Art of Noise
Well established as sampling innovators, the Art Of Noise have just released their fourth LP. David Bradwell talks to the Art's JJ Jeczalik about Fairlights and fairplay.
The Art Of Noise have long been at the forefront of the musical technology revolution. Fairlight programmer JJ Jeczalik takes time off to explain where they are and where they're going.
DEEP IN THE HEART OF RURAL BERKSHIRE stands the Monster Rat studio, the country home of the Art Of Noise. Having recently moved from his dining room to a converted garage, Monster Rat is JJ Jeczalik's pride and joy. JJ is the studio half of the Art Of Noise, a band who are now a two-piece following the departure of Gary Langan around 18 months ago.
The other half is Anne Dudley, equally as famous for her film scores (Buster, Silence Like Glass), string arrangements (Liza Minelli, Wet Wet Vet, Paul McCartney), keyboard playing (Wham!, ABC, Malcolm McLaren, Frankie Goes to Hollywood) and TV commercial production (Kellogg's Cornflakes, Bols, Revlon) as she is for her contribution to the Art Of Noise.
JJ, meanwhile, has produced or mixed hit singles for acts as diverse as the Pet Shop Boss, Paul McCartney, Billy Idol and Jean Paul Gaultier. Throughout the '80s he's been in constant demand as one of the finest Fairlight programmers in the business, working on countless sessions and contributing to countless classic records. The Fairlight still occupies centre stage in Monster Rat, ironically perched atop a Black and Decker Workmate. As individuals, the Art Of Noise have a formidable track record. As a duo they're about to release Below The Waste, their fifth album and the source of the recent near-hit single 'Yebo'.
Despite the level of his success outside the band, JJ claims the Art Of Noise is still his primary concern. It doesn't have to be - both band members could survive quite happily without it, but behind his claim lies a genuine enthusiasm for the work he does and a desire to make the Art Of Noise much more than just a showcase for two session musicians.
"The question of priority is not an empirical judgement", he begins. "Priority to me implies a mental state apart from anything else. I think it might be more of a hobby for Anne, but it's very important for me. I tend to be the one who does the mixing and the studio work because that's something I know about and care about, and I'm not sure that that's necessarily her interest. Her interest is more in standing in front of a group of musicians and conducting them."
JJ first encountered the Fairlight when he was a keyboard technician for Geoff Downes, who was working with Trevor Horn in his band The Buggles. Geoff bought the ninth Fairlight to be imported into the country, and it was delivered to JJ's flat in London. Disillusioned with the factory clarinet samples, he immediately set out to create some weird and wonderful sounds of his own.
"The sound of a car starting or horses moving around or doors slamming was a lot more interesting to me than trying to replicate - badly - real musical instruments", he explains. "At the time we were working with very good musicians and it struck me as being completely ridiculous to replace somebody like Luis Jardim playing percussion because he's so good, and a machine can't do that. They're two different things.
"The problem with the Fairlight initially was that because it was so expensive it became the preserve of a few rich people. Music is something which should be enjoyed by everybody. Now that you can go out, spend a few hundred pounds and get something which is supposed to be equivalent makes the point that you have to have the ideas and it's absolutely irrelevant how much the technology costs. Fairlights haven't got a right to exist any more than any other bit of gear - they have to survive in the market place like anybody else."
JJ approaches sampling in what he admits to being a very slapdash fashion. Although he tries to avoid obvious technical problems like distortion, he finds no sense in working with a sound that doesn't excite him early on. He's about to buy a portable DAT player, and will carry it around in the same way as a photographer always carries a camera - hoping for that elusive scoop.
"I'm constantly listening and appreciating the sound of things", he declares. "Once you start doing that it can be quite irritating for other people, but inevitably your cars become attuned to hearing things."
One notable success from the policy of always keeping a tape recorder handy was the famous car starting sample from 'Close (To The Edit)'. JJ explains its origin:
"What you mustn't do is pretend that ten tons of concrete falling out of a building is a good tune, because it isn't."
