Beck To The Future
One day you're a keyboard player writing songs with an unknown Bradford singer. The next - one of those songs goes to Number One. Phil Ward goes on the road with John Beck, for whom exactly that happened with Tasmin Archer, and experiences the fulfilment of some great expectations.
How can you tell a satellite from a shooting star? Ask John Beck - having co-written 'Sleeping Satellite' with Tasmin Archer, he knows both. He also knows that nowadays a good, natural 'Organic' sound needs a healthy dose of technology...
Only last September, Tasmin Archer's record company felt obliged to preface their announcement of her debut single with the rhetorical question "Someone please tell me - who is Tasmin Archer?". Such a question would be posed today only by Salman Rushdie or a High Court Judge. That debut single - 'Sleeping Satellite' - swept to number one in October, on a wave of relief that good, solid songwriting was still with us. Tour support plans were hastily redrawn and replaced with the headlining variety, and within a few months the Brit Awards were bestowing the title of Best Newcomer upon this diminutive Northern chanteuse.
But behind every diminutive Northern chanteuse is a good-humoured, garrulous Northern keyboard player, and to prove it I've just been bought a pint of ale by one such keyboard player in the pub next door to London's Town & Country Club, where Tasmin Archer is due on stage in a couple of hours. By a happy coincidence, the generous muso is the bloke who plays in Tasmin's band, and who, along with guitarist John Hughes, has forged the distinctive sound which has got them to this prestigious venue.
Tasmin and her two cohorts have been writing together for a few years, and the success is only just sinking in. Emitting the satisfied gasp of a man who has a) just seen another of his songs - 'In Your Care' - storm the charts, and b) just taken a much-needed gulp of chilled lager, keyboardsman John Beck tries to take stock...
"It was a shock," he admits, contemplating that first single success. "I'd have been happy if it had just charted, but it went all the way and, of course, we were over the moon. But, then again, it's given us a lot to live up to. Definitely, Tasmin feels the pressure sometimes, being the front person. A lot more attention is focussed on her than on me and John, and in a sense the buck stops with her. If we'd been a band, as such, perhaps there would be less pressure on her. That said, having her as the main focus is exactly the right way to do it, without a doubt."
The decision to market the act as 'Tasmin Archer' has certainly been vindicated. It came up for debate in the first place because, unusually for a major, EMI signed the trio as a singer-songwriting team in a state of somewhat raw talent. "We originally had a two-single deal," John explains, "and various producers didn't work out, so we went from one song to another until they eventually said, OK we'll make it an album. Even when it was finished, there was a lot of discussion on the timing of the release, how Tasmin was going to be marketed, whether it should be marketed as a band - and so on.
At one point we were going to be called The Archers - and come on stage to The Archers theme tune! And also, when it came to promoting the album, there was the fact that we'd never actually been a gigging band. So an acoustic set was arranged, which unfortunately was very successful. I say 'unfortunately' because they keep wanting us to do it now, and I prefer the safety and solidity of a full band. You can make some very obvious mistakes in an acoustic trio..."
A 'full' band, in John's practical and open-minded book, extends beyond the traditional backing musos and embraces all the advantages of sequencing and sampling technology. His approach is quintessential, combining live playing and triggered parts in a comfortable blend which is designed above all else to give the songs the same richness they enjoy on record. "I'm not a great keyboard soloist," he modestly claims. "I can do my stuff and keep time. If I can play things live, I like to play them. Some tracks need just that bit of feel. But I don't mind utilising sequencers at all. You can get a good 'feel' from Cubase, after all..."
On the current tour, John is aided and abetted by Ben Leach of The Farm, who is keyboard tech'ing for the first time during a few weeks' break from his own band's busy schedule. At the side of the stage, Ben watches over a rack of modules and disk drives that augment the sounds produced by John from his more traditional onstage rig of one synth, a Hammond and a digital piano. "The rack is basically my design that I did for The Farm, and I got a duplicate made and wired everything up the same way," explains Ben.
The task that Ben and John had, therefore, was that of carefully dividing all the keyboard parts between the sequencer and a musician's fingers. And, given that in this case they were John's fingers, he had the final say... "I did some initial programming and sampling, and then Ben and I got together when the band started rehearsals and worked out what would be live and what would be triggered. I knew basically that I was going to use the piano a lot, which is why we've not sequenced any of the piano, and obviously we can't sequence the Hammond. And I knew which 01/W parts I didn't want sequenced, so it was a case of what was left after that - given only one pair of hands."
Although used on stage for all those extra little bits that only an octopus could play with any real aplomb, Cubase is more than just a live convenience. The software has already infiltrated the creative process. "We use Cubase quite a lot during the songwriting. I usually jam around on a piano sound - just a factory piano sound in the Korg DSS1 - while John plays the guitar and Tasmin'll just warble over the top. We'll get some idea of the melody, chorus, middle 8, bridge, and then set up some kind of rhythm loop on Cubase, usually triggered from the S900. It'll be a 4-bar loop, repeating on 'cycle' so we can play over it, experiment with a few different rhythms for verses and choruses, and basically get the structure of the song sorted out. Once that's done, we can start arranging.
"I'll lay a rough piano guide straight into the sequencer, about 50 bars or so, without quantising it, and then we'll start layering sounds, experimenting as we go along against the rough guide. Then we'll use SMPTE to synchronise tape with Cubase, record a vocal, trigger Cubase from SMPTE, and when we're happy I'll start putting down a proper keyboard part and John'll start putting guitars down.
