Canada Dry | Michael Brook
Michael Brook, inventor of the Infinite Guitar, is a guitarist, composer and producer with a good deal of talent and a taste for the unusual. Paul Tingen met him to talk about his forthcoming Cobalt Blue album.
In June 1990 Mark Prendergast preluded in these pages the coming of a great album. He was talking to Michael Brook, the Canadian composer/guitarist/inventor, well-known for his 'Infinite Guitar', an infinite-sustain device which Brook designed and built and of which there are only three copies in existence. One is owned by Brook himself, one by The Edge, and the third by Daniel Lanois. With help from the latter, and from Brian Eno, Brook recorded an instrumental solo album in the mid-80s called Hybrid which was unusual for a guitarist's album in that it contained no identifiable guitar noises.
Hybrid was a dark, brooding piece of work; powerful, impressive, yet hardly easy listening. With its extended drone-like rhythms and textures it was more like Music for Manic Depressives. When Prendergast visited Brook in his home studio in West London for the interview, the Canadian played some rough mixes of a forthcoming album — his visitor noted that it was "more rhythmic, more focused and more direct than Hybrid," and generally showed himself very impressed with what he heard. He had reason to be. Brook's new album, Cobalt Blue, has finally been released, and the long wait — due to a switch of record companies from Opal/Warners to 4AD — has not been for nothing.
Cobalt Blue is magnificent: a delirious hybrid of ethnic influences, hi-tech sounds and rhythms, and rootsy, groovy guitar riffs. Soaring above it all is the striking sound of the infinite guitar, for the first time ever fully displaying its dramatic dynamism and elasticity. Though again high on atmosphere, the general mood this time isn't dark and brooding, but rather sultry, warm, vibrant, and in places even pastoral.
So, two years on I too sit in Brook's home studio, a spacious living room in a 2nd floor flat filled with equipment, most notably an Allen & Heath Saber 24:16:16, Fostex E16, NS1000 monitors, and an Atari ST computer. There's also a good range of outboard gear, ranging from an SPX90 and Lexicon LXP1 up to an Eventide H3000.
Tucked away in a corner are a scruffy Telecaster and Les Paul. The only other guitar in sight is a Tokai Strat, which looks unusual in that it features three outputs and some additional electronics, making it look a bit like, in Brook's own words, "a machine in Altered States, where they had these weird helmets with wires coming out of them."
Brook, who has a vaguely aristocratic air that is at once relaxed, open, and who displays a very calm composure, explains the marked shift in atmosphere between Hybrid and Cobalt Blue: "Going from one musical style and atmosphere isn't a strategy for me. It's more like going for a walk. It's like saying: 'OK, I know this neighbourhood fairly well, now I'd like to have a look in another neighbourhood.'
"When I did Hybrid I was more interested in textural things and really slow rhythms, where the rhythm is almost like a drone, a constant steady thing that doesn't change. I reckoned that maybe such a rhythmic drone could have a certain hypnotic quality in the same way that a tonal drone can. At the time I wasn't really listening much to music, but over the last couple of years I have been listening a lot more to music, and I have really been enjoying playing the guitar more. Cobalt Blue reflects all that."
Well, yes. The result is that the new album displays not only Brook's infinite guitar; it also shows off his considerable rhythm guitar chops which are, surprisingly, R&B, funk and even country-orientated. Furthermore, Cobalt Blue shows evidence of Brook's other career as a highly regarded world music producer. 1990 was a good year for him, with productions of Youssou N'Dour's Set, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn's Mustt Mustt, the year's most acclaimed world music albums. On the latter he also played guitar and wrote some of the material.
