Email 12th August 2008

Fish 2008 - In the centre of the circle

Dear FishHeads, Freaks, fans and the Company,

I got back from Sion on Friday and arrived to a rare bout of sunshine in Edinburgh. While I was away the city bypass was closed due to flooding and even Haddington had warnings issued for the first time in years. The Tyne rose menacingly and was up to the wall behind Elspeth's house in the Hardgate.

We had flown out on Wednesday morning landing in Geneva around lunchtime. The Scottish contingent has grown with Frank, Foss and Gavin Dickie meeting up with me at the airport. Foss is deranged having just got back on the Tuesday from a couple of weeks holiday in the US with his family. Gavin had been keeping down his day job as a landscape gardener in between learning the set and playing Boogie Band gigs at the weekend. He was confident and smiling and it was great to see him again.
This was going to be straight in at the deep end for him as we had no chance for rehearsals. Frank had taken him through some of the tricky bits at the Boogie Band soundchecks but again, as in Poland in '95, he had to learn everything from live recordings and walk on stage with big balls. I had complete faith in him.

The others were arriving later so the 4 of us set off in the minibus on the 2 hour drive to Sion. We stopped off at Villeneuve for lunch by the lake that sparkled under the Swiss sun. Local fish and chips washed down with beers and wine. Photo opportunities and relaxed conversations before striking off into the mountains.
The hotel was in a small village outside town, surrounded by vineyards, perched in the valley and loomed over by spectacular mountains. It was idyllic. We checked in and retired to the garden to sit under some pine trees in the glaring sunshine to wait on the others.
The bees buzzed around the wildflower lawn and the wine flowed. Gig day tomorrow so this was pure unadulterated relaxation time.
Yatta and the guys had experienced delays out of Manchester and then suffered a van breakdown on the road from Geneva.
By the time they arrived around 6 the Scots were flying again. Big hugs and introductions to our "new guy". The vibe was good and got better as we engaged in a band bonding session over dinner in the restaurant, a table outside in the balmy evening under a cascade of wisteria.
Smiles were prevalent and laughter indicated there were no worries over tomorrow's gig.

Loreley had been a tense affair. Not only was it Steve Vantsis' last gig but we knew there were going to be problems. In Germany we had flown in late on the previous night and next day had to hang around in an airport hotel until the bus picked us up over two hours late. I'd wanted to catch the "It Bites" set but, by the time we had crawled up the Rhein valley to the festival site, they had packed and the "Flower Kings" were taking the stage. I'd been reticent about playing Loreley again this year and confusion over the bill that, continuing right up to the date, had me concerned. In all honesty it wasn't strong enough and I found myself being touted once again as headliner. I'd hoped to have been main support to someone like "Porcupine Tree" or "Dream Theater" but instead found myself pitched after "Barclay James Harvest" with "Pain of Salvation" and the aforesaid "Flower Kings" preceding them. It wasn't a bill to pull big numbers and on arrival at the site my concerns were justified as the amphitheatre was sparsely decked with fans. Win, the promoter, had that look on his face which said "I don't really want to talk to anyone!" Yatta and I had both expressed our worries months before and had at one time considered pulling out of the event.
But we had signed on in the hope that our commitment might entice others. The venue is fantastic and everyone wants to see it become the happening place it was in the '80s. It had been left unworked for years and the rebuilding of its reputation is proving harder than a lot of people thought.

I met up with John Mitchell and the "It Bites" mob backstage. They too have gone through the changes and ironically their bass player Dick Nolan had left the band in June to be replaced by Lee Pomerey. John Beck and Bob Dalton were the only two remaining original members with John Mitchell on vocals. I remembered them from when they supported the Marillos back in the '80s when Frank Dunnery was in the band. (Another coincidence was that Frank now lives in the neighbourhood of Bethlehem where we played the Nearfest festival, I'd hoped to have seen him but family commitments ruled him out that day)
The band is out supporting their new album "Tall Ships" and I'll be playing tracks on the upcoming Planet Rock shows.

