Collaborate: or die

Herewith, a blogburp about collaboration, and being cross-disciplinary an’ that. In the last year or so I’ve been involved in screenwriting, making music, theatre, audio drama, film and pervasive media. So this is a wander around all of those, and the alleyways in between.

If you’re enough of a glutton for punishment to read the whole thing, I suggest you make a cup of tea first.

Angel Tech Bedminster

Probably the longest and most involved collaboration of my creative life has been with the band Angel Tech. We formed in 1995, influenced by Warp Records, The Cure, Bjork, New Order, Seefeel, Talk Talk and Stina Nordenstam. We played gigs, recorded an (unreleased) first album in Germany, composed film soundtracks, got signed to a major label, recorded another (unreleased) first album at Real World studios, toured relentlessly, got unsigned to a major label, made performances with a theatre company, formed our own indie label and self-released a debut album some 10 years after we first got together. We’ve toured all over the world, won awards, hung out with the stars and played gigs with every kind of band from Sparklehorse to Right Said Fred (long story, promoter in Austin TX, “British Bands” theme night.) I once met an A-level art student in Germany who told me that, as a final-year project, she’d painted the lyrics to our song Freiburg in massive seven-foot high letters across the facade of her school.

Anyway, you won’t have heard of us.

Or at least, no, maybe that’s not fair – I’m always very surprised when people actually have heard of us. Let’s put it this way: we’ve always made music we believe to be accessible, yet at the same time we’ve only ever followed our curiosity, our instinct, our desire to hear something different. If I think back on all my creative collaborations over the years I reckon the ones that worked best were with people who, given the option, would rather be confused for 10 minutes than bored for 10 seconds. At any rate, that’s certainly true of my bandmates Neil and Doug.

So we try to make good music. There are, without doubt, plenty of people out there who love the music we make. We pour hours and hours of wine work into our songs, and nothing will see the light of day unless we’re all properly happy with it. However – let’s be blunt – we haven’t exactly set the world on fire yet. If you’ve heard of us, I’m pleased but surprised. Which makes it all the more remarkable (or stubborn, you decide) that we’re still working together after 16 years.

I’m not pointing this out because I think we deserve a fucking certificate or something. There are, no doubt, unknown pub rock bands who have been schlepping away longer than we have. There are groups who keep on keeping on, toiling in obscurity for all sorts of reasons… out of habit, for the buzz of nostalgia, because it fulfills some sort of basic unspoken need, because you GOTTA DANCE, GOTTA SING etc etc.

Genetically modified Angel Tech

What intrigues me is that in Angel Tech, those core reasons for making music change all the time. And our collaboration has changed in response. Sometimes the motivations alter from day to day, passing over us like shifts in the weather, and we barely notice them. Sometimes it means a whole new attitude and requires protracted negotiation for it to take effect.

This isn’t something I’ve always recognised. In fact, I hadn’t clocked its full extent until very recently. About a year ago I became suddenly, intensely unhappy with the music we were producing. For a while I was talking to the other guys about backing off, removing myself from the studio for a few months; maybe longer, such was my lack of inspiration. I wondered whether my involvement with the band had run its course. I couldn’t work out why I was such a good, flexible collaborator elsewhere – in writing projects, in film making or performance – but such a stubborn, intransigent bastard when it came to music. In Leicestershire* my behaviour would have been identified as “having a proper mard on.”

* Hmm. Spell check doesn’t like “Leicestershire.” I don’t know if it thinks I ought to be spelling it differently or whether it just, you know… doesn’t like Leicestershire.

Anyway. Happy end to the story: thanks to m’colleagues’ patience, after plenty of beers and heart-to-hearts I got out of those woods. And it’s not even as if the music we’re making has radically shifted course – but I believe the way we’re talking about it, rationalising it, has. Maybe I know a bit more about what my bandmates are thinking, and vice versa. Maybe there were some quirks of how and why I need to make music that I hadn’t even made clear to myself, let alone them. Any road up, it feels a million times better. I’m now back to the old Angel Tech method of quality control: when listening to the music, do I get goosebumps? Do I grin like a drunken gibbon? If answer = “yes”, then proceed…

blurrydrumming

The point? Oh yes, the point. Sorry.

Well, I’m working on a lot of stuff at the moment, in a lot of different disciplines: fine. Every collaboration, in every project, with every person, is different: fine. Stands to reason. This much I know. My mistake? I was subconsciously comparing the aims and results of other processes – their time constraints, their parameters and goals – with those of Angel Tech. Not a good idea.

