Meet the Beat
Meat Beat Manifesto
Why limit music to the sounds you hear or the run-of-the-mill images that litter video and concert appearances? Steve Cogan discovers that there's no reason at all - for Meat Beat Manifesto.
Where technology meets art, art meets good taste, and MT meet the artists behind the controversy, there's sure to be a good story.
LET ME INTRODUCE MEAT BEAT MANIFESTO: a contemporary musical collective encompassing the disciplines of mixed-media presentation and contemporary dance, as well as that of musical experimentation. To date, this manifesto has taken Meat Beat on a course that has encompassed such diverse elements as samples from the childrens' television program Rainbow and public screening of hard-core pornography - and the publicity that accompanies such nefarious activities.
The members of Meat Beat Manifesto include Jack Dangers, who has worked as a songwriter in a variety of bands encompassing in a variety of musical areas, Marcus Adams, who is a classically-trained dancer formerly with the Ballet Rambert and an accomplished choreographer, and Craig Morrison, who is in high demand for his skills in set and costume design (having turned down offers from noted designers such as Stefanol of the Vienna Opera). This lineup is augmented by part-time Manifesto member Johnny Stevens, who works with Morrison on costume design for the live shows and videos. The output of this talented and unconventional team is better witnessed than described. The visuals include uncompromising caricatures of the human form, the settings often suggest a setting unlikely to belong to the planet earth, while the music drifts freely between relentless dance and the avant-garde.
Waiting apprehensively for Meat Beat Manifesto to arrive at their Soho headquarters, I wonder what sort of people might be responsible for porn videos and photo sessions in meat markets. When Stevens, Dangers and Adams arrive and invite me to their local Wimpy, they are not at all the pretentious arty' types The Face would have me believe. Instead, the interview gets underway with Adams describing how the Manifesto formed.
"Jack was writing music since he was about 14", recounts Adams. "We were all at school together. I went off to do dance and film, and Jack carried on. When I'd finished training, five years later, I'd been in another band called Perennial Divide with Johnny, and we joined the new style of music Jack had been working on - it formed naturally. Meat Beat Manifesto is a combination of four different people from four different backgrounds, four elements like a co-op."
As Perennial Divide had already been signed by the Sweatbox label, it was as simple as presenting some demo recordings to get the formative Meat Beat Manifesto onto the same label. The resulting debut album, Storm the Studio was released early last year on Sweatbox, but since then Meat Beat have moved to the Belgian Play It Again Sam label that also courts experimental acts such as Chris and Cosey and Front 242. A further album, 99%, subsequently appeared to a good press reception. Just prior to our conversation, a four-track 12" single entitled 'Dog Star Man' made its appearance.
Travelling down to England's fair capital for this meeting, I refreshed my memory of 'Dog Star Man' - Dangers, MBM's rapper, is in fine form, building his performance up towards the third track. Where the recording cuts to the fourth track, a sample of a "soul brother" apparently extols Dangers' virtues: "In the beginning there was Jack / and Jack had a groooove, and from this groove came the grooves of all groove?". A catchy beat kicks in, stops, then re-starts with a drum loop that makes your average John Bonham sample sound as clumsy as it is mundane. The music is definitely individual, and obviously not written as an overt attempt to top the charts or achieve fame and fortune. On the other hand, the men now facing me realise that there is a minimum of sales required to ensure they can continue to release their music.
Says Dangers of their change of labels: "We weren't really looking for a label which could give us loads of money, but a label where we had something in common."
It's a philosophy that often benefits both those who observe it, and the record companies that actually care about the artistic aspirations of their signings.
TYPICALLY, MEAT BEAT MANIFESTO prefer not to categorise their own music.
"There are so many angles to look at it from", comes their collective response. "You could look at it and say it's performance art - which is bullshit - it's not a multi-media crossover either. But the Press always have to call it something: Talking Heads and XTC got called punk when they came out, but they weren't. People originally said we were a 'DJ/sampling band'. In America they said we were an 'industrial band', it changes each year. We don't know what we'd term our music as. Labels are destructive and restrictive. If you come and see our show' you have to take it as it is, because it's not what you'd expect. And it's the same with the video."
Meat Beat's nearest attempt at classification of their music comes down to "psychedelic western funk folk rock music - which you pogo to".
On their musical tastes, Adams disassociates the band from the current scene in Britain.
