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Jonathan Curtis

What's your earliest memory of music?

My earliest memory of music is dancing to Elton John’s Crocodile Rock, or Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, with my mum, at around 3 or 4 years old. Following that, sitting in the bath aged about 6, asking for piano lessons, having previously declined all offers up until that point. I also have a deep seated memory of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells; something akin to a very deep nostalgia, so I think I had been exposed to that from a very young age. I remember showing it to all my friends, most of whom were not interested in the slightest.

How long have you lived in Nottingham?

Technically, I have never lived in Nottingham. I was born in Nottingham, and lived in Southwell until I went to university. I did a masters degree (Philosophy) at the University of Nottingham, but commuted, and now I live in Newton, which is just by Radcliffe and Bingham. Aside from a few years living abroad or away at university, I have always lived near Nottingham.

Did you study music?

Yes, and I still do. I began piano lessons aged 6 or 7, before switching to the drums, percussion, and school orchestra at secondary school, aged 11. While I didn’t continue music education all the way through school, I have always studied music outside of school, with private music lessons and self-study. This is something I continue to do today.

Are you a musician? Have you been?

Yes, I consider myself to be a musician. I spend my working week working on my drumming, and writing, playing, and teaching music, so I’m not sure what else I would consider myself.

Photo © Kevin Maltby zoominfo.com/p/Kevin-Maltby/1095124373

What do you remember about the first time you performed [in Nottingham / elsewhere]?

My first ever gig (aside from a few school concerts) was actually in Leeds. At the time I was playing with a thrash metal band, and our bassist was from Leeds. He managed to get us on the bill for a metal night at one of the pubs (The Fenton). I was very nervous physically, but very switched on mentally. This manifested itself as me being very excited and animated, but with my hands shaking. By all standards it was a very poor gig (bad sound, mediocre performance, no professional etiquette etc.), but I still loved every minute of it.

The gig was your standard thrash metal affair, but I remember during a break in play, somebody from the crowd shouted “play some jazz”, and I instantly started playing this jazz swing beat to great cheers. My nervousness expressed itself as extreme confidence, it would seem.

Are there any stand out gigs that you've worked on?

I played a lovely concert, quite recently actually, with the Nottingham Youth Jazz Orchestra and the Beeston Male Voice Choir. As I am no longer a “youth”, I was a stand-in drummer, but we played at the Nottingham Albert Hall to a big, appreciative audience, supporting this wonderful choir.

It’s hard to pinpoint a particular gig from all of the ones I’ve ever done. The more highly produced ones tend to stick out. The aforementioned, and some pit work for musical theatre; I also really enjoyed the gigs I’ve done with my own band, as there’s nothing quite like playing your own music live.

Photo © David Buckley: www.curlylead.co.uk

What was the first (song) you wrote?
What was the most recent (song) you wrote?

I am a drummer primarily, so didn’t begin writing music until rather recently. The first song I properly wrote was called Dream Walk, and it was a jazz piece based of a Chick Corea chord progression (a gold star for anyone that can guess which piece!). Dream Walk went on to become the track Speak Easy from the Carousel album.

Regarding the most recent song, assuming I can’t include current works in progress, it would be Indigo Child, again from the Carousel album. That one was the last one to be written and the last one to be recorded.

Where do you teach drums and who to? What do you remember about the first drum lesson you gave? What have you learnt about drumming, and about teaching, since?

Currently, most of my teaching takes place via Nottingham’s MLC Academy at their West Bridgford site: Fuzz Guitars (soon to be renamed as Abbey Road Music). I also give private drum lessons at students’ houses, and at a local school.

I teach, and have taught the drums to everyone; all ages, genders, abilities; it is one of the perks of the job. You are never too old, too young, or too anything else to learn a musical instrument, and the variety of students reflects this.

My first real drum lesson took place in Australia. I am married to an Australian, so while visiting her parents one year, I began teaching my brother-in-law’s school friend the drums. I remember thoroughly enjoying it, and this confident, authoritative side of me came out that I wasn’t fully aware of. I found I was able to be confident and firm without being callous or condescending, and the student responded well.

Since then, I have learned a lot about the structure of material, how styles and particular aspects of drumming relate to each other; I have found myself on a number of occasions teaching a concept that I wasn’t really aware of myself consciously. I suppose when you’ve done something for so long (at the time of writing, I began drumming around 16 years ago) you learn a lot about the nuances without really realising it. I’ve often taught a concept and thought to myself “hey, that does make sense doesn’t it?”

What musical activity do you spend most of your time doing at the moment?

At the moment, and for the past few years, my time has been spent pretty evenly between practicing, writing Eclectic Band tracks, and teaching. I have been gigging throughout that time, but gigs are notoriously sporadic and inconsistent, whereas I’ve practiced pretty much constantly for a long time.

What are some of the biggest (musical/business) challenges you've faced and how have you worked through them?

