Improbability Factor: 42
Level 42 keyboardsman Mike Lindup takes a break from recording of the next album to talk to Tim Goodyer about Fairlights and Synclaviers, among other things.
With the help of keys player Mike Lindup, British funksters Level 42 approach normality with the impending release of a live double album. The interviewer fails to follow suit.
They're affectionately known as 'the boys from the Isle of Wight'. They borrowed Douglas Adams' favourite hitchhiking number, 42, for part of their name. And they've established themselves as one of the best funk bands Britain has produced in the last five years.
Yet in spite of achieving a considerable amount of chart success, Level 42 are still recognised primarily for their live performance. Many would rightly deem a live album to be long overdue, so the imminent release of a live double (appositely-titled A Physical Presence) should satiate a lot of appetites. An EP of the same name (featuring one previously un-released track plus three more - all recorded live) will also be available by the time you read this, so you'd be forgiven for thinking the funk foursome would be taking a well-earned break during the summer.
But nothing could be further from the truth. They'd just finished recording (and were about to begin mixing) the album that's to follow A Physical Presence at London's Maison Rouge studios when your intrepid reporter caught up with them.
I suppose it'd be fair to say that most people identify Level 42 with the dexterity of their bass player and lead singer, Mark King. But he's by no means the group's only strong suit. All four band members can do more than hold their heads above water in the playing skill department, and Mike Lindup, to whom most of the keyboard-playing duties fall and whose main claim to fame is that he's the only Leveller not to hail from the Isle of Wight, is no exception.
So, I'll shut up for a while and let him do all the talking...
'I started piano lessons when I was five or six and also took up violin for about a year, but that didn't work out. It's a hellish instrument to try to get a good sound out of, especially when you're six!
'But I carried on with the piano and went to a specialist music school in Manchester that takes people by audition, and covers academic subjects as well as a whole musical curriculum. Whilst I was there I took up percussion and, on reaching school-leaving age, I went to the Guildhall School of Music in London with percussion as a first study - though still continuing with the piano.
'Both my parents were musicians so I was always surrounded by music, but I think it was at college that I really got interested in music that wasn't classical. The college library had some key records in it - things like Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters and some Miles Davis. It was all stuff I'd heard vaguely but never really listened to before, so it was then that I started to enjoy listening to jazz and so on.'
That's all very well, but what about a practical involvement in music? When did Lindup realise he'd had enough listening and wanted to do some professional playing instead?
'Well, it was at that time that we formed a band in which I played drums. It wasn't particularly good, but it was good fun. Then, in the second year at college, I met Phil (Gould, Level 42's drummer) because he was having lessons from the same tutor I was. One day I walked in and he was on the college drum kit doing the kind of thing I'd only heard before on Billy Cobham records. Over the next few months he introduced me to Mark (King) and Boon (Gould, Phil's brother and Level 42's guitarist). Mark was a drummer originally too, but he was working selling basses because he couldn't get a job selling drums, so it was there that he taught himself to play bass.
'We all used to get together and talk about how great it would be to have a band, and it finally started to come together around the start of '79. We wrote our own instrumental stuff and were managed by John Gould, the third Gould brother, who worked for MCA Records. He knew Andy Soija who had a London-based independent label called Elite Records, and invited him down to hear us at a rehearsal studio. We played him all our stuff - which we thought was great - and he wasn't too impressed. So we started going through the dregs - all the riffs we had left.
'We finally played him a riff that he said he really liked, but it had to be a song; if we could put some lyrics to it, we were in business. Not wanting to miss the opportunity of a record deal, we did just that. We hadn't thought about singing but, as Mark had thought up the melody and thought he could make a good job of singing it, that's what he did. So we recorded 'Love Meeting Love' in a 16-track (and hiring all the instruments) and it turned out really well.'
So well, in fact, that the single made it to number 61 in the charts and brought the band a lot of attention as one of the new wave of British jazz-funk bands. Was it mostly luck?
'Andy Soija also had an import shop and knew that there would be a market for that track but, to us, it was just another one of our songs.'
