Clint Boon and the Farfisa beat
What does a guy with a Farfisa organ have in common with Depeche Mode? Or the Cybermen, for that matter? Caught in the act, Inspirals keyboard man Clint Boon has all the answers
Soundcheck time. It's growing autumnally dark outside, and inside intermittent bellows of electronic sound engulf the cavernous emptiness of justanothervenue, anytown. In this case, The Corn Exchange, Cambridge. The monumental reverb which attaches itself to the slightest sound - the drop of a Coke can, the click of a pair of drumsticks, the squeal of a jack plug as it penetrates a socket - is a noise full of promise. The place is empty now, but later will fill, gradually, to an accompanying hum of anticipation. T-shirts will be sold, guest-lists will be checked, drinks and drinkers will be drunk. For this, in time-honoured fashion, is a gig.
And the band is Inspiral Carpets - now three albums into a recording career that has been a triumph, really, of individuality over conformity. Hailing from Oldham, not Manchester, they have nevertheless been fingerprinted as part of some amorphous scene - as ill-defined as a conurbation's boundaries - but which has given us a city, some bands, and a label to stitch onto the lining of their baggy garb. But while The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses stumble in the amplified darkness that tends to follow an extinguished but once overly bright light, the Inspirals continue their merry way, never having been famous enough to forget who they were before. Consequently, that third album, Revenge Of The Goldfish, is a confident and ingenuous delight, free of artifice and affectation - and the reason why the band are now in the middle of a rigorous tour.
One of the sounds growling round the swept emptiness of The Corn Exchange is that of a Farfisa Compact Duo, a middle-aged electronic organ and the prize possession of Clint Boon, keyboards and vocals, Inspiral Carpets. Sitting nonchalantly at a compact rig - organ and synth in front, rack to one side - he toots, twiddles, and talks fluently with a vibrant Lancashire twang...
"I've had the Farfisa since about '84, and I've got three of them now. I had four, but somebody left one at Top Of The Pops and we weren't allowed to go and get it back. The BBC is one of those vast institutions that gobbles up Farfisas. It'll probably turn up in about 20 years time in an episode of Doctor Who, as part of the console in the TARDIS. But I used one on its own for a while, then I started using a synth as well to punctuate it a bit. The synth's got sort of a piano sound - there's no way I can go onstage with a full size piano, so it's nice to have a pretend one; and you can use it for flutes and strings and so on. We don't like the idea of using session musicians, either; we'd rather use synths."
The album was produced by Pascal Gabriel, noted for his carefully constructed dance work and not an obvious choice for a band with more than a whiff of live, driving rock, Clint agrees. "I think what will happen next will actually be very 'live', almost like we were originally. Revenge Of The Goldfish isn't really that live. A lot of it's quite synthetic, the way everything is treated..."
Martyn Walsh, who's solid bass seems to throw a thick, nautical rope between the drums and the rest of the band, is listening in. "We did the backing tracks at Blackwing," he points out, "and then played over them at Amazon, so it's quite layered and carefully multitracked." Clint continues: "But it is quite representative of how we are live - given that, live, it's even bigger and dirtier. So the next time we do an album it'll probably be about 95% live, and we'll save ourselves a lot of money and a lot of time."
A rather obvious question about doing a live album suddenly presents itself... "Not with audience and everything, I think that's a bit shit, really. We'd only do that as a filler, somewhere along the way - a contractual obligation album. We're not going to release an album in 1993, but we'll probably record one and release it in '94. We could just fire one out in the meantime, a live one... We didn't really plug The Beast Inside on the road, so with this one, which is a successful album, we're just going to hammer it worldwide for a year or so, and then get on with another one."
Amazon is an old favourite with studio clients in the North-West, and has cropped up before on these pages. Their new facility has been operating in the very centre of Liverpool for about a year now. "Probably the best studio we've worked in", declares Clint. "It's quite big, the staff are all right. It's the only one, so far, I can imagine us going back to. All the others have had things about them that we weren't keen on." Martyn concurs: "The good thing about it is that it's right in the city, so you can go out in the evening, and it's close enough to go home! It's residential, but you're not cut off like most residential studios. We recorded the last album at Ridge Farm, over two months, and all you could do when you weren't recording was feed the ducks." (Ridge Farm is placidly set amid the Surrey countryside.) "The studio was brilliant," says Clint, "the location's great, but, bloody 'ell, I went off me pot, me. I was happy when we got to mixing, which was at Strawberry in Stockport."
