The New Synthesizer Rock
Keyboard Magazine, June 1982
Principle: We started out as a drone group, but we've never really
used the sequencer trip, maybe because it's sort of a familiar sound.
A lot of sequencer music makes me angry. We've never had one. If somebody
gave one to us, maybe we'd do something intelligent with it.
Ryser The sequencer does take a lot of the fun away from playing. Now that our percussionist, Jonathan Parker, plays keyboard, he'll play some of the old sequencer parts. It's just more fun to not use it in a live situation, and it creates more interplay. You feel there's more energy happening. For composing it's great to use rhythm machines and sequencers, but onstage I thinks it's just a little more exciting to do the live thing. It's more like an orchestra when you see all these different parts, as opposed to having a machine do them.
On the Digital Cowboy record, Scott, you included a note reading "No Sequencers Used." Why?
Simon: I think a lot of the humanity is lost, and we're trying to get the fact across in our music that we are human beings. We're not machines playing machines. Also, we're trying to state that we are different from a lot of other bands that do use sequencers. Take that bass pattern from 'No One's Watching" [from Digital Cowboy]. That's a traditional sequencer pattern, but I played the whole part through with my fingers. When I do it live, sometimes I make a mistake, but I can also make it sound more energetic without the sequencer. I can accent different notes and change the feeling in a way the sequencer can't.
Still you must hear the similarity between the patterns you play and the sequencer lines of Kraftwerk:
Oh, sure. They're great. I've been listening to them since 1976 or '77, when I first met Keith and Layne in California. But they are a bit different from us. We are a band that plays on electronic instruments, whereas they are an electronic band. We're not just using tape loops and feedback and stuff; we're striving to write music on electronic instruments because they are more interesting than conventional guitars and drums.
Ball: Kraftwerk had my favorite sound in electronic music. That's what first attracted me to synthesizers.
Was Kraftwerk an influence on Japan as Well?
Barbieri: I suppose we were inspired by them in a way because we work with sequencers, but only to that extent.
your sequencer work is much less a factor in your music than your music
than in theirs.
Barbieri: We use it for a much sparser kind of rhythm than they do. We play it against the drums as well, as opposed to adhering to a strict four-bar thing. It plays between the intervals of the drum pattern, rather than having the drums following the sequencer pattern. We tend to split them up into two separate things so that they play against each other and create different rhythms.
Webber: Kraftwerk is obviously someone we get compared to a lot, because they've been around for a while. But when we started, one of the slogans 415 Records hyped us with was, "Humans playing synthesizers." The whole thing was that we were human, we weren't machines. Now it seems like there's a definite trend away from synthesizers as machine-oriented noise creators. If anything it's turned in the other direction, with bands like Orchestral Manoeuvers and Soft Cell.
Ryser: I think the whole machine thing is still a big area to explore. I'm not against it, because it is a big part of what you hear every day outside your house. But still, I find it hard to listen to people like Klaus Schulze or Tangerine Dream because it is so emotionless. When I got into synthesizer it was more because of people like Wendy Carlos. I felt with her stuff, especially in A Clockwork Orange, that there was a lot more feeling to it.
How much of a challenge is it to got past the electronic framework of your music, especially given the influence of Kraftwerk, and make it seem more emotional, if that's what you're trying to do?
Gore: I don't think we've had that problem. There are a lot of bands around who do play synthesizers very coldly, but I think we've gotten away from that.
Principle: That's why we're interesting to a lot of people. We use electronics for a lot of what we do; we use saxophone and violins too, but a lot of times it's a heavily treated electric violin, and even so we still manage to cut it at and the emotions somehow come through. This is one of the enigmas of Tuxedomoon as compared to our peers. I'm pro-emotion. I'm pro-everything that's human. I don't think the way of the future is to close off certain circuits in your nervous system, by drugs, will power, religion or whatever. We have to open them all by these same means!
Much of the immediate emotion in Soft Cell seems to come from the singer's style.
