The Song Remains the Same
Take four musicians with a love of acoustic instruments, a fascination for high technology and some considerable talent, and you've got Frazier Chorus. Louise Swann and Stephen Hillier listen to songs from the English coast.
While the debates about the future of traditional songwriting continue in raised voices, Frazier Chorus continue the tradition with the quiet dignity of classical composers.
Although you'd die trying to convince the crowd that assembles every year at Castle Donnington, there's more to music than volume, anger and machismo. Similarly, there are more options open to the popular musician than rock 'n' roll honesty or hi-tech gimmickry. In fact, there's more than enough room in popular music for Frazier Chorus - a Brighton outfit mixing technology and tradition with the more sensitive side of songwriting.
Tim Freeman, the founder member of the band, acknowledges the inspiration behind Frazier Chorus to be Manchester guitar classicists Durutti Column. Intrigued by the amazing array of instruments on which they had performed at a concert on the Chorus' homeground of Brighton - trumpets, violins and clarinets together with state of the art synthesisers and drum machines - Freeman teamed up with flautist Kate Holmes. He had long been writing songs, and together they decided to forget the usual guitar, bass and drums format and attempt to bring acoustic and electronic instruments together.
This marked the end of a long period of self-imposed isolation for Freeman and it is from his experiences of "staying indoors all the time and getting away with as little as possible" that he attempted to compose precise documentaries of domestic life. With titles such as 'Sitting Room' and 'Dream Kitchen', it was these songs that enticed clarinetist Chris Taplin to join the band. Having completed a course on deconstructed music at Brighton Polytechnic and being obsessed with computers, Taplin became "the active straight man" behind Freeman's songs. Percussionist Michele Allardyce (another Brighton local) joined soon after.
Having begun their career playing local gigs as most bands do, Frazier Chorus were quick to record a demo of what Freeman regards as their finest song, 'Sloppy Heart'. Without a definite name for the band, they originally promoted the song under the guise of Plop!. It was greeted, perhaps not surprisingly, with general apathy from almost every record label they had contacted. Determined to try again, they chose the name Frazier Chorus. Freeman picks up the story:
"This time we decided to send the demo only to companies we thought would be interested in our music and approach, rather than every company in the Music Week Directory. We contacted mainly the leading independent companies like Factory, Cocteau and Cherry Red. The responses we received were generally encouraging but some were less than helpful. I had the owner of a certain company shouting down the phone at me to stop bothering him. A couple of others didn't even reply.
"In the end it was 4AD records at Camden Town in London (who have Cocteau Twins and M/A/R/R/S on their roster of artists) who showed the most enthusiasm and we signed a deal. It was understood between us and Ivo (4AD's mentor) that we would record one EP as a stepping stone towards a major deal rather than both parties commit themselves to a longterm contract.
"We recorded three songs, 'Sloppy Heart', 'Typical' and 'Storm' in the autumn with producer Gil Norton. Although we were happy with the record at the time, it was recorded extremely quickly and we think it shows in some of the arrangements. You tend to see this sort of thing only when you distance yourself from a project. We mixed it in a little studio in the middle of an estate in the heart of Liverpool. The area was so rough that we had to go to the corner shop in twos and park the car right next to the studio so we could watch it constantly. It was quite an experience."
The 'Sloppy Heart' EP came out in the winter of 1987 to critical acclaim, but surprised many regular 4AD listeners with its commerciality. It seemed that Frazier Chorus were the odd one out on a label which was well known for releasing "indie" music. Taplin comments: "4AD have a glowing reputation for quality music, and having a record released on their label seems to give us almost instant credibility in some circles, but we had always known that we were only with them temporarily. They were signing up a lot of aggressive guitar bands like AR Kane and the Pixies, and we felt that our music was slightly more mainstream than typical 4AD material. Almost as soon as 'Sloppy Heart' came out, we received a phone call from Virgin records wanting us to sign with them."
