The Lizard King
At home in the ice-house with Flying Lizard David Cunningham.
Flying Lizard and tape loop experimenter David Cunningham's studio is nestled in a converted ice house in part of an old pork pie factory! Sam Hearnton gets cold feet.
I suppose I should have expected to find David Cunningham's studio in an art complex. Inbetween a woman with dyed red hair and a hippy and his 'meaningful' sculptures lies the Flying Lizard's lair, a veritable fortress amongst this middle class shanty town. Security is always a major obsession with the working musician, but Cunningham's studio has a solid metal door 4 inches thick. David, a bespectacled silver haired man, explains. Apparently, the whole collection of buildings used to be a pork pie factory and David's studio was the icehouse, hence the Fort Knox like door. A quick look inside confirms this. Most of the meat hooks are still present, only where the cows (and, no doubt, horse) carcases used to hang, now dangle tape loops, jackplugs, Cannons — even a soldering iron. There's still a strong odour of dried blood too...
The Flying Lizards have recently reappeared with a new LP, Top Ten which was preceded by a typically idiosyncratic reworking of the James Brown classic, Sex Machine. But reptiles are just one side to David Cunningham. More recently, he's been working with long time Peter Greenaway collaborator, Michael Nyman on a eight minute piece for Channel 4. He also produced Nyman's critically acclaimed soundtrack for Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract. Nyman is only the latest recipient of Cunningham's production skills. Inspired by punk, in 1976 he became involved with Wayne/Jayne County and The Electric Chairs and elected to try his hand at production 'because I couldn't play an instrument'. From the advance he received for that LP he bought a secondhand Teac A3340 and moved into his current premises with the intention of starting his own studio. An album with This Heat followed, by which time he was beginning to find his way around the mixing desk. His first interest in recording became apparent a few years earlier, when he was at art college. There students were encouraged to make use of the fledgling sound department's under-used reel-to-reels. David ingratiated himself until he was in the enviable position of being able to take home all eight of the tape recorders at weekends. At the time he was listening to a lot of John Cage's music and inspired by this, spent his time making tape loops of odd noises for each of the machines, playing them back at different speeds, out of phase, and most of all, out of sync.
"I soon realised (at art college) that everyone could draw better than I could so I got interested in graphic art and calligraphy. It was then that I found out I could get machines to draw for me and I applied the same principles to my music. It was very Terry Riley — I called it Indeterminate Music!"
David's interest in tape manipulation has stayed with him and he is one of the few producers in this country who still uses tape loops. "Most studio effects are too predictable" he explains. This is evident from his studio, which is more like a fifties picture of the Radiophonic Workshop than the hi-tech studios of today. He has about seven reel-to-reels, everything from a eight track to Revox's to old recorders that are so decrepit they're utterly unrecognisable. Obviously a man who throws nothing away.
His only synthesisers are a SCI Prophet 5 and, more interestingly, an EMS Synthi AKS. "I got the Prophet because I'd mucked about on a mates and it was the only one I knew how to work." The AKS he got 7 years ago but minus its keyboard. He finds its external input useful for treating sounds. "Its got a built in VC springline reverb and ring modulator. It's really nasty but good for that element of roughness."
Absolutely everything in the studio goes direct into a patch-bay rather than the Soundtracs 16-8-16 mixer, even the Linn Drum. His effects range from a few Rebis modules, to a Ibanex HD1000 DDL, MXR Graphic Equaliser, and Electro Harmonix Instant Replay unit. There are also about five cheap and noisy effects pedals. Monitoring is via a pair of the ubiquitous Auratones whilst his latest purchase, a Sony PCM F1, has relegated his Revox B77 to the role of tape echo. The Sony is "a very neat little video machine. Betamax is much better than VHS because you can freeze frame upon frame which is great for me because I like working with pictures. It's brilliant for outdoor work too — it's lighter than a Uher and when you add a camera its a video!"
The A3340 has been kept so that David can re-mix old masters recorded on it but in fact "it hasn't worked properly since the art critic from the Guardian dropped it."
Summertime Blues was the first Flying Lizards single. This was recorded on the Teac in '76 and "I played it to Virgin that year but they rejected it. Then a friend of mine who had a tape of it played it to someone he knew at Virgin in 1978 and what wasn't acceptable two years earlier, they suddenly wanted to release. I got a 'phone call one day and they offered me a one-off single deal.
