A relative newcomer to the UK electronic music scene, Andy Pickford is giving the likes of Mark Shreeve, Ian Boddy, and John Dyson a run for their money. Jonathan Miller witnesses the new kid on the block in action at Derby Cathedral.
The City of Derby is inextricably rich in railway history — it was Midland Railway's headquarters after all. Not exactly 'Grand Music Central', yet Saturday, 8 April 1995 saw 29 year‑old Andy Pickford launching his new 'contemporary instrumental electronic music' album, Maelstrom, with an ambitious concert at Derby Cathedral. This event was well attended by over 400 people, attracting television coverage and a certain newly‑appointed SOS representative to boot.
Fortunately, deconsecration of the building was avoided, unlike Tangerine Dream's notorious Rheims Cathedral show in 1974, where some 6,000 people crammed into a 2,000 capacity venue with dire consequences. Pope Paul VI issued a a decree banning the Tangs from playing any more Catholic cathedrals and even went as far as having Rheims purified. Needless to say, I'm happy to report that Derby Cathedral's public conveniences coped magnificently on the day!
So, who is this Andy Pickford bloke? Well, the long and winding road to 'musical success' began at the tender age of four with ominous signs of affinity for the keyboard, courtesy of his grandmother's piano. An interest in electronic music blossomed upon hearing it on the radio — an admittedly rare occurence these days, although BBC Radio Derby presenter Ashley Franklin is attempting to rectify this situation with Soundscapes, Britain's first and only radio show devoted to electronic music, which helps explain Andy's unusual choice of venue. Aged six, his first record purchase was 'Popcorn' by Hot Butter, an early '70s novelty electro‑pop hit. Thereafter, he spent the remainder of his early childhood attempting to goad strange noises out of a Yamaha organ.
A yearning for a 'proper' synthesizer was finally realised in 1981 when Andy's long‑suffering parent's traded in the organ and coughed up the necessary cash difference. Armed with a solitary Korg MS20 monosynth, Andy immediately set about creating his own music, using a tape recorder and cassette deck to layer sounds in time‑honoured, pre‑MIDI fashion. The shortcomings of this crude system soon became apparent, necessitating the dreaded job syndrome to expand the set‑up. Andy promptly worked his way through several different synthesizers, before settling on one sounding "weird" enough.
After a false start in 1983, under the somewhat dubious pseudonym of Kris McKuen (whose Linear Functions cassette album made 'tape of the month' status in two leading keyboard magazines of the day), financial constraints forced Andy to curtail his musical activities. He took up traditional songwriting in the meantime, accumulating around 400 songs — prolificacy springs to mind here.
Andy resumed his synthesized love affair in Autumn 1992 and sent a demo of his work to Ashley Franklin at BBC Radio Derby, who promptly broadcast some tracks on his show. As luck would have it, local businessman Terry Musk tuned in and decided to sponsor this new talent. His generous backing enabled Andy to bring his material up to scratch and, more significantly, give up his day job to become a full‑time musician. Perhaps this helps explain the speed at which Andy caught up with his established UK counterparts.
Work on Replicant began in earnest in early 1993. This album is dedicated to artist Ian Mullis, responsible for the Linear Functions album sleeve, who, upon hearing the original version of 'Sayonara', commented that it reminded him of his favourite sci‑fi movie — hence the album's grandiose concept of Andy Pickford's Psyborg Project. This is reflected in its artwork, track titles like 'Questions' and, to a certain extent, the music itself — Ashley Franklin later wrote, "'Sayonara' could be a lost Vangelis score to an epic, romantic movie."
The motion picture in question is, of course, Blade Runner, Ridley Scott's compelling vision of a bleak and not too distant future. Sadly, Ian Mullis died shortly after the release of Linear Functions, prompting Andy to write in Replicant's sleevenotes, "I share many of Ian's sentiments for the sci‑fi movie genre, and I hope that my album is 'epic' enough for him."
Upon hearing the finished result, Dave Shoesmith (proprietor of C & D Compact Disc Services of Dundee, a specialist importer/distributor of electronic music) signed Andy to his newly‑formed Centaur Discs label and Replicant quickly became Compact Disc Services' fastest selling synth album ever.
During the obligatory after‑show reception at Derby's European Inn, Dave proudly stated that musically Andy has 'something' which appeals, as evidenced by selling 1,000 copies of his second album Terraformer within a week of release. He also admitted that two General Productions Records' 12‑inch/CD singles of 1994, "got Andy an ambient audience that maybe otherwise wouldn't have been there."
