The Beat Goes On
As Britain’s brightest electro-poppers climb back up the charts against all the odds, Tim Goodyer talks to Larry Steinbachek about beat, music composition on a QX1, and facing the world with a new voice.
When Jimmy Somerville quit Bronski Beat, most critics were preparing to write Britain's brightest electro-pop band out of the news stories and into the history books. But a new singer, a hit single, and some wholesale musical changes have made them think twice.
First came the rumours of discontent, the whisperings that all was not well within the personnel of one of Britain's brightest new pop talents. Then the conflict went public, and the infighting became front-page news. Then, in the summer of '85, came the news that singer Jimmy Somerville had quit Bronski Beat — for good.
The split raised a number of interesting questions. Those involving Somerville and the Communards belong to another story, but the ones concerning Larry Steinbachek and Steve Bronski, the remaining members of the original Bronski Beat, have now been answered by a new singer, a high-charting single, and a cheerfully optimistic Steinbachek in a small studio in central London, where E&MM recently managed to track him down.
Nine months ago, many people must have thought they'd seen the last of an electro-pop band who, without Somerville, would flounder and finally sink altogether, another casualty of the fickle hand of pop fate. Some degree of success for Somerville was a certainty. It was he who had the distinctive falsetto vocal style, the charismatic personality, and the headline-hitting politics. But he was only part of the clean-cut, catchy electronic dance sound that produced the singles 'Smalltown Boy' and 'Why' — as anybody who took the trouble to really listen to those songs (and the album that followed them, Age of Consent) would know. So although the two remaining Bronskis knew they'd have to struggle to reassert their pop position, they had every reason to be confident in their own abilities.
The first hurdle to overcome was that of filling the vacant post of singer. In the end, Somerville's successor turned out to be a longstanding friend of both Steinbachek and Bronski, but his appointment wasn't quick, or lightly taken. Steinbachek explains.
'To be fair to him and other people, we didn't just go for the obvious. We wanted to see what was around and what other people could come up with — and we were quite disappointed by a lot of what we saw.'
The unenviable task of trying to sort out likely candidates for auditions wasn't without problems of its own. London Records, to whom the band are signed, first suggested temporary alliances with other artists. But the duo had other ideas, and finally, it was left to their management to place an ad in the weekly music press. It didn't name the band, but it did specify a male vocalist, something that curiously failed to deter a number of female enquirers.
The final choice of vocalist turned out to be one John Foster. He and Steinbachek first met when they were 17 and involved in a burgeoning Southend music scene along with the likes of Alison Moyet. Their musical association had continued on a casual basis since then, and made Foster an obvious consideration in Somerville's absence.
'What it comes down to is that for a good working band, you need to have a good working relationship', asserts Steinbachek. 'Obviously it's a bit different for us because we're all gay men. That doesn't necessarily create a different atmosphere but it does make us a bit more sensitive to people's attitudes. We've always found that if there's someone around us who has an attitude that we really don't like, it does affect our work. Life's full of people (cue philosophical tone), and you can't get on with all of them. But John fitted in very easily with us because he shares the same positive attitudes.'
Foster's arrival wasn't immediately announced to either the public or the press, so even when it was eventually disclosed that the Bronskis were three again, his identity remained a secret for a while.
'When John joined we decided we wouldn't let anyone know for six months because we didn't want any pressure. We wanted a chance to work together as three people and establish a direction. In a way we were starting from scratch again. You see, we never saw John coming in to replace Jimmy. It was more a case of wiping the slate clean — we had to build up a rapport and get the processes working again. It was difficult for the first couple of months but then it started picking up very quickly. It was a bit like a snowball and, by the time we let everyone know who John was, we were back to the situation we were in before: a performing band.
'I think the experience has made us very much stronger as a band. We're much more integrated and we really are working as a trio now. It's sad to say that, for the last two years, that hadn't happened: it was more two people and one. It's a shame because it never started off like that, but I think it's turned out the best way it possibly could.'
Back on their collective feet again, the Bronskis' next objective was a return to the public eye: in short, a single. 'Hit That Perfect Beat' currently stands high in the charts, proof positive of the songwriting talents of Bronski Beat MkII. Yet the song wasn't first choice for release as a single; in fact, it almost never came about at all.
