Inside The KLF
Mark J. Prendergast looks behind the anonymous front of the KLF, riding high on the success of 'What Time Is Love' and '3am Eternal'.
It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that House music has wrought the biggest change in popular music since punk. The genre was invented in the late 80s by Chicago's rappers, who mixed their hard-funk dance grooves into ever more exotic and hypnotic concoctions using basic sampling techniques. 1988 saw Acid House, a spaced-out form of House usually performed by a couple of DJs on turntables and a few boxes, find its way to Britain via the Balearic disco scene. A true underground, it eventually affected the charts — new faces, fashions and sounds laying a new blueprint for commercial success. Total unknowns could get a Number 1 position with the right mixture of elements, and The Timelords were one such group of anonymous chart-toppers. An American police car scored a ridiculous coup with a mixture of the Dr Who theme and a sampled Gary Glitter beat. The video even featured the car singing and talking.
The '80s became the '90s, House became mainstream dance and many, tired of the all-nighters, sought escape in Ambient House, a form of meditative sampled music without the ear-crushing beat. Late in 1990 a faceless group called the KLF released a peculiar LP entitled Chill Out. Wrapped in a sleeve featuring sheep in blissful country fields, its contents were a karmic blend of pedal steel guitar, Fleetwood Mac samples, Elvis Presley, Acker Bilk, sonar blips, waves, wind and birds. Plus, of course, sheep. It sounded terrific, close enough to New Age and Ambient music to be compared to them, but stimulating enough to be considered an advance, a progression on something that many considered passé.
This is all part of the KLF story. The duo of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty have made music together since 1987 when they called themselves the JAMS, or Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu. Their logo, a ghetto blaster floating in front of a pyramid, quoted the famous eye/pyramid on the back of the Dollar bill made famous by '60s psychedelians the Thirteenth Floor Elevators.
Their attack on popular music was confrontational and subversive. Early singles quoted The Beatles, Whitney Houston and Petula Clark. A debut album 1987, What The F*** Is Going On sampled everybody, including Abba (who reacted to the boys' use of their material by forcing the withdrawal and burning of the album, along with the masters). The Timelords' scam hit 'Doctorin' The Tardis' prompted them to pen The Manual — How To Have A Number One The Easy Way, with a money back guarantee if anybody who followed the instructions didn't succeed. An Austrian band, Edelweiss, sold five million copies of a record after reading it!
In late 1990 KLF had a major hit when they released 'What Time Is Love' for the seventh time, and most recently '3 AM Eternal' (also a re-release) reached Number 1. This success saved the dynamic duo from potential financial ruin, a result of an abortive Spanish KLF movie that grew out of The Timelords' smash.
And now of course comes the first proper commercial album from KLF, The White Room. A combination of hearty dance hits like 'Last Train To Transcentral', '3 AM' and 'What Time Is Love' with more ethereal material like 'No More Tears', an Ambient reggae House cut, balancing the mix. By throwing in bits of the Big Country theme and space invaders sounds, and with the gorgeous voice of Maxine Harvey topping the mix, KLF have finally come out of their corner fighting, with a commercial album whose production values are up there with those of Prince and Madonna.
I met Drummond and Cauty as they were mixing down at Lillie Yard Studios. Drummond is tall, a mature 37 year-old in lumberjack shirt and thick spectacles which make him look like a scientist from some lost 1950s B-movie. Cauty is shorter, younger at 34, with a mane of straggly dark hair, unkempt and perpetually shrouded in cigarette smoke. They mimic doing an interview in five seconds, and discuss their latest creation in just as much time.
JC: "At one stage it was going to be some huge mix with all these separate songs we recorded crossfaded, and a few juicy bits and pieces thrown in between."
BD: "Some of it was recorded incredibly fast, like in half an hour. Other things seemed to take years, like the songs. Some of the tracks we've done here we were working on this time two years ago. We seem to be in a constant process of re-working our past."
Bill Drummond has gone into print lambasting the music press for their obsession with indie guitar bands and for their cynical exploitation of the so-called Manchester sound of the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays. His most significant remark was that House music, "in order to retain its power and purity should never have strayed from the holy trilogy of the Roland 808 snare, the Roland 909 bass drum, and 120 bpm." Do KLF still stand by this statement?
BD: "Yeah, well I was being a bit flippant, and yes we're not totally into technology for the sake of technology, but we have to use a certain amount to make music nowadays. We have a lot of disks of our drum sounds, and if someone else has got a drum machine we'll use that. Lots of the samples come from Jimmy's collection. He's got all the 808 and 909 sounds and loads of others."
JC: "We don't use that much technology, but we use samplers and computers. Chill Out was done with two DAT machines and a cassette deck. We've got an Atari like everybody else, a 1040. The same old Oberheim keyboards, nothing spectacular."
