Justifiably unwilling to be written off as just another funk act, Loose Ends talk tactics, technique and technology into Tim Goodyer's Walkman mic.
Steve Nichol and Carl McIntosh, Loose Ends' two-pronged instrumental element, share a few jokes and discuss English songs and American sounds.
The night before, Loose Ends had been involved in the recording of The Lenny Henry Show. Nothing so wonderful about that, you might say. And for the band - arguably Britain's hottest electro-funk trio - it was probably nothing special. But for a sheepish and inexperienced interviewer like yours truly, the night's recording did two things. First, it gave Loose Ends a good reason to get to the interview two hours late (which meant two hours' more nail-biting for the interviewer), and second, it put the band's instrumental strikeforce - comprising Steve Nichol and Carl McIntosh - in a cheerful and exuberant mood, as a result of which they spoke at great length in response to probing.
In fact, the duo did a lot more than talk at length. What they said made an awful lot of sense - so much so that in the final analysis, Goodyer's contribution paled by comparison. Which is why what follows is 90% Them, 10% Me.
Let's get the biog bit out of the way first. Some of you may be familiar with Steve Nichol's name from his work with The Jam; he played keyboards and trumpet on their Gift album as well as playing with them on their farewell tour. But it's only with the release of a second album, So Where Are You?, and the success of its first single 'Hangin' On A String' that Nichol's own band, Loose Ends, have come into the public eye in a big way.
'Hangin' On A String' is one of those outrageously simple, silky-smooth dance tracks that's difficult to get out of the musical memory once it's made its way in (which doesn't take long). Essentially TR808-based, the song's distinctive vocal interplay (between McIntosh and the third Loose End, Jane Eugene) and tasty but fresh production job gave it a big following on the club circuit, and that eventually pushed it into the UK Top 40 a month or two back.
As a result, the band look to have a fairly secure musical future, but that wasn't always the case. Steve Nichol takes up the band's story.
'I first met Jane at a party after a fashion show in 1981. We got chatting there and I found out that she could sing. We started rehearsing a band - supposedly Loose Ends - and after a while Carl came along. That made life a lot easier because then we were able to whittle the band down from about 11 people to three.
'We were looking for a multi-instrumentalist who could write songs as well, and that's exactly what Carl turned out to be. So from Day 1 we knew exactly what we wanted - both in terms of sound and personnel.'
And what was the sound the band decided to go for?
McIntosh: 'I think we wanted Loose Ends to stand for a silky, classy sound, because that was the time when Brit-Funk was at its height, and all the bands were playing really hard, fast, raw funk. I suppose you could say that we cheated, because we've got an American sound and yet the songwriting is definitely English, so we struck a happy medium there.
'I used to be in a band called Uptown People, and we loved all that Brit-Funk stuff at the time, but you can only have so much of it. Reggae is another favourite music of mine - but the guitar chips in that get monotonous after a while. I feel I have to have more scope both when I'm listening and when I'm playing; everything has to have a bit of diversity to it.'
They might have shared similar musical ideas, but the three Loose Ends came from very different backgrounds. Nichol had left school to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Eugene was intent on being a model (and working at the London College of Fashion) when she suddenly discovered she could sing, and McIntosh was a session bass player who'd received instruction from jazz veteran Peter Inde.
Yet the combination worked. And before long, Loose Ends made the transition from drummer to drum machine, something that proved instrumental(!) in shaping their distinctive sound. Was the move a deliberate one or something they just stumbled across during the band's early evolution?
McIntosh: 'When we cut down the band we had to make a choice between having a drummer or making life a lot easier and going for precise time with a drum machine.
'When we went in to record our first single, we had parts of that first band helping us, but the drummer found it hard keeping time with a click-track. Either the click-track put him off or he couldn't handle the song and the click-track as well. It was at the time when music was going through that period when everything had to be in strict time; remixes were happening and people were putting Beats Per Minute figures on the record sleeves.
'We were young and green at the time and we didn't really recognise the importance of having a click-track, but being in a situation where production was taking place on quite a big scale, we began to appreciate that our sort of music ain't about gettin' the drummer whackin' away. It's about keepin' in time, getting arrangements right, and doing everything absolutely straight.
'And we started opening up. Steve got a drum computer down to the session where we were doing demos, and that's when we really got into it.'
Nichol: 'Funnily enough, 'Hangin' On A String' was the first time we'd ever used the TR808 - and that was only because our producer, Nick Martinelli, wanted to go for that sound. We originally wrote the track over a LinnDrum and it was a lot more uptempo.
