Cyber-Tribal World Funkateers
D'Cuckoo are hardly your average MIDI band: they build their own instruments; they're all women, and they play "post-industrial cyber-tribal world-funk". Paul Tingen investigates.
A few months ago a whirlwind swept through London. Just as the dozing UK record industry was preparing to relax into its habitual Summer retirement, a couple of American women stormed through, blowing away dusty cobwebs with their infectious enthusiasm and exuberant energy. Tina Blaine and Patti Clemens of the San Francisco-based band D'Cuckoo were on a 'fact-finding' mission, to see whether a European record deal would suit them better than an American one, and visited various A&R and management offices.
People's minds — and ears — must have done somersaults as they were confronted with the ideas and music of what could be one of the most unusual MIDI-based bands in the world. For starters, and unusually in the field of electronic music, D'Cuckoo is an all-women band. Still more notable is the fact that they design and build their own MIDI instruments. They use them to play a rhythmic, left-field kind of electronic rock music, spiced with Zimbabwean and Asian grooves and harmonies. Somebody apparently christened it 'post-industrial cyber-tribal-world-funk.' As if that's not enough, they're also a spectacular live act, entertaining audiences with a multi-media show featuring their self-built electronic instruments, as well as MIDI-triggered video images and stage lights.
Digidesign, the US developer of low-cost digital recording systems, certainly seem to have recognised D'Cuckoo's place at the cutting edge of electronic music, inviting the band to test the then-brand new ProDeck Mac-based multitrack hard disk recording software. The band used the system to record their forthcoming — and first — CD. On these recordings D'Cuckoo will also be using yet another 3-D sound processing tool, Virtual Audio, designed by LA musician/engineer Christopher Currell. And last but not least, D'Cuckoo have worked with Brian Eno, wrote part of the soundtrack for the BBC Horizon programme Colonising Cyberspace, and are preparing a new show which will feature aspects of Virtual Reality technology, plus new, revolutionary, hi-tech ways of audience participation.
Trying to summarise the activities and achievements of D'Cuckoo leaves one gasping for breath. A two-hour exposure to just one half of the band in the flesh has exactly the same effect. Tina 'Bean' Blaine and Patti Clemens are literally ablaze with energy, recounting their D'Cuckoo affairs with a wild flurry of laughs, ideas, information, fantasies and jokes.
"The primary consideration for us in using modern technology is that it's fun and that it expands our musical possibilities," says Tina Blaine. "Also, we hope to take away people's fear of technology. It's funny, the two main emotions we've encountered from musicians towards technology have been fear or anger: 'I hate this thing.' We don't have any of these responses. For us technology is just a great tool that you can use in a million different ways. It doesn't dictate anything to you, and it's really exciting to use."
The instruments which the as yet unsigned American act have built include two MIDI marimbas, plus four drum triggers which they call 'turtles.' The reasons for building them have to do with the background of the band members.
Apart from Blaine and Clemens, D'Cuckoo consists of Candice Pacheco and Tina Phelps. Clemens, Pacheco and Blaine were all part of San Francisco's first acoustic marimba ensemble, The Underground Marimba Ensemble, during the early '80s. Phelps played in a Japanese taiko percussion ensemble, reminiscent of the Kodo Drummers with their large, double-sided drums and big, theatrical style of drumming. The musical approach of the acoustic marimba ensemble was very physical, visually spectacular, and loud. So when the four women started working together during the mid-80s, they wanted to build on the visual as well the musical power of their previous groups.
Searching for new boundaries, the obvious answer was to go electronic. But this proved more difficult than anticipated. Existing MIDI marimbas were primarily designed for the classical or jazz musician, and, says Clemens, "they just weren't up to our big, visual style of playing. We are really hitting these things hard and we felt they wouldn't last. Also we wanted instruments that we could shape any way we wanted, whether big, small, round, square, triangular, whatever."
The building of their own MIDI instruments was very much a jump in the deep end, as only Pacheco had a relevant technical background in writing computer software and programming electronic instruments. Blaine, grinning: "Our approach is pretty much that anything is possible, as long as we enter into it with the right spirit." This attitude prompted some observers to call them 'cuckoo', slang for crazy, hence the name. Undeterred, they caught the interest of a few Silicon Valley technicians.
Blaine: "They thought it was great fun to get involved with a group of musicians and made us a deal: 'we'll design the instruments, if you build them.' So we gave them Craig Anderton's book MIDI for Musicians, which has the MIDI spec, and they taught us how to solder and handwire circuit boards, and what a transistor was, and a capacitor and a resistor, etc."
While the Silicon Valley engineers designed the electronic circuitry and computer software to convert the electrical signals into MIDI data, D'Cuckoo did the other research work themselves. This mainly centred around the physical aspects of the instruments, like what materials were sturdy enough to sustain intense on-the-road usage, what kind of rubber had exactly the right bounce, what piezo pick-ups worked best, how to put everything together, and so on, and on. This all happened during 1987. After three months they'd built a crude but working prototype MIDI marimba, which was tweaked and fine tuned in subsequent months. The resulting and current version of the marimbas use neoprene rubber — the stuff used for mouse mats — for the marimba keys, mounted on a masonite base. The instruments' software enables the player to transpose the 2-octave keyboard, change the MIDI output channel, the sustain length of a note, and the program numbers — pretty basic stuff, but further developments are planned.
