Guest post by Scott Milligan of Kitten Pyramid.
“That’s my song, that is,” said Mary, one of the four elderly ladies lying in bed watching my band, Kitten Pyramid, perform at Queen’s hospital in Burton.
Hospital wards, like cheap hotels, are rarely homely places. They’re how I’d imagine the space stations of the future: basic, functional and clean. On this ward, there was nothing but cream walls, screens and cables plugged into rhythmically beeping trolleys bypassed by busy-bee nurses. “It’s nice to hear the old songs again,” Mary added with a broad smile while the stately looking vicar nodded thoughtfully by her side.
“Do you do this for a living?” he asked me. I explained that four of us had taken the week off from our day jobs to entertain patients at psychiatric hospitals around the Midlands, where we live. Our aims, I added, are both to raise money for the Arts for Health department of our local NHS trust, and to launch our debut album, Uh-Oh!. “Looks like you’ve found a niche,” the priest replied.
His comment made me slightly uneasy. With both the album and the tour, we are really committed to researching the therapeutic benefits music can bring to the physically and/or mentally ill. So I disliked the implication that we might be doing it for the money (impossible anyway, as all the hospital gigs are unpaid), or to help Kitten Pyramid climb the slippery pole of the music business. I was already nervous that people might think we’d drop the mental health awareness “niche” as soon as we got some traction from the media. “Could be,” I replied dumbly.
So how did Kitten Pyramid get to this point anyway? Well, five years ago I saw a bloke playing guitar in an empty pub in Nottingham. He was a leather-jacketed twenty-something, clearly singing his own material – and I’m sorry to say it was, in my opinion, naff.
It got me thinking about my own truncated musical career. I’d had a ten-year break from music to concentrate on a “proper job” because I’d feared audiences (or lack of them) would be thinking the exact same thing when I subjected them to my songs.
“He shouldn’t be allowed to play,” I said to my mate. “This is why people don’t generally take risks on unknown, unsigned artists. This is why covers and tribute bands are the only ones getting paid in places like this.” Not the most positive statement, I admit, but I’ll excuse myself with the fact that at the time I no longer classed myself as a musician. I certainly wasn’t telling people I was a songwriter – partly in case they assumed I was as bad as this goon.
But that night, I started thinking about how great it would be to be playing again – and for the experience to be more collaborative than a bloke on stage subjecting himself to a few people on the opposite side. I imagined playing not on stage, but out among the audience, handing out instruments, improvising songs and making the whole gigging experience a two-way street. I silently declared that my break from music was over.
This resolution chimed with an idea I’d had a few years before. It wasn’t music-related, strangely, but I’d come up with the concept for a film centred around my late uncle, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in the mid-80s. I had him arriving from Poland at East Midlands airport to be ferried to his digs by his new boss who happened to have a thing for eating kittens and anything else cute, rare or endangered.
I imagined my uncle gazing out the battered blue Transit van, believing that the motorway and shop signs were ordering him to turn back (I’d heard this was not an untypical experience for people with schizophrenia). The number-plates would scream abuse at him, and the cars and buses would pass by driven by Muppet Show puppets.
The following day his world would be tipped even further upside down by the complete absence of people. Burton’s modest sixty-five thousand population would have disappeared and the driverless, empty bus would take him to Burton, where he’d wander the streets finding things to do. I had him helping himself to breakfast at Greggs, trying to kiss Jet from Gladiators who was a mannequin in a fancy dress shop and crossing Burton’s long bridge jumped over by a Whale. At the end of his first day he realises everything is not as it appears.
The story had rattled around in my head for years – but as my intention to return to music hardened, it began to seem blatantly obvious that the songs I had been steadily writing over the last ten years actually fitted the story really well. ‘Fire’ described a day when my uncle took it upon himself to set fire to his mattress and ‘Red Shoes’ explores an obsession with the woman who wore them. I decided to concentrate on the music and put the film on the back burner until I new more about the condition.
Finding the right people for the band took three years, during which we evolved from a three-piece to our present group of fourteen. I’d started inviting musicians from other bands around what was then Burton’s thriving music scene to join in when I did solo performances. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was subconsciously recruiting musicians for a much bigger band that still continues to grow.
We found a producer, Nick Brine, who suggested we record the album at Bohemian Rhapsody’s birthplace, Rockfield Studios. A massive part of the puzzle was now in place – but nothing prepared us for what came next.
The band’s resident scientist Chris Baldwin and I had talked about playing in psychiatric hospitals because we thought it could act as useful research for the film – but we hadn’t a clue how to go about it. As a school music teacher, Chris was intrigued by how the brain reacts to music, and he had read a fair bit on music therapy.
Then one day, he received an email from a colleague at work that opened the floodgates. It was from Eleanor Babb, a photographer who worked for Arts for Health and was looking for musicians to perform at St. George’s psychiatric hospital in Stafford. This happens to be where my uncle was a patient: it seemed like fate was on our side. I called Eleanor and explained that we were really keen to get involved. After a successful trial performance Eleanor and I agreed that we should do more – and the idea for the Uh-Oh! tour grew a nice pair of hairy legs.
To be continued…