A Night In The Studio
Their '88 acid house hits took Britain's clubland by storm, but now S' Express are taking their sampling a stage further. Tim Goodyer enjoys the trip.
From the singles that packed the dancefloors of acid house clubs throughout Britain, S' Express have developed a new approach to sampling.
THE MARKS BROTHERS are better known to their friends as Mark Moore and Mark McGuire. Along with a constantly changing line-up of vocalists they're still better known as S' Express. The same S' Express that had you trancedancing to 'Theme From S' Express' and looking out your old flares while you hustled to 'Superfly Guy' last year. And by the time you read this, they should have you back on your feet with a third single, 'Hey Music Lover'.
In case the music has passed you by, S' Express deal in a melee of interleaved samples and irresistible basslines. Dance music it is; less pop than fellow Rhythm King signings Bomb the Bass and less acid than Baby Ford. The visible side of Club Culture. But there's another side to S' Express' music that Moore and McGuire are anxious to explain. Although 'Theme from S' Express' adopted the "traditional" cut-up approach - in this case a steal from Rose Royce's '70s hit 'Is It Love You're After' overlaid with an assortment of other samples - their first venture onto long-playing vinyl, The Original Soundtrack, sees the sampler used in a variety of ingenious ways.
Currently sitting in a Caribbean restaurant in the early hours of the evening, Moore claims to be "having breakfast", having risen only a few hours earlier. He belongs to the nocturnal "clubbing" fraternity - his waking hours divided between London nightclubs and the recording studio.
Moore began his musical career in the early '80s playing in bands ("a cross between Joy Division and Throbbing Gristle") and as a DJ ("purely a mistake"), when he filled in for one of the Mud Club's absent DJs. The arrival of some slip mats from a benevolent record company introduced him to the art of mixing records.
"I didn't know what they were for at first", admits Moore, "I thought they were just meant to look pretty on the deck - then I found out what they did and I started experimenting with mixing. Because I never actually bought Technics myself I had to practice mixing live while I was DJ'ing, which was quite funny at first. Then I actually got good at it. I don't know how."
Moore had also been working as an unpaid talent scout for Rhythm King, leading them to sign such acts as Taffy, Cookie Crew, Bomb the Bass, Renegade Soundwave, the Beatmasters and Baby Ford. In due course they demanded to hear his own demos and duly welcomed him to the fold.
A couple of years earlier, McGuire had begun his as an engineer at EMI's demo studios in Manchester Square - recording a fledgling Duran Duran and Boy George's pre-Culture Club activities as George and the Sex Gang Children. Disillusioned, he took a break from music, only to tempted back by a request for help with a live album from The Promenaders (who included Steve Beresford and David Toop). A three-year stint at Abbey Road studios ("doing everything under the sun - Indian film music to Hooked on Classics albums") saw his introduction to Phil Harding who subsequently tempted him over to Pete Waterman's PWL studio complex. There he worked on dub mixes of Bananarama and the early Mel and Kim singles. It was this work and frequent visits to a London club called Sacrosanct that brought the Marks Brothers together.
"I just knew him as this guy who used to shout things out to me while I was working, then he pointed out I was playing his records and I stopped talking to him for a while", comments Moore.
"I thought he was God", says McGuire, simply.
The first fruits of the Marks Brothers' labour was S' Express' second single, 'Superfly Guy', the debut single having been written and produced by Moore and Pascal Gabriel. Instead of the obvious '70s disco lifts of its predecessor it contains indications of a new sampling philosophy. Not all the tracks are bass bombers headed for the dancefloor, nor do they all rely on other peoples' music for their sounds.
"The thing about all these sampling records is that there are only so many samples" says Moore. "What's happening now is that it's getting worn out, people aren't being imaginative. You've got to incorporate the sampling ethic into making songs. It seems like a natural progression.
"I get sent all the new records and I hear record after record of samples. Now I'm hearing record after record of acid, and it's all really boring. Obviously there still are good sampling records and there still are good acid records, it's just a question of finding them. On the new album we're still sampling but it's not the M/A/R/R/S-type sampling, it's more a case of sampling sounds and little snippets and rearranging them.
