Talk Talk Talk
Talk Talk are granted an audience with Sean Rothman
Talk Talk have kept a low profile since the release of their debut album, 'The Party's Over' in 1982. Their original keyboardist, Simon Brenner, departed quietly in 1983, the band's remaining members, Mark Hollis (vocals), Paul Webb (bass) and Lee Harris (drums) electing to stay as a three-piece. The group, augmented by a guitarist and two keyboard players, were rehearsing at Nomis Studios for their forthcoming British tour when I arrived, unexpected, to disrupt them. Mark Hollis, besplendent in a blue Marks and Sparks jersey, held out his hand cautiously, a past victim of more unscrupulous hacks.
So tell me, Hollis, how did you get your record deal?
"I had just got a songwriting deal and Ed (Mark's brother, from Eddie and the Hot Rods), had met Lee and Paul and he suggested, y'know, would they like to come up and work with me for a few days. Simon was through a friend... he just said 'I know someone who plays piano' and it worked out very well.
"We went into a rehearsal room for six months to get the numbers well arranged, well put together and everything, 'cos with the repercussions of the punk movement, record companies were so wary of signing anything that it was quite apparent that you had to be more selective about the way you did it. We did some demo tapes with Jimmy Miller (who's done production work with the Stones and Spencer Davis amongst others), put those out to record companies, did a couple of gigs, got offered a David Jensen thing and that was it, really. We got the deal on the strength of a few live gigs, the demo tape and the radio session."
Talk Talk signed to EMI in 1982 amidst great commotion. Despite being promoted as 'the next Duran Duran', Talk Talk fever proved to be non-contagious. Is there a sense of disappointment at EMI that you haven't really cracked the British and American markets yet?
"Look, as far as I'm concerned, the only reason those comparisons were ever put forward by EMI was on the fact that they thought we were going to be very big." Webb: "We never saw ourselves as being flavour of the month."
No, not really. That's why we signed with them - it was like a long term project. The press, they thought, y'know, EMI... EMI's got this tag, y'know." With any mention of the music press, Mark gets agitated: "The press have a very heavy hang-up with EMI which we don't have. As far as I'm concerned, they are letting us make records the way we want to make records — they've totally supported us the whole last year to come out with an album they have no guarantee will sell. That first album was, y'know, moderately successful, but nothing more than that. All I've ever wanted from this thing is to make good records and they're allowing us to do that."
The band's debut album 'The Party's Over' spawned two hit singles, 'Today' and second time around, 'Talk Talk'. How d'you see it now? Mark: "It was to work along the lines of the end of the British New Wave — y'know, energy, enthusiasm and simplicity, it was like just walking into a studio and playing what we had already worked out. In a live situation you're covering a lot of space with sound, y'know?" Webb leans forward as if to confess. Suddenly I am the Father and he is One Who Has Sinned. "We'd barely been in a studio... it was the first serious recording we'd ever done. Looking back on it, it feels a bit dated but it had the energy and that's what Talk Talk was all about at the time."
Following the bands first US tour of duty, Simon Brenner left. Why did he leave? Did he fall or was he pushed? We want information, information... Harris, the Quiet Man speaks; "Er.. musical differences." I cannot help blanching at this stunningly original quote. Care to elaborate, Hollis? "Each album should be a definite move on from the one before it. Now y'see some people understand that and other people don't understand that. Some people think that if you have a hit with something like 'Today' then what you should do is maintain that style and that will ensure more hits right?" Come on Hollis, stop hedging... anything to add, Webb? " It was just obvious that it wasn't working with him. He's still our friend and everything, but I haven't seen him for over a year..."
Talk Talk's new album 'It's My Life' is a much more varied and complex album than 'The Party's Over' partly because of the bands greater maturity and Hollis's undoubted song writing talents, but largely one suspects as a direct result of Tim Friese-Green's stunning production, a refreshing change from Colin Thurston's routine work on their previous records.
"The main reason we used him was that he'd done three singles that we knew of at the time which was Tight Fit 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight', 'Cry Boy Cry' Blue Zoo and Thomas Dolby 'She Blinded Me With Science'. What was good about him was he'd just produced three records that were in totally different areas of music all very well and he hadn't imposed a production sound on any of them. You get producers like Spector or Steve Lillywhite and you know the producer in a lot of cases before you know who the band is. Also he was obviously someone who was really good at listening to songs. It was just a matter of gettin' together with him and seeing if he was a gambler.