I believe the biggest challenge in the music industry today is finding a place for yourself in a thoroughly saturated industry. The internet is, in my opinion, one of, if not the single greatest achievement in human history, and a tool that I have used extensively. However, it has made everybody able to gain exposure, release music, and contribute. This is fantastic, but makes it very hard for an individual to stand out. Everybody has a band, or a new single release, or a YouTube channel, or a soundcloud page, or...

Eventually, I think the cream rises to the top, and the artists and musicians with genuine substance and quality will achieve a level of recognition, but exposure, promotion, just getting people to hear you over the noise is the biggest challenge.

My approach to tackling this is simply to be consistent in the quality of what I produce. I don’t have the business nous to compete with big branding, aggressive marketing and the like, so as long as I keep consistently producing, for example, YouTube drumming videos with quality content, producing (hopefully) good music, and doing a good job with the musicians I play with, I will steadily establish myself, and this is something I am starting to see.

What was the scariest thing you've had to do?

I assume we are talking musically here – When I really think about it, the scariest times are when you get a big opportunity and there is a fear of messing it up. When I’ve been called to dep for bands that are of a certain level, there is definitely a fear of ruining your own reputation and being chased out of town.

I have also given a few drum clinics to rooms full of accomplished drummers, which certainly got the heart racing. I’m generally a very confident person though, so fear would probably not be the right term.

If you weren’t talking musically, generally anything involving heights makes my legs buckle...

What are you best at?

This comes from my philosophy days (at university), but I am very good at systematising things. What I mean is, let’s say I wanted to improve a particular style of drumming, I am good at working all of the material into a sort of systemic approach that will improve the overall style and my ability with it. This transfers well to teaching, as it means I can explain difficult concepts clearly to the student. I feel this is a big strength of mine. I suppose it comes from an ability to holistically analyse a whole approach or concept, rather than thinking individually. If I see a drummer playing a solo in a particular way, I don’t want to learn just the individual licks they were playing, but I want to understand what approach and concept they used to learn to play that way.

How do you decide which people/events/musicians to work with?

Well aside from the obvious issues with how much something pays or somebody costs, and availability, it all comes down to the people. I am sure every working musician will tell you this, it’s always about the person. I like to work with people that are reliable, do what they say they are going to do, and understand how to conduct themselves in a professional manner. I have actively stopped working with people who, for example, skip rehearsals and don’t give you due or proper notice, don’t bother to learn parts, or simply show themselves as not understanding the nature of the relationship.

For example, I met up with a bassist with a view to gigging my material, and hiring him to play bass on future Eclectic Band sessions. We hit it off, and chatted for hours. We booked a rehearsal, for which I sent him all the material etc. He ended up texting and cancelling on the day, because what he considered to be a better offer came along last minute. There was no apology, no respect for me or the arrangements people had made. So, quite simply, I won’t be working with him again.

It is the same for everybody I believe, people want to work with the person. It doesn’t really matter how good you are. It does matter if you’re an @rsehole.

As for events, I’m happy to do most things if the people are right. For somebody I wasn’t very friendly with, it would come down to money and how much the event paid. For a good friend and somebody I enjoyed working with, I’d probably do any event for them so long as I was available. The relationship with the person informs everything else.

In your experience, what are some of the most effective ways of getting people to attend gigs?

This is incredibly difficult, and I wish I knew. Through MLC Academy, we host a lot of drumming events, and have had some worldwide stars come and perform and teach. We are regularly astounded by the poor turnout and general lethargy from what we thought were drumming fans. If I knew a surefire way to get people to gigs and events, I’d bottle it and sell it.

Generally, I think it comes down to a solid involvement with the people. There is always a good turnout at the Saturday night gigs at the Contemporary because it has become synonymous with quality gigs. The people come because they know the show will be good.

One thing I will say is that I don’t think people respond to aggressive promotion. We’ve all seen (and, at times, been guilty of) flooding the forums, groups, and pages with posters, videos and adverts, calling loudly for people to listen to this, check out that, come to this, and mostly people just scroll past it. I know I do, because there’s no engagement.

On a deep level, people don’t care about the music so much as they care about the person. To demonstrate this, let me play you a Bob Dylan song. I can strum the same chords and sing the same lyrics, but it wouldn’t have anywhere near the same effect as if Bob himself had sung it. That’s because people buy into the people. I think if you engage, reciprocate (check out their music, comment on their material, share their video, go to their gigs) people will respond in kind. It’s all about people, people.

Album art: jonathanhornecreative.co.uk from Nottingham

I went to the nusic workshop at the Arts Theatre on Tuesday and someone asked the 3 guests how important high numbers on a musicians social media sites are in effecting whether the (Xfm radio dj / nme writer / D.I.S writer) listen to their demos. Youtube just turned 10. What impact do you think it, and other social media platforms have on peoples willingness to go to live shows instead of just consuming music at home/online?

