What do the most unlikely number one UK hit single in living memory, a Tascam 688 cassette 8-track, a 1930s jazz sample, Leon Trotsky, SOS, Indian music, inverse gender stereotyping, a £35 mic, and feminism have in common? Well, these things are all part of the unlikely universe inhabited by the person who gave Britain its most unlikely number one hit, since, well, records began, as they say on the weather.
Few readers of this magazine will have missed the extreme media hype that surrounded the arrival on the charts of White Town with the infectiously swinging but bizarre track 'Your Woman'. It entered the UK charts at number one in January, sold 400,000 copies, filled hours of radio and TV time, and generated many yards of newspaper coverage. Most people will therefore be aware of how White Town consists of only one man, Jyoti Mishra, a poor, unsigned student from Derby until the end of last year, how 'Your Woman' arrived at its number one slot through relentless plugging by Radio 1 DJs, and how Mishra had put 'Your Woman' together in his bedroom on a 4-track cassette deck (the last part of which, as we shall see, is not quite true).
In the process, Jyoti Mishra signed a multi-album deal with a large record company, Chrysalis/EMI, and an album called Women In Technology was released in February. "As comic book stories go, things don't get much better than this. Never give up on your dreams", bleats the record company blurb; and in this case it has to be said that hero and history live up to the hype. Sweet dreams, especially those of SOS readers, are indeed made of this. By sticking at it for more than 10 years, bypassing the whole UK record industry, recording his crude yet highly entertaining music on cheap equipment at home, and still coming out tops at the age of 30, Jyoti Mishra has given new hope to scores of closet musicians and home studio enthusiasts around the country. Still reeling from his overnight success, Mishra has clearly not forgotten that only a few weeks ago he was still a member of this vast pool of unrecognised musical talent, many of whom regard Europe's No.1 Hi-tech Recording Magazine as their bible. For when the name of SOS appeared on a record company list with several dozen interview requests, he immediately made a tick next to it.
Thus it was that I travelled up to Derby, to visit the brand-new star in his modest house. The chaotic living room looked like a lottery prizewinner's living room, strewn with various pieces of brand new gear -- a MiniDisc recorder, phones, fax, and a giant TV -- often with manuals and bits of packaging still nearby. Upstairs was Mishra's modest music room, measuring about 9 by 9 feet. It was similarily chaotic, filled with loads of bits of new and old gear, many of which clearly had yet to find a permanent home. Two bits of legend-in-the-making can be corrected here: the room was definitely not Mishra's bedroom, and the cassette recorder he used was not a 4-track, but a Tascam 688 8-track MIDIstudio. Other bits of gear lying around Mishra's home studio included battered specimens such as an Emu Emax II sampler, Roland JX3P, Moog Rogue, and Casio CZ101 synths, Roland TR808 and TR707 drum machines, Mordaunt Short monitors and a Technics SKV amplifier. There were also gleaming new pieces, like a Tascam DA38 digital 8-track, Yamaha 02R mixer, Korg Trinity Plus workstation, and an Akai S3200XL sampler. Everything was covered with leads, manuals, wire, packaging, and bits of small gear (for example Roland's PMA5 desktop music composer, a Casio GZ5, and assorted mics). In the middle of all this mayhem I spoke with the voluminous Mishra, who was rather like his music: loud, bass-heavy, a little crude, and highly intelligent and entertaining all at the same time. After explaining that he agreed to do this interview especially because it was with SOS, and stating that he hoped that "a lot of people who read this interview will feel encouraged to keep on plugging on. If I can do it, they can do it", he was immediately onto what is clearly one of his favorite topics: how the gear one uses is immaterial, and ideas and music are what counts. His penchant for this topic is not surprising, since he's just set music industry received wisdom and gear orthodoxy on its head by scoring a number one hit single recorded on compact cassette.
"I get loads of email -- about 800 messages so far -- and many people ask things like: 'what gear do you have?' and 'what should I buy?'. But they're on completely the wrong track. It's of no importance whatsoever what gear you use, it's the end result that counts. One independent radio network initially refused to play 'Your Woman', because it was done on a cassette multitrack. As if that matters! These people think that unless you have the most expensive gear, the music is terrible. That's stupid. But then there are people who think that unless your gear is terrible, the music is terrible. That's stupid too. The question should be: 'do you like this song or not?', not: 'what was it recorded on?' I don't care. You should judge things only with your own ears. If my ears say it sounds OK, it's OK. I don't care what anyone else says. Trust your ears. Don't look at the specifications on the packaging..."
