Although he began with a Fender Telecaster, twin stylus Stylophone and second hand Akai reel-to-reel tape recorder to compose primitive ambient experiments, when a young Dave Ball bought a MiniKorg 800DV duophonic synthesizer, he never looked back.
On his first day as a fresher on the Fine Art degree at Leeds Polytechnic, he asked for directions from a second year student wearing a leopard skin printed shirt and gold lame jeans; that student was Marc Almond and the pair were make history as SOFT CELL…
Over four decades on, SOFT CELL have proved to be one of the most influential electronic pop acts ever with BRONSKI BEAT, PET SHOP BOYS, FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD, PSYCHE, NINE INCH NAILS and even DEPECHE MODE owing more than a debt of gratitude to Messrs Almond and Ball for the doors they opened. During their imperial Some Bizzare phase between 1981-1982, SOFT CELL scored no less than five Top4 UK hit singles with ‘Tainted Love’, ‘Bedsitter’, ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’, ‘Torch’ and ‘What’ in little more than 12 months.
After SOFT CELL first disbanded in 1984, Marc Almond would go onto long and varied solo career while Dave Ball found success as a member of the dance duo THE GRID with Richard Norris. Almond and Ball would reunite to co-write three songs for the former’s ‘Tenement Symphony’ album, but a full SOFT CELL reunion would not take place until 2001. A comeback album ‘Cruelty Without Beauty’ was released in 2002 supported by extensive touring but behind the scenes, tensions were lingering. Following Marc Almond’s near-fatal motorcycle accident in 2003, the pair did not speak for many years.
But in 2018, SOFT CELL surprised the world by announcing what was intended to be a final concert at London’s O2 Arena. Having also recorded an excellent new single ‘Northern Lights’ b/w ‘Guilty Cos I Say You Are’, the special magic between Almond and Ball could not be denied. In 2022, their fifth SOFT CELL studio album ‘*Happiness not included’ was released with a number of its songs having been previewed during the duo’s 2021 live celebration of their debut album, now released as the concert film ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret… And Other Stories: Live’.
However, Dave Ball was to have his own brush with mortality, spending part of 2022 in intensive care in a London hospital after seriously damaging his lower vertebrae. Placed in an induced coma, he had to miss SOFT CELL’s North American concert dates. Steadily regaining his health and fitness, Dave Ball is vowing to be on top form again for SOFT CELL’s series of outdoor live shows in 2023.
And it was a chipper Dave Ball who accepted ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s invitation to chat over a round of Vintage Synth Trumps and talk about SOFT CELL’s past, present and future…
So the first Vintage Synth Trumps card is an EMS VCS3…
The first time I saw one of those was Brian Eno using one with ROXY MUSIC and Dave Brock from HAWKWIND had one as well. So there’s a few legendary rock stars that have had them but I’ve never actually owned one. I had a quick play with one once at Guildford University, they have a big music college there so had a Moog System 55 and a VCS3. I was messing around with all the little pins and making weird echoey noises. I’ve always wanted to have one, they look like a lot of fun!
The next card by coincidence is the EMS Synthi AKS which is the compact suitcase version of the VCS3…
These EMS synths are the sort of synths I dream about, I’ve seen them but had no experience recording with them. I always get these two mixed up though, they were based in Putney weren’t they? I think there’s someone still making them but the originals cost a fortune and go for thousands now.
How do you feel about these remake synths, like the Korg ARP Odyssey which you have used live?
I think they’re alright y’know, I’ve got a Behringer 2600, that sounds pretty good… the one that I’m interested in at the moment is a rack mounted Wasp remake which they’ve done. There’s a connection to EMS isn’t there?
Yeah, Chris Huggett who did the original EDP Wasp worked on the Akai S1000 alongside David Cockerell who was at EMS…
…so I’ve bought one, they look like a lot of fun and I really like the sound of them as well. It actually sounded like a wasp, really thin and nasty! *laughs*
You were using the new Korg ARP Odyssey for basslines like on the live version of ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’ that is featured on the ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret…And Other Stories: Live’ film, how you find it compared to the Korg Synthe-Bass SB100 or other synths like the Minimoog?
A lot of the stuff live is programmed to computer and I’m just beefing things up and adding to them. I do like the Korg ARP Odyssey, it’s got a very distinct sound. When I hear one of those, I always think of Billy Currie, especially the early ULTRAVOX stuff, he got that machine sounding fantastic. Also, a lot of early KRAFTWERK videos, you see one as well. That famous ‘Tomorrow’s World’ clip, they had a Minimoog and an Odyssey. I’ve never actually played an original authentic Odyssey so I wouldn’t be able to compare although the keys are smaller… I just take it as what it is. It IS a Korg version.
How do you find those small keys cos you’re a big fella? *laughs*
Yeah, I’ve got big fingers but I’m quite nifty with them. At home when I’m just messing about, I sometimes use one of those Akai MPK things and they have little keys on them. You get used to them and I’m quite nimble with my big fingers! *laughs*
So with the ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret…And Other Stories: Live’ film, what are your memories of those shows and revisiting material like ‘Entertain Me’, ‘Chips On My Shoulder’, ‘Seedy Films’ and ‘Secret Life’ which hadn’t been aired in concert since 1982?
It was great because I’m not in the habit of listening to my old material at all, but as I knew the shows were coming up, I had to check the first album again. It was really refreshing to hear it and listen to how much we’ve changed and stuff. But what was really good about doing the shows was for a lot of people who have great memories of that album, it was the first time they’d ever heard us live, so I think it was great for them to hear the whole album being done live. It was actually the first time we’d done it, we’d never performed the album in its entirety in sequence before.
When we first made it, we used some of the tracks off it but not all of them. It was good to hear it as a whole peace. We are thinking of maybe doing the same thing with ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’, cos that could be quite a good show because a lot of people really love that album as well…
I think that would be a brilliant idea Dave…
We’ve got quite a few possibilities and options after these upcoming outdoor shows and ‘Let it Rock’… is it called ‘Let It Rock’?
It’s called ‘Let’s Rock’ but I do think is the weirdest possible name for a heritage pop festival brand… *laughs*
‘Let’s Rock’, its sounds it could be SHOWADDYWADDY on the bill! *laughs*
Yes! EXACTLY! That’s my point! It’s easy to understand the brand concepts of ‘Rewind’, ‘Here & Now’ and ‘Forever Young’, but ‘Let’s Rock’ when there’s no rock? It is head scratching but they are doing the business…
I’d never heard of them until we were approached… my only problem at the moment with playing gigs is my mobility; I’ll probably have to use a wheelchair to get on stage! It doesn’t really matter because I sit down when I play anyway. So getting on and off stage is my only primary concern at the moment, never mind the 10,000 people that are going to be watching us! Once I’m on stage and I’m locked in, so long as I don’t start wheeling backwards, I’ll be fine! *chuckles*
Here’s another card, and it’s an Oberheim OBXa…
There were two schools, those who went for the OBX and people like me who went for the Prophet 5, it was a very similar sort of synth in terms of the way it worked and the polyphony of it but I was always a Prophet 5 man. But I did buy an Oberheim DMX drum machine which was part of that kit series that included the DSX sequencer and OBX.
Was the DMX more cost effective than the LinnDrum?
When we recorded ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’, we used the Linn 1, the Linn 2 and the DMX so it wasn’t to do with cost, it was just sonics. The Linn was a better machine in terms of it being easier to trigger with a click track, whereas the DMX wasn’t quite as simple, but it was being used on a lot of early hip-hop and electro records so I liked the sound of it more, it was a bit more punchy I thought.
Here’s something I’ve always wanted to ask you Dave, you used the Synclavier on the first two albums but bought a PPG Wave 2.2 for ‘This Last Night In Sodom’, so why did you pick that over the Synclavier or Fairlight?
This was to do with price! I never bought the sequencer for the PPG though because I always used to play everything by hand. I liked the sound of it, it was a big machine and I wanted something that sounded quite modern and metallic. The Fairlight and Synclavier had dated by then and everybody had used them on everything, so it was nice to break away from that really.
So no Fairlight, no Synclavier, that album was PPG and the DMX although my favourite drum machine would probably be the Roland TR808 out of all of them. That’s the one we used on the first album, I think we got one of the first ones off the production line. Mike Thorne also had it when we got to New York, he had a Synclavier and TR808 set-up ready to go so that was great, so we didn’t do it totally fresh *laughs*
The next card I’ve pulled out is a Roland Juno 60 and I know you used this at the O2 show in 2018…
I had one for a short while, a friend had one second-hand so I got it off him. The thing about all Roland synths is they all have a fantastic sound, you can’t really beat them. Gary Barnacle who plays sax for SOFT CELL, he has a Roland Jupiter 8 in mint condition and he said the asking price for them now is £30,000 which is crazy! I wouldn’t pay that even though it’s a wonderful synth, I might give you three and a half grand! *laughs*
How do you feel about the software emulations of these classic synths?
They’re not bad, because it’s electronic sound, it’s easier to emulate that than it is a natural sound. The drum sounds, they’ve got nailed. The thing about the original synths is the oscillators, sometimes they drift a bit and you get that lovely fadey thing, but they’ve probably got that built into some of these reproduction VST plug-ins so that they drift in amongst themselves.
‘Monoculture’ was the launch single off the first comeback album ‘Cruelty Without Beauty’ in 2002, so had your approaches to making music for SOFT CELL changed by then?
‘Monoculture’ was sort of conceived for live and mixing purposes, I made it so that it was the same tempo as ‘Memorabilia’ and it’s in the same key. So when we used to start the show with ‘Memorabilia’, it would segue straight into ‘Monoculture’, it was almost like a DJ mix to get everybody dancing with the same groove on a familiar and new track. It was a looking backwards and facing forwards kind of thing, looking back at what we’d done before and projecting what we were going to do next, recreating our own past in a way, future retro, whatever you want to call it *chuckles*
The show saw the premiere of songs from ‘*Happiness Not Included’, one of them was ‘Purple Zone’ and at Hammersmith Apollo, PET SHOP BOYS were in attendance…
On the second night at Hammersmith, we knew that PET SHOP BOYS were on the guest list so I told Marc, he was like “oh great” and pretended to be nervous as they had front row seats. Funnily enough, they were sitting next to Richard Norris, my other half in THE GRID… he said they were taking loads of photographs which is quite flattering *laughs*
After the show, my manager Chris Smith came to say that Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were backstage and did I want to say hello? I did of course, but Marc doesn’t stay around at gigs and he’d already gone, so they came into my dressing room and we had a few beers. We chatted for about an hour and they asked about ‘Purple Zone’; Chris Smith then enthusiastically suggested to them about doing a remix and they were like “Yeah! We’d love to do it”.
Neil then asked if he could sing on it and I thought that would be fantastic so we let them do what they do best. They came back with the PET SHOP BOYS version of SOFT CELL. Neil and Marc’s voices work so well together and it was a really good record for both PET SHOP BOYS and SOFT CELL, the profile we got, I think it was the most played record on radio at the time and it No1 in various dance charts and No7 in the Music Sales chart, whatever that means. It did us all a lot of favours and a lot of good.
The weird thing was that while that was all going on, I was in hospital. Normally if I got this kind of news, I’d be out with my mates celebrating with champagne… but not in hospital I’m afraid! Chris Lowe had been chatting to me after the gig about how it was going to be a weird year in pop in 2022! I thought “what does he mean?”, but it turned out to be a weird year for me! So it was like having a third year of lockdown! But I’m out and on the loose again, not quite on the streets yet but I’m raring to go! I’ve not quite got my dancing shoes on yet! *laughs*
Another card and it’s an OSCar, I don’t know if you’ve ever used one?
No, a friend of mine had one of those, it had a great cutting sound but the designed was quite weird wasn’t it, it looked like a bit of Lego! They’re very sought after those, I don’t know much about them, most of the synths you’ve picked out, I’ve never actually owned! That’s quite remarkable really *laughs*
So there’s an extended version of ‘*Happiness not included’ coming out later this year entitled ‘*Happiness now extended’?
Yes, this was done in my absence, so I can’t take any responsibility for the artistic input for it. In the past, we used to do the longer version first and then edit it down; so this is kind of the other way round. For the early SOFT CELL stuff, we’d put a longer arrangement down for a 12” version.
Marc would do the vocal and ad-lib sections and then we’d get it down until we got the single. That was when we had to use razor blades and tape, we didn’t have digital editing which is so much easier. People who have grown up with digital and can just splice tracks together and move vocals around, they don’t know they’re born! *laughs*
I’m sounding like an old bloke cos I am, but it’s so much easier to do stuff now with computers. Back in the olden days, you had to do it physically. You could sort of fly things in but it was a lot more tricky.
I’m looking forward to hearing the extended version of ‘Nighthawks’ which was a stand-out on ‘*Happiness not included’… but that started as a solo track?
I put that together in my kitchen initially, I used just one Roland synth and a couple of little Korg sequencers to have these two patterns going. I then went to Warner Brothers Studio, I just recorded the MIDI off the two sequencers and tidied it all up on the Mac and re-ran it to the Roland and did various overdubs of that with different filter settings and stuff, decays, delays and what have you. There a bit of real piano reversed and I did the original voice on it.
It was just a bonus instrumental on a CD compilation for the deluxe box of my book ‘Electronic Boy’ but then Marc heard it and loved it. It was quite different to everything else, it was very sequencey. He did a vocal and got this New York drag performance artist Christeene to do this weird mad voice on it that sounds fantastic, it was very scary sounding. We kept the music and the original title ‘Nighthawks’ after the famous Edward Hopper painting that reminds you of loneliness and isolation, it’s what the original track was inspired by.
Was the stylisation of the sequencers on ‘Nighthawks’ influenced by any of your work with CABARET VOLTAIRE on ‘The Crackdown’ in 1983?
I never thought of that until you said it but I suppose it does have that CABARET VOLTAIRE static funky sequence about it, but you’re right, it is!
I don’t if you’ve heard it but there’s a remix of ‘Nighthawks’ by Chris & Cosey, I love that. When they asked for the brief, I just said “dirty disco”, I think it’s one of my favourite SOFT CELL remixes of the last period of work we’ve done, it doesn’t bear much resemblance to the original but it still sounds fantastic.
There is also going to be a ‘*Happiness now completed’ companion album featuring unreleased mixes, remixes and B-sides as well as covers of Giorgio Moroder, X-Ray Spex and Fad Gadget?
‘Back To Nature’ by Fad Gadget we did a while ago but Marc’s done a new vocal. X-Ray Spex ‘The Day The World Turned Day Glo’ was recorded with my friend Dave Chambers who has a Pro-Tools set-up at his home and we took the music over to Marc who did his vocals at Dean Street studios.
And the Giorgio Moroder thing ‘First Hand Experience Of Second Hand Love’ was recorded with Rick Mulhall, we sequenced that up at his place in Richmond; that’s the track that Marc and I always wanted to do because we’d bought the album ‘From Here To Eternity’ when it came out in 1977. We both had vinyl copies of that, with Giorgio and his wonderful bristling moustache, the dark sunglasses and curly perm on the front cover, it was a classic look for a synth wizard at the time. We’d recorded it once before with Ingo Vauk but that recording got lost, it had disappeared into the electronic ether so to speak! It’s probably on a hard drive in a skip! Who knows? *laughs*
Marc suggested we should do it again, it’s such a great song and a perfect one for SOFT CELL. Marc did the lead vocals and Philip Larsen did the vocoder bit as I was not able to attend. I think it sounds great, my manager Chris Smith said they’d sent a copy to Giorgio Moroder’s office in Los Angeles so we’re just waiting to see if we get a thumbs up from Da Maestro. Hopefully, he’ll be pleased that we’ve covered one of his songs.
OK, we’ve got your final Vintage Synth Trumps card and it’s a Powertran Transcendent 2000…
I know that JOY DIVISION had one which Bernard Sumner built from a kit, the synth sounds they had were fantastic, very haunting and I really liked that. My only experience of this was a guy at my art college bought one, but he made it into an art piece! He built it but had taken off the original control panel and drilled out a new one that was made of Perspex. He put all the knobs back on so there was no way you knew what any of them did! Then he had it wall-mounted with two speakers and set up a basic sinewave tone and it was up to the person looking at it to twiddle a knob and see what it did, it was like Dada synth and totally random, it was brilliant!
Was there ever a synth you bought that didn’t meet expectations?
I bought a lot of synths in my time but all of them made at least one good sound. Even if I buy a synth and only use sound, it always pays for itself. Every synth I’ve ever bought has been used on a record. I don’t think I’ve ever really wasted money on a synth. But there was this Akai sequencer which I could never get working properly. I’ve actually had trouble with Akai sequencers before to be honest. I used to love the Akai samplers, I still have an S1100 which was a great machine but I never got on with Akai sequencers, I’ve never really liked those MPC things… I can’t get my head around the architecture, that’s probably the only time I’ve spent money and regretted it. They’re my only “bête noire” I suppose, Akai sequencers! *laughs*
What are your future plans?
