Tangerine Dream give a piece of their collective musical mind to Matthew Vosburgh, who also took the pictures.
Tangerine Dream, the band that took electronics from the inaccessible 'art music' ghetto to the record collections of millions, talk about technology, their new album, and seventeen years of working together.
If they possess one quality that sets them apart from the majority of electronic music's greatest names, it is that their approach has been consistently fresh and innovative throughout their long career. Above all, it's been their unfailing determination to innovate that has kept them one step ahead of their countless imitators, and prevented their music from becoming stale or predictable for any length of time.
For example, the Tangs' only recent extensive tour was one of Poland last year, a country in which it is almost impossible to make money (they pay you in Zlotys), which has abysmal weather in winter (which is when the band decided to go), and which isn't exactly renowned as being a major market for electronic music (though Klaus Schulze, himself a former Dreamer, received a rapturous reception there when he played some concerts not long before).
The band's latest album, their first for the infant Jive Electro label, was recorded at one of TD's Warsaw concerts, and is entitled, simply, Poland. It's far from being their first live effort, so why the fascination for dedicating concert performances to vinyl?
'A key reason for us to produce live albums is that we play new material live, material which we haven't released before. So with the exception of a couple of encores, Poland is all new stuff, not just the same music with a different sound and a couple of variations.
'We recorded it on eight-track: that's about the minimum we could have used and still kept reasonably good channel separation. We had thought in advance about putting the tape out as a record, but we weren't absolutely sure about it because of the weather conditions. You see, on two or three occasions the power broke down and we had to stop the concert right in the middle. Sometimes it was upsetting.'
Poland is a double album comprising over 80 minutes of music. Surely some form of studio editing took place in order to shape it into its final recorded form?
'Yes. We've made a few changes to the original recording. You see, when you do a bridge section from one part to another, sometimes it works properly, but sometimes you think it could have been done better. Not just a bit better, but much better. If that happens, you sit down and add a little bridge or something, because our attitude is that the people who listen to the record should be able to get the feel of a piece and not be interrupted by a technical mistake or something.
'We've also cut a couple of parts to make the album more compressed. Some transitions just seemed too long, so we've cut out a minute here and there. But basically it's still the essence of the concert.'
A band whose line-up has previously embraced the likes of Schulze, the now New York-based Peter Baumann and recent UK Electronica hero Steve Jolliffe, Tangerine Dream have been a three-piece comprising founder Edgar Froese, Chris Franke, and Johannes Schmoelling for a number of years, and it's the former two that contributed most to our conversation. Constantly interrupting each other - their English is excellent - Froese and Franke were keen to talk hardware.
Well known in the past for the vast modular synthesiser systems which dominated the stage at each performance the band gave, Tangerine Dream are now employing a wider range of hardware than ever before, even if it's somewhat less unwieldy.
'We're using all kinds of synths these days - a Roland Jupiter 8, an Oberheim, a PPG with a Waveterm, a Yamaha DX7, a Prophet 5 and a Prophet 600. That's pretty much a bit of everybody.
'If we tour England again, you won't see the big modular system on stage any more, though there are a few modules that we still use, like ring modulators and special noise generators: the sort of things you don't find on a modern programmable polysynth.
'In a way, of course, the modular concept is coming back with the new equipment that's coming out now. The difference is that this time, one module contains a whole range of synthesisers and is controlled from a master keyboard. That kind of system is polyphonic and programmable, but it has in the background the same sort of idea as the old modular equipment.'
The Tangs' present sequencing and percussion department is also about as well-stocked as they come...
'Currently we're using digital sequencers that have been custom-built by a company called PVH. The sequencers are MIDI-equipped, so they can be used to control percussion as well as melodies.
'Our percussion machines include an Oberheim DMX, a LinnDrum, some Simmons drums and a couple of custom-built sampling units. We also use the PPG Waveterm and the Emulator for sampled percussion sounds. The Emulator is very good for percussion because it can be controlled from MIDI or from control voltages, and it's possible to change sounds just by swapping floppy disks: on a lot of machines you have to change ROM chips, which obviously takes much longer.
"We like Eurythmics, Kate Bush, and Laurie Anderson - the people that have found a balance between technology and atmosphere."
