Bomb the Bass
Pioneer of the sampling revolution, Tim Simenon, is back with a new album, a new studio and a refreshing update on what technology has to offer music. Tim Goodyer charts Unknown Territory.
When sampling hit the pop charts it changed peoples' attitudes towards music technology more than any other recent event; on the eve of his second LP, sampling pioneer Tim Simenon is still in the thick of it.
IF M/A/R/R/S KICKED THE CUT-UP/SAMPLING ball into play with their 1987 single 'Pump Up The Volume', it was left to two other players to pick it up and run with it. Those players were Bomb the Bass' Tim Simenon - with his '88 hit 'Beat Dis' - and Simon Harris the following year with 'Bass (How Low Can You Go)'. True, 'Pump Up The Volume' didn't rely on digital samplers for the assembly of its many and disparate musical lifts, but it sat directly in line with the French Musique Concrete movement and what is presently termed "sampling" by musicians, public and lawyers alike. Simenon and Harris, meanwhile, grabbed the opportunity presented by M/A/R/R/S' success and pressed samplers into service as one means of streamlining the process of gathering together musical (and non-musical) elements and representing them as a fresh musical form.
Now we're three years down the road from 'Beat Dis', and Simenon's name has been absent from the Radio 1 playlist for some time. While the sampling monster continues to indiscriminately chew up and regurgitate yesterday's music (largely in the name of record company profits), it could be construed that Simenon the innovator was actually nothing more than another one-hit wonder. The more discerning, however, will have spotted Simenon's name regularly cropping up in the writing and production credits of a long list of very credit-worthy projects. Neneh Cherry, for example, and John Foxx. Then there was the ill-fated attempt by WEA to launch Prince sidewoman Cat as a solo artist - with a list of prestigious producers including Simenon. If nothing else, you might have caught his name mentioned in connection with the demonstration of Roland's RSS system on a recent Tomorrow's World Programme.
Over the last year Tim Simenon has calmed his production work a little in order to build himself a studio in London's Eastcote complex, and prepare his second album for Rhythm King. Today, together with two new recruits to the Bomb the Bass team, he's giving MT a second interview (see October '89 issue for the first) and much has changed.
Where Simenon's first long player, Into the Dragon, called on the services of a selection of vocalists recruited to suit the requirements of each track. For Unknown Territory, Simenon has assembled a steady team of musicians and a regular engineer, Kerry Hopwood, who work in a more conventional way on all the material. Well, not conventional perhaps...
"This is definitely the New Style of Recording", Simenon announces, "it's not like the old school where you might piss the guitarist off if you try to play guitar. It's not about that, everyone's after the best result. It's a very tight team here; everyone's doing their own thing at the same time. It's not like a band band where everyone's got their own job and nobody treads on anybody else's toes."
"And there's no requirement that you have to have a guitar on every track, you don't have to have a solo after the second chorus", adds keyboard player Guy Sigsworth, one of Bomb the Bass' new recruits. "There's no formula, and everybody's got complete confidence in each other's ability to do the right thing. Nobody's too precious about anything."
"I think what's happened is that Bomb the Bass has become a live band", continues Simenon. "When you last interviewed me it was all samples - it still is that, but now it's been injected with all these other influences as well. My aim is just to get the best team there is. There you have it."
The Bomb the Bass team, as it presently stands includes Simenon, Hopwood, Sigsworth, singer Loretta Heywood, rapper A La Mode, Japanese guitarist Kenji and the Tackhead rhythm section - bass player Doug Wimbish and drummer Keith LeBlanc. Famous for their work as "the Sugarhill rhythm section" and notorious for their gigs as Tackhead, Wimbish and LeBlanc represent a major change in Simenon's working methods and have played a large part in his rapidly developing interest in playing live. The liaison came about after a chance meeting at with Wimbish at Matrix studios in London.
"I met Doug first of all about a year-and-a-half ago", Simenon recalls. "We started talking and hooked up then. Doug's on about four tracks on the album. And Keith, I dunno, Keith sort of came with the package. I'm also going to be working with Keith on another project which is outside Tackhead and outside Bomb the Bass."
In stark contrast to all the other members of the project, Sigsworth is classically-trained and spent some time on the continent playing harpsichord in a chamber orchestra.
"Something went wrong there", he comments with a smile. Forsaking the classics for a sequencer, Sigsworth found himself working with Seal. In fact, it was Simenon's involvement in writing 'Crazy' that brought him into contact with the keyboard player.
"I was a bit of a classical muso and I kind of drifted into pop songs", explains Sigsworth. "I knew Seal for a about a year before he did 'Killer", and during that period he used to come round to my house and we'd write songs on my Atari and Pro24. So by the time he got his deal, half the stuff was already there. I'd done some other things, some small-time stuff that's not really worth mentioning."