What is spectacular though is their approach... to everything. Famed for daubing the top of the South Bank centre with 25ft letters stating "1987 — The JAMs" on the night of another Thatcher election victory that year, KLF are as independent as they come. Everything from artwork, post-production, video shoots to press photographs, Top Of The Pops appearances, press releases and quality control are handled by the Cauty/Drummond axis. This is perhaps not surprising since Drummond, a wily Scot, started the successful Zoo recording label in Liverpool with Echo & The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes as his credit-worthy proteges. He even had his own group, Big In Japan (featuring a certain Holly Johnson). Later he was to do some A&R work for WEA, and give Stock, Aitken & Waterman their push toward the big time. Working with them on new talent he discovered Brilliant in 1984, whose guitarist was one Jimmy Cauty, a London art graduate with a talent for decorative prints, electronics and illustration.
BD: "We're kind of free-form. We never sit down and think, 'oh God we have to come up with a new idea'. It just happens. We just get up in the morning and have to finish things, that's the biggest thing in our lives. We're not sitting around thinking, let's make a statement, let's be subversive. We spend most of our time thinking, 'hell we've got to get this done, we've got to get that done'.
JC: "We can play instruments and we can do other things. Nobody seems to be able to do more than one thing without not getting taken seriously; not that we mind not getting taken seriously. We just think, 'that looks interesting', so we do it."
Like making films with Bill Butt. During the summer of 1990 KLF set off for the Isle of Jura in the Inner Hebrides to make an album. When they got there with their equipment they were so knocked out by the scenery that they decided to record that instead. Bill Butt arrived with a new camera and shot Cauty and Drummond sitting around beach fires, recording the sounds of the sea on to DAT, along with bird calls and whatever else took their fancy. The soundtrack consisted of Jimi Hendrix's 'Voodoo Chile' and 'All Along The Watchtower' spliced between glints of House beats and liturgical chant from the Balkans. The resultant video, Waiting, was trashed by the critics as boring and self-indulgent. In truth it was a beautiful ambient piece of impressionist colour and grace, reminding one of some early '70s film - Pink Floyd amongst derelict ruins, perhaps.
BD: "Other than both of us coming from a generation which kind of liked Pink Floyd, I don't think we were ever big fans. I remember seeing Tangerine Dream on telly in the '70s. I mean, neither of us have great record collections, just the stuff left over from when I was a kid — Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Beatles, some soul records. But nothing by the Who."
The connection with the late '60s and early '70s is undoubtedly strong in Ambient House, where the Floyd helped Innocence score a hit single with 'Natural Thing', a track which used David Gilmour's famous guitar golo from 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond'. In fact, for a while the likes of Can, Manuel Gottsching and early Eno were sampling staples for Ambient House DJs.
KLF's Chill Out album came after a year of classic dance 12-inchers like 'What Time Is Love', 'Kylie Said To Jason', '3 AM Eternal' and 'Last Train To Transcentral', with its incredibly wide bass sound. 1989 was the year that KLF immersed themselves in all night House raves. 1990 was the year of coming down, the year of Chill Out, an album of cool washing chicadas and Tex-Mex guitar pulled together by elements of progressive guitar playing and direct quotes from Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon.
BD: "Chill Out was a live album. It took two days to put together. It was made from a lot of stuff we already had, bits and pieces, but it was kind of jamming, so it was done in real time. Some of the sounds were off LPs, some off tapes — we'd run around having to put an album on there, a tape on here."
JC: "There are no edits on it, and quite a few times we'd get near the end and make a mistake, and so we'd have to go all the way back to the beginning again and set it all up from scratch. It was like spinning plates (laughs). We used two DAT players, a record player, a couple of cassette players and a 12-track, feeding through a mixer and back to a DAT."
BD: "And we'd bounce things from DAT to DAT as we went along. We started Chill Out with 20 minutes of pads and went from there."
Recorded at the mystical Transcentral, Chill Out sounds as conceptually composed as any Eno or Roedelius CD. Transcentral, in fact, is anywhere Cauty sets up his 12-track recorder, his S900, the computer, the Oberheim OB8 and a digital delay.
JC: "When we started we just had one synth. If you've got the least amount of equipment it makes you want to push it to the limit; you have to. By doing that you get something more coming through."
BD: "You get bored with most of the keyboards, most of them sound crap."
JC: "There's about £20,000 worth of keyboards in there, and we just never use them because they all sound horrible."
The subject of Cauty's 'Space' project naturally comes up after Chill Out. At one stage Cauty and one Alex Patterson formed a House group called The Orb, who made an infamous 25 minute track based on Minnie Ripperton's 'Loving You'. When Ambient House became hip they gave interviews together, and played records at The Land Of Oz and Chill Out. An album was mooted, but Patterson pulled out to go back to A&R work at EG. Cauty decided to take the plunge, and out came Space in the Autumn of '90. A grand album of instrumental snatches, it conjured up vast vistas of the outer limits, the American west and space exploration, by combining the 70s sound of Tangerine Dream, Tim Blake and Pink Floyd with snatches of opera, House, and whatever else came to hand.
