Living in the Past
His time with Rainbow, Whitesnake and Ozzy Osbourne has made Don Airey a rock institution (rather than putting him in one). Tim Goodyer talks to him about music and machinery.
With a playing history that reads like a potted history of rock - Colosseum II, Gary Moore, Ozzy Osbourne, Rainbow, Whitesnake - Don Airey is one of the most sought-after session keyboard players around. What has his time behind the keys taught him about music and musicians?
INSIDE, THE BAND are going through their soundcheck; outside, tickets are changing hands for around 60 quid apiece. A healthy scenario for a band currently at the height of its career, I hear you think. But this is 1987 and the band is Jethro Tull.
In their late '60s/early '70s heyday Jethro Tull were selling out concert halls with the best of 'em. Now, with a colourful 20 years behind them, Ian Anderson's merry men could be forgiven for falling record sales and dwindling audiences. Yet nothing, it seems, could be further from the truth. Tull's London Hammersmith Odeon gig sold out in two hours. No wonder the ticket touts can ask £60 outside the doors.
"The whole tour's sold out except for Paris", comments Don Airey.
Airey is the latest in a line of distinguished keyboard players who have worked with the band over the years. And in keeping with the tradition he's presently only a guest for the duration of the tour - but then John Evan was only a guest before he became Tull's first regular keyboard player in the early '70s. Evan was joined on keyboards by David Palmer after he'd served his apprenticeship as arranger for their recorded works.
Most recently it was Peter-John Vettese who held court until guitarist Martin Barre, bassist Dave Pegg and writer, vocalist, flautist and character Anderson, put together their most recent (21st) LP, On the Crest of a Knave. Back on the road the line-up has swelled to five to include Airey and drummer Doane Perry.
In the course of Tull's career to date, Anderson has taken rock and folk roots through capricious time signatures and pastoral lyrics into the realms of hi-tech sequencing. In contrast to technology and titles like 'User - Friendly', On the Crest of a Knave marks a return to mid-era Tull - with a dose of Dire Straits for that 'contemporary' feel. And so the set played at Hammersmith is a mixture of old and new.
"I think they felt that they were going out with all the sequenced stuff, and it wasn't happening with the fans", Airey explains, "so they picked some of the best old numbers, some good new numbers and some of the obscure numbers from the old albums that they've never played live before and it's been going down well.
"I think the band had found itself at a crossroads. They'd had all this sequencing and stuff that Peter (Vettese) had been doing - in a way Peter had been dominating the band to a great extent. He hasn't said this, but I surmise Ian had taken a hard look at the feel of Dire Straits and ZZ Top - people of the same kind of age - who just play and come across as a band. And that's what he tried to do on the record."
Whatever the reasoning behind it, the move has filled concert halls across Europe and put a single, 'Said She Was a Dancer' into the British charts. But the lot of a session player is never an easy one - and in this case it's exacerbated by Tull's complex music and the long history of the hand. How do you combine the digital sequencers of 'Steel Monkey' with the sound of a pipe organ?
"I spent a lot of time trying to make everything sound exactly as it did on the record", Airey comments. "On 'Hunting Girl' David Palmer used to use a pipe organ that he used to carry around so I've got a sound on the Memorymoog that's very, very close. Then there's the harpsichord which I've got the RD300 MIDI'd up for. On 'Songs from the Wood' I've got quite close to the original sound too. I've tried to make the band sound as it used to.
"First I listened to all the original tracks and tapes of the live stuff Peter did. I'm a different kind of player to Peter; he's very much one of the new breed whereas I've tried to put a rock feel into it. I've tried to play a lot simpler than Peter did and to stay out of Martin's way.
"Ian kept copies of all the stuff he'd done on an FB01 for the album, although I'm using an MT32 triggered by an MC500. It's not as though the whole show is sequenced - only one number is actually sequenced - and there are two little bits I do on my own and they use a bit of sequencing. There's nothing on tape, no cheating at all, everything's for real. Whatever's on the record I've had to find a way of doing."
