On The Way Up
From being early Fairlight programmers, Simon Climie and Rob Fisher have pursued their songwriting career into the pop charts. Nicholas Rowland conducts the occasional interview.
Heard the one about the two Fairlight programmers who also happened to be seasoned songwriters? They got together with a producer from the Stock, Aitken and Waterman school of success and had their first British hit.
NOBODY, BUT NOBODY, in the music business likes labels - except the A&R men. They may be convenient, but they prove to be mostly inaccurate and often insulting. Like referring to anything that doesn't have a drum machine on it as "new age". Or categorising anything which is not in 4/4 as "progressive rock". Or bands with shifty eyes and black leather jackets, "gothic".
Which brings us to an act called Climie Fisher - not because they've got shifty eyes, but because of a single called 'Rise to the Occasion' currently doing big things in the British charts. It immediately grabs the attention, and not least because it refuses to file neatly away into the nearest pigeonhole. Over the immutable hip-hop orthodoxy of a TR808-propelled rhythm, pumping bass and hand-me-down samples, there soars not a furious rap, but a captivating ballad, carried on the wings of gospel-like backing vocals and tasteful strings. Time to invent a new term perhaps... "electro-ballad" anyone? "Hip-pop"?
Yet don't be fooled into going too far down the hip hop road. The hip hop mix (largely the responsibility of PWL's Phil Harding, whose name you may have heard in connection with Stock, Aitken and Waterman or the Red Ink remix of Sybil's 'My Love Is Guaranteed') is essentially a rearrangment in a hip hop style of a much more conventional ballad. This much you would have discovered for yourself, had you been tempted enough by the 7" of 'Rise to the Occasion' to invest in the 12" whose B side contains not the traditional dub mix, but a "ballad version" of the song. (In fact, this has now been released as a 12" single in its own right.) This time, in place of the scratching and the "Get with the beat" Jungle Book samples, you'll find a supremely mellow arrangement, better suited to the sentiment of the lyrics, but perhaps not as startling on first hearing. Now the bass is much more laid back, while the rhythm is carried by a shaker, congas and a series of interweaved sequences of bright guitar-like synth patches. It's time to dim the lights and grab a partner for that quick smoocher before the last bus home.
Pursuing the story behind both cuts leads us to the door of a certain Simon Climie, singer, and one Rob Fisher, keyboardsman and programmer. Though their partnership is just over a year old, both names could well be familiar. From 1982 to 1984, Fisher was signed to EMI as one half of a duo called Naked Eyes. Those collectors of might-have-been anecdotes may be interested to learn that this act was originally called Neon, with occasional supplementary members Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith. The Naked Eyes first album, Burning Bridges, was largely ignored by the British press and public alike, though it yielded two top ten singles in America and eventually sold around half a million copies there. Consequently, their second album, Fuel For The Fire, was only released Stateside and shortly after that the duo went their separate ways. Fisher returned to England accompanied by the Fairlight he'd managed to acquire through Naked Eyes' success and found himself involved in session work.
Simon Climie too has a solid history of session work as a programmer behind him, although his previous success has been more in the capacity of a songwriter working with a variety of partners. An original claim to fame as the son of the English editor of Mad has been eventually supplanted by 15 major songwriting credits, including 'Invincible' (Pat Benatar), 'No Time To Stop Believing' (Smokey Robinson), 'Ecstacy' (Jeff Beck) and 'I Knew You Were Waiting For Me' (George Michael/Aretha Franklin).
In 1984, Climie met producer Steve Lillywhite through whom he got into the then fledgling art of Fairlight programming, and made his debut on 'Perfect Way' and 'Small Talk' from Scritti Politti's Cupid and Psyche LP.
All this explains why just over a year ago, both Climie and Fisher found themselves in Abbey Road studios involved in a session for some Canadian artist who EMI had taken under their wing.
"I can't remember much about him except he was pretty bad", Fisher explains. "In fact he was so bad that we spent most of the time downstairs in the bar which is where we formulated the idea for Climie Fisher."
"The thing we had in common was the Fairlight", continues Climie. "Rob had bought one and Steve Lillywhite had lent me one for a year, so immediately we thought 'why not link the two together and see what we can do?'. I think we must be one of the few bands who have had the luxury of producing their home demos using two Series II Fairlights."
