The Odd Couple
Bill Sharpe, Gary Numan
The meeting of two diverse talents and minds; Gary Numan and Bill Sharpe of Shakatak. We discover what they've been getting up to and where it will lead.
Tony Mills investigates an unusual marriage made in the studio.
At first it seems an unlikely pairing — Gary Numan, the electropop pioneer, king of the cold sneer and master of the outrageous image and the massive stage show, with Bill Sharpe, mainstay of jazz-funksters Shakatak and purveyor of hipshaking dance music to the masses. But when you hear the result — a compelling electro-pop single called Change Your Mind — the logic behind the combination becomes more obvious.
Change Your Mind, one of the tracks from Sharpe's forthcoming Polydor solo album Famous People, combines Sharpe's DX7 and piano playing with a pounding LinnDrum beat and Numan's distinctive vocal style. The first obvious move was to ask how the duo came to collaborate on the single.
Bill: "I'd been working on the solo album over the summer at Gary's Studio Rock City in Shepperton — where we've done three Shakatak albums — and on this track the engineer Nick Smith (who's worked a lot with Gary) suggested that it needed a certain kind of voice — something like Garys in fact. I tried to sing it myself but I hardly sing at all, and Nick gave the tape to Gary's dad and it turned out Gary was interested in doing it.
"The track has some pretty strange, spooky noises on it and Gary's voice fits perfectly.
Gary: "I've done a cover version of On Broadway and an instrumental cover — and I did sing the Lee Cooper jeans advert in 1978! — but apart from that I hadn't done any other people's songs before. I was really nervous, but I wanted to do it because I liked the song. I didn't listen to a guide vocal, but the vocal line is more or less there in a cue line underneath it — it's very easy to sing."
Bill: "Almost all the sounds were done on the DX7 and the LinnDrum, apart from a little piano. On a lot of sounds Nick was taking the DX7 out to a delay and a harmoniser and we were getting these extraordinary voice-like effects, so a lot of it is just the effects units. It's incredible really that you can just do a record with a couple of instruments these days, right down to the synthesised bass lines, but obviously a lot of people are doing it.
"With Shakatak I use a Prophet as well, and we've been trying out a Fairlight to see what it can offer us. Gary Moberley programmed the machine for us and it's an interesting instrument, but it's not really the same as a synthesiser. The DX7 is more interesting in some ways because it plays new sounds, not existing acoustic ones. We only used three sounds on the Fairlight eventually."
Gary: "I think the main advantage of the Fairlight is to help with writing music. I'm getting a Synclavier for a fortnight and that can score out a complete piece; if you think about film music, which I'm trying to get into at the moment, you always end up with the music played by an orchestra however you compose it, so you have to be able to present a finished score. The latest Synclavier has a 32-track recorder with stereo outputs, but they're adding individual outputs as well so you could copy to a multitrack. On the last album I used a PPG — we had two programmers working with it so I didn't have to learn how to use it myself, I just had to ask them if it could do something and they'd tell me.
"I found that the sampled sounds of the PPG are better quality than the Fairlight — I used Stewart Copeland's Fairlight for a while when we were working on some film music, and it's easier to use in terms of programming songs onto it because of the note display on Page R. But the PPG is nine grand as opposed to twenty-five — you pay for what you get, and the Synclavier at thirty thousand is bound to win out over the others."
Film music seemed to be a new departure for Numan, who's most closely associated with the five-minute song, so I asked both parties whether they had any plans in that direction.
Gary: "Stewart Copeland's running around in America looking for work in that field, but he seems to be best at that — just looking. On our side of it, being based in Shepperton is an advantage and we're trying to put together a package with me doing the music and other people doing other things which we can then take to the financiers. And I wouldn't be limited to just writing songs for a film — with access to a Synclavier I could write any sort of orchestral music as well, and of course it locks into the SMPTE film code."
Bill: "I did a couple of short audio-visual extracts four or five months ago for air shows and things — I just wrote the music to a list of time cues and didn't get to see the pictures until afterwards and it worked quite well, but I would like to get into films because it's a real challenge."
Back on the albums front, Shakatak have a double live set on release in Japan and a single album version due for UK release in March.