Airey describes his live instrument line-up as being "something old, something new, something borrowed...". Looking around the keyboard riser just before the show reveals the Roland MT32, MC500 and RD300 (acting as a master keyboard) keeping the company of a JX10, Memorymoog, Minimoog and a current favourite, the Casio FZ1.
"Everyone goes on about Synclaviers, but you listen to Walter Carlos' first album - that's all Moog modular analogue synthesis."
"In studios I usually hire samplers in - whatever's flavour of the month. I've been using the Emax a lot which I like, but I didn't like it enough to buy. The Casio is something different; the actual quality of the sound is so good and it has a musicality to it. It's a very functional keyboard. I've already made some of my own disks: there's a doctored, layered, merged thing that I use in the keyboard solo that simulates the end of the world or something, and we've made lots of flute samples which are all the different things Ian does - they're the best flute samples I've ever heard - so I play quite a bit of 'flute'. I'm really just starting to discover what the FZ1 does but, to me, it's a real instrument."
Impressed though he is by the quality of the FZ1, Don Airey is one keyboard player who still appreciates the sound of acoustic instruments over samples.
"You can only sample a tiny portion of a sound", he elaborates. "It's alright to do a vague impression of something. I mean, you can't really sample a cello, you can't really sample an orchestra. You don't even get close. And people who think they are getting close are really deluding themselves. I've just done an album with the London Symphony Orchestra; God, the sound is awe-inspiring. All those really great musicians playing together. It's a very humbling experience, it makes you realise what a lot of old women rock 'n' roll people can be."
AIREY HAS a passion for what he calls "real instruments" - even if they do spend a fair amount of time imitating their acoustic counterparts. When he was interviewed in E&MM in February '84, the old Yamaha CS80 was in favour. Curiously, there's no sign of it tonight...
"They wouldn't let me bring it on the road", protests Airey. "I pleaded with them but apparently they had terrible experiences with Eddie Jobson's two CS80s always going wrong. I don't have any trouble with mine, I've got the good one. I found it on the road in Hollywood in a hire shop. It was the best-sounding one I'd ever heard so I had to have it. Every time I get a new keyboard I compare it to the CS80 and, so far, the CS80's always won. The JX10 is a pretty good keyboard but it doesn't come close to the CS80."
Continuing our tour of the older instruments on the stage brings us to the Memorymoog.
"Aah, now we're talking", exclaims a grinning Airey. "I was involved with the prototype. They were asking a lot of keyboard players - like myself, Jan Hammer and Larry Fast - for ideas. In fact, I put the church organ sound in the first one. They were trying to build something with the capabilities of the Minimoog but polyphonic. They tried but what they got was something else. The actual sound of the Memorymoog is so rich. And there's no end to what you can do with it; the only limits are your imagination and your aptitude for synthesis. Everyone goes on about Synclaviers and what you can do with DX7s, but you listen to Walter Carlos' first album, Switched On Bach, the sounds on there are quite amazing, and that's all Moog modular analogue synthesis. You have really to look into these machines; it takes a long time to learn how to use them. Some of the sounds I've got now have got a depth to them you'll never get out of a DX7, I'm afraid. I tried the D50, which is wonderful, but it doesn't have that musicality. I don't know what it is."
But wasn't the Memorymoog cursed with problems of unreliability?
"It's cost me more to maintain than it cost me to buy it. I have trouble all the time with it. It seems to take the piss out of me. It doesn't go out of tune in the corner of a number where it doesn't really matter; it works perfectly until you get to the big Memorymoog break then it goes... There's a bit in the show where I start with a little bit of 'Toccata and Fugue' and I've got about a minute in the dark where I can check the Memorymoog and tune it - get the 'Six Tuned' message up and then you get this sound coming out. And it happens with alarming regularity; I'm starting to think it's got a mind of its own and it's pissing me off. But I love it, I don't know where I'd be without it. It does so many great things."
And the Minimoog?
"Aah, now we're really talking. I keep putting it away and going back to the piano but it keeps on coming back. I started taking it down to sessions and the young engineers would go 'ha, ha, ha'. But as soon as you turn it on and do anything... I did some work with Fastway recently where they wanted me to do an intro. So I did it with the Minimoog and the engineer said I should sell all the samplers and just use this."
