The Art of Noise
Art of Noise
Steve Cogan talks to J.J. Jezalik about life, the universe and sampling car doors
Steve Cogan discovers the Art Of Noise with J.J. Jeczalik
The Art of Noise is an unusual group, not only because of it's music but because it's members have come from behind the scenes careers in the music industry. The AoN was formed in 1983 when J.J. Jeczalik and Gary Langan had finished working on Yes's album 90125 and decided to put the studio to their own use for once. They called in their friend Anne Dudley to "provide the melodic and harmonic interest". The result of this chance event was the chart-topping Beat Box.
The AoN aren't generally noted for this but they were voted the second best black music act of 1983 due to the 7" version of Beat Box reaching the top of the American dance charts. They were reduced to a duo after Gary Langan left but went on to tour America, Japan and a sole British Gig in 1986. Their re-working of Mancini's Peter Gunn along with the guitarist Duane Eddy won the AoN a Grammy award.
Both Anne and JJ are successful outside of the AoN with JJ producing hit singles for the PSBs and making 12" mixes for the likes of Paul McCartney, Billy Idol and Yes, to name but a few. Anne is a highly successful film score writer and producer with her score for Buster winning a Brit award for the best soundtrack in 1988.
Their latest single, Yebo, was a collaboration with the South African Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens which has been widely acclaimed in the music press. I asked JJ how he had become interested in synthesized and sampled sounds.
"My original interest started many, many years ago, probably in 1979 when I was working for Geoff Downes and he was building a large keyboard rig. He decided to buy this new "beastie" called the Fairlight, which duly arrived from Australia. Both of us sat down with the, as it was then, brief manual and tried to figure out what the hell was going on. I suddenly realised that here was something (Fairlight) that would change the face of music and it interested me immensely."
As for the equipment they use for work on the Art Of Noise, JJ had this to say.
"From a composition point of view, for me exclusively the Fairlight but I would also say that one goes out and makes recordings of natural sounds, aircraft passing, bikes starting and all that sort of business, so they are part of the raw material. But they essentially end up fed into the Fairlight and that is the essential working tool. After that obviously anything that's "loadable" is used. I don't actually have any other sampling kit, I don't need it! I have a MiniMoog which I use for bass parts of a song, which are transferred via MIDI to the Fairlight and I have a cheap Yamaha Keyboard that I use for "demo-ing" at home. Only for some sort of chord and colour ideas, in a sort of early demo stage but something that one doesn't use for master recording obviously.
As regards to MIDI, Anne does the keyboard parts and we don't find it necessary to use it as such. I use it occasionally for bass parts and so on but in a very limited way. I don't know a huge amount about the ST but the flight simulator is brilliant! I can recommend the flight simulator, definitely. A friend of mine who is a pilot reckons that you could actually do the instrument flying course mostly on that. It's a bit of an achievement for a box. How it works from a point of view of keyboards; music and MIDI, I can't really help you on that because I don't know it.
The most unusual sample JJ has used was in the early stuff, like the car starting from Beatbox and Close (To the Edit). "It was unusual, simply because I was trying to sample something else at the time and it was a mistake. Since then I've become aware that mistakes are as valid as the things you are hunting. I was trying to sample some horses and someone stalled their car next to me which actually proved to be a much better sound than the horses. The other unusual sample was the sound of John MacEnroe, no Jimmy Connors grunting as he served - that was my favourite. The Connors one was my favourite overtly because I set out to sample it because I thought it would sound good, and it did. The car sample is my equal favourite I suppose because it was a very pleasant surprise."
JJ does these samples using a tape recorder, an F1, a pair of 414 microphones and a piece of paper with a list of things on it that he thinks might want to use. There is a high rate of redundancy though, as a lot of the samples don't work due to wind noise or because the sound doesn't come across as you expected etc, etc.
