EVOLUTION AFTER LOCKDOWN
Steve Bewick talks to John Ellis as Norm listens in
Several years ago, Steve Bewick, my co-radio presenter and I interviewed musician and record producer John Ellis, who was a name I only knew because I had seen him play keyboards in Kirsty Almeida and The Troubadours band. Whilst I hadn´t previously been aware of John´s work Steve knew of him not only as a ´folkie´ but also as a name, perhaps more prominent, on the playing, writing and producing sides of the jazz world.
John is a product of the music education system in Manchester in the UK of the nineteen eighties, a period in which he says ´my journey in music really blossomed´. By the mid of the nineteen nineties he had toured extensively in Europe, playing Frank Zappa music with Zappa´s protégé Ike Willis and a legendary Liverpool band called The Muffin Men.
For pretty much the rest of that decade he had his own twelve piece band, The John Ellis Big Bang, and honed his live craft touring England for a five or six year period.
He then worked for four years with The Cinematic Orchestra and with John Squire and then formed Little Green with singer and writer Judy Green. This work sent John following roots to classic soul and collaborating in hip hop with DJ Vadim. He also familiarised himself with playing acoustic music from around the world.
During the period I became aware of his music he had worked as Assistant Producer on an album called Pure Blue Green / Deja Voodoo at the beginning of a five year musical collaboration as musician and co-writer with Kirsty Almeida, subject of yesterday´s post here on Sidetrack & Detours.
Throughout all this time John delivered frequent local solo performances of singing and playing songs ranging from old standards, folk, Prince & The Stone Roses and originals arranged in his own way.
He has played and recorded with a number of very well-known artists such as Corinne Bailey Rae, Tom Jones, Lily Allen, James Yorkston, John Squire (Stone Roses) and The Cinematic Orchestra 2001-2005.
John has written music for various theatre productions including a National Theatre affiliated production based on the novel “A Clockwork Orange” for Benji Reid‘s Breaking Cycles theatre company.
In 2015 John collaborated with visual artist Antony Barkworth Knight for the Irwin Mitchell commission at the Manchester Jazz Festival.
The piece featured live visual projection and nine musicians, the performance of Evolution: Seeds & Streams taking place at Manchester Town Hall. The soundtrack was released in September 2016 on the Gondwana label.
The musician has a recording and production studio in Manchester, called Limefield, which continues to produce albums of music with a wide range of artists and musicians.
He continues to give regular live performances playing and singing around the northwest of England then sometimes around the world with regular collaborators Honeyfeet, The Breath, Kirk McElhinney and Baked ALaSka.
You can hear selections from the Evolution: Seeds And Streams as well as tracks form Tales From The Irk album, including the wonderful Ain´t Necessarily So and an eerie Norwegian Wood on his web site at https://www.johnellis.co.uk/ John Ellis has been involved, as player or producer, on more than forty albums and has been described as ´a secret ingredient in albums by The Cinematic Orchestra, Lily Allen, Corinne Bailey Rae, Tom Jones, James Yorkston, John Squire (The Stone Roses), and DJ Vadim amongst many others.´
Details of all this can be found on his web site where, under the heading interviews and quotes you will find an audio file of my interview with him all those years ago.
Now, some seven or eight years after conducting an interview that was subsequently broadcast on an edition of Steve´s Hot Biscuits programme after appearing in The Rochdale Observer´s all across the arts page, Steve Bewick and John have been catching up on the musician´s current projects. Steve sent me a copy of their chat via the new Zoom technology for what was my introduction to the format that seems to have somehow held the world together through its current crisis.
So, when I turned on the download he had sent me (hark at me, zoom, downloads. I have all the jargon and I´m only sixty seven.) I saw a screen shot of Steve sitting in front of a wall adorned with home-made drawings and paintings, looking as perplexed as I do whenever I sit at my computer. He was humming, whistling and chunnering to himself incoherently in much the same way as I do when I am fretful about what I´m trying to do.
There was no sign of John for a minute or two but then he appeared as if by magic from another world.
