Ronny's Electro-Music Cabaret
Hans Zimmer, Warren Cann
European singer Ronny makes her U.K. concert debut with Warren Cann and Hans Zimmer and the trio talk about their musical adventures.
Why has French singer Ronny teamed up with Warren Cann and Hans Zimmer's electronic band? Our interview with this new cabaret trio discusses the events and the instruments that have led to this special collaboration.
How did you come together for this trio venture?
Warren: Well it's very simple - it's my interest outside Ultravox, and Hans and I assisted Ronny at the Old Vic concert in London recently, putting the backing by using Roland Microcomposers and such things to do the concert in a much more unusual way than just having a whole coach load of musicians on stage.
Hans: I met Ronny during a BBC session and was later asked to play synthesiser for her.
Ronny: The sounds that Hans was producing was very different from the backings to my first recordings. I hated the concept of having a whole group of people playing behind my back - I didn't want the aggravation and I am very scared of relationships between human beings. It's harder to put up with say five different personalities than three microcomposers and a couple of players!
Warren: When you're essentially a solo performer, the prospect of dealing with a group can be daunting.
Ronny: We have built up a very strong communication between us that is hard to put into words. Personally, it is what I have been working for during the two and a half years spent doing vocals.
How did you get into the singing?
Ronny: I was in Paris dancing and modelling, but getting fed up with the whole thing and decided just to stop everything and go into something else - I wanted to explore my voice and link this with the use of electronic music. Apart from Jean-Michel Jarre in France, I could hear this music coming from England. I wasn't attracted to the current French disco sounds and later signed over here with Polydor as a solo artist.
I met Rusty Egan in Paris and he introduced me to Midge Ure (Ultravox) and they co-produced my first single here: 'If You Want Me To Stay' - a remake of the Sly and the Family Stone's number. Then I was looking for someone to write some music for me and I met Vangelis and did my second single with him. I didn't have to show him my lyrics - he doesn't work that way - he really works on a human level. And we talked a lot before going into the studio to see what would come of it. Obviously, the first few things we did, the record company jumped on and released.
You give the impression that you have been doing cabaret for quite some time.
Ronny: No, I have never done that, just a few times, but I know the atmosphere of cabaret through my dancing. When I stopped everything, I started to have some singing lessons. It was necessary for me to do that because I needed the security of knowing the techniques for correct breathing - that was all. I didn't need anyone to teach me how to express myself or what key to find. When you are a dancer you breath in a different way from a singer so I had lessons for a few months, two or three times a week.
I then tried to discover my own style through the music I could find in France. My first real performance was at the Old Vic Theatre in April. It was actually the first time that I sang live in front of a crowd, apart from studios or for demos.
Why don't you want a band backing you on stage?
Ronny: I don't think I want the punch out of five people behind me to fill up the stage.
Warren: When you are in Ronny's position, as a solo artist having a strong concept of what you want in your performance, the differing personalities of the other people involved may result in one or two of the musicians not pushing in the right direction and so may hold back achieving what Ronny wanted. Because there are only two of us involved (and we are not short on 'voices' we can supply from the electronics), the concept remains much truer to what it should be.
Ronny: The songs I have been singing have included 'Blue Cabaret', 'Gemini', 'To Have And Have Not', 'All The Way' and 'If You Want Me To Stay'. All that happened very quickly — we had a week and I had to break off to do two TV shows and radio interviews in Paris at the same time.
Hans: The song 'All The Way' was written by Vangelis and I never even played it until we were on stage! I had just talked to Vangelis about it and he couldn't remember precisely how the song went, so I decided to go on stage and pick up on the mood and just play anything that was suitable — literally an improvisation on the spot. It was a real experience to do that.
Ronny: We finished the Old Vic concert with 'It's a Sin' and 'Rebel Rebel'. My own songs are 'Blue Cabaret', 'All the Way' and 'To have and have not'. 'Gemini', 'It's a Sin', and 'Rebel Rebel' were the newest songs. Now Warren, Hans and Zaine Griff are writing my music for me.
Hans, I'd like to know more about your background to this.
Hans: I'm German, aged 23, but went to school over here and afterwards met Chris Franke (Tangerine Dream). Chris basically put this 'little dog' in me and I would spend long hours jamming with him. Later, he sold me his huge Moog synthesiser. You could say that this was better than the one he has now! Chris wanted to do a tour with less gear, but the tour never came about because he couldn't find anything to replace it!
