Death of a Musical Hero

Will Sinnot news clipping from NME May 1991

(The following text is an excerpt from a collection of memoirs I am currently writing. 1st draft)

The news that William Sinnott of the band the Shamen, had drowned in a tragic swimming accident off the shores of La Gomera in the Canary Islands, hit me like a tonne of bricks. I was sitting on the top deck of a bus travelling through Norwich at the time, reading through the latest issue of the NME and there it was: The photo of my musical hero, and the sickening headline ‘Will Shamen Drowns’.

I remember thinking that this must have been some kind of sarcastic, sick joke. It wouldn’t have been uncommon for the music press of the era to come out with a dramatic sounding headline, only to then say ‘Drowned in a sea of adoring ravers’ or ‘drowned in his own shame after an appalling gig in Manchester’. Unfortunately, the article had all the sickening gravitas of a genuine mini obituary. It wasn’t a joke.

Up until this moment, The Shamen had been one of the best musical acts I’d ever heard. I won’t go too much into the reasons why, here, as I’ve no doubt that I’ll write something more about them elsewhere in this collection of memoirs. One of the primary reasons I was so in awe of the group was William Sinnott aka Will Sin aka Will Shamen. Superficially, he resembled a be-dreadlocked bird of prey inhabiting human form, I think that he was a decent six foot something in stature, played the bass like a demon, was a dab hand at dancing and playing two synths simultaneously, wrote amazingly distinctive dance tunes, was extremely charismatic in interviews with an added razor blade of sharp intellect and wit. It was hard not to be impressed. 

During the time I’d been following the group as an avid fan, I devoured Will’s words and observations with every music press magazine feature and interview. The man had attitude and style. I was perfectly poised to absorb this older man’s outlook on the world, he advocated the culture I had become ensconced in, he gave intelligent insights into music, society, politics and psychedelic drug use. I didn’t know that I was seeking a role model at the time, but there he was.

In late 1990 the band released the eternally cherished album En-Tact. The music press heaped well deserved praise upon the album, noting its grown-up sound, its hypnotic and futuristic sonic palette, the positive potential of the kind of music that it delivered in spades. It was clear that the band were in their ascent and to me, thank god I was riding that wave. 

The Shamen’s En-Tact was a constant companion on my personal stereo. Will’s touch could be heard throughout, there was something edgy and cool in the sequencing, certain playfully dark samples, certain bass grooves. He’d been credited for his own solo compositions Lightspan and the monumentally cool Evil Is Even, which were instrumental tracks, given that in the months preceding its release, I’d fallen in love equally with his B-Side efforts In The Bag and Something Wonderful, another two incredibly excellent instrumentals. There was a death vibe to all of them though…

Lightspan – a play on the term ‘Lifespan’ containing the sample ‘Life is never enough…and It’s all you get’

Evil Is Even – Just sounded like a shamanic out-of-body experience with an enigmatic title …why was evil even? I know this is a tenuous observation but something about the track connects on a gut level.

Something Wonderful – for its samples taken from the movie 2010, Dr Heywood Floyd has an unexpected conversation with dead astronaut Dave Bowman.

In The Bag – retrospectively, hard not to think of the first place a dead body goes. The track sounded like a beautiful death trip, so dark and otherworldly. I found myself feeling that this was underlined when the posthumous release of the Peel Sessions ‘On Air’ appeared. The live track featured samples from Will’s earlier compositions, playing almost like a strange sampled obituary in the opening sequence.

Think I’m reading too much into it? How about the twelve-inch demo that he recorded as a side project, shortly before he drowned. U Make Me Feel has the lyric “Come on in, take a swim, don’t wait to be invited”  or the very rare Portastudio demo he recorded in 1987 called U Bury Me.

I find it impossible to not connect these dots with a sense of wonder, the immortal rhetorical question: “Did he somehow, just know…?”

When it became clear that his drowning was absolutely a fact of reality, I felt stunned, then consumed by an immense sadness that I’ve never forgotten. In the immediate weeks after his death, I felt a deep sense of loss, almost as if someone very close to me had passed. I think retrospectively, I recognised the tragedy as the collapsing of a wave of so many potentials diminishing so very quickly and violently off the shores of some foreign land. Will’s star should have continued to ascend, not burn out into nothingness in the way that it had. How rarely does death offer second chances?

My diary entries at the time failed to adequately convey the deep wound that Will’s drowning inflicted on my soul, which is why I’ve chosen to write this entry as it appears now.

