Monday, August 30, 2010

Paris, Je t'aime un petit peu

This post is out of chronological order, so if you have strong opinions about the linear nature of time then I suggest you email it to yourself last Thursday and read it then. Otherwise you could just marvel at the fact that this is the 21st century and I'm sitting in a four hundred year old barn in Southern Germany rocking a solar-powered wi-fi connection at about a zillion bytes per second. This means you can read about the events of last week now rather than in three months' time when they reach you by sailing ship, which would have been the situation as recently as a heartbeat ago in geological terms.

The barn is important, because it's really the second barn in just over a week. I'll fill you in on this barn another time - the focus at this stage is really the last barn. You should know though that in this barn there are two German lads dicussing the best way to make their old yellow Volkswagen truck go, and I am bound to say I like their chances. Not because I know a thing or two about old Volkswagens, which I don't, or because I understand what's wrong with it - even if the problem was in English I would be unhelpful. But they are approaching the project with such calm enthusiasm, and an air of such compentence and optimism, that it would be nothing short of unjust if the god of old yellow VW trucks (Thor, in case you're wondering) didn't throw them a bone. Plus they've got these guys to help them out:

The last barn was about forty ks outside of Paris, which is a good place to be. Louis XIV knew that, so he put together a pretty serious sort of a house and garden arrangement just down the road from where we where at, and the two places couldn't be more different really.

Louis's place

Nicolas's place.

Both places do show a strong commitment to indoor-outdoor flow, and to an understanding of the fact that Paris smells like a sewer, so the best way to live there is actually to live nearby. Beyond there, the similarities end. At Versailles, the gardens are mostly laid out in the sort of straight lines you get when you give a monomaniac a large budget and a free hand. At the place we stayed, which belongs to a composer called Nicolas and I didn't catch his last name, the garden is much more curvy and interesting. What happened was, he found this enourmous barn about twenty years ago, after it had been empty for long enough that the forest had moved in. He cleaned it out, fixed it up, built some rooms down the side, put in an amazing recording studio, and laid out a really quite tasteful garden. There's a couple of other families living there too, in flats down the side, and there's a gypsy caravan and a hillbilly cabin in the woods for travelling musicians to sleep in. In short, the whole place is pretty much a three-dimensional dictionary definition of the word 'haven.'

As well as being a haven, it proved to be a great place to practice what I call 'my French,' and the others call 'Samlish.' France is a great nation because even though everyone there speaks English, their national sport is pretending not to. Under cover of making an effort to foster international understanding, I took this as an open invitation to do frankly horrible things to their language. Mostly they were too polite to tell me that I make even less sense in French than I do in English, which only drove me to further excesses. What I like to do is start a conversation about something really quite boring and complicated, like the differences between race relations in New Zealand and in Australia, and pass it through the filter of my two and a half years of Hutt Valley High School French. When I run out of French words to express my poorly thought-through opinions, I just use an English word but with a sort of Inspector Clouseau accent, and wave my hands around Gallically. It usually doesn't take long for people to give up, politely congratulate me on my attempts to communicate en Francais, and then switch to flawless English for the remainder of the evening. After that we can talk about more interesting stuff like which is the better Led Zeppelin album out of Led Zep two and Led Zep four. (Four, for my money.)

And yeah, there was a little orphaned fawn there too. He looked delicious but it would have been rude to eat him.

I know I sound like I didn't like Paris much, but the truth is I actually did like Paris a bit, it's just that I'm not very good at communicating. I didn't really hit the best side of Paris until the afternoon of my second day there, though. The first morning was pretty blurry because we'd just spent the night driving from England, taking a midnight ferry to save a lousy ten euros, which will buy you about half a beer in Paris. Most of the rest of the first day was spent sleeping, which is a great thing to do in any city of the world. Then we had a show, and a stage is pretty much a stage once the lights are on, so it wasn't really until the next morning that I got to take a look round.

