From Sheffield's tradition as the home of industrial funk, come the Fon Force. David Bradwell talks to the men behind the cream of modern northern dance music.
The industrial funk that put Sheffield on the dance map gave rise to two important forces - British house music and Fon.
AS DETROIT IS the home of the motor car, so Sheffield is the city of steel. While the industrial centres of Detroit and Chicago have given rise to techno and house music respectively, so Sheffield is home to Britain's industrial white funk movement. As we move towards the next decade, the barriers between different types of dance music are being torn down. In '89 the best innovators on both sides of the Atlantic are starting to work together, trading influences and sharing the fruits of their respective innovations.
Sheffield has had a strong musical purpose since the early '80s, when synthesisers were a novelty and samplers a misunderstood myth. Bands like Heaven 17, the Human League and ABC were the popular face of Sheffield's new music - a sound conceived around cheap multitrack recorders. As the scene evolved, bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Chakk, Hula and Clock DVA experimented in their bedrooms with drum machines and tape loops - and onstage with sequencers and slide shows. Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, black American dance music began to make its mark in the city's clubs. While ever-so-cool London ignored house in favour of hip hop, the North embraced it.
The current Northern scene revolves around such figures as Graham Park and Mike Pickering in Nottingham, T-Coy Mob in Manchester and Fon in Sheffield, artists who have made their names from the warehouse parties that put the danger back into dancing. Of these, the name most familiar will be that of Fon, whose work began to cross over into the national charts last year.
The Fon studio was originally set up as a rehearsal studio by Chakk. When they split, it expanded into a production unit for the Fon Force, otherwise known as Mark Brydon and Robert Gordon. The Fon organisation now includes a specialist music shop and record label, mysteriously called Fon Records. Fon artists include Krush, The Funky Worm and Mink, while the Fon Force have also worked with artists as diverse as Ten City and Pop Will Eat Itself.
While both the producers now have reputations as musicians, Gordon originally came to Fon as a tape op, with a background in electronics.
"I used to sit in my bedroom and build little projects and fix people's radios. I was a drummer when I was at school, then drum machines came out so I got one of those, and everything fell into place. There were people who owned recording gear who didn't know how to use it but I did, and it just grew from there."
By contrast, Brydon was already a name on the Sheffield scene. As the bassist in Chakk he had been at the forefront of the city's music circuit. For him, leaving behind bass guitar to concentrate on working in a keyboard-based studio was purely a means to an end.
"I'm not in love with technology at all. I like music that's made by machines, but quite honestly I find them quite annoying some of the time. You know what you want to do, you've just got to get the little bastards to do it."
The two producers have well-defined roles within the studio, although there's a large overlap where their talents coincide. Gordon concentrates on engineering and drum programming: Brydon specialises in programming basslines and musical parts. Typically, a project will begin with sounds rather than a melody - specifically drum and bass sounds. As Brydon points out "if it sounds good on drums and bass then you're not going to go wrong."
"Sometimes we start a track from the mix perspective", Gordon elaborates. "For example, we may decide on a particular drum sound because we want a particular echo as part of the music. If we decide we want a big bass we start with a big sound, which has nothing to do with melody. If one bass note resonates the room more than any other I base the bassline around that note - which has got nothing to do with music."
"Even at a late stage there's an element of trying until you've got the result you want", Brydon adds. "You can predict to some extent the direction you want to take a track in, but at the end you'll still be pulling and pushing a bit, just to get it finished."
"What often happens is that you complete the track and then you go back and completely re-record the drums in a different way. There are no set rules. We've got our guidelines, but they only work half of the time."
When part of a song has been programmed on the favoured C-Lab Creator sequencer, the sounds are chosen and, where necessary, edited to create the desired mood.
"We're not scared of programming", explains Gordon. "If we've got a sound that would be right with a little bit of fiddling, then certainly on the M1 or the Juno 106 we'd go and change it. I used to do a bit of DX7 programming, but it's just so much of a pain and the sounds aren't even that good anyway. One thing we never do now which we used to do a lot, is stack sounds. You can only hear so much and if you've got a massive sound you have to make everything else massive to make it sound in context. Then, when you try to listen to it on a big system, it just sounds like a mess. I like to use a good simple sound that fits."
