Shadowed by the pristine monolith of Exchange Square, where city types sip champagne around an astroturf croquet lawn, the crumbling brickwork of former factory and industrial spaces is being turned to more creative uses. It is here, in the increasingly fashionable EC1 area of London, that the Strongroom complex of programming rooms and studios is to be found; and this, in turn, is where Peach blossom. Peach, of course, is the collective name of the stylish musical entity comprised of production team Pascal Gabriel and Paul Stratham, and vocalist Lisa Lamb. Though the name may not be familiar, you may well have heard their song 'On My Own', which is featured in the recent hit movie and Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors, and which dented the US Top 40 at the end of last year. Together, the group have just released their debut album, the unambiguously titled Audiopeach.
The idea behind Peach was to produce big unashamed pop moments, although the members all arrived at this concept via very different routes. Lisa is a published poet who came from the jazz and R&B world, having worked with Troublefunk and Washington DC outfit Band of Gypsies. Paul, meanwhile, emerged from the more gloomy reaches of the rock scene. After the dissolution of his own band, the early '80s new wave hopefuls B-Movie, he spent some time working with the King of Goth, Pete Murphy (ex-Bauhaus). While working in Istanbul on their last album together, Paul met producer Pascal Gabriel.
Pascal has come the furthest in distance, although the sound of Peach is not very far removed from that of the work he has produced over the past 10 years. At 16, he left his native Belgium for London partly to avoid conscription into the army, but also due to the fact that, Plastic Bertrand aside, the Walloon pop scene was not exactly vibrant. Working with Mark Moore of S'Express fame, and Tim Simenon of Bomb The Bass, he co-wrote and produced some of the recordings that were instrumental in bringing dance music overground in the late '80s. Pascal then went on to produce or remix several artists on the independent label Mute (now also home to Peach), from Erasure and Depeche Mode to the Inspiral Carpets.
Meeting Pascal and Paul in the café bar of the Strongroom, we are treated to the Air album as we drink coffee and chew gum. In a way the Gallic electro sound of the background music is not a million miles away from Peach's vibe. Both groups share the same Euro-style kooky/cool ambience, and the Peach sound is also typified by synth sounds instantly identifiable as belonging to another era. However, instead of Air's sparse analogue '70s-style meande
Audiopeach was recorded in Pascal's home, and much of the equipment from that setup now resides at the group's Strongroom studio. Located at the top of a flight of stairs, the studio, while fairly compact, still has the feeling of light and space, due in no small part to the colour scheme; walls and ceiling are painted blue with little fluffy clouds. Pascal explains the idea as he shows me the black vocal booth (not pictured); "The vocal booth is the night sky, with the little pearls in it, and the other room is the sky during the day. Instead of having another boring old studio I wanted to make it look a bit nicer." A stack of vinyl is propped against the wall, comprising everything from House 12-inches to Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, from The Stooges and MC5 to those kitsch This Is Phase Two Stereo!-type albums so beloved of charity shops. Half of one wall is taken up by the large screen of an Apple Mac, an abundance of synth rack modules and three Roland System 100 modular analogue systems, with the impressive tangle of patch leads that entails. If this closely resembles the setup on which Audiopeach was recorded, it's clear that it wasn't put together in just any old bedroom studio.
Pascal: "We used Emagic's Logic Audio for sequencing from day one, together with Digidesign's Pro Tools; we have eight tracks of audio on that, with two I/O cards and we run tons of MIDI stuff and samplers, an Akai S3000 and an Emax. Everything on the album ran through the Mackie desk -- we did all of the monitor mixes and even a couple of the final mixes through that and straight to DAT; all the B-sides, remixes and club mixes. All the 'proper' mixes and all the mixes for singles were by Dave Bascombe at Abbey Road, Eden and the Townhouse. We would record the tracks, do the mixes the best that we could at my place, then dump them onto multiple ADATs and let Dave finish them off. But all the recording itself was done at my place."
Many musicians aspire to the kind of relaxed recording setup Pascal and Paul have access to. But as Paul explains, the working method is not without its problems: "Although having your own recording space means you don't have to complete a session within a set time frame, there are still different kinds of pressure. You get pressure from your record company and publisher, and you put pressure on yourself to get something out. It's two years since we made this record, and now it's out it does sound to my ears a little dated. So the pressure is on yourself to come up with something contemporary and quick."
Paul goes on to offer one explanation for the delayed release of the album "I think what happened was that 'On My Own' started to happen in different territories at different times [see the 'Away Win Syndrome' box]. So everybody started hanging back on releasing the album, as if saying 'Let's see what it does there...'.