JC: "That's a record for 14 year-old space cadets who want to take acid for the first time. It all came out in one long process. It was all done on the Oberheim keyboards. There were loads of samples, different bits and pieces chucked in all over the place. There's some really good big-sounding classical bits that have got a really deep sound, and they were all sampled and looped up. I hadn't got anything written, so I just jammed the whole thing. I started on a Monday morning and by Friday it was all done. With Chill Out a lot of the parts we had prepared and mixed and so it was a case of mixing them together in the right way."
In essence what KLF do is subvert the modern myth of high-tech music creation. Via House they have cut through years of industry constipation to come up with a sound very much of today — post-industrial, elegiac, frenetic and at times awesome in its power. The White Room, for its sheer bravado, eclecticism and sonic stylisation, is as innovative as anything coming from the avant-garde. From a different perspective it proves the ubiquitous and democratic nature of today's technology. Anybody with a little money and imagination can now make popular chart-oriented music from their bedrooms.
BD: "You can't help but make House music when you are using computers and samples. The minute you strap on an electric guitar you are playing rock music. House music is always independent, all of it originally comes from independent labels and it's got nothing to do with indie guitar music. It doesn't make a lot of sense to major labels because you can't go and sell bucket-loads of albums or develop somebody's career."
And yet KLF have done it themselves. They profess to only being interested in popular music because they are in the business. Drummond even let it slip that when he has time he will get into classical music — another mature pursuit to add to his fellwalking and bird watching activities. His weekends are devoted to his family in Buckinghamshire. Cauty meanwhile is working on some paintings and a comic strip. In between he fiddles with the Transcentral equipment in his ramshackle South London squat. And sometimes they even re-mix other peoples' records.
BD: "We have been offered quite a few things. We did Depeche Mode's 'Policy of Truth'. We went into a proper studio and remixed it all in one day. We also did the Pet Shop Boys' 'So Hard'. They actually sent us a 48-track mix, and all we had was our 12-track multitrack. We told them for various artistic reasons we had to start again. Jimmy had one listen to a DAT of their mix and we just completely re-recorded the lot. Neil Tennant came down and put down his vocals again, and from those sessions we chose whatever bits and pieces seemed right. It ended up being a complete re-model and remake. It came out as KLF versus the Pet Shop Boys, but in reality it's all a horrible experience. We aren't really re-mixers. We've got too much of our own stuff to be doing."
In truth Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond are not that interested in other peoples' music. They claim to have grown out of it.
"I don't know how these people can stay interested in music for so long. If they were into it in the 1960s and they are still into it, I find that bewildering. We stopped being into it a long time ago", says a smiling Cauty. He continues, "It's just that I don't have time to listen to much other music. We hear things all the time. You go to a club and get inspired by what you hear, or turn the radio on. You can only have so many ideas in your head at any one time and with too much input it can be an overload. Adds Drummond, "Top Of The Pops, chart run-down on TV and radio... You hear enough as it is just going down to the paper shop where there's always something playing on the radio. Neither of us have got big record collections."
KLF don't see themselves ever being involved with a large record company. The initials stand for Kopyright Liberation Front, and derive from the debut JAMs LP where all sampled sounds, including Abba's, were 'liberated' from their copyright restriction. Many credit Cauty and Drummond with inventing this kind of sampling, which wouldn't endear them to record company execs. Cauty just puts it down to artistic freedom and ploughing their own furrow.
BD: "But the rules of the game are still the same, whether you're independent or not. If you want a hit single you still have to be on Radio 1, you still have to be on Top Of The Pops in one form or other. If you are an unknown band and signed to a major label you are at their mercy, especially as they've invested all this money in you."
If you asked many people what KLF look like they would shrug their shoulders. In videos and in public Cauty and Drummond have always preferred to be the anonymous techno-wizzards, fiddling in the background with sequencers as a hired troupe sing 'Last Train To Transcentral' or 'What Time Is Love'. During the recent crop circle and ley line controversy, KLF turned up in photos of the famous natural aberrations. Again the public were confused, and the record sales increased. At the end of the day Cauty and Drummond know instinctively how to sidestep the British music scene. They make enjoyable and stimulating music, harnessing electronics and chance to their best advantage. In an industry fatigued by unimaginative recycling and derivation, KLF are probably a much needed light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
BD: "There's always a millions things to do. Sometimes we realise we've got a record coming out in two weeks time and we haven't had time to think about the sleeves, the videos or the adverts. To be realistic, up until now we've ploughed everything back into what we are doing so we've always been skint. We don't expect much from this album, I tell you that. It's just getting old stuff out and done!"
Who's kidding who?
For complete KLF discography and other Information write to:
KLF Communications, (Contact Details).
Interview by Mark Prendergast
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