The co-producer of Level 42's last two records has also lent his keyboard playing skills to the likes of Grace Jones, Robert Palmer, Mick Jagger and Talking Heads. He discusses his roles as programmer, synth player and producer with Paul Tingen.
From M's 'Pop Musik' to Level 42's 'Lessons In Love', French-African keyboardist and producer Wally Badarou has had a significant, though little-recognised, impact on the charts.
THE SCENE IS a slightly seedy cafe on the west side of Paris. Opposite me sits Wally Badarou, acclaimed keyboard player, Synclavier programmer, producer, composer and solo artist. He is dressed entirely in black, including a pair of incredibly dark glasses, and smiles as he complains about the deteriorating standards of food and drink offered by this city's restaurants, brasseries, cafes and salons de thé.
While we order, he dives deep into his own personal history, explaining that his parents are from Benin (formerly called Dahomey, and a French colony in West Africa) and that, although born in Paris, he lived in Benin from the age of seven to 17. His time in Africa had a profound impact on his musical outlook.
"In Africa one didn't make much difference between different categories of music. People would be listening to James Brown, Otis Redding, salsa music, African music, French artists like Johnny Hallyday, or Western rock music, without creating intellectual barriers and saying 'This is better than that'. We didn't have that kind of thinking, which is very prominent in Europe.
"I'm trying to protect that openness in my own mind, because it's the only way that I can survive as a creative entity. I would hate to be bound to one area of music and to play just rock and nothing else. If it has to be rock at one moment, fine. But I want to be able to switch to bossa nova or jazz the next. That's one of the reasons why I work with so many different people."
And Badarou certainly has worked with a long and varied list of artists over the years: Grace Jones, Foreigner, Robert Palmer, Mick Jagger and Talking Heads are just a few of the names with whom he's worked as a keyboard player. He considers himself lucky that he was always hired for his specific approach to keyboard-playing.
"Nobody ever told me what to play; I've never been a real session player in that sense", he says proudly. Apart from that, he has worked with British jazz-funkers Level 42 since their pioneering days, first as a songwriter and keyboard player, and then - on their last two albums, World Machine and Running in the Family - as co-producer with the band.
Quite apart from all his work for others, Badarou also has a career as a solo artist. In 1984 he released his first solo album of instrumental music - Echoes - on the Island label. The disc featured 10 pieces composed, played and produced by Badarou himself - except for a single guest musician on percussion. It was characterised by its smooth, organic rhythms, often with an Afro-Caribbean feel to them, and by its simple, cheerful melodies. Badarou's feather-light playing touch and delicate pitch-bending gave the synth solos an astonishing flute-like quality, and the sounds themselves were nothing if not original: clear, light, yet always warm. And although, compositionally, the album strayed into the slightly questionable area of nightclub jazz on one or two of its tracks, it still makes pleasurable and challenging listening, three years after its completion.
Today, Badarou is busy recording a new solo album, which will feature his interpretation of synthesised orchestral music. The (heavy) influences are Ravel and Stravinsky, names that are often quoted as classical sources of inspiration by jazz and rock musicians. Nonetheless, this is a surprising new twist to Badarou's already colourful career.
AS THE COFFEE and some sandwiches arrive (true to Badarou's word, the coffee is lukewarm and the sandwiches are tough and tasteless), the musician takes time to explain some things about himself.
"I should thank you for giving me the opportunity to fix something in the minds of people who are looking at me for being either this or that. I'm really only trying to be myself as an artist. I could be a programmer, a synth player, a producer or a singer, but I want to be all of these at once. I'm not limiting myself to one particular area.
"All I deal with is music, not only as a sound medium, but also as a visual medium. I think of music as being visual, which is one reason I've also been involved in writing film soundtracks."
So, there are two more areas of creative expression to add to Badarou's list. The film soundtracks he's done are for Country Man and the successful Kiss of the Spiderwoman. But his qualities as a singer have yet to be put to vinyl...
"It's something that I haven't pursued because, being French, I have a language problem. Although my English might be considered as good, I don't want to sing in a language that I do not really master as a native language. And French is also a problem. It is wonderful to speak, but it's such a hassle to use in anything that is groove orientated: you always end up singing something chanson-like. So language is the thing that's prevented me from singing on record so far.
"Apart from that, I'm not sure what I would want to express in songs. Even though I write more songs than instrumental music at the moment, I'm not quite sure of my direction. Sometimes I think: 'Maybe I shouldn't do love songs, because they've been done so often and some people might be doing that better than me'.