Ball: But I don't think my particular playing sounds cold either. It doesn't have that mechanical, repetitive sound because I play manually, rather than relying on really precise machines that lose that human sort of feel.
But even bands that you don't rely on sequencers often show their influence in how they use cyclic repetitions of notes. The fact that they're playing by hand may escape the notice of the listener, who just hears something that obviously was inspired by machine-like sequencer patterns.
Ball: But Brian Eno once said, "Repetition is a form of change."
Webber: I know that my bass lines are usually pretty repetitive, but I think it's kind of nice and a little more free to have something like that going on with a percussionist doing things on top.
Ryser: In fact, we're always thinking we're not repetitive enough. Repetition is nice for dancing, and since we like to dance ourselves, that's one way we get into a good groove and stay on it.
So is dancing an important element in your music?
Webber: Yeah, definitely. I like the audience to inspire me as much as we inspire them, and when they're just sitting there looking like they're watching TV it isn't very inspiring. The music has to be able to get them up.
Ryser: It's fun to play that kind of music too, because you can jump around a little bit more easily, I feel like I take myself too seriously all day; I don't want to do it when I play music too.
Simon: But you know, I think dancing is less important now. I have a feeling that people want to listen a little bit more to what's going on. They want to be able to move their bodies a little bit, but it's not necessary to go out and go crazy on every song. If there's a message there, people want to bear it. Rock in the middle and late '70s didn't have much of a message, the way there was in the '60s. There is a need for that now.
Principle: I don't argue against dance-oriented music with lyrics
like that, because one of the blessings of rock and roll is the fact that
it describes your problem and also gives you the solution, which is to
dance away into a dervish delirium. A lot of the world is in that mood
And you feel the new synthesizer rock addresses that heed?
Ball: Sure. It's hypnotic as dance music. That's the whole essence of it. People are so limited and restricted, crammed into offices and trains. They can't move around, so they just want to shake and go wild. Dancing is what they do rather than hitting and killing somebody.
Principle: There is a lot of soulful, fiery dance-oriented music in New York, but I think that kind of inspiration has drifted away from English music. When I was a kid English music was very interesting, but now it's very flat.
Webber: The English bands really go for an extremely simple drum sound, just four to the bar, if they have a drummer. In a way that's what separates us from all the synthesizer music that's happening right now in England, especially with our percussionist and drummer. We try to remain simple in what we do, but it's still a little more creative than that.
Gore: Well, I'm a bit biased, but I think a bit more thought goes into our rhythm than just laying down a disco track. Most disco records sound very much the same to me. We do use a powerful bass drum and snare sound, and they are mixed up loud, but we don't start by saying, "Let's make this a dance record," although most of them are.
Doesn't it seem like the use of drums machines by many new bands contradicts claims that they're trying to get closer to human feeling?
Ball: Well, we use drum machines because they're convenient. I couldn't play a drum kit, but with the Roland TR-808 or the Linn you can program as you go along; it's like live playing. You don't just type out a rhythm part and let it play; you can actually put in fills as you go along, and that enables me to play drums using a keyboard or switches rather than drumsticks.
Do you try to approximate a drum sound as closely as possible?
Ball: Yes. I always thought the snare sound on drum machines was a little thin, so when we record the drum machine, with each drum sound on a separate channel, we take the electronic snare signal and feed it into a small speaker which is placed on top of a real snare, then we record that. So the drum machine is triggering a real snare drum!
Principle: But the whole idea of using electronics for rhythms instead of a drummer is to get something that sounds different from real drums! That's one thing I don't like about rhythm machines: They have imitation drum sounds oh them. Look at the Roland: You can treat it with a fuzz box or flanger or echo, but you never get away from that drum sound.
On the other hand, it sounds like the Depeche Mode bass drum sound is not even remotely an attempt at imitating the tone of a real bass drum.
