MT fans and stars of the underground rave scene, Bizarre Inc regularly party down with high technology. Simon Trask meets the men and discusses hardcore issues.
Bizarre Inc's ability to marry pop sensibility to hardcore dance sound sees them currently straddling both the underground rave scene and the overground pop charts.
BIZARRE INC MAKE THE SORT OF MUSIC that gives the average muse heart palpitations. Music which can send seismic tremors rolling across the dancefloor with its raw, hardcore sound and pounding beats and yet also penetrate the upper regions of the pop charts with its catchy sampled vocal hooks and uplifting piano riffs.
To make matters worse, the three young musicians who make up Bizarre Inc - Dean Meredith, Andrew Meecham and Carl Turner - have no time for "real" instruments or the performing skills required to play them. Instead they're devoted to their collection of synths, samplers, drum machines and sequencers old and new, and spend many hours in the small upstairs room which has been set aside in Meecham's house as "the studio", experimenting with new sounds, searching for new vocal samples and programming the fierce rhythms and basslines which characterise their particular brand of dance music.
Yet far from being reclusive types who prefer the anonymity and safe living of studio life, Bizarre Inc frequently place themselves and their gear in unpredictable and volatile situations in order to play to youthful, enthusiastic dance crowds. As stalwarts of the rave scene for the past two to three years, the group have travelled the length and breadth of the country, "paying their dues" by playing their fair share of what Turner refers to as "really dodgy raves in tents, with dodgy sound systems" as well as many club venues.
Through their many live appearances the group built up a groundswell of popular support which took 'Playing With Knives', their second single for London-based independent Vinyl Solution, to the No 1 slot in numerous dance charts and to No 43 in the Gallup national chart in March of this year. More recently, their follow-up single, 'Such A Feeling' b/w 'Raise Me', topped the dance charts for several weeks and peaked at No 13 in the Gallup chart and No 9 in the Network chart, leading to the inevitable appearance on Top of the Pops. It seems that the distance from muddy field to hi-tech sound stage isn't as great as it once was. But is the underground sound of dance music really becoming more commercially acceptable?
"I don't know whether it's getting more acceptable", replies Carl Turner. "I think it's just that the underground following is getting so big it's throwing it into the charts."
"It is accepted now, though", opines Bizarre Inc founder Dean Meredith. "Whereas once it would have been 'What's that?', now it's just '90s dance."
I'm sitting with all three members of Bizarre Inc in the front room of Andrew Meecham's house in Stafford, having just been given a guided tour of the group's hi-tech recording setup and a demo of their recently-acquired - and, as it turns out, very aptly named - Studio Power RS500 speakers. Although Meredith and Turner each have their own collection of gear at home for working on tracks, it's at Meecham's house that they work together.
Not all that long ago, the group were making it known in interview's that the attentions of the pop marketing machine weren't welcome, fearing that it would lose them credibility with their underground following. However, with the commercial success of the past two singles, events have overtaken them somewhat. With a Top of The Pops appearance and a Smash Hits interview with Meecham (much to his embarrassment) under their belt, what direction are they headed in now?
"We don't think 'Right, we're in the charts so the next track's got to be commercial, we've got to be a pop band now'", says Meredith. "We'll just be ourselves and do what we feel is right when we're in the studio. If it gets in the charts, OK, but you can't predict something like that, really."
"Other people will probably put us in the category of being a pop band just 'cos we're in the charts", remarks Meecham, "but that's the way it is in this country. People do like to label things, but it's not needed."
'PLAYING WITH KNIVES' HAS BEEN AN influential track, its abrupt juxtaposition of techno and Italo-piano styles spawning a large number of what Bizarre Inc call "changeover" records.
"Putting a big piano break in the middle of a techno track was something nobody had done before", says Turner. "When people heard it they thought 'Yeah, it's so obvious, we've got piano records and we've got techno records, why don't we have piano techno records?' It's just that we were the first to have that notion."
It's a notion which owes not a little to the concept of a DJ cutting between two records. Rather than the more traditional musical approach of vertically integrating different musical styles, "changeover" tracks are about linear juxtapositions of different styles. Juxtapositions allow each style to remain readily recognisable and therefore easily assimilatable, but add the interest of contrast, abrupt change, and changes in dynamics.
With 'Such a Feeling' and 'Raise Me', Bizarre Inc again utilised the "changeover" concept. 'Raise Me' provides an extreme changeover from heavy techno beats to a sensual, dreamy vocal sample with no rhythmic backing - a quite enchanting moment.
"More than anything that was a bit of a piss-take", admits Turner. "So many people had picked up on the piano/techno changeover in 'Playing With Knives', and were cashing in on it by putting piano breaks in their own tracks, that we thought we'd see how far we could take it. So we went from the hardest bass into the most ambient vocal, the two extremes."
"That sample was quite a pain to sync", Meredith recalls.
"God, yeah, 'cos it actually changes bpm", adds Turner. "It starts off really slow, then it goes back into the beat, which is about 128. It was hard picking the beat up again."
I'd hoped to find out from the trio what track they'd lifted the vocal from, but it wasn't to be - though not through any reluctance on their part to reveal sources.
"It was off a dodgy album of a cappellas, so we don't know where the sample's from originally", Turner explains. "It was dead funny, we were in the studio and every now and then one of us would stop and go 'God, I think I know who it is' and mention some big name. But, seriously, we don't know who it is."
So you might get a phone call one day...
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it", says Meredith.
"Yeah, use it first, and if there's any trouble pay 'em later", Turner adds. "It's not as if we go around trying to bastardise everything, though. We can only use a line if we particularly like it."
"That's it, if it sounds good and it works, we'll use it", says Meredith, neatly summing up the Bizarre Inc philosophy of sampling.
So do the group make much use of their Akai S950's time-stretching function to help bring errant samples into line?
"All the time, yeah", says Turner. "The vocal sample on 'Playing With Knives' is time-stretched - about 83%, I think."
Mention of this sample - an a cappella vocal phrase from Circuit's 'Shelter Me' - brings forth a story for our times from Turner.
"They didn't say anything about us using the sample, and we heard that they liked our record because it was so different. Basically, we'd used the sample to create a new song in a new way. But then they released their track again, called it the Retaliation Mix and used our bassline! It sounded like a remix of 'Playing With Knives'. Of course, we couldn't say anything."
It's a useful reminder that there are other ways to make someone pay for using a sample than asking for money.
But wouldn't it be less troublesome all round to have a real live singer fronting the group?
"We don't go around knocking indie bands just because we don't like guitars, so we don't think we should be knocked for what we do."
"We prefer to use a sample over a real singer because singers are just such hassle", replies Turner. "If we did have a real singer we'd only want to make her sound like a sampler. We'd make her sing a line and then use it as a sample, pretend it was off an a cappella.
"I like the precision you can get using technology. With real vocals, drums and guitars it's just not tight enough for me, whereas with a sequencer you can concentrate on getting a sample in exactly the right place, moving it forward a bit, backward a bit... I know there's some purists who absolutely hate the way we work, but it's just working in a different way."
"Each to their own", says Meecham. "I don't think you should knock any sort of music, 'cos everyone's got their own taste and their own way of doing things.
We don't go around knocking indie bands just because we don't like guitars. It's up to them. So, we don't think we should be knocked for what we do. For us, technology is what it's all about now. It's gone beyond the stage of buying a Fender guitar and a Yamaha drum kit - just buy a sampler, that's all you need."
"Everyone's getting samplers now", maintains Meredith boldly. "I bet Status Quo have got a sampler."
"They're bound to have", agrees Meecham, with a mischievous look in his eye. "Rick doesn't play his guitar riffs, they're in the sampler, aren't they? Three chords, innit?"
IT SOON BECOMES APPARENT WHEN WE start talking about the gear the group use that they look upon their collection of synths, samplers, drum machines and sequencers as more than utilitarian devices, tools of the trade. They are genuinely enthusiastic about various bits of gear and the sounds they can get out of them.
Meecham started out modestly with a little Casio SK5 sampler and an old Yamaha PSS keyboard.
"My first proper synth was the Juno 6, and I loved it and loved it and loved it", he recalls. "Forget girlfriends. Then along came the SH101, which I bought from a doctor's son who didn't like it. After that I got the K1 and started getting into MIDI, and it just developed from there."
