Excerpts from City Slab Horror
Severed Heads mainman Tom Ellard in conversation with Dan Goldstein - no one in the modern music industry is safe.
This month, Australian electronic industrialists Severed Heads release their second UK album to a small but loyal following that knows musical courage when it hears it. Chief Head Tom Ellard answers the questions after the band's first live performance in Britain.
E&MM: What, precisely, does Severed Heads consist of, and what's it achieved so far?
It's an Australian band; the name's been in use for about four years now. We put out our first record at the beginning of 1980, and one every year since then, mainly independently in Australia. It's not a very healthy place for electronic music, as the big thing in Sydney is still very much rock 'n' roll. So it's hard to get very far doing anything that's at all experimental, there aren't any recognised channels for it outside of specialised cassette labels and so on.
Two years ago we were struggling, but then Dave Kitson from Ink Records in London picked up a copy of our Since the Accident LP when he was over in Australia doing research for a compilation album, and he was sufficiently impressed to want to release it here himself. And it's done quite well here, because in England you can find a decent-sized audience that's into something a little bit out of the ordinary.
I think what a lot of people in Europe like about what we do is that it is a little bit off at a tangent from what's going on here. Being slightly cut off from what's current in the UK and Europe means our music has an individual flavour to it, a novelty that people seem to like.
In Australia you can get all the same information you can get here, all the same magazines you can get here, and even most of the same equipment you can get here. But the difference is that there isn't the same network of people. You don't get to experience avant garde music live, and you don't get to talk to other people very often about what they're doing.
So what got you interested in electronics and computers in the first place?
Well, it was really that big spate of what was called industrial music or electropunk, about '78 or '79. People like Daniel Miller, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire. I was never really into punk as such, but when you get people using really cheap electronic gear in interesting ways - that's when it starts getting exciting.
Around that time I bought my first drum machine, a fuzz unit, and a third-hand Kawai 100F monosynth. It was terrific, an absolutely brilliant piece of machinery - honestly! It makes the best squealing and ranting noises you ever heard. It's probably more like fifth-hand now, but I still know where it is.
As you can imagine, there wasn't much motivation in Australia, except that SPK were just starting up and doing a few concerts in and around Sydney. But we got offered half a record to play around with quite early on. It only cost us around £250 to be involved in, so we did it. We came up with an absolutely abysmal bit of noise! But it was worth it, it had its own kind of energy.
Presumably your range of gear has increased since that time...
Oh yeah, though the improvements haven't necessarily been for the good. At the moment I've got a DX7 and I've just got a Commodore 64 and a Jellinghaus 12-track software package, but I'm very disappointed with a lot of it. The program I'm using has still got a few bugs in it, and using the German scale doesn't help.
And so far I haven't got much of interest out of the DX, either. I've got maybe three or four sounds that I consider to be incredibly aggressive and fun, but the problem with an instrument like that is that it's easy for it to become predictable. If you take the trouble to try and understand the principles by which it works - which admittedly takes a long time - you begin to understand what you're going to get out of it before you've actually achieved anything. With something like an old modular synthesiser or a roomful of Korg MS20s (which is one particular trick we pulled on one occasion), you're never quite sure exactly what's going to happen next. I'm not really interested in doing what Dave Bristow does, just replicating other sounds, so I don't really know - I hope I'll be able to get into the DX eventually.
As for the Jellinghaus, let's just say I wish I'd gotten a Roland MSQ700. Then at least I'd have been able to transport it. Carrying about a Commodore, the interface, the software and the disk drive all over the place can get quite difficult - everything's so bulky! Plugging a Micro-Composer into an MS20 is easy, but this MIDI stuff can get damn awkward; you end up with a mass of leads all over the place. The cost is immense, and the results aren't really all that spectacular.
So what's the equipment on City Slab Horror, the new Heads album?
Well, it's mostly MS20 and Roland MC202, not exactly hi-tech stuff. The MC202 is brilliant, one of the best synthesisers Roland ever built. It runs on batteries, so I can bring it over with me to England and use it on stage, it's easy to use once you've got into it, and you can run just about anything off it. In fact, almost everything in my home studio runs off the 202; the drum machines, the synths, even the Jellinghaus software.
"The first synth I ever had was a third-hand Kawai 100F monosynth - an absolutely brilliant machine. It makes the best squealing and ranting noises you ever heard."
