Children of the Evolution
Talking pictures with the dance duo
The Grid's latest album Evolver is packed with hi-tech beats, but the dance duo of the moment are actively involved in the wider growth of electronic culture. Phil Ward looks at them in (computer) graphic detail
It seems only natural that The Grid should have become multimedia victims. Electronic musicians Dave Ball and Richard Norris have been at the cutting edge of music technology for several years, notching up two landmark albums with Electric Head and 456, and rivalling 808 State and The Orb in terms of innovation.
Their live shows have long aspired to this status. From the early days of TV screens flashing synchronous imagery from the stage to this year's Hi-8 driven 3D extravaganza, Grid performances have pioneered a new form of pixelated pop. Just as earlier generations of switched-on bands had their slide projections, nowadays no self-respecting sons of Kraftwerk should be seen in public without the digital backup which gives them fingertip control over visual impact.
Ever since the banjaxed banjos of 'Swamp Thing' barnstormed the charts, the band have enjoyed a virtual blank cheque for their concepts and projects. But even before this breakthrough, The Grid had stepped up their research into state-of-the-art graphics. For some time now, North London design group Mu Media have been forging a video identity to match the band's audio. Through this liaison, sophisticated computer graphics have become an essential part of the production process.
It all started innocently enough. Sharing a taxi after an Orb gig, Richard got chatting to a friend of Kieran Evans. Kieran is one half of the Mu team.
"My friend didn't know anything about The Grid," Kieran recalls. "He told me he'd met this bloke who was in a band that used TV screens on stage, couldn't remember his name. Then about a week later I said to him, how about going to see this band called The Grid - and the penny dropped. Furthermore, it turned out that Richard lived next door but one..."
At that time, Kieran and his partner Tim Davies had been making a spoof film on the related themes of UFO-hunting and KLF-spotting (The KLF had just begun their self-imposed exile from the media). Interweaving Hi-8 footage of infamous UFO sites and Bill Drummond's house, the film was "jazzed up" with two Amiga 500s. Richard and Dave liked it so much they half-inched Tim's footage of the strange light emanating from a US airbase, for The Grid's 'Texas Cowboy' video.
Kieran's loyalty to the Amiga platform stems from his Fine Art course at college in Newport, where Brian Eno was an assessor. "They actively encouraged use of electronics," he recounts.
"We've always had very specific ideas about what we want to do, and once we'd got the Amigas tied up to a video mixer and a U-matic edit suite, we saw loads of potential in the medium."
Both Kieran and Tim had been working at Amblimation - the animation wing of Steven Spielberg's Amblin production company. Although the Silicon Graphics technology there was way ahead of the field, its application to conservative and sentimental end products frustrated them. The opportunity to set up Mu Media in collaboration with ad agency Think, was just the ticket.
For Richard Norris, the opportunity to work with forward-thinking artists with experience in the right kind of technology was equally attractive.
"When we first started playing live," he reflects, "we wanted something more than just lights. For the first tour we did, we had a system designed by David James using an Atari, which meant that I could trigger different images from different keys. It was manually controlled two-dimensional stuff - one song would have various words, from which I could make up different sentences, another would have straight video footage, and we'd mix between them. All on a load of second-hand TVs.
"After that we wanted to step it up a bit, and actually have the graphics, the video and the music all in sync. So we hooked up with Kieran and Tim, and we did a lot of the early stuff at Amblimation - after hours."
"Tim actually put in a request for a Betacam edit suite," adds Kieran proudly, "which was not really, shall we say, necessary for what we were doing there. And we got it. I think the production manager knew it was really for The Grid..."
"At this point," nods Richard, "I'd like to thank Steven Spielberg for helping us get our live act together."
Now Mu Media have their own studio, to which Messrs Ball and Norris are frequent visitors, supplying audio mixes for Kieran and Tim to work with, and checking on the progress of the surreal and industrial landscapes which provide the three-dimensional settings for The Grid's videos. Used both live and in promos, they are as important in providing an identity for The Grid as the music.
Richard traces the origins of this aesthetic alliance.
