Made in Heaven
After producing artists ranging from Bomb the Bass and S 'Xpress to Bryan Ferry and Wet Wet Wet, Pascal Gabriel is about to begin his own career as a recording artist. Tim Goodyer discovers a Lovechild.
The most modern music doesn't necessarily rely on the most modern equipment - ask the ex-S' Xpress and Bomb the Bass producer who won himself a recording contract.
WHEN YOU GO to Heaven, what do you expect to find there? Tricky one eh? Well, I'll tell you what I found...
I found an EMS VCS3, an ARP Axxe, a Korg Mono/Poly, a Roland TR909, a Yamaha CS5 and CS30, A Moog Rogue, a Casio CZ101, a Roland MKS80, a Sequential Circuits Pro One, A Roland Juno 106S, a Korg DVP1 vocoder, a DX7 Mk 1, a Simmons Portakit and an Akai S1000 sampler. I can even tell you where you can find Heaven - on the top floor of The Madness' Liquidator studio complex somewhere down London's Caledonian Road. No, I'm not claiming to have had an "out of body" experience on a hospital operating table, rather Heaven is the name Pascal Gabriel has given to his programming suite.
You may recognise the name Pascal Gabriel from his production work with S' Xpress and Bomb the Bass. You might even have noticed it on the sleeve of Erasure's 'River Deep Mountain High', Ofra Haza's 'Galbi', Bryan Ferry's 'Limbo' or Boy George's 'Clause 22 Space 4 Your Face Emilio Mix'. You can even find it on Wet Wet Wet's 'Sweet Little Mystery' if you're inclined to look. And you can expect to see Pascal Gabriel's name in the charts again shortly as he's about to release a cover of the Led Zeppelin classic 'Whole Lotta Love' under the name The Lovechild Orchestra.
Gabriel's rework of 'Whole Lotta Love' sees Robert Plant's role taken by Lorita Grahame and the dirty-sounding '70s rock instrumentation replaced with synthesisers, samplers and drum machines. But don't get the impression that Gabriel's version is a piece of synth-pop pap - the spirit remains (more or less) the same. Seventies song. '80s tech.
"Obviously, when you do a cover there's not much point in doing a cover that's the same as the original", observes an enthusiastic Gabriel. "When we did 'Say a Little Prayer' with Bomb the Bass there was no point in doing an acoustic version, we were going to go for an electro version or a lovers' hip hop version of it, which is pretty much what I've aimed 'Whole Lotta Love' at - that kind of lovers' hip hop/reggae type of feel but with analogue sounds. I've always loved the late '70s, R&B and soul music generally. And
Led Zeppelin are the band I remember as being the most R&B rock band, because they had congas and percussion on their tracks that other bands in that category wouldn't. They were a real soul rock band.
"I chose 'Whole Lotta Love' because it's a really good song, the same reason we chose 'Say a Little Prayer' - it's a classic song. It's got a lot emotional content that you can get a singer to bring out. Also, I could hear a different version, a more modern version of it in my head. I was listening to a lot of songs and that's the one I thought I could hear a really good treatment of.
"Led Zeppelin's version was really trashy and, in fact, I don't think their version respected the song that well. The vocal was great but the instrumentation was trashy. I like things to be really precise and have everything happening in the right place as opposed to having it average all the way through.
"I'm definitely very soul-orientated but my roots are in bands like Kraftwerk and Can, those mid-70s German bands. I think any record can be a good record, I always tend to think there's a lot of good in a lot of things, but certainly the bands I've kept on listening to are bands like Kraftwerk, Yello, Faust even, because they're imaginative. They might not have made successful pop records but you can listen to their stuff and take ideas from it and put them in a pop context."
Gabriel is obviously satisfied with the way his version of 'Whole Lotta Love' turned out, but it met with a mixed reception at MCA, to whom he recently signed. There were two stumbling blocks; the first was the tempo - at a leisurely 89bpm the cover sounds slower than the original but Gabriel maintains the pace, too, remains the same. The other was the choice of material itself.
