Return of the Warrior
One of the seventies' most original instrumental bands, Jade Warrior almost ceased to exist four years ago. Now a new album and some rare live appearances look like reestablishing them for good. Interview by Dan Goldstein.
Although undeniably one of the seventies' most consistently original and inspiring purveyors of instrumental music, Jade Warrior have never quite succeeded in capturing the record-buying public's imagination, and therefore never really enjoyed the success they deserve. After a series of organisational misfortunes that threatened the band's existence, Tony Duhig and Jon Field have now returned to the limelight with a new album, Horizen, released this month on Pulse Records. Dan Goldstein spoke to the duo soon after that record's completion.
It's doubtful whether many of the electronic music fans who buy Jade Warrior's new Horizen album will realise that it is in fact the band's eighth in a recording career that spans no less than 13 years. For one thing, the band have rarely threatened to emerge from the media obscurity that has dogged them ever since the start of their career, and for another, the LP is as fresh, as exciting, and above all as contemporary as any release you're likely to come across in the rest of 1984.
Tony Duhig first met fellow-Warrior Jon Field when the two of them were working as (wait for it) fork-lift truck drivers at Lyons ice-cream factory in London. However, Tony had been playing music of his own for a little while before that, as he explains.
'I was about 18 when I sent off for a Spanish guitar I'd seen advertised in a catalogue - I think they're still marketing them today! I think the main motivation for my getting it was so that I could play the sort of thing I could hear on early Platters records, which I later realised was simply a basic three-chord progression. I supposed I played like that on my own for about three years, and it was only after I met another guitarist that I realised I'd been tuning the guitar wrong all that time!
Then I met Jon and he introduced me to modern jazz records. They were a completely unknown quantity to me at the time, and there were sounds on them that appealed to me immediately, like the sound of piano, harp, vibes and so on. We were both in love with everything about those records: the melodies, the chords, the way the players improvised, all that sort of thing. In retrospect though, I think we probably read more into those jazz records than was actually there. We thought those musicians were absolutely superhuman, but looking back on it now, some of that music is incredibly weak, though on the other hand, a lot of those chord progressions formed the basis of the music we wrote subsequently.'
After a while, Jon and Tony joined forces with some other musicians to play R&B standards in a band called The Tomcats. However, the more 'serious' side to their musical endeavours - and the side that involved them writing and recording their own material - involved only the two of them, for reasons that Tony is keen to point out.
'In addition to the band, we also had what we used to call our 'front room music', which involved us overdubbing on two Grundig TK24 tape machines, which was as close as we could get then to working in a studio. To begin with, a lot of our own music had strong Latin American or African influences - hence our love of different percussion sounds - and I suppose it was that stuff that eventually became Jade Warrior.
'The main reason we overdubbed everything was that we didn't actually know anybody who wanted to play our sort of music in a band situation, and there was also an empathy between us that we found difficult to replicate working with any other musicians. So we ended up overdubbing everything, and I think we were one of the few groups of people at that time who actually had the audacity to play instruments that we weren't really qualified to play.
'It could be, for instance, that we wanted the sound of a tymp on one of our recordings - neither of us had ever played one before, but that didn't stop us liking the sound of one or playing it as part of our music.'
The name Jade Warrior finally came into existence when Jon and Tony were invited to write the music and scenario for a dance drama that was to be performed at a school for the performing arts in Guildford, Surrey. Based on Shakespeare's poem The Phoenix and the Dove, the drama was so successful that the duo were asked to produce a second, and after hitting upon a story that drew heavily on things Oriental, Jon and Tony came up with a title: Jade Warrior.
Tony then proceeded to tour Persia with a fairly ordinary rock and roll band whose bass player, Glyn Avett, heard a tape of the early dance dramas and asked Tony if he'd ever thought of playing that sort of music in a band.
