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Johnny Hates Jazz

Johnny Hates Jazz

Johnny Hates Jazz are in the privileged position of being allowed to produce their own debut album. David Bradwell talks to the band about their unusual situation, their techniques and their philosophies.

Pop idols, committed musicians or tomorrow's top production team? Johnny Hates Jazz don't seem too sure themselves, but a self-produced, gold debut LP suggests the sky's the limit.

"Technology sometimes STINKS" Oh dear, this could be awkward. Mike Nocito, an American record producer/engineer and one third of Johnny Hates Jazz, is giving me problems.

On the day of the release of the band's debut album, I spoke to Nocito and co-producer Calvin Hayes in the RAK recording studio, off London's Regents Park Road. Their album Turn Back the Clock, promptly went gold and reached number one in the LP charts inside a week of its release. But while the album's production involved some of the finest technology currently available, Nocito is making it quite plain that he's unsure of the merit of a technological approach to music making.

"People think nowadays that records sound miles better than they've ever done, but I think that's a load of... whatever. So many of the old natural-sounding records are fantastic, and even if people tried, they couldn't get their records to sound as good as some of the old ones."

It quickly becomes clear that Johnny Hates Jazz don't fully appreciate their own appeal - or understand why their records sell in vast quantities. Nocito and Hayes are modest, friendly types, keen to defend themselves from what they see as a largely hostile press, yet fluent when talking about the process of making music. Virgin Records' A&R department has put enormous faith into the pair by giving them complete control over the production of their music, in spite of the fact that neither of them has a proven track record. So far they've returned the compliment with three hit singles and a gold album.

"I'm curious to know what other people think of our records", continues Nocito. "We're the group and we're the producers, so if something turns out good we know we're solely responsible."

On the other hand, if a record flops, they only have themselves to blame. With this in mind I broach the subject of studio practices; how, exactly, have Johnny Hates Jazz produced their winning formula? As one of the biggest pop bands to emerge in 1987, their future looks bright, yet they're not about to become complacent about it.

"Our guiding principle", begins Hayes, "has always been to make good records. About three years ago there was all this technology about and everybody was trying to combine rap rhythms with go-go rhythms and pop music. I thought 'why don't we do something using the technology available, but something really melodic and musical?'. That was the way we saw the band."

In practice singer Clark Datchler writes much of the material, which he records on a Portastudio as complete demos. Hayes expands:

"From the approach of the demo and how the song is portrayed, Mike and I decide how we are going to turn it into a record."

Nocito continues: "The album started with a Linn II, then went on to a Linn 9000 and, towards the end, we were doing the basic drums on a Fairlight. We always start with the drum track, usually with a sampled snare and bass drum, but we have often changed the tempos and feels from what was on the demos. We are great believers in getting the backing track to feel good on its own. But sometimes, the more you put on, the worse it gets. If you do that, sometimes the vocals just don't work."

So how much of this impressive arsenal of instruments do the band actually own?

"I don't actually own any keyboards", admits Hayes - often to be seen lurking behind a DX7 on Top Of The Pops. "We haven't got any Linn drums or anything, we're the most unequipped band around - none of us are really that hung up on equipment. We're not Luddites. It's not that we're against technology, we use it all the time and we're very much into it, but we don't sit around reading manuals."

Requesting a list of favourite equipment yields a far more positive response.

Hayes: "The classic machine for my money is the Linn II. I also really like the Jupiter 8 and I love the Emax because it's got the advantage of digital samples with analogue processing. You can stick a digital sound through an ADSR and filters, and that's brilliant.

"We also used a D50 a bit on the album, mainly using presets and modifications of them as part of a MIDI chain. The Casio CZ1000 is Clark's keyboard. That's been really good and it's all over the album."

"We spent two or three hours re-recording the same part - we all thought it was great until I put the old one back up and it sounded miles better."

Nocito joins in: "From a processing point of view, I think anyone would agree the Lexicon is the best digital reverb that you can get.

"We record a lot of the tracks with effects already on them, rather than recording them dry and adding the processing during mixdown. The way I learnt as an engineer was that if something sounds good through an effect, then you record it that way. Sometimes you later decide that you want it dry but then it's too late. Recording like that makes you decide things; it gives you a direction and forces you to work to those effects during overdubs."

Although the album credits Chris Newman as the Fairlight operator, the keyboard programming and playing was generally left to Hayes.

"We have this general rule with keyboards: when we work on keyboard overdubs Mike and Clark will go out for a couple of hours and leave me to it. My job is to make sure everything sounds great completely dry - so that the sound is really happening and fits the track. Then Mike can come in and start running it. I generally program from scratch - I don't normally store sounds."