I mean, I want to do something new. If it's not new, there's no point. I'm not just sitting here and doing my job, I want to bring something that hopefully hasn't been done before and I know that I can do that in an area of sound, synthesisers and instrumentals. But with songs I'm not sure yet."
As far as bringing new ideas to music is concerned, Badarou certainly has a reputation to keep up. To a large degree, it's been his inventive application of keyboard textures and advanced musical technology that has made him such a sought-after musical collaborator. Yet, though he is now considered one of the world's foremost experts at working with digital synthesiser technology, he started his musical career playing bass guitar in a hard rock band.
"Bass has always been my favourite instrument", he says. "I like low sounds, and at the time - this was the beginning of the '70s - I listened a lot to Deep Purple, as well as things like Jimmy Smith and Santana. I remember being really angry with my father when he bought a piano, because I was just getting into organs, you know, Jon Lord and things."
"I record direct to disk with the Synclavier, a technology which has travelled too fast for the record companies; my contract says I must deliver them tapes."
Wally Badarou is now 32, yet it took him a long time before he realised that music was what he wanted to do more than anything else.
"As a kid I played melodiea, mandolin and flutes, but I was not seriously into music. I was more into airplanes; I wanted to become a pilot, and I was building tons and tons of radio-guided models. That was probably my technological background." (Laughs.)
When the Badarou family moved back to Paris (his father was appointed Ambassador of Dahomey), young Wally began studying law, and in his free time joined several amateur bands. The tide turned swiftly, and as Badarou's taste in music moved into the jazz-rock arena, he acquired his first keyboard, an Electret piano. Later still, he started working with a group of West Indian musicians who managed to get a deal with Barclay Records. When the band fell apart, Badarou was contracted as a solo artist, but nothing of any importance was released.
What did happen, though, was that he was introduced - in 1979 - to Robin Scott, who was preparing the recording of M's single 'Pop Musik'. Badarou put a newly acquired Korg 800DV synthesiser to good use ("it was a pretty neat machine - most of the synth sounds on the single are from it"), and when 'Pop Musik' became an immense international hit, it gave him his ticket to the international music scene.
"The tune is still regarded as pioneering in the new wave area", says Badarou now. "People like David Byrne still refer to that tune each time I'm talking to them. Even Trevor Horn told me he was inspired by it to record 'Video Killed the Radio Star'."
After 'Pop Musik' the Afro-French keyboard player started taking on a heavy load of session work in Britain. This eventually resulted in a call from Island boss Chris Blackwell, who invited him to join recording sessions at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas for a new Grace Jones album. For Blackwell, the sessions were a huge gamble: he'd thrown together a group of musicians who'd never worked with each other before, and seemed at the outset to have little in common with each other. Yet the chemistry worked, and gave birth to the now near legendary Warm Leatherette album.
Badarou worked on two more Grace Jones albums, working from Compass Point - at that time one of the world's most fashionable recording venues. It was there that he met up with a lot of the acts he would later work with, and also set up his own studio.
"Chris Blackwell was so pleased with Warm Leatherette, that he offered everyone the chance to stay there permanently; you could bring friends over and so on. That's how the whole idea of me being the 'in-house Compass Point keyboard player' came into being, although I never considered myself an 'in-house' anything. But they gave me the chance to build my own private studio there. It's on the Compass Point premises, but quite independent from it."
BADAROU'S COMPASS POINT studio has a full Synclavier system as its centerpiece. Apart from that, there's a Macintosh computer, a DX7, a couple of TX816 modules, a Roland digital piano and two analogue synths: an Oberheim OB8 and a Prophet 600.
"I have a 24-track tape machine and of course a mixing desk, and there's also a Dr Click, now almost fallen into disuse. I used it a lot on World Machine to derive sequences from live drumming, but now with MIDI, I hardly need it anymore - only occasionally to alter or resynchronise existing tapes."
Today, Badarou's main workhorse is the Synclavier, an instrument which offers possibilities the record industry hasn't yet caught up with.
"When I work in my studio. I'm definitely bypassing the tape recorder. For my new album, I won't be using it anymore. The only reason for using a tape recorder would be to backup what I'm doing so that somebody could make a remix later. I record everything direct to disk with the Synclavier, which has a 100kHz sampling rate. It's a technology which has definitely travelled too fast for the record companies, because my contract says that I must deliver them tapes. So what I will deliver to the record companies will be digital tape. It might be F1 or DAT, if that's available soon enough, and of course there'll still be a multitrack tape backup copy of my Synclavier work."
