Points on the Curve
An interview with this innovative three-piece on the making of their new album, Points On The Curve, the result of a year's work in the studio with Fairlight, PPG et al.
Not so very long ago, Wang Chung were little more than a conventional rock band with some bright ideas about composition and arrangement. Now, a year at Abbey Road surrounded by high-technology musical instruments later, the band are enjoying singles success on both sides of the Atlantic and have just released their second album, Points On The Curve. Dan Goldstein talked to them recently about the making of that album and their attitudes to music writing and playing generally.
Nick Feldman, Jack Hues and Darren Costin began their joint musical career in a band called 57 Men, a six-piece whose necessarily loose format resulted in a rapidly-formed desire for greater musical compactness and the eventual formation of splinter-group Huang Chung, or Wang Chung as their present record company would prefer them to be known.
The basic line-up of the new band consisted of Nick on bass, Jack on guitar and vocals and Darren on drums.
Although the three of them shared common musical aims and desires, their backgrounds differed widely, Jack first picking up a guitar at the tender age of eight as an unpaid apprentice in his father's cabaret band - and taking classical guitar lessons at the same time - Darren taking up piano but rejecting it in favour of 'something more rhythmic', and Nick not beginning to play guitar until his post-school days, turning to bass upon the demise of 57 Men.
While neither members of the Wang Chung rhythm section underwent any formal classical training, Jack Hues continued his 'traditional' musical education by spending four years at college, something about which he has slightly mixed feelings.
'There's no doubt it was a very valuable time for me. The course was quite a good one in that as well as majoring on the mainstream European composers in whom I was principally interested, it also incorporated the theory of Balinese, Javanese and Chinese music, which although I didn't study in any great detail, I did find enjoyable reading about without any other obligations.
'On the other hand, my writing suffered to an extent because I found that in many respects I was preaching to the converted. I'd be playing a piano piece I'd written at a recital, and I'd realise that most of the people in the audience were also writing the same sort of piano pieces and that the only way I'd be able to get out of that rather closed environment would be to apply my writing skills to rock music, which is what I subsequently did.
The trio's first break came when Arista Records picked up on a demo tape and signed them on a one-album deal. That album, entitled simply Huang Chung (the reasons for the name change are still slightly obscure) is conventionally arranged, performed and produced, but nonetheless contains the germ of great songwriting talent at work. When the recording was completed, however, the band themselves were not altogether happy, as Darren explained.
'We went into Basing Street Studios completely green. The record company took the usual attitude of "You're a new band so you don't know what you're doing - we'll get a producer in who does", and I think that was where things went wrong, because although we didn't really know how to get what we wanted in practice, we knew about our own ideas far better than anybody else. We left most of the important sound decisions up to the producer, because we weren't confident enough to do that job ourselves.'
Nick has further thoughts on the subject.
'I think we can probably look on the first album now with a certain amount of affection, but at the time we were a bit disappointed with what we'd done, simply because we hadn't been able to get the best out of what was some pretty decent material. It must be said, though, that I think our songwriting has improved immensely since then, and the new album shows that, I think.'
Regardless of its musical merit, however, Huang Chung fell far short of becoming an overnight success. The band left Arista, and there then followed a lengthy period of silence, during which time many people wrote the trio off as being missing, presumed dead.
Yet the band were far from that.
In reality, they had simply retreated temporarily into the hallowed chambers of EMI's studios at Abbey Road, there to record their second album - their first for their new backers, American label Geffen Records.
In these days of high-speed marketing and rocketing studio costs, a year is an awful long time in which to make just one LP, but as Nick explained, there were several pretty good reasons for the delay.
'Prior to starting the recording we'd had very little experience of electronic or computer instruments, and working with them became very much a sort of extended learning process for us.'
An inkling into just how lengthy and contorted that process must have been can be gleaned from the equipment lists of the band before they went into Abbey Road. Nick was still suffering from nightmares about a Columbus guitar that 'totally defied tuning up, due I think to the intonation being wrong - it probably accounts in part for my slightly weird style!'; Jack was still plagued by 'an old Vox guitar with about 15 pickups on it, all of them sounding exactly the same...', while Darren was just beginning to get used to drumming in time with a newly-discovered LinnDrum.
It wasn't only the band that had to acclimatise themselves to new musical tools, either. Chris Hughes - who was to co-produce the album with Ross Cullum - had just acquired a Fairlight CMI at about the time that Wang Chung began their recording work in earnest, and although he was familiar with the machine's operation at a textbook level, he knew little of how to get the best from the instrument's sampling capabilities.
