Behind Hollywood Beyond
'What's the Colour of Money?' was one of last year's most inventive hit singles, but since then, little has been heard from Mark Rogers. Tim Goodyer talks to him as the first HB album is released.
...Is Mark Rogers, musician, singer, songwriter and artist. Why has he not had a hit single since 'What's the Colour of Money?', and why did it take six producers to help make his debut album, 'If'?
QUESTION: WHEN IS a band not a band? Answer: When it's a flexible collective of musicians assembled to perform one man's songs. Not a new idea, admittedly; in fact, it's one that occurs to most musicians at some time or another. The advantages are obvious: nobody ever tells you your latest song stinks, or asks you to play things you know you'll never get your fingers round this side of Trevor Horn's next production. There are drawbacks, too, but let's remain positive for the time being.
The collective in this case is Hollywood Beyond, who you may remember for a powerful little ditty entitled 'What's the Colour of Money?' that climbed high in the singles charts last year. If you missed that, it's unlikely you'd have noticed its successor, 'No More Tears', which failed to build on the success of 'What's the Colour of Money?' despite the fact it was basically a better song. So much for the fickle British pop market. Undeterred by this failure, both band and record company seem confident of success with single number three, 'Save Me', and a stirring LP of thoughtful pop called If, waiting in the wings for May release.
Hollywood Beyond are the creation of singer / songwriter / keyboardsman Mark Rogers, who did the rounds in his native Birmingham before making the move to London and signing to WEA. He's in a perfect position to decide if a band built around one man's music is the perfect vehicle for self-expression, or merely a severe attack of egotism.
"I'm not a dictator", he says, "but I've done time in bands and it's not for me. If you believe in what you do, people call you arrogant. But if you don't, then nobody else is going to either. I think the reason bands form is because they have secrets to keep. I've got my secrets but I'd like to share them with lots of other people.
"I welcome constructive criticism but I've been in too many bands that couldn't make their minds up about things, or where people have said 'OK, I'll play it' without believing in it, which is even worse. If you ain't got a vibe for something, you shouldn't be playing it."
But don't get the idea that Rogers is either arrogant or egotistical. He sits relaxed in a record company office, happy to talk about himself and his music. I ask a question, he pauses to consider his answer. Suddenly I know I'm talking to a man who is the product of the continual frustrations of playing in pop bands, but with ideas and ambitions he still needs to realise. Cue Hollywood Beyond.
"It's actually three people", he reveals, "There's myself, Jamie B Rose and Cliff Whyte. Cliff's an engineer who does our live work, Jamie does a lot of lyric writing with me and also helps visualising things. We're all from Birmingham and we put Hollywood Beyond together as an umbrella under which we can fulfil our ideas."
If I wasn't convinced by Rogers' own insistence that he's no one-hit wonder, a quick rundown of the producers called in between London, New York and LA to polish up the sound on If made his air of optimism contagious: Mike Thorne (Soft Cell, Communards), Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys), Bernard Edwards (Chic, Power Station), Phil Thornalley (Robbie Nevil), and Marcus Miller and Tommy LiPuma (Miles Davis). Hot stuff.
"I've worked with a lot of cream producers", Rogers concedes, "but I don't want to shout about it because people will start asking who the hell I am to get all these big name producers. Well, my management and record company have been right behind me, God bless 'em, and I needed to learn how different people get to the same point — the finished song. I wanted these people to help me bring out what I wanted from my songs. For example, 'Vision of Love' is a very uptempo R&B track, so who's the baddest rhythm section going? Bernard Edwards, right? So it's got to go to him.
"Another reason I wanted to keep changing producers was to avoid settling into their routines. I don't want anyone else putting their stamp on my music — I'll put my own stamp on it."
On another, more technical level, Rogers also has his reasons for mixing and matching producers from both sides of the Atlantic.
"One thing I like about the American approach to recording is that everything is laid-down with effects on it. That way, your picture starts taking form as soon as you press the button and go. Some producers record things flat and say it'll be alright in the mix, but that's bullshit. As soon as you put anything to tape it's got to be effective so that, by the time you've put your last part down, you know how well your song is working and where its inadequacies are.
"When you put your basic tracks down, it should be like a painter putting the first wash on a picture; then you can look at it and say 'I'd like to colour here and here'. At the moment I don't really know what I learned, it's all swimming around in my head, but I'm waiting for the right time for it to come out."
WITH A LIST of credits looking like a 'Who's Who' of modern producers, it's taken as read that high technology has played its part in the proceedings. Rogers is adamant that, like the musicians and producers who have helped him, equipment is also there merely to fulfil his requirements.
"One of the tracks I did in America on the Synclavier. It was the first time I'd ever used one and I was seeing all these disk drives empty and thinking 'shouldn't I be filling these?'. I was having this fight with myself: I'm in control, this machine is here to do a part of this job. OK, it's a Synclavier, but that's not the point. What I'm trying to do is to create a song and this is something that is supposed to make my job a little bit easier."
And though Rogers admits that New England Digital's finest helped him get the basis of a song together, it seems that in the midst of the latest state-of-the-art technology, it was human beings who provided the vital musical spark.
