The Rhythm Section | Landscape
Landscape's bassist and drummer recount their reasons for choosing to form their own label to Ralph Denyer.
Some time ago I spoke to Laurence Kayson at Lightning records. At the time I hadn't heard Landscape, having only read a few glowing reviews of the band which said little about the music. What kind of music do they make? Laurence replied: 'Well... they're a sort of new wave Weather Report.' Oh yes, I thought. Most likely, a very probable combination of elements. Soon after hearing the group's first EP, U2XME1X2MUCH, I was asked the same question. I found myself borrowing Laurence's description; it gets just about as far as you can in trying to give a brief verbal encapsulation of the music of this band.
Their music is individual, drawing from a wide spectrum of influences — noticeably jazz and rock. They frequently display a raw edge and a disregard for accepted tonal and melodic structures before slipping into a jazzy pastiche (in the very best sense of the word), then hurl themselves into a section of solid rock improvisation. After seeing the band live I realised I had heard an earlier and larger line-up when led by John Walters (electric soprano and alto sax plus flute). Their music then was more towards the mainstream of jazz — nowadays they are a co-operative.
Individuals to the last man, challenges are daily bread to this lot, having set up their own management/agency and record company and... well I won't spoil a good story, save to say that the rest of the band comprises of Peter Thoms (electric trombone), Christopher Heaton (electric piano), Captain Whorlix — Andy Pask to you — (bass guitars), and Richard Burgess (drums).
Richard, a New Zealander, first played in a band around the time he left school when a local group needed a drummer for a gig. The fringe benefits of being in a band first attracted him to playing.
'The glamour of it all appealed to me. At that stage I didn't really care which instrument I played. Drums just seemed to be the easiest to play; it transpires that they are a lot heavier to cart about.'
He paid £60 for a drum kit, had two rehearsals and picked up £4 for his first gig. The group was playing mainly popular instrumental music, Ventures and Shadows simulations. The Yardbirds and the Stones were starting to happen and in their music Richard could detect elements that were of more interest to him. He began to search out blues, and later jazz, influences.
'It was fairly early on when I realised that Ringo and Charlie Watts were fairly limited. I was attracted to the music of Ginger Baker and Jon Hiseman. The whole scene in New Zealand is pretty strange. There are not that many pro musicians; in London you can see a lot more people. Generally our influences would be through albums that people brought back from England. I remember hearing what must have been the only copy of a Graham Bond album to arrive in New Zealand. That was amazing with Ginger on drums, a big influence on me.'
Most of his drumming at the time was being picked up from singles; much later he found out that drummer Al Jackson was the man he'd picked up most of his chops from. Jackson, as a member of Booker T and the MGs, the Stax Records house band, played on many hit singles by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and others. Bernard Purdie's playing on some early Aretha Franklin records also provided inspiration. Richard's approach to music and being a musician was becoming more and more expansive — Blood Sweat And Tears and Chicago, with Bobby Colomby and Danny Seraphine respectively on drums, were opening up whole new areas in rock.
'I realised these drummers were drawing from a source other than rock, something else altogether. I'd read all the interviews and people like Mitch Mitchell would mention the likes of Elvin Jones.'
Richard was up to eight hours a day working out at his kit, and during a brief period in Australia took lessons. A major turning point was when he joined a jazz rock band called the Quincy Reserve on returning to New Zealand. The band were playing back-up on all EMI recording sessions in Wellington, so during the course of one year Richard played on around eight albums and picked up a lot on drum sounds and recording.
'When you're listening to yourself on tape so much and at such a young age you learn to play a lot tighter,' he reckons.
Having gone just about as far as he could in New Zealand he decided to give England a try. At the same time he applied for a place at America's Berkeley School of Music — to his surprise he gained a place. After a brief stay in London he attended the school for one summer semester, studying with Alan Dawson who taught Tony Williams. As well as learning how to apply basic technique and rudiments he found himself rubbing shoulders with America's top future drummers.
'There are so many good drummers there you have to learn to hustle to survive, really throw yourself into it.'
So Richard decided to make London his base and at the end of the summer made his way over once again. He set about making his living playing music once again doing sessions, cabaret and gigs while keeping up his study with lessons, this time from top English jazz drummer Tony Oxley.
Watching Andy Pask on stage with Landscape crafting his forceful bass lines to lock in with Richard's drumming, you'd be surprised by his musical background. His father is organist at Enfield Parish Church and from the age of seven Andy was in the choir there. After two years he went on to the New College Choir and for four years had two practices and one service a day. He took up cello — I'm sure his family were very proud of him... until he developed an interest in popular music and, come evening time, he would take up a bass guitar playing Black Sabbath and heavy metal rock material with a local group. He went on to study cello and double bass at The Royal Academy of Music for two years.
