The Man Who Would Be Both
We talk to the man who produced himself, and find out who won.
Nik Kershaw the bass player glanced at Nik Kershaw the guitarist while Nik Kershaw the keyboard player looked over his shoulder. "What we need is a producer." They all nodded. "How about Nik Kershaw?"
BRAVE IS HE who produces himself, and wiser heads than I have said so. The man who would be both – both artist and producer – runs many risks. There is ego, there is discipline, there is the funny screaming in the night when you realise how much it's costing.
But Nik Kershaw has done it anyway. Previous albums like "The Riddle" were deceptively rich and 'musicianly' items for a pop performer to put out. Even within the chart singles there were moments of highly skilled playing given just enough exposure to make you wonder.
Once you were lured into the LP, it transpired that a Kershaw in the studio is virtually a one man hand – writing, arranging and playing nearly all the parts. But at least there was always an independent producer in the control room; an outsider's ear calling the shots.
Not this time.
At Swanyard Studios, behind Highbury and Islington tube, Nik Kershaw came away from the mixing of his next album "Radio Musicola" to agree with Making Music's concerns about self-production.
"No, no, definitely not."
Okay, so we weren't in total agreement. "That's the good thing about being the producer, you've got ultimate control so your ego doesn't get in the way. Before, when there was a producer, I'd pick up a bass, struggle with it, drop bits in, slow the tape down, anything to play that bass part and prove myself to the producer.
"On this album, I'd pick up a bass, decide the track wasn't working, then pick up the phone instead, call someone else over and ask them to play it. But that's great. Because I'm the producer it's still my final decision." And in practice? "I haven't played any bass on this album, and there's quite a lot of keyboard playing by other people as well.
"Anyway, there's something to be said for being totally familiar with your instrument. When you get a new keyboard and start using it, you're just scraping the surface and it's nice for someone else to turn up with an old, battered OBXA and immediately get exactly the sound you asked him for.
"Radio Musicola" is less commercial than previous Kershaw albums – "It will probably confuse a lot of people... it's confused me". There are one or two straight forward pop songs, but elsewhere it breaks the mould, if not the riddle. Had he deliberately set out to make a different Kershaw album?
"No, I think it's something that just came about because there was no outside producer to say 'don't do that'. As you can probably imagine, my record company has been having nightmares wondering if I'm about to produce some avant garde LP. It isn't like that. I've just used really good players and let them play... Simon Phillips, Mark Brzezicki, Carol Kenyon..."
And how about the noises they make?
"I think we've taken a lot more time over the sounds on this than on any previous album. Whether that's a good thing or not, I'm not sure – you can spend too much time faffing about finding a keyboard sound when you might do better getting on with the song. My engineer is a bit of a snob. If I've got a cacky sound I want to put down, he begrudgingly lets me smear it over his virgin tape."
Most of the sound samples on "Radio Musicola" were courtesy of the new, Mark III Fairlight. "The quality is very, very noticeably different from the original. You can hear it most on the drum and bass sounds, the most amazing bottom end, very solid and round."
KERSHAW HAS a reputation, even amongst other musicians (they've told us) for generating painstakingly perfect demos. Where as some bands would be happy to rough out songs on a portastudio or eight track, the hours spent over his home 16-track are closer to pre-production than musical note taking. The drum machine tracks are programmed and laid down – many being transferred directly from his demos to Swanyard's multitrack – and the Yamaha QX1 sequencer which drives most of the synths and a Yamaha TX FM rack, is fully primed.
"A lot of it really only changes in the studio if we get some trouble and it starts sounding stale. Then I'll tear it apart and rebuild. At home you've got time to think... and it's not so expensive. I'm more aware of that aspect on this album since I'm producing it, and I'm the one responsible for the purse strings."
And if ever you woke up in the middle of the night with a brilliant idea, you could get straight down to it? "If I woke up in the middle of the night, the only thing I'd want to do is go back to sleep again.
"The risk of working at home is reaching saturation point where you realise you're repeating yourself; going over stuff you did at 9.00 in the morning at 2.00 the following morning. There's no point. I find, personally, anything I record at 3.00 in the morning I have to re-record at 12.00 the next day.
