From a US-based perspective, there's no doubting the fact that British bands are cool. They have been ever since 9 February 1964, the day The Beatles made their first US appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, watched by a staggering 73 million Stateside viewers. As far as the Americans were concerned, Britpop was born, and they welcomed it with open arms. Although in recent years the sensationalism has lessened, the thirst for the best of British pop in the US certainly hasn't. Tune in to any radio station, particularly the alternative ones such as Los Angeles' KROQ, and you'd be amazed at just how much of what's being played is from our side of the pond.
The latest Big Thing musically in the States, of course, is Electronica -- a term coined by the American music press last year to describe the world of synths and drum loops following The Prodigy's explosion onto the American music scene. It would be an understatement to say they can't get enough of it right now. Anything from Blighty that's suitably drum & bass, big beat, techno, jungle or trip-hop (all known collectively as electronica) is, to use another American term, the bomb.
Riding high on the crest of the electronica wave are British newcomers Mono, a group (like Cornershop) who've experienced their first taste of success not on home turf, but in the US. The duo -- comprising keyboardist, programmer and producer Martin Virgo and vocalist Siobhan De Maré -- weave together a seamless mix of peculiarly diverse threads of music, serving up an exotic blend of British trip-hop, '70s TV themes and '60s-style French pop to create a lush new musical fabric they jokingly term 'glam & bass'.
They've recently been in the States on their first major tour, where their popularity is soaring, certainly due in part to the fact that their first single, 'Life In Mono', features prominently on the Great Expectations soundtrack (released in the UK at the end of April).
It's uncertain whether the soundtrack album brought Mono success or whether their hauntingly serene song was responsible for the album's gold status. What cannot be denied is that 'Life In Mono' was the number one requested song on US commercial radio stations for weeks following the movie's release. "It's amazing really, and something we never expected," says Virgo, speaking from the offices of their record company in Hollywood, just before the commencement of their US tour. "This is the first time I've been to L.A. and we're top of KROQ's playlist!"
It's not that success has evaded them closer to home, but so far their European-flavoured sound, although popular on the Continent, is yet to achieve widespread recognition in the UK. However, with the recent release of Twentieth Century Fox's remake of the Dickens classic (starring Robert De Niro, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke), all that could be set to change. The song rounds out the movie as the closing credits roll, and is also being used as the backing music to the film's trailer and TV commercials, as well as being the lead cut on the Atlantic Records soundtrack album.
But there's a lot more to Mono than just this one song. Their debut album Formica Blues, released on Chrysalis subsidiary Echo Records, draws the whole French-inspired retro pop formula one step deeper into the area of sample-based drum & bass, with a collection of 10 beautifully melodic yet profoundly rhythmically driven cuts in a style that encompasses both lounge music and breakbeats. So why the juxtaposition of such diverse musical genres?
"The drum & bass aspect of Mono came out of my session work with those kinds of people. With the dance revolution, keyboard session work has changed. Now people don't just want someone who can play a Hammond solo; they want somebody who can also program a 909 kick drum! I just adapted to what was demanded, and then found myself really getting into the whole computer-orientated dance thing."
Virgo's involvement with renowned producer/remixer Nellee Hooper started out as a one-off session at London's Nomis Studios but rapidly turned into something more permanent, and together they worked on numerous dance projects including Bjork's Debut album, Shara Nelson's Friendly Fire and Massive Attack's seminal track 'Unfinished Sympathy' from the 1991 classic album Blue Lines. "Nellee was doing a lot of remixes around that time, so he'd be taking just the vocal from a track and the music would have to be built up underneath it. I would do that part of it on the Atari -- all the programming, sampling, and drum programming," he recalls.
During a break in projects back in 1996 Virgo first started laying down a few tracks of his own. "I was resting at the time," he laughs, continuing more seriously, "The thing about being self-employed in this area of music is that you think every job's your last, even when you've got a supposedly regular gig like I had with Nellee. I started writing again just as something to do between jobs."
