An innovative multi-instrumentalist both in and out of the studio, from Be-Bop Deluxe to 'The Love that Whirls'.
Tony Bacon speaks to Bill following the release of his two-for-the-price-of-one LP, 'The Love That Whirls/Beauty and the Beast'
A new Bill Nelson record has always been an event to enliven the ears, ever since Be-Bop Deluxe place Bill's guitar and vocals in the midst of an alert mixture of heavy metal and sharp pop. Next came Red Noise in the late 1970s, a short-lived but significant group based around Bill's investigations which were taking him further away from any limiting labels like 'guitarist' and 'singer' and deeper into electronics and sound treatment. Now, Bill produces bands like the Units from San Francisco, collaborates with the Yorkshire Actors Company on music for theatre projects, plays everything from marimba to Casios, still runs his own Cocteau label, shoots film to accompany some of his audio productions, has his own 8-track studio, and even finds time to make Bill Nelson records!
"I still haven't been able to improve my home studio to the degree that I want to because of lack of money, but I recently updated it and got one of the Fostex 8-tracks, the 350 desk, and the digital delay — a whole package, just under £2000, which is really good. I've got some reasonable speakers now, too, some Tannoy Little Red monitors — before I'd been using old Dynatron hi-fi speakers for 10 years, and one of them was completely blown, you could never tell what you were getting until you mixed it on to 2-track and cassette and had taken it downstairs and put it on the hi-fi! The 'Ritual Echo' album was done on that old system, with the Teac 4-track that at the time only had three tracks working. The first thing I've done with the Fostex was the second soundtrack I've done for the Yorkshire Actors Company, called 'Beauty And The Beast'."
"One disadvantage with the Fostex 8-track is that while it's got varispeed, it can't do halfspeed. It's quite a nice range on it, but it's not enough to be radically different. With 'Ritual Echo', what I'd do was to find a pretty mundane repetitive pattern on a keyboard, record it normal speed, and then turn the tape round, reverse the thing, and play it back at half-speed and dub on to it. Then I'd mix that down and bounce back, put it back to normal speed, and then add things as normal. That way, your initial 'inspiration' to overdub is coming from something that you hadn't conceived in the way that you played it. By doing that you get all kinds of things, in fact you don't actually know how it's going to end up."
"But I wanted the 8-track, and I needed a better desk — I had this old Canary desk that basically had bass, middle, and treble, whereas the Fostex 350's got two mid-band sweeps where you can select frequencies and then boost and cut, plus a fixed very high top and very low bottom. It's a bit weird getting used to the eq, the top and the bottom could do with a bit of variation. It's a matter of getting the right sort of top from it, because you're really just working in the middle frequencies all the time and stressing the extremities of those: if you want bass you're stressing extreme low-mid. It's almost like thinking backwards at times, you have almost to adjust the middle frequencies to get the top and bottom sounding how you want, rather than adjusting the top and bottom and leaving the middle how it is. Once you get used to it, there's quite a variation.
"The only other problem with the mixer is that, as it's only got eight channels, if you're bringing back delay, harmoniser or whatever, and you want to do that up two channels for panning and eq-ing against the main signal, then you're stuck, because you've only got eight channels and there's eight tracks on the machine — and even with the auxiliary buss, it comes up in a fixed position. So a lot of the things I've been doing have been 6-track recordings, keeping two channels spare so I can use some delays and so on in the mixdown. If they put in an extra two channels on the desk I think it would improve it tremendously, I'm sure that it wouldn't put that much on the cost."
"The quality of the eight tracks on ¼-inch tape is unbelievable, although since the edge tracks tend to suffer from dropouts, anything that's going to be noticeable has to go in the centre. The footswitch for dropping in and out is invaluable for a one-man set-up: I've got this set of marimbas at home that I've been using a lot, and the footswitch is great for that — I'm always making mistakes! That's a simple mod that should be available on a lot of machines, I'm surprised no-one's thought of making it standard before."
"The other thing I could do with for it is a patchbay. All the plugging's round the back of the mixer, and when you've got the meter bridge on it's sort of fiddly when you have to repatch different things. It should either be on the front, I think, or you should have a separate patchbay. I mix down on to a Revox B77, and I've still got the Teac 4-track from the old system. I kept that so that, if I want, I can go from 8-track on to two tracks of the 4- track, add two, and then on to the Revox, and so on. I can also use the Teac for the halfspeed stuff, as I said, doing a basic 4-track mix using speed effects and then put it on to two tracks in stereo on the Fostex and dub on to that. I've not done any 8-track on to 2-track and then back on to the 8-track, sort of doing 16-track, I've kept it all in eight tracks; and sometimes, as I said, six."
"For 'Beauty And The Beast' there's no drum or drum machine rhythm tracks, the time's all in the playing, or it's drifting. When I've been doing demos at home I use my old Canary mixer with the Roland TR808, the separate outs to the Canary as a drum machine mixer. I eq all that, and split the toms and everything in stereo along with any panning that's moving about, and use the echo sends and returns on the mixer treat the drums with harmoniser and delay. That goes from the Canary up two channels of the Fostex mixer and then out to two tracks of the 8-track, so that I have a stereo drum split with all the effects and movement on it out of the way."
