Free of Culture Club, guitarist Roy Hay declares his infatuation with soul music and forms a new band. Tim Goodyer listens to his tales of "programming madness".
The latest resurrection from the grave of Culture Club are This Way Up, a duo formed by Club guitarist Roy Hay and a previously unknown singer. They've soul in their hearts and the charts in their eyes.
Popular music thrives on anecdotes. Did you hear about the Synclavier direct-to-disk recording system installed in a pop star's bathroom, the famous heavy metal drummer whose mother doesn't know he smokes or the British supergroup who all wear a piece of womens' lingerie under their clothing onstage? All true, I assure you. Of course most anecdotes are only loosely based in truth or are even complete fiction. A case in point: this piano here, is it really the one Mike Oldfield wrote Tubular Bells on? I doubt it, even Roy Hay appears to doubt it and he's the one telling the story. But that, as they say, is rock 'n' roll.
There are probably as many anecdotes surrounding Culture Club as there are surrounding the remainder of the popular artists of the last ten years. And as Club guitarist, keyboardist and songwriter, Hay could probably "reveal all" in his memoirs and retire on the royalties. But, instead, he has chosen to pour his energy into a partnership with Scottish singer Robinson Reid. Together they are called This Way Up and their first single, 'Tell Me Why' made it into the lower reaches of the pop charts earlier this year. Now an album, Feeling Good About It, and another single, 'If I Can't Have You', look set to build on this success.
The trouble with success is that it's difficult to follow. When you're talking countless hit singles and silver, gold, platinum and triple platinum album sales, as we are with Culture Club, it can only be a daunting prospect. But sitting in front of the mixing desk of his private 30-track studio, Hay's easy manner and enthusiasm for his project indicate it's far from impossible.
"If you don't better your past you've had it", says Hay. "I started making demos playing everything myself - and scrapped them because they were just rubbish. It was so obvious that there was no other input; it was just a collection of my clichés. I can sit here and work for hours on my own, but it always ends up sounding like me. I wanted to avoid the solo artists trap and that involved finding out about myself, discovering my own limitations."
In their halcyon days, Hay was the main Club songwriter, collaborating with Boy George on melodies.
"I suppose I was the MD and George was the lyricist", he elaborates. "He'd sing something to me and I'd sit down at a keyboard and work out the chords and the arrangement. Then Jon and Mikey would sort out the rhythm arrangements after that. It was a good blend, every angle of the music was covered within the band."
Unfortunately it all went terribly wrong with the failure of several singles and George's subsequent drug problems.
"I started to blame George and he started to blame me. I said it was his melodies, he said it was my music; I said it was his comments to the press, he said it was my lack of comments to the press. Then, when it came to being stuck in a room with him trying to make music, it was no good.
"There are no plans to work together again, not for a while, anyway. As a band we've had it. I actually liked the album we did with Arif Mardin, but the atmosphere and the politics of the band were such that, even if we made another Colour by Numbers, I don't think the world would want it."
In sharp contrast to a world-weary Culture Club, This Way Up have the enthusiasm of a band fresh out of school. But what of their music?
"I'm a bit of a soul buff these days", he confesses. "Basically, I got fed up with pop music and I wanted to do something more along soul lines.
"The whole thing got off the ground when I heard John (Robinson Reid's first Christian name) on a demo he sent to my publisher; I thought I could write songs to the fullest of my ability knowing that he would justify them. He's got such quality to his voice."
AT A TIME when the charts are overflowing with second-rate soul, the last thing we need is more of the same, but Feeling Good About It boasts some of the best white soul of recent years. The combination of Reid's voice and Hay's mature songwriting have made their first long-playing vinyl a tasteful mix of dancefloor workouts (notably 'Feeling Good'), ballads, a '40s swing number and a contemporary interpretation of the Bee Gee's 'If I Can't Have You'.
While This Way Up are essentially Hay and Reid, their album has drawn heavily on the talents of others: the lyrics are the result of a collaboration with Pete Sinfield ("basically I told him what the song was about and he did all the work") and the playing on the album involves the drums of Tony Beard and Graham Gould, the guitar of Glen Nightingale, the Phantom Horns and the many keyboards of Peter John Vettese.
