Love's Great Adventure
Seven years old and still going strong, Ultravox discuss writing, recording and performing with Dan Goldstein. They also explain why they've got four OSCars...
In which Ultravox discuss the rigours of being one of the world's foremost recording and touring bands, seven years of musical development, and the instruments that have played the biggest part in shaping their career.
Up until the day I started writing this feature, I'd never devoted much attention to the fact that it really is inordinately difficult to classify Ultravox accurately. The commercial success the band has experienced over the past three or four years tempts critics to call them simply a pop group, but such a title places them in the same pigeon-hole as the many singles artists whose musical output is controlled entirely by commercial considerations. Others refer to them simply as an 'electronic' band, but from the start, conventional band instruments have played just as important a part in Ultravox's writing as synthesisers and drum machines.
Seeing as each year of the band's existence has seen a fresh musical experiment, perhaps the phrase 'innovators' or 'adventurers' would be more appropriate (though unlikely to find favour with the band's detractors). The latter description seems particularly apt, since Ultravox have just put the finishing touches to a new single entitled 'Love's Great Adventure'. The record marks something of a departure for the band, since it's the first single they've released that hasn't been taken from an accompanying long-player.
The decision to make the record in the first place was based on a reluctance to take any further tracks from the Lament album, as keyboardist Billy Currie, a member of Ultravox since the band's inception seven years ago, explains:
'We wanted to do something different, to get out of the way singles that are taken from an album tend to sound the same as each other. You know, when any band puts out several singles from the same album, they might appear to be very different in some ways, but because they were all recorded at the same time, they have the same feel to them. We wanted to get away from that - do a one-off single totally separate from any album.
'The recording was a lot more immediate than Lament. We decided not to go into the studio and spend a long time doing it, because things can become really sluggish when you're doing albums. For the single there was plenty of momentum going, and the momentum thing is important: having done the single like that, I'd now like to do an album in the same way - do it with just a couple of days' rehearsals, or none at all, which was what we did for the single.' Percussionist Warren Cann, who's also been with Ultravox from the start (as well as being an occasional contributor to the pages of E&MM from time to time), explains that 'Love's Great Adventure' is as much a musical departure as it is a logistical one.
'It's in threes, and it's got a very up, happy melody, which is why we decided to persevere with it in the first place. We'd tried things in that time signature before, but they'd always sounded contrived, but this one doesn't. There's no real technical trickery in making it, it's the strength of the song that carries it through.'
The release of the single comes towards the end of what has been another hugely successful year for the band - both commercially and artistically. Lament, the band's seventh album in as many years (discounting compilation LPs and live efforts) was one of their most innovative projects for some time, while their concerts - both at home and abroad - have been amongst the best they've ever played.
Do they ever get tired of life in such a consistently successful outfit? Apparently they do - Warren illuminates.
'I'm sure it's something a lot of bands find themselves doing. You write, record and release an album, go on tour to promote it, take a holiday because you're tired, by which time it's nearly a year since the album came out, which is about as long as you can leave it, so you have to get writing again. It's a cycle that's very, very difficult to get out of once you're in it. The thing is, there are lots of different ways of working, but none of the others are compatible with achieving success worldwide and maintaining that success level.
The Ultravox of today might be a healthy group of musicians trying to make the best of the rock star life cycle whilst still striving to be consistently creative and forward-looking, but the Ultravox of yesteryear was an altogether different affair. Formed around singer John Foxx (see this month's Home Studio Recording for interview), the band was originally a five-piece comprising Foxx, Cann, Currie, bass player Chris Cross and guitarist Stevie Shears. They made three albums for Island Records (Shears being replaced by Robin Simon along the way) before Foxx left to pursue a solo career.
It looked for a time as though Ultravox as a band would never re-appear, but Currie, Cross and Cann eventually found a replacement for Foxx in the shape of singer and multi-instrumentalist Midge Ure, and the new-look Ultravox signed a deal with Chrysalis, for whom their first album, Vienna, marked the commercial turning point in their career.
Yet even in the early days, the band's recordings (and indeed their live appearances) were notable for the originality of their instrumental arrangements and the vitality of their presentation. Warren Cann, for instance, was one of the first drummers in modern music to recognise the potential of using electronically-generated rhythm patterns in conjunction with acoustic drumming.
He looks back on those pioneering days with some fondness.
