Eccentric Swiss pioneers Yello follow 1989's Flag with another long playing sound fantasy. Simon Trask talks to Boris Blank about his old Fairlight and his new Baby.
In a world full of imitators, Yello remain unique. Having just given birth to a new album, Baby, studio maestro Boris Blank talks about the process of conception.
BABY IS AN APT TITLE FOR AN ALBUM BY YELLO - THE INCORRIGIBLE Swiss duo's music has always sounded like a labour of love. Boris Blank's rich, sensuous, finely-detailed musical landscapes and Dieter Meier's bizarre and often humorous narratives speak of the joys of creation, while disguising the labours of perfection. There's a lack of pretentiousness and an innate accessibility in the group's music which long ago took them beyond the ghetto of "art music". Yet their eccentricity and their refusal - or perhaps inability - to conform to a formula have seen them remain in that interesting area on the fringe of popular consciousness. From there they have been able to make sporadic forays into mass popularity with tracks like 'Vicious Games', 'The Rhythm Divine' and 'The Race' without being sucked into the whirlpool of commercial exploitation.
The richness, variety and sheer audacity of Yello's music provides an object lesson in how to achieve longevity' in an often fickle musical world. Through seeking their own musical truth over the years instead of conforming to the received wisdom of the moment, Blank and Meier have created a music which has a timelessness about it that allows even their debut album, Solid Pleasure, to still sound fresh and original 11 years after its release.
"Timeless" is a description of Yello's music which appeals to Blank.
"It means you can hear the music perhaps in ten years time and still it is OK", he says, speaking on the phone from Yello's recording studio in Zurich. "I mean, the quality between the first album and now this one of course is different, but the style and the music, it's really still funny to listen to all the Yello albums, for me. Most of the pieces I still love, I'm laughing when I hear them, because they always have a touch of humour or a touch of fairytale, or pictures. We always have lots of different styles. This is, I think, significant for Yello. I like to be in various different sound textures, always. I like to travel in all kinds of musical worlds."
There's humour and stylistic variety aplenty on Baby, the follow-up to 1989's Flag. Who in their right mind can resist 'Ocean Club', a delightful take on the classic '50s private-detective story with Meier intoning "My name is Norman, Lou Norman" before going on to relate a meeting with Mandy Cooper, a woman with the looks of a Texan model and a voice like Mahalia Jackson. Or the mellow, swaying groove of 'Capri Calling', which features the seductively mournful vocals of Billy MacKenzie. Or the upbeat and offbeat funkiness of 'Rubberbandman', complete with a rap in the vocal style of Louis Armstrong from Meier. Blank's love of Afro-Cuban music surfaces once again in the rhythmic density and intensity of 'Jungle Bill' and 'On The Run', tracks which recall 'The Race' from the group's last album. Then there's the up-tempo rock beat and wailing rock guitar of 'Blender', over which Meier relates the story of Random Tox, food-blender salesman, who uses his sales pitch as a prelude to chatting up women rather than to selling them a blender. "This is a revolution for your kitchen. Smashed potatoes, sliced tomatoes, apple juice, blueberry, raspberry, cherries and peaches in a fraction of a second. Turnex, the son of Durex, the only blender which can be turned into the most powerful vacuum cleaner!" Quite.
Yet for all the musical and lyrical diversity of Baby, the album is essentially a collection of variations on familiar Yello themes. If there is a less typical element in the music, it's the orchestral textures of 'Homage to the Mountain' and 'Sweet Thunder', the two tracks which frame the album...
"I think it's very difficult, if you have your own style, to do every two years something new", Blank maintains. "I can't, how shall I say, change my style from yesterday to today, like changing to house music or just in the fashion of whatever. So, it's always Yello, but it's like when a painter is doing an exhibition, he has about 20 pieces and the best ten he brings to the exhibition. This was this time the collection that we bring on this album, and I think it's a progress insofar that the pieces are different from all the rest we did so far. But in a way the significant and typical Yello sounds are always included, of course.
