September has arrived. As promised, August brought to you some very new music, September wants you to meet long established artists which are known more for being influential than for their album sales.
I’ll start this journey from Chicago, Illinois, drumming the hell out of you: Tortoise.
I am Italian, you know.
What you probably don’t know, is that music in Italy is mostly linked to technicality, execution and loads of dinosaur seniors retiring under Italian sunny shores.
It is not coincidence Italy is considered the capital of prog-music and the saviour of elsewhere forgotten rock gods.
A country proud to declare that discovered and launched Genesis‘ career. A country still able to fill up arenas with Dream Theatre and stadiums with Jethro Tull , where else? A country still praising any note Robert Fripp plays in and out of King Crimson .
If you really want hardcore, last week the organisation of a festival in Milan, where the just split Oasis where due to headline following Kasabian and the Kooks (lined-up in this order, they don’t even read the charts), replaced the Gallaghers with Deep Purple.
Can you imagine Deep Purple following the Kooks in the place of Oasis in a UK or USA festival without generating a mass uprising?
Unashamed they did and be sure some people appreciated. Provincialism permeates Italian rock knowledge (and often not only rock). From national newspapers to rock magazines (not even mentioning TV which does not broadcast anything related to modern music) news arrive three albums late and people is convinced that things happening nowhere anymore do still have a meaning. If you are, erm, lucky, you may stumble upon Ozric Tentacles on tour.
When I was there, I was naturally caught into this bad trip. Because of rock radio, friends, wrong readings and pre-internet era, I spent lot of time listening to music which was (and still is) valued not for the emotions it can transfer, but for either the skills of single band members or the seducing charm of retired myths (if not both).
Drums solos, endless suites, speed guitar, acrobatic keyboards often performed by people in their sixties. Form always over substance, form becomes the substance.
It must be the price Italians pay to such a massive debt to classicism but I won’t go into such an essay!
The intro is to say that once I arrived in UK, where rock is perceived quite the reverse, as the response to artists emotions shared with their public in a sympathetic approach to music, I felt relieved.
I did not have to deal with analysis of the number of beats, length of solos, refined productions, comparison between bass players. I could immerse myself in what music to me simply is: passion.
If I came across Tortoise in Italy, I could be immediately pissed off by analysis of their music through an in-depth look at their technical skills.
Thankfully I came across very positive reviews of Tortoise new album, Beacons of Ancestorship, in UK. Prejudice did not stop me so that I immerse myself in the music of such a great band.
Tortoise is the most unclassifiable band ever. Name any facet of music you can think of, with the exception of hip-hop, and it could fit with them.
The top citation is post-rock, because they are mainly instrumental and post-rock is an open-ended genre. It can accomodate comfortably quite different approaches (and philosophies) to music. Nevertheless in Tortoise music there are also hints of free jazz, hardcore, alternative, electronica, space rock and even prog (I said it).
Recently I have been in love with anything Thrill Jockey publishes, so I decided to head off to the Garage to check one of their top bands live.
Some days before the gig, I receive an e-mail from Rhythm magazine. They asked if I could take some shots of the drummer.
Not a problem at all I replied. Beyond the difficulty that drummer usually sits on the back and are not easy to portray, I would have given it a go.
I am a curious guy, though. Why were they so keen on having Tortoise drummer photos? I didn’t have a precise idea of what was going to happen on stage and, call me distracted, listening to the albums I didn’t realize how much percussions are essential to their music.
When I arrive at The Garage, which after the refurbishment is quickly becoming one of the most tipped venues in London, I understand.
The drum kit is not in its usual place, centre of the stage towards the back.
Quite the contrary, tonight there are two drum kits, facing each other, straight in the front.
Added, a sort of digital-electronic vibraphone on the left and a more traditional one on the right.
Percussions dominate every inch of the front line, with bass, keyboards and guitars placed on the back.
Basically the instruments on stage are inverted compared to the standard setting. I see why Rhythm magazine wanted Tortoise drummer on one of their issue! It makes sense but the story hasn’t finished, yet.
Tortoise come on stage to open with Prepare Your Coffin’ which as the title suggests could not be the best song to start.
Few seconds in, they have to face the embarrassment of a guitar which does not want to sound properly, in a song where its peculiar sound is paramount. More than ten minutes are spent in few attempts to make that mixtures of pedal, cables, ampli and strings talk to each other. Most of band members are kneeled to help. A nice example of team work and friendship.