Since then he's worked on the Rain Tree Crow album, and produced Algerian artist Cheb Khaled and, in an untypical return to the traditional Western song format, the British band Balloon. "Over the last few years I've been working more with people who firstly think about songs, so there's more structure to Cobalt Blue than to Hybrid. I think that a future record by me will feature even more developed structure." In Brook's more distant past is production work on records by Mary Margaret O'Hara, Roger Eno, Pieter Nooten, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. On top of this, Brook once studied Indian music under Lamonte Young, and has spent time studying African and Arabic music, although he tends to play this down: "I probably haven't spent more than a week intensely studying these things. But I find music from other cultures really exciting. So I went there for a while, musically speaking. Though I still like a lot of Western music and listen more to it at the moment." It all points to a man with an unusually varied musical outlook.
Brook was born 40 years ago in Toronto, Canada and studied electronic music and electronics in the arts at York University in Toronto. It was there that he first met trumpeter Jon Hassell, whose ambient and minimalist experimentation greatly intrigued him. He ended up playing bass on one of Hassell's albums (Possible Musics), and later played guitar with Martha & The Muffins and worked as an engineer in Daniel and Bob Lanois' recording studio. His collaborations with Lanois and Eno spring from this early connection. The latter two also feature on Cobalt Blue; one of Eno's contributions was in editing both MIDI and audio data with Digidesign's Sound Tools system. More about that later on, because it's probably best to, as they say, begin at the beginning.
"Apart from the editing work that Brian did, and 'Hawaii' and 'Skip Wave' which were recorded at Brian's studio in Suffolk, Cobalt Blue was recorded and mixed entirely on my home set-up," says the Canadian. "Basically my music emerges along two distinct lines. In one I start with a guitar riff, like with the tracks 'Ten' or 'Breakdown', and the others evolve from a kind of percussion or synthesizer riff, like in 'Urbana'. In both cases what happens is that there's a basic riff or rhythm, or some kind of chord progression, which triggers things and on top of which spend a long time simply jamming. My next step is to edit the good bits from those jams, which I usually record on DAT.
"Once the pieces were under way I had other musicians come in, like James Pinker on acoustic percussion and some keyboards. Both Roger and Brian Eno came in and tried out different ideas and played parts that added a lot of colour. Brian wrote a string part for the track Slow Breakdown, which we recorded here. It was just one violin overdubbed 12 times. Daniel Lanois played bass and percussion on 'Hawaii'."
Brook explains that when he jams with percussion and synthesizers, he uses the Atari with Creator software: "The percussion was generally tuned percussion, so there's both a rhythm and an underlying melody and tonal centre. The sound source for the tuned percussion was usually a TX802, my main synth." When he jams away against a guitar motif he traps and loops the motif in a Bel BD80S delay/sampler, which he has modified to boost the sample time to 18 seconds. The Bel is a substitute for his favourite Electroharmonix 16S delay, a pedal guitar delay from the early '80s which he uses extensively during live concerts. "At home I use the Bel because it locks in MIDI, so I can hook the guitar parts into the sequencer. Using the Bel forces me to work in a very riff orientated way.
"Generally the guitar ideas are much more open and flexible than the synth/sequencer/percussion ideas. But whatever I do, I have to go very quickly into multitrack mode, because there's only one of me. I enjoy that, but next time I'd like to get some other musicians involved at an earlier stage and have some kind of collaboration. When you work on your own on something for weeks you can waste a lot of time because of lack of perspective." Brook hails the tape recorder as a solution to this problem and therefore as one of the great inventions of our time, because, he says, "they've revolutionised people's approach to music. You can now simply churn out music and then, later, when you're in a more analytical state of mind, evaluate what's good and build on that. Because it's important to realise that the creative and analytical states of mind are really mutually exclusive. When you're in a creative, or rather generative, state of mind you're inherently non-critical and non-evaluative. You're not capable of saying 'this isn't any good.' You're just playing, mucking about, and that's incredibly valuable.
"Technology encourages you to work in one way and discourages you to work in another way, as does a guitar, as does a tape recorder."
