Ramshackle Alchemy: Serf Instrumentals 2004-09 (2023)

Ramshackle Alchemy is another collection of music from my past, within my current process of reviewing my life, bidding fond farewell to prior selves, making room for a new me. It is also one of those projects that’s been rearing to go for a goodly while…in fact, Ramshackle Alchemy has been patiently ready almost 15 years, the longest of all my cryogenically frozen projects.

These pieces map my early progress in teaching myself to record sound, particularly acoustic instruments, and the first examples of what I call my ‘ramshackle folk’. They were recorded in bedrooms & living rooms at five different Tasmanian locations (wherever I was living, basically), in all kinds of emotional weather. Most of these pieces are previously unreleased. In a few cases, new or remixed versions exist on later albums. I’ve grouped the tracks in roughly chronological order, according to which periods of my life they were recorded. They are very much snatched moments, bubbles of sanctuary from life’s turbulence, little gasps of breath before diving back into the current. In these moments I could lose myself to the joy of creative discovery, however raw and unkempt.

When I first assembled this compilation of orphaned instrumentals (c.2010), I was even then in a process of review, looking back on my musical evolution up to that point. I was surprised at how much I’d accomplished, the richness of the musical ideas, my growth as a musician in just a few years. Compiling the album had its own alchemy for me, affirming my efforts & reminding me to appreciate my work (it’s easy to forget these things in the blur of it all).

During the early 2000s, my passion for making music was undergoing a renaissance; my guitar-playing, and my capacity to capture and express my musical ideas, experienced a massive growth spurt. It was a period of prolific inspiration, a very rapid self-directed learning curve. Creatively, music was always on my mind, but most of my energy was going into generating ‘work’ as a teacher / illustrator / community artist, tending to the turbulences of young family, or navigating periods of psychoemotional breakdown. And yet somehow, in the midst of things, I still managed to write a wealth of songs and instrumentals, and within a number of concurrent streams.

As a community artist, I was often composing for & leading community drumming groups / workshops, or other music-oriented projects (see Bruny Kids Artzone Festival). I was performing with, and primary composer for, acoustic duo Spondooli Brothers. In my personal space I was exploring singer/songwriter composition to help me process & articulate my inner world, resulting in a hefty swag of songs (and a few unreleased albums). At various times I was a private music tutor, taught school percussion programs, hosted a weekly community radio show and wrote online CD reviews. And beside recording hours of forgotten demo tapes, I released four completed albums (Anthology Of Revised Ambiguities, A Month Of Moonbeams, Camel Lips and Marzipan). I’m still amazed and baffled that all this found room in amongst the other demands of Life.

From its inception I’ve titled this collection Ramshackle Alchemy (Serf Instrumentals 2004 – 09), due to the seemingly ramshackle (non-linear and teetering on collapse?) nature of my life, and likewise my recording process – that is, an alchemy in which unplanned elements converge and align in ways that unexpectedly inspire new growth. In part it’s developing the art of getting out of my own way. The ‘Serf’ in Serf Instrumentals, while an obvious play on ‘surf’, is also referencing poverty as a creative motivator, making something out of almost nothing. Many of these pieces were spontaneous improvisations, or improvised in the sense of having limited resources – the ‘mother of invention’ forcing me to innovate & experiment with the materials at hand.

Their rough DIY edges are part of their folk texture, authentic to their unrepeatable moment. During these years I was immersing myself in acoustic folk music from all over the world, and folk music, being ‘of the people’, is universally a story of resourcefulness in life. I became drawn to interesting acoustic instruments I’d never played before, and discovered I could always find some kind of music in them, however rudimentary or uncharacteristic. Balalaika reminded me of Appalachian dobro sounds, so I found fingerpickin’ bluegrass music in it; the European mandolin reminded me of medieval lute sounds, and led to the Near Eastern & baroque music on the Marzipan album, and so on.

All these recordings were made using a ZOOM MRS-1608 ‘digital multitrack recording studio’ I’d purchased as part of a community arts grant. The only microphone used is an AKG C3000 condenser mic (bought secondhand, still using it 20 years later), and on some tracks I’ve recorded instruments through a Direct Input as well.