Another band I'd been playing a lot of on my last series was "Barclay James Harvest". I'd been a big fan of theirs when I was a teenager and had seen them a couple of times in Edinburgh in '75 and '76. They too had gone through the changes. Original drummer Mel Pritchard had died from a heart attack in 2004, guitarist John Lees and keyboard player Wolly Wolstenholme had both gone solo years before leaving Les Holroyd as the only original member in the current line up. One of the "new boys" is Ian Wilson from Sad Cafe who I'd last seen at Paul Young's testimonial gig in Manchester in 2000. We reminisced about "Mad PY" days and Les filled me in on the back history of BJH. A strange tale and, as you would expect, tinged with sadness. They had gone through the wars. Les is a lovely guy and hasn't gone the cynical route of others who've been scathed and burned by the music business. He joined Yatta and I in the dressing room to chew over our respective journeys and swap survival stories. It was great to meet him after all these years and I was glad he'd been aware that I'd been playing BJH tracks on "Fish on Fridays". He was quite touched and I felt great at giving something back after all the years of music he'd given me. I was looking forward to their imminent set. It had been a long time since I had seen them live.

Katie had come out to Germany with me and was out front selling merchandise. I joined her to catch the Barclay's performance.
I enjoyed it but my memories from over 30 years ago were different and it was hard to recognise some of the songs as the style of the current line up was so vastly different. The mellotron that was the signature of the BJH sound was no longer there and the vocal harmonies, heavily influenced by the CSN layering, weren't as sweet or tight. It was rockier than I remembered but I still went up to the CD stalls at the back of the arena and recaptured a couple of old titles for the radio show.

There had been a downpour earlier on when I had gone to visit the Italian fans at the terrace bar overlooking the valley. We'd taken shelter for over 30 mins as the heavens opened. Accusatory looks were dismissed as I protested my innocence. I was no longer a full raingod and assured them that it would be OK when I went on. The crowd in the amphitheatre were pelted and drenched. It didn't help that the festival was now running over an hour and a half late.

There were no sound checks only line checks. This meant everyone had to move quickly, plug in, make sure all the instruments were signalling to the desk out front and then go for it with quick turn overs. And keep their sets on time!
Les had been asked to cut numbers from his set by the promoter and was apologising to me for going on late. It wasn't his fault.
I was annoyed. The previous bands and in particular "Pain of Salvation" had taken too long to set up and then played over their allotted time.
It was amateurville. The stage manager should have cut them off.
There were fans complaining as the ferries across the Rhein would shut down soon after we would start our set and some people would either miss us or not be able to get home. Les cut their set by 15 mins and we had to get permission from the local authorities to play over curfew by nearly 45 mins if we were to get our set in.
I was so incensed I went into the "POS" dressing room and let them know how I felt.
It's great to get your jollies off in front of a festival crowd but remember there are other bands following and you should show respect to them, the fans and the organisers. It appeared as of these Swedes were treating it as their headline gig. Either have a crew member watching the clock and calling the numbers if you can't do it yourself or plan a set list to fit your stage times. I wasn't impressed by the band or their music. Nuff said!

We decided to go on as fast as possible as the night was dragging on. We had no option but to risk it.
We hit the stage and into "Slainthe" and a nightmare. Foss's keyboards had a technical meltdown and started to programme themselves while the rest of us had virtually no monitors and couldn't hear each other. Paul, our monitor engineer was really struggling as we were all signalling at once for attention. I had to wait till last as it was more important to get the band on line. It took about 15 mins to settle down.
The crowd was with us though and energy levels were high. I'd wanted it to be a special marker as Steve's last gig but we were up against it. The film crew that was supposed to have been shooting the entire festival hadn't shown up and - to be honest - I was not upset. This wasn't one for the memory banks. It was ticked off at about a 7.7, not a great result. It seemed everyone backstage loved our performance but I knew it could have been a lot better. The technical gremlins had taken their toll and it's hard to relax and just get into the show when you are not comfortable with the on stage fluctuations. Paul handled it well, it wasn't his fault. We could have done with a proper sound check and a stage manager with a large stick with nails in it!

Backstage there was low key partying. It was sad to lose Steve and added to the lacklustre gig no one was in particularly high spirits. The drive back to the hotel was subdued. It would be a while until we returned to Loreley.

We arrived late back at the hotel in Frankfurt and I was in my room in minutes. It had been a tough day on all levels. I'd hardly spoken to Steve the entire trip. As you can imagine, it had been awkward and there was nothing really left to say.
I saw him at the airport next day and we said our farewells. We both smiled. I think we were both glad the weekend was over.

