Steve Cogan takes time out to talk to the members of Yen
The history of the band Yen reads almost like a dream come true for aspiring musicians - Steve Cogan chats with them at one of their London gigs
The four piece band was formed from two duo's, who got together after being in semi-professional bands. After playing support to big name groups such as It Bites and New Model Army they were given a 'Powerplay' on Jonathon King's No Limits show. Shortly after Yen took the plunge and financed a run of 1,000 singles themselves.
Mark Goodier, Simon Bates and Adrian John all started playing Red Indians and their fortunes took another upward swing after Gary Numan, creator of the pop classic Cars, listened to their single, saw them live and invited them along as 'special guests' on his national UK tour. He introduced Yen to IRS records, who Gary is signed to, and who then signed Yen. Their debut single for IRS, Billie Holliday's Shoes, has already attracted a devoted following, as I witnessed when they took time out to give autographs. If the rumours are to be believed then Prince has been listening to Yen's work and has shown an interest in working with them in the future.
The line-up of Yen comprises of Chris Turner (Vocals and harmonica), Dave Cook (Guitar), Grey (Drums, percussion and synths), Andy Parks (Rhythm stick and keyboards). As well as having an interest expressed about them by influential musicians, some of the country's top producers such as Gary Langan and Phil McDonald have worked on the band's sound.
I caught up with the band outside Hammersmith Odeon near the end of their UK tour with Gary Numan and, after a lot of activity to get a pass, I settled down with my tape recorder for a chat with Yen.
Grey explained what led them into using modern equipment, 'Just interesting sounds. You can get a totally individual sound with a keyboard that everyone else has, and this is what we've done. With the guitar and the samplers, we've got our own sound together, completely individual. Other people can't go into a shop and buy a keyboard with a Yen sound on it, short of pilfering them from us, they can't get them!'
The band are keen to sound as good as possible live and so use the same equipment that they use while recording, as Turner emphasised, 'What you hear live is what you hear on the record.' Grey seconded this, 'Bar the odd overdub you do on the recording.'
Though this, by no stretch of the imagination, means that Yen aren't great live and in fact they play with great enthusiasm and have elicited a good response from audiences across the UK.
Their equipment includes a Korg SQD sequencer, three Prophet 2000s, an Akai S-950, a Roland D-110, a Roland TR-909 drum machine, two Yamaha guitars and a Simmons drum kit.
Grey talked about the large part MIDI plays in their music. 'Everything is MIDIed to everything else virtually! The drums are all MIDIed, the Simmons kit is MIDIed playing the S-950, and the keyboards finish off a sort of MIDI loop.'
When questioned on whether they had considered using any computers such as an Atari ST or Apple MAC for MIDI, Grey replied, 'It's not very good live, as far as we're concerned, we'd rather use a hardware based system than a software based system because if something should go wrong we haven't got to reload everything. There is nothing really on the market, other than the Korg and the few Roland sequencers but most things are a bit too dodgy to use on stage.'
Almost every band who has played live has an anecdote about their performance and Grey supplied Yen's, 'Yeah, we lost the top keyboard on one gig, the MIDI was in the wrong way! So for about the first four songs we had no top keyboard, which probably sounded very strange to everyone because it was almost half the song missing! But that was sorted out eventually and it was luckily the only real disaster.'
It turned out that Yen were great admirers of Gary Numan and were in his fan club and sent in their demos. Grey took up the story. 'A couple of us were in the fan club and we sent our stuff in, tapes and videos and then he got back to us a couple of months later and asked us if we wanted to do the tour. Obviously we accepted!'
The b-side to their latest single, Escape caught my attention because parts seemed to bear more than a passing resemblance to the Art of Noise's Yebo. Chris Turner explained, 'With respect, that was meant to be a joke, we were signed to the same record company as the AoN. At that time we were having terrible trouble with them and the whole point of Escape was just that, there's a sample in it that goes, 'How do we get out of this chicken-shit outfit!' We were in effect throwing the Art of Noise back at them. But well spotted that man! Actually JJ (from the AoN) has heard it and he wants to produce us sometime in the future. We've got bits of Prince in our music, jiggery pokery is used on the samples.' Grey added,'We just use it to complement whatever we're doing, as part of the rhythm or something.'
At this point we had to pause the interview for a few minutes while Gary Numan's band did their rehearsal directly above Yen's dressing room! Then, the questioning strayed onto the band's ethos, Chris Turner commented, 'I think we are very contemporary, very, very contemporary. We try to write good songs, but to be interesting with it and we're obviously using sound.'
Turner explained how a song starts, 'Sometimes it can be with just a sound sample, it might trigger a sound sample in a rhythmic way which could suggest something in a melodic sense. Sometimes it will start off with a lyric idea, Billie Holliday's Shoes started with a lyric idea. We've no real formula but sound samples do play a big part.'
On a more general theme of lyrics Turner commented, 'Nobody is going to change my life or your life by the Jukebox. I'm into playing around with ideas and if people can see something good in it, that's great.'
The descending price of equipment was a point for Turner, 'There are bands in Southend who have better gear than we have, they are playing in pubs and supporting us! It's almost like a music shop on stage. They all seem to have day jobs and drive up to the gigs in great cars, we use the bus! It seems to me that young people today are very sussed about equipment, probably more sussed than we are.'
When challenged by cynics in the audience who say 'Oh you're just pressing buttons, you're not playing!' Yen usually retort, 'All right we'll give £100 to anyone who can come up here and press the right buttons!'
Grey is interested in getting an ST for use in pre-production for ease of use, 'With the Korg it's only a main track and a sub-track, if you want to edit something you've got to virtually blank the whole bar and re-program the whole bar. It would make life a lot easier.'
Yen have confidence in their ability at this stage in their career as Turner explained, 'We're the only band I've seen live, at this level, doing what we're doing, no question. Not even Jesus Jones are doing technically what we're doing. Not even the Pet Shop Boys have a drummer on stage, they just come on stage using machines. We're into song writing, we write for other people as well. I'm always having the same argument with people about whether or not technology is taking over music, I always say to them The Beatles were THE exponents of new technology, they couldn't get their hands on enough of the stuff. Sergeant Pepper was very advanced in using backward tapes, no-one was doing that at the time. It's very vulgar to dismiss machines as being very, you know...'
Interview by Steve Cogan
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