Getting The Holy Ghost Across
Contractual hassles have kept musician/producer Bill Nelson hopping from one record label to another since the demise of Be-Bop Deluxe, yet he has still managed to record some exemplary albums using the facility of his 16-track home studio. Ian Gilby finds out how he put his new album together.
Fact: Bill Nelson has talent - his latest album confirms that. But for some ridiculous reason, just when it looks like commercial success is on its way, record industry politics throw another spanner in the works! Holdups, delays, and record company changes are so much an accepted part of life for Bill Nelson it seems. Frustrated, yet undaunted, he still manages to produce stimulating, quality music that deserves a wider audience than it currently receives. So how does he do it? To find out, I asked Bill how the new album Getting The Holy Ghost Across was put together.
"The album started life on the Fostex 16-track recorder I have at home in my studio. I recorded almost twice as many musical tracks than actually appeared on the finished album, each with a mood in mind that had to be got at. Then I picked the ones out that seemed to crystallize the feelings I intended for them the most, and developed them further. So some of them stayed purely as basic rhythm and instrumental tracks whilst others gradually had more sections grafted on to them until they got closer to the feelings I wanted."
How long did that process take?
"The stuff at home was done over a short period of about a month. Then last year, I went down to Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire and spent six weeks doing bass guitar overdubs mostly, some percussion, vocals, a little bit of lead guitar, and some additional keyboard parts. But the basic structure - at least a third of the album - was created and recorded at home here in Yorkshire."
Previous albums of yours were completely recorded at home in The Echo Observatory studio, so why use outside studios this time?
"Well, I ran out of tracks for a start! The music ended up more complex than I intended originally and I wanted to record a lot of things in stereo, so I used two tape tracks for one instrument. And also, with the electronic percussion I used, instead of doing several bounce-downs on the tape recorder, I kept everything on separate tracks. That way, if there was a cowbell part that only came in for a couple of bars in the song, say, instead of it being bounced onto another track along with another instrument to save tracks, it had its own space so that I could record it with a totally different reverb or echo effect or whatever.
That gave me the flexibility in the final stages to mix things in and out as I liked, but it did mean I had to transfer the 16-track tape to 24-track early on. In fact, the flaw with that method was that when it came to the mixing, I ended up with forty-eight tracks! And I had so many options available that the decision-making at the end was almost impossible for me to do alone, which is why I worked on it with producer Steve Nye. I felt I needed somebody to come in who hadn't heard any of the tracks before and who could perhaps add a little more objectivity."
You, of course, have produced records for other artists in the past - The Skids, Gary Numan, A Flock Of Seagulls etc; so what made you choose Steve Nye as a producer for your own album?
"I have respected Steve's work for a long time. He produced Japan's Tin Drum album which I enjoyed tremendously. He's also a member of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra - a very accomplished and sensitive keyboard player.
Actually, I had worked with him way back on the very first Be-Bop Deluxe album, Axe Victim. Some of the tracks were recorded at Air Studios in London and Steve engineered on those. I got on very well with him then and liked the fact that he was also working as a musician in areas of music that weren't the obvious. I met him again when I worked last year with David Sylvian (of Japan) on his forthcoming solo album. Steve Nye worked on that, as he had done on David's previous album Brilliant Trees, and I thought the tonality and textural side to Brilliant Trees was very refreshing because it was the opposite of the excessive Trevor Horn kind of approach to record production that was so prevalent at that time.
So, when it got to the stage on my own album where I felt I needed to bounce the work I had done so far off an objective mind and ear, then Steve Nye was the first choice.
We got together at Marcus Studios in London a few weeks before Christmas to finish off a couple of guitar and vocal overdubs that remained outstanding, but mainly to do all the mixing. We mastered the album onto half-inch tape running at 30 ips and at the same time, digitally, onto a Sony PCM-F1 - though I believe the album was cut from the half-inch tape version, as Steve doesn't like anything digital."
So this album has taken nearly three years from you actually writing the first songs, to it being released in May 1986! Is that correct?
"Yes. In fact, some of the tracks like 'Because Of You', 'Age Of Reason' and 'Living For The Spangled Moment' - which is on the cassette but not on the album - were recorded at Surrey Sound a year before I even started work on the other tracks."