'It seemed like a good idea, and I asked Glyn if he would be the band singer, because that would give our music vocals for the first time. Anyway, we formed the band and got a deal with Vertigo Records, for whom we made three albums in 1971 and 72. We used the dance dramas as the basis for much of those recordings, but in a sense I think they were diluted a little by the way we added vocals and turned them into songs.'
Nevertheless, all three of those albums, Jade Warrior, Released, and Last Autumn's Dream, were generally well received by critics and musicians alike, and Jon and Tony had already showed themselves to be innovators, particularly when it came to recording.
Jon: 'I know it's very easy to say now, but I think we actually 'invented' a lot of techniques long before anybody else turned them into something more successful. For instance, we recorded our first Vertigo album on eight-track at Philips in London. We wanted the sound of a choir on one particular song, but obviously we didn't have the access to one, so we recorded our own voices on tape and then looped them so that they would sound continuously. As far as I know, that was the first time that had been done on record: the next time I heard it was on 10cc's 'I'm Not In Love', at least four years later!
'I think it's indicative of the way Tony and I approach equipment that we've been able to do that sort of thing successfully. In general, we manage to get new gear working for us almost immediately. We couldn't get the sound of a real choir so we said to ourselves 'let's multitrack one', and that's exactly what we did. We've always tended to get equipment to work for us very quickly, and that's because we're never tentative or over-cautious when we approach a piece of equipment for the first time.'
After the release of Last Autumn's Dream, Jade Warrior left Vertigo and set off for a tour of America. Tony takes up the story.
'The tour was very badly organised: we didn't get to play nearly as often as we'd have liked to, though when we did play, we were very well received. I'm not quite sure exactly how much that means, because I've since realised that when Americans go to a gig, they're so determined to enjoy themselves that you've more or less got to throw missiles at them in order not to go down well...'
Yet no matter how successful the venture was, it couldn't stop the 'band' version of Jade Warrior splitting up, and it seemed for a while as if that would be the last the world would see of them. However, the tale then took a rapid and rather unexpected turn for the better: Tony was sitting at home one day minding his own business, when Chris Blackwell, millionaire boss of Island Records, telephoned to say that Steve Winwood had heard one of the Vertigo albums and told him to sign JW up.
'I tried to explain to Chris that we didn't have a vocalist any more,' Tony recalls. 'But he didn't seem to mind. If anything, I'd say he preferred the idea of a purely instrumental Jade Warrior.'
And so it was that Jon and Tony recorded four LPs for Island, Floating World, Waves, Kites, and Way of the Sun, though the last - recorded in 1978 - was destined never to be released in the UK.
However, although Chris Blackwell gave JW a generous budget and complete artistic freedom, the promotional push afforded the band was almost nil. Shortly after signing the band, Blackwell moved to America to set up his US operation, and subsequently ventured out into the West Indies to build a studio there. So that, as Tony puts it, 'although his heart was in the right place, his body rarely was.'
Each of the four Island albums demonstrates different sets of influences, but one theme that remained consistent throughout was Jon and Tony's penchant for Japanese culture and philosophy.
Tony again: 'We became very enthusiastic about certain aspects of ancient Japanese culture, but in general I don't think their music played a very big part in shaping what we were doing. Unlike the court music of China, which has a lot of note structures, bending and so on that really aren't all that far removed from some Western things like the blues, the Japanese court music is almost totally inaccessible to most of the population of this planet. What we were trying to do was put music to certain images we had in our heads, and those images were often of Japanese buildings, paintings and things like that, so the music occasionally had an Oriental feel. I suppose you could sum it up by saying that a lot of our music then was a soundtrack to a set of Oriental images, translated into music by the minds of Europeans.'
Yet although the concepts behind Jade Warrior's Island albums were more often than not on a grand scale, the band's instrumentation remained for the most part fairly simple, with Tony - as ever - on guitar and Jon on flute and congas, though as in the 'front room music' days, neither of them were afraid to try their hands at playing piano, harp, or whatever a particular studio had that sounded good.'