Revenge Of The Goldfish was mixed at Konk, the North London studio set up by Ray Davies in the wake of The Kinks' success, and which, according to Martyn, has become their favourite mix studio - not least because they always get to meet Ray Davies... "but he's still got to get his entertainment facilities sorted out - all there is is an old snooker table and a crap telly. It's like an old club from the 70s."
"It is an old club from the 70s," points out Clint, "that's how he started it up... but I've got ideas for that place. When we buy it off him we'll sort it out. They've got this old Neve desk - someone said it's the one that Dark Side Of The Moon was mixed on: they've all got stories like that - but it does sound good. We usually leave it up to the preference of the producer, and Pascal's preference was for Konk, and he was right."
Did Pascal try to develop a more 'techy' sound for you? "Tacky?" asks Martyn. No, 'techy'. Clint answers: "No, considering the background he came from, he handled us very acoustically, really. We're the most extreme electric band he's worked with, everyone else had been drum machines and sequencers - I think - but he was very sympathetic to our sound in general, he handles it well. That's not to say that we'll be working with him again and again; usually we find that when we've worked with a producer on a pretty intense project, we like to get on and try somebody else next time. But we've all come out of it with a lot of respect for him, and we'd all certainly work with him again."
"With Pascal," Martyn continues, "we found someone who was a real producer - for once. Like, with 'Two Worlds Collide', that was originally two different songs, which he drew together, and we'd never considered doing anything like that with anybody else before..." "Although," Clint interrupts, "I think it was Daniel's idea (Daniel Miller, head of their label, Mute), he suggested it, and Pascal came up with the goods. We had these two songs which were all right, and he suggested taking the chorus of one and putting it with the verses of the other. And I shit myself, because as a songwriter I don't like doing that sort of thing, but we did it and it sounded all right, and it sold well. I'd hate to do it again, though..."
Martyn regains his thread: "There's a lot of lessons we could learn from Pascal if we did work with him again - simple things like the way he recorded the bass and drums. Instead of just patching everything in, you'd play the drums seven or eight times, and then the bass seven or eight times, and then take the best bits from each one. Sampled - so you'd get a sequenced feel - but played.
"In that way I think he did bring his dance influence into it, because by the time everybody else came to put their stuff down, the bass and drums were really locked together." "Yeah," concedes Clint, "we did all the demos at Blackwing, then we played along to them at Amazon, replacing the rough sketches with new drums, new bass and so on, and just before we did 'Here Comes The Flood' Noddy (...Craig Gill, drums) cut his hand really badly playing football, and wasn't available. And we had a really tight timetable, of course, so Pascal took the best bits of the drums from the Blackwing session and literally constructed this dead convincing rhythm track for the record. So there you go, that's a good little anecdote to get in for a technical magazine..." All of us at Music Technology are supremely grateful, Clint. Pray continue...
"It all came out of playing, rather than programming, though. Many of my parts were ideas we just came up with in the studio on the night, and they can all be done live. As you will hear tonight, hopefully. There's two songs where we use a click; one's 'Commercial Rain', which we've been doing for years, which has a sequence triggered from the Ensoniq for Noddy to play to; and then there's the last track on the new album, 'Irresistible Force', with a sample which we trigger from the Akai.
"He didn't want the click from the Ensoniq, because it's very limited - just a blip, blip, blip sort of thing - so we brought in an SR16 drum machine to give him a click made up of drum sounds. Out front, you can't hear the drum machine, you just hear the sample. But those are the only two songs where we use a click; I'll do whatever I can with my hands and feet, rather than have a machine doing it for me. Craig's the other way - into house and all that - he'd like it if I could just press a button and have all the keyboards pouring out, and I could just sit there having a drink or whatever."
Why don't you like that idea? "Because it's pointless being in a band if that's all you're going to do..." "No," counters Martyn. "It's because you'd become an alcoholic..."
