Hitmakers Heaven 17 reveal how they've harnessed the hardware on How Men Are.
Jonathan James discovers how the Heaven 17 men are and how they do it.
"I don't think the British music press is fit to judge anything. I think it's disgraceful."
Gulp. But what had I done to incur the wrath of Martyn Ware, chief spokesman for Heaven 17?
"Not only for the way they treat us, but the way they treat a lot of people who are genuinely creative — like Brian Eno; he told me he had to leave the country because he couldn't handle the criticism."
Forgetting any ideas I might have had of mentioning Mr Ware's greying (but very distinguished) hair, I ventured to suggest that the poor reception given to the last LP, How Men Are, might soon see the electronic trio packing up their synthesisers.
"You don't get rid of us that quickly. We're going to be a thorn in the side of a few people for a few years to come. "
Martyn and I met, to be joined later by Ian Craig Marsh, in Heaven 17's management offices in Notting Hill. Prior to the above diatribe, we had been discussing the group's current activities: "We've been remixing, compiling a double LP of most of our 12" mixes, from Fascist Groove Thang, right through. This was our idea; we've remixed a few of them into different segue sections. It should be good value for money — 90 minutes of music for the price of a normal LP."
What about a new single?
"We're writing new material at the moment, but that won't be ready for two months or so. In the interim period we've been waiting for an opportunity to re-release Let Me Go, which wasn't as big a hit as everyone expected it to be. Seems to make sense in connection with the 12" compilation album; when it was first released, it only went up the charts for four weeks — the irony is that it sounds more contemporary now."
You're a band out of time.
"Yeah, it works against us too..."
You mentioned that you are in the middle of writing new material. Does your songwriting follow any set procedures?
"We don't write demos in the conventional sense of the word, we write the modern equivalent of musical notation for the chord structures of the song, which is recording it on a digital Casiotone, the 7000. So we get the basic structure of the tracks sorted out, but we've found from experience in the past that if you do demos in any sort of detail at all, you end up trying to imitate them when you go into the studio... which we have found is a destructive rather than a positive thing; even if you decide only to use little bits from the demo, you spend a lot of time trying to imitate a particular sound that was a complete accident in the first place, and probably due to inadequate equipment, and so on."
You actually write into the Casio?
"Yeah, we don't even bother with Portastudios. We take the Casio into the studio and use that as a sort of... sheet music. Then we lay down the tracks — I do the drum programming to start off with, because I've a rough idea in my head of how the dynamics of the song should go."
What drum machine do you use?
"The current Linndrum, but on the last album we used that as a notational device as well, then fed that information — manually — into the Fairlight, using the same bar lengths, etcetera.
"It's quite interesting, using things like that as note pads really, because that's all they are. So we've really got a clean sheet when we go into the studio, except for the basic idea and dynamic of the song. Then you lay down the basic chords — it's all fairly arbitrary at this stage, because with the Fairlight, you can change anything at any time, providing you've laid down a sync code (SMPTE) on the tape."
Does one of you turn up with an idea, or do you all work together?
"We never write individually—never. We've always all been there every time anything's written."
"We almost always start out with a chord sequence; there have been a couple of occasions when there's been a melody which we've tried to build a chord sequence around... can't remember which; though Come Live With Me was one of the most unusual, because with that we actually wrote the lyrics, and the melody first, and then the chords... in fact, we wrote that the exact opposite of the way we normally write. But that's a rarity."
Do you write sequences around the chord patterns?
"We use Page R on the Fairlight."
What's Page R, for the uninitiated?
"Basically, it's an 8-track digital recorder that transfers the information onto disc. It stores the sounds and the playing information separately, so you can alter any line that a particular thing is playing. You can change the instrumentation of any piece of information that's playing to whatever you want, because Page R just records the basic parameters, rather than the thing itself. Which is quite useful."
So you use Page R as a sort of mechanical sheet music, which you can tell any sound in the Fairlight to play?
Isn't that confusing, having an enormous number of possibilities to choose from?
"Exceptionally confusing. That is the major problem, in a sense... with the last album (How Men Are) we spent two months in the studio before we even recorded a note onto multitrack. That's not going to happen again.
"We spent two weeks sampling sounds into the Fairlight — which is not as easy as it sounds... there are certain limitations, depending on the sample length, the bandwidth, certain quantizing effects. Most people don't bother to take these into account, which is why they usually sound so dreadful. Then we spent another week with an Osborne business computer, setting it up as a data base for the 700-800 sounds we had. On the Fairlight, you're only given ten letters to describe each sound, which just isn't sufficient. We wrote out descriptions in great detail, and employed my wife to type them, a page to each sound, into the Osborne. That way, we could type in keywords, and it would search for that word in every description — say you wanted something that went 'clang', you'd type it in, and the Osborne would find all the sounds with the word 'clang' in their descriptions... simple!"
