Dave Stewart gives the technology the human touch.
Dave Stewart, half Eurythmics. Tony Bacon, touch typing. Tom Sheehan, light sensitivity.
"I'm a kind of recording fanatic," explains Dave Stewart in between soundcheck and gig at London's Lyceum. "I've got every variation of tape recorder hanging out of every pocket."
A quick frisking reveals a £300 Fostex X15 as Dave's constant companion, while back home it's more likely to be a £600 Tascam Portastudio that's most in demand. And at the group's HQ in north London, The Church, you'll find several thousand pounds' worth of Soundcraft 24-track gear (including a new Series 2400 28/24 LED desk and 24-track recorder). Choose your poison.
While Dave may be a recording fanatic, he is certainly a hoarder. He's got a huge collection of cassettes in a special cupboard at The Church, all carefully catalogued and labelled by a patient secretary whose unenviable task it is to describe the often strange goings-on captured on each of the 2000-plus (and growing) cassettes.
"They might be labelled with 'Sydney to Bangkok, noises etc', or 'Dave in shop in Australia, talking'. On one tape it might go from street car-noise to a sequencer pattern to something else. Andy Warhol does a similar thing with photos, it's like a constant kind of memory beam switched on."
But how useful is a tape of Dave and striptease artiste Penny Blue really drunk in his back room banging bits of metal, running a Space Echo, and removing clothes while singing "I Was Born Under A Wandering Star"? Only time will tell.
The recordist suggests that his tape collection is most useful for Eno-like random selection, where snatches of tunes or noises have turned into such things as the bass line for "The Walk", the guitar riff for "Who's That Girl", or the general inspiration (sea sounds) for "Jennifer". "That's the way we like to do things, a collage of the past mixed with what we're thinking now."
In the recent past the Eurythmics recorded a good deal of their material on an 8-track machine: only three tracks on the "Sweet Dreams" LP were not recorded 8-track, for example "Wrap It Up", the 8-track-recorded sequences of which were copied on to the 24-track at Wessex studio for overdubbing.
Now, they use the transfer method much more commonly (see, too, the Thompson Twins' method detailed last month), often shifting their Portastudio 4-tracks on to the 24. "That way we're always using our basic idea," says Dave, "not trying to recreate the demo. In the end, even if you do lose the initial tracks, the thing you have been playing with has been the original idea. If you try to recreate an unusual idea it doesn't have the feel or the spontaneity. Nowadays, luckily, you have all these tape machines of good enough quality to either keep one track and wipe the rest, or transfer completely and keep the lot for as long as you need them."
Playing live is a completely different outing altogether — in 1983 the Eurythmics went out with six separate line-ups, from a gospel choir to a ten-piece band. It was the ten-piece that Dave had been putting through its paces at the Lyceum soundcheck just before we spoke — his own contributions to the PA-testing racket emanated principally from his Roland guitar synth and a nearby keyboard-based rack of stuff.
At the moment he finds the Roland GR300/G505 guitar synth particularly useful for filling out the live two-man brass team, thus creating the illusion of a three-part brass section. "I also use it on peculiar settings through my Space Echo — instead of always coming out with the guitar for 'tuned' solos, sometimes I'll play 'noise' solos."
But he hasn't used the Roland in the studio yet (it only arrived just before the tour), and considers himself to have little of the patience required to learn all its variations; some of the time he's using the non-synthed straight guitar sound, anyway. Perhaps Dave's a potential customer for the new programmable GR700 guitar synth which'll be coming in April? He's also having a Bond six-string built — more on these instruments on page 84.
He's quite willing to use a particular musician for a particular job on stage — no ego problems here — and reckons that if a brilliant guitar part was needed then he'd rope in a brilliant guitarist. And there seems to be no shortage of musicians who want to spend a bit of creative time off from their usual pursuits by playing with the Eurythmics. Dave's live keyboard-based rack is, he says, funny. "It's all wired up so that anything in it can be linked: a Space Echo, an Oberheim DMX drum computer, a Roland SH09 synthesiser and a CSQ100 sequencer, and an Ibanez multi-effects rack. I can play everything through everything if I want — send the drums through the echo, fire the sequencer, play the synth through the effects."
'This sounds ultimately confusing. "Terrible, yeah," he giggles, "sometimes the band look at me, what's this terrible racket flying around the side of the stage? But it's very exciting because anything can go wrong at any minute."
