Transatlantic Trends - Mr Mister
Tim Goodyer talks to pin-up keyboardsman Steve George about life at the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic...
The UK music scene is often justifiably accused of being too parochial. But with acts from the other side of the Atlantic breaking new ground in most areas of music making, it's about time we paid attention to the way things are done 'over there'. We talk to two keyboard-based bands, one American, the other Canadian, about what makes them sound different.
To most people, the name Mr Mister has become familiar only recently. But the American band that swung their way into the UK's hearts with the infuriatingly catchy 'Broken Wings' and its follow-up, 'Kyrie', have actually been doing the rounds in their homeland for some ten or more years now — albeit with varying degrees of success.
The band's line-up is conventional, with vocalist/bassist Richard Page taking his lead from keyboard player Steve George, guitarist Steve Farris and drummer Pat Mastelotto. But for a Stateside outfit, there's a lot about Mr Mister's sound that's unconventional. There are questions that need answering, which is why I find myself sitting with Page and George in London's plush Royal Garden Hotel, the day after their one and only British live appearance at the Marquee.
Page instantly declares war. 'I hear the British press are pretty hostile (pronounced "hostle") towards American bands.'
I suppose he's right, really, and as he later agrees, the UK music scene spawns a lot more innovation than its American counterpart. I make a few casual remarks about the difference between E&MM and the music weeklies, the initial reservations are overcome, and a brief history is quickly forthcoming from Page.
'We've been in Los Angeles on and off for about ten years now. I first moved there when I was 18 believing that "a certain guy" was going to make the band that I had, and I'd be a millionaire. That lasted about three months. So I moved back to Phoenix with my tail between my legs, where I first met Steve. After a year at college I moved back to LA again, called Steve up and asked him if he'd like to start writing with me, which he did. So we spent about three years starving and still nothing happened.
'Then we got a deal for the band (then called Pages) and released three albums. That was basically a band of studio musicians which eventually dissolved because nothing really happened — except that we started to see some money at last. Anyway, about three years ago we got together with Pat and Steve, got on well, and put an album out as Mr Mister.'
That LP was Mr Mister's first, entitled I Wear the Face and released in mid-1984. The followup, currently on release and called Welcome to the Real World, went platinum in the States and spawned the successful 'Broken Wings' and 'Kyrie'. Together with a tour supporting Tina Turner, these successes gave Mr Mister sufficient impetus to cross the waters and take on the British record-buying public.
Our conversation drifts toward equipment. It turns out George now numbers amongst the growing ranks of the QX1 following, though the hi-tech Yamaha sequencer wasn't used in the recording of the LP, being a recent replacement for the Roland MSQ700 the band used on both singles. And regardless of his enthusiasm for his new toy, George has obvious reservations about it.
'At first sight of the manual it seemed like it was going to be a nightmare, but after I'd spent a couple of weeks with it, it became quite easy. It's laborious to program, in that the four modes you have to keep jumping backwards and forwards between keep saying "Executing Now". But once you have everything in there it's great — especially live, where you can have entire songs with the sequences already set up. It's a great tool, and I'm sure we'll be using it to write with in the future.
'Still, my all-time nightmare is being on stage in front of 20,000 people, pressing the button and the sequence doesn't show up. The idea of disk storage worries me — if you get a speck of dirt on them... oops! I've got the disks all backed-up, but on the road, the unit itself could go down.
'I actually don't think floppy disks are going to be around much longer. Hard disks aren't very roadworthy either, so they'll probably be replaced by some sort of RAM cartridge.'
"I'm starting to feel swallowed up by the technology. People end up using it for its own sake, and you hear so much drivel: the same synth sound or sequenced bass you've heard everywhere else."
Richard Page, Mr Mister
At this point Page has a comment of his own to add.
'What are we doing, why don't we just get back to plugging in and playing?'
Is he serious?
