International Musicial and Recording Magazine, December 1988
"We decided that our strengths lay in synthetic manipulation"
"We don't really think we'd enjoy playing live, so we just don't do it"
One thing Heaven 17 can't be accused of is consistency. Two years ago they were talking about the Pleasure 1 album as if synthesizers and samplers were a phrase they had outgrown. Now the new album Teddy Bear, Duke and Psycho is finished, and it's high-tech as ever. So what gives ? Not counting the cassette - and CD only remix album of Endless, this is the fifth album of what had been described as 'stern white funk' for the trio, Ian Craig Marsh, Martyn Ware and Glenn Gregory. They look pretty happy about it, Martyn stretched out in a huge sagging leather armchair, Glenn cool and tanned and Ian contentedly chewing to pieces a timezone calculator watch.
"This", explains Martyn, "is the album that should have been between Penthouse and Pavement and The Luxury Gap. A lot of the lyrical content is similar to side two of Penthouse. Another similarity is that this one was done on our own studio, like Penthouse, while the other albums weren't. That way you have more time, and you're more relaxed."
After the grisly saga of the studio bills run up for How Men Are, it's obvious that there are financial advantages to working that way too.
|The Right Mix
"We spent about a year writing and recording the backing tracks in our own studio, so that cost virtually nothing except for a few pieces of equipment. Then we did the final tracks and the mixing at Red Bus and Air, with Phillip Legge and Graham Bonnet engineering, using the new Massenberg automated mixing system."
"It's a really good intuitive mixing system, but like all new technology it makes life more difficult. It turned out better, but it was a longer process. You can trim a tiny fraction, like 0.5dB, on the computer, and because you see the sliders moving on the desk you think you can hear the difference", adds Glenn.
"It's like playing a musical instrument; because the mix is actually going through the faders, not some abstract LED bar graph, it's like having a team of people carrying out your every command. So it takes a while to do, but it makes for a much more organic sound."
In contrast to the 48-plus tracks used on previous albums, Teddy Bear, Duke and Psycho was consciously restricted to 24 track, plus MIDI equipment running live.
"Yu can get a bit carried away sometimes", admits Martyn. "To tell the truth, you never need more than 16 tracks if you're willing to bounce down. We were using vocal slaves down to stereo tracks in some cases, but in the end there wer just the 24 tracks to mix, and that makes life easier."
Another happy experience was working with the Passport Master Tracks Pro sequencing software runing on the Apple Macintosh.
"It performed immaculately. It didn't crash once. We were using a Roland SBX80 SMPTE synchroniser, and Master Tracks sometimes lost its place when we rewound the tape, but once you restart the tape it sorts itself out. In future well be using it a lot more."
In contrast to Pleasure 1, which marked a new direction for the band in its heavy use of real guitar, bass and drums, Teddy Bear returns to using mainly sampled and synthesized sounds.
"We decided that our strength lay in synthetic manipulation," explains Martyn.
"We've actually absorbed the potential of sampling technology more tahn most bands, to the extent where we're using it as it was originally intended, as a replacement and enhancement for real instruments, rather than as a little gimmick that's thrown in. There are hardly any real drums on the album, though we sometimes use a combination of real and sampled strings.
Big Square People
Glen's favourite track kicks off with a vocal which drops further and further in pitch until it goes through the floorboards. "Not done with a harmoniser - we just slowed down the slave reel." It's all about TV-addicted "couch potatoes" and features a cracking TX81Z bass line to subsonic that proved difficult to record.
Don't Stop For No One
Features a live string section arranged by Richard Niles, and a piano solo by Nick Plytas. "this one would work well as an instrumental."
A Snake and Two People
The Book of Genesis from the woman's point of view, featuring a Hammond Organ solo from Nick Plytas, and Indian percussion from Blancmange contributor Pandit Dinesh.
Can You Hear Me
Ian's favourite track; a love story with a continually-building string arrangement. "It's the best arrangement, but the strings are a bit dense," complains Ian; "The Emulator II is good but its eight-bit, and doesn't have much top."
Speed metal backwards wah-wah guitars and sextuple-tracked vocals!
Ballad of GoGo Brown
The single off the album, an authentic- sounding R 'n 'B piece with both sampled and real harmonica (spot which is which! ) and a bassline both composed and played by computer. "We used Jam Factory, which gave us about two weeks of frustration and 15 minutes of use. But that's 15 minutes more than we got out of Intelligent Music's M!"
One of the "social comment" tracks; the police as a roving gang of hooligans. "Vaguely inspired musically by the Bowie track Fashion; it has the same direct on- the-beat relentlessness."
I Set You Free
A Luther Vandross-style song with a strange arrangement in which everything, including the chords and the bass, slides. Glenn recalls "I couldn't pitch to it until we just played a straight piano chord off MIDI, but we only thought of that after about one-and-a half days."