"I think it all works really well", opines Simenon, "because Guy is classically trained. It's funny because there's me with my influences, then there's Guy with his, and on top of that there's Kenji, this brilliant Japanese Hendrix-type guitar player. And he also injects his influences into what we do."
Running through some of the mixed DAT masters of the forthcoming album it's apparent that the Bomb the Bass sound has acquired rougher edges than before, but has also become more soulful. The first single to be taken from these recordings, 'Keep Giving Me Love' demonstrates Simenon's ability to mix a raw rhythm track with a powerful melody - to the benefit of both. From Into the Dragon, with its blatant disregard for conventional approaches to musical composition, Simenon has learned to respect traditional melodic and compositional values without losing the futuristic feel of his first vinyl adventure. Another projected single, 'Crash Landing', proves that Simenon's ability to create a manic mix of beats and effects is far from dead although the Gulf war prevented its release earlier this year - partly due to the content of the vocal samples, partly due to the record industry's attack of paranoia over names like Bomb the Bass.
Apart from the unfortunate timing of the Gulf war, 'Crash Landing' suffered another setback when Pink Floyd declined to grant permission for use of a sample of their 1971 track 'Echoes'. Having heard how well the sample works in context, I have to add my regret to that of Simenon over the event. But while he might argue that the track wasn't written around the sample - and therefore doesn't depend on it for its own musical merit - I'd raise other questions. On the same Floyd album, Meddle, Gilmour, Waters and Co were sufficiently experimental to include a football crowd chanting and a dog howling along to the backing track. Why then, 20 years on, are they opposed to comparable attempts to further explore music?
Further on the subject of sampling, Simenon now seems to regard it as a less important element of his working methods than it was a few years ago.
"The System 700 is going to be used for a new project outside Bomb the Bass which will be geared towards a fusion of analogue sounds and hard beats."
"The record collection is playing a big part in that it's what I've grown up on", he comments, "but the samples aren't as obvious. On the first album there were chunks of this and bits of that, on this album it'll just be one sound. The samples might inspire a theme and then the bass parts will go on top of that, and the keyboards and guitar on top of that, and it'll change the whole thing. The samples are basically sounds rather than parts."
"The great thing about Tim's record collection", interjects Hopwood, "is that you can learn so much from it. It's a real education."
"I think there's a lot more of how I feel about music now on this album than there is on the first", continues Simenon. "That was really only made because the first single was a hit. 'Beat Dis' was a hit, so Rhythm King said 'well, you better make an album'. I did that album without much real knowledge of how studios work, but since then I've had a couple of years to put this place together and really develop.
"I don't regret anything about it; I think it stood for the time when I made it, and it was different from what else was happening then. Obviously I look back on it and think I'd have done it a different way if I was doing it now, but at the time it was fine. And it was a good diary for 88/89. That's what I said then: it was meant to be a sort of photo album on vinyl - my experiences and ideas that were in my mind at that time. With this album we're looking ahead.
"I can't really classify what it is about it, but I think this album gels a lot better than Into the Dragon. There's a whole style in there now. With the first album the radio links were what held it together, if you listen through to this one it will stand as an album in its own right."
Something else destined to set the second Bomb the Bass album apart from the crowd is its use of the new Roland Sound Space system. For those of who have missed the early press reports and the Tomorrow's World/Radio 1 link-up which debuted Simenon's next single, 'Winter in July' with RSS treatment, the system creates a three-dimensional sound field instead of the standard stereo field - using only a standard stereo amplifier/speaker configuration. The theory behind the electronics is that by treating a mono source with delays and phase shifts consistent with those imposed by a real acoustic environment, an illusion of 3-D placement can be achieved. The story began when Roland approached Simenon about giving the RSS treatment to a computer game soundtrack. The game was the Bitmap Brothers' Xenon II - Megablast, the soundtrack a reworking of the 'Megablast' single from Into the Dragon. Such was Simenon's interest in the system that he persuaded Roland's George Thorn to make the prototype version available for a couple of tracks being prepared for the new long player.
Like early stereo, however, the greatest impression to be made with RSS is by throwing sounds around the soundstage for effect rather than for any musical or artistic reason.
"I think that's why George wanted to do the Megablast theme", comments Simenon, "because there were so many different weird sounds that you could treat it like a soundtrack with things jumping around a lot. At the moment that's the most effective way of using it - making things happen once."
"I thought we did it quite sensibly actually", opines Hopwood, "we could have gone right over the top.
"Certain sounds work much better than others", he continues. "For the single we took a Bach canon off CD that we wanted to spread all around the room but it didn't want to know."