The creative catalyst was a holiday in France, the country with which he feels the closest musical affinity. "I'd just spent a month in Paris and then St Tropez, and I think the whole French vibe got into my blood," he explains. "I'm very into France and French music -- the rich harmonies and powerful melodies -- and I came back wanting to recreate that very particular kind of style."
Virgo's introduction to his future bandmate Siobhan de Maré was simply a meeting set up by a mutual friend. Having written the music and lyrics to his first song, 'Life In Mono', he was on the look-out for a female vocalist to complete the picture. Her seductive voice was the perfect fit for his European flavoured retro-futurist arrangements.
Coming from what she describes as a "showbiz background" (her grandfather is the guy who bangs the gong in the Rank trailers film, her grandmother was a Cuban dancer who performed with Shirley Bassey, and her dad was the original drummer in The Shadows), de Maré describes their characters as "extreme opposites". Nevertheless, it's a collaborative partnership that seems to work. No sooner had they begun writing together when Virgo's publisher was on the phone with some exciting news.
"My manager had played her the backing track without telling me. I hadn't actually wanted anyone to hear it for a bit," Virgo remembers. "And, you know, it's an industry thing; my publisher then played the tape to some people she knew, and before we knew it the bids started coming in."
De Maré was out of the country at the time and had to make a hasty return to record the vocal part. Virgo had already started on their next song which was still only half-finished when they were offered a record deal. "We signed an album deal on just one and a half songs," he says, still amazed by the speed it all took off. "We didn't even have a name!"
The name Mono, named after their first song, was in fact a reference to another one of Virgo's musical heroes, producer Phil Spector. "He's such an important producer for many different reasons, but purely sonically he has an amazing legacy, right the way through Brian Wilson and up into contemporary types of music," comments Virgo. "I love that whole school of music production where there are so many things going on at once but the overall sound doesn't seem complicated. It's so kaleidoscopic, and that's what I'm really into: creating 'colour-melody'.
"The composers of the Second Viennese School -- Schoenberg, Webern and Berg -- had the exact same approach with orchestral music, which they called Klangfarbenmelodie. This was especially true of Webern, who experimented with the orchestra in very unusual ways, creating melodies out of changes of timbre. This isn't music that tends to rear its head in a lot of popular music, but it's what I listen to, and I've absorbed these influences."
Pulling all these strands together seems to be something that Mono do with consummate ease. 'Life In Mono', for example, started out as a sample taken from film composer John Barry's theme to The Ipcress File, to which Virgo added a deep bass line and sampled drum loops, before juxtaposing lush string harmonies, achingly sentimental harpsichord figures and a heart-melting melody. As if painting in extra splashes of colour to the foreground of an almost complete painting, he then created numerous counter-melodies out of additional snatches of sound: little synth riffs, the odd DJ scratch, slowly evolving filter sweeps, pulsating waveforms, and suchlike.
"Most of those extra sounds come from the Korg Prophecy or a Juno 106, both of which I use a lot," he reveals. "I also have an Oberheim Matrix 6R, the rackmount version, which I use for some of the nice analogue sounds."
Virgo describes himself as a "lazy musician" when it comes to working with sounds -- but get him on the subject and he starts talking about multisampling dulcimers and recording scratches off old 78s... and you can't help but wonder what he thinks an energetic musician is like. "I do a lot of my own multisampling. I sampled The Beatles' piano at Abbey Road to get the piano sound for 'Slimcea Girl' [track 3 on Formica Blues]," he reveals.
"I was doing a string session in the main studio there, and the engineer said 'Hey, look at this'. He'd opened up this cupboard and there was an old Steinway upright inside, which was apparently the original piano the Beatles had used on some of their classic recordings. We wheeled it out and I started playing 'Lady Madonna' on it -- it sounded exactly like the record. It was amazing; and seemingly, it had just been in this cupboard for years. I asked if I could sample it and no-one seemed to mind, so the engineer and I spent an afternoon multisampling the entire thing -- literally three velocities for every note. When I got home I edited it all up on my Roland S760. It used up virtually the whole 32Mb of sample RAM but it's a really good sound, and I used it a lot on the album."
