The Bahamas boy talks tunes and tides with Adrian Deevoy
From Batley to the Bahamas Robert Palmer's distinctive and diverse music has provided a refreshing alternative to mainstream Pop. Or is that just a polite way of saying he hasn't had a hit lately?
The legend International Musician finally finds gainful employment. If there was anything written on Robert Palmer's shirt it's very probable that it would say International Musician.
International because Yorkshire's favourite white Soul son has lived in Nassau since 1976. International because when the whim takes him Robert Palmer sings in the Bahamas, records in Pigalle and mixes in New York. Musician because he has music coursing through his system. Not an eleven fingered pentatonic player but a musician where the competent bass playing and sharp rhythm guitar are subsequent to the song. A virtuoso he isn't, but a living breathing musical instrument? Well, that's getting a bit closer.
Firstly Robert Palmer has got this voice. A loud voice. Whether he's singing precision engineered Calypso on Pressure Drop or raw Rock raunch on Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley. A loud voice. If Scritti Politti's Green sings from the head, this voice comes from the boot soles. But this is no bludgeoning blunt instrument, this is larynx as art. Robert Palmer thinks before he opens his big mouth. A great white Soul singer. What the hell are we talking about when we trundle the trusty idiom out? Are we talking about Paul Young, Kevin Rowland and Alison Moyet when we should be talking about Van Morrison, Peter Cox, George Michael, Chris Dean, Captain Beefheart, Robert Palmer? Robert Palmer a great white Soul singer?
"I wouldn't sing a Marvin Gaye song. Put it that way."
Palmer is as nomadic in his musical styles as he was during his pre-Nassau days. He sings as happily (occasionally in Urdu) with an all-girl Jazzbrass orchestra as he does with a cross talking Jazz Punk outfit.
"I don't feel particularly aligned with or attached to any one musical style," reasons Palmer cool as the champagne on the restaurant table, "if a song isn't working as a Rock number I'll try it as a Country & Western song and if that doesn't work I'll try it as a Jazz tune."
Understandably the influences are diverse. He currently has a crush on Persian music which he promises he'll "never even consider inflicting upon the public", the Jazz saxophonist Lester Young, and he's even partial to a bit of AC/DC — "the riff on Giving the Dog a Bone — killer".
So how's his AC/DC guitar playing?
"I can't play the lead stuff but my AC/DC rhythm guitar is very well thank you. Isn't everybody's?"
Meanwhile, back in the Bahamas. How close is Compass Point to chez Palmer?
"I can actually see it from my kitchen window. It really put the wind up me when I originally saw the foundations going up. I'd been living there for five years and suddenly this thing emerged out of the ground. I thought, 'My God I've come all this way to get away from Rock 'n' Roll and it's following me. I'll have to find another island'. But it really wasn't that bad. People get very laid-back when they come out. Nobody bothers getting blasted. The atmosphere is very conducive to concentrating on the music. You can focus very clearly. I can use the studio whenever I want. But I never go near it until I've done very comprehensive demos and got the band together. Everything is virtually complete when I go in there."
What he isn't letting on here is that he has a scaled down Compass Point in his own house. The Palmer music room bulges at the seams with the sort of equipment that makes grown home recordists weep. It also short circuits the question about being cut-off from the general equipment scene living in Nassau.
"It doesn't stop me ringing up the manufacturers and asking," he laughs, "I've never stopped doing that. The hub, I suppose, of the system I use at home is the Akai 12-track which I've had for about a year. It does just about everything as far as mixing is concerned and I just plug that into my PCM. It's literally like plugging a cassette recorder in. Very, very, simple. That essentially is my rig. Instrument wise I have as a main keyboard the PPG 2.3 which reminds me of my early days touring. Because I've always liked a lot of textures I used to have to use about 12 keyboards; one set for a synth sound, one set for a harmonica sound, one for steel drums and so forth. The Wave does all that and I can sample on it and sequence on it. The other idea I like about it is that because I'm not a particularly good keyboard player I can just write stuff in on the key pad. I can design my basslines on it and work out chord structures frame by frame. It's a very clever machine. A lot more versatile than the Emulator in my opinion."
