Young, Gifted And Blue
Fine Young Cannibals
This Roland Gift is nothing to do with the competition, says Mark Cordery
Coming in with a bang well after the Beat isn't just something naff drummers do...
Many people still have fond memories of The Beat; of hits like Mirror In The Bathroom, Too Nice To Talk To, Whine And Groan (Stand Down Margaret); a feeling for Soul and Reggae filtered through a Pop-songwriting sensibility; Socialism with Style — but not guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steele.
"We're not happy talking about The Beat really, it's like talking about a dodgy girl that you used to go out with... some embarrassing thing that you went through."
The first they knew of the separation was when an accountant called to discuss details of the financial settlement, so their reluctance is understandable. They were fed up with spending half their lives touring America anyway, so they lay low for a bit before setting out on a search for a singer. After many, many fruitless auditions they finally found Roland Gift singing in a pub in north London, and the resonantly named Fine Young Cannibals came into being.
They demoed a song called Johnny Come Home — inspired by a TV documentary on young runaways.
"We came down from Birmingham, did it in the afternoon (at The Sound Suite in Camden), and went back up again" recalls Andy, in a soft Brummie accent that is the perfect vehicle for a droll sense of humour. "Later on we added some trumpet and that was it really. There's about 16 tracks on it."
The demo was turned down by "More or less everybody". Six months later it had reached no. 7 in the charts in its original state. London Records, with whom they had eventually signed, had suggested they re-record it with Ann Dudley, who arranged strings and played keyboards for Frankie GoesTo Hollywood. It didn't work. After much time and money had been spent the project was scrapped. This experience, and the subsequent success of the single, proved the perfect justification for their method, which is basically to keep everything as natural as possible.
"Reverb is about the only effect we use" says David. "Everything is subservient to the song really, and the voice. We always see the voice as being at least half of the record. On the demo there's lots of scrappy bits, but they work as a whole because they've got strong vocals. We haven't got any equipment really, just my guitar, Andy's guitar, a Steinway piano in the studio, and a Hammond organ. We don't even go through amplifiers in the studio, we go through DI's. Basically because we like to be in the control room when we're recording."
"If you're wearing headphones it sounds like someone else is playing it" adds Andy. "We have got a bit more technological now though — we use electricity. When we first started we had a double-bass, acoustic guitar and piano."
Nonetheless, their technical minimalism is balanced by an adventurous use of a variety of styles and rhythms. The follow up to Johnny, the Soul-tinged Blue, was backed by a Gospel arrangement of the traditional Blues, Wade In The Water and a very sleazy, fractured small Jazz combo version of Cole Porter's Love For Sale.
"People would've expected us to cover a Soul song, I suppose" mumbles David. They did Suspicious Minds instead. But of course they want to become known for the quality of their own material, all of which is thoroughly written and arranged before they get near a studio — which in the case of their debut LP is The Power Plant, in Willesden, North London. Producer Robin Millar — "the guy that helped us out with about half of it" — whose reputation has grown through recording Sade, Everything But The Girl and Working Week, doesn't like to work anywhere else. It also has an atmosphere that suits the group.
Andy: "I like the way that it's not at all Rock'n'Roll. Some places you go they have really tarty secretaries and people with leather trousers hanging about."
It was recorded on alloy and digitally mastered in four weeks, including mixing and a trip to Italy for a TV show.
David: "We like the idea of minimal things. There's nothing on the record that doesn't do something good. There's no padding. A couple of times we've built up these big tracks, but when it came to mixing we took everything off."
It's a sparse sounding affair?
David: "Basically, but there are some big sounding moments."
Roland: "It doesn't sound as if there's anything missing. There's loads of melodies in it. People are subjected to so much rubbish that when they hear a piano or a voice that sounds real, they find that it actually sounds nice. Just because it doesn't sound like everything else — doesn't mean it isn't as good as everything else."
