Annabel Scott talks to one of the synth world's younger composers about a new album of raunchier, dynamic music, the result of his first sessions in Jive Electro's equipment-laden studio, Battery.
With the release of a first album for Jive Records and a host of other projects in the pipeline, Mark Shreeve has come a long way since his first appearance in E&MM's pages two years ago. But the increased publicity has brought its problems.
This magazine is proud of Mark Shreeve. Why? Because back in February 1983, in E&MM's old Home Electro-Musician slot, Shreeve penned his first piece of major media publicity. He declared it his desire 'to own a mammoth studio equipped with massive wallpaper-job synthesisers, 24-track tape machines, goodness knows how-many-track mixing desks, and all kinds of digital doobries with a lovely entangled mess of wires and leads sprouting from every nook and cranny.'
Times change, though. You'd hardly regard Shreeve as a home-based musician any more, even though his London flat now contains a synthesiser setup sufficiently comprehensive to make many musicians green with envy.
But he's an experienced studio hand now, and his new long-playing release on the Jive Electro label, 'Legion', uses everything from Fairlight and PPG to sophisticated effects units from AMS, Quantec and Lexicon. There's even a goodness knows how-many-track mixing desk, courtesy of Solid State Logic. He's recorded a commercial pop single that's still in search of a singer, is being pushed for film soundtrack work in the big league, and has persuaded Tangerine Dream's Chris Franke to guest on his album.
Yet Shreeve still has his day job, remains in many ways uncertain about the way forward, and reckons the next purchase for the home studio is going to be nothing more prestigious than a Roland Drumatix drum machine.
So how has Mark Shreeve risen through the ranks from home recordist to mega-synth manipulator? How does a man who started musical life on a Revox A77 cope with 48-track recording? And how much easier is it to progress when you've got a young, apparently dynamic company like Jive behind you?
To find the answers to those questions, you need to look at a little history.
Shreeve's interest in music started as a young lad in Wales, when he found himself at the mercy of heavy rock bands such as Judas Priest and Black Sabbath. But more than these, he was dazzled by the keyboard pyrotechnics of Keith Emerson. After moving to the bright lights of London, he managed to save up enough money for a synthesiser — a Yamaha CS30. Then, like so many other synth players before and since, Shreeve began taking an interest in the exploits of bands that used little but synthesisers, notably Tangerine Dream. It was their work, perhaps more than any other, that got him thinking he could take the plunge and start making some serious electronic music of his own.
Early experiments with CS30 and aforementioned low-speed Revox led to the adoption of a sound-on-sound recording method, often with the whole of Shreeve's musical output being bounced from left to right with a short time delay. He sent some tapes of this early material to Martin Reed of Mirage, who liked them so much he released several cassettes, including Embryo, Phantom and Firemusic. There was to be a fourth tape, Thoughts of War, but Reed sent this to a newly-established Norwegian record label, Uniton, who specialised in the off-the-wall, the unexpected and the individual. They liked it enough to press it up as an album. Enter the first, black-and-white packaged, genuine 100% Mark Shreeve vinyl excursion.
In anticipation of some advance money from Uniton, Shreeve took a giant leap and invested in an eight-track Tascam, a 16-8-2 Dynamix desk, a Juno 60, a Pro One and a couple of hand-built effects units. With the loan of a TR808 drum machine, he completed a second LP titled Assassin. Musically, it threw up the first evidence of a heavier Shreeve sound, with deeply reverbed drums and screaming synth lead lines. And it was this music that Shreeve performed at the first UK Electronica festival at Milton Keynes in September '83. It must have come as something of a shock to fans who'd only heard Thoughts of War.
But a split with Uniton put a spanner in the works before Assassin could get properly released — so Klaus Schulze's IC label stepped in and took over the rights to the album. They pressed a few test copies and prepared a contract for Shreeve, but there was another twist in the tale to come.
Word has it we have Lotus Records to blame for suggesting Shreeve to the newly-formed Jive Electro label, a subsidiary of the Jive label (A Flock of Seagulls, Tight Fit and so on) who consulted them for possible signings. 'At the time', admits Shreeve, 'I hadn't even heard of Jive. But when I went down to see their studios (Battery in North London), I was absolutely knocked out. They had everything!'
