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Country Life

Big Country

the instrumental side of touring

In a Big Country hacks stay with you, at least for one gig. Tony Bacon quizzes Stuart Adamson, Bruce Watson, Tony Butler and Mark Brzezicki. Jon Blackmore fixes the pics.

SCENE ONE: About 5pm, Manchester Apollo, Thursday night. The gear's all in place and the boys are busy posing and miming for the film crew, who are capturing "Where The Rose Is Sown" for the next video. In a break, your reporter notes down the contents of Stuart and Bruce's effects racks as it becomes clear that interviews with real people may be a bit brief thanks to the filming demands.

So straight into the hard facts. Stuart's rack has an MXR Pitch Transposer (their version of a harmoniser) and related display module, a Psionics four-way noise gate, a second Pitch Transposer, and a Korg SD3000 digital delay. Bruce has some of the same — a single Pitch Transposer, the noise gate and the Korg ddl — plus a Yamaha R1000 digital reverb and an MXR Flanger/Doubler. Bruce wanders over and offers a guided tour.

"The Korg's got ten presets for different echo speeds, which I used to use in order of the songs. I've had to go back and redo them for the new songs, but I'm getting the hang of it. The Yamaha I only use in one song, 'Wonderland'. It actually has four programs, Albert Hall to whatever. I use strict echo times for my effects, which I work out with Mark from the drum rhythm.

"The Flanger/Doubler can give you double-tracked sounds and flange — I use it mainly on 'Steeltown' to get that nice metal flange. I also tend to use it where I need sort of 'chicky-chicky-chicky' sounding guitar, it's good for that.

"Sometimes I use straight guitar, I only use the effects on certain songs. But my main thing is the Pitch Transposer, which I have preset so that I can choose a chorus setting, an octave below, a fifth above, or an octave above. I tend to use the chorus setting most of all, which is set at +0.2. The noise gate cleans it all up — I only use one of the four built-in gates. You can adjust the gate so that the noise stops completely, which is handy when you have so much stuff in-line."

SCENE TWO: About 6pm, up in the Apollo's carpeted and peaceful dressing-cum-relaxing room. The group sit around. The TV's on with the sound down, there's some food on a table. Tony changes his clothes, the others wind down after the video shoot and prepare for the soundcheck. Your reporter turns the tape on.

Is that Schecter Tele new, Bruce?

BW: I've just been using it for this tour. I used to use Stratocasters but the two I had were really dodgy ones — and I fancied a Telecaster. So I got a Schecter and a Tokai — the Tokai has EMG pickups and a Rockinger whammy bar with a locking nut so that it doesn't go out of tune. Broken strings? Actually, I've only ever broken one string with Big Country in the whole time I've been in the group, in America somewhere I think.

I hired out the Schecter with a Session amp, my local shop suggested it, and it sounded really good. You've got nine different sounds on it, with the combination of push-pull pots and a three-way selector. I tend to use two main ones, one very bassy and the other more full. I use it for about three or four songs in the set, the Tokai for one song, tuned to D for slide, and my Yamaha throughout the set. Sometimes the guitar roadie forgets to put a new battery in the Tokai for the EMGs and it sounds terrible!

How's your Yamaha standing up?

BW: The first one I got was an SG500, then I got a 2000 but it had a dodgy neck on it where someone had stuck a different neck on. On the 500 the fingerboard had been curved, but on this strange 2000 it was really flat, almost like a classical guitar, and I couldn't get used to it. I ended up giving it to my guitar roadie, so he plays it a bit in the house. It's a hopeless guitar, that one, so I gave it to him. I'm happy with my new Yamaha, the 2000S — the S means it's got coil taps.

SA: I use that 2000S on 'Come Back To Me', it cleans it up quite nicely with the coil taps. Certain songs I use the Fender Strat and certain ones my Yamaha. The Yamaha's the powerful-sounding guitar, the rocky sound, the Fender I use on the janglier stuff like 'In A Big Country'. But the Fender still has the punch as well as being a janglier instrument. I've had the same Strat since the start of the group, the grey Anniversary Strat. The white one I have is a spare in case I break a string or something.

Any criticisms of the Yamaha?

SA: The only thing is that the machine heads seem to wear out really quickly, we've had to replace them a couple of times. And this set I've got on at the moment are beginning to go, especially on the G and D strings. I think it's the bearings that are going, you need to tighten them up every couple of weeks which is unusual. Apart from that I've not had any problem. The quality control must be brilliant though, you pick up any one at all and they feel exactly the same. Jerry, my brother-in-law in the support group (White China), he's got a 2000S and I could pick that up and play it on stage without any problem.

What about your Vox 12-string, Bruce, has that seen much use?

SA: No! He's banned from using that live.

