SPK began by hammering away at anything from the scrapyard but now generate their metal beat on the Fairlight. We investigate the method in the mayhem.
SPK have recently traded in the foundary for the Fairlight. Tony Reed investigates.
An outside observer trying to chart your progress from industrial anti-music to this new slick commercial stuff might decide that you hadn't so much changed direction but started a whole new map. What's the idea? He leans back in one of the frightful comfy chairs the interview room is equipped with.
"For a start, it's a mistake for people to assume that the 'Metal' phase was all there was to SPK anyway. We were working on more experimental tape-loop stuff a long while before any of it actually attracted attention or became 'fashionable'. I've always felt that any sound — any style — is usuable, in context. People like John Cage, Edgar Varese, Harry Partch, were working with this palette of 'unmusical' sound sources long before the metal stuff — or sampling techniques. That's a tradition I'd like to think we're part of; the only difference is that we use whatever technology we can get our hands on, in a way that it is not set up to do..." he smiles, his surprisingly soft australian burr almost getting lost on the short journey between us.
So you would say that despite appearances to the contrary, there is a common thread running through your work past and present?
"Yes... previously, we were attempting to make quite sophisticated use of unsophisticated things... now, with the Fairlight, it's a matter of using one of the ultimate pieces of creative technology to make unsophisticated sounds... different effects, but the same principle is applied. That's what this album, Machine Age Voodoo, is all about. A welding of primitivism to hit-tech."
Ah, yes. The Fairlight. How easy did you find it to get on with?
"It only took me about four or five hours to get started with it — which says nothing at all about my ability, but a lot for the Fairlight. It's a shame that a mystique has grown up around this kind of gear... to use the Fairlight, you don't have to know anything about computers at all. You just need to be able to type 'P2' or something. "
But is it that easy to do something original with it... there are a whole load of Fairlight cliches about now, aren't there?
"Mmm... most people aren't really using Fairlights in an innovative way yet. I was quite surprised, and a little dissappointed when I first got my Fairlight, and started going through the sound library that comes with it. I have a lot of respect for Trevor Horn's Art of Noise work, for example, but I kept on finding all these sounds he'd used, more or less straight from the library. There is a very great temptation, particularly if you're working in pop, to settle for those kind of cliches... and in fact, as far as commercial work is concerned I don't pretend to be expanding the frontiers of human science!"
So as far as you are concerned, there is a big division between your commercial and non-commercial projects?
"Yes... I'd be lying if I said that moving to a major label didn't mean some compromise, but I think we've got a good working relationship with W.E.A. In return for giving them commercial material, like this album, they give me the space to produce other stuff that I'm interested in. We've set up our own label, Musique Brut, that'll be an outlet for this stuff... but that's not to say I look down on the commercial side. I'd like to think that it still is experimental in some ways... We made a point of doing a lot of our own sampling for the album, rather than settle for the sound library."
How do you decide what to aim for when you take samples?
"Usually, I start off with quite a definite idea in my head of what I want... I dream music, which is quite handy, so then I just try to find something that approximates it, sample it, and muck about with it until it reaches what I had in mind... which is often a lot harder than you'd think."
"For instance, I decided that I wanted to sample the sound of an aqualung's valve opening. But when I did it, the compressed air escaping sounded just like this unfiltered white noise. It had no attack at all. So I spent quite a lot of time on the enveloping at the start of the sound, blending in some digital white noise, until I got it right. Another time, I wanted a shotgun sound... and that took ages. The final sound was made of a real shotgun blast, which we stored in an A.M.S..., then passed to the Fairlight, a bit of hammering on an aeroplane wing, and a gated snare recorded with an Auritone stuck on top of it. Eventually, we got a really impressive, wide sound... but it shows how much studio work is required to get it right. Sampling, if you do it yourself, is not an easy shortcut!"
"In a way, though, this aspect of the Fairlight has been over-emphasised... after all, the German band, Neu, who I'm a big fan of, were varispeeding and reversing snare drum sounds, stuff like that, years ago. All the Fairlight has done has made that particular process easier and faster... no more mucking about with messy tape loops. All you do is play lower down the keyboard. It's something I do a lot on Machine Age. I shifted the drum sounds down an octave, and some of the metal sounds are actually crash cymbals shifted down four octaves. I also discovered something interesting about the human scream. It's a very evocative sound anyway, but if you shift down an octave, it sounds like a wolf's howl; an octave up, and it's a seagull, one more, a rat's cry — I know, because at one time or another, I recorded all those sounds 'for real'. So, even before you start mucking about with a basic sound, there's a lot of scope..."
Did you run into any sampling-length problems?
"No... I find that if you use your loop and blend facilities well, then it's not a problem... obviously if you need really long samples for any reason, then the Synclavier is a better bet. One strange thing about the sampling process on the Fairlight, though, is that sometimes, you get noises coming in from nowhere.
You can't sample acoustic toms for some reason... instead of going Dooom!, they get a kind of Zzinng! on top — like the ringing you get on undamped drums, but it isn't there on the original sound at all... you can sample snares fine, and electronic sounds, but not real toms... very strange."
As you mentioned, sampling is only a part of what the Fairlight can do, what else do you intend to use it for?
"Well, for a start, there's Page 5, the Fourier Analysis page, on the 6802 that I've got. People haven't really got into redefining waveforms or working with harmonics yet. You've got 128 segments to a waveform any of which can be manipulated, plus 32 harmonics to play with... a vast potential, although you're talking about — whoops! — 'experimental' music again.
