Chris and Cosey
Tony Reed chats to Chris and Cosey, a duo who've taken the DIY ethic further than most
Very flat, Norfolk, as Noel Coward once observed. A barren landscape leavened only by the odd broad, barge, and school. School? Well, yes. Mostly shut these days, part of our leaner, fitter education system – and the source of a mini real estate boom amongst Rock star types. Forget castles in Spain, this year's in residence for Rockers is an old village schoolroom, just waiting to be converted into that chi-chi little 8-track. The Eurythmics nearly went for it before settling on Crouch End, and along the way they got sometime collaborators and friends Chris and Cosey interested enough in one to buy it.
Not that Chris and Cosey are in any way conventional Rock stars, despite that brief liaison with Dave and Annie on a recently released single, Sweet Surprise – the result of a chance encounter in the deep end of Hornsey swimming baths between Annie and Cosey.
That one-off is as close to the commercial mainstream as Chris and Cosey are willing to get. (Cosey: 'I just don't think I could take myself seriously telling people to get down and boogie!')
It's an attitude which has characterised the duo's musical career since its origin in enormously influential art/noise ensemble Throbbing Gristle. Along with fellow TG survivors Psychic TV and Coil, Chris and Cosey, through their own albums, and a variety of related Conspiracy International projects, are still managing to make a living from the notoriously undernourished indie scene. How?
Moving out of London has a lot to do with it. Their schoolroom, located in the unlikely named village of Islington, five miles outside Kings Lynn, offers peace and quiet, room for a studio – and it was cheap.
Cosey's course in accountancy, undertaken in TG days, has clearly left its mark...
The first impression on entering the school is a feeling of domesticity and comfort; the building is not only studio, but home to Chris, Cosey, and their young son. Extensive conversion work has provided the spacious living/kitchen area with second storey bedrooms taking advantage of the lofty interior; but the studio, adjacent to this main space is surprisingly unchanged. Formerly the schoolroom itself, it still has the hardwood parquet flooring, large windows, and even blackboard of its previous existence. ("Comes in handy for noting things down on" observes male half of the duo, Chris.) Everything from initial ideas to completed master tapes are produced here – so doesn't such a live environment lead to recording and monitoring problems? Chris again:
"At one time it did, yes. We used to record Cosey's vocals with a Sony PCM 56 – a big, suspended microphone like an old BBC thing – very good quality, but omnidirectional – it'd pick up anything: motor hum from the tape machines, the hiss of the effects... so we had a V-shaped curtain enclosure which we could pull out from the wall to make a vocal booth, and that gave us a good dry sound. Nowadays we use a Beyer Dynamic M201, for recording and for live. It's so directional that Cosey can sing with the monitoring coming out of the Tannoys, and it'll still just pick up her voice..."
Refusing to compromise on the room's potentially difficult acoustics hasn't caused any other problems. Using just 'ordinary hi-fi' Tannoys and, for the sake of contrast, a pair of 'punchy' Auratones, Chris and Cosey's mixes have found approval with their favourite cutting engineer, Utopia's Steve Angel.
"So many people overlook the importance of the cutting process," explains Chris: "When TG cut their first record, we'd put so many subsonics and ultrasonics on it that the cutting stylus actually shattered...
"We've learnt a lot since then, and working with one person who really understands what sound we want has been a great help."
That sound is typically a lush, complex weave of multitracked vocals and electronic backing achieved on a bewildering range of pre-MIDI and largely homebuilt gear and effects, dating right back to the origins of TG when Chris built "almost everything – including the speakers!"
Still occupying pride of place in the compositional process is a large Roland System 100M modular synth set up, augmented by a variety of Digisound modules, and triggered from an SH101, or from an ancient MC8/Op8 combination. This grand-daddy of microcomposers was purchased a few years back from Landscape, of Einstein a Go Go fame, and has earned its keep ever since, with 8 CV/gate and 6 multiplex trigger outs making it the natural choice for control of a modular system – despite a few irritating eccentricities like the lack of battery backup for memory ('One glitch in the power supply, and a whole day's work is gone') and a tendency to physically slow up as the memory fills. ('Sometimes you have to wait over a second for a single keystroke to register.')
