Open The Box
They're a brilliant Soul band. A dub-Reggae band. An avant-garde band. And they don't know how they do it. Or do they? Tony Reed asks the questions...
Colourbox are brilliant, diverse — and play dumb. Tony Reed sighs in frustration
Are you too clever for your own good, Martyn?
It figures. Like 4AD labelmates The Cocteau Twins, Martyn Young, his brother Steve and Lorita Grahame, collectively Colourbox, would rather play music than talk about it. It must make working in 4AD's Press office very frustrating.
It explains the huge wadge of clippings I've just waded through, all attempts to pin down just what makes Colourbox tick. They document the band's four-year history, from the October '82 hard dance debut Breakdown, to the latest venture, a simultaneous launch of two different singles, one a Reggae cover, the other a synth instrumental cheekily called The Official Colourbox World Cup Theme (official, that is, by Colourbox, not the Word Cup Authorities.) The clippings tell me this, and something else, too... The quiet desperation of a journalist fills these pages, and Martyn Young saying 'I dunno'.
The facts, at least, are these. Martyn and Steve, after playing guitar in various do-nothing bands formed the original Colourbox in mid '82 with Ian Robbins, and vocalist Debbion Curry, an action spurred by their first encounter with synths. Like so much of their subsequent career it apparently happened by accident:
"This bloke left a synth round our house, and we started frigging around with that. So we formed a band."
Breakdown, too far ahead of the coming electro wave to do them much commercial good, made a minor splash through its strong production values and smart use of tape cut-ups — and in the process, netted them the 4AD deal. Radio sessions for Powell and Jensen followed. To mark these developments, a mini album was released — with Jensen an unwitting guest star on one of the wilder collage, Shotgun. The band were doing everything — writing, playing, producing, engineering — apparently by instinct. Or, as Martyn puts it:
"Well, everyone's got a pair of ears, haven't they? I just stop when it sounds right."
Something wasn't sounding right as far as Ian was concerned — he left the band. At the same time, Debbion changed her name to Lorita, started singing from the heart instead of the chest, and Soul appeared as a strong new shade in the Colourbox palette. Why?
"We were listening to a lot of Bacharach."
Uh-huh. Martyn explains:
"What we write depends on what we're listening to at the time... Someone left a book round our house about Memphis Soul — you can't avoid trying to work it out, where the left hand goes, what it's doing."
It's hard to credit the shimmering Soul perfection of the singles from this period (The Moon Is Blue, Say You) to such a small coincidence; or the stunning eclecticism of the debut album, a year in the making, to the changing tastes of the band as they worked ('art' cut-ups, 'Classical' piano, Pop, Funk — everything but C&W makes an appearance). But for Martyn it's explanation enough:
"Like, right now, it's Rap. I really like the idea of crossing that with, say, Phillip Glass and The Sex Pistols..."
Yes, but why? How?
"I dunno — I just know it'll work."
To an extent it already has. The World Cup Theme has entered the lower end of the charts with a typically eccentric mix of Phillip Glass-style synth sequences and gigantic drum/brass sounds, reminiscent of ELP's Fanfare For The Common Man. Production this impressive hasn't been heard since Trevor Horn unleashed Propaganda's Dr Mabuse on the world. Yet Martyn is dismissive of the achievement.
"Yeah, Trevor Horn. I really admire him. I mean, we got a big sound on the record, but that's because we overdubbed the brass 24 times. He could probably do it with two trumpets and a reverb. Really, we just — muddle through. I wouldn't say we know what we're doing at all."
I can't be the first tempted to strangle Martyn here, right now in the middle of his bomb site of a living room, in this small basement flat in West London. I mean, nobody, but nobody can walk into a modern recording studio and turn out such polished Pop and not know how they do it. Can they?
Then again, haphazard is evidently a way of life for Martyn. Mess is too small a word for the chaos around us as we talk. Fag ends and food everywhere, the aftermath of a really bad party except it's always like this. Martyn's a mess too, probably wishing that it was him that had flu, and Steve that was humouring the press today. For all that, he's friendly enough, grinning bemusedly at the camera we've brought along. And I thought Pop stars were glamorous. Do you want to be a Pop star, Martyn?
