King For A Day
Mark King, master bassist with a string of hit albums to his name as leader of Level 42, has reaped many of the rewards that pop stardom can bring — but satisfaction with the music industry is never guaranteed, as Paul Tingen discovers.
It was early February 1991 and intensely cold. Snow was falling everywhere, creating a distinctly surreal atmosphere in Southern England. Perhaps it was because of the extraordinary weather, perhaps it was because of the Gulf war rattling everybody's nerves, perhaps it was simply because Mark King was absolutely fed up with the machinations of the music industry, but for whatever reason, this interview with Level 42's bass player, singer and prime songwriter just didn't go the way interviews are supposed to.
A major contributing factor was surely the presence of John, a Buddhist friend of mine who knows nothing about modern rock music, and even less about Mark King or Level 42 — but he does have a way with people, as both King and I were to find out.
Soon after we arrived at King's large and comfortable house at the edge of Rye on the Isle Of Wight, we were sitting in the front room enjoying tea and coffee and the beautiful view of The Solent Spithead, with sunlit Portsmouth in the background. Within minutes John had King involved in some serious talking. Marriage, children, life, The Universe and so on.
The music industry emerged as a topic, and it slowly became clear that Mark King had an axe to grind. He told us stories of fame and fortune being rammed down his throat, and of music taking a back seat. He told us, for example, how his record company used to organise apres-gig parties, to which he went with great reluctance. Things which put him off were incidents like one in which a famous guest was invited to join in a photo opportunity with Mark. She asked, with some disdain, "who's he then?"
King grunted, and explained that it wasn't not being recognised which bothered him, but the hypocrisy of organising a party to honour a band and then inviting people who know nothing about the band or their music. It annoyed him, because it's music which matters to him, not a jet-set lifestyle. He hates doing interviews, promotion and videos. Despite record company pressures, he refuses to play the glamorous pop star or project some sort of manufactured image. That his attitude is genuine was exemplified when John made my heart stop by naively asking Mark: "So what do you play then?"
You simply don't ask one of the world's most renowned bass players such a question. I mean, imagine asking Miles Davis or Yehudi Menuhin what they play. But King seemed to enjoy the presence of a genuine music industry illiterate and answered, "I play the bass, mate, and a bit of drums," in a tone of voice that suggested he could have added, "but I'm only just starting out".
A few minutes later John nearly induced another heart attack by confessing that he'd actually never heard of Level 42, and asking "what kind of music did they make" and "were they very well-known?" I was by now kicking myself for not telling John who I was going to interview, but King again displayed not a hint of hurted star pride, and explained patiently that Level 42 made some sort of melodic British funk and that they were indeed "reasonably successful".
He certainly knew how to apply the British art of understatement there. Level 42 established themselves in the early '80s as an act to be reckoned with. Their brand of white British funk was propelled to fame by Mark King's spectacular bass playing, which earned him the title of 'world's best bassist' in several magazines' readers polls. Their 1985 World Machine and 1986 Running In The Family albums sparked several hit singles and put them in rock's first league. 1988's Staring At The Sun, with deceased guitarist Alan Murphy, was slightly less successful, and since then the group has been relatively silent, apart from a highly popular tour of Britain late last year, which included a stint of 15 nights at the Hammersmith Odeon drawing 52,000 visitors.
Having survived John's intrepid questioning we drove over to King's home studio, which is located a few miles out of Rye, in a house overlooking the site where in a grey and distant past the Isle Of Wight Festival took place. Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan once played there. Now there are only hills, grass and cows. And a studio which left John breathless for a moment. He gazed in astonishment at the 48-channel SSL E-series desk and the 15 or so Alembic and Status basses on the walls surrounding it. He skimmed the walls of outboard gear, including AMS, SPX90II, Lexicon PCM70, 480L and 224X, Urei's, decided that he felt more comfortable with the view outside, and silently settled into a chair, watching the snow fall on the grass.