Other instruments to be found in Meecham's studio, aside from the all-important S950 sampler, include a Roland D110 ("rubbish for dance music; the sounds aren't there.") and a rather less common instrument, an Akai VX90 analogue synth expander ("nice brass analogue sounds, and a good bass sound").
Meecham's most recent purchase is a Korg M3R.
"I'm very impressed with it", he comments. "I got it for the pianos, strings, flutes and noises. With all the instrument samples it's got, who needs to go out and buy a flute when it's on the keyboard. Also, 'cos it's got all the effects in it, it really fills the room. It's a winning piece of equipment."
If there's one thing the group are short of, it's effects. A little Zoom 9002 is used for adding effects to analogue synths like the Juno6, but about the only effect Meecham considers worth using on it is the distortion.
Like Meecham, Meredith started out modestly, with a Casio SK5.
"My first real box of tricks was the E-mu SP12", he recalls. "It cost me £450. I've also got a Sequential Pro One, which is really nice for bass - I can spend hours with it just writing bass sounds."
"At the moment we're all into the Pro One - that wins for bass", Meecham comments. "We turn to the analogue stuff for bass every time. There's more feel and depth in analogue sounds. I think the digital stuff wins with strings and piano, though."
"All these new synths have analogue sounds built in, but you can never get the same sound out of them as the originals", maintains Meredith.
"They're just not as rich as the original analogue sounds", Meecham concurs.
"I've just had a 202 for a couple of weeks, and you can get some really amazing bass sounds out of that", continues Meredith. "I've got a JX3P, which has got some really nice brass sounds on it. It's a bit hard to program, though. I don't use it that much, actually. At the moment I've swapped it with a friend, for his DX27 and the 'Solid Bass' sound."
Meredith's complement of Roland gear includes every dance musician's favourite companions, the TR808 and 909.
"I paid a ridiculous price for the 909", he reveals.
"How much did you pay, Dean?" asks Meecham, obviously knowing the answer.
"Eight hundred pounds", comes the reply.
"I phoned up every music shop you could think of and scoured the secondhand ads, but there just weren't any to be had", Meredith explains. "Eventually, someone put me onto this rock guy who was selling one, but I had to pay over the odds for it. I wanted it that badly, though. And it is in good condition."
"We played about 12 venues before he'd take it out of the plastic wrapper", Turner jokes. "I've been after a 909, too, but you just can't get 'em. We always look through the free ads in Music Technology. In fact, I nearly got an 808 and a 909 that way, but they were already sold when I rang up."
"I got my 202 from there", Meredith reveals. "I like to look at those equipment lists you run with the interviews, too, just to see what other people use."
"It wins for me, your magazine", says Meecham. Flattery will get you everywhere. Could we get back to discussing the gear that will appear in the Bizarre Inc equipment list?
"The SP12, Juno 6 and SH101 are what we use the most at the moment", says Meredith. "I think out of all the gear I've got, the SP12 is still my favourite. It's old, but it's a nice bit of gear - so quick and easy to use. Its sequencer is pretty good, too."
"Technology is what it's all about now - it's gone beyond the stage of buying a Fender guitar and a Yamaha drum kit, just buy a sampler, that's all you need."
"Dean hates computers", says Meecham. "He can't be doing with the mouse and the screen."
"Yeah, I'm Anti-Computer Man", confirms Meredith. "I just MIDI all my stuff up so that it's synced, and fire it all from my 909."
In contrast, Meecham and Turner both use Cubase running on a 1040ST.
"Cubase is a matter of chucking blocks about the place and constructing it all", explains Meecham. "It's dead easy to use, and very visual - you can see your arrangement clearly on the screen. Both Carl and I liked everything about it, so we decided to get it."
ONCE THEY'VE GOT A TRACK PROGRAMMED on Cubase at home and they're all happy with it, the trio head off for Out Of The Blue studios in Manchester for the recording proper. The studio has an Otari 24-track tape machine, a TAC Magnum desk and plenty of effects, while an Atari ST, Steinberg Cubase sequencing software, an Akai S1000 and S950, a Roland U220 and a Roland TR909 provide a useful level of compatibility with Bizarre Inc's home setup.
But still, what is it that draws them to Out Of The Blue in particular?
"The engineer", replies Turner.
"He is Mr Engineer", adds Meecham. "He eats and sleeps mixers, and he likes his Aural Exciter and his compressors, that's his life. He's got a big stack of effects."