The world-wide appeal of the jazz-funk style seems pretty well established, although Bill pointed out that heavy metal is also huge in the East. The accompanying video for the Japanese market, titled Twilight Sensation, will be shown in Japan and will be available for the band's use in the rest of the world; it was made by JVC, although there's no connection with the fact that Bill used to endorse JVC's home keyboard range.
Bill: "We had a big hit in Japan with a track called Night Birds which was picked up and used as a TV jingle, and in Japan they always display who plays the music on adverts. So in 1983 they released five albums in Japan and they sold about 800,000 copies — that was an amazing year for us, at one point we had four albums in the top forty and we've been there three times now."
Was there a tendency towards a jazz-funk style in your recent music Gary?
Gary: "Well, I've worked with a lot of people like Dick Morrissey recently, but I never liked jazz, I've always hated it and still do by and large. But I worked with a lot of people who liked it and dragged me out to these night clubs in New York to see the most awful bands, and through that I began to become aware of some of the more crossover bands who are really good — if not the music then the individual players, so I started to work with them. The music itself has never gone jazz-funky but the influences are there... but also you're progressing all the time. I was very young when I started writing — after only the second album I was famous, so obviously you're developing all the time, hopefully your voice is getting better, and also you can afford to work with better and better people.
"I think success in music has ultimately got very little to do with the quality of what you're doing, it's more to do with whether you're that year's thing or not. If you're not, then you can make the best album in the world and the chances are that nothing will happen to it."
Do you feel that some bands change the style of their music just to stay in fashion?
Gary: "Yes, but I don't think that works, because being in fashion in this country, with one or two exceptions, depends upon being new; no matter how different you are, if you were around the year before you've had it. You can change until you're blue in the face — look at me, I'm on the fifth or sixth completely different way of looking, but my fortunes don't seem to be looking up, they're carrying on about the same. The trouble with images, which I didn't realise when I got into it, is that when people are bored with the image they're bored with you."
Since Gary's fortunes seem so variable, I wondered whether his studio, Rock City, acted as a valuable investment?
Gary: "No, the studio's a bottomless pit, you can pour money into it left right and centre. It's just a base for my own record company Numa, somewhere where I can take the bands with easy access and good enough quality. I decided about a year ago, when the deal with Beggar's Banquet was coming to a close, that I could either go with a major or go out on my own, and having access to the studio I decided to go out on my own using the knowledge gained from being in the business for a while. Distribution's the only main problem, but there's no shortage of bands; there are more bands than we can handle, we're turning away good little bands every week. So far we've put out three seven inch and three twelve inch singles; we've got three bands including Das Kabinet from Blackpool, and a great solo artist called Caroline Munro who's been in about a dozen films."
What exactly does the Rock City setup consist of?
Bill: "For a start it's got a great piano, a Bosendorfer. There are two AMS delays, one for echo and one for reverb, Drawmer noise gates and Scamp rack effects, harmonisers, a Bel Flanger and a Trident desk."
Gary: "The Trident's not vastly expensive, the EQ is very good and Shakatak have done three albums in the studio, Invitations, Out of This World and Down on The Street which was mostly mixed there as well."
Bill: "It all sounds very beefy down there, and it also helps to work with Nick who's used to the sound. It's always good to work in different places as well; on the solo album the basic tracks were done at Rock City but it was remixed at Maison Rouge by somebody else. I think that's a good idea because you take a track so far and become so familiar with it that you can't hear it any other way. A lot of people are a little too proud to let anyone else touch it because maybe somebody else could do it better!
Gary: "On the other hand if you use somebody like Wally Brill to do a remix it's going to cost money and it depends on whether you've got it or not. You have to take the risk; do you stick with what you've got or do you take the risk of using somebody else and spending the money? The studio has to be updated all the time unfortunately, and that absorbs money as well."
Bill: "I'd like an SSL desk for instance. I was a sound engineer at the BBC in Maida Vale while they were putting one in, and it's quite an easy desk to use. Everybody likes it because you've got gates and compressors on every channel, and the automation is very handy.
You can store a mix, whereas if you do it on a Trident and want to change one little thing you have to do it all again. Obviously on the SSL you can build it up gradually and you know the previous parts are still there."
