Lesson 17- It’s Never Too Late To Make A First Impression
at the Secret Garden Party
I must admit, my plan worked. I got to England and people really were blown away when they saw my show. In part, this was due to the fact that no one had watched me develop the show over the years. To them, I came out of nowhere. I think a lot of people thought I was a bit of a savant, like Forrest Gump picking up a ping pong racket and that I just knew how to do it.
I’d either sold or given away most of my belongings, barring my musical gear, which I’d cleverly cushioned with exactly two weeks worth of clothes; a trick I had learned from my buddy and fellow one-man band, Bob Log III.
It was the day after the Junos (the Canadian Grammys) in which I watched several of my friends nominated and a few, like my dear friend, Sarah Harmer, win. She thanked our mutual friend, Amanda Mae in her speech. I thought that was awesome.
I’d loaded up an iPod with the music I couldn’t live without since I wouldn’t bring my vinyl collection for quite a time. Of all the songs I listened to that day; “Birds” by Neil Young is the one I remember listening to over and over (I tend to listen to single songs in succession for days at a time).
Europe was a place that was literally foreign to me. I’d never left North America and only flown, maybe half a dozen times in my life. When my plane touched down in London, I really didn’t know what to expect. Family friend, Graham Scott, Senior had told me to be careful about cabs ripping me off so I thought it would be best for me to hire one of the strictly regulated, black cabs.
When I told the cabbie I was going to Willesden Green, we drove through the London Roads (London, geographically is quite big) but he kept, ‘getting lost’ and even pulled over several times because he, ‘ran out of petrol’ and would go to the trunk to, ‘refill’. All the time, the meter was running. Since he could have dropped me anywhere, I thought it best to keep my mouth shut until we got to my destination. When we did, the tab was £230 (about $400, Canadian, back then). It was in a pretty residential place and I felt safe. So I got my gear out and put it at the door entrance. “Look, I know you think you found an easy target but, I’ve got your license plate registration, your cab license number and I will be reporting you, tomorrow.”
The cabbie’s smile turned sour and he said, “Oh. Well, no need to do that. Why don’t you just give me sixty quid and we’ll call it a night. At least you'll remember your first cab ride.”
I guess he didn’t realise that the naive Canuck he’d picked up had lived in Downtown Hamilton. I’d learned a thing or two.
Just as the cab left, up walked my hosts, Ian Williamson and his girlfriend (now wife), Naz. Ian was from Montreal and I was given his number by Finger Eleven’s manager, Rob Lanni. I was told Ian was a good guy for a Canadian to know, in London. Like the good Canadian boy he is, without even knowing me, he offered up his couch for a few days until I got on my feet. There was a slight problem which was he had not told Naz and she wasn’t happy to see me. I couldn’t blame her.
The following morning, I had my first full English breakfast, got a cell phone and with Ian’s help, secured a few room viewings. Naz invited us to a gig that night. Ian couldn’t make it but she was gracious enough to have me as her plus one.
I headed down to The Water Rats in Kings Cross, taking the tube for the first time. Naz met me at the door and apologised that she may not be able to chat with me as much as she’d like as she was there for work as a music publicist. I bought a beer and started chatting to the guy next to me at the bar, who also knew Naz. “So C.A., how long have you been in London?”
“I arrived last night” I said.
He found this hilarious as he wasn’t expecting me to be so fresh off the boat. “What brought you to London?”
I explained, “well, I’m a singer songwriter but I present my self as a one-man band. I play bass, drums, guitar and sing all at the same time. Just think: The White Stripes, minus an instrument but with a bass player.” I had been rehearsing this introduction. “How about you, Freddie? What do you do?”
“I run a festival called, ‘The Secret Garden Party’ and it sounds like you’d be perfect for it! When are you next playing?”
“I’ve got my first London gig, here, in two weeks. Shall I put on the list?”
And that’s how I got my first festival gig. Plain, dumb luck and being at the right place and the right time.
That night I had a lovely chat with Naz on the way home. She was floored at the luck of me securing a gig so quickly. She also very kindly offered to let me stay at theirs as long as I needed. I stayed a month. Gosh, the kindness of people, eh?
I played a few gigs before The Secret Garden Party but that was the big one. I had never been to an English festival and SGP was (and is, I’ve heard) exceptionally good. It had all of these lovely little details like disco balls in the trees and a lot of people were in fancy dress (that's British for costumes). I've never encountered such good people watching.
I also got to see a lot of amazing music in but the acts that stood were (now one of my best friends) Luke Smith's crazy, crazy good band, Clor and a band that I had actually seen at a gig with Naz, the month before, Noisettes. In 2005, there was no better live band in London than Noisettes.
In between seeing great bands, mud wrestling and races of all sorts, I was handing out flyers, promoting my gig on the Sunday afternoon. My line to get someone to take a flyer was, “Propaganda?”
Usually people would say yes and have a look at the flyer or if they seemed keen, I’d explain my gig, the same way I did when I met Freddy. On Sunday morning I was lining up for some breakfast and the guy in front of me was wearing a proper army helmet. I tapped him on the shoulder, and offered him my propaganda and we had a little chat. He told me he'd see me at my gig. When I got my breakfast I saw Ian and went to sit down. “Do you know who that guy with the helmet is?”
“I know his name is Dean.” It turns out that it was Dean Chalkley; NME’s top photographer and a man who would change my life forever. More on him in a later chapter.
By Sunday afternoon I had a healthy crowd waiting for me to play that included Dean, future collaborator on my next record, Sam Swift Glassman and Shanghai and Dan from Noisettes. I was feeling the pressure to perform well.
The set times were really behind and I was hoping that I wouldn’t lose the crowd I’d lobbied to get out that weekend. At one point, whilst chatting with someone I was offered a joint and thought, “Why not?”
During the pass-around the producer for the stage told me, “You’re on. Get up there, quick!”
And that’s what I did. I set up my gear like I’d done so many times and started my set. Pretty much from the first note, it went awfully. I was so high and I couldn't catch my groove. This put me in a panic. It was so bad. And the more I panicked, the worse my show got. After two songs I switched from keyboard to guitar and turned on the amp. I play a couple of riffs, then switched the distortion on. With that, I knew I had locked in.
From then on the show went off without a hitch and the crowd went insane. To this day, it’s still probably one of the best gigs I’ve ever done. I even did a lap around the room at the end, shaking hands and waving my clarinet like a baseball bat.
On the drive home with Ian I wold him that I really needed that; a gig that went really, really well. I was ecstatic. It was a gig that would kick start what would be the most successful part of my career.