Until November 1996 few music business people were interested in such opinions, and certainly not from Jyoti Mishra. Two months later, scores of journalists and musicians from all over the country are hanging onto his every word. How did he achieve such phenomenal success?
It's an enjoyable tale. Mishra was born in Rourkela in India, and his family moved to Derby when he was only three. He started playing keyboards at the age of 12, and after leaving school, he had his own business for a while as a music teacher and recording engineer. He showed an early adventurous spirit: "I had become bored with keyboards, so I bought a little acoustic guitar in September 1988, and straightaway booked a gig for February, even though I couldn't play the guitar. Unless you have a fixed deadline, you won't work to it. So I taught myself some basic guitar in five months." Mishra started the group in 1989, as a "proper guitar band" with a guitarist, a bassist and a drummer, and with him singing and playing guitar: "The name White Town was a reference to growing up as an Asian person in Britain. That's not been depressing, but there certainly was a sense of alienation. I come from a middle-class background, and so have always lived in white areas, and felt cut off. The other people in the band were white, but soon they left one by one, and I had to go back to machines to replace them. And so the earlier White Town stuff was machines trying to sound like humans.
"About 3-4 years ago I got bored with this, and finally managed to get enough money together to get a sampler, the Emu Emax II, so I could stop trying to imitate humans, and instead experiment more, go mad and do things like loops and collages of music. I was influenced by hip-hop, Cabaret Voltaire and musique concrete, and thought that the creative use of sound in avant-garde was brilliant. It was a little bit like the Marcel Duchamp school of 'ready-made' art: you find an object in real life, and you make it your own by putting it in a different place and context. That idea really inspired me: how you can take a sample, put it in a completely new context, and it becomes an entirely different thing. It's for this reason that I prefer to take my own samples. I paid £60 for a sample CD a while back, and on the back it said that you couldn't use the samples unless you declare them. I thought: 'I've just paid for this, and I still can't use it freely'."
Eventually, three years ago, Mishra began studying Sociology and Film and TV Studies at Derby University, a course that he recently abandoned because of the success of White Town. He writes in the sleeve notes of Women In Technology that he should receive a "Nobel Prize for patience", and suggests that his breakthrough with 'Your Woman' came as the result of a strongly-honed ambition and many fruitless tries. The fact is, however, that he "completely gave up on getting a major deal between 1985 and 1995. I tried hard in the early '80s, and came close to getting a deal with EMI Music Publishing in 1985. Since major record companies weren't interested, I started my own label, Satya Records, and the EP White Town was the first thing I put out in 1990. It contained a guitar version of the song which also appears, in a different version, on Women In Technology. That went round the world via distributors, which resulted in Geoff Merritt of Parasol Records in the USA putting out my stuff. He had no money, but at least it was released. He's put out six White Town singles, and I've had a few releases on French, Spanish, German and Japanese compilations. So there have been plenty of things, but all on an underground level."
Then, in 1996, Mishra was doing some DJ-ing in a club in Derby, and noticed that the dance floor "really, really liked the track 'Your Woman'. People had liked my stuff before, and nobody had ever signed it, but this time I reckoned I'd give it another go. So I sent a copy off to five major labels, like Virgin, Island, One Little Indian and five radio DJs. All the labels turned it down, but one DJ, Mark Radcliffe, started playing it on his Radio 1 show on October 28th. That was nice, but I didn't think something was going to happen, because I'd been on the radio before; John Peel played me on his show once. But when Mark Radcliffe kept on playing the track I wondered whether something might happen after all. It was a strange situation, for I hadn't joined the PRS yet, and had no contract, no management, no plugging, and my track was being played regularily on Radio 1. So I sent off to several major labels again, like Virgin and so on, saying that I was on Radio 1 and people wanted to buy the single -- but they were still not interested. Who knows whether they listen to Radio 1? But when Mark Radcliffe took over the breakfast slot from Chris Evans and kept playing the track, things went really mad, and the response couldn't be ignored anymore."
Suddenly "about eight" major companies were queueing up to sign White Town, an experience which Mishra described as "weird, to be chased after all these years of having had no interest." Just before Christmas 1996, Mishra signed with Brilliant! Records, Neil Ferris's label, which is associated with Chrysalis/EMI. Ferris was the first major person to get in touch with Mishra, and he signed with Brilliant! because "they gave me the most creative freedom." Brilliant!/Chrysalis released the EP >Abort, Retry, Fail?_, which featured 'Your Woman', on January 13th, and days later it entered the UK charts at number one. The crazy charm of the single and the unusual way in which it was made and became popular propelled Jyoti Mishra to instant fame, and much unwanted media interest for him and his family. It got so bad that he now wants to move to a new house as soon as possible, not just to spend his freshly-earned money, but also because he feels too exposed in a residence which is now public knowledge. "With my studio here, it's like hanging a sign outside saying 'rob me!'. But, as Mishra writes in the liner notes of Women In Technology, "the next album won't be a wingeathon about the burdens of money and fame." So far, he's clearly enjoying his new status far too much.
Mishra is clearly grinning from ear to ear about how he got to where he is. The way 'Your Woman' became successful happened outside of his control, and so he relishes most the bit he was responsible for: the music. "The whole EP >Abort, Retry, Fail?_ and half of Women In Technology was recorded and mixed on the Tascam 688 using dbx noise reduction, and an Alesis Microverb 2 and Boss ME5 guitar effects pedal were the only effects used. "Most people reading SOS have better gear than I had! I don't like running virtual tracks on the sequencer, and always record whatever I sequence to tape -- when I want to listen to something, I don't want to have to spend hours loading it up and finding the right sound and effects. So everything you hear on these tracks was actually recorded on cassette tape. I mixed them to a Sony DTC750 DAT player.
"The sound sources I used for the EP and the whole album were the Emu Emax II sampler, a Roland JX3P and TR808, a Moog Rogue and Casio CZ101 -- these are both good for basslines -- plus two cheapo guitars: a Jim Deacon £100 acoustic and a Maya electric. The sequencing on the tracks 'Your Woman', 'Undressed', 'The Shape Of Love', 'Going Nowhere Somehow' and 'The Death Of My Desire' was done on an Atari 1040STFM with Gajits' Sequencer One software, which came free with an Atari magazine. The sequencing on the other album tracks was done on an Escom PC with Cubase software, which I got about 18 months ago. It was a nice little computer, but it just kept crashing. The hard drive was crap -- it kept throwing the words '>Abort, Retry, Fail?_' at me whilst I mixed the EP, which is why I decided to use that as its title."
Mishra also obviously enjoyed telling me the next fact: "Did I tell you that I used only one mic for recording all my vocals? It's a cheap Tandy mic, the Realistic PZM, which cost only £35. I put the mic straight into the Tascam 688. I also recorded the acoustic guitar with the PZM -- though I DI'd the electric. The track 'A Week Next June' is just me on acoustic guitar and vocal, with an electric guitar overdub by Rob (Fleay). I recorded the whole track in one take, just with the PZM. So I had to position it somewhere in front of me and hope that it would catch both vocals and guitar. I didn't want to use two mics, because you have to work out phasing and placement and mic EQ and so on. I thought: 'bugger all that, it's just going to get in the way of the performance.'"
"The more, or the better, mics you have in front of you, the more you have to alter what you normally do. When I started to record the second part of the album, Brilliant!'s Neil Ferris, who has been a BBC engineer, asked me whether I'd worked with different mics, and gave me a Neumann U87 to try. I gave it a go. But the floorboards creak in this room, and when I had set up the Neumann with all its protective shielding and elastic cradle, it picked up the creaks every time I moved when I sang. And there was a bloke doing concrete mixing outside, and it would pick him up as well. When I switched the U87 to hypercardioid pattern so it would be more directional, it lost me every time I moved and drifted off-axis. But I'm used to putting emotion in my singing, and moving around -- I close my eyes and don't want to worry about anything. The Neumann didn't catch what I was doing, so I returned it, and switched back to using the Realistic PZM."
