Alive and Kicking
Dead or Alive
Dead or Alive's Tim Lever surrounds himself with new technology as the band prepare for world domination. Tim Goodyer gets the word on writing, recording and performing.
Tim Lever is the man who's added a high technology ingredient to Dead Or Alive's pop-funk cocktail — and set them on the road to commercial success.
After five years, countless personnel changes and two albums on a major record label, Dead Or Alive have finally managed to establish themselves as an unignorable part of current pop. With singles 'You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)', itself a number one, and 'Lover Come Back To Me', they've achieved what their cover version of KC's 'That's The Way (I Like It)' only threatened to do last year. As I write this, the third Youthquake song to be turned into a single, 'In Too Deep', seems set to repeat that success.
The band's only remaining founder member is singer Pete Burns, previously with Liverpool's Mystery Girls along with Julian Cope and Pete Wylie. However, the normally outspoken Burns is presently engaged in a period of complete media silence following some unfortunate misrepresentations in the weekly music press, leaving the rest of the band to speak for themselves.
The keyboard side of the operation (and, judging by Youthquake, now the most significant instrumental one) is in the capable hands of one Tim Lever. He professes not to be a keyboard player at all, but rather a member of the growing breed of 'programmers' whose work is only made possible by the ever-increasing sophistication of sequencers and their associated gadgetry.
'I'm definitely not a keyboard player. I thought everyone would know that I wasn't. I'm a programmer. It's only pieces of equipment that enable me to be a group member. In the set we're playing live now, there are only two songs where I'm playing keyboards all the way through - I'm doing quite a bit of guitar as well. On the last tour I had aspirations of being a keyboard player, but I feel I've come to terms with reality a bit now.'
He gestures towards a tired but nicely-intoned piano that happens to be sharing the interview room with musician, journalist and Walkman. 'If you opened that up and asked me to play two chords I could do it, but I'd take five minutes to change between them. I know what I want in my head but I'm not quick enough to do it with my hands. But I can do it with a sequencer - no trouble at all.'
Now, Lever isn't the first to admit to a lack of dexterity and proffer technical expertise and a musical ear as alternative justification for his endeavours. Vince Clarke's been doing it for years, after all. But how does he view the two vocations' relative merits?
'I think it's quite a skill being a programmer; you certainly need a lot of patience. I find quite a lot of the time that the better keyboard players are with their fingers, the less they work with sounds and effects. You can use your sequencer to do things that you couldn't play with your hands - and an awful lot of work went into programming the sequences before this tour.'
More history. Having evolved from hard, electronic funk, through Boystown to rest somewhere between the two, the current Dead Or Alive sound retains the hectic sequencer lines of yesteryear whilst embracing a far greater degree of popular accessibility than before.
The tour that accompanied the band's first album release, Sophisticated Boom Boom, in 1984, was heavily dependent on backing tapes — a situation that led to a row with Channel 4's The Tube. A year later, computer technology has relegated tape to the substitutes bench, yet the Tube controversy continues to rage...
'Before we were using an eight-track with the bass drum and a few "unplayable-by-human" sequences on it', recalls Lever.
'We've never hidden the fact that we used tapes on the first tour - we openly admitted it. But in the end I said to the band: "There are ways and means of doing this without using tapes." Now we're using the Yamaha QX1 - which is an eight-track sequencer — linked to the TX816 rack and a couple of OSCars. On paper it's more or less the same system as before, but it means there's much more chance of things going wrong - and that makes me a lot more scared on stage.
'The people on The Tube were just being vindictive. They've had loads of bands on using tapes: Divine, the Frankies' stuff, even the first Go West one. The other day we were watching a Tube compilation on video and some of that stuff was completely mimed. Now they've even asked us to be on the Midsummer Night's Tube. I don't know how anyone can have that much gall - having rung up the gutter press about something like that. It's a bit of a joke really, so we've turned it down. It wouldn't matter if the programme actually meant much, but it's nothing now.'
But all this surely raises the question: why bother to use tapes in the first place? By their very nature, they limit the arrangement and running order of a set, and they're notorious for changing speed (and consequently pitch) just when you don't want them to: halfway through a performance. They're also frighteningly susceptible to accidental damage.
'At the time of the first tour there wasn't any way we could have done it without tapes. Now we can do it with MIDI and the QX1. No keyboard player in the world could have played the fast sequences. It's a machine, it sounds like a machine, and it's meant to.
