An interview with Rusty Egan | Rusty Egan
Dan Goldstein tracks down another drummer-turned-musical technofreak, Rusty Egan, and finds out about the past, present, and the future of the electro-dance band he helped found, Visage.
Modern music's recent history has produced a number of drummers and percussionists — Richard Burgess, Phil Collins, Warren Cann — who have left their original instrument and turned instead to making music with modern technology. Rusty Egan is another such player. As a founder-member of Visage, he pioneered the use of drum machines and microcomposers and helped fuse them into a band sound that was both original and commercially successful. He's now a co-director of both the Camden Palace nightclub and Trident recording studios, and Dan Goldstein spoke to him shortly after the completion of the third album by a re-formed Visage.
Whatever else may be said about Britain's punk movement of the seventies, what can't be denied is that it gave much of our youth culture a much-needed shot in the arm, calling a halt to what had been almost a decade of musical stagnation. However, one thing it did not achieve was a smartening up of rock music's image. If anything, the anarchic nature of much of its music (itself in keeping with the movement's philosophy), the unkempt appearance of its followers and the decrepitude of many of its live venues only served to blacken rock's image further.
Two subsequent - and somewhat less dramatic - movements tried to alter this state of affairs, and Rusty Egan, the subject of this month's cover interview, was intimately involved with both of them.
The first - 'Powerpop' - was an attempt to fuse punk's raw musical energy with the mass appeal of pop lyrics and attitudes. Powerpop's most significant band were the Rich Kids, a four-piece founded by former Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock and including Steve New, Midge Ure, and Rusty Egan on drums.
It was Egan's first major venture into playing and writing music ('I had done a few other things, but nothing really worth talking about'), but in spite of some enviable press backup and a large cult following, the Rich Kids split up after a brief but promising career.
'I was very, very disappointed when the Rich Kids split up. Musically I think we could have been the first Human League or Depeche Mode, because Midge and I were drifting towards that sort of instrumentation. Our favourite LP at the time the band split was Kraftwerk's The Man Machine, and we were trying to write songs along the same lines as 'The Model'. The only problem was that Glen and Steve wanted us to be a more conventional band, so Midge and I formed Visage while the Rich Kids were still technically in existence: we felt we'd found our ideal sound, and we needed a band to play the sort of music we wanted.'
Ure and Egan formed Visage around Steve Strange, an eccentric, highly individual character who shared their penchant for German electronic music, and who'd already begun to make a name for himself in the then-burgeoning London club scene as a nightlife personality extraordinaire.
That scene had by this time established itself as the centre of the second major post-punk movement, that of the new romantics, and Visage quickly found themselves at the forefront of the crusade. During 1980, Ure, Egan and Strange had joined forces with several other musicians, Magazine's John McGeogh, Dave Formula, and Barry Adamson, and keyboardist Billy Currie from Ultravox. However, the first Visage record - the single, 'Fade to Grey' - didn't appear for a while, largely because Ure had been persuaded by Currie to join Ultravox, and a spate of gigs following the runaway success of Vienna had taken both of them temporarily out of the Visage fold.
When it was released, however, 'Fade to Grey' became an instant hit, as did the album (entitled simply Visage) from which it was taken.
That first album was recorded in Martin Rushent's back garden. He had this garden shed with a whole load of studio equipment in it - things like a 24-track Studer tape machine and MCI desk - just waiting for a proper studio to be built, which he couldn't afford to do at that time. The size of the place didn't affect us at all. We just went in there and told him we could DI everything. Martin couldn't come to terms with that at first, because he was used to recording conventional guitar bands like the Buzzcocks and Stranglers. But we just went in and DI'd all the keyboards, guitars and drum machines.
'The drums didn't present any problems because just before the start of recording Visage, Richard Burgess had introduced me to Simmons percussion. I remember him showing me this piece of board, which turned out to be the SDS4, I think. It wasn't properly finished at that time - it was just a board with some wires hanging off it and the numbers 1-4 printed on it. I asked Richard what they were and he said "they're the outputs", so we plugged them in, used a Roland Microcomposer to clock everything, and every time I wanted to change one of the sounds I had to get a little screwdriver out and adjust the pots!'
As well as being one of the first musicians in the UK to make use of Simmons modules, Egan was also keen to use the Fairlight as soon as Burgess brought up the subject, with the result that the CMI was used extensively on Visage.
'I think we were one of the first bands to put the Fairlight on a UK release, though Peter Gabriel had already been using one and also of course Richard was working with one with Kate Bush at that time.
