The Original Cutting Edge – Making A Weird Kind Of History In Reverse

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Those of you who like to be tucked up nice and early of an evening might have missed my latest BBC report for Radio 4’s evening news programme The World Tonight a couple of days back on the subject of Mike Dixon, his lathe cutting empire and his current accompanying of Michael Nau on tour; so I’ve decided to upload it to Soundcloud for your listening pleasure:

A native of Arizona, Mike has a reputation as a sort of ‘Lathe-Master General’, having cut literally thousands of records in the last decade or so – his releases endlessly varied not just in style but in shape, size, colour and substance, many pressed on ‘up-cycled’ junk and surfacing on his own labels such as PIAPTK and Soild Gold. Marketed largely at bands looking for short runs, limited editions and unusual items to sell on tour, each of Mike’s discs are cut by hand in real time and usually come with homemade artwork to match.

Michael Nau lathe-cut tour souvenir

As Michael Nau is currently on tour around Europe promoting his rather fine second solo LP Some Twist, the scheme was hatched to have Mike and one of his lathes accompany him, documenting the tour and making Alan Lomax-style field recordings at various historic sites around Europe such as Stonehenge, the Brandenburg Gate and so on. Furthermore, as well as a limited series of tour-only lathe singles like the one in the above picture, a special invitation would allow a small number of fans to stay around after each show and pay to have a song of their choosing performed and cut to disc in front of them; resulting in a one-of-a-kind record that would be theirs to keep. An absolutely brilliant idea, I thought when I first heard about it, especially as Michael’s delightfully wonky acoustic numbers seem to particularly suit this lo-fi approach. It doesn’t require too much of a conceptual leap to imagine how excited I was at the mere thought of all this, so I’m sure you wouldn’t have been at all surprised to spot me a short time later helping to wheel a large amount of heavy equipment onto London’s South Bank just outside of the Tate Modern.

The original location of choice had been The Houses of Parliament in order to capture the chimes of Big Ben, but when a mutual friend reminded us all that the bell was currently ‘bong-free’ and would remain so for the next four years [#FAIL], it fell to this long-term Londoner to nominate a alternate spot. I chose the grounds outside the Tate Modern because you can pick up the chimes of St Paul’s quite well from its position on the opposite bank, while secretly being slightly relieved that we were to avoid Parliament Square –  you can readily imagine how quickly setting this lot up in that area would get you moved on – and moving anywhere with this much equipment is enough of an undertaking already! In the end, however, all went well and Michael made the first of what will hopefully be numerous field recordings throughout this tour, all to be compiled into an album and accompanying documentary at a later date.

The actual BBC report being cut. The inner ring you can see is a stream of lacquer that that cutting head removes from the disc as it makes the groove.

Having edited and mixed the report before sending it over, I caught up with the pair a few days later for their show at the Lexington in Islington – and for the grand cutting. I was told that the lathe – a restored model from the 1950s – had only broken down several times in the intervening days, and so was considered to be putting in a very strong performance. Nonetheless, it was a rather nail-biting process. Would it co-operate at this crucial moment? Would the resulting disc play back properly on unfamiliar equipment – especially  a BBC turntable (that had probably been gathering dust for a while) during a live programme? Would we even have time to cut it with Michael’s band waiting impatiently in the wings, and… actually now on stage and tuning up? ‘Hurry, Mike! But no sudden movements!’, I thought.

Insta-Gramm!

Thankfully, as appears to have been a continuing theme on the tour thus far, everything came together at the last possible moment.  The report was cut in a single take from Mike’s place at the side of the stage, while signalling ‘two more minutes!’ at an impatient crowd and imploring assorted drummers and bassists not to ‘jump around too much’. The resulting disc, signed by both Michaels and labelled ‘SUPER FRAGILE’ by me was delivered to New Broadcasting House the following lunchtime. It closed the programme that evening and was, as presenter Ritula Shah points out, the first BBC radio report ‘on an analogue disc’ for at least fifty years. ‘Of course we asked Robin to cut his entire report onto vinyl so we could be part of the experiment too’, she says in her cue (technically it was my idea, but let’s not split hairs), ‘so bear with us and just forgive the crackles and the static’. Forgive? Really?!

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I thought it sounded smashing, personally – and certainly better than many of the poor quality phonelines and Skype connections that I had to endure passing through my mixing desk during my tenure with the Corporation. ‘I have to say I can’t cope with the static’, Ritula comments as the piece concludes with Michael’s performance outside the Tate Modern; to these ears a lovely acoustic number transformed into a vintage blues lament with just the right amount of crackle. I wonder how many listeners would have spotted much difference if they hadn’t had their attention drawn to its unusual delivery mechanism? Or maybe I’ve just been playing around with degraded tape loops for too long?

Anyway, fidelity-based quibbles aside, the programme is still available here at the time of writing, so have a listen to the pre-cut version on Soundcloud and then the broadcast version on iPlayer and see if you can hear all that much difference, considering.  The tour continues with the two Michaels still lugging a surprisingly heavy amount of equipment around Europe and Some Twist is available now from all good record shops. Travel safely with your precious cargo, gentlemen!

In other broadcast-tastic news, I shall be helming the Sunday 12-2pm slot on WNBC this weekend, broadcasting live from The Book And Record Bar in fashionable West Norwood. I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to play yet, but of course it’s going to be massive – so please do tune in, or better still come down to the shop to say hello and have a browse. As well as the records, there will be beer and coffee served by amiable host Michael, and as it’s West Norwood’s monthly FEAST event, the shop might be running their famous CAKELAB as well! Come on down!

Must also briefly say a huge thanks to The Tapeworm and Iklectik for Friday night’s event celebrating the launch of their 100th release, the mammoth 39-track A Can Of Worms and featuring performances from Laura Agnusdei, rough music, Simon John Fisher TurnerMarta De PascalisDale Cornish & Phil Julian as well as a rather noisy Howlround set from yours truly, based largely on pure feedback, which seems to be where I’m headed at the moment.

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I will certainly be writing more on the event (and hopefully digging out an extract) in the coming days as it was one of my favourite shows of the year thus-far, I just need a bit more time to go back through the recordings first! For now, here’s a picture taken immediately post-soundcheck and pre-dinner, which will hopefully whet your appetite (mo pun intended). With all that equipment between us it’s a wonder we managed to squeeze such a big crowd in!

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Live at Bad Timing, Cambridge, 2016

In other news, if you happen to be in the vicinity of Cambridge this Tuesday, October 3rd, I’ll be giving a talk about my work and a short demonstration from around 5pm as part of the series of Alchemical Landscape lectures at the University’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (or CRASSH). Very much looking forward to meeting up with curators Yvonne and James again – and hopefully a few of the people I met last year while playing at one of the city’s long-running Bad Timing events. Do come along if you’re in the area – it’s free there might even be a little audience participation!

And lastly, news of next weekend’s 22rpm, a marathon all-day electronic music festival with a stellar line-up at St. John on Bethnal Green, a magnificent live music venue as well as a fully-functioning church, and the scene of Howlround’s recent live score of the film A Creak In Time. Headlining the Psyché Tropes event for the East End Film Festival back in the summer, that performance was memorable for the church kindly allowing us to use candle-stick holders as impromptu tape-loop restrainers (not the wisest of moves in hindsight) and for the moment when Daphne exploded. Perhaps mindful of these dramatic incidents, for this event the powers that be have banished us down to the crypt, where we’ll be creating an appropriately crepuscular and haunting soundtrack to counter the techno titans doing electronic battle over our heads. It is a seriously impressive line-up, have a look at this poster then click on the image to get tickets while you still can!

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