It began with an illicit remix of Suzanne Vega and it's already earned them their own album release. Simon Trask tracks down the elusive DNA musical partnership to ask who, how and why.
Their white-label remix of Suzanne Vega's 'Tom's Diner' saw DNA in deep trouble with A&M Records, but the success it brought has earned them credibility as remixers and the release of their debut LP.
If you were listening to pop music in 1990, you couldn't have missed a track called 'Tom's Diner'. Originally an a cappella track by American singer Suzanne Vega, 'Tom's Diner 1990-style' took the a cappella and gave it a moody, atmospheric instrumental backing complete with a brisk, bouncy dance rhythm and a rumbling bass. It was a strangely captivating musical collaboration - not least because it wasn't a collaboration at all, in the traditional sense.
The single went to No. 2 in the UK, No. 1 in Germany, Top 5 in America and Top 10 in France, and all in all sold over five million copies worldwide - yet DNA, the musicians responsible for the music behind Vega's vocals and whose name was on the sleeve, only earned £4000 from it. In fact, for a while no-one seemed sure who DNA actually were. One rumour had it that they were a couple of A&R men from Vega's' record label, A&M - a rumour which the label did nothing to discourage.
In fact, DNA turned out to be a musician and a DJ - respectively, Nick Batt and Neal Slateford - from Bath in Somerset. Not eager to step into the limelight, in the ensuing period they've been busy but low-key. A second single, 'La Serenissima', was released around the same time as 'Tom's Diner' but was rather overshadowed by the latter's success - at least in the UK. A third single, 'Rebel Woman', was delayed by many months while a guitar sample from David Bowie's 'Rebel Rebel' was cleared, and never really did anything. The duo also put together an album of remixes for Polygram in France called DNA: Grooves and Remixes which included remixes of tracks by Afrika Bambaataa, Oleta Adams, Amina and Voix Bulgares.
They've also been busy remixing tracks by artists as diverse as Kylie Minogue, Jesus Jones, Electronic, Kym Mazelle and Erasure.
But 'Tom's Diner' wasn't merely a prelude to a career in remixing. February saw the release of their debut album proper, Taste This, on EMI Records, preceded by a single from the album, 'Can You Handle It?', which reached No. 18 in the national charts.
Taste This is an impressive album, debut or otherwise, coupling well-crafted songs which stay in the mind with danceable rhythms. Although well varied in musical style - due in part to the duo bringing in a range of singers to co-write with them - it also has an underlying cohesion and a strong sense of musical identity. All in all, it's a classy set.
The DNA laboratory is located in a quaint cottage situated somewhat incongruously in the heart of bustling Bath. As studios go, this one is little more than a collection of gear spread casually around a room, a typical hi-tech setup in its disregard for traditional studio aesthetics and practicalities. The ambience is down-to-earth, homely with a lived-in feel redolent of long hours spent burning the midnight oil.
It's here that I sit down with the technical half of the DNA pair, Nicholas Batt, in an attempt to shed some light on the mysterious duo. Actually, there's nothing at all mysterious about the friendly, talkative musician sitting in front of me - it's just that anyone who fights shy of publicity tends to be labelled "mysterious" by the media.
Batt and Slateford share the cottage with a couple of other local musicians who have their own studio at the other end of the building. According to Batt, his home town is a hive of musical activity: "There's a lot of local-level bands, and there's also quite a large percentage of working musicians, people actually involved in deals who have their own studios", he explains.
Indeed, some of the musicians can be heard on Taste This - namely singers Jo Nye, Neal Davidge (who's actually from neighbouring Bristol), Sally Larkin, and singer/rapper Babyshark, all of whom contributed to the album as co-writers. A talented bunch they are, too.
But let's look back on that single. Batt and Slateford got the idea to do it after hearing a couple of records which used snippets of Vega's a cappella. Their manager then approached A&M, but got no response from the company, so they pressed up the track themselves as a white label.
