In the relatively brief period since the release of Eat Static's acclaimed debut album Abduction in mid-1993, a host of accolades have been showered upon this unassuming Somerset duo. 1993 ended on a high, with the debut 'Lost In Time' EP achieving 'Single Of The Week' status in Melody Maker, and the group being nominated 'Best Dance Act' in the NME Readers' Poll. The band topped this in 1994 when their second album Implant entered the UK national album charts at number 11, and in 1995 they headlined at the Glastonbury and Phoenix festivals. 1996's 'Bony Incus' release was an instant club favourite, full of pulsating techno beats, and provided a taster of what is to come with the release of the group's third album.
If the names of Eat Static's members Joie Hinton and Merv Pepler already seem familiar, it's because the duo originally started as an offshoot of spaced-out prog rockers Ozric Tentacles (see feature in SOS August 1996), only departing that band to concentrate on Eat Static full-time in 1994. Unlike many group splits, Eat Static's disembarkation from the Ozrics' 'mothership' was an amicable one. The two groups have often shared concert billings, and the title track from 'Lost In Time' was engineered by Ozric Tentacles' principal spokesperson, keyboard-playing guitarist, producer and composer Ed Wynne, and was recorded at the Ozrics' striking Somerset studio, The Mill.
My destination this time as I ventured back into darkest Somerset was not The Mill, but the attic-based recording studio at Merv Pepler's farmhouse cottage, a picturesque building in idyllic surroundings most conducive to composing and recording music. I began our talk by asking what, if anything, Merv and Joie had felt was missing in their respective roles as drummer and keyboard player in Ozric Tentacles which had prompted them to form Eat Static in 1990.
Merv: "Before I joined the Ozrics, I already had another band on the go called Wooden Baby -- kind of a guitary-punky-goth band, but with drum machines. We mixed in a bit of keyboards -- a Juno, DX7 and a couple of other things. Then I joined the Ozrics, and Joie started playing in this other band as well. It was more of a traditional band thing with guitars and vocals, but it eventually started leaning towards a slightly more dancey feel.
"We met up with a guy called Steve Everett who started coming to jam at Ozrics gigs with a few more keyboards, so there were two keyboard setups onstage. This was before Ed [Wynne] used keyboards live, and was still concentrating on guitar. Steve had a sampler and computer setup that he made music on at home, so we invited him over with his gear to do some music together.
"Originally, we planned to do some Wooden Baby-type of stuff, more of a 'bandy' sort of thing, but we ended up in this room together with all the gear, and Steve just started firing in TR808 and Kraftwerk-style samples. We ended up doing a straight four-on-the-floor dance track, totally accidentally, and we had a really good time doing it.
"There we were in Ozrics doing all this technically impressive, weird music with mad timings, and getting really involved with it, and this experiment that became Eat Static was a good excuse to ignore all that, get the synths out, and be as stupid as we could!
"We deliberately kept the first three years of Static separate from Ozrics. There was no live techno/club scene going on then. You couldn't just go out and do a techno tour, because no-one was doing it. All the gigs I was booking were club gigs and big raves. Most of the time I was arguing, trying to get us longer than 20 minutes, saying, 'Look, we don't use DATs and stuff. We want to do an hour-long live set.' And they used to say, 'If any of the bands we normally have on do longer than 20 minutes, they get booed off!'
"It was quite interesting for us when the house/techno stuff branched out properly around '92 and '93. The whole rave scene was getting pretty violent, and there were some nasty people putting events on. It was good the way that whole crossover live/techno thing started coming in around then -- it meant it was easy to go out and do a gig, as we already had a strong live following."
Joie: "We'd been doing gigs as Eat Static for about two-and-a-half years before we'd even released a white label." Joie continued the story, explaining that the duo's eventual decision to leave Ozric Tentacles was mainly due to time pressures as Eat Static took off as a successful group in their own right: "For about three years, we'd been doing Eat Static and Ozric Tentacles at the same time, and it was quite possible to do both. But there came a time when Eat Static started to get more and more bookings. Longer tours were set up, and it came to the point where Merv and I were simply exhausted. We'd return from an Eat Static tour and two days later we'd have to go off on an Ozrics tour! It just became too much to do the two. We opted for Eat Static as it was a newer, fresher thing to do. Another factor was that the Ozrics could carry on without us, but obviously Eat Static couldn't."
