit silly. For a moment. Mum seemed unperturbed, though, so I carried on.

I then went one further and showed my mother the grainy iPhone footage from the Coachella festival, where a short clip of Get Lucky was played on big screens to the thousands in attendance, somehow managing to upstage the real acts who had bothered to make a physical appearance. This is where it got tricky, because it is almost impossible to explain why this is so ultimately cool without, once again, exposing Daft Punk’s entire viral marketing campaign for the inherent silliness such an elaborate pre-album promotional monolith launch elicits. I think I failed here, not least because my wife entered the room at the exact same time and rescued my mum with a conversation about how much of a dork I am.

Putting that brief experiment to one side, I have now heard Random Access Memories and I really am blown away. Putting all the hyperbole and silly suits to one side, it is an achievement of simply unfathomable standards for two bedroom producers who have previously been far more at home sampling others (and they are the best in the game at doing that). It is also a record which will take time to settle in your mind. You may not develop a glowing opinion of it instantly; it is not made for instant gratification. And in this world of instant everything, bland R&B, pop and dance music and a requirement for all lead vocalists to have an irritating affectation in their voice, that’s a very good thing indeed.

Thrilling, surprising and fitting everything I love about music and production into one album, RAM is an instant masterpiece. Listening to it is like floating in a space station filled with Moogs, live drums, top session players and echos of Chic, David Bowie and Pink Floyd ringing with tape-saturated warmth in your ears. It is also a perfect reason to dust off your turntable and get the vinyl ordered; if there was ever a modern album which demanded that type of playback, this is it.

Default Rock Star

DRS Univeral Rock coverFor about twenty years, I have been playing with myself in the spare bedroom.

That’s the inevitable, masturbatory-reference-strewn intro over, and one few bedroom producers can escape from. But that’s what I have always been, and will continue to be probably for the rest of my life – a knob-twiddling, noise-making producer of music made, on the whole, purely for my own satisfaction.

For the last ten years, I’ve wanted to produce an album. Anyone who has listened to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon will doubtless have wanted to do the same thing themselves, but I’ve technically had the tools to do so ever since my dad bought an Atari ST and a copy of Cubase in the early 90s.

For years I’ve fiddled. I’ve even ‘released’ some stuff, in the loosest possible term, which can be found on my old Soundcloud page (click here). Inevitably, though, my journey through sound has resulted in half finished ideas, completed tracks I’ve not dared put out into the ether and hours of frustrating, key-bashing unproductiveness. Anyone who has dabbled with making their own music, whether it be electronic, rock, pop or simply a guitar and a microphone, will know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s a long, lonely process and one which usually results in 95% unproductiveness and 5% of genuine inspiration. The greats turn that 5% into beautiful works of art we buy and listen to for years to come. People like me make it work for ourselves.

It is with that in mind that I present my first album, Universal Rock. Under the pseudonym, Default Rock Star, which originated during nothing more elaborate than a dog walk, it is something I’m finally happy with. It’ll likely be the only full album I ever release, as I will now concentrate on single tracks and possibly the odd EP.

As a fellow producer friend (the rather excellent Persona1600) recently remarked about his own work, these 10 tracks are the closest things I have to children. Perhaps you’ll enjoy them. Maybe you won’t. Here they are…

I’ll have a coke, please

Trendy bars. Shiny taps. Bongo house music. Fucking dreadful.
Trendy bars: Shiny taps. Bongo house music. Fucking dreadful.

In search of cocktails, we headed for what was apparently quite a trendy night spot in Northampton. I can’t quite remember the name, but I don’t think my tie is fat enough nor my job title ambiguous enough to be qualified to even say it. Plus, I don’t call my wife ‘babe’, drink MochaChoccaLatteFuckingTastelessMilkyFroth, nor do I drive a VW Scirocco, care what anyone thinks about my hair, enjoy breathy, weak-chinned cover versions of brilliant records or speak almost entirely in phrases borrowed from the US. I’m surprised they let me in at all, actually.