'When I left school I did anything that came along, London rehearsal bands, gigs with people like Salena Jones. Really I went to the Academy because on leaving school I wasn't sure what to do. I wanted to play bass guitar professionally but I wasn't sure how to go about it. The Academy gave me three years to sort myself out.'
Much of the knowledge he gained there has been adapted to bass guitar, mostly in terms of discipline and knowing how to practice, not to just slog away for hours on non-productive exercises. He in fact finished up taking his exams on double bass, and the logical application of knowledge gained on acoustic string instruments to the bass guitar has resulted in his playing being fast, forceful and controlled.
'I do warm up patterns as often as I can, the kind of thing I picked up at college — scales and patterns in particular for the left hand intended for cello which I've adapted to bass guitar. If you want to be really masochistic and do these exercises properly you should play the same patterns at each semitone, all the way up the neck; that takes about an hour.'
Andy uses the basic classical left hand position with the thumb placed centrally on the back of the neck, not hanging over the top of the fingerboard. It was, however, a right hand technique he demonstrated that I found most interesting, stopping the strings. A similar technique is common and in fact essential in classical guitar playing. He uses the index finger to play a note and then rests the finger on the next string down. He then almost instantly stops the note with the second finger.
'To get that you practice playing the notes as short as possible so that the note hardly speaks, it just sounds for a split second. Then just speed it up to give clear and precise notes on fast runs. I don't use it all the time but it does creep into a lot of my playing, you get a little space between the notes which is good, especially when playing live.'
A cruder and rather more commonplace method of achieving a similar effect is to place a piece of foam under the strings near the bridge. The advantages of Andy's technique are numerous, but most obviously he can play combinations of very fast clear runs and long sustained notes. Listen to his bass solo on Sixteen, a track on the first Landscape EP: short but rich in tonality and almost mistakable for a double bass at times. The band's numbers frequently change tempo or feel from passage to passage, and Andy's ability to change from a near double bass sound to a tight rock sound then becomes a great advantage.
'Obviously cello and double bass have helped me with my fretless playing, though not directly because the actual spacing and fingering is different for each instrument, but if you keep a basic right hand cello position you're far more likely to be in tune.'
Richard can't remember if he first met Andy in the Mel Collins Big Band or The Royal Academy Band organised by Johnny Dankworth and Ken Gibson. (Richard was roped into the latter without being an RA student.) Soon after, around 1973, the musical conglomerate that would eventually spawn Landscape began to evolve.
John Walters lent his name to that earlier team who met at a two week music summer school in Wales. At the end of the course they headed off in their different directions, vowing not to let the band die. Soon after, with London as a base, they started doing gigs with a fluctuating eight piece line-up. Over to Richard.
'A problem was that musicians kept on sending deps and we were dead opposed to that. I suppose we regarded ourselves as a jazz group at the time and felt that deputising was the bane of British jazz. You could go and see one so called "band" and it would be practically the band you'd seen the night before but with reshuffled members under another name. We felt that all the great American jazz and rock bands had constant memberships for long periods: The Miles Davis Group and The Mahavishnu Orchestra.'
An early point of policy was 'no vocalist'. Guitar players also drifted in and out of the band until the line-up narrowed down to its present form. As we all know, singers and guitarists can easily become focal points of a band whether they are musical or not. The concept for Landscape was to be a front-line band with no stars and no back-up musicians. So when in 1975 the last of a long line of guitarists left the group, he was never replaced. Andy, who had had a previous short spell in the group, rejoined, completing the line-up that has remained stable up to the present time. In the latter part of that year they received The Greater London Arts Association award for Young Musicians of the Year. The award subsidised their London gigs for quite a long period. Then came the Vitavox Live Sound Award for Best New British Band in Live Sound, the prize being the speakers that form the basis of their present PA system.
They wanted to progress at that time by filling out their date sheet and went after gigs on the London pub rock circuit — not so easy, as they found out. The reaction from venue bookers was usually tantamount to the same equation: No vocals + No guitarist = No gig. However they persisted and gradually gained a foothold here and there; The Stapleton in Crouch End, The Swan in Hammersmith, on occasions they promoted the dates themselves, right down to taking the money on the door. In spite of a virtual lock-out from the established pub rock fraternity, by early 1977 Landscape were breaking through.
