E&MM talks to EMI's new young electronic duo
A duo hailing from Bath, Naked Eyes came into existence at the end of 1981 after the disbanding of Neon, which included Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal of Tears for Fears. The two founder members, Pete Byrne on vocals and Rob Fisher on keyboards, had begun to find the four-piece format unnecessarily complicated, and set out to make a demo tape as Naked Eyes.
This caught the attention of EMI, who released one of the tracks, 'Always Something There To Remind Me', as a single, and allowed the duo to record an album at Abbey Road studios. Produced by Tony Mansfield, the album became 'Burning Bridges', and the follow-up single chosen from it was 'Voices In My Head'. Rob and Pete explained to E&MM how the singles were chosen from the album, how they compose and work with session musicians, and how they've used the advanced digital equipment made available to them.
"We didn't intentionally choose a cover as our first single, but our version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's 'Always Something There To Remind Me' was closer to completion than any of the other four songs we demo'd. We just happened to hit the tail end of a spate of cover versions, and we felt that if you can put your own sound on a song that's just as valid as doing an original. Either way, it got a reasonable amount of airplay and got our name around the radio stations.
Before that we'd been working together for 3 years, including the time with Neon. We found we could only get the sound we wanted working as a duo, although we'll have to use additional musicians when we tour. After working with a lot of session musicians on the album that shouldn't be too difficult now, although we'll also have to get used to using equipment like the Fairlight live. Up till now we've only used it in the studio, as it belongs to our producer Tony Mansfield".
"We'd like to use the Fairlight live, as well as using it in the studio for various voices and as a sequencer. The Rhythm Page 'R' allows us to arrange sounds such as bass drum, snare drum, staccato wood blocks and soon, for instance on 'Promises Promises' on the album. We also used a Synclavier a little; the sounds are very clear, but like the Fairlight it wouldn't be used for solos.
All the demos are done using our Prophet and TR808. A lot of the album had been completed in this way before using any digital equipment, using a few devices such as a tape click trigger on the Prophet which can produce different filter levels from 0 to 10 for use on polyphonic bass sequences. Over the top of the Prophet parts we added Fairlight, Wave 2.2 and Synclavier".
"Everything starts off in Rob's front room on a Philips 2-track Sound-on-Sound machine. We then demo in an 8-track studio in Bristol, and of the 13 or 14 demos we did for EMI most have now been mastered, although one or two have been discarded. Every demo is put together in a different way, and we're usually working on several songs at the same time. In the past we used to work at things for ages, but nowadays we don't finish anything off unless we know it's good".
"It's easy to experiment in the studio and to mess around with the Linn, Fairlight and so on, luckily we work very fast and now seem to have as much studio time as we like anyway. It took about 6 weeks to do the album.
During that time we felt we'd exhausted the possibilities of the Linn, as it's got a distinctive sound of its own, and we started to use Phil Towner on drums and Tony Mansfield on a Simmons kit. Some tracks such as 'Promises Promises' just use the Fairlight for all the drums, with the sounds put on one at a time synchronised by a click track. Eventually we'd like to get either a Fairlight or Synclavier or PPG of our own, so that we'd have sequencing and sounds available.
We usually change the demo tapes in the studio, replacing Prophet sounds with layers and washes from the PPG for instance. The trouble with analogue synths is that the sound gets cluttered up around the bass end when you multitrack, and digital machines don't seem to suffer from this so much.
We tried to use the MC4 and MC8 but found them a pain in the neck, much too slow to programme, and generally Rob could play parts faster than it took to programme them in. The Fairlight's rhythm sequencer is better in that sense, and we also enjoyed using the Emulator. That was used for the strings on 'The Time Is Now', and we also sampled the harpsichord soundboard in the Abbey Road studio.
We used an OBXa for washes and surreal touches in the background on 'Emotion in Motion', but generally kept the Prophet sounds on bass lines. We find the Prophet's poly modulation is better than any other instrument, although the Wave2.2 is enormously powerful and not too difficult to get into. It's very easy to call up its preset voices and then alter them. The sequencer on the Wave is real time though, and you seem to lose voices as you put more steps in; the sounds themselves change as well if you're not careful. 'Voices In My Head' uses the brass sound on the Wave.
