By a babbling Brook
Low-tech guitar and hi-tech synths and sequence dovetail perfectly on guitarist, composer and producer Michael Brook's latest album, Cobalt Blue, which sees him drawing on diverse musical traditions to make music which sounds at once timeless and contemporary.
These days, geographical location need place no limits on musical horizons for any musician with an open mind and a willingness to explore the more far-flung musical idioms. Through recordings and concerts there is quite literally a whole world of music, boundary free and rich in diversity, available to be explored and absorbed. One open-minded musician who has done just this over the years, and managed to forge his own musical style out of his diverse musical influences, is Canadian guitarist Michael Brook, who in the past has worked with world music trumpeter John Hassell and studied Indian music in New York with Lamonte Young.
On his second solo album, Cobalt Blue, which features contributions from long-time Brook cohorts Brian and Roger Eno and Daniel Lanois (among others), he weaves elements of African, Indian and Arabic music in with r'n'b and country influences to create a sparkling, shimmering, atmospheric music which is at once densely-textured and yet airy and expansive, vibrantly rhythmic and yet gently contemplative. The music is characterised by modal harmonies, drones and intricate, fluid rhythmic textures built up through multi-layered guitar improvisations and live and sequenced percussion. This is processed through various delay units and provides a backdrop for the soaring, sustained guitar lines which float over the top or weave in and out of the texture, courtesy of the 'infinite guitar' electronics designed by Brook and fitted to his Tokai Strat copy guitar.
Although Cobalt Blue was released only recently (on the 4AD label), Brook actually began work on material for it back in 1986 - not long after the release of his first solo album Hybrid. Time spent working on other projects meant that he didn't finish recording the album until 1990, then a period spent shopping for a new label further delayed its release.
"It's actually embarrassing how long ago I started on it!" the guitarist says with a smile as we sit in his West London flat. "I was really sick of it back when I finished it, 'cos I'd been working on it pretty heavily for two and a half years. I mean, I'd been producing and performing and doing other things as well, but around that time I couldn't see the forest for the trees. But now when I listen to it it feels pretty good. People keep saying it sounds fresh, which is kind of encouraging. Quite a few people have said they like the fact that the new album is a little more active, more uptempo, maybe a little more lighthearted than Hybrid."
Most of the album was recorded and mixed in Brook's flat, the guitarist having turned a spacious living room into a home studio centred around a 24-channel Allen & Heath Sabre mixing desk and a Fostex E16 multitrack, with monitoring via Yamaha NS1000s. Along with footpedals and rack-mount effects units, the studio includes an Atari 1040ST, C-Lab's Notator software, a Digital Music MX8 MIDI patchbay, a Yamaha DX7 synth with TX802 synth module, a Roland R8M drum module and (recently-acquired) S770 sampler.
Although he considers himself first and foremost a guitarist ("Any sophistication in my playing is definitely in the guitar."), Brook's involvement with synthesisers goes back a long way. In the early seventies he enrolled at York University in Toronto on an interdisciplinary course called Electronics and the Arts, on which the emphasis was on practical musical applications of electronics. As part of the course, he built a multimode filter and a frequency shifter to use with the Serge modular synthesiser that he had at the time.
"I suppose I got my feet wet with electronics there," he says. "I didn't study electronic engineering, but I did develop a non-rigorous but fairly reasonable feel for electronics - enough that I could build things and read schematics, and sometimes figure out why things didn't work. I'd been playing guitar in rock bands before then, but I was always interested in electronics and music, and in mixing the two. York was a good place to be, 'cos they had an electronic music department there, and a little studio with a huge modular ARP system. I took an electronic music course there and they were really excited about the fact that they'd just got a Putney synthesiser - up until then it was these discrete valve oscillators, each one weighing more than your average home stereo now!"
Compositionally all the tracks on Cobalt Blue started out either as a guitar riff or as a sequenced percussion loop triggering FM sounds on the TX802. At the other end of the recording process the finished mixes underwent further transformation at the hands of Brian Eno, who used Digidesign's Sound Tools hard disk recording and editing system to restructure the tracks.
"Structure is not one of my strong points," Brook admits. "I don't plan things, I just keep improvising until something good happens, so I can't really map out a structure. But I can do multi-layered improvisations and get the sonic colour of a mix just right. So it was great for me to do what I was good at and then get somebody else in who's good at sonic architecture and give them the freedom to make really significant structural changes to the songs after they'd been mixed. Like many of the breakthroughs in technology, Sound Tools allows you to defer decisions - which can be a good thing or a bad thing."
Brook is a big fan of FM sounds and makes much use of them on the album. In fact, he even went through a period of programming his own... "I have a basic handle on it, so I can kind of direct where I want to go," he says. "I'm not totally a pro, but I can get sounds that suit me. They have a certain character to them; people say to me 'Oh, that sounds like one of your sounds'. I never got into programming sustained sounds that much, though. Brian's really good at those. He did most of the sustained sounds on the album and I did most of the percussive ones.