"If I have to play around for ages programming I get depressed - if I get something happening here, within three hours it's finished."
"He's great fun to work with", Hay comments. "I'd tell him what we'd be doing tomorrow and he'd turn up with the appropriate synthesiser. I played the keyboard parts that I thought needed my innocence - I suppose we split it fifty-fifty. I'm no Vettese by any stretch of the imagination, but there's something about the way I play my own songs. Nobody else is going to interpret them the same way as I do. I played the piano on 'Tell Me Why' because it simply wouldn't have been right to have had anyone else do it."
Although the songs all took shape on a Linn 9000, Hay substituted live musicians where the music demanded it. At its most extreme, this involved a full orchestra - and no playing whatsoever from Hay. The track in question is a big band production called 'Inside Your Love'.
"I've always wanted to do something like that", he confesses. "I wrote the song but I wasn't really capable of arranging it, so I either had to play it on the piano and let John sing it rather like a Tom Waits thing, or do it with a big band. Vettese said why not get Richard Niles to arrange it? So he came down to the studio to hear it and got off on the idea of doing a '40s arrangement of it.
"We went into Angel studios with the band, handed out the scores and took it live in one two-hour session - live drums, guitar and nine horns. I hadn't even heard the arrangement before. It was so brilliant to sit down and suddenly hear your song transformed into this. John got off on it straight away and we did the vocal in one take back here."
In contrast, some of the other numbers on Feeling Good About It are what Hay describes as "programming madness".
"I basically used everything you can think of except the Synclavier. I wrote and programmed most of the stuff here on the 9000 and the Studio 440 then transferred all the drum parts to a Fairlight III via a Simmons converter. For one song the basic program was on a Linn, then I had a clap from the Emulator, a bass drum from the Fairlight and a conga from the DX. Which meant I was using the Fairlight as a bass drum.
"Other than for the drums I didn't really use the Fairlight library of sounds very much. I think the sounds are all a little bit too real. If you're going to use, say, conventional orchestral sounds, it's kinda nice to do it properly.
"Maybe in a couple of years time I'll move up to the Synclavier. I love the idea of hard disk recording, I hate that time delay you get with tape. It's not so bad in the studio where you've got all the parts worked out, but as a writer I want to be able to get on with it."
Another technological development Hay has exploited is the guitar synthesiser, although there are no guitar synths to be heard on Feeling Good About It. Hay was first seen sporting the distinctive Roland GR707 on Culture Club's live outings. Since then the SynthAxe and the Stepp have also attracted his attention.
"I really liked the SynthAxe but I think that, to do it justice, you have to learn to play it properly using the keyboard part as well as the guitar. If I were just a guitarist then I think I'd have had to learn it, but because I'm an adequate keyboard player, I don't need to. I can play all my synthesisers without having to resort to a guitar interface.
"There is the aspect of guitar techniques, I suppose, but I've yet to hear a record where I can tell it was a guitar playing the part. I like to use different inversions of chords on a guitar, but I often work out guitar inversions for a keyboard - and if it's too big a stretch then I play in two passes of the sequencer.
"I don t like people sitting in offices making decisions about music because there are so many people with real talent that deserve to get deals."
"What I liked about the 707 was that you could blend the guitar and the synthesiser together. What I often used to do, particularly live, was to play a nice Oberheim pad behind the guitar chords. It's also useful if you're playing arpeggios with string sounds and riff lines with marimba sounds. One thing I used to find was the velocity would play up and some of the notes wouldn't quite cut through and that would bug me to hell."
WHEN CHALLENGED, MOST songwriters claim not to have a "tried and tested" approach to their craft, using instead a variety of means to the same end - and so it is with Hay. But if Hay has a secret, it is one of speed and spontaneity.
"You see, I get inspired by a vibe; if I have to play around for ages programming I get depressed. With this setup I can turn it on, put the faders up and I'm away. If I get something happening, within three hours it's finished.
