Bomb the Bass
In his career as disc jockey, audio engineer and pop star Tim Simenon has called upon musical influences as diverse as Rick James and Kraftwerk. Tim Goodyer talks tech with a DJ who intends to take cut-up records on the road.
Once an aspiring recording engineer, currently hot pop property, Tim Simenon is the man behind Bomb the Bass - synth technology meets turntable dexterity.
RHYTHM KING RECORDS' press office on a working afternoon. Hastily-scribbled phone messages obscure every inch of desktop space. Elaborate record release schedules adorn the walls, though many of the discs apparently still awaiting a release date are already on the shelves that line one wall. Others are in boxes on the floor waiting for someone to find the time to put titles to their white labels. All the press personnel are on the telephone, as are two of London's top DJs, Jay Strongman and Tim Simenon. For once the A&R department have got it right.
Both Strongman and Simenon are Rhythm King signings, both specialise in the style of music that's become known as cut-up. Strongman's first single 'East West' is currently receiving airplay off test pressings rather than production-line vinyl. A series of television appearances to promote Simenon's second single, 'Megablast/Don't Make Me Wait' is responsible for half the phone activity presently taking place in the office. At the first opportunity Simenon and I retreat to the relative peace of Mute Records' in-house programming suite to talk about his single, an imminent album called In 2 the Dragon and his musical career as Bomb the Bass.
Rhythm King's affiliation to Mute makes the programming suite a particularly appropriate place to hold our conversation, as Simenon frequently cites Mute artists such as Depeche Mode as sources of inspiration. Alongside seminal electronic pop pioneers Kraftwerk, Yello and The Human League, soul artists like Rick James and James Brown played their part in his early pause-button cut-ups. Now 20 years old, Simenon began DJ'ing around five years ago, moving from house parties to private club parties and finally on to his own spot at various West End nightclubs.
"The DJ'ing came about because I had a vast collection of records", Simenon explains. "My family are really into listening to Motown and funk, so I've been listening to a lot of black music since I was a kid. Then I branched off into listening to avant garde stuff like Brian Eno and then on to Depeche, Fad Gadget and Robert Rental - I've always liked Daniel Miller's production work - and that branched into the electro scene with people like Bambaataa. It's been quite a steady musical tree."
Before his unexpected chart success Simenon was also attending a course at the School of Audio Engineering with the intention of becoming a sound engineer. It was during this course that he began working on a project that was to become his first single: 'Beat Dis'.
"It was like a bit of homework", Simenon recalls. "I started at the school in September of '86 and around October a friend of mine booked some studio time at Hollywood studios, so I worked on 'Beat Dis' then."
In fact, the "friend" that put Simenon into the studio turned out to be James Horrocks, one of Rhythm King's managing directors. Horrocks signed Simenon and pressed 1000 copies of the single - they sold out in a week.
"The word had got round and the pirates were playing it like mad. One minute I was at college and I'd got a job as a part-time waiter in a Japanese restaurant, and the next I was at No. 5 in the charts. The record was for myself and aimed at the clubs, I didn't think it would chart - I didn't think about it at all really. It started off as an experimental collage of records that went down well when I was DJ'ing. I was playing it at the Wag from acetate for about a month and people would come up to me and say 'what's this record?'. Nobody normally does that at the Wag because the people who go there really know their music."
The lure of stardom ensured the engineering course was promptly abandoned.
"I just took a short cut", pleads Simenon in his defence. "I planned to be a tape op at a good studio and, two or three years after that, produce. But I've missed all that tea-boy business out. The whole idea of the course was to produce a record so I suppose I was exempted by 'Beat Dis'."
Following the success of his debut single, Simenon was beseiged by offers intended to draw him away from an independent record company to one of the majors.
"I could have made a fortune by now doing shitty remixes" agrees Simenon, "but I want to see a future in what I'm doing. Bomb the Bass is going to be around for three years or whatever, then I want to go on to something totally new. Like Vince Clarke: Depeche, Yazoo, Erasure...
"When my record came out there were quite a lot of DJ records happening and the major record companies were wanting to sign every DJ who came through the door with a demo tape.
Until then a lot of the DJ records were bootlegs because no major record company would put them out. That's why I think a lot of people are going to the independents - because they know where it's at. It's only now people are recognising DJ records because people like myself, M/A/R/R/S, Coldcut and Mark Moore are making them available.
"If I'd been to a major company before 'Beat Dis' had been pressed - even if I'd had it pressed - they would have told me to get out. After 'Beat Dis' came out quite a few of the majors got onto my case and said 'we'll sign you up and give you lots of money' but I didn't want to know. I'd just be a nice name for the company to have. If I'd signed to a major, I think they'd have expected me to have come out with a safe 'Jellybean' record so I'd be accepted into the pop scene -'you've had your bit of anarchy, let's do a proper record now'. Rhythm King have no say in what I do, but then I don't tell them how to run their company."
