What's That Noise?
Responsible for establishing artists like Yazz and Lisa Stansfield, Coldcut also have a reputation for being one of the most innovative production teams around. Tim Goodyer learns about their new LP and the future of computer graphics.
They helped to start the sampling revolution; they've helped to launch several musical careers; now they're predicting an explosion of "video sampling". Ignore Coldcut at your own peril.
FOR A PARTNERSHIP THAT HAS ENJOYED so much chart success over the last two years, Coldcut have maintained a remarkably low profile. In spite of the exposure Yazz and, more recently, Lisa Stansfield have received, only 1988's collaboration with Junior Reid, 'Stop This Crazy Thing' directly carried the Coldcut name. But it was Coldcut's production of Yazz's 'The Only Way is Up' and Stansfield's 'People Hold On' that put both artists on the map. These and many other collaborations with artists as wide ranging as Eric B & Rakim (whose 'Paid in Full' launched Ofra Haza in Britain) and The Fall's Mark E Smith, firmly establish Coldcut as one of the most (healthily) influential forces currently operating in the dance/pop arena.
Now, with two albums already under their belt (the '88 compilation Out to Lunch With Ahead of Our Time and '89's What's That Noise), Coldcut are about to release LP number three: Some Like it Cold. Again it's a disparate collection of excellent music, featuring the current Queen Latifah single, 'Find a Way', some strong house cuts, like 'Bass 4 Love', and the latest chapter in the reworkings of Ash-Ra's 'E2-E4' in 'Mi Sueno'. At a point in their career where many bands using "conventional" instrumental lineups face their first crisis (the popularly termed difficult third album syndrome), DJs Matt Black and Jonathan More, and their computer and sampler are as resourceful and refreshing as ever. Catching them mid-session with Youssou N'Dour and Daniel Lanois in Studio 1 at London's Townhouse studio complex - for their second conversation with MT (see MT, November '88) - I put it to them that the constantly changing lineup was one of the factors helping to keep them young.
"There are very few people who can go on being fresh and re-inventing themselves on a day-to-day basis", says Black, "but I'd like to think that Jon and I have got the strength and the background to be able to keep changing. It is a fairly deliberate policy. We see our place in Coldcut as being the men who do the beats, and there's usually some other face there fronting it - Lisa or Yazz or someone."
"I think it gives other people an opportunity, which is a healthy thing", adds More.
"But we didn't make Lisa Stansfield", asserts Black, "her mum and dad made her. And Ian and Andy, her two partners, worked long and hard with much heartbreak - first in Blue Zone, then to do 'People Hold On' - to launch her. Now Lisa looks like being the first major white soul artist in quite a long time, which I'm reasonably proud of. But it wasn't that much to our surprise, really, because we knew she was very talented. She deserved the success, she just needed a little education in the laws of dance."
Dancing lessons over, isn't there a danger that a production team turning out strings of hits fronted by different faces could become the next Stock, Aitken & Waterman - filling the charts with records that all sound the same and give little to the artist or their audience?
"I suppose on the surface it might seem that it's all us", replies Black, "but we know differently. We don't suffer from the profusion of material which is The Shit Factory. Every song, each project has been lovingly crafted, with blood, sweat and tears.
"We're not a sort of incredibly well-oiled machine turning out identical songs. I think that saves us. We have to have that communication with the artist, otherwise we're not going to get something that's worth sweating for."
More claims that the artist's input is essential, but a difficult thing to quantify.
"We rely on the artist's input quite a lot, but not in the way the artist might expect", Black elaborates. "Junior might be singing along to a track with something he thinks is really good, and then ad lib one bit. And Jon and I will both light up and say 'can you do that bit again', because it's struck some particular chord."
More: "We handle a lot of the direction and stuff, and we can be quite tough sometimes - if we don't want something in, and it's unanimous between the two of us we'll fight pretty hard."
Black: "I guess that's us in the traditional producer's role. We're working on a new song with a guy called Roots at the moment - it's one of our major projects. He can sing and chant reggae style, which very few people can do with any degree of skill. He came up with this new song and it was obvious to us that the verse was the chorus and the chorus was the verse. It was a very simple change-around, but it took him a while to accept that that was the way it was going to be."
ALONGSIDE THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE technology that makes their music possible, Black and More rely heavily on their knowledge of recorded music. It shouldn't be a surprise as both began their musical careers as DJs, but the extent of the Coldcut record collection is frightening: currently something over 10,000 records, and increasing daily.