"Naa — I grew out of that. Wouldn't mind the money though."
We're a musicians' mag, so we want an instrument in the shot, his guitar. It'll give me another conversational opening. Martyn doesn't want to hold it, so his manager is deputised. Clad only in a towel, no pin-up, he obliges. I think I know why they get along.
So tell me about the guitar, Martyn. It's a Fender Jaguar, isn't it? A bit knocked about, but obviously a cherished item?
"I dunno. I've never cleaned it... Other people seem to like it."
"I wouldn't say we know what we're doing at all"
What made you choose a Jaguar? It's clean sound, the action...
"Somebody brought it round one day, and never came back for it. So I used it."
As it happens, the boy's not much of a guitarist, spending a day in the studio to get a simple riff sorted, and as often as not, resorting to sampling and triggering off a sequencer instead — something he admits worked well on the band's bent out of shape Supremes cover You Keep Me Hanging On.
Fortunately for the future of Pop, though, he and Steve are dab hands at programming, with Steve taking special responsibility for drums, on whatever machine's available:
"It doesn't matter which, because we only use it to trigger samples on the AMS anyway. It's Darryl Hall and John Oates' drum sound on the Theme... We got Paul Haig's drummer, John Locke, to do some percussion and hi hat overdubs, but I'd sequence everything if I could. It's hard to sequence bends on a guitar sample, though. If we could do that, we could start putting solos in."
The brothers started out on an MC4, graduating to a Prophet Polysequencer for home use, and an MSQ700 for studio work. Incredibly, they programme entirely in step time, working out the basic chord structure and drum patterns in exercise books filled with their own diagramatic notation. Their approach to editing is simple:
"Usually, we get it right first time. If there's a mistake, we switch it off and start again."
Step time programming is something associated with metronomic disco-pap, but the feel evident in most Colourbox tracks is one of the band's strongest assets. How's that managed?:
"Feel is only a matter of percentages — once we've programmed everything, we just tinker around with it a bit, shifting notes or beats forward or back — nothing to it."
The results are heard at home on a Prophet 5/Jupiter 8 combination, bought a couple of years ago because, Martyn explains, "everyone else was buying them too."
In the studio, he professes to use "just what's there — it stops you getting bogged down in your own sounds." In fact the current Colourbox sound owes a lot to the close working relationship the band have formed with Palladium Studios in Edinburgh.
Chosen originally for reason of economy — "the same set-up in London'd cost us three times as much" — the 24-track boasts in addition to the usual spread of studio effects a Kurzweil.
"I'd wanted to try doing some Dub, but never could sequence something bassy enough. We took one of the Kurzweil's bass samples down an octave though, and it was great."
It certainly was. Listen to the three tracks on the 12" Baby I Love You So, and you'll find it hard to believe there isn't a human spine in the bassline.
Another pre-requisite for Dub is the creative use of space, and on this point, at least, Martyn has some very definite ideas:
"Reverbs, yeah! We tried a Lexicon 224X once — a mega-machine. Bit out of our league financially... I prefer AMS, but the Rev7's pretty good, too. No matter what program you use, they both have a certain 'edge' that I like. The Midiverb? Yeah, I tried that. Didn't like it. I think it sounded too — transistorised, y'know?
The third and final component of Colourbox dub is the cut-ups — drop-ins from TV and films which have been part of the band sound right from the start, and taken from a domestic VHS machine. Apparently, the roughness of the results is something Martyn likes, the lo-fi drop-ins drawing attention to themselves against a squeaky-clean musical backdrop. I wondered, by what inspired process was John Carpenter's future-shock movie 'Escape From New York' chosen to cut Lorita's vocals on Baby... A conscious cross-fertilisation of two 'outlaw' genres perhaps?
"Naah. I'd just got the film out that day, to watch, and there was a big gap after the singing finished, so I put the film in there."
Oh well. Win some, lose some. I leave, frustrated by Martyn's refusal to take responsibility for his considerable talents, doubtful that his work can be as instinctive as he makes out — and heartened to think that it just might be. Was he selling me a line? I dunno.
Interview by Tony Reed
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