The Frank Chickens
We meet the trio of men behind the Frank Chickens.
Tony Reed talks to cross culture composers Steve Beresford, David Toop and Dave Hunt.
A packed club on Brighton's seafront — late evening, early autumn. On the tiny, knee-high stage at the back of the sweat-heavy room, two tiny Japanese women are performing. The crush of bodies threatens to engulf their few feet of clear space at any moment. But they are in a charmed circle, conjured from ingredients as diverse as bilingual folk-tales, snatches of creaky old monster-movie plots, some of the most eccentric dance/mine you are ever likely to see... and the music. They sing and talk their way through a set driven by a tape of melodies, beats, and just plain noise which, in it's exuberant electronic/acoustic eclecticism, is the perfect counterpoint to their own kitsch manipulations.
It's a good night for Kazuko and Kazumi — as two thunderous encores affirm, they have hewn themselves another handhold on the public heart. I leave the club with their theme tune, We Are Frank Chickens ringing in my ears, and two questions in my mind: why aren't these marvellous women already mega-famous? And where on earth did that brilliant backing tape come from?
The answer to my first question lies with you, dear reader. I got the answer to the second one afternoon a couple of months later, in the comfortable, album-crammed living room of David Toop, one third of the composing triumvirate behind the Frank Chicken's assault on British musical parochialism. (Check out the awesome We are Ninja, or the album, We are Frank Chickens, for the story so far...
With David Toop were fellow musician Steve Beresford, and the teams' engineer, Dave Hunt. Fittingly, given the eccentric nature of the Frank Chicken's project, the three represent an odd grouping of individuals: David Toop, late thirties, neat suit, a reserved academic manner. He reminds me of Robert Fripp. Steve Beresford, in his late twenties, but seems younger — N.H.S. specs, dole-queue chic and enthusiasm. And Dave Hunt? Well, he looks just as he should — a LOT of hair, beard, and bonhomie. You'd feel comfortable with him at the controls...
First question, inevitably: How did you come to work with the Frank Chickens?
David: I got to know Kazuko in 1979, shortly after she arrived in this country. I was working with her on another project, and went to a club one evening to see her performing with the original Frank Chickens. At that time, they were a trio, dressing very Japanese, and singing enka, over authentic Karaoke tapes. (Lachrymose D.I.Y. ballads sung over lush instrumental backing tapes — a cultural phenomenon in Japan, with Karaoke bars doing dynamite business — multi-cultural 'Ed.)
"The way that they had thought about stage presentation was brilliant, and so original — they were clearly ambitious, but I could see problems if they wanted to expand the range of their material. I felt very excited about the potential though, so I got Steve down, and we spoke to them. There were other people keen to work with the Frank Chickens, but because Kazuko knew me, and trusted our musical judgement, they chose us."
To what extent are The Frank Chickens a front for your musical ambitions?
"You might just as well ask to what extent we are the backing for their ambitions," replies David.
"We write the material together. Either they have some lyrics, or we'll have some music. We get together to discuss it, and when we transfer to the studio, all five of us are involved in pulling it all together."
Both Ninja and the last single, Blue Canary, grazed the lower end of the charts. Would you want a hit single?
Steve leans forward: "We'd all love a hit single — but there comes a point when you say we're not going to be stupid about this — The Frank Chickens don't want to sound dumb, and nor do we."
Embryonic pop-stars they may be (well, of a sort...) but rawk 'n' rollers' they aint. All three come to this latest work with Kazumo and Kazuki through the devious back roads of the British improvised music scene. Steve initially went the conventional route of a university music degree, playing in an assortment of soul and pop bands in the evenings, before rejecting both avenue's in favour of London's Musician's Cooperative. Stints with left-field groups like Rugalator and the Slits; and work for radical reggae producer Adrian Sherwood followed. David Toop followed a roughly similar course, seasoned with a spell at Maidstone Art College, where he taught David Cunningham. ("Though I don't think he learnt anything!") Dave Hunt entered the picture as engineer when Steve and David collaborated with Cunningham on the first Flying Lizards album; the team hit it off and the rest, as they say, was history...
