The Listening Pool
The Listening Pool
Ex-OMDers Paul Humphreys and Martin Cooper are back with new material and plenty to say on OMD, songwriting, sampling and going independent
After a decade of producing quintessential UK synth-pop together, the trio of Paul Humphreys, Martin Cooper and Mal Holmes decided to quit OMD and leave Andy McCluskey to it. They also decided to start from independent scratch, forming Telegraph Records, a band called The Listening Pool, and utilising an opulent home studio chez Paul in the continuing search for the perfect song. The first album is almost in the can, and the single 'Oil For The Lamps Of China' was released on July 12th, so Phil Ward headed home to Merseyside for a bit of a dip into The Listening Pool himself. He found Paul and Martin not only feeding the squirrel in the garden, but also with plenty to say on technology, pressure, self-control and songwriting.
Paul: "One of the reasons why we left OMD was because we were doing far too much live work, and it was really detracting from the songwriting. Songwriting became secondary to getting out on the road, and getting product out as fast as possible. So the product was suffering, and we never want to be in that position again. We're not going to do any 9-month tours, and all the crap that goes with it.
"We just weren't developing. You get maybe one month a year to write a whole batch of songs, and that's no way to develop your songwriting. In the latter stages of OMD, we just weren't happy with the records. No time was allocated in the schedules for writing. We never even had the time to experiment; it was just pressure, pressure, product, product. There was no exploration, for that one idea in 20 that works. Since then it's been a process of self-discovery, and discovery of a lot more music."
Paul: "We're still technologically based, although we do use a lot of acoustic instruments as well. It's finding the right balance, really..."
Martin: "The drums are all loops, but mostly from Mal. We do long takes from the real kit, and then edit them down."
Paul: "We like to capture actual performances, and load them into StudioVision. It's then a matter of using the technology to sort out the best possible arrangements. Like with the vocals, we'll do a demo here, with the proper vocal takes, then take that into Parr Street Studios [formerly Amazon] in Liverpool and rebuild the track around the lead vocals. It's an odd way round, starting with a finished vocal and time code, but it works. We also sample the vocals and fly them around, too, if needs be."
Martin: "We have the facility to record direct-to-disk here, with StudioVision, but the Tascam 16-track is so good we do all the vocals on that. For the backing tracks, we commit really late to tape, because we can have all the sequenced stuff running live. There are MIDI delay problems, but you can compensate for those on tape."
Paul: "But there are a lot of 'real' elements on the album. We use the technology in the way it's all put together, processing live stuff and flying it around, and even making new parts out of the played parts - editing them so much that you've actually created a new part, that the musician didn't play, but which still sounds played. That's the beauty of the technology available now. We want to keep a band feel, if we can, but still retain overall control.
"It gives it life, and it even brings the technology to life, because against a played segment, an entirely sequenced part suddenly comes alive too. We sequence everything for the demo, then consider which sounds would be most suitable for each part, and if something requires a guitar sound, well get a guitarist in to play it."
Martin: "That's the convenience factor, being able to approximate all the sounds here, programming the keyboards to do guitar-ish parts and drum parts. And when we've sorted out the song, we can get people in to play."
Paul: "At that stage we can also capture performances in which the player is just doing what he feels like, giving us even more material that we can sift through and sample at will."
Martin: "We get the players - and backing singers - to do what we've got in mind, and then ask them to just mess around and do what comes naturally. It doesn't alter the song, but it brings it to life by altering important little details, things you would never have thought of."
Paul: "It's important to get other people's input, after the intended session. You can become so close to a song that you're blinkered, and suddenly you can get a fresh perspective."
Paul: "We see ourselves as songwriters, and as such you always want the best tools to help you achieve what you want, and technology is the way to go. It's just so incredibly useful: for example, being able to bring home a 12-inch mix and edit it ourselves, in our own time. Total flexibility.
"But you have to be tough on yourself, not to lose sight of what you're aiming at. There are times when you've just got to switch everything off and put a song to bed, till you can come up with the ideas."
Martin: "There's often a point when it's just not working as a whole, but you can keep sections, like a verse, and it'll pop up later, maybe in another song."
Paul: "All our songs start from a basic chord progression, often written on the piano. We never set out to write a song on a particular day; ideas are brought into the studio, and everybody can respond or not once there's a starting point. OMD always worked that way. But because of the limitations of the technology, it sounded like we were really experimental! Ironically, we're using more technology now, but it doesn't sound like it.
"We grew up with Bowie, Eno and Kraftwerk, and it was a completely different sound, but Kraftwerk especially were still writing songs - great songs, like 'Radioactivity' and 'The Model'. You could do an acoustic version of that and it would still work."
Martin: "Samples work best when they are obviously samples, not when they emulate real instruments. If you want a real trumpet or piano, you may as well use one."
Paul: 'We've got a track called 'Say Your Last Goodbye', which has got Harry Dean Stanton's voice on it, but it's so obviously a sample, and not him sitting in the studio, that it gives it an atmosphere. There's something about it that works within the track."
Paul: "He's a great drummer, but he got into technology in a big way when he discovered that you can sequence things that are in your head that are beyond conventional playing, and then go away and learn them, with a constant reference point."
Martin: "That's why it's such a great learning tool: you can analyse what's going on with different instruments, and you have the instant gratification of getting involved."
Paul: "There was a few years' delay because of legal issues, which meant we couldn't do anything, but that was probably a blessing in disguise, because we could really concentrate on songwriting at last! We hadn't had so much time to write since before OMD started, so it helped us to develop. We flirted with a few labels, but ultimately we wanted to be in control of absolutely every part of what we're doing. Having our own label always appealed to us; we really enjoyed the time we were on Factory Records - a small setup, but small setups can keep control if you use the distribution network properly and get the right licensing deals.
"It would also be nice to develop the label, because there are loads of artists that we hear with great songs who can't get deals. There's some brilliant stuff out there that's not getting signed. Ultimately, it's not just The Listening Pool that's our main goal. We love music, and we may put out other things, including what we do under other names, which you don't have the flexibility to do on a major label. We said we were going to do an instrumental album ages ago... and now's our chance!"
Interview by Phil Ward
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