Three Imaginary Boys
A home grown successful Soul band, a home recording studio and a homely chat with Richard Walmsley.
I don't want to appear dogmatic, but in my opinion Imagination are unique and that's a fact. After all, who else could make their debut appearance on Top of the Pops dressed in gold lame nappies and still have the longest running chart single of that year? Not even Frankie it would seem and that's four years later! I suppose I should make it clear at this point that ever since Body Talk hit the charts I have been an unabashed fan of Imagination. For whilst the likes of ABC were busy conceptualising a music which combined quality and humour with an uncompromising 'Popness', it seemed to me that Imagination just got on and did it, achieving with it a success characteristic of the doers, as opposed to the talkers, of this world.
Another factor which sets Imagination well apart from the self-hype brigade, is that instead of arriving on the scene equipped with only a load of half-baked ideas, they had already paid their dues working as backing musicians for such great names in Soul as Chairman of the Board, The Delfonics and The Tams on the British and American club circuits. Whilst the song writing talents of Steve Jolley and Tony Swain were a justly celebrated factor in the success of the band, the personalities and musicianship of the three, Leee, Ashley and Errol, can by no means be discounted. They are not and never were puppets, a fact proven by their new single Thankyou My Love on which they have taken full control over the writing and production of their work. And so, to find out more about this new Imagination (and just a little about the old one) I spoke to Ashley Ingram, bass player and musical mastermind of the band.
Ashley I would describe as a cross between Frank Muir and Lenny Henry, the kind of warm hearted motormouth who makes listening a pleasing task. He was spacing out to a large degree due to mid-tour excitement but, with the help of a double barley wine, became relatively coherent for some three quarters of an hour.
I wondered what influences were shaping Imagination's new direction.
"I admire producers of old records, people that have produced great records, because the same formula applies in every one of the greatest songs on the world. That trademark happens to be simplicity."
What, in sound or form?
"In the format basically."
"Names? Oh God, Bill Coster. Bill Coster produced a lot of old Johnny Mathis records years ago. Arif Mardin, I like his productions on things like early Aretha, very early."
What about what Aretha's doing now?
"With Luther Vandross? Well I have my feelings about that. Some of it I like very much, some of it I don't like very much, because Luther's a very talented singer himself, and it seemed like two great heads got together and showed that they could swap each other's voices."
Showing a marked tendency to think laterally, Ashley regularly anticipated my questions; what constitutes a good dance record, for instance?
"I am very much into the bass instrument following the pattern of the bass drum so you have (beats four on the floor) that oneness. The bass drum is the nucleus of dance music, and the bass instrument, unless it's sequenced, sometimes isn't. When I used to play in dance bands I used to stand on stage and watch who was dancing very, very carefully, and I'd try a bass pattern with the drummer and I'd notice that their dancing had changed. And this is where I got the idea from, and through that I tried to elaborate on that point. I watched dancers, watched what they follow, and I listen to what I pick up on first when I'm dancing, and if it changes around your movements change. So I became of the thought that if you listen to the bass drum and the bass guitar and knit them together very tightly you have the basis of a good dance record."
Is setting good bass and drum sounds down to the player or the production?
"No, it's down to time and paying attention to what you're laying down. As a whole the band realise this fact, but also I realise it to a hell of an extent because I have my own recording studio and I'm constantly experimenting with sounds. I wanted this facility because when you're in a recording studio that can be costing you £75 an hour, it's very frustrating trying to think when there's a bloody great, almighty clock ticking in the back of your head going £62, £72, £102. Back in your own place you haven't got this pressure, therefore you can experiment in your own time and create better sounds, different sounds, and sounds you're going to feel a whole lot happier with because you know they work. You've got to have that element of thinking - I don't know, it might work, it might not work - and through that iffy-iffy kind of feeling the sounds grows on you and you'll probably like it more than the sounds you would have heard instantly and thought - great!
"What I'll do is put a bass sound on my guitar (G 707), the brass sound on the DX7 and something like another brass instrument with less attack on another DX7"
"I worked out over the space of a year how much time I had spent in recording studios doing demos."
What sort of set up is it?
"A 24 track setup. I use a 3M M79 machine. I use a desk built for me by a man called Bob Birthright - Tracktech. It's a new desk. It's very similar to an SSL line up, it's total logic. It's a big desk, about 40 channels... I think so, I've lost count... 32, sorry it's 32 channels. It's built for me exactly to how I go about a desk, it's very straightforward, logical - that's why it's called logic control I suppose! PCM mastering. I use a Lexicon reverb. I'm in the throes of buying an AMS but I'm saving up my pennies because £7000 is a lot of money. The heart of my studio is my patch bay, which I have built and pulled apart several times. At first I used to use jack set ups, but I've just invested in two and a half grand's worth of Bantam sockets, so I'll be using that soon. I hate going I've got this, I've got that..."
Are you using drum machines or sequencers?
"We've never used a sequencer in our lives. We've used drum machines, but there are ways and ways of using drum machines. Sometimes for a certain texture we like to use the bassdrum of a drum machine, but the snare and hi hats are played manually, because it's an awful lot quicker. For example, you can spend three hours getting the bass drum sound right then after that recording it, which is three and a half hours if you're lucky. So it's just programme the drum machine, it runs off the bass drum in five minutes, and then you have three hours and 25 minutes that you would have wasted normally."
Which drum machines have you used?
