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Somebody Up There Likes You

Simple Minds

A group of new faces for the 1980's, Simple Minds have expanded the original conception of 'pop' music with a series of exciting and refreshing releases and stage shows. Mike McNeil and Charlie Birchill talk here to Dan Goldstein.


The unique musical chemistry that is Simple Minds is born of a rigid and long-held belief that no one musician within the band should be considered more important than any of the others. Thus nothing about them stands out except the band itself, leaving vocalist and lyricist Jim Kerr as the focus for most media attention.

During the short break between recording sessions for their new album with producer Steve Lillywhite and the start of rehearsals for a forthcoming British tour, two of the band's founder members, keyboardsman Michael MacNeil and guitarist Charlie Burchill, talked to Dan Goldstein about their techniques, their attitudes, and their music.

Michael MacNeil



The instruments I'm using at the moment are an Oberheim OB8, a Jupiter 8, and a Yamaha DX7 that I've just bought. I got it when we were about halfway through recording the new album, so I've only really just started using it. I was really surprised by the DX7, first because it was so cheap, and second because the digital sound quality is very high. No matter how softly you're playing, the DX can still lift your sound above the other instruments in the band, and that's something very few other keyboards that I've tried can do. The main reason I use the OB8 is that I've had on Oberheim for about two years now, so I'm very well used to the way it works, and I can use it on stage very easily. I used to use an old Farfisa organ a lot in the early days, and I used it now and again right up to New Gold Dream. I'm now using a Yamaha electric baby-grand live as well.

Drum-machines



For this album we used the Oberheim DMX, and at first we thought it was a bit too close to the sound of a real drummer, but it turned out to be the perfect vehicle for our songwriting.

With all our previous albums, we've used drum-machines of one short or another for writing with, and sometimes they've sounded so good we've ended up keeping them in the final mix, though they've still obviously been drum-machines. But this time, the DMX sounded so much like a real drummer, we felt people listening to it might think we were trying to imitate the sound of a real drummer, which we're not, so we took the drum-machine out of the final mix completely.

The problem we've had is that even with cheap units, there's a lot of different percussion things going on that a drummer just can't do, little Latin effects like congas and hi-hats. So if you use that machine to write with, and you replace the unit with a real drummer when you record, you end up with a rhythm-section that sounds lifeless and empty, so you have to leave the drum-machine in.

But with the DMX, you can write with it knowing that a drummer is going to make the same sort of sound; you can program it the same way you would play a drum-kit.

On the other hand it wasn't perfect, because I remember when we were rehearsing for the new album, we were really pleased with the DMX. But when we came to play the songs with a real drummer, our attitudes changed and that threw us a bit at first, because even the DMX sounds like a drum-machine when you compare it to the real thing.

Playing Live

I can't understand bands that use backing-tapes - I don't agree with that at all. The music ends up sounding more like maths! It's all a bit of a con, really. The band gets an audience into a hall to try and create some sort of live atmosphere, and then they just play them their album all over again. Tapes and sequencers and microcomposers really tie you down to playing a certain way.

I've never been interested in using them, but the thing about a lot of bands today is that they record with sequencers, and so they have to use them live because it's the only way can play their music.

Playing live is the only chance we get to work on songs we've already recorded. We do change arrangements and things, especially in the first few days of rehearsal. Then we spend a bit of time getting used to the songs in their new form, and once we've done that, we start to improvise on stage, too. If we did 30 gigs all the same way we'd get stagnant - you have to keep it interesting for you to play, and that's why we've never done two gigs that have sounded the same.

It requires a lot of application, doing something like a 26-date tour, because there might be a few nights when you don't feel all that great, and there's a temptation then to withdraw some of your effort and sit back and relax. But you've got to remember that for a lot of people at the gig, this is maybe the only chance they'll get to see the band play live, and you've got to do your best for the people who've paid to come and see you. When Roxy Music played in Glasgow quite a while ago, it was as if it was the only gig they'd ever played, though in reality it was probably only one of about 17 or something. They obviously had a very good moral attitude, and we've got to retain something like that.

It would be very easy for us to forget about touring altogether and just sit back and make records and make loads of money, because over the years we've lost a lot of money on gigs. Almost every tour we've done has cost us money, and even nowadays the tours bring in very, very little.

But I don't think we'll ever stop doing them, because when you play live, it gives you a chance to play material that you never previously thought you'd play in that situation, so in a way you can lose all your preconceptions about what it should sound like in the studio and start all over again. The whole point of doing gigs is that it gives the audience a chance to see the band without any overdubs or cosmetics.

Writing



The way we write as a band, we manage to create size without using the usual trademarks. We don't create size by using power chords or solos. We try to create power in a more visual way. We've been playing together for about six or seven years now, and we've got to the stage where we know each other's playing styles very well. We're all heavily influenced by each other in a way. These days we don't even have to talk to each other; we just communicate through the music as we play.

It's really hard for us to talk to each other in a musical way. We talk to each other about the atmosphere of things, but to break it down any more than that is a waste of time for us, really.

Jim (Kerr) is in a very good position because he doesn't play an instrument, so he can step back and look at how things are going in a way that we can't. Because so much of what we do when we're writing is started in improvisation, there might be a lot of new things going on at the same time that we might not even notice, and when that happens Jim often sees things that we don't, and he can suggest things on that basis.

