Mik Sweeney talks about his guitars and Sal Solo describes how he is acquiring production skills.
Classix Nouveaux formed in 1979 when some members of two disbanding groups, The News and X-Ray Spex, combined into the new group. A first single was released on their own ESP label; then came a contract with United Artists, more singles, two albums ('Night People' May 1981, and the new 'La Verite' April 1982), and a succession of tours ranging from early attempts to help expose other new groups to more recent treks to promote their success in parts of the world where rock rarely sets foot. The group use an electric yet precise instrumentation, pitching the contemporary versatility of Casios, Wasps and guitar synths against traditional bass and guitar sounds, more recently underpinned by Simmons electronic drums. The key seems to have remained in self-sufficiency; their records are largely the result of Sal Solo's developing production skills, and even Mik Sweeney's bass guitar is home-built. Tony Bacon talked to these two founder members of Classix Nouveaux just as their second album was about to be released.
Mik Sweeney: "I was about 10 when I started playing upright bass. I made the fretless bass I'm using now, and I've been playing fretless for about four years. I've always dabbled in making things — I don't really understand the logistics of electronics, but it's like painting by numbers these days: you just get the PCB and bung in whatever components you need. It means you can put things together for next to nothing, really. It's amazing what you can get away with for £10 — I made a chorus pedal for £30 or something. These things do tend to fall apart, but you get better at it as you go along.
"I've always made guitars as a sort of hobby. I made my first bass with the help of a woodwork teacher at school, a 24-fret version of a Precision. The lump of wood he got me — I can't remember what it was, but it was so heavy! The intonation got really dodgy when you got past the 12th fret, but for the time it was quite an achievement. The trouble was I left out the truss rod. I didn't know how truss rods worked, and I wondered why the neck was doing this Robin Hood number on me. So I dumped that and started buying cheap copies, and went on to the standard Rickenbackers, Precisions and stuff.
"I was digging frets out of basses early on, but I got a regular Precision when I was with this band whose management had money to chuck away. So I took it down to Andy's (guitar workshop in central London), had the scratchplate removed, the front made plain and black, the neck sprayed black with white binding, an ebony fingerboard, and all gold parts — that was really tasty. Trouble was, when we lost the record deal, I lost the bass!
"I had a Dan Armstrong plexiglass bass once, that was a bit of a disappointment. The G, the D, and the A were fine, but when you got to the E (makes flopping sound). And it was short-scale too, heavy but thin. I used to love them to look at, though. The whole thing about Dan Armstrong was that, to my eye, his ergonomics and actual body shapes were always brilliant. Everything he made, even the slider pickup things, had really nice cuts about them. I owned a few Dan Armstrongs and they were always good to look at, but not too good to play.
"I've turned a Gibson Grabber into an eight-string bass. You can't play a thing like that all the time — it sounds like a million guitars, it's great for those big Gary Glitter-type choruses! First, I just made a bridge out of an angled aluminium strut with eight notches in it, then I got some different bridge saddles and gave them the right notches — so it doesn't have eight individual saddles, but the intonation's OK, it does the job. It's just about in tune most of the time. I was going to convert a Dan Armstrong but I found the neck was a bit thin for the eight strings.
"I have a fervour for guitar making. When I started out it was like: Dad, can I have a Gibson? No you can't. So I'd be bunking off school and going up Shaftesbury Avenue lusting after all these really tasty guitars. You build up this sort of wonder about certain things, and it stuck with me. And after a while... I mean, these days, I'm dead sure that the snobbery surrounding guitars, American guitars, is just bullshit. This whole mythology which has built up is why they sell guitars, basically — status symbols amongst musicians. Once you get past that, you know... the best guitars in the world these days have to be Japanese.
"I mean, I was going through one of these Freemans-type mail order catalogues the other day. I can remember going through them about five years ago and coming to The Music Page, and you'd have like a Satellite guitar, plywood, one half-coil pickup. But in this one they had, for £116, this Jap guitar which goes under the guise of Kay — it had a standard three-piece spliced neck, maple body, two Mighty Mite-type pickups, coil tap switches, all brass fittings, and it looked really tasty. You could see that if you got something like this, replaced a few things, it'd be as good as anything with a bit of work.
"The thing that gets me about some guitar makers, they have to understand that if someone's going to buy a guitar — same with me and every kid I know — it's got to look great. Then you worry about what it sounds like, because in truth everything sounds more or less the same. Sometimes I wonder how they can possibly think that these are what people want. They get complacent, they think: We are the standards, people will buy our products whatever happens.
"So I started to build the fretless bass I use now. It's got LED fret markers, which I borrowed from Alembic — they've got theirs on the side, I've got mine on the front, so everyone can see them! It's a flash number, but it is pretty useful, because with Classix, one moment you're standing bathed in smoke and red lights, the next minute it's total darkness. And playing fretless bass through that's bad news. It started off as the basic: Oh, wouldn't that look flash. But I've found it to be really helpful. The fingerboard is black perspex — I found I was gouging great trenches in wooden fingerboards from my Rotosound roundwounds — and the actual LEDs are set into holes drilled into the perspex. They're filed totally flush because the LEDs are in fact solid perspex themselves. At the moment they all work from a PP3 — I'm putting together a small pedal-board system from which I'm eventually going to have a phantom power line. After the battery is a fuse, and a resistor to keep the voltage down — if the LEDs go you'd have to rip the fingerboard up to replace them, a real headache, so I just give them enough juice to keep going and never warm them up too much.
