Godley & Creme
Ralph Denyer gets gizmological with Kevin 'n' L | Godley & Creme
Initially, the consequences of RD's actions could be Kevin or L — there'LL be L to K. (2 down).
Just under a year ago Lol Creme and Kevin Godley's lavish vinyl sound spectacular Consequences was released. The triple album boxed set was received with varying responses, mostly to the price and not the music. At the time the weekly music press was in the throes of its punk orgasm but found time to cry 'Rip-off' and 'Self-indulgent'. The packaging made the album expensive at £11 and was the point highlighted in most reviews. Only the perceptive realised the wealth of innovative work involved in the actual music and the vast array of sound.
The album demonstrated that Creme and Godley were the creative driving force behind their previous band, 10cc. The album also demonstrated the gizmo, a relatively inexpensive device which when attached to an electric guitar created a vast array of orchestral as well as previously unheard sounds. Like almost all British innovators, they had to take their invention to America for the resources to develop it fully. Now it's the gizmotron, computerised and mains powered. They've just completed a new album, a single album that is. The artwork and packaging are basic in materials but original and pleasing. The cost of recording was a fraction of the budget spent on Consequences. The set is simply called L and is my personal favourite of all the albums I've heard for a year or two. I spent a sunny afternoon talking to this rule-breaking duo who insist on enjoying all aspects of their work.
The net result of their work in the studio this time is an album rather different from Consequences.
Kev: Totally. It was quite funny actually because after Consequences and all the resulting hoo-ha about the price and people saying things like there was too much dialogue... Everyone was a bit down on it, including our management, I would say. One day they took us aside and said: Listen boys, you've got to make a single album already, a commercial album. So we went into the studio with the great intention of trying to do that, but once again we started writing songs and working on tape, but we can't actually do that, think commercial in the traditional sense of the word. We started working and just letting the music come out as usual.
Lol: It had to be different, a departure. I don't think we wanted to go in and do another 18 months of gizmo and stuff like that. So it was just back to experiments again. The atmosphere was strange because we were far from totally sure that we wanted to record at all but we were obliged to because that's the way we make a living. As Kev said earlier, it would've been nice to go in and do a bag of commercial songs so that we could put singles out.
RD: Something well within your capabilities I would imagine.
Lol: Well not really, because that's the one thing we've never been able to do, write to order.
Kev: We can't just turn it on, you see. I take issue with Lol when he says it would have been nice to go in and record a bunch of singles. It would have been nice from our management and record company's point of view to come out with an album like that, but not very enjoyable for us.
Lol: That's what I mean. We did try for about an hour and a half, then it was back to just experimenting on tape, back to our old usual system. We had decided on a single album, that much we knew. Also that we were going to work in a much more basic way because that is what we'd been talking about between Consequences and this album. We knew we wanted to work with a few basic instruments. In fact we did it using 16-track partly as an anti-big-production thing really. That was the main starting point – that it was going to be a lot simpler.
Kev: We didn't have any songs written or anything beforehand. We sort of fobbed everyone off really saying: Yeah Harvey (manager), we've got plenty written. We went into the studio and we didn't know what the hell we were going to do. The first actual thing we put down on tape was a strange sounding drum tape loop and we sort of started from there.
We used it at the beginning of Group Life, a sort of distorted drum sound. We had no idea at all what the track or anything else was going to be.
One interesting thing we learnt on Consequences but didn't apply to any of the actual songs at the time, was that it can be quite fulfilling to put down ideas on tape as soon as they come. As opposed to resolving them into a song as such first, we found that was much more exciting to do. So we in a sense applied that idea to song writing and put a sound, word or idea on tape and built on top of it until we had something vaguely resembling a track or song. In fact there were only two songs on the whole album that were written in the traditional way, Sporting Life and Business Is Business. Sporting Life was about half way through, we decided to see if we I could still write in the same way as we used to. Lol got on the electric piano and we started warbling and messing around. After a couple of days' work we had the song. Apart from those two everything else started out as a sound, chord sequence, or vague idea.
It was weird really because in a way we were still coming down from Consequences which we put 110% of our lives into for a year and a half. The feeling while we recorded that was so intense that this was almost an anti-climax, going back in the studio to redeem your credibility if you know what I mean. So it was obviously a bit odd at the beginning but as the tracks began to appear I think we got more involved.
RD: A lot of people will want to hear the new record on the strength of it being the follow-up to Consequences alone.
Kev: Yeah, I don't think it is such a big departure. Superficially it may appear to be because it's a single album and they're all songs except one track. I think we tried to combine the best instrumental aspects of Consequences and our knowledge of songwriting, tie the two entities together. Then try to squeeze them into... not commercial, that's a horrible word isn't it? It has a double meaning. To me it just means records that sell. It doesn't mean a type of music, or at least I hope it doesn't. It's a bit of a dirty word.