There were no ghosts in Sion.
Gig day and the sun was shining.
This time we thankfully had a long sound check and headed to the site for 2pm. It was a fabulous site in the valley amongst stands of willow and poplar that brooded around swimming lakes created from quarry sites that had all been landscaped into a massive family picnic area with jogging and cycling paths. There were bars and restaurants and sporting facilities scattered under the trees and all dwarfed by the surrounding mountains, their slopes coated with vineyards and topped by swirling clouds and occasional snow banks.
The stage was set in an enclosed dedicated area with a sumptuous back stage zone. A chill out tent with sofas and a restaurant area with dedicated chefs providing food all day as well as our dressing room cabins all within walking distance of the lakes and picnic areas meant the afternoon was relaxed and chilled. It was a small festival and not the huge corporate events with hundreds of crew and liggers milling about with a breast plate of laminates. The promoters have deliberately kept it low key and personal and with only ourselves and "New Model Army" on the bill for the night there would be none of the scrambling around and stress that there was at Loreley. We had three hours to sound check and we would make the most of it. It was a perfect situation for Gavin Dickie to make his debut.
Paul Kennedy set up the out front and we were left to rehearse. It was obvious Gavin had done his homework. I joined them after 30 mins and we ran through some of the set before breaking for lunch. Gavin had to learn "Faith Healer" as it wasn't on the tapes I gave him but he walked it. Everyone was smiles and no one was at all worried that we could pull this off.

We met up with the "New Model Army" guys later in the day. I don't really know their music that well but had met Justin Sullivan, their singer, a long time ago when we were both signed to EMI. They had gone through the mill of major companies and were now, like me, trading as independents and surviving well. It was all so beautifully relaxed, the only problem being watching the Guinness consumption as the bar back stage was free. And it was very tasty Guinness!

The weather report was for showers and we had received a little downpour in the afternoon. At 8pm, thirty minutes before were due on stage, the arena was virtually empty and I was wondering where the three thousand ticket holders were.
We mounted the steps to the stage as "Lisa Simpson" announced us (aptly with the Guinness mention) and lo and behold there they all were. Instant audience!
As would have it after a 2 hour sound check and a line check directly before we went on, the bass amp went down on the first number.
Everything had been perfect all day apart from the usual "Foss festival curse" when his keyboard had decided to ignore his finger work on the top one third of the keys as he thumped away soundlessly waiting for it to respond. (At Pinkpop his keyboard had been blown over in a freak gust of wind and had lost a bunch of notes!)
And there was Gavin on his debut with no bass for the first 5 minutes as the Swiss roadies and Sergeant O'Malley switched amps. He wasn't fazed. We were all impressed by his cool.

As we started "So Fellini" I could see the sky darkening over the mountains in the distance. The peaks disappeared in the horror show cloud and huge bolts of lightning speared the valley. The thunder was barely audible over the PA but as it moved closer I was getting worried. It was coming straight at us. Where we were it was still relatively bright but I told the audience that we were about to get hit and sorry about the rain.
I made a thunder sound in the mike which was repeated directly above us. As if on cue, the storm hit and a wall of water appeared in front of the stage cascading from the stage roof creating an incredible effect. The crowd scattered to the surrounding tree lines as we started "Manchmal". I was worried about the lightning and people standing under trees. The sky lit up and it bucketed down until all of a sudden just as we began "Hotel Hobbies" it stopped as suddenly as it had begun. I felt sorry for the crowd as they were drenched to the bone.
It didn't seem to matter. The gig was great and we deserved the encores running out at a 9.5 and a marvellous reception considering the conditions the audience had endured.
Back stage it couldn't have been more different from Loreley. We were applauded from stage by the "New Model Army" and were congratulated by all the staff who'd taken refuge in the restaurant. The ground was pooled with water.
We were all smiles and over the moon that it had all gone so well. Within a few minutes of leaving the stage we were quaffing Guinness and local wines with a lot of mutual back slapping. Gavin had done a phenomenal job and was understandably exhausted.
We commanded a table as "NMA" headed to stage and the rain returned to batter the crowd. We were past caring now, gig was done!
I didn't know the NMA material but admit to being blown away at their set. I didn't know what to expect and had thought to head back to the hotel. I was glad I didn't. Not the punk band I thought they were but a great all round rock band with leanings akin to me. A lot of diverse influences and a bundle of passion wrapped up in a blistering performance, I developed a total respect and will be picking up their albums for the Planet Rock shows.
We stayed till the end of their set and then headed back to the hotel with bottles of wine from the festival.
We had had a great time and all the crew and organisers had been terrific hosts.
A late night couple of glasses of wine on the balcony and then bed. Some of the guys were up at 5am to head to the airport.
The Scottish contingent had a later flight and we could sleep till 10. A rarity as we were normally the ones doing the red eye trip home via Heathrow.
Foss was travelling to Dublin at 4 for a John Martyn gig while Gavin, Frank and I were going to Edinburgh on the 2 o'clock.
But it was EasyJet and 3 hours later we were all still waiting in departures. I had my car at the airport as had Frank so we weren't drinking alcohol. We had to forego our traditional Bloody Marys! It was a long day and there's only so much water and espresso a man can have!
To be honest we were all so glad the trip and the gig had gone off so well we didn't really care. I had a full working band again. Hayling Island can't come quick enough.