"I'm reading this book by Edward De Bono at the moment, called I'm Right, You're Wrong, which makes a whole thesis out of the fact that our society undervalues creativity and design and overvalues analysis, criticism and logic. De Bono remarks that 'every good creative idea seems logical in hindsight'." So, although the tape recorder solves the problem of how to be creative and analytical all on your own, Brook's keenness to work more intensely together with others in the future appears to indicate a feeling that technology can be limiting nevertheless. He agrees, but only just: "Technology encourages you to work in one way and discourages you to work in another way, as does a guitar, as does a tape recorder. People create good music when they're in tune with their resources, that's what matters. When Robert Johnson played the guitar, or Brian Eno plays a synthesizer, or Giorgio Moroder uses a sequencer, or The Beatles used a tape recorder, they were not limited by their instrument or medium. The must have said to themselves - probably unconsciously: 'OK, these are my resources, let's see what I can do with them'. When that happens, when an artist is in a creative partnership with his or her medium, that's when magic happens."
An example of such magic happened, says Brook, came through the use of hard disk editing by Brian Eno. "A lot of the structure on this album was developed after it was recorded, because Brian put the pieces into Sound Tools and mixed together new structures. It's an area where he has a very strong, intuitive feel. It's an intriguing and exciting way to work, because until now you could never work that way. In the past you always had to create a structure first and then put everything else on top of it. But now you don't have to worry about structure, you just create the elements and finish them. You mix them and then go back to build a structure. With Sound Tools you can do it so fast, the feedback is almost instant. You don't lose the spark of excitement whilst you're doing it."
One notable feature of Cobalt Blue is the creative application of drums and percussion. According to Brook, magic can also happen whilst using the oft-derided drum machine. On Cobalt Blue, as on Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn's Mustt Mustt and the Cheb Khaled record, the drums are a mixture of electronic and live playing. Most of the live percussion on Cobalt Blue was played by James Pinker. "The way James and I work there's not a hard line between his playing and the drum machine. We have a set of Simmons pads which he will play. We'll record them into the sequencer and then edit them. I think the big problem with drum machines is that most of the time people program 2-bar loops in them and that most of the programming is done by people who aren't drummers. Imagine you had a piano machine that was used by people who weren't piano players. It would sound like a very limited instrument. But if you have someone programming who knows how to play drums, who programs drum machines with all sorts of variations and inflections and other things that feel right, it will sound as good as real drums."
Brook uses the TX802 as his main electronic drum sound source, and a Roland R8 was pressed into service on Slipstream. His reasons for not using real drums all the time have to do with the limitations of his recording space at home, and that "I have access to a wide range of quality sounds from drum machines. Of course its editing facilities are a great pro also. But I do feel that a lot of drum machines that you hear on records sound bad. They've been badly programmed. But that doesn't make drum machines in themselves bad. It relates to what I said before about sequencers and tape recorders: when someone is a master of their instrument they're bigger than their instrument, and are not limited by it. Drum programming is an instrument in its own right and it's a valid one. And to play anything really well is difficult, just like playing any instrument well is really difficult."
Lastly, magic most certainly happens when Brook plays his Infinite Guitar. His unique instrument is a modification of an early '80s cheap Tokai. "I changed almost everything on it. The only original parts are the body and the back of the neck and the machine heads. Everything else has been changed. It's got a fine tuner at the back, Floyd Rose tremolo and Seymour Duncan pickups. Then there's a IVL 7000MkII pitchrider MIDI pick-up, which goes into a Digitech Mark IV guitar to MIDI interface."
These account for two of the three outputs on the guitar. The third is the infinite output. Brook tells the story of how it came into being: "I developed the Infinite Guitar around '83-84. I'd ordered an E-Bow for recording Hybrid. I was very interested in some techniques used in Indian and Arabic music, where you work with a lot of ornamentation and bending notes. So I thought that maybe a E-Bow might be good for that. But for some reason they kept mislaying my order. So I started fooling around myself and pretty quickly came up with this really weird looking machine. When finally the E-Bow arrived, the Infinite Guitar worked better, so I've been using it ever since."