"We want to increase the sensitivity and the trigger speed of the pads and make alterations to the software so that making program changes on the instruments will be easier," says Blaine. "These instruments are still babies," she adds, laughing. "We've got them to the stage where they work, and they still need developing."
The other self-built instruments, the 'turtles', were initially built for Tina Phelps, the half-Japanese member of the group. She needed an upright, standing MIDI controller that could cope with her hard-hitting playing technique, developed in the taiko ensemble. After the necessary R&D, and stacks of broken prototypes, they ended up with four controllers arranged in a semi-circle. Each of these has four 5"x7" trigger pads attached, with a piezo transducer on the back. The turtles are mounted on camera tripods.
A big pay-off from having designed their own instruments is that D'Cuckoo are probably one of the only MIDI bands in the world that can make a theatrical impact purely with playing their instruments. Patti Clemens: "So much contemporary electronic music is invisible, with static people playing keyboards, getting their sounds out of little black boxes. How interesting is that to look at? We wanted something that was fun to play and fun to watch. When all four of us play these percussion triggers it looks really amazing. And we have these glow-in-the-dark sticks, so at times we switch off the lights and all you can see are these moving sticks."
For many years the members of D'Cuckoo used to constantly swap instruments, including drums and keyboards, on stage. Only recently has more specialisation has crept in, with Clemens playing bass and Pacheco guitar, respectively a Bass Collector bass, and a Hohner G2 tremolo guitar, which triggers a Roland GR50 guitar synth and Roland GP16 digital guitar effects processor. Other D'Cuckoo sound sources include a Roland D550, two Emu Emax samplers, two Korg M1s (one rackmounted, one keyboard), a Korg Wavestation, two Emu Procussion drum modules, and an Alesis HR16 drum machine.
A Digital Music MX-8 MIDI patchbay/processor is used to co-ordinate all of Pacheco's guitar-based equipment, and another MX-8 takes charge of the MIDI outputs of the electronic marimbas, turtles, and the Korg M1, which is used as a master keyboard. Effects used on stage include a Lexicon LXP1 and an LXP5, programmed by D'Cuckoo's sound engineer with a Lexicon MRC.
In line with their DIY attitude (they also produce their own tapes and run their own business, on top of holding day jobs) D'Cuckoo program their own sounds and record their own samples. For the drum sounds they layer samples and then combine collections of layered sounds to form 'drumkits' of 16 composite sounds. Clemens: "We never have the same set-up for each song. The sounds, the way they're assigned, as well as the instruments that we play, change all the time. The bass drum or the hi-hat will not be under the same pad for every song. One of the reasons for doing that is that it changes the physicality of your playing style. You can't fall into the same playing pattern every time if your kick changes position. That's also the reason why we keep changing instruments live."
A sequencer is not part of the band's stage set-up, but in the studio they until recently used an IBM PC running Voyetra's Sequencer Plus software, plus an 8-track tape recorder. As mentioned before, their forthcoming CD will be recorded on a Macintosh, using ProDeck software which, with its combination of eight tracks of digital audio with MIDI sequencing, is ideally suited to a MIDI-based band like D'Cuckoo whose main need for audio tracks is to record their vocal harmonies.
As far as Virtual Reality is concerned, one idea which is being explored is to have a 'virtual' fifth member of the band on stage, a composite of the other four members. D'Cuckoo have also experimented with Biomuse, a system which picks up the body's bioelectric signals and converts them into useful MIDI data — movements of the arms or head, or even the eyelids, can be used to create music. And lastly there are plans for a show with extensive audience participation. Tina Blaine: "We want to build new instruments for the audience to enable them to perform with us. We're thinking of embedding sensors and MIDI triggers in the floor, or use the well-known large ball [an inflatable globe which appears at gigs] and put wireless MIDI sensors in it, or have photoelectric MIDI triggers so that people can break beams of light and influence the music and/or the video images."
To avoid the artistic chaos which have marred audience participation events in the past, they plan to process the data which comes from the MIDI triggers in such a way that it will fit in with and enhance what they're doing on stage, rather than mess it up. Clemens concludes, "For us it's all about having fun with this technology and showing people that it's not something to be afraid of. Something which concerns us very much is empowerment. A lot of the injustice and suffering in the world comes from the fact that people feel helpless and powerless. One form that takes is that people feel intimidated by technology. So what we want to do is show that technology is just a tool to be used and give people the opportunity to experience their own personal power, to feel that they can really effect change in themselves and the world we live in. Real personal power comes from knowing what makes you happy, what nourishes you and being able to spend your time doing that. Forget the idea that we're the performers and we're in charge and they're just the passive audience. That's something we want to erase."
Perhaps what we need is a group of predominantly right-brain (= feeling, intuition, playfulness) orientated women to be able to demystify — dare one say 'humanise'? — technology, which is primarily a male, left-brain (= rationality, discipline, structure) invention. Letters to the editor please...
Or to D'Cuckoo, Aisle of Women Productions, (Contact Details). Include a US Dollar Money Order (available from the Post Office) for $9, if you want to receive any one of D'Cuckoo's three self-produced audio cassettes, D'Cuckoo I, II, or III.
Interview by Paul Tingen
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