At this time I was still quite gammy from my tumble in Calais, so I spent the morning limping painfully around the centre of Paris getting annoyed at all the big old buildings in my way, waiting for the romance to kick in. Basically, though, Paris is only romantic if the one you love is actually there at the same time as you, otherwise it's just a big pile of stones beside a mucky river that smells like wee. If you're in a certain frame of mind, or if you have a guitar on your back and a limp and the sun is very hot, then the people who are there with the ones they love, or the people who were only there for the weekend but hooked up anyway and who spend an inordinate amount of time snuggling in front of postcard-like scenery, just become a gigantic pain in the ass. So I spent the morning seeing things like this:

And this:

And pretty much ignoring things like this:

And this:

Then I remembered that I wasn't actually in Paris to look at stuff, because it's all been looked at such a lot already, so I went to Montmartre to do some busking. Suddenly Paris got way more fun, and I didn't even mind limping around as long as people kept throwing Euros at me. Money is a good painkiller, and it's a lot eaiser to see the point of the most romantic city in the world when a lot of people's idea of 'romance' seems to include giving money to buskers. Still a very smelly place though.

Nice quiet place to count your money after an afternoon's busking

Friday, August 27, 2010

Paris is burning

To clarify: Paris isn't burning. But St Vincent sounds really good on the Paris-Bern autoroute.

But: if ever you are in Switzerland, go to Cafe Kairo and eat all their food. We did, and it was amazing. Then this morning we were going to swim in the river they have here, but the risk of death was assessed as too high. Now we have to get to Stuttgart before the anarchists reclaim the streets at six p.m. They're German anarchists, so they've politely told everyone what time they're going to do it. Perhaps Stuttgart will be burning by the time we get there. I'll let you know.

This is just a fawn I was hanging out with the other day. I pretty much felt like I could control animals with my mind.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

This is hardcore

I mentioned the other day that I have a number of ambitions for this tour, of which growing a beard and making money are only two. One of the others, and a very important one, was to be invited to play violin in a psychedelic instrumental band at a hardcore metal festival in Belgium. Everybody said that it was unlikely to happen and that I should probably think of a different ambition if I wanted to actually achieve my goals, but I like to aim for the spectacularly unlikely in life. And now I can report that the events of last weekend permit me to type a sentence people thought I never would, which is this: I went to Belgium to play violin in a psychedelic instrumental band at a hardcore metal festival. A lot of this blog, like much of my life, is pure fabrication, but that sentence is nothing but the truth.

Here's how it went down: a couple of weeks ago, Reuben got an email from these guys who run an event called Ieperfest saying essentially that an Emerald City were booked to play at it, along with Agnostic Front, Converge, and a bunch of bands with names like Alien Foetus and Satan's Autopsy and basically combinations of words calculated to trouble peoples' parents. He was confused, because who wouldn't be? But he replied and said yeah sure we'll do it, but you have to get our violinist over from the UK and back in time for him to play at the 12-bar club on the Monday. I guess he thought they wouldn't go for it.

We should be clear: An Emerald City are not a hardcore band. They rock out and stuff, and there's probably a few bands out there that they could beat in a fight, and they like to jump around, but they're not hardcore and I'm pretty sure they don't want to be. I'm not hardcore either, for the record. I play the violin, and when I'm not doing that, I play noodly fingerpicking guitar, and when I'm not doing that I play mandolin in a psychedelic folk band. I write songs about birds. Hardcore isn't on the menu ordinarily.

Nevertheless, on Sunday morning, after playing four of our London shows over the previous few days, I dragged myself out of bed and onto the Eurostar, which dropped me in Lille. While I was in Lille I experienced a feeling that I'm coming to associate quite strongly with that part of the world, which is the one you get when you forgot to Google the town where you were supposed to end up to find out what country it's in. I was thinking France, but Belgium was a contender also, then there was a good twenty minutes when I couldn't remember if Belgium's even a country, and if it is, where it is. Then I remembered about places like Luxembourg and I stopped trying to figure it out.

