The Beloved, indie band turned pioneers of the indie/dance crossover, have at last released their follow-up to Happiness. Now working without Steve Waddington, Jon Marsh talks shop with Nigel Humberstone.
I have this theory that all groups should undertake a mandatory rest after recording and promoting their first album. It's always the case that a debut album is the summation of years of creative struggling which the 'rushed' follow-up can never match. Despite the fact that The Beloved's Happiness was not their debut album it was greeted as such by the dance-happy club scene of 1990 who willingly embraced it, unaware that they were witnessing one of the first indie bands to take that transition over into club culture. The ensuing indie dance scene, like most musical phases, reached its apex before the bandwagon got rolling, during which period The Beloved flooded the charts with hits like 'Hello' and 'Sun Rising', followed up with the succesful re-mix album Blissed Out. Since then there have been few sightings of band members Jon Marsh and Steve Waddington. Reticent at the best of times about the undue interest and attention centered on a public group they made the decision to take a break. Their self-enforced exile saw them investing in home studio equipment, which ironically led to Steve Waddington's decision to leave the band and Jon Marsh setting up a co-writing and co-production partnership with his wife Helena.
"Taking a break seemed like the most sensible thing to do," confirms Jon Marsh. "We had worked really hard for a year and a half, and done pretty well, but it begins to get to you after a while. You're spending less and less time making music, and whatever it is that ignites the creative side tends to to be extinguished by spending months and months just talking about it as we are now — but it's all new again so it's alright!
"Prior to getting the new equipment, if we wanted to do demos or anything we were always reliant on having a programmer or going to a demo studio. It just became expensive and we were too reliant on other people, so we bought pretty similar set ups, thinking that that would then enable us to swap disks. But what transpired was that we did entirely our own thing and decided to stop working together because we were completely self-sufficient. So that was really weird."
Despite purchasing the new equipment Jon, a self-confessed "technophobic", was in no rush to get acquainted with it. "Me and Helena didn't get ours out of the boxes for 6 months. I mean I just couldn't face setting it up, and I didn't really know how a lot of the gear worked — despite knowing what you could do with it I didn't know how to operate it.
"The most daunting thing was the S1100 and the whole C-Lab package with the Atari. Now I look back and it's like anything; you learn how to do it, it becomes second nature and you become very fast and adept at doing it. What was really good was that both me and Helena set the gear up and we got to understand it together."
Jon mentions what he describes as musical 'naivety', an element of his input which he countered effectively with Waddington's classical training, and continues to pursue. "From my point of view I wouldn't want to change it. I'm very grateful 'cause I still don't understand chordal structures and things like that. I mean I just mess around with it until it seems to work."
An integral element of the Beloved sound centered around their collaboration with producer Martyn Phillips, but for the new album, Conscience, he was unavailable so Jon and Helena chose to produce the record themselves. "Martin was really good — he let us have access his sound library. He just let us go in and raid his drum sounds. We didn't use that many in the end, but as a starting point we had to have something. That was a massive help and he acted as like our consultant. We kept ringing him up when we got stuck with the C-Lab. In fact he even came over to give us a practical demonstration at one point. But he's so fast — he's the fastest programmer I've ever seen, and he's so good that he's too good to teach a novice how to use it. So it didn't really help!"
So how did they approach the new recording? "It was entirely different" remembers Jon, "because we were forced to do all the early pre-production ourselves, so there was more trial and error. The way we did it was to build up backing tracks to a certain standard where it felt there was a degree of structure and melodic sensibility. And then when we'd amassed a dozen things like that we brought them in here [East West Records] to the A&R guy."
Jon then breaks into laughter as he quite honestly admits, "and he didn't like any of them, not a single one. He couldn't hear what we were going to do with them. There were no vocal ideas at that point but I thought they were musically interesting. But, whether the guy was genuine or just shrewd, it just makes you really pissed off. So we went back home and did two tracks the next day, brought those back and he really liked them. I suppose some people respond well under pressure because at this point there was no knowing if they'd even let us make a record.