The drum machine I started off with was the Roland TR77, quickly followed by the CR78 Compurhythm. Its programming facility was a step ahead of anything else available at the time, but it was so limited, so inherently awkward to program. Then again, it enabled me to do Vienna.
'I look upon those two machines as being what set me up for the Linn LM1 when it appeared: I guess the Linn was probably the most important instrument in my career. The thing that I latched on to about it was the extent of its programmability. At the time everyone went wild about the fact that it gave you the sound of real drums from a machine, but my own feeling is that even if it had had totally analogue sounds, it would have been just as big a success.'
And what's Warren's view of the state of electronic percussion in 1984?
The thing that's most important to me is simply programmability. Maybe it's just a personal bias, but I lean towards programmable drum machines as opposed to player-activated electronic percussion. It's my feeling that when you program a drum machine, things are dependent on brain power rather than just how quickly you can hit the pads. With a drum machine you can have an idea and input it into the machine and it'll remember it instantly, but playing drums doesn't allow you that creative freedom.
The biggest recent breakthrough was the SCI Drumtraks, not only because of its price but also because programmable tuning and level was such a natural development. It really was the way things had to go, and now I think all the other machines will have to go in the same direction - improving the area of programmability.'
As already mentioned, classically-trained Billy Currie has been tickling the ivories for Ultravox since day one, and even their earliest recordings are characterised by his willingness to experiment with new sound textures and new methods of manipulating them from the keyboard. However, he remains best remembered for his raunchy lead-line synth sound, something he discovered quite by accident, it seems.
'Well, I got an ARP Odyssey for the first album back in '77, and I just stumbled on the lead sound by sticking it through a flanger. I used it a lot in the early days, and carried on using it on later records because it went so well with that particular rhythm guitar sound Midge gets.
To a certain extent I think instruments dominate the way you work. If I can I'd like to avoid the workshop image of someone being surrounded by technology, but there are some sounds - like the strings on a Yamaha CS80 or even a couple of things on a great dinosaur of an instrument like the GS1 - that when we sit down and talk about as a band, I say I simply have to have, so I hang on to them.'
Warren takes over, on what proves to be the first of many occasions.
'Synths do allow you to create sounds that are more atmospheric and more romantic - for want of a better word - than what could be achieved if you had to do that kind of thing with massed overdubbed or E-bow guitars. So you could say that melodically technology has influenced us a lot.
"Right now I'd say the OSCar is the most exciting synth in my line-up - even though I'm using it with a PPG and a Yamaha GS1 on stage."
'Rhythmically it's affected us a great deal, too, because it's enabled us to explore syncopations and generate bass pulses that are completely different to what a bass player would play. 'All Stood Still' and 'The Thin Wall' are examples of that. I'd say that particular combination of acoustic drums and triggered synth bass has been especially important for us, in fact.
'On balance I think we go through two phases of looking at new gear as it comes along. The first phase takes place when you're about to write a whole load of new songs and you're interested in all the new equipment that's become available. So you ask yourself a certain set of questions. Is it going to broaden my horizons? Is it going to make my job any easier? Is it going to be fun to experiment with?
Then once you've settled on some new instruments that you think are going to be good to use, you do the writing and recording, and the second phase takes over: you have to weigh up the advantages of the equipment you used to do the recording against something else that may give you almost the same results, but is a lot more practical to use live. Don't forget that the main criteria for gear for live work are simplicity and reliability. You want something that's going to make your job as easy as possible because then you can get on with concentrating on your performance.'
This brings us nicely to the subject of Ultravox on stage, a spectacle that's always been well worth seeing, largely because the band themselves set great store by the possibilities a live performance affords them. Warren Cann again:
'We've always felt that playing live was our forte. Making records is all very fine, but you can't re-create what you can get out of playing in front of an audience. For me, every consecutive running order that we've drawn up is more exciting than the last, because it contains the old songs you still love to play and a whole load of new ones, which you're naturally very enthusiastic about. We've never had any problem making room for new material when we've sat down to decide what to play at the start of a tour. The songs we used to enjoy a lot - but have played so much we can no longer relate to them - go first, and they make room for the new ones.'
For Billy Currie, Ultravox's most recent major tour was particularly rewarding, partly because he discovered a new instrument - the OSCar - that assisted his live performance greatly.
'Yeah, I was particularly pleased with the last tour we did. You're always on a high when you're in front of an audience - or I am anyway - and it's even better if you've got a new instrument that stimulates you, like the OSCar did for me this time around.
