In which the man behind the mask - Frank Tovey - explains his attitudes to playing, writing, and recording his own particular brand of idiosyncratic electronic music.
Fad Gadget is Frank Tovey, one of the first UK artists to make a record — 'Back To Nature' — whose instrumentation consisted almost entirely of electronic devices. Since that record was released in 1978, he has continued to pursue his own musical experiments, using a variety of different instruments and songwriting techniques. Dan Goldstein spoke to him shortly after the release of his fourth album, Gag, and a new single, 'Ideal World'.
When I was at school I had a go at playing just about every musical instrument I could lay my hands on. The problem was, I didn't seem to have the coordination to be able to play any of them really well, so after a while I drifted away from the idea of playing music, and began getting involved in other art forms instead.
'For quite a time I studied visual arts at College, and really it was through doing that that I began to rediscover music, because I started feeling the need to give my mime act some sort of musical accompaniment. So I began recording a few very simple pieces, and initially a lot of my interest was based around recording and the manipulation of sound using tape recorders.
'I had an old Grundig tape-machine, and I managed to discover a way of disconnecting the erase head from the playback head. I built a simple switch between the two, so that I could decide whether or not the sounds already on the tape would be erased, and I spent a while building up collages of sound using that method.'
Having finished his full-time education, Tovey began working at various day-jobs and eventually managed to set up his own home studio, though it wasn't exactly a luxury facility...
'There was very little space in the house I was living in in London, and the only place I could build a studio was in my cupboard. It was really just the Grundig and a few other odds and sods: at the beginning I didn't have any musical instruments in it at all.
'The first keyboard instrument I ever owned was a Crumar Compac electric piano. It only had three preset sounds on it, and that was just about it. At about the same time I bought a cheap drum-machine, a Korg Minipops. I can remember quite clearly that in those days (mid- to late-Seventies) you couldn't buy drum-machines in general group gear shops because they were extremely unfashionable. In the end I had to get mine from an organ shop - it was the only place near me that stocked them. It was much the same situation with synths: very few 'band' music shops wanted to know about them, especially cheap ones, and most of them were sold by organ shops as add-ons for home keyboards.
'I eventually bought a Korg synthesiser to go with the drum-machine. By today's standards I suppose it was a pretty rudimentary instrument, but there were one or two nice things on it. The filtering, in particular, was very good: I think Korg must have changed the way they design their filter stages since then, because listening to the sort of things they're making now, they don't seem to have quite the same sound to them, and I think it's probably the filtering that's to blame.
'I suppose it was my lack of real musical ability that made me decide to go for synths and the like. It was possible with something like the Korg to make some pretty impressive sounds without really being able to play properly, and that was an idea that appealed to me a great deal!
With this selection of fairly basic equipment, Tovey began songwriting in earnest, and sent a tape of 'Back To Nature' to Daniel Miller at Mute, who liked it sufficiently to revive the label and issue the track as a single.
'We recorded 'Back to Nature' at RMS, a small eight-track in London. I hadn't really had any experience of recording at all outside what I'd done with the old Grundig, so I left most of the decision-making to Daniel. Most of the gear on the record version is mine, but we did use some of Daniel's stuff as well - an ARP 2600 and a Roland SH2, I think!
The single was enough of a success to enable Fad Gadget to produce a followup - 'Ricky's Hand' - almost immediately. Instrumentally, that record remains most notable for an astonishing sonic effect - what sounds like a human voice collapsing into a frenzy of LFO modulation near the song's end.
The vocal line is my wife, Barbara, singing, but we recorded a synth under it at a very low level, and all that happens at the end is that the voice is faded out and the synth sound breaks up underneath. It was very effective.'
Eventually, things reached their logical conclusion and Tovey recorded an album, Fireside Favourites, at London's Blackwing Studios, this time without Miller's assistance.
'I simply felt that I wanted to work on my own, and in the end that decision had fairly mixed consequences. On the one hand nobody made any decisions for me, so I was able to see everything through myself, which I think was important, but on the other hand, I was really very green when it came to how to go about recording in a studio. Blackwing was only an eight-track itself in those days, but I still felt a bit daunted by all the equipment, and looking back on it I did make a few mistakes that I wouldn't have made if I'd had someone knowledgeable to help me.'
Just as important to Tovey at that time (as it still is today) was the concepts and ideas behind live performance, and he very soon gained a well-earned reputation for being one of the most exciting and original live acts on the electronic music scene. From the simple visual gimmick of playing the Crumar piano with his head (the fact that the keyboard was wired-up to a fuzz pedal rendered it virtually pitch-less, and meant that the anarchic playing style had minimal aural effect), Tovey progressed to dressing up in bizarre costumes and disguises. These were a logical step-forward from his Art College experiments, and they also complemented his ever-maturing lyric-writing.
'I'd always been interested in writing lyrics that really mean something - that really have something to say. Up until recently I couldn't see any point in writing songs about, say, relationships; I wanted to say something more. In the same way, I've never seen the point in playing live exactly what you've already done in the studio. To me a gig is a completely different musical event, so I never go out of my way to make a live performance sound like the record. For the latest tour, we're using a Juno 60 to make tuned percussion noises - it doesn't sound a bit like the real thing, but that doesn't bother me.'
Two further albums Incontinent and Under The Flag, followed Fireside Favourites, both of them recorded at Blackwing but both of them also representing a change in Tovey's music and the way it was recorded.
'As I went on recording, the equipment at Blackwing got more and more complex, though at the same time I was learning about recording and getting the best from the equipment that was available.
