Giddy young thing Paul Bacon talks to Vertigo about their hopes of scaling the heights of success, the demo-tape route
Vertigo are not a normal band. A sense of this abnormality creeps up on you as you listen to their demo tape; as you wait for the drums to come in, and they don't; as you attend the entry of the chorus, and it enters not; Vocals, violin and churning bass — that's it. This, you consider thoughtfully, really is a new sound. Vertigo aren't normal, but they are abnormally interesting.
It began in a suitably unusual manner. Neil and Dave had met when they were both slaves to the same recording studio. Some time later they became acquainted with Jyl over a No 47 (Singapore fried noodles) in a North London Chinese Restaurant where they were playing to settle a tab and where Jyl was eating to settle a rumbling abdomen. Flattened ninths merged with extended stomachs and soon enough they were talking 'the trouble with the music business' talk. The consensus was that the traditional band format was no longer satisfactory. They discovered that they shared similar ideas for a different approach to music: some new form that would put into perspective the modern preoccupation with the 'what is this week's drum sound?' syndrome, plus a desire to keep their feet on the ground regarding the music world's technological race with itself — not getting over-involved with its dehumanising gimmickry. Something entirely new and different and yet instantly, brilliantly fabulous... they agreed to meet again to discuss what key it should be in, and so the band was founded.
On hearing the music the average listener is struck by the refreshingly different overall effect of the arrangement. It is confidently original and makes few bows to any standard Pop/Rock format. If you're an addict to the massive bass drum and snare you might find the more subtle rhythmic tension between the violin and the bass a little difficult to stick with, but not being heavily ballasted by a kit is an important part of the music, and provides the space for other gentler patterns to come through.
Jyl: "The smaller nucleus of players means that there is less definition concerning what each instrument has to do and also more flexibility, but at the same time it means more is demanded of each person to make things work — the challenges are endless!"
This sparse and unusual line-up also changes the way in which they approach writing and recording.
"When we record a song we do use a basic pulse to start with, something like a metronome, a simple bass drum or any sampled noises that add to the atmosphere but don't overwhelm. When Dave comes to record the bass guitar, often more than one track is used so a number of bass parts are combined to create an integrated rhythmical background with echoes and effects. By the time the bass parts are complete it generally becomes apparent that no drum parts are necessary."
Suddenly, Dave is triggered into confessional mode by my black polo-neck and starts blabbering uncontrollably: "I'm a self-confessed compressor addict — no, I admit it — it's gotta be full up, stamp-down compression or I don't play at all. I'll steal to get the batteries (I wonder silently where my wallet is). It means you can do so many more things with the bass: wack the strings for bell-like harmonics; or strumming it sounds extremely punchy. You can even blow on the strings to get a kind of ethereal sound and the other day I discovered a great tabla sound — I do like to use the instrument to the full, but it does mean a high string casualty rate." David sacrifices his strings to Art on the altar of a Washburn long scale bass with a pair of EMG pickups, and it does sound very good.
For home recording, Neil uses either a perspex violin — a unique instrument made by Guy Davies who has also made violins for Eddie Jobson and Daryl Way; or a mute violin made in Germany around the turn of the century. Both are very striking in appearance. Each is fitted with a Barcus Berry bridge which is a classical violin bridge with a pickup actually inside it, and via a preamp they plug into his pedal board or directly into the mixing console. Neil:
"The pedal board was custom made and has a variety of track saving devices such as an Octaver (octave divider), a sampling DDL and a chorus — all Boss. These help create a full orchestral sound without having to repeatedly double track. Also useful for creating a fuller effect is the 'sound-on-sound' setting on the Roland Space Echo. Depending on the speed it is set at, it repeats what has been played up to about 30 seconds before. This can create a great swirling effect around a melody or a canon/round effect. Of course you have to be careful how you use it as it's quite random. I use other pedals such as overdrive, wah-wah and flanger for creating more electric sounds. Depending on how the violin is played, these pedals can be used to make sounds like cars skidding, harmonics, double bass, flutes or even a distant angelic choir. Occasionally, the tone of the violin could be mistaken for a synthesiser, but the nature of the instrument gives it a more human touch. Recently a new family of electric stringed instruments of very high quality has been developed in Canada. They avoid the problems of electric bridges and have characteristics much more akin to an acoustic violin. I'm looking forward to being able to experiment with one."
Jyl: "I normally put my vocals through a digital delay and the Roland Space Echo for a warmer type of echo and reverb. I generally find working with tape-based delays preferable because the sound is more natural with the sound deteriorating with each repeat. The only problem with that is they tend to make more noise than digital delays. This isn't necessarily a problem when recording at home, though, because the recording equipment can often make more noise than the effects, especially when you're using the tape that they made the original James Bond Thunderball soundtrack on!
"I prefer a dynamic mike to a condenser — a Neumann U87, for instance, may be a great mike technically, but I find that it's too smooth for my voice; it's too sibilant and poppy. With a dynamic mike, though, I can get a lot closer and consequently achieve a closer sound which is generally what I'm looking for."
Ever on the guard against the insidious onslaught of old-school banality, the band pull in a number of other interesting instruments to add texture: castanets, a Morrocan trumpet, a toy piano, a normal acoustic piano (they're not that proud), a harmonica, a kalimba and a tambourine. A nine-band graphic is used in each case to shape the sound going to the multitrack which is a tried and trusted four-track ¼" reel-to-reel Teac fed by an old Seck 16:8:2 mixer.
Neil: "We use the four-track as a sketch pad for arrangements and for sorting out harmonies and violin parts in preparation for going into a larger studio, although on simpler songs we can achieve very good results. The only problem with the 'sketch pad' approach is that when it comes to the big studio it can be difficult to reproduce anything spontaneous that happened to come up on the demo or any accidents that sounded good. Generally, though, it's fairly easy and practical for us to record at home as the instruments are electric and can be DI'ed effectively.
"Of necessity, when recording at home, we tend to use a combination of simple effects to create our sounds. Four tracks can be limiting, but if we have a track free we've found it both easy and effective on some songs to record backwards echo by turning the tape round and recording the effect in the opposite direction. Just recording instruments at half speed can completely change their tonal balance and create new sounds and images."
The band have recently completed a video and are interested in combining their musical skill with visual ideas that produce moods and atmosphere that are more than merely 'pictorial representations'. There are no live performances planned at present but the band have strong ideas about how they want to come across visually involving quite elaborate stagings and effects. They're definitely not normal.
Feature by Paul Bacon
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