Henry Priestman: the word
The Christians are back with a third album called 'Happy In Hell'. Will they be thrown to the lions or will technology be their salvation?
Henry Priestman is in full flow: "The single, 'What's In A Word', is a fair indication of the direction we're going in. It's still very much song-based, but we haven't been keeping our ears closed for the last two and a half years. We're aware of what's going on. Not that we're suddenly going to turn into a dance band, but unless you stick your head in the sand you can't help being influenced by the grooves that are happening. But, as I say, it's still song-based, and hopefully lots of it would work just as well on acoustic guitar or even a cappella harmonies."
The words were spoken in a noisy Liverpool pub, and in much less time than it just took you to read them. For Henry Priestman - keyboards, guitar, backing vocals and one third of the band named after the singing Christian brothers - is feeling enthusiastic about their new album. And rightly so. Following soft on the heels of 1990's Colour, which itself was a long-awaited sequel to The Christians' eponymous debut in 1987, Happy In Hell has a lot to live up to, with the emphasis on quality rather than quantity. But if there seem to be long pauses between The Christians' musical statements as a band, ample compensation is provided by Henry's uniquely pauseless statements as a musician. And, to the strains of a local patron's yeasty rendition of 'Imagine', we quickly got on to the subject of Henry's chosen sequencer...
"I use MasterTracks Pro. I think there's only me and OMD who use it, and maybe Thomas Lang. It's American, and everyone else looks down their noses at it. Gary and Russell laugh at me and tell me I'll change, but I haven't yet. They're on Cubase, but it's too complicated for me. Apparently, Cubase did take a lot of their stuff from MasterTracks, but of course with Cubase you can put the cat out and make the tea at the same time. I don't need all that.
I've just done a soundtrack for the first in a new series of The Natural World, with David Attenborough, going out in January, and I did it all in the bedroom with the MasterTracks - perfectly adequate. Nothing went to tape, it all went straight to DAT. It's the first thing like that I've ever done, but I'd love to do more - they seemed very pleased with it. That's why it's great that we're all writing for The Christians now, because it gives me time to do these other things as well. I was the main songwriter on the other two albums, but on this one all of us have written.
"We all write music and lyrics ourselves, rather than co-write, apart from maybe one or two I've done with Gary - and the actual title track - but generally we just hide ourselves away in our respective studios. I think that's what's going to surprise people - the strength of the material coming from all of us, which is great for me because it does take some pressure off. It's difficult coming up with 10 or maybe 12 good songs, so I'm certainly glad that everyone's writing. And I can concentrate on getting a few really great songs, no fillers. As I always say, you have 25 years to write your first album, and about five months to write the second. Obviously it gets harder to keep up the quality, which is another reason why we take so long; we want to be known for consistent product. We don't want to rush out an album of sub-standard songs."
The new collection of (clearly up-to-standard) songs does reflect a consistency of melodic style and content, but also a new angle. Much of the rhythmic urgency found on the album is actually consistent with developments in the dance field of recent years, not least because of Henry's relatively late arrival at the samplers' ball...
"We're just getting into that whole area. The last time I did an interview with a music mag, I didn't even know how to work an S900, let alone an S1000. I used it merely as a library. You know, hang on - I want a string sound, wallop, that'll do, thank you Mrs. But now we've got into the whole thing of sampling our own breakbeats, sound effects, and my own instruments, so I can have all those MIDI'd as well. I've got autoharps, clarinets, Hammond organs... in fact, my Hammond sample is a good deal better than what you get from a library. If you take the trouble, you can get it loads better. The archetypal Hammond sample is atrocious, it doesn't come anywhere near the original.
"So that's the joy I've found in sampling; I've just been awakened to all the possibilities. I've always said that we're all basically Luddites; there's that fear of getting to grips with how things work, that distrust. And then suddenly you look again at the S1000 and think, this isn't as complicated as I thought! I know this is probably old news, and some people have had them for years, but I've just got into it since the last album. And now all I want is more Meg!"
Caught up in the zest of Henry's conversation, I almost miss his very personal alternative to the technical phrase 'hard disk'... "I've got an 8-Meg S1000, but I've also got one those DAC oofah-doofahs..." Oofah-doofahs? This must be an MT exclusive. "SyQuest make the cartridges, and it just basically saves you dozens of floppies. It's really quick, and it means you really can make your own good samples of things, and not worry about filling up floppies. So there's plenty of samples on this album, as well as real Hammond and piano. Obviously I'd rather use a real Hammond in the studio than a sample or one of those new ones with MIDI - the XB2.