"We feel that all music is there for us to party with", begins Black in explanation. "I don't know if we can make each party a national hit, but as long as we're having a good time, that's the main thing. There are plenty of pastures new. We're moving into reggae at the moment, having subliminally soaked up certain tapes that we've got - old favourite reggae tapes we've collected over the years. Now we're trying to work out a few ideas in that direction. Tip of the week: doing a decent-sounding dub reggae track is almost as easy as doing a house tune. Suddenly you're a 'scientist', which is a great feeling."
"I don't think there are any boundaries to where you can look", continues More, "when you hear what you're looking for, you know it. We tend not to sample the obvious, we leave that to somebody else to do. Quite often we sample ourselves - we use a bit of one of our other records. But I don't think there's any uncharted territory in terms of records. I'm a big fan of all sorts of music - although heavy metal really does me up, and German slag music can be a bit heavy sometimes."
It seems that even the classics aren't safe from the Coldcut Akai S1000.
"'Beats + Pieces' had Vivaldi's Four Seasons on it", reveals More. "We've messed around with some ideas for doing other classical stuff, and there are a couple of TV advertising themes that I quite fancy slurping. And I like stuff like the stabs from New's at Ten. All those sorts of things we use. With Eric B and Rakim, a lot of the stuff we used I just taped off the radio - I've no idea really where they came from, I just snatched them."
Having the vinyl resource is one thing - cataloguing it and using it successfully is quite another. The secret, according to Black, is "knowing one's music", but the sheer quantity of music can still make life hard.
More: "It's very difficult when there's such a range of stuff to go through - what you're looking for might be on some '60s trash LP or Led Zeppelin, whatever. Let's face it, ploughing through heavy metal records isn't the most enjoyable experience.
"But either something in the track will make you think 'oh yeah, that will fit' or you preview loads of stuff until something drops in. We tend to pull it out, stick it on the turntable, sample it off and try it."
"It's actually quite fascinating the way one makes those musical connections", comments Black. "It's like finding a keyboard part really, except that keyboard parts are better mapped out. If you were down a club last week and you heard this old reggae tune, then you might remember that for a tune that you're working on at the moment."
Necessarily, the process of finding an excerpt of music perfectly suited to some new setting involves listening to a lot of music that wouldn't ordinarily find its way onto your turntable.
"I do spend quite a good percentage of the time listening to stuff I don't like", agrees More, "but there's always something there. It's amazing where you can get ideas from - I did some DJing recently in Covent Garden and one of the other DJs played some old tunes that I haven't heard for years and there were two little bits that I thought 'yeah...' and they've locked in there now until there's something of ours to make sense of them. It can be pretty hard work, particularly when you're spending a lot of time on the drum programming, keyboard programming and all the other bits and pieces that we still like to do ourselves."
And then there's the problem of keeping track of what you've taken from where, and who it belonged to originally - for more reasons than just paying the copyright due.
"Quite often we can't remember where things have come from, because it's done in the heat of the moment", says More. "It's all very well saying you're going to write it all down and keep data sheets on everything you do, but who wants to do that when you've got a good idea going down? We do do it quite a bit, we've got quite a lot of records, or we go back and try to do it when we've finished, because it is good to know who you've sampled. I know Norman Cook never keeps anything - he's got a multitrack, and that's it - that's great in a way, but it's a different attitude to Matt and me.
"When we were doing this last LP we did an eight-track recording with a lot of scratches on that we wanted to transfer to 24-track; we were recording stuff and it was all pretty hectic, and somehow we managed to wipe some of the SMPTE code. We managed to repair that, so that was one nightmare over, and then we loaded up the sample disks and they'd gone. Then we loaded up the sequences and the hired gear trashed the sequence disk. So we'd lost it all. But we'd kept a library and a data file of all the samples, and I'd actually been messing around with the song a couple of weeks earlier and made another song from it - and saved it as the other song with a lot of the original data in. By using that and the library we were able to re-establish what we had and get it recorded in two days. If we hadn't kept that data and I hadn't kept a record of the fact that the other song was derived from this one we'd have been fucked. So it does pay off."
Coldcut's recent acquisition of a Syquest hard drive for their S1000 has enabled them to pre-prepare samples on a large scale and have them readily accessible to the S1000. Although this hasn't replaced the approach of searching for samples to suit specific applications, it has raised another important question.
"I've recently started to ask myself how many samples you actually need", Black reveals. "Certainly, of loops there is no end, but how many kick drums do you need? A drummer doesn't change his kit every time he plays a different song. You can say this is a different song, I'm going to use different drum sounds, but do you want to say that?