Gore: Since we've started making records we've always used an ARP 2600 for the bass drum because we've never found a drum machine with a powerful enough bass drum sound. We run it through the sequencer. We like the snare sound on our Roland TR-808. Our Korg KR-55 also has quite a good snare. We chose them both mainly to get a good snare drum.
The snare sounds on Soft Cell's "Sex Dwarf" and on "Talking Drum" by Japan seem to be cut off at certain points. Did you use a noise gate on it?
Barbieri: That's exactly what we used. It took quite a long time, because there's a lot involved with the special type of delay you want, but on "Talking Drum" we used the noise gate on the snare and on the toms.
Ball: We had some sort of limiting amplifier that clipped the sound so that it died very abruptly, leaving a kind of ringing reverberation.
Layne, why did you move from regular drums to electronic percussion with Our Daughters Wedding?
Rico: I like the drums, but I Couldn't get some of the sounds I wanted from them because all you can do is bit a stick against the skin, so I used my knowledge of drumming and syncopation and changed it all over to playing keyboards. My drumming Was where I got all my rhythm machine ability.
Barbieri: We use a lot of electronic percussion too, always manually played by our drummer, so it's a matter of myself programming the appropriate sounds, usually drum sounds on a synth, then having Steve play them.
You also do mix rhythm machines in with your electronic drums, don't you?
Rico: That's exactly right. We like the sound of a rhythm machine, but they can get too repetitious, just going click clack click clack all night.
Ridgway: If something comes that only a machine can do, and it does it a lot better than the drummer, than Joe [Nanini, Wall Of Voodoo's drummer] isn't averse to playing on top of it. But it is machine, not a drummer, after all. We would never want to replace the drummer with a rhythm machine; that's not the idea.
Ryser: We definitely made a decision to have drummer opposed to just electronic drums, but we'd like to start using electronic drums to augment the percussion.
What do you like about them?
Ryser: The textures, the tones. They'd be nice to intersperse with real drums. When we record we use a vibraphone, but our percussionist now plays keyboard instead because the vibes are so hard to mike onstage. I really like the slight tonal variation between the keyboard and a percussive instrument like vibes. It's the same with electronic and real drums. To have the two textures together would be nice.
Ridgway: Our drummer is into experimenting With textures too. He devised this set of frying pans attached to a practice pad that he plays along with the sequencer at the end of "Back In Flesh" [from Dark Continent]. You can't tell which is which!
Martin, what do you get in Depeche Mode from playing with a rhythm machine that you don't get from a live drummer?
Gore: That's a difficult one for us to answer, because we've never used a drummer. Even When We first started, with a guitarist and bass guitarist, we used a small drum machine. We've never felt limited by it, though.
Principle: When we bought our Roland rhythm machine, we used it mainly to trigger us into inspirational moods. We write a lot of music in improvisational situations, recording onto cassette and later extracting various interesting passages. But we've kind of moved away from that because the Rolard is so stupid. It only plays in 4/4, you can't do different tempos, and it doesn't understand unevenness. We just recorded a 12" 45, three songs with heavy electric guitar and not one drum beat on the whole record. I'm really proud of that. [laughs].
a cut on the American Japan album, titled "Ghosts," that has no drum track
Barbieri: It is very difficult to play without a drum track because there is no real timing. The only timing we could follow was the bass synthesizer, which kind of denoted the chord changes. I think it came over quite well. That's probably one of the best examples of my keyboard work. The arrangement is what's interesting about the track It's a very straight vocal line, but we decided to make the arrangement a bit strange.
Do you feel that different kinds of synthesized sounds are popular theses days than were popular in the progressive rock era?
Gray: I think so. When they were used on a more traditional level people tried to approximate the sound of a real instrument with a synthesizer, so they didn't come up with as many jolting sounds.
Like the one you used in "Back in Flesh."
Gray: That was an Oberheim mini-sequencer plugged into two holes in the back of the Minimoog that it wasn't supposed to be plugged into, according to the manufacturer, but it's also run through this little gizmo box I built at home.