Before long the composer had signed to Jive, who re-released Assassin with a new sleeve but very little publicity. They were more interested in pushing an album made in their own studios, so Shreeve started work on new material using a Yamaha DX7, Roland Jupiter 6, SCI Drumtraks and Roland MSQ700 sequencer bought with Jive's advance. In the meantime, the label had given him some company - Neuronium from Spain and, in a shock horror move from Virgin, Shreeve's old heroes Tangerine Dream.
Then it was down to almost a solid year of work (though sometimes only a couple of days at a time), on the album which was to become known to the world as Legion. Very often, material that's taken such a long gestation period in which to evolve becomes tired and tiring. Did Shreeve find that to be the case with any of the pieces on Legion?
'The earliest of them, 'Flagg', must be a couple of years old now as a tune. It remained more or less the same from UK Electronica '83 until I got it into Jive's studio, and then working with two other people (Jive's engineer and a Fairlight programmer) and their recording equipment changed it considerably. But all the tunes changed to some extent. We were dropping things like the droning chords, the typical "cosmic" beginnings.'
"They had a Linn 9000 at Jive's studios. It kept locking up but now they've got all the latest software and it's fine."
So now the album is out, what's the critical reaction been like?
'John Gill of Time Out got me confused with Mike Shrieve who used to be in Santana and Stomu Yamashta's 'Go' - which seems odd since I don't look anything like the guy! And some people have been critical of the 12-inch version of the title track, which also seems odd because it's intended as a dance mix, so obviously it's mainly percussion and very little melody.
'But sales have been good. It sold over a thousand in the first couple of weeks before any advertising was done, and apparently the 12-inch is selling well in the clubs — particularly gay clubs, I've been told!'
So what was involved in preparing the gay mix of 'Legion'?
'There was a hell of a lot of percussion on the track - about 27 different sounds from various drum machines in all, including things like reversed cowbells — and because of that and the tempo, we automatically thought of doing a dance mix. It was just a bit of fun really, but by the time we'd finished we'd had to make about 30 edits. One section comes from another track, 'Storm Column'. We remixed that from the multitrack, played it into an AMS delay triggered from a LinnDrum nine seconds at a time, and altered the tempo on playback until it matched. Because it's mainly percussion sounds the pitch didn't matter too much, although by coincidence, one track was in A flat and the other in B flat, and once we'd matched the tempos they were more or less in the same key as well.
'We didn't have to change much on the album except for a couple of titles for the US market. I had one track called 'Captain Death' which apparently wouldn't have gone down too well. That was interesting because Steve Jolliffe had to change his Death of a Japanese Butterfly album title to just Japanese Butterfly for the American market. Then there was a track which I had called 'Zyklon Factor' which we changed to 'Sybex Factor', and another called 'Hell Child' ended up as 'Icon'. But it doesn't matter because they're all just working titles, and I'm prepared to change them if we come up with anything better. We even took a title off one track and used it for another at one point. '
'Icon' is the piece that features Chris Franke of Tangerine Dream. How did the collaboration go?
'It was marvellous. He was very professional: he came in straight off the plane one morning and spent a whole day on it. I'd already recorded the backing, and he added the melody, some help on the chords, and some Tangerine Dream sound effects I'd always wanted to use! He brought those over on quarter-inch tape and we sampled them into an AMS and played them back at the right pitch. Most people will probably assume that Chris did all the sequencer work and I did the melodies, but in fact it was the other way around.'
And the next move, now that the album and 12-inch are finally out?
'Sit back and get rich! In fact, I don't expect to get rich on album sales, but the publishing deal which covers airplay, film use and so on is separate, so I might make something out of that. Jive are dealing with an unknown quantity with this sort of music, but they've spent a lot of time on it and they seem committed to the Electro label. They're trying to involve me in film soundtracks, and I've recorded a pop single for which they've auditioned scores of female vocalists. But that would come out under the singer's name rather than mine.
'Then I'm doing some work for their club act, The Willesden Dodgers, and I've turned in some very sparse, dance-oriented demos for that.'
Of all those projects, it's the possibility of doing film work that would take Shreeve into the least familiar territory. Would he strive for complete artistic control, or work to the strict guidelines laid out by those involved in creating the film's visual images?