Another of the artists to become involved with RSS at this early stage in its development is also from the dance movement - Adamski. But while reports from both Adamski and the Bomb the Bass posse are more than encouraging, the obvious application of music is only one of those Roland have in mind for it.
I think they're partly gearing it towards home videos", ventures Hopwood, "so you can get that Dolby Surround Sound effect."
"I think RSS will change peoples' way of looking at stereo placement", confirms Sigsworth. "For example, on another track called 'Crash Landing' we had a second breakbeat that we treated, and it's almost as if there's somebody in another room who happens to be playing another track in time with this one."
The last word on the subject goes to Simenon: "I'd like to use it again, but only on tracks that need it. I wouldn't overkill on it. We haven't done that on any of the tracks, it's a very subtle thing, I think."
"We're putting less and less to tape. Even when we go into the main studio to do a mix, we don't really put very much to tape."
SITTING SURROUNDED BY ONE OF THE most impressive collections of analogue synthesiser technology I've ever seen under one roof, the conversation inevitably turns to the subject of Simenon's new studio, contrarily christened Diji-land.
"We were up at Sam Therapy before", explains Simenon, "and the studio was the size of the kitchen here. And Kerry and myself thought 'if we're getting any more gear...'. We didn't have any choice really but to look for another space. Luckily Philip Bagenall, who runs Eastcote - had this space here. All the gear's mine, basically, and we built it up from there."
As much of the gear on the shopping list is no longer current - to one side of four Akai samplers sits a Wasp synth, to the other are two OSCars, two Pro Ones, a Minimoog... Another A-frame stand holds a Prophet 5, Jupiter 6 and Juno 106 while a wall of Roland System 700 modules and an Oberheim four-voice effectively divide the room in two. Consequently, "building it up", involved an exhaustive search for secondhand gear - a search in which MT's Readers' Ads played no small part.
"Basically the synths are all the stuff I couldn't afford when I was 15 but could after I got my first royalty cheque", says Simenon of the array of keyboards filling one complete wall and much of the floor space. "I've always been a fan of all the analogue gear, because it's what I grew up on - Kraftwerk, Daniel Miller's Mute label. This is a step beyond that, combined with my own experiences. The whole Bomb the Bass project is highly geared towards technology, but it still has a lot of soul in it.
"I started with the CS01, which was my first synth..."
"And which plays the synth solo - live, no sequencing - on 'Winter in July'", interrupts Sigsworth triumphantly.
"I've had the Juno for a while", continues Simenon, "but the rest I've picked up secondhand. Kerry built all the panels and the general setup. But it's a perfect setup for me - from the location of the turntables and the records to this space here where you can just chill out - or record a vocal. We put a good month of planning into it."
Given the complexity of today's synths, you've got to ask yourself just how practical it is to use so much old technology.
"The Wasp, which is Kerry's, is just a display item", laughs Simenon, "it just looks good! But the Pro Ones are really useful. So are the Moog and the OSCars. The Oberheim is actually Eastcote's but we've 'adopted' it. The Prophet and the Jupiter are great for occasional sounds. The System 700 is the latest addition here. It's going to be used for a completely new project outside Bomb the Bass which will be geared towards a fusion of analogue sounds and hard beats."
"We're running things off MIDI/CV converters which have got Wasp interfaces built in", elaborates Hopwood, "but the great British products that they are, they keep breaking down. We should have six channels of MIDI to CV here, but we've actually got a lot of boxes in the post going for repair."
While the analogue gear is obviously a source of enthusiasm and inspiration for Simenon, Sigsworth and Hopwood, it's two racks of Akai samplers that do much of the work.
"We run a lot of stuff live with the guitar", explains Simenon. "For example, Kenji will just jam and we'll then sample the best parts and sequence them up. The same with bass parts."
"Then we use the Akais as a digital editing system", continues Sigsworth. "That way we've got complete control over what's going on. It means we can allow Kenji to have fun and do exactly what he wants and then use what's appropriate to the track. With most music the erase button is just as important as the record button. You sort of fill up the available space with ideas and then you go back and find the ones that fit. In the early stages of our work you'll see that board fill up with a million things but only a proportion of them will come through."
Simenon picks up the conversation: "But the board is still full at the end... It's weird, even though you keep adding in memory cards to the Akais, they keep filling up. We're trying to put a stop to that. The kind of thing that's restricting us now is the size of the desk. We've got a 16-track tape machine, but that usually only handles the vocals, the guitar jams and so on. Everything else is sequenced. Lately we've even been resampling the vocals and spinning them in live because we've got the capacity in the Akais. So we're putting less and less to tape. Even when we go into the main studio to do a mix, we don't really put very much to tape.
"I don't regret anything about it; I think it stood for the time when I made it, and it was different from what also was happening then."