How on earth do you keep your enthusiasm for the music when the recording process is as drawn out as that?
"Well, this is the problem I have. When I got in the studio at Christmas to do the mixes, I felt I couldn't concentrate very hard on the music because it was no longer current material to me. And it's a problem I've always suffered with.
For me, the industry moves too slow. The record manufacturing process itself is too slow, the cost of albums is too high, and therefore you can't work by releasing an album a month - which is what I'd like to do. I'd like to work very spontaneously, very quickly, and make the records available for the price of a magazine. That way, it would be no great gamble if you bought an album you didn't particularly like - you could sell it to a friend, throw it away or maybe even erase it and record over it if there was a means.
The idea of working for years on an album, spending a fortune on it, and then taking equally as long for the record industry to wind its machinery into gear, I think is antiquated and is going to ultimately destroy the industry.
What's happening now is that the recording process is getting more involved, more complex, and the actual 'glossiness' is much more polished than it's ever been. But that takes time and expensive equipment to achieve.
The technology should be made cheaper, made more accessible, the process of making records should be made quicker and cheaper, and the costs of records should be brought down so that the actual thing itself is less precious and can be disposable if you want. Instead of what's happening at the moment where the recording technique and technology is so high-powered, yet the records are so insubstantial musically - there's no content there. If you step up the content and cut down the cost of making a record, there would be more choice and more variety in music today because there would be less risk on a financial level for the record companies."
Have you considered distributing more of your music on cassette?
"Yes, but the problem with cassettes is that for the same amount of money they are psychologically less of a bargain than a record. Cassettes, I think, need to be packaged in a more interesting way, and there are people doing that but they tend to be independent labels and not the majors. If I tried to do it myself, I couldn't, because at the moment I am contracted to CBS Records in America and there are certain restrictions that mean I can only issue my work through CBS - even though I have my own label, Cocteau Records. For instance, I recorded a twelve-inch single a while back under the name of Orchestra Arcana, which was all done upstairs in my studio and cost next to nothing to produce, but I couldn't say that I performed on it. I could say that I'd written, conceived, produced and engineered it... Actually, it was all done by various musician friends of mine who just happen to share the same birthday as me!!"
Talking of musicians, apart from your brother Ian on saxophone, you've employed several others on the album including Preston Heyman on drums...
"Not drums - just percussion. I played all the drum parts myself which I recorded here at home."
What did you use?
"The AHB Inpulse One drum machine."
"Yes. I like it very much, but I don't think I'm being unfair when I say that it's been incredibly unreliable. I ordered a version of it before it was ever available in the shops, after it had been widely advertised in the music press. But the company had technical difficulties putting it into production so it was quite a while before I received mine. It's just been fitted with MIDI, and the sound library for it is all on cassette which takes a little while to load. It's slower than putting chips in but it's a damn sight cheaper than having to have chips of your own 'blown'. And you can send them a tape of any sound and they'll digitize it for you, send you a cassette back and you just load it up.
As I say, mine's been unreliable but it was one of the very early ones. I still like it, basically because it has drum pads which you can actually play in a natural way like conventional drums. On this album, I used it to play all the basic snare/bass drum patterns, which I stored as short sequences in the computer part of it. Then I played those back repeatedly and embroidered things over the top during fills.
Preston Heyman actually came in at a later stage to add acoustic percussion to several of the tracks and also a bit of Simmons kit.
As for the other musicians - I used Iain Denby on bass who has his own band in Leeds called Secret People. He's very talented and young and worked with me on the last tour I did of the States. Andy Davis played some additional keyboards on the album and he was with Stackridge originally, then The Korgis, and also did some stuff with Tears For Fears. I met Andy when I auditioned keyboard players for the American tour.
Actually, I find auditioning musicians for a band is a nightmare, which is why I try and find every possible excuse not to put a band together! Particularly because when I play things on keyboards at home, I haven't got a clue what I'm doing. And when you have to explain it to somebody who's actually a keyboard player, it gets very embarrassing because they ask you what chord it is and you don't know! So Andy had the unenviable task of trying to figure out what I had played, but he was very good and his personality was right."
So how do you remember the parts between sessions then?