'On the demos that we got down for 'Hangin' On A String', we were originally going for a 'Thriller' vibe, with the Linn and a load of sound effects, but Nick opted to go for the TR808.
'Now we look at the 808 as our own drum machine - we love it! On the album we've used the 808, Drumulator, LinnDrum and a real drummer, Tommy Campbell, who's played with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Santana.
"The secret is to take the technology and use it for what it is, not what you might want it to be."
'You could say the 808 has been surpassed by current technology, but it's trendy. If you've got a single out with the TR808 you're basically onto a hit single in the dance charts. It's like a MiniMoog - it's not one of those things that'll go out of fashion.'
McIntosh: 'You know, it's like when the ensemble string sounds first came out, and everyone was using them. After a while it seemed better to use the string synth as a string synth than to try and get it sounding like an orchestra, and that's what we've done with the 808.
'The secret is to take the technology and use it for what it is, not what you want it to be. I mean, I don't know who's down there at Roland, but if that's supposed to be a real authentic cowbell sound... shoot 'em, Man! But we like it - that's why there's so much of it on 'Hangin' On A String'.
'It's ironic, but I was doing a rehearsal with Carol Thompson about a year ago and they brought an 808 in. I didn't know anything about drum boxes then, but we were playing with the drummer and the TR808 together and it sounded wonderful. But I never really knew what it was until we had ours. I don't know why it is, but it really works well with funk.'
The sophisticated layering of the hit single runs most of the way through the album, too, from the uptempo beat of the follow-up 45, 'Magic Touch', to a dynamic (and invigorating) cover version of Bowie's 'Golden Years'. Producer Martinelli must take much of the credit for that, with the rest going to Loose Ends' unlikely but nonetheless effective choice of instruments. To begin with, there's the unorthodox but carefully selected range of textures on the hit, with a startling clavinet sound as the high-point. How was that achieved, exactly?
McIntosh: 'It's a Clavinet. We took it out of the cupboard, dusted it off and thought: Yeah, this is the shit! It's like the MiniMoog in its irreplaceability, you can't beat it.
'All the sounds on 'Hangin' On A String' go back ten years - apart from the organ sound which isn't an authentic organ. I wish I could say it was.
'We used all the old sounds that people had forgotten. Textures were what we went for and, I think, textures were what won it across.'
Nichol: 'But there is a DX7 on the album! There's also a MiniMoog, an Emulator 1, a Steinway Grand Piano, a DX1, a Prophet 5 - because there are some sounds on a Prophet that you just can't beat - and also we used a Dyno-My-Piano.'
Er... a what? Carl McIntosh explains. 'There's a guy in New York called Bert Hanson. You send him your Rhodes and about a grand, and he takes all the hammers and adds an EQ system to each one.
'You can also get it modified for your touch - light or fast or whatever. And when it comes back it sounds like glass. We used it on the first album as well, and for a ballad it's just excellent - you can't beat it.
'It doesn't even look like anything nice because after he takes it apart, he puts his own cabinet on it. It's just like a speaker cabinet over a Rhodes. In Philadelphia they record an awful lot of ballads, and just about every one you hear uses a Dyno-My-Piano. It's become part of the characteristic Philly sound, I guess. But there are actually only two or three in Philadelphia at the moment. Herbie Hancock's got one, Alpha Studio have one and Sigma have one - and that's it.'
If the Ends seem to know a lot about Philadelphia, the reason is simple. The band recorded both So Where Are You? and last year's less successful predecessor, A Little Spice, in the Pennsylvania capital. There, they took advantage both of Martinelli's music biz clout and the sympathetic ear of engineer Bruce Weedon...
McIntosh: 'We used the MiniMoog for a lot of the bass sounds on 'Hangin' On A String', for instance, but a lot of the sounds on that song aren't synthetic overdubs at all - they're voices, guitars and more natural sound effects, modified through the desk by Bruce.
'He's really excellent. He can take things like tiny finger snaps, filter and EQ them until they're unrecognisable, and make them larger than life. He's a sounds man. If you can cough, he can turn it into music.'
There are a lot of synths on the album though, aren't there?
Nichol: 'Oh yeah. The good thing about Nick is that within the album budget, you have more opportunity to use different instruments and synthesisers. When we were over here, we felt that producers we worked with tended to use synthesisers they had used before.
'They'd hire in a big Jupiter 8 'cos that's what they'd worked with on their last project. Then they'd sit there doing 20,000 synth overdubs and not gettin' anywhere - the song still didn't sound any better.'
"Our engineer is excellent. He's a sounds man: if you can cough, he can turn it into music."