'We wanted the first album to be nonstop, so that all the tracks ran on from each other, and we used the Fairlight for a lot of those link passages in between tracks. We used it for percussion things as well: the drum break on "Fade to Grey" is all Fairlight, for example.'
Only a few months after the release of Visage, the London club scene had mushroomed into a nationwide phenomenon, and Strange and Egan capitalised on this success by opening the Camden Palace nightclub in North London - now one of the capital's most fashionable nightspots.
Yet they didn't neglect their musical activities. A second Visage album - The Anvil - was recorded at Mayfair Studios with the same line-up as before minus John McGeogh, who was touring with Siouxsie and the Banshees. It displays a slightly harder edge than its predecessor (though the sound is still unmistakably Visage), but although the album spawned two further hit singles ('The Damned Don't Cry' and 'Night Train'), tensions within the bands were beginning to threaten its musical future, as Egan recalls.
'The second album was really the turning point as far as Midge was concerned, because I don't think he was very happy being in the same band with a very outlandish character, which was what Steve Strange was becoming. In the end he left to concentrate his attentions on Ultravox, and I was left to re-mix most of The Anvil myself.
'There was a bit of studio time left over after The Anvil was finished, and I started working on some new songs with Billy Currie and Dave Formula. Thing's didn't really work out the way they should have done, though, mainly because we argued all the time about how we were going to go about recording.
'Basically, they wanted me to write programs in step-time into a Roland TR808 (which isn't the way I normally work with drum machines), so that the percussion track would be a finished item before the rest of the song. I'd always worked from a Linn code on tape - a simple bass and snare pattern that I could add details to at a later stage in the recording - but they insisted they couldn't work that way, and it seemed to me we were spending three days doing something that normally took me about two hours.
'We recorded the follow-up single to 'Night Train' ('Pleasure Boys') and two other tracks that are on the new album, but that was as far as we got. We were arguing too much to make working with each other worthwhile'.
'For a while it seemed that would probably be the end of Visage, but I started working with a bass player, Steve Barnacle. We bought some new equipment - an SH101, a Juno 60 and an MC202 Microcomposer - and we began working on some new songs in his bedroom.
Things were going pretty well, so I decided we should play them in a band. I got hold of Mulligan from Fashion and he programmed some of the songs into the Microcomposer, and feeling very confident, we recorded a Radio 1 session for David Jensen. Four songs in a day, with Steve Strange doing the lead vocals in just two hours, though luckily they gave us another day to mix everything!
'Indirectly, that's how I started getting back into things like the Fairlight and Synclavier (both of which are used extensively on the album). I was hiring cheaper synths and finding that it was just impossible to get good sounds out of them instantly if they were unfamiliar to me, so I decided to cut out that stage and simply hire in computer instruments with programmers: it's a lot easier to work that way.'
There's always been more to Egan's work than simply Visage, however. As a drummer, programmer and producer, his services have in the past been much in demand by musicians and record companies alike. These days, Egan's collaborations aren't so frequent, 'partly because there are so many new bands around, and partly because I've been getting more out of working with up and coming musicians than with established stars.
'Most of what I do now I do as a producer. I find an upcoming artist or band and put them in the studio. I've formed my own label - WAR ('Where Artists Record') - to record new bands, and I normally let them get on with whatever they want to do at first). As a producer it's my job to show people what technology can do for them: a lot of people just don't seem to realise what you can do with something like a Linn code. I've always believed that every song needs the right tempo, and getting a band to play in time with a Linn code can make all the difference. You can sample a guy's bass guitar on the Synclavier and program his bass line to run in time with the code, and more often than not he'll be amazed by the results.
The other side of the story, I suppose, is that all the technology in the world can't help you if you haven't got a song. I know a guy who's got a LinnDrum and all the rest in his living room, and every now and then he plays me a tape of what he's done, and it just sounds like Giorgio Moroder - the sort of thing I could do, and I'm a drummer! What he needs to do is find a couple of songwriters who are looking for some electronic backing, because without a song he's nothing.
The same is true of the Art of Noise EP on ZTT. The guy behind that, JJ, does all our Fairlight programming for us, and he's brilliant at what he does, but at the end of the day his record is just a collection of very good sounds - its got no real musical backbone to it.
'Like I say, JJ is a fantastic programmer, though there is one thing I don't like about the way he works, and that's the way he offers me other people's disks and my disks to other people. I'm a bit worried about my samples turning up on other people's records - in fact I think it may have already happened - so I can see I'm going to have to buy all my disks off him in future!'
With all his experience of computer-based systems, Egan should be in a position to say which of the two technological labyrinths is the more competent performer all round. In reality, he finds such a judgement more than a little difficult to make.