Initially, Chris used to program the MC8 directly via its keypad, but as time has passed, a variety of approaches has evolved. Playing in from the SH101 is obviously popular, but an old rackmounting Roland pitch-to-voltage synth provides perhaps the most immediate response.
"Cosey programs by playing her cornet straight into the synth – good tracking as long as you don't sustain the notes too long – in fact, you can even hum into it to get a basic idea down, then go back and edit from the keypad."
Percussion sounds were originally provided by an 808, chosen for its separate, and hence treatable, outputs, but the cautious introduction of MIDI into the set up, via a CZ101 synth, SZ1 sequencer, and (borrowed) JX3P posed initial syncing problems for the MC8, which lacks both MIDI and Roland sync. A TR707 provided an ingenious solution when Chris discovered that it could lock up to the MC8 via its Tape Sync Out, and the MC8's Tape sync in, leaving the 707's MIDI ports free to act as Master or slave to the SZ1 and attached MIDI synths.
The continuing predominance of voltage controlled modules in the setup allows some enormously complex signal chains to be built up.
A typical instance of this can be found on the duo's latest album, Techno Primitiv. Vast choral effects are used with their origins in a record of choral music given to the pair by erstwhile TG co-worker Sleazy. Chris picks up the story:
"We sampled the original sound into a modified Korg DDL, then set up a very long DDL loop, with the modular delays running from one into another, all feeding into the Roland SRV2000 digital reverb set on infinite hold; so the sound gradually built up into an enormous choir effect. Then we resampled that, and played it back from the SH101."
Easy when you know how. Augmenting this already impressive array of time-domain effects are no less than two Dimension Ds ("Before we got the digital reverb, we used to use them to add a bit of stereo sparkle to our mono spring reverb – still use them all the time on vocals"), a Roland chorus echo, ("the chorus is still good, but the echo's a bit too noisy"), and a pair of Eventide harmonizers ("the glitching on them is unbelievable, and one of them freaks out into ring modulation sometimes, but they've got a sound all their own.")
Rounding it all off are two Accessit compressors and another home-built rack carrying two flangers, a modified reverb and an analogue delay. So, er Chris, do you know exactly what you're doing with all this lot?
"We've worked with it so long that we do, more or less. But experience has taught us to keep the tape running if something good is happening – the Roland 100M in particular is a bit unstable. Sometimes I switch it off with one sound patch into it at night, turn it on the following morning, and it sounds completely different!"
Keeping so many effects under control leads to other problems as well:
"A lot of the delays use very high frequency clock signals, which can occasionally cross-modulate and make everything go screwy."
Hiss is handled by a pair of Teac dbx units, but those naughty hf clock signals can sometimes confuse the system, making it pump, or open and close in the wrong places.
Despite all the technical overkill, though, Chris and Cosey have evolved an admirably laid back approach to writing, as Cosey explains:
"Chris usually works on basslines and rhythms for a few days, with me listening from the main room. When I hear something good, I shout out 'Don't lose it!' and rush in – he's got a bad habit of ditching something completely if he doesn't like it!"
With basic ideas captured in the MC8 and SZ1, the duo go back and 're-program' the sound, adding effects and so on, before going to the 8-track. (A Tascam 388). All monitoring and mixing is handled through a Seck 24-channel mixer bought primarily "because we got a good price on it!"
But this set-up is already under pressure – the duo, with two or three effects on almost every instrument and vocal line, often find themselves resorting to the use of a submixer, and making compromises on effects at bounce down which they'd rather avoid. As Cosey explains: "I'm not one of those people who think you need millions of channels – but I think we will have to go to 16-track soon, and to a 32-channel desk – although we only really need a few more channels to get by..."
The purchase of a computer is being looked at as one way (via MIDI sequence software) of getting more channels at low cost; and as a way of streamlining the band's newsletter and mail order service. No small consideration, that – TG's mail order turnover at one point reached a million pounds a year, and it is the personal contact Chris and Cosey maintain with their fans across Europe that keeps their present work financially viable.
As I left, Chris was pondering the irony of remastering early TG material for Compact Disc release. And I was left pondering how much more than just a mean hand at the mixing desk is needed to be a truly independent band in the Eighties. Successful home taping is skill in music... and a lot more besides.
Feature by Tony Reed
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