Multi-instrumentalism isn't Palmer's bag but he describes himself as a 'fluid' bass player with a style that mediates between Gordon Edwards and Leon Silvers and a strictly-rhythm guitarist who relies heavily on playing odd rhythms.
"My bass playing is probably the thing I'm best at. That and singing. I don't have to look at my hands that much when I play so I guess I must be developing. The playing has a very strong groove to it. I play with my fingers, it seems more natural. My rhythm guitar is fair. I do a lot of punching in on the Akai; it helps me out and I quite like the effect.
"As far as guitars and basses go, I'm very much a Steinberger man. Years ago you couldn't wrench the Telecaster from my hands but I've gradually converted to Steinberger. The neck on the guitar is beautiful — very flat. It makes you chord a lot more precisely and the guitar itself as a machine is so precise I'll often use if for putting down actual chord patterns. Even when you're hammering the tremolo arm it stays so gorgeously in tune.
"I really love rhythm. The essence of all things musical"
"You can get a very good Jazz tone from them too. I used it on a few Jazzy Sinatra-type songs recently and it sounds marvellous. It goes beautifully with this gadget I've got called an Exciter which I think is made by Ibanez. It lends this very glassy sound to the guitar without adding any noise. I also use a Rockman for my AC/DC stuff. It's great for those killer riffs.
"The bass I've had for ages. It's almost a vintage one now! I find it very comfortable and lively. If I do eq it I invariably eq it down because it's too bright. I can cope with those sorts of problems."
It's strange how Robert Palmer's cool extends to his choice and use of musical equipment. Even his outboard gear has an element of class about it. Not obvious class, but style.
In addition to some minimal delay equipment which he is a little suspicious of, the outboard set-up comprises a Urei stereo parametric, the ubiquitous dbx compressor and a Dynamic stereo compressor ("for thickening the guitar sound"). For voice he prefers the natural compression of mike technique to more machine-aided affairs. The mikes that find Palmer favour are a few antiquated Neumann models ("one looks like a long blue sausage. The engineer dug that up from somewhere, and one is an M49 which I use at home. It's very warm and characteristic.") Utilisation of headphones is dependent on the track in question.
"It also depends on the volume," he adds. "If I'm singing quietly — which isn't too often — then I can get away with using a little speaker. I can even sing in the control room at low levels but if it's a full tenor and we're doing it live then I have to wear headphones just to get a level."
Rip Tide is the brand new Robert Palmer album and the reason for him sharing his views with International Musician. In addition to some astonishing sounds the album's biggest boast is the quality of the vocal.
"I really concentrated very hard on my voice for this album," admits Palmer in an accent somewhere between Batley and Bryan Ferry." I spent 18 months experimenting at home. Developing my baritone. Sort of choosing tunes to sing like You're My Thrill the Billie Holliday song, Autumn Leaves, to work on vibrato and control. Then I really worked hard on my falsetto. Working in the right keys because with falsetto, if you're not in the right key you don't get any volume behind the voice and you don't move the meters. It's all about finding the right register. I'd be working on a tune and then I'd shift up the harmonies to find out what range my falsetto was strongest in. My tenor is something I don't bother with too much because that's my natural voice. I can't practise it at home simply because it's so loud it annoys the family. It would certainly annoy the neighbours if I had any. There's a lot of physical discipline in constantly singing tenor so it was very interesting working out tunes in different registers because that way you can actually sing the harmonies that you hear in your head. I think the work I did on my baritone really paid off on the album and I attempted switching between all three at some points. You know that guy in Go West has got very good at that. (Sings) We CLOSE owowa eyes. He's very good. He kills me. A wonderful piece of singing."
Apart from a technically adept voice. Palmer also has a very strong line in phrasing. He often sings like a musician would play a solo. The vocal phrasing on Discipline of Love off Rip Tide sounds very similar to a Jimi Hendrix guitar pattern.
"I think I see what you mean," he says intensely, "I guess it does. I very often write a song based on the vocal phrasing. I'm extremely interested in counter rhythms. In a lot of popular music the rhythm section produces the rhythm and that's all you get but I very much like to sing against the rhythm section. Really make them work... get some torque into it. Some tension. Pull off. Make it kick. Loosen it. Tighten it... I really love rhythm. The essence of all things musical. It's very funny if you sing straight across a rhythm section or if you hang back way late. They wait for you. They slow down. That used to frustrate me a lot when I was in groups."
But Robert Palmer isn't in groups any more. He's now in the enviable position of hand-picking musicians to translate his ideas onto vinyl.
"Obviously I wouldn't pick a great guy who couldn't play," he replies, "they have to be able to do it. The musicians? Tony Thompson played on half the tracks. Busy? Not at all — he plays all the way through. But I've heard him when he's been playing busily. He can get a bit hysterical during fills. Bass is mostly Gordon Edwards. Guitar is mostly Eddie Martinez; Steve Stevens who is an amazingly versatile guitarist played quite a few things. Andy Taylor played a few parts. Keyboards was mainly Wally Badarou. No, I haven't played anything myself. I haven't had to.
"I did most of the vocals live and then did repairs and overdubs. Most of the tracks were played live as a band in the studio which was good to do again. A lot of air moving. A lot of sweat."
So presumably drum machines and sequencers weren't allowed in on the act?
"I've never used drum machines," he says firmly, "I used to use them at home. I've still got a souped up DMX but I never use them on record. No, I didn't like the drum machine on Sexual Healing. I liked the song but the drum machine had no soul. No matter how Funky something is if it has a drum machine on it you listen to the rhythm and there's nobody there. There's no character apart from programmed in character and you can get so much more from a drummer. I love the way a drummer changes gears without speeding up as he approaches a chorus or a bridge.
"I've never used drum machines... there's no character"
"I'm a lot more keen on sequencers. You're In My System was pretty well dominated by sequencer and that had a good feel. The track I Want You More was virtually all sequencer apart from some very complicated string overdubs. The single off the album Discipline of Love has got some PPG sequencer on it which helps the groove along nicely. Johnny and Mary was cut using a Wasp of all things. All they had was dih dih dih to work with. I built it up with some funny old Roland machine but then we put the drums on and the whole thing came to life. It's like when the drummer comes in in a dance band — people get up and dance. He gives the track personality."
Another highlight on Rip Tide, apart from the awesome vocal and drum sound, is Palmer's duet with Chaka Khan who, it transpires, gave him a run for his money in the volume stakes.
"She really did," he chuckles, "The harmonies between us worked very well too. They got pretty close at times. I did some on my own which were blocks of six part harmony and the counter blocks working across them. Some of the lead vocals I've done in three parts. That's something that's coming more naturally to me now, the harmonies are becoming naturally more intricate. I've been working with an engineer who records harmonies brilliantly. He almost records the voices like guitar strings. Some of them he makes you sing very heavily and thickly and other parts very light and reedy but when you put them all together the various tonalities all mesh together."
As Robert Palmer spoke his album was being mixed in New York. Why wasn't he there overlooking the work?
"No way," he grimaces, "I know what it's like to have somebody looking over your shoulder while you're mixing. I think my objective opinion at the end will be a lot more valuable. At present they're sending over eight bar sections by courier to London which is very easy to do because it's all on SSL. Then I get on the phone and say drop this in or out or alter bar four slightly."
So what did happen with The Power Station?
"Well that's what I'm telling you about." He grins. Cool bugger. "That's where the album is being mixed," he's laughing now and draining his glass, "produced by Bernard Edwards at The Power Station in New York."
Interview by Adrian Deevoy
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