Barbara rUFO

For the last 12 years, every four years, I have made music about a mythical place called Barbara Island. This year sees the fourth and last chapter, titled Barbara rUFO, and I would like to tell the whole story of how it came to be, and why it finishes in 2018. This is a longish story, but don’t worry I’ll keep it tight.

We could start late in the last century, when I found two painted wheat bags on a telegraph pole outside my house. One of them looks like this:

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At the time 2018 seemed a long long time away. But time speeds up.

Over Barbara Island

In 2006 the National Art School held a fund raiser. I was asked to contribute a live performance, and I said yes. The school is housed in a very old prison with small stone cells, but the show was to be held outside. As it was winter, they would supply tiki lamps. I thought ‘tiki lamps!’ and started to make something a little Martin Denny and a bit stormy. As it turned out the night was very stormy itself, and the show had to be held in a small jail cell. Not very exotic.

At the time I was making what was to be the last Severed Heads album, called Under Gail Succubus. This was a silly band name I had come up with years before – I always thought it worth using someday. I added the live show to the main album as a bonus, and thought it would fun to call it Over Barbara Island. And so – Gail and Barbara.

It was the last full Heads album (although many years later some shorter special projects went out under that name). In 2008, the band was lowered into a grave.

A funny side note is that a local agency tried adapting some of Barbara for a Coca-Cola advert. Three attempts did not get run-it-up-the-flagpole, and so sadly Things did not Go Better With Barbara.

Return to Barbara Island

In 2010 the body was exhumed for the Sydney Festival, and as a consequence I was asked to perform at another charitable event – this time for Rainforest Rescue. Again, yes, and again it seemed a good time for palm trees. This event was more bumpy bumpy and so Return to Barbara Island is a lot more streamlined that the volumes before or after. I made videos for each track, but the screen was a gaggle of hexagons and so no one really saw what I was showing. And like the previous event I don’t think there was too much benefit for the Rainforest, but I got an album out of it.

Around this time I wondered of there really is a Barbara Island, and there is. It’s very cold, but maybe not forever.

Barbara Channel Three

In 2013 Severed Heads played the Adelaide festival. We were both dead and alive, an echo, and I was desperately trying to come up with new material with which to move on. But being a full time academic, delivering a computer game for the festival, and being carer for an invalid spouse I was overwhelmed. It wasn’t going to happen in time.

It was 2014 before this material came together, and here was the four year cycle demanding that it be obeyed. So it was to be Barbara again. Channel Three refers to radio and there are many radiophonic touches – but much of what appears to be shortwave is actually synthesisers. I’d regained a hardware sound studio, including some of the gear I had owned back in the 1970’s, so there’s some familiar old sounds in there. But to buy the gear I needed the job that meant I never had time to use the gear.

When the UK magazine The Wire requested some music from ‘Severed Heads’ it was a horrible dilemma – this was me, Tom, not Severed Heads. But without the old name there was no interest. I had to supply them with some of Barbara, which mean ‘moving on’ was yet again defeated.

This is around when I pulled out my wheat bag with the UFO message. 2018 was four years away, and it dawned on me that there must be a Barbara FOUr, actually a Barbara rUFO in this year. I needed to go back to the wheat bags.

Barbara rUFO

By now I knew of the UFO Man, Alan Philp. I had seen him standing out in the mall, sun hat on and wheat bag around his neck. But by this time he had faded from the collective memory and needed to be brought back. In 2017 Severed Heads toured on an image that recalled his message.

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But it was only in 2018 I found his image on a older blog site. This is Mr. Philp.

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We must respect the message that he gave us for decades. When the UFO comes this year, what will it want? Will be a handshake or a spanking? Will we end up gods, or meat Popsicles? This is what Barbara will tell us I hope.

Since 2014 I have become successfully underemployed, the band continues, the bad times that ran through all the previous chapters have faded away. I have just finished Barbara rUFO today. It is the last Barbara, and perhaps, UFO willing, the last normal album I do. It is time for change.

I hope you will like it, but please also hear the earlier chapters, they do not cost. I will let you know when the UFO lands.

Make that sound!

