With Richard Burgess And John Walters | Landscape
Richard Burgess and John Walters talk about the make-up of Landscape.
RICHARD BURGESS: The group's been together for nearly six years — John and I had an idea for an alternative commercial group — something unusual but with a wide appeal and not the bland middle of the road stuff we were used to hearing on the radio. That meant starting fairly left field and then working back to the middle. You can't start in the middle and change a few things here and there — that doesn't work. So we decided we weren't going to have vocals or guitar, looking for personalities rather than instruments, and wound up originally with this very strange line-up of electric trombone, electric soprano sax, bass drum and an extremely unusual Fender Rhodes. Chris made the Rhodes different by sending its output through fuzz, ring modulator, phasers and other effects. Its strong touch dynamics made it an ideal sound source for us.
The original five musicians are still today's Landscape — Peter Thoms on electric trombone, Christopher Heaton plays a range of synthesisers, including the Yamaha CS80 and grand piano. (Chris and I like to 'doctor' the acoustic grand piano to get some strange sounds, probably from our fairly avant-garde background at one stage.) Andy Pask plays bass guitar and bass synthesisers. John Walters now does some of the computer programming, plays the Lyricon and also the Lyricon Wind Synthesiser Driver which interfaces with various other synthesisers. When we started, he used to play flute and saxophone through different pick-ups and effects boxes. (On the new album there's only about 4 bars of saxophone.)
JOHN WALTERS: I'm much more interested in the compositional end of music — instruments are a means to an end and the Lyricon does a lot of things I want to do and the computer does the rest.
Richard used to be just the drummer in the band. At the start we had scrapped two prime targets of attention in a rock band — the lead guitarist and the vocalist. After three or four years, when our image had been established, we were talking to our audience and telling stories based on the bizarre titles of our songs. It became a logical step for us to substitute this dialogue for vocal narrative during the piece, so Richard started singing. In fact, the whole group contributed to the vocals from then on.
RICHARD: That coincided with me getting more and more into electronic drums. Up until then I had solely played acoustic drums whilst doing much of the writing side. I used a large kit — based on the false principle that the more drums you have, the better people think you are!
JOHN: It's also very good visually. Richard used to play a big double kit with two bass drums panned left and right in the stereo field. We always performed in stereo, using Quad 405s on stage with Vitavox horns and bins.
RICHARD: I could never consider not working in stereo except in the smallest locations. It astounds me that so many people still use mono when the spatial effects in stereo are so exciting in performance — as long as you keep the heavy things in the middle, obviously.
JOHN: Looking back to our development, we never had a PA, because we played pubs and small clubs. Each member of the band had his own amplification so we had in fact set up our own spatial sound on stage.
RICHARD: Then we won the bins in the Vitavox Live Sound competition at the end of 76. These were used to extend our sound and, in particular, improve the drums which had not been miked up before. Overall, the sound system was very modest — two 405s amount to only 400 watts but the Vitavox systems were very efficient and made full use of the available power. For our largest venues we would double the whole PA output and it achieved all the power we wanted with good quality as well.
Keeping our cost down on the road, by ignoring such extras as compression and limiting (which we would have liked), enabled us to make a profit on our gigs. We did mix through 32 channels out front which was nice. On the drums we'd use AKG microphones.
I'd always felt the limitations of the miked-up acoustic drum system. It seemed a very inadequate way of interfacing stone-age and 20th Century technologies. So I worked for a long time on an electric drum pick-up that screwed onto the shell. While I was working on that about three or four years ago, I became more involved with electronic synthesis. I'd had an EMS Synthi A for a long time and in our early days I used my own bits and pieces of percussion amplified with a pick-up. I remember us using these cheap Selmer Truvoice pick-ups on the grand piano and regularly blowing them up!
I experimented with electronic drum synthesis on the Synthi A, using its noise generator applied as the first source of the ring modulator, with trapezoid patched as its second source — although the envelope shaping was just not quick enough for good initial attacks. Next I used an SDS3, being unimpressed at the time with Syndrums, although people like Ralph MacDonald used them very well.
None of these things did that, but the SDS3 had on it an 'adjustable impact click' which was a step in the right direction. Soon afterwards I met Dave Simmons, the SDS3 designer, at St Albans and showed him my parameters and ideas for a good electronic drum to consider.
My first parameter for a good electronic drum is that the dynamic range should at least equal your physical dynamic range or extend it — in fact the SDS5 does go beyond what you're putting into it.
