Every man wishes he was a musical genius. Whether it's crushing a guitar solo like Slash, tickling the ivories like John Legend, or tearing it up on the drums à la Travis Barker, we all wish we had that ability in our locker. I gave up guitar lessons around the age of ten, in favour of spending most of my spare time playing video games. Other than the compulsory high school music classes that mainly involved pressing the 'DJ' button on those bulk-bought Yamaha keyboards every school seemed to have, I pretty much stopped playing any music altogether.
Now, fast forward to May 2018, where I find myself in a Pudong music studio, challenged with the task of learning six musical instruments/styles well enough to be recorded and included on six songs on six LPs. If only I'd spent more of my youth catching rhythms rather than catching Pokémon...
The challenge was issued to me by Simon Jackson of Shanghai band Hogchoker. I got the impression Jackson had seen a lot in his lifetime, but I could guarantee he'd never seen someone play the trombone as badly I was about to...
Along with music teacher E.j Swider (owner and instructor at Legato Music Studios) and sound-mixer Dave Simerick
, it was Jackson's job (or should I say burden?) to help me 'master' six musical genres – jazz, punk, ska, dance, traditional Chinese and rap – and incorporate them into the six different versions of their song 'Living in the Future' that would be used on the six albums, scheduled for release later this year. An ambitious project in its own right made even more so by my inclusion.
First up, the ruan, a Chinese lute-like instrument, with four strings and a fretted neck. Luckily for me, I remember enough of the acoustic guitar from my youth to allow me to record a good enough riff. Then things take a sour turn as I’m handed a trombone – to be honest, the less said about this the better.
All we're aiming for is one passable note that could somehow be included in the final mix of the song. Unfortunately, said note is akin to a herd of cows being hit by a train at the exact same time as your dad stands on a piece of Lego, much to the displeasure of the local neighbourhood dogs. I refuse to believe anyone can actually play the trombone.
I have more success with the saxophone. Channelling my inner Lisa Simpson, I produce a string of notes – and I use the term string very generously – acceptable enough to be used in the recording. I'm not quite Bleeding Gums Murphy (yes, the only saxophonists I know are from The Simpsons), but I'll put it down as a success.
For the dance track, I'm entrusted with busting out a rhythm on the melodica – a favourite instrument of Blur's Damon Albarn, no less. A melodica is like a small keyboard that won't make any sound unless you blow into it while simultaneously pressing the keys. It's as if someone decided that the keyboard needed an unnecessary cardiovascular element.
But my best performance (ie the one that was the least shit) comes on the electric guitar for the jazz recording. This is in no small part due to the fact that the guitar I used for the final recording was a Fender Jazzmaster worth over 40,000RMB – a guitar that's wasted in the hands of a novice such as me. Like a lightsabre in the hands of an inexperienced Padawan Jedi; like a dragon heartstring wand in the hands of a Hogwarts first-year; like Brexit negotiations in the hands of Boris Johnson.
My final challenge for the day is to record a hook for the rap version. I can safely say I am better at rapping than I am at trombone. Admittedly coming from more of a grime background (by that I mean I went to a grime show at Arkham earlier this year), my only experience of rapping came back in 2011 – I walked into a room at the wrong time and was forced into a rap battle at a house party in Leeds. Thank god it wasn’t a trombone battle… Still, I manage to chop together some ‘sick lyrics’ to the theme of ‘Living in the Future’, leaving the rap game thoroughly shook and potentially changed forever.
But if there’s anything I’m going to take away from the whole experience, it’s not the fascinating insight into how things work in a recording studio, or how a small collection of notes can grow and evolve into a whole song – it’s that I can’t physically play the flute. Some people can’t whistle. Some people can’t roll their tongue. Some people can’t accept that I live in China now, mum. I, however, can’t play the flute.
Hogchoker will release their six-LP project at Yuyintang on September 22, the majority of the tracks gladly not featuring me.