A Room Of My Own: Switzerland
Ex-808 Stater Martin Price is back in action with his new project Switzerland. Nigel Humberstone dropped in on their personal studio to talk technical...
The name Switzerland conjures up many intriguing and colourful images but for Martin Price, the one-time 808 Stater, it succinctly expresses the aims and aspirations for his new group. "Our music is pretty atmospheric stuff — we've purposely gone with moods because we want to change atmospheres and temperatures. That's why we're called Switzerland — it's this sort of panoramic thing, clean and beautiful. We want to put the music back in that's been missing for quite a while."
The brave decision to leave 808 State was down to the traditional 'musical differences' but came amidst reports that Price was merely overseeing the group output, media inaccuracies that proved the final straw. "I had harboured it in me head for a bit," confesses Price, "but I just wanted to see how it went.
"It was a big thing to leave because they were still on a high then. But I've always hated the Madchester thing even though I'm not from Manchester. Manchester was a real lazy place when we got there and Eastern Bloc [the record shop instigated by Price] gave it a good kick up the arse.
"808 could not help but be linked with all that because three of them were from Manchester and they were very involved. But I knew the stigma was coming and I didn't want that particularly attached to me so I tried to crawl out from under it as well."
When I spoke to Martin Price he was completing, along with his new partners Neil Johnson and Steve Caton, two new recordings at FON studios in Sheffield. Since leaving 808 State Price has spent the best part of a year collating and amassing his new ideas. "When I decided not to go on tour with 808 State I worked on a track called 'Pornography', which was a sort of really hard-core underground thing and I did it myself; produced the record and sold around 3,500 copies. That got me the money to buy my own S1100, and I already had a computer and a few bits. But I just got so much satisfaction out of doing it myself and being responsible for it rather than being one of the 'four techno kids'.
"I developed my own ideas on what sort of gear I wanted to use as well. As Massey was always termed the 'techno boffin', it was really hard to get a look in that way. I wanted to rebuild the technology I was using and make it more modern. I mean everyone started going analogue crazy and things like little Oscars were like £600. I just have this gut feeling on things like that and think 'well, no, you've got to get away from that', and have a balance. Work out your own styles and techniques of recording stuff — and that's what we've done."
"At first we were very eclectic about sampling — I think we sampled things like Echo and the Bunnymen, Prince and Madonna. I was annoyed about all the rubbish being talked about sampling, which is still going on. It's been stifling creativity in a lot of areas and putting people off. So at one point I said '**** it, sample anything that moves'! If you like it, do it — it's better doing that than remaining stagnant.
"We did the 'Switzerland E.P' when we first had the S1100 and it was all samples apart from drums, because the programming was so great. It never actually got released and is now changing hands for £70 a copy now. It was a clever record, but it was far in front of itself. Everyone's trying to go progressive, but I thought that 'progressive' was a word for the '70s that ruined the '60s and I didn't want to be involved in another progressive thing that ruined the '80s. So because everyone was going weird with records for a time, I wanted to go more pop, but finding a style with beauty as well as being tight underneath with some muscle."
"Basically this room is not set up as a studio, but mainly for writing. I've always kept up on technology and what's coming out, so we got stuff that was bang up-to-date. Basically we've been buying stuff from Thatched Cottage and getting the stuff sent up on 21 days test. We've been evaluating them, seeing that we can work with them and that the programming's good — so we've been hand picking the stuff."
ADAT had been the big buzz throughout 1992 and Switzerland, like the rest of us, had been eager to get hold of one. "We got one of the very first from Thatched Cottage North," says Neil. "We snatched it off them before they'd even opened it. Then we got a second one about three weeks later. As a writing tool it's brilliant, but when you bring it into the studio it's been a bit of a pain in the arse to work with."
Martin: "I'd been reading about it long before it came out, and I suppose I fell for the hype of it as much as anybody else. But for me it's lived up to it all and it's made a massive difference to the way we work. It's allowed us to be more spontaneous. We're always in record mode now so we're recording things and getting the spontaneity — it's allowed us to capture those accidental moments and those random generated things and get it onto digital tape with really good quality. Then we're bringing the ADATs with us into the studio and running them next to the analogue multitrack. Having the benefit of the warmth of analogue tape and the crispness and cleanness of digital. It's paid off dividends now.
"I suppose any multitrack would be similar, but there's just something more exciting about ADAT — it's easier to use and it looks great. I know it's not affordable to everybody, but if you're seriously involved in music then it's got to be a bonus to have."
Neil continues by explaining how the machines are incorporated into their setup. "I take a lead from track 16 on the ADATs, which I've striped with SMPTE from the Akai sampler, split that and run one line into the desk and one through the computer. Basically I'm using the ADATs as a master transport for the sequencer and the desk automation.
"We record everything dry and unEQ'd so that you've got all that flexibility when you're playing them back and can do anything with them. It allows you to capture a moment in time — like a photograph, something that might not happen again."
The impact that the ADAT has had upon their work methods is reinforced by their enthusiasm and excitement as they describe the benefits that they've encountered. Martin: "The first keyboard I had was a Jupiter 8 and you can get a lot of random stuff on that. Ours is weird — it's got a mind of it's own especially as it gets warmed up. Something might happen accidentally and we put it down — genius, it's been the missing part for us."
