Turning their backs on pop notoriety to meet electronic experimentation head on, Sheffield's LFO are taking dance music into new areas. Simon Trask gets a new perspective on nostalgia.
The underground sound of Sheffield is being shaped by very young musicians with very serious ideas about music. LFO are about to release their first LP, and it's already shaping up to be pretty influential.
LAST AUGUST, THE UK NATIONAL TOP 40 was stormed by a track which by rights had no business being there. Essentially a slice of bass-heavy instrumental techno, this track climbed to the No. 12 slot - despite the group behind it remaining virtually anonymous, with a video being substituted for the more usual personal appearance on Top of the Pops. One national newspaper called them "pop weirdos" and offered a reward to anyone who could provide a photo of them, but to no avail. In time the track dropped out of the charts, and no more was heard of the mysterious group. Just another one-hit wonder in an industry that thrives on fast turnover, perhaps?
A year on from the release of that track, and the duo behind it have resurfaced with another single, logically entitled 'We Are Back'. But they've done more than record a new single in the past year - July 22nd sees the release of their debut album, Frequencies.
Collectively they're known as LFO, which was also the title of their debut single. The initials, of course, stand for Low Frequency Oscillation, a reference to the deep, deep bass which last year had speakers up and down the country blowing their proverbial stacks.
LFO - otherwise known as Mark Bell and Gez Varley - remain amused by both their status as pop weirdos and the lies and made-up quotes which appeared in some of the few interviews they've done in the past. Perhaps it's because they're not interested in the pop-star ego trip that they don't take it either seriously or personally.
"So much of the music business is about image these days", laments Varley in a tone which makes it clear that it isn't for them. We're sitting in the duo's homegrown studio, which is located in the converted loft of Bell's parents' house, a 15-minute bus-ride from Leeds and situated in some very pleasant countryside.
"Like Bros, now they're trying to make a comeback by changing their image", Varley continues. But a new-look Bros isn't all that's different about the music scene one year on. Dance music has exploded onto the commercial scene, and with it has come tremendous diversification in style and taste. Bell and Varley are amazed by the speed with which a once-underground house and techno scene has spread overground to the extent that their local pub now hosts a techno night. So what do they think of the commercialisation of dance music?
"People really do think that to make dance music is easy", replies Varley. "It's easy to make average dance music, but to make something different is much harder."
"I think we're really harsh with ourselves", opines Bell. "We really want our music to be totally amazing - it can't be just alright, it's got to be the best that we can do. When 'LFO' came out we already had an album's worth of material. After the success of the single, our record company wanted us to release an album, but we just didn't want to do that. We were sick of hearing the tracks by that time, and we wanted to work on new ideas. We've done loads of tracks since then. When we did a Peel session last November, that was supposed to be promoting tracks that were going to be on the album, but we haven't used any of the tracks that we played."
Fortunately, Bell and Varley are signed to an understanding record company, the Sheffield-based independent WARP Records. It was WARP, ever with their collective ear to the ground, who picked up on 'LFO' when it was still a cassette being played at the Leeds Warehouse club.
"All we intended the track for was playing at the Warehouse", maintains Bell. "There were no commercial thought in it at all, we didn't think 'Will this sell? Are people going to like it?'. When WARP heard it and decided to release it as a single, we thought we'd make about £500 between us out of it", Bell recalls. "Someone had told us that most dance records did about 5000 copies. Then the next week Top of the Pops and Smash Hits were ringing us up. We just couldn't believe it."
In the event, 'LFO' sold some 130,000 copies in the UK alone - not bad going for a group who refused to play the pop star image game.
"Top of the Pops isn't the be-all and end-all", says Varley. "People see getting on Top of the Pops as success, but I think success is about doing music you like and having people buy it because they like the music, not some image. You can make a steady living from selling 12" singles outside of the charts. We could have released a follow-up to 'LFO', we had loads of tracks, but we held back for a year because we really didn't want to get into all that backstabbing and crap."
But the real cause for interest is the duo's aforementioned debut album, which confirms them as far, far more than one-hit wonders. By resisting the temptations of pop success, and thus avoiding being both alienated from their natural audience and possibly being pigeonholed as a novelty act, LFO have given themselves the time to come up with an album which is going to insure them for more lasting success. Frequencies is an album of no-compromise techno/electro/funk music which has real diversity and originality within its grooves, and crucially establishes an individual style and sound for the duo based around a unique combination of moody atmosphere and bass-heavy beats and a steadfast refusal to rely on familiar, over-used sounds. Comparisons with Kraftwerk aren't amiss in the sense that, like the mighty Germans, LFO have created their own sound world.
