Red Hot And Blue
Fritz McIntyre - the key is simplicity
Fritz McIntyre has been Simply Red's piano man from the word go, and has just completed the biggest tour in the band's history. Well, something got him started, and he's been doing the right thing ever since...
They came from all over the place... Kent, Surrey, Essex, and judging by one particular coach inching its way through the milling throng outside Wembley Arena - Northampton. Northampton? You mean Simply Red aren't playing the Roper's Arms this year? Apparently not. But they have been all over the world, several times. After a mere four albums, they're one of the biggest live attractions anywhere, and can prove it by filling the Arena over nine separate evenings.
There is a price, of course. A few nights following this one, Mick Hucknall's voice finally packed in and the show, at the NEC, was cancelled. Ah, well. It could so easily have been Fritz McIntyre's hands. He admits to strange symptoms towards the end of a tour, and having pounded the keys of at least one Roland A80 into total submission he might have missed the tail end of this one, some twelve months into it. Backstage, lounging most unlike a man shortly about to strike the first chord in front of 10,000 people, he explains the problem...
"To be honest, I haven't found the right keyboard. I'm still looking for the right keyboard, but the Roland A80 is a good, sturdy keyboard. Particularly for someone who doesn't bang it as much as I do! I've had to replace it." Sitting with him, even more relaxed, is his keyboard tech Roger Lyons, the man charged with the task of picking up any pieces that Fritz leaves lying around. He laughs: "It's been back to Roland to be modified, because he wore the action out on it after about three months of playing it. They are quite reliable, though. We got another one as a backup, which is now being used on the small stage."
The small stage is Simply Red's little surprise on this tour. Basically, they are their own support band, and begin the show on a rostrum in the middle of the floor space using basic equipment and a smaller part of the PA. "The middle stage is totally separate," explains Roger. "I was going to run MIDI tie lines down the PA, but I was asked to keep the two systems totally separate, and to keep it simple. So there's just a Yamaha SY99, on its own, for Fritz. I was dead impressed with them; we got one on approval from TSC, who are really helpful, and Fritz loved it. We spent a night programming various sounds. What I normally do is take a bog-standard piano sound - if we like it enough we'll just leave it as it is - but nine times out of ten I'll dive in and edit it, usually by making four copies, and doing a slight variation on each one.
"When we decided to do the separate set on the middle stage, I thought I'd get the box with the best pianos. I tried the Kurzweil K2000, and I was really into it, but I wanted a rack version and I couldn't get one till the third week in December. Then I was told the rack version of the SY99, the TG500, only has the sampling part of it, and that wouldn't do the job. So we went with the SY99 keyboard. I've done a lot of work on the sounds, using some of the in-built effects. We also use an organ sound in that set, and the SY99 has a wicked organ sound, like a dirty, clicky old Leslie sound."
It's a tight, clubby set, and further proof of the band's stage confidence. With Fritz using just the one piano, his crucial role becomes even clearer. But one has real fears for its safety. "I had a Yamaha KX88," he admits, "and I battered that up as well. It's at home, now. You press a key, and it doesn't come back up any more. It just lies there. The action's dead. I think I'm actually wearing me hands out at the same rate. It's hard to play that many gigs with that kind of dynamic style without putting that much physical effort into it. I don't think about it; it's just the same way as cello players get certain injuries from playing cello, and violinists get neck injuries. I've noticed a few niggling things, nothing major - but that's over a year of touring. If it's an up-tempo song, I try to put as much into it as possible."
Fritz's driving piano grooves certainly put something very distinctive into the Simply Red sound. On Picture Book, the debut album, it was the clarity and richness of his DX piano sounds, played with such understated precision, which to my mind lifted the band above its pop/soul peers of the mid-'80s. Not a bad singer in the band, either, I seem to recall. Over the years, the pads have got richer, but the basic piano sound has actually drawn closer to that of a grand - as close as synthesis will allow, that is. For Fritz is a synth man, not too keen on samplers and not so extravagant as to cart a real piano around with him. And proud though he may be of those album sounds, the job of gigging has other priorities.
"It never sounds exactly like the albums; to do that I'd have to use exactly the same synthesis, and it's not practical to carry that many keyboards around with you. But it isn't necessary to duplicate the sounds exactly, for a live show. The main reason we've never taken that approach is because what I play is generally within the piano sphere, so that what I'm trying to achieve is a type of sound, rather than a whole lot of specific sounds. If you're after a type of piano with a lot of chorus on it, there are alternatives you can use without having to dig out the particular keyboard you used before.
"On this world tour I'm using less equipment, by choice. I tend to use things that you can buy anywhere in the world, wherever you are, so that if anything goes wrong you can get a replacement. I'm not precious about them, but I do think the Kurzweil K1200 in particular has got some great piano sounds - sounds that I can use. And with having someone like Roger around, I can modify those sounds to my heart's content. With the Kurzweil and the Korg Wavestation, I can put two or three composite sounds together, program them in a way that is totally suitable for what I'm trying to play, and come up with the sound that makes me play well. Each song has got composites of usually two sounds, two boxes. On the older stuff you might have more, but the newer stuff is definitely simpler."