As it turned out I didn't need to know where I was anyway, because these two guys picked me up with a little sign and a chillybin full of beers, and I don't know what language they spoke at all. They drove me down some motorways past a whole heap of cemeteries, and it started to dawn on me that Ieper is actually the same place as Ypres, but in a different language, which means it's one of the places where a lot of people's great-grandfathers got sent to die face-down in the mud. That kind of made the whole thing a bit more hardcore.

If you close your eyes and imagine what a hardcore festival might be like, you've pretty much got Ieperfest sorted. A lot of black clothes, a lot of guys who looked like they could waste me at Dungeons and Dragons, and a lot of guys who looked like they could waste me in general. Actually, mostly just a lot of guys. I think hardcore music might be more of a boy thing. Certainly my brief and unscientific observations of the bands playing on the same day as us revealed that Jess Emerald City was one of only two women playing that day, and the crowd was mostly boys. Nobody was as well dressed as Sam and Reuben, and you can read why here. Actually, just look at them:

We played our really not hardcore set, which was mine and Jess's Emerald City onstage debut, and it was tons of fun for everyone. So we all went back to the van and had a little disco with music we'd brought with us, because honestly and with great respect, hardcore music is really quite hard to listen to for any length of time. Even very short lengths of time. It wasn't long at all though before I had to jump in a van with a guy called Paul, who runs a bookshop, and had been dragooned into driving me to Calais. Unfortunately for him, he spoke pretty good English, so he had to listen to me talk the whole way there.

What with one thing and another, one thing being the GPS and the other being a pretty casual approach to programming the GPS on the part of whoever's job it was supposed to have been, we were running late by the time we got to the ferry at Calais. That meant that I was moving pretty fast towards the terminal as I pulled my ticket out of my pocket to check the fine print. Trying to do two things at once has ever been my downfall, but usually my downfalls are of the more metaphorical kind. This time, though, a poorly placed flowerpot type thing combined with my inability to multi-task to make the metaphorical literal - I tripped over it and executed a beautiful swan-dive into the pavement.

I must have really had my eyes on the prize, because I rolled to my feet spitting out bits of tooth and barrelled straight up to the check-in counter, where the nice man told me firstly that my ferry was delayed so I needn't rush, and secondly he would get me something for my face, which I then realised was bleeding enough to make me look seriously anti-social. Going through UK immigration looking like I'd just been in a fight was a lot smoother than I'd thought it might be, which gave me a fair bit of time before my boat to investigate the tooth situation. It turned out I'd broken the top of one of them. I didn't really mind, though, because it's one of those stupid teeth you don't really need. It's one of the plant-eating ones that are basically just an evolutionary hangover from when humans were herbivores, before we developed better teeth to eat awesome things like meat. I try to only use my meat-eating teeth anyway, so it's no loss really.

When we got to Dover, the implications of a delayed ferry in England on a Sunday night began to sink in. I hadn't had much of a hand (actually any of a hand) in booking my travel, so I was only when I limped up to the Dover train station that I realised that my ferry had been perfectly timed to connect with the last train to London, which wasn't going to wait forty minutes for no delayed boat. Fortunately I tend to not really experience emotions when I'm by myself, beacause there's no point really unless someone's watching, so the situation didn't get me down much. I thought 'that's a bit shit,' made myself a little camp outside the station out of an umbrella I had with me and the outside of my violin case, and spent the night on the pavement. That was about as comfortable as it sounds, and my face hadn't even stopped bleeding. I did have the enormous satisfaction of being the only person on the first commuter train to London the next morning with two seats to myself though, because I looked like I'd played at a hardcore festival, fallen on my face in a carpark, and slept in a train station, so nobody wanted to sit with me.

I got back to London about 24 hours after I left, and way more hardcore. That night me and Tim did a gig at the 12-bar club, and I had a lot of fun walking around looking like I'd been in a fight. That's what I thought, anyway, until I had a conversation with the barman as I was packing up my gear.

'Do you reckon I look like I've been in a fight?'

'Not really mate, no.'

'what are you talking about? I've got a fat lip and chipped tooth, and I'm limping like a pirate.'

