Ian Boddy: Phoenix
THE STORY OF AN INDEPENDENT RECORD | Ian Boddy
The story of how one of this country's lesser-known synthesists took the bold step of forming his own record label to independently release his fourth album 'Phoenix'. Paul Gilby documents the process.
Most readers of this magazine should have no problem relating to Ian Boddy. As a musician he has built up both a technical understanding of synthesizers and his own musical skills over a number of years, yet, despite his efforts, that elusive record contract just hasn't materialised!
Now, after some minor success on independent record labels, he's decided to take the matter into his own hands and form his own label for the release of his own work. This is no small task when you consider that releasing your own record, being responsible for writing and recording the music, getting the record pressed, designing the sleeve and then going out and marketing the end result, is usually the job of a whole team of professionals. But this is exactly what Ian Boddy has just done for his latest album. Phoenix.
Paul Gilby spoke to him about this bold move, the equipment he employed on the album and about synthesizer playing techniques in general.
For those of you unfamiliar with Ian Boddy, here's a potted history of his 'career' to date.
In 1980 he released his first electronic music offering, as a cassette release on the specialist 'Mirage' label. After a further two cassette releases and contributions to many independent compilation tapes and albums, he finally recorded and released his very first album The Climb in 1983 - an ambition was fulfilled.
That same year he appeared at the first electronic music festival held in Britain, UK Electronica, at Milton Keynes. His solo performance immediately established him as one of Britain's leading independent electronic musicians.
In 1985 he released his second album Spirits to a growing following. The album sold quickly through specialist record retailers like Lotus Records and that same year the Newcastle-based musician returned by popular demand to play at UK Electronica in Sheffield.
1986 has already seen Ian Boddy appear as the headline act at the renamed Lotus Electronica held in Stafford, whilst the release of his third album Phoenix must surely strengthen his position as one of the leading exponents of popular electronic music in the UK today.
During the interview Ian spoke at length about some of the techniques he uses to record his music, but the opening topic of conversation, naturally enough, was the release of the new album and the formation of his own label.
As with any artist there is likely to be a progression both technically and musically from one album to another, but Phoenix represents considerably more than that for you. Could you tell us how you went about forming your own label and releasing the album?
"Well this time around I decided that I would like to release the record myself and for that purpose I formed my own label, Something Else Records. I financed the Phoenix album almost entirely myself, unfortunately I couldn't quite stretch to the full amount but was able to borrow the small outstanding sum from Newcastle Media Workshops. They funded both pressings of my second album Spirits which was released on their label as NMW 001. It wasn't a full-blown official Arts Council grant, it's just a short-term loan which I have to pay back very quickly.
At present I'm still getting orders for both the first album, The Climb, and Spirits, which was funded with an Arts grant via Newcastle Media Workshops. I'd just like to point out that the grant was in fact more of a loan. The conditions attached were such that I was given the money as a one year interest-free loan and if I didn't pay it back by the end of that year, they would start to charge interest. I've now paid all the money back within the year and the album's started to make a little profit, though the deal is that we split any profits 50/50.
NMW were so pleased with the sales of my album that it has given them real confidence in the whole idea of financing local music in this way. They have now released an album by Ron Berry called Osiris. He's another local electronic musician and they plan to expand away from supporting just this style of music."
What was actually involved in the release?
"I went about releasing this record by organising everything myself. I had to get on the phone and do the lot. The cutting took place at Utopia Studios in London, where I had cut the previous two albums, and the record itself was manufactured by SRT Records & Tapes.
This time, because I've been organising it, the actual release of the album has taken much longer, purely because of the amount of work that's involved. For the actual daily running of the label, all I have done is design my own letterhead and open a PO Box to accept mail order - it looks better to the foreign distributors and they'll take you more seriously, because you really do need to get the distribution sorted out right from the start. After spending so much time recording the music and getting the record pressed, it's important to let people know where they can get hold of it.
