Producer, performer, catalyst. Richard Burgess has been a musical traveller most of his life - we finally catch up with him.
Richard Walmsley reports on the travels of a wandering musician
Richard Burgess likes to think of himself as a wandering musician, and he's got the weirdest accent to prove it. His musical career which began as a drummer in his native New Zealand took him to Berkeley where he studied jazz, thence to England where, in addition to having hit singles with his band Landscape, and producing six hit singles and two gold albums for Spandau Ballet, he was also involved in the avant garde electronic music scene, performing with a group called Accord. Now the magnet for his creative enthusiasm has proved to be New York where he is gradually building up a reputation for himself both as an artist and a producer, as he puts it, "...adding my contribution to that scene".
Although his musical roots are in blues and R&B, Richard's initial involvement in electronics came whilst at Berkeley with the purchase of an EMS Synthi A (a compact version of the VCS 3) and was further nurtured upon his arrival in this country through the encouragement of avant garde jazz drummer Tony Oxley. Returning to more mainstream waters, his use of sequencers and micro-composers (which he always refers to as 'computers' by the way) on records by Landscape, early Spandau and Kate Bush has linked his name almost synonymously with computer music. And although his recent work producing for King in this country is indicative of a certain inclination to rediscover his earlier influences, the predominant flavour of his current output is still electronic, accentuated perhaps by the possibilities he sees in the New York Electro/Funk scene.
"Basically the thing that interested me about the NY scene," he begins, "was the fact that the music had such an American feel. All the European stuff felt very European and was often very grandiose and cold. The NY producers and musicians took the computers and they made them warm. I've always believed that computers could be anything you want them to be. People say that computers are soulless things, but then so is a saxophone or guitar; an instrument doesn't have soul, it's the human being that has soul. The only reason why a piece of music doesn't have soul is either because the musician didn't have it in the first place, or else he wasn't adept enough at the instrument to convey his feelings. Because I'm more adept at computers now than I was five years ago, I know that the more you build up your chops the better able you are to convey your feelings through the instrument, just like a saxophone or guitar."
Although New York is an exciting place to work, it's also a place where you can get lost very easily, so in order to establish himself Richard is involving himself in a wide range of projects.
"I did a mini LP for Capital last year and had two dance hits, Breathless and The Fugitive from it. Also I've been working on a New York type group, which is going to be called Bigfoot, with Ned Liben (ex Enb-Ozn) who's a really talented Fairlight programmer. And I'm working with an amazing guy called Colonel Abrahams, who's like a cross between Teddy Pendergast and Marvin Gaye with a little bit of Gil Scott-Heron thrown in. Also I've been producing on LPs by Melba Moore and New Edition.
"The New Edition stuff was all computer and I mainly used the Roland MC4, actually doing all the programming in the studio. On my own album and on Melba Moore I used Fairlight CMI a lot. I use Page R mainly because it's so easy to use. It works the way the human mind works; you can bung a one bar idea into it, then modify it into a two bar idea, then into a whole song, then have different fills every eight bars. It's a great way of working because you don't have to conceive the whole thing in a blob. Previously you used to have to hold the thing in your head, but now it's getting to the point where you can actually sketch onto these machines, and from that sketch you can build the full colour picture."
Has MIDI influenced the way you work?
"I've become really involved in it because it's such a unique way of building up your own sound. The studio that I use a lot in New York is a place called Unique (used a lot by Shannon and Arthur Baker) and they've really got the MIDI thing completely down; everything in the studio is MIDIable. For instance, on the Melba Moore album I used the Yamaha RX11 drum machine with the individual outputs, which is MIDIable. I would write the song pattern on the RX11 and then MIDI it up to something else. I was MIDIing to an Emulator II which had samples on it which you could tune. It's basically using it instead of a Fairlight except you're not restricted to using Fairlight samples or Emulator samples. You could mix the RX11 sounds with the Emulator sounds, or you could trigger the DX7 with the RX11, or even an analogue synth via MIDI.
"They also have MIDI grand pianos at Unique. They've wired them up with sensors under the strings which operate so that you can have, say, a grand piano with two DX7s and an Emulator playing at the same time, and it's really an incredible sound.
"In the past the problem has been that when, for instance, the Prophet came out, every record you heard had Prophet on it, same with the Jupiter 8, then with the Fairlight. But with MIDI you can build up your own combination. It's really what serious synthesists have been awaiting for years.
"MIDI also changes the way you work with musicians, because in the past if you wanted to build up a sound you'd have to double track it. That was OK if it was something fairly predictable, but if the guy's doing a difficult improvisation it's virtually impossible to double track it, or even if it is possible you lose a lot of the character of the original track."
How does your experience in electronic music come into the production of a more conventional band like King?
"You have to use a lot of devices in order to convey the idea that this music is raw and exciting. In this day and age it's relatively easy to make a slick sounding record, but it's quite difficult to capture some raw excitement and convey that through a two inch speaker."
So how do you go about it?
"I try to use the technology to make the musician feel more comfortable, which is very difficult because basically technology is always trying to get in the way. I like to set things up so that the singer or guitarist or whatever can do six or seven takes without me interrupting. Then later I use the technology to compile the best bits of what they've done, which is like a non-real time way of interfering with what they're doing, but one which doesn't actually interfere with their creative flow.
"I don't record digitally, although I've done two and a half albums like that, because it isn't really there yet, it isn't as good as it should be. I still work analogue, but I work 48 track using slave reels. I have a vocal slave, a guitar slave, a keyboard etc, and I might have 15-20 tracks on each, and I'll just sit down in my own time after everyone else has gone and figure out the bits I want and edit them all together."
What gear are you using?
"When I mix I tend to only use Solid State Logic boards because, although there are still frustrations with the SSL, on the whole it's just so far ahead of any other board that there's just no competition for mixing.
"I began producing in a major way at the time of the advent of the Lexicon 224 reverb, so I tend to always use digital reverb and effects. I'm not a great lover of EMT 240 Plates, or 140 Gold Foil Plates; I'll go for years and not use them. But when I produce I like to have one, or sometimes two, of everything, AMS, Quantec, Lexicon, EMT 250. Because they each have their own different qualities I use them for different things. You build up your own favourite ways of using pieces of equipment, and I'm not really sure how other people use them.
"There's more to the NY scene than Lexicons and Quantecs mind you; much of the pioneering work in electro was born of limited facilities, and even today some electro purists favour 8 track exclusively.
"Personally I don't want to go back to 8 track, it doesn't excite me. The only thing that would interest me would be going back to stereo, the major advantage of which is that it reduces the amount of phase problems you have. Once you get beyond two mikes you get all kinds of phase discrepancies."
Are there any other producers you particularly like?
"I admire the job Mark Langer did on The Cars' album Heartbeat City, I think it was a really fine album. Quincy Jones I think is brilliant; you cannot be in production and not think the guy is a genius. I admire Arif Mardin and I like Trevor Horn, although what he does is not what I want to do. In fact it's almost the antithesis of what I want to do; I'm more interested in 'feel' records, rather than records in which the producer is the star. I'm interested in using the minimum amount of technology, only what is absolutely necessary in order to make the record feel great. I think you need to have the techniques at your fingertips, but you don't necessarily have to throw them at people."
And so readers, our roads parted. His the Business Class to JFK New York, mine the No 36 to New Cross. I guess it's a sign of the times really, after all we've come a long way since the days when all you needed to be a wandering minstrel was a lute and a toothbrush.
Interview by Richard Walmsley