New Gold Dream
The world's best-known electronic music band have reached a crossroads, with a line-up change, a lengthy concert tour and an uncertain recording future. Annabel Scott talks to them.
A stack of new film soundtracks, a six album boxed set, a new line-up, and Tangerine Dream are on the road again. But what's the future for the world's best known electronic music group?
Tangerine Dream have been the world's greatest electronic band for 15 years. That's partly down to lack of competition, of course. Few professional groups seem interested in a completely electronic setup, and TD themselves dislike being labelled as an 'electronic band'. Founder member Edgar Froese comments: 'we have certain ideas we want to realise, and at the moment we happen to do that with synthesisers and sequencers. But that might not always be true.'
TD's other mainstay, Chris Franke — originally a jazz drummer, latterly a pioneer in the use of sequencers and increasingly a talented keyboard-player — agrees.
Tangerine Dream have their roots in seventies European hippiedom. Like many composers and musicians working in Germany at the time, they set out to break barriers and spring surprises. They treated musical history with contempt, and became the darlings of the music press as fashion pointed its finger in their direction. The Tangs were big news, and to a certain extent, they still are.
They've survived countless personnel changes, a switch of record company and the rigours of falling from press favour, to become one of the longest-surviving members of the experimental Class of '73.
In the last few years, the Tangs have devoted more time and energy to recording. But that trend has come to an end in 1986, as the Germans embarked on a programme of live gigging, their most ambitious for years.
"When we decided to say goodbye to Johannes Schmoelling, it left us in something of a delicate situation. We had got used to playing together and we had to find someone sympathetic to our kind of music."
Biggest surprise of the band's recent UK tour was the introduction of a new member, 23-year-old Paul Haslinger. He replaces Johannes Schmoelling, who disliked the prospect of a very lengthy tour and decided to concentrate on his own studio work. When asked if it's likely that Schmoelling will work with the band again in the studio, Froese is non-committal. So how did Haslinger come into the picture?
'You know, when it was decided between us all that we would say goodbye to Hannes, it left us in something of a delicate situation. We had got used to playing together (Schmoelling had been a Dreamer for over six years, much longer than his predecessor, Peter Baumann) and we had to find someone sympathetic to our kind of music.
'I have a studio near Vienna now and I had met Paul there. He hadn't played this sort of music before, and it's not just a matter of finding somebody who can play guitar or piano, like in a rock band. But we felt that we could work together and he was happy to join.'
Haslinger: 'I was studying classical music in Vienna but I already had some interest in computers and synthesisers. But now I'm very happy with the band and I hope I can continue with them for a long time to come.'
Franke: 'Obviously when you have a new member you have to change the way in which you work slightly. We haven't changed the role of each player in the band though — the most important thing is to feel that you can trust each other, and we feel that with Paul. But having him in the band has allowed us to re-introduce some elements we've enjoyed in the past — such as having a piano piece in the live set, and having Edgar and Paul playing guitar.'
As usual, the band's current tour avoids coinciding with a new album release. Last year's Le Parc on Jive Electro met with a decidedly mixed critical reception, many pundits believing it was too commercial. Even the band themselves are rumoured to have been unhappy with it, and certainly, elements of it are musically unsuccessful.
Also new on the album side is In the Beginning, a six-album boxed set on Jive Electro consisting of the early albums Electronic Meditation (featuring Klaus Schulze and Conrad Schnitzler), Alpha Centauri, Zeit (a double), Atem (which first brought the band to the attention of John Peel) and Green Desert, which was previously unreleased.
"We only need a couple of keyboards each on stage now, because a lot of the synthesisers are in modular form - Yamaha TX units, Roland MKS30s and Super Jupiters. I only have one custom sequencer now."
These albums will either delight or shock fans of the band's later output, but Green Desert in particular has a fascinating history.
Froese: 'Peter Baumann left the band a couple of times, the first time in 1973 when he went to bum around India. Christoph and myself were left with nothing much to do, so we booked some studio time and recorded Green Desert with some basic equipment. Shortly after, we closed a deal with Virgin and played them the album, but they wanted us to come over to The Manor and record another one. So we recorded Phaedra and Green Desert was never released, but we've kept it on the shelves and decided to put it out now.'
Reading between the lines, it seems the advance from Virgin enabled the band to buy all the Moog equipment which made Phaedra such a leap forward from Atem and Green Desert. The latter contains only one sequencer passage (on 'Astral Voyager'), and even that's a very simple two-note exercise, played on a PRXII rhythm controller custom-built by the company which eventually became Projekt Elektronik. The rest of the album is in the style of some more obscure contemporary tracks such as 'Oszillator Plant Concert' and 'Ultima Thule' — lots of slow guitars, Minimoog drones, Mellotrons and drums.
