Life On The Farm
The Farm: taking pop to football louts or bringing hooliganism to the pop charts? Tim Goodyer gets casual with keyboardsman Ben Leach and tries to find out.
Ere we go, 'ere we go - on the crest of a Mexican wave. The Farm are about to take their music and football terrace humour to America. But what's it got to do with MIDI?
WHEN YOU READ IN THE NME THAT THE FARM HAVE MADE a pre-season transfer bid of £1.5m for Happy Mondays dancer Bez (and that the offer has been rejected by a straight-faced Shaun Ryder) it does little to change the impression that they're a bunch of scally football fans making a comfortable few quid out of music let alone convince you that they might be even passingly conversant with MIDI technology. Yet my recent meeting with Farm keyboardsman Ben Leach revealed that of the group's remaining five members, no less than three have home MIDI setups including the drummer. Clearly, there's more to Liverpudlian football fans than I'd expected.
When you get down to it, there are many unexpected aspects to The Farm - that they've been making music since around 1982, that they've worked their way through no less than two brass sections and that they once took part in a ska revival tour (which got them booed off stage - "they found us out"). More widely known is the fact that they have their own football fanzine (The End), their own record label (Produce), that they're managed by ex-Madness frontsman Suggs and that their recent debut LP, Spartacus, went straight into the Gallup charts at No 1. Not bad for a bunch of scallies.
"No 1 - I'd say that was fuckin' great, never mind not bad", explodes Leach, sounding like the entire male cast of Brookside. I suppose he's got a point.
In fact, the track record of the group's recent singles gives some indication of their rise to commercial success. A track called 'Hearts and Minds' featured breaks lifted from Snap, and put The Farm on the national map. A cover of The Monkees' 'Stepping Stone' followed in April last year and made it into the Gallup 50s. While The Farm have been ably assisted in their pursuit by Terry Farley - a London DJ who has been responsible for producing dance versions of certain of the songs for consumption by the capital's clubland - it was 'Groovy Train' that saw them well into the Top Ten and assured the success of Spartacus.
"The local following's been big for years and years", comments Leach, "but we started to get a national following with the first single. With 'Groovy Train' it were just getting bigger and bigger so we hoped the album would do pretty good, but we never expected No 1. A party was had. I think we were on tour when we found out. I can't remember where we were. Some mad town - Leicester or somewhere."
With another stint in the recording studio imminent, Leach explains that last night he was celebrating the Last Wednesday Before Going Into The Studio. Tonight he's intending to celebrate the Last Thursday Before Going Into The Studio. The Farm, it seems, like to party.
Turning our attention to Leach's involvement with The Farm, it transpires that he was the trumpet player with the group's second brass section.
"That went down the pan about May '89 and that was when I started doing all the keyboards and programming and stuff', he recalls.
"When I joined I'd say the direction of the group was very different to what it is now. At the time they got the brass section in it was going through a ska phase which was... interesting. No, it was good. We weren't a ska band though, the only reason we were doing it was to get on a tour in this ska revival thing getting 500 quid a gig - but we got booed off. It was a good laugh though."
Leach can lay legitimate claim to having trained as a classical trumpet player, his second instrument being the bass. His keyboard training, however, began much earlier in his life.
"Me mum's a piano player, so when I was about four years old it was 'sit at that piano and practice your scales'. I had all that when I was a kid but then I packed it in. I knew me way round the keyboard though, I knew me chords and everythin', it was just playing them one after another that was the hard bit."
The lineup that settled after Leach's change of role was as it is now - vocalist Peter Hooton, guitarists Steve Grimes and Jah Love (Keith Mullen), bass player Carl Hunter and drummer Roy Boulter. Along with playing the keyboard parts required by the music in its various forms, Leach also walked into the job of resident Farm programmer.
"I liked working on the album because there was quite a bit of programming on it so I was quite heavily involved", he recalls. "I don't do any of the writing, I come in when the production starts although I do help arrange the stuff. The way The Farm works is that someone will come in with an idea for a basic song and then we'll all play around jamming with it. It all starts off with guitar but it's only when we've got an actual structure there that I'll start programming percussion parts and string pads to go over it.
