Liverpool's China Crisis are poised for their third album release this month. It shows a marked maturing of styles and attitudes, due partly to the intervention of producer Walter Becker. Dan Goldstein probes the matter further.
Merseyside's synth wonders continue their trek across pop music's outer perimeter with the release of a third album this month. Surprisingly, it's been produced by Steely Dan's Walter Becker.
Under the arches of a main line railway bridge doesn't sound like the ideal place to build a sound proof rehearsal studio complex, but there's one in just such a location on North London's Holloway Road that seems to be doing very nicely, thank you. At the time of writing, one of the bands taking advantage of the studio's facilities is China Crisis, the Liverpool synth combo who've proved time and again during their brief career that in today's pop atmosphere, you don't need to conform to succeed.
Now they look as though they're about to prove it all again, with the release of a new album (their third) entitled Flaunt the Imperfection. The disc was recorded towards the end of last year under the guiding hand of former Steely Dan main-man Walter Becker, and I decided from the outset that I'd make it my business to find out what had been behind this seemingly unlikely coupling. Was it a fruitful partnership born purely from reasons of artistic dedication? Or was it an unhappy arranged marriage, the result of heartless boardroom decision-making?
As I entered the Crisis rehearsal room, guitarist Eddie was hunched over a hot soldering iron, risking life and limb in the quest for that elusive object, the jack-to-cannon lead.
'All the synths have got to go direct into the mixer now that we've started rehearsing, and all the connectors on the back of the desk are cannons', he explains, in a scouse accent so strong it makes Frankie's Mark O'Toole sound like a latter-day Alastair Sim. 'So I've got to take six jack plugs off these leads and fit them with cannons instead - it's a messy business.'
It's certainly that. Eddie yells in mortal pain as he tries to pick up his iron from the wrong end, and I tell him of a theory, long held to be incontrovertible truth by E&MM Technical Ed Paul White, that if you burn yourself badly enough with a soldering iron, it doesn't hurt at all because all your nerve ends are burned away.
'Well, tell Paul White I think he's a liar', moans Eddie, as he skulks away in search of some more cannons.
Clearly, I'm not likely to get the truth behind The Becker Connection from Eddie, but I might get it from bass player Gary, who's since walked over and become engrossed in the author's Frankfurt Report of E&MM March. Tell us how it came about, Gary.
'There are two sides to it, really. One is that when we were in Los Angeles, a couple of people at Warner Brothers (which is our label in the States) told us Walter had heard our last album and really liked it, and since all of us had always liked Steely Dan, we thought it might be a nice idea to do something with him if we ever got the chance.
'Then quite a while later, Virgin in this country told us they'd had an enquiry, and would we like to work with him? Apparently what had happened was that Steely Dan had signed to Warners but split up almost immediately afterwards, with the result that he'd never actually recorded anything for them. They'd more or less given up on him ever doing some more recording under his own steam, so they were trying to get him work as a producer instead. They showed him their roster of artists and tried to get him to work with the B-52s and people like that, but when he saw our name on the list he said he'd rather work with us.
'And that was just about it. really. Warners flew him over here, we met him we'd work with him here in Britain.'
It all sounds blissfully smooth. Were there any problems? Clashes of personality or differences of opinion, that sort of thing?
'Nothing major, no. Obviously our musical backgrounds were different. Walter was very much reared on jazz, and that influenced the way he worked with us - you could tell from the sort of chords and pieces he worked out with us. But for the ideas that we had before we started recording, he was just the right person. The right person at the right time...'
"I think what both us as a band and Walter as a producer needed was someone to bounce ideas off, some way of keeping an objective attitude to things."
So China Crisis were changing direction anyway, even before the transatlantic intervention?
'Oh yeah. Definitely. You see, we approached this album in a completely different way to the last one. For Working with Fire and Steel we did most of the writing in the studio, putting things on tape more or less as they came into our heads. But this time we wrote everything first as a band, and went into a rehearsal room before the recording to make sure we had everything worked out the way we wanted it to be.
'It was at that stage that Walter came in. We spent two weeks at Rock City in Shepperton with him first of all: they've got what amounts to a disused 24-track down there away from the main studio, and that was where we set up with Walter, playing everything live and putting it down on tape. We've listened back to those tapes since we finished the album, and the material is incredibly close to what we eventually ended up with.
'From Shepperton we moved on to Parkgate Studios near Battle in Sussex. The reason we recorded there was that although we were keen to work at a residential studio, we didn't really have the time to book it all months in advance, and Parkgate was a well-equipped studio that was available straight away for how-ever long we wanted it.'