Andy recalls the situation: "GPR would describe themselves as a sort of ambient label, along with Warp Records to a lesser extent. The guy behind them is a very high energy sort of chap — he's good at promoting this stuff, but there's an awful lot of people on one small label, each selling a relatively small amount. The idea, I think, is that if any of the acts on the label take off, then the label would pool their resources behind that artist. At the time, that wasn't me, although I did obtain some Radio One airplay, thanks to John Peel and Annie Nightingale."
The 'Darklands' and 'Apocalypse Of Love' singles were in a different style to their original album versions: "They were remixed by a chap called Beaumont Hannant into a format which GPR describe as 'ambient'," Andy explains, "but I think he's got a style of his own. I did appreciate it a great deal and could see what he was trying to do by changing the music, sometimes beyond recognition. It gave it the necessary push that was required for that label, but contracts have now been amicably terminated."
Andy once told me that he was planning to retire from the 'traditional' electronic music scene in favour of a more ambient‑orientated style. However, judging from Maelstrom, this idea appears to have been abandoned.
"Quite frankly, I'd have performed rhythm and blues in front of an audience of a dozen people at that time, rather than perform an electronic music concert. I was under a lot of pressure from various sources and wasn't getting a great deal of enjoyment out of the scene. Thankfully I've found it again, with renewed strength and aggression."
I decided to play devil's advocate by asking Andy if he finds it hard to be original in the electronic music field, given that many people argue that it has all been done before, although the same could be said of other music genres: "That's crap!" he retorts. "I suppose the answer is I don't care if I'm original or not. People always come up to me and say, 'That sounds like...', but I don't collect electronic music. I don't buy it and I don't listen to it, apart from a few guys who are good friends of mine, whose music I like. Having said that, there used to be such a buzz going around synthesizer music, and I just picked up on the enthusiasm that was being conveyed through that music. I could actually hear a confidence in it, so I suppose if I'm guilty of yearning back to the past, it's only because I think there was a confidence about the music back then that can be recreated now."
The customary question regarding musical inspiration is obviously a subject close to Andy's heart: "The blues! No, seriously, I'm a bit of a reactionary at heart. I'm political. I don't write music about bloody dolphins, bloody fairies, bloody hobgoblins, bloody stone circles, or whales. There are no whales to be found in Derby! This is all 'school of hard knocks' music — somebody pisses me off one day, I go upstairs with the adrenalin flowing and write a piece of music. I am afraid to admit it, because electronic music doesn't generally come from the heart, as such. It comes from the head or the imagination. For me, there may be an ethereal world, but generally things happen in real life."
The instrumental nature of Andy's music, although occassionally interspersed with the odd vocal, leaves it open to interpretation. Given his political orientation, I wondered if he was actively trying to convey a message to his listeners.
"Not necessarily with Replicant or Terraformer, but with Maelstrom I stood up and said it to the audience tonight: Maelstrom was composed at the time when I was being rather persecuted for a variety of ideas I had. I stood up for these ideas and the result was Maelstrom. I just decided I'd do this music which would hit back and prove a point. I suppose a mainstream recording artist's reply to the question would be 'the music business was getting to me' — the wrong‑doings and the corruption."
As for the latest compositions developing from earlier ones, "they've picked up a lot of experience. They're not innocent me, 'Let's do a nice piece of electronic music and thrill a few people.' They're serious, 'I couldn't care less who it impresses, as long as it sounds good to me.' I'm doomed to a lifetime of doing music that sounds nice to me."
Andy lives in South Derbyshire and works exclusively from his home studio, which overlooks the Peak District. He gave me a guided tour, in effect, since its entire contents had been transplanted on stage for the evening concert in Derby Cathedral.
"What I've got is a Tascam 688 8‑track MIDIstudio; a Roland JD800; a Korg T3EX; a Roland Juno 106; an Akai S900 sampler and only one sound effects unit, which is a Boss SE50. When I've worn out the capacity of any of those, then I'll need something else, but I don't just go out and buy something simply because I want to. I like to almost intimately get to know a piece of equipment, because they are acting as vehicles for my aggression."
Andy also has an Atari 1040ST computer, and given that his compositions can easily be sequenced and recorded direct to DAT, the Tascam 688 has virtually been relegated to a mixing role: "I used to record on it when I did vocals a lot, but I can find ways to get around that on the sampler now. The vocal effects that I do now are sometimes sampled off the multitrack, so I suppose it's main use is to provide a textured sample later. I'm actually going to get one of the new Yamaha ProMix 01 digital mixers — absolutely incredible! They've got everything, all in one 19‑inch rack‑mounting mixing desk for about £1600 — flying faders, sound effects, full MIDI, the lot!"