Not a good idea, because for best results, writing and recording an Angel Tech song tends to pan out a bit like this:

The Angel Tech song: how it is done

And I’m only slightly exaggerating.

As an example, the key track from our current as-yet-unnamed meisterwerk is a tune Neil wrote some 10 years ago, which after much wrangling now has an arrangement that involves one of these –

Casio PT30

– being played like a maniac at 1000 clustered notes per minute by yours truly, then fed through a reverb chamber the size of Canada until it sounds like the sun dying, on top of which we have an almost forgotten recording of Neil and Doug playing 2 guitars into 1 microphone in the front room of Neil’s old flat in Stoke Newington eight years back, interspersed with recordings made one afternoon in 2005 on the concert-standard grand piano that used to inhabit the auditorium at Arnolfini in Bristol, time-stretched and chopped into ant size fragments then squeezed through a Korg delay unit we bought in 1998 and still don’t quite know how to operate, underpinned by thonking kick drums that weren’t really working until we made them sound like “interference on an analogue phone line” plus a fat-as-fuck bassline dropped in dollops out of one of these –

SH 101

– and then the whole thing mixed until it sounds like someone whispering in your ear as you drift off to sleep.

You might imagine that 16 years of such painstaking blooping around, building and dismantling, plugging and unplugging, might be frustrating. Yep, from time to time. I don’t think any of us could deny that. You might consider it self indulgent, to which I’d have to respond: indulgent, sure. I’ve certainly indulged my right to not necessarily get paid for it.

But self-indulgent? I dunno. One thing I can say for certain is that we’re always thinking about the listener, about the audience. I really don’t think we’re wanking into the wind here. In fact I’ve come to realise that for such an uncompromising project, Angel Tech requires you to leave your ego at the door on a surprisingly regular basis. You can chip away at some difficult detail for two days solid, hacking away at waveform after waveform, and a month later it’s been worked around and has become the least important part of the equation.

There are plenty of theatre makers who’d recognise the worrying flowchart above, with different elements – especially those making devised or semi-scripted work. Plenty of screenwriters would see in it the cut-and-paste of multiple drafts, the roller coaster of script editor’s notes, sometimes from multiple persons (sometimes, for all you can tell, with multiple personalities.)

And here’s the rub. It’s collaboration, and for all its faults, it works. It produces surprising results. Having more than one voice safeguards against deathly flat-footed crud.

Most important of all: no way in hell could I possibly do it on my own.

I’m still surprised by artists who think they can. Those whose principle desire is a piece of work pooped straight from their brainpan onto the eager public, an uncorrupted masterpiece extruded from their palpable genius, disseminated and admired worldwide. For them integrity seems to mean “I did it. Me.” Annoyingly enough this attitude seems especially prevalent amongst writers; and I’ve met so many who are full of constant complaints about ‘interference’ in their work – whinging about developers, directors, editors or actors altering even the tiniest syllable in their draft 0.5 or whatever, as if the role of the writer is to create a whole world single-handed, like God. As if the pinnacle of artistic achievement were Lord Of The fucking Rings simply because Tolkien single-handedly invented 427 different types of fucking Elf. You feel like yelling GROW UP, EVEN PICASSO NICKED FROM BRAQUE. NAME A SINGLE GOOD ROBBIE WILLIAMS SONG AFTER HE DUMPED GUY CHAMBERS. WHEN HITCHCOCK CALLED ACTORS “CATTLE” HE WASN’T BEING THE EPITOME OF THE AUTEUR, HE WAS BEING A WANKER. WHAT HAPPENED WHEN ROGER WATERS TOOK OVER PINK FLOYD AND MADE IT NOTHING SO MUCH AS A ONE-MAN BAND? FUCKING “THE WALL”, THAT’S WHAT, FOUR SIDES OF SELF-PITEOUS WHINING PLUS GUITAR SOLOS.

(Needless to say this rant will come back to haunt me when TV execs utterly ruin something I’ve created, like my brilliant sitcom set on a Polynesian island succumbing to rising sea levels.)

Which isn’t to say there aren’t instances where work is derailed, or trashed in blind panic, that you’re never justified in having a good old moan. Oh good lordy lord no. I’ve been there. However, seems to me – both in terms of my own experience, and tales I’ve heard from others – the bad times are almost always, in retrospect, where collaboration has failed at the outset. It’s usually thanks to important questions not being asked by either party, roles and aims remaining nebulous.