"Then I'd dub up to six tracks, keeping the two spare for the effects. If there's a guitar or keyboard on there for a basic rhythm part, an essential structure, I put a short delay on it with the harmoniser, slightly detuned, and pan the extremes to give a real spread. That leaves a space in the middle for the detail. Obviously vocals and bass guitar go in the centre, and you can bring lead instruments in slightly too, moving them across if necessary. But it does mean, as I've explained, tying up two channels to do the effects at mixing stage, especially if you want to pan stuff. You can do it across the channels, plugging it in at the back right into the channel, but for that you need an effects unit that has dry signal coming off as well as the delay — the Fostex delay has that, but my harmoniser, for example, doesn't, so if you put that across the channel all you hear is harmoniser and nothing else."
"I've recommended the system to several friends who want an 8-track, I think for the money it's a better buy than any of the Teac or Brenell 8s in that range — I just had a limited amount of money to spend to update from 4 to 8 and the Fostex seemed the best thing. I was toying with getting the Soundcraft, which is ½-inch tape and a lot more expensive by the time you've got a desk to got with it and everything. For under £2000, a mixing desk, delay line, and 8-track is great."
"The previous Yorkshire Actors Company soundtrack that I put out on my Cocteau label, 'The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari', had lots of people writing in because they just couldn't identify what the instruments are. There are some synthesisers on it, but a lot of it is acoustic instruments that have been treated in some way using tape techniques and recording techniques — for example, there's an autoharp in there which I'd hit with little hammers and things, tuning it to different chords and then recording it at half-speed, adding harmoniser to it with a pitch-drop and delay underneath it."
"The whole approach with 'Caligari' was one of using unorthodox techniques and instruments... for 'Beauty And The Beast' I wanted to use a different approach, the company were working quite closely to the script of Jean Cocteau's movie of 'Beauty And The Beast'. If anything, if Caligari was expressionistic, this is impressionistic, very soft-focused almost. Georges Auric did all the music for Cocteau's film, whereas the original of 'Caligari' was silent. There's no way you can compete with his score, to try to top that is folly."
"So I wanted to have things that sort of tied up with the original score, not in terms of melodies, but with little affectionate 'links', as it were. One of the things that Auric does in the movie is to use very long drum rolls at the start... so I thought, I'll do a long drum roll on a drum machine, (which I use sparingly throughout the play to emphasise the start of the big section). But for the introduction I thought I'd use blocks of sound that have drum roll feels — they don't sound like drum rolls, but do have that motorised kind of thing that a drum roll has. So I ended up recording some industrial looms, diesel trains, things like that, and doing tape montages and collages, and collages of chords, too. I'd spend ages setting up a sound on the string synth or something, and treat it in various ways, recording say 10 seconds of it — and I'd use chords that are actually physically impossible to play, by sticking matchsticks in the keyboard."
"There are abrupt edits in this introduction section, no smooth transition, and the whole thing is made up of these blocks of sound, fading in from a very delicate sound and building into this industrial thing, cutting to the drum roll — and then the action starts. It's much more melodic than 'Caligari', it has sort of semi-classical, Satie-esque kind of melodies linked with natural sounds: bird song, a running stream, and so on."
"I use two Casiotones on it — my main polyphonic instrument on it is the MT30, which is wonderful. I put it through a Roland Jazz Chorus amp with a slow, deep chorus on it, and reverb on. I've used that a lot, and I've got the little VL-Tone, tapping out the two buttons for real fast, rippling little runs of sequencer-like things. And again, for the price it's phenomenal. The one problem I've found with the VL is that when you get to the end of the 'sequence' it glitches as it goes through — the thing to do to get round that is to press the red 'reset' button just before you get to the repeat point, that way it returns to the beginning without a glitch. I first came across the Casios when I produced The Units in San Francisco — they have a remarkable synth player called Scott Reiser, very melodic and expressive, constantly working his Mini in real-time."
"At home I still have my Yamaha SG2000 guitar, and a Veillette-Citron guitar custom built by Joe Veillette in New York. I've still got my Stratocaster, and a Guild D500, and various other less expensive guitars for odd sounds, like a Dan Armstrong perspex one. Keyboards are so expensive and I haven't had that much money to invest in them, but I've got my Minimoog which I've had for years, that's a standard thing, and I've also got an ARP Omni that I've had a long time. It has strings, but also a polyphonic section in it which is fairly limited but there are some nice sounds. And more recently, there's been the Casios."
"Also recently, I've bought a second-hand set of marimbas, as I mentioned — on 'The Love That Whirls' I wanted to use them for a slightly Japanese flavour. And I have other things, like the autoharp, which is really my wife's, a dulcimer, mandolins (which are good at different speeds), a drum kit, a TR808, and a Doctor Rhythm. I got the Doctor Rhythm first and upgraded it to the 808 — I don't use the Doctor Rhythm now at all. With the 808 I'm not really after a natural drum sound, whereas the Linn we used to re-do one of the tracks from the new album for a single — Phonogram wanted a more 'commercial' version, sort of making it more danceable — produced a much more authentic, natural drum sound. When I work with the 808 I get into more interesting and treated sounds."
"I ended up with two-and-a-half albums' worth of material when I finished what became 'The Love That Whirls' in November 1981. I think that was one of the reasons Phonogram didn't immediately go bananas, there was so much there... so we've finally agreed after lots of hassling on a running order that has both instrumentals and vocals, using the instrumentals as bridges between the moods; 'Beauty And The Beast' will be packaged in too as a free album for the first 30,000 copies. Now they're starting to jump about and rave, but it's taken this long. It's really frustrating having to fight all the time for what should be your natural right (laughs). There's this kind of hypocritical thing, that there's been some kind of token revolution in the music industry and we're all hip now, we know what's happening. They change the colour of the sleeves and they wear different clothes and have different haircuts, but it's the same old dated attitudes underneath it all."
Interview by Tony Bacon
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue: