Dave Stewart | Eurythmics
Eurythmics’s main man rips the lid off
Is the Dinosaur making a comeback? Or are The Eurythmics still blazing new trails through the Pop Jungle? Richard Walmsley corners Dave Stewart - and finds out.
What can anyone say about a band like The Eurythmics? That they rose from the ashes of power-poppers The Tourists, set themselves up with an eight track studio in a disused North London church, and proceeded to create a synth based music that consistently set new standards in pop perfection? That somehow sounds too simple, but you must remember that the pair used their unique confection of assets — Annie's voice, look and her intriguing introvert/extrovert personality, and Dave's offbeat wisdom and musical imagination — to masterful effect, cutting cleanly through the crap of the pop machine in order to reach a wide ranging audience.
But another aspect of their success which cannot be ignored, was their use of an electronic format at a time when such set-ups had become a newly celebrated part of the pop mainstream, and though they could not be said to be the innovators of this movement nevertheless the imagination they brought to bear on the style earned them a position as the definitive British synth duo, at the vanguard of minimal pop.
However, it was never the band's intention to simply pursue one musical avenue, and thus recent months have witnessed the first major upheaval in their recorded output, the album Be Yourself Tonight, in which Dave picks up a guitar, Annie sings loud and clear and a general transition towards Big Pop seems to be in progress. Ironically when a band changes direction it is always their own fans who are the first to raise hands in dismay, but in this case, there were also raised eyebrows from the electronic music fraternity no doubt fearing the return of dinosaurs that they thought extinct.
In a nutshell then, my reason for turning up in that self same church to keep an appointment with the bearded half of the partnership — musician and producer Dave A. Stewart — was to find out how The Eurythmics were proposing to walk the Earth. Would they go with the dinosaurs or were they still the same cherished British synth duo, simply extending the range of their sound at present?
One reason for the more traditional emphasis of Be Yourself Tonight was the duo's recent touring activities. These involved 179 concerts over the space of ten months, with a line-up bearing more resemblance to the Bruce Springsteen band than to the crew on their studio albums. The LP was an attempt to acquaint a wider public with this side of their music as opposed to a calculated rejection of electronics.
"Every time the Eurythmics do something different it's not as if this is what we're doing now forever, which a lot of people forget; they think we've gone all rock and roll now."
It seem to be the fashion these days to make records in a number of exclusive studios around the world, and the Eurythmics' fell into this category, since the guest appearances by Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin were a recorded in LA and Detroit respectively. Yet the LP began in a Paris warehouse (which also had a cafe in it, but that's another story,) using only the simple tools of the modern songwriter, and the original 8 track which they had used to record the Sweet Dreams LP.
"We just set up our gear like we did Sweet Dreams. I took it right back to the way we started and we wrote one song a day for ten days with the simplest things like the Roland SH09, Movement Audio Visual drum computer etc." It was these same tracks which made up the basis for the actual masters, since they subsequently brought over their Soundcraft 24 track, bouncing up from the eight track and adding horn parts. It was only after all this had been done that the jet set recording began.
As far as The Eurythmics are concerned, electronics have for the time being become a part in a wider musical whole, but even though this LP was intended to sound big and rocky, electronics were still at the heart of things — especially at the writing stage.
"Electronics I would say are about fifty per cent of the sound, but the writing would have been almost impossible without them. Annie and I are always on our own when we're writing the things and we have everything linked up through MIDI, so that sounds can actually inspire the whole song. Like the drum pattern on Love You Like A Ball And Chain; even with just the drums and Annie singing it, it sounded great. Now without these inventions it would have been difficult to get the same excitement."
The whole style and sound of electronic instruments is still an important influence, even if actual 'acoustic' instruments are used. Originally designers of electronic instruments were obsessed with imitating conventional instruments, but now producers like Dave actually want musicians who can imitate machines.
"I do try and copy certain machine bass drums by EQ, because they always sound more urgent. I like the effect of a drummer, but sometimes I like the sound to be the same all the time, like on a drum machine, so we send the sound of the real drums through limiters and things to keep it all the same."
Dave extends this idea to brass as well, using it as a course of ideas to keep clear of hackneyed brass section licks.
"We re-write and re-arrange the parts and use saxophones sometimes where there would have been a rasping sequencer. So instead of playing archetypal brass lines, they play really weird things."
Synthesisers and sequencers do still play an important part on their own accounts even when The Eurythmics are at their most acoustic, playing with their ten piece band onstage. Bass player Dean Garcia and drummer Olle Romo have now got used to playing along with machines, either monitoring through headphones or foldback, and the sound and overall performance have become more elaborate as a result.
"On my side of the stage I have a portastudio, and on one track I have a code which is triggering a DMX which is triggering synths and things. So on some tracks like Right By Your Side I come onstage first and I start; just hit the DMX and that brings it in, then the band plays along with it."