So in early 1988, Frazier Chorus signed to Virgin records. The move was not without its worries, though: "We were concerned initially", continues Taplin, "that in signing to a major label like Virgin we would be pressurised into compromising ourselves - that we'd have to suit their idea of our music so that they could market us more easily. However, we have been proved wrong. Virgin have virtually given us a free hand to experiment and have been sympathetic to our requirements. They respect our art."
'Dream Kitchen', the band's first single on Virgin, was released in January this year. Although not a huge seller, the band were content to get into the Top 75 with their first major release. The accompanying video also received a wealth of exposure for the band. Freeman explains: "It seemed as though the media saw 'Dream Kitchen' as a kind of wacky pop song. In actual fact it is quite a sombre tale of a mother whose children have left her. It was a shame that it was viewed simply as pop and the content of the song ignored.
Taken from their forthcoming album Sue, 'Dream Kitchen' was a marked progression from the 4AD days. With half-whispered vocals and a luscious string arrangement to the fore, it was a great refinement of the music they had recorded only a year previously. With much of Sue following the mood set by the single, how did the band go about creating the material used on the album?
"It wasn't that the string players were making mistakes - we needed an almost mechanically precise phrase which they weren't able to supply."
Taplin: "Tim usually starts the ball rolling by coming up with some words, and from there we all take part in the construction of the song. I do most of the sequencer and drum machine programming which begins as a very basic arrangement to suit the atmosphere set by Tim. We follow the process from the simplest idea right through to the final arrangement together as a group."
Freeman is very clear to point out that he writes from his own experiences: "I've often found bands that sing about going off to war or 'saving the world with rock and roll' unconvincing. My songs are concerned with the more mundane aspects of life. Some people may find it strange hearing a song about carpet burns or coffee, but these are things that touch everybody's lives. I mean, most people have a carpet! Although my songs are a reflection of everyday life, I try to keep them open to interpretation - each listener can bring their own experiences to bear on the lyrics and derive their own meaning.
"It seems strange to admit, but the lyricists I admire are in groups such as Abba and The Carpenters. They sing about things that we can all relate to. 'Goodbye to Love' by The Carpenters is a good example of a situation portrayed in a song that has touched us all."
The casual observer might think that to convey these lyrics effectively using insensitive synthesisers and computers would be an impossible task. However, both Taplin and Freeman are vociferous in their appreciation of machines and feel that the group have melded real instruments and modern technology particularly well. There is definitely a very "human" feel to their music. Was this a conscious decision?
"In our music we're combining electronic and acoustic instruments", says Freeman, "not as a policy decision, but because that is what the mood of the songs required. At last, in recording this album, we were in a position where we could being in brass and string sections to play the lines which previously we'd relied on synthesisers to play. It was refreshing to record 'live' instruments. Up until now we've had to settle for synthesiser approximations of the instruments, but these 'real' sounds bring the songs to life.
"Nevertheless, it hasn't all been plain sailing. On the new version of 'Storm', we had to replace the real strings with sampled strings because the players couldn't keep time. It wasn't so much that they were making mistakes in their timing, but we needed an almost mechanically precise rhythmical phrase which they weren't able to supply. This could be where machines have an advantage over humans. We were still able to get the effect we wanted by triggering the samples from the sequencer. But even the best samples of violins or cellos still sound like samples, quite dead when compared to the real thing.
"It's so easy to let the technology dominate your sound. A lot of records we hear today just sound like equipment rather than musicians. I think the best music comes from the interaction of human beings with fellow musicians rather than machines."
In order to record music though, there is a certain amount of music technology that every band has to accommodate. Even acoustic bands usually have to employ electronic reverb or simple compression techniques to produce a record that is acceptable to a modern audience. As Sue is full of samplers and sequencers, what are the factors that influence Frazier Chorus' choice of equipment? Taplin takes the question:
"I think my main considerations when buying an instrument are the efficiency of the machine, in terms of its ease of use, and whether it has its own character. The Roland Super Jupiter module that we use is a good example of both. Although it was superseded years ago by D50s or even the Yamaha FM synths it is still a great instrument with a sound all of its own. It's far easier to understand the analogue subtractive synthesis that it uses than most digital synthesis techniques. We've used it extensively on the album for a variety of things. It's particularly good for bass sounds and I love the depth of sound the Jupiter gives which is sadly lacking in a lot of digital synths.
