The band called it music, the press called it confrontational noise, and the public bought it and danced to it. Stephen Hillier talks to the men behind Renegade Soundwave.
As the sampler becomes more synonymous with dancefloor popularity than inventive music making Renegade Soundwave are looking to combine punk attitudes with songwriting sensibility.
FIRST A QUESTION: how does a band earn a label like "confrontational noise" for their music? This is exactly what has happened to Renegade Soundwave, a trio from London whose third 12" release, 'Biting My Nails', has recently been receiving a wealth of attention, both from the music press and on the nightclub dancefloors.
Carl Bonnie, Danny Briotett and Gary Asquwith - aka Renegade Soundwave released their first single 'Kray Twins' back in the winter of '87, whilst signed to Mute's dance label Rhythm King. 'Kray Twins' is a violent dance track characterised by its heavy drum samples and, although it received much media acclaim, it was given little radio airplay. The same fate befell a second single 'Cocaine Sex', despite further success on the dancefloor and even a change of title to 'Cooking Sex'. It was at this point that Renegade Soundwave left Rhythm King to join Mute itself. I met Carl Bonnie and Danny Briotett, the band's two instrumentalists in the busy surroundings of Mute record's offices to discuss the band's work and philosophies. Briotett, the most vociferous of the pair, explained the change of label:
"Rhythm King are good at promoting material that fits easily into a definite market, house or hip hop say. But there are so many different elements in what we do that they found it difficult to market our music, and after our first two singles we realised that we should go our separate ways and we joined Mute in February. We're happier with Mute, they tend to be more flexible with what they release, which gives us more freedom to experiment.
"I think our approach when recording is 'anything goes!'. When we first started out we were using all manner of things as drum sounds. We've used gunshots, fireworks, car doors slamming, we even ended up using the sound of an industrial drill on 'Biting My Nails'."
The latest single sees the band aiming squarely at the dancefloor. Driving Afro rhythms combine with snatches of Jimi Hendrix guitar to create a dance/noise not unlike that of Public Enemy. How did 'Biting My Nails' come about?
"The inspiration for the track came from Gary, our vocalist", explains Briotett, "We built the track around his lyrics. We were experimenting with different drum breaks, creating percussion layers by playing two or three drum loops together. We took three completely different drum solos from separate records where the snare drum sounded on the up-beat in each. We sync'd them together, and through combinations like this we found a snare sound that was unique to that collection of breaks. Then, by gating sections of the samples and tuning the gate to pick out the top, middle or bass frequencies only, we were able to enhance particular instruments separately on each break. So instead of sampling individual drums and overdubbing them onto the break, our sounds were 'coloured in'.
"It was necessary to record 'Biting my Nails' this way because the concept of the track was to produce the record 'raw'. To make a song out of other records virtually without any added sounds at all.
"We used an old KC and the Sunshine band track called 'Let's Go' for the main drum break. We hadn't heard it used on any other dance track before. I think it is rather too fast to use in straight hip hop. The brass came from Eddie Floyd's 'Knock on Wood'. We took sample of a fire alarm that sounded so good on its own that we used it like a fanfare to the intro of the instrumental club mix. I was at a party a couple of weeks ago where the DJ was playing a whole load of house music. He mixed in 'Biting my Nails' and when the audience heard the alarm it grabbed their attention unlike any of the other records had. As soon as the drums came in they just had to dance to it."
Taking bass and drums from another artist's record for your own use is now a common practice, but surely there must be a compromise - probably in the solicitor's office. Do Renegade Soundwave ever consider the legal implications in their sampling?
"You can't really", says Briotett. "You'd spend so much energy trying to cover over the samples that you've used, that you'd eventually lose the essence of the track. Having said that, we were a bit worried about our last record.
We used such an obvious snatch of Led Zeppelin that we thought we might end up in trouble. Luckily, nothing happened. You see, if we'd had a hit with 'Cocaine Sex' I'm certain the copyright owners would have done something, but it's not in a record company's interests to sue against a record that hasn't sold more than a few thousand copies.
"I think that the M/A/R/R/S vs Stock, Aitken and Waterman case is scandalous. It typifies exactly what is wrong in the music industry today. This sterile business only attitude means the music suffers drastically. Stock, Aitken and Waterman are producing songs like a chocolate factory, it's music for mass consumption but with no content. They fly over the latest 50 or so American dance imports, copy the basslines and chop and change the tunes around. Where's the creativity in that? Of course, when it's done to them it's a different story. I suppose there have always been people who want to have a drink out of a trend and if they can't they'll try to stop it. They should accept the fact that, because of the technology now available, musical performances have become raw material for other music".
Nevertheless, it seems that since the enormous success of 'Pump up the Volume' every week has seen another dozen 12" dance releases crammed with samples taken from other artists' tracks. The formula seems to work - find an old funk record, preferably by James Brown, and sample the percussion break for your drums, throw in a few catch phrases from recent chart hits and there you have it: instant dancefloor success. It's already a tried and tested formula, but hardly very original any more. In the wake of sampling mania where do Renegade Soundwave fit in?