Such balls-ups are very rarely out-and-out malevolent. But screaming green hellfish and chips, it can feel like it at the time. I think the single most common cause of pain is when high aims are expressed through wild enthusiasm at the project’s start, and then quickly brushed under the carpet when practical reality hits. Suddenly, everyone involved has a different dream being wrecked. I’m lucky enough to be working with a wide variety of collaborators at the moment (e.g. TV prodco Red Planet Pictures, director and producer Tanuja Amarasuriya, pervasive media artists Mercurial Wrestler, film editor Stuart Davies) all of whom demonstrate the single most important quality necessary for guarding against such tragedies: patience.

But I’d go further than simply saying collaboration is a skill you need to hone and a pitfall should you neglect it. I’d argue that even when you don’t think it applies, it does.

Morpeth Carol at Ferment

Explain, you say? Oh alright then.

Recently I was at a BBC workshop for radio writers, where a radio dramatist of many years’ standing – and many hours of broadcast output – was extolling the virtues of radio drama versus the less writer-friendly world of television and film. Everything said

  • about the closeness of collaboration in radio’s small teams
  • about radio drama being the only medium where writers are paid to be present at the recording, as standard
  • about how other art forms, to different degrees, have ‘cut off points’ beyond which the writer does not pass

… was obviously true. But I found the black-and-white distinction of “radio satisfying for writers / screen unsatisfying for writers” awkward. Here’s the thing: at heart, I didn’t really believe in the comforts of it. You have to entertain the possibility that a really, really difficult conversation is sometimes a much, much better one. And sometimes the most difficult thing of all is knowing that you won’t necessarily have a conversation at all beyond a certain point; that your part in proceedings will end, and that having drawn up the blueprints you’ll be left twiddling your thumbs whilst someone else glues the battleship together. But couldn’t that, somehow, push you towards more ambitious, more complex, more inspiring blueprints?

I guess I’m suspicious of any recurring method that might lead to complacency. My own method avoids writing any given script in the same way as the last one (with the same ‘hat’ on, the same scheduled goals) unless it’s part of an ongoing series, a larger work. But one thing I’ve noticed in every genre, in any given format, is that I write with fellow artists and crew in mind – especially if I don’t expect to be present beyond the writing. As far as I’m concerned, even if the script is taken off me at final draft and the project is made without any further contribution from el beardo here, I’m still very much a voice in that process. That might sound pretty obvious in a holistic hippy-shit I’m-handing-you-my-aura-now sort of way… but I think making your work speak in your absence is a big part of being an artist by any definition.

Sometimes it’s just about thinking ahead. TV scripts are ‘made flesh’ much faster than theatre or film, with less room for manoeuvre, more potential for details to get lost in the hubbub… so I’ll tend to include more direct instruction and pernickety aesthetics on the page (top tip from Russell T Davies, who has often said “if you want it in there, for god’s sake spell it out.” Or words to that effect.) If I’m writing a stage play which I hope will be performed far and wide, where the precision of overlapping dialogue is important, I’ll create a specific script format to communicate it – something I’ve done this year with a piece called Janet Gaynor. It’s also about doing as much as you can to understand the work of directors, production designers, stage or location managers, without necessarily going so far as to kill them and assume their identities. Similarly, when I’m writing you’ll normally find me acting out dialogue in my kitchen, waving my arms at the fridge like a prize twazzock. It’s one way of finding out whether you can actually say that shit, or only type it.

But these are tactics I’m sure plenty of writers are familiar with, and just one part of why I believe collaboration has a life beyond your immediate expectations. The biggest bee in my bonnet – and you’ll have guessed this if you’ve read this far, thanks – is that I’m geekily, irredeemably fascinated by process, and convinced that the question “can we do it differently?” is always worth asking, in any art form, across all media. Especially given that a surprising number of people out there seem set on trundling along with creaky old methods and maxims derived from what, essentially, are self-help manuals for anxious amateurs… and that in your travels you’re as likely to encounter folks who still insist – despite all evidence – that ‘good’ art is built on templates of form and content as you are to meet people who believe global warming isn’t caused by industrialisation.

OK.

… that all got a little bit serious for a moment there.

Here’s a picture of a funny poster to make up for it.