Train Of Love In Motion
A dance number featuring two bass lines, one real and one synthetic. "Since they both had their plus points we ended up switching between them on every alternate two bars."
A completely "real" arrangernent with twangy guitar-sitar by Tim Cansfield. A love ballad in the vein of Come Live With Me.
The CD features five extra tracks; two from Pleasure 1 sessions, a Glenn Gregory version of The Foolish Thing To Do, and two new pieces, one an instrumental. After a flirtation with the Fairlight, the band are now dedicated to the Emulator 2 with CD ROM, with some use of the Akai S900.
"We also used D50," Glenn adds, "but we steer away from the cliched presets like Beathy Chiffer and Digital Native Dance. We do use software sound editors to tweak sounds, but we normally work
by combining and layering sounds rather than editing. It's so easy with MIDI and a CD ROM sample library; we think in term of writing for an orchestra, creating new sounds by combing different tone colours."
It's largely the quality of sampIes available on the Universe of Sound Volume 3 CD ROM which has tumed the band back towards sampIers.
uThe sounds are so much better than those on Volume 1, which came out 18 months earlier, that it's now feasible to replace certain things you couldn't before. To some extent it's an economic considerationj we could have had someone in to play the parts, but it would have cost too much. Best to save the session musicians for the solos!"
Based around a Soundcraft MK3 24 track and soundtracks CM4400 mixer, the band's own studio also features tWo Yamaha TX81Z synth modules, and the E.mu SP12 used for most of the drum sounds. The effects rack includes Yamaha SPX90's and Rev 7's, Roland SRV1000, and Alesis MIDIverb.
The MIDIverb is probably the one we use most. It's just a simple, clear, transparent sound, and because it's preset you can't spend hours faffing around with it, like you can with a Rev 1."
The whole system is rack.mounting, and was taken into the larger studios for the final tracks. Acoustic contributors to the album include guitarist Tim Cansfiekd and pianist Nick Plytas.
"Tim 's role is almost comparable to someone like Carlos Alomar's with David Bowieu, explains Ian. .'We choose ftom a selection of his ideas, but more often tehn not we agree with his taste. It saves a lot of time!"
Deeply influenced as they are by black music, it seems strange that Heaven 17's lush orchestral sound is so out of step with the hard techno.rock of producers like Jam and Lewis.
"We're walking up the down escalator, because we started off purely electronically as a theoretical excercise. Now that's not 'modem' to us, it's antique. Producers like Jam and Lewis are very imaginativej they could arrange and produce a brilliant acoustic album. Their appeal isn't just down to the technolgy."
Nevertheless, The BalIad of GoGo Brown, a slice of authentic R 'n 'B, even featuring a harmonica solo, sounds like an unusual choice for the first single off the album.
"But that's us, isn't it," argues Martyn. UIt's unusual to release for a band not to tour; I'm glad we're unusual. There's enough homogeneity in the charts as it is. If people can't handle something that they don't immediately understand, I'm afraid they might have to make a bit of a bloody effort! It's about time people started putting something in to take something out."
Despite the difficulty in building up a following without gigging, the experience of spending three days rehearsing for a live appearance on The Tube tumed the band off the whole idea.
"Being a studio band is one of the limitations we've resolved ourselves to working within," explains Martyn. .'We don't really think we'd enjoy playing live, so we just don't do it. Okay, perhaps we lose some sales, but we could probably seIl more albums if we got in a couples of girls with large breasts and suspenders, but we're not going to do that either! A lot of the time the album-tour-album cycle suits the management more than it suits the band, and anyway we want to be free to work on other projects, or just go fishing. We've all been very fortunate in that we're the kind of people who are satisfied to sacrifice a little bit of ambition in return for being satisfied with the end product."
Since Pleasure One the other projects have included film and advertising work, Glenn's duet with Claudia Brücken on "When Your Heart Runs Out of Time", the sadly under-publicised single with Jimmy Ruffin "The Foolish Thing To Do", and Martyn's production work on Steve White and Nick Heyward's "Groove Train" single "Why Did You Do It?".
So with no inevitable tour to promote the album, what's next for the band? Suggestions include a 15 minute acid house remmix of Snake and Two People.
"We did it in a couple of hours just for a laugh, for a friend who runs a club,"grinned Ian, "But now he's saying that we should cut down and release it!"
Martyn's attitude to house Music is a bit less tolerant; "It's all boring and repetitive, and even the few outstanding tracks are only outstanding for a minutes. I don't know, perhaps people are just demanding less and less, and our tastes are becoming more complex."
Another project which will (hopefully) never see the light of day is Crispin Witters' Europe - an archetypal New Age album supposed to be recorded in three hours.
"Every track was going to be named after a capital city, "giggled Glenn. "But it would be cheating to do something that easy, wouldn't it?"
Which only leaves one question remaining - which of the band is which?
"Teddy Bear," admits Martyn. "Duke," claims Glen. "Psycho," grins Ian, chewing Los Angeles off his time-zone watch.