"At the time I was sweeping floors in an art gallery and I didn't want to mess up my big chance so I persuaded them to make it a two single deal."
The rest is, as they say, minor history. That second single was a weird version of Berry Gordy's Money with neurotic female vocal. However, despite the top 5 success of that single, Virgin's head of A&R, dropped The Flying Lizards unceremoniously the following year. David doesn't blame them.
"They were too soft on me... They gave me a very self indulgent deal and basically had to release whatever I gave them. I would have benefited from a stricter confine, something more disciplined. Money was very much a fluke, I didn't plan it, but it was how I thought one could make a record. The problem was, I didn't know how to make another except by doing the same thing and I didn't want to do that because I knew I wouldn't learn anything. What I really needed was a long time to learn but unfortunately, because of my contract with Virgin, I was instead forced into knocking an album out very, very quickly. When they dropped me I just gave up working with pop music. It was too much like a rat race."
David spent the next two years building his studio, living frugally on the money he made from The Lizards debut.
"I make music year in, year out, 80% being awful and you need to allow yourself time for that wastage rate. That's why my home studio exists, it takes me ages working in proper studios because if you want to do anything at all unusual with the equipment (interfacing), they're generally not equipped to do it quickly."
Cunningham's studio is the direct result of the last eight years, learning, failing, the occasional success and the generosity of that latest benefactor to the arts, Channel 4, for whom he has done a number of TV soundtracks.
More recently, Top Ten, the new Flying Lizards LP has emerged, only this time on Statik.
Most of the recordings on it were started in 1981 but only recently finished. As the title suggests, there are 10 tracks, all of them cover versions, ranging from Little Richard to Leonard Cohen, but all done in that inimitable Lizards style.
Accusation no. 1. David Cunningham, you are too clever for your own good.
"No. If I was really clever, I'd get a shit hot manager and do what Trevor Horn does. Having said that, there was talk of me doing something with Bucks Fizz!"
You're joking! After all, they're strictly Andy Hill's creation...
"Well, he suggested it. I quite like the idea of doing it actually — it would help me get a wider vocabulary."
Which brings us onto... Accusation no. 2. You think that what you are doing it art.
"No! What I'm doing isn't art — it has an art content. The Flying Lizards stuff is definitely pop — informed pop."
Ah, but that's the problem. It's too informed for it's own good. Is it an elaborate joke?
"I suppose so, but that's not something I'd specifically apply to what I do. You can hear musical jokes in Beethoven. Some of Chopin's more vigorous piano pieces really remind me of Chico Marx's piano playing. Take the Sex Pistols. They were a great rock'n'roll group and yet a lot of the stuff they did was nonsense. That's the charm of it. Even in Dachau people made jokes."
Talking of 'serious' music, how did you get involved with Mr. Nyman?
"I work with Michael because (a) I think he is a genius and (b) I 'm going to make tons and tons of money from him. No, really, the main reason was to get an education. I was sick of pop music."
Your music is a strange combination of minimalism and rock'n'roll. It's very calculated.
"Oh, yes! The idea of the calculated pop record is the most interesting of all, don't you agree? Pop records can only be hybrids these days. In fact, they always have been. White man sings the blues and all that. "
I've heard a lot of the stuff you've written yourself and it's good. Why do you persist in doing destructive cover versions?
"It's the record companies! They're are always thinking of excuses to do cover versions. The major record buying age group nowadays are all grown-up Leonard Cohen fans with money, mortgages and professional jobs and they're all tired of waiting for the new Roxy album. So the record companies think 'Let's do a Leonard Cohen song only with a disco beat, they go for that these days.' It's putting together elements which theoretically make the wonderful hit record but in fact make the most obnoxious hybrid you've ever heard. That's what I do."
I would say that Robin Scott's Pop Musik is the ultimate calculated pop record.
"Yes, I agree, but he's got fine calculation down to a T where as my calculations are incredibly rough, mine are statistics. Kind of averages. Like, when I recorded Summertime Blues, it was only remembered, I hadn't heard the original in years."
David Cunningham suddenly had to fly to meet his sixteen year old cousin at Euston. "I've been asked to show him a good time," he worried. They probably spent the weekend making tape loops together.