I‘m working with Richard Norris on new tracks for THE GRID, we’ve put a new spin on the way we’re doing THE GRID which is sounding fantastic so very pleased about that. We’ve got no guaranteed release yet, but we’re talking to a number of record companies and things are looking positive in all that respect. We’re very excited.
In my home studio, I’ve been getting some new rough ideas for backing tracks for SOFT CELL, should there be another album. Marc seems to want to do another one and I do. I hope there may be another SOFT CELL album but you’re going to have to wait a while, it probably won’t surface until the back end of next year so it will be 2025 when it actually comes out… 2025, its sounds so futuristic that doesn’t it? *laughs*
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Dave Ball
SOFT CELL perform in the UK and Europe throughout Summer 2023, dates include:
Rochester Castle (7 July)**, Let’s Rock Southampton (8 July), Let’s Rock Shrewsbury (15 July), Barcelona Poble Espanyol (23 July), Saffron Walden Audley End (11 August )*, Steyning Wiston House (9 September)***
* with special guests OMD + HEAVEN 17
** with special guests PETER HOOK & THE LIGHT
*** with special guests HEAVEN 17 + ABC
A contender for one of the best albums of 2022, ‘Living In Fear’ is SIN COS TAN’s most accessible and immediate body of work since their 2012 eponymous debut.
A prolific period between 2012 to 2015 saw the Finnish duo of Juho Paalosmaa and Jori Hulkkonen release three albums ‘Sin Cos Tan’, ‘Afterlife’ and ‘Blown Away’ in quick succession. But the creative intensity over took its toll and while the pair continued to work together on other projects, SIN COS TAN went into hiatus.
Paalosmaa returned to his other band VILLA NAH for 2016’s ‘Ultima’ album which Hulkkonen co-produced. Meanwhile Hulkkonen continued his solo career, releasing a number of solo albums, EPs and singles to continue a tradition in music making which had begun in 1995 and even hit the mainstream when as Zyntherius, he scored a 2002 Top30 UK hit with a cover of ‘Sunglasses At Night’ in collaboration with Tiga.
Inspired by the experiences of separation during the pandemic, a toe dipping exercise between Paalosmaa and Hulkkonen led to the ‘Drifted’ EP, the first SIN COS TAN material in six years. However with current world events and the bear next door looming like The Cold War had never ended, SIN COS TAN became creatively re-energised and presented their fourth album, the aptly titled ‘Living In Fear’.
Jori Hulkkonen took up ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s invitation to chat over a game of Vintage Synth Trumps about the making of ‘Living In Fear’ and the workings of SIN COS TAN…
So the first card is a Multimoog…
The thing about Moog synthesizers is I’ve always been a bit scared of them… I never felt like I was a keyboard player and I’m still the same. My approach to making music has always been programming and sequencing stuff in the studio, I always felt Moogs were more like a keyboards player’s synth, a more traditional instrument- like a violin. With the panel layouts, you could play it with one hand while controlling it with the other… it was made for live performance but I can appreciate that.
Also back in the 80s when I started out, you needed CV/gate to control the stuff and there were a few different systems. I preferred the systems that Roland were using… Moog was different from that so having the CV/gate stuff didn’t really support it. The Moog was also more expensive than Japanese equipment, they were always out of my reach. The Japanese stuff I had was very small and tight so not so great for the live environment but that wasn’t my thing anyway, especially back in the day.
I had this strange fear of anything Moog and they sound amazing and beautiful, I’ve heard them in other people’s studios and I’ve worked with Moog stuff, but I’ve never actually owned anything by Moog.
When the first self-titled SIN COS TAN album came out, social media photos had it placed in front of a Minimoog, who did that belong to?
That’s Tom Riski’s, the boss of our label Solina; he used to be in some bands in the 90s and he was a keyboard player and collector. He sold pretty much all of his stuff when he gave up being an active musician, but he still had that when the album came out. I did buy something from him *laughs*
You’ve mentioned fear, and this new SIN COS TAN album is called ‘Living In Fear’, how did you and Juho come up with the title?
This album came together rather quickly, the first session was in January this year and finished by the start of May as that was the deadline for mastering. There were some ideas and songs but at the time of recording, the Russia / Ukraine conflict started and obviously in Finland, that was a big thing. So we suddenly realised we could make that a motif for the album. It was Juho’s idea to call it ‘Living In Fear’ and that felt like it defined a lot of the songs we had there. The album even ends with a song called ‘War Time’.
There’s also a lot of commentary with the fears and pressure people have in this day and age from social media. Artists, what we are supposed to do these days is be like Instagram stars and promote our music online. But people like Juho and me aren’t into that, so it kind of scares us in a way. So that’s one level, another is the change in the world right now environmentally but another is the dawning of AI; Artificial Intelligence scares a lot of people, is it going to take away our jobs? It’s going to change a lot of things and funnily enough, we did an music video for ‘Endless’ which was AI based… a year ago, a video like that would have cost a million dollars and now AI is doing it for a few pennies.
Then of course, there are personal fears you might have and there are some quite personal songs on the album from Juho and me. Fear is a really strong motivation in people’s lives and we realise that was something that the album could reflect. It’s not a theme album as such, not like ‘Blown Away’ was. But it’s an album that does have a theme and something we wanted to focus on because it was there.
I can imagine in Finland, you have that 1200+ km land border with the Bear Next Door and on your website bio, it mentions how growing up, music was your escape from The Cold War, Chernobyl and imminent nuclear destruction… so in your head with everything going on, has it been like “NOT AGAIN!!”?
Definitely, but at the same time, it’s weird and probably not very healthy either, it feels kind of comfortable to be back in that same state of mind that you grew up in!! It’s like you grew up in not a nice place, but you get 20-30 years out of it and then you get drawn back into The Cold War state of mind. It’s where I come from and there’s nothing good about it, but somehow feels very familiar so you can handle it in a different way, compared to others. Our generation grew up with it and it’s interesting how the 90s generation grew up very optimistic and open, while the Millennials were free to travel all over Europe and suddenly it’s a big change.
I totally get where you are coming from, because where I live, it was the centre for UK missiles so was a nuclear target. As an ULTRAVOX fan, you will know ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’, ‘All Stood Still’ and ‘All Fall Down’ were songs about Armageddon while there were other similarly themed songs such as ‘Enola Gay’, ‘Fireside Favourite’, ‘I Melt With You’…
Yes, for us, it been like “well, it’s back to the norm”, it’s something we became accustomed to growing up in the 70s and 80s, it’s like the baseline…
Do you anticipate if this tension goes on any longer, it will affect the artistic expression? Do you see art as channelling that angst again?
I think I’ve been channelling that through the years anyway! *laughs*
But overall, this decade has been a real downer with the pandemic and now the war, so if we are trying to look for silver linings here, I think it will be interesting for the creative community to get something out of it, the frustration, the fears and all that. For sure, it’s going to do something for music, for the arts, for anything creative. It remains to be seen, it’s not going to happen overnight.
Like now at the end of 2022, people are starting to release all the music they did during the pandemic and the lockdowns, so now we are getting the pandemic music. Yes, some people released stuff during the pandemic but now we can play gigs and people can travel, so the records are coming out.
Something we discussed during the making of the album is, has the pandemic affected how we listen to music? Suddenly you’re stuck for 2 years at home, so do you listen to a different kind of music? Is it stuff to calm you down because you’re not in the mood for party music because there’s nowhere to go as the planet was closed! So did it change how people react to music, what kind of music they want to listen to? Did they dig up some old records for comfort? That remains to be seen, I hope there’s some real studies out of all this.
The return of The Cold War is going to be a big thing for a lot of Europeans. Obviously in Finland, we follow a lot of this but even though NATO is more or less involved in the conflict at some level, in America or Asia or Africa, this is like this local thing that’s happening in Europe. Let’s hope it says that way, we don’t want World War 3! I think the effect will also be local and probably affect the Scandinavian music and arts. There will be a big impact.
Despite the surroundings it was created in, ‘Living In Fear’ has turned out to be your most accessible album and possibly your poppiest as a form of escape? Any thoughts on that?
When we realised a lot the songs deal with pretty heavy issues as the lyrics were quite dark, we wanted to juxtapose that with some light production and make it chirpy even. I guess on our level, it’s light if you don’t look deep into it. I think it was the contrast of the lyrics and the easier approach of keeping the darkness inside, so it looks shiny and nice outside. But once you open the door, you realise it’s doom and gloom, it’s in there but not in your face. Only on a couple of songs ‘Not in the Business of Forgiving’ and ‘Killing Dreams’ did we let them drown on their way as they needed to sound heavy. But otherwise on the other tracks, we tried to keep it escapist, like that escapism of the 80s, the plastic innocence to hide the doom and gloom.
I’d like to highlight ‘More Than I Can Love’ which drops in ‘What Is Love’ and ‘Enjoy The Silence’, there is this Eurodance with melancholy thing about it?
Juho had this demo and it was leaning towards early 90s, my guide if there was a song that had the right balance of uptempo dance beat and melancholy was ‘Disappointed’ by ELECTRONIC. I was aiming that kind of driving Eurodance but with this classic UK synth indie pop melancholy, that was the lead idea. We wanted to avoid sounding too much like 90s Eurodance but also we didn’t want to do the ‘Enjoy The Silence’ thing. It was like a balancing act, you don’t want to sound like you are just ripping someone off or doing an 80s rehash. You try to sound modern while staying true to the essence.
With the music we do and the influences we have, there are no secrets, people know… if you listen to our records, whether it’s SIN COS TAN, VILLA NAH or my solo stuff, it’s easy to figure out where we come from musically *laughs*
It’s really interesting that the technology at the time back in the day was moving so fast… compare the records people were making in 1980 and then 1990, how they sound and how they were made, it’s one of the biggest shifts we ever had in music in terms of production. I always felt like there wasn’t enough time for this sound to be explored enough because people were already moving onto the next thing.
Famously John Foxx said samplers ruined music and in a way I kind of agree, although I also disagree as I think samplers are great. But at the same time, the period of late 70s synthpop like the early stuff of THE HUMAN LEAGUE, it would have been interesting if that level of technology had been around for 10 years. People would have had more time to really dive into that sound and the different possibilities it offered… but it was all going so quickly and suddenly it was digital and samplers, going to the next thing.
So records started to sound dated within a year or two which was crazy. Pop music today, I think in the last 20 years, there hasn’t really been a sound in the sense of “a sound that you haven’t heard”. Modern music doesn’t date as quickly as it did in the 80s, but I still feel there are so many things that you can go into a rabbit hole of listening to with the 80s, stuff that could have been explored more.
One cool thing nowadays is something like Spotify and YouTube because you can find ALL the records that you never knew but existed but I don’t have enough time. There is so much more stuff I hear from the 80s that I would have loved to have heard back in the day. I keep finding “new” old records almost weekly that came out sometime in the 80s that I like. That’s the thing, things moved so quickly and people moved onto the next thing, so those records never really had a chance.
When it comes to what kind of sound you are looking for in a song, I think there is an endless bowl. SIN COS TAN has been put into this category of “80s synthpop” and all that, but “80s synthpop” is so much bigger than a lot of people realise and there is so much to explore. There’s so many things that could have become the next big thing but they didn’t because of trends, technology or whatever reason, the pace was just so quick.
Talking of technology, time for another card and it’s a Yamaha CS60…
I had the CS60 and the CS80 which was the big brother, it was one of the biggest and most expensive synths that you can still find, if you can find one. The CS80, in the late 90s, my friend and I were still living up north and found one in really bad condition. The guy who sold it to us said according to the serial number, it once belonged to Stevie Wonder; I don’t know if it was true… but then he didn’t charge extra and we got it super cheap. Me and my friend were both just doing dancefloor stuff and the CS80 was more of a keyboard player’s synth, even more than a Moog.
We had it for a while and realised because of its size and its weight that we couldn’t go back and forth to our studios with it. So it was stuck in one place and not used that much. Later on when I had my peak crazy synth collection period in 2006-2007 and had a really big studio, I had a CS60 there and that I did use quite a bit. I was more comfortable with my keyboard playing by then. I used it on a lot of records from that period, we used it on the first SIN COS TAN album, solo stuff and productions for Tiga. It’s another keyboard player’s synth and one time, I had Jimi Tenor come to my studio as he was doing a gig in Turku. So he was playing it and I realised it really is not about the equipment, it’s about the idea and your ability to play an instrument, those are the ingredients.
The magic that Jimi was able to get out of the CS60, it was mind-blowing but also depressing in a good way because you see people who are super-talented at an instrument… I’ve always been more of a programmer and classic producer type where I’m not great at anything, but can handle a lot of things to put it all together and make little tweaks.
When you work with people like Jimi who are super-amazing at playing or with Juho and his voice, you are happy that you know them and get to work with them. So there are keyboard players that can make those machines come alive. When choosing a synth, you have to think “what can I get out of this machine or is it wasted on me?”
I remember there was this classic ‘Top Of The Pops’ where John Foxx did ‘Underpass’ and the band had like three CS80s on stage which was crazy…
So how important then was “synth image” to you as a fan getting into this type of music, where your favourite artist uses a particular piece of equipment?
That was everything! That was kind of the whole thing, when setting up my first studio, it was like living this childhood dream being surrounded by synths. So yes, for sure, growing up in the 80s and seeing these pictures, watching the videos and reading magazines and all that, it seemed so futuristic and out of this world, especially all the drum machines and synths.
In Finland, most of the music you heard and saw was uninteresting rock and heavy metal so you would be lucky if there was a keyboard or even a piano player in a band. So this futuristic world with keyboards, flashing lights, LEDs, computers and all that, for me that was Science-Fiction. It was a really big part of the appeal that got me interested in electronic music. I did like electronic music even before I realised what it was, so it all ended up enhancing all those ideas.
Another card and it’s a Korg Poly 6…
I never had one but I’ve had a lot of Korgs; the thing with Korgs is a lot of my friends had the MS10 or MS20 but I never liked the sound. There was something about that sound that I never really took to, I appreciate it as a synth and I like that it is semi-modular.
But it’s also on a different scale than the Rolands with all the CV stuff so it didn’t work that well with them, so that was one reason. I think it was also something about the filters that I never really loved. I used a Yamaha CS15 for that sort of stuff, it was similar but duophonic and it also has audio-ins so you could use the filter and the filter was smoother than the Korg MS stuff.
Of the Korg polyphonic stuff, I hit the jackpot 20 years ago at an amazing synth store in Stockholm called Jam, the guy running it Johan was amazing and we became really good friends. I used to go there quite a bit. They are still going strong, I love them.
In Finland, we never had really good synth stores for vintage stuff. Although we are neighbours and Finland is bilingual with Swedish being our second language, the culture is so different when it comes to pop music. I was fortunate living in the north of Finland, I was close to the Swedish border so grew up with Swedish radio and TV.
In Sweden, they have an amazing scene with synthpop and electronic music, even from the 70s and 80s. There was so much stuff and variety and that’s how I discovered a lot of music. In the Swedish language, there is even a word “Syntare” for a person who listens to synth music and Italo disco. So I’ve always had really close relations to Sweden and because they had such a big culture in electronic music, there was more equipment going around. When I went there for the first time, it was like “WOW!”.
What did you buy at Jam?
I got this Korg PS3100 which is like a blown-up MS20; it had a patch bay and was semi-modular but a 48 note polyphonic analogue synth! It was again made for keyboard players but because of the semi-modularity, you could control the gates and outboard gear. So that became the staple of my sound for 15 years; I used it on so many records for the polysynth pads.
The Korg Poly 6 was one of the last of the analogue polyphonics of the 80s, I’ve had a lot of the drum machines and I had the Mono/Poly so I’ve had a lot of Korg stuff. Again, the Japanese stuff was cheaper to buy than Moog or Oberheim…
It’s interesting what you say about not getting on with the MS10 as Juho has one and used it in VILLA NAH who you co-produced…
VILLA NAH love the MS10 and they used it on the ‘Origin’ album, it was one of the key synths for their lead sounds and solos. It was fine by me; they get exactly the sound they want and it fits with their music. Me personally, it was never the kind of synth I wanted to have.
I take it that Juho might be less of a tech-head than you are, so within the dynamic of SIN COS TAN, does he stop you from going too far with that and gets you back on track with the song?
It’s a totally different hat that I’m wearing when I’m a producer for an artist. But when I’m working in SIN COS TAN with Juho, then it’s a band so it’s my project as much as it is Juho’s. However, when it comes to working for others, you forget about your mixed feelings about the MS10 and you embrace what they can do with that *laughs*
I really like the idea of having these different roles when it comes to making music, it really is a big part of the fun with a project. Even when I make stuff with Juho as SIN COS TAN, there really is this moment where I decide I’m not going to be the guy who writes music with Juho, I will be the producer and mixer and now take a different approach. I change the perspective that I have on those songs and it’s something that I learned when people have approached me to work with them. Remixing and producing other people are totally different animals but there is something similar. I like the idea where people reveal their music’s secrets to you in the studio, whether it’s a remix or a production to make it work on the dancefloor or whatever.