"I went to work at Glastonbury on the acoustic stage as a stage manager", Batt recalls, "and when I came back from a weekend in the fields there were about 20 messages on the answerphone saying that Gary Davis had been playing our track as a white label bootleg on Radio 1. Then from there it all went mad, basically. We got a solicitor's letter from A&M saying 'Sign this, this is all you're getting, or we'll take legal action'. We said 'Well, can we have a point?' and they said 'No, get lost'! They gave us 4000 quid, which covered the white-label pressings and left us with two-and-a-half thousand quid, which went on a mixing desk and an eight-track, and that was that. We didn't get any more money.
"We knew what we were signing, it wasn't that, it was the fact that A&M haven't really been courteous to us at all, so we have a bit of bad feeling between us. We got just one disc out of them, which was a DMC award for Best Dance Remix, but we haven't had anything for other territories like America, which would be really nice to have. Also, they put the record out under our name; I can understand why they did it, so it wouldn't appear to be a Suzanne Vega record, but the first we knew about it was when we saw it in the shops. That's not what we expected with them.
"We get on very well with Suzanne, though. We actually went over to New York and worked with her on another track which we'd demoed, which was out of her pocket, and we got on really well. She's really good fun. She came down here and recorded the vocal for a track on our album, 'Salt Water'."
So what was her reaction to DNA's "version" of 'Tom's Diner'?
"She thought it was great", replies Batt. "That was the whole thing. A&M were very worried about her getting all artistic and petulant, but she's not really like that. Anyway, they sort of shielded her, against her own will sort of thing, and put out all sorts of rumours.
"I think Suzanne appreciated what we did because it actually was her song still. It maintained the song - and it's a good song, but it never really did that well. I think the original a cappella charted around No. 30 when it first came out as a single. I think what we did with it really brings her song across."
She must have done well out of the single's success, though.
"Oh, I'm sure she has", Batt agrees. "It brings out the whole question of whether if you do a remix of a track and it becomes an A-side 7" single, should you get some sort of publishing on it? It's an interesting question, because if you rewrite everything... I mean, in this case there wasn't even any music in the first place. So we basically provided a backing track and rearranged the song into a pop shape.
"I'd rather not make a complete dickhead of myself and then have somebody base their opinion of the music on how I came across on camera."
"When you do make a record a hit when it wasn't one before, and you just get a fee... I really feel some sort of publishing should be worked out in certain instances. At one point we were looking at whether or not we had a right to any publishing on the track. We could have pursued it, and it would have been a massive court case. We basically wanted to hurt A&M for their behaviour towards us, and make them pay up, but... The thing that finally stopped us was that the only way we could do it was publishing, which would have directly gone on Suzanne. There was no way we were going to do that, because we get on alright with her, and there was no way we were going to jeopardise that."
The single's success also had a knock-on effect on Vega's album sales.
"Suzanne's album went straight back into the Top 40, where it had only been for a very short time before, and stayed there for a long time", recalls Batt. "A&M used the single to sell the album - and also made a fortune out of the single, which doesn't usually happen."
The other side to the coin is, of course, that Batt and Slateford have gained far more than £4000 from the track. DNA broke through from anonymity into the public spotlight by hitching their wagon to a star; if they'd simply released a cover version of 'Tom's Diner' using an unknown vocalist, would it have had the same success?
"Oh yeah, there is that side of it, obviously", Batt concurs. "There's absolutely no doubt that we made our reputation from that track. That's something I won't deny. But then we did it, so why shouldn't we? It was a good record for the time. I mean, it was very simple and basic, but those tracks often work the best."
Turning to matters technical, Batt explains that, rather than try to make the sequenced parts follow the tempo fluctuations of Vega's performance, which he felt wouldn't work with a dance groove, he sampled the track in sections into his S900 ("through my little Tantek compressor, which is really vicious - that's why her voice has got so much bite") and then cut each section up into small samples which he sequenced so as to make the result fit the drum beat, laying the results onto a four-track as he went.
