A Popular History of Signs
Dance music with direction
Richard Walmsley discovers comrades in arms, A Popular History of Signs.
If the phrase A Popular History of Signs seems quite a mouthful, and one portending a somewhat lugubrious intellectual attitude, then you may be pleased to know that the band who use the phrase as their moniker are nothing of the kind.
You perhaps came across A Popular History of Signs, or APHOS as they are often called, supporting Shriekback on their British tour back in October. Alternatively you may be familiar with their single releases on Jungle records, or their highly imaginative album, Comrades, released earlier this year. But for those of you who've never noticed the signs, here is some history.
Loosely grouped in an electro format, APHOS are Andy Jarman (vocals, bass and keyboards), Lindsey Smith (guitar and keyboards), Christeen Isherwood (vocals and keyboards), and Paul Patent (percussion). They've been this way for about eighteen months now, however original band member Andy began to release singles with a very differently constituted APHOS back in 1980 on his own Melodia label. In those days, prior to pop's official sanitization by the regrouped forces of the mega music biz, bands weren't afraid to espouse radical or uncompromising ideologies. This is a spirit preserved in the music of APHOS, and is evident in the lyrics and style of recent single releases like If She Was a Car, Stigma and Ladderjack. Not callow dogmatists however, their ideals and music are surprisingly well integrated.
Andy: "The politics are just something that is part of us and should just come through naturally. A lot of songs we write are just love songs."
So what of the music then? Most interesting in their output is the recent LP, Comrades. APHOS have been compared to New Order, but their music is on a lower tech level, and they deal in much sparser configurations. Tracks like Halcyon Days are so beautifully simple you can almost hear the silence, and they use their sequencers with the sort of rhythmic simplicity more common to New York than to British electro. The vocals too are satisfying, Andy's being tender and distinctive, Christeen's accomplished and attractive.
Although Comrades was recorded and mixed in just ten days at Kockwork 24 track studios in London, the seams only occasionally show, and for the rest the LP is a testament to what can be done when electronics are combined with a generous supply of imagination. APHOS use the sequencers in the Pro 1 and the Roland SH 101 as the basis for their songs, using the Pro 1 for the more bassy type sequences.
Andy: "You can buy a Pro 1 secondhand for £200 now, and you can get any sound out of them, and they are such strong sounds as well. Some of the more expensive polysynths are more useful in a way, but not all of them have that brilliant punchy sound."
The band aren't interested in the current notion of perfectly crafted pop songs, and use the unpredictability of step time sequencing as one spur to invention.
Lindsey: "The nice thing about sequencers and drum machines is that they are fairly unpredictable, and when we start playing with them we come out with all sorts of different results. And when you start putting melodies and chord patterns on them you couldn't possibly have predicted what it would sound like when you started."
Most of the drum patterns start life on the band's battered old TR 808, but on Comrades they also used a Linn and a Simmons console clocked together with the 808 so as to get a wide variation of drum sounds. They had access to two digital delays, an AMS and Bell and used the AMS mainly to get kickback echo type effects on the drum patterns and the sequences. The Bell with its eight second sample time was used to sample sound effects off BBC sound effects records, which were then punched in at the appropriate moments.
Surprisingly the band didn't put a sync track of any kind down during the recording, and all the sequences and drum parts went in live at the same time. This was quite advantageous bearing in mind the time restrictions, but it did mean that virtually everything had to be right first time.
Lindsey: "The emphasis was on doing it as quickly as possible and getting it right, whereas we prefer to go in and put the tracks down and if there's a mistake not to worry too much because that gives it a more lively feel."
Again, because of the speed at which they had to work, all of the effects were actually recorded at the same time as the instruments, so that most songs would have about 17 tracks of instruments and vocals and 7 tracks of effects. This meant that the mixing could be done much more quickly with the effects being 'dubbed' on at the appropriate places.
Andy: "To mix a lot of effects when you're doing the final mix can get so out of hand that you need hands everywhere, and unless you have a computerized desk you're a bit limited."
Unlike many electronic bands, APHOS are undaunted by live playing and do numerous gigs in this country, and have also completed several tours of France and Europe where they have built up a considerable following. On stage they use a Revox to provide the drums and the odd sequencer part. Some of the drum tracks are taken straight from the studio multi tracks, whilst others they do from scratch, simply spicing up the bass and snare of the TR 808 with a Boss delay unit, normally used with a guitar.
Andy: "I was surprised what you can do with just a simple echo and a drum machine. We use a DM 100, which is normally used with a guitar, but you can get good snare sounds with that."
Andy: "We use a portastudio, and we take the bass and the snare separately out of the 808 and put them on 1 and 2 with reverb, the rest of the drums go on 3, with a sequence on the remaining track. Then we mix it straight onto the Revox using the portastudio as a sort of mixing desk."
Like Bronski Beat whom they have supported on a few live dates, APHOS used to give a portastudio onstage with a separate cassette for each song. In the end the visual aspect of the portastudio, with someone having to mess around with it in between each song, proved something of a distraction.
Christeen: "People don't tend to notice the Revox; you just leave it running at the side and pretend some other band left it there."
Andy: "The only annoying thing about using the Revox is that you have to play all the songs in the same order, but at the same time that does give you a certain conviction to do all the songs. When we used to use the portastudio with a different cassette for each song you could often misjudge how well a gig was going, and panic and start dropping songs. Whereas when we use the Revox we have to do all the songs and that makes us do them with as much conviction as we can and not be apologetic about them."
A lot of British electronic bands these days are finding that as far as selling records goes, Europe is an increasingly important market. The extent to which APHOS have been able to build up a following on the continent, France in particular, has led to them signing to the Lyon based Mosquito label, who see them as a potential chart act in France. America is beginning to look hopeful as well. The Chicago based dance label, Waxtrax, has already released a 12" EP comprising re-mixes of If She Was A Car, Stigma, Ladderjack and House (available incidentally as an import in this country), and the band have been strongly advised to get their asses out to NY.
Andy: "It does seem that our future lies abroad rather than here. This American label has done a lot on our behalf, and apparently our records are all over the place in America. I regret that we haven't yet been able to crack it in England, but you have to go where people are interested."
Andy: "As soon as you start talking with major labels the things they bring up as being important such as the image of the band and who's going to be in photos makes you feel like you're being pushed around."
So for the time being the band are happy simply to have projects lined up such as their forthcoming single and LP releases on Mosquito (available in this country through Jungle). In the meantime, if you wish to get a flavour of future histories of signs — check out this month's tape issue.
Interview by Richard Walmsley