On the International Track
Solo synthesist Thomas Leer has gone from Stylo phone to Fairlight in four easy stages. He tells Dan Goldstein how it was done.
Thomas Leer, solo synthesist extraordinaire, reveals just how easy it can be to go from Stylophone to Fairlight, and still not have a hit record.
'I wrote and recorded two songs in 10 hours, because that was the only hiring time I had left. I had a preset Roland drum machine and a bass guitar, but the main instrument on the record was a Stylophone - a bit like the one Rolf Harris used to advertise, only a bit more sophisticated.'
Thomas Leer, who's come a long way since those pioneering days, is explaining the making of his first vinyl release, 'Private Plane'/'International', accomplished on hired four-track equipment and with the minimum of preparation or technical expertise. His voice is quiet - occasionally it rises above a whisper - but assured: resident in London 10 years, he's lost none of his native Glaswegian drawl, probably a reflection of his own fiercely-defended independence.
Truly one of Britain's synth pioneers, Leer has lived through more musical incarnations than he cares to remember, but his flirtation with things electronic began in 1978, when a London punk band he was in - Pressure - split up.
'The band just fell apart, and I realised that I'd be better off working on my own. I'd always been writing songs, in folk bands, soul bands, cabaret bands - you name it - and I decided I'd rather record them on my own.
'There were two things that I particularly liked at the time: the attitudes of the British punk movement (then just post-heyday) and the attitudes of the German electronic bands like Kraftwerk, Can and Faust. What I wanted to do when I started recording was fuse the music of the Germans with the attitudes of punk, and the result was 'Private Plane' - a punk electronic' single.'
The single did remarkably well for such a small-scale release (it came out on Leer's own label, Oblique) and a few months later he found himself in demand from Throbbing Gristle (of which Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti were founder members - see accompanying story). They asked Leer to make an album with fellow-synth experimenter Robert Rental, for release on their Industrial Records label.
'We met TG at a gig of theirs in London, and they offered to lend us a hired eight-track set-up for two weeks. By that time the two of us each had Wasp synths, which were excellent. Almost every sound on that album (which appeared a few months after the recording as The Bridge) was made by the Wasps, except for the odd bit of guitar and some tapes.
'It was a help, having eight-track equipment, but the problem was that neither of us had any real idea about how to use it properly. We didn't know how to monitor correctly or get the best sounds out of the gear, and I think that ended up affecting the record. If you listen back to it now, it sounds a bit quiet and limp, whereas it should really have been a lot more dynamic. At the time that sort of thing didn't seem important - we just wanted to get the record done.'
The Bridge is a record of two starkly contrasting sides: the first is full of conventional electropop songs - quite advanced for their day - while the second contains four longer, ambient pieces, notable not only for the range of sounds their creators managed to coax out of their equipment, but also for the extension of tapes and 'found sounds'.
'There's a flow diagram on the back of Eno's Discreet Music album that presents his serial loop idea, taking one synth line and modifying it bit by bit, and we used that as the basis of the first ambient track, 'Interferon', varying the length of the loops as we went along.
'There's another track - 'The Hard Way In & The Easy Way Out' - where we recorded Jukebox Jury off television. Joan Collins and Johnny Rotten were on it, and when we'd recorded the programme I injected some of their key phrases at random into the track.'
From a commercial standpoint, The Bridge earned Leer sufficient capital to finance the purchase of a Portastudio and a Korg MS20 monosynth: nothing earth-shattering, but still an important step in the right direction.
He continued writing music under his own steam, and eventually landed a contract with London independent Cherry Red Records, for whom he produced a 12" EP - Four Movements - and an album - Contradictions - that took the form of two twelve-inchers.
"Sampling is easy - anyone can do it - and Page R is nothing so terrible either. If you can use a LinnDrum, you can use Page R."
'I started using some Ultsound electronic drums for percussion', Leer recalls. 'They're actually very good, though I only know of one other guy, Yukihiro Takahashi of YMO, who's ever used them. My music was still very improvised, and for most of the Cherry Red stuff it was a case of turning the tape machine on and banging the drums for about five minutes or so, overdubbing the rest of the song in layers over the top of the rhythm pattern.'
Leer's Cherry Red work contains germs of good ideas that are spoilt only by the limitations of the equipment their creator was using...
'Well, I was still working on eight-track, and there just came a time when I got fed up with the basic gear I had available. Cherry Red bought me some better gear - an Oberheim DMX drum machine and a Jupiter 4 - after I'd done Contradictions, and I actually recorded a second album for the same company using that equipment, but it was still only eight-track and I just wasn't happy with it. In the end all that came out from those sessions was the single, 'All About You'.
That single was, in fact, the most commercial song Leer had released, and having added it to his copious portfolio, he went about looking for a deal with a major label.
'I saw it as being the only way I could get hold of the equipment I needed. I'd decided I had to have a Fairlight, so I had to find a record company that would get me one as part of my advance. There weren't many labels who'd touch it, especially when they found out how much it was going to cost, but Arista realised that it could potentially save a lot of recording time, and after a trial period of three weeks with one to prove that it would be useful, they leased one to me as part of my advance. I've had one for about six months now.
