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Quest For Fire

Mark Shreeve

Mark's quantum leap


Mark Shreeve aims to put life and humour back into electronic music. His new album Legion is the first big step. Sean Rothman reports

From the opening bars of Legion, with its tribal chants and percussion, screaming synth and sampled sound, to the ethereal beauty of the closing track The Stand, it's immediately apparent that Mark Shreeve's new LP is unique, occupying that twilight zone somewhere betwoon the reassuringly familiar and the threatening unknown. Apart from the distinctive soaring leadlines, Legion is a credibly different rocord from last year's Assassin

Over at Battery Studios, the change in his fortune is underlined. Last time I interviewed him, just over a year ago, it was in a faded pub, the conversation snatched in his lunch hour. Then we spoke of Assassin, an LP recorded on domestic eight track and first released on the Norwegian independent Uniton. Today we speak of Legion, 24 track/SSL, soon out this month on Jive Electro.

For the first time, Shreeve has been working with an engineer, and producer Pete Harris: "He's the Fairlight programmer for Battery but he's also produced people like Whodini, the US rap band, but I think Legion was his first project where he was involved from beginning to end. The same with the engineer, which obviously makes it a lot better for everybody, because everyone knows what's going on and the train of thought behind each track. It's about the heaviest electronic music you're ever likely to hear. Pete was saying 'This is way over the top', but so what? It's good fun!

"In a way, Legion is my first proper album. It's the first time I've been in a position where equipment is absolutely no holdback. With Assassin I could say 'Ah, well, all I had was a TR808 and I wish I'd had a LinnDrum'. This time I've had all the gear and experienced people to work with but it's not just a question of me standing there playing the tune - we work as a three way team, all throwing in ideas. This is the first time I've ever worked like this and it's great".

APOCALYPSE NOW?



Titles like Sybex Factor and Domain 7 maintain the pulp SciFi imagery Shreeve's tunes somehow always conjure. The cover of Legion, with our Hero contemplating a post-apocalyptic backdrop is similarly tongue-in-cheek, more Blake's 7 than The Survivors, more Max Factor than Mad Max. "I'm fed up with all the politics in music. Everyone's going on about love and peace and I say 'Bugger that! Let's go for death and carnage!" That's entertainment! Listening to Legion is like watching a really good horror movie, it's not to be taken too seriously.

"For years and years, electronic music has had this stigma of being cold, dull, boring and drawn-out. What I'm trying to do is to put some fire into it - people can dance to Legion, there are tunes to it. It doesn't go on for entire sides!"

Legion was at first demoed at home on Shreeve's Tascam 38 and then again at Battery on 24 track. Besides his own JP6, DX7, Drumtraks and MSQ700, an E-mu-II, PPG 2.2, JP8, OB8, Linn LM1, LinnDrum II, Linn 9000, TR808 and, of course, the Fairlight CMI, were extensively used. Outboard FX included AMS, Quantec and Lexicon.

"In the end I don't think it's important to your average listener what equipment I used to make the album. I don't think you should try and get people to listen to what you're doing just because of what you're using. It's depressing when you're looking at the back of other people's albums and they've got this bloody great list of gear. That's not going to add to most people's enjoyment of the music. From an average listener's point of view, there are probably some sampled sounds on Legion which they'll think were produced by an orchestra. But it doesn't matter what they think, it's whether they enjoy it that counts."

Just as Zoolook, with its emphasis on digitally sampled sounds was a departure from the norm for Jean-Michel Jarre, so Legion is in comparison with Shreeve's previous two records: "As soon as I started recording I went through my entire record collection looking for things to sample. I lifted quite a bit of stuff, actually. Some of the strings came from the Where Eagles Dare soundtrack, a snare from a Bowie album... News At Ten, we lifted that! You know that bit at the end, that orchestral stab? I get my TV sound through the stereo system, so I put it straight down on my Tascam 32. We used that on a couple of tracks which was quite effective - it's just an open octave, so you can fly it anywhere.

"There's also a lot of voice samples. I got my girlfriend Sue to go 'Dahhh' on eight tracks, mixed them together to get a rich sound and mixed it down to two track. Then I brought it to Battery and we took all these different samples.

"It's ironic - in a way things have come full circle. A lot of electronic gear can reproduce stuff which sounds acoustic! So perhaps what I'm doing now isn't really electronic music... I don't know. I use a mix of analogue, digital and sampled - whatever sounds good."

