Living In A Box
An eponymous debut single took Living in a Box high in the singles charts. In a rare interview with this publicity-shy band, Tim Goodyer found technology an essential part of their success.
The musician with the boyish grin is Marcus Vere, the man behind the music behind Living in a Box. How does a band that's topped the charts with its first single live up to its reputation, and how dependent are they on Vere's own little black boxes?
LIES, LIES, LIES. Living in a Box have not just been working in LA with some company whose name they can't divulge. They are not playing with some new series computer whose name they can't reveal because it's still a prototype. And they did write their own songs, rather than leave it to this mystery computer armed only with their personality imprints. They do, however, have a nice line in humour, a high-charting debut single and an excellent album of electronic pop to their name.
The man currently feeding me these untruths is one Marcus Vere, keyboard player, songwriter, comedian and one third of Living in a Box. Throughout the photo session he's promised me the interview won't be serious, yet mention MIDI or songwriting and he's right on the ball - though there's still room for a little of what he refers to as "sport".
"Normally when we do interviews I make up these stories about what we were doing before Living in a Box. In Holland, Tich was president of the Ben Hur Society, Richard headed a parachute display team in Bridlington, and I was a marine biologist studying the Loch Ness Monster. Over there they take you dead seriously every time. That's good sport."
Living in a Box became Living in a Box in August 1985. Prior to that, vocalist Richard Darbyshire had been involved with a band called Zu Zu Sharks, while drummer Anthony 'Tich' Critchlow and Vere were already writing material together and looking for a singer.
Vere continues: "I'd heard about Richard from various sources and, as he was doing some of his solo stuff in the same studio as we were recording 'Living in a Box', we tried it out. That was the first song we did. Then we did two more, 'Love is the Art' and 'Generate the Wave', which we took round the record companies.
"While we were playing 'Living in a Box' in one A&R man's office, Richard was playing his solo stuff in another office at the same company. It was hugely embarrassing at the time but then, when it all came together, we managed to merge our abilities and our material. We were lucky that we all got on so well as friends, because we were forced into the situation where one minute Richard was singing on a couple of our tracks as a session singer, and the next he was signing a contract with two guys he hardly knew."
Things moved quickly after that: a five-year deal with Chrysalis, a storming dance single making the top five, and an album following hard on its heels - the stuff of which dreams are made. Too often, though, the promise of a first single turns out unfulfillable. Vere accepts the challenge.
"The impact of the first single was so enormous; it came from nowhere and shot straight up the charts. The vice-president of marketing in the States said it's the fastest single they've had in four years. It's established the name - obviously because it's eponymous - but we've also got longevity, we've got a quality to the music. We didn't release the album with any big splash, and we're not relying on a huge sales campaign and photos in all the right pop magazines. It's selling really well by word of mouth, and that's nice. It's a real album and it makes the point we're a real band. It's not like somebody has decided to do a Stock, Aitken and Waterman on us and manufactured our success but said 'for God's sake don't start talking about music'.
"You're just as likely to see me leaping around in a video as you are to see me here talking about Emulators and MIDI. I think it's important that people realise we have that dimension. There's more to Living in a Box than 'Living in a Box', but that will only be proven when we're sitting round this table in a year or two's time, and I'm sure we will be."
Vere's faith in his project is borne out by soul legend Bobby Womack, who's recorded his own version of 'Living in a Box' - though half of the lyrics have been translated into Spanish for his "street people". And not content with that, he may also be appearing on the band's next single.
"It's not definite yet, but he may be duetting with Richard on 'So the Story Goes'", confirms Vere. "It's either him or Al Green."
THE BAND'S FIRST album was recorded at Galaxy Studios in Hollywood and produced by ex-Landscaper Richard James Burgess. "Bill Burgess", corrects Vere, and we're off on another Living in a Box 'Strange But True' anecdote.
"The studio looked like the inside of a pimp's car", he recalls, "all purple velvet and mirrors. And while we were there, Burgess managed to blow up the monitoring system. He was mucking about with the Lexicon and suddenly this huge electronic feedback started to build up. It gathered so quickly that he didn't have time to do anything about it, and the speakers actually exploded. All the computers went down and there was smoke coming out of the cabinets. I was shit scared.
"I programmed 'Living in a Box' on a Roland MC202. Then I got into the QX1, now I'm on the Steinberg Pro24 and whatever comes out next week."
"Eventually a guy in an Indiana Jones hat came in to repair it all, and four hours of studio time later, we were ready to go. Then Burgess did it again.
