Talk Talk To Me
As the band reach their greatest level of British success and release their third album, Talk Talk's Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene discuss the curse of the synthesiser and the blessing of the piano with Tim Goodyer.
After years of their being successful in every European territory except Britain, popular opinion suggests 1986 could be Talk Talk's year. Their third album, released this month, is carefully constructed and unusually arranged.
It's taken two years to appear, it's called The Colour of Spring, it contains almost no synthesisers at all, and it's Talk Talk's third LP. Oh, and one other thing — it's bloody good.
You could be forgiven for thinking Talk Talk had ceased trading, as up till now, nothing had been heard from them since their second album It's My Life was released early in 1984. But the truth of the matter is that they're alive and well, and have spent a fair bit of the intervening period playing to continental audiences more appreciative than those in their homeland. But now they've returned to Britain and are ready to give their countrymen a taste of what they've been missing out on for the last couple of years.
The main force behind Talk Talk is founder Mark Hollis who, along with producer Tim Friese-Greene, makes up the songwriting team and a large proportion of the keyboard-playing talent; Hollis also takes care of most of the singing.
The pair share a remarkable empathy, tossing replies to my questions between them with unnerving continuity and singularity of purpose. Their philosophies are refined, and lie in an area well outside that usually associated with pop musicians. Perhaps that's why they don't associate themselves with pop at all...
'By definition, something that is popular is something that's liked by a lot of people', says Hollis. 'When we're making an album we don't give any consideration to how many people like it. Therefore, by definition, we are not pop musicians.'
Originally the band had a keyboardist by the name of Simon Brenner, who played on The Party's Over, Talk Talk's debut long-player. Now the regular lineup consists only of Hollis, drummer Lee Harris and bassist Paul Webb. This skeleton crew is regularly augmented by the production skills of Friese-Greene, together with a long list of session men like guitarist David Rhodes and keyboard player Ian Curnow.
In between, the band's most successful album, It's My Life was released in 1984 and achieved gold record status in every European country — except Britain.
Of good songs Talk Talk have no shortage, but mass popularity has evaded them persistently throughout their career to date. It's not really difficult to see why. The band were launched on the tail end of the New Wave in early 1981, but they neither looked nor sounded the part they seemed to want to play. But how else would you categorise a band playing conventional songs with the aid of fashionable technology like synthesisers and Simmons drums? In the early days, the audiences Talk Talk played to misinterpreted them, and the majority of their potential fans never heard them. Hollis was unconcerned, and remains so to this day.
'I don't think it really matters whether we're misinterpreted or not, because you can't misinterpret yourself. If you look at music as being art as opposed to technology, in the same way that you might look at painting as being art as opposed to mathematics, then you're left with intention. You either do it for the right reasons or the wrong ones. If you do it for the right reasons, no matter how crap it is to anyone else, it's good; if you do it for the wrong reasons, no matter how good it is, it's crap.'
After talking to him for only a short while, it becomes obvious Hollis has an almost total disinterest in interviews — he claims never to read any, not even his own. Yet it isn't fair to call the Talk Talk frontman evasive. In fact, he is disarmingly frank and has an answer to everything, even if he remains difficult to pin down on many issues.
His casual manner and speech are in sharp contradiction to the sensitive lyrics and extraordinary command of melody that appear in Talk Talk's music. The Colour of Spring is a beautifully considered album that features some of Hollis' most lovingly crafted material.
Yet it's not a commercial venture: the songs are long, unusually arranged, and occasionally discordant. The 'organic' sounds and whimsical vocal style bear more than a passing resemblance to David Sylvian's Brilliant Trees, and that didn't exactly set the album charts aglow.
"Synths are becoming less expressive as technology develops: when they first appeared you had to play them, now you just write your part and have it played by a bunch of chips."
Hollis himself is far from eager to go into detail about the creation of The Colour of Spring. What does concern him is none other than our old friend, music — not to be confused with musicianship, which carries little weight by comparison.
'To me, feel is the most important thing, not technique. Take all that soul and gospel stuff: that's got incredible feel, but it's not necessarily great musicianship.'
The first single to be taken from The Colour of Spring, 'Life's What You Make It' has surprised everybody by achieving a Top 20 chart placing with astounding ease, but again, it's not a particularly commercial song, with its oversimple beat, its repetitive piano riff, and its decidedly 'this is not a love song' lyrics. If it sounds like anything, it's a Tears For Fears out-take, but it isn't melodic enough — or jolly enough, despite the song's optimistic message — to gain massive exposure.
I venture that another song from the LP, 'Happiness is Easy' would have been a more obvious choice for 45rpm release; a wonderfully understated song with some delicate acoustic guitar work from Robbie Macintosh, and a chorus carried by a children's choir.
But Hollis defends the choice of single in a typically unorthodox way. 'A lot of people have said it wasn't a good choice, but I've never thought of it in that way at all. With the exception of a four-part horn figure, it's the shortest track on the album, and that's why we chose it.
'I actually have this belief that what makes a good single is how well you can boil an egg to it. For Europe we'll have to edit 'Life's What You Make It' down a bit, because they like their eggs a little more runny on the continent.'
'The songs on the album are all quite long', says Friese-Greene. 'It's not because they've got 30 verses and 15 choruses, but because each inherent section of the song is long in itself. So, in a six-minute track, you've still only got two verses and three choruses.'
