Floyd, Eno, Gabriel... Grid? | The Grid
New Grid on the block
The initial effects of Acid are beginning to wear off, and it's time to relax and reflect. Anyone for Aspirin House?
Ampex will be pleased. They've been supplying the reels of tape on which Pop Music as we know it has been recorded for decades. Their 456 brand of analogue tape is an industry standard, and recognition is here at last. For The Grid, otherwise known as studio-tanned mixers and matchers Dave Ball and Richard Norris, have bestowed upon it the honour of an album in its name, released in October. Like System 7, it's a tools-of-the-trade kind of a name; a technology-conscious title.
There's something industry-standard about The Grid, too. Forged from the combined talents of Ball - the 'synth' half of a classic synth-pop duo, early '80s vintage, name of Soft Cell - and Norris, erstwhile music journalist and record label employee, it's an act with the right blend of experience and enthusiasm to attract admirers across the board.
Remix and production work for the likes of Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Boy George, Marc Almond and Happy Mondays combines with theme music commissions (BBC 2's Def II) and guest production at Peter Gabriel's 1991 Real World Recording Week in an impressive portfolio. On the album, heavyweights like Robert Fripp, Dieter Meier and Andy Mackay make appearances. It certainly seems as if this Grid is generating the right amount of electricity.
And when I encounter them in the plush surroundings of London's Olympic Studios, it only comes as a mild surprise to learn that they are also now embroiled with a certain Brian Eno. On the SSL monitor is the title of one of his Nerve Net tracks ('Ali Click') and leaning thoughtfully over the desk is one of the duo charged with the task of remixing it for single release - Richard Norris "We wanted him to do a track for us - 'Heartbeat' - he said he'd do it if we did his next single, so we thought 'fair enough'!"
Sitting on an eight-foot-long leather sofa (I told you Olympic was plush), Dave Ball reveals the origins of the liaison. "Our manager used to manage Roxy Music, which is quite useful, really."
"Yeah," adds Richard, "he was at EG and looked after King Crimson, T.Rex, ELP and all the rest of 'em. That's why there's a few people from that era on the album."
You're not ELP fans, are you? "No." Just a thought.
"But we have gone back to the Prophet 5, the Mini-Moog, and we've just restored a rebuilt VCS3..."
This rings a bell. Quite a significant one, too. With all the talk of post-Acid House pick-a-label techno chill-out album developments of late, there has been a short but orderly queue of acts waiting to become, for better or worse, the New Pink Floyd. The KLF started it with the grazing sheep cover of Chill Out (echoing the pastoral but dairy theme on the cover of Atom Heart Mother), and The Orb didn't help by not only sticking Battersea Power Station on the cover of their debut album Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, but also toying with the idea of actually calling it The Back Side Of The Moon. Anyway, in this queue is also to be found, according to some marketing strategists, The Grid. And the original Dark Side Of The Moon featured more than its fair share of VCS3 sequences. With me?
"The people who made VCS3s originally," explains Richard, "are getting hold of old ones and reconditioning them, rather than doing a new version. I think The Synthesiser Company are doing a new one, but ours is the old thing with the keyboard and everything." "Apparently," adds Dave, "you can't retrofit them with MIDI. We did that with the Prophet and the PPG, but with the VCS3 you can't. You can get modular ones with MIDI, but this one we're getting will be a classic bit of non-MIDI hardware. Which means, of course, that we won't be sequencing with it. It means actually playing it." His eyes light up with ironic glee. "Sometimes we actually play our instruments. A novel approach, I know...
"It's a mix between using C-Lab and a basic mono sequencer for quick stuff on things like the Juno 106. For drums we use a lot of samples and the R8, so there's loops and programming, but a lot of the percussion is live, played by Steve Sidelnyk. Plus, he's got loads of his own samples on the S1000, which he triggers from the Octapad. The live stuff is mixed in with the drum machine and the loops, just to give it more feel. It can get tedious with just a loop going on and on.
