The Azimuth Coordinator

by
The Azimuth Coordinator
Nickie Shobeiry speaks to Laura Neill, saxaphonist of local prog rock band, The Azimuth Coordinator.

How did you guys form The Azimuth Coordinator?
Well the Azimuth story begins with Den on bass, myself (Laura) on sax, and our original drummer, Matt. Bearfoot – the band we were all in previously – had fizzled out, but we decided to continue jamming together anyway and see where it went. Now, it just so happened that one night in late 2009 there was a knock on the door of our shared house. In walks a long-haired man in a velvet jacket called Ollie, holding a can of special brew, who had come to visit one of the other housemates. Within seconds, Den’s musical radar was on high alert and he asked this man “Are you a guitar player by any chance?” to which the answer was “Why yes I am.” After having a quick chat and realising we were all into the same bands, we decided to have a jam then and there, cramped in Matt’s bedroom – and that is how our musical union formed. As the music developed, so did the line-up, with Matt leaving and Ollie joining us on drums for a few years. This transition changed the nature of our sound and transformed it into the tight prog machine we are today. Recently, Andy has joined us on drums, and his thundering style complements our music brilliantly. He has been gigging with various bands in the area for years and is a really talented guy.

What’s the inspiration behind the name?
The name is a geeky Pink Floyd reference. The Azimuth Coordinator was a panning control device for a quadraphonic sound system built by a man called Bernard Speight. It was used by the band at a few live shows in the late 60s, being operated by Rick Wright. It was the first of its kind. While our own sound is not really like that of Pink Floyd, they are a massive influence on us as musicians, individually and collectively, and it seemed somehow fitting to us as a band. We are a powerful musical machine and so a dramatic mechanical-sounding name is very fitting. The word Azimuth also sounds quite occult, which is something that has been an influence on some of us in the band.

What/Who has influenced your sound the most?
In terms of our sound, the main musical influences would be King Crimson, The Cardiacs, Black Sabbath, Hawkwind, and Rush. These are all bands which have heavily influenced our compositions in terms of structure, dynamics, melody, and harmonies etc. Interestingly, they are all bands who have/use vocals. There are a multitude of other bands and artists from whom we draw inspiration – in fact, this list is probably endless as we are all complete music obsessives. There’s influence from 80s thrash metal bands such as Autopsy and Carcass, the 70s space rock scene including Gong and Here And Now, weird Italian horror soundtrack bands like Goblin, early grunge, and even classical composers such as Mussorgsky. Non-musical inspirations include the occult, lucid dreaming, art, ancient English history, 1970s horror films, medieval music, art, and culture (among others). Oh, and of course, cider.

Could you share some on-stage memories that have stuck with you?
Since Andy has been with us, our favourite on-stage moment would probably be when we played Grave New World at the South Devon Arts Centre. We were all completely in the zone, and when Ollie began the track with his air-raid siren guitar sounds, the stage lights dimmed, leaving a yellow light shining just on him. It was incredibly dramatic for us at least; we felt a sense of reverence, and we all felt some intense connection with each other, our music, and instruments.

In terms of most memorable, our gig at Kozfest last year was one such occasion. It was the first time Andy had ever played live with us, so no pressure there or anything! It was 30 degrees and we were all dripping with sweat before even picking up the instruments. We opened with a jam, and proceeded with our first actual track. Just as we got to a crucial juncture in the piece where everything drops out except guitar, Ollie’s amp decided to spasm and cut out. Silence. A look of panic swept across Ollie’s face, and confusion from the rest of us. We managed to get some sound back out from the crusty old amp. Looking back, this is hilarious, but at the time it was rather horrifying, mainly for Ollie of course. The amp kept glitching on and off for the whole set, which was obviously very distracting, but the fact we didn’t let it undermine our – or the audiences – experience really paid off. At the end of the set, a queue formed round the back of the marquee to buy demos from us, and we have been invited back this year – this time to play the main stage! I think we played that gig with added attitude because we were on edge and annoyed, and the people watching got off on that energy. It was a bit like I imagine tightrope walking – really, you’ve just got to keep your focus at times like that, channel the energy, and use it to play the best gig you can.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received as a musician?
A few years ago, when I hadn’t been playing live music that long, I received a few bits of advice which were spot-on and very helpful. Firstly, if you make a mistake when playing live, just carry on, as a lot of the time, the audience won’t notice unless you draw attention to it. Secondly, if you do make a mistake, then repeat it. This one I have used on many occasions I have to admit, and it is a bloody good tip!

