Whatever happens in the wake of this week’s Britain-in-Europe referendum, there are going to be plenty of questions asked about democracy, accountability and connection. Personally, I’m expecting most of them to be shouted or sworn rather than asked, so I’m not looking forward to it… especially if I’m going to be one of the people doing the swearing.
Last year, Billy Bottle & The Multiple were asking a few of those questions themselves. Since they’re heirs to the spirit of Daevid Allen rather than that of Jeremy Paxman, they were asking them in their own unorthodox way. This month, as part of an ongoing follow-up roadshow stretching into autumn (and perhaps beyond), they’re beginning to show us what they discovered.
* * * * * * * *
‘The Other Place – A Vox-Popera’
“On the evening of 7th May, 2015, a pint of milk mysteriously appears at the gates of Parliament.
“Set in the week running up to a UK general election, The Other Place tells the true story of two musicians from Devon as they make their way slowly to Westminster. On high streets, market squares and seafront promenades, they perform the same song, forty-nine times over, and at each stop they start conversations with whoever they meet, asking them ‘Who’s got the Power?’
At the end of a long and winding journey, they arrive at Parliament Square on a milk float to make their delivery: a symbolic reminder that the power doesn’t belong to the inhabitants of Westminster, it is given to them by the rest of us.
“This journey through the foundations of British democracy inspired a sequence of songs whose lyrics come from the words of the voters (and non-voters) that Billy and Martine met on their journey. It is a celebration of gentler kinds of power and an invitation to the audience to make their voices heard.
“The Multiple currently features Martine Waltier (voice, violin, guitar, percussion), Roz Harding (alto saxophone, recorder, percussion) and Billy Bottle (voice, keyboards, guitar), all of whom are mainstays of Mike Westbrook’s Uncommon Orchestra; plus flautist/singer/percussionist Vivien Goodwin-Darke (from the psychedelic rock band Magic Bus) and recording artist and producer Lee Fletcher (of Unsung Productions) on synths, soundscapes and percussion. Like the best art rock, they combine folk, jazz, pop and minimalism in an engaging and meaningful way.
Complete with wobbly camera footage and the sounds of the streets, this performance is a real democratic party in action!”
Tour dates so far:
- The Barnfield Theatre, Barnfield Road, Exeter EX1 1SN, Friday 24th June 2016 – information
- Arts House Cafe, 108A Stokes Croft, Bristol, BS1 3RU, Thursday 30th June 2016 – information
- Art House Cafe, 178 Above Bar Street, Southampton SO14 7DW, Saturday 2nd July 2016, 7.30pm – information
- The Acorn Theatre, Parade Street, Penzance, TR18 4BU, Saturday 8th October 2016
- The Brunswick, 1-3 Holland Road, Hove, East Sussex, BN3 1JF, Thursday 13th October 2016 – information
* * * * * * * *
As regards the delivery of the Power… it all began as a stunt, of sorts. In January 2015, a peak-time British TV audience was treated to the sight of Billy and Martine ripping into an acoustic busker-cover of Snap!’s old Eurodance chestnut as they competed in ‘The Voice’. Wrapped in pink quilting, flower-child swirl prints and a sunshine glow, chatty about their south Devon rural idyll (and their taste for naturism), they gave the impression of being only a couple of brow-stars away from the Age of Aquarius. They delighted the judges (and went down a storm with a supposedly-hippy-proof public) but their faces and demeanour didn’t fit the reality TV narrative, and they didn’t get any further in the contest. By popular demand the single was out that summer via Bandcamp and cottage industry: it sold nicely behind the scenes and away from the charts; and that might have been that.
However, painting the Bottle squad as talented, bright-eyed novelty hippies is to get no further than the colourful wrapping; to miss the bright, enquiring intelligence under the apparent sunny simplicity; and to mistake constructive, conscious choices for naivety and innocence. Before they’d even thought of stepping onto ‘The Voice’s stage, Billy and Martine had been longstanding Westbrook Band and Dave Sinclair associates, with urban roots in Darlington and London supplemented by dues paid in neo-progressive rock, indie, music teaching and circuses. Already able to tap and hold serious British musical talent, their 2013 album ‘Unrecorded Beam’ had been a triumph of pastoral ensemble jazz; scooping up the poetry of Thoreau and blowing new leaf-green life through it, zig-zagging through the soundfields like a tripping honeybee. ‘The Voice’ was a diversion – a game they were coaxed into. In turn it triggered another experiment in play, taking something apparently trivial and fluffy but using it to tap into a more serious undercurrent.
The busk pilgrimage that would eventually become ‘The Other Place’ started as an attempt at a “rolling conversational democratic jam session.” With no more than the violin, acoustic guitar, costumes and voices from the ‘Voice’ session, Billy and Martine flipped their brief brush with celebrity into an engagement with recognition and a much more down-to-earth version of meet’n’greet. They rode on the back of their ‘Voice’ platform not in order to achieve celebrity, but to set up a chat: a little conversation at the feet of the Big Society, where the bunions and the broken toes are. What they found and heard – and recorded en route – would eventually weave itself into the sonic fabric of ‘The Other Place’, fleshed out by jazz reeds and woodwind, and aided and abetted by production wizard Lee Fletcher (who’d done so much for the encompassing feel of ‘Unrecorded Beam’ and was co-opted into the Multiple once they’d realised the multimedia nature of the emerging new project).
