Up and Running
Sophie and Peter Johnston
If the major labels let you down and you're writing sophisticated electro-pop, forming your own record company is one way of getting your message across. Annabel Scott meets a remarkable brother-and-sister duo.
In limbo between first demo tape and first gold disc, Sophie and Peter Johnston are reeling from blows dealt them by an uncaring UK record industry. Now they're releasing their sophisticated electro-pop on their own label.
'Smash The Majors' is a fairly provocative name for an independent label. But then, Pete Johnston is in a provocative mood these days. Since the beginning of his musical career he's recorded at home and in professional studios, played for John Peel and grappled with various management companies, major labels and assorted distributors. Now that he and sister Sophie have decided to go it alone, he'd like to take an uncompromising line. But, as he's found to his cost, sometimes you just can't avoid compromise.
Musically, this duo write, arrange and perform electro-pop with a luxurious, sophisticated edge — a bit like Judie Tzuke meets Depeche Mode, if you can imagine that. It's an appealing combination, cleverly crafted, and sufficiently well sung and played to earn brother and sister plenty of interest from the big guns of Britain's music industry. More of that anon.
The end of the duo's tale (for the present) is a single on 'Smash The Majors' called 'Losing You'. But the beginning of the tale is around the time Pete and Sophie made Tape Of The Month in E&MM's old Cassette Review page, as far back as October 1982. At that time they'd finished just two songs, 'Travel In Time' and 'Paradise', in an eight-track studio in Newcastle. Pete takes up the story.
'Those tracks used a Roland SH09, an RS09 and a Soundmaster SR88 drum machine, and they were some of the first we'd done using synthesisers. I formed a band after leaving University but we had too many adverse comments on the vocals, so since Sophie was still in school at the time, she was on the scene. I asked her to try some singing and the two of us eventually decided to concentrate on writing and recording together, because some of the band's live performances hadn't been too good.
'We sent out a lot of guitar-based tapes and got a lot of rejections. At the time we were very into different chords because all the punks were playing E-shaped bar chords and I wanted to stretch my fingers more. But all our drum and bass parts tended to be added as afterthoughts, and I think they were too melodic, not solid enough.
'Eventually we went into a local studio to record some songs, and a friend lent us some keyboards to mess around with. We took one of the guitar songs and found a sort of LFO pulse effect to back it, which seemed to be quite in tune with what was happening in the charts. By the time we'd finished, we decided that the synthesiser versions were a great improvement.'
Sophie: 'The owner of the studio heard one song, 'TV Satellite', and gave us some studio time to demo more songs. We signed a publishing deal with him, and at one stage we thought Dollar were going to record one of our songs.'
Then, just as things seemed to be taking off, the duo took a step that's involved them in financial, legal and contractual problems almost up to the present day. Managed by the Newcastle studio's engineer, they signed to an independent label who paid for them to record a song in a large London studio.
'The recording went disastrously wrong. The studio wasn't very enthusiastic, their plate reverb had packed in, and after the record company took the song to MIDEM with no success, they wouldn't let us remix or re-record it.'
There were compensations, though. 'At that stage we quite independently sent some tapes to Peter Powell, and as an afterthought to John Peel. Three days later we had a call from Peel's producer asking us to do a session, and we recorded three old songs, 'Satellite TV', 'Paradise' and 'Rain', and wrote a fourth one called 'One Face'. Our parents lent us the money to buy some new equipment — an MC4 MicroComposer, three Pro Ones, an SH09 and a TR808 drum machine. We were partly influenced by the sort of fat synthesiser sounds Yazoo were getting then.'
Sophie: 'We'd stretched the equipment we had to the limit by that time. We were chopping up the string sound of the RS09 with the synthesiser and pulsing it in time to the drum machine, but the MC4 allowed us to do so much more preparation in advance.'
Partly because of that advance preparation, the duo's Peel session was a great success. As Pete explains, 'it went like a dream; the guys were enthusiastic and didn't mind going on until about five in the morning. We did an SSL mixdown and when Peel played the session he said all sorts of nice things about it. He obviously liked the songs and a lot of companies contacted the Beeb and were passed on to our manager. But our label had us tied up — they suddenly announced that they were coming to see us, and I was annoyed by their change of attitude. Unfortunately we fell out with the manager on that one, which was a great pity...'
It was roughly at this point that Pete and Sophie began their love/hate relationship with the major labels. They recorded three more songs and met representatives from Polydor, WEA and Chrysalis, who eventually signed them. But on examining the contract, the hapless duo found most of the £60,000 advance had gone to their previous company, a fact which became the cue for eight months of legal arguments. As Sophie recalls, 'our manager had no experience at all at this level, and we were much too depressed by the business side even to write any new songs. After eight months, Chrysalis lost a lot of their enthusiasm.'
"To emphasise the home recording element of the single, we left a lot of silly sound effects on it... Simon Bates' producer said it was the best home effort he'd heard."
The duo compromised and came out of the deal with enough money to buy a Jupiter 8 and a Movement Drum Computer — the latter a decision Pete describes as 'a big mistake'.
'We were influenced by the Eurythmics and the Thompson Twins using the Movement, so we went for it even though it was around £2300. But the manual was so obscure that by October '83, when we did a second Peel session, we still couldn't synchronise the drums properly. It did work, but it just didn't tell you in the manual how to make it work.
'We did three songs for Peel, 'Open Eyes', 'Words and Words' and 'Travel In Time', which was much older, but we were trying to update older songs because we hadn't the motivation to write new ones.
'Chrysalis were very courteous. They hired vans for us to move the gear about and we were dealing with them direct most of the time. Then they said they were looking for a producer for our songs and that they'd been talking to Martin Rushent, Swain and Jolley and all sorts of people.'