That Moog — the one I now use on stage — is the original instrument built by Robert Moog himself and it was used by Wendy Carlos for the 'Switched on Bach' LPs. I suppose it should eventually end up in a museum, because it was really the first modern patch synthesiser.
Is it all still functioning?
Hans: It works beautifully, it never goes wrong. I have had it heavily modified so it can run off a computer and now patch leads don't have to be used any more.
I met Warren through Zaine when I was working on the Buggles first album. It took nine months to do the album and three months to do a single — it was major surgery all the way! I learnt to read music after I bought the Roland MC8 Microcomposer, because it then became essential for me. I've been doing a lot of sessions in this country, although before that I had a band in Italy early on doing electronic pop. I've also been producing a lot of TV jingles. Most of our work is done with Richard Harvey (ex-Griffin band) who has built a studio in London with a huge control room including a 24-track recorder and that's where we keep all our keyboards.
Have you had any training?
Hans: Oh yes — I have had two weeks of piano lessons! Seriously, coming from Germany has helped me — I went to my first opera when I was three and I attended classical concerts twice a week until I was thirteen. Once in England, I became submerged in the Beatles era. I've learnt music by ear and have picked up most of my technical knowledge through the sessions and gigs.
Warren, does this new liaison mean that you are moving away from Ultravox?
Warren: Nothing could be further from the truth. Everyone is getting along fabulously. It is just that we are 'workaholics' and outside of Ultravox I like to do things. It's also a lot to do with, the more you learn, the more you realise how little you really do know. I find it very beneficial for Ultravox too, because I am in a position where I can learn things from working with different people and the methods they use in their music.
Hans: For instance, I was working with another French artist yet still finding time to write jingles. Doing something completely different has always given me new ideas. That is a holiday in itself.
Warren: And pays the phone bill! I would like to stress that everything is alright within Ultravox — we all have our own projects and things that we do independently. At the moment, we are writing songs for our next album. I have also been doing an album called 'Spies', with Hans. It's a sort of adventure story in music. The album uses a tremendous amount of multitracking. We are lucky to be able to put this together and then get our management to sell it as a 'complete package' — but it does mean we have to fund it initially.
Hans: Our 'band' includes the engineer, Steve Rahms, who operates microcomposers and manipulates the tapes. He often comes up with some incredible effects and so it's really a co-production for Warren and myself, with 'sonic hooks' from Steve. We also have a singer from the Buggles, Linda Jardim. With this album now virtually complete, Warren and I were excited about collaborating with Ronny.
Do you feel that the Ronny trio replaces the traditional bass, drum, keyboards/guitar line-up?
Hans: I am always in arguments with musicians about that. First, don't think we are replacing anybody. There is always controversy about synths replacing people - not just drums but the Fairlight and so on. I think, if it replaces a musician (I mean your really awful boring session drummer), then all the better. You should be able to get something out of a machine that is better than an average musician. The important thing about music is that it's about individuals. So if I want Keith Jarrett to play piano for me because I like his style, then I am not going to do it on a synthesiser.
There is another advantage I find with our situation working with a lot of machines. My technical ability on say a piano, would not match my controlling a machine to play faster what I can hear in my head, without having to wait eight years while I practised my scales. But it doesn't make putting the music together any easier.
Ronny, have you changed your style of singing to combine with the electronics?
Ronny: Not at all. Hans and Warren like my style of singing and the sound of my voice and I think that what I am trying to put across means that I am not just singing for the sake of singing. I think that they also realise that I was very much into a visual presentation. I like to think of a song as a little movie in itself. It's very hard to put across in three or four minutes what you want to express. Often people never hear the lyrics clearly or get the atmosphere behind it - they just hear something to dance to and move to. I would like to go further than that.
Warren: Because people are basically lazy they go for the immediate attraction of the music. I am more for the music endeavours of the country embracing it's own identity. German music never really got anywhere as modern pop music until people started saying let's be ourselves, let's not ape the Americans and the English. The French too seem to be totally discounting the value or merit from anywhere else - they seem to have gone too far the other way.
Ronny: That's why I came over here - people say I'm French, but I say I'm European. In Germany you can see electronic music on TV, but in France it's still very much rock and roll, hard rock, and they are against the computer/synthesiser music. I did interviews recently in Paris and they don't seem to understand my concept, but we should have our place with this new music as an alternative.
Warren: I also have to say that it's the emotional content that is more important rather than the type of sounds used.
How do you feel about performing with micro buttons instead of solely playing keyboards or drums?
Hans: The way Warren and I do it is to have a certain amount programmed and then it all runs happily at the press of a button. This gives us time to play on top of it. I can't put expression into playing many keyboards at once - I would panic - but this way I can put most expression into just one or two instruments while the others are controlled by the micros. It's also much easier for me to compose my own songs rather than have to explain to someone else exactly what I want. Of course, the fact that we are using microcomposers gives us great scope for inventing and creating new sounds from the material available. But it all started off with my acquiring a VCS3 without a manual and having to learn to explore this for myself.
Warren: Coming back to performance, we have a totally utterly new phenomena without any kind of precedent in the history of making music - a technology which enables us to perform out of real time, and it has never happened before. Whether it was a conductor of a symphony orchestra, an arranger, a lyricist or composer, each produced music that was all cut and dried - it was live and there was no grey area in between. Something new has happened with technology that has enabled the artist or composer to present his music slightly out of real time.
What I am getting at is that we can do things that would be impossible in the normal real time situation. We can programme a lot of things exactly the way we want them to surround us, but the actual process of programming is hard work and we amalgamate that with a live performance that completes the musical picture. The public will have to become acclimatised to the idea that there are new criteria for judging a performance.
Hans: Something that is quite interesting is that the normal symphony orchestra might spend an awful lot of time rehearsing for a performance that would always ultimately sound more exciting at the event and with all these machines, we can still go on stage having programmed them before hand and find that our performance too becomes much more exciting on stage.
Ronny, do you see the voice as yet another instrument?
Ronny: Certainly, and at this stage I would like to use my voice naturally rather than explore machines for its treatment, such as the vocoder and so on. I am not against it at all but I am still discovering new sounds with my voice every day.
Hans: Warren and I are very lucky to work with Ronny because it's not just the tone of her voice - it is very rare that you get a performer that has enough strength as a person and as a character to be able to compete with all that.
Another interesting point I have found in recent years is that although one can use incredibly expensive synthesisers, what is more important is the variety of sounds you use, which makes a cheap instrument just as viable musically.
Can you see the new electronic music instruments taking their place alongside traditional instruments of classical music and would you want to achieve the same sensitivity and emotion in your music?
Hans: The question is slightly wrong because you should not put our music against Mozart and other classical composers. I think it is absolutely valuable to express the emotion of what is going on now, for the future of the rock business.
Ronny: People always make comparisons and you don't need to.
Hans: When you make a record it becomes the history of that time. Whilst an entertainer might always live for the moments on stage, an artist might think 'Oh this is really fabulous and people will love me for centuries' - but at the time of course he doesn't know. Take Salieri and Mozart - who remembers that Salieri was still a great artist of the time? We can't judge ourselves now - I prefer to call myself an entertainer, then an artist.
Ronny: So long as you are not expected to give an explanation to justify your music.
Hans: Then you are getting into fashion. Fashion is the greatest enemy of art.
Don't you find that sequencers and microcomposers often lead you to setting up repeated patterns of notes that sound the same all the way through. Do you have any problems with that?
Warren: Well, synth development is going through another phase now that analogue machines have been fully worked out. Now they're looking at the human engineering side of it - how to come up with ways to narrow the gap between the idea in the player's mind and the length of time it takes to achieve the required results.
It is a fascinating paradox that the most established instruments like the piano and violin can require the most technique. Everyone talks about the capabilities of the synthesiser to do everything, but generally the concept for each instrument is still very narrow - and of course you can pull the plug out of the wall and you have had it!
You have to approach the synth in a certain way and that's not the same way as a classically trained violinist. A peasant can pick up a fiddle and if he is intuitively musical he will gradually work out how to play it, even though his technique may be totally wrong - he can still create music. With the synthesiser the latitude is much narrower and if you don't do a certain thing, then the sounds will just not happen by stumbling across them.
Hans: Basically, what I think happens is that you have to make an instrument part of you. Vangelis, for example, has many keyboards but what he really plays is the Yamaha CS80. I could set up an identical patch on a CS80 and it would sound a load of rubbish - it is the way he plays it.
How do you put your music together?
Ronny: Once we get to the studio it may take six or seven hours before something will happen that can be used.
Hans: The longest time is spent understanding exactly what Ronny wants rather than simply programming microcomposers. We talk about it and it might suddenly happen by talking about something else that an image will make it all clearer.
Warren, how do you get down to providing the right drum rhythms for your Linn computer?
Warren: I do whatever is right at the time, which may be some prepared rhythm already programmed or something I do on the acoustic drum. Occasionally I notate the ideas and once we finalise the rhythms I always store these on the Linn drum tape interface.
Hans: All our writing is done straight on to a 24-track machine which is a great advantage for us. It means that whatever we manage to capture during our rehearsing is available for the final take - that certain something does not have to try and be recreated in another studio with your chances of recapturing it being virtually nonexistent.
Hans: I now actually write things out and have basically got myself to the stage where with the microcomposer I can now hear eight parts in my head which I can write down away from a piano, on a tube train or wherever I am. I haven't got perfect pitch but I can hear a complete arrangement and that is really useful. I never store any settings for the Prophet and the banks are always full of rubbish. That means we are doing something fresh when we put down a new track on the recorder. On stage I use the Prophet 5 most of the time because it is so easy to operate (it's the Prophet 5 prototype actually that has been modified so there is nothing 'real' on it any more). The old Prophets have a different sound to the new ones. I have also a Yamaha CP70 electric piano which really is the workhorse for me. There's plenty of Roland System 100M and System 700 equipment, and of course there is the big Moog.
The Moog is basically an 8 voice instrument with 16 oscillators. It has a sequencer bank with three layers of 16 events. These are set in semitones and octaves, which is great for on-stage use - and for inspiration too - because you can have them running and by experimenting with the settings get something really good. There are also the four microcomposers - two MC8's and two MC4's. We are going to get rid of the MC8's now and stay with the MC4's. I think we are one of the first people to use microcomposers freely on stage. Occasionally a sequence may crash and then I'd pick it up on the electric piano or another instrument. It's amazing that often the audience don't realise that anything has happened!
Warren: It can be worrying using the electronic equipment too. Perhaps the worse you can do when you play an electric guitar is simply to play a wrong note, but if you don't get your synth settings exactly right you can end up with something that is horrendously different - so different that it just destroys the atmosphere you have worked so hard to create.
Don't you find that program loading and setting for the piece following becomes something you think about whilst performing?
Warren: No, we try to get the bulk of that sort of work out of the way and the programmes are set so that maybe only four are required without much loading to be done. Our engineer would do any extra loading for us if necessary during a performance.
Hans: I also use the Korg 3300 Polyphonic Synthesiser and enjoy the microtone tuning on it, the Big Moog is being made completely computer programmable. It wasn't always that way and what I am having written at the moment is some software that enables me to go from one preset to another instead of it going immediately to the following preset. I want to be able to start a song in one mood and end up in another. We have a guy called Roy Gwinn and he is our engineer - he is totally crazy because he takes on my tasks and phones back at four in the morning to say he's cracked it and he can do it! But it saves a lot of time having someone who can translate exactly the ideas that you want.
Wiring up is another problem as well - at the moment we use 65 multiway cables! Everything basically leads into the Moog.
Warren: But the major connection is between my Linn drums and the microcomposers. Both these instruments will run perfectly happily together using the same digital code. You can write in timebase 48 or 24, which is equivalent to the Linn sync codes. Timebase 24 counts the clicks on the Linn as crochets and 48 sets quavers.
Warren, have you changed your gear since our last meeting (featured in the April 1981 issue?)
Warren: I have really the same instruments as before except for a few new additions - there are the two Linn drums which are linked together using the chain facilities so that I can easily go from one to the other. At the Old Vic concert, apart from my basic setup, I used a Simmons SDS5 with 5 touch pads, including cymbals that were flanged.
Hans: We also use in our performance another musician, Brian Gulland, who plays bassoon, oboe, and other instruments. He specialises in antique instruments from the Renaissance period, although he does play synthesisers. It's great to mix the very ancient with the very modern!
Hans: What we've tried to do in our recent performance is to perform exactly what goes on to our recordings. Our first concert with Ronny was done completely off the cuff and prepared within the space of a few days. Warren and I were so scared! After a while the excitement carried us through the whole thing.
Ronny: But even during those days of rehearsing, I was very grateful for their 100% belief in me even though they had never heard me singing live on stage before. I wouldn't have done it otherwise, I was really very very nervous. But it was exciting to actually go and do something we wanted to do without asking anybody if it was alright and I'm sure a lot of people find this quite hard to do.
Hans: I also got married the day before we started rehearsing!
Ronny: We are just dying to do another performance, but at present we are working on my album which will have Warren, Hans and Zaine on it.
Hans: That's the same people used on the Zaine Griff album and also our album!
Ronny: But there's a different atmosphere on each! I'm hoping to do more concerts but nothing is planned yet and I shall be staying in this country for a while. I'm really very happy to have met Hans and Warren - it's really what I have been searching for and gives me the opportunity to realise my ideas by relating and talking to each other, rather than just going into a studio and making a record.