squeezing the most information from 'Crush', track by track through the new album
Tony Bacon puts Orchestral Manoeuvres between two tape recorders and squeezes out the news on 'Crush', the album. Photographic pressure applied by Tom Sheehan.
As far as OMD can remember, it was some people at their label, Virgin, who suggested they use Stephen Hague to produce their new album, 'Crush'. Hague co-wrote and produced Malcolm Maclaren's Madame Butterfly project, and as this was one of the group's favourite records of last year they became very keen, after a few meetings, to work with the American producer.
And as Andy McCluskey says, they were looking for a musicianly producer anyway, so Hague's keyboard and guitar abilities came in very useful. "It's nice to have somebody who can add ideas to our own," says Andy, "rather than having what's really a souped-up engineer producing. It's taken me, particularly, some time to get used to somebody else's bits of music on our songs, but I think Stephen's added a lot which we certainly wouldn't have found just on our own. The only dilemma we do have is that we're now in the position of working out what the hell Steve played! He did do quite a lot of overdubs himself, so we're having to pick through things before the tour, knowing what we did originally, and work out what he did."
'Crush' differs from the last LP, 'Junk Culture', in that it was written and arranged originally on the group's Fairlight, using the machine's versatile Page R multi-channel sequencing facility. 'Junk Culture', the group point out, was 'arranged by edits'. With that record, tracks were laid without thought of later syncing and editing — consequently, as Andy remembers, "It cost us a fortune in half-inch tape, that album. The great thing with the new album, however, is that with everything on the Fairlight originally you could say, well, we don't like the second verse, let's cut it in half and move up the chorus — you just type that in, no lengthy cutting of tape."
And with expert programmer Stephen on hand, their approach to keyboards on some tracks changed quite dramatically. Always around were a MIDI'd-up selection of DX, Emulator and JP8 — plus, of course, the handy Fairlight. Stephen made the time to get sounds — "I think I have a higher patience level than they do in the studio."
"It's the first time we've ever actually programmed our synthesisers," admits Andy. "We've always been ones for hacking through the presets, and if we can't get what we want soon, then it's been sod it, go on to something else. It's the first time we've had somebody sit down and say: 'What we want is a sound like this or that,' and then actually program it himself."
Stephen elaborates: "At times I could feel they would have abandoned something that was being sought after, but I would pursue it to the bitter end — until I was sure it wouldn't work!"
The album benefited in other musical ways, too, as a result of the new collaboration. There was a conscious decision made early on to go for what Stephen describes as "more of a player's kind of record", which in practice meant drummer Malcolm Holmes playing more real drums — but not exclusively real drums.
Let's get some detail on each of the tracks.
A strong bass line — and, as it sounds, it was doubled by the MIDI set-up (JP8 and Emulator off a master DX). Which is why it flams a bit, says Paul Humphreys.
But the song almost never made it to tape — the group have been remarkably prolific by their own standards this year and have written well over 20 songs. So this track was originally shelved when the time came to choose demos for the album. Managers and Virgin people thought otherwise, twisted relevant arms, and the result was, well... a hit single, actually.
"They did all their demos up at Amazon studio in Liverpool," says Stephen, who joined the proceedings when things were moved to the 'real' studio, the Manor. "We always had those quarter-inches lying around. Periodically we would run one to see where we were in relation to the original demo. And this is one that I had actually passed over when we went through the original cassettes. It came up about three weeks in — it really sounded great, and I couldn't believe I'd missed it."
Nice guitar, says One Two. "Well," says one Andy, "that was played by Mr Hague, actually. All my guitar work was done up at Amazon and, er, they all tried to replace as much as possible when we got to the Manor. It's a drive toward guitar that's in tune and in time, as opposed to the way that I play it."
It's Paul's wife Maureen doing the (sampled) seee-cret voice — the result of a lengthy session last year of indoor Emulatoring. Searching through their vast library of Emu discs, the group stumbled across Maureen's secret, and off they went.
And there's a lot of sampling generally — a hand-played Fairlight bass, percolating percussion throughout courtesy of Page R, and that 'knocky' sound is JP8 sampled to the Fairlight. The drums had been demo'd on the Fairlight too, but sounded too 'tight' in that form — so Malcolm did his stuff with the wood and metal department, a small kit of tiny toms, 22in bass drum and big snare. And after five or six years having to stay in time with a CR78, Malcolm finds the Fairlight's click bliss to stay in with.
Then there's the voice — Paul for a change. "Paul's voice tracks really well," says Stephen, "his Ss don't become sibilant, and it's generally a better sound tracked up."
Paul: "My vocal was doubled. Well, trebled."
Malc: "Treble-trebled, more like. It took him about four weeks to do it. A day a take. The truth is coming out now — come on Paul, tell him how it was done."
Andy: "He's a last singer, basically."
Ignorant southern interviewer: "A what?"
Male: "Not very good. Lack"
Paul: "So just slag me off. I'll sit here."