Alongside the reverberant Beatle-esque piano part on 'Slimcea Girl' is a killer '70s-style trumpet line, notable as much for its old-fashioned sound as its cheesy melody. "That was actually a flugelhorn patch from one of the S760 sample disks which we put through a Sansamp speaker simulator, one of those things that gives the effect of an old amp, and then we added a bit of surface noise underneath it which I sampled off an old record," he explains. "I was basically trying to get an old sound from a modern digital sample, and it seemed to work.
"We did a similar thing for the vibes on the album track 'The Blind Man'. There's a vibes patch on the Roland MKS20 module which is actually pretty uninspiring, and really, just as something to do, we ran it out into the studio, put it through a Leslie speaker, recorded it onto a Dictaphone and then sampled it. Believe it or not, it produced a really cool vibes sound!"
And the harpsichord, which is so prominent on 'Life In Mono'? "That started out as a Vox Continental patch from the Roland Keyboards Volumes 1 & 2 sample libraries and I used that on the demo," he says. "But when we were in the studio, we didn't think it sounded enough like the real thing, so we hired in an actual Vox Continental and used the harpsichord patch on that -- it's the sound that John Barry used to use a lot."
It turns out that many of the keyboard sounds on Formica Blues were 'the real thing'. "There was quite a bit of live piano, and we hired in a lot of vintage keyboard instruments -- a Wurlitzer, Rhodes, the Continental, some Moogs -- and went for live takes," reveals Virgo, adding, "I'm a real old-school musician in many ways; when I first started, I was doing all sorts of piano and organ sessions, which were always live, so doing it this way comes quite naturally to me."
Recording Formica Blues took almost a year from start to finish, although a lot of that time was spent writing since the duo had very little material in demo form when they first went into the studio. Most of it was done in the Neve Room (Studio 1) at London's Strongroom, half on 48 and half on 24 tracks, and then mixed on a Neve VR60 Legend console.
Production and engineering credits were shared equally between Virgo and producer/engineer Jim Abiss (see the 'Mono Production' box), who was largely responsible for coming up with the distinctive '60s-style haunting effect on de Maré's vocal.
"Siobhan has quite a quiet voice, so it was a case of getting it to stand out in the mix first of all, and between them they worked quite hard on the vocal to get the right sound," remembers Virgo. "A lot of the sound is in the effects
|"I never want to be led by the hand by a computer; on the last album I wrote at least half of the songs at the piano before I even went near the computer, and I think that kept me in control of what I was writing."|
Since completing Formica Blues, Virgo has delved deeper into the whole area of Mac-based recording, and is currently in the process of setting up a new digital studio at the Strongroom complex, where he intends to do most of the writing and recording for Mono's next album as soon as they've finished the current tour.
"I never want to be led by the hand by a computer; on the last album I wrote at least half of the songs at the piano before I even went near the computer, and I think that kept me in control of what I was writing. The other half of the album, the more groove-based tracks, were done largely on the Mac," he concedes.
"For the next album, though, I'm investing in a 24-track Pro Tools system, in many ways because we're tending towards the live end of things now and also because there'll be slightly more of a clubby sound next time, which that type of system lends itself well to.
"I'm very excited by the possibilities of hard disk recording, and I've been checking out a lot of the plug-ins that are available, such as the vintage Focusrite and Neve EQs, which are amazing. It's an incredibly versatile system.
"I've also been getting into programs such as Steinberg's Rebirth where you use the Mac itself as a sound source. Once you make the software work for you it can start to become really creative."
Roll over Debussy, and tell Phil Spector the news!
Audio files to accompany the article.
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