On The Grid
When Soft Cell disbanded, Marc Almond quickly established himself as a solo artist, but what became of his keyboard-playing partner? David Bradwell talks to David Ball about his latest project.
After Soft Coll - what? The question that faced Marc Almond's enigmatic keyboard-playing partner has been answered by The Grid.
ASK THE AVERAGE SYNTH POP FAN WHAT became of Soft Cell's David Ball, and you're likely to be told he's the Missing Man of Pop. Seldom heard of since Marc Almond became a Mamba, his legendary image as the straight man of sleaze is just a memory from vintage Top Of The Pops. As Soft Cell were Britain's answer to Sparks, so Ball cut a magnificent Ron Mael figure, resplendent in black behind the finest in analogue synth technology. As a role model to a thousand early '80s synth duos, Soft Cell were awesome, a non-stop erotic cabaret of music to make love to.
Ten years later David Ball is reclining in the Pacific Recording Studio, not far from London's Liverpool Street station, still wearing black. Richard Norris, his new partner and chief spokesman, is opposite, sporting Troop leisure wear. Also in the room is Genesis P. Orridge, a renegade from Psychic TV in a punk vicar's outfit, and the most obviously eccentric of the three.
Ball and Norris, who together make up The Grid, met each other while working with Orridge on a project called Jack The Tab. It was an attempt at a psychedelic acid house record in 1987, before any of them knew what acid house was, and is now viewed as a classic of its genre. On its completion Ball and Norris collaborated on various projects, including remixes of 'Supernature' by Cerrone, and the Art Of Noise's James Bond theme. WEA Records suggested they make a record of their own because "they had so many new approaches to dance music", and so The Grid were born. Alter producing a track called 'Islamatron' for a WEA compilation album, The Grid set about recording their debut album and single, both entitled Intergalactica.
Norris is 24 and comes from St Albans. He claims to be unmusical, yet trades ideas and enthusiasm without the need for training and technique. With the kettle switched on, he and Ball begin to explain The Grid, the LP and their involvement in the reshaping of British dance music.
"The LP's like a soundtrack for dancing", begins the former Soft Cell man. "We use a mixture of all kinds of influences from techno to ethnic; everything from dance music to Pink Floyd. We definitely reckon there's going to be a return to pompousness, so we've used a few pompous synth sounds", he adds, with a grin.
"There's definitely a big soundtrack influence", confirms Norris. "You could imagine quite a lot of our tracks with visual accompaniment rather than just on a dancefloor. I think we try to go a bit further than a straightforward dancefloor band would go. Our main aim is to get people to listen to it, with the variety of sounds and the juxtaposition between the various sounds.
"I think a big backlash is brewing over house music at the moment because it's becoming really repetitive and boring, which in its purest form is very true. I really like people like the KLF, who are the only people worth listening to in that field in this country and Mr Fingers from America. Apart from those two, general house is becoming really boring and we're trying to push back the frontiers and blend a lot more influences rather than the typical ones that you get.
"Three years ago, if you heard a great house record out in a club you got really excited, and that's the kind of effect that we're aiming for. It's so easy to make a house record now, what's difficult is to make it totally different.
"What we're trying to achieve is the most difficult thing to do in the field of popular music. That's something like, say, the Human League did. They were very accessible, but they also had a very different slant on things. I can't think of many bands who've done that apart from maybe the Human League or Kraftwerk or Yello."
While Norns was quoted in Sounds as knowing nothing about samplers and equipment, it's the combination of Ball's technical proficiency and the pair's joint artistic vision that motivates The Grid. After ten years in or around the forefront of the business, Ball confesses to a "warehouse" full of synthesisers, due to his policy of never throwing anything away. The group like to use unusual equipment to help try to establish an individual sound, but there are still some famous names in the equipment he uses most.
"A lot of it's the usual stuff, like an Atari with C-Lab software, although I still use an old Alesis MMT8 because I don't like screens", he begins. "Most people I know who use screens end up being myopic programmers. We also use quite a lot of old stuff, because I've still got things like a PPG 2.2, and we've used a Prophet 5, Juno 106 and Jupiter 8 because there's a lot of arpeggiated stuff. A big problem with a lot of modern sequencers is that you have to write arpeggiation in yourself- there isn't actually a machine which arpeggiates, which is a shame because it's nice when it's more random. We use S1000s, S900s, and an FZ1. I tend to use the FZ1 as my main sampler just because that happened to be the one that I bought."