Brook doesn't want to give too much away about the exact workings of the Infinite Guitar — he still hopes that it might one day go into production, but "basically, it takes some of the signal and feeds it back onto itself. There's some electronics in the guitar and some in a separate box." The E-Bow, on the other hand, is a handheld magnetic device which the player holds over the strings with the playing hand, causing them to vibrate. One of the great advantages of the Infinite Guitar is that it leaves the picking hand free. It's possible to alternate between sustained notes and picking note for note. Another exciting feature is that there's a cross-over point where the note turns into its harmonic, as with guitar that's feeding back via an amp. This can be controlled with the angle at which the fingers of the fretboard hand touch the strings.
Playing the Infinite Guitar is quite reminiscent of playing a guitar at very loud volume and at continuous feedback; the kind of thing Carlos Santana got famous for. He would spend hours during soundchecks to find the particular 'live' spot on stage where he could get infinite sustain. The infinite guitar gives you the same effect, completely controllable, in any position and at any volume. Another striking feature of Brook's guitar is the scalloped fretboard. The Canadian explains the why and how. "It's not integral to the guitar being infinite as such. I had it scalloped because I wanted to be able to play sitar-like parts. The point of the scalloping is that makes it easier to bend the strings up and down. There's a slightly different tonal quality to bending upwards or downwards. I don't actually push the strings into the fretboard."
Apart from the infinite electronics, Brook's approach to guitar playing is pretty hi-tech in other aspects, and he has a good selection of effect boxes is elaborate: Electroharmonix Fuzz; Hot Tubes; Yamaha Graphic EQ; DOD 280 compressor; Korg OVD-1 overdrive; Electroharmonix Memoryman analogue delay line; Electroharmonix 16-second delay. He controls everything with a set of six volume pedals which control: (1) the H3000; (2) the MIDI guitar and sequencers; (3) the Bel BD 80s delay line; (4) the Electroharmonix delay line; (5) infinite guitar; and finally, (6) normal guitar. Brook uses a Sansamp amp simulator and plugs either directly into the PA (live) or straight into the desk (when recording).
Guitar electronics expert Brook is obviously a man of many talents. One that we've not yet been discussed is that for production, blossoming most notably in collaborations with world artists. Brook asserts that for him producing is about "finding the strongest and most exciting part of a band, composer, or singer, and then wondering how I can emphasise it and get the focus on it.
"Each record is a different mission," he says, "because each artist has such different qualities." In the case of Youssou N'Dour his production resulted in N'Dour's first ever truly satisfying studio album. "I saw him live and thought: 'these guys are amazing.' There was a true magic happening. So I reckoned that the best thing that I could do was to put that magic in a can, bottle it. With Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn it was a different matter. He's also amazing live, but he's done about 65 live records, so I wanted to do something different. What I did was create musical situations for Nusrat which were different than any he'd sung in before. So I made up some 'bedtracks' and song ideas that, though different from to what his audience is used to, would still have enough in common with the things he's done before.
"Balloon [whose Dedicated album is out on BMG] are very good songwriters, so my whole job consisted of bringing as much attention to the songs as possible. And Cheb Khaled sings rei, a dance-orientated North-African music. The standard rei song goes ABABAB forever. It's derived from devotional music, where the emphasis is just on the words. Sometimes it just goes A, and that's it. Western ears would be looking for more structural variation, so I thought my mission on his album was to keep what is good, but to increase the variety of the elements."
Brook's deep involvement with ethnic music, also in his own work, is rather striking. Since he's a proclaimed rock musician at heart, the question arises: is he perhaps on of these people who feel that rock music is dead? He laughs at the question. "Well, I do think that rock music has by now done most of what it can do. There's still a lot of good rock music being made, but it's simply not that new anymore. I think it's possibly in the situation that jazz was in about 20 years ago. Jazz is now a classical music in that most of what still can be called jazz has already happened. It's a music that's become part of history and maybe that's true of rock music as well. It's probably time for a new form of music, which may come from cultures blending." From that perspective Cobalt Blue certainly points the way.
Interview by Paul Tingen
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