So when performing to an audience, do you ever improvise, or do you stick to your original structure?
In terms of our actual pieces they are, for the most part, rigidly structured, so we stick tightly to these when playing live. Most of our music relies upon very tight stops and starts and us playing riffs all in sync together, so timing is critical. So yes, we do stick to each piece in its original form. There are exceptions, for instance The Tunnel Riff, which has a structure up to a point, but there is an element of jamming involved towards the end of the piece. We do really believe in live jamming and sometimes we incorporate this into a set with a designated jam session

What are your favourite song(s) to play?
All our tracks are enjoyable to play live, but I would say Grave New World is always a favourite of ours. We end our set with this piece and I think because of that, we are all warmed up and able to immerse ourselves deeply in the music – to fully get inside it. It begins with a dramatic guitar solo whereby Ollie imitates the sound of air-raid sirens using delay and various effects, and ends in an intense repetitive riff which increases in speed and intensity before collapsing right at the end and ringing out with lots of filthy feedback. Ockham’s Razor is very satisfying to play as it is quite bonkers. There are several contrasting sections to the piece and sudden rhythm changes. Likewise with Colossus.

Have some of your songs sprung from the heat of a jam?
The majority of our tracks arise at least in part from jamming at rehearsals. One of our favourite pieces, Grave New World, actually came about from a simple riff that Den was playing while checking his bass was in tune. The drummer and guitarist joined in, and this turned into a completely spontaneous jam which the piece as it is today basically came directly from. The Tunnel Riff was the result of a jam, as is part of Scarab. Other pieces begin with one of us, usually Ollie or Den, having an idea and using this foundation to build from. Colossus is one such example, being created from a simple idea that Ollie came up with while at work one day, and Den added parts to in rehearsal.

Overall, our approach to writing has always been a collective experience. We all contribute and bounce ideas around. This is why I think we all enjoy playing so much, because we are all an equal part of the process. It is a wonderful collaboration in which we are all equal, and if something isn’t working properly, then we all feel free to be honest about it. No one instrument is more important than the others – they all are equal components in creating our specific sound, and this is definitely enhanced by the fact that we do not have a singer or conventional ‘frontman’.

You pick interesting song titles – what’s the story behind Tong-ue, Tusk Patrol, and Grave New World?
The naming of tracks is a curious thing, especially when you are working solely with instrumental pieces. Some pieces of music seem to scream out a name, others can go for months without being titled, and are simply referred to by some coded nickname. A few of the track titles we have are descriptions of how we feel about the music, or how it feels to us when playing. Tong-ue arose due to the fact that, within our music, there are many tight stops and starts. During rehearsal one day of this particular track, Ollie (our previous drummer) devised a system of poking his tongue out at certain points as a trigger to indicate where the bass and drums would snap back in. This then led to a conversation about how he had trouble pronouncing the word, which then in turn led to us going “Aha, we have a track name!”.

Tusk Patrol as a name has absolutely no connection with the music. Ollie’s partner works at RAMM, and she randomly mentioned that one day she was stationed in the area with the mammoth, having to make sure kiddie winks didn’t try and hang from the creature’s giant tusks – she used the term ‘tusk patrol’ in describing her duties, to which I burst into hysterics. Then as a joke I suggested to Ollie calling the new track after this most esteemed duty (mainly because we knew it would wind Den up, haha).

Grave New World was Ollie’s suggestion as the piece has a real post-apocalyptic feel to it. Fried Man comes from a short-story in a book owned by him called The Eleventh Pan Book of Horror Stories, the music being inspired by the events in the story.

There’s no use of vocals in your music. In what way do you think this effects your music, and have you ever been tempted to add any?
Ha, have we ever been tempted to add vocals? The answer is yes, and it was a hopeless affair. When we first started playing with Ollie, his brother, Felix, actually joined us as a vocalist, which was pretty cool. At this time we had a few original songs and would combine this with a cover or two, mainly Paranoid and Roadhouse Blues. We had a fairly heavy sound, and it was good fun. Felix left however, and it was around this time that we were joined by Ollie (different Ollie, this time a drummer). This was the big changing point. We started to write together and musically, it was working nicely.