Social media has had a huge and irreversible impact on the entire music industry, including people’s willingness to leave the house. I put out music lessons on YouTube, but this has actually improved my student intake and interest in my material. I honestly don’t think we can say just how much this has affected the industry, because it’s still happening. I think the best thing people can do is roll with it. Jam Cafe in Hockley have got the right idea by streaming their live shows across the internet. This, I think, gets the best of both worlds, because their venue and the bands playing get more exposure, and in turn I think people see it and think “hey, I’d like to be there next time.”

I don’t know that there’s anything inherently wrong with people consuming music at home and online. If people would rather listen to my album on Spotify than come and see me play, I’m really cool with that. I’m just glad people are listening. I would hope that if enough people listened or saw it, they would feel more compelled to see if for real, but honestly, who knows. Something like this has never happened before in the industry.

It certainly does come back to the above question though. People that don’t go out to gigs won’t go out to gigs, internet or not. Those that go to gigs, continue to go to gigs. In fact, I went to the Samadhi Quintet gig at the Contemporary on Saturday because I found them online. The Facebook page advertised the gig, which lead me to seek out their material online. I liked what I heard, so went to see them live (and I’m very glad I did).

What do you think about the music scene in Nottingham? In terms of people [skills], genres, venues, labels..., do you think there are any gaps, or too much of anything?

Nottingham has some great people in it, and some fantastic musicians. The skill is definitely there; there are some exceptional players of all instruments in Nottingham. I just can’t see a thriving music scene like you can in, say, Leeds. Perhaps it has something to do with Leeds University, or that Nottingham is simply a smaller city. A good friend of mine was once describing my drumming, and said “Jon, you’re a very good drummer, you’re just in a city that doesn’t give a sh!t”. I don’t know how true that is, but it seems to sum up the general feeling sometimes. I have been at gigs, both playing and watching, with some incredible musicians playing to a room of 12 people, thinking “I can’t believe people are missing this”.

I do think the jazz scene is criminally neglected. We have some tremendously talented jazz musicians, and while things like Jazz Steps are doing their best, I would like to see BBC Radio Nottingham, NUSIC and Left Lion and the like, doing a bit more for the jazz as well as the indie.

Jake Bugg was the biggest Nottingham musical export in recent years. Why him? Why then/now? Has Nottingham's musical landscape changed as a result?

I think Nottingham has always had a strong indie presence. I think Jake Bugg captures a nice balance between the Nottingham indie scene and the vintage, Dylan-esque folk that people are fiercely nostalgic about. As I mentioned above, I think the cream rises to the top, and he had the right ingredients. For me personally, it only changed the musical landscape because one of the best drummers from Nottingham (Jack Atherton) left Nottingham to tour the world with him, which was a shame for Nottingham, but great for him. Perhaps for Nottingham on the whole, it put it back on the map as somewhere that can produce world-class talent.

Who have you got your ears (and eyes) on in Nottingham at the moment?

I always keep an eye on what Ben Martin, Andrew ‘Woody’ Wood, Martyn Spencer, and Matt Ratcliffe are doing. They work in various combinations of duos, trios, and quartets, and they play some wonderful stuff. I also keep an eye on saxophonist Gary Reader, singer/songwriter Lauren April (with whom I hope to be working soon), and whatever shows the Contemporary, Jam Cafe, The Lion (Basford), and a few other venues are putting on. I also always keep a look out for people I would like to work with for my own material.

How do you think the music scene in Nottingham compares to the scene in. e.g. Derby?

I think Nottingham has the people, but suffers from being simply a smaller city. I have played in Derby a few times, and I think it can suffer from the same problems; a handful of nice venues but a struggle to get people excited. Leeds has a very good music university which seems to have produced a thriving music scene, Manchester has an eclectic and creative reputation and is a fair big bigger, London is of course London, and I think Nottingham just sort of orbits around that. That said, I think that can sometimes work in its favour as being a sort of cool, alternative place to play or come from.

Do you think there is enough awareness in Nottingham, of venues & gigs in Nottingham?

No, not even nearly enough. At the gig on Saturday, I didn’t see a single one of my friends, all of whom claim to be musicians and music fans. Perhaps some of this comes down to lethargy or not being available, but I’m willing to bet most of them simply didn’t know it was on. It seems like I am forever telling friends and students that there’s this or that gig on, or show, or class, or whatever, and none of them ever go “oh yeah, I know, I was planning to go.”

Do you think there is enough appreciation of the Nottingham music scene outside of Nottingham, for example in London?

Probably not, but then again, why would London need to appreciate any scene outside of London. I think a few of the more northern cities appreciate Nottingham, as there are a few reputable venues that are known for putting on good stuff (most of which I’ve mentioned above), and of course, Rock  City is here. Generally, I don’t think there’s enough appreciation of any music scene anywhere, but that’s just because I’m a musician, I suppose.

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