It was strange playing a festival on a Thursday and spent the whole weekend slightly confused at what day it was. With a couple of weeks until the next gig and with time on my hands I needed a new project.

Since the studio closed as a commercial entity in '98, I only record in it irregularly resulting in the control room becoming hardly used apart from as a storage space for merchandise and equipment. I needed to utilise it more on a day to day basis as it is a huge waste of space in its current form.

I'd decided to make some changes.
The main "outfield" speakers, huge Linn 100+ watt efforts hadn't been used for years and the amps had been sold off soon after the commercial side shut down. The rubber on the cones had disintegrated and they were taking up a lot of space together with the surrounding sound proofing. They occupied dead space.

We only ever use smaller "infield" speakers such as Yamaha NS10s or Dynaudio acoustics these days which operate at far lower volumes.
The rear of the studio had once been a storage room accessed from the old office which divided the studio from the main house. Soon after the studio, then called the "Funny Farm", opened for business, we discovered that there was a problem with bass frequencies creating sound waves which gave a false picture of the monitored sound. Basically the bass waves hit the back wall of the control room and bounced back to the listening position where the engineer or producer would decrease bass levels on the inputs. When recordings were listened to outside the control room it was found they were bass light. We decided to change the acoustics and busted through the back of the control room into the store room. The store room was then sealed from the offices and a false back wall with a cavity packed with insulation was created which soaked up the low end frequencies. Problem solved!

As everyone moved to monitoring on smaller speakers the bass traps were inconsequential. The rear of the studio was OK for writing and recording on direct input e.g. keyboards or bass which wouldn't create feedback problems but it was a dark and airless area and a Feng Shui practitioner would have described it as hellish. Energy-wise it is a stagnant area filled only by stacks of multi track tapes, a 7 foot fibre glass alien bedecked with fairy lights and a crash couch. The old Chesterfield leather sofa I'd procured from the Townhouse studio while recording the "Vigil" album and had occupied a position there for years. Many a muso and Norwegian had spent a night there after a few vinos. It had seen more than its share of debauchery over the years and I was glad it couldn't be plugged in and downloaded. It had too many stories. It was time for it to be retired.

I'd decided to change the entire area beginning with tearing down all the false walls and getting rid of the soundproofing which would give me about another 3 square metres of floor area. A window is being knocked out to the South on the side wall of the control room which will provide much needed sunlight and fresh air and re-energise the space. Triple glazing will cope with the sound problems.

All the old carpets in the entire control room are being ripped out and replaced with wooden flooring. The front of the room at the recording area will be laid with the timber I saved from the old office when it was knocked down in 2001 after I sold the main house and moved into the studio. The rear of the room will be laid with the 1920's Canadian pine flooring I managed to procure from the old Easter Road main stand when it was demolished in 2001. I'd hoped at the time to get a small section of flooring from the old stand and I'd phoned my lawyer Malcolm MacPherson, who was then chairman of Hibernian FC, to ask if there was any chance. He put me in contact with the stadium manager who told me they were in the process of knocking it down but if I could get there by late afternoon I could have the boardroom floor!
I had two joiners in immediately and later that night was loading the entire floor into the shipping container in my garden where the timber was stored until the garage replaced it a couple of years ago. I'd wanted to use it in an extension to the studio but as that is a long way off and with the new "cunning plan" of redesigning the control room it made perfect sense to use it now rather than later.