"I don't (laughs)! I never write anything down other than lyrics. Since I've had my home studio, I've tended to work very spontaneously onto tape, recording and re-recording parts until I like them. And that presented me with an almighty big headache when I came to do that US tour two years ago, because two-thirds of the set had never been performed live. I'd only ever performed the songs twice myself before: once when I'd done the demo of it at home, and the second time when I recorded it properly in the studio. And I never played it again after that, or even listened to it! So the other guys in the band were going home with the album to learn their parts and they'd come to the rehearsal knowing more about the songs than I did!
I'm a big faker really! The older I get, the less I consider myself a musician and more just a faker of things..."
Hardly that! You're doing yourself a terrible injustice there Bill.
"...I dabble with things, really. For me, the interest with keyboards has always been on the textural side, having access to sounds that go beyond the rock guitar thing which I briefly got bored with after Be-Bop Deluxe."
Do you ever feel tempted to return to a more orthodox song-oriented style of music?
"No. I don't feel any personal push to actually become a Paul McCartney type of songwriter. As I said earlier, one of the reasons why I don't really consider myself a musician now is that I am less interested in what I do from the point of view purely of music. I like to think of it more as a means of expression that happens to kind of hang itself generally on music but flows into other areas as well. I'm all for knocking down the boundaries of what music can and can't be...
There was a period in time recently, when it looked as if the contemporary music field was opening up to more influences. Indeed it has opened up and absorbed certain things from non-popular areas - non-rock and roll areas if you like. And yet, it absorbs them and makes them dogmatic within the structure that it creates from that absorption.
What happens is that you have this dogmatic popular music structure which says that a single has to be three minutes long, that it has to be danceable, that it has to appeal to 14-17 year-olds, that it has to be able to be remembered after one listen and that it has to have an intro that a DJ can talk over. So there are all these strictures which say 'this is a pop song', and then within that framework you have to create something which is interesting and perhaps stands out against other pop songs.
Inevitably, you get a few musicians who've been through art school usually, though I did that myself, who 'discover' people like Schoenberg or Stockhausen, and they'll add these bits to their music. And for a few minutes in pop's eternity, you get this idea that suddenly there's this brave new world where you can mix and match, and blend and synthesize different kinds of musical idioms into pop music.
But such people take only the very superficial elements of that music, often without understanding the root or reason why these esoteric and more exotic forms of music exist. They are attracted by the surface glamour and the fact that such music is foreign (and therefore different) but they haven't researched its history or played enough in that area of music to really get the soul of it. So they end up taking this hollow kind of element and graft it rather ungainly onto this popular music idiom to create a new structure which is itself still intrinsically pop, but has these quirky bits added.
That is then absorbed into the system, but as it is, it's dogmatized and becomes very structured and rigid. So that in the end, this so-called 'new music' becomes as formularized and as blinkered as the music they had been trying to develop and take further in the first place!
Bit by bit, it does progress in form, but you find usually that the content of pop music hasn't progressed much at all over the last thirty years. All that's happened is that it's dressed up in different clothes."
Isn't the technology of today's instruments partly to blame for that? By making things more instant, doesn't it promote a trivial attitude to the content of the music?
"No. Surely, all these kinds of things like computers, sequencers and sampling keyboards are only like having extra colours added to a painter's palette or more tools for a sculptor?
The fault lies in that the emphasis is placed heavily on the equipment being the means to the end, if you like, rather than the person operating it. And I'm sure that there are a lot of people who really believe that if they have a sequencer and a sampling keyboard that they really don't need to have much to say. That simply by pushing a few buttons and linking up some MIDI cables, they can cobble together something that they are going to be on 'Top Of The Pops' with next week.
Of course, sometimes it does happen like that, but I don't think that you can justifiably blame the equipment for that. What you have to blame is the attitude that is fostered by the record industry who don't encourage a young person setting out in music to dig into himself before he ever starts digging into his keyboards.
And even the way that those instruments are sold doesn't help either. Often, at the lower end of the keyboard market, there is great emphasis placed on making things easier for people to play - one-finger chords and auto-accompaniment devices, you know the sort of thing I mean. In themselves, those things can be used interestingly, but that element of the technology does tend to encourage a lazy attitude.
