Vocals and electronic music in unique combination
Although commercial success has largely eluded him, Arthur Brown has been, and remains, one of the most innovative male vocalists on the popular music scene. His early work with 'The Crazy World of Arthur Brown' produced a hit in the form of the single 'Fire', but pieces recorded with Kingdom Come and other groups have been more experimental and have displayed a wide range of influences.
A meeting with German synthesist Klaus Schulze led to live concert performances and the albums 'Dune', 'Live' and 'Time Actor'. Brown's sudden appearance on the German music scene led to a heated debate as to the desirability of vocals in conjunction with synthesised music.
Now Arthur Brown has produced a solo album, 'Requiem', recorded in conjunction with American synthesists and displaying the full range of his vocal talents. In an exclusive discussion with E&MM he describes his new album, his musical influences and his interest in combining electronic music with vocals.
What's the theme of 'Requiem'?
The LP asks several questions. Where does the kind of fear come from that produces the aggression demonstrated in nuclear war? What happens if you ban nuclear weapons? Does it matter if all humans are destroyed? How would the last man alive look at the destruction of all he knows? Will technology help us to survive?
How did you go about working with the other musicians on the album?
Arriving in Los Angeles with no music previously rehearsed, and nothing formally written meant that there had to be a great deal of creative effort to produce anything worth while. What I did have was a theme, with its successive stages of presentation. The method of communication was different in each case.
With Stirling Smith, who was a classically-trained harpsichordist before he entered rock music via the Beach Boys and Randy Meisner, it was a matter of him sitting down at the piano and me singing and improvising lyrics, or sometimes giving him a lead sheet with the words and the two of us getting the melody together.
Scott Morgan, who'd studied electronic music at the University of Texas, was unfavourable at the time to any tonal music, or anything from the European classical tradition. Sometimes with him, as on 'Busha-Busha', I would have an area of feeling fixed upon, and we would then find something he had already created on his sequencers which matched the mood. For instance on 'Mechanical Masseur' I asked him for a rhythm section that was entirely composed of mechanical sounds, no bass and drum pattern. On '2024', Scott was playing with a James Brown-type riff on the Serge sequencer. I suggested using the Balinese 5-tone scale; he then wrote a melody to it, and I wrote the lyrics to that.
Between Scott and Stirling there was a lot of tension, largely due to their differing musical ideas. At one point the tension was so great that it threatened to end the album, but once I insisted that the project had to go on with the people that were there, the producer, Earl Mankey, whose studios we were using found a method of working around the problem by avoiding having the two musicians working on parts together if they were likely to cause friction.
At first Earl, though willing to try and make the thing work, didn't think that anything so 'avant-garde' would sell. We played him the Peter Gabriel album and told him it was selling - of course a lot of the sounds on that album were similar to the ones Earl had been experimenting with years before. Although Earl's first love is straight 'pop' music, he entered into the project with gusto, and made many contributions on the structural side. We had a lot of laughs! He would spend a whole night, while everybody else was asleep, finding a correct tone, and of course we would all sit together in the control room when it came to mixing.
Usually I would have the mood and emotional texture in mind and make suggestions of sound areas - and Earl's sound vocabulary is enormous. Of course, one of his real loves is the drum sound, and there was a crossover here between him and Scott because Scott also loves this.
Earl got David Aldridge to create a 'tribal' percussion sound for 'Busha Busha'. David's just written a new method of drum tutoring which is being translated into computer programmes at the moment. On 'Gabriel' I asked him to imagine he was painting, touching in to finish a nearly complete picture.
Arthur Barrow was until recently Frank Zappa's bass-player. He was also responsible for rehearsing Zappa's band. So the project was a cooperative effort from a group of musicians although, of course, it comes out as a solo album. I think the important thing was getting a commitment to the theme from everyone, so that they really tried to enter into the changes of mood. For instance, 'Gabriel' obviously had to be bright, but we already had a traditional-type tune. How could we avoid making it sound old-fashioned? I asked Earl and Stirling to play something that didn't sound like anything they knew; they sat in the control room for half a day, and out came the first section. Sounds like the bagpipes on that track were the result of discussion between the three of us, but I think that knowing there were no established parameters beyond the melody allowed the two of them to use more imagination than would otherwise have been possible.
How did your interest in combining vocals with electronic music begin?
In 1968 we took the first Wem noise-box and used it on stage. It had five buttons which produced different sound distortions; at the time I loved the sheer anarchic energy of avant-garde music, for instance, I would do a tuba solo on stage which just consisted of weird noises, and so the interest was in the effect of sound rather than structure. Drachen Theaker the drummer and I would listen to Stockhausen for instance - in that sense the use of the noise-box was an extension of the idea of the tuba solo. There was a search to find new sounds to express new approaches to music and performing.
