As the audience hush in anticipation I realise that I am witnessing something very special. Something historic. I am at a very intimate gig by the legendary 90’s band Broken Biscuits who are, for the first time, playing every single track from their seminal concept album Sup it. The organ kicks in announcing the album’s slow-groove opening number “I’m bubbly (steamy)” before seamlessly seguewaying into the club chill-out classic “Oh crumbs!” complete with distinctive drum loops and eclectic spoken word samples. Over the next 20 minutes we are treated to the west-end-esque “Sunday morning”, the haunting “I’m alone”, the playful hit single “Jaffa Cakes” and everything in between. I’m overjoyed but also a little sad when the electro-pop “Puzzle of a human” comes to a close, announcing the end of the album and of this remarkable gig. I’m also feeling rather sad as this was both the first and the last time that I will ever hear this music. This is The Concept.
The Concept, otherwise known as the improvised concept album, is the brainchild of Fred Deakin, a professor of digital arts, founder of design studio Fred and Company and one half of the Mercury and Brit nominated band Lemon Jelly. Concept is a remarkable experiment in which Fred assembles a collection of talented improvisers and musicians, gets the name of an imagined band and made-up album title from the audience and then improvises an entire album from start to finish. As a fan of Lemon Jelly I found myself sitting in the audience of The Concept thinking to myself “I’d buy this” at the same time as knowing that I would never ever hear it again.
As Fred and I share an interest in impermanence and creativity I caught up with him to learn more about the project:
Where did the idea of The Concept come from?
“I’m fascinated by the impermanence of improvisation. A few years back I saw the improvised science fiction, time travel show Project 2. It blew my mind. It was then that I had the realisation that these performers did a show that was as good as anything I’ve ever seen in my life and they’ll never do it again and nobody outside of this room will ever see it. Surely that is the ultimate expression of creativity! To have so little attachment to what you do that you can pass through it like a fluid state. I went away thinking it was amazing and that I could get involved in this scene. The great thing about improvisation in the UK is that, as it is not as established as in the US, we have an opportunity to create a differentiated British flavour. And what is great about this country is that we’re great synergisers. So, The Concept is a blend of what I was good at already combined with what I’m wanting to be good at. But it’s not just a means of skilling myself up: it’s also a way of getting people to go and see improv who have never seen it before.”
So, how is the creative process different when you are making something up on the spot that nobody will ever hear again compared to say that of “Lost Horizons”, an album that sold over 100,000 copies
“I feel liberated by improv. Lost Horizons was a massive labour of love and I’m immensely proud of it. Me and Nick (Franglen) worked many, many late nights on that piece and I do not regret of a second of it. But, at the same time, I’m battling not to do that with my new album. I’ve been working on it for about three years now and the idea of just doing one of those in an evening like we do with The Concept, rather than spending three years doing the damned thing, is an interesting one. I’ve an idea to play them both back to back – the one that took three years and the one we’re making up on the spot and then ask the audience which one was better? And then crying on the way home when I realise that it’s always the improvised one!
One thing that I think improv has done is make me much better with my inner critic. I’m much less scared of it and I’m much more prepared to accept that something good might come out of my mouth right away. If not, what’s the worst that could happen? I think we’re taught to polish and refine and of course, computers are the worst for that as you can undo and redo over and over again. However, life is short. If you can get it 90% right in half the time rather than 100% in double the time it is actually way better. Obsessing for 100% is still a compromise as you are compromising your productivity by being obsessive about the fine details.
Improvising is inherently unpredictable and of course, things happen that you’d never plan to do. We typically look at those glitches and want take them out to make it more professional. But if we are able to let go of this habit we realise that those glitches are beautiful. That’s what makes improvisation so compelling. You get two stories – the story of the show itself and the story of the improvisers making the show. You get those little explosions of magic coming out of it that simply wouldn’t happen otherwise.
I guess you must have moments when performing The Concept when you think to yourself “this is brilliant but knowing nobody will ever hear it again.” How is that for you?
“I now believe that that is the ultimate point of creativity. It is the deal you make with sweet lady improv – I promise not to nab this thing that is improvised. At one point I had the idea that we’d record the album and sell it on the spot only to those in the audience. But even that feels like a bit of a compromise so, I don’t intend to record it. It would spoil it. Besides it wouldn’t sound the same when you get home.
Non-attachment hooks directly it into zen practice. Practicing it is very liberating and terrifying. It is throwing your talent into a void and it goes against everything we’ve been told but it also teaches you about humility, it teaches you about your place in the universe. It seems a lot of art is fuelled by many people’s denial about their impermanence and their desire to create a lasting legacy. But we’re all dust in the wind as Poison said! And from a zen perspective, embracing that in your daily existence is liberating but my god it is so f****** hard.
But this is the unique deal we have with The Concept audience – we’re allowed to screw up a few times because they know they’re getting this incredible unique experience that nobody will ever have. We live in an internet age of supposedly shortening attention spans where it seems that the dominant art form is a GIF or if you’re lucky a 90 sec Youtube clip. I think that things such as The Concept are a reaction against that. There is a hunger for immersion and deeper experiences in the arts and that’s starting to manifest in all sorts of ways.”
So, what’s next for The Concept?
“It is still an evolving beast. We’ve done it six times now and the format, as well as the performance, is different every time. There are bits of it I’m still tweaking and experimenting with. I used to ask the audience what the musical genres were on the album but it felt too much of a call out. It seems to be easier and more fun when we don’t do that. One of the exciting things is that I don’t think we’ve started yet to mine that whole rock and roll seam. The plan for 2018 is to do 5 dates in 5 months and then take stock. I don’t think we’ve quite nailed it yet to be honest, which is great. I think eventually I would like to put it in a venue where it doesn’t get classified as improv as a way of attracting more people to improvisation as an art form.”
The next performances of Concept take place at the Nursery Theatre, london on the following 2018 dates:
16th march, 18th may, 15th June, 20th July
Tickets and information can be found on the Nursery Theatre website.