Big Audio Dynamite
From their initial sampled success with 'E=mc2' Big Audio Dynamite have gone on to further explore the use of dialogue and sound effects in pop music. David Bradwell talks technology and photography with keyboardsman Dan Donovan.
Where can you find the imagery of film making and the sophistication of sampling combined with the energy of punk? Big Audio Dynamite's Dan Donovan calls the shots.
I DON'T THINK I should be reading magazines like Music Technology. I try not to read up too much about the gear because it really starts to drive you a bit mad after a while. If there's one thing that I'm really not aiming to be, it's a techno-whizz."
The speaker is Big Audio Dynamite's Dan Donovan and his sentiment may come as a surprise if you've heard the new BAD album Tighten Up Vol 88. Furthering the themes of their first two long-players (Big Audio Dynamite and No. 10 Upping Street), it combines sound samples and snatches of film dialogue with the more traditional elements of rock 'n' roll - screaming guitars, full-frontal drums and heartfelt vocals. Donovan is the man responsible for the hi-tech elements of BAD, yet is of the school of thought that has little regard for technology. Songwriting is the most important thing, sampling a necessary evil and synthesisers a means to an end. It's a strange paradox, and one, in this case, with its background in the parallel discipline of photography...
According to Donovan, Mick Jones conceived BAD "five minutes" after he left The Clash. The new band's direction was the same one that he would have wanted The Clash to pursue - but now he was starting again, with a clean slate and fresh personnel. Donovan was the last member to join, as he explains.
"I joined about three years ago, as the rest were starting to record the first album. I turned up to take the pictures for the sleeve and just happened to mention that I played keyboards. There were a few bits and pieces lying around that they weren't sure what to do with, so I said 'I know what to do with that'. I'd always played classical stuff on the piano from when I was a kid, but I'd never been involved in the music business before. I was a photographer, so it was quite a strange step."
However, Donovan was not the only recruit from the field of visual communication. Don Letts, who plays keyboards and supplies sound effects - and who admits to being completely non-musical - gave up a career as a video director to offer his knowledge of films as a source of sampled dialogue. The line-up is completed by bass player Leo Williams and drummer Greg Roberts, who secured the post through replying to a classified advert in Melody Maker.
Big Audio Dynamite earned much praise from the music critics. The second was not so warmly received. A lot therefore hangs on Tighten Up Col 88 as it seeks to re-establish the band's position. They have reached that difficult make-or-break third album stage and all is not well. The promotional campaign has been thrown into turmoil by the much-publicised illness of bandleader Jones. Although now out of intensive care after a nasty bout of pneumonia, he won't be back to full health this side of Christmas. The tour scheduled for the Summer and Autumn had to be cancelled - it seems BAD don't have a lot to be thankful for at the moment.
Aside from the problems with the band. Donovan is having troubles of his own. He has grown up in the shadow of his photographer-father Terence Donovan, and recently had his own pop success eclipsed by wife Patsy Kensit and her group Eighth Wonder. But in particular, he is having difficulties with technology.
"I don't like the way technology is being used at the moment", he begins, "I think it's very dull. It's too easy to make records with it. It doesn't really tax people and make them come up with new ideas because it's so easy to write stuff with sequencers. In the old days with a guitar, drums and bass you had to be more selective and push yourself a bit more to get good stuff. In some ways technology offers potential, and it should be used by everybody - not just Stock, Aitken & Waterman. I can't see what will happen in the future with it but I think there'll be a terrific backlash, and there'll be a return to songwriting in the old style. I find it irritating because it's so easy to forget about the music and just work on programming and turn yourself into a computer operator. I've got no desire for a Fairlight, I'd rather have a new car."
Donovan is similarly unimpressed with sequencers.
"Sequencers are too all-pervasive - it's so easy to create huge orchestral sounds that record buyers now take for granted. Records today sound like a mess, there are no clear little ideas anymore - there's no space for the music. What we try to do is create a space. It's very important to play together and we always record together. When we're laying down stuff we try to play as much as possible live."