"There are certain things that make up music and they don't include a product that's had all the feeling produced out of it. Music is something that's emotive and only happens now and again. It's a performance, and the more performance from different people there is on a track, the more it comes alive to me. Check out all the great songs of the '60s and '70s - there are all these out-of-tune guitars going on, but it still sounds brilliant. What they created was music because it was played with feeling.
"A lot of music now has no guts, no soul. What people call soul isn't what I call soul. It's not a category in a record shop, it's someone who sings or plays from the heart regardless of the music. It's like delivering a vocal: it's how I feel about it on the day, it's not the definitive vocal performance. Live I'd deliver it in a different way, that's the only way to do it. I never piece vocals — I'll do maybe four takes and then pick the best from those. If you try to get one phrase right at a time you come out sounding cold.
"A lot of music now has no soul... Soul isn't a category in a record shop, it's someone singing or playing from the heart."
"The most important thing is casting a record — you have to know what feel you want and what musicians have that feel. For example, I used Bruce Smith from PiL on 'What's the Colour of Money?', and the moment I heard his snare go down I knew he was right for it.
"I'm into technology because it makes life easier, but only as long as it's sympathetic to my needs — I don't want the machines taking over. I'm getting to the point now where I'm cutting down on my equipment, because I want to get back to the basics of writing a song. A good song should translate with just a vocal and a guitar — if you've done that you know you've got a good song.
"I have a UMI system at home which is great for working on my own. With a band you can say 'OK, eight bars of this then we'll switch to this', but with the UMI I can chop my arrangements around and listen to them instead of having to imagine them. That's a very useful thing for arrangements, but it's no good plugging it in to write on and expecting it to do something itself. The most important factor in creativity is the exchange of ideas.
"What I really like about UMI is the sound library - it means I can have a large selection of sounds available without having to have a huge amount of equipment. I drag things in, I steal their sounds, I put them on disk and that makes life a lot easier from a writing point of view. Different sounds evoke different emotions, so the bigger your library, the greater your choice of emotions."
THE SOFTWARE FORMS the basis of Rogers' home writing and arranging suite, which also contains an Ensoniq ESQ1, Roland RD1000 electronic piano, Yamaha FB01 FM expander, a Yamaha four-track recorder and a drum machine whose identity remains a closely guarded secret.
"I won't say what it is because I hate it. It's not an SP12, because I've worked with that and I'd like to get one soon, and it's not a TR707 because I like that, too. I'm not very good with drum machines, so the display on the TR707 is great. When I'm writing, I don't pay too much attention to the start and end of the bars - I like to play with the tap facility and try to get into the feel of the rhythm I want. The trouble is that if the pattern doesn't fall into a proper bar in the machine, it can be difficult to isolate the bit I want. With the 707 I can read it from the display and reprogram it. I'm not a drummer and I don't pretend to understand a lot of rhythmic things from a drummer's point of view so, to me, that little screen is one of the most valuable parts of the machine.
"I find the ESQ1 invaluable for writing because it allows me to voice so many different sequences. Then I can string them together in songs, edit them and mess with them. When I went to Jamaica and New York I dreamed up this 'travelling unit' with the ESQ1, a drum machine and the four-track machine all in one case. It was a great idea until I picked the bloody thing up..."
As a classically trained pianist, Rogers is in no doubt about the RD1000.
"It's the only keyboard I've found that comes close to a grand piano", he asserts. "Synthesiser keyboards just don't have that kind of weight. I use it for my writing and as a MIDI controller for the FB01. I like the FB01 but I've gone off that digital sound at the moment. I want to get back to big fat analogue sounds. I feel synths should sound like synths, not like other instruments, so I'm toying with buying a Moog — there's nothing like that sound and that knob-twiddling search for sounds."
But the sounds come as a secondary consideration to the songs. A sneak preview of If reveals a collection of refreshing pop songs where a classical cello may find itself alongside a koto and a collection of vocal samples, but only where the song demands it, not where it makes the kind of production sense that boosts record sales. The key lies in Rogers' approach to writing. As often as not, inspiration strikes when he's away from what he refers to as his 'tools'.
"The ideas tend to come when I go walking or something. I like making rhythms with my feet and things like that.
That's how I tend to write, not necessarily when I'm near a piano. I'll be walking down the street and I'll start whistling something and that's an idea. Everybody must have them, if only they'd put them down. I tell people this and they say 'but I can't play anything'. You don't have to be able to play anything. There's this big taboo about musicianship; if you appreciate music, then I think you're musical.
"Right now I'm trying to brush up on my technique because my piano playing is disgusting. I'm losing a lot of electronic gadgets in order to go back and learn my basic playing technique. But that's not because I need it for my writing, it's because I need it for myself - it gives me pleasure.
"When you have an idea, all you need is the ability to get that idea over. I believe everybody who loves music must be able to create music. All you need is something like this thing I'm talking into now to hum your melody line into. There are enough people out there that can play it for you — it's the ideas that are the important thing. People tend to forget that.