"So we went and demo'd these two tracks properly in a studio called Wolf in Brixton. One of those tracks was 'Outer Space Girl' which ended up on the album. From that we were given the go-ahead even though we still had no other songs! So we spent a month at home and did about 15 rough ideas for tracks at which point we went into Sarm and started laying them down. Of the 15 we started with, we ended up using five and re-wrote another nine in the studio. 14 in total, but three of those we never finished."
A total of 85 days were spent at Sarm, starting in Studio 4 for the recording of programmed material and then moving into the mixing facility; did Jon actually enjoyed the studio environment? "Yeah, I love it. I mean it's so frustrating, it screws up your head and it really winds you up, but the joy when it works, that whole creative buzz, is great. It's the same when you're working at home, but obviously if you're in a better studio you have a greater degree of control and can do more because you've got access to more things and a better engineer. We used the in-house guys — I mean they're really good. We mainly used Ren Swan to finish it all off. They're technically of a very, very high standard but they all have something that they can chip in, which is very good.
"We record nearly everything flat, partly to give scope for later re-mixes but it also forces you to get the sound the way you want it. Most of the tracks, bar a couple that are very reliant on the effects being used, are such that if you go and push all the faders up 'cold', it would sound pretty close to the finished record."
I remind Jon that in an interview around the time of Happiness, he had expressed a desire to keep any future recordings to just 24 tracks. Had he stayed true to that intention? "No — sorry, it's been just impossible. Funnily enough 'Sweet Harmony' is the one with the fewest — 26 tracks — but then there are a lot of ideas on the other songs that we didn't end up using, things like tracks from session musicians which have obviously been left on tape.
"We mastered it all from analogue as well, which makes it sound a bit less immediate than a lot of contemporary stuff. It's got such a warm, deep sound to it that is really nice. But I've never recorded on digital multitracks, so I don't really know if it's better or not. We used the new Ampex 499 2-inch tape which is supposedly better than 456, so that you can record everything really 'hot' on tape. But as it was used on everything we couldn't compare it. Those are things that I'll always let an engineer decide because we don't know enough about it. I'm still really learning — to produce your own record is one thing because you know what you're after. But to be put in a room full of strangers and be expected to produce theirs for them as well, would... I'd enjoy doing it, but you can't bullshit other people the way you can bullshit yourself."
A distinctive feature that Jon Marsh has carried through into the new Beloved album is his close, upfront and almost whispered vocal work which strangely enough does not get a look in until the final stages of recording.
"They're always the very last thing to go on a track," admits Marsh. "Usually there's a defined melody, played on a keyboard or whatever, but what would generally happen is that we'd kick the engineer out of the room for a couple of hours and me and Helena would sit there and just play around with words and ideas. They always start with just a one line or word that gives you a chance to develop. Usually it's like the first line of a chorus and you work backwards.
"Then we'd call the engineer back in and I'd do a guide vocal which would usually be dreadful! I'd like to be able to just get up and sing in front of total strangers in various environments, but when you're writing you feel quite protective about it. It's not that you've got to have a definite formula for the way that you do each track — but if you've got something that works then it's best to do the performance immediately after writing it. But the limitations of the way that I sing means that I don't usually get it right the first time and have to do lots of takes and comp it together, or take a verse from this and a chorus from that."
I ask Jon about his choice of microphone — was it a Sanken this time, like he used to use? "No, that was Martyn's. We always use a Neumann, a U87. It's very warm and very responsive. Because I'm singing so soft you can can go right up on it, but it has created massive problems for doing live stuff and I'm still trying to find a way to do these live TV shows. The Radiostation headphone monitoring system is one option I've looked at. It's very hard to control your voice at that level; it's not easy to do when you're singing out, but at least the volume carries the wavering notes. But when you're singing quietly you can hear every single imperfection.
