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How to boost creativity using live improvisation with rock star Troy Redfern

Troy Redfern doing live improvisation

Photo by Mal Whichelow

I first interviewed Troy Redfern in 2022 when he was touring with When Rivers Meet. It was just before he released his Wings of Salvation album and a key part of our chat was Troy’s fascination with live improvisation. I’m now waiting to interview him again, sitting outside the Louisiana venue in Bristol where he is co-headlining with the Canadian band The Commoners.

He’s due on stage very soon so time is short, but when he arrives Troy is calm and friendly. The only sign of the raw energy he exudes on stage is the intensity behind his eyes when he talks about his passions.

Of course, my first question is about his trademark hat. Vera originally designed what became the Redfern Rambler hat for Troy, but his latest bespoke hat is about a year old and I wondered how it had been faring on the gig / festival circuit.

“It’s awesome, and I get loads of compliments about it. But it’s really been put through its paces,” Troy laughs. “I get very hot on stage so it has to put up with lots of sweat every night. I look after it though, and it’s looking great.”

I ask if it has it’s own rider yet. Maybe a preferred brand of rum?

“No, not yet,” Troy grins. “Just a nice dark place to sleep.”

Hard working it may be, but Troy’s hat has its fans too. I talk to a few people before and after the gig and explain that I’m here with Vera Black. My favourite quote is “I mean the moment he walks onto the stage in that hat he just looks like a fucking rockstar!”

She had a good point. When Troy stepped onto the Louisiana stage in his hat, all in black, his shirt open to the navel, his chest covered in beads, trouser chains swinging – the audience immediately knew they were in for a memorable experience.

But at the moment we’re sitting outside the venue having a chat. It’s the peace before the storm, but I have an annoying question to ask. There were a few comments in the reviews of The Wings of Salvation finding comparisons with T. Rex and Glam Rock. Listening to the album takes me back to my teens when I listened to a lot of 70’s rock, but I can’t place a specific link. It’s unmistakably a Troy Redfern album as his raw, high gains, slide style is unique. So what does Troy think of these comparisons? This potentially awkward question turned into a fascinating discussion about the power of improvisation.

Writing music with an unconscious stream of thought

“It’s an unconscious mix of influences because of the way I write music,” Troy replies as he looks away to collect his thoughts. He takes a deep breath and gets stuck in.

“I am not a natural writer. I don’t try to construct a product for a market. I have an unconscious stream of thought process where I will pick up the guitar with no idea and just start playing and improvise a vocal melody on top of that. Once that idea is recorded I can go back to it and build the idea up to a finished product. It gets designed. It becomes the decoration of an idea

“But all musicians are a product of everything we’ve grown up listening to, or that we listen to now. When I was younger I listened to a lot of T. Rex, hard rock from the late 80’s, blues, – all that sort of stuff, so I think all these things are kicking around in my subconscious. They will come through when I’m improvising ideas. Hopefully these influences aren’t too apparent. It is still distinctly me.

“People have mentioned a T. Rex and Glam Rock link. In the 70’s the verses had a lot of tom drums and maybe it’s that. Maybe my vocal timbre is in the same sort of Bolanesque zone. But when you listen to T. Rex and do a side by side comparison it’s really not similar.”

Can you spot any similarities in the single Come on? See video below.

Unconscious coincidences

Troy then discussed a really strange coincidence that revolved around his love of improvising live on stage.

“I was talking to my producer Dave Marks, trying to work out what my set for these live shows. Is it playing songs that people go home remembering the tunes? Or is it the jam thing? I think that it’s really important to have a place where you know the key, and roughly what the structure is and you can let that go where it goes. You just try to get into a flow state where you’ve just switched off all conscious thought of thinking ahead. You’re just responding in the moment.

“It would be very interesting to see what an MRI scan would make of that kind of mental process, because it is a very strange thing to have musical impulses coming through faster than the speed of thought. It’s not like you are thinking ahead: Shall I play this scale? Shall I play this note? You don’t have time because if you would have thought that, the moment would have gone. So you are responding in real time without conscious thought and that always fascinates me.