UFOlogy references are prevalent in many Eat Static track titles, such as 'Gulf Breeze' (a well-documented recurring wave of UFO activity that took place in Gulf Breeze, Florida, USA, from the late 1980s into the '90s) and 'Area 51' (an 'Above Top Secret' installation within the environs of the remote Nellis Air Force Range and Nuclear Test Site in Nevada where 'recovered' alien technology is reputedly stored). For Merv and Joie -- who both claim to have seen a UFO -- the oft-scorned subject of UFOlogy is not just some dreamed-up fantasy resulting from over-exposure to currently in-vogue television shows like The X-Files. I wondered if this theme would continue in the duo's forthcoming third album, untitled at the time of writing. Merv: "It will be, but I don't want to be so obvious with imagery this time, as many other people are now using it as well. I suppose we can still get away with it because it's been with us from the beginning." Get away with it they can. However, Eat Static are not incapable of joking at their own expense. When I asked them, not, I confess, with my tongue entirely out of my cheek, whether they felt that their music might have benefited from the incorporation of 'recovered' alien technologies, Joie's response was appropriately non-straightfaced: "We've often wondered about our Waldorf, as it's prone to doing some very strange things. Maybe Wolfgang Palm [founder of PPG and Waldorf -- Ed] is an alien!"
Ah... the colossal Waldorf Wave -- Germany's 'übersynth', about which Ozric Tentacles' Ed Wynne lamented, "I don't know if it took off particularly well, because it just seemed like a synthesizer for loonies to me!". Earlier this year, it was reported in the States that the Waldorf Wave was Eat Static's main digital keyboard -- a role it continues to play, as Merv confirmed: "Originally, Joie and Ed bunged a load of Wave sounds on DAT which got sampled up and used on the Ozrics' Jurassic Shift album, I think. I thought there were a couple of things which would have obviously been better on Static tracks.
"Basically, our Implant album sold pretty well because of Abduction -- it sold as many copies straight away, so we had a fairly decent royalty cheque, and we went out and bought a new desk and the Waldorf. Probably the best thing about also being in the Ozrics was that we had enough money coming in to live on, and so could afford to put all the Static money back into the band. Buying the Waldorf at the time felt right, and it's become the heart of our sound, really."
"The Waldorf's presets seemed really drab, so much so that I thought, 'My God, what have we done?' when we first got it. There appeared to be 127 organ sounds and just a few weird ones, but you've got to give every keyboard its own character within a band. We've always been ones for programming our own sounds. I don't even consider a synth part of the band until it's at least half full of our own sounds! That's a problem nowadays, because there's a lot of new modules specifically full of techno sounds, and I think it should be down to the individual user to go beyond what is in there."
For those of you wishing to hear the mighty Waldorf Wave in action, Joie explained: "The kind of ripping, crackly sound at the beginning of the track 'Implant' is the Waldorf, and we've used it liberally since."
Joie is also the proud owner of a PPG Wave 2.3 (the Waldorf Wave's predecessor -- see the RetroZone in SOS December 1996), and is therefore well qualified to sing the Waldorf's praises, or otherwise: "The new one's definitely less buzzy! The old PPG is astonishing really, and has a totally distinctive kind of sound to it. It tends to sort of veer towards clangorous, metallic sounds and is quite hard to control, whereas the new Waldorf has a far richer sound texture to it, because there's more in it. There's more controllers to go for, but you can tell there's similarities between the two."
It transpired that Joie's PPG is actually a Wave 2.2 casing with 2.3 innards: "I'd heard them on some records and it looked like a wacky synth to go for, so I phoned up the Synthesizer Service Centre, and asked if they could get me one. They had four or five of them lying around in bits, and mine is a composite of those.
"I was after a digital-sounding machine, but with analogue control. In fact, it's almost like a predecessor to the Roland JD800, but without the effects, although it's not so sample-based. I was surprised at how raw it was, and the actual guts in terms of waveforms seemed very, very basic, but it's surprised us a lot of times. We used it quite a lot on Implant, but lately, it's been acting up a bit, so we tend to sample it now."
Eat Static are perhaps inescapably labelled as a techno group. Aside from touring with the likes of System 7 and Underworld, Merv and Joie do actively feel part of the so-called dance movement and regularly listen to other dance-oriented artists, simply because, according to Merv, "that's where most of the interesting stuff is coming from these days".
