Yello made the sort of music everyone had heard of but few people heard - until Shirley Bassey helped them into the pop charts. These obscure Swiss art rockers reveal all to Nicholas Rowland.
After nine years of musical experimentation it's taken a collaboration with Shirley Bassey to get Yello into the British pop charts. Have they sold out or is this just another facet of their eccentricity.
WHEN FELLOW SWITZERS Dieter Meier, Boris Blank and Carlos Peron had to think of a collective title for their imminent debut gig, they decided to take inspiration from the brand names of children's toys. Consequently, in deference, no doubt, to such international playtime favourites as Lego, Meccano, Bako and Duplo they made their first appearance at a Zurich fashion show under the title Yello.
The sobriquet is pure fantasy, strictly throwaway, yet the idea of sounding like a toy is intriguing and peculiarly appropriate to Yello's eclectic and sophisticated style. For nearly nine years they have been engaged in producing an inventive, thoughtful and infectious catalogue of electronic pop, assembled with colourful building blocks of sound and musical influence. It selects its moods from a variety of disparate sources: Eurodisco, film noir, bubblegum rock 'n' roll, jazz schmaltz, thirties cabaret and latin. While their music does not defy description, it certainly defies categorisation. Sometimes it's the Kit Kat Club, sometimes the Copacabana, sometimes Rick's Café Americain: occasionally all three rolled into one.
Take the latest album, One Second, its moods lurch violently from the smooth dark chocolate of current single 'The Rhythm Divine' to the disco crunch of 'Call It Love'; from the sticky salsa of 'La Habanera' to the heavy rock of 'St Senor The Hairy Grill'. Each track is laced with an element of pastiche so strong, a melodrama so overblown, that you can't help feeling that you're listening to no more than an elaborate tease. This sense is heightened by the fact that it's so glossily produced, with that quartz accuracy and 24-carat sparkle we've come to expect as standard from all Switzerland's major exports. In many ways, Yello live up to their toybox inspiration, appearing to be as inconsequential as the latest craze: to be discarded when broken or outgrown.
However, there are too many worthwhile moments for their efforts to be dismissed out of hand. These moments usually occur when the ephemeral subject matter is brought sharply into line by the sheer quality and inventiveness of the recorded sound, whether it be a synth patch, a sampled voice or an obscure sound effect. There are times when Yello seem to have discovered what exactly all this hi-tech gear was put on the earth for: to create startling new music which grabs you by the imagination and doesn't let go.
Five minutes into conversation with Boris Blank reveals that the pursuit of new sounds is what his part in Yello is all about. Indeed, it was precisely this interest which brought about the collaboration in the first place. Back in 1979, Herr Blank, ex-signwriter, ex-TV repairman and ex-truck driver (and wrecker), was recording the incredible shriekings of a car shredding plant just outside Zurich when he chanced upon someone else doing exactly the same thing. This turned out to be one Carlos Peron. This unlikely coincidence provided them with an opportunity simply too good to waste. So they started to record together, Blank supplying the music, Peron providing "found" sounds and effects. Then, clutching their demos, they set off for San Francisco and came back with a deal from Ralph records. A friend who owned a Zurich record shop gave them two further suggestions: one, they would benefit from a vocalist and two, he knew just the man for the job.
Enter Dieter Meier - performance artist, writer, film director and, by his own admission, extremely anarchic front man who could never bear to sing the same song the same way twice.
One of Meier's previous escapades included a piece of concept art which involved taking a week to sort 100,000 pieces of metal into a hundred sacks of 1000 pieces each. As a result, he was invited to New York, where he set up a street stall offering to purchase the word "Yes" or "No" from any passer-by for the sum of one dollar. Another "work in progress" involves a plaque set into the pavement outside Zurich station which promises that Meier will be standing on that exact spot on 23rd March 1994 from 3pm to 4pm. If you've any questions after reading this interview, you might like to catch him then.
FROM THEIR FIRST imaginative and extremely successful debut album, Solid Pleasure, through all the subsequent ones - Clara Que Si, (1981), You Gotta Say Yes To Another Excess, (1982), Live at the Roxy, (1984), Stella, (1985), The New Mix in One Go, (1986) - Meier has provided a direction for Yello's music through his emotive and often hilarious lyrics, which either set or counterpoint the musical mood. He's also been the articulate mouthpiece of Yello, conceptualising and moralising to the music press while Blank and Peron spent their time in the studio, quietly getting on with the task of creating and then honing the musical/noise side of the operation.
Peron departed in 1984 to set up his own studio. He now produces other bands in Zurich and is shortly to release a solo album. However, the relationship between Meier and Blank continues, despite the fact that the former is often involved in other projects - primarily films. Blank explains the mechanics of their working relationship.
