Wrexham's master remixers spill the beans
Their evolution from speculative remixers to independent artists is orthodox; their commitment to live performance is not. Ian Masterson demystifies the rhythms of K-Klass
Paul is philosophical. "We've got a slight problem with this evening's gig," he says, "Apparently our van has broken down in Oxford. Which means we've got no gear."
Partner Carl appeared less blase about the prospect of explaining to a packed, somewhat drunken club that their eagerly-awaited performance wasn't going to happen. "So what do we do?"
My arrival in the midst of this fiasco had begun to feel inopportune. But the opportunity for a more leisurely chat was about to present itself. In a spirit of "Crisis? What crisis?", we adjourned to the nearest greasy spoon for a fry-up.
Such is life in the world of K-Klass. Music may be their first love, but food comes a pretty close second. Simon, their press officer/guardian angel from Parlophone Records, herds the band up, flashes his cheque book and leads us round the corner to said eaterie. K-Klass are, at this moment in time, supposed to be setting up and sound checking for tonight's show at Subterania, W10; but since their S1000s are currently stuck on a hard shoulder somewhere in Berkshire, it's time to eat.
'Dance music' and 'albums' are widely known to be very unhappy bedfellows. Dance exists in the world of the 12" vinyl single; acts who try and rationalise their output onto anything more than an EP are generally consigning their future to the bargain bin. Apart from third-party compilations of tracks that made it into the Top 40, or the occasional DJ-mixed CD for house-loving party goers, dance albums simply don't shift units.
This is one of the reasons why major record companies have been so slow at adapting their A&R and marketing departments to handling the highspeed turnover that smaller independent labels excel at; previously, the big guys in the music industry have only measured success in album sales.
But K-Klass have helped change all that. For a start, they're signed to deConstruction - a major force in dance music as well as being as a major label affiliate - and their output is marketed through Parlophone, part of the EMI/Virgin empire. The muscle of this major league partnership helped ensure that their first mainstream success, the sublime 'Rhythm Is A Mystery', peaked at No 3 in the national charts, as well as sitting in various dance charts for months. But, after the follow-up 'So Right' had also entered the charts, K-Klass went against the received wisdom of dance, and locked themselves away to produce Universal - a complete album of "klub klassics".
'Universal', as their press biography points out, is the most apt of titles; after listening to this album, you realise that it's perfectly possible to make a superb dance LP - and, for that matter, to make one that appeals to everyone. If you want a single record that captures the spirit of a euphoric club night, this is it. The current single, 'What You're Missing', is climbing the charts as I write this, and looks set to be another smash success.
And now the band - for they are a band, rather than a faceless studio collaboration - are gigging again. Musicians and engineers Paul Roberts, Carl Thomas, Russ Morgan and Andy Williams, together with vocalist Bobbi Depasois, form the core of K-Klass; this latest set of club gigs marks their first attempt to play completely live, unaided by DAT or sequencing.
But even more unusual for a dance act is their employment of three additional session musicians, to help them complete this mammoth task. So just how do you take the perfect club record, originally created in a technology-laden studio, and transform it into an equally kicking live show? As the cafe waitress bustles around us, dispensing coffee, slices of toast and large fries, I switch on the tape machine and let Paul and Andy explain.
How did you go about arranging the tracks from Universal for a live show?
Paul: "It was a lot easier transferring our songs to live arrangements than we thought it was going to be. We originally made the decision to go completely live six or seven months ago. Before that, we'd always played 'fairly' live - we'd use a DAT mix of the songs as a backing track, and play stuff over the top from keyboards on stage. Then we moved into sequencing phrases on the Ensoniq SQ80, which Andy would 'mix' as we went along - and that was a complete disaster! We'd end up with, like, nine minute tracks and ridiculous repetitions, and we had a couple of absolute disasters. But we finally decided that we'd got it together enough to play entirely live.
"We started by sampling the really 'tricky' parts from the multitracks of the songs; the sort of stuff that couldn't be reproduced live, no matter how good you are. That was all cut into loops, stored in the S1000s (we use two on stage), and gets triggered from a keyboard rather than a sequencer. However, we do use a click track off DAT to keep the drummer in time, so that everything stays constant rhythmically. It was easy enough for us to play the rest live on keyboards, and for Bobbi to do the vocals, as we knew the songs inside out. The drums and percussion and so on are taken care of by session musicians. It was all quite simple to rehearse and get together. The second show we ever did completely live, was a live broadcast on Radio One over half an hour for Sound City. It might have been jumping in at the deep end a bit, but it worked."
