Age of Chance
Abandoning guitars for samplers, Skin became Fluke and discovered new artistic freedom. Simon Trask listens to the man/machine argument from people who've learned both sides of it.
Dance music is regarded by many as a destructive influence on creativity, yet a band called Fluke have put down their instruments, adopted technology and dance, and claim to have rediscovered it.
"IF I SAY TO SOMEONE 'I PLAY IN A BAND', THEY'LL SAY 'SO you do gigs down the local pub, do you?'. I don't even attempt to explain what we're doing, because we're not what a lot of the public imagine a band to be." Mike Tournier is one quarter of a band called Fluke. He used to play guitar, but now he surrounds himself with synths, samplers and drum machines and stares at a computer monitor screen instead. Across the group's home studio from him, one-time bass player Mike Bryant works the mixing desk, tape machine and effects. Jon Fugler is the singer (except that there aren't any vocals in Fluke's music) and is responsible for providing a conceptual overview of the music, while Julian Nugent is the group's manager and also brings to the music his awareness of what's happening on the club and rave scenes.
Where it might be most appropriate to call Fluke a production team who write and produce their own music, under the name Skin they were once a band in the traditional sense of having a vocals/guitar/bass/drums line-up and writing conventional songs. As Skin they used to record pop songs which combined tasteful Go West-style guitar and keyboard arrangements with a raw vocal style and mechanical drum-machine backing - a strange combination, and one which the group never pursued commercially.
Instead they discovered dance music and new creative freedom during the summer of love and acid house parties, axed (so to speak) the guitar, bass and "conventional" songs, changed their name to Fluke and concentrated on developing a relationship with the paraphernalia of musical technology.
"The dance scene revitalised us", Bryant confirms. "It was really encouraging seeing people being able to do things differently. Before, we were writing traditional songs, but we were always interested in doing music that was a bit off-the-wall."
"In dance music now you can afford to go into realms of abstraction that would otherwise not be acceptable", adds Tournier. "We could do that before, but it wasn't really appropriate to the music. Dance was a revelation - we could do anything we liked. In a way we were playing safe as Skin, whereas now we do whatever sounds interesting to us."
"Once you've captured that little spark of inspiration, then a song's got a chance of doing well", continues Fugler. "Often it's got more chance than where someone's spent a fortune to perfectly structure their music. That's why dance music's become so diverse, because all you're doing is picking out people's moments of inspiration."
The group's debut single 'Thumper!' b/w 'Cool Hand Flute' (released as a limited-edition white-label 12-inch to selected DJs and specialist dance music shops last Autumn) was one of the most original and refreshing dance records of 1989. That record created a buzz for the group that the follow-up 12-inch of remixes, lost in the deluge of Christmas records, failed to capitalise on - a shame because these particular remixes are a worthwhile addition to the originals.
At the time of writing, the group have just released a white-label 12-inch, 'Joni' b/w 'Taxi', initially passing it out to selected DJs. In what is fast becoming a time-honoured fashion, the group see this as a step towards a record deal, and are already considering one offer. They're treading carefully, however, concerned not to rush into anything which might be initially attractive but tie them down in the long run.
With its sequenced guitar-led feel (rocky on 'Joni', breezy on 'Taxi'), the new single doesn't readily fit any category of dance music. Fluke have a different angle, not least because their background as a band shows through in their way of thinking about separate instrumental parts and arrangements. Another point in their favour is that Fluke music appears to be a cliche-free zone.
"There is one cliche in 'Small World', which is for all the Soul II Soul 'Happiness' fans, but nothing obvious" adds Fugler. "It seems like a lot of people stop with the cliches because they know they'll work. The thing is with commercial dance music today, that once someone's had a hit record in a particular style, there's no reason why they can't release a song that uses the same samples and has the same feel but is slightly different. You wouldn't have been able to do that a while back."
So what's gone into making Fluke the group that they are today? Tournier outlines their development from traditional band to their present arrangement:
"Jon and I were in a band called Paris Rapide with a keyboard player and a violinist. After a while they went off elsewhere, and Jon and I started mucking around with drum machines and basslines on backing tapes which I could play guitar to and Jon could sing to. We ended up looking for a bass player, bumped into Mike and started rehearsing. From there we developed as Skin and got into four-track recording. We had an old Drumatix drum machine and a Transcendent 2000 synth. Then we got a keyboard player who owned a DX7, and that pushed things along a bit further. Then he bought a Juno 106 and a Yamaha CX5 computer with the eight-track sequencer, and that's what really pushed us into sequencing. When he left, I took over on that side of things, so I was doing the sequencing and the guitar playing. This was about two and a half years ago.