The monophonic set-up is one that I like a lot. With an MS20 and a Micro-Composer you can fill up seven tracks and dump down, then fill another six and carry on like that, so there's quite a bit of potential, and the most important thing is that the quality of sound can be a lot higher than you get with polyphony. With an MC202 system you can have seven different tones and amalgamate them, where as something like a DX7 gives you polyphony but only one sound to play with at any one time.
So as far as you're concerned, the highest-tech music hardware doesn't really fit into the Severed Heads scheme of things?
Well, look at it this way. Dave Kitson has offered me time in a 24-track studio that has a Fairlight in it, but I went in there on one occasion and thought: 'I can't do anything in here!' The problem lies in the fact that if you've only got a limited amount of studio time with a Fairlight, then obviously you're going to use the preset disk sounds and obviously you're going to get in a good engineer to handle all the sounds for you. And the way things are at the moment, it's in a band's interest to use sounds that are instantly available and that have proven to be successful for other artists.
That way, you get an endless cycle of sound that's very difficult to break out of. The radio plays songs with untreated LinnDrums on them, so bands record with untreated LinnDrums because they've heard them on the radio, and engineers get more and more requests for successful sounds that they feel obliged to comply with. And so it goes on...
It's imperative, then, that you have a home studio of some sort that enables you to work without any time restriction?
Absolutely. We've got an eight-track now, though like a lot of people we started off with a couple of cassette recorders and worked our way up from there. Actually having that number of tracks to work with is important to us, because so much of what we do is based around tape loops. If you get an eight-track loop going, you can create some bizarre percussive effects just by fading tracks in and out in time with a drum machine pattern. That's what results in those great, lolloping rhythm patterns that have become very distinctive for us. It is low-tech, but it's good; it's got plenty of feel and aggression, the qualities I'm interested in.
But there's a fair bit of sound sampling on Severed Heads records, how was that achieved?
Well, most of it on the recent album is done with a Boss DE200, plus plenty of sound effects from tape. We used the Boss to trigger some really aggressive samples like punching noises and cars crashing. But the main problem with sound sampling is the pressure to show off the fact that you have one. If you sample the sound of a crashing car, there's a temptation to let it run on to let everybody know you're using a crashing car. In fact, the best thing to do is to use just the part of the sound that has the most emotional impact, to work things so that the original sound is no longer recognisable.
I don't really think sound sampling as a technique has got very far yet. The main hold-up lies in the fact that people are trying to make narratives with it, rather than sitting down and listening to the aesthetic qualities of the sound itself. If you try to use sound samples for the purpose of storytelling, they get in the way of the music.
It's happening largely because the technology is still coming in. When the first movies came out, people were using the new technology in a very heavy-handed way and the movies they made suffered. It was only as the gear developed that people started using it in subtler ways; that's what should happen with sampling. What we have at the moment is a lot of people making glorified sound effects records with Fairlights, but it's a stage we've got to go through. Something like a Fairlight lets you sculpt a sound in detail after you've sampled it, but I don't hear much of that going on when I listen to records. The emphasis is still on the sample itself; the sculpting will come later.
So what do Severed Heads have in store for us? What's next on your agenda?
It's difficult to say for sure. City Slab Horror was made basically by me and a couple of other guys that I'm no longer involved with. One of them, Paul Deering, is working on a project to build an enormous FM synthesiser with John Chowning, who's the guy who came up with FM synthesis in the first place.
Right now I'm working with a video engineer, Steven Jones, who's done work for Fairlight and is now developing a huge video synthesiser of his own. The concert we did here last week wasn't really very live; it was basically me improvising on an MC202 to a prerecorded video we've been working on in Sydney called Kato Gets the Girl. Steven's video synth is a wild instrument, full of possibilities, but it's just too big to bring over.
I haven't got much stuff recorded for another album, mainly because I'm still trying to find my way round the digital equipment. Soundwise I'm working solo and stuff is slowly coming, but I don't think I'm going to release anything more just yet because it wouldn't make sense to produce something while I was learning how to use the equipment - it would sound awful.
I'm interested in making some longer pieces of music, things that don't necessarily have to be just four minutes long. And the other thing I'll be doing is going out with a tape recorder looking for some more sounds to sample or make loops out of. These days it pays to have a very long mic cable, you know?
Interview by Dan Goldstein
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!