Toys R Us
The techno punk duo on U2, sampling theft, virtual reality, CDI, and getting the machines to rock.
Utah Saints Jez Willis and Tim Garbutt had three hit singles with Annie Lennox, Kate Bush and Phil Oakey guesting on vocals. Only they didn't - the real singer was called Akai. They have already proved that the 'live' singer is redundant. Now they're on the road with a multimedia show that reflects the sensory assault of TV and Nintendo chaos. And whilst their debut album Utah Saints has been extending their reputation into established CD territory, future product promises to be equally multisensory. Whether it's computer graphics, laser disc or virtual reality, the Utahs will be there when the next generation of recorded product arrives.
Jez: "The image I had of the portable-keyboard performer was the dodgy jazz band with an SH101, right up here on top of a mound of keyboards. So I use the hand-held Yamaha KX5, and the beauty of it is that you can chuck it around a bit. And you can lay out the keygroups to have three or four keys doing the same thing — so if you miss the 'right' key, you're covered. In most things we do, there's an anarchic punk streak, and if you lose that it makes it too sterile. We're trying to make machines rock."
Tim: 'We played a big rave in Miami with 808 State, Rage Against The Machine and Meat Beat Manifesto, with techno DJs inbetween, and it was really cool. The variety of music was the important thing — in America, 'rave' covers a much wider spectrum. Over here, you either get garage, or techno, or breakbeat, or whatever, but everything should be mingled."
Jez: "That night in Miami was really dynamic, and I think by necessity things are going to have to get more dynamic over here, with bands touring together. Our first break out of the rave circuit was doing a festival with Jesus Jones about a year ago. The rave circuit was frustrating because it was geared up for people miming to DAT, and we would have made more money if we'd done that, but we didn't want to stand in front of a few disconnected keyboards for half an hour and pretend to be Utah Saints..."
Tim: "The big worry for us was going from three sample-based hit singles to selling albums, which is really important. Only a few dance-based acts have done it yet — 808 State, Prodigy, Sunscreem — and they're the ones that go out and do the live thing."
Jez: "On stage, we want the freedom to run about, so about 40% of what we do is on DAT — basic kick and sequencing — and everything else is played on top."
Jez: "There are some bands who almost want to deny they use technology, and go completely acoustic. For us, that defeats the purpose, because the way forward is to use new sounds and new combinations of sounds, and the way to do that is to use samples. Technology is the way forward in everything, and it's the way forward in music. I started out as a keyboard player, but then I found I could get computers to play what I couldn't play, so that seemed like a pretty good way forward..."
Tim: "We did some dates with U2 in Europe, and we thought we'd sequence everything on stage, but we only had two weeks to prepare so we remixed about 40% of the parts in each song onto DAT.
"We didn't have much time to soundcheck either. U2 would soundcheck right up to the doors opening, so half the time our first song would be getting the levels right in front of the audience. We didn't have our own monitor engineer, either, so it would take half a song to get a level changed, waving across this huge stage to their monitor man...
"They do some cool stuff: they drop samples and loops from video cassette over the top of what they're playing, like Martin Luthor King making a speech. That's a great move forward, sampling with video so it's all linked in. The next thing we're going to do is look into ways of properly synchronising the video screens that we use on stage with the music."
Jez; "TV has become such an important part of the culture, we're surrounded by information and disinformation. It has huge benefits, but huge disadvantages too, as a medium, and we want to show images from TV in a new context to highlight this. For us, it has to be something that doesn't detract from what we're doing on stage, but which provides an added visual stimulus. We're still experimenting, at this stage.
What's happening is that video games are taking over from music, but the music on most games is appalling. As poeple start buying multimedia formats, we have to make sure that the music is not an afterthought, so you can buy a CD with really good music on it, plus some kind of visual element as well — whether it's virtual reality, CDI or whatever. We really want to get involved as it develops. At the moment, virtual reality is commercially fairly basic, and very expensive, but what's going to happen is that the visuals will get more realistic. It's quite scary, but when that happens the music better be good..."
Tim: "At the moment it's just computerised graphics, but when it incorporates real footage it'll get quite scary..."
Jez: "It's a shame, in a way... maybe music should be able to exist on its own. But the sensory assault from visuals and sound is closing the gap between them, and that's the way forward."
Jez: 'We started out expecting to sell a thousand white labels, but then we got signed. And we ended up in the ridiculous situation of having a Top Ten hit and only one song. So we've been trying to catch up with our own success for the last two years. We tried to step back, but then things started going well in America, so we had to go out there. You never get a chance to catch your breath."
Jez: "On the next single, 'I Want You', I sampled myself and put it through the Digitech Vocalist — which is a brilliant machine. I then resampled that with pitchbend on it, so there's this really weird effect on the chorus. It's down to whatever a track needs. We wanted to do three tracks using a sampled voice as the lead instrument, now we've done that and we'll move onto other things. But we'll always use samples, taking things and putting them into a different context. We'd rather spend £3000 on a new sampler than a 'classic' analogue synth..."
Tim: "We don't collect synths, we collect CDs.
Jez: "What made me realise that samplers could rock was when I was doing some bass in Peter Hook's studio in Manchester, and I thought I'd add some keyboards. So they gave me an old Emulator. And when it went down, and all the lights started flashing, the engineer just said 'give it a good kickin' and it will sort itself out'. I felt you just don't do that to such an expensive piece of gear, so he came in and kicked it so hard he raised it off the ground. And it was fine after that. That was when I knew these things weren't precious, they could have energy and life."
Jez: "We'd never just use the essence of someone else's song and use it as the basis of our own — although that is a valid art form in itself. Sampling gets a bad name because there are some unscrupulous people around who'll take anything and use it as the basis of their song. But if you extrapolate that argument to an absurd degree, every keyboard manufacturer would have to sue everyone that uses their sounds, because they created the sounds. People who slag off sampling then pick up a guitar and play in the same style that someone else has already done."
Tim: "'What Can You Do For Me' came out about the same time as PM Dawn's single that used Spandau Ballet's 'True', but because there was a rap over it people's attention was focussed on that. We created something new with Annie Lennox's voice, but because it was the voice — the focal point — people gave us a much harder time. As soon as there's a 'singer', everyone ignores the backing track."
Jez: "This argument will probably go on for years. When 'S-Express' came out, MT was full of letters saying 'anybody can do this', and the editorial reply was always 'OK, go and do it, then...'. Which was absolutely right — and still is."
Interview by Phil Ward
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