"I got maybe 'I am sitting by the', and it was in time perhaps up until 'I am sitt', and then the 'ing' would be another sample which I would jiggle about until it was in time", he offers by way of an example.
The sudden success of 'Tom's Diner' put Batt and Slateford on the defensive.
"It was like 'Oh my God, I've got all these people ringing me up at home, I don't want to tell them where I live...'", recalls Batt. "Anything could happen, so we did get a bit defensive. But we did play the game a little bit, too - I'd phone up interviewers from a phone box and they'd call me back. It was good fun. We didn't get much press about the single, anyway. I think we've just about kept a profile where people still remember the name if they're triggered, which is fine by us."
Coming up to date, Batt is distinctly unexcited by the thought of TV appearances - or, as he puts it somewhat cuttingly, "I don't want to have to work at talking to sheep on Saturday morning." Well, that's understandable.
"Anyway, we know we're not going to be teen-pop pin-ups", he adds. "I don't respond that well in front of cameras, so I'd rather not make a complete dickhead of myself and then have somebody base their opinion of the music on how I came across on camera. We don't feel any great need to be recognised, anyway. I think we're both a bit worried that if things get really big we'll lose all our privacy."
In the DNA scheme of things, Batt takes care of the playing and sequencing while Slateford is responsible for searching out sounds and loops from records.
"Also, because he's a DJ, he provides more of a global overview of the music", Batt explains. "He doesn't play anything, and it's quite good that he doesn't understand the technology, either, because that means that we each have our own areas."
Batt's approach to composition typically involves creating an atmosphere out of which a song can evolve.
"I'm not really a songwriter", he admits. "I tend to create an environment for a song to be written into. I don't sit down at a piano, play a few chords and mumble into a tape machine. I mean, I wish I did. It would be great if I could say 'I wrote three songs last night'. But I didn't, so...
"I tend to work from the atmosphere and the groove upwards to completion. Which is long-winded. I think sometimes it makes things a bit difficult, because you're sitting there slogging away until something happens. I quite often sit in front of the computer for hours and hours, and then just at the end of the session it starts to happen and then I'm off. I don't have a Great Method - which is probably my downfall when it comes to remixing, because it can take a bit more time."
Batt's first musical instrument was a Korg MS 10 monosynth. His early music-making days were spent playing keyboards in a couple of local bands, at which time he had a Roland Jupiter 4, an Ensoniq Mirage and a Yamaha DX7. His first experience of the recording studio came with a council-run course for the unemployed, learning recording techniques for a month at a local 16-track studio. While there, he also discovered the Atari ST and Steinberg's Pro24 sequencing software.
"I thought 'That's what I'm going to do'", he recalls, "so I saved up some money, sold a couple of things and bought the computer and the software."
"When I'm doing a mix, it has to have some sort of meaning - I find it difficult to go 'Oh, right, house piano part, no problem'."
Deciding that he would get into pre-production work and offer his services to local musicians, he signed up for the government Enterprise Allowance scheme, which he says was "pretty helpful at the time".
Having started out with Pro24 version III, Batt upgraded to Cubase, which is still his sequencer of choice today. He also uses Keynote's Chameleon universal patch librarian software for storing all his synth sounds centrally, and rates the program highly.
Today he has three samplers: a Roland S330, an Akai S900 and S1000.
"I always have drums and stuff in the S330 sampler, and I use the S1000 for any loops or string sounds or whatever. The S900 might get used for strings when the S1000 is being used for a lot of other samples; it doesn't get used a massive amount, but just enough to justify it being here."
For the album's big ballad track, 'Blue Love' (which as of writing is set to be the second single from the album, scheduled for release in the second week of March), Batt and Slateford used a real string section - of sorts.
"It's just this one guy called Stuart Gordon who we got in", reveals Batt. "He did a whole multitrack full of strings, and then we bounced that down. He had two violins, so we used them for double-tracking, which made quite a difference to the sound. I didn't engineer that, it was a bit much for me - I got in a local guy who's good at recording acoustic instruments.
