From his Vox Continental days with Elvis Costello, to a regular spot on Jonathan Ross' The Last Resort, and now on to film scores, Steve Nieve has retained an objective approach to technology.
Steve Nieve's involvement with technology has taken him through the kitsch Vox Continental tones that accompanied Elvis Costello's early hits through the variety and sophistication of house keyboardsman on "The Last Resort" and now to film scores.
BEHIND A CLOSED door at the top of the stairs, something very nasty indeed is going on. I can already hear the muted sounds of a scuffle as I put my foot on the first tread. As I gingerly ascend, the noises get progressively louder and more violent, culminating in a series of short, piercing, possibly female, screams. A brief, suspenseful silence is followed by what could be chopping and the grinding of machinery.
Convinced that the worst is now over, I pass quickly into the room to be confronted by a large spherical television (the sort that I recall used to be considered well hip in the late '60s along with those lamps filled with floating globs of oil that doubled as Dr Who special effects). On the screen, several pussy cats are contentedly chomping their way through a plateful of Kit-E-Kat. No sign of trouble here, I think, until my eye alights on the videocassette case on the floor. On the back the legend: "What was the grizzly secret of the unbranded cat food?"
I realise now that for the last couple of minutes I've been listening in to a scene from Corpse Grinder, some low-budget epic that I later learn has attained cult status among Stateside horror aficionados. And in case you haven't yet guessed the "grizzly secret", then the clue subtly implied in the film's title, is that the felines are actually feasting on most of the film's human cast. Or to put it more succinctly, Bodiz Meanz Whiskaz.
This short encounter with horror proves a suitable prelude to the entrance of Steve Nieve, though not because he comes in wielding a Moulinex Magichef. As it happens, he's carrying nothing more harmful than a video containing a selection of clips from films directed by that master of the soft-porn genre, Russ Meyer. And if I tell you that the compilation is called Bosomania, you'll no-doubt twig on just which part of the female anatomy Meyer's plots tend to hang.
If all this is beginning to sound a little suspect, let me explain that we're not actually in some dingy back room in the heart of Soho, but in fact, in Nieve's "programming suite", nobbut a cat's throw up the Caledonian Road. As he's currently involved in writing the soundtrack for a documentary on the likes of Meyer and other kings of the B-movie, his choice of daytime video viewing reflects not the indulgence of some wicked fantasy, but the need to undertake a spot of serious academic research.
"I decided that I really wanted to capture the essence of these soundtracks, like the very chintzy big band sounds that Russ Meyer uses, for example. So for the last few days I've been watching all these crazy videos.
"It's just great", he adds, with the true scholar's enthusiasm. It's clear he takes it all very seriously.
Nieve's interest in producing music for film is the latest stage in a career which began in 1977 when he fell into line behind Elvis Costello as one of the three Attractions. Costello and the band parted company in 1984, after notching up eight albums and a string of Top 20 hits: 'Watching the Detectives', 'I Don't Want to Go To Chelsea', 'Oliver's Army' and 'Good Year For The Roses'. Their considerable following was a little puzzled by the 1981 release Almost Blue which carried the label, "Warning. This album contains country music."
"Actually, I think that country album was the change of direction which I instigated", pipes up Nieve. A burst of shrill laughter follows, then the explanation.
"We were on this tour in America with Squeeze and my wife was just having her first baby, so I was really getting involved in country music which has lots of good songs about having babies and things like that. I was playing this stuff on the bus all the time and eventually the whole band was into it. Then we stopped off in Nashville and recorded this track with Billy Sherrill, one of the country producers, just to see what it would sound like. We enjoyed it so much that we did the whole album, though that Nashville track was never actually released."
POST-COSTELLO, NIEVE has been making a nice living, thank you very much, doing sessions for a variety of people, from Madness and McCartney to Wreckless Eric and Tom Jones. Aficionados should however check out the Attractions LP, Mad About The Wrong Boy. There are also a couple of Nieve solo projects to collect too: Keyboard Jungle (1983) and last year's Playboy. Of course, you can also tune into repeats of the second series of The Last Resort on which Nieve was keyboard player and resident MD. (He's due to be in the third series as well). Among other duties, the spot involved providing backing music for a wide variety of guests - although not all of them musicians in the conventional sense of the word.
