Life After Ultravox
Since the members of Ultravox went their separate ways, Billy Currie's solo career has taken him from band leader, through studio owner, to record label boss for the release of his second solo album. Interview by Mark Jenkins.
Billy Currie has a tale to tell which is hardly equalled in its intricacy and variety by any British keyboard player. A background in music college and in alternative arts groups led him to the early, punky beginnings of Ultravox, through two incarnations of that band, and on to become a studio owner and a band leader in his own right. A solo album deal about which he'd now rather forget has led to his abandoning the studio, forming his own record label for a second solo album, and talking once more about going out on the road. It's all a far cry from his beginnings studying classical music in Huddersfield.
Billy's main instrument was the viola, and leading a viola section for four years was "pretty good for my sight reading. I did a lot of composition too, which I'm now trying to get back to. Of course I was composing with Ultravox as well, but it got a bit wearing doing it with four other guys in the band and working in the studio at 120 decibels."
Billy's first musical work was with an alternative theatre group. "The main character in that group started dancing in front of a band called Tiger Lily, which eventually turned into Ultravox. I'd decided by then to go into pop music, but I was in Yorkshire and didn't even have any instruments. I was introduced to John Foxx at the point when the band had about four songs and were very Fascist, all dressed in black."
At that time, Billy had never played keyboards in a band, and his second instrument was six-string bass. "I saved up to buy a Barcus-Berry viola and stood at the side of the stage while the other guys looked threatening! We did a piece for a film soundtrack which I arranged, which didn't get used in the end, but to compensate, the other guys bought me the band's first keyboard — a Compac Piano, which was crap! It kept breaking all the time because I was hitting it too hard. We moved into a disused factory unit to rehearse and worked quite hard at it — playing three times a week for three years before we got a deal."
Quality production was always a trademark of Ultravox's work, and the band was lucky enough to meet some very talented individuals in this field from the outset. "Before we got a deal we'd met Steve Lillywhite, who was a tape op, and he'd get us into studios in down time to do free demos. Then when we got the deal we insisted that he was taken on as producer; we did the first album for about £15,000 with Brian Eno co-producing, and I'd got hold of an RMI piano, an Elka Rhapsody and a Hammond Organ, which on tracks like 'Mi-Sex' I was putting through a Carlsbro echo."
Success wasn't instant though, and the band's eponymous debut album sold only 10,000 copies worldwide. The Clash and the Damned were attracting more attention than the art school-oriented bands, and the second Ultravox album, Ha-Ha-Ha, alienated the punks even more, with violin and piano pieces mixed in with the songs. Touring rapidly became an important part of the band's life, and as Billy points out, "the punks did come to listen, but they didn't tend to mess with John because he looked quite tough! By the time we got to the third album we'd been approached by Conny Plank who saw us at the Marquee. Steve Lillywhite was working with U2, so recording with Conny in Germany gave us a bit of a break and more of a European influence, although we only had about two weeks to record."
Plank's influences included adding the use of sequencers and developing the exploitation of synthesizer sounds, which Billy had introduced using a Mk 1 ARP Odyssey on the second album. "On the last song of the third album I used an ARP sequencer to drive the Odyssey, which I'd already used in quite a violent way on pieces like 'The Quiet Man'. We wanted to make quite tough sounds, and often built up whole pieces from synth sounds used as rhythmic parts. On 'Dislocation' on the third album Conny put very basic synth sounds through a lot of outboards to get different pitches, EQ and echoes, to build up a rhythm — we'd just give him quite a tough bass sound and he'd bounce it around to create a whole rhythm part, with phasing to change the tone. But it all depended on what speed I played the sequence, because there was no synchronisation in those days, and once it was on tape, that was it. Later on we got digital sequencers, Warren put separate outputs on all the drum machines, we started using MiniMoogs and so on.
"Eventually I was shown the OSCar, and the first sound on it was an imitation of my Odyssey solo sound — except it didn't collapse as soon as you made any adjustments. But that was one of the less expensive keyboards at the time. In those days you were talking about £3,000 for an Oberheim synth or £4,000 for a PPG Wave, so prices have come down a lot."