Studio buffs tend to forget that modern recording studios are imposing and disorientating places for the average lay person. The technology seems to be surpassed in complexity only by military and space hardware, and Mark King's 'home' studio is certainly state of the art, as the above listing indicates. There's also a Macintosh SE30 with Performer software, an SRC SMPTE-to-MIDI convertor, Adams Smith Zeta 3, NS 10 and Tannoy DTM8 monitors, and two Otari MTR90 24-track recorders with 48 tracks of Dolby SR. Sound sources include a DX7, Roland D110 and 550, Yamaha TX816, Juno 60, Emu III and Emax, Casio CZ101, plus an Akai-Linn MPC60 workstation and a DDrum 2 drum sampler.
It's an impressive amount of hardware, housed in a wooden side-wing of a 19th century residence which apparently was once a nursing home. In those days the wing was used as a mortuary, but later owners transformed it into a Summer house, which King adopted as the name for his studio. ("'The Summer House' sounds more attractive than 'The Mortuary' for a studio, don't you think?") Witnessing the massive investments King had made in houses and equipment, the conversation strayed into the area of the trappings of success and the accumulating responsibilities which come with careering. John, back in familiar territory, ventured to tell an 'old Buddhist story', of the man who gets a wife, and then has to get a house. Next he has to feed his wife, as well as the kids, so he needs a cow. But a cow needs a field and so on, and on...
King nodded understandingly: "Yeah, and before you know it you've bricked yourself up in this hideous tower that you can't get out of. You can't just walk away from it, because lots of people come to depend on it. For a start they're slapping writs on you..."
King was obviously seriously pissed off, banging drums and grinding axes with everything to do with money and the music industry. Although he didn't want to elaborate, it appeared that Level 42 were in a legal wrangle which had resulted in their new album, finished last September, gathering dust with no release date in sight.
Mark King clearly entered the record business for the joy of writing and playing. It's what brought him back to his native Isle Of Wight a few years ago, back from the London scene, the rat race. Once the focus of the conversation was back on music, his infectious enthusiasm for it had him dashing about his studio in no time, and he didn't just stop at explaining how he does things.
No, he actually demonstrated it, with half an eye on John, for whom it was all completely new and rather overwhelming. In the one-and-a-half hour that we spent together in his studio, King got all his equipment up and running, played bass and sang for us, played half-finished demos and unreleased final versions and even did some instant writing, improvising a short sequence into the MPC60.
He demonstrated how he uses the MPC60 with the DDrum 2 for demoing his songs. They stood in one corner, together with a battered DX7 which functions as the master keyboard. An equally battered Casio CZ101 stood right next to it. "Whilst demoing I use the DDrum 2 for drum sounds and the MPC60 as a notepad. I prefer the MPC60 to the Mac, because it's much quicker and much easier to use. Let me see... (switches on the MPC60, DDrum and the SSL) I'm just taking stereo outs from here to the desk, because I'd much rather use the desk inputs for other things. For example the drums, which take up 11 channels."
King uses a MiniMoog for his bass lines. Mentioning the Moog prompts him to sing the praises of the analogue synth: "I love analogue synths. This is a MIDI MiniMoog, converted by Studio Electronics in Los Angeles to be MIDI compatible, using only original components. The beauty of analogue synths is that you can change the sound by just touching buttons and turning knobs. With digital synths it's stupidly longwinded and complicated because of those multi-functional buttons."
But, he says, he only uses the Moog bass and the DDrum during the demo stage. Once he's got a clear idea of the song structure and arrangement, he records the demo on to 24-track and starts replacing and adding parts.
"I replace the DDrums and Moog bass with real drums and real bass, although sometimes I'll keep the Moog when I want a sound that's got that Moog honkiness. But I never keep the sequenced drums. There's nothing as good or organic as real drums. If you're working with such fantastic drummers as Gary Husband or Phil Gould a drum machine can offer you nothing."
For that reason King had a wooden extension added to his studio, designed as a recording area. There's a Steinway piano and a full drum kit to be found, the latter occasionally manned by King himself. "When I first had this studio built I realised that there were limitations I was imposing on myself by not having a drum and acoustic piano room, because drums and piano are essential instruments to have and to record live. Initially I had the former snooker room wired up, but then I decided to build this extension."