In the studio Steve Lillywhite actually started assuming that role, because there were five of us all making music together and you always need someone there to absorb what you're doing and put it in perspective. That's why we've never produced ourselves: we need someone to take decisions from a different standpoint."

Charlie Burchill



'As far I'm concerned I mainly use a Strat, a new new white one. Recently I bought a Les Paul and a Fender Thinline. I've also got an old solid-body Gretsch. I've started putting them all through a new Mesa Boogie that they've just brought out called the Mk2C - it's really got an incredible sound. I've also got a 12-string acoustic and a Gibson 335 semi-acoustic, which I use on quite a lot of songs including the new single, 'Waterfront'. I haven't really got one particular favourite guitar. The instrument I use on each song just depends on how I think that song ought to sound.

I use some effects, too. A Roland 555, a Yamaha E1010 analogue delay, plus Roland stereo flangers and phasers. I've just got an MXR Omni unit, though so far I haven't used it much: I'm not quite sure how useful it's going to be.

The New Album



I'd say the new album is probably the biggest step we've taken so far in our career. When we recorded New Gold Dream, the last album, it seemed great, but looking back on it, it seems a bit clinical now. This one is much more live from a performance point of view. We've been influenced so much in the last year by playing live, because we've done such a big variety of gigs, from small halls to big festivals.

Before every album we've promised ourselves we'd make a really live-sounding album, but we've never actually managed it before now. It's not like the U2 record, where you can hear that they've actually gone out of their way to make it sound live. It's not really a question of the quality or competence of our performance, it's more to do with atmosphere and feel.

I suppose a lot of it comes down to improvisation. We've always improvised to a certain extent in the studio, although this time when we went in, we thought we had all the songs planned out; in fact we thought we were the best-prepared we'd ever been. But as it turned out, we were only about halfway through preparing everything. A lot of it was due to Steve Lillywhite. He really let us relax, so that we never felt inhibited when we were trying out something new. So we ended up changing everything again; doing things that weren't quite in sync, that sort of thing. And most of the time it worked really well.

I think this time we had a brilliant seven weeks' recording, with no restrictions, no inhibitions. Everything that needed to be done got done: there was nothing that didn't come to the surface. Usually when you do an album, you have a sort of middle period where things are a little bit iffy, but this time everything went all the way through. We were still changing arrangements of songs right up to the last day!

Steve really enthused about almost everything we did, and likewise we had an engineer called Howard Gray, who's a great fan of ours; both of them had always wanted to work with us and both of them gave 100 per cent.

Looking back on it now, I'd say there's definitely less emphasis on technique, more emphasis on feel. There are quite a few mistakes on it, for instance, and things that are a little bit out-of-tune. It's not so much a case of making mistakes deliberately, it's just one or two things sounding right at the time, even thought they're technically wrong. I don't think the mistakes are really all that important to the sound as a whole, because the rest of the band obscures most of them anyway, but to us as musicians they're important because it was really the first time we'd allowed ourselves to play that way.

Recording Techniques



There's a big contrast between the way we recorded New Gold Dream and the way we approached this one. Again I think a lot of the difference is due to Steve Lillywhite. For the last album, we did all sorts of things to make the band sound really live. We double-tracked everything, worked a lot on stereo panning, did all the things that normally suggest a huge sound. But in the end it didn't sound huge at all, it just sounded contrived. I remember recording the bass-drum and snare-drum at a really high level, right out of context. The first time you listen to it, it strikes you as being really powerful, but then you realise it's only a false power; a false perspective.

For New Gold Dream we used a computer-assisted mix-down, and we played each track over about 39 times so that we could give the computer instructions about what to do with the faders, and it was all really laborious. But luckily the recording was a lot less technical this time... Steve believes mixing should be a sort of performance, with him moving all the faders manually. It never took him more than two or three attempts to get everything right. Just a couple of goes and there it was - the final mix.

Also Steve only double-tracked one vocal during the whole of the recording, whereas for the last album we recorded almost everything twice or three times over. His reasons for doing that were perfect because if you use too many effects, you cheapen the sound up; it always sounds as if you're trying to make things appear bigger than they really are.

In a way I suppose we were aiming for a more honest sound.

Visuals



We often speak metaphorically when we talk about our albums, rather than on a musical level, because our music is a bit like a sequence of pictures. I think video's a great medium. It could be used to bridge the gap between audio and film, but so far most promo videos have been desperate. Our early videos were desperate, though we should be doing one soon that'll be much better. I just don't think video's full potential has been realised, though I notice quite a few film directors are getting into making promos now, and that should be good because they'll bring their techniques and expertise into the field.

What would be a good idea would be if a film director came up with a three-minute film, and then got a band to put music to it, rather than the other way around. From our point of view, we'd much rather film abstract images than have shots of the band. It would be much easier to communicate that way; to say what we want to say.'


More with this artist



Previous Article in this issue

Music Maker Equipment Scene

Next article in this issue

Danse Electronique


Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

 

Electronics & Music Maker - Jan 1984

Donated & scanned by: Stewart Lawler

Artist:

Simple Minds


Role:

Band/Group

Interview by Dan Goldstein

Previous article in this issue:

> Music Maker Equipment Scene

Next article in this issue:

> Danse Electronique


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