Despite their lack of commercial success - a fact that was aggravated by the collapse of several promising-looking concert tours before they even had a chance to get off the ground - both Jon and Tony look back on the Island records with some pride, feeling that their original ideas had come to greater fruition than previously. However, if there was one problem they were becoming more and more acutely aware of, it was the limitations imposed by the recording equipment they were using, as Tony explains.
'With each album that's passed, we've got more and more frustrated with the limitations of the equipment we've been using. It seems to me that while people are going gaga over the latest digital recording technology or what have you, we're still an awful long way off in real terms. The biggest problem we have is dynamic range, because a lot of our music has a dynamic range far greater than is actually possible to capture on tape. It works both ways, too: often you can't go as loud as you'd like to, but just as frequently we've found we can't go quiet enough either, not without getting mic noise, mixer noise, outside noises - even in the best recording studios.
'If we'd done concerts then I think we would have been able to get that sort of range across. The records are more a sample of tone colours than a real representation of our music..
'I think you can use a simple test to show how far we are away from perfect recording quality. Just sit in your living room with your eyes closed and put on a record of some chamber music, and ask yourself 'is there really a cello in this room?' In the final analysis the answer has to be no. Of course things are better now than they used to be, but my feeling is still 'good effort, 8 out of 10.'
Nevertheless, the absence of perfect recording hasn't prevented Jade Warrior from coming up with some pretty dynamic recordings. Floating World, for instance, contains 'zaps' of sound that are enough to make even the best-prepared listener jump from out of his seat, though Jon is at pains to point out that nothing JW has ever put onto record has got there simply because it was a useful mechanical device.
'We recorded Floating World at a 16-track at Marble Arch called Nova Sound. We were the first people in the UK to use dbx noise reduction, I think, and we also started using noise gates which were also quite a novelty at the time. Anyway, those things enabled us to get quite a big dynamic range, and we got this idea of 'zaps' of sound. We recorded the introductory music at a very low level so that the listener would think the whole record was that quiet - then of course he'd turn up his hi-fi and pow! These zaps would hit him round the ears... They weren't just a mechanical thing, though. They were an integral part of a lot of the music we'd been listening to, like the Oriental stuff, and it was something we'd been wanting to incorporate into our own music for a while.'
After their fourth album for Island, Jon and Tony became disillusioned with the whole set-up and left. There followed a couple of 'wilderness' years in which they played little music together, and both of them resorted to occasional session work in order to pay the bills. Then, as unexpectedly as Chris Blackwell's call eight years previously, Tony received a missive from Pulse Records' Dave Lawrence, asking if Jade Warrior could be re-formed for another album release.
'I knew Jon wasn't going to be available to do any recording, and so originally I planned to record an epic piece I'd written for a choir of 400 voices. In the end it proved too difficult to organise, and since I had a lot of other ideas knocking about at the same time, I decided to put together a Jade Warrior album that was more of a logical follow-on from what had gone before.'
But although the new album, Horizon, is compositionally quite a logical step-forward from the Island days, in terms of musical and recording hardware it represents an entirely new direction. On the one hand, Tony's recording budget meant that much of the album was recorded on his own recently-acquired Fostex A8, while on the other, the onset of new technology manifested itself in the use of two main instruments that were both virgin territory for JW - the Emulator and the Roland GR300 guitar synth. Some of the tracks on Horizon contain overdubs made at Bark Studios, a modest 16-track in North London, but the recording quality throughout is superb.
Tony: 'Our mastering engineer, Melvin Abrahams, was astonished to hear that a lot of the album was recorded on the Fostex, and I must say I'm knocked out by the quality you can get from it if you use it properly. I only wish everybody was issued with one by the Government, because the sooner everyone has an Emulator and an A8, the sooner we'll be getting back to music, and not just who has the best gear.
