Art - Empire - Industry
Art of Noise
Flushed with the chart success of Close (To The Edit), the 'faceless' trio return with more talk of Art, Empire and Industry. Paul Gilby pushed the record button and monitored the noise levels...
JJ Jeczalik, Anne Dudley and Gary Langan are best known in the music industry as programmer, session player and producer. Collectively they are The Art Of Noise. With the release of their first single 'Legs' after leaving ZTT Records, we caught them in full swing talking about life, instruments and sound. Paul Gilby played the game and managed to withstand the opening overs of humorous wit under field conditions.
What instruments did you use on the first album?
AD Glockenspiel, grand piano, a wooden ruler, American Forces radio... We basically listen to everything - even if we don't understand it. In fact, it's far better if we don't understand it as then we'll judge it purely in terms of its usefulness as a sound within a composition, and not its meaning. We select anything that sounds interesting.
JJ What turned me on when I was in America recently, was hearing the most fantastic sound in one of the hotel bathrooms. So I recorded it on a pocket dictating machine which is so good for us.
GL We tend to collect sounds with Sony's PCM-F1.
JJ We do use their rather down market equipment also, like the personal Walkman recorders.
GL It's perfectly alright to use for sampling sounds.
JJ And on some of them, the built-in compressor/limiters are outrageous.
Our love affair with sound sampling is like slip fielding in cricket; you catch some, others you miss. The ones you get a hold of are the real gems.
GL We don't spend everyday waiting for the perfect catch though.
AD Creativity comes from editing imperfection a lot of the time. If things were always perfect, there wouldn't be any stimulus to work.
GL The fact that some things go wrong when recording often starts us off on some other tack.
JJ That's why a lot of contemporary music sounds how it does, because you've got all this machinery that, unless you're incredibly stupid, allows you to make something that's in time and in tune.
We start by being out of time and out of tune. Well we do keep time but the tuning's another thing altogether! Mainly because we don't like to get too closely bound by conventional music. When you use the sound of a car starting, it's a bit difficult to relate it to pitch.
AD It's not impossible though.
GL There are keys that seem to work and keys that don't for particular samples.
JJ The Fairlight CMI works in E a lot better than other keys.
AD You have to be exploratory. We play everything on the black notes - they play louder you see (she laughs)...
GL They stick up higher than the white ones, so they've got further to travel...
AD ...More attack...
GL ...Easier to find...
AD ...Few of them. It's the best choice, having fewer of them.
JJ That goes for anything.
AD That's why there are now only three of us in the group, but there's five black notes. Hmmm...a very interesting parallel can be drawn there.
Why do The Art Of Noise exist?
AD If The Art Of Noise didn't exist, it would have to be invented!
JJ We all feel that we wouldn't want to be in anything else, partly because we created it and therefore regard it as ours.
AD And the Beatles wouldn't have us!
Do you think a group like you would have happened if you hadn't come along?
GL You can't really say. It's one of those situations. We were drawn together many years ago working on the same recording sessions and it kind of developed from there.
JJ I dare say the situation would have arisen somewhere else. But the only difference between us and any other group who may be doing a similar thing is that we're individuals. And have an individual outlook on what we're doing.
GL We don't hang around as a band. So there's no set roles in the sense of a drummer, bass player etc.
AD Not at all. Anybody can do anything.
How are you involved Gary? You are normally associated with the production of groups. Do you produce any of the sounds?
GL Well everything really. We each have our own areas of expertise...
JJ Tennis,Croquet and Golf.
GL ...and from there these things overlap into other areas.
JJ They're all ball games you know, and so there is a common ground. It's a bit difficult playing cricket with a golf ball.
GL You can try...
Weather noises appeared a great deal on the first album. Was there a significance in that?
JJ Weather is something that people relate to in urban life. It allows you to look out of the window, decide that it's going to be hot, cold or wet and dress accordingly. Weather is a lot more fundamental than that, it influences our whole lives. We like the sound of the weather; we like rain and thunderstorms - they're very emotive.
Would you say that you have a very acute interest in environments?
The tracks you produce together are not songs in the traditional sense are they?
GL No, they aren't. But they do have a traditional rock rhythm to them. That's because rhythm is an important part of life. You can't exist without some form of rhythm.
So you take your ideas then and superimpose them on rock rhythms?
GL Yes, though a bit more crudely than a conventional band would.
JJ The amount of intellectual discussion that goes on about what something is rhythmically is nil. It's a case of 'Do we like it or don't we'.
GL It's just that the three of us instinctively know when something sounds right.
There's a whole history behind you of musique concrete - people recording sounds and cutting the tape up, like sampling, to produce pieces of music - but it always steered away from any use of popular rhythm.
AD That's exactly what made that form of music much less palettable to the ear. Its very hard to listen to extremes of dissonance without a good rhythm. It's very easy to listen to almost anything with a good rhythm behind it. We worked that one out a long time ago!
JJ We have the advantage with our music of not having to present a lyric or a lead singer which is a problem that 98.756% of contemporary groups have.
There is a mass of instrumental music available; the 12-inch singles market has become very instrument orientated and is often more interesting than the original 7-inch version.
But you do use vocal elements in your own music?
AD Yes, it's a very attractive sound.
GL The human voice is wonderful, it's so soothing.
AD Or arousing!
GL It's capable of expressing any mood too, more easily than anything else, but that doesn't mean to say that to use the human voice you have to have a conventional singer. The track 'How To Kill' for instance, uses a slowed down voice sample that moves back in perspective and fills out the whole stereo image. That's far more effective than most singers.
The avant garde fraternity have never incorporated the techniques of musique concrete in an accessible musical form really...
AD It's always been terribly serious. It's got to be fun and if it isn't, then we don't do it.
GL If we get bored then we stop.
