Paul Tingen takes a look behind the scenes with Mai Tai production duo Eric van Tijn and Jochum Fluitsma — and finds out about songwriting, recording and home-made samplers.
Behind Dutch soul trio Mai Tai lie two men trying to revive their country's contemporary music fortunes. They're lucky in having a recording studio of their own from which to launch their attack.
Even in the context of mainland Europe, Holland is one of contemporary music's deepest backwaters. The nation's pop music trends follow those of the UK as religiously as any other, but, perhaps because the Dutch pride themselves in knowing English almost as well as the English do, they have little to say for themselves in the way of home-grown, domestically-oriented talent.
When the Dutch do get some studio time for themselves, the results are rarely heard outside the Land of the Windmills. But one record that has made it out is Mai Tai's 'History', an infectious dancefloor concoction as melodically brilliant as it is lyrically inane. It's been a big hit, though, in almost every territory the band's record company have seen fit to release it in. And behind the trio of Dutch chanteuses that sing it (and the similarly-titled album from which it's taken) are a couple of production wizards who add writing and arranging credits to their mixing-desk achievements.
So here I am, cocooned in the comfort of Amsterdam's Artisound Studios, confronted by that duo. They're not exactly well-known even in their native Holland, and with names like Eric van Tijn and Jochum Fluitsma, they're unlikely to become any more than half-famous elsewhere. The studio turns out to be the property of van Tijn's father, who encouraged his son to 'play around' there from an early age. From this he drew a mass of first-hand experience, and later spent four years at Music School in Rotterdam, studying jazz composition, arrangement and piano. It was a course he left prematurely for two reasons: his increasing involvement with composing music for TV commercials, and the intolerable snobbery of the School's governing body that gave pop a considerably lower status than anything and everything jazz.
Fluitsma became similarly disenchanted with academic attitudes during his own formative musical years. As a guitarist he played in various bands, but dropped out of his music school's classical guitar course when the pressures of session work became overpowering.
The two of them first joined forces professionally when they were invited to compose the music for a children's show on Dutch television, sometime in 1981. Word quickly spread that their talents were not to be taken lightly, and soon van Tijn and Fluitsma were being approached to do the recording honours for a whole host of Dutch artists. When nobody seemed to take exception to them taking on as many different recording functions as they could, they adopted the practice of composing, playing and producing music at the same time.
Then came the Mai Tai sessions, begun halfway through 1984 but not completed until the early months of this year. So how was the band formed? Van Tijn is the more relaxed of the two, speaking freely in an informal, drawling Amsterdam accent. 'About two years ago, Jochum and I needed three black female singers for a recording session. By sheer accident those three became Jetty, Mildred and Caroline. Together they sounded so incredibly good that we suggested they form a group and make a record with us. At first they didn't like the idea very much, mainly because they'd done so many things which hadn't worked out, and in which they'd found themselves being swindled. But we persuaded them to sign a contract for one single, with an option for a second.
The single, 'Keep on Dancing', became a reasonable success, and after a couple of other hits in Holland, including 'History' and 'Am I Losing You Forever?', the album was born. For us it was our first really big musical venture. Compared to what we had done before it was a giant step forward. Suddenly, we knew how to do it.'
It sounds almost impossibly smooth. Surely there are bottlenecks somewhere along the music production line? Fluitsma is confident almost to the point of arrogance; as far as he's concerned, the duo have everything fully and properly sorted. 'We compose the songs together, mostly improvising with Eric on piano and me on guitar. Songs usually emerge from a catchy chorus, from which we work to add the verse and bridge. When we have the basic ideas for a song, we record a piano-and-guitar version on a simple cassette recorder. Then we call the girls, because we have to know what key is most convenient for them.'
And once that's done, it seems the instrumental parts go onto tape with a speed that would frighten many a UK production team. Van Tijn: 'That usually takes a day. I suppose we work like anybody else, only quicker: first the drum machine or drums, then piano, bass, guitar and various synths. We tend to play basslines live on a synth - we only use a sequencer for parts that are too hard to play exactly in time. And we find that using a sequencer often makes the music too cold, too mechanical.
'Sometimes that's what you want, though. On 'History', for instance, we wanted a riff repeating itself throughout the song in a hypnotic, machine-like manner. For that, obviously, the sequencer is really useful.'
Is there any aspect of instrumental recording the duo pay particular attention to? Van Tijn: 'The most important thing is getting the drums to sound good - though that's also the most difficult thing. A good drum sound is mainly a question of delay. A delay with a sharp cutoff gives the impression of a richer, fatter sound, and that goes for electronic sounds as well as acoustic ones. The space around acoustic drums is crucial, too - it's a good idea to place the mics as far away from the kit as you can. We place the mics at a distance of 30 feet, with an overall one high above the drumkit.'
"When we've recorded a basic version of a song, we get the girls in - we have to know which key is going to be convenient for them."
In addition to the standard, mass-produced keyboards (Prophet 5, Jupiter 6, PPG Wave 2.2) and drum machines (TR909, RX11, LinnDrum) that find use at Artisound, van Tijn and Fluitsma have pressed a home-built (by the in-house technician) sound-sampler into service for many of their most recent recording projects. Van Tijn: 'We used it on the Mai Tai album, mainly on 'The Rules of Love', where we sampled bits of breaking glass, shouting and talking, and put them next to Jocum's guitar, which we sampled heavily distorted and several times over, so as to get a very dense, concrete-like sound.'