Much laughter. Dissolve.
Time, OMD decided, for an old semi wound up to maximum through a Fender Twin. Trouble was, the tremolo wouldn't keep in time. So they pulse-triggered a gate to the guitar off the Linndrum's cowbell.
Plenty of Linn elsewhere, too, especially the wonderful bass drum — nothing more than the Linn's standard bass chip, in fact. Overdubbed snare drum, overdubbed cymbal — real, that is.
And the brass is actually a really nasty Emulator 1 sample that works perfectly in the context of the track — they dragged out the old workhorse for what's described by Andy now as "out-of-tune Tijuana Brass". Maybe we should get the brass section to replace it, they thought. Nah — sounds too good as it is, just right for the track, they decided.
"And the brass section couldn't get it together anyway," smiles Malcolm. "They were in the fridge. They were eating."
"If anyone wants a brass section we'll loan them out," adds Andy. "All you'd have to provide is a fridge, a toilet and a bed and they'd be happy as pigs in shit."
Happy is the band that lives together. Oh, and what about that nice bass sound? Fairlight, with Stephen doubling it on acoustic guitar to get extra stringiness and some top that the Fairlight can't reach. "And I think the hi-hat feel on this is really important," Stephen says. "If we'd have used a machine it would have been a whole different affair — just listen to the way Malcolm comes in and out of the breaks, for example. Wild."
A composite song, is how OMD describe it. I'm sure I've heard some of those bits before, is what One Two says. "We just got this riff... Andy adds helpfully.
Lovely tracked-up harmony sax from Martin in the chorus, Linndrum again, a triggered AMS snare, hi-hat overdubs — and back to the Emu I again for the string sound. Gritty?
"The string chord is two-note voicing," says Stephen, "there's a fourth and a second floating around in there — you get these very complex sounding chords by playing two notes. Then we doubled it with the JP8 which was doing the more obvious root-third-fifth voicing of those chords, pretty much on a flanger for the whole song. It pulls and pushes at it a bit, modulates the other signals, makes it feel a bit more 'swimmy'."
Good sound on Andy's voice, too. "We used a B&K mike for most of Andy's vocals, it's usually used for spec-ing rooms, very flat, and an 87 for Paul mainly. And generally speaking I tend to use a bit of doubling, but very close in, maybe 15mS or 18mS, just a thickening thing without starting to fuck up the pitch. Maybe not that apparent, but if you like the vocal sound then that's one of the reasons why."
A favourite. The samples at the beginning, used as a pitched rhythm throughout, are the result of Andy sampling two hours' worth of TV ads when OMD were in Japan last year.
"It was quite hard to choose ones that worked," says Paul, remembering the job of sifting through the two-hours' worth and ending up with four two-second samples. "They had to have the right pitch to sit with one another, and we also had to get the length right for the phrasing. Quite a complex job."
What were the ads for? "We haven't worked out two," says Andy, "but one is apparently for a sake company, and the other is for Seiko watches. But we have clearance on that. The entire song was determined by the key of these samples, so it's in some strange key that Graham our trombone player was moaning about when we asked him to play on it.
"But I think it captures quite nicely a feeling I had when I was in Japan. It was a place we'd all wanted to go to, and it was really interesting, but we were tired, we'd just done a really long Australian tour. And you were caught between being really tired, sitting in your room, and then this sort of barrage around you of like adverts on the TV that were really irritating, high-pitched... and outside the window were these neon signs flashing away, huge neon signs. It was a bit like being in 'Blade Runner', this audio and visual assault on your senses, when you were trying to think of something else and couldn't escape it.
"I'm really pleased with the way it worked, because it was a silly idea — Japanese adverts, string bass, and jazz trombone together."
Certainly does: one-take trombone (apart from a wee bit flown in at the end) with the half-secondish delay that was recorded with it left on; Stephen's excellent DX fretless-style bass (pitchbent); sombre vocal kept from the demo; and the, er, skulls. That's what they sound like, anyway. What is it? Woodblock sampled into an AMS, split to two DDLs, each EQ'd differently and brought in at different times. And what's the advantage of sampling to an AMS when you've got Fairlights and Emulators scattered around?
"The AMS can be quicker for samples in that you don't have to format a disc and all that," says Stephen. "For short things, and stuff like sampling a snare drum from another master and using it on the mix, they're unbeatable. I use them for drums more than anything else — if you think there should be a cymbal crash, say, where there isn't one, you just throw it in the AMS and pop it back on."
And the rain storm at the end? You guessed. Sampled. About a 10-second loop, a slow delay on it, and split to stereo. Which means you can't hear the join. So it's not, as Andy giggles, "slowed-down bacon frying".
"I think this was about the first time in our lives that there was all four of us in the studio playing at once, says Andy, astonished. "Didn't know what was going on," blinks Malcolm. "It was one, two, three, four... and take."
The result? Wild. Crunching New Order-like electric bass, live guitar, live background vocals... blimey, it's a group.