“The creative part of the song is when you write it. That initial inspiration when you get something down on the block, that’s where the greatest part is, so playing songs live doesn’t feel like a creative process. I need the improvisation process in there to fulfil that need instead of just punching the clock.

“So I was making this point to Dave and he referenced the style of the Ozric Tentacles and I was hugely into them in the 90’s. I played festival recently called Off the Tracks and Ozric’s were there on the Friday night. I really wanted to see them play, but we didn’t arrive until the Saturday. When I was getting into my improvisation on the end solo, I was in the moment and it was just lifting and lifting, and I looked into the audience and I saw Ed from Ozrics.

I went and found him after the set and told him how much I have loved his stuff and how much of an influence he has been on me. He messaged me later on Facebook and told me that was the best guitar playing he had seen for a long time.

“That meant the world to me and it was so strange that Dave had referenced Ed a few weeks back when we were planning the set. And it ended in one of the best compliments I’ve ever had! That reinforced that the jam section can’t be wiped out of the set. The last thing I want to do is to go out with backing tracks, doing music by numbers with in-ear monitors. To me that’s not music, that’s something else.”

The thrill of live improvisation

In my first interview we discussed how the extra fear of live improvisation drives Troy on, when he explained the challenge of basically jamming by himself. So I was keen to find out how different it was playing with his band.

Finn McAuley, the drummer, and I have played together since lockdown, and we’ve done a lot of duo shows with lots of improvisation. Both Finn and Kiera Kenworthy, who plays bass, (pictured with Troy below) are super attuned to this stuff. In this set we have at least two really good points, especially on the last song that is probably an eight minute solo. We’ve done this in the previous six shows and each one has been completely different.

“It is a lot easier with the band, than solo. You’ve got that rhythmic interaction, sort of like Indian music when you’ve got tabla players playing off the top line and you are echoing rhythmic and beautiful ideas off each other. This is when you can do things that you couldn’t normally do, because it’s a mix of adrenaline, non-thought and reaction.

So what’s on the new album?

I was keen to find out about the new album that should be ready for release soon after Troy finishes this tour.

“We did Fire Cosmic, and that was what I consider to be my first proper album in the way that I used a producer, great musicians, and good studios. The next step was refining it and getting a clearer, cleaner sound, and we did that with the Wings of Salvation. I wanted the whole album to be a strength of choruses and concise songs. A couple of the songs are longer, but they are all generally around the 3.20 mark so they are super trimmed.

“We’ve tried about four or five of them out on these shows. I just wanted to get them out because I really like them. I wanted to see how they work. There is always a risk in playing a large section of unheard songs. But they have been going down really well.

The Wings of Salvation and the Fire Cosmic, both lean towards the rockier end of things and the new record is going to be a refined version of that. Similar to bands like Supergrass who delivered great rock songs with a guitar vibe like Richard III. It’s basically high energy rock n roll. Great songs with good hooks. So if you’re looking for my subconscious influences you’ll probably find Supergrass and Spacehog – I’m such a huge fan of Spacehog!

The Fever – see the video below is the first single from the new album.

Hangin’ with The Commoners

I asked what it was like doing a co-headlining tour with The Commoners.

“Fantastic!” Troy beams. “They are an absolutely beautiful bunch of guys. We feel like brothers already. We’re travelling in one van, really living in each other’s pockets and it’s great. They are a fantastic band. Their songs are super solid. We’re close enough, yet we’re different enough for the night to really work for the audience. They are a five piece hi-fi sounding band with keys and double guitar, and we’re a raw three piece. We’re swapping who goes on first and last and it doesn’t really matter because we’re both giving it our all.”

So what is the Troy Redfern Band live experience like?

It’s loud and raw and comes at you at 100 miles an hour – and there are only three of them! They kick off with All Night Long, one of the new songs, and Troy is true to his word as it is full of hooks and foot stamping fun from the get go. They move on to hits from the Wings of Salvation album – Sweet Carolina and Come on – which really get the crowd going.