In 1970 we used the EMS vcs3 or 'Putney' synthesiser, which at the time didn't have a keyboard, and in 1972 we were the first band to use a rhythm box live instead of a drummer. (For an example of the use of the Ace Bentley rhythm box, see the 1973 Kingdom Come album 'Journey'). That is to say, I've always had an interest in synthesisers, and for me they are like new toys, just as Chinese or Balinese scales are. I love musical adventure and the taming of 'wild' machines. Western man's attitude to himself has become mechanical and intellectual, and perhaps synthesisers are a step towards a new flexibility of mind and a different view of matters. Certainly they touch areas in me that other instruments don't, and recently technology has allowed huge steps forward in music-computers. I don't play synths myself but I do programme the drum machines - I've got an Oberheim DMX at the moment.
How did Vincent Crane and yourself become involved with Klaus Schulze, and how did you work with him in the studio?
I had done a live concert with improvised vocals with Klaus in Paris in 1978 ('Dymagic' on the Klaus Schulze Live album). It was a success and he liked it, but then I went to live in Burundi in Africa. When I came back, with ideas about African rhythm sections and so on, I found a telegram from Klaus saying that he had his own label (Innovative Communication) and wanted me to record. I was reading the Bhagavad Gita on the plane over to Germany and this coloured the lyrics on 'Shadows of Ignorance' (from the album 'Dune'). I improvised the lyrics and melody to his musical tones, although they're credited to him for easier collection of royalties and so on.
We got on well musically and he asked if I'd like to do a freer album. So we did 'Time Actor' (the first Richard Wahnfried collaborative album), again improvisations together. The words and melodies came out together in the stream of feelings growing out of our interaction. Schulze was in charge of manipulating the sounds - I was still in primitive Africa inside and so was responding naively to the machines. I'd used electronic treatments on vocals before of course; Dave Edmunds remixed the vocals on 'Journey' through numerous electronic effects, and even before that we'd experimented with putting the voice through a Leslie cabinet and so on. Technology then wasn't what it is now; when I was younger there were no television sets, let alone vocoders! The vocoded voices were largely done by Klaus.
Klaus then suggested I do a solo album. I had been working on a project with Vincent Crane (organist for Atomic Rooster) for a year and a half, and we had been unable to get a deal, so I suggested that this should be what we did for him. I told Vince that I wanted it electronic, and he enrolled for one of the two week courses at IC studios. It was during the course that 'Time Actor' was made, and that's how Vince came to be on it. The solo project emerged as 'Faster Than the Speed of Light'; we had lots of separate numbers, but finally I decided it needed a concept. This was only four weeks before we were due to record!
I went round to Vince's house in Maida Vale and just worked with him on the piano. His wife Jean also joined in discussions, and when I got home my wife would dissect the lyrics before my very eyes. On the whole the album turned out classical/orchestral, because Vince didn't like the synthesisers much. Although he liked the album, Klaus was disappointed that it wasn't electronic.
When did you start to develop the technique of vocal improvisation?
In The Crazy World, at the beginning, at least 40% of the lyrics on stage were improvised. Later it became more formal, although the last half of 'Child of my Kingdom' on the 'Fire' album was improvised. I had been a writer of poetry, and it was a natural extension to create words out of an occasion. As a child I often spoke in rhyme (and still do to my son). Writing poetry was, of course, something which produced in the end a fixed arrangement of words, and I think it was the movement of the music that opened up in me the flow of lyrics in an improvisational manner.
Initially I improvised purely on a feeling of the moment, then an idea that occurred at the moment. Now I am trying it around (a) an idea I have had beforehand or (b) a technique of holding myself open before the essence of life - remembering where I came from. I actually did one side of the 'Chisholme in my Bosom' album by going into the studio with a very enlightened Turkish Sufi, and my wife, and singing and playing guitar in a totally improvised way. Later we added the other instruments.
I started vocal improvisation when I played the blues guitar; it was just something natural to me. It developed further in France, and got to the point where I would turn up to any gig with a band I had never met before, and say, "I don't want to play any of the tunes you know - just start". Of course, you come up against your musical limitations very quickly! After that, you can either expand your musical knowledge, or stay within the same limits. I am now making an effort to expand.
What languages do you use in improvisation and how difficult is it to write out the lyrics afterwards?
I work from a feeling, an idea, or both. The sounds pour out and accord themselves to the mood. Sometimes bits of German or Latin or French come to the surface. Sometimes it's just sheer sound, as on some of the tracks of 'Time Actor'. 'Shadows of Ignorance' was recorded with improvised vocals; Klaus laid the basic tracks down and I sang, then he further expanded the sounds round the voice. Writing the lyrics out afterwards for the sleeve notes is easy when they're comprehensible. When they're not, it's only an approximation. Sometimes it's fun, sometimes puzzling, sometimes boring, some times excruciating.
How do you approach improvisation in concerts? The vocal of 'Dymagic' includes part of 'Fur Elise'; is it typical to pick up on existing tunes in this way?