I asked JJ to tell us a little about his home recording studio. "It's essentially very simple, I've got a Soundtracs PC MIDI Mixing Desk, which I bought because it was the right colour and the right size, only then was I told it was a very good desk. The Fairlight Series III is something I use a lot. Obviously I have some bits and pieces like TR-707, and TR-727 rhythm boxes which I have lying around to do a bit of quick rhythm sequencing and a pair of Yamaha NS speakers, end of story.
It has to be relatively uncomplicated, because the more complicated you get and I think this is a problem with big studios - the easier it is to become, not lost, but diverted from your task when you're writing.
From the point of view of drafting ideas and working on tracks in a very simple stage, I'm a great believer in keeping it very simple. In fact only when doing backing tracks I try to use 8 Fairlight tracks at the most, from simplicities' point of view."
Over the last few years the price of music technology has come down greatly and I put it to JJ that almost anyone could write a piece of music with budget equipment these days.
"Absolutely, I think that it was inevitable that the technology would get cheaper, rather like digital watches, they started off being £300, now they give them away with cans of oil! Music, throughout history was never the preserve of ultimately the rich and the famous, it became that early on in the technology race because it was very, very expensive. Since then it has become cheaper and has brought it back down to the level where virtually anybody can go out and buy equipment that will enable them to make very passable records, or make very passable music at a very basic level.
That is a very good thing. I think music belongs to everybody, it shouldn't be anyone's given right to do something exclusively by virtue of the fact that they can afford it. What then becomes important again, and always has been but got lost in the early part of technological development, was that it's not really the equipment you use, it's YOU! It's the individual, it's the group of people making the records as it was 10 or 15 years ago when bands used to exist in a recording and playing form, where they were forced to play together, write together and tour together and so on. There was interaction between musicians. This is now possible again because anybody can pick up a synthesizer if they care to become musicians in a band type set up. The important thing is the interchange of ideas and personalities when you make records. It's very dangerous for one person to go away and lock themselves away with mega-thousands of pounds worth of equipment and make records. I think it's down to the personalities involved, inevitably when you have two people doing something, it's better than one."
Our conversation turned to those more backward looking pundits in the music industry who are against the use of synthesizers and samplers in modern music. Do these sort of people frustrate JJ?
"No, a complete irrelevancy because I do that for a living and I take no notice of their views at all. I don't think that they are backward looking necessarily. My view is that making music is something one does with whatever is available and I just happened to come into it via the Fairlight, so that's what I do. I think that in terms of live shows and so on the arguments about miming, backing tapes and sequencers are irrelevant really, people are probably more interested in the fact that they can see a good showas to whether people are playing live or not."
What does frustrate JJ, is the lack of time he has to finish his AoN projects. "There is never enough time to finish things off to the level that you want, you have to abandon things regularly which is very frustrating because there are deadlines to be met and it's quite simple - you have to finish things on time and hand them in to be marked if you like, or marketed! One has a requirement to fulfill those recording contracts which is a shame really because one feels one could definitely improve things."
In between tracks on the In No Sense Nonsense album there is a snatch of conversation between JJ, Anne Dudley and another man, which seemed to suggest to me that the AoN are against spending vast sums of money on Videos. I asked JJ whether or not this was at fair assumption and also why they include these snatches of conversation into their work.
"We do feel quite strongly about that in as much as, given that an album costs a lot of money, it's tragic that at the end of that you have to spend a good proportion of the money doing a video which lasts 2½ minutes, which may or may not ever be seen again, and something which we really have no control over, are massively expensive and one sometimes thinks that one could spend the money more wisely elsewhere."
As to the snatches of conversation? "I think it humanises it," JJ explained, "or I hope it does, also we don't take what we do terribly seriously in terms of trying to put over to people that it's entertainment and that funny things happen and sometimes you get interesting comments made that may get on tape and so on. It just humanises it a bit more I hope. The idea is that it just makes it a bit more entertaining than perhaps several tracks put together on an album and someone calling that an album. Obviously a great deal of hard work, amusement, fighting and hard labouring goes into making an album and at the end of the day you're not always satisfied that the tracks themselves convey that. Some of the snatches have been left there by accident, then again once they get left on by accident you say "let's do that again," then it becomes more contrived and therefore it becomes much harder."