RD: Not in the sense of the kind of records you made with 10cc. It's an art to make singles that appeal on all levels that you and a wide audience can enjoy. It may be easy to make a chart single but some of the things you did with 10cc are totally above all that.
Lol: But they weren't written as singles, that wasn't the approach. I'm surmising a bit but I think a lot of people go into the studio and bear a lot of things in mind when recording for singles. That perhaps limits their approach. We never did even though 10cc was a successful singles band. Every single we made was just a track that we were happy with and that other people said was commercial. In other words we never set out to be a commercial band.
RD: Not even with I'm Not In Love?
Kev: Well no, we didn't actually think that was going to be a single. Everyone was a bit scared because it was a longish track, everyone wanted Life Is A Minestrone out first which they did and it was a hit. So we felt a bit more outrageous about putting I'm Not In Love out. But there again we just thought it a good track. I was probably the worst of the four members as far as having any idea of what a single is supposed to be. I didn't want to release Rubber Bullets because I didn't think it was good enough, or perhaps bad enough, to be a single. I never know, I'm a hopeless judge, so that shows you where our heads are as far as singles are concerned. I try not to be too influenced by other drummers. I'm a pretty basic player really. My interests are in areas more on the musical side of drumming. I don't think of my function as purely a drummer and I use whatever technique I've got to expand in various directions. I've been influenced by everyone I've heard in one way or another I suppose. Probably more in the Sixties, the Beatle era, Keith Moon and people like that. I started off playing guitar and bass many moons ago. The guy who was living next door to me was quite well off. His father bought him a kit which he couldn't play for toffee, he was hopeless. I sat down at his kit one day and the co-ordination came quite naturally, so I changed instruments and took it from there. I never had any lessons or went into it in that sort of depth. I'm not a 100% drumming person.
RD: I think that comes across in your music to a degree, that you don't get tremendously involved in — and I don't mean this in a detrimental way — being a musician as opposed to someone creating music. You sing, use buckets of water and break up pieces of plastic? and whatever to create sounds. A lot of musicians get very involved in being musicians.
Kev: Hung up on technique? Yes I think that can be a handicap at times, certainly in the kind of music we make. It's a bit of a generalisation but the people that we've met who are experts at playing their own particular instruments who read music and so forth, have a limited idea of what you can and can't do. And they aren't prepared to push that little bit further because they've got a set idea in their minds of what the instrument is capable of. It's like when we used to take ideas for album sleeves to printers and they'd say: No, it can't be done. Just because they hadn't done it before and they know everything. I suppose we are inspired amateurs in a way, both of us.
RD: The interesting thing is listening to L I would say that your ideas have been such that you've made demands and stretched your actual abilities to play. I was thinking of some of the complicated percussion breaks which you've managed to get down on tape with amazing accuracy.
Lol: In a sense that is what the L thing really means, we were pushing ourselves and learning while we were doing the album. We were not content to rest on what we knew we could do.
Kev: As with Consequences we were pushing ourselves all the time.
Lol: It's nice to play an instrument that you've not played before. Kev played xylophone which he hasn't messed around with before.
Kev: I played bass for the first time on record as well on L.
Lol: If you don't know how to play an instrument properly in the accepted sense then you don't usually have so many preconceived ideas. In our case that's definitely true! (laughter) So we try to play instruments from the skull not from the hands. There are different ways of defining technique. Some people have good technique in as much as they can do lots of good things physically with their fingers on their instruments and know how to play very well. The problem is they tend to neglect what the mind should be suggesting. It is very easy, there are set things that you are told you should do while for instance improvising in say the key of A minor. Once learned they're easy to play and very flash. Unfortunately you can hear the same things being played by thousands of musicians. We try to think the whole thing out in our minds and then try to play it. So at the end of the day you've got a piece that's not been heard before. Also on L we went for a jazz bass feel, far more of a jazz/rock feel so it sounds different for us. As opposed to Consequences on which the phrasing and intonation was more classical in a sense. L was based more on jazz drawing from an area of music that we haven't touched since we were at art college.
RD: If we could digress for a moment, how did you achieve that breathy layered choir sound that you featured probably best of all on I'm Not In Love? At times it almost sounds phased.
