The Sounds of Hell
Once singer with The Pop Group, Mark Stewart has now joined forces with drummer Keith Leblanc and producer Adrian Sherwood under the title of The Maffia - Nicholas Rowland listens to the sounds of hell.
Popular acceptance of the sampler as a musical tool could have been the undoing of tape editing techniques - not so for Mark Stewart, who wants to treat the sounds of Hell on cassette.
MY WHOLE PURPOSE in life is to record Hell. In fact, I think we'll try and record in Hell for our next album."
So speaks Mark Stewart, winding up a short, halting interview amidst the designer limboland of an A&R office temporarily acquisitioned as junk room cum deleted stock store.
Hell is big news with Mr Stewart, whether it be hell on earth or hell in the studio. He writes about it; he sings about it; it's his inspiration, the lifeblood of his art. So it's as good a place as any to start discussing the extraordinary new album of this self-styled angry young man from Bristol. Entitled simply Mark Stewart it's an exercise in (im)pure sonic diabolism.
Mark Stewart's hell is a vast echo chamber where slices of sound are bounced around, amplified and distorted beyond comprehension. Hell is a white noise wilderness from the middle of which a voice cries out: passionate, strident, demonic. The subjects are survivalists, the holiness of anger, militarism, each garrotted by raw despair.
Yet strangely, this wall-of-noise underworld also happens to be one of the hippest dance clubs around. Below the constant high-energy buzz there's some infectious drum machine programming at work, coercing cloven hooves into tapping along with the inferno. Then, just as you reach for a shot of the holy hard stuff, a sudden change: the minimal strains of Erik Satie's 'Trois Gymnopedies' on heavily chorused electric piano, another natty little beatbox rhythm and a West Side Story vocal "somewhere there's a place for us... somewhere over the borderline". This is the single: 'This is Stranger Than Love'. The subdued mood is continued into the next track, 'Forbidden Color', which cleverly integrates Sakamoto's majestic theme from Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence into a collision of gated percussive noise bursts and bass pulls.
These seemingly disparate elements all begin to fall into place as soon as you glance at the album sleeve and read off the list of Stewart's fellow conspirators: Adrian Sherwood, Keith LeBlanc, Doug Wimbush and Skip McDonald - familiar names to perusers of Dan Goldstein's recent conversation with LeBlanc (MT, November '87). Collectively, they form a shifting alliance of musicians which comes together variously as Tackhead or The Maffia and which operates from Sherwood's On-U Sound studio in South East London.
So what exactly were the circumstances which brought about the collision of Stewart the alienated post-punk funk addict, dubmaster Sherwood and three of the best from the New York hip hop scene? The story begins in 1980 with the split of Stewart's previous band The Pop Group, leaving Stewart with a considerable reputation on the European independent scene and a passionate interest in black dance music, particularly when blasted out by the Jah Shaka Sound system. It was this interest which brought him together with then DJ Sherwood. Together they became fascinated by the new wave of hip hop and rap music coming out of New York.
"There was this club", Stewart explains, "called the Language Lab, which was like the first rap/hip hop club in London. At the time the DJ's down there were importing tapes from WBLS and Kiss-FM in America which were like the hip hop radio stations in New York. There was one tape which I got hold of through them which I really loved. I played it to death. It was like a load of drum machines sounding like road drills with what seemed to be a rocket taking off over the top. Adrian and I spent a long time in the studio just trying to work out how it had been done."
That track happened to be 'Manoevres', a release on the Tommy Boy label by one Keith LeBlanc. Both Stewart and Sherwood were intrigued by LeBlanc's style. And when 'Malcolm X' followed, their admiration increased accordingly.
"I remember Adrian and I sitting in the studio", recalls Stewart, "just trying to work out how some of those sounds had been created. I decided then and there that I wanted to track down this Keith LeBlanc and work with him."
If Stewart had tried to make contact through the usual recording company channels, it's quite likely that the meeting would never have taken place, what with go-between managers insisting on their percentages and all. However, it seemed that fickle Fate was prepared to lend a helping hand:
"There's this music business festival in France called Midem and three years ago, Adrian went out there to represent On-U Sound, the company which he and I had formed together. It just so happened that the On-U Sound stall was opposite that of Tommy Boy. So Adrian went over and said 'Look, this mate of mine has been going mad about your music and he wants to work with you'. And from that coincidence of those two people being together, Keith and I got in contact and just 'got on'. I don't know why, but there was an immediate crossfire."
