Last summer a collective known as Project X Presents put on a show at the Epic Skate Park in Moseley. Entitled Like Fxck (pronounced Fuck “in reference to its seemingly ambitious and improbable nature”) it featured 70 participants on three stages over five hours comprising Jazz, Classical, Minimalism, Experimental, Sonic Art, African, Ambient, Electronica, Punk and Funk along with performance art, stand-up comedy, live video and innovative set design. The whole event was carefully orchestrated so that each act blended seamlessly into the next building from quiet meditation to a raucous party and was, quite frankly, like nothing else out there.
One of the core members of Project X Presents is Rich Batsford and I spoke to him in his home just before Christmas.
Rich was born and bred in Moseley, though he currently lives on the border in Kings Heath and while he doesn’t really consider himself part of the perceived Moseley Scene has always been trying to do something and contribute in some way to the community there. He was brought up singing in St Mary’s Church Choir and went on to the National Youth Choir and CBSO Chorus before discovering guitar music which led to a spell promoting gigs at the Hare and Hounds pub.
The bulk of Rich’s income comes from booking standup comedy gigs, initially in Birmingham at the Gag Club which he ran with Josh Hart (now of Made Media) for a while and then on his own, and currently in Liverpool. He’s currently in the process of returning to music, setting himself up as an independent musician based around solo piano and some songs and investigating online music distribution.
“It’s a murky old world, the whole online music thing is all very new. it’s not worked itself out yet and there’s many different options and directions you can go in. But I think the thing to do is just to get on and do it. That’s what I’m trying to do – get some music out there via one medium or another. I like things like Tunetribe and Magnatune – distributions with an editorial element to them. in 2007 I’ll be rolling out a track or two, or maybe the whole album, I don’t know, via that sort of medium. If I get any interest from a traditional record label then I’ll take that as it comes, but in the meantime I think you can push yourself as an independent artist and see what happens. If you just keep going then one of two things will just happen. You’ll either get some sort of recognition from someone who’ll give you a little bit of a bump or you may, and this might be a little idealistic, just get to the stage where you don’t need that anymore, if you’ve got a certain amount of people interested in your music and you can keep putting stuff out. You don’t need to sell a great deal of it if it’s not your sole income stream.”
He’s also been meeting with Music Leader, a group who help people who are interested in getting into the education side of music, taking workshop and running courses in schools and elsewhere.
Photos on this page are from the Like Fxck event taken by a variety of people. Click through to Flickr for details.
The Origins of Project X Presents
Project X Presents started out as a group of friends who spent a lot of time together going to clubs, gigs and talking a lot about how things should be. Including Rich the gang of five was Anne Marie Pope, Ant Ramm, Marc Reck and Steve Kelly. “It dawned on us that there was a network in place, that between us, within a certain sphere, we could do almost anything. Artistically, creatively, there were a lot of options for what we could do but music is the glue of it all.
“We threw a party at a rehearsal studio and several different rooms on one corridor were used. There were different sorts of things going on in each room, different types of DJ or a band or just random things. That was partly the catalyst and lots of talking about what we could do. We thought about forming some kind of record company for a while and we might still do that, but we decided live performance was what it was all about for us. So we decided to put on a show.
“We realised there was no reason to rule anything out. It’s all the same thing. Performance is just a person doing their thing. I play the piano, some people tell jokes, some dance, some act, some sing, some people build sets and stuff. Then of course there’s the whole technical side of things. Sound engineering, staging and direction. Everyone does their thing and there’s no reason why it can’t all fit together.
“There was about a year and a half of fannying around, I mean planning, but it was a very organic process. I mentioned how it was the five of us initially but we just were together already, and that carried forward as various people suggested themselves by already being known to us and some people introduced others to the group who weren’t necessarily known to everybody else but who would fit in and be open to what we were trying to do. It wasn’t difficult to recruit people. It took sometimes a little while to get all the ideas across but it was basically, do you want to do your thing, we’ll be as supportive as possible and there’s no boundaries as to what you can or can’t do as long as it fits in somehow with what everyone else is doing. And to a lot of quite capable and experience people that were involved that was quite refreshing. You always hope that as an artist the more you go on the more creative and free you’ll be able to be but I think very often that’s not the case. Or hasn’t been traditionally, although hopefully that’s changing somewhat. So it just kinda grew gradually and at some point we picked a basic structure to hang it on – Meditation, Exploration and Celebration – to give it a simple upwards direction in terms of momentum, and then things just found their place within that framework.
