OK, so that’s four years at DIT very loosely summarised. But it was a busy year in tons of other ways. And it’s mainly captured on twitter, so for the sake of durability, here’s a more narrative recap of all that!
We’re going to talk about
- South by Southwest
- Getting more involved with Mind the Product
- Cultural adventures
- Music gear
- And everything else…
In February I finally got to go to Austin for this epic festival/conference/thing. I remember this being something that friends at the BBC and elsewhere were getting to go while I was head-down on mobile projects at MTV, and I’d hear about things like Twitter being launched. Slightly jealously. But in those days I could never persuade anyone to fund me going.
Thankfully, in 2020 the L&D budget of my very own company had a different view and bought me a platinum pass, just in time for it to get cancelled because of COVID. But two years later I finally made it over. I’d thoroughly recommend getting the “everything” pass if you can run to it – the extra money is a drop in the ocean compared to the hotel bills, and it allows you to dive between so many different worlds. Picking up contexts and ideas you wouldn’t have come across otherwise.
The move to a hybrid event had other benefits, because most things were available to watch on-demand later. This meant there wasn’t the pressure to go and see so many of the Rockstar Keynote sessions – you could amble and be curious, particularly if you had that platinum pass, knowing you’d catch up on the big stuff in downtime. And – as I found out – you’re really going to need downtime. It’s quite overwhelming, and I was very glad of my friend Hilary’s advice to just take every fourth day off and potter in the hotel/go shopping/sightseeing.
But I still loved it. The ability to see so many different things was just fabulous. I could flit between seeing Sandra Bullock and Anne Hathway at premieres, talks about the regeneration of San Paolo’s water system or the creation of new digital entrepreneurship in West Arkansas, or bands you’d kill to see in the UK…playing effectively in somebody’s back garden.
Some particular highlights on the music front:
I got to see Self Esteem playing the self-described “worst gig of my entire life – they had click coming out of front-of-house”. But from about six feet away. “Prioritise Pleasure” was already one of my absolute favourite albums by this point, and regularly brought on light lip-trembling, but I was in absolute floods of tears by the end of even this technically troubled set. Just so moving, and I felt so priveleged to see her that close up.
A few nights later I got to see her doing it all again at the “British Music Academy” – a showcase of British bands put on by BBC Introducting/DIT/BPI etc etc that ran over several nights.
Self Esteem’s first night was at a little venue called Augustine that was a very charming bar, if eye-wateringly expensive when it came to drinks, and I amused myself by turning up early and making the amazing discovery of Baby Queen.
Bella Latham (for that’s who Baby Queen actually is) was mainly playing to dense pop backing tracks, so the slightly punky picture above is a bit misleading, but she’s basically a slightly-“slacker” Taylor Swift. Really deft songwriting with huge huge layers of irony. For example, “Narcissist” is actually someone in their 20s pointedly raging about the harm that folks my age have done to their mental health. At that stage her biggest hit was basically a paeon to Jodie Comer called “Love Me”, which I think everyone can get behind.
I was totally sold. She’s going to be really big. And I also knew Daisy would love her. Of which more later.
And then I got to finally see amazing Ableton Live-looping genius Rachel K Collier in the flesh. I became one of her patreons during lockdown, and she has been incredible – sharing her own ableton sets, monthly writing challenges etc etc. So it was fabulous to meet her in real life as there’d been no chance to see her previously. The first time was when she closed the night at Patreon’s very own venue.
You can see her in action in this video: And there’s some familiar-looking curly hair in the preview thumbnail, I can’t help but notice…
Afterwards she was gushed at by Patreon founder/Pomplamoussist Jack Conte. As Rach was slightly in shock I did a bit of filling in the back story and bigging up the patreon experience while she gathered her breath. But pretty soon she was in her element again.
But this is just a tiny part of what I got up to. There were also amazing sessions about:
- The semiotics of nuclear waste labelling – how will you convey “this is scary, don’t go further” to beings 10,000 years in the future, given that this didn’t stop people breaking into the pyramids
- Arthur Brooks talking about reorienting what matters in your life when you get to 50, because continuing to be a striver will just make you disappointed in life. This was a hugely powerful session that I’ll keep coming back to – and his book “From Strength to Strength” is highly recommended (you can read past the faith-based elements quite easily, if – like me – that’s not quite your bag)
- Professor Laurie Santos talking about happiness (of course), but how her thinking has changed post-pandemic
- Catherine Price talking about how to have true fun – great talk, but the book feels a little bit hectoring if you’re a massive introvert like me
- Colossal Bioscience’s attempts to rebuild a mammoth – they showed some really promising results on the gene editing, and also talked about their work on artificial wombs
- What data science can tell you about long-term changes in traffic patterns in Austin post-pandemic (the mixed news is that there are fewer accidents…but if you’re in one then it’s more likely to be fatal)
- How VR is changing the gallery experience, for better or worse
- Mass community science online (with some bloke who used to be in Star Trek)
Plus Neal Stephenson, Jade Bird, Beck, Priya Parker, Brian Eno etc etc. Sadly I didn’t get to have my hair done by Jonathan van Ness, much to my similarly-coiffed boss’s disappointment.