The association with Elite, however, wasn't as fruitful as the band might have hoped - though it did produce another single, '(Flying on the) Wings of Love'. The projected album wasn't finished. 'We sort of fell out for various reasons - mainly to do with money!', Lindup recalls.
"If you're making something that's going to be listened to over and over again, you've got to be a little bit perfectionist about it."
But then Polydor, who'd handled the band's record distribution thus far, were sufficiently impressed to step in and sign them - and team them up with producer Mike Vernon. The single that resulted, 'Love Games', and subsequent album Level 42 climbed high in the charts, firmly establishing the foursome as a successful recording band. An unerringly steady string of high-charting singles and albums has followed since then, and things are showing no sign of any slowing-up.
But the live Level 42 were already established - and going from strength to strength - by the time of their signing to Polydor. How did that side of the story come together?
'The live work started towards the end of 1980, though it wasn't very far afield; most of it was in the Home Counties.
'We don't consider ourselves to be primarily a live band, but I think we do come across very strongly live. There seems to be a great excitement whenever we play, and a lot of the music does seem to come alive in that situation.
'It sounds obvious, but the stage and the studio really are two very different environments. You go into the studio with new material and you don't even know how it will turn out, whereas live you're totally familiar with it and you can arrange it so that it will work really well. Then there's the fact that in the studio, you're making something that's going to be listened to over and over again, so you've got to be a little bit perfectionist about it. Mistakes and raw edges that are a part of live performance aren't really acceptable.
'Our fans are very loyal and something that pleases me is the across-the-board appeal we seem to have. As well as the die-hard jazz-funkers that started with us, there are people of all ages and from different parts of the world that have heard and like the music. I think it's fantastic that we've got a style that isn't restricted to a fashionable clique.'
So the gigging aim is one of excitement, but without the atmosphere of a concert hall and the additional medium of visuals to assist them, how do Level 42 achieve their enviable degree of success on vinyl?
'Well, we've always strived to achieve a strong sound on record, although it has been quite hard to do. That's really down to experience. This is our sixth album now, and we've learned a lot. It's an interesting learning process, trying to make what you hear in your head come out on an album.'
Some recording artists adopt the ploy of trying out fresh material on a live audience before committing it to tape, in an effort to make sure it receives a good reception. Level 42 would seem to be in a good position to take advantage of this, but they prefer to stay with the old favourites live until after the recording is completed.
'We've done that with 'Follow Me' on the live EP, which was received well but, on the other hand, when you go out and play a concert, people do want to hear certain tracks. If you play a set that's too unfamiliar, you're really not doing yourself any favours.'
My guess is that Level 42 aren't exactly noted for technological innovation, yet there's always been a healthy awareness of, and readiness to use the latest the music hardware market has to offer. The band's last album, True Colours, was graced with the presence of a Fairlight, but the boys have moved on since then. How do you justify replacing a Fairlight?
'We've hired Geoff Downes' Synclavier for the album. It's such a flexible instrument. Sampling-wise it's brilliant - there isn't really anything that can touch it, not even an AMS, for sampling quality. And we've chosen to use it because Wally (Badarou, unofficial fifth member of the band) has his own Synclavier in Nassau.
'There's really no way we could have hired the Synclavier in and I could have played it straight away. Wally's had his for maybe one-and-a-half to two years now, and even he sometimes has difficulty if he comes up against a machine with recent updates that he hasn't got on his own. In fact, his has just been sent back to New England Digital for various updates like polyphonic sampling and 32 separate outputs. It's an incredible machine, it really is. Basically, when he gets it back he'll have his own digital recording studio - all he'll need is a PCM F1!
'Along with the DX7, the Fairlight has what the Synclavier hasn't in the form of good factory presets. Everyone's used them because they're good, and that's why you hear them a lot of the time. With the Synclavier, you're encouraged more to look for your own sounds. It's a matter of what you can make of it, and that only comes with familiarity. The synthesiser side of it is really good - I've heard that from the programs Wally's brought with him on disk. I've heard it said the Synclavier is a glorified DX7 but I don't think that's really being fair to it; it's got a much broader sound.'
