Dave Ball and Richard Norris — aka The Grid — have a low profile that belies their hectic workload both on their own material and remixing for others. Nigel Humberstone tracks them down.
The London duo of Dave Ball and Richard Norris, collectively known as The Grid, have the kind of diverse backgrounds, music business connections and essence of originality which sets them apart from the mass of aspiring dance merchants. After Ball's memorable collaboration with Marc Almond in Soft Cell, he pursued a range of lower-profile soundtrack projects and guest collaborations. Norris, formerly a music writer and magazine editor, completed The Grid's writing nucleus when the pair met in 1988 whilst producing the seminal Jack The Tab compilation, one of the first British Acid House albums. The Grid singles 'Floatation' and 'A Beat Called Love', and the album Electric Head, followed in the wake of this inspired union, and it wasn't long before the pair found themselves doing remixes for the likes of Happy Mondays, Jesus Loves You, Pet Shop Boys, and Erasure.
The new album 456, which draws on varied influences from club culture, represents a collection of tracks which are as rich in musical sources as they are in guest artists. The list of contributors, let alone their input, is fascinating: Robert Fripp, Sun Ra, Yello's Dieter Meier, Zodiac Mindwarp, Dagmar Krause, Andy Mackay and PP Arnold all get a look in. So just how do you manage to get such a variety of artists to contribute to your album?
"Some were through our management," explains Norris, "because they (I.E. Management) used to manage King Crimson, Roxy Music and T.Rex. So we got a lot of the Roxy, Fripp kind of people; but we were also into those kind of people's music. We always wanted to work with people who were mavericks or slightly outside the norm — left-field avant-garde people — rather than just good musicians." Everyone's contribution was different, and obviously dependant on the requirements of the particular track. Norris: "Sun Ra did his part in Philadelphia and just sent it to us. The track was called 'Face the Sun', and we knew how much he was into the sun so we asked if he could recite some words about why he liked the sun. Then we put that on top, right at the end.
"Someone like Robert [Fripp] was much more integral to the way the tracks were done. We'd have the rough backing track and he'd then put a lot of work into it. A lot of the development of the tracks depended on his input."
Towards the later stages of finishing the album The Grid were also lucky to strike up a 2-way working relationship with Brian Eno. Norris: "We mixed his latest single, called 'Ali Click', and he's been doing some mixes of 'Heartbeat' which will be coming out on a special 'Brian Eno meets The Grid' type of CD. I think he's developing a new sound at the moment, which is kind of in its early stages; you can see it on his new album and in the stuff he's been doing for us. It's an interesting sound and quite weird in a way. I think if we handed in a mix to someone the way he handed in the mix to us — which is a very, very different approach to the record than you'd normally expect from a re-mix — then I think we'd probably get turned down. But it's great that he can get away with that. I'm not saying that in a derogatory sense, 'cos I think what he's done is very good, but it's great to be in that position where you're able to do really left-field, experimental things.
"What Eno produced was a completely new interpretation of the song. I kind of encouraged him to ignore all the rhythms and all the melodies — so he wasn't left with much! He did 18 mixes and they're all around six minutes long, so he spent quite a while on it. I think now, because of the sound he's getting is developing, it's very difficult to say 'Ah yes, that's Brian Eno', but in a couple of years people will see this new thing he's getting into, certainly with his next album."
The track 'Ice Machine' has more than a touch of Kraftwerk to it, with a pulsating 'Autobahn'-esque rhythm, and features distinctive vocals from Dieter Meier. Ball: "Well, we thought of it more along the lines of 'Planet Rock', but then that is Kraftwerk inspired. We were interested in using that type of electro rhythm rather than a straightforward house beat. It was the perfect track for him [Dieter Meier] anyway and works really well.
"It was a kind of chance meeting really. We were in the middle of recording the World of Twist album, which we produced about a year ago, and we went down to the Brain [a London club]. Dieter Meier was a regular punter there so we got up a bit of dutch courage and went and asked him if he'd be interested in doing a vocal for us. He said 'who are you?'; we told him and he gave us a card for his management. After much messing about, sending tapes backwards and forwards, we got a track sent over to him in Los Angeles. He did the vocals, isolated it on a DAT, and sent that back over to us. We just flew it into the track.
"He supplied six vocal mixes with three distinct and different takes running through the whole track. There was a whispery one, a 'normal' Dieter Meier nasally deep voice and then this one like an American TV evangelist kind of thing — lots of screaming. We used bits of each and constructed it so that it builds to these peaks and then drops."