"I don't think there's any value in having more sounds than you can get your head around. KRS1 said that for the Criminal Minded samples he went through loads of old funk records and stuff and derived a kit and used that for his whole LP and a lot of other productions. It's like a drummer having a basic kit - if you've got your basic kit you can then say 'I'm going to put an electro clap on the snare and change the feel of it.'
"There are more possibilities in the world of samples and their possible combinations, that there are in the combination of 12 notes."
"On the Youssou track we're doing at the moment Daniel's got the bass player from his band, Darryl, playing drums. Although every time he hits the snare drum is very slightly different, the sound is so good that you don't have to do what we often have to do, which is spend a lot of time sculpting sounds together. These already fit together because they're 'real'. Sometimes having different sounds from different sources makes sense because it's weird, but sometimes it doesn't make sense because a real kit isn't like that."
"It's getting the right balance between the sampler and the real thing", observes More.
When MT spoke to one of the instigators of the Detroit techno movement, Kevin Saunderson (MT, September '88), he warned that the increasing use of samples was going to inhibit musical development. "What's going to be the music of the future if people keep on sampling all this stuff from the past?" he questioned. As original pioneers of the sampling movement, I put the question to the Coldcut duo.
"Theoretically, if you only sampled, things could get a bit sterile" Black concedes. "But actually the amount of recorded music that you could sample is so great that the number of possible permutations is infinite. But that isn't going to happen because people are still playing their own sounds as well.
"There are more possibilities in the world of samples and their possible combinations, than there are in the combination of 12 notes, many of the combinations have already been covered - jazz is all about that. It's variations on a theme. Does that mean that the whole of jazz is valueless and can be reduced to the original riffs it's all derived from? Bollocks.
"Kevin's got a point, but as long as one spreads one's net far and wide, with an intent to try any fish one might catch, no matter how weird-looking they are, one will make an interesting fish finger."
WHEN CONFRONTED BY THE BREADTH OF knowledge of music possessed by More and Black, it's easy to forget that they are also extremely capable of handling the hi-tech equipment that makes their activities possible. It's worth restating that Black is an Oxford science graduate as well as having spent time as a computer programmer with Logica. He is also rumoured to have learned the Atari ST/C-Lab Creator sequencing system still used by Coldcut in a single evening. Perhaps it is because he has a better understanding of what he thinks he can expect from technology that Black is never short of a story in which the gear has failed to deliver. Where other musicians may accept the situation, both Black and More are ready to criticise.
Using hired equipment seems to be one major source of trouble. In the last MT interview, a hired SRC Friendchip had given them syncing problems and a Nomad synchroniser had wreaked havoc with their Creator sequences. This time a hired S1000 has trashed the contents of their hard drive.
Perhaps most worrying of all is their discovery of a major failing in samplers in general, as Black reveals: "We were listening to a reggae track one day and we sampled it into the Casio FZ1, played it back and the bass had disappeared. We thought it couldn't be right so we A/B'd it with the record and yes, the bass had disappeared. So we thought 'Casio, you've served us well, but it's the end of the line. We're big boys now, we're going to get an S1000. We got the S1000, sampled the same record, A/B'd it and the bass had all disappeared.
"So samplers don't really work very well with bass. I couldn't believe it - I must be so naive even after all my years with computers. I thought samplers were supposed to record sound, but they don't really record much bass."
But the news is not all bad - the TR909 has given way to a new Roland R8 with a full complement of sound cards and something called a Dynamic ("a cross between a harmoniser and a sex aid") has provided them with a lot of entertainment.
"I bought it in a shop in New York" explains More. "It's red and looks like a cross between a microphone and a sax and it's for kids to make noises like spacemen really - but you can get some of the most outrageous sounds out of it."
Black's preoccupation with computers led him to use computer-synthesised speech on 'Ride The Pressure', off Some Like it Cold, in the absence of a suitable vocalist. It has also taken him into the realms of computer graphics.
Late last year Coldcut released a video collaboration with a team called Hardwire. Entitled Coldcut's Christmas Break, all the images in the sequence had been generated using an Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, Acorn Archimedes and Apple Macintosh instead of more usual professional computer imaging equipment like the Quantel Paintbox. As More steps back into the session in Studio 1, Black explains about his venture into computer graphics.