ONE THING IS becoming apparent: Johnny Hates Jazz spend a lot of time locked away in the studio. But - despite the fact that RAK is owned by Micky Most, who is Calvin Hayes' father - it still costs them around £1000 a day. Turn Back the Clock took, "allowing for distractions", around seven months to record.

"In the last seven days we did one 44-hour session and one 41-hour session", comments Nocito. "And we missed four nights sleep.

"I've worked on records with people and seen them do things that've made me think 'right, if I ever get into that situation I'm not going to make the same mistakes'. Yet when it came to making our album, we did exactly the same things. You might be recording a snare drum and you think 'we'll spend half-an-hour on this' and then two hours later you'll say 'right, just another half-an-hour'. Four hours later you go 'just another 20 minutes' and suddenly you've spent a whole day doing something that should have taken half-an-hour. But you have to do it, and we're quicker now than we were, but it's hard to keep it in perspective and not to take it too seriously.

"Sometimes, the more choice you give yourself, the worse it gets. The first take we did for the solo on 'Turn Back the Clock' took 15 minutes, but when I came back to it the next day I thought it was terrible. So we spent two or three hours re-recording the same part - we all thought it was great until I put the old one back up and it sounded miles better - and we thought we'd been improving on it. You have to be big enough to throw away something you've spent hours on."

Nocito also recommends referring closely to demos in order to retain the feel of the original and not lose the original workings of the track.

"A lot of good demos have been made into bad records - it's ridiculous and it's sad. People lose sight of the reasons the demo was good - it's more than just not being able to recreate the original demo.

"On this album we started tracks mechanically and slowly, put on real hi-hats, toms and cymbals, and treated each track in a different way, but I think we've learned the value of pre-production - and not paying £1000 a day to do it."

Regardless of the care and attention to detail that went into recording Turn Back the Clock, there were disasters. On one occasion a master tape snapped, destroying many days of hard work. Another multitrack machine was brought in - and the same thing happened again.

"I felt almost suicidal that day", remembers Hayes, "and you know you'll never get it the same again."

"We record a lot of the tracks with effects already on them, rather than recording them dry and adding the processing during mixdown."

Another source of frustration during recording was the musician's latest four-letter word: MIDI.

"Whoever invented MIDI should be shot; hung, drawn and quartered", declares Nocito.

"You have to use it because it's there and when it works, it's wonderful, but we've been through MIDI hell."

Hayes proffers a more positive point of view: "There have been a few magic moments too - we put down the backing tracks for 'I Don't Want To Be a Hero' and 'Don't Say It's Love' in one day. We hired in loads of keyboards, got them cranked up and triggered them off the Fairlight. I was really impressed.

"We've also used Minimoogs and a Fender Rhodes, which isn't exactly in fashion or state-of-the-art any longer. But we got so fed up with these damn DX7 electric piano sounds. They're nice and belly and everything but they sound too thin."

SEVEN MONTHS SPENT on an album containing ten songs involved spending up to three days recording a single hi-hat. Either the band find it hard to make decisions or they are extremely quality-conscious. Posing the question results in a spontaneous discussion between the two musicians.

Nocito: "Are we quality-conscious? It's hard to gauge. I listen to other peoples' records and go 'God, that sounds brilliant, I wish my records could sound like that'. Then somebody says to me 'Oh, but your records sound great' and I don't know what to think."

Hayes: "Other peoples' records always sound better, but I think Steve Lipson's brilliant. Compared to people like that - the absolute perfectionists - we must whizz through it; they seem to spend forever on things. But then compared to other people, we are perfectionists; but it's more of a sound thing. I think 'Relax' is a classic record, a classic production, but it's certainly not a classic song.

"Trevor Horn's productions are fantastic because they're so unpolite; everything's 'there'."

The band's next comments are aimed at people who cut the records from mixed master tapes, believing they can do the band a favour by altering the sound balance.

"When you cut a record", begins Nocito, "and the engineer goes 'that's good. I'll just add a bit of top, a bit of middle and a bit of bass', all of a sudden you're cutting a different record. He's not making it better, he's making it different, and you've just spent weeks making it sound the way it does. It just doesn't make any sense."

It would be true to say Johnny Hates Jazz are happy with life although they can't understand why much of the press seem to find them so irritating. Whatever the reasons, you can't deny them the success of their album or their singles.

"From the day 'Shattered Dreams' reached number 40 in the charts, technically we'd had a hit", recalls Nocito. "It didn't matter if it didn't get any higher because we'd proved a lot of people wrong who'd said we weren't going to have a hit."

At present, the future of Johnny Hates Jazz looks promising but both Nocito and Hayes would be happy to branch out into other production ventures. As yet they've had no offers but it would be a brave man who suggested they weren't going to get any.

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Public Library

Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Apr 1988

Interview by David Bradwell

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