"Experimental has become a bit of a dirty word since the 50's, basically because there's been so much crap put out. Just become someone's been to the Conservatoire doesn't make what they're doing instantly good. There's an important distinction to be made between hard or 'difficult' music — which I think is a good thing — and just plain bad music. That's what the Musique Brut idea's all about. I want to use that as an outlet for musical ideas that I think represent the best of a largely-ignored field of music."
"Right now, I'm working on an album of 'Insect music', using Page 5, inspired by the work of Adoloph Wolfi. We'll also be putting out stuff by Harry Partch, who was experimenting in the fourties and fifties in America with unusual scalings and hand-built instruments... and of course, rescaling is another area that the Fairlight can handle. On my own account, I'm going to put out a thing called Machine Melancholia — a sort of electronic Carmina Burana.
All of these projects will have a little booklet included with the album, providing info on the artist, discographies and so on, so that people can use them as a starting point for their own explorations..."
Is there anything you'd like to see on the Fairlight that'd improve it as an instrument for you?
"Well, at the moment I'm not to happy with its MIDI. It's in Omni mode, set up for use with the SynthAxe. It's a real problem if you want a three-note chord; you have to transfer the whole thing to disc, including Page R, (The Rhythm/Sequencer Page - ED), blank out everything you don't want transferred to the DX7 or whatever you're using, run that off on the multitrack, and then go back again. Every little thing you want triggered has to be done separately, but it'd be easy just to come up with a piece of software to allow you to assign channels."
"One thing that really bothers me, though is the way synth design these days seems to be dictated by fashion, rather than need. The emphasis on having every aspect of a machine digital — you know, an unbroken expanse of finish, no nasty knobs and dials — prevents both the Fairlight and the DX from being the totally wonderful instruments they could be.
Trying to use page 7, the Control page, on the Fairlight, is really hard work — first you have to guess what the number is on the digital counter at the top of the page, then muck about assigning it to a fader — and you've only got three of them — before you can change any parameters. Wouldn't it have been easier to have that section analogue, using something like the JX3P Programmer? And with the DX, couldn't they have just provided an analogue filter for the digital sounds? There's nothing to beat the immediate feedback they give you."
What other instruments have you been using?
"The album was mainly Fairlight.. I've got a Drumulator, but I couldn't sync it to the Fairlight because I haven't got the relevant software update, so I ended up using sampled Simmons for the drum sounds most of the time. I tried loads of polys, but I couldn't find one that did all I wanted. Prophets have that nice fat sound, and because of the albums 'East/West' theme, the DX7 was handy for oriental sounds — though you have to take your time with it, otherwise it sounds weedy, but I didn't find anything that really excited me until the Oberheim Xpander... get that, and you've really got something special. Just the number of L.F.O.'s and the interpatching make it wounderful... using keyboard-follow type things you can get effects you'd normally have to do with DDL's.
"I've also got a VCS3 — and I still think you can get sounds out of that you can't get anywhere else. It's great for processing real sounds..."
How does all this technology relate to live work?
"To be honest, I'd be happier spending all my time in the studio. On an album like ours, you use forty to fifty different instruments — replicating that on stage would be difficult, and not particularly desirable. So we try to approach live work from a different direction... pop music is boring to watch, and 'Art' — for want of a better word — is boring to watch — but the two together aren't. Our act — when we're allowed to do it (SPK have had a number of their shows halted for breaches of safety regulations — resulting in a near-riot at their ICA performance—Ed.) involves a crossover of music, sculpture, painting... and welding..."
"Although I've had some syncing problems with the Fairlight live, I'm using it, together with another keyboard player, two backing vocalists, tapes for sequences and effects, and live percussion."
Yes — how exactly do you go about miking up the scrapyard?
"Well, in the early days, we had big problems. We started off by close-miking everything, but you got spillage onto the vocal mikes, because of the high level transients belting a piece of steel products. To compensate, we cranked up the monitors, but because Sinan's got quite a soft voice, we got into a screaming feedback situation. Then we tried contact mikes, but they kept falling off, unless we welded them on! — and in my case, the whole point of miking up, say, an oil drum, is to pick up its' natural ambient reverb. The contact mikes didn't pick any of that up, and all you got was a dull clank! What we eventually settled for was a fairly undirectional ambient mike over the drumkit, with the natural reverb of the venue hopefully doing the rest.
"We're lucky, because we play with a full 24-track mix, and we've got a great soundman, who compresses the whole mix, then just rides the faders... he knows our set inside out, so we end up with a really good up-front sound."
Time's getting on, and the next interviewer is already pacing up and down on the other side of the interview room's soundproof glass door, so it's quickfire from now on: Gear?
"I'm looking forward to good quality sampling machines that most people can afford."
"I'd be interested to do disco music with extremely harsh sounds — an extension of the New York hip-hop stuff. The VCS would be ideal for that. And Soul... now, there's an area I could really get into..."
"Definitely Kraftwerk. The whole sound of today is Kraftwerk. I first heard Man Machine, I couldn't believe how far it stood out from the speakers."
SPK's delicate balancing act may yet come off, but the middle of the road is a hard place to stay — you're apt to get run over. If they do, their last single, Junk Culture, provides a ready-made epitaph:
Strike it hot/Make a hit.
...Get a living out of it.