More than this, had Simenon chosen to sign to a major company he would have been denying Rhythm King the benefits of their faith in him and 'Beat Dis'. Recently Eric B and Rakim moved from the independent Fourth and Broadway to the security of MCA - collecting a cool £3/4m in the process. Nice for them, not so nice for Fourth and Broadway whose confidence had helped establish them.
FOR THE RECORDING of In 2 the Dragon Simenon has engaged the services of a variety of vocalists, from the Cool Notes' Lorraine (whose voice graces 'Don't Make Me Wait') through ex-She Rocker Antonia, to Merlin (who can be heard rapping his way through 'Megablast'). Simenon claims the charts are not his main concern - instead the album had been structured with the club DJ in mind.
"I haven't worked with people just to make the album varied. I like loads of different types of music, so it reflects what I am and what I'm doing. Also I like to work with other people so I'm not really in the limelight - I'll just be the man in the background who puts the beats and the music together. I wrote half of the tracks and the rest were co-written by myself and the artist: I'd do the music and the artist would come up with the lyrics."
Although Simenon has been DJ'ing since he was ten years old, his interest in electronic pop saw him following the course of many an aspiring synthesist.
"I started saving up my pocket money from paper rounds and bought a CS01, SH101, MC202 and Dr Rhythm. I think anyone who started in that electronic field probably bought those or something similar. I started doing simple melodies over electronic beats and typical Kraftwerk or Yello bass lines. My friend had a vocoder and we used to make demo tapes using that. That's how I discovered how to operate keyboards and how to structure very basic songs.
"Then I remember reading an interview with some producer who talked about using a sampler to replace a snare sound he didn't like with the one from David Bowie's 'Let's Dance'. I didn't really know what a sampler was but I thought 'I want one of those!'. Since then sampling times have increased and it was obvious that people were going to start sampling chunks of music."
The ubiquitous partnership of Akai samplers and Steinberg sequencing software has played a large part in the construction of In 2 the Dragon ("... it would have taken years to complete if it wasn't for Pro16 and three S900s."). Simenon's own engineering and production skills were augmented by those of Pascal Gabriel (who also works with Rhythm King stablemates S-Express) and Mark Saunders.
"I've still got a lot to learn", confesses Simenon, "that's why I'm working with really good engineers. I've learned a lot from Pascal, I mean, I wasn't a fully-fledged engineer when I left the recording school. He taught me a lot about the S900. Mark Saunders too - he's really good with sounds. Pascal works a lot with the Commodore and the Steinberg Pro16 and S900s and Mark uses the Macintosh. I'm a sucker for sound; all I enjoy doing is going into the studio and making records."
"People slagged off Kraftwerk for being the robots of music when they first started, but when it comes to drum patterns, Kraftwerk are the most influential band of the century."
The other side of Simenon's music making is the DJ's pair of Technics SL1200 turntables.
"At the moment I write from keyboards and also with turntables. A lot of people say 'turntables' and spit, but I consider them to be musical instruments. I get a lot of ideas from listening to drum patterns and things, then I'll go to a keyboard or my TR909 and write from that.
"At home now I've got a Roland Juno 106, and a couple of turntables and I lay ideas down onto an Akai MG614 and I take them to Mark who'll translate them onto the computer. I'll write a drum pattern for the basic beat, or if it's a drum break I'll lay beats down from the turntables for three minutes - or until I get tired. Then I'll lay down a bassline or additional samples over the top of other records. I just spin in ideas - that's how I normally write."
But there are a lot of people only too ready to condemn the cut-up approach to music making. Cries of "not music" and "copyright!" are familiar to Simenon. Notably loud are the voices of the existing music establishment.
"A lot of people don't see me as a traditional songwriter - but that's alright, they just don't really understand the music. It's true they're calling my kind of music the new punk, and it's right in a way because a lot of what I've done is 'copyright anarchy'. I think it's slightly more extreme than what punk was doing. Anyone can make a sampled record, but it's knowing what to put in and knowing how to put it in, that's where the skill comes in.
"I don't understand why the 'real musicians' are trying to stop it, they should just let it happen - they're still going to be doing what they're doing and I'm still going to be doing what I'm doing at the end of the day. Although I never went to any punk gigs I never thought punk was bad; I used to hear about it from the upper sixth people at school - the people who were punk rockers at the weekend - and the general vibe was fun. And I think this should be treated in the same way, it shouldn't be a scapegoat for musos. People slagged off Kraftwerk for being the 'robots of music' when they first started, but when it comes to drum patterns, Kraftwerk are the most influential band of the century. I can't understand why people slagged them off, and I can't understand why people are slagging me off."
And Simenon has an answer for the copyright vigilantes too.
"It's fair that money goes out if I use a sample", he agrees. "Before a record comes out I'll make a list of the records I've used so that we can pay the royalties on what I've used. For example, for the first single we paid SPK a certain amount of money for 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly'. Money has gone out, in fact quite a lot of money has gone out, to pay for using sections of records - which is fine. Although a lot of old records that I used in 'Beat Dis' have now been re-released as a result because people like to search out the original break. And that's worth a lot of money. For example, a lot of James Brown stuff would never have been heard of by young kids if it wasn't for hip hop, and there have been loads of re-releases as a result. I don't mind paying royalties but I think record companies should see that I'm doing... Well, not that I'm doing them a favour, but at the same time it's a lucrative arrangement."