For some reason though, we weren’t sure whether we would be able to sustain this as a purely instrumental project. I think we all wanted to, but there was this tiny nagging voice of convention making us feel that we should at least try and find another singer. We auditioned a few people, but soon realised that it was definitely not going to work. By trialing and thus eliminating the idea of having a vocalist, we managed to free ourselves and leave a completely open pathway. In every sense it was the best decision we could have made. The absence of vocals leaves more space for us to express ourselves through our individual instruments. It provides a really interesting challenge for us to create music which is engaging and interesting without the reliance upon lyrics to hook people in, and gives the individual instruments prominence. We have developed an ‘Azimuth style’ through this process, often using our collective instruments to create harmonies and jarring rhythms. It is incredibly exhilarating to see an audience captivated by our live set based solely upon the compositions and instrumentation.

Could you share a little about the two EPs you have released, and what the recording process was like?
The first EP we recorded and released in 2012. Drums and bass for two of the tracks were written and recorded in the pub we were rehearsing in at the time, the other two in Ollie (guitarist)’s front room. The guitar parts were then added, with the sax done in my front room. The second EP was put out in 2013, and I think pretty much all of it was recorded in Ollie’s lounge again. We recorded both of them on a Boss BR-600 digital eight track, which we chipped in and bought on Ebay. Drums would normally be a logistical nightmare to record in the front room of a house, but the Roland electric kit just plugged straight into the recorder so the neighbours, and more importantly Ollie’s long suffering partner, weren’t driven insane in the process! We EQ’d and mixed the individual instrument tracks on the Boss, bounced everything down onto one track and then mastered it just using Garageband. Fairly simple process, anyone can do it. Now we have acoustic drums, the recording process will be a bit more challenging. We will maybe record the drum parts in a proper studio, take the finished parts away and record the rest of the instruments ourselves at home. As demos, this recording process is satisfactory – the results are pretty good. However, it would be nice in the future to go into a proper studio and get a professionally mastered EP done.

Everyone seems to have downloaded music at least once – do you think digital music will ever completely take over? Do you think music should be freely available to own?
The digital debate is a big one. I don’t believe digital music will ever completely take over. As artists there is a real satisfaction in having a physical product, whether it is a CD or perhaps vinyl. There is a real sense of accomplishment in being able to actually hold your own work, your own music. From an audience point of view, it is great to be able to buy a CD at the end of a gig and take it home with you. Even if musicians only get physical copies of albums and EPs made for the purpose of flogging them at gigs, this will, I think, continue on into the future.

As a band, we have found that it’s good to have a few CDs with you at gigs, because if we’ve played a good set, people will want to take a bit of that home with them. If this is at a festival where there are 40 or more bands playing, it is useful for people to remember what they most enjoyed watching live when back in the real world. That said, I download a lot of music, and find it incredibly convenient. Thanks to the download culture, it is now possible to access a great deal of rare and obscure music that has been out of print for years. Whether music should be freely available for ownership is a really difficult issue for me to decide upon. It would be hugely hypocritical to say no, as I have acquired many albums for free online, and because there are so many ways of being able to download and rip things. What does require consideration though is the time and money it takes to actually record in the first place. If you add up the amount of hours it takes to record, edit, and produce music, it becomes apparent that most bands work really hard at what they do. I would say it is really a matter of your own conscience.

What can we expect next from The Azimuth Coordinator?
Currently, we are writing new pieces which are slowly coming to fruition. They have the Azimuth vibe and sound, but are a lot more emotive and flowing than some of our previous stuff – this is perhaps due to the recent change from electric drums to a full acoustic kit. We’ve got a gig at Exeter Phoenix in March supporting the amazing Troyka, which is a real privilege, and a festival slot booked in July. I guess at some point, it would be great to get some proper recording done with Andy and the acoustic kit. It’d be great to do some gigs outside of Devon also – so let’s see what happens.

A kind soul offers you any rider request in the world – what would you each pick?
Den says if Jimi Hendrix could be resurrected, and join us onstage for a jam, that would be nice – or at least could his spectre be in the crowd nodding his head appreciatively? Also veggie pasties, but the ones made with short-crust pastry, not flakey. On a slightly more plausible level, my needs are fairly simple – a bottle of Southern Comfort, a bucket of ice cubes (topped up at regular intervals) and some Pepsi, accompanied by a nice whiskey glass, plus a Beaver sweet-dispenser filled with skittles and a large bowl of 20ps. Andy would like a masseuse, a copy of Songs For The Deaf by Queens Of The Stone Age played on vinyl, and some nice Czech lager. And I imagine Ollie would probably want several bottles of some nice vintage red, preferably Chateau Lafite.