When asked to describe how he composes and records a typical Andy Pickford track, the equipment theme continued: "Just recently I've acquired some very old and basic software — an early version of Notator that I'm using on the Atari — but I'll use, improvise, and work on anything. I've got a finished article in my head and can virtually use any old crap to get it. If I had to use a pile of cat's whiskers and a simple old oscillator, I would probably be able to achieve a respectable finished result! I suppose any typical Andy Pickford track revolves around me basically shutting myself away until it's finished, and that can be four o'clock in the morning. There's no let up — a track's got to finish and I won't break until it's done.
"There's a word I recently picked up on television, from a Horizon programme — synaesthetic. People who can see colours in front of them when they hear music are synaesthetic. I can see a certain sound that I can equate with a certain feeling or something that I've got. It doesn't matter whether it's the melody, or whatever, it's that particular sound which has to be done and usually ends up dominating the track."
Rightly or wrongly, sampling clearly plays a major role in modern music production. Tangerine Dream's founder and mentor, Edgar Froese, recently stated: "Sampling has long overstepped the mark from being helpful to becoming the crutch of helpless musical amateurs."
Andy Pickford's response to this was characteristically damning: "There's a track on their latest album where they've covered a Handel piece, and if that doesn't use extensive samplers, then my arse is gilt — gilt 24‑carat gold, and there's a squadron of pigs flying over right now! I've got to say this: Edgar Froese and typically Klaus — any Klaus or any Edgar, no matter who they are in this world — better recognise to which generation they belong, and stay there."
Strong words indeed. Ignoring the 'Floydian' reference, I pointed out that Edgar Froese was obviously partly addressing the legal ethics of sampling, when referring to a lack of 'first generation' musical talent, to which Andy countered: "I've no qualms whatsoever about sampling. I stepped out onto the stage tonight and held up a card in front of the audience, saying, 'Caution: Sampled Vocals', when a whole three or four lines of sampled vocals were coming out of the speakers. There's nothing wrong with it as a form of synthesis that can be manipulated in the same way as any other waveform. As to someone lifting parts off my music, I don't give a toss. I'd take it as a compliment."
Sampling conundrums aside, it must be said that Andy Pickford coaxes a very professional sound from relatively little gear. Quite simply, he puts many better known electronic artists to shame. It's both his keen ear for melody and infectious repetitive sequences that distinguish him from his contemporaries. Moreover, he also knows when to stop — how many electronic music vinyl albums started promisingly, only to drag on for an entire side?
"All the instruments can join in the sequences. Sequences have always come incredibly easy to me, which is lucky considering this sort of music. I can actually stand up and play a sequence line manually, even a five‑note or a seven‑note sequence, without losing it, in a 4/4 time signature. I suppose having had some musical training, I can see where the counterpoint needs to step in. So if there are three or four sequences, they're nearly all playing different notes; or if they aren't, they all blend in anyway."
The evils of quantisation also cropped up in our conversation: "All the rhythm, bass lines, and sequencer lines are composed and quantised very neatly into one rhythmic package. Anything thereafter, like the chords and the solos, are untouched. I'd take hours just editing notes out, if I need to, but I won't quantise a solo or an accompaniment, because that needs to be free‑flowing for me."
By virtue of its nature, electronic music is often perceived as a static affair. It's that age‑old chestnut, publicity — or lack of it, to be precise. Michel Huygen, Spain's leading exponent of electronic music, hit the nail on the head, stating in SOS June 1993: "Promotion is a really basic thing. If people don't know that a record exists, then they will not buy it."
Andy has his own views: "It's a 'scene' problem, not an individual problem. I think there are individuals in the electronic music scene who if they could but try, like myself, to take an aside from the 'scene', then it wouldn't be static. They'd show a desire to progressively get themselves publicised. The scene is a little amateur, because it is the mainstay of a lot of highly respected amateur musicians... but amateur they are. As such, it's a bind on one or two of the professionals who want to go out and earn a living.
"Tonight's show proved that one guy, namely Bob Paige, who, in promoting this gig from his hospital bed, managed to get very substantial articles in all of the local and some of the larger regional newspapers. He got it mentioned on Midlands Today, on BBC television, and commercial radio airplay, all by 'phoning around. It showed that this sort of music is 'publicisable' and people will turn up to hear it."
At the time of writing, the fact that Vangelis has the number one single and album in both Germany and Switzerland highlights Andy's sentiments — never underestimate the power of the media. Vangelis has major record company support, but more importantly, he has the ablility to knock out a good tune — a talent which cannot be bought. Andy Pickford's not a bad tunesmith himself, so there's still hope for those with electronic music aspirations.