“I thought there would probably be a similar thing happening in every big city everywhere but I haven’t really found that there is. I think it might be relatively new. But that’s a funny thing to say about something I think is really really old. It’s just getting a bunch of people together in a room to do their thing. It’s as old as the hills. The only difference was we tried to combine it into one ongoing narrative or journey.”
The Like Fxck gig took place on July 8th 2006. The audience were invited in by performance artists Unterwelt to sit on cushions in the middle of three stages while ambient music played and and Gysin-style Dreamachine was projected. This merged into Rich’s solo piano set followed by live classical and world music, acoustic folk from Richard Burke and standup comedian Reginald D Hunter before The Destroyers commenced the Celebration section, followed by electro-punkers Koala Grip and finishing with a two hours of DJs. Thats from memory and I may have missed some acts but there were 70 people involved from performers to stage managers to sound and lighting.
“It wasn’t as easy as we’d hoped to sell the gig. It was basically sold out at the end of the day, not that we had a specific figure in mind for what a sell out constituted and by some tokens we oversold it. There were 230 people there, more than could actually fit in the gig bit at any one time, which is why I say we probably sold too many tickets. But financially speaking it’s a good job we did because we just about broke even. Not everyone’s expenses were covered, no-one got paid anything and we blagged most of the equipment but out of what money we had to spend we basically got it back on the door.”
Rich reckons the whole thing cost Â£3000 to put on. “Maybe a little less. No-one got paid for their time and we didn’t pay for the venue. It was just materials and hiring the equipment that we couldn’t borrow. There’s been two serious attempts at budget since then. The first one, adding up all the devising and rehearsal time, came to nearly Â£100,000 which would have been Â£500 a ticket. But the funding application we’re doing is going to come in at around Â£37,000. Not that we’re asking for all that from the Arts Council. There’s other funding options plus ticket sales. And also that’s not counting payment in kind or sponsorship in kind. But I think that’s not an unreasonable sort of sum.
“A way to make it sustainable would be to do the same show more than once, preferably in the same place for five nights in a row. It’s a large scale production. You could reasonably equate the scale of the production to that of a decent one day festival. The fact that we squeezed the whole thing into five hours actually made it more difficult.
“It would have been nice [to have a pot of money left over] but we put the show first above anything else, including money. We were all quite keen not to lose any but we’re all used to it. Anyone who’s promoted is used to losing money. At the Gag Club we used to joke that if we’d not bothered spending all that time and effort running a comedy club we could have gone to somebody else’s comedy club ever week and drank and ate and still come out on top. None of this grass roots stuff is a way to make any money. It’s possible to scrape by a living sometimes with these things but it was never about the money. We would like it to be sustainable. I love the idea of it being sustainable.
“Although I think what we do is kinda worthy in a way and there is public money available for Art Stuff and given that, I think we deserve it, frankly But I’ve never signed on and I’m not that wild about taking the public’s money in that way. There are people more in need of money in the world than me. Not that I’ve got any, but I’ve got no particular want, I’m capable of earning of a living. I could get a regular job – I don’t want to get a regular job, I want to pursue my creative drive.
“Something like Cirque De Soleil or the Blue Man Group are in some ways our peers. I’d be quite interested if we get the opportunity to try it a bit bigger next time. I can certainly see it working fairly well up to 4-500. There will be a limit size-wise for that show for that show that we did. It would lose all its qualities.”
“I quite like the idea that we’re Birmingham specific. Some of the performance artists came from parts of Europe but through someone with very close Birmingham connections. Reginald D Hunter is an American who lives in London but he lived in Birmingham for quite a while. So we definitely are Birmingham specific. How different it would have been do it in another city I obviously can’t say but I do think from my own observations over the years that Birmingham never had a strong scene like a lot places seem to. There’s been good bands and good stuff generally comes and goes but nothing quite so tangible as a “scene”. I think that is a factor of the diversity of the place and it’s that very diversity which is now coming into its own. Some bands around now like the Cracked Actors embody that for me – a bit of punk, bit of reggae, bit of this bit of that. It’s a big city and there’s a lot going on. I’ve lived here my whole life and you just keep on meeting new people. I’m sure part of the reason I’ve never moved away is because I’m a wimp and I’m in my comfort zone but also if you stay around here long enough interesting people just crop up.