Without the help of a manager, agent or record company, they found themselves with a strong broadbased following, six gigs a week and a pile of ecstatic press clippings. The remaining problem was that the group's following just didn't seem to understand that they shouldn't be enjoying the music. Everyone in the record and agency business knew Landscape could never be popular so why didn't these 'punters' realise it? Not only that, jazz freaks and punks alike were demanding records of this group with no singer or guitarist!
So begins the story of Event Horizon Records. Early in the group's history John Walters had written a number entitled Event Horizon Blues. John's one of those infuriating people who can not only play an instrument or two very well but is also rather clever at other things (somewhere along the line he picked up a physics degree). So, the Event Horizon is the point at which matter is sucked into the vacuum of a collapsed star or extraterrestrial body of some nature, a Black Hole. No-one knows what the visual effect might be. One popular theory is that at the point of the Horizon, in the eye of the beholder, entering matter would be frozen (providing the beholder was far enough away not to be sucked in himself!). Beyond the Event Horizon, inside (though 'inside' may be a total misconception) the Black Hole, the known laws of physics may break down — existing rules do not apply. Landscape feel there are various analogies between the Event Horizon and the band. Simple, innit?
They'd had some experience of having themselves recorded in the days of the eight-piece line-up, when John had financed a cassette made up of various group recordings from Alastair Crawford's famed Hendene Studio. They sold around 500 copies without very much effort. The punk scene had opened people's ears to the EP record, and this seemed like an ideal medium for Landscape. So, with a basic concept of putting their own records out plus a name to trade under, they set about recording. Richard and Andy are recording/hi-fi buffs and so the Event Horizon Mobile came into being. Well, not so much a mobile as a Revox tape machine and a coincident pair of Shure Unidyne mics. Over a period of three months they recorded all their gigs live in stereo, and chose three tracks which they processed into their first EP, U2XME1X2MUCH.
The first thing they found out as a small independent record company is that nobody likes dealing with a small independent record company. Pressing plants, printers and the like love BIG record companies who place BIG orders. The sleeve artwork was not a problem; usually a band will know someone able to interpret their ideas artistically, which Landscape did. Usually these days record labels are pressed into and not stuck on records. So firstly labels should be ordered, and sleeves too while you're about it. Delga Press Ltd, who print a great many of the small new wave labels and sleeves, did a good job for the group. You must not go to a printer not used to printing labels, the paper and size of centre hole must be just right for the pressing machines.
Landscape took their tape to Utopia Studios in London to get the master lacquer made. This is most important — bad mastering means bad records, so go to someone with a good reputation. For the pressing, Landscape started by going to one Mr Roger Foley, who ran a one-man (now defunct) concern referred to amongst other things as Anglia Pressings. Mr Foley took an order for the first 1000 copies of the record and I can now happily announce that he has just completed delivery... six months late. While waiting, Landscape managed in that six months to find alternative pressing facilities, arranged manufacture of, and sold approaching 7000 units. When it comes to pressing, best to accept the fact that you are going to be messed about with delays and just get your order in as soon as possible. There is a stage between mastering and pressing referred to as 'metalwork'. My advice is to try to find pressing people who can take care of this for you; if you try to run your own record company you've got enough on your plate!
Landscape are undoubtedly a tenacious bunch and lesser mortals might have weakened. Richard did point out that, now that they have good suppliers, things run more smoothly, hard lessons having been learnt early on.
The sales success of the first EP was the result of several factors — gigs provided a good marketplace for shifting records and the group arranged distribution through Lightning Records. The company distributes everything from Abba to Frank Zappa as well as their own independent label. Now, with initial growing pains over and an ever-increasing following, Landscape are aiming at a sales figure of 25000 units for their second EP Workers Playtime.
There now also exists an Event Horizon agency/management company. The band specially imported Steven Hilton from New Zealand to be Managing Director and general helmsman. Members of Landscape are all directors of the company and all have functions in its day to day running: Chris looks after the accounts and bookings for one of three areas of the country, Richard chases work in Europe and deals with radio and TV, and all contracts are finalised by Steven to ensure there are no crossed lines or double bookings.
RD: With a lot of the new wave bands who brought out records on small labels they've tended to use the records as working demos for a major label.
AP: No, that was never in our minds. If anyone shows an interest we'd only be interested in a major buying EH Records or signing licensing deals for individual records.
RB: We are interested in controlling our own music as much as possible. We know where we are going and have a finger on the pulse of the public.
RD: Do you think you'll be able to resist if the offer comes from a major to give you the financial support for an album, American tour and all the rest?
AP: We've virtually had that already.
RB: We certainly wouldn't rule it out under the right conditions.
