Saturday, April 16, 2011

Taking a trip back to Ibiza - interview with Isomeric

Isomeric: Griff Johnson and Si Cook

JUST a couple of miles outside Newbury, the village of Enborne is a tranquil part of West Berkshire, but possibly a surprising source of creation for a new “chill” album - featuring a type of music more usually inspired by exotic climes and warmer temperatures.

But it is here that Simon Cook - pharmaceutical scientist by day, mad scientist of the mixing desk by night - has his home studio, and along with former Newbury resident Griff Johnson, works his musical magic to create the mellow sounds associated with chill music under their new moniker Isomeric.

Formerly known as Tripswitchers (they changed their name because it was too similar to some other musical outfits), Cook and Johnson, who grew up in Newbury (he now lives in Guildford), met through a friend who knew Cook was looking for new collaborators. Originally Johnson, a prolific West End musical director, was hired as a session keyboardist, but the pair soon bonded over a mutual dream of reviving the vibe of party islands such as Ibiza in their heyday, where downtempo chill music helped revellers recover from frenetic and prolonged sessions on the dancefloors of the superclubs. “I think there was a feeling very early on that we weren’t going to be a gigging rock & roll band,” says Cook.

Inspired by their travels around the world - Cook says that quite a few of the tracks were penned in their earliest form while he was on holiday - the pair found writing together a natural and easy process. For the recording, they gathered live musicians and vocalists from a variety of sources -  singers on their debut album include West End star Kerry Ellis and former Freakpower singer Ashley Slater; they have also worked with Newbury’s own Fiona Bennett, and are currently working “more and more” with a singer called Katie Holmes, whose “silky jazzy voice goes well with the beats.

“The 11 tracks aren’t just variations of each other, they cover a range of styles, and sometimes the tempos aren’t always ‘chilled’ as such - but relaxation is the common theme,” says Cook. “New production techniques make it easier to fuse the electro beats of the Ibiza era with the strong soul songwriting styles of the 1970s. We don’t let technology take away the musicianship, and we believe in the importance of good lyrics.

“However, we have to be very disciplined with the BPM [beats per minute] - you can’t have something over 100bpm and still call  it downtempo.

“There’s no reason that just because we’re using electronic tools, we can’t use the methodologies of classical songwriting. That’s why we called our record label ‘Kolloidal Music’ - ‘colloidal’ means the mix of two things that shouldn’t go together, like the oil and water in mayonnaise. Our sound is simple, but there are layers of complexity, rather like what Brian Wilson did with the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Sometimes the simplest things are complicated to achieve.”

Cook and Johnson have released their album, Tropic Of Comfort, on their own label, and in mp3 format only, at least to begin with, although Cook is aware that some music lovers “still like to hold a CD”. Central to such decisions has been the invaluable advice of Cook’s brother, big beat DJ Norman Cook (who formerly topped the charts with Freakpower, along with Slater).  “He told me we didn’t need to sell our soul to a big record company, and could do it all ourselves. It’s been quite a learning curve for me - designing the album cover and so on. But it’s so immediate - one song made it onto the album having been finished just two days before its release.”

While Norman has had a full-time career in music since his days as bassist with The Housemartins in the 1980s, Cook likes the idea of the ‘renaissance man’, balancing his day job with his musical passions. “We all get labelled, but there’s no reason why we can’t be into everything.”

Cook admits that his brother’s technical know-how has been useful in helping him master the sound engineering techniques required to produce his own music, although the siblings certainly differ on musical styles: “Norman’s about the party; we’re more about the morning after,” jokes Cook. “Isomeric is about creating a vibe of dreaminess; a languid and lazy fluid sound; something blissful and sublime. We have a passion for music, and we hope that shows.”

* Tropic Of Comfort by Isomeric is available to download, as an album or by individual tracks, from iTunes, Amazon and eMusic.

Friday, April 15, 2011

What a nice Imran - review of Imran Yusuf

Imran Yusuf at Arlington Arts Centre, Snelsmore, on Saturday, April 2

COMEDIAN Imran Yusuf was in buoyant mood as he bounded on stage at Arlington Arts on Saturday - kissing a shaven-headed male audience member and shaking local PR man Nigel Morgan by the hand - and with good reason, as it was Morgan’s support of Yusuf when he judged the first-ever Newbury Comedy Festival You Must Be Joking contest back in 2004 that effectively launched his stand-up career.

Since then, Yusuf has been bubbling away on the comedy circuit, with his second big break coming last year, when a stint on the Free Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival led to a Edinburgh Comedy Awards Best Newcomer nomination - the first performer in a free show to receive this plaudit. The result has been national television and radio appearances and a 42-date tour of his nominated show, An Audience with Imran Yusuf.