'The Emulator was very useful, but it does have its shortcomings. The fact that some of the factory samples aren't particularly well executed is a real pain. On the violins, for example, you can hear the decay time cutting off very abruptly, and it's even more annoying because in a lot of cases, you've got no access to the samples so you can't edit them. The two-second sampling on the Mark One is alright for some things, but with the strings you have to use a volume pedal and a lot of reverb to make them sound really good.
'I did quite a lot of my own sampling with the Emulator. One example is on the track 'Long Wait at Mount Li', which has an Oriental-type sound that's actually a sample of me playing an octave on the guitar, though it ended up sounding nothing like that! I also sampled some strings off a record, but I did find that making loops so that the samples would sustain is a devil of a job. I can't remember how many times I tried to get a loop of that particular sample that didn't have a glitch at the edit point, and I think there are some samples that just won't loop properly at all.
'I don't want to sound too scathing about the Emulator though because there are some things I love about it, like the facility to replay sounds backwards, just at the touch of a button. There's a backwards gaelic harp on 'Grey Lake, Red Mountain' and that sounds superb.
'I think that, in my case anyway, not being a trained keyboard player is an advantage, because although it means I have to stick pieces of paper to some of the keys so that I can remember what notes I'm playing, I approach the instrument in a totally different way to a keyboard player, and that results in music that has a different feel to it. Music that doesn't sound like keyboard music, if you see what I mean.'
This determination to prevent Jade Warrior's music from sounding synthesised or electronic is amplified by Tony's insistence that there will always be a place for acoustic instruments in JW's sound.
'Technology has allowed us to get quite close to the sounds of acoustic instruments, either by sampling them and storing them in a computer's memory or by synthesising them electronically on something like a DX7, but although you can take a spectrum analyser and stick it on the output of both a violin and its electronic equivalent and the two may look identical, the actual physical presence of a bow going across a set of strings, and the acoustic disturbance that creates, can't be recaptured, at least not yet. It may be possible in the future, but I think I'd still rather get an acoustic instrument in and use that if that was the sound I wanted. Synths are good at providing approximations of sounds, and sounds that simply don't exist outside the electronic world, and that's the sort of thing we like to use them for - they can be very, very beautiful.
'What's important to remember is that if you hear a synth preset that's called cello and it sounds nothing like one, you shouldn't just dismiss it as being unusable: you've got to realise that the only reason it's called cello in the first place is that the designers have got to give their presets reference points that people will recognise as being a sound that exists in the acoustic world. A sound can be good in its own right, without having to sound like an acoustic instrument.'
Fortunately for Jade Warrior, there has always been a hard core of fans ready to give their music a fair hearing, regardless of what instruments the band have used. Now the future looks as bright as it ever has done, due in part to the fact that, as an instrumental band, their music hasn't dated as easily as that of some of their contemporaries.
Jon Field is now back in the Jade Warrior fold, and the duo are set to undertake a couple of live concert appearances in the near future. Meanwhile, Tony's epic for 400 voices may soon be recorded live using the latest ambisonic technology (assuming he can get all the required singers in the same place at the same time), and on the hardware front, his just-acquired Yamaha DX7 may soon be complemented by two further items of MIDI gear, a Mark Two Emulator and a Roland GR700 guitar synth...
'I sold my original Emulator, mainly because I was convinced that any day the Japanese were going to come up with something equally as good but at about a fifth of the price. Mind you, that hasn't happened yet and so I'm interested in getting a Mark Two, especially seeing that its maximum sampling time is a lot higher now, which should make sustained samples an awful lot easier to achieve.
'Also, of course, there's the MIDI, which should enable me to play my own samples from the new Roland guitar synth. That's something I'm looking forward to because it'll mean I'll be able to play my own samples using a guitar, which I'm quite proficient at, instead of on keyboards, which I'm not!'
'Horizen' is distributed in the UK by Making Waves, (Contact Details).
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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