I’m increasingly required to reproduce music I made a long time ago. There’s a lineage of sounds based around particular equipment sets, which I can quickly summarize starting a few years in:

  • Slab Horror – MS20’s, tape.
  • Big Bigot – DX7, SH101 and AKAI Sampler
  • Bad Mood Guy – Mirage and DX7
  • Rotund – ESQ, TX81z
  • Cuisine – SY77 and S10 Sampler
  • Gigapus – MKS80, EPS-16 Sampler, Oberheim Xpander. <– expensive!

You can see why I have re-collected some antique gear: the AKAI sampler is required for Big Bigot for example, where Rotund For Success will need a TX81z. You can get away with similar gear for standard patches, the DX7 is well emulated. In some cases the sound is especially troublesome – and worst of all is that MKS80. Back then they were cheap, damn they are expensive now. Oi.

Here’s a sound I am keen to make – the first part of “Tiny Wounded Bird”.

That there is pure damn MKS80. Or is it? Surely there is something you could use to get just that, but it’s not easy. Let’s look at some of the parameters.

  • Really sharp attack – much sharper than most DCO machines.
  • Cross modulation – the metallic sheen.
  • Two layers. One of them has a pitch envelope.
  • Detuned oscillators – the MKS80 has a monophonic mode that allows it.
  • Bass boost – one of Roland’s cheat machines with EQ built in.

And being an early Roland machine it’s around the time that you could put the VCA too high. The Jupiter 8 can have this fault, but in the Jupiter 6 it’s fixed (unless like Graham Revell told me way back in the 80’s, you get it modded to be controllable.) It sounds to me like it’s too high here.

So then, which cheaper alternative would you use?

  • JX anything – envelopes too slow.
  • JP8080 – it does a really good attempt, after all, it’s a Jupiter. Turn up the bass and treble, make the two layers. Just not quite the analogue overload of the original. V-Synth is similar but still trying.
  • System 1 – it does the analogue no problem and can do most of the MKS80 bass. It’s not able to be two layers though.
  • Boutique JP08 – well actually, close. But it’s being a Jupiter 8, and so not quite the same heft.

I’m going to try the Blofeld next. But somehow that’s just… Not Roland.

Damn this nostalgic madness.

End of Tour – Part 7

And now, at last, to the only gig we’d actually expected to play. The Cold Waves festival runs over two nights in Chicago and we were part of the Saturday line up which was designed to be a bit more ‘family friendly’. The very family friendly Front Line Assembly was up top, with PWEI being the other ‘grown up’ band. Severed Heads was at the head of the kids table with Cocksure playing right alongside and then there were youngsters who will no doubt one day be the grown ups (unlike us).

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Back home exactly the same thing but it’s called Foota.

But first to reach the Metro. That day the CUBS WERE PLAYING. The Cubs are a popular hitball team in Chicago. Hitball is a game which involves many people dressed in blue crowding all over the place blocking all traffic. It looked to me like they were winning but apparently they lost otherwise everything would be on fire.

Once we got there, seemed like just as many people milling about backstage. Bands bands bands. Greets from the Metro owner who had last greeted us 25 years ago holy shit. As much as I like to be all friendly to everyone, for me playing live is just too anxious making to handle that crowd, and I apologise to anyone that I gave a startled ‘are you a sadistic dentist?’ look. Most of the time I tried hiding in the SEVERED COCKS room.

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Although we had played live together before, finally got into chat with Chris J Connelly, seen here channelling his ‘drunken shit in a business suit on a Saturday night’ stage look. In LA it had been gold chains. We had thought that LA costume was entirely serious, more fool me twice.

But there were old people I needed to see. The last time I met Bill Leeb was in Vancouver, way back. We were both in our mid 20’s. He has grown enormously tall since and I have shrunk. Both he and cEvin Key prove that the ratio of height to width is a prime factor in success in Industrial Stardom, something which I will never know.

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The Industrial height rule. Fulber don’t care shit.

But they will never equal our ability to attract bears. It was like Jellystone Park, I tell you. Bears.

Festivals are nerve racking because you have to get on/get off mighty fast and if something is fucked up then you die (hello Antwerp!) They were setting up sound checks pretty efficiently, but I was getting freaked out about if it was going to work. It’s partly from not having played in big line ups that often over the last decade. The only fuss was (as always) about the main video which was being projected onto drum kits and I had to choose a smaller screen. I think it’s OK. Hell, most people watch videos on a mobile.