"We only go into other studios to mix, never to write or lay tracks. We basically do all the pre-production here, so by the time we go into the main studio it's completely ready to mix."
"If you work here there's a very easy atmosphere", says Sigsworth. "It's far more relaxed than in another studio. If you get a guitarist jamming along here it's fun. I know from other projects I've worked on that when you go into most studios, the kind of 'innocence' of people is lost. But we get it every time here. With Loretta on 'Winter in July', from jamming a scat-sung, wordless melody before she had any lyrics, to recording the vocal the next day, we've never updated it from there. Those vocals were perfect."
Next to the rack of Akais sits the Atari Mega4 computer used for sequencing. But while Simenon owns Steinberg's Cubase, it's often the old Pro24 sequencing software that gets used. Sigsworth: "I've sort of pushed Tim backwards because I'm still very happy to use Pro24. It's the program I've got and we regress to that for my convenience. I find it's got a certain number of variables to help you work, but not too many."
As well as being the centre of the studio, the samplers are also the basis of Simenon's new-found interest in live music.
"The first time I did it it was more of a karaoke job, because there wasn't the technology to allow us to do what we're doing now. It's all possible now. Keith plays live drums, Doug the bass, Kenji guitar, Guy keyboards and me having a whole bunch of samples that I trigger live. Basically we've taken a lot of the album material and done it live. And that's worked out really, really well."
"We really do do it live", confirms Sigsworth, "it's not a case of getting people together to do a record and then hiring a pickup band to learn the songs. We literally take the ideas that are in the songs and play them live. They introduce this wonderfully unpredictable, random element. Again, it totally frees us from any danger of a gig being just a reproduction of a record."
"Dangerous, that's us", adds Simenon. "The way we did it this time was to run sequencers with bits of atmospheric percussion on them and have Keith play all the drum tracks. If there was a bass loop or a simple breakbeat, Keith would play over them and add his own samples. And that worked fine. If you're using a two-bar loop it works as a click and you can have a jam. The thing is, the song can last three minutes or five minutes depending how pissed the audience are. That's about as live as you can get."
"For the first lot of gigs we took Ataris on stage", elaborates Hopwood, "but it wasn't happening. They were unreliable, but it was boring too - you might as well have taped backing. We were thinking about using the Akais instead, but then thought 'why not go the whole hog and take the band?'. We had the band anyway, but they were slaves to the Ataris."
The recent gigs - which have attracted more than their share of enthusiasm from press and public alike - have seen the rhythm section of LeBlanc and Wimbish fronted by Sigsworth using a Yamaha DX7 and S1000 while Simenon has used three more S1000s (along with an optical drive) driven by a Simmons setup and Octapads. Additionally, LeBlanc uses a further S1000 for samples and loops.
"Keith is a real sound merchant", enthuses Simenon, "I think we all are. Everyone's into weird sounds and I think that partly why it works. Even Doug's not a bass player; he's got this minefield of different effects at his feet. He's just not playing bass."
"I was watching a TV series in which the bands were all showcasing", says Hopwood. "They were all miming so it looked really good, but you knew it wasn't 'real', and they all just did their one track and that was it. We want to do a two-hour show here... We've done half a dozen gigs now and we've learned a lot. We haven't used big light rigs or anything, it's just been five guys making a noise and people have loved it."
"Yeah", sighs Simenon, "the reviews have been tremendous. It looks different, it sounds different..." Future plans include taking the System 700 - which, until recently, belonged to Human League producer Martin Rushent - out on the road, "Tangerine Dream-style".
"The next project is going to be turntable terror", threatens Simenon. "Analogue stuff and beats 'n' vocals."
Most people would have been content to have filled the last 12 months building a recording studio, recording what promises to be another influential LP and treading the boards with a rhythm team already regarded by many to be "legendary". Simenon, however, has fitted in a special remix of Japanese band Sandii and the Sunsetz - who've enjoyed a cult following in the UK since supporting Japan on their final tour.
"Because it's only going to come out as 500 copies of a promotional CD for DJs, the mix had to be between 12 and 14 minutes long", recalls Simenon with obvious pleasure, "so we selected five tracks out of their back catalogue and got the machines to it. It's not like a megamix, it's a 'proper' piece of music. It's the most interesting remix I've done."
"They'd come from having Sakamoto playing keyboards and had nothing to do with, say, '70s funk", adds Sigsworth. "So we came at it that way: looking at their background as being kind of electronic, and mixing it with a sort of ethnic feel."
Again, listening through to the DAT master of the remix at Diji-land I can't help but share their enthusiasm and add to the listed ingredients that of an ambience worthy of Brian Eno. Such a shame so few people will be allowed to enjoy it.
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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