Northern tape manipulators
Andy Darlington meets Hula, a group who specialise in tape trickery
"I think it's great if this piece goes into Electronic Soundmaker" opines Ron over his shoulder. "'ES' is geared up to people describing the equipment they've got, that's fine — but we've got nowt, and we can still produce stuff of a certain sophistication. I mean — when we first recorded, we only had a Wasp so all the keyboard bits we did used to be on a Melodica. We've still got the Melodica — 50p! Anyone can make really good keyboard sounds with a really good keyboard. Where's the challenge? That should be borne in mind. We should get a pat on the back for it".
Hula have moved on a tad since then, mind. You probably picked up on the buzz emanating from the massive Black Pop Workout, their 1982 debut vinyl. Then there was a contribution to the Four From The Floor EP sampler, and the Cut From Inside album — an exercise in the art of darkness, programming the compulsively repetitive Murder In The Clean States: experiments in the manipulation of rhythm-bases treated and submerged in hyper-active electronics, vocal chants, and cut-tape trickery that culminates in their most fully realised work, the Murmur album issued through Red Rhino. An evolution shoved further and climaxed with Fever Car, a single that drove Hula clear up the Indie charts and "opened up new avenues to us. The fact that you can get played on the radio — it starts to make you think, but not a lot. I consider we enjoy what we do too much to think about it in too mercenary a way".
There are four members of Hula. Ron and Mark Albrow are founders. Nort, the drummer, joined them direct from his work on the Cabaret Voltaire classic 2x45, and their Pressure Company benefit album. He's still a much in-demand session-drummer on the Sheffield circuit; he plays roto-toms ("just bits", on the excellent U.V. Pop 12" EP Anyone For ME, and helped out (with ex-Box bassist Terry Todd) on Ian Elliot's current single Again I Lift You To My Heart. John joined Hula in time for the Dutch dates, and the more recent ICA appearance which gained positive press notices. But although their live work remains infrequent Hula can be mesmeric on stage. The material is not so much preconceived as 'evolved'.
It's a technique they're still 'making up', still perfecting, "the longer you do it the more you learn, so what you 'makeup' is more informed. But I wouldn't say it's preconceived at all" Mark emphasises. "I don't think anything's been preconceived". It's near enough a Jazz process, a working methodology of collecting phrases and ideas, developing skills and mastery of their tools rather than building up a 'set' by rote. "Soundsmanship rather than actual musicianship" according to Mark. For Hula the rapport has been honed to a near telepathic edge, they take 'just sketches' up onto the stage, and 'interpret them on the night', and it's stunning.
The same ethos is applied to recording, where they frisk the studio for whatever techniques they can loot. "The thing for us is to keep it open explains Ron. "A lot of groups have a pure image of what they want and they just go straight in and do it, it's like having a colouring book and they just supply the right colours to what's already there". But in the studio, where outsiders are involved — producers and engineers — reaction can be more varied. "That lad in Holland was alright though, wasn't he" says John.
"We did the Dutch equivalent of the Peel session (only there you get a little bit more time than at the BBC!)" explains Ron. "The bloke who did our session was used to Folk music and stuff..."
"...symphony orchestras" from Mark.
"I don't think he'd ever worked so hard in his life as he did with us, and he really appreciated it. He got very involved in what we were doing. It's really funny, they start talking over your ideas. They start thinking in your terms. Like if you start laying down a series of loops they start thinking that everything must be loops. It's like trying to do mixes of stuff — say a keyboard piece — and he says "I think if we just do it as a loop...?" Ron doubles up in laughter. "He'd never done a backward reverb before in his life until we came" adds Mark.
Murmer was recorded 16-track at Amazon and Vibrasound studios. Is 16-track sufficient for what they want to achieve? "No, not for us" concedes Ron, "because we're, like, largely quite rhythmic and...
"...it takes up a lot of channels..."
"...to do it well, yes. But we just took a 'horses for courses' attitude. Vibrasound have very good equipment and they're flexible in the way they work. The engineer we use is good and he's into what we do ('cos he also does our live sound!).
But I don't think we've had any trouble with engineers, they've always been pretty good. We've given them things that have tested their capabilities, and they respond to that. If you treat them with respect, with politeness, they'll respond in kind".
So — nuts and bolts, what keyboards were used on Murmur?
Mary: "A Casio MT41. An £80 Casio! And a Wasp — he said with pride!"
Ron: "We also used a Roland Juno 60 which belonged to the studio. There's a grand piano in there as well. They took it out onto the top of the stairs and we did some stuff with that. But often stuff like piano we'll record ourselves. We'll take tape recorders round to someone's house where there's a piano — and take a hammer round as well! — and when they've gone to the toilet we'll record some sounds. And all the sax pieces on the album were done in our cellar, round my 'ouse, we borrowed some recording equipment, the sax pieces were done by us, and then taken to the studio. We store them and just feed them in where or when we're recording. So a lot of stuff like that is actually prepared by us beforehand, or done by us prior to even entering the studio".
It's a mix of spontaneity and preparation, some of it worked out through Hula's 4-track mixer which came through their Red Rhino link-up; it's become an important part of their producing a high-quality product with a low-cash investment. Trevor Horn-style high-tech don't really come into it. "You can never get fed up with the potential of tape", from Mark. "You can use tape to do those things. That's one thing you can never exhaust".
That should be borne in mind.