The King's Keys
Life on the road with a successful pop band, described in graphic detail by King keyboardsman Mick Roberts. Interview by Tim Goodyer.
As Coventry's finest aggressive pop combo take the nation by storm, we aim the spotlight at the back of the King stage, and find a hard-working keyboardist of surprising skill.
"He's an immensely talented keyboard player, without a doubt. As a character he's both sensitive and modest, and he's very adaptable on a quick level - you can show him anything and he'll just do it. I think he's very much the anchor man within King, and he has more musical knowledge than anyone else in the band. He's the most adept player, and he's proved crucially important to our overall sound."
First of all, Paul King loves him. Not in any passionate or affectionate sense, you understand, but as a musician whose contribution to King's success has so far been underestimated by almost everybody. Perhaps it's best if I leave the biography to King himself...
'The first time I ever saw him he was in a band called the MPs, supporting the Reluctant Stereotypes who I was with at the time. When the show finished and everyone was packing down, he got on a piano and started playing - it was then that I realised that he was a very talented keyboard player. From that day on I was on nodding terms with him, and then when I got King together I wanted a keyboard player who could be an anchor man; he also had to be a very versatile player, and Mick came through on all levels.
'First, he's an immensely talented keyboard player, without a doubt. As a character he's sensitive and modest, and he's very adaptable on a quick level - you can show him anything and he'll just do it. I think he is very much the anchor man within King. He has more musical knowledge than anyone else in the band, he's the most adept player, and he's proved very important to our overall sound.'
The man in question is Mick Roberts, currently playing keyboards with King both live and in the studio. The band are currently enjoying considerable chart success with hits such as 'Love and Pride' and 'Won't You Hold My Hand Now', and they're also attempting to make sure everyone and their mum sees their live show by playing everywhere. Twice.
But theirs is not an overnight success story, nor is it the tale of a studio band taking to the road for the first time. At a time when chart music is dominated by acts that exist in the studio first, on video second, and on stage a poor and irrelevant third, it's refreshing to see a band that takes a live performance and turns it into a record, rather than the other way round.
Roberts' current keyboard line-up consists of a PPG Wave 2.2 poly, a Roland VK1 organ and a Crumar S2 string synth. The last two are rusted with sweat from the continuous gigging they've received, and the keyboardist describes his set-up as 'medieval' rather than MIDIable. But why have a VK1 when there's a PPG to hand?
'Well, the PPG has some great organ sounds on it, but they're all smooth jazz organs - there isn't a really meaty church organ, for instance. You could spend a couple of hours and work one out, I suppose, but I had the organ before the PPG. Originally, I only had the string synth and the organ and I used to get all the sounds I needed out of just those two, believe it or not. But then, that was before the first album.'
So the PPG came as a result of the advance from King's signing to CBS?
'Yes. I've been really knocked out with it. I first got it when the DX7s were just beginning to filter through, and everyone thought "great machine, must get one." But that soon changed to "what the hell do I do with it now, what do all these things do?." What I like about the PPG is that it's quite a bit more friendly than the DX7, because it's got all those analogue controls. Ironically though, it's only now that I'm really getting into some of the things it can do and understanding why it does them. I must have had it 18 months, which is a long time when you consider the way keyboards turn over these days.'
Yet in common with most modern keyboard players (and in spite of the fact that what he has now fits in fine with King's overall sound), Roberts is contemplating making some fairly drastic changes to his current equipment setup.
'I know I've got to totally re-work my equipment, but I don't think you have to cover the stage in keyboards unless you're someone like Keith Emerson. I'd like to keep the PPG, partly because I like the sound of it and partly because I also like the response of the keyboard. I suppose I've got used to it now, but the Wave has a really peculiar touch-sensitivity arrangement whereby the whole keyboard hinges whenever you press harder on one of the keys. It's really weird, but I quite like it.
'Ideally, what I'd like to do is get a DX7 and a MIDIfied JP8, and run them together. I don't like the sound of the DX7 on its own - it's much too clean. The set-up I've used on what will probably be the next single is basically a DX7, a JP8 and one of Richard Bugess' (Landscape founder member and now King producer) PPGs, all MIDI'd together. That way, you can get a nice clanky attack off the PPG, a mellow decay and sustain from the JP8, and a sound with a really short release time on the DX7. It sounds almost ADT'd in the end but it's not, it's just the way you set the release on the DX7. It's a really good, thick sound, and the DX7 just comes in and clips the sound off. There's a solo keyboard passage on the 12" version of the new single and it sounds really great, but it's just those three keyboards linked together.