McIntosh: '...Whereas Nicky listens to a song while it's happening and looks for something new to fit the song. He'll use anything new - he's looking for new sounds and textures all the time.'
Nichol: 'When we did our third single, 'Don't Hold Back Your Love', with Pete Walsh producing, he sent us in completely the opposite direction. We used the JP8 for most of the synth parts and I found that really dull. I don't know what it was down to. There were 250,000 sounds on there but he'd used them all on his last project. He was saying "these are the sounds you've got to use - they're in vogue."'
McIntosh: 'It was China Crisis and Heaven 17. He's good, but it's the same as if we'd used Steve's DX7 for all 48 tracks - it wouldn't sound right. It sounds like one type of synthesiser, texture after texture. Sounds have to complement each other, and the way to do that is to mix different synths, because if they're different makes, they're gonna have different textures anyway. That's why we mix the organ sounds and the guitar sounds the way we do - against each other.
'It's just like mixing drum machines, using Simmons chips in the Drumulator. Or take the Oberheim Xpander, which works really well, sound-wise, with the DX7.
'There's no Fairlight on the album because we weren't impressed with it when we used it. We used it with Dexter Wansell (the band's strings arranger/composer) when we did the P P Arnold album. He got some great sounds out of it, but you really have to know it.
'It depends on who you get to program it, 'cos if the programmer isn't quick, whoever is producing the album is going to get bored. In America a programmer will come in and listen to the track and pick out the sounds he thinks will sound best, then you can work off that, but over here it's like buying a car. They come in and show you the choice you have on the Fairlight, rather than giving you some guidance and taking out what they feel would be best for the project you're working on.'
But the secret of good songwriting doesn't lie exclusively in the domain of equipment and production. More often than not, a bit of human empathy can come in handy, too, and Nichol and McIntosh seem sure they know where to find it.
McIntosh: 'When we're writing, even if we're doing it with an outsider, which we often do, we all take an equal share of the credit. The reason for that is simple: you've got to be mates. You've got to keep the company sweet. Everybody's got to work and everybody's got to know exactly what's going on. There've been times when we've had a bad day and I've wished I could just go home, and Steve and Jane must have felt that too. But because your involvement is so total, it's only you that's got anything to lose. You think twice because it's your future, and because you know you're all working for the same cause.'
Nichol continues in a similar vein. 'At first it's hard, but as soon as you see the light at the end of the tunnel, you realise things aren't so bad after all. Everybody's been totally relaxed since the success of 'Hangin' On A String'.
'I guess we first started seeing the light around the time of the first album, when we went to America. We come from Brixton originally, and we used to just rehearse in someone's house. So when we got to Philadelphia and were treated like real people that, in itself, was some sort of pay back.'
McIntosh: 'We went to Philadelphia to record the album because that was where Nick wanted to work with his team, so we were very lucky really. He just came over as soon as he'd heard the demos. We were going to do the album here, it was all kosher, and all of a sudden he decided he didn't like what he saw here in terms of recording facilities. He didn't like being a stranger, either. It was his first international project and he didn't want to mess it up, so he got us to come on over to Philadelphia - he thought he'd be able to think better in his own environment. And that's how we got the holiday!
The band might have enthusiasm for the American way of putting a record together, but as far as songwriting goes, they're in no doubt as to where the best material is being written.
Nichol: 'If you take any American song and put it beside a British song, the British song will stand up with more credit, simply because we write better songs than the Americans do.
'The Americans have got the grooves, there's no argument there, but the body of song is in England - and I think they know that as well. Before we had any success over here, American artists were asking us to write for them.
'They even want you to comment on the way they phrase their lyrics, they'll ask you to comment. They want to get your approval - it's really weird.'
That Loose Ends have more strings to their collective bow than a single and an album is evident, but their activities aren't confined to any purely aural medium, as they explain.
Nichol: 'We're doing the score for a new David Putnam film called Knights and Emeralds. In fact, we're starting work on that tomorrow.
'It sounds as if it's going to be a really interesting project - it's about two rival bands from Wolverhampton. I think that'll come out around Christmas time.
'We're really chuffed about it, 'cos it's our first film work. We're going to go at it with fangs! I think there'll be other bands involved - I know Sade's going to be in on it somewhere - but we were about the first to be asked, which is nice.'
All in all, Loose Ends are past the doubting stage and now have every confidence in what they do. Spending just a couple of hours in their company, it's hard not to be affected by that confidence, and harder still to foster any reservations that their future might not necessarily prove as rosy as they feel it will be. Loose they might be - at an end they most certainly aren't.
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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