"Peter's got this sad old mono tape recorder called a Mono which he's had for years and it does the best rehearsal tapes I've ever heard. So we get everyone playing and jam the song through so that I've got an idea of the structure of it - and I work from that. What I do may change what the others do. I might come up with a new middle eight or a synth melody that affects the vocal melody or what Keith's doing with his guitar. For instance, if I come up with a melody Keith may copy that, otherwise I'll copy his melodies over onto the synths. Or I might do something completely different to give some interesting variations.
"Once we've got the idea for a song I throw loads and loads of stuff on it and then start stripping things away again. I layer about 12 different pads and synth bits and stuff, and have it all going on together. Then I'll start taking things out and replacing things and bringing some of the old things back until I find a balance. I like putting everything I can down because I can always take it away, but if it's not there in the first place you don't know what you might be missing.
"It's really easy to get a nice balance of things going on in the machines but the thing you've got to remember is that there's also two guitars that have got to go over the top of it. And there's a real bass player and a real drummer who've got to play with it. For example, with sync'd basslines the idea is to do something that an electric bass can't do, like going really low - it's pointless just to copy it.
"I do most of the computer pre-production in the rehearsal room and then take all me stuff into the studio so, like, most of the hard work is done already and it's just a matter of fine-tuning it. Once we're in the studio I'm there all the time. I really enjoy it; I'd rather be in the studio than anywhere else - unless it's a party."
THE EQUIPMENT BEHIND THIS UN-CHARACTERISTICALLY civilised method of working is as impressive as that associated with many more obviously hi-tech projects. At the heart of the system is an Atari Mega4 ST running Steinberg's Cubase sequencing program - but it's come on a long way from the old Roland sequencer which first experienced life on the Farm.
"To start with I was getting all my stuff out of my own money", explains Leach. "Then we set the record company up and I could get money from there to get the stuff I needed.
"It's easy to get a nice balance of things going on in the machines but what you've got to remember is that there's two guitars to go over the top of it."
"I started off very small with an Ensoniq Mirage and a little drum machine. Then I updated and updated it and now it's getting ridiculous. It was a case of the expectations of the rest of the band - they would be saying 'I want to do this' and 'why can't it do that?'. If you've got somebody saying to you 'I want you to do this' and the piece of equipment you've got can't do it, obviously you need some more equipment. So it just sort of grew because of that.
"I got an S950 and within about two weeks I'd outgrown it. The memory just wasn't big enough. I then got an S1000 with two Meg of memory in it and I grew out of that. Then I got the extra boards in it and I grew out of that. Now I'm using a DAC 44Meg hard drive as well. At the same time all that was going on, I was using an old Roland sequencer - it was shite but it did the job for a while. Then I got an Atari 1040 and that soon wasn't big enough so I got a Mega4. I'm running Cubase on that with an SMP24 synchroniser on it. I'm also using a D50, E-mu piano module and a K1m - I used to have the keyboard, but I swapped it for a rack unit. God knows how many MIDI channels I'm running of the 64 I've got available. The latest thing I've had to get is the Studiomaster desk. The PA company we use suggested that there was this desk that would be ideal for my setup. At the moment I've got so much shit going on that the monitor guy is run off his feet trying to keep me happy - then he's got the rest of the band to take care of.
"What I've got is two rack DI boxes taking 16 inputs each straight into the monitor desk and from there to the main desk. What we're going to do is put it through the Stagemaster so that I can control my own monitor mix and split that straight off into the monitor desk so that everyone else can have what they want. But I can do what I want cos I'm a fussy bastard. Last time I spent most of the gigs on the headset saying 'turn that down, turn this up...' This way I can look after myself and leave the monitor guy for the rest of the band, which is a pretty big job in itself.
"The other thing is that we can use it as a rehearsal desk - at the moment we hire stuff off Concert Systems but for the money we spend hiring one we could buy it in a couple of weeks."
If it's something of a culture shock to discover that The Farm have a technically and musically literate keyboard player, it's even more ridiculous to be asked to believe that there are three more MIDI-aware members within their ranks.