Lol: It's probably natural phasing that occurs acoustically. We tracked on about 250 voices. Each note was put on a tape loop. What you do is get a couple of people singing the same note into a mic. You then do that 16 times using a 16-track recorder. Then you've got 32 versions of that one note. Then you deal with all the other notes you need in the same way to build up say a chord of C and another of F, so that for each chord consisting of perhaps four notes you've got 128 voices. So with all the notes on loops you write what those notes are above the appropriate faders on the desk and use the faders to bring in the notes as and when required. A nice thing to do is to leave some of the notes hanging over which gives nice inversions over the chords. And I remember we didn't take the voices right out when they were not required. We found a minimum level at which you can just hear them tickling your earhole, almost just an echo and that's left in all the time. So in fact the notes are playing continuously and you are just highlighting certain ones as the chords change. We didn't electronically phase it but at times you get one chord on each side of the stereo picture which could cause the effect.
Kev: Also when two people sing together if it's slightly out of tune it phases, sometimes also if the vibrato wavers a bit. Actually we've only used one vocal loop for L at the end of Business Is Business.
Lol: And gizmo loops at the beginning of Hit Factory, a whole backing track of it fading in and out on the chords. This time we used loops more for rhythm section things.
RD: Another of your trade marks is the way you use bass vocals, unison things sometimes.
Kev: We do unison bass vocals but on L if you're thinking of Group Life that's quite interesting because it's not a bass voice at all, we used a Musitronics Octivider. It was quite good on piano, guitar and everything but strangely enough it sounded best on voice.
RD: Both of you play bass and drums on L.
Lol: I played thirty seconds worth of drums for the first time ever. What happened was when I was ill and had the day off Kev rushed in and did some bass work (laughter) and when he had the day off I went in and did some drums.
Kev: I play bass on Group Life, the first track we recorded and Lol plays the drums on Hit Factory. But that's funny that isn't it...
Lol: A 'when the cat's away the mice will play' job. I disappear for a moment and me job's gone.
Kev: Well I always fancied having a bash at bass so I drove the engineer barmy getting it right but I enjoyed doing it, it was fun.
Lol: As soon as he left I said: Quick, get the drum kit set up.
Kev: I might have known.
RD: Was it a loop?
Lol: Of course, you don't think I could've played all the way through do you? No, the point is it's far more fun if you enjoy yourself and we certainly do that.
Kev: It's been a funny album for us really, almost like the first 10cc album because when we went in to do that we didn't know what the results would be.
Lol: We didn't have too much encouragement on this one, that was the main difference. The atmosphere wasn't particularly happy because in the back of our minds we were still suffering from the stigma of Consequences – torn apart because of the price and people classifying it as over-indulgent. You're bound to lose confidence when that was in fact the opposite of what you were trying to do. We were honestly trying to give a little bit more entertainment than people can usually buy, not just taking 18 months to piss about for our own sakes. It was over-priced and therefore bound to look indulgent. That was not our intention and our confidence was screwed up a little bit. The management and record company start getting worried about what we might come out with next.
Kev: Everyone would have been happy with a disco album I think.
Lol: And had we been weaker we would have done one.
Kev: Which would have been like getting a job in a bank, totally the wrong way for us to work.
RD: How long did you take to record L and what were the studio facilities?
Kev: It took three months and when we started the studio equipment was raunchy. We looked for a small cheap studio and found Surrey Sound, a tiny little place with a very old 16-track Ampex and speakers. It was local for us as well.
RD: Surprising because the album has a very contemporary sound.
Lol: Part of our theory was that it shouldn't make any difference. We had discussions and realised that we'd managed to get great records out of Strawberry (North) when it was just 4- and 8-track. We achieved marvellous sounds on some early 10cc records without 24-track or Helios boards. You don't have to have Westlake to get a fabulous sound.
RD: You've proved that point because judging by the sound on your album I had presumed the studio would have colour TV computer mixing and all the rest.
Lol: Nigel (Gray) has built the studio up in exactly the same way as Strawberry North did, using a funky desk and second hand tape machines, all cheap stuff. He's been saving to improve the studio bit by bit. He finally got enough bread together to go 24-track just as we finished our album.
Kev: Thanks Nigel!
Lol: Yeah, thanks Nigel. Then he got a new MCI board. So we had all that for the last two tracks but it didn't make much difference to our way of working. It's all down to your own standards, ideas and imagination.
Kev: We were spoilt working in what Strawberry had become, like the Manor. Not to knock them, they're superb studios but you begin to rely on them. You know there are certain pieces of equipment there that you can plug in to get certain sounds and I think that limits your ingenuity.
Lol: We actually fought against that, trying to get the best out of every piece of equipment. Striving for sounds that aren't easily achieved because we find that more interesting. To be fair the Manor is probably the best studio in the country in terms of character, layout and the materials you've got to work with. But it is extremely expensive. It's nice to work in such comfortable surroundings but let's not neglect the alternative, working in small studios that have their own character. There are I suppose small shitty studios where you can't get any work done; because there are certain basic requirements. A good monitoring system that doesn't have Eastlake or Westlake, good tape machines that don't keep breaking down and a clean desk that doesn't fart and buzz. But you don't have to have JBL monitoring or an acoustically perfect room.