'One thing we are very much into is the whole sampling philosophy, because it enables you to record a sound you are fascinated with and then start working with it, changing it, making it into something completely different. There's no doubt that sampling will become more and more important in our music. Several years ago we had a digital sampling unit with a very short sampling time built for us, which we used for percussion. That was the start of our digital sampling - at that time memory was expensive and nobody knew how to put it onto Winchester disks and things like that.'
Have the band received any support from custom designers more recently?
'No. We haven't had any custom work done in that field, apart from having industry machines like the Publison Harmoniser, Emulator and PPG Waveterm customised for us. We've just had extra interfaces built into the machines to make them compatible with our sequencers and other keyboards.
'We're waiting for machines with better sample quality to come out, because at the moment the quality's not much better than what you'd get using a cassette recorder. We're also waiting for machines with longer sampling times, because time is sometimes more important than quality. Unlike many people, we've never really used a Fairlight, because the price-to-sound relationship isn't really very good. Its sampling time is very short, and using a machine like that on stage isn't always a lot of fun.'
'You must remember that we've been using sampling systems since the early seventies. At that time we had an analogue system with a different sample for each key, and every sample had a length of eight seconds. We didn't have looping, but we did at least have a good sample length and some form of multisampling. Of course, sound quality and pitch stability weren't very good... What was that instrument called? The Mellotron!
'Today, to have a digital sampling system with 32 samples of eight seconds is just a dream people would pay a lot of money to have. But these things should become reality very soon.'
Right from the start, Tangerine Dream placed improvisation high on their list of compositional techniques, though as technology has improved and the range of sound sources available to the band has increased as a result, conventional writing principles, have also begun to play their part.
'The technology we are using has obviously brought us to the point where we have to concentrate on structures and pre-programming. The improvisation is still there, but it's on top of that structure. We think a word like 'development' describes the way we write better than 'composition'. You can't just write music down and expect it to be good: in our music there are other things that are just as important, such as sound colour. Our way of working is to go in steps, programming and improvising as we get closer and closer to the final product.'
The Tangs' comparative lack of recent touring activity has been the result of their devoting their writing skills towards making music for films. Edgar Froese took me through the list of soundtracks and the reasons for doing them.
'We've done a lot of film music within the last year. I think we've learned a lot by doing it, simply because you have to use whatever you've learned through the years to create music quickly. You can't hang around and wait for inspiration when you have to hand the music in on schedule, but you still have to produce music with the same expression, the same feeling. Also, you can earn quite a reasonable amount of money from doing it, which you can use to take things further, developing hardware and software.
'The most recent film we did that you've seen in England is Firestarter, and there are two others coming out soon called Flashpoint and Heartbreaker. Then of course there was Risky Business a couple of months ago, and we've also just done an American TV series - Street Hawk. That's quite a lot for one year.'
Like their 'conventional' studio albums and live efforts, TD's film music is free from most of rock music's cliches and the constraints they impose. Their imitators aside, nobody could be said to be producing music that is similar to the Tangs' in concept. So given that their music is quite unlike anybody else's, do the band ever listen to any other people's music?
'Yes. At the moment we like stuff produced by Eurythmics, Kate Bush and Laurie Anderson. Those people have managed to find the balance between technology and atmosphere. Atmosphere isn't something you can put into musical notes - it's there in between the notes.
'At the moment, everybody wants the big fat synth sound - which you can create just by connecting four keyboards in one - and they expect to get quality just through that fatness of sound. There are other people who use only a few notes but can get a lot more across. The 'wall of sound' approach can be fascinating for a while, but after a few pieces you feel as if you've eaten too much cake - it's just too dense. Other people produce better music.'
The band are also keen to point out the drawbacks of modern technology.
'Well, we shouldn't glorify the new technology too much, because it's not always a gift: sometimes it's a battle and a fight. A lot of the problems are caused by software, because machines are often put onto the market before the software has been perfected. For instance, I had an early Prophet 600 that went wrong not suddenly but very slowly. After a week the programs started to change slightly, then they became completely different sounds, and finally after a couple of months they were just noise. It turned out that the program in the EPROM running the machine had a bug in it.
'We are in a position where we can buy expensive machinery, which is fine, we are lucky. But if you want to create music and you've got the ideas, it's not necessary to have a multi-million pound cheque - you can do everything with very little equipment. It's your creativity that's important, not having the latest piece of technology. The machinery is there as a help, nothing more.'
I don't know about you, but I find that very encouraging.
Interview by Matthew Vosburgh
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