In the dressing room, there are indeed cans of beer. We retire there as first the drums, and then the guitar, are ritually slain upon the altar of sound balance. It's a bloodcurdling interlude. Clint is unsqueamish, and picks up the conversation without a seam. "When you've learned to do something, when you've rehearsed a part, why let a machine do it for you if your fingers can do it? It keeps your brain alive." Martyn protests, slightly: "It would be OK to just introduce little bits, as long as you don't go too far down the line where you can't perform the song if the sequencers go down. Even on 'Commercial Rain', if everything blew up we could still do the song..." "Well," Clint confirms, "we regularly do it without the sequencer. In that respect, we're one of the strongest bands around.
"There aren't many bands now that are actually in our ilk, or bucket, or whatever you call it; there's people like James, who play it live and don't use machines. We do it with our fingers, and that's what people like about the band, I think. That's the kind of band that we want to be, ultimately - more like REM, or... I was going to say U2, but they're starting to use machines now, aren't they? But that's live, and there are different techniques for the studio.
"We knew what Pascal's background was, and we expected him to use a lot of the stuff he'd used before - and sure enough he did - but he was sympathetic and he made the thing easier to do. As long as that album was a progression from the previous one - and I think it was - I don't mind what techniques were used. We didn't compromise too much on our own ideas. The next album, I think, is going to be quite a 'live' vibe, and intense, in terms of the recording period - get a couple of weeks and do it, hopefully."
Martyn believes three months is too long in any studio. "Yeah, because half the time you're just thinking of things to do. That's what happened with The Beast Inside, there's so much time that you get too involved in it and start putting things on just for the sake of it, to stop you going mad."
"In the last couple of years," adds Clint, "we've done B-sides for singles where we've just gone into Suite 16 in Rochdale for one night; we did 'Boomerang' like that, and 'I Know I'm Losing You', and then there was 'Skidoo' which we did in a similar manner, and recently we went into Amazon and did 'Lost In Space' again. These were all three- or four-hour sessions, and it's some of the best stuff we've ever recorded, purely us playing, electrically through amps, and that's it. So the next album will be largely that kind of vibe, technically anyway. I don't know what the songs will be like - probably shite. Folk-rock, or something. That's selling well at the moment."
Clint Boon is not really that cynical. He's actually enjoying the success achieved so far by Inspiral Carpets more than he would if the band had peaked early. A combination of their own single-mindedness, and the criticism of those who refused to switch off the life-support system maintaining the brain-dead corpse of Madchester, has contrived to hold them back, but not fatally. The deal with Mute Records, a tolerant company, has also helped to allow them to grow naturally, to follow their own course. It's a recipe for longterm development.
"I'm not interested in doing anything because it's in fashion. We could very easily have become a proper indie/dance crossover band, if we'd done what everybody expected us to do, especially during that Beast Inside period when everybody in the press hated us. We could have been very popular if we'd continued down the path of 'Jaw', 'Commercial Rain' and stuff like that, and then we would have made Screamadelica."
"We were listening to The Orb", claims Martyn, "when we were travelling round America in 1990 - along with other chill-out stuff - and that probably influenced us to do The Beast Inside. Some people picked up on it, in the reviews, but it was before many people had heard of them, and we got slated." Well, if you will go pottering about ahead of your time, eh Clint? "Whatever the current trend is, we're more likely to avoid it rather than embrace it. Structurally, I think a lot of our songs are typically 1960s - like Walker Bothers songs, that kind of traditional pop song - and I think a lot of people aren't that interested in melody at the moment. So if they all become aware of it - and even some of the American trash bands, like Nirvana, are making very melodic music just now - and everybody starts getting into melodies, well... I don't know what we'll do then. Probably do something experimental with rhythms - like slapping our dicks on doorposts.
"We don't analyse the music in terms of what percentage is ambient, or what's selling well, or whatever; we just enjoy playing it and we know that it's something slightly different. We just carry on doing it, and I think if we started analysing our music too closely we'd just lose it. We're almost like headless chickens in that respect, making this quirky music that sells well and which we enjoy making." Martyn confides: "If you analyse what's selling well, and calculate it, it turns making music into, like, working at Tesco's; a production line, just shovelling it out. You might get more acclaim for that, but I wouldn't be able to sleep in my bed if I thought that was how it was achieved." "Where would you sleep?" asks Clint, deadpan. "On the floor."