As a beta-tester for New England Digital, Badarou has the full range of Synclavier possibilities at his disposal - though his system's memory capacity is relatively limited. Yet, courtesy of MIDI, that doesn't bother the Synclavier owner too much.
"I've managed to duplicate some of the synthetic Synclavier sounds in the TX816 modules, which saves a lot of memory space. On the Synclavier I have 200 tracks, which are basically MIDI tracks. I also use some of the tracks for audio material, like percussion. My Synclavier has 16 audio outputs, which I route through the board. On top of that I run all my machines off the Synclavier, via MIDI, and through the desk to add effects."
"I want to bring something that hopefully hastn't been done before and I know that I can do that in an area of sound, synthesisers and instrumentals."
It's when we start discussing the idea of technology and human feel, that Badarou suddenly gets fired up, and explains why he thinks the Synclavier is such a fundamentally different machine from any sequencing device or software program.
"The major advantage of the Synclavier above any other system resides in a place where no-one would expect it to reside. It is the fact that the performer, once he has switched on the machine, doesn't have to choose between quantised mode and non-quantised mode. Nothing comes back quantised unless you specify it. To me this is incredibly clever. Of course you can put any other machine in a non-quantise mode, but you have to specify that before you press Record.
"I know this might sound silly, but it's very important, because it means there is no technological barrier between the purely creative flow and the result. When I switch on the Synclavier, I just play. I don't have to think about how many bars I'm going to play, what kind of quantisation mode I want to hear, and so on. That is a definite conceptual difference. It means that you are looking at a machine in a different way. You're seeing it as a recorder, not as a sequencer.
"I want things to be in real time. I like playing. The reason I'm a musician is that I want to play. On my new album, which is a non-groove album, everything will be manually played, so the machine has got to record things fluid enough. Everything that I play, every ritardando, every accelerando, has to be recreated."
Mind you, that's not to say Badarou is opposed to any form of sequencing. On Echoes, the rhythm section contains extensive sequencing - in fact depends on it for its survival. So although most of the keyboards are played live, Badarou describes the record as having a "quantised mode".
Today, he regrets the almost obsessive demand for rhythmic exactness that's made on music by the charts and the clubs, yet he doesn't think it makes today's music any less human than its predecessors.
"Take a young kid: what do you think he's gonna dance to? Is it going to be some King Sunny Ade type of thing, or a modern pop record? It may be sad to say, but people are looking for something exact and square. But that doesn't mean that it isn't human anymore. It still takes somebody to play the part, unless you sit down in front of a computer and type it in, note by note, which I don't suspect a lot of hitmakers are doing. And if you quantise the part, the result will still depend on the player.
"Take for instance the MSQ700, the Roland sequencer we used a couple of times with Level 42. It gives a different feeling to each note, depending on how long you've been holding this or that key, even if you quantise. On top of that, it takes somebody to create a part, so even if you step write, it's still human."
From a conceptual point of view, there are few who would dispute that. But when it comes down to that elusive quality which musicians call "feel", sequencing remains open to much debate - some of it none too restrained. Perhaps it's Badarou's proficiency as a keyboard player, and his eagerness to play as much as he can manually, which makes him less afraid of the "inhuman" musical element so often ascribed to modern, computer-controlled equipment.
"We did do quite a lot of sequencing on Running in the Family," Badarou confides. "Knowing that Level 42 is a band widely acclaimed for its playing ability, we wanted to make the point that we were not afraid of sequencing technology at all. We knew what we were going for, and we didn't use it in a shameful fashion, to cover up mistakes or because we couldn't come up with better ideas in other ways.
"I used the Synclavier only for conceptual reasons, to get the best possible result. For example, there are some voices and bells which you hear at the beginning of 'Lessons in Love'. They weren't there initially, when we only wanted them to happen in the middle of the tune. But when we decided that it would be great at the beginning, I copied it as a whole, all the eight tracks, with the Synclavier, rather than rerecording everything.
"With Level 42, we usually start off doing a lot of pre-production at Mark King's place. We use the Linn 9000 there for its sequencing and percussion abilities; despite its problems, I think it's a really good machine. I have one in the Bahamas and one in Paris. You have 32 MIDI tracks along with a very good drum machine in one box, so you don't have to worry about synchronising while demoing.