That’s always been super-fascinating and again, we get into the cool things and the modern age where things on like Spotify, you can listen to classic records that are re-released as boxed sets where they have demos and works-in-progress. The idea of these different stages of a journey that a song takes, that really intrigues me infinitely as a musician, producer and fan. I don’t want to necessarily buy all these records and in some cases, there is stuff that I don’t even like, but I like to be able to hear how the demo became the song.
It’s nice that people are putting all this stuff out, like a cassette demo of the just-written song, then the band comes in and there’s a version with a producer that didn’t work out, and the remixed version that works, that is so fascinating.
You’ve always struck me as being a music fan first and professional producer or musician second…
For me, being a music fan is the No1 priority, that is what I am foremost… everything else is a category under that. Being a music fan is where it all comes from and that’s still how it is.
‘Own The Night’ from the album is very film noir and for Halloween, you synchronised it to the 1922 version of ‘Nosferatu’… did you already have images in your head while making the song?
That was another demo that Juho had, but it was clear from the first draft that I had this idea of how it needed sound. If there is a song on the album that sticks out as not being within the ‘Living In Fear’ theme in the more serious sense, then it’s ‘Own The Night’. It’s slightly tongue-in-cheek especially with the video and vampire, it’s was some very subtle comic relief. We were trying to strike a balance, like in the intro where Juho is doing the deep “hmmm-hmmm-hmmmmm” voice, there’s 16 tracks of him doing this gothic choir thing and then there’s the build up with the harpsicord, it sounded super funny. But at the same time, we didn’t want to push it too much so that it didn’t sound too comedic. We didn’t want it to come across as cheeky or too light-hearted.
‘Own The Night’ reminded me of Ennio Morricone, I don’t know if that is a suitable reference?
Yes, it is overtly dramatic like a lot of the Morricone stuff with all these changes before the big chorus. It does have that classic Morricone feel to it, it was one of the toughest songs on the album to get right. From the original demo, we knew it had a lot of potential. At the same time, the execution needed to be punchy enough for the dancefloor but to keep that ethereal spooky atmospheric thing that controls the vibe, it was all about the balance.
This has made me think of PET SHOP BOYS ‘It Could Happen Here’ which used a section of that Morricone track ‘Forecast’ that had that almost comedic Bowie-esque vocal by BLIZZARD…
Well for me, I am obsessed with both PET SHOP BOYS and Ennio Morricone, so they are always in the back of my head whenever I make music, especially when I do stuff with Juho where we go for this extra flair or drama, these things do come out….
‘You Again’ is a good example…
Yes, that was like HI-NRG mixed with this Morricone-ish riff, it was upper dramatic with the verses and then there were his upbeat, uplifting chorus and dark lyrics for this contrast before the ending focussing on the violin riff building up. It’s a mixture of PET SHOP BOYS and Morricone, but one particular song that also came to my mind when making it was ‘Sounds Like A Melody’ by ALPHAVILLE which also has this outburst of energy in the outro as well.
Was ‘Tightroped’ influenced by DAFT PUNK or is that just in my head?
It’s in your head… but then again, DAFT PUNK is in our heads as well so… *laughs*
‘Tightroped’ was based on a track we started 5 years ago… although we had this break where we didn’t release anything, we had some studio sessions every now and then. But things never really clicked to make us go “WOW”, there were some good bits but it never crossed that threshold to make it continue and work towards an EP or album.
Then when we started this album, there was stuff we had never used and ‘Tightroped’ had this synth riff that I couldn’t even recall when we first did it! We didn’t remember it, it was like “Is that us? Yes, it’s us!”. The track was this downtempo John Carpenter thing, so I decided to disco it up which is something I always do when we go to a dead end with a song, like I did with ‘Trust’ which was originally downtempo. So it was time to put on a four-to-the-floor kick and not exactly do an Italo disco, but more late 70s Patrick Cowley track with live sounding drums. That opened up a lot of doors for it and then I came up with the chord change for the middle part and there was a new lyric, it kind of clicked. So it’s like retro disco that was fun to put out there.
I’ve always liked the way how you’ve never been afraid of disco, either saying it or doing it…
I do a lot of dance and club music, if you do like dance and club music, you have to love disco and even though I started my career in house and techno, you have to acknowledge there is the legacy of disco. There’s so much stuff in house music that sounds fresh and futuristic, especially when it comes to crossing into more electronic stuff like Patrick Cowley or Gino Soccio… even today, their records sound ahead of the time.
I was never a big fan of the orchestral disco, it was always the more minimal stuff where it is all about the groove and basslines with minimal changes and gradual growth as well as the more electronic end of it. Yeah, those records defined my taste in music.
Another card and it’s the Korg 800DV, otherwise known as the MaxiKorg, Dave Ball from SOFT CELL had one of these…
This would have been designed to sit on top of your organ where you would do chords on that and this would be the lead synth to do these melodies. Synths from this period, they were more aimed at this market so were slightly cheaper. That meant these types of synths were on a lot of interesting records that came out in the late 70s and early 80s. It was like a synth to add one layer or one riff or whatever.
What I love about this era was that each band had a particular sound because they could only afford one or two synths but they were explored more…
Yes, this is something I don’t think has been looked into in the documentaries… this will not sound very nice but there is too much credit being given to the people making the music, because a lot of the music was being made by equipment around at the time. The fact that people had their hands on 2 or 3 synths and they were at the mercy of these synths (not the other way round) and the records couldn’t sound like anything else than what the technology allowed at the time. So it was really about the imagination of the artists to abuse them and get the most out of them… it really was within the constraints of what the technology was at the time.
So I think the technology was what defined that music as much as the people who were making the music and it was true during that period, as it was later when techno came around. The records that people made were amazing but at the same time, if you get those certain pieces of equipment and you understand a thing or two about music and you know how things work, it’s very easy to get that sound, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get that great record. But the sound came from the equipment…
So are we talking Korg M1 piano here? *laughs*
No, we are talking about more about drum machines like the 808 or 909, the TB303 in acid house… things are defined by certain pieces of equipment. Like you couldn’t make a proper techno record if you didn’t have an 808 or 909. You really were kind of forced to have them or a sampler that could emulate a lot of that. If you had money, you could get the right equipment but that doesn’t mean you are going to make a great records because you still need to have some great ideas. But you could make these types of records without the equipment, you need the right drum machine to get the right dynamic in a club, you just can’t unless you have a million dollar studio with an engineer to make your record.
What I’m saying is the advent of the 808 or 909 enabled people to make a record in their bedroom that sounded good in a club, that for me was the big difference. It enabled dance music to become more direct for the people that were going to clubs, then going home and doing a record in their bedroom that sounded good in a club.
Obviously today, you can do anything with a computer so that has changed. But there was a brief period of time where you really did need to have certain pieces of equipment in order to make a dance record, regardless of how talented you were or what ideas you had or how great the songs were that you wrote. You couldn’t make a good dance record without a good drum machine. We sometimes forget the engineers who put all this stuff together … there was this documentary ‘808’ for example where even I was being interviewed, people are realising how hand-in-hand the technology and the changes in pop music just went super-fast in the 80s *laughs*
The final card is the EDP Wasp…
I never had one and I know there is a new version by Behringer… what makes the Wasp sound so interesting is the filter, so it’s on my modular system. I have an emulation of the Wasp filter, and I love the sound of it. But I think this was a really interesting time in the late 70s when these small UK and European companies doing these more limited weirder synths like the Wasp with its touch sensitive keyboard and Italian companies like Crumar that sounded different. There was this weird niche where people would be wanting something but couldn’t afford the American or Japanese stuff and would go for the weirder local products which adds something. I know in Finland, people had a lot of Russian stuff…
Oh, like the Polivoks? Did you have one?
Yes, I had one and I had a Faemi which was also Russian… so having stuff that’s not in the usual synth canon was great. There was a UK company that would sell synths as DIY kits and I got this CLEF B-30, a crazy, unpredictable little synth…
The kit company I remember in the UK was Powertran who made the Transcendent 2000, Bernard Sumner, Thomas Dolby and Ian Craig Marsh all had one…
There were a few different ones along with PAiA and I had a few of those, constructed by different people and put in different boxes, all sounding totally different and unreliable… you wouldn’t have wanted to go on stage with one! But in the studio, they were amazing and would provide those happy accidents. It was great that you didn’t know quite what was going to happen… the Wasp falls in some level into that category, with these giant companies doing their thing while these small companies doing their weird synths that are more punk in a way.
What’s your favourite synth that we haven’t mentioned yet?
I don’t know if it’s true, but I have a Roland Jupiter 4 which apparently used to belong to Simon Le Bon! The guy who sold it to me didn’t ask for anything extra but he said he bought it from him. I might as well continue my blissful life thinking that it is and for that reason, it is my favourite synth, if only because I get to share this story *laughs*
Otherwise, I don’t have any favourite synths, I had so much stuff over the years, I’ve come to appreciate them all, every synth I have ever owned or still own, had a purpose. They all do their own thing and they all inspire in a different way.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its sincerest thanks to Jori Hulkkonen
‘Living In Fear’ is released by Solina Records as a limited edition vinyl LP and download
ULTRAVOX founder member Billy Currie is the classically trained maestro who declined a place at London’s Royal Academy of Music in order to follow a dream of becoming a rock musician.
He was also in TUBEWAY ARMY when Gary Numan made his first TV appearances on ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ and ‘Top Of The Pops’ in 1979, as well as being part of ‘The Touring Principle’ concert extravaganza.
Although ULTRAVOX have released 11 studio albums since 1977 with John Foxx, Midge Ure, Tony Fenelle and Sam Blue as front men, the instrumental constant on synthesizers, piano, violin and viola throughout has been Billy Currie.
Although his most high profile period was in the Midge Ure fronted incarnation of ULTRAVOX, this might not have happened had Currie and Ure not met while working together on VISAGE; together with Dave Formula, John McGeoch and Barry Adamson from MAGAZINE, the project had been instigated by Rusty Egan to produce synthesized dance music fronted by Steve Strange to play at The Blitz Club where he was the resident DJ. Along with Numan keyboardist Chris Payne, Currie and Ure co-wrote VISAGE’s biggest hit ‘Fade To Grey’.
The classic hit line-up of ULTRAVOX featuring Billy Currie, Midge Ure, Chris Cross and Warren Cann reunited in 2009 and released a new album ‘Brilliant’ in 2012 before winding down after a tour with SIMPLE MINDS in 2013.
Since then, Currie has been busy with his solo work, the most recent of which was 2020’s piano-based long player ‘The Brushwork Oblast’; it was released as part of a new deal with Burning Shed who will also reissue all of Currie’s solo back catalogue on CD.
Billy Currie kindly chatted to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK over a game of Vintage Synth Trumps and chatted about his life and brilliant career in music.
These Vintage Synth Trumps cards we are using are made by GForce and you’ve worked with them haven’t you?
Back in 2003, GForce asked me to do some programme signature tunes for the ImpOSCar, since then I’ve had a relationship with them where they give me synths. Recently they asked me to look at the beta of stuff like the Oddity3. Dave Spears of GForce introduced me to Dina Pearlman of The ARP Foundation, she is doing an online “Synthposium” on 5th November and talked me into being involved, I’m one of people on the panel with Dave *laughs*
This is like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies but with synths, when you were working with him on the first ULTRAVOX! album, did you use the cards during the creative process?
We talked about the idea but I don’t think we did… but then again, a few things happened in the studio while I wasn’t there! It’s a very distant memory that they might have *laughs*
I do remember us talking about how we should “change the atmosphere” if we got stuck, like “do this” or play football in the park, just to change things because we’ve all got a little bit blocked. Music is a thing that changes if you want to get spiritual or spacey about it, you can’t control it and all of a sudden, your frame of mind changes.
How did you find working with Eno?
It was great, I remember the first meeting in one of these slightly hippy-ish rooms that was clean but rough-matted. We’d finally signed our record deal after me doing a bum job in a warehouse for 3 years and rehearsing 4 nights a week and on Sundays… the other guys were cleaning toilets! *laughs*
Anyway, Eno walked in… I was a massive fan of ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’ and I was aware of his Obscure label, that was like “wow”, we were connected to something really special. Because we were label mates at Island and Island looked after Obscure, I could take these albums home for free. I was really taken aback by him and it was nice to sit on the floor and talk. It was a good vibe and I remember in the studio, him having his Minimoog in one corner so we were thinking DI a little bit… that was quite new to me because we were very much “a band” and I realised “oh, you can just plug a keyboard into the desk”.
It was friendly but I was knocked sideways a bit by working with him. There was a piece that me and John Foxx wrote together called ‘Slip Away’, I wrote a piece of music that he liked and then he connected it with a song that he’d written. So it went into my music with a minimalist feel to it before my mesmerising grand piano which was very classical. I was very proud of it and we laid it down like we had in rehearsals. It was like I was finding my sound because it was greys into black, that was the feeling, a bit like ‘Rage In Eden’, put a bit of reverb in it and the beautiful sound made you tingle.
So what’s the story about what happened in your absence?
While I was out of the studio, mischievous Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite changed it and upset the applecart. Eno got his Minimoog out and on the minimalist syncopated spacey bit, he detuned that, like he’d got his destroy mode in. And when it came into my keyboards which are still in there, he did this beautiful colourful Minimoog sound that copied my top piano line and let the echo go into the next bit. So he was breaking the rules, it must have seemed a bit stiff to him what I did, so I felt he was trying to mess it up a little bit. Even at the end, there’s that “woo-woo-woo” echo coming through from that initial bit.
I wasn’t against any of it, I was finding my feet at the time so it blew my mind, but then I felt it was very colourful and I just accepted it. I mean we were going forward and we had Brian Eno producing us! But the idea of a producer was a little bit “hang on a minute” at first, I like to be in control, we were all like that, John was too but he had opened up himself to be produced which in a way, you’re kind of manipulated in some ways.
You’ve got to remember Brian Eno didn’t do that much on this debut album. But he was a lovely man and came in with this lovely food and these fantastic girlfriends, usually Swedish and that was very nice *laughs*
Were these sessions with Brian Eno the first time you were formally introduced to synthesizers?
When I was 19, I was in a band that didn’t get anywhere. I’d been coming towards keyboards in that band but they only had a Hammond organ which wasn’t my kind of thing. Our tech guy Vince had a flat in Willesden and one of the band’s that would come round to him to get their gear fixed was HAWKWIND, that was fun watching them! They brought in this oscillator box with two little joysticks on. Vince let me have a play so I sat there with headphones lifting the sound up and down, it was very basic but it had a big effect on me.
I had a go on a Mellotron in 1971, I was working with a singer songwriter called Jeff Starrs. Our manager Mark Plumber who worked for Melody Maker knew Kit Lambert who managed THE STRAWBS and we did a support gig with them. They invited me to their studio to get a demonstration of the Mellotron, Blue Weaver did it for me, a very lovely guy. This was so I could play it on Mark’s wife’s song. I produced the song and played Mellotron on it. This was in Pye Studios near Edgware Road and very state of the art at the time. Mark’s wife did not get a release with her songs. It was a fascinating experience for me though. The string sound was so unforgiving. It felt like I was sticking sellotape on the track, no touch sensitivity. It was powerful though and certainly lifted the track. It is a pity it wasn’t mine and Jeff’s music I was working on.
So the real first time was Brian Eno’s Minimoog with his funny little paintings to describe the sounds. He knew he’d blown my mind and he showed me some things that were fascinating. For the end of the album, John Foxx had the idea of ‘My Sex’… I didn’t do the synthesizer on that, I did the piano but I was watching Eno and loved the way he did the simple harmony and from that, I could see how powerful synthesizers were and that stayed with me. I like complication as well but I do love simplicity. And when Eno did another melody, exactly the same but using a major third above, I was like “F*CKING HELL”! I used to love doing that with sustained guitar like in ‘Lonely Hunter’ working with Steve Lillywhite, you would feel it in your heart. This was similar but in a different way because the sustain was on the Minimoog and you would put another harmony on the sustain, and that would be very powerful.
You got onto string machines as well?
On our demos for our first album, like ‘Dangerous Rhythm’, I was hiring things like the Elka string machine. I did try other string machines like the ARP Solina and I was like “UGH! DON’T WANT!”, the vibrato wasn’t right with my idea of strings and don’t forget, we were spending our own money then. But when I got the Elka Rhapsody, I was blown away so that’s why it’s used on ‘Dangerous Rhythm’. So that was the beginning of these melodies cutting through, I always had a problem with keyboards not cutting through in a loud band as ULTRAVOX! was at the time with the punk and new wave period.
