Surfing The Waves Of Creativity

Teahupo’o (Tahiti)… pronounced ‘cho-pu’, .. 

I’ve been asked by my good friend, Johan Flapsandwich, to do a guest blog on his website.

Flaps and I met 20 odd years ago and have grown up together as DJs and more recently, producers. We often get together for regular chitchats in Cardiff and have worked professionally together at various times in the music industry.
In a recent drinking session, where I like to philosophise, Flappy heard me tell him a tale of New Zealand All Black rugby captain, Richie McCaw. McCaw is a flanker (wing-forward) and is widely regarded as one of the finest rugby players in the world today. He is an All Black legend and has amassed more international caps than any New Zealand player in history. The icing on the cake of his glistening career was lifting the Webb Ellis Rugby World Cup trophy on home soil in the 2011 World Cup. The All Blacks, if you are unfamiliar with the sport, are at the cutting edge of rugby – They are to the oval-shaped ball what Brasil are to its round cousin.  They determine the whole pace of the international game and are always innovating new styles. In effect they set the pace. McCaw, as an individual is one of the most highly talented sportsmen in the world. Why, you ask, is this relevant to an anarchic Welsh Music producer, most widely known for releasing the terror that is ‘Sicknote’ onto the world?

I wanted to make a point to Flappy – that to reach the dizzying heights of ultimate success, there tends to be a formula. Those people who truly attain greatness in their chosen profession, have hidden secrets, that can be applied across the board. What is relevant to leading sportsmen, international political leaders, top businessmen, bestselling authors etc. can also apply to the world of music. Sure, we could find plenty of examples of success in the world of music itself… What makes Madonna tick? How do the Rolling Stones never cease to stop rolling? How does Brian Wilson imbibe from his muse? I wanted to keep it simple for Flappy and as I’d just read Richie McCaw’s cracking autobiography it was fresh in my mind.

Flaps probably hasn’t exercised since he left his caribou herd behind in the deepest Scandinavian Arctic and headed over to Wales in the first place. Although he lives within literal touching distance of one of the greatest rugby venues on the planet (The Millennium Stadium), I doubt he’s ever even laced up some boots and to him a scrum is a fight to get to the bar. The bulk of the autobiography is unsurprisingly dedicated to the game of rugby. McCaw’s early development as a youth player through to a diary-like blow-by-blow account of the successful 2011 RWC campaign. He talks about the sport with passion, an unrivalled playing knowledge, leadership skills and relationships with top coaching professionals, disputes with referees, the highs and lows of injury and recovery. For a rugby aficionado, this is a deep insight into the mind of a true superstar.

Rugby is played by thousands of people across the world. It is a popular game, in particular, here in Wales, where it is the national sport. Most people never become professionals and it is a hobby to them. They might be forced to play it at school and in later years continue it as a weekend hobby alongside their chosen line of work. A few lucky ones break through into the professional ranks. It’s quite a highly paid game these days so a professional can earn a good living. As in any profession, there are different levels. You get your journeymen in rugby as you do in other jobs, there are top club players who excel and inspire fanatical support from local fans, you get your elite players who represent their countries and have the privilege of playing on the global platform in the top competitions. McCaw is a level above these – part of a super-elite and a legend. He talks of the sacrifices he makes in his day to day living. He stresses the importance of jogging to achieve good stamina, the theory work he puts in his diary to motivate him ahead of fixtures, the abstinence of alcohol and a keen-ness on family values. These are part of what makes him who he is.  There was a large chunk of the book, however, which truly amazed me, and I enjoyed reading about this, equally as much as the rugby details.

Whenever, an international competition finishes, wherever in the world that may be, from the plains of Pretoria to the lushness of the hallowed Cardiff turf, within 48 hours, Richie McCaw presents himself at his local gliding club, near to the family farm where he grew up on the South Island of New Zealand. His instructors say he is like clockwork. He just strolls in through the door, plonks himself down and asks what the flight plan for the day will be. Gliding is McCaw’s passion. He was lucky enough to have earned good money from his rugby and with some of that he treated himself to a top of the range German glider. It was a bit of a family tradition, free flying across ‘the Land of The Long White Cloud’ (Aotearoa – Maori for New Zealand). This is a hobby for McCaw. He has learnt the basics and just loves getting entirely away from his professional life and floating high above the Southern Alps, challenging mother nature herself as he tracks down thermals to lift him over the peaks and guide him down into isolated airfields dotted around the one of the most scenic areas on Earth. It’s a dangerous endeavour and he has needed to gain a certain amount of proficiency to fly alone and has had to learn a new set of skills. He speaks about the gliding with an equal passion as his rugby, perhaps even more so. This is what he lives for. Others may strive to save and go watch Richie play a game of rugger on the weekend… He is waiting to get away from it all and just be himself, away from the chasing pack of media hounds, or autograph-hunting supporters. He hasn’t got his coaches in his ear or the pressures of the captaincy. He is just a simple amateur enjoying the thrills of the sky.