Saturday’s performance gave Yusuf the opportunity to show his real mettle - as well as his gratitude to Newbury - by making up for a no-show by his support act who had succumbed to food poisoning, with a preview of material prepared for hi 2011 Edinburgh show. Similarly to his main show, much of this explored the idea of identity. A practising Muslim, taken aback by how often he is asked what his parents think of his comedy (“my mother doesn’t know because my father doesn’t let her watch television”), Yusuf has a rich cultural heritage, having been born in Kenya to Kokani (Indian) Muslim parents and raised in London, with a year’s schooling in the USA while staying with relatives.

This year in the USA was an interesting experience for Yusuf, as it was the first time he’d experienced prejudice for being British, and contrasted well with his story of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he single-handedly “brought peace to the Middle East”    as a Palestinian and an Israeli soldier consulted together on whether he was authentically Muslim enough to be allowed into the sacred Islamic Dome of the Rock outside of tourist visiting hours.

Suited and booted, Yusuf had a quirky style and turn of phrase, mixing self-deprecation at the expense of his skinny frame with some intentionally highly dubious chat-up lines, London-style gangsta-speak and a few amusingly outrageous statements that led the audience to gasp collectively, with the pay-off “I can get away with this!”.

Having seen him perform for radio at a recording of BBC Radio 4’s current affairs comedy series The Now Show in December, and now live at Arlington Arts, it is clear that Yusuf is a confident performer with plenty to say, and is fearless of delving into his own psyche to explore some interesting and challenging issues. Ebullient all the way through the show, he still had enough energy at the end for a sit-down chat with some of the audience in the lobby. It was nice to see a performer who was so prepared to give.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on April 7, 2011
  • Images courtesy of Nigel Morgan from Morgan PR, a leading Berkshire public relations and social media consultancy

After 90 minutes on stage, Imran Yusuf chatted with some of the audience members for more than an hour after the show, answering questions and telling stories. As Nigel Morgan says: "This was the real Audience with Imran Yusuf!"

Friday, April 08, 2011

Big titters - review of Frankie Titters On!

Frankie Titters On! at Arlington Arts, Snelsmore, on Saturday, March 26

HAVING found his place as a cult comedian much-loved by students in the final years before his death in 1992, Frankie Howerd’s 45-year career was described by fellow comedian Barry Cryer as “a series of comebacks”. So not surprisingly, his story, full of showbiz highs and lows, chronic stage fright and hypochondria, makes rich material for this one-man stage show in which Paul Harris brings Howerd back from the afterlife for a look back on his life and career.

From Howerd’s early struggles to become an actor, through his early success and into long periods of ‘resting’ and depression, through which his manager and life partner Dennis Heymer remained a steadfast source of support and love, Howerd came across as a high-maintenance but still likeable character whose self-belief was as delicately balanced as his toupee.

Howerd believed that his periods of critical and popular ignominy were a natural payoff for the salad days of success - for example when the follow-up to his hit television series Up Pompeii! was a flop. Anyone remember Whoops Bagdad!? However, he often brought disaster upon his own career by succumbing to imagined or exaggerated illnesses at crucial moments, or bad decisions made in deference to his wish to be taken seriously as an actor.

Interspersed with tales of fall and redemption were stand-up performances of Howerd’s act, a reminder of how naughty his material was, and how much more open minded audiences of old must have been than we realise, to not be terribly shocked at double-entendres and language which would raise eyebrows among some audiences today. Harris revived Howerd’s turn of phrase, mannerisms and tics fabulously, with Howerd’s childhood stammer always simmering under the surface of his polished performance. 

Despite the sadness in Howerd’s life, the show never got too dark - the abuse he received at the hands of his father was only touched upon, not surprisingly as Howerd never liked talking about himself, and even when appearing on the big television chat shows, would insist on seeing the questions in advance so he could prepare thoroughly. Even his long-term relationship with Heymer remained fairly private knowledge until his death, with his on-stage material portraying him as a man with an eye for the ladies. 

The performance ended on a particularly cheeky note from Harris that raised an appropriately big titter. Ooh no missus indeed.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News, on Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The baby boom - activities for babies and toddlers (feature)

HAVING left it a whole seven years after the birth after my first darling cherub before I could face sprogging again, I have found the wealth of activities, events and temptations available to West Berkshire mums and babes in 2011 to be quite overwhelming. Of  course the old stalwarts existed way back in the dark ages of 2002 - the NCT with its frankly terrifying (but oh-so-worth-it) nearly new sales, my family’s favourite Monkey Music, and the local toddler group (still an excellent way for any new mum to make friends with other parents in her area) - but it was a fairly select choice, and much of it I missed out on entirely owing to a return to work before young George was old enough to participate in much that was on offer. Nowadays you can have your newborn baby signing, singing and performing bendy yoga positions before you’ve left the maternity ward - I’m joking, of course, but there are now a host of classes that you can start attending with your little one long before maternity leave ends.