That crossfire resulted first of all in the debut album on the On-U Sound label, As The Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade, a remarkable mixture of hip hop rhythms and, of all things, Gregorian chant. Not the sort of elements you would expect to comfortably exist side-by-side, but then, as Stewart points out, the whole aim of the initial collaboration was to break free of rigid conventions, particularly those which were rapidly beginning to stifle the hip hop genre.
"I'll walk around the streets with a recording Walkman visiting building sites, recording the sound of trains passing, anything."
"I think Keith, Skip and Doug were really happy to be able to experiment. They'd been doing a lot of rap and hip hop sessions and I think they were quite sick of working within this very constricted framework. I like to think that I brought them a sense of anarchy and encouraged them to free themselves."
However, Stewart makes it clear that behind the seeming collision of styles and backgrounds, there is a common element. All five involved in the project are united in their love of musical and technical improvisation, of pushing technology over the edge and delighting in the chaos which often ensues. Above all, there's a devilish enthusiasm for noise for noise's sake: white noise, pink noise... black noise. As Stewart reveals, this is where the inspiration for the latest album lies.
"I'm in love with noise, any kind of noise. One of my favourite pastimes is tuning into the static between radio stations and then twiddling the dial backwards and forwards to create rhythms. I love it: don't know why.
"I'll walk around the streets with a recording Walkman visiting building sites, recording the sound of trains passing, anything. I like dirty noises; I like strange noises; I like buzzes and the sound of hoovers or fridges. There are things that come up by mistake like a buzz or a bit of feedback and the engineer will say, 'Oh, I'd better do something about that', but I say, 'No. Keep it in.'
"So when I go into the studio I've got an idea of a structure and occasionally I've got an idea of a melody, but mainly I've gone in with an idea of the sounds I want to use, like a road drill or a helicopter taking off or an explosion."
However, the broad ideas that Stewart might take into the studio and the final product with which he comes out couldn't be more different. Somewhere in the middle, is a process of continual improvisation with sounds and song structures.
Simply put: "Either Keith comes up with a drum machine pattern or I come up with an idea for a song and then hum it to Keith or Doug and basically we just mash it to pieces."
Unfortunately Stewart remains somewhat reticent when it comes to describing the "mashing" process in detail, partly because the process itself is more the result of improvising on the spot than any amount of careful preplanning.
"It's all about deconstruction. You see I might start with a tune and an idea of structure. But by the end we've thrown out the tune or just kept the ghost of the tune. Like we all get into the studio and play, but even as Skip is playing the guitar or Doug is playing the bass, they're manipulating the sounds through effects pedals or via Adrian on the mixing desk. Then when we've got something down on tape, we'll start manipulating the sounds again, distorting them, dismembering them.
"Like we might take the normal hi-hat sound and then treat it by routing the signal out into a speaker in the courtyard and then rerecord it. Or the sound might be bounced off a metal grill and then recorded. Or I might sing into a tin can or through a toilet bowl: anything to change the sounds into something different, something new."
THE SECOND "CREATIVE" phase involves the mixing desk:
"We had 78 bits of tape - so many choruses, so many verses, so many instrumental breaks - then we put them back together in a different order."
"Adrian and I will sit there and keep mixing the same piece of tape over and over again. So well end up with something like 78 different edits of the same material. Like we did these mixes of one song from 24-track to two-track and then I'd listen to them all and say to Adrian, 'Oh... keep that bit, keep that bit, throw that bit away' and we ended up with about 78 bits of tape stuck to the wall: so many choruses, so many verses, so many instrumental breaks. Then we'd put them back together in a different order. But maybe, by mistake, one of the tape sections would be put in backwards, so that we'd end up creating a completely different song. Like, we'd spent a month recording this song and then suddenly from hearing what half a beat sounded like backwards, we'd start all over again composing and recording backwards over something, just because we'd discovered a new sound we'd liked.