As I said, I wanted to incorporate the control room more into the day to day existence of the studio when it's not being used as an environment to create music. The area laid with the Hibs flooring at the back of the room will now become my personal office where I can move my big pine lawyer's desk that I use for my writing and other work. It'll be my space away from the main living area and something I have needed for a long while. It should be quite inspiring being atop timbers that were in the boardroom that has been graced by most of the football greats over the years, from Jock Stein to Sir Alex Ferguson, every major Scottish manager and chairman and their distinguished guests, where deals were conjured and cunning plans hatched and whisky and champagne soaked into the grain.
There will be a different dynamic in the control room and with the new window, sunlight from a Southern aspect and fresh air with the sound of the water and the black bamboo from the Japanese garden pond the chi should be flowing nicely!

Katie and I started on the front of the room at the weekend and had managed to extricate both the huge Linn speakers from the wall and out to the garden before she went home on Sunday night. I had the hammer and jemmy bar out and by today have all the old carpets out and all the floors cleared and began work tearing apart the back wall. Davie the gardener has removed all the ivy and cut back the quince tree from the other side of the wall which will take the new window. One skip is already full.

I have a joiner coming up next week to measure up the space left by the removal of the Linns in order to build much needed storage space and to measure up the floor. It's a huge change. When I pulled the speakers out I was reminded of those huge steelworks that had been shutdown where the demolition of the cooling towers marked the end of an era and the beginning of a new lease of life for the buildings.
There will still be music created in the room. The tie lines are still connected to the rest of the studio and I still have full recording capabilities.
What this does is signify a refocusing of energies and domestic arrangements that I am looking forward to embracing.
It's all highly positive and something I desperately need in my life now.

Another icon is being moved on. I have decided to sell the Helpenstill grand piano. Again it takes up a lot of space and has been used less and less over the years. I bought it from Mickey Simmonds back in '88 when I was in Gerrards Cross in Bucks and it moved with me up to Haddington where it played a huge part in the "Vigil" demos (featured on the "Gentleman's Excuse Me" demos on the remaster).
It's been used on nearly every solo album recorded up here and was even on the road briefly on the first touring. We used it primarily for writing as it was too heavy to take out on the road and it spent a long time in its flight case for a while in the '90s.

I brought it out again last year for the "13th Star" writing sessions and had it serviced and tuned, replacing some strings and re-felting and conditioning the hammers. It all still works well and has the original Charlie Helpenstill electric pick ups which means it can be recorded both acoustically and DI'd (direct inputted) straight into the desk. It originally belonged to Chas and Dave and a recent email from Chas confirmed that he bought it as new in the early '80s.
The pianos have an interesting history and it's reckoned there were less than a 100 made before they were superseded by the Yamaha grands. You can read an interview with Charlie Helpenstill where he talks about his piano design.

I am having it looked at by a piano tuner/engineer in the next week or so and change a damaged latch on the flight case before offering it up for sale on eBay and other outlets.
It's a heavy piece of equipment and whoever buys it will have to organise for it to be picked up from here. Yatta will be overjoyed to see it go!
I'll miss it but there comes a time when you have to let go and as I won't have the space and am unlikely to need it for quite a while I'd rather it go to a decent home where someone will put it to regular good use! :-)

On other fronts it's all moving. Mark Wilkinson has come up with some great new artwork for the "Zoe 25" single which is scheduled for late September/early October. Meetings in London next Monday will determine the definitive date.
The CD single will include "Dark Star" and "13th Star" live from Amsterdam which so far have only been released on the vinyl version of the album. I am discussing downloads with a company next week.

A major newspaper is using "Misplaced Childhood" as a cover mount in September which should supply both Marillion and myself with some heavyweight profile as our Autumn tours move ever closer.

I am recording the first of 8 programmes for Planet Rock at the end of August which will be transmitted from September onwards.

There's a lot going on behind the scenes with a number of interesting options moving to the table in the coming weeks.
I can't believe the time is moving by so fast. It's just over a year since the launch party for the "new" album. The garden is brimming with veg, the incessant rain meaning I have spent less time watering this summer than I can ever remember. I still haven't used all the vouchers you gave me on my 50th birthday and the irrigation system I planned to build earlier this year would have been an unnecessary acquisition judging by the rainfall in the last couple of months! :-D

It's all good. I'm smiling a lot :-)

Now back to the hammers and saws! Its great therapy :-D

Onkel Fish x

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