Rack & Roll
Sheep On Drugs
One band's mission to save rock and roll - with technology. On the spot: Phil Ward
Duncan X and Lee Fraser formed Sheep On Drugs at the height of the acid house boom, and have evolved into a highly giggable unit with costumes, slides and (most of) a band in a box. Phil Ward gets penned in.
Two relatively simple racks dedicated to live sequencing carry the entire Sheep On Drugs show, apart from Duncans vocals, some perfunctory guitar from Lee and Rob Merrill's decorative drums. An Alesis ADAT rounds off the kit purely, the manager insists, for backup. All the sequencing is done prior to the tour on Cubase, and saved as a MIDI file onto an Alesis Datadisk. This drive, which holds a cool and entirely unnecessary 96Mb of RAM, receives a program change command and out comes the song. There's no onstage editing or mixing, although the band would like to incorporate a Powerbook into the equation to provide greater flexibility and control over both the songs and the accompanying slides.
And with all that out of the way, the show - downstairs at London's Astoria - can start, as SOD (as they are affectionately known) proceed to berate their audience with a special brew of punk, rave and sundry images of dadaist nihilism. The important thing about SOD is that machines have replaced musicians with scarcely a second thought; and that those machines are out there, doing it, live on stage - as Duncan explains before the show.
"If you just put the set onto DAT, the sound is immediately restricted. Each hall is different, and you have to cater for each venue. Using live sequencing, you can get each individual element right, with separate sources going through the board. It's live; it's happening there and then, even though it's not happening through us. The equipment is making the sounds, and it's not a reproduction of something that happened before. And it actually sounds live; DAT can sound very flat. It's a combination of what we're doing and what the engineers are doing. We do get MIDI problems, like things crashing, but we find it helps."
Helps? Now there's anarchy for you. Although the racks are critical, the plan is not to remain entirely dependent on them. Lee would like to trigger more samples live from a mother keyboard, and to incorporate live analogue synths; there's an idea that Rob, too, will trigger breakbeats from his kit. All of which would certainly counter the MIDI delay problems which the band are experiencing through having almost the total sound emanating from a single MIDI source, as well as getting round the concomitant restriction of a mere 16 MIDI channels.
"I really want to use more analogue synths on stage," admits Lee, "and use them with MIDI/CV converters, especially to get all the bass sounds out of them, drop in samples of them, and actually play bits over the top. There will always be a sequenced kind of 'backdrop', but more of it will be played live."
Most of the current liveness stems from Lee's guitar: a Japanese Fender Strat through a Mosvalve Real Tube Overdrive combo, via Boss Flanger and Cry Baby wah-wah pedal. A Zoom 9030 is used sparingly for delay, being considered too noisy for constant application. In truth, the guitar is more of a stage prop than a crucial instrument, although it does add a certain rocky edge.
There are also bits where Lee plays a bright red 101, slung over his shoulder, through the guitar amp for a really meaty, flame-grilled analogue sound. Both Lee and Duncan's onstage gestures seem to provide neat little comments on the nature of rock'n'roll in the '90s: a set of postures which are simultaneously ridiculous and yet more relevant than playing, so much so that to expose them for what they are - and to flaunt the technical tricks on which they rely - is paramount. It helps if the technicalities are not perfect, in fact. What's important is that the band's relationship with technology remains kind of primitive. They like things to look broken, as engineer Phil Charters puts it. That way the whole show communicates an edge of panic and counteracts complacency. It's highly significant that Sheep On Drugs can use technology in order to do this.
"There's a lot of bands making hard, driving music with machines," says Lee, "but they haven't got the ideas to stretch what's already going on. Rave music has really turned in on itself, sampling last week's records to make this week's. So it's not simply that musicians are afraid of technology... although a lot of rock bands are. But they're obviously going to die out because of that. How can you get along without technology these days? It's all bollocks about 'live' playing - how many drummers play all the way through a track in the studio? It's all sequenced and sampled to some degree..."
Duncan agrees. "What's the point in trying to play all the way through, anyway? It can be so much enhanced with machines. I really notice the difference with a live player, it's so out of time. It's great to have live things happening in and around the beat, but you've got to have the whole track as a solid base - and there are very easy ways of getting there."