'There are also quite a few other advantages to using the QX1. If you're not happy with a particular sound you can just reprogram it and change it, whereas once it's on tape it's not so easy — you have to go back and re-record everything. You can change tempos without the pitch going up and down, and you can change the set round every night without too much trouble.'
Yet despite its considerable impact on the world of electronic musical instruments, the MIDI standard is not without its critics. It's frequently accused of being too slow - largely by the computer contingent - but Lever leaps to its defence with enthusiasm.
'For someone like me, MIDI is unbelievable. A lot of people have been moaning about it being slow, but it's a godsend to me. Its capabilities far outshine any problems it might have.
"Programming is quite a skill. The better keyboard players are at using their fingers, the less they experiment with sounds and effects."
'The way I got into keyboards wasn't by being able to play, but by having the facility to mess around - having a drum machine and taking a trigger out, experimenting like that. For years I was buying synths like Oberheim OB8s. I had all these ideas that I wanted to try using the triggering facilities, but I had to keep getting everything updated. Now, with MIDI, everything's great.
'In fact, the first system I bought was the Oberheim system - OB8, DMX and DSX - which was great because you only had to use one lead to connect them together; before that it was Microcomposers and leads everywhere. The problem with the system approach was that you couldn't use the DSX with anything but the OB8, which was obviously limiting.
'I love the OSCars, especially for the money. We're in a position where we can go out and buy almost anything we want, but I like the idea that you're getting value for money, and that what you're using is accessible to most people. The sounds the OSCar gives are great and they particularly suit our sort of music; it's a very aggressive sound.
'The DXs are quite the opposite. They're great at imitating acoustic sounds. Play one through your hifi and it might not sound all that accurate, but put it through a 20K PA rig and it sounds mighty impressive. I think it would be a bit monotonous using just the DX7 sounds on the TX816, so that's why we use the OSCars for all the bass lines and sequenced stuff.'
And the future of Lever's keyboard setup?
'Our producer has an Emulator II and I was going to buy one of those; then I was tempted to go out and buy a Mirage, but it's all changing so fast at the moment. I'll probably get the OSCar Advanced Sound Generator when it comes out. The idea of having a polyphonic OSCar really appeals to me - I'm well into that!'
Listen to a Dead Or Alive single over AM radio and you could be forgiven for thinking reproducing live would be a low-tech, unsophisticated affair. Nothing could be further from the truth, as your reporter discovered.
The QX1 forms the basis of all the live arrangements, being in control not only of a large part of the keyboard work but also of a Yamaha RX11, which provides the bass drum and one or two other percussive oddments. The rest of the drumming is taken care of by Steve Coy, who's recently taken to sitting, rather than standing, behind his Simmons kit.
'It's only really the bass drum that's off the RX11, the rest of it is Steve's SDS7 — which is really great. It makes sense to us to have the bass drum sequenced. We started off with the complete kit playing, but when a song has a solid, repeating sequence, it sounds a lot better to have the bass drum off the drum machine. Most of it's straight bass drum all the way through, but Steve's got the Simmons bass drum on a pad instead of on the floor - the bass drum pad is set up just for show — so it's there if he needs it. It works really well.
'He's doing all the hi-hat work now, which is more than he used to do. On the last tour he was just doing percussion with the Simmons toms, but he's gradually introducing more and more of the kit. And it does sound much better now, much more alive.'
Things haven't always been this easy, though. Dead Or Alive have travelled a long and at times troubled road to stardom, though strangely, the many line-up changes the band has experienced have seen Lever join twice. When Burns and the rest of the original group recorded their first demo, Lever was there, playing keyboards, even though he left soon afterwards. Joining him on the long list of departures is the name of Wayne Hussey, now with the Sisters of Mercy. Hussey was responsible for writing a fair proportion of the Sophisticated Boom Boom material - Lever was responsible for none. Now the writing is divided equally between the foursome.
'A lot of the material was kicking around for years and years. Then the deal arrived and we wanted to use the old material', Lever remembers.
'I'm much happier now, being involved right from the start. At first it was like being a session musician, especially as a lot of the early songs weren't dance songs at all. That was one of the problems with the first LP: trying to turn the songs into dance songs, which some of them weren't originally.
'When we write songs, we don't usually write from a tune - we write from an idea for the production and work the song around that. Right from the start it's very much a joint effort, and we write very quickly. We've got a little setup that's really easy to write with: we go into a little rehearsal studio and set the drum machine up to trigger the Wave or the OB8 so that if you hold a chord down it'll just play. Then anyone that's in the room can mess around and, although things might go a bit wayward on the notes, the rhythms are OK.