"I think, when it comes down to it, what you're looking for is something to listen to. I can't listen to a record and say 'that's a good drum sound' or 'I like that sample', if the rest of the song's crap, if there's no tune or if it doesn't make me dance it means nothing to me how good the drum sounds are. It just means that somebody's spent all their time getting the drum sounds and they've forgotten about the rest of the song.
McGuire continues: "We've moved on a step further in that we're creating samples that will be original to S' Express records. Mark's been tape recording friends saying things that he wanted to use and we've been finding sounds we like and doing something new with them - like taking a toy gun, for instance, playing it into the Emax and turning it into a completely and utterly different sound. It becomes an instrument that no-one will have used. And we've been taking things off cassette, which gives it the same feel as if they've been taken from some other medium. It's like amalgamating sampling and the traditional song - instead of a person singing there will be a sampled vocal and instead of a bridge there'll be our samples in there. It gives a traditional song that slight twist that makes it an S' Express song."
Almost proving the point, excerpts from the 'Fluffy Bagel' mix of 'Superfly Guy' have already found their way into Les Adams' remix of Inner City's 'Big Fun', Ben Liebrand's treatment of INXS' 'I Need You Tonight' and Danny D's rework of D Mob's 'We Call It Acieed'. And when the sampler becomes the sampled the sampling act becomes a compliment.
"A great compliment", McGuire confirms, "I just hope they use the samples well. I hate hearing records where the samples are used incredibly badly."
Moore goes on to compare making sampling records to an apprenticeship in "proper" songwriting. Could it be that sampling pieces of other peoples' music is nothing more than a fashionable fad after all, and that today's sampling stars are the writers of tomorrow's conventional songs?
"I wouldn't say our songs are conventional", replies Moore, "but maybe we won't get sued as much. It's a question of seeing what we can come up with by crossing a new style with what we're doing. What we've tried to do with the album is to produce stuff which is more like a collection of songs. Basically, if you want to progress, you've got to show that you can do songs as well as grooves. We've got the songs and we've got the grooves as well, but in each case we've tried not to make them the same old songs and the same old grooves, we've tried to make them stand out as a different approach."
There is also what Moore refers to as the A-side and B-side approaches of S' Express.
"The A-side tends to be a lot more commercial and the B-side is a lot more experimental. Basically I knew it would take too much time to have two different bands with two different names, and Rhythm King would never have got round to releasing the experimental stuff. But if you really understand S' Express you'll know it makes sense - especially if you've heard me DJ where there are no rules as to whether it's underground music or pop music. I think that's a good role for the B-side.
"I like to experiment a lot but if you experiment too much you can leave people thinking 'what the hell is he trying to do?'. So you've got to take it record by record and see if people can understand what you're doing. If not you've got to calm down a bit. If it does go well, maybe we can afford to go even madder. So I don't like to plan too far ahead although world domination could be quite fun.
"Everybody's jumping on the sampling bandwagon and using any old thing - it shows who knows their history and who's just doing it for fashion's sake."
"With the first single I didn't want it to sound like a typical Chicago house record. And when it came out people were saying 'what is this, is it house, is it disco?'. I like the idea that you can't classify it. I think people in Britain are too content to copy Detroit, Chicago and New York rather than make records with a British sound."
ONE OF THE aspects of sampling records that sets the sampling elite apart from their imitators is the choice of sampled material. It seems it's not good enough simply to find a pleasing snippet of audio history to include in your latest musical collage - it must have a background.
"It can't just be any old sample", agrees Moore, "it's got to be there for a reason. It's got to be there because you admire the band you've taken it from or because it's a part of club history.
"When you listen to sampled records, if it's a house record you know a sample's there because it's from a famous disco single that Larry Le Van used to play at the Garage, for example - it's part of house history. The same with hip hop; you'll hear Captain Howdy Doody spun in because the early hip hop DJs in New York would mix in sound effects - that's a part of hip hop culture. People assumed Doug E Fresh's 'oh my God, oh my God' was him, but it was taken from one of the early rap records that inspired him.