Andy Pickford coaxes a very professional sound from relatively little gear. Quite simply, he puts many better known electronic artists to shame.
Andy Pickford's evening performance at Derby Cathedral was appropriately introduced by BBC Radio Derby's Ashley Franklin literally preaching the virtues of electronic music from the lectern — a nice touch.
In the event, the show was a mixture of new compositions and old favourites, divided into two sets. The first consisted of the following tracks from his Centaur albums, Replicant and Terraformer, namely 'Darklands', 'Asgard', 'Twilight In Valhalla', 'Wasted' and 'Sayonara', the latter being wittily introduced by Andy as, "'Sayonara' is Japanese for 'Sounds a bit like Vangelis'!"
This humour owes much to Rick Wakeman and went down well with the audience, with Andy receiving a thunderous reception between each track. In terms of keyboard virtuosity, further parallels can be drawn with the former 'caped wonder', not forgetting the blonde hair.
Many pieces were smoothly segued into the next and, judging from the equipment on stage, the backing was a combination of a DAT recording and live sequencing, courtesy of the Atari ST, as Andy later confirmed.
"There are bits where the computer sequencer kicks in and takes over in parts of the backing DAT that doesn't have a rhythm. It's a situation where one thing's going when the other isn't, although the DAT machine doesn't stop. It's incredibly complicated to choreograph and I wouldn't recommend anybody trying this at home!"
Andy whetted appetites for the main set of the evening's performance, by playing unaccompanied piano extracts from Maelstrom, before breaking for a 15 minute interval. The new album was then performed in its entirety to rapturous applause and the haunting 'Still Waters (Run Deep)' from Terraformer, undoubtedly a reflection of Andy's character, made for a contrasting encore after the sheer ferocity of 'Hellsgate', replete with pounding drums — very poignant in a cathedral setting! No doubt the building's acoustics added to the cavernous sound.
Overall, the concert was a resounding success. Andy Pickford is living proof that a UK artist residing in the often misconstrued world of electronic music can draw a sizeable audience in their own right, without being part of a festival and the compromises that such events inevitably entail.
The music for Maelstrom took me longer to construct than either of my previous albums. It's quite a radical departure from the more commercial track‑by‑track approach I have previously adopted. Continuity is maintained throughout, with greater attention to detail and the use of recurring themes. The overall impression you will probably get is a much darker, more aggressive feel, while still retaining the fluidity and accessibility of my previous work.
Is a natural choice to open the album. A strongly percussive piece of rigid structure with a solid backdrop, deliberately laced with enough history to whet anyone's appetite!
Is the track which provided the inspiration for this concert. The angelic overtones of the piece may lull you into a false sense of well‑being, but with the illegible lyrics, the real meaning is more obscure.
- BLUE WORLD
Is an optimistic view from a window on a summer's day, as is so much of my material. Is there no end to the ways which one can interpret the same view?
Is a disturbing film of the Manga genre, which provided the feel for this mobile, sequence‑driven work. The main character is consumed by the high technology around him. An interesting point!
Co‑dependency. As in the spritual and material universes, perhaps?
. Again, a view from a window at a blue world, but this time looking down from outer space.
I had a trial in mind for this. A trial of ideas and thoughts rather than for a crime. To be subjected to a trial just for having an idea is itself a crime.
Never mind, I get my own back by subjecting the 'jury' to my own version of judgement day!
- Atari 1040ST computer (running C‑Lab Notator)
- Boss SE50 multi‑effects
- Korg T3EX workstation
- Roland Juno 106 analogue synth
- Roland JD800 digital synth
- Sony DTC‑55ES DAT recorder
- Tascam 688 8‑track
Note that the Linear Functions cassette album is long since deleted, although the Centaur CDs are readily available from all good record stores. The GPR singles are now very rare, as is a 1994 Pinnacle compilation CD featuring a different version of 'Akira' to Terraformer. The 1994 EMMA compilation CD features one Andy Pickford track, 'The Furnace'. 1995's Voyager is a private CD‑R release, containing different versions of Maelstrom, plus unreleased material, "as rare as rocking horse shit", in the words of Mr Pickford himself.
Forthcoming projects for 1995 include a CD of previously unreleased material, live album, another studio album and a possible collaborative project with Ian Boddy, provisionally entitled Beavis & Butthead — messrs Boddy and Pickford will also be headlining the 1995 EMMA electronic music festival later this year.
- Linear Functions Pulse Music 1983
- Replicant Centaur Discs 1993
- 'Darklands' GPR 1994
- Terraformer Centaur Discs 1994
- 'Apocalypse Of Love' GPR 1994
- Maelstrom Centaur Discs 1995