"The indie scene in Britain is indie as it always has been. We've got nothing to do with that, we've got nothing to do with new beat and nothing to do with rap..."
Stevens even contests the current media suggestions that there's something new and innovative going on in Manchester.
"Everyone's turning to Factory and shit like that because they've sat on their arse for the last three years, and they haven't looked further than the end of their nose. And what they're left with is a few thrash guitar bands. They had to hype something because it's the only thing that sells papers. When you read a paper at the beginning of the decade it's like what's new, everyone's thinking what's going to happen for the next ten years, all of a sudden it's the Stone Roses, the Mondays and all other thrash bands. It's amazing - all their albums are totally average.
"It doesn't piss us off because they're doing their own music, it's not their fault if they're getting hyped up to their eyeballs. It's the music press' fault, they're not bad bands, they don't pretend to be gods."
Dangers, meanwhile, believes that the '90s will be a better time for music than the '80s.
"Rock music has always been something you wouldn't be able to play to your mother - rock 'n' roll is bad, the wrong stuff. There was a lull in the early 70s, then punk came along. Throughout the '80s there was nothing. You can play Stone Roses to your mum, she'd probably like it. It's just music for angst-ridden young students. The worst thing about the 80's was that it was run on adulation."
Rap would appear, in many respects, to embody the spirit of rebellion Dangers is referring to, yet he has some harsh words for certain of its earlier forms.
"It's sexist and it's pathetically macho. It's all based on insecurity, it's like a street sort of voice. Now it's turned into a fashion thing. I can't believe that it's gone on this long now, and I do think that in the next year or two we're not going to see it in the charts like it is now.
"The only decent rap stuff we've heard is the Jungle Brothers or maybe De La Soul. It's going their way anyway, the sooner the macho thing dies the better. There's nothing wrong with energy, raw energy is brilliant, it's what re-inspires people to get up and do something. But that macho crap is negative, totally negative.
"Ten years ago the black situation in America could not be voiced, and so when it came through people were buying the records because they heard it through the street not through the industry. Now it's turning into a situation where rap artists are the biggest stars in the industry and the white people have said 'right, there's a load of money to be made, let's promote them'. And it's all got sick."
Stepping well outside the expectations and requirements of a profit-hungry music business, Meat Beat Manifesto have made their live show an integral part of their activities. Adams explains some of the thinking behind the scenes.
"The concept of the show is communication, energy. We don't just stand there 'being Morrisey'. It's different in the videos and the albums have got their own direction as well.
"The show is like a 3D film on stage, except there isn't that magic screen that separates us. We're trying to break through that screen as we perform, so the audience is receiving the energy and then giving back."
"We put on a very active 3D show with slide projections, dancers, sets and costumes, then at the back we projected some hard-core porn."
Stevens explains that the show is so active that the audience assumes any mistakes are part of the spectacle.
"It's quite a good touring show, it's not too over-the-top technology-wise, or set and stage wise. We were restricted by the shapes and sizes of the stages and we haven't got a massive lighting rig or anything like that. It's mostly physical things, a couple of times I've fallen over but nobody notices because I'm flying around stage anyway, it seems as if it's in the choreography. It's such an energetic show that it just adds... It's like organised chaos."
Accepting the integration of the various media, where do Meat Beat believe their experiments in entertainment are leading them?
"It's going to evolve into a circus act, we're going to be trapeze artists" claims Adams, tongue in cheek. Then, seriously: "No, I don't want to be doing this for the rest of my life. It's a very interesting concept to do and prove that it can work, but we never stay in one channel for long, it's like repeating ourselves. When these bands keep on going on they're only doing it for the money and because they can't be bothered to do something else."
MOVING ON TO THE SUBJECT OF equipment, I discover that here, too, Meat Beat Manifesto have have built a reputation for themselves - primarily one of devastating loudspeakers.
"We've blown Tannoys, all sorts...", comes the story. "Once we were sending loads of feedback through a reverb - we were trying to get as low a signal as possible. We blew the high-frequency driver first but we didn't know that at the time, and we kept going for about ten minutes. Eventually we were burning the coil and smoke was coming out of the speaker - it was actually burning into the cabinet.
"At one studio we were doing a night session, and we blew the speaker fuses loads of times. We kept getting the house engineer out of bed in his underpants to replace them. Usually the feedback from the echo unit when you send it through itself is a killer for speakers."