"If you see a Picasso, you can say this is exactly a Picasso picture because he always has his style of painting. Of course, he's not painting ten times the same girl or whatever, but it's always the same kind of working on a picture. I start like a painter on a screen, with the first colour and then the next colour. The working process hasn't changed, it's just that the new pieces are going in different directions, in different kinds of fantasies. Also, 'Homage to the Mountain' and 'Sweet Thunder' are perhaps something not new for Yello, but also not very typical. They make more like a movie kind of picture sound."
Yello's music has always been characterised by a willingness on Blank's part to experiment with all manner of sounds, drawing on his vast and ever-growing Fairlight CMI sample library. Baby is no exception. Blank reveals that he recorded and sampled about three thousand sounds in preparation for the new album.
"I'm working for two whole months just to sample new sounds", he elaborates. "There are still hundreds of sounds which I have not used because they haven't worked in the pieces. Ill always start with a whole collection of sounds for one piece which I think are quite homogenous within the piece; then a lot of times in the middle of a piece I need a certain sound and so I'm out looking for it and trying to sample it. But also there are sounds which I sampled years ago that I haven't used yet, so the pot is still full of secrets."
Blank's search for new and unusual sounds seemingly knows no bounds, as he reveals: "I sampled the swing of a few different golf clubs, the different whooshing sounds you get when you use different irons and woods. Another sound I recorded was a snowball smashing on a wall. I recorded that with two microphones, one very close to the wall and the other one a bit distant, so it gives a real hard 'Phhhfff!' sound. I use it somewhere as a snare, but I can't remember which piece any more, I use so many sounds.
"I use a lot of percussive sounds which I've made with my mouth, and things like the sound of a cork popping out of a bottle of wine or a can of Coke being opened. And there's many things that I sample and then transpose to two or three octaves down or up to get another sound."
When he's at work in the studio as opposed to swinging five-irons on the golf course or throwing snowballs at walls, Blank likes to keep regular working hours.
"Right now I'm hanging out, having fun and relaxing, doing a bicycle tour, going swimming, seeing nature... and hoping that we have more better weather. But usually when I work I'm like somebody going to the factory at nine or ten o'clock in the morning and working during the whole day till eight o'clock in the evening. Sometimes I think 'Wow! It's already seven or eight o'clock in the evening and I still haven't got exactly what I want', and I'm looking forward to the next morning to carry on. I'm just working as long as I feel good, doing what I can, and I love it. If I didn't have fun, I wouldn't do it as long."
Blank's initial inspiration for a piece usually comes from tempo and rhythm, rather than from the extensive library of sounds he's got stored in the Fairlight.
"I usually start with an idea perhaps of a tempo for a piece, with even just a metronome to give me an idea of tempo and also of how everything is grooving in this tempo", he explains. "Like with 'Capri Calling', this was an idea of doing a slow mamba, then I started recording the instruments, like percussion and the bass, and then the kind of atmosphere in the background. Then again, sometimes I start with a sound, like on 'Who's Groove' there's a nice strange sample, it sounds like a guitar 'chikka-chikka' sound; this was basically an idea in the piece first."
While sampling and sequencing technology lie at the heart of Yello's music, Blank has always brought in guitarists and percussionists to add a live edge to the music where he thinks it needs it. Baby features contributions from guitarist Marco Colombo and long-time Yello percussionist Beat Ash. So what criteria does Blank use for deciding when to use, say, a live guitarist in place of sequenced guitar parts?
"I have so many guitar samples, most of the time if I do, say, a funky rhythm guitar part, I start by doing this myself with the Fairlight", he replies. "Then if the guitar player comes in I record him playing a rhythm guitar part, and if he is playing it with more originality I sample two bars or four bars or whatever into the Fairlight and repeat them for however long I need. But if he doesn't bring the originality, then I use my old ideas from the Fairlight, which sometimes are very funny and more original than the real player's. But for solos, of course, most of the time I invite a guitar player like Marco Colombo and let him play a solo."