BW: They won't let me use it cos of the shape. I use it in the house with my Portastudio — when you play it acoustic it sounds good too, but it goes out of tune too much what with the whammy bar and 12 strings.

Isn't there mandolin on 'Come Back To Me'?

BW: Yeah, I'd never played one before. For the album I used my SG500 but with the strings tuned as for a mandolin, E/A/D/G, the other way round to a bass with G as the low string. On stage I'm using an electric mandolin.

And how's the backline working out for the tour?

BW: I'd only used Marshall before but I've also got a Session combo now, just cos I like the sound and I can use combinations of the Marshall and Session as needed. I was actually gonna use two Sessions, one for all the heavy sounds instead of the Marshall, which works fine in the studio. But on stage when you use a heavy sound on the Session it just doesn't cut — if you move just to the side of it you can't hear it at all. So for those sounds I stuck with the Marshall; for really clean sounds the Session's good. I had a Music Man for a while, too, but I'm happy with Session.

SA: I use a couple of Fender Showmans on stage, I prefer the sound of the 1x12 combos as opposed to the two 12s in the Twin Reverb. But I'm going to change the speakers in my Showmans to JBLs; they're OK as they are up to a certain level but if you push them a wee bit further, especially if you're pushing a clean sound on that sort of amp, it breaks up a bit. I never use the reverb, but the eq panel's very helpful.

I noticed you were using Nady radio equipment for the guitars, too. What about bass amps, Tony?

TB: There's two advantages to radio guitar links. One is the obvious help in manoeuvrability, you can go anywhere with them. The other is that the signal is that much better, you actually lose a lot of top from using leads. Amps? I've got a Trace Elliot rig — two 4x 10s and two 1 x 15s, a pre-amp and a 500 watt power amp.

SA: It's what?

TB: 500 watts.

SA: Fucking hell!

TB: Didn't you know?

BW: Tony's his own heavy metal band.

SA: Your one amp's got more power than all of mine and Bruce's put together.

TB: But if you had a 500 watt guitar amp you'd kill everybody, wouldn't you?

SA: Too right. I'm gonna get one.

MB: I'm going to get a bass drum and put some snare wires on it.

BW: You eccentric, you.

Now then, how do you get your guitars to sound like bagp...

Dave Wernham (tour manager): Right! Soundcheck time.

SCENE THREE: About 1am Friday morning, in the hideously decorated bar at the otherwise tasteful Britannia Hotel, Manchester. Tony Butler is seated before a pint of lager and the reporter's still-running Sony. Record switch on...

You're using a Jazz Bass for the first time, I understand, in addition to your regular Precision?

"Yes, I use it for chord stuff on 'Inwards' and 'Angle Park', fifths and third shapes in particular. Those songs have a D-drone, with the melody played on the G. 'Raindance' is another song that uses that technique, in the instrumental section, but it's not all drone, I use a fifth chord as well — there's quite a lot of B thrown in plus a fifth. I'm quite pleased I've got into that way of playing."

Do you see the fingerboard in terms of shapes and boxes to play within?

"No, when we're doing new stuff I think of a line that's going to suit the song, and I just use the fingerboard in whatever way I need to play that line. Take 'The Storm' as an example: the intro is a full chord on the bass, a root G high up on the A-string, a fifth on the D, and an octave on the G. I stroke that rather than thunder it, with a bit of chorus. On the album there's a bit of echo, too, but live the hall tends to compensate."

Are the footswitches you have on-stage for your MXR Pitch Transposer?

"Yes. It has four presets and you hit the button for whichever you want. There's one at a fifth above, set at +7.0 and which I use a lot in 'Wonderland' for sort of one-note chord effects; the second is set at -0.2, giving a slight chorus underneath the note; the third is at +0.2 for chorus above; and the last is an octave below, at -12, which I rarely use but which can be nice if you're playing something like a high G and want a really walloping low G underneath. So I use the MXR more for chorus than anything else — it's the best chorus I've come across, it sort of scatters the note without distorting it. Normal chorus pedals have never been radical enough for me. I picked the MXR up after seeing Stuart using his, and tried it in the studio."

Have you ever thought of having a bass built exactly as you want it?

"Well I had Wal make me a bass and I asked for a really slim neck which they don't normally do. Also, I asked them to cut down the variables of the active controls. Even so I still couldn't get on with it: jumping around the stage I'd hit knobs and it'd take three minutes to find the precise tuning on the pots for the original sound. I'd end up putting gaffer tape on the pots, but I couldn't be bothered. So I prefer to buy my guitars off the peg, and if I get bored I'll just change it. You outgrow things, or the group demands something different."

Did you experiment with bass sounds on the new LP?