Once the table was set up and the signal was happening, it was all just fine.

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I should say here that the festival is a supporter of the Hope For The Day charity, which helps people at risk of suicide. Part of the tour show was of course Dead Eyes Opened, with Stacy dancing on screen, and I had added a short video title acknowledging that she was not coming back. The tour came to an end in a poignant moment.

Backstage and the same number of people were milling about but it had settled into a different crowd, more about the society than the performers. I guess I’m more comfortable about getting things up and happening than partying them down again and after processing another extensive round of bears, decided I’d do one last BBC Nature Show through the streets of Chicago. Stewart was happy with a bottle of scotch and a place next to the mixing desk, so I grabbed my shit and swung outside.

The game of hitball was still winding down. A few boys were half heartedly punching each other in the streets while the girls tried to pull them apart. The bars were pumping ooga chaka. Drunks were vomiting into smart phones. It could be any western city, everything and nothing, The Saturday Night. That’s the thing about tours; all those hotels, planes, back stages, the disassociation is complete, you’re just passing through, enacting a ritual, everybody you meet n greet has a role and a script. Walking through the streets, Frisco to Chicago, it’s almost like you want something to break the glass and haul you out of there. But really not.

Instead I spent Sunday in the hotel room. There was a lot to not think about.

Tour Drily – Part Six

Hello Tampa, or as it turns out, Ybor City, which is where cigars were first carved out of phosphate or some such thing. Something something, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla.

We were met by a friendly man called Curse, who oscillates like a sine wave between Tampa and Austin, apparently a thing you do in the southern synthesiser music trade. He took us to rooms at a goddamn HILTON where I glimpsed THE LARGEST BED I HAVE EVER SEEN and only then told us we had to go straight to the fucking venue. How could I perform, thinking about that bed? Sleeping somewhere in that vast confection of padding?

Not so much a bed as a way of living.

Not so much a bed as a way of living. Yeah, I took photos of the hotel rooms. I like hotel rooms, OK? This one was a Hilton, and every light in the place was turned on as if to say, climate change is caused by Florida, buddy.

In Florida, we were too small, or perhaps it was too big, for us to play alone. We supported Pop Will Eat Itself, and there were advantages to this. Firstly, one may get off stage earlier and drink all PWEI’s rider. Secondly one may blame PWEI for anything bad that happens, while claiming virtue for everything good. And no encores, none at all. The main worry is when the main band has a drum kit and a hundred microphones to set up, your chance of a sound check becomes wistful, although we did get there in time.

Here was Michael Pilmer of T Shirt fame, and his henchmen, dressed in identical knife costumes, the camera tilted to show their evil. Did I mention we wore Holy Fuck Knives T shirts every night? We did. And we sold them too. Michael and Robert made these. We also got some special stickers to cover our apples.

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A bit of a barn, quite large, too large for us alone. The first band on, (I am sorry I have been very remiss about the first bands in each case but I am in the zone at that point, anyway,) the first band on was the first actual rock band we’d encountered the whole time. I mean they did r-o-c-k, did the moves, stood on the wedges, spooned, mutually masturbated, I mean if there is a library of rock gestures, they held all the library cards. I don’t think Stewart had seen such a thing before, and was awed. Me, I’ve seen ZZ Top. Once you’ve seen the best…

We played. At least one guy was crying. At least he was the one I could hear sobbing over the PA. The audience in Ybor City was a bit ‘intimate’ for the size of the place (which we could immediately blame on PWEI, see how this game works?) but they had a fine old time.

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Pilmer over on the right giving the finger. An enduring symbol of Southern Hospitality. Actually I think the gent over at the left with the beard should get in contact so I can send something worthy. Best audience member ever.

PWEI I think were too big for the stage. They do this pacing thing, back forward. They looked like when tigers get put into too small cages. For a moment you wonder if you shouldn’t be wedged behind a table. But that leads to keytars, and the thought stops there. Shudder.

At the end of it all, I grabbed my backpack and launched out into the turmoil of Friday Night in Ybor City. They were young, sexy, swarming and mostly Cuban. I marched through it all, some kind of alien grey, block after block, seeing it all unseen. Nearly every gig I managed to walk back to the hotel at some ungodly hour and somehow that was turning into the best thing about the whole tour. Like a BBC Nature programme.

At the hotel, that bed.