"On another track we ran two different mixes of the same section together using two Revoxes. But by mistake, they were slightly out of sync so you got one mix coming out of one speaker and another mix coming out of the other just a split second later. Because of the slight delay, the effect was like this huge auditorium. So we recorded that effect and put it back into the song. It's the same with anything like that: if I hear something I like, then I've just got to follow it through."
You could call Stewart's approach low-tech - which is not to say that the results aren't just as startling as if he and Sherwood had been working with the latest digital techniques - or more "traditional" in the vein of Stockhausen or Czukay. But the essentially primitive nature of these tape techniques is something which Stewart is proud of and which he believes contributes to a more experimental approach to music making.
His attitude is best summed up by the distinction he draws between "sampling" and "treating". Basically, in the Stewart scheme of things, sampling sound is what people with computers and disks do, while treating sound is the province of those armed with tape recorders and cassettes. What Stewart is driving at, is the difference between those musicians who sit at home with a pile of factory disks and use sampling as a way of imitating an orchestra, and those who go out with their Walkman and record ordinary everyday sounds, which are then further manipulated in the studio. And no prizes for guessing which Stewart believes to be the more adventurous of the two techniques.
"I've no respect for the technology at all. If there's a better sound coming off a cassette than off a sampling machine, then we'll use the cassette. The only thing that technology gives you is convenience. Like when we first started and we wanted to program a thunderclap on a drum beat, then I used to sit there with this cassette deck, rewinding and hitting the play button until I got it right on the beat. Now that's different, but I'm still using the same sources for all my sounds. I'm still using my 'home studio' which consists of two tape decks and a microphone and a lot of bouncing from one deck to the other. I mean, for actually recording the sounds that I like, the sound off a horror movie like a scream or something, then this is adequate. And I'm still using standard BBC sound effects like explosions and machine guns and soldiers marching. In fact, I'm actually surprised more people don't do that. There are no royalties to pay. You couldn't be prosecuted for nicking the sound of a road drill from a building site, could you?"
If Pete Waterman had anything to do with it, then the answer would probably be a vociferous "Yes". Nonetheless, the point illustrates Stewart's firm belief that the best inspiration is taken from that which is most readily available. In the same way, you can often make the best of quite limited equipment, provided you are prepared to push it to its limits. This particular subject leads us back to Stewart's preoccupation with black music, particularly reggae and dub, the roots of which lie in abuse of quite limited technology.
"I've always liked the aggression which they manage to achieve through that, and it's something we strived to achieve in the Pop Group. Like the Jah Shaka sound system, for instance. I mean people talk about the incredible sound you can get on record nowadays, but that's nothing compared to a sound system dance where you're in a tiny room surrounded by eight or nine different speakers like 12 feet tall. I mean the way that they take the bass and treble and break them up... It nearly blows your head off. And to me, a lot of those early Lee Perry dub things are much more pioneering than any of the computer music we have now, yet they were recorded on eight-track or four-track and people would just improvise. I think a lot of people are blinded by technology. They have a home computer with all the noises coming out, but the sounds that you can get from a two-track if you improvise can often be much more interesting."
Mention of the Jah Shaka sound system brings us finally to the live appearances of Mark Stewart and the Maffia, aided and abetted by the Tackhead sound system. Even Stewart himself is impressed by the awesome sound which the quintet produce live: LeBlanc on Simmons kit and drum machine; McDonald and Wimbush on guitars, guitar samples and effects pedals; Sherwood mixing and treating the sound as the performance unfolds, improvising from mistakes and extraneous noises which have been known to blow the speakers.
"Occasionally, instrumental breaks are like the instruments breaking!" comes the comment.
And what does Stewart himself do among the mayhem?
"I just dance around, wear funny hats and sing into a BMX loud hailer, a sort of miniature megaphone-cum-siren that kids use on their bikes. Not really the sort of thing the readers of your magazine will be into, I suppose," he adds, ruefully.
While others may choose to follow the hi-tech road toward the future, Stewart is determined to follow the low. Fans may therefore expect more of the same, with perhaps a dash of Stewart's latest listening preference, Islamic chants. This plus the self-confessed fascination for the lower depths should make for required listening, though it's not the sort of thing you're likely to be hearing on the radio unless you tune to the static between stations.
Interview by Nicholas Rowland
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