'Well-equipped' is right. Parkgate is a fully-fledged, SSL-fitted studio that also happens to include a Fairlight in its list of hardware assets. Yet curiously, China Crisis and their producer had no need for the CMI's capabilities when it came to recording Flaunt the Imperfection. Instead, they got by with a remarkably down-to-earth set of gear. Surely there must have been times when the temptation to start working with the Fairlight
'No, not really', says Gary. 'We used our own keyboards, a Jupiter 8, Yamaha DX7 and a Juno 60, linked up to an MSQ700 using Roland's MD8 converter, which lets you use MIDI keyboards with DCB ones. Apart from that, there was nothing really special at all.'
And yet in spite of (because of?) this lack of technological complication, the band's working relationship with Becker was going more smoothly than either side had even dreamed of anticipating...
'It was incredible, really. I think what both us as a band and Walter as a producer needed was someone to bounce ideas off, some way of keeping an objective attitude to things. He'd always had Donald Fagen in Steely Dan, so it was a new experience for him, and it was the first time we'd ever written everything so far in advance of the recording, so I suppose we just needed each other.
'Whenever Walter came up with a certain idea, it seemed as if it was what we were trying to do but hadn't quite managed: maybe we would have managed it in the end, but he gave us the idea sooner, which was great.'
Without wishing to turn out the 'wimp-rock band come up with heavy funk album' cliche, it's got to be said that Flaunt the Imperfection is a revelation. Or rather, a confirmation of the belief that all those clever musical ideas the band had already shown themselves to be capable of harbouring would one day be put forward in a more aggressive and confident manner. But more of that later.
"I love the GR700 guitar synth, but I'll only get the 707 controller when I can afford the boots and helmet that go with it."
As it turned out, Becker wasn't the only outsider China Crisis worked with to help achieve their newly-shaped aims. The band also availed themselves of the services offered by session keyboards-man Nick Magnus, who some of you might recall as being a key figure in Steve Hackett's band not so very long ago.
'Nick had his own set-up', continues Gary, 'which consisted of a DX7 MIDI'd up to two Roland synth modules, a Planet S and a Super Jupiter. He was a great help, because he's one of those guys you can just ask to do something, and seconds later, he's done it - with no fuss. If there was an idea for a certain sound that we had in our heads or that Walter was thinking of, we just had to describe it in words and Nick would come up with it straight away.
'He was useful from a playing point of view as well, because there were quite a few things we knew from the rehearsals we would have trouble playing ourselves, but Nick just played everything straight off.'
But he wasn't using a mother keyboard to control the modules?
'Oh no.' Rejuvenated after his eventual success with the connecting cables, Eddie rejoins the conversation. 'I can't really see the point of those, to be honest. Well, I suppose if you're a really top-class player and you can appreciate a keyboard that's really well put together, they're worth it, but for the average muso, just can't see them. That's why Yamaha cornered the market with the DX7 - they brought out a keyboard that was responsive to musicians but sounded really good as well. Give something like that a low price and it's obvious you're gonna be onto a winner.
'We didn't really get into the Fairlight when we were doing this album, and in some ways I'm glad we didn't, because there's no way we can afford one! One thing that does look good though is the new AMS keyboard interface. We've used quite a lot of AMS delay and reverb in the past, and although their sampling thing is only monophonic, it looks like it should do the job.'
Elsewhere on the equipment front, Eddie has fallen in love with Roland's GR700 MIDI guitar synth, though he's still playing it from an ageing G303 controller - 'I'll only get a 707 when I can afford the boots and helmet to go with it.'
His playing is only one of many positive points on Flaunt the Imperfection. Other qualities that shine through after only a casual listening are an improvement in the clarity of singer Garry's vocal delivery, a tighter 'band' feel to the playing as a whole and, conversely, a looser, more relaxed atmosphere that must go down to the influence of Becker.
As for the immediate future, China Crisis are now past the interviewing stage and are busy tidying up their live act in preparation for an extensive UK and European tour due to take place within the next couple of months. They hope to be venturing farther afield, too, with the States as the final goal, as Gary explains.
'It's such a massive market, but we'd love to go and play there. We did a lot of gigs in Europe last year as support to Simple Minds, but this year I think we've built up enough of a following to go out there on our own. America's different: if we have to play support to get there, then we'll do it.
'But I don't see any reason why we shouldn't make a success of it. We're all playing a lot better than we ever have, we've got a lot more experience of playing in front of an audience, and in general we're a lot more confident than we used to be.'
And they're justified in having that confidence. China Crisis have always written music that was worth going out of your way to pay attention to. They've always had something new to say, and they've always said it with invention and courage. But they're getting better.
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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