It may sound simple, but there's some very dedicated preparation that goes into it, as Roger will tell you. "It's fine-tuned over the first month or maybe six weeks of the tour. We'll spend a whole night going through it; recording parts from every song into a sequencer, go and listen to it out front through the main rig, and then go back and do edits on the sounds. Then listen to it again. The sequence would be almost exactly as Fritz plays it, so we could fine-tune the sounds all the time. As soon as Fritz wants to change something slightly, we can just dive in and do it."
"We'll spend a whole night recording parts from every song into a sequencer, go and listen to it out front through the main rig, and then go back and do edits on the sounds. Then listen to it again"
"The major work," Fritz points out, "has already been done, ten or eleven months back! I've not had any major problems all year. The rack's pretty well-built, and there isn't too much equipment to worry about. There are no samplers, for example, in the keyboard rack. That's somebody else's department. I don't need to have a sampled piano sound, because what you hear out front contains so much else which is bombarding the frequencies that I play in, it's not the same sound that I can hear anyway. I accept that you have to compromise a bit, to be practical."
The sampling department, it turns out, is divided between Tim Kellett - trumpet, keyboards, and like Fritz a founder member of the band - and Gota, the new drummer from Japan whose rack is ably manned by drum tech Merv Pearson. "Tim's got the samplers," explains Roger, "two S1000s - and mainly handles the pads. Fritz carries the main piano grooves, although Tim does some piano parts as well - mostly DX piano sounds - which he plays over the top of Fritz; different lines, just trying to groove round what Fritz is playing. Then he'll put the pad in the chorus, for example. There are lots of drum samples too, but not out of the keyboard racks. That's a separate system, run by Merv over there. We look after the programming side between us; I'll edit sequences and he looks after the samplers, mainly. The band call us The Mad Professors. And I have been referred to as the SCSI Pervert."
Fritz is happy with the arrangement. "The Kurzweil and the Korg produce sounds which are very useable, and we can get in and change any bits that are making me feel weird. For example, each sound has its own wave, and we can edit those on Roger's Apple Mac; and I use touch sensitivity a lot, using programs which create modulation or extra timbres according to pressure. If I want a preset which includes one of those programs, but I don't want that effect, we can just take it off. Sometimes I'll program it myself, but usually I'll play, Roger will mess around, and then we'll listen. That suits me! We always come up with something I like.
"The overall keyboard sound evolves with playing with the band. For example, we programmed the whole four albums for the tour, but then we had to play with the band to see how our sounds fitted in with everybody else." Fritz says this with the air of a man who owns a Ferrari but who has just been reminded of the speed limit. "Sometimes we thought our sound was right, but it was just too big. For some of them, we had to take some of the keyboards out, to fit in with the other instruments operating in that frequency. But they sounded brilliant in the studio. I felt like Superman... for about five seconds.
"But it's so practical, now. I don't actually feel that I have to change much for a live setup. I don't need more than three keyboards, in a rack. What for? That encompasses everything I do. I don't have to do the string parts, or the brass parts. I know what type of musician I am - I'm a groove player. So I play in a particular area in the sound, and depending on what song we're doing, I just fill that space. If it's a slow song, like 'Picture Book', there's a different approach, a quiet vibe - but, in fact, that's the only song left in which I do an ambient thing; with cellos, in fact. And having said that, we haven't even played it on this leg of the tour, although the sound's there, if I need it. So it's very simple."
But not very read, in fact. Fritz is an intuitive player, the sort who can play with his eyes closed. Even when writing, he's not really, well, writing... "I've tried writing in a few different ways, but I generally tend to write from whichever instrument triggers a 'groove' emotion. I like to write with a rhythmic approach. So if the bass melody gives me something that can complement what I'm playing, then I'm off... I don't think about writing when I groove. I know that it is actually 'writing', or creating, but I don't think about it as such. It's just the way I play, and if at the end of it I listen back to something I've recorded and I think 'yeah, that sounds nice...', then I take it a step further."
This somewhat deflates a notion I had, dunno where it came from, that Fritz and Mick Hucknall might be developing into a sort of Bacharach/David songwriting duo, labouring for hours over a hot piano and manuscripts. "On this last album, Mick and I were in a studio in Manchester, and we were sort of thrashing out ideas in that way. But 'Thrill Me' was started actually towards the end of the last world tour. I'd been jamming this keyboard groove, and one day Mick got up on stage in a soundcheck and started to sing some lines to it. But I think that's quite common with bands; some do it all the time, others just seem to get into sync at a certain point in a tour. It's a lot easier to do if you've got time in a soundcheck - which doesn't happen very often, even for us. This is going to be our ninth gig here, and we've soundchecked twice. So that's why it's really hard to jam new stuff."
"Sometimes we thought our sound was right, but it was just too big - we had to take some of the keyboards out to fit in with the other instruments. But they sounded brilliant in the studio. I felt like Superman... for about five seconds"
"We," says Roger, on behalf of the crew, "come in and line-check all the instruments every day, and it's all setup from the night before. I know straight away if anything's wrong by banking through all the sounds in all the modules. But normally I'll go through the sounds, and if the engineer's happy, that's it. Nobody touches anything overnight. If they do, they get their hands cut off."