I wondered why the group had opted to get in other people, in other studios, to do the final album mixes; surely this had contributed to the delayed release, and also ran counter to their working methods on the rest of the project? However, it seems that the reasons were more artistic than technical. Pascal explains: "I've mixed a couple of records that I've produced at my place, and really we could have finished the Peach album here. But we had grown too close to it by the time we came to the rough mixes, so we really wanted someone else to finish it off. We had a lot of instruments and parts going at the same time; we filled pass after pass of the ADAT's eight tracks. We didn't mix down to one ADAT tape, we'd just dump it all on to several with the timecode on track eight, and run it off in blocks of seven tracks. Some of the songs needed 48 tracks. You just forget when you run so much MIDI stuff together how many tracks you are using." Paul revels in Peach's excesses: "There is a lot going on on the album. We tended to double a lot of things up; we'd take a string part and copy it into so many banks... I think that's what gave the album the feeling it has."
After putting so much detail into the tracks, Pascal came to the conclusion that they couldn't see the wood for the trees. "That's why we got people like Dave Bascombe in to mix; by the time we recorded the tracks I couldn't see what should go where balance-wise. I knew it was good, but I knew it had to be sorted out by someone who could look at it objectively. As a producer, I can do it for other people, but I can't do it for my own songs. Because if you've written it, produced it and recorded it, you know it so well that all of it sounds important to you. It's easier to give it to someone else -- and listening to what they do to it is also exciting." "And if you don't like it, you can tell them, because you're paying them!" interjects Paul waspishly.
The big sound of Audiopeach is achieved with the help of a fair load of vintage equipment. Pascal runs through some of Audiopeach's seasoned veterans: "We used our old synths like the Roland MKS80 Super Jupiter and Juno 106, a Sequential Prophet VS and Pro One, the SE1 [Studio Electronics' 'Moog-in-a-Rack']. A lot of our string sounds come from a Yamaha SY77. Then there was the Oberheim Xpander; but by the time I got a patch going on that, I'd forgotten the reason for creating it in the first place!"
Most SOS readers would no doubt agree that Peach's studio is a great setup. Nevertheless, at the moment, Pascal is contemplating a synth car boot sale: "I'm into downsizing; it's all just weighing me down. Sometimes it's a distraction; you thin
Part of Pascal's planned scaling-down of his setup may involve moving more of his studio on to his computer desktop, an idea which intrigues him greatly: "Ideally, what I would like to get is a G3 Power Book with eight tracks of audio and a sampler built in. You have cards which adapt PCI cards on to a PowerBook so you can have your audio, your sampler, synths or whatever on the one machine. You can have a virtual desk on your Mac, with maybe just one real rack containing all your I/O hardware, but with all your EQs, processing and levels controlled by the Mac. It's a beautiful way of doing it, I feel." But traditionalist Paul introduces a note of dissent. "I tend to disagree slightly, after been stuck in a room using Cubase VST. After using the onscreen mixer for a bit, you start to wish you could get your hands on something real." Unfazed, Pascal counters: "Sure, but you can have a MIDI desk with knobs and faders that you can assign to anything if you want to work that way." Paul laughs: "So, you'd strip it all down and then build it all up again!"
Something the duo do agree on is that by trimming back on the amount of equipment they use they will be able to bring out more of the intrinsic qualities of the sounds they do use, rather than stacking up textures to achieve an epic sound. Pascal: "You can't just stockpile sounds on top of each other endlessly. It's like a cake with a thousand layers in it; all the layers blend into one and you can't taste any of them. I'd much prefer a crisp flake now." Paul continues the bakery metaphor: "Or an Angel cake: just three colours and a nice creamy bit. I think you will have to pay more attention to the actual synth you are using, the sound you are creating, so it'll stand out on its own, rather than say something will just about do because you won't hear it anyway, because there'll be a huge string part on top of it.
"I actually think it takes a lot of balls to strip your songs down to the bone. It's like putting yourself on the line. You can fill up multitracks and it sounds great and unusual but when you strip the song down... The old Velvet Underground stuff, for example, sounds so powerful, and yet it didn't take thousands of overdubs. And Joy Division created so much tension and atmosphere. I heard 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' on the radio the other day and it just sounded amazing. You could hear absolutely every instrument; one guitar, one bass, one guy thrashing away at the drum kit and that huge string pad played over the top of it..." Pascal chimes in: "We'd like to do that, in a more electronic style. Yazoo's stuff was really powerful in the same way, because you had a great vocal and really simple music. Not that I want to sound like Yazoo! I think there must be a way to do something of that simplicity that is powerful... that is now." He adds with humility, "But we haven't quite come across it yet."
Now that they are attempting a sparser approach to songwriting, Pascal and Paul are finding the quality of individual sounds becoming more important. Apart from the attention to detail that is employed in the programming and recording stages, Pascal stresses that high-quality outboard gear (of which they've always been fans) is now more important than ever. "Reverbs are reverbs; I'm not really that bothered about them so much. Effects that I find really interesting give the sound a different characteristic without it being noticeable. Like a fantastic compressor, for instance, or a really good EQ, preamp or mic. The changes are subtle but you really notice. Especially with vocals; there can be no reverb or delay on them, but it can still sound great and all be down to the compression or just a great mic. That's the kind of sound I'm interested in, more than delays, reverbs or other effects, because that can create distance and depth of field." Pascal elaborates on the kind of gear he's talking about: "Usually when I mix, I hire a couple of Fairchild compressors, really old expensive valve compressors which cost about six grand each. Then further on the stereo chain I put in a hired GML (George Massenburg) EQ. That's one of those things where a mix just sounds better when you put it through, even with the knobs at zero." Paul agrees and defines the essential quality that top-drawer gear gives to your recording. "It's true. Just switching it on, you smile and you think 'that sounds like a record!'"
