Up and Running
First of an occasional series on the twilight zone between recording first demos and collecting that first gold disc. Birmingham's Nightcatchers talk to Tim Goodyer about tight budgets and big-name producers.
We start an occasional series on acts that are halfway between making bedroom demos and achieving mass success. This month: a Birmingham five-piece with a novel approach to creating a big sound.
It may come as a surprise to you to learn that Birmingham, known usually as nothing more than the home of Duran Duran, UB40, Bovril and large amounts of heavy metal, still plays host to talented bands struggling to gain recognition in the eyes of the rest of civilisation. Yet this is the case, and the Nightcatchers are just such a band: a home-grown five-piece with their sights set jointly, but realistically, on the charts and long-term survival in the music business.
In a typically populated and decorated rehearsal studio that's previously been witness to many of the band's changing fortunes, founder member, guitarist and vocalist Roger Cornish and keyboard player Andy Murtagh are eager to make their collective voice audible to the sympathetic ear of your favourite musician's magazine.
The band's history began about four years ago, with the partnership of Cornish and vocalist Nikki Leeger already established from a previous venture. The pair quickly joined forces with Murtagh as a result of he and Cornish working in a local music shop which, incidentally and unknowingly, assisted with equipment loans in the early days.
This three-strong nucleus jointly decided that dance was their forte, and began writing songs to that end. They also believed there to be a 'big sound' which they considered was missing from the guitar-based music of the day, and opted to work towards its inclusion in their own sound. As a result of this, there ensued a flirtation with an 11-strong outfit that involved two keyboard players, percussionists and a four-piece brass section, amongst other things.
Once that line-up had died a natural death thanks to impracticalities, the band took a novel approach to filling the drumming vacancy that had resulted. Cornish elaborates.
'We got a list of the only three Simmons hirers in Birmingham, phoned them up and told them we didn't want to hire their services, but would they come down for an audition. Only Pete (Briggs-Fish, present drummer) agreed, but it was good, and we got a Simmons kit and a good player out of it!'
At this time, the band were also keeping the company of bass player Tony Franklin, who later left to join Jimmy Page and Roy Harper in The Firm, leaving an unfilled position behind him.
'At that point we were experimenting a lot with the electronic side of things,' Murtagh explains. 'A lot of the things that previously involved both bass synths and bass guitar sounded a lot cleaner with just the synths.'
Meanwhile, the search for that elusive big sound continued, with a greater emphasis on synthesisers and a lesser one on personnel. It was with this depleted line-up that the band received the first interest the music industry was prepared to offer. All did not go according to plan, though. The first stumbling block took the form of a brief and unhappy signing to an independent label, something over which the band themselves have very mixed feelings.
'We signed our first deal with a small independent label and recorded and mastered some songs for them, but nothing was ever released', Cornish recalls. 'That wasn't any good because, without a product, who the hell was going to know about us?
'What we did get out of it was an Oxford Road Show performance, which came about as a result of someone putting us in touch with Russ Lindsey, Peter Powell's assistant. Peter got to hear our material and gave us a session on his radio show where we did four songs, and one of them we later performed live on the ORS. That was the first real appearance we'd made in the public eye, so it was very useful.'
Powell's enthusiasm was well up to its normal standards, and the experience proved useful enough to lead to a publishing deal with Chappell Music. Once the links with the independent company had been severed, the Nightcatchers were once again free to vie for the attention of the major labels, and now with the confidence of a major publisher behind them.
It was at this point that Lady Luck stepped in - as she does in all the best stories - and one of the staff at Chappell's, Jeff Chegwin, moved to the RCA A&R department, taking his interest in the band with him.
Cornish picks up the story again: 'Jeff was instrumental in that he obviously still liked the stuff, gave our name a bit of a shout, and convinced the right people there. And we were duly signed to RCA about 12 months ago.
'Basically we're signed for a couple of singles and an album. But if the record company take up all their options, it's about a four-year deal with a corresponding number of albums and singles.
'We'd already recorded the first single, 'I Can't Believe', very crudely in a flat in Birmingham. RCA were well into that, but as record companies are wont to do, they said: "Yeah, yeah, this song is really good but we'd like to hear it done again". So you have to go through this building-up process.