At the end of the day, it's not really a technological problem, or even a musical problem - it's a social one. The average person in Britain today is not really encouraged to develop to the best of their potential, either in music or in any other form. The whole idea of the craftsman who takes pride in what he's doing is unfortunately on the decline, and that is reflected throughout the whole of society, not just in the music business."
Yes, but surely there are still craftsmen among the present generation of musicians?
"Yes, there are people like David Sylvian who I've been working with recently. He does take the craftsman's approach in that he cares very deeply about the quality of his work. Not just in the technical sense, ie. that it's recorded well or played in time, but that he cares about what he is saying. You can get away with shoddy technical performances and a rough recording provided something is being said and communicated through the music. And for me, David's example of the dedication he puts into the meaning of his work - the content side of it - shines more than anything he might do on a technical level with studio techniques or expensive keyboards. In fact, I'm sure that if David sat down with just an acoustic guitar and recorded his songs on a simple cassette recorder, he'd still communicate more than bands like Sigue Sigue Sputnik could in a million years!"
So how does your album fit in with all this? Is there any particular concept tying it all together?
"If there is an overall concept, then it's a reflection of some events that I went through when I first started work on the album, which brought me to some of the conclusions that I've been talking about in terms of content. Working on the technology of self before the technology of the music, if you like. But I related the album to very basic things because I didn't want to get too esoteric and too abstract. I wanted to capture the essence of things. And so I used analogies of the male/female relationship, which is the most common and often used subject within pop music, yet tried to explore it from a spiritual point of view..."
Hence the album's title - Getting The Holy Ghost Across?
"Precisely. Though I must admit that with the music, I did go further than I had intended. I wanted to keep it very sparse initially and yet kept hearing parts that I felt needed to be there."
How did you structure the songs? Did you begin with lyrics?
"The lyrics for songs were written after the basic backing tracks were recorded. Each track wasn't just like me sitting down and saying I'll doodle and see what comes out - which is how I work for purely instrumental pieces, to maintain spontaneity. There were elements of that in the process, obviously, but those elements were hung on a framework I had conceived - or at least sat down and thought about - before I started playing anything, and that was to do with 'moods'. And the moods were to do with particular feelings of an esoteric nature, but related to the world, not removed from it.
The songs all had working titles at the start and odd lyric lines that related to what I felt the picture in my head was musically. So that when I actually sat down then with the basic song structures, once they'd been fleshed out, and had to write finished lyrics, I knew what I was looking for.
The hardest part was trimming the lyrics to fit the mood precisely. There was only one way that the lyrics could have gone per song and adding those lyrics to it didn't change the musical structure but completed it, as it were. When I came to do further overdubs, I didn't really find I had to change the mood of the song dramatically away from what it already was at that stage, it was more a matter of underlining and emphasising things musically."
Did there ever come a point where you couldn't obtain the sound you heard in your head from the instruments you had at your disposal?
"Well, I suppose we all tend to work within the restrictions of the tone colours that are available to us at any point in time, but yes, there were certain things that I could hear or imagine that I couldn't quite get out of the Yamaha DX7 and CS70M I have at home. I did hire an Emulator II briefly during the Rockfield sessions to give me a more realistic cello sound, because I conceived the songs with orchestral textures in mind originally but couldn't afford an orchestra. The Emulator sample was simply an easy way of achieving that."
Is that why you used a violin player on several tracks?
"There's only real violin on one track actually - 'Wildest Dreams'; the rest is my Yamaha CS70M violin patch. I'm quite proud of that one!"
You are best known for your skilful guitar playing with Be-Bop Deluxe and, refreshingly, there is far more guitar on this record than on previous Bill Nelson albums. Did this come about through a dissatisfaction with keyboards?
"Partly, but it had more to do with the fact that the guitar is still the most emotive and spontaneous instrument for me to play, and since many of the songs were dealing with inner emotive qualities, it seemed logical for me to use the guitar to express those feelings."
Does this mean we'll be hearing more of your guitar playing on future albums?
"Probably. I've found myself being drawn back recently towards the guitar because my ideas as a person are becoming more emotive and spontaneous again, after having gone through a lengthy period of musical self-analysis and being in love with the mechanical textures of synths. And like anything I suppose, you can only sustain interest in things for so long before you feel the need to move on."
Interview by Ian Gilby
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