"Your music becomes real when it is performed - whether you have a lavish light show or whether you're playing a piano in the corner of a pub."
"We bought an Emax sampler a while ago. We thought it would help us both in the studio and live with its hard disk capabilities. Unfortunately we're now realising that it's quite similar to the early Fairlights in that it imparts its own character to everything it samples. Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, its actual sound is too rock-orientated for our use. We're probably going to upgrade to an Akai S1000 before long. We're using an S900 at the moment which is very good, but the S1000 is a phenomenal improvement on its predecessor. Sampling in stereo is something I'd like to get into soon.
"For sequencing we've recently acquired the Hybrid Arts SMPTE-Track sequencing package for our Atari ST computer. Until then we'd been using a Roland MC500 which was OK but limited in only having four tracks. Also the speed with which you can get an idea from your head into SMPTE-Track makes a lot of sense for us."
Playing live has always been an important aspect of Frazier Chorus' music. Earlier this year they played a few "warm up" gigs in and around London to enthusiastic audiences and rave reviews. A national tour (possibly supporting Black) is scheduled for the summer as well, which will take the band throughout Britain. Having recently finished a breakneck tour of Northern local radio stations, Frazier Chorus perform wherever their music can take them. So how do Frazier Chorus perform their music live, not having a drummer or guitarist?
"We use backing tapes on stage", explains Freeman. "There seems still to be a great taboo about this which I don't think is fair. It's far more convenient for us to use a four-track tape recorder for drums and bass than to have to bring in a drummer who is another personality to contend with and has another opinion on how the music should sound. To take our whole sequencer setup onto stage would prove a headache as well. We prefer to concentrate on the actual playing."
But is there a need for a band such as Frazier Chorus, with the promotional might of a major record company behind them, to actually get up onto a stage where they are vulnerable? Without a flamboyant image or outspoken front person wouldn't it be easier for them to leave the performing with the image makers at Virgin? Freeman strongly objects to the suggestion.
"It's not adequate to just be a bedroom musician. Your music becomes real when it is performed - whether you have a lavish light show, fireworks and a male voice choir or whether you're playing a piano in the corner of a pub.
"We would hope that when people come to see us they just wanted to hear some pleasant songs. I suppose we are quite reserved on stage, but we can only be what we are. We have had problems with PA systems and engineers who want to amplify everything to such an extent that you lose the dynamics of the music in a swamp of sheer volume. We would prefer to play at a level at which the audience can hear us clearly. The ear can only take so much."
Although Freeman sees his long-term career as that of a songwriter rather than that of a vocalist, already his inimitable vocal style has won him favour in the music press and has resulted in a further collaboration at 4AD records; this time with This Mortal Coil.
"This Mortal Coil is an umbrella under which Ivo brings together his favourite musicians, and quite often this includes artists other than those signed to 4AD itself. In the past he's had Howard Devoto and Richenal as well as members of The Cocteau Twins performing very old songs by Alex Sadkin, Colin Newman and even Talking Heads. I was asked to contribute some vocals to an old Byrds song that will be on the new This Mortal Coil LP.
"It's strange to think that I had often dreamt of appearing on a TMC album. I was so thrilled to be asked, but when I actually came to do the vocals, the whole thing was over very quickly - I couldn't have been in the studio more than two hours - but it is an ambition fulfilled."
Taplin, however, having recently been doing some programming work with Martin Young of Colourbox and M/A/R/R/S fame, intends to continue working with the technological side of music making, possibly expanding into production in the near future. With the debut album reaching the shops by the end of March, and a national tour in the summer, Frazier Chorus look set to have a busy year. So within a barrage of media acclaim, the last word must be Freeman's:
"We are trying to entertain the largest audience in the best way we know. You won't find any layers of guitar feedback or industrial noises on Sue, but flutes, violins and clarinets. I just hope that people buy the album expecting to hear some real songs."
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