This is interesting because what you say Eno did seems to contradict what he says about himself being a non-musician…
It was musical, but quite simple. I think Eno was pulled along a bit with us… going from major to minor, it’s not something I would have done because it was a bit bluesy, but I loved it. But yes, it was quite classical but there was dissonance inside ‘My Sex’ because he also did a another synthesizer counter-melody which goes right through it and you get this great clash which is a B Natural against a B Flat, so he was enjoying that was well. He would have seen that I was a classical musician but he knew I was in the middle of trying to create my own thing, so probably held back from completely destroying it *laughs*
So the first card is an ARP Solus, of course you are one of the main exponents of the ARP Odyssey… how did you come across it?
I was thinking about all of this, especially with the thing I’m doing with Dina Pearlman, it was a bit of luck really. I’d had a go on Eno’s Minimoog and Chris Cross hadn’t bought his one yet, that was later before ‘Systems Of Romance’. I didn’t like the look of the Minimoog with the board in front of you because I was such an egoist, I didn’t want anything covering my body *laughs*
When I was playing live, I was very aware of the physical thing, I was imagining playing it stood up and what it would look like. Someone on the grapevine suggested the Odyssey and said it was really pokey which is what I wanted. I was suffering from not having a proper piano, I didn’t like the Wurlitzer or the Fender Rhodes because they were too jazzy. So I ended up with an RMI which sounded like a piano but had this horrible sustain constantly and kept getting lost in the mix, so I wanted something that would cut through.
None of this was cheap though?
Island were throwing some money at ULTRAVOX! so we got the Odyssey and an electric Fender violin, it was just the luck of the draw and we got a good deal. But it was quite expensive, so some of the sh*t we got from the punk people was probably deserved. At first, I thought I’d made a big mistake… there was this book and these silly cutover pages to put over it to show you where to position the sliders. I tried the strings setting of course and that was laughable and then woodwinds but eventually, I told myself to stop being so cynical. I was a classical musician but I’d kicked a lot of that stuff to touch! I didn’t want to play something that sounded like a clarinet or flute!
I wanted to express myself, I’d been able to do it on the violin but it didn’t really work in a rock band because of the lack of development in the amplification of it. The Fender violin did cut through but the pick-up used to feedback and we got complaints! While practicing at home, I had this woodwind sound on the Odyssey but I may have made a mistake and it had this vibrato on it. So I had to check where it was coming from, I looked to the left where the portamento was and it was the LFO. I went “I like that” and it got wider and wider and wider. But the mathematic process of it of being exact started to appeal to me… so if you pushed it forward and it would go up, then down, push it a bit further and it would go wider. So it was doing this “wow-wow-wow-wow” thing which I thought was really good.
I was trying to work out why this machine was expressive, this was amazing and something else! I had vibrato on the violin and viola, it’s what I liked so I was drawn to this. I’d learnt violin and viola from the age of 11 and looking back, what I did with the ARP was the same, I needed something for my soul to express myself. I just loved how expressive it was.
I was also learning about the voltage control oscillator and voltage control frequency in the middle; I knew if you brought them down, you got this thing where the sound would come in from the top and then down through like ridiculous, it would blow your ears apart!
That would have been mad!
I used to do that on stage in the ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’ period and you could see people wince! I would have other wacky things like in the middle section of ‘Artificial Life’, just playing completely ad-hoc, weird aggressive stuff that was reminiscent of ROXY MUSIC. It was a case of playing live and working through the process.
That would later change because I would bring these two sliders in the middle close together to be a softer sound, not so harsh. I found a way to with two fingers to slide between the two sliders with my right hand… it didn’t have touch sensitivity but doing this, I would make something like the verse of ‘Vienna’ sound, like it was touch sensitive by bringing the amplification up a bit and you could turn your other finger to bring the frequency up. It would go “woah-oooh” with a bit of filter on it!
After ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’ and ‘Systems Or Romance’, I learnt certain things that I really liked for that Billy Currie sound that I got to working with Gary Numan in 1979, then VISAGE and the solo on ‘Sleepwalk’. But that was finding a sound that would cut through. You’ve got to remember that the late 70s was very volatile, if you did a gig, it was very over-the-top, very loud and very crazy as the punters were very vocal and mad. It was nice to know you were being heard! I think I fell for the rock and roll thing a little bit, trying to be as loud as possible! *laughs*
Are you a frustrated guitarist in a way?
Not really, but I did play the guitar but I’ve never really had that desire. It was the first thing I learnt with my cousin David coming over. I was always fascinated by the guitar, it was why I wanted to be in a band in the first place, listening to things like SPIRIT ‘Mechanical World’, what blew my mind was the effects on the guitar, all that phasing and flanging.
During the pre-ULTRAVOX band TIGER LILY, in the Kings Cross rehearsal room someone left an acoustic guitar. I picked it up and played it doing this spacey finger picking and John Foxx was giving me that look of “oh, he’s a clever sod!” *laughs*
When Robin Simon joined ULTRAVOX, we messed about with pedals, I was always excited by the guitar with Midge as well, and I always loved the sound he used to get.
The next card is a Korg Mono/Poly…
That’s a bit contradictory! I don’t know that one…
Have you used much Korg stuff?
I’ve used the Korg M1 in 1987-89, I didn’t use it that much. It felt a bit like with the Roland D-50, it was sold on the first two preset sounds but when you tried to get into it, I found it rather unfriendly, the sounds were very clunky. I did use it when I was doing the HUMANIA album but I found it a bit limiting because you were more like a computer programmer doing all the increments, it was the start of all that kind of stuff. I should have been used to it but I never was, you had this on the PPG which came out in 1982. All this increments stuff to change the sound? I was used to knobs and sliders.
When I was working with Tony Fenelle for the ULTRAVOX ‘Revelation’ album, when I went on the road, I bought this big Korg 01/W Pro X with a nice weighted keyboard action and 88 chunky keys. That ended up being the MIDI master keyboard in my studio. I used it on three tracks I wrote in 1995, ‘Sisters & Brothers’, ‘Leap’ and ‘Quiet Words’ which are on ‘The Keys & The Fiddle’ album, those weird piano sounds. But I replaced it with the Yamaha CP300 in 2009.
Korg has had an interesting part in my life, but not that creative somehow, I wasn’t getting enough crazy creativity from them.
You mentioned the PPG, what interested you in acquiring the Wave 2.2?
Good question, that was just looking for new stuff and we would have got it just before the ‘Quartet’ album, we bought a Waveterm with it as well… God! It cost a fortune and could feed a country!! *laughs*
What was the PPG system like to use?
I loved it and it was still eccentric so it was exciting, we used it on the ‘Lament’ album as well. I can zoom in straight to a track called ‘When The Scream Subsides’.
There’s a bit in the chorus, that’s a PPG and I’m quite proud of that but if you solo it, the thing is falling to bits, there’s all sorts of stuff going on but what comes through is this creamy bright sound. You could go mad trying to work it, you would play it in the studio and you’d like that sound.
So it was all PPG in the solo of ‘When The Scream Subsides’, that was the height of the ‘Quartet’ album for me, that crisp metally sound… I remember doing that and the late Geoff Emerick who engineering went “Nice one!” *laughs*
The 40th anniversary of ‘Quartet’ has just happened, how do you look back on the album?
Yeah, it was excellent, I enjoyed doing it, it was great working with George Martin and Geoff Emerick, such great people and John Jacobs who often never gets mentioned, me and him used to stay in Air Studios until 4am.
Then there was tour that came with it featuring the huge ‘Monument’ stage set and that massive keyboard set-up…
It was a bit crazy! *laughs*
It was really good, I was trying to get natural distortion of out the ARP Odyssey and that’s why I took to the OSCar when it appeared because it had that overdrive like natural distortion. Chris Huggett came up with it, he’s sadly no longer with us…
Is it true Chris Huggett designed the OSCar with you in mind?
Yeah! He came to show it to us while we were making ‘Lament’, “Sound 1” and what a big ego trip I was on, was based on my ARP solo sound with that slight overdrive to it. On the ‘Quartet’ tour, it was very over-the-top, I got two Martin bins with three-way crossover as my own PA. My hearing is ok but I had to lean in on the right when I was playing the ARP because that ear is not as good as the left. There were people complaining because it was so directional that they could hear only me! *laughs*
Did you actually use everything on stage?
It was a ridiculous set-up then but the biggest keyboard set-up I got was on the ‘Lament’ tour…. there was my usual but on my left, I had a Yamaha GS-1, CS-80 and the PPG but then when I turned around to the back, there was a Prophet T8 and a Yamaha DX7 on top of that… I never actually played it, it was just something to look at! *laughs*
When Chris Huggett came in to show us the OSCar, three of us bought it and they got used. Midge learnt how to use the sequencer for ‘Love’s Great Adventure’ and Chris would do some basslines with it, but we were quite critical as it wasn’t as heavy as the Minimoog. When we were doing the ‘U-Vox’ album, our famous end of (*big laugh*), he came down with his salesman Paul Wiffen and they showed us this thing that was like the Emulator, but the company all went a bit tits-up when they overdid it and went bankrupt so it didn’t happen.
Going back to the 1979 Gary Numan tour, Chris Payne mentioned that although you had tons of keyboards, several were spares?
In ULTRAVOX, there weren’t many spares but I did have a spare ARP; however if the GS-1 went down, we were absolutely knackered and we didn’t have a spare CS-80. But I remember with Gary, he made sure that there was a spare Minimoog.
On ‘The Touring Principle’, you did what many have cited as your best ever solo on a cover of ‘On Broadway’…
Yes, it was good, it was an opening… when Gary said we were doing ‘On Broadway’, I thought it was quite wacky and sounded pretty wild, I sort of just fell into it. We started writing, a combination of me, Chris Payne and Gary, I was holding down chords on the Yamaha SS-30 string machine as he was singing. There was an arrangement vibe going on and it just came about. I was always up for a solo so I might have just got ahead and done it, I was at that point then.
It was showing a bit of ‘Systems Of Romance’, like the solo on ‘Slow Motion’ but I wasn’t being let loose there. Here, I wasn’t so entrenched so I probably initiated it myself. Chris related to the arrangement so when Gary stopped singing, I would have gone onto the ARP and him onto the Polymoog with that ‘Cars’ vox humana sound.
I said “Right, that ends in F sharp major, when I start the solo on the A, we change to minor” and Gary was like “YUP!” because it was like ULTRAVOX. But Chris’ big chords were pulled back so that you could hear me, especially because he is also classically trained and a better keyboard player than me, he went much further at college on piano, I only went to Grade 4 *laughs*
I haven’t heard it in ages but I was still learning about the ARP Odyssey then… at the side of it, there was this octave thing that dropped it two bloody octaves so you had to get used to that. If you didn’t want to drop down, you’ve got to play on a different place on the keyboard, otherwise, you get lost. If you wanted to drop two octaves, then you stayed where you were.
It is a magnificent bit of playing…
I can remember building the solo and it went round quite a while, it was such a buzz live because that was the first time I’d ever got to that level of theatres. I stayed down with that whirring, that was the unison thing between the two oscillators, you played on one of them while they were in unison and you’d turn the octave switch back to normal and go up two octaves. I added a bit of portamento as well which worked and was bang on, that was lucky. But I’d learnt to do portamento, so it came right up to the note at the beginning of the bar.
But cutting to the chase, I used a bit of that solo in the middle of the solo in ‘Astradyne’. I thought “I really like playing that” so that’s why that bit of ‘On Broadway’ ended up in there, but you wouldn’t really know, It was just great fun, I loved it. I was always this kind of person who wanted to be pushed out right to the front, which is why I was never happy being the viola player, even as a lead in an orchestra, it was never enough for me. I can play in the middle of a group and look at what’s going on arrangements, but I always have to have a moment right out front. John Foxx realised that because you’ve got to be careful when you have a personality like that in a group who can p*ss people off! *laughs*
I was lucky when the next line-up came together because working with Midge, he knew what kind of person I was because we’d worked together in VISAGE, so I had to be let loose. It was the same with Midge, he was the kind of guy who could stay a bit back which was really good, and he’d accompany me nicely on the keyboards and guitar, those nice Strat guitar chords. And of course, he had his time at the front with his guitar.
You used a bit of the end of ‘On Broadway’ on a solo track called ‘Matsang River’ from ‘Accidental Poetry Of The Structure’ which has just been reissued on Burning Shed, are you signed to them or are they licencing your material?
It’s a label run by musicians for musicians founded by Tim Bowness, so they know how het up we all get when we see a contract put in front of us, heart attack material and fights for months! So they don’t do that at all, it’s a gentlemen’s agreement. I like it and that’s that, we split everything equally, 50/50. So far it’s been working really good and I just like the people.
That ‘Matsang River’ thing, I was going to call that ‘Off Broadway’ but I thought that would be too obvious. I called it ‘Matsang River’ because I was interested in the Tibet problem with China.
When I finished that ‘On Broadway’ solo, I got into a Rick Wakeman position of playing the ARP and leaning across to the right and playing something on the Yamaha SS-30 string machine at the same time… I used to like doubling melodies and even on our first ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ playing ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’, I was doing that, playing two keyboards. I did a bit of playful ad-lib before it ended so I thought why not just use that.
So with this solo album reissue series, are you going in reverse chronological order? Like when is your first solo record ‘Transportation’ likely to come out again?
About 2052! *laughs*
We are going backwards but I am looking forward to reissuing ‘Transportation’. I will be doing ‘Still Movement’ next week when I’ve done my VAT!
‘Airlift’, the opening track on ‘Transportation’ is like “Yes, I’m free! This is me and this is what I can do”, was it an emotional release after the ‘U-Vox’ debacle?
It’s nice to hear Chi that you’re picking up on that, I know it’s a bit obvious but it was a long time ago. So yes, that’s what it was and it’s got some nice PPG on it, that has a nice roughness about it. The piano is a Technics PX-1…
Didn’t you use that on the ‘U-Vox’ tour? *laughs*
Yeah! You remember that! Did it not sound so good? *laughs*
I didn’t think the Technics was as good as your Yamaha piano…
… that’s because it didn’t have that natural string expansion… yes, it was a bit trite sounding, I hung onto it but got rid of it when those nice little boxes that you could MIDI to your keyboard came out, I used one of the ‘Unearthed’ album.
With ‘Airlift’, there’s a whole raft of keyboards. The solo at the beginning was a jazzy brass thing like a soprano sax, that was played with the first Akai 8-bit sampler, not even 16 bit! It was great to do that album, MIDI was a big thing there, I had the Prophet 2000, ULTRAVOX’s old Waveterm, an Oberheim, I’d be linking 3 or 4 sounds together, it what you did at that time.
I did start a solo album in early 1983 which I had to abandon when we took the ‘Quartet’ tour to America, it later made up what became ‘The Keys & The Fiddle’…
The next card is an EMS VCS3…
EMS, yes Chris Cross had one around the time of ‘Systems Of Romance’; it was the Synthi AKS with the blue touchpad keyboard and he used it for basslines before he had the Minimoog. It was troublesome to keep it in tune, so that was 10 out of 10 for tenacity for doing that. I particularly remember it when we went over to America when he was let loose with that, he never knew quite what was going to be coming out of it, a bit like an Eno gig.
There was a track called ‘Radio Beach’ which we played but never recorded, Chris loved chaos more so than me, I would be playing this sound on the ARP to this glam beat, the Americans seemed to love it. At the end, Chris would set his AKS free so there were all these crazy sounds. There was also ‘He’s A Liquid’ and ‘Touch & Go’ which John Foxx later recorded.
So ‘Touch & Go’ and ‘Mr X’, were they basically the same song that went into two directions?
Yes, we rehearsed at a studio in Kingsway and recorded ‘He’s A Liquid’ and ‘Touch & Go’ playing them live. I knew that John was going to record them both which annoyed me a bit because that’s how things were. But I knew he was not the type of person who would get into litigation, so if he was going to record ‘He’s A Liquid’ which I did write a bit of, especially that descending bit in the middle, then I thought I’d have the melody from ‘Touch & Go’ which I didn’t write much of. I knew he wouldn’t do anything about it because me and John got on, he understood me and I understood him. It was lucky but we just didn’t want to go down that route. It was also good how he let the ULTRAVOX name carry on, not mentioning other people who wouldn’t let it carry on! *deep laugh*
How involved did you get with the recent ‘Rage In Eden’ boxed set and the Steve Wilson remixes?
I fully got involved with Dermot James at Chrysalis, they are doing a great job and he is very thorough. He wanted me to go up to Steven Wilson’s studio to go over a few things, like ‘The Ascent’, Dermot had done his homework and knew I’d written it. I must admit, I was a bit nervous about it because I’m not always that good at getting right involved in something from years ago.