Instrumentally, acoustic piano and an old Hammond organ provide the mainstay of the keyboard work. They're accompanied by everything from that children's choir to a Variophon, a technological antique that actually offers a couple of currently fashionable musical techniques in the sampling of real sounds and breath control over those sounds. Yet anything more contemporary faces rejection by Hollis and Friese-Green, both of whom confess a hatred of modern synth technology and the tasks it performs.
Synths formed an essential part of The Party's Over and It's My Life, so why the apparent change of heart?
'In terms of the first two albums and the live field, synths are simply an economic measure', responds Hollis. 'Beyond that, I absolutely hate synthesisers. To me, the only thing that was ever good about them was the fact that they gave you large areas of sound to work with; apart from that they're really bad — horrible. I can take their existence from a live point of view now, but if they didn't exist, I'd be delighted.
"The songs on the album are all quite long - not because they've got 30 verses and 15 choruses, but because each section in a song is long in itself."
'Synthesisers were really only a means to an end. All they've enabled us to do is go some way towards reproducing organic sounds when we haven't been able to afford the real thing. It was simply an economic measure, and without the success of the It's My Life LP, we wouldn't have been able to make this album in the way we have. Since It's My Life did sell, we had absolute freedom over time and resources for this album, so we were able to use real strings and choirs.
'In those terms commercial success means a lot, but it is not, and can never be, your primary consideration. It's absurd to concede your musical principles to try and make your record sell. The only important thing about the last album was that we thought it was good. I can honestly say that if it hadn't sold at all I couldn't have given a shit — but the fact that it did made me a lot happier.'
And on the subject of fashion...
'I think it's evident in the way we make records that we have no concern for trends. Basically, trends only last a few months. Our albums take a year to make, so that the current trend, and three more, come and go before we've finished what we're doing. You have to work outside of that as a basic starting point.'
Maybe all this dogmatism pays off, though. Talk Talk's recordings thus far form a succession of statements that follow a recognisable pattern of development. Songwriting, arranging and performing are now more mature than ever, and have obviously benefitted from the band's increasing experience. For once, Mark Hollis can but agree.
'The earlier albums were much more simplistic than The Colour of Spring. With the first album we were basically in the position where we'd signed the record deal and had about a month to do the recording. By the time we did It's My Life, because we'd had moderate success with a couple of the tracks from the first album, the record company allowed us a lot more freedom. We were really lucky, because a lot of bands would have tried to bring out more product on the back of that, whereas we had a gap of two years. We had a reasonable budget and reasonable scope in which to make the arrangements, and about six months to record.
'With this album we were given as much time as we liked, and allowed to incorporate as many people as we chose.
'We work from a songwriting basis. With any song, the variations are endless, so, with each LP, we've moved further and further towards an ideal situation in which to work. But, if that second album hadn't done well, we'd never have been given what we were this time around.'
Does that make the earlier Talk Talk albums inferior to The Colour of Spring!
'Each album is different. It's like having kids: you like their differences and you like each one for what it is — you don't compare them with one another. The fact that they are different is the important thing. You love each of them and, at the time you conceived them, they were what you wanted them to be.'
"There is no honest person who could say he's not influenced by something; once you're at the level of not being influenced by anything, you're at the level of genius."
Like many good artists, Hollis draws on a range of sources for inspiration. Influences as diverse as books and drum fills can affect what he writes, but it seems almost anything can inspire him, particularly when it comes to putting words to music.
'I'm influenced by everything', he says. 'The more areas you take influences from, the less you actually receive them. There is no honest person who could deny that he is influenced by something. Once you're at the level of not deriving anything from anybody, you're at the level of genius. There are only a few people like that.
'Lyric writing is very important. For years I never used to listen to other people's lyrics because it wasn't an important aspect of music for me. I don't think music suffered in my eyes because of that, so, equally, I don't think it harms me if other people don't listen to my lyrics. What matters to me is that I believe the lyrics I've written are good. Other people are a secondary consideration; I've no ambitions, I'm not trying to say anything to anyone.'
It's not pop, it's not meant to carry a message — so how do you categorise your music, Mark? Is it art?
'I consider our music music, that's what it is.'
And it isn't synthesiser music. At any rate, it uses synthesisers less now than it used to...
'Synthesisers aren't human, they've got no feel to them whatsoever.'
I suggest, gently, that technical advances may have made synths more expressive, but nothing can sway Mark Hollis.
'I think they're becoming less expressive as technology develops. When synths first appeared, at least you had to play them. Now all you have to do is write your part and have it played by a bunch of chips. I think that's even worse than playing it manually.
'Then there's the question of sounds. Take the Kurzweil piano sound, which is generally held to be one of the most accurate copies of a piano: it still doesn't feel like a piano to play, and what comes out of it doesn't come out as though you were playing a real piano. There's no comparison with the real article.
I suppose it's progress in terms of copying the sound, but it's not progress in terms of actual feel. I can't see why anyone should want to play a Kurzweil rather than a piano... I don't believe there's a manufactured instrument anywhere to compete with a piano.' Tim Friese-Greene agrees. 'To me the idea of MIDIing up a piano is just plain sick. MIDI is a four-letter word, I can't take it seriously at all. There's really nothing printable I can say about it.'
And not much more I can say about it, either. I'm fed up arguing, and now all I want to do is go home and listen to the band's records again.
Talk Talk are a group of serious musicians. They take their music seriously enough to reject the lure of commerciality, to reject pressures of time and money, and to reject those aspects of technology they see as destructive.
They have made a brilliant third album, and for many people, that will be enough. Even if, in some respects, their attitudes are uncompromising to the point of being a pain.
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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