Hue & Cry
Face to face with Hue - or is it Cry?
Glasgow has a reputation. Well, several, actually, but many of them strangely at odds with each other. One for football, one for art. One for drinking, one for the driest humour to be found anywhere. One for hospitality, another for violence. You may get your bag stolen, say, from a parked car, but then the taxi driver that takes you back to your hotel will turn out to be someone who knows your best mate.
One reputation which defies contradiction, however, is the one Glasgow shares with that other renegade port, Liverpool: some of the finest pop music of the last decade. Spurred on by deep stirrings within the Celtic soul, or perhaps by the sight of Andy Stewart singing 'Donald Where's Your Troosers' on STV, a generation has grown up and redrawn the boundaries between soul and pop, imbuing the former with local fizz and the latter with a steady supply of freshness and quality.
The crest of the most recent wave of this kind threw up Hue & Cry, a.k.a. brothers Pat and Gregory Kane, who in 1986 were snapped up by a fledgling label called Circa on the strength of simple piano/vocal demos and a bucketful of youthful optimism. On delivery of their first-born - the album Seduced And Abandoned in 1987 - both label and artists were doing well, sitting up and taking fluids.
Hit singles came; 'Labour Of Love' shadowed '87 Election fever (but didn't help), and cleared the way for 'Strength To Strength', 'I Refuse' (a re-recorded version of their lost first single), and, from a second album, 'Ordinary Angel', 'Looking For Linda' and 'Violently'. By then, as is the way of these things, Circa were doing so well that supportive deals with majors became full-scale embroilment, and once safely within the Virgin fold, the label, however successful, was prey to the kind of major-league machinations that either abandon artists (having first seduced them), or frighten them away. Including Hue & Cry.
Enter Fidelity Records, an independent Glasgow label set up by studio/rehearsal complex St.Clair, under the auspices of Mark Wilson and Hue & Cry's manager Allan MacNeill, and now sporting a new album by the Kane brothers, Truth And Love, recorded in-house and produced by one Gregory Phillip Kane.
All along, Greg Kane (keyboards and sax) has written the music whilst brother Pat, never short of a few words on the right occasion - or any occasion, come to that - supplied lyrics. So it seems natural that Greg should have graduated to the producer's chair for last year's Stars Crash Down, and continued the role for the latest offering. But there have been a few changes. Now, technology at the ready, musical control at his fingertips, it's time for Gregory Kane to be heard...
"The test will be if I listen to it in a year's time and it doesn't sound stiff." He says discussing the introduction of sequencing technology into the Hue & Cry sound. "The paranoia about using sequencers is whether it's going to sound stiff. Once the initial excitement goes, once you've got used to the album, does it sound rigid? The demos for the first album we did, Seduced And Abandoned, were like a primitive version of this one. I played everything, because we didn't have anyone else. It was all MC-500 back then, and all those parts that I'd written were played by the band once we'd got the deal - and that was the album. It was produced by two American guys (Harvey Jay Goldberg and James Biondolillo) and I watched them closely. So when we demo'd this album we tried to use a live band, but, basically, I don't know how to produce a live band yet."
Such honesty is a breath of fresh Caledonian air, and aerates every topic into which the conversation leads. Perhaps this is why the album itself rings so true; gone are the trips to New York in the search for surrogate soul. Replacing it is a strong homegrown flavour (Pat Kane's nickname for Fidelity Records is 'MacMotown'). Evidence of this is neatly provided by the figure of Calum Malcolm - East Lothian's producer extraordinaire and keeper of The Blue Nile's quiet secret of success - who mixed the album at his own Castle Sound studio near Edinburgh.
"Most recording studios are struggling right now," Greg continues, "but not Castle Sound. Because, I would say, it's got the best mixing environment in Britain. Calum's very friendly with Rupert Neve, so any updates go straight into his desk. And to me he's like the friendly Maths teacher you had at school, you learn so much from him. I said, 'what's your schedule?' and he said he had ten days off, he was going away for the weekend, so he'd give me seven days. I said, 'can you mix this in seven days!?' and he said he'd just have a go. His attitude is if it's not happening within three hours, just scrap it! He knows his studio so well, he just brings it up on the faders and if it's happening in three hours, brilliant, print it, that's it, done. So he can do two or three mixes a day. And he did do our album in seven days.
