Turn it up.

My bass is in its case between my knees, and every time the car turns it shunts my leg further into the door. Tinnitus blending with the sound of the bypass. Screaming, whistling. Used to stress me out, but life’s about how you look at it, ae? I’ve chosen to find the sound interesting. In fact, I’ve found that I can fluctuate the sound by clenching and unclenching my jaw. I lie in bed at night making haunting, high-pitched, celestial music. The sound of dying ear cells, cochlea, as my doctor had called them, prompting a little giggle from fifteen-year-old me. I’m twenty-two now, so I’ve had time to acclimatise. Plus, when an ailment’s your own fault, you tend to forgive it more easily.

“Will we put the radio on?” Jim says.

“Why not,” I say.

Jim’s driving. Long, floppy black hair. He has a certain wiry elegance to him. A certain fluidity to his movements. The practice space is on a commercial estate just off the town centre between a Hyundai and a Mini garage. “You sort it then, Shaun,” he says.

Shaun’s in the front passenger seat wearing khaki shorts and a Steely Dan t-shirt. I’m in the back. He leans forward and puts a finger on the dial, “Gimmie some tunes, you salty cow.” He says. Shaun’s the middle child of the band, the drummer. He’s got short blonde hair and a bit of a goatee. He turns the radio to Heart, “Shite.” EDM. “Next!” Classic FM, a nice Handel concerto; the opening of Op 6. He turns to me, grinning, and starts conducting with his fingers.

“How pleasant,” I say. I’m in the back, still hugging the bass.

“How pleasant indeed,” Shaun says.

“Naw.” Jim flips a paddle by the steering wheel and bares left. “Put some fuckin bangers on.”

Shaun pulls a face and turns the dial again. Top 100, “Naw,” Smooth Chill. “How’s about that?” The radio box lights up with those magical words; Smooth, Chill. It’s nice: lo-fi hip-hop. The kind of thing Uni students listen to in the library after popping their second Ritalin of the evening. “Does what it says on the tin.”

“Smooth Chill,” Jim says, tasting the words. Feeling the smoothness.

Jim had picked me up from the station about ten minutes before. We all live in the greater Stirling area. Dunblane for me and Shaun; Stirling for Billy and Jim. Jim’s the youngest of us all, an outstanding guitarist. His driving isnae bad either. You can feel the G’s on some corners, but it’s mostly stable.

“How d’ya think they came up with smooth chill,” I say. I’m the oldest, big bushy beard and a bit of a belly. Billy, the frontman, likes to say I bring the band some ‘much-needed sex appeal.’ The little bastard. He’s meeting us there. “Was there a board meeting or was it some kind of competition? Maybe an outsourced project management unit?”

“What? Do you mean; Smooth Chill: the name, or the concept of smoothly chilling?” Shaun says.

“The name.”

“It’ll have been done like one of those league tables. A whole slew of two-word titles and a cheer-omiter with the station crew.”

“And the winner came round to be smooth fucking chill, after quite the raucous evening of cheering.”

“What a name,” I say.

“What an institution, smooth chill. It just rolls smoothly out of your mouth.”

“Chill insane good enough. I want to be smooth whilst I chill.”

I look down at my phone, nestled behind the neck of the bass. I pull out Reddit and start to scroll: a bear and a dog who are pals, some witty responses to an unsolicited penis photograph, a man winning some kind of knife competition, and then fire. A flaming truck, burning bales of hay, a panicked driver. It streams past the camera operator, who hasn’t thought to turn their phone to the landscape position. A great glowing trail follows the truck. I open the comments, top one says, “Apparently the driver noticed the fire but he was driving past a school and then a petrol station, so he wanted to stay clear. Explains the manic driving.” I pause the video, letting the trail of fire hang in the silicon air.

“Do we need masks by the way?” I say, looking up.

“Yeah probably,” Jim says.

He exits a roundabout and eases into a car park. It’s evening, early summer. The sun is bright and low in the sky. I rummage around in my pocket. There’s a fresh medical mask in there somewhere, but it’s been crushed into my keys. Jim rounds the back of the building and parks up. On our left is a group of metalheads smoking cigarettes. We give them a masculine nod, grab our gear out of the boot, mask up, and go straight in. The lobby’s a little room with a desk and a couch. Andy’s sitting there in a mask, his big glasses steamed, “Room 1, boys” he says, pointing to a corridor. “Payment came through fine.” I hike my bass higher on my shoulder and smile at him. It’s hard to smile with a mask on, but you can still see it in the shape of folk’s eyes. There’s something else too. Maybe a certain pheromone is released. An unacknowledgeable smile smell. You can feel a smile the same way you can feel a sound.

“You’ve wasted my fucking life, Jemma.”

It’s been about a year since we last played together and I’m nervous. When you’ve not played together for a long time, you don’t know if the gel’s gonnae be there. I worry they won’t accept me. That’s the way with music. I’ve proved myself a million times, but the feeling doesn’t go away. You can do it or you cannae, proofs in the playing.