"I need another Walkman or a dictaphone myself at the moment. I need something I can just scribble ideas onto because I've been in situations where I've got an idea in my head and I daren't talk to anybody until I've got to a piano and got the idea down. I'm not a hit merchant, I can't sit down and say 'today I'm going to write a hit'. How do you do that? You've got to get a vibe from somewhere, but then, I can't sit around waiting for one to reach me. I need to capture the ideas when they come."
"If a pattern doesn't fall into a bar in the machine it can be difficult to isolate what I want. But I can read it from the TR707 display and reprogram it."
ONCE THE INSPIRATION stage has been and gone, Rogers develops his songs in different ways.
"I write mid-tempo and slow songs on piano. If I want something a little bit rocky then I'll go to a guitar. My first instrument is the piano but I tend to disappear up my own arse with it sometimes, so I limit myself with a guitar or bass. If I have an idea in my mind of what I want to say then the music comes very easily. Songs like 'After Midnight', 'Crimes of Passion' and 'What's the Colour of Money?' took me literally only five minutes to put together."
Once written and arranged, songs are demoed onto four-track cassette. The limitations of the four-track format give Rogers a balance of freedom and discipline that currently pleases him, though the route to this enviable position hasn't been easy.
"When I wrote some of the tracks on this album I didn't have a multitrack machine — I used to have to bounce across between two stereo machines. But I got my ideas down and that's all that's important. When you get your hands on some money you think yeah, let's go for it. But if you're not careful, you get so much into the equipment that you start to forget about your songs. My job is to find the ideas to put into the songs."
In this instance, "going for it" has left Mark Rogers with a Fostex eight-track machine he's never used.
"That's caused me nothing but bloody trouble since I bought it - I don't mind telling you that because I've already told Fostex. I've had it for two years and it still hasn't worked properly. They assure me now that it's working, but it's going because I don't need an eight-track anymore. With the UMI and the ESQ1 I only need four tracks: a drum track, a sync track, a track for bass or guitar and a track for my vocal, and that's all I need to construct a song."
Songs written and recorded, the next move is to take them out on the road, where Rogers' flexible band enables him to pick the right people for the occasion. But this doesn't preclude the appearance of a few regular Beyonders like guitarist Matt Backer.
"Matt's a young American guitarist who's like jack of all trades, master of all. He's lived in a lot of places and taken his guitar with him wherever he's gone, so he's picked up a lot of styles and influences. What I particularly like about him is that he's open to ideas, he's not too muso.
"I only have three regular people that I've used to date — the rest are a variety of people who were available at the time I needed them. Another thing I don't want is bread-heads. I don't want someone who will come in and do a job but keep looking at his watch. If you look towards creating something, then the money will follow. I never work with anyone unless I love them, and they have to feel the same way about me. I want something a little extra on top of my money's worth."
And what does Rogers want for his money?
"A lot of people want to sound like somebody else; I respect a lot of people but I sure as hell don't want to sound like them. Someone from Chrysalis once came to see me play and said 'I like the music but at the moment we're looking for another Blondie'. I said 'Well that I ain't!'
"I want to do anything that's danceable and interesting, anything as long as it's not bland. Yes, I want hits, but I want them to be good enough songs to be singles, rather than songs that should be in the charts because they've been released as singles. I can't sit down and write a single. Having written a song I can say that's possibly a single, but I can't write overt pop music. It's a formula that would be very easy to follow, but I'd like to find my own formula. Music itself is endless, so there must be things we haven't dealt with in pop yet. At the moment I think we desperately need a new movement. England is a very small, if prestigious, market - perhaps it's time for people to start thinking global...
"Unfortunately, you need to have successful singles so that people know you're out there and will buy your album. We were discussing all the bands during the '70s that never used to sell many singles but had huge album sales. I can't think of how people got to know about them. I think it was because there was a much bigger gig circuit then."
Depleted though the current live circuit may be, Hollywood Beyond intend taking full advantage of it, with an imminent tour and an aggressive use of visuals that will accompany it.
"We're not trying to blind everyone visually to what's actually going on musically", elaborates Rogers. "Everything must be complementary. We're paying a lot of attention to set design, lighting and so on. It's a show. I can't expect everyone to like what we do, but I want people to enjoy watching us.
"I think gigs generally now are very tired. I know there's a limited number of things you can do live, but you have to move on, there have to be new ideas to keep up with the way other things are going. I believe the longevity of a band is in its live appeal. If you can't cut it live, I'm not interested. People like U2 and Prince have the ability to translate their recorded work into live performance, and that's part of what makes them good. I've done things in the studio that I won't be able to do live, but the essence of what I put down I can still translate into a live performance." Hollywood Beyond, then. A pop band that care about their art, or a pop band with artistic pretentions?
"There's this thing about art and money... The music business is bullshit, it's a contradiction. How can you have music and business? They're opposite things. One's art and one's money, but somehow the two of them have to gel somewhere. You can't be totally art-self because if it's art it belongs to everybody. I never liked the Tate Gallery because I couldn't go and touch the bloody paintings."
Oddly enough, I found Mark Rogers' 'After Midnight' quite touched me.
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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