Art & Science
JJ Jeczalik | Art of Noise
With the title track from the film Dragnet currently on release, the Art of Noise are still newsworthy. Paul Tingen talks to JJ Jeczalik about sampling, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and court cases.
Fairlight programmer, producer and half of the Art of Noise, JJ Jeczalik was involved in the early use of sampling in recording and the controversial "Frankie Sessions".
"According to Lipson", wrote the Daily Mail of the court case between Frankie's Holly Johnson and record label ZTT, "the record was put together by himself, producer Trevor Horn, keyboard player Andrew Richards and Fairlight programmer JJ Jeczalik - a man of no musical experience."
Jeczalik groans and puts the newspaper down. He reaches for the telephone, telling the other side in no uncertain terms that he wants a lawsuit brought against the Daily Mail for defamation of character.
We are in The Townhouse studios in West London, where Jeczalik is cutting the new Art of Noise single 'Dragnet', which will be making its bid for a chart placing by the time you read this. He appears in a less joyful mood than when MT last interviewed him, some two-and-a-half years ago. He clearly does not welcome the shadow of his past involvement with the first Frankie Goes To Hollywood album crossing his path now. It's understandable, as he and keyboard player/arranger Anne Dudley have established the Art of Noise away from Horn's ZTT umbrella. Jeczalik has also enjoyed success as a producer with Stephen Duffy's 'Kiss Me' and the Pet Shop Boys' 'Opportunities'. On the other hand, two-and-a-half years ago he took pride in his own musical ineptitude. I confront him with the observation.
"There was an element of naievity about anything I did then", he agrees. "That's the same for anyone starting on a new career."
So what has the intervening period taught him?
"I've gained an insight into the extraordinary machinations of the record business", comes the reply. "Music remains an intuitive thing, that doesn't really change, but I've discovered the ways in which record companies sell their products, which is what it's all about. It's a throw-away industry, where things are not designed to last for longer than three months."
Would he call himself a musician? Jeczalik's sense of humour, very apparent at our last meeting, breaks through: "No I wouldn't. I would call myself a man with some musical experience."
The Daily Mail seemed to think otherwise in their reporting of the court case between ZTT and Johnson. This court case will probably be the first contact for much of the general public with issues concerning hi-tech equipment and the making of music. Johnson's former producers argued that they actually did all the work while the band were puppets on hi-tech strings - the role of performers being taken over by machines, giving producers more control than ever. As one of this country's Fairlight exponents, the issues must lie close to Jeczalik's heart. Strangely, he doesn't believe that recent technical developments have given the producer more power.
"I think it's always been a producer's world", he comments, "it's just that the emphasis on that area is being overstated at the moment. There's always been a professional person guiding and organising recordings; the fact that producers now apparently have the ability to radically change things makes their role and influence no different from 10 or 15 years ago."
Yet the case of Johnson and Lipson suggests a far more dictatorial approach was adopted by the producer, courtesy of hi-tech equipment. Lipson claimed that he did the work himself on the Synclavier - including reworking Johnson's singing. Jeczalik, present at the sessions, doesn't want to elaborate, instead muttering: "It seems that a few people are getting carried away by it all. They've forgotten the simple truth that all those machines do absolutely nothing unless they're operated by somebody, and unless there's an interaction between that person and somebody else who is creating the racket in the first place - whether it's singing, playing the bass guitar or the piano. Making a record is an interactive process. He's forgotten that he could not have done it without Frankie."
Yet the band's demo of 'Relax' sounded completely different from its vinyl result. Jeczalik sighs.
"There's no doubt that the master recording and the demo were entirely different, but the idea of the song, and the original performance, inspired the record. The record would never have happened were it not for the demo."
Jeczalik's involvement with Frankie Goes To Hollywood and ZTT dates back to '84 when he was involved as a Fairlight programmer in the making of 'Relax', and subsequently Frankie's first album, Welcome to the Pleasure Dome. Jeczalik entered the music scene as a roadie for the group Landscape back in the '70s. He quickly swapped Landscape for The Buggles when offered the job of supervising Geoffrey Downes' keyboard gear. And it was through Downes that Jeczalik came into contact with the Fairlight; unable to communicate with the machine, Downes handed that job over to Jeczalik. After The Buggles split, the programmer worked for Trevor Horn, the other half of the group, as well as doing a lot of freelance programming work. Consequently, he worked with artists like ABC, Paul McCartney, Kate Bush and Dollar at a time when the Fairlight and sampling itself were still used for effect.