Bruny Island and the Longley Hut (2004 – 2006)

In 2004 I was still living on Bruny Island, in Tasmania’s south. As part of my work coordinating the annual Kids Arts Festival there, I received funding to purchase a digital recording unit, to enable recording of resources for a community performance project, Dancing The SeeDragon.  Squid Moon was the first thing I ever recorded on the unit, completely unrehearsed and improvised on the spot, a 2-minute test recording. At the time, I was still playing with the Spondooli Brothers, but all the solos were handled by Luke, the other guitarist. When I improvised the solo on Squid Moon, I took myself by surprise – I kept the recording because it opened a new process in my playing, of building more confidence to improvise solos for myself. Naturally, being able to record myself enabled me to explore this more.

Living on the island, you had to plan around the car ferry, and there were no ferries at night. Sometimes I would work in Hobart during the day and spend a night or two on ‘the mainland’, before returning to the island. For a time these stays were in an old apple-picker’s hut, perched on a steep mountainside looking out over a densely-forested valley in Lower Longley. The hut was isolated, tiny & spartan but cozy enough, and a much-needed respite from the busy-ness & emotional difficulties at home. During 2005 – 06 I took the recording gear up there at any opportunity, and allowed myself to experiment freely with whatever inspiration came. It was my creative salve. Six instrumentals from those sessions are included here.

And Buddha Drove A Cadillac and 6 String Strangleros were both loosely inspired by Ry Cooder, in particular his collaboration with Cuban electric guitarist Manuel Galban on the album Mambo Sinuendo.  They were also among my first serious attempts at recording my own rhythms to create an ensemble effect, using my ‘jungle kit’  (dundun, djembe, kpanlogo) and a few other percussion toys. My only guitar back then was a semi-acoustic, so it sometimes doubled up as ‘faux bass’, as on Buddha Drove A Cadillac, and on Chipolata, one of my earliest ukulele tunes, the bassline of which was a challenge to myself to capture an authentic Mexican feel.

In 40-Fied I wanted to try the syncopated rhythm & melody found in a lot of Celtic folk. Often I’ll try a musical style even if I never revisit it, just to see if I can capture something of its essence, and Celtic folk is in that box for me. I uncharacteristically used a plectrum to pick out the melody and give it extra clarity and definition, as the melody is what weaves the chordal rhythms together. The track had a sturdy, forthright energy to it, and as I turned 40 that year it felt self-affirming and celebratory (hence the title).

All these pieces mark some new breakthrough in my playing, some new technique or style I’d not tried before, or an existing technique taken to a new level. As the Spondooli Brothers had the creative limitation of 2 people / 2 acoustic guitars, in order to fill out the sound & keep myself interested, I developed my fingerpicking guitar style to combine bassline, rhythm and melody. The creative challenges of this approach include working out simple ways to play complex patterns, efficiency of movement, finetuning the relationship between the picking hand and the fretboard hand, and listening for the subtle relationships between notes / strings. I was listening to every kind of fingerstyle guitar I could find, from blues & jazz to gypsy & classical. Pisseninapuddle Shuffle emerged after immersing myself in Appalachian mountain music for a time.

Blacque Djugg was another spontaneous moment, grabbing a new idea on ukulele & trying out a few of the digital recorder’s FX settings. In the original recording I was kicking a big cardboard box with one foot as I played, to provide a bass beat. Later I added drums and ‘faux bass’ to beef it up. This version also appears on 2006’s Camel Lips, but it sits well in this collection as an early example of me abandoning myself to the moment and having fun with it.

Blackmans Bay (2006)

After the Longley hut was sold, I rented an upstairs room at Spondooli Brother Luke’s house at Blackmans Bay (a Hobart suburb), for when I needed to work off-island. Midway through 2006 my life imploded: a toxic relationship came to an emotionally violent end, I was barred access to my home and abruptly separated from my two young children. For the second half of that year, I lived in the room at Blackmans Bay, in a state of nervous breakdown. Somehow in the midst of this collapsing universe, I experienced an almost atomic creative fire. One way I channeled this energy was a 6-mnth stint presenting a weekly acoustic music show (Cafe Nowhere) on community radio station Edge FM. Also, the Spondoolies were on the threshold of a new musical phase, introducing new musical directions and sophistication in our compositions. The paradox of my internal states was intense but exhilarating, and I channeled this combustive energy into some new Spondooli material.