So are you happy with the transition?
"We're delighted with the way it's all turned out. It's good now, because playing live has set us apart from a lot of other dance acts. In our area of music there's really only us and M People doing completely live shows. And it's not just for 'the sake of it' either; when we started out we lost a lot of live work through people giving dance gigs a bad name. They'd turn up with two dancers, a vocalist and a DAT backing tape and charge the promoter £3000 for a 15 minute show. That means' acts who really do put some effort into it suffer. And for us, playing live is exciting - and it's a much better laugh than miming."
How did K-Klass actually start out?
"It's all quite dull and predictable really - we all met in the Hacienda in Manchester in 1988 - yawn, yawn! Every dance act says that. But it's true; we all found out we had similar interests in making music. Andy and Carl were already in a band called Interstate, who were doing what Russ and I wanted to do, but we didn't have the know how.
Anyway, we all went to Andy's house to have a look at his gear, which wasn't a hell of a lot compared to what we have now, but it impressed us - he had an Ensoniq SQ80, a Roland TR909, and some other Roland analogue boxes such as the MC202 and SH101. Russ and I were going, "Wow! These are all the proper sounds like they have on the records!" Before that we'd bought something like a TR505 drum machine - we didn't have a clue how to get the sounds we wanted.
But over the next four weeks we recorded four tracks which became the Wildlife EP, which we released on Eastern Bloc Records, and it went on to sell about 15,000 records overall. It reached No 65 in the national charts, and No 2 in the dance charts. Then we did 'Rhythm Is A Mystery', which became really popular in the clubs. We did another mix of that which was eventually released through Parlophone/deConstruction, and that was the one that got to No 3. And we've just gone on from there, really."
What about the technology you use?
Andy: "We have our own complete studio, which we're currently upgrading. We're getting a Soundtracs Jade desk to replace our Amek, which will give us full automation, compressors and gates, and we've got ADAT as the multitrack system. There are also about 40 synths, and a room packed full of effects and processors.
"Every penny we've ever made, apart from a living wage, has gone back into gear. The studio is actually run as a business now, with other people queueing up to use it when we're not there. But the best thing is that we'll never have to go near another commercial studio now, even for mastering. We do the whole lot in one place. What we take on tour is much, much simpler; it can't hold a candle to our technology at home."
Apart from your own success, you're also in great demand for your remixing and production skills.
Paul: "It's been really hectic this year - we've done 17 full-blown remixes so far, all of them big jobs. We're also doing a lot of remixes in the next couple of months. They've been consistently successful in the club charts as well, which is nice. We've actually learned a lot through remixing - particularly the difference between a good and a bad song.
"If it's a good track in the first place, then it doesn't take much sorting out on our part; we can build something up around the bare essentials. But it does need those essentials to start off with. We did a lot of sorting out of bad production jobs early on, when we were first getting into it, but now we try and exercise a little bit of quality control, and turn down things we can't do anything with."
The band get a chance to really let rip on the dub remixes of their singles. They've become known as The Pharmacy Dubs, after their studio. "Dubs can be the most experimental thing we do - we usually get really drunk and go mad in the studio, and quite often they work the best in clubs! People always say our dubs sound quite 'evil', for some reason - maybe that's because there's a lot of distorted things bouncing around in them, come to think of it, we do tend to release all our stress in the dubs. They're powerful tracks, but not really aggressive."
So what does the immediate future hold for K-Klass?
"We've been playing quite a few gigs recently, but we're really desperate to try and get into writing the second album. The first one took us two and a half years to do, so we need to get a move on! Actually, it didn't really - it just seemed like that, because it took us ages to release everything.
"We may take our time releasing the next single - it's sort of half finished at the moment, but we may hold it back until we've finished the follow up to Universal. It's such a strong track that it's not going to date in the forseeable future. It seems strange to be thinking about the next LP already, when this one's only just been released, but we're really looking forward to putting it together. We're overflowing with ideas for it."
Interview by Ian Masterson
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