Norris: "When it drops to the whispery stuff, that's when Fripp's ambient guitar is mixed in between phrases. It's interesting that on that track you can hear a lot of Fripp's treated guitar, which sounds like keyboard ambience, but which is just his guitar. At times we'd say things like 'can you make it sound like water or something?', and he'd just punch a few buttons in his rack and it would sound like water! It was great."
Such effects feature on 'Aquarium', an atmospheric (aquaspheric?) journey of a track. Also featured are chorus vocals by Dagmar Krausem and saxophone/oboe from Andy Mackay. Richard Norris is credited with 'Whale Noises and Bubbles'. "Those are some whale and dolphin samples taken from stock sound effects which have then been doctored and reversed," he explains. "We used to go out a lot and do field recordings like that. I used to go out to speakers' corner and get spoken word stuff there. But lately we've been going away from sampling a bit and concentrating more on refining our sound."
As a writing team, Norris and Ball do not have any predefined tasks or roles, and demos are pretty much bypassed in favour of working directly in a studio. Norris: "Dave does most of the stuff, in terms of programming, before it goes to tape, whereas I concentrate more on the mixing side of it. But our paths cross and it's all loosely defined. We tend to work with basic ideas, normally a rhythmic or simple melodic bass or piano line, and then build it up. We find it quicker to do it directly in the studio, putting things straight down onto tape. We don't keep it on computer, but put it down as soon as we have the idea, and then at a later stage mix by basically muting things in the automation rather than writing changes in the computer."
Programming duties are shared between the Atari, with C-Lab's Notator and Unitor, and older sequencers like the Alesis MMT8. "Even though something like the Alesis is quite a cheap box we seem to have had quite a lot of joy out of it, and it's reliable," says Norris. "We've used it for years — it would be nice if Alesis brought out something a bit more solid."
When it comes to sequencing on the Atari, Dave Ball prefers to work with a dedicated programmer rather than work the computer himself. "I just find it extremely time consuming and boring. I want to play music, so I'm not interested in that side of things. We have this guy called Ingo Vauk who's brilliant — what's the point of messing around if you've got someone like that? It leaves us with more time to mess about with the sounds and ideas. I don't really think that a computer is particularly creative — most of the stuff that comes out when people start using computers is just like a straight line. I prefer to get involved with actually working out chords, or whatever, rather than typing, otherwise it's like working in an office!"
"I think people get a bit too precise on computers," continues Norris. "I mean we're really into making sure everything locks together rhythmically so that it's precisely in time. But there comes a point where you can see that there's something slightly different so we'll play about with the offsets quite a lot."
Considering that the pair choose to write and arrange in a studio environment, I wondered if they ever dried up creatively? Norris: "There's always a point where, well... you don't dry up, but you're looking for another sound and then one sound will 'happen', and that will spark off lots of different ideas, and the whole track will go off on a different direction."
"We're not too precious about things," adds Ball. "If something's not right about a track, and sometimes you can't always see it, we just leave it alone and then come back to it and say 'well let's just get rid of all that and try this'. Sometimes that's the way to go rather than trying to hold onto your original idea."
Norris: "I mean, at times we put stuff down that we know we're going to lose — for example we use drum loops for the feel, 'cos that will give us some kind of direction.
"It's strange that although we're quite a technological band, we're not particularly into computers. Other people love 'em, but I think there are more human elements in what we do. That's why we tried to get a lot of different guests on this album, using the keyboards and computers as a backbone which we could add to and embellish, so that it's people making the music rather than the computers. A lot of people can do computer music, but I don't know how many could do a record with Fripp on it and make it work."
The Grid's musical diversity and penchant for working with unusual collaborators was put to the test recently when the duo were involved in Real World Studio's recent WOMAD recording week; the invitation dated back to the Grid's World Of Twist sessions at the studio. "There were lots of different people; Jah Wobble, flamenco guitarists... at one point there were 11 different nationalities singing on one track," recalls Norris. "It was an unusual way of working — we were just getting some drum sounds up to get a rough idea of the backing track, and then every half an hour a representative from a different country came into the room and contributed their bit. A lot of the time those kind of things can sound horrible, but we tried to make ours like any other recording session and not have many concessions to it being world music."
One other recent grid collaboration saw Dave Ball reunited with his former Soft Cell partner in order to co-write some of the tracks for Marc Almond's last album. "Richard and I were in the studio when Marc came along," remembers Dave, "and we were doing demos which turned out pretty well, so we carried on and developed them into album tracks. There was 'Hand Over My Heart', 'Meet Me In My Dreams', and 'I Have Never Seen Your Face'. Trevor Horn got involved with 'Meet Me In Your Dreams', and then suddenly there was this 100 piece orchestra involved in what had started off as a simple straightforward synthesizer track.
