Azymuth built up their career since the early 70s becoming one of the leading jazz-funk groups in Brazil. Ivan Conti, one of the three founding members alongside José Roberto Bertrami and Alex Malheiros, spoke with us about their mentor Marcos Valle, how they created their "samba soul" sound as same as Ivan Conti's collaboration with Madlib.
(HWR) What brought you to music, and more specifically to playing the drums?
(IC) I was born with the gift of music! I always wanted to be a musician; my parents liked music and I always listened to music at home, particularly orchestral music. First I started to learn how to play the guitar, which I still play today to complement the harmonies in my songs. I got interested in the drums when I was sixteen, when my friends and I used to go over to each others’ houses to listen to records; I saw someone playing drums and liked it. It was what I wanted.
(HWR) There are undeniable samba roots throughout the body of your music, but you can hear less of the strong bossa nova movement that had a big impact on the Brazilian music scene of the 60s, probably as it was a little before your time, too. It seems like you transformed its spirit into something more powerful and electric. How did you deal with bossa nova?
(IC) Samba is my root. Brazil's root as a whole. The other rhythms came as a result of my work. I always liked jazz and rock! My first group, Dissonant, was actually a bossa nova trio, after the rock that was popular among young people at the time. I had great opportunity in my career to work with artists of various genres. What happened to the three of us is that we had these opportunities and rehearsed a lot to try to create a new sound, an identity which was relatively undefined at the time. We experimented with electronic drums, and we tried to bring to the scene everything that did not exist yet. Anyway, I believe that all this ended up being our identity. Samba, bossa nova, rock, funk, jazz, and electronic!
(HWR) On which projects did you collaborate and what experiences did they give you that later contributed in your work with Azymuth?
(IC) I always liked to diversify! I worked with bossa nova groups, and rock groups. Before Azymuth I was in a rock band The Youngsters, in the 60s. I have always worked in the studio with musicians of every generation of my country. I did several shows with all singers as well. This helped me because I learnt to work with all possible rhythms.
(HWR) How to imagine your visits at Beco das Garrafas? Can you tell us more about that venue and its magic for you?
(IC) The Beco das Garrafas is a venue on a street in Copacabana, and it was where it all began. There were several nightclubs there – about six – of which the most significant were Bottles Alley and Garrafas. They were magical places for musicians who were beginning and could assist those who had had more time in the profession. Great singers and musicians of the time went there – Edson Machado, Dom Um, Elis Regina, Sergio Mendes and many more – and we went there to learn, because we liked the sound.
(HWR) How did you and the other Azymuth guys meet and come up with the idea of starting a band?
(IC) We started in the 60s, because I played in a nightclub called Canecão, which opened in 1968 in Botafogo, with my rock band… Jose Roberto Bertrami played in another group with his brother and another musician, while Alex Malheiros was playing in a bossa nova trio. One watched the other and the venue was very large, and with several groups playing, we talked a lot. It was then that we had the idea to get together and work on something. We started to perform at Canecão, and we played, rehearsed and created music together, always researching and coming up with new ideas. In the tests we thought we needed a vocal and put Fabyola, but at our shows people began to dance to our songs, which were successful songs of the time, both nationally and internationally. Very quickly we focused on our own songs, because they had a few vocals and that was what people wanted at the time.
(HWR) Azymuth initially started in the early 70s as Grupo Seleção, which was mainly a cover band. What made you move forward to making your own music?
(IC) After the Grupo Seleção, we started recording a lot and played in the studio more than we did live, recording with various artists like our group, the base always the three of us, and among these guest musicians, Marcos Valle, who also invited us to record the documentary soundtrack called "O Fabuloso Fittipaldi". We had previously done work with Marcos Valle, called Surround Sound, advertising a Cia Aerea, so we knew we could work with him. Marcos Valle made these songs with his brother, Paulo Sergio and we played together as a group selection. Marcos Valle is our great friend and godfather. One of the songs on the record, Azimuth, meant a lot to everyone who worked on it, and when on another day we returned to the studio people in production referred to us as Azimuth. We liked the name and so it was. So we decided to go into the studio and record the songs that we had rehearsed, an independent work.
(HWR) Following the rather acoustic tracks like "Manha" (1975) tracks from the album "Light as a Feather" (1976) already featured many more electronic components.
(IC) We always used electronic instruments. At the time, we were travelling a lot and whenever we could buy instruments we did, but we used everything we could.
(HWR) In which way did your solo works give you the chance to express yourself differently?
(IC) I believe that as a solo musician, my job is to put out work that wouldn’t necessarily fit into the group's career, as I'm always putting my electronic work, which I like a lot.
(HWR) You are currently touring and have even gone back to the studio, even though your initial keyboard-player, Jose Roberto Bertrami, passed some time ago in 2012. How would you describe your current sound with the new keyboardist Fernando Moraes?
(IC) Unfortunately Bertrami died in 2012, and we immediately needed a new keyboard-player; Fernando Moraes had been covering for Bertrami while he was battling his illness. With that, he began to travel and do shows, but could not stand being away from home for long periods, so then Kiko Continentino came along, who has been with me and Alex since March 2015. We have been doing a great job and have recently been recording. He really brings something to the band.
(HWR) In what kind of scenes have you been involved in since then and what has influenced you musically?
(IC) DJs for sure. They have really opened my mind. When I did the documentary Brasilintime, which a producer from Los Angeles invited me to do, B + called several Brazilian drummers and brought DJs. We made the film and did several shows in several countries, which really changed my perception a lot. Several DJs did remixes of Azymuth works, which reminded me that life is an eternal renewal.
(HWR) We noticed you are up for new collaborations, one to mention the recordings with Madlib in 2008
(IC) Yes, a lot! I've done enough. It’s great to meet new people, new musicians and play with another culture. We’ve had lots of collaborations between Azymuth and DJs. We did a festival in San Paolo with many of them and in August I’m playing at Dekmantel. We were in the middle of the electronic.
Meeting Madlib was another amazing experience, being next to a great DJ, a great musician, and we had the chance to exchange ideas. Each sound that was made was an incredible joy and even more for working with someone who was a fan of my group. I had a lot of respect and care for him. I’m very grateful to great DJs like Madlib, who have spread the name and music of the band internationally and among the younger generations.
The Mexican composer Gerardo Bátiz created true masterpieces of progressive fusion jazz. Especially to point out the album "Azul Con Leche" (1986), that carries the listener into a powerful sound experience. In his music Bátiz discusses not only the light beauty of life but also Mexico's political issues: "I think that in almost all of the countries in the world the governments don’t want to have a thinking population that can express their opinion and question them". An important encounter in his career and life was later on with the Engelhart family. Pete Engelhart, who became a true friend of Bátiz, created personalized percussion instruments for Airto Moreira among others. He also built exceptional sculptures with his instruments.
(HWR) You started working as a professional musician with the group "La Nopalera" in 1977. What was your role in the group?
(GB) I played flute, percussion and piano, and after a time I became arranger and producer of our records.
(HWR) The songs were politically charged and followed Latin-American rhythms. Which contents did you discuss in your music?
(GB) Basically social problems, we talked about our reality in that time. Our social problems have been pretty much the same as they are now. Social inequality, corruption in all government levels, poverty, lack of good education, lack of good jobs, etc.
I think that in almost all of the countries in the world the governments don’t want to have a thinking population that can express their opinion and question them, that is why they don’t care about providing a good education and they go together with religion to control all this aspects of society. We thought that we could make a point with our songs and that some people would identify with what we were saying and be their voice. We were inspired in the Cuban New Song Movement, which had just began few years ago with Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes, and also from Violeta Parra (Chile) and Mercedes Sosa (Argentina), just to mention some. We were trying to do the same as they were doing in their own countries but talking about our own reality.
(HWR) What kind of genres you have been introduced to during your work with "La Nopalera"? You told us that the lead singer gave you an insight into many different musical directions.
(GB) I was introduced to all the new Latin-American music, which is based on the traditional genres of each country, but the band leader studied in Brazil, so he showed me a lot of music from there. Milton Nascimento, Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil. All of them from Brazil. Jaime Roos from Uruguay. Roy Brown from Puerto Rico.
(HWR) In Mexico in the 80s there were some artists experimenting a lot in the field of jazz and electronic music. Eblen Macari is one to mention. Have you been involved into experimental music too to that time?
(GB) Not really, what I have been interested all the time is to mix different kinds of music from all places, maybe what we call now “World Music”.
(HWR) For the album "Azul Con Leche", how was the band structured and which instruments were involved?
(GB) We had a base group formed by two percussionists, Armando Montiel and Montserrat Revah, Cecilia Engelhart in the vocals, Juan Cristobal Perez in the bass, Juan Carlos Novelo on drums and me in the piano and steel drums. Manduka, a brazilian composer who lived in Mexico to that time, played an important role in this album. Manduka is the reason that in some of the songs we have this Brazilian feeling, he is the male voice you can hear on it. As guest musicians we had Sabo Romo on bass and Diego Herrera on alto and baritone saxes (both from “Los Caifanes” a very famous Mexican rock group), Hector Infanzón on piano (jazz pianist with classic formation), Alejandro Campos on clarinet and soprano sax and Jose Luis Vega on trombone.
(HWR) The title of your album "Azul Con Leche" is a result of a word play. What does it express for you?
(GB) It gives me the feeling of the beginning of a nice day, drinking a cup of coffee, but also nostalgic, blue.