"But I haven't done any programming in quite a while. I'm not as interested in sound designing that way as I used to be. These days I'm more interested in playing than I am in what the actual sound is. Or, maybe I want to control the sound more by just changing the EQ or putting a treatment on it than by getting down to the nuts and bolts of programming."
Of course, effects have traditionally been an integral part of the electric guitarist's sound - necessarily so, because the sound of the guitar itself is so straightforward. But with, synths the attitude is still often that the sound has to be there before you get to the effects.
"I suppose there's an assumption that the synthesiser is inherently a more variable source to begin with - at the point of origin of the sound," agrees Brook, "but in many ways it's less interesting to work on the sound at the point of origin, and much more exciting to use effects or EQ or a compressor. Partly because it's a lot easier to do that, and partly because of the grunge factor: the failings of the cheap guitar pedals are often really interesting.
"I have a few old ElectroHarmonix pedals that are fantastic, but not necessarily in the way they were intended to be! In fact, technical limitations are often the dominant way that you give something complexity and subtlety. Brian had this whole thing where he wouldn't get his Putney synthesiser fixed because it had become more complex and more interesting by partially breaking down. I suppose a fuzztone is a good example of that as well; what it does is add distortion, and so in a certain way you can say that that's an inaccuracy, but it adds harmonics, and the ear finds that more interesting."
Brook has been using C-Lab software for almost three and a half years now, starting out with Creator and subsequently switching to Notator when a record he was working on needed printouts for string parts - though he never uses the notation side of the software himself. Currently he's thinking of switching to Cubase on the Mac.
"I like the linear aspect of Cubase," he says, "although the Mac version of Notator looks like it's going to be more linear. I suppose I want to try and get away from looped things, and it seems like Creator really encourages you to work with short loops. Having said that, it's good software, and I think the timing of it is very good, rhythmically, with all the groove stuff. I didn't use that stuff on the record because I didn't know about it then, but I like it more and more now, it can really loosen up a sequence. But there again, if you're combining sequenced and live percussion and live guitar then in some ways it's okay if you have these rigid things underpinning it. They don't sound too mechanical, and in fact maybe they help the whole thing sound stronger.
"People's expectations of timing have really been affected by machines a lot. You listen to some of those great old records - like I was listening to Sly Stone and JJ Cale recently and the timing is all over the place. Nowadays it would be rejected but in fact it's just exciting. When tempo changes happen through incompetence that's one thing, but when they happen through the natural inhalation/exhalation of the music... I think it's a huge expressive factor that's been lost, something that was an integral part of music until seven or eight years ago, when all of a sudden it was forbidden because the machines couldn't do it and the fact that people could was viewed as a sort of human frailty."
Nowadays, of course, sequencers have become more flexible in dealing with tempo fluctuations, with tempo maps allowing continuous changes to be programmed as part of a sequence. For his production work on the soon-to-be-released debut album by British songwriting duo Balloon, Brook developed what he refers to as a 'closest approximation' technique.
"First there was a rigid click, and the two guys would play along but also try and pull it the way they wanted it to go," he explains. "I would make tempo changes in the sequencer to try and keep the click in with the way they were pulling it and then they would play to that tempo track and I would make further tempo changes to follow them, until it felt comfortable. And it worked, really quite well. There was a big difference in the songs with and without the tempo changes."
In addition to his own infinite guitar electronics, Brook makes use of IVL's Pitchrider pitch-to-MIDI system to trigger the TX802 from his Tokai guitar. However, he has mixed feelings about the value of controlling MIDI instruments from a guitar: "It's really good for giving you access to different timbres on the guitar, or maybe to more than one sound at a time, but it limits your playing technique. You sort of have to wear a straitjacket to play it because you have to be so precise. Also, on the low strings the timing just isn't good enough. But it does open a couple of doors that you couldn't open any other way. Like, there's one live piece I do where I have a radically different tuning, with octaves between strings. I actually want to explore different tunings a bit more with it. This one isn't even made any more, though; they just couldn't find a big enough market for it."
In contrast, Brook's infinite guitar electronics allow him to make the most of the nuances of guitar technique. He developed the Infinite Guitar in the early eighties after seeing fellow guitarist Bill Nelson using an E-bow to get the same sort of effect. When his own order for an E-bow kept getting mislaid he developed the Infinite Guitar to do the same job.
Currently there are only two other guitars in the world customised with Brook's electronics; one is owned by U2's The Edge and the other by Daniel Lanois. Brook hopes that his Infinite Guitar might be manufactured commercially one day, so understandably he's not too specific about the electronics involved, but essentially what happens is that the strings are made to oscillate continuously by feeding the output signal back into the guitar. Because the sound doesn't decay, changes in pitch can be produced simply by moving a finger up and down a string.
"For me it's been great 'cos it allows me to do a lot of the Middle-Eastern or Indian-sounding melodies by bending the strings," says Brook. In fact, he's even had a scalloped fretboard fitted to give his fingers more purchase on the strings for this very purpose. With a filter pedal in the feedback loop, Brook can switch instantly between normal and infinite guitar and make the infinite guitar sound cross over into harmonics. "It's not totally controllable," he points out. "In fact, it's quite organic."