"There's always one hard and fast rule - which I believe in, anyway. If the song's happening fairly quickly, let it flow - flow with the song. Usually if you start tampering with it and getting too clever, that's when you lose sight of the essence of the song. You can get bogged down in the amount of flexibility you have, especially with something as powerful as Cubase. I call it 'sweet-shop' syndrome: if your choices are unlimited you'll overdo it. The chances of you finishing the song with the original inspiration intact can be lost. You can keep going 'what if we did this, what if we did that' forever. At some point you've got to go, OK, we'll leave that now and move on.
"When demoing stuff we'll use it as an extension of a notepad. That's where the flexibility is an advantage, and it's also very quick for us - speed is important. We used to use Pro 24, which is a bit of a pencil-and-paper carry on, but with Cubase being more visual, we can move parts about more easily and keep track. So as long as you discipline yourself, in the end it's a help in maintaining spontaneity."
The technology is also flexible enough to be put at the disposal of music which, although unique, has many traditional hallmarks. As John puts it: "We like to use more-or-less organic sounds. From the outset, we thought we'd have to establish a recognisable sound. Although Tasmin's voice is recognisable instantly, we wanted sounds that would support that voice - they don't necessarily have to be able to carry a tune in a bucket, but as long as you can turn on the radio and say 'ah - that's Tasmin Archer', then they've got a distinctive quality, and that's very important.
"By 'organic' I mean naturalistic, not too heavily synthesised sounds; string pads, organs, pianos, acoustic guitars - those tend to be the essence of our sound. At least at the demoing stage, we try to keep it as straight as possible; get a good melody line, and flesh it out as much as it needs - usually with organ and strings. Having said that, by the time we'd finished the album there'd been a lot of hard work experimenting in the studio for those extra sounds.
"Some tracks were almost completely live. 'When It Comes Down To It' and 'In Your Care' were basically recorded with the three of us playing, with musicians drafted in, like the double-bass player Danny Glover and the percussionist Preston Heyman. But some tracks were a bit of a MIDI faff, and some were a bit of a Fairlight faff. We had a good guy in called Pete Kay, who co-produced some of the tracks, and if we were getting bogged down and not sure where a track was heading, we'd just say to Pete 'go in and faff for four or five hours, and try and come up with a new sound.' And nine times out of ten, he'd pull it off. 'Lords Of The New Church' is a case in point. We were a bit stuck, and Pete programmed the drums into the Fairlight along with a few other nice bits and pieces - including dulcimers - and came up with a great track.
"If the song's happening fairly quickly, let it flow... if you start tampering with it and getting too clever, that's when you lose sight of the essence of the song"
"So a lot of the 'exotic' sounds were done by faffin'. One of my favourite things to do in the studio is, when everyone's taking a break, just mess about for a while, and try things through, say, an Eventide H3000 and out through a noise gate, just to find out what it might sound like. Take a sound from the click track, or from the hi-hats, and bung it through a 'live' reverb setting, or a 'plate', and then take all the original signal out and see what we've got coming back. That's exactly how some of the sounds were achieved."
Originally, Tasmin Archer sang backing vocals in a group called Dignity, managed by a Leeds musical equipment businessman called Phil Edwards, who obtained a grant from the council to build a 24-track studio. This became Flexible Response, in Bradford. Planning a Stock/Aitken/Waterman-style pop factory and label, he signed Tasmin among other singers to boost his fledgling roster, and then drafted in songwriters to provide the material. He also drafted in a young keyboard player to session in the studio - a certain John Beck.
In time, Tasmin and John began writing for themselves, but nothing came to fruition until, ironically, they were no longer able to use the studio. Edwards tightened the purse strings, but put them in touch with a guitarist with some gear in his kitchen - John Hughes. "There was a Fostex 4-track, a BBC UMI sequencer and my keyboards," remembers John. "Then we progressed - with an extension to John's mortgage - to a Tascam 8-track. And we also, at this time, progressed to the bedroom. And it was an 8-track demo, in fact, that got us a deal with EMI.
"I did go down to London with the tapes, and got absolutely no response at all. In a last ditch attempt I sent our 4-song demo 'album' to publishing companies, and surprisingly enough got a reply from a guy called Mike Smith at MCA Publishing, who wanted to hear an acoustic set. Eventually he put us in touch with our manager, which he must regret because our manager then negotiated a better publishing deal - with Virgin! That was with a wonderful bloke called Blair McDonald, very shrewd, I'm a big, big fan of his. Well, he signed us! So we did a series of showcases - surprisingly Virgin Records turned us down even though we were already on their publishing company - and finally Clive Black at EMI showed a great interest in our 8-track demo of 'Sleeping Satellite'."
At this point, the words 'rest' and 'history' spring to mind. All in all, any pressure to follow through with something to match 'Sleeping Satellite' has been succinctly dealt with by the successful release of 'In Your Care'. That the song, with its pithy refrain, has made an equal if not greater impression on the national audience, is borne out as John and I drain our glasses and make for the Town & Country Club next door. A couple of dedicated Tasmin followers have spotted John, and insist on some inside information about the set list. Fixing him with an admiring stare, all they want to know is: "are you gonna do 'Son Of A Bitch'?