'It's just that you're a bit of a skinny lad, and if you'd been in a fight I'd imagine you'd look a lot worse, you know what I mean?'

'But what if I knew karate or something?'

'Wasn't that you playing the violin earlier? I doubt you know karate, mate.'

'What if you didn't know that I'm really a bit of sissy, would you think I'd been in a fight then? I mean, look at my lip and stuff.'

'To be honest mate, when you walked in I just thought you had a coldsore and a gammy leg. You can't really see the tooth.'

'Oh right, thanks then.'

Why did I say thanks? Because I am well brought-up, that's why. Not really hardcore at all in fact.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

London Calling

The best thing that happened in London was firing the cork from a four pound bottle of fizzy wine bang into the middle of the pond below Camden Lock, scattering the swans while a pack of wasted youth beat the guts out of 'London Calling' on their acoustic guitars. I promised at one point that I would use this blog to write about my feelings, and the feeling I had then was one of the ones that the Germans have a word for but we don't - the nostalgia for a thing that never happened. Because when was their age, I didn't know all the words to London Calling, or even any songs by the Clash, but I sure could beat the guts out of an acoustic guitar. So to make it even better, we joined in on the bits where you howl 'I live by the river' and the night was pretty much perfect.

The worst thing about London is trying to drive in it - especially in Darth the Merc, who is left hand drive, and has a tendency to take the bit between his teeth when he sees a car with French plates. Mavis the authoritarian GPS was intermittently helpful, but she has a fondness for uncontrolled right turns, and she reserves the right to change her mind in the middle of roundabouts. Basically, we gave up on the driving thing pretty early on, and got to all of the gigs on the tube. I really like the tube - it's a great excuse for grown men in suits to run down really long flights of stairs and bump into people. I think Londoners would be a lot more aggressive above ground if the weren't allowed to push each other around in the subway. On the whole, though, I found that the best way to travel was to walk around central London pretending to be in a book. You've got a lot of material to choose from in that town.

Senate house at London University - the
inspiration for the Ministry of Truth in 1984,
and it's in the Day of the Triffids too.

We discovered pretty quickly that if you want to make money playing music in London, the best approach is to take all of your instruments and gear to the pawn shop on the morning of your first show. This will give you a little bit of ready money, and you won't have to pay any sound engineers or anything for the duration of your stay. Fortunately, making money is only about fourth on the list of ambitions for this tour, after growing a beard and a couple of other things. That meant that the shows were all really pretty choice, especially the Spice of Life in Soho, where apparently Bob Dylan and some other famous dudes used to play when they were considerably less famous. They like to claim that this is the bar where the Sex Pistols played their first and famously poorly-attended show, but seriously I don't think it was. There are so many places in the UK that make this claim that it's no wonder there were only seven people at the show - the Pistols must have been playing in about a hundred venues across the country on the same night, so the audience was bound to have been thin on the ground.

Hyde Park

We're in Paris now, and it's a pretty OK town if you like to watch people pashing. Personally that's something I can take or leave, but I understand that some people are into it. Also you pretty much have to like churches and the smell of ten million people pissing under bridges. The churches are really quite fine though.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Bond Street Bridge has left Berlin

If you ever have to leave Berlin, it should be done in a late model Mercedes-Benz. Take the autobahn. You will need to drive faster than would ever be sane or legal in most territories, and you will find that still you will get overtaken by families in Smartcars. Navigation will not be a problem - Mavis the authoritarian GPS unit will see you clear through the thousand kilometre haul to Calais.