Of course baby-centred activities in those early weeks are as much about benefiting Mum’s sense of wellbeing as well as her newborn, getting her out and about, meeting other new mothers, and giving her confidence in her parenting skills. The Breastfeeding Support Group is a free weekly drop-in session at Speenhamland Primary School, Newbury, on Thursdays from 1pm to 2.30pm, while the NCT’s monthly Bumps and Babes group, for pregnant women and those with babies up to 12 months is relaunching on May 17 at its new regular venue, Ace Space in Newbury. The first session will include a talk about cranial osteopathy, and costs 50p to attend. New parents are also well catered for by West Berkshire’s thriving network of Government-funded Sure Start centres, where for a nominal charge they can attend sessions for newborns or crawlers and walkers, or sign up for the 10 week Parents As First Teachers programme.

Once Baby is interacting a bit more, there is a host of classes to choose from, with only the cost and number of days in the week limiting the choices available. As well as Monkey Music, there’s Music With Mummy and local group Little Quavers Music, which runs its sessions in Thatcham and Cold Ash on a turn-up-and-pay basis, rather than signing up for a term at a time. Many classes are held in community halls, while others are based at dedicated play centres, such as Eddie Katz in Newbury and Thatcham’s Krazy Klub. In recent years, some established organisations aimed initially at older children have expanded their programme to included younger babies, such as Tumble Tots, which now runs Gymbabes to introduce pre-walkers from six months upwards to its active physical play programme.

Newbury children wouldn’t have access to the much-loved Tumble Tots programme at all if it wasn’t for Sharon Browne, a Tumble Tots mum who bought the franchise after it closed suddenly last summer after 26 years, leaving more than 350 children bereft. “I am so convinced of the benefits that children gain from Tumble Tots that I felt compelled to be a part of it,” explains the former nanny. “What is so appealing is the whole atmosphere. The children are happy, the parents are happy and the staff are happy. I am enjoying the satisfaction of seeing children develop in such a positive way.”

Tumble Tots may have been running since the early 1980s, but more recently other businesses have sprung up to attract the “parent pound”, such as the Baby & Children’s Market, which holds regular events at Newbury Racecourse, offering a slightly more sedate shopping alternative to the crazy (but fun, and oh-so-worth-it) NCT nearly new sales which take place several times a year. In addition, there are thriving car boot sales in Newbury and Thatcham which are a fabulous source of second hand baby equipment and clothes for parents on a budget.

For mums and dads with a bit more cash to splash, there are a host of gift ideas available that will preserve those precious early days for eternity, such as the finger and hand prints cast into solid silver jewellery by Newbury mumtrepreneur Penny Daly who set up her Smallprint franchise in 2009. “Not only is it a beautiful product, it enables me to balance my work with being mum to my two boys - there are very few jobs that offer both. I thought life would get easier as they got older, but now they are both at school they want even more of my time.” She now spends her days attending various toddler groups and events, meaning she can be at the school gates at home time, and choosing the hours she spends at home creating the handcrafted jewellery.

For a very unusual gift to be treasured, Basingstoke-based poet and comedian Jan Jack  offers Perfect Verse Toddler Tomes, a business she started 18 months ago after being asked to write a poem for a mum from the point of view of her two young sons. “During a phone chat with her husband, I asked him about the boys’ special relationship with Mum, nicknames, sibling rivalry, funny things they said. I then created a page of verse written from their viewpoint and telling Mum how much they loved her.” Since then, Jan has written many children’s bespoke poems, and says they are now her favourite type of verse. “Putting yourself in the mindset of a sometimes indignant four-year-old can be great fun. They are also guaranteed to make mummies - and sometimes daddies - cry. They really seem to touch a chord.”

Many local baby-centred franchises are run by mothers who decided they wanted a business which fitted around their homelife, such as Sarah Sunthareswaran from Water Babies, who trained as a baby swimming teacher after taking her daughter Sophia to lessons from the age of just 12 weeks and being “absolutely blown away”. “I have such amazing fond memories of watching her very first underwater swim, and it created an amazing bond between us.” When the local Water Babies franchise became available she “snapped it up”, and now has a team of 10 teachers working with nearly 1,000 babies throughout Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire - giving Sarah time to have two more water babies of her own, while still running the business she loves.