Now that would be a good excuse for cancelling a gig. 'Ladies and gentlemen, unfortunately Fritz McIntyre is indisposed this evening, Roger found him tinkering with his Kurzweil after hours...' After tours, meanwhile, Fritz enjoys what every good keyboard player enjoys - his collection. "My house is full of all me old keyboards. I never get rid of any of them, because they become so precious. The synthesis changes, you can't get hold of them and they become valuable antiques. And some of the sounds on them are great, that's what I keep them for. Every time I want to record something, I've got the sound. Even the DX7, with all the noise that it gives off, it's got some great sounds. And nowadays you don't even have to make up your own library, you can just send off for sounds.
"I also have a regular old Atari running C-Lab Notator version 3.1, which is very common, very useful. When I'm sequencing I basically just go into record, put down a complete idea, and then go through and clean it up, and build it from there. I'm not supposed to be intelligent enough to use a computer, but I look at it this way: if they can work for me, they can work for anybody. It's not that I can't understand how to access all the programs, it's whether I want to. If I go too far, then I lose the playing side of it, which is the feeling that comes naturally to me. If I became an engineer in my free time, and spent so much time doing it that I stopped playing, then obviously I will have changed my abilities, and eventually it would make it harder for me to play - something you've got to keep doing."
So is there a danger that somebody who is already a trained keyboard player can lose sight of their abilities by relying too heavily on a computer? "Not really. If you look at it as having a 16-track tape machine, with the ability to actually record 96 tracks, that's a useful angle. Use it for whatever you need in a studio recording sense; the rest of it is for when you are bored, or when you want to learn something. For me, it's a necessary tool for anybody who's in the business of playing professionally, because it's a way of keeping information.
"Even if you're not intending to write, you can come up with some great ideas, and they'd be wasted if you didn't have this instant recording facility. It's the best method yet, and it works professionally in a proper studio. Whatever people say, you can get completed music from a computer. A lot of modern music is made totally that way. Then there are those who use samplers and Notator..."
A note of doubt has crept into Fritz's voice. Technology overload? "Samplers, for me, are great if you've got the time - if you want to spend all your time sampling everything, fine. Me, I'll sample when I need something special, when I want a particular sound. The rest of the time I'm happy modifying the bog-standard sounds to fit my idea. My idea is different from somebody else's idea; what I'm looking for does not have to be the same as what everyone else might want. My problem is that I don't have time to learn all the programming details.
"Soundchecks have to be disciplined, and once I'm into the routine of touring I can't stay up and play every day without causing problems. There's nine of us on stage, and everybody's got to get their sound right. Maybe the sax or the trumpet has problems, so they want quiet, to sort their sounds out. So it's only every once in a while that we actually mess around with what's there."
Roger chips in: "I have a dabble on the sly, sometimes..." "Yeah," says Fritz, "he's a really good dabbler." "I stay behind some nights after gigs," continues Roger, "just doing editing on me Mac, and coming up with new sounds. Fritz changes the sounds from his MIDI keyboard. What I've done is set his keyboard up so it's got the name of every tune, for each individual patch. That sends a patch change to the Function Junction, which has been great. We've got them in all the electronic racks. It changes the level and the patch for each of the modules required for each particular song. It's not the actual set list - I've done that for Tim's D70 - but Fritz has the set list on the floor and he knows where all his sounds are. He just goes for them straight away; I've never had to use change information, although we could if we wanted to, of course."
"I had a Yamaha KX88 and I battered that up. It's at home, now. You press a key, and it doesn't come back up anymore. It just lies there. The action's dead. I think I'm wearing me hands out at the same rate"
The interior of Wembley Arena is uncannily like that of a cross-channel ferry: bright, metallic and long. You expect to rock gently as you queue for your cardboard pizza. And the lounges and dressing rooms down below are equally nautical, like cabins. But then a transient world like this is eminently suitable for musicians. "When I get off this tour," declares Fritz, like a schoolboy contemplating the end of term, "for the first time I'm going to have a proper look back at all the other keyboards I've got, and say hello to them again. I'm particularly looking forward to getting deeper into the Wavestation. The first month I had it, I just kept freaking out with all the analogue sounds, it was great. It's very easy to access, you can get into it so easily.
"Also the Oberheim Matrix 6. I have been getting my own collection together of modified analogue keyboards. They sound richer because of the dirt - that's what everybody's been learning. Not that I'm against digital sounds, I'm just aware that you need a bit of dirt. The real world's dirty..." That's true. Some of its inhabitants have just arrived by coach from Northampton, in search of escape. But Fritz's band are just the right people for the job. Having found such success at his vocation, Fritz McIntyre is surely enjoying the rewards. Surely, for example, there is now a proper grand piano in the McIntyre household? "No, but hopefully one day someone will say 'Fritz, you look like you deserve a Steinway'. I'm looking forward to that."