A Brush With Colourbox
Eclectic electricians who do unofficial world cup themes and official singles called 'Philip Glass'.
They sample, they steal, they write (un) official World Cup themes, and Jon Lewin finds their idea of fame rather strange. Paul Spencer finds a 1963 Fender Jaguar planted in their garden.
"We're not looking for a hit single. We wouldn't mind the money, but as far as the rest of it goes, no."
How often do you hear anyone say that? How often do you hear anyone say that less than a month after they've released two 12in singles? How often do you hear anyone say that, and mean it?
I really like Colourbox, but there's a big problem here. Still, first let me tell you a bit about them, just in case you've not heard any of their excellent records: Colourbox is two musicians, brothers Martyn and Steve Young, and a singer, Lorita Grahame. They make music with synthesisers, sequencers, drum machines, occasional guitars, Lorita's cool and powerful voice, and bits of found dialogue. Their songs are a mix of funk, reggae, and rocky film music, with elements of cut-up production technique. They have nearly had three hit singles.
Martyn and Steve agreed to be interviewed in the flat they share in West London. Mindful of interesting photographs with towering mountains of home recording gear, and hi-tech keyboards, El Photo and myself nosed into their cluttered basement premises to find a distinct absence of electrickery (hence the late '63 Jaguar in the photo).
Nice chaps, they made us a cup of tea, and we had a chat about Colourbox's history. A somewhat haphazard (this is a clue) tale, it turns out. I'll let Martyn tell you how their first release came about.
"We used to muck around in a bedroom with someone else's gear, and we did this tape which someone took into 4AD without us knowing, and he (Ivo) really liked it, and wanted to put it out. We hadn't gone about forming a group or anything."
Apparently the early Colourbox recorded two singles with hired equipment, both of them a song called 'Breakdown', released respectively in October '82 and March '83. This line-up was a four piece that included Martyn, Steve, Ian Robbins and Debion Curry. However, Debion kept not turning up while they were recording their mini-LP (released September '83), and then Ian went on holiday to Greece just two days before a Kid Jensen session. And then they were two.
In the meantime, Martyn and Steve bought some gear with money gleaned from a publishing deal with EMI. Their advance quickly went on a Jupiter 8 and a Drumulator. Not sensibly, as Martyn told me:
"The Drumulator was useless: kept breaking down all the time, and it sounded horrible to listen to. Then we got a Prophet 5 with a Poly Sequencer; it does the job, but it's a bit boring."
While they were auditioning singers, the brothers heard a Lorita Grahame single, which led to her joining them as the new vocalist, fixing the line-up which they have today.
It's not just the line-up that's fixed: Colourbox are still using the same synth set-up they bought three years ago.
"And that's all we've got," said Steve. "We don't have a drum machine at home, though we did borrow a Movement for a while. One trouble with our set-up at home is that it won't sync to tape, which is a real pain, as it means we can only ever hear one sequence at a time. We don't know until we get into the studio whether all the sequences will work together."
But (pause for sip of tea) how does a group with such technically limited means make records as perfect as 'Say You' (Feb. '84), Colourbox's cover version of a U Roy/Laggo Morris song?
"We only use our gear for writing," explains Steve. "We write the basic song at home, maybe work out a couple of arrangements, with perhaps bass, chords, vocals, melody line to the chords, basic drumbeat, and that's basically it. Most of it's done in the studio as we go along. That way it means we can forget about writing the overall structure, and it becomes just a matter of filling it in once we get in the studio. So it's sort of chance as to what gear's available in the studio."
"We normally use just what's there," Steve adds, "like the last single was done on a Kurzweil. And it doesn't matter what drum machines, as we usually sample the sounds anyway, and just put a basic track down with whatever's there."
"We write the melody line, generally have it all recorded before Lorita comes down. We play it to her, then she goes ahead and sings it. She's quite quick."
Martyn and Steve share instrumental duties.
"There's certain things I can't physically do: Steve can play keyboards with two hands, and I can't, so any stuff that we don't sequence, he plays. And he usually does most of the drum programming, with me sitting behind saying yes or no. The bass is all sequenced, maybe a sampled bass guitar. We use some guitar, but quite a lot of it we've done by sampling a guitar and messing around with that.
"We've nearly got to the stage where we can sequence guitar solos. On the 'World Cup Theme' there's a guitar solo that's actually a keyboard. We aren't far off being able to get a passable solo out of a sequencer."
"You have to put a lot of varying lengths of notes. Normally something electronic's really regimental, but if you put in different lengths of notes, bends, touches like that, it starts to sound a bit human."
The brothers Colourbox have just signed yet more publishing deals, and are threatening to update their gear.
"We don't want to make the mistake of buying big stuff again; we're gonna get all really small things and hire the other stuff in. We want equipment that'll do what we want, not a lot of other things that we'd never think of using. We'd like to find a way of getting a customised thing built up — a sequencer that can bend notes, and change programmes on the keyboard really fast, so that we could put a line in doing 16ths, and each separate note could change the programme. We can get our Poly Sequencer to bend, and change programmes quite quickly as well, but it's got no MIDI, and it's such a pain to programme. Yamaha's FM is totally out of the question — you need a degree to operate it. I don't like DX7s — they're all harsh, really over the top transistorised sound.
"We've thought about recording at home," Steve rejoins, mentioning their 244 Portastudio, "but once you step on that road, it's almost a full-time job keeping up with all the technical magazines. We know someone who does read them religiously all the time, and that's Robin out of the Cocteau Twins. So we ring him up to find out what's going on."
Our conversation progressed as the afternoon wore on to the trio's current waxings, the 'Baby I Love You So', and 'Official World Cup Theme' simultaneous release. That was when the subject of hit singles came up.
"We're not looking for a hit single. We wouldn't mind the money, but as far as the rest of it goes, no. We've been offered TV, but we've turned it down — we just turned down Wogan for one of the new singles. It's not our thing. It would do the singles good, but that's not the main reason..."
So what is the "main reason"? For you to make music, that is.
"Good fucking question... Dunno... we just do it, really."
There's the problem: 1986 is not the time for a Clash-like stand against Top Of The Pops, or even Wogan. If Colourbox were just a little more famous, I wouldn't have to try to sell them to you; their records are bright, strong, catchy, and intelligent, and thoroughly deserving of commercial success.
Although the records that Colourbox have made for 4AD have all the outwardly glossy appearance of professionalism and thriving industry, the reality behind them seems far less organised. While they may have a healthy attitude towards the more tawdry aspects of selling records, it also appears to be symptomatic of a less applaudable indolence on the part of the band. Martyn says this about his record company:
"4AD don't pressurise us that much, though last year we overran the contract by not doing as many records as we were supposed to; they stopped our money and we were on the dole for 8 months. We're meant to do an album and a couple of singles a year. It looks like we're gonna overrun again, but now we've got the publishing money. It's a headache for Ivo, but that's his department."
Or is it? If Colourbox are not commercially successful, 4AD will presumably be less willing, if not unable to finance them. Then they will not be in a position to continue making such sublime music. I enjoy Colourbox records, and I want more of them.
"We haven't got enough material for another LP," says Steve. "Got to get some gear first to write it on."
But if Colourbox are willing to invest money in equipment, why are they still unwilling to promote their records as energetically as they could? Is there something you'd rather be doing, Martyn?
"Basically, we'd like to get into films musically. If we could, we wouldn't make records. The publishers are the ones who do it: all of them have been saying, sign to us and we'll get you loads of films... but nothing yet."