King added that part of the reason for getting the SSL was that its computer enables him to record things on his own, even as he's playing drums in the adjacent room. "My gear here was hunted down for me by HHB, who also did the installing and wiring for me. They'd got the desk for about £120,000. I spent another £10,000 having it upgraded. I had eight extra modules fitted, plus two stereo modules, making it in effect a 50-channel desk, and I had a G-series computer installed. That was important because it can control all the tape machines. I have a QWERTY keyboard and a monitor in the drum room, so I can tell it where to drop in and drop out. It will give me 10 seconds run up and all I have to do is play. It's like having a tape-op."
King went on to play various demos, followed by the finished versions, all mixed down to DAT, and elaborated about how he writes songs: "In our beginning years I wrote a lot of bass guitar and groove orientated songs, but now the idea of a melody is much more important to me. Grooves are very easy to manufacture, especially with the gear we have nowadays. Occasionally I'll start with a riff, like in this case... (plays an MPC60/Moog bass arrangement of a graceful little tune that was conceived on the bass guitar during a sound check).
"The key word in the whole thing is inspiration. Some days you've got it and others you haven't. It's as simple as that. Hell, I don't know where these notes come from. They just drop out of thin air and all you can do is drive along as and when they come. They spring in my head and I sing them through and then usually forget them. But a bit later they might come back again, and the next day I might be singing it again and stick it down in the studio and that's where it starts unravelling itself.
"The song takes shape in front of you and you just follow its own nose. It's a melody and a lyrical idea that you want to sing out. When I arrange I only record the backbeat on the MPC60. If the melody is strong enough it will hold. I just 'la-la-la' through it and start work on the lyrics later on, or give an idea in that form to one of the people who write lyrics for us."
King explained that for the new, unreleased album, he worked with some lyricists he hadn't worked with before. "I find it harder to write music to lyrics than the other way around, but I gave it a try this time."
One of the new lyricists was George Green, who's also worked with John Cougar Mellencamp. The American flavour of his work pulled King in a new direction, one song emerging with a distinctive country flavour.
The song was 'My Father's Shoes', one of a series of three songs which Level 42 recorded in three days as extra tracks and B-sides. John seemed to enjoy this track, and with his foot tapping along he suggested that it "could be a hit song". King sighed: "This song would never see the light of day with the powers that be in the record business. It doesn't sound like SAW or anything like that. You and I know that that doesn't make it less relevant, because it's a nice song but..."
"My judgement is of course that of a total outsider," interrupted John. King, with vehemence: "Your judgement is to my mind as relevant as anybody else's. The whole thing is about music, and either you like it, or you don't, but you don't make a big fuss about it."
I suggested that surely a successful and established band like Level 42 would be left to their own devices by a record company, and wouldn't be pressured to sound like today's one hit wonders. Wrong...
"We get enormous pressure from the record company, they really are just interested in having hits. It seems terrible to me that if you've been going for 10 years and you've sold x million records and you're doing very well that they're willing to jeopardise that. It's crazy. The reason we've been so successful is because we've done what we do the way we wanted to do it. That's what makes us what we are. If people don't like it, fine, there's lots of other music out there, but millions of people do like it. And the record company is willing to risk the loyalty of those people for the sake of us regurgitating some horrible thing that we aren't at all, just for the sake of having a Top 5 single. I'm amazed that they don't leave us to it. You would think that they would say: 'OK, we'll carry on putting that SAW kind of stuff out, and we'll leave you to do what you do, because you're money in the bank for us.' If I was a businessman I'd say, 'Great. They do a couple of million copies per album, we let that tick over.' I mean, why f*** that up? But they do; they put all kinds of pressures on us."
King was by now absolutely fuming. "They come with crappy arguments like: 'you have to have a hit single, because then you'll reach more people'. Then they'll say: 'We can get you more airplay if you do it like this, if you change the lyrics, or use these samples. But we can't get you airplay if you do it like that'. In other words, they start putting themselves forward as the main event, and you're just something on the sideline. It's like: 'give us a song mate, and we'll go out and sell it'. But they're wrong, because the asset is here; we and our music are the asset. They can help finance that, and I'm grateful for this studio for example, but they really seem set on killing the goose which lays the golden eggs for short term gain."
