All For One and One For All
Tony Horkins lays his hands on Tom, Alanna and Joe and squeezes out the technical secrets
Within the Thompson Twins lie three diverse and interesting talents, all tailored to craft perfect Pop. Tony Horkins make it a foursome.
It's surprising to find that even in this hi-tech age musicians are still, in the main, looking to the guitar, bass and drums format when assembling a band. Slowly but surely things are changing, but to the majority a familiar format is the only format.
At the beginning of '82, The Thompson Twins followed a familiar, though somewhat enlarged, format. Tom Bailey, Alannah Currie and Joe Leeway were just three members of a seven-piece band with all the trimmings. But the three, besides band members, were also a songwriting team who decided they may just do better on their own.
Tom, Alannah and Joe could play a few instruments between them so making the move seemed an obvious thing to do. You may feel yourself to be in a similar situation, but how do you actually do it? In that first rehearsal with no line-up of musicians to transform your ideas into a song, how do you physically do it?
"We never rehearsed," answers Tom Bailey. Now doesn't that seem like a great idea to you?
In their tour manager's room at the Carlton Tower Hotel in London, Tom, Alannah and Joe assemble themselves looking a little worse for wear. They've been working hard on pre-production for their third album as a three-piece, and seeing as how their last went nearly triple platinum, big things are expected of them. At least they haven't got any of that rehearsing to do, as Tom continues to explain.
"We just write our songs directly onto tape. Since the end of the seven-piece we never rehearsed an idea in a rehearsal room. We've always just made records and if we wanted to perform that particular record on stage then we rehearse it."
Alannah: "I remember when we did In The Name Of Love and it was the first time we'd ever used a drum machine and mainly keyboards to write that song - it was just so much easier to do. We wrote that song and recorded it in a day. It was so exciting."
Prior to the line-up change The Thompson Twins had a reputation as a great live band, but were criticised for their recorded output. Things were soon to change drastically.
Alannah: "With In The Name Of Love we discovered that the way to make great records was to use the technology of the studio, and just to treat the two things as totally separate. What we really wanted to do was make great records."
The developments in music technology played a large part in their decision to re-form as a three piece.
Tom: "The technology stopped you thinking in terms of rehearsal room vibes transferring onto tape. Suddenly we started seeing technology as a creative tool in itself, rather than an analagous process for making documentary evidence of what went on in the rehearsal room that day."
The first piece of real technology they got to grips with was Oberheim's OBXa with MIDI retrofit.
"The reason I got it was partly because, at the time, it was a new thing. The only other competition in terms of where the money went was a Prophet 5. They had been around for a while and I had worked with them and didn't really enjoy them. But I don't think it's important; the thing about any keyboard instrument is how well you use it. What I've discovered is what you know well, you use well."
So with their new synth, an Akai four-track and a blunt razor blade, The Thompson Twins started to cut out for themselves a new niche.
"The thing about any keyboard instrument is how well you use it"
Alannah: "In the old days we used to write songs by jamming, and now we just overdub on the equipment we've got. I write the lyrics in one room, these two write the melodies in the other room, and then when we get a strong melodic and lyrical idea and the basic structure of a song, we get together and arrange it. Then we do the sub-melodies and the bits and pieces, work on it days and days, (though Hold Me Now only took half an hour to write) and then some more when we get it into the studio."
All the material is demoed before they take it into the studio, though only a sketch of the vocals are recorded onto tape then. That side of the writing process is left till the end after the basic structure of the song is down on multitrack.
"The basic essence of a song, the spirit of the song, the magic or whatever is in the writing, and that's what you've got to carry through and expand and make better when you get it into the studio. Sometimes you can have a great thing that's lost, a great song that gets over-produced and wrecked and somehow loses that feeling it had on the original demo. There's a danger of becoming too obsessed with the technology and trying to be too clever."
Tom: "On the last album we worked a system where we transferred our demos to the multitrack and tried to record along with them, so that if we enjoyed the feel of the demo we'd be working within that feel rather than just following the chord progression. That's when you can miss the point. It certainly helped to make the last album successful."
Although the original demo can be followed for feel, 99 per cent of the time all the instruments on it are replaced by sounds of better quality. Drums,for example, are put to tape via the Movement drum machine.
Alannah: "At the time it was a choice between that and the Linn, but the Linn was common and everybody was using it. It was the first one we got and we just got great sounds off it."
Tom: "Pretty soon we had all the original sounds replaced or adjusted. Originally on the Sidekicks album we rushed in and actually used the Movement as it was, but before we recorded them we adjusted them with Eq and compression etc. We recorded those alterations and sent them back to Movement for them to blow them onto chips. At the moment, though, we've got quite a massive library of chips for the Movement, and recently we parallel triggered an SDS7 Simmons set-up. Plus we have a Fairlight as well to do drums if we really want to.
Alannah: "Plus we do all sorts of stuff as percussion, like record ratchets and metal sheet hitting a marble floor. On You Take Me Up that whole rhythm was that. Hair spray is another good one."
Tom: "Don't you know that hairspray makes the softest hi hat in the world? That 'tss tss' sound - I thought everyone knew that."
Because of the fairly extensive percussion overdubs - Alannah also does manual percussion overdubs - they keep the drum machine pattern fairly simple. Then there's the bass to fit in.
Tom: "For ages we used the OBXa because I accidentally found this brilliant bass patch on it. We used it on the Sidekicks album and I kept on getting phone calls to come and play bass on other albums."