'We can write an LP in about two weeks; that's what we did with this one. Then we think about the production again and go away and do the programming in the eight-track studio we've got at home.'
Clearly, the band have formulated a writing system that's open and flexible without ever getting overcomplicated or difficult to work with. It's a success, and it also means songs can come about in the most unlikely ways...
"With Youthquake we've definitely set out to achieve what we wanted to, but it's difficult to say exactly what that is."
'The idea for 'In Too Deep' came from starting another song's sequence from a point other than the beginning, so it was going back to front. But that's the exception, not the rule.'
Still, after such an unpredictable start - and a chequered history that doesn't exactly brim with consistency - how stable is this particular incarnation of Dead Or Alive?
'Very stable. This line-up has been together for at least three years now. It works well and I don't really see any point in changing it.'
But change it they have - albeit only for live work. The two-man brass section that accompanied the band on the '84 tour has been replaced by no fewer than seven additional musicians this time around. Between them, they not only manage to produce an excellent live sound - they also succeed in reproducing the elaborate vocal arrangements that grace Youthquake with such colour. This is due to five of the seven being backing vocalists: three men and two girls.
'We've also got Chris Payne on keyboards and Russell Bell on guitar - both from Gary Numan's band', Lever affirms. 'We used brass players before, but now I've programmed it because it's only on two songs and it isn't worth taking a brass section out just for that. It sounds OK.
'Chris is playing an awful lot of grand piano in the set using a Yamaha electric grand. He's also using our PPG Wave, which is an old one with hundreds of jack plugs on it from the updates we've had done, and a Juno 106 which is really good for live work because you can throw a sound together so quickly. And it's really good for the money!'
From concert stage to vinyl record. Sophisticated Boom Boom was an album with a decidedly hard edge to its production. The tracks were sparsely arranged, and designed to play almost as a single track across each side of the record. Come Youthquake, this aggression has been tempered with the softness of greater sensitivity as well as the cushion of commerciality.
Not surprisingly, the change in sound was accompanied by a change in production credits, Zeus B Held giving way to Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman, the trio behind Divine. Was all this a deliberate move, or merely circumstantial?
'We realised we were going through a period of change so we didn't put anything out until we'd finished the LP. We also wanted a different sound and when we heard Divine's 'So You Think You're a Man' we thought: "We'll have them!" I think Divine had a lot to do with it.
'We've definitely achieved what we set out to, but it's difficult to explain just what that is. We wanted to keep it hard and aggressive like the first LP, but that record didn't capture the nicer, smoother pop sound that we also wanted. We were very naive when we did the first album; it came out sounding how we wanted it, but after a while we realised it could have done with something more.'
It's apparent from listening to the album that the Fairlight, once again, has managed to get in on the act. Just how extensive its participation has been isn't quite so readily apparent, however.
'We did a lot of preparation for the LP, writing programs for the sequencers and such, with the idea that we'd just go in, say "we want a sound like this", and we'd be away. But we also wanted to use a lot of Fairlight and the one we used, Pete Waterman's, didn't have MIDI, of course.
'What we ended up doing was converting all the programs we'd got for the MSQ700 to Page R on the Fairlight - which was surprisingly easy to do. Then, halfway through the recording, we heard the Emulator II. It had MIDI, which was great, and the sampling on it was actually better than the Fairlight. So we got one of those and the ADSR didn't work with our sequencer. It was murder.
'So in the end we did 90% on the Fairlight and used the Emulator for manual stuff.'
But long-players aren't the only item on the Dead Or Alive production agenda. Seeing as a large part of their public is to be found on the dancefloor every Friday and Saturday night, the band simply can't afford to ignore the 12" single.
'I have great fun doing twelve-inch mixes. One of my favourite instruments is reverb; when you do a seven-inch mix you've got to think about the radio, but when you do the twelve-inch you can go really over the top.
'I also like to have one or two OSCars lying around when we're doing a mix - to use for effects. You can trigger it straight off tape using the hi-hat or bass drum and get some really good effects.
'I think twelve-inchers are a good way of developing music. Often, they bring about new production ideas that appear three months later in the seven-inch charts, so for me they represent the front line of development, if you like. I don't know if they're a valid musical form, but they're good fun.'
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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