Ex-Tangs member reveals why he’s going Japanese
Ex-Tang'er Steve Joliffe talks to Tony Mills about his latest work, Japanese Butterfly
Steve Joliffe doesn't seem overly anxious to shake off the tag "ex-Tangerine Dream". And to be fair, he was a very early member of the band (before they recorded anything or had even heard the word "synthesiser") and rejoined in 1978 for the Cyclone album, one of the bands most interesting vinyl offerings, although one which stands well apart from their more familiar style.
Joliffe made Cyclone unique by combining all his disparate skills — at improvisation and composition for flute, keyboards, sax, french horn, lyricon and voice — with the best of Edgar Froese and Chris Franke's powerful though less lyrical synth and guitar work. And in the end the sheer variety of ideas on the album ensured that the 1978 model Tangerine Dream couldn't survive for long, that a clash of personalities (more in the studio than out of it) would lead to Joliffe's return to the UK and a small cottage in Somerset.
Which is where our present story, taking in the albums Journeys Out Of The Body and now, Japanese Butterfly, really begins. For Joliffe has returned to being a thoughtful and unusual solo artist with many heartfelt ideas on music, electronics, composition and performance. When we spoke to him we began by asking him to outline the new album.
"It's called Japanese Butterfly, and it should be on release now. Originally we were going to call it Death of a Japanese Butterfly, but the marketing people in the States thought that sounded a little negative. Instead I've called the last track Ko Cho No Shi, which roughly translates as Lonely Butterfly Death, so I managed to get it in somewhere! There are ten short tracks and the whole album was recorded at home on a Tascam 38 eight-track with a Quantec Room Simulator for reverb effects.
"It turned out cheaper to hire the Quantec and work at home than to go into a studio which already had one installed. The album was mastered using a digital PCM-F1 system, which is wonderful. When I bought the 38 I had considered getting a PCM-F1 and two video machines and recording by bouncing back and forth and overdubbing, but now I'll probably buy an F1 for mastering.
"Most of the music is improvised in the sense that I didn't have any fixed ideas in mind before I started recording. I created parts as I went along, changed things around — it's just the modern way of writing music. There were only four tracks on the last album, but now I like the idea of making a statement in a small package. Maybe the next album will only have one track — it all depends on how I feel at the time".
So what is Joliffe's main motivation for composing?
"I compose music to express my emotions — things build up inside and my music helps to release that. When I did Journeys I needed the long approach to fit the subject matter of the music, but on Butterfly I didn't have any fixed ideas in mind when I started recording, and afterwards it sounded fairly Japanese. But I hadn't studied Japanese music at all, I was just expressing the way I felt at the time".
In fact the album doesn't contain any of the music Steve played live last year at Glastonbury, Olympia, UK Electronica and elsewhere. "This album was created in a certain period and I wanted to keep it that way. But the next album, Beyond The Dream, will have music from the live set".
Apart from the DX7 and flutes, Steve plays Juno 6, a little tenor sax (no soprano sax or vocals) and some acoustic piano on Butterfly. The piano certainly thickens up the DX sounds a lot.
"Yes, I took a lot of trouble choosing the piano. I listened to about fifty at Chappell's, and finally chose a Danemann upright. It's just miked up with a £25 Sony stereo mike, but I think it's got a very nice tone.
"On one track I used the arpeggiator on the Juno 6, but I play most of the keyboard parts manually. The Juno is the next stage up from the Pro One I used on Journeys — you have to work with them all the time because they don't have memories, so they're very creative. I'm trying to progress all the time with instruments to find a perfect one, and I don't think it's good policy to keep an instrument for too long. I look around every six months or so, but the DX7 has been kept for longest so far — it was one of the first ones in the country".
Steve confirmed that he modifies most of his DX7's presets sounds, and recently replaced his Roland JX3-P with a Yamaha TX7 expander module. This also allows him to store patches for the DX7 on cassette, which is more economical than using cartridges, and rather than organising sounds in sets of similar effects, he simply stores away banks of whatever sounds he's using at a given time.
"Some of the DX7's very bassy sounds suffer a little from digital noise, but most of the factory presets have been set up very quietly. The sounds I've made up are generally louder so there are no noise problems. On the track Reflections there's a DX7 Harp sound, and on Travel I'm using the Juno 6 filter and manually adjusting if with one hand while I play with the other.
"In fact I'm into any technique which produces a sound as long as it can express what I feel, so that could include sampling. But I'm into expression, not being restricted — being all-digital is the latest stage for me, but I don't find myself trying to reproduce analogue filter effects, although I may start out looking for that sort of sound and find something better on the way!"
It's a fact that Steve's recent work has been very much out of step with the rest of the electronic music field — for instance, in his avoidance of drum machines.