You’ve got this thing where it’s almost like opening up ghosts. But there’s another side to me which is adventurous. Steven Wilson lives near me and is a nice guy, he has a lovely studio. I sat and watched what was going on there as it was going through Logic. I saw what he was doing with ‘The Ascent’ and he kept my original piano which I was pleased about. I thought it was interesting the way he accented the theme and I knew from the music he does that he would be quite interested in certain things like that and ‘Stranger Within’ where Chris and Warren came up with something that was just odd in 10/4 time.
I know he’s into weird time signatures with his band PORCUPINE TREE so with ‘I Never Wanted To Begin’, I’m sure he really related to that because there’s a mad bit where I stubbornly carry on playing in 7/4 time with the violin until it meets up again on the first of the bar. Amazingly, Chris Cross played along with me musically on that one and did the ringing using a Roland sequencer. Steven Wilson will have got off on that and he did a good job, he’s not afraid of working with a violin.
Where did you see Steven Wilson’s approach as being different?
He put some space and air in places that never should be there like ‘The Thin Wall’ because it’s all very tight and controlled on our version with Conny Plank. I let go as well because it’s the second one, I was a little bit concerned when he did ‘Vienna’ but once you get through the first one, it’s OK.
We did have a bit of a mix-up because there was a version of ‘I Remember (Death In The Afternoon)’ he wanted to call work-in-progess. It was not but I came round to it as it was a rough mix that Conny had knocked up on 2 tracks that had this middle section that I wrote and I wanted to hear the keyboard parts. I backed off because I understand it’s interesting for ULTRAVOX fans to hear it now as a work-in-progress. I remember thinking “f**king hell, it’s driving me nuts!” because it sounded wrong… when you make an album and keep hearing something that’s wrong, it has an effect on you, I’m very sensitive. You’re pushing through to accomplish your art, to get it past the winning post. That was the only thing I got bothered about but it is what it says, a work-in-progess.
Staying on ‘Rage In Eden’, what was it like working with the late Conny Plank because ULTRAVOX did 4 albums with him?
Yeah, it was good working with Conny Plank… a lot of people forget he did the ‘U-Vox’ album, he actually came over to London and he stayed at my house in Notting Hill. The guys from KILLING JOKE came round while we were working, he was at the desk with a big joint! *laughs*
My last memory of him was saying goodbye to him in Montserrat, I drove him to the airport after the ‘U-Vox’ mixing. But it just didn’t seem right because our relationship was very strained, George Martin turned up and I think Conny was a bit under-the-cosh. He wasn’t happy, he didn’t like the SSL desk and he actually recorded some compression on the vocals of ‘All Fall Down’ which was a terrible thing to do. Conny never did that so he obviously wasn’t in the right place, we tried to remix that track. Then he went off to do that tour of South America with Dieter Moebius where he was playing Flugelhorn, he had been practising at my house and I loved it.
I actually love wind stuff, in my first band, I was playing with a sax player who also played viola. I actually got some nice sax sounds on the ARP which was instigated by Conny. Of course, they’re not real sax sounds, I wouldn’t do something so naff but the bite of it fitted in with the music like ‘Someone Else’s Clothes’ and ‘Some Of Them’ on ‘Systems Of Romance’, doing it in duophonic which had a natural distortion and was very interesting…
There’s a bit in the middle of ‘Astradyne’ where the phrasing is quite saxy…
Yeah, we were doing all these things with synthesizers, you’d make it up as you go along. Instruments exist but the synthesizer doesn’t really, it will do what it bloody well likes! *laughs*
Conny would be wide open to stuff like that, he knew exactly how to place it in the mix. I mean I wouldn’t really know but he was right tuned in there, just like when we did ‘Dislocation’. All I did was get the little box and plug it in with a sequencer and we used a clock CV from ‘Just For A Moment’; the bass drum had carried on and on and on with nothing else on so that pushed my basslines along, Eventually when the drum clocked it along, it did that powerful unsettling phrase, you can hear some really ad-hoc stuff in there where I’m making the notes by moving the slider. It’s Conny, he just got hold of it and made the echoes when John did the vocal. I remember blowing Gary Numan’s mind when I took a white label to play it at this Bowie night we were at…
How would you describe your relationship with Conny?
My relationship with Conny was very much in the fact he knew what we were doing and he was right in there, making it happen. He was psychic in a way because he was one step ahead of us when we were coming up with stuff, thinking of how it was going to work out and laying it in with everything else.
I couldn’t cope too much with stuff like talking boll*cks in the kitchen, I wasn’t very good at that and I just wanted to get on with the music… he knew me like that, but I was definitely someone you could trust. We didn’t particularly do anything sociable together even when he was staying over at my house, it was kept to business. But I don’t think he liked any other studio apart from his own near Cologne.
His head wasn’t good over in Montserrat and I think it might have been the first signs of him not being very well. He was a lovely guy, I don’t think I ever had any rows with him… but he might have made a few noises to get me to shut up sometimes if it looked like one might brew up, to remind us that we were at his place.
Time for another card and it’s the Roland Jupiter 8… now I know you were an Oberheim man, so out of those polysynths, why did you opt for an OBX rather than say, any of the Jupiters or the Sequential Prophet 5?
I liked the Prophet 5, Dave Formula had one and we used it on the ULTRAVOX B-side ‘Paths & Angles’… after that, I don’t know why I didn’t use it more. The Roland, I messed about with it but I never went down there. I liked the Oberheim, I got the sounds that I used on ‘Rage In Eden’ quite quickly, there was just some character about it which I found really eerie and quite pokey.
I remember when Chrysalis sent us the 24 track masters, it was quite mind-blowing to hear Midge’s isolated vocals on ‘Vienna’ 40 years later, that was quite interesting. But there’s things like on ‘Accent On Youth’ where the Oberheim slides up into the verse, it was so f*cking loud but Conny knew how to fit it in, now that’s good mixing! I was lucky to find that sound from the Oberheim which comes into the instrumental on ‘Accent On Youth’ and then ‘The Ascent’ which sounds like an Eastern European choir, that deep “doo-doo, doo-doo-dooh”… when I listened to it, I was like “F*CK OFF! THAT’S JUST AMAZING”, I just love it and yet when you listen to it, it’s almost a bit tacky but because you can hear the sharpness of it, it sounds like male voices. I also like the solo sound that I got for the end of ‘We Stand Alone’. It had good character but it took me a while to get into it.
I later got the Matrix 12 as well, but it didn’t fit with my head, it was all the dials and everything. I sometimes used a programmer Mel Wesson on the ‘Transportation’ album. I also used the Oberheim on the ‘U-Vox’ tour to bring some crunch into it as I was using a stack of DX7s in the TX816 modules.
Talking of male voices, how did reversing the tape of Midge from ‘I Remember (Death In The Afternoon)’ for that really eerie chorus of the ‘Rage In Eden’ title track come about?
That was excellent, it was Midge on a roll there. This was how confident we’d got by then, this was our moment, I thought “I haven’t got anything to do on this!” and the rest of the band just looked at me like “f*cking hell”. Midge came up with most of it but of course Warren and Chris were getting their stuff together. I think Midge just suggested the idea to Conny or maybe Conny suggested using a tape backwards.
It just fitted with the feel of the song, especially alongside Midge doing his Strat anthemic kind of thing, he had a way of hitting it so that he didn’t hit it too hard, it was a style he came up with, it’s not heavy.
Another card, it’s the Korg MS-20, DAF used one of these connected to a Korg Analog Sequencer on the classic stuff they did with Conny Plank like ‘Kebabträume’…
There was a lot of stuff coming out then so you’d do your own little thing because it was expensive, we only really started throwing our money around in 1981. Things were developing each month for things like that and you’d do it all different ways. HEAVEN 17 would do it a different way, talking to Martyn Ware, they’d have their own bag of tricks and keep it to themselves.
I had an ARP sequencer which I used on VISAGE ‘Blocks On Blocks’, it’s a great sound when you put it in octaves.
Talking of VISAGE, the 40th anniversary of ‘The Anvil’ happened in the Spring and some of your most underrated work is on that, I love ‘Again We Love’ and the instrumental ‘Whispers’…
‘Again We Love’ has got that middle section I did, I listened to it a few years ago, it’s got the ARP in there, after the “again we love” bit, there’s that Minimoog doing the thudding in there, it was like “yeah, we love that!”; we were also using my Roland drum machine on that album which had been doctored by our tech guy Pete Wood, I sold it to Rusty Egan.
We’d just done the ‘Rage In Eden’ album so my memories of doing ‘The Anvil’ aren’t that good because I was tired and I knew Midge was tired as well, so there were efforts to avoid friction on that album because we were so knackered. We’d had a holiday so I’m not complaining but to take on another album was really quite something! *laughs*
I have fantastic memories of ‘Whispers’, I had a lot to do with that one… we were wrapping up the album and I wrote it right near the end. I enjoyed working with John Hudson, he’d sussed out this CS-80, that melody was really nice, it was the heart pouring out…
‘Whispers’ is a track of yours that no-one talks about but it is brilliant…
Oh, thank you very much.
What about the ARP Odyssey solo on ‘The Anvil’ title track?
Oh, that’s not me, that’s Dave Formula… he had an ARP Odyssey but our sounds were very different, that’s very Dave. It was great working with him, he was so off the wall because he’s from a jazz background.
So when I wrote ‘The Damned Don’t Cry’, our faces were against to wall to come up with another ‘Fade To Grey’. So Dave did this off-the wall middle section, he was an exceptional keyboard player. He was big on the CS-80 and Prophet 5, he did the middle section of ‘Blocks On Blocks’ as well.
We gelled very well. One of the points we loosened up was when we did the backing track of ‘Night Train’. I came up with the chorus, I loved soul music when I was 15-16 and I’d heard Midge come up with some funk and soul on ‘The Horseman’… I was in the studio and I was like “what the f*ck’s he doing now?”, I thought he’d lost the plot as we were so tired… but then I was thinking “I like this”.
So was ’Night Train’ almost jammed?
Once I did that brassy chorus of ’Night Train’, before I knew it, everyone was getting round me like Barry Adamson on bass and Rusty… it’s great to play drums with Rusty, it’s very different to playing with Warren, can you imagine the atmosphere in the place? *laughs*
Often in a studio, you are just messing around, trying to get a sequencer to bloody work, so when ‘Night Train’ was coming together, I’ve just got this memory of being in a different band, the way we just slowed down a bit, went into the chorus and sped it up. There was no code, it was real time. If you listen to ‘Night Train’, it speeds up and slows down. When you’re working with a great bass player like Barry, you just know because he’s nodding and pulling silly faces, it was just so much fun to work with him, such a lunatic *laughs*
Then John McGeoch came up with a sax part and it was great to have that on, but ‘Night Train’ went into a bit more normal VISAGE in the middle eight which was Midge’s contribution, it pulled it back into being more European.
I get the impression that on ‘The Anvil’, there was more of a willingness to experiment with funkier ideas that weren’t possible to incorporate in ULTRAVOX?
Yeah, you wouldn’t do it in ULTRAVOX, but there was some frustrations creeping in a little bit. I came up with ‘I Remember (Death In The Afternoon)’ and while we were rehearsing, I wanted something with a bit of a swing to it, a bit like Steve Miller ‘Abracadabra’ because I like dance music, and Warren was like “are you having a laugh?”. It had such a hooky melody, I felt it could swing to make it more dancey but that didn’t come off and I was happy with what we ended up with. Two-thirds into ‘Rage In Eden’, you do then realise it was the right direction. But I had to be careful, Midge was on my page a little bit, we didn’t want to do anything too naff, thinking we could do soul and funk.
Another story and I’m digressing a bit here, but I remember when we went on the road, Tony Thompson from CHIC and John Taylor from DURAN DURAN came over to check me out about getting involved with this project that would have Robert Palmer singing called THE POWER STATION. I was given a time and a rehearsal place to come to, but I was in the middle of the ‘Lament’ tour and I didn’t turn up! *laughs*
Of course, the song you had with ‘Dancing…’ in the title, you couldn’t actually dance to it! *laughs*
If you analyse it now, dance to that? You’d need a pair of clogs and some sticks holding you up! *laughs*
I used to want some more dancey stuff but it went tits up in VISAGE because of that! Midge eventually left because Rusty got in this American producer John Luongo to remix ‘Night Train’. I liked it but Midge cut himself off and walked out, that caused a few ructions because I didn’t.
VISAGE was a bit of a knock-up, sometimes I forgot that because I loved it so much. But let’s face it, if you gonna get involved in it after an album from ULTRAVOX like ‘Rage In Eden’, you’re not going to just mess about are you? Otherwise you wouldn’t do it. I may have got a bit more involved than I intended to but I liked the move towards a more soulful thing.
One thing about ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’ was it got me checking out Michael Rother ‘Sonnnenrad’ which inspired it…
I know this sounds a bit arrogant, but ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’ wasn’t very hard to do for me, it was quite easy. In 1983, we were searching for a new direction and the atmosphere in ULTRAVOX wasn’t very good at all. So we were trying all these different things and I was taking a bit of a step back from writing which was unusual for me. I saw what experimental stuff was coming out and I wasn’t into the band much, I was hanging on by the coat tails really. So I thought I would go right ahead and do something which I knew the fans would love, because they would recognise it as vintage ULTRAVOX, almost going backwards and going against the grain.
At home, I had a Boyd mini-grand piano art-deco thing, that sounds a bit fancy but it was the 80s… Conny had given me this album he produced, ‘Sterntaler’ by Michael Rother. That melody on the opening track ‘Sonnnenrad’, it was very relaxing and pleasing, it was just nice … no hassle and I came up with this other thing that was doing fourths resolving to a minor which was very Michael Rother, but then the scale came right up perfectly in thirds. Then you start doing things that are quite German. I’d got used to doing this from all the touring I’d done.
So I appeared in rehearsal with this thing and Midge was like “thank f*ck you’re doing something”… I’d got the arse because I wasn’t happy with things, what had happened in VISAGE was dragged into ULTRAVOX so he was very much “bring it on!”; before I knew it, he’d got a nice feel with the guitar and quickly got the verse and it was like “Sh*t, here we go! It’s a hit!”
The way Midge went into that verse, he did a great vocal… I walked into Mayfair Studios when he was singing that and I thought “F*cking hell! He’s thrown the kitchen sink at that! Well done my son!”; I mean, after all the aggro and bad atmosphere, you’ve got to get releases and he must have doubled it about 36 times!
Final question and I’m interested because I am descended from Hong Kong immigrants, but is ‘White China’ on ‘Lament’ about the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Communist Red China?
Yes, I think it was; I was a bit naïve and didn’t discuss it with Midge then because it really wasn’t a good time, and I thought if he was going to delve into politics, it wasn’t a good time to discuss that either. It was unfortunate but sometimes when bands work so intensely together, it doesn’t seem appropriate to ask questions, we’d always worked on this assumption that we’d get our own meanings for ourselves out of the lyrics. In the 80s line-up, it was never “it means this”; my interpretation of ‘White China’ was about Hong Kong being taken over by the British to sell illicit opium… when countries change like that, it does make you think, how does it end? It’s not good now how China is trying to make Hong Kong like the mainland, it’s a difficult situation.
What about ‘White China’ musically, it sounds like you were listening a lot to ‘Blue Monday’ by NEW ORDER!! *laughs*
Yes, it did a little bit, that was a new drum machine we’d got, the Sequential Drumtraks. Midge got that dancey triplet thing going on but ‘Lament’ was such a strange album, I don’t want to make a big deal out of it but it wasn’t a pleasant experience…
…in retrospect, the ‘Lament’ album sounds three-quarters finished…
Yes, I think it was, really we weren’t getting on too well. We might have done some more tracks if we had been! But I did like that rhythm on ‘White China’, it’s funny to think about it now because when it was being played through Warren’s monitors, that verse and the hi-hat, it sounded great. I remember Warren’s mad crew guy, he was an absolute lunatic jumping around to it! *laughs*
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its sincerest thanks to Billy Currie
Sibling duo SPRAY continue their adventures in the subversion of pop with their new ‘Untitled Covers Project’.
Ricardo Autobahn and Jenny McLaren first terrorised the mainstream as members of THE CUBAN BOYS who topped John Peel’s Festive 50 with ‘Cognoscenti vs. Intelligentsia’ aka ‘The Hamster Dance’ and took on Cliff Richard’s ‘The Millennium Prayer’ in the race to be the 1999 Christmas No1, only to lose…
However, their main project was SPRAY, set up to ride on an anticipated resurgence in synthpop with two albums ‘Living In Neon’ and ‘Children Of A Laser God’ issued respectively in 2002 and 2007. Finding a home at US label Ninthwave Records, just about the only record company in the world at the time interested in anything synthy that even HEAVEN 17 signed to them for the release of ‘Before/After’ in 2005, as it turned out, no-one was interested in either SPRAY or HEAVEN 17. It was left to LA ROUX to cash-in on the synthpop revival with a No1 single in ‘Bulletproof’ in 2009 and a Grammy for ‘Best Dance Recording’.