Gary: "The other side of that is that you can get too nit-picking, going for tiny things which nobody's going to notice, just dragging it out and getting bored. You can get it that quarter of a per cent better on the SSL, but how long's it going to take — it all costs money. You fool yourself that it sounds better but the guy in the street doesn't notice the difference."
Bill: "We did eight mixes of this single and took two days over it, but we got it remixed in the end anyway! I was getting really paranoid, playing it on the JBL monitors, Acoustic Research monitors, Auratones, car speakers, on a Walkman and so on, but it sounds different on everything you play it on — even on different pairs of headphones! Nick tends to mix on small speakers as does Mutt Lange (Def Leppard) and Michael Brown (The System), although Gary liked the bigger speakers."
Gary: "Yes, I really want a live feel so that it takes your head off. When it's quiet your attention wanders — there's nothing like doing a mix where you're almost dancing at the end of it, you're much more in tune and you can hear what's going on rather than looking at the coke that's spilled between the faders.
Are any musical instruments installed permanently in the studio?
Gary: "The Oberheim OBXa covers most synth sounds as far as I'm concerned, and I've been hiring the PPG which covers most other things except for when I want to use real musicians — bass, sometimes real drums and sax. I store the drum sounds in the AMS, so the musician just has to bang on tin lids or whatever to trigger them.
Do either of you have home demo equipment?
Gary: "I've got an Allen and Heath desk and a Brennell eight-track, but I don't use it much because I can use the 24-track at any time. It was supposed to be for if I got a flash of inspiration at night, but it's so aggravating having to clamber over the back to find the plugs and turn it on. I had a Portastudio but I gave it to my brother! I write everything on a piano anyway, and I find that you get the entire mood of the piece because it's so atmospheric. I usually know what else is supposed to go on the track anyway."
Bill: "I've got a Fostex B16 and a Studiomaster desk over Christmas and it's really good. It's a little hissy but it's great for demos at home. I've got some Tannoy Little Reds and the racket they turn out is unbelievable — I nearly set the burglar alarm off with them the other day! The demo setup's next to the bedroom and I've only got to press two switches and it's all on, so like Gary if I get any inspiration... but I never get inspiration because once I go to sleep I never wake up again!
"I just use the DX7, Prophet and Linn and they sound great, although the EQ on the desk is very basic. I've been very happy with some of the demos I've done recently.
"Although I was endorsing the JVC keyboards I never used them seriously for recording, but they were handy because they were battery operated. I used to take them on the coach when we were touring; they've got a little drum machine and a bass section so they're great for writing, but I've only used them for one or two sounds in the studio. I had several meetings with the designers from Japan and they always asked me for advice on the machines, but they never followed it! If they're happy with the home organ market there's no reason to change, but they need some better keyboards if they want to compete with Yamaha and Roland; I think they're going more into computers now."
We finished by sorting out the duo's plans for the immediate future. A different version of Change Your Mind is on Bill's forthcoming solo album, and a promotional video had just been made.
Bill: "My solo album and the Shakatak live album should be out at the beginning of March, and we're going to play in Germany, a week in Switzerland, Denmark, Spain, The Far East, The Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and then work on a new album. I've probably got to start to think about a second solo album for Polydor later this year.
"The second single's being remixed at Media Sound studio in New York, and we can get that sort of Chaka Khan sound — it's a great opportunity for me to work with other people as well as with the Shakatak thing, but it can't do anything but good for the band as well. It might surprise a few people who are into Shakatak."
Gary: "I'm working on the film music ideas, although it's out of my hands at the moment, but I've got the next lot of singles on Numa to come up, a lot of air displays and then maybe a European tour which will depend partly on how well this single does. The first major air display is Biggin Hill — I've had my Harvard repainted as a Japanese fighter and I'm going to spend every weekend injecting diesel into the exhaust and pretending to get shot down! In fact the plane's quite dangerous — a friend of my girlfriend got killed in one in New York last week when it blew up.
"On the music side I've also got a live album and video coming up, but I haven't mixed the album yet. We've just seen the video for the single which is very moody and which should be shown here and in Europe. If it goes to No. 1 I'm going to retire again."
Interview by Mark Jenkins writing as Tony Mills
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