'I got it just before we went on tour, which looked as though it was going to be a problem. But when an instrument excites you that much, it gives you so many new ideas that it doesn't matter if you haven't quite figured out how to play the damn thing yet. If you make a mistake you can probably bluff your way through it anyway, and there's a possibility the audience might actually get off on it because it shows you're fallible - that you're not just some studio musician who doesn't care about the music.
The OSCar has basically taken the place of the Odyssey. The Odyssey was still just about usable in the studio, but live it was becoming a liability because it went out of tune so easily. I really don't think I could have done another tour with it, so the OSCar arrived at just the right time. I like almost everything about it, and it's not just the sound. There's the duo-phonic facility, the simple facility to play two notes at a time, which is a big bonus for me, and the sequencer on it is so easy to use: I put a sequence in it and triggered it in threes for the single, as well as doing the main synth solo on it.
The other thing about the OSCar is that it just feels right as an instrument, which is a rare thing for a synth, I think. In fact, it's one of the few electronic things that seems to have been designed for musicians, as opposed to a lot of stuff - especially the stuff coming out of Japan - which is just developed in laboratories. I've been in touch with OSC and they've always been very helpful, which makes a change from a lot of other companies. They've maintained my enthusiasm for the instrument and right now I'd say it's the most exciting synth in my line-up - even though I'm using it with a PPG and a Yamaha GS1 on stage.'
But if there's a big change in instrumentation between the recording studio and the live gig, do the band have any worries about their live sound bearing little or no resemblance to what they've released on vinyl?
'Well, there's no point in duplicating the sounds of records totally,' Billy muses philosophically. The thing I enjoyed so much about the tour was that I was only trying to remind the audience of the way the albums sound about 25% of the time. The rest of the time I was doing what pleased me, which was to change the way things sounded and the way they were played.
'You can't do that all the time, though, because it can be quite hard to instil new life into songs that have been kicking around for a while. For instance, I've been playing the keyboard parts on 'New Europeans' the same way for so long that it's just impossible to think of them being any other way - that's just how it's got to be.
'Sometimes we come to start rehearsing for a tour and we wonder how some of the things we've just recorded are going to come out live, but usually we take a look at the component parts of a song and it becomes surprisingly easy to reproduce. And once you've played a song live on five or six occasions, you just don't think about the complexity any more.'
If Ultravox live are a consistently exciting and moving spectacle, their records are if anything even more fulfilling. Their seven albums make up a rich tapestry of innovation and experimentation, yet all within a package that remains eminently accessible. The originality of their arrangements and their songwriting ability are beyond question, but one area that's received somewhat less in the way of laurels, even though it's played a significant part in shaping the band's career, is studio production.
Warren Cann takes me through the production story.
The Lament album was the first one that was actually promoted as being 'Produced by Ultravox', but we've always played a big part in the production of our records. Our second album was produced by Steve Lillywhite, who was our mate, and our first one was produced by Brian Eno, who was someone we respected and had always wanted to meet - it was a great way of meeting him!
The most interesting part of recording that first LP with Brian was when the tape wasn't running - when we just sat down and discussed our ideas. At that time, he was far more interested in the procedure than the end result. The end result might be lousy and it wouldn't bother him in the least, because he realised that if you pay attention to the procedure, you learn a lot and your end results become good in time.
'After the first two albums we started working with Conny Plank. Conny was really just an astounding engineer, though he does do some production work with other people. The chemistry he had with us was such that we felt he was doing more than is required in an engineer's role, so we gave him the same co-producer's credit that Brian and Steve had had.
'For Quartet we worked with George Martin, and actually it was in his contract that he had to go down as producer, but when it came to doing Lament we couldn't think of anyone exciting we wanted to work with and who was available, so we did it totally ourselves. That was interesting in itself, because there was no sort of referee around...
Billy recalls that the Quartet saga was the first - and so far only - attempt the band have made to get out of the rock star life cycle mentioned earlier - it wasn't a success.
'We tried to get round things by taking a lot longer over writing and rehearsing, but then we had nothing like enough time to record it properly and it became so enormously laborious. We just felt that what we were doing really wasn't conducive to making good music: it wasn't a very creative process - it was more like having a regular nine-to-five job!'
So that's what being famous is all about. Think I'll stick to writing.
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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