Alannah: "You did slaps over the top though, didn't you."
"If you work with machinery it does save a lot of time; it cuts out debate"
Tom: "Yes, occasionally... but Joe just got a Z-bass which sounds incredible."
The Z-bass is probably more familiarly associated with Sting who uses it a lot with The Police. It's an upright fretless contraption that resembles a string bass without a body. Van Zalinge make it, Joe bought it.
Joe: "The actual technique used to play it gives it such a unique tone. It sounds more like a string bass than a fretless and has more sound possibilities than a fretless."
Although writing and recording songs plays a major part in a band's success, there's a lot more to it. The Thompson Twins have total control over all things concerning them as a band, as Alannah explains.
Alannah: "We have control over everything: over the songs we write, over the way we produce or the picking of a producer, over whether we want to produce ourself, record covers, videos, the lot. We just run it ourselves, and use the money of the record company - and their obvious expertise in things like marketing. That's why we don't get much holidays - it's great."
The band know that to be successful today as a band you have to be much more than just musicians.
Alannah: "We live in a highly visual age. We're working with television and with magazines so you have to get together the way you look. It's no good being an old scumbag and expecting people to take an interest in your music. I think that's what we found in the old days. We were writing some pretty good songs, but people weren't interested because of the way we looked. We were just not interested in any other part of it except making the music, and you have to be."
A nod towards image and marketing doesn't necessarily mean a total compromise of your ideals and values. The Thompson Twins proved that by taking the obvious parts of their characters and refining them, exaggerating them for the Pop media.
"That's precisely it, we stylised ourselves to make us acceptable to a lot of people, and not just to people who could understand. For example I like junk jewellery, but if you just wore it as normal, people would just think we're rich Pop stars wearing expensive jewellery; they wouldn't see the humour in it. So you have to wear 10 bunches of pearls to get a lot of people to see that it's a joke. You have to be totally larger than life all the time, just make things really obvious.
Tom: "That happens with music and production as well. If you've got an idea in a song you're recording and you want it to come across then I don't believe in mixing it subtly in. Push it up there so that it just smacks people in the face."
Another thing which pushed their image further down the public's collective throat was the cartoon logo which became synonymous with the group.
Alannah: 'We set out intentionally to be an international group; we didn't want to just be a London band, and cartoons are in every culture in one way or another. People just have to see that and they know what it is."
This admitted development of image carries through to their live performances, another aspect of the Twins' careers in their own hands. Joe Leeway is the man in charge of this side.
"We live in a highly visual age. It's no good being an old scumbag and expecting people to take an interest in your music"
"No-one else does it for you, it's just like everything else. The first thing is to find a lighting designer you can work with who can translate your ideas. We found this bloke called Liquid Len, who used to work with Hawkwind and who used to work with Pink Floyd, who was one of the original lighting designers.
We could just tell him to get on with it, but instead we work with him to get a strong idea of the mood we want to get across, the choreography and everything else. He suggested using the varilights - they're lights that can move around with you and can work on auto-cue - which for us was a big breakthrough. We got the whole show down on a live video which, unfortunately, was open air so wasn't quite so colourful."
If you saw the video, or the live show in the flesh, you'd have realised that in this situation they revert to a large band format.
Tom: "When we first finished the first album the three of us thought 'How the hell are we going to perform this!..."
Alannah: "...and we shat ourselves..."
Tom: "...it was very much in vogue to use backing tapes but we really didn't want to do that because I think we'd learnt from experience that it really is exciting going out there with a drummer and bassist and everything."
They've used a band for live work ever since but still wouldn't consider using them in the studio. Tom feels that it would disrupt them as a songwriting team.
"Whether we like it or not we are a very close songwriting and production team. It just happens to work best that way, and I think that if we were faced with a band in the studio it might not turn out very well at all because we've learnt to fine-tune with great accuracy the presentation of our ideas."
Alannah: "Plus if you have a guitarist in the band, that's all they play, so it means you have to have guitar on the song. We can play lots of instruments between us so we let the song dictate the instruments."
Another advantage of not using a band is the speed in which an album can be recorded. Like most successful acts The Thompson Twins are up against continual deadlines to produce more records.
Joe: "If you work with machinery it does save a lot of time; it cuts out debate."
The only drawback to not using musicians on their recordings as far as they're concerned, is not being able to use them on mimed TV appearances; another one of the MUs little rules.
"You can have other people playing in your videos, but you can't have a drummer or anything else on things like Top Of The Pops. You can't go on TV and play something you didn't play on the record.
"A lot of people, because of this, think we're the sort of band who actually don't have anything to do with the making of our music because they can't see anyone there playing the drums or whatever. My feeling about this, though, is 'who cares?'. You've got to be flexible and accept that you go on Top Of The Pops, and it's a mime anyway, and the pretense is absolute. But it still works."
In the meantime it's back to Paris for The Thompson Twins where work on their new album has only just begun. Alannah reckons the new one will be "harder", though Joe disagrees. One thing the two both agree on is becoming a songwriting team outside of The Thompson Twins.
Alannah: "We'd like to write songs for other people. People keep asking us but we keep using all the best ones for ourselves. Maybe one day..."
Apart from a little 'freelance' work playing keyboards on a Foreigner album, Tom and the rest of the Twins have found the band to be a 24 hour a day job. They intend to keep it that way "until put out to pasture", but by the way things are going he's sure it will be a long time yet.
"A maximum of 75 years at least," he said.
And he could just be right.
Interview by Tony Horkins
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