Soul of the Machine
Neatly sidestepping the monotonous beats and cliched melodies that typify too many dance acts, this Swiss-American collaboration are making refreshing music. Simon Trask and Heinrich Zwahlen share a technical obsession.
Take one female American gospel singer and one male Swiss electronic musician, put them into a recording studio and you get... refreshingly original music.
IN THIS DAY AND AGE, NOT MANY MUSICIANS would be prepared to spend four years honing their songs to perfection before committing them to vinyl. Yet this is exactly what Basscut have done. Singer Elisa Burchett, a native of the US' New Jersey with a Pentecostal church music background, and Heinrich Zwahlen, a Swiss-born electronic musician who, since 1985, has been living and working in New York, met in 1986 and subsequently decided to collaborate. However, it was only earlier this year that they released their first single, 'Say You Love Me' b/w 'Pampa', on 10 Records. The duo's second single, 'My Obsession', is due in June but the release date for their debut album has been put back not once, not twice but three times - currently to September. Still, what's four months after four years?
There may yet be dangers ahead for Basscut, though. Sublimely soulful yet not exactly soul music, enticingly rhythmic yet not exactly dance music, their music cannot readily be categorised, targeted and marketed. Nor does it sacrifice substance and depth for the sake of instant appeal - it doesn't hit you immediately, but it sure as hell grows on you with repeated listenings. Burchett's compelling voice, at times taut and anguished, at times dreamy and fragile, reaches out to a place rarely touched in popular music. Zwahlen's lush electronic textures - subtle, finely-detailed, understated arrangements which wrap themselves seductively around Burchett's voice without ever overwhelming it - are similarly out of the ordinary. It's a combination of purity and sensuality which is almost religious in nature. But the sound of the moment it isn't.
"Our sound is something maybe not so easy to sell right now", admits Zwahlen, speaking on the phone from New York. "But then I'm more going for something timeless, I'm not interested in creating some new hype. I would rather produce something that has a quality that stands out of the time when it's made and has a certain solidity to it."
When the softly-spoken musician - who moved to New York because "just being in Switzerland was getting a little boring, you know?" - began working with Burchett, he was using a far more modest equipment setup than the one he has now.
"I had my Atari computer. Dr T's KCS software and two Casio samplers", he recalls. "I'd put the music onto a cassette four-track and Elisa would take it to her room and make some overdubs. That's how we did a lot of stuff, just to put down ideas, and it worked really well."
Around two years ago, Zwahlen formed a production company, Spike Records, with two other partners and set about putting together an in-house 24-track studio (see equipment list). With this new studio he switched to a new sequencing package, C-Lab Notator, which he felt was better suited to controlling the new array of synths and samplers he had at his disposal. And with this equipment setup he was also able to approach the songs he'd worked on with Burchett from a fresh perspective.
"I took the sequences from KCS and transferred them to Notator using MIDI Files", he explains. "Then using the new equipment, I started to work on details, on textures - on fine arrangements, basically. I try to give this stuff some depth. There's a lot of little things happening that maybe you don't realise in the first moment. There should be two levels: on the one hand a very simple, catchy element, but then if you keep listening, maybe you see a certain depth to it, details, or textures. So even though the songs are simple, you can listen to them more. Combining simplicity and complexity was one of our goals."
ZWAHLEN BEGAN HIS MUSICAL CAREER IN the 70s in his home town of Zurich, playing guitar in local punk bands. Tiring after a while of what he saw as the limitation of the guitar sound, he first experimented with putting his guitar through "all kinds of effect devices and feedback - crazy setups" before turning in the late '70s to the synthesiser and electronic music. Zwahlen saw in electronic musical equipment not only a source of new sounds but also an opportunity to escape what had, for him, become the confines of the band situation.
"I was really getting fed up with having to work in a band and having to argue with other band members", he confesses. "In some ways your creativity can become cut short in such a situation."
And so he began creating what he refers to as "minimalistic, rhythm-oriented electronic music" using a Roland MC4, a Roland System 100M, an ARP Odyssey and a Roland TR808.
"I was not a keyboard player, so the parts had to be very minimalistic!" he says. "Also, I was very naive in the way that I worked with the equipment, because I was not a synthesiser player, I just figured that I could do it."