Back at the studio, instrumental knowledge can be hired in too — stand-out sounds recently coming from Dick Cuthell's brass and Dean Garcia's wonderful bass. Both these chaps are in the Live Ten, as well.
Before songs get to their "proper" recording stage, Dave'll try all instrumental possibilities for inspiration. "I have a love-hate relationship with the guitar, I never write anything on it. I like writing on instruments I can't play. Then it stays simple and I don't start going off into all these mad arrangements before the songs start to come. Sometimes I might use a xylophone or some odd instrument — part of 'Who's That Girl' came from a xylophone line, you can still hear it."
His two main studio guitars, once the 24-track stage is reached, are a Fender Telecaster and a Gretsch semi, apparently a "Country Clubman". Generally, Dave will tend to play fairly simple guitar lines on record because he finds it's an instrument which can very quickly take up too much space in the mix: when he does want it to be obvious, you'll be in no doubt about it.
This feeling is reflected throughout Dave's production: for example, you'll know when a harmoniser's working (the blatant "How could you fall for a boy like that," in "Cool Blue", say) because it'll be used for dramatic pitch shifts, and not as a gentle sweetener for everything so that you end up with, as Dave puts it, "sickly chocolate cake".
But back to guitar, and in the studio Dave does opt most of the time for delicacy, preferring to let the track's individual instrumental and vocal components run together rather than jockey for position. You need look no further than "Touch" for a good range of six-string treatments: "Cool Blue" has a bright, choppy Sixties Stax-like ching-chang from the Telecaster, while "Right By Your Side" exploits the varispeed knob to take the "African" guitar breaks effectively off the end of the fretboard (Dave's hero of the varispeed guitar is loopy Holger Czukay).
So to the other studio guitar, the Gretsch Country Clubman. Er — surely you mean a Country Gentleman, Dave? A few coughs, then he explains that he said the same thing to the guy who sold it to him. And the story goes that the Gretsch Country Clubman was specially designed for Elvis Presley's guitarist, Scotty Moore, and is indeed much bigger than all the more usual Gretsch semis.
"I've never heard of one like it," admits Dave, "it's massive. I love it for feedback with the whammy bar — on "This City Never Sleeps" it's feeding back all the way through and I'm bending it. Sounds like a lonely train."
The Clubman's also got one of Gretsch's built-in mutes — a felt pad which can be switched close to the strings near the bridge. While the edge of your hand's generally a more precise dampener, Dave has found a few uses for Gretsch's on-board mute. "It's good if you want to sound unlike a guitar — maybe put it through a harmoniser and it'll end up sounding like wood-blocks. You have to be very precise, though."
There are always various keyboards hanging around the studio. Dave's current favourites seem to be small: an ancient Wasp mono synth with the separate Caterpillar keyboard ("otherwise it gets a bit squidgy") and a Roland SH101. But there's always larger Polys around to contend with. A Juno 60 is a regular tool, although a try-out with a new Voyetra eight-voice (from New York) hasn't proved too successful so far. "It keeps blowing up, overheating. They say it's part of the design. It keeps blowing up at the wrong time. It's got fantastic sounds on it when it works."
Dave tends to share a general problem with many owners of synths, drum machines and sequencers when he says: "The most frustrating thing for me in the studio is linking sync codes and triggering things with the right levels not firing out of sync." He acknowledges this as a universal hassle. "I think any modern-day producer is driven nuts by this sort of thing."
One is tempted to suggest that perhaps the modern-day producer obsessed with things electronic is inclined sometimes to overlook the obvious acoustic solution, as in Dave's example — could a miked-up bass drum (real!) have been the way out here? "On 'Paint A Rumour' I wanted to fire the bass drum of the Movement from the Drumatix, but keep the Drumatix' little hi-hat and snare drum.
"But the bass drum kept firing something like a tenth of a second too late, so the whole thing sounded wrong. That was driving me mad. In the end what I did was to record a Simmons tom, because the Simmons would fire correctly with it, and then eq'd and tuned it down. But that took about an hour or so; by then I was getting really fed up."
And it is inevitably speed which characterises the Eurythmics' studio shennanigins, once structure's decided on. Dave says: "I think a key thing in production is knowing when to stop. I've been to visit groups I know when they've been recording, and I go back a week later and they're still doing the same track. And it's loads worse. You daren't say so, because they've gone so far down the black hole that they can't get out the other side.
