Boris Blank (Yello): Recording Zebra

Interview | Band

Published in SOS December 1994
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

PAUL TINGEN talks to Boris Blank, one half of idiosyncratic Swiss duo Yello, about the release of their 10th album, Zebra.


Boris Blank launches into a sermon: "I like to give electronic instruments life," he exclaims, "I like to express the soul of the machine, rather than be a slave to it. I really try to get the warmest music possible out of it. I never forget that somebody built that instrument, and each of these constructors and engineers have a soul. So I think that electronic instruments have a soul too, and I'm interested in trying to get the human side out of them." Blank's statement comes as a reply to a query about the possible mutual common ground between Kraftwerk and Yello, the Swiss duo of which Blank is a half. After all, both bands are known for relying heavily on music technology and both come from the European continent. Blank acknowledges Kraftwerk as "one of the most important German bands and one of the most important electronic music bands in the world", but stresses that Yello is at the other end of the electronic music spectrum: "Kraftwerk's way of doing things was really German. They did the exact opposite of what I like to do. That's why I'm not a big fan of them." Yello and Kraftwerk are, however, part of the same German-speaking culture, associated with immaculate organisation and extreme punctuality -- qualities that can easily be perceived to have an echo in the mechanical perfection of Kraftwerk's music, or the meticulous detail of the production of Yello's albums. Both Germany and Yello's homeland, Switzerland, are often perceived as the cradle of the narrow-minded bourgeois middle class and its values of tidiness and conformism. On the surface, Switzerland is a nation that prefers international isolation, appearing to outsiders as a bit of an artistic black hole -- how many world-famous Swiss artists can you name? That Blank and Meier managed to jump onto the world's stage from these seemingly unpromising circumstances must count as an achievement. Meier, in particular, has a reputation as a left-of-centre performance artist, doing wacko things like selling the words 'yes' and 'no' to passers-by in New York, and installing a plaque in a pavement in Zurich over 20 years ago, which read that Meier would stand at this exact spot on the 23rd of March 1994 from 3pm to 4pm. He duly showed up, as did hundreds of Yello fans from all over the world, plus legions of curious locals who, after years of raised eyebrows, finally wanted to witness what the plaque had all been about. Apparently it turned into a bit of street party...


It's clear that defying people's expectations is second nature to Yello, their albums a wild cocktail of musical influences -- funk, big band jazz, African rhythms and reggae. Dance is the central element, and as one of the world's foremost electronic bands, they're seen as one of the Godfathers of today's dance music, closer to the body-centred essence of dance than the disembodied, Gothic grandeur of much of Kraftwerk's music. An important aspect of Yello's music is the fact, quite simply, that it's fun and funky. To achieve this, Blank and Meier have formed the perfect musical marriage. Blank's infectious rhythms get people moving and, together with his sound paintings, form the perfect backdrop for Meier's bizarre vocals. The latter are often half or fully spoken, and usually narrate scenes or stories which might have come from a Hollywood B-movie. When Yello started out in 1980, Meier was in many ways one of the first rappers to make it to the world's centre stage, even though his free-flow word-waterfalls lacked the strong rhythmic punctuation typical of the emerging US rapping style. As melodrama and pastiche are intrinsic aspects of their style, some think that Meier and Blank are simply parodying aspects of rap and dance music. But it's more likely that their off-beat approach is simply the product of the wild imagination of some truly original guys.


The story of Yello starts in 1979, when Blank -- former TV repair-man and truck driver -- chanced upon Carlos Peron, a fellow sound fanatic. Together they started creating an outrageous mixture of music and sound collages. When they needed an equally outrageous front man, the diverse talents of Dieter Meier -- bon viveur, professional gambler, film director and writer of children's books -- fitted right in. The combination proved electric and Yello soon released their first album, Solid Pleasure (1980). Their nonsensical name took its inspiration from children's toys such as Lego and Meccano, and was an apt banner for the throwaway, playful spirit of their musical experiments. It was all terribly un-Swiss -- apart from one thing: their organised chaos was, and still is, produced in glossy, precise detail, sounding as smooth and succulent as the creamiest Swiss milk chocolate. Since then, there have been eight more albums, sporting titles such as You Gotta Say Yes To Another Excess (1983), Flag (1988) and Baby (1991). Over the years there has been little change in Yello's sound (notwithstanding Peron's departure to pursue a solo career), though guest singers like Rush Winters (on Stella, 1984), Billy Mackenzie (on One Second, 1987, Flag and Baby), and, most famously, Shirley Bassey on the song 'The Rhythm Divine', from One Second, gave Blank the opportunity to come up with more melody-, rather than rhythm-based tracks. October of this year saw the release of Yello's 10th album, Zebra. In many respects it's classic Yello, though this time the emphasis on dance is stronger than ever, as is evident from tracks like 'Room 909', the new single 'How How', and 'Move Dance Be Born'. On the phone from his studio in Zurich, Boris Blank agrees that Zebra is more body-biased than their previous output: "I've been going to clubs a lot recently and I love the whole techno-house movement. I love to watch girls dancing. I love it anyhow when people dance." Blank maintains that the dance music influence on Zebra has been purely circumstantial, not musical, and shows that he's well aware of his own place in the annals of music history: "Ten years ago we already did music like they do today. We played techno music 10 years ago, with the only difference being that the beat is perhaps a little more simple today. But the process of how people create techno music today is exactly the same as we did it 10 years ago." Blank must be talking here about the bedroom DIY spirit that pervades current dance music: Yello's first albums were made with a similar mentality, but many of his tools of the trade were rather different. "In 1980 things were really hard work. I didn't have a Fairlight, so I had to bash things against the radiator for hours to get a rhythm track. Or I had bloody fingers from hitting the congas."