In fact, Green Desert was the subject of a little remixing and overdubbing (with some DX7 sounds?) as recently as 1984, so the album is of more than historical interest.
Returning to the subject of equipment, the Tangs have changed their stage setup quite radically since their last UK appearance in 1982. Why? Because the commercial equipment companies have finally caught up with what TD had been doing for years.
Franke: 'We only need a couple of keyboards each on stage now, because a lot of the synthesisers are in modular form — Yamaha TX units, Roland MKS30s and Super Jupiters. I only have one custom sequencer now, it's an event controller and the only unit I can partly control in real time. I also have a DX7, a TX816 rack and an Emulator II.'
Froese: 'I'm playing a Roland JX8P, a DX7 and a PPG Wave, and in the rack system there are some Roland modules, a TX816 rack and an Akai S612 sampler.
Haslinger: 'My setup has a Roland MKB300 Mother Keyboard playing Roland modules, an Akai S612, a TX216 rack, a PPG Wave, a DX7 and an Oberheim Xpander, and I play the Yamaha electric grand and a Tokai guitar.'
In the background, behind the front line of equipment, the band are now largely reliant on Yamaha QX1 sequencers for melodic backing, and on the Sequential Drumtraks for the percussive stuff with a selection of chips (some from other drum machines) prepared by Chris Franke. The sequencers are started and stopped manually, and the trio don't find it necessary to change any disks, even though the set starts with a 90-minute piece. Franke does have to change some of the disks in his Emulator (which explains the strange perspex disk rack perched on the machine), since he plays several percussion parts as well as voice, guitar and synth samples. The sound engineer also has the job of fading in some of the sequences, as well as balancing the overall levels.
"The Synclavier from the studio has already gone, and the GDS has gone too. We're using small samplers like the Akai because they're so fast to use, though we'll be happier when the larger version comes out."
As anyone who's caught TD on tour will know, they invariably present (a) a spectacular light show (the band are 'waiting for the next generation of laser equipment') and (b) a good selection of familiar pieces — from Stratosfear to Ricochet, Thief, Le Parc, Poland and their latest project, Legend. The film of that name was co-produced by two film companies, and the company responsible for US distribution took a dislike to the Jerry Goldsmith soundtrack heard in the UK. So the Tangs were called in, and are now hoping that their US tour will benefit from the inclusion of two tracks from the film. In fact, TD have just come to the end of a long spate of recent soundtrack work.
Froese: 'We've completed music for Legend and Forbidden recently, and before that we did the TV series Streethawk. We've learned a lot from working for these people, but you have to work in a certain way for the US film industry. Firstly you have to work very quickly, and second you have to talk their language. We didn't want to have to become businessmen instead of musicians.'
Franke: 'On Forbidden we were going for something very different — an orchestral-sounding score with a lot of strings and other classical effects. Sometimes it doesn't even sound like synthesisers playing.'
There's still talk of Virgin releasing the band's soundtrack for The Keep and of MCA releasing their version of Legend, despite the fact that the Jerry Goldsmith score is already in the shops. But with an Australian tour planned and an American tour on the cards, further soundtrack work will have to wait for a while.
Clearly, live work is, for a change, predominant in the band's minds at the moment, but that in itself begs the question as to whether there are any plans for changing the studio equipment further. The answer to that question tells us that, apart from anything else, studios can become much more compact nowadays.
Franke: 'The Synclavier from my studio has already gone, and the GDS has gone too. We're using small samplers like the Akai because they're so fast to use, though obviously we'll be happier when the larger version with better frequency response comes out. And we're experimenting with new computer software all the time — we have packages from Steinberg and Jellinghaus, and recently I've been using the composer package from C-Lab (soon to be imported into the UK by Sound Technology — Ed).'
"We're experimenting with new computer software all the time -we have packages from Steinberg and Jellinghaus, and recently we've been using the composer package from C-Lab"
But have the changes in Tangs technology resulted in any corresponding shifts in musical style? That's open to question. For this tour, Paul Haslinger has more or less had to learn parts already composed for Johannes Schmoelling, driving a large nail into the coffin of the improvisation that was once such a trademark of TD's live appearances.
Elsewhere the changes have been less dramatic. Instrumentally, the Tangs are still very much reliant on rapid changes in tone colour and the sonic pyrotechnics so beloved of the 'cosmic, maaan' electronic music fraternity. There's little sign that this is going to change, and on Le Parc, with its shorter, more 'disciplined' pieces, it sometimes resulted in a messy hotch-potch of ideas that lacked a cohesive centre. Until the band return to the studio, we won't know whether Haslinger or Schmoelling (or both) will be composing for studio albums, or what effects that might have on the sound of the group as a whole. If Schmoelling returns, the Le Parc themes may be pursued. If he doesn't, there's no telling which direction the Dreamers will move in.
