The Noise of Art
Article from Electronics & Music Maker, November 1985
The man who brought computers to Frankie and programmed his way to chart infamy with The Art of Noise, fits in an interview before going out to play some very English sport. Paul Tingen fills in the scorecard.
JJ Jeczalik is the hi-tech brains behind Frankie and The Art of Noise, was the first commercial Fairlight programmer in Britain, and plays a lot of cricket. He also gives the occasional interview.
The village of Bagshot, just about far enough from the metropolis to be Surrey first and London second, is exactly the sort of place you'd expect to find J J Jeczalik. It's full of sedate, half-timbred houses, leafy avenues, big back gardens with tennis courts in them, and above all, cricket pitches. For a sound engineer turned producer turned computer programmer turned silly mid-off, it's an ideal place of residence.
The Saturday morning we go down to meet him is sunny and bright, and Jeczalik, a tall, sturdily-built man, is already in his whites pending a limited-overs game against the next village but one, postponed for many weeks during what has been one of cricket's worst summers for years. He displays a dry sense of humour, a knowing, intelligent smile, and a very evident love for the word 'wacky'.
Which isn't surprising, seeing as Jeczalik is the man responsible for most of the 'wacky' Fairlight noises on Frankie Goes To Hollywood records. That's his single biggest claim to fame, but there are a host of smaller ones, like producing Stephen Tintin Duffy's 'Kiss Me', and acting as the hi-tech nerve centre behind The Art of Noise, who are Very Wacky Indeed.
Before he did any of those things, Jeczalik was one of the first Fairlight programmers in Europe, and as such, contributed to a wide range of records by an equally wide range of artists, from ABC to Paul McCartney, from Kate Bush to Dollar.
Born in Oxfordshire of an English mother and a Polish father, the programmer entered the music business as a roadie for Landscape, after deciding that his place on a Geography degree course could be more constructively filled by somebody else. He quickly swapped Landscape for The Buggles when offered the job of supervising Geoffrey Downes' keyboard gear.
And that's where Jeczalik and Fairlight had their first, momentous meeting. Downes owned the ninth Fairlight ever made, which probably made it about the second or third in the UK. Unable to communicate properly with the machine, he gave the job to Jeczalik, who'd acquired a little computer experience whilst at University.
'The Fairlight wasn't very popular with musicians', remarks Jeczalik with the benefit of hindsight, 'because it had no faders you could slide or knobs you could turn. Being a typewriter, a TV screen and a normal keyboard, it was very alien. Fairlight got it a bit wrong in that respect. But it meant that people like me, who could handle that kind of communication, could step in and bridge the gap.'
When the public's enthusiasm for The Buggles' well-manicured pop waned, and their brief flirtation with Yes had come to an end, Downes and colleague Trevor Horn split, seemingly for good. Jeczalik went to work with Horn, and the machine. In the years that followed he did the bulk of his session work as a programmer, long before most people had any idea such a figure had a right to exist in a recording studio. As a result, he developed a unique and very personal understanding of sound-sampling techniques and how to use them.
Spend two minutes talking to JJ about working with the Fairlight, and chances are he'll mention his long-standing philosophy that the way to get the best out of it is not to use it as a tool for imitating the sounds of regular musical instruments.
'It struck me when I first met the machine as almost silly to try and recreate real things on it. If you want to sample a clarinet into any machine, it's easy - unless you're a complete idiot. But why should you? People have this unerring will to try and make all the computerised stuff sound as good as the original thing, which to my mind is a complete waste of time. It's no justification for using it.
'What I discovered with the Fairlight is that it's the mistakes you make that are the most interesting. The car sorting on 'Close (to the Edit)' (The Art of Noise's biggest-selling disc to date) is a prime example. I was in Highgate, actually trying to record a horse. I'd arranged for this woman to ride by on a horse. A little while before the horse arrives, a neighbour comes out of her garage, reverses up the drive, stalls, starts up again and drives away. When I listened to the tape the horse sounded dreadful, but the car was great!'
