When I looked through my diary it turned out that there was a bit more in it than I’d remembered. I thought it had been a quiet year on the music front, too quiet in fact, and when it comes to the Protest Family that’s undoubtedly true, but I did play a lot more solo, and solo unplugged than I have done for some time.
That’s not to say that it’s not been without its pitfalls. There was the gig where I gave up after a couple of songs because I couldn’t be heard over the din of conversation (that felt like a complete fucking failure on my part I can tell you) and the one that finished before I’d even taken my coat off. Then there was the show to six people, three of whom were the other acts and the sound engineer; but they’re always offset by the good ones, the good audiences, where the songs work and the magic happens, and playing with no safety net to an audience that had already been treated to Robb Johnson AND Attila the Stockbroker’s Barnstormer 1649 unplugged, and getting away with it, is one of this year’s personal highlights.
Actually, Robb features a lot in this year’s highlights. The launch of Ordinary Giants in November was just a joy; the narrative, the performances, the warmth in the room, it was lovely, and here I was all of a sudden rubbing shoulders with Boff Whalley, Swill Odgers, Matthew Crampton…the list goes on, and being treated as a peer. It was wonderful. I bought a few copies of the album as Christmas presents and Robb kindly threw in a copy of the Live at Walthamstow CD that Russ recorded when we previewed some of the songs from the show at the folk club in January, another great memory. I am toying with the idea of introducing Who Buggered Bognor into a Protest Family set sometime.
I’ve spent some time at the controls this year too, mixing live sound for Chris Parsons’ gig in Dronfield* and at the SUMAC for WSO Acoustic Punks & Poets where it’s always a pleasure to catch up with Rachel and Eagle and other old friends. (Thanks Pete for putting up with me again). I’ve been learning more about recorded sound too and I think that you can hear the results on Snowflake. I recorded to a click for the first time when I tracked Fake News From Nowhere and I used the same technique for Snowflake while improving how I mic an acoustic guitar for recording and being far more subtle in my use of compression.
There’s a button here somewhere that does something.
At the risk of pre-empting the outcome of a band meeting, I’d like to multi-track the next Protest Family album which will mean all of us learning to love the click, a departure from the way we’ve recorded the other studio albums which we cut live to our own natural rhythm. There’s something to be said for that approach, it captures the energy of us all working together, but it’s tougher to do with drums, and the next album will definitely have drums on it. Looking (and listening) back, the electric guitar songs on Protest For Dummies are crying out for percussion. We’ve got a good seven new songs ready to go, so it’s a conversation to be had sooner rather than later, but if we do it my way it’ll mean considerably more studio time and therefore expense, so we’ll have to think about how we deal with that and whether we’re brave enough to go down the crowdfunding route.
Which brings us to Family matters.
We recognised at the end of last year that things were slowing down for us. Protest For Dummies hadn’t sold as well as its predecessor and gigs were getting fewer and further between and were tending to come from the same places that they always had. None of us have industry connections and our best attempts at marketing The Protest Family better never really amount to much, but we were all agreed that it was time to experiment with drums and to re-launch the band with a bigger, bolder sound that might, just might, generate a bit of traction. Andi Bridges was always our first choice of drummer and, happily for us, he was keen to come and play.
I suppose with hindsight we were naive to think that we could carry on setting up and mixing the band like a folk act and add a loud drummer, but rehearsals at Bally** didn’t really give us that insight and it wasn’t until we started our soundcheck for the gig at the Rose & Crown in April that we realised we might have a problem; the problem being that we just couldn’t hear ourselves or each other properly, even with the foldback up so loud it was permanently at the point of feeding back. Worse, the audience couldn’t hear the vocals anymore, and worse still we were becoming a sound engineer’s nightmare. Stoicism and the patience of our friends in the audience got us through that show, and hoping it was just issues with that particular PA system, we took the same set-up to the Black Bull in Gateshead** a week later with predictably similar results. (Again, hindsight is a wonderful thing).
Bands will tell you that in such circumstances there is only one solution, one that we immediately sought, and that is to blame the drummer. We told Andi that he was too loud and encouraged him to play with matchsticks, toothpicks, brushes or anything that would make stage volumes more manageable, while still aiming to put the whole band’s stage sound through the monitors.
Fortunately we needed to be flexible for our next gig, at East Ham Working Men’s Club on May Day, so Andi downgraded to cajon and hand percussion. Handy, as we ended up playing unplugged.
That experience lead us to the cajon-based kit that Andi’s playing with us currently which he used at the Matchwomen’s Festival and at our WSO event at the Rose & Crown in October. (By the way, that event raised over £1000 for services looking after those hit hardest by austerity in our community, so thanks to all that came, sung, danced, enjoyed the music and dug deep. And thanks Tom Ferguson for letting us hijack your birthday party like that). The pared down kit made things better, but still not right.
During this period we’d also recruited Simon Armstrong on bass to cover for Doug’s continuing absence, and it was him that finally persuaded us that although the “band that turns up on the bus” thing is all well and good, what we really needed to be doing was be grown-ups and take responsibility for our own stage sound by bringing our own amplifiers with us. Retail therapy for some, looking for money down the back of the sofa for an expedition on eBay for others, but we got there in the end and we arrived at our show on the 1st December with a bunch of shiny new kit and a plan. And I’ll tell you what, it worked a treat. No wonder (most) everybody else does it that way. We sounded great on stage and we sounded great to our audience. Finally.
So if there’s one Protest Family story from 2018 it’s this: Steve White & The Protest Family sound better than ever with percussion, it just took us a year to get there. Come and see us at the New Cross Inn on 26th January and we’ll show you what we mean.
*Dronfield is in NED, which took me ages to work out means North-East Derbyshire. Good luck Chris Peace in your campaign to become their MP.