How did you find the sounds?
"We started out sampling every acoustic instrument we could find, under laboratory conditions. Then we stole a lot of sounds off compact discs... Carmina Burana yielded quite a lot of useful stuff, y'know, 300 piece choirs going 'aaaah'. You don't hear them on the tracks as such — a lot of these things are just textural, so they're not very high in the mix. There's one that we used off a Count Basie CD, which was a seven-piece brass chord from 1957; we used that on Flamedown.
"All the reviews of How Men Are completely misinterpreted what was real and what wasn't, which was absolutely the intention."
It can be a very distracting game to play with your records...
"We don't want people to consider whether something is 'real' or not. It's understandable, but I hoped they would have realised it was irrelevant; in two or three years, people won't think twice about it — they'll just accept the fact that it doesn't matter how a sound is originated, whether it's a 300 piece orchestra, or something sampled off a CD."
Do you feel the Fairlight shapes the work you do on it — almost in spite of yourself?
"The design of the software is what pushes you in a certain direction; the Fairlight was particularly imaginative when it came out, which was why it was so far ahead of the Synclavier, even though the Synclavier sounded better. One big problem is that most people stick to the library sounds on the Fairlight though..."
You used orchestras fairly extensively on How Men Are. Why didn't you sample something instead?
"Because you can't simulate an orchestra. No current instrument comes close — we've tried, though, because orchestras are notoriously difficult to work with.
"Their attitude to the work I find totally despicable, generally."
Ian Craig Marsh had joined us by this time to have his say on the problems of classically-trained session men: "Both on the last LP and the one before, we'd allocated a certain amount of money which meant we couldn't afford more than a couple of days to record the strings. And on both occasions it happened that the people in the orchestra hadn't been briefed properly — they weren't tight enough to pull it off in the time allocated, which meant we nearly had to abandon the scores."
"They sit there smoking, reading The Sun," Martyn continued. "Hah! It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? We're twenty times more professional than most of those people. And we take twenty times more pride in our work."
There's another session man you work with regularly, John Wilson. Presumably you don't have the same problems with him?
"John Wilson is one of the shyest, sweetest people I've ever met. He's a young black musician from Sheffield; he's never been in any groups, but he's a natural, immensely talented musician. He's only co-credited on one song on How Men Are, but in future, he'll get more credits than that — he's almost a member of the band.
"He was found when we needed someone to do a bass solo on Facist Groove Thang; he just happened to be working at the Crucible (a theatre in Sheffield) with Glenn — one of those amazing coincidences — and he turned up with his £30 bass, aged 17. A brilliant musician."
Talking of brilliant musicians, who worked out the exquisite backing vocals for the girls on How Men Are?
"We did. Most of them were done as keyboard parts first. The girls — Afrodiziak — are great to work with, and they actually have something creative to offer. They wanted to do it, and the enjoyment shows. The free range stuff on Sunset Now was their own idea — brilliant. As soon as they did that, we knew it had to be a single."
Greg Walsh is another name that always turns up amongst the credits on H17 records. Is he important to you as a producer?
"Greg's probably the most brilliant engineer we've ever met. And as such, we cover each other's weak points."
How much say does he have?
"It's not that sort of relationship. We have total control over how much time and money we spend on everything. Greg's been an engineer for ten years, and it's very useful to have someone with that amount of experience to show you what is and what isn't possible; because in the end it doesn't matter if something sounds great in the studio, you've got to be able to transfer it to record."
The cutting process is important to you?
"Absolutely — it's the most important aspect of making records. When we were with the early Human League, we had no conception of it at all. There are lots of compromises you have to make, like dynamic range, for instance.
"These things are very technical, but they make the most basic glaring differences in the quality of the sound. That's why people like Quincy Jones are so brilliant, because they understand the limitations of current technology, as well as the possibilities. "
Doesn't that limit the music, I enquire? A categorical "No" from Martyn. Ian is not so sure: "Yes, in away. But it doesn't limit the creative process. It limits how you approach the mix."
"Look at something like Relax. Martyn explains. "It doesn't matter what volume you play it it, it always sounds loud. That's not a coincidence — that's due to a lot of very finely detailed technical expertise in knowing how to get the best out of the limitations of recorded sound using vinyl... those tiny little adjustments which you can only learn through experience, and which would need a computer of massive capacity to store all the nuances of interrelationship of phase cancellation, equalisation at various frequencies affecting the width of the groove, panning, all sorts of things."
Are you getting closer to understanding it?
"It's a tribute to Greg's skill's that we are learning; he's a very good teacher, in that respect."
