Keeping It Simple
Ricky Gordon gets to grips with Mind men Burchill and McNeil. Strings and keys - simplicity!
You too could jam your way to world domination. Guitarist Charlie Burchill and keyboardist Mick MacNeil tell you how
The last two years have seen incredible changes for Simple Minds. Each and every album has shown a progression of ideas and ideals, not least in the progression of Charlie Burchill and Mick MacNeil from more than adequate musicians on Life in a Day to world class musicians on Once upon a Time. If the first al bum was a collision of the Velvet Underground and Genesis, then Once upon a Time is the result of all the experience and experiments of the eight or so albums in between.
"When we had finished the last album we realised that we had written these songs instead of these instrumental pieces of music with vocals on top," explains guitarist Charlie Burchill. "On the last album we got a great balance of things. We still managed to keep the atmospheric side of Simple Minds which has always been here."
Listening to the early albums, one might be forgiven for thinking that the songs were written in a very clinical way. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Every album has been the product, amongst other things, of good old-fashioned jamming.
CB: "For every album we go away to some residential place where you can play the gear any time of day and once you start you just get carried right through these things. I've seen us staying up for like 18 hours on an idea that next day we are probably going to think nothing of. It's a great way of learning about writing. You don't have any preconceptions and when you look back you can see all the mistakes and all the good things that happened, which you can then take and use the next time. Things become direct and faster because you've got this knowledge behind you."
This love of jamming is fairly self-evident when you see the live shows, where the songs are liable to change quite dramatically from night to night and quite often bear only a passing resemblance to the recorded versions.
"Even on this tour, which I thought would have been the most routine of all, it turned out as spontaneous as ever. There are thousands of points where you have the opportunity to develop and the next time you come to write an album you suddenly realise that you had a chord structure, which you were jamming on, and that you can use it as an idea for something else. There are always little linkups. You can never divorce yourself from these feelings. Me and Jim will say to each other particular types of chords that we understand by a certain name, like the 'Cale' chords (a reference to their Velvet Underground roots). It's like a very fast communication and you build up this vocabulary. A million and one bands use the same chords that are in Sun City, but it's not through limitations, but because they have a certain feel."
This catalogue of experience also eases the recording process:
CB: "I just take in my gear as it is on stage and set it up and we play together on the backing tracks. For example, Alive and Kicking is basically a live track. We did it one day and then we left it. We tried another four takes, but the early one just had a great vibe. Although there is a lot of overdubbing on just about every track, there's usually something live on them that we used in the beginning."
MM: "I remember when we were recording Alive and Kicking we tried to do all the piano parts on a big Bosendorfer and all sorts of pianos but we eventually just kept what we had on the backing track – the Yamaha, all squashed together with a 501 (echo that is, not half a pair of jeans!) and a lot of chorus slapped on. All these big pianos couldn't match the sound of it."
Simple Minds also enjoyed recording their last album with the production team of Jimmy Lovine and Bob Clearmountain:
CB: "They are a great team. It was the first time they had worked together and I think they'll do it a lot more in the future. Jimmy is like very untechnical and deals a lot with the feel, whereas Bob deals with the technical side, but the two of them give and take on the other side and they have a great respect for each other. It's a great environment to work in because when one person is at the end of their tether, then they've got the other guy who can step in and help. It's fantastic being in that position. It takes a lot of the pressure out of recording."
If Simple Minds have never been a conventional group, then Charlie Burchill has certainly never been a conventional guitar player. He started by learning from his brother. ("Everything he learned, I would learn, but then he gave up") and by copying such records as LA Women by the Doors: "I never realised it then, but it's very Rock 'n' Roll in a way, completely off the wall and mixed with Jazz and everything and I was taking that as my foundation for learning. I never got rooted in the Blues or any of those things."
Charlie's guitar style now is possibly underrated because of the fact that it isn't ostentatious. However, it is characterised by dramatic changes in the sound which can encompass the full range from Chic through to Heavy Rock and beyond; to spiralling harmonics which are charged with movement and density.
"It's all in the board and the guitar that I use. All the possibilities are there. Part of my playing has been learning to use my feet which is something that I came to realise. I can never split that from my playing. It goes hand in hand."
With his feet that is! Take Once upon a Time for example:
"I start off with an echo on the beat and I use that on and off over the intro. I use a fifth on a pitch transposer and then play an open 12th fret chime with a pitch transposer and an echo on it. Then it goes into the overdrive for this open section. I come out of the heavy sound and go into an off-beat echo which is like a triplet for the rhythm in the verses and then constantly build through the song; like at one point I use two echoes to get them bouncing off each other. I've also got a Yamaha E1010 analogue delay which is lovely and warm with great modulation. I use that with an octave below on a pitch transposer but because of the analogue delay, the modulation on the octave below doesn't make it sound whacky or horrible. You get this great swell which sounds like a bass with a whammy bar."
As you may have gathered, Charlie is ever so slightly keen on echoes.
"I'm trying to build a museum of echo units. It was the first effect I ever got. I bought an old Echoplex recently, a Wem Copycat I've always had – a 555, analogue, digital delays, the whole thing. I think it's the most important thing that happened for me anyway, they just opened the door."
For many years Charlie played Strats, but the demands of his guitar style coupled with the fact that Strats ("Horrible, the worst") are prone, and yes, that is an understatement, to problems with their intonation led to an involvement with Ibanez in producing a guitarist's guitar. Some of you may have caught sight of this wonderful creation on the last tour or on their recent TV appearances.