I am the epitome of uncool.

Anyway, let me in they did. And, on passing under the ‘yeah, retro, man’ neon sign, we were met with a queue. Yes, a queue to get into a drinking establishment. More accurately, it was a queue to get up the stairs to the entrance of the drinking establishment. My mind filled with what possible wonderment these people were clearly so desparate to see. Cocktail-shaking spider monkeys? A toaster which has more than one usable setting? A reformation of Pink Floyd?

As it turned out, the trail of impossibly cool hipsters were waiting to get into a room. A room fuller than any room I have ever been in. Full enough to make detaching your arms from your sides impossible. The bar was an ocean of people away, the generic, percussion-laced dance music almost drowned out by equally inane, shouted chatter. Suffice to say, we left and ended up having a far better time in my living room. This in turn left me with a question I’m still yet to answer: why were people so keen to get in there? Isn’t ‘going out’ supposed to be fun?

Perhaps that night a seed was sown…

Back in December, I agreed to take part in the January ‘dryathlon’. This required participants to not touch a drop of alcohol for the duration of the first month of the year.

Immediately, this sounded stupid. Why? Why give up the one thing that has an almost medicinal quality in rescuing your mind and body from a particularly trying day at work? Why stop doing something which assists in awkward social situations when you have to pretend that you’re genuinely interested in what someone you once went to school with now does for a living?

Unfortunately, the person requesting that I take part was my wife, and, as every married man will know, they are a far superior being and should not be messed with. Generally, they’re right and we’re wrong and we should pay attention to what they’re telling us to do because, invariably, we’ll regret not doing so later on when we’re reminded that we should have listened.

So, I participated. And the result? Something of a revelation, actually.

I’ve never depended on drink. I love it, no question, but I don’t need it. I didn’t realise that until I went a month without it. Sure, there were some instances where it proved particularly difficult to resist; an away day to watch Northampton Town play Chesterfield in what was easily their worst performance in living memory being a particularly good example. But I managed it, and still had a good time dissecting the game afterwards with people I find genuinely interesting.

In January, I discovered something I bet few drinkers will be aware of. That feeling on a Friday night, or after a long drive, or after reading a particularly irritating Facebook status update… you know the one, when you desperately, really, really need a drink? It goes. Quite quickly. When you’re not allowed to have one, the feeling dissipates within an hour and, once it’s gone, you’re quite happy to drink a cup of tea. As a result, you don’t fall asleep half an hour later, nor do you continue drinking and wake up with a head which feels like Eric Pickles has taken an almighty shit inside it. You feel fresh. Feeling fresh is nice.

As Ghandi would say, I’m not going to ‘go all Cliff Richard on yo’ ass’, but the dryathlon has changed my attitude towards alcohol, no question. Since taking part, my better half and I haven’t consumed anywhere near as much and, quite often, just one glass of wine or beer has been enough. What’s more, we enjoy it. Having drunk regularly for my entire adult life, I fear the taste may have started to become less impressive. The subsequent hit expected. Now, it feels genuinely-earned and special, which I think any treat is supposed to.

Maybe I’m getting old. But, just as the passing of time makes you care less about inadvertently insulting people or consistently rushing around for others when everyone else is either late or preoccupied with themselves, I don’t really give a toss.

If I was reading this two months ago, I’d think ‘what a dick – just have a drink and enjoy yourself’. Head back ten years and I would have laughed this blog out of the park. Back then, getting as drunk as was technically possible was funny and a challenge worth undertaking. Now, it just seems daft. As does heading out ‘into town’. I’d rather spoon my eyeballs out than be met with a crowded bar lined with shiny taps and lion cub tear-flavoured cider bottles.

Alcohol, like Facebook*, gives us a heightened sense of our own importance and a genuine belief that everyone wants to hear about what’s going on behind our closed doors. Truth is, they don’t. None of us do. Unless you’re Shane MacGowan, your life is boring, and what better way to enjoy it than being 95% sober?

Anyone fancy a pint?

*and, yes, blogs.