"We also used some sampled strings and synth strings on the track - Solo Violin off the S900 and some pads off the D110. My main source of string sounds in general is the Akais, although I also use the D110, which is an instrument I swear by. I'd thoroughly recommend it to anybody - a classic if you get into programming it at all. It's not fun to program, but you can actually fool the ear with it quite effectively if you spend a bit of time. You'd be surprised how many instruments I use it for. It hasn't got a massive amount of sonic depth, but you can sort that out by blending it with other sounds. For a long time I just used to use the D110 with the Atari, and it was great. It's good enough if you take some care with it."
Like any hi-tech musician, Batt has his gear wish-list. One instrument figures prominently on it: "I'd love to get one of the big Roland samplers", he reveals, "'cos I really love the S330. It's so powerful, and for bass sounds you can't beat it. I mean, the bottom end you get out of it is really frightening; it's much lower than the Akais."
A recent addition to the DNA studio - but not such a recent instrument - also gets the thumbs up for bass from Batt.
"The Juno 106 is great for bass. It's absolutely uncontrollable - really massive", he enthuses. "I saw one advertised in Music Technology and it was someone local, only six miles out of Bath. It cost me about 270 quid, which isn't bad for a polyphonic synth. I got it 'cos I'm a great fan of Bass-O-Matic, all William Orbit's work I really like, and he uses one a lot.
"I haven't really got into using it yet. It sounds a bit large for a lot of the mixes that we're doing at the moment, 'cos they're quite fast and there's not really enough room for the big bass sounds.
"When I went to buy it I thought 'I'm sure I remember it having more parameters', and I was a bit worried that it wasn't going to be very good. But it is. For the amount of parameters it's got, you can get a lot of different sounds out of it."
On the subject of analogue synths, what does Batt think of his Cheetah MS6?
"It's not as fat as the Juno, but for the price it's a bargain - you get a lot of synth for your money", he replies. "I use it for strange evolving sounds - usually monophonic lines rather than chords. I'll usually find a sound that's near to what I want and then just tweak it.
"I got the MS6 secondhand, as well. I'm a great believer in buying secondhand equipment, 'cos most of it doesn't really go wrong. I don't have a problem about buying secondhand. I buy new when I have to have something quickly. A lot of the effects I bought new, and the S1000 I bought new 'cos I wanted the digital interface to my DAT machine; it saves a lot on disks for storage."
Talking of effects, Batt is particularly keen on his Lexicon LXP1 and LXP5, even preferring to use them instead of more expensive units.
"There was a Lexicon 480 and stuff where we were mixing", he recalls, "and I still ended up using the LXPs. I was sitting there thinking 'This doesn't spread enough, there's not enough depth to it', so I just used those."
One bit of gear which has gone down in his estimation, however, is his Korg M1.
"We thought 'Wow! We've made it', 'cos to be asked to remix James Brown is a real honour - but the track was so crap."
"I'm getting a bit sick of it, actually", he admits. "I bought it when I was trying to get pre-production work and I thought 'I've got to have one of these'. Then when I got it I found that 70% of the sounds were unuseable anyway, because they all turned up in aftershave adverts!
"Nowadays I don't use very many of the sounds in it, mostly just piano and a few odd noises - though they are featured quite a lot on the album. There are certain sounds in it that you have to have for doing dance remixes, like the piano and the organ. Some of the basses are quite nice.
"It's done me well, I can't pretend it hasn't, but I would like to get another workstation-type instrument, I must admit. But I can't really go mad on buying equipment at the moment, 'cos things are quite tight. We've got to wait until the album starts selling before we see any cash."
Batt and Slateford have built up an impressive list of remix credits during the past year, and in the process have demonstrated an ability to handle a variety of musical styles. Batt has, er, mixed feelings about the remix business, however.
