Green machines

International Musician and Recording World magazine - July 1985 
Interview by Adrian Deevoy 
Supplied by Jim Davies

"I'd just like to say now that I am not a knobist."
"Well I'm afraid that I am."
"I think I'll pass on that one."

Scritti Politti are back in the confessional. The eminently quotable Green is making excuses and apologies for knowing next to nothing about the knobs and wires that lie at the heart of all good technocrats. His tongue is pressed gently in his cheek. Custodian of Scritti keyboards, David Gamson, is in seventh heaven. Knobs and wires are his meat and vegetables. Percussion machinist, Fred Maher, is trying to keep quiet lest his collaboration with Richard Hell And The Voidroids becomes public knowledge.

If not open knobists, what then are fresh-faced New Yorkers and the Welsh boy. Musicians?

Green: "Principally no."
David: "Principally yes."
Fred: "Principally not a muso. Not naturally anyhow."

The very idea that these three men have been allowed to record an album together is quite frightening. In theory, the sound that Lou Reed's drummer, an unknown synth player and a man with a high pitched voice could produce isn't at all appealing. One could all too easily imagine a Rock 'n' Roll electro-dirge topped with a lot of intellectual caterwauling. But contrary to this hypothetical cacophony, 'Cupid & Psyche 85' is an exemplary piece of precision Pop influenced by a peculiar blend of black music and state of the art technology. Green's capricious melodies hover above an intricate tapestry of crisp electronic rhythms, squeaky-clean samples and gentle synthesizers.

David and Fred wax lyrical about the album's technicalities while Green contributes the inside observations of a partisan artist.

"I think we've achieved quite a lot of cohesion between the tracks and the sounds on the tracks," he muses, "that's why we've virtually ignored the orchestral stab, the sampling cliche, because it has no relevance. Well, actually we have used one..."

"Two," corrects Fred, "but we're really sorry. We went for sounds that sat properly in the tracks. The thing is with MIDI you can get the most incredible sounds, utterly amazing sounds. Like I hooked up a DX1 with two DX7s [Yamaha keyboards] and added a little reverb and what have you and some of the sounds that set up was coming up with you just wouldn't believe. But then you try to put the sounds on the record and they never sound right. So you might add another synthesizer just to tweak the sound up a little but invariably you end up with a kind of transparent sound that doesn't pick up reverb as well and isn't usable."

"That's what we mean by sounds sitting in the tracks," concludes David, "basically having something that's in perspective."

The rhythm tracks on 'Cupid & Psyche 85' were almost separate projects in themselves. Each of the sounds were meticulously matched as AMS samples, were replaced by Simmons pads and Linn library chips, were stopped in mid-beat and made into Fairlight sounds.

"The rhythms are of paramount importance to us," says Green, "we exploited virtually every available piece of machinery to give us the groove and the sound we wanted."

"We'd always start off with the bass drum and then build the rhythm track from there," says Fred.

"But by the time we'd get to the end of the track we wouldn't like the bass drum sound anymore so we'd change that or re-sample the sound and then start going through the others. We found out that probably the best thing to do was to deal with your drum sounds very last."

Inevitably the snare sound presented big problems.

"At one point," recalls Fred, "we had five tracks of snare. Which was ridiculous. We'd have a sampled wooden snare on one, a metal snare on another, some Simmons SDS7 snare, some Linn. It really got out of hand. We ended up ditching the whole lot and used a Linn library rim shot with a little bit of front and..."

"Shut up!" hisses Green.

"Apparently I've just given away our formula for a shit-hot snare sound," laughs Fred as Green descends beneath the table.

One particularly fascinating sound is the hihat which seems to dance above the mix in an ethereally detached fashion.

"It doesn't sound part of the drum tracks," agrees David, "But none of the rhythm sounds really do if you listen closely. It certainly doesn't sound like a regular drum set."

"We wanted to make the hihats sound like a caricature of a machine sound," says Fred, "otherwise it would have sounded very dull. The sounds are generally Linn and some of them are Linn and DMX mixed and some of them are actually played in real time!"

Is that the only actual playing on the album?