"I've got an Amiga 200 and quite a few toys for it - I got that rather than a Mac so that my four grand budget would stretch to quite a lot of software and a frame grabber, Genlock, a black and white camera and things like that. The Hardwire guys we've been working with, Miles and Rob, use Mac and Archimedes, and each of the computers has its strength.
"I see what's happening with graphics as being totally analogous to what's happened with music. You're as likely to come up with something wild and imaginative sitting at home as someone sitting on a Quantel Paintbox at £16 an hour. I've been waiting 15 years - literally - for computer graphics to get down to this kind of level so that I can afford to get in there. I've got a bit more money than I had a few years ago, so I've leapt in there and got going. I know not many kids are going to have £4000, but one reason I got the Amiga is because it's what a lot of kids have got. A lot of kids have Amiga 500s with memory expansions, and a lot of those kids spend all their time doing demos and computer graphics. It's an underground culture - I don't think many people realise how big computers are with kids.
"I see the whole computer graphics thing as being analogous to the dance revolution - which is where a lot of the effort in sampling and a lot of the technology has gone. For various reasons dance forms a parallel to graphics - I'm now sampling pictures off video or using the camera from a book, or of me or my girlfriend or whatever. I'm grabbing those things in and mashing them together. I can take them into Deluxe Paintbox and mess about with them - change the colours, erase the original drawing and just leave an outline... That's analogous to sampling and scratching. Then there's also an 'acid' thing where you can just draw abstract patterns and let them cycle, colour cycle, strobe...
"All the Stakker stuff (see MT, March '90) is done on the Fairlight CVI, and people in the know tell me that those things are what the CVI basically does. When that sort of tech gets into the hands of kids, they're going to start doing some pretty weird shit. It isn't quite there yet; it's going to need another year or two years to really, really get going, but in the next year it'll start moving. And we're going to see more people getting involved in it.".
Fine, so we've got the technology and the manpower (kidpower?) to produce a video sampling revolution. But sampled music had a ready-made market in nightclub culture, where does Black see the outlet for sampled video?
"Obviously there's TV and video. We're going to release our next album on CDV - just to make a statement, really. I don't know if that's the medium of the future, but it stands as good a chance as any of them at the moment. What it really needs is a new way of projecting computer images, and we think Hardwire have invented a way of doing it. I can't say any more about it now, but it's a cheap, rather clever, simple way of projecting video and computer images big. We're working on that with them.
"Aesthetically I think audio and video go together anyway, so it must work. I don't see why people in a couple of years, instead of putting out house records on their own dodgy white labels, shouldn't be putting out a video of half-hour mad, chaos cut-up images and some beats that they've done as well. And they can be doing it on an Amiga or on a Mac. They're doing the music, they're going to be doing the fucking visuals.
"Maybe I'm just a freak, but I've always been into both things. There are so many analogies between the way the two areas are developing, and the way you can get in there and hack, and the way that you can sample. You can grab a Picasso head in, draw over it and you've made it yours! I spend whole evenings doing this sort of shit. I just sit in front of the TV, flick through the channels, record onto videotape and sample 50 frames off it. Once you're playing it at seven frames-per-second it's almost subliminal. There's no way you can say 'that's from...'. Or maybe you will, who knows? The legal aspect is pretty serious. I'm sure it's going to cause some problems, but it's going to be the old argument. Theft is nothing new. Picasso got his style off some Cretan sculptor or something, know what I mean?
"Also, it's much more easy to hide your sources in graphics than it is with samples. If you play a James Brown sample backwards it doesn't really sound so good any more. But if I flip a picture from side-to-side it's just as effective. If I take a picture I've sampled in, draw over it in loving detail and then erase the original, what are you saying now?"
When it comes to trying to condense Coldcut's short career into a few pages in a magazine, the task is harder than is the case with many longer-established, more readily recognised artists. That Coldcut's catalogue of music is so varied and resourceful is a tribute to their understanding of what makes good listening. And the fact that they fit so badly into any convenient category themselves further underlines this.
"We're crossfield" says Black, when asked to define Coldcut. "We're our normal, schizophrenic selves. We think we've got a license - we think everyone's got a license - to do any kind of music they want. Everyone. If they want to stick to one thing because it's what they think sells, or it's all they can do, or that's all their fans want them to do, that's fine. But we like to have a little dibble here and a dabble there - you've got to pick a pocket or two. We pick the lot."
"It's a triumph of the distiller's art", quotes More, reappearing to drag Black back to work in Studio 1. As I leave the Townhouse I can't help but feel I'm missing out on something very good indeed.