One of the strangest new groups of the 1980s, PTV have pioneered the use of the holophonic system of recording sound for their new album, 'Dreams Less Sweet'. Tim Oakes talks here to Genesis P Orridge, founder member of the band, about the new system and the mystique of PTV
Through the contention, accusations of hype, critical panning, and general disbelief, Psychic TV have emerged as a powerful force in the music of the 1980s. Utilising the Holophonic sound technique, coupled to their own idiosyncratic blend of music, the band press on with their 'curious music'. Below, Genesis P. Orridge talks of the mythology of the band, the holophonics, and the creation of the tracks that became 'Dreams Less Sweet' their new album on Some Bizarre. Whatever is whispered, groaned or enthused about Psychic TV, one thing can be said - they are intriguing.
We spent the time between Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV working out whether we wanted to do anything more, and if so what. This became a long six months of talking. It was Alex who pre-empted Psychic TV existing, because he used to ring me up and say "Look you have to do something, just give me some lyrics and I'll work on them". He nagged at me for a while, so, basically to shut him up, I sent him some scribbled lyrics. He started work, and that became the basis of Just Drifting and Stolen Kisses and that formed the trigger for the whole thing happening.
If you are a member of Psychic TV there is one main requirement, and that is that you give the band 100%, 24 hours a day and you are prepared, if things took a wrong direction, like an ultra right-wing government, to go to prison to protect the right to speak and live as a member of the band. The dedication is the first order, the musicianship is the second. We spend a lot of time talking over the ideas and the theories that we want to project before we ever start. That was the reason behind the six months or so that we spent before the LP was actually started. We began by working out between us everything that was possible, we didn't discount anything, anything from opera, through country and western to reggae, then we started to say that we would like to try. From this came a subsequent 'list' which was composed on the left hand side of all the things that we definitely wanted, and on the right all those things that we definitely wanted to avoid if at all possible. It was basically a sort of curiosity, 'what would an opera singer sound like with wolves' and that sort of thing. They dictated the form, and what was left from the list, after all the adding and subtracting, became the album.
The selection process for the tracks that finally appeared was very much an emotional thing. We recorded a lot more material than appeared on the album, and we went through all the material that we had, and took away that which didn't tell the listener anything new, or that the listener would not learn anything from. Other ones appear to come into a non-category due to the style, but it was the content that we were concerned with, and at times it was camouflaged.
We also had the problem of how much material can actually be placed onto an album. That was why there are more tracks on the cassette tape than on the record. For us, it is the cassette that tells the full story, in the right order.
The cassette begins with Hymn 23. This was played on the church organ in Hampstead. In addition we recorded different notes sung by the opera singers and put them onto the Emulator, and then played the Emulator back as if it was a church choir. That is the reason behind the strange modulation behind the sound, that of human voices, but tuned like an organ.
Basically, side one is the seductive dogmas of society and this is what we consider to be the enemy. Then side 2 is our sort of world. So, the organ at the beginning of side 2 is the opposite of that on side one - he has a breakdown, and from there on in you are in our world that is rather more illogical and chaotic, but has a feeling and an energy that is lacking in the other world - which always ends in death.
There is the society of control on one side, and Eden - the uncorrupted world where man is still an instinctive animal, on the other.
Technologically 'Dreams Less Sweet' is the most advanced album ever released. Just on the level that it is the very first totally holophonic release, and we did not use a microphone at all. It is all on 24 track digital, and the recording was done on video cassettes, which were edited using video editing techniques. All the sound effects that are in there we recorded ourselves. A few examples: we went out with the head, Ringo, to a friend who trains champion attack dogs and recorded the growling of the dog as it attacked, for the gunshots we got a man who used to be the Sergeant At Arms in the Army base in Aldershot and who now works for a company called Bakti And Co (sic) who do all the gun sound effects for television. He came down with a case full of machine guns and the like. We had to get local Police permission to do the recording - basically to tell them that it wasn't an uprising. He ran around the fields around the studio, stalking and attacking Ringo and running past him, shooting him, and it was all taken down on the portable video recorder and later placed onto the main tapes. The coffin, and the sound of the burial was all for real. We actually dug a grave, we bought a real coffin from the undertakers in Farnham and placed Ringo in there and shovelled back the soil to give the recording of someone being buried.
The bonfire sounds were recorded in the field as well. It was the time that I nearly got killed. They didn't tell me that it was soaked in petrol. You can hear them saying 'Go on light the fire', we left that on, because the next moment I vanished into the flames. We had a video running at the time, recording visually, and I really was surrounded by the flames. Every time that I hear that bit I get a shiver, a chill. I didn't half move fast out of there! Then the scream that follows it is actually Alex Ferguson laughing - but tinged with nerves.