"I had a meeting at the start of the week and my product manager was saying 'everybody really liked it apart from the rockists of MCA and they wer saying it's sacrilegious!'. He was expecting me to be upset about it but I think that's what I want. It would be really great if Metal Hammer decides to put a ban on it - I could be the Salman Rushdie of dance music. I don't think anything's sacred. Once it's art I think it's there to be covered and played around with."
ALTHOUGH NOW A London resident, Pascal Gabriel is not a native of Britain. He was born in Belgium and, at the tender age of 14, witnessed the Belgian punk uprising. It inspired him to form a band called the Razors in which he played bass guitar. From bass he progressed to playing six-string (tuned to a major chord so I could do everything with one finger") with another punk band. Then his conscription papers for the Belgian army arrived.
"I thought 'I don't want to do this: a year in the army? No, no!' So I tried everything to be declared unfit - like I went into the military examination and said I'd really like to have a gun. and could I take the gun home, hoping they'd think 1 was some kind of mass murderer. But it didn't work, and two weeks later they were saying they thought I was ideal for a special battalion they have nutcases in... So I decided I had to go.
"I'd been to London a couple of times because of the punk thing - that was late '79 - so I came over here with a ghetto blaster, a bass, a load of tapes and I've been here ever since."
Gabriel's first involvement in the London music and nightclub scene was with a band called The Church of the Friendly Valley.
"You can do callages of drum beats and pieces of music, but you can also do collages with a tin banging or pinball machines."
"The idea of the band was to be entirely antifashion", he recalls with amusement, "so we dressed in lurid apple green nylon shirts. You know the kind of thing you never want to buy at a jumble sale? We bought it all. The sound of it was pop groupish, white funk and we were using tapes of ethnic singers."
Around 1983/'84 an altogether more bizarre project followed: "I started a synthesiser-based project called Music For All with another guy. We decided we were going to form this company to do background music specifically for certain areas - we'd do music specifically for the Mayfair hotel lobby or for Heathrow. It didn't work because we had no money, but we did do one performance in a supermarket on a Sunday afternoon. We composed this backing track, which was about 45 minutes of electronic music, piped it all around the system and emptied a freezer and covered it with fake turf and put our synths there. And then we improvised live on top of the backing track. It was quite exciting. It didn't work as a band or as a project because we didn't have the backing, but the idea was good.
"I was very much into avant garde stuff then - I was listening to John Cage and Messiaen and I always try to retain a bit of that in the pop stuff I do. I try to keep a little bit of... I wouldn't call it whackiness, but intelligence about what's happening. I never go for the obvious. With MCA I could stick to the formula of cut-up records or Latin hip hop, but I want to do something I haven't done before.
Gabriel's stint as a successful engineer, then producer and co-writer earned him the offer of a recording contract with MCA Records and The Lovechild Orchestra was born. His plans for the band follow the pattern layed down by US DJ/ producer Jellybean and followed by Tim Simenon's Bomb the Bass and, more recently, Jazzie B's Soul II Soul projects.
"It's not really a band as such", he says by way of explanation. "When I was approached about a solo deal I didn't want to see myself as the artist. I thought if a record company is prepared to spend money on a new act I know enough singers that deserve a bit of limelight. The singers I've used have done loads of backing for people like Boy George but the same label that would pay them a great amount in session fees would never give them a singles deal. I thought that was a bit unfair, so the way I want to use The Lovechild Orchestra is as a springboard for my songs and production, and as a springboard for those people I thought deserved a bit of credit. This year there'll be four different singers featured on The Lovechild Orchestra album, next year there may be a different four singers. It's very interchangeable; someone who's sung lead on one song will sing backing on another track. It's all keep it in the family..."