In lieu of any sonic or visual teasers for the show (the Multiple are keeping their cards close to their chests on that one) here are some clipped’n’mixed reflections from the original voyage, all taken from their blog of the original roadtrip:
“We’re not pretending we’ve got any answers. We’re definitely not pretending that wearing fluorescent tights and playing a song in the street is a way to change things. But it’s a way in, a way to start meeting people, catching little snatches of a tune that this country is humming under its breath, that nobody’s quite remembered the words to yet…
“When you travel slower, the country gets larger. Stopping off at so many places along the way, Exeter is a really long way from Newton Abbot, Bristol is a really long way from Exeter. You realise that each of these places is a world, the world of the people who live here and do their best to make life work in the conditions in which they find themselves. Seeing news clips of the party leaders climbing out of helicopters or stepping off intercity trains, it feels like they are whizzing up and down a different country, a smaller country, a country where most of the places we are visiting don’t matter very much…
“Each time we get off the train at a new place, we find ourselves sniffing the air, sensing for clues as to what it is like to be getting on with your life in a place like this. And the clothes, the music, the harmless foolishness of our little gang seems to open up a line of contact, so that within twenty seconds people are talking to us about their lives….
“People start off curious and cautious. They see us coming a mile off, the technicolour outfits, the huge #dontjustvote stickers on our instrument cases. Sometimes they recognise us off ‘The Voice’. They want to know what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and that means we have to keep asking ourselves those questions, figuring out the answers as we go along. They want to know what we’re selling, what we’re trying to persuade them of, and we tell them really we just want to start conversations, to meet people, to find out what’s going on in this country now, what this election actually means.
“When they start talking to us, they usually start with a flat statement, something definitive. ‘I never vote.’ ‘They’re all the same.’ ‘There’s no point, is there?’ But as they realise we’re actually interested, the way they talk changes, something else comes out. You can hear how much they care. Everyone we meet feels disillusioned, disengaged, disenfranchised. They all feel like they’re not being heard. A lot of them aren’t voting. Yet they also believe that we as people do have power, they just can’t see a route to change that goes through the ballot box…
“In Trowbridge, we started playing and police came running round the corner. There had been a theft of a piece of meat from a shop. A shopkeeper came running towards us, she thought we were just shouting in the street, shouting like a thief. Well, we were shouting in the street. A few minutes later, Bill was listening to the story of a man who had been homeless for twelve years as he talked about his father’s addiction and how he died. At the end, there would have been no point in words. The two of them stood there in the street, holding each other, crying.
“In Brighton and Lewes, the air smells green, and then we cross some unmarked threshold and in the next few towns another reality takes over. Listening to the way people talk, we find ourselves starting to understand why they are drawn to UKIP, not because the facts or the arguments add up, but because in this reality it could sound like they make sense.
“The song is the same in every place, but something changes, grows, deepens. Maybe what we’re doing is charging up the song, like we have to keep charging our phones whenever we get a few minutes near a socket. All of these encounters, conversations, stories are charging up this song we started out with and the song is carrying them.
“All along this journey, we’ve been feeling an aching gap between the cold anger, disillusionment, exhaustion that nearly everyone we talk to has when they talk about the political system and something else, something that doesn’t come so easily into words, but is a kind of faith in people, in people’s ability to muddle through, to somehow go on making life work, finding opportunities for kindness in the middle of all its absurdities.
“Maybe this all has something to do with what we mean by power? A friend of ours, Anthony McCann, talks about the idea of a ‘politics of gentleness’. Watching the news about this election, gentleness and politics don’t really seem like words that belong together. But what he says is that when we think about power, we usually think of it as the ability to manipulate, control or dominate other people. And since those are all pretty nasty ways of treating people, and since most of us don’t actually want to treat people in nasty ways, that way of thinking about power makes it something we wouldn’t want to have, which makes us powerless.
“So what if there were other ways of thinking about power? What if there were other kinds of power that exist, all the time, so much part of our everyday lives that we take them for granted? Anthony talks about power as ‘the ability to vary the experience of oneself or others’. As an example of this gentle power, he talks about what it’s like to be a parent holding a small child… And maybe it’s this kind of power that people feel, that they have some kind of trust in, even if it’s not easy to give it words?…”
We’re going to deliver The Power to Westminster.
“When we started saying that, it was a joke, but as we kept joking about it, the thought deepened on us. We’re still figuring all of this out as we go along, finding out what we’re doing by doing it, but it’s starting to seem like this journey culminates in an ironic ritual: the delivering of The Power to Westminster, to remind the politicians that The Power doesn’t belong to them, not really, not on polling day, or even on any other day.
“The Power is loaned to them by the people, and they can hardly dare to acknowledge how grudgingly that loan is made, how overdue the repayments have become. This is the other deficit, the one that no one is making pledges about, and someday the people may call in the loan.”
* * * * * * * *
Or, to put it another way (as another beloved couple did, in another time and another place):
“Are you serious?”
“About what I do, yes. Not necessarily the way I do it.”