"We are going to use an XB2 on tour, which will be great. But apart from that, it's mainly S1000s, plus the typical Christians 'crud' factor, provided by the good old standby - the Casio 230S - and the Cheetah MS6, which is a great analogue synth. People go 'What, a Cheetah?!' and then you play something and they go, 'wow, what's that sound?' I call it my hook machine, it's just great. Synths are best when you can just go into them and start messing about. Again, there's that same fear which makes you use just the preset programs, but then you start thinking no, let's mess around with this. I do enjoy programming, but on a very limited scale. If I get a sound that I like, but it doesn't do quite what I want, I'll try it. But usually only on certain machines. I don't tend to do anything with the D50 or DX7."
Who does? Meanwhile, as our impromptu serenader moved seamlessly into a medley of Abba hits before falling onto the pool table, I wondered just exactly how the rich tapestry of contemporary rhythms on the album was achieved. "We looped real drummers, we used samples, and a TR808 and TR909 - a real mixture. We do run some things live, although we try not to. At least at the end we try and put it all onto tape. We had about four recalls, and it can get very frustrating trying to remember what sound was what. And of course the Casio switches off every five minutes, and it's all gone! You suddenly think, hang on, there's something missing... it used to drive Mark Stent wild!"
Mark Stent's name appears amongst a generous list of production credits on the album. The band produced four of the tracks themselves, and the rest were divided between Stent, Laurie Latham, Martyn Phillips and a certain William Orbit... "William did two of the tracks. Ideally we'd have done more with him, I think, but he was busy doing Bass-O-Matic, Sharon Musgrave and his own Strange Cargo album - plus he was going to Vietnam for two months! But he's brilliant, he had about seven projects on the go but he just said yeah, of course I'll fit it in, so he parks his spaceship for a few hours and comes down to earth and deals with you! I wouldn't be surprised if we work with him again, because it worked out really well; it was effortless.
"But then it became apparent that we weren't going to be able to do any more with William. In the meantime we'd ploughed on with the ones we were doing ourselves. That's why the album appears like it's taken a long time, because when you're working with other people you can suddenly find that they're unavailable for a while. I think the next person we worked with was Martyn Phillips, in fact. He'd just finished working with Erasure, and then he was going to do London Beat, I think, so we slotted this in when we could. He did 'What's In A Word', and Mark did some additional production. And then we worked with Laurie on a few tracks."
Laurie Latham, you may recall, produced both of The Christians' previous albums single-handedly. "Laurie is my best mate, and I want to keep involved with him, so we thought let's pick the tracks which are best for him. He's done 'Father', which is one of Gary's songs, a bit in the 'Words' vein - the big Christians 3/4 ballad which we usually put on each album. Laurie was just the right man for that. He had the great idea of using real strings for it, so we went to Angel Studios in London for the day and got a string section in.
"But we did most of Laurie's tracks round at Jools Holland's studio in Deptford. That was very good. Around the same time I was doing some production for Ian McCulloch. Through that, I got to know Mark Stent, who was mixing on that session. He's done KLF, and, well, who hasn't he done...? So that worked out really well, there's another future partnership there. In the end he mixed half the album, and co-produced the last two tracks that we did, because we got on so well."
"It's difficult coming up with ten or twelve good songs... as I always say, you have 25 years to write your first album, and about five months to write the second"
Whatever the ramifications of production schedules in the long haul towards a finished product, the story of Happy In Hell begins at home.
"All of us have got little setups at home. Gary and Russell have both got the Akai MG14D; I've just got a Portastudio. I tended to work mainly just using a computer; you can generate so much stuff, especially if you've got quite a lot of memory. Unless you're actually working out vocals or guitar lines, most of it comes straight off the computer onto cassette, just my own ideas.
"The next stage was to go into Square One studios in Bury to do the demos. We were in the lucky position of doing demos to 24-track, but there is always this thing of doing demos to quite a high level, then trying to re-create them and it not being the same. This is especially true, for me, with things like Hammond parts, when the first thing you play is totally spontaneous and sounds great. And Gary will ad lib some vocals... there's so much where you think well, this isn't going to go on the album, so you let rip, you're relaxed. You'd be more self-conscious if you thought it was going on the album. So consequently most of the backing vocals, on the tracks that we demo'd there, were used on the album. Quite a lot of the lead vocals, too... we were able to use composite bits. For one song, we did some vocals in July, some in September, and others in January. All for the same song. You come back to it, and re-assess it each time.