(HWR) You said that you encountered during your stay in California a family that owned and produced metal percussion instruments for very famous musicians. How did you encounter and what kind of spirit did they contribute to your musical career?
(GB) This was one of the most important encounters in my life. This family introduced me to a lot of marvellous music I couldn’t imagine that existed. It was so inspiring that this encounter was the reconfirmation for me that I had to continue with my musical search and share it to the people. Six months after we met, I went to California to visit them. In that time a very close friend, who later became the producer of my first album "Cristal" introduced me to an album called "Red Lanta", it was one of the first albums of ECM Records from Germany. The players were Art Lande on piano and Jan Garbarek on sax and flute. It was just fantastic music, I listened to it every day. So, after a few days after my arrival, Pete Engelhart invited me to a friend’s house to have dinner. His name was Glenn and he made leather bags for drummers and percussion instruments. Glenn and his wife were showing me their workshop, when all of a sudden I saw a poster of a concert in Oslo of Art Lande! I asked Glenn if he assisted to the concert and with a smile he told me yes. I started reading the names of the musicians that participated and it were Art Lande on piano, Mark Isham on trumpet, Bill Douglass on bass and Glenn Cronkite on drums. Glenn? I turned my face to him and we started laughing a lot. Yes, he was Glenn. I asked him about Art Lande and he told me he lived in town. I couldn’t believe it. He gave me his phone number, and the rest is another story...
(HWR) For whom did they produce the percussions and what was their special way of creating them?
(GB) Pete Engelhart, made personalized instruments for Airto Moreira, Hermeto Pascoal, Nippy Noya, Mickey Hart and Mino Cinelu, just to mention some. He made whatever they asked him for. He even made some musical sculptures with his instruments.
(HWR) What is their background? Did you ever collaborate on a musical level or rather an emotional?
(GB) Pete is a jazz pianist and in the 60’s he spent some time in Brazil and fell in love with their music. After he came back to California he has always been near of the contemporary music scene there. I was just an observer.
Pete Engelhart and his percussion sculpture.
(HWR) Today you are involved in work as a tutor for scholarships of young creators of the Culture Ministry, close to Mexico City. In which way there are connection points with your work as a musician?
(GB) In many ways. I’m mainly a composer, so I identify myself with them on this basic level, we discuss how they approach their work and how they can improve it, and as an arranger and producer I try to transmit them my experience through all these years to help them finding their own way to do their things.
Alex Cima used to work as a Chief Engineer at Music Lab studios (LA), from 1975 to 1979. There he also created his two strongly visionary albums, by having access to devices such as the Aks Synthi, Nyle Steiner's modular systems and Chapman stick (to name a few). We caught up with Alex Cima to talk about the outstanding track "Deception" and his experiences with the synthesizer band LEM.
(HWR) You worked as an engineer at the Music Lab studio. In what kind of productions you've been involved there?
(AC) Music Lab was a studio that had two rooms and a rehearsal hall, we had a lot of traffic there, as for me, I generally did not work with bands as much as film/TV music, my favourite client was a film music editor, some of this work is listed on my resume page on my website.
(HWR) Did you also use it as a recording place for your own productions?
(AC) The studio afforded me the possibility of recording my own projects, which included Cosmic Connection, another album not released in Europe, and a film score.
(HWR) Which equipment was available in the studio?
(AC) The studio equipment was the usual MCI, Ampex, Otari gear one might find in an LA studio in the mid 70's to early 80's, including the usual assortment of pro microphones and signal processors.
(HWR) Your first Synthesizer was the EMS Synthi-AKS. Do you think that this as a starting point had a big impact on your approach to your music production?
(AC) After taking an electronic music class in early 1974 I was set to buy an ARP 2600, but fortunately found the Synthi AKS instead. I bought it because you cannot learn an instrument unless you have one, and the Synthi certainly taught me a lot. I also had other Synthesizers available through friends or in the studio so there was an assortment of things available. The Synthi was used for bass, leads, and fx.
(HWR) In "Deception" there is a guitar-like component. Did you use the Emmett Chapman stick to create it?
(AC) Yes, there was a Chapman Stick, however there was also an electric guitar, the sound that characterizes the piece is the vocal like sound of an alto sax through a Marshall Time Modulator.
(HWR) What is the story behind the "Deception" track?
(AC) "Deceptoion" was done (1978), typically I would start with a click track, most likely from a synth controlled by a sequencer, maybe a kick drum sound, and develop the synth "drum" tracks to nail the structure, then probably used the Synthi for bass. (Sometimes I start with a piano track, like in "Disconcerto".) I filled in with the Chapman Stick, had friends play electric guitar and alto sax.
(HWR) You collaborated on the record "Machines" from Doug Lynner and Bryce Robbley's Lem project. Which was your role on that record and how was the experience of working with them?
(AC) As for LEM, I found Doug and Bryce after organizing an electronic music concert at the Brand Library in Glendale California, several groups played that day including some of their electronic compositions from CalArts. On the basis of what I heard I proposed that we form a synthesizer band, thus LEM came into being, later on we added Daniel Sofer (notice four people in the picture on the back of the album). After a couple of years or so Daniel and I left LEM and they kept the band. "Working" in a 4 person band is like being married to 3 people, we rehearsed every day. Later we teamed up with a sculptor and engineer to include a modest light show.
Doug Lynner, was the editor of the influential synthesizer magazine, Synapse (conversations with Herbie Hancock, Kraftwerk and Tom Oberheim included) and is a founding member of the bands LEM, Moebius and Invisible Zoo. LEM was one of the first live performing synthesizer bands and their album "Machines" featured already in 1977 strong avant-garde sounds! Nowadays he still keeps his passion for analogue devices alive with performances, composing and recordings for which he is using vintage and contemporary analogue modular synthesizers.
(HWR) Together with Bryce Robbley you founded LEM in 1975 – to that time you were still studying as a music student at the California Institute of The Arts. Would you see LEM as a result of your studies?
(DL) Yes, me and Bryce were in our final semester at CALARTS when we conceived of LEM and the environment and our studies there influenced us very much. It was our idea to combine the avant garde compositional styles we were studying with Morton Subotnick and Hal Budd and the new instrumental technology of synthesizers like the Buchla and Serge synthesizers with more popular idioms found in jazz and rock music. The overarching idea to perform these new sounds live on stage was expressed by the name LEM which stood for Live Electronic Music. I remember sitting on the floor of the hallway outside of the music Department office when we came up with the name and concept. It was our big plan for what to do after graduation. It was later after graduation that we started to fill the plan in with Alex Cima, Danny Sofer and Evan Caplan.
(HWR) Which were the main topics/ characters/ devices you focused on during your studies?
(DL) We were into everything new and technological. We were fortunate to be studying with working pros like Mort and Hal and on the amazing Serge and Buchla synths we used there. The topics were never about actually using synthesizers, it was always exploring compositional concepts and sometimes getting to know the newly established composers of the moment like Steve Reich. There was also a great deal of focus on world music. I studied South Indian Flute, Gamelan Orchestra and rhythmic singing of the Bushmen and Pygmy tribes of Africa.
(HWR) LEM stands for "Live Electronic Music". How did your motto come up? As you said, performing live with synthesizers in those days was certainly not something common.
(DL) Our intent to take synthesizers on stage was enabled by a synthesizer designer named Serge Tcherepnin who was developing a new, brilliant synthesizer design and building them out in a stairwell at CalArts. They combined advanced circuitry with an affordable panel format and with them and a few other synthesizers of the day we were able to go where no synthesizer bands had gone before.
(HWR) Which was your usual live setup like?
(DL) It varied depending on the exact lineup of the moment but at the time of the LEM album Machines we used ARP String Ensemble, Buchla 200, EML Polybox, EMS Synthi AKS, Oberheim, Polyfusion, Serge Modular Music, Steiner-Parker, Sennheiser Vocoder and Syndrum instruments.
(HWR) Are there specific artists that influenced you around that time?
(DL) Steve Hillage, Bill Nelson, Brian Eno, Hawkwind, Michael Hoenig and folks like that come to mind from that time.
(HWR) The 1977 released track "I Wonder" features an intense variety of leads and effects. Was there for you a certain audiovisual idea behind the composition of the track?
(DL) I can’t speak to that. Bryce wrote the tune and I don’t recall the circumstances of the piece.
(HWR) You said that parallel to LEM you started developing the magazine Synapse in 1976, which is considered as the first music/synthesizer magazine. How did these two projects complement each other?
(DL) Being a music journalist and a musician in the same genres gave me a lot more access to situations than many who were only one or the other. Being based in LA we had access to everyone based there and everyone who came through town - and that was everybody.
(HWR) Who was involved in the magazine and under which focus did you set up the contents?
(DL) Synapse was started by Cynthia Webster and a local business man as a pamphlet style publication. I bought it along with a partner after the first two issues and created the Synapse Magazine that people are familiar with. Many people were involved but the other main players were Angela Schill, Chris August, Melody Bryant and Colin Gardner. Some of our most talented writers such as Kurt Loder and David Fricke went on to major rolls at MTV and Rolling Stone Magazine.
The focus of Synapse was to chronicle the emerging field of synthesis and create an international community around the concepts. It was always intended to be cross genre and report on the variety of musical styles from classical to rock where the instruments were appearing. It also crossed the line between music manufacturers and the DIY market. In this way we were able to support the most diverse electronic music community that we could.
(HWR) For the first ever issue of Synapse you interviewed Tom Oberheim and the German band Kraftwerk. How did you get in touch with them?
