Playing the Blues
Pop hopefuls or Stock, Aitken and Waterman puppets? The men in Blue give David "newboy" Bradwell the inside story on the SAW production stable.
Pop stars or PWL proteges? Blue Mercedes talk about the pleasures of production by the Stock, Aitken and Waterman machine and the power of image in pop music.
"We'd spent a year perfecting the songwriting and when it came to promotion we didn't realise that people would see first, not the album."
"We'd spent over a year perfecting the songwriting", recalls Titlow, "and when it came to promotion we'd do things for a laugh, not realising that people would see that first and not the album - and maybe only buy the album if they liked the look of us. I think we might have lost a lot of sales through that, but I don't want people not to buy the album just because they remember the clothes we wore."
Never underestimate the power of image... Back to the music, and in particular to the Akai S900 lurking in the studio. Millar readily admits that he doesn't sample himself - surprisingly it's the singer who is most enthusiastic about the controversial art.
"Yesterday we were doing a track, messing around with the vocal bit. It was a high note so we ended up doing it on the Akai and I thought we ought to try doing some more vocal samples. The thing I really like about sampling is in recording voices. Sitting downstairs with Ian Curnow in his studio is wonderful - I could sit there sampling voices all night, chopping up bits and making them sound weird. I love sitting with the Fairlight, taking one word apart, running the light-pen backwards...
Other Blue Mercedes production specialities include the (almost) legendary potato technique.
"We were going to mic a potato up once", announces Titlow, "and have it playing on track 24 to add a bit of ambience. The secret is not to hit it or anything - just put a Calrec microphone next to it and record it for the duration."
"I love the idea of all those gimmicks and tricks - doing things with toilet paper and seeing what happens."
There are no such frivolities in their home studio setup, however. Millar is wary of spending too much time working on demos at home.
"You can get carried away and make demos much more polished than they need to be. I suppose you may discover a new way of doing something if you carry on working with it, but generally speaking, you re-do everything in the studio anyway. I would advise anybody not to spend ten hours working out a single digital delay setting because you're never going to recreate 48-track digital in your home. It's much more important to spend the time working out how a song is written and what makes a good melody line. It works both ways with record companies - in some respects they expect better quality demos now that technology is becoming more accessible, but sometimes a tape can sound too good and they think it's been sent to every record company under the sun, which will naturally make them less interested."
Blue Mercedes' songwriting technique is interesting if only because they invariably start with a title. From there it goes to the piano where it is built up in stages, with Titlow writing the lyrics and melody lines while Millar writes the music. This way the songwriting credits are split evenly between them. From the piano the arrangements are worked out on the Pro24. Time to look more closely at their own studio.
"I started out with a four-track, a Juno 60, a Roland Drumatix and a TB303 Bassline", recalls Millar. "Then I bought an eight-track with a Studiomaster desk and that's what we used for our album.
"When we got our record deal we got an equipment advance so I changed the desk and bought some more gear. I used to do all the drums on an RX11 although I use the Steinberg rather than the drum machine as a programmer.
Now I mainly use the Akai for drum samples and bass sounds, although I haven't explored it nearly enough. I tend to use it as a songwriting aid rather than a sampler.
"The best thing about having a home studio like this is that you don't need to stand around rehearsing all the time, and spending a fortune on rehearsal rooms just to write your songs. The record company like it because it's so cost effective after you've dished out the initial capital - I don't know what they'd do if a band didn't have their own recording facilities."
A LOT HAS been said in the press about BM's debut single, 'I Want to be Your Property' - some of it good, some of it bad, a lot of it concerning aspirations of their management. The first single gained a fairly respectable chart position for a new band; its successor, 'See, Want, Must Have', fared much worse, reaching only No. 57. Titlow takes up the story:
"The first single was really commercial, and the second was an attempt to go against that and become more serious. The title was easy to understand to me, but it got everybody else confused... 'What was that record, 'See, Got, Want, I Want to Have What I See'?' Nobody could remember the title. It was a more sophisticated song in the respect that it had a more credible beat and the lyrics were more interesting. And more than anybody else, I was in favour of it being released as a single. I thought it would show everyone that we can write cred sort of songs, but it backfired."
The charts have always been about dance, and while Blue Mercedes' own brand of dance/pop is built around conventional song structures, that of artists like M/A/R/R/S and S-Express patently isn't.
"'Pump Up The Volume' and 'S-Express' I actually like", proclaims Titlow, "but Bomb the Bass and that 'Bass (How Low Can You Go)' were dreadful. It's really frustrating if you spend all of your time writing songs and somebody walks to No. 1 with a sampled Rose Royce loop - which is what that is with a few backing singers.
At the end of the day you have to have a song, if you don't you become S-Express."
We're about to see the release of single number three, 'Love is the Gun' from the Blue two. The release of Rich and Famous has been delayed in Britain, but it's already in record shops in the States. How do Blue Mercedes consider its ten tracks to have turned out?
"It's a collection of singles", explains Titlow, "which is a failing in a way. We never really thought about the effect they would have as an album. It's more the sort of thing you'd put on at a party. It sounds really demeaning in a way."
But as long as music is going to be played at parties somebody is going to have to make it.
The real trouble seems to start with the fact that there's money to be made out of pop bands - not necessarily by pop bands. And while the money's there to be made, somebody's going to be making it - usually record companies and artists' management.
Interview by David Bradwell
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