"After that we called him Wild Bill Burgess, but he won't take kindly to me telling you all this..."
With luck, he won't read it. But Burgess' participation in the recording of Living in a Box has helped produce an album of serious pop songs - from the insistent dance beat of 'Living in a Box', through the R&B of 'Human Story', to the token ballad 'From Beginning to End'.
"Bill's a good guy to work with because he doesn't drag your ideas off in any strange direction - he listens to your demo and goes with the feeling of that."
Evidence of Burgess' influence over the sound of the album, however, is easily found in the disc's rhythm tracks. For although Critchlow's drumming skills are held in near reverence by Vere, the groove of Living in a Box is almost exclusively electronically generated.
"Burgess is a Linn 9000 man and we're SP12 men", Vere comments. "He was lucky enough to have his 9000 working throughout, because if it had broken down, we'd never have let him forget it. It was a bit unfortunate, though, because Tich normally programs the SP12 and it took him a few days to get into the 9000. Once you've got a song in the SP12 you can't just change the tomtom pattern in just the third verse, whereas you can on the 9000. I don't know why they never got that together on the SP12. The clocking is good on the 9000 as well - it's got a good feel to it. But I still prefer the SP12, not only for its reliability, but for its sound."
The rest of the album's sound textures are the products of Vere's hi-tech keyboards - tempered with the talents of carefully chosen guest musicians. Paul Jackson Jr supplied the tasteful guitar, Paulinho Da Costa the percussion, Mark Isham the trumpet, and Freddy Washington the bass where the Minimoog couldn't cut it.
"We used various other keyboard players as well. I got all the ideas and the basic programs together, and then I wanted someone with more of an oversight on the whole record to come in and say 'I see this, this and this' that I couldn't see. And it worked; they saw directions I didn't see because I'd been living with some of the tracks for nearly two years."
Vere's hardware rundown for the album reads like just about any modern equipment listing - Emulator, Super Jupiter, DX7, TX816, Akai S900 and so on - but stops short of Fairlight or Synclavier indulgence. Technology has been a good and loyal friend of Living in a Box, but Vere is cautious about letting it get the upper hand.
"If you get the right gear, the whole of the Top 20 will flash before you. I'd be the first to admit I haven't got the deepest knowledge of knob-twiddling, but I think that's to my advantage at this point. If you get too stuck in your equipment, you're not going to write a good song. And that's when you should employ somebody else to write your songs for you.
"I get nervously excited when I get new equipment because I wonder just how close to the edge I am. When I'm sitting around at two o'clock in the morning not being able to write something because I can't work the equipment, that's energy lost. I want to be able to do something quickly and make it sound real, loud and hard. That's what excites me."
"With the music 90% keyboard-based and only three in the band, I might end up with tape, sequencers and not much live playing."
WITH THE INITIAL excitement of the album out of the way, Vere is concentrating on improving his home recording facilities. As we speak, two Syco engineers are burrowing around the back of an Akai 1412 recorder, an Atari computer is running a new Steinberg Pro24 sequencing package, and a Roland D50 is due to show up at any moment.
"I've got a few hundred quid involved here, but it's nothing to what you get into when you listen to Syco about what's coming up. I'd gone as far as I wanted to go, and I would have hung on with the QX1 even longer had it not been for the shortage of tracks. Eight just wasn't enough; I was getting into such a mess running out of tracks and swapping things around - so I turned to the Pro24. It's very flexible and a lot quicker. But if you haven't got a groove and you haven't got a tune, then it's all a waste of time."
That said, Vere has taken full advantage of technology to enable him to produce his music.
"I first programmed 'Living in a Box' on a Roland MC202. Remember them? Then I got into the QX1, now I'm on to the Steinberg Pro24 and whatever comes out next week. The Steinberg's my new toy at the moment, though it's been out a while. It's taken me until now to get round to it because I've been so busy.
"Working with the QX1, I found I was using the TX816 for almost the complete song - bass on one; piano split across two and three; sequences on four and five; brass on six, seven and eight; then link up the Super Jupiter to put that little bit of analogue on the top. Now I'm getting a patchbay organised where I can use all eight modules to get much bigger sounds. I used it like that when we were recording the album, but for writing, I got a bit sick of sticking my hands down the back of the TX rack every five minutes switching leads.
"I'm going to transfer all the programs from the QX1 to the Steinberg in real time and take it from there. I'd been saving all my sounds on it, too, but I found that, if I got a new idea for a song, I had to dump all my sounds back into the QX on the particular song bank I was using before I could start. Either that, or I was going to tie myself to all the sounds I'd just been using. Then I was spending more time doing that than I was writing new songs.