"The idea was that the song should be a constant crescendo of things adding together," explains Andy. "It stays in the same key right the way through, but it keeps getting bigger — the tension is increasing too as we add things, but it refuses to change key. It's like spinning up to the top, the drums come in..."
They most certainly do. Wallop! The original drum track was reportedly "a little rough", so Malcolm brings a wonderful lift to the track when he powers in over the Linndrum with big, real drums. Stephen got the group to record drums for all the tracks in one go, rather than their usual one-song-at-a-time approach — and the original drums on this were the first that went down. The real drums, though, were the last to go down.
But what's it about? Andy: "I don't know if you saw a documentary last year about a place called Greensboro, North Carolina, where the Ku-Klux-Klan shot dead five people in broad daylight? It's on film, a newscrew got it, and watching this on TV was a very, very unpleasant experience — it's happening in an ordinary suburban street. The whole idea of the song was as a soundtrack to what happened. There's a sort of inevitability to it, you figure that something had to happen. We're doing a full-length video for the LP, so on this we have the original footage intercut with us performing, played very starkly. So it really is going to be a soundtrack."
Andy: "One of the guitars on this was played with just four strings, cos I broke two when we were rehearsing at Amazon. 10'o'clock at night and I didn't have any more, so I thought that I'd carry on, that it wouldn't sound any worse than usual."
Martin: "My role, actually, when we were doing the album, was going down to the music shop and getting the strings."
Andy: "That his excuse actually, he was in there buying more bloody reeds. He's tried out every reed in England for his saxophone you know."
Paul: "Have you ever shared a dressing room with a sax player? The eternal search to find the ultimate reed."
Malcolm: "And then he goes and treads on it. Oh no! Another six years..."
Andy: "He goes through about six-hundred-quid's worth of reeds every soundcheck."
Pause. Malcolm: "But it sounds good, Mart, it sounds fucking great. We're with you."
Things get going on this track with the sound of an orchestra tuning up — it's from the disc that came with the hired Emulator II. "When I heard that," says Stephen, "I figured that if we could find a way to use that sound we'd own it forever. And I think we do, because I don't think anyone is going to get it out before we do."
What else? Emulator I strings, Mellotron choir sampled on to Emulator II, and live drums. Very live drums, in fact. "Whoever makes Malcolm's snare drum heads needs a medal," reckons Andy, "because there was about a four-inch wide dip in the middle that was getting to be about an inch deep, but it still wasn't ripping. He was clogging it with this blunt end of a telegraph pole."
And who gets the medal? "Er, Remo I think," says Malcolm, scratching his head. "They're doing a good job."
"The droning bass is from the MIDI'd DX/JP8, and the piano-ish theme after the second chorus reminds the player, Stephen, "of Procol Harum or something". Andy reaches a high-up vocal note at the end — about four or five overlapped and each ending at different times. "They basically all end where I run out of breath, and then crunch down into the background."
"When you're building something up in a composite way, using the Fairlight, you can go back and change things around in the arrangement. That's really nice for people like us who tend to write with idea upon idea, rather than say jamming together."
And from the producer's point of view? "I like the fact that people who can't really play are able to do relatively complex compositions and accomplish stuff on the Fairlight with Page R."
Demo'd on a real kit — but on the record it's Roland 808 doing most of the drum stuff (top end, bass drum, congas), with a little extra sweetening from the good-for-drums AMS. Stephen reckons the 808 has a certain charm, associated in his mind with lots of "innocent" New York records. "Yeah, I think it's the most innocent of the drum machines," he laughs, "it really doesn't try to be anything other than a machine."
There's prominent tape delay on the sax, and some captivating high-up backing vocals from Andy. "Soulsville," reckons Stephen, "world-class."
"It's something that we've used before," reckons Andy, "like on our single 'Joan Of Arc', very similar. I can get my voice up there quite well."
They did, too. Nine'o'clock at night and suddenly it's power-cut time. The group seem more upset at having missed that night's 'Spitting Image', but cheer up when they remember going down the pub with candles.
Stephen took care of quite a few of the keyboard overdubs and programming — though Andy sounds like he might originally have preferred something a bit more stark. Worked out well in the end, though.
"Yeah, there's the sound that zips across and does a triplet after "I can't see me with another girl...'," explains Stephen. "That's a DX7, and there's what sounds like a backwards echo effect. But that is actually a played keyboard thing on the Emulator II, some kind of mutilated sound that was in there. With the slower envelope on it, it sort of pushed into the other sound, makes it seem to sweep across. It's actually two keyboards."
"Yes," Andy considers, "Stephen's added a lot of extra keyboard twiddles on it, in and out. MIDI Man Hague!"
Malcolm adopts deep macho US voiceover: "Hi! Having keyboard problems? You need MIDI Man!"
"I mean, would you let the man who did the Ovaltine ad produce your album?" asks Andy, one imagines rhetorically.
Interview by Tony Bacon
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