A Certain Ratio
Into The Nineties | A Certain Ratio
A Certain Ratio's 15-year career has brought critical acclaim but limited commercial success, as their changing sound, through industrial funk via jazz and beyond, has kept them ahead of the pack. Nigel Humberstone caught up with them at their Soundstation studio in Manchester.
To quote their latest press release, A Certain Ratio were "formed in the amphetamine rush of 77", and are now "thriving in the post-house haze of '92. ACR have been there, done that, and lived to tell the tale." Though they were overtaken by their contemporaries — Joy Division/New Order, OMD, and the ensuing Madchester scene — they have consistently earned critically respect for the work which has so far failed to achieve the big time breakthrough at which it so often hinted. Tunes like their infectious re-working of Carter Daniels' 'Shack Up', 'Good Together', and 'Won't Stop Loving You' seemed chart-bound. However, the success never materialised, and ACR remain one of this country's most under-rated bands.
Inspired by the punk ethic, the band members came together in late 1978, all from different backgrounds but with a common need to express themselves musically — and they weren't about to be stopped by their common inability to play their instruments properly. Martin Moscrop: "Donald [Johnson] had previously been a handbag fitter, I was a maintenance electrician, Jeremy [Kerr] was a cleaner at Manchester University and Tom [who joined ACR for Force] worked at a record shop. When we formed none of us were musicians, and we were going about six months before we got a drummer. Don could actually play drums, but we were all still learning with two guitars and a bass. We didn't play other peoples tunes because we couldn't play them, so we played our own sort of music. It was quite a British attitude towards music and it's the same with computers now. Any kid who can afford to get an Atari with sequencer software and a couple of modules can sit in his bedroom and in a few months time will be turning out things that sound alright."
Taken onboard at the very beginning by the seminal Factory label, ACR released their first single 'All Night Party' in 1979, followed shortly by an album, The Graveyard And The Ballroom. Much of ACR's extensive discography, especially that from their early years, is now highly collectable due to its rarity value. 1986 witnessed ACR's long-running relationship with Factory turn sour. With six albums and countless singles under their belt they had failed to secure that all important hit single and crossover to chart success. Force was their parting shot, in itself a distinguished album which, together with their track record, must have influenced their eventual split from independent labels and signing to a major, A&M.
"Force was the first time we really started 'writing' songs," reminisces Donald, "putting structures together; something that we're still learning about. But a successful single has eluded us. Part of the problem is that we're so far ahead. By the time everyone else catches up — like the whole dance thing; everyone's dance bananas now — then we've moved on to other things.
"I always feel we're ahead, 'cause we believe in what we want to do. We don't follow trends — we still use everything that's around in our 'arsenal', but we try to turn it into ACR."
"The other problem we have is that we're always frightened of using our own clichés," continues Martin. "If we've done something once and it's good, then we always try and avoid it the next time around. It's something that most people don't do, which is why they're successful — they're not frightened of being bland."
So just what was the period spent with A&M like? Martin proffers a simple one word answer of "stressful". Donald elaborates further: "The weird thing is — and it probably happens to every band — the record company likes you but once they've got you in they want to 'change' you from what they originally saw you as. They start imposing their ways. What I personally hate is having to get a lot of people into your ideas, ie. going to a record company and discussing ideas. If I sign, I sign 'cause they know what we want to do. I just want to have the facilities to do it.
"They knew we're all players, we all produce and we've got our own studio. They weren't just signing up a young band who were just starting. We wanted to move at speed, whereas they would take 12-15 weeks to put a record out. But all these great tunes were coming out, especially when the dance thing started kicking off, where we needed to move things around in a space of 4-5 weeks. There was so much frustration involved that we couldn't handle it."
The unheralded takeover of A&M by Phonogram didn't help either. ACR got the distinct feeling that they were being sold. "The last straw for us really was the album ACR/MCR; a cut price LP which had been all our idea. It was the most successful thing we'd done with A&M, but due to bad distribution people just couldn't get it in the shops. We gave them an ultimatum and finally split. But that's behind us now and it's one of the reasons that we've not 'chased a deal', so to speak. We don't want to deal with the big majors anymore — either we work together or we don't work at all. At the moment we're working with Rob Gretton [New Order's Manager] on Rob's Records. Rob totally understands us as he's known us for 12 years. We come up with and formulate an idea and he knows exactly why it's happening. It's not a matter of trying to convince people why they should be doing this or that.
"People say that a lot of musicians are petulant and spoilt, but it's because they are trying so hard to get something right, and people are always there trying to stop them, and that side of them has to come out in order to gain attention and say 'look, this is what I want to do!"'
The new album Up in Downsville is a diverse collection of new songs, along with pieces recorded during the tail end of their period with A&M. Due to contractual restrictions they had to wait a year before using the tracks, and were obliged to re-record them. Martin: "Theoretically the original tunes couldn't be used, so basically what we're doing is re-balancing what we did before so that there's no legal comeback."
The hub of ACR's creative world is their workplace called the Soundstation. More than just a studio, it provides them with facilities for programming, rehearsing, practicing, and generally hanging out. Before they moved in during August 1991, the canal-side building in North Manchester was literally a huge square shell with a ceiling height twice that of a normal room. As you pass through the heavily secured entrance the room has been divided into a rehearsal area with a JBL PA and drum riser in one half, and studio/programming suite on the other side. All is open planned with a TV/restroom, kitchen area, and storage along the back wall. A lowered canopy has been positioned over the AHB desk and control room area, a simple touch which psychologically gives the impression of a dedicated work area and reduces the effect of such a high ceiling.
Martin: "The main problem in here is heating the place and getting the right monitors. There's so much air to push that you need really huge main monitors. We've done a lot of mixes here and they've turned out really good. We're also getting good results from the small Denon speakers — but you have to keep taking tapes home at the end of the night to evaluate the mixes.
