...aka The Moody Boys, Voyager and Urban Jungle, and remixer by appointment to KLF, System 7 and many others. Phil Ward uncovers the real Tony Thorpe.
Phil Ward meets Tony Thorpe, prime mover through the underground techno scene for over a decade and master of the 303.
Tony Thorpe has been around. Rummage through the 'electronic/ambient/avant garde' section of your average vinyl junkie second-hand record store, and chances are you'll come across all sorts of items bearing the name Anthony Thorpe, dated around 1982-85 and called things like 400 Blows or Urban Jungle.
Many such items loom large in the litany of UK electronic music uttered in reverence by those unswayed by a record's relative commercial failure. More recently, Tony has enjoyed similar esoteric regard on CD - as The Moody Boys and Voyager. The shift from vinyl to CD has done nothing to alter the symbiotic relationship between the mainstream and the underground.
The release of Tony's latest album - Product Of The Environment, by Moody Boys - is a culmination. Moving through jungly, percussive landscapes, whooshes of ambience and thumping acid, it's a work considered by its creator to pretty much sum things up. In the past, Tony has used the various pseudonyms to allow for experimentation in a deliberate variety of styles, usually on 12" EPs. Now, he wants to concentrate on more consistent product - namely, Moody Boys albums. The day of the single, says Tony, is over.
Gigs, however, are a different matter. Playing live is worthy of many considerations, especially for someone who's got used to the conveniences of technology. When Tony gets round to some dates, we can expect something a little unexpected.
"I'm not into the idea of trying to recreate what's been done mechanically," he reveals. "I'll probably do a Moody Boys gig and not play a single track from the album. I also think it's quite boring having just one person on stage with all his gear. I've seen too much of that. I think there's another angle to it. I'd rather try to go out there and develop my idea than simply talk about it. But at the same time, you know what it's like at gigs. It's always so expensive, and you're always worried about someone spilling beer on your equipment. It's a bit of a nightmare."
So how do you get round it?
"I would do more of a show; it would be more like a theatre piece, rather than just somebody on stage with their keyboards, twiddling a few knobs. To bring the whole studio onto the stage is laborious. I think it's essential to look at the stage and see some kind of movement and improvisation."
But, Tony, surely... y-y-you don't m-mean... a band?!?!
"Well, there's no way you can get away with not using electronics. At the same time, though, the idea of rehearsing with a 6-piece band and no electronics whatsoever appeals to me as well. I'm quite open-minded about that. I think what's happening today is a collision of the two. Once it was all 'keep music live', and you either had that sticker or you wouldn't be seen dead with one. Now it's all moulding together. It's like, 'wow, isn't it weird, this guy's playing guitar...', but it's accepted. It's new to a lot of people. Some 16-year old kid who goes to Megadog and sees a drummer, a bass player and a guitarist, is going to think 'hey, what's going on?'."
The last thing that appeals to Tony is technology for its own sake. Whether it's using weird things like electric bass guitars on stage, or constructing unwieldy devices in the studio in pursuit of new sounds, he ain't precious.
"I like to just leave a DAT running and catch things. It doesn't really matter what it is. When I first started making records, the technological resources didn't exist. I remember, before samplers, I was using tape loops - a massive, 20-foot tape loop going round a broom stick. My first recording, 'Declaration Of Intent' by 400 Blows, involved a bass player and a drummer, and a load of tape loops, and we came up with this mess - this noise. I've learned to make music with whatever means I can. Obviously technology has made things easier, but in some ways it's made me lazier. I don't have to think that much or work that hard to get what I want.
"You can push the boundaries, to an extent - I mean, it's still about how you use technology, how you express it. That's up to the individual. But at the same time I think it's made a lot of people really lazy. I like the idea of going back to the way I used to make music - which was anyhow I could. I got my hands on any piece of gear - anything - just to create noise, or sound, or music. That's more of a refreshing approach, for me. Some of the best tracks are total cock-ups. Malfunction. Spur of the moment. I think that's wonderful. Thrash it to death."
It's striking how interchangeable are the concepts of noise, sound and music - and how in Tony's open mind 'noise' comes first. The new album concludes with some excellent noise, entitled 'A Funny Thing Happened To Me On Wednesday'. Perhaps not surprisingly, analogue synths dominate the aural landscape, being so responsive to the human touch.
"It's down to people being individual with technology. It's not about reading the manual, having everything working correctly, going with any preset sound that's going, and making a record. To me, that's boring. Listen to the Aphex Twin, The Orb or Black Dog. They're all individual entities; they don't sound alike, even though they're using a lot of the same equipment. They have a different approach. With this album, it's the way I want to take it. I'm saying, OK, you've got all that stuff out there - listen to this..."
Tony identifies his early musical interests as reggae, jazz, funk, and "a James Brown/disco kind of period". But the band who most inspired an innovative approach to recording and technology turns out to be A Certain Ratio.
"At the time I was listening to things like Brass Construction and Roy Ayers," says Tony, "and somebody played me this ACR record and it really made me think, 'what's going on?' It was funk, but really warped out, with all these strange noises going on. I couldn't make out how it was made, how they did it. That got me really interested; it got me going."
Following this line of curiosity, some familiar names began to crop up in Tony's record collection: Sun Ra, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Derrick May, Kraftwerk...
"I was always curious about sound. Like, how did they get that sound? And more than individual instruments and so on, I was interested in noise. It was alien to me. You can imagine, coming from my background, the impact of these alien sounds. So I really wanted to know how it was done."
"I've learned to make music with whatever means I can."
Tony joined 400 Blows in 1984, an avant-garde band - noisy, but still a band. Today, his re-emergent attraction to live instruments completes a kind of cycle. It puts him back into an ambivalent relationship with technology.
"I'm in the middle. I'm almost in this wilderness, on my own, where I'm neither black nor white. I'm colourless. I tend not to be accepted on the Soul II Soul scene, nor on the rock scene. When I did 'Journeys Into Dubland' with Jimmy Cauty on XL, people were saying, 'wow, what is this mess?' We mixed reggae, dub, acid... It's only now that audiences are beginning to accept this kind of combination."
Tony puts it down to the CD revolution. "When people buy stuff they want to hear quality sounds," he says, agreeing that this encourages both sonic and musical awareness. And it's the blend of sound and music that counts, in fact.
"I love it when sounds bring out an emotion, like the sound of an ARP Odyssey. There's more to sound than just having some ambient track going for 20 or 30 minutes. There's more to explore, and there's still more to be discovered."
Interview by Phil Ward
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