Overall: it was bloody marvellous, exhausting, inspiring and I hope to do it again in 2024 or ’25.
Mind the Product – turning gamekeeper
I’ve long enjoyed this conference and the London ProductTank gatherings. I’ve also massively enjoyed the pub sessions after ProductTank, which handily were in one of my favourite pubs from GDS days – The Enterprise. I’d stay late, chatting to Martin Ericsson, or Randy Silver or Emily Tate about all sorts.
I was utterly delighted when they asked me to get involved in their training programme, and I’ve become one of the regular trainers for their “Communications and Alignment” course. I’ve got to learn a lot more about my own practice from teaching this, and having new problems and perspectives from outside government has been a great way of staying refreshed.
It’s also been a great excuse to tackle the more scholarly side of this – catching up on background reading, finishing (or starting) countless books I’ve bought over the ages, buying the ones I’ve not got round to yet…
I was even more flattered when I was asked to be part of their Leadership training. Firstly because I got to work with amazing Beata Barker as her co-trainer, but also because we got to take twenty product leaders from around the world on a journey together over four weeks. Twice. It’s a curiously emotional experience for all involved, creating a real cohort of fellow travellers through the challenges it brings. It’s incredibly hard work, and takes a lot of preparation, but it’s one of the best things that’s happened to me in the last year.
It was also quite a big cultural year, even if you ignore SXSW. Here are a few things I got up to…
Lonelady – Cambridge Junction.
One of “Electronic Sound” magazine’s artists of the year in 2021, who’s signed to Warp. Very tight, and she gave a great tour of the whole catalogue – sadly I only knew the most recent album ‘Former Things‘ really well. Amazing guitar playing, and in terrifying heels too. Bit odd that she didn’t say anything to the audience at any point though.
Jane Weaver – Storey’s Field Centre, Cambridge
Another ‘Electronic Sound’ favourite. Some really great musicianship, and she sang some great songs beautifully – the tracks from Flock were particularly great. Much taller than I expected. A slightly subdued crowd, which probably isn’t that suprising given that it was a Monday and at a venue slightly in the middle of nowhere. I’m also not 100% sure she was feeling it in turn, as a result. But I’m really glad I saw her, and would do so again – preferably later in the week and not in such an austere venue.
Cyrano de Bergerac – Harold Pinter Theatre
OMG, this was amazing. James McAvoy repeating a his National Theatre show for a short run – I was so lucky to get tickets for me, Daisy and Vicky. A truly incredible performance, and a wonderful supporting cast too. Really inspired Daisy too. Highly recommend watching online.
Baby Queen – Camden Electric Ballroom
Another chance to see Bella do her thing, but this time with a full band and to the audience size she deserves. It was odd to revisit this venue that I’d probably last gone to over 25 years before. The floor is no longer black and sticky, which is a welcome change. But I was also taking Daisy, and it was really odd to see that sort of gig through her eyes – and remember what it was like back in those days myself.
Daisy got to meet her afterwards, complete with SXSW backstory of how her dad had returned raving about her.
2021 may have been Self Esteem’s year, but this gig fully confirmed that this was my song of 2022 – although I may have overplayed it just a tad by now:
I really don’t know quite how to describe this other than to say it was an amazing experience. It’s not exactly a gig – although there’s a live band. It’s not exactly a film – although there’s a huge screen projecting tons of video. It’s more like being in a two-hour magic trick. The way they blur the boundaries between the projections and the room are just incredible – so many different small bit of misdirection contributing to the whole. And I suspect it’s a show that has the ability to get better – that because so much is software they can carry on tweaking the initial “MVP” now they know it’s a hit and have the rolling revenues to pay for it.
It was also a huge treat to see synth whizz Victoria Hesketh (aka Little Boots) playing keyboards and doing vocals in the truly amazing live band.
I went with Vicky and Daisy, plus old friend and Abba fan Steve. As you can see from the photos, we really bloody made the effort didn’t we? (Disclaimer it was really boiling hot that day)
No photos from during the show inside, but look at all these happy faces! Suffice to say that I’m definitely planning on going again.
Genesis – the O2
This was an evening with an incredibly unexpected twist. I’d originally bought the eye-watering ticket well over a year ago from a reseller, having realised that absolutely nobody wanted to go with me and I’d missed the chance to get them directly while I waited. Then the shows got rescheduled because some of the band/crew caught Covid, and so these were then tacked onto the end of the tour.
Which meant – as it turned out – that I got to see Genesis playing live together for the very last time ever.
The visuals were incredible, the music was brilliant (if you like that sort of thing), and there were moments when the vocals were great too. There were places where Phil was a bit all over the place as well, but the good definitely outshone the bad. And what a night to have been there.
Divine Comedy – Retrospective at the Barbican
Another covid-delayed treat – the Divine Comedy celebrating thirty years of making music by playing all of their albums in chronological order. Vicky and I initially got tickets for the first night – where he was playing “Liberation” and “Promenade”.