"Mainly I work alone in the studio. I hate it if other people are around. If others are hanging around, I can't be very creative. That's why Carlos left; he wasn't really happy just to do a few effects and a few thunderstorms. He wanted to get more involved musically as well, but he was not really on the same wavelength. I think you'd say the problem is that I make music like an egomaniac.
"But once I've finished the basic music, once I've found the overall construction of the piece, the hook and so on, then I'm very open and flexible if people have good ideas. I invite Dieter to sing to it and, more or less, we create the whole thing in process. We listen to the music and we decide what sort of a mood the whole voice should be. Dieter spontaneously writes the lyrics and then goes behind the microphone and starts singing. It's not like all those groups who spend all their time rehearsing. We don't rehearse, it's all spontaneous."
Dieter himself once described the process as rather like two chess players corresponding by post. However, Blank is quick to point out that they consult each other much more frequently than this might suggest. Consequently the vocal and musical ideas often overlap, with the result that the composition can be inspired as much by the lyrical ideas as vice versa.
During the making of the current album, Meier was heavily involved in directing a film, Snowball, a fairy tale in English starring Paul McGann, and was therefore absent most of the time. Hence, the vocal credits on One Second consist of a whole string of names besides Meier's - Billy Mackenzie, Rush Winters, Farida, Santiago Alfonso and of course, Shirley Bassey.
"Obviously Dieter is not around that much so I have to use all these different singers", Blank reveals. "But it's like type casting. It's almost like we need different actors for different pieces.
"When I was a child Shirley Bassey's voice was like a dream to me. I still hear 'Diamonds Are Forever' in my head."
"We knew a prince, a real prince who lived in Austria, Hubertus Von Hohnlohe, and he knew Shirley. He made it possible for me to meet her and write a song for her. In fact I wrote two songs and she had the choice between them. She chose to sing to the piece which had a working title of 'The Blues' and later we called 'The Rhythm Divine'.
"Shirley Bassey... he muses. "When I was a child this voice was like a dream to me. I still hear 'Diamonds Are Forever' in my head. This inspired me to create quite a bombastic sound with brass, a very deep mood for her.
"Billy Mackenzie has a very strong voice also, but he has his own ideas on melody and harmony. I create the general melody and then he somehow invents all the harmonies to it. I don't tell him what to sing.
"Santiago Alfonso is another story. He came to Zurich on holiday and I just wanted to do something with him, like in an afternoon or in a few hours. I wanted him to sing along to a track, not the track on the album but another track, which in the end I did not use. But later I took his voice and sampled it on the Fairlight and created a different piece using the vocal."
To the question of whether he is inspired to write music by the sound of people's voices, the answer is an enthusiastic "Absolutely!" But as well as being laid over the track. Blank has long experimented with the use of vocal loops and samples to form the rhythmic backbone of a composition.
"I always start with the rhythm of a song, I sometimes start with a voice or with a gimmick, like a repeated phrase - like the phrase 'I love you, I know' and the disco rhythm on 'La Belle et La Bete'. I create the music around the sound: this I love you, I know. I love you, I know. I love you, I know...
"And I can get inspired from one little noise. I just continuously follow noises and in the end it's still surprising somehow what I end up with."
The spirit which led Blank to the car shredder in 1979 is still very much at the heart of his music making in 1987. Since 1981, he's been conducting his experiments with sound creation on the Fairlight, first the Series II and more recently the Series III. There are synths in his studio too: the Oberheim Matrix 12, the Casio CZ5000, the Korg DW8000 and an old but still revered ARP Odyssey. He's also recently acquired the Roland D50 (and PG1000 programmer), an instrument he praises for its internal sound architecture.
Where sound creating gear is concerned. Blank's philosophy is this: if it's not easy to program, then don't bother with it.
"That's the difference between playing an instrument and something being played from an instrument. I like to get involved in the middle of the heart of each synthesiser and see what's possible. There are some synthesisers which are inspired and which I use. There are some preprogrammed synths which are really quite boring and which I just don't use.
"My basic instrument is still the Fairlight. Often, when I'm programming other synthesisers, I record the sounds into the Fairlight because it's so easy to lose a program. So in my Fairlight sound libraries I have the sounds of various synthesisers as well as sounds I've created myself."
BLANK'S ENGLISH IDIOM for the act of creative programming is "knobbing around" - which while unintentionally indelicate, somehow conveys the essence of his eagerness for the process much more forcefully than the prosaic "programming".
"I have been trying to get away from the system whereby the instruments have to relate to one another."
The most stunning results of this programming must be the huge percussive sounds which have characterised Yello compositions for a number of years now. In creating these voices, often using quite unrelated sounds as the starting point, Blank is not seeking to use sampling techniques to imitate the sound of "the real thing". Instead, he sees the true value of sampling as enabling the musician to come up with their sonic equivalents: sounds which have the same character as acoustic ones, but which are unashamedly electronically created. It's a process which he put into a manifesto-like form back in 1982 shortly before the release of Yello's third album, You Gotta Say Yes to Another Excess.