"All the time we were getting more and more into recording with a Portastudio, and that side of things became Mike B's forte; now he does all the mixing. We started to become more based around a drum track and sequenced tracks that we'd play to, as opposed to having a keyboard player who'd accompany us. But we were still a fairly conventional band at that stage.
"By that time we were using a Roland 707 drum machine, a Casio CZ3000 and the internal voices of the CX5. It was pretty basic equipment, but that meant we had to squeeze the last little drop out of it. We were still writing conventional songs, perhaps just starting to cross over into dance music. Then these club DJs asked us to make a record for them."
"We started getting socially involved in the dance music scene, and it changed everyone's way of thinking", Fugler continues. "There was a point where the attitude of everyone in the group had changed to such a degree that everything we'd done previously just wasn't relevant any more."
And at this point Skin became Fluke.
THE RECORDING SIDE OF THE GROUP'S studio is built around a Seck 18:8:2 MkII and Tascam MM1 mixers, Fostex Model 80 eight-track tape machine and Acoustic Energy AE1 and Morden Short monitors. Signal processing is provided by Alesis MIDIverb and Multiverb, Boss RPS10 Pitch Shifter/Delay and recently-acquired Lexicon LXP1. The instrumentation consists of a Yamaha DX7 II, Roland D50 and Korg M1 synths, Yamaha TX81Z and Roland MKS50 synth expanders, Akai S700 and S950 samplers and an Alesis HR16 drum machine. Until recently the sequencing was handled by an Alesis MMT8, but now the group have opted for an Atari 1040STE running Steinberg's Cubase software. When I arrived for the interview, Tournier was in the process of transferring songs recorded on the MMT8 to Cubase via MIDI. He's full of enthusiasm for Steinberg's latest sequencer.
"The ability of a sequencer to loop started all this 'sequencer music' business - the fact that you can run around eight bars and continually build up music."
"Cubase is still quite new to us but at the same time, because it's so flexible, it doesn't tie you down to writing in any particular way. Cubase has improved things no end; it encourages you to write musically, not actually think of music in terms of repeating patterns all the time. When we were using the MMT8, the drum beat and the bassline would change far less often because it was such a hassle to re-program. The ability of a sequencer to loop started all this 'sequencer music' business, the fact that you can just run around eight bars and continually build up music. That's why a lot of dance music has developed in the way that it has. If you got a bunch of musicians together the music wouldn't have that sort of insistence."
Another reason why sequencer-based music can have an insistent feel is because often it's heavily quantised. Tournier is all for selective use of quantisation.
"If you're talking about 'musical' parts, there's no need to quantise if you've played well in the first place. But if you're thinking in terms of a rhythm part, like on a house track, and it happens that the patch is a piano, then the fact that it's quantised is advantageous in that it's another chugging rhythm part.
"If I played a solo over something I wouldn't quantise it. An unquantised bit on top of a load of quantised parts really does stand out, but as soon as you pull it into time it disappears a little bit. There again, one of the nice things about using a sequencer is that you can shock people by emphasising the fact that it is a sequencer, for instance by combining unquantised played parts with quantised parts that would be impossible to play live."
As Fluke's studio has developed, Tournier and Bryant have gravitated towards very different roles from their original ones of guitarist and bass player.
"Because things are so specialised when you get into the realms of all this technology, you really need someone to know different aspects of it very well", Tournier says. "When we started using a Portastudio, Mike was the one who organised the patchbay and everything. That was at a stage when I could still come in and muck around with the Portastudio and a few effects. Now I'll deal with the musical parts of a track, while the feeling might be largely to do with the way that Mike is handling the sound. But then the actual conceptual feel of the track, if you're talking an overview of the thing, is largely to do with Jon. These are quite vague points, so it's difficult to talk about it on a playing level."
"There's a direction and an attitude that a song must have, and we'll decide that among ourselves", Fugler adds.
Having built up a studio adequate to allow them to record and mix at home (in Mike Bryant's Beaconsfield flat), the group are insistent that DIY is AOK.
"We work our songs up from ideas right through to the final mix all in one go", Tournier explains. "What Mike's doing on the desk feeds back to what I'm doing with the sequencer, so there has to be a continuous stream from conception to finish. It's very important at the writing stage to have the final sound of the song worked out. If we didn't have our own studio then everything would have to be filtered through an engineer. There's an awful lot of music around today that's given the label of being done by a band, and yet what you're really hearing is somebody else's production."
"A lot of records sound very similar because the engineers all end up in a certain frame of mind as to what's right", adds Bryant. "It's like these studio fads, like using NS10s for monitoring."
"If you're going to do it then you might as well do it yourself', Fugler concurs. "I can't see the point in us writing something and then giving it to somebody who'll say 'well, if we do this then we know it'll sound brilliant', and then it goes out under the name of the remixer. Instead of doing something because we know it's going to be successful, we'd rather try and make something different. If you want music to be your career then the only thing you can do is try to be creative. It's the slowest yet surest way."