Another reason for refraining from petty acoustic imitation is what Jeczalik calls 'the rock 'n' rollness of the Fairlight'. To the consumer or the uneducated critic, it doesn't sound sensible to refer to a piece of cold, heartless high technology in the context of one of music's warmest, most rootsy genres. Yet to anyone who's used the Fairlight for any length of time, and especially to someone like JJ who's been using it for years, nothing could be more obvious.
'Right from the start I noticed that when you put a sound in the Fairlight, it comes out differently. It's obvious: it must get transformed. The Fairlight is very rock 'n' roll because everything gets very dirty and raunchy and gritty, as if it's been through a Marshall WOW amplifier. I developed this idea that if that's what it was like, then I should make it sound worse, so that it stands out.
'I've never gone out for really hifi samples for the Fairlight, because it isn't a great-sounding machine. I'd sample things on a cassette recorder, or a Walkman if necessary. If you put those into a Synclavier you'd hear how bad they really were, but with the Fairlight it doesn't really matter. You shouldn't forget that the technology in the machine, from its first inception, is maybe 10 or 11 years old. It's very slow.'
Jeczalik has enough experience of other samplers to know not only that he puts the Fairlight top of the list, but why he puts it there. He's worked with both generations of Emulator, and recently took the reins of a Synclavier for Trio.
'To me the Emulator II sounds dreadful. You put something in it and it sounds too close to the original. At least with the Fairlight I can generally make some things smooth and warm and others nasty with a bit of Marshall 100W distortion. The times I've worked with the Emulator, I've found it sounding thin and uninteresting.
'A lot of these new sampling machines, like the AMS, the Window, or the Synclavier, have phenomenal sample rates. It's just that there's still something odd about what they produce: the sounds still lose something. The Fairlight is the worst example, of course, but that's what makes it interesting.
'I'm not a great lover of digital equipment in general. I don't know why it is. When you take a digital sequencer playing a digital sound, a digital tape machine and a digital reverb, it all sounds a bit thin; there's no depth to it. Perhaps it's to do with time. In the analogue system there's a continual stream of information being processed. It's constantly changing and it's very fast. With sampling it takes a little while to get processed. Even with the Mitsubishi digital multitracks, something always gets lost.'
Perhaps it's his wariness of things digital that's made Jeczalik one of the most adept at working with them. On Frankie's 'Relax', his Fairlight played all the bass parts (the drums were Linn) and a few 'wacky'sounds, leaving a rhythm section barren of human blood, sweat and tears. But it swings. Swings the way a pub rock band can swing when they've had six pints inside them and their audience has had more; swings the way a jazz group can swing when they've tun out of sheet music and only improvisation remains; and swings the way so many of today's techno-poppers (Depeche Mode and ABC among them) clearly cannot swing at all.
Undoubtedly, much of the responsibility for that lies with JJ, yet the programmer is at a loss to describe precisely what goes into making up the swing formula.
'You can make machines swing, but it's not easy', he sighs. 'The basic bed of 'Relax' has got groove, but if you're asking "What groove is that?", then I don't know. You can just hear it. It's either there or it isn't.'
There is a slight pause for thought, then 'you have to search very hard for the rhythmic device that will generate the kind of mood you want. I don't think it's any one thing, though. It's a melting pot of ideas which is impossile to describe.
'My advice is: don't get hung up in the machines themselves. Whatever you do has to be pleasing to the ear and to your sense of rhythm. People have strayed into the area where they say this is good because it's done on an X or a Y. That's all crap. Before anything else, music has got to appeal. The brain is a hypersensitive thing and you can't cheat it. You have to work hard on getting rhythmic devices to work.
'You meet people who say: "listen, I've sampled this Art of Noise snare, it sounds fantastic!" But an Art of Noise snare doesn't make a good song. A snare is a beat on the second or fourth crotchet of a 4/4 bar - nothing more, nothing less. There are people devoting days to searching for a good bass drum sound or a good snare sound. But in the meantime they're forgetting that a bass drum with a hi-hat, a snare, and a bass guitar have generally in the past formed what's been known as a rhythm section. And a rhythm section has to work before it has groove.
'That's what people have forgotten. They're messing about with all these machines, and really it's a load of shit. That's why I can't be bothered about sampling other people's sounds, or when people sample my sounds.
'In The Art of Noise it's not the sound which is important, but what it does in the rhythm. Of course some sounds work better than others, but it's the whole context of what happens around it which is important.
'Trevor Horn has always been utterly ruthless about this. If it doesn't make sense musically, then it doesn't belong.
'Trevor really is a traditionalist. Forget all the whizz-bang-funk-crash-wallop over the top stuff. If you actually analyse it, it's dead, dead simple, dead straightforward, traditional approaches to the way you arrange and play rhythm. Trevor played in dance bands and he knows what gets people going.'
It's at this point that Jeczalik, though he doesn't play an instrument himself, commences a short discourse on musical skills. On how nowadays, overdoses of technology seem to be used to mask a lack of playing dexterity. And on how often JJ finds himself hired to make up for the performing shortfalls of young musicians. He cites as an example the sampling of a complete chorus vocal, something Horn also produced for Frankie.
This is where the distinction between the roles of programmer and producer starts to get blurred. Time and again, JJ has been called in to act as producer when all people have wanted him to do is sample a few noises into a Fairlight. Equally often, he's found himself turning to the Fairlight for new arrangements when all he's been asked to do is a simple remix.
"Of course I sample things from other people's records. But thanks to the Fairlight, they all become totally unrecognisable."
'You have to deal with the ineptitude of most contemporary bands, who are maybe 17 or 18 years old, who aren't professional in any way, who aren't prepared to master their art, who don't take singing lessons or bass lessons. They come to people like myself who can arrange technology in such a way that if they happen to sing a good chorus, you can then use it again and again in a lot of places.'
In fact, Jeczalik rarely produces without programming, or vice versa. But whatever the job, he's certainly done it successfully. After mixing for Billy Idol and Scritti Politti amongst others, JJ was approached by Stephen Duffy to remix 'Kiss Me'. Jeczalik's version, a re-recorded and rearranged 'remix', became a gigantic hit.
'Whenever I remix something, I always make it drastically different. I see producing as an exercise in psychology. You have to make the engineer think that he is the greatest thing since sliced bread. You've got to make the whole thing work. Whereas a musician might love the chord progression throughout the chorus, he may not come to terms with the fact that the rest of the programming isn't hanging together to make it work.
'You need to understand the overview of who you're trying to control and what you're trying to control - and what you're trying to end up with. So some of the best producers I've come across have been bass players. They have an understanding of rhythm, groove and melody.'
It's strange, but significant, that a computer programmer should value musical understanding higher than technological know-how. And while you couldn't accuse JJ of having an unhealthily high regard for those obsessed with music theory, he's even less enamoured of the techno-freaks, the R&D people, and the salesmen that beat a regular path to his door, offering some new 'innovation' as if it had become indispensable overnight.
'They have this thing called Total Recall, which is a complete load of crap, because it doesn't recall anything really. It memorises certain positions of the faders on the desk, but there's tons of outboard gear that doesn't even come into account, and which you have to write down manually. Total Recall is one of the great lies of rock 'n' roll, because I honestly don't think it helps the creative process. It means, for example, that you keep on remixing until you go blue in the face, because you play your mix to the A&R department and they say: "ah, you did it on SSL, so you can remix it and just put the voice in the chorus louder." But you just can't do that. When you put the voice up, the entire song's perspective alters; everything changes.
'In the end I think that the SSL desks caused more problems than they've solved. They're fantastically expensive, so it's expensive to hire a studio that's got one, and I honestly don't believe they sound that good.
'Innovations like that just confuse the issue, which is melody and rhythm. A proper arrangement of those is what makes a song work.
'For that reason, it's really useful to listen to other forms of music. If you're in a rock band, buy some classical records. Buy Bach's Brandenburg Concertos or something by Mozart of Mussorgsky. You'll find there is art, there is strength, and there is power. And things sound massive, not because they're loud, but because they're arranged properly and conducted in a manner which makes things big.'
From The Noise of Art to The Art of Noise, that enigmatic collection of individuals that gave us an unlikely British and European hit with 'Close (to the Edit)', and a number one in the American Billboard disco chart with 'Beat Box'. They also gave us an album, 'Who's Afraid of The Art of Noise ?', on which the two 45s are surrounded by a bubbling concoction of outrageous sound samples, naive melodies, bizarre arrangements and the odd moment of pure workshop genius. 'Wacky' sums it up, but it only tells half the story.
Officially, the group consisted of ZTT bosses Trevor Horn and Paul Morley, together with Jeczalik, Gary Langan and Anne Dudley (still enjoying notoriety as the lady who drilled the strings section on ABC's 'Lexicon of Love' into playing in time with the beat).
Jeczalik: 'The Art of Noise came out of drugs, dope and giggles. Gary had this idea and off we went. We mainly wrote the bass and drum parts and some tunes here and there, which you can actually recognise by their banality. I mean, the pom-pom-pompompompompom tralala of 'Close (to the Edit)' is really silly. No keyboard player worth his socks would write a thing like that.
'Then Anne would come up with some chords that fitted. She also arranged and wrote some tunes. She is the musician. It would have taken Gary and me years to work out what we've done without her.
'Trevor was guiding, I suppose. He would come in and make some tea. Morley would give everything a name, and that was it.
'90% of the album consists of the original demos. We tried to redo things on 24 track with reverb and everything, but it never came out the same. So we ended up releasing the original stuff, which was done on quarter- or half-inch tape in stereo. We would play the Fairlight through an eight-track mixer and put it straight onto tape.
'I would say that 85% of the record was produced via the Fairlight and 15% were bits and pieces, pianos, spoken words... Anne always did those.'
Like the Frankie arrangements, 'Who's Afraid of The Art of Noise?' has a human vulnerability that belies its computerised origins. And as with 'Relax', trying to find out exactly where that human appeal comes from is a thankless task. There's the odd fragment of recognisable music, the occasional (and lovable) quirk of composition. But J J Jeczalik can't put his finger on where his group's record succeeds, and refuses point-blank to answer questions on the origins of some of his samples...
'Of course I sample things from other people's records. There's stuff all over the album that's useable in one form or another. Courtesy of the Fairlight, though, it sounds so hopelessly different that nobody can distinguish it. It sounds so disgusting that even the people who made it haven't recognised it.
'I sample off other people's sounds and they sample mine. Why shouldn't that be justifiable? You do it in such a way that no one ever knows, anyway.
'If you think that an Art of Noise drum sound gives you a hit single, you've got it all wrong; you might as well sample everything, because your overview is wrong.'
Meanwhile, Jeczalik, Langan and Dudley have left ZTT (they're the first act to do so), and signed a contract with China Records, a new independent label set up by Derek Green (formerly managing director of A&M) and licensed through Chrysalis.
JJ points to a lapse in the contract with ZTT (through which they found themselves temporarily out of contract) and general dissatisfaction with their unstable position as the reasons that led to the move. A single and a 12-inch are scheduled for the Autumn, and a new album should be out in January.
Will the new material be along similar lines to the old?
'We feel that people want more of the same, and we also feel that we haven't explored fully the kind of area that we're in.
'It's going to be harder though, because when we first started The Art of Noise, I have to admit that my view on what I was doing was very naive. I just did things because they sounded good, like one of my rhythm sections that started with a snare and went 'tak-boom-boom, tak-boom-boom'. I now understand a great deal more, and that definitely makes it harder.
'Artistic form, whether it's TV, taking photographs, or making music, is what it's all about. Being able to stand back and say: I see relations here that create form.
'And a lot of contemporary music has no form at all. It's noise. It's become worse with the introduction of all these machines, because people don't know how to deal with them. Saying that the Fairlight is the ultimate device which makes all other keyboards redundant is just nonsense. The Fairlight, or the Synclavier, or any other machine, is just another tool for making music. It isn't the ultimate, it isn't the best, and it isn't the worst. It's just something that you should use as befits the situation.
'But I feel that an emphasis on form will come back again. It will come full circle.'
Brave words from a brave man, undeniably.
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