I pull out my bass and lean it against an amp. Billy’s already in there waiting for us, wearing tartan skinny jeans and a red denim jacket, blonde hair. The room’s ten metres square with an old PA, three guitar amps, a bass amp, and a drum kit minus breakables (‘breakables’ means snare, cymbals, and the odd cowbell if you swing that way). I pull out my bundle of cables and my pedals and plugin. I’ve got a tube screamer and a tuner. I like boosting the highs a touch with the screamer. Gives the bass a nice, dirty sound.

 I never practice loud in the house, so it’s a novelty. Maw needs silence, especially after she’s gone to sleep. It’s only me and her in the house just now anyways. I’ve got one of those families where you can never get more than two of them in a room at a time. Dissonance.

I tune up and feel out a riff. Shaun already has his cymbals hanging. He starts testing, a double stop on the kick and a roll on the snare. He gives a thumb. On the other end of the room, Jim and Billy have their guitars plugged. Billy’s got some distortion and spring reverb and Jim’s got about eight pedals, it’s aebody’s guess what they all do, but after a few seconds, he’s good.

“Let’s do The Socialites,” Billy says. The song’s one of my favourites, but it’s hard, about three minutes of continuous, hammered triplets, but I start to sway as Shaun counts us in. Our levels are slightly out. The bass is too quiet, but we’re in. Time is ours. The opening riff turns into a pattern with Jim’s lead and Billy barks out the first verse. It all bends around me as a ribbon. A wide length that ripples and shudders with every thump. The air shivers. I’m in the other world. Guitar-land, my teacher used to call it, this old Canadian rocker. “Go to guitar-land and stay there, man. You don’t have to leave if you don’t want to.”

My maw lives in the Dunblane east end, dad’s in Glasgow. I get on with everyone in the family. Youngest child, so it’s a bit odd being the oldest band member. I’m not in charge, doesnae work like that. Billy’s the frontman. This is something a lot of folk don’t understand about bands. You need a leader, a conductor, someone to hold the reins of the vibrating world and tell it where to go. Too many cooks spoil the broth and aww that.

Billy grins and hammers out the chorus and then it’s on me. I slide down to fifth for the interlude. It’s a repurposed version of a Paul McCartney riff. That’s another thing wi music that most folk don’t understand. It’s like maths, numbers. There’re no new numbers, there’re no new chords. Musicians need to be inspired from all over the place. We take sounds that we like, stitch them together in a way that we like, and then we call it music. Jim starts to solo over the bass riff, first pentatonic and then diatonic. He’s got these new strings, custom ones that the guy from ZZ-Top apparently likes. He can almost bend a full octave.

Life’s a lot like music, I think. Play it too loud and there’s gonnae be consequences. Your ears won’t ever stop ringing. Like with my parents. They expected too much of Tabby, my older sister. They were too hard on her. Didnae ken what the fuck they were doing, so she tore away early, not seen her in years. I’m fine. I’m stoned all the time. Can’t argue wi me, it’s impossible, so I stay at my maws.

We get to the end of the song and the humming world recedes, “I think we need two triplets on that fill,” Billy says. “Parapum, parapum, peestch.” He makes the hand movements and Shaun looks on from behind the kit with an eyebrow raised. He’s taps aff already.

“Play the riff then,” he does, and Shaun does the triplets.

“Naw, dot the first beat.”

“Well, it willnae be triplets then, will it?”

I start laughing.

“Play, just play,” Billy says. “Let’s loop that phrase and work it out.”

We go over it again and Billy steps over to me. “I cannae quite hear you, Kev. Gonnae turn up.” My ears are whistling even with my earplugs in, wee specialist ones I keep in a screw-top container on my keyring. At least I can stop it from getting any worse. I kneel down next to the bass amp and tweak the lows and mids. I play a riff, “How’s that?”


I hate silence, partly because of the tinnitus, but I hated it even before that. Silence is unnatural, it’s death, an empty household. Before the divorce, it was full of screams, sounds. “You fat fucking prick, Ryan,” shaking through the floor.

I turn up the bass pickups, a pair of single coils, and then I turn up the master, thrumming with a thumb as I do.

You’re a bitch, actually you know what? You’re a witch, you’ve fucking cursed me, Jemma.”

I’m twelve years old, half-asleep, thinking about how sound travels further through harder surfaces, especially surfaces with a firm molecular convergence like the wood of my little bunk bed. I can feel the sound of my mother, Jemma, crying. Not the high ends, just the lows. Those ugly wa, wa, wa sounds. I slept like that most nights, at least till I was old enough to buy myself some headphones. These days it’s silent, like standing in the eye of a storm.

“Turn it up.”

“I ammm.”

“Lounder, Kev. We gotta hear it over the kick.”

I hear the sound of a plate smashing in the kitchen downstairs, a dog yelps, and I turn up my headphones. It’s so loud it hurts. I can feel it beaming into my mind. Janis Fucking Joplin.

“Turn it up,” Billy says.

“Right, right,” I turn the master to full and then up the gain on my screamer. It’s loud, there’s wind coming out the amp for every note. I can feel it on my legs.

“Which song next?” I say.

“Let’s do that yin again.”


Shaun taps us in. I hit the first note and there’s a low, thudding sound. A woof. The lights on the front of the amp go out. The wind on my legs is gone.

“I think I’ve fuckin blown it,” I say.

(This story also appeared in The Harr 2021)


Published by friggintoby


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