The screen showed him at home in his kitchen,…or actually it showed a back view of John leaving the kitchen to fetch something. He shouted over his shoulder to Steve, who was sitting on John´s kitchen table on a screen showing him in his own home studio shouting, ´John, John.´
Eventually, John Ellis returned, ready and prepared for an interview that Steve will broadcast on Hot Biscuits but which we can exclusively preview for you in print format here at Sidetracks & Detours. So the two protagonists sat facing each other on screen, like cowboys in a high noon shoot out, with Steve saying he had not had too much luck in enabling the Zoom technology to create radio-quality interviews, and with John saying he might have a ´programme´ that would enable him to send a soundtrack of their interview to match up to the video created by Zoom.
John took another five minute break to fetch some gadgets from the shed. He returned with headphones on and began a conversation with Steve about frequencies and echoes, ech, ec…… but John did say how he and all the musicians he knows are all urgently seeking the right format to carry their music out into the world again.
Steve remarked on the wide range of inconsistencies of quality in the various downloads he has been receiving from locked down artists and John acknowledged that was something he himself is trying to address and how he hoped the software the two were now trying to make work might resolve that issue.
Sidetracks & Detours recently brought you Steve´s piece about his visit to a jazz club in Tel Aviv and as he and John continued to debate the varying merits of on-line streaming he told John about what he had recently received from the club.
´It was streaming very well,´ he told John, ´and yet sometimes stuff I receive from Manchester (about fifteen miles from his house) just keeps ´buffering.´
There then followed a few one two, one twos and sit stills and far far away sound-checks from John that Steve said were making things a lot more bassy and better at his end. This was all followed by a few more checks of volume levels that weren´t half as exciting as they might sound ! The two guys effectively talked to themselves for the next couple of minutes or so, before John suddenly gave a shout out to Steve to tell him to expect a link via facebook that would enable them to play something alongside or behind Zoom that would enhance everything. The link was carrying some of John´s tunes in high-resolution that Steve would be able to play through his speakers.
Steve and John then had to negotiate their way through the Messenger service to enable them both to hear the music simultaneously without losing the Zoom service. Somehow then, on the link Steve had sent me, I was then able to see them both screen-sharing as they followed this painstaking process, to employ software that seemed to be called AudioMovers. I could see arrows on each of their screens as they searched for a streaming channel. John then told Steve ´Jeremy Paxman´ Bewick that he was going to phone a friend. Of course, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire friends sit glued to their phones, but John´s mate must have been at the bottom of a very long garden.
When he finally answered he considered his ABCD options and then suggested that John press ´the big button at the bottom of the screen that says Begin Transmission.´
Even after all this, though, Steve could still only receive John´s music in what I, too, could hear was a severely fragmented fashion, and he indeed informed John of that, pretty much in those words. There was a brief conflab then about abandoning the notion of streaming for the moment and instead recording a brief formal interview for a future edition of Steve´s Hot Biscuits show that would enable John to elaborate about his current work.
We were some twenty five minutes into conversation at this stage and by now morning had passed over to afternoon, causing Steve to utter that the notion of Time has become ´very relative´ during the lockdown.´
´We´re moving from quantum theory to quantum reality´, John laughed, ´or at least that´s where my head is at with it all.´
´So, what are you up to musically these days?´ Steve asked, finally beginning the interview in earnest.
´It seems like fifty years ago that we went into this lockdown phase,´ John mused, ´but, when it first kicked off, it all seemed to be about have I got enough food in store, where are my loved ones and is the world going to look like a scene from Planet Of The Apes in two week´s time.? When it all settled down I´ve been able spend time with my young son up in the hills above Hebden Bridge, which has been great, you know, having the time to do that. I´ve been digging and gardening, which is good, honest work for a layabout musician like me.
I´ve been working musically, too, of course, I´ve been doing a lot of mixing of some great music I´ve been working on and recording and mixing with other people, and that´s something I´d like to share and if its ok with you I´ll send you an audio file to go with this interview.
I´ve had a few requests to contribute to on-line events that have been put together. In fact the ALAska band I play with wanted to get a tune out there, and all of us in the band had to record our separate pieces at home, of course. And film them as well.
I´ve played keyboards on a couple of tracks by other people, pretty much recorded in the same way. Like a lot of musicians, I suddenly found that everybody was doing some kind of live-streaming, but I was late coming to it to be honest´.