While they solve their problem, mine was to convince fans on the front row (no pit) that I was there in a triple mission for The Line OF Best Fit, Thrill Jockey and Rhythm magazine and then my bulky bag filled with cameras and lenses, needed to be with me there. I had to “shoot the drummer”.
The usefulness of chatting with fans, they taught me Tortoise drummers are three. Bingo!
For the next hour and half I am sliding in the front row from one percussion to the other. Three drummers interchange, swap, play solo or in twins, constantly delivering a solid percussive base to any of the songs. Sometime is amazing, sometime a bit showing-off, some other delightfully harmonized with the bass, guitars and keys which in heir own already build up quite an impressive wall of sound.
Seeing two drums and two basses at the same time was unprecedented on my long live experience. It brought me back to Ornette Coleman experiments with double quartets in the early sixties. The comparison is less hazardous than you can think. Their open minded approach and free schemes fit both the philosophy and the music.
With Tortoise very elaborate rhythms, which make it difficult even to tap your foot, it’s impossible for me to remember all the songs and there is not a setlist stuck on stage.
What hits me during their set is how they can manage to sound consistent even playing music spanning so different angles. From the almost hardcore guitar opening of Yinxianghechengqi, that naturally evolves into chinese synth (where the title comes from and the hydeograms projected on the back suggest), to the almost avant-gard electronica of Seneca which closes the show.
Songs can be very short or expand in long suites. Some are simple in structure some so complicate to end up in free tempos where the usual drum patterns really lead the entire spacecraft to outer spaces.
Videos, projected on three parallel screens on the back, complement and help the journey.
The ecstatic audience is trapped in a night that they brilliantly managed to recover from a starting disaster to an enthralling ending.
A pure example of technical skills, well above the average of rock bands, at the service of music.
Even such a relentless, devastating support of the drums is symbiotic with the rest.
A band which is almost twenty years old, which pioneered post-rock (and beyond) all through the nineties, hosted members of Slint and whose influences can be heard from Mogwai to Stereolab deserve your attention if you missed it till today.
Six landmark albums over fifteen years, remixes and collaborations including one with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy for a cover album, The Brave and The Bold that stands out for audacity. No one before ever attempted to cover a Springsteen song in such a deconstructing way. Their version of Thunder Road adds up to a CV that bands much more rumoured can only dream of.
I wrote about shooting drummers already.
But this was a special opportunity to insist with few more tips. So lets talk about shooting two drummers.
Having the twin drum kits on the front is clearly of help. Being so close opens up wide-angle opportunities that cannot be used when the drum is on the back unless you are allowed to walk on stage.
The main problem with drummers, if you can’t (or don’t want to) use flash, is the blur due to their motion.
They move a lot and their sticks are so fast you can’t freeze them.
With low lights conditions hence longer shutter speeds, the challenge is higher.
I don’t have problem with movement and blur in pictures, it’s clear from my shots that I love action and dynamic, but having a magazine interested at my photos, part of the professionalism is to be able to deliver a set of different images to suit any of their needs. That is way the shocking event of digital photos appearing on here. Remember, personal taste doesn’t always match the picture editors’ one.
Listening to the songs is always important, you follow the rhythm and there is always a moment when things calm down. That moment comes at least twice and that is when you have to open your shutter.
Surprisingly, some drummers keep still while drumming, which offers the opportunity of interesting shots with your man body and face sharp and his arms and sticks blurred.
Shooting both drummers at the same time requires a bit of intrusion and, if you are not with a “live view” camera, some luck.
Put on a wide angle, raise your camera over the shoulder of the guy, preset the focus on a sensitive distance and intuitively try to frame him and his partner on the other side without looking in the viewfinder.
Tricky but if the image works it will have a sense of presence to make the viewer feel sitting next to them.
With flash things are easier technically but to produce a good image is more difficult. Always bounce the flash and diffuse its light if it is mounted on your camera. Flash freezes the action and gives unnatural front lighthing, but guarantees crisp images. I don’t like it.
What I tend to do (and I tried for these shots) is to slow-synch the flash on the second curtain. Flash coupled with a slow shutter preserves at the same time the movement, the original lightings and gives intriguing half sharp half blurred shots.
Not to be overused, but give it a try, it is nice for a change to break even your own rules.