Usually we try to record with a mix already set up, and alter as little as possible afterwards. The producer would be in charge of the stereo positioning, for instance in panning the Simmons tom-toms which we liked for their touch-responsive qualities. We leave the mix to him, although one of us will always be there when it's done, but the aim is to get a commercial sound. Bands like Depeche Mode and Yazoo tend to sound a bit boring with nothing but synthesisers; we try to blend in a lot more, with other musicians and acoustic instruments.
Mixdown is usually on a Solid State Logic computerised desk, which was used by Trevor Horn with The Buggles. They were quite an influence on our studio technique initially, the start of synthesiser music in the charts really, and we try to be melodic in the same way they were".
"Generally the vocals go on pretty late. We experimented with various vocal effects, and we'd like to look at harmonisers a little more, but until then we're just going for a very clear sound. On 'Low Life' we needed a very deadpan repeated vocal on those two words, so we sampled them at two different points on the Emulator and just played those two notes over and over. Most of the songs only have a single voice on them, although we do sometimes multitrack backing harmonies. 'Fortune and Fame' uses repeat vocals and harmonies for instance, and on 'Always Something' we used the voice settings on a Roland Vocoder Plus. Also we used the Emulator for vocal washes, but found it very fiddly to get sounds into it, and it only transposes convincingly over a few tones".
"Rob played classical piano for about 5 years and classical organ for 2 years, but didn't want to feel restricted to classical pieces. Emerson and Yes were obviously an inspiration, but Naked Eyes' music isn't really about fast playing. Doing sessions for advertising jingles helped develop a fast method of working, and the Beatles were an influence in the sense that we try to be equally melodic. We worked up from using simple synthesisers, and if you use them carefully you can get really good results. The Pro-One, for instance, is very good.
We hope to get the best session musicians for stage and studio work. Quite often they're given a free hand, as in Martin Dobson's sax and flute parts on 'Could Be' and 'Promises', although on 'Low Life' the parts were written out. If one day we got someone who wanted to read, we could write down all the pieces, but we don't do this for ourselves; most of the songs are virtually composed on tape.
The drummer usually has to follow a sequencer line, and will tend to go straight through and do it all in one take. Phil Towner used to play with New Musik and developed this metronomic style; the connection there is through Tony Mansfield, who produced New Musik as well as ourselves.
The horns were generally multitracked, after we got some real horns on 'Low Life' we found they were better than keyboard sounds. Although we're synthesiser based we're not restricted to keyboards by any means, it's more a matter of creativity, and if that means getting other musicians in for the textures we want, that's what we'll do".
"The next album is due out in May. We've got a few tracks finished, and this time we're working in blocks rather than having several things on the go at the same time. We want to experiment more and do longer tracks, and we won't be making the demos so well produced — there's no point now as we can do the work in the studio. We'll still argue about things, but we're much more confident now. We'd like to get away from the love song format, and on the first album we've got 'Low Life' which is closer to the sort of thing Soft Cell are doing, in spirit if not in content.
We've got a few interesting keyboard pieces completed, and we'll try to use more unusual sounds and choral things. We want to use discords and produce the sort of 'rough edge' Peter Gabriel gets, although not by working in the same way he does and composing as he mixes. We like to leave as little work as possible to do in the mix.
Hopefully we'll go on tour in July after we've put a band together, we'll have a good show by then and will be able to avoid having to go on as a support for anybody else. Also we'll be doing a lot more video work, hopefully with a little more control from our end. For 'Always Something' and 'Voices' we were just given a storyboard and didn't have much opportunity to make changes. The video for 'Voices' turned out a little too weird in the end!
We feel a lot of the songs on the album are suitable for video treatment, so hopefully with a second album, a tour and a possible video in the summer, everything will come together at once for us".