So the common link was through improvised music and the people involved with it. What's its appeal?
David: "At the time I got into it, the early seventies, it just had a lot more energy, content, than most of the music that was around."
Steve: "It was the same for me... I was attracted just by the sound of it... at times, improvised music can have an almost terrifying energy."
Dave: "It alters the whole relationship between a performer and an audience. When you can play anything you want to, it becomes something anyone can do... the results depend not on 'skill' or 'technique', but upon the individuals involved and their sensitivity to each other."
And how do you think your experience of improvised music feeds back into the work you've all done in the pop field?
David: "I think it gives you a certain broadness and versatility other musicians don't have."
Which presumably extends beyond the performance into other areas. Although the Ninja 12" sounds very expensive, I understand it was all done on eight-track?
"Yes - in a grotty basement in Stoke Newington!" Dave laughs.'
And not a Fairlight in sight? The laughter becomes general.
"I'll give you a trade secret," David offers, "One of the most important noises on that recording was a piece of polystyrene scraping on a bit of glass! We didn't have an A.M.S. or anything, we just went in for a lot of laborious tape manipulation — recording a few chords from a Juno 60, then manually 'scratching' them across the heads of a Revox for the odd drop-in. The extended dub-mix has a lot of that kind of thing on it, they're all standard tape-manipulation tricks, but people these days don't seem to want to get close to tape recorders as instruments. If you think about it, an A.M.S. is really just a sophisticated tape recorder after all!"
Did you have any problems in recording the various 'found sound' sources that you used — polystyrene and the rest?
David: "I've spent fifteen years learning how to record silly noises..."
Dave: "...And, if you think about it, recording a drumkit means you're dealing with up to ten instruments all at once, getting the sound of each one right, and blending it in with the rest. We might be dealing with silly noises, but only three or four at a time. The real problem is with the dynamic ranges of sources like that, which can be enormously far-ranging, so sometimes we'll use compression on the original recording. Usually, we just record the sound, run it with the track, and see how it shapes up — then, if it needs it, move the mike about a bit, and record it again."
What actual instruments did you have on the early 8-track stuff Steve?
"Very little hi-tech — a Juno 60, Simmons SDS 5 modules triggered from a modified TR 606 — lots of odd bits and pieces..."
David picks up the story... "We mix up hi-tech and low-tech, so people tend to think it's all hi-tech. But one of the main lines on Ninja was actually played by me on a Banjo. No-one's using a banjo these days!"
I'll bet! Do you go in for bricollage effects — snatches of film and t.v., stuff like that?
"Not very often," David replies, "We prefer to make our own sounds — though we did use a snatch of the Godzilla soundtrack at the end of Ninja — those ripping-up-tree sounds are his footsteps."
The next five minutes are taken up with fond reminiscences about Godzilla and his unlikely buddies — one of which, Mothra, finds itself immortalised on the eponymous album track. Steve confesses to "having to brush away or tear at the death of Godzilla."
Aside from the obvious effects of a low budget — i.e. no Fairlights — what kind of restrictions were you placed under on these early recordings?
"In a sense," David offers, "a low budget places you under the same kind of pressure as an audience does in an improvised music situation — it can be quite creative."
In what way?
"Well, one obvious consequence is in the way that material is arranged, you have to think very carefully about what you are doing, when and why, because 8-tracks force you to make irrevocable decisions about balance, eq and so on, at quite an early stage of the proceedings."
Now, though, following the success of the early stuff, you've just completed an album at Guerilla's 24-track studio — and you have had access to some expensive toys. How do you think the upgrading has affected the way you work?
Dave replies: "The pressure was still on in terms of time — we recorded the whole thing in twenty-five days, including mixing — but I suppose the fundamental difference was that 24-track gave us space... you can hang on to things that much longer before making decisions, try out different mixes, that sort of thing."