RD: On Foreign Accents the saxophone keeps the rhythm going while the percussion takes the lead.
Kev: That's the point of the whole track and a very interesting technique. First we recorded a rhythm track made up of sounds made with the tone generator on the desk. It's usually used for testing equipment. We pushed a series of tones from high and squeaky to low and bassy through a noise gate and connected it up to a mic in the studio. When the mic was 'played' by tapping it with drumsticks the noise gate allowed certain tones through. We multi-tracked these, creating rhythms and cross rhythms until we had a percussive backdrop of pure tone. On top of that we added the saxophones, Andy Mackay multi-tracking. Then I played some snare drum accents totally at random and foreign to the track.
Lol: After that I would take guitar or something and work out a melodic pattern to fit the beats Kev had played. It nearly drove me crazy. On Sandwiches Of You we used a different instrument for each note of the phrase so we got dula-ump-ah-ee-rrr-sss-goonk.
Kev: How's he gonna spell all that?
RD: Judging by the way I've seen you using vibrato when you've been demonstrating the gizmo I would think it would be very interesting for you to get together with someone like John Williams.
Lol: We've already done some experiments in Chicago with Michael Newman, he's around 19 and has been cleaning up on all the classical guitar prizes in the States ever since he was twelve. Also he's the son of Aaron Newman, president of Musitronics who are making the gizmo in the States. He played some Mozart, a little piece by Bach and made it sound like a string quartet. The giz we've been using in the States is amazing. For a start it works properly on all six strings whereas the one I've been using is held together with string and bits of tape. It only works now and again. Sometimes the first string, then the third and sixth. I had to do things like tuning the third string up to B because the second striker wouldn't work. So I couldn't do runs across the strings. I demonstrated the new one at the Chicago Trade Fair and it is a dream. The vibrato is as in violin or cello playing. Along the string, not bending side to side as in blues guitar playing. You can do that too but classical vib sounds sweeter because the string is being bowed in the traditional way. The right hand is easier to play than plectrum because to get a note you press a button, you don't have to pick up and down for fast things. You do have to get the right hand finger independence as with classical guitar playing to make full use of the device. For chords you just put your hand on top of all the buttons. The beauty of the giz though is that you can start playing long note melodies on the guitar, which is usually a short percussive note instrument.
Kev: Except for when you've got 15 Marshall stacks, when it is a reasonably long note instrument!
RD: What made the giz so problematic in terms of delaying the manufacture?
Lol: We didn't want something on the market that was going to break down every two weeks. It's changed a lot, the actual strikers that do the bowing actually give with the strings now. Consistency has been the biggest problem when making prototypes by hand which won't give you the precision of a machine-produced item. You can't make a mould for each prototype because that can cost up to 90 000 dollars a time. We've already got orders from the Chicago Trade Fair and another we did in the States. We used gizmos made from the drawings for the manufacturing mould. The price is still going to be between £75 and £100 but Musitronics have put a lot into it. There are computer parts now to make sure all the strikers rotate at exactly the right speed no matter how many strings are played simultaneously. It's also mains powered now, we used a mountain of batteries on the old one while recording Consequences. The design is magnificent with the finished styling done by Herb Ross, the top industrial designer in the States who designed the Studebaker car. Little touches like that. We certainly didn't expect it to take this long to achieve the kind of perfection we were after.
RD: So the right hand only decides the actual duration of the notes?
Lol: Well, to a degree but you can use it rhythmically as we did on Business Is Business. Almost like playing a clavinet or funk machine. Played the same way the giz can give you percussive sounds, being like a little keyboard over the strings. You can also get the equivalent of stabbing cello notes because on an actual cello they get that by striking the strings with a bow. Just by tapping the keys of the giz you can get the same effect. Also you can interrupt short stabbing notes with long flowing ones which you can't do on any other instrument that I know of. A good example is the Benson & Hedges cinema ad which we've just done based on part of Consequences.
RD: That clears up a lot of points for me.
Lol: It makes it all the more confusing for me!
RD: You must be paranoid by now about giving actual dates but any idea when the gizmotron will be on the market?
Lol: December. They've taken orders in America and promised delivery by Christmas. I still haven't got one in this house do you realise?
Kev: I think if we say a year Christmas we should be well within that date.
RD: Just one more thing I meant to ask.
Kev: Our names?
RD: No not quite, were all four original members of 10cc partners in Strawberry and are you still involved there?
Kev: We were all four partners in Strawberry South but Lol and I sold out. Sold out our shares that is, not our music. You've got to be very specific with the musical press.
Interview by Ralph Denyer
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