Those of you who have just traded your limbs for a pile of expensive gear, don't despair. True to his credo that 'it doesn't matter what gear you use, it's the end result that counts', Mishra is quick to dispel the growing media myth that he's some kind of champion of low-fi recording: "That's a made-up thing. I'm against low-fi-ness as a principle. I don't try to sound low-fi, I use gear to get the result I want, and work at home because I hate recording studios. Music made in studios tends to sound the same. When you start being able to listen to a record and go: 'ah, that's Lexicon reverb', or 'oh, that's U86 close-miked with a touch of AMS', it gets a bit depressing. I'm not knocking people who work in studios, but they're there to do a job, and not necessarily to be creative. And sometimes they get bands in who can't play or write songs, and they have to do everything for them, and the result ends up being full of safe sounds, polished and well-produced, and without clicks and hums and buzzes, but also without humanity, because it's so perfect."
Imperfection is an important aspect of the White Town universe, and Mishra spends substantial amounts of his time programming his machines to play things imperfectly (see 'Your Woman' box). It's for the same reason that he prefers to use analogue synths ("I don't like the sounds of most new keyboards. They all sound like Baywatch, like American stock film music, with their bell-like sounds and the same presets that everybody else uses"), and takes his own samples. Yet he clearly believes that he can make the music he wants to make with many different types of gear, for his home studio was graced with some of the fruits of the success of 'Your Woman'. Recent new additions were the aforementioned Yamaha 02R digital console, Tascam DA38 digital 8-track recorder, Korg Trinity Plus workstation, and Akai S3200XL sampler, as well as a Novation BassStation rack, Panasonic SV3800 DAT recorder, and Cubase running on a Texas Instruments laptop PC. And apparently, Mishra completed half of Women in Technology (tracks 2, 3, 5, 8, 10, 12) using this equipment: "The other six songs were already finished before I signed the deal, whereas these six were finished during a four-day period last Christmas, straight after I signed with Brilliant! I had already laid out the ideas on the 688, then I copied them across to the DA38, and mixed them with the 02R. The 02R saved my life over Christmas because it's so quick. It's a very musical desk that's very easy and fun to use, and what impressed me most is that it had built-in gates and effects on every channel. I was a little scared when I got the 02R, thinking: 'ooops, digital console, digital EQ, automation -- what is it going to sound like?', but the new gear didn't make much difference to my sound. It captures all the mucking about that I do, and gives me extra options to sound madder. That's why I don't think I'll sound cleaner with the new equipment. I don't think I'll be buying any more new gear, but I do look forward to going crazy with what I have in the future."
Listening to Women In Technology it's striking how there's no distinguishable difference in sound or production quality between the tracks exclusively done on the 688, and those finished on the DA38 and 02R. If anything, the tracks that Mishra finished last Christmas are more experimental and brutal. The original 688-only tracks contain the excellent pop song 'Undressed' and the best and most catchy track of the album, 'Going Nowhere Somehow' (strangely not chosen as the second single), which both sound almost slick. Of the 02R-mixed tracks, the new single, the rather unwieldy, unmelodic hip-hop-influenced track 'Wanted', as well as the bizarre song 'Thursday At The Blue Note', are both carried along by fat, wildly-distorted synth sounds. Mishra explained: "I get a lot of noise from putting samples and synth sounds through the Boss ME5, which is a very useful little effects box. In 'Wanted' I even created noise by feeding the ME5 back on itself. The synth on 'Blue Note' is a Moog run through the ME5. I also put drum sounds through the ME5, because the problem with samples is that they exactly sound the same each time they're played, whereas if you put them through analogue distortion they will be slightly different each time. It makes things sounds more live. Samples sound very wooden otherwise."
'Thursday At The Blue Note' contains some Indian music samples, which brings up the issue of Mishra's Indian roots, and how they are represented in his music. Women In Technology comes across as a collage of entirely Western music styles, with little or no obvious world music influences of any kind, let alone Indian music. According to Mishra, the Indian influence is very strong, but lurking in the shadows: "It's all about a particular way of working, of having a certain attitude. For me, Indian music isn't about the sound of it, it's more about the underlying ethic. The instrumental tracks 'Theme For An Early Evening American Sitcom', 'Theme For A Mid-Afternoon Game Show' and 'Theme For A Late-Night Documentary About The Dangers Of Drug Abuse' are my versions of Indian classical music, where different ragas are played depending on what time of day it is. That works in India, because people there are more in tune with the natural cycles of life. When I tried to translate that concept into Western terms, I realised that we live our lives by TV times."