Does it make much difference which studio you use, seeing that you have your own engineer in Greg?
What do you look for in a studio?
"The desk!" Thank you, Martyn. "Seriously, good technical back-up. I'm sick of giving AIR plugs, but we only use them because they're the best. They have 6 or 7 technical staff on the spot who can deal with breakdowns straight away, and they're constantly working on modifications for things. Like, if you happen to mention in passing that there's some device you think might be useful for interfacing your equipment with the desk for instance, you'll turn up two days later and find they've built it — just for fun! The one big drawback is that AIR is hideously expensive, though you get what you pay for.
"It's comfortable, too; none of those stupid hippy coloured lights, and there's daylight in there, so you can look down over Oxford Street..."
What equipment do you own?
"What equipment? I've got a Casiotone, that's it."
"Well, Ian's got the Fairlight, but that's out on hire most of the time. All the rest of the equipment we used to have we've been trying to sell for ages. So if you know anyone who wants a 16 into 8 desk... we'll even sign it if you want!"
Do you usually work onto 48-track? That seems to be standard nowadays.
"Most were 48, though some were 72."
Noting my raised eyebrows, Ian commented, "It was OK for recording. Only when we came to mixing did it cause a problem."
"Studio 2 in AIR has got 80 channels. So we had to hire in an extra desk." Martyn seemed almost proud at the sheer excess. "When you record on 24 track, you have things all over the place. The luxury of 72 is that you can be very discerning as to where you put things. Like we had a whole multitrack for the orchestra, then another 24 track for the basic electronic stuff, then another for all the vocals and overdubs. Which may sound excessive," (yes, it does) "and you could get away with it on 48 track, but it does make things a lot easier. It gives more separation, and makes the sound a lot cleaner."
So this is what they meant by The Luxury Gap. As if to excuse themselves, Ian went on: "Only the ones with the orchestra were done on 72 track; the rest we managed(!) on 48."
It's really only 46 track though, isn't it, because of the locking code?
"44, actually," Martyn corrected. "A lot of engineers don't use the tracks adjacent to the code, in case of interference. The third machine (for 72 track) is linked in a sequential chain, I think... anyway, they're all controlled by the same Q-Lock. It's such a sod waiting for them to synchronize, as you have to roll them back ten seconds before you can drop in."
Leaving aside the rarefied problems of 72 track recording for a moment, what synthesisers have you been using in the studio? Ian?
"We still have the Roland 100 System hanging around; it's a very old-fashioned patch system..."
How does it work?
"Imagine breaking down the Jupiter 8 into modular components, so you can control and route the whole thing however you want, and with the, er... inherent time problems involved. It's just more flexible for individual impressive synth sounds. But if you want something quick, you'd use a DX7. That's a good all-purpose instrument — we used one on the last LP."
"We're not equipmentophiles, though," quoth Martyn, "never have been. We've been using synths for... nine years now, and we've seen fads come and go. I don't think there's much to choose between all the state-of-the-art ones at the moment. The DX7's good because it's very hi-fi, and lots of people can afford it; the Jupiter 8 was very useful when it came out; the American synths have a slightly thicker quality to the oscillators, but they only sound good if you don't have any imagination — built for the U.S. market!"
Do you have any particular favourite toys in the studio?
"Oh yes — the Quantec Room Simulator's brilliant. We've tried the new Lexicon — the Lark — I'm not that impressed. It's got some nice effects on it, though. I recently mixed that Soul Deep thing, by the Council Collective, and used the Quantec on that. I met Weller at the Feed the World thing — he came up to me and said, 'Do you want to mix something tomorrow? 10am in the morning'. He said it was for the striking miners so I said 'Great'. He gave me six hours to mix it which is about a fifth of what we actually take. Anyway, I hired in a Quantec and it solved all my problems — amazing machine."
Where are Heaven 17 going next? I asked Ian if we could expect another record similar to How Men Are?
Ian: "Recognisably different I hope."
Martin breaks in with an intriguing piece of information. "The first three LP's were a trilogy, so the next will definitely be different. The first three are all concerned with two themes — socialism and ruined love affairs, not exactly universal topics in popular music. The next record is going to be radically different though it's hard to say how. We're either going to be a lot more direct or a lot more obtuse. You can only write what you feel you should be writing. There's no point in contriving things.
"It will be dance-oriented, though. Like the remix 12" LP (Provisionally titled The Endless Heaven 17 and due out very soon - Ed), which we hope should do well. We've always made a major effort to do completely different versions for 12"s, to to a lot of casual fans, much of the material will be completely new — a different side of Heaven 17."
And a thought to end with? "We originally thought of Fascist Groove Thang as a comedy record!"
There's no answer to that.
Interview by Jonathan James