Because Ringo is actually a head, a lot of people think, through the language, that he is a dummy head. He is not. To explain; the sounds that we hear are not only through our ears, they are also through the head - the brain. The brain decides, when it has received the information, whether something is behind you or above or whatever. You don't actually have to move your ears or your head - you can close your eyes and 'see' where the sound is coming from. That is the brain process. Zuccarellis great contribution is that he has worked on the way that the brain interprets and processes the material that it is given. Ringo, then, is a real skull. An actual human skull. Over that is a rubber skin and over that is real human hair. Below are a pair of polystyrene shoulders. This is realistic because sound travels through the ears, through the bones, and also through the skin. Ultimately, I suppose, Zuccarelli wants to build a body too. The problem here is building it without flesh. It has, for instance, to have lungs. This is so that we can reproduce the sounds of a very loud noise actually hitting the body.
The way that we found the Zuccarelli process was fairly round-about. We always use Ken Thomas as our engineer, simply because he seems to be the only engineer who can handle the way that we work. For the first half of our recording is very chaotic and it seems very illogical - there aren't a lot of bands who start their recording by buying coffins, digging graves, and hiring machine gunners...
So Ken just learned to go with the flow, and he trusts us. He is also the man who is responsible for turning the ideas that we have into actual studio technology and getting them into the project. He happened to know Mike King from years before, when they both worked at Advision, and Mike King is Hugo Zuccarelli's partner. So when the process was developed he took it to Ken and played it to him. He was working with us at the time on the Forced Hand Of Chance, and he came in saying "You guys should hear this, you're going to love this, it is built for you" and we started work on our ideas for the process almost immediately.
The process is quite complex, and being boffins they hate the way that I explain it, but for the man in the street, of which I am one as well, it can be explained like this: Like radar, or a bat, Ringo sends out a frequency, at seven cycles per second, and that fills up the space that it is in. It bounces off the room itself, the furniture, the people, the instruments, anything in fact that is within its air space. That goes through a box, the interference with the sound, and it transfers the sound that it is presented with to the tape. But as well as that, any sound or movement within the room is also an interference, then this also becomes part of the signal. It is like a 3D picture of the space that is around it - in sound. When you create another sound in that space then it becomes a 'piece' in the room.
This is then registered, as well as your own movements within the space. That is the theory, the difficult part of the whole process, and the part that we don't know, is how in fact that signal is then presented to the tape.
The thing that everyone is obsessed with is Ringo himself, the head. But all that he is, is a transmitter/receiver, sending out the signals and then sorting out the material that comes back.
I am not a technical expert on the system, but from what I've been told, and what I have overheard, there are no microphones involved in Ringo. It is like one of those Polaroid cameras that works out the distance and then takes the photo. This is the basis in logical terms to what Ringo does - but on a much more technical scale.
Everything on the album was recorded with Ringo, except for Catalan and The Pack, when we didn't have him. The wolves growling are actually holophonic, but they were fed into the Emulator. There is another album out in a limited edition of 1,000 copies that is just the wolves. Holophonic wolves through an Emulator. One side of the album is called Trained To Kill and the other side Sexual. It came about when were recording The Pack, and a friend of ours Joy De Vais (sic) was there and loved the sound of the wolves. We set it up, and he made a master tape of two lots of twenty minutes - both sides. The album is called 'Music For Hashashin', under his project name of Vagina Dentata Organ. It is ambient, and I suppose our answer to 'Music For Airports'.
We hope that people will treat 'Dreams Less Sweet' as a mental experience. It has sections, but nothing is quite what it seems, in the same way that nothing in a dream or a fantasy film is quite what it seems. I thought that it could have turned out really alien, but as we worked on it I found that, because we didn't have to think about stereo or anything, it became easier to get an alien feeling without the content or the style having to change.
The beauty of the system is that it gives you freedom. Basically, freedom for your imagination. 'What would it be like if someone whispered right behind you, and then a mile away?' and you can do it. It isn't just the effect of that - it is real, you have to go a mile away and do it. What you hear on 'Dreams Less Sweet' is real.
Once you get used to the idea that you can do anything, and move around, you are then completely liberated and through that liberation you can start to experiment with it. You start to push against whatever boundaries present themselves. At one point we actually hung Ringo from the ceiling and swung him across the room. We sat him in the chair as if he was the listener - which he is of course - and we played and sang at him. Whatever happens to Ringo, or around Ringo, is exactly what you will hear. It makes life a lot simpler once you believe it, and realise quite what is happening.
Doing the vocals was much nicer than using a microphone. I stood there, and stroked his hair as I sang. When things got more aggressive I could shout at him.
