How Men Are Now
The Luxury Gap boys pat themselves on the back after recording their fourth album, 'Pleasure One'. Tim Goodyer finds out how it was done, and discovers the threesome may soon be playing their first-ever concerts.
Five years after splitting from the Human League, Heaven 17 have just released their fourth album of hi-tech pop. And they may be doing their first live gigs.
"The Human League was basically an experiment in electronic pop: the only rule was there were to be no acoustic instruments, everything was to be done with synthesisers."
"All the backing tracks were done at our 24-track at Ian's place, and then we recorded the live musicians at Red Bus.
"It's a little easier now because we used to get all our ideas together round Mart's house with a little Casio. But we found it very wasteful doing demos and then re-recording them in the studio; you do things on demos that for some reason you can't recreate when you get into the studio. It's a bit futile trying to recreate something you really like anyway, so the next logical step was to get a studio where we never had to do demos that didn't become part of the end result, or where you couldn't throw away individual components. You shouldn't have to try to duplicate something you really like in the first place."
A sizeable chunk of the How Men Are budget went towards the hire of expensive outboard gear, but in this area at least, technology has smiled on Heaven 17. Instead of hiring equipment, they've invested in a couple of Yamaha REV7s, an SPX90 and a Roland SRV2000. Is this a false economy, or has technology really advanced so far that the professionals can afford to turn their backs on the likes of AMS and Lexicon reverbs?
"Last time we spent about 20 grand on hiring in outboard gear alone", Marsh confesses. "This time we spent about £300, but I think it's totally down to technology. We've got the same amount of reverb but we've been able to do it cheaper.
"To a certain extent it's a change in attitude as well. Last time we went completely over the top, 72-track mixes and all that. But we realised that, even though it made it sound great technically, it knocked the heart out of the songs. You spend so long concentrating on the minutiae of the mix that you lose sight of their true value. It's a risk you run. A lot of people don't suffer from it because they don't produce their own albums. When you're actually involved in every stage of it, you have to keep an overview.
"Drum programming was very exciting when it started, but now there's so much of it around it's not novel any more. All the little tricks you can do, even with real drum sounds, have been done."
"It makes it a lot easier when you've got intelligent musicians to work with" says Ware, "because they bring their own influences to a track. Assuming you pick the right musicians in the first place, that's a very valuable thing. You don't have to sit for hours pondering what on earth can go into that bit of the track; they can usually come up with something you wouldn't ever have thought of.
"It's taken a bit of the pressure off us, but we still always write the basic structure of the song - chord structure and rhythm patterns - before anyone else hears it."
The newly established practice of collaborating with other musicians has given Heaven 17 more than extra pairs of hands with which to perform their music, for Gregory, Ware and Marsh place a higher value on their songwriting and arranging skills than they do on their musicianship.
"We're not musicians. Technically we can't play a lot of the stuff that's on the albums, but our arranging capabilities have developed and we write a lot more interesting music now we've got a better grasp of mood and feel. We design the albums for our own pleasure. We regard ourselves as the directors of the film, rather than the actors."
With the Fairlight all but retired, the ubiquitous Emulator II has become the band's instrumental workhorse. But any sampler is really only as good as its samples.
"It drove us mad", recalls Gregory. "We spent about two months sampling things in Martyn's front room. After a while we started talk-talk-talking like this - seriously! It was incredibly brain-numbing. It got to the stage where we could only do about an hour a day."
Ware interrupts: "A lot of groups employ a programmer now, but as soon as someone learns to program they realise just how easy it is to create things for themselves. They don't want to do it for anyone else; that's like doing all the spadework with none of the rewards.
"So I bought the CD ROM for the Emulator right towards the end of recording. That's got like 500 banks of sounds that would have taken us six months to sample. It only cost about £1500 and it's expanded the capability of the Emulator II by at least three or four times."
Then again, the danger with using commercially available sounds is that everyone else has access to them too. Ware doesn't consider this a problem.
"It's not a problem if you acknowledge that it is a problem - then you can avoid it. There are so many sounds that it'd take you months to listen to them. We've got about the same number again of our own samples if you include the Fairlight, but there's no way we're going to exhaust them. It doesn't actually matter: unless you're putting a particular sound into a mix as a solo feature, you're never going to recognise it.
"A lot of electro groups are still using the same old sounds off the Fairlight - the Orchestra 5 and the same old brass samples - because they don't know how to use it. That's really boring; you can hear them on hundreds of records.
"We've gone through the theory and the practice, and the sounds you choose are much more relevant than whether someone else is using them. Depending on how you use a sound in a track, it sounds entirely different anyway. The problem is more that you've got too much choice; that's why a lot of people can't cope and just use the sounds that they've heard on other people's records. We tend not to use Emulator sounds as features in a track; we mainly use them for bed sounds and atmospheric things that aren't too high in the mix."
"We're all in on every part of the creative process: we all write the music together, we all write the lyrics together and we all work on the production together."