"There are certain things we have been doing which we've found have made a difference to the feel - particularly sampling actual drum fills. You listen to a lot of records and it just stays the same, or it just drops out and then it comes back in, but if you've actually got a good fill, or a crash cymbal - we've recently rediscovered those - it works, and a lot of people don't really use that any more. If you watch a drummer playing, it's always got those fills, so it was nice to get someone in actually playing. And he plays like a machine anyway..."
"On a lot of the tracks," Richard continues, "instead of using a programmed 909 snare he'll hit it on the Octapad; you can hear that on things like 'Face The Sun', which has a lot of triplety stuff that would take us ages to program, but this way has a really loose feel, quantised very roughly. We'll record the whole performance on the Atari, and then just move it slightly, although most of the time his playing was so accurate we didn't even need to do that. We certainly didn't quantise it all to 16ths, or anything like that. Even though the music is fairly machine-driven, it's good to have the human element. We think of ourselves as a technological band, but not strictly as a 'techno' band. We'll use a lot of live instruments as well, with a kind of basis in electronics, just to get out of that purely technical thing that a lot of people are doing. To mix the two, really; make it a bit more human."
One such human element, of course, is the guitar. The album features contributions from Zodiac Mindwarp's resplendently named guitarist Cobalt Stargazer, Rob Marche of If and formerly Joboxers (and the best twang since Duane Eddy, in my book) and, as Dave puts it, "the one and only Bob Fripp. He was fantastic to work with. His setup is wonderful; everything's in stereo, and you say 'could you get a sound that's sort of like water?' and it takes him about two minutes, and it sounds like... water! We couldn't quite figure out how he does it, but he does these loops; he'll make a loop with one note, and build it up by adding a harmony on it, until it's this great sequence. He had a couple of digital delays, which were somehow connected so that he builds up this spiralling chord, and he gets it in time, too, which is the really clever bit."
Richard is equally enthralled: "There's a section in 'Ice Machine' where it drops down to what sounds like keyboard ambience in the middle, which is all off his guitar. It's a really distinctive sound. We initially asked him to play just on that one track, but when he came down he got really into it and stayed all day - contributing to three tracks in all - which was great." "Actually," Dave confides, "we've got plans to do an album with him. He said he'd like to do more stuff with us and we suggested maybe we could do something which is more ambient, like the stuff he's done with Eno - while he's really interested in doing stuff with beats, so we're really meeting in the middle."
I don't know about all this talk of Pink Floyd, but it seems as though the spirits of King Crimson and Roxy Music are having a much more direct influence as the dance boom chills out. Of course, it cuts both ways, and those elder statesmen of progressive rock who are not content with reliving past glories in spurious reunion gigs are really getting into the groove. "That's certainly the case with Eno," says Dave. "On his new stuff there's all sorts of drum loops - and, of course, there's one particular drum track we've heard before... EMF, I think it was."
Well, there you are; sampling as the ultimate declaration of influence. Richard at this point identifies a seminal work which puts Eno's role in all this into sharp relief: "It's all very much Bush Of Ghosts territory, as well, which is quite interesting because so many people weren't up for that album at the time. Obviously they did it all with tape loops, you know, presampling, so it's quite interesting to see what he can do now." Dave begins to reflect on the kind of secrets which get unearthed during your average session with a legend. "It's amazing to think that a lot of those early ambient albums were recorded in an afternoon, you know, pop into the studio with a couple of Revoxes. It only took us a day to record Fripp's setup, but, I suppose, it took ten years to get the sound. He's got some new delays, plus quite a few weird things like an Electro-Harmonix... I probably shouldn't be telling you this!"
"He told us about this company," Richard observes, "who built something called The Fripp-In-A-Box, and he wrote asking them to send him one, and they wouldn't! They expected him to buy it.
"But it's great to be able to put his particular treated sounds against our treated sounds. It works really well, ours being more rhythmic and percussive, or Prophet/PPG sounds, and his being so ambient."
