British Electric Foundation
Martyn Ware has been spending a lot of time producing other people's projects since Heaven 17 faded away, but now a second BEF album is in progress. Interview by Paul Ireson.
Martyn Ware has had a hand in writing some of the most significant chapters of British pop history. The early Human League — Ware, Ian Craig Marsh, Philip Adrian Wright and Phil Oakey, the line-up which recorded the Reproduction and Travelogue albums — had an influence and importance that went beyond the level of their commercial success, not least for giving birth to two outfits whose albums memorably captured the elusive qualities of definitive pop: Heaven 17's Penthouse And Pavement and Luxury Gap, and the revamped Human League's Dare. For Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, who split from the League in November 1980, the stepping stone to Heaven 17 was the formation of the British Electric Foundation, their production company, whose most public outing under that name was the album Music Of Quality And Distinction Volume One, a diverse and slightly off-the-wall collection of covers featuring numerous guest vocalists, including Billy MacKenzie, Tina Turner, Gary Glitter, Bernie Nolan(!) and Sandie Shaw. Following the demise of Heaven 17 and a long list of production credits for Ware, BEF is going public once more, with the release of Volume Two of Music Of Quality And Distinction. The new album has a more coherent direction than the first, in that it is essentially a soul album, and listening back to the mix of a track featuring Mavis Staples in the control room of Red Bus 2, it's clear that the BEF sound has developed into something altogether slicker and more solid than that of the early 80s.
"Heaven 17 went as far as it could," says Ware, explaining why another BEF album is on the way. "We weren't getting as much reaction as we had, so from my point of view BEF was the obvious direction to take. The original production company was just revived."
So who's singing on this album?
"Richard Derbyshire (from Living In A Box), Tashan, Billy MacKenzie, John Lydon, Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, Billy Preston, Mavis Staples, Green, Ghiba de Palma — very good singer, a friend of mine from Paris. We had Curtis Mayfield, but unfortunately he had that accident. To replace him we're trying to get Barry White, and Maurice White from Earth, Wind and Fire. My production company is financing the album, and it'll be released on 10 Records."
The line-up includes one or two odd choices, but Ware has avoided taking an overly narrow view of what the new album should be about: "The basic idea was a broad brief: soul songs, or soul singers, or both." Later, he goes on to define soul as "anything that touches something inside you", a broad definition indeed. But what determined the specific choice of vocalists and songs?
"In my opinion there are certain living soul vocalists whose influence on me transcends their sales potential, and there are some people that I really respect who have dropped out of the limelight. The idea was: artists who I thought had a potential to interpret soul songs, who had never had a chance to that in their normal careers, or established soul artists who aren't getting the exposure they deserve. Admittedly, Tina and Chaka don't really fit into that, but there's a commercial consideration. It guarantees a certain interest and exposure for the album. As for songs, generally, I wanted the artists themselves to choose songs that meant something to them... that's what soul is all about. It's a loose definition, I know. But it's a genre that's always fascinated me. I'm not quite sure what the album's going to be called yet. Well, it'll be Music Of Quality And Distinction Volume Two of course — but there'll be a subtitle, maybe Electric Soul, which is the nearest I could get to defining what it is."
The first album contained some fairly radical re-interpretations of some of the songs. Volume Two will not feature quite as much experimentation. "I've probably, for want of a better word, mellowed since then" admits Ware. "There are still some radical re-interpretations, but it's more focussed than the other. Hopefully it's not more boring. I've got more idea of what I'm doing now, to be honest. That was like being in a dark room and shooting in all directions. It was all done on bluff. The upshot of that is that when you don't know whether you're breaking the rules or not, you come up with some brilliant stuff. When you're more experienced, you tend to be more consistent. That can make it less exciting, but hopefully we've counteracted that by the quality of the work. Because we've put a lot of work into this."
A BEF 'house band' has been assembled to provide the backing: Ian Craig Marsh (programming — "he's really come into his own now that all the hi-tech stuff has come to pass"); Tim Cansfield (guitar, keyboards); Phil Spalding (bass, keyboards, guitar); Randy Hope-Taylor (bass, keyboards); Chuck Sabo (drums); Graham Bonnet (engineer). Red Bus 1 has been used for recording all tracks, and Red Bus 2 for mixing. Ware's choice of studio, one he has worked in since the early days of Heaven 17, was determined largely by the atmosphere of the place. "It's not too hi tech — not all new chrome and muted blues and greys. I remember when Chaka came down she said the atmosphere reminded her of Atlantic in New York, or one of the old soul studios, where they're a little run down. I think it's important for artists coming in from the cold, rather than feeling that they're in some kind of hit factory — you know, a lot of studios just have every gimmick under the sun — it's more important that the studio feels lived in."
Isn't this an unexpected point of view, coming as it does from someone who is associated a band whose approach was almost entirely about using technology to create a new pop music?
"Well we still are associated with technology, but the technology is important in how you use it. We have all the technology we need in the instruments we play, and we don't need to tart it up with masses of outboard gear, because we know what we want now."
"People that use specifically synthesizers all the time have carved out a little niche for themselves, hut my brief has always been to use the technology that's available to make the best possible music."
Ware's progress from founder of a cult electro-pop band in the late 70s to a respected producer has taken place as the technology of music recording has been transformed in quite fundamental ways. His success is arguably a product of the revolution that gave us cheap synths, and he quickly identifies the two most significant advances in music-making during his time as a musician and producer.
"Obviously MIDI, and synchronisation has become much more reliable. We were definitely pioneering on the first two Human League albums. We were trying to do things that weren't technically available at the time. We were having to invent sync systems from scratch. We tried all sorts of things — pilot tones... you name it, we tried the lot."
