Transatlantic Trends - Saga
...while Annabel Scott listens to words of wisdom from a Transatlantic keyboardist of a very different kind - Saga's Jim Gilmour.
The UK music scene is often justifiably accused of being too parochial. But with acts from the other side of the Atlantic breaking new ground in most areas of music making, it's about time we paid attention to the way things are done 'over there'. We talk to two keyboard-based bands, one American, the other Canadian, about what makes them sound different.
'You can be really huge in Canada and nobody's even heard of you anywhere else'. Sobering words from Jim A Gilmour, keyboard player and songwriter for Saga, one Canadian rock band which has joined the (short) list of those able to claim international success.
We last looked at the band back in January 1984 after the release of their album Heads or Tales.
They've followed this up with Behaviour, still on Polydor, and a more varied set which includes sampling, complex MIDI linking and electronic percussion in its instrumentation. But Behaviour retains all the facets of the Saga sound which have given the band such a devoted following — a smooth but powerful feel, good melodies and cryptic lyrics.
On the subject of lyrics, Saga have matured beyond the Space Rock connotations of their early days. Gilmour in fact joined in time for the third album, commenting that 'it was difficult for me to make much of an impression on the band at first. I'd been studying music and left college to join Saga, and before that I'd just been in copy bands. Writing my own songs only came gradually.'
In fact, Gilmour jumped in at just the right point, as Saga set off on their first European tour supporting Styx. Up to that point, life for the band had been difficult.
'A band can have great success in Canada, and do nothing anywhere else. We have bands that sell 300,000 albums in Canada, and that's a lot of albums because 50,000 is a gold record over there. Platinum Blonde and some others are huge there, but not too well-known outside. We were fortunate to break in Europe.'
So are the problems of Canadian rock just to do with the country's small population?
'I'm not sure what the problem is, but for one thing there are only 22 million people there. There's just not the market, and for a while Canadians didn't believe in their own bands either. The attitude was: "you haven't made it anywhere else, so you can't be any good".
'On the last Canadian tour we did, we only played the East coast. We played Toronto, which is our home town, we played Montreal, we played Quebec City and a couple of places further north. You can do a tour of Canada, but if you look at all the big cities...'
At this point Gilmour snatches a map of Canada which is handily lying on the desktop, and gestures to the icy wastelands of the north with some frustration.
'Just look at this! Calgary to Regina is a thousand miles! In the States you can go a couple of hundred miles and there's a big city, so it's much easier to organise a tour. In Canada it's very expensive to tour the whole country.'
Getting out of Canada is a matter of finance as well, as Gilmour found on his first tour with Saga.
'We went on tour with Styx and played everywhere including the Hammersmith Odeon. That's what got the ball rolling, but when you want to break somewhere in Europe you have to pay the headline band you're touring with. In the States it's the other way round, but we paid to go on the Styx tour and since then we've helped a number of other bands in the same way.'
The early Saga albums have dated a little, especially in the area of keyboard sounds. But the 1982 live album In Transit still stands up well. Gilmour explains how the keyboard setup developed up to that point.
'There had been two guys taking my part in the band before I joined, and singer Mike Sadler and bassist Jim Crichton have always played some keyboards, too. When I came in I brought my Yamaha CS80 with me, and the band already had the Polymoog which tended to give them their sound.
'There weren't that many polyphonic synthesisers around before that time, and they'd got hold of one of the first Polymoogs. Before that they'd been using a Minimoog and creating chords with it one note at a time, so being able to play chords on the synthesiser was something wonderful.
'But when I get hold of the early recording now I think: "my God, this is horrible!". It sounds so thin, though it was OK for backgrounds and a lot of the songs were written on the Polymoog.
'I changed the sound of the band when I joined because I brought the CS80. I was also using a Fender Rhodes piano, but I got rid of that fairly soon and added a Minimoog, while Michael had a Multimoog on top of the Yamaha CP70 piano.
'We had a Jupiter 8, then I got into the Memorymoog and at one time we had three on stage. Michael has a JX3P now, and the Multimoog is used for basslines on top of the Jupiter 8. After the Memorymoog I got the PPG Wave 2, one of the first in Canada.'
"I want to do some more experimental music outside the framework of Saga, but it's difficult to make that sort of thing successful commercially. I may end up putting some vocals on it and going for a deal with a major label."
Jim Gilmour, Saga
Gilmour's setup has changed again since that stage, but we'll look at the current combination later. Before that, it's worth thinking about the band's musical influences...