'We actually choose to fund most of our demos ourselves. We don't go into a studio to record in the way that most people would approach a demo. It's very expensive and, as I say, record companies have this habit of wanting it done again. You can get a budget out of them to do that, but I feel that if you do most of your demos on a Portastudio and then master them, you retain a lot more of the freshness and spontaneity than you would if you'd already gone into it too deeply and exhausted some of the possibilities, or pushed them too far. I think it's a better idea to go in as fresh as you can to master. And rather than get the record company to put up money towards the studio, we'd prefer to have more gear here, like an eight-track or something.'
Record company advances seem to take almost as many different forms as their recipients. And for every act that gets signed up, there's a different view as to the best kind of deal to go for. What was the Nightcatchers' approach?
'We went for a deal with low advances but reasonable percentages on sales. Advances are a weird thing because if you get a huge amount of money like some bands — say £100,000 — then you've got to pay for all your recording time out of that, but you're able to wear more expensive clothes, eat a little better and drink a bit more when you want.
The problem is that you're only throwing it away if you do that — you're not making it work for you. We've chosen to do it our way because we envisage ourselves staying in the business for a reasonable amount of time. We're not trying to get just one hit single and then quit.'
One single Nightcatchers have had, the 'hit' remains in the realms of fantasy for the moment. But the experience has been far from catastrophic, especially when the name of the producer turns out to be none other than Mark King, ace bass player with Level 42. RCA decided to bring in a producer for the A-side of the single, but allowed the band themselves to produce its reverse. So how did the single fair in the battlefield of radio station playlists?
'I think commercially it's flopped', admits Cornish frankly. 'Peter Powell championed it on Radio 1 and we got onto local radio playlists and did a couple of interviews with them, but that tends to be their diplomacy, so that if you do any good they can claim to have given you your first push.
'Tony Blackburn wouldn't play it because it wasn't souly enough, so that was Capital Radio and another respected name in the area we were trying to get into, that we'd lost. It's just not enough. We could have got TV, but without Radio 1 the television won't touch you, even though they might like to.
'But it's helping build us up in the same way as the ORS appearance, so I wouldn't call it a total failure in recognition terms. I wouldn't have liked the first single to get into the Top 10 anyway - you gain more respect by working your way up.'
And so to the subjects of the recording and the producer. How did a bunch of fresh-faced nobodies approach the prospect of the studio, and a name like King's to work with? Over to Murtagh.
A short meeting was arranged with Mark at RCA but we didn't talk much about the music side of things, it was just to see if we thought we could work together or not. We both decided we could so we went ahead.
'We went away and spent quite a lot of time beforehand programming the drum machines and sequencers, because we weren't given a lot of time to actually master, so the idea was to go in with as much of it prepared as possible. In retrospect, we probably spent a bit too long preparing for it, but it was a reasonable job and we did it very quickly.
'The choice of producer seemed appropriate', continues Cornish, 'as the song relies quite heavily on sequenced bass rhythms. We really wanted it to rock. I know I'm knocking our own material, but the problem was that there was so much there — we could have taken bits out, but it wouldn't have flowed. It would have been difficult to break it down without harming the arrangement of the song, and it would have involved a lot more programming and a lot more time in the studio.'
The success of magazines like the one you're reading now proves that the subject of equipment is rarely far from musicians' thoughts. That's probably more true today than it's ever been, and it's as true of the Nightcatchers as it is to anybody. Currently, the band use two Korg Polysixes, a MonoPoly from the same stable, two Roland MC202 MicroComposers, and a DX7 they've had access to for a short while. Surprisingly, Murtagh shows no enthusiasm for letting some of the older stuff go, though that doesn't preclude the acceptance of any new gear, should it become available.
'The Polysix is probably one of the better synths around. There are obviously limitations, but within those limitations it has some really good sounds. I've found the majority of MIDI analogue synths aren't very flexible, mostly because of the digital access. I prefer to have access to all the parameters without having to go into the memory. I'd like to get the Polysixes MIDI'd. I don't know how practical that is, but it'd give us a lot more flexibility in the studio, and live, for that matter. And the ability to link them to the DX would be an asset for the tonal colouration it would give.
'I'd like to get a DX permanently in here, so that I can come to terms with it a bit better. It's taking a bit of time to suss it out properly, with the different concept of the algorithms and all that. There are a lot of good sounds in there, but it gets a bit boring when you hear a record and you know that it's a factory sound. I'd like to know it in sufficient detail to be able to create a sound that I've got in my head.
