Graham hasn't been idle since his 10CC days. Paul White talks to him about his new musical venture... Wax.
Graham Gouldman has not been idle since his days with 10CC. He's playing again with his new group, Wax, and their first album is due to be released shortly.
What have you been involved with since your 10CC days?
I've been doing production work for acts ranging from the Ramones to Gilbert O'Sullivan and somehow I always kept myself busy. But I always had the feeling that I wanted to get back into playing.
I'd met Andrew Gold in about 1982 and invited him to come over to England to co-write some songs with me. He stayed five or six months and we worked in the home studio I'd set up, writing and recording songs. This consisted of a B16 which was wired into an Allen and Heath desk. I also had an AMS and various other bits of outboard gear including Drawmer gates, so we were fairly well equipped. We did rough mixes on the Revox and played the results to Phonogram, as I was obliged to give them the first option on any new material for contractual reasons. They liked it and rather than send us into the studio, they asked us to carry on working at home because the results were so good; I really enjoyed working like that with the cats wandering in and out. The Tracks were mixed at Red Bus and Marcus studios with Rafe McKenna as engineer except for one track which we mixed here and we couldn't better.
We monitored at home on L200s but there's also a pair of little Celestions which are useful. Also, in this room I have the JBL Aquarius speakers but they sound just slightly dull to my ears. A lot of people use ARs or NS10s but I like to check the mix by playing it back through real crud. It's like checking things in mono, it reassures you that it's going to be all there on virtually any system.
After our contacts at Phonogram left, we were dropped and though what we had recorded were good songs, they weren't all that commercial and to be honest were probably a little old fashioned. We decided to write some new material at Andrew's home in LA which turned out to be an important decision. You absorb new influences just by listening to the radio or by watching MTV and the songs that we wrote there got us our deal with RCA under the name of Wax.
We wrote around six songs first time round and rejected two of them. When I was working with 10CC we never had songs left over; everything was recorded but with Wax we're being totally ruthless with our own material before anyone else gets the chance.
One big decision was to bring in a young producer because it would have been too easy for us to just do it ourselves and perhaps not get the best out of the songs. We ended up with Phil Thornleigh because he had a good track record and also he seemed to come from the same school of musical thought as we did.
Are there just the two of you involved in the Wax project as musicians?
Yes, but we do feel that a third party in the form of Phil is necessary. We rarely disagree though, because if either Andrew or I have an idea we give it a go and then examine it dispassionately to see if it has worked. Half the battle in this business is your character because you have to be able to accept that someone else disapproves of some of your ideas without falling out or resenting it.
"A good song will almost tell you how it should be arranged and recorded; some of the best records I've been involved in have worked this way, everything just goes right."
Where did you finally record the Wax album?
It was all done at Rak after playing Phil the first batch of songs and deciding which ones to record. At first we had the idea of doing some of the songs here but we ended up doing it all at Rak with Phil for the sake of continuity. Actually we recorded two of the songs while Phil was away but he mixed them so you couldn't tell them from the songs he'd produced fully. After a while I think that some of his approach rubbed off so we tended to work in his way even when he wasn't there. He's a bit like us in a sense; he's not too fussy, rather the opposite to 10CC. You can spend so much time concentrating on the fine details of a part that you lose all the feel if you aren't careful. For instance, even if two instruments are slightly out of tune it can sound good - you end up with a bigger sound.
Did you write these songs with just the music in mind or did you deliberately set out to be a commercial success?
We wanted this to be a commercial success so we started by making the songs dance-orientated. They're not dance songs as such but they are songs that you can dance to. It's accessible music, though it's not like some of the funk you hear that only has one or two riffs. They are real songs.
We used quite a lot of sampling on the album and most of that was done on an Emulator. I've always liked bass guitar as opposed to synth bass and one of the nicest things we did was to sample my Music Man bass and play that from the Emulator keyboard. We used that on Breakout. This was played from a keyboard in real time though we did use sequencers on a few things including 'Ball and Chain'. Sequencers are time consuming to programme and you do lose something in the way of performance or feel. Our way we can choose the approach that suits the track.
We avoided standard drum sounds by using an RX11, a Linn 9000 and an old Linn and then used them to trigger samples from an AMS. I think we kept RX15 toms on some things. Andrew did the programming and that was a big help as he's a drummer and so the finished drum parts sounded like a drummer rather than a machine. I'm really fed up with hearing things with cabasa all the way through, which is a big temptation to some people simply because it's there on the rhythm unit. A drummer uses whatever he would play if he were behind a kit.
I only play guitar and bass, not keyboards and that's very frustrating for me. I've done a bit of work using a Roland GR700 guitar synth but unfortunately I had to play ahead of time because there is a delay when it's MIDId up to the Emulator. I've been looking for an alternative that tracks better but there are only rumours of what's in the pipeline so far. However, one of those rumours concerns a system that lets you use your own guitar. I'm glad that manufacturers are pursuing this line of approach because at the moment it's the keyboard players who get all the interesting technology.