However, the short but delightful Django Rheinhardt-esque guitar solo on 'On the Run' is both sampled and played, as Blank explains.
"We have a lot of tapes from productions of other artists that we did, and some have never come out. This is from one of those productions. I collected a few sequences of guitar notes, sped them up a bit and put them together piece by piece, until I had a little guitar solo."
The amusing Shadows-type guitar which enlivens both 'Ocean Club' and 'Who's Groove', on the other hand, is an example of a multisampled guitar sound ("as I remember, from a Guild guitar") which Blank played from the keyboard in a guitaristic style.
BLANK'S RECORDING SETUP FOR THE PAST FIVE YEARS HAS been based around two Otari MTR90 24-track tape machines and an Amek 2600 48-channel mixing desk. It's a setup which he continues to be very pleased with. C-Lab's Notator software running on the Atari ST now takes care of much of the MIDI sequencing, though sometimes Blank syncs the Fairlight CMI Series III's Page R sequencer to it.
With such a setup, you might think that running out of tracks would be the last problem Blank would have to contend with. But, he claims, on occasion he needs more than 100 tracks for a piece of music.
"Usually I have 30 tracks on multitrack, or sometimes just 16 tracks, and the rest comes from the Fairlight and from the individual external synthesisers. There are pieces like 'The Race' where it was really full of tracks and it was already on the edge to be a mess, because there are so many things going on that only a professor could handle it, otherwise you get crazy! But this is so rarely, that I have 100 tracks. Also, when I do this, sometimes I have some tracks bounced. Like, I'll record 24 tracks of backing vocals with Billy MacKenzie, and then I'll bounce them down to two tracks. On another tape I might have a whole section of Dieter's rough ideas of vocals, and I'll bounce them down, too..."
The Fairlight might have been sidelined as far as sequencing is concerned, but when it comes to sampling the Series III is the only instrument Blank will use.
"It's still for me the best sampler", he claims. "Because the dynamics and the range of high and low frequencies are still the best. I've heard the Akais and all kinds of samplers which I'm absolutely not happy with because they're way from the Fairlight in distance. With the same bass drum I record on the Fairlight, I lose so much of the dynamic in other samplers that I would never change the Fairlight to another sampler. It's like my mother keyboard and my mother sampler."
To complement his sample library, Blank has also built up a sizeable collection of synths over the years, including not only classic analogue synths such as the Oberheim Matrix 12, Sequential Circuits Pro One and ARP Odyssey but also more recent digital offerings like the Roland D50, Yamaha SY77 and Korg Wavestation.
"The Odyssey is still one of my biggest friends", he says. "The Pro One is very good for basses, or for doubling up other basses to give them more power. If I have a digital bass which has a nice colour but hasn't really got a good bottom end, I add with analogue synthesisers the real low bass, which is very easy to do. It's a question of a few minutes to have the right, real bottom end of analogue synths. But in the Fairlight also I can create a very low bass by writing with the overtones.
"Sometimes I like just the attack of a certain colour of a bass, and then I add another bass, it could even be from a digital synth. I might even couple four basses together to get the real sound I want to have."
Although Blank's equipment setup includes two drum machines, a TR808 and an R8, they rarely get used on recordings. Instead, he prefers to use them for working on initial ideas.
"My real drum machine is called Fairlight", he adds by way of explanation.
For Blank, a track is finished when "all the colours are in the right shape and the whole sound picture looks good for my ear and for my brain. It's just a feeling how it should sound."
The combination of density and clarity of detail in Yello's tracks has always been one of Blank's most significant achievements. To achieve this balance requires careful attention to the frequencies of the individual parts.
"I think the mixing picture is very important, that the frequencies are kind of in a very good order so that every part can be heard clearly", he says. "It's very important to work with the sounds so that they really do not hurt each other, so that for instance you don't have two hi-hats interfering with one another, or the basses becoming a mess.
