He was once electronic drummer with jazz-rockers Landscape. Now he's a successful producer for the likes of Spandau Ballet and Colonel Abrams, but the search for new ways of using new gear goes on.
Former jazz-rock drummer Richard Burgess now devotes his energy to production, where his credits include Spandau Ballet and King, and where he's come even closer to the technological evolution that's changed the face of modern music.
WHATEVER ELSE it may have done, the nation of New Zealand hasn't contributed all that much to the development of modern music. It has, however, given us Richard James Burgess, an inveterate traveller - both geographical and musical - who's succeeded in staying one step ahead of the field while wearing several different guises: notably those of songwriter, musician, arranger and producer.
He may have been born a New Zealander, but Burgess first made his mark on the music industry in Britain, with an inventive jazz-funk group called Landscape. Since then he's moved on to work with a wide range of artists in an equally wide range of locations, and now finds himself a resident of New York.
"New York has always fascinated me", he admits. "It's the ultimate city in the sense that it's the total city environment and a very exciting place to live. It's also a hard city and, at the time I moved there, I was getting a little complacent. I'd had a lot of success, a lot of hits and money wasn't a problem. I felt I was losing the edge of needing to work and needing to push forward. New York really put me back on that edge again. I like moving around, though, because you get the feel of different studios and the feel of different cities." Burgess was back in London at the time I interviewed him, taking a breather at Trident 2 recording studio after helping Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare produce 10 Days in an Elevator for Sheffield industrial electro-poppers Chakk.
Near the start of Burgess' career, three albums and a string of singles on RCA put Landscape on the map as a forward-looking experimental electronic outfit with an offbeat commercial appeal. Back in 1981, they managed two charting singles: 'Einstein a Go-Go' and 'Norman Bates'.
"Probably the best aspect of Landscape was before those hits", muses Burgess with the benefit of hindsight. "I like those songs, but the most exciting phase of the band was the instrumental jazz-funk before that. The only accurate representation of that time is the EPs we put out on our own label."
As a band Landscape are now dead and gone with no likelihood of a reprieve, but Burgess and his comrades, trombonist Peter Thoms, synth player Chris Heaton, flautist and lyricon pioneer John Walters, and bassist Andy Pask, are all still active in various fields.
Burgess' own transition from drummer to technician was sparked by dissatisfaction with playing the traditional drum kit...
"When I got tired playing drums on sessions I started doing a lot of computer work. I was finding it intensely boring doing two and four on the snare drum, eights and 16s on the hi-hat, and the odd fill every 16 bars. I thought you could do it much better with a machine and a few tom overdubs.
"The electronic pads available then, like the Syndrum, weren't really any good, and you could get a much better sound out of them by sending a 15-volt spike and scaring the hell out of them.
"This was in the early days of computers back in the late seventies. I was trying to convince producers to start using computers like the Roland MC8, but they couldn't come to terms with it. I realised I was ending up virtually producing that kind of session. There was little point in me going in giving all my expertise away to somebody else - I might as well make the record myself.
"So John Walters and I put our heads together and worked on stuff for the Tea Rooms album, and that was when Landscape made the big changeover to computers."
The MC8 was the first in a series of compositional computers that Burgess was to encounter.
"I got to the MC8 through drum synthesis. It'd always fascinated me and the MPX outputs on the MC8 were beautifully set up for drum triggering. At the time I had about four Simmons SDS3s all linked up in order to create the kind of sounds that we were later creating with the SDS5. That was what got me fired up."
"MIDI's like going back to building up sounds from scratch: you can create sounds that are hard for anybody else to stumble across. That helps preserve individuality."
HIS INVOLVEMENT WITH electronic percussion led Burgess to Dave Simmons' formative company, where he was to be instrumental in the development of the revolutionary SDS5 electronic kit. Eventually, his interest in using dedicated drum synthesisers to create percussion sounds expanded to encompass the synthesiser technology of the day.