I have a peculiarly arrogant habit of second-guessing information sources that I know to be fairly reliable, so I didn't believe google maps when it told me that it was possible to drive from Berlin to Calais in nine hours. It took Hitler ten days, for heaven's sake. Since his day, however, the autobahns have spread their tentacles all over Western Europe in a vast web of mixed metaphors, which speeds things up considerably. Since I had formed the impression that we would need to drive for at least twelve hours to cover the distance, I experienced some trepidation when a combination of factors delayed our departure until just before midday, to catch a ferry in Calais in the middle of the night. These factors were, in order: A hardcore festival in Belgium (of which more later, I hope), which necessitated an Emerald City practice to see whether we have our act together (we do); a gig at a very nice cafe in Fredrichshain called Klaus Abendbrot, which meant that said practice had to be scheduled for midnight the night before the drive; a broken U-bahn line on the morning of the drive on the way to pick up Darth the Merc, which led to a baffling series of line changes and delays; and finally Darth the Merc himself, who wouldn't start.

There's a trick to starting cars of this kind, which I won't relate in case somebody uses it to steal him. I am more sensitive to matters of security since having my identity stolen by an East Berlin spambot over the weekend, so the only clue I will give you is: you won't be able to figure it out, and you'll be sitting in a parking garage in Tegel airport for quite a while before you finally swallow your pride and go and ask the rental car guy how to start your car. He was pretty reluctant to rent it to me anyway, since I look like this at the moment:

And my obvious inablity to drive only made things less groovy. Since he couldn't find anything in the regulations to authorise his summarily repossessing the car, he had to tell me the trick and we hit the road.

As is usually the case when I make things up in my head in the face of reliable evidence, I was wrong. Which meant Google was right - you can drive from Berlin to Calais in nine hours. What I suggest you don't do when you get to Calais, if this should ever arise, is pick up hitch-hikers and take them on the ferry. The term UK immigration officials use for this practice is 'people-smuggling,' and I understand that it is frowned upon. Our hitch-hikers fortunately had the right papers, so we avoided the inconveniences that accompany detention under the Suppression of Terrorism Act. Once we were off the boat in the UK, though, a whole new set of inconveniences arose - Mavis decided that the best way to get to Lewes was via a series of hair-raising sunken lanes somewhere in the depths of East Sussex. At 1am, in a left-hand drive car, after a thousand kilometre drive from Berlin and a brush with British Cuisine on the ferry, this was hard work.

When we hit Lewes, the reason why they have to hide it behind a whole network of twisty lanes became obvious. It's a small town in the South of England, surrounded by idyllic countryside, locally brewed beers, and vicars in thousand-year old churches so picturesque you have to take a look around the back to make sure they're not stage flats. Clearly, then, it is one of the most dangerous places in the world, and it needs to be concealed from casual visitors. We know that towns like this have a murder rate of about one a week - sometimes more towards the end of the season if the ratings are flagging. Fortunately there's also likely to be a hardbitten old DCI with a heart of gold, and his younger and more impulsive assistant, who will act within the law to keep the murder rate to a sustainable level in order that the town can continue to flourish into the next series.

Lewes: Watch your back

Ostensibly, we were in Lewes so I could play at the Lewes Arms. In fact, the main purpose of the stop proved to be to receive what I can only describe as a two-day hospitality assault from Sul and Jaime Regan. They basically were such good hosts that I think I'll move into the spare room of their idyllic country cottage and just let them feed me delicious food, take me for gentle walks on the downs, tell me stories about the local customs (all of which seem to involve burning things to a greater or lesser extent), and introduce me to a fine range of local ales and musicians, until I get murdered by the vicar. Jaime played with me at the Lewes Arms, and I really don't think I could have asked for better company or a better venue for my first gig in the UK. I've got a series of shows coming up in London, and I confidently expect to get mugged, heckled, ignored or bottled at some stage over the next week, because I understand that's how people tend to interact with musicians in London. The Lewes Arms show was lovely, though - a good bunch of regulars in a room above a pub that was probably built by King Canute's uncle. See you next time, Lewes Arms.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

99 luftbalons

So the other day I was riding aimlessly around on my bike Philip, which is what I tend to do here during the hours of daylight, and I hallucinated that I saw 99 red balloons rising over Berlin. That was my immediate assumption, anyhow, because nobody else seemed to be looking at them, and if you're riding around in the hot sun beside the Spree with a powerful combination of Cloudboy and John White's Balloon Adventure pumping on your portable mp3 player, that's the sort of thing you'd be likely to hallucinate I would think.