WITH THEIR POOLED resources of talent, experience and equipment, progressing from demo to deal proved relatively easy. However, breaking into the charts has proved more of a challenge. Their first two singles, 'This Is Me' and 'Love Changes Everything' have not exactly set the British charts aflame (though the latter is a monster hit on the Continent). Which is why they're both grateful to Phil Harding, who may have got them branded as hip hop artists, but has at least brought their name into the public eye. However, they begin to get worried when I asked them why certain samples were chosen.
"The Jungle Book? Really?
"Casablanca? ... Is that the one with Dean Martin?"
"Does that mean we're going to get sued by the Disney Corporation?..
It's clear then that Harding was given considerable freedom with the song. How do Climie and Fisher feel about letting someone interfere with their work?
Fisher explains: "Well, of course, Phil Harding is not just anyone, he's really brilliant at what he does. And he won't do a track unless he's got some sort of angle on it. I mean, he won't just put a tape on and start messing around for the sake of it. And if we hadn't liked it when he'd finished, we'd just have written it off as a waste of time and money."
"We must be one of the few bands who have had the luxury of producing their home demos using two Series II Fairlights."
"You have to take risks", Climie continues. "We gave him the ballad, told him what we didn't want and left him to it. Specifically we wanted the backing track to be compressed separately from the vocals. We tend to do that a lot when we record ourselves and it adds so much to the feel. There's a certain way that you can set compressors so that it makes the beat pump much more. That's how we got the feel when we were writing it, but somehow, that had got lost in the master mix and so we didn't feel that the ballad version was really happening.
"But we love what's been done. I suppose it might be seen as a bit of a gimmick, a bit cheap, compared to what the rest of Climie Fisher is about. What's interesting is that in Germany where our last single has been Top Ten for five weeks, they've actually opted to release the ballad version, which shows that the song stands up on its own without the gimmick element anyway. And Jermaine Jackson and Stephanie Mills have recorded a cover version too.
"We believe that if we get the song right at our end - if we get the feel and the structure right - then anyone with the right instinct is going to get the mix right. On the other hand, if there's something wrong with the basic structure, then there's no way that anyone's going to make it great."
Getting the basic structure of each song right is an important part of the Climie Fisher philosophy, and I get the impression that they consider themselves songwriters first, producers second and (possibly) musicians third. Last year, they wrote 40 songs, some of which were then offered to other people, while others were retained to be incorporated into the Climie Fisher repertoire.
Fisher: "We tend to have fortnights where we write a whole batch of songs, then we'll demo them up to quite a finalised stage before deciding whether to keep them or give them away. Most of our final recordings are demos which have been worked on in the studio."
Climie: "To me it's always been important to get as complete an arrangement as possible, even if you're writing for someone else. I mean, publishers have said 'Just give me it with piano and vocal, that's all you need'. But they're wrong. Everytime people have used stuff I've written they've kept very close to the original. The fact is that most people just can't 'hear' an arrangement from a simple idea. There's just too much work to be done. So really, I'd recommend to anyone, give it your best shot."
As far as demos are concerned, the days of the two Fairlight demos are long over, not least because Steve Lillywhite took his back.
"I still have mine in the corner", says Fisher, "but we don't tend to use it much - just for certain sounds, though Page R is still nice to work with. We were thinking of getting a Series III at one stage, hut firstly we can't afford it and secondly, there are other cheaper things around which together can do the same job just as well."
BOTH CLIMIE AND Fisher have their own separate home set-ups. These have Fostex B16's, A&H mixing desks and recently acquired D50's in common, but very little else. Climie works mainly with the Sequential Studio 440 linked to a Macintosh run Performer sequencing program, while Fisher prefers the Atari based Steinberg Pro24 driving a combination of DX7, TX802, Akai S900 and LinnDrum. Between them they also have a full complement of effects including the Roland SRV2000 ("thoroughly recommended") and the Yamaha REX50.
By basing their activities around two different systems, both musicians believe that they've managed to cover just about all their options. After all, as most electronic musicians have discovered for themselves, there's no single piece of gear or software which is capable of doing absolutely everything.