The above is the only photo I took of the first night. Those albums mean so much to us both, we just wanted to be in the moment. I wept several times, and “Lucy” was just as beautiful as ever. Lots of lovely encores from more recent records too.
We were also lucky enough to benefit from our friend Des’s planning ahead on the second night – he’d bought tickets for his wife and daughter to go ‘just in case’. Only they weren’t that fussed, so Vicky and I got to go along again to see “Casanova” and “Short Album about Love”. Which were just brilliant, but the shows had a very different vibe that night – these two albums were much more popular and the audience felt broader in comparison. More chatting and ‘general gig going’ people compared to the hardcore crowd on night one.
I went to see Alex Jennings be brilliant in The Southbury Child at the Bridge Theatre; I got to see a performance of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto with Abba-friend Steve in the orchestra playing percussion; I also got to see some silly modern-prog-rock in the form of Frost* supported by old friends Quantum Pig.
I also went to loads of lovely talks organised by the Wanstead Fringe or at local venue The Wanstead Tap. I got to see so many lovely speakers, ranging from Marina Hyde, Rory Cellan-Jones, Ian Dunt, and Adrian Chiles all the way through to local psychogeographer John Rogers and Wanstead House historian Hannah Armstrong. And we managed to squeeze in two whole sessions of Robin Ince’s “Nine Lessons…” at Kings Place, seeing a huge range of comedy, science and music – including lovely friend Ben Moor.
Looking after myself
I started running a lot more, and managed to lose nearly a stone by eating a bit less. I started going to the osteopath more regularly to sort out my stupid posture. I found an amazing podiatrist who gave me exercises that have helped fix my flat feet and help me regain arches.
Of course I then got cocky, and picked up a stupid tendon injury in September from pushing myself too hard. This was still causing me trouble into December, so I’ve only just started running again now. Thankfully the weight didn’t pile back on, and the times I’m doing now I’m running again aren’t as bad as I feared.
I also realised my world had got a bit small and over-focused on too few things due to work, so I started piano lessons again, to try and get me a bit more out of my head and into other areas of progress – that has been going brilliantly.
I also improved my diet and can bore people about gut bacteria. But let’s not go into that here.
The Ever-expanding Modular Habit
This wasn’t as big a year of acquisition as I first thought (feared?) it was – it turns out there was an absolute ton of eBay purchases at the very tail end of 2021, but the blatant shame clearly hung around for much longer. However I did buy considerably more rackspace so I could keep everything out in the rig at once, so the whole setup certainly feels bigger.
Of course I still need to take the time to get to properly know much of the gear bought in 21′, but there were a few nice 2022 purchases that I’m looking forward to getting stuck into. Anyway, I still maintain that this has been my small part in stimulating the economy – or at least the small part of it based in Stokes Croft, down in Bristol.
- Expert Sleepers Lorelei – this is a rather curious little oscillator module that makes sounds unlike anything else, particularly when you’re using the ‘x-mod’ option that kind of “masks” the oscillator based on an external signal. You end up with almost ‘sync’ sounds – but something still quite different. It sounds particularly good when put through…
- Mannequins ‘Three Sisters’ – a linked set of three (very good) filters that you can use to create vocal sounds in forman mode, or do all sorts of fascinating sweeps. Everything sounds good through this, and it comes alive in all sorts of interesting ways when you start mutating it through other things
- Mutable Instruments Marbles – a random trigger/voltage souce that I’ve ended up putting into almost everything. Like a turbocharged Turing Machine, it just brings all sorts of stuff to life
- ADDAC Intuitive Quantiser – a lovely little box that takes four signals and maps them to any musical scale you set on the front panel. I’m slowly getting more into using this in performance mode – actually changing keys, to create more shape on generative aspects of the music
- VPME.DE quad voice drum expander – makes my go-to drums module even more flexible and useful. I suspect. The manual’s…opaque. A January project, for sure.
- Mordax Data – an amazing oscilloscope thing so you can see what’s going on in your rack. This is going to be so useful for understanding everything else. We are going to have a lot of fun together!
And the rest of it…
- Daisy’s gone off to UEA, and Milo’s started in sixth form – so the rhythm of the house is very different.
- We are now a two-car house, so Daisy’s got something to practice in when she’s home. I feel a bit odd about this wanton luxury.
- We had a truly lovely and luxurious holiday in Ilfracombe, where I realised that a load of things in life had got quite badly out of balance and I needed to deal with some quite enormous emotional and work burnout – I’ve mentioned this above already.
- Aside from things like taking up the piano again, a bit more meditation, and spending a lot more time ‘being in the moment’ with my family, this precipitated lots of little random changes, like deciding I’d had enough of my two standard smells: Paul Smith for Men (weekend) and Tom Ford Black Orchid (weekday). They served me well for over a decade, but it’s time for something different. I’ve now got a terrifying and shameful Penhaligons habit, thanks to Mark O’Neill.
- (Oh, and I’m doing a lot better now. But this January is definitely going to help even more.)
- And, hugely sadly, we lost Vicky’s mum after a long illness. We’ll remember her as she used to be – she was just ace.
So it’s been quite a year. I’m hoping for some similar highs in 2023, but could do without quite so many of the lows.