Siouxsie & The Banshees
from Banshees to Creatures
"I've bought this along to show you," said the amiable Budgie as he strolled into Hammersmith studio in west London, producing a red sack with a strange metallic object within. It turns out to be a waterphone, a California-made percussion instrument with a saucepan-like base and a long central tube into which you pour water. Around the edge are brass-coloured rods of varying length, and as you "play" these with a violin bow, a floating, eerie noise emerges that could well have been made by a Theremin through a delay line. Not surprisingly, the three waterphones in the country (including Budgie's) are heavily in demand by horror movie makers.
"Otherwise its uses are pretty limited," admits Budgie. Sounds ideal for the Banshees or the Creatures, where Budgie's powerful percussing from a live ringing kit or a subtly melodic marimba, has made him much more than the bloke who plays the drums. "There are plenty of good percussionists, good drummers, but they only seem to see their role as one thing."
The new Banshees album seems to have taken a long time to make.
"We've been working on 'Hyena' since last June – with spells off – and its taken us to what feels like every recording studio in London! 'Dear Prudence' and 'Pointing Bone' were recorded in Stockholm, we were doing two festivals there and in Sweden so we slotted in five days in the studio. We've used Playground studios in Camden Town for most of the backing tracks, which we used for 'Kiss In The Dreamhouse', and we've been using Angel studio too, a refurbished church, still with a huge organ, amazing place. It's been the first time, through necessity, that we've had to break it up this way – we find that there's a thread linking everything that's come about because it's taken so long. The sound of the drums has changed dramatically between tracks. If you start in the Angel you have a huge and ambient sound, whereas the Stockholm tracks reflect the small and dry studio. Then there's some done at Eden, at Eel Pie... it changes the mood of each track."
How many of the studio ideas made it to 'Hyena'?
"Well, Mike Hedges, our producer, is very open to any ideas. He doesn't sit there and dictate, he's always open to suggestions. And he's a master when it comes to mixing – the desk is his instrument. You don't feel there's anyone there watching, he's part of the family. For example, on one track we wanted a constant time, and I'd tried playing to a click-track, which I hate doing. You concentrate so much on listening to that, that you don't listen to the other players. So we used a strobe flashing, with the studio in darkness. When my stick was keeping the constant beat it wasn't moving, the strobe was freezing it. That didn't last long, though, 'cos I was feeling sick! We tried it on a few things, but didn't keep it.
"Then we'd spend half a day recording cymbals being turned around on a wooden floor, with the tape machine really slowed down, going for effects. We also did a lot with a dummy head microphone, which sounds great in a piano underneath the lid, the stereo comes out really wide. And then we gaffered some of those tiny Sony lapel mikes to a pair of drum sticks, one on each stick with sponge around them so they wouldn't smash. So the stereo was switching around as your hands moved about the kit, mixed into the normal drum mikes. That didn't prove too successful either. On its own it was OK, but it wouldn't make much sense in the context of a track."
You said that you rely on hearing the other players in the studio. Does that mean you tend to play live in the studio to begin with?
"On 'Juju' we were playing like that, as a unit in the studio. 'We Hunger', say, one of the first tracks we put down for 'Hyena', was based on a drum idea I had and a vocal line from Siouxsie, and we went in as we would with the Creatures and played voice and drums. I'm listening to the voice more than the drums. It's very difficult getting that kind of balance. I don't lean off any one instrument, I don't think. The voice, mostly."
As you played more in studios over the years, did you find that recording itself had an effect on the way you wrote and played?
"Yes, for instance where I won't even play a full kit, but build up a full kit sound individually – not snare drum, bass drum, toms, but a drum kit sound from various elements. For example the B-side of 'Dear Prudence', 'Tattoo', which was just built up from timbales, a simple pattern of timbales and snare drum, built up in rounds. So you always know you've got that facility. It can be frustrating, though. The drums take up the most tracks on a recording desk, that's what happens with all the mikes. So you decide what you're gonna use, mix them down, and lose them to open up the desk for what you're going to do next. So the drums go down and that's the way they're going to stay — then we'll work on the bass sound or the guitar sound, which may only have been put down as a guide, say.
"Sometimes we'll cut down a drum track so we can use it – 'Swimming Horses' was actually about 10 minutes of drums and piano which was edited down into sections to build into a song. Robert and I went into the studio, sat down, played about with a beat for 10 minutes: it slowed down, it stopped, it went to nothing. So that track was reliant on studio techniques. It's ended up one of my favourite tracks, it's so empty, such an ambient drum sound. That was done at Angel, we had mikes about, oh, 50, 60 feet away, quite a delay on the snare drum.