David: "People who use drum machines, even if they replace them afterwards with a drummer, think it's bad that things speed up and slow down, but I think that's good. That's what I like about a drummer. You get a tension that you don't get with a box. I think it's also to do with magnetic tape — you can get the atmosphere of the room on the tape."
Part of the reason that they can record an LP of what is, when all is casually said and done, sophisticated music, is their preference for getting as much as possible recorded in one take.
David: "Getting the feel is the most important thing. When it came to the guitar on one track Andy did the rough one which had a good feel to it, but when he came to do it properly he couldn't get the same thing, so we used the rough one. It had a couple of mistakes in it but that doesn't really matter. One song was recorded on an eight-track, and we just brought it down from Birmingham and converted it to 24 at The Power Plant. For us the performance is more important than the quality.
"We have got a bit more technological now though — we use electricity"
"If you've captured a good mood, why not keep it? Rather than trying to get another one — because invariably you don't."
And neither do they pour much time and effort into remixing.
"Sometimes we hear things that could've been louder, so we turn them up, but we don't really like effects much."
In other words, there isn't an awful lot to mix.
David: "The SSL we hated. People think they're very good, but we didn't like it at all. We have tried a few things out — we'll try anything once — we even tried a Fairlight one afternoon, but we hated it so much we wouldn't come back into the studio until they took it out... they tried putting ADT on Andy's guitar and I made them take it off. There's one neat effect on the piano though. I used a MIDI system. I had it linked up to a harpsichord. We get wild every now and then..."
One would have thought that this unadorned style would be ideally suited to live performance. Not too many on-stage reproduction difficulties to overcome. Well, it seems it ain't necessarily so. In fact, David isn't keen on the idea at all.
"We might do it and enjoy it, but I think it's totally ridiculous. Grown men... making pricks of themselves on a stage in front of pissed-up punters. I used to listen to live tapes of The Beat and think 'This is bollocks'.
I'm sure we'll play some great live gigs, but if we did loads and loads of them we'd probably do a lot of shitty ones as well."
Nor is Roland: "When I first got interested in music I thought it would be great to go on a three month tour, but just going to Europe and miming one song is knackering enough, and the thought of doing it every night... you just can't give as good every night. It's like going out — it's got to be good fun, and going out 30 nights in a row isn't my idea of fun."
I think that David was being modestly disingenuous earlier when he suggested that The Voice is at least half the record, although the subtle playing skills of Cox and Steele aren't of the attention-grabbing, egotistical kind.
Andy: "Lead guitar solos are wanky. I can't say I've ever heard one that I liked..."
David: "Steve Cropper's done a couple of good ones."
Andy: "Yeah, Steve Cropper, but that's not really the same thing, is it? They're more like..."
Andy: "Yeah, licks. Tasty licks', perhaps, but not solos."
No, it is The Voice Of Roland Gift that is Fine Young Cannibals' most immediately ear-catching aspect. A bass baritone that has drawn comparisons with The Great Soul Singers, Otis, Sam, Wilson, etc, but is perhaps more reminiscent of Jamaican singers like Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff (albeit in a lower register). Though this is slightly missing the point somewhat, as his tremulous, slightly freakish sound is utterly distinctive.
"I used to think, 'I've gotta do this or do that, or it won't sound right,' but that's not really the case. It's more a matter of how you're feeling. If I'm not feeling good then I can't sing well. 'Good' isn't necessarily 'happy', 'Good' can mean 'sad'. The only thing is if I'm really knackered it'll show, no matter how much effort I put in."
Roland also writes the lyrics — a pretty straightforward practice that they don't envisage changing drastically.
"If you've got a good song you can't really go wrong, no matter how you record it," is David's opinion.
And the tools of their trade? Favourite guitars?
Andy: "I've got a pink one that I really like."
David: "Mine was made by G&L — the L stands for Leo Fender, I don't know what the G stands for."
Microphones, Roland? "Something that gives a live feel, I can't remember the name. It looked like a Shure... I know, sometimes I stretch a bit of stocking over the top... It gets me excited. No, it stops any popping or spitting."
Interview by Mark Cordery