All Things Bob - Interviews - Soundblab

All Things Bob

by Rich Morris Rating: Release Date:

All Things Bob is, as the name very much suggests, the solo project of Bob Sharman, an East Londoner now residing in the wilds of Essex. Writing, playing, singing and recording everything himself, his music ranges from classic British guitar-pop to bedroom-electro oddness and grungy guitar rage, mixing it all into an astonishingly accomplished and melodic pure pop whole. He may currently be unsigned but Bob, a veteran of punk-pop bands, including a support slot for Graham Coxon for his band Betamax, is already getting some attention. You should really check out his stuff to find out why. Chances are you'll be hooked. Soundblab caught up with him to ask just how the hell he does it all himself?

What are your influences? I hear sounds ranging from classic guitar-pop a la Britpop to chiptune, surf-pop, heavy rock, chamber pop, 50s rock 'n' roll.

"Charles Darwin, Bill Hicks, and vodka" - That is the stock answer I tend to give for this question and whilst I'm being wilfully flippant, there is probably more truth in that answer than I would care to admit.
I guess a more traditional answer would be along the lines of Graham Coxon, Pixes, Mike Barson, Soulwax, Nirvana, and I could probably throw in another half-dozen names or so who have all inspired me in some way, but I try not to hold too much stock in any one particular genre or artist and instead just listen to whatever works for me personally in a particular moment.

Occasionally, I'll find an album or a track which absolutely captivates me and it'll have my undivided attention for a few weeks. The last time that happened was with Everything Everything's second album, Arc. They have a wonderful knack of combining ostensibly mismatched ideas and finding musicality in unconventional lyrics and sounds - traits which I have always aspired to, particularly with my solo work.

However, I'm equally likely to go weeks or even months without listening to any music what-so-ever. Sometimes I find it helps to make the most of the silence and often the thing that inspires me most is attempting to fill the void.

How do you approach mixing different sounds together? How pre-meditated is it?

I very rarely have any kind of plan - I might have a particular hook or phrase, but I try to let the ideas grow organically. The fact is that I spent a decade in a three-piece punk/pop band, and up until a year ago almost every song I'd ever written had been designed to be performed live by a guitar-bass-drum line-up with a couple of vocals. For a while I struggled to get out of that mentality, but in the last few tracks I've really tried to just let go of any preconceptions, and just focus on making the recording sound good. Playing 11 instruments and singing four vocals live on my own could be a tricky proposition, but I'll worry about that when the time comes!

The only predetermined rule I work to is that I try to make the track interesting enough to stand alone as an instrumental track. Even though I've always been a lyricist and sung lead vocals in whatever bands I've been in, I've never considered myself to be a singer - not a 'proper' one, anyway - so I try not to make any of my songs dependant on my voice.

You describe yourself as a "Geek (and) miserable so-and-so". What puts a smile on your face?

Very little! Whilst most of the world is trying to decide whether the glass is half-full or half-empty, I'm busy scrutinising the contents because I strongly suspect someone has spat in it.

I'm not entirely joyless - if I can complete a track without my vocals ruining it, then I might manage a vague grin, and if Spurs ever manage to finish above that other lot down the road, I might even muster an actual smile!

The things that tend to make me genuinely happy are seeing my little artistic creations take off. About a year ago, my band got an incredible opportunity to play the opening night of Graham Coxons A+E tour at the O2 Academy in Oxford. He'd heard one of our tracks via a video I'd made and uploaded to YouTube - a video and song which, for me personally, represents one of the absolute high-points of our time as a band.

Not only do I love the track, and am still very proud of the video that went with it, but it led to us playing the biggest gig of our lives and I got to hang out and chat with Graham and his band. As (he's) one of my biggest musical idols, it really was an incredible moment and just thinking about it makes me grin like the village idiot.

You write melodic songs with an undertow of darkness to them. What inspires you lyrically?

As with the music itself, I tend not to approach my lyrics with any pre-conceptions or meanings. I try to find words that sound right phonetically and sit comfortably around the rhythm and melody of the track - and then let them grow from there, allowing my subconscious self to dictate the direction and mood. It can be quite a dangerous way of writing because I think I often reveal more about myself or my feelings about others than I would consciously, but for me that is the precise point of expressing yourself artistically. Nothing bores me more than hearing contrived and obvious lyrics, and that is probably the thing that turns me off most pop music; I really do not need to hear the words 'baby' and 'crazy' used in a rhyming couplet ever again, thank you.

The darkness of the lyrics is probably just a reflection of my perception of the world; I am a miserable so-and-so, but it isn't my intention to spread misery any further than necessary. I just want to acknowledge that it's there, and then try to move on and I write songs to be enjoyed, maybe even danced to on occasion. In other words, I try not to be a complete party pooper - there will be plenty of time for tears and regret when we're hanging over the toilet bowl in the morning.

Do you play absolutely everything on your songs? How and why did you start working that way? Is it a pain in the arse or a liberation to do so much yourself?

I do - it really is All Things Bob. At times it can be difficult working alone, particularly if you hit a bit of a creative roadblock whilst working on a track. I was lucky enough in my band to have a very talented songwriter by my side, and one of the most creative drummers I've ever known, so we always had the opportunity to kick ideas around between us. Working alone means the onus is entirely on me, and I feel like I've reached a certain standard now which I need to maintain or exceed whenever I can. At the same time, having complete creative control is an incredibly liberating feeling for me and the sense of satisfaction when I feel like I've got it right with a track is hugely magnified.