AFTER LEAVING ZTT ("They forgot to renew our contract, otherwise we'd be where Holly Johnson is now.") the Art of Noise produced In Visible Silence, an album many critics considered to be inferior to their ZTT debut, Who's Afraid of the Art of Noise. They needed Duane Eddy's 'Peter Gunn' to revive what seemed to be a flagging career. Last year saw the release of a third LP, In No Sense? Nonsense!, and again it took an artist from a past musical era to help them with a hit. Although Schumann isn't around to pass comment, their rework of one of his themes in 'Dragnet' is the Art of Noise at their best: a bizarre collection of samples and effects, carried along by an infectious sequenced beat and, best of all, a main theme you can hum.
In No Sense? Nonsense! is a departure from In Visible Silence in that it's more offbeat, or "wacky", as Jeczalik would have had it two-and-a-half years ago. At times it seems to do away with song structure altogether and leads you through a land of delirious sound effects, crazy rhythms, church choirs and environmental samples - trains, motorbikes, helicopters... What about those environmental sounds?
"Basically they just sound great", explains a bemused Jeczalik. "It's like anything else which attracts your attention, and about which you get excited - you use it. The fact that they ended up as linkage between the tracks slowed the album down and made it more like a journey."
Heavy treatment of sounds has always fascinated Jeczalik. It was what he called the "rock 'n' rollness" of the Fairlight which attracted him to the machine.
"Under the microscope of a 24-track situation, the DX7 and D50 are useless - all they are is a very, very good piece of marketing."
'It's very rock 'n' roll, because everything gets very dirty and gritty, as if it's been through a Marshall 100W amplifier. I developed this idea that if that's what it is like, then I should make it sound worse, so that it stands out."
In No Sense? Nonsense! involved both Series II and Series III Fairlights, the latter being the first machine which, in Jeczalik's opinion, plays its samples back without any loss in sound quality.
"That wasn't the reason I used it - I wanted to get involved in making longer samples. The series III has a sample time of 85 seconds stereo, and that enabled me to work with all those environmental things."
The Fairlight III used for the recording was on hire; since then Jeczalik has decided to buy one: "I'm ordering it with 600 Megabytes of memory. It will have four monitor screens because it's so powerful."
Staying on the subject of sound sources, Jeczalik adds that his most important recent purchase is not the new Fairlight but another far more unlikely machine.
"I bought a Minimoog", he reveals, "and had it modified to accept MIDI. On the version of 'Dragnet' we're cutting now, the bassline is a combination of samples doubled with the Minimoog. The sound of the Minimoog is very definitive, there's nothing to replace it really."
Pursuing the subject of keyboards, I mention the ubiquitous DX7. Jeczalik nearly chokes.
"Did you say DX7? What's the point in buying a DX7? It's the biggest load of shit ever made." The temperature rises: "It's like the D50, very good for a kind of immediate usage - very fast and very functional and probably worth around £200. It's the same with the D50, people use them so much because initially they sound good. But really under the microscope of a 24-track situation, they are useless. They sound cheap, and all they are is a very, very good piece of marketing."
In No Sense? Nonsense! carries as its motto: Ars est celare artum, which can loosely be translated as 'the art is to conceal the art'. I'm here to uncover the art, so we move on to the conception and recording of the latest AoN album. How does Jeczalik work out his ideas? Somehow it's hard to imagine someone programming a sequencer, without having played, however inadequately, on some instrument first.
"The ideas come from the individual sounds and the moods they imply, when I play the keyboard. That immediately means something to me. If it's a sound of a train going by or a helicopter, when I play that on the Fairlight, that will imply something completely different than the sound of maybe a door being slammed."
JECZALIK'S PRACTICE OF treating his sounds is a remarkably similar approach to that of Daniel Lanois (interviewed in MT, October '87). But there's another similarity between the two: they both avoid using studios for laying down basic tracks. Lanois records in castles and basements and brings in hired equipment, Jeczalik and Dudley retreat to remote places with their own portable setup.
"We often go to a place called Pale House in Wales, which is a hotel. We'll have weeks of writing and discussing in an environment of opulence and luxury. I bring my Fairlight, Anne some keyboards and we've got a four-track cassette deck, on which we record the audio tracks. We put on some headphones and off we go.
