Message In A Sample
Meat Beat Manifesto
Meat Beat Manifesto are to music what Andy Warhol was to art - but they've already been famous for longer than 15 minutes. Phil Ward follows them to a Peel session and to their studio in Swindon, and finds that Meat is not, in fact, necessarily murder.
The '60s gave us the radical attitude; the '70s produced waves of analogue technology; and the '80s digitally reinvented sound. Meat Beat Manifesto bring it all together for the '90s, armed with synths, samplers and a soap box somewhere in Swindon...
On the wall of the BBC's Maida Vale Studio 3 is a plaque which reads: 'In this studio Bing Crosby made his last recording, 11th October 1977'. Today, BBC engineers Mike Engels and Nick Fountain are supervising the first recording for the John Peel programme by a somewhat different act. Meat Beat Manifesto's Jack Dangers and Jonny Stephens, and their drummer Simon Collins, are meticulously going about their business. As they run through a take, all you can hear in the enormous studio area itself is what amounts to a drum solo by Simon. Everything that Jonny and Jack play is DI'd and monitored on headphones, and it's an eerie spectacle to see them huddled over the copious synth modules and effects racks that are generating, somewhere else, MBM's unique sonic montage.
It's not hard to imagine Bing himself - the man who introduced magnetic tape to America and a recording pioneer in his own right - cocking a ghostly ear to the proceedings and perhaps smiling. It would not be surprising, either, to detect some wickedly distorted sample of 'White Christmas' during this session. The Meat Beats love to steal'n'sample, and it's exactly that kind of iconic slice of popular culture that forms one half - the Manifesto, perhaps - of their stock-in-trade. The other half, of course, is the Meat of the Beat.
"Great! The drums sound really old!" exclaims Simon in the control room later. "They sound like samples..." Mike Engels is not quite sure whether this is a compliment or not, but then we are dealing with a pretty goalpost-shifted attitude to music and recording here. Simon plays to loops, rather than a click-track, and regards it like interacting with a percussion section. Elsewhere, Jack and Jonny manipulate bleepy sequences and triggered samples with equal credence, a blend of analogue and digital techniques for which the phrase 'state of the art' is insufficient. In every department, it seems, the music of Meat Beat Manifesto is the culmination of decades of technological development, beyond the point of mere fidelity and into a realm where the medium - and the noise it makes - is very much the message.
Swindon. Doesn't exactly have the same ring as Detroit, does it? Or Düsseldorf. Or even Sheffield, for that matter. But these are the very places Jack and I invoke in our litany of electronic music, conjured as we sit in the small studio that MBM call home, above a bike shop. Swindon is Jack's suggestion, by the way, and I'm not about to quibble because that's exactly where we are, and I've just spent an hour on a 125 out of Paddington to prove it. "Have Faust ever been in MT?" asks Jack. "They've just got back together again..."
This I know to be true, because I was meant to meet them at Frankfurt this year. But right now '70s German progressive rock is not my concern. What I want to know is what happened to the dancers and costume designers who were actually members of MBM the last time they were in MT - some two years ago...
"The whole point of the band," explains Jack, "is that there can be as many changes as possible, both musically and visually. The line up of five members was a live thing, but only existed for the time we were on tour; the rest of the time - seven years now - it's been me and Jonny writing, which is the most important thing for any band. It's not the 'live' situation, it's the records you make. You can go and buy a Doors record, but you can never see them. For any band, recording is the main point. Performing is not something which is going to last forever."
It's no coincidence that Jack equates writing with recording in the same breath. Using samples and rhythm sequences as the basis of your music renders the two processes indistinguishable. This is one more assumption - like the drummer who tries to emulate a sample rather than vice versa - that puts Meat Beat Manifesto at the cutting edge. Even so, Jack enjoys a bit of scurrilous irony when it comes to musical self-definition. "I'm a bass player, and Jonny's a guitarist," he reveals. Which is true, actually. But would Jack Bruce do this..?
"With Satyricon, and things like 'Radio Babylon', the bass is actually played an octave higher, at double speed, sampled and then slowed down, just to get that sound. It's impossible to get a bass sound like that any other way, and it's pointless trying to play it live, so I don't." I try to pin down some actual role models... "Well, I love Can, but I'm not exactly a Holger Czukay disciple. I like simplicity - not simple bass players, but a minimalist approach to what they do. Stephen Mallender of Cabaret Voltaire; Tina Weymouth." No, I don't think Jack Bruce would.