"I've always been a bit of a rebel, and I tend to do the opposite of what everybody else is doing. Recently I started using a Yamaha RX11 drum machine, then changed down to an RX15 because the difference wasn't all that great for the sort of music I was doing. It does help having an all-Yamaha setup with the RX15, DX7, TX7 and the QX7 sequencer, but the drum machine takes a back seat, being used more as a part of a sequence than as a drum backing. And of course the wind instruments are always there.
"I think there's a lot to be said for not having too much gear. If you surround yourself with equipment you often come up with a mediocre piece. I liked Journeys because it was almost all done on a Pro One and I had to thrash every last idea out of it to do something original. The idea of the TX816 FM rack seems completely over the top to me — I'm still trying to do something with one DX7, and although the TX816 sounds fantastic, it means you're limited because you just can't get into the system effectively".
Leaving aside Steve's comments on very high tech (he bought and recently sold a CX5M Music Computer too), I asked him what sort of effects he'd used on the album.
"Well, the DX7 badly needs a chorus, so I use the Boss CE3 pedal. Apart from the Quantec there aren't too many other effects — if I could do without an echo I would, because effects become like crutches as soon as you start to over-use them. I use the chorus quite sparingly, quite subtly".
And what about MIDI? Has it changed the way he composes?
"Not so much the way I compose, but maybe the way I record. All MIDI has really done for me is to standardise — in the past you'd be in trouble if you wanted to link two synths together, you'd be out looking for somebody who knew all about electronics to do it for you.
"But I have relatively few instruments and they're all Yamaha anyway. What has been happening is that I've been recording on the QX7 sequencer and playing along with it, so in fact I can get away with many fewer tracks of tape. In the end I'll be playing live to a digital master, and I'll be able to perform on stage in the same way.
"I've already given up the Revox backing tape and put it on a Sony Professional Walkman with Dolby C noise reduction. I think Dolby C's great, and I end up with the same quality. I like small things, so the idea of a backing track I could carry in my pocket appealed to me. Next I'll put the backing on digital, then I'll do away with it altogether".
In fact Steve played at Olympia last year with a percussionist and guitarist — why the temporary move away from solo work?
"I wanted to make sure that I'd got the most out of the pieces for Beyond The Dream, and that I wasn't missing out on anything by playing solo. But I found that I needed to concentrate completely on playing on stage, and having two other people there spreads my attention too thinly. I came out of it feeling stronger about playing solo — I don't want to be dogmatic about it, but if I play with somebody else now I'll know it's completely necessary".
Steve also has some reservations about playing commercial music, although he recorded the soundtrack for a TV film, Drake's Venture, a while back.
"When I first moved to Somerset after leaving the Dream in 78 the idea was for me to get something together with Virgin, but I just clicked with the place and started writing completely acoustic things which worked in the same way as my electronic stuff but sounded like Renaissance music. The producer of this TV show heard it and thought I was some kind of Renaissance buff because I'd written the music out on manuscript paper and recorded it with authentic instruments, but when it was shown, the critics all said I should have used synthesisers, which were very "in" at the time.
"I would like to reach more people but I wouldn't do more commercial or TV music. I feel I'm mature enough to turn something down if it doesn't suit my natural abilities — you can find yourself doing that sort of thing as a way of life, and you have to question whether it's really "you" or you'll end up doing something you hate. Life's very short and you have to be careful which way you go!"
Steve may be taking care which way he goes, but he's certainly changing directions rapidly these days. He mentioned recording some pieces with the drum machine taking a more up-front role, and expressed an interest in the SCI DrumTraks, which offers much greater variation than the RX15 through the ability to interchange sound chips. I've got a fairly simple keyboard setup now and I've been doing a lot more singing with conventional lyrics. I enjoy it but I can't do it unless it feels and sounds right. I've worked myself very hard, sometimes doing 12 to 15 hours a day, and a lot of the stuff I've written has been scrapped and re-written and started again".
When we spoke, Steve was planning his set for the UK Electronics '85 Festival at Sheffield University (August 24th) and hoping to include small sections of Butterfly with Beyond the Dream and the new material. But as ever, the exact content of his music would depend on his feelings on the day. Joliffe's improvisation, devotion to the final sound over and above the methods used, and emotional attachment to his music, make his use of electronics uniquely "human" compared to many of today's synth musicians. As he comments, "I think we're all capable of creating things we're not aware of being able to do. I'm often surprised at things I do — often things I could never repeat"...
Japanese Butterfly Pulse Records.
Journeys Out Of The Body Pulse.
Cyclone Virgin Records (deleted).
Steve Joliffe also appeared with Steamhammer (most albums deleted)
Interview by Mark Jenkins writing as Tony Mills
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