(DL) Actually, the issue that you mention is the 3rd issue of Synapse but it was the first under my editorial control and the first that was released in a full magazine size. Most people know it as the first issue. Synth designers were a natural fit for Synapse and Tom was a local so that was easy to put together. As for Kraftwerk, I was contacted by their label, Capitol Records. In fact I still have the studio promo cassette that they sent me of Autoban. They were thrilled to find a promotional opportunity for Kraftwerk because all of the other music magazines were not generally interested.
(HWR) Why did you stop as LEM and what happened next?
(DL) LEM morphed into the group that Bryce and I started called Moebius. Moebius released two projects, the self titled Moebius and Video Soldier in a Radio War. It continued to develop the live use of synthesizers. The albums received release in quite a few countries and a re-release is imminent from the VMI Records Group who own the original Moonwind label. Bryce passed away in the summer of 1999 and by that time it had been many years since we did music together but we remained close friends until the end.
(HWR) It’s now almost 40 years since the release of LEM’s Machine album and you are still going strong. What are your current musical activities?
(DL) I still perform and record routinely here in the San Francisco Bay Area and I’m still using the same Serge synthesizer that I used on the LEM album to this day. It’s called the Mystery Serge and can be seen at http://serge.synth.net/gallery/dl/. Though my current music is only related to the more esoteric music that LEM did, but, old synths are back and the Serge is going strong again. I support it with a Serge video tutorial series called Patch of The Week. That and many other things can be found on my website, http://neatnetnoise.com/.
Freak out: le quirk c'est chic!
Yasuaki Shimizu’s music has always been distinguished for its quirkiness. While maintaining a high quality, his productions are particularly eccentric in his 80s releases. The albums IQ179, Kakashi, the amazing music produced for Japanese commercials during those years (eg. Honda, Seiko, Shiseido) and his band Mariah caught our attention and made us wonder what the story was behind his music and where he got his inspiration from...
(HWR) Your albums Kakashi, IQ179 and Mariah's Utakata No Hibi were released between 1981-1983, and we feel that they are related to each other and are similar in many ways. What relationship do you see between these albums?
(YS) This was a time in my career when I was undergoing a moulting stage, mentally. It was as if my cells were actively reconstructing inside 'me' during the period in which I made these three albums. I made IQ179 in the earlier stage of this process so the quality or texture of the sound in "Kakashi" and "Utakata No Hibi"are rather different.
(HWR) What was the biggest event or music style that affected you between 1981-1983?
(YS) There wasn't really one single event that affected me. It was more as if the new kind of texture that could be found in the 'music' at that time had filtered in, and new ideas came gushing forth. I had listened to many different kinds of music from the time I was young and I was listening to different things at that time too. The artists/music that I listened to a lot and sympathized with include: Public Image Ltd, Bow Wow Wow, Klaus Nomi, Rip Rig + Panic, Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, Holger Czukay, Kraftwerk, Jon Hassel, Brian Eno, Michael Nyman, Steve Reich, John Cage, György Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Toru Takemitsu, Gamelan (traditional Indonesian music ensemble), Gagaku (ancient Japanese court music)… and I must say that the new wave and punk sensations at that time also rubbed onto me.
(HWR) Did you need any special synthesizers or drum machines in order to make your music?
(YS) My knowledge of electronic techniques was self-taught. Since I had created rhythms by changing the frequencies with my own oscillators, synthesizers were very fresh and interesting to me when they came out. The ones I used include Korg MS20, Yamaha DX7, Mini Moog, ARP Odyssey, Synthi AKS, Oberheim, Prophet-5, Prophet-8, Prophet-10; my favourite is the Prophet-5, which I have beside me right now too. For drum machines, I use the LinnDrum and TR-808. But I really can't let go of the TR-909. For sequencers, the QX1 that came out after the Yamaha CX-1 (MSX) is totally amazing. I used a lot of drum machine on IQ179, but purposely not on Utakata No Hibi. The rhythms on this album sound like they were made on a drum machine, but they were actually played on acoustic drums and percussion. After IQ179, I became more enthusiastic about tape editing and dubbing techniques, rather than synths and drum machines.
(HWR) How did you feel when you were making "Crow" in IQ179?
(YS) As I mentioned earlier, I underwent a mental moulting, and the biggest change that brought about was saying goodbye to the notion of constructing music. I came to focus on the texture of sound rather than its functional beauty. I made these three albums at a studio of the recording label, and even for "Crow", I didn't have any ideas on what to make beforehand; I just went into the studio, sat in front of the piano, and started playing chords. "Crow" was created spontaneously from what was inside me.
(HWR) Was "Music for Commercials", which was released in 1987, used for actual broadcasting? Did you make music using synthesized sounds when you were in Japan?
(YS) I’ve always been interested in the relationship between moving images and music. I find it especially meaningful to make music for movies, and it is something I would like to work on more in the future. I see moving images, including movies, as 'dreams' that we see in a waking state. When we immerse in movies, the 'I' world is sucked into a black hole, and this takes place not merely on a visual level, but involves a bundle of meanings. Music also integrates with moving images not in form, but as fundamental sound. "Music for Commercials" is a collection of TV commercial music that I made in the beginning of 1980. All were broadcast on TV except "Kachofugetsu". At the time the approach to TV commercials in Japan did not show the product to the viewer directly to encourage purchase, but instead started with a seemingly unrelated image that somehow suggested or evoked the product. Music played an important role in this scheme, and I spent a lot of time discussing the feeling of the image we wanted to convey with the directors. Everything was improvised whilst I immersed myself in the video at the music studio. For "Music for Commercials", I used sampling machines more than synthesizers. At any rate, we didn't have any high-speed computers with massive memory space at that time, not even floppy disks yet. When the E-MU finally came out it was extremely useful, but I didn't get one for my studio until much later. I made my music and edited tapes by using a 4 bit sampling function on Korg's SDD-2000, a delay machine. "Music for Commercials" was recorded mainly with this Korg SDD-2000 and an AKAI S900 that came out right afterwards. I always used two of the AKAI S900 at the same time.
(HWR) Were you affected in any ways from travelling in Europe? What do you think are the differences between Western music and Japanese music?
(YS) I was in Paris between 1985 and 1989, and lived in London for two years from around 1990. My life has involved a lot of moving around. But all that moving has had its positive effects too - I’ve learnt to interpret and understand things from many different angles rather than seeing them from a single perspective; that there is never anything that is absolutely correct in this world; that in order to connect spontaneously to the body memory I have cultivated, I have to break though my wall of notions and adopt a flexible mindset.
(HWR) You have collaborated with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Nam June Paik too - could you please tell us a little more about them?
(YS) I only participated on one project with Nam June Paik: Bye Bye Kipling, which he had planned with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Akira Asada.
It was a TV show using satellite to stream different artists performing live from New York, Paris, Tokyo and Seoul in two to three simultaneous broadcasts, and I played in Tokyo with Ryuichi Sakamoto. I had originally met Sakamoto in the late 1970s, and we did quite a few projects and performed together, so I feel that we are comrades.
Translated from Japanese by Joyce Lam
Michael Rother stands out for his unique musical vision and has participated in various landmark projects of German music history, like Kraftwerk, Neu! and Harmonia. Neu!, the duo created with Klaus Dinger, allowed Rother to depart from the normative Anglo-American standards of that time. Particularly this project became a reason to transgress musical boundaries and pursue his own experimental intentions. It was a pleasure to sit down with him and talk about his eventful career, including interesting details about the term Krautrock and how he produced the whole second side of Neu! 2 in a single night studio session.
(HWR) Where to begin?
(MR) In 1965 I joined the band Spirits of Sound and started to learn about music, taking first steps – at the time that was all I wanted to do. I wanted to sound just like my heroes The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones - and there was such a huge sense of distance because of the respect they commanded, that you wouldn’t even dream of getting anywhere near that level. But over the course of the following years, as a result of growing self-confidence in my guitar playing technique and understanding of connections, from the political to social and those within myself, my sense of dissatisfaction, misgivings about copying someone else´s ideas grew. Gradually this feeling, that it was simply not enough to be an echo of another musician ideas, became stronger and along with that the desire to break out of the cosmos of Anglo-American music emerged. I felt very isolated and didn’t know anyone who shared my feelings about the necessity for one´s own musical identity.
(HWR) You were a member of the German band Kraftwerk from the early days in 1971. What caused you to join the group?
(MR) In early 1971 I had not yet heard anything about a band called Kraftwerk. A happy coincidence led me to their studio. A fellow conscientious objector who worked in the same mental hospital near Düsseldorf as I did had an invitation from Kraftwerk to record film music in their studio, and he asked me if I fancied coming along. I thought about it briefly: should I go to my girlfriend’s or should I go with him? (laughs) It was this fork in the road in my life, that probably decided everything that came subsequently…
(HWR) Which kind of atmosphere awaited you in the studio?
(MR) The atmosphere in the studio was calm and relaxed. Ralph Hütter played an organ and jammed with a drummer called Charlie Weiss. I spotted a bass standing in the corner, grabbed it and played along with them. I thought then, “Hm, this guy Ralph Hütter is special. We can play melodies to and fro without the need to discuss details. There´s a common ground.” The music didn’t have its roots in Blues or the Anglo-American school of pop music, rather one that returned to a central European tradition, like folk or classical music, the world in which we were minted, so to say. I think you can hear that in Kraftwerk’s music, and in mine too. It was such a surprise for me, that there was actually someone else who obviously felt the same way about the basics of our music, about melodies and harmonies. Florian Schneider and Klaus Dinger were sitting on a sofa listening to what was happening and noticed the chemistry between Ralph Hütter and me. They liked what they heard and so we exchanged phone numbers. Two or three weeks later Florian called me and invited me to join the band. It was that simple!