"All my equipment here is very instant", he explains, "and you don't need a degree in computing to use it. The Linn 9000 has got to be the easiest drum machine/sequencer on the market. I know it inside out now because I've had it for about three years. But I won't get rid of it. I bought the 440 and it's too much for me, its facilities are really good but it's not quick enough. I've also got the Steinberg system and I haven't used that either.
"I can work out melodies in my head before I even approach technology. I use technology to record, not to inspire. In my eyes it can't inspire. You can use it to inspire you from a rhythmic point of view, but melody-wise it's not going to help you much. Even if you take the most technical side of music, it's still the vibe and the song factor that counts. I'm a big fan of technology, don't get me wrong. Most of the stuff on the album is synthesisers. A lot of programming went into it but then, if it wasn't right, I'd bring in live musicians to counteract that. That's the trick: to get that balance."
In order to retain as much control as possible over the writing and recording of his music, Hay has built the studio that currently surrounds us. The ubiquitous Fairlight is conspicuous by its absence, but the equipment surrounding us would be enough to satisfy the most avid technophiles: racks of keyboards, a 32-input Soundtracs desk, a pair of Fostex B16 eight-track recorders run in sync and a pair of Westlake monitors that dominate the room.
"I couldn't have done the album without this setup", Hay declares. "The first thing I did when I decided I was going to be serious about this record was get this in. It was either B16s or the washing machine in the corner of the room - a 24-track. I know people who actually use B16s to master so it's a pretty good setup. A Commodore 64 actually runs the desk and I'm going to get the Soundtracs SMPTE Interface that runs with the Commodore and reads SMPTE off tape in real time to allow me to mute and edit mutes and so on.
"At the moment I'm so happy with this that I'm really reluctant to change it too much. I know we have to change with the times but I can work really well at this level. As time goes by I'm bound to get bored with my sounds and then it'll be time for a change."
The change might actually come more quickly than Hay indicates, as his obsession with sound quality encounters Digital Audio Tape - DAT.
"Developments in that area are great for people like myself; the PCMF1 will be replaced by a DAT machine very shortly. I think it's time for record executives to get them in their offices as well. Quite often you take a cassette out of the studio and play it in a record company office and it sounds terrible. You think 'it didn't sound terrible last night' and it's because the cassette player is full of shit. If everybody in the business started buying DAT you could get to the stage where the quality of the music is being heard."
The days when Roy Hay was simply "the guitarist with Culture Club" are long gone, instead he now divides his time between playing, songwriting and production. "When I wake up I look out of the window and decide what I'm going to be today", he quips. But it's not all taken that lightly; Hay prides himself in his work and freely criticises others working in the same areas. Take the phenomenal success of production trio Stock, Aitken and Waterman...
"I'm not saying they're not talented, but I prefer people with roots. I tend to look to guys like Arif Mardin for inspiration, the guys who break new ground rather than taking accepted formulas and using them. On the other hand, Stock, Aitken and Waterman do write very good fast-food pop records and that's got to be admired. I don't really know why I'm being so nice about them in this interview. I've laid into them quite heavily before, not as people but as producers, because I despise manufactured pop music. I don't like people sitting in offices making decisions about music because there are so many people out there with real fucking talent that deserve to get deals. I'm not so sure page three models really have the right to a record deal. It's a bit like the ground of pop stars becoming actors: I think it's a bloody cheek, just because you can sing doesn't mean you can act. It's about power - if you're a successful pop star you have power and influence."
The only power that interests Roy Hay is the power he's had to record his album in the way he wanted to do it. He could easily have produced a naff album and believed the people who would have told him it was perfect. He could have retired on Culture Club royalties. He could even have begun work on his memoirs...
"I couldn't give up music, not now. I was taking piano lessons when I was eight, I picked up the guitar when I was 15, I was making four-track recordings in my bedroom until I was 19, then I was lucky enough to be introduced to George. I've always been a big fan of music and I'm grateful to be involved in it."
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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