Although the second single off the LP, There Must Be An Angel is nearly all sequencers, Dave's favourite method of producing sequencer-type parts is through the use of the DMX and Drawmer gates in conjunction with a more conventional instrument like piano or guitar. Setting the threshold so that the gates are opened by the signal from a DMX hi hat or rimshot, rhythmic effects can then be created out of held chords going through the gates, or even out of something like ukelele — especially interesting since the envelope on each individual sound that is released through the gates is different and far less predictable than if a synth had been used. In fact so fascinated was Dave by this idea that nearly all the music that he and Annie did for the soundtrack of the film 1984 had the effect on it.
"1984 was nearly all Drawmer gates and very occasionally we'd sequence it. I'd write into the DMX a peculiar pattern on a rim shot (which gives the best trigger signal cause it's so short) and then I would play a guitar very distorted, and it goes chig chog chug gaa. And it's great because it sounds like no synth you've ever heard."
Dave describes himself as a collage artist, and his approach to soundmaking is rarely confined to twiddling the knobs on a single synth. Like his use of Drawmer gates, it is composite sounds which really fire his imagination. "I like mixing synths as well, like on Aqua, from the Touch album. There I've got a SH09 with a CSQ100, playing a bassline with just a sub bass, no other frequencies, so it's just a very round, resonant sound. But then I got an acoustic guitar and recorded the fret noise — just the top of the fret noise playing the same thing — and mixed the two together, and it sounds exactly like a double bass. That I find a lot more interesting than straight synthesiser sounds."
To anyone with Dave's attitude towards synthesis, MIDI must be a great source of satisfaction, and in fact on Here Comes That Sinking Feeling, there is a recognizable MIDI solo, comprised of the American Voyetra 8 synth, DX7 and an Emulator using a sitar-type sound.
"I like doing that, because I don't like it when as soon as a certain record comes on the radio I can go, Oh yes, that's a DX7 with such and such a setting — they haven't used their imagination. If it's a great song it doesn't matter, but if people are going for a great production and the song isn't all that hot, and they've just used all the typical Simmons tom sounds and all that I just get bored instantly. MIDI is a brilliant invention, without it, you'd wear your keyboard out in about three months... well I do, I'm so manic. I get a new keyboard and I go through every sound to see what it's like, and I get fed up with it."
This does not apply to the Octave Plateau Voyetra Eight, which is Dave's favourite synth and the one he always turns to when in trouble. "We've had the Voyetra two years now, but that's different because there's a hundred preset sounds in it, and I haven't used all of them up yet. You can also effect every one and change it. Plus, without using the MIDI you can link two of its sounds together. It cost me about $2000 in New York and it's got an eight track digital recorder in there as well. People think all synthesisers sound the same, but they all have their own unique thing and the sounds on this are like the sounds on no other synth I've heard."
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Dave is that, although as an electronic-based artist and producer he has just about reached the top, he still doesn't find any really valid use for the Fairlight. This would tend to contradict some of the cynics who see Be Yourself Tonight as a move in the direction of the big bucks, hi tech 'producer' LPs of the eighties.
"I've never used a Fairlight. You see, a lot of the things people use them for I wouldn't want to repeat, so what's the point in storing it? You don't have breaking glass on every track, so I just actually break the glass — I wouldn't bother to sample it. Most people do that so that they can repeat what they've been doing live, but we always completely re-arrange what we're doing anyway. That makes it more exciting because otherwise you'd have eight people behind keyboards, whereas we're more like the Bruce Springsteen band live."
The song Love You Like A Ball and Chain, which of all the songs on the LP is closest in spirit to the band's earlier minimal style, is the only one to use a drum machine, although Ulle, the band's human drumbox did add a few touches.
"We used the DMX but every drum on it was with gated reverb. Usually you'll gate the snare, which is a typical thing, but everything had this short gate. Then Ulle played Simmons toms along with it; Ulle is one of the few drummers I know who could replace the machine and you wouldn't be able to tell it wasn't a drum machine."
Later on in this track, a lot of strange things happen. For instance the rooms turn round... well if you shut your eyes it does.
The whole idea of recording an LP in various less-than-conventional locations around the world was intended as a big adventure, but some of the adventures Annie and Dave got up to smack more of the Famous Five than of an eighties rock band.
"It was funny. Rick Springfield had this effect which he was hiding, but he was telling everybody about it — it's called a Cyclone. It was all shrouded in mystery and we weren't allowed in his studio. So we stole it and used it on Ball And Chain and put it back again. It works a bit like holophonic sound except it's not; it's simulated. If you put your head in the middle of the speakers it literally goes right round the back of your head!"
The Eurythmics have always had a well integrated experimental streak in them. From their early experimental LP In The Garden on, they have used odd electronic and acoustic effects, both as a means of maximising their early paltry recording budgets, and also because they've never really been interested in playing it straight. Their last LP too, has special effects, although the type of things they have been doing have tended to fuel cynical speculations about the way the band have been going, since they hark back to some of Dave's pre 1977 influences. On Would I Lie To You for instance, the sound of a motorbike is used. "We took it off a tape of a motorbike, but it still didn't sound right. So we slowed it down — varispeeded — and overloaded the channel so it was distorting. I know what you mean though, Floyd would use it; Atom Heart Mother, and all those things. But those things really affected me when I was younger. There was the normal radio, Cliff Richard etc, and you'd put a record like that on and realise there was another world out there."