'We'd originally written a single which was totally different: more of a ballad, really. But whilst we were in a rehearsal room we started doing this "Divine thrash" just to warm up, and it turned into something we got interested in.
'So we went into a cheesey little studio that I won't even name because they were so rude to us, and bashed it down as a demo. London loved it, so we took it to New York to record because that was where we were doing the Hundreds and Thousands album remix at the time. But when we got back we didn't like it: it wasn't even as good as the demo. So we went back to the original, put some fresh vocals on it and released it. So the single is actually only the demo — it isn't even arranged or anything, it's just as we put it down.'
A brave move for what was to all intents and purposes a new band, under close critical scrutiny from all quarters.
'To be honest, I did see it doing well for us, but the record company didn't share our faith at that time, so it was put back a month. But a good song always wins through in the end.'
Foster doesn't represent the only new arrival in the Bronski camp, though, as a glance round the studio readily reveals. The DX7 and Memorymoog — much used in the recording of Age of Consent — are still very much in evidence, but they're now accompanied by a varied selection of equipment old and new. Pride of place is given to a Yamaha QX1/TX816 combination, about which Steinbachek is only too ready to enthuse.
'We've had them for four or five months now. The QX and I quickly became very great friends — the rest of the band think I take it on dinner dates! Before we got it, we used to put all our ideas on tape and then muck about with them; now we tend to start on the QX and the TX rack.
'The QX1 has really made all the difference to the way we write, because the first ideas now go into that. Then we're able to work with them before they're committed to tape.
'We've found it a lot faster. For example, we demoed three tracks for the album on the QX — they were just ideas to start with. We put them in as separate measures and arranged them into songs. Then we took them into the studio, listened through them and tried different structures. The beauty of it is that you can just type in a different structure, hear it right away, and John can sing over it; if it's not in the right key, you can transpose it right away, which is how we've been able to suit every song to the voice very carefully.
'It's also great for 12-inch mixes. All you have to do is type in a different structure and add some more complex bits. Of course, the quality stays great because you're not working off tape. It really comes into its own in manipulating data. You can think of it as more than just musical notes, as something that operates other bits of machinery. Making program changes on the REV7 reverb through MIDI, for instance, can be very effective.
'It's simply a better way of working — it gives you a good song before you even begin recording. The most important thing about a song is the performance: if you've got that right, you can spend time getting the rest right.
'Actually, I'm still finding things out about the QX, which is good because any piece of gear we get has to be useful. I think it may be a bit difficult for everyone to use and, if that's the case, then it's no good because it gets in the way of what you're trying to do. But it must be the answer to all of some people's problems.'
The sequencer's usefulness isn't restricted to the studio, either. 'We're going to use it instead of backing tapes for live work. It'll allow us to change the set around freely again, as we used to when we were working with the Portastudio.'
On the sound front, the TX816 hasn't had quite the impact the QX1 has, as its FM technology has yielded some ground to other styles of sound-generation.
'The TX816 provides the rough structure of the song, but not every sound that's going to be on the track — so it's possible I'll only use, say, four channels: bass, chords, melody and counter-melody. Then I'll build on that with other synths because I like a combination of both digital and analogue sounds.'
A Pro One, a MiniMoog and an Akai S612 Sampler bear witness to Steinbachek's catholic attitude when it comes to choosing gear. Mention of the MiniMoog, in particular, elicits an enthusiastic grin from the young synth player.
'The MiniMoog is my favourite synth. It's something I can go to and always come up with an idea for a melody. It's like a piano in that respect — it's very quick.
'The Akai sampler is something else I like because of its speed. It's something I think is lacking in a lot of other samplers: you press a button to record, and press a button to load a sound. We've also been using an MDB Window Recorder for the vocals and the QX for triggers.'
In fact, the MDB and the Yamaha machines look like forming the highest level of tech the latest incarnation of Bronski Beat will reach up to in the immediate future. For unlike Somerville's Communards, these boys aren't tempted by the mortgage-scale world of Fairlights and Synclaviers. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that Steinbachek and his colleagues don't believe ultimate sound quality to be the key to successful music-making.
