Bronski Beat reveal all in The Garden, as their new album, Age of Consent, storms the charts.
Bronski Beat attack technology with welcome heart and soul. Tony Reed steps into the Garden to investigate.
The location: That holy of holies, Top of the Pops studio. A scene is well under way. The normally patient Bronski's have had a long hard day of being rubbed up the wrong way by Auntie Beeb's jobsworths; their choice of backing tape for Small Town Boy was objected to... and they haven't been hitting it off with the omnipotent producer. Finally, the perfect end to the perfect day; Anthony, the band's dedicated manager is manhandled out of the (live) camera shot by some Beeb heavies en route to discussing yet another problem...
Thursday evening, and millions watch as Jimi gives it his all, and not a trace of the tears behind the tinsel can be seen. Bronski Beat are professionals.
....Which is odd, because in a business which equates professionalism with mere technical competence, Jimi, Steve and Larry have about them an unaffected naïvetie, a sense of wonder about the process of making music which is the perfect counterpart to Jimi's uncompromising lyrics.
A few weeks ago I went down to John Foxx's studio, The Garden, where the band were finishing off their current album, The Age of Consent, to talk to them about it, and their unique improvisatory approach to technology.
With Jimi in demand elsewhere (something he must be getting used to these days) I herded the instrumental muscle of the band, Larry and Steve, into the piano room for a quick chat. Distracted only slightly by the sight of a very young, very nervous tap dancer hoofing her way through Heatwave in the recording booth next door, I began by asking Larry how he got into synths in the first place.
"My first involvement with music had nothing to do with electronics at all. I used to be a big fan of this guy Martin Denny, a cabaret performer in the fifties... He did a version of My Funny Valentine, Hawaian style... Oh yes, I also liked Anita Harris a lot. Tacky music was a big influence!
"When I was about 12, I got interested in electronics, and started mucking about with Reel to Reels — you know, tape loops, the usual thing. I think it was about then that I heard Switched on Bach for the first time, too... then it was things like Kraftwerk... a big Big record for me was Donna Summers' I Feel Love — which we do a cover of in our live set.
"I got my first synth — a Wasp — when I was 19 and just started mucking around with it in my bedroom. Then I played guitar in a punk band for a bit — not that I could play guitar, you understand." (Steve grins — he can play guitar - Witness the Why B-side, Cadillac Car, described by the band as 'Cramps meet Camp!')
"Things really started coming together, though, in the last eight months or so before London Records signed us. We were all living down in Southend, me and Steve just across the road from Jimmy, and we spent most of that time writing material, using the Portastudio. We like to use it live as well, with the backing tracks for each song on separate cassettes, which gives us the freedom to switch around the set order if we want."
What goes on the backing tapes?
"Oh... we like to keep it simple for live work... usually just bass drum on one, snare on two, and sequences and effects on three and four. Having four Unmixed tracks like that lets us tweak the Eq on each of them a bit, or muck about with levels, according to the venue."
"It also... " Steve adds, "...gives us the freedom whether or not to play a note if we want to... we like being able to enjoy playing live."
The gear you use on stage tends towards the simple as well, doesn't it?
"Yes... It always has been. When we started out, we had a Pro 1, for the sequences, a PolyMoog, a Drumatix, and of course, the Portastudio. Now we've got the Pro 1, a DX7, a MemoryMoog, and a Linn — and that's it. I tend to play the bass and lead lines, and Steve plays chords... I don't know any!"
I understand you've got a rather special PA as well...
Larry nods enthusiastically. "Ummm... it's a Meyer... quite small and very powerful, but the best thing about it is that it gives you almost hi-fi quality sound — it's got DBX, and tape hiss through it is negligible — it's the same system used by Marc Almond, and it's very good for handling voices with a wide range... Jimi used to worry about the sound of his voice a lot, but he doesn't complain now as much as he used to."
(This accompanied by a wicked grin and a rolling of the eyes.) "...He's much more confident now, and makes less mistakes."
You engineer your own sound?
"As much as possible... I'm very familiar with Jimi's voice, and know how to get the best out of it... I'm hoping to get an eight track mixer and effects rack built into a flight case, so that I can control our entire sound from the stage. "
How have you been getting on with the DX7?
Steve leans forward: "Well, I've been using the preset sounds on it a lot. The hook line for Why is played on the Harp voice... but we both like a combination of hard digital sounds and warmer analogue ones... so we used the Memorymoog for the backing strings. It's got a good beefy sound, it's possible to get an individual feel to it, and there's the memories for livework. Larry's been getting more into the programming side of the DX though, as well...
So are you the boffin of the band, then Larry?
"No, no, not at all!" (He throws his hands up in horror.) "I'm not an expert or anything... more an experimenter; thats why I think the DX owners' club is such a good idea — it's impossible to learn from the manual: for instance, I managed to get a sort of white noise effect on the DX once by half-inserting a cartridge, and turning the machine on, then storing the resulting din onto another cartridge... hardly Young Scientist of the Year, is it?... I am fairly proficient on the Pro-1 but that's because I've been using it for so long now."
It was another happy accident that led to Small Town Boy being written, wasn't it?
"Well, we had started out trying to do a cover of Pretty Vacant, so you could say that, yes... (laughs). We'd put a simple octaving sequence into an MC202, but then slowed it down a bit... the melody began to change slightly... and it turned into Small Town Boy! All our cover versions come out like that..."