One of the reasons I began using acoustic drums with pick-ups on them rather than synthesisers was because early instruments were not touch sensitive and therefore hardly suitable for drummers. I'm still amazed that people make systems without touch sensitivity — it's a fundamental requirement for bringing electronic instruments in line with traditional instruments.
"A drum for me is something that kicks you in the stomach and makes your eardrums touch in the middle!"
If you're playing disco music, bass and snare need to be at a constant level — often done by compressing the dynamic range during recording and thus providing just the one instance where touch sensitive drums may not be necessary. But a simple drum fill (like the Ringo Starr fill) needs different amplitudes on each stroke.
JOHN: Percussion has gone through the biggest change in the group — it's jumped right up to using the latest technology, having lagged behind more than any other instrument. When Richard used a large acoustic kit along with a lot of mics, his roadies would have to set up hours before the rest of us. So he made this lateral jump over to electronics, despite the limitations at the time of available equipment in comparison with acoustics.
RICHARD: Most people probably feel they can't change the way instruments develop. I had this misconception that synthesisers in general were unable to supply fast enough transients for percussion. But we tried the ARP 2600 and found we could create the three fundamental drum parameters — the initial sharp transient using filtered noise, the sound of the head as it pushes a large volume of air forward, and the decaying drum tone as shell and skin vibrate to give a warm rich sound. The latter part is easy to get, that's basically what Syndrums are — a slightly modulated tone with the transients not too obvious at the front.
Once you open the door to electronics, suddenly whole new vistas become possible. Whilst I'd said to Dave Simmons that the fundamental parameter of the electronic drum was touch sensitivity, when we'd done about two months design of the SDS5 (the original of this remains a mass of wires on Richard's lounge table), I then realised that we could operate drums by computer with instruments like the MC-8 and the new MC-4 from Roland. They have missed off one basic function for me — the six multiplex pulses which can be routed to control any channel. We don't write rhythms and music sequences in real time, we do it with a series of 'machine-code' style instructions.
I mentioned that I use the Sharp MZ-80K to programme my Roland CR-78 for different bars throughout a piece and Richard agreed that he'd found it possible to do the same sort of thing and that's why he used micro control for the SDS5. I asked him how that fitted in with his playing.
RICHARD: Perfectly, because we'd just about finished our gigs on the road and I wanted to be free of drumming on stage to do the singing. Because we were producing ourselves, it really gave us that incentive to do something new, so instead of trying to get the sound balance right as we did takes in the studio, I could sit in the control room and get the drums right with the MicroComposer.
We never really had complaints about the lack of vocals because most people enjoyed our live performance. Until recently, we hadn't been a hugely successful recording band, although we had our own label and did well with our EPs. Our gigs were often to audiences who had never heard the band before. The music was dance-able and yet we began to realise that it had to be verbal to communicate in all the ways we wanted it to.
Our first vocal was 'European Man' and its communication helped us through the existing instrumentals. Generally, we wanted our audiences to walk out of our gigs feeling elated rather than nodding in agreement intellectually about our performance.
JOHN: Landscape's players come from very mixed backgrounds: Andy went to the Academy for instance, yet all of the group were self-taught in some respects. So we've had to learn by trial and error the best way to record our music. Our first EP was done with two mics over the band during a live gig. On the second EP we went into a church hall for the recording and for its 'B' side we went into an eight-track studio and learnt that way of recording. We also had to learn the ins and outs of pressings, covers and labels. We'd sell records on gigs or persuade local shops to take a few.
When we did our first album for RCA (called 'Landscape'), we made a mistake by recording it in between live shows on the road, so the studio takes were virtually what we played on stage, and the mix wasn't really acceptable for an LP. We'd like to remix the album again sometime.
RICHARD: One of the problems was the lack of the usual introductions done on stage. It also lost some of the 'aggressive' power we put out on a live gig- We approached our latest album 'From the Tea-Rooms of Mars... to the Hell-holes of Uranus' with a different objective — not to emulate our stage performance, except in quality and intent. You've got to make a record to suit the home environment for the listener who is obviously not as 'high key' as the guy who has travelled a long way to hear us at a live gig.
We finished the Tea-Rooms album in late July/August of last year, and we felt then it was ahead of its time (I'd been producing Spandau Ballet at that stage and Ultravox and Visage hadn't had any hits). So we held it back until March this year, even though a lot of people thought we were mad, but it's been worth the wait — 'Einstein a go-go' has been a tremendous success — particularly from the video we did that was shown on Top of the Pops.