I get the feeling you prefer acoustic sounds and the use of physical room characterists to electronics.
"Yeah. My drum kit's very loud. I just think that my kit has become more resonant, possibly because of the way I've been tuning it, getting the most out of the shell and the two skins: the two skins set up the resonance, which gives you the volume, which gives you a note, which gives you the sound of the drum, rather than the sound of a drum gaffer taped with a hydraulic head on it and a contact mike inside. The actual sound of the kit is very important to me. It's got to be responsive to the slightest touch, the way I play, and also to the biggest hit. It's almost louder than the amps in rehearsal!"
The snare sounds great.
"It was made about eight months ago for me by Eddie Ryan. I had a wood shell snare drum which was really dead sounding, wasn't cutting as much as a metal-shelled one. So I went along to Eddie, basically to get all the lugs dampened on my Gretsch kit, 'cos they ring like a birdcage otherwise. He was trying to cut out annoying overtones that you get when you leave the skins undampened, when you want to play really live with lightweight skins – the way I like to play. The shell gets these weird overtones. He came across with this idea himself, I think. A Japanese company were developing a rubber fuel connection pipe from an articulated trailer to a cab, and as the revs of the engine built up it'd oscillate and wouldn't stay still. So what they did was to slit it down the middle and turn that half around, re-joined it, so that all the molecules were all against each other, and it didn't move.
So Eddie made this snare shell, laminates all the three plies of wood that he uses, then he saws it down the middle, across the diameter, and switches it round, puts it back together, and the grains never lie in direct line with each other. And it works! You can get a real top crack to it, with body – I just know that it sounds good. I like everything to be really live, bright, so that I can hear the notes coming out as well."
Your tambourine fitting for the top of the hi-hat looks a bit battered.
"I'd really like someone to redesign that for me. I need one with a throw-off action like a snare, connected to a felt hoop around the tambourine so you can have it on or off. Really simple, but you can't even buy the ordinary ones now."
Do you have anything else specially made?
"I've had my sticks made for me. I used to use Premier H but they don't make them any more. They're lightweight but fat with a good ball on the end. They used to keep slipping out of my hands, too, 'cos I'd hold them at the very end. So I put an extra inch on the end of these I have made. A mate of Eddie Ryan's made my last bunch. You have to buy them in bulk, a minimum of 200, I think."
You've been using Gretsch a while.
"They seem to be a good company. They don't give drums away like everyone else! I inherited a Pearl kit when I joined the Banshees, which was around with Kenny Morris. I got bored with it, and we happened to be working at a studio down in Putney, south London, where a guy was getting hold of Gretsch shells without any fittings, so he had a whole selection for me to choose from, bare shells that we put Premier fittings on. That's much better anyway – you haven't got a hole in the bass drum, the toms are mounted on a floor stand. None of the drums have got any protrusions going through them, no holes cut in the shell. Again, I think that's pretty important, otherwise all you're doing is breaking up the sound inside the drum."
Yes, it seems mad to start cutting holes if the volume of air inside the drum is crucial to your sound.
"It strikes me that people don't take into consideration the capabilities of the drum itself or, in fact, of anything that makes a noise, a hollow sound. Lazy. It's much easier, probably, to tap out a Linndrum marimba or a DX7 marimba rather than a real marimba, than to get hold of a marimba and try to find your way around all those wooden blocks. It gives me a kick, you know, when you find something that's right and you know you're prone to making a mistake anyway. The mistakes usually sound good, as well. I've used the marimba more on 'Hyena', and I used it a lot on the Creatures album. That was really because I was trying more to pull out the notes of the drums. I don't actually tune the kit to specific notes, it's not as if it's in a key: the notes are 'right'. So I pick out notes on the marimba to enhance that – although sometimes they jar.
"I first used a marimba when we did the Creatures EP when we started that in '81, I think, at Playground. I got one hired in Hawaii for the LP – there's very few things you can hire in Hawaii. The drum kit was the only existing drum kit on the island, the marimba was the marimba. There was almost little shoots coming out of the wood where it's been out in the rain. It had almost gone back to being a tree."
Some of the percussion on 'Feast' sounds like tymps – big boomy tymp sounds.
"Nothing like that on it. The biggest drum I used was, again, a drum that was lying around the studio, with Evans hydraulic heads on. I just played it with my fists. Also, I remember going round to this drug-crazed man's house one night, the local Hawaiian percussionist. He sat there with the palm leaves full of rice, saying, 'This sounds really great, doesn't it!' And we're going, 'Hmmm, sounds all right, I s'pose...'
