Fumbling in the Dark
When a Liverpudlian keyboard player lost faith in Immaterial things he found salvation in the Christians. Paul Tingen listens to the confessions of Henry Priestman.
The distinctive rattle of a Roland TR808 carried the Christians' 'Forgotten Town' high up the pop charts and their album uses technology to create moods people can't play - a Christian preaches.
Henry Priestman, keyboard player, guitarist and songwriter with The Christians, settles in his chair and then, unexpectedly, says "I'm a Luddite as far as modern music technology is concerned" - Luddites being a group of 19th century workmen who went around wrecking new machinery in factories, in an attempt to halt technical progress.
Priestman continues, explaining himself: "Really, I'm referring to my use of technology in live situations. That's when it takes over too much - all this twiddling of knobs takes my mind off music - so I stick to a very simple setup on stage: a DX7 as a master keyboard, an S900 for some piano sounds and a Juno Alpha 1 - or was it Alpha Juno 1? - for analogue sounds and that's it.
"I'm not a technobrat", he protests. "I haven't worked out how to sample, and I generally don't understand a lot of this hi-tech stuff. I play the keys, I can load a disk and even, purely by accident, connect a MIDI lead. That's most of what I can do. These days you almost have to be an electronics engineer when you're a keyboard player, but I'm basically happy with a Hammond organ and a piano."
Priestman's continuing self-declared ignorance of all sorts of things ("I'm not a muso... I don't understand anything about music theory... I can't read music") was to be a recurrent theme during our conversation. Yet he was largely responsible for one of the more exciting and successful album releases of last year: the Christian's vinyl debut on Island, called simply The Christians.
The amiable, red-haired Liverpudlian composed all the songs and played and programmed a large part of the instruments on the record, which is a happy marriage of soul, gospel, R&B influences, traditional American black harmony singing and hi-tech backing tracks.
The record definitely sounds modern, with lots of indefinable sounds and samples and plenty of sequencing. It makes me wonder how he reconciles this with his declared "Luddite" attitude. Was the hi-tech department the producer Laurie Latham's lot? Priestman shakes his head.
"No, the Luddite thing applies to the live situation. I don't actually dislike machines and I'm not afraid to use technology in the studio. I wanted to use it, because if we'd had the band playing on the record the way we play live, it would have ended up sounding like a sub-Motown affair. The warmth and feel of that is great live, yet on record you want to be moving forward and sound modern. We consciously put sounds and feels on the record which you can't get from real playing. Laurie just helped us realise what we'd set out to do from the start: to make a record which would combine the black vocal harmony tradition with the post-new-wave-pop sensibility of today, incorporating everything we listen to ourselves: punk, reggae, soul, blues, the classics...
For Priestman the release of the Christian's album was the realisation of a long-lived dream: to play his own songs. For five years he was the keyboard player with It's Immaterial - who never got round to playing any of Priestman's songs. Before that he moved from his native Hull to Liverpool to study at the art college and joined local bands as a guitarist. It was only the presence of three guitarists in one of those bands which led him to playing keyboards.
In 1983 Priestman saw brothers Garry, Russell and Roger Christian perform at Liverpool's Lark in the Park show. They'd been singing for years, inspired by groups like The Temptations and The Persuasions. They sang mainly for their own pleasure and public performances were scarce. Despite their nonprofessional background, Priestman was sufficiently impressed with the quality of their voices to invite the brothers into the studio to sing backing vocals on a new It's Immaterial track, 'Ed's Funky Diner'. They kept in touch and later started work on a single which was never released but marked the beginning of a happy partnership.
By the Autumn of '85 the Christians were an eight-piece band doing live work, sometimes supporting It's Immaterial, sometimes head-lining.
A deal with Island records meant Priestman left It's Immaterial to concentrate on his own music, demoing a lot of the songs on eight-track in the winter of '86/87. A live appearance on The Tube last January preceded the release of their first single 'Forgotten Town', the album was released in October and went into the charts at No. 2.
Today The Christians are Garry and Russell Christian (brother Roger left in August to pursue a solo career) and Henry Priestman. The band are aided and abetted by Mike Bulger on electric guitar, Tony Jones on bass and Paul Barlow on drums as more or less regular members of the group. So what is Priesman's current role? As the album sleeve gives all the songwriting credits over to my interviewee, it looks like a dominant one. Priestman denies it.