AD We never thought of the connection with musique concrete. It wasn't until afterwards that people brought the subject up...
JJ We love the Mellotron.
AD ...everything we did was all done in a sense of exploration...
JJ Either 'How can we ruin this?'...
AD Or 'How might this work?'.
How far do you process sounds?
GL As far as they need to go.
JJ And beyond sometimes. We process sounds that are so good that by the time we've finished using them they're totally silent!
GL Every sound seems to present it's own natural limit; a little sign pops up and says, 'That's enough'. But then there are times when you completely miss that warning signal and you have to back track a bit.
Do you start with a sound and process it before using it as a musical source to sample or do you work with raw sounds and leave the production until later?
JJ Any one sound or collection of sounds may create an entire off-spin that we hadn't even considered.
GL There aren't any rules basically.
JJ Apart from Croquet rules. No, really. Our unspoken rule is that a sound has got to be interesting and provoke a strong reaction.
AD You have to be fairly rigorous in your selection and strong willed. It's quite difficult to throw away three days' work in the studio.
JJ We generally release our demos in the end. We'll disgard something and store it away for future reference and then it will reappear again as part of another track.
GL We don't junk anything, but we do go around junk yards though.
Sampling the sounds of objects?
AD No - buying lead off old church roofs!
'Legs' is the new single, but what of 'Close (To The Edit)'? Were you surprised at its widespread success?
JJ No. I had a dream about it being successful.
AD Yes and no. It sounded great on the radio.
JJ I mean, in my dream, it only got into the Top Twenty. So I was very surprised.
Overall, we were probably more surprised with its success in the American dance charts where we were voted 'Second Most Popular Black Act' in the Billboard chart. That was the biggest shock!
JJ Our record 'Into Battle With' was pretty outrageous compared to what else was going on in America at that time. Having had that amount of success, we thought surely it could happen in Britain, Germany, France Belgium, Sri Lanka...
There was a time when 'Beat Box' was being played up and down the radio stations of America and people were going into studios saying 'I want our record to sound like this'. And most engineers turned around and said, 'What? That bad!' It sounded so awful.
Quality-wise our music is not particularly Hi-Fi and we don't really aim for those sort of heights. All those people who spend a lot of time considering the implications of perfect sampling and perfect sound reproduction, I think, are somewhat misguided.
GL The frequency response of something really doesn't matter at all.
It's how you work within the limitations of the equipment that's important. Whether you record samples on a Walkman or on a digital Sony F1. It's daft to try and take it any further because it won't work.
What are your thoughts on reverb?
GL Love it! Where would the world be without it.
JJ Gary's always fiddling around with the reverb units to try and get good sounds. Well, actually, to be truthful, he uses reverb to rescue the sounds we're throwing at him.
AD It's those little imperfections you know.
JJ Add a twist of reverb and a bit of lemon and you've got a tasty little sound. Reverb is really fundamental to our sounds.
It was only the reverb units which were being used two or three years ago, that basically rescued the Fairlight from an ignominious death because it did sound unbelievably bad. Except there were a few people around like me who knew how to make it sound good.
Do you have a variety of reverbs at your disposal?
JJ We have a satellite dish for really long delays. We haven't actually got the next album's backing tracks back yet. They're all floating around up there somewhere in space. On the SSL mixing desk there's a section called 'time for drop-in' so we have to type in 'one hour' and sit around waiting. And sometimes we miss them completely!
AD It brings a new meaning to the phrase 'Total Recall'.
JJ Gary did tell me the other day that he was thinking about writing a book on the influence of the Kenwood mixer on contemporary pop music.
AD We like mono.
JJ Mono is much underrated.
GL All the Gary Glitter singles were recorded in mono and they sounded great on the radio.
You said earlier that you thought the sound quality of the Fairlight is pretty awful.
GL It's true but it has certain parameters that you can't do without.
AD I would say it has a rock 'n' roll feeling about it.
GL What she means is it distorts things and gives them its own sound, unlike the Synclavier which is very much a 'what goes in comes out' machine. It's very clinical.
JJ We prefer working with a Fairlight though. We use it for those sounds that we know will feel right. If we want a particular vocal quality on a track we might record a real singer or use samples. It goes back to what we said about working within the limitations of the instrument.
Do you do most of your sampling from acoustic sound sources?
JJ Yes. But acoustic in its literal sense.
So you avoid sampling electronic or synthesizer sounds?
AD There's no point. We're always attempting to create new sounds. Occasionally we have sampled a synthesizer.
GL There is one track on the album called 'Snapshots' and that used a lot of synths.
JJ During recording sessions for other bands, when I was programming, I was often asked to sample things like a Roland Jupiter 8, or something, which for me was extremely boring and silly, as it's a fine instrument in its own right.
So, when Gary and I got together, we decided to take things to extremes and sample the cheapest Casiotone keyboards we could find and use them.
GL Where a lot of people go wrong is that they try and make a piece of equipment do what it isn't capable of doing and they just sit down and moan about it. We've realised that there are certain things that can only be done on certain instruments and, therefore, if that's what you want, the only way to go about getting a particular sound is to use that particular instrument.
What are your thoughts on the future of technology in music?
JJ I think that it will come to a point where people are more inclined to start jamming together again on these little synthesizers.
GL It's a bit daunting really. I'm worried about people not communicating and just sitting at home playing with drum machines. What makes a good band is the interaction between the members.
JJ This is what the teenagers are getting wrong. I think if they interact more with other musicians they'll find it a lot more fun.
What about your public image?
AD The reason we don't show our faces is because there's a tendency for the music industry to sign haircut-and-faces bands with no regard for the music.
JJ I didn't want to be on television and I just can't wear make-up!
AD We simply want people to listen to the music.
Interview by Paul Gilby
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