"Sometimes you think it's a conspiracy", says Climie. "Equipment X comes out which involves some great breakthrough, but the designers always forget to build in the feature that made equipment Y a breakthrough too. So, for example, the early version of the Performer software doesn't have looping in Record, which personally I think is really important. Yet there are certain bulk commands you can alter by percentages, like note durations or velocities, which the Fairlight has, but the Steinberg doesn't. So we end up recording things on the Steinberg, editing them on the Performer then bouncing them back to the Steinberg.
"There are similar problems on the 440, though it's a great machine for writing. I've got this songwriting disk with some great drum sounds, a bass patch on MIDI channel four and other things which can be MIDI'd in and out very quickly. It's so compact and I can start a whole feel going, and before I know it I've got something there. But you can't do the detailed work for finished versions on it: the editing facilities aren't nearly so quick or good as the Steinberg. So I usually end up doing a bulk MIDI dump into Rob's Steinberg and editing it from there.
"If we get the feel and the structure of the song right, then anyone with the right instinct is going to get the mix right."
"Another annoying thing is that if you think you're going to sample a really good bass sound into it and run it from an external sequencer, you run into the problem that it doesn't respond to incoming pitch-bend information, which is a serious disadvantage. So we end up using the S900 for bass lines.
"And with all these problems, you usually end up thinking that it's you that somehow got it wrong. Because when you ring up the shop, whether they know anything about it or not, they always say 'Oh, I think you will find it will do that'.
It seems that, despite a few criticisms, the Steinberg software has found considerable favour with Climie Fisher.
Fisher: "It takes a while to get into, but the Steinberg is brilliant for step-time work because it plays back the whole sequence to you every time you put in a new note, so you can hear how its going. We use that for programming in very fast sequences which come across as little stabs but which are actually a whole load of notes. And it's brilliant for time-correcting odd notes here and there, so, when you want to, you can leave timings to drift about a bit."
Climie: "This thing of 'feel' is very important to us. So while we might write around a sequenced bass line, when it comes to recording, we like to put in live 'features'. On 'Love Changes Everything' and 'Rise to the Occasion', we programmed the whole track, then Rob did four takes completely spontaneously and we then put bits of all of them into the final version.
"Yeah", agrees Fisher, "we also did that on what looks likely to be our next single 'I Bleed For You'. I played the whole bass line live from start to finish, but by the end I was a bit out of time, so the bass in the last chorus shifts by half a beat, and it actually sounds really good."
This leads me to the observation that while a working knowledge of new technology is essential, there is a point where it can just go too far. I put it to them and Climie takes up the argument:
"Ultimately, what we're doing is making records, rather than just pushing the technology as far as it will go for its own sake. In fact, we've been through stages where we've got so far into the technology that we've ended up writing some really average songs. All right, so they had killer grooves and all these great effects on them, but there was no room to put the actual song.
"The mistake to make is to spend three days messing around with the track, putting in all the detail. If you're really getting into the bones of what a song could be, you can still mould the track and the song. The two of them both remain malleable forms. That's how we are approaching it now and it really works."
Fisher picks up the point: "Of course, you do need to know the machines, otherwise they'll end up programming you. But you don't have to know everything about the machine, just what's useful for your situation."
Climie again: "At least with recent equipment, especially from the Japanese side, you know that when it comes on to the market, it's been thoroughly tested, the software's complete and it's not going to give you any trouble. You don't have to waste time learning a machine's idiosyncracies, about how to trick it into doing something or other because the software's not finished or whatever. There are more experimental things like the Linn 9000 which you know you're going to get some interesting results out of eventually, but you have to live with them for a long while before you do. And like a relationship, you know the machine's going to mess you around."
Fisher has the last word: "Of course, a good way of not getting over obsessed with gear, of not buying up everything that comes out every month is not to have too much money."
The other way of course is not to have enough time. It doesn't look as though Climie Fisher will get too much of that in the near future if their current success continues. There's an album due out shortly and even the possibility of a tour, but any spare hours will be spent writing music - not necessarily with heads buried in MT reviews of new equipment (except on long train journeys).
Fisher concludes with some evidence of relief in his voice: "It's sometimes good to get away from all that."
Interview by Nicholas Rowland
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!