"It took me about an hour, I suppose, to get the SP12 pattern organised in Song mode, changing all the sounds in the TX rack and linking it all up. By the time I'd done all that, I'd forgotten what I was trying to do in the first place. I'm going to hang on to the QX1, though, partly because it's not worth anything, and partly because we might need it for live work."
An overdue addition to Vere's equipment is an E-mu Systems Emax.
"We never got into too much serious sampling on the album, so I bought the Emax to investigate that. I've also got the Emax with HD organised - that's coming out in about two or three months. Plus there's the Compact Disc (CD ROM) sound-loading situation coming out about three or four months after that.
"Until now, I've only been taking stuff off CD or 12-inchers into the SP12 on a drum basis - drum sounds, short vocal sounds, things like that. One example I can give away to everybody that wants a huge snare drum is a record called 'Artificial Heart' by Cherelle. After about 15 seconds of the 12-inch, there's a gap before this huge snare and you can get at it really easily. That's a Jam and Lewis snare, so it's a belter. We used it on 'Living in a Box' and we're going to carry on using it."
UNLIKE MANY MUSICIANS, Marcus Vere prefers to start again from scratch in the studio, rather than use his demos as the basis for a final recording.
"Prince amuses me. He's supposed to be taking music into new areas, but what he's got out at the moment is an album of demos."
"I don't like to produce anything too much, because then you find you can't take it on anywhere", he explains. "The demos are just there to get the song together and throw in some good sounds.
"Prince amuses me. He's supposed to be taking music into new areas, the leading light of a new musical direction. But what he's got out at the moment is an album of demos."
Although their second single, 'Scales of Justice', hasn't climbed the charts with the same vigour as its predecessor. Living in a Box now have their first live dates on their minds - though mention of live playing isn't met with the enthusiasm I might have expected.
"Don't terrify me", says a startled Vere. "We haven't done anything yet so we don't really know how it's going to work out. We're going to start with eight club dates in the States at the beginning of October. In America there's quite an 'anti' attitude to being a studio band and having a one-off catchy little ditty. Unless people realise there's more to the band than that, we might get a bad reaction. So the idea is to go over there, do a few dates and get a bit of a live presence.
"It involves making a decision on live playing, sequencing, sampling and tapes, and we haven't quite made up our minds how to get around it yet. With the music being 90% keyboard-based and only three of us in the band, it's difficult to cover everything unless I end up with lots of tape and sequencers and not very much live playing to do. I'll probably be getting another keyboard player in and working it all out with him.
"I want to get down to the raw edge of the songs: bass, drums, guitar, vocals, and top-line keyboards. When you're playing in a club it wants to be loud and thrashy, with Richard singing his heart out. Somebody sitting behind a mixing desk pulling faders up and down really only detracts from the essence of a song."
The live shows will also mark the return of Anthony Critchlow as the band's drummer, although the details have still to be ironed out.
"We'll try keeping the bass drum on tape with the toms and snare live around it. We thought about taking a percussionist out, but we'll either use sequencers or triggers from Tich. He'll be using a couple of Simmons pads, so he'll have quite a high profile triggering samples. There are certain songs where it's all hands to the deck, like 'So the Story Goes' that took ages to get together in the studio, and we can only do that live if we use samples. We were thinking of using an Octapad, but they're so bloody small that if there's anything that needs playing as opposed to just triggering, it's a bit impractical. We'll see."
Yet while the Americans look set for a treat, any live work in the UK will be further delayed by the writing and recording of a second album.
"We've already written four tracks which we're really pleased with, but I've now got to transfer them to all this new gear. The second album is going to be a lot harder than the first one: we're going to tear down a lot of the scaffolding in terms of the sequencers and subtleties and go more into the bass, drums and vocals right in your face approach. I'm looking forward to it."
And as if that weren't enough to keep three young men off the streets, their overactive sense of humour has already lined up another project for them.
"Is there a heavy metal band called Axis?", Vere enquires anxiously. "If there isn't, we're going to call our heavy metal alter-ego Axis. It's such an awful name, it's brilliant. We've written a track called 'Powerdive' - In the heat of the night/in the dark of the city/I'm dragging your love around baby/How could something so wrong seem so right - brilliant. We're going to send it to our American A&R department and see if they'll sign us - again."
Nothing if not versatile, this Living in a Box.
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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