A Provisional Arrangement
After three years out of the public eye, Scritti are straight back in the charts with a new LP and single. Green Gartside explains to Tim Goodyer why technology has replaced live performance.
After a three-year hiatus Scritti Politti are back with a charting single and new album of immaculate white funk.
WHAT DO YOU think about live performance?
"I enjoy it."
What do you think is interesting or valuable about it?
"I think you can create an atmosphere that you can't create on record. It's too easy to put a record on and be distracted; instead, you're shut in a concert hall for two hours and somebody says 'I'm going to push my music down your throat whether you like it or not.' If you don't like it it's hell, if you like it... Either way it's an experience."
The interview is going smoothly - or it would be if I were asking the questions instead of answering them. Scritti Politti's Green Gartside and Dave Gamson have turned the tables on me and I find myself defending live music. They seem to have grown out of it, preferring the studio as an ideal environment in which to create their music. Although the music has been a long time coming. Scritti have remained ominously silent since the Cupid and Psyche: 85 LP and its attendant Top 20 singles, 'Wood Beez' and 'Absolute', were released back in 1985. A new album, entitled simply Provision, has brought about this unusual confrontation between interviewer and interviewee.
Getting back to the issue of live music Gamson is in full flight.
"The end product is music, public performance, at least to me, is not that interesting. What we're dealing with is creating music and making records. I really couldn't care less if you're the greatest guitar player in the world, if there's another way for me to get that sound onto a record I'll do it.
"What we're doing is not an improvised form in any way. What we're trying to do is to record a written song. Improvisation is not something that ever interested me."
And his sentiments are unequivocally shared by Green.
"Marvelling at the dexterity of an individual on a platform is probably an unhealthy thing; it's certainly something that now seems very alien and old, even fascistic in its own way. And it has no ardour for me.
"I'm not even happy with that distinction between what is written and what is improvised. I don't really believe in the mythology of this pure, untainted source of expressivity - it's garbage, it's metaphysical reactionary garbage.
"It was pointed out to me the other day that, as I'd started with punk I must be interested in the whole business of playing music live, but what actually interested me about it was independent records. People had made records for one hundred to two hundred pounds. Our first record cost three-hundred-and-something pounds to make, that was what was appealing. Realising a record was more appealing than putting myself on a stage in front of an audience."
Perhaps another tack... Scritti currently have a single riding high in the charts by the name of 'Oh Patti (Don't Feel Sorry for Lover Boy)', which features the talents of jazz legend Miles Davis guesting on trumpet - after Davis had covered Scritti's 'Perfect Way' on his own album, Tutu. Another song has been chosen for single release in the States, 'Boom, There She Was', which, along with 'Sugar and Spice', features Zapp's Roger Troutman on voice box-treated synthesiser. In both cases the soloist's contribution has been improvised over Scritti's song structure and backing tracks. Not live music? Gamson to the defence.
"He's a very good musician responding to a situation. He's making it up, yes, but we've given him the rules."
"But then, we're making it up", interjects Green. "We're just conduits for our history and influences at a given moment. At the moment of writing, when you choose this progression or these intervals or this inversion over something else, it's as spontaneous as anything. He's thinking on his feet, but you're doing that when you write and when you sing. It's all just thinking as you go."
Gamson again: "Roger was playing, but the end product is our selection of what is going to work from what Roger's done. If we have ten tracks of him playing from beginning to end of the song, that isn't an interesting song. He was so nervous about doing the session that, at first, he found it difficult to play. It was only when he was able to loosen up and feel as though he was in the studio that he could be creative. Also, to some extent, what Roger's doing is responding to what we've got on tape."
ALTHOUGH GREEN LATER describes the interview as "adversarial", I can appreciate his and Gamson's point of view. Indeed, popular music would be considerably poorer without it. Let's take a closer look at the nine songs that make up Provision. First of all, why different singles for the UK and US?
"Making my first record for three-hundred-and-something pounds was more appealing than putting myself on a stage in front of an audience."
"'Boom, There She Was' is the most like the last record in lot of ways" comments Green. "I don't think we wanted to come out with something like that again. In this country, it's better to throw it at a bit of a curve. Scritti's songs have always been a bit jittery and syncopated - well this one isn't."
"To me it's a definite continuation and an improvement on the last record" continues Gamson. "I think the vocals are much, much better and I think the arrangements generally are a little more open. We tried to take into consideration leaving a lot of space for the vocal, while still keeping the concept of how we build the arrangements. I feel much happier about this record than I did about the last one."
"This album has been a completely collaborative effort", Green comments. "Initially there was a little bit of a sense of David being brought in to a pre-existing Scritti as an accessory." Gamson: "By the end of Cupid and Psyche we were working quite closely together and this record is a continuation of that. We went into it from the very beginning saying we're going to do this on equal terms. To me at least, if something happens on this record it's there for a reason; I tried to be very careful about where things were happening around the vocal."
