A chat with keyboard person Mick MacNeil about technology, touring and techniques.
Simple Minds keyboard player Mick MacNeil tells Tony Bacon in an exclusive interview about the forthcoming live album, how computers will help it, and how an £18,000 keyboard won't even save your programs.
Presumably there was some kind of race on. The Holiday Inn in Glasgow was full of rally drivers, mechanics and other macho types, all rushing around in their crisp blue rally jackets and clutching important clipboards. This made it much easier to spot Mick MacNeil, who strolled in bang on time for his exclusive Making Music interview looking calm and collected in a white shirt and black leather jacket.
The keyboard player looked very well: all this touring must do you good. I mean, the current batch of Simple Minds gigs began last October and won't see the finishing line until this coming November. And tonight, given safe passage through the maniac rallyers, Mick and the Minds were to play Ibrox stadium in hometown Glasgow.
"We've always felt that playing live is the most important thing," said Mick, safely seated behind half a lager and the Making Music microphone in a carefully selected hotel room. "Once you've made the record it's like taking a photograph, that's it finished, you can keep it forever. That's that. But live you're changing and growing, up and down all the time, alive. I think that's the most important part. If we were only making records I don't think I'd bother."
The group intend to capture this live energy on record by taping some concerts in August for possible release. "We aim to record a live album in Paris, we're doing three nights at the Zenith," explained Mick, and considered his group's apparently endless touring. "We've not really stopped for five years, so we're going to take a good break this time and really get our own private lives together. I think the live album is going to tide us over a little bit and buy us a bit more time, even though I think we've earned ourselves some time anyway. Plus it's about time we had a live album out. We've recorded about eight albums, and there's maybe 50 different bootlegs I've heard and they're all desperate, you know?"
Interestingly, Mick is going to slip his newly purchased Apple Macintosh computer into the on-stage MIDI stream in Paris and, via some software purchased very recently in New York, record his performance into the computer for later modification. Tell us a little more.
"I'm hoping to record a code of SMPTE all the way through the gig for me, and I'll record my actual playing on to the Macintosh via MIDI. So then later on, when we play the multitrack of the gig back, I can sync up the Macintosh. It can print up on the screen all the music you've played. Every single note will come up: the note names, plus exactly in milliseconds how long they lasted. So sometimes you might play a chord and let one finger lift up before the others — it will detect that sort of thing. If you played out of time you can quantise any parts into real time, and correct other mistakes. Then you can try out different sounds without doing an overdub, keeping all the feel you want from the original playing."
Most importantly this is a beneficial musical move, but it also neatly counters the recurring moan from people who criticise overdubbing on live album multitracks as somehow 'cheating'. With Mick's scheme — assuming it comes off — you can keep as much of the spirit and power of the live performance as you need, but with the potential for as much later modification as you choose. And if Charlie Burchill buys his MIDI guitar before the Paris gigs, as promised, that could go down on to the Macintosh for similar treatment too. The expression "christ that's brilliant" comes to mind. MIDI must have seemed like a gift from the gods to the multi-keyboarded MacNeil.
He nods vague agreement. "Aye, but MIDI's totally over the top now, isn't it? Cos it doesn't do anything really flabbergasting, all it does is copy what you're doing, and puts it somewhere else on another synthesiser. I think that using technology to make things more convenient for yourself is the most important thing. If the technology becomes the biggest influence in your music, it's then that you're in trouble. I think you've got to stick to knowing what a good tune sounds like, and knowing what the music feels like as opposed to what the technology can make it feel like.
"The technology gets to a point where it's really just a fashion. I mean you heard it all over 1985's records, the Fairlight, Art Of Noise stuff, it sounds dated already, that kind of "braammm!!", orchestral stab thing. I hate that, I'm glad we've no got that on any of our records, thank God! U2 lost lots of points when I heard that on their album — oh, dodgy! They're gonna regret that one."
On stage, Mick uses an old Yamaha CP70 piano, converted to MIDI, as his master keyboard. Behind him is a Kurzweil with the Macintosh on top (the computer saves Mick's Kurzweil sounds — amazing, he says, that an £18,000 keyboard won't save your programs when you turn it off). Then there's an Emulator II, an Oberheim OB8, and a Roland JP8 which he uses MIDI'd together off the CP70 as his main 'block' of sound: the JP8 and OB8 panned around, and the Emulator padding out things with cellos and voices. He also uses the Emulator for one sequence in the current set, a cello intro on the re-arranged 'Book Of Brilliant Things'. On top of the CP70 at front is the inevitable Yamaha DX7. Not that Mick counts himself as a big FM expert — he uses the presets, like most users, and was put off any further exploration by early and complete confusion at FM's seeming illogicality.
Mick said he's trying to move towards fewer keyboards on stage, thanks to good old MIDI, but doesn't, for example, really feel like getting a module instead of his JP8 — what's the point when he's got all his sounds carefully tucked away in his keyboard? He'd only have to change them all over and then chuck the JP8. And he's developed a stereo panning system, especially with the JP8 and OB8, that he's loathe to upset. He feeds all his stage keyboards through his Soundtracs 16 channel mixer, the soundperson taking a stereo mix from that and a DI from the piano. Mick balances the synths' relative volumes with a footpedal for each.
"It's great when I get it right," he said, "and I like having that control. But when there's a bad stage sound, or the monitors are blasting out and I can't hear anything, I really mess up my own mix. That's another reason I want to get this Macintosh sorted out for the live recording. I always try to use as varied an amount of sounds in the song as I can, to keep it interesting. You tend to play the same things, so if in the second verse, say, you change the sound and still play the same thing, it might lift it, or take it into a different mood altogether. I like sound for the change of mood more than anything."
And how does he keep all the right synths on the right setting for the right song during the right part of the set? "I've got this wee magic box that I got from Syco in London that'll change everything as you program it. On song one of the current set, for example, I use two presets, so numbers 1 and 2 in the MIDI box are for the first song, 3 I use on the second song, 4 and 5 for song three, and so on. All I have to do is press the numbers on this box and all the synths change to the right presets."
"MIDI... doesn't do anything flabbergasting, all it does is copy what you're doing, and puts it somewhere else on another synthesiser."
And you've not had any problems with it, Mick?
"No I've not," he replied, rattling the table top. Touch wood? He examined the surface in question. "Mmmm, Glasgow. No, probably not. Probably plastic."
So his manual tasks on stage are comfortingly few: his OB8 doesn't receive MIDI information for doubled sounds, so when he wants these he has to set them up manually. Sometimes he'll re-load discs in the Emulator, too. But generally he does much less knob-turning these days. "But that's exactly what the technology should be doing, making it easier to play so you don't have to worry about the knobs."
When Mick first learned a musical instrument, he had loads of knobs to worry about. What could it have been, you ask? A church organ? An early Moog modular system? Nope — a piano accordion. At the tender age of seven, Mick's musically inclined family urged the poor lad to finger the brace of buttons stacked up the left side of the piano accordion, while approximating the chords of well known Jimmy Shand numbers with his right hand.
"Aye, for Scottish Country Dance music, all that highland music," Mick explained. "I carried on right till I was about 16. My mother and father were quite keen for everyone in the family — there were seven kids — to get an opportunity to do something musical. My brother played bagpipes, my sisters played guitars and sang folk music. Everyone got a shot at something, but I was the only one that my mother sent and paid for to go to music lessons.
"I did a lot of playing with small orchestrated pieces on the accordion — it sounds really silly, but it'd all be like Strauss with six different parts. I'd end up with say the fifth part with no tune in it: it might have big pauses, I'd just do a little doodle-ooh here and there, then wait for 16 bars. But when you heard it all together and then realised what your wee thing made, well... that's really important."
During this onslaught on his musical heritage, Mick took little notice of pop music — except when, still strapped to his accordion, he moved on to social clubs and weddings where onlookers would demand interpretations of the current hits.
"I was 17 or 18, quite old, before I started listening to pop music," Mick remembered. "Then I met Charlie, who was in a band — Johnny and the Self-Abusers. They were looking for a synth player, and I was the only guy that had a synth that they could find. Didn't matter if I was any good or not, the fact was I had this tiny wee Korg, two oscillators on it. That did the trick. I'd had that about a year, just a noise machine. It was a stupid sound, but it had lots of good noises on it. And I had a Farfisa organ! I used those two instruments right through our first four albums before I actually got anything decent. I'd borrow stuff from studios and that, you know? I'd never actually bought anything. So at Abbey Road for example we'd use that fancy harpsichord that's on everybody's records there, or one of their Mellotrons. There's always a big Hammond hanging around, too."
How did moving to keyboards from the accordion work out? "Yeah, it was difficult. On the accordion, you press a button with the left hand and you get, in rows, sort of running bass lines, then a major chord, then a minor, then a seventh, and then a diminished, all in a line. You can tell where you are because some notes have a different feel to the top of the button.
"In fact I want to get back into it. I just bought an Elka accordion which has MIDI so I can play all my synths off it — I think Hohner are in the process of making a MIDI'd one, too."
Some of the inspiration to pick up the accordion again came when Mick went to see The Band play in New York on a night off during Simple Minds' recent tour there. The Band rose to fame in the late 1960s when they accompanied Bob Dylan on his experiments into amplified folk-rock, going on to establish their own brand of electric folklore on albums like "Music From the Big Pink" and the classic "The Band". Garth Hudson plays keyboards, sax and accordion with The Band, and at the New York concert it was Hudson who left MacNeil awestruck.
"That was one of the best bands I've seen for years. Watching these guys play so well, and Garth Hudson in particular, really did inspire me something terrible. His style of playing is great, it's pure feel. I'd love to play like that guy. It sounds a bit dated, I suppose, but you can still use the technique, whatever you're doing."
The Band must be getting on for 20 years old now. How long might Simple Minds last? "People often ask me that," said Mick. "It's like 'When you gonna chuck it — next year?' And I was hoping to tour and do this for at least another ten years, I was hoping that the band would even survive another ten years. But they expect because you're in the charts, that people will eventually get sick of you and then you're forgotten about. We've always climbed, we've never been down, every album seems to bring us up a few more steps."
And at the moment the crowds a few miles away at Ibrox beckoned. Do you get nervous about playing in front of big crowds, we wondered? "About playing? No, no. Not at all. See, I don't look at myself as being some real great player in any way at all. There's thousands of better keyboard players than me all over the place." We agreed to differ.
Interview by Tony Bacon
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