'I didn't find the Fairlight particularly difficult to get to know. When I was doing that first three weeks for Arista, we hired a CMI from Britannia Row, and they sent a couple of guys down here to give me a crash course on how to use it. Sampling is easy - anyone can do it - and using Page R is nothing so terrible either. If you can use a LinnDrum, you can use Page R. The only difficult thing is building up your own sounds within the machine: that can be a very long process.'
The ease with which Leer has adjusted to the grandaddy of computer instruments is reflected by the fact that he's already written his next album three times over, all since the Fairlight entered his Clapham sitting room.
'It's so easy to write things with the Fairlight. It's enabled me to write material in a more orthodox manner, instead of improvising the way I'd done before. I generally sit at the Fairlight keyboard with the drum machine on and work away until something interesting comes up. The actual sounds I write with vary depending on what sort of mood I'm in. If I'm in an aggressive mood, I'll set up the Fairlight polyphonically with a split keyboard, and with a hard aggressive bass sound at one end and something similar - only chordal - at the other. If I'm in a softer mood, the sounds I work with are usually softer: I've modified the standard Fairlight piano voice so that it sounds a bit more Eno-ish, and I sometimes use that for writing.
'I've been sampling all sorts of things ever since I first got it. I mainly sample sounds from radio or records, rather than recording other instruments. What I like about doing that is it gives you half a second or a second of a complete piece of music: it might contain drums, bass, guitar, synth, maybe a whole orchestra, and to me that's a lot more interesting than just playing from one sample.'
Photographer Vosburgh wonders if copyright law could rear its ugly head. What happens if, say, Phil Collins recognises his drum sound on one of Leer's records?
'Oh, I don't think that would be possible, because I change the sound of things so drastically on the Fairlight. I alter the timing, the amplitude, the dynamics, and once you've done all that, most samples end up being totally unrecognisable.
'I recorded one piece here at home that was made up entirely of samples from the radio. I just tuned in one night to a disco programme: I don't know what station it was though it was on AM so it was very poor quality. I turned the Fairlight on and sampled lots of tiny snippets of music. I programmed them all into Page R and got them going in time with a pattern on the LinnDrum, and it turned out to be a nice jazzy instrumental, without me having to play a note!'
"Building up your own sounds on the Fairlight is far too complex and time-consuming. That's where something like the PPG scores, I think."
So, Australia's greatest contribution to music since the Sydney Opera House has given Thomas Leer a great deal of artistic inspiration, as well as enabling him to write music in a less haphazard fashion than before. Is there any aspect of the CMI he isn't quite au fait with?
'Oh yes. Aesthetically it's well dodgy: they definitely could have worked a bit harder on making it look nice. That's a small point, of course, but on the general working of the thing, there are a couple of aspects that I personally don't like.
'For instance, building up your own sounds is far too complex and time-consuming. That's where something like the PPG scores, I think. I've used a PPG system in the studio and found it a lot quicker to built up sounds on, providing you're used to the way it works.
I imagine it's the same with the DX7: provided you know the principles of FM, it should be a lot easier to develop your own sounds than it is on the Fairlight.
'The other thing I don't like about it is the fact that you can't link the two sequencer pages together. There's Page R - which most people know about - and a polyphonic sequencer, Page 9: they work great on their own, but there's no way of getting them to work in sync. I think you should be able to do that, so that you can keep the chords you were working on originally and put new monophonic lines over them, and build up a song between Page R and Page 9. It's also very hard to edit or loop on Page 9, so I've ended up hardly using it at all, except as a sort of notepad to put basic ideas on. It means I have to rework a lot of my original writing ideas so that I can get them on to Page R, but it's the only way I can work it at the moment.'
In an attempt to cure his polyphonic sequencing problem, Leer is about to take delivery of a Roland MSQ700, which he hopes to link up to a Jupiter 6, itself only recently acquired.
'I got the Jupiter 6 because I wanted something that could generate rich, analogue sounds - the sort of thing the Fairlight isn't very good at. I'd compared it with the DX7, but although that's got a lot of tremendous sounds on it, it occurred to me that it had nothing I can't get on the Fairlight, so I decided it would be better to get a mix of analogue and digital sounds, and that's what this set-up gives me.
'I'm getting the MSQ because I'm hoping it'll take care of the polyphonic sequencing. At the moment I'm using Syco's Conductor card to link the Fairlight with the Linn, and I'm hoping to get MIDI fitted on to it, so that I can use the MSQ in conjunction with the rest of the system. That way I'll have a rhythm section taken care of by the Linn and the Fairlight, and the polyphonic stuff on the Roland gear, which should get round the Page 9 problem.'
The first fruits of Thomas Leer's newfound association with high-technology instruments have taken the form of a single - 'International'/'Easy Way' - his first product for Arista and by far his most accomplished work to date. Quietly assured and immaculately produced, both songs are signs that Leer's creative spirit has been rekindled afresh, after years of lying dormant under the inadequacies of outdated musical hardware.