'It was during the making of Under The Flag that I first started to use the Roland MC4 microcomposer. I wanted the music to be very flat, very controlled and using something like that, where almost every part can be played automatically, seemed to me to be the best way to go about doing it. The reason I wanted the music to be relatively uneventful was that the lyrics on that album were very intense, and I wanted the vocals to stand out - I didn't want the music to grab any of the limelight, if you like.
'The way I see it is that the music should act as a contrast to the what the vocals are doing, and I've carried that through to Gag as well, because the lyrics on it are much less intense, and then it's the music that's become more eventful.'
Gag is in some ways something of a crossroads for Fad Gadget, since it represents his first major venture into the use of a band of musicians as opposed to playing everything himself. It sees a change of recording venue, too, and a fairly drastic one at that, in the shape of a move to Hansa Tonstudios in Berlin.
'I just felt I needed a change of scene, because although I enjoyed working at Blackwing, and all the staff there were very helpful, I wanted everything for Gag to be a complete break from the past, and obviously that included the recording studio... Blackwing has a very dry acoustic, and I wanted to use something a bit more interesting.
'There's nothing that can really prepare you for Hansa, because it really is totally unlike any other studio. For a start, the surrounding's totally unlike any other studio because it's all very light and airy, and you can see through the control room windows out over the Wall onto East Berlin. Also, it's got an amazing main studio area that I've heard used to be a Nazi ballroom, though I'm not absolutely sure about that. Whatever it used to be, it's got some amazing natural echo characteristics. We used a lot of its natural acoustic properties when we recorded things like vocals, for example.
The mixing-desk at Hansa is astonishing: it's an absolutely ancient old thing - I'd never seen anything like it. And then, when we came to mix-down, the mixing suite had a completely automated, computer-assisted console, which was a complete change. It was strange in a way, working with that, because with a computer desk, you have to think things out very clearly before you start - you have to know exactly where you are, and that makes you think of things in a much more logical way. I couldn't just amble through mixing the way I had with some of the other records.
'Working with a band was completely different, which was what I wanted. It was the first time I'd worked with other musicians and the first time I'd had to cope with all their ideas coming up in addition to mine. Quite a few of the songs on Gag are written by me in collaboration with people from the band. The girl who plays viola, Joni Sackett, wrote a couple of things, and so did David Simmonds, the keyboard-player. I found it quite refreshing, working with more people; I think it's given the music a lot more life, a lot more vitality, than it would have had otherwise.'
Although much of Gag sounds as if it was recorded using electronic instruments, in reality synths have been used quite sparingly, with acoustic instruments shouldering much of the arranging burden.
'David used quite a bit of Juno 60, but he also played quite a lot of piano and organ, as well as a lot of tuned percussion - marimbas, things like that. What we did do was use a lot of digital reverbs and delays - in addition to the natural acoustics - to make certain things sound more interesting, and they might have contributed to giving the album a slightly synthetic feel'.
'The thing is, I don't really see much point in using synths or electronics just for their own sake - just because they've suddenly become fashionable. When I first started using synths they were incredibly unfashionable - hardly anyone was using them - but I don't think I'll ever do anything just because everybody else is doing it. At the moment I'm equally interested in acoustic sounds, and I've started playing guitar again, too!'
A further instrumental diversion has manifested itself in the form of the metal percussion of German band Einsturzende Neubauten, who guested on Gag's first single, 'Collapsing New People'.
'Neubauten just happened to be in the studio for a little while as we were recording the album. They liked 'New People' a lot and we decided to see how it would work out with them playing along to it. What you've got to remember is that the song wasn't written with them specifically in mind: we already had all the backing-tracks down on tape when they came in and overdubbed all their metal percussion, and I think things might have turned out a bit better if I'd worked with the band on a song right from the start. We had to work quite hard at the mixing stage to get their contribution to fit in with the rest of the recording! But in the end it didn't come out too badly.
'I don't think there's anything very new in banging bits of metal to make up a percussion track - I was doing it back in my cupboard! - but, on the other hand, I think the music industry definitely needs some sort of stimulus, and that might be just the sort of thing that brings it about.
'As far as I'm concerned, there's been very little really new musically that's happened since punk. Punk saw the return of music that could be played and enjoyed by people with very little innate musical or technical ability, but it seems to me that in a way we've now come full circle. To make a record nowadays that's going to sell well, you more or less have to have thousands of pounds' worth of computer instruments and the ability to play and program them. So in a way, I think we're back to the same state of affairs we were in in the early Seventies, with a very few people being able to afford exotic equipment and making all the music for all the rest of the people to listen to.'
'I think that's wrong, and I'm not going to start using computer instruments just for the sake of it. If anything, I think I'm more likely to return to the sounds of acoustic instruments, rather than getting computers to re-create those sounds for me.'
Unlike some musicians, Tovey has very little in the way of fixed plans for the future: it could even be that he may shy away from making music altogether for a while...
'I'm quite keen to get back to the visual arts - mime and so on - though it's quite difficult to talk about that sort of thing without it sounding pretentious. If I do carry on with music, I might well go back to doing things on my own, not because working within a band didn't work - far from it - but simply because I like to keep changing the way I work all the time.
'On the other hand, I don't think I'm likely to go back to using something like the microcomposer exclusively - I think I'm past that stage. What I'm more likely to do is to carry on veering towards acoustic instruments - maybe even banging bits of metal again. I'll carry on using synths from time to time, of course. I like using them for approximations of acoustic instruments as well as slightly weirder, electronic-type sounds... I think that's what they do best.'
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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