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.
"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?
Interview by David Bradwell
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