Whenever you deal with foreign distributors or the majority of the UK as well, companies rarely pay you up-front. It's risky sending fifty albums to someone you've never met in Sweden or Canada; it costs a lot in the first place and then you only have their word that the money will come back. Presenting yourself through a more professional image like a good letterhead and a PO Box, all helps to make them think that you're not just some little guy they can rip off."
Are you going to continue releasing your own material in the future?
"It depends. If somebody came along tomorrow and offered me a record contract, then I would obviously leap at the chance. I can't really see that happening though. Just how can a record company justify putting the amount of money that's involved in launching a band behind me? I think they're playing it so safe these days, everything now has to 'taste nice'. The record business has moved back to being too mass consumer-oriented."
Do you think that less attention is being paid to the more experimental music of today compared to, say, five years ago?
"Certainly. Companies like Virgin Records are a prime example of how the situation has changed. When they first came along I think everybody appreciated what they were doing with music from the likes of Mike Oldfield, Gong and such bands, but now they've moved firmly in line with all the other record companies and have become one of the major labels themselves. It's all chart-oriented music today. Even a very well established group like Tangerine Dream may only sell around 15,000 copies of an album in the UK these days, though obviously they'll sell a lot more worldwide. But that's only about ten times what my own albums sell.
For me, it's a Catch 22 situation because I'm at the stage where the quality of the music and recording are sufficiently high enough to produce good albums that people would enjoy listening to. However, because I'm not as well known and don't have the same public profile as someone like Tangerine Dream, I don't get the sales. So, I'm just going round and disappearing up my own backside."
Ian Boddy has put a lot of effort into attracting overseas distributors for his records by mailing out over one hundred albums to countries from Europe to the States, Japan and even down to South America.
"The response so far has been good and I think I'll have broken even on the sales of Phoenix by the end of 1986. Bringing an album out is definitely one of the best pieces of publicity you can have. Once the first one has been accepted, it's only natural that people are interested in everything else you produce."
What are you doing to publicise your new album?
"I'm obviously not in a financial position to afford advertising in all the music press, but an interview like this helps enormously and I hope the album will be reviewed in papers like 'Sounds'.
It's a very frustrating situation trying to get press coverage with the three big music weeklies. For example, I played a gig in London a few months ago at the Purcell Room on the South Bank. There were about two or three hundred people who came to that concert, but none of the music papers bothered to say anything about it. Yet that concert probably pulled in more people than some of the pub gigs that the journalists all flock to. Any band that happens to be playing there, or ones with a slightly radical political position, have got a far better chance of coverage purely because it happens to be a hip place to go. How do you win?
People like to put electronic music into its own special little box. They see it as being more esoteric than pop music, so you can't include it under that label because it's not quite popular enough. The result is that it gets left out on its own - and is ignored."
So how does someone like Jean-Michel Jarre fit into the system?
"I think he is one of those people who were in the right place at the right time. His first single 'Oxygene' was great, it was released just at the right time. If he hadn't been successful with that single and received the sort of exposure he did, then he would probably still be in the same position as me. None of his previous singles or indeed any of the singles he has released since 'Oxygene' have had anywhere near the same success. The same's true of Kraftwerk with 'Autobahn'.
This is the very situation I mentioned earlier. People who like Jarre, are more than likely to appreciate my music as well because it's melodic and rhythmic. The problem is, how to tell them when you haven't got the backing of a major record company. Even so, having recognised the success of Jarre you would think some other record company would take the risk with another electronic music artist - but no. They have to play it safe. Jarre has got to such a point now that to maintain interest he has to stage huge theatrical concerts like the Rendezvous Houston gig to draw people to his music. I think it's a great idea and it certainly exposes a lot more people to his music, and bringing electronic instrumental music to the masses can only help to popularise it more and more."
What about the recent success of 'Axel F' by Harold Faltermeyer?
"Well again, that's just down to exposure. It came from a worldwide hit film - 'Beverly Hills Cop'. Personally, I thought that piece of music was awful. It was purely because of the film that it got anywhere. However, what it does show is that if electronic music of that kind is marketed in the right way by the record companies, there's no lack of people out there who are willing to buy it. Every record sold by Jarre, Kraftwerk and the like, all helps to popularise this style of music - and that's going to help me."