"Recently it's gone mad; everybody's jumping on the sampling bandwagon and just putting any old thing there just for the sake of it. It shows who knows their history and who's just doing it for fashion's sake. You can tell the difference but you need the knowledge in the first place."
The choice, then, depends on who your records are aimed at. In Moore's case it's himself and the clubs he attends and DJs at. But outside of the informed listener there are a generation of punters growing up a confusing world - if your first encounter with a melody or rhythm is in the context of a particular song, the logical conclusion to draw is that it belongs to that artist.
"People hearing the Rose Royce song for the first time must be pretty confused", concedes Moore. "They might even be thinking 'hang on, they've ripped off S' Express', but if they've got an interest in music they'll gradually learn about it. It's the people who aren't really interested in the music who'll be really confused. If I hear a sample and I don't know what it is I'll always try to find out where it's from."
While Moore is now attempting to create unique samples, there are artists still seeking to become part of his sample collages. Philip Glass is one such artist. On a recent visit to London, Glass met Moore who promptly took him on a tour of London's acid house clubs.
"He just stood there nodding his head for about 45 minutes", recalls the DJ, "then he said 'yeah, yeah, I get it now. I understand'. Now he's really into house music - he's a house music freak."
The meeting went on to produce one of the less likely musical collaborations of last year.
"I was chatting to him at the opening night of his opera - he'd heard the S' Express stuff which he liked - and I said 'why don't you do the remix of the new single?'. So he has. I'm quite pleased with it, it's like Philip Glass goes disco - it's got all his sequenced violins and horns and the vocal from 'Hey Music Lover'. It's even slightly acid in places."
Mention the influence of Kraftwerk to Moore and you'll get a hushed "of course" in response. But the name of Philip Glass comes up here too.
"Even if it's unintentional I always thought Philip Glass was an influence on house music. His ideas have been translated into house records. I've heard Colin Eaver mention him and I introduced him to Jimmy Polo at this underground house club we had called Fusion, and Jimmy Polo just freaked out. Most of these DJs love Philip Glass but they don't mention him as an influence.
"Philip Glass is quite similar to house people in the way he uses the studio as a tool. And some of his stuff is similar to Derrick May's in the way he uses strings - except Derrick May has got a drum machine behind them."
More surprising still is the reception awaiting mention of Stock, Aitken & Waterman.
"I think they put British dance music on the map", states Moore. "Before M/A/R/R/S came along the only thing we had was Stock Aitken & Waterman. They were playing Rick Astley at Paradise Garage - what more could you want as a compliment? Even Baby Ford bought 'I Should be so Lucky' - his excuse was wanting to know how a 'proper' song should be structured. Then he hid it.
"I think they have done a lot of crap records but at the same time, they've done some really good records. I've played some of their stuff in clubs even though I'm not meant to as an underground DJ - if I like them, I play them. Some of the dub mixes of Mel and Kim were the first British records to come out taking the house style. I think it is easy to knock people just because they're successful.
"Even if it's unintentional I always thought Philip Glass was an influence on house music - his ideas have been translated into house records."
"The only thing that upset me was when they tried to sue M/A/R/R/S because I really thought that the techniques that Stock Aitken & Waterman were using were very much DJ techniques. Then I found out that a lot of it was influenced by a certain person - Mark McGuire."
Being a DJ, one of Moore's main musical considerations is that of rhythm.
"There are drum patterns that just make you want to move and there are other drum patterns that some people can't understand how to dance to" he explains. "Like early hip hop - people said 'you can't dance to this', but it was only because they didn't know how to do the dance. It's all a question of having the right dance for the right drum pattern, and some of the dances haven't been invented yet. I can easily dance to some things that other people wouldn't be able to. With the whole acid thing people said they couldn't dance to that and they hadn't discovered trance-dancing. Now, everyone knows how to trance-dance. When 'Theme from S' Express' came out people thought it wasn't that danceable and I said, 'what do you mean? It's perfectly danceable, it's totally danceable'. If you're going to move on you've got to come across something which most people are going to think is undanceable. It's like when Public Enemy came out with 'Rebel Without a Pause' people said 'you can't dance to that' but it became one of the biggest dance hits around."