Like a fool, I whipped out my trusty 8 MEGApixel camera and flailed wildly at the sky, in an attempt to record this phenomenon. It turns out that my camera must have been equally affected by Cloudboy and the sun, because I was able to capture the following chilling images:

Obviously they have not been altered in any way. Is this evidence of balloons? Or are the objects merely visitors from another solar system, harbingers of the great invasion? Either way, the incident gave me pause. There is clearly more to this city than meets the eye.

What I was really supposed to be doing was taking photographs of some of the remarkable things the Soviets did to this town while they were living here. There are few things your average totalitarian architect likes better than straight lines and lots of open space to put them on. Fortunately for the architects of the DDR (but not so much for the people who lived there), the Red Army did quite a good job of clearing a lot of space in East Berlin in 1945, by blowing it up and driving their tanks all over it on their way to the Reichstag. This meant that when city planners decided that they needed two kilometres of identical apartment buildings in Soviet Modern style, with good sightlines down towards a projected really quite extraordinary TV antenna, all they had to do was point their labour force toward the patch of rubble by the Frankfurt gate and put them to work. The results were more or less what they had in mind, I think:

All of the buildings, for nearly two km, look like this:

They liked the street so much, they named it after Joe Stalin, which is what you did in those days if you liked a thing. After he became unfashionable, they changed its name to Karl-Marx Allee, because there's something timelessly uncontroversial about a really good beard.

I think it's possible to learn a lot about a place by riding around aimlessly taking photos of it. I certainly haven't learnt anything much myself, but I think it's probably possible. Most of what I've learnt I've really just made up in my head. Did you know, for example, that the town planners of the 1950s thought that the streetlight of the future would look like this?

No question, those guys were onto something. When they get around to installing municipal lighting on the Mars colony, they'll definitely be paying a visit to Berlin to sort out their style guide.

In another part of town, down by Treptow, there was enough room to put up a war memorial large enough to be seen from space. In keeping with the straight line thing, its design incorporates a lot of really straight lines. Looking at parts of this memorial, you could be forgiven for thinking that one of the things that Soviet architects were trying to do was make it look like they lived in some sort of evil empire from a computer game. I'm pretty sure that's not really the look they were going for, but honestly, take a look at this:

That is totally where you would have to fight some really badassed dude who shoots fire out of his eyes. Once you had defeated him and levelled up, you would see this:

Which is way bigger than it looks, and really so full of straight lines it made my eyes hurt. Those concrete blocks down each side are massive, and they're covered with bas-relief carvings that look like this, for example:

This is a Soviet Realist artist's way of telling you that you don't mess about with the Red Army, because they will kick your ass with the ghost of Lenin. See what I mean about making things up in my head?

Once you've made it past all of these extremely large blocks of marble, you get to this guy:

He's about three stories tall, not even counting the hill and the concrete thing he's standing on. His sword is about as big as he is, and he's just used it to cut up an enormous swastika. He has a kid hanging onto his shoulder, because as well as being a tough Nazi-killer, he's a family man. Apparently the child is German, and he's saved her. They had to make the statue this tall so that they could fit all the metaphors in.

The thing I should probably mention about this place, at risk of turning this into another sad-sack post about fascists, is that it's one of the mass graves where a lot of the Russian soldiers who died in the 'Berlin Operation' were buried. About 5,000 of them, in fact, which is about six percent of the Russian soldiers who died in this operation alone. And about 0.02 per cent of the Russians who died in the whole of the war. So they had a pretty good reason for putting up such a big war memorial.

Just in case you think that the reason I'm in Berlin in the first place is to form amateurish opinions about their architecture, here is a picture of me doing what I am really here to do, which is grow a beard.

Here you can see me growing a beard on the stage at a bar called Schokoladen, where I played a show with the Mamaku Project the other day. They were extremely good, but you probably knew that already. The photo is by Ms. Elsa Thorp, who has a website here: