Live And Direct
By ignoring the charts and treating dance music as a live phenomenon, Adamski has won himself a huge following and a chart placing. Simon Trask talks about the live applications of studio music.
Dance music is breaking out of the studio and taking to the stage. One of the leading exponents of live house music is Adamski.
"I THINK IT'S OUTRAGEOUS THAT GROUPS like Big Fun should exist. What is it they do? They're just another Stock, Aitken and Waterman act. It's frightening that they can get where they have. I don't know why little girls scream at them, why they're so stupid. I think I deserve whatever money I make, because I actually do something and I've got where I have with no hype, the music speaks for itself."
I can see the story now in tomorrow's gutter press: "Loopy acid house musician Adamski, a veteran of last summer's drug-crazed acid sex parties, yesterday lashed out at cuddly trio Big Fun, claiming 'It's outrageous...' Or maybe not. In person, Adamski is a mild-mannered, soft-spoken person who dislikes pubs, prefers orange juice to a pint of best bitter, and, despite the fact that it's packed away for a gig in the evening, obligingly sets up his synth and drum machine in his small north-London flat and gives me an impromptu live performance.
Adamski (real name Adam Tinley) first came to prominence last summer when he took his Ensoniq SQ80 synth, Roland TR909 drum machine and Casio FZ10M sampler onstage at outdoor raves like Sunrise, Energy and World Dance, playing his individual brand of techno/house music to thousands of people. Sometimes this would mean going on at 3.30am and playing till sunrise. Before long, he found his name appearing on flyers for events he hadn't been booked to play, a sure sign that he'd become a star attraction.
But in the beginning nobody had asked him to play live. As he recalls: "Four of us just turned up uninvited with all the equipment, walked past the bouncers, went upstairs to the stage, set the equipment up next to the DJ, and no-one said anything! Then we looked across the stage and there was this other guy all set up with his gear. But they didn't mind us playing at all."
Were there ever any times when he wasn't able to play because of power supply or equipment problems?
"No, we've always managed to sort something out. When I played at Energy II they had generators which were fluctuating between 180 and 200 volts, and when I plugged in the SQ80 it just went mad, the screen was talking shit. They had to stop the music, turn half the lights out, take a generator out, and then I could do the show.
"The SQ80 and the 909 have both been with me to Ibiza three times and they've never gone wrong, though sometimes I've needed to reinitialise the SQ80. I remember I got to Ibiza one time and it needed to be reinitialised but I'd forgotten how to do it, so I had to phone my flatmate and get her to kick my door down and find the piece of yellow paper under a pile of other things which tells you how to reinitialise it. But that's the only problem I've had with the SQ80. The 909 packed in just the other day at a soundcheck. The club was really hot and humid and I was sweating a lot so I was dripping into it. I had to hire in another one, but the cartridge I thought I'd saved all my patterns on wasn't formatted so I had to spend a few hours programming in the patterns from scratch, and I just got it together in time."
Adamski has been steadily consolidating his live reputation by playing support to Big Audio Dynamite on their UK tour and subsequently embarking on his own 20-date nationwide club tour which has taken him as far north as Aberdeen. Expecting no-one to have heard of him north of Watford, he was surprised to find that people already knew of him wherever he played - he was even mobbed in Aberdeen. Which just goes to show that playing to thousands of people in a field in the middle of nowhere is a good way to get yourself known.
Having built up a following and a reputation through his live work, he attracted the interest of the majors. As a consequence, his debut album, which is appropriately titled Live and Direct, was released on MCA Records in December and straightaway entered the charts at No. 65 with minimal publicity. At the time of writing, his debut single, 'N-R-G'has gone straight in at No.27. The album consists of 13 tracks, run together continuously as in his live sets, recorded live at the outdoor raves, at Amnesia in Ibiza and in a restaurant in Kentish Town(!). All of which may come as a surprise to anyone who thinks the description "live house music" is a contradiction in terms. The fact is that the past year has seen an upsurge in people taking synths, samplers and drum machines onstage in clubs, either playing their own sets or adding live parts to the records being played by the DJ. And it's a trend which will continue as dance musicians increasingly escape the confines of the studio and find a new rapport with their natural audience. But it's not only electronic musicians who are making their mark in the clubs: for some while trumpeter Gordon Mathewman, for instance, has been adding live trumpet lines to the records being spun by the DJs at clubs like Confusion in London. The more adventurous clubs, like Confusion and Land Of Oz, have established their own identity with in-house rappers and musicians.
Adamski's flatemate Chester, who has been chatting on reggae sound systems since he was a kid, is a member of the 13-piece band Culture Clash Dance Party, performs regularly in his own right at Confusion, and appears live with Adamski, rapping over a couple of tracks and adding visual interest with his dancing. Adamski is conscious that one man, a synth and a drum machine isn't the most riveting of spectacles, but then he's used to people dancing to his music - except when they're a rock audience, as in the case of the BAD tour, in which case they stand and watch him. There again, he's been variously described as house music's answer to Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis and Howard Jones (not to mention "the '90s' answer to Lee Perry"), so perhaps he should emulate them and go on stage with racks full of keyboards.
ADAMSKI MADE HIS RECORDING DEBUT IN 1979 when, at the tender age of 11, he formed a group called The Stupid Babies with his five-year-old brother Mark on vocals and an instrumental line-up of Palitoy guitar and kazoo - a far cry from his current hi-tech toys. Together they released a couple of tracks, 'Baby Blues' and 'The Babysitters', which did well in the independent charts.
"The music was sort of punk", he recalls with some amusement. "I did think I was a punk when 1 was nine or ten. I was brought up on Radio 2, though; my parents didn't like me listening to punk."
"For the baseline of 'N-R-G' I Just put the synth into record, closed my eyes and played the keyboard at random for one bar; what you hear is what came out."
He was, however, a fan of Madness and The Specials, and started to teach himself piano when he was nine years old because he wanted to play ska. In 1985 he moved to London to form Diskord Datkord with his older brother, and gained his first exposure to house music via the occasional tracks played on pirate radio at the time.
"I was the singer in Diskord Datkord and wrote some of the music", he says. "We used to use hip hop beats and some house stuff with samples, but by the end it was just stupid electronic music. One of the things which used to really piss me off with the group was that we'd start the day with loads of wicked ideas but it'd end up 'well, we'll have three bars of that, then one bar of that, eight bars of that...'. You can't think music, it's not maths. I just do it by feel."
Eventually becoming bored with Diskord Datkord, Adamski started working with Chicago-born house musician Jimi Polo, who had been a resident in London since April '88 and had moved into the house where Adamski was living.
"He was using an ESQ1, and I learnt to program it through working with him", Adamski explains. "Then I got the SQ80 and 909 and started recording my own tracks in the studio. I'd thought about going out and singing live to backing tracks, but Jimi had already been playing live at clubs like RIP, and once I had about 20 tracks he kept saying 'go out and do it live', so I did - just by fluke, really. Then when I'd done it once, people kept asking me to play again, and I couldn't stop."
Now he's with a major record company and they've sent him a box full of gear which they think might be useful to him. But did they ask him first? For instance, is he going to find Yamaha's RX120 preset drum machine useful? Can we expect the techno mambo and the house cha cha cha from him in the not too distant future? Perhaps not.
"On one of my tracks I have the bassline set to the same MIDI channel as the RX, and the drum sounds that correspond to the bass notes happen to sound really good - just by accident."
Along with the RX120, MCA have sent Adamski a Yamaha MT100 four-track, R100 reverb and GSP100 guitar signal processor, and a Roland M160 16:2 rack-mount mixer which provides him with more than enough inputs. Massed racks of gear aren't really his style. On the album all the drum sounds come from the 909 and all the instrumental sounds come from the SQ80, and these two instruments remain as his preferred live setup. Although he has a Casio FZ10M sampler (his younger brother, incidentally, used to run the FZ1 owners' club), he doesn't always use it, and when he does he uses it sparingly (an "I love technology" sample and some percussion samples from bhangra music - but no rhythm loops).
"It's extra things that I have to do. I can't make the music so fluid if I'm worried about where the sampler's coming in and out", he maintains.
The piano and strings sounds on the SQ80 are factory presets, but otherwise he programs all his own sounds. It pays off in giving his music an identifiable "Adamski sound". For instance, the powerful and distinctive bass sound of the album's opening track, 'N-R-G', came about through some tweaking of the filter cutoff and resonance on a brass sound.
The bassline is often the starting point for an Adamski track. As he reveals, they sometimes have unusual origins:
"Sometimes I just stumble across things. For the bassline of 'N-R-G' I just put the synth into record, closed my eyes and played the keyboard at random for one bar; what you hear is what came out. When I was living in my old place there was this drunk guy living next door, and one day when I was programming a bassline he came in and knocked one of the keys at the top end of the keyboard. I left it in 'cos it sounded OK.
"Next time I go into the studio I'm going to hire another seven SQ80s so I can do everything live! It's either that or record everything separately."
"Sometimes I can make a track in about half an hour if it's something quite basic, but that's usually the sort of track I play live a few times and then forget. The bassline and the piano chords of 'N-R-G' which are the main core of the track, only took about ten minutes, but the way I mix it now, with little solos and things, developed over a couple of months."
He records all his keyboard parts in real time into the SQ80's onboard sequencer, working in short sequences:
"The most energetic tracks are built over two-bar units. In general I use four bars, but I also like to append sequences so that I can have, for instance, an eight-bar strings sequence over a repeating bassline. The most I ever do is 16 bars."
The familiar complaint about taking drum machines and sequencers onstage is that there's no interaction with the audience. A sequencer can't respond to how an audience is feeling. Where's the spontaneity in it? Spontaneity is all-important to Adamski, and thus you won't find him hitting the Play button and sitting back while chained sequences and patterns tick through from beginning to end.
"I watch the audience and I feel the mood of the dancefloor at every moment, and that tells me when to change the music by changing to a different tune or by altering the one I'm playing. I do about ten songs live, but I've got double that number in the SQ80's memory and loads of stuff on disk."
Ready access to the front panels of his instruments is essential to Adamski. It's for this reason that he likes to keep his setup compact, with the 909 perched above the SQ80 on a two-tier X-stand. In order to have spontaneity while working with a sequencer and a drum machine he's developed his own vocabulary of button-pushing and knob-twiddling which allows him to punch individual sequencer tracks in and out in real time, adjust volume levels, select new sequences and songs (he plays without any break between songs, like a DJ cutting from one record to another), select new drum patterns, cut the drum machine in and out (using the 909's main volume knob) and adjust individual drum parameters, select drum-machine patterns "on the fly", stop and start sequences midsong and use the start/stop buttons to create rhythmic stuttering effects. He'll also add a part live on the keyboard, or drop the sequence out altogether and play solo for a short while, then bring the same or another sequence in again, with or without the drums. All of which requires a great deal of concentration and manual dexterity. For Adamski his music only really takes shape when he performs it live, but he goes a step beyond traditional conceptions of what live performance is all about, drawing more on the way a DJ works the crowd.
"I'm doing the DJ's job with all my own songs", he confirms, "but I can remix them in a way that a DJ can't do with records."
Probably this isn't what Ensoniq had in mind when they referred to the SQ80 as 'The first studio synthesiser designed for live performance', but such flexibility can only be a point in its favour - not to mention a convincing argument in favour of onboard sequencers. Perhaps the company should go a step further and provide a mute button and volume slider for each track - it would certainly save all that double-clicking.
The TR909's front panel is perfect for Adamski: being able to adjust the volume level, tuning and decay of individual sounds from dedicated controls means that he can quickly create new settings during a song while the drum machine is dropped out, while instead of pre-programming one pattern with only a bass drum, another which brings in the snare drum and yet another which brings in the hi-hat, he can have one pattern with all the parts programmed into it and then cut them in and out from the front panel. It's a very physical interface with the equipment which sadly has been lost on more recent digital technology.
One area in which Adamski would definitely like to see an improvement is the provision of individual outs on synthesisers.
"I used to use a shitty old phaser pedal, and when I broke the music down to the bassline I'd kick in the phaser and get this massive bass sound. I'm going to get a row of effects footpedals, but I can only use that sort of thing when I break the music down to one sound, cos the SQ80 only has stereo outs and everything's coming out of those outputs. Next time I go into the studio I'm going to hire another seven SQ80s so I can do everything live! It's either that or record everything separately.
"On the one hand my shows will be interactive video, which'll be the spectacle, and then on the other hand there'll be videos which you can buy."
"There's other things that are a problem for me, like if I want to use the individual outs on the 909 then I can't use the master volume knob because it only controls the stereo output level, so I've got to have something done about that.
"For the new single I just used the keyboard stereo outs and the drum machine stereo outs, recorded everything in one go into an AMS Audiofile and edited it digitally. There's things I couldn't do to that which I wanted to be able to do, simple things like turn the piano up. But that's the way it is: if it sounded right at the time, that's the way it stays."
He's already written all the tracks for his next album, and has begun recording them.
"Altogether I've got about 100 songs now. and I'm confident of about 60 as far as recording them and letting people hear them goes. I just save them for when peoples' tastes change. But I don't copy. My music changes faster than the music the DJs play. I'm not trying to compete with the other musicians who're making house music, either. I'm just competing with myself."
His interest in pursuing a visual dimension to his live work has led to an interesting calibration with K-OS Productions, the video company who produced the video for his first single.
"We're working on a MIDI-controlled video display which uses computer-generated fractal images", he reveals. "I'll be able to do things like control the display from an octave of my keyboard, so that it will move in and out of the fractal images as I play up and down the keyboard. And there'll be things like certain bass notes controlling different colours of the display. Also, they've got eight simultaneous tracks of video and audio running on a normal VHS cassette, and with this thing that you'll need to use with your video recorder you'll be able to decide what you want to do with the video. For instance you could break the music down to the bassline by going through a doorway in the image on the screen, and I'm sat in this room with a bass guitar playing the bassline. So you'll be able to move around this environment in your own TV.
"It's hard for me to explain, because technically I don't really know anything about it, but they've been working on this for seven years. They're involved in videola, too, the Godley and Creme stuff, and one of the guys worked with the Eurythmics on their first stage shows. The company are just setting up a studio now, and I'm going to go there for three weeks so that, while I'm working on my music, we can work on the interactive video for the stage show at the same time. Also, they're going to film me at the Hacienda using five wide-angle stationary-lens video cameras so that they film everything that's happening in the club. That'll all be put on different tracks on the video, and using this controller you'll be able to select the different tracks. So on the one hand my show's will be interactive video, which'll be the spectacle, and then on the other hand there'll be videos which you can buy."
Now that dance music has finally broken through into the commercial mainstream, record companies are falling over themselves to sign up acts with little or no track record, and sometimes little or no talent. Without an established following, many of these acts will fall by the wayside if they aren't nurtured by their record company - it's an old story, right? Adamski has already built up a sizeable following through good old-fashioned legwork, travelling the length and breadth of the country playing his music live and entertaining the crowds, and now he's able to sell his album off the back of that.
With a few adventurous clubs trailblazing a mix of recorded and live music, bringing DJs together with singers and electronic and acoustic musicians, hopefully we'll see live technology become more common, and with it a new musical adventurousness and spontaneity. Many of the artists and production teams coming up now in dance music also work as DJs, spinning records to hundreds or even thousands of people each week. Today's young dance musicians have grown up through the clubs rather than the more traditional live venues, consequently they've developed a different perspective on what playing live means. Taking sequencers and drum machines onstage is nothing new, of course, but musicians like Adamski are developing new ways of playing live with technology, which owe more to DJing and remixing than to the traditional band approach.
Adamski may have started the '80s as a Stupid Baby with only a Palitoy guitar and a kazoo to his name, but his more recent adventures in the realms of technology mean that he's well placed to meet the demands of the '90s.