In spite of this distaste for sequencers, Donovan does occasionally resort to using them, either as a compositional aid or to help when playing live.
"When writing, I like to randomly do stuff and see how it sounds. I've got a QX1, and sometimes I just type in a load of notes, play it backwards or whatever and transpose it to see how it sounds. If I think of an idea I'd rather play it myself than try to figure it out on a sequencer and make it really complicated. I always try to make things really simple."
He has little time for people who program complete songs, and it seems that programming human feel into sequences has hardly crossed his mind:
"I don't really see the point in that. If it sounds like a sequencer that's fine and I don't want to make it sound like a human because I could make it sound human simply by playing it. I think the people who used the sequencers most inventively were always Kraftwerk. They were one of the most innovative bands of their time, definitely. The only way I really like to use sequencers is to play simple rhythmic stuff, and there's no point in programming human feels into that sort of stuff, because I want it to sound like a sequencer."
"Photography is a craft and you really have to know what you're doing, but music anyone can do - it's a much more basic, and I think, a more artistic thing."
But perhaps Donovan's most intense dislike of equipment is reserved for computers.
"I've really avoided using any kind of computer. I know they're great and I know they're the best for sequencing and visual editing, but I really can't face the thought of sitting down in front of a computer keyboard and a screen, tapping stuff out. I just don't want to be involved with them. I know I can't really say that because all keyboards are computers, but I'd rather play the things. I know I'd start to go mad if I got involved with a computer."
Donovan started his musical life on the piano, and still prefers piano keyboards to those on any synthesiser he has played. Throughout the time he was learning piano, he looked forward to the day he would acquire his first synthesiser. That was a Roland JX3P and it was quickly followed by a Yamaha DX7. In retrospect he sees these two purchases as the best investments of his life - six months later and he was recruited into the band. However, neither synth is retained in his current line-up.
"I've got the old bog-standard Akai S900, a Prophet VS which I think is a very under-rated keyboard, a Mirage and an Oberheim Matrix 6", he reveals. "The VS has got some great sounds, although the keyboard tends to be a bit mushy. There's a great function on it where you can make random waveforms and random sounds ad infinitum. It just comes up with some fantastic Dr Who 'dalek sounds' and all kinds of weird stuff. Having said that, I like sampling myself. I like sounds that are real. I never got into programming, I was never very good at that.
I couldn't be bothered to sit through it all, working out which button does what. If you've got enough time and patience it's fine. Personally I don't really have much of either. I've discovered certain things with programming sounds that will alter them radically and that's the only thing I use. I don't know how to combine different waveforms and stuff like that. I'm just not interested in it.
"The Akai's brilliant, it's a piece of cake to use, and I use it all the time. Looping is really easy to do. I did get into the finer details of looping on the Mirage, but as soon as I got the Akai I gave up with that. The Mirage is basically a real pain to use. Your only visual display is those two hexadecimal digits and you're constantly re-referring to what they actually mean, and that got to me. I still do Don's stuff on it because I think it's got a great raw sound for sound effects, not too polished, but now I use the Akai most of the time."
Donovan's keyboard setup has a permanent place in the recording studio - because he doesn't believe in taking his work home with him...
"I'd rather leave it and come back to it fresh. Once you're not near keyboards and recording stuff all the time you get more of an urge to write. I sometimes have to forget about it for a while to get inspiration."
Once in the studio, sampling becomes all important as a key element in the distinctive Big Audio Dynamite sound. Finding suitable sources is the speciality of Don Letts, as his background in film making is invaluable in the search for pertinent dialogue. Donovan explains how he and Letts begin the search for material.
