Both Ends Burning
Torch Song; aspiring musical and studio entrepreneurs
Sean Rothman gets his fingers burnt by aspiring music stars and studio owners Torch Song.
At the beginning of this year Torch Song released their first single, an entertaining piece called Prepare To Energise which failed to set the UK charts alight.
A dance floor filler in the UK, in America it reached no. 4 in the Billboard Dance Charts. Musically they are hard to categorise. Prepare To Energise could be compared to The Art Of Noise, being a NY electro-funk influenced instrumental. However, this track is not really representative of the group. A more accurate comparison would be Eurythmics with whom they have a certain amount in common but Torch Song are smoother and, well, more rhythmic.
"The AMS is God, that's all you need to know." Can the meaning of life really be that simple?
I am interviewing William Orbit in a garage. The garage goes under the name of Guerilla Studio and currently houses a comprehensive 24 track facility, the property of Torch Song, latest signings to Miles Copeland's IRS label. Torch Song are a London based trio, each member having a definite role within the band. William Orbit is responsible for music and production, Laurie Mayer vocals and lyrics and Grant Gilbert visuals and administration.
William is looking very pleased with himself.
He has just heard that the highly selective Association of Professional Recording Studios have accepted Guerilla's application for membership.
It carries a great deal of prestige and joining is notoriously difficult. Ten minutes later he is still smiling. In an attempt to deflate him, I tell William that not many people have heard of Torch Song. He tells me that one day I will be able to tell people that I did one of the first interviews with them. Touché.
Penguin 'O' level English revision notes, page one. A good playwrite must first set the scene. Take your seats, ladies and gentlemen, the Wednesday matinee will now begin.
Our story begins in Los Angeles. It is 1981 and university drop out Grant Gilbert meets art student Laurie Mayer. They are soon good friends. Home on vacation in England Grant meets William Wainwright his old schoolchum. Listening to Miles Davis, they share a vision and like true men of destiny they decide their future lies in music. William takes up the tale.
"We lived in a squat, an old school house and we were blessed with plenty of space so we set up a music room. We covered the walls with carpet and the first thing we put in there was an old Peavy bass amp. Then we bought ourselves a Wasp synth and a Teac A3340 and that was how we started.
"We used the Wasp's sample and hold facility as a sequencer. You could set it to a particular resonance setting so when it started to resonate you'd get a very percussive sound. It wouldn't interface with any other equipment but it didn't matter because we didn't have any other equipment! So we would set it on sample and hold and I'd play bass along with it, so our very first music was geared around electronic rhythms... we were subordinate to the synth rhythms as opposed to our own.
"We got the A3340 from America. Laurie and Grant smuggled it in their suitcase. It was running on American supply (110v instead of 240) so it was running at 6IPS instead of 15IPS but we didn't notice for a long time!
"Later we got a Roland SH-2 and just after that we also bought a CSQ-600 sequencer. The first drum machine we had was a Dr Rhythm (like everyone) and eventually we got a TR808.
"Grant and I went to Japan — we were fortunate enough to get a modelling assignment out there — and whilst we were there we picked up a Korg Trident in a second hand shop in Tokyo for a ridiculous price, which gave us our first taste of polyphonic synthesizers. We finally got kicked out of the squat and moved into this place. We didn't have a record deal and we wanted to make demos so we thought 'Why not get our own demos together right on our own premises as we had done before, only on eight track?"
It all sounds very expensive. How did you pay for it all?
"I was working for an oil company at the time, a thing that I hated. Laurie and I stopped working and concentrated on the music while Grant held out and he was able to come home with vast sums of money because the work he was doing was quite lucrative.
"Anyway, we got a bank loan and bought the eight track equipment (a Brenell Mini 8 and a Tangent 12-4) and installed it into the garage here but we had to rent it out, do commercial sessions to keep it going, at the same time we were working on our demos."
"We sent around our eight track demos to all the record companies — we had a very systematic campaign. Grant sent cassettes to every record company in the Melody Maker yearbook. We received many rejections — we've got a file full of slips saying 'Sorry, it's too bizarre'!