The strongest Indian influence on the album is, according to Mishra, conceptually and lyrically. "In Indian culture the family, love and sexuality are very important. Sex has to be within marriage, but it's not taboo. And so Women In Technology is about gender and sexuality, about love, and about how technology affects the way we feel about things and each other. I'm influenced in my ideas about sexuality by Wilhelm Reich, who wrote the book 'The Function Of The Orgasm', which is also the name of a song on the album. My influences in writing are Wilhelm Reich, Rosa Luxenburg, Trotsky, and American feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Linda Williams, and so on. Dworkin writes that any penetration in our society, where there's still not full equality between men and women, is rape. As a man, if you accept her point, how do you make love to a woman? Those are the issues I look at; I try to fuse art and politics in a way that isn't preaching."
Of his future musical plans, Mishra admits, "I'm not going to think about what music is most popular, because once you start thinking like that, you start writing crap." The next White Town single is, therefore, the decidedly uncatchy track 'Wanted', chosen to "defy hit parade expectations", and will be remixed by the likes of Daniel Miller (head of legendary independent Mute Records), Vince Clarke, Martin Ware (ex The Human League, BEF and Heaven 17) and Ant Chapman (of Collapsed Lung). Apart from musings about doing a live show and film and TV work, Mishra's main attention is on moving to the new, safer house, which will also give him more recording space. And, finally, isn't he scared that he will turn out a one-hit wonder? He laughs: "Who cares? I'm glad many people have heard my music, but I'm not in it for that, I'm not after fame. I'm after making music I love and having some connection with people. Thanks to the single I can now be financially OK, and that means that if anything, I can go even madder, because I don't have to worry about money."
White Town's 'Your Woman' must be the most primitively-made track ever to reach number one in the UK charts in recent years. The recording gear used consisted only of a Realistic PZM mic, the Tascam 688 8-track MIDIstudio, the Sony DTC750 DAT player, and the Boss ME5 guitar pedal. Sound sources were the Emu Emax II for drums, keyboards and samples, Casio CZ1 for basslines, and Maya electric guitar -- and the finished song only filled only five tracks of Mishra's Tascam 688. Mishra explained how he mixed all the ingredients together, starting with the main ingredient, that ancient orchestra sample: "It's taken from a 1932 recording of the Lew Stone Band, with Nat Gonella on trumpet, playing a song called 'My Woman'. It inspired both music and lyrics of my song, for the original song was so anti-woman that I wanted to twist it another way. Also, I love the music from then. I heard this track first as a child, and went back to it once I had the Emu Emax II sampler."
The other striking sample on 'Your Woman' are the bleep noises in the break, which were taken from the ancient, early '80s Casio VL1, which many will remember for its tiny dimensions, toy keyboard and white colour: ("It was the first thing I ever got. I was so impressed because it had ADSR and envelope and you could make you own sounds"). Mishra sampled it onto the Emax II and then flew it into the track. Mishra's strangely disembodied voice on 'Your Woman' was an attempt to make his voice sound like it came from an old 78rpm record: "It was recorded normally with the PZM mic. I rolled off the bass and top, and then stuck it through the Boss ME5 guitar pedal. I had it slightly overdriven, though not distorted. I didn't use any reverb on the vocal. In fact, there's no reverb on the whole track."
Your Woman does really swing, and Mishra explains that he achieved the infectious beat by applying his 'imperfection' credo in very crafty ways: "The most interesting thing in life are always the imperfections. Perfection equals lifelessness. Machines will always play things perfectly, but only nature, and in particular humans, have the capability for getting things wrong. When making 'Your Woman' it took me ages to program my equipment to play slightly out of sync. If you listen to the rhythm break in the middle, the drums actually go out of time underneath the Casio VL1 noises. It took me a long time to get that right. I don't like the sound of things being really in time, because there's no groove. I pull things backwards and forwards in the sequencer, or I try to corrupt the sync code, seeing if it will drop tempo a bit, but not too much. On 'Your Woman' I corrupted the drums using the Tascam 688's varispeed control. The 688 has its own sync code on track 8, which triggered the Atari, and so I would fiddle with the varispeed as I was laying the Emax II drums onto tape, and get the drums to go slightly off-beat. I then recorded the other instruments in time. With the drums being a little bit out of time throughout the song, you don't really know what's going on."
Audio files to accompany the article.
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