Do you think people who enjoy electronic music are more interested in the sound textures than the actual music?
"Well, what is 'electronic music'? It's just a name that has been around since the early 1970s when Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze were going through their experimental period - that's all gone now.
There are a lot of tracks on my new album Phoenix which I wouldn't call electronic music. For example, the track 'Your Eyes' isn't a piece of electronic music at all, it's instrumental rock and just happens to use synthesizers.
The difference might be that it has more feel to it because I didn't use a drum machine as such. All the drum parts were actually played by hand. This was achieved by building up the drum pattern by sampling sounds off a Yamaha RX11 drum machine into an Akai S612 and then playing them on the DX7. To record it, I just multitracked each part to get the whole pattern. Because I played it all by hand the drums have a more human feel to them, and that was also helped by being able to control the sounds dynamically with the touch-sensitivity of the DX7 keyboard."
Would you agree that even though many groups are using synthesizer technology, it's still only pop music, whereas Tangerine Dream's style of electronic music still exists even though everybody else is using the same equipment?
"Yes, it does still exist, but the difficulty is not getting people to accept it as electronic music anymore, because they're used to hearing synthesizers on the radio; it's getting them to accept music without vocals. The majority of people like to hear vocals and I always get a lot of people asking if I 'm going to put vocals on my music. Some tracks on the album are like normal pop music, except there are no vocals. So I have stronger lead melody lines and the overall textures of the sound have to be made more interesting."
How relevant do you think electronic-music is today?
"I think it's as relevant as it has ever been. It's really a sort of 'mood music'. It has its place in people's lives just as much as enjoying an evening at a disco or seeing a band down the pub. I think people who listen to pop or disco music all the time are probably very shallow. There are times when you just want to listen to instrumental music either loud or as background music in your home. With the pace of life today I think electronic music is definitely as relevant as it has ever been and that's being proved by the growing popularity of the so-called 'new age music' phenomenon."
Isn't it true that 'new age music' is succeeding primarily because someone has actually packaged it as a clearly defined style?
"Yes. It makes me laugh though, because so much of what is being called 'new age music' has been going on for years. As you say, someone has recognised this, brought it together as a cohesive whole and they're out there marketing it in a certain way."
Do you think that the majority of people today see electronic music as something strongly associated with the hippy scene and that they have tended to bypass it in favour of the hi-tech, clean-living image of 'new age music'?
"Absolutely. Personally I am not bothered what people want to categorise my music as, just so long as it sells better and more people become interested in what I'm doing. Whatever the name or the packaging, the music is still the music, call it what you like - electronic music, new age, synthesizer, hi-tech, anything. I don't think anybody has come anywhere near marketing electronic music in the correct way. New age music only touches on certain parts of electronic music. It embodies a feeling rather than the technical means. There have obviously been isolated successes such as Tangerine Dream, Jean-Michel Jarre and Kraftwerk, but you would have thought that the success of those artists would have laid the foundations to build a strong and continuous interest in that style of music. I can't see why British record companies can't have at least one electronic music artist on their books. The sales figures are there as the latest Jarre album proves - it's been high up in the album charts.
This reluctance to recognise electronic music is precisely the reason why I have set up my own label to distribute my album. From past sales of my other records I saw that if I could get foreign distributors to take a reasonable number of my albums, then the label could become self-financing very quickly. It just seems to be the case in this particular field that you have to be foreign to receive any sort of attention in Britain, therefore I see no reason why it shouldn't work for me in other people's countries. The grass is always greener as they say!
I think my own position is now improving because whenever I release a new album, I'm guaranteed to receive orders for a few hundred even before anyone has heard it. That number is steadily increasing each time and I suppose I'm building up a sort of cult following - and that's personally very satisfying. I'm confident that I'll sell a thousand copies of the new album Phoenix within two or three months.