'I think, to a degree, I'm starting to feel swallowed up by all the technology. It seems to me that the most important thing about it is the trap people fall into. They end up relying on technology for technology's sake, and using it because it's there. The creative way to use it is to use it with your musicianship to make it sound that much better, and to constantly make something new out of it.
We're already thinking towards the next album and we really have to have something new. You hear so much drivel, you know, the same synth sound or sequenced bass you've heard everywhere.'
Too true. But there's more.
'It took us three hours to get our stage set up yesterday, and Pat in particular has rows of Simmons stuff, and leads everywhere triggering sequencers and everything. Really it starts to feel a little stiff — we can still get up and play, and make it sound great, but all the preparation bothers me. I think technology is such that things will begin to be scaled down, so, eventually, we won't need all that equipment on stage.
In an effort to begin the scaling-down process, George is already using a Roland MKB300 mother keyboard and a comprehensive selection of rack-mounted sound units alongside his more conventional keyboards.
'I'm not using a weighted controller at the moment because I haven't found one that feels all that great. A lot of them have a very sloppy, sluggish action like the Yamaha KX88. To me the Roland weighted keyboards feel a little bit better, but that's just my opinion. I'm presently using mine with a Yamaha TX816 and a Roland MKS30. On stage the QX1 controls my DX7 for things like the bass part on 'Broken Wings' and Richard just sings over the top of that — it's much too hard to sing and play at the same time!
'I have an old Prophet 600 which sounds great MIDI'd to the DX7; the combination of the DX and a nice warm analogue sound gives some good combinations. In fact, most of the sounds we use are a combination of analogue and digital synthesisers.
'I also have a Yamaha CS80 that I used to use on stage, but the roadies didn't appreciate it too much. I still drag it out in the studio every once in a while, though, because there are one or two things it still does well.
"My all-time nightmare is being on stage in front of 20,000 people, pressing the button and the sequence doesn't show up. The idea of disk storage worries me, but on the road, the unit itself could go down."
Steve George, Mr Mister
'It's actually a very simple setup at the moment, but now that I've got a little bit more money to spend I'm sure it'll be getting more complicated. Who knows where it's going to end?'
Even if he's uncertain of the future of technology in general, George seems sure of the direction he wants his own musical development to take: 'I don't have a Synclavier, but I'd like to get one! Although it's a lot more expensive than the Fairlight I think it'll do a lot more.'
Well, it's all right for some. Everybody dreams of owning a topflight computer music system at some stage, but only a few people — like George — actually stand much chance of having those dreams realised. For the rest of us, there are more immediate technological problems, like trying to get a DX7 to sound different from everyone else's. George has had a go at this, too, but not for long.
'I haven't done very much programming with the DX yet — it's real complicated. At the moment I'm still altering the presets, though there are a couple of sounds that I've come up with on my own. I haven't delved into it a lot because it's very time-consuming, and that can be a problem...'
'...Especially if you have kids', interjects Page. 'They're always trying to pull the plug out on you!'
Not all Page's observations are this light-hearted, and his concern for the survival of music in the technological jungle is a sincere one.
'There's so much mediocrity about today. Certain producers can take an ordinary song, or even a bad song, and make it sound incredible with modern production — but it's still a bad song, whether it sounds good or not. Similarly, a good song can get mangled by technology or production. One nice thing is that all this new equipment can't write music: it still can't write a good song!'
Although the Marquee gig is the only chance the British have had to see Mr Mister in action this time round, there are plans afoot to return after a world tour which will take in Canada, Australia and Japan. By the time that happens, there should be another album to promote as well.
The interview comes to a premature conclusion when Page and George have to rush to a Radio Luxembourg interview, and then on to Saturday Live. But our meeting closes on a lighter note than the one on which it started.
'You haven't asked us the obvious question: where the name came from', observes Page.
'OK then, where did the name come from?'
'I'm not telling you', he says with a smile. 'We tell everyone a different story, anyway.'