Another major change manifested itself in the form of studio environment, Abbey Road's solid institutionalism contrasting sharply with the commercial atmospheres to which the band were used. As with the other changes that took place, however, the move into a more workmanlike environment proved beneficial to Wang Chung's end-product. Nick again.
'Abbey Road really was a surprisingly good environment in which to work. The atmosphere takes a bit of getting used to simply because it is so "BBC" and totally unlike the brown shag-pile carpet of commercial studios; the change hit us particularly when we went to lunch, for example, and found ourselves queuing up in the canteen behind 50 members of the London Symphony Orchestra or something. It really is like a place of work, instead of a kind of leisure centre.
'It did have its limitations, though. We did a lot of our recording in Studio Two which, in those days, had an incredibly antiquated mixing-desk, with pull-over faders and a patchbay that always looked like Spaghetti Junction because routing everything was always so troublesome. On the whole though, we survived those technical limitations very well, partly, I think, because we worked in very, very close collaboration with the producers.'
That collaboration also resulted in a lot of headaches so often encountered with operating modern musical and recording equipment being removed, as Jack revealed.
'I think we probably would have spent even longer recording the album if we'd had to discover everything by ourselves. With Chris and Ross around we never had to worry about, say, getting the sync codes for the multitrack, LinnDrum and Fairlight spot-on - they'd have it all worked out before we even started recording.
'Another point worth mentioning is that because both of them are quite close friends of the band, we developed a very good understanding between each other. That is something I see as very important, because obviously there are restrictions on just how accurately you can verbalise about sound. There are only a few different words you can use to describe music, but the aural ranges that music can occupy are very wide. What was good about Ross and Chris was that they seemed to be almost instantly sympathetic to what we wanted to do, so we were complementing each other instead of competing.
The sympathetic producer-artist relationship held true for specifics as well as general attitudes: Jack went on.
'One of the things we did find was that on the Fairlight we were using - an older one without the latest voice cards and so on - a lot of the basic sounds were pretty thin and lifeless, and they needed brightening up so that they could cut through the mix a bit better. So we used a lot of outboard effects, especially reverb.
Ross is an absolute genius with AMS systems and Lexicon 224X. Unlike a lot of engineers, he doesn't just set up something that sounds quite acceptable; once he's found the particular type of acoustic we're after, he'll spend hours trying out new things to see if he can improve it, to try and make it sound different from everybody else's reverb. He uses a Quantec as well and manipulates it in much the same way. In fact I'd say he's an adventurous producer all round, which suits us perfectly.'
Listening to the album - now on nationwide release and given a title, Points On The Curve, it's not difficult to appreciate the skill with which the songs have been arranged and produced. It's a colourful record, full of life and experiment without ever becoming remotely inaccessible. Apart from the traditional tones of a three-piece guitar combo and the Fairlight's unmistakable samplings, other sound textures on the album are provided by ordinary common or garden synthesisers, most notably the Roland Jupiter 8, SCI Prophet 5, and PPG Wave 2.2.
Given such a bewildering array of versatile electronic instruments, it would have been all too easy for Wang Chung to have slipped into the trap of letting the synths do most of the talking for their own sake. Instead, however there's a refreshing lack of synthetic special effects, most of the Fairlight and PPG voices being subtle and carefully weighted - striking without being obtrusive. I wondered what had led the band to choose those sorts of sounds in particular?
'When it came to selecting sounds on the PPG and Fairlight', Jack proffered. 'I think we deliberately avoided sounds that were obviously synthetic - we didn't use any tricks or aural fireworks. What we did do was create some orchestral-type sounds, partly I think because of my own preference for genuine orchestral textures. I don't think we ever consciously went after the sound of an orchestra as such, because for one thing I don't think any of the computer instruments are capable of imitating a full orchestra anyway. I see the Fairlight as being a machine that can put acoustic sounds in inverted commas, as it were, because when you listen to the way it replays a sampled sound, it doesn't really sound like the original at all - it just gives you the range of the thing, a vague air of the acoustic sound.
'When you think about it, acoustic sounds are quite a bit more complex in their harmonic construction than synthetic ones, which tend to have very simple waveforms, and I think that's why the manipulation of acoustic voices is more rewarding than working with synthetic ones.'
Nick brought the computer aspect down to specifics.