"Actually, we often master on that machine. It's a modular prototype developed by Nakamichi about which I can't say too much here. All I know is that it will be aimed at the Portastudio end of the market when it comes out. It runs its cassettes at normal speed.
"When people abandon sounds and samples they're not finished, and when other people pick them up and rework them that's fair enough."
"We wrote a lot of the album as demos first and then took it elsewhere to master and overdub. In that process a lot of things changed completely, like the Ely cathedral choir replaced things we'd done before on series II and the S900. That then led to new ideas which ended up being nothing like the original recording. But with other tracks we just did some overdubs and finished off, using the original cassette version.
"Sometimes we master straight onto ½" or ¼", sometimes we only use the cassette deck, but we hardly ever go to an official studio to lay down tracks. Of course, I've always got 16 tracks on the Fairlight, although I never use more than eight or nine tracks. When we need more audio tracks we record at Anne's 16-track home studio, which consists of a Fostex B16, Soundtracs 24-channel desk, Quad amplification, NS10 monitoring and ½", ¼" and digital mastering."
Another thing which makes In No Sense? Nonsense! different from previous albums is the use of other musicians, in this case members of their live band. Jeczalik explains how that came about.
"We got fed up with using sequencers all the time. Anne got fed up with playing and I got fed up with programming, so we thought we'd let some other people do the work for us for once. It wasn't really for conceptual reasons, apart from helping to create a human feel, but of course, whilst working with people you get a melting pot of ideas."
But why are Jeczalik and Dudley reluctant to lay down basic tracks in the studio in the first place? The answer is definitive: "They're too expensive. The SSL desk for example, is largely responsible for the massive costs of making records today. They're a complete con. It's all brilliant marketing and indicative of the fact that the making of records was suddenly seen as a market which was able to absorb massive price increases. And that was covered in the idea of digital technology. I don't think that the sonic improvements there justify the costs. Really, all the gear, digital or analogue, SSL or not SSL, is of no relevance. All these things, like the producer, the engineer, the programmer, the sampler, the desk, are all there to assist making records. It's that simple. That's always been the case, although the emphasis is changing at the moment. There's too much marketing now, people should go back and use their ears and listen to what really matters. The gear is only there to assist recording a performance - end of story. You can quote that."
Of course, I'm not complaining. But does this leave a place for studios at all in Jeczalik's mind?
"Yes, of course. They're vital for making master recordings and mixing. You do need a certain level of technical exactitude, though the engineer who's responsible for the sound is probably more important. A good studio and a good engineer will offer you many varieties of tone and colour that you can't get yourself. But for recording tracks, studios aren't that valid. You should have most of it sorted out by the time you get to a studio."
Getting back to the subject of sampling, what are Jeczalik's views on the controversy currently surrounding the theft of other peoples sounds and music that samplers have made commonplace? The last time we spoke he wasn't afraid to admit that there were samples all over the Who's Afraid of the Art Of Noise album which left him open to lawsuits of one sort or another. Thanks to the 12-bit Fairlight though, the sounds are all but unrecognisable. Today, probably with the impending court case between M/A/R/R/S and Stock, Aitken and Waterman in mind, he is more cautious.
"I have very ambivalent views towards it. On the one hand you have fantastic access to all sorts of sounds, on the other hand it might not be very fair to use something which cost somebody else two weeks of work. Perhaps one might quote a famous saying: 'A work of art is never finished, it is abandoned'. When people abandon sounds and samples they're not finished, and when other people pick them up and rework them that's fair enough."
Drawing the interview to a close I ask Jeczalik what he is up to at the moment.
"I've set up my own publishing company. I'm looking for more regular music, good songs, good melodies - the rest I can take care of from a production point of view. What I'm particularly looking for are demos that haven't been overworked. Some of the best demos have been made with somebody singing at the piano, or with just acoustic guitar and voice. It's a plea to people not to overdo demos and just get the mood right and get some interest in the song."
He addresses the microphone: "Please send your tapes to Polar Union in London." He said it, I didn't.
Another of Jeczalik's plans turns out to be a solo album: "I'm doing demos at the moment. There are no scheduled plans for release, but it's underway, the boat has just been pushed out."
I've already got my ticket, this is one boat I don't want to miss."
Interview by Paul Tingen