"I've got a real bee in my bonnet about basslines on tracks having to be right. We can be ready to print the final mix and I'll get the Moog out again and completely change the bassline."
"I remember years ago rehearsing in our railway arch in Camberwell with everyone trying to turn their amp up as loud as possible, and you end up singing loudly. But when you get in the studio and use machine generated noises, you don't have to fight so much to find a space. You can create your own space and now it's obviously at a point where we know how we're putting our tracks together, that I know exactly where the vocal is going to fit in the scope of things.
"You gain the experience in producing tracks, and you begin to understand the concept of each instrument having its own space. I mean I'm still pretty useless at keyboard stuff 'cause I keep piling loads of sequences in on top of each other. But as far as leaving room for a vocal to go, it's something you just learn to do. And because my voice is deep as well, there's that lower mid-range in the track where we tend not to have too much else going on. There'll be fiddly things going on on top of it, but not much else competing with it."
In order to compliment the technological aspect of Conscience a fair number of guest musicians were brought in to enhance and highlight the recordings. "Absolutely loads of different people are on it," announces Marsh. "Both 'You've Got Me Thinking' and 'Spirit' have a 20-piece string section on them. We went to Abbey Road for that and used the 'Beatles' studio. Basically it was just an excuse to go and stand in the same room where they made their records. You can't escape that feeling — going in a place like that, knowing that hardly anything has been changed.
"A guy called Ed Shearmur did the string arrangements. He's worked with Shakespear's Sister and Dave Stewart, and was originally put forward as a keyboard player but then we twigged that he was really good at strings. I did all the sequences and programming, but when we wanted proper live to tape keyboard parts then we got other people in, like Dave Clayton who played piano on '1,000 Years From Today'. The bulk of the guitar work was done by a guy called Neil Taylor, who's worked a lot with Tears For Fears. He came in at quite an early stage and it was all trial and error. We put the tracks up and let him busk around on guitar — he's on about six or seven tracks. Then as we went on there were a couple of tracks that required a different style so we used a guy called Tony Smith. He did all the guitar on 'Celebrate Your Life'. Then John Themis came in and did acoustic guitar on 'You've Got Me Thinking'. He also played a lute on 'Sweet Harmony' which you can hear if you really listen out for it. But I love the idea of having a lute on a track that is otherwise entirely electronically generated.
"Technology is great — it's enabling me to make far better records, which is the obvious thing to say, but you must mix it with enough human generated parts or it will end up sounding incredibly lifeless. Where possible we always use analogue keyboards but, realistically, without the live performances on each track — be it guitar, sax or whatever — if those elements weren't there, you'd be left with a fairly cold sounding thing. A guy called Miles Ball played percussion on about five of the tracks, not particularly upfront, bit it's there. It's often those things that you can't always pick out that make it just sound better.
"I'm a great believer in having things in a mix that you don't really hear — sometimes tapes of ambience are really good. It sounds terribly airy fairy to go and record the wind on a hillside and then just stick it through a track at such a level that you can't hear it, but it somehow changes the sound of everything else in the mix. Having made pristine sounding machine generated things, you have to find something that will give it a bit more depth."
I enquire about a sound used on the album's last track, 'Dream On', which sounds like a treated harmonica. "I know what it is," replies Marsh cagily, obviously not sure whether to let the cat out of the bag. "It's a sample — a prayer call from a native religion that we taped whilst in Indonesia. We taped loads and loads of stuff while we were away and it's the only one that we ended up using 'cause we thought we'd better use something after all that bother. It was only recorded onto cassette, then we played around with it, timestretched it, messed it about and built the track around it."
At this point I draw Jon back to talking about the remainder of gear he has back in his home set up. "We use a Korg T3 as a master keyboard. We've bought a lot of disks for it and still use a lot of the sounds. Some can be boring, but it's an easy machine to edit even though it's not very immediate. There's an old Juno 60 MIDI'd up, which we use an awful lot. That's my favourite thing in the world, mainly because it's the first synth I had. It's so hands-on — slide the sliders and away you go. Then there's an 808, a Prophet VS — which is very good, but it's difficult getting hold of cartridges for it — and a MiniMoog that we use on nearly all the bass sounds and quite a lot of the sequences.
Again it's the purity of the sounds, and this one's in perfect condition. We've also got an ARP2600, a grey faced one — I still haven't managed to get a sound out of the ARP that I'm prepared to commit to tape. Hopefully I'll have enough time to sit down and really get to grips with it. But it just looks fantastic and is worth having as a museum piece.
"Then there's a couple of cheesy synths. like a Yamaha DX100, which again for bass sounds is fantastic — cheap and cheerful, but very good and dirty. Finally there's a Casio CZ101, again for a couple of the basses and organ sounds, which we didn't use on any of the album stuff but for club stuff is really, really good."
Having finished this album I wondered if Marsh was once again steering clear of studio work. His response was emphatic. "No, no — we're working all the time at home now, on new stuff and re-mixes. We're using all the mad ideas that you want to use on club tracks, which sounds like we played it safe on the album, but realistically an album has to bear up to repeated listenings and if you put state-of-the-art club music on it, it'll date so fast. We've just finished doing these re-mixes of 'Celebrate Your Life' for which we timestretched the whole thing up to house tempo. The track is 100 bpm on the album and we took it to 120, so it's quite a lot. We spent a lot of time programming that up because just timestretching block vocals takes forever. One problem is trying to detach yourself back from under that 'producer hat' where you actually worry that everything has to sound perfect and forget that people who buy records don't really care about those little idiosyncratic things or don't even notice them.
"The permutations of re-mixes are endless," continues Marsh, who undertakes most of them himself masquerading under aliases such as Adam & Eve and The Baby Brothers. "When you start changing drums and the bass line it leads to some chordal restructures in the track and then it's a new song basically. And I really love doing that — it's kind of sad, but it ends up as a form of relaxation to re-mix your own records, because that doesn't feel like work."
So why has Marsh avoided using the outside mixer? "Occasionally we use them, but they've never really got to grips with what I always felt was the essence of our records, which for me was a sense of subtlety and that there should be something happening that wasn't smacking you around the head. However we've just had this hip-hop remix of 'Sweet Harmony' done in America by Consolidated, which sounds very heavy. I liked our mixes, but they're not very contemporary and it was quite 'old school' the way that we did it.
"My favourite track from the album is '1,000 Years From Today', perhaps because it's the most personal, but also the way it was written and recorded in just two days, bar the backing vocals. That's incredibly fast for us, and it was such a joyously easy song to make."
Most producers have certain tricks of the trade, even though they often don't want to admit it. Marsh's characteristic is an obsessional pursuit of basslines. "I've got a real bee in my bonnet about basslines on tracks having to be right — which is my personal theory as to why most British club records aren't very good. Or, the reason I decide I don't like them is because people don't seem to care about it — they tend to think that a drum track is enough. So it's usual for some of our tracks to be on their fourth or fifth bassline. We can be ready to print the final mix and I'll get the Moog out again and completely change the bassline of the track. Helena just laughs at me usually, but the good thing is that I get to have a self indulgent time and she will just turn round when I'm not looking and tell the engineer to get on with it. You know, she can humour me enough to let me mess around for half an hour and then point out that what we had in the first place was perfectly good."
With this in mind I ask Marsh if he could have done this album without the help of Helena? "No, absolutely not. She's been a massive input really. Not just writing — some songs are total collaborations, others she's chipped in ideas. But with production I would say she took more decisions than I did, which isn't what I would have expected. She's just good at being decisive and the role of a producer is that the right decision gets made at the right time. I would say she's temperamentally suited to that side of it. So no, I couldn't have conceived it any other way."
Conscience is out now on East West records.
Interview by Nigel Humberstone
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