"We've both been brought up on electro, hip hop, acid and house, and that's all we think in terms of', says Bell. "Now we're trying to go beyond that. Really we're just doing our music purely from within ourselves, we're not trying to be like anyone else."
Still only 20 years of age now, Bell and Varley first met in 1984 during a breakdancing battle at the Merrion Centre in Leeds. After that they went their separate ways, and didn't meet up again until 1988, when they found themselves on the same photography and graphic design course in Leeds. This time they struck up a friendship which led to a musical partnership. From humble beginnings with a Casio SK1 sampling keyboard and a Korg KPR77 drum machine, Bell and Varley gradually expanded their equipment setup, first of all with a Casio HT3000 MIDI home keyboard and a Casio FZ10M rack-mount sampler, then adding on an Atari ST and C-Lab's Creator software, a Kawai K1 synth and a Studiomaster Mixdown mixing desk. Along the way they also acquired various old analogue synths and drum machines (see equipment list). More recent purchases include a Korg Wavestation synth and a Tascam 644 MIDIstudio four-track cassette machine. And while the duo don't profess to be DJs, they do use a pair of Technics SL1200 decks and a Phonic PRT60 disco mixer to provide a quick means of finding rhythms off record that work together.
Today, while the bulk of the duo's equipment is set up in Bell's attic, Varley has an SX1000 and an MC202 at home for working on ideas, while the TR808 that he normally has synced up to the 202 is currently looking for a repairer who can sort out a dodgy Start button.
"I'm usually here with Mark most days of the week - till pretty late an' all", says Varley.
"If we're really in the mood we can work from ten in the morning till 12 at night, just stopping to get a cup of tea", continues Bell. "At other times we just get sick of each other. If we're seeing each other every day, we start arguing and end up falling out with one other."
"But it's not over musical things", comments Varley. "I can't even remember an argument we've had over the music."
Bell and Varley see both advantages and disadvantages in their home setup.
"We can just mess about here", says Bell. "It's good 'cos if we've been out at the Warehouse and we come back about two in the morning dying to do something, we can just put headphones on - 'cos my mum and dad are in bed - and work on something there and then, instead of booking a studio and then you've got two days in it and you're scared 'cos you don't know if you'll be able to finish in time."
Varley: "And you've got an engineer..."
"...yeah, telling you what to do. We can just do it all here, and it's miles better. When you get up, some days or even weeks you just can't do anything, you just can't think of anything, but some days you can do three tracks in a day."
One disadvantage that Bell points out is one that's common to many a home studio: not having enough effects processors.
"Sometimes we just get bored working in the same place all the time", he adds, "so we go to FON studios in Sheffield and have a mess about on their stuff. They've got a D70 there."
The duo used a more recent FON acquisition, a Roland JD800, on the remix of 'We Are Back'.
"People think that to make dance music is easy - it's easy to make average dance music, but to make something different is much harder."
"We're probably one of the first to use it on a dance record", observes Bell with a touch of pride.
"We went to Human League's studio the other day", adds Varley. "That's really good. They've got all the old analogue synths you could think of, like the Roland System 100, Prophets, Linn Drums... Nice people an' all. Next week we're going to take along our sampler and sample all those noises."
Bell and Varley mixed all the tracks for the album both at FON and in their home studio. Perhaps surprisingly, they mostly preferred the sound of the mixes they did on their relatively modest home setup.
"The only mixes we used from FON were 'El-Ef-O' and 'Think a Moment'", says Bell. "A lot of the FON mixes weren't punchy enough. They sounded good when were doing them there, but as soon as we got them onto other peoples' speakers they didn't sound as good. FON have got JBL speakers, but how many people have got JBL speakers at home? Also, the music's got to sound good when people listen to it in the car or on headphones; there's no point mixing on JBLs unless you're doing a 12" purely for the clubs."
"We check the sound on headphones as well", adds Varley, "for people's personal stereos."
Well, it sure as hell sounds good on my personal stereo - with the bass boost jacked all the way up to heaven, of course.
IN THE LONG TERM, BELL AND VARLEY have their recording sights set on studios much further afield than Sheffield. Bell explains: "At the moment we have the same influences all the time. What we'd really like to do, when we're about 30 or something, is go to other studios around the world, like go to India perhaps, and use local musicians. Still use our gear, but just to see how working in another place and using other people would influence us."