The next twist in the Pete and Sophie saga seems unbelievable — yet the pressures of dealing with major record labels do tend to create unusual situations. Let Pete tell it in his own words...
'Around that time my girlfriend Claire, who now acts as our PR, moved down to London to teach, so I came to join her. We were getting very little encouragement or guidance, and we had three songs which we'd have liked to put out as singles but Chrysalis wouldn't use them. Then Sade's producer Robin Millar was suggested. I'd read in an interview that he hated synthesisers, so I didn't see him as being right and I wouldn't go to meet him.'
This was the last straw for Chrysalis. A studio session was booked but eventually cancelled, and the duo had a phone call to say they'd been released from their contract.
'By November '84 we'd had a lot of frustration and a few good demos, but we'd lost a lot of illusions about the business. We started looking around for good management, which we'd decided was vital by that stage, but we were too unsure of ourselves to trust anybody. The end of the money from Chrysalis was just enough to buy us a Fostex eight-track system with some outboards, but we only had that for about a month before an enormous tax bill took it away.'
Tough as it was, that month in mid-'85 was a pretty creative one for the duo, and led to the formation of their own label and the release of 'Losing You'. Pete explains.
'We had to write new songs because we couldn't afford to buy back the old ones. I wanted a big sound, something good enough for broadcast, and decided the way to do it was through the outboards. We bought a Roland SDE3000 digital delay with an SX303 sampling addon, a Vesta Fire DIG410, a DeltaLab delay, a Yamaha R1000 digital reverb, Drawmer gates and a Yamaha GC2020 compressor, and I used a Marantz hi-fi graphic.'
"The gap between the song and the listener is too great... I don't think people would buy records if they knew how much money was being spent to break each act."
The Johnstons' first song started life as a jingle entered for a TDK competition in Home & Studio Recording, and made imaginative use of the SX303 sampler. 'We couldn't use it for musical effects because it didn't track reliably enough, but we used some telephone noises, sampled sounds, tin cans and so on. Then for the A-side we multitracked chords on the Jupiter 8 and bounced them together for a very thick sound.
'The only drum machine we had was a Drumatix, so we sampled bass and snare sounds from various demo records and kept just the Drumatix cymbals synced from the MC4's timecode. Sophie started singing in the next room, but she couldn't pitch properly using a cheap mic, so we bought a Sennheiser. After that we got the vocal down in sections over a period of a couple of days, but we had to solve the problems of knocking the mic, cars going past and so on.
'We put most of the effects on the instruments as they were recorded, even complex ones like chorused reverb, because the overdubs were so complex. That did simplify the mix, and an Aphex Aural Exciter helped to liven up the drum sound. Although we weren't entirely happy with the cut, a DJ in Newcastle said it would be OK for airplay.'
And played it was, first by John Peel, then by Simon Bates on his daytime show and then by a couple of Radio 2 shows.
'We'd decided to sell the single by mail order and sent out 200 out of 1000 copies to all the BBC and independent local radio stations, with individual letters to the DJs. We were told we wouldn't get any interest at all without a £1000-a-week plugger working for us, but in fact Simon Bates was interested enough to do a phone interview with us on the air. He asked about the label name, but because I found him a bit intimidating I backed out of explaining that one.'
Pete and Sophie have learned a lot from the production of 'Losing You'. They worked through a music brokerage service called MIS, but realised, in retrospect, that direct access to the cutting, pressing and printing facilities would have been advantageous. The first cut was poor and had to be repeated, and it wasn't until the duo went to Tape One (where the third cut was actually checked before delivery) that they were satisfied.
After the usual delays, the singles arrived and the duo placed adverts in the music press which started to sell copies gradually.
'We wanted to emphasise the home recording element of the single, which is why we left a lot of silly sound effects on the B-side which any major would have taken off. Simon Bates' producer phoned to say it was the best home effort he'd heard, and we sold a lot of copies through some plays on the Janice Long show.
'MIS heard it on the radio and we entered into a non-exclusive distribution deal with them through EMI, but it doesn't seem to have got the single into many shops, even though it's been on all the new release lists. Taking distributors' mark-ups and postage into account, we need to sell almost all 1000 copies to break even.'
So it's not yet all sweetness and light for Smash The Majors. Another tax bill put paid to Pete's Jupiter 8, though he's kept the MC4 which had been connected to it through an OP8 interface, because many of his old songs are stored as MC4 sequence files. He now has a Casio CZ101 and SZ1 sequencer, a combination with which he's delighted.
'When I'm writing now I can put synth sounds and drums onto cassette and try various overdubs, and the Phase Distortion system on the Casio gives you access to most of the FM digital sounds as well as all the analogue effects. I think it sounds as good as the Jupiter 8, particularly in the four-note poly mode for thicker sounds. I've used a DX7 but it's not as good for rich chorus sounds.'
And what of the future?
'At the moment we'd like to see how far we can get as an independent label, perhaps just recording on a Portastudio. We did have an offer of a percentage deal for 24-track time which is very tempting, but on the whole we feel the gap between the song and the listener is too great now. I honestly don't think people would buy records if they knew how much money was being spent to break a new act.
'We'd like to help create a situation in which anyone who writes a good song can get a hit with it. Most of the songs in the charts these days are very formularised — love and life aren't that simple. The sentiments expressed in 'Losing You' are, we think, a more accurate reflection of the real world.'
'Losing You'/'60 Second Blow' costs £1.20 including p&p from Smash The Majors, (Contact Details). Cheques/POs should be made payable to S & P Johnston
Interview by Mark Jenkins writing as Annabel Scott
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