The physical process is that the signals go to Ringo, then via two wires from him to The Box and then that goes into the tape. On the location work we used the Betamax portables and then transferred those signals onto the master. There was no mixing to do, all we had to do was set the levels. It gave us enormous freedom to go out and do some location recording, like going down 300 feet underground to record the drums in a cave. That would be overlayed with the sound of voices in a church, and the vocals done in a caravan...
What I don't know is to what extent the process is useful to other bands. I can't see people wanting to hear Kajagoogoo running around their head recording their basic bass lines... but there are a lot of musicians I can think of who might find it useful.
We did attempt to do some live recording with Ringo, but it was very hard. First we had to find a place in the room that was perfect for the recording and sit Ringo there. But because he is rather conspicuous the audience would all be going "Ooh what's this?!" - and that is all you would get from the tape. The other way of recording, while there was no one in the room, defeats the object - and also Ringo can 'feel' that the room is empty, that the seats are empty and that there really is no-one there. In theory you could get a very, very good idea of a live performance, but in practice you would either have to have a very well behaved audience, or string Ringo up in the air - which wouldn't be realistic. You can 'feel' through Ringo. For instance you can 'feel' when he is in the enclosed space of the coffin.
Alex said, after we had been recording, that we do treat him like a person, and that it was very, well, comfortable, playing to him. But there are other reasons why we treat him as a real person. He goes to sleep at night for instance. He has a special box to 'sleep' in and gets his eight hours like the rest of us. He also likes to be warm, which is something that Hugo discovered.
It has become the standard way that we record things, and when we were forced to go into a 'normal' 24 track studio it threw us completely. We had to come back after a week because we had forgotten about the mixing! And the stereo, and the positioning. In three weeks our entire attitude and technique of recording had been changed. We were trying to play to microphones like we did to Ringo and the sound was wrong, quite flat and 2D.
Apart from the Emulators and the like, the basic instruments that we used on the album were an old Burns Bass that I found. Someone had thrown it away. Alex hired an Ovation acoustic guitar, and the drums were from junk shops and second hand - but we fitted them with real skins. Alex also plays one of those short scale guitars, very tiny. Jeff uses the Stick bass in there as well.
What we were aiming for was an overall sound, and not technical music. That was where the Stick bass came in, playing more intuitive drones than technical works. In addition we used a Mimic, the new unit, like an Emulator but samples a cassette. You can have a Walkman, or similar, with an album recorded onto it which could be anything from the John Barry Seven, the Crossroads theme, our old album, holophonic wolves - anything. It would play, and when you press the button it is that second of material that is fed into the machine. I suppose that you could plan it out and have, say, five minutes of one sound, the five of another and so on. But it is the random idea that appeals, almost spiteful in its quality.
I tried the Fairlight, but I find it really boring. I feel that there is too much technology there than the average person can deal with. I find that the Emulators are much much more versatile, the Fairlight is technology, but the Emulator is an instrument. The Emulator is like a synth should always have been. The Fairlight is a Godzilla sort of thing - just a bit hard to handle.
It isn't that we are against technology as such - we used to use computers for sampling, in much the same way as the Fairlight, in the days of Throbbing Gristle, and I think that we may turn to computers again for the video switching, to get the visual programs right. But with the computers, I don't feel that they could be very useful to Psychic TV, they are a bit too academic. We like an element of chance and the computer doesn't have that, I suppose you could build in a program that allowed for it but... it is easier for the Mimic.
The live performances that we are planning are very hard to describe. The closest to it on the album would be something like Eden. It sounds corny and cliched, but it will be a bit like Sister Ray on overdrive - the element of TG at its worst.
It's going to be completely out to lunch - but organised, a very rhythmic feel, plenty of tuned percussion like tympani, with the addition of some holophonic material - again rhythm. You can't play through Ringo live, but what you can do is use pre-recorded tapes that have been made via Ringo. A normal PA is rather bad for the holophonics because it is split into horns, mid range and bass which defeats it to some extent. Holophonics is really more suited to things like Walkmen or even car stereos.
Eden really is the odd track out. It was recorded with us all just having a jam around Ringo. There was a rhythm tape fed in, which formed the basis, and then I listened through to try and find some pattern, and then wondered if it was manic or melodious. Like sampling through your brain to gauge the structure.
I very much like the Emulator - it's the first time that I have really felt that I like a keyboard. It has no limits, your imagination can go as far as you want, and the only structure is the keys themselves. On Ancient Lights, the squealing noises there in the background are actually Tibetan thigh bone trumpets that were played into the Emulator.
Another effect that I think forms an important part of the whole album is the car sequence - where you hear a car going right over your head. This was done outside the studios where there was a manhole cover which was the sewer. We lifted out the lid, and, being small, I got volunteered to go in. I crawled in with Ringo and pushed the head above the level of the cover. They took it in turns to drive a car straight at me and I had to keep looking to make sure that he was close enough to the car. I had to be pulled out of there! The things you do for art.