The studio is called Drive - it's above a bike shop, like I said, so it should be called Ride, but there's already a band called that. And the Meat Beats' relationship to dance music is similarly, well... cock-eyed. They've influenced the genre for years without ever being part of it, as Jonny Stephens explains. "I don't think we've had anything to do with 'rave'. We don't go out to clubs or raves, it's just that our stuff has been picked up by certain sections of that community, and exploited." Jack elaborates: "It was 'Radio Babylon', really. People sampled the hell out of it, and we're into sixth or seventh generation copies of the thing. I think it stuck out so much because we didn't go to raves. We weren't influenced to sound like anyone else, so it didn't sound like anything else that was around at the time. Most of what was around didn't do anything for me, really. Even now, there's not a great deal - The Aphex Twin, maybe. What he does is really good."
That you might want to dance to the music of MBM is merely a tribute to the importance that programmable beats have given to rhythm in the years since drumboxes and samplers arrived. Anyone working electronically in the field of pop is presented, by the technology, with a natural bias towards it. But there's more to this than meets the feet. At the same time, sampling technology has revolutionised the vocabulary of pop artists for whom the old-fashioned song is not enough. The montage of soundbites found on MBM's latest album Satyricon typifies the new attitude, which exploits the emotive and immediate effects of ambient sounds, half-familiar snatches of media space-junk, and juxtaposed aural puns. Words? Words don't come easy...
"It's more or less things which have stuck in my mind," begins Jack. "Old films - that sort of thing. There's a really good film on BBC2 next Tuesday, which I haven't seen for years - The Haunting. It's something I remember from a long time ago as being really scary. Things like that, you just sort of go back to them. Dark Star, that's another one... The way we present these personal recollections is a way of connecting publicly. It's 'a few of our favourite things' combined with current issues. They go hand-in-hand with the concept of each song.
"I've always been interested in art movements like Dada, Surrealism and Pop Art. I think what a lot of bands are doing in music - not just what we're doing - corresponds exactly to the ideas of Pop Art. And it's happening through sampling. Taking things which are commercially available, and putting them into a new context. Take someone like Andy Warhol, photocopying a picture of Marilyn Monroe and degrading the quality of it. We use a lot of resampling which has the same effect - it's the aural equivalent. We bought the first 12-bit Emax, and you can go down so low on it, the quality is like a photocopy. It gives it that graininess, a quality you can get from no other sampler. You can go down all the way on the Akai, and the quality is nowhere near as grainy as the Emax. So photocopying, imaging and repetition - it's the same as looping a sample. And you're taking it from a commercially available source."
So fidelity is less important than the fact that it sounds obviously reproduced... "Right. We really aren't into digital sounds - even though the sampler is a digital instrument! Keyboard-wise, and synthesiser-wise, we aren't into it. We've got a digital synthesiser, the Korg Wavestation, but we don't really listen to it. There are obviously more permutations to what you can do with something like a Wavestation, but if you're working in real time it's not so user-friendly. It's the same with digital effects - I use the tape echo more than anything else. You can actively do things on it."
In common with many other contemporary electronic musicians, Jack Dangers and Jonny Stephens are turning away from the esoteric niceties of menu-driven digital programming and looking for something more immediate and intuitive. The image of the lab technician doesn't cut much ice, either...
"We spent a day learning how to use the Wavestation," says Jonny, "and we've never actually used one of the sounds. We'll go straight to the Jupiter 8 or the 100M system. We don't altogether see ourselves as being 'techno-boffins'. The reason we use this kind of gear is because it's got more accessible over the years."
Nevertheless, Meat Beat Manifesto will admit to being more than a little gobsmacked at having become the proud owners of a prime piece of Roland exotica, the 100M modular system that even Jonny, for all his concern about accessibility, concedes... "takes the most time to learn how to operate." Jack reveals something of its history: "It used to belong to The Human League. They did Travelogue, Reproduction, and 'The Dignity Of Labour Parts 1 to 4' on it. It's got the old analogue step sequencer. There are so many permutations, you could be here all day..."
Which, of course, these lucky sods usually are. Amid a shower of analogue bleeps, as Jack expertly fires the beast into life, Jonny fills in some more of the background. "Luckily, when we bought the Jupiter 8 second-hand, the bloke we bought it off had a complete set of manuals for the 100M. Roland couldn't help, at first. I don't think they remembered what it was to begin with..."
No log book or MOT, then... "We got it from The Synthesiser Company, continues Jack, wearing the expression of a man who has just found the Turin Shroud in a jumble sale. "It was these three racks with no patch leads, and the mains lead just in a bag. I asked how much it was, and they said fifteen hundred quid. So I said, 'Can I hear it?' And they went, 'Errrmm...' Basically, they didn't know how to use it.
"So we didn't hear anything, and we were thinking well, we're not going to buy it without hearing it, until we asked where they got it from. They said it was Ian Craig Marsh's. And we said, d'you want cheque or cash? I instantly knew what it was capable of. It's actually on the cover of the Holiday 80 EP! That is the actual one, and it's almost sacrilege that we plug it in at all.