"It's called the 'Charlie Burchill'," he beamed, "It is perfect for me. I was a Strat fan for years and I even bought a 1964 Strat today, but Ibanez make their guitars a million times better. They're really innovative and technically they are great guitars, like the intonation is perfect. This company has got a lot of clout, and a lot of freedom to do things. They can get out in the market and they can do it really cheap too. They're always much cheaper than Gibsons and Fenders."
Until this point, the guitar had been lying in the corner of the room but Charlie had been dying to pick it up. So had I!
"I don't mind going into a bit of detail on this guitar because I think it's pretty good. I've used it on three tours now. For a start it hasn't got the business of having to lock it at the neck which is a real pain. The worst thing I've ever done is had one of those locking devices fitted to my Strats. These machine heads lock at the back. You just put a string straight through, lock them, cut away the excess string and just tune it like normal and it stays perfectly in tune. During the gig, it is incredible."
A quick demonstration and, needless to say, it was still perfectly in tune and this was after a journey from the cold pre-gig stage at the Wembley Arena, to the warm dressing rooms, having been used as a coatstand in the meantime!
Outwardly the guitar looks like a semi-acoustic Strat (with just the one f-hole) but there are four extra buttons, arranged in a row below the fingerboard, one for each pickup, and one overriding master.
"The guitar's got incredible options of pickups: two single coils and a humbucker, which splits so you can have the lot on or you can have two single coils and a humbucker, or three single coils, or the front with a humbucker. It's great. You can touch a button and it's there.
"This is the switch selector which gives you all the different combinations of pickups. You use it like a regular five position switch and then when you want, you just punch in here (the master) and you've already preset the combination of pickups that you want. So for something really heavy you've got all three on and then you just punch in here (releasing another button) and you're away into the lead mode, then back out (the master again) and you're into your out of phase for rhythm."
"I've got EMG pickups on here just now. The Ibanez pickups were fine until I compared them with the EMGs. Ibanez are working on that at the moment. The have nice characteristic pickups that they design themselves, but for multi purpose they're not really that great. That's something I'm going into with them now."
"It's a really basic design but the great thing is that it's got this old 50s V neck on it which is really comfortable at the back here. Every guitar player who tries this guitar comments on the neck. I can't believe that these necks haven't become standard over the years. It's a short guitar which is great for me because I like things compact."
The guitar also features a novel whammy bar design which plugs straight into the guitar like a jack plug. This means that you don't have to keep tightening it or spend ages screwing it in and out. There is also no danger of the threads jamming (Perfect! Perfect!). All this, and the guitar (which is not on the market yet) will be going out for about £350. So I would start saving dosh now!
Charlie has also had a brief flirtation with the Bond but was none too impressed:
"It's great for rhythm stuff but it doesn't work for lead guitar. You can't grab the strings from under the frets and it's too expensive. It was going to be £200 when I started getting involved with it and then it ended up at £800. I don't know anyone who is in a band who could afford that for a guitar."
Conversely, Michael MacNeil, the keyboards player, started to learn an instrument when his mother "insisted that I go in and learn to play the piano accordion" and, he added with a hint of irony, "My family are all from a traditional background, you know. I went to the Jimmy Blair school of music in Glasgow. I learned that for about seven years and then I joined the band after that. Only when I joined the band did I start to get into popular music and watching Top of the Pops."
He has also been frustrated by some of the equipment that is on the market at the moment, and has been hoping to get involved on the technical side with the Emulator, but this hasn't come off yet. During the interview he made a heartfelt plea for a decent chorus pedal, so if there are any manufacturers out there who wouldn't mind having their ears bent for a while "I went to Frankfurt recently and the things I wanted weren't really available. 'Waiting for the software' was the reply."
At present, when playing live, Michael's piano is MIDIed and he plays all the synthesisers through the piano.
"The main keyboard is the piano even though it sounds like God-knows-what is happening. I sometimes just take the volume off the piano and the synth, the Jupiter 8, is doing the bottom. It gets a bit confusing sometimes because I've got all these volume pedals and as everything goes through the piano, it depends which volume pedal is down as to what plays. However, Syco have just recently made this nice MIDI box (the 'Midi Mod' we eventually decided) that will help me because you can pre-program in all the songs. What happens at the moment is that if you change a MIDI while you're playing a note, then they don't stop playing, but with this you just hit the button and when you come to a chorus, if you want to change your MIDI presets then you just hit another button and it waits until you've finished playing before engaging it. For keyboards players MIDI is good but it's got these massive problems."
Talking of problems, how did Simple Minds react when Derek Forbes and Brian McGee left the band?
CB: "Simple Minds have always had these trying periods. It was something we really had to think about. When Brian left it didn't really pose as much of a problem as when Derek left because he'd been there right from the beginning of Simple Minds, seven albums later, and he was a great bass player. He came up with great lines and had a lot of fans. The balance and musical chemistry changes. Like normally we would write a song and we would start with the bass line. This album, we didn't start with any bass lines. We sort of worked in reverse but that wasn't a problem, it was more a new way of doing things, another challenge. We've had four drummers now and we've finally got Mel. He locked right into our vibe. It's the greatest thing having him behind you. There's so much beauty in what he plays."
John Giblin on bass is the latest addition to the ranks of Simple Minds and judging by the last album it would appear that he has meshed in well, but not without a few problems:
MM: "When we were recording the last album, him and Mel would be playing all these Jazz licks and it would sound like these top session men, and Jimmy Lovine would be standing in the corner with his fingers in his ears counting up how much money we would be losing if that went on the album, like 'There's another 50 grand down the drain if he tries to get that on the track'. Sometimes Big John gets embarrassed by what he plays for us because it's so simple, like on Sanctify, but there's no point in getting too complicated, is there?"
Simply Simple Minds...
Interview by Ricky Gordon
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