'We also found some fantastic sounds when we were going through looking for that one, just by swapping around different sections from the different instruments, so I think that would be my ideal set-up.
'Having said that, of course, I also have a passion for Hammond organs. Whenever we play abroad I use a B3 Hammond, because it saves taking the VK1 over. It sounds ridiculous, the VK1 being so tiny and the B3 having two manuals and drawbars and everything, but I use one of those as a straight replacement, plus a PPG and a Juno 60 or whatever's available.
'I'd really love to own an old B3 and a Yamaha CP80 grand in addition to the other three, but now we are talking keyboards everywhere!'
And what about the latest (and seemingly fairly permanent) hi-tech music buzzword, sound-sampling? Does that fit into the King scheme of things?
'Well, the easiest sampling machine to use - that I've come across, anyway - is the Emulator II. In fact, it's so easy you don't know you're doing it half the time. You've only got to sneeze and play the keyboard, and it comes out! I had a couple of hours on one and was really knocked out by it, so perhaps I should consider one of those too...!'
Listen to any King record and you get the impression Roberts is first and foremost a pianist, yet he manages to do without a Johanna on stage. How come?
'I'd like to be able to play piano live, but we just haven't got the facility for it at the moment. The Yamaha CPs are the gig version of the piano, and I'd be interested in trying the Kawai one too - but they're a roadie's nightmare because they don't come apart. Of course, I could always go totally over the top, get a Kurzweil and carry it around myself!'
But the way things stand now, King have no more need for modern technology than they do for media hype or recording studio gimmickry. As far as keyboards are concerned, the band's lack of need for the likes of sequencers is a direct result of Roberts' manual dexterity and, specifically, his more than useful left-hand technique.
'Actually, I don't think my left hand is that good, but I don't sequence anything we use during the set anyway. For a start, until we had the Version 4 software put in the 2.2, I daredn't leave anything in it because it used to crash at regular intervals. Now we've got that software the sequencer's a lot more stable, but even so, once you start using sequencers everyone's got to come off a click-track, and you get into an entirely different field that can take away some of the spontaneity. We've had no need so far to restrict ourselves tempo-wise, and I think that adds a lot to the humanity of the performance.'
On the subject of tempo, King don't possess a regular drummer as such. Richard Burgess saw to any of the drumming chores not taken care of by assorted drum machines during recording of the band's first album, so who looks after the beat live?
'Adrian Lillywhite - Steve Lillywhite's brother - is helping us out. We did have a couple of drummers right in the very early days, but we never found anyone that was that solid, and Adrian's ideal for the job at the moment because he hits the drums so hard. We don't use any drum synthesisers or rhythm boxes or anything like that, so it's essential to have that rock-solid beat in the background. I don't really think you can beat a good kit sound.'
So, computer technology plays little or no part in shaping Roberts' (and King's) live sound. Surprisingly, the same goes for studio work, too, as he explains.
'There isn't anything on the album that's played by computer. In fact, the nearest thing we got to sequencing was three of us struggling for a day-and-a-half with Page R on the Fairlight. Eventually Richard said "can you play it?", and I said "yeah, just let me have a go!"; so we did it, and we got it down in about half an hour.
That built up a kind of rapport between us, because Richard's great forte - apart from playing drums, of course - is keyboards and keyboard sounds: that dates back to the Landscape days, I guess. From then on he kept the Fairlight in, but we never touched Page R again. We didn't have to, which was nice - it was nice for me because I had that freedom again, and it was nice for the rest of the band because no one else had to sit down with a click-track and make sure everything was bang on time.
'I think that amount of clinical recording can lose you a lot of live feel - the kind of feel we were trying to get on our album. It didn't actually work for a first album, though, 'cos none of us actually knew what we were doing in the studio. I think the next album, which we'll be recording soon, will end up sounding a lot more wild - more like the live show. The live performance is definitely different from the album, and that's what we're going for.'