'No. I like recording dirty things and distorted things — or heaping loads of reverb onto things, even though it may cut off when you run out of sample time. Any sound is a usable sound — you can't beat a distorted bass drum!'
And it seems things are getting dirtier all the time. The crystal clarity, the pinpoint precision of the Somerville era is slowly giving way to a rougher, rawer production style. Modern technology still dominates the Bronski Beat sound, but it's no longer having things all its own way.
'This time we've been using more real instruments — guitar, bass, some brass. It's quite good fun getting things scored out for people to play. It is fun to emulate things, and we do it quite a lot. But I'd much rather hear a real brass section play what's scored out — it's much more natural to my ears. It comes down to feel most of the time, and I think real musicians push a track along a lot better than a sequencer.'
And despite the undeniable fact that technology has opened a lot of doors for modern musicians, Steinbachek is adamant that his band would be around even if musical instrument development stopped tomorrow.
'Where would Bronski Beat be without MIDI? Using CVs and gates and a Microcomposer, I guess! We've never had any problems with MIDI, though I've heard some awful stories about people that have; a 20mS delay here, something else there... If you just use one Out you've got no problem. It's only when you're chaining Ins and Outs that things can start getting difficult, and you get around that by using a multi-unit: one In, eight Out. We get a slight delay using Emulator and PPG alongside the QX1, but it's usually just a matter of trimming the start of samples.'
As a lot of bass players are frustrated guitarists, so a lot of keyboard players are frustrated drummers — don't ask me why. Whatever the reason, Steinbachek confesses to being a case in point. And as if to illustrate it, a LinnDrum, a TR707, TR727 and a newly-acquired Octapad litter the room.
'The sounds on the 727 are great. What we've been doing is using the Octapad to play the 727 into the QX1, recording it, quantising it, and adding to it to produce complex patterns that you just couldn't get using a drum machine alone. I love the Octapad — it's a great invention. We've used it quite a lot to trigger percussive sounds from the Akai sampler, and it works a treat.'
What will all this technological tinkering add up to? Well, probably another couple of hit singles to follow 'Hit That Perfect Beat', if the Bronskis' track record is anything to go by. An album is presently in the process of being recorded with the assistance of producer Adam Williams, and here too, there's been a change in the proceedings since the Somerville days...
'We've been approaching it in sections rather than going into the studio for a block of six weeks. Our attitude has really changed. It was good fun, initially, to fly over to New York where all these big bands go, and use lots of amazing equipment, but we just got lost. We spent a lot of time looking at the directions we wanted to go in and the ways that were most enjoyable and constructive.
'This time we want to approach it in sections and then go away and get some more ideas. So we're doing two weeks at a time recording, then we'll probably do the mix at Hansa in Berlin (second home for Bowie, Depeche Mode and others), because Adam's already worked there and we've heard a lot of good reports about it.'
Once the album is safely under their belts, the Bronskis intend to give their live performances a facelift, too. There are plans to include backing singers and possibly a percussionist, but the biggest change will be more fundamental, as Steinbachek reveals with some relish.
'John's a much more dynamic performer than Jimmy was. It wasn't what we wanted to do before; we got our enjoyment out of the audience response to the music. Now we'll be building the show more around what John's doing, so Steve and I will be emerging from behind the keyboards a lot more. We've got a couple of remote keyboards — a Roland Axis and a Yamaha KX5 — so we can run around on stage a bit more... Oh, and I'll also be playing a lot more percussion. I've still got this idea about triggering the Linn from plastic lobsters.'
With such a preoccupation with sounds and their interaction, surely it's only a matter of time before the name of Larry Steinbachek appears on the other side of a production credit?
'I do like producing — Steve and I have already ventured into it. We did a track with the Bluebells that they wanted to record in an electronic way. We put down some drum machine, sequences and keyboards, and then they added the guitars, vocals and a military snare drum.
'I've also helped other people out before now, and I've currently got a band over from Berlin called Commedia Artists, who I'm doing some demos for. They're about the best band I've heard to come out of Germany since Kraftwerk. They're very much like us in the way we started; they're short of gear, so they come over here and go wild!'
Hit that perfect beat, boy.
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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