Surprised that I'm even aware of the earlier single's existence, Leer explains the lyrical connection between this 'International' and the 1978 impression.
'I've always had this pet theory that the world isn't really controlled by the major governments at all, that the people who really govern us are the men behind the scenes: faceless businessmen in multinational companies who make all the major decisions. They were on the front cover of the first single, and the new one is about the way they control drug trafficking and the effects it has on other people.
'I was originally going to call it 'International 2', the idea being to make several of them as part of a series, but the song turned out to be quite commercial, so the record company got me to drop the '2' bit, on the grounds that not many people actually know about the original.
"I want to be successful, but I'd like to think my songs were intelligent enough to make pop music interesting and worth listening to."
'The single was recorded at John Foxx's Garden studio, which was a big jump for me because it's 24-track, far bigger than anywhere I'd worked before. I'm working with a producer for the first time - a guy called Paul Hardiman. I chose him because having had a lot of experience working on eight-track and so on, I had very definite ideas about what I wanted, and Paul isn't the kind of producer who takes everything away from you and does it all himself. We work very much as a team: we have a few arguments but generally we each get what we want.'
I remain intrigued as to how the transformation in Leer's sound (from a succession of drab, lacklustre arrangements to a sparkling major label debut) has come about. Were there any specific studio techniques used in the recording of 'International'?
'No, not really. If anything, the single's quite underproduced in a way. Most of it is basic Fairlight sounds, with some string synth overdubs and the percussion player out of Central Line on congas and tambourine. And as far as effects go, we just used the standard Lexicon and AMS reverbs.'
Despite the success of Leer and Hardiman's production formula, they've now left the Garden for the Farmyard, stopping off at R G Jones at Wimbledon along the way...
'When we recorded 'International' we DI'd everything, but when we get on to do the album we're going to try some different, more natural ambiences. I think it's a good idea to record a synth's output through speakers and capture some of the ambience of the room or the studio, because I like sounds that are quite open, and you can't get that from direct injection.
'We're also going to start using some other musicians. We've already started working with Dave Palmer - who used to be ABC's drummer - and his bass player, a guy called Jeremy Meek, and things have been going very well. There was one thing that wasn't right, though, and that came about because we hadn't really worked out how to record acoustic things along with the Fairlight: there was definitely a clash between the openness of the acoustic ambiences and the closeness of the Fairlight, and it was that if anything that told us we were going to have to work on making the Fairlight more wide-sounding.'
A Fairlight, some reliable session musicians, an agreeable co-producer, and as much studio time as proves necessary. It sounds to me like an almost ideal backdrop against which to make an album, but Thomas Leer still isn't happy.
'At the moment I've got about as much studio time as I need, and the actual amount I'll require will depend pretty much on how much I've got programmed into the Fairlight before I go in. But I haven't yet got to my ideal working situation, which would be to have a studio of my own. I'm not really all that far away from it now, because I wouldn't want an orthodox 24-track set-up. What I'd like to do is build a system that works on a hybrid principle: I'd like to get an eight-track that works on a SMPTE code - like an Otari or a Tascam - to handle all the analogue and acoustic stuff, and the rest of the music would then either be written into the Fairlight or recorded on the MSQ700 using MIDI. That way, I could mix everything straight down onto two-track, effectively cutting out one generation of copying in the form of multitrack tape.
'All I need now is the recording equipment and a proper soundproofed room so that I can be sure the mixes sound right, and once I get to that stage I'll probably give up working in commercial studios altogether, and produce everything myself in my own set-up.'
Leer's long-awaited Arista album - as yet untitled - now looks as though it'll be a mixture of the balladic and the rhythmic, in much the same way as the 'International' single couples a soft, swaying, melodic track with an altogether harsher, more vibrant B-side.
Naturally, he's hoping his recent endeavours will bring him popular success, and has no qualms about making artistic compromises in the attempt to sell records.
'I accept that there is a compromise in releasing things that happen to become commercial, but I never set out to write a commercial song - I find it just doesn't work. Basically, I want to be successful, but I'd like to think my songs were intelligent enough to make pop music interesting and worth listening to.'
And if Leer does achieve that aim, his future could be a lot brighter than a lot of contemporary critics would like to believe, though it's unlikely his plans would include playing a nationwide concert tour ('I just don't enjoy performing, or going to see gigs'), collaborating with Howard Jones ('I don't find much of the electropop very inspiring, though I like the ZTT stuff'), or writing sell-a-million love songs ('the thing with writing songs about relationships is that you can't avoid using cliches, but at least I try and use worthwhile ones').
Still, the man's versatility is such that his output could comfortably encompass writing music for films, directing videos, and producing other bands - all areas he's shown an interest in becoming connected with, even if he's hitherto lacked the necessary time/capital/corporate back-up to get involved too deeply.
And, if his recent track-record is anything to go by, there seems little reason why Thomas Leer shouldn't lend those fields the same confidence and originality that flavours his own, distinctive brand of electropop.
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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