How about the instrumental side — what sort of considerations did you have to deal with there?
Dave again: "We were limited by the choice of the most compatible sync code, we didn't want to end up wasting time, trying to pull a sync code off tape, so we went with the Roland standard. We used a TR 909 drum machine for sync and most of the tracks, because we liked its sounds and ease of programming. We'd usually start off with Steve putting down the sync and a guide track, then add the keyboards — Juno 106, Prophet 5, DX7, and an un-MIDI'ed Jupiter 8; it's got a lovely, squelchy, nasty sound, which makes a good contrast to clean digital sounds from the DX. The 106 was a very immediate machine to work with, very easy to program..."
Steve continues. "We went out of our way to avoid using any straight presets, even from the DX. We'd either make up our own sounds or — and MIDI was very handy here — use combinations of keyboards to get original effects. We found that one of the best uses of this set-up was putting sparkly front ends on analogue sounds with the DX".
You had an A.M.S. this time, as well?
David nods. "Using it meant that we could replace a lot of the sounds with others at any point, if we wanted, so it obviously had a big effect on the way we worked. We tended to plan ahead with the A.M.S. in mind, because there are some quite complex sampling things on a few of the tracks — the middle and end sections of Mothra for example. It's curious though — We are Frank Chickens, which also features the A.M.S., and some radiophonic workshop' sounds from the Jupiter, reminds people of really old electronic music — there is a point at which sampling techniques are going back to a sound, a style that is much earlier, except that it is used in a more rhythmic way — it's almost nostalgic."
Did you get into sequencers at all?
"We did use an M.S.Q. on one track, playing the same line of three different voices," offers Dave, "...a lot of the things that sound like sequencers were actually played live by me and David," adds Steve.
"It's quite interesting having that discipline — seeing the necessity for a very precise bassline, and then actually playing it live — I find that quite exciting."
And you used acoustic instruments?
David answers: "In addition to the banjo, we also had flute, a Japanese three-stringed instrument called a Shamisen, a percussionist and a timbale player... Annie Whitehead," (Trombone on Pikadon—Ed) "but we made a point of recording all them "straight' and dry, rather than trying to make them sound 'weird' — they sounded more startling in context, mixed up with AMS samples that we added on top of a timbale break, stuff like that."
Changing tack slightly — you've all racked up quite a lot of studio experience — what makes a good studio?
"Personally, I hate that submarine feeling so many studios have," says David.
"That's why when Dave set up his own studio recently", adds Steve, "he went for a large, spacious control room with real windows. A lot of playing can be done in there, but there's also another "live" room which is a big help when you're recording flute or trumpet — you need to get that bounce off the walls, and no amount of studio effects can replace it."
David agrees enthusiastically.
"I think the current trend to very integrated, electronic studios can be dangerous for people without imagination. Too many people know only close-miking in that artificial environment — but I 've recorded on stairways, out in the open — an album of piano and flute music that I did recently was done entirely on a couple of mikes and a Walkman. A lot of the standard sounds today are the product of people who saw beyond the standards of their time. Trevor Horn couldn't have happened if Phil Spector hadn't broken all the rules... and one of my all-time heroes, Brian Wilson — would take unusual sounds and instruments, and put them in really poppy arrangements. You'd listen, and think 'What's that?'"
So how do you see the future? Dave?
"If you're 16 and it's your first time in the studio, you're completely at the mercy of the engineer but the way the technology is going — synths, sampling — it's becoming feasible for people to do things at a local level, for their own satisfaction and the satisfaction of those about them."
Between the three of them, the boys cover a lot of ground — David Toop's study of ethnic poetry, Rap Attack, has just been published, he and Steve collaborate on an improvised music quartet, Alterations, and various recording projects keep all three busy. At the moment though, it is their work for the Frank Chickens, which has the highest profile. What are your hopes for it?
Steve volunteers the answer. "I'd like to think that we've made a seductive album — I like to be seduced."