The weird thing was that Ralf Hütter in the meantime had decided to abandon the band project and return to university. So I didn’t come to play with him, but nevertheless we moved in the same musical realm. I was on a journey with Florian Schneider and my future Neu! bandmate Klaus Dinger. The music that we were playing live had a very rough, primitive sound and structure. Not in a bad way –there was just no refinement, just pure excitement which always ended in an orgasmic crescendo. The sound from my guitar was more or less the same as before, but the way I was playing was different. No more riffs, no more solos, I’d completely discarded all that.
(HWR) So how come you left Kraftwerk?
(MR) In the summer of 1971, Florian, Klaus and I went into the studio with Conny Plank to record the second Kraftwerk album. Conny, the great sound engineer and producer who later was involved in many of my album projects, couldn´t prevent our failure. The good gigs were incredibly intense and ecstatic, and sparks really flew. The people went completely berserk. I had a feeling of ecstasy too, in the good moments. In the studio, though, in this airless environment with no feedback from an audience which shared our excitement, too much was missing for us to be able to reproduce that thrill. On top of that, hostility was in the air because of the constant psychological battles between Klaus and Florian, who are both very spiky people… that works as a compliment too, but in this case, both had a lot of “issues” and I felt uncomfortable in that atmosphere. It quickly became clear, that we wouldn’t continue together as Kraftwerk. Klaus and I looked at each other and thought, “We have a similar idea of the kind of music we want to make. Let´s work as a duo.”. We then spoke to Conny and he was interested in working with us and so we booked a studio in Hamburg. The studio was expensive and it was a pretty big risk for us poor musicians at the time, but by paying the production costs out of our own pockets we were independent of any record label and had total artistic freedom.
Looking back to that time I know that we were unbelievably lucky with the first album. All that Klaus and I had were visions of our music, there were no pre-recorded sketches or demos of our ideas because we didn´t have any sophisticated studio gear at home. Everything had to come together in those four nights in the studio. Klaus and I were like two painters standing in front of a blank canvas and just letting loose. Our motto was: concentrate on the essential elements, keep moving, work intuitively.
(HWR) When founding Neu! was there a certain consciousness about establishing a new, innovative musical direction as already the fact of giving your project the name "Neu!" indicates an awareness about it?
(MR) Neu! stood for the ambitious exploration of new possibilities, the development of a new style and abandoning examples from the past. That was our professed aim. The idea for the name was a contribution by Klaus. At the time I found the name too contrived, too cool, but I didn’t have any better ideas, so we agreed on the name Neu!. I tip my hat to Klaus. The name was a very good idea, one of his many excellent contributions to our project.
(HWR) What was your studio setup like?
(MR) At the time I had nearly the same equipment as during the Beat and Rock time, and that didn’t change quickly due to lack of money. However, the idea behind the music was different - and that was the important thing. I had a wonderful Gibson Deluxe guitar, an "antique" bass from the late 1950s, a distortion pedal and two volume pedals… - the only big addition to my gear in 1971 was an echo machine. That was all I had until I bought an electronic drum machine and some Farfisa keyboards in early 1973.
(HWR) We read that you never attended a musical school and your approach to music was intuitive and spontaneous. Did this allow you to experiment without being restricted to certain musical rules and therefore limitations?
(MR) Yes, that was totally intentional. I never wanted to learn music theory, didn´t want to be limited in my experimentations by laws or rules. My ears were my only guide. If something felt right to me, it was good. I took the liberty to decide everything for myself and this is still my approach to music.
(HWR) Your first record was released in 1972, featuring the 10:07 min track "Hallogallo", for which on the one hand the structure is essential, but is very dynamic at the same time. How do you avoid being repetitive when recording such a long track?
(MR) Repetition was essential and the idea was to create a musical structure, a drive or groove which could go on forever. Repetition fascinates me since my childhood days. The music I heard in Pakistan which seemed to just go on and on with no obvious end appealed to me and most probably is at the heart of my music since then. In the early 70s, to create a repetitive structure was a time-consuming process – you had to play the part manually over and over again. This creates a trance-like state for the musician and if he´s lucky, also for the listener.
When we recorded "Hallogallo", Klaus and played the basic tracks, drums and guitar, together in one go. Then each of us went into the recording room to add overdubs. At this point the happy coincidences began to happen. I suddenly had a wonderful feedback on my guitar which enabled me to play these long tones. At some point Conny turned the tape around and I added melodies to the song being played backwards. After that it was turned around again and the last forward played guitar part was now backwards. The combination worked beautifully. Conny, with his huge talent, was able to memorise the highlights, scattered on different tracks and over the 10 plus minutes. At the time there was no computer-aided mixing. Everything had to be done manually and reproduced at the correct moment. Klaus and I always helped, but Conny understood what we were going for and organised the best parts and created the sound with hardly any studio gear. This feat is even more impressive if you just imagine that all that Conny had was a reverb plate and one tape machine for a simple echo.
The thing that was most important for us was to work and find decisions incredibly quickly, because the available time in the studio was strictly limited and blank tapes were incredibly expensive. Today the situation in a home-recording environment is totally different, there’s rarely even a limit to the disc capacity… if you do reach the limit, you just buy another one. When the recordings for Neu! 1 were finished, I went home and played the album to my family and my girlfriend. I was so happy. The sound was great, my people loved it.
(HWR) We heard of people saying that on the album Neu! 2 are very first examples of what we nowadays call "Remix". Can you tell us more of the story behind this intention?
(MR) It´s a nice compliment but I don´t see it that way. The truth is that we had nothing like the experimentations that you can hear on side 2 on our minds when we entered the studio. For the second album we had an advance payment from the record company which we used for the production and which reduced our financial risks. However, it also made us more demanding and bold. We worked in the same studio and again at nighttime, because the night shift was cheaper, but now recorded on 16 tracks for the first time. 16 track recordings offer so much more space for all kinds of ideas and colours in the music. However, this opportunity was also a temptation, a sort of trap which I probably didn´t see at the time.
When you listen to pieces like “Für Immer”, you can hear me playing a lot of instruments: several guitars layered over one another, a violin, pianos both backwards and forwards, and there are loads of additional distorted noises. We were still the action painters. One of us always did a overdub. That means that these 10 or 12 minutes of the full track were played over and over again. It was a time-consuming process and led to the situation that we didn´t have enough tracks for a whole album when our time in the studio was already nearly over. There was only one more night to put together the whole second side of Neu! 2. A tough spot!
A few months before that, we had released the single: "Super" and "Neuschnee". At the time, the label was totally focused on long players, and therefore didn’t do anything to promote the single. Klaus and I felt that the two tracks were wasted on the single release and decided to use them again on the album. But we still needed more material. That’s when Klaus started the initiative to manipulate the tracks. We spent the night creating really crazy stuff. Klaus kicked the turntable with the single on and we recorded the tracks in different tempos. I had a cassette player that really garbled the sound – this led to the track "Cassetto". That night we brought everything together that sounded unique, and added the two original pieces, "Super" and "Neuschnee".
We were relieved that we had a full album to present to the label but we got the reaction I was expecting – “Are you kidding”, “Are you trying to screw us over”, “You can’t be serious”. The fans and critics unanimously hated us for the second side at the time.
(HWR) What was the record company’s reaction?
(MR) The record company had no right to an opinion and just accepted what we gave them but they clearly were not pleased with the second side of Neu! 2. They expected a very negative reaction from the public - and were right.
(HWR) How was the feedback for Neu! '75 then?
(MR) With Neu! '75, the musical world was back in order again. I was convinced of the album and everyone around shared a positive feeling - but public interest in Neu! started fading in Germany in the mid 70s. And then Neu! totally disappeared in the 80s. No more records were pressed, and no more were sold either. Neu! was forgotten by the public. I was lucky that my solo career took off big-time in 1977 but I was still disappointed about the lack of interest in Neu!, let alone Harmonia, in the late 1970s and 1980s.
The real renaissance for our music didn’t come until 2001. We’re here, fifteen years later – our comeback has lasted longer than Neu! survived the first time round.
(HWR) What is Krautrock for you?
(MR) I never chose or liked that term and used to actively reject it, actually. Over the decades, so many tags and genres have come and gone. There were terms like "Deutschrock" and "Meditation Music" which were used in the 70s. I never wanted to be a part of any of those circles. It was quite the opposite of my intentions to be put into a box with other bands and artists. No disrepect, but my idea was to be different, not similar. Even though I respected other bands like Kraftwerk and Can, their music was always quite different from where I was heading. If someone tried to find similarities between their and my music my answer always was and still is, “Please come closer and find out what you can see, when you’re standing with your nose right up to the glass.” Because it’s then that you discover the sheer amount of different tones, emotions and sound structures.
The term Krautrock resurfaced again sometime in the mid-90s. The book "Krautrocksampler" by Julian Cope attracted the attention of many younger journalists and music lovers to the artists which were Cope´s favourites. Even though the book is full of factual mistakes - they were the result of the lack of available information at the time and Cope tried to compensate this fault with his huge enthusiasm, his ravings and assumptions as a fan - "Krautrocksampler" changed a lot. For the first time some journalists in Germany began writing about us, because we seemed to be valued in other countries. The tag Krautrock is now used with respect, the people have agreed on it, and the fans use it. Nowadays, the ambivalence which was noticeable in the early 1970s has disappeared.