AP: Having the financial push from a big record company would allow us to do things we can't do at the moment on our own. There is not, however, a record company in the world who would give us the percentage deal we get at the moment.
RD: I think you should be pleased with your sales on the first EP, but I can imagine a big company finding the 7000 figure amusing.
AP: They'd have a good laugh probably, the profit wouldn't even pay for the wine at one of their receptions.
RD: It is a big jump to go from selling 7000 EPs to getting an album to chart, a huge mountain to get over.
AP: It's a big mountain and you've got to climb it bit by bit, don't fall back. That's why it's taken us five years to get this far. I hope it won't but it could take another five years to reach that stage.
RD: You are obviously willing to struggle on for quite some time yet.
RB: Struggle is a relative thing if you enjoy what you are doing. We get a great buzz out of the audience reaction we've been getting on gigs. The only thing I think we miss is not being able to put out albums regularly. A lot of the material we write gets lost because of never being recorded. We depart from the rock lifestyle a bit because we see our group as being a long term thing. If we are still together in 20 years time we wouldn't necessarily see that as a bad thing, like the Crusaders. Think of MJQ or Dave Brubeck. Mature musicians playing good music with the same players they've worked with for a number of years is a great thing. This megalomania in the record industry to go treble-gold on every record released is all very well, but it rules out so many good things.
RD: On the sessions you do outside Landscape, do people ask for you as a team, booking a rhythm section that's known to work well as a unit?
RB: That happens a bit but usually it is not the case. I'm surprised people don't book us together more. We both read very well and if reading isn't required we work pretty fast by ear. We can get good results working with a different partner but it's also possible to be terribly mis-matched. Also as a unit Andy and I are 'feel' conscious from working in Landscape.
AP: Also we don't impose with technique that shouldn't be there. Sometimes on a session I'll hear a drummer thundering through the cans and start willing him to just shut up and play what's necessary. There's also efficiency on a session. I believe that when someone is paying me an hourly rate that is by most people's standards an enormous amount of money, I should work as quickly as possible. A lot of people don't and waste an awful amount of time.
RB: Ideas have to precede technical ability. You have to want to do something and then find the means. Obviously you do pick things up from other musicians, I'd be the last one to say I'm not influenced by anybody. I know Andy agrees with me about this because we've talked about it a lot. I've never been influenced by one particular drummer. I love Elvin Jones for instance but I couldn't play like him even if I wanted to. I'm not black and I didn't have his background.
AP: At gigs I'm asked at least twice a night who my favourite bass player is and I haven't really got one. At various stages there have been favourites but that will only last for six months at the most. Quite often with Landscape if a new number sounds like someone else we throw it out.
RB: Yeah, we do that quite often if a number really sounds like another band. Or if an arrangement or written role forces one of us to sound like somebody else we reject the number.
RD: A good policy, probably why you sound so original.
AP: Could well be.
RD: If you do that all the time you must ultimately end up sounding original... or end up rejecting everything and playing nothing. Originality is, after all, a lot harder to find than technique and virtuosity these days.
RB: That really puzzles me because originality is the one thing we're all born with. Technique and all the other things you have to spend a lot of time developing.
AP: I think a lot of musicians who sound like other people don't actually want to, it happens subconsciously. They probably spend time listening to other people subconsciously taking things in that later come out in their own music.
RB: We're very fortunate with Landscape giving us as musicians a solid anchor. If you are just drifting around doing gigs and sessions you are not in a very original environment. Especially doing sessions because you are constantly being asked to sound like somebody else. If not by name, then by implication.
AP: Yes, on a session as soon as the music starts up you can hear what was in the mind of the producer, a Tamla or Philly sound or whatever.
RD: It is a very human trait to try and place music you hear in a category, so that you can place it in your own frame of reference.
AP: As far as the business is concerned, that has been Landscape's biggest stumbling block. Probably in the end it will be good.
RD: Probably in the end it'll be your greatest strength.
AP: People just haven't been able to categorise us. When we were courting the record company people we had suggestions like playing one of our numbers a bit more like say Average White Band. They always want to emphasise the funky side of our music, or perhaps another side.
Richard and Andy pool their ideas and discuss all aspects of their music in relation to Landscape and the rest of the creative musical world. Richard in particular is one of the most original thinking musicians I've interviewed recently. They've balanced the experience they've gained working in many different areas of playing with a basic logical approach.
It is a long hard rocky road Landscape have chosen, flying in the face of establishment music business ideas. However, the momentum they have gained over the last year (without any big push financially) demands a progression. If anyone can beat the major record companies at their own game it is Landscape.
Alternatives to 'Product'
Interview by Ralph Denyer
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