Blank was already playing with drum machines in 1980, but hadn't yet encountered what was soon to become the love of his life: the Fairlight, still his main instrument, even today. He's gone through various upgrades and now owns a Fairlight Series III MFX2. To him it's still the world's best sampler: "The sound quality is still better than that of, for example, the S1000. The samples are really natural, fully dynamic with great depth and warmth. You don't lose anything below 40Hz, nor at the top end. It's brilliant. And I love changing the sounds with functions like filters, oversampling, overtones and so on. I do work with the MFX for editing, but basically I'm only working with the Fairlight as a sampler." Ever a fan of taking his own samples, Blank has amassed an extensive sample library over the years, consisting of about "Five or six Gigabytes" of memory. Given that he has, for example, 600 different samples of saxes alone, this huge memory requirement starts to make sense. Though he has been known to occasionally sample from other people's records, it's something he's now given up. Today he will sometimes use samples from sample CDs, but personalisation of the sound is still of the utmost importance: "When the Fairlight was only 8-bit the quality was so bad that you'd hardly recognise the original, so I didn't mind taking the odd sample of Wagner or Beethoven, looping it and playing it backwards, and all that stuff. But now when I hear a nice drum loop on someone's CD I'll let myself be inspired by it, but I'll create it myself. I feel it's cheap to sample off other people's CDs. I'd feel guilty, even though I enjoy it when people steal from my albums. When I use sample library sounds I'll always change them. But I don't use them much, because you can always recognise library samples on other records. I think that's a bit of a shame."


"I feel it's cheap to sample off other people's CDs. I'd feel guilty, even though I enjoy it when people steal from my albums."


Other sound sources that Blank uses are almost as numerous as his samples, a rich mixture of analogue and digital, with special favorites being the ARP Odyssey, Sequential Circuits Pro One, OSCar, Waldorf MicroWave ("good for basses"), Oberheim Matrix 12, Wavestation SR, Ensoniq SQR, Emu Procussion, Korg DW8000, Roland D50, JD800 and JD990, and the Yamaha SY77. Like many musicians, he professes a preference for analogue rather than digital programming: "The JD800 is my favourite of the digital keyboards to work with for that reason. But I love both analogue and digital keyboards. It's like a painter sometimes working with acrylic and sometimes with oil, and sometimes using them together. I make a conglomerate of all kinds of sounds, real acoustic samples from the Fairlight together with the old ARP Odyssey. I take different colours and textures out of all my synths." A particular recent favorite is the Kurzweil K2000. Blank elaborates: "I play with synthesizers like a child plays with toys, and I really love the K2000. It's a wonderbox [laughs]. You always wonder what will come out of it. I use it on many tracks on the new album, such as 'Move Dance Be Born' and 'Night Train To Chicago'. I use it a lot for arpeggios that are triggered by a single note from the sequencer. You can change those arpeggios inside the K2000 and add waveforms or samples and suddenly get a completely different sound picture. It gives me many surprises and strange effects."