In 2018 I was lucky enough to venture to the Canaries and stay in Tenerife, a location where much of the Progen 91 video was filmed. I took the opportunity to take a ferry to La Gomera as I wished to know the place where Will spent his final days. I had felt frustrated that people I’ve maintained contact with, people who one would suppose as ‘being in the know’ didn’t seem to know where in La Gomera Will took his final swim. This meant that my pilgrimage ended up being a scattershot affair of exploring the island (Which is by far the most beautiful of all the Canaries I’ve been lucky to visit)

I had to conclude that, if one is going to die on a beautiful Island, terrible as the event may be, La Gomera is a stunning place to end life’s path. I felt a draw toward the west coastal town of Valle Gran Rey, my intuition seemed to be pulling me in that direction, but I wasn’t certain.

This year, 2019, I went there again and felt the same pull towards that location. In one of the final interviews with the band in 1991, just before the tragic sequence of events unfolded, vocalist Richard West had been noted for mentioning that Will and his girlfriend Julie were to stay on in La Gomera, staying in a cave by the sea. It turns out that a likely spot fits that description in Valle Gran Rey, so my second visit seemed to have a certain sense of validation when I returned there. I still cannot be sure though, but that was the place that my second pilgrimage took me back to.

I doubt that this will be the final visit to the island. I’m not intending to make a tradition of it by any means, I just feel on some level that I have unfinished business there, I feel that I need to perform some kind of ritual action that hasn’t fully formed within me yet…NO, It won’t involve going for a swim!

Decades down the timeline of this personal story, I have never lost the feeling that I have mourned a brother from my own tribe, it is so hard to put into words exactly why that is, all I know is that I’ve carried a genuine sense of loss for all of these years and It is possible that a subsequent visit to La Gomera may yield something of a catharsis, in finally letting go of the ghost of this amazing man that I never had the pleasure to meet in person.

Funnily, I had for a moment, come close to meeting him in November 1990. The Shamen hosted an event called Synergy at the London venue once known as The Rocket. The event will be discussed in more detail in another entry. For now, I’ll mention that as I was queuing with my friend outside before the venue doors opened, Will walked past. I was so gobsmacked in the moment, that I just gawped. Later in the evening, I was dancing with a young lady with a Scottish accent and long blonde dreadlocks who happened to say proudly “That’s my boyfriend up there” pointing to Will as he was dancing around and playing bass during the Shamen part of the gig. I had no reason to doubt her.

Later, I found myself somewhere in residential London, at a party that was at the band’s residence. It was a squat building with a skateboard half-pipe in the back yard. Colin Angus, (The other half of the dynamic duo) was there. Heavy dub was blasting from the basement of the building, I’d hoped that I’d get an opportunity to meet Will but it turned out that he was somewhere else that night.

I have often wondered what would have become of him had he not died, how would he have evolved? What musical direction would he have taken? What if, what if?  This impossible line of questioning has occasionally manifested an answer in dreams. I’ve been leafing through records in a synaptic record shop or neurological vinyl stall on the edge of a Yesod market…I discover a Shamen pile of twelve-inch records, tunes I’ve never heard of, I examine the sleeves (all designed by Me Company) They have really upped the ante with their techno-psychedelic design work, I can see on the back sleeve, ghostly images of Will and Colin fused with the sublime patterns and colours. My excitement ramps up considerably, what year is this? Oh my god! I have to buy the lot! Will is still with us! and then…and then I shift back to this ‘Universe A’ state of consciousness with its own personal unique hole in my spacetime.

Shamanic Revival

taken from private journal

There’s a certain fine connective tissue between my creative projects. I know I’m partly guilty of flitting between proects rather than nailing down and ploughing through one idea with sustained focus.
I said in an earlier entry that I’d attempt to not do this, but I have to admit that chopping and changing tends to work quite well for me, I am retaining creativity daily after all.

I tend to find when I reach a creative block, especially when it’s music related, my mind tends to do one of two things. I either completely shift gears to another method of self expression or I return to something earlier where I got stuck. In the most recent case, it has been returning to a little project I’ve gradually evolved over the last couple of years.

Here’s a brief back story: For about thirty years I’ve been a fan of the former band ‘The Shamen’. The road got a bit bumpy in their later years after their bassist,(my first musical hero) Will Sinnott died, so my main point of  admiration tends to focus on the era between 1988-91 where the band, in my opinion, transited through their *golden age*.

When I lived in Norwich, the city centre market used to have a stall that sold bootleg recordings of gigs. I’d make a weekly visit there on the look out for stuff I was into, one one occasion I spotted a Shamen bootleg of them playing in Bournemouth doing a ‘Synergy’ club night. Because Synergy was a type of show that was part rave, part concert with a seamless transition between DJ sets and live acts, whoever had bootlegged the show also made a point of recording about half an hour’s worth of the DJ set. Most of the tunes in that section of the recording were old club classics of the day, elements of What time is Love by the KLF, Renegade Soundwave’s ‘The Phantom’. To my mind the standout track was the unexpected and fucking brilliant instrumental remix of Shamen track ‘Oxygen Restriction’