"We're into older sounds and different synths, because you get weird variations in the sounds", adds Norris. "When the Prophet 5 is warming up it's slightly out of tune, or when you get an arpeggiator that'll do weird random notes, it's more exciting than a computer. If you do a lot on a computer it becomes really linear, and especially with dance music it's very difficult to get out of being very linear. We like to get in more chance elements, just to give a more human feel."
"We've had some very hi-tech sounds and then used things like Leslie cabinets to get a really grungy sound", continues Ball. "We've used a Roland Space Echo, and a wah-wah unit just as a filter. We sometimes use parametric equalisers, and put the sequence into the parametric, altering the filter as it runs through to liven things up.
"What we're trying to achieve is the most difficult thing to do in popular music - I can't think of many bands who've done it apart from the Human League or Kraftwork."
"Because everybody's basically got the same equipment - S900s, D50s and stuff - one of the ways we've been thinking we might go if we can get the money is to start using a Synclavier. That's the other reason why everything sounds so similar, because everybody has been using similar low-budget equipment. If we could use something that nobody else has got it would give us a totally different sound."
"We'd like to blend that with the cheap trashy stuff", finishes Norris. "As soon as Yello got their Fairlight they sounded totally different."
Sounds and the way they interact are of vital importance to The Grid. They never use synth presets, and most other sound sources are effected bevond recognition. The only recognisable guitar on the album was played by Cobalt Stargazer of Zodiac Mindwarp and, although deep in the mix, you can also find real trumpets, clarinets and percussion. Sounds, whether synthetic, real or sampled, go towards creating a mood. Samples are equally as important as synthesised sounds, although sampled loops seem frowned upon.
"In Jack The Tab there were loads of film bits, from loads of trash films", begins Norris. "Now we've moved away from using vocals and got more into voice samples. The idea is to stop songs being interpreted in one way. Vocals can really focus a song and we're trying to get away from that so that they're open to interpretation. People have said that some of our really happy songs sound evil, and I'd much rather that was the case than people being pinned down by one vocal melody. Even where we have got vocals we've tried to use them in the same way as samples, which is quite disembodied. On a track called 'Driving Instructor', the singing vocals and the sampled vocals just float in and out.
"When I got a DAT recorder I went out and recorded traffic in Oxford Street, I went to Brighton and recorded the sea, and I did the bird house at London Zoo and the Science Museum and Natural History Museum. We're not using samples so that people recognise where we got them from, we're using them just as part of the sound."
"If somebody sampled us I'd take it as a compliment, depending on how much they used", adds Ball. "We tend to try things out. A lot of the tracks start out as one thing, and then end up as another. One track started out as a trashy disco thing, that was very commercial, but a bit PWL, that nasty sort of cheap thing. It's gone through three stages and it's now turned into a Latin track. We do tend to scrap things, because we're not precious about stuff. If something sounds nice and tasteful we like to put something way out onto it just to make it more exciting and give it more dynamics."
Tracks start from either an idea for a song, or a drums/bass rhythm, but rarely from the vocals. Rough ideas get worked on at Ball's house, but the songs really come alive in the studio. Vocals are a minor part of The Grid's sound, but Norris doesn't think the age of the three-minute song is over.
"Because of extended lengths of commercial recordings on CD, you've got much more time to play with", he begins, "so the boundaries have been stretched. It's a good opportunity not to be stuck with just that three-minute format. I would have thought a lot of our stuff isn't designed to be played on the radio, it's designed to sit in your living room and listen to, so why not create something that's seven minutes long? The whole album's going to be linked, so the idea is just to listen to it in one piece like, say, the De La Soul album is."
"As far as the record company are concerned, radio is very important", adds Ball, "and they keep putting on that pressure, because you've got to have two singles, which is fair enough. The point is that it's an albums thing rather than a singles thing."
Integral to the music is the concept of making machines sound like machines - to be innovative rather than imitative. They have sequenced links of sampled vocals rather than perform with a singer, highlighting the machine elements to make them part of the sound. Even when they base tracks on natural sounds or rhythms, these often get replaced by synthetic counterparts.