"The strongest and most important part of the Christians are the vocals, that's where Garry and Russell are central. I sing as well, so we all chuck in ideas for the melodies and the harmonies. On top of that, Russell plays sax and there's a lot of him on the album. And both Russell and Garry are writing songs now, they've written the last two B-sides, and several of their songs will end up on the new album."
So the Christians are not a one-man band affair. The fact remains, however, that Priestman played a predominant part in the making of the LP.
"I love the sound of the TR808, no other drum machine has that sound or that feel, so I use it for demoing, and also in various places on the album."
Tracing the songwriting back leads us to eight-track demos recorded last winter - conceived, played and recorded by Priestman. He confesses to favouring Roland's old TR808 drum machine for demoing and also live: "I love the sound of it. No other drum machine has that sound. It also has a tremendous feel, so I use it for demoing, and also in various places on the album, like the beginning of 'One in a Million'."
Songwriting appears to come relatively easy to Priestman. Working around a bassline is one of his favorite approaches.
"'Forgotten Town' started like that; it's got one bassline going through the whole lot. 'Born Again' is also one bassline, apart from the odd little bridge. I usually like to get the rhythm and bass sorted out, then the chords, then the melody and then the words."
With regard to the strong melodies on the album, Priestman's working method is a surprising one. Hi-tech rhythms and grooves are often blamed for soul-less music these days. He acknowledges the point.
"I know. It's why a lot of dance music, which is conceived this way, leaves me cold - because there's no song. Alright, it moves your feet, but it doesn't move your heart and there's nothing that you end up singing. I love melody and harmony and I suppose that shows in my work, even when I don't follow the 'preferred' method of writing with just piano or guitar."
After demoing his songs on eight-track, Priestman went on to the pre-production stage with producer Latham and programmer Anthony Moore: "We'd spend days messing around with things. We wouldn't go for finished sounds so much at that stage, but rather say 'Well we know that we want a violin-type sound here', and use any old violin-type sound whilst going for the part."
The results of their labours were largely stored in an Atari, running Steinberg software, operated by Moore. With all their parts prepared and what they thought were clear ideas about the sounds, they went into a 24-track studio (Manfred Mann's Workhouse) and started laying down the tracks. Finding the proper sounds proved a laborious, yet rewarding task.
"We used a lot of Akai S900", Priestman elaborates, "with samples from a variety of sources. Sometimes we used factory samples, sometimes we used one of Anthony's or Laurie's. On one occasion they sampled a sound of mine, which we couldn't recreate. That was a clap-type sound, which came from a demo I'd done two years before. It was a TR808, put through an amp and a ridiculous amount of gated reverb. There are some things which you can do on eight-track with low technology which are very hard to recreate in a hi-tech 24-track situation. So we had to sample that sound into the S900 and ran it off that.
"We also used more normal sounds, usually put out of range a bit. Like the instrumental theme at the beginning of 'Forgotten Town', which repeats throughout the song is a sampled marimba. I wanted to use real marimba there, but Laurie said 'No, it's good to sample this and keep it dead on the beat.' In doing that we discovered that it sounded better slightly out of its range."
Another, rather unlikely, machine used during the sessions was a Casio CZ101. It may sound shocking to a lot of CZ101 owners, but many of the organ sounds on the album are Preset 6, unmodified. It's a sound which is probably discarded by most people after a cursory listen.
"I really like the Casio, and especially that sound", says Priestman, clearly enjoying himself. "I also played real Hammond organ in places, but that Casio sound was used quite a lot.
"There are some things which you can do on eight-track with low technology which are very hard to recreate in a hi-tech 24-track situation."
It's got character and fitted with what we were trying to do with the album: putting character in things. I have to admit that I sometimes went 'Well, I'm not sure about that', and Laurie would say 'Let's try it'. Normally only Prince or perhaps The Cure get away with using that kind of really naff synth sound, but it's a real hook - because nobody else is using those sounds. On 'Forgotten Town' we used another one, I think it was preset 15, the whistle sound."
Other sound sources were the DX7 (mainly presets) and a Juno 106: "You won't find me using a DX7 on its own though. That digital sound is not warm enough for me. I always use it together with an analogue sound, which makes it sound a lot better.
"I suppose one reason I use so many presets is that I can't program sounds. I just mess around with analogue machines - I won't touch the DX7 - and get things from happy accidents. I really don't know what I'm doing. I'm just fumbling in the dark. I can handle analogues, because you just press things and push faders up and down. And then... Perhaps sounds aren't that important to me. Some people get so worked up about them, but it's like with the basslines: the tune has to be good, otherwise there's no point."