The trouble is with current guitar synthesisers is that you can't just think about the playing and leave it at that; you've got to think about playing ahead and picking the strings carefully so it's less than ideal. I really enjoyed using it though and on the last track, 'Magnetic Heaven', I used it with the Emulator to get vibe and cello sounds. You could get around the delay problem by playing the tape backwards and putting a delayed guide track onto one of the spare tracks. That way the sound would come early when the tape was played the right way round. However, things like that get in the way. We like everything to be immediate. When a good guitar synth comes out, I'll be the first to go and buy it. Fortunately the guitar will always survive, it's a very expressive instrument.
On two or three tracks we used the old Minimoog for the bass lines but of course people will now sample this onto their Emulators or whatever. There's tremendous access to sounds now.
Don't you think though that technology has now outstripped peoples' ability to create good music; production techniques have improved enormously but nothing else has really improved for many years.
Absolutely. I think that there were more good songs played on the radio in the 60s and 70s than there are now, but of course the modern sound quality is so much better. Modern production methods and sound sampling make a lot of things possible. Of course the style of music of the day seems to dictate its own clichés. We've all had it with orchestra stabs now but you can use sampling in more unusual ways.
We did one day of sampling during the recording of the album when we went round banging fire extinguishers and things. I was always intrigued by the loo door at Rak so we sampled that. It has a very musical squeak, almost like trumpets and this was used in Magnetic Heaven. The thump as the door closed was phenomenal, so we used that as the bass drum in one of the tracks. That's what I find satisfying, even though everyone hearing it will think it's just a bass drum.
Do you have any special production techniques that you could pass on to our readers that might help them?
Andrew and I always believe in never doing a harmony with more than two parts. That's a very simple thing and is rather opposite to what we did in 10CC, but it works for us now and gives a more ballsy sound. We also like to mix the harmony vocals down into mono because it gives more solidity.
I also like to use a lot of instruments or parts panned hard left or hard right rather than at ten o'clock and two o'clock, especially synth parts that reply to one another and things like that.
"...if the song needs a real drummer, you get a real drummer. If a machine does the job, use the machine."
I'd like to do the next album fully digitally, though after listening to some Compact Discs, I feel that some recordings work and some don't. On some things it seems to kill the ends of echoes off and things like that.
We like working with analogue too because it has a certain warmth but it's a matter of choosing what medium suits the songs best. That's why classical music works so well on digital; it's so dynamic. That always freaked me out when I was making records; we'd get to the disk cutting stage and it all seemed so crude after we'd worked so hard to keep everything sounding good. At least CD has changed that. It still amazes me when I put an album on and there's no noise or anything until the music starts.
At the end of the day though when it's coming out of the radio, it's AM and compressed to hell but no one really notices. That's because when all's said and done, it's the song that matters. I always try to stand back and listen to the music with a punter's ears and I'm glad that I've kept the ability to do that. A good song will almost tell you how it should be arranged and recorded; some of the best records I've been involved in have worked this way, everything just goes right.
When we got to the end of the album we listened to it and said, 'It sounds great but side two is too short, what do we do?' We wrote another song and it turned out to be one of the best songs on the album. There are about seven or so perfectly good songs that we didn't put on the album but they will get used sometime. One song Andrew and I really liked but no one else liked it so we will eventually do it ourselves and who knows, we may be wrong but we'll give it a try.
Do you have any novel tricks using reverbs?
Yes. We have the AMS, and I think the Lexicon is excellent. We use the AMS for certain things but I think that you'll find most studios use them on the ambient setting because it's the best thing the AMS does. I still like a real EMT echo plate if it's a good one; they're very natural. Also I like echo rooms. Again you're creating your own sound rather than someone elses presets. Another approach that I favour is to give each part its own space or room and we have used Aural Excitement to keep things from getting muddy. When we did the album here we used the garage for reverb which worked well. Sometimes we will also play back a track through monitors in a live room and then re-record it, particularly drums. However, Phil seems to get the most amazing drum sound just by using the outboard equipment so we don't need to do that very often.
Did you use any real drums on the album?
It's all drum machines or samples apart from the cymbals which we overdubbed live. We got to the situation where Andrew would say 'Let's sample the cymbal into the AMS and just trigger it off? I said 'Why don't we play it, just put up a couple of cymbals and play them?' He said 'Oh yes, that's a good idea'. Again it comes back to the performance and feel aspect. If we had programmed the cymbals, we probably wouldn't have put them in the same place. When you hear a really good drummer like Stewart Copeland, it's fantastic and I've always believed that if the song needs a real drummer, you get a real drummer. If a machine does the job, use the machine.
I love machines but I like humans playing too. Take The Police again, I wouldn't call them a synth band in a million years but they do use synths. A lot of producers don't like using real drummers because they don't play perfectly in time and that's because we're all so used to hearing machines that play precisely in time. It's a shame in a way because like the slightly out of tune guitar it's a feel that we respond to and response to music is what it's all about.
Interview by Paul White
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