Spectacular Keyboard Sounds

At this year’s BBC TV Writers’ festival I heard Adam Curtis speak. He talked about how he combined ideas from journalism with the evocative potential of archive footage to create his intriguing, ‘authored’ documentaries. He also made a very interesting case for writers working as editors. His take was that the two disciplines were the same job at opposite ends of the production spectrum. This makes complete sense to me (or indeed, for film editors to have their say in drafts of the script, for writers to be present in the edit suite) and makes even more sense coming from someone like Curtis who has fused related disciplines to almost poetic ends, creating a genre all his own. Of course if you’re splicing skills like this there’s a responsibility alongside that can’t be fudged – I’m not advocating slapdash experimentation here, stamping on people’s toes, you have to do it with care and forethought, with all your collaborators in mind. And I’d argue you almost always need a reason for pursuing a new technique, a platform it can work on. But the more I work and the more I experiment, I’ve come to believe the boundaries between art forms are, if not non-existent, then at least wildly exaggerated.

Mix it up. Draft a narrative film like a symphony. Plot a piece of theatre like a piece of cinema. It might sound academic or dry as hell, but when it works it’s not the theory that leaps from one discipline into another – it’s the type of satisfaction experienced by an audience, the emotional pull a work has, the surprise of the inner sense it can make. Whether your audience is aware that you wrote the music for the story first, or that your song was recorded inside an egg, or whatever, makes no difference.

1234_shoot.JPG

I shot a film with Sleepdogs last year (soon to be graded and flung online, after much faffing around, developing my editing chops) which had a cast of 4 deliberately drawn from some relatively unusual places, from disparate traditions. They were portraying a rock band, and in real life only one of them was a trained musician. Of the remaining three I had a member of an acclaimed live art duo; a clown / physical comedy performer; and an up-and-coming playwright and actor. We had one day to get it in the can. Less than that, in fact, given that we were shooting in natural light.

Generally speaking the shoot went to plan. To keep things simple I gave just the one directorial instruction to each actor, a single key attribute before we began. And that seemed to work. We were shooting in a fluid style 100% nicked from The Thick Of It, completely unconcerned with crossing lines or overlapping sound. And that, too, was working as best I could tell. But the proper magic happened unexpectedly, halfway through the day, just after lunch: out of the blue, the cast became an actual band.

Whilst I reset microphones and checked through the morning’s rushes, post-prandial energy turned into a bit of a jam session, and the cast’s silly-buggering around suddenly gave everyone a different attitude to their instruments, to their posture, to the relationships between one another. A good 70% of the raw footage that made the final edit came from the 2 hours immediately after the band became ‘real’. By the end of the day James Stenhouse, having never picked up a bass guitar before in his life, had become a better player than Sid Vicious.

It felt gratifying, as producer Tanuja and meself had put a lot of beers thought into the casting (I’d say it took up as much discussion as the script, and THAT was poured pored over time and time again in an effort to make it more visual, more succinct, less like the comedy sketch its premise and page count suggested.) We weren’t just looking for reliable, funny performers, we were hoping for an unusual blend of approaches. We wanted the surprises that live artists, circus skills and electro-folk troubadours would bring to the film. And it worked. For instance, one big worry for me was the actual tune the band would end up playing; it had to be original, but was something I didn’t want to preempt because, as a composer, you would have heard me in it somewhere, somehow. I took nothing along to the shoot, not even a vague idea, and it felt like a leap of faith in no uncertain terms. But in the event, all it took was for me to throw out a single instruction: “More obnoxious.” Guitarist Simon Holmes played 9 notes in response and no-one stopped laughing for 2 minutes. There it was.

1234_tom.jpg

There’s talk of making more films featuring the band; maybe an online series, maybe something that accumulates to form a longer whole. We’re already excited about who we might get to play A&R execs, or the preening, swaggering members of more successful bands… there’s even speculation about having to cast a dog, which should prove fun (driven by an old Angel Tech in-joke that playing gigs to the proverbial 2 men and a dog is fine, as long as the dog doesn’t walk out.) It’ll be particularly interesting if our motley band actually get better with practice. Maybe we’ve spawned a monster. Maybe they’ll still be going in 16 years’ time.

Images:
1. Angel Tech rehearsing in Bedminster 2004. By Tanuja Amarasuriya (TA)
2. Angel Tech promo image 1999. By Gail Haywood / Stanley Donwood
3. Me, assembling drumkit, Angel Tech at The Factory 2005. By TA
4. The Morpeth Carol by Sleepdogs, at Bristol Old Vic Ferment January 2011. By TA
5. Gala Concert poster, Isle of Man. By Matt Lucas.
6. On set of one-two-three-four-, June 2010. By TA.
7. Still from one-two-three-four- by Sleepdogs.