SPRAY would not return until 2016’s ‘Enforced Fun’ and since then, they have been regularly releasing albums with the most recent being 2021’s ‘Ambiguous Poems About Death’. Since the start of 2022, the sister / brother pairing have been releasing a cover version per month to build a new collection of work. So far, there have been reinterpretations of THE DETROIT SPINNERS, BLINK182 and KISS as well as ‘Diamond Lights’, the surprise 1987 hit by England footballers Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle!
Over a game of Vintage Synth Trumps, Ricardo Autobahn and Jenny McLaren chatted to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK about dragging seemingly incongruous songs from yesteryear kicking and screaming into the SPRAY Universe and how electronic acts covering DEPECHE MODE is not a particularly good idea…
The first card is a Korg MS20, as used by BLANCMANGE on ‘Feel Me’…
Ricardo: I’ve always liked BLANCMANGE without ever being a big fan of them, they’re one of those bands, a bit like CHINA CRISIS. You can’t imagine them being someone’s favourite band. I always thought they had a great sense of rhythm and got World music into synthpop in a more authentic way than most people. I like Neil Arthur’s solo songs as well, I love ‘I Love I Hate’ which is fantastic.
LADYTRON used MS20s too and started around the same time as SPRAY back in 2000, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK has always credited them as being the first of the newer wave of synthesizer bands, as opposed to electronic dance acts…
Ricardo: Of all the modern synth acts that aren’t EDM, LADYTRON seemed to be the most melodic and threw in the most over-the-top production gimmicks and things, people at the time seemed to think themselves too cool to use certain sounds whereas LADYTRON were happy to do what sounded great, that’s what I always liked about them. But what I always hated about them, which was something I hated about all synth acts of the 21st Century is that when THE CUBAN BOYS were kicking around, we tried to get people interested in SPRAY; we said to people that there was going to be this big synth revival but nobody listened to us or took us seriously… I was irate that other synth acts made it big in the mid-noughties other than SPRAY, one of them was LA ROUX! *laughs*
Jenny: Oh yes… *laughs*
Ricardo: I said to THE CUBAN BOYS’ manager that there was going to be this big synth revival coming but he poo-pooed it and laughed at me… he went on to manage LA ROUX, leaving us in his wake!
One of the things that struck me most about LADYTRON was girls were singing lead vocals on synthy stuff and it wasn’t a blokey thing anymore…
Jenny: Definitely, yeah, I think female voices always sound better generally on pop and electronic music, I enjoy a lot of rock music, men on that is fine, but the more women, the better as far as I’m concerned!
Yes, male voices just don’t grab me that much anymore on synth based music because it was done to death back in the day…
Ricardo: There a few things here; they all tried to sound like Dave Gahan, there was that synthpop voice which was sort of deep and nasal, and everybody wanted to be like DEPECHE MODE. But there is this thing about frequency response, if you’ve got your kick drum and bass drum in the low frequencies, you’ve got your doomy industrial DM synths in the mid-range, if you have a mid-range voice, then everything’s concentrated to those frequencies. BUT if you bring a female voice in on top of that, you’ll spread the spectrum.
Yes, in the old Synth Britannia days, you’ll have done that with a higher end synth melody which is WHY that era of music worked… like let’s swing it the other way, what about blokeys who sing falsetto? That to me is old hat now!
Ricardo: We are big SPARKS fans so we’ve got used to the falsetto but Russell Mael always realised it was a gimmick and his tonal quality changes left, right and centre from low to high. There was a period in late 80s pop when singing in falsetto was a by-word for “soul”, the worst offenders being BIG FUN in that ridiculous way! *laughs*
Jenny: It was just showing off… but one of my favourites with falsetto is Morten Harket from A-HA, he showed his range very much like Russell Mael; Morten and Russell know how to place certain types of singing in the music, how certain types of voices suit certain types of songs.
That’s a good point Jenny, Morten Harket, Russell Mael, Jimmy Somerville, Andy Bell, they knew how to do it, there was a degree of restraint, they knew where to place it, whereas others do that overblown thing…
Ricardo: This is WHY those singers you have mentioned were successful. Morten Harket knows which songs to sing high and which songs to sing low on, so you’ve covered the frequency range.
If you sing in the same frequency range in ALL your songs, regardless of what your music is doing, people will get sick of it very easily.
A good example is A-HA ‘Summer Moved On’, Morten Harket does a 21 second falsetto note in it, but it’s not the centrepiece on the bridge that it’s in, it’s there but it’s not pushed in your face, it’s not the dominant part…
Jenny: Yes, it just happens and then you go “OH MY WORD, THAT’S INCREDIBLE” but mixed in with the rest of the music, it’s perfect. It’s an example of it being done well.
Another card and it is a MemoryMoog…
Ricardo: I’ve never had a Moog, but I have been tinkering with VIEON’s Moog Grandmother recently. It was very atonal, I was noodling and he was tinkering away and I felt like I was in Karl Bartos’ book *laughs*
It was a beautiful moment of things melding together in a ray of light, this is the sort of thing that makes music great, analogue synths that sound robotic but there’s humans playing them and it was great fun, I must get one! But the synth wasn’t THAT special to be honest, it’s good synth but I didn’t think I was playing a Stradivarius, it was good but they’re all the same!
Has the iconography of Moog meant anything to you as synthpop purveyors?
Ricardo: It IS a cool name, if I was to buy one, it would be to look cool on stage. I bought one of those reissued Korg ARP Odysseys just because that Helvetica font looks really good on stage. We wrote the song ‘Félicette (Space Cat)’ on that.
Jenny: Yes, Moogs are the cool one…
This highlights how iconic these synth facias with “Moog” and “ARP” are from ‘Top Of The Pops’ because you have “Fairlight” on your live keyboard controller…
Ricardo: I tried to borrow a Fairlight from someone but they wouldn’t let me take it down from their loft, so next best thing, I customised my keyboard to look like a Fairlight… now who had done it before me???
Yes, it was Martin Gore who put “Fairlite” on a Casiotone MT-30…
Ricardo: I didn’t know that! I think it was inspired by Ron Mael from SPARKS who put “Ronald” instead of Roland on his keyboard… the thing about that is it gets across SPARKS’ sense of humour very easily. That’s why I loved SPARKS so much and why they are such an influence on SPRAY. They have a sense of humour that is sadly lacking in pop music these days, I don’t mean novelty acts or comedy bands but artists who include jokes and light hearted asides in their songs…
Jenny: …and write songs that aren’t necessarily about girls and boys and love and that, they talk about other interesting things that happen in the world.
Ricardo: Having Ronald in Roland font on his keyboard was a very good indicator that they were not just any old band.
Just out of interest, where do you stand on people wearing T-shirts of synths they don’t own, who are often those who complain about girls who wear T-shirts of bands they don’t listen to?
Ricardo: Oh it’s fine, it’s aspirational isn’t it! It’s like wearing a T-shirt with a Ferrari logo on it or British Leyland! *laughs*
Again, it’s like Ronald and Roland, it’s showing your personality, what you’re interested in, what you care about and what you maybe don’t care about. I’ve worn T-shirts with “Muzak” written on them, I don’t like Muzak a great deal but I love the concept of Muzak and I like the word and the font they use as well.
I bought an Akai T-shirt to wear ironically cos I have no Akai equipment, it just looked good…
Ricardo: We bought two Akai S5000s in 1999 with THE CUBAN BOYS and we made our entire album on them…
Jenny: Oh yes!
Ricardo: They were very basic, they didn’t have any external memory, we just used the floppy drive to load the samples and it was a massive thing. It cost about two and a half grand back then, I remember saying it was more expensive than the car I was driving at the time! We were using the Soundblaster 16 card in a PC to do the demos which was how the John Peel stuff was done, so to move to the Akai was mindblowing. But again to reference Karl Bartos, when you have a limitless horizon, your creativity suffers and that was a problem too because we didn’t have any boundaries to work with.
A point I’d like to bring in about the whole sampling issue in reference to Karl Bartos was he says in his book that ‘Numbers’ was inspired by the intro beat to ‘Do Ya Wanna Dance?’ by Cliff Richard, only he programmed his interpretation into his machine, got it slightly wrong and out came as ‘Numbers’. But today, you would actually sample the beat of inspiration wholesale, and that defeats the object of any actual artistic creativity, there’s no individual variation or happy accidents now… that’s why I struggled with the ethos of sampling, I find it difficult to have an emotional attachment although I can appreciate the technical innovation…
Ricardo: The thing about KRAFTWERK in the 70s was it sounded robotic but was done by humans but after ‘The Mix’, it sounded like computer demos more than anything. So yeah, the pre-digital era is clearly the best era. With things like THE ART OF NOISE in 1985, sampling was very exciting from a technical perspective, there was ‘19’ by Paul Hardcastle as well. I’m not sure anyone has actually had an emotional response to ‘Close (To The Edit)’ despite it being fantastic. But that 1985 sampling sound got tired very quickly and it became “that thing” as a loop on a record rather building a record out of bits.
SPRAY are songwriters at heart, but when you heard KRAFTWERK for the first time, what did you actually think?
Jenny: I liked ‘The Model’ and ‘Computer Love’, but I didn’t relate to it enough because it wasn’t vocally exciting cos I enjoy a singalong. I do love them but my formative music was more vocal-led.
This is the point I’m trying to get at, my sister and my cousin thought KRAFTWERK went on a bit and just kept repeating the same words, so I understand why girls aren’t into KRAFTWERK…
Jenny: It’s not because I’m a girl, I think people might find it boring… *laughs*
Ricardo: But then you’re not a fan of the 12 inch mix either generally…
Jenny: It’s very rare that I will listen to a song that’s more than four and a half minutes… I was shocked to learn that the tracks on more than half of FAITH NO MORE’s ‘The Real Thing’ are five minutes and over, I don’t think I’ve got the capacity for that! I like a nice snappy pop song, Eurovision style, three minutes, on-off-done!
Ricardo: When we were doing THE CUBAN BOYS, we had very little interest in the project, we were more interested in getting SPRAY away. While we were having great success in the charts and EMI were happy, we were more about the pop songs that SPRAY were doing.
Weirdly, I’m in that zone, I find the whole 12 inch mix thing tedious, yes I’ve got a lot of 12 inch singles but only for the bonus B-sides… so back on the subject of songs, what inspired you to do a covers album?
Jenny: What was it that kicked it off?
Ricardo: We had these cover versions we’d recorded over the years but never released, mainly because we can’t be bothered to do all that licensing business! So it’s always just easier to put out original stuff on platforms. But then we did a Halloween cover for a radio show last year, ‘Come Back Haunted’ by NINE INCH NAILS for our friend Terri MacDonald’s ‘Cabinets Of Curiosities’ podcast… it was so easy to do so we thought, why not do a few more and this gimmicky idea of one per month was partly to keep our focus through the year and partly because it’s a good way to get stuff out without overloading people. There’s no real need for a new SPRAY album just yet *laughs*
Jenny: It’s keeps us posting stuff, especially for our ‘SPRAY Social Mondays’ doing little things to keep us in the public eye… public yeah, the three people who follow us… *laughs*
…and who come to ALL your shows! *laughs*
Ricardo: God love ‘em! *laughs*
Jenny: It gives them something to look forward to each month and other people then get into the idea…
Ricardo: It’s the classic situation, as much as PET SHOP BOYS put out an album and four singles over a year, that’s just not like that anymore, it’s all about content and driving the algorithm or what have you. So we thought this was a fun idea to make sure nobody forgets us! *laughs*
So how does one choose a suitable song to arrange in an electronic pop aesthetic, one that is not a bloody DEPECHE MODE cover? *laughs*
Ricardo: It’s all very accidental apart from when we did THE OFFSPRING ‘Self-Esteem’ for the SPRAY live show, this was a few years ago. We did it because the chords are real Europop major chords, it sounds absolutely fantastic as a HI-NRG record.
Jenny: We deliberately don’t try and find electronic records to cover, we try and find things that we think might sound good as an electronic poppy record, would you agree?
Ricardo: I would agree but also we are arrogant enough to believe we can make anything sound good, so sometimes we will find something that is bloody atrocious because if we can’t make it worse, we’ve got to make it better! *laughs*
Having listened to the cover versions so far, what has been particularly interesting about the majority of the choices is they have a degree of familiarity but at the same time, they sound new, which is quite a difficult thing to pull off… a good example would be ‘The Rubberband Man’?
Jenny: It was in ‘Guardians Of The Galaxy’, I didn’t know it and you suggested it… so it’s one of those that’s in people’s consciousness but not overly, so it’s something we can remind people of very gently.
Ricardo: It’s 70s funk which we’re not into at all but it’s got those really pronounced dramatic chords in the chorus which are really poppy, which you can always tell will work in a synthy style.
So when you are recording a cover or any song for that matter, do you do the quality control yourselves or do you have some trusted confidantes who you will run things by?
Ricardo: NO! We never have trusted confidantes, if you do that, you’ll never release anything! We care, it’s all that matters, if anybody else likes it, then that’s a bonus as they used to say in the NME in 1991! *laughs*
I’ll do a basic arrangement of a track, then Jenny will record a vocal and then I’ll build something around it. So we get away from the original straight away, we try to forget what the original sounded like if we can…
Is there a danger in forgetting the original that you could leave out what was good about it in the first place? For example, this British independent electronic artist did a cover of ‘Blue Monday’ recently, so mistake No1, he picked an electronic song. Then he tried to change the familiar elements of it, so the rhythm structure lost its funk as it become a straight four. Thing is, despite it being mechanical, NEW ORDER’s ‘Blue Monday’ has a weird groove because of the way Bernard Sumner sequenced those off-notes that just sat there. So this cover now has no groove and because he did away with the familiar hooks, hemade up his own, which were frankly not very good!
Jenny: Yes, you want to put your own spin on a cover version, you have to give it a different feel, otherwise there is no point at all. With FAITH NO MORE’s ‘We Care A Lot’, it features a rap so it has no tune whatsoever so I did try to give it a more melodic slant. It was trying to change it a little but not change it, just add to it. You can change little bits and add little quirks, like I sing with an English accent so a lot of the American things we do, there’s a different thing straight away.
My funny FAITH NO MORE story, well it may not be funny to you, is when I first heard ‘Midlife Crisis’, I thought the verse was in German! I was confused, for years I thought they were from Germany! *laughs*
Jenny: If you can’t place immediately where a band is from, I think that can only be a good thing! *laughs*
How did ‘That’s What I Want’ by Lil Nas X come to be selected?
Ricardo: I love it when I hear something I like on Radio1 because it means I’m not old yet, Ava Max is also great, it’s refreshing and I sometimes think SPRAY can still have a hit if we sound like Ava Max these days but we haven’t quite managed that yet!
Jenny: She’s fab!
Ricardo: Covering Lil Nas X proves that we still listen to pop radio…
Jenny: It’s R ‘n’ B but quite poppy, he’s quite genre busting, that ‘Old Town Road’ when he sampled Miley Cyrus’ dad, I didn’t really like it so I didn’t really appreciate him until he was doing the pop stuff. His videos are incredible, he’s very risqué shall we say…
So here’s another card, a Korg 900PS, do you use Korg?
Ricardo: I bought a Korg Wavestate just before lockdown, it’s like a John Shuttleworth keyboard but made by NASA! You can do your one-fingered accompaniment, drums on one key, bassline on another. The idea was that we’d be able to do a whole show on this one synthesizer with no backing tracks. It would be the closest thing to SPRAY Unplugged, but with just one plug! If you open it up, there’s nothing more than a raspberry pie in there *laughs*
You have covered some more familiar tunes for the project, one of which is KISS ‘I Was Made For Loving You’…
Jenny: What a song!
Ricardo: Anybody that says they don’t like rock music, listen to that! That’s my kind of rock, DISCO ROCK!
It’s not really a typical KISS track though is it? But perfect for an electronic pop cover! I first knew the song from German band QUEEN OF JAPAN’s electroclash version which appeared on a TOO MANY DJS mix CD…
Ricardo: I wish KISS had done more songs like that, I always think this of bands who have a hit with an unrepresentative song, why not write a load more songs in that style? They could have a hit factory! KISS never really had hits in Britain until the late 80s…
Yeah, they had a hit with ‘God Gave Rock & Roll To You’, which funnily enough was a cover…
Ricardo: ARGENT wasn’t it, it was bloody terrible! *laughs*
Jenny: That was the one from ‘Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey’…
You’ve done a sparse reinterpretation of BLINK 182 ‘All The Small Things’…
Ricardo: This is one of Jenny’s favourites from yesteryear with her being the rock fan…
Jenny: I do like a lot of rock and as I mentioned earlier, it’s more difficult to do an electronic pop cover of electronic pop songs and make then your own. ‘All The Small Things’ is pop punk and its fast, so to slow it down like that, you have be careful not to do that twee girl with ukulele thing like a John Lewis ad, but you can do that and do it well, so that you can hear the song itself rather than all the fireworks.
