A Sense of Proportion
A Certain Ratio
Haying abandoned the independence of Factory Records in favour of the relative safety of a major record deal, ACR are back in the limelight with a new LP. Nigel Lord asks questions of commerciality.
A Certain Ratio first made their name in the early '80s as part of the Factory Records Northern dance movement. Their recent signing to a major label has signalled a drastic change in direction - or has it?
AS THE EMBODIMENT OF ALL THOSE principles which have gone to fashion the independent music business in this country, A Certain Ratio have few equals. With an uninterrupted stream of albums and singles, the band's first decade has seen them turning out the kind of material which has become the very life blood of the indie charts. Of course, the relationship with Factory Records hasn't exactly hindered them in this respect, and though they are the first to admit that it was a right place/right time situation, ACR's uniquely hard-edged dance grooves seemed the perfect complement to Factory's well-tempered industrial chic during the early '80s.
Enjoying the shade created by New Order's consistently higher media profile, ACR took full advantage of Factory's rather compliant regime. When they wanted to make a record, they made one; if they wanted more colour on an album sleeve, they got it. As they themselves are only too aware, the relaxed and sympathetic approach of the Factory bosses - from Tony Wilson down - provided them with an environment in which they could experiment and develop at their own pace. Not exactly every band's experience of the music business. But then, not many bands would be astute enough to use such an opportunity wisely - or indeed, maintain so assiduous an approach to their music as ACR have over the years.
Speaking to them at their Soundstation studio/rehearsal facility in Manchester, I discovered five people totally dedicated to the concept of the band. Ask them, for example, if there isn't a temptation for one member to develop an idea "more fully" before offering it to the others, and you're met with a look of genuine incomprehension. Clearly, that's not what being in a band is about for them. Asked if working together in the studio week in, week out doesn't get a little tedious, they point out that, like most people, their creative moments are unpredictable, so they need to be together in a working environment every day in order to take full advantage of them when they do occur.
It's probably fair to suggest that much of their long-term success can be put down to this inherent level-headedness. But of course, there are those who would no doubt dismiss it as the kind of feet-on the-ground, whippet-keeping directness peculiar to "men of the north". Having lived most of my life in that part of the world, however, I have to say this hasn't exactly been my experience of bands in the area. Despite (or perhaps, because of) the image put about by the music press, of the North West as some kind of oasis of creative energy, ego appears to be every bit the force to be reckoned with, as it is elsewhere in contemporary music circles. That ACR have managed to hang on to the principles they started out with some 12 years ago, whilst maintaining the more vital elements in their music, is an achievement not to be underrated.
But ACR are no strangers to change. From the industrial funk of the late '70s/early '80s, through the jazz tinged sextet period and into the more technology-orientated elements of Force, they have endured a variety of personnel and direction changes. Towards the end of 1986 however, (the year of Force), following major tours of the US and Japan, they decided it was time for a more fundamental reassessment. And so followed a period which to the outside world appeared to be something of a hiatus. Needless to say, from their perspective it was nothing of the sort. Major decisions were being made, perhaps the most fundamental of which was the decision to part company with Factory. Guitarist and trumpet player, Martin Moscrop explains the thinking behind the move.
"I suppose it was just a question of us having been with them for ten years and feeling like we weren't really getting anywhere. As you may know, Factory is run from a little office and everybody there is really efficient. But Tony Wilson has another fulltime job (on Granada TV), so everything is left to Tina and Allan. And if New Order have a new record coming out... well, let's just say there's no way two people can work on more than one band at a time.
"It's like a one-band label really. Even though bands like Happy Mondays are getting a real push that's only been since we left. We'd been moaning at Factory for five years about the way we wanted to attack things like advertising, but it seemed to be against their principles. Then a few weeks after we left, they started putting money into advertising and getting things moving properly.
"We fought like hell to get a producer for our last album on Factory - Force. Not a name producer, just someone who could teach us a few things. Up to that point we'd produced all our own albums (apart from the first, which Martin Hannet produced), and we wanted to try something new. But they just weren't prepared to put up the money, so...
Like me, you probably weren't aware that Factory was such a shoe-string operation. Moscrop elaborates: "It's not shoe-string compared to most indies. Factory do like to do things properly. Like artwork: we had full control over the artwork for our records - we had our own designers - and nobody ever moaned about the expense, they wanted it to look right. The product was always the main thing for them - not the promotion."
Clearly, there's a certain amount of mixed feelings involved as the band looks back on its relationship with Factory. But what of the "one big happy family" image we associate with independent labels. Is it so much different in reality? Drummer Donald Johnson clears the air.
"I really don't think there would have been another label on the planet that would have allowed us to do what Factory did - to experiment with changes from Latin to jazz to funk to pop and African - all in the space of a few years. But they really liked the idea of us being diverse and trying to move things along."