Other special effects used on the LP venture almost into the realm of fantasy, such as the gravel sounds (meant to suggest prisoners chained together shuffling back to their cells) on Ball And Chain. However, even though the sound of stomping on gravel was what they wanted, to actually get the effect right certain other elements had to be introduced.
"We recorded my mother and four Frenchmen stamping on the gravel roof. But because the gravel sounded too trebly we had some people clonking on boards as well. On the track we did it all the way through, though we sampled it for later in case we wanted to do it live."
After the guitar based Tourists, half the fun of The Eurythmics was learning to master keyboards. For Annie with her music college background, it can't have been that much of a novelty, but for Dave it was exciting basically because he couldn't do it. But now Dave is once again finding inspiration in the form of the guitar. This is partly due to the face that synths have become so normal in pop music, but also possibly because the state of the art of guitar playing has been considerably affected by electronics.
"I nearly always use a Rockman and I go straight through that into the board. I usually use the Gretsch and stand next to the monitor, so that it's on the edge of feedback and I can use the feedback to make it growl. I learnt a great trick off Mike Cambell of the Heartbreakers, which is to put a WaWa through an Octaver, and then just bring the slight bassiness on the Octaver up and send the Octaver to the distortion so it goes wa-a-a-a-a (makes a low growl). WaWas are usually so trebly it takes your head off; well this kind of fattens it out."
Dave also uses the Roland guitar synth, perhaps the most exciting development in guitar technology since the magnetic pick up. At first he mainly used it onstage to add a third horn part, but he also used it to play string lines on songs like Here Comes The Rain Again. But that's not all.
"Sometimes I'd use it for horrible noises. I used to always have my guitar going through a repeat echo — a Roland rack mounted one. I like the Space Echo because while it's repeating you can turn it into feedback, and then with the speed control you can turn it down so it goes weeeeoo-o-o-o. So I would pick a really horrible sound from the 707 and then send that into a feedback. I'd make noises like Phil Manzanera would make with Roxy Music and then go off from that. "
The most celebrated aspect of The Eurythmics' music has to be Annie Lennox's voice, and so care with vocals is obviously a very important part of a record's production. In the past Annie's style has tended to be intimate and well suited to a purely electronic approach. (Frequently she uses an Emulator when doing four part harmonies: she'll just do it once and sample it onto the Emulator. Dave then presses the key at every point where it's meant to come.) The idea of the latest LP was to capture in the studio the rawness and the scale of a live performance. When actually singing with a live band, Annie's sound is the result of her responding to the performances around her, so it was necessary for the recording environment to recreate that atmosphere, rather than use the traditional method of monitoring from headphones. "We've let her sing live in the control booth with the speakers playing as if she's at a concert. We had the music coming out and we had a little Beyer M201 mic, which is very directional. She'll stand here and it'll be blasting away and she'll sing like a live concert — very loud.
"She sings right up against it and the foam is shaved down so she can get closer to it. The mic points away from the speakers and because it's so directional, and because it's normally used to record hi-hats, the sound you get leaking in is less than what you normally get leaking in from headphones on a very sensitive mic."
The Eurythmics' use of instruments and sounds has now extended from the simplest mono synths to using choirs and orchestras.
Gospel-style singing has always been a feature of their backing, and many tracks on this LP include the same. Conventional technique is to record a choir or orchestra section by section, or sometimes desk by desk. From his own experiences, Dave finds that a much simpler approach is satisfactory.
"We just use the old method, which is to plonk a mike in the middle and they'll get their own balance, same as an orchestra. We tried miking up an orchestra in the room downstairs with a lot of different mikes, and the best sound we ended up with was mono from a ribbon mic in the middle. They've spent hours in rooms rehearsing their own balance, and if you're trying to do it synthetically you'll never get it as good."
The scope the band have no was recording artists has increased considerably from the eight track days of Sweet Dreams, and Dave is prepared to utilize it to the full. Orchestras and choirs and the many strange effects on the LP meant that for the first time the mixing was done with the aid of a computer; indispensable when they used two twenty four tracks linked together.
"On Sinking Feeling, the track fades out and leaves the talking — it's very difficult to do that with thirty two channels and ten fingers. And on Ball and Chain there's a choir and gospel singers and it was getting very complicated. So the computer's good because you can just concentrate on mixing the drums first and then they all move together. It doesn't really affect the spontaneity of the mix because you don't have any of your effects on there, you still have to do all your echo sends by hand."
At the end of the day it seems that all this talk of dinosaurs, and of macro and micro music plays little part in Dave's thinking. He, like many popstars, remains largely unaware, or at least unaffected by, the cynicism of the public and whatever spurious accusations they might make. Instead his musical credo is much more simply stated: "I like to be able to experiment; if I'm not having a good time while I'm recording it then I don't expect other people to have a good time while they're listening to it." Fair enough.
Interview by Richard Walmsley
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