Out of the studio and on to the stage, the emphasis falls on sampling. A fully-expanded Akai S1000 does most of the hard work (Dangers calls it "the brain") in conjunction with a pair of Octapads. Additionally there's a Korg M1, a Yamaha RX5 for certain drum duties, and a Roland MC500 MkII sequencer. In fact, it's the matter of sequencing that is currently giving the Manifesto the most trouble.
"At the moment we're writing stuff on the MC500, which is a bit of a pain really, and not to be recommended", says Dangers, "but we're getting an Atari ST and Cubase. We did the whole album using the code from the RX5, and using the RX5 to drive the sequencer."
The Storm the Studio album showcases the use of samples and points towards the medium of television as a source of inspiration and source material - the Rainbow sample (where Zippy is heard to say "You're supposed to listen to the rhythm George, the rhythm of the music") being a case in point.
Adams agrees the album was influenced by television: "There's not much else you can do when you're on the dole except watch Rainbow", he asserts. "We had to watch it for three years to get that particular sample, we recorded every episode until that good bit came along. You never know what's going to sound good on the finished product, like I recorded my sneaker squeaking on the floor, sampled it, slowed it down so it sounded really stupid. But it could have sounded good."
Samples are collected on a Casio DA1 DAT machine before being transferred to the S1000 - "here it is now", says Adams, spotting an advertisement for the same model in a copy of MT - at a lower price than they had paid for it. This, too, is rock 'n' roll.
Another sample of TV-sourced material on the Storm the Studio album is a newscaster saying "a spokesman at the Health Ministry said that to talk repeatedly about AIDS would cause the public to panic, tourism will certainly be affected".
"We sometimes get a track ready on the sampler so that we can sync that with the timecode, then the sampler is cued in so that when you play a record or tune in the television and as the track is running on we can make samples which immediately go in time with the track. That way you can come up with things like that news broadcast, then edit it until it goes in time with the track."
The way in which Dangers and Adams generate samples incorporates a random element - this makes it stranger still that the samples seem so carefully chosen.
"What happened with the news item was that it was a 'random edit'. We kept it because it sounded like they were more concerned with tourism than peoples' lives. It was something that would make you think, rather than the 'DJ get on down' stuff."
Adams pursues the theme of originality' in samples.
"The sample stealers are unimaginative from the point of view of why they're doing it. They do it because it's hip - because Public Enemy do it. When we do it we take things off a record because it's a magpie thing - it's like pop art. The pop artists used to take other peoples' work and make it into their own, and we see sampling as doing that, we don't see it as 'we'll use that because it's a hip sound at the moment'. The Lyn Collins drum loop has been used just to sell records, it's been used so many times. Rob Bass originally did it but it's been so hacked to death that it's killed the original record. It's not his fault that everyone else has done it, but because it's become credible it's turned into a money thing. If we take things from records it's because it's got something in the song, not because it's a hip thing to do - that's why we take things from Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa.
"The idea is to use things as textures rather than lumps of peoples' songs. Frank Zappa took all his songwriting from composers - Stravinsky and people like that. David Bowie was taking chord structures like 'Starman' - the chorus is from is from 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow', the string part of 'Starman' is from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. There are only so many notes on a keyboard, so many chords to a structure..."
Having spoken to Meat Beat Manifesto, the one thing I'm sure of is that they won't be cashing in by adapting to commercial trends. In the words of Jack Dangers "Don't you tell me what to do / I'll break your fucking back in two".
Finally, there's the issue of pornography - it's not a subject likely to endear Meat Beat Manifesto to many enlightened people. Yet Dangers, Adams and Stevens are obviously intellectually active people, exploring the avenues opened to them by the arts. So why subject their audience to hard-core pornography?
"It was a pure experiment", explains Adams. "When we first started out, we just wanted to see what people were interested in seeing, so we put on a very active 3D show with slide projections, dancers, sets and costumes, then at the back we projected some hardcore porn - to see what people would watch. We'd give them a good piece of art and a bit of dirty porn. Ahh; interesting!
"We got slagged off for ages over that", he recalls. "We were labelled as 'porn kings'. It's the press again, they love 'shock/horror' - it sells papers."
As many artists have found in the past, the lines between art, good taste and exploitation are finely drawn. Then there's the issue of art and censorship: it could be the next item on the Manifesto's manifesto. It could be the next item on yours.