I’d gotten to a point of composing melodies in my head while I was attending to other things, then being able to find them on guitar when I had an opportunity – a breakthrough for someone with no knowledge of music theory, or even what notes I was playing. I recorded quite a few new ideas during this time, and Ipso Facto was one such. The version on Ramshackle Alchemy was a demo designed to teach the melody to Luke, as we had a significant live show looming at the Moonah Arts Centre, which we intended to record. We were to be joined by Luke’s friend Andrew on cello, thinking to fill out our sound and add extra musical interest to the show. In the couple of weeks leading up to the gig, I plunged into arranging (and re-arranging / deranging) a number of old & new Spondooli tunes with cello in mind, and after only three rehearsals with Andrew, we ramshackled our way through the gig. The live version of Ipso Facto with all three personnel (and a few extra features) can be heard on A Month Of Moonbeams. This show turned out to be our last. Luke lacked the emotional maturity at that time to have a compassionate understanding of what I was going through emotionally. I was keen to remain loyal to our friendship & continue our musical partnership, but as his partner was a friend of my ex, his allegiances were divided. The Spondooli Brothers ended with a whimper, right when we could have taken our musicking to new heights. Such is life.

The Valley (2007)

A week before Christmas of 2006, Luke told me unceremoniously to move out. Amidst the chaos forces converged, and I was delivered to a beautiful cottage, tucked away in a private valley sanctuary just minutes away from Cygnet, in Tasmania’s Huon Valley. For the next 18 months I was deep in clinical depression, completely withdrawn from the world, barely functioning from day to day, one of my deepest descents into the Abyss. Aside from the hours spent in a near-comatose stupor, I managed to practice Vipassana meditation every day, I built a vegie garden, I read about the latest research on brain function, and forced myself to play & record music, to exercise my frontal lobe and facilitate some degree of healing.

The rental had come to me via a friend who ran an online CD distribution site for independent folk and experimental music, a fine folk musician and a kind soul. While I lived in the Valley, he lent me one of his treasured instruments, a custom-made octave mandola (sometimes known as an Irish bouzouki), sort of a bass guitar equivalent of a mandolin. I had recently bought my first bowl-backed European mandolin, and the two instruments complemented each other beautifully. As with ukulele, I had no prior experience with these instruments, the tuning was foreign to me, but as I explored them, they suggested new musical flavours & depth in my playing – medieval, baroque, Greek rembetika, Near Eastern, Middle Eastern, Moorish, Balkan…passionate musics with dark fires at their heart. It was excellent for my brain health, the music was complex, as was the process of getting to know the instruments, and it helped me transmute some of my darkness into soulful expression & beauty.  As I developed various pieces, I recorded them, and most of them became the album Marzipan, which I still consider one of my most musically accomplished.

A number of recordings from the Valley didn’t make it onto that album, and so are included in this collection instead. One exception is Scimitar, which does appear on Marzipan; the version in this collection only differs in that years later I added a drum pulse to beef it up a little. Sunrise In The Valley was an unrehearsed improvisation on octave mandola, and appears here in its original raw acoustic form, but I also included a version of it on 2018’s Loveletters From Beneath The Waves, heavily remixed and with FX added, under the title Raga: Sunrise In The Valley.

Ramshackle Waltz and Southern Lights are mainly mandolin-driven, more in the vein of traditional folk / Americana, and amply highlight my lack of mandolin skills . Debil Prayin’ D-Railment Blues is a spirited, shambolic ukulele / mandolin jam that only barely holds itself together. A few years later I added a cajon beat, and rubberband bass: a thin piece of skirting board, a nail at each end and a rubberband stretched between, amplified using an oyster pickup (I also used the rubberband bass on Apple Pickin’ Blues) – a poorer man’s washtub bass. In a similarly loose jam, The Languid Breath featured two ukuleles, as I continued to find my way around the instrument and experiment with improvisation. The udu-like percussion was actually played on the European mandolin; I discovered that if I cupped my palm over the mandolin’s sound hole, its deep bowl-shaped body created the bloopy sounds of an udu (an ancient type of ceramic pot drum).