Since the dawn of digital recording, people have sought a way of bringing the 'warm' quality of analogue recordings into the digital realm. Pascal has employed various techniques ranging from the conventional to the more off-kilter. "I've got this other compressor called the [Empirical Labs] Distressor; a mono single-rack unit which is really great for making things sound 'analogue'. It's fairly severe; when you put stuff through it, it sounds really aggressive, almost like tape saturation on an overloaded tape machine. Sometimes, I'll use samples that I've put down on cassette or even on my Dictaphone. We've put drums looped through the Dictaphone because it's got a compressor on the mic; it's a horrible cheesy little mic with a 4K bandwidth. But it's exciting, and it sounds great. I don't have any tape machines apart from my Dictaphone!"
Ah yes. Pascal has never been a fan of analogue recording. The idea of laying down audio in a format which is (unless you are willing to fiddle about with tape splicing) carved in stone doesn't appeal to him. He goes on to make a rather eyebrow-raising statement, considering he has been recording for over a decade: "I have never, ever, had tape in my studio. I just used loads of samplers when I first started 10 or 11 years ago. I had Pro 16 on the Commodore 64 and I ran everything live and just sampled the vocals! I always liked the idea of being able to manipulate the lead vocals with the track; after recording, you can often think 'I wish he had pushed that chorus a bit more'. With minus delay, it's done in seconds. Before I had hard disk recording, I would do it with samples and just trigger the vocals a bit earlier... I've always been into having full control of everything that's going on. I love the way you can record, dump everything into your computer, send the band away, and be left to fiddle with the bits until you are happy with it."
This dedication to digital recording means that Pascal embraced hard disk recording early on, while others were hanging back to see how well the new medium coped with its teething troubles. "I've been satisfied with hard disk recording on the Mac during the last four years, but before that it was chancy. I started with [Steinberg's] Cubase Audio, and I had a lot of trouble with that. That's why I went over to Logic, actually, because before I got the Mac, I had been a Notator user on the Atari, which was rock-solid, a really cool sequencer. I went over to Cubase Audio and it really wasn'
Unsurprisingly, Pascal uses digital editing quite extensively as a creative production tool as well as for correcting timing and pitch, coming up with some of the group's more off-the-wall sounds this way. "We do a lot of analogue filtering and then further chop that about digitally -- I've got an ARP Odyssey with an external Audio In so you can trigger the filter from the external input. We also do live recordings of Paul on synths messing around with the filter and resonance controls, making all sorts of strange sounds for a few minutes. You record all this stuff, and then you can take just a bar, or two beats, or take a section and reverse it. Or put a part from the verse into the chorus that's in a different key, and then need to transpose it up."
Despite this unashamed and extensive use of technology in the production process, Pascal and Paul insist on keeping the songwriting stage of the process simple. They cite Bacharach & David, Serge Gainsbourg and even Cole Porter as songwriting influences, and so unsurprisingly, when it comes to composing, they leave the technology behind. Paul: "We sit down with a guitar or a good piano sound and we actually write 'songs'! The sequencing comes later, because we have found if you try it the other way round, you can go for days and days, building up this monstrous track... and then you realise there is no song! It's nicer to nail the song first. Then you can relax and have more fun with the production side." Explaining the dynamic within their partnership, Pascal adds, "We don't do the backing track without the song, and the melodies go down early. Paul comes up with the chord sequence and I will come up with a melody for it. He's the Riffmeister as well." Paul adds, "Yeah, but obviously Pascal has a lot more experience than I do in the balancing of sounds... if I'm the Riffmeister, he's the Mixmeister. Basically, whatever one person can't do, the other person can. We've not had the need for anyone else to come in." Pascal and Paul: the archetypal modern, self-sufficient music-making unit.
The immediate future includes pondering how to approach live work. "We did a few gigs last year on Erasure's tour, although that was just using an ADAT, playing live over gaps we had left on it. But if we strip down and write music that is not as 'big' then it'll make the live side much more accessible. On the other hand, if you spend your time thinking 'how can we do this live?', it restricts how you write." The next Peach album is also ongoing and more work as a writing and production team working with other artists is also a priority.
Looking around the studio packed with various goodies, I pose them a final question: your studio is on fire and you can only save one thing; what would it be? Paul lets out a tortured "Aaargh!" and then settles for his Telecaster, while Pascal plumps for the ARP Odyssey. Paul: "Then we'd have to do an album with just a Telecaster and an Odyssey... we'll have to do a track on the next album with just that now." Perhaps that's taking the minimalist approach a bit too far?
Audio files to accompany the article.
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