'The first thing I would say is that both the Fairlight and the Synclavier have got the potential to be better than any other keyboard instrument around. But what you've got to remember is that neither of them can ever be any better than the guy who's operating them, because if he doesn't know what he's doing, his instrument is next to useless.
'In most respects I'd say the two are about as competent as each other. I've had more experience of the Fairlight, so you might think I'd be biased a bit towards that, but if anything I have a feeling that the Synclavier is better at reproducing big orchestral sounds, for example.
'The other thing is, I don't think sampling will ever be able to recapture everything you can get out of an acoustic instrument itself. If you're absolutely intent on getting the sound of a violin, then I think you've still got to find someone to play the violin and stick it directly down on tape. On the other hand, if you want to reproduce the size of say, an orchestra, then something like the Synclavier is ideal.'
What sort of instruments were sampled for the new Visage album?
'Oh, all sorts of things. Aboriginal pipes with beautiful, breathy tones, a swirling Swan Lake string sound, heavy Jaws cellos - sampling the same cello over and over again in different ways to get an ensemble of them - doors banging, lots of bass guitar, plus the basic drum kit sounds, though I still played quite a few little things like cymbals myself, because it's nice to hear a mixture of sampled and real sounds.
'I've found both the Fairlight and the Synclavier to be useful for a lot more than just their sampling, though. The advantage of both systems, as I see it, is the amount you can manipulate sounds and write a whole song using the separate outputs. I love the way you can write a multitrack piece into the sequencer, and then change the instruments that are actually doing the playing. You can put in a rhythm pattern, and then change one of the instruments from say a bass drum to something like a cello. It's easy to become a bit extreme when you've got that much control at the touch of a button, but if you use everything sensibly it can be very effective.'
It was around this time that Egan and a production partner became interested in acquiring Trident Studios, which they discovered quite by chance was up for sale.
'I'd used Trident before with a couple of bands and I liked the atmosphere there. My partner and I got a deal to do a session there one day and we turned up to find it was closed. So we made a few enquiries, borrowed some money on the strength of a publishing company we'd just set up, and eventually bought the studio in partnership with its manager, Steven Stewart-Short.
'What I like most of all about Trident is the sense of history it has. I can't go in there without thinking that this was where Hunky Dory and Perfect Day were recorded, that that piano had been played by people like Elton John and Stevie Wonder.
'We've also since opened Trident II (where the colour photographs were taken) as a smaller studio and mixing facility. The only problem for us is that it seems to be quite difficult to make money out of running a studio these days, unless you're lucky enough to be booked up every day throughout the year. What happens is you have to use the time when the studio isn't booked by other bands for your own recording, and try to scrape a living that way.
'All of the new Visage album was recorded at Trident, simply because I was able to get the studio time at more or less half the normal rate, which isn't bad. We also had to hire most of our gear, because apart from the smaller synths I've already mentioned, we actually don't own all that much equipment ourselves.
As well as surrounding himself with the latest in musical technology - and in keeping with his current attitude towards collaborations - Egan has now gathered together a group of talented musicians whose names are not, as yet, on the lips of every music journalist in Europe.
'Only Steve Strange and myself are left from the original group. There's Steve Barnacle on bass, and his brother Gary on sax. In fact, Gary's done session work for people like Soft Cell, but because he's actually a member of Visage (as opposed to just being a session player) he's playing keyboards and helping with some of the songwriting. We've also got a young guitarist called Andy Barnett, who I think is going to be very well known soon. He's got very much his own style, something like a cross between Adrian Belew and Eddie Van Halen, and his playing features very strongly on the album.'
Release of the new album - titled Beat Boy - is scheduled for the end of August, though it'll be preceded by a new single, 'The Love Glove'. Strangely, although the album as a whole possesses a rawer edge than its predecessors - with more thudding percussion, manic sequencers and cutting guitar lines than ever before - the single is an altogether milder concoction. Egan explains.
'The songs on the album were written over a two-year period, and 'The Love Glove' was actually the last one to be recorded. It was written by Steve Strange, and it's a moody, atmospheric track - very 'European'. I kept the percussion on it very simple, because I think drummers can get in the way of things sometimes. All there is is some bass drum, tambourine and cabasa, plus a few little fill-ins, so it's a very mild, gentle sound.
The reason we're releasing it as a single is simple. When you want to tell somebody something, if you shout at them they flinch and move away from you, whereas if you say it quietly, they're more likely to listen to you. So this is just our way of saying to the people on radio and in the media, "Listen. Visage are still very much around"'.
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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