"We use anything we need to get the right result. We're happy to play along with the computer, but we can also play without it."
"We'd come back off tour", Moscrop continues, "Have few weeks off and decide to get a new album together. So we'd phone up the studios we liked in the area, get quotes off them and book the time. Then we'd say to Factory, 'Look, we're starting an album on such a date' and they'd say, 'OK, fine'. Once we'd finished recording, we'd take the master down to the Townhouse, hire a car to get us there, cut the record and then get the sleeve sorted out - and just come back and give Factory the finished product".
Johnson recalls an incident following the recording of the band's first album in New Jersey.
"We were at Manchester airport with the masters, having an argument with the guy on the Customs desk about whether we should be allowed to bring our own tapes into the country without paying duty on them. Apparently they can charge you according to how much they think the album is worth. Anyway, Tony (Wilson) had to come and talk them into charging us only for the value of eight reels of two inch tape, worth about 80 quid each! It gives you some idea of how casual the relationship was that Factory were happy to let three 19-year-olds come through customs on their own with the masters under their arms... they didn't even know we wouldn't go through the magnetic detector channels and wipe them!"
BUT ALL GOOD THINGS MUST COME TO an end, so where did the band turn post Factory? Moscrop takes up the story...
"The first thing we did was to sign a publishing deal with Virgin. We demo'd two tunes for them in Manchester studios, but it was a real ball-ache for us getting all our gear into a 16-track studio. You know what it's like: the engineer's a young kid and it's his second day at work, a lot of the gear doesn't work and the patchbay isn't labelled properly... It can take you two days just to get everything set up and working.
"And we wanted to demo a whole album because it gives more bargaining power with a record company if you can show them the finished product. So with part of the money from Virgin we set up a basic eight-track system here. We spent about eight grand on a Fostex machine, Allen & Heath desk, some outboard gear, cassette player, Atari computer and Notator software, patchbay and so on. But eight grand doesn't buy much and it's easy to leave out things like cable and connectors - until you go and find out how much they cost...
"Anyway, the rest of the money from Virgin kept us in wages for six months while we were writing and demoing tunes, and the week the money ran out, we signed a record deal with A&M. I suppose you could say the eight grand we invested in gear got us the record deal. Anyway, after we'd signed with A&M we spent another five grand and got an E16, a DAT player and a few other bits of gear"
Fortune was obviously favouring the bold. So, a new record company, a new publishing contract, a new album... and a new sound? It has to be said, the decidedly commercial feel of their A&M debut album Good Together doesn't sound too much like ACR 1981 - or even ACR 1986. Is that the way the boys planned it? Bassist and vocalist Jeremy Kerr: "I'd hope it wouldn't sound the same. When we started off in the band, we couldn't really play, so you end up doing it the way you feel, and as you feel differently over the years, so the music changes".
"The reason we probably sound more mainstream", Moscrop interjects, "is because the vocals are now given a major role. Three years ago when Jeremy first sang on a record, he couldn't really sing that well - he'd always been the bass player. Now he's a brilliant vocalist and we've got Donald on drums and Flo (McSweeney) who are also brilliant vocalists. So from only having one fairly weak vocal, we've now got three really strong voices."
But surely this switch to the more melodic side things must have changed the whole emphasis of the band?
"When we're working on a new tune, I don't sleep for a couple of days - there's something about the idea of a song just happening..."
Kerr: "Oh, definitely. Melody was never really consideration up to a couple of years ago. Basically, we'd always been a groove band, the lyric was the last thing we put on. But as I said, as you get older you change, and we got into melody and harmony. But if you listen to the album, you'll hear all the elements from the other kinds of music we've done over the years - they're still there. It just that now there's a much stronger vocal line over the top."
But how about the criticism that too many of the rough edges seem to have been rubbed off. Do the band see this as a valid observation? Was it deliberate - perhaps the work of an over-zealous producer?
"It's certainly a valid point", replies Moscrop, "but it wasn't deliberate. Most of it happened in the pre production stages. In fact, Julian Mendelsohn, who produced four of the tracks, and Bob Kraushaar who co-produced four tracks with us, actually tried to put a few of the rough edges back in. Because they have a lot of experience working with bands, they immediately picked up on the character of ACR and were constantly trying to bring it out and exaggerate it. They really wanted it to sound like a band. When Julian came down to meet us, we set the gear up and played half a dozen tunes live and then we asked him how he wanted to record us. And he said, 'like that. Like you just did it then'.
"So we went down to Sarm and set up all the gear as it is here - facing each other - and we played the tracks live. But the people at Sarm, who were more used to dealing with bands like the Pet Shop Boys, where there's just two guys and a producer, didn't know how to handle it. All of a sudden they had four guys in there playing like a proper band, relating to the same thing at the same time. Not only that, but we actually knew what a studio was all about; we knew how all the equipment worked and what was needed of us. In a way, I think they learned something from us."