You have to learn to live with the real. A lot of musicians are so used to harmonisers, AMS, reverb and plate to make something wrong sound good. This way there is no chance 'later on' to make the rubbish sound good, you get what you get and have to live with it - unless you want to do it again. The possibilities of doing drop in's are slight - it is possible, but they would have to remember exactly where you were standing, make sure that nothing in the room had been moved, that sort of thing. The orchestral piece lost about 80% because someone went wrong somewhere.
I think that Roger Waters is planning to use the holophonics again on his next album, he was very trepidant on the last LP with it, so now he is planning to do more. I think that he may be a bit more courageous because of what we have done.
We made a special point of making the album as varied as it possibly could be simply to confound those people who said that it was just going to be an album of sound effects. We always have used sound effects and we would have done that anyway, but we wanted to prove that the holophonics can be used for music. It has been an aid to us because it also keeps the mystery which is important to the band.
Otherwise it's just music and we try to be one step ahead of the music. I think that people are patronised by too many musicians, and even more by too many record companies who live in the assumption that they will be happy with what they are given and will make do, and even that they don't want to be confused or stimulated. We take the view that people are incredibly curious and nosey. That's why they talk over the back fence and go into pubs and talk. That is what human nature is like. So if you take a private mythology - some would call it in-jokes, then you give it a quality that is the impression that there is more, deeper in, and that if they dig down they will discover more and more. If people ask of us in an interview "Why did you use that symbol?" then there is a reason for it - even though the reason may seem stupid to them. That doesn't matter, it is the fact that there is a reason behind it that will keep people curious and keep them digging into it to try and find some more. The whole of Psychic TV was planned.
Disturbing wolves or mad dogs run across the floor towards you. Someone fires off a machine gun just behind you, while right in front of you the telephone rings. A car roars past with the horn blaring. Whispers in my left ear. I am in a coffin, the lid is closed; the soil rattles onto the lid. Claustrophobia. A cacophony of car horns in the distance.
Just a few lines from notes taken while listening to the album Dreams Less Sweet. And dramatic those sound effects are! Dreams less sweet... are nightmares.
What has clouded the opinions of many are the presence here of those holophonics. Utilised by the band to emphasise their music, they have, in fact, eclipsed the actual content. It is the music that is curious, not simply the effects, however revolutionary they may be. Their strange blend of insistent guitars, powerful percussion, and gentle vocals fulfil that need for a 'curious music' that transcends the ambient with a powerful generation of mental interest that beggars comparison. There are 22 tracks here, and all (bar one) are compelling to the listener. The musicianship and compositional skills expressed are undeniably some of the forces that will see us well into the 1980s, on a path that Psychic TV, almost single handed, have paved. The lyrics range from the eerie (the spine-tingling repetition of 'He Is The Father Of Fear, The Muscle Of Sin') to the disarmingly infantile ('Santa Claus Is Checking His List/Going Through It Twice/Seeing Who Is Naughty And Who Is Nice'). The first Psychic TV release, using 'Binaural Sound', made little impact, but Dreams Less Sweet is the clincher.
The actual sound of the instruments is superb. The acoustic guitar is crisp and clear, while the spatial dynamics of the church organ used sound like those of a cathedral! As mentioned before, however, the vocals are the most intriguing, ranging from a whisper (right in your ear if you wear headphones...) to a snarling roar. And all done with a realism that is astounding. The Emulator sounds are less successful, with a degree of 'otherness' when compared with the original acoustic recordings. This, perhaps, is a shortfall that cannot be overcome unless someone comes up with a 'thinking' Emulator that can subtly alter the basic sound to fit the environment.
But in a strange way, it works. The Emulator sound of the wolves growling has all the wrong acoustics. You hear wolves growl out in the open air, and to encounter them in an aural environment something like a living room is somewhat startling.
Thus a picture is built up by the band in subtle washes. The movement from track to track is hairline, while the overall impression is one of profound conceptualism - only without the concept - based on an idea of linking the listener to the material by curiosity. The investigation of the sublime and the wary study of the ridiculous.
It becomes hard to describe the style of the music here simply because it is new. Overtones of King Crimson are present with an edge of Siouxsie. The vocals are sub-Jim Morrison and really tie together the various sections and temperaments the album expresses.
Juxtaposition is the paramount overview of Dreams Less Sweet, like wolves in the living room, and the music reflects this. The subject matter is, to an extent, outwardly sincere, but the coupling of sinister forms to sweet and innocent lyrics creates an entirely new emotion.
But all this falls flat on its face for one track here - the malevolent soundtrack of 'In The Nursery'. The imagery fails, and the repetition of the words loses the listener's concentration.
But one minus point is overwhelmed by the verve and sophistication of the album: take a tip and listen on (good) headphones. Curious? You should be.