"It's a love/hate thing for me with remixing", he admits. "Sometimes I love it and sometimes I just think 'I don't want to do this'. I do take time to work on things, and if you're faced with 15 remixes on the trot it can take it out of you, because you just get a bit jaded by it. I'd quite like to speed things up a bit, because if you get the turnover going you can just have more fun.
"We're trying to get more of a system with remixes. I find it difficult to... I can't go into auto-pilot mode when I'm doing a mix, it has to have some sort of meaning. I find it very difficult to go 'Oh, right, house piano part, no problem'. But it's not worth spending a lot of time on remixes, because when it comes down to it it's somebody else's record and it's only going to be around for a short time. Although I think some of the mixes we've done have been fairly timeless."
So how does Batt set about remixing a track?
"First of all I take the multitrack to whatever studio I can get into, and transfer it across to 16-track", he explains. "Usually I'll get rid of the drums and the bass, and that often leaves me with about 16 tracks. I usually put all the drums on a DAT, just in case they'll come in handy at some other point. Then I'll get rid of most of the instrumentation, maybe just keep something that gives a sense of the chords, or I'll completely start from scratch. It's generally a matter of getting a groove going that works rhythmically with the vocal, and then building the music around it. We tend to follow the arrangement of the song quite faithfully, and then edit it afterwards if we want to chop and change it."
Have he and Slateford ever turned down a remix assignment because they felt the track didn't need remixing?
"Yeah, we got offered Oleta Adams' 'Rhythm of Life' once, but we couldn't do it", Batt replies. "It was perfect as it was, and we didn't want to touch it. That was a really good track.
"We'll also refuse a track if it's rubbish, obviously. One of our most famous ones was turning down James Brown. We got offered it and we thought 'Wow! We've made it', 'cos to be asked to remix James Brown is a real honour. But the track was so crap, it was really disappointing; it was just awful, so we turned it down, 'cos it had just come out and there would have been so much focus on it. We couldn't polish it, basically - it just wasn't possible."
Although Batt is fully conversant with his hi-tech setup, he's been nursing a secret desire which has dared not speak its name - until now, that is.
"I would really love to have somebody who could work all the gear, and be able to tell them what to do without having any communication problems", he reveals. "If you're trying to do everything at once yourself, it can get... I'm not one of these people who can do a million things at the same time. I tend to only be able to deal with one or two things at a time - when things get really intense I tend to overload and just run out of the room.
"Now we bring in Neal (Davidge) quite a lot on remixes; he helps out when I can't handle looking at the computer any more. He's very quick, and also he's very good at arranging our ideas faster than we can, so it saves time. He's also got a lot of creative input, so he's a good guy to be collaborating with.
"Mostly we do the mixes ourselves, it's just recently that we've started getting more heads in on it. Last year it was getting really mad, though. I was doing everything, and it felt like I wasn't going to be able to keep it up for much longer, 'cos it is pretty intensive. I put a lot of effort into things, and you just end up working amazingly long hours."
It takes as long as it takes.
"Yeah. One mix might take two weeks, another might take two days. We're trying to regiment things this year, though. Since we got the deal and we got the studio and Neal gave up his day job... What was happening was that I'd be working all day on something and then Neal would come in for the evening and we'd work all evening on it as well, and then at the weekends, and it just got... mad. Nowadays we do try and keep the weekends free, or at least Sunday if we can. We're working all weekend this weekend. It just depends what has to be done.
"People think it's a doddle doing the sort of thing we do, and yes, it can be - it beats other jobs - but it's not a nine-to-five job. Quite often you're doing seven days a week, 12 hours a day. A lot of people definitely wouldn't stand for that sort of thing."
And what of the future - apart from more long working days with no overtime pay?
"I'd like to have some time to breathe, get some more writing done and learn how to play the drums. But I'm really looking forward to the album coming out. When we haven't got anything out and nothing's happening, I get very affected by that. If it's not going well I feel terrible, I feel really depressed. But then when it goes well I feel really good."
With an album as classy as Taste This under his belt, Batt should be feeling really good really soon.