"Mark and I usually start out spending time writing songs, and then we go into choosing synth sounds, setting tempos and writing sequences. On the synth side we work mainly on the DX7 and the TX racks, and there's also a couple of Roland machines like the Juno 6. The whole band joins in the pre-production, but Mark and I are more involved on the technology side, so we probably have a more predominant influence over the way things are going to be recorded in the studio.
"Although we prepare a lot of the sequences at Mark's home, there's still a lot of live playing in the studio. Phil Gould, the drummer, might play guiding a sequencer, rather than following it. The Synclavier gets introduced in the second third of the recording process to do all the special icing things, like put on a vocal or a drum effect. That's my area. It's also why we record in Sarm West in London, because of their Synclavier."
Apart from his contributions on the technical side, Badarou sees his role with Level 42 as more that of a sideman, the provider of a valuable, objective second opinion.
"Sounds that would take me 10 minutes to create on a Prophet 5, could take a couple of days on the DX, even with the software programming packages."
"Because I'm not part of the band and because I'm not gigging with them, I have sufficient distance from what they are doing to come up with some valid opinions that they respect. That's why they invite me as a co-producer."
Let's move back to Badarou's adventures in his own studio. Or perhaps we should say studios, because the keyboard player, spending his time between the Bahamas and Paris (where he's involved in producing French acts, too) also has a neat demo setup at his Parisian home.
"At home I have a DX7, a Prophet 600, the Linn 9000, a couple of TX racks, a Macintosh with Performer sequencing software, and an eight-track mixing desk for making some rough cassette mixes and to add effects. I just use it for recording ideas, which I later work out in Nassau. I create by improvising, and having a recorder open all the time."
Being used to working with a Synclavier system most of the time, does Badarou find the sound facilities of his Paris home challenging enough to come up with inspiring ideas? The artist confesses that, after much hard labour, his capacities as a DX programmer are now up to levels where he can virtually create any sound he wants...
"I found it hard to program the DX in the beginning. Sounds that would take me 10 minutes to create on a Prophet 5, the main synth I'd worked on before I got the Synclavier, could take a couple of days on the DX, even with the software programming packages. You have to create each component in such a different manner each time with digital programming. It took me a long time to learn to deal with that.
"If you listen to each component of a digital sound, it doesn't tell you at all what you're going to end up with, whereas with analogue you start with the raw material of where you want to go, and then just move around with your envelopes and ring modulator.
"Today I feel confident with the DX and TX. I'm starting to get some fantastic analogue-sounding strings out of the TX racks. If you were to listen to each module individually, you wouldn't believe that these components together create the huge sound that you hear in the end. They don't even sound like a violin individually. They sound like awful square sounds.
"Programming digitally, you do quite a bit of guesswork at the beginning. And even now, I'll still shadow a digital sound with an analogue to make it sound warmer."
THE NEW, CLASSICALLY orientated album will hold a lot of surprises for Badarou's fans. And the composer is the first to acknowledge this.
"It's going to be very unconventional. I know that some people will be disappointed because of expectations they might have of me, and also because there's definitely a trend against solo artists using electronics to recreate symphonic works.
"But what I'm trying to do is to create a polyphonic ensemble without trying to imitate a symphony orchestra. Although the spirit of the album will be completely dominated by Stravinsky and Ravel - and I know this might sound very pretentious - it will be an exploration into a new area. Some of the tunes will be played using samples, others using more synthetic sounds.
"And of course, there will be a strong African influence. I have lived there a long time, I am an African, so I only have to listen to myself to create an African feeling. There will be a lot of flutes because that, to me, is the instrument that speaks closest to people's hearts. I don't want it to be an intellectual project; I want it to be melodic and I want to keep the warmth of the melody."
When I ask Badarou when his new venture will be released, he remains vague, "I hope sometime later this year, but I'm not in a hurry. I probably have a different way of thinking about time. What I praise in classical music is its capacity to be everlasting. Beethoven's concerto for violin will always be a great piece, no matter how much time goes by.
"I know this might sound pretentious, but that is what I want my music to be as well. I don't want to do something that's going to be forgotten within two months. So if my album needs twice as long, I will take twice as long. And after that I will tour, playing my own material."
Surprisingly, Badarou is planning to play material from both Echoes and his forthcoming album on this tour.
"Yes, I want to do that. It's a necessity. I want people to come to a Wally Badarou concert not knowing exactly what to expect. I don't want it to be just a groove concert; I want to play other things as well. The more I talk to people, the more I realise that their tastes can be quite broad, and why not? I want to play to people who are not ashamed to say that they like Ravel and James Brown."
And why not, indeed?
Interview by Paul Tingen