"We've never had a big Top Ten hit," continues Clint, "so people don't expect too much of us, whereas now that EMF have had 'Unbelievable' everybody wants them to come up with 'Unbelievable' again and again. And because they aren't going to do that, they're going to get slated for it. We've never been in that situation, where people's expectations of us have been too high. We're just existing in our own little bubble. The audiences have stuck with us; the records are still selling; we can still fill places like this; and suddenly a lot of media attention is coming back to us. So we're still doing the business, and to be quite honest, I wouldn't swap our situation with anybody else's - except Depeche Mode. We don't envy anybody, we know we've got the best record deal with the best company in Britain, we're not going to starve, we can still work as a team, and we're laughing."
"And I think," adds Martyn, "we can continue in this bubble, even though people are on our side - we were never going to become press darlings, like you could have become in the early years of 'Madchester'. That was always the Mondays and the Roses, really..." "We were the ugly little cartoon band," concludes Clint.
I'm struck - though not affronted - by the claim that Mute is the best record company in Britain... "It's probably easier to say why other record companies aren't up to scratch. All the bands who signed deals around the same time as us have suffered, and not just Manchester bands; they've all had problems with record companies..." "With Mute," explains Martyn, "we don't work for them, we work with them; it's more of a team thing. We had meetings at CBS and others, and you're just a number at the end of the final year accounts.
"It's scary, the bands that have been dropped..." Clint agrees: "Mute will give us as much support as we ask for, without ever forcing themselves upon us. Like, they'll suggest a single, and when we insist on another one, it's OK - it doesn't become a big problem. And they've been right about the single we should have released, commercially. On the last album, we got Daniel Miller in very early, even in the songwriting stage, and he was throwing ideas in - some of them went all the way, like the 'Two Worlds Collide' thing. None of us think 'Daniel Miller - Mute king'; it's like, Daniel - a friend of the band, with some very valid ideas, who gets the beers in. He's got a lot of experience, and a lot of respect. I've not heard anybody slag him off, yet. Maybe some of his shirts are a bit dodgy...
"If we said to Mute, we want to record this album in the middle of the Sahara desert, and we don't want you to hear it till it's going to press, they'd go along with it. They may not be happy, but they'd go along with it. Daniel didn't sign us because we were a Manchester band; he signed us because he saw that, potentially, we were a band that he could help to grow. There was some talk of him getting involved with The House Of Love, but the way he put it was that they were already fully developed, and he didn't feel that Mute would be able to contribute anything further. We went to him with our first album, unmixed, under the arm, and he took us to his boardroom, where the table is a front door on cardboard boxes - he could have a marble table, but this is a memento from his first office - and he just said 'I think we can help'.
"We recorded that first album with the money from T-shirt sales - we were right businessmen in them days - it was recorded at Out Of The Blue in Manchester, but this was before there was any Manchester scene. We were an Oldham band. We were doing Peel sessions, and getting indie number ones, before anyone even spoke about a Manchester scene. That's what was really annoying about, later on, people saying 'Manchester bandwagon-jumpers'. It hurts you, that."
Did Tony Wilson ever show any interest? "I don't know if he ever wanted the Inspirals on Factory, but it wasn't something we really wanted. At the time they had New Order - they're a little electro band from Manchester, N-E-W, O-R-D... - and the Mondays were already signed, so they were going to get all the attention. But we have a good relationship with Factory, we do get on with them. Tony gave us our first TV, in fact, on The Other Side Of Midnight, even though our first singer had just left, and we were stuck. He let us do an instrumental, 'Directing Traffic', and it worked really well. He could easily have replaced us with someone else."
And the rest, as they say, is history. As, unfortunately, is Factory Records, whose imminent demise was still unknown to us as we sat chatting about how good things were, really, beneath all the hype and all that, and about the real Manchester. It doesn't affect Inspiral Carpets, of course, or the price of cheeseburgers in Moscow. But it has added a touch of irony to Clint's words, uttered shortly before taking the stage and routinely removing the roof of the venue so meticulously prepared during our conversation. Gigs, trucks, homesickness, liquidation. Business as usual.
"All the bands are sort of friendly and civil, but there's not much interaction with our lot yet. Once New Order and The Smiths had done what they were destined to do, the way was paved for Electronic; but we're all still trying to establish our own things, and we're far too busy to start complicating things. We're really busy. We're busier than... very busy people. People ask us about Manchester, and we can't remember where it is. You get back and, not only has the money changed, with new coins and notes, but there's new buildings at the end of your street. Mind you, I'm not complaining."