"My setup in those days was an MC8, the SDS3s and a pile of Roland System 100s. I still think that's one of the best synthesisers ever made.
"My start in synthesis was through an EMS Synthi A, but they were really only good for making noises with - they weren't too great for playing tunes on. The Synthi A, the VCS3 and the ARP 2600 were the best of the stuff that was around at the time. I was always more interested in pure synthesis - sounds and textures - and I've found that's been very useful in recent years with things like the Fairlight.
"The frustrating thing about the System 100 was that you had all your programs in the MC8 saved, but the System 100 had no facilities for storing programs. You'd get a great sound on it one day and the next you couldn't find that sound again.
"Then I heard about the Fairlight. I think I had the second one that came into the country, and on that John Walters and myself did all the programming on the Kate Bush album Never For Ever.
"I jumped from the MC8 to the Fairlight, then I went back to the MC4. The Fairlight seemed the perfect thing because you could not only have the sequence, you could save the sounds as well. The only problem was that, at the time, it didn't have Page R; it was all MCL, and that was very primitive and very complicated to use. I think Page R cracked the Fairlight open to the world." Few musicians can mention the name Fairlight without referring to sampling and its implications, yet Burgess faces a potential minefield with typical objectivity.
"I prefer to let other people argue about whether sampling is valid or not - I'll just keep on doing it! All I need out of music is something that stimulates me. If it doesn't excite me any more then I don't bother doing it. That was the reason I gave up playing drum sessions. The Fairlight gave me a kick up the bum, as did the MC8 and the MC4. But I think sampling's the best thing that's happened in the last 15 years."
And what of MIDI, that other great recent development of which, both as drummer and as producer, Burgess has been a prime beneficiary?
"In the beginning Roland went into things in a very intelligent way adopting their 'open' system, but all the other companies were really stupid about it - MIDI is just what the 1V/octave system should have been.
"MIDI's like going back to building up sounds from scratch. You don't have the problem you have with the Fairlight where, although the library is very good, you can recognise a lot of the sounds and even if you can't recognise the sounds, you can recognise the technique. You can create sounds with MIDI that are quite hard for anybody else to recreate or stumble across by accident. I think that helps preserve some sort of individuality of sounds."
But the usual - and least imaginative - way of using MIDI as an aid to sound creation is to layer synth patches over one another. Burgess, on the other hand, adopts a linear approach to sound construction, using different instruments to supply different aspects of a sound as it progresses.
"There are bands that know nearly as much about recording as I do, but I don't feel threatened by them. I'll let them do as much as they can, then lift them that last little bit of the way."
"That comes from the early days of working with drum sounds", he reflects. "I realised way back in the seventies that you couldn't get a drum sound out of the EMS Synthi A because the envelope generators weren't fast enough. A drum sound happens very suddenly, gets very loud and then dies away. Once you start to analyse sound like that, you find that some instruments are better at producing transients. The DXs are better at cutting things while the Jupiter 8 is better at warm, rich sounds. Other people probably do it without realising it, but I've got an analytical mind.
"The way I use MIDI is a lot more primitive than some of the ways it could be used. From the multitrack angle the full use of MIDI isn't really so relevant, but it's very useful from the artist's point of view. Artists want to sit at home and put all their stuff together and then go into the studio and refine the sound."
THE MOVE TO the role of producer is something Burgess casually writes off as 'accidental', but he accepts it as a logical progression from his later days with Landscape.
"What used to drive me crazy when I was an artist in the studio was this compulsion of producers to justify their position by changing things. If I can walk into a situation where I change nothing then I'm very happy - it makes my job easy and I think it's a valid thing for a producer to know when to back off.
"Now there are bands coming up that know nearly as much about recording as I do, but I don't feel threatened by them. I'll let them do as much as they can do, then I'll try to lift them that last little bit of the way. I don't see the producer and artist as being in separate camps - I see the producer as being a consultant or adviser. I try to find out why people want to hire me, and most times it's because of something I've done that they've liked. In that way it's your subjectivity, rather than your objectivity, that people hire you for. I like it to be that way. I like to be hired for what I do best, rather than because I have a reputation.
