A Merseyside duo with a fresh approach to pop arrangements are currently making some of the most inventive music in the British singles charts. Tim Goodyer chats to them.
It's Immaterial are an oasis of innovation in the desert of today's pop scene. Their two chart singles — 'Driving Away From Home' and 'Ed's Funky Diner' — have fused unlikely ethnic instruments and cunning beat-box patterns with adventurous studio techniques, and now there's an album in the pipeline, too.
IN ONE BRIEF, scathing, philosophical moment, a couple of young Liverpudlians once concluded the name you choose to give a band is immaterial. And as It's Immaterial, the same two Liverpudlians have proceeded to release two charting singles: 'Driving Away From Home' and 'Ed's Funky Diner' in the middle of 1986.
There's a little more to it than that, of course. Which is why I find myself sitting in a rented London flat with singer John James Campbell and musical/songwriting partner John Jarvis Whitehead, to talk about the success of their singles and a freshly completed album.
'Driving Away From Home' drew on the skills of a human drummer in its whimsical, tongue-in-cheek Wild West treatment of taking a joyride in a car. The narrative-style vocal set the only trend that was to be continued through to the reissued follow-up, 'Ed's Funky Diner', a more conventional uptempo pop thrash with the electronic rigidity of a drum machine (more characteristic of the band's sound) for a backbone. This inconsistency turns out to be less a case of uncertainty, and more a deliberate policy of diversification, as Campbell is quick to assert.
'We've purposely gone out of our way, each time we've written a song to use different rhythms, different types of instrumentation and different arrangements. We're striving to move into new areas and discover new things all the time.'
Tentatively titled Life's Hard And Then You Die, the debut It's Immaterial LP is just completed at the time of our conversation, and has yet to see general release. Campbell, however, views it as a known quantity.
'When we started we looked at it as a compilation album. We knew then the songs were gonna have different flavours and sounds. There's something that retains your interest about a compilation album that you don't have with an ordinary album, if only in the sense that you know the next track's going to have a different sound.'
And if in no other sense, Life's Hard And Then You Die succeeds in presenting a series of apparently disparate, often disturbing songs that vary wildly between the force of 'Ed's Funky Diner' and the soothing waltztime melodies of 'Lullaby'. The album also displays a wide variety of sounds and textures, and as it turns out, imagery plays a large part in an approach to songwriting which had (it seemed) long fallen into disuse in pop circles.
Whitehead: 'I look upon each song in a pictorial sense rather than a musical sense. We try not to get too involved in the musicalities of a song, and concentrate on the whole thing. The more we go on, the more we find that simple ideas work the best.'
Campbell: 'We work in a reverse manner sometimes as well. You need an atmosphere for something so you search around for a sound and then create the part for it. It's a bit cock-eyed to do that, but different approaches supply a different feel to the track. We try a variety of approaches until something clicks.'
To this end, Campbell and Whitehead have turned their enthusiasm for unorthodox instrumentation into reality on most of the album's tracks.
'It's not a high-brow fascination at all', explains Campbell. 'It's just the warmth of those instruments pricks our ears up naturally, rather than as a second thought. We've been described as "eclectic" but it's not a deliberate policy. Bands that do that deliberately simply become interpreters of other people's cultures — there's none of themselves in the music they create.'
USING A VARIETY of instruments inevitably involves a number of additional musicians, though the band have kept this to a minimum, and not just because it works out cheaper.
Whitehead: 'Most of the time we try to get people we know involved rather than session musicians, though if there's a particular instrument or sound that we require and we don't know anybody that can help, obviously we'll use a session player. As long as they're competent, they don't have to be a great technician or anything. You can communicate with those people a lot better.'
But with all this emphasis on feel and warmth, why place a drum machine alongside the glockenspiels and bouzukis?
'We always had problems when there was a drummer in the band', explains Whitehead. 'The songs we wrote were constantly pinned down by his rock mentality, so we lost a lot of the subtleties of the rhythm. We ended up using drum machines because we could dictate exactly what accents we wanted and, although it sounds strange talking about a drum machine, what feel we wanted. We lost a bit of humanity, but we gained on being able to structure in the way we wanted.
'You can't stop anybody putting their own inflections into a piece. If you are going to stop them, you have to be quite strict and then you find you're no longer looking for a drummer.
"We used drum machines because we could dictate what accents we wanted and what feel we wanted. We lost a bit of humanity, but we gained on being able to structure in our own way."
'But we don't just use a drum box rhythm and nothing else. The more you add to a rhythm with natural instruments, the more idiosyncracies it has — it seems to warm up somehow. The rhythm a lot of groups create with drum machines is very loud and brash. You'd never approach drums in that manner at all. A drum machine is there to supply a rhythm with any colouration you put on top of it.'
And despite advances in digital technology, it's an old analogue machine, the Roland TR808, that's proved to be the beat box best-suited to the construction of Immaterial rhythms.
'It's a wonderful machine', affirms Whitehead. 'I don't know why, but there's something unique about it. We bought a TR707 first and when we used that we were really disappointed — it sounded so mechanical, so black and white. The 808 seems to have rounded edges. It doesn't seem to have attempted to sound like a drum at all. It's got its own character.'
Campbell picks up the story: 'I don't think the 707's versatile enough. When you get something like the 808, all that machine is there for is to allow you to construct a rhythm with fairly abstract sounds. If you use digital samples, you tend to construct rock rhythms because the sounds that are sampled are all rock sounds. It's taken for granted that everybody who uses that machine wants rock rhythms.'
Whitehead: 'The TR727 sounds more interesting, but I can't understand why Roland made both the 707 and 727. The 808 is a mixture of both — you can have a little bit of percussion and a bit of drums. With the 727 you have to fork out another £500 if you want the Latin sounds. It seems mad.'