The Grid's treated sounds, it turns out, are courtesy of standard outboard effects such as Lexicons and AMS's, blended with the kind of jumble sale foot pedals you sometimes see lying around in the spare bedrooms of disillusioned cohabiting guitarists who have invited you round for dinner, wine and a rueful rummage through the old demo tapes. And sure enough, at one end of the aforementioned Olympic sofa lies none other than an Electric Mistress Flanger/Filter Matrix. Electric Mistress? Phew, rock and roll.
"It's interesting using older effects," explains Richard, "instead of just using the digital racks. They've got so much more character and are much warmer. We use the Roland Space Echo a lot, too. When it works." "Yeah," says Dave, "it only seems to work in cheaper studios. Seriously, when we're in an SSL room it packs in, I don't know why."
Dave has kept every piece of gear acquired since the Soft Cell days, and following a period in the mid-'80s when his interest in new products sagged, he now identifies the advent of cheap sampling as the spark which has rekindled a broad sense of purpose for technology-based bands. "It's that in conjunction with MIDI," he says, "which has got me interested again. All that Soft Cell stuff was pre-MIDI - it was all played, as I think you can tell if you listen to the records! I've always been into dance music, though; some of the stuff I used to do was quite dance-oriented, even if they were pop songs. The thing about using sequencers is that you do tend to write stuff which is more linear. If you think of the early sequencer bands, like Tangerine Dream, it is very linear stuff, and the sequencer does influence you in that way, this idea of repetition.
"We were keen at one stage to see if we could get a remix of Tangerine Dream, because there's so much stuff in it, it would be great to sort of update it. I'm not that keen on some of the later stuff, where they started using Fairlights and so on. It lost a lot of the charm of the original sounds. I mean, the people who make all the PPG stuff originally made custom equipment for them, before they were a commercial company. Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream were the only people who used that gear. Now, of course, we've got the Waldorf Microwave: exactly the same sounds and only about a quarter of the weight."
Left to their own devices, as it were, Richard and Dave will play very happily for hours in the studio toy cupboard. They will also chat, in turn, in the same contented manner about methods and techniques that they have adopted along the way. All you have to do is sink into the sofa and listen...
Richard: "We do things like get a piano part and put it through, say, some FB01 programs, and then get two wah-wah pedals with us each playing one, and have that going in a chain so you get a sort of opening and closing wah-wah filter on it. And, of course, it doesn't sound anything like a piano... It's like playing the effect as an instrument rather than just sticking the signal through it. That's what we did on 'Fire Engine Red' - we started with a piano sound and it ended up sounding something like a Sly & The Family Stone guitar part. That's what's interesting: getting miles away from where you started from."
Dave: "I like to work things out on a piano before I go anywhere near a synth. It just feels more natural. Usually we'll work through chord sequences, see what works, what goes into what, and then we'll start putting it down into the sequencer. A lot of the time, the first things you put down you'll scrap, because the sequencing suggests different ways. It's always growing and changing."
Richard: "There's always a point in the mix when you take one particular sound, one particular effect or treatment, and suddenly it will take the whole thing in a different direction. That happened with this Eno mix yesterday; we were going down one route, and just put down one more thing which was basically Dave doing a new riff over the top, and that has sparked off loads of different ideas, so the mix could go somewhere else completely now."
Dave: "It's about finding that one central idea that really works. We were tending to be influenced by the original version of the track, which is very much in this funk style, and it became a question of how not to make it sound like just another funk track and more like a trance kind of thing. And we were just fiddling around and suddenly this one thing clicked."
Given the topicality of Peter Gabriel's Real World Recording Week, which is only a few days away as we speak, the conversation turns briefly to their experiences at the event last year, as invited producers, and reveals just how flexible 'flexible' has to be under certain conditions. For Richard, one detail sums up the whole thing. "It was amazing to be putting down a drum track with a sequencer and a sampler, and to get this guy from Madagascar who's never recorded before, never left his village before. Never seen a sampler; never seen a Nintendo... some of the tracks have these shouts of glee from the corner, and it's someone playing with a Nintendo.