Flappy said, ‘ Well, what’s your point? The boredom sinking in’ – It’s relevant because although the crossover skills gained in each activity may be very minimal, what Richie gains from the gliding assist his professional life no end and may be the difference that has propelled him to the very top of the game.

It’s a switch off, a complete unwind. A sudden change; a total psychological release. You can get bogged down in anything. It may seem obvious if we talk of a shift worker in a factory, doing long hours of tedious repetitive work. However, this tediousness can apply to even the most exciting of jobs. International Rugby may seem glamorous to the outsider looking in, but it is just the same as a 9-5 job to the rugby players themselves. For every 80 minutes of glory on the field, there are endless hours of long haul flights, tough fitness drills in training, sweaty gyms – it’s hard graft. It’s just the same in music. Adoring fans think you have the greatest job on earth and you may be an inspiration to many. They see you hanging around in swanky nightclubs, on grand festival stages, surrounded by people dressed to the nines and enjoying themselves with Dionysian quantities of alcohol and every other form of hedonistic pleasure. It’s what everyone dreams of, surely?

Speak to Flappy, get to know him – he love his audience and his fans and is totally dedicated to them, going out of his way to answer feedback, supply tickets, create merchandise and deliver music and media content so that their adoration continues to grow. Ask Flappy what he thinks of gigging… You’ll see him at the front of the stage, with his silly hat on, cramped over his laptop, his arm gyrating in the air and his belly wobbling to the phat basslines he’s pumping out. For the hour or so he’s up on stage, he’s loving all right, but he’s also sweating away, getting dehydrated and he’s probably busting for a pee too. This is his 90 minutes on the pitch. His training has been sat up for 48 hours reprocessing a kick drum on Ableton until it click to perfection. He’s got the discipline of abstinence and in the crowd you’re probably flying out of your mind, but Flappy is teetotal, doesn’t smoke and apart from the odd pasty, has a pretty much health vegan diet (not forgetting the crumpets). The gig is probably the third in three days and he’s probably been bouncing around in the back of a dodgy transit, wrestling Johnny No Cash and Filthy, as the Sicknote tour bus yo-yos up and down the nation’s motorways. A night in Glasgow followed by a detour to Brixton and then bouncing across to some farmer’s field in deepest mid-Wales. If he pays his rent on time, he’s lucky to have a few coins left to fund his mouldy crumpets for the week when he returns home. It’s not all glamour and Flappy tells me that outside of the stage he struggles dealing with the commotion of festivals.

All summer long, Sicknote are a mainstay in festivals across Europe. Just picture it though – Just picture it though – For you, as a punter, the festival is the highlight of the summer. You have three days of partying with friends, living out of a tent and seeing music acts from across the world that you’ve been itching to see for years. You haven’t got to psych yourself up to deliver that stage performance; you aren’t restricted by the rigours of abstinence. When you’re ears are blasted into oblivion by the high-powered stage monitors, the last thing you want to hear is a constant pounding from 10 different acts all competing to attract the biggest crowd to their arena. Flappy says, as soon as they leave the stage, he just packs his rucksack and heads off. Straight out of the festival and into the nearest wood. He might not be flower-picking, but he likes to just calm down, by himself, give his ears a rest and maybe see a bit of the cultural sites of this country. He’s told me that while Doghouse and Dr Conker (bless his soul) might be on a three day bender, he could quite easily be inspecting a museum, or observing the architecture of the local city’s historical quarter. It’s like gliding, I suppose, but my suggestion to Flappy, is that it’s a bit too random and unplanned. Not every festival is situated close to a wood or cultural centre. You need to find something that will regularly give you the hit you need. The magic dose of rest and recuperation; the flip switch of ‘unwind’. You might not be able to afford a posh German glider, but maybe there’s a hobby or interest out there, that you can strive to do, which is totally divorced from music and can allow you the freedom of escaping total stagnation.