'Sky Train' was an enormous sound, like 20 drum kits.
"Yes. We did a lot of tracks on 'Feast' with recorded effects, rather than say putting a harmoniser on afterwards. They'd send the effects down to me in the booth, a repeat or a flanger or whatever, so it would change the sound of the kit and I'd play differently. That track lasted as long as I could keep that up! All of the writing was done on the spot; it was a challenge. And it was fun.
"It was nothing like a studio, that place in Hawaii. It was set up on a hillside, almost in an overgrown jungle. No need for soundproofing because there was no-one else around. If you stepped outside you'd get bitten by a mosquito. There was a little drum booth, everywhere was carpets and chairs, very laid-back.
And the swishing, sea-like noises on 'Morning Dawning'.
Yes, we used what we could. Er, I'm glad you haven't asked me, sometimes they ask you who your influences are. I was just thinking this morning that I really want to see the Demon Drummers of Sado, from Kodo in Japan, they're playing here this week (early April)... I saw them years ago on 'Blue Peter' or something when I was a kid, two guys straddling this huge drum, and another guy whacking it, he was getting thrown back each time he hit it, by the recoil, the speed and the momentum, Just great to watch, as well. That's what I think is boring as shit about keyboards, synthesisers and all that, it's missing that doing it. Another thing I saw when I was a kid, I think it was on 'Saturday Night at The London Palladium' and I think they were called the Little Angels, again Japanese or Chinese. There were about 17 girls all in white costumes, flowing dresses, surrounded on three sides by gong-type drums with tambourine bells, I think – this is a bit of a vague memory. They were dancing around, hitting these things with sticks as they went, but all sort of out of time, that slight flamming across the whole thing. It was as exciting as that bit in 'Zulu', the film, where all the warriors come up with their swords and make that swishing noise with them. It's that noise, that sound that I'd like to get, ha ha."
So you've hired the team of warriors?
"Yeah, yeah, but, you know, with union rates. African warriors don't come cheap. So I try and do it all myself."
Maybe that tempts people to electronics, being able to get a massed sound more easily?
"But it sounds so manufactured to me. We used a 27-piece string section from the LSO on 'Dazzle' from 'Hyena', and also for some other songs we've recorded for whatever we choose to do with them. But rather than get in a Fairlight or whatever it is, somehow it's more of a challenge, anyway, to get the people in to play the part, it has to be scored out. And then at the end of three hours they all stick their watches up in the air and start bowing an open E-string. Another minute and it's another session."
Well that knocks the Musicians' Union argument on the head about synths putting string players out of work. Presumably at your level if you want a string sound you'll use a string section.
"Yeah – I think the MU should be abolished anyway. Pathetic. Farcical. They just get in the way. They don't do anything to help anybody. They stick by the guys who go to the AGMs."
Are you pleased with the sound of 'Hyena'?
"We transferred to digital this time, after the basic tracks, after Eel Pie – we were still working on vocals and guitar overdubs, that sort of thing, and they all went on digitally, percussion overdubs too. It's good doing percussion digitally because of the precision with which you can drop in."
Can you actually hear much difference in the sound, before and after the transfer?
"Well, I couldn't tell you whether the frequencies at the top were less compressed because of digital, but I'm sure they are. If you then started to put on more layers of instruments, say cor anglaises and stuff, maybe on an analogue tape the whole mix would start sounding compressed. So I've noticed much more space in the mixes, the sounds have room to come through – you can hear the drum kit 'underneath', still with all the clarity. I wouldn't know whether this or that frequency would have been heard otherwise, because it's digital. It's our first time, we can't really compare. So this'll be out on Compact Disc too.
They're unnerving, I think, having it too clean. Brilliant for classical.
"We decided we wanted this record out on Compact Disc. I heard a Talking Heads album on it, and there were things you'd never heard before. It's annoying, you realise that from doing your master to being there at the acetate stage, going down to the cut, you know that the quality control at the pressing plant is so bad, you know that something's going to be lost. So annoying. It's like you get your first test pressing back and it won't play, and you know that 50,000 have been made on the same day, and the one they send me has a dished B-side. And they say, 'Oh, you must have the only one.' Uncanny, that."
"We've just come back from 10 dates in Europe, and it took that long for me to loosen up. I'm all ready to play now, and we're off for two months! Robert has commitments to the Cure... People say when are the Creatures gonna do something else, and we say we don't know. When the occasion arises, maybe."
Interview by Tony Bacon
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