I still have photocopies of the first reviews in 1972 when Neu! was released in the UK. There were people who thought, “Wow, these guys have something really new, really interesting.” But there were also people who seemed to have a problem accepting the fact that a new music didn´t come from their own country.
(HWR) Does it make sense to speak about Krautrock in the context of music produced now or is it a genre that you think was strictly related to that period of time?
(MR) That depends entirely on how sharp you want the distinction to be. In terms of history, Krautrock was what happened then.
There’s a nice story: my friend Thomas came to me in the mid-90s, asking if I wanted to go to a concert. One of the bands playing was called Sonic Youth, the other Stereolab. Standing in the crowd at one point I thought: what’s going on here? The music sounded as if I was listening to myself. I could hear that Stereolab had taken the basic sense of motion and some harmonic elements from "Hallogallo" and "Für Immer", even if they did add something great to it, especially wonderful vocals.
Many new popular bands in the last 10, 15 years have picked up our music and adapted several stylistic elements from Neu! and Harmonia for their own music. Most of the time journalists point out those bands to me because I don´t actively follow the contemporary music scene. Sometimes I´m impressed by what the new bands come up with and at other times I´m puzzled that they seem to misunderstand what our aims were. It was all about daring something new, steering away from trodden ground and not copying musical ideas that already existed.
Translated from German by Hannah Cassens Marshall
It was a spontaneous encounter in a London bar back in 1980 that brought Vic Martin and Rex Neyman together ultimately leading to the formation of the band “Rexy”. Soon afterwards, in 1981, they released their first and only album “Running Out of Time” on Alien Records. It is a product of the vibrant and experimental 80s music scene in London and captivates by its peculiar soundscapes and intriguing vocals.
(HWR) How did Rexy arise?
Rexy started when someone I didn't know (Vic) came up to me in a bar and asked me if I wanted to make a record. This was purely based on the way I looked as he had no idea if I could sing or not (which I can't really!). At the time I was a regular at the Blitz club so I guess he thought my image would make a good front person. He had the song written and was already with the record company (Alien) he just needed the singer. All I had to do was go to the studio and do "(Don't) Turn Me Away" which I spoke as I had no idea what to do to it! Its the kind of thing you dream about as a teenager I guess (which I was then).
(HWR) Your first release was a 7" in 1980, featuring as a main track "(Don't) Turn Me Away". Followed one year later by two further EP's, melting then in the album "Running Out Of Time". Was the album a logic consequence out of the previous releases or already scheduled?
The Rivvets (1977 – 1979) were a West London based pop band who released two singles on Alien Records. Their lead vocalist/songwriter, Chris Burne approached me (Vic Martin) with the idea to collaborate on a single, which would be released by Alien Records. The result was "Don’t Turn Me Away". To everyone’s astonishment, the single received significant airplay and long before Alien asked us to record an album…
(HWR) Where did you record "Running Out Of Time" and how was the studio setup like?
"Don’t Turn Me Away" was recorded at Freerange Studios in Covent Garden. The backing track was recorded only using my ARP Odyssey analogue monosynth. The rest of the album was recorded in Ark Studios in Kingston Upon Thames. The studio was located in a basement underneath a music shop and was a (Brenell) 8 track setup with a good selection of outboard equipment. I used the aforementioned ARP Odyssey, a Wasp and Spider analogue synth/sequencer, Casio 201, Hammond M102/Leslie 147 and a Hohner Clavinet. The guitar was a Fender Stratocaster and the bass on "Funkybutt" was a Fender Jazz.
Ark studios was a dump! It smelt of damp and when the record shop above it was closed we had to climb up a step ladder and through a trapdoor to use the toilet upstairs. So Rock and Roll!
(HWR) Is there a reason why you called the album "Running Out Of Time"?
I think we called it "Running Out Of Time" because it was our favourite song on the album back then, and we felt it made a good title.
(HWR) Was the graphical concept of the album inspired by the title and who did take care of creating it?
The artwork was done by a fairly well known cartoonist, Tom Johnston. I think it is influenced by "Running Out Of Time" because there are egg timers on the drawing. Vic and I were a bit pissed off at the time though, because the record label didn't consult us on the artwork; we felt we should have had more say in it and we didn't really like it much. I suppose over the years we have grown to like it, as it now seems synonymous with the album.
(HWR) The track "Nervoso" stands somehow out from the others. Especially because of the non-usage of vocals and its disco sound component. Which is the story behind this track and which were the instruments used for it?
A friend of mine gave me a bizarre little preset drum machine which had some really strange patterns and the track "Nervoso" was kickstarted from that weird box really. The frenetic rhythm part was played manually on a Casio 201 (very lo fi ) pcm synth with the lead played on the trusty ARP. We finally overdubbed some real drums courtesy of Mike Anscombe. Finally, Rex added faux Latin American warbling at the end!
I remember at the time, latin stuff was very in vogue at the clubs I went to (Blitz, Le Kilt, St.Mauritz etc), and I've always loved it so doing a latin track was fab.
(HWR) What role did humour play in your lyrics, like for example in "(Don't) Turn Me Away"?
We always liked to have a laugh while we were making songs; we didn't take any of it seriously really. The lyrics were either ironic or ridiculous, we just wanted to have fun and then go to the pub! But I don't think humour was involved in "Don't Turn Me Away"... I don't really know why I laughed doing the vocals?
(HWR) Did you use a particular effect chain for your voice?
Nothing out of the ordinary. These were pre- computer, analogue recording (onto 1” tape) days, so I imagine we just compressed the vocal and added reverb/delay to taste.
(HWR) Can you tell us a bit more about the context and influences you have been surrounded by to that time?
As I said before I was a regular at the Blitz and various other clubs (Club for Heroes, Hell, Beatroute etc) during that time, and was also doing my degree in fashion design, so I was very much involved in that scene and in clothing (what is now termed as new romantic, but which we didn't call ourselves!). It was a very creative time; we'd grown bored of punk but music and clothes had stayed very diy which was great. I feel sorry for people now with every high street and person looking the same. Back then we used to buy clothes (and records) from jumble sales, charity shops and make stuff ourselves. It was all much more experimental.
(HWR) How come that 1981 was a pretty tough year for Rexy (with in total 3 releases) and then already from the following year on your outcome stopped?
Well, I think we had some success with DTMA; it had some radio airplay and it seemed as if we were going to go somewhere. So when the album was released we had great hopes for it but even though we did some interviews and a couple of live performances, the album didn't really do anything and Alien did very little to promote us. As I said I was also doing my degree (we recorded the album in my summer holidays!) so when the album wasn't the success we hoped it would be, I continued my degree and Vic carried on as a musician playing with Eurythmics, Curiosity Killed the Cat, Boy George amongst others.
(HWR) How would you explain the strong request for your record "Running Out Of time" nowadays?
Absolutely no idea! We are amazed that it seems to have a bit of a cult following.... but we are thrilled too. Perhaps you could explain it to us?
(HWR) For 2016 a re-issue of "Running Out of Time" is set up on Lucky Number Records. Could this even be a reason to go back into the production of new tracks?
Yes, we're already making new songs... we are really pleased with the new material and I am getting involved much more with the lyrics which I am really enjoying.
Over the last year or so we have written and recorded tracks for a new album. We have 4 more vocal tracks to put down and then we’ll be there. We’re really pleased with the new tunes which are a logical development from the material on the first album.
Hans Peter Ströer initially recorded and released the album “Ströer” at the incredible age of 19 in 1979. During the 1980s the two brothers, Hans Peter and Ernst Ströer, then released music under the name Ströer Duo or Ströer Bros (with Howard Fine) such as “Fluchtweg Madagaskar” and “Nomaden”. They spoke with us about how their career set off and unveiled their secret on how a track title became a slogan for not falling in love with groupies.
(HWR) On the STRÖER album (1979) there is this absolutely outstanding track called "Don't Stay For Breakfast". It is drawn by boogie bass lines and fat synthesizer sounds and all in all very ahead for its time. You told us that you have been "obsessed" by creating what arises as an artistic vision in your fantasy - do you remember under which circumstances the idea for that track arised?
(HPS) Well, back then I was 22 and I was a Jazz musician, touring with Volker Kriegel's Mild Maniac Orchestra since I was 19. The title of this song was kind of a slogan for us, a method not to fall in love with one of the goupies. (laughs) Musically, I wanted my first album not to be pure Jazz, but Pop songs with Jazz elements. This came out naturally, because I had listened to the Beatles, Duke Ellington and Jimi Hendrix, James Brown etc. In my ears all that belonged together, I was a fan of all those styles. I liked the drive and raffinement of Jazz as well as the powerful sound and erotic attraction of Pop. I'm not sure if I was ahead of time. To me it seems that today music is behind time, repeating the old stuff again and again.
(HWR) How was then the following implementation process?
(HPS) I played all the tracks by hand, except the drums were done by Evert Fraterman. Of course I had a four track tape machine in my house and so I could try over and over again with no time limit until I was satisfied with a track. But the problem was the poor sound quality and the lack of synchronization. Those homemade tracks could not be transferred to the 16 track tape in the professional recording studio. I had to play it all again manually in the big studio. Of course also the fat bass line, that I played on a Minimoog. In the late 70ies we still had no handies, no smartphones, no computers or internet. So we had much more free time than today. We've put all our energy and concentration in our music, not being interrupted by any kind of inbox. We had our musical vision and would not stop until we had it on tape. The outside life was quiet and slow and did not bother us too much.