"The only thing I didn't make on the original version was the machine heads, which were actually a set of Ibanez nylon-bodied guitar machines: the tuning is the best I've ever had, you can put it in its case and take it out four weeks later and the tuning hasn't moved an inch.
'Then I wondered about pickups, and looked at all the frightening prices for DiMarzios and Mighty Mites and what-have-you — you have magnets with a certain amount of insulated wire round and you have to lash out £30. That seemed totally outrageous so I made a couple of coil formers, went to a hardware shop and bought a couple of bar alnico magnets, shoved them through a few pieces of shaped formica, sent them down to Roka's, and for £8 I had perfectly decent pickups. That was three years ago — one of the pickups has got a bit knackered from my slapping tendencies so I replaced that with a Mighty Mite in a different case — it basically sounds the same, I couldn't tell the difference.
"There's no truss rod: there's a T-section aluminium strut as in the Kramer, except that it's a wooden neck with the T-section buried, and then the perspex fingerboard sits on top of that. What really bothered me when I'd put it together was, I'd got a neck here that's aluminium, wood and perspex — I thought, I'm going to go from here to Madrid and the whole thing's just going to fall apart. Well, it's been three years now and it's been to just about every climate in the world. For example, we did a few days where we went from Naples to Helsinki to Madrid — no problem! I did it with Araldite, no magic to it. Just score whatever you're working on, a few clamps, slap on the Araldite, a couple of bricks overnight... when you do these things, you actually learn the amount of bullshit that is shoved down you. It's lasted better than any bass I've ever had."
Sal Solo: "I finished the 12-inch of our new single yesterday, it's called Because You're Young. I spent ages on it — the thing was the other 12-inch, Is It A Dream, sold more than any 12-inchers EMI have ever done, you know. I received that piece of information while I was in doing the new single, so I thought OK, if that's the case then I can justify spending a fair bit of time doing it. Whereas normally you feel that a studio at £45 an hour or whatever it is, spending maybe half a day remixing a 12-inch doesn't really justify 10,000 sales or something. On this one I actually said I'll take as much time as I need to do the best thing I can think of. When you start off as a new act nobody's quite sure if you're going to sell records or not, there's always this nagging feeling that not too much money should be spent because you never know if you're going to get it back. As soon as you have some success, then people start thinking: Oh, well, it's all right then! So the budget on our second album was twice the first one, and on our next album will be twice what this one was.
"All but about one of the tracks on our new album I mixed on the Harrison computer system, which uses two tracks. It doesn't record EQs or anything, all it does is fader levels. So really, it's not that helpful, because you can't come back to anything afterwards, unless you've written down all the EQs and everything, and get the same thing. The only thing it does is, if you've got 22 tracks, as it is with this system, of things that need final adjustments or you want to mute it and so on, and you haven't got enough hands to do it, then quite often in a normal mix you'd let those things go. There might be a noisy guitar track or something, with loads of hissing on it, that you normally have to leave in because you're busy doing other things. That's what I like about this system, I can do it all myself once the engineer has set it up, I can just go through it run by run, and do it.
"With the first album we were recording songs which we'd played live for quite some time, and so we tended to go in and record them as they were and then just add a few things and that was it. This one, we did a lot of demos first on the 16-track downstairs at EMI. Is It A Dream we'd done in demo form as an instrumental which was really good, and I put it together with some other bits and pieces. So we'd tried everything once as demo things, and we started to record the album on the 16, and went to 24 afterwards. Everything was pretty worked out, not in the live sense but soundwise.
"The main difference recording this album to the first one, was that I tried to listen to every sound before it went down. The Simmons helped a lot with drum sounds, there are very few duff sounds that you can get out of it, tom-tom-wise anyway. Also, I was listening quite a lot to panning, listening to things on headphones and making sure that all the things that alternate are in different places. Every night when I had a monitor mix I'd go out and listen on the headphones, splitting things, putting them on either side. You will actually hear things moving about on this album, or coming out from different places.
"I think the general sound, the production, on this new one is a bout as good as anything else that's about, but at the same time it's not perfect, there are still mistakes and things that could be better. But I think it's better that way, I wouldn't want to make a totally clinical album where it's a sort of state-of-the-art thing, that's not what I'm into.
"You learn as you go along — as a producer I'm learning all the time. It's part of the whole philosophy, where we're just amateurs dabbling. I wouldn't like to be like one of the established, name producers where you just go and you produce records all the time. For me, every record we make is a bit of an experiment. On the first album I didn't dare touch EQs, whereas on this new album I did one of the tracks just with a tape-op. It's not desirable to get too hung-up with the technical side, but you want to make the best product you can.
"We're going to try to make records that will still sound good in ten years time, and so you do have to force yourself to make use of all the modern things there are."
Interview by Tony Bacon
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