"When we think the mix is perfect and everything's clean, he's always got something else to add to it", says ' Meredith. "He'll want another couple of hours on it, and he'll make it sound even better. He's there with all his effects and compressors and stuff, and he gets it just right."
"We'll have a bass sound that we've sampled and it'll be a bit noisy", continues Meecham, "and we'll say 'it'll be hidden in the mix', but he'll freak out. He'll spend hours getting rid of a bit of noise. We recorded 'Such A Feeling' at Square One studios, but we took him with us. He likes working with us, even though we give him grief from time to time. His name's Adam Lesser, by the way."
The Bizarre Inc mixer of choice for at home and on stage is the Tascam MM1.
"It's very quiet", explains Meecham. "We've never actually done a track using the MIDI muting on it, though, because it's far easier to do the muting within the sequencer.
"My only complaint about it would be that it could do with better EQ, though if you can get the right sound in the first place you don't need to EQ it that much, apart from the bass. But it's a good piece of kit - and it was a bargain. We're big bargain hunters, not that we've found many.
"Also, it's good for gigging because you can lob it in a Pod flightcase and away you go, it's very compact. When we go out live we're satisfied that our gear is working fine, it's just these dodgy raves. There's been times when we've said we wanted a proper mixer, and then when we've got there it's a little DJ mixer and we're putting keyboards and stuff through it. So now we put all our gear through the MM1, which gives us 20 channels including some stereo channels, and give the DJ a left and a right from the mixer output. The DJ usually controls the mix anyway. You go to a rave now and look at the stage and most of it's taken up with a big DJ console, with this guy surrounded, by monitors while the bands are stuck away in some corner. A lot of the time you get there and there's no monitors for the bands.
"The good sound engineers are the rock engineers, but as for these young 'We'll go and buy a couple of bass cabs and some mid-range and call it a sound system', they don't know what they're on about."
"We always feel bad if we do a gig and the sound system doesn't come out right", says Turner. "We feel like we've let everyone down, even though the crowd are still dancing and they love it, we don't feel satisfied in ourselves. When you get on a big live event it's brilliant, though, because they've got the money to spend on a decent sound system."
"We're going to be doing a dance festival in Slough, and there's supposed to be 25,000 people there" reveals Meecham. "We've only ever done one open-air event, in Italy, and that was really dodgy. They'd built a scaffold construction and just lobbed planks of wood across it, so the planks were shifting apart as we were playing. Our MC put a leg through the stage when he was walking around."
FOLLOWING THE COMMERCIAL SUCCESS of 'Such A Feeling', the next single will be a re-released version of 'Playing With Knives', with a new track on the B side. I get the impression that the re-release is more at the instigation of the group's record company than the group themselves. What's more, the seven-inch mix by Youth hasn't met with an altogether favourable response from the group.
"We're in two minds about his mix at the moment", comments Turner diplomatically.
Unlike some groups, Bizarre Inc aren't keen on remixing their own tracks themselves.
"Generally, the version that we put out is our final version", says Turner, "so we don't really do remixes once the track is out. But then we've done about six mixes to get to that final version. After that, we'd rather get somebody else's point of view. Obviously we try and get someone who we feel is going to be right for the job, and who we all like. But if we do remix one of our tracks ourselves, we like to make it completely different."
Although it's the next single which is uppermost in their minds at the moment, Bizarre Inc are also putting together ideas for their first album, and have demo'd some tracks. But what future directions would they like to pursue?
"I'd like to do a garage track, something soulful with maybe a real nice vocal", says Meredith.
"I'd really like to do a good vocal track", Turner concurs.
"Big production", adds Meecham.
"A big production would be nice", agrees Meredith. "Maybe bring in someone from the States to mix it or produce it, put an American feel to it."
This sounds like they want to go in a more conventional song direction, away from the hardcore instrumental tracks.
"We still want to be putting out some hardcore club tracks as well, 'cos they're fun to do", says Meredith.
"That's where we started from", Meecham adds. "We can't go away and leave our roots. But suddenly people are expecting us to be a chart band, and it's hard to try and keep that other side. We're seated of being laughed at, because we didn't intend for all this to happen, but I think if it starts happening you've got to go with it. You become public property, in a way."