Bearing in mind that LFO were once a trio, would Bell and Varley consider working with other musicians now?
"I don't know if it would work", replies Bell. "If there's three people then it's two against one when you're arguing, but with two of us it's just me against Gez. There's no-one who's wrong or who's right. It's better that way."
And so to basics; how do the duo set about building up a track from scratch?
"We usually have some kind of loop going, like maybe on a drum machine, and then we just mess about", says Bell. "Sometimes we'll just put the C-Lab into record, and record everything that we do, then we'll listen back to it to see if there's anything good. If we find anything we like, we can go into the edit page to see what the notes are, then record them again and perhaps end up basing a song around them."
And is there generally a certain type of idea that sparks off a song for Bell and Varley?
"It's different every time", replies Bell. "There's a few that we've started on chords. For 'El-Ef-O' we got the idea from the zaps at the end of the 12" version of 'LFO'. We just sampled the zap and slowed it right down."
In fact, creating their own sound world is of the utmost importance to the duo.
"At one time we were using the 909 bass drum all the time, and we ended up just getting sick of it", recalls Varley.
"That's when we started making our own sounds up", continues Bell. "Now we've got a few disks of drum and percussion sounds that we've made up from the old synths. We get a click or a zap on the MS 10, say, and then we sample that and mix it in with, like, an 808 bass drum to get a different sound."
"A lot of the noises we get, we record them onto cassette first so that it's worse quality", Varley adds, "Then we sample them off the cassette. Like, we'll distort the sound so that it's a bad sample, but it just sounds good 'cos it's bad!"
"We're really pretty snobby about sounds", continues Bell. "We really want to use new sounds. It's harder to do that, but it's more fun when you get a really good noise that no-one else has used. We're sick of 909s and 808s. They're really good sounds, but everyone's using them - even Kylie's using 909."
"I don't really like the TR727 any more, either", ventures Varley. "It's just over-used. Do you know anybody who wants to buy one?"
No, but I know a free classified ad section that'll find a home for one.
An old instrument which the pair still have a lot of time for is Roland's "acid machine", the TB303 Bassline. They bought one two years ago for £80, and now it provides the deep, pulsing bassline on the album's opening track, 'Intro'. In fact, Bell and Varley still profess an admiration for acid-house pioneers like Phuture.
"Some of that stuff still sounds totally amazing", says Bell. "The 303's so loud in the mix; it's louder than all the drums and everything. Even though everyone knows it's the 303, it just sounds good. The people who made the Bassline must have been mental to make it do all that it can do. They can't have thought 'That's too much, that doesn't sound like a bassline'. They must have been into acid music already! They were real geniuses, like how they designed the 202, as well."
"Just think, if Roland hadn't been set up, dance music would be totally different", Varley muses.
"We're sick of TR909s and TR808s - they're really good sounds, but everyone's using them - even Kylie's using TR909."
Like, no 808, no 909, no 303, no 202...
"No 808 State", jokes Varley.
However, with the exception of occasional sampled chords from a Roland Juno 6 borrowed from a friend ("He's going to read this interview and ask for it back", groans Varley), the floating chord sounds which are such an effective and characteristic part of LFO's music aren't provided by Roland gear. In fact, one of the longest-serving synths in the LFO arsenal is a Kawai K1, which has been providing the chord sounds from before 'LFO'.
More recently added for the breadth, fullness and sense of movement which it brings to chordal accompaniments, Korg's Wavestation is proving something of a hit with Bell and Varley.
"It's really simple to program", Varley maintains. "There's just a few buttons, and with the way the pages are laid out it just makes sense. We haven't even read the manual, we just turned the synth on and the LCD led us through everything."
"Having said that, we haven't really run out of ideas with the sounds already in the synth", says Bell, "so we haven't got too much into experimenting with it yet." But while the digital synths excel at providing the chordal washes of sound which are such a characteristic dement of LFO's music, when it comes to another characteristic element of the LFO sound - deep, deep bass - it's old analogue synths like the MC202 which Bell and Varley turn to.
Bell: "With the resonance right up and the envelopes really far down on the 202 we can get bass sounds that you can hear on our little Technics speakers and feel on the big Goodmans. We like to use bass sounds where you can see the speaker flapping but you can't hear the sound. Then we take something like a high tune using, say, a piano sound, and we double the notes with the bass sound that you can't hear. That way, in a nightclub when the piano plays you can feel it in your stomach even though you can only hear the piano - it sounds like the piano's really bassy."