We are very interested in the possibilities of video. It's the perfect medium for expressing the rather bizarre ideas that go with our songs. Our video of 'Norman Bates' has also excited a lot of interest (we've even got Pamela Stephenson doing a nod in the direction of Janet Lee in the film 'Psycho').
"The beauty of the computer for us is the way it provides a direct tine from your imagination to what you can put down."
Are you becoming more theatrical?
RICHARD: We've always tried to convey the idea of some sort of story, not necessarily with a beginning and an end in traditional style, but simply a visual image that is ideal for video. Here lies a major difficulty — the film visuals must be abstract enough to be as repeatable as the music — most TV programmes would not hold your interest after two or three viewings.
We put together our music in every way that we can possibly think of. Very often one or two members of the group would contribute the main elements of a piece, but it would still be a 50% group effort. John and myself tend to think up the musical ideas for a piece 'in our heads' and then use the instruments to sort the ideas out in practical terms. Of course, you have to get the technique of being able to hold the music in your mind and then actually write it down.
JOHN: Often composition is to do with spontaneity — capturing an idea or melody before it's forgotten — then you have to do a lot of work to put your inspiration into music.
RICHARD: There were two main reasons I got into electronics. One was because of the sheer impracticality of conveying the sound of acoustic drums to two or three thousand people in live performance. Second, and more important, it increased the dimension of sound textures. As a band of composers we've always been interested in getting a bigger sound from just the five of us.
We orchestrate carefully so that, for example, the bass plays a melody sometimes, whilst the keyboards take over the bass. Obviously, if you're thinking on these lines, synthesisers can be used in many ways to give you a wide variety of colours.
JOHN: I hope that any influence we have on groups who use bass, guitar and drums is towards applying these instruments in other ways. There are unusual things you can do and plenty of bands already use conventional instruments in interesting ways.
RICHARD: But it can be dangerous experimenting on stage in front of 2,000 people! All of our computer programming is done at home, with John and myself finding all the sequences after several weeks' work which we then store on tape.
JOHN: It also liberates musicians from playing things that aren't very enjoyable. Some of the drum patterns that we use on the album were good to listen to but very repetitive, and this is where the computer can be used. It's the same with some of the very fast lines — in 'Face of the 80's', 'European Man' and quite a few other lines in the album — they're not keyboard or Lyricon, they're computer. It's like having another session musician with you!
RICHARD: The area of new technology that we are functioning in with our music is an expensive one for us — we don't get good deals when buying our instruments because the retail industry is struggling in the recession. Cost is therefore a problem, especially as the instruments often become obsolete in about 18 months, sometimes less!
But it's interesting to work with instruments that don't have cliches yet and maybe we can create some. Computer languages for music composition are also becoming more useful — take the Fairlight CMI. And you can make the computer improvise within certain parameters.
JOHN: The language is getting more 'higher level', so it shouldn't be long before we'll be able to communicate our musical ideas directly, rather than spend hours on the computer entering data. At the moment we're not really involved with real-time computer programming. Of course, if Richard or myself had good keyboard techniques, I doubt whether we would have put so much into the computer side of our music. Instruments like the CMI, Synclavier and PPG Wave 2 all help you to achieve fast playing and multi-layering with the accuracy of the virtuoso player.
RICHARD: I would like to see synthesisers changed in the future, by improving the interface between human beings and the instrument, and by analysing all the instruments of the orchestra to find the fewest number of control functions necessary to simulate them. Then these should be designed into really good touch-sensitive systems. Beyond that, I'd like an analogue/digital hybrid — something like the PPG Wave 2 system, but with more synthesis control than the OBX or Prophet — possibly using analogue synthesis that is totally modular and a digital cross-patching system.
On the single 'Angel Face' that I did for Shock, I played all the instruments myself and that's the way a lot of electro-music is going. In fact, everything was done on the MicroComposer and I only used the SDS5 Drum Synth, the SDS3 and the Roland System 100M with it. The 100M for me is one of the best synthesisers on the market, with so many control functions available independently, whereas most synths only have one or two LFOs to do all the modulating.
We're now working on a 35-minute film of 'Tea-Rooms' and writing music for a new album. We've recently released Spanish and German versions of the new single, plus remixed 12" disco records. We're also negotiating a video that's with other groups as well as Landscape — so perhaps we're becoming video artists of the future as well as electromusicians!