"From my point of view I do a lot of the work when I write the songs – arranging them has a lot to do with my way of writing. Also, before we go into the full studio I'll spend a couple of days generally running around and hitting things for samples, and trying out new keyboards. When you lock yourself away for a couple of months, you lose touch so you hire a few things in to see what they sound like.
"This album will probably confuse a lot of people... it confused me."
"We go to a lot of trouble to get the sounds at home right in the first place, otherwise it's depressing to overdub on. Three or four of them we actually kept and then transferred to digital, the Mitsubishi 32-track (at Swanyard).
"There's a great deal of debate about the Sony and Mitsubishi systems. There is a difference... I just can't say that I can detect it. I went for the Mitsubishi because I didn't want to use two machines and wait for the synchronisers to catch up with each other (the Sony system is 24 track and for extra channels you have to link two decks together).
"I don't like recording drums digitally because it can sound very brittle (see John Walter's digital piece elsewhere in this month's issue). We record those on 16 track and then bounce them across to the digital machine. Most drummers do their best fills at the end of the fade and the beauty of this system is that you can offset the machines and drop those fills in wherever you want it.
"I haven't recorded any guitar straight to digital yet; that might be a problem. There's something nice about tape compression on a guitar. But on digital there are other things like dropping in and out which are good. On most analogue machines you press record and it takes a few milliseconds to cut in and cut out. But with the Mitsubishi it actually cross fades, you don't get any click, it fades out the old one and fades in the new one.
"It's a bit slow on rewind, that's the only criticism I can think of, and you have to be very careful with the tape – because there's so much information on an inch tape, it's more delicate than an analogue tape."
ALL NIK'S guitars are made by local luthier Dave Gladden, "he just seems to know what I like as far as playing goes. Guitar sounds... really, it's human beings that get guitar sounds. I learnt that from an old friend of mine when I was in a jazz/rock band some time ago, Ian Pearce, great guitar player, gorgeous guitar sound every time, but he was always changing his amp... he'd turn up with an HH PA amp with a knackered old speaker and it would still sound beautiful."
The Kershaw guitar formula includes fat Gibsonesque frets, deep cutaways to provide plenty of top access, narrow neck/body joints for the same reason, and a flat fretboard: "low action, but not Allan Holdsworth style. You need so much control to play that way."
How about guitar synths. Tried any? "Yeah, but they've always been a disappointment to me, really. When I hit a string, I expect it do something at the same time. It's that delay in transferring the vibration of a string into a MIDI signal – getting rhythm parts to sit in the track is difficult because of that.
"I tried the Synthaxe (a digital, all electronic guitar). I was warned before hand that it was... different... and it is disconcerting. I did find it very worrying and that the set of strings you play with your left hand is not the same as the set you play with your right. It's a wonderful machine but I don't honestly see what market they're aiming for. There are a hell of a lot of good, cheap keyboards around, after all..."
Accomplished six-stringer that he may be, there's still less hesitation than the average guitar synth exhibits when he's asked about starting again. "I'd start with keyboards if I had my time again. I'd learn to play the piano properly." With the right sequencer, he can cheat, but that induces what musicians know as the old-bloke-in-the-pub-syndrome. You know the conversation – 'musician are ya? Gi's a tune on the piana then. Ya nuffing without ya gadgets, you.'
"That would be everything, if you had the ultimate technology and you were a really good piano player."
Even guitar lessons would be good "no time, you see," and he hasn't practised for years, "suppose I could get up an hour earlier. Stale, I think, more than rusty. It would be lovely – I think everybody must think this – to wake up one morning and be able to play like someone else."
AND SO WE close with "Radio Musicola," and the mixing there of. Another unusual twist to this one which shows the difference between a producer-producer and an artist-producer. Even at final mixing stage, they're still adding in new overdubs to keep the surprise and freshness to the very last minute.
"I wrote what I thought was the album before Christmas and started recording in January. Then I scrapped about three quarters of it. Er, why? It was all right, okay, quite nice, but I didn't want this album to be 'quite nice'. This is probably the most eclectic album I've made... gospel choirs, a complete Fairlight track, a vaguely jazz track, I don't know what you'd call them.
"I hate using adjectives over music anyway."
Interview by Paul Colbert
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