THE JUNO 106 is the duo's favourite synthesiser, chosen from their armoury which includes a Roland SH101, Sequential Prophet 5, Korg M1 and Casio FZ1. They are proud to be exclusively using what they describe as "really cheap, readily available equipment".
"If you've got a massive sound you have to make everything else massive, then when you try to listen to it on a big system, it just sounds like a mess."
Gordon explains: "Basically we don't use anything expensive, it's what we do with it that makes the difference. You can't beat the Juno for bass. There's nothing that puts out as much bass as that, no matter how hard you try. A lot of it's to do with the kind of stuff we're doing, it really doesn't lend itself to digital sounds. Analogue sounds suit it best, and there's no real substitute."
The duo's only real complaint about equipment is the expense of fitting out a decent studio. While their keyboards may be cheap, multitrack tape machines can cost a fortune. Furthermore, to keep up with the latest in studio technology you have to replace equipment on a frighteningly regular basis. Brydon can see both sides of the problem.
"I think there's a general problem of too many ideas too quick. Somebody comes along with a CD, and before you know it there's DAT, then recordable CD. Everything gets outdated too quickly.
"There's a difficult choice, whereby you either buy the latest thing or you wait a little bit longer and get the next one. It's a real gamble all the time. We don't really keep up that quickly with equipment. To an extent, if equipment doesn't do exactly what you want it to do you have to find a way of getting as near to that as possible, which means you have to improvise, and it's usually then that you come up with the interesting ideas and oddities."
"We could sit here all night and bullshit you about a load of gear, but it's really down to what we're doing. It's nothing more than that. There's no mystique about the way we produce things."
"We don't respect gear at all", adds Gordon. "House Arrest' was done on a QX5 which we used to use for everything, and which I still think is the tightest sequencer I've ever heard. At times we've even dumped what we've done on Creator back into the QX5 and played it from there just because it sounds and feels better. We use anything, no matter how cheap or how shitty it is. I think that's a mistake a lot of producers make. We even hire MIDIverbs because of their unique sound.
"A lot of what we're about is distorting the technology that's available. Nobody knows how to work the Prophet - we just plug it in and twist it until it sounds good."
Brydon: "I think you have to create the right environment for things to happen. You come across things all the time, but if you sit there and say you want a 10K bias on this room sound, it's possible, but you're not going to find out anything on the way. If you just pull and twist things, you discover things. My approach is that you should explore every avenue and you'll soon find new ways of doing things. A lot of producers sit and listen to those American snare sounds and they know exactly how the sound's configured and how it's been done and what AMS setting is on it, but it's completely boring."
Gordon:"What beats a dry TR808 snare? Nothing. An 808 snare with no reverb and maybe just a bit too much mid in it loud in a nightclub will poke out of speakers better than anything else. People used to laugh at the 808 because they could produce massive sounds with their digital equipment, but all the time the 808 has been the best available. People who are dancing to it can relate more to that than a £300 an hour snare."
THE MOST IMPORTANT aspect of any Fon production is the groove, with choruses trailing a very poor second. Gordon even goes so far as to say the chorus is only there to make the groove sound stronger.
"If we could find the same drum pattern and bass pattern to run all the way through a track non-stop we'd do it. Everything is only there to make the groove feel better. It's true that for pop you can't beat a strong chorus. If you're in a car listening to Radio 1 and a strong chorus comes on you can't beat it. But if a groove like one of ours was pumping out of Radio 1 you probably wouldn't hear it anyway because the bass was too deep."
Brydon: "I've sometimes listened to Stock, Aitken & Waterman records - which are all chorus - and thought 'what a brilliant pop song!', it's just perfect pop but it doesn't do anything for me. It's a technical exercise - fantastic, very neatly done, very boring."