As well as playing live shows with his electronic setup, Zwahlen bought an eight-track and started doing production work for other musicians in Zurich. However, after visiting a friend in New York he was so taken with the city that he decided to move there.
"I liked the whole vibe", comes his explanation. "It was and is just much more inspiring. Zurich is OK for its size, but how much can you expect from a small town?"
Zwahlen's arrival in New York coincided with the early days of Chicago house music, which he cites as the main influence on him at that time.
"I liked the minimalistic formula of the music, with the combination of the steady kick and the spacey parts. Also, sound was very important, because the music was linked very much to sound as compared to maybe very complicated people parts, musical parts. It's more like just sound, bass... I think that's still a very powerful concept: raw rhythm and sound, and simple parts. Atmosphere, too. I was totally fascinated by the sound systems like the Paradise Garage, the whole atmosphere in those places."
In order to support himself, Zwahlen set up a small eight-track demo studio. Being in New York, he found himself doing a lot of hip hop pre-production work, spending much of his time sampling and looping breaks and programming drum rhythms.
"That was when I really got into drum programming, much more than on this music now", comments the keyboard player. "I've always really liked drum machines. At that time I had an E-mu SP1200. I still like that machine, but for a long time I've been playing drum parts from a keyboard, which I think works OK. My concept was that I could sequence drums in the same way I could sequence everything else. To be honest with you, I missed drum machines a little bit until I started using the Hyper Edit page in Notator. That actually brings it back to the old feeling where you can see things better, like on the 808."
From working with breaks and beats, Zwahlen's musical direction took a different turn when he met up with Burchett.
"I was actually very much getting into dance music before I met her", he recalls, "but I didn't really pursue that any more, probably because Elisa was not so much interested in that kind of material. I guess it was just what came out of working with her.
"I remember when we first got together, I had some tracks and she came into the demo studio and immediately put down some vocals. She had ideas really quickly and she could perform them and arrange them. She was writing in the studio as she heard the music. I like the spontaneity of that situation, and just this kind of collaboration where we communicate but everybody stays in their own field, like I had what I thought was a finished track and she added something to it that took it somewhere totally else and made it actually complete. It's like a communication, in a way, with other means."
And was this the model for their subsequent collaboration?
"Elisa comes up with all the vocal melodies and the vocal arrangements, and all the lyrics, of course", Zwahlen replies. "But I would say maybe half the music for the album was developed without her being around. For other songs I came up with a rough idea and she was maybe in the next room, because we used to share a place, and she heard something so she came over and said 'I like this', and I started to focus on ideas that she reacted to. And she of course gave her input in terms of the final song structure."
"Very simple musical parts work if they have the right sound - there has to be a unity between the sound and the part."
Zwahlen's earlier comment about having to play minimalistic parts because he wasn't a keyboard player has relevance for Basscut's music, in which the emphasis is on sophisticated arrangements built from simple parts. Does he see himself as more an arranger than a performer?
"I do deal a lot with arrangements, like finding the right sound for the right part", he explains. "You can either try to perfect your performance by practising and really being a virtuoso, or you can do something very simple but with the exact right sound, or instrumentation, and it does the job too. Not being a good keyboard player, I'm more into that simple approach; I don't deplore it, really, because I don't think it's necessary to be a virtuoso to make good music. Many times, very simple musical parts work if they have the right sound - there has to be a unity between the sound and the part."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, in many cases for Zwahlen it's a sound which sparks off a song.
"Touching a keyboard and hearing a sound actually starts to suggest a part to me", he says. "If it's a bass sound then it'll probably be a bassline. I kind of try to find the right part for the sound. It goes in a circle. The sound can suggest a certain part, then I play the part and fine-tune the sound to suit the part. But for me it's definitely playing with the sound in the first place, rather than having a musical idea and then finding a sound for it.
"Also, rhythm is definitely important. As a whole, with these songs I see that all the parts work together like one rhythmic pattern. It's not just rhythm section and then overdubs, it's one big machinery, in a way - one integrated structure. I like to make patterns. I really like to make patterns and then just jam with the patterns and experiment. It's not so much premeditated, it's more like you try out different orders and then all of a sudden you have a song."