Alongside Lorita Grahame (whom Gabriel approached after hearing her sing on Colourbox' 'Baby I Love You So'), The Lovechild Orchestra consists of ex-Afrodiziak Claudia Fontaine, Beverley Skeet and a Japanese rapper called Fuji. Running through pre-cut recordings of some of The Orchestra's songs in Heaven we're treated to material ranging from the hard dance grooves of 'System Addiction' (Lorita Graham singing) and 'Move' (Beverley Skeet) to the threatened experimentalism of 'The Art of Picasso'.
"In 'The Art of Picasso' a girl called Yoko is reading a poem that I wrote which was inspired by a poem that Salvador Dali wrote slagging Picasso off", comes Gabriel's account of the track. "Really it's a tribute to Dali and the surrealist movement.
When Dali died I saw this Arena program on him, and I cried at the end because it was so sad to see such a genius wheeled out of hospital in a wheelchair. He probably enjoyed the media attention, but I found it so sad. The song is this surrealist poem being rapped over a backing track where I've got this computer speaking the names of drum voices where the drum should be. So the voice will go 'snare-kick-snare-kick...'
"I suppose it's a bit surreal itself - you can do collages like we did with Bomb the Bass and S' Xpress, where it's a straight collage of drum beats and pieces of music, but you can also do collages with a tin banging or pinball machines. I like to introduce things like that because it's exciting. It's so much more exciting to have a hairspray doing a hi-hat than to do a normal hihat. I suppose the 'The Art of Picasso' is a lot about not using conventional sounds.
"It kind of works. I wish I hadn't used any drums in it now, but there's a stage at which you have to let things go. You can keep on working on something until you think it's perfect and they end up sounding terrible. You have not to keep things too close to your chest. If I were to really be honest about it, I could re-do the whole album now and do it better. But it's done now and I have to move on to new things. That's what keeps me going: thinking that the last thing I did was OK, but that I can do the next one better. There's no point in looking back."
STRANGELY ENOUGH, "LOOKING back" would be a good way of describing the collection of antiques and curios that constitute a large part of Pascal Gabriel's collection of musical equipment.
"I'm not a new synth person, I really love old synths, as you can see", he pleads in his defence. "I don't think anything I bought was new, it was all secondhand, because I never had enough money until now. The Mono/Poly was current when I bought it, and the Yamaha CS30 and the CS5. I got the CS5 first and then the CS30 because it was 'the step up', that's what I was playing the supermarket with. The Juno 106 I use as a master keyboard because it's got all the facilities of a MIDI synth apart from local off. The sounds are brilliant and it's really easy to program.
"The Axxe is my favourite synth now because it's got such weird sounds on it. It's got Tangerine Dream/Edgar Froese-type sounds, really, really gritty sounds. The CS30 is quite good as well because of the onboard sequencer - I'm going to get it modified so that I can trigger it from outside - but you can set it in between notes so you can get weird variations of tone.
"Recording never stops. Even in the middle of the mix, if you think something's missing, nothing's stopping you fixing it."
"I link everything up with a couple of Roland MPU101s but unfortunately, I can't use the same MPU101 for the Yamaha gear and the Rogue because they're not the same polarity. When I started programming the album I started some tracks that I never actually finished off, where everything was completely analogue synths - the bass drum would be the Yamaha, the snare would be the other Yamaha, the hi-hat would be the Rogue and the melody would be the Axxe. If you use the dynamic output of the MPU101 you can actually alter the fiIter of the Pro One and the Mono/Poly. I do a lot of knob-twiddling live as I go to tape as well. I write a basic part and then play around with the fiIter up and down and play with the resonance."
For sequencing, Gabriel still uses a Commodore 64 and Steinberg's Pro 16 software. The advance that usually accompanies a record deal saw two Akai S900s replaced by an S1000 and a Macintosh and Passport Mastertracks software move in on Pro 16's territory.
"I used it for a couple of months and came back to Pro16 because it's quicker" he recall, "The edit page in Pro16 is so much better...
I've not seen any sequencer that's better except maybe Steinberg's new Cubit program.