For live work, Brook uses a Roland MC50 sequencer in place of his Atari and Notator setup. He transfers his sequences into the MC50 by playing them across via MIDI rather than by saving them as Standard MIDI Files and loading them in off disk.
"I find that because each sequencer is structured differently it never works to transfer sequences as files," he maintains. "I used to use a Yamaha QX sequencer that used macros - which were kind of loops - and then I put stuff from that into the C-Lab, which uses patterns. But you couldn't transfer to the Roland; with the macros you could have different length patterns repeating - but not in the Roland. You have to make everything into one big sequence, which means you have to rearrange. So it's easier just to record from one sequencer into the other."
Has Brook found the MC50 to be reliable in a live situation?
"It's been totally reliable. You just put the disk in, hold down a button, turn it on and it loads up your whole show. It's great - I like it."
However, Brook does have his own horror story about using digital technology live.
"I was doing a concert with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in Italy and I'd made up some new sequences for it," he recalls. "They worked here, but when we got to Italy the notes wouldn't trigger reliably. I use long MIDI notes, like a four-bar note, to trigger the Bel delay and these would trigger three times, four times and then stop. And yet my old disks from my solo concerts worked fine and the same material in Notator worked fine. I came back to England and the MC50 worked fine.
In fact, I don't actually know that I would blame the Roland for the problem, because only the Bel was having trouble - nothing else. The only thing I can think of was something marginal like the fact that the mains is 220 volts there but 240 here. Or maybe it was interference; I think because digital technology is logical we expect it to be consistent, but it's subject to interference just as much as other things. I think good electronic designers acknowledge that even with digital technology there are almost organic interactions that happen. The thickness of wires, how close components are - all sorts of things affect it that make it more like art than science."
In recent years, Brook's career as a producer has been blossoming, with albums by Youssou N'Dour, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Cheb Khaled to his credit. His production of Youssou N'Dour's Set came about after Peter Gabriel introduced him to N'Dour's manager.
"When I saw Youssou and his band play live, I thought it was better than anything they had got on record at that time," he recalls. "Youssou live was alive, he just had this amazing fire and power in his voice that I hadn't heard on record that much. I thought that maybe he'd felt kind of tense in studios before, so I wanted to bring in a sense of gestalt into the studio as much as we could.
"That's why I wanted to bring the dancer in, so that they would feel comfortable and then maybe the tape would capture them playing and feeling comfortable. So, allowing them to play was important, but also working on the arrangements and getting a little more dynamics into the music than they had live - not just in terms of loudness but also in timbre and colour. I felt the musical sophistication was already there, what I wanted to have was a sonic sophistication that complemented what was happening in the music."
Talking about sonic sophistication, would he agree that the synth patches used in, for instance, Algerian rai music often sound rather 'cheesy' and unsophisticated to Western ears.
"I think part of that is the technological time lag," says Brook, "but also... Youssou's keyboard player was into more sophisticated sounds, but for Khaled's- stuff it wasn't a high priority. Hi-fi is no big deal for them, they just care about the ornamentation and the way the song goes. In fact, they're often surprised by our fixation on the nuance of a sound because for them it's all in the playing. I think a lot of the synth sounds selected are the ones that come close to timbres used in their traditional music. Arabic sounds are often quite mid-range-y and nasal sounding and we associate that with slight cheesiness, but for them it's just the sound of the real instruments that they have around them."
With Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Brook tried "...to bring the power and grace of Nusrat's singing into a Western setting because he'd already done dozens and dozens of traditional records. A few people were pissed off, saying it was a profanity against the sacredness of his music to use Western rock 'n' roll elements. But it wasn't at all. This was trying to get a collaboration between Nusrat and sympathetic Western musicians."
Upcoming projects include music for a documentary on the firefighters of Kuwait, and a collaboration with Joe Bogart of Technotronic. And, as Brook explains, he's keen to get more involved with other musicians...
"I'm tired of the bedroom studio type of situation," he opines. "I think with the next record I'd like to try working with an actual band. You can sort of disappear into your own navel a little bit with MIDI and sequencers and stuff - although, working in a very solitary way can be a good thing. I guess I'm getting hungry for the interaction between different personalities. Musicians are an amazing bargain, really. You can spend days just screwing around with one little part, trying to make it work, and maybe you will, but... with things you've done yourself, you can't really separate the fact of your investment in it; if you spend three days trying to get something, then you end up thinking 'Well, it must be good'. But if somebody comes in who doesn't know how things have gone, that you sweated blood over something, they can just say 'Well, that part doesn't work.'
"Also, you can just get somebody in for an afternoon who... they're a different person, different background, different ideas, and they just put this sort of slash of a new colour across what you're doing. Roger did that. He was here for about three days, and he would just put these things on top that I in a million years would never think of - and he contributed a huge amount because of that, I think."
Interview by Simon Trask
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