It takes a lot of hard work and a number of well written letters to establish contact with the distributors, and if they're interested you'll hear from them; if you don't, you have to forget them and pursue the ones that have responded. If I can get even ten foreign distributors from the hundred I've contacted to each take fifty albums, I will have sold five hundred records. And that's all going to help spread my name abroad."
If we could move on and talk about some technical aspects. Can you identify any single progression within the new album Phoenix?
"Yes. I think the quality of the overall sound is very different and that is related to the equipment I have been using. With my first album The Climb, it had what I would call a very 'analogue' sound - it had a warmth. The equipment I used was all quite basic gear, though it did feature a Fairlight which I was fortunate enough to use whilst visiting Birmingham University. The second album Spirits was recorded just as the Yamaha DX7 came onto the market and I used it extensively throughout the album. That instrument gave the music a harder, more 'digital' feel and that, combined with the final mixdown to digital master, produced a harsh-sounding record. It's not unpleasant to listen to, it just has a bright and hard quality.
The new album Phoenix seems to have the combined feeling of both my previous albums. I think this is due to using four basic types of sound generation to create the textures: acoustic, sampled, digital and analogue synthesis.
There are the acoustic sounds of the saxophone, voice and percussion, and the sampled sounds of strings, voice and piano. For sampling, I used the Akai S612 - a superb little unit and, in my opinion, by far the easiest of the budget samplers to use. Then there are the digital sounds produced by the DX7 and finally the analogue sounds from the Roland Planet-S and the modular System 100M. The overall combination gives a very cohesive texture even though the tracks are often very different in style and by using the four differing sound sources, the album has the warmth of the analogue quality coexisting with the crispness of the digital sounds."
How about running through some of the album tracks to help give readers an idea of the styles?
"Okay. Well 'Phoenix' is the title track and this has almost a disco feel to it what with its octave bass notes, Simmons drum kit etc. But what I played on top of that is very different, yet you could still probably dance to it.
'Watersway' has more of a cosmic feel to it and within the piece I used a string sound that was produced from three sources. It was recorded by having sampled strings uppermost in the blend to give the authentic attack, mixed with DX7 strings for their nice bite and finally the Roland Planet-S strings to fatten out the background. When you hear this blend playing as one, you get a beautiful rich string texture. Technically it was achieved quite simply by linking the three instruments together via MIDI.
On that particular track, the fast arpeggios were all played by hand rather than by a sequencer. You may ask why? Well, it was for two reasons: first, I didn't have a sequencer at the time, and second, I prefer to play by hand so that I can retain the feeling. There are sequencers coming along now that will capture very accurately the expression of your playing, but too many of them quantize your own timing too rigidly. Something like the Roland MC-500 - which I'm about to buy - I consider to be one of the best affordable sequencers around that will allow me to record the way I want to.
The track 'Your Eyes' has a jazz-rock feel to it and when the piece was coming together I did consider adding a DX7 sax sound using the breath controller for expression. It was okay, but then I thought I would use a real sax. Having recorded the sax it gave the track something that is hard to describe; it just feels right and it's that sound that gives it the jazz mood. Everything on the track was hand played - all the sequencer-like parts, the drums (as I have already mentioned), and the piano sound which came from a blend of sampled and synthesized instruments."
Have you used this multiple sound technique a lot?
"Yes I have. When you sample an acoustic sound like strings or piano into the Akai S612 it only works over a limited range of notes because it's not a multi-sampler - you can't sample at octaves across the piano keyboard to get that extra realism. So, the idea of mixing the three sound sources together arose from this need to play over a large range of notes without it becoming noticeably muddy at the bottom end or tinny at the top."
What about the track 'Necromancer'? That features a distinctive solo sound. How did you obtain that?