"Finally, we sent out the last batch of demos which struck lucky and we got a lot of interest. About three or four major record companies expressed interest and said they wanted to deal with us and we ended up signing with IRS."
"We realized that 24 track wasn't enough. We had to re-think our approach to recording and start again because it's so easy to fill up tracks with the odd little percussion sounds and incidentals."
How were you able to upgrade to 24 track?
"Basically, Grant's skill at making people part with money! We got an advance and we also got a recording budget and we put it all to the cost of equipment but we still had to borrow money and we still have to hire it out to clients because the studio cost us about £110,000."
What difference has going 24 track made to your recording?
"The first thing it did was it made it too busy. You have all these tracks free so you start filling them up. The second thing it did, we realised that 24 track wasn't enough! We had to re-think our approach to recording and start again because it's so easy to fill up tracks with the odd little percussion sounds and incidentals. We realised it wasn't as easy as it seemed."
The interior of Guerilla Studios is impressive. Crammed into just two small rooms, the control room and vocal booth, is an incredible array of equipment, it's certainly the best equipped electronic music studio I've seen. Besides the original Roland SH-2 and CSQ600 there is now a Jupiter 8, a Juno 106, a JX3P and the inevitable DX7. There is also a MC4, MC202 and a recently acquired MSQ700.
"My favourite synthesizers are definitely Roland full stop. They all share the same characteristics — I don't think they've changed their oscillators for donkey's years. One might have an arpeggiator, the other an extra envelope generator but essentially they're all very similar."
Some people say they sound thin.
"It is a thin sound I suppose but you can fatten it up. We've always done everything in conjunction with our outboard so you might have a rudimentary mono synth but if you've got masses of outboard which you also use heavily then it's like going back to the modular synth system days. Your patchbay, your rack and your synth are all part of a vast modular sound creating system."
The 24 track is a Otari MTR90 machine coupled to a soon-to-be-replaced Soundcraft 32:24 desk. Interestingly, the band master onto a Sony PCM F1.
"We've got two actually. We used to master onto a Revox but we use that for editing now. You can't edit on a PCM system anyway so what we tend to do is to store all our masters on digital and bounce them on it and use it as a sort of storage facility.
"Editing features very heavily in what we do. Our first single (Prepare to Energise) had 93 edits in it — it was virtually created on the editing block."
Your method of working has obviously changed a lot with the advent of digital.
"Totally. The single most revolutionary thing I ever acquired was the AMS digital delay. I have never had a session on my own stuff or anyone else's where my finger's off that button for more than half an hour. I've now got access to a Fairlight, thanks to Stewart Copeland who I've been working with recently, so I'm very keen to expand what I've been doing with the AMS on the Fairlight."
What's your approach to recording?
"Generally, we've got a demo to go on so it doesn't really matter too much what you start with because you know what the song sounds like anyway. So the rhythm comes first. The very first thing is the guide drums, normally the '808 and the time code, and the time code is the critical thing because that controls everything.
"Then I probably put down the instrumentation which may be a guide or may turn out fine in which case I'll keep it. Then a guide vocal so the track's there in essence and it's just a matter of refining it."
Do you see yourself as a songwriter or technician?
"A combination of technology and songs is rather apt, actually. We're working on the songs side of it now in order that we can get our music across to millions as opposed to thousands. If we sell them the songs then they'll turn over the record and hear some interesting sounds as well."
Torch Song's album Wish Thing was released this month and I'm currently having a love/hate relationship with it. The melodies are there it's just that the group seem to have got carried away and given great emphasis to the arrangement making things just a little too polished and smooth for my liking. That said, there is something strangely subversive about Torch Song but this has yet to be reflected in their recorded work.
In addition to the album, Torch Song have also recorded some more obscure ambient/atmospheric music which would be ideal for films and they have recently been approached by Southern Music, the US music library, who would like to acquire some of their music. Another notch in the studio door in Torch Song's bid for world conquest. As the record says, Beware Earthlings.
Interview by Sean Rothman
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