Rolling up to Islington Town Hall for doors at 6 (6, seriously?) 'That's odd' I thought, scanning over the penned up herd waiting to be let through the doors, this doesn't look like your typical lo-fi electro solo project crowd. I made my way along the crowd to security by the entrance hoping to jump the queue in order to get a clear view of the stage. "Good evening, I was wondering if I could get in a bit early? I'm writing a review and taking pictures of the gig tonight and it's going to be hard to see over all these giants" I motioned to Redwoods standing behind me. "No" (ouch). "The people in the queue have been there since before I even started work this morning at 11am". "I see.....weird question, it's Advance Base that's playing here tonight though, right?" "Right", and with that I threaded my way through the piles of empty bottles littering the path to the very back of the queue.
"Wrong venue mate" was what I got instead of my ticket at the collection counter when I finally got in. Sometimes life feels like a game of Snakes and Ladders, this was one of those times. The floor slithered below me as I walked out of the wrong venue more than a little embarrassed. I leaned against the massive tour bus parked outside the Town Hall with its equally massive trailer attachment. A full compliment of staff hurried about inside of it, weirdly hoovering bits of I dunno what off the floor of it while I looked in through an ajar door. If only I'd paid this much attention to where I was going I wouldn't be in this situation. The scene on the bus peaked my curiosity so before I looked up where I needed to be I investigated who'd be playing here tonight. Words would not do it justice so see below:-
Korpiklaani. In hindsight the lot in the queue made a lot more sense now. I regrouped and opened up G-Maps. Finding the correct venue and its location which was fortunately only a short ride away. Arriving moments later at The Islington it seemed a much more appropriate fit for tonight's show. Billing itself as, 'best known for its open minded entertainment' inside I find a low lit cozy affair with framed pictures on it's warmly lit walls in neat order dotted with scaffolding on the outside just off the high street in Angel. It was nearing 7 as I made my way through the doors to... a completely deserted pub, cue tumble weed. What my ticket neglected to mention were doors to the pub open at 6, first act was on at 8 followed by Advance Base at 9. Great, but what's this? Out of the corner of my eye I catch sight of Owen who's just hanging out by the merchandise table. Making my way over to the empty table I'm greeted with, "the merch table is empty", Owen upon my arrival continues stating, "the merch hasn't arrived yet". He asks someone to update Instagram with set times and files out the pub with a friend. In a totally not creepy or stalkerish way I leg it out after them into the night. A few quick strides and a small hop I tap Owen on the shoulder. 'Hi' I say, he has to look down. For an instant I wonder are giant people not as impressed by the inversely proportioned as I am? FOCUS STEVEN.
Cpt: Soooooooo, doors at 6 huh?
Owen: Yeah, sorry about that, we just updated social media with the set times.
Cpt: No problem, I'm writing a small review of tonight's gig and I was wondering if I could ask a few questions.......since we've got all this free time?
Cpt: Great. Are you a Twin Peaks fan?
Owen: No I'm not a fan, a lot of people ask me that though. It's too, 90210ish for me.
Cpt: Hmm, I wasn't prepared for this response, it's pretty much torpedoed my whole line of questioning.
Cpt: It's cool, I only asked because yesterday was un/officially Twin Peaks Day.
Owen: When we had our first kid my wife would be sleeping and I'd channel surf while rocking the kid to sleep. I mainly caught all of The Wire and the Sopranos, that was more my scene. Excellent music in Twin Peaks though.
Cpt: Agreed, nothing quite like that theme song and opening titles. I heard about how you left your merch at a friend's house back in 2013 it's now 7 years later and your just getting around to pick it up. What's taken you so long to get back to (touring) the UK?
Owen: Having kids. I don't really like being away from the family in case of emergencies. In the States I just drive everywhere so I can always turn the car around. They're older now so I'm stretching my legs a little. I'm back again in July too.