Despite the criticism levelled at some of the 'dance-specific' synth modules coming on to the market (with some comments appearing in this magazine -- see 'Sounding Off' in SOS August '96 and Graham Massey's comments in the July '96 SOS 808 State interview), Eat Static retain an open mind on the creative possibilities of devices such as the Roland MC303 Groovebox and Emu Orbit. Merv: "People just getting going have got to start somewhere -- at the end of the day, not everyone knows what to buy. The first synth I bought, for example, was a Yamaha YS200, which you may laugh at, but what we got out of it was incredible. Sure, someone may go out and buy those modules and make a load of pre-programmed-sounding techno, but you've got to think that some of these people will advance, and maybe realise in two or three years time that there are more interesting keyboards out there. I think a lot of interesting music will be coming from people who started with those kind of modules in their bedroom, but it doesn't mean they're going to stay there. Obviously, there will be people who are lazy, and won't ever bother editing, but it won't be all of them. There'll always be a certain percentage who'll want to go on and develop.
"I think the fact that people can go out and do that music really cheaply now is a good thing -- the fact that you can go out and get a setup for under a grand. You couldn't do that when we started out."
At this point, Joie added, "It's encouraging people to do music," and Merv concluded, "There'll be a lot more pap about because of it, but at the same time, there will be some interesting stuff. We occasionally see it when we do one of these big live events where there's five or six bands, and you've never seen the first couple of bands before. Some of them are really good sometimes -- I've been quite shocked over the past year or two. You think, 'Wow, that's really interesting,' and they've hardly got anything onstage! At least a lot of these acts that are just starting out are going out and doing it live. They're not just assuming they can go out with a DAT player".
In addition to the aforementioned PPG and Waldorf Waves, a quick glance around the Eat Static studio revealed a wide selection of additional synthesizer sound sources, including an ARP Axxe, Casio CZ1000, Korg Prophecy and Poly Six, Quasimidi Quasar, Sequential Prophet 600, and Roland JV80, JD800, SH101, and TB303. Of all this gear, Merv claims, "The nature of these synths is that you can pretty much do anything you want on any of them. You can get a good bass sound out of any of them; you can get a good pad sound out of most of them. I think it's down to the programming. I like hearing what a synth can do -- I've met people who've spotted the Quasar in our rack and said, 'I bought one of those and sold it after a week. I thought it was awful.' But I've got some amazing sounds out of it."
Joie picked up the 'we'll use anything' theme: "We don't even favour analogue over digital, really. We use whatever is right for the part. The JV80 has some incredible sounds, and sometimes we'll just use that, for example". In this, Eat Static would seem to differ from head Ozric Ed Wynne, a devoted analogue fan, who has claimed of his SCI Pro Ones, "I don't think I could make a track without them." However, it turns out that Joie's Roland SH5, which he bought new way back in 1977, is the Eat Static equivalent of Ed's Pro Ones, as Merv explains: "We always turn to that -- even if we don't use it in a track CV'd or sampled, it would be acting as an audio processor using its audio input. The band-pass filter on it is like a mad filter and EQ going at the same time. We use it for gating a lot, rather like a noise gate shutting on and off with a rounded filter effect thrown in. I'm dreading the day it packs up for good; trying to find another one is going to cost us at least two grand by today's prices, I'd say -- assuming we can find one."
This brings us neatly on to the inevitable price hike of all things analogue, an unfortunate side effect of the so-called analogue revival. Merv: "It saddens me, because it makes it harder for the people who should be using this stuff to get hold of it". Joie countered: "It reflects just how good they are -- so it is only to be expected."
After consideration, Merv agreed, "In some ways, it will bring good things, like that new Minimoog, for instance. The fact that they've thought, 'Right, everyone's trying to buy a Minimoog, why don't we re-release it?' Also the fact that you're soon going to be able to get a new Moog modular system for three grand, instead of 15, or whatever -- if other manufacturers start doing that, then it's going to be great."
No techno band would be complete without its healthy share of samples, and Eat Static are no exception to this, the number one unwritten rule of dance. The rack containing the Quasimidi Quasar synth module is well stocked in the sample hardware department, containing an Akai S3200 and recently-acquired S3200XL, both expanded to 32Mb with internal 540Mb hard disks, in addition to Joie and Merv's respective Roland W30 and S330, dating from their days with the Ozrics.
Merv: "The S3200XL was really bought for mixing the new album. We've always been limited with only having 10 outputs on the one Akai; it's not usually enough for our stuff, because we do heavily-layered pieces of music. Not only that, it's been invaluable live. Now, I can be loading in one track whilst playing another, and in the studio I've got 20 outs! Also they've really sorted the effects out in these XLs. The effects board is really wild -- I'm well impressed with it."