This version was unique to my collection as it appeared to have never been released… I had the tape for quite a few years, complete with poor quality cassette hiss, peoples voices forming a background ambience. I always felt frustrated that I had such an amazing recording so badly recorded. Sometime around 2003-2004, I found myself no longer owning a tape machine and it seemed that tape was dead in general. I clearly recall sizing up the tape, during a clear out and thinking ‘ah, I suppose I’ll never play this again’ and throwing it out with other rubbish. I have learnt to bitterly regret that choice over the years since then. Here’s why:

1. There are a small number Shamen Bootleg recordings online, none of which are the Bournemouth show.
2. I have since learnt that the reason the version of Oxygen Restriction is so obscure, Is probably because it was an on the fly live mix performed by Will and another DJ, ergo it was unique.
3. It looks like I was the only owner of the bootleg of the concert. If anyone else had it, they’ve never made it publicly available.

4. Since disposing of the aforementioned cassette, I have been haunted by the memory of the tune and remember it vividly enough to now be able to do something about it…nearly.

Needles to say, as I’ve gradually progressed with my ability to sequence and play music (Mainly on Nanostudio) I’ve made attempts to recreate the music I remember. I guess because I’m a perfectionist, I’ve felt frustrated at the things I know don’t sound quite right, or true to how I remember them.

Nanostudio sadly became a defunct DAW after having survived a few years and several iOS updates and phone iterations. The developer Blip Interactive decided to retire the app in the advent of the iPhone X and cease updating the software, consequently any Apple devices running the latest operating system could no longer open the old music production software.

For me, this meant that every piece of music I’d created and learnt from over the last four years had to be relegated to a digital graveyard. I still have my old phone with a working copy of my first DAW, including early attempts at Oxygen Restriction.

Musical creativity has shifted to the excellent and very portable GarageBand for iOS, where I’ve put focus into updating the more successful music projects from my earlier efforts. I know I’ve appeared to digress but bear with me on this.

The beauty of working on GarageBand whilst on commutes and work breaks is that nearly everything I create can be exported and built upon in Logic X for a more professional and polished sound.
Recently I’ve returned to the quest to faithfully recreate that long lost bootleg mix of Oxygen Restriction, and its definitely progressing along in leaps and bounds. Call me an anorak, but I felt a sense of glee when I spotted an old Shamen video of Colin Angus playing a Yamaha DX7 ; “A clue!” I thought. I found an app that was free and claimed to be a faithful emulator of the old DX sounds. Sure enough, one of the settings had a synth noise incredibly similar to the opening chords of Hyperreal. Coincidentally, the same sound was used in that obscure Oxygen Restriction version, so that’s another box I can tick.

Revisiting the Shamen as I do, I have found my imagination wandering around on other things I have always admired but felt haunted by for various reasons. For example, it transpires from various other publicly available bootlegs that the band evolved ideas for their tracks over the course of a live tour. The track Phorward played live was a significant departure from the version on the album of the same name. Elements of the Pro-gen rap can be heard in Colin’s singing. I’m particularly fond of the Bootleg ‘Shamen Live at Suberrania’ as it sounds like Colin and Will were on fire with energy. The songs were incredibly punchy and performed with precision. Once again, I have the nagging spectre of dissatisfaction with audio quality.

On the one hand, I could think ‘it was of the moment- should’ve been there’. On the other hand I think ‘I could probably make a close approximation of these tunes and make snappy instrumental versions of them’ The creative drive dictates the outcome, the lack of perfection of my musical ability remains the only hindrance …but I’m working on that and confident that I’ll get to where I need to.

Contender tracks are:

Phorward: current obstacles are sourcing the opening samples.
“and they can’t find it? Then we’ll find it! We all know damn well they won’t. They haven’t been able to for 50.000 years looking at it that way. It requires an alteration, a change…”

*Update: Source located*

War Prayer:

*Awaiting bass recording from session bassist*

Misinformation:

*Vast collection of modern equivalent samples currently amassing*

You, Me and Everything (Evil Ed live Subterrania ‘Funky’ version)

*Original samples hard to identify: If you know the gaps to the following problem, I’d love to hear from you “Yaaaaah (Got) Here it is (Unknown) ???????? Hit it (Got) cold rock stuff (Got)”

Splash 2/What’s Going Down?

*Sequencing started, having trouble with the main synth riff which is a 6/8 loop the notes are correct, the synth sounds are just wrong.

I don’t mind taking on the challenge of recreating and experimenting with the works of another long respected artist. I personally feel that an attempted copy will teach me where my strengths and weaknesses are, it will allow me greater insight into the creative processes of arrangement as the original tracks provide a template. Given that I sometimes struggle with my own arrangements, having a form of replica will provide insights into how Colin and Will worked back in the day, as I’ve learnt from my attempted recreation of Hyperreal last year, seeing a track laid out on the piano roll of a Daw is an insight that almost everyone lacks when they hear a tune that they love. It can be quite an education.