Despite the success of the synth experimentation on their third album, the band were dropped by Island. Billy went on to work with Gary Numan and Visage, by which point the Ultravox albums had started to gain some popularity. Enter Midge Ure, "who made us see that the Ultravox idea was too good to throw away. I didn't really want to see the band coming together again with him as the singer, but he certainly knew what he was doing in the studio. With the new lineup we went to play a lot of clubs in the US and met Miles Copeland, who was very shrewd; but we still couldn't get a deal.
"CBS told us we needed six more months to develop, even though they met us just as we were writing Vienna, but we were so full of energy and attitude that we took the first deal that came along, which was with Chrysalis. But despite four albums they never really cracked it for us in the States. Midge took a year off to do a solo LP, Chrysalis did a compilation from their four albums which sold a million, and when we came back to do another, the label seemed to feel that they'd had their money's worth from the band and would prefer to concentrate on Midge. I could see that we were going to get a rough ride for a while, and I built my studio to record U-Vox, which turned out to be the last Ultravox album, and at the same time formed my own band, which showed me how difficult it was to get gigs without losing money on them!"
After Ultravox folded, Billy decided to concentrate on running his Hot Food Studio commercially, just as John Foxx had done with The Garden on leaving after the second album. "Now all the Ultravox members seem to have scattered. Warren Cann, Midge Ure and myself are all still in different parts of London, but Chris Cross is in Scotland, and none of us sees John Foxx any more. Warren was working with a band called Sons of Valentino who had identical twin singers, and also with some Japanese artists, but I really don't know about the others.
"Like John, I ran the studio as a business for quite a while. But the management side of it is much harder than you may think, and as it was in my own house it was like living over the office for five years."
Despite working with bands like It Bites, Dead Or Alive, The Pet Shop Boys and songwriter Barry Blue, Billy found the studio work "getting a bit silly". Like any other 'home studio' owner, he'd been faced with some major decisions before being able to rent out the studio commercially. "I started running it commercially in 1985 — it was very well built by Neil Grant (of Discrete Research), who was building Swanyard Studio at the same time, in an old 4-story house from which we took out various internal walls.
"I wanted to go quite a long way with the studio — we'd just had a million-selling album (the Greatest Hits compilation) and perhaps I got a little bit further into it than I wanted to. I hadn't actually gone for a room-within-a-room design, but spent quite a lot on outboard gear, mics, and a Yamaha grand piano. Having a room-within-a-room would have added about £30,000, and as it was we could have as much volume as we liked on the NS10 speakers, although the main Quested monitors couldn't be run so loud, particularly at night."
The studio gradually attracted enthusiastic clients, and Billy's current project, a new solo album titled Stand Up And Walk, was recorded there between Pet Shop Boys and Dead Or Alive sessions from the beginning of 1990. "I could only get in at weekends and some other times when it wasn't very busy.
We'd done the U-Vox album in there in Summer 1987, and then I recorded my first solo album (Transportation with guest guitarist Steve Howe, released on Miles Copeland's IRS No Speak Records) and at that time I stayed in the studio for a very long stretch. On the new album I worked more in sections, and reflected on pieces in between — but I was quite positive about most of them and only got stuck on one, 'Change Of Heart'. I did a beginning and then got stuck, and avoided it for about three weeks!
"At one point I had a real burst of energy; I wrote and recorded 'Liberation' from scratch in about 10 days. I didn't ponder about it, or mess about too much, and I decided to keep it fairly simple — just the viola, the violin and some string and choir sounds, and getting away from rock or funk percussion with something much sparser."
Certainly the album is marked by its variety of styles, the imagination of its keyboard textures and the tasteful integration of viola, violin and some wordless vocals with the electronics. "I wanted to have a good mixture between rhythmic and non-rhythmic stuff, and I wanted some dance-oriented pieces like 'Hatchback Mania' and 'Jam-boree', as well as tracks like 'Ukraine' which are the closest to rock music on the album."
By the time the album was completed, Billy was sure that he wanted to retain some degree of control over its release. "The album was finished last October and I wanted from the start to put it out independently. I wasn't willing to take any shit from record companies — on the first solo album I felt that it was getting very little promotion and that there was nothing I could do about it. I fished around a bit and found myself in the position of getting no replies anyway, so I got together with my brother, who's a financial adviser, and with my partner Heidi de Hoop to do the promotion. I wanted to experience the whole thing from the bottom up, because I'd seen from what happened at the end of Ultravox how powerful the record companies can be."