'I was a classically-trained player, and although I liked jazz I couldn't really play it. I think some of the classical influence subconsciously comes out in the band, but no-one else in the band reads music so there's no point in me writing out a part for them.
'I can write music, but you don't really need that for rock 'n' roll. I was always interested in bands like UK and Yes which used very complex time signatures. But in Saga it's not really like that: everything is more or less in 4/4, though there's some counterpoint going on that makes it sound more complex.
'I've always admired players like Eddie Jobson, and albums like Close to the Edge which have three bars of 4/4, two of 4/5 and so on. Sometime I'd like to do something like that...'
Whatever experiments Gilmour would like to make with Saga's style, there's no doubt the band's sound is changing. Part of the reason is that on Behaviour, they used MIDI extensively for the first time, even having MIDI/sequencer retrofits to their Memorymoogs for the purpose.
'I still love the sound of the Moogs, but on the whole they haven't been very reliable. I used one MIDI'd up on Behaviour, but this is the last time I'll take it out on the road.
'For this tour I've got a pair of Roland Super Jupiter modules and a pair of Planet S modules, and an MKB1000 mother keyboard to control them. It was between that or the Yamaha KX88, but I liked the feel of the Roland better. Obviously I'm used to a firm action, being taught on piano, but I didn't have much trouble getting used to a plastic synth keyboard as well.'
Gilmour's on-stage performance is quite complex. Often, he's taking quite independent left and right hand parts, originally on different keyboards but more recently on either side of an MKB1000 split. The upper modules in his racks play all the upper sounds, the lower modules all the lower sounds, and for the sake of spontaneity, the sound memories aren't arranged in any order — he has to remember the right numbers for each pair of patches.
The Memorymoog and PPG aren't tied into the MIDI system on stage, and usually it isn't necessary to load up new PPG samples during the set since one multisample will hold all the necessary sounds. To round off the keyboard setup, Jim uses a Moog Liberation 'for the poseur solo' on 'Humble Stance' from the first album.
Most PPG, Memorymoog and Super Jupiter owners nowadays could be expected to have a DX7 in there somewhere — but Gilmour is the exception that proves the rule.
'I've never owned one. I know when you start programming it that you can get great things, but who has the time? I've got the PPGs and it's so easy to get original sounds on them compared to a DX. Also there aren't so many people using the PPG, whereas with the DX7 you find everybody uses the same sounds.
'I did use a DX7 on one song on Behaviour. That was the first time I'd used MIDI, and at one point we had about 13 keyboards and included the DX7 because it was in the studio at the time.'
In the past, Saga's sound has been based on the classic heavy guitar, bass and drums, but under the influence of Gilmour's hi-tech setup, it seems likely there'll be some impetus to examine other fields such as sequencing or sampling.
'I did some sampling on the PPG Waveterm — mainly some vocal things, a few sound effects and reversed sounds. But we haven't gone into it too much yet, and I don't use the sequencer at all.
'I don't mind sequencers in their place, and we've been using the Roland MSQ700 in the studio. But I prefer to play parts when I can. There's nothing so complicated in the band that I can't play by hand, and in the past when we've tried to program things into sequencers, it's always turned out quicker to play them.'
Gilmour's use of sequencers has mainly been confined to a small studio owned by Saga drummer Steve Negus. The studio's an eight-track affair with a decent selection of outboard equipment, and Jim and Steve are currently working on individual projects there.
'I've wanted to do some more experimental music for some time outside the framework of Saga', Gilmour confides. 'But it's very difficult to make that sort of thing successful commercially. We may end up putting some vocals on it, and then going for a deal with one of the major labels.'
A couple of days later, at the Hammersmith Odeon, Saga were playing to a capacity audience. The makeup of that audience emphasised the band's wide appeal: a few heavy metal hairies, of course, but an astonishing number of young accountant types in shirts and spectacles, a disproportionate number of young ladies who knew the words to all the songs (surely they can't all have been there to ogle Michael Sadler?) and even a few mums and dads.
A few treats were in store, too, with the band playing sections from all the 'Chapters' (interlinked sci-fi songs which occur throughout the early albums), Sadler playing a solo on a suitcase Simmons kit accompanying Steve Negus, and Gilmour's closing Moog Liberation solo.
Saga won't be around in the UK for a while now, so you've missed out on a chance to catch them live. But if you can get hold of In Transit, you'll hear a really impressive example of modern techno-rock — the way they do it across the Atlantic.
Interview by Mark Jenkins writing as Annabel Scott
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