"I imagine quite a lot of hardcore electronic music fans might be disappointed by Legion because it's too aggressive."
'I've never worked to visuals, and there are lots of technical aspects I don't know anything about. But then I didn't know how to work a Fairlight before going to Jive. Come to think of it, I still don't. But I wouldn't mind working to order for films - it would be quite a challenge.'
Back home, Shreeve retains his studio setup, using it to record demos for exposure to the staff at Jive. After that, it's into the studio proper.
'I can do things on Page R of the Fairlight that I can't do at home, like getting chords to fall in between notes in a sequence, so inevitably pieces will change after the demo stage. But I'm looking for more modern sounds now, better drum sounds on new chips for the Drumtraks, and often I don't actually record that on tape but run it into the mix live from a tape click.
'I've got a lot of guitar-type sounds on the DX7 which I play through a fuzz box, and I'd like to use more guitar and real drums in future.
'For live work I'd ideally like to have a Simmons drummer and a real guitarist, but since we worked out that we'd need seven Fairlights to play 'Legion' alone, I think we'd have to cheat and use a Betamax digital backing tape. In any case, even if you played live you'd need a tape to synchronise the sequencers together and give the drummer a click to play along with.
'I can't afford a PPG or anything like it at the moment, and it seems pointless spending £800 on a MIDI digital delay if you can have a polyphonic sampler for around £1800. But the trouble with having something like a Fairlight at home is that people like Kate Bush seem to end up composing tracks purely based on a particular sound. I wouldn't turn down a Fairlight if it was offered to me, but I don't like that approach. I think that if you can make something sound good on relatively cheap equipment, say using a DX7 piano sound rather than a sample, then you're onto a winner once you get it into the studio.
'I'd like to get a TR606 or a TR808 for the Willesden Dodgers stuff, because it's easier having both step-time and real-time programming and I like the 808 snare. But apart from that the only piece of equipment I've really been taken with is the Emulator II, which they now have permanently at Jive. They had a very early Linn 9000 as well, which I'd like. It kept locking up but now they've got all the latest software and it's fine.
'Pete Harris, who was my Fairlight programmer, now uses the Linn 9000 almost to the exclusion of Page R, even though the Fairlight has a MIDI card which allows it to control up to eight patterns on anything from one to eight synths. That's good for bass sequence lines, and they're also updating their PPG Wave 2.2 to the full Wave 2.3 spec with the Waveterm B.
'I didn't use the PPG sequencer on the album, though. The PPG is my favourite single keyboard, but we didn't use as many of its sounds as I expected. It didn't seem to cut through too well - I think I need more time with it.'
Shreeve's main musical problem is one that'll be familiar to anyone who's ever tried to inject the emotion of one style into the instrumentation of another. By trying to add something of the energy of rock music to the cold precision of the hi-tech, he runs the risk of alienating his die-hard electronic fans without managing to acquire a new following from any other arena.
It's a problem he's acutely aware of, though he wouldn't dream of altering his musical direction in the interests of gaining commercial acceptance...
'A lot of people have asked me why the sound is so aggressive now, and it's partly because I think it should he able to appeal to rock fans. There's no way they'd normally get to hear this kind of music, and I'd like to do something like supporting Girlschool in a concert to see how the fans react. We have the guitarists from Girlschool and Mama's Boys on the album, and like I say, I certainly want to use more rock instruments in the future.
'I really think of my music as rock music, though. Being linked to Tangerine Dream's label has some disadvantages in that sense, because people have a very old-fashioned view of the electronic music acts they've heard of. People aren't prepared to listen to it, and I imagine quite a lot of hardcore electronic music fans will be disappointed by Legion because they'll think it's too aggressive. But a lot of people still think the best thing I've ever done is the second side of 'Thoughts of War', so what can you do ?'
What indeed? Mark Shreeve is a musician with more than the odd predicament facing him in the foreseeable future, but since he's faced quite a number in the past and overcome them with flying colours, they're unlikely to start bothering him now.
In 1983, he was a nobody with no money, little equipment, but bags of enthusiasm. In 1985, he has the backing of an energetic record company, a little money, all the equipment he needs - and more enthusiasm than ever. He deserves to succeed.
Interview by Mark Jenkins writing as Annabel Scott
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