"It's mainly instrumental music, and we've always been interested in film soundtracks. We want the music to be evocative, but not based around lyrics or traditional song structures. It's really about moods, atmospheres and feelings, and if we can convey that visually as well, even better. I think it's also an extension of club culture, where - at least since 1988 - you get these great party atmospheres with films projected along the walls and so on.
"I've always loved that scene in Midnight Cowboy where they go to this party, and there's someone filming them, there's all this mad stuff projected on all the walls and so on. I also used to work for a psychedelic record company, and Dave and I have definitely been looking for a way of doing that sort of thing in a relevant, modern way. We've tried to update those '60s things, like The Roundhouse, the UFO Club, early Pink Floyd concerts.
"The psychedelic period was the last time, I think, you had art which looked new and exciting, even though some of it might seem a bit pretentious now. It went hand-in-hand with the music, it had the same attitude. I used to DJ at a club called Alice In Wonderland, where we had mystery trips to mad places like Hastings Pier and Battersea Power Station. This was mid-'80s, before warehouse parties began to happen. The Grid, with the input from Mu Media, is an extension of all that: Psychedelia meets electronics."
Despite the relative tedium of rendering - the process by which the computer converts textures and shapes from data input to actual 3D images - the medium is quick and responsive, unlike the laborious procedures used by pioneers like Kraftwerk. Once real-time rendering filters down to small systems like Mu's, the floodgates will open.
"This time last year we only had two Amiga 1200s," says Kieran. "Now we've got a Betacam edit suite and Amiga 4000s, souped up to full potential. All we need now is a Newtek Screamer kit, which will accelerate the Amigas to the closest you can get to real-time rendering without buying Silicon Graphics.
"We're actually using technology which is used in kids' bedrooms. We're not a big facilities house, and we don't want to work like one."
"That's always been The Grid's approach as well," adds Richard. "We don't want to be like The Future Sound Of London, making videos which look deliberately expensive. They look corporate, and don't reflect what you can do at bedroom level. We've always been into the 'hacker' mentality, looking for things which are a bit more left-field and direct. A lot of the nice graphics you can get, with flying doves and so on, are just so bland. A video shouldn't look like someone's showreel - it should be about ideas."
"If you think about it," continues Kieran, "a bedroom computer with a sampler in it - which loads of kids have got nowadays - is quite an amazing bit of kit. To be able to make graphics and music on the same machine, that's quite something..."
It's easy to draw a parallel with the explosion of independent music which followed the affordability of record pressing in the late '70s. As the means of production fall into the hands of the creative workers, small revolutions ensue.
"People really hack it when it becomes available," says Richard. "The same thing happened with Roland 909s and 303s. People took - and still take - those machines a lot further than they would if they had unlimited funds. If you've only got a small Amiga, or a small amount of musical equipment, you'll probably do a lot more with it."
"Some of it may look a bit similar at first," believes Kieran, "as people discover colour cycling or perspective animation at the same time. But equally there are no company executives breathing down your neck telling you what to do with it."
"Technology has taken leaps forward," continues Richard, "but if you look at some of the scratch video of ten years ago, it still looks really fresh - because it looks edgy and grungy. At the moment you're getting things which look very pristine and pretty, but the lessons which come from avant-garde film-making, for example, have still to be learned."
One of those lessons is that a primitive edge can give art power and potency. That's why analogue synthesisers are more popular than digital, and why the nascent computer graffiti of a thousand bedrooms means more to The Grid and Mu Media than the seamless tricks of Jurassic Park.
"We use the surface textures of graphics and video a lot in the live shows," agrees Richard. "Tim and Kieran will have an image on the screen, video it, and then video that again, so you get these degenerated images. It has that hacker, grungy feel to it which we're definitely developing."
On stage, The Grid play live over backing tracks running on Hi-8 tape, which include both the audio basics generated by Richard and Dave and the video sequences prepared by Kieran and Tim. Using the edit suite at Mu, the band can chop and change the full audio-visual 'program' at will - and usually do for every gig. It's a first, tentative step into the realm of interactivity.