As a result Provision comes across as a refined continuation of the clean funk of Cupid and Psyche. Both are a far cry from the punk days that saw the conception of an almost unrecognisable Scritti Politti. Green is the only surviving member of the original line-up, Gamson only joining him for the making of Cupid and Psyche. Much has changed in both the album and single charts since the last Scritti long player, so where does Green see himself fitting into the popular scene of '88?
"There is a huge catalogue of options offered to the consumers as to what they'd like to constitute themselves with. Aesthetic inclinations are choices people make either consciously or unconsciously to one degree or another. It would be impossible to generalise about music. I don't know where we are in it really. History dumps us pretty unequivocally in white pop territory; I'm afraid that it might dump us somewhere between Johnny Hates Jazz and whatever else is just around the corner. I've willingly lost all sense of where it's coming from or going to. I think that's a good thing.
"The brief that took the original Scritti into this Scritti was a reactive brief. But it's sustained enough interest for me - and, I suppose, for David - to sustain over two albums. I don't think of it in terms of being happy with it, although I'm always dissatisfied.
"Whatever's conventionally thought of as more marginal music - whether it's the independent scene or whatever, they are the margins of conservatively designated space - there's nothing more inherently interesting or expressive or radical happening there than anywhere else. That's why I embraced the idea of returning to a dominant aesthetic and I see no good reason to be anywhere else. Although I might - the map could be carved up again or I may want to be involved in carving it up again as much as it's possible to do so. I just want to emphasise the fact that I don't think there's anything inherently more challenging or truthful or more radical than where we are. You get involved in minutiae of pop, and the journalists and papers involved in packaging and presenting the consumer with a catalogue of choices of musics that he can use to construct or deconstruct himself. That all tends to overlook the fact that pop music in itself is this gloriously enigmatic, pleasurable, meaningless/meaningful thing.
"But all you can ever do is talk around music, you can never actually refer to music - in the same way, music itself doesn't have a semantic level. I became hooked, when I was younger, on finding challenging musics. I would seek out records that initially frustrated me and were unsettling for me. The Beatles were an unsettling thing: each subsequent single was a sufficient departure from the last in terms of its language, its melody, its rhythms, to be a very big thing for a little boy - a little boy who took it very seriously. These things were thrown down as things of great power and beauty, and troubled me. I searched them out and they led me to listening to rock 'n' roll: Matching Mole, Robert Wyatt, Henry Cow...
"I no longer have that cartography of the world - this is difficult music, this is easy music - I just don't think it's like that. But those musics are there to be found as challenging to listeners throughout the whole catalogue of possibilities of music. There are musics that may even seem terribly anodyne to me and you, that hopefully are undoing little boys and girls throughout the country as they did me. I believe that to be the Great Hope. I'm retaining a wilful naivety about these things whilst theorising at the same time and finding to my surprise and delight that I can keep both of those alive. Music is essentially so resiliently enigmatic."
TALKING ABOUT PROVISION in terms of the equipment that helped construct it proves considerably more straightforward. Being the more technical half of the partnership Gamson takes the lead. "All the drums were done on the Synclavier. We had a library of drum sounds that we transferred to the Synclavier and then we had a whole bunch more drum samples that we did in the studio. We already had all the drums sequenced and we did MIDI dumps into the Synclav and then we just went through and picked the drum sounds we wanted to use. That was all we used the Synclav for, really. Then it was just basically my keyboard setup on top of that: TX rack, Super Jupiter, Prophet 2000, DX7, Minimoog, Matrix 12, Prophet VS..." Simple really. Gamson came into Scritti through the band's decision to work in New York's Power Station studio (with help from producer Arif Mardin) on the Cupid and Psyche LP. As we all know, they do things differently in the States, but Gamson's own approach is closer to its British counterpart.
"What's happening in America is that you're getting guys who are players and guys who are programmers", he explains. "The players don't usually have very big equipment setups and the programmers have ridiculously big setups but can't do very much with them. The players will hire a programmer to do all the programming while he just plays. I myself can't deal with somebody else doing my programming. If you know what a sound's supposed to sound like, it ends up being easier to do it yourself even if that means spending some time trying to do it. It depends on what kind of record you're making, but if you're going to make a sequenced record, a lot of what the sound is, is how it's being struck and how long it's holding for. When I sequence stuff I have to make sure every release is together and all the velocities are what I want so I can bring out certain notes within a chord. You could never do that playing - I don't care who you are, you could never have the kind of control you can have with a sequencer. It makes such a difference to the whole sound. I think it makes more sense to be a player who is also going to program because you have to control all the parameters."