"And then the stereo pan is very important, and also the reverb that you use on each instrument or on some of the instruments. Your ears should give you the impulse to hear the right way to it. All you need is a good ear for music.
"Still, sometimes it's really very hard to get the balance right, so I work three or four days on one mix. But at other times it's so easy, and if you touch too much on the desk you can damage a certain balance in the picture. This is a matter of, how should I say, to not do too much, to get it right and then to believe in what you think the first time you listen to it. If you listen to a piece 20 or 30 times you can keep thinking there is still a little bit more to add, and then in the end it's a whole mess. It's very easy to damage a track. Then you should leave it for a few days, mix something else and then come back to it. This is a very sensible working process."
Talk of Yello's working process brings us to the other half of the duo, Blank's collaborator extraordinaire Dieter Meier. According to Blank, Meier doesn't come in on a piece until it's 90% finished.
"We choose together which tracks we love most", he explains. "Dieter gets a cassette so he can go away and rehearse things and come up with ideas, but mostly he works here in the studio and he brings his typewriter machine with him and we start spontaneously working on a track, step by step. He comes up with an idea and I also help him sometimes through these pictures with an idea, like on 'Rubberbandman' it was an idea I had for Dieter to sing a little bit like Louis Armstrong. So, it's a process that we are not together every day like a group rehearsing and fighting for hours over one little pattern. I invite him when the piece is almost finished, and he sings along with it and then we discuss what we can do."
It all sounds so genteel. Do the pair never argue?
"Of course, sometimes", replies Blank, "because there's also the phonetic thing in the music which gives the rhythm, like the vowels are very important rhythmically in a piece. Sometimes I tell him 'Listen, this word doesn't work. It makes sense, but it doesn't make sense rhythmically within the piece'. So we change words sometimes, and also whole phrases, like if there are too many words or too few words for the rhythm of the piece. So we puzzle this together."
Does Blank think of himself as a perfectionist?
"People call me a perfectionist, but I don't know", he muses. "I just sit on a picture, like Picasso, like Titian, like Raphael sits on a picture until he gets exactly the result he wants to get. If people call this perfectionist then I am a perfectionist."
Talking of pictures, when Meier was last interviewed in MT (January '89) he painted a wonderful picture of Blank's studio as a place of total disorder and chaos. I can't resist raising the matter with Blank.
"You know, Dieter can tell a certain situation very drastically and very dramatically", he responds with amusement. "Of course I'm not like a surgeon who works in a hospital, and there is sometimes a banana under the mixing desk, but it is not like a biochemical timebomb! I'm very clean in my head - around me everything could be a mess, but I know in this mess where everything is.
"There is also a big, big cable mess. Cables really drive me crazy, so there was a reason to rebuild the whole studio, how shall I say, to make a whole revision with the desk, replug the machines and make other kinds of furniture to put all the synthesisers in. Also, I am having a MIDI patchbay built so I can just connect everything with the MIDI buss very easily, not always with MIDI cables hanging around."
And what about Meier's other claim, that Blank effectively keeps his track sheet in his head?
"Also this has changed a little bit, so sometimes I even make track sheets", he replies. "But a lot of the pieces I really have in my head, and I don't have to make a track sheet because I knew exactly where things are on the multitrack."
Blank's good-natured humour brings us back to the matter of humour in Yello's music. Not enough music makes people smile nowadays.
"Rarely people have humour", observes Blank. "They think the world is going under now, and the only thing they want to do is to make it even worse than it already is. But I rather would plant a tree today than to say 'that's it!'. I still hope that we have a big chance to survive, and that everything is coming back in a good way. Of course we have problems in the rain forest, and we have problems with Saddam Hussein, and whatever. But I think we should stay optimistic. If we just say 'Yeah, everything's bad, and I feel bad and we do bad music to tell everybody everything is bad', this makes it even worse. This is not my style. I'm very happy being every day, every morning a new person. When I wake up, sometimes I ask myself who I am, and then it starts, big fun coming up. Sometimes not, but of course I try to make the best out of it."
Interview by Simon Trask
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