"I find that although a lot of our sounds may start on a synth, I just find the sampler a really good scratch pad for getting ideas together. For example, I'll get Joie to come over one night and I'll record two DATs full of SH5, then I'll go through it, using ReCycle and cutting it all up using the samplers. It's usually a really good way of starting tracks, and often gives me a lot of percussive as well as musical results."
The duo are fond of using sampled loops, but in their own way. Merv: "We've used them, obviously, but since I got Steinberg's ReCycle, I've never used a straight loop. I used to sit there for hours chopping them up manually, but the ReCycle program has been really useful on the new album."
As Merv explains briefly, he connects his PC to his Akai samplers via SCSI, and ports samples across into the main ReCycle window, processing them there and then sending them back to the Akai with all their different components mapped out. If you like a loop, for example, but hate the snare drum in it, ReCycle allows you to remove the snare and replace it with any other sound you want -- an admittedly invaluable tool in dance music production, or any music for that matter. Merv: "It's an incredible program, but we've mostly been using it with other stuff. I've hardly used it with beat loops; more with mad vocals or with Joie's strange samples.
"I've also got a couple of samplers in the PC -- wave samplers, like CoolEdit and GoldWave, which can be really good for those lower-bit, raw-sounding samples. I love chucking in the low-bit stuff against well-recorded sounds. The grainy old Roland W30, which is 12-bit, but has a 16-bit output stage, still gets the odd look in too. In fact, we still use it on pretty much every track, as well as live. The nature of Joie's sampling is really strange; I've never heard anyone come out with samples like him! He just sits in a corner with a video player going through an effects box and the SH5, not even monitoring what he's listening to!".
Besides The Mill and Youth's Butterfly Studios, a number of recording studios have been listed on Eat Static liner notes over the years, including Shakti and Heliosphere. Since Eat Static are only using in-line, electronic instrumentation, I correctly assumed these latter studios to be of a home-based nature, like the setup surrounding us during the interview.
Merv: "Heliosphere was my old place, which was more of a bedroom setup, and Shakti was Steve's [Everett] first house when he moved to Somerset."
Having visited the former water mill that constitutes The Mill when interviewing Ed Wynne, I asked if Eat Static had plans to follow suit by building their own high-quality recording studio outside the confines of Merv's living accommodation. Merv verified that this is indeed the case: he plans to convert an adjacent outbuilding into a studio over the course of this winter. Merv used to work as a draftsman, so has a clear idea of what he is looking for.
"We've got a double room in the outbuilding, so we're going to have a live room in there as well, which we're probably going to keep as stone. The plan is to get my drum kit set up in there, possibly with a load of MIDI triggers. I'd like to get into playing some live stuff again, recording it onto hard disk, or whatever. I haven't actually played drums since leaving the Ozrics, and I do miss it. It's one hell of an energy release, playing drums, but I think I'd still go for an in-line sound as an end result. I don't think I'd ever want us to sound like a live band trying to be a techno crossover, because I do love that pure techno, kind of synthetic vibe on it all.
"I'd like to move all this stuff into the main control room and get it wired up properly. I know what our sound should be like, and we can get there. We need all the general stuff which you don't tend to have in bedroom studios, like proper patchbay systems, so it's easy to try out different routings. The thing I find most annoying about bedroom studios is all the grovelling around on the floor amongst the equipment, desperately trying to find the right hole! All that's going to change with the new studio."
Noting the conspicuous lack of any multitrack recording facilities, I picked up on Merv's reference to hard disk recording in the new studio: "I'm probably going to get the PC-based Soundscape system, as it seems to be the most useful one to me. It'll just be another tool, really; another way of programming stuff. I find it a bit tedious, using a mouse the whole time when working on a drum part that I could have played in there in 10 seconds -- especially certain fills!"
Being the forward-thinking duo that they are, I asked Eat Static what developments they would like to see in, or suggest for, the exciting world of music technology in the near and not-so-near future. Joie: "I'd like a sort of analogue-controlled sampler, a sampler with a keyboard and loads of knobs all over it, obviously, with pulse width and everything built-in. Samplers have become a bit more friendly, control-wise, but they could be so much more extreme. You're supposed to be able to load samples into the Waldorf Wave...".