Ridgeway: Then you turn all the filters off on the Moog, fiddle with the box, and the sounds come out.
Ball: In the early days most synthesizers sounded the same. The Moog sound seemed the most popular. It's developed now to the point that you can use a and people won't realize that's what it is, which I really like, it's not that you're trying to deceive anyone; it's just that you get the feel that you've dreamed about. People can't say that the synthesizer is just a gimmick that makes silly little sounds, because it isn't doing that anymore.
Ryser: In the '70s they were going for more of a guitar sound. It was more of a Jan Hammer thing. Now I'd say synths are used either more percussively or with longer melodic tones.
Webber: And new possibilities will come along as time goes on. Kids who play video games hear a lot of weird sounds, and when they go hear a synthesizer band they'll be able to relate to it on that level.
Simon: To me it goes back to the desire to have a raw edge in music. People who are playing string synthesizers now prefer to hit chords and pull off rather than keep it down, because it's so convenient an instrument that players I know instinctively back off from it.
That is a major change from the way progressive rock synthesists used string lines in the past.
Simon: That's the fun thing about it. The beat is very important. You have to define it first. Once that's done, then you have all the room in the world to color a song.
Gore: We don't make conscious attempts to imitate the sounds of real instruments, but a lot of times the sounds we're looking for come very close to conventional instruments. They might not be perfect replicas, but they sound very much like the originals.
Barbieri: We try to make almost every single sound as acoustic as possible. If we knew how to play these acoustic instruments well enough, we'd drop synthesizers altogether. I much prefer the sound of traditional instruments. We're merely using synthesizers to create that.
Ridgway: But to me, there really isn't any point to that. I like the way synthetic strings sound. If I wanted to have a real-sounding violin on a record I would get someone to come in and play one.
Principle: We only use machines to give us more possibilities to make mistakes.
Do you feel that you're involved in a significant trend that's changing the direction of rock and roll?
Ryser: I think so. We're doing it in a reactionary way. It's like, there's been enough of this other stuff; how about something different?
Simon: Yeah. Sometimes we'll be sitting around talking, and someone will say, "God, it feels good that something we just happen to be doing is working, and besides that it's new and important." Bands like Human League, OMD and the Units are all in a new thing, and as it matures, as artists who are presenting the music grow up, kids who are 15 now will start using these instruments to play something different, too.
Principle: Well, I don't want to paint the picture either way, because it's too romantic. I don't expect to be the mainstay of a new revolution. I'm not on that much of an ego trip.
Do you have any apprehensions that synthesizers may simply fall into
a new kind of cliched use?
Principle: I think they already have.
What can you do to avoid that in your own music?
Priniciple: I don't worry about it.
Barbieri: It does sound to me like something new is happening, but everybody does seem to be doing the same thing. It's all going into another style again.
Ridgway: I would only say that it sounds as if a lot of musicians have figured out that less is more.
Ball: That's what I hated about a lot of the '70s rock bands that had synthesizers. They over-complicated things. The return to simplicity is good.
Gray: That seems to be what a lot of other people are doing right now, and as a result everyone has sort of stumbled onto a certain basic style of using the synthesizer.
Webber: There are a lot of similarities among synthesizer bands. You really have to be original and creative with what you do with a machine, because it's really easy to get into a quirky little synthesizer sound, It doesn't take much to come with that kind of a thing.
Barbieri: It's just a matter of choosing your influence, and if you choose the current music scene as your influence, then I don't really hold much hope. If you tend to pick your influences from something more diverse, whether it's Erik Satie or Frank Sinatra or traditional Chinese music, then you could come up with something original.
One last question. If you had to explain what's happening now in music to a rock fan who had somehow fallen asleep in the late '60s and slept through the '70s, what would you say?
Simon: I'd ask him to go back to the '50s and listen to the kind of steady keyboards that Fats Domino played in "Blueberry Hill."
Webber: I'd tell him not to go shopping, not to take out any loans, and to try and survive.