The sampler also finds its way onto the fairly inconsequential boogie of 'The Rhythm of the Street' (where it's used for choral sounds) and the appealing 'What, Where, When, Who' (where it provides '19'-like vocal trickery). Which only goes to show you don't need a Fairlight - or even a Mirage - to make a mark with sampling.
So far so good. Van Tijn and Fluitsma are competent enough to take on a combined musicians/producers role, and unselfish enough to make it work, and work well. The fact that there are still two people involved in those processes is probably a help, though, as Fluitsma freely admits. 'You have to be able to distance yourself from your own playing. Sometimes I'll start a guitar solo and Eric will say: "That's bollocks, it doesn't fit at all".'
Van Tijn claims putting so many aspects of record production into the same hands is one of the elements that's contributed to the quality and clarity of the duo's production work. 'Any outside technician, be he a musician or a producer, is an extra link, and we think an unnecessary one. If we hear a snare sound we don't like, the empathy between us means we realise that fact at the same time, and we also know instantly what to change. The same applies to the instruments we play ourselves. We both know what kind of sounds we want, so we work much faster and more effectively together than apart.'
They tackle the risk of not being able to be objective about their work by producing a sub-mix for comment by various outsiders, notably the record company, CNR. It's at this stage that what Fluitsma terms 'the final 10%', the difference between an average recording and a really exceptional one, has to be introduced. And the duo are modest enough to realise that the extra ingredient isn't always one they're capable of supplying themselves. Van Tijn explains.
'Often we get suggestions from people which inspire us, and thus enable us to finish that last 10% satisfactorily. Another thing we do is leave the song altogether at that stage, just for a while. When you come back to it later on, it's much easier to decide what has to be done. We usually take two or three days for the final mix and adding the last 10%.'
Judged in the context of British or American recording practice, that isn't an inordinately long time to spend. But by Dutch standards, it's an eternity.
Fluitsma: 'Dutch productions are often inferior to English or American ones. The equipment we have in the best studios over here is the same as in any good foreign studio, so that's not the reason. It's a matter of finance more than anything else. When a Dutch band makes a single or an album, they usually have a very small budget compared to what, say, an American band might have. In Holland you're forced to record a single within two days. How it sounds isn't so important, just as long as it's nice and pleasant to listen to, and more or less appropriate to the Dutch market. In the USA the budget for a single by a group just starting out might be ten times higher than that for an album here. Here you have to be finished quickly - otherwise you run out of money.'
So being on friendly terms with a studio owner - and having a two-thirds share of a production company whose third part is that studio - means van Tijn and Fluitsma aren't just rare in doing so much work in their own time; they're also extremely lucky.
"In the USA, the budget for a single by a new band might be ten times that for a whole album in Holland. It's a matter of finance."
They're acutely aware of their own position, and hope to put their good fortune to some use. For while so much of the Dutch music industry remains unambitious and introspective, hemmed in by the constrictions of inadequate finance and decades of deference to British achievement, van Tijn and Fluitsma harbour ideas well above their native station.
The former is particularly vociferous. 'What do they mean "Holland"? I want to be Number One all over the world! I want to make the best records around. That may sound ambitious, but it is our goal. We want to measure our strength against that of people like Phil Collins or Nile Rodgers.
'I think that's why we listen to records in a very different way than the average Dutch producer. He only finds something interesting if it gets into the Dutch charts, but we listen for how something is made, whether it's commercial or not. You can learn a lot from, say, Quincy Jones. Listening to his productions, I hear things which make me think: "how on Earth did he do that?". Then I go into the studio and experiment until I find how to do something similar. It's not our aim to imitate gratuitously, but basically we're music freaks. Even when we're not working, we still play records and analyse them...'
Such attention to the work of others can bring about plagiarism, however. Halfway into the Mai Tai album's flip-side is 'You Control Me', about as obvious a Prince rip-off as you'll find this side of a Phil Collins single. Is it justifiable? Van Tijn has a go: 'Of course it sounds like Prince. But it was never commercially motivated. We just loved that song. And the melody and lyrics are quite different. It's just that Prince invented that chord-sequence, and we consider it an accepted musical form, just like rock 'n' roll and Chuck Berry's early guitar riffs. Prince plagiarises himself in 1999, and Phil Collins blatantly ripped him off with 'Sussudio'. Did you ever hear anyone complain about that?' Well, actually, I did - but let's not quibble.
Fluitsma is less outspoken, but just as determined. 'We have tried to add something to existing music styles. We wanted Mai Tai to become a new band with a face of their own. But you can't get away from the fact that people want to hear good rhythms and pleasing chord sequences - they probably always will. I think our records do have an identity of their own. They're certainly different from what anyone else is producing in Holland. And I think our records have variety, too.'
Agreed. In spite of a predictability caused by over-attention to commerciality (which the duo are only too willing to admit to), History is a colourful album with plenty of stylistic surprises in store for the unwary. That Caroline, Jetty and Mildred pack a vocal punch as big as any dancefloor group this side of the Atlantic is beyond question. But if the ambitious writing, arranging and producing duo of Van Tijn and Fluitsma hadn't intervened, they'd probably still be singing cabaret in a seedy Amsterdam nightclub...
Interview by Paul Tingen
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