"Years ago, when I lived in Highgate, I went out with a tape recorder to try to record some horses going by. My neighbour drove past in her Golf, stalled the car, then restarted it and drove off. I recorded that and without realising it got what turned out to be a really definitive Art Of Noise sample. I went back into the house, listened to the horses, rejected that, and the car starting became 'Close (To The Edit)' and a few other things, and the horses went into the bin. It's like cooking - you have to keep things on the back burner ticking over and maybe they'll have a place later on that you can't see at the moment.
"I might wake up with an idea in the morning or hear something that stimulates an idea, and having a Fairlight is a blessing and a problem. If you have a guitar there's basically a finite number of records you can make with it, but with any of these new synthesisers the problem is in deciding what you want to do before you even fire it up. You can have a symphony of landing aircraft or a mad guitar solo - it's your own ideas and perceptions that get you into the bigger brain that lives within the Fairlight. You have to keep your own brain in a jolly mood through not working too hard and keeping fit because otherwise you run out of ideas. The Fairlight won't do anything unless you do something to it. It annoys me when people say you press a button and away you go, because it's not like that. You have to have ideas and you have to have the input."
As you've probably gathered, JJ is an exponent of experimentation. With demos, however, he recommends keeping ideas as simple as possible, and not getting too carried away with the technology.
"There's no mileage in making demo recordings over-complicated because music is still about harmonic structure, melody and rhythm", he begins. "If you shovel tons of samples onto something you may bury something which is very good. If it's not very good to begin with you can't bury it, because there are too many people who know about these things. They'll strip off all the wonderful sounds and listen to the tune, and if there isn't one it's a waste of time. Samplers are fabulous and very cheap, but it's back now much more to the fundamental roots of music. You have to have the melodic idea, you have to have the harmonic structure and you've got to have the rhythm. Ultimately what you play it on is irrelevant. What you mustn't do is pretend that ten tons of concrete falling out of a building is a good tune, because it isn't."
THE NEW ART Of NOISE ALBUM features guest vocals from African vocal group Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens on four of the tracks, all of which were recorded during one busy day in Paris. The collaboration came about after JJ went to see them play at The Electric Ballroom earlier in the year. Dudley and JJ had come across Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens in a previous life, when they were part of Trevor Horn's production team for Malcolm McLaren's Duck Rock album. Although the two parties never met, the Queens were very influential to the early Art Of Noise.
"When I saw them play it reminded me of how strong all that music was", JJ recalls. "Duck Rock was, in its own way, far too far ahead of its own time. I suppose Malcolm's outrageous ideas and perceptions of the music business gave us the impetus to do what became the Art Of Noise. His attitude was 'well, why not?' rather than 'you can't do that'. He was always exploring mad avenues that nobody in their right mind would do, with the attitude that it didn't really matter how you did anything or what you did with it, as long as it was fun and interesting at the end of the day. When we came back to thinking about this album and I'd been to see the Queens and so on, I decided it would be an interesting revisit for us to work with them again, as it were. The rest of the album is virtually made up of out-takes.
"If people perceive it as a gimmick it's something that I have no control over - you can't second-guess what people are going to think. There are so many people in the world that it's impossible to please everybody, so the best thing to do is ignore them. I don't think we exploited African music with 'Yebo'. The irony of it is that Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens will probably do better out of the raised profile of their music than us, at the end of the day. If you ask them you'd find they're very happy with the circumstances and the way everything's recorded and the style of it. This is probably one of the first records that's been put out with entirely Zulu lyrics. I know they feel very strongly about that in a positive way, because it's the first time they've actually been able to do their thing on a Western record. It's obviously caused quite a lot of problems because people can't sing it, but that's something we wanted to do."
The lack of English words doesn't mean it's impossible to discern meanings in Below The Waste.
The Art Of Noise have always hidden messages and references throughout their records and packaging, in many ways compensating for the lack of straightforward band photography and commonly-perceived image. According to JJ, one of the greatest things about all forms of instrumental music is that it's a bit like radio and you have to use your imagination.
"If you ever listened to the original radio version of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy, it was the most brilliant thing, because you had to imagine everything and your own imagination is the most powerful thing there is. When The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy went onto television and other visual forms it failed to work for me because it never fulfilled what my imagination had built up. And if there are any messages in what we do, the rest of it is down to the imagination of the listener, and that's part of the fun.