The market for dance music is constantly changing, and with inevitable delays between recording a song and the record hitting the streets (and the clubs), it can be hard to stay ahead of new trends. The Fon Force missed out on the acid boom of 1988 by being busy elsewhere, but now feel regret missing the opportunity to make some cash. Equally as hard as staying ahead is adding the vital ingredient of commerciality, as Gordon explains.
"The 808 has the best snare available - people who are dancing to it can relate more to that than a £300 an hour snare."
"We could write a really good dance record, but to try to make it sound palatable next to something like Kylie Minogue is hard to do. Getting a good dance track to play in a nightclub is dead easy - it only takes a couple of hours, and you've got enough for any nightclub.
Brydon takes up the theme: "The dance market is the pop market in the sense that if you've got a really big dance record it becomes a pop record simply because of its strength. It's really hard to know whether to try to calculate commerciality, or just go out for a really good dance record and hope that it's so good it crosses over. Our natural inclination is to just do what we think is good, and that might not necessarily be radio material.
"Nowadays we tend to do at least two, maybe three versions of everything", adds the engineer. "We do the straight version, then a remix. Often the remix is softened, so we put the original mix out as the dance version and the soft version as the radio mix.
"Our considerations are: is the bass drum loud enough? Is there enough bass? Is there enough clicking? Parrott, who's the DJ in the Funky Worm, says that dance music is down to bass and clicking and he's right, that's all you really need, a good bass and lots of clicky percussion.
"A good intro is also one of the most important things. You've got to have something at the start of the record that DJs can use if they're cutting in from a previous record. There's got to be something powerful about it, whether it's a drum break, a sample or whatever. The record has to announce itself as soon as it's cut in.
"Obviously the music we do has some emotional content, it's not just whether it will kick in a nightclub. You can do the same track in two different keys, and they each sound different. You have to mess about until it feels right. Emotional content is very important, that's what it's all about. The first ten seconds have got to be exciting, it's got to seem like it's forever going upwards."
KEYBOARD PLAYING TECHNIQUE has never troubled either member of the Fon Force - they both freely admit that you don't need to be a virtuoso to play the parts they write. Brydon claims his experience as a bass guitarist has proved much more valuable to him in recent years.
"Sometimes the naive approach is good, it helps you to write very earthy parts", he says.
"Some of the best basslines have only got two notes", continues Gordon. "You can sit down and do an eight bar cycle of a complex bassline that goes up and down or whatever but people don't want to hear that. Especially when you're out at night you want a pounding sound that's going to push through the rest of the music. It's just a gut feeling, and that's the same for the whole of the music. Often you can't justify logically what you do in terms of keyboard sounds, it's just whatever feels right."
Playing techniques were much more important during the making of 'U+Me = Love', the new Fon-produced Funky Worm single. The song needed to sound human but rather than program a simulated human feel into a sequencer, the producers hired in a group of musicians to take care of everything but the bassline.
"It was basically programmed, but with a lot of live playing over the top", Brydon explains. "It was a struggle to get the two to work together and sound compatible. In the end, the only way to get round it is by doing a lot of takes. If it's a band playing then it's a band playing together, but if it's somebody playing against a sequenced bassline they're thinking about the tempo so much that they can't play particularly inspirationally."
While they're in so much demand as producers both at home and in America, it's hard to envisage the day when the Fon Force will release a record under their own name. They've already written some tracks which they're keeping to themselves, but they want to have the freedom to avoid the pressures and limitations of a major record company.
"In our jobs as producers", Gordon begins, "we're commissioned to make hit records. A&R guys don't care whether they're good records or bad records as long as they're hit records - that's their prime consideration. I'd like to make good music as a prime consideration and leave the selling of it up to somebody else."
In a year's time they hope the dance music scene will still be as healthy as it is today, and if so they'll be proud to be part of it. Brydon has the last word:
"The great thing about it is that it changes all of the time, and it's always exciting. I can't really see it going away, frankly. At the moment people say rock 'n' roll will never die, but in 20 years people will be saying house music will never die."