(By now, the atmosphere in the airtight room had got a little thick, so I saved all our lives by opening the door for a few minutes. Next door, the tap dancer was still at it.)
On the album, you've been using the Synclavier a lot — how did the influx of hi-tech affect the way you work?
"Well, we still work things out in the first place on the portastudio, so the basis of our working method hasn't changed much. We usually put down a Linn sync code and a simple four/four guide track, with the Pro 1 providing sequences — we trigger it either from the click out on the Linn, or from the cowbell, which gives you some very odd sequences...
"The Synclavier is owned by our producer, Mike Thorne, who's been using it since it was a university research machine, so he's very familiar with it. We used it for some straightforward samples — we spent one great afternoon smashing milk bottles — but I think the most interesting use we put it to was as a storage and retrieval device for arrangement purposes. We used it to move whole choruses around in a song, do harmonies to Jimi's voice, stuff like that. The 12-inch of Why has a lot of that on. That use of this kind of technology is much more advanced in America than it is here."
Larry then went on to recount a very funny, and probably libellous story about how the bacon of an internationally famous chanteuse was saved by judicious use of just these sort of techniques...
"...you see, no-one had the guts to tell the poor dear that she'd sung flat on the whole album!"
Moving hastily — and a little reluctantly - on: Did you use the Synclavier as an instrument as such?
"Oh yes.. .the very deep bass notes on the single are Synclavier, although the actual bass line is Pro 1... the Synclavier is a very powerful tool, and there is a great temptation to do everything on it, but it is only a tool, and we really prefer that mix of analogue and digital.
"Quite often, we'd take the output of the Synclavier, and process it through the Serge modular analogue system anyway, to fatten up the sounds. The Serge also came in handy for triggering noise gates, operating control voltages, and suchlike. Mike had it specially made for him, in California. It's got special filters and oscillators, its own sequencers... You won't notice the Synclavier on the album though.. we're not into technology for technology's sake..." Having said that, Larry grins, and his enthusiasm gets the better of him again:
"I'm looking forward to the new Synclavier... it's got 32-track recording, so you can load up everything you want to at home, and just dump it onto the multitrack in the studio, which'd save a lot of time. If we get one of them, we'll certainly learn to use it ourselves... it's important to put all this technology in perspective; when we were mixing Why in New York we had two 24-track machines slaved together via SMPTE, and we had endless hassles with that..."
Steve nods in agreement, and adds: "I got pretty frustrated in New York because of the intense technical work involved in programming everything... at one point, we were remixing the B-side, with thousands of dollars' worth of gear — we were in tears by the end of it, so we came back here to finish the A-side overdubs and mix. That time, we just let technology overwhelm us..."
"We are lucky insofar as we can choose the studios we feel comfortable in to work with. Larry engineers all our demos, and the obvious thing is for us to move over into producing our own stuff, but to begin with, we have to use a producer, simply because they know how to make records."
Is the prospect of doing your own production something that appeals to you, Larry?
"Definitely! I see myself as someone who is very curious about making records. I probably don t know enough to do it 'properly' (a quick Alistair Sim impression there). When I record Jimi's voice for example, I control the levels just by riding the faders — very unprofessional — but it seems to work! It's a definite plan of ours to set up our own studio... probably using that new 8-track digital system, the Octette, the one that uses video tapes. I've heard it, and it sounds fabulous. I simply want one, and that's flat!"
From the twinkle in his eye, I feel like dashing out and buying him one now, but failing that: "...It'll probably be a year or so before we can manage it. I've been offered some production work, but that's something else that'll have to wait a bit — I just don't feel ready for it yet."
"I was weaned on Soundcraft, and I like the automated Neves. Working on SSL desks is fun, because everything's made visual and sensory... but I don't understand the Amek 2500, because all the functions get reversed when you begin mixing."
How about effects?
"We don't use many... we're all fans of the AMS, full stop! I've used the Aphex Aural Exciter, and it is good — but I don't think we need it... I'm very impressed with the new Lexicon 224X1 though. Experimenting with room sounds is something I like to do — it aids the visualisation of a song, and that is often more important then the process of production, which tends to be — hassles aside! — a very laid-back affair.
"Live, we've been using the Roland SDE-3000 delay... you can program it at home, then take it out on the road, and have a different setting for every song without having to explain it to some engineer you've never seen before — just set it up, and away you go. Great!"
Are there any areas you'd like to develop in the future?
"Well, lyrically, I think this album probably marks all we want to say about specifically Gay issues..."
(The Age of Consent is so-called to draw attention to the ludicrous discrepancy of the law on this matter. As Steve put it: "Why are hetero's allowed to sleep together at 16, and not Gays!")
"For future live work," Larry adds, "...we'll probably start using some backing singers... and doing live percussion as well, that'd be really good. We'd probably use these D-Drums, the Emulator things... I really like the idea of that kind of digital, modular technology..."
Touring and recording plans?
"Well, our deal with London means we have to produce an album every nine months — which suits us, because we're as much a studio band as a live one... in fact, we're a Portastudio band!... We're huge in Sydney... There's a large Gay community there, and they're knocked out by having a Gay band from London. We're going to Hamburg soon, and doing some dates in this country... everything's so organised these days we don't even get time to muck about much with the keyboards."
Beckonings from the control room indicated that my slice of time with the Bronski's was just about up. As I left the studio, I brushed past someone coming the other way. It was a Bongo player. For the tap dancer.
Interview by Tony Reed
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