"So by this time we were just working on those demo tracks. We did all the tracks ourselves, and Island were a bit worried about this. They heard the demos, and they couldn't fault anything about the melodies, the hooks, the singing, but they thought we needed some help in the rhythm department on certain tracks. So for those, we decided to co-produce. We started the first ones in September, and that was with William Orbit.
His way of doing it was for us to send him the album track for him to fiddle around with. I'd usually come down a couple of days later and add some guitar or keyboards and he'd fiddle around with that - cast his magic spell over it - and then throw it back to us in Bury. We'd put any extra vocals on it, and then send it back to William for him to mix it. It was great; recording by proxy. A definite coproduction."
And so, as the proxy music developed, the courier bills mounted. But the overall recording costs were kept in check by the judicious choice of studios. Such frugality is an increasing trend within the recording industry, and Henry Priestman knows why... "With the last two albums, we were thinking how come we can sell 1.2 million and still owe the record company £250,000? We know that we take ages doing an album, so we were keeping an eye on the budget, which is why we recorded at Bury and Deptford. People don't believe you when you tell them how much it can cost to record. But you don't need the most expensive facilities all the way down the line, as long as you mix somewhere good.
"With technology the way it is, you can do a hell of a lot in your bedroom, or wherever, and you can do a hell of a lot in a cheap studio. You only really need all this amazing outboard and everything when you're mixing. So it was great being at Jools' place, especially as, in a place like that, you feel more relaxed, you don't worry about having a sore throat and missing a day's recording, or whatever. Jools gets a credit, actually: Julian Holland, studio management! That's the feeling we got in Bury, as well: you know, good people, dead relaxed."
Was there no opportunity to make the most of Liverpool's newly relocated and refurbished Amazon studios?
"Amazon wasn't sorted out when we started. I'm sure we would have done a lot more there, if it had been. We ended up doing quite a lot of the later stuff there, in this tiny room which became known as The Christians Room because we seemed to be there all the time. But again, you don't need much space, especially when you're just doing overdubs, so it worked out really well being able to use that room. But the whole studio is going to be great - well, it is great, and if we can ever get in there we will. The big room is booked out, which shows it seems to be doing well."
In the autumn of 1988, The Christians did pretty well themselves. A cover version of the Isley Brothers classic 'Harvest For The World' took them to number eight in the charts - which remains their highest singles placing to date. But Henry remains unconvinced of the wisdom of covering songs that are too well known...
"About March last year, knowing it was going to take us ages to do the album, we thought about doing a covers EP to keep things going, and maybe surprise a few people - maybe put a Temptations number on there, and also do 'Soon I Will Be Gone' by Free, and a Gil Scott-Heron track 'The Bottle'. The Gil Scott-Heron idea came up again about a month ago, so we went in and did it, and it turned out so well it's going on the album. And it sounds like a single, so it could well be single number three or something.
"We wouldn't have done 'Harvest For The World' but for the fact that it was for charity. We are aware of the attitude of people who think you can't write songs if you put out covers, and I don't think we'd ever attempt to do another cover that people know so well - only Gil Scott-Heron aficionados are going to know 'The Bottle'. But with 'Harvest' we were specifically asked to do that song, for the animated film. Normally we'd have said no, you can't touch songs like that, and I still think that. No doubt there'll be purists who say we've ruined 'The Bottle', but I think we've done a pretty good job, as we did on 'Harvest'.
"Actually it sounds surprisingly in the same vein as 'Harvest', maybe we have a way of approaching cover songs. There's definitely a pressure that's taken off you when you do them; we did this latest one in about five days, definitely the quickest track on the album. It just sounded great so it went straight on there."
The glittering array of top-drawer session musicians which characterised the last album, Colour, has not been retained on Happy In Hell. Despite the presence of some fine home-grown musicians, there is more of a DIY feel about the album, and not only because of the aforementioned discovery of the joys of sampling.