"I think we've used everything now; we've used the Drumulator, Vera Linn, we always call it Vera for short, and um... Simmons, we use a lot of Simmons. If we hear a snare drum we like we just sample it into the AMS."
The bass sound heard on singles like Just An Illusion has been one of Imagination's most distinctive features. On Thankyou My Love it has been replaced by a new but equally distinctive sound. How is Ashley going about recording the bass these days, I asked?
"I'm into keyboards and new instruments, not as a novelty but using them to their limits in areas where they're not normally used, like the guitar synth, the Roland G 707. To me it seems like everyone is going to use it for guitar bits, string bits etc. I'm going to use it to put some good bass sounds together 'cause I'm a bass player. I use it for things like the bass, a few organ sounds and for triggering DX7s and all kinds of MIDI controlled instruments. I use it as a six string bass - I know it's not done - I take it down two octaves so I can play bass notes on the fifth and sixth strings - excuse my teeth, I'm breaking them in for a friend of mine.
"Also DX7; what I'll do with that is I'll put a bass sound on my guitar (G 707), the brass sound on one DX7, and something like another brass instrument with less attack on another DX7, so therefore I'm playing one note, getting one and one comes up straight afterwards. Or, on the new record, Body and Soul, which is the B side of the new single... do you like it?"
Yeah, I was dead impressed with that...
"Three DX7s and Roland guitar synth. It's like a ladder, I have the guitar into the first DX7 with a high attack resolution, then the second DX 7 with the, what's the word called, soft-hard touch?"
"With the touch-sensitivity up - these are difficult teeth. I'll never use them again. He can break his own bloody teeth next time - and I work down the scale adjusting the keyboard sensitivity. The effect after going through all that yaga, is I can play soft, then hit it hard and it goes down three times, and it's very good because you can play it like a real bass. In fact what happens is two of the DX7s quite literally switch off when you play very quietly, and when you play hard they switch on again. It's quite a clever trick actually because if you have many DX7s and you can play around with the keyboard velocity you can improve the dynamic of the whole song. It sounds right nice in fact, but if you had a DX1 for £9000 you wouldn't have to have four keyboards, but I don't have £9000 so I make do."
"The bass drum is the nucleus of dance music, and the bass instrument, unless it's sequenced, sometimes isn't"
What else are you into these days?... musically I mean.
"I'm into string sounds very, very much. If you buy an Emulator what really annoys me is that people sometimes put the disc in, load it up and play the first thing that comes out of it. And you'll be driving in your car, or walking down the street and you hear the radio and you'll hear an Emulator and it'll go (sings) 'E.M.U.L.A.T.O.R... this is where the dick put me!' It does that, have you noticed? With Fairlights as well...
If in doubt Fairlight it?...
"Ha Ha. It used to be - if in doubt put gaffer tape across the top of it, that'll hold it down! With my Emulator, what I tend to do these days is stack it. For instance, imagine a violin sound, what I've been working on is this; Record the whole song, then record the 24 track all onto stereo, and I bounce the stereo back onto 24 track, leaving me 22 tracks. Then I play the first violin voice, then the same again on the next track, then again and again. Then up a harmony, one two three four, up a harmony, one two three four, and again up a harmony. And then I'll put like an OBX A string sound with it. And so all told, I've got about 22 different string sounds, and when you hear it back? Blows yer socks off! It sounds like a complete orchestra and it doesn't sound synthetic at all. Sometimes it takes me a day to do this, but the results? I like it, it sounds big."
What has affected your decision to do more writing and production?
"I won't try to be too profound in my answer to that, because my teeth won't let me! We've grown up quite a bit. We were under the wing of Tony Swain and Steve Jolley and we used to contribute in many ways that weren't recognized earlier on. We learnt a lot from Tony and Steve, but we also stored a hell of a lot within ourselves, because when you have a producer they do tend to have the last say in certain areas. And because of that you think, okay I'll close my mouth on this one and I'll wait, and you'll keep doing that. You'll find that you are learning more every day and it comes to the point where you have to say what you want and see it carried out."
The sound on Thankyou My Love reminded me of some of the songs on Al Jarreau's Breaking Away album.
"Thank you very much, that is a compliment. It was fun. It was a different approach, it was a lot freer. The vocals are not the typical Imagination sound where Leee is on the limit of his falsetto, with pliers in his right hand pocket, tears streaming from his eyes - that's a technical joke, don't worry about it."
Are you still working with any producers?
"We've worked with Nigel Wright from Shakatak - co-production - we've also worked with a guy called Zeus B Held who's worked with Chas Jankel and Fashion, which brings me to mention that we have used a Fairlight on a track. Zeus is very freaky, I'll do something silly on the guitar and he'll go - Yeah, I wanna hear that right there - and you think 'this guy's a bloody nut!' And then the way he'll do it, you go - 'Jesus, is that how it'll sound?' And it's great for the mind because he makes you very aware that anything is possible in the correct context. And I find that so good to know because sometimes producers, they suffer from tunnel vision, they remind me of horses with blinkers. But Zeus opened up the spectrum."
With that it was time for us to head back to the mid-tour rehearsal, it was past three o'clock. London looked sad and gloomy, so I looked the other way. Back in rehearsal the atmosphere was infectious, and the Fender Rhodes I was sat down by looked inviting. Alas, it wouldn't be the thing, I thought.
"When I'm around music I have to be playing," Ashely remarked, apologising for his scatterbrained state, "just enjoy the music for what it is - I like it."
"I like it too," I replied, but the music had started.
Interview by Richard Walmsley
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