Award-winning composer and musician (and former Wales Arts Review artist in residence) David Roche walks us through a playlist of the songs that mean more to him than any other.
It’s a terrible feeling to suddenly realise that you might have awful taste in music. There’s nothing you can do; you already own Megadeth’s disco album (Risk – not that bad, to be fair), you’ve committed significant segments of Ynwie Malmsteen’s greatest hits to memory, and you not only listen to, but you also still perform songs you wrote when you were 14 (I’m 27, our next gig is in October). No, wait, everyone – including myself – is wrong. My taste in music is great, always was and always will be.
I’ve divided my chosen music in to 3 categories; rock and metal, classical and jazz, and local Welsh music. I don’t really have any favourite songs, I just tend to get stuck on one song for an eternity and listen to it relentlessly on repeat. Sometimes for a musical reason (I have to play it or there’s something in there that’s relevant to what I am composing), sometimes because I just love it, or sometimes because I think it’s funny. Eventually it forms part of a bigger collection of songs that I have killed in that way, it goes on the rotation, and in about 4 years I kill it again.
A lot of music that I have done this to comes from the South Wales music scene I enjoyed as a teenager, so let’s start with that.
South Wales had an absolutely mind-bending music scene during my teenage years. Almost everyone I hung around with played an instrument and everyone pushed to be better at it. The sense of community and competition shaped me as a musician. Below is a pick of the music from then that I still think is creative and ambitious, even now:
‘Don’t Drive’ by Midasuno
My band System Scare once played in a renovated church in Newport with Midasuno. I tried to do a very stylish jump, hit a table, and fell over. My friend Meirion picked me up off the floor while I continued to play – très Spinal Tap and all documented by the photographer there on the evening. Midasuno’s Songs in the Key of Fuck is an exceptional album; songs with fierce structural twists, honest-to-God riffs, and a controlled, wacky, hammer horror vibe. It easily trumps the majority of music that was released at the same time. Listen to Stay Voiceless (their singer / guitarist was in Midasuno and has made an awesome playlist of Welsh music here) for more excellent music, endorsed by Michael Sheen. Admirably political and fantastic on stage, definitely a group worth drawing influence from.
‘Electro the Human Lightning Bolt’ by Boys With Xray Eyes
This band had a cracking singer, were extremely tight and focused, and were excellent to see live. It was awesome to see a local band perform this well – good motivation to practice. The later version of this song features a cameo by the drummer from Funeral for a Friend… so, as a curio, that’s worth a peep (it’s not as good though). I remember watching BWXE at The Doll’s House in Abertillery a few times where I used to play the Tuesday Jam Night (now run by their ex-drummer). As a teenager I spent many an eve drinking too much before college the next day, generally messing about, and learning what being on stage and making music with strangers was all about. The social, performance-driven culture around this music was really important to me then and is still important to me now – ‘Electro the Human Lightning Bolt’ deeply reminds of those very fun, very silly times.
‘Give Me What I Want’ by Kids in Glass Houses
I really like this band – Smart Casual is fantastic – but the most interesting thing about their music for me was comparing the earlier demo versions of their tracks with the versions recorded after they signed to a label. It was like a mini essay on what to focus on improving; the drum rolls were tighter and more defined, some of the titles were changed, and some elements were stripped away to make the music clearer and brighter. It was almost as if I you could make a checklist of what a producer made them change, an invisible wagging finger.
‘No Regrets’ by System Scare
I wrote the main riff to this at the bay window of my mother’s old house, I lost count of how many times I played it before we even made a demo of it. It got my band System Scare to the heady heights of the MySpace frontpage, a radio mention from Alex Zane, and some people legitimately know the words to it. Some of the most fun I’ve had as a musician has been playing this track, it’s an important song out of the huge number I wrote as a teenager. Long may it stay alive!
Rock and metal music is my bread and butter. My first albums were Enema of the State and Iowa, both of which are absolute corkers. Things really started to change once I started playing guitar, nobody imagines themselves as the rhythm guitar player…
‘Tornado of Souls’ by Megadeth
Rust in Peace is the greatest heavy metal album of all time, the end. I bought this album from Spiller’s Records in Cardiff where the shopkeeper incorrectly corrected my pronunciation of Children of Bodom… before telling me they didn’t have any of their albums (not that I am still bitter about this experience 15 years on), so I bought Rust in Peace. I took it home, slapped it in my Xbox, and lost my mind. Dave Mustaine’s solos are technically dreadful but have the most awesome, punk-style intensity (they really irritated me when I was younger, mind you). Marty Friedman completely makes up for any technical failings and I defy any aspiring guitarist to listen to this album and not want to relentlessly blast off in to a gigantic guitar solo. I’m still learning to play this album now, it’s absolutely packed to the rafters with fantastic music and outrageously contemporary sounding solos. Of the whole album, ‘Tornado of Souls’ is a choice cut. This album still makes me lose my mind.
‘Clams Have Feelings Too (Actually They Don’t)’ by NOFX
Pump up the Valuum is an extremely explicit album, so be aware of that if you’re going to listen it. NOFX are political, liberal(ish), and made songs that sounded awesome without roaring guitar solos – these were all things I definitely wanted and needed at the time (although they’ve gone off the deep end lately). It also set me off on a bit of a whirlwind trip where I wrote a lot of novelty synth rock. As you do.