(HWR) You brother Ernst also collaborated with you for Ströer.
In which way was Ströer Duo different?
(ES) Hans did the STRÖER album in 1977 and asked me to play percussion on one track. I was 14 years old, still going to school - and very excited. I think it was my first studio experience. To record something professionally these days, you had to rent studios and sound engineers - which was expensive, very expensive. There were no things like laptops, plug ins, home studios - only small stereo or even mono tape recorders. So I felt quite small behind the huge mixing desk, where every minute counted ...
The first Ströer Duo Project "Fluchtweg Madagaskar" happened some years later under completely different circumstances. "Mood Records" gave us the chance to record in Stuttgart, at the legendary Zuckerfabrik Studio. For the time of the recordings, we actually lived in the recording room with our sleeping bags on the floor between all our instruments. Soon, the sound engineer noticed that he could very well leave us alone. So we recorded each other’s ideas and didn’t leave the studio for the whole production time - an extremly inspiring setup for both of us that payed off: "Fluchtweg Madagaskar" made it on the list with the best productions of the year by the „Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik" e.V..
(HWR) There is a press sheet of the Ray Lynch "Let's jazz - Dance with Ray Lynch " record, stating that you are the composer of the album. Can you tell us the story behind this record?
(HPS) Ray had a Dance School in Stuttgart and was producing a tutorial video. We were doing a lot of our recordings in the Zuckerfabrik Studio in Stuttgart. There I met him and he hired me to do the soundtrack. In his studio he performed his program with a group of scholars. I watched the show counting bars and writing down notes. In a way the process was a bit similar to the writing of filmmusic.
(HWR) Your career is marked by some encounters with well-known musicians like Donna Summer, Amanda Lear or La Bionda (to only mention a few). Which was the most inspiring collaboration?
(HPS) There were – and still are – so many, and one of the magic moments happened in a rehersal with mulimedia artist Eberhard Schoener and The Police in Munich's ARRI filmstudios in 1977. I was playing keyboards on this tour and recording project. Andy Summers was supposed to be the guitar player, but when he arrived from London, he brought Sting and Stewart as a surprise, telling us they had no money and needed work. So they all joined the band. I will never forget that moment, when Sting walked up to the mikrophone and started to sing with his metallic high voice. I had goose bumps immediately. Later on we toured for two weeks, we did some TV shows and recorded two albums together with Eberhard. Roxanne was not yet released, Police was still totally unknown in Germany, we could walk around in town without any problems.
(HWR) From 1984 to today you composed music for more than 150 films. Is the production process still marked by a lot of improvisation if you already have the image and the mood for which to produce for?
(HPS) Yes it is. Listen to the old classics of filmmusic and you will find some quite complex musical designs. Composition was done in vertical mode in those days, bar by bar, step by step, thinking it over again and again, changing a note here and there. The result was a musical structure full of strong and elaborate ideas, masterfully decorated and brilliantly detailed. Today we are still in an era of horizontal writing, using loops, two bars of repeating background, just let it roll and fiddle about a bit, and after some minutes it sounds quite nice, doesn't it? (laughs). Results are often very poor in structure and design, totally in contrast to the growing complexity of the real life, the real world. Most people seem to use music as a shelter, just for relax and easy listening. No wonder improvisation still is the big thing at the moment, but I'm pretty sure it will be out of fashion in short time. It just gets boring, especially if the musicians are not paramount improvisers. But boredom could be the perfect humus for a new generation of master composers. So I'm quite optimistic for the future of music!
Richard James Burgess
Have you ever heard of the Simmons SDSV? Simmons SDSV is a very old drum module created by Richard Burgess, who was also a part of various other influential music projects such as "Landscape", "Shock" and "Accord". Especially the rich and powerful sounds of his track “Dream games” intrigued us. But how did those vibrant sounds came to life?
In 1980 you invented the cult drum machine "Simmons SDSV", which is considered as the very first alternative to acoustic drums. How did the project arise?
(RB) I was touring at the time with my band Landscape. We had built our own PA system using some Vitavox speakers we won in a competition that we powered with Quad 405 hi-fi amplifiers and a 32 channel mixing console that we built from two 16 channel consoles. You couldn’t buy large live consoles at the time. The system sounded incredible as attested to by many of our live reviews from the time. The band was entirely instrumental then, and all electric or electronic aside from the drums. I had the most studio experience so I used to set up the sounds at sound check and JJJeczalik (later of Art of Noise), who was one of our crew and my drum tech then, would oversee the board during the gig. As I set up the sounds everything sounded perfect until I opened the drum mics. I was using homemade triggers to drive electronics from my drums but my acoustic Pearl set still needed micing. Everything bled into the mics and the sound would become woolly or at least woollier than it was with everything DI’d. We would talk about this while we were in transit to the gigs and I started to wonder why drums were still acoustic. Everything else was electric or electronic and yet drums were still in the stone-age. I checked out every electronic percussion device on the market (I actually wrote an article about them all for Sounds International at the time) and nothing was an actual substitute for real drums. They were mostly electronic effects – the PewPew type sounds—like SynDrums. I analyzed why drums sound the way they do and it was obvious why electronic drums did not perform the same function. I began working on a few ideas and I approached Joe Pollard of SynDrums who wasn’t interested and likewise with all the drum companies including Pearl who sponsored me at the time. John Walters was in touch with Dave Simmons because he was the distributor of the Lyricon—the first electronic wind synthesizer. I approached Dave with my idea and he was interested. We mocked up my ideas on an ARP 2600 and handbuilt the first prototype. We never fully realized my original concept but it was this prototype that I used on all of the Shock recordings and on the Landscape album From the Tearooms of Mars…. I still have that prototype illustrated below.
Simmons SDSV first model.
(HWR) Did you ever collaborate or conceive other electronic instruments after the Simmons SDSV?
(RB) There are quite a few things I have floating around. I have an electric drum project that I will finish one of these days. I also want to get back to electronic drums because they never fulfilled the potential that they have. For me it’s a matter of time and priorities.
(HWR) Which was your studio setup back in the days and was there a certain equipment that you constantly used to create electronic sounds?
(RB) My first real synthesizer was an EMS Synthi A. That’s the briefcase version of the VCS3. It was an amazing machine and I wish I still had it. After that my home studio exploded with equipment, some of it homemade and most of it heavily modified. The Roland MC-8 MicroComposer became the heart of it all and that drove Roland System 100Ms, a JP4, ProMars, JP8, eventually Juno 6, Juno 106, Yamaha DX7, Roland D50, Korg M1—you name it I probably had one or several at some point. I always really loved the System 100Ms. Mine were heavily modified and incredibly fickle – a fraction of a millimeter adjustment on one of the many faders would completely change the sound. You often had no idea what you were going to get. That was part of the creative thrill. You’d be aiming for one sound and get something much better but you had to hold your breath and hope that it wouldn’t change because it was sometimes impossible to get a sound back again.
(HWR) Your attachment to electronic devices is certainly defined by your side project "Shock", which released one record in 1981. How did the project arise and why it never had a follow up?
(RB) My longtime friend, Rusty Egan, has to get all the credit for discovering Shock and bringing them to me. He picked the first song—Angel Face and we wrote the B-side RERB (our initials) in about ten minutes in my studio. There were several singles but no album. Unfortunately, that is the nature of the music industry and especially back then when we were totally dependent on major labels. If you couldn’t persuade the label to release a single or album there weren’t many viable options. I think Shock is one of the undiscovered gems of that period—they were a performance art group really and it was a no-brainer to put music to it but RCA really didn’t do a good job promoting those releases.
(HWR) Which was your role in the Jazz-funk oriented band "Landscape" and the Avant-garde electronic band "Accord"?
(RB) I was the drummer in Landscape. The project started out as John Walters’ band playing his compositions. By the time the lineup settled to the five of us we were all contributing compositions and arrangements and we self-managed by splitting up the various tasks that needed to be done. My job was dealing with record labels and distribution.
Accord was Chris Heaton’s (the keyboard player in Landscape) band. Chris was always on the cutting edge with avant-garde music. I played electric and electronic percussion in that group. I built most of the instruments myself. At the time I was studying drum set with Tony Oxley and since Tony was not only a phenomenal jazz drummer but also a pioneer in avant-garde, free improvised European music, he had a big influence on my interests and playing. Having said that, I never had a lesson from him on avant-garde music or free-improvising; he had an interesting almost Yoda-like teaching style that was highly disciplined and wide-ranging. At that time, he covered classical music and jazz and was a stickler for precision but was a deep theoretical thinker, highly committed to his musical principles, and very provocative. I would walk away from those lessons with my head spinning with possibilities.
Between Landscape and Accord I don’t think I could have been involved in more mind-expanding areas of music. Landscape was stimulating beyond belief because everyone was so capable as musicians, composers, and arrangers. Our rehearsals were three hours long and could have been used as a teaching tool for organizational efficiency. I learned more working in that band than I did at Berklee and Guildhall. With Accord we free-improvised to the extent that our live performances and the BBC Radio 3 programmes we did began as simply a list of titles. There were no written guidelines or preconceptions as to what we would play. One of us would begin, everyone would respond, and the pieces would develop organically between us. Consequently we never played any piece the same twice although we did recycle the titles.