"All the chat, all these jokes are on the tracks because they didn't realise it was all being recorded. But that guy from Madagascar, who'd never heard a click track or anything, was so in time it was unbelievable. Absolutely spot on, completely natural. For us, being interested in beats and so on, it was great because there were so many amazing percussionists around. And we were there specifically to do numbers with grooves, while there were others from more folk/hybrid areas - purists who weren't sure about us at all. But living in London, the influences we're exposed to are things like Kiss FM, an enormous amount of record shops and gigs to go to, plus there must be about 20 different nationalities in my street. It's natural that we should be producing this sort of urban music with eclectic elements."
On cue, Dave picks up an exotic length of bamboo which has been lying hitherto unmolested next to the sofa, and which turns out to be a Malaysian rain stick. "And conversely," he says, "if you live in the rain forest, this is your state-of-the-art equipment, and it's brilliant..." He turns it through 180 degrees, and a million tiny beads cascade invisibly down the inside of the hollow stick making a sound, it must be said, just like rain. He grins. "Sampler ready...?"
The horizons are stretching even further. In common with other bands keen to expand both the vocabulary and the audience of post-rave technologically inspired music, The Grid are actually planning to play live. It's a move Dave considers important for more than one reason.
"Obviously, we've got to promote the album, but also I think we're a bit faceless to people, you know, we just put out records and mixes. There is a difference if you go and see someone performing; it's like, they really do exist, they really are a band. So it's important to consolidate that. I think rather than tour night after night, we'll do maybe three gigs a week for so many weeks. There'll probably be some videos involved, and there will be other players. Like additional keyboards, sax player, percussionist, maybe a guitarist."
Richard expands on the visual theory... "We're planning very visual elements: projections, graphics, videos. We're also looking into having MIDI controllers for all the computer imagery, so you can actually see what you play as well as hear it. We'll probably use DATs for the backing tracks, or else the Yamaha digital 8-track - if they give us one..."
"Which would be nice," Dave points out, "because then we would have SMPTE to link up with the videos. That is a problem at the moment, because in order to reproduce the whole thing live we'd need fifteen keyboards or something, which would all have to be reprogrammed for every number. We'd like to get it to that stage, but initially we need to cut corners. Venues? Well, places like the Zap Club in Brighton - obviously not too big gigs, we'd hate to turn up and find two people in the audience. It's a first tentative dip in the water."
We can only dream of a collaboration between Fripp, Eno and The Grid, but Richard and Dave dream themselves of setting up a label for modern, ambient music much along the same lines as EG. "A lot of people are interested in ambient music again," thinks Richard, "but there aren't that many people doing it from the kind of hi-fi end of things, or from an avant-garde point of view, and it would be interesting to bring that element back into the field. I think we'd be looking to do collaborations, rather than signing up artists - we'd produce most of the stuff. For example, Michael Brook is another person we'd really like to work with. We're just thinking of people we'd like to collaborate with, we don't really know who, yet.
"People are getting into ambient music as a progression from the dance scene, not as a reaction to it. People are much more into sound than they used to be, because, since about 1988, they've been listening to more instrumental music in clubs, with its roots in dub and so on and based on sampling and electronics. You can see it in record shops - you know, people come in and say, 'Have you got that record that's got that noise on it...' It's more to do with sounds than it is to do with, say, vocals or guitar, or songs. It's more mood, atmosphere, beats. And also the whole post-club sort of chill-out phenomenon, which is a reaction in a way, but it comes from the club scene where you have two rooms, one with beats and loud noise and one with pure ambience.
"I do a bit of ambient DJ'ing, and I did a night at this weird Elizabethan house near Brighton, doing about six hours of the EG catalogue, basically! It was a very strange setup; we had CDs, DATs, cassettes, turntables, but it was good just to hear those records in that context. It worked really well. The reaction was interesting; half of them thought it was brilliant, and were cheering, and the other half thought it was really awful and booed. The best audience reaction you can get, of course. But certainly one of the elements of ambient music is a purely functional element, and it works really well in that context. Socially, now is probably the best time there's ever been for it. It's getting to a hell of a lot more people than it used to. So it's about the right time to do those kind of records."