"I've heard it said that the Synclavier is just a glorified DX7, but that's not being fair to it; it's got a much broader sound."
The last time I saw Level 42, Lindup was using a Rhodes, MiniMoog and Prophet 5. Things have obviously changed a little since then, so what else is currently in residence on Lindup's keyboard stand?
'As well as the Synclavier on the album, I'm presently using a Prophet 5, a DX7, a Rhodes, a MiniMoog which I don't use on stage so much these days, a PPG Wave 2.3 which is a fairly recent acquisition, and also an Emulator II, which is an even more recent acquisition.
'The PPG is great. It has a sound all its own although I don't think it's as flexible as the Prophet - that's just personal taste, really. The idea of analogue controls on a digital synth is clever though. Having said that, the DX7 takes longer to program but is more accurate. The only problem I've found is that the one I've got is slightly unstable sometimes - it's very sensitive to power fluctuations, for instance.
'Live the keyboards have to be arranged for one player - me - so I need a set-up that'll allow me to do all I need to do without becoming too complex. I don't want to take out all the keyboards just for the sake of having them. Last year I used the Rhodes, Prophet, PPG and DX7, and that worked out really well. When we go out next I'll definitely be taking the Emulator because it's such a great instrument. I'm only scratching the surface of it at the moment, but it can certainly increase the possibilities of what you can do live.'
Not realising what they were letting themselves in for, the band let me hear rough mixes of a couple of songs from the new album. Some of the keyboard sounds were breathtaking. Tell us how, Mike...
'We've used all the keyboards on the album with the exception of the Rhodes. I always used to play Rhodes on the backing track, then overdub things and then maybe drop out the Rhodes. But you start thinking of synthesisers in different ways and using them more creatively, soundwise, when you work without that restriction. There are Rhodes-type sounds from the DX7 and Synclavier but a lot depends on the track, really.'
You just can't talk keyboards these days without broaching the subject of MIDI. Sure enough, Lindup has found it a great, if as yet relatively unexplored, asset.
'We've used MIDI quite a lot on this album for sounds - because sounds are very important to us. One really successful combination that we've used is DX7 and Prophet 600 MIDI'd together. Good old analogue's still great - especially in the hands of a good programmer - and the DX7 is one of the most exciting synthesiser developments in recent years, so putting the two together offers all sorts of wonderful possibilities. The DX7 on its own is a bit thin; it's good for some things and not so good for others, but in combination with the Prophet 600, it can put a whole new colour on things.
'In Japan last August we supported a Japanese jazz-funk band, Casiopea, and their keyboard player had a DX1 MIDI'd to three DX7s - that was a very full sound. On the basis of that, the TX816 promises to be really interesting. I think it'll sound much more than it looks on paper.
'Funnily enough, I haven't used MIDI live yet, except for the sequencing on a couple of tracks like 'Hot Water'. I have an MSQ700 which I use with the DX7, and I think I'm going to be making a lot more of that when we go out again.'
And on the subject of sequencing, does it feature largely in the Level 42 scheme of things?
'We've used sequencing on several tracks, mostly from the Emulator and the Synclavier in particular. The Dr Click syncing unit has made things really easy - always having a click there means that you can sequence anything up at any stage.'
Trying to keep abreast of trends in new musical equipment is enough to keep you on your toes, at the very least. Is it as exciting as everyone's making out, or does Lindup feel things are getting out of hand?
'Reading magazines and so on, there's so much equipment coming out that you haven't really got enough time to collate information about a new product before there's something else that comes out that's better, cheaper and slightly more complicated. It is very exciting, but I need to go away for six months with something before I really get to know it.
'You can get really paranoid about not being up with the latest innovation - especially when you buy something and a year later it comes out cheaper and better. With the instruments that I've got now, there's so much I can do - particularly with the facility MIDI provides for combining sounds - that I shouldn't need to look for anything else in the next year or two years. But then again, I don't know what's going to be coming out, and as soon as you hear a great sound, there's a temptation to think "I must have that".
The only trouble is that if you don't hold yourself in check, you end up without any money!' I think this writer would probably vouch for that.
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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