THE CHRISTIANS, THE album uses sequencing extensively, a conceptual decision favoured by Priestman and Latham to help with the creation of a modern sound.
"As I've said before, it might have sounded rather old-fashioned otherwise. The band ended up playing on perhaps only three or four tracks on the album. I think sometimes they were a bit pissed off that they didn't play on the whole album, but I wanted the album to have lots of different feels. Yet, most of the keyboards were manually played. What we did to combine modern tightness with human feel was that I'd play into the sequencer, play 16 bars of a bassline and then take out the two best bars and chained them. The bass part of 'When The Fingers Point' was done like that, as was the bassline of 'Born Again', which was played on Minimoog. All the sequencing is in fact in real time and then chained together."
Another studio 'happening' that helped reshape some of the songs was improvisation.
"A lot of our best things were done during adlibs at the end of tracks. That's why a lot of the fade-outs are so long - 'Born Again' was meant to finish two minutes earlier than it does. Garry does a lot of his best ad-libbing at the end of songs, and so do I. If we found we had something good then we'd put it in the AMS and sneak it out at the beginning or somewhere in the middle of the song. Like the opening of 'Sad Songs'; 'gone are the sad songs...' was originally an adlib sung by Garry at the end. That's why I think new technology is great, because without it we wouldn't have been able to do things like that.
"Laurie was really important here as well. He'd quickly gathered that we got a lot of things from ad-libbing so he always set up a spare track for us and then would just record somebody all the way through. I'd do a whole track of Hammond organ, just messing about, changing things all the time, and he'd afterwards say: 'That was a great line, let's home in on that section.' A lot of guitar, keyboard and vocal lines were invented like that. He was a catalyst for us to excel ourselves. He brought things out in Garry's vocals that I don't think anybody else could do. He also brought things out of me... What really helped was that we both have this reference of old music. He'd say 'do you remember that War album?' or 'did you ever hear that Captain Beefheart thing?' or 'what about the guitar line from 'Have You Seen Your Mother Baby?'. I wouldn't actually copy things, but it was like a recognition: 'Oh yeah, you mean that kind of feel'."
And indeed, The Christians excelled themselves and were as successful as anybody could have hoped to be with their first album, and the string of hit singles which was taken from it: 'Forgotten Town', 'Hooverville', 'When The Fingers Point'. Now there's 'Ideal World', being plugged as a Christmas single by the record company - though it was never intended to be one.
"'Ideal World' is about South Africa - no, we're not religious. Also we're often seen as a political band, but I think that my lyrics - sometimes co-written with a friend called Mark Herman - are more moral than political. I just like to write about anything. 'Sad Song' is about a nightclub singer called Suzi Solidor, who died in Paris, forgotten and never having recorded anything. I thought that was very tragic."
Now, in the wake of their initial success, The Christians are being promoted by Island to follow in the footsteps of U2. Priestman's life is suddenly circling around promotion, rather than music; he's just back from shooting a video clip in Austria and had exactly half a night's sleep in Liverpool before being flown back to London to do a slot on Radio 1's Singled Out. Tomorrow he's on his way to the Netherlands, doing eight interviews in one day.
"They told me that I didn't have to do this interview, if I didn't want to, but I like talking about music, for a change", he says, looking in disdain at the lavish interior surrounding us. Champneys Club, a health club on Piccadilly, is hardly a place for a socially-aware musician to give an interview: wall-to-wall carpet, marble pillars and mirrors everywhere; a swimming pool and jacuzzi across the room and the kind of upper class atmosphere which to some people is a dream, to others a plague.
Priestman has mixed feelings about the possibility of superstar status for The Christians.
"I came into this to play music, and I'd rather not be doing all the promoting, photo sessions, shooting videos, travelling up and down Europe. It takes me away from music. Also, it interferes with your private life once you start being recognised. During the shooting of videos I usually ask to be put at the back, and I've started to wear sunglasses now because I don't want to be recognised. When it becomes like U2, where you have to have bodyguards for every floor of your hotel, I probably would consider taking a backseat and work just as a songwriter. I'd love to do that anyway. That's how it started with the Christians. Originally I wasn't going to be in the frontline, it would only be the three brothers on stage and me writing the songs at home. But then people would have said 'Oh, they're a soul band'. We wanted to challenge the stereotype: bring in the white face and it makes a difference. Challenging the stereotypes is what we are about really. That and music, of course."
Interview by Paul Tingen
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