Talking of creativity, the group make restrained but musical use of sampling - for instance in the way that Joni Mitchell samples are woven into the textures of 'Joni' and 'Taxi' - and they have a healthy disrespect for synths old and new.
Fugler: "There's a difference between a wise lift and a tacky loop, a dividing line between being creative and taking the rise. I don't think any of us regard the gear as precious: we have a D50 but we don't use it very much because it's so distinctive; you can program sounds on it which do sound like naff old analogue synths, but used to its full potential it sticks out like a sore thumb. This love of analogue stuff can hold you back. I can't see the point of saying you've got to use the old stuff and having a scepticism about the new gear."
"People get too dogmatic about it", Tournier concurs. "You can use a digital synthesiser, stick it through an old guitar phaser pedal and you've got a warm analogue sound. The DX7 II can sound quite thin in the mix. But there are ways of warming sounds up, or making them trashy. We've got a guitar effects pedal board left over from my days as a guitarist, and we use that sometimes. Here you are, you've got a £1200 keyboard and you're stuffing it through an old distortion box!"
"There's an awful lot of music around today that's given the label of being done by a band, and yet what you're really hearing is somebody else 's production."
"The beauty of analogue synthesisers wasn't about the sound but the fact that you could meddle", Fugler opines. "It's very offputting to look at a little window, and it does take out creativity."
"But with the MIDI Manager page of Cubase we're getting back to moving sliders", adds Tournier. "A lot of the acid house stuff was about taking an analogue synth and mucking about with the filter cutoff and resonance while it was playing, but that needed somebody to stand there doing that till the take was done. With the MIDI Manager you can still do live takes but you can go in and edit them afterwards." Being a guitarist turned keyboard player, Tournier is aware that playing a realistic instrumental part on a keyboard involves more than using a realistic sound.
"I've got an old Boss Distortion Feedbacker which is great for getting that feedback sound", he says, "but you have to play your patch like a guitar, with the right sort of pitchbend and slides. I can't play a saxophone, but if you listen to how a saxophone is played you can start to pick up the style. You have to use the joystick like mad if you want to play that sort of sound properly, but at least with a sequencer you can play the notes first and add the performance controllers afterwards.
"It's more important to emulate the feel of an instrument than to get the exact sound; if you're going to use a guitar solo played on a synth then you need to emulate the 'guitar solo-ness' about it."
Nonetheless, a good sample won't go amiss, and when it comes to acoustic instruments Tournier is impressed by the samples on the M1. An M1 acoustic guitar sample figures prominently on the new single. However, preset synth patches, whether on the M1 or any other synth, get the thumbs down from the group.
"You can program synthesiser patches on the M1 which don't sound obviously like an M1; it's only when you use the presets that it becomes readily recognisable", says Tournier. "One thing we do do is layer sounds. For the bass sound on a track called 'Small World' we sampled the Pick Bass sound off the M1 and combined it with a very low bass pulse off the DX7 II and a bass guitar sample, and adjusted all the envelopes so that they sounded like one sound."
Fluke's drum sounds come from a mixture of the HR16 and samples on the S950.
"The HR16 has served us very well because it's got such a good range of sounds on it", says Tournier, "We still use it for percussion, because those sounds are really good and clean, but the bass and snare drums aren't quite right. The S950 gets used an awful lot as a drum expander these days; in fact, we're thinking of getting another one."
But getting a drum machine to sound or feel like a real drummer is not something which interests Tournier:
"'Drum kit' is the very loosest expression nowadays, because you can use any percussive sound you like. If you just call it your rhythm track or your percussion track, that's a much better expression. Not many people try to make dance music sound like there's a real drummer playing away."
Like many groups who have developed their music through working with technology', Fluke haven't put live performances high on their list of priorities. They did drag their gear along to the local wine bar for a gig once - to the surprise of punters more used to hearing a rock band - but Fluke's music is better suited to a club environment. However, this places a different set of demands on them.
"It would be very difficult to put on a show in the traditional way of 'Here is Fluke the band, stand and watch'", says Tournier.
"The obvious way to counter that", Fugler adds, "is to work with a DJ and to not make a statement that there's a band coming on stage now, but just follow the DJ from tune to tune and maybe drift out and then back in again."
"This is where an interaction with sequencers live is going to happen, because that means the evening isn't set", adds Tournier. "The band can be more responsive to the feel of the audience in the way that a DJ is. It's going to have to be like that."
In less capable hands the combination of dance music and technology can be a one-way ticket to a dead end. But Fluke have seized on the creative rather than the re-creative possibilities of the medium and fashioned their own style and sound. If originality and individuality matter at all, they should have a bright future ahead of them.
Interview by Simon Trask
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