Tom Ellard, Severed Head's supremo, on sound surgery and synths.
Tom Ellard — wit, wooargh and no widdly, widdly; finding sounds with a Severed Head. Tony Reed reports.
It was great to have electronic music that really... kicked arse!" Tom Ellard is laughing — something he does rather a lot. And he's got a fair amount to laugh about. At twenty-two he's already clocked up six years of guerrilla operations in the music business jungle, first in his native Australia, but latterly broadening operations to Europe and the U.K. Take a trip to one of the more avant clubs around town, and you might even find yourself gyrating to the gothic-horror groove of Dead Eye Opened, the surprise crossover hit that lifted Tom's little beat ensemble, Severed Heads, from the industrial music ghetto it would otherwise undoubtedly been confined to.
But wait a minute — a disco hit? Big Laffs? Is this the kind of behaviour we've come to expect from our moody metalworking musicians?
Let's take it from the top...
"Punk didn't do much for me — but when I started hearing stuff like The Normal, Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle... well, as impressionable sixteen-year olds are wont to do, I went Yaah!"
The flurry of arms accompanying this expression of enthusiasm threatens to pitch Tom out of the hanging wicker chair from which he's chosen to hold court on this sunny afternoon in his record company's London flat.
"I just loved the — gunge, gunge, gunge — ENERGY — of that stuff. Electronic music that didn't go widdly-widdly for half an hour!"
Tom and friend Richard Fielding wasted no time in translating their enthusiasm into action. Severed Heads first tape album, Ear Bitten, was born: "...On something like that," (pointing to my, budget, Walkman) a Thorn hifi cassette deck, with separate inputs for mike mixing... It sounded like that too, terrible — but it got played, did quite well — because there hadn't been that kind of thing in Australia before."
'Quite well' is something of an understatement. ABC, the major radio station in Australia played the album in its entirety, and Tom's Malcom Maclaren-style hustling got the duo spreads on the arts pages of a mainstream newspaper, The Australian, and later, a piece in the antipodean equivalent of the Financial Times: "That took a lot of talking."
Spurred by this early success, Severed Heads upgraded to a reel to reel 4-track, and Tom branched out, forming an independant label, Dog Food (!), to promote Sydney's embryonic industrial scene. (The same one, incidentally, which also gave rise to S.P.K.)
"Dog Food started to come together just as The Human League's Dare came out. All the shops went 'Right!' — and out went our stuff. The bands I'd signed broke up, or refused to play live, do interviews... the whole experience was akin to being stamped on in golf shoes."
Undeterred by this brief encounter with the business side of The Business, and a disappointing solo project, Tom put out a second tape album, Blubberknife, with new partner Gary Bradbury. As before, his business acumen and sense of the ridiculous combined to good effect: The C-90 was sold taped to the insides of old T.V. sets. Typically, the pair couldn't make these... unique... object d'Art fast enough.
"I remember lugging these things into music shops. They were really big. People'd try to hang 'em on the walls — and they'd keep falling off!"
Those who bought Blubberknife for its curiosity value found themselves surprised by the quality of the music it contained. A step on from Ear Bitten, it foregrounded a melodic sensibility which had hitherto been only implicit. Gary Bradbury's input was crucial.
"I'm not a player, more a programmer. Live, I have little charts that tell me to move my finger up 4, down 2... stickers on the keys. I'm all into 'Borouaagh!' and melodies, the emotional side," asserts Tom, "But Gary's very into producing things, slotting them together... I'd pick out a tune, but he'd be the one to say 'that fifth note should be sharp' — we hit it off."
To the extent that Severed Heads began playing live. Not the dubious Art-cellars one might expect, though — "All cropped hair and kicking dogs. Not everyone wants to be Genesis P. Orridge!" — Instead, the duo hit the discos: "...And nightclubs... they've got better stereo sound systems... mirrorballs... we started to get a following of people out for a good time... we talked to the instruments, they talked to us, we talked to the audience, they talked to us..."
The instruments Tom was talking to included: "The whole Korg MS system — the sequencer, the MS50 expander unit, the last two MS02 interfaces in Australia — and the MS20 — a beautiful, beautiful instrument... cheap, grunty, and the way you could run things into it, process sounds... we'd have a cassette recorder running into it, muck around with the sounds on it..."
"I had a Roland SH1 for bass lines — 1 filter, 1 oscillator, no worries — and a brilliant Kawai synth, the 100F. It was a 1 oscillator, 2 filter machine, and made the most amazing screeching sounds when you pulled back the filter and boosted the resonance... It'd spill onto all sorts of notes... great bell sounds, almost F.M. textures. Completely unstable, of course — a rare gem."
The piece de resistance, however, comes in the form of an amazingly battered little metal box.
"The ElectroHarmonix Graphic Fuzz, an utterly brilliant machine — run anything through it, pull the mid out, up the bass, hit the fuzz, and it really kicks arse. It'll turn a drum machine or synth into something magical. I'll never get rid of it."
Which is just as well, because it's joined the MS range in that special heaven reserved for instruments musicians love, and manufacturers forget.
The addition of a Roland MC202 (another 'brilliant' machine) a couple of years ago, replacing a solid but cumbersome CSQ100 has brought the Heads live gear more or less to its present state.
"Until I got that, altering tempos and manipulating sequences was really difficult, since the CSQ100 didn't have a tape dump.
"We used to get it to generate a click track through the MS20's Trigger facility, and pass that through a delay, before recording it onto 8-track. Then, by speeding up or slowing down the delay rate, you could get all sorts of timing effects when the signal was run back to the CSQ. Of course the 202 solved the problem — it's cheap, syncs to tape — it does the job."
Both the Kawai and the majority of the MS system are now officially the property of various of Tom's previous collaborators — "but I can borrow them any time I want."