'What interests me about working with the Fairlight is the way you can mix, say, a cowbell with something totally alien - you end up with what you might call a perversion of the real thing, rather than an attempt to simulate it accurately. That's partly why we didn't use a real orchestra on the album at all, because although we'd decided we wanted those sorts of textures, we preferred to go for slightly approximated sounds - corruptions if you like - rather than clean, natural ones. There's a danger that if you rely too much on conventional sound sources, you can end up sounding like a band with a Barry Manilow string section.'
And as for the techniques used to create those 'corruptions'?
Jack: That was really where a lot of the learning process came in. At the start we could have thought of a sound and experimented on all the machines for hours on end and still not get it absolutely right, whereas by the end we'd know almost instinctively which keyboard to approach first to get a certain sound quickly.
'What we did find was that it was quite difficult to use just one electronic or computer instrument on a certain song. All the machines have their various strong points and they complement each other, so that for instance we found ourselves using the Fairlight for Chinese orchestral-type voices on 'Even If you Dream' and then backing them up with a sound from the PPG. Using one of the stock sounds on the Fairlight, if you try hard enough you can almost always find something that resembles it on the Wave 2.2 as well - you can then layer the sounds together so that the Fairlight provides the clarity while the PPG adds the punch and the warmth.
Given the amount of care with which Wang Chung's recent material has been arranged, it's perhaps surprising to learn that, at the songwriting stage at least, the actual sounds of the instruments are very definitely of secondary importance.
'Certainly with this new album', Nick commented, 'when I was writing from the keyboard I tried to set up as neutral a sound as possible on the Prophet 5 - my main writing instrument. Working that way, you ensure that none of what you write has come about as a result of going overboard on a particular sound. The emphasis is very much on melody, form and structure, and I think the album as a whole has a very definite individual style that reflects that neutrality of sound, and becomes very evident as you listen to it.
'Obviously sound textures are important to us - they're a significant part of what we do - but they're something that generally comes in at a later stage for us.'
Jack has more to say on the subject.
'What I think is quite important is that because most of our songs are quite strong as compositions, and because they don't rely on a certain synth sound for most of their effect, they stand up pretty well to the transition between recording and performance. Most of our material is worked out with a certain amount of detachment from what we're using, rather than simply being the result of messing about with a particular sound, and that results in songs that stand up equally well in a live situation as they do in a studio one.'
The subject of live performance is a topical one because, in the not too distant future, Wang Chung will be stepping-out on a major British tour to promote Points On The Curve. They'll be using an additional band-member to take care of the keyboards (in the studio they split that duty about 50-25-25 with Jack doing most of the work, but none of them has so far succeeded in mastering playing more than one instrument at once), and he'll be greeted on stage by a Jupiter 8, the Prophet and a PPG, possibly a new one. They'll also - rather astonishingly in this context - be taking an old Novatron out on the road with them.
Darren: 'We're using it as a sort of cheap sampling device, playing recordings of hi-hats backwards and so on. It's ideally suited to live use because it's so sturdy, though having said that, the only previous time we gigged with it, it blew up, though Adrian Lee, who was playing keyboards with us at the time and whose instrument it was, maintains that's the only time it's ever happened, and I believe him.'
At the opposite end of the performance spectrum, Wang Chung are also in the process of expanding their home studio facility, turning Nick's current Fostex A8 into a B16, complete with 16-channel mixer.
'I like the idea of somewhere I can just come to and work if I want to,' Nick commented. 'At the moment I've got the eight-track which is basically fine, but it does impose obvious limitations such as your having to use drum machines instead of kits and not being able to work on demos as hard as you might want to.' The musical future looks like being a rich one, too...
'We've already started writing material for the next Wang Chung album,' Nick assured me. 'And there's a possibility Jack and I might be working on some film music together. That would be nice if it comes off, because I think it's good to get away from the band format now and again. Whatever happens, though, I'll probably be writing with Jack for the foreseeable future - we seem to be able to work together very well as a team.
'The only thing I might consider doing on my own is production work, which is something we all became more interested in as a result of recording Points On The Curve.'
So there you have it.
A band who have successfully made the transition from conventional rock methods to being a group of thoroughly modern musicians who have found computers and synthesisers to be the key in their search for the right acoustic textures and colours. Their compositional skill is as distinctive as their choice of instrumentation, and the net result is a fine blend of the traditional and the futuristic.
Long may they continue.
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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