"I was a guitarist in various bands," reveals Lee, "and I kind of went through everything; keyboards, vocals, drums, bass. I've played all the various different bits within a few bands. And in the end I just decided that musicians were all tossers and I didn't want anything more to do with them. Then I met Duncan, and a load of machines. All he can 'play' is a guitar with a Dictaphone stuck onto it..."
I should explain. During the intro to the set, a 'pod' is activated containing a QY10 triggering a 303 and an SH101 through the Kenton MIDI/CV converter, during which Duncan plays a Dictaphone. Yep, a Dictaphone, strapped to an acoustic guitar. The idea is that he mimes the guitar, whilst rolling the pre-recorded tape in the machine - which plays, naturally enough, guitar sounds. Well, he is the singer...
"I do vocals. I'm not too bothered about reproducing the records. I mean, I miss cues and stuff, but that all adds to it. It's quite good to just go with the flow and see what happens. You're not that restricted with our setup. If you've got a band on stage, and there's four people, they've got to be really tuned in to be totally flexible. Hardly any band is that good. And with our racks it can happen, as much as with any band.
"We're constantly changing the songs for live work, trying to get more variety into the set. It's very different being at a gig to listening to the album at home, it's a different effect you can have on people. But I've only ever sung to a MIDI backing, I couldn't sing with a band. The thing that has to happen is the track, and I like singing to a sequencer. Especially live, because by touring a lot, the songs really come together, and it's improving all the time. We're definitely learning things that will have an effect on recording in the studio."
At home, Lee has a wide selection of keyboards, including an SH5 and two more SH101s, as well as the ubiquitous 303. Large chunks of combined 101 and 303 are sampled, and built into edited down versions of the songs prepared in Cubase for gigs. While the sequences are stored in the Datadisk, the sounds sitting patiently in the rack are divided up roughly as follows: S1000 for more exotic Sound effects - whips, dogs, motorised transport and so on; S1100 for rhythm breaks; S1100EX expander for basslines and a click track for Rob. If it still all sounds a bit ravey, there's a good reason...
"We started around 1988 when acid house was really taking off," explains Duncan, "and it was a very exciting period. It was all going to be really radical and interesting, but very quickly it became disco music again. When we started, we thought loads of bands would be doing what we're doing. It was incredible, to get a sampler for the first time. The possibilities seemed limitless. But we're amazed that hardly anybody else is doing this..."
Lee reminisces. "The sampling was pretty basic, then. It was more a case of piecing things together like individual bass drums, rather than taking whole breakbeats. The whole set was just 16 samples in an X7000. But you always have to work round the equipment."
"Because we've always known we'd have to do these songs live," Duncan concludes, "we've always made sure that the equipment can do it. So we've built up a rack of equipment, we record from the rack of equipment, and we go out and play live from the rack of equipment. It's worked out really well."
And that's why there will never be a Sheep On Drugs big band. Taking the rave scene as a starting point, Duncan and Lee have taken the risk of contradicting acid's escapist ethos and superimposing a deliberately challenging and individualistic approach. This way, there's a residual element of dance for those who choose not to respond to the polemic. Before donning a Hitler mask and a Pakamak, and lurching onto the stage with the help of a zimmer frame, Duncan does a quick stock-take. And you're left with the impression that they know better than their management and their record company where they're from, where they are and where they're going. SOD's law, I guess.
"People are scared to take a risk. These days, everything gets pigeon-holed, and the easiest way to start off is by doing something that's part of a scene, an existing thing that you latch onto. If you're doing something that no one's heard before, there's no audience. It's taken us five years to do something we thought would take two - to get a record in the Top 40.
"The next stage is to synchronise the slides, the film and lights with what we're doing. It's important because the audience needs more stimulation. The costumes help, as does making the stage look different with props, but it needs more. It makes it more varied, and it gives me an edge on what I'm doing. If there's a costume for it, a song for it, and some lights for it, then whatever the idea is there's even more point in adding visuals. Plus everybody watches videos and MTV and Sonic The Hedgehog all the time, and it's not enough just to watch a few people doing something on a stage. Rock and roll has developed, and we're the kind of thing it's developed into."
Interview by Phil Ward
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