“As a musician and involved with the standup there’s been an obvious option for me to move to London at times, but from my experience I do think Birmingham is a very friendly and warm kind of place. It’s become a bit of a cliche, the Moseley Village thing, and people say that the village vibe is dying a bit of a death in Moseley but it’s always felt like a bit of a community, and that’s a word that keeps cropping up in this conversation. I think Project X Presents is a community. It’s what makes independence possible. The more freely you co-operate with people the more independent that enables you to be.”
Project X Presents has quite an explicit ethos about it. Have you seen this influencing others?
“Yes, definitely. That’s been a really nice aspect of it. A few people have said they found it an inspiring experience and that was very much in mind from the start. It was a five hour event but it wasn’t just about that night. It was about experiencing and demonstrating the power of positive and cooperative action. Rejecting boundaries and offering people as much support as possible. And that’s something that everyone can relate to and understands on a fairly instinctive level. It’s just people get used to a particular way of working and being and sometimes you need someone to tap you on the shoulder and say, look, do what you like! Because you can. You always can. You can’t expect to get any reward for it straight away but it’s the doing that matters. It’s not about what you do necessarily or any result that might come from it. It’s the opportunity to do it that we’ve granted ourselves.”
“If you can differentiate the two. I think there isn’t necessarily a difference between those two and that’s part of the whole ethos of Project X Presents – blurring or dissolving those boundaries. We get to work with the people that we want to work with who are not necessarily our friends to start with, though in many cases they are, and if they’re not they become friends because its not you pay turn up, you do your thing, you bugger off. It’s much more of an involved social process.
“We don’t have an identity. That was the point really. We haven’t tried to create an identity for ourselves. Project X Presents is just a network of individuals. There’s no substance to it whatsoever really. And Like Fxck was obviously a bit tongue in cheek and a reference to how improbable the whole thing felt really.”
Was there a sense it was the first time something like that had ever been done? Was the a precedent?
“I’m not really sure. I think maybe in terms of scale probably it was a first. There’s all sorts of other great things – Drop Beats Not Bombs is the first that pops into my head – all sorts of amazing sort of grass roots, large scale innovative stuff has happened in Birmingham. My guess would be yes. I’d love to be proved wrong. There’s two aspects to it – the organisation / collective and the gig itself and I think it’s quite new in both ways as it turns out. We’re a few months on now and I haven’t come across anything quite like it.
“There’s many other collectives in the word of various kinds. There’s a group called Synergy in London which is in a lot of ways where we could be in several years. They’re really quite well organized, they’ve got a venue and put on regular events. Nothing quite like the gig we did but lots of other great stuff. There’s actually a group in America called Project X who have an ethos not dissimilar to our own.”
So what about the next show?
“We’re by no means stuck on that format except that I think we can run with it for a while. There’s a lot of feeling within the group that we want to do something different all the time. We could just take that show and keep running it, and with a certain amount of creative validity insomuch as it was our first attempt and it could be done much better, so we could just keep working at it and try and tour it and just stick with that, or we could, much more likely, move in different directions.
“We’ve always been very much about taking one step at a time, not trying to see too far ahead, because that doesn’t work. The next step is going be a similar gig, most likely. Three stages, still keeping the same Meditative – Exploratory – Celebration format, or at least quiet, middle and loud. It’s simple but it works. There’s elements that we want to keep. There will be music most of the time with some stand-up comedy. There’s still be a performance art group and screens above each stage giving a dynamic visual element. I’ll still be doing something. Very possibly the two tunes, Cello Song and Completion that linked between the sections, we might keep those in place. I’d like to use Reginald D Hunter again because I think he’s the best in the world. The Destroyers and in particular Louis Robinson who took part in the gig not just with The Destroyers but also leading and coordinating the string quartet. It might be a bit darker. We might sex it up a little too. We had very little singing so we want to address that balance and have a chorus, hopefully drawn from members of the CBSO Chorus and Ex-Cathedra.
“So without getting too bogged down in the details it’s going to be similar but it’s going to be a little bit darker in places. There was a feeling that the first one was all sweetness and light and whilst we want to make people happy it might be worth taking them to a few less comfortable places along the way. And maybe some of that old cliche of subverting the audiences expectations. There was one sector of the show which we labeled the Aural Fight which was the bridge between The Destroyers and Koala Grip. Basically The Destroyers were playing and Koala Grip came in with sections of their own material which developed into a contest between the two. That was the only thing we did that really wrong footed the audience. People were really quite pissed off! My tendency is to want to play things safe and not challenge the audience too much, to do everything you can to make it easy for them to get into it and bring them along into the experience, but I liked that people were confused by that.”
Thanks to Rich for his time.