"That track was for me the most visual. It reflects the erratic, changeable nature of a wizard ('necromancer' means 'wizard' by the way) and that's why the music is divided into a series of very different sections that change mood very suddenly. The solo sound on this track uses a DX7 in a way that makes it sound as if sparks are flying all over the place. What I'm actually doing is editing the DX7 sound live as I'm playing the instrument. This is done by using the Data Entry slider to alter the Course Frequency parameter of one of the algorithm modulators, and so the fundamental pitch of the note I'm playing stays the same, but you get a tremendous variation in texture as the harmonics race up and down with the movement of the fader."
As a musician, do you feel under any pressure to keep up with the latest hi-tech instrument releases?
"There's always this pressure to buy new instruments, but for me, no matter what comes onto the market I'll always keep my DX7. Some of the sounds you can produce with it are so unique and different. I think that instrument technology is now so good that you would be daft to get rid of any instrument like the DX7.
The same is true of my old Roland System 100M. There are things I can do with it that are so frighteningly good, especially now that I have a MIDI to CV interface for it. I'm still amazed at its power. For example, the flexibility of the system allows me to get the most brilliant 'oscillator sync sound'. This is done by syncing both VCOs to fight against each other and then let them also frequency modulate each other. The sound that produces is superb, but it's only monophonic, so I then sample and loop it. Suddenly I have an analogue polyphonic sound which nobody's ever heard before! It really is astonishing!"
Your experience of synthesizers goes back quite some time. What do you think of the current crop of synthesizers compared to those of five years ago?
"I think the price is the biggest difference today. You can buy something that is virtually a top professional piece of equipment for relatively little cost. The DX7 and Akai S900 sampler are just two examples of gear that can be used in any top studio. The price is such that your average musician can just about afford to buy them because most good equipment is now under the £2000 mark. It's very different from the days in the early 1980s when a MemoryMoog cost £3500 and the Emulator I cost £8000!
Very shortly I'll have a system at home which I wouldn't have dreamt would ever have been possible even three years ago, purely from the cost point of view, never mind its creative potential!"
"What I'm aiming to do soon is to change completely the way in which I record. I want to get to a position where I don't play anything in the studio.
At present I use a little Yamaha MT44 'portastudio' for throwing ideas down onto tape and it's this unit that formed the important central tool for creating the music that eventually ended up as the Phoenix album.
The way I compose material is to play for a while until I get an idea and then quickly record it. I'll then try a few overdubs until something works. What I end up with is a lot of bits which I then have to arrange into a different order to get something close to what I want. Having done this I usually programme the basic drum patterns and any sequences I'm using, then go into Reel-Time Studios in Newcastle where I have been recording recently and lay down the skeleton of the piece. I would then build the track up possibly replacing the drum machine with sampled sounds or a Simmons kit, replay the sequence parts by hand - all sorts of things - until I reach a certain level with the music, then I stop and do a rough mix to listen to at home.
On returning to the studio I may change various bits and then when I'm satisfied I'll add further details before the final mix. It's a technique where I compose the 'cake' at home and then add the 'icing' in the studio.
This approach to recording takes a long time and also works out to be very expensive. Now what I'm aiming for is a totally tapeless studio at home. I'm principally going to record via MIDI onto the Roland MC-500 because there's no worry about quantisation with that sequencer and I'll be able to copy or re-arrange parts very easily. My home set-up will eventually comprise the MC-500, DX7, Yamaha TX416, Roland Planet-S, Akai S900 and the trusty Roland System 100M. I'll also be using a TR707 drum machine for composing, though it won't necessarily end up on the final recording. I've also got access to some of David Berkeley's equipment, especially his DX7 and Sequential Prophet 600. David helps me out playing the backing parts in the live gigs, allowing me to concentrate on playing the lead lines.
Eventually I'll be able to record at home with as much expression as I like, then take the equipment with everything in memory or on disk into the studio, plug the outputs into the mixer, set the reverb effects etc and just record it straight down to the digital master. The only reason not to do that is for tracks which need acoustic sounds on them such as vocals."
Ian Boddy's three albums, 'Phoenix', 'Spirits' and'The Climb', are available from selected record dealers around the country through The Cartel and Making Waves or directly from (Contact Details)