"There's no mileage in making demo recordings overcomplicated because music is still about harmonic structure, melody and rhythm""
"For that reason videos are dreadful. I unilaterally think that they're one of the worst things ever to happen to music. It costs £50-60,000 to make a video - that's not much less than you spend on an entire album and it pisses me off. That's not to say that there are not good video makers around, but things are a bit arse about face really."
That's one of the best things about the Art Of Noise. They combine a classic regard for the purer elements of music with some of the most advanced and least traditional technology they can lay their hands on. For every 'Moments In Love' there's a 'Beatbox', for every wash of sweet strings there's a blast of thunderous electronic disco. JJ sees all his external projects as rehearsals for what he does on his own or with Dudley, although he's constantly on the lookout for new ideas, people and perspectives. This shows in the wide variety of collaborations the group have got involved in: Max Headroom, Duane Eddy and Tom Jones being the three most obvious. A typical Art Of Noise audience doesn't seem to exist - a fact that became obvious to JJ when they went on tour in 1986.
"Based on the people who turned up at the Hammersmith Odious (sic) it was an extraordinary range. In a row that my friend was sitting on there was a middle aged couple of Asian origin, some young Chinese kids, a couple of black kids in their early teens and a whole range of white people of all ages. I think that every time we put out a record we get bought by a different set of people. When we did 'Kiss' with Tom Jones in America we didn't sell into our old black audience because it wasn't a black record in the way the Americans perceive things, and it was only bought by his fans. I think there is enough in the albums for people to buy them for very different reasons.
"This is a job like anything else, and the fun part of it is in investigating areas that you don't really know much about. Record companies hate it, it's nice for them to put a record out which goes into the shops in the rock and pop category A to Z and away you go. With ours they don't really know what to do with them.
"If you're working on your own at whatever level, you're entirely responsible and it's up to you what you do, what is deemed to be finished, what is unfinished, and so on. When you sign a record deal and ultimately have to make albums to order, all that changes, because you have to fulfil a requirement. A common problem that you get with acts overall is that the first album a band makes for a record company tends to be very good, very fast and representative of what they are. The reason for that is that they've been gigging for a long time and that album can represent six years or however long it is the group has been together. Suddenly, within 12 months the same group of people have to do it all again. That's when they spend lots of money, run into problems and so on. Part of the trick is constant writing and constant reviewing of where you're at, because when you're faced with a deadline it's the worst possible time to make yourself feel relaxed and hip and enjoy doing the things that you find interesting rather than things you know will just finish off the requirements. It's a real battle. Now the pressure's off for this album, which is why I'm starting on the next one."
JJ's other project at the moment is the establishment of his own publishing company. He's continually on the lookout for new songs and artists, and if, after reading this feature, you fancy sending him a tape, he would be more than happy to hear from you. But what exactly is he looking for?
"Although I work in the electronic realm myself, I'm interested in any type of material, whether it's a couple of acoustic guitars or a heavy metal band", he begins. "I think Heart are one of the best groups ever invented. It may not be to everyone's taste, but they have all the ingredients that make up perfect pop - the melodies, sounds and the structures and a good live show, which is what you need - it's entertainment.
"You have to acknowledge that to copy somebody is pointless and you're kidding yourself and everybody else if that's what you do. Having said that, to make reference to, and research what people do and the style in which they do it is fine, but within that framework you have to allow your own personality to run riot and express itself.
The most important thing is professionalism and it makes such a difference. At a basic level you're working with other people, and they have as much of a right to express their views. The only way you can survive is by being polite and professional. Nobody has got a God-given right, especially in a band situation, to say 'I'm right'. Also, never trust anyone who says 'trust me'."
He might say that, but JJ Jeczalik is the sort of person you feel you can trust. While Below The Waste is being promoted, the next album is already on its way, and in the midst of everything JJ is working on album of children's songs - another complete contrast. Living in Berkshire allows him to combine both music and his other great love, cricket, holding, as he does, the captaincy of the Windsor and Eton 1st XI. The Art Of Noise should have a long and happy innings.
Tapes for JJ Jeczalik's publishing company should be sent to: 119/121 Freston Road, London W11 4BD.
Interview by David Bradwell