'I'd like to get hold of a Mirage as well, if possible, as it's in the affordable category — but I'm interested in sampling in general.'
Highest on the Nightcatcher's current list of playing priorities is the writing and demoing of new material, a task for which two Portastudios are being put to work.
The inclusion of two MC202s was originally a concert measure, but has since proven itself to have applications beyond the band's live setup. Murtagh explains.
'More recently we're been using the 202s as tempo-controlling devices for the drum machines, and also experimenting with sync pulses on tape. With only four tracks to play with on the Portastudio, it's given us a bit of useful extra scope with the drums. Using the sync pulses, it's really good to be able to re-program the drum pattern once you've got a few other things down on tape. You start off with a basic rhythm — a two- or four-bar pattern — and then rework the rhythm track once you've got the bass line and a few keyboards down.
'The drum machine we're using now is a TR909, but we've been using it to trigger the bass drum from the SDS5. Occasionally we use the Simmons toms too, but I've found the toms on the 909 quite adequate for demos. The Simmons bass drum isn't exactly the best bass drum sound around. It really is a bit dated, but again it's OK for demos. On the B-side of the single we used a ddrum, which gave us a great, punchy sound. I'd like to use that again.
'Before we had the 909 we were using a TR808 to trigger the Simmons bass and snare drums, but we were using two snare sounds then, and taking three triggers from the 808 meant we couldn't use the accent. Occasionally we used audio triggers to get round this, but the 808 is so limited program-wise, and it takes so long to program that it became impractical. The 909 snare seems to be pretty good and the hi-hat's a much better sound anyway, so we don't use the Simmons so much now. That'll come back into its own when we do some more live work.'
In fact, the band have previously placed a lot more emphasis on a live set, organised around pre-programmed rhythm patterns and sequences interworked with a live drummer. Under that regime, Nightcatchers material was adapted for studio recording when necessary. By today's standards that's not an unusual approach, and nor are the problems that invariably accompany it.
But the band's dissatisfaction with that way of working is more musical than technical. As a result, a lot of the band's songs are now being reworked using an acoustic drum kit, even though recording hassles still make it more practical to use a combination of drum machine and Simmons drums for demos.
Cornish: 'Although pressing a lot of buttons seems easier and more controllable than working as a complete band, it isn't quite so spontaneous.'
Murtagh picks the point up: 'When we were playing live we found we were limited by the arrangements we'd chosen for the songs. We never had the option to extend a song by another chorus or anything. And Pete was having to play in headphones all the time, which was rather restricting.'
Cornish again: 'I think it's a case of using what we've learnt programming sequencers and drum machines for the whole length of a song to allow us to use them within the context of playing in a band. Technology being technology, it will come round to being more controllable and help in getting that human feel back into the music — because that's what's been missing.'
Well there's a lot of people waiting for something like that to happen — not least RCA Records, who've taken up the option of a second Nightcatchers single. The band have yet to decide which song they're going to nominate for the next 45, but is their hesitation a result of the record industry pressure we've all come to know and hate?
Cornish: 'I think under our own pressure more than theirs, because as soon as we've got the single, we'll know it's the one and they'll know it too. But we're still demoing at the moment. In my mind and, I think, in the minds of the record and management companies, the material we've written is strong enough, but not yet arranged in a commercial enough way. It's a problem because it's always difficult to disassociate yourself from your own material to see things their way.
'As soon as we've got the song and the producer for the next single we'll be back in the studio, probably early next year. I know we're going to come up with the goods because we all feel good about rehearsing like this. It's taken us a long time, but in that time we've been learning the recording side and the business side of it. That's the most depressing part: it's all money!'
In the meantime, the Nightcatchers have given themselves another confidence booster by taking on saxophonist Linton Levy. His permanent involvement follows frequent sessions and a guest appearance on the single, and his decision to join followed a long period of deliberation after his name was mis-spelt on the single sleeve. In the light of this potentially dangerous topic, I ventured one final question in Levy's direction.
Is the sax an endangered species in the present climate of ever higher technology and sophisticated sampling techniques?
The last words are his: 'No chance!'
Feature by Tim Goodyer
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