"We've just done a track with a traditional Indian rhythm loop, and in the end we replaced each bit with our own electronic sounds', begins Ball. "It's just a basis for the track - one thing gives us the starting point and then we just take it wherever we want to go"
"'Floatation' started with a drum loop which we never used in the end", adds Norris. "The difference between our approached most other people's approach to technology is that we like to push it to the limit - use it, abuse it and make it do things that it wasn't meant to. I was reading a new book that's just come out on Brian Eno, and it says he used to leave strings on his guitars for years so they went dull and made different sounds and I really like that approach. We used to really batter keyboards so that when they're old they do things that you wouldn't expect them to do. We're not very po-faced about our technology, we're more into ideas and moods and atmospheres than being totally techno.
"We've moved away from using vocals and got more into voice samples. The idea is to stop songs being interpreted in one way - vocals can really focus a song."
"Once we've left a song for a few weeks it'll develop and we have new ideas and normally we'll put on just one sound that we really like and that'll take the song into a totally different direction. I think that happened with 'Intergalactica'. There were some spacey noises and a particular metallic keyboard sound that we wanted. We're getting away from sampling - anyone can sample and unless they're doing it in an original way, they're better to just create their own unique sounds."
AFTER THEIR ALBUM IS RELEASED, THE Grid hope they can take their moods and atmospheres to other artists in the form of remixes. They've both worked on commercials for advertising companies and want to do as much extra-curricular work as they can, outside the pop routine. Their approach to mixing is to clutter tracks up and then take things out, but they're not big fans of lots of remixes.
"I think generally speaking they are a bit self-indulgent and doing 20 mixes of one song doesn't actually help it", Norris begins. "I don't think it helped The Beloved's 'Hello' and I don't think it helped 'The Sun Rising' - I think that there's one good version of that song.
"We changed the Art of Noise's James Bond theme so much that they said they couldn't put it out because there was hardly any Art Of Noise left. I think everybody agrees, including the record company, and maybe the band themselves, that we did a much better job than they did, and I'm sure that they just felt a bit embarrassed because it was a Grid track with just a bit of the Art Of Noise on top.
"We'd love to do some more remix work. It's such a shame the Art Of Noise track hasn't come out because I'm sure if it had people would give us loads more remix work. We've been offered an Australian band with digeridoos and Aborigine noises on it - a kind of ethnic Art Of Noise, and we might do that."
While these are the areas The Grid are looking to pursue, a large proportion of new keyboard bands get accused of harking back to the early '80s by a press and public blinded by their own preconceptions. How many times have sparkling synth-pop demos been dismissed with a comment to the effect of "sounds like The Human League to me"? How many careers haven't got past the starting post because an A&R person only associates electronic music with Soft Cell, Depeche Mode or Ultravox?
Ball is keen to suggest why these attitudes prevail.
"There are a lot of people who are just copying each other and not doing anything new. They hear something and they know that they can do it, so they're just copying what everybody else has done. When I started out we were doing something new and I still feel like that. I've never had the inclination to copy what everybody else has done. The problem is that there are so many people who are doing it, that there aren't very many who are actually doing something interesting. That's why people get dismissed, I think: they're all using the same James Brown samples."
Norris: "It would be so much easier for us to calculate what we're doing and become a dance band. We could put black girl soul singers on our records and sell them into the pop charts, but that's not actually going to do our integrity any good."
"It's the lowest common denominator really, and anybody could do that", Ball continues. "People get a funky bassline and a Lolleata Holloway soundalike to come in and do something over the top. So what?
"Whereas most bands that copy dance records would love to be 808 State or S'Express, we'd much rather be Pink Floyd or Tangerine Dream. If you listen to Pink Floyd's first album compared to The Dark Side Of The Moon, it sounds completely different. We want to keep developing - I'm not saying we want to be Pink Floyd - our sights are certainly higher, but I think, just because of the variety of some of the tracks on our album, people can't call us a dance band - it's just one element of what we're doing."
For the future, Ball and Norris have been working on an avant-garde live show, featuring The Grid Machine, an 8'x 5' sub-Spinal Tap stage contraption, made from chrome and flashing ambulance lights. They'd love to explore the possibility of 3-D sound, and other experimental areas, and have a wish to write a soundtrack for Patrick D. Martin's Psycho Mobile (see MT, December '88). Combining all this with the music they have so far produced should make them unique amongst their contemporaries and a likely marketing nightmare for Warners. Such is the price of innovation.
Interview by David Bradwell
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