Confronting the "difficult third album" syndrome has presented fewer problems for Inner City mentor Kevin Saunderson than the "more of the same" second album syndrome. Simon Trask discusses musical ideologies, pop trends and advancing technology.
A dance artist's musical development and the development of dance music are often in conflict - currently caught in the crossfire are Kevin Saunderson and Inner City.
There was a time when Inner City could do no wrong. In '88/'89, the US duo of DJ/musician Kevin Saunderson and singer Paris Grey captured the spirit of the moment and conquered pop charts worldwide with a string of sparkling dance gems which left many more established pop acts looking lacklustre in comparison. Successfully mixing the hard-edged sound and bustling rhythms of Detroit techno with snappy chord sequences and infectious melodic hooks, tracks like 'Big Fun', 'Good Life' and 'Do You Love What You Feel' achieved what many had thought (or hoped) to be impossible - a happy marriage of classically catchy songs and credible dance music coming straight from the underground. Whether by accident or design, they also caught the feelgood mood of the time perfectly; unfortunately, that time turned out to be the last gasp of promiscuous consumerism before a few economic chickens came home to roost and the gloom of recession set in.
Inner City's fortunes have changed with the times, along with those of many others. While their 1989 debut album, the aptly-named Paradise, emulated the success of the singles (many of which appeared on it), its follow-up in 1990 met with a poor response from critics and public alike. Yet, in truth, while Fire may have lacked its predecessor's verve and sparkle and instant "pop appeal", it was a better album than many people gave it credit for being. Instead of taking the easy route of simply producing "Paradise revisited", Saunderson and Grey moved on, broadening and deepening the Inner City style, giving it more substance. But in the process, they disappointed those who wanted yet another 'Good Life'. Similarly, those who criticised Inner City for losing some of their edge on the dancefloor were missing the point - here was a group aiming for more than instant dancefloor appeal.
The "here today, gone tomorrow" syndrome which is dance music's blessing and its curse makes it difficult for dance acts to achieve any longevity. Undaunted, Inner City are back in 1992 with a third album, Praise, which is at once more energetic and more focused than the second. Moreover, it makes even more apparent a connection with the emotional intensity of gospel music first evidenced on Fire in a track like 'Hallelujah' (which has had recent, if belated, chart success and is also on the new album in remixed form). Inner City's music always was uplifting, but increasingly it's taking on a spiritual dimension.
Speaking on the phone from his studio in Detroit, Saunderson puts his viewpoint on the group's second album.
"It didn't have that very energetic, up-tempo sound that people knew us for", he says. "We slowed the music down, it got a little bit more urban, it had more of a black feel. Basically we were burnt out from travelling the world, touring and stuff like that, and we made an album that reflected the mood we were in at the time. We had to get right back into making the album without taking a break first, plus there were pressures from the record company here in America, they wanted something they could play on the radio. But in the end there just wasn't a place for the sound that we put out. It wasn't radio enough for radio and it wasn't dance enough for dance, so we were kind of stuck in the middle somewhere."
Aiming for radio-friendliness hasn't been a priority for Saunderson with the new album, either.
"People in my family, like my brother, say 'I can't hear this being played on the radio', and I say 'Well, that's good, I guess I did the right thing'. I'm trying different stuff, and it's not going to sound like what people expect to hear. If it gets radio play, that's great, but it's not like you can identify it by saying 'Oh, I heard that sound before'. People tend to want to hear something that sounds like what you've already done, but we don't want to do that. We did this album for us, not for anyone else. I was experimenting and having fun, also."
Saunderson's early writing relationship with his Inner City partner took the form of her adding lyrics to tracks he'd already recorded and put on cassette for her, but subsequently their collaboration has matured along with their music.
"It was like we had to accept what each of us had done, it wasn't a real sense of collaboration", he recalls. "But now we work a lot closer. She'll be in the studio with me when the first creation is starting to build, where before it was just 'Come in, sing, see ya'. We take it a little more serious, now, and I think it helps the whole vibe. I might make suggestions about lyrics, or she might sing something and I'll say 'Oh yeah, that's it, that's it', and she'll keep singing it while I get on the keyboard and start playing. It's inspired me to be more creative, I think. It was difficult at first, 'cos I was so used to this other way of working. It was a transition for me, that I realised that working more closely was for the better."
Does Saunderson see Inner City as being first and foremost an album act?
"I think in the beginning, because of the success of the singles, we were thrown into being a singles act, that was how it had to happen", he replies. "Because of that, people did perceive us as being an act that maybe wouldn't get past the second album, but I think we are an album act, and we're going to be making music and staying creative for years to come."
Saunderson's recording setup has changed a great deal since we last spoke (see MT, September '88). Today he has two studios, one for recording vocals and mixing, and the other for MIDI-based production work. Tie lines connect them so that sequenced parts can be brought up on the main mixing console. Multitrack recording in the main studio has been based around an Otari MX80 24-track machine for some time but, ever the enthusiastic advocate of cutting-edge technology, Saunderson has recently centralised his recording setup around an Apple Quadra 900 computer running Digidesign's Pro Tools and Sample Cell, and Opcode's StudioVision. Who said dance musicians were only good for buying cheap secondhand gear? Some people in the hi-tech instrument industry, that's who.