"Coming out if that quarter-inch jack was Travelogue... and Reproduction. Classics..." His voice trails off in sheer wonder, and for a moment we worship silently at the altar of Techno-Pop.
We snap back into reality as Jack suddenly remembers the awesome manual. "It came in a box," he exclaims, "five separate manuals in a box. And the first two volumes were just theory - essays on the theory of synthesis! There was also one about getting 'digital' effects - reproducing digital effects with analogue - and lots of stuff on how to get a convincing oboe. But you just mess around with it.
"Obviously, it starts with an oscillator and an amplifier, and if you want to alter it you put it through a filter. Ignoring the rules beyond that means ignoring the boundaries. The best thing about it is that it's modular and it uses a patchbay, so you can send things back on themselves and get, like, analogue feedback, you really can... You can do cross-modulation, too. It's pretty good for external sound sources, as well. You can stick anything through the noise, and the filters... We've got two CV gates for it, so we can synchronise it like MIDI. It's primitive, but it's a way of controlling it."
Control is important. Easy access to all areas - what's good for a car park is good for an electronic studio. And Jack Dangers parks his brain in Steinberg's Pro 24 sequencing package, creature of habit that he is... "Pro 24 is simple, and it's quick. Cubase is as well, but we've just never got round to buying a copy. Pro 24 does the job, it does what we need a sequencer to do and we really don't need anything more complicated. It depends what you use it for; some of the new generation of sequencers are great, but I actually like the limitation of only 24 tracks.
"Being expected to constantly buy new synths does me in, too. The only thing I'm interested in at the moment is the Roland sampler - the S750 - because it's got analogue inputs and filtering. But the Emax has got filtering, of course, and we picked that up for five hundred quid. I'm more interested in effects, either new effects or old pedals. There's a wah effect on the Zoom, it's not on anything else, and it's a really hard effect to duplicate; that interests me. Also, the new Sony reverbs, and the Eventide H3000 Harmonizer."
So what are their primary sound sources - apart from the local video store?
"We tend to start with bass sounds - analogue synths, or the really good dub bass you can get with this Aria Pro II..." He reaches for a living, breathing guitar. "...We don't always treat it the double-speed way; we did that with 'Drop' on Satyricon, and 'Radio Babylon', but with things like 'Mindstream' I just played along with the drums. We don't use drum machines. We've got an RY30, but we never use it to program beats. We might use the bass drum off it, or the tambourines, but that's all - just to add to a loop, to beef it up. We use a lot of tones sent through a reverb, for a big splash, sampled and then tuned down, and sampled again. And we've got some great Mellotron samples, too - digital loops of the original tape loops! It's like having one without the weight of the thing.
"We always over-compress the drums, to get that kind of sucking effect, and we use this really simple 1-dial unit, the dbx 118. That's brilliant, it's just up/down, fast/slow. If you over-compress it gives such a warmth. I've used it right across a few mixes - including a Shamen remix. Micky Mann, who does our sound, has also worked with The Shamen, and they picked up on the same effect. The rate of compression we've always used, and still do, really appealed to him, and it's just this dbx - such a good unit, it kills anything.
"So we piece something together for a loop, back it up with the RY30, and then send the whole lot through the compressor, in stereo. Then we'll sample it, and mess with that. But we won't compress it again. For example, this is the original 'Babylon' groove..." There is a burst of something a bit like the 'Radio Babylon' groove, but not as we know it, Jim. "...We spent a good six hours on that, sending echoes to different channels and so on, and then resampled the whole lot, but then began playing it in a kind of half-beat..." A syncopated burst follows, which is the actual 'Radio Babylon' rhythm track, "...with the snare kicking back in on the beat where the delay is carrying it over into the next cycle of the loop. So what we finally used was another sample of me actually playing - or triggering - the loop like that. So the whole thing is just one loop. And now, that's what everybody's doing in rave music."
Phew. So that's it. The proximity of the S1000 is the signal for Jack Dangers to begin rummaging through banks of loops like a child grabbing at all the delights that come to hand in a toybox. I leave with the reassuring feeling that art can be fun, too. In one sense, a sample is there for convenience: a complex sound cued up for the touch of a button. Trouble is, each time you've arrived at an apparently finished sample, you've got yourself another convenient little parcel of sound that can be flanged, splashed, bounced or recycled in some other way, and off you go again. The temptation is always there to find out what might happen if you just tried this or that, running the sonic laundry through the mangle once more - ad infinitum. It's one of the cornerstones of the entire electronic music pantheon; what fires its essential spirit of experimentation. Bing Crosby, I just know, would wholeheartedly approve.