"Lots. I tried putting one side of my stack in a really dead room and the other in a very live drum booth — like on 'East Of Eden', the bass sound is really toppy and clattery. There's lots of toys and harmonisers on the record: on 'Just A Shadow' there's an effect that sounds like a choir and is in fact bass going through a lot of effects. When I was developing the piece I was playing a low root A, and an E on the D string, with the harmoniser up a fifth giving it a nice fullness.

I said it would be good to use that sound, but a bit softer. I don't know what Steve (Lillywhite, producer) ended up using — I think there was a Prime Time delay — but after 20 minutes it was sounding like Clannad."

SCENE FOUR: About 2am, in the same bar, but a few more beers further on. Mark Brzezicki takes over the interview pew and selects his accompanying liquid. The wallpaper by now is moving around a bit. Where's that record button...

What do you like to hear in your monitors?

"The backline's enough for the band sound, but as everyone's miked up and I'm acoustic, as it were, I do like to hear some kick drum and snare in there, plus a touch of vocals and bass.

"Obviously you start off doing gigs without monitors or miking up, in say working men's clubs, and I always thought the bass drum wasn't a good enough sound on an acoustic kit, I needed more depth. So I bought myself a D12 mike and a small Marshall amp and cab, just to mike up the bass drum. Even doing small pubs and clubs that's a pleasing sound, slightly deadened and miked-up. I tried it through the bass player's cab first, but he eventually said, 'Buy your own.' It's a good idea."

How much has your kit grown as you've moved up to a PA and monitors?

"Well it has grown of course, but I like lots of drums in small sizes, specially for the toms, I don't like to get bigger than 15 or 16 inches. A lot of drummers, if they've got two floor toms, go for the 18in floor. I think you actually get a bigger sound with a smaller drum. The reason for that is that when you're miked up you get a much cleaner and more definite sound from a small drum. But when it's ambient and huge and ringing just from its sheer size, specially floor toms, it can be a nightmare getting good clear sounds in small studios. I found that I could get a good floor tom sound by not using anything bigger than a 14in, and I had it hanging on a cymbal stand so that the actual drum vibrated in exactly the same way that the hanging toms would. Pearl were one of the first to do that idea, and that's what turned me on to them.

"We've always been considered to get a big drum sound, and yet, as I say, my drums are really quite small. And your reach can be a lot better with smaller sizes — just look at the logic of it. You get a lot more colour in a smaller size. So I also like a lot of sizes because of the range of tones you get."

What about two bass drums?

"I've tried it, but I'd have to work at it a long time. It's a different mentality — it almost starts to sound inhuman and like Linn drum patterns. I like the challenge to do it on one foot, and the co-ordination between hi-hat, bass drum and snare by having only one of each is much more interesting."

But you do use two snares.

"My main snare is in the usual place; on the other side of the hi-hat exactly the same distance away from it is the other. It's all very well crossing hands as I do, but if you've got a snare drum to the left of the hi-hat you're suddenly playing with your left hand on the snare drum, you're not crossing. So you can play 'inside out' for the snare — you've got something else to hit on the other side of the hi-hat. It's very comfy to be able to play without crossing your hands. I tune one of the snares to a timbale sound, and that's a really good sound with the snare turned on, too. Sort of a choked sound, quite unusual. I've got four Octobans, two highs and two lows in a rack of four, and they're over with the 'timbale' snare, so that's become a very colourful side of the kit. I do odd little flurries over there."

Have you been tempted by electronic drums at all?

"Not at all. One thing I try hard to do in Big Country is to put real drums back on the map. The tragic thing about Linn drums is that things like that should be there to help, not to become flavour of the month. You start getting idiot, inhuman drum beats on records, and it turns into fashion. The poor old drummer finds himself unwanted cos he can't play like that!

"I don't mind Simmons so much. I've used them occasionally on sessions mixed in with a real drum kit, overdubbed, mixed in to thicken things up. That's nice. I used a Simmons pad that was lying around the studio on 'In A Big Country' where I would normally play the floor tom, a really low sound on the middle eight, underneath the tom. On their own, the Simmons are the nearest things to having a Linn played by a human.

"But to me, a song with Linn drums hasn't got drumming on it — I can't hear that at all. Music's a very human thing, with excitement, emotion, happiness, sadness. People are beginning to think that the machines are the 'right' way to sound — it's conditioning. What I like about us is that we're just four guys, guitars and drums, who pick up our instruments and play."

More with this artist

Previous Article in this issue

Akai AX80

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Deaf Defying

One Two Testing - Copyright: IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.


One Two Testing - Dec 1984


Big Country



Related Artists:

Mark Brzezicki

Interview by Tony Bacon

Previous article in this issue:

> Akai AX80

Next article in this issue:

> Deaf Defying

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