The Otari isn't going to be made redundant just yet, however. Apart from the fact that remix assignments come in on multitrack tape, Saunderson's Pro Tools setup is currently limited to four tracks, although an upgrade to the full 16 tracks is, so to speak, on the cards. At the same time, Saunderson and his technical crew are still familiarising themselves with the new system, and encountering problems in getting it to work fully on the Quadra.
"The editing section doesn't quite work right just yet, but the record section and the playback section are fine", he explains. "They're working on the next software, which I'll probably have in two weeks."
These teething troubles haven't dampened Saunderson's enthusiasm for what he refers to as "a new world of recording, for me". Although it's still early days with Pro Tools, he's already getting excited about new editing possibilities. I'm reminded of a prophetic comment he made in his '88 interview, that "digital recording and mixing is definitely going to change music".
Since investing in Pro Tools, Saunderson has become a popular man.
"I think I must be the only person in Detroit with this unit", he says with a chuckle. "I have all kinds of engineers calling me up wanting to get their hands on it to see what it's like."
On the subject of leading-edge digital recording technology, Saunderson is thinking of augmenting his second studio setup with that long-awaited piece of kit, the Alesis ADAT digital multitrack.
"Actually, I just got a letter today saying it's in, so I'm going to go down and see if it does what they say it can do and if it's worth it."
"When I go to a nightclub in Berlin, I feel like I'm in a rock dance club - the music's so fast and hard and industrial-sounding."
Saunderson has also embraced automated mixing since our last interview. The main studio is equipped with a Sound Workshop Series 34 40-channel dual inline desk which provides automation of mutes, solos and faders, while the second studio has a Tascam 2524 24-channel dual in-line MIDI-automated mixer ("It's very affordable, they put their board together really good for the price.").
Monitoring is taken care of by Genelecs ("The ones with the built-in automatic limiter to keep you from blowing them up.") in the bigger, main studio, which get used for mixing, and Tannoys in both studios. Recalling that in our last conversation he maintained it was necessary for him to work with the music turned up loud in order to get a feel for what he was doing, I wondered if he still worked in the same way.
"Not as much, I must admit", he replies. "I mix at a pretty loud volume, but when I'm creating, every now and then I turn it up real loud but then I cut it down. Kind of save my ears so I can hear years later."
Back in '88, Saunderson was using a Commodore 128 running Dr T's Sonus software for sequencing. However, it turns out that this setup didn't last much longer - not because of the software, but because he kept having problems with the computer.
"My brother Ronnie hipped me to that program", he recalls. "He's here in the room and he's laughing about that right now! He's the one that drove me into getting the Quadra. He put the pressure on me, he said 'Kev, you've got to have it, you've got to have the top of the line, go out and get the Quadra.'"
In fact, following the Commodore 128, Saunderson used an Akai MPC60 for all his MIDI sequencing until the Quadra came along - Fin and Praise were both recorded with it.
"I was quite content to use it", he recalls. "It's not as powerful as some of the computer sequencers, but it gets the job done, and it's very quick."
So that he could work on ideas while on the road, he did have a Yamaha C1 at one time, initially using it to run Texture but then switching to Master Tracks Pro - at which point he started running into problems.
"It didn't see Windows or something like that", he recalls. "It was all kinds of stuff: SMPTE didn't generate, it was unstable. After that I just kind of gave up on computers and stuck with the MPC."
Now, as part of his investment in a Quadra-based recording setup, Saunderson has returned to computer-based sequencing in the form of Opcode's Vision.
"We knew that StudioVision was the one that was designed to work with Pro Tools and Sample Cell", he explains. "I can put all those together and have them working at one time. You have Digital Performer that recently came out, but it's so new that you're going to have problems with it, it's not going to be right the first time. Through reading magazines, I saw that StudioVision was rated very high. It won Sequencer of the Year two years in a row, something like that, so I just knew that it was the right choice. It's very powerful - I'm learning stuff that I had no idea about. Using the MPC you're kind of limited, but with this you can do a lot more."
Saunderson isn't having to deal with all this new technology by himself. As he points out, "I've got plenty of tech guys around, like my brother, that help me out when I run into a problem."
On the instrument front, his Roland S550 sampler has long been replaced by a couple of Akai S1000s, while for drum sounds he uses a Roland R8, an Alesis D4 module and the old faithful TR909 ("every now and then") together with sampled sounds on the MPC and the S1000s. He still prefers to program on the drum machines and sync them up to the sequencer, rather than trigger all his rhythm parts from the sequencer ("It just feels more comfortable programming on the machines - it feels more like I'm playing.").
Synths added to the Saunderson arsenal over the past few years include an Ensoniq VFX, Roland JD800, Korg Wavestation A/D and Yamaha TX81Z, TG55 and TG77; he prefers to get modules where possible, rather than have rows of keyboards taking up space. What does he think of the JD800 and its massed banks of sliders?