"The most important thing about all of this is making good records — if people buy them its a nice little bonus. If it doesn't happen then its tough init?'
He understands totally the spirit of music. He's concerned y'know, that things are correct but he would never let technical perfection hinder feeling because to him that is the most important part of anything, which it is to all of us.
There are times when he'll say things and you'll go 'well we'll knock that on the head for a start' and the same with us. With things we was saying he was saying 'let's face it — it don't happen' but at the same time y'see, what was great about him is that anything we wanted to try he'd go for — when we wanted animals on there, when we wanted to preamp synths up like old Beck did with the Yardbirds — 'try it', y'know? But he'd not only go 'try it'. When you explained the idea he would work his hardest to make it a little bit better for us." So what did Tim Friese-Green get out of working with you? Hollis smirks. "He got a lot of money out of working with us!" he admits. "No, he enjoyed working with us — you are cynical."
"We try different areas in arrangement. It would be so easy with some of the things to stick a horn section in. Most people just copy — its like 'let's make a hit record, let's throw that in and that' which we've totally avoided on this record."
Okay boys, the million dollar question: what makes you different from a hundred other bands?
"We don't try and make records that are obviously commercial. I think there are elements of commerciality within. 'Such A Shame' for example is not an obviously commercial lyric. I don't think that changing personality through throwing a dice is a thing that people can identify with in the same way as 'Give me a smooch' or something." Hmmm. You could have something there, Hollis.
"The most important thing is basing things around songs rather than arrangements. Over the last few years very much of the music has been based around arrangements — this album is based around songs. We went in with the songs and an idea of the mood and had endless time and facilities to try different areas in arrangement." D'you agree, Webb?
"Yeah... it would be so easy with some of the things to like stick a horn section in. Most people just copy — its like 'let's make a hit record; let's throw that in and that' which we've totally avoided on this album. It's all been geared to the vocal and the mood of what we've tried to create."
How d'you see the last couple of years in retrospect?
"I've seen it as an opportunity of meeting people who maybe know what you're on about. That's what we've now arrived at. We used Tim Friese-Green on the album, Tim Pope on the videos and James Marsh on the artwork. It's just about building relationships with people"
Since Simon Brenner quit, Talk Talk have been using Ian Curnow and TF-G on keyboards, Phil Ramacon on piano and Robbie McIntosh on guitar. Curnow has played with Toyah and Howard Jones amongst others and uses two Jupiter 8s and a DX7. I dragged him away from his Portastudio and Linndrum to get a few quotes. What did you use on the album?
"There's an Oberheim OBX, my JP8 and some PPG... these are all colours and stuff but the bulk of it from my end was JP8." Pete Evans, the other keyboardist is using yet another JP8, a Korg Poly-61 and a Yamaha CP80. Howd'you go about constructing sounds?
"We try to use synths from the point of view of unnatural instruments. We try to use a synth sound as you would use a Fairlight or whatever — you don't get a particular string sound where you say 'oh that's obviously a string'. You play with the sound and make it into something that hasn't been heard before."
Paul, how did you get that incredible bass sound on 'Such A Shame'? "I played it on my lap and plucked it with a screwdriver — that's my secret!"
What basses do you use then?
"I've got two. A Wal fretless and a Kramer fretless going through a Boss flanger pedal. Another secret" Harris had disappeared by this point so I had a crafty look at his set-up. He's got a Rogers kit with Simmons SDS5 toms and effects and a Roland TR808 linked to a CR8000 drum machine which also supplies the click track.
Last word Hollis? "Let's just fucking move on another year, make a fucking good record that we're all happy with... that's the main thing. If the record sells well it's great for us because then we've got the best of everything — we're making records exactly the way we wanna make them and we're being allowed to continue to make them because people are buying them. The most importing thing about all of this is making good records — if people buy them it's a nice little bonus. If it doesn't happen then it's tough init? It's fucking back to the factory!"
The Party's Over? Somehow I doubt it.
Interview by Sean Rothman
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