And Simenon's voice is certainly not the last we'll hear on this subject...
WHATEVER THE ETHICS of using copyrighted material, there's no disputing that the heart of a dance record is its beat, whether it comes from Roland's classic TR808 and TR909 beatboxes or as a "lift" from another record. But just what makes a good drum break?
"What I'm doing is about feel: if it sounds good I'll put it down. Most of the breaks come from the '70s disco era although I even get drum breaks from Kraftwerk. Both 'Beat Dis' and 'Megablast' are collections of records that have gone down well when I'm DJ'ing", explains Simenon, "but the way I've used them is quite unique. I think a lot of the records that came after 'Beat Dis' were either doing the same thing or they'd used a lot of cliched stuff. I think I've got quite an articulate structure of samples. I don't go to a music library and find the most obscure record I can use. The records I use may be obscure to the layman but people who collect breaks will recognise them."
Another aspect of using breakbeats is when to use the original recording and when to recreate it using a drum machine or a sampler. One of the main problems is one of timekeeping. As many of the breakbeats come from records that predate the popular use of click tracks and timecode, the drummer's time keeping is often erratic. If an authentic feel is required it is usually best to sample and loop as little as a single bar of the beat. The alternative is to recreate the drum pattern on a drum machine or sequencer and sampler. But what becomes of the drummer's feel?
"I don't understand people who buy a machine and try to quantise it to sound like a real drummer. I thought that was the idea of drum machines. What's the point of buying a machine? Why not get a live drummer to do it? I'll spend a grand on a drum machine because it's spot on.
"Generally I use sampled drum sounds, it's only when I want the robotic sounds that I come to the 808 or 909. A lot of the records that have really good drum breaks are from the '70s so 90% of them are out of time. Looping a sample like that will take ages so I'd rather recreate it. I got a lot of ideas for the album off old records but I recreated them by laying down the basic beat and getting a session conga player in. For a couple of tracks on the album I've used Bruce Smith from Public Image, he played drums, and I got 23 Skidoo to play percussion over the top." The next step is to piece the various beats together for a complete rhythm track.
"I'll normally have the patterns running on the sequencer all the way through a track and just mute it in the mix when I don't want it. Sometimes, after I've laid down samples and keyboards on top of a break the backing sounds too weak, so what I normally do is run a drum pattern underneath the break to lift it up. For 'Megablast' the main frame of the beat was a conga break and it sounded really weak when we'd finished, there wasn't a feel to it. So we wrote a drum pattern to reinforce it using a sampled snare and kick drum from the same record."
Simenon's bass sounds generally come from the acid house favourite, the Roland TB303 Bassline, although he confesses to having a weakness for old Moog sounds. The one bass that's bombed is the slick sound of the fretless.
"I think a lot of people are afraid of cutting really heavy bass sounds", comments the DJ. "I'd like to hear more heavy bass sounds on records, like the ones on the Baby Ford track. I don't know how they got away with cutting that, but that's how I'd like my records to sound. I try to make everything as extreme as possible."
As if to prove the point, Simenon intends to take Bomb the Bass "on the road" in the best tradition of 'conventional' bands. In order to recreate the events created by a DJ in a recording studio this will involve the use of backing tapes for certain of the drum tracks and another DJ - Grim Death, who supplied the scratches on 'Megablast'.
"Most of the drums will be off tape and we'll be scratching live on top of that", he explains, "because there's no way I can be cutting up the breaks and laying stuff on top as well. I'll be playing percussion - on a Simmons Portakit and probably an Akai - and keyboards. All the vocalists who've worked with me will be coming along too.
"Each track that I do is not going to sound like the album track, I want it to be a total reconstruction, as avant garde as possible, so each track will be like a 12" remix. The whole thing will be quite fresh."
The tour is intended to begin around the end of October and take in England, Europe, America and Japan. Your chance to see if DJs can play their own music live.
Back to vinyl. How wide an appeal can a record made by a club DJ for club DJs have? And where will samples of yesterday's hit records leave us tomorrow?
"The people who buy these club records aren't all DJs" Simenon observes. "Generally they're people who've heard them in a club and liked them. My record wouldn't have made it otherwise, that is a perfect example of a club record that made it to No. 2. Personally I don't like music like that at home. I listen to it and study it so that I'll know it for the club but it wouldn't be something I'd listen to for easy listening. But I listen to a lot of rap at home - that used to be considered club music. I think it's going to change a lot, it's going to get a lot more weird.
"I think records like 'Beat Dis' and 'Megablast' will sit in history as records of the '80s. If, in ten years time you ask someone to name a 'record of the '80s' I bet the answer will be one of the DJ records. They'll go down in history as a new step, they've made a little notch in the wood."
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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