Now the BEF is only Martyn Ware's production title, but it is no less active for that. One of the stars of Music of Quality and Distinction was Tina Turner - and as it turns out, she is also the BEF's latest production project.
"I'm pretty picky about what I do because I don't have much time away from Heaven 17, but I did three tracks for the Tina Turner album", says Ware. "They were all cover versions because I wouldn't have felt comfortable writing anything for her - let's face it, it's a bit of a challenge to write anything for a voice like that - but none of them were actually used. One was Al Greene's 'Take Me to the River' which I thought was brilliant - and so does everybody else I've played it to. I hope it'll see the light of day in some form; if not, we may buy the backing tracks off her and use it ourselves."
In addition to the BEF, Heaven 17 have their eyes set on the big screen - or at least the sound that accompanies the pictures on the big screen. And in the meantime, television advertising has proved to be a lucrative step up the audio-visual ladder.
"We did the soundtrack for a Kellogg's Start advert, says Ware. "That was the first time we'd ever recorded anything with SMPTE. Working that directly with images brings lots of ideas flooding through. With a video you create the images around how you conceive the track. With film you have to design sounds around what's happening on the screen.
"We want to start doing real film soundtracks but it's difficult to break into. It's very cliquey, like an old boys' club, but we did have one boxing match with a French film. We were supposed to do a complete soundtrack but after working on it for two or three months, we pulled out. We did gain a small insight into how incredibly difficult and time-consuming everything is, though it's not actually so difficult to do the music, it's more politically difficult. Imagine having ten executives in a room each with a different idea of how it should sound. At one point we looked around the studio and there were about 30 people gibbering away in French, so we left. They probably didn't even know we'd gone for half-an-hour.
"But it's a good, creative, well-paid job." An air of confidence comes into Ware's voice. "We've certainly got the equipment and the wherewithal to do it. We could do the best horror film soundtrack ever."
A PART FROM THEIR recorded success, one of Heaven 17's claims to fame is that, with the exception of Gregory's performance of 'Fascist Groove Thang' on the Red Wedge tour in Bradford, they've never played live.
"I did Fascist Groove Thang' live with the Style Council and Junior", admits Gregory. "It was really weird - our one and only live gig, Bradford on a Tuesday night. They wanted me to do another one in London but I said no, let's not overdo it..."
One of the main reasons for Heaven 17's aversion to the concert hall is the money lost touring in the early days of the Human League, but things are no longer that simple, as Ware explains.
"I don't think having a high public profile is that relevant these days. Obviously if you like live music it is, but there aren't that many people who go to see live concerts, and it's not an automatic assumption that somebody who goes to a concert buys the album. When I was 17 or 18 it didn't matter who you went to see, you'd go out and buy their album afterwards.
"Whether we sell records or not is down to the quality of the records - as we've proved. We've never toured as Heaven 17, yet we sold 3,000,000 copies of The Luxury Gap. If people don't buy the records it's because they're not good enough. We face up to that."
"What you need to sell records is not a tour, it's the total backing of your record company", adds Gregory. "We feel we've got that now. When we first split up from the Human League they were very sceptical; they decided not to promote the first album. But that sold about five times more than any League album had."
Ware continues: "Nobody ever mentions that touring isn't just a strain, it's intellectually boring because you're reproducing the same old stuff every night. That is, unless you need that constant ego boost of people cheering you - I think that's why a lot of people really want to tour."
"Concert tickets over here are so expensive and so often the bands are terrible", resumes Gregory. "Some bands just weren't meant to play live, a lot of them aren't really musicians in that sense, so they'd be better off doing as we do."
In this area, at least, Heaven 17's attitude looks set to remain as it is, with the single exception of an appearance on The Tube. The line-up that put in a powerful performance of 'Contenders' and 'Trouble' on that occasion saw Gregory assisted on vocals by Carol Kenyon and Martyn Ware, who'd temporarily abandoned his technology. Marsh brushed the dust off the Fairlight, and a second keyboard player took command of the Emulator II. The rhythm section was the same combo that produced so much enthusiasm earlier in our conversation.
Yet the band's recent signing to Virgin America may well see Heaven 17 on the road in the States. And if it does, it seems likely the line-up will take a similar form to the one listed above.
"I think we may get pressure now", says Gregory, "because touring does mean something in America. I'd like to say we won't bend under that pressure, but I think it is quite possible."
"The only thing that makes it possible is the way we've done this album", muses Ware. "I think it would have been impossible had it been the last album. We'd use live musicians for everything that's live on this album: bass, drums, guitar and keyboards. That way we could do a passable representation with very little need for anything else. We could do 'rock hour' versions of older material, like Status Quo."
A sudden realisation strikes Gregory. "I'd have to learn the lyrics!", he explodes. "That's the great thing about recording - I can do the album and forget about it."
With luck, Heaven 17's fans won't find Pleasure One so easy to forget.
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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