Sequencing at Blank's Zurich studio is done on an Atari ST with Notator software, but "we're rebuilding the studio and I might perhaps get a Mac with Cubase. I love Notator very much, but I just want to see what other systems can do, how fast and complex and powerful they may be." The revamp of his studio will also mean that his tried and trusted Amek 2500 48-channel mixing desk will be traded for a Euphonix. Meier is still active in the film industry and has a small setup in Los Angeles, sporting a Euphonix desk -- Blank wants to get his studio into line. Other Zurich studio gear includes an array of Lexicon, Yamaha, Roland, Valley People, Alesis and Eventide outboard gear, plus two Otari MTR90 24-tracks and 48 tracks of Dolby SR. Despite the general upgrade of his studio, the Otaris are there to stay, because Blank is a fan of analogue. One reason is that he's not quite sure about hard disk recording: "I have been thinking about the Protools and StudioVision approach, but my understanding is that none of the hard disk systems currently available are really OK. So perhaps I have to wait another year or so. But even then I would still use analogue, if only to listen to old tapes, and I still prefer the sound of analogue. I prefer vinyl to CDs too. Digital simply doesn't sound totally human yet. I know this may sound strange from someone who uses the Fairlight as his main workhorse, but I think that the Fairlight sounds better than hard disk recording systems. Maybe it's just an illusion and I'm wrong, but that's how my ears perceive it. Also, with the Fairlight I'm working step by step, with small snippets of sound, so you get a different perspective anyway."

Blank sees himself entering the 21st century with the Fairlight, waxing lyrical about the new Series III MFX3, that will see time-stretching and yet more improvements in sonic quality. And with his huge sound library he obviously has reason to stick with the Fairlight as long as possible. Still, one might be forgiven for thinking that his relative conservatism is a bit unpractical, because really, for a electronic musician, wouldn't it be much easier to be able to run the new MIDI sequencers that can have a few tracks of audio or can run simultaneously with a hard disk recorder on the same computer? Blank explains that this question arises from a misconception about the way he works in the studio: "I use far too many analogue tracks to work in such a way. I often end up with well over 30 tracks of vocals and other overdubs, so I do need the two Otaris. The way Dieter and I work is that I lock myself up here in my studio and start doing tracks by myself. Often a mood will inspire me, like a grey, rainy day, or the smell of a gasoline station where I've just been. Then there are the thousands of sounds that I have bobbing around in the Fairlight. A sound can be a kind of path that leads me into putting together these noises like a puzzle. I build it up, and add harmony and a melody. That's the point where Dieter comes in. I show my pictures to him and have some ideas where he could sing and where the chorus part could be. He then has to find his character within this sound picture. It's a bit like an opera. So he types lyrics with the typewriter and we start putting everything together."


According to Blank, the musical track may change in response to Meier's lyrical or musical ideas. Numerous vocal takes or try-outs may be done by Meier and Blank; these will often be edited or sampled themselves, and will be bounced down to four or eight analogue tracks for the final mix. (The electronic sounds are run from MIDI till the very end). Then there may be percussion or electric guitar overdubs. The reggae track 'Fat Cry' on Zebra, for example, was initially recorded as a commercial for the French market. Later Blank liked the track so much that he expanded and edited it to a fully-fledged Yello track. Blank: "The vocals in our music come from both the Fairlight and tape. I'll sample my own voice, Dieter's voice, or the voice of anybody we're working with. With Billy MacKenzie we did lots of sessions just trying things out, shouting and sexy stuff and so on. I still have loads of tapes full of it." The sampled human voice has always been an important ingredient of Yello's music. "The voice is one of the most interesting instruments. I especially love rhythmic vocal noises. It may have something to do with my father, who played the accordion and who made all sorts of strange noises with his mouth, imitating cats or making strange popping sounds [laughs]. My grandfather also played accordion, imitating military drum orchestras and playing around a lot with the bass part of the accordion. I also remember that as a child I loved to play with echoes in the mountains. I really had fun shouting and waiting for the echoes to come back and count the delays and echo repeats. I was fascinated by sounds."

Playing live holds little interest for Blank, and consequently Yello have only appeared live a few times. "It looks silly really, two old farts shaking their heads, pretending to play, whilst everything is coming from the Fairlight and tape." Instead Blank reckons that his real instrument is the recording studio: "The studio is my life. This is my life stage here. I'm doing some administration work at the moment, trying to create order in the pieces that we didn't use for Zebra. There are about 90 or 100 pieces that I have to archive, which were made in the last two or three years. They range from rough sketches to nearly finished ideas. Dieter sometimes comes in and tells me: 'hey, Boris, you never played me this piece. This is sensational!' Working in the studio is a real addiction to me. When we finished Zebra I said to Dieter: 'I'm going to take six months holiday, go to the mountains, go to the Caribbean. But after three weeks in Italy I was back here working out some nice tracks and tunes. I can't stop doing it. We still have so much fun. We'll stop when we're 99, and then maybe take a break for one or two years. Then we'll start again, if we're not dead. Music is our world and my destiny."


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