On reflection, it was an extraordinarily expansive opportunity playing with both of those groups and that we were able to sustain ourselves doing so is even more incredible. Everything I have done since, in some way, flowed from those experiences.
(HWR) Being involved in the New Wave/Industrial scene - were there any artists that had a big impact on you?
(RB) So many and in so many different ways; I really liked Fad Gadget, his use of electric tools and non-musical sounds—his general sensibility. I’d have to give some credit to all of the artists/musicians who were delving into these ideas during the seventies and before. It was an exciting time, there was a sense that there were no boundaries in pop music for a moment and, while that turned out not to be true, it felt very freeing at the time. Of course whenever something new happens, the copycat releases flood the market and what was new becomes the new norm and then passé almost immediately. Musicians I gravitated toward tended to be open-minded but the monetization process (trying to make a living) via the industry, ranging from playing in bars to getting record deals and generating hits, tends to squeeze the music into a preformed box.
(HWR) Were your engineering skills an advantage in the process of making music or could they even be a limitation to reach unexpected results?
(RB) Absolutely. I didn’t realize for some years how useful my early training in electronics and my interest in science would be and how instrumental it would be in the development of my career. I feel most content when these various interests merge. In terms of my audio engineering background, the sixties, seventies, and the eighties were experimental decades with regard to audio production. Then again maybe they all are. The engineers and producers I was fortunate enough to work with and the ones I really respected were always trying to push boundaries. A lot of techniques we take for granted today were developed in that period by people who will never be properly acknowledged but many of whom are still alive today.
(HWR) Whats your opinion on the evolution of music industry and more specifically on the evolution of mixing/mastering standards with all its consequences in terms of dynamics/volumes etc?
(RB) As we know, evolution via natural selection is random. It’s not that a species is constantly getting better it’s that characteristics that prove to be beneficial for survival are selected for in the gene pool. Likewise with the music industry, things change not because of any trend towards qualitative improvement but because something someone does works in the marketplace or becomes accepted. Musicians have had a tough time in the past fifteen years primarily because the music industry did not stay up with the technology and embrace digital distribution when it should have in the mid-nineties. Musicians, engineers, and producers had little to do with that but they bore the brunt of the consequences. The tech companies stepped into the vacuum left by the majors and for four years music was only available via digital distribution through free channels.
There have been positive outcomes from that as well as negative. One of the negative facets has been that there is far less money available for most recording projects today. A positive aspect is that the barrier to entry is much lower for a young person with aspirations: a laptop and some cheap or free software gets you in on the creative and distributive side. The downside is that best practices are not necessarily handed on to the next generation and quality control can be patchy or non-existent.
Irrespective of what we may each think about someone’s mixing or mastering practices, if a completely squashed track is a hit (because of or in spite of its lack of dynamics) others will emulate that sound. This too will pass. It’s not worth freaking out about. Some music needs to breathe and use all the great dynamic range that digital has given us and some needs to hit as hard as it can. So be it. It’s like the digital/analog or vinyl/digital argument— if you prefer one over the other buy it. What’s great is that we have the choice now. There is so much great music out there that if I don’t like something, for any reason, I don’t have to listen to it.
(HWR) Are you working on some new music projects right now?
(RB) Making music for me is like breathing. It’s automatic; I have to do it. So yes, I am always working on music in one form or another—and quite a range of projects. I am producing a hip-hop box set project for the Smithsonian; I am also working on the acquisition of a large and very exciting music collection for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. I have some electronic stuff that I am composing and producing for myself, and I have been working on some recordings with live musicians in my studio as well. I feel fortunate that I can experiment, can have my fingers in a lot of pies, and that I don’t feel any pressure to conform or put things out until I am happy with them. I have other creative outlets too.
Michal Turtle's album "Music From The Living Room" is a unique journey through a timeless range of sounds. We are sure he had a window to the future...
As a child you played the piano or drums, and were a part of the school jazz band. How did this influence the evolution of your music?
I started playing drums when I was 8, and I was listening to a lot of jazz records. This was a direct influence from my father, also a musician. I was soon playing in a local symphony youth orchestra, and later in the school "dance band". Piano came a bit later, and proved invaluable as a necessity to get into music college and as a big help with composition, which I was getting seriously into. I originally was writing bits of music at first on paper, and then later bouncing cassette recordings together. Finally I had the luxury of a Portastudio (4 track). I discovered quite late that there was other music besides what my father listened to.
Playing in an orchestra – needing to follow a precise musical score, with no chance to improvise – was it helpful or in conflict with the jazz attitude of the music you composed?
This was an important lesson for me, to know your place in an ensemble where you are playing someone else's thoughts. My writing from the early 80s was very improvisational, and through the 90s and 00s much more structured, as I started writing "proper" songs. I did 5 CDs with my band "wearedust" between 2003 and 2008, and these were songs in the conventional sense, albeit with my experimental sensibilities.
How were then the musical influences around the time of "Music From The Living Room"?
I was not listening to a lot of "normal" music. Stuff that was around and was a big influence: Jon Hassell - Dream Theory In Malaya, Eno/Byrne - My life in the Bush of Ghosts, Holger Czukay - On the Way to the Peak of Normal. I started working at the Laban Centre of Contemporary Dance and hearing a lot of music made for choreography, such as David Byrne's "The Catherine Wheel" I also wrote quite a few pieces for students' choreographies. "Regular" bands I listened to at the time were: Jethro Tull, The Stranglers, Gentle Giant.
What was your studio setup like at the time of when the album "Music From The Living Room" was conceived? Did you work together with other musicians or create it all by yourself?
It was really me using what little equipment I had, and borrowing friends stuff and finding things to play. Someone gave me a vibraphone so I used it, I had a glockenspiel, I made a one string bass out of a metal shovel that sounded good when I stuck the top of a microphone to it. I had a piano in the room but hardly used it. The main equipment was: Tascam 244 Portastudio, Memory Man, a couple of very old drum machines, a syndrum, a bass, a guitar (which I couldn't play but played anyway) an ARP 2600, a Juno 60, a vibraphone, glockenspiel and various bits of percussion. There was no sampling technology at the time, so everything apart from the drum machines was played. I was sometimes triggering the ARP via the drum machines in a random way I didn't understand but sounded good, and various voices and sound effects were usually recorded on looped cassettes (about 2.5 seconds) or just recorded off records, cassettes or the radio. There were a couple of friends who guested on tracks, and some of them will be featured on the forthcoming releases.
Can you tell us the story behind the track name and track production of "It's A Stop Sign Shirley"?
There was a Capital Radio DJ called Kenny Everett who used to link gaps between songs with weird old American "humorous" audio clips, I recorded a couple of them and ran them randomly switching them on and off and running it through the memory man. One of the comments on one of these tapes was what became the title of the track. On this track you can hear the drum machine triggering the ARP in a random way. As with all the tracks it was done on a 4 track cassette running at double speed.
You are also quite familiar with working as a programmer, arranger and also as a composer for commercials and TV. In which balance would you bring this trio with your involvement in orchestras and your own musical productions?
The technology available now makes it very possible and easy to recreate every musical scenario, so a couple of my last productions sound massive, wonderful and real. Drums are now a pleasure to record, and even things I can't play (like guitars) sound fantastic. In 2000 I wrote a musical which was recorded with a real symphony orchestra (in Prague) so there I needed to draw on all my arranging and writing skills to make sure everything was right (and playable) for real musicians to play. I am grateful to my music college training for making me able to do it. Unfortunately these days, budget restrictions do not always make it possible to use the real thing. As I said before, the software is great, but working with real people is more fun, and you learn more.
Have you also had/do you also have another job beside music?
When I left the UK in 1988 I worked for three months in a warehouse, other than that I have always done music. I would always tell people who want to make music not to have anything to "fall back on" but be prepared to not necessarily need money for a long time. If you can deal with that you can be happy.
We discovered the Awawawa project on your website. You basically receive drafts, speech from children and transform them into a song. Its so cool! Can you tell us more about it? How did it start, and what is your aim with the project?
I videoed my friend and his daughter larking about and thought the audio they were doing would make a good track. The first track "Awawawa" was born. About 12 years later I got married, and with my new wife came a couple of kids, so I started recording them and doing the same sort of thing. My wife suggested to turn it into a business, and it seems to be working pretty well. Look at the website (www.awawawa.ch) to see how it works (there are a bunch of "before and after" examples) It is a great outlet for me. I can be creative and at the same time restricted to what is given to me, and there are literally no stylistic limitations.
Benoit Widemann is a French pianist and composer. He particularly enjoyed working with the Minimoog synthesizer. He developed a unique workflow by interlinking two Minimoogs together. The thereby created soundscape is especially prominent on his album Tsunami released in 1979, which combines explosive jazz and electronics. But let’s go back to Widemann’s first music lesson, a world of swirling watercolours and resonating piano notes...
You were only 22 years old when you released your second album, Tsunami. That’s quite young to be producing such mature music. Was there also a kind of callow component that was bringing you to even more improvised, unexpected and interesting results?
I started playing very young and I had good teachers. Notably, I studied with Ginette Martenot, learning composition and harmony. She was the sister of Maurice Martenot, inventor of the eponymous instrument.
I have a vivid memory of my first music lesson at 5: a dozen awestruck kids in a large room, a teacher with a piano, a table with delicate brushes, watercolours and a transparent bowl full of water. The first thing she did was drop paint into the bowl, producing nice filaments of slowly swirling colours, while she held long piano notes until the sound disappeared. We began by learning to hear the note to its end.