"We did most of the ACR/MCR album with the AHB desk and Fostex E16 at our old studio in Boardwalk. A lot of people like Bernard Sumner [New Order], when he was re-mixing one of our tracks at Strawberry, asked if we'd done it on 32-track digital 'cause he knew we'd been into Revolution, which is digital. He couldn't believe it was an E16."
So through what channels have the band, especially Martin, amassed their technical knowledge? Martin: "It's built up through interest really, and being dropped in at the deep end. I also got a little job with Amek, wiring up patchbays for three months, so that helped." Martin is also on call for live sound engineering, having worked already with a number of Manchester bands including the likes of World of Twist. Tony Quigley (saxophone/keyboards/percussion) has recently been moonlighting with Ashley and Jackson, both in the studio and for live work, whilst Donald, who in his own right is an accomplished session drummer, has performed with Electronic.
These extra-curricula activities are only fitted in when possible. ACR is the main priority. Martin: "The good thing when we're working here is that we might get two people who'll team up and get into things whilst the other two are watching telly or cleaning up! It changes round, and in that way we get more done. But if we didn't all come down five days a week then you wouldn't be there on the days when everything happens."
"The thing is that we've all got different musical outlooks, but we still respect each other," adds Donald. "I may not not agree with an idea from Martin, but I try to see where he's coming from. It's all about give and take; some people just don't want to compromise. We all play different instruments so that we can get a different perspective on things. There are no rules — just because I'm a drummer doesn't mean that I'm going to end up playing drums. Everybody throws in ideas."
"We use the E16 mainly for performances, things like drum samples," says Martin. "Everything else we keep sequenced and synced up to the E16. We'll set up a headphone mix for Donald and he'll play along live and we'll record to DAT. We only do it that way because of the limitations in this room. Sometimes if you haven't got the mix of the kit quite right, it still works because it makes it sound like an authentic drum loop and people wonder where we've sampled it from." Donald: "We're still experimenting with the drum sound in here especially because of the height. I just use a Sonor Lite kit with piezo triggers feeding an Akai S1000. Then there's an Octapad, all of which I put through a Seck 122 12-channel mixer. The sounds are a mixture of my own samples and percussion. Sometimes I'll trigger drum loops manually rather than have them sequenced."
ACR have been noted for their complex live set up but, in keeping with their constant evolution they are moving away from a reliance on technology towards a more interactive live band performance. "We're trying to do more songs in the live set which aren't sequencer based," explains Martin, "where Donald is not tied to a click track, 'cause it does affect the general vibe of the thing. We've been cutting things down because it got to the stage where we needed a 40-channel board for every gig. We'll still use samples and soup the songs up, but they'll be player based."
This new approach extends to writing as well. "We're already writing songs for the next album where we actually sit down on the other side of the room, play and write tunes together. We haven't done an LP like that since Force, which was '87/88."
Donald: "People are still into all the sequencer-based stuff, but because we've had this technology for so long we've taken it to its maximum a lot of the time, and we know what it does, but we also know what we can do. We've always said about technology that our imaginations are vaster than any piece of technology. We're going to spend less time learning about what's out there and more time learning about ourselves and what we do — and trying to get that down onto tape."
All the tracks from the new album were recorded and mixed at the Soundstation, with some extra work at FON studio in Sheffield. "It's probably one of the best studios in the North," states Martin. "Our problem was that when we made our own little studio, nothing was ever wrong — so when we went to other studios there would always be little problems; something that really bugs me. Because FON is new, and well-designed by engineers for their own use, everything's there and it works. They've also got all the gear we've got, so it's great for us. With a studio like FON they've got a good balance with the audio, effects and MIDI side of things, whereas studios in London are one or the other."
But whatever the benefits of having your own studio, working in a commercial facility does at least impose some discipline. "It means you have deadlines to get something finished, whereas with our place there's always tomorrow."
When it came to compiling the album, ACR opted to hire in a Digidesign Sound Tools system and do it themselves. "We hired the system for just two days," says Martin, "and got Andrew Robinson, a friend of ours, to operate the system. He understands what we mean when we say 'you know that bit over there — can you chop it up and put it there by that bit!', which is really useful. Because we haven't got automation on the desk we put down separate sections and join them up during the editing, which gives cleaner starts etc. We always used to master on half-inch analogue with Dolby SR, which can be quicker because with Sound Tools you tend to mess around with it just because you've got the facility to.
"We got it cut at The Exchange in London, and did it direct to metal for vinyl, which was a bit of a waste of time 'cause I don't know how many people buy vinyl LPs anymore. But it did allow us to get it a lot louder and clearer. We didn't have to use much EQ because it had all been done within Sound Tools — the only bummer with the Sound Tools system is that you can only turn things down in volume, not up.
I try talking to the band members about the special techniques and methods of writing that they must have come across during their career. But, like many musicians, they don't have the answers that I'm trying to coax out of them. "There's nothing special about what we do," insists Jeremy. "Mistakes often create good ideas, and it's knowing where to go with those ideas. But one thing that we've found is that we're more comfortable playing together or performing, not just sitting in front of a computer."
"We're getting back to writing songs together," adds Martin, "rather than having someone come up with half a tune at home and then work on it." Whatever the band turn their hands to, they're not going to be retreading old ground — for a start it would be too boring for them. Martin: "It's dead funny — when we do songs in the studio and take them home to the girlfriend, stick the tape on and they say 'who's this?' 'It's us!' 'No, it's not you' 'Yeah it is — don't you know what we sound like yet!'"
"We're paranoid about always sounding the same," admits Donald. "When I look back at all our LPs and at all the different musical things we've done, they still stand up today and are just as vivid now."
Interview by Nigel Humberstone
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