Neil: "We've had the Jupiter playing a really metal sounding noise and Martin was on the cross-modulation and he didn't know I was recording him at this point. And the synthesizer's going crazy — some of the craziest sounds you've ever heard and I just recorded the whole thing. We then sat back, listened to it and picked out about six or seven loops."
"For me, ADAT's lived up to the hype and it's made a tremendous difference to how we work - we're always in record mode now, so we capture those random generated things on digital tape."Martin
Having been early users of the ADAT system I wondered if they had come across any disadvantages? Neil: "I can't honestly see why you can sync one ADAT to another but you can't slave it to anything else. They've got an Otari multitrack in here [FON] and we're having to use the ADAT to drive that machine and not vice-versa. Of course there's the promised BRC — but we're in the studio now and the BRC isn't!"
"We're definitely dead happy with it," adds Martin, "we just wish that the BRC had been there at the same time. It was a bit like getting something for Christmas and not having any batteries for it."
Their quest for new gear has brought a veritable hi-tech arsenal to the studio, including an Ensoniq DP4 and Korg Wavestation A/D. "The DP4 is mega," announces Martin. "It's just that they've gone out of their way to get things in it that you're looking for — all sorts of effects, some that they've invented themselves using VCA distortion and sine wave generators. It's a joy to work with and we've come up with some amazing stuff. We invent our own flanges and also make up a lot of stuff by running just a couple of notes, putting them through loads of effects and using it just as a wash in the background, so that the actual note disappears and forms a swirl.
"Then there's the Wavestation, which is brilliant and has made a massive difference. People have been going around sampling atmospheric noises to put on a track. But we don't need to do that anymore because we've got so far into the Wavestation that we're making our own atmospheric noises. It can be a bit too 'nicey-nicey', but you can take the best that it's got and produce rich textured stuff. The sound is so great that you think you're never going to get anything else out of it but the wave keeps going."
To compliment the ADATs within the studio set up, Neil and Martin chose a Tascam M3700 desk (32:8:2). "It's the one with an automation computer on it which has just been updated so it's got really tight channel mutes on it," offers Neil. "What I've done with that is split the desk completely in half. I've got the ADAT's 16 tracks running back into one half of the desk and I run all the MIDI virtual tracks up the other half of the desk. It's so quiet and clean that it just compliments the ADATs and all the other digital stuff that we're running."
Martin: "I think a lot of people are seriously scared by them [ADATs] in the recording business, because if we spent a few quid getting our room set up properly — basically I've spent all my money on equipment — we wouldn't be going into a studio. And getting to that point is something that I've always wanted, having total control."
Martin and Neil began work on Switzerland's new material in concerted fashion: "We quietly went mad for six months, doing nothing but writing, and then shipped it off to Warrington, and then stayed there and wrote. We've got around 60 tracks together in various stages."
Neil: "We sort of write half a track then sit back and think about it, and if it's not going exactly right we'll dump it."
Martin: "What I hate about a lot of people's attitude to recording music is that you've got to have economy out of it; if they start something they've got to finish it. After the last two years my experience is that you can become over indulgent — you need to realise when something's not working and when you're wasting your time."
Not many vocal samples find their way onto finished tracks. "We only use them if it's something special or right for the mood of the track," says Martin. "We don't do it just for the sake of it, and because of that it's been a lot more rewarding. I mean, my keyboard playing — I can't really play, but I know a modicum of what I'm doing. I've got an ear for it basically and I tend to come up with innocent lines and we use step time a hell of a lot. We steal moods rather than steal samples. We look at tunes that we've loved in the past, real moody music, and we spot something like a great chord sequence — the way it shifts or whatever — take that mood and put our music into it.
"That's really paid off dividends for us. I like pieces of music that you can see a picture straight away from, rather than producing a filler track for a club or whatever. I've always loved making records that a DJ's got to drop in from the beginning and play right through because you've programmed the track to do the job of the DJ. Your track builds up and it keeps you interested. Those kind of tracks end up being end of the night tunes — anthems, and that's the type of music I'm interested in.
"We've actually started writing songs as well. I've always written lyrics but been shy about it. I never was given the chance with 808 and it put me off, even though I know it shouldn't have.
"The big rule of thumb for me is if there's anything that particularly frightens you, then have a go at it. The songwriting thing has transferred really well into our music and we're learning a hell of a lot about structuring things. We've got a couple of singers who we're working with at the moment, but we're not letting that out yet. It's all about demystifying it for ourselves and having a crack at it."
Like the geographical placement of their namesake, Switzerland are strategically placed to absorb varying influences whilst branching out in all manner of directions. It's a sense of freedom that Price and Co. are fighting to preserve. "I hate all the attitude pushers," asserts Martin. "The British dance scene over the last 12 months has just turned itself inside out and nobody knows where they are anymore. The minute the masses get into anything the whole thing is factionalised. People should forget what clothes are going along with it — don't listen to what people are telling you in some crappy magazine. If you like something, you buy it and you're satisfied — end of story. You've got the right to your taste and to what you do."
Interview by Nigel Humberstone
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!