An artist is a creative person. You hear lots of nonsense about how creative thinkers are different. Their brain hemispheres work in different ways, they have a natural gift that is from the divine or encoded in their genes. I’d argue that anyone out their leading their field, shares this artistic mindset. Richie McCaw is a brutal rugby player, known for his hard-hitting tackles and unrelenting spirit on the pitch. Surely, he is an artist though too? Musicians slog it out and even some of the finest bands are only there due to a lucky break somewhere along the line. It’s not all about fame either. You meet people who are complete loners, mainly artist, penniless but totally mind-blowing in terms of their skill levels and creativity. They may be complete unknown quantities, waiting for the world to catch up.  William Blake is one of my favourites. He spent his life holed up in dank quarters in SoHo, completely stony broke and died penniless and virtually unknown.  Yet he created an immense volume of he most unbelievably creative literature and engravings that truly turned the world of literature on its head.

Think of the artist / musician as a surfer…. Everyone wants to surf. It’s cool. Many will get their dream and maybe hire a board on holiday and with a morning’s instruction at a surf school you could be tripping over your board and landing headfirst in the sand having walked the plank for a second or two. You can always say you’ve done it and you’ve achieved a life goal. Maybe you take it a bit more seriously and manage to buy a board and get to the beach a few times each summer. You might like to explore the world a bit. If you become good, it’s always nice to try a new wave system and maybe the breaks are bigger in a different country or on the opposite coastline. It becomes a hobby and then a passion. You find yourself hitting the hotspots in Hawaii, Helicoptering out to the breaks in Indonesia or yachting around the South Pacific in search of the ultimate wave. If you’re lucky and any good, you could always end of up on the pro tour. It’s just the same as music or rugby though – a lot of slog – hard travel, uncomfortable digs – a high level of fitness requirement and its’ difficult to make money – The techniques for success also apply though. Think of surfing as an analogy.

You’re out on the waves – how do you choose your spot. Do you stick with the masses of other surfers out there – On a decent popular beach with good waves there will be hundreds clamouring about, maybe crashing into each other as they catch a ride. Fights and arguments can break out among surfers very easily – it ain’t as glamorous as it first appears. Maybe you prefer to keep the crowd in sight and just break away to a quieter spot on the periphery? The lifeguard can still see you and you get a good warning of any dangerous currents that could drag you away. I’d like the think that the true surfer will find his own break. His area of preference: his favoured set. Does he like big waves, long straight clean waves, waves that tube? Does he like a minimal battle against the current when swimming out. Tactically a good surfer has these in differences in mind. He doesn’t have to trek the globe to exotic places either. He could surf a single beach his whole life, know it so intimately and live on its doorstep. He might not be winning the pro championship but he could be the most talented surfer alive. When you’re out there on the wave, it’s not all about expending energy. You paddle out and you wait. Not every wave that passes is a good wave. Some surfers may get bogged down in the crowd going in and out of the beach, fighting the crowd at every rise and exhausting themselves. A good surfer will study the tide timetable, know the lie of the land – he’ll have the right equipment for any weather and he’ll know when the big waves are due and where they’ll be landing. He may have to paddle out and spend hours shivering in his wetsuit, watching set after set go by… It’s relaxing though. He has patience and can bide his time. When that big wave emerges on the horizon, he’s relaxed, he’s calm and he’s prepared. He’ll start paddling for it at just the right moment and with his saved energy he’ll use his fundamental surfing skills to catch that wave. It could be the wave of the day, or the wave of a lifetime. And then for a few minutes as he rides that wave in, he has the world at his feet. He can surf away to his heart’s content and the patience will pay as the quality of that wave will allow every trick in his repertoire to flow to full effect and the master of the art in him will emerge. He’ll be in the pure zone of success and his life will feel fulfilled.  Not every surfer gets this opportunity and of course many end up being eaten by sharks.

I guess my point to Flappy is that to develop that patience needed to achieve his own life goals, his own music goals, he needs to create the mindset necessary to endure. Hone your skills, no end, but don’t exhaust yourself. Look outside of the box and find that switch to turn everything completely off and break clean away. Be dedicated without flattening the battery. Your creativity will be more powerful as you expand your mind by not doing music. And it doesn’t matter how long you have to wait for that wave. If everything is in place and you have worked correctly, covering every aspect of your art, then that wave will come. Knowing when it’s due is fortune and requires diligence, but when it does arrive be sure your skills are there so that you can surf it perfectly.

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