To quote: "For quite a while I have been trying to get away from the system in popular music whereby the percussion, bass and all instruments in general have to relate to one another. I've been trying to create a new rhythm which would turn you on. I'd like to create tension differently to the way it's been done in the rock and blues pattern. I believe that the moments of tension are expressed more drastically and dynamically if they are integrated as initially disparate articles. That is my goal and I have not yet reached it."
Reading this back to him five years later, he nods in total agreement.
"Yes. I still like to do things this way, to replace frequencies with other frequencies. Instead of the hi-hat, something which has the same pitch as the hi-hat, but not the attack and absolute note of the hi-hat. Take the bass drum: the warmness which the bass drum has can be replaced by something which still has that warmness, but which uses an absolutely different source for the sound.
"An example: I smash my hand on my leather trousers. I record it into the Fairlight, then I transpose it two or three octaves and see what the sound looks like. Then I start modulating the sound, maybe adding another sound as well and in the end I've got a strange form of snare. I don't know I'm going to get this sound. I mean, there are a lot of surprises, very interesting surprises."
He denies that this is a particularly original use of sampling techniques, but in the face of those who use sampling merely as method of avoiding orchestral fees, it seems that it is at least making the most of what the technology has to offer.
"It's for you to say whether I'm using it in an original way or not. I don't know. All I know is that other people seem to have started to do the same thing as I set out to do years ago, so it shows I'm not on the wrong planet with my ideas. And it is something I will continue with, it's not just a one day or a one year idea. I think it could be a whole life. I think it should be a way for a lot of musicians to work, instead of rehearsing together in a room every second night. Instead, you can work with your own brain and your arms can become a whole Philharmonic Orchestra."
Whether you agree with his advice or not, Blank's enthusiasm for the Fairlight leaves him very little time for anything else. While the performance side of recording is often carried out very spontaneously, getting to that point can involve hours of diligent programming, both on Fairlight and other synths. As for keeping tabs on what everybody else is doing...
"The whole day my ears are full of music, so I don't particularly want to go home and listen to what the other kids are doing. I mean, I listen to the hit parade in the car but I don't have time to get involved in how they create their sounds. I prefer Harry Bellafonte, James Brown, Count Basie, Duke Ellington... I like this kind of structure in music, anything which has heart. But I could also take my inspiration from Indian and Hungarian folk music or negro spirituals. And Latin music too. I went to Cuba twice and was very inspired. Oh, I fell in love with the rhythm of the Salsa. So I listen to these records and try and improve on the sounds and the tunings. I also learn a lot from my own records."
It's unlikely that Yello will be coming out of the studio for the forseeable future. As far as the possibility of live work goes, Blank sees many practical reasons not to bother.
"To play the music live - which is actually impossible - you need to have a lot of people and even then they couldn't reproduce this music sound for sound. We did some semi-live shows at The Roxy and Palladium in New York, but they weren't really satisfactory. I always think it's a bit cheap to go on stage, plug in the Fairlight, put in the sound library and then start shaking your ass while you play a few keyboards. This is not really our trip. I much prefer working in the studio - working live in the studio."
And there'll be plenty to do in there in the near future. Blank and Meier have already begun work on the next Yello album, while Blank will also be involved on a project with Billy MacKenzie.
The main task in hand though, will be finishing the music for Meier's film. Explaining the plot in English was not a particularly easy task for Blank, but the gist suggests that it's very much a modern day version of the tale of the Pied Piper. Using his magical musical gifts, the hero draws the princess into a mountain, much against her father's will. Discovering what, from Blank's description, sounds like a primitive Fairlight, the hero makes music in the mountain for hundreds of years. The music has considerable influence on all who hear it, until one particularly beautiful piece causes the mountain to erupt like a volcano. All is not lost, however, and the final scene finds the hero in a modern day piano shop tinkling on the ivories, while the princess, similarly transported in time and place listens on...
The film itself is practically finished with the residue of 90 minutes of music still to be composed and recorded. It is a task to which Blank is very much looking forward. I suspect the soundtrack will make good use of those elements at the core of Yello's style - humour, melodrama and atmospherics - all of which combine to create the sort of wonderful moments to be found on One Second... "Pedro Colacho, the former informer of the secret police, is still standing outside the club. Pretending to be blind, he watches the last plane to Miami disappearing into a fading purple sky. Now he knows he has been left behind."
"Humour is very serious", Blank explains. "Melodrama is also very serious. But I would like people just to feel the music and not take it too seriously. They should use their imagination and just see pictures in the music.
"Is the music like a toy? Why not. I'm still working like a child on the Fairlight. I started playing with Dinky toys and now I'm playing with the Fairlight. Somehow, it's not a serious game, but a game for my soul and my satisfaction."
Interview by Nicholas Rowland
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