"We're trying to keep it fairly bold and simple at the moment, and we could get Tim and Kieran along at the gigs to do video mixes. But we've also thought about filling the venue with CD-i machines, and running them through a vision mixer that would flip between Tim and Kieran's work and stuff that the audience is doing live on the consoles. But how interactive it gets isn't that important - it's more about how good the show looks. We're more likely to get a good show if we're in control, after all.
"I actually think the importance of interactivity is exaggerated. There's a lot of hype about it, but you try getting an audience somewhere in the American Mid-West to interact. A non-linear but continuous CD-i would probably sell a lot more than the ones where you have to keep doing things to keep it going. They're so slow; it's not like a game. CD-i technology, and video mixing technology, will be more useful to the people on the stage than the people in the audience. You wouldn't give everyone in the audience a keyboard just because you have a new sampler on stage."
When a tape of Grid music arrives at Mu Media, the first thing that Kieran and Tim do is copy this to blank video tape. They then take the audio home, listen to it, and consider the implications either of what Richard has already suggested, or what the working title suggests to them. Ideas are filtered, and, according to Kieran, it helps that Tim is not a fan of dance music. A sound on 'Rollercoaster', for example, prompted the idea of machine breakdown, and the image of television interference.
To this they add a welter of assembled animation and video footage from hours of recorded TV, which they play back with the music belting out from the audio monitors. Effects are added and graphics are mixed, in what amounts to a computer jam session. From this they select meaningful audio-visual collisions, enhance the best effects, and work towards a finished mix. Richard approves.
"Nobody's really exploited the techniques of re-broadcasting and adding multiple layers of graphic effects before. It's very much hacker technology. The first album Dave and I worked on, Jack The Tab, was a case of taking in a pile of records and videos to sample from, and we only gave ourselves an hour and a half to do each track. And when I started working with Tim and Kieran, I brought in a whole load of videos and Hi-8 footage, and we started piecing it together in the same sort of way.
"It's a visual version of sampling, and we're just at the early stages of it - just as Jack The Tab was at the early stages of recording and sampling technology."
Richard has varying amounts of influence over the visual themes of each track. For 'Swamp Thing', he had the general idea of white costume and a white set, but that's all. For other projects, scarcely a frame escapes his attention. Increasingly though, Mu Media are dictating the look of things autonomously, as their visual vocabulary harmonises with The Grid's musical language. In common, they maintain a healthy disrespect for technology. Their chosen platform - Amiga - is itself often regarded as a poor relation of the nuclear family of desktop production tools. And they express disdain for the huge budgets squandered by the likes of The Pet Shop Boys on showcase gimmicks and graphics. "Our most expensive video is our worst video," claims Richard. "And our cheapest is the best."
"Tim's Amiga," Kieran points out, "is absolutely choc-a-bloc with chips. It's being pushed right to the limits. We do invest in equipment; we got the DPS PAR digitizer so we could output the 3D graphics quicker, and the next thing we'll do is accelerate the Amigas. But these are things to make the system more responsive and intuitive; not just more flashy."
For all this talk of computers, television is at the heart of The Grid/Mu Media aesthetic. Apart from infiltrating the sets and shooting his own editions of Top Of The Pops and Eastenders on Hi-8, Richard is planning a film on the subject of cable TV. Furthermore, both Richard and Kieran foresee the impact of interactive television putting media such as CD-i and CD-ROM in the shade.
"There are already millions of TVs out there," states Kieran. "People have much more of a personal relationship with it. Once it becomes an interactive medium, through cable, there's much more of a likelihood of big changes happening."
Meanwhile, the interaction between Mu Media, The Grid and their audio-visual programs never ends. They work towards a final mix, but they never get there. Videos are changed for every show, often unknown to Richard and Dave until they are on stage, looking at them. In the video for 'Swamp Thing', the baby son of Pablo, The Grid's travelling percussionist, can be seen 'operating' a Roland TB303. Kieran likes to scratch this image so that the child is seen to be playing different instruments on different nights. Born to be wired?
"It's all about evolution," says Kieran.
Kieran and Tim would like to extend their deepest respect to: Newtek, Digital Processing Systems, Premier Vision, Phil Wolstenholme, Hex, Nick Owen, Jim Bird, Andrew Sutton & Think, "bedroom boffins everywhere..."
Interview by Phil Ward
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!