ZWAHLEN IS NOT ONLY RESPONSIBLE FOR composing, performing and sequencing all Basscut's music but also for recording it. His approach to date has been to record only Burchett's vocals to tape and run everything else live in the mix from the sequencer.
"I didn't even need a 24-track tape machine, it was like total luxury, in a way", he admits. "I could have used an eight-track, almost. The reason why I didn't put more parts to tape was because I wanted to be able to keep working on the sequences - even in the mixing stage. I find having that flexibility is very important. But maybe in the future for some parts - I'm just speculating - I will start to put more parts to tape because it can do something good to the sounds. Tape compression can make the stuff sound bigger and warmer."
Like many professional recording musicians these days, Zwahlen mixes straight to DAT. However, his DAT mixes are not the final result, but instead raw material for a further creative stage involving digital audio editing.
"I really got a little bit stupid with Sound Tools last year", he reveals. "I like Sound Tools because I really like sampling. I was sampling a lot for rap productions, looping breaks... For two years I was just doing that. So when Sound Tools came out I kind of got addicted to sampling everything and cutting it up. I have no automation on my board, so I figured I would be able to do it in the editing process by recording the song without drums, the song without bass, without vocals... I recorded everything to DAT and transferred it digitally to Sound Tools via the DAT I/O box. Then I cut everything up. For some songs I made hundreds of regions. It was like a puzzle, trying out combinations. Sometimes you find good combinations, but many times it's hard to find meaningful combinations. It's a very time-consuming way of working. It sounds interesting, but I tell you, you can really get lost!"
Zwahlen's E-mu Emulator III has provided him with a salutary lesson of a different kind.
"I have to talk badly about the EIII", he says. "I like the sound quality, the software is great, the design is interesting, but the hardware is just not on the level. Maybe I just had a bad machine, but I'm really a little bit pissed off. It broke down about ten times in the last year and a half. For a machine at this price that's really upsetting.
"Now I'm going to get maybe the Digidesign SampleCell card for my Mac. I think that's maybe the way to go - build a workstation. If you have a Mac II you can plug in a few of those cards, then you're all set. Some friends of mine are already doing work using Studio Vision, Sound Tools and a couple of SampleCell cards at the same time."
Ever the undaunted sampling fan, Zwahlen has plans for bringing Burchett's vocals into the world of digital recording.
"I really want to start sampling Elisa's vocals onto hard disk", he reveals. "It's the way to go. I've sampled her vocals before. I remember for one song 'Over and Over', the vocals were sampled on the Casio at 36kHz. Everything including vocals was done on two Casios, four meg of memory! Also I did a remix of 'My Obsession' where I cut the whole thing up and sampled the vocal track, and I triggered this off with LiveList, which is an additional file in Sound Tools. You can load in Sound Tools files and trigger them from MIDI notes, so I triggered the samples from Notator. There's a slight delay, but you can compensate in Notator by triggering slightly early. I'm really looking forward to figuring out a better system, maybe Studio Vision or the new version of Notator with hard-disk recording."
But how does Zwahlen square this enthusiasm for tapeless recording with his earlier comments about wanting to use tape more?
"I think there are two sides to it", he responds. "For writing purposes I think it's better to sequence and sample, because you can edit things and loop things. It's easier to work that way. But once you have everything down, once you know that it's the way you want to have it, just for production purposes to put some parts on tape might improve the sound - almost like using the tape machine as an effects device. You could buy 24 tube compressors, but that costs a lot of money, so maybe it's cheaper to get a tape machine!"
It's apparent that Zwahlen not only feels comfortable with the technological paraphernalia of the modern recording studio, he positively enjoys working with it.
"Working in the studio is an activity that I like, rather than just a means to record something", he confirms. "It's like another person maybe plays on a guitar, I like to play on my machines. I think that machines are not just a tool, they're something inspiring. What I said earlier about how a sound can sometimes suggest a part, the same thing can be true with a set of machines. You play with machines and they give you ideas, it's not like your ideas come out of a void - you interact with the machines. Also, on another level, the mixing board is a musical instrument. In feet, for me my whole studio is like a big D50, you know! I can mix different things together, like I have a sampled portion, I have digital sounds, I have outboard... Working in the studio is something playful."
In which case, long may he continue to play.