"We look all over the place, take things off TV, off videos, off records... The most important thing with the soundtrack stuff and effects is that they all mean something. It's very easy to whack in a load of interesting sounds that bear no relation to the track. We always try to use them in an intelligent way, so that it means something to the song, not just because it sounds good. People made a big deal about our use of dialogue, so on the last album we tried to keep it to a minimum. People should realise it is not the all-important thing. What is important is the fact that the tracks are all songs and they are danceable, they have a meaning and they're interesting. As for specific samples. I've got things I've recorded on tape, for example the sound of 15 buffalo crashing, but there's nothing that springs to mind that I use all the time, I always try to use different things. I'm quite happy with Akai factory samples, violins, pianos and stuff like that - I've got a lot of different drum sounds and quite a big library. I don't walk around all the time trying to find great samples. You have to limit yourself as to how you spend your time, and that's why I really can't get too involved with the technical side.
"Stock, Aitken & Waterman don't interest me, the idea of them sueing M/A/R/R/S is total hypocrisy - it's a joke."
"We sample other people, and I wouldn't mind if somebody sampled our records, it really depends on how you use them. I read an interview with Ennio Morricone in one of the music papers and he was flattered by being sampled, he didn't see anything wrong with it, which I thought was great. If you use samples in an intelligent way and not as the basis for a whole song, I think that's fine."
There seems to be a growing belief within certain areas of the music business that the cutting up and sampling of records in the M/A/R/R/S tradition is the new punk. Anybody can pick up a sampler and make music - with or without any musical knowledge. Once again records are costing less and less to produce, independent labels are thriving, and even the charts seem to be opening up. Donovan doesn't agree.
"Punk was more to do with energy. It was a movement. The idea behind it was great and it would be great if something like that happened again, but you can't really compare it to sampling, because you're not really saying much by nicking somebody else's record, are you? I like the aspect of sampling that means anyone can do it and it would be great if more people did. People have the impression that you have to have thousands of pounds and big studios to get the best from technology, but you don't. You can get really cheap stuff and do it as well. What's great about reggae is that they use little Casios and tinny drum machines - really simple, cheap stuff - but they use it in a great way. You don't need Fairlights. As for Stock, Aitken & Waterman, they don't interest me, I don't like the way they look. I don't like their haircuts. I thought it was very funny, the idea of them sueing M/A/R/R/S, it's just total hypocrisy. It's really unnecessary, all of that. It's a joke."
AWAY FROM SAMPLING and the pressures of being a musician, Donovan is still able to pursue photography. Most of what he does is in relation to the band because he doesn't have time to work for anyone else.
"I suppose photography is in my blood. There is a strong link between photography and music. From the point of view of business, the music business is far more shambolic and disorganised than the photographic world. Music is more of an immediate thing, photography is more technical. A lot of photographers go under the guise of 'art photography' and they'll just wander around with a 35mm camera, snap stuff out of focus, blow it up, frame it and call it "art". But it's rubbish because photography is a craft and you really have to know what you're doing. Music, anyone can do, it's a much more basic and, I think, a more artistic thing."
Donovan's artistic influences are complimented by those of the band, whose roots can be traced to rock 'n' roll, funk, new wave and reggae. Donovan, meanwhile, is recovering from an obsession with hip hop.
"Up until recently I was totally into the hip hop that was coming out from New York. I've gone off it now, because I reached total hip hop saturation. I still listen to a lot of reggae on the pirate radio stations. I think it's the most interesting music around at the moment. There's so many different variations in it, which people don't actually realise, because you don't really hear it unless you search it out."
With Donovan's love of the song and high regard for the craft of songwriting, talk inevitably moves in that direction. When writing he aims to set himself as few guidelines as possible.
"I'm thankful that I haven't been involved in the music business too many years, because I haven't got a set formula or way of working. I just do what interests me. It's a very odd thing, you can lay down a bit of music and think it sounds great and then the next day it will sound like shit. Or you can do something which is rubbish and then add a tiny little thing onto it which will make it fantastic. It's such a difficult thing, music writing. The only guidelines I set myself are not to get too complicated and come up with original ideas."
I venture that age-old question, "what is the classic song?". Donovan has no hesitation.
"'American Trilogy' by Elvis", he begins. And then, remembering the musical ancestry of Big Audio Dynamite, he adds "To be honest, I thought The Clash wrote classic songs."