The duo are also able to turn their old analogue synths to good use in other ways, as Varley explains.
"We do stuff like have everything sequenced, then when we're recording to DAT we mess about with the knobs on the older synths to change the sounds. We can't sequence the SX1000 and the MS10 at present, so we just play along with the sequences when we're recording the tracks."
"The music can sound more human if it's not all quantised in the sequencer", Bell adds. "You need to have the bass drum totally on the beat, but all the other noises can be a little bit out, and it sounds better for it."
"We want to play live to tape more", continues Varley. "We've been doing it straight to DAT, but the trouble is, once you make a mistake you have to start all over again."
Cue the pair's latest investment, the aforementioned Tascam 644 MIDIstudio. With Creator slaved off the Tascam, they no longer have to take it from the top each time they make a mistake.
"Another thing is we're going to try vocal tracks", reveals Varley. "We're just going to see how it goes. We only got the MIDIstudio a couple of days ago. We might just use transposed-down voices sounding weird, using the pitch-shift on the SPX50D or that willy thing."
"It's a kid's toy from Argos", elaborates Bell. "DynaMic I think it's called. It only costs £25, but it's got up and down pitch and a flanger effect."
"The catalogue said it could make you sound like a robot or an alien from outer space, so we got one", continues Varley. Come to think of it, Coldcut claimed to have discovered the DynaMic some time ago...
All is revealed, so to speak, when Bell produces an object which does indeed look phallic - though no doubt Argos would disagree. As for how it sounds, well, I only wish you could scratch this page and hear it. Basically, you speak into a built-in microphone at the top end, and your processed voice comes straight out of a built-in speaker at the bottom end. You can pitch-shift your voice up and down in real-time, and should you want to play it at greatly-amplified volume there's a mini-jack output for direct connection to a mixing desk or amp.
Bell maintains that the DynaMic sounds good when put through effects. By itself, however, it sounds awful. But have the pair dared to use it yet?
"We've used it for playing live", replies Varley sincerely. "One time we stuck it to the back of a keyboard, so all the keyboard buffs would think 'flippin' 'eck, what's that?'"
LIKE MANY OTHER DANCE ACTS, LFO'S LIVE appearances are made in clubs rather than more traditional live venues. For local gigs they'll take along the Atari and run their sequences live - sweaty club atmosphere and dodgy mains power permitting - but more typically their set is a combination of specially-prepared backing tracks on the Casio DA7 and keyboard parts played live. Bell usually plays the K1 and MS 10, Varley the Wavestation and SX1000 - while they take it in turns to play the MPC drum computer. Their set lasts about half-an-hour, during which time they play five or six numbers, accompanied by two dancers and computer graphics projections.
"If you play for longer than that, people get bored of watching you", comments Bell, "so it's best to leave people wanting more. As well as playing clubs we'd like to do a proper concert, where it was just us and maybe someone else like Nightmares on Wax, and we'd have a proper show."
Since early June, LFO have been undertaking a sporadic European tour which has taken in, among other countries, Belgium, Germany and Rome as well as one or two dates in the UK. It's a reflection of how prominent dance-music culture has become across Europe.
With the tour, the recent single and the imminent release of Frequencies, it seems that LFO are shifting into top gear.
"When you see people in the pub and they say 'are you still doing that group?' and you go 'yeah', they say 'Easy life, isn't it?'", says Varley. "They think you're earning loads of money and it's really easy."
"Everyone's really nosey about what we do, too", adds Bell. "They say 'why didn't you go on Top of the Pops?', or 'why don't you put more piano in your songs?'. Everyone's got their own opinion. We don't go to them and say 'are you going to do better this year and be a manager of your work?'. Me girlfriend's mum doesn't really like our stuff, she goes 'I like music with more of a beat to it, like the '60s stuff."
Appropriately enough for a group who look to the future rather than the past, LFO have no time for the nostalgia boom which some say is the saviour of the record industry and others say is stifling new music.
"The big record companies own all the rights to those old tracks, and they can re-release them without having to spend any money on advances", says Varley. "They're just doing it 'cos it's cheaper and 'cos everyone knows the music already. It's just another con. They're telling us what we should buy, like they're saying the '60s were better music, like 'there's no good music around now, what about the Hollies?'. When the '90s have finished, there'll have been just as many good hits as there were in the '60s."
Who knows, perhaps LFO's debut album will be looked upon as a golden oldie.
Interview by Simon Trask
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