"Anyone can sample", comments Bonnie. "Anyone can make a record with a dance beat in it and they're guaranteed to find some fool somewhere who'll like it. But to make a good record you need creative musical ideas, the input that comes from the people involved.
"Unlike a lot of sampling bands, we base our music around the lyrics, so that we end up with a song, not just six minutes of gratuitous sampling. A couple of tracks that we're working on for the album have started off with one of us improvising on the drum kit and Gary singing or rapping along. But we've found it difficult trying to translate the ideas we've come up with to the machines that we use.
"There's an RX5 in the studio at Mute that we've used, but no matter how well we program it, it won't play drums the way a human drummer can. It just doesn't produce the feel of a live drummer, and by the time you've finished programming it, you may have forgotten the original idea anyway.
"Because of this, we've been recording a live kit in the studio and sampling two or three bars of a real performance rather than try to recreate that on a drum machine. This way, we've captured a live rhythm in real stereo in a fraction of the time it takes to program one. Then with the Akai S1000 we can fiddle around with the drum break, looping it or whatever to produce something totally new".
AT THIS POINT in the interview, we move upstairs to Mute's studio to meet Flood, Renegade Soundwave's producer. Probably best known for his work with Erasure, Flood has also worked with such luminaries as Cabaret Voltaire and Shriekback to name but two. At the moment he is helping the band record their as yet untitled debut album.
Taking a short break from his studio duties Flood talks about the new album: "We've been using the Akai S900 and S1000 for most of the drum looping on the album. The S1000 is more useful than its predecessor as it can perform in stereo. If we've got the drums running over five tracks between the two machines, we only have to work out three loops as opposed to five as we would if we were just using the S900.
"We loop the drum breaks internally and use Steinberg's Pro24 III to trigger them. We're synchronising everything to tape using SMPTE. It's so much easier running the sequencer and drum machines from that because every individual unit in the studio has its own idea of what tempo 120bpm is. The Steinberg is fine to use for simple sequencing and editing, but its timing resolution just isn't fine enough for anything too adventurous. We're still having problems with its software as well.
"It is useful, however, when we're having trouble with our drum looping. For example, you occasionally find that a drum break is in time with itself but it speeds up slightly in the middle or there is a minor timing error that sends it out of sync with the bass sequence you've got running. Well, we've been able to manoeuvre the sample about until it fits using the Steinberg, so it's not all bad news. Sometimes we've come across more drastic problems. In these cases, because we haven't got a Publison, the only way of correcting a sample's speed has been by pitching up or down until it reaches the tempo that we need. But then we've had to use a harmoniser to return it to the pitch that we started with. It can become an awful headache; you have to he very careful if you're shifting pitches more than a few semitones as, with a harmoniser, degradation becomes a real problem. The effect isn't as noticeable on bass sounds, but on drums and pianos particularly you start to hear the harmoniser on the smallest of pitch shifts. Unfortunately, it's really down to trial and error with sampling of this kind.
"One thing we want to try soon is using the drum machine as a bass sequencer - assigning each pad on the RX5 to a different pitch - and then writing the bassline in much the same way as you would write a drum pattern. A lot of the time we find it easier writing on the drum pads than a keyboard."
With all the advanced computer technology that's now available to young bands, it's interesting that the current trend in dance music is to record with older equipment. Hip hop has, almost single handedly, rejuvenated the Roland TR808 drum machine, acid house has done the same with the TB303 sequencer. But why use an old instrument when there's so much groundbreaking technology constantly being unveiled?
"We've used a sample of an 808 snare on a track called 'How to be hard", comments Flood, "and it's given the track quite a hip hop feel that is unique to the old Roland drum machines. In fact, we're going to finish the track with the American rapper, Ramel Zee, who is a fan of our work. There's a Sequential Circuits 'Proone' in the studio that we've tried feeding samples into via it's external input - using its envelope generators and filter we've been able to mess around with the sounds. In a way I suppose we're combining old and new technology all the time when sampling off older records.
"We don't hold the machines in reverence though. We would never use a preset from a DX7 or just a drum sound straight from a drum machine. We come to the studio with an idea for a sound and try to find what will transmit that sound beat, it could be a D50, a Minimoog, a sample or even a combination of all three. We've found some of our favourite sounds by accident. We discovered a great drum sound by just cranking a close miked bass drum sample through a guitar amp distorted to oblivion.
"In this way, we probably have more in common with the punk attitude of 'get up there and do it, you don't have to be a musician' than with the mystique of bands like the Art of Noise or Cabaret Voltaire. I think that attitude prevails in a lot of hip hop and to some extent house music as well. The technology around now should be in the hands of the 16 and 17 year olds. The music industry should be saying 'here's a sampler, now go form a band'. You only have to look at the charts to see that there is too much calculated music around. The industry is going stale."
Meanwhile, the band will be releasing a new single shortly, and their album should be out next spring. Why not whet your appetite with a copy of 'Biting My Nails' and keep your ears open for Renegade Soundwave?
Interview by Stephen Hillier
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