So King are a fun-loving but professional group of musicians who care more for the passion of performing in front of an audience (albeit one endowed with an overwhelming majority of teenage girls) than they do about surrounding themselves with technology. Yet Roberts adheres to the peculiarly British school of performing thought that says a keyboardist should be heard and not seen. At a King gig, you've got to position yourself carefully if you want to get a decent view of him at all, as he's invariably lurking at the rear of the stage behind the dominating figure of band mentor Paul.
Which is odd, because as Roberts admits, being stuck in a more or less static position behind a rack of keyboards isn't really his idea of having a good time.
'I like leaping about, which is pretty good because none of the keyboard lines in our music is at all difficult, so once you've played them a few times you can concentrate on leaping up and down and not have to worry about playing wrong notes.
'We've tried having the keyboards loads of ways round on stage. I've faced the wings with my back to the drummer, but that felt totally weird, having everything going on behind me; then I tried standing with my back to the audience so that they could see what I was doing, which I didn't like either; then we tried the other way round, and they couldn't see me at all because the three keyboards are quite high. So the present arrangement seemed to be the only viable alternative. I'm quite happy with it, though, 'cos I can see the audience and everyone on stage.
'Anyone who's been frustrated at having to stand behind a stack of keyboards watching all the other guys zooming around the stage must have wanted one of those remote keyboards. I've always wanted to play out front, but every time I mention it to the rest of the band they just shout "poseur!" And they do it all the time!
'I do like the idea of having one keyboard on stage and everything else off stage. I tried out the Yamaha KX1 in a shop recently and unfortunately they couldn't get it working, but I love the idea. I tried the Roland Mother Keyboard system out too, but I didn't like the action at all, and playing brass sounds on it is totally peculiar. Just imagine it, brass sounds on a piano keyboard! It messed my head up for days.
'And I once had a go on a Moog Liberation, but that was the most disgusting instrument I've ever had the misfortune to come across...' Nuff said.
Time for a quick Roberts History lesson, then. Most classically-trained pianists find the transition between acoustic and electric playing a fairly confusing, not to say traumatic, experience, and the King keyboardsman is no exception - especially when it comes to changes in hardware.
'I haven't actually had that many instruments, because I always played piano until I was 15 or 16, and it wasn't till then that I actually considered playing any other keyboard. It was about that time that all those horrible synth sounds came out. You know, the Chicory Tip MiniMoog pitch-bend horror - it was bound to raise my interest, and since then synth sounds have really taken off.
'I was lucky enough to have an electronics engineer for a father - who was also a church organist so he was well into keyboards - and he built me an organ that I was so anxious to start using, it never actually got finished off. It was all chipboard, bare wood and wires, and looked rather like the old Clavinet D6. It was affectionately known as "the harmonious plank", but it fell apart in about a year or so. It sounded really good - like a cross between a Vox Continental and something that isn't an organ at all! Actually, I've still got it at home in the loft somewhere so I'll have to get it out and sample a few of the sounds off it. That should be fun...
'I had a Jen Pianotone then. It was a horrible tinny thing, but I thought it was great simply because I could pick it up and carry it around. I used to give piano lessons at the time and one of the guys I gave lessons to had all the gear - a MiniMoog, a Fender Rhodes, a Vox Continental and a huge home-built suitcase synthesiser - and I used to borrow all that. I never got on with the MiniMoog because I couldn't come to terms with the fact that you could only play one note at a time. But at the first gig that King ever did I used his Fender Rhodes - thanks, Graham!'
Still, the discipline offered by a classical training is either an indispensable gift or a decidedly mixed blessing, depending on who you talk to. Having spent his formative years on the receiving end of a healthy dose of such training, does Roberts regret that his musical time could have been better spent?
'No, not at all. It saves all this business of sitting round computers flicking switches (methinks this is a reference to step-time input - Ed), and I'd much rather play a keyboard than stand there and watch whilst the technology plays away. I suppose I'm a bit of a dinosaur in that respect, as just about everyone else is going off into the realms of keyboards playing themselves.
'Apart from the PPG, I've never had access to anything that could do that sort of thing, I so I'm quite a way behind the times. But if it's a case of sitting down for an hour and working out how to make a machine play something, then I'd rather just sit down and play it myself.'
Well, thank goodness there's still room for the odd dinosaur here and there, even in today's increasingly fast-moving musical landscape.
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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