I actually started working this way about a year ago, more or less out of desperation. I'd been suffering a severe case of writers block for two or three years and had written almost nothing in that period. At the time I didn't really know or understand the problem; perhaps the stresses of my day-job, or maybe the fact that the band was seemingly starting to fade away - the Coxon thing really came out of the blue, and at a time when we were probably on the verge of calling it quits.

After that gig, I found myself wondering if it was going to be the first step to something bigger, or maybe one last glorious step on a very long and otherwise difficult road. I'm still not sure to this day whether we'll perform together again or not, but the more time has passed, the more it feels like our journey might be over. I wouldn't say a comeback is entirely out of the question, but we had more than our fair share of bad luck in our time together and I guess it's a matter of whether we will ever be ready to take that massive step back down from our moment in the limelight at the O2 in Oxford.

In the meantime, though, I decided to try and tackle my creative drought by attempting some form of home-recording. At the time, all I really had to hand, other than my bass-playing gear, was an acoustic guitar and an iPhone, and I'd found a free app which let me record up to four tracks. I sat and recorded a track called 'Unfortunate, but True' which, when I listen back to it, almost feels like a letter from my right brain to my left brain apologising for its absence! The recording quality was awful, as you'd expect, but it did serve to break the ice and I've been growing my home studio ever since.

How do you typically go about recording a track?

It's a logistical nightmare, to be honest! I live in a very small house with my family and my cat, and don't have any room for designated studio space. I also am very limited for time as I try to fit my music career around something that actually pays the bills. The upshot of all this is that with extremely limited time and space, I have to try and build ideas and songs whenever and wherever I can.

I often start on my iPad with a pair of headphones on, just tinkering with different sounds or riff ideas, building them slowly into something until I can hear some form of potential. It's then a matter of seizing the first opportunity I can when the house is empty to quickly clear out my living room, set up my gear, and record as much live instrumentation as I can - and then try to get it all packed away again before everyone comes home! I've become quite efficient at it all now, but it is rather exhausting and pretty much the last thing I want when trying to maintain a creative state of mind. But it is what it is, and as it stands I don't really have any alternative. Hopefully in the not-too-distant future, I will be able to make a permanent studio space for myself, and once the stress of building/dismantling a makeshift studio every time I want to add a backing vocal is gone it will leave me with more time and energy to work on the actual music!

If you split up with yourself as a single musical entity, which new musical directions would you take?

I honestly don't know at this stage. Listening to the last few tracks I've released, and the tracks I'm currently working on, I really am enjoying the diversity and freedom of just doing as I please. Each song that comes along seems to be moving me further and further away from the three-piece guitar band that has been pretty much a constant throughout my entire musical career.

The last track, 'Home', for example, was actually quite a leap for me - not only did I use an overtly 'fake' drum sound for the first time, but it's the first song I've ever been involved in recording which didn't feature a real bass guitar, or even an electronic approximation of one. I've been a bass player all my life, and I've spent years listening back to recordings of the different bands I've been in and judging them by my own bass-playing ability, so to abandon my 'weapon of choice' after all these years really felt like a big deal. That is what I love most, though, about what I'm doing with this solo project - I've never before felt quite so free in the creative sense as I do right now.

What were your first musical loves?

It started for me, really, with Madness. I have a big brother who had all their albums on vinyl which he made copies of for me, and I listened to their stuff pretty much on loop for years. There were other bands and artists that came along throughout my youth, some more embarrassing than others, but I think they all in some way shaped me. I went through a huge Prince phase, and listened to everything and anything of his that I could lay my hands on.

I guess the biggest influence in turning me away from outright pop music was Nirvana. Up until then I'd always been a keyboardist, but it was seeing Nirvana that made me start learning guitar, drums, and, of course, bass. I listened to a lot of guitar music from that era, bands like Pixies, Sonic Youth, Therapy?, and I was a big fan of Blur and Super Furry Animals too, and I think that probably did a lot to shape the sound of the bands I've been in. It's really only as I've moved on and started working alone that the other broader influences from my music collection have started to come to the fore, and I've always loved artists that aren't afraid to kick down the walls of where the industry has tried to pigeon-hole them.

How do you approach playing live?

Right now… I don't! It's not something I've really considered since working solo, but as time goes on, and each track seems a little more successful than the last, it has crossed my mind that at some stage I may need to find a way of performing some of these tracks live. I used to write virtually all my songs on a guitar and then build them up from there, which meant most of them would work acoustically, but I'm not sure that with my new approach to songwriting that the songs will translate in the same way. I may have to consider performing with some kind of backing track; its either that or I'm going to have to go out and recruit a little army of Bobs!

What's next for All Things Bob?

For now I am content to continue building my portfolio of tracks, trying to hone my recording and production techniques, and expand my musical horizons, and I'd like to think that at some stage that I could put together some kind of formal release - either an album, or perhaps an EP or two. At the moment, I don't feel that my tracks have quite have enough cohesion or consistency to belong on a consolidated release, so I will continue to work on a song-by-song basis until they start to form some kind of shape.

The first step, however, is to create a more permanent space for this all to happen, and then perhaps look to shift the parameters of my work/life balance so that I can have more time to focus on my music.

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