"Like most songwriters, I get a thrill in the studio. What the technology is doing is making it easier for me, as a hamfisted keyboard player and guitarist, to get my ideas down"
"I play guitar on most of the tracks, actually. Although it takes me ages, I usually work out something. It might take me a day to get one line, but it would take days to explain to someone else how I want it to go. With enough drop-ins, I can do it. So there's not so much 'muso-ness' on this album - which was a deliberate policy. On the last album, all you read about was, 'Ah, Manu Katche on drums...' and nobody discussed what the songs were like. Nothing against that - those musicians were brilliant, but so what? That's why it's been good to try out people we haven't used before, like Harry Morgan on percussion, and the string arranger Peter Whitfield, who we met through the studio in Bury."
So despite the increased use of samplers, arranging a real string section remains preferable?
"Yes, but you can't always afford it, can you? And some things don't need it. Sometimes I just can't tell the difference. Then again, there's a bit on 'Father' where I'm thinking how on earth are we going to do that live - a really manic, meshing of strings. But hopefully the song's strong enough to stand up without all those embellishments. That always happens when it comes to playing live; you start trading off one hook in order to have another, because you haven't got enough hands to physically do everything. We've got all the cheesy little Cheetah and Casio bits, so it comes down to what you actually listen for in the song, the main thing - rhythm, voices, the odd hook."
Do I detect a certain frustration with having to play live? "Yes, but you've got to gig, otherwise people think you're not confident with your material - at least that's what our record company tells us. I don't actually like gigging that much, neither does Russell; Gary likes it, but there is that thing if you don't go out there, that someone will start asking questions. But of course we're competent, we just can't be bothered gigging all the time.
"Reluctantly, I do agree that if you're seen as a live band, it gives you more authority' - you're a real band, you can do it live. But for me it's just frustrating, the rehearsing, the waiting around; I don't get that huge buzz when I'm on stage. I'm sorry to say that - no doubt there'll be Christians fans reading this thinking, 'What a miserable bastard'. But I'd rather be in the studio. I'd rather be writing. I see myself more as a writer and producer."
Well, the record company may say playing live imbues you with some kind of authenticity, but the real function of gigging is to promote recorded product. "Of course, I accept that, and we're quite blatant about saying the only reason we're touring is because it's the best promotion for the album. But I still don't get that huge thrill out of it, and in some ways I wouldn't mind never doing it again."
By now, most of the pub has descended into a drunken chorus of 'We Are The World', proving that some sections of the Liverpool community are quite happy to do cover versions of anything - and do them live - even if Henry isn't. But he still has plenty to say, and as we leave the cabaret his enthusiasm remains undiminished.
"Like most songwriters, I get a thrill in the studio. What the technology is doing is making it easier for me, as a hamfisted keyboard player and guitarist, to get my ideas down. I can have loads of goes at getting it right. Otherwise you have to get session musicians in and say, 'Can you play that?... No, that's not quite what I meant'. Obviously, I know that some people are better than me at playing guitar, and sometimes you get them in. But I'm pleased to have played a lot of guitar myself this time.
"So technology is great as a songwriting tool, and the idea that you can do so much at home before you get into the expensive studios - where all you're paying for is time - I think is great. Obviously it can be abused, but I'm not worried, because the song will out. There'll always be songwriting; it's not suddenly going to go away. That's why I don't jump on the pessimistic bandwagon. Look back 15, 20 years: there was plenty of nonsense around then, too. But you don't remember that, you just remember Isaac Hayes, The Temptations, all the funk going on, and then a few years later the Punk thing, Television, Talking Heads... You just think of the good things, but don't forget that there was loads of crap around then as well, and there always will be loads of crap around. And, of course, Neil Young's been around forever!
"In a way the increasing sophistication of sequencers does make it harder to come to decisions; there's sort of no final version of anything, you can always say well, I can change that, or we'll run the drums again... but I try to look on the positive side. If, in the past, you put the drums down first, then that was it, you were stuck with them. But what happens if you then come up with a great rhythm that doesn't work with those drums? I think it's great that you can - run the drums again and again. It's down to discipline and knowing your craft, basically; knowing when the song is finished. I know the album appears to have taken a long time, but we haven't been trying to get every note perfect. If anything, we've tried to be more ragged on this album - using bits from the demos, as I said before, when it was more spontaneous, when it was more relaxed.
So it's knowing when a song is finished. We are learning our craft, and we're getting better at it."
Getting better all the time - as that other Liverpool band might put it.