John seemed to be getting a bit bemused by all this tough talk, and decided to go for a stroll. It gave me the chance to shift the conversation back towards King's home studio. Like when and why did he set it up? He explained that the studio has only been in existence for about a year. Prior to that he would get together with other members of the band, particularly Mike Lindup and producer Wally Badarou (see SOS Dec '90), who also co-writes material, in more impromptu locations (such as a hotel room in Dublin for their Staring At The Sun album). The new album was written and recorded entirely in The Summer House.
Both Badarou and King are aware of the pitfalls of technology. That's why King prefers the simplicity of the MPC60 to write, rather than go straightaway to SSL and 24-track, and it's why there are very few sequenced parts on Level 42's albums. Setting up his studio King stuck to essentials and didn't get carried away, trying to create the ultimate recording environment. He went for the best equipment he could get but didn't bother, for example, with acoustic design.
"The acoustic design I have in the drum room is a curtain with which I can deaden or wet the room. But in the control room I didn't bother at all. To my mind a room only gets important when you crank up the levels. Only when you whack the volume up does the room start working and do you start needing your Eastlake/Westlake acoustic treatments. So we never play back that loudly in here. If things sound good at low volume you can trust them much more. Look at the masters of mixing. Our new album was mixed by Tom Lord-Alge. One track was mixed here and the rest was mixed in New York. Tom does things like whack the sound into mono, kill the left hand side and listen to one Auratone speaker, dead quietly, just to make sure that the vocal is right. If you need blaring volumes to make your mix sound good you're doing something wrong."
With two MTR90s and 48 tracks of Dolby SR, King's recording demands are pretty well catered for. But what made him decide to go for analogue/SR instead of digital?
"With Dolby SR the sound quality is so good that a lot of people still prefer that over digital. There's also a school of thought which says that it's best to work with 24 tracks of analogue and 24 tracks of digital, doing all your drums and guitars on analogue and vocals and keyboards on digital.
"I had one MTR90 here before we started with the album and I knew we wanted to record 48-track, so I considered getting the Sony 3324. But then I thought 'oh, balls, I'll get another MTR90, they work so well'. I personally can't hear the difference between analogue/SR and digital. On top, if the signal you have is dirty anyway, it negates any reasons for having digital. I engineered the album myself, and when there was a bit of noise in the background, I wasn't so worried about it."
"But there's no doubt that the future will be digital. I think analogue technology has reached its limits and digital still has a long way to go. The sampling rate has to be increased further, and there's the question of drums which sound too polite on digital, especially things like tom toms. When the drummer hits the bass drum just a bit harder, and lays in a bit too hard on the toms, the VU meters will clack all the way into the red and analogue tape will compress the signal for you, instead of blipping or falling flat as on digital.
"We're used to the way analogue treats the sound, we've been listening to that for 30 years of rock'n'roll recording. On digital it's all too clean. It's a bit like with solid state guitar amplification, where they spent years cleaning it up and getting a crystal clear sound, and then the next thing they did was invent a fuzz box to grunge it all up again and go back to the valve sound. In rock music, as opposed to classical, recording is about what sounds good, not about what sounds truthful, so..."
Suddenly the door opened and John came back in. It emerged that he'd been babbling with one of Mark King's three children in the adjacent house. John himself has five daughters, so out went technology, and Mark and John talked offspring. Then John ventured to read a poem. Some of it was beautiful and poetic, some harrowing and moving, but one line stood out with a chilling reference to events in the Gulf. It silenced both Mark and myself. Nothing seemed relevant enough to discuss anymore.
John and I drove back in silence, ploughing through the snow and darkness on the M3. Only after an hour did this music industry illiterate tell me about his acquaintance with Jimi Hendrix. But that's another story. It had been enough of a day as it was.
A few weeks later Mark King explained that his difficulties with the record company had been resolved, and that Level 42 had signed with RCA. The new album is scheduled for an August release.
Interview by Paul Tingen
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