Some of the AoN pieces seem to have strong political views displayed in them. A theme of "freedom" can be seen, for instance, one of the tracks on the Invisible Silence album seems to have an "anti-apartheid" theme and on the In No Sense Nonsense album one track has an "anti-imperialist" feel. I asked JJ if it was a conscious decision to include their political views in their music.
"Our political views could be summed up by that, freedom, and I think that we feel it's important to express that occasionally. I don't think that we are in a position to comment strongly about anything in particular, any state in particular, any state of affairs in particular, other than that we feel it's necessary that people should have the freedom to express themselves and that's one of the reasons why we do it in itself. I don't think that in simple terms Anne's politics and my politics are the same but we do both agree that freedom of expression and freedom full-stop is a very basic human right that we all agree on. After that it gets very messy and I don't really want to go into that.
At the well-publicised wedding of Madonna and Sean Penn an AoN track Moments In Love replaced the Wedding March, what do Anne and JJ think of that?
"It elevated it from a long, boring track into a cult status record and we all find that quite amusing because we started out to make it long and moody and in the back of one's mind boring as well because if I make something boring you might find it fascinating. One has to provoke the situation. The fact that we agreed that it was long and monotonous and had some atmosphere that we liked, was good, the fact that it was used for her wedding march struck me with wry amusement I suppose."
The AoN claim to be unfashionable, but are they? They have a dedicated set of followers and one fan has 16 photos, all of their music and think they are the best thing since compact tape!
"I suppose what we mean by fashionable, is the outer dressing up of the characters involved. You have to remember that when we started making music for ourselves in the early 80's we had just come through a period when we were making records for people who we knew they couldn't really handle their musical career, other than the fact that they were being marketed well because they had fantastic haircuts or looked great or wore wonderful clothes. In the terms of music we just do what we want to do, that's the end of the story. Our view of fashionable is more the exterior conventional "mug-shots" and all that sort of business. We want to play that down as much as possible and let the music speak for itself. So if people decide that they like the music on it's own strength then fine, it does the job."
Then it was down to some of the more "general" questions. My first of which was will the AoN be touring again or was it a one off? The answer — well, JJ wasn't giving much away, other than he didn't think it was a one off, but didn't want to disappoint anyone so he would leave it at that.
After one last failed attempt to get something more definite about tour possibilities, I asked JJ what his favourite AoN track was.
"I think with each album you have a refreshed favourite, I suppose in retrospect A Time for Fear from Whose Afraid of the Art of Noise."
JJ was much more positive in response to the question of working with Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens. "It was brilliant, really good. We only spent a day with them recording and they were just fantastic very lively, very fast, very spontaneous."
JJ and Anne were asked to do a theme for the new James Bond film along with "a myriad of others", which has been put on their next album. The track was rejected in the end but they liked it irrespective of the fact that it "didn't get the gig as it were" and so included it on the CD version of the forthcoming album.
So what was their reaction when Gary Langan decided to leave the Art of Noise, did they consider never releasing any more work under the banner of the Art of Noise? "No," was the definite reply, "I don't think I had a reaction, we'd been working without him for so long that his absence was not missed."
His answer was just as definite to my last question of whether he thought there would come a time when they would simply run out of ideas.
"One runs out of ideas every week. I think the more you do in any field the more you realise that you are opening up new avenues of ideas and expressions. Perhaps one day you might sit down and think I've done that, can't do this, done that. But there are so many possibilities that that's just a state of mind you get into when you're tired and the going is a bit heavy. Any writer or musician or artist of any description often thinks that. When you're creative in any form, ask anybody that question and they will say "yes". Quite honestly we do, but we keep going!
Interview by Steve Cogan