But even the TR808 can't provide all the answers, all the time.
Campbell: 'We haven't used entirely 808 sounds in the studio. We've used a live drummer and sampled snare and bass drum in places. It's a real drummer on 'Driving Away From Home', not a drum machine. We sampled sounds and substituted them for the TR808 sounds. That's probably the best use of sampling that we've come across. In some cases we've just sampled into an Emulator and played the rhythm on that to get the feel back.'
INITIALLY, CAMPBELL AND WHITEHEAD had intended to make use of said Emulator in lieu of sundry instruments they were either unable to play or get their hands on. But as Campbell explains, current sampling technology has proved something of a disappointment in the recording studio...
'From the technical point of view the samplers are very impressive, but they lack a tremendous amount of feel and they're instantly recognisable in a recording.
'Because there are only two of us in the group, samplers are going to be more handy for the live aspect. We're going to sample some of the sounds we've recorded in the studio by getting in session musicians so that way we can recreate them live.
'But we really prefer natural instruments to sampling because you can get the performance across. You can contain a sound in a synthesiser, but they're not really very expressive.
'Personally I've always had this attitude to any new development. It's not a Luddite attitude, it's just that I really like the performance and the warmth of an acoustic instrument. We're just trying to come to terms with the technology which is around.'
And come to terms with it they will, especially seeing as, in the past, the only practical solution to the problems presented by the live stage has been the use of a tape machine.
"We've used backing tapes but we don't see them as a great solution. It's not very fulfilling to play live with a backing tape; the more you do live, the better it gets."
Whitehead: 'We've used backing tapes in the past but we don't see them as a great solution. It's not very fulfilling to play live with a backing tape; the more things you leave off tape and the more you do live the better it gets.'
But back to recording, and Life's Hard... The album began life as a conventional eight-track demo, recorded at home in Liverpool. But rather than begin afresh in a London 24-track studio, Campbell and Whitehead made use of a sync track they'd included in their initial efforts.
'We did the demos with a Roland sync code from the TR808 on one of the tracks, then transferred all that to the 24-track', explains Campbell. 'That was solely to get round the problem of not having a band. We wanted to get off to a good start, and that way we could put a guide track down, and then add and correct parts.
'In many cases the rhythm part of a track would be totally overwritten, though some of the parts we used for four-track demos in Liverpool have ended up being used in the final recording. They'd been through about three generations of tape by the time they were used, but sometimes you do capture moments that you can't readily reproduce. It's worth the degeneration just to have that.'
Whitehead: 'In a 24-track studio it seems like such a big thing to put the first brush stroke on a blank canvas. If you've got something going that's dictating the tempo and the arrangement, a few things are already starting to happen, and you've got something to interact with immediately.
'We also used a Walkman for some of the vocals, just for little bits of atmosphere. It doesn't matter about the syncing for that — it's hit or miss. You switch on and hope it just locks in, and it's surprising how many times that actually works.'
BUT IT'S NO USE WRITING a melody to complement a chord sequence if it's a beat late when you spin it in from a cassette machine. Or at least, that would be a problem if Campbell and Whitehead hadn't evolved another individual studio technique. The singer elaborates.
'We have a fascination with vocal narrative, rather than melody. With narrative you're not constrained by limitations such as rhyme, so you can actually tell a story... We slipped into it so we had more room to construct a story and put our personality over. On some of the songs the lyric is more important than others — on the spoken ones it's quite important. It's not like anyone preaching at you — it's more like having a conversation that's quite intimate.
'A lot of the things that have happened have been asides whilst recording the vocal: once you get into the feel of the performance quite automatically, things spring off the top of your head and, because they're not premeditated, in many cases they encompass everything you're trying to say. We try to get really involved in what we're doing so that we're soaked in it, so that you can suddenly spring off at a tangent that you weren't even aware of yourself, but which makes sense. It's more honest and direct than a premeditated vocal.'
Whitehead: 'The LP's full of happy accidents. If you don't know what key you're in or what notes you're supposed to play, that's often better. You often stumble across things that if you'd had time to think about them and work them out you'd have played something completely different. Playing something by ear is so simple and direct.'
The results of all this philosophy are some quite unlikely pop songs. And as pop songs mean promotional videos, the video for 'Ed's Funky Diner' follows the same individual trains of thought as its musical parent — disjointed edits and visions of surreal characters at home in a bizarre bar-room setting.
'It is related to the song', Campbell insists. 'There's a surreal element to the song because of its roots. It was written about a sculpture by Edward Kleinholz called 'The Beanery', and the lyric evolved around the imagery of this bar full of strange people. There are a lot of images that you remember — like odd headlines in a newspaper — and the images are these just tumbling off the top of your head again. We didn't structure it any more than that. The lyric is just food for thought based on the idea of the surreal images of the sculpture.
'I think there was always a disturbing element in the song. What we've done is quite mad instrumentally and vocally: once the song starts it rushes through to the end, so we had chorus sections where it becomes more ethereal, and the video became more dreamy. It was so that you could stand back from what was going on and try to understand it before you're sucked in again by the next verse. We try to do that with a lot of our songs: to have a very erratic phase and then a floater so that you get a harsh contrast between one section and another.
'The verses are where you can detach yourself and the listener from what's going on, and have a bit of a rest before you tax yourself again. We've done that quite a lot: verses that are quite disjointed or have a certain atmosphere about them, and then a vision that becomes quite clear in the chorus.'
Throughout our conversation, the television has been pouring silent images into the room. A curious sculpture appears on the screen, and is instantly identified by Campbell as being Henry Moore's 'Knife Edge'. A thoughtful silence ensues — inspiration for another song?
Interview by Tim Goodyer
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue: