Magazine Archive

Home -> Magazines -> Issues -> Articles in this issue -> View

Shades of Yello


Article from International Musician & Recording World, October 1986

Back to nature with Boris Blank. Tony Reed listens intently to technical talk about dripping water, talking drums and mountain ranges.

Tony Reed talks to Boris Blank about rivers and mountains

"What has Switzerland produced in over two thousand years of civilisation? The cuckoo clock!":
Orson Welles

And Yello. Let's not forget them. It's somehow appropriate after all that a nation whose most significant national symbol is a Dadaist conjunction of mechanical birdhouse and timepiece should also be home to Europe's first and only surrealist Pop band.

The name may not be familiar to you: despite a string of inspired singles and albums stretching over five years, and a huge cult reputation in clubs both sides of the Atlantic, the duo of Boris Blank (music) and Dieter Meier (vocals) have yet to make an impression on the UK charts. Their work, on the other hand, crops up all over the place — the current run of Brylcream TV commercials, for example, has the closing bars of one of their near-hits, Pinball Cha Cha, as its theme.

Why 'surrealist' though? Well, leaving aside the independent activities of Dieter Meier (he once sat outside a Zurich bank, methodically transferring coins from one pile to another, as a piece of performance art) it is the duo's edge-on approach to the making of pop that sets them apart. Boris creates, not so much songs, as cinema for the ears, replete with the sounds of wind and rain, footsteps, passing cars. He likes to talk of 'transparency', of 'three-dimensionality', objects achieved through a subtle and complex use of reverbs and delays. He creates landscapes through which Dieter's sprechtgesang characters may wander — for each song a different role, now a noir detective who communicates in whispered asides, now a raving madman.

Boris explains that it can sometimes take Dieter as long to find a 'character' to perform a particular song as it can to fit a melody to the words he has written for it. It comes as no surprise then to discover that Dieter pursues an independent career as a successful video and film maker.

The duo's British record label, Vertigo, have just released a useful double-album primer, Yello 1980-85, The New Mix In One Go, as a precursor to a new LP, due for release about the time you read this. To help promote it, and the first single off the new album, (Rushes To Goldrush), the two made a rare trip to London.

I met Boris one sunny afternoon recently in his record company offices. Short, dark, and dressed like an off-duty waiter in his sunday-best suit, he looked tired, having spent the previous night co-hosting the launch of the video of Rushes To Goldrush in Soho's Wag Club. Dieter was still in bed. Boris just looked like he wanted to be. Still, with his English manager in attendance to help out with any language difficulties, we got down to it...

Since the advent of cheap sampling, people have become fairly inured to strange sounds cropping up, not that imaginatively, on records. But your work has always featured them, and in very — structural — ways. I'm thinking of how the car skids on I Love You, for example, actually work as a bridge between the verse and the chorus, rather than just as an effect. Is this something you deliberately aim for in your approach to a song?

He replies, his Swiss-German accent chopping consonants, translating the events of his past life into an eternal present tense, and adding a curiously precise English inflection to the odd word:

"I'm trying for a long time to break loose from the — polar — musical system, which tends to put all instruments into one relationship. I want to create a tension that differs from that found in Rock or Blues or whatever. I think that if moments of tension are applied as independent particles, they can be more drastically and more dynamically expressed."

This approach — dealing with songs as assemblages of discrete sounds — dates from his earliest experiments:

"I always like making strange noises... when I'm 15, I'm drumming on my school desk like — rat-a-ta-tat, y'know?" He suits actions to words, "like the Indians with their talking drums right? And the teacher, she says: 'Boris! You now must write six pages, very small writing, about these talking drums you like so much.' So I do, and I explain at the bottom that at last I've found someone who could understand that this rat-a-tat-tat was talking drums, and that person was the teacher! I think she likes that because she made me read it out to the whole class."

These early sonic adventures acquired a little more structure with the addition of two stereo tape recorders. Boris would spend whole afternoons recording the sounds of water dripping into a bucket, bouncing back and forth on the two machines until his sound on sound recordings were "more noise on noise!"

Tunes as such were not a high priority:

"Like with the water you know? I had a feeling of wanting to be on a river, I tried to make that with the dripping water, and then on top of that I played some sounds on this flute I had made myself out of bamboo." He smiles at the memory. "It makes me — very happy."

Another early influence on his musical development were the omnipresent Swiss mountains. Mountains?

"Yeah! I go home a while back — you should hear the echoes up there, all the different delays, like: (claps his hands) BAP! bap., bap., bap., bap..BOOF!. The mountains are just one huge echo machine..."

Boris the teenager who'd rather play with a bucket of water than his classmates had located a rather more modest echo machine than a mountain range, in the form of an old Revox A77. He began experiments with tape loops and echo effects:

"...Until my mother comes in and say: 'Boris! Now is the time to be quiet!"

Early attempts at working in a conventional group "playing free-Jazz sax for eight hours at a time" proved difficult for Boris.

"Either someone had to go to prison for six months, or had taken too many drugs — and my lips kept bleeding!"

He retreated to his bedroom tape collages, and would have stayed there had it not been for a chance encounter with kindred spirit Carlos Peron at an automobile testing centre outside Zurich where they'd both gone to tape likely noises. Subsequently the pair passed many a wet Zurich afternoon assembling ever more complex tape collages on a twin-cassette set up.

The acquisition in 1977 of an ARP Odyssey synth to supplement the 'very basic' drum machine they already owned was a quantum leap. The man who now owns a Series III Fairlight leans forward: "I think 'Wow! Now we can do anything."

"I'm not involved in technological stuff, I'm just like a little boy playing with a train set"

With the front only absolute beginners seem to have, a brief stopover in LA en route to an African holiday was spent bullying A&R people into listening to their sole demo tape. What was the response?


Fortunately, the tape reached Ralph Records, home of the USA's own premier weirdies, The Residents. They loved it. By the time the duo arrived back in Switzerland, they had a single deal — and a desperate need for a singer. Enter Dieter Meier 'professional gambler, golfer and happening artist' who came up with the band's name ('A Yelled Hallo — Yello!') and an off-the-wall approach to singing which suited the material perfectly. Boris recalls that his first action as vocalist was to let rip a yuk-yukking laugh into the mike. It stayed on the final cut of the band's first single, Bimbo...

Times — and fortunes — for the band have changed. A remix of an earlier work, Bostich, became, along with Kraftwerk's Autobahn and Chic's Good Times, one of the seminal works for the growing electro/hip-hopper scene. The success of the album from which it came, Solid Pleasure, (transferred up from hired eight-track to 24-track and on which incidentally you can hear the sound of Boris's thighs as they gripped the microphone on some of the Bongo overdubs — yep, it was that sophisticated) enabled the band to buy a 24-track studio.

Not only did that extend the creative freedom Boris had already been used to in his bedroom, but also it meant at last that the band could have a reliable idea of exactly what their stuff was sounding like...

"You see, you go into an expensive studio with Eastlake monitors and everything, and it all sounds great. Then you take the cassette out to your car, and it sounds terrible. In the 24-track, we have a couple of small JBLs just on chairs either side of the desk, quite close — if Dieter goes up to make a phone call, he knocks them out of position, but it doesn't matter, because I get used to them, I know what the mix would sound like in a disco, or on a radio, whatever. I still use those monitors now — I trust them. There were problems with that studio though — there was one bass note, if you hit it, the whole room would resonate..."

From the start, Yello have avoided playing live — even the hugely successful Live At The Roxy album where their songs rocked an audience of over 3,000 NYC B-boys was 'live' in only a limited way, with the majority of the material coming straight off the Fairlight's composer page instead. Boris preferred to work long hours in his ever-more sophisticated studio, learning not only to write the material, but to engineer it as well. Trademarks evolved — a complex use of combined gating, compression and reverb to give each instrument and sound in a mix both dancewise percussive punch and 'space'. The much envied Yello bass sound, heard at its best on I Love You, was built up in just this way. Using nothing more than the humble ARP set to a simple sample-and-hold filtered bass sound, (to give it its characteristic 'wuka-wuka' movement) it was treated, recorded, re-treated, re-recorded and finally 'keyed-on' gated to the track. It has all the visceral energy we tend to associate today only with DXs and sophisticated samplers.

Such techniques — what Boris calls 'his little trade secrets' — are still to the fore in the latest incarnation of the just completed Yello Studios. A step on from the two tape decks of a decade ago: it's now a 48-track set up based around an Amek 2400 automated desk, two Otari 24-track tape machines — and the Series III Fairlight. Some home studio. And yet that's more or less what it is, since Boris still prefers to work alone, late into the night, enlisting additional aid only at the crucial mixdown stage. And with automated faders, he doesn't even need much help then...

"The Fairlight though — you know, you should have some little dwarf who could come in late at night and do all the system management, the archiving — it takes so long. The thing is, I'm not involved in technological stuff. I'm just like a little boy playing with a train set — just having fun."

I asked Boris to explain the writing of Rushes To Goldrush, the first product of the revamped studio. Unsurprisingly, being the mega-machine that it is, the Series III Fairlight handles almost all the instrumentation these days, beginning in this instance with the vocal loop which forms the rhythmic heart of the piece, recorded by Boris himself directly into the machine:

"When I start something, with this loop for instance, I already have a very clear idea of how I want it to sound..."

Indulging his taste for sound-chopping, each channel on the new desk boasts no less than 10 gates. Eq plays its part too, this element in the proceedings assisted by the Fairlight's digital Eq'ing, which can radically restructure any element of a sound's frequency range.

"It's like an — electron microscope, yes? You can do anything! These days it seems that every other band has an Emulator or something, but very few people really use them, it's all 'n..n..nineteen' — it's a pity, there's so much more you can do if you try..."

After long hours of tweaking, the final sounds, many already with effects on them, are 'archived' — stored — in the Fairlight library. The painstaking attention to detail pays off — no-one else's Fairlight sounds quite as powerful as Yello's. Boris is quick to appreciate the commercial value of this, and at the same time find a neat response to the irksome problem of 'sample-stealing':

"We're going to sell a CD of just sounds — but make it really expensive. £100 or £200 — people can have our sounds if they want them, but they'll have to pay for them!"

Meanwhile, back in the studio, and Rushes is still evolving, on the Fairlight's 16-track composer page, and in provisional mixes to tape. Reverb, the second strand of the Yello method, comes into play. Boris owns a fairly modest selection of machines — Lexicon 224XL, Super Prime Time, a just acquired PCM70, and a Roland space echo dating back to the band's earliest days. All are appreciated for their distinctive sound, with up to 10 separate reverbs and delays per instrument employed to give it that characteristic breadth:

"You shouldn't be afraid to use lots of reverb. I love big rooms, cheap sounds — why not use them all, if you can use them right?"

Increasingly, the basic Yello sound is supplemented by the involvement of great artists, something Boris likes to do "so that I don't become just a computer operator." Billy MacKenzie, late of The Associates, asked to work with Yello and for his trouble had his own remarkable voice sampled and multitracked on the Fairlight, "I think it was — yes — 19 times."

Gradually the tracks will fill up, Boris arranging the song in trial mix after trial mix, all from memory, with reference only to the final mix he carries in his head until, with it almost complete, he will call in his favourite session players: drummer Beat Ash, and guitarist Chico Hablas. Why, when he could replace anything with the Fairlight?

"Well — I'm not a very good drummer, or guitarist. So I put down a very basic drum pattern, say, and Beat will come and make it live, replace the Fairlight hi hat with his own, stuff like that."

The final stage is Dieter's vocal, which is treated with as much attention to texture as any of the other instruments:

"I hate two-dimensional vocals, you know — so we'll record the same vocal maybe four or five different ways — straight, whispered, soft and moody, hard — and run them, or mixes of them, all together, some over on the left, some over on the right — three-dimensional — whatever sounds right."

Between the occasional language difficulty and Boris's own teasing refusal to reveal any more 'trade secrets,' a deeper insight into what it is that makes Yello productions so startlingly good is hard to come by. CD pirates on the lookout for good sounds would be well advised though to await the release of Yello's next album — it promises to be a rich source of remarkable sounds. Why? Because the provisionally titled One Second is so named on account of the one-second long 'songs' which will intersperse the regular length pieces on the album. Now who said these boys aren't surrealists?

More with this artist

Previous Article in this issue

Feelers On The Dealers

Next article in this issue


Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
More details on copyright ownership...


International Musician - Oct 1986

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman





Interview by Tony Reed

Previous article in this issue:

> Feelers On The Dealers

Next article in this issue:

> Workbench

Help Support The Things You Love

mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.

If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!

Donations for July 2024
Issues donated this month: 14

New issues that have been donated or scanned for us this month.

Funds donated this month: £20.00

All donations and support are gratefully appreciated - thank you.

Magazines Needed - Can You Help?

Do you have any of these magazine issues?

> See all issues we need

If so, and you can donate, lend or scan them to help complete our archive, please get in touch via the Contribute page - thanks!

Please Contribute to mu:zines by supplying magazines, scanning or donating funds. Thanks!

Monetary donations go towards site running costs, and the occasional coffee for me if there's anything left over!

Small Print

Terms of usePrivacy