Slave to the Great Outdoors
After an apprenticeship under the wing of the Frankies' Trevor Horn, Simon Darlow spreads his own; he talks to Paul Tingen about the hazards of writing, playing and producing your own album.
Producer or pop star? Only time will tell if Simon Darlow will ever be a star, in the meantime his production work with Trevor Horn has made him a much sought-after producer.
SIMON DARLOW HAS the looks that give teenage girls steepness nights - that's all part of the plan for his career as a major pop star. By the time you read this article he intends to have made his first appearance on Top of the Pops with a single called 'Run Wild'. If that doesn't chart, there's a second single, 'Simple Heart', waiting in the wings.
Both songs are meant to attract attention to Darlow's first solo long player The Great Outdoors, due for release by Magnet in the new year. The record is a rather glossy, rock-based venture, with lots of guitars, elaborate keyboard effects and heavy bass and drums - in short, the sound which does so well in the American AOR market. Put the melodic and highly commercial appeal of the record together with Darlow's youthful (he's actually 27) looks and his pleasing, tenor voice and you have the traditional recipe for a successful career as a pop star - not to mention the stereotypical music critic's target. But a slagging in the popular press would be a bit of an injustice because it wouldn't take into account Darlow's part in shaping the history of this country's pop music over the last ten years.
Originally a guitarist and keyboard player with a band called Stranger, Darlow was quickly taken in by the development of synthesisers.
"Because they suddenly came to the fore around 1980", he recalls, "I concentrated on that, and left the guitar to it. I was working in Rod Argent's shop in London at the time, through which I got really into this whole technological revolution. I did a lot of sessions as well, which was fascinating, because I had the chance to work with different producers and artists and of course, I gained hugely in experience."
A major career break came in 1981, when he met Trevor Horn at Argent's. Horn invited him to join The Buggles.
"That certainly threw me in at the deep end. Geoff Downes had just left the band, and I was asked to replace him. So I did the second album, Adventures in Modern Recording."
Darlow continued working with Horn, expanding his horizons to encompass songwriting as well. He wrote the two Dollar hits 'Gimme Back My Heart' and 'Videotheque'. Suddenly he was in demand as a songwriter; meanwhile, the session work was piling up.
Come '83 Darlow had joined Toyah's band and co-wrote the hits 'Rebel Run' and 'Don't Fall in Love' with her. Then came 'Slave to the Rhythm'. Written together with the Camera Club's Bruce Woolley, the song was originally intended for Frankie Goes To Hollywood, but ended up as a vehicle for a Grace Jones album - after being greatly manipulated by Trevor Horn and Steve Lipson.
NOW, AFTER OVER seven years of working for other people with high technology, he's put together a much more conventional album for himself. What's more, the album is completely self-penned, self-produced, self-arranged and - apart from the bass, drums and saxophone - self-played. On top of this, it all took place in his own 24-track home studio. How did it all come about?
Darlow explains: "All the things I've done over the last six or seven years have been part of a learning process but I always wanted to be an artist in my own right. I now finally have the opportunity to do that."
Telling me why his album sounds a lot less hi-tech than a lot of his previous work, Darlow comes out with some strong opinions.
"On my own album I wanted to be much more guitar-orientated, because I'm bored with this whole keyboard orientated thing. I think it has been taken too far. All this programming is just killing music, it's terrible. The majority of today's pop records are made on machinery and they're awful. The machines are great to use, but people just stop writing songs, instead they're making noises which sound vaguely professional because they're very tight and neat, yet ultimately it is soulless."
So, with a strong distaste for certain types of production, Darlow insisted on producing his own record himself, thus keeping total control.
Most record companies would have been very reluctant to allow a new and as yet unknown artist such freedom, but Magnet, to their credit, agreed. Perhaps they felt that Darlow's apprenticeship with Trevor Horn provided him with the necessary production capacities. Whatever the reasons, Darlow was very clear about the direction he wanted to take.
"Hard work makes a great record - if you really believe in something, you have to keep on working and working until it's right."
"I didn't sit and try to design an AOR album, because such a thing does not exist. What I wanted was to make a live and aggressive sounding album, but with a certain degree of craft in it. So I kept bits of the modern technology but at the same time went back a little bit and bring out the element of a real band playing. For example, I choose to have a real drummer to do all the drum tracks.