"I tried to make it as easy as possible; everything was arranged on tape, it was just the positioning of the vocals and so on. I haven't yet concentrated on mixing. This is only my second full production job; I've been concentrating on the rhythms and sounds working together, and I let Calum position everything. It's brilliant because he understands what everything does and I don't have to worry about it."
Sequencing was the solution that put an end to the other worries about producing a live band. "It was just the Atari, upgraded to 3Mb so it wouldn't crash on me, and Cubase, version 2.0. I didn't use version 3.0; most people say that with previous versions you're into your mode of working, and it's become second nature, but with version 3.0 it's kind of turned upside down, with lots of annoying little things that you've got to get used to, so it takes you about a week or two of constant use to get rid of your old habits. It's like driving a left-hand drive car after a right-hand drive car - the same procedure but all a bit upside-down. Anyway, version 2.0 does me fine, as long as the computer's powerful enough to handle everything.
"The sound modules were just two D50s and one M1, and all the drums were programmed on an Alesis module. I know people who use loops, but I find myself saying, hand on my heart, 'That sounds out of time, man, I'm sorry'. You never get a loop bang on. The grooves that it gives you kind of restrict you. People kind of bury it; they'll do the 8-bar loop and on top of it they'll put everything else, all the original stuff, and bury it until you wonder, 'why is it there?' this hissy noise in the background. You've got your percussion and stuff that you've programmed on top of it, so there doesn't seem any point to me. I've always tried to use the computer to create, rather than using existing performances, using samplers. There's no samplers on the album, it's all from these keyboards.
"Once I'd got the tempo and keys right for Pat, I just printed the sequences onto eight tracks. That left me with 24 tracks to muck about with, so I did all the vocal takes and bounced them onto one track, and then did the same with the guitars. Once I'd got all the parts, I reprinted all the sequences individually, taking ten tracks for the drums this time. I didn't want the problems of slaving up and so on, and the joy of using the computer is that you only need eight tracks to print all your music. The rest can be for your live work, which tends to be three or four tracks for different takes, the final track being a composite of those. So, if you've printed all your stuff without a computer you'll run into problems. You end up saying to the guitarist, 'We've only got one track left, so don't fuck up', which is useless because live stuff is all about little impulses and spontaneity that will never happen under that kind of pressure. So with the computer you don't have to print those sequences till the very last minute, which is great."
"The paranoia about using sequencers is whether it's going to sound stiff. Once the initial excitement goes, once you've got used to the album, does it sound rigid?"
All very well, but this is assuming you've got songs all set to put down. How has the new working method impinged upon the Hue & Cry songwriting partnership?
"Some of the songs were developed on Cubase, but mainly Pat and I still write with just piano and vocal. Once we've got the melody and chords straight he buggers off for four days and I bring it to a certain level where there's a groove, a mood, a positive direction for the song; he comes back and it's either thumbs up or thumbs down. If it's thumbs down, we spend two days re-arranging it together on Cubase. But 80% of the time it's thumbs up, and the other 20% I put down to me working too hard and losing track. He might see it as a ballad, and I see it as a real funk epic, and it's hey, wait a minute... That happens, but fortunately not too often. So we don't use the sequencer for actually conceiving a song, just for realizing it. We could do the whole album just piano and vocal, the songs don't change that much.
"Maybe one song did, 'Because You're Nothing', which is kind of a funk thing. There's a bass line which runs all the way through. I did that on Cubase and just played it to him, trying to find chords over the top of it and a melody that worked. He came up with a melody from that bass line. And it was a sequence over two octaves, quite difficult to play with one hand, so I just let the computer run and worked on the chords.
"The horn parts were written on Cubase too - from the M1 - but it's a sound without any spits or breaths, and the dynamics are difficult, so we got Cubase to print out the music. And we went in and played along with the M1. We locked into that because I knew that worked. I don't think Calum used the M1 horns in the final mix, but I like to hear a blend of the two. Cubase is certainly good for writing horns - for me, anyway. You get 75% of what it's going to sound like - not the same 'spread', but you hear where it's going to fit, and where not. Plus it's so much easier.
