The Getting Of Wisdom
Marc Almond/Mike Hedges | Mike Hedges, Marc Almond
Collectively 'The Voice Squad'. Hedges reveals how he produces a man whose voice and ideas did so much to change the direction of popular electronic music.
Tony Reed talks to Marc Almond and the man who's harnessed his voice, Mike Hedges
Two things struck me when Marc Almond entered the room: his almost painful frailty; and the size of his nose. Fortunately, it's not the only big thing about him. He's also the possessor of A Voice, a marvellous, magical rollercoaster of a voice that can lift you up or put you down, whirl you through high camp, or plunge you into low, low tragedy - and all in the space of a bar.
(An aside, later, over tea: "A good voice can sing about a piece of shit- and make it sound interesting. That's the magic of a voice.") But his detractors (and there are many), say: 'He hits bum notes! He can't sing at all!' And Marc? Well, he says: "Fuck 'em, I really like a bum note now and then... so many people go for perfection these days, and end up sounding so sterile and plastic and devoid of anything - wallpaper music. You might just as well work in an office."
And yet, and yet... was it only four years ago that an unknown northern disco queen came out of the wilderness to reinstate a little human warmth in the glittering, empty Winter Palace of Electro Pop? Even now that first obsessive beat of collaborator Dave Ball's black-heart bop blares out in clubs - and bedsits - the length and breadth of Britain.
But, back then, Soft Cell's Tainted Love meant even more - it was a clarion call, a turning point. It might not be going too far to suggest that, had Soft Cell not happened, then the aching electro soul of an act like Bronski Beat might never have occurred either. Electronic music might still be the expensive, exclusive domain of a very few, very clever people. Which would be a pity.
Times - and artists - change though. Despite a string of hit singles: Bedsit Land, Say Hello Wave Goodbye, Numbers; and in response to his growing artistic confidence (perhaps, too, in response to the massive personal pressures commercial success inevitably engenders), Marc began to explore other avenues of music. A free-floating pool of musicians was created, drawn from personal friends and from an early contact made with two music college students (Ginni Hewes and Anne Stephenson). The close musical relationship that soon developed with pianist Annie Hogan (who takes his hummed fragments and turns them into tunes) encouraged Marc and the newly-created Mambas to begin to experiment with largely acoustic arrangements:
"It wasn't that I was fed up with electronic music, just that I'd reached a point where I felt I had to move on."
Intended originally to run in parallel with Soft Cell's activities, it soon became apparent that the Mambas were becoming Marc's key interest. In the confusion surrounding Soft Cell's eventual demise, and his own well-publicised 'retirement', the support of the friends he had made in the new group was invaluable: "Anyone I work with has to be a friend first, and a musician, producer, whatever, second. I couldn't work with them otherwise. I need them to trust me - and I have to trust them."
This sense of trust, and the freedom from purely commercial considerations, led Marc into new - and deeper - waters. The previous naive flirtation with life's tack-glam underside (exemplified on Twilights and Low Lifes from the turning point first untitled Marc and the Mambas album) assumed an altogether darker, more personal hue, culminating in the rite of exorcism that was Torment and Toreros. Intensely felt outbursts like A Million Manias (co-written with Jim Thirlwell, a.k.a. Foetus) jostled with poignant reworkings of standards like Gloomy Sunday and In My Room, whilst at least one song - Catch A Fallen Star - is, I am sure, destined to become a 'standard' in its own right. (If only for the soaring, sobbing strings, arranged by Marc's regular players, Ginni, Anne, Martin McGarrick and Bill McGee.)
"Because I can't play anything, or write music, I have to trust them - I retain overall control, of course, but it's very rare for them to come up with something I don't like - and it's important to allow them creative scope as well, within the boundaries of the song."
The risk that bore such piquant fruit on the self-produced Torment... however, left Marc exposed to the threat of indulgence: "I've always been self-indulgent, in the studio and live, because quite often something good comes out of it; but there's a fine line between indulgence and excess. A lot of the Mambas' stuff wasn't really 'produced' at all, and the tour was pretty shambolic. I realised that the best in the songs wasn't being brought out, I wasn't pushing myself as a vocalist..."
So Marc found himself a producer again, in the formidable shape of genial ginger-bearded giant Mike Hedges, a man with a reputation of working with 'original' vocalists.
"Mike's a singer's producer - he's worked with Siouxsie, Billy Mackenzie - extremists, people you either love or hate. I listened to stuff he'd done - 'trademark' sounds, like big reverb on the voice. I like a sort of cross between that big sixties wash of sound, Gene Pitney, Dusty Springfield, and really rough, trashy rock 'n' roll reverb, like on Billy Fury records - and I knew that Mike could give me that."
It comes back to that word 'trust' again.
"I've always been terrified of producers. The record company suggests someone, and you get chucked in the studio with them..."
Mike picks up the point, his careful university trained tones sounding strange after Marc's northern exuberance: "And he says 'Now we'll use this drumbeat on here, because I've just got this new machine, oh, and by the way, we won't need the keyboard player, I've got a friend of mine coming in, and the record company says can we cut the second verse...'"