Moore is even prepared to categorise music in terms of the dance that accompanies it.
"Hip hop was definitely the wop, now that's out and if you look what everyone's doing to hip hop, it's much funkier sort of dance. It's much more the '60s R&B; much more shaking of the arms and shaking of the legs and definitely a lot funkier. I think that's going to cross over to house music as well.
"Definitely the dance is going to get funkier and dare I say it Saturday Night Fever, or Ike and the Ikettes and Tina Turner - really 'freak out' dances. And therefore the music is going to head in that direction as well. A lot more raunchy. The robotics is going to go out and the raunchiness and the funkiness is going to come in."
Another aspect of sampling concerns the use of a sampler as an alternative to recording scratches live from the source records. In the case of S' Express' first two singles, everything that went out on vinyl has been sampled, but in the demo stages it was all taken straight off the turntable and onto four-track.
"I had all the samples and I knew exactly how I wanted them to link", explains Moore. "I liked the demos because they sounded like you were in a club with a jam going on. They didn't sound like a proper record, they sounded more spontaneous. What I like about records is trying to make them sound messy, trying to keep as many mistakes in as possible without it sounding stupid."
Where a sampler scores over vinyl is that the quality of the sample doesn't deteriorate every time it's played. But even considerations of quality are secondary to the those of the music.
"Even if it sounds really bad I don't think it matters", says Moore. "There are a lot of hip hop records being made now where the records that are scratched in are really bad condition - and they're doing it on purpose to add to the atmosphere."
"Kids used to scratch their records, now they buy them scratched", observes a wry McGuire while the interview walkman is off. In this case the quality of the comment overcomes the limitations of the equipment assigned to record it. Back on the air, he explains more about the S' Express approach to sampling. Although much of the work for The Original Soundtrack was done on the Emax resident at Beethoven Street studios, it seems neither Moore nor McGuire own one - yet.
"I want to get an Emax and an S1000", says McGuire, "the S1000 for its quality and the Emax because it's like the first Fairlight in adding a quality of its own. If you take a string sample and stick it in the S1000 it'll sound exactly like that string sample, but put in in the Emax and it colours it - and I really like that quality. Some of the sampling was done on the £49 Casio sampler for that reason as well. We took those samples and put them into the Emax so it was actually possible to play them, but they still had that disgusting edge."
"I like the sound of what comes out of my Walkman", adds Moore. "I recorded one girl down the phone from America straight to the Walkman. We used it on the album, and it's got great feeling to it just because it's come down the phone. If we'd taken her into the studio and put her in front of a microphone it would sound too clean."
McGuire continues: "I think sampling should be done quickly and spontaneously or you end up sampling something and messing with it for time immemorial. You defeat the object in the end. If you can't do it quickly it loses its urgency and its spontaneity which is the beauty of sampling sounds. You can take a sound and use it in any way you like."
According to McGuire, all of The Original Soundtrack was written on his trusty Linn 9000. Although maligned by many, the 9000 seems to find favour with those who actually get to use it.
"The Linn 9000 was the main writing tool at PWL", explains McGuire. "I used it a lot there, and got to know it so well that I bought one - and haven't moved on since. It's quite limiting but it's a good writing tool nevertheless. People will be collecting them like classic guitars soon.
Both 'Theme From S' Express' and 'Superfly Guy' were put together using Steinberg's Pro 16 and an Akai S900 which, according to Moore, "took ages". Once the Emax was in on the act things became much easier. Right now McGuire is looking at the Atari ST and Steinberg Pro24 III as the next logical purchases to make. But the technology behind S' Express - and the whole house/acid/sampling movement - brings with it as many problems as it solves.
"Obviously anything that allows you to do what you want to do is a great asset" comments McGuire. "But there are lots of records made with technology where technology is the prime reason for them - simply because you can do something then you must do it, as opposed to deciding what you want to do and then looking around for the way to do it. Some people seem to make records with technology just to use that technology which, for me, is incredibly dull.
"I just wanted to do things and found technology could help me do them. It's a learning experience, it's like being at school again, it's fun."
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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