Merv interrupted, "That was another reason we bought it; because we heard you could dump samples into it as part of its wave sequencing and stuff -- so I'd like to see the Waldorf finished properly! Half of the option buttons on it don't even work yet. None of the sequencer stuff works, and it's a bit gutting when you've spent that amount of money. I know they probably haven't sold that many, but they should still honour those people who've supported them. It will be a classic one day; there's nothing else like it. I just wish they would bring out a few more bits for it -- so send me the rest of the software, Wolfgang!"
As for Eat Static's future musical plans, Merv says, "A new single called 'Hybrid' will be out in January, and it's basically going to be six tracks, split onto two 12-inches, with four different remixes -- and we're going to put them out at a low price as well."
Given that Merv is sitting on DAT recordings of virtually every Eat Static gig they've ever done, I wondered if there was any chance of an Eat Static live album. Merv: "We keep getting hassled to do it. Although I've always wanted to do it properly; select two or three gigs and get a 16- or 24-track in and multitrack it all up. I was actually quite surprised at the quality of DAT recordings from our last tour. There probably is enough sitting on there to get something really good out of it."
Other associated releases in the pipeline include a collaboration between Merv and ex-Tangerine Dreamer Steve Jolliffe, also living in the Glastonbury vicinity, whilst Joie takes time off the celebrate the arrival of his first-born. In 1993, the NME described the band as having "the sort of workload that would drive your average indie band into early mental retirement". Given their future schedule, this evidently remains true for Eat Static.
Like Ozric Tentacles' Ed Wynne, Merv is "really impressed with the Korg Prophecy. The first thing we did was to get a MIDI mixer-map together for it in Cubase on the PC, so I don't have to bother editing sounds on that stupid little screen now. The Prophecy's controllers are so comprehensive that I had to create a huge 8-page mixer-map just to access everything! Now I can easily do stuff which would take months to program on the keyboard alone: I've brought in effects at certain points, and even swapped oscillators midway through tracks, which I could never have done before.
"It also works very well with the breath controller. When I hooked Steve Jolliffe [ex-Tangerine Dream] up to it playing his MIDI flute, he was totally shocked."
Korg Poly Six
PPG Wave 2.3
Sequential Prophet 600
Akai 3200XL (32Mb RAM & 540Mb internal hard disk)
Akai 3200 (32Mb RAM & 540Mb internal hard disk)
Roland CR78 CompuRhythm
Yamaha Resonator drum kit
75MHz Pentium PC (16Mb RAM & two internal hard disks) running Steinberg Cubase Audio
Atari 1040ST (2Mb RAM) running Steinberg Cubase
Mackie 32:8:2 desk & 24-channel expander
Tascam DA38 8-track
Tascam DA30 MkII DAT
BBE362 Sonic Maximiser
Frankenstein stereo enhancer
Joe Meek compressor
LA Audio compressor
LA Audio noise gates
Lexicon Alex reverb
Roland SDE330 dimensional delay
Roland SRV330 dimensional reverb
Symetrix 511A noise reduction
Alesis Monitor Two (main)
Yamaha NS10 (nearfield)
Alesis Matica 500 power amplifier
Shure SM57 microphone
Tandy PZM microphone (x2)
It would be fair to say that Eat Static's music is quite dense; there are many parts going on in the mix. Whilst technology has enabled them to achieve this in the comfort of the studio with relative ease, how do they set about performing their music in a live situation?
Merv: "Basically, all our gear goes out live, apart from stuff like some of Joie's old keyboards. There's two setups on stage; one big MIDI sequencer-based rig, and Joie's, which is completely independent from that, as he does everything live on top, playing manually. On his side he's got the JD800, the Prophet 600, the SH5, and the W30. On my side, it's the desks, the effects rack, and the sample racks, and then there are two A-frames, with the Waldorf, all the drum machines, the TB303, the Prophecy, and the JV80. It's pretty severe, but the racks are all hard-wired now, so we've got our setting-up time down to 40 minutes!
"I've got two Yamaha MDF data filers on which are stored some completely-arranged tracks. I've got two or three different arrangements of some of them -- some longer, some shorter; depending on the mood of the night. Other stored stuff is more sequencer- and loop-based. I can send the MIDI Clock out, and run the old Sync24 Roland stuff with it. I've had the TR808 retrofitted now, so I can send MIDI Clock commands from the data filers and the whole '808/'909/TB303 setup all rolls into the sequence. That's more like a jam setup, so half of the set's arranged and half's not. That's how we've been doing it for the last couple of years."
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