Currently Billy's own label Hot Food Muzic manufactures CD, cassette and LP versions of the album through A to Z Music services, and distribution is via Pacific. The album is also sold directly by mail through adverts in Q and similar publications, "which got quite a lot of replies from people who hadn't even been able to work out what had happened to Ultravox. It's good to build contacts again that way; now we'll press 1,000 CDs at a time and see how the pre-sale orders go. The CDs are pressed at Disctronics and the cassettes are duplicated by Damont."
Unfortunately this course isn't one which could easily be followed by other aspiring instrumentalists. "I felt I was lucky to get some response from people who knew who I was, because otherwise it's very hard to get any interest if you're doing instrumental music. It's easier in the States because they have a lot more airplay there, but I didn't want to put vocals on this album just for commercial purposes. I may have some on the next album though."
The main vocal contribution on Stand Up And Walk is from classically-educated singer and guitarist Suzanne Bramson, who has been working with Indian improvisational vocal techniques. "I gave Suzanne some demos to think about for a while and then recorded some of her vocals, sampled them and sorted them out later, so she was free to use the improvisational influences of her singing, on 'Hatchback Mania' for instance. I used to listen to a lot of Indian music when I was 18 or 19, and these sorts of influences do tend to come back to you later."
There's a fair selection of keyboards on the album, with little evidence of undue fondness for the old ARP Odyssey and MiniMoog. "I used a Korg T3 which belonged to Dead Or Alive, and that has a lot of good string sounds. Cubase was the main software package, although it wasn't used throughout, as there's not even timecode on some tracks. The Yamaha grand piano was there, and a Korg M1. I had a Fishman pickup on the viola, which is a fantastic English design, and a Barcus-Berry violin. I used my old Oberheim polysynth, and an Akai S900 sampler with a lot of 8-bit violin samples done for the first solo album, which were still perfectly good thank you very much! Then there's a D550 module, an Oberheim Matrix 1000, a lot of drum samples on an Akai S1000, some from an Alesis drum machine, some Prophet VS, a few bits from a Yamaha TX816 rack, and an OSCar solo on 'Ukraine'. I still use the Yamaha KX88 as the master keyboard because I like the touch, but it could do with more splits and it's not very easy to program. But there's less equipment here than on my first solo album — I hadn't really rushed out to buy any new equipment."
Billy used the Akai S1000 to sample his viola, which often went through a Rockman processor, for 'Jam-boree', and a Technics MIDI piano and PPG Waveterm also get a look in. "And for 'Ukraine' I sampled a really big bass drum from a brass band — I didn't want to be limited just to rock drum sounds."
With the album complete and pressed, Billy is now into the marketing phase and facing the trials and tribulations common to every small record company. "Not getting radio play is sickening. The whole idea of music is that people hear it and give you some feedback. A lot of the time in a band is taken up with stage work, and that takes a lot of energy; because I can't expel energy in that way now, I'll do it by organising everything for myself rather than being sent off by some manager to do a 6-month tour. It's interesting to build up a rapport with people like photographers and sleeve designers, but I can see it being a long road. You get depressed, but then you get something like a radio interview which cheers you up.
"On this album we've tried to keep cool and not give people the idea that it's part of some kind of movement. I'm aware of the New Age field, but I'm really just doing my own thing. I've got a promotions company working on getting coverage, and I've got a better idea of how these things are done now. Even if you're in a band which works democratically, the record companies are always able to smash things up, so now I'd like to smash things up myself a little. I'd like to be able to hear different things on the radio, because everything seems very controlled now. The way groups are projected on video, and the way every little detail about them has to be given away on programmes like the ITV Chart Show, means there's no mystique any more."
While Billy markets his album he has moved his keyboard setup into a comfortable West London mews house, and will be able to write there, if not actually to record. Still to come from the legacy of the original Hot Food Studio are a Steve Howe album, which should be released soon on Music For Nations. In the meantime, like any other aspiring record company boss, Billy Currie has to prove that his own label can stand up and walk by itself...
Hot Food Muzic, (Contact Details).
Interview by Mark Jenkins
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