PERHAPS AS A LEGACY FROM THEIR roots in Manchester's thriving punk scene back in the late '70s, A Certain Ratio set great store on maintaining their status as a live band - both on stage and in the studio. Though fully au fait with the complexities of sequenced and sampled sound, and quite happy to express their belief in such systems as tools of their trade, they nevertheless stress the importance of playing live whenever the situation allows - as Moscrop explains:
"We tried to make sure this album had a live feel; there are sequenced drums on three or four of the tracks - but with live percussion over the top. And even the sequenced parts are recorded in real time. Mikey (the band's programmer and 'fifth' member) always tries to get us to play the parts tight enough so that he doesn't have to quantise thcm, because obviously that's when you start to lose some of the feel. But we're certainly not against quantising; if Tony has a complicated keyboard part to play we'll use quantise because he's a sax player and only started playing keyboards after Andy, our other keyboard player, left."
"Basically", Johnson continues, "we use anything we need to get the right result. We're happy to play along with the computer, but we can also play without it. In fact, we have a little experiment where Mikey turns it off in the middle of a song and we have to carry on playing."
But surely they don't rely on the Atari at live gigs?
"At the moment we do. It's a question of money really..."
But what would happen if it went down during a gig?
"You could say the eight grand we Invested in gear got us the record deal after we'd signed with A&M we spent another five grand and got an E16, a DAT player..."
"It has", recalls Kerr, "but we just carry on. We can all play the parts anyway; and before we go out on tour we often come in here and practise playing the set without any of the computer stuff. And if the songs still stand up, we know they're really happening. But you can't worry about things like the computer going down."
You can't? Well, now I suppose you can't. Even so, I think I'd find myself polishing up the pins on the mains plug before the gig and using an extra strip of gaffa (or six) to stick down the cables.
Obviously, there's a strong clement of pragmatism involved in ACR's approach to their work. Looking around the Soundstation, you get a sense of the respect afforded the various pieces of equipment with which they have plied their trade over the years. Thus, Moscrop's battered old VCF guitar processor appears to be awarded similar status to the pair of Akai S900 samplers languishing in one of the equipment racks. And though a special place is reserved for the basic instruments with which they identify themselves as musicians, the band seem reluctant to be drawn by my attempts to discover which of the gear they would least care to be without.
"Gear's gear", explains Moscrop incisively, "We use whatever's there. We like all the old stuff - we've got an 808 and a 303, the Rhodes and the Clavinet. In fact, when we heard the Clavinet on Prince's 'Electric Chair', we said right, the Clav's back in! It's not MIDI'd, but it doesn't matter, we just have to play it!"
Kerr continues: "We know what new gear we need, it's really just a case of waiting till we've got the money to go out and buy it".
Will there be no help from A&M?
"Oh yeah, they want us to go out on tour to promote the album. So it's a case of saying right, if we're going to tour, we have to do it properly, and there are some bits of gear we need. But we're not going to be greedy."
Johnson agrees: "The people at A&M know we're not a nickel and dime band - we're not into egos and wasting money. We try to make sure the promotional budgets are spent sensibly... not just, have this because somebody says we should have it, or because it's big and it looks good. If there's something smaller that we can use in its place we'll go with that."
Moscrop again: "The main thing is we need more sampling memory. Live, we need an S1000 to hold the samples for the whole set without having to have 40-second gaps in between for loading."
"At the moment we have to use tapes to cover the gaps", explains Kerr, "and I've learnt to be a great stand-up comedian! In fact our set order's dictated by the gaps - not what order we want to do the songs!"
This "anything might happen" approach to their work has, in many ways, been responsible for ACR's innumerable changes in style. Not for them the constraints of working within a single genre. With situations, personalities and technologies constantly combining and re-combining, their musical output has been maintained in a continuous state of flux - evolving quite unpredictably throughout their 12 years together. Whilst Good Together and its accompanying single 'The Big E' has signalled the band's new-found interest (and ability) in putting together melodically structured songs, it represents simply another shift in the band's creative development - as different from the old style ACR as it is from the tracks they're currently working on.
At the basis of it all is the fascination of watching a new idea take root and develop into a piece of music - and of course, being involved in that process.
"Writing is still the most exciting part of it" reflects Kerr. "When we're working on a new tune I don't sleep for a couple of days. There' something about the idea of a song just happening..."
Johnson: "The vibe at the moment with ACR i great. We've finished the album, everything's been sorted out and we're already into the next year's work - and the buzz underneath that is incredible. Like, last week we all went home and nobody could get in touch with us because we were all writing. And next week we'll all be in here and there'll be about six different ideas all happening. It's what being in a band is all about for us".
Clearly, the years have not dampened their enthusiasm for their work in any way. Whether their records bear the label of an indie or a major record company, A Certain Ratio will always maintain that independence of spirit which has served them well.