"All the S' Xpress and Bomb the Bass stuff was done on Pro 16. When I first got it, it used to crash all the time, then I got to know it and it never crashed again. I had to change the Commodore about a year-and-a-half ago when I was doing the Taffy sessions because it just went dead, but I got a new computer and it's been running ever since. I don't think it's what you use, it's how you use it and how well you know it. It doesn't matter if it's 20 years old, if it does a good job it's irrelevant."
Heaven is where Gabriel does most of his songwriting, sequencing and arranging. The recording proper takes place either downstairs in Liquidator's 24-track studio or at another London 24-track studio. The arrangement gives Gabriel full control over the song without the pressure of the clock counting off expensive studio hours. It also gives him an opportunity to rework tracks that aren't going so well.
"With a couple of the tracks I've decided the backing track is boring and I've transferred the code and lead vocal to DAT or two-track, brought it back here and rewritten the backing track. Then I've been back into the studio and recorded the new backing over the old one. Technology allows you to do it.
"Daniel Miller used to tell me that recording never stops, even in the middle of the mix, if you think something's missing, nothing's stopping you fixing it. Before, if you were mixing with a live band and you needed something happening in the middle eight you'd have to get the players back in to do it, now all you need is a sequencer and a few sounds and you're away.
"I write with sounds generally. Everything I've written I've started with the sounds and then I've thought of a bassline that would fit with those sounds. On 'System Addiction' I started with a sample of a pinball machine and a big metal drawer closing, and they formed the backbeat. Then I had a typewriter sample that I put in to make an interesting rhythm. Then I wrote a drum rhythm to go with it - all those samples were in one S900 and I put one of my drum kits in the other.
"There's no formula, I just decide 'today I'll play with the vocoder' and tomorrow I'll play with the analogue sounds and get something from that. I never go in thinking 'the bass will be this and the drums will be that...'. I never set myself targets, and do it as I feel it. For the album I had a DAT tape of about 20 rough ideas out of which I picked about four. On 'Whole Lotta Love' the sound on the riff in the choruses was an accident, I had all the notes of the bass lines on the Portakit and it just fell into place. Playing around and having fun with the toys, that's what it's all about.
"I suppose the style I am trying to get is modern tightness and technology but I also like the looseness of live playing. That's why sampling breaks is so handy because you get the feel of a drummer and the accuracy of sequencing. I don't think I'd go as far as having live drums on a track yet, although people like Stetsasonic have started doing that - and very successfully too - what I tend to do is instead of having a tambourine part doing 16ths, I'll play a bar or two bars myself and sample that. It's a "question of getting the best of both worlds: the looseness of live players and the tightness of sequencing."
IN COMMON WITH many of today's producers, Pascal Gabriel also remixes other artists' work. Also in common with other producers he claims to have satisfied those artists with his treatment of their songs. Less usual is his eagerness to have other producers remix his own work.
"I've been thinking that I'd like the people from Soul II Soul to do some of my stuff, and Tim Simenon, if he's not too busy. And I think people like Smith and Mighty would be good as well. I like people with a lot of emotional content in their music and I think Soul II Soul and Smith and Mighty would be good. One thing I hate is the remixes you get from Holland where they're just '70s tracks tarted up with a bit of scratching here and there. It's like the disco remix. I think people like Soul II Soul and Smith and Mighty would do it tastefully.
"There are very few good remixers around, it's too easy to do a remix that's tasteless. It's easy these days to get a big bass drum sound and a big snare sound and a pattern that's reasonably danceable. Any moron can do that. Remixing is an art form, that's why I never want to stop doing it. People tell me it's a better career move to do production, but I want to keep both going."
Perhaps it's his enthusiasm for music that makes Pascal Gabriel an easy man to like. Perhaps it's his love of technology and disregard for fashions in equipment. Or perhaps it's the fact that the traces of his Belgian accent make an interview with him resemble an encounter with a character from a children's television program. Perhaps they're all like that in Heaven.