"Everyone is really into all this gear", affirms Leach. "It's not like they were a band and then the keyboard player came along with loads of computers and stuff. Steve, for example, has been playing around with technology for years. He even did a MIDI course a couple of years ago. He comes out with some really weird shit.
"When we're working it's not a case of me 'going away' to work on the stuff because it's all done in the rehearsal room. They're free to come in any time they want to - it's just that they usually sit in the pub next door. No, I leave the computer on all the time and any of them can go in and mess with any of the gear.
"Four of us have got MIDI setups at home - Carl, the bass player, has just bought an Ensoniq SQ80 and he's already got a Tascam four-track; Roy's got an S900 and a Simmons Portakit; Steve's got a Casio keyboard and a four-track... I think Carl's going to get an Atari and Cubase, we should get everyone one really - then we could work over the telephone when we're not talking to each other in ten years' time! This is the way forward, I think: modems."
Moving away from the gear itself and on to the sounds it's used to produce, we discover that while Leach doesn't belong to the Richard Barbieri school of programming, where he might spend hours locked away from humanity creating unique synth sounds. Instead he relies quite heavily on custom edits of commercially-available sounds and isn't above resorting to lifts from other artists' records.
"I use mostly factory percussion sounds", he confirms, "and make loops up out of them as well as using other peoples'. We do lift 'certain things' off record but everybody does that. Only one person's ever spotted anything we've sampled and he was flattered by it (Leach won't identify it). The thing is that when you sample stuff off record, half the time it's been sampled before. You can trace it back generations. Another thing we do is get two records and mix them together with one going backwards just to make something interesting to loop. On one track off the last album there's a loop that you couldn't possibly recognise or make any other way.
"I also use the sampler for bass sounds - I've got some really fat powerful bass sounds - and Mellotron sounds and some spacey Micro Wave-type things. These are all completely legal and come out of the Akai sample library. I do edit all the sounds myself though, so there's nothing like off the shelf. I've got the best edited D50 string pad around. It's brilliant, I've used it on almost every Farm song. It's a fat pad sound that just sits in the background and fills the sound out without overpowering anything."
As the next Farm single, 'Mind' is released in the UK to certain commercial success, the group are about to undertake a major tour of the United States supporting Big Audio Dynamite. In anticipation of this, they've just had a storming dance remix of 'Groovy Train' completed by US production/remix team Musto & Bones. Sadly it doesn't look as if the remix will become available this side of the Atlantic; instead we'll have to settle for the Sound Tools re-edit of 'Stepping Stone' on the flip side of 'Mind'. But the Musto and Bones remix raises the question of the apparent schizophrenic nature of the Farm's music - one minute it's beer boys' sing-along pop, the next it's a dancefloor showstopper. Leach reveals what he believes to be The Farm's greatest asset.
"Fuckin' good tunes", he declares. "It doesn't matter what you tart it up with, whether you tart it up with a brass section, a ska rhythm or a load of computers and synths, what really matters is a good melody. Know what I mean? I think there's a big difference between a good groove and a song. Grooves are great in a nightclub - you don't listen to the tune then anyway. But if you're talking about a mass market appeal you've got to have a song there. And that's what I feel The Farm's got: fuckin' good songs. It doesn't matter if you just play them with an acoustic guitar and a vocal, they're still good songs.
"I like the beepy house stuff and I listen to it myself but there's a time and a place for everything and that sort of stuff is for when you're completely off your face in some dingy nightclub. It's not what you want to listen to when you're doing the washing up or driving down the motorway. I think that you can listen to the music of The Farm in a nightclub or when you're having your dinner or when you're out in the garden."
It certainly makes intellectual sense and would go a long way to explaining the huge commercial success the group are enjoying. There's still one matter I can't resolve, however...
"How do I match up all the hi-tech stuff with the fact that we're a bunch of lads going out for a piss up? I don't know. We just have a laugh and enjoy ourselves", says Leach in their defence. Days later the group apologise publicly for throwing monitors off the stage at Feile '91 after being described as taking to the stage "singing football songs and acting pissed". In spite of the appliance of science to their music making, it seems that the public image of The Farm as football hooligans still has quite a while to run.