And once again the idea of a "live" performance seems to go out of the window.
"I don't want to say that performance is bad or not valuable" Gamson continues, "but making a record is a totally different thing. When you're making a record you're using a whole bunch of things that don't exist in live playing. That's not to say that all live performance is uninteresting, but to me, live performance is uninteresting because I enjoy making records.
"The interesting thing about working in studios with electronic instruments is that what you're playing in the end is the studio. Hearing a violin in a room is a very different experience to hearing a violin over a speaker. When you go to a live pop performance you're hearing sound waves moved by large speakers which is very different to going to see an orchestra. Each of these things is something you have to worry about; if you're going to perform using electronic instruments and speakers it's different to performing with acoustic instruments. If you're making records they have to sound good over a speaker which is different again to using a PA system. The Synclavier certainly doesn't seem to be designed to bridge the gap between live playing and the studio."
"I couldn't care less if you're the greatest guitar player in the world, if there's another way for me to get that sound onto a record I 'll do it."
One of the more unusual aspects of the recording of Provision is Roger Troutman's contribution. His voice-treated synthesiser - usually assumed to be a vocoder - has long been one of Zapp's trademarks but the details of the equipment he uses have remained a closely-guarded secret.
"I think he likes to keep it a little mysterious", confirms Green. "Basically it's a bit of garden hose taped to a free-floating speaker and a Minimoog. It's amazing but it's obviously a whole different principle to a vocoder."
In fact, what Troutman has done is to build himself a DIY voice-box. These were most widely used during the '70s by guitarists such as Peter Frampton and Robin Trower. More recently Bon Jovi used one on 'Living on a Prayer'.
"I saw Stevie Wonder doing all that with an ARP 2600 on TV back in the early '70s", comments Gamson. "I never knew what Roger used until he showed up."
Talking about the experience of working with Troutman elicits more natural enthusiasm from both Green and Gamson than their considered views on the merits of live performance.
"He turned up in this tight-fitting, double-breasted red suit with red mock-snakeskin shoes, a little red tie, the hat and red-rimmed shades; it was classic". Green recalls. "And he had an identical outfit in blue which he wore the next day. He's definitely a throwback to 1974. He made us all put sunglasses on as well in the studio, and it was like a party. He's a wonderful man."
"We've both been fans and it's fun to get people that you've always admired on your record", says Gamson. "He was great, so quick - once through a song and he knows the whole thing. We got him plugged in, started the tape and just took it the minute he started. We got ten tracks of absolutely fantastic stuff that we had to wade through and decide what we were going to use because so much of it was just fabulous." "Watching him work was like watching somebody possessed", Green adds. "He was suffering. He's so syncopatedly 'in there'. And with all that he has a great melodic sensibility.
"He's got a top five single in America but he's something of an unsung hero. He's one of the few people keeping that whole P-funk flag alive in an age that's become a little arid as far as good grooves go."
Where did all the good grooves go? Could it be that our old friend technology has led the musician astray?
"You can say that about any instrument", replies Green. "The frets on a guitar lead you to a certain way of thinking about music. You're saying that new technology has led us and I'm saying that old technology has led us. It's no more or less conducive to a conservative way of making music. Arguably music technology would lead you to have greater freedom in undoing, unsettling, rewriting, reshaping music than before. And I would testify to that being the case in pretty general terms."
"You don't make music from an instrument", observes Gamson, "you make it from an idea. The instrument is only a way of communicating your idea. At any point in time there are going to be people doing uninteresting things - it could be with computer, it could be with anything. I don't see that making it easy for people is necessarily bad in itself."
In spite of their refusal to accept live performance as a useful part of Scritti's music, it transpires that concerts were once considered.
"We did rehearse to play live at one point", admits Gamson. "We said let's start from the song and work up. What happened was that the people we got in focused in on the record - to them the song is the record.
"But you'd have to take a radically different approach to doing it live. You certainly couldn't try to recreate the record, you'd have to totally rearrange it for live playing because we're talking about a very precise way of recording. Some of it is unplayable by a human being. And if it's sequenced live then what's the point? It certainly wouldn't be terribly interesting from our point of view."
But it must be interesting to Virgin records who, having put money into the recording of Provision, must be eager to see a return on their investment - and a tour is one of the accepted ways of promoting an album.
"The music industry as a whole does expect you to go out and promote a record it has subsidised and you're certainly up against some difficulty if you don't - and we don't, so we're up against some difficulty. It takes the form of making expensive records that then have to recoup that money through cover sales alone. I think Virgin have now got the message that we're not very keen so they're not pushing us to do that."
Me, I'm still going to go to gigs, even if seeing Scritti Politti play live is one pleasure I'm likely to be denied.
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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