"Some of the greatest records in rock 'n' roll were made in this little hole in the wall in Memphis on a two-track recorder, how do you explain that?"
An impromptu demonstration of the instrument in question involves the use of some form of oscillator cross-modulation that's not possible on the standard Minimoog Model D. A brief inspection of the rear panel confirms my suspicions - two additional jack sockets marked 'Osc 1' and 'Osc 2' have been added which allow a footpedal to introduce some stunning harmonic modification to the instrument's sound. A form of modulation I'm sure, but exactly what's going on is destined to remain a secret.
"It's more complex than that", says a bemused Airey, "there is modulation in there but there are other things too. Moog modified that Minimoog around 1978-79 to my own specifications. I actually took some of the ideas from the ARF Odyssey and improved on them. Every day I play that instrument I find out something new, and that's the way an instrument should be. It's personal to me, of course."
IF THERE'S ONE topic of conversation that's closer to Don Airey's heart than keyboards it's that of music itself. After all, he argues, what use is the technology if it's not used to make music?
"Music is about having fun, it should make you feel good to be alive. Playing in a group is a real privilege to me, I can't imagine anything better. I've learned a lot about people and music, and music without people isn't music.
"The secret of rock 'n' roll is the guitar. I don't try to be a guitarist on the Minimoog. No matter how hard you try with keyboards, you're not going to get close to the beauty of the sound of Eddie Van Halen, John Sykes or Gary Moore. I've been with these people and I know there's a certain limit to electronic keyboards past which you cannot go. They're simply not that expressive.
"We've got a generation of musicians that's missing out because all it knows is FM synthesis. There's a new keyboard being released every week and it's immediately obsolete. We haven't evolved; the music hasn't changed because of computers. You can't compute music - music is still people spending time learning to play their instruments and getting together. You can't get a sequencer to do it. All these bands that use sequencers are very successful for a couple of years. People say 'that was good, I enjoyed that', but they don't come back again. It's true - so many bands now have a two or three-year career, there's no longevity to them.
"It's all very mystical, it's to do with 'the moment'. Music's very strange stuff that I don't really understand. Where does it come from and what is it? Obviously synthesisers have their part to play but I find people often become dominated by the technology - I know people who make albums on their arses. They sit on their arses for a whole album - it's true - they put their feet on the desk, run the sequencers and say 'Yeah, that felt quite good. Let's run it again but slow the SMPTE down by a couple of frames'. There's this terrible atmosphere of 'we've got it sussed with these machines'. I'm horrified by all that.
"You've got to ask yourself 'Is it going to mean anything in 10 years?'. I got this '60s Mix album and my little boy of eight said 'Dad, why don't they write music like this any more?' He thinks the Beach Boys is music from the heavens, he's never heard anything like it. I think it's why all those Levi's adverts were hits - records made in half-an-hour. Tell me, did Eddie Cochran need a Publison?
"I was in a studio in Memphis a few years ago and there was a studio log there from one week in 1956. It says in one week in this studio were made the following singles: 'Heartbreak Hotel', Elvis Presley. Next day: 'Great Balls of Fire', Jerry Lee Lewis, 'Blue Suede Shoes', Carl Perkins... Some of the greatest records in rock 'n' roll were made in this little hole in the wall in one week on two-track. How do you explain that?
"Nothing's changed with all these computer instruments and instant sound. It's still as hard as it always was to be a musician and there's more competition than ever - there are some absolutely staggering players around. Due to the fact that music is being taken away from people and automated, there's no grass-root level of learning. People instantly become 'brilliant' but they haven't become brilliant through working with their mates."
Airey's "honest" northern accent adds to the disconcerting ring of truth in his words. Tull's concert has people on their feet from the first number, and an unlikely mixture of people at that. Where've they all come from and what is it that's brought them out of the woodwork for a show that could almost be 10 years old? If Don Airey's right, what hope have we for the future?
"Personally I hope people come out of their rooms full of computers and sequencers, and go down the village hall with their mates and form a band. Out of the bedroom into the street."
Well, what are you waiting for?
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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