"No," laughs David, "there's some guitar being played, although we did sample some of the guitar parts. There's one guitar line we did using the SRC (friendchip interface) which enabled us to use different pushes and pulls and different delays and it sounded good. We could have done that on Page R [Fairlight program] but it would have come out sounding very stiff and sterile when we stuck it in the track. The SRC is very good for letting you get a groove."

"Page R becomes very limited when you want to start pushing and pulling sounds," says Fred. "You really have to go onto the Loop Editing Page and knock off or add on frames of the sounds to really make it work."

But if you had session guitarists in the studio, why not get them to play the parts?

"It would definitely be easier to get 'real human feel'," says Green, "but they never do exactly the same thing twice and they're never there when you want them. If you have them sampled, they can turn up when you want them."

It suddenly strikes the assembled that this would be a very useful concept to employ where everyone, as well as session guitarists, were concerned.

"But Green plays some real guitar on the album," smirks David, giving away another secret.

"I don't," argues Green. "Well alright I play one solo on the album but I'm not telling you which track it's on."

But didn't session guitarists mind being sampled? It brings to mind the Indian tabla player who charged Depeche Mode a full session rate for every drum he hit.

"No," says Fred, "one of the guitarists we used was tickled to death to be sampled; he couldn't wait to see what we'd do with his guitar sound. So we sampled each of the individual strings and all the bends and slides because they all have their own characteristics."

Is it true what The Art Of Noise say about the Fairlight?

"What," asks Green, "about it being more dirty and Rock 'n' Roll? Yes, I think it does sound kind of dirty..."

"It's called low bandwidth," interrupts David.

"I think it's got a limited appeal," continues Green. "The Fairlight's failings are something unto themselves."

"The new Fairlight will be full bandwidth," enthuses David, "so you'll be able to get really clean samples and sample on a lower bandwidth for that Rock 'n' Roll Fairlight sound."

"I suppose that the current Fairlight will end up as the 'vintage Fairlight sounds'," says Green, amusing himself with the thought. "That would be something of a statement of the advancement of technology."

There comes a time in every Scritti Politti interview when Green must be challenged about his vocals. It's a kind of tradition. So, come clean Green, is it varispeed or what?

"One of these days," he says with a very determined glint in his eye, "I'm going to summon up the courage and actually sing in one of these interviews."

We wait but nothing happens.

"I can make the noise," he insists, "I really can. The voice is actually very untreated. I generally have to fight against having it drowned in reverb."

But is it uncomfortable to sing falsetto?

"It's not uncomfortable but it can become a little tiring closing off the resonant cavities in your body."

Is that something you learnt from Tona de Brett?

"You're joking," he says most positively, "I ran like a frightened rabbit from Tona de Brett. She wanted me to touch her bosom. After an initial reluctance I didn't mind singing but I couldn't touch her... there. I've since been to a tutor in New York who was great fun. He made me do press ups and jump on and off chairs for an hour and then we'd go over to the piano and sing a scale and he'd say, 'Fine, see you next week'."

"He used to turn up at sessions exhausted," chuckles David.

Melodically Green continues to avoid perfect cadences as if they revulsed him.

"I find them very dull," he admits. "I have grown away from them completely. I think I tend to associate perfect cadences with a limited melodic vocabulary. I sometimes court the idea but ultimately I choose to avoid them."

What is Scritti Politti's music in comparison to aggressive industrial electro Funk?

"Urban to the point of being urbane," says Green revelling in his articulacy. And while we have three big noises in technology in one room, where is it all leading?

"All studios will become digital," states Fred, who insisted that the album will be recorded on SSL, "that will definitely happen. Just think back to the first decent polyphonic synthesizer, the first drum machine and think how far we've advanced in such a short space of time. Even in the time it took us to make the album there were so many developments we could hardly keep up. There were minor revolutions!"

After MIDIing eight synthesizers together and embellishing them with the world's most expensive reverbs in the world's most expensive studios, have Scritti now heard the most impressive sounds they're ever likely to hear?

"Definitely not," asserts David, "because there's a new Fairlight coming out! And a whole new generation of full bandwidth synthesizers."

"And apparently," confides Green conspiratorially, "guitar and drums sound quite interesting these days."

But let's not start any rumours.