"I suppose I've got quite a technical mind and drummers have this overall view of what's going on: it's like a goalkeeper can see what's going on better than anyone else. There are a lot of drummers in production.
"Spandau was my big break into production. The only stuff I'd done before, apart from Landscape, was for a group called Shock which was pretty successful in the dance charts in Europe. But Spandau was my first sole production role, so I have fond memories of it."
And with such a prestigious start to Burgess' new career - 'Chant Number One' was his handiwork - more offers of work were soon to follow.
"Perry Haines approached me about a group that didn't have a deal. I heard the stuff and knew it'd be successful. I was working on Adam Ant in Sweden at the time, then I went to the States and Perry called me to say they'd got a deal with CBS, and would I do the album?"
The band in question were King. The album was the huge Steps In Time.
"But it didn't happen for nearly a year. They released three singles off the album, then they released 'Love and Pride' again - which was the song I really believed in - and it went to number two. Of course it was easy after that. I think we were probably a little premature with it but 'Love and Pride', like 'Chant Number One', had an anthem quality about it - and you don't come across too many of those in your life.
"The charts were full of wimpy two-man synthesiser bands, but I never wanted synths to be wimpy; what attracted me to them originally was the richness, the power you could get from them."
"Because I was one of the first people to do heavy electronic and computer music, I'd got saturated with it long before most other people. One of the reasons I was really interested in King was because the charts were full of wimpy two-man synthesiser bands. I never wanted synthesisers to be wimpy: it seemed like a misappropriation of the instrument. What attracted me to it originally was its richness, its bigness, the power you could get from it. When I heard King, it seemed like the way I was thinking."
Moving on to the present, a fair part of Burgess' reputation is now built upon his work with 12-inch remixes.
"I grew up with 12-inch mixes", he explains. "As a drummer I made a lot of 12-inch recordings, and then my first work as a producer was all 12-inch, which I later edited down to seven-inch and album versions.
"My major influence was reggae. Dub work was the thing that got me fired up - the way it'd suddenly go down to a hi-hat and then build up again. But anything goes now, so I don't see the 12-inch as being related to seven-inch or album mixes at all - it's a totally different art form. It's linear: you don't have to keep building like you do on seven-inches, and things can change dramatically.
"You can't over-indulge yourself, though. There are certain restrictions. Unfortunately there are a lot of 12-inch singles made these days that never should have been made, just because of the market that's out there. There are certain songs that don't have the right beat for a 12-inch, but get turned into one anyway because the record company demands it. Personally I'd prefer to work just on computer dance mixes."
Burgess is now distanced from the spotlight of chart success, his name only coming to light in amongst credits for management and sleeve design. How has yesterday's pop star come to terms with his musical middle age?
"I used to think it would be agony not to have my own records out, but now I realise just how much agony it actually was. I think it gives me a real insight having been through that: I know how people feel on Tuesday morning waiting for the chart positions to come out. But producers can be very blase about something that is a month or two months out of an artist's life. They've got three or four other projects going on. If it hits then that's great, it increases their bank balance; if it doesn't then maybe the next one will. I go into things with the attitude that not only do I want this to be a hit record, but I want the artist to be proud of it too."
And as someone who divides his production time between home-grown and Stateside acts, how does Burgess see the difference between the two?
"The aims are the same, but I think American artists are more aggressive in their attitude towards things. If you don't keep running, you fall over and get trampled on.
"Technically the musicians in America are better, but the British musicians make up for that by being more quirky. One reason for that is the musical education system here isn't as good, so you get the situation where people have to develop their own technique, usually over a very short period of time. So they tend to develop very unusual techniques whereas, in America, they're able to play anything but they don't necessarily apply their minds as they should. But, having said that, where would British music be without R&B?"
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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