"That's probably the most enjoyable thing I've ever done, certainly more enjoyable than playing in a touring rock 'n' roll band", he comments. "I like the variety of playing with different people. Like that woman who played the bedstand and things. She was amazing... and such an incredible musician. Like she just knew everything about those stupid objects and what harmonics they produced. I'd like to have more instrumentalists on the next series, people like Hank Marvin or Yehudi Menuhin."
Meanwhile, Nieve is devoting his energies to his studio. Trivia fiends may note that it's actually housed in what used to be the offices of Zarjazz, the record label set up by Madness in the later stages of their career. In the basement below is the former Madness studio, once dedicated to their own private use, now a fully commercial 24-track facility operating under the name Liquidator One. Nieve's place is Liquidator Two, rather ironic considering the plot of Corpse Grinder...
"I used to use a studio called Paradise, in Chiswick, which I really liked. But then they went upmarket and got a Fairlight Series III in and suddenly I couldn't afford it any more. And if you begin counting hours because you're worried about how much it's all costing, suddenly you don't want to experiment as much. Also I reckoned that as film work is so notoriously difficult to break into, there'd be a lot of projects at the beginning which I'd have to do as cheaply as possible."
As well as a place to work, the room provides a convenient place to store his impressive collection of keyboards, reflecting his long involvement with the Bizz. In one corner there's a Vox Continental, star of the early days spent with Costello; in another a couple of Polymoogs and a Micromoog; by the window, a harpsichord, on loan from one of the members of Sky - a reminder that Nieve is a proficient pianist who once attended the Royal Academy of Music.
In the middle of these relics of bygone days, stands an extremely impressive setup: two Roland D50s, Jupiter 8, Super Jupiter module, Akai S900 sampler, Yamaha DX7 (MkI and II), TX7, TX802 and RX5, all sequenced by the ubiquitous Steinberg Pro24. The output from this little lot is recorded onto an Akai ML14 12-track, and from there digitally mastered using a Sony PCM F1 machine.
"I spent a lot of time thinking about how to get the syncing stuff right", comments Nieve on the arrangement. "I've got the Steinberg SMP MIDI/SMPTE converter, plus a Fostex synchroniser, linking the multitrack, the sequencer and the F1. In that respect the new version of the Steinberg Pro24 is great for film because when you go to the edit page, a flick of a switch means that instead of coming up in bars and fractions of a beat, the timings all come up in SMPTE code."
Given this impressive pile of equipment, Nieve's next comment might seem a little strange.
"But I just don't want it to be one of these 'programming suites' where people come and get all scientific and technical. So if you look around you now, you'll see a real drum kit and synths that you have to actually play, not ones that play themselves."
"The Last Resort is the most enjoyable thing I've ever done, certainly more enjoyable than playing in a touring rock 'n' roll band."
That implies that while embracing the new technology, Nieve has a few reservations. While he never actually says it in so many words, he is evidently a little suspicious of musicians who have access to all the gear, but actually very little traditional technique. Time for further explanation.
"I think to get creative things out of the gear nowadays, you have to use it in a sort of rock 'n' roll way, which usually turns out to be the way it's not meant to be used. I suppose it ties in with this current feeling that technology is killing music. Well, the fact is, it's not so much that technology itself makes the music boring, it's that people tend to use it in the same old boring way.
"Take for example the Steinberg. I like to just whack the tempo up as far as it'll go, which isn't all that fast, take off the quantisation and use it purely as a MIDI tape recorder in real time. I was speaking to someone the other day who never uses the functions I use and uses all the functions that I just don't bother with. So, of course he's getting completely different results out of what essentially is the same bit of gear. But also it's a question of where your own personal musical technique and ability comes in. If you bought all the gear and just did everything the manual told you, you'd produce exactly what everyone else who's read the manual produces. So if you stuck an accountant behind the Atari, who had no concern with what music is about, but could read manuals, you'd end up with... Well, probably with last year's tax report.