Ricardo: We first recorded ‘All The Small Things’ about 20 years ago as a demo or the first SPRAY album and forgot about it. One day it turned up on the hard drive, we took the vocal acapella and experimented around it to see what we could come up with, but in the end, we had to re-record the vocal due to the earphone bleed! Using the vocal first and then shaping the music second was why it’s such an unusual cover.
Jenny: I think it came out really well, it’s one of my favourites so far.
Bringing Karl Bartos back into the conversation, he did a rather radical speeded up vocodered electronic cover of Eddy Grant’s ‘Baby Come Back’ as ELEKTRIC MUSIC…
Ricardo: I remember at the time being very excited at this because ‘The Mix’ was in 1991 and Karl Bartos had left by then, but then in 1992, the NME charity cover compilation ‘Ruby Trax’ came out and ‘Baby Come Back’ was Herr Bartos’ comeback on that. However, it was pretty awful… c’mon Karl, spend more than an hour on it please! It clears up why KRAFTWERK were so unproductive, they couldn’t be bothered really, they were too picky! They spent a week writing ‘Electric Café’ and 5 years mixing it! *laughs*
‘Gentle On My Mind’, as made famous by your late friend Glen Campbell, what did you think of Gil Trythall’s radical Moog modular version for ‘Switch On Nashville’ from 1972?
Ricardo: That reminds me of what I said earlier that of that roboticness but with a human feel, I do like 16ths and stuff as heard on ‘No1 Song In Heaven’, I think it’s marvellous, you can hear humans playing but it’s still technical.
Now Glen Campbell did quite a few Jimmy Webb songs, you have covered ‘The Highwayman’ before…
Jenny: Yes, we’ve done it live and it’s gone down incredibly well…
Ricardo: Originally in 2003-2004, we were going to record it as SPRAY featuring Glen Campbell. But it never came to pass because I don’t think he quite understood what we wanted him to do, which was record vocal and send it to us. My previous recording session with him to do ‘Rhinestine Cowboy’, I flew over to his house and I think he assumed that was what I was going to do this time! *laughs*
So will ‘The Highwayman’ come out on this cover project?
Ricardo: It’s on the Bandcamp download version of ‘Children Of A Laser God’.
What else is on the cards with these covers?
Jenny: There’s five more to come… one is ‘Love Rears Its Ugly Head’ by LIVING COLOUR, it’s very funky and jazzy, we have yet to get it finished but about a month ago, it came on in the car and I was like “oh my God, we need to do this…”
Ricardo: This should be a successful one cos I hate the original! I always say that about earnest American rock. So after Jenny sends her vocal back and I get my hands on it, it should be a little bit more interesting to get away from the original.
Jenny: I think the vocal will sound very different…
What about the other ones?
Ricardo: We’ll probably put out that NINE INCH NAILS one, ‘Come Back Haunted’ to tie in with Halloween but ‘Born To Be Alive’, the old Patrick Hernandez disco record is in the running. We started it a few years ago but never finished it, but I did get a guitarist to play the riff for me so as it’s on file, we may as well use it.
Did you know who programmed the Roland System 100 sequence on ‘Born To Be Alive’? To give you a clue, an electronic music fan, you’ll probably guess the band he was because they were connected to SPARKS!
Ricardo: I had no idea! Right, we’re definitely doing that then! Now, I want to do a cover of my favourite Italo disco song which is ‘The Different Story’ by Peter Schilling, It was produced by Michael Cretu aka ENIGMA. But we can’t do it because every time we try, it sounds either exactly the same as the original or to my ears, slightly worse!
I think Italo disco covers wouldn’t work as SPRAY are spiritually not that far removed from the form, it would be like you doing PET SHOP BOYS covers although Jenny singing would give it a twist…
Jenny: That would be the only thing though wouldn’t it? But we’d like to do ‘No1 Song In Heaven’ live, but that would be something we wouldn’t want to replicate unless we could do it properly.
Ricardo: So my three favourite songs are ‘The Different Story’, ‘No1 Song In Heaven’ and ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’, over the years I’ve tried to cover all of those but it just doesn’t work…
Jenny: There’s no point! *laughs*
Another card, and it’s an EMS Polysynthi, described by Vince Clarke as the worst sounding synth ever made…
Yeah, it’s the best thing about it, tried one at college, no matter what knob you twiddle, it still sounded rubbish!
Ricardo: It’s cool, it would look good on stage and that’s why I’d get one! *laughs*
So why have you covered Chas & Dave’s ‘Ain’t No Pleasing You?’
Ricardo: Someone suggested it as a joke but we did it anyway…
Jenny: I think it was Terri MacDonald…
Ricardo: On her ‘Cabinets Of Curiosities’ podcast, she had a SPRAY Song of the Week, these little internet radio shows that spring up out of nowhere, some are quite good so we associate ourselves with them like Terri’s.
Jenny: I miss her show, it was very good.
Ricardo: So she suggested Chas & Dave, we changed the rhythm to 4/4 and it worked out ok.
Football songs, so why ‘Diamond Lights’ and not ‘Ole Ola’ or ‘World In Motion’ or ‘Top Of The World’ which was utter rubbish despite being co-written by Johnny Marr? *laughs*
Ricardo: All football songs are terrible, including ‘World In Motion’ , yes it’s the best football song but it’s the worst NEW ORDER record, the lyrics are appalling !
Jenny: But ‘Diamond Lights’ is fabulous…
Ricardo: It’s such a strange record to have been made in the first place, that why I’ve always liked it, it was released on Radio Shack!
So it was connected to Ian Levine?
Ricardo: He wasn’t involved but it’s a late 80s gay disco record by two footballers, there was only the most oblique reference to football in the lyrics, what a strange thing to be a success. They were called Glenn & Chris, but Hoddle & Waddle would have made a better moniker…
This isn’t really a football record as such as it’s not about winning or beating someone, this is more Ant & Dec as opposed to PJ & Duncan; it was never as good when PJ was with Harvey cos the stuff was really gloomy and miserable…
Ricardo: I used to have a really big collection of Ant & Dec and PJ & Duncan CD singles, they used to sell them dead cheap for 99p! I sold them as a job lot on eBay and some bloke came round in a Range Rover and took them off my hands, good times! Back to ‘Diamond Lights’, we did it totally straight, there’s no irony involved, we covered it as a fantastic pop song.
Jenny: Oooh, I’ve only just seen it but Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle have commented on Twitter about it.
Ricardo: Them both commenting leads me to believe that they have been talking about it behind the scenes.
Jenny: But I think you sent it to them it to them *laughs*
So your process? When you decide to do say ‘Diamond Lights’, are you sourcing sheet music or working it out by ear?
Ricardo: I play by ear, I use my hands, but I play by ear! You work out the chords, programme them into FruityLoops and then forget about the original and start tinkering like you are writing an original song.
What advice would you give to electronic acts that are looking to do cover versions as an extra string to their bow or for publicity or whatever?
Ricardo: Well, nobody wants our advice, after 20 years, I couldn’t really offer any… but if I was to, gimmickry is not a dirty word. Do something that is not in your usual style but turn it into your usual style.
Jenny: I think that’s pretty much what I would say, but also, don’t listen to us because we don’t know what we’re doing! *laughs*
Final card, the Oberheim Matrix 12…
Ricardo: What a great name, if there wasn’t already a synth called the Oberheim Expander, I would name an album that, it’s such a glorious collection of syllables. I’ve a plug-in called OPX which is a knock-off of the Oberheim OBX and got all the VAN HALEN presets, it’s got RUSH and the ‘Tom Sawyer’ bass, and the ‘Love Beat’ organ which was used by THE SPACE BROTHERS in the dance hit ‘Shine’.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to SPRAY
You’ve heard the music, listened to the podcast, now you can read the book…
‘Electronically Yours Vol 1’ is the autobiography of Martyn Ware. From his synth innovation with THE HUMAN LEAGUE and HEAVEN 17 to productions for Tina Turner and Terence Trent D’Arby to ambient collaborations with Vince Clarke, it is the story of his humble working class origins in Sheffield, rise to acclaim and million selling records.
In between, there was his teenage friendship with former-bandmate Phil Oakey that led to the formation of THE HUMAN LEAGUE who were subsequently declared “the future of music” by David Bowie. After a Coup d’état that led to Ware leaving THE HUMAN LEAGUE, he formed BEF, a production company from which an umbrella project named HEAVEN 17 with singer Glenn Gregory and fellow League refugee Ian Craig Marsh became an international success, most notably with the huge hit single ‘Temptation’.
Ware achieved two No1 albums as the producer of ‘Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D’Arby’ in 1987 and after HEAVEN 17 went into hiatus, the sixth ERASURE album ‘I Say I Say I Say’ in 1994. The latter link up with Andy Bell and Vince Clarke eventually led to HEAVEN 17 returning to the fold as the opening act on 1997’s ‘Cowboy’ tour and becoming a favourite on the live circuit to this very day.
‘Electronically Yours Vol 1’ also allows Ware to articulate his views as a proud socialist, something he considers to be a soulful, personal and moral duty. Anyone who considers politics and music should not mix have perhaps missed the point of his music; the themes of HEAVEN 17’s first two albums ‘Penthouse & Pavement’ and ‘The Luxury Gap’ highlighted the class divide that got only wider under the government led by Margaret Thatcher.
Martyn Ware chatted candidly with ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.CO.UK over a game of Vintage Synth Trumps about the history of technology, how the music industry has changed over his multi-decade career and his fruitful working relationship with Vince Clarke.
The first card is the EMS Polysynthi…
I’ve never played one of those but I’m a big fan of EMS design in general, my first band THE FUTURE featured Adi Newton who owned an EMS Synthi AKS suitcase synth. I couldn’t get any sense out of it at all but it made a fantastic racket that you couldn’t predict.
The number of people I have talked to on the ‘Electronically Yours’ podcast who have talked about EMS in fond terms, it’s the one that I covet…
The EMS Polysynthi was at our college studio and it sounded horrible… I thought it was just me but then a few years ago, Vince Clarke declared it as “the worst sounding synth ever made”*laughs*
It looks nice and colourful which is generally a good sign but how weird is that? I never saw it in his studio, maybe he didn’t have it out because he didn’t like it.
Next card is a Roland SH3a…
I had one of those! This was around 1979-80, it was a very nice synth, I liked it a lot but it wasn’t as good as the modular synths that I was more familiar with. Roland were starting to move into more mass production stuff at that point and appealing to a bigger market. They were using a lot of the same components but somehow, the filter was not as extreme so the sounds were less electro-punky like I preferred at that time. They redeemed themselves with the Jupiter 4 but it was too effete, too soft.
So did it get used on ‘Reproduction’ or ‘Travelogue’?
No, it was sort of the unloved runt of the litter. I just couldn’t get it to go far enough for my taste, it was a bit safe. I think Roland toned down the extremities of the filters to make it more usable for the average Joe.
I’m always fascinated by synths that artists don’t like, I remember Billy Currie of ULTRAVOX saying his was the Prophet T8 because it cost a fortune and was nothing like the Yamaha CS80 which he’d sold it for…
Haha! We’ve all done that! We regularly sold our old synths for whatever the latest thing was, that proved to be a massive mistake as soon as we approached the FM synthesis period which I never really got on with.
So with your book, you mentioned you started it 3 years ago, is it basically a product of lockdown?
I’d been thinking about it for a while and then lockdown happened, I thought if I don’t do it now, I’m not going to do it. I’m one of those people that HAS to be doing something.
If I’d had been locked inside during lockdown like in some countries, I would have gone insane. During lockdown, there were two things that I quickly determined; one was to start this autobiography.
My daughter was living with us then so I employed her with the research as I can’t remember a lot of it as I never kept diaries. I’ve got a sketchy knowledge of stuff and remember individual incidents. So over three months, we did solid research using a spreadsheet with a timeline but after a month, this spreadsheet took up a whole wall!
It’s like getting your ducks in a row, you’ve got to have a cogent understanding of what was connected to what happened in what time order. It can become like David Niven’s ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’ which is a series of reminiscences but I didn’t want it to feel like some old bloke’s book! Although I’m an old bloke, I wanted it to feel dynamic.
So once you’ve established the timeline correctly, you can start messing about with it or approach it from the point of view of themes. What I ended up doing was a combination of themes, chronological stuff and to break it up a bit, there are contributions from people who have been important to me throughout my career ranging from the producers I’ve worked with like Pete Walsh, Greg Walsh and Richard Manwaring to various musicians.
The final bit of the jigsaw is essentially me going through EVERY track I’ve ever recorded with BEF and HEAVEN 17 and explaining the process behind it. So for people like yourself and those who are interested in the technical and creative aspects, this will be great. I’ve never really seen that in other musical autobiographies, I was partly inspired by Peter Hook’s ‘Substance’ book so kudos to him, I’ve nicked that idea, thank you.
Your next card is the Sequential Pro-One…
Now then, this one’s interesting. I’ve never used one but I’ve played with one… when you were in the studio in the 80s, you had a budget to rent equipment and try out stuff. We were fairly happy with the synths we’d got, but from time to time, something wouldn’t be available from the hire company so they would suggest “X”, so the Pro-One was one of the things we tired. I like Sequential Circuits as manufacturers and I know Vince Clarke has one of these so I messed around with it then. The basic oscillators and filters are quite pokey so I like it from that point of view. I think it was more of a performance synth.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you favoured the Japanese manufacturers over the American ones…
I always thought with the American synths, I liked the roundness in their tone, I would have killed for a Moog Modular like Wendy Carlos or Giorgio Moroder had but I couldn’t afford it. But they were more performance oriented…
I’ve never been a very good keyboard player, so it wasn’t my desire to find something that would enable me to perform in a musicianly way or to imitate a sax or oboe or whatever. I was never interested in that.
I was more into textures and from that point of view, Korg and Roland were much more on that kind of odd Japanese trip. The approach that they took to the user interface for synthesis was more theoretical. But a lot of the American manufacturers, for me, were aimed at a traditional musician, so when somebody was going into a synthesizer shop to try something out, they could easily get a sound that they were familiar with out of it. I was never keen on that, I wanted something that sounded unfamiliar, so there was a philosophical difference actually.
One time you did go down the American route was for ‘Pleasure One’ with the Emulator II…
Yes, but I’m not really counting this in with that American synth ethos because we had a Fairlight which was frankly a disappointment. We used it on ‘How Men Are’ but it was quickly superseded for me by the Emulator II. Ian Craig Marsh spent £40,000 on something that rapidly became a doorstop *laughs*
Ian was gutted when I bought the Emulator II for about £3,500 plus a magneto-optical drive with the latest CD-ROM. This was state-of-the-art, not even computers had these things apart from mainframes. So for domestic use, this was almost unheard of. We had access to this gigantic library of sounds, which today, nobody thinks twice about. Back then, it gave you an advantage and the sound out of the Emulator II was miles superior, as well as its samples. It became my workhorse for a good 4 or 5 years in productions.
Stephen Hague said the Emulator II was his bread and butter for about 5 years…
It was very elegantly designed, the people who did the sound libraries for them knew what they were doing. It was very warm sounding compared to other things.
Here’s another card, the Korg Mono/Poly…
I did fall for the whole M1 thing but after the early Korgs, between 1981-85, I didn’t buy any Korg equipment because everything Roland was coming out with was so brilliant and I didn’t see any advantage in spending a lot of money on what was essentially, not that different. I’ve played with a Korg Mono/Poly more recently and it’s fine…
You’re often thought of as a Roland man, is there an unconsciously loyalty with particular manufacturers…
I think the development process and timeline of Roland felt more cutting edge than any other manufacturer. Because we were self-identified as needing to be “cutting edge”, there didn’t seem any reason to stray from that. The Jupiter 4 was incredible, I still think it’s the best sounding traditional keyboard synth, rather than modular. The Jupiter 8 was good and ahead of its time but it didn’t sound as good as the Jupiter 4 and so on and so forth. If Roland had started falling behind in the late 80s, then I might have switched. I had a Roland S-700 series sampler which because of the converters sounded better than the Akai ones.
So with your book, was there a story you had completely forgotten about that came up in research?
Yeah, quite a few. They were amazing days in the first half of the 80s, I didn’t have a holiday for 3 years! It was that time when Virgin were making so much money from the birth of CDs that it was flooding in, so we felt we had to take advantage of this good fortune… but, while we didn’t think this money was coming out of thin air, we weren’t really fully concentrated on the fact that we’d have to pay all the recording costs back for instance. We didn’t fully recoup on HEAVEN 17 until the late 90s on the recording side.