Similarly, Sandra Scaplehorn of TinyTalk discovered the joys of baby signing - a form of pre-verbal communication that allow babies to communicate before they can talk -  along with her own daughter, Kara, soon after her birth in 2008, although at that time she had to look further afield than Newbury for classes. “Having attended TinyTalk classes a bit further afield, my daughter started using sign language, and after a bit of perseverance on my part, hey presto - she could tell me when she wanted milk! By the time she was 18 months we did the ultimate test - we went to a restaurant with a baby in tow. It was an eye-opening experience. She sat in her  highchair, signing ‘drink’, ‘bread’, ‘water’, ‘enough’ and ‘home’. She even signed ‘thankyou’ to the waitress!  truly believe that signing strengthens the vital parent-child bond and empowers the babies.”

Lovely as it would be to sign your baby up to all the classes on offer, most parents just pick one or two to attend every week - but which ever you choose, it is clear that there are developmental and bonding benefits, such as those offered by Monkey Music. Franchise owner Val Stephenson welcomes babies from three months old to her classes at venues throughout West Berkshire. “I always find it amazing how babies even this young are transfixed with different sounds, and ho they learn through singing, cuddling, rocking, talking and clapping, all of which stimulates the baby;s brain and encourages new developmental pathways. Very quickly babies anticipate what is going to happen next, and the excitement when Monkey appears is immense.”

Val also believes that such classes are beneficial for the parents who attend - it’s mostly mums, but dads are welcome too; Take That’s Mark Owen caused great excitement when he turned up with his child at a class in London a couple of years ago. “It’s a lovely way to make new friends and enjoy some special time with their baby. It forces them to sit down and take pleasure watching their baby respond to a huge variety of interesting sounds.” Parents are expected to join in the singing, but no one is expecting operatic standards, so most mums are happy to take a full part in the fun.

For classes that offer babies a taster of all sorts of exciting and stimulating experiences, Baby Sensory involve a wide variety of action rhymes, baby signing and massage, mixed in with with use of puppets, fibre optic lights, bubbles, balls, bells, scarves, water play and more. As well as a regular programme of classes, Newbury franchisee Jane Doyle runs occasional free sessions at Newbury Library - these are ticketed events promoted in advance at the library’s own free Rhymetime sessions, which take place at 11am on the first, third and fifth (if there is one) Tuesday of each month. “One of the best arts of my job is watching the babies’ sheer enjoyment, and over time their growth and development. the sessions encourage parents and carers to play with their babies and show them things that can be made at home at very little expense for their little ones to play with and explore. Another fantastic thing I have noticed is the confidence the babies have. They are more than willing to fetch their own equipment and get involved.”

Just starting out in the wonderful world of baby business is Judith Saunders, who has been running Tatty Bumpkin yoga classes for children for six months, and has just launched Baby Bumpkin for babies and toddlers. “The classes are a wonderful way for parents and carers to bond with their children while learning massage techniques for the younger babies, and adapted yoga moves for the older ones, all designed to encourage their natural development. The benefits of massage and yoga for babies are improved sleep and digestion as well as encouraging correct muscle development and stability required for crawling and walking. Mums get some nice stretches too, and the chance to make new friends and relearn some forgotten nursery rhymes!”

  •  The Breastfeeding Support Group at Speenhamland Primary School is run as an outreach project by North Newbury Children’s Centre (Sure Start) at Victoria Park Nursery School, telephone (01635) 31143.
  • Details on community baby and toddler groups, local Sure Start Centres and other activities are available from the West Berkshire Family Information Service, visit or freephone 0800 328 9148
  • Information on Bumps and Babes and other parent and child groups run by Newbury & District NCT can be found at, and the date of its next Nearly New Sale can be found at
  • For parents thinking of starting their own baby-based franchise, the websites Mum and Working, Netmums and Female Franchise are good places to start.

Other contact details:

  • Monkey Music -, tel. (01635) 860959
  • Music With Mummy - (run by various franchisees in Newbury, Hungerford, Kintbury, Thatcham, Tadley, Burghfield Common and Mortimer)
  • Little Quavers -, tel. (01635) 200112 or (01635) 863495
  • Tumble Tots -, tel. (01635) 241201
  • Baby & Children’s Market -, tel. 07881641614
  • Smallprint -, tel. (01635) 35262
  • Perfect Verse Toddler Tomes -, tel. 07917 127381
  • Water Babies -, tel. (01869) 325499
  • Tiny Talk -, tel. 07525476486
  • Baby Sensory -, tel. 07738969358
  • Tatty Bumpkin -, tel. 0845 680 8461 or 07780996064
First published in Out & About magazine, March/April 2011