´I just couldn´t face it, at first. It seemed everybody was doing it and even non-musicians were jumping on board, and I thought I couldn´t be doing with any of that´´. I think maybe I was appreciating the space and the step down from the merry-go-round. So I did a lot of reading and a bit of contemplation and it really set me up, in a good way I think. I really appreciated the opportunity, however it had come about, to kind of re-set my life and I think most other people will have done that, too, whether they realise it or not.´
¨So, in the journey of John Ellis the musician do you think being in this lockdown has helped you consider a change of direction.?´ Steve asked him.
´Definitely,´ came John´s prompt reply. ´It has made me much less want to do anything that that I don´t feel heart and soul involved with. I don´t want to do things that don´t resonate with me. I´ve received some funding from the Arts Council England (ACE) that was dedicated to helping musicians like me stabilise their career in these strange times, and that is exactly what that funding has done for me. When the crisis hit there were many musicians like myself who were wondering how they could continue to earn in the future. This ACE funding was intended to help give us stability as we weighed up our options, and that funding has succeeded in doing that. Even though I haven´t actually received the money yet, the security of knowing it was coming helped me to reflect more thoroughly, I think.
So, ACE definitely make things pretty complicated but applying for that support, and it being granted, helped me determine to in future work on stuff that matters. Thankfully, the promise of funding has made me feel able to take that approach.´
´So, how is the studio looking these days´, Steve asked. ´It´s been a few years since I last saw you there´.
It´s looking fantastic, to be honest,´ John laughed.
´We´ve had time to take everything apart, clean it all up and either put it away or tidy it up. We cleaned and sorted all the wires and worked out what stuff we need for the computer and stuff, but then the lock-down happened.
So we´ve got a studio that´s set and ready to go, which is sort of a shame in a way, but that´s just the way it is. You know, I´ve got a good output. I´ve been mixing stuff that we´ve done here through the last year or so, and its sounding really good and getting better all the time.´
Steve wondered if any of John´s latest music has actually been inspired by or has arisen from what´s been happening to the world recently,
´Yeh. One particular album by John Haycock, the choral player, was finished really, but during lockdown I´ve had the chance to go back in to put the finishing touches to several of the tracks. This Covid 19 situation has completely re-coloured the whole album for me. The album is actually called Journey. John is a younger man than I and the album also includes some spoken words passages by similar, perhaps even younger, contributors. The sense of where we´re going from here is really potent on the album and I´ve fallen in love with the tracks all over again and have mixed it in a slightly different way, putting in a few extra sounds. So that album has been changed by the recent situation, yeh. I think it speaks now of evolution, something I guess many of us have been considering during this tough time. I think it asks the questions of how we see ourselves developing after this, how we will need to and how we would like to evolve, given that we are possibly the only species on the planet that can shape our own destiny, our own evolution. Most people up to this point seem to have preferred to leave such decisions to other people. The more of us who consider this notion of evolution the more likely we are to achieve something worthwhile.´
That seemed a thought-provoking point at which to close the interview, and Steve formally wrapped up proceedings. As each packed away their stuff, though, they left on open microphones and their just as friendly, but slightly less formal, chat was quite revealing.
Much of that, of course must remain private but the two of them, perhaps unwittingly, returned to that theme of evolution, at least in a musical sense.
I was made aware of a piece I need to listen our for when John referred to a track on the film Mo Better Blues that, in representing the fusion and relationship between jazz and rap, sees ´names fall out in conversation´ of great artist from both genres. That will be great for me, because I once wrote a proposed book called Their Names Fell Out In Conversation, although it ended up being serialised in a music magazine, that focussed on songs that pay homage to other songs, musicians or writers. As it happens, this film, starring Denzel Washington and Spike Lee is one I have always been aware of but by some reason have never got around to watching, but given John´s passing recommendation here of Gang Star rapping Jazz Thing I will make sure I don´t mast an opportunity to catch it.
Steve spoke of how his grandchildren, so impressed by rap, don´t pay too much attention when grandpa tells them it all started with jazz so John referenced moments of musical self-discovery as being the very start of an evolutionary process.
That explains why many youngsters don´t want to be led too soon to earlier forms of music: better these earlier forms be re-discovered than force fed.
So via dodgy technology I had ´eavesdropped´ on two music lovers chatting across the genres and generations and mutually pondering the future of the world, their country, their arts, their music and their genres and arriving at a conclusion that musical self-discovery is the very start of an evolutionary process.
The soundtrack to what might prove to be a profound and very important conversation will be heard on Hot Biscuits shortly and we will bring you further news as it becomes available.