It’s a frenetic set with Troy deftly switching between guitars in seconds. While he is the showman, he is not the only focal point. Keira makes bass playing look ridiculously easy, not to mention effortlessly cool, while also providing backing vocals. Behind them Finn is bashing merry hell out of the drums, his arms flying everywhere, yet pounding a perfect rhythm. It sounds great and they look awesome.

The fans in the front row are nodding their heads in unison, their eyes fixed on Troy’s fingers as they punish the strings and somehow keep perfect control of the demonic slide. This is a band who are having fun, spearheaded by a ridiculous guitar playing talent. But they really come alive when they go off piste. They share a secret language of smirks, eyebrow raises and eye contact as they react to each other.

All the new songs go down well and the new album sounds like a huge hit to me, but then I’ve been bowled over by the sheer rock n roll energy so consider me biased!

Below – Finn in action on the drums.

They round everything up with the big jam song and it’s Sanctify from The Fire Cosmic. By this time Troy is dripping with sweat. He’s holding nothing back. They fall into the live improvisation section and Troy lets rip. The crowd are with him, but no-one knows where he’s going – not even Troy! But it’s a hell of a ride; a stunning experience. Finn is laughing as he belts the skins, Kiera has gone into a mini-trance and the front row fans start watching her fingers too, as she works her magic on the frets.

They finish with a crescendo and acknowledge the crowd. In the sudden quietness that follows, people around me are swapping erudite comments like “Wow!”

Feedback from the crowd

There are two ideal places to pick up comments about a performance: in the toilets and at the merch table.

At the urinals two friends who obviously came for The Commoners are tempted to take the piss (sorry, couldn’t resist!) as they found the set a bit too full on. But they counter before they finish their business by agreeing that Troy fitted in a lot of songs and energy, and that it was a unique experience. By the time they had washed their hands they agreed it was probably worth the ticket price by itself.

At the merch table, Troy is back to his calmer persona, although still obviously on a bit of a post-performance high. The people picking up CD’s and T-shirts give compliments and tell him their favourite songs – things you expect from people motivated to buy merch after a performance.

However, it’s a conversation between Kiera and a fan after Troy has left the merch table that really grabs my interest.

“Which album is that last song on? I have to have it!” The guy says.

“Well, it’s from The Fire Cosmic,” Kiera replies, “But it won’t be the same.”

The guy is mystified. “But why not? That was amazing. That was… everything. I need to hear that again.”

“But it won’t be the same,” Kiera explains. “We jam on that track, it’s really different every time we play it.”

The guy is still confused. “But how can the same song be that different?”

Kiera shrugs and says something along the lines of “It’s what we do.”

The guy is still on the back foot, but he buys the CD and compliments Kiera on her playing.

I introduce myself to Kiera and ask her what it is like to play live with Troy when he’s improvising. She tells me that she feels very lucky as so few bands do it. I ask if it is ever daunting not knowing what Troy is going to do next.

She looks at me as if I am mad.

“It’s what I do and it’s a privilege to be part of it,” she says.

So it looks like there is definitely no chance of Troy dropping the improvisation element of his set and that’s good news for everyone. Just spare a thought for the strings on his well loved collection of guitars. Oh yes and his iconic hat that needs some restful downtime after a frenetic performance – just like the rest of us.

The Commoners

The only (devastating) downside to my evening was that I was not able to catch The Commoners set. However, the reviews show that while Troy was a tough act to follow, they also totally ripped the house down with their mix of deep Southern soul with a hard rock edge.

Not a bad double bill for a ticket price of just £18.50…

 

Check out Troy’s web site to buy all his music and merch (he designs his own t-shirts and creates all the art for his album covers), and while you’re there why not sign up to his newsletter to get the latest on when the new album is out?

Check out our epic Vera Black hats on our web site to find one that’s perfect for your rock n roll swagger. Maybe even the Redfern Rambler hat that was designed for Troy. There are more ideas for shopping Troy’s rock star look at the end of our first interview where we also cover Troy’s music and art influences. You can also sign up for our newsletter to get the latest news on our ever-changing range and to get more creative tips and inside knowledge from our ambassadors like Troy.

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