Marc laughs, then continues:
"It really happens. A lot of bands will go along with it, if it's their first time, or if they're desperate for success... fine if that's what you want, but I don't."
And Marc is, at last, getting what he wants. The latest album, Vermine In Ermine (featuring a revamped Mambas' line-up, now called The Willing Sinners) demonstrates a new maturity born of the marriage between the early humour and the Mamba-period sincerity - a getting of wisdom in which Mike played no small part: "I'm not the best judge of my own stuff, and that's where Mike comes in. He'll tell me when to stop, or when to keep going. And if it feels good, even if it's got a few bum notes - that's the one we'll go with... the cut I'll have to live with for the rest of my life."
"If you think about it," adds Mike, "the vocal must be the most important part of any track - it's like a lead solo running over the whole thing, and if it isn't any good, everything, even the best backing track in the world, pales behind it."
Often, both Marc and Mike have discovered, the best take happens very early on. Mike again:
"A lot of songs are first takes... Uglyhead, on the album, for example, was built up from the original drums and guide vocal..."
"... My advice to anyone in the studio," offers Marc, "is always to leave the tape on, even if you're just running through a song. There's nothing worse than getting two thirds of the way through a track, with everything going brilliantly - and the engineer stops the tape, and says 'OK, let's go for a take'!"
But leaving the tape running all the time - particularly if you do all your own engineering, like Mike - creates its own particular headaches.
"Levels, especially on vocals, are a real pain. Of course, you can compress the fuck out of it, but you're gonna lose the sound. So, on a first take, you've got to think 'What Eq? What level?', before Marc sings a note."
The problem is further compounded by the singer's idiosyncratic taste in mikes: "I've got a hatred of pop shields. I like to get a really close sound, to hear P's and T's, to get that breathiness, that 'spine-tingliness' which pop shields seem to lose..."
"And he loves using really old valve mikes," adds Mike, "the kind the Andrews Sisters used. It's the worst possible combination. I spent a long time finding the one we use now, an old Neumann, but it does have a distinctive warmth and brightness... it's precisely the same argument between transistor and valve guitar amps, really."
Endless re-takes and piecemeal mixing (combining the best elements from three separate takes - common practice in many studios) is anathema to both artist and producer. But the difficulties encountered in avoiding such an approach are as much psychological as practical: "For a start, Marc's band is big," Mike continues, "on a typical first take, up to seven people can be playing together, all at once. Of course, we use a big studio, the Hartman Digital in Germany..."
So you are a fan of digital recording then, Mike?
"A qualified one. I think it's the way things have to go, obviously nothing can beat it for quality - but it isn't there yet. There are still some things, fairly important things, that you can't do on Digital, like tape reverse effects, stuff like that."
Has the Hartman got anything else to recommend it?
"...It's got a really huge live room, you barely need to add reverb at all," enthuses Marc, "and it's got a really great atmosphere - like recording at home."
"...It's out in the country, too - no bars, no distractions," counters Mike sternly.
"Marc's been used to recording in cities, but I've found that, in London at least, and especially in the name studios, the people act like they're doing you a favour by letting you work there!"
With so many people playing at once, though, even in a big studio, isn't separation a problem?
"Not so much as you think. A little spill helps the 'live' feel anyway. The big problem is foldback. Sometimes I'm sending four separate sets, and to be recording a backing track, listening to it, watching levels, 'soloing' each instrument to check it's OK - that's hell. But my advice to any band in the studio is: make sure you've got the headphone balance right. Nothing leads to so much hassle and wind-up as a bad foldback. People perform better when they hear just what they need to - on the last album, we took all of Steve Humphreys' drums out of his mix, and he improved a hundred percent!"
Mike's 'back to basics' philosophy extends to the vexed question of 'fixing it in the mix':
"I prefer to record it right. Recently, I've even started adding effects in at the performance stage. Get it right there, and it gives much more latitude to do something really exciting later."
The emphasis on first takes and good musicianship obviously places a great strain on all concerned. And that's where Mike's second great talent comes in:
"I spend half my time in the studio soothing studio nerves. The atmosphere has to be relaxed, the producer working as a part of the band - but it can't be a party."
Marc again: "It's not a job, or a shrine; people can do what the hell they want, afterwards. But when you go for that take, it feels like a million people listening to you..."
Mike leans forward conspiratorially, "So sometimes, I get sneaky, and tell them that we're just doing a run through!"
Any parting advice for new bands, Mike?
"I'm suspicious of demos that are too good - it doesn't give me any latitude. Bands are told to produce singles, but I'd rather hear ten or twelve songs, then get together with the band and ask which songs they prefer. Be as crass as you want on a demo, do exactly what you want to do, and let everyone else turn in a high quality piece of nothing. Even a badly recorded track on a Portastudio might have something you just can't recapture... if what you've done is really original, you can try sending me a tape..."
And Marc? Any parting words of wisdom?
"Yeah... get a proper job instead!"
As I left, Mike was showing Marc his latest toy, a pocket TV. Standing together enthusing over the gadget, and despite their marked physical differences, they looked almost like brothers. Or maybe teacher and pupil. But which was which, I couldn't say.