"We'd actually done a mix for Marc of 'Waifs and Strays' some time ago, and that's how we established contact. It's good to work with someone like Marc 'cos he has so many ideas. He's like a machine, he just sits down and churns out lyrics — pages of the stuff."
Part of The Grid's philosophy regarding equipment is to use technology and machinery to its utmost, but in a way which disguises the sound source thereby stamping their own mark on the end product. Their sounds therefore tend to be heavily doctored and treated, but at the same time Ball and Norris are not not averse to employing experienced session musicians (such as keyboardist Alex Gifford and percussionist Steve Sidelnyk) to add yet another dimension.
Ball: "I still use the Prophet 5 for the particular sounds you get out of it — there's just nothing else to create those sounds, especially the subsonic side of bass sounds. If you combine it with, say, something like the Oberheim Matrix, you can put them together and you've got a very solid sound. The Prophet is also good for adding strange harmonics — you can use the filtering to get to get these weird resonant frequencies that you keep underlying (in the track) 'cos it just makes it more interesting." Dave Ball has also hung onto his PPG 2.2, an instrument legendary for its individual character and irregularities. "Basically, they don't work properly," he explains. "I've got various patches in it that just let it go completely off on its own — it's like 'what's that!'. It changes the sound on every note, for no apparent reason. But that instability also makes it more exciting. I've also got a Waldorf Microwave which is great because it's basically the same sounds and the same filtering and everything, but instead of carrying a sort of sideboard around with you it's more like a little attache case."
For drum sounds The Grid use mainly a Roland R8, Alesis HR16, and banks of samplers. "We'd quite like a 909 and an 808," admits Norris, "but we kind of rely on samples at the moment."
"We've also been using a lot of old foot pedals, like the Electro Harmonix Electric Mistress. It's a flanger — well, a filter matrix — and it's got a real Giorgio Moroder sound to it if you put it on hi-hats or something like that. We're really into all that — getting old pedals, fuzz boxes, wah-wahs, and using them rather than racks. Mutrons are ridiculously big and dirty — really extreme, and you just can't get that out of digital effects. If you try and make them sound extreme they end up cold and metallic. Sometimes we'll rack the effect pedals up, like on 'Fire Engine Red' there's a bit where there are two different wah-wahs and we're playing one each. It's a piano sound, but you can't tell 'cos it's going through loads of different boxes."
The latest album, entitled 456 (named simply after the Ampex tape code number) took around four months to complete. Several studios, including Berwick Street, Marcus, and Olympic, were used by the band, but Eastcote Productions was a particular favourite, having been used to record their first album. Editing and compilation of the album was carried out by Barry Woodward using Sonic Solutions on an Apple Macintosh IIfx, a process which Ball felt was painfully slow and expensive. "The problem with many places now is that they don't know how to cut tape. In fact, they'd rather you didn't cut tape cause they can charge you a hell of a lot more money for using digital systems than they can for using a razor blade."
The editing also involved the placing of specially recorded links between the tracks, a characteristic trademark continued from The Grid's last album, and an example of their natural leaning towards soundtrack-style music — they were involved in creating music for BBC TV's Def II series. "Yeah, the Def II thing was quite interesting," relates Norris, after admitting that the Pet Shop Boys had helped them get the commission by putting in a good word for them. "We did all the five/six second 'stings'; about 20 to 25 in all. It's interesting to work to such a tight schedule where something has to happen every half second. A lot of our music is 'soundtracky', or stuff that you could imagine with a visual accompaniment. It's a really good discipline to do that kind of thing where the creative ideas are coming from the pictures as well as the sound, compared to something like a 7-minute 12" mix which you have to get your head around in a completely different way."
On the subject of 12" mixes, how do The Grid view the current development (or stagnation) of today's populist dance scene? "I think it's time for people to get into making albums rather than churning out 12" singles," suggests Norris. "People can accept the structures, the sounds, and the way that dance music works, but I think they can also accept it in a longer format. When I first got into collecting 12"s, back in 1988, there was loads of good varied stuff coming out. But now it's much more difficult to find stuff which is innovative — more people now know about how to make these types of records, which means that there are more similar records coming out. The ones that really break through are things like Future Sound Of London, and they only break through because they're different.
"I think there will be a shift away from dance music, but hopefully people are going to be interested in our albums because they've got some substance. We don't do records to be in the charts — but it helps."
The album 456 is out now on Virgin.
Interview by Nigel Humberstone
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!