Hardwoods and truenotes

I’m taking a bit of a holiday from the central command module of BlancoMusic right now and am spending the Easter holidays in the south of France. I don’t know when schools take their holidays where you are, especially that moon-cycle dependent appropriation of pagan fertility ritual that is Easter, which plays such havoc with timetabling (for more on the origins of Easter, have a dig into the archives of this blog for a post called ‘Lent’, where I wrote about the holiday in a bit of depth). Anyway, if you do have children, you’ll understand that when your childrens’ school closes for holidays, you might as well forget about any ideas you had about earning a living. If they’re off, either you or your spouse is off too. Either that or you end up paying out more than you actually earn on those summer schools and sports camps and the like. Cutting things short – we’re in France. Atlantic coast, a little resort called Seignosse. It’s a beautiful spot, all pine trees and sand-dunes and glittery blue ocean. That said, unless you’re a surfer you won’t have heard of it. Apart from a golf course or two, there really are not very many attractions. The architecture is all from somewhere in the 1980s, the restaurants tend toward the moules-frites and maxi-salads, with laminated menus and wipe-clean tablecloths. Of course, it’s France, so you can always get a good cup of coffee and a decent croissant, but the nearest approximation of the classic St. Tropez idea of southern France is Biarritz – some fifteen miles south. So what’s the attraction? Well, I mentioned the ocean, and yesterday I spent some time talking about oceanlike undulations of soundwaves translated onto the grooves of vinyl records, so you’ve probably figured it out by now. Seignosse is the northernmost village in a series of southern French towns (Hossegor, Capbreton and Labenne being the others) which boast just about the best and most consistent waves on the entirity of the European coast. If you’re a surfer, you’ll have spent time here. If you haven’t spent time here, you’re not a surfer. So I come up here as often as I can manage, to catch a couple of waves – an endeavour that no longer obsesses me to the degree it once did, but which still nags away as the months go by unassuaged. Where there are surfers, there are also skateboards. Skateboards, like snowboards, grew from the tendency the ocean has to go saltpan-flat whenever a surfer makes the mistake of purchasing a new board and is itching to take it out for its first ride. It’s about the closest thing to lab conditions for the testing of sod’s law. Buy a new board – ocean goes flat. If only sailors in the age of discovery had known this the endeavours of countless seamen lost to the wild seas of the southern capes would have gotten through the straits so much easier – thereby bringing precious curry paste back to blighty that much more regularly. Skateboards have evolved and mutated for forty or more years now, and come in a range of shapes and sizes. They do tend to take a fair bit of abuse though. Skaters, in the search for a material that can resist the rigours of ‘grind’ (self-explanatory term, regarding the meeting of wooden skate deck and abrasive surface), yet still provide a very dynamic flexibility in order to help a rider boost the board skywards (in skate terms – ‘pop’), are still, after forty or more years of searching for exotic metal alloys and petrochmical-derivative plastics, enamoured with wood-ply glued together with epoxy resins. In the realm of boardsports, and skis too, the ability of a material to offer a consistent rate of flexibility and strength is the difference between success and failure. The shape of a 100€ ski is no different from a 300€ ski, but the way they bend and retain shape-memory is where the money is spent. For skaters, the material that is most prized is maple. Unsurprisingly, given the country’s flag, the best maple comes from Canada. There is some competition from Baltic Birch, a little from carbon-fibre composites, a little from bamboo. But maple is king. I found myself in conversation with Coca (guitarist with Mil i Maria) a week or two ago, echoing some of the conversations I’ve had with skaters here on the Landes coast of France. We were discussing Candian maple – it’s incredible hardness, but also the flexibility from its long fibres that gives it a resonance that can’t be found in the hardwoods of the equatorial regions. We talked about its rate of growth, and how the wood from the northern areas of British Columbia were superior to the dryer, more brittle veneers from the state of Alberta on the leeward side of the Rockies. We talked about Yukon timber and how difficult it was to get hold of it. We talked about the drying process of the wood after it as been felled. We discussed how good wood can be destroyed by an artificially accelerated indoor curing process, but also how the ice crystals of a hard frost can burst the cellular walls that give the fibres their uniquely hard, but bendy dynamic. I told him how maple that was badly cured could transfer the irregularities of the road’s surface into a high-frequency buzz that sends your feet to sleep and makes the fillings in your teeth feel like they are about to drop out of your head. He nodded, agreed. Coca is not a skater, the discussion came up because we were talking about guitars. He has his eye on a new six-string acoustic, made from Canadian maple. Those same resonances that send my feet to sleep on a badly dried skateboard are directly audible on an acoustic guitar. There are acoustic guitars which merely play notes and acoustic guitars which sing. Listen to Joni Mitchell’s guitar on ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ and then listen to the awful metallic Takemine twang on that record Dave Stewart did with Candi Dulfer back in the 80s, and you’ll hear the difference in tone. When all you have are strings pulled over a pair of hardwood bridges anchored into a wooden vibration chamber, you’d better make sure that vibration chamber is the best you can get. Mil i Maria’s album features anchored into a hollow hardwood vibration chamber, you’ better make sure that vibration chamber is the best it can be. Mil i Maria’s studio album features electric guitar, percussion and keyboards, but the live show is more often than not just a pair of acoustic guitars, bass, and voice. Sometimes they don’t even use amplifiers. With a setup like that, there is simply nowhere to hide. You can’t run Rocio’s voice through autotune, you can’t fuzz the guitar sound up with a distortion pedal and a touch of reverb. If the guitar sounds shit, the guitar sounds shit. Live is the ultimate test of a band’s abilities. Simple rule of thumb – the more the cabaret, pyrotechnics and spectacle, the less adept the musicians. Ultimately we are indebted to the Cowell and GaGa and the rest, because even subliminally, it’s being made perfectly clear to the music-aware public that some of the products onthe music market put together the mechanism of fame and success a long time before the act and the music that the act is associated with are even thought of. You can, with a lot of money and a certain degree of luck and aplomb, create a hit record before it’s even been recorded. Get the right publicist, promoter, distributor and publicity platforms sorted out in advance and you can choose the hapless recipient of the public’s adulation more or less at leisure. You don’t even need to make sure the wood in the guitars come from the right side of the Rockies. Have a listen to Mil i Maria over on our website at http://blancomusic.com/nadie-es-nadie BlancoMusic. Our wood is always hard.

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