This Is Marineville
Two guys with a home studio and some racks of realty nice gear. Plus two albums of unique electronic music. Simon Trask meets them
Ultramarine have been quietly making a name for themselves with their unique blend of laidback dance grooves, uplifting moods and rich, intricate musical textures. Simon Trask fathoms the depths of their electro-acoustic sound...
Ultramarine are one of those groups who exist on the fringes of pop, enthused about by the music press and others in the know (including many fellow musicians) yet somehow never quite connecting with popular consciousness. At once subtle and sublime, their music inhabits an ecstatic, idyllic space far removed from the mundanity and superficiality of everyday life, without ever sounding precious or contrived.
"In very vague terms we do see our music as positive and life-affirming," says Ian Cooper, one half of the south London-based duo. It is very dear to us, we're not doing it with the thought of 'Oh, we've got to get into the Top 30'. Basically It's all very much done on an emotive, gut response level - it's what we feel to be right.
Ultramarine have not only managed to make technology sound organic, they've also managed to create an organic combination of electronic and acoustic sounds, of sequenced and live playing. And with apparent ease they've managed to synthesise into a coherent and consistent musical identity a strikingly diverse set of influences - ranging from mellow 70s American West Coast guitar groups such as America and The Eagles to the purist electronic techno of '80s Detroit and the very English eccentricity of the early 70s Canterbury scene in the form of Caravan, Soft Machine and Kevin Ayers.
Fully paid up members of the Canterbury appreciation society, Ian and fellow Ultramariner Paul Hammond even brought in Canterbury veterans Robert Wyatt and Jimmy Hastings to sing and play respectively on their recently-released third album, United Kingdoms, which also features a cover of Wyatt's Matching Mole classic 'Instant Kitten'. It all sounds weirder on paper than it does in practice, but nonetheless the music press have had a hard time trying pin a label on the group. Ultramarine do use dance rhythms but typically in a subtle, understated way so that they become just one part of an often intricate yet airy, spacious texture not often found in dance music. They do use acoustic instruments and live playing, but in a disciplined way which has more to do with the rigours of dance music's sequencer-based approach to musical creation than to traditional band dynamics.
"We do gain inspiration from a huge variety of sources and we drag in samples from a vast array of different kinds of music," says Ian. "One of the things we're about is sidestepping categories, so to try and pin the music down is a bit self-defeating - as soon as you apply a label to it there's everything else about it that doesn't fit into that category. But we understand why people have to pin labels on us, and it just amuses us, really, when we get called medieval house or techno folkies - we certainly don't lose any sleep over it."
Ian and Paul started making music in the mid '80s within the ranks of avant-noise funksters A Primary Industry, playing guitar and bass respectively. When the group split up in '87, they took a break from the music industry before re-emerging in '89 as a self-contained musical duo under the name Ultramarine, using sequencing technology to give them the freedom to develop their sound. Today the pair do all their initial writing in Paul's bedroom studio, using Cubase on the ST together with a collection of hi-tech instruments which includes an Akai S1000, Oberheim Matrix 1000, Studio Electronics MIDImoog and Waldorf Microwave.
"Quite often we'll start with a sample loop and build the music up around it, not necessarily copying it but relating to it," explains Paul. "Then usually we'll take the sample out, so we're left with sort of a ghost of the original. It's sort of like throwing a random element in the works, which is good because working on things like Cubase everything can be a bit too controllable and you can lose a sense of spontaneity. Working like we do can produce some quite unusual and unpredictable results."
Usually at this initial stage Ian and Paul don't bother to arrange a track in any particular way. Instead they build up all the parts within one sequence loop, then use manual track muting within Cubase to try out different possibilities - once again bringing spontaneity and unpredictability into play.
"For us, as soon as you start to arrange a song in a fixed way you start to limit the ways of seeing it," says Paul. "That's really the last thing we want to do at such an early stage."
While working on their latest album United Kingdoms, Ian and Paul developed 4-stage writing and recording process which allowed them to integrate traditional instrumental recording into their modern sequencer-based approach. Once they had their sequences worked up sufficiently, they decamped to Woodbine Studios in Leamington Spa for eight days, taking their complete home studio setup with them.
For this second stage they brought in a variety of session players to add real flute, clarinet, violin, soprano sax, trumpet and Hammond organ parts to the music. This took the form both of replacing some sequenced parts with live playing (for instance, a Matrix 1000 organ sound was replaced by real Hammond) and adding live solo improvisations to the sequenced tracks.
"For us the improvisations were the most exciting bit, because we never knew what we were going to get out of it," says Paul. "For instance, we'd get Jimmy Hastings to improvise on clarinet for five minutes over a track, maybe record a couple of takes onto the 24-track.
"This second stage was also a good period for us because we were hearing the tracks continually and we started to get some idea of how we wanted to arrange them."
The recordings completed, Ian and Paul then returned to London with several DATs containing all the sequenced parts on one track as a guide and the improvisations and replacement parts on the other track. Their next task was to listen through to the live recordings and sample the bits they wanted to use into the S1000. Sometimes they were spoilt for choice.
"'Dizzy Fox' was a bit of a nightmare for us, because Jimmy did this incredible 8-minute flute solo over the track," Ian recalls. "Once we'd picked all the bits we liked, we had 10 disks full of flute samples, and then we had to piece together another solo from his various elements which had flowed so well in the original solo."
By sampling the live acoustic playing, Ian and Paul were able to work it into the texture of the music - for instance, imparting to it an insistency more characteristic of sequenced music than of live playing.
Once the samples were in place and the arrangements worked out, Ian and Paul returned to the 24-track to do the mixdown. At this final stage they were also able to replace some additional sequenced electronic parts with real instruments, this time played directly to tape.
The duo feel that the working method they developed for United Kingdoms proved very successful.
"I think we get the best out of both worlds," says Ian. "We get the cheapness and the ease of the home setup, and at the same time we have an exposure to a whole new range of sounds and new possibilities which is maybe a rock way of working from the studio. And we can get what we consider to be a big, full sound with lots of instruments without the album costing hundreds of thousands of pounds."
"Also I find just the fact that you've got an engineer sitting there is good," adds Paul. "It's very easy to sit at home and feel totally happy with what you've done, but to sit there in front of somebody else who's critically listening to it is quite a good test."
"Also it's like you've gone into the studio with the tracks closed, then you add all the live stuff and suddenly everything explodes out again," says Ian. "That way we have another chance to really look at the tracks, see where they're going, where else we can take them. Certainly in the case of United Kingdoms each track had quite a few instruments and tunes in the first stage which we just didn't use in the end, we'd gone further than we needed to go, really. So that second stage is really useful."
Interview by Simon Trask
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