"My feeling is that people respond to performances, to other people taking risks. Go back to Monterey for example, Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix, a lot of what they did was self-indulgent and spaced out, but you just had to be amazed by the sheer performance. That kind of performance was the norm when I was getting interested in pop music as a kid and that was why I went into it. On The Great Outdoors album I wanted that feeling to come to the fore again."
Pre-production of the album took place on eight- and 16-track with Darlow himself playing all the instruments. Then came the musicians: Brad Lang (formerly with ABC) on bass, Wes MaGoogan (The Beat/Hazel O'Connor) on saxophone and Mat Letley (Kim Wilde/Bob Geldof) on drums. To get the feel he wanted, Darlow allowed the musicians to play around with the songs, before starting to record.
"I let them go to see how they would twist a song. Mat came in later and, because he didn't know the songs very well then, he played unexpected fills or got the rhythm pattern slightly different - and I've kept some of those things. For the actual recordings, instead of putting down a click-track, I let them play with synthesiser chord patterns, which I'd bunged into the MSQ700. I put SMPTE down at the same time, of course, and used the SBX80 as a sync box. The keyboards - which came from my eight- or 16-track demos, and which I kept in several cases, because the atmosphere was really good - then provided the band with a whole atmosphere for them to play to. They liked to play like that.
"I recorded the bass and drums together to make sure that there was a spontaneity between them. We always went for a performance, rather than getting everything right. Of course, the players are all very good so in the end it still sounds tight but to me it all sounds incredibly loose, because it's not the machinery I'd gotten used to."
Even so, there was a bit of sequencing here and there...
"On 'Hot' for example, there are some hemi-demi-semiquavers on the keyboard. They were just too fast for me to play, so I sequenced them, but the rest of the synths are all played manually."
Although Darlow's guitar is featured heavily on The Great Outdoors, there's still a sizeable amount of keyboard work on the album. The collection of keyboards resident in the would-be pop star's studio is also quite sizeable: Roland Super Jupiter, Juno 106 and D50, Yamaha DX7 and TX816, Prophet 5, OSCar, Mirage and a Minimoog complete with MIDI conversion box. There's also the obligatory Akai S900 sampler, as well as a whole range of digital reverbs which Darlow considers an integral part of his outfit.
"I regard a digital reverb as a complete sound source, especially the Lexicon PCM70 which is dynamically MIDI responsive. You can make the length of the reverb relate to the strength of the attack, for example."
Darlow has also used the delays as an additional sound source with the drums - which were recorded as dry as possible and then delayed and effected to create the required sound. He confesses to having a real love relationship with the Lexicon family of reverbs.
"Above all other reverbs they sound very musical; they're obviously designed by somebody who knows about music. Other reverbs I've used, although very good, still sound a bit too clinical for me."
Remaining on the subject of outboard gear for a moment, Darlow adds that the use of low bandwidth is useful for "the cruddy stuff" and is indispensable for a balanced result.
"When you have a brass stab with a gorgeous long reverb, some dirty small sounds make it sound even greater - it's the extremes which work."
"You need extremes in sound. If you have everything sounding incredibly expensive, it doesn't sound like anything at all. You need things which are either small, or a bit dirty and not very clear. So I'll set something for a very narrow bandwidth, I usually use the SPX90 or the REV7 for that, and then when you overdrive the input, it distorts a little bit. If you blend that right, it will give a track life and character. It's like when you have a brass stab with a gorgeous long reverb, some of those dirty small bits will make it sound even greater. It's the extremes which work."
"I feel it's another downside of the great technological revolution that people are going for sounds that are too clean. They're forgetting what they're really doing, which is making music. People want to sound like Trevor Horn but if you listen closely to Trevor's records, you'll hear a lot of subtlety. Not everything is shiny and wonderful."
Despite Darlow's opinions on the engineering side, he did employ an engineer for the album. He explains: "I've set my 24-track up in such a way that one person can comfortably operate it. I just like to sit there on my own and be creative. So I did a lot of the keyboards myself. At the same time it proved more practical to have an engineer there for recording the band, so Ted Hayton did a lot of that, and also did the mixing. Occasionally Brad (Lang) would come in and do some engineering, and I did some things as well. I tried to keep it very much a 'DIY' experience for everybody."
LARGE AMOUNTS OF outboard gear in his own studio did not prevent Darlow from going to another studio for the mix. The studio in question was Surrey Sound, but why then did Darlow set up his own 24-track in the first place?
"Well, I like to just sit in a studio environment and be creative. And having your own studio is ideal for that. One reason I went from 16-track to 24-track was convenience - I was just too limited with 16-tracks and had to do a lot of bouncing down. Also I noticed that the B16, though it's an incredibly quiet and high quality machine, lacked a lot of bottom end so I got myself a Soundcraft 760 24-track machine and a Teac Matchless 26-input desk. It's an inline console with a great degree of flexibility - it's got eight sub-groups and eight sets of echo returns so for a small place, it's ideal. And, of course, my system is now industry compatible - I can now take my 2" tape to another studio and do a mix, or add on things I couldn't do at home."
Yet there was another, more ambitious, reason that Darlow choose to record his album at home.
"I wanted to prove that you can still make an album sound glossy and professional without a fully-equipped SSL studio complete with digital this and digital that. I think a lot of people have been sold down the river by studios these days: the medium on which you record really doesn't make a lot of difference. It's what you put on tape which is the important thing.
"And then again, this digital stuff is still in its infancy. Recording digitally would have doubled my album costs, and I really wonder whether it would have been worth it. What's more, the only thing I did digitally turned out to be inferior to analogue. I started doing mixdowns on F1, and, though I never subscribed to the school of thought that says the F1 sound is clinical, I found exactly that when I really started listening. You become very critical when you're mixing, and I could hear an incredible difference between the F1 and ½" tape. I don't know why, but the tape definitely was warmer. I could hear the digital crunching; it was clean, but cold."
THE GREAT OUTDOORS was Darlow's first production endeavour, and one can't help wondering just how great the influence of one Trevor Horn has been. On listening, the record bears no obvious "Horn trademarks", and Darlow explains that rather than creating a variation of the Horn sound, it was more an attitude he adopted from the man.
"Working with Trevor was a hugely formative experience for me. First of all I learned about stamina - hard work makes a great record. If you really believe in something, you have to keep on working and working, even when you get bored. The trick is to still know when something is right. The second thing I learned was how to stay objective after hours and hours of listening.
"Working with him also taught me about the record industry and what a competitive cutthroat business it is. I got a hard sharp lesson in what it really was all about.
"Of course, I did absorb a lot of his arrangement ideas. A lot of what he does has to do with the way a sound is placed: what comes before it and what comes after it. Everybody seems to think, for example, that the Fairlight orchestral stab is Trevor's big thing. It isn't really, he's used it only occasionally, but what makes it sound so good is what's on either side of it. Next time you hear something of his leap out at you, see what's on either side. It's placing. Make sure everything's got a reason to be there - if you are in doubt about something, get rid of it. You have to be that brutal. It's also the space that you leave that makes things work.
"Part of the art of discovering how to produce a record is knowing that you don't have to have everything sorted out and glossy. First, let the music tell you what to do: I listen for a tune or a mood. If you pick a great song, like The Beatles 'She Loves You', you've got the rhythm already in the tune just by singing it on its own. All you do is arrange it from that basis. Ultimately, pop music is about a singer and a beat. If you've got the tune sorted out you're halfway there.
"I used to do sessions with people which I found hard to believe. They wouldn't even have songs - there were half a dozen lines of lyrics and a rhythm and that was all. And they were working on SSL at £1500 a day.
"I'm sure there are other people, like myself, who want to get away from the machines and back to songwriting. I hate that stuff which switches on for three minutes and goes 'bang bang, bye bye'. To me the only answer is the old school of songwriting where you sit behind a piano or with a guitar and come up with a tune and some chords. If you've got a great song, it'll work, whatever style you play it in. You've got to take a little journey every time you listen to a song so that, by the time you come to the end of it, you'll feel complete. The production is only a temporary thing."
Whether Darlow's own songs and production stand up to close scrutiny is something you can judge for yourself in January when The Great Outdoors will be sitting in the record shops. Until then: the theory definitely makes sense.
Interview by Paul Tingen
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