I always find that the lighting is important. It depends on the mood of the address, it depends on becoming what you are feeling or thinking about. If it is a particular subject you open your imagination; if it is a plea to the audience you open yourself to them and let your tenderness, or anger, or whatever flow to them. The words follow; sometimes the music follows the voice, at other times vice-versa and most of the time both act on each other.
Of course trying to say something that everyone appreciates is extremely difficult - one can't always be a creator of parables that work on all levels, but of course the music helps to communicate. With Schulze, we did some things in concert that were among the most profoundly disturbing I've heard. Unfortunately, they aren't recorded! Synthesisers are so flexible that one can present approaches impossible with other instruments; just one tone is sometimes sufficient to awaken an audience. But I basically approach it the same as any other improvising situation - being receptive to and fitting in with the music-scape.
Sometimes you run out of your own ideas, and someone else's tune pops in. Also, although I'm trying to learn more, my melodic invention is not terribly great.
What are your main musical influences, and how do you intend to continue developing your technique and use of effects?
My father played piano in the style of Charlie Kunz, so our house was full of both classical music and ragtime. After Elvis Presley and Little Richard (my first idols) came the Blues - Lightning Hopkins, Sleepy John Estes, Furry Lewis - then Trad Jazz around 1962. At this time I decided to play bass and joined the Reading University Trad Band. I started singing and took classical lessons in voice for two years. Then Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Modern Jazz, James Brown and Otis Redding. I became bass player in a modern jazz quintet, then after university I was in a mod group in London called The SW5.
After that I moved into blues and soul rather than pop, B. B. King, Buddy Guy and so on, and then Captain Beefheart, Bertholt Brecht and Kurt Weill. I've spent a lot of time with classical music as well; Stockhausen, Walter Carlos, Mozart and so on. I still do my classical singing practice nearly every day and have recently been singing with a modern jazz band, an electro-rock band, a bluesy band and a folk lineup. This is how I hope to develop my technique. I'm listening to a lot of ethnic records from all round the world, and learning to read music for the piano. My use of effects is being furthered by being involved with the production of other bands - I can mutilate their voices and enhance them without so much as a flicker of the emotional involvement I'd have with my own voice!
I missed out on the keyboard myself. I spent hours at university listening to Mingus, Monk, Peterson, Mose Allison, Brubeck, Modern Jazz Quartet and so on, and later came the synthesiser players - White Noise (David Vorhaus), Vangelis and Schulze. Also I've always found folk music stirring, whether flamenco, Turkish ney-music, Welsh songs, polkas or Morris-dances. There is about them - even the sad tunes - a certain freshness missing from most rock music today.
Do you have any preferences as to types of microphone or particular techniques?
Not really. It depends on what the engineer can get out of it. Usually I sing over the top a little, as I tend to 'pop' a lot. I like to use a hand-held microphone but of course in a lot of cases this is impossible.
How do you see the relationship of vocals to music and particularly synthesised music?
Music is a structuring of space, particularly inner space, by sound. Words are also sounds and so work on the same level. Instruments can often play more than one sound at a time, but the human voice does have many inner harmonics. So in a sense the voice is a more personal 'instrument', reaching into and reflecting the essence of the singer.
Taking this most personal of instruments, with its fine array of interacting emotional muscle-tones and harmonics, and changing it electronically, places the listener in a different place. He is asked to view the voice not in terms of its personal qualities but as an instrument. By using different combinations of vowels and consonants the voice can produce effects no other instrument can.
We are seeing the influx of musics from all over the world. At the moment the West is the meeting point for this, as we are the centre of an electronic-computer culture. However, Africa is on the move - much as 'the blues' is a blend of European and African music, we can look forward to a 'world music' that incorporates elements of all global cultures. As the computer enters the music field more deeply, the possibility of a world music will become ever greater. Also we'll see three dimensional structures in sound and light in the future - our electronic equivalent of the Pyramids.
Modern avant-garde music is already broadening into drama. The investigation of the music of sounds and the breaking down of the meaning of syllables has something of the same effect as watching 15 televisions simultaneously with different images on each. One is forced to abandon conventional narrative technique, in other words it takes you outside the normal way of looking at pictures or sounds. In musical terms this makes the voice even more of an instrument.
What were you doing prior to the release of 'Requiem'?
Well, I arrived in Texas with my wife and child and £800! When the record deal I had there fell through the money soon ran out, and I took up carpentry and house-painting as the construction trade is huge there. My wife manages a restaurant. In 1981 I did an album of synthesisers and electronic percussion with Craig Leon, which has just come out in America as a picture disc. This is the first product of a production company I have with a partner, and I've also been doing managerial and production work with some local bands.
Distribution of 'Requiem' in the UK is being handled by Remote Records, Barry Martin's new company. They're affiliated to Making Waves which is probably the best-known company for electronic music over there. There's a video made for American TV to support the album, and I'd love to be able to do a European tour - it all depends on the reaction.
Interview by Mark Jenkins
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