The sound of those albums is undeniably avant garde, and a surprising number of tracks still bear critical examination 11 or so years on.
"The avant garde-ness was a byproduct of the fact that the equipment wasn't around to make it anything less than avant garde. As far as we were concerned — we were naive, and ready to take risks — to our ears, the early Human League stuff sounded fully formed, like a symphony orchestra to us. It wasn't willful. You could only play one note at a time, and you couldn't sync sequencers together until 1983. Obviously, the advances in sequencing and computers have made it much easier for people like us, but ironically what it's done is to enable us to make things more realistic.
"Rather than electronic music being the staple material of what we do, it's more a seasoning that we can use when we need it. People that use specifically synthesizers all the time have carved out a little niche for themselves, but my brief has always been to use the technology that's available to make the best possible music."
The album is being recorded on analogue multitrack, and Ware has some refreshingly down-to-earth thoughts on the relative merits of analogue and digital multitrack. "I've got no really strong preference — it seems way down the list of priorities. The single I was involved in writing which sold the most copies, 'Being Boiled', was recorded for £4 in a room in a run-down engineer's workshop in Sheffield, bouncing from track to track on an old Sony. So I think there's a lot of bullshit about technical development. It would make things easier if we had a digital multitrack, because our techniques involve a lot of bouncing and slave reels, but that's just a practical thing. In terms of sound quality, obviously there's very little noise and no degradation, but against that there's the slight benefit of analogue tape compression."
Instrument-wise, the S1000 inevitably features on the album, along with the EIII, and various other keyboards. A Mac II handles sequencing duties. "We've got a massive library for the EIII now, some great samples. We've spent 18 months sampling, so that's our main tool. We've also been using the Korg T3, and we've just got the new Roland D70, which is very good because it gives you much more of the analogue style live fader control, which is what you want. You don't want to read through manuals and alter every Partial — all that matters to the musician in the studio is that you can get the sound in your mind as quickly as possible.
"I find it difficult to compromise to current tastes, with song writing. I can't deliver goods to a record company to the current brief, which is that a song has to have four-to-the-floor, or it has to have a Soul II Soul rhythm track."
"We don't design sounds. We never have done, apart from in the early days of the Human League. Generally, with something like the D70, we modify existing sounds, because the controls on that particular machine are very extreme. To use the analogy of a block of wood, the tools that you can use to make your sculpture are much more useful than the tools on an FM synthesis machine. I don't know any musician who doesn't use presets as a basis, rather than have a blank canvas and then saying 'right, what sound do we want'. If you have three weeks then OK, but studio time is expensive. It's all economics. I can say to Ian, 'I've got this sound in mind, I want you to create it.' He'll use a basic EIII sample, and modify it in Alchemy. Very quick and easy. I think developments in synthesizers are heading back towards the controls you had on analogue synths — tweakability — because that's always been the important thing."
The tracks for the album were mostly finished by Martyn and the band before the assorted vocalists came in to lay down their contributions. A good deal of live playing was involved, and the balance of playing and programming varied according to the requirements of each song. "The Chaka track was originally completely synthetic, except for a little live guitar. But we did some vocal takes, and it occurred to me that she'd be happier with a live band — so on another slave reel we recorded a live band, playing to the click from the original, so we could mix the two together, and it worked brilliantly. It's very important, in this particular instance, to have a very good drummer — when we mixed that and the synthetic drums together, they just sounded brilliant."
Master Tracks Pro is the sequencer of choice. "Another example of our philosophy towards this kind of thing. It doesn't have a lot of the flashier attributes of some of the other sequencers, but it is very elegant and easy to manipulate, and quick, and it has the resolution that we need. Things like Performer, for instance, get on my nerves. The screen is so confused and cluttered all the time, I just find it's not conducive to creative thought. There's something elegant about Master Tracks Pro. You can see the structure of the track at a glance, and there's nothing on the screen at any time that you don't need. It's a working sequencer, rather than something that some American has spent six months working on to make you think it's worth the money."
Since the demise of Heaven 17, Ware has taken a complete break from songwriting, which can only be a loss to the record-buying public. Ironically however, it is public taste which has prompted the hiatus. "I find it difficult to compromise to current tastes, with song writing. I can't deliver goods to a record company to the current brief, which is that a song has to have four-to-the-floor, or it has to have a Soul II Soul rhythm track. If that is what is necessary to sell songs that you write. I'd rather not do it."
Nevertheless, Ware has plans to start writing again, with a band, once the current project - album release in February, preceded by a single - is out of the way.
"I can't wait, after so long working on other people's material. I've got a million ideas bubbling under the surface, and a lot of good people to work with."
Looking back, it's odd that the two halves of the early, experimental League turned into two such outstanding pop groups. Ware puts this down in part to competitiveness. "We wanted to prove each other wrong." The two factions had quite different approaches to pop. "Phil always had the common touch, and that's not a criticism. He could perceive pop music as a fan, and I never could, really. I mean, I was a fan of pop music, but as soon as I was working inside it I could only regard it as someone who was creating it. I can't sit back and listen to tracks that I've done as a pop fan would, and that's probably a weakness, and I don't know if that's the same for a lot of people."
Certainly, it's hard to get distance on what you're doing.
"Yes, but I don't think I even want distance, because it pollutes your ability to create. The act of creation is important, and if it's sincere at the time, what more can you ever do. The best pop music is ephemeral. It's important to people, it's important to me. But the best pop music, I'm afraid, the most popular pop music, is remembered for the most banal reasons. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, but as one's tastes change, you want to create something that has more resonance. That's why I think 'Let Me Go' was so good. It touched on both those things. It had resonance, and it was throwaway as well."
Interview by Paul Ireson
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