Breakthrough album for Severed Heads was 1983's Since The Accident picked up by the British press and his present record label, Ink, 'During let's find an Australian band and write about it week', Tom, a man of few illusions, puts it. The surprise success of the 12" taken from that album, Dead Eye Opened marked a period of change for Severed Heads. The live set up remained pretty much the same, though both Gary Bradbury and the 4-track have gone.
Tom now records in his own studio ("called the Terse Mobile — because it isn't at all"), based around a Teac 80-8 and Tascam 35 and 2A mixers.
"I've also got a rackfull of those cheap Ibanez effects — the quantisation error noise has to be heard to be believed, but sometimes, they can really add something to the sound, and for that price."
A Roland SDE 3000 triggerable DDL also earns it's keep (hear it on the new 12", Goodbye Tonsils), though Tom laments its lack of a hold function.
"No CV in either — it would have been so easy..."
A modicum of commercial success has allowed Tom to experiment with some fashionable gear. But he has his reservations: "I've been using the Jellinghaus/Commodore system for sequencing lately, but frankly, I wish I'd bought an MSQ instead. The computer, disk drive, TV, interface — it's too bulky. I've only got a small room!"
And the newly acquired DX7?
"I've found a couple of good noises on it myself — a sort of end of the world crash, and tuned atomic bombs(!)... and I like the toy piano sound. But three sounds do not a record make, and I find programming on it so cold. It worried me too that people, encouraged by manufacturers who put polyphony above interesting sounds, are trying to do something bad with all their fingers, instead of something good with just one. I avoided polyphony until I was ready for it...
"I hate the idea of people calling up 'patch 61, strings 3' and writing a song 'round it. It's as important to think how sounds fit vertically into their respective frequency levels as it is to progress through the notes horizontally.
"You have to spend a certain amount of compositional time not assembling things, but just listening... look out for bargain-bin records, listen to radio shows where you think there might be something... If there's something on TV about the mating habits of slugs, reach for your Walkman!
"...From hours and hours of material, you'll end up with three seconds - but that three seconds will be exactly what you want.
"You come across things which, out of context, sound really bizarre - animal noises, old jazz crooners played at various speeds - ye old experimental records. If you've got a Stockhausen record, there's hours of percussion available from each sound - and you don't just use the sound itself, but run it through things, alter it. For percussion, I have this cassette of shotgun sounds - absolutely marvellous, so much better than any Linndrum, because they're meaningful sounds, they're potents. Shotguns and impacts and cars crashing have a real emotional impact. On Goodbye Tonsils we used the sound of people punching each other in the face, at a boxing match. We sampled what I call the 'headsocks' into the Boss - people going 'Uuugh!', and mucked around with them as percussive noises. When you listen to the record, you don't know what these sounds are, but they grab you, they mean something subconsciously."
Tom's unfashionable ideas about fashionable technology extends to the use of MIDI: "It's got the potential to be very good, but at the moment, it's geared to the wrong things — 'How many notes' — that's not what synthesis is about. Notes should be left to (strums invisible guitar) the twangers!"
Ditto sampling: "The wrong answer to the right problem!"
Though not totally rejecting the possibility of sampling, feeling able to handle it now, Tom remains a fan of CV's and tape loops, even managing a kind of revenge on hi-tech heroes The Human League.
"For the track called Training Deaf Mutes on Since The Accident, I recorded the first Linn Bass drum off Hard Times and looped it, so it was just going 'boom, boom', then passed it through the MS50's divider, and sent the split back to the MS20, for a snare sound, so it was going 'Boom, Crash, Boom', and built the track, up on that... you can clock whole songs off tape loops, passing them through the MS20's Trigger function.
"Tape loops owe nothing to logic or reason. They are what they are - sort of mystical. You feed sounds into loops, you hear them going around and around - and they become their own thing, and you can't determine precisely what that is.
"It's great watching all this machinery trying to grab onto a tape loop — a more interesting way to do things, it gives you — abnormality. A lot of tracks on the latest album City Slab Horror are like that — very percussive, but no drum machine. Jeez, drum machines, they're so boring. I did have an 808 for a while, and used the hi-hat on it quite a bit, but the best thing about it was the lights — using that display, you could place a beat just where you wanted it in a pattern... I used to use it to trigger the MS20 snares and 202 kick drums.
"To get the variations you'll find on this album, though, you'd have to spend five grand on a drum machine with a 'Humaniser' — what a load of codswallop! You can get much more — feverish — results from an MC202 and a tape loop."
Fairly feverish results were obtained when Tom paid a trip to the ES&CM studio, prepared tapes in hand, to create a piece for us. We asked him to take us through it: "We've used a 4-track and an 8-track, and we've passed the signal from one to the other, having recorded a very long reel of tape from the radio, changing stations at random every five minutes or so. We made a lot of short tape loops out of that, and listened to them in turn to find something interesting, just one track.
"From that one, you can start to add other sounds on other tracks, and see how they fit together. The original sound on the tape is the crazed trumpet, and all the other sounds have been picked off the radio in relation to that. It's not me writing the song, it's that song determining other things, like a jigsaw puzzle, or rather a Chinese puzzle, where things can only fit together in a certain way - like automatic writing."
This love of spontaneity has seen Tom working in collaboration with video engineer Steven Jones, whose revolutionary 'Video Synthesiser' converts CV and Gate information from any source (including keyboards) into complex video images which can be 're-synthesised' or combined with other live or pre-recorded video material — a 'live' unique experience presently denied to UK audiences, ("this thing's the size of a fridge!"), and one that's been known to provoke extreme reactions — somebody tried to set fire to it once, "Presumably because they were expecting to see The Price Is Right."
Interview by Tony Reed
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