Many years later, I joined Magma. I was only 17 but I arrived enthralled by musical science, yet I was humbled by musicians that couldn't read music, but had the real-life experience that I lacked. I learned how to grasp a complex rhythmic pattern, discovered plenty of music that I knew nothing about. I also learned how to solder a jack and drive a truck.
I understood quickly that making music would always be for me a collective thing. Hence Tsunami, which was a group, with my leading role as slack as possible—really more organizational than musical. It worked, but unfortunately it didn’t last.
There is a prevalence of synthesizers in your music. How and when did your passion for such instruments start?
At 11, I met a music teacher whose main job was to play pipe organ. I visited the church and I was astonished by the raw power of the pipes, the sheer number of sounds and nuances available, and the cleverness of the stacked keyboards. I played pipe organ for a couple of years, but at some point I couldn’t stand the religious aspect and I went back to piano lessons.
Several of my teachers were related to the Martenot School and were Ondes performers themselves. I had plenty of occasions to give it a try in all these years, and liked it a lot, although never to the point of focusing on it. My main focus was always on the piano and I didn’t want to get sidetracked too much. Instead, I tried out many other instruments to “understand” them, especially the oboe.
I guess I was fully primed for the synthesizer and when it appeared, it was love at first sight.
Which synthesizer do you prefer for solo work? Is there any you find more expressive, according to your taste?
Definitely the Minimoog. I still play the same one I bought in 1977. The keyboard action is unsurpassed for a lead keyboard, especially compared to today’s keys that feel like soft cheese.
My Minimoog has been seriously customized. It has the mandatory added sync, but also a separate sync for the third oscillator. It has two extra LFOs and several nonstandard modulation routings. It can produce unusual sounds with fixed frequency formants that I like very much, oboe-like. You get the idea. It has no Midi. I never saw the need for a Midi retrofit. The Minimoog must be played on its own keyboard, not enslaved to a master Midi keyboard. It has, however, analog connections and I often use them.
I have owned a lot of synths and I always returned to the Minimoog. Its magical reputation is truly deserved: there is something “alive” about it that is missing everywhere else. Many other synths have come up with interesting sounds: the Oberheim filter was a killer, the simple logic of the Prophet 5 made it a big star for a long time, the DX7’s digital operators changed everything again. Many others should be listed here.
To this day, my favorite set always includes the Minimoog. I also use a virtualized version in a Mac plugin, and the good people at Arturia helped a lot. They updated their Minimoog plugin to include one of my favorite mods, so I could recreate my special sounds with fixed formants. Their work is astounding! Nonetheless, it is not complete: they lack the good keyboard that is needed along with the good synth. The keybed they use is also like soft cheese and they appear to think there is no market for a more expensive one. I think they are wrong, and Moog is wrong too. I hope it will change.
Controlling the articulation is crucial with synths. If you play with a perfect flute sound but articulate like you were playing a piano, it will not sound like a flute. Even non-imitative sounds must be articulated to become actual instruments; finding the proper articulation is part of creating the sound. Hence the importance of a good keyboard.
Could you tell us how you used to record your Fender Rhodes in 1979? Was there a specific chain of fx/ampli/mic?
I used a Barcus-Berry preamp, a MXR compressor and a Moog parametric equalizer. That equalizer was a fine piece of equipment, extremely efficient. Except for the preamp, there was no amp/mic used for recording, we used direct connections in the studio.
We premixed the keyboards: two Rhodes, two Minimoogs and a Polyphonic Oberheim. There was a tape-echo chamber that we used to wet all the keyboards from the mixer. The two Rhodes were placed side by side, each with his Minimoog, with the Oberheim between the Rhodes so we could take turns playing it. We had a great sound system with JBL amps and cabinets.
We were most impressed by the title track, because of its simplicity, but also for the range of sounds used. We are curious about how the track was designed. Is it the result of a spontaneous jam session or of a well-meditated idea?
I was interested in computers and worked with a friend on a Motorola kit. My friend expanded it with a digital-analog converter he built, and then we were able to control the two Minimoogs simultaneously. We wrote a simple duophonic sequencer, and after a few days, we returned to the studio with the kit.
The basic pattern of the track was played by the kit on two Moogs, painfully entered on the keypad, step by step, the night before. But the second part was full of errors. We didn’t have time to reprogram the sequence, so I disconnected the second Moog and played it myself, more freely than originally intended.
The drummer suggested we invert the drum pattern: mark the first beat with the snare drum and play the after beat with the bass drum. He played it while listening to the Moogs in headphones. There was no metronome click; we didn’t have any way to do that.
Then we finished with more dressing: simple wind-effects with the Moog, then the strings-like sound. It was played on the Oberheim with the second oscillators tuned one fifth up. As a result, if you play a C, you get both a C and a G. If you play a major C chord, you get a major C plus a major seventh. Both major and minor chords give interesting results. And finally, the glockenspiel-like sound was also made with the Oberheim and its great filter.
After the final fade-out, there is a horrible sound that goes up and down. It was produced directly with the Motorola kit, actually the result of a programming error that we found very cool. Digital computer-based sound in 1979! We were the avant-garde!
The album was highly collaborative, between musicians from various backgrounds. How did you find each other?
We moved near Toulouse in France’s southwest: we had contacts there and the cultural life was interesting. We met Rémy Dall’Anese, the bass player, and we got along very well. He liked the way I wanted to work. We were about the same age; he was already experienced and had played with several bands. He helped us complete the group with the drummer, Jean-Paul Ceccarelli— he had previously played with him— and the sax player, Gilbert Dall’Anese, his father.
Gilbert was much older than all of us, and way more experienced. But he also liked the perspective of collective work. He had several suggestions for the music and composed tunes himself. He found us a larger house with a massive rehearsal space.
I needed to find the right balance in "leading a collective work," which is kind of an oxymoron. It was not easy. We rehearsed for months, played once at a festival in Toulouse, and recorded the album at Le Château d’Hérouville. I hoped to see more concerts coming and to begin a new phase, but it takes time to have the album pressed, then it takes months before you can organize a tour, and we didn’t have months. Soon after the sessions, the drummer was called to Los Angeles. I moved there with him to look for opportunities to continue, but after a few months, the money dried out and I had to give up and go home. Tsunami was done for good. In summary: two years of hard work, only one concert. At least, one very cool album.
We noticed that you're included in the credits of several albums. Do you remember a project or a particular artist with whom you have found strong affinity?
I had a long-term collaboration with Dan Ar Braz. I was closely involved in several of Dan’s albums from his first in 1977, including “Septembre bleu” (1988) which is my favorite. We recorded it in Hérouville, with Dan playing the guitars and me doing all the rest with synths and a Linn drum machine.
I often worked with Jean-Michel Kajdan. In 1984 we created a group named KWG (Kajdan-Widemann Group), featuring François Laizeau on drums (another great drummer) and Eric Serra on bass, just before Eric began recording his famous movie soundtracks. Unfortunately this group never recorded. There was, however, a later group with Sylvin Marc on bass and Kirt Rust on drums, both great musicians and old friends, and that one left a great album under the name of Jean-Michel Kajdan, “Blue Scales” (1990).
Why wasn't there an attempt to continue releasing more records as Benoit Widemann?
I guess I didn’t care much anymore. The failure of Tsunami was hard to take. The failure of Fusion was even worse. We played a lot afterwards with Jean-Michel Kajdan, but I was less and less involved as a leader, and in our final group I let him drive alone (hence the album being completely under his name).
Still, I always like to play. I love to feel that something is happening with the audience, that some emotion is experienced because I just succeeded in playing the right notes. I have no wish to go further than that. I don’t really feel the need to record, I love working in the studio but I definitely prefer live events, and I don’t care much about leaving a trace.
However, I’m working on a new album with the former singer of Magma, Klaus Blasquiz. It should appear in early 2016 under the group’s name, “Maison Klaus”.
There have never been so many groups, so many events and concerts. It shows that I’m not the only one to like live events, and there is a future in there. Also, the Internet will prevail, both for listening to music and making listeners support artists without parasitic middlemen. We can already see things moving in this direction. Mark me as an optimist.
Gerardo Bátiz and his instruments.
Pete Engelhart and his percussion sculpture.
LEM - Machines (1977)
Michael Rother in his world (1973).
Harmonia in the fields.
Michal Turtle and the mirror plants.
Young Michal Turtle in his room.
Michal Turtle jamming with his drums.
Simmons SDSV first model.
Simmons SDSV prototype.
Roland MC-8 Microprocessor – the heart of Richard Burgess' studio from back in the days.
Benoit Widemann with Magma at Chateauvallon 1977.
Benoit Widemann on keys with Magma 1977.
Halfway Ritmo is a platform that compiles and shares interviews as well as relevant material from artists, which are located within the broad field of jazz and funk and whose tracks are also shaped by electronic components. A special focus lies on the 70ies and 80ies. It therefore gives a rare insight into how their work developed over the time, especially with the rise and usage of synthesizers, which would become a complete game changer in the field of music.
Halfway Ritmo also features a series of vinyl releases. The aim is to introduce people to a type of music, which does not follow any kind of stereotypes or preconceptions, but one that is genuine and conveys a unique sense of craftsmanship.
Halfway Ritmo was founded by Massimo Di Lena and Flavia Lamprecht.
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