Even 24 track has posed multitrack problems for Harris and Shreeve. At one point Legion was becoming so complex they were poised to go 48 track. "The title track was a total nightmare to mix, that was one of the tracks we used the (SSL's) computer on. Having Total Recall was absolutely essential. On anyone track we've been using nine or ten reverbs, it's a very reverby album. The problem is, synthesisers straight are actually dull and lifeless. It doesn't matter what kind of sound you have in them, they sound dry."

Regardless of what one thinks of the music, no-one would deny that the drum sound on Legion is anything less than brilliant. Even if Shreeve did pinch one of the snare sounds off the Two Tribes 12" (he refutes this but over at Sarm East they're positive)...

"We've used some really violent drum sounds that you normally never associate with electronic music. If we wanted a really, really powerful sort of effect, one of the easiest ways to do it was to sync three or four machines together and run the same pattern, snare or whatever. The Friendship SRC was our lifesaver. Everything was running off the SRC, even the TR808."

Shreeve at Jive Electro's London studio.


COLLABORATORS



There are a number of musicians guesting on Legion. Chrissie Bonnacci from Girlschool and Pat McManus from The Mama's Boys both contribute some fancy fret work, whilst perhaps more interestingly, Chris Franke from Tangerine Dream co-wrote and played on the track, Icon.

"After all these years I maintain that I am the most ardent Tangerine Dream fan - I've stil I got their posters on my wall! To suddenly find myself on the same label was a dream come true. Unbelievable! These guys are Gods!

"Anyway, I'd worked out the basis of Icon and I knew they were coming over to mix and do some overdubs for their album and I thought 'Wouldn't it be great if I could do a track with a member of Tangerine Dream?' So Roddy (McKenna, Jive Electro's manager) rang them up and Chris Franke said 'Yes'! I couldn't believe it, you know? Chris is a really nice guy but he's been one of my heroes for more than ten years now and just seeing him in the studio and the way he worked was a real eye opener. He's very, very professional and a very good keyboard player. He knew exactly what should go where, got straight into the track, 110% enthusiasm and he'd just come off the plane from Berlin! We worked together for about fourteen hours. It was absolutely marvellous."

Whatever reception awaits Legion, Shreeve has a number of other projects awaiting completion. One of these is a single for which he wrote the music. "Of all the demos I did for Legion, most of the stuff was album material. There was a couple of tracks which were not in the same vein that I normally do - they were too happy! So Roddy - he's got trained ears and knows when something's got Commercial Value - said 'Why don't you try and do a pop song?' I'd never really thought about that before, so I did all the music and had great fun - 3.15 long, it's just unheard of for me! It was a chance to go into a totally different area of music.

"We've got in a vocalist in to try it out and it worked and everyone at Jive is raving about it at the moment. It's just a question of getting the right singer. It's really nice to be able to do stuff for other people as well."

Shreeve's also hoping to move into film music. There was some suggestion at one point last year that he might work with director Harry 'Xtro' Davenport but that didn't happen. Shreeve holds out more hope for the future though. "At the moment we've got a few companies in the States interested - tentative approaches have been made. Jive would be more than happy for me to do film themes, in fact they're pushing that angle quite strongly and of course, I've always had an abiding passion for film music and at last we've got some major companies. I can't mention any names right now because it would be embarrassing if it all fell through, but there's one major director..."

Of course, in many ways Legion's success or failure will be decided by Jive's marketing. Britain and America have always been apathetic to electronic music, the Continent less so, and one can understand the company's desire to tie-in the LP with a major movie. After all, Tangerine Dream have found soundtracks to be far more stable source of income than the declining record market. Shreeve, though, won't be too heartbroken if the LP fails.

"People have said to me 'You must be worried about the vast cost of Legion' and if you think about it the figures don't mean anything, they're ludicrous... But if any one was put in my position would they pass up the chance to use this kind of gear?

"Jive are the best shot I'm ever going to have, I never thought I'd get this far. I dreamt about it. I feel happy with the material I'm putting out and that's the most important thing."

No-one is going to argue with that. Legion is the first worthwhile electronic album of 1985. Whether it's destined for the library music graveyard or more noble things is up to you. One thing at least is certain - Mark Shreeve has made the transition from cult to major recording artist remarkably well. Welcome to the first division.


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Electronic Soundmaker & Computer Music - Copyright: Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

 

Electronic Soundmaker - Aug 1985

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Artist:

Mark Shreeve


Role:

Musician

Interview by Sean Rothman

Previous article in this issue:

> Showing the Flag

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