"It's funny, but with Elvis we never used any machines at all. He refused to get involved in hi-tech gear. I mean he even refuses to record on SSL desks because they've got a computer in them."
But isn't this attitude, in the face of modern recording trends, just a little short-sighted, I wonder?
"I don't know", answers Nieve. "Maybe it's a silly idea if you're an engineer or a producer, because the technology is there to make your life easier, but if you're an artist, then it might be the right approach. For example, there's something to be said for using older equipment, but only for the particular sound that it gives you. Like the difference between transistors and valves. I've known people say 'Those early recordings were great. Let's get back to that and just limit ourselves to eight-track'. So they record on a Fostex eight-track or something. But the point they've missed is that the old eight-tracks used to be massive machines full of valves and so the sound they gave you was quite different. That's what actually made those older records sound good."
The conclusion that Nieve draws is that it's a question of what job you want to do, not of sticking to a rigid set of principles.
"In terms of playability, I feel equally at home on a harpsichord or the D50. But if, say, I wanted an organ sound for something, I wouldn't consider using a synthesiser or a sampler, I'd just go and get a Hammond and put it through a Leslie. To my ears, that's the only way you'd ever get a happening organ sound, so why bother with anything but the real thing. The Polymoog too has its uses. Like those 'Nutbush City Limits' sounds.
"But", he adds in tones of confidentiality, "I think mainly I like the older gear for the look of it. No-one has yet designed a stand for a contemporary synth which looks anything remotely like the Vox organ stand, the ones with the chrome legs. Fantastic."
Talking of visuals, let's get back to music for film. Apart from the aforementioned TV documentary on low-life directors, there are a few other projects in the pipeline, but none as yet confirmed. However, Nieve is pretty clear on the kind of work he would choose to produce given carte blanche.
"I think what I've become very conscious of lately, is that there are very few real soundtracks. By that I mean there's a lot of use made of pop singles as incidental music, but that's just a commercial venture to prolong record sales. One soundtrack which I really like is the one for a film called The Leopard Man, which was the earlier film on which Cat People was based. That was all done just with castanets.
"I'm much more into the idea of making soundtracks with sound effects rather than musical sounds. I suppose a bit like the early Musique Concrete, though actually putting the sounds together in a musical structure. For that purpose I've been building up a library of effects. I've been going round sampling everything: taking off in an aeroplane, going to the bar and ordering a pint, everything that can happen to you. I was in Japan recently and I discovered that they've already got portable DAT machines the size of a Walkman which would be ideal for outside sampling. The cheapest and the smallest one is made by - surprise, surprise - Casio. That's about 800 quid at the moment, but when I went to buy one someone said not to bother because in three months time there was going to be one even cheaper. So I'm waiting...
"I also got loads of CD's of ethnic music in Japan. They seem to go for that in a big way, with racks of stuff like pygmy and eskimo music."
To satisfy my curiosity, there follows a quick burst of pygmy music and an accompanying cautionary tale: "You've got to be careful with this stuff. A friend of mine was involved in a session once when they were sampling a bit of African chant for a track. Halfway through this guy came in who actually understood the language. He said, 'You can't use that, it's really offensive'."
Nieve admits that the world of film music is a difficult nut to crack, particularly if your reputation has been made in an altogether different area. But how has he learned to adapt his technique to writing for pictures?
"Mainly by observation so far. But what I have noticed from the work I've done is that the relationship of the music to the action is very critical for determining the mood of the scene. So for example, you get someone walking along with a slow piece of music in the background, and the walk looks gentle and relaxed. But if you move the music on by only 10 frames, then suddenly the walk has a jaunty feel."
The mention of jaunty walks reminds me I have a train to catch. As I reach for my coat, Nieve reminds me that as a part-commercial venture, Liquidator Two is available for hire, for programming or just learning how to set up a small business turning your unwanted relatives into Brekkies. Just ring and make your reservation, invites the grinning keyboard player.
So far all the people who've taken advantage of the facilities seem, for some strange reason, to have been involved in writing music for yogurt commercials, including one "very dodgy Spanish variety". I didn't stick around long enough to find out if there was a secret ingredient involved...
Interview by Nicholas Rowland