My short stay at the Valley was prolific despite the glacial torpor of my days (depression is a state of time distortion). My guitar playing moved away from quirky neo-gypsy into more pensive folk / classical territory (see Marzipan), or as stripped-back accompaniment to lyric-based songwriting (see Caja De Huesos). My new besottedness with ukulele was emerging at this time, birthing a string of instrumentals and songs (see Burn That Ukulele! Vol 1, & 2). On this version of Song For Sleepy Things, I added a tremolo guitar melody, which I’m still rather fond of.

Eggs & Bacon Bay (2009)

After 18 months at the Valley, I entered a new life chapter, renting a shack in the small coastal community of Eggs & Bacon Bay. I would end up spending almost a decade in this home, the longest I’d ever lived in one place, gradually healing and reconstituting my life, re-engaging with the world. Musically, my main foci were ukulele and drumming (by this stage I was teaching percussion at a local Steiner school, and established two community drumming groups during this time).

Two instruments I picked up around this time were a 3-string strumstick, and an antique 1920s banjo ukulele; both were impulse buys, and I got good mileage out of the strumstick, but the banjo uke turned out to be a clunker. Nevertheless it did offer up a few clunky tunes (later versions of which appear on Burn That Ukulele! Vol 2), and one recording, Apple Pickin’ Blues, appears here with additional cajon, steel bowl & rubberband bass. The strumstick makes a sparkling solo appearance on the wistful Evangeline’s Dream and provides the melody on Dubbo Surf Western.

One instrument that was the impetus for most of these 2009 recordings was a cajon I purchased at the time. As I was doing so much percussion teaching, I was researching interesting percussion instruments from around the world, and cajon was undergoing something of a popularity surge at the time. Cajons are a box drum originating in Peru via African slaves during the 1800s, and they’ve been a feature of Afro-Peruvian and, via Spanish colonisation, flamenco music for a long time. I liked that they could emulate a kind of stripped-back kick drum / snare drumkit sound, and on these more groove-based recordings I used the cajon to set up beats accompanied by djembe, dundun, kpanlogo, and other instruments.

Although I had pretty much abandoned guitar at that point, I did splurge on a cheap obscure brand electric – cherry red, hollow-body jazz-style, with f-holes and a Bigsby whammy bar, how could I resist? Another impulse buy, but one that’s served me well ever since. I hadn’t played an electric guitar since my twenties, and roughly at that, so these 2009 recordings mark my first re-explorations, though with a lot more musical understanding and nuance under my belt. On these recordings, I discovered I could tweak the guitar through a few FX to get a pretty decent bass sound, which along with the cajon, opened up some funk and dub ideas.

Carumba! is mostly drums and bass holding down a pseudo-Latin groove, but features an excited burst of soloing on, of all things, a Russian balalaika. Dubbo Surf Western introduces some drifting vibrato electric guitar in the background while the strumstick takes the lead. On Beat It, I discovered the ring modulator filter, and was immediately taken by how it transformed the guitar into a kind of synthetic metallic grind. Dark Return was my attempt at dubby reggae, bringing the smooth tone of the electric guitar to the fore, and a pitch adjustment on the vocals giving it a touch of voodoo. I gave this track a remix workover on the 2017 album The Ears Have Walls, under the title Return Of Dark Return. The closing track, Meanwhile…, was a kind of 60s groove I’d had knocking around on acoustic guitar since the early 90s, and now that I had access to the right gear (cajon, bass, electric guitar w/wah wah pedal) I felt I could do it some kind of justice.

My original idea for Ramshackle Alchemy‘s cover was along the lines of a Bosch or Bruegel painting, with scenes of medieval madness, but being a little short on medieval Dutch master painting skills, I opted for a simpler illustration. It mirrors my current life process of alchemical transformation, referencing the multilayered symbolism of the Emperor card in Tarot, which is the card associated with my astrological sign of Aries (Sun and Rising). Tarot and astrology are among several maps I’ve been revisiting this year in my current process of deep transformation and self-mastery, the ongoing ramshackle alchemy of my quest to make sense of existence.