"Some bands go in the studio for hours getting sounds," he continues. "Annie and I have often gone into our studio and had two tracks recorded in the space of four hours, and they sound exactly the way we want them to sound. That's the usefulness of a band having a studio, because that way I'm not trying to get used to the monitoring and I'm not trying to meet the engineer, have a cup of tea, where's the kitchen and all that. It's straight in, switch on and you're there."
"I had the whole track, the backing track, the bass riff, guitar, drum pattern, about a year ago on a Portastudio, done in my bedroom. Annie had always loved it, but every time I mentioned this track she got really frustrated and angry because she couldn't think what to sing on top. It was hurtling along, so powerful that anything seemed to disturb it. She tried singing fast, and when she was in the vocal booth trying it out I said why not sing something half-time, as if you're singing a ballad. Soon as she did that it started to work immediately. So we got the Portastudio version that I did and mixed it down into stereo on two tracks of the 24-track. Then I got the Movement drum computer to be so much in time with the Movement from the Portastudio that it was almost phasing, exactly the tempo.
Then I got Annie to play the keyboard bass line again, because she can often play things more perfectly in time like that, because of her Academy training. I'm not really a good keyboard player. Then, with that 'bareness' to it, we went into the vocal booth and tried to get the feeling of it — we don't like adding too much stuff until you've got the feel of it, otherwise it starts dictating to you. When Annie started singing, 'Blue, the colour suits you...' it gave an immediate feel, because she's got a very distinctive presence in her voice. Then I put the guitar on which made it really lively, doubled-up with Space Echo so it's like Chic guitar playing. There's hardly anything else on it. "
"It sounds like a classic structured song, and it is. The structure's totally out of a Sixties songbook, including the string breaks and everything. That started off with me and Annie having an argument in a New York hotel room overlooking Central Park. The sky had gone this kind of grey colour, the light in the room changed and everything seemed different all of a sudden. Annie was sitting with just a towel on, her hair in a towel, just been in the bath. I had a Casio and started fiddling around. As always, as soon as I'm playing with something she wants a go — it's like kids, you know? And anyway, I got the chord sequences for what turned into 'Here Comes The Rain Again', and we're grappling on the floor over this Casio. And then Annie immediately sang, 'Here comes the rain again... ' and it fitted perfectly. So we had more of an idea of the song before we went in the studio, even though we only had the chord changes and that line. Sometimes we have a little more than just noises. "
"I like to work in a very simplistic way. Other producers might say that there's all these little subtleties missing, but sometimes I'll have that, like on 'This City Never Sleeps'. It has, even though it's an 8-track recording, very subtle mixes between the squeaking of the train wheels turning into a slide guitar, and the repeats on Annie's voice going in double-time in some places. But it's still spontaneous, it wasn't like I spent two days recording the squeak of the train wheel to get it in tune with the guitar, it was like that was how it happened and it sounded right. So we kept it. We use lots of sounds instead of instruments. But not on sampling machines: we lashed a pillow with a rubber strap near an ashtray with a cigarette lighter in it to go 'pkshhhh' — something like that, anyway — on a track called 'Le Sinistre' in Conny Plank's studio,- but we did it there and then, I doubt I'd want that sound again. "
"My favourite all-time record of 1983 was 'Song To The Siren' by This Mortal Coil, just a vocal and what sounds tike guitar mixed with a string synth. I think that's absolutely brilliant, I play it over and over. I think atmosphere is the key thing for me, and 'atmosphere' doesn't always mean floating off down a river. It can be totally aggressive. 'Jennifer' is total atmosphere, and on this new album, 'Aqua'. The middle section of 'Aqua' is the maddest instrumental I've ever recorded. There's dulcimer recorded backwards, xylophone recorded backwards, Annie making water noises, then I've got the guitar playing through a harmoniser but only recording the effect, very high-pitched. For the backwards things I listened to the track backwards and placed the chords as I heard the beat of the bass drum — good fun. That whole section took about 15 minutes to do: I said to Annie why don't you make it as if you have gone under and you're submerging — when she sings, 'Going under...'. These are the sounds you can hear coming from above the surface, these funny things, you can't quite place what they are."