‘Crushing Day’ by Joe Satriani
Surfing with the Alien was a super important album for me, I spent my first pay check from my first job on Jesse Gress’s transcription of the whole album. Worth every penny, still on my bookshelf. ‘Always With Me, Always With You’ was the piece of music I played in all of my university interviews (seems funny but it’s now on the Trinity grade 8 electric guitar syllabus), and ‘Satch Boogie’ was what I played for my first year university exam. The bigger impact of this album for me was how much it made me want to play guitar. I loved every track and used to fantasise about being able to play it, it just sounded so cool. I felt like a God when I could ham my way through half of ‘Crushing Day’, I spent hours noodling on those crazily fast pentatonic licks. It also introduced me to Joe Satriani and metronome-oriented practice, to which I have sacrificed many an hour, day, year, decade…
‘2’s My Favourite 1’ by Coheed and Cambria
I’ve seen Coheed and Cambria live 6 times now (going again in October with the infamous, previously-named individual Meirion). Coheed are amazing songwriters, Claudio Sanchez has an incredible voice, the music is technically accomplished, and it’s not overblown or ridiculous. This is one of my favourite songs – I remember listening to it and buying a signed copy of the album – but they have so many excellent tracks that I emulate relentlessly; ‘Atlas’, ‘The Suffering’, ‘Blood Red Summer’, ‘Radio Bye Bye’, the list goes on. They’re just a fantastic band with a remarkably high-quality output.
Nowadays I spend most of my time writing classical music. It’s what I’ve wanted to do for years and years, so please keep your fingers crossed so that I can keep it going!
The Firebird by Igor Stravinsky
I remember trying to learn about classical music and stumbling across a black and white video of a fairly old Stravinsky conducting this. It started me on an obsessive path of listening to anything of his or anything that I could find that sounded vaguely similar. I still have the pocket score on my desk almost all of the time that I am working and, if you look through my compositions, you will see a lot of ideas that I have nicked directly from Stravinsky – an appropriate homage to a man famous for saying that good artists borrow, great artists steal.
Unsuk Chin’s Violin Concerto and Piano Etudes
I love the floating and gentle consonance of the opening movement of her Violin Concerto (also the use of steel drums, I was really confused when I first saw that on her score) and I love the rhythmic and technical intensity of her piano etudes. The majority of Chin’s music is worth listening to. It’s so uncompromising, assured, inventive, and expressive. Unsuk Chin is one of the most unbelievably excellent composers working today.
Jeux d’eau by Bruno Mantovani
The first time I wandered in to this piece I just sat still and listened to it end to end. The strange and simple blending of the instruments at the start of this piece is so arresting and the twisting, modal microtonal writing bounces around with incredibly expressive rhythmic movement (the blending ideas are something I use in my piece My Mind Directs My World). It’s such a shame that Mantovani is a massive sexist, because his music is staggeringly good.
The Welcome Arrival of Rain by Judith Weir and Common Tones in Simple Time by John Adams
I worked in a bookshop for a while (5 years) and when I was put on the music desk I would usually play one of these. Common Tones in Simple Time is such a broad, beautiful, and calming piece. I always bundle it with Judith Weir’s The Welcome Arrival of Rain as both feel like a crisp, fresh breath of air. Both pieces are direct, bright, and never overcomplicated. My piece My Mind Directs My World is particularly, obviously influenced by Weir’s piece – just listen to the first 10 seconds of both. They’re both good reminders not to over-complicate things, keep it simple.
Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Francisco Tárrega
This is almost certainly total cheese for any guitarists out there! Alhambra was lumped in front of me by a teacher as a challenge. I sat down for 2 hours a day for 8 months with a metronome (I hadn’t played classical guitar before, I purchased one with a scholarship) and built up my technique bit by bit. Since then I’ve used the technical elements from this piece to write pieces for my sister’s wedding, a few competitions, and a few performances and exams. It’s absolutely brutal getting it up to speed, but it was a good reminder that there’s always room for improvement and learning (but be careful, about 12 months later I developed RSI trying to play Villa-Lobos etudes…).
‘Personal Mountains’ by Keith Jarret
I was introduced to this piece by my very stylish friend Luke when I was at Oxford. I’d played in jazz bands for a long time before hearing this. Sometimes when I listen to ‘Personal Mountains’ it makes me laugh because the melody is so obscenely angular. The whole thing reminds me of living in Oxford and trying to push a lot of things in to my compositions, much of which really, really didn’t work.
‘Blue in Green’ by Miles Davis
In order to play in jazz bands I bought The Real Book, tried to read it, and dedicated a lot of time listening to jazz. I was dreadful for a very long time but, eventually, managed to make headway and join a few bands. This is hands down my favourite standard from that time in my life and whenever I’m teaching someone jazz I immediately send them to this piece. It is so gentle and melodic for something that’s harmonically crunchy and dissonant… I don’t think anyone out there would dispute that this and Kind of Blue is anything other than a masterpiece.
To finish up here’s a piece of music that wraps up quite a few of these influences. Ten Acre Riots! – a piece titled after some riots in Wales, slightly names after a song by The Blackout, and jam packed with fiddly, rhythmic piano writing: