The Science of Moments
Flattening the earth, contextualising the computer.
By the end of this month, Thomas Dolby's second album 'The Flat Earth' will be orbiting the record counters. To followers of the man's varied career – from black funk to Lene Lovich — it will be further proof of his hypnotic songwriting and elliptically skilful musicianship.
He's always operated a mix and match attitude towards technology, injecting spit and blow harmonica or heavy metal guitar into the midst of perfect computer instrumentation. If Tom Dolby has a science, then it's in those moments of context and contrast. So what now for the flat earther?
Mr Dolby is pissed off with being a professor.
The eccentric shirt collars and new moon glasses were okay for a while, but there is considerably more to the man than a half share in Magnus Pyke's wardrobe. And if someone labels him 'computer boffin' one more time, then it won't be their memory that gets well and truly rammed.
As we observed in our One Two awards last month, T.D. earns the title of top honcho because he consistently makes the computer a musical instrument. It doesn't play games, it's never mindlessly worshipped, and it won't be drawing pretty pictures — it's just a tool for composition not a reason.
"Really, I treat it like an effect, a large piece of outboard gear." Very large, in fact, because as well as the German made PPG and Wave 2 keyboard, he now has a Fairlight, one of the only useful items to have come out of Australia, alongside Swan lager and prowess in vomiting.
Tom Dolby's first album, was vastly influential. I know. A mate of mine once got burgled and the only thing they took was an electronic piano and his copy of "The Golden Age of Wireless." It (the record, not the theft) was the result of four or five years of demoing.
Dolby's songs were not so much written as built. Ideas would be shuttled down onto tape, sometimes end to end, occasionally stacked into towering instrumental jigsaws. Until one day, a sudden mental shake would lock them all into place and what was a filing system at breakfast would be a track by lunchtime.
The Flat Earth is, of course, completely different.
"On this album there has been far less layering. For a start I had nothing written. The only way to do it was to go into a cheapish studio where I wouldn't be intimidated by the time I had to spend."
The solution was to take himself, Fairlight, guitarist Kevin Armstrong, bass player Matthew Seligman and percussionist Clif Brigden to Brussels where they stayed for six weeks. Working. Often they wouldn't run any tape for three days but would concentrate on playing as a band. This time the flat earther was determined to capture a performance, not a program.
"I didn't even waste any time setting up sounds on synths, I knew I was probably going to change them anyway when I came to do the mixing so I did it all on piano." And when the month and a half exile was over and the spools were back in London, Tom listened to them and realised they were already complete. He had succeeded — partly by fluke — in achieving what many bands only dream of — recording a set of relaxed and atmospheric 'demos' that were of a high enough quality to act as the real thing... after a little tidying up.
Fairlights are often used to sample sounds — in essence, make a digital recording of an acoustic instrument then play it back at any desired pitch, either from the keyboard or the sequencer style memory.
Tom Dolby used it to sample a musician.
In particular, after Matthew had recorded his bass lines, the Fairlight was set to work plucking out certain notes — a slide here, a tugged, percussive string there — until there were perhaps half a dozen different tonalities loaded into the recorder. Parts of that line could then be replaced, rewritten or re-recorded using the original expression and character that Matthew had created.
He wasn't the only one. "I couldn't get a nice vocal sound on a set of backing vocals," confesses the chanteur, "so I sampled each syllable of the line and played it on the keyboard. You put each of the syllables in a different octave of the keyboard, then hit the right notes within them for the pitch you want." Sneaky, and successful, though at the moment the sampling standard is not lofty enough for a lead vocal.
"Sometimes you have to have a little humility with synth sounds", explains Tom. It's contradictory but you have to learn when to give 50 instead of 100 per cent. "You can set up sounds that are fantastic on their own, but if you fill up 24 tracks with them, the result is usually a disaster.
"I had to modify the original bass sound on 'Windpower' (from 'The Golden Age...'). It was too full. All you needed was the bass and the drums; as soon as I started putting any top lines on, the whole thing became confused." He sits back, cracks another nut and poses a further puzzler. "It's a bit like razor blade manufacturers who blunt their own blades." Do they? Oh yeah, I see what you mean. "I had to tone it down so it wasn't quite such a wow on its own, and wouldn't take your attention away from the rest of the song.
"It is easier with digital sounds. If you're putting down several layers with an analogue synth, then from a tone point of view, you've got a lot of restrictions. An analogue synth has no overtones, really. Suppose you try to reproduce an orchestra with one synthesiser by layering it. After a certain point the sound cannot get any bigger." Unfortunately, the synth has no more harmonics to contribute. "Because a digital sound is much more complex, you can generally build up extra layers without them conflicting, and the sounds will occupy their own space."
The same rule applies to massed vocal choruses where you have a single, unmassed backing singer attempting to record them. Since everyone sings in different ways, a crafty engineer will often get the beleaguered throatist to perform each line in a varied accent. "On 'Wreck of the Fairchild' there was a Grace sung in Spanish. That was one guy, and he was actually an actor playing 16 roles. He'd say to me 'okhay theese lady she's a nun, an' she's wearin' a 'eadress, and she speak like dis.' And he'd go ahead and sing it."
Tom also had American vocalist Adele Bertei helping out, a connection made from one of the many hundreds of cassettes sent him by acts desirous of his production talents. "The funny thing about her voice is that, well, some voices harmonise together and some don't; it's like a chemical thing. Ours didn't. It was the engineer that pointed this out." Which is why the collaboration is ideal, Adele acting as the jagged foil to Dolby's smoother tones — the perfect answering contrast.
With the album finished there was the question of a five month world tour. We carried out our interview in the midst of his three week rehearsal session at The Ritz studios, Putney, and found that the lugubrious Fairlight was once again undergoing a re-think.
"When you've got the facility to design every note and can narrow it down to every single beat, you get pedantic!" confesses Tom freely admitting to over-perfection in the past. "If you listen to a good drummer, you don't really care if occasionally there's a drum beat out.
"I really want the looseness of a drummer rather than trying to cart vast quantities of equipment around and all the insecurity that involves." At the time of "The Golden Age of Wireless," he took the brave (some would say suicidal) step of first going to gigs alone with only a PPG for backing, and then reaching a halfway house of some computer sequences and percussion with extra help from an onstage guitarist and bass player. The second system was nearer the target, but both bring back nightmares that make The Alien look like a Mr Kipling cake.
"The biggest problem was that I was just too pre-occupied with worrying about the computer going wrong. Although most drummers are complete lunatics... they miss the bus or the plane, they get drunk... they're still the best bet."
Much of the early rehearsal time had been spent thrashing out whether the rhythm section should match the recorded material note for note, or be free to roam. "There are people who know the songs and they may be upset if you change them, but it's a lot more fun not to be tied down."
The present answer would appear to involve giving the drummer a subverted click track — not a steady 'click' that can induce monotony not to mention deafness, but maybe a cabassa or rim-shot that reflects part of the rhythm, is controlled electronically, yet can be fed through the monitors rather than headphones without being overly noticeable to the audience.
And there are the visuals; five U-Matic video machines, two of which are linked to Sony F1 digital audio systems. Strangely, it's the video that runs the show. Each tape carries a computer code to clock the Fairlight. The great advantage is that the band are not limited to an immovable set list.
Since each number has its own video cassette, all you need do is type into the Fairlight the title of the track you intend to perform next, then punch the play button on the U-Matic which sets everything rolling in perfect time with the images on screen.
But Tom, if you place looseness, reliability, atmosphere and enthusiasm aside for the moment, are there any other reasons for picking people this tour round. "Well, while we're on tour, we want to arrange a few football matches, and, our drummer is actually a very fine goalkeeper and the Columbian guitarist, er... did once have a trial for Bogota..." Just as well. Fairlights have great spatial awareness, but they're terrible in the air.
"I've been auditioning bass players for some time, and some are really excellent, but none of them can play this. It's not because it's particularly fast, but because the feel is different from the way a bassist would play it. Matthew gave me the samples for the bass sound in the first place, and the same for the rim shot, bass drum and hi-hat, but really it's unimportant that it's sampled. It's like saying 'we added a bit of top in the studio'. The computer is just a sophisticated piece of outboard gear.
"If you think about the amount of 'computerised' equipment you have in a studio — a drum machine, the desk, possibly, a time delay — you're only ever using about 50 per cent of their memory capacity. I can imagine the studio desk of the future fitted with one block of computer memory which you can then assign to the drum machine, reverb, or whatever. They're all probably the same chips anyway."
"I wanted to do something African sounding, and I wanted a loose feel. There are percussion sequences here that are very long and random. For example, the wood block would have a cycle of five bars and the gong nine bars, so if you run the sequences together, they're always different, meeting at different points.
"I had the chords in mind. We listened to it backwards and I actually preferred the bass line that way so what Matthew plays is a forward version of the backward notes.
"A lot of the vocals were subverted using the Fairlight. There's one line that goes 'please remember', so I split that into syllables, but reproduced it as 'please... please...... please remember' by playing it with one finger. It was really sort of emotional, somehow."
"There were two songs where I wanted to have a poke at America, especially after having been forced to stay there for a year because 'business' was better over that side of the Atlantic. It's also biting the hand that feeds you, though they probably wouldn't realise it."
"This was the other one. It's partly about white musicianship and about how white music gets pigeonholed... yeah, 'Keith' is the main character (Richards perhaps??) ha, ha... no, not necessarily that Keith.
"There's a frustrated heavy guitar break in the middle that lasts three bars then gets cut off by massed backing vocals. And there are little quirks in the bass and drums that were written in on the Fairlight, you know the sort of things those awful session bass players and drummers do, the ones who stand on stage grinning at each other, playing super slick private jokes.
"I don't think that deliberately working in such a style is an end in itself. In a way every song on the first album was a little like that... me flexing my musical muscles. On this album, there were a lot of songs where I wouldn't allow myself to do that. I suppose this album is less format oriented, more relaxed, very late night. A lot of my favourite albums are like that, but none of them has been made in the last ten years. There always seems to be a rule that at least 75 per cent has to be uptempo."
"I wanted to conjure up the sound of a rain forest, like those in Borneo and South America, the ones that Bellamy was protecting when he sat on that dam. They support lots of lifeforms. The undergrowth is so thick that there are certain nocturnal forms of life in there... it rains a couple of months a year but it takes the rest of the year for the water to get through... anyway...
"All the sounds came from obscure places. I started off with crickets and found a way of looping the sample to get a four/four rhythm. I also wanted a sound in stereo of a tree falling over. I couldn't manage that, but I found a record of music with a chant on it that ends with a line of people all stamping their feet which had the sort of delayed stereo effect I wanted.
"Then there's a kind of pan pipe sound which I made up by using a flutey synth and adding a sample of my own breath to it.
"For the bass I wanted a mad double bass sound. We actually used an electric, an Ibanez, and put C-Ducers (transducer mikes in the form of a tape) all over it, down the neck, everywhere. Matthew now has a bass with a C-Ducer built into the neck.
"And finally there's a low waily chant, which has a sustained note on a synth fed through a Roland rack vocoder and I was grumbling like an old Aborigine.
"Mulu is the name of a rain forest in Borneo. A lady who helped me in the cutting room once told me about it. Her father was an explorer, he went there."
"It started off as a story about a hyperactive kid, which I think I probably was, up to a point. It's got an energetic, souly image, but I thought it would be good to get that kind of energy without all the cliches. It's bottled up and keeps trying to explode, then comes back again. In the back of my mind I could picture how it was going to be. With some arrangements I know in my mind exactly where every beat falls, and if I lost the program I could repeat it. In other cases it's very random, I'll zip through a program, make mistakes and leave them. We overdubbed quite a lot of tin cans and metal including a large sheet of it hanging up (the 'snare' substitute that runs all the way through)... see that's become very popular now..." (grins and pours another drink).
"This was a Dan Hicks song, he was a big hero of mine. A lot of his songs are very humorous but on this one I detected a certain insanity — his arrangement was fairly straightforward, but there's a really manic violin break. We were thinking about using synths and the Fairlight, but in the end we realised it had to be piano (an upright also with C-Ducers), acoustic guitar, trumpet, trombone and so on."
Interview by Paul Colbert
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