The final concert in the current series — not at the Hammersmith Odeon, but in Paris — was the performance that saw the Tangs at their best. As you'll see, the current live set has a good selection of analogue, digital and sampled sounds, some very powerful music, and some enjoyable featured spots.
But it's hard to avoid the feeling that TD are at a turning point, and that no-one — not even the band themselves — knows what the next step is to be. Maybe another studio album, due later this year, will provide some answers.
The Parisian set was more or less identical to the one played on all the UK dates, which culminated in a sell-out gig at London's Hammersmith Odeon. But the Paris gig had a certain added air, born partly from excitement and partly from uncertainty.
Because this time, TD were in a city they hadn't played for eight years. And because they weren't being backed by Jive or Carrere or Adrian Hopkins Promotions, but by Crystal Lake, a tiny organisation formed by local fans to distribute cassettes and a magazine called Synthesis. Mortgaged up to their eyebrows to raise around £24,000 needed to put on two TD concerts, the Crystal Lake people had advertised frantically in the preceding weeks, with somewhat disappointing results.
While UK fans often feel that electronic music across the Channel must be more exciting than the home-grown kind, the fact of the matter is that the whole music business there is dominated by MOR acts ('la varieté') and anything vaguely experimental has to fight to survive.
So TD's opening flute and bird sounds fell upon a hall just over half-full, which nevertheless reacted with an encouraging lack of British reserve.
Some of the audience even recognised the opening piece, a new version of Stratosfear with subdued sequences, powerful TX816 digital clangs and PPG sampled flute solos. On then to a very 'digital' sounding passage more reminiscent of Neuronium than TD, and a rather formless sequencer/drums bash developing into a chordal piece, Haslinger soloing with mucho pitchbending on the Roland Mother Keyboard.
A huge splash of white noise introduces another sequenced passage with Latin Percussion whistle samples, developing into a fascinating exercise of plopping raindrop samples and J-M Jarre style slowed-down voices. Then into a Haslinger piano solo, opening with 'Ricochet Part 2' and improvising on the theme with flute and strings backing from Froese and Franke.
The most spectacular moment of the first half is definitely the light show, though. As in 1980 and 1982, the band seem to be building up slowly, but 40 minutes is a long time just to build up.
Never mind, because the next section is the highlight of the whole concert, with all the stops pulled out, a churning bass and drum pattern, screaming lead guitar samples from Franke, bending solos from Haslinger, and a good, solid chord progression over Prophet-like analogue twangs. The sequences die away under a huge crash, but the piece is built up again convincingly — when you've got a good thing going, milk it for all it's worth!
And the pace is kept up for most of the second half, with only a short chordal passage before Franke switches on the old 'Thief' sequence for another fifteen minutes of heavy stuff. What's this? Haslinger goes for the guitar and starts churning out HM riffs. What's this? Froese's got one too. The French go mad, the volume goes up 5dB, the drum machines go Boom, Froese moves about on stage, and Franke finishes the whole thing off.
Thirty seconds of peace before the tom-toms signal the start of 'Going West' from the Flashpoint soundtrack, with yet more bending solos and another pleasing chord progression. After that, 'Yellowstone Park' from Le Parc with a guitar solo by Franke on the Emulator and all the voices of the original faithfully reproduced, followed by another formless sequencer/drums bit.
To close, a mega-massive chord, a short rapid sequence and a doomy section full of devilish voices and overlaid with wonderful lighting effects. Not a bad ending for a ninety-minute set.
As for the encores... some gentle pieces from Legend (obviously intended for the unicorns-and-pixies sections of the film), a Chopin prelude from Haslinger on the piano merging into 'Rare Bird' (the end of the 'Tangent' section of Poland), and 'Bois de Boulogne' from Le Parc.
Interesting choices from that album — as Franke comments: 'Those pieces, 'Yellowstone Park' and 'Bois de Boulogne', received the most airplay, and we had to choose tracks that could be arranged for three guys to play live. Some of the others have much more of a studio arrangement.'
A rapturous reception for the band almost disguises the size of the audience — but at least their popularity on the Continent has received a shot in the arm, and with luck, the tours will start coming a little more frequently now. Maybe the Parisians won't have to wait another eight years before seeing what's still the world's greatest electronic band — and we in the UK won't have to wait another four.
Interview by Mark Jenkins writing as Annabel Scott
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