There was one major story that I’d forgotten about, I was reminded about it by Glenn. We were recording ‘How Men Are’ at Air Studios in Oxford Circus and we were getting cabin fever. The news was full of Thatcher’s government committing a huge amount of public expenditure on cruise missiles. We were absolutely terrified like the majority of people were that we were going to be blown off the face of the planet! *laughs*
There was this idea of Mutually Assured Destruction as discussed on ‘Let’s All Make A Bomb’ from ‘Penthouse & Pavement’ and it just seemed like the whole world was going to sh*t… now that sounds familiar! Back then, we were heavily involved in the anti-nuclear movement and we’ve always been activists. One day, we just said “we’ve got to do something positive” as people we’re looking up to us as a politically motivated band…
So what happened?
I can’t remember whose idea it was. I think it was Ian’s and he said “why don’t we do a banner and put it on the top floor above Topshop on Oxford Circus as a protest?”. We thought in our demented minds that this was a great idea so we got some canvas and painted it to say “HEAVEN 17 SAY NO CRUISE IS GOOD NEWS” with the CND logo on a 20 foot by 4 foot banner.
We wanted it on the corner to get the maximum viewing on Oxford Circus but we had not really thought this through because how do you get this thing up? There was this ledge outside the window a metre wide and I’m not that great with heights! But Glenn said “I’ll do it” while Ian was completely mad and said he WOULD do it.
Meanwhile our engineer Jeremy Allom, a crackers Australian dude, said not only would he do it but would take his bike onto that metre long ledge and rode it around the outside of the building, overlooking the street with a hundred foot drop! I was like “I AM OUT!” and went home!
So Glenn, Ian and Jeremy put it up on a summer’s evening and Glenn took a polaroid… he came round my house and said “Martyn, take a look at this, it’s f*cking amazing!”… this photo is in the book by the way. I was thinking “this is great, it’s going to be in the newspapers”. But next thing in the morning, I get this phone call from Gemma Caufield, A&R co-ordinator at Virgin Records saying “YOU’VE GOT TO TAKE THE BANNER DOWN! THE POLICE ARE THREATENING TO ARREST YOU!” The owners of the building were threatening to sue us and we were given an hour to take it down… I didn’t even put it up there! *laughs*
Here’s another card, this is a fluke, a Korg 700s!!
Now you’re talking, you fixed this! So the Korg 700s, it’s the one I’m most fond of as it was the first synth I ever owned, apart from the dual stylus Stylophone I had. I’ve started taking the 700s out on tour again to play ‘Being Boiled’, the audience can’t believe what it sounds like.
It’s a totally different experience to any digital synth. The solidity of the bottom end is incredible and the filters are amazing. It had two oscillators that you could tune against each other or make them interfere using the ring modulator function, plus it’s monophonic of course, which suits me cos I’m sh*t!
The filters are called “travellers” and it’s got really weird colourful switches saying things like “expand”, WTF does that mean? I know what these things do now because I know how synths work but back then, it was mysterious. It had a white noise oscillator, there’s delay and vibrato. That was used in THE FUTURE before THE HUMAN LEAGUE and I’m really fond of it, if it ever got destroyed, I would be heartbroken.
When THE HUMAN LEAGUE played at the original Marquee on Wardour Street in 1978, it was rammed and they couldn’t get any more people in, we thought we were hardcore electro-punk! I found out 6 months ago that some people got turned away because it was full… two of them were David Bowie and Iggy Pop! Fortunately Bowie came to see us later at The Nashville. We opened for Iggy later on the ‘Soldier’ tour when Glen Matlock was in his band.
When THE HUMAN LEAGUE opened for punk bands like SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES, THE STRANGLERS and PERE UBU, the audiences were initially confused but they soon came round and turned into our core support in the end. It was different time and people now seem to be more segmented in marketing terms whereas then, it was much more open.
Your ‘Electronically Yours’ With Martyn Ware podcast has gone very well, you’ve done a lot of episodes, has it got bigger than you expected?
Absolutely 100%, I did it really as a distraction over lockdown… I had about 20 or 30 people who would probably do it. I like the podcast medium and listening to audio books while walking around London. I thought “I could do that”; there was nobody really doing anything in this sector of music. The thing I like about podcasts is they are truly international, there were colleagues and friends in American who knew people who might be interested, so one thing leads to another. A friend of mine from Sheffield who was the singer in a band called SOUNDS OF BLACKNESS introduced me to Maurice Hayes who was musical director for Prince, I would never have thought about approaching these people. It’s got a life of its own now.
Are there any artists that you haven’t interviewed yet who you would like on ‘Electronically Yours’?
There’s some I’ve been chasing since the start who have said they’ll do it, but for a number of reasons, it hasn’t happened yet. The main one is Brian Eno who I know, I don’t think my career would have happened without him on every level from Roxy to his ambient stuff to his work with Bowie and Fripp etc. He’s agreed to do it but he’s so busy.
Kate Bush has turned me down for the podcast and BEF but has always been sweet, she said it’s not something she’d do, I think she’s a very delicate flower. There’s another woman Annette Peacock whose 1972 album ‘I’m The One’ I loved, I got into a long dialogue with her and she’s still doing amazing stuff in her late 70s but she wants to combine appearing on the podcast with her next release. I’d like to chat to Cosey Fanni Tutti, she said she’s happy to do it but only when she’s ready.
There’s a few who have turned me down like Kevin Rowland who’s a friend of mine but didn’t fancy doing it… some people aren’t comfortable with autobiographical long form… the other main one is Green Gartside who I’ve worked with and known for 30 years but he’s not responded.
Time for another card, and it is an ARP Axxe…
I’ve not used a lot of ARP stuff in recording terms. Vince Clarke has nearly every ARP synth on earth and duplicates of a lot of them, so I got the chance to play with them… I just think a lot of those synths sound quite similar, what would you say the characteristics of the ARP Axxe were?
The ARP Axxe is a smaller version of the ARP Odyssey, I remember when Billy Currie spoke to me, the thing he loved about the Odyssey over the Minimoog was it had sliders rather than knobs so he could almost play heavy metal on a synthesizer, it was about player controllability…
I was curious to find out what the weapon of choice was for synth-funk bands in the 70s but one day, I stumbled across a video of THE GAP BAND and they had an ARP Pro-DGX. So I started looking into it and the reason why it was the weapon of choice was it had control features like polyphonic aftertouch which other synths didn’t have. A lot of synth basslines from the period had slurs between notes using ribbon controllers, that became the funky bass synth so that’s my ARP story.
Another card and it’s the EDP Wasp…
I love the Wasp but it’s completely unusable… it’s one of the most beautifully graphic designed synths, but it sounded irritating to me, a bit like its name! It was a bit like a toy, but not in a good way.
Two more cards, this is one you wanted, an EMS Synthi AKS…
Now you’re talking, I really want one of those. If anyone wants to distort my cultural development and sell me one at a reasonable price, I am definitely up for it. I want it as a piece of design but I can’t justify it for the price it’s going for these days. It’s a thing of immense beauty, what do you think?
There was one of these at the college studio which had the EMS Polysynthi and the Roland System 100 which was the synth I took to out of all of them… I never got on with the Synthi AKS because I couldn’t get my head around it, I just wanted to make sounds straight away which you could do with the System 100…
Yes, you’ve got to know what you’re doing, the Synthi can be difficult to get it into registration with a keyboard, it’s not a simple matter of plug and play at all, what with that matrix patch bay…
With the System 100, you could almost make something out of nothing, it was like no matter what you did with it, something happened and you could make it sound like what you wanted…
As it says in the manual, “there are no illegal connections…”
So how did you discover the Roland System 100 and make it your next purchase after the Korg 700s?
That’s not true actually, I bought the 700s and Ian bought the System 100 and sequencer at the same time. So those two and a tape machine became our tools to create demos in the early days. I learnt to use it and the System 100 is fantastic as a teaching tool, it’s so clearly laid out and easy to show what happens. When I teach my students on the MA Songwriting and Production about analogue synthesis, I’ve got a digital oscilloscope that I put on the end of the output and it shows the shape of the waveform, the tones are so pure.
But the story behind my System 100 is when I produced ‘I Say I Say I Say’ for ERASURE in 1993, I had been waxing lyrical about the System 100 as Ian had sold his. Vince had one of course and two days before Christmas, there was a knock on the door and there was a bunch of boxes outside. I was thinking “what’s this?” and Vince had bought me a complete System 100 with speakers and everything! I couldn’t believe my eyes, he had been saying to me that I needed to get back to pure electronic music. Apart from being an incredibly generous gesture, it was his way of changing my cultural development back again. It’s a beautiful story.
So what was the production dynamic like between you and Vince for ‘I Say I Say I Say’?
Here’s the story, I’d never met Vince or Andy before but I was a fan and I was contacted one day out of the blue from Mute Records saying Daniel Miller would like to speak with me. I was a big fan of THE NORMAL and SILICON TEENS so next thing I know, Daniel who I had never spoken to before asked if I would produce the next ERASURE record.
It turned out he didn’t realise I did productions and I said “I’ve done Tina Turner and Terence Trent D’Arby!”; Vince said the same thing after I met him in Amsterdam later. I laid out a methodology that I thought would work which was fundamentally old school. Vince just wanted someone to bounce off.
As I read it, him and Andy work remotely, that was certainly the case for ‘I Say I Say I Say’. It’s only when we laid toplines and backing vocals that Andy would come into the studio, most of the time, Vince was on his own. I think he got bored with being on his own and that’s why he wanted different producers. Now Vince KNOWS what he’s doing, production-wise and arrangement-wise but he needed someone as a means of randomising things a bit and to confirm that he’s moving in a different direction.
I remember with Vince when we were taking about this process and he agreed. He said “you know what Martyn, I am my own biggest fan, I just think everything I do is brilliant”… it was so disarmingly honest and it wasn’t anything to do with arrogance at all, he just knew he was the master of his craft because he had all the tools at his disposal to do exactly what he wanted, to create any sound he wanted, impersonate the effect or function of anything from guitars to bass guitars, woodwind to percussion to those aleatoric weird sounds, he could do it all at the drop of a hat. So all he needs is someone to help him organise it.
I contributed some arrangement ideas and record the vocals which he didn’t really want to get involved in, so I was the vocal specialist; I learnt about vocal stacking techniques from Greg Walsh who did ‘The Luxury Gap’, he worked with HEATWAVE and Geoff Emerick who worked with THE BEATLES. These are the dark arts that transform things from average into multi-national hits.
ERASURE had not really had that kind of producer before, in the past it was perhaps kind of more vibey electronics with Flood. There were all great producers, but it was a different approach. On one side I know all about electronics while on the other, I’m more like an old school traditional auteur producer if you like with a 70s vibe… that worked brilliantly with them I thought. Andy has since told me that as far as he’s concerned, the vocals and arrangements on ‘I Say I Say I Say’ are the best that ERASURE have ever done.
What’s your favourite track on ‘I Say I Say I Say’?
I do really like ‘Always’, we worked so hard on that. Right from the outset from the sketch before we fleshed it out and made it really something unique, it sounded like a hit. I was really thrilled when the album went to No1. They are such amazing people to work with, so creative and innovative, they are so self-effacing and open to suggestions, but they also know when the to stop; I know a lot of artists who constantly doubt themselves and aren’t happy even when it’s all done.
The story that sticks with me with Vince is when I went in the studio one day and he asked me what I thought of a track he did overnight. It sounded really good and I suggested 3 or 4 amendments in terms of sound to open out the spectral thing to make it sound bigger. I went to have a cup of tea and when I came back 20 minutes later, he had changed every single element and it was much better. It was everything! Can you imagine, the command that any person has of… he’s got like 50 synths that are all CV or gate connected in his studio, a series on MC4s that he programmes in with numbers and BBC Micro UMI which at that point he used to use as well plus Logic… this is a man who has complete command of his craft.
What are your thoughts on songwriting and production in modern synth music? This site has been criticised for not supporting enough new electronic music… I thought I was just being an old git thinking that songwriting is not as good as it used to be. But over lockdown, I listened to a lot of old stuff to lift me up and it seems to generally be true. Also with production and I don’t know if it’s because of software and DAWs, many artists are not crafting their sound anymore…
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, I can’t really add very much to that. There are many reasons for it, the workflow is entirely different now, it’s so quick to get something up to a reasonable standard… the temptation is to fall in love with that “reasonable standard”, the old thing would have been falling in love with a cassette demo. But you can take that reasonable standard and just put a topline on it and then its “OK, that’s done”. I think a lot of the time is because they don’t know…
When I teach songwriting at MA standard, there are some super talented individuals in traditional music terms but the vast majority of them who are in their 20s and don’t have the thematic or cultural context that our generation grew up with.
I love contemporary dance music and avant garde, but I’m against mediocrity. My general theory is if it doesn’t evoke any emotion in me, then I’m not that interested. If it’s exciting or people have a unique take on contemporary songwriting or instrumentals or whatever, I’m down with that. My worry is that everything is becoming more homogenised. I think a lot of it is due to following an economic model and that is a self-defeating mechanism ultimately because people chase the tail.
Honestly, some students of mine have told me “Well, I’ve watched lots of YouTube videos and I’ve done what it says and made a song with four chords and rotated it…” – they’re not doing it to be clever or lazy, they just DON’T KNOW! They’ve not studied great songwriting, they’re not paying attention to the stuff that we grew up with by default. We grew up through the main periods of some innovative artists like Kate Bush, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel etc who were always pushing the boundaries.
I’d like to think people like HEAVEN 17 and DEPECHE MODE were doing the same, but the whole landscape shifted in the late 80s towards marketing and then the whole music scene got steamrollered by the dance fraternity. I love dance music but a lot of it is a bit facile I find, it’s just too easy!
In my opinion, dance music ruined everything…
Here’s a story, when I first met Vince in 1992, he was living in a flat in Amsterdam above a small recording studio. There were these friends of his who we said hello to and what they did every day was do incremental variations on house music.
At the end of the week, they would do some vinyl white labels and distribute them among the clubs in the city and see what ones were popular. Literally, they would change 10% of it and I was thinking, if this is the future of dance music, then I’m not interested.
Fortunately there are great artists at all points but what I’m saying is that economically, a lot of that oxygen was sucked up by the dance fraternity up to the 2000s, then it was given to the singer / songwriter cohorts who frankly, unless they are very good, are immensely dull. So we are here now, there is some innovative stuff going on, particularly in the hip-hop scene internationally, but it’s a problem.
I do honestly believe there is no shortage of exceptional interesting stuff as much as there ever was, it’s just harder to find, that’s all. Now there is 50 times more stuff out there than there was in the early 80s.
Recently I got a new iPad so as a test case, I thought I’d see if any idiot could knock up a reasonable sounding dance track on GarageBand… I managed it in about an hour!
I’ll tell you a funny story about GarageBand. When my son was 12 and in the Scouts, he thought he’d do some badges and one was “Creativity”. So I asked him what he was going to do and he said he was going to do something on GarageBand. He did it in 2 hours and it sounded as good as a lot of stuff that comes out now. But he was literally just doing “drag and drop” and I was thinking, this is not good. So I explained to him that if you have an easy way of doing something, the likelihood is that you’ll do that. The stuff that makes things special and engagement is the final 10%. But if you are not encouraged to get there, you don’t know what you don’t know. So that’s why we’re at where we’re at.
The final card Martyn, and it is a Multimoog, this came after the Minimoog when they were trying to be more mass market and cheaper…
Yeah, normally when that happens, the components they use aren’t as good so they don’t so sound as good and so on and so forth. Moogs generally sound great with a round bottom end, I’ve often used the virtual Moog Modular and I’ve got used to adjusting things on the screen… I’ve got f*cking hundreds of sounds…
Yes, this was something you talked to William Orbit and Richard X about in your podcast, there’s just far too many options these days… so when you make music now, how much of it is software versus hardware?
It’s mainly software. I do lots of stuff that’s not straightforward pop music like installations, effects and sound design so that isn’t really about performance in the sense of playing a keyboard, it’s more about assembling things that one finds interesting and engaging.
I’ve got a totally different perspective on all this stuff now since I’ve been doing Illustrious with Vince since 2000, I am much less precious about the ingredients, I am more interested in the content.
So what are your hopes and fears for the book, will there be a Volume2?
There will only be a Volume 2 if Volume1 sells *laughs*
It’s 130,000 words, that’s a lot. I’ve never written that much in my life, I never went to university so I didn’t do a dissertation or anything. It’s been really hard work but I can honestly say that I am happy with the book so that’s a tick. I’m happy with the design. I’m happy with the support I’m getting from the publishers Little Brown. I’ve recently had to read the audio book version that will bring it to life even more.
I hope to do a series of signing events and talks associated with the book. I never thought I’d ever had a physical book, it’s quite something to be an author. And I wrote every word apart from the other people’s contributions. There’s no ghost writing, if anybody doesn’t like it, that’s fine. Someone actually said to me “well, I can’t wait for this but I don’t know if I can deal with your lefty views”… err, that’s who I am mate! I’m not telling you what to think, so don’t buy it then, I don’t care! *laughs*
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its electronic thanks to Martyn Ware