How the hell do you photograph a 14 member strong band?
I was churning this daunting logistical photographic headache whilst on the train north to met Ben Cottrell early on a bone chilling winter's morning in Stockport. Ben and I were meeting to recce, we were on a mission to find a number of locations to stage fresh images for his collective, Beats & Pieces Big Band.
A few months earlier Ben said that the band were writing fresh material for the follow up to their critically acclaimed 2012 debut album Big Ideas. Over a few late beers we agreed to collaborate and conjure up a new visual narrative to coincide with the new album's release > artwork, posters, social media excerpts, webpages and flyers. Two hurdles we readily agreed on, 1) break free of formal, overly lit big band conservatiore style shots and 2) absolutely no instruments on show. We got to work with the recce.
Location, location, location. Ben had drawn up a list of locations that were personal to the band, including first gig venue, favourite pub and a number of back drops in and around Manchester and the wider Greater Manchester area. All locations were fine, in fact some rather appropriate but something was 'missing', so we continued our search. Towards the end of a long day, Ben suggested that we return to Stockport and drive out to the studio space Beats & Pieces use on the rare occasions that all members' work schedules synchronise to practise and jam together. Jammed right up against the crash barriers next to junction 1 of the M60 is an old disused factory / warehouse, which now houses The Greenhouse Rehearsal Studios.
One of the struggles of creating noteworthy music, is the constant issue of funding (or lack of). For sure, musicians' ability to generate funding streams within a Web 2.0 ecosystem is proving a little more democratic but even with additional independent record label support, many bands and artists sitting outside the sterile Live Nation 360º type contract have to be extra resourceful.
During our day recce together, Ben discussed how tuff 'make or break' funding becomes when you up the members of a group to 14 (that's a lot of hotel rooms, plane tickets and extra luggage / instrument fees to account for before you go ahead and tour) and with deep austerity cuts running throughout the third sector, Ben's dream of keeping a modern day big band up & running is mighty tricky.
Parking up outside the old warehouse with a cold winter's sunset drawing to a close, I immediatley felt that the surrounding derelict wasteland next to the rush hour slog of Manchester's ring road presented a perfect backdrop to the photoshoot. Not only would the barren wasteland offer a statement about the state of arts funding in the UK but it also allowed for compositional elements to make respectful 'nods' to the numerous groups and indie bands that trail blazed Greater Manchester throughout the last 3 decades.
Walking around the old red brick warehouse, with its strong fire exit design, I couldn't help but think of Art Kane's insanely historic photograph 'A Great Day in Harlem'. Mixing up visual hints of the heady old days of big band jazz on the USA's East Coast with the Manchester scene's musical roots seemed ideal for Beats & Pieces. Ben agreed, we synced diaries and waited until late Easter, when all Beats & Pieces members would be in the same country, let alone the same town!
The weather gods were very kind on the long day of the shoot. Timely cloud took the edge off the harsh sunlight and equipped with a tall ladder and 2m + high tripod, I started to direct the Beats & Pieces posse into place. Suffice to say that my voice was horse by the close of day - shouting precise directions above the roar of a motorway and aircraft landing at Manchester City Airport was humorous to say the least! However if you're gonna frame 14 members without crossing each other's long shadows and ensuring that no-one is throwing a cheeky face in the background, then some dutiful shouting is required or the whole experience will lose that 'something'. I love arranging and capturing every detail in camera.
Once we lost the glorious day's low slung light and we'd bagged our set of full group shots, we moved inside the Greenhouse Rehearsal Studio to set-up a series of individual member portraits.
Yep, hard to believe but I discovered a rehearsal space grimier and more stark than the exterior's industrial vibe. The velvet lined walls (literally heavy duty velvet) had every single fluid known to man strewn all over them. The speaker stacks were brutally worn and the ceiling windows leaked sunbursts, wind and rain - talk about a creative environment on message.
Moving those speakers in place and opening the frame wide, I really wanted to continue the raw, austerity theme. I wanted the viewer to nearly 'smell' the room. To further enhance the atmosphere, I placed 2 studio lights as far back as the room would allow with basic zoom reflectors to throw the hardest, most focused light possible, which created a symmetrical butterfly effect with each musician's shadow and amped up the grime factor to 11.
To complete the creative process, super talented graphic designer Alexander Rennie was brought in for album artwork and new web presence. If you get a chance to grab a CD of All In, the artwork is beautifully presented and tactile. And yes, a quadruple gatefold of sleeve notes greet you!
Recorded at the mighty Real World Studios in Wiltshire, 'All In' was released to great early reviews on June 8th 2015. The album is indeed fantastic and respectfully drags big band sounds firmly into the playlist obsessed 21st century.
Seek all the purchase links (CD or download in MP3 / FLAC) over at Beats & Pieces website. And if you get a chance to see them live, you're in for a sonic treat.