I thank him and we both part ways leaving unsaid the mental pinky swear we've made that we'll reconvene in just over an hour, not for ourselves, but for the fans. Fast forward nearer the set times and The Islington is filling up. Massive curtains separate the pub from stage which when drawn back expose the entrance, I make my way in. The stage and surrounding walls are draped in thick crushed velvet curtains, I'm expecting a tiny man in a red suit to pop out at any moment and start dancing. Strangely there are some chairs set up stage right a few meters from the gear, shortly thereafter Owen (Advance Base) comes to the stage, "those chairs are for people who would like to sit down, feel free to use them" he says from where he stands looming over me. I hesitate for a second and a sprightly older couple occupy the first 2 seats in the blink of an eye followed by another couple both considerably younger and drunker who crash over the PA making their way to the seats. I decide to hold fast.
I'm new to Advance Base with his latest Animal Companionship being my introduction before shuffling through the rest of his back catalogue. Listening I found myself hearing echoes of Lambchop and The Magnetic Fields which are already favourites of mine so I was pretty much primed to dig these tunes too. When doing my due diligence later for the article I learned that The Mag-Fields and L-chop-o are both on Merge Records and that they all started off about the same time as one another. Not only can you hear similarities between all 3 artists but there's even a cover of 'You And Me And The Moon' by The Magnetic Fields on Animal Companionship. Both bands came out in the early '90s, with Casiotone For The Painfully Alone emerging in the latter half of the decade metamorphosing into the Advance Base we know today. It's not hard to imagine these older siblings not playing their part in influencing Owen. Although all 3 bands pull you in with the similar(ish) warm and sweetly underlying melodies of their music with clear approachable spoken-sung vocals you'll notice there are 2 underlying differences that set Owen apart from his forerunners.
Firstly, he's a 1 man band that means every song's a solo! I've seen both aforementioned artists play Barbican Hall with a full compliment taking up most of the stage with their members and equipment, it's impressive. Advance Base by comparison fits in your pocket, also impressive! Owen's setup is like that of a Swedish masseur except he massages the keys on the back of a large rectangular case for an electric piano instead. Spilling over and outside the case are various cables, effects pedals and other unrecognizable doodads, all this is ladened atop a keyboard stand. Relatively speaking small by comparison but still packing plenty of punch. Secondly with Owen there's a constant stream of consciousness throughout his set. Breaking the magician's code Owen reveals his tricks but in the process, for me at least, the magic is not lost but instead amplified. Take his intro to Christmas in Milwaukee for example:
"This next song's about going to your brother's for Christmas when you don't want to. This isn't about my brother because I don't have a brother."
Grappling with minor technical setbacks throughout the set he conjures the forces of dark magic in a deadpan and relaxed tone announcing,
“I'm going to lean into this echo, and hope darkness prevails"
It's hard to know where the line is between darkness and light or fact and fiction is drawn as he introduces 'Christmas In Nightmare City',
"Driving around Gary Indiana is like trying not to drink alcohol while listening to Steven King's books. You tend to notice how all the houses in the area you're driving through are completely dilapidated except for the original home where the Jackson 5 grew up which is in pristine condition by comparison and one of the only houses with a roof."
They sound like alternate lyrics for the song that you'd find on a B-side.
Yes, there is a certain melancholy woven throughout the set but he's aware of it and his chats add the necessary levity to compensate. I envy his comfortably-cool and composed pace of speaking to a room full of crowded strangers reminding me of just how much different my own behaviour is whenever I'm in a similar situation. If it wasn't for the music playing it would be practicably impossible to differentiate between song and spoken thought, but that's what I really enjoyed most about his set. There was no buffer between mind and mouth or between the audience and the musician. He ends his set promising when he comes back in a few months if we come to see him again he'll play all new songs. The set ended there and he made his way off stage by use of an emergency fire escape and appeared at the merch table as if by magic moments later as we all filed out, one more trick for the road I guess. I waited patiently as a pregnant woman bought a t-shirt (medium) and exchanged some words with Owen. On my way out I felt compelled to say, "Owen, that was really beautiful man, thanks a lot." "Thanks, have a good night" he said coolly (again) and with that for the first time since the evening started I felt like I'd finally secured a firm grip on a ladder rung instead of being ankle deep in snakes.