Crest of a Wave
Strangler's keyboard commandant Dave Greenfield tells us why he's Waved goodbye to his Hammond.
Strangler's Dave Greenfield reveals to Tony Reed why he's Waved goodbye to his organ.
The Man's in Black... I don't suppose I should really have expected anything else. But Dave Greenfield, keyboard player with The Stranglers (celebrating ten years together this Autumn), disarms my initial apprehensions as he breezes into the record company office.
The band that he has given a decade of his life seems to have moved through a bewildering range of styles in that time, from the hard-punk thrash of No More Heroes, to Radio 2 favourite Golden Brown; the new album, Aural Sculpture marks yet another change of gear, to a spacious, commercial sound, masterminded by producer Laurie Latham (best known for his work with Paul Young). This new project also marks a personal departure for Dave — he has finally forsaken his beloved Hammond for the tender digital mercies of the P.P.G. Wave 2.2.
A few minutes after his arrival, and comfortably installed in someone's office, I asked him all about it...
You started on guitar originally, I think. What was the first organ you used?
"Oh, that was in Germany... I started out on a Vox Continental, then I started using Hohner Cymbelets."
I've heard of them, but I don't know much about them...
"Well, they've been out of production for about, ooh, ten years now. You know the Pianet? Well, they look exactly the same as that, but in place of the sticky foam pad that plucks the note, they had small rubber hooks like this," (Makes a crooked gesture with his finger) "that plucked the note from beneath and then returned... They used to go like anything. I ran Hohner out of all the spare parts they had, I think. I bought one, then another one, and another... You see, on the road they had one major design fault — the long bar pickup inside would short out if the humidity got too bad, which it often did at our early gigs. Everything would cut dead, so we'd get the spare one on stage, use that for half an hour or so, and hope that by the time that one went, that the road crew had been able to dry out the first one and get it working again!
"After that, I used a Lowrey for a little while, which I didn't like much, then it was on to the Hammonds, until quite recently."
I think I read somewhere that almost all your playing on the previous album, Feline, was done on an OBXa, with just a bit of piano.
"That's right... and now of course I'm using the Wave 2.2, in place of the organ and the piano — an Italian thing called an Imperial Dynamic or something — frankly, I don't need 'em anymore... I can get a better Hammond sound on the Wave then I could on a Hammond!"
So you're not an organ purist?
"No... I like them — but on the road it's a hassle for the crew, they take a lot of room up on stage, and they have a tendency to let you down. With the Wave, I can get a pretty close sound to the two I used to use on the Hammond — a very percussive, sharp sort of sound, and quite a good Leslie effect... though I never had a Leslie to begin with... Obviously it's not possible to speed up or slow down the 'Leslie', but aside from that, it's remarkably close."
Have you got the Waveterm?
"Yeah... and soon I'm hoping to get a 2.3. On the 2.2 you can only sample two sounds at once... Once you've spread out an octave either way of your sample note, you lose the sound. So with the 2.3 you can take eight samples. Every third of an octave, you've got a sample point... that should give you good tone right across the keyboard."
Have you had a chance to get to know the Waveterm?
"Erm... No!" (Laughs) "...I don't even know the Wave 'inside out', as such... I don't use the sequencer at all. I could work it, but I'd have to go back to the manual to do it... Since that's translated very literally from German, that's something I can do without. I've learnt to sample sounds, store and recall them, split them and so on... basically what I needed from the machine as soon as I got it."
Did you find that process... using the Wave as a performance rather than as a composing tool... an easy one?
"No, not at first. My background in synths was analogue, where you twiddle the knobs and listen to what happens... The Wave came as a bit of a shock to begin with, but I suppose now in comparison to things like the DX 7 programming it was relatively straight forward.
Are you interested in exploiting the composing possibilities of the Waveterm?
"Yes — but I just don't have the time. If I've got something, I have to learn to use it properly... but I only got the 'Term halfway through the recent recording for the new album... the only thing I can see me using it for over the next six months or so is for 'truer' real sounds... good brass, in particular. I just don't have the time to create my own wavetables and so forth. Getting good samples is a slow process. On the Waveterm you've only got a sample length of 2.8 seconds, and looping it so it doesn't glitch isn't easy. If you make a mistake, it can throw the whole thing out of key.
Anyway, if it's a matter of getting 'weird' sounds, I can usually get what I want either by altering the Wave's sounds, or by using the OB — though the OB tends to be quicker."
What do you now use for live performances?
"The OBXa, the 2.2, a Minimoog for effects... by splitting keyboards, I can have five different sounds available at once... I thought that going over to this new set-up would make things easier, cutting down from six or seven manuals, but it just means I've got more to adjust on the ones that are left. The Wave offers you a 100 split, but you must use the same Wavetable. If I want two sounds from different tables, I've got to reorganise everything..."
Yes... listening to Aural Sculpture, I've noticed that the keyboard parts have become very complex, from the point of view of the range of textures you use... on Laughing, for example...
"M... for me, the main progression musically on this album has been the progression of sounds on the keyboard..."
Doesn't this complexity make it hard to keep track of everything on stage?
"Yes! ...the first week of any tour will be difficult... have to use a sheet of notes telling me what to punch in and where. It's hard arranging a free hand to make the changes, but after the first week it all becomes pretty automatic... I haven't forgotten anything drastic yet!"
Wouldn't things like sequencers help you out?
"Well, I prefer to play live. Using sequencers is like using tapes really. The only time I've used one so far is for a twiddly bit on Bearcage, when I simply didn't have a hand free to play it. I still triggered it manually, though. On some of the new material... I don't know yet. I may use the Waveterm on stage..."
What about effects?
"I don't use much... a couple of phasers for the old stuff. We use an Eventide Harmoniser for the high voices on the 'meninblack' stuff, and the band's got an AMS, but we haven't used it on stage yet."
I notice that Laughing has a Linn Drum intro... does you feeling about sequencers extend to rhythm machines?
"We don't use them very much... more as effects, really. The stuttering organ sound on Skin Deep was done by gating the signal from the Linn's hi-hat... there'll be a Linn on stage, but it's only there for Jet to trigger its bass-drum voice, which he likes a lot, from his own bass drum."
Do your performance controls give you all the 'feel' you want?"
"Not so much as I'd like, actually. None of my keyboards are totally touch-sensitive — on the Wave it's limited to pressing harder to bring effects in... and if you bring it in on one note, you bring it in on the lot... it'd be nice to have something like programmable patch footswitch too, so you could jump around memories without having to duplicate them or re-write them in the right order."
Getting away from the music side for a minute... the cassette version of Aural Sculpture features an adventure game for the Spectrum... that was your idea, wasn't it?
"Yes... I bought a machine for my fiancee, but I've spent more time playing with it than she has!
I only program in BASIC at the moment, so the game was written using an Adventure package called The Quill. I wrote the music for the program, and the scenario, but a friend of mine actually implemented it... I just didn't have time!
"It's actually six small games, spread over the whole 48k. You play our Tour Manager, who has to travel around the world to find the various pieces of The Ear, (The sculpture in this latest Stranglers project) then bring them back to London, and reassemble the whole thing... it's a proper game in it's own right, not a gimmick. We might be offering it separately through S.A.S. (The Stranglers' Information Service) sometime in the New Year..."
At that point, another cup of tea arrived. It seemed a good place to wind things up.
It's been ten years... a new album, a new producer. Can you see yourself doing this another ten years from now?"
He pauses, the cup halfway to his lips, then: "If it's still fun... I don't see why not."
From the smile on Dave's face, I'd lay odds that it will be.