"When we were in New York recording Remote we had to hire music students to transcribe all the parts! I'd have a part, and this poor wee guy had to sit and write it all out - beautifully done, really nice - so when the session men came in, we just gave them the chart. But with Cubase, you press a key and it all comes out. It's pretty accurate, too; some timing things may be a bit funny, because it's not quantized, but it's pretty close and it lets the player know what's going on."
Apart from the scandalous deprivation of summer income for American music students, advancing technology has raised other, more abstract, concerns. For example, take the case of the guitarist and the Mitsubishi X-850...
"Our guitarist (Brian McPhee, ex-Big Dish) is very deep and meaningful about this. He says 'Why should my performance be turned into numbers? I give all my emotions and it becomes a binary sequence'. So he doesn't like it, and I say, 'But for fidelity reasons digital is better' and he says 'Yeah, but at least on analogue the performance is still there, still intact, it doesn't have to be decoded.' So I have to say 'No y'all right, Brian, don't worry'. You'd be surprised how many people react like that."
At least Mr McPhee has not yet been replaced by a sample. Surprisingly, having embraced sequencing so fully, and having run the gauntlet of digitally multitracking anxious guitarists, Greg is circumspect about the other Great Advance in contemporary recording.
"I really am a bit suspicious about samplers. They always sound noisy, really brittle. I was going to use, what's that thing, ProTools, y'know with the four tracks of sampling... crashes all the time! Anybody that buys it right now must be off their head, because in five years' time they'll have solved all the problems and you'll be able to pick it up in Dixons for £750. So samplers, well... no. Obviously when you're spinning in backing vocals and that kind of stuff, you have to use them. When the singers come in you want them doing the best they can, and you only need one chorus that you can fly in throughout the song. Samplers are good for that, but not for drum sounds, or string sounds; it always sounds too brittle for me.
"I use the computer as a musician that doesn't complain, doesn't come in with a hangover, doesn't ask for more money"
"I use the computer as a musician that doesn't complain, doesn't come in with a hangover, doesn't ask for more money. I give it the information. I very rarely quantize stuff; hi-hats, snares, bass drum, yeah... but with the music I try not to. It's easy enough to do, but it doesn't swing - or rock'n'roll - for want of a better phrase. When you hear something that's slightly out of time you go 'What's that?' and Pat will hear it and compensate by pushing or pulling slightly, and I think that's exciting. If it's all regimented and bang on, you get bored. I mean, can you listen to Michael Jackson's 'Bad'? I can't listen to it any more - those horrible snares, everything bang in time. So I only use the computer to basically chuck back out what I gave it. I'll use it as a recorder, put in drums and bass, then do a piano take top-to-bottom, mute it and do another take top-to-bottom, maybe three takes and then listen to them, same way you do on tape. It's a tape machine with MIDI."
For now, MIDI seems to have done its thing and solved a few immediate problems for Greg Kane. But don't expect any excursions into ambient techno-territory just yet. The future looks distinctly lively.
"I love Don Was, what he did with Bonnie Raitt (Luck Of The Draw), and half that B-52's album (Good Stuff) - that album really shows you the difference between programming and live. You can hear, on the live stuff, how Don Was is so bloody good at it. So I listened, and tried it with a band for this new album, set up a few mikes and a good atmosphere, hoping the tape would catch something. But it didn't, so there's a knack for producing live bands, and I'm just going to keep working away at it. Maybe if I was doing it for a different band, rather than me worrying about my arrangements, my chords... we'll see. If somebody offers me some work next year, we'll see what the schedule's like, and maybe I'll take it."
This is a jazz-lover, a sax player, and a young producer with feet closer to the ground than a glance at his prized Porsche would suggest. And the tower inhabited by brother Pat - now a Rector of Glasgow University, no less - seems a little less ivory with Greg's car parked outside. There may have been a Hue & Cry album called Remote, but the word could never be used to describe Greg Kane. This is the sort of Pop Star who will buy a starving journalist a Chinese takeaway at three in the morning, having spent the evening being approachable beyond the call of duty in a local bar. But that's Glasgow, that's showbiz, and in a Porsche'n'Prawn Crackers kind of way, that's Gregory Kane.
Interview by Phil Ward