"It is pretty easy to program. I've programmed a lot of sounds on it, gone through different waves and changed a lot of stuff around, but I can't get it as analogue as I wanted. I thought it was going to be closer to some of the older stuff. It's a good unit, though, especially for strings sounds. I used it a lot on the album."
On the beginning of 'United', one of the tracks from the new album, there's a lovely string sound which, Saunderson reveals, was created by layering sounds from the JD800 and the TG77. For bass sounds, however, he turns to his TX81Z.
"Sometimes I mix it with the Juno 106, and sometimes I use the Memorymoog, it just depends on what kind of blend I want. The Prophet 5 is a good unit for bass, too, 'cos it's real thick. The bass on 'Faith' is from the TX81Z, 'Till We Meet Again' came from the TX and the Prophet 5."
Having, as he puts it, "thrown a lot of money into" Pro Tools, Saunderson isn't thinking too much about buying more instruments at the moment. However, one instrument he does want to check out is the new Proteus/3 World module.
"Detroit is the worst place for music - maybe that has something to do with why it sounds weird, 'cos there's nothing to do but stay in the studio."
In addition to working with Paris Grey as Inner City, Saunderson also records under the name Reese Project. 'The Colour of Love', a follow-up single to last year's 'Direct Me', is due soon, with an album to follow in the Autumn, which, he says, will be split half and half between club-oriented vocal tracks and underground, hardcore instrumentals.
"I think I can do a bit of everything, I really believe I can", he says. "I can make an underground record easily, I can make a very hard record, and I can make something that has more of a pop crossover feel, so... I can go in all directions."
As well as recording his own tracks, Saunderson also has other acts to nurture through his record label, KMS.
"I stay pretty busy", he says. "I work almost every day in the studio when I'm here. Also I do a lot of DJing; I just toured England for about a month."
In his DJing capacity, Saunderson has had the opportunity to observe the UK rave scene first-hand and to hear our homegrown version of techno in its natural habitat. So what does he think?
"Well, I think the scene is great, 'cos you get these kids that go out, five thousand, ten thousand, fifteen thousand, and they party, they have a great time, with a loud system, good lights. But I think there's just a handful of tracks that I can tolerate listening to. There are some very good techno tracks that have come out, but if I buy a hundred records I might be able to use ten of them to play. So, the quality of the music is not very good overall but when you do get a good track, it's pretty damn good."
What of the techno music being produced by our European cousins in Belgium and Germany?
"There's only a few records that I like over there, 'cos it's too industrial-sounding for me", he replies. "It's very close to a rock 'n' roll dance form. When I go to a nightclub in Berlin, I feel like I'm in a rock dance club - the music's so fast and hard and industrial-sounding. Also in Belgium the music's very, very hard - maybe a little bit too hard for me. I like hard music, but I like to have hard music with a little melody, maybe, or a little piano. So, I haven't taken well to some of it - a lot of it, actually."
According to Saunderson, the greatest support for his KMS material has always come from the UK. Now he's set up a UK subsidiary of the label in order to make some of Detroit's musical output more readily available.
"I'm over in the UK so much and I've got family there, it's like my second home. I thought it would be good to start up my label there and bring in acts from Detroit, instead of them coming out on import. I think you come out a lot better as far as development, 'cos we've got some serious acts that we're going to be releasing, and we want to be in the market. Why license to someone else when we can be there ourselves?"
He has a point. While new labels like Underground Resistance and 430 West have sprung up in Detroit to provide an outlet for new talent, their records are not widely available in the UK - let alone promoted. Saunderson himself has been putting together a followup to 1989's Techno-1 compilation album, featuring the latest generation of Detroit techno talent, for release on KMS - possibly by the time you read this.
"We have a lot of young people wanting to make records, and making some really good ones", he says. But, it seems, there is no real outlet for the music in its home city. The Music Institute, a club which used to act as a focus for the music, is long gone, and according to Saunderson there's been nothing to take its place.
"We tried doing a couple of things, but it just didn't work", he recalls. "The people, they're just not into it. It's very difficult, you get the problems with the city... Crime is pretty bad, so you can't blame people for not wanting to go out, 'cos they're scared. Detroit is the worst place for music - maybe that has something to do with why our music sounds weird, 'cos there's nothing to do but stay in the studio and get off on experimenting around with the new toys."
With his new, Quadra-based setup, Saunderson has some new toys of his own to experiment with. In fact, experimentation and versatility appear to lie at the heart of his approach to making music.
"A lot of people ask me why have I taken Inner City in this different direction, and I tell them I'm an experimental kind of guy. I get pleasure from variety, from doing different stuff, not from doing the same thing over and over. I can be very experimental and do stuff that people maybe wouldn't imagine doing with a track. I don't really care about what the public or the critics think about me not making records that are aimed at the charts. You've just got to make them for yourself and enjoy them, and then hopefully... With Inner City we want people to appreciate what we do, we want people to see us as a serious act that is strongly involved with what we do."
I strongly recommend that you listen to them.
Interview by Simon Trask
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